Complete Short Story!

Short Stories

The Pirate Queen – Yadina and Zeelona

Allan J. Stark


Chapter 1

Free is not who can do what he wants, but who can become what he should.
(Paul Anton Lagarde)

Yadina and Zeelona

The slightly stocky man in the darkened office let out a loud sigh. „Oh no, not you two again.“
He pushed his glasses onto his forehead and stared in horror at the two slender women who had just entered the room. The two were sisters – so similar that they could almost be mistaken for twins. Both possessed long, raven-black, curly hair. Determined dark eyes sparkled in their faces. Even the scuffed pilot combos they wore failed to detract from their beauty. Obviously, they had been slightly altered here and there to accentuate the physical charms of the two sisters, of which they were obviously very conscious.
„Hello, Kym,“ the older of the two said, stepping closer to the officer.
Her walk had something sensual and provocative about it. She didn’t have to try very hard to make an impact on her male counterpart. Kym knew that her aggressive physicality was part of her assortment of weapons.
„Hello, Zeelona.“ He swallowed and looked over at the younger woman still standing near the door. „Hello, Yadina.“
Zeelona sat down on the edge of the table and looked deeply into the man’s eyes. The light of the afternoon sun fell in long slanting rays through the blinds. Certainly Zeelona noticed beads of sweat glistening on Kym’s face, which had quickly formed on his forehead and cheeks. Of course, this could be due to the high temperature of the room. With the sweltering heat that this extremely hot summer produced in the canyons of the urban world, it would not be surprising. The air conditioning had long since lost the battle. Only the roaring fan on the ceiling of the small room bravely did its duty. It was more the appearance of the two uninvited visitors that brought sweat to his brow and less the sun, which burned down particularly hot on the endless sea of houses this summer.
„We need you to do us a favor,“ Zeelona finally said, at which point Kym, who had obviously been dreading such a request, dared to speak up.
„I’ve already done you one favor, haven’t I?“ he retorted excitedly, continuing in a whisper as if his own voice had startled him. „Four favors, in fact, when you come right down to it.“
„Four? I would have said it was only two, because the lines are pretty fluid there. But it just goes to show again that we know why we came to you.“
„And I did a good job,“ Kym continued. „No one has noticed anything. Everything has remained secret. Let’s leave it at that. There’s no need to push your luck.“
„Luck is important. But we’re just counting on your skill.“
In the meantime, Yadina had stepped behind his chair and sat on the backrest to his right. She put her hand on his shoulders and looked down at Kym.
„We know that,“ she agreed with him. „That’s why we came back to you. You’re supposed to cultivate successful contacts. It’s one of the most important rules of business. And beyond that, it’s a compliment.“
„And you’re right,“ Zeelona added. „Only the three of us know about your favors. We’d like to keep it that way, too.“ She paused. „You especially want it to stay that way. Don’t you?“
Kym swallowed and looked at the sisters in turn. Again and again he tried to start a sentence, but could not produce a single word.
„I don’t suppose there’s any ship waiting for you, any crew,“ Zeelona continued with feigned pity, „that would take you away from here if things got dicey for you, would there?“
„Certainly not,“ Yadina answered on his behalf. „I think our dear Kym is a short-legged official who wouldn’t know where to run if he got into trouble. And with what he’s already loaded on his shoulders, he’ll run even worse should anything come of it.“
„I’m not a jerk.“ Kym risked a lunge, but only a moment later fell silent again. He fumbled in his back pocket for a cloth, fished it out, and dabbed at his eyes and forehead. The fright that had run through his limbs at the sudden appearance of the two snakes, as he had often called them, turned into dull fear.
„I’m not stupid,“ he repeated, letting the handkerchief disappear back into his pants pocket. He took a deep breath and put on a resigned face. „All right. I got involved with you guys, and I feared from the start that more visits would follow.“ With that, he leaned back, exhausted. The armchair tipped backward.
Yadina hopped off the armrest like a startled kitten, stalked a few steps across the room, and then sat on the windowsill. Kym watched as her gaze roamed across the sky and the buildings next door. After gazing down the steeply sloping facade, she flipped a switch on the window frame and lowered the blinds a bit more. Although the endless air traffic flowed along distant routes, one could never be completely safe from prying eyes. That much was also clear to Kym Merrick. Again and again, gliders detached themselves from the main traffic arteries, dived into the canyons of houses and whizzed past the windows.
„What do you want me to do for you?“ asked Kym, exhausted.
„We need a valid business license,“ Zeelona said in a cheerful voice. „It’s about transportation of various goods and commodities. Import, export. Issued for fifty Velocity-class vans. We also need freight documents that are constantly updated and have the release stamp that goes with it. We don’t want the police and customs to have to go to the trouble of elaborate checks. We’ll let you have the identifiers of the ships later.“
„So what?“
„Then we need title deeds to three vacant halls that are for sale.“ Zeelona pulled out a paper. „Here in these areas.“
Kym read names and coordinates. The writing was barely recognizable as that of a young woman. It appeared masculine, except for a few features that had a certain sweep. It was clear and legible and betrayed a very energetic character.
The officer fed the information into his computer and found information about three buildings that had once belonged to the imperial fleet. After the base was moved, they were purchased by the city government, which apparently had little use for them. Now they stood empty. After a few minutes, the halls were in Yadina’s and Zeelona’s possession and were used as shelters for transport gliders and ships, according to the registration book. Shortly thereafter, the two sisters held the corresponding stamped and notarized documents in their hands.
„Do you want to get serious at the end?“ asked Kym, quickly turning off the computer. „You would have everything to start over now. I could make everything legal. So watertight that you could remain unmolested forever.“
Zeelona looked surprised. „Do you get the impression we’re tired of our lifestyle?“
„Transportation business is really too boring for such exotic characters as we are,“ Yadina added. „No, it wouldn’t be for us. I’m sure you know that.“
„Then what’s the point?“
Zeelona shook her head. „Do you really want to take the risk of burdening yourself with this? We realize how weak your nerves are. We’d have to worry about you all the time. And watch out for you. How could we trust you under those circumstances?“
Kym nibbled on his lower lip. It was certainly obvious that he would have loved to know what they were up to. In the end, curiosity had been a reason for him to take up the career of a civil servant. This way, it was at least possible to look a little bit into the well-kept secrets of the city world. But to look into the business of the two snakes was a bit too hot for him. He had already leaned too far out of the window.
„We have many beautiful black and yellow little ships,“ Zeelona said cheerfully. „They will soon add much to the skies above Vanetha.“
„And fill our pockets,“ Yadina added. Chapter 2

In fact, the beefy black and yellow transporters, clearly emblazoned with the emblem of Convoy Inc. – Goods and Cargo Transport, soon became well known to all Vanetha residents. The pilots knew their business and were reliable. Moreover, it seemed that the ships always had a clear path and never got stuck in one of the usual traffic jams. Rarely, or to be more precise, never, did one stand motionless to be refueled or repaired. They meant no nuisance to local traffic control or the police. Their highly visible presence sent a clear signal that Convoy Inc.’s business was doing exceptionally well. Customers who wanted to use the services of Convoy Inc. usually received the answer that all ships were fully booked until further notice. The logistics were just not keeping up, but expansion measures would soon be taken, was the mantra that quite a few customers had to hear. Those who managed to book transportation had to wait a few days and then pay high prices. However, those customers who were lucky enough to book one of the ships were completely satisfied with the service provided. Sometimes the daring appearance of the pilots and crew provided plenty to talk about. But it took dashing people to do these jobs, I guess. After all, their work sometimes took them to the farthest reaches of Asgaroon. And audacious pilots, that’s exactly how you had to imagine them.
While the fifty ships of Convoy Inc. were busy flying around the traffic routes of Vanetha and attracting attention with their striking appearance, two extremely attractive young women appeared at the same time, who without any problems found their way into the exclusive clubs of the city world and thus into the select circles of this world. There they were passed around like challenge cups. One invitation followed the other. The ladies of high society found the two women to be strong competitors in fashion matters. They never appeared twice in the same clothes, and they obviously paid a lot for this extravagance. As soon became known, they were also good customers of an influential fashion designer on Vanetha, who sent them his latest creations.
There was no doubt, the two were, beautiful, had taste, possessed an excellent business sense that made their business flourish. Nothing would stop them from continuing their rise to the ranks of the most distinguished citizens of the city world.
It wasn’t long before the two sisters had met Zeff Coleman. The eldest son of Culver Coleman, who was one of Vanetha’s most influential and important art collectors and businessmen, owning museums and galleries here and on other metropolitan worlds. They first met him at a charity event, in the fashionable Oregon district of the metropolitan world, and very quickly had his undivided attention. The young man was tall and slender. His shoulders broad, his skin tanned. Both betrayed, a certain vanity and a way of life in which work was not the focus of his life. The blond hair he wore strictly combed back. At the back of his head it formed a short braid, which was held together by a black leather band. One could see that inside the white frock coat was a body that had been steeled by intense athletic activity. The handsome man certainly did not suspect that he did not owe this first personal meeting with Zeelona and Yadina to chance. He was obviously so taken with the looks and charm of the two women, of whom he had seen and heard so much, that he wanted to see them again. As expected, the two received an invitation to a celebration that was taking place today on the roof of the Coleman company building.
Yadina liked the young man. She liked him, and for a while she regretted that he was merely part of her plans and that she would never see him again afterwards. Now a sleek glider was parked in front of the portal of the small, vacant high-rise building that served as the sisters‘ home and the base of their thriving business. A slender, picture-perfect woman stepped out, dressed in a neat gray and silver uniform. Zeelona and Yadina got in their elegant evening gowns and the vehicle roared away. After a short flight over the endless sea of houses, the Coleman Company tower came into view. The glass and chrome facade shimmered in the light of the evening sun, like an enormous crystal. The party took place on the building’s expansive rooftop garden. The garden was surely the work of a talented artist and architect. Artfully laid out in terraces, it also included parts of the steeply rising facades, so that one could believe that the dense vegetation flowed down the walls in cascades, like a green waterfall.
The glider touched down on a platform. Other luxury vehicles were parked or were just taking off after dropping off the guests.
Zeelona and Yadina got out and were immediately greeted by reception robots who took their cloak and stole from them to keep them safe for the duration of the reception. After accepting the services of the attentive machines, they walked a short distance through an arcade. Hidden in the dense foliage, birds chirped. Soon the two women heard the murmuring and laughter of other guests.
The sun threw its last rays through the gently rustling branches of the trees and bushes, while a warm breeze brushed through the garden. Another service robot with small wheels on its feet whizzed up. Deft as a performer, it balanced a tray on which stood delicate glasses filled with sparkling Cremona. Zeelona and Yadina each took a glass and the industrious machine whizzed away.
The two women walked through the facility for a while until they met Zeff Coleman. The young man gave Yadina the impression that he had already been eagerly watching for them and was literally startled when he ran into them. Only too willingly he took over the care of the attractive women and practiced cultivated conversation.
„There is so much talk about you two,“ he began after they greeted each other. „But in your case, the rumors were not exaggerated. I’m still in a daze.“
„I should hope not,“ Yadina remarked with mock seriousness. „I would like to possess all your attention.“
„I’ll make an effort,“ Zeff Coleman replied. „But it will be one of Hercules‘ jobs.“
Yadina couldn’t do anything with that sentence, but she covered her bias with a charming smile.
At last he led them to a quieter part of the garden, from which there was a grand view over the city. A tasteful Art Nouveau seating area, with soft Gelo cushions, invited them to take a seat.
Zeff began with shallow chatter and made many remarks that were certainly very amusing, but for which Yadina lacked background knowledge. Apparently, they assumed a certain basic cultural education, which she and her sister did not have. She feared that she would soon lose interest in the young man, who was apparently not quite as superficial as they had assumed or heard. After all, he made an educated and interesting impression. Zeelona and Yadina had spent a lot of time on the logical flow of their plan and their appearance. Moving among cultured people, however, was a far more difficult undertaking than they had thought. If Zeff lost interest in them, they could forget their whole plan. But if they got the venture on Vanetha behind them, Yadina would make up for a lot, she decided to herself.
„Let’s talk business,“ Zeelona finally said, setting her glass on the table and leaning back a bit. Yadina, on the other hand, maintained her upright pose, twirling her glass between her fingers and watching Zeff with a dreamy gaze. Zeff was visibly having a hard time processing Zeelona’s abrupt shift into formality. For a few seconds, his uncertainty was clearly noticeable. At the same time, his gaze wandered to Yadina, who continued to smile at him in a friendly manner. Now it was a matter of maintaining the role that Zeelona had assigned to her.
Zeff took his eyes off Yadina and looked at her sister for a long time. Finally, he also put his drink down on the table.
„You’ve been in the news a lot in the last few months,“ he began, „How come I haven’t heard of you and your company before?“
„Asgaroon is big,“ Yadina said before Zeelona could answer. „And we’ve only ever served remote systems around and within the Kolius sector.“
Zeff whistled through his teeth appreciatively. „Dangerous, dangerous. It seems to me you both love risk.“
„No,“ Zeelona said. „But we’ve learned to deal with it. We can’t afford not to take the risk.“
Zeff smiled. „That could be my father’s motto.“
„We have top-notch staff,“ Zeelona continued. „Daring people who allow us to provide services that most contractors in our business would normally shy away from. We made danger our ally.“
„Therein lies our trade secret,“ Yadina interjected, and her sister nodded in confirmation. „Our reputation has spread. We don’t need advertising space and we save money on agencies.“
„Obviously, you’re having success with it,“ Zeff said. „You two are a lot like my father.“
Zeelona frowned in irritation.
„My father values a good reputation that doesn’t require advertising.“ He raised an eyebrow. „And you’ve done it. Everyone here knows your flashy yellow shuttles by now. Still. You’re a fairly young company just starting out here, and that’s a big disadvantage in the transportation business. It takes time to establish functioning logistics and maintain the good reputation you undoubtedly have. But that alone is not crucial to my business. My father and I deal in goods to which memories and feelings are attached. This is also about …“
„… for the trust,“ Zeelona completed.
„At least that’s what my father thinks. And so do a lot of other dealers we work with,“ he explained. „But quite a few of our big customers have less emotional ties to the things we carry. I don’t want to undervalue that emotional aspect, but I put a lot of emphasis on efficiency. That’s where I’m different from my father. I have a different concept and try to expand the business. And with a larger profit margin. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the standards we set for ourselves are lowered in the process.“
„Then we are the right ones.“ Zeelona expressed confidence. „We work efficiently. And you can trust us. In these difficult times, you need pilots who can get your goods to their destination reliably and cost-effectively. Our skills have been tried and tested many times. I have no doubt that I will be able to convince your customers of our efficiency within a short time.“
Zeff nodded, grinned in amusement, and thought for a few seconds.
„All right,“ he said. „I’m willing to take my chances. However, I’d like to pick someone on your customer list who is able to give me more information. From a customer’s point of view. You don’t mind, do you?“
„No problem,“ Zeelona said. „I would just ask that you leave the scheduling of an appointment with the customer to us. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re giving their name and information away arbitrarily.“
„Understood,“ Zeff said, taking his drink from the table, indicating he now wanted to return to the more private part of their meeting.
The two sisters went into it. It was very amusing to talk with Zeff, Yadina noted, especially since he now avoided making social or cultural references. He must have realized that Yadina and Zeelona were not accustomed to the sophisticated urban world society and its issues. The story about their activities in the remote regions of Asgaroon, might have helped to make this lack believable. The two would not be Yadina and Zeelona, however, if they failed to elicit useful information from Zeff even during this petty chatter.
„My father has been running our company for quite a few years,“ Zeff explained. „It’s still basically a family business. A lot of our customers are old friends and relatives. Which, of course, won’t make it easy for you two. People don’t like to let strangers into their inner circles.“
„You said he likes to deal in antiques and art?“ asked Yadina.
Zeff answered with hesitation. „Yes,“ he said curtly.
„You have concerns?“ noted Zeelona. „Isn’t this line of business lucrative?“
„On the contrary,“ he opined. „Private collectors and museums pay well and reliably. Moreover, in this society everyone is well acquainted with each other. Which, as I’ve noted, doesn’t always make it easier to do business, but offers quite a few advantages in quite a few weighty areas.“
„Then what is it that is giving you a headache?“, Yadina wanted to know.
„I am one of those who reluctantly consider a fayroop passage. I’d rather spend a week on the road traveling the hyper-routes of the jump points than use the services of the gates.“
„You also have a dislike for the Azzamaro?“ Zeelona glanced at him over the rim of her glass, then took a small sip. Her look did not reveal whether she was secretly mocking Zeff’s fears or sharing his concerns.
Zeff said nothing.
For Zeelona and her sister, the eerie stories told about the gates were nothing new. Almost all of their comrades believed the old tales that the great tyrant Sargon had built them and that evil powers were inherent in them, and also avoided the Fayroo as best they could. The custom of sprinkling salt on an ancient artifact found now and then on a foreign world was widespread among them, and almost every pirate carried a small salt cask. It was only natural that the more formidable artifacts from the ancient times were met with fear. The two sisters, on the other hand, had not yet experienced anything that would cause them to follow this custom, but they were careful not to laugh at their comrades. The Azzamaro and dealing with them were a serious aspect among the spacemen. The Fayroo included.
„Have you met the black man?“ ventured Zeelona, joking, as she considered Zeff Coleman more rational than her mostly illiterate comrades. But Zeff looked at her seriously after her remark. All friendliness drained from his face. Zeelona had obviously made a mistake.
„We want to talk about more pleasant things,“ Yadina intervened. „It’s such a beautiful evening, surely we shouldn’t let it spoil it.“
Although efforts were made, it took quite a while to restore the informal atmosphere. As dusk turned to night, floating luminaries gliding over the paths of the garden spread a soft warm light. The band on the top rooftop terrace played light dance music, and the murmurs of the many guests filtered mutedly through the leafy walls of the garden maze.
„Your father is satisfied with Skylog’s performance?“ asked Zeelona now.
Zeff didn’t seem surprised by the question. „There was never anything to complain about. But that has changed a lot.“ A fair amount of displeasure could be heard from his voice. „There have been very questionable irregularities in the last few major shipments. The relationship between Theron Calipher, the owner of Skylog, and my father has been strained ever since. Things have actually been different for some time.“
More precisely, many things had changed with the appearance of the sisters on Vanetha. The two had found ways and means to infiltrate the thriving Skylog company and deliberately damage its reputation. But Zeff had no idea of this. As he made them understand, he saw in this circumstance only confirmation of his misgivings and a way to get Yadina and Zeelona into business. Moreover, he wanted to finally make a difference in his father’s company.
„Old structures lack flexibility,“ he said, and the two sisters were only too happy to agree.

By the time the party ended in the early morning, Yadina and Zeelona had finally gained a foothold in Zeff’s favor. Yadina was tired. The bright morning light that made the facades of the skyscrapers glow hurt her eyes. She wanted to get rid of the dress and the high-heeled shoes in which she had bravely kept her composure until now. Increasingly, Yadina found it difficult to keep a good figure in her wardrobe and to struggle through the garden with poise. More and more she longed for her worn pilot combination and her comfortable, well-worn boots. After the extensive dancing, her feet ached. Zeff, who proved to be an excellent dancer, did not cease to ask her to dance. Much to Zeelona’s delight, this was also part of her plans, as Yadina also knew. As it turned out on many occasions, Yadina easily found favor with the opposite sex and often they used this circumstance to their advantage.
Every now and then, however, Yadina wondered if she wasn’t bending far too willingly to her sister’s will, as if she were a pimp and she were the best horse in the stable. Yadina pushed these thoughts aside.
The car that had picked them up the night before was ready, along with its driver, to take them both home again. Despite all the tiredness, Zeelona immediately set to work to put her newly acquired knowledge and possibilities into action. Yadina said goodbye for a while to catch up on some sleep.
In Zeelona’s office, which was centrally located under the ceiling of a large hangar and gave her an ideal view of the ships she had at her disposal for the shady venture, she contacted Dalmo Zarrack, whom she had entrusted with a special assignment and who was now preparing to make his appearance. She was compiling a lot of data and information he would need to prepare for a meeting with Zeff Coleman when she saw a squad of uniformed officers walking around down on the hangar floor. They were questioning her people and tampering with the transporters.
Just as she was about to turn on the intercom to instruct her crew to eject the unwanted visitors, a man stepped into her office. A small, wiry person in a crumpled gray coat.
„Good afternoon,“ he said pleasantly. „Peck Baggit. I’ve been assigned to check your vehicles.“
Zeelona was visibly caught off guard. „Police?“ she asked.
„No, no!“ the man placated, smirking. „Traffic authority. I want to satisfy myself as to the fitness and efficiency of your fleet.“
„And you just show up like that and invade a company compound?“ Annoyance and a bit of fear lent sharpness to Zeelona’s words. „What makes you think you can set up shop here? Do you have a letter of authorization?“
He pulled out a clear transparency from his coat pocket with his agency’s emblem glowing on it. „Of course I have such a power of attorney.“
„The ships are all right,“ Zeelona offset, snatching the foil from his fingers with a quick wave of her hand. „No need to snoop around here.“
„I like to think so. But I also have to convince my superiors of that.“
„You can’t keep my pilots down for hours,“ Zeelona growled angrily. „Every minute the ships stay on the ground costs me money.“ She frowned angrily. „You didn’t sign up. That would have been polite, at least.“
„I’m sorry about that,“ he said, continuing to smile kindly. „We usually do, too. But the hot summer has its pitfalls. Even the planning units make mistakes, even though you have very good people there.“
Zeelona skimmed the document and finally handed it back to him. „Annoying. I have a business to run and now I have to deal with that, too.“
„I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that. Times are tough and, as I’m sure you know, we’ve had a smuggling problem for a number of years.“
„How unfortunate,“ Zeelona returned resignedly, wondering if perhaps Kym had lost his nerve and blabbed.
„Don’t worry,“ Peck placated Baggit. „I’ll be out of here faster than you think possible. I’ve seen the registrations, and there’s nothing to complain about. But your little company has grown so fast that my boss was worried the ships might be more congested than expected by now. He wants to avoid any danger to traffic. But I can promise you, we will not carry out any elaborate checks. At most, we’ll just do spot checks.“
„It’s still annoying.“
He acknowledged Zeelona’s words with a short, sympathetic sigh. Then he pulled out a data box, tapped it, and looked at Zeelona with interest.
„You have five hundred ships?“ He frowned at the question and scratched his temple, not taking his eyes off his datapad.
„Yes,“ Zeelona replied, even though she knew that she owned just fifty of them, with the identifiers constantly changed to give the impression that there were far more. All of them were ships of her small fleet. The so-called Ausrenner, which belonged to the Jezebel, which served as her flagship and was currently in dock on Potris. One of their bases, far away from the civilized systems.
The inspector looked up from his data device. „All ships are located here?“
„No,“ she continued to lie. „It always depends on the orders. Some pilots have their own homeports, if you know what I mean.“
„Quite, quite.“ He grinned. „Freelancers, freelancers. The whole spectrum of all possible and impossible existences. Couriers and transporters. You’re a colorful and interesting lot, I must admit.“
„For inspection, they mostly come here.“ Zeelona studiously overheard his last remarks. „But some inspectors also visit them at their respective locations when it’s more convenient.“
„To save time.“
„That’s right,“ Zeelona said. „Time is an important factor in our trade. I can show them the papers of their colleagues, although I have more important things to do. Therefore, once again, how long will it take you?“
„Oh, we’re just going to stay today and check the ships that are flying in as we go. Spot checks. I told you we wouldn’t be here long.“
A whole day? Zeelona was startled. That was more than she had feared.
Yadina, who had just joined them, eyed the man.
Zeelona could tell by the look on her face that she thought he was a police officer and was about to voice her suspicions.
„This is Mr. Baggit,“ Zeelona beat her to it. „From the,“ she paused, „Transportation Department.“
„Are our vehicles not to the taste of the Vanethers?“ asked Yadina incredulously. „Are they a hindrance to traffic?“
„Neither,“ Zeelona said. „Mr. Baggit is here to prevent just that.“
„Right,“ the man agreed with her, looking down at the three transporters that filled part of the hangar. „But it seems to me there’s already been an accident.“
The two sisters rushed to the window.
Baggit pointed out. „There, where the robots are completing the identification right now.“
Yadina was immediately wide awake. „The ship just came back from the Kolius sector,“ she quickly explained. „It wasn’t an accident, though.“
„Has it been shot at?“
„The Kolius sector is a dangerous place,“ she said, „so it happens.“
„They must have reported this to the Imperial authorities,“ Baggit surmised.
„You’re not supposed to kick every dog that barks at you,“ Zeelona waved it off. „Besides, we don’t want to get talked about. It’s bad for business.“
„Is the ship badly damaged?“
„No, that was just a graze.“
„They obviously have great pilots.“
„The best.“
Satisfied with that for the time being, the man said goodbye and went to the door. Once there, he stopped. It looked as if he had remembered something important.
„Oh, yes,“ he said. „There are tests coming up. Tests regarding the emission levels of your machines.“
The two sisters, who had hoped he would leave, were not very happy about this news, because such measurements could be extremely troublesome and time-consuming in case of complaints.
„Don’t worry,“ Baggit said. „Just spot checks as well. I’m very sorry to inconvenience you. I’m embarrassed myself. It’s just to get a picture, after all. It’s because of the hot summer. That’s when people react more sensitively and constantly demand measures to reduce pollution.“
„How costly are these samples?“
„You’ll hardly notice,“ Peck told Baggit. „A drone attaches itself to one of your ships and checks thrust readings at launch, during atmospheric flight, in space and when you jump into hyperspace. Then it looks for the next ship based on responder signals and starts measuring all over again.“
„So no delays at all.“
„These measurements do not disrupt the workflow in the least,“ Baggit appeased.
„Good,“ Zeelona remarked. „Then I’m reassured.“
Of all the lies she had uttered in that conversation, this was the biggest. She knew immediately that this tiny measure would require gigantic improvisational talent on her part to keep the theater going. Measuring drones needed information about cargo weight. And the ships carried next to nothing.
After this revelation, Mr. Baggit finally left. Chapter 3

The excavation site on the rocky world of Akama was massive. The excavation team had literally created a canyon to uncover a giant metallic object that had been hidden in the rock for millennia.
The sun beat down hotly from the cloudless sky, which shone in a bright orange hue. A moody, warm wind was constantly driving dust devils before it, causing the awning, under whose shade the group of archaeologists around Culver Colemann had sought shelter, to flutter. Gathered around a map table, they were discussing their next steps when a visitor joined them. Silan Baranov. He had landed his ferry near the explorers‘ camp and walked the remaining three kilometers to the edge of the enormous pit. An exhausting way, which made the rather stocky man sweat. Beads of sweat shone on his bald forehead, framed by black frizzy hair.
He approached the men and women discussing under the awning and waited until they noticed him.
Culver Coleman was a slender, tall older gentleman, with a narrow face and blue-gray eyes. His long, silver-gray hair was tamed by a red scarf that served as a headband. He had apparently not shaved in several days. A short white beard adorned his chin and cheeks. Coleman spun around and smiled a greeting to Silan, then turned back to the maps and holograms on the table.
„You have your instructions,“ he said without looking at anyone in particular, and the meeting broke up. He pointed to one of the folding chairs around the table. „What brings you to this remote area?“
Silan took a seat in the chair and Culver Coleman sat down on the edge of the table. He eyed the visitor long and urgently. Silan Baranov was the curator of an important collection on Vanetha, which belonged to the Colemans clan, and Culver Coleman placed great trust in him. Sometimes the great responsibility he possessed robbed him of sleep. Especially when he thought about all the treasures that were distributed in the museums of the galaxy.
„To start a game,“ Silan replied mysteriously. „Or ending it.“
Culver Coleman reached for a bottle of clear, obviously alcoholic beverage, filled two glasses and handed one to his friend.
„Sounds exciting,“ Coleman remarked, bumping his glass against Silan’s. After they both took a sip, Silan Baranov pointed to the monstrous artifact that was still mostly stuck in the rock.
„Is that a fayroo?“ he asked, intrigued by the unusual sight, one of the giant jump portals hidden under layers of earth several meters thick. They were usually located far out in space to take ships to the most remote places in the galaxy.
„Without a doubt.“
„If the Kiray is still in it, it could have an effect on the entire planet. A more than exciting thing.“
„Certainly.“ Culver Coleman was very pleased with himself. „But you’re not here to tell me what I already know, or to supervise the dig. Maybe you’d like to call the Museum Union’s Oversight Department on me?“
„There are quite a few things I would love to do, but certainly nothing like this,“ the curator confirmed. „Things are happening on Vanetha. And I’d like to know if you wouldn’t like to finally give your son a little more responsibility.“
„Do you want to give me advice on family matters?“
„Certainly not,“ Silan Baranov placated. „But I can’t help but notice that it would do the collection good if Zeff had a little more responsibility and opportunity.“
„What if he makes the wrong decisions?“
„Has happened to you, too,“ Silan countered. „More than once, if I may remind you. It didn’t hurt you, and the museum could take it. Why don’t you allow it to make mistakes, and don’t tell me it might cost you too much?“
Culver Coleman eyed his friend long and urgently. „Have you discovered your heart for Zeff?“
„My only concern is to ensure the museum’s freedom of action and to gain more freedom for you. After all, the Imperial Antiquities Authority has wide-ranging powers and demonstrates amazing flexibility. It’s getting harder and harder to get ahead of them. We have lost some interesting objects to them. They know better and better how to enforce new regulations and put obstacles in our way. And you’re on the road too much. That is, you shuttle too much between passions and necessities. You could save your obligatory visits to Vanetha or Lonno, since you’re only half-hearted about it anyway. And eventually you’ll make mistakes. It would be better to have someone who can at least make decisions on your behalf and whose mind isn’t distracted.“
„And you think Zeff would be able to do that.“
„You should give him the opportunity,“ Silan Baranov insisted.
Coleman was not convinced. „You’re not fooling me,“ he said. „What’s really behind this?“
There was a long pause, during which only the flapping of the solar sail could be heard, with which the wind played.
Silan turned his glass and looked at the sparkling play of light reflections in it.
„For the past six months, two young women have been on Vanetha,“ he told us. „They run a transportation company. But I’ve never heard of them, and my research hasn’t turned up anything either. They have a presentation page on the communications network. But there are few references there.“
„Doesn’t have to mean anything,“ Culver Colemann objected. „I wouldn’t even rule out that some of their work is illegal. Transporting hot stuff, or something. That’s what you’re getting at, isn’t it? A lot of them move in the gray areas, that’s just the way it is in Asgaroon. Take us, for example. What a lot of things we’ve done, and so far we haven’t been caught. Think about who and what we’ve had to move around to get one or two projects on solid footing.“
There was a short silence again. Silan immediately thought of several adventures that the imperial authorities had better not know about.
Culver Coleman pointed at his friend with the glass in his hand. „And I wouldn’t call us or them criminals because of it. There’s nothing reprehensible about being a skilled crook,“ he said, looking thoughtfully into his glass, which he swirled slowly. „Being a clumsy crook, on the other hand, is.“
Silan Baranov grinned broadly. „I rather think it was your influence that saved us from worse than our supposed skill at moving things. Your name alone has saved our skins more than once; remember that.“
Coleman did not respond. „If the two women worked in remote areas,“ he continued, without commenting on the curator’s last remark, „or renamed their company, that would also explain their sparse presence on the networks.“
„That would be an explanation, of course. After all, you claim to have worked in the Kolius sector, but it seems too contrived to me – too predictable and rehearsed.“
„And, according to this, what are they? Thieves?“
„That’s how I would judge.“
Coleman laughed and took a big gulp from his glass. „If they want to relieve me of a few pieces, why all this big fuss?“
„Then it’s just not a matter of just a few pieces.“
„Does anyone know how big their transport fleet is?“
„It’s hard to say. They’re always on the move, but from the information we have, there are about four hundred ships with a three plus cargo capacity.“
Coleman set down his glass. „What in the world…“ Coleman shook his head. „Are they going to take our whole collection?“
Silan Baranov raised his shoulders. „I can’t make sense of it either. But I’d love to find out what those two women are up to. If they are indeed planning a massive art heist, it will require well-organized logistics.“
„What do they want to steal from me? The ocrest of Sebojem? Or the platinum stele from Peregast? The pieces of our museums are all too well known. Who would buy them?“
„Someone like you,“ Silan Baranov countered.
Culver Coleman bit his lower lip. „Oh, yeah. Someone like me. You’re right, of course.“
The two men looked at each other for a long time, thinking.
„You think I should give Zeff more responsibility just so he can open the game?“
„Open it up and see it through. I would be burningly interested to see what comes of it and how your son will act in this matter. I think he’s smarter than you think, and it would be good training for him no matter how the matter turns out.“
„How old are the two women?“
„Quite young,“ said the curator. „About fifty regular years.“
„Old enough to have developed a solid slyness,“ Culver Coleman reflected.
„And young enough to pull off a bigger thing with the necessary vigor,“ Silan Baranov added. At this, his expression showed the cheerfulness of a player who was about to play his trump card. „These are two promising candidates. I’d like to know how they hold up. They are a lot more promising and interesting than the matter of Jabol Sarut and his gang of forgers.“
Coleman raised the glass to his lips again and drank. He took a long look over at the remains of the fayroo jutting out of the canyon’s rock walls.
„Risky business,“ he reflected aloud. „Very stimulating indeed.“
„Don’t worry,“ the curator soothed. „I’ve posted watchful eyes around the boy. Nothing will happen to him.“
„You’re right,“ Culver Coleman replied. „He needs to grow and take responsibility. That way I can pursue my passions without being distracted by accountant stuff and the eternal impertinences of the Board of Trade. Yes, I need to give Zeff leeway.“
„Scope in the truest sense of the word.“
They clinked their glasses together and laughed as if they had just heard a good joke. Chapter 4

Zeelona avoided urging her people to be careful; after all, they were hardened and professional enough not to get themselves into trouble. Any sneakiness would only make the officials suspicious and she didn’t want to provoke that.
„These measurements could put us in a bind for explanations,“ Yadina said, doing her own thinking. „If they find out that the ships hardly need any thrust to get started, they’ll soon know we’re not freighting anything, just flying empty transporters around.“ She grinned. „Nice black and yellow balloons.“
She had just finished the sentence when the communication system beeped. Zeelona opened a channel. The voice of Kalim Fatto, who was in charge of logistics, could be heard. „I have two calls here,“ he said emotionlessly.
„From whom?“ wanted to know Zeelona.
„First, an official who didn’t tell me his name. He said you already knew who it was. And then a certain Zeff Coleman.“
„Put the officer through first,“ she said.
Kym sounded very composed and made it short. Obviously, he had gotten wind of the current situation and demanded an immediate conversation with the sisters, at a place of his choice. After Zeelona agreed, he named the fountain in Peace Square as the meeting place. She hoped he had not received an unpleasant visit. Kym did not give her the impression that he could withstand prolonged questioning. She was worried, but tried to push her concerns aside. Then she took the call from Zeff Coleman, showed surprise and most pleasure, expressed a few trivialities, and thanked him again and most especially on Yadina’s behalf for the pleasant evening. Unpleasantly quickly, however, he got down to his real business and asked for the list of addresses of Zeelona’s customers. After receiving them, he selected a large number of names from which he demanded a written evaluation of their cooperation with Convoy Inc. He selected a merchant named Pako ban Halith, whose location was near the notorious Kolius sector, for a personal visit.
„I will speak with Pako ban Halith,“ Zeelona said. „He will then get in touch with you.“
With that, Zeff was satisfied and said goodbye. This brief call left a bland aftertaste in Zeelona’s sensibilities. He was perhaps more cunning than she had assumed.
Exhausted, Zeelona let herself sink into an armchair. „They’re all in such a hurry all of a sudden,“ she sighed.
„What did you expect?“ Yadina had overheard the conversation with Zeff and shook her head. „The curtain is up, the first aria is sung, and the audience will applaud or cheer you with … „
„You’re going to meet with Kym, little one,“ Zeelona interrupted. „I have to prepare the second act here.“

After parking her glider in a parking garage, Yadina walked along the wide boulevard that led into the large circular Peace Square.
It was noon and it was hot. Yadina was tired of hearing from everyone how hot this summer was and how much it was taxing on the mind. By now she was feeling it in her own body.
The sky shone brightly like bleached linen. All blue seemed to have disappeared. The window panes and bodies of the vehicles, which made their courses at great heights, glittered like little stars in a cloudless firmament. The air shimmered above the rooftops.
Few residents of this part of the city lasted long in the sun. Most sought shelter in the sparse shade of the towering skyscrapers, or in the air-conditioned stores on both sides of the boulevard. Cafes and bars invited people to take a seat under large umbrellas and awnings and refresh themselves with drinks. But still, reptilian sannos or lakati braved the sun, standing motionless, or hurrying across the heated pavement.
If one were to believe the pilots who came around the galaxy, the temperatures on the worlds rose higher and higher, as if the suns were all in a mysterious fever. Yadina shielded her eyes and looked up at the mighty residential towers that poked into the luminous sky like spearheads and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.
The large square was dominated by a water fountain that shot up more than forty meters. With a mighty roar, the water plunged back into a wide round basin. In the spray mist that drifted over part of the square, lightly clad people, Oponi and other species, had sought a place to cool off and have their fun. Others stood individually or in groups in the knee-deep water. The merry laughter of children mingled with the murmur of the fountain. On a low stone parapet surrounding the basin, many people sat dangling their legs in the cooling water. That was where she suspected she was most likely to meet Kym. She let her eyes wander over the crowd. The moving surface of the water glistened brightly, blinding her so much that it was impossible for her to make out individual faces just a little farther than a stone’s throw away.
At that moment, someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind. She wheeled around and looked into a face that at first seemed strange to her. But then she recognized Kym, who was carrying a large, colorful umbrella, with which he was obviously trying to protect himself from the sun, and had a black folder tucked under his arm. She was surprised at how tall the man was, whom she had previously only seen sitting in his office. His face also looked different in the daylight, although the paleness of his skin remained.
„Let’s sit there,“ he said, gesturing to the fountain. „Is your company about to blow up?“ he asked after they had sat down.
„What makes you think that?“ Yadina feigned ignorance.
„Don’t play games. I know about it,“ Kym continued. „This morning, when I went to the office, two officials from the administration were waiting for me. They requested records on your vehicles.“
„So?“ the young woman asked, taking off her shoes and sticking her feet in the cool water. „You’ve got forms and letters on display, haven’t you? Aren’t they good for a closer look?“
„There’s nothing to complain about. They’re good, very good,“ he defended himself. „After all, I know what to look for in good forgeries. I’ve had manipulated data-holes and failsave documents in front of me often enough to know what to look for. I also have original stamps available. For paper and the molecular seals, for the holofoils.“
„Then what’s the problem?“
„The problem lies in the fact that while the whole thing is good enough for a first look, even a second one the masquerade could just about take, if a talented and experienced sleuth sticks his nose deeper into it, it’s over. They just know all the tricks, too.“
„So your documents aren’t so watertight after all.“
„That’s not the issue,“ Kym indignantly stated. „It’s about sailing routes, time, and schedules. I have inflated your actually existing fifty little ships to a fleet of five hundred, just as your sister wanted. Each ship exists at least ten times under different identifiers. Each has a computer-generated logbook and the reports in it are complex. If someone is investigating and questioning the pilots, you should not hesitate long and get out of here. This theater is hard to maintain if someone gets curious.“
„We’ll get a handle on that,“ Yadina defended herself, knowing at the same moment that she was just saying that.
„But other than that, your biggest problem is checking the flight levels of your vehicles.“
With that, he beat Yadina to the punch, who was about to carefully approach this delicate aspect of the situation. He closed the umbrella and tucked it under his armpit. Then he opened his black folder. He leafed through some documents, muttered to himself, and finally began his remarks.
„The challenge is the weight of the ships. A well-run company with filled ships‘ bellies whose cargo weighs nothing at all is very suspicious. It would also be suspicious if the cargo changed in a regular rhythm. Sometimes goods are delivered, sometimes something is returned because undeliverable and, and, and. I have calculated a mode that takes these fluctuations into account, in order to simulate a realistic picture of the state of the moving freight. But the crews have to follow it scrupulously. They must follow my specifications scrupulously, learn them by heart, and not deviate from them during surveys.“
„We have only two human pilots for each ship. The rest of the crew is made up of robots,“ Yadina explained. „The mechanoids make no mistake when it comes to protocols and procedures. But we don’t have that much ballast to be able to fake high cargo weight.“
„Good thing you have me,“ Kym said, as if he had anticipated this objection. „I’ll get to the ballast that plays the main role in this stage play in a moment. First, however, I demand something.“
Yadina hesitated. „What do you want it to be? A share of the spoils?“
„No,“ he said seriously. „A refuge.“
Yadina raised her eyebrows.
„I have no doubt that you will be exposed this time,“ he continued. „This will also end my career here on Vanetha. That’s why I want to come and stay with you.“
„How do you picture it?“
„You and your sister. You vouch for me.“
For a while, the two stared at each other. Yadina did not know how to initiate a guarantee. Besides, a guarantee was a matter with two sides. Even with a very good friend, it was a step that had to be considered carefully.
„What now?“ urged Kym.
Yadina did not find the answer easy. „How am I supposed to vouch for you? I hardly know you.“
„But good enough to owe me a favor,“ Kym added.
She saw that he was in the right. She and her sister had pushed him into this position, and despite everything Yadina had gone through and experienced so far, she had not become heartless. She was sometimes not so sure about her sister. Maybe Zeelona would not have made any concessions to him and would have threatened him instead.
„All right,“ she finally agreed. „I’ll give you a name and an address. That’s where you can go. Tell him the twins sent you. Appeal to the younger of the two.“ With that, she pointed to herself.
Kym pulled pen and paper out of the folder and had Yadina write down on it the information to be able to find the man, woman or whomever. Then he hastily put everything away again.
„I need one more security,“ he continued.
„Isn’t that enough?“
„No,“ he said. „I need something. Something personal from you. A pledge I can present.“
Again she hesitated.
„I’ll take the data I calculated back with me,“ he threatened, „if I can’t be sure I won’t be strung up or tied under a landing skid right after I invoke you.“
Yadina pulled out a thin necklace. A square coin with an octagonal hole in the center dangled from it. Rough characters were embossed on it. It shimmered with a dull golden luster.
„Give him this,“ she said. „Add the word Finona. That was the world I found it on. The man knows that. It will keep you from being mistaken for a thief.“
Kym put Yadina’s note and the trinket in his pocket and handed her the black folder.
„You have a water connection in your hangar,“ he explained. „Because of the high temperatures, I was able to add a correction to the water usage statistics for this sector in your favor. You will need a tremendous amount of water. This will be your ballast. You can help yourselves abundantly. It is all covered by my manipulation.“ He then paused. „You are making a big mistake if you think Zeff Coleman is a fool who has nothing to do but lift weights to look good in his evening clothes.“
Then he got up and walked away quickly.
Yadina remained seated for a little while longer. She was not yet ready to have concerns or even to be afraid. She enjoyed the sun, the water that pleasantly washed around her legs, and the cooling spray that blew in and wetted her face. The sunlight refracted in it, shimmering in all the colors of the rainbow.
Perhaps she was so calm because deep down she trusted Kym’s calculations and was sure that she had the solution to her problems in her hands. When it came to numbers and statistics, the man had shown great skill in the past. Calculations, real or fake, were things he was brilliant at. Someone like him could also have a brilliant career among the pirates, should it become necessary for him to go underground.
She took a long time to return to base. Zeelona was upset at her younger sister’s nonchalance, but her anger subsided once she received and reviewed Kym’s plans.
„Excellent,“ she marveled, „he really is a genius.“
„His last act for us,“ Yadina said.
„He thinks so,“ her sister replied.
„No, he won’t do anything more for us,“ Yadina insisted. „Any more trouble and he’s gone. Maybe he’s already gone the distance, too.“
„Where do you think he was going to run to?“
„He already knows where to go.“
A suspicion rose in Zeelona, but she did not speak it aloud and changed the subject.
„Dalmo Zarrack will be getting a visit from Zeff in three days,“ she grinned. „He’ll be playing a merchant named Pako ban Halith. Dalmo is looking forward to his performance. He said it revives his past as a theater actor. He found a house on Gorreth in the Kolius sector and is in the process of building it out as a set. Is obviously having a blast for him.“
„If he ever doesn’t get in over his head,“ Yadina indicated.
„Can it be that you are about to lose heart.“
„I just don’t think we should be quite so flippant.“
„Reckless?“ indignant Zeelona said. „No sooner are you inconvenienced than you buckle.“
„There is no question of that,“ Yadina defended herself.
„It’s all been going splendidly so far,“ Zeelona continued. „That we would have problems was a foregone conclusion.“
Yadina ended the conversation by withdrawing to catch up on some sleep. Her sister, on the other hand, was wide awake and eager to press on with her venture. When the inspectors left, she set about putting Kym’s plans into action. In the process, she personally briefed the arriving pilots. She did not want to pass on such explosive information over the communications network.
The following days made Yadina’s concerns seem meaningless. Everything went well – after five days Peck Baggit appeared. He was extremely friendly and pleased to have dealt with honest people for once. With an apology for the inconvenience he had caused them, he took his leave. Zeelona’s happiness was increased when Zeff Coleman came forward and expressed his pleasure at visiting Pako ban Halith, whose hospitality he wished to enjoy a little longer. He said that his doubts had been cleared up – nothing now stood in the way of a business deal.
„Mr. Baggit also has nothing but good things to say about your company,“ he said suddenly.
Zeelona bristled. „How do you know about the inspection?“ She looked at the softly flickering little hologram that Zeff imaged above her console. A sly smile formed on his face.
„You ordered this,“ she concluded.
„My powers don’t go so far as to order anything,“ he said. „But I have a lot of friends who still owe me a favor or two.“
Zeelona tried to feign amusement. In truth, however, she was dismayed that she had not figured out on her own that Zeff was behind it. In fact, she was so horrified that she decided to hide this fact from Yadina, whose caution now seemed more than justified. Zeelona was annoyed with herself and this carelessness.
„You’re a savvy fox,“ she flattered Zeff, and she had to admit that the young man had risen tremendously in her esteem. „Still, I’m a little annoyed.“
„I had to be sure,“ he continued regretfully. „Otherwise, my old man would rip my head off. We’re a company steeped in tradition. And proud of not having made any big mistakes so far. Don’t get me started.“
Then he made an appointment with her to complete the formalities that would finally put Zeelona and Yadina in business with him.
„Don’t mention the Baggit thing to my sister,“ Zeelona quickly added. „She might take it the wrong way, if you know what I mean.“
Zeff fell silent for a moment and grinned broadly. „I understand very well,“ he said ambiguously and took his leave.
„Not after all,“ Zeelona remarked aloud and bitterly to herself after closing the news portal.

After three more days, Zeff had just finished his visit to Pako ban Halith, the businessman, Zeelona received news from Dalmo Zarrack, who had slipped into the role of the merchant for her. He was amused by the successful coup and described to Zeelona with pleasure and at length the course of the visit.
„He was very curious,“ Dalmo said. „And it paid off for me to compose a detailed resume. He asked me more about my past and my career than he did about ‚doing business‘ with you guys.“
„So, was he satisfied?“ wanted to know Zeelona.
„I mixed the facts of my actual life with a lot of poetry. Well-placed and well-dosed, until I almost believed the whole story myself.“
„Did he believe them?“ probed Zeelona further.
The flickering hologram showing the fat man seemed to go out for a moment.
„Did he notice the con?“
„No,“ Dalmo said. „I think I can assess the situation well enough to rule that out. But…“
„But?“ Zeelona’s impatience spoke up.
„He was very adept at asking about the relationship that exists between us. As I said, he was less interested in business than in how we knew each other. Whether we were related and how our cooperation came about. I also had to make up a lot of things about you. At this point I improvised a lot. But I also managed to do that very well.“
„What did you tell him – about Yadina and me?“
„I thought it was good to give you a dramatic piece.“ Dalmo obviously thought this piece of the con was particularly successful. „I sort of tied my fate to your careers. I told him I had had business difficulties during the Omneus crisis, and most of my important customers could only be reached through Kolius, which we normally avoid, after the Omneus and Ragna sectors were locked down. That’s when I met you guys. You were having problems with your ship, the Delancy, which was damaged by a meteorite, and I put my hangar at your disposal to offer you the opportunity to repair your ship.“
This half of the story largely corresponded to a real incident. But Dalmo had already been a pirate at that time, the two sisters got by with petty racketeering, and the Delancy was damaged by the fire of a police boat, which had taken to the heels of the couple.
„I don’t like this theatrical narrative at all,“ Zeelona hissed.
„Theatrical?“ replied Dalmo. „Of course! I played in the theater and I played it again. For you.“ At that, he performed an exaggerated bow. The hologram flickered.
Zeelona began to feel uncomfortable, but she listened patiently to Dalmo’s further explanations, which said that the sisters ventured the passage through the Kolius sector to make deliveries for Pako ban Halith. What they accomplished with great skill. This is how their small business would have begun, with the turmoil of the Omneus crisis providing the appropriate breeding ground for it. Dalmo embellished Yadina’s and Zeelona’s success, which annoyed Zeelona more than it thrilled her.
„What did you expect?“ asked Dalmo. „I represented a merchant near the darkest and most dangerous district of Asgaroon. Do you think there, where light and shadow, heat and cold meet, there is a temperate climate? If I had told him a story from the well-tempered inner worlds of Asgaroon, he would surely have doubted.“
Zeelona was open to these arguments. There was a lot of truth in what he said, and even if some of it seemed exaggerated, there was good reason to do everything as Dalmo had done. He went on to tell many more details of his elaborate story, at which Zeelona sighed uncomprehendingly from time to time. But now there was nothing she could do about it and she had to adjust to this new background of her fake existence.
After the conversation with Dalmo was over, she informed her younger sister about it. Yadina laughed and giggled like a little child at some points and was very amused by Dalmo’s ingenuity. She acknowledged Zeelona’s concerns with a dismissive hand gesture, grinning all over her face. She could only laugh at her sister’s worries. „He’ll believe it,“ Yadina said.
„Why should he?“ she returned indignantly.
„Because he wants to believe it!“ she replied with a smile. „He’ll like the idea of dealing with two heroines whom he finds quite attractive to boot. Besides, Zeff is a romantic.“
„Did you go under the mind trackers?“
Yadina gently placed her hand on her sister’s cheek, looking lovingly into her eyes. „Think less – feel!“ she said. „In this venture we are dealing more with people and their idiosyncrasies than in all our ventures before. Your planning is perfect as always. But the trappings are shaped by human desires, imaginations and shortcomings. Remember. Zeff spoke of a family business and traditions. Traditions have little to do with reason. They’re for the nostalgic.“
Zeelona remained silent and averted her eyes.
„In these things I could call you little sister,“ Yadina said. And Zeelona, who had heard her words and also understood them, said nothing.

Two days later, Zeff returned and immediately made contact with Zeelona, seeking her out at her base. Yadina joined them, which pleased Zeff very much.
Zeelona had the impression that he now regarded them both with more respect and greater distance. In this respect, the whole theater seemed to have actually created a suitable basis that promoted the agreement.
„I won’t hide from you that the problems with Skylog have continued to increase,“ Zeff reported. „That is why I have decided to bring you in as a new force. You will be involved with twenty ships in the transports that go mainly to the north and the Zenith Asgaroons. This will involve, for the most part, shipments of starship components for shipyard suppliers.“
„What about the antiques?“ asked Zeelona.
„They’re still staying with Skylog,“ Zeff explained. „My father doesn’t want to completely cut business ties with his old friend. Besides, Theron Calipher, the head of Skylog, has proven to be very reliable over the years. I can bring you into this branch, but only as far as the merchants who do business with insignificant azzamaro and art objects are concerned, as well as museums and galleries in the smaller metropolises. The big ones place a lot of emphasis on the services of Theron Calipher and Skylog.“
„That’s unfortunate,“ Yadina said.
„That doesn’t mean Convoy is completely excluded from making deliveries of this nature,“ Zeff said. „It’s not going to be out of the question that you’re going to have to make a delivery or two.“
„When are we supposed to put ships down for Coleman?“ asked Zeelona. „We have deployments and we have to manage to take some transports out of the routine schedule first without upsetting our customers.“
„Next week, for all I care,“ Zeff said. „Two ships for now, occupying two routes that lead to the center of the galaxy. By three weeks we should be able to get the twenty ships into the venture. I think if all goes well, I can increase the number to thirty.“
„That sounds good,“ Yadina agreed, filling three glasses with the bronze-colored, burnt variant of Cremona. „That way, without rushing into anything, you can feel your way into the whole thing.“
Zeff gratefully accepted the drink she handed him. „Yes, it’s absolutely necessary, because our customs differ considerably from the hectic activities of other companies. Just like the customers we serve, we value solid work.“
„There won’t be any problems,“ Zeelona said. „But I want to go back to the antique and art shipments.“
Zeff took a sip and awaited Zeelona’s questions.
„Why can’t we just adopt a route that caters to more influential gallery owners and well-known museums?“
„I told you the reasons.“
„On their own, they don’t hold much water,“ she said. „They could see our quality and efficiency for themselves. There’s no reason not to let us do shipments of higher-value goods for higher profits. We are not bunglers.“
Zeff swirled his glass and sipped. After a deep breath, he opened, „It’s because of my father. Word has gotten around that the two great sisters intend to join Coleman. He’s gotten an assurance from me to keep you out of the Azzamaro business.“
„Frankly, I don’t really know either. But I have to consider my father’s wishes. If I were to disobey his orders, he might take me out of the company.“ He sank into brief reflection. „He may be my father, but he’s also a businessman. Do you remember our conversation during the party? I’ll have to go back to that. If it were up to me, I would decouple this line of business. I may also take care of the transportation of the Azzamaro, but the direct management is in the hands of Jollo Wilson. He is a man who is also trusted by my father. He has wide powers and great influence over my father. Father knows my dislike of the antiquities and has apparently been concerned that I might want to dump the whole area – which is not so far-fetched. Jollo Wilson is put in place, so to speak, to keep me from doing anything stupid.“
„Hadn’t we better talk to your father then?“ asked Zeelona.
„He would say ’no,'“ Zeff replied. „And while I have toyed with the idea of gradually giving you more responsibility in this branch over a long period of time, I must be glad that my father is against it.“
„Why would that be good?“ wanted Yadina to know.
„Your sister said something about the bogeyman then.“ Zeff turned to Zeelona. „That doesn’t take you too far from the truth.“
Zeelona looked for a movement in Zeff’s eyes that might tell her if he was in a joking mood, but he seemed transfixed and full of seriousness.
„If you think you are dealing with dusty artifacts or with simple stone figures and statues,“ he continued, as if speaking to himself, „you are mistaken. We know very little about the great age and its mysteries. All that is left of it seems robbed of its former power, but there are moments that can teach you to fear. My father knows about it. He knows a lot about it and about all the other ghosts of the past. The poet Ares von Wymar said about it, in the works of that long ago and forgotten time a horror works on, which is still able to torment us today.“ Zeff returned to the present. He looked like someone who had slowly dawned from a dark dream and had not yet fully awakened.
Silence had spread. The two women sat opposite him with their mouths open. Zeelona was the first to catch herself and empty her glass. „Good, then we will wait and see what else comes up,“ she said in a firm voice. „Now let’s get to the formal part and take care of the contracts.“

After Zeff left, Zeelona fell into an emotional hole. Yadina retreated to her private room and waited for her sister’s mood to improve. But even after several hours of Zeelona trying to distract herself by fixing problems in her play, Yadina still found her in the same bad frame of mind.
„What is it about the old boulders that you care so much about?“ she asked.
„Nothing,“ Zeelona returned brusquely. „Nothing that would interest an archaeologist who can take pleasure in a worthless shard of clay, but its sheer monetary value, that’s what did it for me. It’s immense. Why do you ask? I thought we agreed that, in the end, it’s the old stuff that matters.“
„It’s okay, it’s okay,“ Yadina soothed. „How are we going to get to the antiques now? Zeff’s father has put quite a few fuses in front of this line of business.“
„I’m working on it.“
„So, any results yet?“
„Vague outlines.“
„You shouldn’t rush into anything now,“ Yadina admonished. „You know that this way we will only trip ourselves up.“
„And what would you suggest?“ growled Zeelona.
„That you get some rest first,“ her sister replied, turning away and making to leave the room. At the door she stopped and looked at Zeelona. „Celebrating the stage you’ve reached and putting your feet up. We’ve come a long way, after all. You didn’t expect to get this far so quickly yourself.“
With that, she left Zeelona alone and went out to join the mechanics at work in the hangar.
Zeelona tried to follow her younger sister’s advice and mentally dealt with the introduction of her fleet’s transport units into Coleman Company. Although her mood improved somewhat, she remained dissatisfied. This state of affairs hardly changed until the day came when Zeff invited them to a grand reception at which the sisters were to meet Zeff’s father for the first time, the great, respected and feared Culver Coleman.
The reception was held in the company’s large warehouse. The huge collection of containers and transport units provided a grand backdrop and gave an impressive picture of the size of the company. A well-known artist had created a lighting concept that bathed the huge loading machines and containers in dramatic light.
With his slender, tall figure, Culver Coleman was an imposing figure. His long gray hair was tied back in a small braid in the manner of an ancient nobleman, as if he had sprung from a bygone age. An elderly gentleman who radiated dignity and authority. The tailored, shiny silver suit, interwoven with ancient, iridescent ornaments, made him look all the more like a prince from the Great Era.
Yadina immediately noticed that the Great Age had to be an essential part of his thinking and character. She saw it in his clothing, the rings he wore, his posture, and in the look of his eyes that probed deep into her heart. For a moment, the air stole from her lungs and a shiver ran through her body. Culver Coleman, who seemed to have noticed this, walked toward her with long strides. He clasped her hand and smiled.
„A beauty not to be missed,“ he told Yadina. „The actual occasion cannot compete with this sight. These beautiful eyes are the bright windows of a great soul.“
After that, he extended his hand to Zeelona. He had suitable words ready for her, too, but they touched Zeelona rather unpleasantly.
„A woman with ambition,“ he said ambiguously. „Ambition gives a person beauty. You should always keep an eye on people like that.“
Turning to the other guests, he left behind a rapt Yadina and a distraught Zeelona.
The evening passed. There was no further opportunity for the two of them to exchange a few words with Zeff’s father. On the one hand, because Yadina felt that further words would only diminish the good impression she wanted to carry unaltered in her memory, on the other hand, because Zeelona did not feel the urge to approach the old man again. She had the impression that he could see directly into her heart. It was uncomfortable for her to be near him. However, she watched him from a distance throughout the entire course of the celebration, because she was all too aware that he posed a danger to her venture. Chapter 5

As it grew late, the reception drew to a close, and most of the guests had left, the sisters and Zeff found themselves at ship number 10333, making final preparations before it would depart, heavily loaded, on its first flight for the Coleman Company. It was parked in a wide hangar near the Coleman building. Soon the warehouse was again filled with the hum of the engines and the din of the magazine crews. Work that had been left undone because of the celebration now had to be tackled through the night and completed before dawn.
Zeff and Yadina were immediately engaged in a shallow conversation, while Zeelona had trouble escaping her musings. Again and again, she eyed the hustle and bustle suspiciously. Her tension was clearly visible.
Meanwhile, the loading robots began hauling cargo into the ship. Salemay Yannori, the pilot of number 10333, registered each container and, flanked by his helpful logging robot, checked their proper placement in the cargo hold with extreme care. Standing on the loading ramp, he glanced at Zeelona at regular intervals to assure himself of her agreement.
Jollo Wilson approached the sisters and Zeff Coleman. The man was young, about eighty years old, and displayed an arrogant demeanor. He made it clear to Yadina and Zeelonas that he thought nothing of them. He neither greeted them nor addressed a single word to either of them personally.
„Your father wants me to prepare another assignment for the two sisters,“ he told Zeff.
The wondered. „My father wants this?“
„Yes, he decided to do it just before he left,“ he explained.
„Do you want me to brief them?“ Zeff made an inviting hand gesture toward the two women.
„Your father wants me to do this.“ Mr. Wilson eyed them closely, then motioned for them to come with him.
The side hall was filled to the ceiling with containers and bins of all shapes and sizes. There were large, rough wooden crates as well as flexoplex glass containers, metal and plastic boxes stacked tightly on top of each other. Some of the containers were huge, while others were as small as a shoebox or matchbox. Mr. Wilson led Yadina and Zeelona into his office, sat down at his desk, and handed each a thick book of regulations and instructions.
„You should know every paragraph of it by heart,“ he said. „Read it over at your leisure.“
The two women flipped through the books and skimmed a few paragraphs. But, of course, it was too much information all at once. „Do you want to use your own loading robots or should I use our units?“ wanted to know Jollo Wilson.
„We’ll take our own, thank you,“ Zeelona said tersely.
„All right, then name the guys. I’ll program them accordingly afterwards.“
Zeelona pulled out a tiny little terminal that looked like a lipstick and handed it to the man, who plugged it into his computer to transmit the data. Symbols and technical diagrams appeared on the screen, which he studied with interest.
„Old, but tried and true,“ Jollo Wilson said, and began to arrange the particulars. The two women had to wait until he finished, refraining from offering them a seat or a drink. Then he rose abruptly and motioned the two to follow him.
He led them through the packed warehouse and pointed to a large, upright wooden crate. „Containers with a cross may only be transported individually,“ he admonished, flipping a switch on a small apparatus bolted to the crate. A piece of paper was printed and ejected. Jollo Wilson held it up and read aloud as if announcing a revelation: „Item No. 25173-nn. Special instruction: single transport. Safety distance from other Class A1 goods: at least three meters. Transport mode: hyperline. No fayroop passage.“ Then he put the sheet into the destroyer, which was also built into the apparatus, and with a low hum the paper dissolved into fine smoke.
„What is a class A1 good?“, Yadina wanted to know.
„Azzamari,“ Mr. Wilson replied. „Azzamari of all shapes and sizes.“ With that, he continued, pointing to the filled shelves that reached up like high walls to below the hall ceiling. „All these crates are filled with them, but not marked with a white cross,“ he continued. „You can place and distribute these cargoes as you please. But again, always avoid the fayroo. Don’t get any closer than necessary. Stick to the safe distance. Rule of thumb: greatest extent of gate times ten. The result equals the minimum distance.“
„Why is that?“ asked Yadina.
„It’s proven to avoid the gates,“ he said. „We travel exclusively the hyperroutes.“
„But why?“ Yadina was not comfortable with the man’s evasive answer.
„Do you want to find out?“
„It’s enough for us to know that this is part of your company’s custom,“ intervened Zeelona, who recalled Zeff’s information regarding special procedures at the company that his father had ordered.
Jollo Wilson’s gaze rested on Yadina for another heartbeat, then he turned to her older sister. „Yes, such are our customs,“ he said, continuing his tour. „We are an old company,“ he continued. „Our strange and unusual procedures – you’ll learn a few more as we go along – spring from our very, very long experience and have saved the company a lot of inconvenience so far.“
„We’ve been assured your company is the most prestigious here,“ Yadina cajoled. „It has a good reputation in Asgaroon.“
„An excellent reputation,“ he improved on her.
„How old is your company?“ asked Yadina.
„It was founded ten thousand years ago,“ he proudly elaborated. This topic seemed to be close to his heart. „Vanetha was very small then, but there was already the merchant Coleman, who played a significant part in the prosperity and building of this world.“
„A real dynasty.“ Yadina was full of admiration, but her last utterance caused Jollo Wilson to say no more about it. She had the impression that he thought he had ventured too far on the subject and decided to avoid it from now on. Chapter 6

In the weeks that followed, ships and crews performed admirably for Zeff Coleman, in no small part because Salemay Yannori ran a tight ship among the teams, tightening the reins as the coup neared completion.
At last count, there were thirty-five ships flying for the company, while the remaining fifteen were deployed to continue the mummery with ever-changing identifiers and to be seen on Vanetha’s traffic routes. Meanwhile, Zeelona waited impatiently for the appropriate opportunity to finally carry out the final act of her plan. And sooner than she thought, that day came.
Jollo Wilson sought her out at her base early one morning, bringing with him a stack of papers and a portable computer to discuss the details of a major transportation project.
„It affects almost the entire camp,“ Zeelona remarked incredulously, barely suppressing a tremor in her voice.
„Eighty-one percent of the current inventory,“ Jollo Wilson said. „Mr. Coleman, Culver Coleman, would like to entrust you with the complete shipment, of the Azzamari. Provided you agree to an undertaking of this magnitude.“
Zeelona played the thoughtful one for a few seconds and put her fingertips to her lips pensively. Then she agreed.
„The Lazaree Museum and the Giverny Foundation are hosting the most comprehensive Great Age exhibition to date,“ Wilson said. „The museum, as well as the foundation, places the utmost importance on reliable on-time delivery. This exhibition is an event of the highest caliber. Numerous high-ranking personalities will be in attendance. Therefore, it goes without saying that there must be no delays, oversights or shortcomings of any kind.“
Zeelona nodded in agreement.
„It is an absolute vote of confidence that Mr. Coleman is giving you with this. Certainly your success in this matter will be instrumental in further cooperation and expansion of the same in the future.“
„I see it the same way,“ she replied, extremely pleased with the momentary development.
Long after Jollo Wilson had left, Zeelona sat dazed in her chair, seemingly staring into space. This is how Yadina found her, who had been working in the hangar since the beginning of the day and had therefore missed Jollo Wilson’s visit. Zeelona pretended not to notice her coming and spoke softly, as if to herself.
„They’re presenting the whole camp to us on a silver platter,“ she muttered. „I almost think it’s all happening too fast.“
Afterwards, she smiled and looked more relaxed than she had in a long time. Convinced of her own genius, she told her sister the news.
Yadina, who could not hide her doubts, faced her, leaning against the door, shaking her head.
„The kindness of Culver Coleman in handing us this mega-order,“ she pressed her lips together and frowned, „is certainly more than just a courtesy. I wonder what’s behind it.“
„What should be behind it? He’s just his son’s father and has a weakness for beautiful women as well – my pretty little sister.“
„You know the first thing he said to greet us,“ Yadina reminded. „You in particular were quite uncomfortable with it.“
„Oh, come on.“ Zeelona made a throwing away gesture. „Words, nothing but words. I’ve overrated them. The stress of the last few days and the tension. Too much thinking clouds the mind.“
„What does your gut tell you?“
„So-called, female intuition,“ she replied dismissively, „it’s never been my cup of tea.“
„Mine even more so for that.“ Chapter 7

During the following week, Zeelona was busy with detailed planning. She had convinced Jollo Wilson that it would be best to make the entire shipment at once. Under the pretext of calling on all forces for the job to ensure the fastest and best delivery, she had all available ships set up in and around the cargo area. For the other shipments, however, which concerned normal cargo, she wanted to assign ten other ships. But Jollo Wilson, thinking that Zeelona’s approach was also effective, said that the remaining shipments could be handled by another carrier in the meantime. Thus, at last, all their units were integrated into the Azzamaro’s transport.
Zeelona, whose plan was obviously going far better than she had dared to hope, had to pull herself together not to get upset with joy and agreed. Yadina, who had been entrusted with the details of the loading process and was by now completely overtired, hurried back and forth between the lumbering lifting robots. She shooed the cargo workers here and there and occasionally checked the ship’s systems with the crew members in charge. Everything was running perfectly. Everyone filled their posts and roles flawlessly. Within a day, almost all the boxes, chests and containers had been stowed. Only a few packages had remained on the shelves and were now distributed to fill the sparse gaps in the cargo holds, which were packed to bursting.
Yadina leaned exhausted against one of the mighty landing legs beneath the hull of one of her ships. A two-legged cargo stilt trudged past, balancing a tall, rough wooden box marked with a white cross. Yadina watched this last part of the shipment. A shiver came over her, as if a cold breeze brushed her body. The stilt seemed to sway under this burden, as if it resisted being burdened with it. Its joints creaked and the hydraulic system began to groan. Meanwhile, a series of dwarfed machines passed by, carrying small containers, like a group of leaf-cutter ants carrying shredded leaves. Like a strange procession, they followed the lazily swaying robot as it ponderously climbed the loading ramp.
„Then we would have done it now,“ Zeelona stated.
Yadina, who seemed to have been put into a trance by the hypnotic movement of the leisurely moving robot horse, turned her attention to Zeelona only slowly. She felt as if she were sluggishly dawning from a dream.
„Done?“ She wiped her eyes wearily. „You’re going to lose everything! We’re going to lose everything.“
Zeelona grabbed her sister by the shoulders. „What’s wrong with you?“ she hissed, „You’re not an oracle. You’re just my little sister.“ She shook Yadina angrily. „Come back to yourself and do your part of the work.“
But Yadina was now wide awake again and all her senses sharpened. Her sister’s enterprise had become so distant for her that its final outcome interested her little. Even if she did not know where she took her certainty from, it became clear to her once more that Zeelona would fail.
„Everything is ready,“ Yadina said, lapsing into a command tone. „Give the pilots their instructions.“

The two climbed into the expensive glider they had purchased a few days earlier and made one last lap through the rows of ships ready for takeoff, standing wide-legged on their landing grabs like soldiers awaiting their orders. The engines started up. A rumbling filled the hall, the ground shook. Only now did Yadina notice the size of the hall, where the many cargoes stood. She wondered what Coleman had collected over the years and what might be in some of the large containers. Some were so huge that one could assume they contained complete monuments.
„Now get the hell out of here,“ yelled Jollo Wilson, who had floated up in a simple pen, his voice buzzing from a speaker. „Clear the space. There’s some container ferries going down here in a minute.“
He pointed to the roof, which gradually opened to reveal the blue sky. Sunlight flooded in brightly. The airspace above the huge Colemankomplex was dominated by a fleet of spaceships and shuttle gliders, which were also waiting to pick up or deliver goods. A mighty roller ship slowly descended from a great height. Its repulsor emitters began to hum, absorbing energy to provide the monstrous ship’s body a resting place above the sea of houses. Nimble ferries and cargo gliders rose to unload its cargo and bring it to the largely emptied warehouse. Hastily, the loading robots trudged to their stations, ready to replenish the warehouse once again.
Zeelona and Yadina were transfixed for a while by the rising commotion and the roar that made the building tremble.
„I was wondering how long the rooms would be empty after we looted them,“ Yadina remarked with amusement.
Zeelona stared spellbound at the phalanx of transport vehicles and carrier robots that formed up like a steel army for the attack. It buzzed and hummed, rumbled and droned like a steel mill as the individual groups set out on their march.
„They really don’t waste any time,“ Zeelona breathed.
„Now take off at last!“ repeated Jollo Wilson.
Zeelona did not let herself be told that again and finally gave the start command.
The ships ignited their engines and quickly rose into the air like a buzzing swarm of hornets. Zeelona and Yadina watched the departure of their fleet from their glider until the vehicles disappeared.
„What are you going to do now?“ asked Jollo Wilson. „So many ships for one job. Do you even have capacity for other customers?“
„We’re going to take some vacation time after this,“ Yadina said. „A long, well-deserved vacation. And when this is all done, we won’t need any more customers.“
„How can I reach you then?“ asked Wilson. „Just in case of voting questions.“
„We’re staying here,“ Zeelona replied. „You can reach us at our base.“
Jollo Wilson seemed to smile, a smile that Yadina did not like at all. He looked like someone who sensed a trap, and was curious to see what happened. The two exchanged a long look, then the man accelerated his vehicle and drove away.
„Are we really going to stay here?“ asked Yadina. „I would prefer to break down the tents and go after the ships right away.“
„Wait and see,“ Zeelona replied and set the glider in motion. She let it soar elegantly until it flew far above the Colemans‘ building complex. Then she lowered the glider a bit, hurtled down into the canyons of buildings, picked up speed so that the engines howled, and chased it into a clear patch of sky. She laughed and screamed with exuberance. After a while, it had calmed down again and joined the tenacious stream of traffic that flowed in seemingly endless rows over the rooftops of the city.
The warm air swirled through the interior of the open vehicle and played with the hair of the two women.
„Why are we staying?“ asked Yadina again. „We should pick up our feet and get out of here as fast as we can. Why should we stay even a minute longer than necessary?“
„Because we have to wait until the ships are gone,“ Zeelona said. „Wouldn’t it look strange if we suddenly disappeared?“
„I don’t understand,“ Yadina wondered. „Our ships can jump into hyperspace right away, can’t they?“
„And then you could calculate their route, follow the tunnel mission, or send out interceptor ships.“
„Only the emperor has this technique. And it is very inaccurate.“
„But it does exist. And I’m sure Coleman, has connections all the way to the top.“
An apprehension rose in Yadina. „You’ve changed the plan. Where are you sending them?“
„Yes, I did,“ Zeelona replied. „Since I’ve been aware that Zeff is not a complete idiot, I’ve decided to keep up appearances as long as possible and not arouse suspicion.“
Yadina remained silent, concerned, while Zeelona continued her reflections.
„I’m sure he’s monitoring the ships‘ course,“ she explained. „If they didn’t head for the jump point, but instead headed for a fayroo, his Verkerhs friends will intercept them. Our people use the jump point to jump to Chalderon. A pretty lonely system. I suspect no unpleasant surprises await us there.“
„Unless Coleman has good friends on the jump point,“ Yadina indicated. „The jump points belong to the Empire. If anyone spills the beans about where the ships are going, they’ll be expected there.“
„As long as we’re here, no one will suspect we’re trying to steal anything. If anyone asks, I’ll have an excuse ready.“
„And then in the Chalderon system, they’re supposed to use a fay to fly home to base,“ Yadina concluded.
„Yes,“ Zeelona replied. „If they reached Chalderon unmolested, nothing more should happen. But I won’t be sure until the ships have reached home.“
„I thought Wilson said it wasn’t good to use the gates.“
„Stupid superstition.“
„How would you know?“ Yadina could only shake her head at her sister.
„What else could it be?“ put in Yadina.
„Sometimes I think you haven’t learned anything over the years,“ Zeelona said compassionately. „Of course he doesn’t want us to use the fayroo. They are the safest escape route.“
Yadina looked at her sister so darkly and seriously that she avoided her gaze and didn’t speak another word until they landed on the roof of their base. Chapter 8

Phil McCormick was a lean, four-shouldered guy with long blond hair braided into thin pigtails that hung down under his peaked cap. Small beads and rings of horn and bone were worked into it. His tanned skin showed many light scars. He did not give the impression of someone who could be easily frightened, but like one who spreads fear all the more. Now, however, he looked out of the cockpit window tensely and turned a small wooden cylinder that hung on a leather strap around his neck and contained some salt.
Salemay Yannori was made uneasy by his co-pilot’s nervousness. „This isn’t the first time you’ve used a fay, is it?“ He snapped at McCormick.
He did not answer immediately, but looked at the golden ring, which grew to enormous size before his eyes, with increasing concern. Its diameter might have been a good twenty kilometers. Several ships lined up in front of it to be transported, and a pair of ships coming from all parts of Asgaroon just spat out the gate. In a seemingly endless orbit, they flew past Zeelona’s transport fleet and headed toward the interior of the star system.
„Haven’t used one in years.“ Phil McCormick remarked tersely.
„I didn’t know you were one of the shits, too.“
„Chickenshit, my ass,“ he returned angrily. „I’ve got good reasons. Those things are like vampires. They live off our… „
„Stop it!“ Yannori interrupted angrily. „Zeelona didn’t work for years toward this coup to have it jeopardized now by rabbit’s feet like you.“
„Don’t worry about it,“ McCormick defended himself. „I’m all in. But she would have been better off telling us that goals were a factor in her plan. She knew a lot of the guys were struggling with that.“
By now, the transport ship had come so close to the fay that Salemay Yannori could feel the gate leader reaching out for his thoughts.
„Chalderon system,“ he thought and whispered with quivering lips, and the ship was pulled into the mysterious tunnel between worlds.
At the same moment, the pulpit began to shake and the consoles to vibrate. Dream images and words began to form in the minds of the two men. Murmurs of voices, shrieks, and a flood of gruesome bizarre visions. McCormick turned white as a sheet.
„You heard it too?“ he asked.
Salemay Yannori hesitated. „Hearing is not the right word.“
He triggered the window blackout to dim the blinding lights inside the tunnel.
„Akaj Measu,“ whispered McCormick, repeating the words that had clearly formed in his mind. „I wonder if that was the kiray of the gate. And what does he mean by that?“
„Of course, that was the goalie. How can you doubt that.“ Yannori shook his head, took his spotlight out of its holster, and checked it over with a casual eye. „It was clearer with me.“
„What did he say?“
„Have fun.“
No sooner had he uttered it than an alarm siren blared. The lights went out and the reddish emergency lighting flared up.
The speaker crackled and a female voice was heard.
„You should see this,“ one woman said breathlessly. „I can’t believe it if…“
Yannori and McCormick looked at each other.
„Sheera?“ asked Yannori, but the connection to the cargo deck remained silent. „Flask! Pete!“
There was no more reply.
Salemay Yanori rose from his seat. „Let’s go see.“
Phil McCormick reluctantly obeyed when the toneless voice of the central computer reported. „Escape pod RV 12627-PQ activated. Sealed.“
„Who could be so crazy as to abandon ship within one passage?!“
Yannori seemed to lose his composure.
The electronic voice continued to speak unaffected. „Uncoupled. Thrusters ignited. Transponder signal lost.“
„What the hell!“ Phil McCormick also stood up and took his railgun out of the holster.

The connecting bulkhead to the large cargo hold was open, but the door panel kept sliding out to close the corridor before hitting an obstruction and retracting back into the frame. This happened several times until Yannori flipped a switch on the wall and the bulkhead came to a stop, leaving a narrow gap open.
Cautiously, Yannori and McCormick approached the airlock and peered into the cargo hold beyond. The two men recognized ornate panels and fragments of walls that had somehow merged and connected with the structure of the ship. It looked as if some mad artist, had integrated opulent ancient objects into the cool and efficient construction of the ship. Colorful shards of some crystalline substance floated weightlessly in the air. Some rotated gingerly on their own axis. A beguilingly fascinating scene.
The two squeezed through the gap between the door segment and the azzamari that had penetrated and partially covered the walls to get a larger view. They saw that all the boxes and containers had been broken open. Fragments of statues and frescoes hung motionless in the air, forming a strange three-dimensional pattern.
„What the heck?“ hissed McCormick as a many-legged, spider-like object emerged from behind a container. Its body was shaped like a flat, oval pebble and covered in elaborate ornaments. The long legs, which grew out the sides, had several ball joints and ran out into blade-like points that carved deep scratches into the ground when it moved. It was damaged and trailed a bent leg. Again and again it bumped into other objects and the ship’s wall as if it were a robot with defective navigation sensors. Finally, it stopped when it noticed the two men.
Salemay Yannori had seen quite a few variations of mechanoids, but this one seemed strangely alive.
While the two looked at the thing, its surface began to change. Holes appeared in some places, as if they were eaten into the metal by a strong acid.
Salemay Yannori pushed McCormick aside and threw himself to the ground. Several bullets drew bright trails in the air. There were a few pops and sparks sprayed on the walls where they hit. Salemay Yannori returned fire and hit one leg of the machine, which was jerked around and went to its knees for a moment, as if its power had been shut off. Phil McCormick was also a good shot and shredded the attacker’s body with well-aimed shots from his railgun. The strange metal shattered like glass in some places. Sharp-edged shards splashed through the air and fell clattering to the ground.
„Damn me if this place isn’t up to snuff,“ he cursed and stood up to take a closer look at the remains of the machine.
As he approached the fragments, movement came into the chaos. The pieces began to float and flew past the two stunned pirates in a dense cloud of debris. It rose higher and higher until it joined the geometric pattern formed by all the other azzamari filling the cargo hold.
Salemay Yannori shook his head in amazement. „I wonder if they all got themselves out of the boxes, or if they had help.“
Phil McCormick looked at the devastated surroundings. „I can’t make sense of it,“ and turned the salt cylinder between his fingers.
Meanwhile, the lights in the ship seemed to dim and, as if in confirmation, the ship’s AI spoke up. „Life support running at eighty percent,“ informed the computer’s toneless voice. „Power output continuing to drop. Cause unknown.“
„Well, that’s good news,“ growled Phil McCormick.
Yannori pressed his lips together as he surveyed the surroundings. „We need to move on to the main cargo hold.“
McCormik hesitated a moment and gave his salt cellar another twist. „Well, let’s go.“
They reached the main cargo hold, which was filled with a strange pulsating blue glow of light. Here, too, fragments of artifacts were arranged in a spiderweb-like pattern that crisscrossed the hall in graceful lines. The floor seemed to move as Salemay Yannori and his helmsman stepped through the large connecting bulkhead. A soft rustling and pattering sound reached their ears, as if hundreds of small feet were pawing across the floor. In the semi-darkness, Salemay Yannori could make out a dense swarm of insect-like mechanoids striving toward the center of the hall. Something gigantic was rising there. An enormous shadow stood out as a sharp outline against the diffuse glow that filled the back of the hall.
„I’m lousy with monkeys,“ whispered Phil McCormick. „Is that a giant?“
Salemay Yannori eyed the figure that had its back turned to them and held two martial swords in its hands.
„It looks like a warrior Oponi. But that’s a statue, no doubt about it. A good four meters tall.“
No sooner had he uttered the words than the figure turned its head in their direction. The face was a metal mask, with the equanimous features of a young Oponi girl. The large eyes glowed a pale white, like suns whose light penetrated through dense fog. A shrill, nerve-shredding sound that seemed to come from within the creature swelled like the yelp of a tortured, dying animal. Then the behemoth raised its blades and stomped toward the two stunned pirates. The living carpet at its feet rippled like a windswept sea. The bodies of countless artificial beings, from a long-forgotten age, shifted and swirled. Like an unleashed tide, they surged toward Salemay Yannori and Phil McCormick. Then shots rang out and blinding explosions filled the room. Chapter 9

For the next two days, Zeelona and Yadina hardly spoke to each other. Requests for information about upcoming transports were dismissed with the remark that their capacities were full and that they were even busier in other sectors at the moment. They were working on increasing their fleet to meet all requests, Zeelona claimed when someone impatiently demanded information. The mood was tense.
Zeff contacted Zeelona a second time to invite her and her sister to a party that was held the same evening. Zeelona declined. She wanted to appear to prefer working rather than enjoying herself in this situation.
Yadina joined the conversation and convinced her sister to accept the invitation. It was more unsuspicious to plunge into the nightlife instead of retreating, which would only arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, Zeelona waited impatiently for news. But the due time passed without any of the pilots answering. Hour after hour her restlessness now increased, and Yadina avoided coming near her.
Another day passed, under whose heat the city world and its inhabitants had suffered. Finally, the temperatures became more bearable and a mild wind arose.
Yadina retrieved a bottle of wine and some fruit from the supply store and sat on the edge of the roof of her base. She dangled her legs over the edge and let her eyes wander over the city. It was good to enjoy the soft evening light and the pleasant breeze that brought a little cooling.
The houses shimmered brightly in the glow of the sinking sun. Purple shadows grew in the deep street canyons. Gradually, the city world tired and prepared for nightfall. In the sky, the traffic ebbed. Slowly, quiet returned and the lights in the countless windows glimmered on.
Yadina poured some wine into her glass, took a sip and ate a grape, and the tension of the last few days fell away from her a little. Shortly after, she noticed a movement behind her. Turning around, she saw her sister in her worn pilot’s outfit. She was standing directly in front of the sinking sun, which was now a golden ball just above the horizon. Yadina thought she saw a shadow under her eyes. Had she been crying? It had been a long time since she had last seen her sister cry.
Hesitantly, Zeelona came closer, sat down with her sister and wordlessly held out a glass that she had brought with her. Yadina filled it with wine and Zeelona drank it quickly, without taking the time to enjoy the really good drop that Zeff had sent them by the case when the contract was signed. Afterwards, she turned the glass absentmindedly between her slender fingers and stared blankly into the distance.
„Have you received any messages?“ asked Yadina.
Zeelona nodded.
„Salemay called in,“ she said. „He said the ship and cargo had to be abandoned.“ She took a deep breath. „Apparently all the other ships are lost, too.“
Yadina was all ears.
„Some of the crews used the escape pods during the passage. Other pilots left the ships as soon as they arrived in the Chalderon system. Salemay didn’t tell me everything. He said that the whole affair could not be explained so easily. Kept affirming that it was not his fault. He wasn’t a coward either, he said, but after … after they initiated the gate passage, the whole ship went crazy. He was babbling something about apparitions. That something had broken open the cargo crates and about goblins crawling out of the containers and…“
Zeelona again held out the glass to her sister, who refilled it. She put it to her lips, took a small sip, and then stared down into the deep gorge at her feet, lost in thought. Again and again she started to say something, but failed to form meaningful sentences. Yadina, for her part, refrained from telling her that she had foreseen the outcome of the whole affair.
„The consequence of the mouse is the cat,“ they heard a male voice say.
Yadina and Zeelona jumped up and turned around.
Culver Coleman stood before them. All alone. Dressed in a black frock coat with subtle silver patterns. Only a shimmering gold robot that had flown Coleman’s glider and touched down silently on the roof was with him and had positioned itself at a respectful distance behind his back.
„Didn’t they warn you about this?“ asked Coleman. „Weren’t you told not to use the fayroo?“
The two sisters were speechless. Some time passed without either of them managing to answer his questions. The sun finally sank behind the horizon and the glow of the glittering facades went out. The pale blue shadows flowed gently from nooks and crannies and the sky turned crimson.
„Aren’t you going to say anything?“ continued Culver Coleman.
Zeelona and Yadina knew nothing to answer. Although they did not expect to be arrested at any moment – somehow this procedure did not seem to suit the man, who looked like a dignitary in his black clothes – a fear that could not be specified came over them.
„We were warned,“ Yadina confirmed. „Your son and your assistant, Mr. Wilson, pointed it out to us.“
„I’m all the more surprised that you dared to do it anyway.“ He frowned. „But I believe your plan was based on the involvement of the Fayroo.“
„Yes,“ Zeelona confirmed. „Without the Fayroo, it would have been too risky. They could have plotted our course and monitored it using tracking devices.“
„They should have found other prey.“
„Didn’t you know how dangerous it is to bring an azzamaro near a fayroo?“
„Ghost stories!“ replied Zeelona.
„Past!“ retorted Culver Coleman. „Past that comes to true life at times.“ He took a few steps toward the two women. „When I heard about you-my steward first told me about you two-I immediately became suspicious. I’ve been keeping a close eye on you ever since, and was very pleased that my son himself had taken some steps to investigate on his part.“
„We noticed that,“ Zeelona said. „And even though he took action, he didn’t catch on to us.“
Culver Coleman smiled. „Yes, in the end you cleverly used your attractive sister to appease Zeff. Of course, this circumstance has somewhat impaired his judgment. That is forgivable. All the more so when I then encountered you myself. I understand he was quite clever in his investigations. Except for the end. Then he sat down on the seat of his pants. But he’s still young, and the whole thing will teach him a lesson.“
„Did you know what we were going to do?“ asked Yadina.
„No,“ he said, „not at first.“
„But then what were those insinuations about?“ wanted Zeelona to know.
„Oh, you mean my riddle words.“ He put a hand to his chin. „It’s a habit of mine to test the reactions of people I distrust. Basically, I throw a rock this way and wait to see if it starts an avalanche. It has worked splendidly for you. Even if you think of yourself as pretty hard-nosed.“
Zeelona gritted her teeth.
„Look,“ Coleman remarked. „You’re not in control of your emotions. Your sister, on the other hand, is much more composed. You still have to learn that. I’ve been using my people skills since I started my business.“
Yadina bristled. „You founded it?“
„Yes,“ he said.
„Mr. Wilson said your company has been here for ten thousand years and its founder helped build Vanetha back then.“
Culver Coleman looked at Yadina for a long moment. „I told you, the past is sometimes quite vivid.“
Yadina could hardly withstand the man’s gaze, for there was an abysmal depth in his eyes that both frightened and attracted her. This man, as she had noticed a few days earlier, exuded a fascination that could hardly be described in words. A fascination that apparently seized everyone who had to do with him.
„There is only one Culver Coleman,“ the man explained, forcefully. „The founder of the company. And there were many sons, but never an heir.“
After these words Yadina thought she perceived a tremor on his lips, and for a moment the impression of that unswerving firmness which he radiated seemed to flicker. He, too, seemed moved by deep feelings, even though he appeared cold and calculating.
„Are you going to have us arrested now?“ wanted to know Zeelona.
„Oh no!“ insisted Culver Coleman. „For what? You gave me a free transport and twenty Hornet ships. I take it you’re not laying claim to the small fleet stranded in the Chaledon system.“
Zeelona nodded bitterly. „No. I won’t.“
„I’ve already sent pilots out to take over the units,“ he continued. „No, I have no interest in having you locked up. First of all, no harm came to me, and secondly, I’m going to enjoy watching the two of you go on. It could make for an exciting story. History and stories are the only things that really interest me. I don’t care about money and wealth.“
„Would I feel the same way if I had that much of it,“ Yadina ventured to counter.
„You will certainly go far,“ Colemann said appreciatively. „I also think it’s quite possible that a kind fate may yet force you to tread the path of virtue one day after all. And then you could be extremely interesting business partners. In any case, however, it would be fun for me to see you two rare birds continue to flutter about.“
„Throwing stones!“ said Zeelona snidely. „Were your words at our first meeting also just pebbles you threw on the off chance?“
„Not at all. It’s just an old knowledge that people have unsuccessfully tried to banish mice from their homes by mustering all their technical wits. An intelligent prey requires an intelligent hunter.“
He came closer and Zeelona had to look up at him as the tall man stood in front of her.
„You spent a lot of time making a perfect plan,“ he said mildly. „But you also should have trusted more in the instincts and gifts God gave you in the process.“ At these words, he turned his gaze to Yadina. „Take comfort in yourself. You can’t always be lucky. Besides, people to whom fortune is always inclined are extremely dull. They have nothing to tell. No stories. No legends, no myth. You have to spend some time wandering through gloomy valleys, bare plains and through the shadow of death. It’s the failed ones that are really interesting.“
Without another word, he turned away and walked with measured steps to his glider. He climbed in, the golden robot climbed into the cockpit, and the vehicle took off. Quickly it gained altitude. Climbing up into the fiery evening clouds, it described a graceful arc and disappeared into the distance.
The two sisters were in a daze and hardly dared to breathe until they realized that the whole story had ended well for them in the end. They had lost their ships and their booty, but their crew was still alive. They had failed, but were still free.
„How dramatic,“ Yadina joked. „Dark valleys.“
„Death shadows,“ Zeelona added, sitting back down at the edge of the roof and picking up her glass. „It’s the failed ones that are really interesting.“
Yadina did the same and sat down with her sister. Together they emptied the bottle.
„The only shadow of death I’ll encounter is the shadow of Red Robes‘ hand,“ Zeelona said, „if he fires me one.“
„I hardly think that will happen,“ Yadina reassured. „He’ll take you in his arms and say,“ lowering her voice to imitate the old pirate’s rough, masculine sound, „Child, you must be more careful next time.“