Sith awakened, instantly alert he stretched and yawned copiously, fangs and claws shining briefly in the light of Arcturus IX twin suns. Nose twitching at the scent of food cooking, he padded into the kitchen where his companions were eating breakfast.
"It's about time you awakened, sleepyhead," Rae said with a grin.
"One haunch of nauropod, slightly bloody, coming right up," Jan added, pressing the replicators' keypad.
"I crave exercise," Sith said. "I think I'll head into the woods and hobnob with the local wildlife."
"Try not to frighten that herd of beefalos." Rae said between mouthfuls of Rhapis egg and cheese. "I know they're free range, but the farmers still call here and complain."
"Hrrmmff," Sith mumbled, his mouth full.
The chime of an incoming holocall interrupted their banter.
"Good fortune to you," said Cedric Hyde-Mathis, director of Cosmic Retrievers. "You are well, I trust?"
"Good fortune, Cedric," the women chorused.
Sith raised his bloody muzzle and bared his fangs in greeting.
"A rather interesting assignment came to my attention this morning, and I immediately thought of you," Hyde-Mathis said with a grin.
The three exchanged glances. 'Interesting' to Cedric meant too difficult for his regular cadre of agents. Cosmic Retrievers was known throughout the galaxy as the most efficient network of bounty hunters extant. Rae had been a UCO Major in the Peace Patrol; Jan and Sith undercover operatives for the Galactic Consortium. They had become partners and chosen to work for Hyde-Mathis on a case by case basis, free of official restrictions. Their methods were often unorthodox, but they got results.
"Tell us more," Rae replied, meaning they accepted his offer.
"You're familiar with the Campbell-Pohl system in the Crab Nebula?"
Jan nodded. "Five planets, all unexplored due to lethal radiation from the parent sun."
"Exactly, the Interplanetary Geographic Society has been conducting a mapping expedition of the system using robotic probes with radiation shields. Two Terran solar years into the project, they found something on the fourth planet; a featureless dome of unknown origin. Using traction 'bots, they forced their way in and found a small blue sphere on a pedestal.
It was determined that the object was not radioactive and it was brought to the survey ship for examination. Within eleven solar days, all but a few of those aboard went insane. The crew that was unaffected finally engaged the Flettner ion drive, and set a course for home.
Before they could reach their orbiting laboratory, a landing shuttle was launched from the ship. A spacehand named Jonn-Nixx had stolen the sphere and fled for parts unknown. All efforts to find him have failed. The IGS has offered a bounty of 35 million Cr's for both he and the sphere. Interested?"
"Of course," Rae said briskly. "Shall we say forty percent of the reward?"
"Done, we'll have a Model XXV Firefly jump ship ferried remotely to your home. All information we have on the fugitive and the incident is being tight beamed as we speak. Good fortune to you."
"Good fortune, Cedric," Rae and Jan replied. The holo blinked out.
"A Class XXV Firefly," Jan said excitedly. "That model was declared space worthy only last week. We'll have one of the first off the line. I can't wait to get my hands on it."
Sith cleaned the last scraps of meat from the nauropod bone with his rasp-like tongue, stretched, then bounded out the door and into the undergrowth.
"Don't stampede those beefalos," Rae shouted after him. She put the breakfast scraps and dishes in the replicator's intake hatch while Jan padded into the study to neurosorb the Firefly XXV's technical manuals.
The trim, angular ship emerged from hyperspace into the glow of a golden yellow sun; a bluish green planet filling the visiplates. Starliners passing Johansen's World had detected extensive terraforming activity there and duly reported it to the Peace Patrol. One of Rae's contacts in Patrol headquarters had passed the information on to her.
Noting that no permits had been issued for terraforming Johansen's World, Jan had suggested they see what was going on there. Besides, she wanted to take her new toy out for a run. Rae and Sith agreed and they were off.
"Johansen's World," said the ships computer, "Referred to by it's inhabitants as New Canton, breathable atmosphere, humanoid inhabitants, petitioning for membership in the Galactic Federation, Stage Seven civilization, and rudimentary spaceflight capabilities. No planetary defense systems, main spaceport near capital city of Hwang-Ho. First explored by space scout Ingomar Johansen in 3458AGF..."
The computer droned on as Jan expertly guided their craft to a smooth landing on the plasticrete arrival/departure stage.
"No automatic landing system, that's strange," Jan said, pulling on her armorthred suit, it's fabric able to withstand a direct burst from a particle beam projector. She buckled her carrybelt around her waist and slid her Mk V positron gun in it's holster.
Rae donned her suit, adding her trademark Stetson, bandanna, nauropod hide gloves and cowboy boots, dual holstered gun belt and replica Colt .44 revolvers that were actually Mk. VII positron guns.
Sith buckled on his carrybelt and bandolier, checking his Siemens-Krupp Machine Pistol before placing it in it's holster. They hung their Cosmic Retriever medallions around their necks, Rae pressed the airlock release and they stepped out onto Johansen's World.
The soaring towers of a large city greeted their eyes, glittering in the sun.
"This does not look like a Stage Seven civilization to me," Sith rumbled. "Possibly the computer's data is faulty. It is a Stage Twenty at least. What has happened here?"
"I don't see how," Jan replied, "I downloaded the most current data available."
"Here's a reception committee," Rae drawled, angling her head toward an approaching monowheel sedan. It stopped at the landing stage, and the driver emerged from his compartment.
"How's youse ladeez and gen'tmen doin' taday? Welcome to da faih city of Hwang-Ho."
The robot driver was a simulacrum of an early Twentieth Century New York cabbie, complete with rumpled clothing, a stained button covered cap, an unruly shock of hair and the stub of an unlit cigar clamped between yellowed teeth.
"If youse will accomp'ny me," the robot continued," I'll take yez to da palace of Jonn da Foist. He awayz greets visitas from da udder planets."
The sedan's doors lifted as the driver slid back behind the control toggles.
The three looked at each other.
"Jonn the First?" Jan muttered, "The record indicates rule by a planetary council. How can the data be so faulty?"
"I propose we find out," Sith replied, climbing into the sedan, the women following. The doors closed and the sedan shot forward, drive motors emitting a faint whine.
"So whadda ya t'ink of dem Dodgas?" the driver said. "I t'ink dey's gonna beat dem Yankees in Sattadays game."
"I'm not sure I know what you're talking about," Jan replied.
"My bucks is on da Dodgas," the driver said and was silent.
They sped through a grid of gleaming streets lined with immense buildings. Throngs of humanoid beings crowded the sidewalks, identical looks of relaxed contentment on their round faces. No other surface vehicles were in evidence.
"Chinesian stock from Old Earth," Jan remarked, staring out the plastiglass windows. "They colonized several hundred planets during the Second Great Interregnum. I had no idea they had roamed this far afield."
The sedan stopped before a sprawling structure that resembled a bizarre wedding cake glittering whitely in the sun.
"Da palace of Jonn da Foist," the driver announced and the doors lifted. A figure emerged from the building and descended the steps toward them. The three exited the sedan, which closed it's doors and sped away.
As the figure approached it appeared to be another simulacrum; this time resembling a Nineteenth Century butler, formally attired with a look of stiff formality on it's face.
"I bid you welcome from his Excellency Jonn the First," it said in clipped tones. "I have been sent to guide you to his exalted presence. Please ascend the first step."
No sooner than they had done so, then the steps flattened and began to move carrying them up and into the palace, through gleaming corridors, finally stopping before huge plastiwood doors.
"His Excellency, Jonn the First," the butler intoned. The doors swung inward revealing an immense chamber of purple wall hangings interspersed with elaborate tapestries featuring scenes from a thousand planets.
Against the far wall, someone clad in a purple robe was seated on an elaborately filigreed throne. Above the figure, a blue sphere hung in midair. When Rae and the others stepped forward, the thick red rug rippled beneath their feet and bore them to the foot of the throne's dais.
"It is our quarry," Sith purred softly. The man arose and studied them.
Jonn-Nixx was exceedingly average in every way; height, weight, facial features, the sort of face you'd look upon and forget instantly when you turned away. His white hair was mere stubble on his skull, his skin burned brown by the light of innumerable suns. His eyes shone with an unearthly glow, a sneer of contempt twisting his mouth.
A barking laugh sprang from his lips, making the women jump and Sith snarl.
.... There is more of this story ...