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.
"Cosmic Retrievers', I welcome you to my planet. I know they sent you to find me and the sphere. I have no intention of returning, ever. I am Supreme Ruler now, not a lowly Spacehand Third Class. This is my dream and I am living it."
He settled back onto his throne and the sphere settled atop the gold cushion on which his head rested.
"You have committed theft and deserted your post," Rae said angrily. "We intend to bring you to justice."
Jonn-Nixx laughed and then waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.
"I grow weary of your presence. Be gone and enjoy my city, my planet. In any case, you will learn to worship me as my subjects have done."
Abruptly, the carpet beneath the trio's feet whisked them backwards through the throne room doors which slammed shut in their faces.
"One would think the Supreme Ruler was upset with us," Rae said with a grin.
"That sphere he stole must have unlimited powers, Sith rumbled. "He has harnessed it to suit himself and conquered an entire planet. How do we overcome such a force?"
"I wonder who's harnessed whom?" Jan said. "He didn't look happy to me. He looked defeated, like a prisoner."
"What did he mean by that remark about how we'd learn to worship him? " Rae added. "He's not only a thief, he's delusional."
"Youse guys wanna ride downtown?"
They turned to see the taxi and it's driver.
"Is it a mind reader?" Jan said wonderingly.
"My guess is it was summoned by the Palace," Sith replied. "I'm hungry. Shall we let it find us a restaurant?"
"Might as well," Rae said with a shrug. "Take us to a restaurant please."
"You got it. Hop in."
They hopped, the doors closed and they were off.
"Da best jernt in town," said the cabbie, stopping in front of an elaborately decorated façade in mid-block with the name 'Metropole' in Art Deco style lettering.
"How do we pay you?" Rae asked as they alighted onto a real cement sidewalk.
"S'on da house. See youse layta," was the reply. The doors closed and the taxi sped away.
A doorman simulacrum ushered them into an Art Deco foyer, where a maitre'd simulacrum led them to a table set into an alcove in the far wall. The restaurant was crowded but the people at the tables looked at them disinterestedly and then went back to their meals.
Once they were seated, three server simulacra appeared, poured a red liquid into goblets, presented them with menus, bowed and went away.
Rae sniffed her goblet, and then took a sip.
"Horus' beak! This is Denebian Cabernet. The vineyards are on Deneb IV's third moon. A single bottle's worth 900 cr. I hope Cedric accepts our expense account."
"It's superb," Jan replied, savoring the wine on her tongue. "We should buy some when we return home."
Sith sniffed at his goblet, took a sip, and pushed it away from him.
"Pfaugh, this is not to my liking. Do you suppose they have Klamath blood available?"
"Ever the carnivore," Rae said with a grin. "I'm sure they do. Maybe we should order."
They studied the menu, made their choices, placed their orders and relaxed with their wine. A server appeared with a beaker of Klamath blood for Sith, who lapped the thick crimson liquid eagerly.
"Does anything here seem strange to you?" Jan said.
"This whole city is strange, you need to be more specific," Rae jibed.
"No one is paying us any attention," Sith purred. "It's quite odd."
"Exactly," Jan replied. "Three off worlders heavily armed, identifiably Cosmic Retrievers walk into a crowded restaurant, no one says or does anything but give us a glance; no surprise, no calling law enforcement, no panic, no curiosity, nothing."
"These people act as if they're in a trance," Sith said, "A planet full of sleepwalkers."
"Maybe they're worshipping Jonn the First," Jan quipped.
Rae was about to reply, and then sat back in her chair. She looked about at the other diners, their faces placid, methodically chewing their food like so many...
"Ra's Chariot," she muttered, "He's controlling them all."
At that point their dinners arrived. Everything was perfectly prepared and they devoured every scrap. Rae and Jan shared a marvelously sweet dessert while Sith drank another beaker of blood.
When Jan asked for the check, the maitre d' informed them there would be no charge. Puzzled, they left the restaurant; no one paid them any attention.
When they reached the sidewalk, they expected to see the taxi waiting however the street and sidewalks were empty. The sun had set but illumitubes lined the buildings and it was bright as day. They decided to walk in the direction of their ship and flag down a cab.
Block after block of brightly lit store fronts lined the sidewalk, however there were no shoppers only robot sales clerks standing in wait of a customer.
"We are being followed," Sith said in a low voice. "Continue walking, I shall see who it is."
One leap carried him into the framework of a storefront canopy as the women walked on chatting in a carefree manner. They turned at the sound of a muffled cry to see a stocky Chinesian man lying on the sidewalk and Sith crouched over him, fangs gleaming.
They ran back and stood beside their companion. The man was shivering with fear, sweat rolling down his face.
"Please do not kill me, off worlders. I meant no harm. How are you allowed to walk the streets after curfew?"
"There's a curfew? No one told us," Jan replied.
"Who are you and why were you following?" Rae said sharply. Sith snarled, further unnerving the man.
"I am Yat-Ming of the house of Chung the Arbiter. I saw you walking and was curious. I should not be here. It is death to..."
A huge black monowheel emerged from a side street and whined toward them. It's rectangular body had no visible windows.
"Aieee! It is the Night Patrol! We must run," Yat Ming shrieked, attempting to rise.
The monowheel stopped before them, doors sprang open and dull black figures emerged. Their heads were featureless except for a single scanner lens and they clutched nerve disruptors in their claw like appendages.
"Commando 'bots," Jan said. "I haven't seen them since the campaign to retake Canopus IX in the War of Orbital Secession."
"Subject Yat-Ming," droned a 'bot with crossed lightning bolts stenciled on it's chest. "You and these off worlders are in violation of the curfew. The off worlders have special dispensation from the palace to roam freely, you do not. The penalty for such action is immediate brainburn. Step into the vehicle."
"Brainburning a man for being out too late at night seems a little harsh," Rae drawled, hands resting lightly on her guns. "Maybe you could write him a ticket or something."
"This is none of your affair," the 'bot replied, "Stand aside. Number 7, seize him."
A 'bot moved toward Yat-Ming who ran and cowered behind Sith. When the 'bot attempted to push Sith aside, he retaliated by beheading the machine with one swipe of his paw. Still functioning but unable to see, it lurched crazily into a store window and collapsed.
Rae and Jan dropped to the sidewalk and began firing. Bodies pierced by positron beams, the 'bots fell with a clatter as more emerged from the vehicle. Sith grabbed the headless 'bot, using it as a shield for he and Yat-Ming against the projectors.
Sith saw a turret rise from the monowheels roof, training a triple thread disruptor on Rae and Jan. He threw the 'bot he was holding at the approaching enemy drew his machine pistol and snapped off three shots, each round containing a gram of depleted plutonium. The turret and weapon exploded into fragments, taking the vehicles roof with it. Gyro stabilizers damaged, the monowheel teetered and fell over, crushing the remaining 'bot's beneath its bulk.
An earsplitting howl emitted from the wreckage as overloaded circuits flashed and sparked.
"Quickly, follow me, I shall lead you to safety," Yat Ming shouted. He ran down the block and into a nearby store, the three hot on his heels. Passing immobile sales bot's, he led them into a utility closet at the far end of the store. Dodging around cleaner bot's, he pressed his hand against the wall which swung aside revealing a narrow, dimly lit passage. After they had entered, the wall closed behind them. Yat Ming trotted along in spite of being in almost total darkness, Sith's vision adjusted rapidly as he kept pace with their rescuer; the women following closely.
The tunnel sloped downward until the feeling of tons of rock and dirt above them was almost palpable. The tunnel ended in an immense low ceilinged circular vault, their feet crunching on pebbles as they crossed it into another tunnel, then another vault, then a tunnel and a third vault.
Rae and Jan were panting from exertion when Yat Ming stopped to rest. Pressing on the tunnel wall, a panel opened and he removed four ornate porcelain jugs of water from which they drank greedily then sat down. Rae picked up a handful of the pebbles they were sitting upon; they weren't pebbles, they were fragments of human bone.
Yat Ming had been watching her.
"These are the burial chambers of our ancestors," he said quietly. "Now they offer us refuge against Jonn the Invader."
"When did this invader appear?" Jan asked.
"By our reckoning it was early in the Year of the Tiger. Jonn-Nixx arrived alone and unannounced in a small spacecraft. He was apologetic for his abrupt arrival, but explained he was the only survivor of a space liner explosion and seeking refuge.
He accepted our hospitality while we tried to contact the Peace Patrol, but our communication equipment continually malfunctioned. The next day he asked for an audience with our Planetary Council and amazingly it was readily granted. When he rose to address the Council the blue sphere suddenly appeared above his head. He then proclaimed himself Jonn the First and the ruler of our planet."
The Council and almost all assembled immediately began cheering and calling for him to lead them. I, among others, stood stunned by the response to his proclamation and wondered what had taken hold of our fellow citizens. Eventually those of us who were somehow resistant to mental control decided to retreat here until we could somehow free the others."
"What of your city, was it always like this?" Rae asked.
"The city as we knew it, indeed all cities on the planet, disappeared overnight. This was accepted by everyone under his influence. We have made attempts to tell our friends and colleagues that they are enslaved, but they merely smile and say they are content. Cattle grazing in a fenced pasture are content, but it is not natural for human beings to be so."
"Most definitely," Jan replied. "Have you formulated any plans to free your people?"
"Our agents in the palace have determined he draws his strength from the sphere; obviously it is capable of immeasurable power if it can subjugate an entire planet."
"We need to disable the sphere and capture him," Sith said. "Does he ever leave the palace?"
"Never," was the reply. "He occasionally appears on the communal visiscreens inviting all to sing his praises, which they do, and that seems to satisfy him. Otherwise, his everyday life is a total mystery. He has robot guards and attendants and no one can approach him. Some have tried and all have failed."
"Throughout the galaxy he's considered a thief and a deserter. We have been chosen to bring him to justice and we intend to do so," Rae replied. "You wish to be free of him, we want to capture him. May we join forces with you?"
Yat-Ming's face broke into a broad smile.
"I was hoping you could help us. You three have the only weapons on the planet not under his control. When we attempt to overthrow him, would you be willing to defend us until we triumph?"
Rae looked at Jan and Sith and the three nodded in assent.
"Wonderful. We are allied against the invader," Yat-Ming said happily. "Allow me to show you to your quarters."
The tunnel ended in a maze of corridors bustling with people. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. The crowds parted before Yat-Ming and his companions, talking excitedly among themselves. Rae and Jan smiled at everyone as they walked along. Sith bared his fangs, but stopped when he realized he was frightening the people rather than showing he was friendly.