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April 15, 2024


By Martin Grise

You believe that shit, buddy? That story about raids out on the frontier. Buncha crap. Well, it was better than the game on the other screen. Transluminal hasn 't had a good team since the Class of '68, if ya ask me. Hmm? Yeah, I know all there is to know about the frontier. Lived out there my whole life, better believe it, pal. Tell ya what -- buy me a brew, and I 'll explain why that news story was bullshit. What else we got to do, right? It 's a slow night. Hey, thanks, man.

First, somethin ' you gotta understand -- have you ever worked on a crew? Didn 't think so. You don 't look the type, no offense intended. But you know those big freighters that work the frontier routes? They 're not like the local haulers or shuttles. They 're armed out the ass, and you know why. They don 't go down easy, like that smart-ass reporter said they do. If you wanna take one, you either gotta be in somethin ' big, or else come up with somethin ' really slick.

I was on an old patrol -- recon ship that we just called "The Bucket. " It was part of Captain Delgado 's fleet. Yeah, that Captain Delgado. It 's no big deal, a thousand men flew with him back in the day. Anyway, Delgado gave command of this ship to a guy named Diamond. And Diamond told us that one of those big Maktek Corporation freighters was in orbit around Gliese 876-d, loaded with beryllium, five thousand argies a ton. That 's alotta money, man. Lotta guns, too. Maybe you don 't know the rules up there, but you can 't just fly straight at someone on the frontier. They 'll just burn you and leave it to the lawyers. But one thing about the defenses on those freighters -- they 're kinda slow. You know, from the time they detect you, then they gotta figure out what you are, and what you 're doin ', and then the CO has to free up the weapons, then they gotta acquire and all that ... maybe twelve seconds. And lemme tell ya, depending on your speed, twelve seconds can be a long time.

So Diamond orders a boarding party to suit up and get onto the landing ship. Actually, it was just an old lighter, and we 'd added armor and weapons and souped-up the engine. But it was beefy, and it could carry fifty guys and still have enough cargo space for alotta loot.

We get in and Diamond takes the landing ship outta dock, and we cruise in orbit to get to the freighter on the far side of the planet. We come over the curve, not flying at 'em, of course, just doin ' an easy seventy-eight hundred meters a second, and you just know they 're watchin ' us, but we 're just another lighter, nothin ' special. Then Diamond tells us to spin our seats around, so that we 're facing backwards, and we all knew what was comin '.

He waited until we was just under a hundred klicks away, then lurches to port so we 're goin ' straight at 'em. Twelve seconds wasn 't enough for 'em. Just before impact, Diamond hit the retrorockets, and we t-boned that fat bitch at sixty Gs. I 'll bet we knocked that ship clear up to geosynchronous. If we weren 't facing backwards and wearing our combat suits, it woulda snapped our spines like twigs.

We were stuck in that freighter like an arrow. Our front end was wrecked, but Diamond was already plantin ' a thermal charge against the inside of our hull. He burned a hole through to the inside of the freighter and grabbed his gun. "Follow me in, " he says, "keep up. " Then he charged through like he didn 't care if we were behind him or not.

The guys in the freighter weren 't ready for us. They didn 't even have their suits on, and they 'd all been bounced off the bulkheads when we hit. We potted everyone we saw and headed for the bridge. The doors were all locked, and Diamond didn 't wanna slow us down by hacking, so we just blew 'em down and cleared the next compartment, one at a time.

As we got closer to the bridge, we started to hit the guys who 'd had time to put their suits on, so we had to fight our way through. Diamond always went first and took the brunt of it. He fought like a madman, buddy, like he forgot that he could die. And the rest of our crew was pretty salty, too. But really, who cares if you lose a few guys? It just means more money for everyone else. Just make sure you ain 't the one who buys it.

We got to the bridge, cleared it, and Middy hacked the system. He found the manifest, and told us it wasn 't beryllium in the hold, but niobium -- only two thousand argies per. We all turned and looked at Diamond. I thought there was gonna be trouble. But he said, once we repaired the freighter, we 'd get a nice price for her at Wallace Station. We figured that was good enough.

Diamond looked like shit. He was in front the whole way, and his armor was chopped up like he 'd been in a coffee grinder. Couldn 't tell ya if he was wounded. Then I saw him jack his helmet into the brain-computer interface. I watched him go through the corporation 's database, into the personnel files. He was looking for something or someone. And he saw my reflection in the screen.

He turned and gave me a look. I got off the bridge.

You never met a guy like Diamond, right? That 'cause you never been to Hell. That 's where half the crew was from.

His hell was a mine on 876-c-3, I think. I wish they 'd give the bodies real names, not a bunch of letters and numbers. But Maktek had a small diamond mining operation there, and Delgado wanted to pay a visit. He was at the top of his game at the time, fifteen ships under his command. The diamond mine was just a snack to keep the men happy. We came down on that little base like the wratha god. Nothin ' subtle, just bombard from stand-off, drop, assault, and they didn 't have much fight left in 'em by that point. Grab the shit and haul ass before the Confeds show up.

So we bust in, put down anyone who shot back, and looked for the diamonds. They were hidden -- that happens a lot. We didn 't want the ore, we wanted the finished product. We grabbed a few managers who might know where they were, and we slap 'em around, but they said no one knew but the administrator. We found the administrator 's office, and we 're melting the door when we hear a bang on the other side. Prick shot himself.

We tore the place apart lookin ' for the diamonds, or some clue, and went over the computers, but we got nothin '. Delgado was pissed. Not so much about the money, but he knew it was bad to disappoint the crew. It made him look incompetent, and that 's not good when you 're commanding a bunch of murderers.

Delgado had all the slaves assemble on the refinery floor. Yeah, slaves. Oh, I 'm sorry, "incarcerated involuntary laborers. " You heard they do that out on the frontier. Mostly prisoners, criminals, that the government sells to the corporations, or else they 're prisoners of war from the insurgencies. I know, it 's weird that with all the tech they 'd still want slaves, but it depends on how cheap the slaves are and what the local prices are for the machines. Sometimes it just makes economic sense, and man, don 't they have all that figured out to the last goddamn penny.

So Delgado asks these slaves if anyone knows anything. Long shot, we all knew it, but we were short on options. And this young guy, dark skin, bright eyes, tough-lookin ' bastard, he steps up and tells Delgado he knows where the diamonds are. Delgado asks where, and this kid has the nerve to say that he 'll only tell him if he promises to take the kid with him when he leaves. Delgado laughs -- he was prob 'ly thinkin ', yeah, how 's about you tell me where the diamonds are, and I won 't force-feed ya your own balls? But he took the deal, damn good thing for that cocky kid.

So the kid smiles and walks over to that big pile of ore in the corner, grabs a shovel, and digs out some cases. We popped 'em open and they were fulla cut, polished diamonds waiting for the next freighter, just fuckin ' beautiful. We didn 't think to look under the ore, because the ore wasn 't what we came for. Duh.

Delgado was happy, we were all happy, and Delgado asks the kid, "What 's your name, son? "

The kid says, "Five-seven-two-nine-eight -- "

"No, your real name. "

He says, "I never had one. I was born here. You give me a name. "

"Alright, your name is Diamond. "

And so we 're about to head out with the loot, and this kid stops and says something to another slave. She had a hood over her head, so you couldn 't see her face. He just whispered something quick, then turns and falls in with us. Done deal, we 're out before bigger guns arrive. Just another day out in the black, man.

I got to know Diamond pretty well. He didn 't have any crew experience, so Delgado used him for boarding at first, before he got his flying chops and got a command. I stood alotta guard duty with him and we did some recon trips together, too. Alotta time, just the two of us, and you get to talkin ' sooner or later. He told me about life as a slave in that mine, doing backbreaking work with just enough food to keep him alive. Miserable shit, but he wasn 't the only one. And he worked until he was seventeen, grew up strong from all that work, then one day he got into it with another slave who tried to steal some food from him. Well, Diamond wrecked that guy good, jumped on him and beat him like he was gonna pound all the blood outta him, and the guards come down hard on Diamond and were gonna give him their favorite punishment with a shock baton someplace personal, but the Director comes in and stops 'em. He said he saw the fight, and he 's got somethin ' in mind for this kid.

They were runnin ' gladiator matches out there. Yeah, they do that, too. What fuckin ' year are we in, right? Doesn 't matter on the frontier. This director, he had too many slaves there, and the price for 'em was too low to sell, so he 'd have some of 'em fight in these matches. The managers would place bets, and they 'd have drinks and watch these guys beat the hell outta each other. Sometimes give 'em clubs to fight with, and they 'd watch and laugh with their wives over dinner. Some fun.

So Diamond, or whatever his number was back then, he 's sent into these matches and he just wrecks everyone they send in there with him. The director loves it -- some of these managers were pretty high rollers, and the director was cleanin ' 'em all out because Diamond was his boy. But then the director gets another idea, 'cause makin ' money 's all he thinks about. They actually had an unofficial league out there on the fringe, where different companies sent their best slaves to fight. They played for really high stakes, and the director figures Diamond could make him a fortune in the league.

The director takes Diamond off the production floor and starts givin ' him good food, beefsteak, and lets him get eight hours of sleep for the first time in the kid 's life. Gave him a private cell. Insteadda work, now the kid 's goin ' down to the company gym, and the director gets him a personal trainer and even a martial arts instructor. And when Diamond 's trainin, ' he 's got four guards around him with riot guns, because he was a riot, and he 's gettin ' so dangerous now that even the guards are scared of him.

The director puts Diamond in the big league and Diamond chops a path to the top. His opponents weren 't wimps, they were all slaves, too, but Diamond was rare because he was one of the few who was born a slave, so he grew up tough and mean. Never had any love, not even his mother 's. He was just a machine for working, and now he 's a machine for fighting. And oh the director loved him, 'cause he was makin ' him so much money.

But there 's a problem here, see. Diamond was worth something now, and he knew it, and that gave him some power for the first time in his life. Let 's say Diamond wants something from the director -- he could refuse to fight, or start losing fights, until the director gave him what he wanted. The director couldn 't have Diamond beaten up, 'cause then he couldn 't fight anyway. So the director decides to get aheadda that curve.

One evening, Diamond 's alone in his cell, and the guards come in. "Hey, the director sent ya a present, " says one of 'em. They step back and this hooded figure in a black robe, like the Grim Reaper, steps into the room and they lock the two of 'em in.

Now, Diamond doesn 't know what this is about, and he 's ready to throw down, and the robe drops to the floor. Caramel-colored skin, short, straight black hair like satin, all glowing, breasts high and firm with dark nipples, and big eyes like black suns. Just the curve of her hips would make ya cry. Diamond 's been with women before, sure -- the slave dorms were communal -- but not a woman like this. This gal really knew what she was doin. ' The director kept her around for his own use, and maybe loan her out to a manager now and then. So he took good care of her, kept her in good shape. That was the greatest night of Diamond 's life, his Valhalla.

The next day, the guards take the girl back, and the director comes around and tells Diamond they 're headin ' out to the next fight on some backwater station that night, and he asks if Diamond wants somethin ' to eat.

"I want the girl, " says Diamond.

"Ho! So, you like her, huh? Well, my boy, you beat those guys they send against you tomorrow, and I 'll give her to you again. "

Diamond gives those guys a real shellackin ' the next day, and then they fly back to the mine. They get back late, and the guards are walkin ' Diamond across the production floor to his cell, and Diamond sees there 's a freighter shuttle at the dock. They never landed the shuttles when the slaves were up, for security, I guess. Now the slaves are all asleep in their dorms, and Diamond sees them diggin ' out the cases from under the ore and taking them to the shuttle. He files that one away, see, in case it 's useful later on. And then the director sends the girl that night, because he knows it 's smart to keep his word. That means he keeps control over Diamond.

So this goes on for weeks. Diamond keeps fighting, and askin ' for the girl, and the director delivers. The director 's still bangin ' her whenever he wants, so who cares? But something happened to Diamond that he didn 't expect, couldn 't have expected. He and the girl fell in love. Neither one of 'em ever had any love, see. They didn 't even know what it was. But they spent a lot of time, hours, whole nights, just talking to each other, about the things that had happened to them, and so they fell in love. Now, we 're not talkin ' Romero and Juliet here, 'cause they 're both slaves, ya know, uncultured people, but still, love between two people who never felt it is still love, maybe the best kind. Diamond told me it was the only time in his life he ever cried. And she told him her number. The last digits were seventy-four, so that 's what he called her.

Now the only thing Diamond wanted was to get back to Seventy-Four. They coulda thrown him in a ring with goddamn tigers and he 'd have killed 'em if it meant another night with Seventy-Four. Maybe every night was their last. Now they had Diamond in the ring fightin ' with spears and spiked clubs -- maybe he 'd duck too slow one day? Maybe Maktek would sell him, or Seventy-Four, and they 'd never see each other again? They didn 't know. Each night might be the last for them, so they lived that way. The director had money comin ' out his ass, and he 's happy, everybody 's happy, and it just goes on like that.

Until a buncha assholes came screamin ' outta low orbit, kicked the door in, and the director sprays his brains all over the office ceiling. Guess the money didn 't help much there.

Whatever else you wanna say about Diamond, he 's a quick one. When we got the slaves together to ask about the diamonds, he saw his chance and hatched a plan, just like that. He knew he wouldn 't get Delgado to take Seventy-Four along -- or, if he did, it would be to use her, and Diamond didn 't want that. He told Seventy-Four that he would find her and free her, no matter what it would take. Then he came aboard with us.

At first, the crew wasn 't real keen on havin ' Diamond aboard, because he couldn 't even load a gun. Where would a slave have learned that? But Delgado said, I made the deal, so train him up. And boy did he learn fast. Learned to shoot, to use computers, then he was a weapons officer, then they taught him piloting. And the fact that he was so brave, always went first in a fight, made the guys respect him and they eventually accepted him. He got a command ahead of me, not that I cared. I never wanted to be a big deal, just make money.

One night, about a year after we 'd brought him aboard, me and Diamond were livin ' in a flophouse on 876-c-6, because he was runnin ' down a rumor about some kinda big shipment from Maktek, and that 's when he told me his plan. See, Maktek had tattooed his number on the back of his right hand when he was a boy. I told him he should get that removed, 'cause if someone saw it, like a cop, they might know what it meant. "Not yet, " he told me. Instead, he wore gloves out in public, or else kept his hands in his pockets. Then he showed me that he 'd tattooed Seventy-Four 's full number on the back of his left hand. He brought his hands together in front of him so that the numbers made one long number. That 's what he wanted, he said, to get back to Seventy-Four and stay with her forever. How ya gonna do that? I asked. I 'll use Delgado to find out where she is, he said, then use his fleet and his men to rescue her. Now, tryin ' to use Delgado is like tryin ' to use the devil himself, so I figured Diamond was either naïve, stupid, or, playin ' the long odds, really smart. But what surprised me was the fact that he told me all this. Now I knew he was gonna betray Delgado, so what was to stop me from reporting him? I dunno. But I didn 't report him, not yet, anyways. Because, I guess, I really did want him to find his Seventy-Four someday.

We were livin ' in Colonia 9, like I said, on c-6, while he worked on this Maktek job, and he was sendin ' me out to deliver a message to some guy at a bar, pick up another message someplace else, stuff like that. He trusted me, and in the evenings we drank together and talked. He wanted to hear about life in Sol, things like that. Sometimes I 'd wake up in the middle of the night in that shitty hostel and I 'd see Diamond starin ' out the window at the stars in the dark, wide awake, thinkin ' about somethin. ' I guess he was dreaming of his dark-eyed Seventy-Four.

Hey, pal, my beer 's empty, and the story 's only halfway done. Set me up again? Thanks.

Then one day we got a call from Delgado -- he was holding a captain 's meeting in the inner asteroid belt, and Diamond had to be at it. I didn 't like the sound of that, 'cause Delgado wouldn 't want everyone there in person if it wasn 't important, and I had a bad feeling about this one. Diamond said we 'd both go, which made me feel worse, and we caught a ride on a tramp freighter, we knew the captain, see, and transferred to The Bucket out in the black, then headed for the rendezvous.

All fifteen ships were there, Delgado in his corvette, the Khan, and all the other freighters, patrol boats, assault scouts, odds and ends. Not even the Confed fleet would wanna attack our flotilla, so there was nothin ' to be afraid of, except each other.

All fifteen captains are together with their adjutants, and I guess I was Diamond 's adjutant, we 're in this conference room on the Khan when Delgado comes in with his personal bodyguards in armor. Everyone stands, and they sit when he sits. Delgado: he was the meanest man I ever knew, and I 've met some real bastards. Huge man, big personality. Just terrorized everyone around him, always watchin ', shoutin, ' threatenin. ' Killed men at the drop of a hat, not so much because he had to, but to show everyone that he would. You could tell he loved it. But his power over the crew wasn 't total, ya know. They were killers, too, and they 'd mutiny against him if he didn 't deliver. He was almost as scared of them as they were of him. He raged and threatened, but underneath it, he knew he was on the bullseye, too.

Now Delgado sat there with his arms crossed in front of him, big, smug smile on his face with those two big guys with guns standin ' behind him. He welcomes everyone aboard, and praises each captain for how much money he 's brought in, one at a time, until he comes to Diamond.

"And Captain Diamond, here, " he says, "hasn 't produced jack shit in four weeks. Has a strange habit of hitting Maktek assets that don 't pan out. Bad intel, always bad. Makes ya wonder, doesn 't it? So maybe you 'd like to explain what you 've been up to for the past four weeks, young Captain? "

And Diamond looks totally calm, like he 's at some boring business meeting.

"Hacking the system at the Maktek arms production facility on c-6, " he says.

"Oh, here we go again. What for? " says Delgado.

"To see if the rumors about a virophage shipment are true, " says Diamond. Now everyone turns and looks at him with these big eyes. Diamond pushes the docs onto the big screen on the wall, and they can all see Maktek 's comms with Confed Command about shipments of an experimental bioweapon, so they knew it was true.

This is big stuff. With shit like that, we can do more than make a sale. We could extort a whole fuckin ' planet. Not even Delgado 's done somethin ' like that.

And one of the captains wants to know, "How 'd you hack a system like that? "

Diamond tells him he paid the Black Hand. They 're a hacker syndicate we used when we had a tough nut.

"What about defenses? " asks another. And Diamond shows 'em the schematics for the base -- he had that, too. The factory had serious stand-off defenses, and all the exterior walls and doors were a meter thick. A goddamn fortress, but hey, it 's an arms factory on the frontier.

"And just how do you propose to get in there? " says Delgado.

Diamond says, "The virophage shipment is just sittin ' there, waiting for the Confeds to show up in seven days to pick it up. In the meantime, five days from now, Maktek is holding a press conference at the factory, 'cause they 've got a new anti-armor system and wanna show it off to the media.

"We 're gonna pose as journalists, " he says, gesturing to me. "We 're gonna kill two of the real journalists, take their passes, and walk into the press conference. Then we take the control room and shut down the defenses. Open the doors for the rest of you. "

This was the first I 'd heard any of this.

"The rest of us? " says Delgado.

Diamond tells him, well, there 's a hundred and twenty armed guards in the place, so two guys can 't do it alone.

Delgado is just starin ' bullets into Diamond. He knows somethin 's up here. He can smell it. But the other captains are all oowwin ' and ahhhin ' over Diamond and his plan, so he doesn 't wanna piss 'em off, doesn 't wanna be the one to nix the big score Diamond is sellin. ' Then Delgado turns and looks at me. I just stare down at the table, face as blank as space. I could feel the hate like heat from across the table.

"Where 's the virophage at? " Delgado says.

"In this locked storage room in the arsenal, " Diamond tells him. "We have the access code from the hack. "

"I want you standin ' right next to me when I open that door, " says Delgado.

And Diamond tells him, "Yes, Captain. "

Five days later, I 'm in an apartment with Diamond, changing into the nice clothes the corpse was just wearing. We 'd paid the Black Hand to dox the two journalists, then broke into each one 's apartment, clubbed 'em, and took their press passes and bags. We changed the photos on the passes to lovely mugshots of ourselves, and Diamond slaps bandages over the backs of his hands so that no one can see what 's there. Then we were off to this press conference. By the time the cab arrived at the facility, we had fifty minutes until Delgado penetrated their radar coverage.

We went through security. We didn 't have any weapons, because everyone was scanned coming in. Man, they had some serious security at that place. I was worried about the press passes because, if they didn 't work, we had no way to fight our way out. Diamond looked totally cool, even bored. And, by the way, he hadn 't told me how we were supposeda take the control room without any weapons.

We get to the conference room, and it 's fifteen minutes until the presentation. There 's all these guys in nice suits millin ' around, and journalists interviewing them, and these rich snobs schmoozing, and this waiter dude comes up and hands me a glass of champagne. Howdayalike that? Diamond went over to the food table, like he 's pickin ' somethin ' to eat, and I see him take one of the knives from the spread and slip it up his sleeve. But that didn 't solve the problem, I thought.

I whispered to Diamond, "there 's cameras everywhere. "

"No there ain 't, " he said. Then he asks someone for the men 's room.

I follow him to the restroom and he 's got his chips out, looking at the building schematics. He climbs on top of a toilet and pushes up a drop ceiling panel. I thought, cripes, it can 't be that easy --

Some guy comes in and looks at us.

"Got a water leak, " I said.

When he leaves, Diamond climbs up above the drop ceiling, then pulls me up. We walk along the top of the wall, six centimeters wide, and we 're crouched over under the roof. He had the schematic open and I was just followin ' him in the dark. Seven minutes left.

I 'm like, "Can we get into the control room this way? "

He says, "No, they ain 't that dumb. It 's got a firewall around it. "

"Well, then, what 're we doin ' up here? "

"Shaddup. "

We got to the control room and, yeah, there was a thick wall straight up to the roof. But Diamond was messin ' with some wires running along the wall. He found the one he wanted, and took out what looked like a small voice recorder, that he 'd dropped into that journalist 's bag in the apartment. He took the knife and cut a wire, stripped the ends, and plugged the ends into the gadget.

Now, Diamond was a clever guy, but this is when I clocked that he 'd had alotta help on this. He couldn 't do this kinda thing himself, but the Black Hand boys could. And for this kinda help, he 'da paid a tonna argies.

He hands me the gadget and says, "When I tell you, hit this button. " Then he walks along the wall a short way with the knife in his hand, and he jumps onto a ceiling panel and crashes right through. There was a little commotion, then he tells me to hit the button. Turns out the wire was for the control room door, and the gadget overrode it. A few seconds later, he calls to me again.

"Get down here, quick! "

I jump down and there 's two dead guards with their throats cut outside the open control room door, and two dead guys in there, too. We lock ourselves in, and Diamond is already shuttin ' down the stand-off defenses. Thirty seconds left.

Then in the monitors we 're watchin ' Delgado put the Khan down hard on the landing pad, and Captain Barrington in his fast freighter, he slams that down in the parking lot next to the pad. The Maktek guards are screamin ' over the comms for the controllers to sound the alarm, but Diamond just opens all the exterior doors from the control panel. Now in the screens I can see our boys pourin ' outta the ships for the open doors, and the guards just turn and run, and the people in the conference room get the message over the comms, and they all panic and run for the doors, and everything 's movin ' fast, a frenzy, and there 's Diamond, controlling the whole show from the panel like a maestro.

Then, once the boys are inside the place, Diamond closes and locks all the interior doors. Our guys and the guards are trapped in place, for a little while, anyway, and Diamond closes the exterior doors, too, so no one can leave. And we can hear the militia from Colonia 9 calling -- it would take 'em a long time to get out there, if they came at all, which I doubted. That militia was mostly a social club.

Diamond drops a control tab in the panel -- that links the panel to his chipset, see, so he can work it remotely -- and grabs me by the arm and pulls me outta the room with him.

We went down to a hardline booth, and he opens the door remotely and tells me to start pullin ' the circuit synapses.

"Delgado might hack the doors, " he says, "so we need to cut the power to 'em. "

"There ain 't no virophage, is there, " I said.

"No. " So those Maktek comms were fake. That meant we were there for just one reason.

What should I have done, do ya think? Kill Diamond and save Delgado? Well, for one thing, I didn 't have a weapon, so attackin ' Diamond prob 'ly wasn 't a good idea. But what if I 'd grabbed a pistol from those dead guards? Would I 'da shot Diamond in the back? No. Because Diamond was my pal, and I wanted him to win more than I wanted Delgado to win. It was kind of an asshole thing to do to my other crewmates, but hey ... I am kind of an asshole. And ya know what else? It musta occurred to Diamond that I coulda shot him or tried to stop him once I caught on, and that the best thing for him to do was kill me after I 'd helped him with the door, just to be safe. But he didn 't. He took a chance on me, so I guess I was his pal, too. I reached up and broke the circuits. I 'd just spun the big roulette wheel.

Then I follow him down the hall, and next to the director 's office is this unmarked door. Diamond pops it open, and there 's Seventy-Four in her private room. They run together, fall into each other 's arms and all like that, and she 's crying, and I feel explosions shaking the floor. That would be the hounds of hell comin ' for us. Delgado knows that the locked doors mean that Diamond 's screwed him over. He can 't go back to the ships with the exterior doors locked, so he 's goin ' right for the control room where he thinks Diamond is. He 's blowing down doors and walls to do it, which is slow, plus he 's hittin ' pockets of those armed guards here and there, and they don 't have any choice but to fight. But for sure Delgado ain 't leavin ' 'til he 's found the three of us and, if we 're lucky, just shoots us.

"You two got about twenty minutes to enjoy it, " I said.

"Yeah, " says Diamond, "let 's see about that. "

My time prediction was good, anyway. Twenty minutes later, I was in the main production room. Big space, lotsa machinery, catwalks along the walls, pipes stickin ' out everywhere. The main door was open. Diamond had been playing games with the doors around the place, opening some of them to herd the guards into Delgado 's path, and then opening others to coax Delgado to head for the production room; Delgado musta thought that he could save time gettin ' to the control room by using the doors that were already open, just like Diamond wanted him to. And, sure enough, here comes Delgado at the front of a hundred and thirty pissed-off armed men, about half their original number and low on ammo at this point. Delgado came through first, leadin ' from the front like he always did. Gotta give him props for that.

Their crew got about halfway across the production floor when the door closed behind 'em, and then came this incredible sound that I 'll never forget. It was a roar so loud that I thought just the sound would rip everything apart. It was the end of the world, arranged in twenty minutes.

That 's how long it 'd been since Diamond 'd taken Seventy-Four and me down to the slave barracks and opened all the doors. The slaves came out, and Diamond was ordering them onto the production floor like he was their officer, and they didn 't know what the hell was goin ' on, but they can feel the explosions, the rumbling, so they did what he said. There 's three hundred guys formed up in there in seconds, and Diamond stands in front of 'em like a general, and he raises his fist and yells, "Long Live the True Sons of Gliese! "

And, like one man, they repeat the battle cry. They were all insurgents, veterans, captured in the civil war. Diamond had gotten his money 's worth outta that hack, to even know who was in the barracks.

Then he tears off the bandages and shows 'em the back of his right fist, the tattoo.

"I 'm one of you, " he says. "We 're under attack by pirates. The guards have all fled. There 's only one way out. We have to kill the pirates and take their ships on the landing pad. That 's the only way to freedom now. "

... Silence, then an explosion. A little louder now.

"Fight 'em with what? " one of 'em shouts.

Diamond pops open the door to the storage vault next to the production floor, and it 's packed floor-to-ceiling with weapons and ammo waiting to be shipped. I 've never seen men arm out so quick. Fight for their freedom? That 's what they 've always done.

Then Diamond had 'em hide in the production room and wait for the main door to start closing; that was the signal.

That first volley that raised the roof cut down two dozen of Delgado 's men. Then the slaves, or whatever ya wanna call 'em now, pushed forward, but Delgado and his boys sure could fight. It was the nastiest thing I ever saw. I thought the whole room was gonna be ripped to shit. Yeah, I was stuck in it, too, blazin ' away at my old shipmates. It was either that or die. Then somebody I never did see hit me with somethin ' like supersonic grapeshot and my right leg came out from under me. Boom, I hit the deck. I looked down at my leg -- that was a mistake, man -- and I tied on a tourniquet just below the knee.

Just before I passed out, the last thing I saw was Delgado, a huge monster in his bright red armor with all these burns and dents, and I guess he ran outta ammo, 'cause he 's fightin ' with the bayonet on his rifle, and there 's Diamond with a riot shield, and he charges Delgado with a fire axe he pulled off the wall, and the two of 'em are hackin ' away at each other, stabbin ' and choppin ' like madmen.

When I came to, I was still on my back, but I was in the hospital of Our Lady of The Ursa Major Filament at Celeste Terminal. Those vets musta dragged me outta there when they left, and kept me alive long enough to drop me off at the hospital. They didn 't hafta do that. The good sisters got me a new leg and nursed me back to health in about two weeks. Before I left, I made a nice donation to the order, 'cause it woulda been bad luck if I didn 't, ya know. And ya wanna know what else? When I left, they gave me back my personal effects, and there was somethin ' in there I didn 't remember having: a small packet of diamonds.

When somethin ' that lucky happens to you, ya get to wonderin ' how much luck you got left, especially after you 've reached a certain age. I decided it was time to cash in my chips. I gathered up all the argies I 'd squirreled away -- men of my sort hafta know how to hide it, ya see, and it 's not so hard to do on the frontier. I transferred the money to a clean account and paid the fee for the laundering. Then I bought a ticket on one of the big A-matter-bottle liners, same as had brought me out to the frontier thirty years before, but I had a lot more money goin ' back than comin ' out, as a strong man does, thank you very much.

It was fifteen light years back to Sol, about seventeen years on the liner at point nine-nine c. But time dilation brings that down to five and a half years for the passengers, and anyway, I was in hibernation most of the time, except for when they take you out for exercise and your checkups. I was probably awake for ninety days all together. But your money 's still earning compound interest for all seventeen years, so that 's nice to wake up to.

When I finally got home, I got myself a cabaña here in this cute little tourist beach town. I got a modest pension, but that 's all I need. I lay out on the beach all day and hang out in these overpriced bars at night. It 's a bit weird when you get back, ya know, 'cause everything 's changed so much by then, but ya learn to adjust. As long as there 's still beer and girls in bathing suits, I can get along.

What happened to Diamond? Couldn 't tell ya, pal. I hope he got the tattoos off his hands, and got his argies together, and retired to some quiet, laid-back place, maybe a home of his own somewhere with his Seventy-Four, and they live out their days in peace. That 's what I wish for them. But the only way to find out for sure would be to go back out to Gliese and start askin ' around, and buddy, I am never, ever going back to the frontier, not for love or money.

Well, I got a little business to take care of now, so I 'll be off. Thanks for the beers, pal. I 'll be seein ' ya 'round.

Article © Martin Grise. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-04-11
Image(s) are public domain.
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