It must have been a shock to the well-coiffed employees at the opulent check-in desk when I burst out of the wall looking like a tramp that had taken an accidental ride in a garbage scow. They stared at me, with the correct expression of haughty disapproval. I straightened my back and adjusted my cap which was, miraculously, still on my head.
“Where is Ms. Lutsen?” I demanded.
Fortunately, the lady was mere steps away, behind the thin partition. She appeared and beheld me with some horror.
“Lord Thomas!” she exclaimed.
“I apologize for my attire,” I burst out, “but it is imperative that we make use of your ballroom again.” A roar shook the wall through which I had just emerged. “Urgently. As in this very moment.”
“I don’t know if we can accommodate you,” Ms. Lutsen said, looking elegantly worried. “We have another party coming in two hours. We need to get the facility cleaned and set up . . .”
“You are too kind,” I said, with a bow and a smile, as if she had said yes. I looked around the elegant foyer. A heavy antique sideboard would buy me a moment or two more. I seized upon it and began to drag it toward the door. Its feet screamed a protest on the shining floor. “And by the way, I suggest you evacuate the hotel. At least this floor. And any rooms that border the ballroom. At once.”
“But, Lord Thomas!” the banquet manager protested.
“I will give you an explanation later,” I said, setting my burden in place with a thump, “but I would suggest you remove yourselves now. Lock the front door. Tell everyone that there is a leak.”
“What kind of leak?” demanded a young man with swooping locks of enameled black hair.
“Anything that will prevent them from trying to get in until this is settled,” I said. “It’s a naval matter. Please excuse me.” I broke away, hoping I had not been too rude, but time was fleeting.
Ms. Lutsen must have given her consent, because the ballroom doors opened for me. I hit the emergency control to slam them shut. They wouldn’t lock—such a thing was not permitted in a residential facility in use for fear of trapping living beings in an emergency—but I needed a few minutes unobserved so that the pirates could not see what I was doing. I flew to the control panel. I had enjoyed playing with the floors and walls of the modular structure, but now I needed to concentrate in deadly seriousness. In my mind I constructed a living maze, one that would keep on changing until I could trap the pirates into a small inner chamber without doors or windows. I began to program my ideas into the panel, setting timers on each successive change. If only Parsons would return! Once I had my program in place, I tried signaling him again. Nothing. Where was he?
I heard a harrowing crash and an outcry from the lobby. Growteing had burst through the barrier. The others could not be far behind.
“You softskin, I will tear your head off and use it as a handball!”
I shouted into my communicator. “Chan, Plet, where are you?”
“About seventy meters, sir!” Plet replied, her voice sounding stronger than before. I was relieved.
“Right,” I said. “My maze is based upon the Keight garden party design. When you get in here, go in as far as you can, and turn right. Then left. Then right, then left. Keep to that pattern. Doors will disappear; walls will change. If a staircase presents itself, take it, but do not vary the pattern.”
“Yes, sir!” they chorused.
The Croctoid came roaring toward me. He was so slow that I had to wait in the entrance to my trap.
“I will tear you apart, human! Give back the license!”
I sneered at him, and gave him my best derisive laugh.
“No, I think I’ll have it made into a backdrop for my waste disposer,” I said. “It will improve my aim.” I waved the square of metal in his direction. He raised his pistol. I fled into the labyrinth. Red light exploded behind me. Gobbets of plastic flew from the wall frame. I heard his heavy footsteps and laboring breath.
“Team A is here, sir,” Plet said. I heard the sound of battle around her. Grunts and cries of pain rang through my earpiece. “Juhrman said he sent the wounded to the infirmary. A couple of constables finally showed up. He gave them five prisoners, and he’s on his way. We order you to surrender!—not you, sir.”
“Understood,” I said. I wished I could see what they were doing. I longed once again for the heads-up display of my helmet.
It was time to rejoin my troops. The Croctoid must be dealt with first.
I had had to go slow to avoid contact with the much larger and better-armed pirate, but now it was time to allow him to get lost in the maze. At the next turning, I flattened myself against the inner wall and called for the Optique. At my command, the hovering camera eye flashed short video clips. I had to select one in a hurry. I had no good video of me running, but I had had the camera take footage of me reviewing the troops. I selected a short clip in which I was marching smartly away from it. I ordered the camera to crop the image to conceal the line of troops and increase the playback speed to a quadruple-quick march. That should be just fast enough to stay ahead of the Croctoid. I had no time to drop in the image of the license. I just hoped that he believed I still had it, and his crew’s key to freedom was to catch me and regain it.
“Attention, pirate captain!” I shouted, and sent the Optique on its way. I held my breath and willed myself invisible.
My dorsal view bloomed upon the wall adjacent to my hiding place. The pirate let out a roar and followed “me” as I seemed to dash to the left. He lumbered past my place of concealment without remarking at all upon my presence. In a moment, I was alone, all without firing a shot. And, just in time, one of the dark blue wall segments rose up, blocking any return from that leftward corridor. I ran out to aid my troops.
In the anteroom that I had left open, Team A of a somewhat depleted militia attempted to surround and disarm the remainder of the pirates. The enormous Solinian was flanked by both volunteer soldiers in armored suits. It was an uneven battle, however. The ancient pressure suits were in poor condition, and the Solinian fought for his freedom. He had wrenched the left arm off one, leaving a skinny human limb in khaki canvas sticking out and flapping awkwardly. The other golem had wrapped its metal arms around the creature’s neck and was trying to render it unconscious. It was refusing to cooperate. It raked its claws down the metal sleeve at its throat, creating a noise like a chalkboard’s squeak. Everyone in the room cringed. The enormous reptilian gave a heave, and the battle suit went flying. It landed on the ground meters away with a crash of metal and lay still. I worried that the operator had been killed, but in a moment, it began to stir and attempt to rise to its feet. The Solinian shook off the second battle suit and ran away.
Plet, with Rous and Bailly in her wake, went after the Solinian with the light of battle in her eyes. It seemed to have had enough of her, and dodged her around the walls. It shot at them, leaving burning holes in the wall and floors. Plet continued her relentless pursuit.
Other soldiers were facing a running battle—and I meant that literally—versus a trio of Croctoids. The reptilian pirates blasted at my uniformed cohort, missing almost every time. My soldiers paused to shoot, then scurried out of the line of fire. The Crocs were starting to sway. I hoped they would fall over before their reinforcements arrived.
It was not to be. The door of the ballroom slammed open, and five more Crocs burst into the room. Luckily, behind them were Team B and Juhrman.
“We’re here, my lord ensign!” he bellowed, grinning widely, waving a pulse rifle over his head. The soldiers with him cheered.
Their support gave me heart.
“To me, Smithereenians!” I shouted.
Two enemy Geckos leaped for me. I crouched, awaiting their arrival, one eye on the display on my viewpad. “In forty-five seconds, the walls are going to change again,” I told my troops over the communications link. “Make sure you are on the inner side of the partition coming up from the floor. It will block the pirates from entering the maze with us.” I grabbed each Gecko by a hand and stood up. The shorter beings were forced together by my action, and slammed into one another. To my amazement, they fell backwards and crashed to the floor. I looked around.
“Did anyone else see that?” I exclaimed. “That was brilliant!”
“Great, sir.” Chan threw herself on her back with one foot in the belly of another Gecko pirate. She tossed it straight into the midst of the enemy who had regained their feet and were now barreling towards me. The Geckos tumbled. “Twenty seconds!”
Suddenly, as one, the remaining pirates turned to look at me. They eyed the license stuck to the front of my tunic. The captain, lost in the maze, must have notified them by communicator that I had what they were looking for. They shoved away from the battles they were waging, and made for me. I could not let them get their hands upon me. I felt for the license, snatched it free, and sent it arching over the heads of the pirates toward the door.
Or so they thought. In truth, I palmed it and flung the pistol that I had obtained from one of the Geckos, but the movement fooled the pirates as if they were a score of dogs playing fetch. In the seconds that it took them to realize they had been duped, I signed to my troops to leave the melee and follow me. The pirates ran after them. One second later, the barrier rose up, knocking them backwards.
“You diseased softskins!” came a bellow from the other side, along with determined pounding. Most of the pirates were trapped outside, as I had planned.
But not all of the pounding was going on outside. Three of the suspect crew, two humans and a Gecko, realized that they were alone on our side of the wall. Panicked, they clawed at the partition.
“Get us out of here!” they cried.
“Get ’em!” Chan shouted, hoisting her stunner.
Her volunteers leaped on them. The fight was short, dirty and brutal, but when it ceased, they were bound with restraints and piled in a heap off to one side. Panting, Chan came over and gave me a nod.
“Nice work, Captain,” I said.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, looking suitably gratified.
Shouts of anger and the explosions of plasma charges were muffled by the panels, but I feared not for long. It bought me enough time to check the control panel, making certain that the program continued to run as I intended it. Rous and Oskelev guarded my back. I could hear the pirates blasting and hammering at the wall.
“They’re almost through, sir,” Bailly said.
“Almost there,” I said, concentrating hard. I heard splintering noises. The hotel frame was meant to withstand an asteroid crash, but the interior could not be that strong.
“What is the plan, sir?” Plet asked.
“We keep them busy,” I said. “The captain is already bumbling around within the maze. They might be able to communicate with him, but they can’t reach him. I have the room programmed to change every three minutes from left-right configuration to right-left configuration. At the center of the maze is a small chamber sans windows or doors. We will lead them into the trap, and keep them confined there until the authorities arrive.”
“They weren’t coming,” Plet reminded me.
I raised an eyebrow and treated her to a short, deprecating version of my patented laugh. “After the mess we left behind in Oatmeal and Son? They must take notice now.”
“True,” she said. “No word yet from Commander Parsons or the Wedjet, sir.”
I nodded grimly. “We’ll just have to hold on as long as we can. The pirates should be no trouble once we’ve got them locked up.”
“From your mouth to eternity’s ear, sir!” Bailly said.
A howling sound as might be made by a drill gone mad burst on our eardrums. The wall between us and the pirates burst asunder in red flames. The crew boiled through the irregular hole, gnashing their teeth.
“Into the maze!” I cried.
My troops, somewhat reduced by injury, fled into the tunnel behind me, with the pirates in angry pursuit. We had a minor head start on them.
The labyrinth was a simple one. There had been no time for niceties. I had employed the most classic of patterns, with a twist. Taking every left would take one into the center, which was scheduled in exactly fifteen minutes to close into a box with no exits or windows. That, I hoped, would hold the pirates until they could be picked up. We had to lure them in, then escape.
“Stay with me,” I warned the troops over the communications system, as we hurried along the dark blue corridor lit with bronze sconces as well as the diffused light from the landing pad above the clear ceiling. If I had not been in the presence of armed soldiers, I might have been looking for a friend’s hotel room. “When the timer in my viewpad goes off, the polarity will switch, and where we might turn left, we must turn right, instead.”
“Aye, sir!” they chorused.
“So, we go right, then left,” I said.
“Sir, didn’t we turn right when we came in?” Plet, always the wet blanket, inquired.
“Yes,” I said. “Then our next turn is left.”
We ran. Flashes of red light behind us lent speed to our heels. The two soldiers in powered armor lagged at the rear of the party as they were meant for strength, not agility.
“Hurry,” I pleaded. I could not rebuild the sequence from inside the maze. If we did not get the enemy into place within a quarter of an hour, the labyrinth would freeze in its last position, with or without the crew trapped. We ran onward. Left, right, left, right, time! Right, left, and into a carpeted corridor.
A tiny whine alarmed all of us. To my delight, however, it was the sound of my Callusion Optique returning. It had done its job, luring the captain into the maze, and had returned to me. I snatched it from the air. It whistled a protest.
“Make no noise!” I hissed. I was rewarded by the sound of a barrage of repulsor fire that underlined the import of my order to those cowering with me. They subsided into silence.
The corridor ended with a graceful spiral staircase to our left. To my dismay, at the top, our only choice of direction was left.
“What now?” Chan’s voice whispered in my ear.
My heart sank. I knew that we had gone off the sequence. I signed to take the left, and we would go to the next right.
I needed Parsons. He would cope with the situation. I must send a message to him. As long as we kept hold of the license plate for the pirate ship, it could not take off. He would think of some means to capture them.
I recorded a message on my camera, added text by means of the Sang Li fingerspelling that emerged as text on the bottom of the last image of my face, then I sent it out looking for Parsons, using its internal facial recognition software. It downloaded images from every image-capture system on the planetoid, sorted through thousands of images per second, and then floated away out of my hands. I hoped it could find a hole for it to escape through, and that the next of the sliding panels we encountered would not open out onto a contingent of pirates.