The icarus hunt, p.1
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       The Icarus Hunt, p.1

           Timothy Zahn
 
The Icarus Hunt


  Praise for the novels of Timothy Zahn

  SPECTER OF THE PAST

  “Zahn returns splendidly to the ranks of Star Wars authors.… Absorbing reading. Label this one ‘Not just for Star Wars fans’—for sure!”

  —Booklist

  “Zahn turns in his usual high-caliber performance.”

  —Library Journal

  “Zahn has crafted an unusually sophisticated addition to the continuing saga of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia Organa.… Longtime fans should get considerable pleasure from this addition to the saga.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  HEIR TO THE EMPIRE

  “Moves with a speed-of-light pace that captures the spirit of the movie trilogy so well, you can almost hear John Williams’s soundtrack.”

  —The Providence Sunday Journal

  “A splendidly exciting novel … the magic is back.”

  —Nashville Banner

  DARK FORCE RISING

  “Continues [Zahn’s] remarkable extrapolation from George Lucas’s trilogy.”

  —Chicago Sun-Times

  “Zahn has perfectly captured the pace and flavor of the Star Wars movies. This is space opera at its best.”

  —The Sunday Oklahoman

  THE LAST COMMAND

  “Filled with characteristic Star Wars technology and cosmic battles … the detail and plot development far exceed what are possible in a two-hour movie.”

  —The Indianapolis Star

  This edition contains the complete text

  of the original hardcover edition.

  NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

  THE ICARUS HUNT

  PUBLISHING HISTORY

  Bantam Spectra hardcover edition published August 1999

  Bantam Spectra paperback edition / July 2000

  SPECTRA and the portrayal of a boxed “s” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

  Copyright © 1999 by Timothy Zahn.

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 99-18565

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-82243-7

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  CHAPTER

  1

  They were waiting as I stepped through the door into the taverno: three of them, preadult Yavanni, roughly the size of Brahma bulls, looming over me from both sides of the entryway. Big, eager-eyed, and territorial, they were on the prowl and looking for an excuse to squash something soft.

  From all indications, it looked like that something was going to be me.

  I stopped short just inside the door, and as it swung closed against my back I caught a faint whiff of turpentine from the direction of my would-be assailants. Which meant that along with being young and brash, they were also tanked to the briskets. I was still outside the invisible boundary of the personal territories they’d staked out for themselves in the entryway; and if I had any brains, I’d keep it that way. Yavanni aren’t very bright even at the best of times, but when you’re outweighed by two to one and outnumbered by three to one, brainpower ratio isn’t likely to be the deciding factor. It had been a long day and a longer evening, I was tired and cranky, and the smartest thing I could do right now was get hold of the doorknob digging into my back and get out of there.

  I looked past the Yavanni into the main part of the taverno. The place was pretty crowded, with both humans and a representative distribution of other species sitting around the fashionably darkened interior. It was likely to stay well populated, too, at least as long as anyone who tried to leave had to pass the three mobile mountains waiting at the door. A fair percentage of the clientele, I could see, was surreptitiously watching the little drama about to unfold, while the rest were studiously ignoring it. None of either group looked eager to leap to my defense should that become necessary. The two bartenders were watching me more openly, but there would be no help from that direction, either. This section of the spaceport environs lay in Meima’s Vyssiluyan enclave, and the Vyssiluyas were notoriously laissez-faire where disputes of this sort were concerned. The local police would gladly and industriously pick up the pieces after it was all over, but that wasn’t going to be much comfort if I wound up being one of those pieces.

  I looked back at the Yavanni flanking my path, one a little way ahead and to my left, the other two to my right. They still hadn’t moved, but I had the mental picture of coiled springs being tightened a couple more turns. I hadn’t run, didn’t look like I was going to run, and their small minds were simmering in eager anticipation of the moment when I put a foot across that invisible barrier and they got to see how many colors of bruises they could raise on me.

  I wasn’t armed, at least not seriously. Even if I had been, blasting away from close range at three full-size Yavanni was not a recommended procedure for anyone desiring a long and happy life. But there was a trick I’d heard about a few years ago, a nice little combination of Yavannian psychology and physiology that I’d tucked away for possible future reference. It looked, as the saying went, like the future was now. Gazing at each of the Yavanni in turn, I cleared my throat. “Do your mothers know you boys are here?” I demanded in the deepest voice I could manage.

  Three jaws dropped in unison. “It’s late,” I continued before they could respond. “You should be home. Go home. Now.”

  They looked at each other, their earlier anticipation floundering in confusion. Talking like a Yavannian dominant male was probably the last response they’d expected from an alien half their size, and the molasses they used for brains was having trouble adjusting to the situation. “Did you hear me?” I snapped, putting some anger into my voice. “Go home.”

  The one on the left apparently had faster molasses than the other two. “You are not Yavannian,” he snarled back at me in typically Yavannian-mangled English. A fresh wave of turpentine smell accompanied the words. “You will not speak to us that way.” Paws flexing, he took a step toward me—

  And I opened my mouth and let out a warbling, blood-freezing howl.

  He froze in place, his alien face abruptly stricken as his glacial brain caught up with his fatal error. I was stationary and he was moving, which meant he had now violated my territory. I was the injured party, I had given out with the proper Yavannian accusation/indictment/challenge shout, and I was now entitled to the first punch.

  By and by, of course, he would remember that I wasn’t a Yavanne and therefor
e not entitled to the courtesy of Yavannian customs. I had no intention of giving that thought time to percolate through. Taking a long step toward him, I tightened my hands into fists and drove both of them hard into his lower torso, into the slight depressions on either side of the central muscle ridge.

  He gave a forlorn sort of squeak—a startling sound from a creature his size—and went down with a highly satisfying thud that must have shaken the whole taverno. Curled around himself, he lay still.

  The other two were still standing there, staring at me with their jaws hanging loosely. I wasn’t fooled—flabbergasted or not, they were still in territorial mode, and the minute I stepped onto either’s chosen section of floor I would get mauled. Fortunately, that was no longer a problem. The left side of the entryway was now free territory; stepping over the downed Yavanne, I passed through the entryway and into the taverno.

  There was a small ripple of almost-applause, which quickly evaporated as those involved belatedly remembered that there were still two Yavanni left on their feet. I wasn’t expecting any more trouble from them myself, but just the same I kept an eye on their reflection in the brass chandelier domes as I made my way through the maze of tables and chairs. There was an empty table in the back, comfortably close to the homey log fireplace that dominated that wall, and I sat down with my back to the crackling flames. As I did so, I was just in time to see the two undamaged Yavanni help their unsteady colleague out into the night.

  “Buy you a drink, sir?”

  I turned my head. A medium-sized man with dark skin stood in the dim light to the right of my table, a half-full mug in his hand, a thick thatch of white hair shimmering in the firelight. “I’m not interested in company right now,” I said, punching up a small vodkaline on the table’s menu selector. I wasn’t interested in drinking, either, but that little fracas with the Yavanni had drawn enough attention to me as it was, and sitting there without a glass in my hand would only invite more curiosity.

  “I appreciate what you did over there,” the man commented, pulling out the chair opposite me and sitting down as if he’d been invited to do so. “I’ve been stuck here half an hour waiting for them to go away. Bit of a risky move, though, wasn’t it? At the very least, you could have broken a couple of knuckles.”

  For a moment I gazed across the table at him, at that dark face beneath that shock of white hair. From the age lines in his skin he clearly had spent a lot of his life out in the sun; from the shape of the musculature beneath his jacket he hadn’t spent that time lounging around in beach chairs. “Not all that risky,” I told him. “Yavanni don’t get that really thick skin of theirs until adulthood. Kids that age are still pretty soft in spots. You just have to know where those spots are.”

  He nodded, eyes dropping momentarily to the ship patch with its stylized “SB” on the shoulder of my faded black-leather jacket. “You deal a lot with aliens?”

  “A fair amount,” I said. “My partner’s one, if that helps any.”

  “What do you mean, if it helps any?”

  The center of the table opened up and my vodkaline appeared. “If it helps you make up your mind,” I amplified, taking the glass off the tray. “About offering me a cargo.”

  A flicker of surprise crossed his face, but then he smiled. “You’re quick,” he said. “I like that. I take it you’re an independent shipper?”

  “That’s right.” I wasn’t all that independent, actually, not anymore. But this wasn’t the right time to bring that up. “My name’s Jordan McKell. I’m captain of a Capricorn-class freighter called the Stormy Banks.”

  “Specialty certificates?”

  “Navigation and close-order piloting,” I said. “My partner Ixil is certified in both drive and mechanical systems.”

  “Actually, I won’t be needing your partner.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Or your ship, for that matter.”

  “That makes sense,” I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. “What exactly do you need—a fourth for bridge?”

  He leaned a little closer to me across the table. “I already have a ship,” he said, his voice dropping to a murmur. “It’s sitting at the spaceport, fueled and cargoed and ready to go. All I need is a crew to fly her.”

  “Interesting trick,” I complimented him. “Getting a ship here without a crew, I mean.”

  His lips compressed. “I had a crew yesterday. They jumped ship this morning after we landed for refueling.”

  “Why?”

  He waved a hand. “Personality conflicts, factional disputes—that sort of thing. Apparently, both factions decided to jump without realizing the other side was going to, too. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m not going to make my schedule unless I get some help together, and quickly.”

  I leaned back in my chair and favored him with a sly smile. “So in other words, you’re basically stuck here. How very inconvenient for you. What kind of ship are we talking about?”

  “It’s the equivalent of an Orion-class,” he said, looking like a man suddenly noticing a bad taste in his mouth. Revising his earlier estimate of me downward, no doubt, as his estimate of how much money I was going to try to squeeze out of him went the opposite direction. “Not a standard Orion, you understand, but similar in size and—”

  “You need a minimum of six crewers, then,” I said. “Three each certified competent in bridge and engine-room operations. All eight specialty certificates represented: navigation, piloting, electronics, mechanics, computer, drive, hull/spacewalk, and medical.”

  “I see you’re well versed in the Mercantile Code.”

  “Part of my job,” I said. “As I said, I can cover nav and piloting. How many of the rest are you missing?”

  He smiled crookedly. “Why? You have some friends who need work?”

  “I might. What do you need?”

  “I appreciate the offer.” He was still smiling, but the laugh lines had hardened a bit. “But I’d prefer to choose my own crew.”

  I shrugged. “Fine by me. I was just trying to save you a little running around. What about me personally? Am I in?”

  He eyed me another couple of heartbeats. “If you want the job,” he said at last, not sounding entirely happy with the decision.

  Deliberately, I turned my head a few degrees to the left and looked at a trio of gray-robed Patthaaunutth sitting at the center of the bar, gazing haughtily out at the rest of the patrons like self-proclaimed lords surveying their private demesne. “Were you expecting me to turn you down?” I asked, hearing the edge of bitterness in my voice.

  He followed my gaze, lifting his mug for a sip, and even out of the corner of my eye I could see him wince a little behind the rim of the cup. “No,” he said quietly. “I suppose not.”

  I nodded silently. The Talariac Drive had hit the trade routes of the Spiral a little over fifteen years ago, and in that brief time the Patth had gone from being a third-rate race of Machiavellian little connivers to near domination of shipping here in our cozy corner of the galaxy. Hardly a surprise, of course: with the Talariac four times faster and three times cheaper than anyone else’s stardrive, it didn’t take a corporate genius to figure out which ships were the ones to hire.

  Which had left the rest of us between a very big rock and a very hard vacuum. There were still a fair number of smaller routes and some overflow traffic that the Patth hadn’t gotten around to yet, but there were too many non-Patth ships chasing too few jobs and the resulting economic chaos had been devastating. A few of the big shipping corporations were still hanging on, but most of the independents had been either starved out of business or reduced to intrasystem shipping, where stardrives weren’t necessary.

  Or had turned their ships to other, less virtuous lines of work.

  One of the Patth at the table turned his head slightly, and from beneath his hood I caught a glint of the electronic implants set into that gaunt, mahogany-red face. The Patth had a good thing going, all right, and they had no intention of losing it. Patt
h starships were individually keyed to their respective pilots, with small but crucial bits of the Talariac access circuitry and visual display feedback systems implanted into the pilot’s body. There’d been some misgivings about that when the system first hit the Spiral—shipping execs had worried that an injury to the Patth pilot en route could strand their valuable cargo out in the middle of nowhere, and there was a lot of nowhere out there to lose something as small as a starship in. The Patth had countered by adding one or two backup pilots to each ship, which had lowered the risk of accident without compromising the shroud of secrecy they were determined to keep around the Talariac. Without the circuitry implanted in its pilot—and with a whole raft of other safeguards built into the hardware of the drive itself—borrowing or stealing a Patth ship would gain you exactly zero information.

  Or so the reasoning went. The fact that no bootleg copies of the Talariac had yet appeared anywhere on the market tended to support that theory.

  The man across from me set his mug back down on the table with a slightly impatient-sounding clunk. Turning my eyes and thoughts away from the hooded Patth, I got back to business. “What time do you want to leave?”

  “As early as possible,” he said. “Say, six tomorrow morning.”

  I thought about that. Meima was an Ihmis colony world, and one of the peculiarities of Ihmisit-run spaceports was that shippers weren’t allowed inside the port between sundown and sunup, with the entire port sealed during those hours. Alien-psychology experts usually attributed this to some quirk of Ihmis superstition; I personally put it down to the healthy hotel business the policy generated at the spaceport’s periphery. “Sunrise tomorrow’s not until five-thirty,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t leave much time for preflight checks.”

  “The ship’s all ready to go,” he reminded me.

  “We check it anyway before we fly,” I told him.

  “That’s what ‘preflight’ means. What about clearances?”

 
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