Gris and the Antimanco space pirates fly from Turkey to Connecticut in The Spaceship Formerly Known as Tug One, "crossing latitudes like a picket fence going by." Which means that, despite specifically traveling from east to west, they're blazing over the lines that run parallel to the equator. So either Hubbard is plotting yet another course that passes needlessly over the North Pole, or he failed basic navigation.
Captain Stabb and his motley crüe are all babbling about how happy they are now that Heller, the damned dirty Royal officer they met for a few days about a year ago, is dead. They're also pumped about nabbing the late officer's sack of diamonds, which I'll remind you were synthesized using standard Voltarian technology, making them worthless back home and something they ought to be able to whip up in the garage. "When we pick up these diamonds, we'll rob the planet blind for you! Torture, rape and sudden death, that's our motto." Nothing about clubbing people to death, though.
Gris meanwhile is nervous because their spaceship's engines use those physics-raping Will-be Was engines, and helpfully explains how they work again since it's been six books since they were introduced. He also reminds us how luxurious Flash Tub's gilded quarters are, complete with jewel-encrusted switches and such, because that's just as important to the story. Finally, he explains how he brought along the star-shaped pendant that, depending on how he touches it, will use space magic to hypnotize or electrocute the Antimancos in case they get out of hand.
Eventually the absurdly fast and absurdly embellished spaceship reaches its destination, "antiacceleration and gravity coils" bringing it in for a smooth landing. Since its "absorbo-coat" will... well, absorb any radio waves, they have to open the pod bay doors to let Gris call Raht, who reports that the place is clear so they don't need to use a "blueflash" to knock anyone out, and also that he's in urgent need of medical attention. Sure enough, Gris and the pirates can see Raht on the ship's infrared screens, lying face down in front of the roadhouse's front porch, near "a partially seen mess" that must be Heller's corpse, and most significantly that bag of glittering mineral swag. Which is glittering even on infrared. I guess diamonds are hot.
Stabb sends Jeeb the engineer out to pick up the loot. Even though the captain asked for Gris' permission to spit on Heller's corpse. And Gris planned to kill Raht to save the cost of the hit on Heller. And there's other Code Break equipment, possibly even more loot, inside the roadhouse. But they're gonna send out this one guy to do everything, I guess. Gris watches from the safety of the airlock.
Jeeb was bending over the object at the foot of the steps. I could see him clearly.
Suddenly he straightened up and started to shout back at the tug. "This isn't . . ."
A sharp hissing crack!
Jeeb fell apart!
The whole middle of his body was gone!
I hastily withdrew back into the tug.
"A SNIPER!" screamed Stabb. "There he is! There he is! After him!"
He was pointing at the screen. The infrared had a picture of a man with a rifle at the end of the roadhouse.
And by "after him!" Capt. Stabb of course means "next guy in line, hop out and get killed." A second engineer disembarks and takes cover behind a shrub, setting his blastrifle for infrared... I'm assuming Hubbard means the rifle's scope, and not the wavelength of its emissions or whatever. Red Shirt #2 takes a shot, and Gris, in book eight of the series, informs us that "A blastrifle does not flash as it shoots, but splashes of deadly energy laced into the target." But the ship's sensors pick up "THREE MORE INFRARED TARGETS!" for the engineer to engage.
The second engineer blazed away.
TWO MORE TARGETS!
Suddenly the second engineer let out a piercing scream!
He leaped into the air.
HIS WHOLE HEAD BLEW OFF!
Yeah, he screams, jumps up, and then is shot. Don't worry, it'll all make s... it'll be explained shortly.
So you're a grizzled space pirate, and what should have been a routine loot pick-up and corpse desecration has gone horribly wrong. You've been ambushed, and attackers keep popping up out of nowhere to blindside your men. So far your strategy of sending your crew out one-by-one to engage the foe isn't working too well - it's really a wonder the opposing sharpshooters aren't just plugging your guys as they come out of your ship's hatch.
Do you abort the mission, take off and run? Use your blueflash system to incapacitate anyone in the landing zone? Or
"Quick, (bleep) it!" cried Stabb to the two pilots. "Grab weapons and set them to body heat and wipe that area flat!"
The two pilots hurtled out of the door, slapping at the tops of their weapons.
Throw more men into the meat grinder, yeah. One pilot gets his hip disintegrated, the other loses his head and torso, while "heat targets" multiply all around the landing area. Only then does Stabb decide to run, and he and Gris strap into the newly-vacated pilots' seats, but find the ship unresponsive.
Wait, so Stabb's crew of space pirates consisted of only five men, including himself? Huh. And they were either engineers or pilots, too. Not any dedicated combatants. Guess Stabb is an army all by himself. He's certainly proven capable of clubbing a commercial airliner's worth of passengers to death without much trouble.
Stabb's eyes blazed.
Then he stood up. He looked at me. "You led us into a trap, Officer Gris!" he snarled. "And I'll be dead in minutes. But I've got just one more job to do." He was reaching into to his belt and withdrawing a knife and from the way he looked at me, I knew what he intended. He was going to kill me!
The Apparatus' finest, ladies and gentlemen.
Gris presses the part of his magic pendant the would electrify the captain, but "NOTHING HAPPENED!" He tries the part that would hypnotize Stabb, but "NOTHING HAPPENED!" Then Gris realizes that the power to control the pirates was inside of him all along, and he doesn't need a pendant to do it, so he just asks nicely and Stabb- okay, fine.
"Lombar Hisst," said Captain Stabb, "gave me orders that if you fouled up I was to kill you out of hand."
THE UNKNOWN ASSASSIN HAD BEEN CAPTAIN STABB!
Eh, maybe. For all you know half the base could've been given orders to kill you for your inevitable failure. It's not like Stabb admitted to being the one dropping notes on your pillow. Guess we'll find out whether Gris is jumping to another conclusion and so will be shocked when future notes from Bloody Dagger show up, or if this is more bad writing.
But before Captain Stabb can... stab Gris, he flops over with a dagger in his back. Now, brace yourself from the shocking plot twist foiled by the very back cover of this book, and anticipated by anyone with a functioning brainstem.
Somebody was coming.
I was trying to get my gun.
Wait, now you're getting your gun out? After all that shooting?
"Just sit there quietly, Gris. I can see in there but you can't see me."
Oh, Gods. I began to shake with every bone.
Maybe Gris lost a fight with a ghost before? So he has good reason to drop his gunbelt and put his hands up?
Someone quickly ties him to the copilot's chair, a someone who turns out to be a double-crossing, whiskered Raht (geddit?).
"Traitor!" I rasped.
"Oh, no, Gris. You're the traitor. When you lured that beautiful woman to her death, you turned my stomach. And ordering me to murder a Royal officer! You must be crazy!"
So. Raht's okay with working for the Apparatus, an institution engaging in human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, and murder in its campaign to seize control of the Voltarian government. He's fine with arranging hits and other acts of espionage. But killing a sufficiently pretty woman is just too much for him to stomach, and he certainly isn't willing to go after a Royal officer. His moral compass boils down to physical attractiveness and good breeding.
I can only assume the Apparatus kept him around because he was one of the few agents capable of successfully completing a mission. From time to time. As long as he wasn't up against prostitutes.
Raht helpfully explains that no, Heller isn't dead, as well as everything that happened in the last couple of chapters. Raht spilled his guts to Heller when Gris was out of bugging range, and the two of them set up a fake shoot-out. Their gunfight was just flash charges going off, and Heller's viewscreen blanked out because Raht simply turned off the activator-receiver.
The ambush of the pirates was all Heller - he set up a bunch of remote-controlled "body heat simulators," which of course he brought with him, to confuse everyone who happened to be relying solely on infrared sensors rather than image intensifiers, more advanced Voltarian sensor equipment, or a sodding flashlight. So now you know why everyone made a big deal about using infrared vision - they needed to fall into this particular trap.
I was still confused. "Why did those men leap up into the air with a shriek?"
"Oh, that was his secret weapon. It found and clawed each man in turn. A remote-controlled, radio-directed cat."
You are joking, Hubbard.
Heller's voice behind me. "Get up there, Mister Calico. Sit on his chest and if he moves or speaks, hit him."
The cat sprang up into the spaceship. It sailed onto my chest. It sat there glaring malignly at me.
I opened my mouth to speak.
The cat raked my face with savage claws.
Setting aside the fact that this housecat is somehow sapient, able to know who Heller is ordering him to guard despite having never met Gris or worked with him during training - and boy is that a big thing to set aside - wouldn't a cat show up on infrared, so the pirates should have seen him coming?
"I think he knows," said Raht, "that you had a hand in killing his mistress. I'd watch out if I were you. That's a hit cat to end them all! It scares me to death!"
I looked down into its close-up, baleful eyes.
It was sort of snarling deep down.
I did not dare move.
It must be satire. Yeah. This whole shootout sequence isn't being taken seriously by the author. The inclusion of the cat means it's a joke, a parody of all those super-serious spy thrillers like The Bourne Geranium or whatever. It's symbolic. Yeah.
First three chapters, folks. I think we're in for quite a ride!
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