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Anne McCaffrey

Jody Lynn Nye

The Ship Who Won

Chapter One

The ironbound door at the end of the narrow passageway creaked open. An ancient man peered out and focused wrinkle-lapped eyes on Keff. Keff knew what the old one saw: a mature man, not overly tall, whose wavy brown hair, only just beginning to be shot with gray, was arrayed above a mild yet bull-like brow and deep-set blue eyes. A nose whose craggy shape suggested it may or may not have been broken at some time in the past, and a mouth framed by humor lines added to the impression of one who was tough yet instinctively gentle. He was dressed in a simple tunic but carried a sword at his side with the easy air of someone who knew how to use it. The oldster wore the shapeless garments of one who has ceased to care for any attribute but warmth and convenience. They studied each other for a moment. Keff dipped his head slightly in greeting.

'Is your master at home?'

'I have no master. Get ye gone to whence ye came,' the ancient spat, eyes blazing. Keff knew at once that this was no serving man; he'd just insulted the High Wizard Zarelb himself! He straightened his shoulders, going on guard but seeking to look friendly and non-threatening.

«Nay, sir,» Keff said. «I must speak to you.» Rats crept out of the doorway only inches from his feet and skittered away through the gutters along the walls. A disgusting place, but Keff had his mission to think of.

«Get ye gone,» the old man repeated. «I've nothing for you.» He tried to close the heavy, planked door.

Keff pushed his gauntleted forearm into the narrowing crack and held it open. The old man backed away a pace, his eyes showing fear.

«I know you have the Scroll of Almon,» Keff said, keeping his voice gentle. «I need it, good sir, to save the people of Harimm. Please give it to me, sir. I will harm you not.»

«Very well, young man,» the wizard said. «Since you threaten me, I will cede the scroll.»

Keff relaxed slightly, with an inward grin. Then he caught a gleam in the old mans eye, which focused over Keff's shoulder. Spinning on his heel, Keff whipped his narrow sword out of its scabbard. Its lighted point picked out glints in the eyes and off the sword-blades of the three ruffians who had stepped into the street behind him. He was trapped.

One of the ruffians showed blackened stumps of teeth in a broad grin. «Going somewhere, sonny?» he asked.

«I go where duty takes me,» Keff said.

«Take him, boys!»

His sword on high, the ruffian charged. Keff immediately blocked the man's chop, and riposted, flinging the man's heavy sword away with a clever twist of his slender blade that left the man's chest unguarded and vulnerable. He lunged, seeking his enemy's heart with his blade. Stumbling away with more haste than grace, the man spat, gathered himself, and charged again, this time followed by the other two. Keff turned into a whirlwind, parrying, thrusting, and striking, holding the three men at bay. A near strike by one of his opponents streaked along the wall by his cheek. He jumped away and parried just before an enemy skewered him.

«Yoicks!» he cried, dancing in again. «Have at you!»

He lunged, and the hot point of his epee struck the middle of the chief thugs chest. The body sank to the ground, and vanished.

There!» Keff shouted, flicking the sword back and forth, leaving a Z etched in white light on the air. «You are not invincible. Surrender or die!»

Keff's renewed energy seemed to confuse the two remaining ruffians, who fought disjointedly, sometimes getting in each others way while Keff's blade found its mark again and again, sinking its light into arms, shoulders, chests. In a lightning-fast sequence, first one, then the other foe left his guard open a moment too long. With groans, the villains sank to the ground, whereupon they too vanished. Putting the epee back into his belt, Keff turned to confront the ancient wizard, who stood watching the proceedings with a neutral eye.

«In the name of the people of Harimm, I claim the Scroll,» Keff said grandly, extending a hand. «Unless you have other surprises for me?»

«Nay, nay.» The old man fumbled in the battered leather scrip at his side. From it he took a roll of parchment, yellowed and crackling with age. Keff stared at it with awe. He bowed to the wizard, who gave him a grudging look of respect.

The scroll lifted out of the wizards hand and floated toward Keff. Hovering in the air, it unrolled slowly.

Keff squinted at what was revealed within: spidery tracings in fading brown ink, depicting mountains, roads, and rivers. «A map!» he breathed.

«Hold it,» the wizard said, his voice unaccountably changing from a cracked baritone to a pleasant female alto. «We're in range of the comsats.» Door, rats, and aged figure vanished, leaving blank walls.

«Oh, spacedust,» Keff said, unstrapping his belt and laser epee and throwing himself into the crash seat at the control console. «I was enjoying that. Whew! Good workout!» He pulled his sweaty tunic off over his head, and mopped his face with the tails. The dark curls of hair on his broad chest may have been shot through here and there with white ones, but he was grinning like a boy.

«You nearly got yourself spitted back there,» said the disembodied voice of Carialle, simultaneously sending and acknowledging ID signals to the SSS-900. «Watch your back better next time.»

«What'd I get for that?» Keff asked.

«No points for unfinished tasks. Maps are always unknowns. You'll have to follow it and see,» Carialle said coyly. The image of a gorgeous lady dressed in floating sky blue chiffon and gauze and a pointed hennin appeared briefly on a screen next to her titanium column. The lovely rose-and-cream complected visage smiled down on Keff. «Nice footwork, good sir knight,» the Lady Fair said, and vanished.

«SSS-900, this is the CK-963 requesting permission to approach and dock—Hello, Simeon!»

«Carialle!» The voice of the station controller came through the box. «Welcome back! Permission granted, babe. And that's SSS-900-C, now, C for Channa. A lot's happened in the year since you've been away. Keff, are you there?»

Keff leaned in toward the pickup. «Right here, Simeon. We're within half a billion klicks. Should be with you soon.»

«It'll be good to have you on board,» Simeon said.

«We're a little disarrayed right now, to put it mildly, but you didn't come to see me for my housekeeping.»

«No, cookie, but you give such good decontam a girl can hardly stay away,» Carialle quipped with a naughty chuckle.

***

«Dragons teeth, Simeon!» Keff suddenly exclaimed, staring at his scopes. «What happened around here?»

«Well, if you really want to know . . .»

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