Under normal conditions a whole person has a decided advantage over a handicapped one. But out in deep space the normal may be reversed—for humans at any rate.
The “Empress” was a derelict. It had become legend. A luxury space cruiser that is devoid of life and runs the spaceways with its lights on. All the wealth of its passengers intact. Waiting for salvage. But no one who goes after her ever returns…
It was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.
All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.
About a year after the Jovan affair he walked into the Free Fall one night and dumped Bat down on her table. Bat looked at Steena and growled. She looked calmly back at him and nodded once. From then on they traveled together—the thin gray woman and the big gray tom-cat. Bat learned to know the inside of more stellar bars than even most spacers visit in their lifetimes. He developed a liking for Vernal juice, drank it neat and quick, right out of a glass. And he was always at home on any table where Steena elected to drop him.
This is really the story of Steena, Bat, Cliff Moran and the Empress of Mars, a story which is already a legend of the spaceways. And it’s a damn good story too. I ought to know, having framed the first version of it myself.
For I was there, right in the Rigel Royal, when it all began on the night that Cliff Moran blew in, looking lower than an antman’s belly and twice as nasty. He’d had a spell of luck foul enough to twist a man into a slug-snake and we all knew that there was an attachment out for his ship. Cliff had fought his way up from the back courts of Venaport. Lose his ship and he’d slip back there—to rot. He was at the snarling stage that night when he picked out a table for himself and set out to drink away his troubles.
However, just as the first bottle arrived, so did a visitor. Steena came out of her corner, Bat curled around her shoulders stole-wise, his favorite mode of travel. She crossed over and dropped down without invitation at Cliff’s side. That shook him out of his sulks. Because Steena never chose company when she could be alone. If one of the man-stones on Ganymede had come stumping in, it wouldn’t have made more of us look out of the corners of our eyes.
She stretched out one long-fingered hand and set aside the bottle he had ordered and said only one thing, “It’s about time for the Empress of Mars to appear again…”
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