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“Do you know much of the history of our world?” The Magistrate poured a glass of filtered water. He slid it across his desk toward McGrath and smiled amicably.
Blades of sunlight sliced through the shuttered window behind him, cutting the elegant wood surface into narrow segments of light and shadow.
McGrath stared at the glass. “Fraid not. ‘Cept what’s in the almanac.”
“Go on, you must be parched.” The Magistrate poured himself a drink and swallowed it in one pull. Clean water was a valuable commodity here. That the Magistrate served it up like a fine liquor only drove home the point.
“Ex-Imperial colony,” McGrath said, taking the glass. “Gained its independence after the Centauri rebellion. Former mining settlement, specializing in rare metals and crystal deposits.”
“Very good,” the Magistrate said. “But do you know anything of its people? Its culture?”
McGrath sipped. Blood swirled in the water. “Not really.”
What was he getting at? These backwater planets were all the same. More than a century ago, Castor IX, better known these days as Tombstone, had been under the control of the Solarian Empire, that totalitarian regime that once held a stranglehold on all human planets. But now it was just another forgotten frontier world.
“Our forefathers were rugged individualists. Pioneers. Neo-Luddites disillusioned with humanity’s over-reliance on technology. They came out here to start a new life, to build a better world for their children.”
“Seems like the Empire had other plans.”
“On the contrary,” the Magistrate said. “In many respects, the Empire saved them from a life of savagery. My family has administered this world for three generations. My great grandfather was an Imperial governor. We worked hard to shape this planet into a beacon of hope for its inhabitants.”
McGrath gulped down the rest of his water and set the empty glass on the edge of the desk. He didn’t like where this was going. The Empire was long dead, and as far as McGrath was concerned, that was a good thing. He had no love of centralized government, nor anyone who thought their purpose was to guide humanity toward some manifest destiny.
“I can certainly appreciate your perspective,” McGrath said, “but with all due respect, what’s that got to do with me?”
“We don’t get many off-worlders, and when we do they always manage to stir up trouble. Now, I don’t have a problem with you, per say, but I have to safeguard the lives of my people. Surely you understand that?”
“I’m not looking for any trouble. I just need to find someone. Then I’ll be off your world and you can go on building your little Utopia in peace.”
“The man you’re looking for, what did he do?”
“Well, he must have done something. You are a bounty hunter, are you not?”
McGrath shifted on the cushioned chair. His ribs pulsed with pain where the woman had struck him back at the saloon. “Yeah. He’s a fugitive. Wanted by the government of Pollux Three. He stole something from them.”
“Oh, what did he steal?”
“How should I know? It’s just a job. Not my place to judge him. I’m only interested in bringing him back. I tracked him to this system. Found that junker transport he hijacked at the spaceport. I know he’s in New Hope.”
“And you have a warrant for this man’s recovery?”
“Of course.” McGrath reached into his duster and drew a data cube, which he placed on the desk between them. “It’s all there. Print verified and time stamped.”
The Magistrate pursed his lips. “I’m afraid we don’t have the equipment to read that information. You see, we are a simple people.”
McGrath thought of the plasma blaster one of the thugs who’d attacked him had wielded. Not so simple as to turn down off-world tech. He snatched the data cube and clenched his fist around it. “Ok, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word then.”
“Regardless, it doesn’t matter. I’m afraid we don’t recognize the government of Pollux Three’s authority here. Nor any authority that is not our own.”
“I wonder what the Union would say about that?”
“Irrelevant. We aren’t a member of the Union of Outer Colonies. Their laws and regulations are meaningless here.” The Magistrate’s demeanor shifted from congenial to borderline hostile. McGrath could feel the anger radiating off him. He decided it was best not to antagonize the man any further.
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to cause any problems. I just want to do my job. That’s all.” He raised his hands defensively.
The anger drained from the Magistrate’s face and was replaced by a warm, inviting smile. It was disturbing how quickly he could alter his expression. Here was a man who was not used to having his authority questioned. McGrath made a mental note not to test him.
“You are welcome to stay here in New Hope as long as you like. But I can’t allow you to pursue this matter any further. If you agree, I’m happy to let you walk out of here on good terms. If not, then I’m afraid you must leave our planet at once.”
McGrath swallowed. The taste of his own blood served as a bitter reminder that the Magistrate’s threat was real. “Fine. I’ll agree to that.”
The Magistrate extended a fat hand bedecked with jeweled rings. McGrath took it, applying unnecessary strength in subtle defiance of the gesture. He hated this man. Had he not been at such a tactical disadvantage, he’d consider shooting him just to spare this planet’s future revolutionaries the trouble. But this wasn’t his world. He had to play by the rules to get what he wanted. For now.
McGrath buried his anger and returned the Magistrate’s grin.
“I’m glad we understand each other,” the Magistrate said, releasing his hand. He pressed a button under his desk, activating an intercom. “Jasper, please escort Mr. McGrath to the Regal and put him up in the executive suite.”
A door opened and an enormous man stepped into the Magistrate’s office. Jasper was a head taller than McGrath, his body all knotted cords of muscle. His skin was a deep ebony, and he was completely bald. Piercing blue eyes stared out from sockets set above high cheekbones. “Come on,” he said, gesturing for McGrath to accompany him.
The bounty hunter levered himself out of the chair and walked slowly toward the door, muscles aching from his earlier encounter.
“Please, do enjoy your stay,” the Magistrate said.
McGrath forced a smile and nodded. He relished a brief thought of choking the life out of the bastard, and that made him smile for real. “Of course,” he said, then followed Jasper out of the office.
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