Romney Marsh, the Scarecrow of Space
Caravan of the Golden Sultan!
Gargo Six-Shinbone ran the seediest, bloodiest tavern in any known part of the universe. As far away as Parsec Bend and the reaches of the Nautilus Nebula, the darkest alleys and the dirtiest slums scarcely allowed the lowest whisper of Gargo's. This was not the kind of place where rich kids could go slumming and go home alive to brag of their exploits. The fact is, polite society really had no knowledge of the tavern's existence and to brag of having been there would merit nothing but blank stares and shrugs. The scum of the universe, every stripe of criminal and cutthroat, could find the place unerringly and all who entered knew the stakes: step a foot (or tentacle, or pseudopod) out of line and it would not only be cut off, but likely cooked and fed to you before you were beaten to death with the bones.
Willie the String was one of dozens of lowlife stoolies who frequented Gargo's and made his living off of selling information. Willie scampered down the entrance tunnel late on a Fleindsday night. His mouth was watering for a drink and his fingers were itching for the money to pay for one. Willie hailed from an obscure asteroid mining colony whose origins were lost to antiquity, but unusual genetic mutations were common enough in the ugly border regions of space that nobody commented on one-of-a-kind weirdos like Willie. He sidled up to the bar on his three hooves and craned his neck just high enough to see over the top.
“Gargo,” Willie said, “the usual, on my tab.” He licked his bifurcated lips. “And point me towards an Earthling named Romney Marsh.” Gargo huffed steam from one huge, beringed nostril. A three-fingered green hand almost as big as Willie's whole body lifted down a glass that looked like a thimble in its grasp.
“Got a hot tip have you, Willie?” Gargo said sarcastically. “Gonna' pay that tab sometime soon? This Earthling gonna' pay for the usual for you, Willie? It ain't cheap for me to keep this swill around, and you're the only one comes in and drinks it.” Gargo, towering and troll-like, pulled a refrigerated, radiation-proof canister out from under the bar and unlocked the seals that held it closed. He poured, oh so carefully, a gelatinous fluid that was both fermented and mildly radioactive, distilled as it was from a rare fungus that grew in stagnant condensation pools around the reactor plant on Willie's home world.
“Hot tip, Gargo? The hottest!” Willie crowed. He hefted his lead-lined tumbler and knocked back the steaming, glowing semisolid to let it swirl around the ventricular chambers in his throat with a gurgling noise that went on while he spoke. “Jagger's gang has a heist planned that has to be seen to be believed.” Willie's eyestalks started to glaze over. “This Earthling thing is supposed to be one deadly creature in a tight spot, and Jagger wants him.” Satisfied that he had presented his case articulately, Willie smiled and swayed drunkenly. Gargo huffed steam again.
“He's got a table near the back,” Gargo said. “The skinny biped wearing a vorpal cloak like a Crystal-Desert Bedouin, with Mohican particle-grid body armor. Sword, pistols... I think he's even got a quarterstaff with him. Arachaic weapons and lots of them, that equals dangerous and crazy. You'll want to watch yourself around him, Willie, or I won't ever get paid for that drink. People and things come in from time to time trying to recruit him, but he mostly works for himself.”
“Point taken, Gargo, old friend,” Willie said.
“I'm no friend of yours,” Gargo snorted. “Go talk to the Earthling so you can collect your commission and pay me something.” Willie swallowed the liquid that had been ruminating in his throat-sacs and tried to cross the room without staggering too much. There was a dimly lit expanse of empty floor between the bar and the deep shadow of the rear of the room where the tables were located, each with a small lamp to ensure the patrons their privacy.
Dodging baleful glares, nasty hisses, and warning pheromones Willie the String wove his way through the widely spaced tables. He found the Earthling sitting alone wearing a cloak of material so thin it was almost two-dimensional yet so solid on the surface that it stood out in the dark as though it was the only real thing in a land of ghosts. Its edges moved unnaturally in the still air, fluttering in an exaggerated slow-motion dance.
“Do you have business with me or are you just eying my cloak?” the solitary man said. “Because I can give you a better look at it.” The implied threat was accompanied by a flick of the Earthling's hand which brought the corner of the cloak up to Willie's face where it snapped in the air like a silent whip before darting back to its resting place.
“Business, sir, business!” Willie said urgently. “I come here on business, to hire you!”
“You wish to hire me? Do you even know who I am?”
“Aye, sir!” Willie answered, reaching for the empty chair across from the human. “You would be one Romney Marsh, so called the Scarecrow of Space! A pirate, smuggler, bandit, and thief feared by all who've heard of you, including me!”
“Smart answer, little man,” Marsh replied, gesturing the mutant to be seated. “Watch what you say next or you'll be walking out of here on the same number of legs as me. You're a patsy; I've seen you around. They call you 'the String' because you're what somebody pulls when they want something or someone brought to them. Who sent you here tonight?”
“Old Jagger sent me, sir,” Willie gulped. This took a moment as Willie's particular form of peristalsis was both multi-staged and multi-directional. “And I assure you that his threats to my anatomy are more than enough to keep me from playing anyone false. Little old Willie only wants to make his cut for doing the job, and wouldn't cross bad men like you and Jagger for any sum. My job is to put Jagger's offer to you and to take your answer back to him and collect my fee, that's all.”
“Fair enough, Willie,” Marsh said, allowing himself a grin. “Tell me a tale, and I'll sing you a song to take back to your boss. Relax, little man. I haven't dismembered a sentient being in weeks and you're no more threat to me than the dust on my boots. Just remember: I've a reputation to maintain and I'll put this cloak straight through you the moment I detect a scheme behind your words.”
“You are indeed a just yet terrifying man,” Willie quipped. “Jagger says he plans to jump through a wormhole he's found and land a team on an arid world called Von Vanadia. It's a throwback culture, an oligarchy obsessed with archaic tech and rituals. Pomp and circumstance, fancy dress, ancient customs. Don't be mistaken, they're one of the richest planets in space and they know it. For all their primitive affectations, they're heavily armed but they remain isolated. They permit little off-world trade, have no spacecraft of their own, and have no allies so there's no one to come after you as long as you make it back through the wormhole.”
“Sounds promising, but why hasn't anyone hit them already?”
“Their wealth is all in underground cities, almost impossible to reach without bypassing miles of booby traps and armies of guards. Jagger bought some information in the outer rim that told him one of the big regional rulers, a Sultan, is marrying off his spoiled brat of a daughter and shipping her dowry across the surface via pack animals. Even with all the armed guards they can muster, being out in the open on that terrain will leave them vulnerable enough for one good team to get in and take a good-sized chunk of loot!” Willie's eye-stalks sparkled at the thought. “Maybe even snatch the Sultan's daughter to hold for ransom, if the opportunity arises!” Marsh rubbed his chin.
“Interesting,” the pirate said quietly. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop a time or two and examined his drink. He looked off into the middle distance. “Tell Jagger I'm in,” he said at last. “I'll jump in with the team, but I fight better on my own. I'll have to approach the caravan independently, make my own way past the guards and join up with the others once resistance is overcome. I'd rather depart on my own, too. If Jagger wants the Sultan's daughter, he's welcome to her. Kidnapping's a prolonged, messy business and I want no part of it. If the old bugger's agreeable to those terms, tell him he can send word through Gargo over there and I'll meet him wherever he specifies.”
Willie's relief was such that he left without saying another word or, alas, paying his bar tab.
“I knew Willie could be counted on to find you,” croaked a voice from the shadows. Marsh looked towards it, moving only his eyes. His head didn't twitch and his hands remained flat on the table.
“Is that really you, Fusitus, you old sulphur-sniffing son of a whore? So Jagger's job was all a set-up just so you could follow the String to me?”
“Nope,” Fusitus said, rolling his amorphous, blob-like form out into the open. He exhaled noisily through several mouth slits, as he had been holding his breath to avoid alerting Marsh to his presence. He clutched an Epsilon wave projector in one tendril. “Jagger's job offer is the real thing, alright. I heard about it, heard somebody tell the String, and figured he'd come looking for you. I followed him right to you, and now I'm going to do what I've waited two stellar cycles to do: I'm going to kill you for betraying me, and absorb your carcass into my body mass.”
“As appealing as that sounds,” Marsh replied, sliding one hand to the edge of the table, “I'm afraid you're mistaken. I never betrayed you. This is a dirty business, Fusitus, and sometimes things just don't turn out the way we'd like them to. That's all that happened. I got away; you got caught. I made off with a small fortune, and you did time on a prison asteroid.”
“They used me as a sewage filter for the other convicts!” Fusitus roared, the weapon shaking in his grasp. “A sewage filter! I can still taste it sometimes, even now!”
“You and I both knew the risks of committing piracy in that sector, old friend. It could just as easily have been me, so stop acting like a child.”
“A child!? You bastard! I'll show you...” Fusitus's voice cut off unexpectedly. Marsh's right hand was no longer on the table, but somehow in his rage the gelatinous being had missed it. A serrated throwing dagger was sticking out of the flesh folds below Fusitus's mouth, and through his semi-transparent body a blackish cloud could be seen spreading from the inside of the wound: nanotech biotoxin, a universal poison. Romney Marsh stood from his table and looked around to see if anyone else took an interest. The other patrons kept to themselves.
Romney walked to his former ally and withdrew the dagger. The nanites coating the blade quickly cleaned it of all contaminants and he returned it to the sheath in his boot. Not quite sure where the brain was located in Fusitus's species, the Scarecrow of Space drew an Excavtor, a three-shot pistol originally designed to clear tunnel blockages in underground mineral mines. He chambered a round and fired it point-blank into the now inert blob corpse. The mostly liquid mass absorbed the force of the explosion nicely, expanding around the fiery bubble that formed inside of it and then slowly deflating as thick white smoke poured from the mouth.
Romney stopped on his way out to pay for his drink and for cleanup of the mess he'd caused. He took a moment to fill in Gargo on the particulars of his arrangement with Jagger via Willie, and went ahead and paid Willie's tab. When Gargo asked why, Romney Marsh pulled a bleak, terrifying mask over his face and cackled maniacally. Gargo shrugged and went back to polishing glasses.
* * *
The line of fifty-foot-tall scaly, elephantine pachysaurians wound its way through a craggy canyon. The half-mile-high walls echoed with the bejeweled chimes of the beasts’ harnesses. The sedan tents on their backs trailed blue smoke of the Nightshade Root from the hookas of the Sultan’s courtiers.
The cushioned, rope-encircled forecourts of the tents sprouted gardens of the red-robed guards hunched around the bases of their long, spindly rifles like some strange cactus flowers. Their eyes alternated between scanning the desolate terrain for bandits and shooting their resentment at the plumes of Nightshade smoke from the comfortable tents of their aristocrat masters.
The Sultan of Von Vanadia had invested a considerable portion of his treasury in the dowry of his only daughter. Although she was reputed to be of exquisite beauty, the daughter of the richest man on a planet of legendary wealth was also known for her petulance and her epic tantrums. Spoiled and pampered by her father, her beauty was considered pale compensation for any suitor. When a willing groom was finally found, intense financial negotiation ensued.
And so it was that the towering pachysaurians huffed their way down a relatively cool path in an otherwise blazing desert, their facial tendrils twisting lazily as they snatched up the occasional sand-scuttler for a crunchy snack. Laden with the Sultan’s substantial entourage, and the entourage’s various bodyguards and hangers-on, each beast wore the finest decoration money could buy. The tack and harness was all itself part of the dowry, encrusted with sapphires and rubies as it was. The back of each gigantic creature was topped with a tasseled, fringed, cupola-crowned howdah made of the finest silks and satins, sewn with gold thread.
Yet within each tent the real treasure traveled discreetly within small gilded chests amid the scattered pillows and recumbent concubines. The Sultan’s backstabbing retinue of distant relatives and aristocratic also-rans guarded these boxes jealously. Each one looked for an opportunity to accuse the others of attempting to steal it, hoping to raise their own status in the Sultan’s favor. Thus, within the tents, the treasure was completely safe.
Outside of the tents was safe enough as well. The guards’ rifles, although primitive by the standards of the day, could sweep the surrounding landscape with hundreds of razor-sharp projectiles within seconds. Their range and the guards’ marksmanship had already halted raids by the swift-footed man-beasts known as Cheetaurs. Several passes by jet platforms manned by armed bandits had also been summarily repelled.
All the attacks up to this point had been amateurish. Now the guards were turning dark in their mood, and not merely because of the decadent privilege that was shoved in their faces while they sat in the withering sun. Now they were past the point of no return. If attacked by a superior force and pinned down, they were too far from the Sultan’s lands to send for reinforcements. They were much closer to the fortifications of the princess’s husband-to-be, the Caliph of Aragabara, but even that was two more days’ ride. Besides, the man was unlikely to risk any of his own guards or servants to rescue a bride he barely wanted to begin with.
As the day wore on and the two suns shone relentlessly, boredom set in. The revelers in the tents slept off their hangovers and other debauchery, and the guards either dozed at their posts or sniped at birds and lizards across the canyon.
The guards on the first beast in the line counted themselves lucky. Aside from the capriciousness of the winds, they did not have the dust and smell of the rest of the caravan in their faces and smoke only occasionally drifted across them. By mid-afternoon they felt the relieving shade of a single, small cloud settle over the roasting-hot silks of their turbans. Having habitually avoided the practice of looking upwards under the punishing suns, they were not alerted to danger until cries and rifle reports arose from the guards further down the line behind them.
Jagger's men dropped from the ship on decelerator lines that deposited them on the back of the lead creature among the startled guards. They alighted in a hailstorm of magnetic dust grenades that jammed the moving parts of the guards' rifles. Gunning down the guards in short order, they proceeded to pull the Sultan's friends and relatives out of the tent to be stripped of their finery and thrown over the side to the desert floor. A cargo line was attached to the gilded chest, which was whisked up to the ship, after which the tent was slashed free and permitted to drop. The guards aboard the next beast following in line were then bombarded with more grenades to jam their weapons, and the bandits themselves were reeled into the ship to be dropped again on the next target.
Jagger himself, resplendent in molecular wire mesh-mail with dark matter plating, was a hulking Chardonyan. To a human, he would look like the world's fattest man had been swallowed whole by the world's strongest man, who was then also swallowed whole by a rhino who could walk on its hind legs. His armor could turn tachyons and he brandished a fusion pistol in each fist that could melt the meat right off of the bones of the pachysaurians themselves if he'd felt like conducting a less delicate operation. The relentless slow march of the spiral-horned giant reptiles was no impediment to his larceny, or he would have cooked and eaten the mindless brutes as he went. Time enough for feasting after the job was done, he told himself. The team he'd assembled was every bit as cruel and bloodthirsty as he was, and he was looking forward to routing the rest of the guards and possibly just violating the Sultan's daughter rather than abducting her.
Among Jagger's men was a Tolandrian with no name (that is to say, none that anyone else could pronounce), a shambling collection of flexible reeds, jointed spines, and chitinous shafts loosely clustered around something like the skeleton of a giant arachnid. Its exact motives were impossible to fathom as no one had ever managed to communicate with a Tolandrian beyond the most basic elements of language. This one seemed to delight in the pain and mutilation of smaller, less complicated lifeforms and had dozens of natural appendages for just that purpose.
The mentally conjoined, psychedelic “twins” Scream and Bleed were there as well, polished blue scalps gleaming as they performed their identical movements simultaneously in their protective silhouette-suits. Like the Tolandrian, they preferred slicing up their foes at close range and each twin had double-bladed serrated dirks in either hand.
Mosk, an old crony of Jagger's, had sacrificed so much of his body to the job over the years that his cybernetic parts outnumbered his original ones. His Relurian body with its radial symmetry had been a trick for the black market cyberneticists to work with, but they had managed to make him a veritable porcupine of beam weapons and energy broadcasters. Mosk stood back from the action with his long-time ally and employer, reducing targets to ash or liquifying their insides for a cheap thrill.
The others were mostly there as cannon-fodder for the core members of the team. For all Jagger's talk about a crack team for an elite mission, he was always happy to bring along someone expendable to absorb enemy fire. Jagger was silently wondering, in between sadistic gasps of joy, where the Earthling was. If he had reneged on the deal, he wouldn't see a gram of gold and Jagger would make a point of publicly using his corpse for a toilet. Marsh's fearsome reputation could have been a smokescreen, but there was no time for such trivialities in the heat of battle.
There were twenty pachysaurians in all. Romney Marsh watched from a distance as Jagger's stripped-down cargo freighter with its enlarged engines hovered over the front of the line. As the mammoth beasts walked slowly underneath it, Jagger and the core of his raiding party eviscerated the guards starting at the front of the line. They were counting on their own superior weapons and ferocity to carry the day for them. Romney Marsh knew better. Even as the first two pack animals were denuded of protection and looted, the red-robed riflemen further down the line were bracing themselves. It was foolishness to believe that they had no contingency plan in the event of a concerted attack by skilled combatants. This would be Jagger's downfall; no one could stay at the peak of the piracy trade for nearly two centuries without his confidence eventually overstepping his ability.
Romney had brought his long, narrow racing sloop parallel to the canyon and hidden it behind a rocky bluff. It didn't carry much cargo and it was rough to fly in a planetary atmosphere, but in open space there was nothing swifter. He had no more intention of trusting Jagger's getaway plan than trusting Jagger's loyalty to his own hired men; the pirate king had plenty of professional acquaintances, but few enough real friends. No one was likely to retaliate if Romney betrayed the scoundrel and disappeared into the cosmos. Romney checked his sword, dagger and pistols and gave his cloak a flick that flared it out wide behind him in preparation for gliding. Thugs like Jagger gave thieves a bad name, and Romney was prepared to see the Chardonyan's career end in the searing sands of Von Vanadia. If there was a profit to be made in it, so much the better.
Stepping off the edge of the bluff, Romney dove headfirst into the canyon. He let himself fall several metres before tugging the edges of his cloak to stiffen it. The miraculous fabric, nearly weightless and frictionless, obeyed his slightest touch and formed an arched airfoil over his back that pulled him out of his suicidal dive. His momentum had to carry him to the end of the caravan, the princess’s carriage aboard the last pack animal. He knifed through the air, buoyed by the thermals rising off the rocks below and began to worry that he may overshoot his target. He was moving so quickly that none of the guards, focused as they were on Jagger's crew, took note of his passage. Romney's fingers made a slight crease in the edge of his cloak, and he banked closer to the pachysaurians. The corner of the cloak sliced through the bejeweled chains of the harnesses with a series of metallic chimes. In a twofold maneuver, he had lost some of his excess inertia while sending dozens of guards and courtiers plummeting to the ground as their perches atop the animals came loose and fell.
Alighting atop the head of the princess’s mount, Romney Marsh surveyed the forces of her personal guard. They were leaner of face than the others, and more effectively armed. He doubted that Jagger would find these men the easy pickings he'd hoped for. The guards, already alerted to the attack, brought their weapons to bear but halted a moment at the sight of him. Romney glared at them through the eye-holes of a mask, little more than ragged tears in a burlap sack with a disconcerting grin picked out in twine stitches. It was a scarecrow's face, lifeless and surreal. The instant this bought him allowed him to step backwards into empty space and drop out of their line of fire and spread his cloak again to swoop under the pachysaurian's belly to come up on the other side.
“Avast, ye troglodytes!” Romney roared as he landed among them. The landing itself was devastating to the guards as the leading edges of his outspread cloak cut two men in half. Throwing the cloak back to keep it behind him, he drew a crystalline-bladed sword harder than granite and sharper than volcanic glass. One guard's pistol fired and caught Marsh in the abdomen with painful certainty, but the virtual particles of his armor bunched up and absorbed it. Fighting the stiffness of the armor's reaction to attack as well as the pain he could still feel from the blast, the cackling Scarecrow cleaved the muzzle from the weapon with his sword, taking some of the guard's fingers as well. Romney Marsh unlimbered a bulky fusion pistol and cut down three guards with one wide-angled blast. Dropping the overheated gun, he cut through two more pistols with his sword before spinning and sending his cloak slicing through several more men. He stepped carefully to avoid losing his footing in the blood that now spread across the pachysaurian's back as he faced the last one of the princess’s guards.
“Do you hear that?” Marsh asked, pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb while keeping his sword carefully poised to thrust towards the guard at the first sign of movement. The screams of dying men and the roar of weaponry resounded from the front of the caravan, but grew closer. “That is the sound of the worst thing you will ever see, and it's coming right for you. It will roll over you without a thought and do terrible things to your princess right on top of your mangled corpse. Stand aside and let me take her. I'll get her away from here, and I promise she'll come to no harm.”
“How can I believe you?” the guard demanded. “You only want me to dishonor myself and my family by running like a coward while you have your way with the Sultan's daughter! No man has ever touched her, and thus she shall be delivered to her future husband, unspoiled!”
“Well,” Romney Marsh said thoughtfully, “that's not exactly what I've heard, but it's irrelevant to the matter at hand. Throw down your weapon and jump over the side, or I'll kill you and take her anyway.”
“NEVER!” the guard bellowed, firing his pistol at the Scarecrow's masked visage. Romney knew the blast was coming, but didn't have time to react. He cringed as the particles of his armor formed a thin cushion in front of his face and the burst of plasma spread out across it. He felt the heat of the blast burning away his mask and singeing his skin. The heat and pressure gripped his skull until he thought he would go mad from the pain. It was over in an instant.
Romney snapped his cloak with his left hand to bat the guard's pistol aside and ran his thin crystal sabre through the man's chest. Still reeling from the damage the blast had inflicted, he looked around to get his bearings and realized that Jagger and his crew were only two or three places from the end of the caravan. At the small of his back, Romney Marsh was carrying a metal cylinder almost the size of a man's head. It had cost him a great deal and had been difficult to carry while gliding through the air and fighting, but he was glad to have it handy. He removed it from the carrying straps and opened the panel at one end. After adjusting a control inside, he closed it and held it overhead with both hands. Heaving it as hard as he could, he sent it flying over the top of the pack-beast ahead of him. It detonated in a flash of cold, white light. A tiny singularity opened, no bigger than a human skin cell, and only for a thousandth of a second. In that thousandth of a second, its gravitational pull was enough to stun Jagger and all his men, even if only briefly.
Clapping a small, silver disk to his own temple, Romney activated a neural accelerator to help snap him back to his senses. He twisted the remaining threads of his burned mask and the nano-fabric sprouted a new one across his face to hide his burns. He tapped a control on the inside of his wrist and spoke into a small mic that telescoped from his collar:
“”Ship, launch. Rendevous. Cargo net.”
As Romney heard the engines of his sloop emit a high-pitched whine that grew rapidly nearer, he threw open the entrance flap of the princess’s tent. He immediately threw his cloak in front of him, curling the cutting edge inwards so that the outer surface hardened into a broad shield. The princess’s nearly nude, pulchritudinous form struck this shield solidly and collapsed to the floor with a cacophonous jingle of the entire chandelier's worth of jewelry she was wearing. Romney had been warned that she was stubborn, willful, and difficult. Like the rest of the royal family, she was also genetically-engineered. Nearly seven feet tall, her skin shone as though she'd bathed in gold dust and two extra pair of arms hung from her shapely shoulders. Her voluptuousness was accented and enhanced by finely sculpted muscle over every inch of her body and even as he lowered his cloak, she was recovering from the impact.
“How...dare...you!!!” she screamed, flashing amber-colored eyes. “My father..!” She came up short as she saw Romney aiming a pistol at her.
“Your father was paying a great deal in a dowry to get rid of you. It remains to be seen what he'll pay in ransom to get you back but as I mean you no unnecessary harm, he should have no serious quarrel with me, your Highness. Kindly stay where you are.” The princess remained in place amid the silken cushions and bejeweled plates and goblets where she had landed, but she reclined luxuriously. She rolled her shoulders and then her hips, and stretched to show the muscle tone of her long legs. She thrust out her considerable chest.
“I assume you wish to ravish me, here in my bridal chamber, on the eve of my wedding?” she asked salaciously. “I knew someone like you would do this. Men like you are so predictable.” She licked her lips, then pursed them impatiently.
“Sorry to disappoint your Highness, but nothing could be further from my mind,” Romney replied. “In fact, we need to cut through the back of this tent and jump to my ship before the real ravishers arrive, and believe me when I say you won't invite them so readily.”
“You say I invite you? You!? You are a heartless..”
“Highness, there's a mad Chardonyan out there right now who's probably on his way back here to pummel you to death with his leathery, barbed member. So, if you think about the alternative, you'll cooperate in this kidnapping and I won't have to stun you first.” She opened her mouth to shout something else, realized what he had just said, and closed it again. She repeated this twice more when Marsh stepped past her and sliced through the back of the tent with his sword. He grabbed her by one of the glittering chains that held her bridal regalia together and dragged her to her feet, forcing her to follow him through the opening.
The long, narrow nose of the racing sloop was pointed right at them, framed by the forward-swept crescent wings. A pair of thin metal arms extended from the ship's underside with a net stretched between them. It wasn't really a cargo net, as the sloop wasn't intended to haul cargo, but Romney had had it equipped for instances like this when he had to enter the ship in flight while flying it by remote.
“I am not jumping into that!” the princess announced. Romney noticed how she seemed to think that emphasizing specific words of her proclamations made them carry more weight. He took hold of the decorative jeweled harness again, backed her up a few steps, and then ran forward with her towards the rear of the pachysaurian. At the last second, he stopped. He planted his hand behind her shoulder and shoved her onward, then brought his other hand across and swatted her across the backside with the flat of his blade. She squealed in pain and fear as she went cartwheeling uncontrollably towards the net. It caught her, though she hung awkwardly in it upside-down.
“MARSH!!!” Jagger roared, landing in front of the tent and leveling his pistols. “You don't know who you're screwing over, human! I will end you!!”
“Ship, fire,” Romney said in response. The racing sloop, also ill-equipped for combat, did carry a load of plasma flares for emergencies, such as signaling for help or illuminating a landing zone. Now it dumped several dozen of them at once in a blinding cascade that bounced across the pachysaurian's back and burned away what was left of the tent. The beast itself scarcely noticed, and Romney had wrapped himself in his cloak while closing his eyes. Jagger however, still unsteady from the singularity grenade, was blinded and became so badly disoriented that he was close to vomiting. He had insisted upon the rest of his crew staying aboard the freighter while he meted out justice to the Earthling himself, but now he found himself alone and reeling and barely able to keep his footing in the ashes and the blood.
Meanwhile, Romney Marsh had ran and leaped to the net himself and deftly climbed into his ship. From the cockpit he retracted the net, which placed the princess neatly within the slim cargo hold in the ship's underbelly. He began to climb out of the canyon, stopping only to eject the sloop's auxiliary fuel tanks from under the wings. They hadn't been necessary to the journey, and they were still nearly full, which caused all the more consternation when they fell onto Jagger's freighter and exploded. Confident that he was not pursued, Romney angled upwards out of Von Vanadia's atmosphere and transmitted a ransom demand to the Sultan before accelerating towards the wormhole at half lightspeed. The princess screamed and kicked inside the hold, but the sloop's acceleration buffers would be enough to keep her moderately comfortable. There was no way that Marsh was letting her into the cockpit.
Going as fast as he could through the chaos of the wormhole's subspace transition, Romney came out the other end and quickly changed course. He had a hideout already established for this stage of the operation, but he was not taking chances. If Jagger or anyone else came through the wormhole, they would find nothing but his fading contrails in space.