Chapter 19

The Cheese Man Cometh

Two Imperial Shock Troopers half-dragged the stumbling, dazed Mal Single to his cell, and shoved him through the narrow doorway. He sprawled onto the bare floor, and lay there, gasping for breath. After his ordeal—and even the memory of it sent a horrified shudder through his pain-racked frame—the cold metal was a welcome reprieve.

They had been split up—how long ago? Mal had no idea. It could have been hours, or days. His perception of time was horribly skewed. But they had been split up. Mal had caught a last glimpse of Libby's despairing face before the Troopers dragged him away. They had taken him to an interrogation room.

After a short wait, the Muff had entered. He had grinned that hideous parody of a friendly grin, and then ... done things that Mal preferred to forget.

"He never even asked me any questions," he muttered, his lips moving weakly against the smooth metal floor. "The sadistic prick!"

Time passed. Possibly he dozed.


Imperial Muff Aleeto Farquhar patted his swagger stick rhythmically into the palm of his hand. He was attempting to look stern, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the big dopey grin which kept breaking out on his face. He had not had this much fun since his days in the Imperial Intelligence Officer's Academy. Possibly not even then.

The smuggler had been a fine appetiser, but his girlfriend was definitely the main course.

He stretched out his swagger stick and touched it against her cheek. She glared at him over the gag which filled her mouth, but he saw the fear in her eyes, the trembling anticipation in the way she twisted her head away from his touch. He slid the tip of his stick down to her bare neck, and she shivered uncontrollably.

"You have been interrogated before, haven't you?" he asked her. "Who was it, I wonder?" He tilted his head to one side and studied her, as though awaiting an answer. She could not speak, of course, even if she wanted to do so; the gag made sure of that. Farquhar had never enjoyed having a perfectly good interrogation ruined by allowing the prisoner to beg and babble and promise to tell everything.

He preferred them to scream.

"I consider myself quite the connoisseur," he informed her conversationally. "I pride myself on being able to identify your previous interrogator simply by observing your responses."

"Uch ooo!" she grunted around the gag.

"All in good time," he told her with a wink. "But first, we'll work on your manners." There was a soft click. He touched his swagger stick to her cheek again, and this time she jerked her head away from the stinging buzz which flickered across her skin. He touched her exposed earlobe, and she thrashed urgently in her bonds. Her wrists and ankles were strapped securely to the interrogation table, and the localised artificial high-gravity field which gripped her torso ensured she wasn't going anywhere.

He had loosened her collar, but had not removed her clothes. Yet. Plenty of time for that later.

"Of course," he told her, "it may take me a few hours to tame that nasty tongue of yours."


Captain Pyotrovich stared through the observation window into the interrogation room. Watching the Muff work on the female was disturbingly unpleasant, and yet he found himself unable to tear his eyes away from what was happening.

Beside him stood Admiral Muzzel. The senior officer was frowning.

A harsh scream, muffled by the gag and by the thick plasteel of the window, echoed into the small room. Both officers winced.

"That's not right," said the Captain, unable to hold his tongue any longer.

"Captain?"

"Sir," said the Captain. "What he's doing to her. It's wrong."

"Explain yourself, Captain," said the Admiral, "and think very carefully before you do so."

The Captain finally turned away from the window to face his commanding officer. The Admiral's face was a carefully composed mask, giving away nothing. The Captain stared at him for a few seconds, then turned back to stare out the window. The woman was twisting frantically in her bonds, trying to escape the tip of the swagger stick which was being dragged lazily down her left side, across her jacket-clad ribs. Pyotrovich felt, somehow, that he owed it to her to keep watching, to bear witness to her ordeal.

"There are rules against his behaviour," he said at last. "Rules against the mistreatment of prisoners. Aren't there? Aren't we the good guys, despite what they say about the Stiff?" The last word barely escaped his throat as a whisper.

"Are you suggesting, Captain Pyotrovich," said the Admiral carefully, "that Muff Farquhar is in breach of Section Four, sub-section Delta of the Imperial Penal code? Specifically paragraphs seven, nine, and thirteen?"

The Captain blinked. He continued to stare through the window, but he was no longer focussed on what was happening in the other room. "I, uh, believe so, sir, yes."

"You are aware, of course, that in times of war or extreme civil unrest—such as this Rebellion—Section Four of the Penal code is inapplicable?"

"Yes," said the Captain, drawing the word out into a hiss. Why mention it, then? he wondered. "But..."

"But in times of war, of course, Section Twenty-three comes into effect?" the Admiral prompted.

"Does it? I mean yes, it does," said the Captain. He winced as the woman screamed again. He stopped trying to remember what Section Twenty-three stated, and looked once more into the interrogation room. The prisoner was still shuddering from the after-effects of whatever the Muff had just done. As the Captain watched, the Muff laughed—although that sound did not penetrate the thick plasteel of the observation window—and began to unfasten the buttons along the front of the woman's jacket. The Captain clenched his fingers into an angry fist.

"Captain?"

"Sorry, sir?"

"I asked, Captain, if you were suggesting that the Muff's actions are in contravention of Section Twenty-three, sub-sections Gamma and Delta of the..."

"Oh yes, sir," interrupted the Captain, struggling to keep his temper in check. "That is exactly what I am saying."

"Very well," said the Admiral. "Your official complaint is duly noted. Sign here, please."

The Captain turned. The Admiral was holding out a small clipboard. The Captain took it from him and studied the top sheet of flexisteel. It was a standard Form C-1, an official complaint form. It was already filled out: I, Captain Vladimir Ilyakin Pyotrovich, SN:304-72619-552, of the IPD Bermuda, do hereby register my disapproval of the actions of Imperial Muff Aleeto Bum Farquhar, SN:102-30721-666, during his interrogation of prisoners from the Rebel Coalition. Captain Pyotrovich blinked. He scanned briefly over the rest of the sheet; it listed various paragraphs of the Imperial Penal Code, and exactly how the Muff had contravened them. This explained why the Admiral had strongly recommended he observe the woman's interrogation.

He looked up. The Old Man's face was impassive, but he gave the barest of nods. Trust me, that nod seemed to say.

The Captain lifted the stylus, signed his name on the dotted line, and handed the clipboard back to the Admiral. The sudden sick feeling in his stomach abated somewhat as the Admiral countersigned the form.

"Leave it to me, Captain," said the Admiral. "I shall see what I can do." The Captain snapped smartly to attention, and saluted. The Admiral returned his salute, far more formally than was usual for such a senior officer. Then he turned on his heel and marched from the observation room. The door hissed closed behind him, leaving the Captain alone with his thoughts.

"Fucking politics," he muttered. He turned back to watch the continuing interrogation.


Finally, Mal forced his eyes open. He was still groggy, but he felt strong enough to attempt to sit up.

He winced. The interrogation devices had left no permanent injury—on the flesh, at least—but Mal's nerves were still cringing with the memory of what they had endured.

Suddenly there was a sound outside the heavy door of his cell. Mal frowned, but turned to stare at the door. If given the chance, he was prepared to kill the first Trooper to stick his head into the cell. He was vaguely aware that he was, at the moment, physically incapable of any such feat—but he was prepared, nonetheless.

The door to the cell hissed sideways into the wall, and the Trooper who had been leaning against it fell heavily into the room, armour clattering loudly. Mal eyed the body warily, and realised that somebody had already beaten him to it. This Trooper was dead, a curl of smoke rising from the blackened hole in the breastplate of the combat armour. The smell of scorched flesh filled the tiny cell.

Mal raised his eyes to the doorway.

An armoured, helmeted figure appeared there, silhouetted against the light from the hallway beyond. It was not a Trooper's armour; whatever it was, it had obviously seen a great deal of combat, being dented and scratched in numerous places.

"Come on, Mal," said the figure. Its voice was a harsh, electronic growl, distorted unrecognisably by the circuitry of the helmet. "We don't have much time."

"Who are you?" said Mal. "Is that you, Lurk?"

"Of course it's me," said the figure. "Come on, we don't have time; those Imperial slugs will be on top of us any second now."

Mal started to struggle to his feet. An arm slipped around his waist, and the figure—Lurk—helped him up. Leaning against the hard armour, Mal managed to hobble from the cell.

"Let's go," said Lurk.

"No, wait," said Mal, "we've got to get Libby and Shaggus."

"Way ahead of you," said Lurk. "I've got them. They're all in the ship. You were the last."

"Is she okay?" asked Mal. "She told me once that she couldn't stand to go through another Imperial interrogation."

"She's a little shaken," said Lurk, "but she'll be okay. Now stop talking and start walking; we can discuss everything once we're away from here."

Mal coughed, and nodded weakly.

Together they made slow progress out of the cell block. Mal looked around; they were still in Cloud City, and not on the Imperial ship. He did not know why this was, but he was grateful; if they had transferred him, a rescue might have been impossible.

An Imperial Shock Trooper suddenly appeared at the end of the corridor and raised his weapon. Lurk raised his blaster, and shot the Trooper twice in the chest. The Trooper fell, and lay writhing on the floor. As they drew level, Lurk shot him a third time, blasting through the weakened spot in the Trooper's breastplate. He gurgled and slumped back to the floor, dead.

Mal frowned.

"So where did this armour come from?" he asked weakly.

"Just something I picked up in my travels," said Lurk. "Keep quiet, we're nearly there."

They rounded a bend in the corridor, and a door hissed open. At the end of the walkway out to the landing pad, a strange ship awaited them. More than anything, its shape reminded Mal of a giant codpiece with fins.

"Where's the Sparrow?" said Mal. "What's this."

"I couldn't find your ship," said Lurk. "This is just..."

"Something you picked up in your travels?" asked Mal. He pushed himself away from the armoured figure and stood unsteadily on his weak legs. "You're not Lurk," he accused.

"Correct," said the figure. "I'm not. Although I was hoping the ruse would last all the way back to the ship. Out of idle curiosity, what gave me away?" The barrel of his gun drifted lazily upward until it was pointed at Mal's chest.

"That, for a start," said Mal, nodding wearily to the weapon in the armoured gauntlet. "Lurk couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with one of those things."

The armoured figure shrugged. "You win some, you lose some. Now, into the ship." He gestured minutely with the barrel of his gun.

"Who are you?" asked Mal.

"My name is not important," said the other person.

"Humour me," said Mal.

"Not that it matters," said the armoured figure, "but my name is Bob Feta. You might have heard of me referred to as 'The Cheese Man'—or you might not." The figure—Bob Feta—gestured again. "Now walk."

"But why?" said Mal. "I don't know you. What's the point of all this."

The armoured figure shrugged again. "You'll see," he said. "Now, walk onto the ship, or be carried. Either way, you're going with me."

"What about Libby?" asked Mal.

"Just you," said the man. "And no matter how much you try to stall, nobody is coming to your rescue. There's only Imperials, and they're as likely to kill you as save you. So let's go!"

Mal shook his head stubbornly. "I'm not leaving without..."

"Yes," said the man. There was a bright flash, and the full-strength stun bolt scrambled Mal's nervous system and dropped him to the deck like a sack of root vegetables. "You are."

He put his weapon away, and hoisted Mal's semi-conscious body over his shoulder. "Why," he grunted to himself, "does nobody ever choose the 'walk' option? I try to be patient, I really do." Treading carefully, he carried the smuggler up the ramp into his ship, and lowered him none too gently into the coffin-like shell of a stasis field generator. He switched the device on, and time ceased to pass for Mal Single.