Chapter 1 - Ansalon System

"David Gilmour," said the bored voice over the radio. "You have clearance for landing on Dock 19. Transmitting approach vectors now."

The world below was rich in industrial processes, waste and general services. The brown and red atmosphere shimmered with pollution, coloring the clouds and water as far as the eye could see. It was a highly industrialized world, colonized by humankind in an age that had outlived human memory. Whatever indigenous species once resided there were dead or exiled under the onslaught of humanity's drive toward progress. This made the planet painfully dependent on imports for little things like food and medicines. I could only wish I was carrying medicines.

"Okay, boss. Entering low orbit around Ansalon IV. We're number five in the landing queue." My computer threw what sounded like a cheerful, optimistic lilt into its voice modulation, no doubt hoping to break me out of the funk I was in. I glared at the blinking lights surrounding the blank video screen and remained silent. Food runs were going to bankrupt me, and fast. The computer knew it, and I knew it. Putting a pretty face on things wasn't going to make it better.

The image of a bald, middle-aged man appeared on the screen and gave me a half-hearted grin. "C'mon, boss," the computer chided. It always called me "boss" instead of "Hideo." I never figured out why. "It can't be that bad. Even if the smell is as bad as you say, it's better than hauling fertilizer to one of the farming worlds."

"I'm barely pulling enough credit to pay for the fuel to jump from one backwater planet to the next," I snarled, spinning around in my plush captain's chair to face away from the screen. My hands reflexively went together and began to work at the knuckles, occasionally rewarding me with sharp snaps and pops. "Don't tell me it can't be that bad. You've been complaining that you don't have enough processing power to run video while you compute our angle of approach. How am I going to pay for an upgrade to your systems if I can't even afford decent food for myself? Unlike you, I don't run on electrons and quantum association."

"Um..." the computer was silent for a moment, marshalling an argument. Investing in a computer AI with a personality was a mixed blessing. It helped on those long hauls when it was just you and the stars. But AI personalities tend to develop smart, know-it-all attitudes, mostly because a well-programmed AI does know it all. It might keep you sane when you can go months without seeing another sentient life form, but you might not enjoy it.

I didn't skimp on my on-board computer. Ophid-class traders don't leave a lot of room for crew; they're better for scouting and maneuvering than anything for else. I traded cargo space for performance, so I had one of the fastest running ships in sublight, and farthest jumping ships in hyperspace. It's a trade-off. I could outrun most pirates and every Tharl ship in existence, but it meant I couldn't carry the amount of bulk required to make a food run profitable.

I looked up from my thoughts to warning indicators from my local sensor array. A hasty trader in a Ferla-class ship had decided to imperil my food run. The computer's video disappeared as it calculated the threat and punched up data for my inspection. The approach vector the fool pilot was taking would clip my ship so that I'd hit the atmosphere at bad angle and burn to cinders. She had mass and firepower on me, so if I chose to defend my position in queue I might face at least twice as many missiles as I could carry on the David Gilmour. That didn't even go into her energy weapons. Confrontation was not my best option.

"Boss," my computer chimed in. "This doesn't look good. We're going to have to alter course to avoid collision."

I grunted and pulled up the data on the ship fourth in the queue. She was a Corba-class freighter, slow and ponderous with good cargo space. At the moment, she was twenty kilometers ahead of us looking sloppy in her approach. I couldn't drop into a lower orbit without bumping into her.

This just wasn't making out to be my week. It'd taken me far too long to get this smelly heap from the Bilton system to Ansalon, and the amount of traffic this world saw made landing a bureaucratic nightmare. My options were rapidly diminishing, so I made a decision and lit the sublight engines, bringing us into higher and out of the landing queue. Ansalon's star burned bright in the heavens, along with the tiny dots of her sisters in the background, impartial and uncaring as always. To think I'd dreamed of flying among them once...

"Course correction confirmed, no other ships are in intercept range," the computer reported. "Good call, boss."

I grunted again and flipped the switch for the radio. "Port Control, this is the Gilmour," I said, trying to keep as much anger out of my voice as I could. I doubt I succeeded very well. "Who the hell is the bastard who cut me out of queue?"

Static reigned supreme, though my imagination painted an image of crowds of people having a belly laugh at my predicament. The little guy got sand kicked in his face, and wanted someone to do something about it. After far too long, I got my answer. "David Gilmour, this is Port Control. I don't know, and I don't care. Settle it yourself; this isn't a Federation world. If you wish a new landing vector, let us know. Port Control out."

I leaned back in my chair and let loose with every curse I could think of in as many languages as I could muster. A new landing vector would keep me in space another dozen hours with increasingly perishable cargo. This was getting worse by the minute. The smell of Bilton vegetables weren't improving my mood, either. I needed to fix the stasis generators, and I didn't have the funds for that, either.

"That's xhova-du, not xhova-do boss," the computer chimed in helpfully, its bald video image smiling brightly at me.

"Plot an intercept course," I growled, swinging back to the console. "We're not giving up our place in the queue."

"Um, I really don't think she's gonna flinch if you play chicken with her."

"Do it," I ordered. A moment later the figures appeared on my console, and I took the yoke to swing the ship back toward the sickly face of the planet. I felt myself pushed back into my chair as the engines kicked in again, bringing us around to parallel the Ferla, then forward as we dumped speed into lower orbit. The trick was that I had to get in front of her and stay there. She could either risk damage when she crushed me, or back off before we got too far into the atmosphere to pull away again. Physics is a bitch. I glanced at the numbers on the screen and adjusted my course. Warning lights began to flash all over my board, but I ignored them.

"What do you think you're doing, dusthead?" someone screamed over the radio.

"Returning the favor," I replied and slipped neatly into place in front of the Ferla. I let out a long breath as I double-checked my position. I was satisfied with the fifty meters I'd given myself between my tail and her nose.

"I hope you made out your will!"

"Boss, she's not changing course and she's moving faster than we are. In thirty seconds she's gonna knock us for a loop!"

I dumped speed and watched my screens as the Ferla screamed up behind me. Cold sweat beaded on my brow while my mouth demanded moisture, but I forced myself to ignore it. My fingers twitched lightly, but I forced them to be still as I poised over the instrumentation. I was intensely aware of pressure in my bladder. I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing.

"BOSS!" I'd never heard a computer shout before.

I kicked in the engines, pushing forward and higher into orbit. The resulting flare from my engines licked the nose of the Ferla and the pilot flinched. As I watched, she shot up under full thrust, turning at a sharp angle and pushing into a much higher orbit. If I'd calculated my burn correctly, she wouldn't be able to twist that mass around in time to catch me before I was deep in Ansalon's atmosphere. The Ferla class is a powerful ship, but they don't do atmospheres. None of the traders do. No sane being attempts a dogfight in atmosphere.

"Final approach vector in five...four....three...two...mark!" the computer called. The Gilmour began to shake violently as air turbulence built up around the hull.

I kept my eye on the screen, watching for missile launch. There wasn't much I could do about an energy attack, but the deeper into the atmosphere I got, the less chance of the those weapons doing more than marking me. Missiles, on the other hand, could chase me down anywhere I went. I could outrun some of them in open space, but in atmosphere I was just a falling rock.

My heart began to slow down to a more reasonable pace as the seconds ticked away and the turbulence grew more intense. Two long minutes later, I pulled away from the screen and began preparing the ship for landing. The Ferla was busy settling into a normal approach for landing and wasn't trying to push anyone else out of line. She hadn't fired on me yet, and it looked like she wasn't going to. I'd gotten away with it this time. At the same time, I was starting to feel paranoid. Why me?

Getting the ship configured for landing took most of my energy for the next little while. A nasty weather pattern forced me to adjust my course several times, occasionally with the assistance of Port Control. After we passed through, I was able to let the autopilot take over so I could lean back. The moment I relaxed enough to take a deep breath, I noticed just how violently my hands were shaking. I was more than a little dizzy, and thought a nap would be just wonderful. The computer had other ideas.

"You realize, of course, we should be dead right now." The computer's artificial image stared at me with unblinking eyes.

I rolled my eyes before glaring back. "As smart as you may be, you're a lousy poker player. There are times when you have to run, and times when you have to bluff."

"I wouldn't call that a bluff," the computer observed. "I'd call that suicidal."

I opened my mouth to retort, then realized I had nothing to say and shut it again. I was alive not because of superior piloting but because the Ferla had chosen not to fire on me. Once again the computer was right, but that didn't mean I had to dignify it with an answer. I busied myself with making sure everything was secured for landing before performing a perfect touchdown. A lot of care and pride went into that landing. In spite of the implication, I take my piloting seriously.

Ansalon IV had a type G sun, a slightly eccentric orbit and three moons. It featured four primary continents and countless minor land masses, all of which were inhabited to the point of bursting. Habitation extended some many miles out on the water with extensive supports driven into ocean beds to prevent people from falling into the water during stormy weather. The planet was geologically quiet and didn't experience much in the way of groundquakes. In spite of its relatively close distance to the Ansalon star, the planet was cool enough for humans as its core and mantle had cooled significantly. Most of the violent weather patterns were spurred by artificial heat processes rather than solar or geothermal changes. It also had the side effect of toxic rain, which meant that any species not used to chemical soup in their rain needed to take cover during storms. The wear and tear was bad for ships and buildings, and a covered landing site cost extra.

I didn't have extra finances for a covered landing site, so I needed to keep my stay short. The Gilmour had crossed the galaxy three times and survived the worst that outer space could throw at it even before I'd bought her; I had no wish to lose her to the industrial hell that sentient species cooked up.

As I suited up for wandering around outside, the computer displayed its image by the hatch. "I've got three bids for the food and the contact information for a tech who might be able to fix the stasis generators for the cargo bay."

I winced and reached for my gloves. "Three bids? Lemme guess: they aren't very good."

"Well, the good news is you'll have enough to jump off this hellhole."

"I thought you were being optimistic. 'Hellhole' doesn't sound very optimistic to me."

"Have you seen the weather projections? It's a hellhole, boss. Don't talk to any strange demons."

I had seen the weather projections. 42 degrees Celsius didn't qualify the planet for a hellhole, but it was a trifle uncomfortable to humans who weren't used to it. The planet I'd grown up on averaged about 25 to 30. Furthermore, there was a storm front that would probably dump liters of the toxic waste they called rain on the port due in a few days. But rather than argue, I turned back to more immediate concerns.

I reached for a printout of the bids the computer collected. My best offer was at 263 credits per metric ton, so at 15 tons I'd make 3945 credits. The Guild's twenty percent would cut out 789 credits, leaving me with 3156 credits to spare. The computer was right; I'd be able to jump off the planet, and that was about it. I'd need to figure out a plan of attack after I'd filled out the paperwork at Port Control. I pocketed the slip and adjusted the fit on my jacket. "Open up."

The hatch opened with a hiss as the seals split, giving me my first taste of Ansalon's atmosphere. I revised my suggestion that the planet didn't qualify as a hellhole. I smelled rotten eggs, and I could swear that I tasted sulfur and brimstone in the air. I fought down my nausea and bravely set forth down the gangplank to get through this planet's red tape and get that food out of my hold.

The interior of the Port Control facility didn't smell much better than the exterior, but the air was slightly cooler. I was shuffled back and forth between various bureaucrats and customs agents, all of whom seemed to be convinced I was a smuggler who was somehow trying to sneak contraband under their noses. I gave them access codes to the cargo bay, but declined to let them into the main cabin. It wasn't my problem if they couldn't scan my ship. I had no more guarantees that they were solid, upright citizens than they had of me. Only in my case, I really didn't have anything for them to latch onto, while there were several items of minor value and significant personal interest in my cabin. Nothing illegal, but I didn't want them to accidentally migrate to someone's pockets.

One young customs officer took umbrage at my refusal. She planted herself in front of me and attempted to stare me down with startling green eyes. "If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to refuse us entry," she declared. "Doing so clearly shows you're attempting something illegal."

I threw my hands up in the air in disgust. "Look, I don't have time for a game of Catch-22. You don't trust me; that's fair enough. But I have no better reason to trust you or your people. I am not going to have a bunch of strangers rifling through my personal effects, maybe walking off with one or two. It's a violation of my rights and completely unnecessary."

She froze and glared at me with obvious challenge. "Are you calling the appointed officers and employees of the Ansalon worlds thieves?"

I shook my head. "No, I'm not calling anyone a thief. I'm saying I don't want to put my personal belongings at risk. There's no reason for it, and you can't make me do it."

"So now you're calling us incompetent!"

"Gods, woman, you're twisting everything around! The answer is no! It's perfectly within my rights to deny you entry to my own ship, whatever my reasons! If you don't believe me, look up your own damned treaty with the Federation and the GalTrad Guild! You can scan my ship until it glows in the dark, but you can't step foot on board!"

"Obviously, we'll have to detain you until this matter is cleared up." She snapped her fingers, bringing two guards to attention. "Your ship is impounded for inspection."

This was now completely out of hand, but I wasn't beaten yet. There was no way I was going to be punished for something I didn't do, and I had 15 metric tons of food slowly spoiling under faulty stasis fields. "Oh no you don't," I said. "I have the right to speak with your superior. Do you deny that?"

She opened her mouth, then paused and closed it again. She turned angrily on the guards who had stopped at my statement. "This Trader is exercising his right to appeal. Get the OOD. Until then, he doesn't leave this room, and no one goes in or out of his ship. Get to it!"

One guard saluted smartly and rushed out of the room. The other switched from an easy stance with his blast rifle to a more alert one. I sat down in a chair with a grunt and stared at the wall. Under other circumstances, I might have stared at the customs officer, but I wasn't in the mood. She had killed whatever desire I might have had.

It was a full hour later by the clock on the wall before the Officer on Duty arrived in the room. He was a tall, handsome fellow with military bearing and a commanding presence. For a customs outfit, he seemed out of place. "What seems to be the problem, Officer Pettis?"

"I want this man detained and his ship impounded on suspicion of smuggling contraband, sir," Pettis declared. "He has decided to appeal."

I glared at her from my seat, but waited to be brought into the conversation before I said anything. The rebuttal I would have chosen just then wouldn't have helped matters.

"That's a serious charge, Officer Pettis," the man said thoughtfully. "What are his credentials?"

"He claims to be Trader Hideo Takenoshita, operating freelance under the Galactic Traders' Guild of the Federation. His ship is registered to a man of that name."

At mention of the GalTrad Guild, the male officer's expression turned dark. Nobody messed with members of the Guild in good standing. Nobody wanted to be cut off from interstellar trade. "I see. And why do you suspect him of smuggling?"

"He's been hopping planets for the past five months doing pitifully meager trading on the public markets. His credit rating is almost nonexistent, and his ship is on the list for bids from repair techs. He refuses to allow entry into his main cabin for inspection."

My face flushed hotly as Pettis described my financial woes and long string of bad luck. I wanted to slap the sneer from her face, but a glance at the guards told me that I'd be fried on the spot if I so much as spit at her. I sat back in the chair and drummed my fingers angrily on the table. It seemed I couldn't get a break anywhere, and it was just getting worse.

At last, the male officer turned his attention to me. "Trader Takenoshita, I'm Lieutenant Brant." He extended his hand for a shake.

I gave him a hard, short jerk. "Delighted," I grumbled without any real conviction behind my words.

His eyebrow quirked, and he seemed more amused than anything else. "Trader, do you have any particular reason to deny us access to your main cabin?"

I favored him with a broad smile. "As a matter of fact, I have several reasons. One, I am not obligated to volunteer access to my personal space by treaty and law, except when military or law enforcement scans confirm suspicions of contraband. Two, I am protected by my rights as a GalTrad Guild member of good standing. And three, I've heard of planets where customs inspections resulted in a loss of personal property that just mysteriously wandered away. Your Officer Pettis doesn't appear to be sympathetic with any of those reasons or concerns, but I assure you that they're valid and I'll stand by them to the bitter end. If you want to be responsible for damages to my business and loss of trade, I'm sure the Guild will be happy to discuss the matter with you.

"So, Lieutenant Brant, I'll tell you what I told her: you've got access to my cargo bay for inspection. As for the rest of the ship, you can either be content with scanning or you can go away. Either way, you are not getting inside. Anything else is a violation of treaty with the Federation and contract with the Guild."

Brant looked startled now. I was still pretty green, but not enough to be cowed by bureaucrats. I don't think either of them expected that. He looked uncomfortable, but Pettis just looked incensed.

"I can't believe you're listening to him!" she yelled. "That's a load of legal nonsense. He hasn't got a leg to stand on and we all know it!"

Brant turned to look at her. I don't know what expression he had on his face, but I expect it wasn't very pleasant. "Officer Pettis, are you prepared to go to war with the Federation, or his Guild?"

She abruptly stood at attention, arms at her sides. Her eyes were still hostile. "Sir! With all due respect, I don't believe this man could possibly cause that sort of trouble for us, sir! I believe that a thorough inspection of his ship will vindicate us."

"That's your belief, Officer, but it's my call. I'm not willing to risk so much over so little. Release this man's ship and let him go immediately. That's an order."

My respect for Brant went up a notch. Bureaucrat or no, that was the first decent thing anyone had done for me in longer than I cared to think about. I relaxed a little bit.

"'So little?'" Pettis repeated with incredulity. "I can't believe you'd say such a thing! Do you know how many babies are -"

"That's enough, Pettis!" Brant snapped, shutting her off swiftly. "You have your orders, now carry them out."

"Sir! I wish to bring this before the Commander!"

I buried my face in my hands. I'd gone over her head, so she was going to turn it around on me. And if I understood the chain of command well enough, Brant's superior was probably the head of Port Control, this Commander. This was not worth 15 tons of slowly spoiling food, but what choice did I have?

Brant went stiff. "Are you sure about that, Pettis? If you're wrong, the Commander will scalp you and display it on his wall."

"I am not wrong about this. Sir," she hissed.

"All right, so be it. Mr. Thompson, have something brought to Trader Takenoshita, whatever he wants. Within reason. Mr. Dansworth, stay with the Trader and keep an eye on him. Pettis, let's go see the Old Man."

I watched the guards settle into a slightly more relaxed position as the officers left. Dansworth, I learned, preferred to be called Geoff, and while his counterpart Thompson declined, Geoff joined me for a light snack of local vegetables cooked in a spicy sauce and a bottle of something carbonated. We engaged in small talk as we ate, and I learned a little more about the local scene. Officer Pettis was almost as green as I was, and generally considered a pain in the ass. However, she apparently had a young daughter and was usually excused for her zealous behavior. Geoff himself was a father, the mother having run off to some exotic world leaving him to care for a very young son and daughter. He was telling me about a story of his son painting the girl pink to emphasize her femininity when he was interrupted by the door opening. A short, gray-haired man with dark skin stepped through. Geoff immediately jumped to his feet and stood at attention.

"I - I'm sorry, sir! I was just -"

The man whom I assumed was the Commander waved his hand and shook his head. "At ease, soldier. I'm just here to talk with Trader Takenoshita."

Geoff snatched up his rifle and stood at a respectful distance, swallowing hard as he forced down a half-chewed root I hadn't caught the name of. I threw him a sympathetic glance before turning my attention to the Commander. I stood respectfully for him as I hadn't with Brant, and kept my eyes on him.

He waited a moment, his eyes wandering over me as if to size me up. Then he extended his hand. "Trader Takenoshita, I'm Commander Obora. I run this outfit, such as it is." Somewhat self-consciously, I stopped cracking my knuckles and dried my palm on my trousers before reaching out.

"Hideo Takenoshita, sir," I replied, giving his hand somewhat more of a shake than I had his lieutenant.

"Mr. Brant informs me that there's somewhat of a concern over the contents of your ship," Obora said genially as he sat where Geoff had vacated. He casually reached over the table and snagged something purple to munch on. "You refuse to volunteer access to the main cabin of your ship?"

I sat down and picked up my glass to wet my throat before responding. "That's correct, sir. I've provided access to my cargo space, but I retain my right to privacy for the main cabin."

The old man chewed thoughtfully for a moment before regarding me with a neutral expression. "That's a rather extreme stance to take, Trader. Some might consider it grounds for suspicion of smuggling. What do you say to that?"

I reached for the red folder on the table containing my Guild credentials and my papers confirming my citizenship within the Galactic Federation. Opening it for him and tossing out the various ID chips, I answer, "I say that I'm within my rights to do so, and that violating my rights would force me to place a call to the Federation embassy here on Ansalon IV."

Obora twisted the papers around to get a better look, and scanned them as his other hand reached for my plate again. "Hmm...these look to be in order. And you're right about the treaty and contract agreements for both these organizations. We can't force you to open up your ship without further proof. But this planet has seen increases in narcotics smuggling over the past few years, and we're negotiating for broader powers to screen out contraband. I would consider it, well, call it an act of good faith on your part if you'd allow us to inspect the main cabin. How about that?"

I put down my glass and looked him in the eye. "Sir, with all due respect, I'd say you'd have to take it up with my Guild. I appreciate your concerns, but my rights are spelled out very clearly. I have nothing to hide, but I have some personal effects that I would prefer not to leave my ship."

Obora smiled and nodded as he picked up my papers and handed them back to me. "That's a reasonable concern, Trader Takenoshita. To tell you the honest truth, Pettis sometimes has a problem with the real world. She's an honorable officer, but she needs a little more time to learn the way of things. I tell you what: how about a compromise? You allow us to inspect your ship under your personal supervision. No one touches anything without you there to keep an eye on things. And no one leaves the area until you've taken inventory of your personal effects and confirmed that everything is where you left it. What do you say, is it a deal?"

I gave this some serious thought. Yes, he had a point. Several of them, in fact. But I was operating under a deadline. There was a storm front headed this way, and I didn't know how long haggling over my cargo was going to take. Time was not on my side.

"Sir, there's a small problem with this. My ship is looking at bids for repairs because my stasis generators are faulty, and I've got 15 tons of food sitting there and going bad. If I don't get unloaded soon, no one's going to buy it and I'm sunk. Your Officer Pettis has already confirmed I've had a streak of bad luck over the past few months so I can't soak the loss. I can't take the time to baby-sit your inspectors. You've got access to my cargo holds; why can't you just scan the crew quarters and be done with it?"

Obora looked a little uncomfortable at my suggestion. He sat back and stared at his feet for a moment, perhaps hoping that they would give him some sort of inspiration. "Um...because we can't."

"I'm sorry?"

"I know what you mean about falling on hard times. I'm about to tell you something, and I trust you to hold it in the strictest of confidence. Understood?" At my nod, he continued. "We bought our scanners from the Federation eighty years ago, and our techs don't know how to repair them. We're down to two scanners in working condition for literally hundreds of ships, and we simply can't handle the workload. Not in the time available to us. So we have to use more old-fashioned methods, you see."

He gave me a wan smile, as if to apologize. It emphasized the wrinkles in his face that must have been as much from stress as age. "We can't afford the prices the Federation is charging for that kind of technology. Our profits have stayed the same while prices have increased. The smugglers have improved their methods, but the technology to keep up with them now costs more than we can afford."

I shook my head. "This is incredible. Look, I'm very sorry for your predicament and I really wish I could indulge you, but I can't. Every moment I'm delayed increases my chances of going bust. You see? Unless you want to buy my cargo at Galactic market price, or compensate my loss under Guild rules, there's nothing I can do for you. I've got to stand by my rights to protect myself, because I'm just as desperate as you are."

Galactic market price was presently 734 credits per metric ton of standard food, and a loss due to bureaucratic interference under Guild rules entitled me to compensation of three times market value. From the bids I'd been offered and the Commander's own story, I could guess that neither option was viable.

Obora nodded again and stood. "Then you're free to go, Trader Takenoshita. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience. If you wish to register a formal complaint against Officer Pettis -"

"No," I said quickly, standing up with him. "That won't be necessary. I understand she has a job to do. Right now I need to get to mine."

"Thank you, Takenoshita. That's very generous of you, considering your circumstances."

"Don't mention it, Commander."

Obora turned to Geoff. "Mr. Dansworth, please escort Trader Takenoshita to retrieve his weapon and make sure he has transport to wherever he needs to go."

Geoff saluted smartly. "Yes sir!"

Obora shook hands with me before he left. "Good trading, son." He left the room and turned down a corridor. I felt the tension drain from me as his footsteps diminished.

"Gods," I sighed. "I thought this would never be over."

"C'mon," Geoff invited, beckoning me to the door. "We'll get your blaster back to you. My shift is over in a couple of hours if you want to meet for a drink later. I can introduce you to the kids."

"I hope I've got the time," I replied as I followed him out.

I knew I was going to be late as soon as my transport entered what passed for the city's traffic. And yet, the symmetry was comforting. Gridlock above, as below. Ansalon IV couldn't maintain order at any altitude. As I crept along the city streets inside the rather smelly public transport Geoff had provided for me, I went over my plan of attack for haggling with the merchants I was to meet.

First would be Merchant Quaal, the middle bidder on my list and a native of Timmorak III. I'd never been there, but I understood that it was impossible to see the ground because the entire world was covered in rain forest. Rumor had it that a thousand years ago the planet began to enter an ice age, threatening the native life. When they couldn't come up with a solution within their technological grasp, the birdlike creatures that dominated the planet made a request to the Federation. They wanted solar satellites to increase the amount of light and heat being projected to the surface of their world. The Federation made a study and recommended a slight revision, that the satellites be positioned so that only the sun side of the planet receive the boost. Lighting up the night sky would likely threaten the ecology of the planet. The Timmorakians (their own word for their species is unpronounceable by the human tongue) thanked the Federation for their recommendation and repeated their request. The Federation shrugged and sold them the satellites. A decade later the planet was overrun by a fungus that thrived on sunlight. Apparently, the Timmorakians decided to live with it. Nowadays they travel the galaxy as shrewd merchants and traders. I didn't expect to get far with Quaal, so I made him my first visit. It was likely that Quaal was already aware of the bids of his competitors, and had placed his bid squarely in the middle.

Watching traffic crawl reminded me of Commander Obora's statement about his world's state of affairs. The vehicles were mostly older and fairly run-down, far behind in maintenance cycles. I supposed the ghastly speed of city traffic could be attributed as much to mechanical failure as pilot error. I came across a few intersections where the direction lights were down, and traffic was being organized by dint of traffic control officials using archaic hand signals. Apparently, the autopilot in my transport knew how to recognize them, because once our turn came we passed through without a hitch.

Something about the scene struck me as odd, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I contemplated discussing it with the computer once I got back to the David Gilmour, but decided to delay that until we were in deep space without anything else to discuss. Perhaps it was just the months of close confinement, but the computer's personality was beginning to grate on my nerves.

By the time I reached Merchant Quaal's office outside the city, the sun was setting over the horizon, lighting up the evening sky with a dazzling display of reds, golds and purples. The wind had died down, leaving a calm, peaceful scene that seemed almost shocking after the noise and energy of the city. I had to pause to admire it for a moment; I know Traders who disdain anything involving atmosphere, living instead for the cold, stark beauty of deep space. I see their point, but I can't bring myself to ignore the blazing spectacle in front of me. You'll never see that in a nebula.

My reverie was broken by a noise behind me like the fluttering of wings. When I turned around a tall brown bird-like creature stood in the doorway of the office, head bobbing frantically and wings beating shallowly. The motion kicked up a small wind, and I could smell whatever passes for cologne for a Timmorakian. Quaal regarded me with head cocked to the side. "Are you finished with your meditations?"

I had to smile at that. I'd never considered admiring a pretty sunset to be meditation, but I suppose the description was apt enough. "Quite finished, thank you. You must be Mr. Quaal, and I'm Trader Takenoshita. I apologize for being late for our appointment. I failed to consider local traffic delays."

Quaal hopped up and down, moving slightly back into the building. "You may call me Ms. Quaal, Trader Takenoshita. I factored that in when I agreed to this appointment. Let us continue this discussion indoors."

Ms. Quaal? I couldn't help looking, but I couldn't determine any clues that gave away her gender. I suppose Timmorakians had an easier time of it. I'd never understood birds anyway. Rather than comment, I followed her inside the building and stood in front of her desk until she seated herself. Or her physiological equivalent, anyway. The office itself was a virtual storm of paper printouts and display screens tracking a variety of data I didn't even want to begin to contemplate. It appeared that Ms. Quaal was talented at multi-tasking, perhaps a racial trademark.

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence as Ms. Quaal sorted through a few papers apparently at random, and occasionally cocked her head to gaze at me with a single, beady eye. I decided that she was waiting for me to begin negotiations, so I cleared my throat to let her know I was ready to begin. She immediately stopped fussing and stared straight at me.

"Um...Ms. Quaal, I'm sure you're aware that your bid of 227 credits per ton of my cargo is the middle bid that I've received. Now this is substantially less than the market value of the goods, but I'm given to understand that Ansalon IV has a depressed economy." Throughout my speech, Ms. Quaal didn't move or blink. I couldn't be sure she was even awake. It was highly unnerving, and it made me talk a little too much. "Well, the point is that I still need to bring the bid up, and I'd consider half market value to be fair considering the circumstances. I have 15 tons of prime Bilton vegetables which I propose to sell to you at 367 credits per ton."

Having never met a Timmorakian before, I had no chance to pursue a business relationship with one. I had no idea how they think or operate. So I suppose I can be excused for the way I jumped when Ms. Quaal practically exploded at me. My only warning was the way her feathers ruffled and puffed out like someone had just attached a hydraulic pump to her, then she launched into a tirade that called into question my intelligence, ethics, dietary and hygiene habits, parentage and life expectancy. At the first shriek of her voice, I practically fell out of my chair trying to get away, so she came around from behind her desk to follow me as she threw epithets in my face.

Panicked, I very nearly threw a punch in her beak. Fortunately, I was able to fumble for the door and race for my transport. Quaal didn't follow me outdoors, but instead continued her lengthy string of invectives from the safety of her office. My last image of her was the way her beak clacked as she spoke and the way her puffed up feathers rustled in the evening air, brown plumage backlit as she stood in the doorway.

Okay, so the second bidder wasn't going to cooperate. I decided to take a break before I went after the third bidder.

"What? What did I do? What karma do I have to pay off?" I demanded of the air.

"Your criminal record is clean, but I couldn't say about any past lives you might have screwed up," the computer informed me dryly. "If it's karma, it's not on any record I can find."

"Who asked you?" I returned, flopping down in my seat. I'd been on the planet for two days and encountered nothing but trouble and setbacks. My visit to the third-ranked bidder was no more successful than to my second, though for different reasons. That fellow had calmly pointed out that his bid was fair market value when adjusting for local economic rates. That being the case, he refused to budge. I discovered that the first-ranked bidder (whose offer I was prepared to accept without a fight; I was that depressed) had gone out of business the day before; had I sold to him, his credit would have been worthless. I could only shudder to think of what it would do to me to have to go before the courts again to claim my money. I still hadn't heard from the results of the first case, which began five months ago. It was enough to make an honest Trader turn pirate.

"What?" the computer asked, apparently noting the change in expression on my face.

"Do you remember Ron Bangel and the others I met while I was working through my apprenticeship in the Guild?" I replied, thinking back to better times.

Ron, Alec and John were a loosely associated band of rogues I greatly admired. Ron was mysterious and dangerous, claiming to be a freelancer without going into detail about what he actually did. John was himself a highly successful Trader, and I admit to idolizing him. Alec was a pure mercenary for hire, and didn't give a damn for anyone but himself and maintaining his rather expensive fighter. They had let me into their little coterie because I was polite, respectful and hideously bad at cards. I was surprised when they invited me to fly with them, and sorry I had to decline due to obligations to the Guild. I was even more surprised when later, after a few successful runs of my own, I ran into John in Tharl space where neither of us should have been.

At the time, John was selling Tharl merchandise. He admitted that Ron pirated Tharl ships and sometimes called in him or Alec for support. While he made a respectable living in honest trading, John wasn't above making an easy credit or two. I promised to keep my mouth shut and was even further surprised when they again asked me to join them, this time in their piracy.

After some long thought, I declined. Piracy is a huge gamble, and you never know when a seemingly innocent trader ship is actually a Navy patrol ship in disguise. They did that sort of subterfuge in Rekan and had impressive kill records. I also had to admit that the thought of turning pirate didn't sit well with me. I had worked too hard and too long to get where I was; turning criminal would seem a violation of all that.

I was now discovering that it was less and less of a violation of my ethics as my situation turned more and more desperate. I found myself cracking my knuckles again, and forced myself to stop. A moment later I was at it again out of nervousness.

"That riff-raff?" the computer seemed to snort. It claimed not to have the power for decent resolution, but it managed to convey that emotion remarkably well. "Did you know that I chatted with Orestes' ship, the Wasp?"

"Alec's fighter? I didn't know he spared any power for an AI. What did it say?"

"What it did say wasn't very nice. It threatened to fire forward particle beams up my exhaust if I didn't shut up."

I laughed out loud for the first time I could remember in a long time. The mental image of Alec's Krait-class fighter firing weapons up my computer's six appealed to my dark mood. "You never told me that."

"It was hardly worth repeating. And certainly not as amusing as you find it to be."

This was a first. The AI was actually offended enough to get formal with me, which it never had before. I tried to stop laughing, but couldn't help myself. "I'm sorry, I am. But the thought of...oh gods, I bet Alec would have loved to hear that one!"

"Hmph." The computer shut off its video display, apparently deciding that I wasn't worth wasting the energy on.

A few moments later, I was able to regain control. "I really do apologize, but I needed that badly. Look, we need to find some way for me to unload this cargo and get us off planet. I'm open to suggestions."

The video image flickered back to life. "Have you considered community work?"

"I'm serious, here."

"Then I suggest you get serious about your goals. While attempting a food run was, in your words, an act of desperation, it seems clear to me that your desperation is hampering your ability to think."

The computer seemed to have a knack for pushing my buttons. My hackles rose as the impact of the insult hit me. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you find a reasonable buyer for your cargo. Then what? What does this world produce that you can sell somewhere else at a profit? This is an industrial colony with a depressed economy. Their output is low and of inferior quality. They have an abundance of raw materials and ore, but that's almost as bad as food runs. What will you buy here, and where will you sell it? It seems to me that you're on a downward spiral that will only end in bankruptcy."

The world seemed to dim with each point the computer brought up. Ansalon really didn't have anything worth selling. It was part of the reason they had an oppressed economy. I had some vague notion of picking up some machinery and selling it to a new colony or agricultural world where they didn't have the resources to make it themselves. But the computer was right; no one was buying what Ansalon was selling. I'd worked myself into a corner, and I couldn't see a way out.

"Okay, I see your point. What do you suggest?"

"You're the trader, Boss. My initial programming was for deep space exploration, not business markets. The best I can suggest is liquidate what you can for raw capital and jump to a planet that has something worth selling."

"But we already know the cargo I have to sell is barely going to pay for the cost of fueling the hyper engines."

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," the computer replied. "There are presently five high yield missiles on board, as well as two forward defensive lasers."

"SELL my armament?" I exclaimed, sitting upright. "Are you insane? What will I do for defense?"

"I didn't say it would be easy. But if you can't get any decent business, they're gonna strip me down for spare parts to pay off your debts. Hell, when that Ferla cut us off in orbit you didn't use your weapons. You flew rings around the bastard. Unless you get damned lucky, those missiles are useless to you."

I paused, stunned by the computer's praise of my piloting and by the audacity of the suggestion. Sell the warheads? Strip the Gilmour defenseless? "I suppose you're going to tell me that I can upgrade later on, once I've made some decent money. Maybe install an ion cannon to replace the lasers?"

"I think the Navy would take issue with that. But yes, you can buy new weapons later or trade up." At the computer's mention of trading up, my mind was filled with visions of the Pyton-class, or stars help me, a Ferla. The computer broke me out of my reverie. "But Boss, you can't think about that right now. You've got to get us off this hell planet. And that means finding a source of income above and beyond the cargo you landed with."

The thought of Ron and the others flashed through my mind. I put it aside immediately. My ship wasn't going to be any good as a pirate ship. The Gilmour was fast, but very weak. I might terrorize a Corba, but that was about it. I didn't have a prize crew and my cargo holds were miniscule compared to what most other ships carried. Plus, there weren't that many Ophid-class ships like mine flying through the Galaxy. I'd have to invest in a very costly cloaking device or trade for something more common and less easily identified.

I hated to admit it, the computer was right. I never wanted to get into a situation where I'd need my weapons, and if I did, I was already space dust. Selling them was the best chance I had, though the thought of flying about unprotected made me nervous as hell. If a pirate decided to attack, I would have to live up to the praise the computer had given me. It was one thing to shove a bully out of my place in the landing queue, it was another thing entirely to try to dodge incoming missile and energy attacks.


"Okay, you win. Let's talk to the Port Authority and see if they can offer a decent price. If that doesn't work, I'll see if I can find what passes for a black market on this rock."

"Glad to see you haven't lost everything, Boss."

"Shut up."

Geoff shook his head slowly as he looked over his screen. "I'm sorry, Hideo. None of the ships in port are listed to buy weapons. This isn't exactly a major armament depot, you know." He sat back in his chair and looked around the busy office before regarding me with his brown, inquisitive eyes. He kept his voice low to prevent unwanted questions, particularly since my encounter with Pettis. "It isn't exactly a common item to be selling. Just what is your cargo again?"

My shoulders slumped slightly at the news. I hadn't exactly expected the Port Authority to have anything for me, but my faith in the Universe would have been vastly improved if they had. "Bilton vegetables," I mumbled. He hadn't heard me, so I repeated it a little louder, but not much. I closed my eyes for a moment, wishing the burning would go away. I scrubbed my face with a hand before I opened my eyes again. "The bids I'm offered are outright theft, and I don't have the fuel to reach another system that isn't quite so...depressed. Yes, it's true. I'm desperate. I've got to gather more credits than what my cargo will bring here, and I just don't have anything else to sell."

Geoff regarded me sympathetically. "I wish I could help you. You're a good guy, no matter what Pettis believes about you. And that's a really nice ship you've got. I understand trying anything to keep her."

I nodded, deep in thought even as my fingers started working the knuckles again. "The Gilmour has been my home for a long time. She's not exactly what I thought I'd be flying when I was saving my money, but she's a good ship."

Geoff tapped quickly at his keyboard before looking back up to me. "How long have you had her?"

"Two years. Worked my butt off to buy her and get her spaceworthy again. Salvaged the computer off an old deep space exploration ship rather than buy a new model. I paid off the loans to the bank before I left, but I still owe my father for his contribution." A twinge went through me as I thought of my father. I hadn't spoken with my family for some time, and I felt like I was neglecting them. When I first left home, I would call them every month to tell them how my apprenticeship in the Guild was going. Then the calls became less frequent with less content. Once I struck out on my own, they practically stopped. I hadn't spoken to them in almost a year now. The look on my father's face the last time I saw it was not approving.

"The David Gilmour out of the Rekan system," Geoff read off his screen. "Formerly the Pathfinder, an advance scout ship with the Fourth Fleet two hundred years ago. Decommissioned by the Navy in 3482, sold to Kildare Mining Company who went bankrupt shortly after and sold off the ship to pay their debts. The ship sat in Rekan's surplus yards for the next couple of decades before you bought her." He paused as another officer handed him a report, then looked back at me. "Why 'David Gilmour?' I've never heard that name before."

I shrugged and grinned. "He was a famous poet way back in history, supposedly before humans spread through the galaxy. He was linked with some other guy, I think the name was Peter Floyd. I've read some of his work; it's very good. I don't know how much of it still exists."

"Part of the pre-space myth? Gimme a break." Geoff snorted derisively. "What did he write? Maybe I've heard of it?"

"Well, he wrote a series of poems called 'the Wall.' Then there's one called 'Money' that I find appropriate for today, and another called 'Learning to Fly.' There's more, but those are some of the most famous ones."

Geoff shrugged again and tapped a key on his keyboard. "Nope, never heard of 'em. If you've got a copy, I'd like to read 'em."

"Sure, call me after you get out of work. I'll take you up on that drink."

He favored me with a grin. "I'm off work now, actually. I pulled an early shift this morning, so I've got my afternoon free. The kids don't finish school for a couple of hours, so I've got some time to kill."

"Well, Geoff, I don't mean to be rude, but I've got some selling to do and not a lot of time to do it in. You understand?" I gave him a pitiful look, praying he wouldn't hold me back from finding some of the less reputable elements of the planet. It was all I needed to have Pettis' suspicions dogging my steps.

Geoff shook his head and logged off his terminal before standing. "Nah, I understand. But I really think you should come have a drink with me first. Trust me, Hideo. You'll be glad you did."

I stared at him, not sure what he was getting at, and not sure if I wanted to find out in a room full of cops. "I really want to go with you, huh?"

"Yeah, you really do." His grin got a little wider. I was feeling the hairs stand up on my arms. Why did I smell a setup?

" that case, how can I say no? Where shall I meet you?"

"Go dig up that poetry for me, and I'll met you as soon as I change into my civvies." Geoff picked up his helmet and tucked it under his arm before escorting me out.

With every step as I approached my ship, I expected police surveillance craft, patrol cars, tanks, someone to come along and arrest me for conspiracy. Conspiracy for what, I had yet to find out, but paranoia is not so easily swayed by trivialities.

Once back on the Gilmour, I seriously contemplated lifting off and running for cover. I found myself going over the preflight checklist three times before I forced myself to leave the cockpit and go to my room to get what Geoff had asked for. Two things stopped me from running like a rabbit: my desire to get those vegetables off my ship (I could swear I was starting to taste them in my food) and the fact that I wouldn't get very far. Instead, I downloaded copies of the original David Gilmour's work onto a handheld display unit and advised the computer to keep a sharp eye on security.

"What's up?" the computer wanted to know.

"I just got an offer from Dansworth that I'm not supposed to refuse."

"Um...what offer, Boss?"

"That's what I'm about to find out," I replied, and opened the hatch. "Keep your eyes peeled. I don't like this."

"That makes two of us."

Geoff was waiting a respectable distance from the ship and waved cheerfully as I approached. He grinned broadly as he saw what was in my hand. "You found 'em, eh?"

"32 known poems of David Gilmour, reputedly of mythical pre-space era. My favorite is 'Learning to Fly.' Personal significance, you see." I handed him the display unit and waited while he browsed the index. " are we headed?"

Geoff looked up from the display and winked. "It's a little bar I know just outside the city. Quiet, cozy little place with the best drinks on the planet. I guarantee. I'm also buying." I must have forgotten to wear my poker face, because he added, "Relax, Hideo. No one's going to harm you or arrest you or anything. Just come with me and enjoy yourself, okay? I swear it'll be worth it."

"Let's just say I'm a little uncomfortable. This is kind of...abrupt."

"Look, any time you want to pack up and go, you do. I'll pay for the cab. You're not bound to anything, and you don't have to do anything you don't want to. I know you haven't known me very long, but you trusted me with the query about buyers for your warheads, right? So trust me in this."

His expression was earnest and appeared to be sincere. While part of me wanted to run screaming the other part was hoping he was offering me the break I needed. A third, practical side of me said that I still had my blaster and fast feet. If it were a trap at least I wouldn't be walking into it blind. Not completely blind, anyway. I nodded quickly, committing to my decision before I could change my mind. "Okay, let's go."

I sipped my drink carefully as I glanced nervously about the bar. I wished I could have taken more than a sip at a time; it was a good Bolian Red ale, exotic and expensive. In one of my favorite fantasies, I sit in the Mermaid Nebula, the bar that John Akers, Ron Bangel and Alec Orestes had introduced me to. I'm flirting with the pretty waitress the guys are always teasing me about and buying everyone bottles of Bolian Red to demonstrate how successful I've become.

In this case, it was Geoff buying the drinks and flirting with the waitress and the bar was called the Miner's Hole. I was busy trying to look around without appearing to look around, trying to spot the law enforcement agents ready to spring on me once Geoff set me up. To my dismay, everyone looked like they belonged and no one was paying any attention to me. I would have felt better if I'd spotted someone watching me surreptitiously. Meanwhile, Geoff was regaling me with raunchy stories of female traders who offered to submit to strip searches. It was hard to pay attention and laugh in the right places.

Geoff, for his part, seemed not to mind that I was not an active participant; he made up for both of us by chatting amicably to me in between long draughts of his expensive drinks and flirting with our waitress. The waitress wasn't nearly as pretty as the one in the Mermaid Nebula, but had a nice smile when she chose to display it. Overall, I felt like a fish out of water and I was beginning to seriously question whether or not I was being paranoid and what the hell I was doing there in the first place. Not that it wasn't a nice bar. It had a comfortable atmosphere with tables spaced far enough apart to give customers a sense of privacy. The décor was decent, for a backwater planet devoted to mining and industry. The music was grating if I paid attention to it, but they kept the volume low enough that it served as background noise rather than a distraction.

Suddenly, I was aware that Geoff was looking at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. I had completely missed the question. "Um...I'm sorry, my head was off in a nebula."

"Yeah, I know. It's okay. It's always tough the first time."

I desperately wanted him to stop saying things like that. After a moment's reflection, I elected to not respond. When he decided the uncomfortable silence had gone long enough, he repeated his question. "Have you ever been to the Granges asteroid belt?"

Granges. I'd never been there, but I'd heard stories of some of the things found in there. Rumor had it there was a fortress built of raw asteroids hollowed out and linked together where some of the most powerful crimelords gathered to trade illegal goods and find new ways to circumvent the Galactic Police.

I'd never been there, but I'd certainly heard enough about it to become fully alert. "What about it?"

It was said that if you had the money and the balls, you could go to Granges and find any vice you cared to name. If they didn't have it, they'd get it for you. If it hadn't been done before, they'd invent a way to do it for you. It all depended on how much money you had, and how good you were at making sure your back was covered.

Geoff grinned at my evasion. "It's a hell of a place. Does even more trade than Kantor. Anything you wanna find, legal or illegal, you can get it there. All you need is enough money and the right contacts. They say that if it hasn't been thought of yet, they'll invent it for you if you ask for it. It's a billionaire's paradise." He waved his glass about emphatically, then paused to drain it before he spilled his drink.

I nodded and gestured to him. "Go on."

He set down his glass and leaned on close to me, his voice pitched for my ears. "Word is that they've come up with something new; some new molecule the Federation doesn't know about yet. I don't know if it's artificial or if they found it on a new planet. But it's hot stuff and they're looking for a way to get it into the Jona system where they've got someone who can research it and find a market for it. Totally radical stuff. They're offering top dollar for a trader willing to blaze new territory."

I sat back, blinking in surprise. This was the most direct statement Geoff had made all day, and it was at the same time fascinating and frightening. A new molecule? I'd lay good odds it was a drug of some sort that was so new it hadn't been declared illegal yet. Nothing else would require smuggling, which is what Geoff was indirectly proposing. But the Federation didn't have very clear laws on new drugs, which meant that even if I was found out, I was probably safe. Unless the drug was too similar to something they already knew to look for, I could claim the cargo was destined for a medical research facility. If it was too similar, I'd have to find a way to smuggle it so it wouldn't be noticed. There were ways to do this, but it meant that as fascinating as this prospect was turning out, there was no guarantee it was safe.

But something else Geoff had said caught my attention: the part about blazing new territory. When I was first starting out on my own, I had the good fortune to discover a long-lost outpost in the Ghalag system. While it wasn't necessarily new territory, it was a new market the Trading Guild hadn't exploited and had frankly forgotten for over a century. Aside from the profit I made selling this backward outpost the latest machinery and parts (blessedly compatible with the machines the outpost still had running), the Guild awarded me a hefty bonus for re-opening a lost market. Blazing new territory meant hefty profits, and that was enough to make my mouth water.

Once the initial wash of greed and lust passed by, my mind settled down into more practical paths. Why me? Why my ship? Weren't there established smugglers out there, ones who were familiar with the tricks of the trade so they would be less likely to be caught? Why risk a new market on an unknown trader such as myself, who could be just as likely to turn in the drug suppliers as to make the delivery? For all they knew, I could be a GalPol plant set up to entice them into making an offer just like this. The Galactic Police was a division of the Federation Navy said to be just as ruthless as the criminal element they were set up to combat. Just suggesting to me that a new molecule coming out of the Granges system was open for transport could earn Geoff a night in a detention cell, if he was lucky. I'd never really dealt with GalPol before, but I could imagine just how much trouble we were talking about.

I took a long pull at my drink, finishing the glass and noticing that the flavor wasn't nearly as pleasant as it had been a moment before. But the shock of the strong alcohol shot through my system and gave me a warm glow. I savored that glow for a moment before I found my voice again. "What does this have to do with me?"

"Hideo, come on. You're down on your luck and I know people who are willing to pay some serious money for you to play mule for something so new they don't even have a law for it. If you play your cards right, there's no way you can lose. If you pass it up, I can't guarantee you'll be able to keep your ship through the end of the month. Tell me I'm wrong, and I'll change the subject."

He wasn't wrong, and I didn't ask him to change the subject. But pointing out the possibility of losing my ship put me on edge, and no matter what I wasn't going to commit to anything. "So tell me more."

He sat back and waved for another round of drinks. "So. I know where a supply of this new molecule is being kept, and I know that the demand for this new substance is almost thirty times what it costs to produce and transport the stuff. People go nuts for new things, and if you can get in on the ground floor, you stand to be set for life. You know what I'm saying. You're a smart guy, Hideo. Nobody who wasn't could handle people like that Ferla pilot and that bitch Pettis like you did. You think well on your feet, and you're not afraid of taking risks. That's exactly what these people need, and they can provide you with what you need. The means of getting back on your feet so you can keep your ship and have enough money left over to make a splash anywhere you go. So what do you say? Are you interested?"

I thought of the touch-and-go piloting I'd had to do in orbit to keep my position. To be frank, if I wasn't so desperate to get rid of my cargo, I wouldn't have challenged the Ferla, but taken a higher orbit and tried again. It seemed that by taking that risk, I'd attracted more attention than I was really comfortable with. But while I'd talked about my options with the computer, the thought of actually making a smuggling run and knowingly breaking the Trade Laws I'd sworn to observe made me break out in a cold sweat. Was it a fear of the unknown? Was it some ethical fiber in my body I hadn't had opportunity to discover in the past? I don't know, but my mind was filled of images of wasting away forgotten in some hellish GalPol prison, my ship confiscated and sold, my parents disgraced by my crime and disowning me.

I opened my mouth, and closed it. Say yes? Say no? Stall for time? I couldn't decide. I was almost paralyzed with uncertainty, and speechless for certain. I opened my mouth again, found I couldn't form the words, and closed it again. Geoff watched me quietly, eyes bright with amusement. It rankled that he was laughing at my expense, but I'm sure I presented a comic sight. I can't say I blamed him for wanting to laugh. I had to credit him for his restraint.

Finally, I found my voice again. "Well, how much time do I have to think about this?"

The amused light in his eyes abruptly disappeared, and a furrow appeared in his brow. "Hideo, you don't have much time to begin with. It isn't so much how long we can wait, but how long you can wait. Do you really think you can put this off?"

"Geoff, I've never done anything like this before. I know it happens. There's a list of Traders kicked out of the Guild for smuggling posted in the central office. Hell, I had to recite the Galactic Trade laws from memory before they'd make me a full Guild member. They don't go easy on smugglers, either GalPol or the Guild."

"Keep your voice down. You wanna broadcast it to everybody?" In spite of his admonition, Geoff didn't look around. My head began to spin with the implications that sprang to mind. In particular, I remembered Pettis complaining about Ansalon's problem with drug traffic.

"You know what I mean. Yes, I'm desperate. But I don't know I'm desperate enough to do this. You're supposed to be stopping this, not helping to run it. Now I don't care what you're doing or why you're doing it, but getting me involved makes it personal, and I can't just jump into a risk like this. There's too much at stake."

"You want to know more?" Geoff stared at me hard, searching my eyes for something I couldn't fathom. Then his gaze shifted abruptly, and his eyes opened a little wider. Whatever he was looking at, he hadn't expected to see it. Automatically, I turned to see what had surprised him so much. And my jaw dropped.

"Commander Obora," I breathed, coming to my feet so swiftly I bumped the table and spilled the drinks. My hip wasn't too happy, either. The Commander was here? Did that mean I was going to be arrested? Did it mean that he was involved? Did it mean I was unconscious or dead already, and I was just dreaming the whole thing? At this point, I doubt I would have been surprised if Obora or Geoff sprouted fangs and started drinking my blood. I was shocked beyond reason.

"Trader Takenoshita. It's a pleasure to see you here. I'm glad Geoff thought to introduce you to one of the local sights, something you don't see on the tourist route." Obora's deep voice rumbled across the space between us, his rolling tones reverbating in my ears. "Sit down, man; nobody's on duty here. What were you drinking? Geoff, why don't you get another round for the Trader, and one for myself?"

Obora settled into a chair next to me and gestured for me to join him. I did so, knees week and mind reeling. As Geoff made his way to the bar, Obora took the glass I'd been drinking from and helped himself to a sip. "Ah, pure ambrosia this is. Costs a lot to import, but well worth it. Now then, I apologize for interrupting your discussion but I figured it was an old man's prerogative to butt in unannounced."

"Um, no sir, you weren't interrupting at all. Geoff was just telling me about a...possible opportunity...he...I..."

"Having trouble selling your cargo, Trader?"

I nodded unhappily. My mind was screaming to know why he was here and why he took so much interest in my affairs. Why would he care whether or not I'd sold my cargo? Was he trying to encourage me to leave? Was he here to personally bust me on conspiracy? Again, I found myself speechless, so I let my body language speak for me.

"It's a shame, this market today. Ansalon needs a boost from somewhere, and I don't think the Federation is going to give us the hand we need. Too many resources dedicated to the war. Too much red tape, too many bureaucrats trying to grab a piece of the pie for themselves. You've studied under your Guild. What have you learned about interstellar trade?"

I shrugged and found my tongue once more. "Trading isn't what it once was. There was a time when Traders were the vanguard of the Federation, when we would open new markets by discovering new systems. Half the time, we would find new products to trade as we would find markets. Now all the markets are known, with the exception of a few ancient throwbacks, but no Trader can really count on re-opening those markets. With no new trading, it's hard to make a living. Competition is a lot more vicious than it used to be, and a lot of the worlds aren't buying what they used to, because their resources are stretched to the limit or they've moved on to new markets the Traders can't touch. So we've got to be smarter and more aggressive than ever before."

Obora nodded sagely and accepted his drink from Geoff without a word. "You Traders are in the same position we planet-bound have found ourselves in. What you said about resources isn't widely known, but it's painfully true. There was a time when Federation economists would track this sort of thing and issue trend reports for Traders and world administrators to operate by. No longer. We're left to fend for ourselves in an uncaring and unforgiving galaxy." He knitted his fingers together and focused on me with a disturbingly intent expression on his face.

Unsure how to respond, I nodded again. I felt trapped, immobilized under his gaze. His pupils were tiny and invisible in the light, surrounded by startling white circles. It occurred to me that what disturbed me most about his expression was the fact that throughout his lecture about interstellar economics, he never once blinked his eyelids. His stare remained fixed on me at all times.

"I don't know if Geoff has explained everything. Given the urgency of the situation, I doubt he's had the time. You see, the molecule he should have told you about," Obora paused to glance at his subordinate, and smiled when he noted Geoff''s nod. "Good, he has. This molecule is remarkably unstable. Mind you, that doesn't make it dangerous, but it does mean that the market possibilities are limited. We obtained a supply a short while ago, but we don't exactly know how to exploit it. We have been in contact with individuals who do know how, and we're looking to set up a trade relationship.

"Which brings me to you. I'm sure you're wondering why we want you for this; you'd be a fool not to. We already know you're not a fool. The fact is, you're a damned good pilot, and you've got a fast ship. The Ophid class is the fastest ship the Federation has ever come up with, and that makes you our best bet to get this molecule transported in time to maximize our profits. You have my personal guarantee that you'll have no problems while in our space."

Pale and trembling, I still managed to surprise myself by saying, "And once I enter Jona space? You want me to fly blind into unknown territory with a new drug that will be declared illegal as soon as the authorities find out about it? What guarantees do I have then?"

Obora smirked and took a sip from his glass. "Who said it was a drug, son?"

"But, a new molecule, something you clearly want smuggled through Federation territory..." If I thought I was confused before, I re-discovered the meaning of the word. If it wasn't a drug, what could it be? A weapon?

"You're an excellent pilot," Obora rumbled, taking a drink of the glass Geoff had brought him. "But you've got a lot to learn about the galaxy. There's more to this than drugs. This is a new molecule; do you have any idea what sort of uproar this will create when it becomes public? Right now only very few people know anything about it, and you've become one of them. The Federation wouldn't want this in independent hands. We don't have the capability to really analyze the thing, but we do have the market potential to exploit it. Jona has the scientific resources to analyze it, but they're not in a position to market whatever uses they find as we have. There was a time when Ansalon was a major trading hub; that's changed in a large part because of the change in economics. This new molecule means a return to the days when Ansalon was part of the galactic economy, and if that means cheating the Federation government out of first dibs on a new molecule, you can be damned sure I'm going to take it. If they learn about this they'll confiscate all supplies and do their own research. We might hear about it again, or it could become buried in red tape, never to be found."

He paused to observe me. I don't know what he saw, but apparently it satisfied him. "Obviously, I can't make you any guarantees outside my system. But remember, you have the advantage. Your ship, your skills, and the fact that the Federation doesn't know this thing is in independent hands. There's no reason to board you because they won't have enough evidence to justify it. So you'll be safe until you hit the planet surface; then you'll have to be clever enough to make sure that your contact is for real and not a GalPol spy. But I have faith in you, lad. You've proven yourself capable so far. I believe you can do this, and I believe that you can do it better than anyone else we could find."

I slumped in my chair as I attempted to assimilate this information. A new molecule that wasn't a drug. Again, my thoughts turned to what else might possibly require smuggling. Some new type of bomb or weapon was all I could think of. Maybe even a biological weapon? That wouldn't be a drug per se, but it would still be incredibly dangerous as well as a sure-fire death sentence from any Navy or GalPol agents that discover it. If they discover it.

That was the big question, wasn't it? "If." If I hadn't pushed the bully out of my orbital approach. If I'd managed to find a buyer for my goods, if I'd considered better markets in the first place...I could sit there contemplating all the ifs of the past few months or even years. It wouldn't help me decide this now.

"What do you hope to market this molecule for? What's its purpose? What will I be carrying on my ship?"

Obora nodded and set his glass down. "The molecule is an energy source. It's unstable in that it gives off energy, but not so unstable that it's uncontrollable. That's makes it extremely valuable to anyone that learns to take advantage of it. The molecule degrades into high potential energy, but limits itself to a single frequency on the spectrum that isn't harmful to living tissue. It's almost as if this thing were engineered for life forms like us. The problem is that we don't understand why, and we don't understand how to channel it. That's where you come in. We want you to transport this molecule to Jona so they can figure out what it is and how we can use it. We've already negotiated an arrangement for compensation. All you need to do is carry it for us. You won't need any special modifications for your ship. Once in stasis, the molecule doesn't degrade. It won't even register at all, except as inert matter."

I found myself cracking my knuckles, and forced myself to stop. "If you don't know what energy is being released, how do you know it isn't harmful to living tissue, or to specific life functions?"

Obora smiled broadly, his white teeth shining brightly against the dark background of his skin. "Very good question, Trader Takenoshita. We know this because our people have been working with it and around it for months now without any harm done to them. We've had samples of the molecule kept with laboratory animals with no ill effects. If there were some hideous side effect, we'd know about it by now."

"But would you tell me?" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. It was going to get me killed one day, and I knew it.

The smile went away, but the body language didn't say he was offended. Either Obora really didn't mind, or he was a hell of a card player. "Excellent, excellent. You may have much to learn, but you are learning. Yes, I'm being quite honest with you. You can review our records at your leisure, if you choose to help us."

"If I don't choose?"

Obora said nothing, only stared at me with his unblinking eyes. I was suddenly cracking my knuckles again, but I didn't even bother trying to stop. "Okay, so I'm in. How much are we talking about?"

The smile returned.

Once again I ran through my preflight checklist, but at least the computer wasn't asking me what the hell I was doing. When I finished, I announced my flight status to Port Control before settling myself into my launch chair to wait for my turn in the slingshot.

Propulsion science being what it was, ships could travel the length of a solar system in a matter of days to reach a destination. But between systems, they had to take advantage of a mathematical loophole in relativity that had been discovered some time before the rise of the Federation. In order to travel between the stars in a reasonable amount of time, let alone a single human lifetime, one must realize that the cosmic forces of magnetism and gravity are structures. Like all structures, magnetism and gravity have weak points and strong points. Given enough time to research the structure of the magnetic and graviton fields, one can map them to pinpoint all of the strong and weak spots. Sooner or later in all systems, one will find points of overlap. Those points can then be forced to collide (in a relativistic term) through field manipulation, commonly known as transition engines. Any objects caught within those collision points will then be hurled through a kind of "fold" in space (conveniently referred to as "folded space") to end up in a predetermined position based on the mathematical model you're working from. It's like trying to hit a target by skimming a rock over water. If you apply too much or too little force, the rock will sink and go nowhere. If your angle is off by a fraction, you'll miss your target entirely. And sometimes you do everything right and still miss because of unexpected fluctuations you can't predict. We call that a misjump. It's the stuff of nightmares and ghost stories for Traders. Once a ship misjumps, it can end up almost anywhere in the Universe with no way to return.

Oddly enough, the points of greatest potential for transition jumps are on planets. Each planet has a number of overlap points that can be used to "slingshot" a ship with transition engines to its destination. Because the velocity and rotation of the planet are always constant, it allows for far greater precision in the mathematical model, allowing a ship to jump as far and as precisely as its engines could manage. It is also possible to jump outside a planetary gravity well, but the structures become weaker and more complicated, hence more difficult to map with great detail. Combine all this information with powerful and precisely tuned transition engines, you can jump many parsecs away within days or weeks. The more accurate your information and the more precisely tuned your engines, the farther you can jump. Ophid class ships have the best engines in Federation technology. That hasn't changed in several hundred years.

It is not, however, a pleasant experience for an organic to go through. It always sets my teeth on edge.

"Boss?" the computer chimed as we waited.

"Yeah," I responded. My hands were molded against the contour of the chair, clenched into fists so my thumbs could push against the joints, frequently eliciting popping noises from the tendons.

"You said not to ask, so I haven't. But we're seconds away from making our jump, and I've got to know. How in space did you find a buyer for that food? Even more, how did you afford the machine parts to stock the hold? Better yet, how do you know that the Jona system will need them, let alone be capable of buying them? Are you sure this isn't going to be another dry run?"

I gritted my teeth and willed my hands to stop. "I got lucky."

"Finding the Ghalag system was lucky. This is a miracle of biblical proportions."

I found myself trying to remember exactly why it was I needed an AI personality during those long flights between worlds. "Remember what we talked about the other night, when I mentioned John and the others?"

"Of course I do."

"Then stop asking questions."

There was a pause. "Right."

"David Gilmour," the radio announced. "You are cleared for slingshot entry. Repeat, you are cleared for slingshot entry. Please acknowledge Port Control."

"Port Control, this is David Gilmour," I sent back immediately. "Clearance acknowledged, countdown for slingshot entry commences in 9...8...7..."

The computer lit up a display to verify the transition engines were online and building power correlating to the countdown I had initiated. I think I heard the computer quietly invoke someone named Saint Elmo, but I didn't have time to pay attention. I don't know who the original programmer was, but that person must have had the most eccentric of styles. The computer was always doing something like that before entering folded pace.

"...Launch!" I finished. There was a deep whine in the back of the ship, and the engines engaged fully, taking advantage of the mathematical loophole humans have been using for space travel for well over seven thousand years. There was an agonizing twisting, a wrenching sensation that made my innards feel as though they were dancing outside my body, and then it was over and the viewport showed the eerily familiar sight of folded space around my ship.

"Transition confirmed, entry looks good. We should arrive at the Jona system in a little over nine standard days," the computer announced.

"Excellent. I'm going to my cabin to collapse. Wake me if the Tharl attack."

"Am I going to hear what we're really carrying?"

I don't know why, but my mind flashed back to my conversation with Obora. Specifically, I heard his voice saying, "Right now only very few people know anything about it, and you've become one of them. The Federation wouldn't want this in independent hands."

Dear God, what would they have done if I'd said no? I decided I didn't want to know.

"Only if they catch us," I replied.