Chapter 2 - Jona System





Nine days isn't a long time, but when you're traveling alone through folded space, it can feel like an eternity. Folded space is barely understood, even by the engineers who build and maintain the engines that make it possible to enter. All we know is that based on advanced mathematics, it's possible to exist both inside and outside the known universe, traveling through tunnels that aren't quite real in any sense we understand. There's little else that can be said about it. Folded space doesn't look like anything, but it isn't an absence of anything either. While I realize this description doesn't make a lot of sense, neither does folded space. It's filled with images that don't exactly coalesce, fragments of light and shapes that your mind wants to fit into easy, comfortable patterns but can't. Staring at folded space is a good way to go quietly insane.

A computer AI who is programmed to recognize when a person has been staring outside too long is an invaluable tool. I'd say friend, but I've never been able to think of this AI as a friend. Not really.

"Boss," my computer began, breaking me out of the long silence that began when I began to stare out the viewport. "I've been looking up navigational charts on the Jona system. So far as I can tell, this system doesn't have anything more than an independent science outpost filled with crackpots the Federation thinks are unsuitable for ordinary research. They don't have much in the way of an economy, and they're far enough away from standard trading routes that they're fairly well ignored. Tell me again why we're going there?"

"Because we were told to," I replied, trying to thaw my mind from its languid courtship with madness. "All things considered, we weren't given much choice. It was do this job or sell the Gilmour and start washing dishes."

"What is the job, anyway?" the computer asked quietly. If it had asked that first, it might have gotten the answer it wanted. I'd never known a computer to be so persistent.

"Selling machines," I replied, swinging my feet back down to the floor and sitting straight. I felt sore and tired, weary of jumping from system to system chasing illusive promises of wealth. My romantic image of the Galactic Trader had been tarnished. This was not what I thought my life would be like. I think my father had tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen.

"What were you thinking of, just then?"

That was unexpected. Persistent and intrusive. I began to really wonder who the programmer was. All the same, it wasn't a question I objected to. Talking about it actually appealed to me.

"Remember my family? I know you met my father, before we left Rekan."

"I remember him. Nice old fellow, good head on his shoulders. He knows his business well."

"He had three children. Two daughters and a son. His oldest daughter, Mika, went and joined the Navy. She's a Lieutenant on some warship out in some nameless sector in the galaxy. We hear from her maybe once or twice a year; she always apologizes for not calling more often, but she says she can't and can't say why. Mom and Dad are proud of her, but they'd never admit how disappointed they are that she went so far away."

"Is that who you were thinking of?" Perceptive, too.

"No. I was thinking about my other sister, Jiran."

"How much older is she?" the computer prompted when I didn't continue.

"A year and a half. Mom and Dad planned for her, but not for me. Mom said if she had planned for me, she would have waited another couple of years. Having two small children with a third on the way was stressful. She never said she regretted the timing, but I could hear it in her voice sometimes."

"So she's a year and a half older than you. Where is she?"

"She...I don't know. Jiran liked the boys too much. Music, boys and drugs. We didn't find out about the last until a few years ago. She never ever did anything that Mom or Dad approved of. For as long as I can remember, she was mouthing off and trying to run away. She was always in trouble over something or another: hanging out with the wrong crowd, listening to loud music and staying away from home for days at a time. One day she left home and didn't come back. Mom and Dad tried to find her, but she just didn't want to be found. The police figure she probably got herself killed. We really don't know. She left before I started working for the station at Rekan IV."

"What made you start thinking of her?"

"I suppose it's the fact that one way or another, all of us managed to disappoint Mom and Dad. Mika went into the Navy. Jiran ran away. I joined the Guild. None of us stuck around to mind the family store and continue the family business. So far as I know, I'm the only one who even comes close to carrying on the tradition. And this isn't exactly something Dad would endorse."

"Your father never did business with smugglers?"

I winced at the blatant use of the word. My first reaction was to disseminate, to deny any wrongdoing and claim that the cargo in the hold was 100% legitimate, with papers and receipts to prove it. Instead, I decided I wasn't even going to dignify the implied accusation with a response. I hoped this was a talent I could rely on.

"No, my father never did business with smugglers. He never had to, that I'm aware of. He always provided for us, even when times were slim. He was too smart to be caught without something to fall back on. The investments he made paid off so well that he ran a side business as an investment counselor."

"Do you think that maybe part of the reason he had luck with his investments might be through deals with smugglers?"

It felt like my brain was trying to thaw again. My father what? "What are you trying to tell me?"

"I'm not telling you anything. I'm suggesting a possibility. I don't know if your father dealt with smugglers or not, I'm suggesting that you might not be the disappointment you think you are."

I struggled to wrap my brain around the concept. My father, cutting deals with smugglers? My father, the solidly upright Citizen of the Federation, respected Councilor for Rekan? Okay, one of thousands of Councilors for the Rekan Lower Parliament, but an authority figure nonetheless. Dad? I couldn't picture it. I shook my head both to indicate my disagreement, and to clear my mind of the unwanted thought.

"Dad was...well...he always looked out for us. Family is always first for him. If Mom needed help or we needed something he was there. He's always set that standard and expected us to follow it. He talks about how the Takenoshita Clan always seems to breed good business sense, so he doesn't worry about the numbskulls working for him because someone in his family will always be there to keep them in line."

"So, in return for watching out for the family's interests, he expects the family to watch out for his interests, yes?"

"Well, that's one way to put it. Ultimately, I think he feels that his interests and the family's interests are the same. Or supposed to be. Keeping the family fed and clothed and safe from debt means maintaining the store. The store not only provids our food and clothes but also our primary means of income. It's a nice, neat little synergy, just the way Dad likes it."

"Did your family always have the store, or did your father build it?"

"We've had it since our family came to Rekan, some five generations ago. There's a holo of everyone who ever ran the store along the back wall, showing the progression from one generation to the next. Quite the legacy they built, but I don't think the store has really changed in all that time. Certainly not since my father took over. If old Jao were to rise from the grave and take inventory today, I bet he'd find the same stuff on the shelves in the same place he put them when he started the thing. Kinda funny, when you think about it."

"I suppose." The computer paused thoughtfully. "So this is a real family tradition your father was expecting to pass down? And none of his children are interested in it?"

"Mika scored high in her school exams. If she hadn't enlisted in the Navy, they might have drafted her. I expect Jiran could have too, but she was too wild, too interested in being the rebel to pay attention too much of anything. She had a new boyfriend every week and a new favorite band every month. Sometimes I think she's a purely recreational drug user. She's not a junkie because she never focused on anything long enough to get hooked."

"And you had dreams of stars."

"Well, it wasn't so much the stars as the thought of being wealthy. The Traders that I met at the store always had credit to burn, always buying drinks at the pub and telling the most incredible stories. Ducking into nebula to avoid pirates. Dodging asteroids and mining for gold. Banding together to fight Tharl ships when the Navy couldn't get there in time. From the very first time I heard them talk I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a Trader, to be up there in the stars flying with the best and striking it rich. I knew the store wasn't going to make a lot of money. I suppose if I hadn't heard those Traders talk, I would have stuck with the store. Now there's no one left. Dad'll either have to close the store or sell it to someone else; maybe one of the big chains that have been looking to buy him out. Frankly, I can see him closing it before he sells it. It means too much to him."

"It seems to me like your father was expecting his children to replace him, instead of surpass him."

I had to think a moment while that sunk in. "Surpass him? I don't think he has that high an opinion of me. I don't know if you noticed, but his last post didn't sound very encouraging. Letting me know there's always a place back home if things don't work out, how he'd love to see me back in the store."

"Maybe he won't say it, but when you think about it, every one of his children has done something neither he nor any of his ancestors since Jao managed to do: strike out on their own to follow their dreams. Managing a small store on a big planet sounds pretty ordinary. Fighting Tharl in the Navy or flying to every system in the Galaxy seeking a fortune, that's exotic. Even whatever Jiran is doing now is probably a lot more fascinating and suited to her than minding the family store."

"So you're trying to tell me not to let my father pass judgment on me for wanting a life that wasn't just mediocre?"

"I suppose that's it in a nutshell."

"Who programmed you, anyway?" I exclaimed, laughing out loud. "I've never seen a computer that doubled as a therapist, before!"

"Hey, I was the primary computer aboard a deep space exploration ship," the computer retorted, managing to sound hurt. "If you think nine days in folded space is a long time, imagine what months can do to a person. I'm programmed to encourage you to talk, to stimulate your mind and get you thinking about something other than staring out the window for days on end."

"Well, whatever you were programmed for, I take my hat off to your programmer. You are a piece of work." I stood and stretched, chuckling to myself. "Okay, I'm going to get some sleep. I'll do a systems check in the morning."

"Good night, Boss."

"Good night."

Quite a piece of work. I'd never bid a computer good night before, either.





"Now approaching exit point," the computer reported.

The scene outside the viewport was the same it had been for the past nine standard days, but my imagination painted pictures of anger and lust. Greed for the company of me and my ship, anger that we were about to slip out of the clutches of folded space and back into the normalized sanity of the Universe we understood. I didn't pay much attention to the wild fantasies my imagination created; I'd had the thought when I made my first trip through folded space and the image had stayed with me ever since.

I don't pay much attention to it, but I can never forget it. The thought of being trapped by the greed of folded space, subject to the anger of an alien mind that hates the products of the normal Universe outside it is chilling. I've made well over a thousand jumps since that first one, but the image always haunts me. I've learned to put it away, to keep it from hindering my performance, but it's always there in the back of my mind whispering the possibilities of a cosmos gone mad.

"Transition engines will disengage in nine...eight...seven..." the computer counted off, far more reliable than I in determining the precise point at which to cut off the power to the engines. As with everything else in the vastness of outer space, the more precise your mathematical model the more accurate your travel. When calculating transit points your best friend is your computer. Particularly when calculating your exit point, since you can hardly look out the window to steer by the stars.

Stay... whispered the alien minds outside the viewport. Stay with us...forever. My imagination does this to me every time. One of these days I'm going to have to learn to grow up. Space travel is scary enough without inventing ghosts and goblins to inhabit it.

Sublight engines were hot and ready to for thrust. Shield generators were online. Life support was normal. Stasis generators holding steady, for which I blessed the Ansalon techs Obora had provided.

Stay...

"...four...three...two...mark. Transition engines powering down. Now re-entering normal space."

There was a shudder as the Gilmour emerged from folded space back into a friendlier and less psychotic reality. I briefly glanced out the window to reaffirm the familiar sight of stars shining through the blackness of space before I put my full attention to the console before me. The data looked good, so I followed procedure. "Sublight engines are nominal, star charts confirm we're in the Jona system approximately 2.9 AU from the star. Jona station is 480,000 kilometers to port, bearing two-four-zero by zero-zero-three by two-two-one. Prepare for a ten minute burn on my mark."

"Boss, I have another ship on my screen. Identified as the Blackstone, a Marshall-class Navy ship."

Lovely, the Navy was here. Marshall-class meant GalPol. She was small for a Navy ship, but well-armed and fast compared to the destroyers, cruisers and battleships the Fleet normally employed. She couldn't outrun me, but she could focus five times the firepower of your average pirate on my tail if I chose to evade. We're all fine here, thank you. Nobody here but us smugglers. I smothered a groan and tried to focus on the burn. Yes sir, Mr. GalPol officer, sir. I'm just an ordinary Trader making a cargo run. No sir, no illegal or potentially illegal contraband on this ship. "Is she on an intercept course?"

"No, Boss. She looks like she's maintaining a standard patrol. But you can bet she's scanning us."

No doubt. If they followed standard procedure, I'd be receiving the standard challenge from them to verify my identity and destination.

"All right, let's do this by the numbers. Ready for the burn? One-half thrust, nothing special."

"One-half thrust ready on your mark."

"Mark."

The ship leapt forward as the sublight engines engaged at half-thrust, propelling us at a delta-vee of 200 meters per second/per second. In ten minutes we'd cut thrust and coast on inertia for a while before beginning breaking thrust to slow us down and enable us to dock with the station. Provided the Blackstone didn't have other ideas for us.

"Hey, Boss. I know you keep telling me to drop it, but I just have to confirm something. We are smuggling contraband, right?"

"Stop me if you've heard this before: drop it." By the Great Nebula, this was the last thing I needed right now.

"I don't think we've got that option right now, Boss."

I turned to the screen that displayed the image the computer generated for my benefit. "What is it?"

"The stasis generators appear to have suffered a partial failure during our re-entry. I'm detecting a random energy pulse I can't identify, and I know the generators don't give off the signature I'm picking up."

I leapt from my chair, cursing Geoff, Obora, the population of Ansalon and the entire Jona system for good measure. "How long?" I snapped, pulling up the display for the cargo hold. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

"Just now. At first I thought it was some bizarre background radiation; it happens in folded space sometimes. Usually when we're passing through some huge stellar event, like a supernova or a black hole. But it isn't going away and the data is pointing toward an internal source. I've nailed it down to something in cargo, but I can't pinpoint it."

"Godamnit!" I howled at the top of my lungs. I ran to my quarters and reached for the data pad with the technical specs for the element Obora had swindled me into currying for him. I'd looked it over before re-entering the ship to satisfy myself that Obora's claims that the thing was benign to living organisms were on the level, but I had to confess that the material was far above my expertise. I pulled the data chip from the pad and inserted it into a slot beside the console in my room. "Computer, scan this data and verify the claims made by the Ansalon scientists. I knew it. I bloody well knew it!"

"Scanning," the computer responded obediently. Long moments passed while the computer absorbed and digested the information I'd just fed it. I needed to find a way to install a generator that could be slaved for the computer's exclusive use; this was taking far too long.

As if to relieve the monotony, the communication line beeped. "This is the Galactic Naval Ship Blackstone. Galactic Trader Ship David Gilmour, please respond." I purpled the air with a few more choice phrases, but didn't respond to the hail. Not yet.

"Scan complete," the computer reported. "According to the data provided, the energy released will warp inorganic matter around it before breaking it down to component elements. But living tissue is unaffected by this radiation, the reason is unknown. The element can release 99% of its potential energy over time, with a half-life of approximately thirty-four standard months if left unchecked. No other elements are known to keep it in check, only submersion in a stasis field will slow or halt the process."

I relaxed, slightly. "So I'm safe? This thing won't kill me in spite of faulty repairs?"

"I wouldn't say that Boss." I tensed again. "We have no way of verifying this information except to observe the effect of the radiation on you. For all you know, this data could be a load of technobabble designed to lull you into false complacency. I don't have capacity to check the figures against what the stuff really does, except to watch and see if it warps a hole in the hull or turns you into protoplasmic jelly."

"Great! Just great! I could devolve into a monkey by the time we reach Jona and there's nothing we can do about it!"

"That's about the size of it, Boss. But I don't think you've got too much to worry about. The level of radiation is extremely low; I only noticed it through my routine scans after transition. Unless you have some peculiar intolerance to it, I don't foresee any long-term effects to you or the ship. I still don't want this stuff around longer than we have to, but we should be safe until we can unload it onto whomever it's destined for at Jona. The next question is whether or not the Navy is looking for this radiation signature, and if so, how they'll react to it."

"Galactic Trader Ship David Gilmour, this is the Galactic Naval Ship Blackstone. Gilmour, you are ordered to respond."

I fell back on my cot, twisting and pulling at my fingers and joints incessantly. "I don't know. Honestly, I don't know. Obora hinted that the Federation would look unkindly on attempts to smuggle or independently exploit the stuff, but he didn't say whether or not the Federation was familiar enough with it to know it when they see it. We could pass it off as an unexpected radiation leak from the stasis generators, or we might get pulverized the moment they get a target lock on us. I just don't know."

"I suggest we go with your stasis generator leak story until the Blackstone gives us a reason to think otherwise," the computer said solemnly. "It might be a long shot, but at least their sensor trace will point to the proximity of the generators, and the leak is mild enough that they might not be able to lock onto the source accurately enough to care."

I nodded and set my console to link with the communications array. "Blackstone, this is the David Gilmour. Please hold; I've got a stasis failure in my cargo hold and I'm trying to lock it down. I say again, please hold. I'll be right with you." This could not be happening to me. It just couldn't. But I was still the captain, and I still had to make sure my ship wasn't in immediate danger, whatever the computer said.

"All right, we'll play dumb for as long as we can get away with it. Open the locker with the containment suits. After I talk to the Navy, I'm gonna take a look in the cargo hold for myself."

A few moments later I was back in the cockpit, trying to compose myself for video communications with the GalPol that was currently on an intercept course with my ship. I kept telling myself over and over again that she didn't necessarily know what she was seeing, she was just responding to an abnormality. Anything out of the ordinary had to be investigated, it was just standard operating procedure. When I started worrying I was taking too long, I opened a channel.

"Galactic Naval Ship Blackstone, this is the Galactic Trader Ship David Gilmour. I am broadcasting visual and audio. Over."

My console beeped, and my screen lit up with the face of an older, bored-looking Naval officer. A Commander, if I read his pips correctly. "David Gilmour, this is the Blackstone. We read you five by five."

"Confirmed, Blackstone, I'm also receiving five by five. I'm Hideo Takenoshita. What can I do for you?" I tried to keep the nervousness out of my voice, or at least prayed for them to translate it as nervousness for my ship. A stasis leak isn't necessarily a critical failure, but that depends on what's wrong with it.

"Trader Takenoshita, I'm Commander Jensen with the Fifth Fleet." Fifth Fleet is the official name for the Galactic Police. "We've detected an odd energy signature coming from your ship. You say you're having stasis generator problems?"

"That's affirmative, Commander," I replied quickly, nodding my head for emphasis. "I just had repairs made on Ansalon, but it looks like those repairs were only good for one trip. Something broke loose during transition from folded space and my computer reported a leak just after I started my burn for Jona station."

"Have you confirmed the nature of the problem?" The officer didn't look interested or excited by the incident; all I could read on his face was the boredom of routine. If he had any suspicions, he was too good for me to pick up on them. "Do you require assistance?"

"Negative, Commander. I appreciate the offer, but my computer calculates that the leak is minor enough that we should be able to shut down and effect repairs at Jona station with no danger to me or my ship. But if you'd like to escort me to the station in case of an emergency, you're quite welcome to do so." I kicked myself for the suggestion. You talk too much, Hideo. I hoped I didn't wince hard enough for it to be noticed.

There was a pause as Jensen looked off screen. When he looked back, he seemed just as bored as before. "If you don't require assistance, we'll let you be. We've got a patrol to maintain, but we'll be nearby if you need us. Just give us a holler. Blackstone out."

"Gilmour out." I cut the connection and sat back with a sigh. "That was not fun."

"Friendly chap," the computer observed. "I guess we can assume that the Federation hasn't made GalPol aware of this element. I guess we can also assume that this Commander isn't interested in making any aggressive scans to prove or disprove your story."

"Maybe," I replied, speaking slowly as my brain kicked into high gear. "But why is GalPol here anyway? This is an independent system, not under their jurisdiction. They could only be here if they're expecting to find something, or if the Jona system has requested their help. And I can't imagine they'd request a Naval presence here while expecting us."

"He's letting us go, isn't he? Why complain about it? Let's just get to the station and get this thing unloaded, whatever it is."

"I'm for that." I stood and made for the hatch. "Don't wait for me to cut the engines. I'll be in the cargo hold trying to straighten out that damned generator."

"Got it, Boss. Three minutes to burn termination."

I headed for the suit locker, cracking my knuckles and muttering under my breath.





"David Gilmour, you are cleared for docking maneuvers on Port 3. Repeat, you are cleared to dock at Port 3."

"Roger, station control. Port 3 confirmed." I cut the link and focused on the trio of gaily flashing lights that marked my destination. I had the readout for the station's rotation and orientation, so all I needed to do was approach and dump speed for a clean insertion. I'd done it thousands of times at the Rekan station, so this would be a piece of cake.

Except for the fact that I had a radiation leak in my cargo hold that might or might not kill me if it didn't transform me into some shambling monster, and if that didn't happen it might only punch a hole in my ship from the inside. In full view of a GalPol ship that would be very interested in the real cargo I was hauling underneath the machine parts currently cluttering the hold.

"No pressure, Boss," the computer quipped helpfully. "Four thousand meters and closing."

"Shut up," I growled, focusing on my piloting. My approach was good, and I was pulsing my forward thrusters in regular cycles to conserve fuel, spare the thrusters and gently slide the Gilmour into place. Port 3 was simply the name for the docking port I would attempt to mate my hatch to for a solid lock. The station would then clamp onto my ship to stabilize her and we could begin transferring cargo without having to expose anything or anyone to the vacuum of space.

Not a problem. No pressure. I wiped sweat from my eyes and tried not to think about the creeping horror that could be making its way forward from the rear compartments. My eyes flickered from screen to screen, taking in their data before looking back through the viewport at the target I was aiming for. It really wasn't that difficult a maneuver once you got the knack of it, and I'd certainly learned that in my days as a shuttle pilot. On the other hand, docking maneuvers in orbit was an awful lot like trying to juggle eggs while reciting the latest newscast. You had to keep an eye on your data, because a miscalculation in the wrong direction could shear off the docking arm and tear a lovely hole in the side of your ship. I'd seen it before, and I knew it had been due to carelessness on the part of the pilot. It was not a pretty sight.

Three thousand meters to target and closing. Approach velocity was 140 mps. I pulsed the forward thrusters to slow down a bit more. The GalPol ship was too far away to register on my scope. They weren't interested in my cargo or me. That just seemed wrong to me somehow, but I didn't have the time to worry over it.

Two thousand meters and closing. Approach velocity at 90 mps. Another pulse on the forward thrusters. No hurry. I just might die a horrible, miserable, painful death. No, no hurry whatsoever. Of course, there was also the consideration of what the radiation from the molecule might be doing to the computer's circuits. It could be corrupting data that could get me killed at another time, like in the middle of folded space or on approach to a space station. What a pleasant thought. Could I trust the data on my screen? I glanced up sharply at the viewport again and decided my approach still looked good.

One thousand meters and closing. "Obviously, I can't make you any guarantees outside my system," Obora had said. The topic had been GalPol, but what else could it refer to? How much would the scientists on Jona pay for this thing? Was I going to get screwed over because I was hauling contraband and couldn't complain to the authorities about it? Or would they simply take the molecule from my smoking corpse? What a time to think about it! I pulsed the forward thrusters again, making a slightly longer burn for last-minute corrections. My pitch was off by a few degrees, and I used the breaking thrusters to help adjust for it.

One hundred meters and closing. Approach velocity 20 mps. Sixy meters. Another burn. Thirty meters. Adjust the yaw and dump more speed. I could make out the details on the docking port quite clearly. The hatch was decorated with the Federation symbol for science: a triangle surrounding three lines intersecting in the middle. Five meters. The telemetry looked good. I made one last burn and let inertia handle the rest. The Gilmour shuddered as it made contact with the sensor plates on the docking arm, and I heard the familiar clunk of the clamps locking into place.

I shivered as stress drained from my body with the completion of the maneuver. "David Gilmour, docking is confirmed. Welcome aboard Jona Station."

"Jona Station, docking confirmed. See you in a few. Oh, please get me in touch with a repair crew. I'm having problems with the repairs they made to my stasis generators on Ansalon."

"Stasis generators? We'll get our people right on it. Our administrator's name is Rand Nallis; he sends his regards and requests a meeting with you to discuss payment for your cargo."

"Acknowledged. Let Mr. Nallis know I'll meet with him as soon as I've secured my ship. Gilmour out." I sat back with a sigh and cracked my knuckles with a satisfying pop.

"Payday, Boss?"

"Let's hope so. I hate to think about the alternatives. How's the atmospheric balance between us and the station?"

"They're a little light in pressure, but I'm adjusting for it. We'll be ready to open the hatch in about ten minutes."

"Okay, then I might as well get cleaned up. Hopefully we can get this taken care of and get that thing off my ship." I shivered again as I contemplated the radiation building up in the hold, however minor. Then I levered myself out of my seat and staggered back to change my clothes and strap on my blaster. I hoped Nallis was a generous man.





I slumped back in my chair, eyes closed tightly to keep tears from squeezing from them. It was so hard not to laugh. "One hundred and fifty thousand credits!" I yelled in the safety of my quarters. I'd never seen so much money in one place all my life. 150,000 credits for safe delivery of the element, plus an additional 9,000 credits for the machine parts that were my legitimate cargo. The cost of the machine parts would just cover refueling and repair expenses, as well as cleaning up what little radiation spilled over into the cargo hold, but the rest-I indulged myself thinking about the Mermaid Nebula, entering grandly and announcing that I was buying the first round.

"Congratulations, Boss!" the computer said brightly, the artificial image appearing on the console next to my cot. "Now what's the next job?"

I pulled myself into a more respectable posture and glared at the screen. "Am I allowed just a little celebration after the blood, sweat and tears from busting my butt for the past few months before we go back to the grind?"

"Sure, but you've still got a job to do. From what you've described of the station, they don't have anything marketable. They're a pure theory research center with very little in the way of practical applications for their theories. I expect if they didn't need the help, they wouldn't have agreed to work with Ansalon."

I nodded soberly, my good mood subdued now that my mind was focused on the next move. Subdued, but not dissipated. I was still on a high from the massive influx of credit. "Okay, I read you. We can't expect to transport anything out-system and expect to make a profit. But we've got a nice cushion for the next jump, and we can conceivably start over from there. Maybe do some trading in luxuries, eh?"

"Boss, I don't know if you've followed the market on luxury goods, but at last report your new income would by a whole metric ton of luxury goods. You'd be wasting a lot of time and space that way."

I chewed my lip thoughtfully. "How about we buy a half metric ton and fill the rest of the hold with something less expensive? Precious minerals, or something?"

"It's a start, but I really think you ought to put luxury goods on the back burner until we can establish a solid trading route. Jumping around blind might do for a start, but you really need to establish a regular client base or I see us back to food runs again."

I sighed and lay back on my cot, my good mood disappearing by notches. I didn't want to admit it, but the computer was right, again. I'd made a hefty profit when I re-opened trade with the Ghalag outpost, and I bounced around spending money extravagantly and making risky trades that didnít quite pan out. Then disaster struck in the Ysora system. I bought a load full of machines from a seller on Hobart for transport to Balic, but the buyers declared the machines defective. I jumped back to Hobart to recover my money to find the snake had declared bankruptcy. All I could do was add my name to the list of creditors he owed and wait. It could be years before I saw any of that money, and whatever I got was probably going to be a fraction of what I lost. Things just went downhill from there as I was forced to buy cheap bulk goods and try to find decent prices for them. Until Ansalon, and Obora's secret energy source that had given me such a scare. I could only thank whatever powers were watching over me that the crisis was easily cleaned up. Although Obora had provided me with the means of getting back on my feet again, as the computer had put it, if I was going to stay there I was going to have to get serious.

I sat up and cleared the computer's image off my screen so I could dial up star charts. "Okay, we're here on the southern edge of the Galaxy, right?""

"Right."

"Ever since Hobart, we've found worlds that were mostly poor and declining; not exactly the best place to establish a trade route. From what I recall, there isn't much Trader activity around here and now we know why. There's nothing to trade. So we need to head for a part of the Galaxy that's a little more economically stable."

"Stable systems will have already-established Traders. You know you're going to step on somebody's toes."

"That, and we don't have the cargo capacity of your average Trader. They can make ten times the profit I can on a single run." I sat back again, lost in thought as I cracked my knuckles. "But their profits are based on bulk. We can offer speed and reliability. Set up a reputation for speedy transactions catering to people in a hurry. We can base our prices on time rather than market value. That way we'll keep out of direct competition with the established Traders, and open a new market that people in a bind will consider a godsend and pay more for. What do you think?"

There was a pause as the computer considered my suggestion. "I think your father would approve. And if he doesn't, I'm sure your ancestor Jao does. There's only one problem I can think of."

Here it comes. "Okay, what is it?"

"What if nobody needs the service you're providing?"

"Um. I recall you saying something about community work."

"I suppose that's about the size of it. Boss I've got an incoming message from Jona Station. It's a recorded message from Administrator Nallis. He wants to meet with you at the Black Hole Saloon in an hour."

My eyes widened at the news. Nallis seemed happy to wrap up negotiations with me over the price and transfer of the secret element, and acted as if he was looking forward to getting to work on it. He was a nice enough fellow, if a bit distracted. What could he want now?

"Well, whatever he wants it's too late to complain or try to trap me on the other cargo. I wonder what he wants?"

"That's a good question, Boss. Keep your blaster handy."

"You're paranoid, computer. But as always, you've got a point. Send a response confirming the time and place. I'm going to take a shower."





The Black Hole Saloon was named partly because of the Jona system's proximity to a cosmic body of the same name. Black Hole designation 1982-YN, to be precise. Unfortunately I had already learned that the name also applied to the atmosphere. It was a dark, dank place with poor lighting and worse service. Because the Jona system sported little more than the one station with esoteric research facilities, Traders rarely came here except to fill orders for raw goods and machine parts. Most of the scientists who resided on board seemed to be hermitic little gnomes, jealousy guarding their secrets as they pursued scientific theories that the rest of the Galaxy considered inane at best and insane at worst. While the scientists on Jona rarely agreed with one another they were at least tolerant of each other's research, which was better than what they got from their peers elsewhere.

Something loud and tinny played on a severely outdated music system, piped through to each table. I neither recognized the tune nor appreciated it, and it made my wait even more irritable than it might have been otherwise. I downed my third beer (at least they had decent drinks) and glanced about the room impatiently. There was a decided lack of female presence on board, either because they were part of the scientific outcasts who chose to spend their exile behind closed laboratory doors, or because there just wasn't enough interest in companionship to make it worthwhile. I imagined that the monthly seminars colorfully advertised at every portal and elevator generated more social diversion than did the pub. Thus, I couldn't even divert myself with a pretty face. All I could see under the dim lights was a video surveillance camera, the old broken-down bartender obsessively scrubbing at a glass with a dingy towel and a long row of shabby barstools sparsely populated with men who bore the unmistakable airs of techs. None of them seemed interested in conversation even with each other. All of them brooded before a glass of liquids that ranged in color from pale yellow to an opaque brown.

I exhaled loudly and considered the chronometer above the bartender's shaggy head. Nallis was over a half-hour late, and I wasn't in a particularly generous mood. I decided to give him five more minutes before I gave up on him and went back to my ship.

In fact, it was seven minutes before I stood up, slotted my credit stick to pay for the beers and headed for the exit. Lo and behold, Nallis was just coming in as I approached. "Ah, Trader Takenoshita! Excellent! I sincerely regret my tardiness; one of my assistants got careless with a critical experiment of mine and I've spent the past hour and a half engaged in damage control." The old scientist flashed crooked teeth at me and bodily escorted me to a booth in a darker section of the pub. I quirked an eyebrow at the destination, but kept my mouth shut.

"Now then, may I purchase a beverage for you? As you've already discovered, I've quite the fancy for Quilatrian liquor. Very sweet, and unfortunately quite expensive. But your arrival has heralded quite the celebration, quite the celebration indeed! I was most concerned when I received your notice of Ansalon's shoddy repairs on your stasis generators. Nasty things, those generators. Quite outdated. My own research has advanced...but let's just be thankful the failure wasn't worse, or you might have had quite an embarrassing hole in your hull to explain to Commander Jensen." Nallis' fingers were busy throughout his speech, tapping at a keypad to enter his order. A double-shot of Quilatrian liquor for himself, and a beer for me. I noted with amusement that he wasn't nearly so distracted as he let on: he dialed the beer I'd ordered the first time we spoke.

"Of course, half the staff is politicking to be allowed to work on the new element. Everyone wants their name attached to it! Myself excluded, of course. 'Nallisium' just doesn't have the ring to it, I'm afraid. Let someone else hog the glory, I've better fish to fry I say. Of course, my neutrality in the matter has put me in quite the bureaucratic tangle, as the job has been given to me to arbitrate who gets to research the material. Quite the chore, I assure you, quite the chore."

My bad mood was half-forgotten under the onslaught of Nallis' indomitable personality. One of the pilots I'd apprenticed under talked like him, and she had the worst time keeping co-pilots around. Her incessant chatter tended to distract and infuriate those who just wanted to be left alone with their own thoughts during a long, boring shuttle run. I made it a point to fly with her whenever I could because in addition to her first-rate piloting skills, if you paid attention to what she said you could learn some amazing things. Some of them even related to the job at hand.

However, Nallis had kept me waiting in this gloomy hole, and I wasn't eager to prolong my stay any further. I waited for the old man to pause for breath, and broke in. "Nallis, I honestly appreciate your hospitality, but-"

"Naturally, naturally, you want to know why I've requested this meeting." Nallis downed his double with gusto and let out a contended sigh. "Marvelous stuff, that liquor. Simply marvelous. I've a case in my quarters which I reserve for special occasions. Must dole it out carefully, you see. We don't see enough of your Guild members to overindulge, of course."

I tried to hide my smirk. Whether or not I succeeded, he seemed not to take offense.

"Now then. You realize we're a small, independent outfit without much in the way of per-capita income. It makes issues like re-supplies and my precious liquor quite the challenge. Quite the challenge."

I nodded quietly, sipping my beer. My bladder chose that moment to start complaining about the abuse I was giving it, and I shifted a little uncomfortably. There had been nothing to do while waiting for Nallis but drink beer, so I had. Now I was suffering the consequences.

"Naturally, being in the resourceful company I now enjoy, we've found a means of producing material suitable for export with excellent profits. Unfortunately, we also lack the means to properly market and distribute this export, and must rely on enterprising individuals such as yourself. I assure you that the quality of our product is pure, quite pure. You will find the resale value some ten to twenty times worth the cost of purchase here at our humble little outpost." Nallis beamed at me happily as he reached for his next glass of liquor.

I froze at the casual mention of the amount of profit Nallis just threw at me. Ten to twenty times? I could only assume that he was talking about smuggling drugs; nothing less than gold or luxury goods could return decent profits. I sincerely doubted this backwater little station had the facilities to produce either of them. But ten to twenty times what I might pay for them? What kind of drugs were they producing here? Nallis downed his drink, gleefully oblivious at the thoughts churning through my brain. For the moment, I forgot my bladder as I contemplated the possibilities.

If I spent the majority of the credit I'd just earned, Nallis' modest estimate of ten times would put me well over a million credits. Enough to overhaul and upgrade the Gilmour to my heart's content with enough left over to live quite comfortably for some time. Or I could begin trading in gold and luxuries at an extreme profit and be even wealthier in a matter of months. I could buy a second ship, something with an obscene amount of cargo space. Or a Ferla. I could be flying a Ferla-class ship and thumb my nose at the fools who thought they could intimidate me with their greater mass and weapon capacity. Pirates? Bah, I'd-

My fantasies didn't take long to boil over, as I'd been dreaming about that kind of wealth for some time. But I could almost hear the computer's synthetic voice droll over the problems with this particular scheme. The first was while the Jona station techs swore they'd fixed my problem with the stasis generators, so had the techs on Ansalon. It wasn't safe to trust perishable cargo to an unreliable stasis field. On occasion, no stasis field was better than what could go wrong with a faulty stasis field. It could destroy or corrupt my cargo beyond recovery. Next and even more importantly, GalPol was stepping up their efforts to crack down on drug smuggling. Officer Pettis hadn't been the first to imply that the Gilmour might be a smuggler's ship, she had simply been the loudest. Which brought me to Commander Jensen and the Blackstone. Suddenly, it all made sense.

"Nallis," I began quietly as he was reaching to dial for his fourth serving. Something in my voice made him pause. "How many Traders have been boarded and inspected by Commander Jensen?"

The old man blinked in surprise, stammering and stuttering for a moment before he regained his composure. "Why, I'm sure I haven't the slightest idea. Commander Jensen has been by the station several times and has made no mention of any inspections. Quite the gentleman, that Jensen. Quite the gentleman."

I leaned back with arms folded, my bearing hampered slightly by my re-awakening bladder. "I thought it odd that while I was inbound to Jona station, Commander Jensen took note of the radiation leak in my cargo hold but didn't pursue it. In fact, I thought it odd that Commander Jensen would be here at all with a GalPol ship making rounds in the system. I thought that such a remote system might be popular with pirates or the like, but there doesn't look to be much activity out here except for the traffic generated by this station. The Navy doesn't assign a Marshall-class corvette without a good reason, and they don't stick around unless they obtain results."

Nallis spluttered a bit more, so I waited him out by finishing my beer. My bladder was starting to scream at me, but I thought it would ruin the impression I was trying to create if I were to run for the men's room like a little kid. Finally, he dropped the denials and leaned forward to whisper at me. "You don't understand what it is we make here. Pure, untainted narcotics, stuff that pharmaceuticals wish they could make! The drugs we make have to be cut over ninety-five percent to keep from overloading every neuron in your body! The street value of a single kilogram of this narcotic in its pure form is worth a year's income of your average podunk store clerk, and we've over ten tons of it ready to ship!"

I stiffened slightly at the phrase "podunk store clerk." That was getting personal, but I tried not to let it show. I couldn't imagine that Nallis had made the comment intentionally; how could he know of my background?

"Forget Jensen and his Navy ship," Nallis hissed at me. "You're flying an Ophid-class! You can be out-system and engaging your transition engines before the fool can so much as warm up his forward particle beams! With the money you can make, you can buy a new identity for yourself and your ship with enough left over to buy a small planet!"

He was exaggerating about the last bit, but not by much. Maybe not a small planet, but certainly a comfortable asteroid. Unfortunately, pointing out this oversight wasn't worth the effort.

"That isn't the point," I replied in the same, quiet voice I'd begun with. I squirmed a little in my seat, hoping it would go unnoticed. "The point is that Jensen knows my ship, and he knows my face. I think he didn't push any scans on my ship because he wasn't expecting anything illegal coming in. He's expecting it going out. Which means when he detects my ship preparing for departure, he's going to be right there with his forward particle beams warmed and ready for me. Fast as my ship is, it can't outrun a particle beam, let alone what he's got at his disposal."

I raised my hand to cut off Nallis' next tirade. "I won't try to deny that what you're offering is extremely tempting. I'd love to make that kind of profit off a single trade run. But it just isn't worth it. I think Jensen is expecting me to be hauling contraband, and he's not going to be caught idling on the far side of the system while I ready for jump. I'm very sorry, Nallis, but you're just going to have to find another ship. And before you do, I suggest you make sure that the Navy isn't trolling the area."

"You're making a big mistake, young man," Nallis said quietly. The glare he gave me told me everything I wanted to know of his opinion about my decision.

"On the contrary, Mr. Nallis. Quite the contrary." I couldn't resist the little jibe. "I think it's the smartest thing I've done in the past six months. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a jump to make." I stood without waiting for further response and quickly made my way to the exit. I wanted to make the best time I could getting my ship under way before Nallis decided to make good the threat he hadn't dared utter. My bladder was just going to have to wait.





"Warm up the engines," I called as soon as I entered the Gilmour. "Begin preflight checklist."

"You're certainly in a hurry," the computer remarked, but dutifully complied. I felt familiar low vibrations under my feet as the engines came online. "I'll assume this means the meeting didn't go well?"

"On the contrary!" I replied jauntily, making haste for the head. "I thought it went splendidly!"

"Um, then why are we leaving so abruptly? Have we been given clearance for departure?"

My answer to the computer was long delayed. A few moments later, I walked briskly for the cockpit feeling much relieved. "No, we have not. I have, however, been made an offer I can't refuse."

"Lemme guess. You refused it."

"Got it in one."

"What was the offer, or is that taboo?"

"Oh no, you can hear it this time. It seems that in order to finance their scientific research the good scientists of the Jona station also side as researchers and developers of narcotics. Really good narcotics, if Mr. Nallis is to be believed. Good enough that if we were to fill our hold with these narcotics, we'd end up with well over a million credits to burn."

"Over a million? And you refused this offer?"

"That's right. Are you proud of me?" I reached the cockpit and swung into my seat. My console was already filled with checklist entries, and I began to tick them off as quickly as possible.

"That depends on why you refused."

"Because I haven't yet resigned myself to a life of crime." I frowned as I okayed the stasis generators for the cargo hold. I wasn't convinced they were properly repaired this time, but I couldn't spare a moment for diagnostics. Once we were underway, I decided to take a day's worth of food rations and put them in the field to see how they fared. If the generators failed again, I was out a day's meals. If not, then I was in business again. I then followed up my comment before the computer could form a retort to it. "And because I figured that Commander Jensen isn't out patrolling the area because he likes the scenery."

"Ah, the Blackstone. You think we're going to get challenged by GalPol?"

"I can almost guarantee it. Not only did they not challenge us on the way in, but Mr. Nallis did not take rejection well. He promised I would regret it." I paused and thought about this for a moment. "Computer, run an active scan over the ship. If there's anything remotely resembling contraband, I want to know about it."

"Scanning," the computer replied. "The repair crews stuck to the cargo hold and passageways between the hatch and...wait a minute. I'm detecting a canister in the head behind the toiletry supplies. You suspected they'd plant drugs on you?"

"I just thought of it. Continue preflight and get permission to detach. I'll take care of our little surprise. Also, continue scans and expand them to include the exterior of the ship. I'm feeling paranoid right now."

"Good for you, Boss."

I quickly made my way back to the head and tore into the cabinet containing the toiletries. In the very back sat a small, green cylinder that could have been cleaning detergent, but wasn't. I carefully pulled the thing out and made for the cargo hold. "Computer, is this thing rigged with explosives or any sort of invasive tampering mechanism?"

"Not that I can tell. Just looks to be a metal tube filled with drugs."

Well, that took care of one concern. "How are those scans coming?"

"Just about complete. I'm not finding anything else."

I entered the hold and set the canister down by the far wall. Then I ran back to the cockpit. "Are we cleared for departure?" I asked as I re-seated myself. The rest of the checklist went quickly.

"Confirmed. Ready when you are, Boss."

I opened a channel to the station. "Jona station control, this is the David Gilmour. We are ready to detach."

"Affirmative, David Gilmour." There was a shudder as the station let go of my ship. "Docking clamps disengaged. You are free and clear to navigate. Godspeed."

"Confirmed on docking clamps. See you round, guys." I closed the channel and reached for the controls for the cargo hold. "Set course for the transit point, one-quarter thrust."

"Course set, one-quarter thrust," the computer reported. "Godspeed? What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means we're suckers being set up to take a fall." I switched my console over to the cargo hold. "Where's the Blackstone right now?"

"One-quarter million kilometers on a parallel course. They just made a correction to match velocity."

"Right. Flushing cargo hold." I entered the command and cleared the safety protocols. A moment later, the ship shuddered again and stabilized. I scanned the hold; it was empty. "Status on the Blackstone."

"They're changing course again, looks like they're plotting an intercept."

I thought about this for a moment. Should I bring the Gilmour to a full stop and let him come to me? Or play it cool and assume nothing was wrong until Jensen decided to inform me otherwise? I decided playing it cool would probably be best. "Maintain course and speed."

It didn't take five minutes before the Blackstone was on top of us. The communications console beeped. "Incoming message from the Blackstone," the computer announced.

"Send it through."

"Galactic Trader Ship David Gilmour, heave to and prepare to be boarded."

"Reverse thrust to kill forward momentum, then station-keeping," I ordered before linking to the communications channel. "Commander Jensen, what a surprise. What grounds do you have for boarding my ship?"

"Don't be smart, Takenoshita. You know damned well you're smuggling drugs, and you're mine."

"Then welcome aboard, Commander. This should be an interesting story." I closed the channel and swung about in my seat. "Station-keeping, let's cooperate with GalPol. And scan everybody who comes on board. Just because they're GalPol doesn't mean they're any more honest than Nallis."

"Got it, Boss. Logging all scans from here on out."

I made my way to the main hatch to wait for the Commander. Fortunately, he didn't keep me waiting long.

As the hatch opened, I found myself staring down the barrel of a particularly nasty-looking blaster. I blinked slowly and licked my lips with a tongue that had suddenly gone dry. I've seen plenty of blasters, and I'm passably good with one myself. But there's just something about being on the wrong end of a blaster that changes the whole scenario. I'd never used one against another living being, but I could suddenly appreciate the intimidation value of one. Then the hatch opened fully, and I discovered that the blaster was being held by a young but particularly serious-looking woman with sergeant's stripes on her uniform. Standing behind her were Commander Jensen and a third individual carrying some impressive scanning equipment. I opened my mouth to welcome them aboard, but found my mouth too dry to speak. In any case, they let themselves on board without so much as a by-your-leave.

"Trader Takenoshita, your ship is hereby impounded under Section 2973, Paragraph 2 of Federation Space Law."

"Hold on there, Commander," I said, my voice squeaking just the tiniest bit. "That's assuming I'm smuggling anything. Before you can impound my ship, you've got to prove it."

"Sir," said the man carrying the scanning equipment. "We're being actively scanned."

"Is it affecting your equipment, Peters?" Jensen demanded.

Peters, the tech, tapped something on his handheld console and shook his head. "Negative, sir. They're not creating any interference patterns."

Jensen directed his unfriendly expression on me. "Why are you scanning us, Takenoshita?"

"Because in case your sensors missed it, I had to jettison a kilo of high-quality narcotics off my ship right after departing Jona station. It seems Mr. Nallis doesn't take 'no' for an answer. With all due respect, I thought it might be prudent to make sure nothing else sneaks on board during your inspection." I lifted my chin slightly to address the bulkhead. "Computer, results on your scans?"

"Negative, Boss. They're clean, if well-armed."

I gestured carefully, eyeing the blaster in the woman's hand. "Then please, gentlemen and lady. Welcome aboard the David Gilmour. My ship and I are at your disposal."





We lounged in what would normally be common crew quarters if I had a crew. As it was, there were four seats, two of which were currently occupied. The female Sergeant, named DeBenedittis according Commander Jensen, took station at the exit where her hand never strayed far from her blaster. Peters was out prowling the ship with his scanning equipment, no doubt taking detailed notes. If even a trace of the narcotic from the canister remained onboard, I was positive he would find it. Jensen sat in the most comfortable seat across from me, staring at me with an unpleasant gleam in his eyes.

"You're telling me that Mr. Nallis conveniently planted this contraband aboard your ship while repairs were made to your stasis generators a full day before he even offered to sell you any narcotics?" The sneer on his face matched the tone of his voice. "And why would he do that, Trader Takenoshita?"

"Insurance," I replied uneasily, unhappy with the slant of the conversation. "I don't know how long you've been patrolling the system, but I can guess that you've scared off most of the ships he depended on to transport the drugs out. He made sure the canister was planted hoping I would find it and panic into doing what he wanted if I refused his offer. I'm guessing that as soon as he realized I was leaving immediately, he made a call to you to report my attempt at smuggling."

Jensen blinked quickly, but otherwise didn't respond. DeBenedittis nodded sharply at my statement, and suffered a glare from her commander for it.

"That's awfully thin, Trader Takenoshita," Jensen said quietly. "How do I know you weren't coming into the system looking to sell narcotics to him, and made your quick departure when you realized he was going to blow the whistle on you?"

"Because you didn't challenge me on the way in, Commander." I mustered all of my courage and looked him straight in the eye. "You even had reason to run an active scan on me when you detected the problem with my stasis fields, but you didn't. You weren't expecting contraband coming in-system; you were expecting it going out-system so you didn't bother. GalPol got wind that Jona station is smuggling drugs out, and you probably figured out that they're making those drugs on the station itself. My only question is why you haven't scanned the station itself."

"We did," DeBenedittis blurted out, and flushed under Jensen's glare. "But we didn't find anything," she finished lamely.

I quirked an eyebrow and waited for elaboration. I didn't get any. "So...why not?" I prompted.

There was an uncomfortable pause, then Jensen sighed and relaxed slightly. "Because Jona station is generating several energy fields that interfere with modern scans. They aren't your average jamming signals, they're something else. We've tried to investigate, but Nallis and his people point to their science treaty and claim that the areas generating interference are laboratories and can't be disturbed. Since Jona is an independent system, we can't force the issue without creating an incident. But we can investigate ships going out, particularly craft that are perfectly suited for smuggling, like this Ophid-class ship." Jensen brought his glare back up to full intensity and centered it on me. "As a matter of fact, Trader Takenoshita, we detected you jettisoning the narcotic canister, and it makes you look like you're cutting your losses."

I swore silently and cracked my knuckles. It seemed I couldn't win here: Jensen was determined to pin a smuggling charge on me. "I didn't think about Nallis trying to frame me until I was well into my preflight checklist. I had my computer scan the ship and found the canister, just like Nallis hoped I would. But I decided to ditch it as soon as possible rather than crawl back to him. I didn't want to give him another opportunity to try something. I swear I came here delivering machine parts, not to pick up a shipment of narcotics. If I'd known what I was jumping into, I would have gone somewhere else. I swear."

Jensen's gaze didn't lighten, and I felt like a worm on a hook. I forced myself to stop twisting at my fingers, knowing it made me look guilty but not being able to help the reflex.

Tension mounted in the room. DeBenedittis looked like she wanted to say something, but was silenced by a look from the Commander. I stared unhappily at the ceiling and imagined my father's reaction to the news that I was caught smuggling. Community service work was sounding mighty good.

Then Peters entered the room with his scanning equipment and saluted Jensen. "My scans are complete, sir."

Jensen nodded to the tech and smiled grimly. "Your report, Ensign."

Peters nodded and consulted his pad. "Sir. I found molecular traces of high-quality narcotics entering through the main hatch. The trail lead to the cargo bay where I found a slightly higher concentration in and around the stasis generators. The trail then lead from the generators to the toilet where I found a small quantity scattered around a supply cabinet. The trail then leads back to the cargo hold, where the canister was flushed out into space."

Jensen's expression turned dark when Peters mentioned the generators, and darker as Peters went on to describe the path the trail took. I couldn't hide the relief that overwhelmed me; everything Peters said backed up my story nicely. When he finished, I gave a quiet sigh and looked back at Jensen. He looked like a star ready to nova. But he contained himself admirably and looked at me with steel in his eyes.

"Well now, Trader Takenoshita. Suppose you tell me everything that happened while you were on Jona station?"