Chapter 3 - Selaris System

If there's a better world than Selaris II to spend money in the Galaxy, I haven't heard of it. A paradise among the stars, it sports the best of all possible worlds for sights, challenges, recreations and thrills both above and below the table. It is also a major hub for trade and transportation, and thus offers some of the best repair facilities in the quadrant. I landed the Gilmour focused on the business opportunities, but with an eye toward any rest and relaxation I might be able to wangle. It had been a long time since I'd been able to really relax.

"I've tapped into the local Trader network, boss," the computer reported as I was shutting systems down. "I've got a list of repair facilities that should serve; a few that claim to specialize in uncommon craft like the Gilmour."

"Okay, set up a list of the top ten. Rank them by price and availability. I think you should give availability a higher priority on the list." Shutdown complete, I leaned back in my chair and stretched, not bothering to stifle a yawn. I could feel myself beginning to unwind already. "Also look for places that specialize in computer upgrades. Now that we've got the time and means, let's see if we can't give you a boost."

"Aw, boss. I'm flattered!" The computer beeped, and the console lit up with ten places for ship repairs and four computer specialty shops that looked promising. I figured that repairs and maintenance work on the Gilmour ought to run me no more than twenty to twenty-five thousand, with upgrades to the computer and power systems running another twenty-five. If I spent my money carefully, I would still have a hundred thousand to reinvest and begin my plan to cater to a specialized market.

After some consideration and discussion, I made my selections and sent off my requests. I sat back with a satisfied breath of relief and contemplated the sky. I didn't see a single cloud marring the brilliant cobalt blue. I couldn't determine local time of day by the sun, so I asked the computer and found it was mid-afternoon.

"The temperature outside is a balmy 31 degrees Centigrade with a humidity of 89%. Have any summer clothes?" the computer inquired cheerfully.

On the other hand, I could probably make a good start with ninety-five thousand, or maybe even ninety. I'd wait and see. "I think I might still have something suitable," I replied. "Oh, remind me before we lift off again: I really need to compose a letter to the folks back home. Let 'em know I'm alive and doing well."

"Noted. Shall I bug you about it in two days?"

"Probably a good idea. Also, while we're in downtime, scan the market to see what our competition is offering, and in particular see who looks like they're in a rush. We'll watch the figures for a few days while we wait for repairs to finish before we make any offers."

"Understood. Have fun, boss."

"Thanks, I will." I headed to my cabin to change into more comfortable clothing. It had been a while since I'd been in a pleasantly warm climate; Ansalon did not count as pleasant and Rekan IV tended toward the cooler temperatures where I grew up. After a moment's thought, I decided to bring my blaster along, adjusting the holster for a shoulder-draw. I hadn't given much thought to keeping myself armed in the past, but recent events had forced me to re-evaluate that habit. I couldn't imagine how anyone in the Selaris system might have a grudge against me, but Nallis' threat was only ignored at my peril. The blaster stayed with me, for good or ill.

With those happy thoughts, I went to the hatch and stepped out in to warm sunshine and fragrant breezes.

A voice interrupted me from the reverie of my thoughts. "Trader Takenoshita?" A pleasantly female voice.

I paused, searching for the source. It wasn't difficult to find her. She stood three meters to the left of the hatch, a clipboard tucked pertly under one arm as she waited patiently for me to leave my ship. The farther I descended the better the look I got. She was tall and nicely rounded in a picture of classic female beauty, chocolate skin nicely contrasting her sparkling white jumpsuit uniform. Her long hair was braided down to just below her shoulders. Her eyes were a startling green and danced with inner humor, shaded by a jaunty white cap perched on her forehead.

Paradise, indeed.

"Trader Takenoshita?" she repeated, interrupting my rather lingering appraisal of her physical attributes. I immediately lifted my eyes to her face and favored her with a smile.

"That would be me. What can I do for you?"

"I'm Jillian with Stellar Construction. You put in a request with us a few minutes ago?" She flipped her clipboard into position with practiced eased and called up the display. "You're looking for sublight and transition engine maintenance and inspection, as well as a diagnostic on your structural integrity and shield generators, am I correct?"

I nodded quickly. "That's about the size of it. I have to confess, I didn't expect to hear from anyone quite so soon. Do you always provide such excellent service to your customers, Jillian?" I grinned at her, letting the double-entendre speak for itself.

She smirked in response and lowered the clipboard. "Not usually, but I happened to be here on other business and decided to take the initiative. We can handle all of your requests, but I also noticed that you're putting in for power and computer upgrades. Since you're having all that other work done, I'm prepared to offer you a discount of five thousand credits to perform those upgrades for you."

I finished stepping off the gangplank and tapped the console to close the hatch. "That sounds good. What would that bring the total to?"

She lifted the clipboard again and tapped at the keypad. "Your total would come to sixty-seven thousand and some change."

I frowned and shook my head as I approached her, gesturing for her to join me as I walked. "That's a bit more than I was looking to spend, Jillian. How does that break down?"

She fell into step beside me and shifted the clipboard into a single-handed grip as we walked. "Well, the engine maintenance comes to twelve and sixteen for your sublight and transition engines respectively. Structural integrity inspection and repair will run you another seven, assuming your ship has only the standard microfractures and pitting from minor debris. The shield generators will come to five more. As for the upgrades, your power systems would normally cost you from eighteen thousand to seventy-five, with another twelve to ninety for the computer upgrades. If you go with a minimal upgrade with a five thousand credit discount, you're coming out ahead."

I smiled broadly at her as I opened the door to the port facilities and let her through. "You realize, of course, that I'm looking at offers of twenty-five thousand for my maintenance and repairs, and twenty for the upgrades." I closed the door behind us and looked for signs advertising local transport. The port was fairly busy, and it took me a moment before I found what I was looking for. I headed off in that direction, weaving through the crowd with her trailing me. I looked back long enough to address her. "If I'm going to do business with your company, I'm afraid you're going to have to be much more competitive than that."

She frowned for the first time, regarding me curiously as she ducked around a large, portly trader who looked her over favorably as she walked. "I can't believe you've found offers that low. At those prices, you're looking at very shoddy work with little or no guarantee. Stellar Construction only works with the highest quality equipment and parts with a one-year guarantee on all work under normal operating conditions. Do you really want to trust your life and livelihood to someone who doesn't guarantee everything they do?"

I found a clock displaying local time and found it late in the afternoon. "Jillian, have you eaten?"

She had the decency to blush. It was hard to tell with her dark skin, but I'm fairly certain she blushed. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, have you had dinner yet?"

"Trader Takenoshita, are you proposing we go on a date?" The humor in her eyes was right there under the surface, threatening to bubble over.

"Please Jillian, call me Hideo. What I'm proposing is that we continue our negotiations, but I've just finished a long flight and I'm curious about local cuisine. I've never been to Selaris before, and I'm betting that the local Trader hangouts have better drinks than food. So I suggest that we continue this discussion over dinner rather than try to argue in the middle of a spaceport. What do you say?"

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. I decided she looked very pretty when she was flustered. She consulted her clipboard, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right, Hideo. Let me call my office to let them know you're driving a hard bargain and I'll see them in the morning. With your contract in hand." She glared at me, then broke into a wide grin and headed for a public communication terminal.

I followed at a respectful distance, grinning like a fool myself. Even if I ended up paying the full sixty-seven, it was going to be worth every credit.

"Sign there and there, and initial here." Jillian's long, elegant fingers pointed to the lines in question on the display, and I dutifully entered my agreement to the service contract. It wasn't as bad as I had feared, but at sixty-one, the price was higher than I was planning. Oh well, I was sure I could enjoy myself with the remaining funds I had allocated. I scanned over the document out of habit, then handed it back to my date. Her smile reached up into her eyes which were sparkling at me. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Trader Takenoshita," she said, raising her glass to me.

I reached for my glass and clinked it lightly against hers. "The pleasure was mine. It's the best money I've ever spent, bar none." Again she blushed as we finished off our drinks.

I leaned back and drained my glass, savoring the thrill of excitement as I contemplated the rest of the evening. I wasn't the kind of Trader with a girl in every port, and a fantastic lady like this was more than I could hope for. She had even stopped somewhere to change into a dark red dress that showed off her figure beautifully. I couldn't imagine why she kept such an outfit on hand; whether she had plans for later in the evening or if she always kept them around for emergencies. I thought it polite not to ask, but I certainly wasn't going to complain. If the evening ended with dinner, it still represented a remarkable improvement over the past couple of years. The guys would never believe this story.

The restaurant was high-class enough to offer live staff to serve rather than just dialing up what you wanted at a computer terminal. This became relevant when the elderly waiter who served us faultlessly approached with a small datapad, which he placed incongruously in the center of the table where either of us could reach it. I snagged it first and caught my breath at the figure. I'd never eaten a meal that had three figures attached to it. No wonder the menu hadn't included prices.

"Give it here, Hideo," Jillian said as she reached into her carryall.

"No, no," I protested stubbornly, recalculating my expenses in my head. Oh, but I was not going to be eating at this place a lot. "I insisted on dinner, so it's only right I pay."

"Don't be silly," she told me, flashing her irresistible smile at me. "This was a business dinner, remember? The contract is even time stamped. I'll be reimbursed by Stellar Construction, so don't go worrying about my expenses. Now hand it over."

I obediently placed the pad in her waiting hand. She glanced at the display and pressed a credstick to it. The pad beeped quietly and a light flashed green. She put the pad down at the edge of the table and put the credstick away. "There, all done. Thank you, Hideo. I don't often get talked into mixing business with pleasure."

"Then I'm flattered to be one of the few. And I don't know about you, but I'm stuffed. I plan to waddle out the door and maybe get an idea of the nightlife around here. You've been remarkably helpful with dinner, so would you like to show me more of the city? My treat, this time." I wiped my lips with my napkin and smiled at her.

She glanced briefly at her watch. "Sure, it's still early. Have you been to the Golden Asteroid yet?"

"Pardon? What's that?"

Her eyes widened and she grinned at me. "Oh my, I thought every Trader was familiar with that pub. It's the place for hotshot pilots to hang out and trade lies. If you want to know where to go and who to talk to, that's your destination. And they make a pretty good Ikarian Twister."

I laughed. "And you know this from personal experience, do you Jillian?"

She winked at me. "You aren't the only Trader I've met, Hideo. So, what do you say? Sound good?"

"Well, yes, but there's a small problem with your suggestion. I'm supposed to be on vacation. This is the first break I've had in nearly two years. I don't think I want to begin it by going to a bar that reminds me of work."

"All right, that's fair. Do you feel like dancing or sightseeing?"

"Depends. Do you have somewhere to be soon?"

She glanced at me slyly. "No, not really. But I do have to be at work in the morning."

"Dancing, then." I stood and tossed my napkin on the table next to my empty glass. "But wherever we're going, I think we should walk there. If I try dancing right now I'll just wobble around."

She laughed, capturing my arm in hers. "Lets go to the Black Eight. I like their music, and they don't water down their drinks."

"Both important criteria. Lead on." I strolled out the door with her feeling like a million. I was the envy of every man in sight, and I knew it. As we walked, she pointed out various places of interest, mostly shopping related. I managed to nod and hum intelligently at the correct places, but my mind was not on the latest clothing fashion (except to imagine how they would look on Jillian) or news on what celebrity was doing with whom behind whose back. I was imagining the reactions of men around me, and contemplating the possibilities of going home with my date. If she had an inkling of the turn my thoughts had taken, she gave no notice.

We made good time walking the streets, and had reached the nightclub she had suggested. The name "Black Eight" was molded around a black sphere with a white spot in the center and a black number eight in the spot. I thought the design very clever. We had to wait in a line that stretched around half the block to get in, but it moved quickly enough that we didn't get impatient. Several notable figures were waved in as they came up, and Jillian happily named and described them for me. I promptly forgot them as soon as they were out of sight. When our turn came up, the bouncer looked askance at my blaster and stood patiently in the way, arms folded as if he was prepared to wait until the universe died of heat death. I was a little nervous about giving it up but I imagined there was no way I was going to get in otherwise, so I unbuckled the holster belt and traded the whole ensemble for a chit. Then I paid the cover fee and we were in.

Inside the club it was noise, music, light and writhing bodies everywhere. Jillian immediately dragged me to the center of the dance floor, where she began to move her body with sinuous grace that almost made me forget I was supposed to be moving as well. Although dancing is distinctly not one of my virtues, I tried to twist myself into some sort of complementary rhythm to her motion and we were off. She watched me with her emerald eyes, smiling at me and making me look good in spite of myself. Unfortunately, after only three sets the sweat was pouring off me and I was gasping for breath. A year in space on my own little ship hadn't provided me with the most comprehensive aerobic exercise known to mankind. She looked like she was just beginning to warm up, but she took me gently by the hand and led me off the dance floor. She yelled something to me, but even with her mouth next to my ear I couldn't make out what she was saying, so I nodded and followed her closely. It turned out she was making her way to the ladies' room. There was another line, so I stood with her as we waited. She tried to shout something in my ear again, but I shook my head and waved my hand to indicate the noise. She shrugged and smiled at me, and her eyes were very bright. I realized I was staring at them, so I uncomfortably looked away and around the club.

As I looked around, I noticed a section in the nearby corner that caught my interest. Men, women and creatures of a dozen races were spinning in mid-air, bouncing off walls and gracefully sailing past each other as if gravity had no meaning to them. I deduced that it didn't; the section sported a localized gravity field allowing patrons to dance in near weightlessness. I decided that looked far more interesting to me than gyrating on the dance floor. It's so much easier to look graceful in null-g than in Terran normal, at least for me. I tapped Jillian on the shoulder and shouted in her ear, but she shook her head at me and smiled. I raised my finger, then pointed it at the null-g section. She smiled at me and shook her head again. I must not have hid my disappointment as well as I thought, because she flirted the skirt of her dress at me and winked. I understood immediately: she didn't want to flash the world while soaring through the air. While I found the image enticing, I could respect her objection.

Waiting for Jillian gave me the time to catch my breath, for which I was grateful. It also gave me the time to look over the club and be impressed. In addition to the gravity generator, there was a bar that spanned three of the four walls of the club with bartenders positioned every few meters to serve as many patrons as possible. There was a very localized gravity field in three sections where people could sail up or down to adjoining levels. The second and third stories of the club had no stairs or elevators; they could only be reached by literally flying. It looked tricky; you had to push off in the direction you wanted, or you'd end up going the wrong way. I also saw the results of women who didn't think about the effects of flying on dresses; quite a few women flashed the crowd on their way down to a lower level. Some immediately tried to bat down the fabric in bouts of modesty; others seemed not to care. A few showed quite a bit more than one might expect. The higher stories seemed to sport more dancing and bars, but mostly chairs and tables where people could sit and relax while watching the crowd. Here and there I spotted bouncers in club uniform moving among the crowd. None of them seemed to have much to do, but most of them looked alert and capable.

There was a gentle tap on my shoulder, and Jillian was standing beside me indicating she was ready. I noticed that her dress had changed color from red to jade green, which I thought complimented her eyes and skin very nicely. I shouted my appreciation, but she still couldn't hear me. Shame that a place rich enough to afford multiple gravity generators couldn't put in sound baffles. I moved my head with exaggerated care, looking her up and down, then smiled and nodded. She beamed, taking my intent. Again she grabbed me by the hand and dragged me toward the dance floor.

It seemed an accident when Jillian bumped into a very tall, large brute of a man with a thick, bushy beard. I think I came up to his shoulder. He swung his head around to glare at her, and his mouth shouted something I could only guess was unflattering. I pushed in closer and tugged at her arm to pull her in the opposite direction, but as I moved he reached out and grabbed her other arm, pulling her in close and shouting some more. Still holding on, I was dragged with her. He must have been very strong; I felt like I had been snagged by a tractor beam.

Jillian did not look pleased. Her face was angry, and she was shouting something back. I couldn't imagine that they could hear anything, but it seemed apparent that they knew each other. Jillian jerked her arm free of my grasp and pounded ineffectually on the brute's chest. His eyes narrowed and he swung back his free hand as if to strike her.

Suddenly, I was regretting leaving my blaster at the door. There was no way I was going to be able to match this guy in a fistfight, even if I had an inkling of what I was doing. But I couldn't just let him abuse my date, particularly not one as pretty as Jillian. So I did the best thing I could think of: I kicked him in the groin as hard as I could.

They both stopped and stared at me. While pain filled the brute's eyes, he neither doubled over nor otherwise indicated that he was incapacitated, something I would have been had it been done to me. A snarl appeared on his lips and he lunged for me.

Recognizing when I've done something stupid and self-defeating is something I'm good at. I've had a lot of practice. Survival is something else I'm good at, which make these two skills very complementary. I realized I'd done something stupid by kicking him and that I needed to run away, very quickly. It might not be the most courageous thing I could do when attempting to defend Jillian, but it was certainly the most practical. I immediately stepped to the side and pushed my way through the crowd, almost panicking in my need to get away. People moved sluggishly, the population density in the area was too high for me to simply bludgeon my way through. The brute seemed to have no such trouble, and I felt someone shoved against me from behind as I made my way. He was entirely too close. Where was a bouncer when I needed one?

I discovered that I was heading toward the null-g dance arena. The crowd abruptly thinned near the edge of the field, giving me the chance to burst forward and leap into the field, shoving off with my hind foot to get my momentum going. I sailed up into the air, narrowly avoiding the graceful air ballerinas as I went. Had it been under different circumstances, I would have enjoyed this event and savored it. As it was, I just hoped I'd kicked off hard enough.

I glanced behind me and found that the brute had, in fact, followed me into the field. But while I knew how to maneuver in null-g, it was clear he didn't. He tumbled gracelessly into the dancers and threw them to the side, incidentally pushing himself in the opposite direction. With his forward momentum lost, he floated around helplessly, trying to reach for dancers to angle off them. Most were uncooperative and easily avoided him. I looked back at my trajectory and found I was about to slam into the wall. I twisted my body around so my legs absorbed the impact and used that energy to kick off toward the ground, away from my now helpless pursuer. People were grinning at me as I flew by, and a few clapped at me. I nodded politely and gave a small salute. On the way back down I was able to enjoy the experience, short as it was. I flipped myself forward to attempt to land neatly, and found I'd misjudged the edge of the field by half a meter. I slammed to the ground in a graceless belly-flop, where I lay stunned.

Strong hands grabbed my shirt from behind and I was lifted effortlessly in the air. Although dizzy with the abrupt motion, I still attempted to struggle in vain. The brute had found his way down and was about to kill me! I was carried quickly to a side door and tossed out without ceremony. After the door slammed closed, I realize that my ears were still ringing from the sheer volume of sound in the club, and the stillness outside seemed deafening. I still hadn't quite caught my breath from my earlier landing, and this latest meeting with the ground hadn't helped. Eventually, I was able to climb to my feet. Then after I'd regained my balance well enough, I staggered toward the door and pounded on it, shouting that Jillian was still inside. No one answered. I decided that was getting me nowhere fast, so I made my way painfully to the front. At least the silence wasn't quite so loud by that point.

The bouncers had tripled in number, and they stared at me with unfriendly eyes. "Jillian," I gasped. "She's still in there!"

The front bouncer shook her head, curly hair bouncing across her forehead. "Forget it. You're not going back in there."

"But she's my date! Please, let me -"

She raised her hand, and I stopped. Then she lowered her hand and crossed her arms. End of discussion. I slumped, deflated. Then a thought crossed my mind. I reached slowly into my pocket (the intensity of their stares increased dramatically) and pulled out my chit. "Can I at least claim this?"

The lead bouncer smirked and extended her hand. I placed it gently in her palm and waited while she disappeared inside. The other three continued to watch me carefully until she returned. She carried the blaster in its holster, but before she handed it to me she pointed up at the balcony. "See those holes up there?" I dutifully looked up and nodded. "You draw, they'll vaporize you where you stand. Are we clear?"

I nodded slowly and accepted my weapon. I glanced at the guards, then pushed the button on the handle to check the charge. It was still full, so I slowly hooked it to my shoulder harness and turned to go.

"Hideo!" Jillian's voice reached me from inside the club. I quickly turned back and craned my neck to find her. There are times when I hate being shorter than most everyone around me. Eventually she burst through the line and heads swiveled to follow her as she ran up to me, took me by the hand and we were off. It occurred to me later that she had a remarkable talent for running in high heels.

We rounded a corner two blocks over and she pulled up against the wall, laughing and slightly short of breath. I'm afraid I was quite winded. I rested with my palms on my knees, sweat dripping from my forehead (again). I resolved that I was going to exercise more (maybe have the computer set the ship's field at one and a quarter gravities...maybe one and a tenth) as I looked up at her, seeing her face flushed and her left hand rubbing the knuckles of her right hand. " space...just...happened?" I asked, wishing I sounded less winded and more confident.

She grinned at me and rubbed her knuckles a little more. "That was Pitr, my boyfriend."

"Your what?" In spite of myself, I straightened and stared at her. She shook her head, laughing a little more.

"No, no, it's not what you think!" She giggled and dug in her carryall for something. "He's my ex. We've been separated for two months, but you'd never know it by the way he behaves. Total idiot, I don't know what I saw in him."

I thought about the brute's physique, but wisely kept my comments to myself as she dug a small vial out of her pocket and sprayed a fine mist around her neck. It smelled spicy and alluring as the scent drifted into my senses. I realized I'd smelled it on her all evening, but it hadn't quite registered until now. I liked it.

She put the vial away and regarded me with sparkling eyes. "Poor Hideo, I'm so sorry. I should have warned you but I didn't think about it. It's a big club, and I haven't seen him there in two weeks. Come on, let's get you cleaned up. I'm sorry the bouncers were so rough, but they have a zero-tolerance policy. I headed for the door as soon as I saw them grab you." She reached for me with her right hand, then thought better of it and extended her left.

I took it and glanced curiously at her right hand as she began to lead me to her vehicle by a back route. "What happened to you?"

"Oh, he came after me before I could get out. I decked him and ran."

"You decked him?" This woman was full of surprises. I decided she really needed to meet my computer. I thought they'd get along fabulously, the way they surprised me.

"He's got a glass jaw. Poor guy, you wouldn't think it of him, but if you hit him in the face he goes down."

"While kicking him...the way I did, just makes him mad?"

"That's right. That was very brave of you; he's very strong and very temperamental, and he looks like a monster. I don't know who was more shocked, him or me."

I noticed we were approaching her transport, and walked around to the passenger side. "I couldn't just let him hit you. It seemed a crime both against you and everyone else who likes your body just the way it is."

She flushed again and grinned at me. "I see I've got to be careful around you," she said as she unlocked the doors and climbed in. "You seem to know all the right things to say."

Whoa. That was a first. I took a moment to savor her praise before the whining of her vehicles engine reminded me that she was ready to go. I climbed in beside her and strapped in. When I turned to face her she surprised me, again, with a quick kiss.

I paused another moment to recover from my surprise. "Um...thank you. What was that for?"

"To thank you. You were spectacular back there, especially the way you lost him in the zero-g arena. I was very impressed, and so were the people around me. I think you've become a local legend. They'll be talking about that jump for weeks."

My lips were tingling, and I could smell that scent of hers lingering in the air around me. No, the guys were never going to believe this.

The spicy scent filled my senses when I woke followed swiftly by the sensation of satin bedclothes snugly wrapped around my body. Overall it was a decidedly delicious feeling. I yawned and stretched languidly, enjoying the feeling of being totally relaxed for the first time since before I could remember. After a while I opened my eyes and looked around the spacious hotel suite I'd checked into.

I was alone, of course. Jillian saw me to the hotel before going off to her own flat where we could both sleep in peace. As tired as I was I didn't put up much of a fight, and it seemed to relieve her. I suppose maybe I'd sent her some pretty strong signals about my intent. Two years is a long time to go without female companionship.

I rolled over on my belly and stared intently on the chronometer until it came into focus. It was just shy of 1300 hours local time, which meant I had to have slept at least eleven hours. Jillian was probably working right now (hopefully having received a nice bonus for negotiating so much money out of me) and the contractors should be hard at work on the Gilmour. Everything ought to be in order, except for me. While I was supposed to be treating myself to a week of rest and relaxation that I needed badly, I had a nagging feeling I ought to be out looking for work.

My stomach growled, and I rolled out of bed to look for the food dispenser. After a futile search of the room, I realized that this was a good hotel. They didn't provide food dispensers for their guests, they provided an in-house galley and restaurant where customers could eat like civilized beings. People could even order room service if they really wanted to eat in the solitude of their rooms. It was such a novel concept I hadn't even thought of it at first. I was too used to living in space.

I began to search for my clothes as I assured my stomach I would fill it as soon as I could. But my mind was still on work. Where could I go to pick up leads? Whose brain could I pick to find out who needed shipments run fast? Would I need to buy from suppliers here to run to other worlds, or would I need to check for people who needed shipments coming in? I realized I might need to draw up a legal contract guaranteeing money for service, lest I end up shafted by a businessman who suddenly realized he didn't need the goods after all. I also realized I was as capable of writing a competent legal contract as I was capable of sniffing gold out of an asteroid belt. I might get lucky, but it wasn't likely.

Hold it right there, Trader, I told myself sternly as I pulled on my left boot. You're on vacation. Stow the shoptalk until at least the end of the week.

I belted on my blaster and headed for the door, wondering if there was a bar frequented by other Traders in the area. If nothing else, I could get clues on where not to go. I had to pause in the hallway to ask myself just why in space I was so focused on trading. Couldn't I even take a full day off to enjoy myself and date a pretty woman without letting my work consume me? After a moment of reflection, I supposed the answer was that I couldn't.

I punched the button for the elevator and smirked at my own stupidity. If I was that pathetic I might as well mix business with pleasure. I had just remembered Jillian mentioning the Golden Asteroid to me last night, and I figured that I might as well find out what was so special about it. Other than their Ikarian Twisters. They were too sweet for my taste.

Once I reached the hotel lobby I found a public phone and dialed her office. I had to leave a message as she was out on business, so I let her know that I'd probably be at the pub she'd mentioned once she got out of work. Then it was a matter of finding this place. The data terminal with the phone told me it was on the north side of town, a good hike from my current location. Too far to walk, I decided; I'd done that last night. I dialed up a cab.

The transport arrived within five minutes, and I fed the address into its automated query. As it lifted off, I suddenly realized my stomach was complaining about my breach of contract. I hadn't stopped for breakfast in the restaurant. I hoped the Golden Asteroid had good food as well as drinks.

"I'll see you and raise you fifty creds."

I cringed. The Pelorian sitting across the table was staring intently at me, as if by doing so he could read my mind, or at least my cards. The trouble was that human or not, I wasn't convinced he couldn't. It seemed that whenever I thought he was bluffing he wasn't, and when I thought he wasn't, he was. I'd lost a couple of days' credits in the past two hours, and I wasn't sure if it was already too late to bail out. I called his bet and threw down the three eights in my hand. The other two players at the table, Shana and Bob, nodded appreciatively at my cards. My opponent, the Pelorian named Batura, showed me the four kings he'd been hiding before raking in the chips. I took a long gulp of my beer.

"Hello, boys," called out a familiar musical voice. A half dozen male voices responded with, "Jillian!" as I turned around to look. She flashed me her smile as she made her way toward our table.

"Evening," I said as I stood and took her hand to squeeze it affectionately. "I'm glad you could join us."

"Oh Hideo, did you find Bat and his gang already? How much have you lost to them?" She leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek as I basked in the glory of knowing that I was envied at this moment. I paused to pull up a chair for her before I answered.

"Oh, just a few thousand credits, nothing much." I hoped my tone didn't betray the outrage I actually felt over my loss. I'd never lost more than a hundred credits with John and the others; they'd taken pity on an apprentice Trader and didn't milk me for much. Perhaps it was a mark of status that these Traders weren't pulling their punches; I was officially one of them.

Jillian glared at my fellow card players and dialed herself a Twister. "Bat, take pity on him. He just got in from a rough run. I should know; I'm handling his repair contract."

The Pelorian grinned and toasted her with his beer. "Any friend of yours is a friend of mine. Sorry, Takenoshita. If I'd known the company you kept I would have toned down the betting."

I scowled and crossed my arms, glancing back and forth between them. "Hey, doesn't this violate some sort of client privilege, or something?"

Jillian giggled and winked at me. "You didn't sign that sort of contract, handsome." She reached for her drink and sipped it delicately. I snorted in response and reached for the cards to shuffle.

"So what brings you to our fair system, Takenoshita?" Batura asked as he picked up the cards I dealt him. He rearranged them slightly before tossing in his ante and leaning back to observe the rest of the table. Shana cursed under her breath as she tossed in her chip.

"I got a lucky run, and I came here to spend my earnings," I replied as I sorted through my hand. I had a potential run going in my hand, but I was going to need two different cards. Or I could discard most of my hand and keep my high card, hoping to build off that. I decided on the former.

"He was kind enough to spend most of it on my company. He contracted all of his ship repairs and upgrades through us," Jillian put in as she tossed down a single card. I handed her a replacement, and she tossed down a pair of twenty credit chips. I pursed my lips at that; it looked like Jillian was going to be just as bad as Batura.

Batura whistled quietly as he saw Jillian's bet and raised it. "Wow, that's pretty good. Stellar charges more, but they stand by their work. It must have been a really good run."

I nodded and considered the cards I'd just picked up. My cards were going nowhere and I had a pair of sixes for a bet that was already up to eighty credits each. However, Jillian's presence and the ego boost she'd given me with her friendly kiss had emboldened me. I matched the bet and raised it another fifty. Several eyebrows raised over that, and Bob tossed down his cards.

Jillian giggled and dialed a beer for me. "Hey," I protested. "You don't have to do that."

"No," she replied. "I don't have to. But I'll feel guilty if I don't. I just can't take people's money without feeling some remorse."

Oh, but it was going to be a long night.

"Anyway," I said as Batura considered his cards. "It occurred to me that right now there are more Traders running around in the galaxy than there are asteroids, so I thought I'd take a look at something else. I thought I might check out courier services."

"Courier!" Shana exclaimed in shock. "Why would a licensed Trader want to do courier work?"

"Now, Shana," Batura cautioned. "The man's got a right to make a living any way he sees fit. And I'm betting he's got a good reason for this idea, right Takenoshita?"

I nodded and sipped my beer. "My ship is faster than it is anything else. Since I don't have the cargo space you all enjoy, I thought I'd capitalize on my speed. Cater to people who find themselves needing supplies in a hurry."

"What, are you flying an Ophid-class or something?" asked Bob, who had stayed quiet most of the day. Jillian giggled again and tossed down another chip. I suppressed a groan when I saw the number. She must have something worth the stakes we were getting into.

I nodded as I waited for the bidding to come around to me again. "David Gilmour, Ophid-class. Stellar Construction is overhauling the sublight and transition engines and checking the hull. Other than that, she flies faster than a meson running from a supernova. I wish she had more cargo space, but she's saved my hide a few times with what else she has."

Batura decided to see Jillian's bet without raising it. "That's an unusual ship for a Trader. You've been out in space for a year with her and you haven't gone bankrupt yet? I thought the Guild still taught that the secret to success was bulk."

I gazed at the impressive pile of chips on the table and decided I already had the tiger by the tail. I tossed in another fifty credits. "They do. But I already had the Gilmour when I applied to the Guild. Like Jillian said, I got a few lucky runs to keep me in business. But I can't go by the normal rules; I either turn pirate or I find something legitimate. Pirating just doesn't appeal to me, so I thought I'd try something else."

Jillian saw my bet and didn't raise it. I thought that was a good sign. "I'm glad you're not considering piracy," she said. "I've seen the repairs needed for ships that got attacked by pirates. It isn't pretty, and not all of them were salvageable. I gather that GalPol doesn't leave much behind when they find the pirates, either."

Shana folded. "You're gonna be doing medical runs, you know. They always need something run in a hurry. But you haven't the bulk to handle the supplies they'll be asking, unless you're fast enough to do several runs in the time it'd take the rest of us to do one."

I shrugged and waited as Batura considered his cards carefully. He saw the bet without raising. "Possibly, but I'd like to see what the options are. Maybe some businesses haven't considered the possibility of rush deliveries. I know I can't trade in the normal way either; I don't think I'm going to profit from buying from a supplier to sell elsewhere; I'm going to need to work out some sort of deal where I'm paid for transport, not rely on local sales." I tossed down my cards, showing my pair of sixes.

Batura frowned, then tossed down his cards with a sigh. He had a pair of fours. I had to blink in surprise. I'd beaten him?

Jillian giggled and laid down her cards gently. "Congratulations, Hideo. Next round is on you." I looked and saw she had nothing at all in her hand. She had bluffed.

I gathered up the chips and began to sort them out by denomination. "Jillian, will you be my partner?" I asked. I enjoyed the look of shock on her face. "I could use you on my ship. My luck always seems to improve when you're around."

I was rewarded with a pretty blush and a brilliant smile. "You make it sound very tempting that way, Hideo. Thank you, but no."

I shrugged and handed her the cards to shuffle. "Oh well, it was worth a try. Keep it in mind. If nothing else, I could use your negotiating talents on my side. I still can't believe you got me to spend that much money on your company."

"Well, it was a less than I could have pushed for," she replied as she quickly and efficiently shuffled the deck. I had the distinct impression that I wasn't going to catch her bluffing again. "But since you were nice enough to suggest dinner, I thought you deserved a break."

Batura and Shana coughed together, caught by surprise. Bob burst out with, "You went to dinner..." He trailed off uncomfortably, then quickly excused himself from the table. I stared at him as he left.

"Is there something wrong?" I asked, taking a long drink from my beer.

Batura shook his head and laughed. "I don't know if Jillian's told you or not, but she has an ex-boyfriend by the name of Pitr. The fellow has more temper than brains. Bob knows Pitr, and knows what'll happen when Pitr hears his would-be-beau has a new boyfriend."

I felt the blood drain from my face as I slumped in my chair. "Yeah, we met."

Shana drained her glass quickly. "You did? And you're still alive?"

"Hideo was incredible," Jillian put in. "We went dancing at the Black Eight last night, and we ran into Pitr. Hideo kicked him where it counts, then lead him to the null-g floor and flew rings around him. Pitr didn't have a chance, and was the laughingstock of the whole club!"

Batura and Shana looked at me with new respect as I flushed and slumped a little more in my chair. "Then Jillian decked him, knocked him out cold and went outside the club to pick me up. The bouncers weren't sympathetic."

"No," Shana said as she tossed in her ante. "They aren't."

"Courier runs," Batura mused as he sorted his cards. "You know, I think you might actually have competition, Hideo."

"Wonderful," I muttered as I tossed in two twenties. "What else can go wrong today?"

"Well, the lady I'm thinking of flies a Ferla so it isn't as though you're looking at equal competition. She's got the cargo space you don't, but you've got the speed she lacks. I don't think you'd attract the same customers, but it's always a good idea to know who you're up against." Batura upped the ante when his turn came. Shana and I folded simultaneously. I wasn't feeling as brave after my brief success.

"Thank you, Bat," Jillian said as she met and raised his bet. "I knew Hideo would find what he needs if he talked with you."

He beamed at her and raised again. "Anything for a friend of yours, Jillian. I'm still impressed that he talked you into dinner. I thought you didn't do that with clients."

She winked at me. "There's just something about him I couldn't resist. And he phrased it so it could be considered a working dinner, so I got to charge it to the company. They aren't complaining, and neither am I. We had fun."

My face was burning even more than before, and I stared at the bottom of my drink for a while until I was able to regain my composure. I'm not used to being complimented by beautiful women, and I don't know how to take it. I was enjoying it, of course, but I was flustered and embarrassed as well as pleased. It was unfamiliar.

When I remembered to pay attention again, I found that Jillian had won the round and Batura was shuffling the deck. I had noted earlier that he had a unique way of doing shuffling which I found fascinating to watch but impossible to describe. As I watched him this time, he remarked, "Hideo, the way you stare at cards I can't help but think you're accusing me of cheating." I glanced up and saw him smirking at me.

Shana punched him in the arm. "That's because you do, you shark." He shrugged and began to deal. From the top of the deck, I saw. Whenever Alec wanted to cheat, he dealt from the bottom of the deck. Maybe Batura was simply better than Alec was. I wasn't good enough to assume.

"What's the name of my possible competition?" I asked as I picked up my cards and sorted through them. I was one card from a low-end run, so I placed my ante, bet an additional twenty credits and tossed down a single card. The new card wasn't everything I hoped, but it would allow me to beat a pair.

"Her name is Rashida," Batura replied as he exchanged Jillian's card with one from the deck. "I don't know where it's from, but she told me it means 'righteous.' The name fits, too." He gave himself two cards and raised the bet.

"Be kind," Jillian admonished gently, watching Shana frown at her cards and tap at her teeth before tossing credits onto the pile. "How well do you know her, anyway?"

"I've seen her around town, and heard her bullying her way through port control. I had drinks with her once, and that was enough for me. As far as I can tell she's scrupulous about what she considers right and wrong. She'll stick by her principles to the bitter end, and she'll raise hell with anyone who violates her standards."

I shuddered as I tossed in my bet. I had decided to raise cautiously, enough to raise the stakes, but not enough that I was going to commit my dwindling fortune. "Sounds like she won't be easy to work with."

"I know Stellar Construction has done some business with her in the past," Jillian put in as she glanced briefly at her cards before raising the ante again. "I didn't work on the account, but Philbin described it like wrestling a taklizard bare-handed. He said she wanted to pay prices advertised by the scam artists, and threw a fit when he pointed out the difference in quality and service. He let her talk him down some, but she didn't seem very happy when she signed the contract. He quietly mentioned he wouldn't lose any sleep if we don't get repeat business from her."

"You aren't helping my peace of mind," I growled gently. Shana saw the bet once again and put her cards down, looking unhappy. I quickly matched the current bet, hoping I wouldn't lose my shirt.

"I'm sorry, was I supposed to be?" Jillian asked sweetly as she put in the last matching bet. I winked at her.

"Hey, be glad you're finding out this much," Batura advised as he revealed his hand. Three tens, not enough to beat my run.

Shana grumbled as she revealed her pair of kings. "Well, if this doesn't change soon I'm going to be out. I still have to buy food, you know."

"Sorry, Shana," I sympathized as I tossed down my hand. "And yes, I am glad to be hearing this. I just wish the news were a little more encouraging. I don't want to take business away from anyone; I couldn't if I wanted to. I just don't want to cause any more trouble than I have to." I looked patiently at Jillian who was inspecting everyone else's cards before laying down her own.

Two and three pair, queens high. If I thought Bat was bad, Jillian was definitely worse. She tried to smother a smug look as she raked in the credits, but didn't entirely succeed.

"Any idea where I can find this Rashida?" I asked as casually as I could. "I assume I'd have noticed if she came in here today."

"Oh yes, you would have," Batura said firmly. "A little bird told me she went off on one of her jaunts a few days ago. Unless she got something unusual, she should be back within a week, two at the most. I'd say you've got some time to check around before you run into her."

"A little bird, huh?" Shaana snorted as she sorted and re-sorted her cards. "Sounds like this little bird of yours might be in violation of a few Federation policies. This bird wouldn't happen to work in a control tower, right?"

"Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't." Batura grinned and smiled beatifically at me as I matched the current bet. I was going to lose badly this round, and he knew it. "But my little bird sings very discreetly. Nobody's noticed yet, and nobody's going to. Right?"

Everyone at the table nodded quickly, even Jillian. Solidarity is important to Traders. We take care of our own. Outsiders like Jillian are rare, but they follow the unspoken rules even more carefully than members. One slip of the tongue, and she could be just as easily uninvited, and her business would likewise suffer.

"Your little bird must have a hell of a song," I remarked, watching Jillian bite the corner of her lip as she contemplated her next move. I found it very distracting. "I wonder who else listens to it?"

"Nobody," Batura assured me. "If you want better information, you'll have to cultivate your own sources. This one set me back a lot of credits before I got anything useful."

"Hey, I'd never dream of horning in on your show," I replied hastily. "Honor among thieves, and all that. I suppose I'm a little paranoid about double-dealing. It seems to be the way my luck has run over the past few months."

There was an almost tangible feeling of relief as Jillian called the current bet. Batura tossed down his cards: three jacks. He set his elbows on the table looking pleased with himself, simultaneously daring anyone to beat his hand. Shana threw down her cards with a grunt and began gathering her things. I reluctantly revealed my pair of kings. Then we all turned expectantly to Jillian, who hadn't moved.

Her lower lip trembled slightly. I had no idea if this was a good sign, or a bad one. Or for whom. Then she shrugged and tossed down her cards. "Sorry, Bat."

Royal flush. Everyone groaned out loud as she raked in the credits again. "My shout?" she offered. When Batura and I nodded, she dialed the next order of drinks. I took up the cards and began shuffling.

Shana stood and waved. "Thanks for the game, guys. It's been brutal."

"Pleasure to meet you." I stopped shuffling long enough to offer my hand, which she shook firmly.

"See you tomorrow, Shana?" Batura asked before he lifted his drink.

"No, I'm heading out tonight. Dendar Cluster, of all places. Supposed to be a big demand for electronics. I hope that tip is current."

"Good luck," I replied. "If the demand is right, you can buy the drinks next time."

"You betcha." She waved and headed out the door.

I handed the deck to Jillian, who tapped it. Then I began dealing. I hoped they would be kind to me.

They weren't.

Upgrading a ship's computer is essentially the same as upgrading the power systems, merely more specialized. After tracing miles of circuit boards and replacing any worn or burnt-out wiring, the technicians from Stellar Construction replaced the old dedicated power generator and installed a newer, stronger one. The circuits and chips themselves were essentially unchanged from when the Gilmour was first assembled, but the chips were power hungry and would consume any output a ship could generate. The wiring was an alloy that was used in most systems, particularly energy weapons and shield emitters. The more power fed through them, the better the result. My computer could theoretically calculate the number of pi to well over a quadrillion decimals in a nanosecond if it were provided enough power. The upgrade conducted by Stellar Construction would be a welcome change, as the AI would be able to make calculations without having to sacrifice video projection for my benefit.

While the circuitry was capable of handling an almost infinite amount of power (theoretically), power systems weren't quite so sophisticated. Scientists announced an unbreakable ceiling in power technology some six centuries ago. They said that while they could make some improvements in efficiency, they couldn't generate any more power. The generators of today are a little better than the same size generators of four centuries ago, but the effect is miniscule. Stellar Construction had to install a larger generator to get a significant increase in performance, which gave me a strict limit on exactly how fast I could make my computer given my space considerations.

Thanks to some leftover military security software, the only person capable of giving orders to the AI was me. If I had any crew, I'd have expanded the parameters to include them. There was an option for allowing a third-party technician temporary access, but I was feeling paranoid. Thus, I was in the cockpit issuing test commands to the AI for the new connections and making sure there wasn't any faulty circuitry.

"Computer, run a full defense shield diagnostic."

"Acknowledged. Running diagnostic." The video display never wavered, and the talking lips synched perfectly with the computer's verbal response. The borders seemed sharper as well, less pixilated. Very nice.

"Do you think -"

"Diagnostic complete. Defense shields at optimal performance."

"You're finished? That was fast!"

"Boss, let's just say that this upgrade was worth every credit. These guys deserve a tip!"

I flinched and sat back in my seat. A tip was out of the question. The upgrades were a milestone for me, a victory that I would savor for some time. Unfortunately, my vacation was being cut short. After losing far too much money to Batura and Jillian the other day, I'd compounded the problem by wining and dining Jillian at every opportunity. I'd seen her every night for half a week, and our relationship was shaping up nicely. The problem was that my credits were disappearing fast. I needed to drum up some business, and soon.

Shana had been right, from what I could find. The people most interested in speed needed medical supplies. They were offering top dollar for them, but top dollar in medicals was far below the standard of, say, gold or luxuries. Or narcotics, my brain added helpfully. I stomped on that thought hard.

"Hey boss."


"Remember that letter to your family you wanted me to remind you of?"


"I'm reminding you."

"No kidding." As I'd expected, I'd completely forgotten about it. I was none too pleased, even though I had asked the computer to prompt me. I don't know why I was so reluctant to record a message to my parents and send it off, but I was. I guess I just kept imagining the look of disapproval on my father's face.

"Shall I interpret that as a request to remind you again in another couple of days?"

"No, this is probably the best time to do it. We can't do any more work until these guys finish with your systems, and I've nowhere to go this afternoon." Not until Jillian finished work. Of course, I could always swing by the Golden Asteroid again, but if I did I knew I'd get sucked into another game, and the odds favored me walking out dressed in a barrel. I really couldn't afford it, and it was best not to yield to the temptation.

"Got it, boss. I'll signal your quarters when they're done, all right?"

"Thanks." I pulled myself out of my chair and meandered to my quarters, my mind drifting in a thousand directions. All of them were staying far away from the topic of family. All right, so I'm a coward. I can admit that.

My cabin is not the most luxurious place, and I rarely spend time there when I'm not trying to sleep. However, for an interstellar craft it's downright spacious. Although space is at a high premium when factoring in the need for equipment, engines, shielding and cargo space, the Ophid-class ships were designed for extended travel. The designers assumed that the crew would be spending months, possibly years without landing on a human world, and the value of public and private spaces were not to be underestimated. Thus, my cabin would probably take up three like it on a Corba-class. The problem was I didn't have that much junk to fill it. Oh, I didn't have to claim the captain's cabin for my quarters, but it wouldn't seem right not to. I'm the captain, so I should sleep in the captain's bunk, right?

I sat down on the cot and reached for the terminal. No more delays. Time lag to Rekan would delay receipt of my transmission for at least twelve days, so I didn't have to worry about a face-to-face confrontation with my father. All I had to do was plaster a smile on my face, look at the screen and tell them how well things were going for me.

"Begin recording." I waited until the screen lit up with red letters acknowledging my order. "Mom, Dad...hi. I'm in the Selaris System right now waiting for the upgrades to my ship to finish. I'm still in the Gilmour, and she's working beautifully for me. I had some minor trouble with the stasis generators a few weeks ago, but that's been fixed."

I took a breath, trying to collect my thoughts. It'd been too long since I'd contacted them. I couldn't just record a short note and leave it at that. They'd be furious.

"You might remember the stroke of luck I had after earning my Guild membership, right? Well, I coasted on that for a while, but I got kinda stupid. Followed some bad leads, got taken by a crook and came pretty close to washing out. The guy who cheated me filed for bankruptcy and the courts are deciding what to do, but I've seen the list of people who want money from him. I'm not going to get much. Fortunately, I got lucky again and made some good runs. It earned me enough to take a break here in Selaris to get the Gilmour some maintenance and minor upgrades.

"I've decided that I can't follow the normal Trader patterns. No offense Dad, but the Ophid-class aren't designed for bulk cargo, and that's the Guild's formula for success. My options are to sell the Gilmour and get something else, or go bust. Well, I'm not ready to sell this old girl, and I'm not fond of going bust either."

I found that as I talked my brain came up with new things to say, to fill in details I knew my parents would want. I told them about my plans and hopes, I even told them about Jillian and how we'd been seeing each other. I knew it would make my mother happy.

I also found some of the tension I'd re-acquired lift away. It was like going into a confessional to unload my burden of sins. I scrupulously avoided any mention of secret research for new elements or threats of retaliation from drug lords. I remembered what the computer had said to me, how it suggested that my father might be a little more forgiving of smugglers than I thought. I decided not to push my luck anyway. I did mention the suspicion that seemed to follow me, the automatic assumption that my ship must be used for smuggling.

I was well into my narrative dialogue when a message flashed on the terminal. The computer wanted my attention. I finished the topic I was on, then touched "pause" on the screen.


"Boss, the technical crew is finished here. They want your signature, and then we're done with my upgrades."

"I'll be right there." I resumed the recording. "Well, I'm sorry to cut this short but they just finished the work on the Gilmour. It's time for me to get back to work. I'm sorry I was out of touch for so long, but I promise not to let so much time pass before you hear from me again. Give my regards to Mika, and say 'hi' to the gang for me. See you later."

I hit "stop" and gave the next order. "Save message and transmit to Hiro Takenoshita 26974, Rekan III."

The terminal flashed its acknowledgement. "Message saved. Transmission commencing. Estimated time of arrival: three hundred sixty-three hours, nineteen minutes."

I took a deep breath, stood up and went to finish the paperwork.

"I hate medical runs," I grumbled as we stepped outside the nightclub. I fought the urge to duck as the blue sphere of the club's holographic logo swung by my head. This wasn't the Black Eight, it was the Ice Moon club. It wasn't as crowded or as loud as the other, and as Jillian had warned they watered down their drinks. But Jillian had found a deejay she liked so we came to dance here. They even had a small null-grav area that she braved for me. I discovered she had anticipated the event, as she had worn shorts that matched the color of her skirt. She was amused that I peeked.

"I mean, they're paying me triple for the time savings I'm offering, which is good, but my profit margin is gonna be low."

Jillian nudged me out of the path of a puddle I'd almost overlooked during my rant. Then she wrapped her arm around my waist and snuggled up to me, matching her longer stride to my short legs. "Hmm," she said companionably.

"I hope I can attract some better customers. I mean, I sympathize with the people on Yeager, but I'm not trying to make a name as a philanthropist."


"You understand me, right? I'm just trying to make a living. Okay, so maybe I'm greedy. Maybe I got used to soft sheets and room service. I mean, that's why I became a Trader. I like walking into the Golden Asteroid and buying drinks for people. I like losing a ton of credits in a poker game, even if I'd like winning better. I want to get ahead, to be good at what I do. Is that so wrong?"

"Of course not, Hideo."

"There's money in trading, good money. That's why there are so many of us. We're all looking to make an extra credit, to get ahead. Be good at what we do. But you can't really say you've succeeded unless you can afford to transport precious goods. Luxuries, gold, that sort of thing. Or find a market that desperately needs what you carry. Yeager needs the medicines I'm hauling to them, but the money just isn't there. I want to find a buyer who can really appreciate the services I offer. That makes sense, right?"

"Oh yes, perfect sense."

"It's so frustrating to have a ship like the Gilmour. I can't imagine giving her up, trading for something that can haul more than a few metric tons. But without that capacity, it's so damnably hard to get ahead. There's got to be middle ground somewhere. Most people think Ophids are only good for piracy and smuggling, and maybe they're right. But there's got to be a niche for me somewhere, I can feel it!"

"She's a part of you," Jillian said as she squeezed me with her arm and nuzzled her cheek against my hair. "She's a part of who you are. You couldn't give that up."

"Yeah, exactly! My father helped me buy her before I became a Trader. Helped me restore her. I still need to pay him back for all the money he invested in me. That's part of why it's so important that I find something better. I mean, doesn't anyone have a desperate need for luxuries? Why all food and medicines? Who says gold can't be an immediate need?"

"It's a shame the only medicines worth hauling are drugs," Jillian murmured. I didn't blame her for the low pitch. Smuggling narcotics is a quick way to earn a long vacation in an unpleasant hole. Even talking about it can bring unwanted scrutiny.

"I already turned down offers to run drugs," I sighed. "Even got interrogated by GalPol over it. Bastards tried to frame me for smuggling. I've never talked so fast in my life."

"You told me about it," Jillian reminded me gently. "But surely there are other things to run besides drugs. I mean, the Federation has a huge list of contraband. Most of them only earn you a slap on the hand if you're caught with them."

I shook my head vehemently. "That's a slippery slope. I don't want anyone trying to leverage me into more dangerous runs. Besides, I want to be legitimate through and through. It's hard enough trying to live up to my father's standards working as a Trader. I can only imagine the reaction if word came to him that I'm a criminal."

Jillian shrugged gently. "I didn't mean to push. I don't have any smuggling connections, I'm just trying to think of ways for you to get ahead."

"Thanks, I mean that." We paused at a corner and I turned to face her. "You're the best friend I've had in a long time. I'm serious. If I could seduce you away from Stellar Construction, I'd take you as a partner any day."

She smirked, but her eyes were bright. "Hideo..."


"You talk too much."

Her lips were warm and soft, and the sensation of her body molding itself to mine sent my heart racing faster than a pulsar. We'd flirted on the edge of attraction for days, and the tension between us had been almost palpable. The wait was worth it.

Our perfect moment was interrupted by the high-pitched whine of an overtaxed suspension field bearing down on us. Jillian and I broke away simultaneously to see a personal transport floater racing at us at top speed. I shoved Jillian to the right just before leaping to the left. If I'd been a little faster I would have made it, but the front fender clipped my right leg and sent me tumbling. When I finally came to rest I found that I couldn't move it, and I didn't dare stop to check it. I was afraid of what I might find. Instead I lay still, panting and trying to think through the waves of pain washing through me. I heard a door slam and a man's voice shouting anger.

Then Jillian's voice broke through. "No Pitr! Don't!"

My blaster was in my hand, searching for a target when the first blast hit the ground by my head. I felt the heat scorch my hair, and I was able to focus on the brute who tried to kill me in the Black Eight. He had his own blaster aiming in my general direction. From the way he held his weapon, it seemed he was a little too drunk to target properly, but that was no matter. He was advancing on me steadily, and sooner or later he was going to get close enough that he couldn't miss.

I'd never killed a man. Never pointed a blaster at one, never fired at anything but a practice target. I'm a fair shot, and my teachers always praised me for my steady hand. Still, it's one thing to shoot at a holographic target. It's something else to do it for real. The world shrank until there was only him in my vision, him and the barrel of the blaster aiming for me.

He was going to kill me. He was going to stand over my body and pull the trigger until the charge was empty. He wanted me dead, and the only way to stop him was to shoot him first. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to shoot him, didn't want to kill him. I entertained no illusions that I wouldn't kill him if I fired. Shooting to wound only works on bad holovision programs.

My finger tightened on the sensor stud. I didn't want to kill him, but what choice did I have?

There was an explosion of light, and my left arm erupted with pain. My body jerked sympathetically, spoiling my aim as my finger reflexively triggered the blaster. There was a second explosion, and Pitr dropped to the ground. I watched his face, saw his expression change from drunken wrath to sudden, sober realization. Saw the grimace as the shock hit him, as his body doubled up from the abrupt discharge of heat in his body. Watched his teeth click shut, drawing blood from his tongue as the first spasm of pain overwhelmed him. Watched him crumble and fall to the ground.

Then it was over. Pitr was down, and the pain I'd forgotten in the heat of the moment returned to the fore. I dropped my blaster and moaned, unable to do anything more except succumb to the agony. My leg was throbbing like crazy, I couldn't feel anything from my left arm except pain and I didn't know if I could move anything. I thought it best if I didn't try.

Jillian's voice came to me over the rush of blood in my ears. "Hideo!"

"Jillian!" I called out, then gasped for breath. " for help!"

I heard some voices in the background, Jillian's voice strident in her pleas for help. Shock was settling in, and my mind detached to somewhere safe, where I didn't have to feel or worry for a while. I didn't have to see Pitr's face when I shot him. Then I fell unconscious.

I woke up in a good mood. I don't know what I had been dreaming, but it was a good dream. I could feel the smile turning up the corners of my mouth as consciousness returned. Life was good.

I realized I couldn't move. My good mood slipped a little bit, but not much. I couldn't move, but I couldn't think of a compelling reason why I needed to move just now. It felt good to lay back on my starchy sheets and relax, let my body float on the wave of mild euphoria that washed over me. There was no hurry for anything. I'd figure out why I couldn't move in a little bit.

I heard voices floating somewhere above the euphoria I felt. The voices seemed somehow familiar, perhaps a little sad, but that didn't seem important right now. One of them had a sweet, high pitch that made me want to open my eyes. I wanted to see the source of that voice. I didn't know why, it just seemed important right then. Important in a good way, of course.

I opened my eyes. I was lying in a narrow bed with white sheets surrounded by machines I couldn't identify. I heard voices again, and that sweet, high-pitched voice said a single word that seemed somehow significant to me. I couldn't see the source of that voice; it was coming from somewhere to my left. Moving my head required some effort, but that sense of importance urged me on. I slowly encouraged my body to move my head to the left in search of the owner of the sweet voice. I became aware of three individuals standing there, two in white coats and one in a glittering blue-green dress. The one in the blue-green dress had very dark skin and shocking green eyes. Her expression was a mixture of fear and hope in equal measure. Her lips moved, and she said the word that seemed significant. She was the owner of the voice I liked. I smiled a little wider and closed my eyes, satisfied.

The voices came to me again, this time sounding a little more strident. I didn't know what was bothering them, and I didn't worry about it too much. I felt too good to worry about it. Everything was going just fine.

That significant word came to me, and something clicked inside my head. That word was my name. The woman with the sweet voice and shocking green eyes was saying my name. She knew me, and I knew her. Now if I could only remember why.

I opened my eyes again and looked at the woman. She looked really good, especially in that dress. I liked what I saw, and smiled wide again. She said my name again in a questioning tone. I blinked. What was she asking? I couldn't tell.

I realized I was tired. I closed my eyes and fell back to sleep. Whatever the problem, it would just have to wait. Everything would be just fine.

I woke up again a while later, but I don't know how much time had passed. The euphoria hadn't gone away, but wasn't as strong as before. It wasn't as hard to move anymore, either. I lifted my head and regretted it. A wave of vertigo overcame me, and I let myself relax back into the pillow. The pillowcase was stiff, and the pillow itself was harder than I liked. Just like a hospital, where they make you comfortable, but not too comfortable. You feel motivated to get well so you can get away.

A hospital. I realized I was in a hospital bed, and the machines around me were medical instruments, monitoring me and healing me.

I'd been shot. Memories began to return, and I was able to focus on them. I'd been walking through the streets with Jillian when a floater car ran us down. I'd been clipped and couldn't escape when Pitr got out to shoot me....

Pitr. I'd shot Pitr. Not before he'd done significant damage to me and possibly Jillian as well, but I'd shot him. I'd hit him in the belly, killed him in a horrifyingly gruesome and painful way. A blaster shot there wasn't instantly fatal, but it killed quick enough. I'd killed a man. For the first time in my life, I was a murderer.

The euphoria that had gripped me earlier was still there, calming me and keeping me from reacting. My thoughts came through in a bland, matter-of-fact way. I felt no remorse or recriminations. I merely looked at my memories dispassionately and realized the truth. I was a murderer.

I couldn't feel my right leg or my left arm. Had they been removed? Slowly, carefully, I lifted my head to take inventory. Two legs below, one hand attached to the arm still attached to my shoulder on the left. I hadn't lost anything. I just couldn't feel them at the moment. I was probably immobilized to allow the medical machines to work their miracles. They were probably the only reason shock hadn't killed me.

The sound of soft breathing came to my attention. I looked beyond my bed to the wall. A comfortable chair sat by a window, and Jillian lay reclined in it. She was still in the dress she wore dancing, and it showed a generous portion of leg. I noticed the remains of a bruise on her left leg, almost fully healed but still looking angry and out of place. Pitr had clipped her as well, but not as badly as he'd gotten me. I remembered her scream as she realized what was happening, her voice calling out my name after Pitr and I had fired on each other. She was luckier than she knew. If Pitr hadn't been so drunk, he probably wouldn't have missed us with the car, and his aim wouldn't have been so sloppy.

I looked for a clock and found the readout on the wall above the door. It was late in the evening, but I didn't know which day. I thought about calling for a nurse, but decided against it. It would wake Jillian, and the knowledge probably wouldn't help. I still felt pretty good, no doubt thanks to one of the machines hovering over me. Whatever was creating the euphoria I felt was allowing me to focus on where I was and what had happened to me without allowing me to get upset and possibly hinder the healing at work. I could think about the fact that I was probably in violation of contract for the trading run I'd agreed to, but there was nothing I could do about that. I needed to contact the suppliers, let them know they needed to find another ship to transport the medicines Yeager needed so badly. I needed to get back on board my ship to let the AI know what had happened to me. I needed to speak with a doctor, find out what was wrong with me and what could be done about it. I needed to talk to Jillian, to apologize for not protecting her, for not anticipating this and preventing it. Even as I had that last thought, I knew it was ridiculous. There was no way I could have predicted Pitr's actions, even though people had been giving me hints. I thought he would pick another fight, but I never imagined he would try to kill me. That was unforeseeable. All the same, I wanted to apologize to Jillian. I had wanted our evening to be perfect, to end very differently.

I decided to risk calling someone. I looked around and found a touchpad with a list of instructions. I touched the pad labeled "nurse," and a yellow light glowed.

The readout on the wall indicated that better than fifteen minutes passed before the door opened. A large, husky nurse entered the room, glanced at Jillian, then walked up to me and turned off the signal. "Mr. Takenoshita," he said in a pleasant tenor. "Welcome back. What can I do for you?"

"Shh!" I whispered urgently. "Don't wake up Jillian!"

"Oh, don't worry about her. We gave her a sedative to help her sleep. She's been so worried about you she wasn't willing to eat or sleep. She'll be just fine in the morning."

"How long have I been here?"

"A little over a day. You were brought in last night with a shattered right femur and extensive damage to the left upper extremity. You were in an advanced state of shock so we admitted you for emergency treatment. You've got a lot of paperwork to fill out, but you're going to be fine. Your arm might be stiff for a little while and it'll take a few weeks before you regain full use of it, but we were able to reconstruct it without complications. Your leg should be good as new by this time next week, but I don't recommend any dancing before then."

"What about Pitr? Were you able to save him?"

"Pitr? I'm sorry, I don't know who you mean."

"The man that did this to me. Ran me down and shot me with a blaster. I shot him in the stomach. Did he make it to the hospital? Is he dead or alive?"

"Mr. Takenoshita, you really shouldn't worry about that right now."

"I'm not worrying about it. I can't worry about anything while you've got me hooked up to these machines. I just want to know "

"The alpha-wave sympathizer is the only reason you're not experiencing unbearable pain, Mr. Takenoshita. If this Pitr fellow is in this hospital, no one has told me about it. Now I suggest you get some rest. All your questions will be answered tomorrow, I'm sure."

"Well, I'm not very sleepy right now."

"Don't worry, I'll take care of that!" The nurse reached for the controls on a machine above my head.

"Wait!" His hand paused. "I don't want Jillian to leave before I talk to her. Please make sure I'm awake before she leaves, okay?"

He smiled at me. "No promises. Now, off to sleep." He touched something, and I instantly drifted off.

"Here you go, Mr. Takenoshita. Take care, now." The genial old nurse held the floater chair steady while I climbed to my feet and steadied myself with an old-fashioned cane. My right leg ached a bit as I settled my weight on it, but there were no serious problems. They told me that the more I walked on it, the quicker the ache would go away. I wasn't to do anything strenuous on it, but walking would only help. I handed the cane to the nurse with my free hand, confident that I could ambulate without it and thanked her sincerely. It was worth all twenty thousand credits I spent on my medical care. Traders tend not to carry insurance policies.

Unfortunately, I couldn't really afford twenty thousand, but I didn't have much choice. Instead of depressing myself with those thoughts, I looked up at Jillian instead. She hovered nearby; ready to intercept me should I prove weaker than I claimed, but her face was glowing with happiness. She wasn't even so much as limping from her bruise; all traces of it had disappeared. She was wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit, and I was beginning to think it didn't matter what she wore. She looked good in everything.

I hadn't needed to be woken up. Jillian was still there, waiting for me when I opened my eyes the morning following my conversation with Nurse Hanson. She and I talked for a long time. She accepted my apology with a shadow of sorrow in her eyes, and as I expected she insisted that none of it was my fault. Rather, she claimed it was her fault for not taking care of Pitr before the problem got out of control. She insisted she should have contacted the authorities and had Pitr restrained. Now, there was no need.

Pitr had died before help arrived. She had crawled to us and cradled me in her arms as he choked and spat, hating me with his last breath. She was sad it had come to this, but she was only glad that he had died instead of me. As it was, she wasn't sure she wouldn't lose us both until the doctors announced I was out of danger.

Jillian had kept her wits about her in spite of her worry for me. She'd contacted my ship and informed the AI what was happening. From the AI, she'd gotten the details of my contract, then contacted the suppliers to let them know what had happened. They ranted and raved before thanking her for the news and cut off. I probably had a black mark against me, but I'd deal with that later. The important thing was that Yeager would get its sorely needed supplies from someone else.

The police questioned me shortly after I woke up. Did I know the man I'd killed? Yes, I knew him. Why did I shoot to kill? Because he was shooting at me, and I didn't see any other option. Why didn't I try to disable him instead of kill him? Because I'm not that good a shot, and when he hit me I didn't have much control over my aim. Why was he shooting at me? Because he was drunk and jealous that I was seeing his ex-girlfriend. How did I know he was drunk? And so on.

Jillian had already spoken with them, and her story confirmed mine. Our details differed slightly, since her vision had been blocked by Pitr's car after we were separated, but the gist was the same. I'd fired my weapon in self-defense against a man trying to kill me. We were both confident that the investigation would validate my claim. Until then they were holding my blaster as evidence.

Jillian drove me back to the spaceport. She wanted to take me to her home, but I insisted. I had work to do, and I needed to coordinate with my AI. Furthermore, I felt nervous without my blaster, and I didn't want her to know about it. There were questions in my mind that didn't go away even under the alpha-wave sympathizer in the hospital.

Why had Pitr tried to kill me? Why had he run me down, then tried to blast my head away from my neck? I felt there was more to it than a jilted lover's rage.

Jillian held my hand as she drove through the city. We didn't say much, just shared the comfort of each other's presence. I didn't want to admit it but I was grateful for her company. Yes, I was powerfully attracted to her, yet that seemed unimportant at the moment. She'd been there for me when I needed it and I yearned for that feeling of security. I'd been too long without it.

She parked the car at the terminal and followed me to the Gilmour. I noted the amusement in her eyes when I palmed the plate at the hatch and the computer's voice sounded out. "Oh, you're alive! Glad to see it, Boss. You're neck-deep in problems again."

"Thanks a lot, and 'hello' to you, too. Now open the hatch before I replace you with an abacus." The hatch opened, and I gestured to Jillian. "Would you like to join us?"

She hesitated, then smiled and nodded. "For a little while. Stellar Construction can fend without me a bit longer."

We entered the Gilmour and I headed straight for the cockpit. The computer's video image flashed to life as I sank into my chair. "Welcome back, Boss. You look better than I expected."

I grimaced and adjusted the strap for my immobilized left arm. "I feel better than I have a right to be. Status report, all systems."

"Acknowledged. Screen Two." Data began to spill across the display, and I nodded at what I saw. The Gilmour was in better shape than she'd been when I'd finished restoring her. We could lift off at a moment's notice, if we had anywhere to go.

"Any messages from the Helix Corporation?"

"You want to see them, or the summary?"

"Let's start with the summary."

"Well, it all boils down to the fact that they're mad, disappointed and unwilling to work with us again. They seem to be taking the stance that your getting shot was just an excuse to breach the contract. If the criminal investigation doesn't clear you fully, they're probably going to try to sue for damages."

"Damn," I whispered and slumped in my chair. My right hand reached out to start popping knuckles, but my left hand didn't move. I abruptly adjusted the motion to smooth out a sleeve, but I knew I hadn't fooled either the AI or Jillian.

"You can sue Pitr," Jillian said quietly.

"Excuse me?" I swung the chair around to face her. She was still standing in the hatch, and I waved her to take the copilot's seat. She settled gracefully into the chair.

"I know, he's dead. But you can sue his estate. Pitr made a decent living as a Trader. He was bragging about wanting to retire here, shack up with me and live like a king. With his death you can sue to claim his estate, whatever's left after his creditors."

"Hmm..." I lifted my hand to my mouth and nibbled at the skin along my thumb. "I'd have to contact the Guild, since it'll be an internal matter. I'll need a lawyer, too; it's been a while since I studied the law in that regard." I also had bad experiences with compensation claims, but Jillian didn't need to know that. "Computer, got anything in your databases to help me?"

"Searching. Yeah, you can appeal to the Guild as a dispute between Traders. If you win the appeal, you can claim Pitr's assets, but also his debts. You'll have to make sure he really was as well-off as he looked."

I flashed a grin as I appreciated how quickly the AI had found the answer for me. "How about a limited appeal, something to claim enough to pay my hospital bill and compensate me for lost business?"

"Searching. There's no law or precedent for that. Galactic law and Guild tradition only allow for an all-or-nothing appeal. Apparently, it's to discourage Traders from getting the Guild involved in their squabbles unless they're really serious about it."

I sighed and scrubbed my face with my hand. Then I looked at Jillian and nodded. "It looks like it's my best bet. Okay, send a message to Guild Officer Barnes and inform him of my intent to appeal, pending the results of the local criminal investigation."

"Got it, Boss."

"Also inform Helix Corporation of my intentions, and let them know that I'm willing to work out a settlement with them if I win the appeal to the Guild."


I relaxed a little bit. "Have I forgotten anything?"

"We still need a job."

"Yeah, how could I forget?"

Jillian giggled a little bit at the interplay between my computer and myself. I winked at her and sat up a little straighter.

"Jillian, I know I asked you before, but I want to ask again. Will you be my partner?"

She blinked in surprise. "Hideo, I, I'm flattered, but...I don't know what to say."

"Say yes."

I out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the video image for the AI had blanked out. I don't know if I'd caught it by surprise or if it just decided that a moment of privacy was in order.

"Hideo, why are you asking me this?"

"There are a lot of reasons. You've got your head on straight, which is more than I can usually say for myself. I always seem to come out ahead when you're around. I need someone with your instinct, your business sense. I might have been somewhat joking when I asked you before, but I'm dead serious now. I need you, and I'd like you with me. You're the best thing to happen to me in a long, long time."

"I don't know, this sounds an awful lot like a marriage proposal," she said with a smirk, but her eyes were kind.

"Well...yes, I suppose it does sound like that. But I'm not asking that, not right now at least. I won't deny I have more than just business in mind by asking you this. I told you, I've got a lot of reasons for it. But all of them are true, and most of them are equally important."

"Oh, Hideo, you don't know how much you're asking. I've got a life here on Selaris. I never thought I was cut out for the life of a Trader, bouncing around from system to system. I mean, it sounds romantic and all, but I listen to the men and women in the Golden Asteroid. I know it isn't all love and adventure and gold ore in every asteroid. I like my creature comforts, you know? My home, my clothes, dinner in a nice restaurant or home with friends."

I nodded, and my eyes dropped to my boots.

"On the other hand, I like you. I really like you. If Pitr hadn't interrupted us, we would have...well...the evening would have been wonderful, I know it. I like having you around and I want to see more of you. I know you've got the stars in your blood, and I know how much this ship means to you. I could never ask you to give it up for me. I just don't know that I can fly away with you. Not like this, anyway."

I looked up into her green eyes and saw the sincerity in them.

"Look, there's no need to rush this, is there?" She smiled and reached out to take my hand. I gave it to her, and she stroked my fingers with hers. "Why don't you make Selaris your base? Go out there, do some runs, see if you can't get that network going that you're talking about? I'll be here, and we can talk more. Maybe with a little more time, I'll get used to the idea of flying up there with you. Maybe it'll sound better than staying planetside. Just give me some time, okay?"

I nodded and smiled, my face almost cracking with the effort. "You're right, Jillian. It isn't fair of me to spring this on you all of a sudden. You're worth waiting a while."

"Thank you." She sniffed, her eyes bright with tears. She let go of my hand to wipe them away and stood up. "Lord, I must look a mess. Which way to the head?"

"Oh, of course. Take a left out the hatch and down the tube. It's the second door on your left. You can't miss it."

"Thank you, Hideo. I'll be right back." Jillian beat a hasty retreat out of the cockpit. I waited until her footsteps faded, then tapped the AI's console. The video image immediately sprang to life.

"How'd it go, Boss?"

"Get a list of sellers for me. Bulk stuff, general goods. Something that can be sold at a profit anywhere in the Galaxy."

"Acknowledged. Are we leaving?"

"Yeah. I'll tie up the loose ends with the Guild appeal and Helix Corporation, then we'll head out and look for new markets."

"We're leaving? Is Jillian coming with us?"

"No, she's not."

"What happened?"

"Ask me after we jump."