Chapter 4 - Kandori Sector

Smugglers. Drug lords. Assassins. My thoughts were filled with cheerful topics running along those lines. Could I have avoided a lot of pain and agony if I'd taken up Nallis' offer? Could I have outrun Commander Jensen and his ship? Could I have stayed on Selaris without putting Jillian in danger?

I had a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers. Pitr's assault bothered me, and not just because I still saw his face in my dreams. Murder just isn't very common in the Galaxy. We're too civilized for it. There are too many other ways to settle disputes. There had to be another reason for it, and my thoughts kept turning back to Nallis and his drugs. That wily old crook promised me I'd regret turning him down, and shortly after arriving on Selaris II I'd been shot at. I don't think Pitr was entirely comfortable with the idea, or he wouldn't have gotten himself so drunk before coming after me. But it made too much sense to think that Pitr had been paid to kill me. There was a lot of money in his account, even if it went toward making up most of my losses in the hospital and with Helix Corporation. Most of it, including the sale of his Pyton-class ship, paid off Pitr's creditors. I ended up slightly in the red, but not seriously enough to become a serious worry. Not for the moment, anyway.

"Hey Boss," the computer chided. "Stop staring out the window."

I pulled my eyes away from the mesmerizing patterns in folded space and focused on the video image. "Just thinking."

"You still think Pitr took money to be an assassin?"

"You know I do."

"The police didn't find any such connection, even after you suggested it."

That was true, and it had shocked Jillian when she found out. I remembered the look on her face when I suggested it to the officer in charge of the investigation. It wasn't a pleasant one. Nor did I relish the look she gave me when I told her I was leaving Selaris for a while. I swore I'd be back. She didn't look like she believed me. I wasn't sure I did, either.

"Just because they didn't find the connection doesn't mean it wasn't there. I was threatened and the threat turned out to be real. I can't say for sure that someone managed to trace me and contact the guy with the most reason to kill me, but nothing else makes sense."

"Just because Nallis threatened you and Pitr tried to kill you doesn't mean they had anything to do with each other. Pitr was a brute with too much alcohol and not enough sense. The investigation showed him to be a stalker. He had a shrine to Jillian in his apartment. That is not the behavior of a sane man."

"Obora sent me to Nallis knowing what I was in for. They were looking for a new ship to transfer supplies. Drugs. Obora wanted me to run drugs from Jona to Ansalon. He and Nallis set me up from the beginning."

"Boss, you're acting paranoid."

"Yes, I'm paranoid! Maybe it's about time I got a little more paranoid! I've got to watch my back, because there's no one else to watch it for me! I didn't pay attention to what was going on, and it almost got me killed!"

"There's always Jillian," the computer reminded me quietly.

"There's Jillian," I agreed. I flexed my left hand, feeling the twinge up my arm as I did. I was slowly regaining use of the limb, but it was a slow and painful process. I didn't want to think about Jillian just then. I didn't want to think about her suggestion that I stay on Selaris. She wanted to see me again. She wanted me to stay. What was worse, I wanted to stay.

I wanted to stay with Jillian, and I couldn't. I think that bothered me even more than the thought that Nallis was hiring people to kill me. Jillian meant a lot to me, a lot more than I thought she would. I flinched whenever I thought about her expression when I told her I was leaving. Did that mean I loved her? I don't know. Love was never a large part of my life before. What I did know is that if I stayed I would die, and I'd probably get her killed along with me. I couldn't stay. If I were completely honest with myself, it was wrong of me to ask her to come with me. It would take longer for Nallis and his ilk to track me down among the stars, but that didn't mean they couldn't. If Jillian had come on board she'd die with me, as my partner.

I shivered and began doing a systems check. The AI noted what I was doing, but didn't comment. Somehow that seemed worse than its acerbic observations.

I finished the check and contemplated getting something to eat. The chronometer told me it'd been over ten hours since my last meal. I didn't feel hungry.

"Suppose I'm right? Suppose Obora and Nallis are part of a smuggling ring, and they managed to track me down to Selaris to hire someone to kill me? What does that mean to me, and what would it mean for Jillian if I stayed?"

"If that's the case, then you're going to have to go to GalPol, ask for their protection. You'll be grounded, maybe given a new identity if they believe you and accept that you're in danger. Jillian wouldn't be able to go with you, for her own sake. If you don't go to GalPol or they don't believe you, then you have to keep moving. But given the assumption that they tracked you and hired someone to kill you in under three weeks, it means you're going to have to keep jumping ahead of them constantly. If you stay in one place too long, they'll catch up to you and kill you. They might kill anyone that happened to be standing too close to you, as well."

"So it's just a matter of time." I rubbed my sore eyes and glanced at the viewport again. The strange, almost-images that swirled outside the ship seemed a little darker, a little more sinister than usual. I looked away quickly, not needing the computer's admonition to prompt me. "What can I do? Kill the next assassin that comes after me? Load heavier weapons on the Gilmour?"

"My analysis is based on the criteria you provided. That doesn't mean I think it's true. I think Pitr's rampage was a coincidence, and it happens to fit your theory. Jillian said he'd been boasting about retiring, so it follows that he'd have a lot of money. You're probably right that Obora and Nallis attempted to set you up, but you didn't fall for it. Then you changed course after a short jump from Jona so there's no way they could track you so quickly. They're not part of a larger conspiracy that knows your every move. If they are, you might as well stop running and surrender to them now, because nothing you do is going to make any difference, and that's a hell of a way to live."

"Then what do you think I ought to do?" I snapped. Everything the computer said made perfectly logical sense, but every instinct I possessed screamed that it was wrong. I hated my indecision, my fear. I hated not knowing, and I especially hated the thought that I'd made an irreparable mistake by leaving the way I did. Jillian was never going to forgive me for cutting out like that, not after the way she poured her heart out to me in the cockpit.

"I think you should follow through with what you've started here. Find a good buyer for the industrial equipment you've got on board, and then buy something else and go back to Selaris. Raw materials, or something that you can use to turn a small profit. Go back to your original plan to find suppliers who need speed more than bulk."

"Why go back to Selaris? Kandori is the primary system for this sector. I'm sure I can do better business here than on Selaris."

"Then stay in Kandori, Boss. But, forgive me for saying so, I think you'd be happier on Selaris."

I took a deep breath and stretched in my chair. I'd be happier on Selaris, but only if Jillian forgave me. I didn't think she would. Oh, I wanted to go back with all my heart. I wanted to fly back with flowers and exotic treats and beg for mercy. I imagined myself on her doorstep, laden with gifts and being dragged into her home with hugs and kisses and promises of a happily ever after. It was an intoxicating dream, and entirely too seductive. It was too good to be true. It wouldn't happen. She wouldn't forgive me. How could she forgive a coward?

"I'll try my luck in Kandori," I announced firmly. "If I do well there, then…we'll see."

"Got it, Boss." The computer didn't project any confidence or enthusiasm into its voice. It merely acknowledged my decision and accepted it as the end of the conversation. It didn't agree with me.

It didn't have to. I was the captain, and the decision was mine. I kept reminding myself sternly that it was my decision to make, and it was a good one. It was the only one I could live with.

* * *

Kandori system was home to the regional government responsible for this sector of the galaxy. Because of this, it had more bureaucracy, bureaucrats and traffic than any other system in the area. Even Ansalon's traffic log was a speedy descent in comparison to Kandori's problems. The sky was so thick with hulls it was almost possible to walk to the ground. The difference was that this time I didn't have perishable cargo and a faulty stasis generator to worry about. Traffic control was much more alert and concerned with the orderly deportment of ships than Ansalon, but still not terribly efficient. Still, the controllers were quick to scold anyone who appeared to deviate from their assigned vectors, and there were no queue jumpers. The presence of a fleet of Navy destroyers helped keep things civil, as well.

I remembered the pilot training course I went through along with half a dozen other teenagers. We were treated to a vintage simulation course in which we were required to navigate a virtual freighter through an array of approaches and corrections, following instructions from the virtual controllers and checking in at every stage. The course indicated that modern technology was capable of keeping the landing queue to minimal delays, no more than a few hours at most. To this day I don't know if the claim was fraudulent, optimistic or outdated. It was almost a thousand years old, even if the procedures and equipment were still valid.

Three days in queue did little to improve my state of mind. I kept imagining all sorts of reasons for the delay. GalPol had decided to bring me in for questioning. The drug cartels had bribed the controllers to keep me busy while someone targeted me with a missile or five. They were busy gathering a case against me, and decided to keep me in space while they made their arguments airtight.

I didn't share my worries with the computer. It had already let me know it thought my fears were groundless, and there was no point continuing the argument. It monitored communication frequencies, kept me appraised of traffic conditions and possible spaceborne dangers (micrometeorite damage could be kept to a minimum with active sensors and an alert crew or computer) and generally chattered to keep me from being alone with my thoughts for too long.

There were a lot of details to take care of during the wait. I maintained constant contact with Port Control to confirm new instructions and verify that I was on the correct approach vector. I kept one eye on the scanner readout and another on my engine status. It reminded me a lot of my days as a shuttle pilot back home. The work was familiar and not very taxing, even with my bad arm, so it left me with a lot of time for my thoughts such as they were. Unbidden, I listened to Obora's rich, deep voice convincing me to carry his contraband to the Jona system. I heard Nallis' nasal whine threaten that I'd regret refusing his narcotics. I heard Jillian's voice urging me to stay on Selaris, to stay with her. I heard the whine of blaster fire and saw Pitr's face as my shot burst and incinerated his guts. I stubbornly refused to think about these things. I ordered them from my mind, banished them from my thoughts. They laughed at my efforts. I saw Pitr's face endlessly as death struck him. Vying for dominance was Jillian's face twisting with sorrow and disappointment as I told her I was leaving. She didn't understand. She couldn't understand.

Of course she couldn't understand. I hadn't explained it to her. Nor was I going to. Explaining how I was being prudent and practical wasn't very romantic.

Someone nearby miscalculated a burn and everyone had to make their own course corrections to deal with the mistake. I watched the vectors change and calculated a course that would keep me from bumping hulls with anyone else. Then I signaled Port Control to advise them of my status and let them know I would wait for new instructions. Just to break the monotony I calculated the best-approach landing vector for myself, but I knew I couldn't use it. There were literally hundreds of other ships out there waiting their turn, and my course calculation would probably endanger more than a few of them, including myself. However futile the exercise, it kept my mind occupied for a little while longer.

During the frequent lulls, I moped about aimlessly. Sometimes I performed small chores I'd been putting off, but there weren't many. You quickly learn not to let clutter accumulate in space. Even with modern gravity controls there are too many reasons for inertia to kick in, and the damage from loose items suddenly flying out of control can get dangerous. I called up the library on record and skimmed through the index. I had thirteen trillion titles to choose from, some of them claiming to be from ancient Earth. I re-read some of Gilmour's works and found myself feeling even more depressed. I looked up referential texts and discovered people who thought Gilmour wasn't writing poetry so much as composing song lyrics. I thought that a peculiar notion, especially as no one had any proof of these claims. I tried to imagine the verses from Division Bell with music, but I failed. I was no musician, and no music I was familiar with would sound good with the words. I marked it off as an odd fantasy.

I selected texts at random in the library and found myself reading a space romance about a young warrior-politician named Tristan. The story told of how Tristan lost his father at an early age, was raised by his uncle and found himself in space. He then landed on a world named Ire where he met a woman named Isolde. For some odd reason he took the woman back to his homeworld for his ruler, but ended up being tricked into falling in love with her. The story made little sense to me, and I didn't finish it. I wasn't in the mood for love stories.

In fact, what I was doing wasn't that much different from my routine in folded space. But traveling there, I knew there was nothing I could do but wait. Once the Gilmour re-entered conventional space/time, I felt like I needed to be moving, that I needed to get on the ground and get my business going. The wait I suffered in queue was worse than I was used to because I was geared up for moving, getting things done. While I waited in orbit, prices were fluctuating on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. I could be losing a fortune. I could also be gaining one. I just didn't know and as always, not knowing bothered me greatly.

It was almost a disappointment to find that my wait in the landing queue terminated with nothing more sinister than a berthing fee. I disembarked with a listing of potential buyers and went to work.

* * *

My direct selling approach didn't yield much interest. I wasn't carrying enough cargo to have a good bargaining position, and none of the buyers my computer had listed were interested in my offer. Slightly daunted, I found Kandori sported a stock hall, a place for Traders and local merchants to shop and sell. On some worlds it might be akin to a merchant bazaar, except there were no booths or stalls, and rather than shouting out your wares you posted what you had or wanted on an overhead display. Regulars keyed their personal data units into the main board and could sort by name, type of goods, price range or tonnage. Stock halls used to be common on every world with a Guild presence, but many Traders claim greater profits by conducting their own negotiations outside the halls. Unfortunately, that approach really wasn't working for me.

I registered with the hall and entered my details: Hideo Takenoshita, Trader. Selling industrial goods, 15 tons, 900cr per ton. A quick eyeball inspection of my competition suggested I was slightly underselling my competitors, but even with a percentage to the stock hall managers I ought to come away with some profit. Provided I could find a buyer.

"Trader Takenoshita!" A portly man with a thin, twirling moustache and an ornate metal saber at his side walked up to my and shook my hand gently. "I saw your entry on the boards. I believe we can strike a deal."

I blinked in surprise. My entry had only gone up a few minutes before, and I hadn't expected a quick response. His weapon also threw me off-guard: energy weapons are restricted on Kandori, and I'd had to leave my blaster behind. "You, um, have the advantage of me."

"Martin Kohl," the man said with a smile. His voice was unusually quiet for his size, but his demeanor seemed friendly and outgoing. "I'm in the market for a small quantity of industrials, approximately 13 tons. You've beat out the best offer today, so I'm willing to take your entire shipment."

"Mr. Kohl," I said with a smile of my own. "You have my undivided attention." I looked around and found a privacy booth that was unoccupied. We headed for it, and I reached into my pocket for a coin. Kohl beat me to it, dropping in money for a ten-minute session, and the booth opened for us. I noticed that he unbuckled his sword belt and set the kit aside with practiced ease.

"It's unusual to find a buyer for such a small shipment," I began.

"Very true," Kohl said as he dialed himself a drink. Red wine, I saw. He made a gesture to indicate I should order what I wished, but I declined. I'd celebrate after we concluded our business. "I'm engaged in a private project, and my partners and I have no need for excessive numbers. We're looking for quality over quantity, you see. Gathering the correct components has proven to be a rather tedious process, and our timetable has suffered accordingly."

"I see. So you're going to want to inspect my cargo before you buy?"

"That's correct. It shouldn't be so much of a problem to find quality goods, but standards are so pitifully low nowadays. One must pay exorbitant prices merely to get satisfactory work. I shudder to think of the cost of true quality in these days."

Ideas started ticking in my head, but I put them aside for the moment. "I honestly can't speak to the quality of what I'm carrying. I'm no mechanical expert. I know that none of the components are corroded or otherwise unusable, but I couldn't say what standard they conform to. I purchased them on Selaris II and they weren't cheap."

"Selaris, eh? Selaris has a good reputation in this sector. Shoddy goods aren't tolerated very long; the market has too much competition. About the only way you could better meet my needs is if you'd come from Beran."

I dialed a beer for myself. This was looking very promising. "Well, my price is 900 credits per ton. That comes to 13500 credits for the entire shipment. How does that sound?"

"My budget can handle it but that seems a little steep for what I need," Kohl replied. He took a sip of his wine, then put it down and folded his hands. "As I said, I only need 13 tons. I'm willing to pay you 11700 for the entire lot, or for just the 13 tons I need. I have no idea if you think you can find a buyer for the remainder."

"That certainly cuts into my profits," I pointed out. My hands came together out of habit to start popping the joints, and a jolt of pain reminded me that my arm hadn't healed yet. I forced them apart. "I couldn't possibly agree without taking a loss." "Do you have a counter-offer?" Kohl asked pleasantly. He twirled his moustache with one hand. The image was striking, and I was put in mind of an old show about Imperial court intrigues and dandy-looking fencers dueling for honor. The sword at his side completed the image.

"13200 for the entire shipment."

"I see you're not going to be moved easily. Perhaps I should have paid for more time," Kohl said and grinned.

I reached into my pocket and added more coins to the booth. "I'm in no hurry, Mr. Kohl. Are you?"

"Not at present, no. And call me Martin, please."

"Feel free to call me Hideo," I replied and reached for my beer. "What do you consider a more reasonable bargain, then?"

"Oh, I think 12000 would be fair for the lot." Kohl rubbed one of the ends of his moustache between thumb and forefinger.

I agreed that this was going to take a while. He would match my every offer with an exact amount in reverse. I paused a moment to calculate where our bargaining would conclude, and pondered how I could beat that.

"Martin, let's be honest. Do you think any of the sellers out there would accept 870 per ton of quality industrial-grade mechanicals, let alone fifteen tons? I'm not the only one who hates to make partial sales."

"Perhaps not immediately, Hideo. However, my partners and I have waited this long, and the market is so very volatile. Sooner or later, I'm sure I could pay as little as 12250 for all that I need."

"Perhaps you could, but it seems a shame to wait quite that long. Rumor has it the market is going up, not down. I don't think you could possibly beat 12900 for only fifteen tons."

Kohl paused in thought. I waited for his next counter, but he just sat there listening to his thoughts. His hand twitched, and I had a horrific image of him going for the sword. He merely drained his glass and smiled at me. "Hideo, you're a fine negotiator. I accept your offer of 12900 for fifteen tons, on condition of inspection to my satisfaction. Are we agreed?"

I blinked, caught off-guard. He'd given up earlier than I'd expected. I closed my mouth and nodded quickly. "We have a deal, Martin."

"Excellent!" Kohl dialed another glass of wine for himself, and used it to toast our agreement. "To a profitable arrangement for us both!"

I touched my mug to his glass before I tossed back my beer. "I'll go get my ship ready for inspection. Shall we handle the paperwork then?"

"That would be fine with me. I'll be there in an hour. What landing berth?"

"92 South." I stood up, and Kohl stood up with me. We shook hands again before opening the booth and stepping out. Kohl buckled the sword belt around his waist without hurry as we made small talk, then we parted. I delayed long enough to suspend my post before I hurried back to the Gilmour. My mood was brighter than it had been in several days.

* * *

My cargo proved to be satisfactory for Kohl's needs. He handed me a credit voucher and signed for the goods, which were quickly offloaded onto a waiting lorry. Then we shook hands and it was done. Just like that I was no longer in the red and had a little capital for my next venture. Now it was time to make my next pitch.

"Martin," I began as he was checking the balance of the growing stack of containers in his transport. "You said you want quality over quantity, right?"

"That's true," Kohl agreed as he supervised a lifter robot in shifting the load on his vehicle. He left his left hand resting on the pommel of his saber while he gestured eloquently with his right. The robot had clearly been programmed to recognize hand gestures, and the job was accomplished quickly and efficiently. Kohl struck a dashing figure as he directed the work.

"Where do you expect to find what you need? I assume you can't just wander through the trading hall and expect to find everything you want." "No, much of what we need is spread out through the sector, and one or two items beyond. We need some superior power systems, raw silicate and a variety of alloyed components that we'll need to contract out to obtain. We had been hoping these goods would be easily obtained, but it didn't work out that way. At this point I'm anticipating a few trips of my own to fetch some of the things that aren't commonly hauled by traders."

"What if I could guarantee you all the components you need within an agreed time, cheaper than what you'd pay through any Trader?"

"I'd say you have my undivided attention, Hideo." Kohl stopped fussing with the boxes and turned to face me, a serious expression on his face. I watched his hand grip his sword briefly, then let go. I had no idea how to interpret that.

"Look, the Gilmour is a fast ship, and that's her best feature. She can't haul a lot, but you don't need a lot, you need the best. If you give me a list of what you want and where you want it from, I can bring it back to you faster than you could do yourself. You said before your schedule was hurting, and I'm offering a way to cut time and costs without sacrificing the quality you need."

"You would buy what we need and guarantee sale back to us?" Kohl sat down on the edge of the platform and tapped his fingertip against his chin. "That would be unprecedented, and extremely helpful. But how would you guarantee lower prices?"

"Easy. I won't buy anything. You'll do the buying with me as your proxy. I go where you tell me, pick up what you want and bring it back as fast as my ship can fly. You pay my fees and fueling, plus a small commission off each cargo, maybe with an incentive bonus for good negotiation."

"How does this cut my costs?"

"Because you're paying what a Trader would pay when he buys. When he turns around and sells it again, the price goes up as high as he can raise it. You'll be cutting out that price increase by only paying for transport."

"Hmm…what's to prevent you from taking the credits and running?"

He had a good point there. As the possibility never crossed my mind, I didn't have an answer to it. "Um. How about you make your arrangements beforehand, and all I do is fetch? That way you don't have to trust me to handle your finances."

"Again it begs the question of what prevents you from taking the cargo and running?"

"You said yourself you need some uncommon goods. Where would I find buyers for things like that? It wouldn't be worth my trouble, especially as you'd be well within your rights to register a complaint with my Guild and with the Navy. Either one of those would effectively end my career."

"That assumes you have such a career to begin with. Piracy is not unknown in the galaxy, Hideo."

I stopped myself from bristling at the suggestion. "Also true. If I were a pirate, I'd have a record. You can check my name and numbers against the Guild database to see what kind of problems I've had with the Navy. I admit I've been boarded by GalPol, but that's because they were paranoid. You're not the first person to suggest I'm not on the level, but I've kept clean."

"I meant no offense," Kohl said quickly.

I shook my head. "None taken. You're being careful and that's smart. People suspect me because they don't think a ship like mine could possibly be a valid Trader's vessel, but I've kept afloat for two years and I'm looking for new ways to continue. It's a tough business, and I find the alternatives to be…unhealthy."

"Well, I'm afraid I don't have an answer to your proposal at this moment, but your candor serves you well." Kohl stood up on the platform and beamed at me. "I like your suggestion, Hideo. I promise I'll run it past my partners this very day. I've never heard of such a thing, which suggests to me that it ought to work splendidly."

"We can discuss the numbers after you've met with the others," I said, trying to restrain my enthusiasm. "But I hope we can work together on this."

"As do I, Hideo. Now, if you'll excuse me, the quicker I get this loaded the quicker I'll have an answer for you."

I almost skipped back to the Gilmour.

* * *

My fingers caressed the keyboard idling, plugging in figures to see what the results would be. I was calculating a best-approach vector to fly by Kandori's star, seeing how close I could shave it before I burned up. It was a pointless exercise, accomplishing nothing more than killing time and making the computer nervous. However, my curiosity was piqued by the velocity the calculations came up with. I'd be going mighty fast if I survived such a stunt. It'd be worthy of a space drama, even if it would take me a month to slow down with conventional engines.

"Boss, quit playing with those numbers and go buy something, willya?" The computer's image scowled at me like a school teacher.

"What do you suggest?" I cleared the screen and ran a diagnostic check on the Gilmour's sensor arrays. They were in top shape.

"Lemme see…" There was a pause as the computer sifted through Kandori's trading network. "I've got a listing of three hundred and twenty-four tons of durasteel alloy selling at nineteen hundred credits per unit. It can sell for as much as thirty-five hundred if we can find the right buyer."

"Alloys. How very exciting."

"Hey, Boss. It's a living. It's what you do, remember?"

"Yeah, I'm just not in the spirit of buying and selling at the moment."

The computer went silent for a while. "What do you plan to do, then?"

"I plan to go buy 15 tons of durasteel alloys and go sell them somewhere. Punch up the star charts and let's see what's nearby. I don't want to spend more than a week in transit."

"Got it, boss. Star charts on screen 2."

I pored over the charts with half a mind on Kohl's news to me the day before. His associates weren't willing to gamble on an unknown Trader acting for them, or to pay for goods they couldn't inspect personally. Perhaps later on I could act as a ferry for them, but for now the answer was no. The risks were too high and they weren't willing to consider it. My hopes for a regular trade service were dashed. I needed another way to attract prospects.

In spite of my brave words to the computer, I really didn't know what I was doing. There had been a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that I wasn't really cut out for this business, or was at least going about it in entirely the wrong manner. Were my skills really cut out for this business? I made more money as an in-system shuttle pilot back home than I'd made in two years as a Trader, except for my windfall through smuggling. It wasn't a pleasant thought.

I arranged to fill my hold to the brim with durasteel alloy and launched myself toward Telvoi, a high-gravity world with a need for alloys that are cheaper to import than to make for themselves. Just my luck, Telvoi's market was flooded, and while I could sell for better than I bought them, my profit margin would be slim. I jumped to Roia, Outex and Gerland before I found a decent buyer. I managed to pull in fourteen thousand credits profit after fees and fueling. I then sank that fourteen thousand and more into purchasing ten tons of high grade computer components. I jumped back to Roia to find that price had dropped, but not enough to scuttle my sale. I made five thousand profit on that jump. Roia had very little worth selling, but the ultimate maxim of trading is never to jump with an empty hold. I filled up with food and went to Telvoi. My profit was only three thousand, but I found a good price on gold and almost bankrupted myself filling my hold. The computer balked, but I did it anyway. I jumped back to Kandori.

To my shock and delight, I sold the gold at a considerable profit; enough to make me feel a little better about my future and more than enough to make me smug with the computer. It wisely chose not to remind me just how badly my gamble could have backfired. I needed all the encouragement I could get.

The whole trip took me two weeks. To make seven jumps in two weeks is considered breakneck speed among Traders, and is not even possible with most ships with high cargo capacity. However, I hadn't rushed. I merely took advantage of the speed the Gilmour afforded me. Most interstellar businesses measure their time frames in months, sometimes years depending on the scope of their buyers and suppliers. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I could make a killing as a high-speed courier if only someone would be willing to take the chance.

I took a break for a couple of days while I had some minor maintenance done on the Gilmour. I may not have rushed, but I had pushed hard to get myself cleared through five different bureaucracies and customs inspections. Like Ansalon, Outex agents had demanded to make physical inspections and I again had to fall back on my Guild membership to protect my rights. That disturbed me; I was beginning to sense a shift in Galactic law and procedures, and I suspected that eventually the Guild would bend to increasing pressure for physical inspections. I wondered if Outex officials had lost their ability to repair their scanners.

When I returned from a couple days' worth of binging, I hashed out an idea with the AI: I would place an ad on the trading network, billing myself as a speedy and reliable interstellar courier. As evidence of my ability and reliability, I would post the itinerary of my latest exploits off Kandori and prices the computer had recorded for the worlds I'd visited. Telvoi's prices were only four days out of date, and probably wouldn't change drastically for another month. After some minor alterations my idea was put into play and I shortly noticed a slight decrease in supplies for items selling well on Telvoi and Roia. When I had the occasion to check again a few weeks later, there was a large decrease in those items. Traders are carnivorous: give them good information and watch the feeding frenzy.

Maintenance and recreation complete, I jumped back to Telvoi with a load of textiles. Not very profitable, but Telvoi was buying high and more importantly, there was a demand for heavy metals and fissionable elements on Kandori. Telvoi had those in abundance, and their selling prices would probably never rise above Kandori's buying price. I returned to Kandori with enough fissionables to blow my ship into radioactive dust but for the stasis generators. For all the other problems Nallis and his crew at Jona had caused me, they were good as their word about the repairs they made. The stasis generators worked without a hitch and I managed to get the jump on everyone else.

I bounced around the sector like an erratic asteroid, visiting as many worlds as I could and accumulating as much data as I could about local prices and trends. I never spent more than a couple of weeks away from Kandori and updated my ad as soon as I returned. Within two months I noticed a lot of people were paying attention. Whenever I posted high prices on a world, the stock in demand would mysteriously disappear. I had a few communications enquiring how I could post such data reliably. I received typical remarks of sympathy after I responded to the enquiries, but I chose to ignore them. My profit margin climbed slowly as I stayed ahead of the pack and reported trends on my return.

I contemplated selling the data I was accumulating, asking for a small fee before I released offworld market information. I ran it by the AI, but ended up shelving the idea. I was giving my fellow traders an advantage by telling them what was hot and where, but few of them could match my speed and get the jump on me if I chose to move on a lead. I wasn't raking in the money hand over fist but I was starting to do well and getting a reputation on the side. The favorite Trader hangout was a dive called the "Stuttering Pulsar," and I spent a lot of evenings there. People got to know me and connected me with the ad. It resulted in free drinks and card games almost every time I showed up. I even started getting better at cards, although I suspect some of them of trying to butter me up.

Then it happened. I'd been out drinking, and was pleasantly intoxicated when I stumbled back aboard the Gilmour. I was greeted with flashing lights and the computer's voice.

"Boss! You really wanna see this!"

It took me a moment to register the fact that the computer had put some excitement into the message. Either it was evolving real emotions or it was trying to get my attention. Either way, I responded more to the tone than to the words themselves.

"You've got a message from Martin Kohl. He requests a reply soonest."

I dashed to the cockpit and only lost my balance once. Then I slammed into the chair and hit the button to replay the message. Unfortunately, I missed.

"Port missile tube armed," the computer reported. "Boss, what are you shooting at?"

I stabbed the button again and canceled the missile. "Just bring up the message."

"Screen 1."

Martin Kohl's pleasantly rotund face appeared on the display, his features frozen in a smile. A time stamp appeared in the lower right corner, and then the message began.

"Hideo, this is Martin. I'm sure you remember me from a few months ago. You offered to serve as a ferry for the goods we need so we don't need to go through third party intermediaries. I regret that my associates have still not seen the light and our project is effectively stalled, but I've discussed your services with another group who expressed their interest. I don't have any details about what they want or where they might want you to go, but I feel that's best left between you and they. If you're still interested, please reply soonest and I'll forward contact details."

I collapsed back in my chair as my brain struggled to catch up. A job. Martin was telling me about a job. Someone might pay me to move cargo quickly instead of scramble to find high prices for cheap goods. It seemed too good to be true. It had to be. But Martin's face was still on the screen, rewound to his initial smile. Good old Martin; I definitely owed him a drink.

My mind raced as I considered the possibilities. A loud pop resounded in the cabin from my efforts to crack my knuckles. Maybe somebody had some luxury items they wanted right away? Perhaps a favored land vehicle or flyer? Could I be transporting precious documents or archeological finds? I might even find myself transporting VIPs to important business meetings from system to system. I'd have to clean up the Gilmour, install some executive-level comforts and restock my food supplies with gourmet meals….

I jerked my head up to an insistent beeping. I'd fallen asleep in my chair, dreaming about a bright future that began with Martin's message. The computer was trying to get my attention.

"Uh…yeah, I'm awake!" I shuffled into a more upright position and tried not to yawn too widely.

"Boss, you're drunk. Respond to Mr. Kohl's message tomorrow. It can wait that long."

"Don't tell me what to do," I snapped as I leaped to my feet. "I'm the captain! I'm a licensed Trader with the Galactic Trading Guild! I'll decide when and how to conduct my business!"

"Sure, Boss," the computer replied with a trace of hurt in its voice. "What are your orders?"

I swayed unsteadily. The world was spinning like a gyro. I suddenly had the bright idea that I might be too drunk to have this conversation, or any other.

"My orders are to power down for the night and don't wake me up in the morning. I'll call Martin when I'm not so drunk."

"Pleasant dreams, Boss." The computer began to obediently power down and lower the lights as I stumbled toward my bed and oblivion.

* * *

"That's all, Trader Takenoshita," Eldee said in her pleasant, high-pitched voice. "Our partner on Tolic III will expect delivery in thirteen days. She'll be most pleased." She was a small woman with startling red hair and a small mole just above the upper right corner of her mouth. She had an exotic air about her, sultry and mysterious. Our association thus far had been purely professional, but something in her manner suggested hidden undertones. I couldn't help but squirm around her, but she seemed to ignore it.

I didn't feel entirely comfortable around Eldee, and was constantly stopping myself from popping my joints. Eldee was certainly intelligent and very attractive, a perfect body with sensuality that seemed to ooze out of her pores. She remained calm, collected and professional at every turn, but showed occasional glimpses of humor and wit. If the guys could have seen me with her their mouths would have dropped to the floor.

In spite of her generous charms, I couldn't help comparing her to Jillian. I was still feeling guilty and perhaps a little vulnerable. I was still telling myself it wasn't too late to go back and beg Jillian for forgiveness, but at the same time I was berating myself for destroying any possibility of happiness for us. Just looking at Eldee made me feel like I was betraying Jillian, and that feeling helped reinforce the thought that I'd thrown away my chance with her. None of this really occurred to me at the time, but such is the whim of my imagination.

I'd met with Eldee four times before, hammering out the details that her employers provided for the service required of me. I'd made two jumps for them, ferrying goods that seemed outrageously insignificant to me, but for which I was paid a handsome sum to have delivered soonest. So I jumped to Bella IX to deliver environmental suits and to Ibis II with a load of research materials that could have presumably been copied and transmitted digitally at much lower cost. There was no time to dally; as soon as I delivered the goods, I jumped straight back to Kandori to report. I'd been offworld for a total of nineteen days, most of that time spent in transit. Whoever Eldee's people were, they were very efficient. I'd had no time for any of the usual Trader's routine and thus hadn't had a chance to update my ad on the network. I imagined that my following was starting to dim. However, I was paid enough to offset my loss in trading profits for work that was far easier to do.

I now glanced at the readout on the pad before me. "Survival gear?" I said with some bewilderment? "Okay, your people want to go camping on Tolic, but why am I ferrying survival gear to them? Doesn't Tolic III have shops for that sort of thing, and if not, why didn't they plan for it to begin with?"

"Frankly, that's none of your business Trader Takenoshita," Eldee said with a hint of frost in her tone. "But since you ask, our CEO's daughter is vacationing on Tolic III and has expressed dissatisfaction with local services. She wants quality gear with which to make an unscheduled hike, and that's where you come in. No one can deliver faster than you. Does that satisfy you?"

"Oh, yes. Of course. I'm sorry; it really is none of my business. I'm just surprised that you're going to so much trouble and expense for this kind of equipment. But so long as you pay me, it doesn't matter what I ship." I signed my name at the bottom of the list to take responsibility for the goods and finished off my beer.

The problem was that I lied. It bothered me to hauling toys for rich brats to play with. I still had the romantic notion that I could make my mark in the galaxy, that I could make a name for myself being the best at what I do. I wanted to be delivering time-sensitive supplies to important projects, to be part of something larger. The work they'd had me doing thus far felt demeaning. Furthermore, The money was good, but it wasn't that good. I was doing only marginally better than I was when I was bouncing around the sector like an arcade ball. There was no challenge to this, no thrill.

Cargo loaded and safely stowed away, I flopped into my command chair and massaged my left arm. It was still giving me twinges now and again. "Computer, calculate a best-time jump to Tolic III. We have thirteen days to get there."

"Got it, Boss. That's right on the edge of the sector so we'll be shaving it close. Must be something important."

"No, in fact. It's a milk run. We're delivering toys for a rich kid to play with on her vacation."

"You sound like you're not happy, Boss. Would you rather be dodging pirates and Tharl scouts again?"

I cringed at the memory of the alien scoutship that jumped me early in my career, forcing me to duck into an asteroid field and narrowly escape death by laser and stoning. The maneuver had paid off with my re-discovery of the Ghalag outpost. I'd gotten some respect from my fellow Traders from it, but the Ghalag was a long way away and nobody out here had heard of it. That adventure seemed like a long time ago.

I found myself cracking my knuckles again. I felt a little bit of tension release with each snap, but it wasn't enough. "No, I'm happy to avoid incoming fire. Milk runs are okay, but…oh, I don't know. I feel like this is a waste of time. I mean, I could be hauling something important, something sensitive that really justifies a ship like the Gilmour, but here we are catering to the decadent rich. It just seems…demeaning, I suppose."

"Well, the other two jobs you did for them weren't so bad, were they?"

"Environmental suits to an outpost world? They weren't in any particular emergency; those suits could have gone by conventional transport. Research books to some egghead? Same problem. What are they doing with me? What am I doing for them that anybody else couldn't do with a slightly slower ship?"

"Maybe they're testing you, Boss. They're testing your reliability, making sure you're on the level. Once they're satisfied with your work on trivial stuff, they'll give you something important to do."

I thought about that for a while. It was an attractive notion. "Maybe," I conceded. "But there's really no way to know. We can speculate all the way to Tolic, but it won't do us any good."

"Hang in there, Boss. Maybe when we get back you can post a new ad for your services, and this time you'll have a reference to back it up."

I cheered at the thought. "Praise the technicians who gave you your upgrade. You've got some good ideas, computer. Remind me to be nice to you again."

"Duly noted, Boss. Jump calculations are now on screen 1."

I leaned forward and studied the numbers, now fully engrossed in my work.

* * *

"Coming up on course change in 90 seconds, mark." The computer flashed the countdown in the upper left corner of its personality display. It was clearly showing off; it didn't used to be able to do that while keeping an eye on the scanners for me. Flying around asteroids isn't all that difficult if your scanners are in good working order, but you still have to keep sharp. Space is big, but not so big you can ignore details like a half-kilometer wide rock on a collision course.

"Preparing for ten second burn, 20 degrees positive zed axis." This maneuver was extremely simple for me, almost boring. The Gilmour was designed for places like this, and skirting the edge of an asteroid belt isn't much of a challenge for either the ship or her captain.

"Thirty seconds to burn, Boss. Projected course still looks clear. Got a big rock thirty degrees off our course, could be a good place to prospect."

"This isn't a survey ship anymore," I replied. "So long as that rock isn't looking to meet up with us, I don't really care about it."

"Sorry, Boss. Just making conversation."

"I'm not complaining. Executing burn." I punched a button and rocked back into my seat as the engines kicked in. I hadn't programmed a strong burn as there was no reason to waste the fuel. This had been an efficient run so far, and I figured I was a couple of hours ahead of schedule. All the same, laws of motion dictated that even a slight change in velocity was going to have an effect, and it translated in me getting pushed deeper into the chair. There was a reason I'd sprung for a good one.

The computer dutifully counted off the seconds, and when it reached ten my finger stabbed out and hit the button again. The engines ceased their muted roar and inertia no longer pushed at my body. A glance at the numbers on the screen satisfied me that our position looked good. The computer confirmed this shortly after. "All set, Boss. We should be clear of the belt in approximately four hours. Next burn projection is in 264 minutes."

"Good work," I said absently. My eyes made a sweep of the console to make sure everything was green before I slumped back in my chair. The Tolic system was slightly more interesting than others largely because of its asteroid belt of unprecedented size. It lay on roughly the same orbital plane as the planets of the system so it wasn't much of a navigational hazard unless you weren't paying attention or, as the computer suggested, prospecting. This wasn't necessarily news, of course. Tolic had been on the charts for millennia, but no one appeared to have much interest in exploiting its resources. Tolic was awfully remote.

A sudden sharp beep caught my attention, and my eyes locked onto the appropriate screen. The scanners had picked up something unexpected.

"Ship detected," the computer reported. "She just launched off that asteroid I mentioned. Looks like a Corba-class vessel, registry S199-XLY. She's on an intercept course."

"Maybe a prospector thinking we're about to jump him?" I asked as I buckled myself into the seat's harness. "Signal him."

There was a pause as the computer obeyed. I watched the numbers and calculated the Corba would be in weapons range in just a few moments. She seemed a little faster than normal for her class, so it was reasonable to assume there were other upgrades to watch for as well.

"No response," the computer announced. "She seems hostile."

"I think that's a reasonable assumption," I muttered as I brought the Gilmour's weapons online. I was suddenly glad I hadn't had to sell off any of my warheads. "Maybe we can get out of this without a fight. Prepare for full power burn on my mark." My fingers flew over the console as I laid in the new course and made sure the defensive screens were at full.

"Weapons launch!" the computer declared. "Incoming missile. Range: 5000 kilometers. The missile has acquired us and is locked on. Projected impact in 12.4 seconds."

So much for that idea. I canceled my revised course projection and plugged in a new one. "Get me a weapons lock on that missile, forward cannon."

"Acknowledged." The computer had a nasty job ahead of it, particularly with the maneuver I was about to attempt, but I had faith in the upgrades I'd paid for. Stellar Construction had given me no cause for complaint yet. The Gilmour only had the one cannon, a simple beam laser for self defense. It'd take a while to disable most ships with a cannon like that, but I hoped it wouldn't come to that. I had four missiles to spend before it came down to energy weapons.

The ship shuddered lightly as a red light lit up on the console. "Laser fire, pulse cannon, direct hit on the port hull. Range: 3000 kilometers. Defense screens holding at 92%."

"Got that weapons lock?" I snapped as I went over the numbers. I was beginning to get angry, not at the computer or even necessarily at the captain of the Corba out there, but at the Universe in general. Things were going well, if a bit dull, and now this?

"Almost. Missile impact in five seconds. Starboard missile tube armed."

My maneuver depended largely on getting rid of the missile coming at us. It was now or never. "Best solution you've got now. Fire!" Half a heartbeat later, I implemented a full burn, twisting the Gilmour off her earlier course and spiraling around to face the other ship. I watched the beam laser narrowly miss the incoming missile, then glance off the rear before dissipating. It wasn't enough to destroy the missile or its propulsion, but it was enough to damage its navigation. It was no longer a threat and would go into automatic self-destruct several minutes later. This battle would be finished by then, one way or another.

I imagined the world compacting slightly, vision tunneling as we accelerated madly. The hull groaned over inertial stress, but the ship held together. I counted seconds in my head, and when I reached a number I liked I hit the firing stud for the starboard missile. It catapulted away, then its propulsion ignited and it streaked away in a blue blaze.

I entered a preset course correction and the Gilmour lurched again. I armed another missile and tried to align my bow with the Corba's stern. She had also gone to full burn, but was substantially slower even with her enhancements. Her captain had apparently not imagined I would engage this way, and couldn't have expected me to end up on her tail. Now, so long as she didn't have a stern cannon mounted, I had the upper hand.

"Laser fire, pulse cannon," the computer reported. "Range: 1500 kilometers. Missed us by four degrees negative zed axis."

This was getting better and better. "Forward cannon, lock on her engines. Fire when ready." I busied myself trying to keep on the Corba's tail. She was big and bulky, not really suited for combat or quick maneuvers. Few pirates used them because of this. I couldn't imagine why this one would go after an Ophid, even with the stern chaser.

"Firing forward cannon." I saw a flash in the distance ahead. "Direct hit. The Corba's shields are holding."

There was another flash, much brighter this time. "Missile detonation on target, port side stern. Shields still holding. Weapons launch! Incoming missile. Range: 1000 kilometers. Projected impact in 2.3 seconds!"

The missile couldn't have had time to lock on us. I rolled to starboard and launched a missile from my port tube. It would swing wide before coming back to hit the Corba on its bow, I guessed in about fourteen seconds.

"The missile has flown by and is attempting to acquire. It should have a lock in 1.1 seconds. Missile has acquired us and is locked on. Revised impact in ten seconds."

"Get me a weapons lock on that second missile. Prepare to come about." My fingers danced on the console. I thought about firing on the Corba again with the cannon, but the missile was currently too great a threat.

"Target acquired, we are locked on. Ready to fire."

I killed the engines and executed a full 180 degree spin on our axis, the bow of the Gilmour now facing away from the Corba. Our momentum kept us going as fast as before, but now we were facing the incoming missile head-on as we needed to be.

"Firing forward cannon," the computer announced calmly. I almost envied its composure. "Direct hit, the missile is destroyed."

I immediately executed another spin and engaged the engines once again. The Corba had taken the advantage of this distraction to put some distance between us, but that wouldn't last long. I had been willing to run away before, but no longer. She was trying to kill us, and I wasn't going to take that lightly. Had there been any Galactic Police in the neighborhood I would have commed them and let them take care of it, but we weren't in Federation territory. It was hunt him myself or risk getting jumped again somewhere else in the system.

The captain of the Corba had obviously forgotten the second missile I'd fired. I saw yet another bright flash in the distance, followed moments later by a smaller one.

"Missile detonation on target, port side bow. Escape capsule detected; the ship is now adrift."

"Give me a reading," I ordered as I adjusted course again. "Is she about to break up?"

"Negative energy readings on the Corba. Her engines are shut down and her defense screens are offline. Except for the damage to the forward sections, her hull integrity is holding. She is venting into vacuum, however."

I steered the Gilmour toward the other ship and began to slowly bleed off velocity to match her. "Secure for EVA. Let's see what she was carrying. Maybe this won't be a wasted trip after all."

"Acknowledged. Interception in ten minutes on present course. I read no obstacles in our path."

Some fifteen minutes later I was suited up and docked with the abandoned freighter. I had the computer making gentle maneuvers with thrusters while the ships were locked together. Eventually the Corba's course was stabilising and slowing down. I made my way to the forward cabins to find out as much as I could about my mysterious attacker, but there was little to find. I found the remains of a meal (synthetic recycled glop, suitable for sustaining life and not much else) a few changes of clothing and a charred data console. Somebody had covered their tracks with a blaster. Then I checked the holds. She wasn't carrying much, but there were more than enough narcotics to fill the Gilmour. It looked like low-grade stuff to my untrained eye, but I couldn't be sure. I was sorely tempted to take them and sell them on Tolic when I landed, but I wasn't in that desperate a need for money and I felt sure GalPol would somehow find out. Greed was all well and good, but paranoia won the day. With more than one last look of regret, I left the holds and made my way back to the Gilmour.

Before disconnecting, I used the Gilmour's thrusters to angle the freighter for a declining orbit into Tolic's yellow star. I didn't have the resources for a proper salvage operation, and I certainly didn't want the pirate who abandoned to have use of her again. By the time anyone could get organised enough to think to search for her, the freighter should have vaporised. It was a petty revenge at this point, but I was still shaking from the battle. That was twice someone had tried to kill me in less than a year. I felt inclined to indulge my paranoia.

* * *

Tolic III turned out to be a jungle world. Hot, steamy and filled with native life ranging from simple, single-celled bacterium to towering, hundred-meter high vegetation called trees only out of deference to their size and immobility. Living among them nested small, ferocious carnivores varying in size from a few centimeters to twenty meters long. Port Control advisories warned that these carnivores were not suitable for human consumption, nor were humans good eating for the carnivores. However, the carnivores didn't seem to care and would happily gnaw on alien protein as well as native prey. There were no known microbiological dangers to human life but who wanted to bet on it? It was not what I would call a vacation spot.

Customs inspection was a cursory thing at best. There was not much in the way of human habitation on the planet, and very little considered contraband. Nobody cared to enforce any prohibitions on a world no one wanted to visit. I was released ten minutes after landing, something of a personal record for me.

Eldee had given me the name Ruiya for my contact, presumably the CEO's daughter or retainer to the same. Unfortunately, I had no description to go with the name and a few minutes of searching through the entry terminal produced no results. Either Ruiya wasn't expecting me or couldn't be bothered to show up on time. I was building a rather disagreeable mental image for her, guessing her to be a spoiled brat, someone with more money than sense. The notion of hiking for pleasure on a world as inhospitable as Tolic III seemed just the thing for a poor little rich girl. My blood started to boil as I stalked back to my ship imagining all the things I'd say to her when we met.

My first hint of trouble was when I noticed the main hatch had been left open. It wasn't my typical mistake, even with my growing paranoia. One of the lessons they drilled us in the Guild stuck with me: always lock your hatches behind you. You risk the loss of fortunes and personal effects, as well as inviting annoying legal problems like stowaways.

"Computer!" I called out as I sprinted back on board. I kept my hand on the handle of my blaster, ready for trouble. "Report!"

"All systems nominal, Boss. Nothing to report. What's up?"

"What do you mean, 'nominal'? The bloody hatch is open! I'd call that something to report! What's wrong with you?"

There was a significant pause as the AI pondered this. "I'm sorry, Boss. The logs show the hatch as left open when you went to talk to Port Control. No protocols were violated."

"Since when is leaving the ship open and unattended a valid protocol? Did that pirate attack break you, or something?"

"The ship isn't unattended, Boss. You've got the crew standing guard in the cargo hold, right where she's supposed to be."

"I don't have any crew!" I bolted for the hold. It was a measure of the level of confusion that the computer remained silent in the half a minute it took me to get there.

The seals on the hold were broken and the hatch wide open. Kneeling over the sparse cargo containers was a small figure with short hair. My sudden entry sparked a swift response, and a blaster came up to greet me with frightening speed. I didn't even have the presence of mind to draw my own, even though my hand was still resting on it.

The woman, for so she was, stared at me intently for a moment then relaxed and put her weapon away. She gestured toward me with a palm reader in her other hand. "You must be the Trader they sent with my equipment."

I stared back a while longer, stunned both by the woman's speed and audacity. She was smaller than Galactic norm, even more so than I. Her features were very plain and not complemented by her short, brown hair. She was dressed in a loose jumpsuit that showed significant wear in spite of good repair. A utility belt of some sort had been draped casually at her waist carrying what looked like small vials. The blaster holstered for a left-handed draw looked like it belonged to the rest of the outfit.

Eventually, I found my wits again. "Who are you and how did you get on my ship?"

"I'm Ruiya. This cargo is for me. Do you have the paperwork for me to sign?"

"I don't care if you're the Empress of the Galaxy!" I yelled, thinking about my earlier impression of spoiled brats. She didn't look like I expected, but the attitude seemed spot on. "I want to know how you got past my computer!"

"Oh, that." Ruiya had the grace to look a bit guilty. "Your security is in really bad shape. I couldn't get into your personal codes on the first go, but your crew manifest was wide open. It wasn't even a challenge, really. You'd better get someone to upgrade the system before someone dishonest gets their hands on it."

"You're a slicer?" I yelled, furious. I started to pace along the far wall of the hold, building up a good head of steam. "You deliberately violated my privacy and broke into my ship? That's a violation of Guild and Federation laws! I could have you thrown in prison! I ought to have you hauled out of here in irons! How dare you break in here like that!"

"Calm down, dammit!" She dropped the box she'd been inspecting and stood up. I was again reminded of her small stature. "Look, you work for me. That gives me the right to enter your ship to take possession of my goods, right? It's in the contract you signed. I'm sorry I violated your precious privacy, but I did you a favor. If you want to keep working for us, you're going to have to fix your security protocols! I'm sure I could have gotten into your command files if I'd worked at it a bit longer." "That's not the point, I --" I had to pause there, because I had to think about what the point actually was. The point was that she'd broken into the ship, but when I thought about it the contract I'd signed did give her that right, from one point of view. If I had her arrested, I'd have to spend a lot of time and money arguing over that clause in the contract. When I signed, I hadn't imagined this interpretation. I'd know better next time, but for now I didn't have a leg to stand on. It didn't improve my mood.

"Fine," I said with some heat. "Take your gear and get off my ship. Our contract ends the moment you take possession. Then you can explain to your Daddy why my Guild won't do business with him again." It was a drastic card to play, but I wasn't bluffing. The reason the Guild had come together was for just this sort of thing.

She frowned and folded her arms across her chest. "Daddy? What are you talking about? Look, I apologize. I should have waited for you to return to your ship instead of breaking in. It was rude of me, and I shouldn't have done it. Let's not get all worked up about it, okay?"

"Lady, I make my living through this ship and her cargo. I don't know what business you're in but I can't afford to take break-ins casually. I've got to protect myself, and if you weren't a client you can bet I'd have you arrested. I expect better from the people I work with, and I don't tolerate this. What if someone else happened to notice the open hatch and decided to wander on board?"

She let out and exasperated sigh and threw up her hands in disgust. "Have it your way. I know a few tricks on how to keep people out as well as getting in. If you agree to let this drop, I'll upgrade your security myself, free of charge. What do you say?"

The computer chose this moment to chime in. "Hey, Boss?"

"This better be important," I growled.

"Well, it's relevant. I've been going over my security protocols, and it's all clean so far as I can tell. I can't find any trace of tampering. Same for the crew manifest: I show you as captain and Ruiya Ichari as your crew. If you hadn't told me you don't have any crew, I'd still think she was one."

"What's your point?"

"She's good, Boss. If she's offering to help you upgrade security, you should take her seriously."

Ruiya folded her arms and gave me a smirk. She looked like the cat that had eaten the canary. I was tempted to tell her to take her offer and shove it, but the computer was right and I knew it. I told myself that my nerves were shot after the pirate attack, and she couldn't have known how I'd react. If she were in league with the pirate, she could have killed me the moment I stepped through the hatch.

I took a deep breath and got a firm hold on my temper. Then in a much calmer voice I asked, "Have you eaten?"

It was her turn to be surprised. "What?"

"Let's go eat and talk about how you're going to upgrade my security."

Her insufferable smirk returned. "Oh? And where do you propose we go?"

"I don't know; I just got here. You're buying, so you choose."

"That's awfully presumptuous of you."

"Par for the course. Are you going to argue?"

"No." She glanced at the reader in her hand before putting it away in one of the deep pockets of her jumpsuit. "I hope you like vegetables."

* * *

Dinner was vegetarian fare. I wasn't used to that sort of food, but I had to confess that Ruiya knew the menu very well. I'd stupidly asked if it was native cuisine, prompting an agonising lecture over the differences between human biology and what she had learned about Tolic III's natives. Later as I mulled over something purple and spicy, she was lecturing me about security and typical points of failure. Frankly, I was only half following her: much of it was very technical and involved a lot of programming knowledge I don't have. By the time dinner had finished I had apologised for my outburst and explained what had happened to me on approach. Ruiya expressed her sympathy and understanding. Then she asked me what I'd meant about her Daddy.

"Excuse me?" I asked as I sipped my beer.

"What did you mean when you said I could explain to my Daddy why your Guild won't do business with him again?"

"Oh, well, I was planning to register a complaint with the Gal-Trader's Guild. It would effectively blacklist your father's company, and at the least it would hike the prices he'd have to pay for Trader goods and services. I'm not going to do that, I promise."

A frown settled across Ruiya's plain face. "Hideo, my parents died when I was very young. I was raised by my grandmother until I was fifteen, and when she died I survived on my own. My father never owned a company. You couldn't have blacklisted him."

I set down my beer and absorbed this in silence.

"Who gave you the idea you were working for my father?" Ruiya asked.

"The woman who gave me this contract, Eldee. I asked why I was ferrying survival equipment to some unknown outback and she said the CEO's daughter was doing some hiking and wanted it. I had this impression of you being some spoiled brat with more money than sense. That's also part of why I went off the way I did."

"Eldee? Tall woman who looks like she comes straight out of a vid recording? Makes you think she might take you to bed, and then maybe bite your head off and eat your brains?"

"That's her. You know her?"

"Him. He swaps genders now and then, always choosing the most ideal body form each time. The name really stands for his initials. His real name is Lawrence Daimler, and he's one of the top lieutenants for our company. I'm surprised you received your orders straight from him."

I blinked in surprise. "I suppose that was way of telling me to mind my own business."

"Eldee rarely does things like that without reason. He's ruthless, and he's got a keen mind for this business. He's the one who got me to come out here, and frankly we stand to make a hell of a profit. This whole planet is a pharmaceutical miracle, and I can't wait to get some of this stuff back to the lab."

I sat there biting my tongue, but my curiosity was screaming for me to find out what Ruiya was talking about. Nothing she was saying made much sense to me, but things were starting to fall into place. I didn't like the picture taking place.

She favored me with a penetrating look. "You really don't have a clue, do you?"

I shook my head regretfully and drained my glass. "No, frankly, I don't. Are you going to tell me?"

"Hideo, I work for the Naridi Consortium. We make some legitimate goods to keep GalPol happy, but primarily we deal in every kind of smuggling from aphrodisiacs to heavy narcotics. We've got all sorts of means of moving cargo, but we're always looking out for more, especially good pilots. If Eldee has his eye on you, that means someone thinks you've got something he can use."

I bristled visibly. "I'm not a smuggler."

"I didn't say you were, but Eldee is. Whatever his other reasons for altering his body, it helps to keep him anonymous: he's almost impossible to identify without a deep gene scan. Since Eldee gave you this assignment, that means he wants you for something. You might be ferrying something besides what's on your manifest and not even know it."

My thoughts flew back to the Jona system and Nallis. I immediately resolved to have the computer run an exhaustive scan of the entire ship the moment I got back.

"On the other hand, this sort of behavior sounds like Eldee is testing you. He wants to see how reliable you are, and how well you can keep your mouth shut. Asking why you were carrying survival gear to me means you probably failed part of your test, and if you go back to yell at him for lying to you I guarantee you'll fail again. Like I said: Eldee is ruthless, and he's not above killing or ruining people who disappoint him. If I were you, I wouldn't let on that you found out his little ruse."

I sat back and closed my eyes. "So, what you're telling me is that I'm stuffed any way I go. Either I play along and turn smuggler, risking getting arrested or vaporised by the cops, or I tell Eldee I won't work for her...him...and risk getting blacklisted or vaporised by him and your Consortium."

Ruiya shrugged eloquently and reached for her glass. There wasn't much to say.

"Why are you telling me all this? Is this part of Eldee's test?"

She flashed a smile at me. "Me? I despise Eldee. You seem like a decent fellow, even if you can't keep your mouth shut when you should. I hate seeing good people burned by the likes of him, so I'm trying to do you a favor. Don't get yourself killed. You've got a nice ship, which is probably what Eldee wants from you. If you can fly it well enough, you'll probably do well. Maybe someday you'll get an opportunity to pay that bastard back for the way he's treating you."

Someday. Maybe. I dialed for another beer. The expensive stuff, now that I knew who my real employer was. "Why are you working for them? Did Eldee hook you the way he's got me?"

"Not exactly. Eldee's a newcomer, and I've been around for a while. I didn't have much luck surviving on my own as you could imagine, but I got a lucky break. I was picked up by a guy who wasn't so interested in my body as my mind. He taught me a lot, including ways to bypass your security, and I got to go to some very good schools. I ended up with a degree in xenobiochemistry. There isn't much call for my work anymore, so it was either apply for a teaching position at some musty old university or walk on the wild side. I've been researching and cataloguing alien flora and fauna for a long time, and I've made some discoveries that would rock the scientific community if I could publish. Most of it would be suppressed by the Federation, so there's really no point. Eventually I'd get forced into a university and made to stay there; the Federation has an unwritten policy against what they class as unnecessary research. They've kept a lid on a lot of knowledge that could change our lives for the better."

"It doesn't bother you that this...Consortium deals in death and destruction?" I asked.

"So does the Federation," she snapped. "A lot of my research goes toward creating new thrills for the idle rich. I know that, and I'm not proud of it. But it keeps me funded and lets me continue my research in peace. It's this or nothing, and that's the best I'm going to get. Nothing comes free, you know. There's no easy way to get what you want, so you either learn to compromise or you get buried."

"Whoa, sorry." I held out my hands in apology. "I didn't mean to accuse you of anything. I just don't understand why you'd willingly participate in this. You just got finished telling me I don't have a choice, but it sounds like you do. Is your work that important?"

"It is to me." Ruiya finished off her drink and stood up. "That's all I'm going to say about it. I'm going to bed. I'll stop by your ship in the morning to do your upgrades and take possession of my supplies. Good night, Trader."

I bid her farewell and finished my drink as she walked off. I wondered what it would be like to live as she did, and then realised that I was probably going to find out.

* * *

Ruiya spent several hours with the computer's central core while I prepared to lift off. I didn't bother trying to find cargo to bring back to Kandori, I was too busy worrying to give it the attention it deserved. Eventually she came forward to announce that she was finished and run me through the changes. Once again I could barely follow what she was saying, but I got the impression that I wouldn't have much trouble with casual break-ins anymore. The Gilmour would be sealed against anything short of a physical attack; even the standard Federation override protocols would fail. This was technically illegal, but considering the nature of the business I was becoming entangled with, it had become necessary.

Ruiya kept strictly to business. She refused to allow me to engage her in any sort of conversation not directly related to the task at hand. I assumed I had insulted her the previous night, but something suggested there was more. I couldn't begin to guess what it was, but she wouldn't let me draw her out so I had no way to find out. I resigned myself to ignorance and thanked her for the work she'd accomplished. Then I prepared for jump.

The next few days were spent in quiet contemplation. I instructed the computer not to disturb me unless I was doing something stupid like staring out the window or trying to burn off my head. I wasn't serious about the latter, but considering what I had to think about, I realised I might sink to those depths.

I wasn't willing to become a smuggler. I didn't want to live my life in fear of the Navy, let alone the people who intended to use me and my ship. I thought about the possibility of cutting my losses and running, but I was starting to get sick of running. I'd bounced around what seemed like half the galaxy trying to make an honest living, and up until recently I'd had very little to show for it. Nobody seemed to have much use for a fast ship with low cargo capacity except for smugglers and pirates. Everyone seemed eager to assume I was either one or the other regardless of the circumstances. The news was full of reports of rampant crime in the skies, murder and misery over drugs and turf. It seemed that everywhere you turned, people were smuggling books, narcotics, slaves and the like. It made you wonder how anyone made a decent living at all. I started to think that there was no such thing.

I thought about John and Alec and Ron, and the offer they'd made me. I knew those fellows fairly well, or so I thought. They were good guys and loyal to each other. If I'd had the courage to join them when they'd ask, my life could have been very different. I might be making more money, having more adventures and generally living the life I'd always dreamed of. On the other hand, it might have turned me into a cloud of atomised gasses. There was no way to know, and I couldn't waste my time on what-ifs. But thinking about them gave me the courage to think I might actually survive this change, maybe even prosper. If Alec, the sour, consummate pessimist and cynic thought I was good enough to join them, then maybe I might have a chance at this after all.

It was hardly a cheering thought, but it helped me find some courage in the end.

As we approached Kandori, I gave the computer new instructions.

"I've been made aware that things are going to change drastically. I don't have a lot of control over this, and there's not really any point discussing it. Do you remember the cargo we hauled to the Jona system?"

"How could I forget?" the computer quipped.

"What did I tell you when you asked me what we were hauling?"

"You said 'don't ask.'"

"I think I'm going to be saying that a lot in the future. I think I'm being roped into something and my options go from bad to worse. So when I say 'don't ask,' you know what I mean. Got it?"

"Got it, Boss. I won't ask if you know what you're doing. I just hope we survive."

"So do I."

* * *

To say that Eldee was pleased with me would be an understatement. She…that was, he didn't want me to change my routine at all. I was to resume my old practice of jumping to random systems and return to Kandori with trends and prices. The difference was that everywhere I jumped to I would send out a coded message over the local network. If someone knew the correct responses to my message, I would meet with them and arrange to either buy or sell contraband. On my return to Kandori, I would post the results of my research, and privately deliver the results of my smuggling. On top of whatever I earned legitimately, I would receive a small commission for my efforts.

The Gilmour wasn't capable of hauling enough contraband to make a difference, one way or another. I knew this, and Eldee knew this. What I was doing was connecting networks. Through my efforts, Eldee's influence (and therefore, the Consortium) was expanded throughout the sector. I usually had only the vaguest idea of what I was hauling, and I certainly didn't understand how the connections I made contributed to the whole. What I did know was that every time I jumped to Kandori I received a larger bonus than the last. I was the tool moved by Eldee's hand, and between the two of us the money was coming in.

I made sure of certain precautions each time I went out. I made no demands, of course. I was in no position to demand anything of Eldee. But I spelled out a couple of points that he was willing to concede. The first was that Kandori is a high traffic system, and sports a correspondingly higher frequency of GalPol inspections. The law of averages dictated that eventually I was going to get scanned and probably boarded. The only way to defend against this was to make sure there was nothing to be found. Thus, whenever I returned to Kandori, my ship and I were clean from top to bottom. There could be nothing to make GalPol suspicious and therefore endanger Eldee's network. The second point was about what I hauled. In this, the Gilmour's weakness became her strength. I did not haul slaves. Slave trafficking is not a high-return venture, because whatever an organic creature can do, a menial robot or AI can do just as well with lower maintenance. To make any kind of profit in slavery you have to go in bulk. It still happens now and again, the buyers made up largely by the ultra rich and extreme conservative cultures, but I was able to avoid that stigma. It was a minor quibble and my logic was faulty, but Eldee agreed. I was relieved.

As for my earnings, I felt uneasy. Within a relatively short period, I accumulated enough credits to put all my earlier efforts to shame. I put most of my earnings back into the Gilmour, upgrading systems and adding new touches where I could. I boosted her power to the limit of modern technology and updated the computer while I was at it. I upgraded her shield and weapon systems as much as I could and added as many electronic counters as her hull would allow. The next pirate to jump me was going to find me a much more difficult target to hit. Those upgrades ate up most of the extra power leaving me with only a little to spare. I expected them to save my life.

The computer reminded me I hadn't returned the money my father gave me to buy the Gilmour. I sent a modest payment to him with promises of more to come. I hadn't heard a response to my earlier message, but I didn't think I would. Maybe after I'd sent a few more credits he would write back and tell me how I wouldn't need to send back money if I came home to work the store. Something to look forward to. My father was the consummate businessman, and would be until the day he died. Perhaps the day would come that he would forgive me for not being like him. Perhaps.

The money continued to pour in, evidence of Eldee's good favor. I found myself with more funds than I could reasonably use, a dream come true. Somehow, it didn't have the glamour or romance it once did. I spent freely, buying drinks for myself and for anyone who would sit with me. I lost a large amount of it gambling with other Traders. I became very popular in Guild circles for my trading tips and the amount of money I lost at cards. I began to return to my berth drunk, sometimes with company but mostly not. Whenever the computer reminded me, I would send money home to my father in greater and greater amounts. Otherwise I would spend what didn't go into ship maintenance on drinking and gambling. I was getting sloppy, and although my spacer instincts were too strong for me to endanger the Gilmour while in flight, what I did on the ground was another matter. The other Traders didn't seem too concerned by my behavior, probably because I'm usually a happy drunk, or at worst a bit morose. I didn't get aggressive or confrontational. I'd just keep buying more drinks and calling for another round of cards.

I'm not sure exactly when my work lost its shine for Eldee. A man once again with a massive physique, Eldee scolded me for being late several times. He didn't like it when I'd show up late, drunk or both. I was beyond caring, although I'd apologise profusely and swear never to do it again. Eldee was still pleased with my work, but rapidly losing patience with my behavior. After half a year Eldee had risen considerably in the ranks of the Consortium but I was still nobody, a Trader who had a fast ship and was developing bad habits. I could have done something with the money, could have bought a Ferla, but all I did was flush it. On our next meeting (I was again late and although not drunk, very hung over), Eldee outlined the course he wanted me to take. I wasn't much paying attention in part because it didn't deviate much from my standard route, in part because it was recorded on chip for me to play back at my leisure and largely because the pain in my head was drowning out everything else. But something Eldee said brought the world back into sharp focus.

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" I pressed the heel of my palm against my forehead, trying to get the beating drums to quiet down just a little bit.

"I said after you deliver the shipment to me we can discuss expanding your route -- "

"Yeah, that's what I thought you said. I know I'm an idiot, but didn't we already discuss how bad that could be for business?"

A hint of a sneer crept over Eldee's immaculate features. "Surely, a Trader of your talents and resources can sneak a few boxes of literature past GalPol? After all, you claimed to have been inspected on your last approach to Kandori, so it's reasonable to assume they'll leave you alone for a while, right?"

I couldn't fault his logic, but the whole setup felt wrong. "I'm just worried at the precedent; I don't want to get into the habit of flying in hot. Besides, just because they checked me out last time doesn't mean they won't do it again. They're called random searches for a reason."

"Relax, Hideo." Eldee dismissed my fears with a careless flick of his wrist. "I know you've spent what money you didn't drink away on upgrading your ship to its operational limits. Between your electronic countermeasures and the fact that you're just hauling some harmless books, GalPol won't suspect a thing. You'll be perfectly safe, I'm sure."

I frowned, feeling my headache increase in intensity. "Harmless? What kind of harmless?"

"Well, they've been classified as subversive texts and therefore banned, but it's really minor contraband, and GalPol won't go out of their way to search or prosecute for it. So long as you don't give them any other reasons to attract their attention, they won't bother you for it."

That didn't make me feel any better, but I kept my mouth shut. Eldee had made up his mind, and arguing wasn't going to do me any good. It certainly wasn't helping my headache, except to make it worse. I had a very bad feeling about this.

* * *

"Now approaching exit point," the computer reported. The video image it generated for my benefit didn't even skip as it calculated the precise point at which to cut off the power to the transition engines. I was well pleased with the Gilmour's performance. I wish I could say the same about my own. "Transition engines will disengage in nine…eight…seven…"

My latest errand run for Eldee and the Consortium went like clockwork. I jumped to the assigned spots, gathered information, sent out my coded message and received the correct responses. Deals were made, cargo was shifted and GalPol apparently none the wiser. If the Galactic Police knew about my smuggling activities, they weren't saying anything about it. I'd run across several GalPol ships, from small Viper-class interceptors to an imposing Commando-class battlecruiser. The computer confirmed that there was no discernable increase or other change in GalPol activities along my route, so I had nothing to worry about. Except that I did, of course. On my last hop, I picked up the "literature" Eldee wanted me to ferry home, and again everything went smoothly. So why were my nerves screaming every second?

I knew I shouldn't be drinking. It's perhaps the fastest way for a space-faring adventurer to get killed. You do not drink while you're on the move; it makes you slow and foolhardy. I did it anyway. It was the only way to avoid thinking about the trouble I imagined was coming my way. Why did Eldee insist I smuggle contraband into Kandori? Obviously, I was being set up. I shouldn't be coming back, except I knew there was nowhere for me to run. I had no other choices. On the other hand, I couldn't face my impending doom sober, so I didn't. I flew drunk. The computer was disgusted with me. I was disgusted with me. I was a coward. So be it.

"…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 reality no longer friendly to me. I stared at the plot blankly, knowing I should be getting down to business but unable to move. After a moment, the computer took over.

"Sublight engines are nominal, star charts confirm we're in the Kandori system approximately 1.8 AU from the star. The capital city is .3 AU to port, bearing zero-niner-eight by one-five-niner by one-seven-three. Contacting Port Control for landing instructions."

Gradually, my eyes focused on the sensor board tracking possible interception threats. There were at least two dozen ships marked and most of them were marked as trading-class vessels. There were, of course, three GalPol ships and one Navy destroyer. Nothing unusual, but my heart skipped a beat. I watched the data like a hawk, certain they were on intercept already, if not soon. The screen made a liar of me as they all continued on their vectors without the slightest hitch. Nobody was interested in me. I let out a deep breath I hadn't realised I was holding and sank back in my chair. It occurred to me that I was thirsty, so I took a pull at the bottle in my hand.

"Port Control confirms we're clear to enter the landing queue," the computer reported. "ETA forty-nine hours and seventeen minutes. Approach vector confirmed and locked in."

I mumbled something that might have been acknowledgement.

"Hey Boss."

I glanced up at the display. At first I thought the image was glaring at me, but it was just a trick of the eye. The computer hadn't altered anything about its interface. "Yeah," I mumbled.

"Go sleep it off. I'll beep you if anything happens."

"Yeah," I said, staying where I was. Eventually, it penetrated my alcohol-fogged brain that the computer had made an excellent suggestion, so I swayed to my feet and staggered to my cabin. Although I didn't have the presence of mind to douse the lights, darkness was swift to fall.

It seemed only a moment later when I was broken out of a deep sleep by the crash of thunder. My immediate thought was that we'd struck something and the hull had breached. My hand was already reaching for my emergency EVA suit when I noticed the light blinking at the console by the bed. I immediately slapped it. "Yeah, what?"

"Sorry Boss, but I've been trying to reach you for ten minutes. We're being hailed by a GalPol interceptor, and she really wants to talk to you."

A GalPol interceptor. My brain was frozen with panic. This was it. This was the moment where Eldee's trap would close around me and I would spend the rest of my life in a Federation prison, if I survived that long. My doom had arrived.

"Boss! She wants visual. You'd better come to the cockpit."

I scrubbed my face with my hand and felt the five-day growth on my chin. I had to look a mess, and certainly in no shape to conduct an interview. I found myself amazed that I was still thinking I might be able to talk myself free. No way. My other hand brought the bottle to my lips, but I found that it was dry. I didn't know if it had poured out onto the floor or if I'd drunk it all. I threw the bottle into the corner and cursed. Then I straightened my back, adjusted my shirt and walked calmly to the cockpit.

The GalPol interceptor pilot was broadcasting a visual image on screen three. She was lean, fair-haired and light skinned. She clearly hadn't spent much time outside, probably more interested in flying than anything else. I knew how that felt, once. Her expression was mostly bored, but she was beginning to show some concern.

"I repeat, I need your captain to broadcast to me in the next thirty seconds, or I'll have your ship impounded. Do I make myself clear?"

"I'm here, Captain," I said quickly as I flopped into my chair. "I'm sorry about the delay, but I was…um…indisposed."

"I'm Sergeant Annerly of the Fifth Fleet," she replied coolly. "Please broadcast visual to me now."

I flipped a switch to comply. "Broadcasting visual now. I'm Trader Hideo Takenoshita aboard the David Gilmour, Sergeant. What can I do for you?" I heard the shaking in my voice and cursed it mentally. Unfortunately, nothing I could do would stop it.

"Trader Takenoshita, do you realise your ship is broadcasting a jamming field?"

I blinked in surprise. I hadn't expected her question. "Um…it is? I…uh…let me check."

"It's the LSJ, Boss," the computer reminded me. "It's still running."

"Oh! Right! I…uh…installed some countermeasures against pirates, you see. I got jumped recently at the Tolic system and survived by the skin of my teeth."

"Please disengage your jamming field, Trader," Sergeant Annerly requested with cool civility.

"Yeah, right, of course!" My hands flew at the controls, and within seconds the readout said the LSJ was deactivated. "LSJ is off. Uh…may I ask why?"

"It was interfering with my scans." The GalPol agent frowned as she glanced at her display. "I show you very light on cargo. Just some data tablets. What are you hauling, Trader?"

"Oh, some literature my employer requested me to bring back from Yerga IX." That much was true anyway. I tried to sound casual about it, but I could hear my voice crack. "Data, technical readouts, that sort of thing. I don't know why." The last part was also true. "The Naridi Consortium has me hauling all sorts of strange stuff like that. I usually don't know what, or why." Also true. Then it occurred to me I was talking too much, and shut up.

Sergeant Annerly stared at me for a moment with dark eyes, then nodded and flipped a switch offscreen. "Very good, Trader Takenoshita. Continue on your present heading and from now on, leave off the jammer when you're in Federation space. We'll protect you from pirates; it's our job."

"Uh, yes. Yes Ma'am. Will do. Anything to oblige." I was talking too much again. "Gilmour out."

Once the connection was broken, I collapsed into my seat with a loud groan. "I'm alive. How in space am I still alive?"

"You expected lasers and missiles to greet you?" the computer asked, sounding astonished.

"As a matter of fact, yes. We're hauling contraband, for pity's sake! Right into the heart of the sector capital! Of course I expected to get inspected and arrested!"

"Boss, you've got precisely 12,500 data tablets. They're not broadcasting or radiating anything and without better sensors than I've ever heard of, nobody is going to know what's on them without coming aboard and turning one on. Whatever's on those tablets isn't going to raise any red flags for anybody unless you tell them."

It was essentially what Eldee had told me. He wasn't setting me up, even though he knew how nervous I was about smuggling. He just sent me on a routine job, and I almost botched it. Suddenly, my headache was back. I needed a drink. I needed to strangle Eldee. Most of all, I needed to not see the computer's neutral, yet somehow damning expression on the screen. I scrambled to my feet and headed for my cabin again. "Call me at final approach," I said before I turned off the lights and crawled back into bed.

* * *

My instructions for the cargo were to bring them to a warehouse some ten kilometers from the landing port. How I got them there was my business. What Eldee did with them after was his. Somehow I felt I was getting the short end of the stick. Even a cursory customs inspection would reveal the nature of the information on the tablets. However, I noticed that each of the tablets had some free space for additional data. After a moment's thought, I connected to the Kandori public network and downloaded a very dry text on animal husbandry. Only the first chapter would fit, but that was all I needed. I made sure the index referred to the cover text and not the banned material. I couple of hours later, all of the tablets were camouflaged as textbooks.

It seemed to work. The customs agent who inspected the cargo selected a tablet at random, pushed a button and grimaced at what he found. It was very dry, but very graphic. He tossed it back into the pile, selected another and confirmed it was the same.

"Who asked for these?" he enquired as he made an entry into his pad.

"My employer," I replied as casually as I could. "Why, what's on them?"

"Animals having sex. You must have some really strange employers."

"I don't know. I try not to ask." I thought for sure the pounding of my heart would give me away, but he cleared me and moved hastily on to the next shipment on his list. I wiped a cold sweat from my face and hurried to the rendezvous.

Eldee met me outside the warehouse along with a pair of short, burly fellows. Everything about them said "enforcer" to me, especially the way they kept hands near some very conspicuous bulges in their long coats. Eldee ignored them. "Hideo, so good to see you! Only a few minutes late, I see."

"Yeah, well, they don't care about my schedule during customs inspections," I muttered bitterly.

Eldee frowned slightly and lifted a finger to his lips. "Come inside and we'll discuss our next step." He then proceeded to clear the way for my transport and walk inside. I was relieved to see that the thugs waited outside.

"I trust you did nothing to arouse suspicion?" Eldee asked after closing the door behind us.

"Other than getting scanned by GalPol on my way in, nothing unusual."

The frown on his face deepened. "Scanned? What for?"

"Contraband, of course. I had my LSJ running and they asked me to turn it off. It seems that an LSJ will jam GalPol's sensors. After that they didn't seem interested."

"That could complicate things," Eldee mused as he picked up a data pad. "Why did you let yourself get so careless as to leave that on during approach?"

"For two very good reasons," I snapped before I remembered myself. Then I forced myself to calm down and continued in a much more reasonable tone of voice. "The first is because I've been jumped by pirates recently and you already know how paranoid I've become. The second is because I didn't know jamming laser systems would also jam sensor scans."

Eldee's frown didn't go away. Instead, he stared at the tablet in his hand. Then he slowly raised his eyes to meet mine. "Where is the data, Hideo?"

"Look at chapter 2," I suggested lightly.

He pushed a button and eased up on the frown slightly. "I don't recall discussing this with you. How do I know you haven't compromised the data I want?"

"Yes, that's right. You didn't discuss it with me. You left it to me to figure out how I was going to convince Port Authority that these tablets weren't worth their notice, in spite of the face that you know they examine everything coming in. So I threw something innocent and obnoxious into the leftover data storage and hoped they wouldn't dig too deep. Instead of complaining, you should be thankful the whole shipment didn't get impounded and destroyed."

Eldee shrugged and nodded. "Very well. I commend you for your ingenuity. I trust you haven't damaged anything."

"I made sure the text I downloaded was small enough not to overwrite anything," I replied sullenly. His accusations were starting to grate.

"Then I'll credit this as a successful delivery." He reached into a pouch and drew out some credit sticks. He sorted through them idly, and tossed me three. "Payment in full. Next, I'm looking to expand your route through to the Izar system to the east -"

Our conversation was abruptly interrupted by the sound of blaster fire outside the door. Seconds later, one of the thugs burst through the door, a wicked-looking gun in his hand. "Boss, GalPol is surrounding the building! Jim is hit, but he's still shootin'. We gotta go, now!"

The thug's warning came a little too late. He rushed over to escort Eldee from the room as Eldee produced his own hand blaster. It seemed everybody was armed but me. Then an explosion rocked the building and bits of durasteel and concrete rained to the ground. I was lucky to escape being hit by one of the larger pieces, rooted to the floor in shock as I was. The smaller fragments jolted me out of my stupor and I looked around wildly for a way to escape. We were trapped, and GalPol commandos were dropping down from the roof on null-grav platforms.

Eldee raised his small pistol and fired. I was shocked at the amount of energy produced by such a small weapon. It hit one of the GalPol platforms and obliterated it along with the commando riding it. Eldee calmly adjusted his aim and shot another one.

That did it for me. I leaped for the nearest cargo container intending to hide behind it. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I didn't want to be standing next to a man shooting at cops. The return fire wasn't likely to discriminate. Sure enough, I heard the sound of multiple blasters going off and objects splintering into fragments. I kept my head down as the carnage raged. Then I noticed I was standing on a grate. It wasn't a large one, but I could conceivably squeeze my way inside. I bent down to lift it and almost pulled my arms out of their sockets. It was too heavy.

The firing stopped for a moment. I heard voices shouting, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. My mind cycled through panic and frustration in equal measure as I tried to think of how I could get through the grate. The combatants resumed the battle and the container I was standing behind was hit. It rocked on its foundation, slamming into me and throwing me several feet. It teetered momentarily and I thought it was going to crush me, but then it settled back at rest. I crawled back to the grate and found the container had nicked the edge sufficiently to unseat it. With a Herculean effort, I was able to pull it far enough away to get through. I scraped my shins in my hurry to leave, and had to exhale completely before I was able to get by, but it was enough. Just enough. That was all I needed.

I landed in a dimly lit tunnel with a noisome splash. From the reek I guessed I'd found the local sewage pipe. I had no idea why this warehouse had access to it, but I wasn't about to question my good fortune. I guessed there were at least five meters of rock, durasteel and concrete between me and the surface, and I hoped that would prevent GalPol's sensors from detecting me. The pipe was just tall enough for me to crawl, and so I did. The smell was almost overwhelming, but my fear of discovery was greater. I crawled for two hours before I found an exit.

I came out just outside the warehouse district next to a brothel. The prostitute standing next to the hatch I opened didn't seem too surprised to have someone crawl out covered in filth, but she did stand a respectable distance away as I flopped to the ground and closed the way behind me. I lay still for a moment, enjoying the fresh air and sunlight before I opened my eyes and looked her over. She didn't seem afraid or upset, so I took that as a good sign.

"How about a date?" I asked as I climbed painfully to my feet.

She sniffed delicately, a gesture that seemed odd to me. "Forget it. You get cleaned up, then maybe we'll talk."

"Sounds good to me. Know where I can get some clean clothes?"

She winked at me. "Turn right down the alley and knock on the third door on your right. Tell ‘em Asha said you need a bath."

"Thanks." I didn't stop to question the odd instructions. I turned and jogged down to the third door. A boy not more than thirteen opened at my knock and wrinkled his nose at me.

"Whatcha want?" he demanded, keeping his fair-haired head back.

"Asha said I need a bath."

"Too right." The boy opened the door further and led me into a small apartment littered with electronic parts and data pads. He opened another door to a sanitary unit, complete with shower and towels. It didn't look too clean, but I was in no place to judge.

"Toss your clothes out an' I'll burn ‘em," the boy said as if he did this sort of thing all the time. I had my suspicions.

"What, no dry cleaning?" I asked as I stripped off my vest and started at the buttons of my shirt.

"Yeah, you're funny," the boy replied in a tone that suggested it wasn't. "I'll have fresh clothes for you when you're done."

I paused before reaching for the buttons at my waist. "Uh…could I have a little privacy, here?"

"Whatever." The boy rolled his eyes in exasperation and closed the door.

I wasn't sure if there were any cameras or scanners watching me, but I felt better without the kid's world-weary gaze on me. I reached into the pockets of my vest and pulled out my credit sticks. I hadn't had time to look at them before, but I discovered there were over half a million credits in them. I had a fortune in my hands, and I was in an unknown apartment with a kid apparently in the employ of a criminal organization waiting for me to hand him my soiled clothing. Oh well, at least I'd die clean. I put the sticks back in the vest and stripped off the rest of my clothes. I handed them around the door and stepped into the shower. It was heavenly. I stood there for a long time sluicing off the remains of the sewers and trying not to shake too much in reaction to the danger I'd just been in. This was happening to me far too often. Eventually, a pounding at the door suggested I was overstaying my welcome.

I shut off the water and stepped out. I selected what appeared to be the cleanest towel on the rack and dried myself briskly. I didn't see any new clothes, so it appeared I was going to have to brave whatever awaited me outside the room. I secured the towel about my waist and opened the door.

Asha stood there with a pile of clothes in her hands and a smirk on her face. She took a long, slow look up and down my body before grinning at me. "Your new clothes, sir."

"Uh, thanks." I quickly snatched the clothes from her and stepped back into the sanitation unit to dress. They were a decent fit and much nicer than what they replaced. I stepped into the boots and found they were a little too narrow, but they'd suffice to get me to my ship. On the whole, I was impressed with the efficiency of the operation. They hadn't had much time to size my clothing and get replacements.

I reached out to open the door and stopped. I patted down my pockets and found what I least expected: three credit sticks. A quick inspection showed that fifty thousand had been deducted from one, but they were otherwise intact. I decided that was a reasonable price under the circumstances. I put a smile on my face and opened the door to see Asha still grinning at me where I left her.

Again she looked me up and down. "Much better. You look quite dashing, if I say so myself. Now, shall we?"

"Uh, shall we what?"

"Establish your alibi." She favored me with a knowing smile. "You're new at this, aren't you?"

That was certainly the truth. "It's my first time in the sewers."

"Well, follow me." She hooked her arm through mine and led me to the front door. The boy was sitting in the middle of a pile of parts fiddling with something I couldn't see. He didn't look up as Asha opened the door and neither of them spoke as we left.

"Cute kid," I remarked as she closed the door behind us. "Must be interesting to have a brother like him."

She glanced at me, her eyes laughing. "Brother? You flatter me. He's my son."

I took a long look at her. She wasn't gorgeous but she was attractive and seemed to have a youthful air about her that belied her apparent profession. She clearly wasn't what I thought she was, but then again, neither was I. Still, she didn't look old enough to have a son that age. "He can't be. You're barely out of your teens yourself."

She gave a girlish giggle and gave my arm a tug to keep us moving. "You're a lot nicer than the guys I usually see. If you're still that way in a few months, come see me. We'll talk about that date."

That instantly sobered me. The guys she usually saw (if she normally helped people out of the sewers and into clean clothes) were probably wondering where I was and why I wasn't with everybody else. They might be wondering why GalPol had chosen to raid that warehouse at that particular time, and why I wasn't listed among the arrested or dead. They might be wondering where my loyalties lay and what I might have told to whom. They would probably begin planning how they could use me as an example to others who might be thinking about going to the police with sensitive information. Their plans probably involved torture and death after hours or days of futile interrogation. Claiming innocence would only encourage them to be more creative with their torment.

Once again I was going to have to leave the sector in a hurry.