Chapter 5 - Illiad System

I occasionally reference God, largely due to familial influence. I consider myself an atheist, largely because I'm too lazy to go through the forms of paying homage to any Supreme Entity. My father does his duty to a rather informal faith while my mother is devoutly religious. I was brought up to say my prayers and expect to go to heaven, but at sixteen teenaged rebellion won out and I went my own way. My father took it stoically, but my mother was crushed. None of her children were really interested in her faith, and I think she took it personally.

The point of this being that I don't necessarily believe in God, but occasionally life gives me one of those nudges that suggest if God doesn't exist, something up there has a sense of humour where I'm concerned. One such nudge took place on Talheim V, a thoroughly dismal place frequented by smugglers, pirates and even less savoury characters.

I wasted no time getting as far away from Kandori's sector as I could. The first planet I came to I dumped a hold full of minerals. As desperate as I was, I still remembered the Golden Rule for all Traders: never jump without filling your hold, even if it doesn't bring much profit. I then blew almost everything I had buying up two tonnes of luxury goods and charted a course that bounced me around the galaxy as randomly as possible. Four weeks later I arrived in the Illiad sector and landed on Talheim, where I heard luxuries brought high returns. It was also an Independent world, like most of that sector, where GalPol had little influence. That was even more important to me than getting a good price for my goods. The Guild has less influence on Independent worlds, but Traders are still welcome.

Luck was with me. I fetched a good price for my luxuries; almost half again what I'd paid for them. Then I looked around to see what the market was offering. I was shocked at how laid back the authorities were about goods considered contraband in Federation territories. Narcotics, weapons, slaves, you name it. If you wanted it, Talheim had it. It started to make me nervous; did the Consortium know about this place? I mean, it's a big galaxy, but there are times when it can feel mighty small. I tiptoed around local bars and Trader hangouts and eventually discovered that no one out here had heard of the Naridi Consortium. It was a remarkable relief.

And then I got another shock.

"Take no shit, eh? Me neither."

I knew that voice. My hand was on my blaster before I even thought about it, but I didn't draw. By the time I finished the motion, I realised the owner of the voice was a friend. I also realised that he'd probably burn me on the spot if I drew on him.

"Ron Bangel." I turned around to look the pirate in the eye. "Why am I not surprised to find you in a seedy hole like this?"

Ron eyed the hand on my blaster, and made a deliberate show of removing his hand from his weapon. "Well hell, the kid's growing up. You look like you don't take no shit no more. Good for you, kid. You still lousy at cards?"

I very carefully lifted my hand and extended it for a shake. "Nah, I'm on the run from card sharks who figured I cheated ‘em. You still lousy at women?"

He flushed at the jibe, but shook my hand anyway. "It's good to see you again, Hideo."

I felt a lot better once we were seated and I'd offered to buy the first round of drinks. Ron never turns down a free drink. The only thing he likes better is skinning me at cards.

"You must be doing well," he observed after he took his first sip. "You didn't even flinch when I ordered the firewater."

"Um," I said, wondering what to say to that. "I had a lucky run."

"You must have. I can't think how else you can make money in that heap you fly, unless you've come to your senses and started smuggling." That hurt. Ron is typically as subtle as a nova. My emotion must have showed on my face because he waved his hand defensively. "Hey, don't get all snooty about it. I know you love that ship, but she's got jack for cargo. She's not built for trading, Hideo, and you know it."

I couldn't help scowling. Trust Ron to reopen old wounds. "You looking to trade? I bet I could pull twenty times the haul I normally do in that shiny Ferla of yours."

He sneered at me. "Not much of a trade. I've got the Charon tricked out like crazy; some of it's not even legal for me to own in the Federation. I drew some heat the last time I was over that way, so that's why I'm cooling my heels out here."

I nodded in sympathy. Oh, how I knew that feeling. "Have you seen the other guys, recently?"

Ron eyed me with a trace of suspicion. It looked like I'd hit on something there. He paused a moment before saying, "I might have. Why?"

I shook my head and reached for my glass. "No reason. I haven't seen a friendly face in...too long. It'd be nice to see them again."

Ron frowned again and drained a large portion of his glass. He set it down, burped and pinned me with his gaze. "You stickin' around?"

I sipped my drink, determined to pace myself. Staying sober was high on my list of priorities. "I haven't decided. I landed a week ago, and I've been scoping out the scene. I haven't been to many Independent worlds, and I'm looking at the markets."

He shooks his head at me and dialled another drink.  "It's even more competitive here than it is in Federation territory. If you haven't got the bulk, then you've got to know who to talk to and where to get things. I'm sorry to say it, Hideo, but you've got jack to offer. Nobody knows you, and nobody will vouch for you."

I nodded and sighed heavily. I figured it was too good to be true. "I suppose I should just fill my hold and move on, then."

"Well, not too soon," Ron said cheerfully.  "I haven't seen you in a while.  You sure I couldn't talk you into a friendly game?"

I snorted. "You? Friendly?  Your idea of a ‘friendly game' is to pay for drinks after you've taken all my money."

"So, is that a ‘no?'"

"No, that's not a ‘no.' When are you playing?"

"Come by here tomorrow night. Bring some tall tales and lots of cash. We'll have some fun." He toasted me with his glass.

"How can I refuse?" I returned the toast and finished my drink. Maybe I knew someone after all.

One of the things I do to keep myself occupied during the long trips in folded space is to practice my poker. Playing against the computer isn't like playing against a real person; there's no body language to give you clues as to your opponent's hand, and the random number generator is a little too random for my liking. I therefore get in a lot of practice, but it doesn't seem to do me much good. I spent that night playing anyway, preparing for the impending meeting with Ron and his friends.

The computer was curious. "You think this is Ron's way of helping you out?"

I dropped a three and eight and took two cards.  "Maybe. Whether it is or not, I'm pretty positive he isn't setting me up to claim whatever bounty has been set on my head."

"What makes you think there's a bounty out for you?"

"Paranoia," I snapped and watched the computer take one card. I was beginning to suspect the computer was stacking the deck against me. If I could figure out how to play with real cards, I would.  "But even if he was, I'll bet you anything the bounty on him is bigger than mine. I don't think I'm looking at a Galpol trap."

"Have I ever mentioned you're an extremely cagey person?" The computer bet ten credits.

"Oh, come on. I'm a laid back sort of fellow, aren't I? I'm not that bad, am I?" I saw the bet and lay down my cards. A pair of jacks.

"You weren't always, no," the computer replied. It revealed two pair, deuces and sevens. It tallied up another thirty credits. "But you are now."

"Well, can you blame me?" I grumbled and anted up. "I'm on the run from the law and the Consortium at the same time.  You think maybe I've got a good reason for it?"

"I think you've had a streak of bad luck, and it's getting to you," the computer told me. It dealt five cards to me.

I had the possibility of a straight, if only I could get the right card. I bet five credits.  "Bad luck is putting it mildly.  It seems like the only time I can make any kind of decent money is when I'm breaking the law. And then I have to watch out for other people trying to kill me over it. I've violated at least six Guild laws that I can think of. If they decide to pay attention my trading license is history.  That's the nicest thing that could happen to me."

"So, maybe you're not cut out for life as a Trader?" the computer asked quietly. It saw my bet.

I traded the ace, and got a six. That left me with a pair of sixes, and nothing else.  I frowned and drummed my fingers on the table. "Maybe I'm not.  But I'm not willing to throw in the towel yet. Other guys can do this, why can't I? I'll stick it out a little longer, maybe see what Ron's got in mind before I give up."

"You're the boss," the computer said and traded three cards. "If Ron isn't setting you up for Galpol, what do you think he's trying to do?"

"I don't know," I replied, and bet twenty.  Maybe I could bluff.  "Maybe he's trying to show somebody he's got his own connections. Maybe he knows somebody who needs a fast ship. Or maybe he just wants somebody bad at cards to lose a lot of money.  Just because I've never known Ron to do anything out of the goodness of his heart doesn't mean he never does.  There's a first time for everything."

"But unlikely," the computer pointed out.  It raised another twenty.  Did computers know how to fold?

"No, pretty unlikely. So I should keep my eyes open. But I tell you this now, if Ron is trying to pull a fast one on me, I'll give up and go home to mind the store. It'd make Dad happy, anyway." I raised thirty more.

"You're that positive you're not going to get burned?"  The computer saw my thirty and raised thirty again.

"No, I'm just positive Ron isn't trying to burn me.  I don't know anything about the other folks I'll be meeting. He didn't even say who they were." I saw it and raised again. It was only play money, after all.

The computer decided to show mercy and called. It had four of a kind to my pair.  Once again, my credit disappeared. The difference in our chips was telling.  I decided it was not an omen.

Ron greeted me like a long-lost brother, a gleeful look in his eye.  No doubt he was looking forward to spending my money after the game. "Hideo! You're right on time. C'mon in!"  He took me up to the bar, ordered a Bolian Red ale for me and hustled me into a back room. Inside was a plain, square room with a table and four chairs occupied by three men.

"I hear you're rich, now," said a low, raspy voice.  I stopped in the door, staring at the owner. Alec Orestes, mercenary pilot for hire. Alec had seen more combat than half of the Navy's Third Fleet, from what I'd heard.  Seated to his left was John Akers, a fellow trader and thoroughly more pleasant individual than Alec.  John waved amiably to me from behind his trademark cigar. To Alec's right was another man I didn't recognise. He glared at me suspiciously as he fingered a tall glass of something dark.

Ron shoved me from behind. "Well, go on. Dickie's not gonna bite ya. Not right away."

"Uh, hi." I stepped fully into the room and took the seat John was offering me.  "Ron didn't say you'd be here, the fink. I would have dressed appropriately."

John laughed and patted my arm. "Ron's been pretending to be a pirate," he explained.  "He sees Galpol traps everywhere.  I swear, if I let him he'd sweep the Bounty twice a month for bugs." At my questioning look, he waved his hand. "Don't worry about it, kid."

"What's he here, for?" demanded the fellow I didn't know. "We always play four seats, not five."

"Oh, relax Dickie," Ron said as he brought in an extra seat and grabbed the deck of cards. "Hideo's cool. He tagged along with us while he was doing his apprenticeship with the Guild. You'll like him: he loses a lot."

I sighed and took a drink of my ale. It was looking to be a long evening.

"Introductions," John announced with a wave of his cigar. "You already know Ron, Alec and I. The surly fellow is Dick Passer. Dick drives an Ophid-class scout, like you Hideo. But no, he's not Guild like you and me. He's strictly freelance."

"Can't survive in the Guild unless you play by their rules," Dick grumbled. "Gotta fly what they say, where they say and how they say. Then they eat up all your profit. Deviate and you'll go bankrupt."

I couldn't really argue with that. On the other hand, Dick didn't seem interested in commiseration, so I kept my mouth shut.

"Enough about the damned Guild," Ron said and set the deck down for me to cut. I cut it.  "Let's play some poker."

True to form, it was a long evening.  And I lost a lot. But I found it curious that I lost as much as I did.  I was getting unusually good hands, and I was able to take a few nice pots now and again. Most of the time I lost to Dickie while the others swapped stories and bragged about their exploits. For once, I was able to keep up with their tall tales, and I didn't even have to exaggerate that much. Eventually I lost my head and started talking about Kandori, but I realised my mistake early and turned the tale into a pure fabrication.  I glanced around to see how they took my lie; the others seemed unconcerned, but Dickie was watching me closely.  I couldn't decide why, so I anted up and moved on.

They were most interested by Jillian, which didn't surprise me.

"I cannot believe you didn't stick around for that!" John was telling me. "I've heard of Stellar Construction; most everybody in the Guild has.  They are top dog in their sector, Hideo. And you had an inside line on them? And she was cute?  You're nuts!"

"Yeah, well, there was this little matter of her ex trying to gun me down," I muttered. "I kinda lost my taste for the system after I got out of the hospital."

Alec shook his head and tossed down three cards to trade. As it was my turn to deal, I took them and gave him what he needed. "Hideo, it's a tough galaxy out here. You knew that when you got your Guild license. If you're gonna split every time somebody decides to take a potshot at you, you're gonna run out of places to run.  Stand your ground and defend your territory. It's the only way to go."

"I'm not a—" I choked back the words "killer like you" just in time.  I was a killer, yes; I killed Pitr and maybe some pirates who were looking to kill me first.  But I took no pleasure in it, and I certainly didn't seek it out. As a mercenary, Alec went looking for trouble. Pointing it out to him was asking for trouble.

"You're not a what?" he asked suspiciously.

"I'm...just not cut out for fire fights and stuff."  I studied my cards for a while, hoping the conversation would move on.

"I heard you did pretty well for yourself in Kandori," John said helpfully. "The Guild was all abuzz about it. A few months ago you were the man to talk to, posting news about where to go to buy and sell.  Had a lot of folks impressed with your ingenuity."

I felt my hair prickle. "Um, what did you hear?"

"That you were using your Ophid to set yourself up as an information broker. Coulda made a killing, too. Then you dropped out of sight without warning. Just took off.  And now you're here."

I looked around uncomfortably. Everybody was watching me, particularly Dickie.  His cards were down and his hands were flat on the table. He looked ready to draw on me.

"So what happened, Hideo?" Ron asked quietly.

I scrubbed my face. I didn't know how much they knew, so I couldn't decide how much to tell them. I decided to start small and work my way up there. "I...ran into some trouble. It wasn't just the Guild interested in me. I was...made an offer I couldn't refuse. Talked to some folks who suggested refusing could get me disintegrated. So I did it. They built on my information gathering to get themselves organised a lot more, expanding their influence. Then something bad happened and I jumped out a step ahead of everybody else.  I suppose I should have jumped away sooner, but I wasn't sure I could get away."

"What happened?" Alec repeated. He hadn't put his cards down, but like everyone else he had me pinned to the wall with his gaze.

"I...was hauling contraband. Literature, I think; banned stuff. Petty stuff, really, but I didn't have much choice in what I hauled, you know? So I show up to make the drop and Galpol shows up." I watched them all stiffen and hurried on. "I didn't get caught. I escaped through a sewer line after I saw the guy who was blackmailing me get fried.  Port Authority didn't stop me or ask any questions when I left, so I'm pretty sure Galpol got what they wanted in that raid. But I didn't know if the people that guy worked for wanted to blame me, or if Galpol still wanted me in jail. I didn't stick around to ask, I just jumped around as randomly as I could until I was sure nobody was following me."

"How do we know Galpol didn't get you?" Ron asked. His fingers were twitching, which made me nervous.

I opened my mouth, then closed it. A moment later, I tried again. "I guess you don't. How would I prove it? Why would it matter, anyway? I didn't come here to find you. I never expected to see any of you."

"Nobody said anything about him being questioned," John put in quietly.

"It's too risky," Dickie said. "I say we burn him and toss him out back."

"Shut up, Dickie," Ron replied flatly.  "You're not one to talk about risks."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"He means you're crooked," Alec snarled.  "You think we wouldn't notice the burn patterns on that yacht? I know how you fly, Dickie. That wasn't no Tharl raid, you shot her down. Too damned greedy, that's your problem."

"You got no proof!" Dickie stood up and backed away, hand hovering over his blaster.

"Not much," Ron admitted calmly. "But enough. You should have let Hideo win, you know. We knew you were cheating, but we hoped you could at least show a little respect for your friends."

Dickie went for his blaster, and suddenly everybody had weapons out but me. I sat stock still, hoping not to attract any attention.

"I knew I couldn't trust you! You're all a pack of thieves! You been cuttin' me out from the beginning! Now you brought him in and you'll hang me out to dry!  I ain't goin' alone!  I'll take you with me!"

"Calm down, Dickie," John said soothingly.  From my vantage point, I could see the white on his knuckles as he held his blaster level. "Nobody wants this to get violent. You just walk out now and we all get to live. Then you don't know us, and we don't know you.  Everybody wins. What do you say?"

"Bullshit." Dickie looked at me and suddenly I knew what he meant to do. "I'm not gonna fall for it. You'll kill me, but I'll take some of you down, too!"

"Last chance," Ron said, backing slowly away from the door. "There's the exit.  Get out and don't come back."

There was a pause as everyone waited to see what Dickie would do. He swung his blaster back and forth between four targets, before he glanced at the door.  I could see he didn't believe they'd let him live. In his place, I wasn't sure I would have, either. Then he moved, and his finger tightened on the trigger.

The next few seconds were filled with light, noise and smoke. Four shots rang out, and an abrupt scream. Two chairs clattered against the ground: the one Dickie backed into as he fell with three blaster bolts in his chest, and the one I pushed aside as I ducked under the table. Once I was safely out of view, I took the opportunity to draw my own weapon. Better late than never.  I watched his body fall to the floor, smoking heavily. Then there was silence.

"Hideo? You all right?" John knelt down, blaster raised to the ceiling as he checked on me.

I glanced at him, then back at the body.  "Uh, yeah?"

"I admit, I didn't expect him to shoot at you first," Alec remarked as he walked over to the body. "Good thing you moved when you did."

John put his blaster away and reached out to me.  "C'mon, it's safe now.  You can come out." I unwillingly let myself be led out from under the table.  I still had my blaster out, although I wasn't pointing it at anybody.

"Put that away," Ron said before he bent down to grab Dickie's ankles. "No more shooting tonight, I promise."

Alec grinned at me as he lifted Dickie by the arms.  "Damn, Hideo. It looks like everybody wants to shoot at you. Maybe you are the right man for the job."

"What?" I stood there, blinking stupidly as shock settled in.

"We'll talk about that later," John said.  He placed his hand over mine and gently pulled the blaster away from me. "You can have that back in a bit. Right now, let's have a drink. We've got a lot to discuss."

Presently, they had me seated with a new drink in my hand and three earnest faces watching me intently. "So, what is this?"

"We recall you were a pretty hot pilot," Alec replied.  That was high praise, coming from him.  "We're short one pilot. We'd offer you Dickie's old ship, but I bet you're too attached to that brick you're flying now."

"The Gilmour is in top condition," I said defensively. Ron snorted and grinned at the others. "Well, she is!"

"I'm sure she is, Hideo," John assured me.  "We'll just see what the Anthrax has that the Gilmour doesn't. We can always keep her in reserve; Ophids don't offer much in resale, especially on the black market."

Alec and Ron nodded their agreement.

"You still haven't told me anything," I reminded him.

"Okay, here's the thing. We're pirates, black flag and all," Ron said. "But we don't go after Federation targets. That's the rule, a rule that Dickie broke. We go after Tharl shipping.  They're fair game."

"You attack Tharl ships? You're insane!" I blurted out.

"You think we go after cap ships?" Alec demanded.  "That's nuts. We go after the smaller guys, the independent traders. They're tough enough, but we got a system. And the payoffs are huge.  A lot of ‘em carry gold, and stuff."

"I didn't know Tharl used traders," I said, and took a long drink of my ale. "I've never heard of them."

"The Tharl have very little in terms of an organised navy," John explained. "They've got a few capital ships here and there, but all of their merchants double as military ships. They're fast, strong and hard to kill. One of the reasons the Tharl haven't taken over is because their merchants aren't all that keen to get pressed into duty. Some do it because of salvage rights, and some because it's a condition for trade.  They've got an elaborate system of economics, and part of it involves traders being able to assist in defence of kin and kind. Most of the smaller ships you see in their fleets are traders that got roped into assisting their latest initiative."

"I don't get it," I complained. "How do you know this?"

"You can trade on Tharl worlds," Ron said smugly.  "I found that out the hard way.  Misjumped into Tharl territory and fought my way to the ground. Barely made it on one engine and half my stabilisers out. But once I was on the ground, they were happy to take my stock in trade. It seems I'd earned my place in their local markets by surviving the gauntlet, and it was an ordeal let me tell you. Every Tharl ship in the air is obligated to attack a non-Tharl ship on sight. But if you make it to the ground, then you're an honorary Tharl until you go back into space again. Then your former status as enemy resumes."

"My gods. Does the Navy know about this?"

"You'd think so," Alec smirked. "But they have a hard enough time getting past Tharl technology. That stuff is fantastic. We've all put time in Tharl docks for repairs, and they can build anything. Their own stuff is classified; we can't get to it no matter what we try, but they'll happily repair or rebuild anything we might have lost.  Business is business.  Like John said, it's an elaborate system of economics, but pretty easy once you get the hang of it."

I thought about this for a bit. "Isn't it illegal to do trade with Tharl worlds?  Not just Federation law, but Guild law?"

"What the Guild doesn't know can't hurt us."  John winked at me. "It's also another reason we're operating out of independent territory like here. Alec and Ron aren't under Guild law, and the Federation has no jurisdiction here.  You and me, we're allowed to trade in indie markets that don't have enemy status. Officially, I make my living hauling between indie systems.  So long as the Guild gets their cut, they don't look too closely."

I sipped my ale for a moment, thinking this through.  It looked like they had the angles figured out pretty well. "Okay, so what do you need me for?"

"Bait," Alec said with a grin. "We need a fast ship with a good pilot to lure Tharl ships into a trap. That means you've got to be fast enough to keep ahead of ‘em, and good enough to dodge.  Ron and I jump ‘em and everybody fills up with goods. The other scenario is that the fast ship with the good pilot runs the gauntlet down to the surface, while the rest of us hit ‘em from behind. It's a little trickier to do it that way, but massive payoffs.  Once we hit the ground, the Tharl can rebuild anything that gets broken, good as new."

I frowned and looked around the room.  Everyone was still watching me intently, wondering how I'd jump. "I don't like people shooting at me."

"From what I'm hearing, it's happening to you whether you like it or not," John replied. "You might as well make a profit from it, I say."

"Easy for you. You're not the one getting shot at."

"Oh, I get shot at all the time. It doesn't always work out perfectly. And you might not have noticed, but Corba aren't the best ships for combat. There were times when I thought the Bounty would blow before I reached the ground. We've all been there, but we're still alive and we're making a lot of money. We just have to pick our targets carefully, and we have to be able to trust each other. Dickie was good, but we just couldn't trust him. When we found out about the wreck he ‘salvaged' a few months ago, we knew it was the end. We just didn't have anyone to replace him until you came along."

"You're good, kid," Ron told me. "We've all seen you fly, and we agree you're perfect for the job. Maybe a little wet behind the ears, but that'll change once you get used to it. So that's our offer. Join us and help us make a little money while we do our part for the war effort.  What do you say?"

I drained my glass and thought about it for a while.  My nerves were still buzzing with adrenaline, but all the alcohol muted the effect on my system.  A couple of minutes passed while I thought about it.

"I say we should finish our card game," I said quietly.

"How about our offer?" Alec wanted to know.

"I think I need to sleep on it."

Ron scowled and looked about to say something, but John cut in first. "Fair enough," he said. "Whose deal is it?"

Alec recovered the deck and shuffled briefly before dealing. We played for another hour or so, but my heart wasn't in it. And, as usual, I lost my shirt. In a way, that helped. I knew they weren't trying to butter me up.

"Why not, Boss?"

The computer had an annoying way of getting right to the point. "Because."

"That's not an answer."

"Because it's dangerous? Because it puts us directly in the line of fire?  Because I hate getting shot at?"

"How is it so different from what you were doing before?"

I gritted my teeth. "Because this time I have a choice. Nobody's going to put a blaster to my head and shoot me if I decline. Because as much as I like them, those guys are ruthless. They shot their old partner and offered me his job before his body was cold.  It makes me nervous."

"From what you told me, that guy was trying to shoot you."

"I know, I know. Don't think I'm ungrateful. But none of ‘em even blinked an eye. If I run with them, I'm afraid I'll become like them. I don't know if I could face my family again if I had so much blood on my hands and I didn't even care."

"So, what's our next move?"

I sighed and called up the latest market reports.  I had no idea what was selling in this sector, so it was hard to tell what to buy. Gold prices were pretty high, and industrial goods.  Prices for slaves and narcotics were stupidly low, but I wasn't interested. It wasn't that I could hardly get into more trouble with Galpol, but I saw no reason to attract attention to myself. Food was commanding a high price; this sector wasn't known for worlds rich in organics, but even at a profit of four hundred percent I'd barely cover costs. I switched to the news nets and prayed for inspiration.

Jackpot. Plague had broken out on Wisterin II, only a few parsecs away. I had the computer research everything known about it, and the medicines most urgently needed. Every Trader within the Illiad sector was going to be jumping there, but with my speed and proximity I had an excellent chance of getting ahead of them.  I pulled up the market for medicines and narcotics (sometimes there was a legitimate need to haul the latter, during epidemics) and started making a list of what I could haul for the most benefit, both to Wisterin and to myself. In ten hours I had chosen a cargo, negotiated a price with the seller and was supervising the loading.

That's when I had a visitor. He wasn't exactly unexpected.

"Hi, Ron."

His tall, lanky form looked perfectly in place in the hustle and bustle of the port. He was the epitome of the adventurous space captain from his clothes to the week-old growth of hair on his chin. The only thing lacking was the cheerful, devil-may-care grin on his face, and maybe a little muscle tone. Flying consoles doesn't give you the bulky, manly mass you see in popular entertainment.  What was particularly out of place was his expression. He looked uncomfortable standing there, angling his body slightly so his right side faced forward.  I realised with a shock his hand was resting gently on his gun.

"What's on your mind?"

"We have a problem, Hideo."

"Wisterin has a problem. I'm hoping to be part of the solution."

"This isn't a joke."

I turned and faced him. "I have my own problems, Ron. I'm flattered that you guys think I'm good enough to join you, but it's just not for me."

"And now you know our secret. That makes you dangerous."

"Who am I going to tell? Galpol? I really don't think they'll give a damn, all things considered. Other Traders? How would that benefit me? The Consortium? The Tharls? There's nobody I could tell, even if I wanted to."

He didn't look convinced, or any more comfortable for that matter. Last night he'd gunned down Dickie without a second thought. He didn't like the idea of doing the same to me. I hoped I could keep it that way.

"You've dealt with people like the Consortium.  They'd pay big money for a tip like this, maybe even enough to forgive you running out on them."

I shook my head violently. "I've dealt with them, yes. I know how they think. They'd shake my hand while they blew out the back of my head. Not an option, Ron. I'm staying away from them, and anyone like them."

"I don't know, Hideo. It's a hell of a risk."

"You think I don't know that?" I threw up my hands in disgust, then stepped forward to within arms' reach of him. "You think I don't know what kind of chance I took telling you guys about what happened with me and the Consortium? You could make some quick money finding them and telling them where to find me.  Or even just doing the job for them.  But you're my friends, and I'm trusting you. I don't think you're interested in burning a friend, just like I'm not interested in burning you."

He frowned, but his hand moved slightly away from his gun. "It's a tough galaxy, man. It's hard to know who to trust."

"Anybody asks, I didn't see you. I don't know where you are or what you're doing.  The last time I saw you we drank, played cards and I lost my shirt. It's true enough."

He smirked, almost involuntarily. "You always lose your shirt."

"And thank you for reminding me yet again."

He laughed out loud and lifted his hand to me.  I took it and shook it firmly.  "It's a tough galaxy, Ron.  I need all the friends I can get."

"I wish you'd come work with us. I really think it'd be the best thing for you.  We could watch your back."

I shook my head and jerked my thumb back at the open hold of the Gilmour. "I'm not out of ideas yet. Lemme try one more time before I put my head on the block."

"Well, good luck."

"Thanks. You too."

I watched him walk away, and didn't turn again until he had disappeared around a corner. Then I relaxed and turned back to my work. I didn't stop until I was on the way to Wisterin. I was getting really tired of dodging death.

"'Tis a far nobler thing that I have done...'"

I quirked an eyebrow at the computer display.  "Was I staring out the window again?"

"No, you just seemed to be brooding a bit."

"So what was that about?"

"It's a quote from classic literature.  I've got a copy in memory, if you'd like to read it."

" long is it?"

"It would probably take a while. The file size is pretty hefty."

"I'll pass, then."


There was a pause.

"So," I said. "What does it mean?"

"The quote?"


"To really understand it, you'd have to read the story."

I felt like I was back in school again.  "Are you trying to trick me into improving my mind?"

"Would that be such a bad thing?"

"I just asked a simple question. Can't I get a simple answer?"

"It isn't just a simple answer.  It's a story of a man torn between loyalties during a time of war and unrest. He's talking about working toward a greater purpose, and looking to rewards beyond the moment."

"There, now was that so difficult?"

"It loses something in the summary.  You'd understand better if you read the story."

"If I do, will it make you happy?"

"I'm a machine intelligence.  I don't experience emotions like happiness or sorrow."

"Okay, if I read the story will you stop pestering me?"


"All right, then. Load it up."

"Excellent choice, Boss."

I settled in for a long read.  I discovered it was a fantastic cure for insomnia.

Wisterin was mighty glad to see me, and my cargo even more. I landed in an emergency quarantine sector and discovered the nearest shipments of critical drugs were still a week away. Thanks to my computer's research I had what was most urgently needed, if not in the quantities they wanted. It wouldn't be enough to stem the tide by itself, but it would bring relief and allow local medical facilities to ramp up their synthesis production.  By the time the slower transports arrived, the colony would have established a beachhead against the epidemic and would be positioned to wipe it out. I received a hefty bonus for my speed and accuracy.

Then it became a question of what to buy before I jumped out. Wisterin didn't have much to offer, except raw materials.

"Topsoil," the computer said.

"Excuse me?" I looked up from the list of available goods in surprise.

"Topsoil. It's cheap, it's easy to move and a little goes a long way."

"Where would I sell it?"

"Anywhere that people live in closed systems: stations, asteroid mining, or any world that can't support its own ecology.  Topsoil is a step above hydroponics for food production, and in some places could be worth its weight in gold."

It had my attention now. "Really? You think these guys would be willing to part with fifteen tons of topsoil? They're not really a farming colony."

"Even if the soil is poor by agricultural standards, it can be impregnated with essential bacteria and carbon to improve it.  You could buy a small amount, dump it on the soil in the hold, turn up the light and heat and turn off the stasis generators. By the time you reach a buyer, it'll be prime quality."

"Where do you get these ideas?"

"Remember, I'm programmed for long-range exploration. My databanks hold contingency options for thousands of world variants. Introducing active topsoil is one method for terraforming worlds with nitrogen/oxygen atmospheres. It's a very small step to adapt that knowledge for trading."

"Maybe you should be the licensed trader and I should navigate."

"I don't look good with a blaster on my hip, Boss."

So began my career as a dirt merchant.  The computer was right: it was cheap, easy to move and fetched a high price in places that depended on hydroponics to grow what they couldn't obtain by trade. I spent months enduring the unbelieving stares of farmers willing to part with the worst part of their soil for good money, followed by the equally unbelieving but eager stares of hydroponic technicians paying top price for that same soil slightly converted according to the formulas contained within my computer's memory banks. I made an unbelievable profit; over four hundred percent each time I offloaded the dirt.  Once again I acquired something of a reputation among my fellow Traders, but this one wasn't quite so flattering. I became the "Dirt Trader," and while most of them respected the living I was making, most of them couldn't resist making jokes at my expense.

I returned to Talheim periodically to say hello or follow up on a lead that didn't involve getting my hands quite so dirty. While the money was good, hauling dirt stank and it got into my clothes. It got so I was ready to pull out anything not nailed down and hose the place down with a high-pressure hose. There were corners of the hold I was sure would never come clean.

Ron wasn't there, but John and Alec were.

"Hey, boys. How's business?" I asked casually as I swung into a seat at their table.  Alec glared at me, and I raised my hands. "Whoa, sorry.  You know I didn't mean it like that."

"We know you didn't," John said as he bought me a drink. "He's just being Alec."  He earned himself a similar glare before Alec went back to his own glass. "Business is just fine, Hideo. How about yourself? I hear you're quite the entrepreneur out there in the space lanes."

I ducked my head and grumbled a bit as I picked up my ale. "Business has been very good for me. I've got a nice wad of credit built up, and I'm saving it for a rainy day. I'm hoping I can switch customers, though. I'm getting really tired of these runs."

"Way I hear it," Alec declared as he set down his glass. "You've become the patron saint of Ophid-class Trading ships. You're the only one to last three years without selling your soul to a bank, or worse."

I took a long swallow of my ale to avoid answering.  That wasn't entirely true. But I'd at least gotten out, and after nearly a year I still hadn't heard a peep from the Consortium.  I hardly dared believe they'd leave me alone.  I figured they were just biding their time until I came back into view. Traders don't make money by staying unknown. On the other hand, it's a big galaxy and I got as far away from Kandori as I could.

"Are you still doing the information racket?" John asked curiously. "I could use some good tips on what's selling out there."

I shook my head sadly. "It was a nice deal, but no. I'm too well known for that in Kandori, and I'd rather not take the chance.  I'm still on the lookout for courier jobs, but nobody wants to trust me as an intermediary."

"So you haul dirt, instead?"

"So I haul dirt, instead," I agreed.  I drained my glass and dialled for a new one. "I can send you a list of worlds I've visited in the past month, give you the jump on trends if you like.  Just do me a favour and keep it to yourself, please."

John smiled happily. "Done. How about you and me go into a private deal?"

I looked at him curiously. "Doing what?"

"Trading. What we're supposed to be doing. You fly ahead and find the best deals. Make a down payment on a shipment big enough to fill my hold.  I show up, pay the rest and jump to wherever you say is selling hot. We split the profits, 30-70."

Alec slammed his glass down. "You bailin' on us, John?"

I edged away as John glared back at Alec.  "Of course I'm not, idiot.  But I haven't been doing much trading of late, and the Bounty has been getting pretty banged up playing bait. I'd like to take a break, and Ron is taking his sweet time scouting targets. I'm proposing a business opportunity to a fellow Trader."

Alec stood abruptly, paused for a moment, and then stomped away.

I let out the breath I'd been holding.  "I thought he was going to draw on you."

John regarded me soberly. "So did I. We've all been pretty jumpy lately; Dickie had some friends we didn't know about, and we had a bit of a scuffle. Ron got hit pretty hard and had to do some heavy repairs to the Charon. It's probably a good thing you didn't join us when we offered; they'd have come after you too. We all need a break. So, what do you say to my offer?"

"I think 30 is pretty low, but if you're willing to take it, then I'm in."

He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder.  "You're a funny guy, Hideo."

We haggled furiously for several hours, him from the position that he had the means to haul the goods, me from the position that I was doing all the work. We eventuallysettled on 45-55, in my favour. To be honest, I didn't really need the money; I still had most of the money I'd taken from Eldee before I fled Kandori but I wasn't touching it.  It didn't feel clean.  But between that and the profit's I'd made from hauling soil, I had enough to buy a Ferla for myself. I was doing better than I let on, but it didn't really feel like it. I didn't feel like a Trader, I felt like a beggar asking for handouts.  Partnering with John like this would give me an opportunity to do what I always thought I'd be doing: making the big deals and working the trade.

I spent an extra week on Talheim catching up on maintenance for the Gilmour before I jumped out again. I spent the time with John in the cockpit of my ship going over travel routes and figuring out where I could go. In five months I had pretty well saturated the market, and almost everybody who needed growing soil had it. There was a small group of star systems on the northern end I hadn't yet explored, so I'd want to check them out. I planned a series of short hops to get there, to check out prices and send word back to John. We mapped it out so he could follow, and I would leave messages with him wherever I went so he could either pick up a shipment I'd specified or make his own decisions based on the information I sent him. Getting to the northern quadrant would take a month longer than it had to, but I expected it to be profitable.

I set out with high hopes. John was a consummate professional, and I respected him deeply.  I respected all three of the rogues, but John was a Trader of good standing in the guild, and wasn't flying around in a tricked-out combat ship looking for fights. He hauled cargo, the big loads, and while he helped the guys with the spoils of their piracy, he seemed in my mind to be one step removed.  He always wore good clothes, could afford expensive food and drinks and was generous to his friends.  He epitomised my dream of the classic Trader. The fact that he proposed a Trading partnership with me was a high honour that flattered me immensely.

I flew vanguard, following the plot we'd laid out on Talheim, identifying good prices and leaving notes behind to clue John on what I thought he could expect farther on. On Urel II I found a manufacturer had completely overestimated the market for computer goods and parts, and was forced to sell at a loss. The prices were so low that I bought everything up to our limit: two hundred and fifteen tons. I rented storage for the goods with a note to John that I was deviating our flight plan slightly.  Instead of jumping to Kerem, we would go to Ribsal. I knew Ribsal was always a good place to unload computer goods, and it was only three parsecs off our planned course. I indicated I would wait for him on Ribsal.

I made one hundred and thirty-one percent profit on the fifteen tons I carried to Ribsal. I also hinted that I knew of another shipment of computers to follow, a massive load. I put out feelers for buyers on the local nets, and the hits I got naturally wanted to know when this shipment was going to arrive. Honestly I didn't know; I wasn't quite sure how fast the Bounty moved in transit. Corba­-class haulers aren't the slowest vessels in the skies, but they're close. I made a guess at a couple of months. While I waited I had the Gilmour's environmental systems overhauled and swapped out the defensive shield array, which was approaching its scheduled expiration date. The overhaul made the air smell much better, and the water stopped tasting like mud. I started to question whether or not I really wanted to finish selling dirt in this sector.  Folk had gotten by fine with hydroponics so far, right? Having available topsoil was just a luxury. If this run with John turned out profitable enough, I seriously considered changing our flight plan altogether.

Two months passed and John didn't arrive.  I made a few scattered jumps to trade when a good opportunity presented itself, but as the projected arrival date came closer I stayed on the ground and twiddled my thumbs. I made another attempt to read the book the computer had recommended to me, but I just didn't have the patience for it. The language was archaic, and I really couldn't empathise with any of the characters or the situations they were in. It was set on a barbaric world without even basic medicine or sanitation, embroiled in wars and petty conflicts such as had never been seen within the Federation in thousands of years.

Another week passed, and still no sign of John or the Bounty.  I was getting nervous, and the buyers were getting sceptical. I pored endlessly over the flight path, wondering if John had somehow missed my message, or if something worse had happened. I couldn't imagine John in a scrape he couldn't get out of; he hunted Tharl ships, of all things. I couldn't decide whether to jump back to Urel or go on to Kerem. I talked it over with the computer, whose advice I was coming to depend on more and more. It recommended staying put on Ribsal, but the longer John failed to show up the more I was determined to go look for him. I listened to the computer's advice to go back to Urel to try to retrace John's steps.

I fretted the whole trip back. I imagined the Bounty wrecked and adrift in space.  John missed my message and went on to Kerem, following the flight path we'd worked out. His engines had misjumped, and he was halfway across the galaxy if he was in the same corner of the Universe at all. Eventually, I began to wonder if John hadn't double-crossed me, taken the shipment and run. I didn't want to believe it of him, couldn't believe it of him, but I worried anyway. I didn't spend much time staring out the window because I was too preoccupied with working out the damages of the loss of the shipment and cracking my knuckles.

The Gilmour couldn't fly fast enough to suit me. The moment we dropped out of folded spaceand confirmed our position, I was pushing to connect to the local nets to find out if the Bounty had made an appearance and filed a flight path. It took a few hours before I could get on, and I quickly discovered John had arrived two months before. He'd found my message and taken shipment of the goods. He jumped out almost immediately again. He didn't file a flight plan, standard practice for Traders not wanting any unwelcome interest.

"What now, Boss?" the computer asked.

"Try to get him on hyperlink, I suppose."  I could send John a message or reach him for direct voice-to-voice via hyperlink anywhere in the galaxy, unless he was still in transit. Then nothing I could do would reach him. The Universe could explode, but a ship in folded space wouldn't know it until they came out.  It was an ironic joke sometimes told among apprentices for the Guild: What happens if you jump to a world and it isn't there?

"Do you want to try it now, or wait until we hit planetside?"

I took a deep breath. John could have been waiting for me on Ribsal, or just arriving at Kerem. Or he could still be jumping, meaning it wouldn't matter when I made the call.

"We'll wait until we hit planetside."

"Got it. I've got Port Control, screen two."

I busied myself with landing procedures.  Urel didn't have much traffic, so it was a matter of hours before I was on the ground again. I arranged to have the Gilmour's batteries recharged with a bonus (a bribe by any other name) for quick service and attempted to link with Port Control's network for my call. I received a message I'd never seen before: "Service unavailable. Please contact a Port Control Authority agent."

"What in space does that mean?" I demanded in exasperation.

"Their hyperlink node is offline, Boss.  Maybe you should go inside and ask."

"Wonderful. Hold the fort, I'll be back as soon as I can." I buckled on my blaster and sealed the hatch behind me before making my way into the central Port building. There appeared to be no one nearby I could ask, so I went hunting for the central communications booth.

"Get your farging hands off me, you lout!  I haven't broken anything! If you'd just let me finish you'll find the blasted machine working good as new!"

I didn't know what the commotion was about, and I didn't really care. Unfortunately, the participants were straight ahead of me, and I had a sinking feeling it was related to my problem. Sure enough, I found a dirty fellow in a well-worn jumpsuit a hundred years out of fashion kneeling next to a machine I recognised as a half-assembled hyperlink node. The man was fairly thick, with boyish features belying his greying sideburns. He was shouting at another, larger man dressed in a typical modern ship's jumpsuit with a blaster at his side. His mannerisms said "Trader" to me, while the other fellow did not.

"Damn you, old man," hissed the Trader.  "I told you if I saw you messing with stuff like this again, I'd strap an engine to your hide and jump you to Antares!"

"What's going on here?" I asked with a sinking feeling.  "Isn't he a tech?"

"Yes, I am!"

"No, he's not!"

The two declarations came simultaneously.  My head started to hurt.  "Look, are you or aren't you?"

"I am more than just a tech, I'm an inventor."

The Trader sneered at him. "He thinks he's a tech. He just breaks stuff for fun."

"I break nothing! I improve things! This Visigoth here just picks on me because he can't understand what I do!"

"Look, I just wanted to use the hyperlink.  Why don't we ask someone with Port Control? If he's meant to be here, we can leave him alone until he's done. If he's not, they can deal with him."

The so-called Visigoth (whatever that was) brightened and straightened up. "Good idea.  I'll be right back.  Don't let him get away."  He gestured brusquely to the odd man on the floor before hurrying off.

"Why did you do that?" the fellow screeched at me.  "He'll have me thrown in jail, for sure!"

I walked up and kneeled down next to him.  "I've got a few hundred thousand credits on the line, and I need to make a call. Can you really put that thing back together?"

"Of course I can! Just a few adjustments here..."

"Then do it. Because if you can't, I'll help him throw you in your cell."

He paused to look at me soberly, then nodded.  "Just keep them off my back until I finish, will you?"

"Work fast," I advised.

He did. I couldn't make head or tails of what he was doing, but he appeared confident and worked quickly enough to convince me he knew what he was about.  He had already made a significant dent in the pile of parts next to him before the Trader came back with someone official.

"What have you done to that machine?"

I whispered, "Keep working," before I stood up and intercepted them. "Thank goodness you're here, sir. This maniac pulled this machine apart and says he's putting it back together.  Do you have anyone who can fix it?"

The Port official paled. "The hyperlink communicator? He took it apart? It's needed maintenance for a couple of years, but we don't have anyone who knows how!  This is a catastrophe! Security! Security! You'll pay for this, I promise!"

The Visigoth Trader looked smug. The fellow on the floor looked panicked, but I glared at him until he went back to work. Then I looked at the official. " be honest, he looks like he knows what he's doing.  He's almost got it all together again.  Why don't we wait and see what happens before we have him hauled away? If you say there's no one who can fix it, there's no harm in waiting, right?  He's not going to get away from the three of us." I punctuated this last with another glare. The man worked faster.

The Trader's expression darkened. "What are you doing? You said we'd haul him away!"

I leaned forward. "I really need to make this call. You heard the man say no one knows how to fix it. So let this guy do it and we can hand him over after.  What do you say?"

He looked unconvinced. I threw in my last gambit. "I'll give you a hundred for your troubles."

"You really need to make that call, huh?"

"I'd really appreciate it."

"Five hundred, and you've got a deal."

The official looked outraged. "I can't believe I'm hearing this! I ought to have you all arrested!"

I restrained a wince. "Five hundred for you, too. Just let him finish, please."

"Five hundred! You think you can insult me with five hundred credits and think I'll look away while a crime is being perpetrated?"

"I'd never dream of insulting you that way," I soothed.  "Would a thousand change your mind?"

"Two," he replied immediately. "Non-negotiable."

"Two," I agreed. I didn't like it and I didn't bother hiding it, but I paid, both of them.  Then all three of us settled back to watch the strange man working feverishly at the console. It was like watching a man fit together pieces of a puzzle. Everything seemed to fit together in a logical order, at least the way he did it. When he finished less than ten minutes later, there were no pieces left over and the cover plate fit smoothly back into place.

"Done," he announced with a flourish, and stood up to enter a code into the terminal. It lit up and invited someone to use it. "Who wants to go first?"

I gestured toward the Port Control official.  "It's your machine.  Do you want run a diagnostic, or something?"

The man looked unhappy to be put on the spot like that.  "You said you were in a hurry to make a call. Why don't you do it?"

I glanced at the Trader. He looked similarly displeased, but more like a child that had lost a chance at a piece of candy. "You go ahead," he said brusquely. "I can wait."

"Thank you."

I stepped into the soundproofing booth and raised the screen. "Computer, initiate diagnostics."

"Diagnostics initiated. Please wait." I waited.  "Diagnostics complete.  All systems nominal, ready for transmission."

"Computer, contact John Akers 101443 of the Bounty, registration 18J-P8A595-Q. Initiate local sector broadcast."

"Please hold." I waited again. "Registry confirmed.  Initiating sector hyperlink transmission."

The theory behind hyperspace communications is like opening a million little connections and sending a pulse through. If I'd specified a planet it would open a single miniscule wormhole to its destination and send a query through until it got a response it liked. If it received either a denial code or no response whatsoever, it would time out after sixty seconds and report failure. Searching for a ship was far more complicated, because a ship could be in so many places. Sending a message from a planet was much better than sending from a ship, because planetary resources could send out hundreds and thousands of wormholes simultaneously in order to broadcast my pulse. Depending on parameters I put in, it would start with local system, sector, quadrant or galaxy-wide broadcasts. The tighter my parameters, the quicker the response I would get. Non-military ships didn't have the power to attempt a hyperlink broadcast to more than a few destinations at once.

"Local sector hyperlink failed. Initiating quadrant hyperlink transmission."

"Cancel," I snapped. I could be here for the better part of an hour while it searched the galaxy for a response from the Bounty. There were three possibilities: John was still in transit so he wouldn't get the query no matter where he was, he was outside the sector and therefore on the run anyway or he'd changed his ship's registry and I had no way to track him outside a very long and possibly futile hunt. All I could do now was do some minor detective work and try to retrace his steps here on Urel.

I lowered the soundproofing screen and stepped out of the booth. "It works, well enough.  I don't think it's his fault I couldn't reach the guy I wanted."

The odd tech positively beamed with pride.  The Visigoth Trader looked fit to burst, and the Port Control official seemed disgusted.

"It's a crime to tamper with official machinery without proper authority. I think it's best to take this man into custody."

"But, I fixed it! You heard him! It works!  I've done nothing wrong!"

The Trader sneered. "Serves you right, Diamond. I'll be happy to testify as to what I've seen today. You'll spend a long time in jail."

Diamond turned to me in desperation.  "Please, you've got to see that I've done nothing but help! You can't let them do this to me!"

I glanced at the other two before I responded.  "How much money do you have?"

"Money? Well, I have a little, I suppose. Not much, really. I don't understand, why?"

"Because I've done all I can. It sounds to me like you're going to need to hire a lawyer."

"This isn't right! You people just don't understand! If you keep punishing people like me for our efforts in developing new technologies, you'll forget how to do even simple maintenance! Everything will break down! Why can't you see this?"

I shrugged and turned to the official.  "Say, how much do you think a lawyer's fees would run here?"

He grinned and shook his head. "A lot, I'm betting. A case like this could get dragged out, and you'd be paying tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of credits."

"That's insane!" Diamond whined. "All I did was fix it!"

"Bureaucracies are like that," I sympathised.  "Do you suppose it could be settled without having him waste all that money on legal vultures?"

The official looked at me suspiciously. "I don't know, what do you mean?"

"Well, you seem to be an important fellow.  It's your call on how to prosecute him.  And after all, the hyperlink is fixed, just like he promised. If he were to pay restitution for bypassing proper procedure and wasting your valuable time, maybe he won't have to pay a lawyer after all."

The official looked pleased at the offer.  The Trader did not.  "What are you doing?  This guy is a menace!  You can't be seriously thinking of just letting him go!"

The official glowered. "I will be the judge of that. As this man said, he did what he promised, and that should be taken into consideration. I believe I would be willing to overlook the offence this once, provided a fine were levied to remind him not to meddle with things that don't belong to him!"

"This is outrageous!" Diamond cried.  "That's extortion! Surely a court of law would clear me!"

"I wouldn't bet on that," I replied with conviction.  "But either way, you'd probably end up paying a lawyer a lot more. I suggest you take this chance."

"'s the principle of the thing!"

I shrugged. "You want to spend a couple of years in jail? Be my guest. Don't say I didn't try to help." I turned to go.

"No, wait!" I turned back. "I...I'll do it.  How much do I pay?"

The official looked at me. I shrugged. I'd done enough civic duty for the day. "Five thousand," he declared. "I'll need to call in a technician to verify that everything was put back correctly, and nothing was unduly tampered with."

"Five thousand! There's nothing wrong with that machine, now! I recalibrated the capacitors and patched the power connections! If I hadn't done it, the thing would have broken down beyond repair within a month!"

"Mr. Diamond," I said quietly. "This gentleman represents the Port Control Authority.  I don't suggest you argue with him."

The official puffed up over the reminder of his own importance and practised his glower on Diamond.

"All right. I've got that much. Where do I pay? Do I sign anything?"

"Just give it to me, and I'll take care of the paperwork," the official replied. Diamond produced a credstick and paid. The Visigoth Trader snorted and stormed off.

"Glad to see that justice has been served," I said flippantly, and turned to head back to the Gilmour.

"Wait!" said Diamond as I walked off.  I reluctantly paused and turned to see what he wanted. "I owe you a great deal for your assistance today, Trader..."

"Takenoshita," I replied. "Hideo Takenoshita, of the David Gilmour."

"Felix Diamond," he said, offering his hand. I shook it politely.  "Trader Takenoshita?  I've heard of you, haven't I? You've been selling dirt to stations in the area, haven't you?"

I winced. I was definitely going to get out of that racket. "Yeah, that's me. The Dirt Trader."

"I've been wanting to meet you, Trader Takenoshita.  That was a very ingenious idea you came up with. That's very rare, nowadays."

I blinked. That was the first time I'd heard praise like that. " wasn't actually my idea. My ship's computer came up with it. It was originally designed for deep space exploration, so it has a lot of data on terraforming and closed environment systems.  It comes up with little surprised like that for me from time to time."

"Really? I'd like to meet it sometime, if you don't mind."

"Well, I'm afraid I'm not planning to stay long.  I'm trying to coordinate with my partner on a shipment, and I'm not sure where he is right now. I've got a lot of money riding on this deal."

"Do you have enough time for dinner?  My treat. I'd like to thank you for helping me there."

"That's okay. You said you don't have a lot of money, and I wouldn't want to impose."

"Fie. What is money? It's a scoring system to see who's winning. I have plenty, Trader Takenoshita. Please, I insist."

I sighed. "All right. Call me Hideo. It's a lot easier."

Diamond beamed. "Call me Felix, then."

The restaurant Diamond picked was surprisingly good, and expensive. He waved off my protests, saying he ate there all the time while he was planetside.  He seemed to be as good as his word; the staff certainly seemed to know him by name, and inquired politely about his affairs before getting down to business. Obviously, the man was more than he seemed.

"I'm an inventor," he repeated to me once we had been seated and drinks were served. "I do something almost unheard of in modern day: I ask questions and follow through until I find an answer. Most of the questions I ask are technical or scientific in nature. What happens if you place an active generator in a stasis field? Well, perhaps that's a bad example. What happens if you cross-link your shield generators to your computer's power feed?"

I frowned, imagining some of the work involved there. "You'd have to completely reroute your power lines. You'd risk shorting out your cabling, if you didn't blow your generators in the first place."

"Yes, yes. Petty details," Diamond waved his hand airily. "But that's irrelevant to the question. What would happen if you succeeded?"

"You'd increase your computer's processing capacity and probably weaken your shields."

"Exactly! You do understand!" Diamond's hand waved a little more energetically in the air, and I moved my drink away before he accidentally tipped it over. "You could do something that conventional wisdom says cannot be done.  You could boost your computer while your shields weren't necessary. And also, consequently, you could give your shields an extra boost when you absolutely needed it."

"Shield generators are the most heavily abused system on a ship," I protested. "They need the most maintenance whenever a ship comes under fire. Tying the computer system into them would create a feedback into the computer systems, and under those conditions you'd lose not one but two systems you need the most."

Diamond shook his head. "You're missing the point, Hideo. Shield generators, weapons systems, communications, whatever.  Modern technology has compartmentalised all of these systems so if one fails it doesn't affect another.  We've done this for so long we've forgotten the advantages that can be gained by linking them, as well.  It's gotten to the point that no one questions why, it just is."

"It seems to me that any advantages would be outweighed by the disadvantages," I said. "I think I'll leave my shield generators alone, thanks."

"That's not the point!" Diamond cried.  "Listen. You say that your computer has data in its memory banks that allow it to come up with unexpected solutions, right?"

"Yes, so?"

"So you can only access that data while you're aboard your ship, right? You don't have anything to communicate with your computer while you're out, say, on the trading floor."

"No. Nobody does."

"Of course not. Who depends on their computer that much? That stems from a time when computers weren't quite so flexible, when the artificial intelligence we take so much for granted now wasn't so advanced. It was also unheard of for ships to be run single-handedly; it's only been in the past two thousand years that AI technology has matured sufficiently to allow such a thing.  In the past, there was always someone aboard the ship you could contact with personal communicators.  Now, no one remembers why there was ever such a need."

"What's your point?"

"I have a way to link communications to your computer so you can talk to it while you're outside your ship, be it on the trading floor or performing EVA or whatever."

Our food arrived, and I took a bite.  It was very good, and it distracted me from Diamond's announcement. It wasn't long before my thoughts returned to the potential of being able to communicate directly with my computer from wherever I was. If I'd had that capability on Kandori I could have called for help and gotten the computer to warm up the ship and prepare for launch before I ever got to the spaceport. On Selaris I could have used it to get the computer to call for help before Pitr had gotten out of his vehicle.

"How much?"

"No cost, Hideo. As I said, I owe you. I know technology and I know its history. I never would have imagined offering a bribe. I would have spent months, maybe years on this horrible little world trying to talk my way out."

"I don't get you, Felix. You can afford places like this, but you didn't want to pay a lawyer to beat a crooked bureaucrat?"

"Like you, I have places to go and things to do.  I came here to pick up a copy of technical specifications I had originally thought lost to history.  The owners thought I was mad for paying money for it, but they don't realise that it represents a direction of technological progress long lost in human history. For my research, it's invaluable."

"What is it?"

He smiled slyly and cut into his steak.  "I think I'll let that be my secret. As you've no doubt surmised, I've made a significant amount of money from some of my inventions.  Just as you're not eager to reveal your trade secrets, I'm keen on protecting mine."

I nodded. "Fair enough. So, how long have you been doing this?"

"What year is this? Oh, I think almost twenty years, now. My goodness, where has the time gone? I didn't set out to be an inventor, mind you. I was always curious as a child, but it was my ambition to become an archaeologist. I was always curious about the legends of the original planet."

"You don't really believe that, do you?"

"The original planet? It makes sense. In spite of notable differences in the human condition across the galaxy, we still remain fundamentally the same. Our genetic code remains similar, we can interbreed with each other unlike other aliens and medicine remains the same for all of us. We must have common roots, most plausibly within the same biosphere. Our history only goes back ten thousand years, and the records of the first few thousand have degraded and are difficult to access. I began to research why that should be and I learned that in year 302 of recorded history, a scientist named Aleksandar Ilenkovich perfected the method for quantum storage. According to the notes I was able to glean his discovery didn't come out of the blue, it was a natural development from previous work in quantum mechanics. His papers credit multiple other scientists for their discoveries, allowing him to make his breakthrough. From then on, quantum storage became the standard method for recording important documents, and in fact any data whatsoever.  I attempted to follow up with the other scientists named in his paper, but so far their work remains lost.

"That's when I was hooked on the study of technology and its history. It's merely a specialisation in archaeology, as I see it. I dug up everything I could on technological advances in early human history, and then I started following the progression of technology, tracing paths of inspiration. After a few years, I started asking why we weren't seeing these sorts of technological leaps and bounds in our society. I could see for myself obvious paths of development in simple technologies we take for granted, such as communications and medicine. Have you ever experienced an alpha-wave sympathiser?"

I nodded, wincing at the memory.

"It effectively takes control of the currents in your brain and modulates them. It suppresses alpha-wave function and forces the brain to operate under its direction.  Doctors use it to suppress the experience of pain so we feel it, but we don't necessarily register or remember it. It was developed as an extension of quantum engineering into medical aspects. One consequence of its use is that it lowers a person's inhibitions.  While under a low setting of the sympathiser, you would probably answer any question asked of you cheerfully and truthfully and never have any idea of why you shouldn't. Once this effect was realised in the early days, it was a popular tool for obtaining confessions from criminals, espionage agents and eventually ordinary people with deviant attitudes and marketing information.

"Eventually, the Federation passed a law against use of the sympathiser to obtain information, with hefty penalties for anyone who violates it. It's still on the books, but they did more than that. I found a single reference from a subcommittee meeting declaring the need to suppress this dangerous information. I don't know if it's the first time the Federation has done this, but I know it isn't the last. It established a dangerous precedent, and we're seeing the results of it now."

I swallowed the food in my mouth. "It sounds like you're big fan of conspiracy theories."

"I've seen the documents, my boy. Oh, not all of them. And not all theories. I am first and foremost a scientist. I must have evidence before I'll support a theory. Of course, as a scientist I must also keep an open mind about things I have no evidence to prove or disprove. But my point is that not all conspiracies are theories. Some have some truth to them. Some may not be actual conspiracies after all, mere coincidence, but truth nonetheless."

I waved my hand dismissively. "Crackpots and fantasy," I sneered. "People come up with paranoid delusions to meet their own desires, so they can feel important for figuring out some big secret no one else was smart enough to discover."

"Often true," Diamond agreed. "But not always. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes it's something more."

"If you say so," I said to avoid another lecture.  I couldn't follow everything Diamond was saying, but it was clear he wasn't quite right in the head.  Still, he was generous with his money and I could stand a bit of eccentricity over a good meal. I took another bite and savoured it. I tried to think back to the last time I'd had anything of such quality. Selaris, I decided. After that I'd kept to seedy ports and pubs frequented by Traders.

"How is your crab?" he asked me politely.

"Excellent, thank you. It doesn't taste like any crab I've eaten before."

"It's really an arachnid, but most people have an inhibition about eating insects, so they usually label it as a crab after giving it a technical name most people wouldn't recognise."

I stopped eating. "You're serious?"

"Quite. Oh, have no fear. It's very good and not in the least hazardous to your health. The venom sacs are always removed very carefully, and the bodies are thoroughly scanned to make sure there's no residue. Otherwise you would have had a seizure after your first bite.  They really are delicious, though."

I looked down at my plate, then back up at him.  "So why aren't you having any?"

He smiled at me innocently. "I had it last night."

I thought about this for a moment before I resumed eating. If I had eaten anything dangerous, it was too late. Over half the meal had been consumed. It really was very good, and I might as well enjoy the rest. It helped to think of it as crab rather than spider.

I tried to contact John at least twice a day while I stayed on Urel, always with no sign of him. Once, I waited for the hyperlink node to try a galaxy-wide search without success. I was beginning to fear that the worst had happened. In the meanwhile, I let Diamond tinker around on the Gilmour, always under close supervision. He confessed to being very impressed with the security measures protecting my computer's functions.

"Most ship systems are wide open," he said to me.  "But not yours. Unless you give me your security codes, I'll need you with me the entire time I work."

I shook my head firmly. "That is not going to happen."

He shrugged. "As you wish. I'm always happy to have a captive audience."

Over the course of three days he tweaked my power systems, overhauled my transition engines (which weren't due for it, but I wasn't going to pass up the offer of free labour) and of course patched my computer into the communications console so it could do more than just monitor transmissions. I made sure he didn't try to cross-cable any power connections for his hare-brained idea of boosting one system at the expense of another, but he was scrupulous about his work. He chattered the whole time, lecturing me about the history of one piece of equipment or another, or telling me of his adventures (highly embellished, no doubt) of how he came by a particularly obscure bit of knowledge. When he spoke of having a captive audience, he wasn't kidding. By the end of those three days, I was ready to tape his mouth shut. He never seemed to run out of breath. His mouth ran on automatic while his hands worked on whatever project he was engaged in.

Still, he did good work. The computer reported a 4% boost in power for all the systems he'd tinkered with, and diagnostics reported everything in the green.

Then, the unexpected. I got through to John.

"Sorry about that, Hideo," he said to me, the connection coming through crystal clear. "I had some mechanical trouble. I'm down on Ribsal now having a tech looking at my engines.  For a while, I was worried I'd never finish my jump. I unloaded the cargo you set me up with, and found plenty of buyers for it. Some of them weren't pleased that you didn't keep your promise about the schedule for delivery, but I was able to take care of it. It wasn't your fault."

"I'm just glad you're okay. I was afraid you'd been killed, or worse." I didn't clarify on that last bit. "How long are you going to be held up?"

"A couple of weeks, at least. They weren't too specific on that part. Where are you, now?"

"I'm on Urel. I came here to try to retrace your steps, figure out if you'd missed my message or what. I can jump in a few hours and be there in under a week. Then we can refine our plot and figure our next move."

"All right, see you soon."

I cut the connection and went back to the Gilmour to break the news to Diamond and the computer. I intended to jump as quickly as possible.