Published: April 25, 2010
Chapter 1: The Merchant and the Girl
The wheat swayed gently as the small single-person spaceship made its final approach and touched down on the landing lot. It was a lean, angular craft with sweptback wings emerging from about halfway down the main hull, and the long, boxy engines that were characteristic of the Jupiter Shipyard designs.
Inside the cockpit, Lawrence Maya gazed intently at the fields all around him and worried. A good harvest of the grain that year would make his cargo less valuable, since the majority of it was simple foodstuffs. On the other hand, the surplus of it would enable him to purchase it at a lower price, which would be a great benefit once he found a market with a shortage.
In all honesty, though, he was rather surprised to see such productivity. Enceladus was a relatively new colony, and he had expected a somewhat less advanced stage of development. Well, terraforming technology sure is taking a leap forward, he thought to himself as he looked around. According to his instruments, the gravity was supposed to be slightly lower than Earth standard, but Lawrence couldn't really tell the difference.
Spotting the customs team approaching in an auto with their equipment, he unstrapped himself from the pilot's seat and went aft. Keying the door open, he stepped outside, squinting at the sudden brightness of a sunny day, undampened by the tinted cockpit canopy. Of course, the sun's rays were redirected and refocused, a product of the terraforming-everyone knew that it was impossible to get a good natural light any farther out than Mars. Still, sunlight blinded the eyes no matter where it came from.
Slapping the release switch for the cargo hold, Lawrence waved in greeting to the port officer as he and his team disembarked from their vehicle. He had seen an unusual number of security vessels in orbit as he made his final approach, and he hoped that whatever problems they were experiencing would not cause any delays in his plans. It was an old saying, but time really was money to a merchant. The longer it took to sell your goods, the longer it took to earn money, essentially reducing your rate of income.
"Greetings, brother. What brings you to the Harvest Moon today?" the official intoned, consulting his clipboard. The rest of his team had spread out near the ship, searching with hand scanners.
Harvest Moon? Kind of a grandiose title for a place so insignificant. "Trading, sir," Lawrence replied neutrally as he handed his passcard to the man. "Got about two-thirds hold full of barley and amaranth, but I don't suppose that'll sell well here. The electronics and manufactured supplies I have are probably the better bet, yeah?"
"You might be right, at that. Well, your datawork checks nice and clear, so we'll just finish up the inspection real quick and be out of your hair. Fair warning, though, we'll need access to your computer systems. We've been scanning pretty thoroughly in the last few days, ever since we got warning of a possible net attack."
Lawrence shrugged. "As long as you don't plan on stealing any of my info, you go ahead and do whatever you need to. Can't blame you for being cautious, though. Those net viruses are nasty."
"Thank you for your understanding, citizen." The man nodded.
The search took only four or five minutes, including the computer scan, which was a simple heuristic analysis via terminal. It was not what Lawrence had expected-generally, customs scans went much deeper.
"The virus we were warned about can only survive in the system when active," the customs man answered when Lawrence inquired about it. "We only needed to do a quick scan of the current run stack. Anyway, you've got nothing to worry about; your ship checks out just fine. Enjoy your stay here on Enceladus."
Lawrence was 25 years of age, fairly tan, slightly built with light blond hair, and a fairly accomplished merchant for someone of his age. A young man, but not a youth, he had run a successful business out of his home soil, Ceres, and had used his earnings to purchase his spacecraft, taking to the stars at the young age of 17. Eight years later, he still traveled the system, buying at one port and selling at another. Private interplan commerce was a somewhat recent development, and it was a pretty open field at the moment. Not many people had the inclination or the temperament for it-after all, much of one's time was spent in the cockpit, likely alone. If a person could find a reliable partner, it made things much easier, but space travel tended to attract a very independent crowd, so the very qualities that made a person a good partner also tended to make them disagreeable to the idea. Still, travel times could occasionally be measured in weeks, and space did get pretty lonely.
Of course, there were some people who craved that kind of solitude. Even before the advent of any real interplan commerce, there were people who spent their lives traveling between colonies, never putting down roots, always moving. A man who found himself itching to travel also generally took to the stars if he could afford it. These interplanetary wanderers were colloquially referred to as simply "travelers" or occasionally "youke", depending on who you asked; their existence was as old as the existence of spaceflight itself. Profit was only the latest in a long line of reasons to traverse the stars.
Lawrence quickly consulted a local map booth and gauged his options. He was sorely tempted to rent a room and rest, as it had been a long flight, but elected instead to head to the local business district. Inbound shipments were probably fairly commonplace here, since the small moon didn't appear to have any sizable industry. The colony almost certainly relied heavily on imports to survive, which was good news for Lawrence. The windfall of grain would probably allow him to obtain significant amounts of it in exchange for the electronic and manufactured goods. The only question was if his cargo hold would be up to the task, which, now that he thought about it, was not exactly a sure thing. He sighed as he realized that he would probably have to negotiate for hard currency or trustworthy credit at least a few times. Bartering was easier and much preferred by most merchants.
The town itself looked pleasant enough. It was fairly modern but also exhibited the rustic coziness of primarily agrarian civilization. Admittedly, Lawrence was not much of an authority on building design or layout, but he found the town pleasant enough and resolved to ask someone what it was called, since the infostub the traffic satellite had given him hadn't included the name for some unknown reason.
Upon arriving at the commerce zone of the town, he made straight for the ITU building, emblazoned with the Union five-flag logo. The Interplanetary Trader's Union was one of the few sure things in a merchant's life, and provided a measure of stability, without which interplan commerce would be essentially impossible. Lawrence knew well from his experiences that landing on strange soil could be intensely disconcerting. The distances between planets and moons were great enough that cultures and customs varied significantly, except with the very closest colonies. It was impossible to know what you were getting into when visiting a place, unless you had been there before, and there was precious little reason to return to a place unless you developed some kind of route. The Union was an invaluable source of trustworthy information which enabled traders to do good business. Without such a source, they were in danger of getting duped or falling prey to poorly informed business decisions.
There were always canny businessmen, anywhere you went, and you could never be sure if they were telling you the truth. They would tell you anything that turned them a profit-after all, that was the mark of a good businessman. The Union was designed as a place where its member could feel free from that. Its creed, displayed just within the front doors of any of its offices, was: "We take care of us and ours." Anyone could be a member as long as they paid dues, with one major requirement: one must never knowingly harm a fellow member, either physically or economically (there was also another, lesser, injunction against using Union facilities or equipment for illegal purposes). No one dared break these rules, as it would mean automatic and permanent dismissal from the Union and guarantee a spot on the Union blacklists. The offender's career would be at an end-there were no interplan merchants who worked independent of the union, unless you counted smugglers and possibly pirates.
The door slid open as Lawrence approached, and he entered into a room which was considerably fancier than he had expected. Wood carvings and paintings adorned the walls, and the large chairs near the entrance appeared to be made of quality leather, though Lawrence couldn't tell if it was synthetic from the door. An expensive-looking desk sat directly ahead. Behind the desk was a young man with a headset, who appeared to be engaged in a conversation at the moment. Lawrence sat down quietly in a wooden chair, directly across from the man. Picking up one of the reader pads that lay on his side of the desk, he tried to engage himself in an article about farming techniques.
After a few minutes, the receptionist closed the call and got up from his desk. Standing, Lawrence approached and offered his hand in greeting. Casting a cursory glance across the man, Lawrence guessed that they were about the same age, but the other fellow was shorter, with short-cropped brown hair and a little bit of fuzz on his chin. His sharp-looking tan business suit made Lawrence envious and a bit self-conscious about his own shabby black jacket and vest. The man's grip was surprisingly firm and he seemed to have a kind of energy to him that Lawrence decided he liked.
"Sorry about that, brother. Urgent call from the central branch here," the man apologized. "The name's Jin."
"Jin?" Lawrence asked. "Like the currency?"
The shorter man flashed him a wide grin. "My mum's a merchant. She also has a sense of humor. As you can see, a disastrous combination."
Lawrence laughed. "You don't say. By the way...this isn't the main branch here on Enceladus? I didn't see another approach vector in the traffic info. Is something wrong with the sat up there?"
"Pah," Jin scoffed, "That satellite is a piece of junk. The government got it as surplus from Mimas after they couldn't find the budget for any of the newer models. Still, at least this time, it's not to blame. The capital on this moon doesn't have a port, but our main branch is located there."
"No port for the capital? How in space did that happen?" Lawrence scratched his head, bewildered.
"Keh," Jin grunted noncommittally. "A lot of rich folks live down there. My guess is they decided they didn't want the disturbance of landing ships and had the money to back it up. Can't say I blame them. Getting a good night's sleep here takes some practice." Moving back behind his desk, he tapped some controls on the display. "Anyway, I'm assuming you're with that Shoufa 408 out there, and it's on our registry, but I gotta check your membercard for formality's sake."
"No trouble at all," Lawrence replied as he pulled the card out of his vest pocket and handed it over.
Jin swiped it through the scanner. "Ah, Lawrence. Nice to match a name with the face."
"Ah, sorry! I completely forgot to introduce myself, didn't I?"
"Like you did say, no trouble at all," Jin smiled easily as he handed the card back, his eyes still on the display. "You're among fellows. By the way, there's a message for you from Ceres. You want it now?"
"I don't have a reader on me," Lawrence answered. "Just send it out to my ship, if you could."
"And...done," the other man replied after a few taps. "Now," he said, turning back to Lawrence, "I'm assuming you're here to talk business, correct?"
"Yes, that's right. I was looking for the local info room."
"Right you are, brother. Through the door on the right," Jin waved his hand at one of the side doors, "and down near the end of the hall. Office 2H is it." He grinned widely, as if at some private joke.
After gathering information, the obvious next step would be to grab the documentation for the cargo, so Lawrence caught a ride back to the spacepad and approached his ship. The Spirit of Radio had been his home and only companion for years now, and she was a close friend to him. Still, he sometimes wished that she could respond when he spoke to her. Lawrence had heard of stories of travelers who spoke to themselves while in flight, like madmen, in order to stave off gripping loneliness.
Keying in the passcode for the hatch, he entered the small airlock, which doubled as an entry compartment in atmosphere. The Shoufa-class light transports were sturdy, durable, and quite fast for their size, but they had a major drawback-they were small. The 400-series especially was designed to minimize travel time and repair work while still leaving room for cargo space, and, as a result, the living area was cramped inside, with a lack of certain amenities, such as food processing, artificial grav, and any appreciable amount of compartment space outside of the cockpit. Fully half of the ship's volume was reserved for the cargo holds.
The hatch was located on the starboard side of the craft-after entering, the cockpit lay to the right, towards the bow, while the small passenger section lay to the left, sternward. The interior compartment was about wide enough to fit two people standing side-by-side, and just tall enough that an average-sized person would brush the ceiling. Like the exterior of the ship, the interior was sparse, and the walls and deck were unpainted metal. The space inside was too small for decoration, and Lawrence had nothing with which to decorate it, anyway, so it remained as it was.
Turning right and entering the cockpit, Lawrence saw that the notification light on the comm console was blinking and remembered the message which was waiting for him. Pulling up the pilot's chair, he thumbed on the primary display and routed the message to it, but the screen indicated that the message was audio only. Grimacing, he hit the play button. No one used audio-only messages unless something was going on that wasn't entirely above board. Still, it had been sent through the Union, so it couldn't be too disreputable.
"Greetings, Lawrence Maya," a young female voice began. "I have a business proposition for you, if you are interested."
Frowning, Lawrence scratched his head. There was something about the voice which didn't seem quite natural.
"I have a certain cargo for you to transport, and I am capable of paying quite well, but you must not allow it to be discovered by any Accord patrols," the message continued. "These patrols are actively searching for this cargo and will use force to obtain it. I will not mince words-accepting this job could expose you to nontrivial amounts of danger. However, I have observed you and I believe you are a man who understands when risks must be braved in order to make a profit."
Now Lawrence was really frowning. A hot cargo? How could such a message come in via Union channels? The IMU strictly kept clear of even gray-area activities, and would never allow a message like this to be transmitted across their links. Still listening to the message, Lawrence keyed in a query to the directory server about its origination point.
"In order to prove that I can deliver on my promises," the voice said, "I advise you to run a check on CSB account number 3RT4A66J239F862HTZ46, with the read-only passcode 001EOYJJFTL. You will see that there are more than enough funds available to pay you, and the majority of that balance will belong to you if you complete this job. If you wish to do business, please reply to this message in the standard manner. Please note that the net location I am using is quite secure and you will not be able to trace it. Conversely, any communication you send to me is also secure and you need not worry about incriminating yourself. I await your reply."
With that, the message terminated. Lawrence tapped the controls and saved a transcript of it in the computer, extracting the bank number and passcode from it. Looking over at the secondary display on his right, he saw that the message trace was still searching and he canceled it. Chances were, his mysterious caller wasn't bluffing about the trace-blocker, so there was no point in wasting computing time. Instead, he had the computer run the number through the bank system.
Honestly, he was already fairly impressed. Whoever had sent the thing had not only wiped their trail, but they had tricked the Union's content sensors, indicating a high level of computer proficiency. Of course, that left him wondering why they didn't simply send the message to him direct. Maybe they thought he would be more trusting if the info came from a Union source-if so, they were right.
The review on the account number came in, and Lawrence whistled, amazed, as he saw the figures. It was already quite something to even have an account with the CSB, the Central Stellar Bank, but the amount of money on hand was nothing short of astonishing. Even a tenth of it would be more than enough to purchase a ship like the Spirit of Radio outright. Of course, he was no fool, and seeing this large an amount of cash set off alarm bells in his head. Even so, he resolved to investigate the opportunity. As long as he kept alert, the worst that could happen is that he would waste his time. In that case, he could at least learn about this kind of scam and avoid it in the future. He typed out a quick reply, asking for more information about the business deal, and possibly a live connection. Lawrence figured that the person on the other end was close enough for such a thing, because it wouldn't make a great deal of sense to contact a man who was worlds away.
If it turned out that the deal was legitimate, Lawrence stood to gain a great deal. Anyone with that much money could afford to pay a sizable amount for a job. Of course, the old saying about how great risk can lead to great profit applied here, but in reverse-any opportunity to make a large profit always entailed a proportional amount of risk. It was one of the laws of the universe. He would have to play this carefully.
Having resolved this issue for the moment, Lawrence powered down the comm. Retrieving the official cargo listings from the compartment under the left-side console, he exited the cockpit and opened the outer hatch to disembark. He turned to seal the door behind him when he suddenly paused, realizing what had been so odd about the voice in the message. Despite sounding so young, almost like a child, the voice had spoken with extremely formal diction. In fact, it reminded him of the master merchants whom he had apprenticed under, back in the union on Ceres. He wondered how that could be possible. it was far too realistic to be computer generated-despite sizable recent advances in the field, perfectly natural-sounding artificial speech was beginning to look like a design impossibility. Maybe there had been a recent breakthrough he was unaware of
and it wasn't like that message had sounded quite natural, anyway. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to consider the possibility of a child having sent the message.
Lawrence's first sale of the day ran a little smoother than he had expected. Since the local economy primarily produced grain-based foodstuffs, there was already a very organized bidding and auction system, which he used to sell the amaranth at nearly a ten percent profit. The tariff was extremely low, hardly even worth mentioning, as Lawrence had expected-small colonies like Enceladus relied so heavily on trade to survive that it would have been economic suicide to have a tariff with any real teeth. The net effect was that tariffs remained a custom of the inner system, where the colonies were large enough to be entirely self-sufficient. Most freelance traders stuck to the outer colonies for this very reason, leaving the inner system trade market to larger corporations who could afford the expense which paying trade taxes brought.
Lawrence's next stop was EnComm Inc. They were the largest C&C corporation on Enceladus, and he hoped that he might be able to make an easy sale to them. After all, their demand for computing and data storage equipment was likely substantial, and the few acquisitions reps he had managed to talk to did indeed seem very interested in purchasing. However, Lawrence had forgotten how ponderous the machinery of corporation could often be, and he spent a number of hours in a public comm booth, being bounced around between automated responses or low-level service employees, interspersed with stretches of hold time. In the end, Lawrence managed to obtain only a meeting time for lunch the next day and a mild headache.
Thankfully, he caught a small break just as he was about to call it a day and find a room to rent-a local restaurant chain wanted to buy a number of the disc drives. Lawrence named a price, and arranged a meeting for the first thing the next morning. He was anxious to make a sale, but experience taught him that he should rest first. Otherwise, he ran the risk of getting sloppy and missing out on profit. After closing the link, he stretched and left the booth. The sun had almost set, and the tops of the buildings all around were bathed with its blood-red hue.
By the time Lawrence arrived at the Spacefarer's Inn, it was dark and a chill wind was beginning to kick up. The sun had fallen below the horizon with surprising haste, leading Lawrence to conclude that Enceladus' days were probably somewhat shorter than Earth standard. That information would have definitely arrived in the traffic sat's infostub, but he had neglected to consult it.
When it came to lodging, travelers were notoriously difficult customers. After all, they came in ships, where they presumably had a bed. In fact, the wealthier ones might even have more comfortable rooms on their ships than an inn or hotel could offer. Lawrence was not such a person, but, like any merchant, he was always conscious of the cost associated with staying somewhere else for the night. A ship's bunk always held one key advantage-it was free. According to the directory, though, the Spacefarer's Inn's price looked very affordable, so Lawrence resolved to at least give it a look.
The Inn was a squat three-story building, located about 1 kilometer distant from the landing pads. According to the clerk at the front desk, the reason the cost was so low was that there was always so much trade that the government simply subsidized an Inn here to promote commerce. A nice gesture, that-Lawrence could get used to dealing with these small colonies if more of them followed suit. Unfortunately, not every government realized the importance of encouraging small business.
Lawrence's room was number 306, on the top floor. He eschewed the lift in favor of the stairs-muscle atrophy was a constant danger for people who spent much time in zero-grav-and swiped the keycard at his door. The room was spartan, with no furnishings except the bed and a single chair. There was a wallscreen mounted across from the bed, and the far wall featured curtained windows and a door, which presumably led out to the balcony. There was another, smaller door along the left wall, which likely connected to the next room over in that direction. The washroom was near the entrance. Looking around briefly, Lawrence emptied his pockets onto the chair near the bed. Life as a traveling merchant has caused him to develop a habit of traveling light. Often, he carried nothing more than a small amount of money, identification, and an inventory ledger. As a traveler, having things was often a liability and the majority simply invested extra money into their ships or cargoes, or occasionally some simple recreation.
There was a small remote on the bed, which obviously controlled the wallscreen. Picking it up, Lawrence flicked the screen on. Surprisingly, it wasn't simply a video stream, but rather had nearly full terminal capability. Impressed, Lawrence decided to check his messages. He didn't expect to receive a response this soon, but there was one in the queue, after all. Whoever this mystery employer was, this job was obviously a high-priority for him. The message was simple text: "I wish to meet in person," followed by a time and place. Lawrence glanced through it and prepared to send acknowledgement when he did a double take.
The place was here-Room 306 of the Spacefarer's Inn-and the time was now!!
"Hopefully, I'm not startling you too much," came a voice from behind as Lawrence jumped and quickly whirled around to face the intruder.
"What in-!" he exclaimed.
"I just sent that message," the stranger in his room spoke quietly. Somewhere in his mind, Lawrence realized that it was the same girl's voice that he had heard on the message. She did indeed have the stature of a young girl, maybe an early teenager. She had a closely-held shawl and cloak on, brown with red trim, and he couldn't make out any of her features, but he caught the glint of what were likely eyeglasses underneath the hood. She had been standing against the back corner, out of line-of-sight from the door, and somehow Lawrence hadn't seen her. But how could she have been in his room before he arrived?
While these thoughts were going through his mind, the girl had been speaking. "I really apologize that there was not a more subtle way to contact you, but the Secretariat has forces in many places, and I must be vigilant."
Whatever poise Lawrence had started to recover slipped away. "The Secretariat?" he gaped. "The Accord's secret police? Why in space would they be chasing someone like you?"
"I would be more willing to explain if we had a sure contract. At this juncture, I am quite sure that you are not working for the government. However, that does not preclude the possibility that you could turn over any information I give to you if we decide not to go into business together." She gave Lawrence a hard look from under her hood.
"Okay, first of all, why were you in my room? Couldn't you set up a meeting like a normal person? Second, what contract?" He raised his hands questioningly. "You can appreciate that I'm not about to make a deal without knowing the terms."
"Yes, of course." The girl started to pace around the bed, apparently ignoring his first question. "These are the terms: you will provide me with passage off of this planet, to a destination of your choosing. You will not, at any time, turn me over or reveal my presence to government agents, who will be searching for me."
Something suddenly occurred to Lawrence. "I saw a bunch of security traffic as I was coming in from orbit. That wasn't for you, was it?"
"It likely was," she replied.
"Well, frankly, those terms seem impossible. How am I supposed to sneak a passenger past so many ships?"
"Those ships are not searching for a passenger."
What? "But you said they were searching for you."
"Yes, I did."
Lawrence waited for the girl to elaborate, but she remained silent, looking at him. Frustrated, he finally asked, "This is a very risky job. Why should I take it? How much are you paying?"
The girl turned and looked directly into Lawrence's eyes for the first time. Strangely, he didn't see the youth in her eyes that he had expected would be there. Instead, she emitted a sense of long experience that made him feel like he was the young one, which was odd, to say the least. Dimly, he realized that she had answered his question. He must have heard the answer wrong, though, because the figure she named couldn't possibly be correct.
"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" he asked.
She did. "I will pay sixty million jin."
"Six-did you say sixty million-!" he sputtered. "What-?"
"I have no use for the money once I arrive at my destination. You may have the entirety of my funds once I arrive."
Lawrence turned away, thinking furiously. Sixty million jin was enough to last a man a lifetime-a dozen lifetimes. The sum value of everything he owned, including the Spirit of Radio, was likely no more than one or two million. Visions of unimaginable wealth floated before Lawrence's eyes, and it was with great difficulty that he kept his excitement under some semblance of control. No, it wouldn't do to get carried away with greed and forget to count the costs. If he was caught by the Secretariat, the consequences were equally unimaginable, and, if the rumors were correct, worse than death. Still, this girl hadn't even specified a preferred destination. All he would have to do is carry on his usual business with this additional risk, and he would be made for life.
It was a gamble, like the ones Lawrence made every day, except that the stakes were magnitudes higher. He weighed the risks against the rewards, and made a decision. Hesitancy was a trait few merchants could afford.
He turned back to the girl, who had been waiting patiently. It actually didn't look like she had moved at all. "I'll take the job."
"Good." She smiled slightly. "Shall we discuss the details?"