Reminiscences From The PitBy Frances Teagle
Life imprisonment in the notorious penal colony on Cygnus Alpha. Better than a death sentence. Or was it? In her sentencing preamble, the Arbiter General had included a prissy little remark about how unusual it was to be obliged to send a woman to such a place. Only a hardened miscreant could deserve such a fate. The rest of the court had nodded sagely, she had brought it upon herself. And in all honesty, Jenna reflected ruefully, one had to agree with them.
I thought I was so smart, they'd never get me. Tracking their patrols, bribing traffic controllers and scanning every cargo for hidden drugs -- especially Shadow. It would have been the death sentence all right if we'd had that shipment of Largo's on board when they arrested us. Damn the man. I wonder how many poor dupes he's been instrumental in sending to the gas chambers. If ever I get the chance... But I won't, will I?
Another clatter in the corridor, more prisoners being brought down. Four courts were in session today and business was brisk as they worked through the smaller fry. Among the batch she was not surprised to see Vila Restal. Evidently the court had come to the conclusion that no amount of conditioning would ever deter that compulsive thief from practising his arts. By all accounts he'd been to penal colonies before, it was only surprising that he'd been permitted to return to Earth. Now he too had drawn the big one. Still, he was looking fairly jaunty, in contrast to Nova, just behind him, who was white-faced and visibly shaking. That was a pity. What had a fresh-faced youngster like him done to deserve it? Or was he being used as a lever on somebody else?
You'll have to toughen up, lad. Where we're going, they'll be almost as happy to see you as they will be to see me. Sexual predation is the name of the game, and we'll have to form some sort of alliance if we're going to even stay alive on Cygnus Alpha. Either that, or shack up with the most dominant male we can find. I'll do that if I have to.
She signalled to him to join her. Vila, of course, tagged along.
"Sit down and get your breath back," she said, patting the mattress beside her. He dropped onto it as if his legs had given way under him. Vila, not included in this invitation, hunkered down on the floor with the ease of long practice, all ears.
After a few moments' silence, Vila began, as she had known he would. "Anyway, Nova, how did you get into this mess? You don't seem to fit the usual pattern. Young delinquents like you usually get sent to reformatories."
Nova heaved a shaky sigh. "I didn't get myself into it. My elder brothers got mixed up with some revolutionary named Bran Foster. I was picked up as a hostage for their surrender, but it didn't work, so here I am."
"What have they just tried you for?" Vila persisted. "It can't be for being a rebel's brother."
"Conspiracy to defraud. You know, lots of forged papers. I couldn't get the hang of what I was supposed to have done at all." Nova dropped his head down on his knees, bewildered despair evident in every line of his crumpled body.
Jenna knew better than to attempt to mother him. In any case, she wasn't the maternal kind. However, she'd better find a way to put some steel into him.
"Well, you should get Vila to take you under his wing," she said. "He knows all about survival in captivity. From now on, you have to learn a new way of life."
Pleased, Vila returned an innocent smile. "Glad to help." Their eyes met, and she knew he was hoping for some favours from her if he co-operated with the boy's education (or should it be initiation?)
Nova sat up and took a deep breath. "Thank you. It sounds silly, but I've been scared stiff at the thought of being thrown in with a bunch of murderers and gangsters."
"Oh, we're the cream of society in these parts," said Vila airily. "We even have a famous smuggler among us." He bowed with mock-admiration towards Jenna.
Nova's smile was wan but interested. "What did they catch you for?"
Jenna grimaced. "Illicit diamond buying on Mars."
"Diamonds!" Vila's eyes lit up with a keen professional interest. "Where do they come from?"
She had to smile at his enthusiam. "There's been a big new find in the Olympus region. Really good stones, everybody's after them. I'm surprised you haven't heard about them."
"So why didn't they try you on Mars?" Vila wanted to know. "I mean, you'd only draw a few years in the local jail for that, surely? Maybe even get off with a hefty fine."
"My freetrading reputation, I'm afraid. The others were tried locally, but they passed me on to Earth and collected the reward."
"The perils of being famous," Vila commented cheerfully.
"Well, being obscure hasn't exactly helped you," she answered tartly.
Nova had brightened up somewhat during this exchange. "How did you become a smuggler?" he asked.
Jenna shrugged, unwilling to go into details of her past life. "You could say it was a family tradition."
"Ah, Callisto, you pock-marked drab. What purblind idiot named you after a beautiful nymph?" Shingler leaned over Jenna's shoulder to look at the cratered image of the dark little world they were approaching.
"Gallileo, probably," she said dryly.
"We'll have to forgive him then. Poor equipment is his excuse."
"Picking up Gabor's beacon," Ruzsa, the navigator, interpolated. "Switch to 322."
"Locking on," Jenna responded, altering their heading. "Wake up the others, Shingler. We'll be down in fifteen minutes."
"About time, too," Ruzsa muttered. "I'm sick of this voyage. It's gone on far too long."
"Afraid your Martian boy-friend will get tired of waiting?" Shingler jeered.
"No problem. I'll find another," she shot back.
Every freetrader needed a good navigator, particularly when things got hairy, and Ruzsa was one of the best, even if she was forever in trouble with the opposite sex. 'Ruzsa the Rover', Shingler called her, probably out of sour grapes. He himself had only managed to retain her interest for one short voyage.
The Firefly was a medium-sized freighter of outer planets' manufacture. Produced by the thousand over the last two hundred years, the design was only remarkable for its longevity and the ease with which its systems could be updated. They were the workhorses of the galaxy and much beloved of smugglers, who modified them in weird and wonderful ways to increase their speed and range. The enormous trade in used vessels and resulting name changes, allied to slovenly re-registration record keeping, was an ever-present source of vexation to the Federation's overtaxed excise patrols, a situation much exploited by freetraders, who changed their own and their freighter's names with virtually every voyage. The Firefly, which she owned in partnership with Shingler, was currently masquerading as the Niven Voyager. She had a crew of five, the other two being Bonner, the engineer, a quiet, reliable man of about her own age, and Faruk, a young Amagon who had only been with them for two voyages, still very much a learner.
Callisto was far from being a favourite stopover with Jenna, but besides its various scientific research stations and mines, it was also a thriving entrepot port for the near worlds, with good banking facilities. Firefly's intended destination was Mars, but the Red Planet was still in the grip of a world-wide dust storm, or `red-out', which made landing extremely hazardous. Since their cargo contained items they were not prepared to off-load at the Deimos terminal, the Firefly's crew had opted to divert to Callisto rather than join the flotilla of orbiting freighters waiting for a break in the weather. Ruzsa was particularly eager to take advantage of the opportunity to visit a boy-friend at Valhalla Minor, and for the others there was always the chance of picking up a cargo or making a useful contact.
Others had had the same notion, and when they arrived, the docking cradles were crowded with vessels, some of them familiar.
"That's the Odin over there. Some of your Vilkonen friends are here." Rusza smiled meaningfully at Jenna, pleased that she wasn't the only one who would be visiting an old flame. She was a tall, vivid creature with a love-life in almost every port which made Jenna's look prim. She was always encouraging Jenna to get out and enjoy herself.
Jenna nodded pleasantly. "I must look in on them. But not until I've seen the bankers."
"Ah Jenna, always business before pleasure." Ruzsa hoisted her back-pack onto her shoulders and trotted cheerfully away.
Jenna sighed inwardly. Was it only six years since she was a member of Odin's crew? Then it had belonged to her lover, Aulius Vilkonen, the flamboyant chief of the galaxy's most flamboyant freetrading clan. For nearly two reckless, hilarious years she had been the mistress of this tawny lion of a man and had participated in his exploits. Who captained his ship now? His brother perhaps, or one of the cousins.
Don't think about him any more. He's dead, isn't he? Killed in some stupid brawl over a woman.
But it was no use, somehow she couldn't turn her thoughts away this time. Those memories she tried to keep in the back of her mind were crowding to the front. She'd not really been able to mourn her one-time lover's passing when she heard of his death a few months ago, but now the proximity of his vessel triggered a melancholy mood. Aulius had been her last real attachment and since parting with him she hadn't met anyone who could kindle quite the same warmth in her. Apart from some casual affairs in various ports she had concentrated on the business in hand, making a considerable name for herself as a skilled pilot and cunning smuggler. She had joined up with Shingler a couple of years ago, but his sour sarcasm grated on her nerves and her early rejection of unwelcome advances had tinged their relationship with resentment. She felt cold, forlorn and, in a strange way, barren.
Maybe what she missed the most was that close family milieu of the Vilkonens that she'd fitted into so well. Freetraders were clannish. Jenna herself came from one of the minor clans, which like the Vilkonens were at permanent feud with the Earth Federation. These families had been the proprietors of Earth's main trading and transport companies, with branches all over the colonised planets - until the installation of the current President, some thirteen years ago. Kostelnik and his greedy cohorts believed in having their hands on everything and soon they were interfering with the running of the trading fleets. Naturally, there was resistance. Some companies, including the Stannises, had begun to transfer assets to the independent planets. However, they were not quick enough. Before long, a wave of arrests carried off the owners, their families and most of their senior employees. Most of them, including Jenna's parents, younger brother and several other relatives, were never seen again. She herself, a junior Space Fleet officer fresh out of the academy, was spirited away by a vigilant company agent just ahead of the order to return her to Earth for questioning. The trading fleets, of course, were sequestrated and mismanagement and graft had swiftly ruined them.
The Vilkonens, largest of the companies, had come off better than the others. Old Lars' two sons, Aulius and Hindrik, were still at large, and they reacted fiercely. Collecting the remnants of their fleet and a squadron of Amagon allies, they turned pirate and mounted a daring raid on a planetary governor's meeting, taking so many prominent hostages that the President was forced to release Lars and the rest of his family. This much-publicised action made them the heroes of the galaxy and with the connivance of many admirers they were able to retrieve most of their confiscated vessels in a series of well-planned actions, much to the fury of Space Command, who were always decoyed away by clever feints elsewhere. The Supreme Commander of the era was said to have had apoplexy when three of his own war ships were captured by Aulius. Others believed that his second in command had fed him some poison that reduced him to a vegetable, probably at the behest of the President.
But of the all Stannises only one cousin ever emerged from prison. Escaping after weeks of interrogation, gaunt and hard-eyed, she brought with her a grim account of the last days of Jenna's family.
"Coming, Jenna? The transport's here."
Grateful to have her morbid thoughts interrupted, Jenna picked up her bag and followed Shingler and the others off the ship.
Making her way to a bank, she made a deposit and had it transferred to her numbered account on independent Regis. She now had a gratifying balance there, and in another year or so, she hoped to be able to afford her own ship, instead of just being a partner in Firefly. Her relations with Shingler had deteriorated of late and she also had a private dream, scarcely acknowledged even to herself, of reviving the Stannis company in partnership with her surviving kin, based outside the Federation, of course. This vagrant life was beginning to bore her, she needed a new challenge and she would soon be ready to take it up.
Illicit diamond buying was the main attraction of Mars at present. New strikes were being made almost weekly in the volcanic pipes of Olympus Mons, and not all of them were being registered. Claim-jumping and range-wars were rife, gun-runners and private armies were everywhere. Mars was in the grip of diamond fever.
"It can't last," said Jenna's neighbour pessimistically. "They're bound to declare martial law before long, and then they'll bring in the Fifth Legion."
She was in the vista-dome of Trader Jon's Cafe, dining with a party of other freetraders chance-met in Valhalla's main piazza. Discussion had naturally come round to the Martian situation. Opinion in general was that the bonanza would soon be over, and any traders hanging on for just one more deal were likely to find themselves staring down the blaster barrels of a Federation squadron.
Jenna was inclined to agree with them. A freetrader's main safeguard, in her opinion, was knowing when to quit. She intended to tell Shingler that this was her last trip to Mars. Meanwhile, she was enjoying herself. Shopping bags containing today's purchases of clothing and jewelry nudged her ankles under the table, and relaxing beneath a velvet sky dominated by Jupiter's multi-hued, storm-swirling disc, she was in a much better humour.
One of her companions spotted an acquaintance and beckoned him over. "Jenna, meet Largo. He's looking for somebody to take a part-load into Mars. Maybe you could do business."
Largo was a gingery, little fox of a man whose sober suiting contrasted strongly with the colourful fashions favoured by the freetraders. He smiled pleasantly enough and leaned down beside Jenna. "It's only one medium-sized container, if you could find room for it," he explained. "My customer is a diamond dealer who has ordered some luxuries for his apartment. Naturally, he can't get them through Federation channels."
Jenna smiled politely and took his comlink address, promising to put the proposal to her partner and get back to him promptly.
"Who is he?" she asked, as Largo trotted away.
"A supplier from Space City - you want it, he'll get it. At present he's touting a nice line in expensive wooden furniture, panelling and flooring."
"All prohibited these days, since the forests were placed under protection and declared forbidden zones," said Jenna, dryly.
Her informant laughed. "Oh, this wood comes from some back of beyond planet like Ganesh. That's one of the reasons it costs a fortune."
Ganesh - the planet of the elephants - we spent an unforgetable seven weeks there, Aulius and I.
On Ganesh humans came a poor third behind elephants and their native forests, savannahs and tundras. Not only had the two surviving races of Earth found a sanctuary here, but species of mammoth and mastodon had been recreated from DNA samples and planted in their appropriate habitats along with the creatures who would have shared their wilderness with them. All except mankind. Only members of the Ganesh Cult were permitted to live here, and most of them were confined to the island continent of Yilliwara which was given over to agriculture and processing of timber from the forests of Hind.
Hind - deaf to the chatter around her, she fell into a deep reverie as she recalled that dreamland - only a few years ago chronologically, but a lifetime away in experience. Aulius was convalescing from a wound received in an affray and his cold fish of a brother had instructed him to lie low while he pacified the dead man's relatives and prevented an all-out war between clans.
We were always patching you up. This time I took you off to Ganesh to pick up a cargo of that precious hardwood the Federation bosses will pay a fortune to get for their palaces and summer retreats. That logging camp we stayed at, among the forestry service elephants and their mahouts and attendants, did you remember that to the end of your days, Aulius? I'll never forget it. Who could imagine that an animal so huge could be so intelligent. They were the rulers of the forest and their humans were devoted to them. A sojourn in paradise is always too short.
"Wake up, Jenna."
Her escort prodded her ribs. Reluctantly, she surfaced and tried to take up the thread of their conversation again.
"It's no use," she apologised a few moments later, "I'm half asleep. I must get back to my ship." She rose and said her farewells.
Her way back to Firefly took her by the Odin. As she passed, she was hailed from the forward hatch.
"Jenna! I was hoping to catch you. Come in."
As she approached, she recognised Haakon, one of Aulius's cousins.
"Hello Haakon. Are you the captain these days?"
He grinned. "I am. I knew you must be here when I spotted the Firefly. That change of name doesn't deceive us."
Still immersed in memories of Ganesh and Aulius, she didn't feel in the mood to exert herself to charm his cousin, so she excused herself gracefully and promised to pay a call the following day. The Firefly was still empty when she arrived, which suited her pensive mood very well. She made herself a hot drink then retired to her cabin.
Next morning Largo was on the comlink enquiring about the prospects for his cargo. Jenna summoned Shingler and they agreed a price for conveying it. The recipients wanted it to be delivered to a small depot near The Face, a hill so named for its approximation to a face when viewed from above. Centuries ago, people had believed that it was a huge artifact constructed by a vanished race of Martians, but geological examination had dispersed this myth. However, the district was dotted with small steep hills which made it an excellent spot for an unobtrusive landing.
"Well, in that case, I'll send my man over with it straight away," said Largo. "By the way," he added casually, "do you ever go as far as Earth?"
"Not if I can avoid it," Jenna answered before Shingler could get a word in. "There's a hefty reward for my apprehension in those parts."
"Well, a friend of mine wants a cargo running to the African continent. He'd pay very well."
"He'd have to," said Jenna grimly. "There aren't many of us willing to take a risk like that. Try the Vilkonens."
"Oh, I dunno," Shingler chipped in, "We might be willing, if the price is right. What is the cargo?"
"I rather think it's ammunition and explosives."
"Supplying the rebels? I wouldn't have put you down as the type," said Jenna, quizzically.
"I'm not. As I said, it's for a friend."
And a good rake-off to you for arranging it, Jenna commented to herself.
"We'll think about it," Shingler promised, evidently hoping that he could talk his partner round.
"Good." Largo cut the connection, leaving Firefly's owners to argue about the proposition.
Finally Jenna broke off. "Well, I said I'd go over to the Odin this morning, so I'll leave you to see to Largo's goods. And for heaven's sake, open it up and make sure it's what he says it is." She departed in rather an ill temper, telling herself that she would be glad to part company with Shingler - in fact, the sooner the better.
Boarding the Odin again after all this time was a strange experience. Although she was a resolute opponent of sentimentality, it cost Jenna a pang to step through that hatch.
It's because he's dead, I suppose. If he was here I'd walk in without a second thought, even though we went our separate ways years ago. But now the ship is invested with a dead man's memory.
Ach! you're just being sentimental. Dozens of other women probably feel the same way, since Aulius was a stranger to the concept of fidelity.
The warmth of Haakon's welcome soon cured her ill humour and she spent most of the day with him and his crew, talking about cargoes, reminiscing about old times and enquiring after old friends and foes.
"Does anyone know anything about Space Command's new supremo?" she asked. "We all expected Old Starkiller to get the post. Who is this Servalan?"
"Well, we reckon she's a political appointee of the President's." Haakon volunteered. "She may be quite a looker but she's far too young for the post - no command experience to speak of either. But her family's very influential and rumour has it that she bed-hopped her way through most of the Senate to get the job."
Jenna grinned. "Sounds promising. With any luck she'll be useless and Space Command's efficiency will take a nose-dive. Chances are she'll be diverting a good percentage of the budget into her own coffers as well. Presidential appointees usually do."
There was cheerful laughter around the wardroom.
"How are our information sources inside Space Command these days?" she enquired of Haakon during a lull in the general conversation. "Have there been changes of personnel at other levels?
"We've lost a few," he acknowledged. "Mainly retired or transfered. Still, it's interesting you should ask that. We're trying to reduce our dependence on local spies by organising all those kid systems hackers into a proper intelligence service; or at least, Hindrik is. He's organising a major conclave at Keravala with a lot of your Amagon friends and most of the leading freetraders. You should come. Your father's old associate Mikhail Brand will be there. He's putting up some of the capital."
This was a very interesting piece of news, particularly about Mikhail. He would be just the person to consult about re-forming the company. Maybe he would be willing to put some capital there as well. Besides, it would be a major opportunity to make other business contacts.
"Yes," she said decidedly. "I ought to be there. Have I time to do this run to Mars before going?"
"Oh yes. Reports say the `red-out' is dying down. You'll be on your way in a day or so. The conclave is at the end of next month."
"Another good thing," said Jenna with satisfaction, "there won't be time to go on to Earth as well."
Haakon raised his eyebrows enquiringly.
"Shingler's set on running a cargo into Earth for that Largo character but I've vetoed it because of the risk. Also we don't know anything about his colleagues and there's a big enough reward on my head to tempt a lot of people. But Shingler's still trying to persuade me to go."
"Largo?" Haakon's chief officer sat up sharply. "Don't have anything to do with him, he's Terra Nostra."
"Yes," agreed one of his juniors. "Ten to one it's Shadow he's running, and you know what'll happen if you're caught with that stuff." And he drew his finger across his neck in the classic cut-throat gesture.
Shadow! Reputed to be the most destructive and addictive drug in the known universe - one shot and you were enslaved for the rest of your life, which wouldn't be long. Possession of Shadow rated an automatic death sentence, and not just in the Federation. Its effects on society were devastating. Addicts would do anything to get the money to buy it and no-one was ever known to have kicked the habit.
Jenna couldn't help a slight shiver. "I'm glad I mentioned it."
Later she and Haakon dined alone together in the town and she confided to him her problems with Shingler and some of her ambitions .
"Split now," he advised her. "Get him to buy you out and come with me to the conclave." He gave her a cheerfully suggestive grin which she answered with a roguish smile, knowing full well that he would be very happy to succeed Aulius as her lover. Haakon, fifteen years younger than his cousin, was very like him.
She considered for a moment. "I'll do the Mars run first, as I agreed, then I'll come to Keravala."
Haakon gave a regretful grimace. "Sure? We have to leave tomorrow, I can't wait for you."
"Yes. Shingler and I must sort out a proper dissolution of partnership. I'm not deserting someone at a moment's notice. I'll see you there." And she moved the conversation on to another topic as tactfully as she could.
Not long after this Shingler paged her. "All crew back to the ship by midnight. We leave in five hours."
Although there was plenty of time, she excused herself and left. After what she had heard earlier, she wanted to take a look inside that container of Largo's. Shadow, packed in gelatine capsules, was unlikely to be detected by the usual scanning equipment. The thought occurred to her that it could be concealed in the protective bubble plastic sheeting that expensive furniture was wrapped in.
When she arrived at Firefly's docking cradle, the first thing Jenna noticed was an autoloader backing away. The only item scheduled to come aboard was Largo's small container for Mars -- so why such a large loader when there were several small ones standing on the dock? Suddenly suspicious, she hailed the dockmaster and asked what had just been delivered. Two large standard containers from the Corelli Corporation of Valhalla Major, came the reply, contents - metal ingots. Corelli Corporation? That was the company Largo had mentioned in connection with the Mars shipment.
Flaming Hell! Shingler had gone behind her back and accepted that cargo for Earth. Jenna raced up the gangway and headed straight for the main hold. Two immense metal containers squatted on either side of the centre catwalk, neatly balanced for take-off. One glance at those smooth sides told her that their contents weren't just metal ingots. They were the airtight variety and their doors were elaborately sealed. Nobody sent ingots in expensive containers like these, they were designed for organic matter. Looking further, she came across a smaller container with the letters CCC engraved on the side -- Corelli Corportation of Callisto. It too was airtight and carefully sealed.
Spinning on her heel, she stormed up the corridors to the flightdeck. It was empty. Shingler was in the galley fixing himself a meal. One glance at her furious face brought him to wary attention.
"I've just been into the hold and seen our new arrivals. You weren't quite fast enough, Shingler," she said between set teeth. "Which is just as well. Now listen to this, I've been checking up: Largo belongs to the Terra Nostra and his stock in trade is the drug Shadow. Whatever else those crates contain, you can bet there's a good batch of Shadow mixed in. Furthermore, I'll wager that shipment for Mars also contains a tidy batch as well. Did you think to check that?"
His lips set in a tight line. "Of course I did. I ran the scanner past it, like you said."
"Which is useless for organic stuff like Shadow capsules. Well now we're going to open it up and look inside with a chromatograph."
Shingler's face went red. "Now look, Jenna, I've had just about enough of this. Largo is paying well and you are not going to break the seals on that container. There is no Shadow inside it."
"Don't you understand at all?" shouted Jenna. "You've involved us in smuggling Shadow into Earth for the Terra Nostra."
"Rubbish!" snapped Shingler. But something in his face told her that he knew well enough. "Just because one of your friends tells you some scare story you believe every word," he blustered on. "It's pathetic. We're going."
As Jenna wheeled and stormed out he yelled after her, "If you don't like it, get off this ship!"
She lost no time in going straight to her cabin. There she used her console to contact the master computer and check on the other crew members' locations. The answer was encouraging, they were still kilometres away; if she acted fast she could deal with this now. Taking a deep breath, she opened her locker and felt for her stun-gun - she was going to take a leaf out of the Vilkonen textbook.
Shingler's face was a picture of astonishment when she marched back into the galley and shot him down.
"You bastard," she muttered as she bent over his sprawled body. "You don't give a damn if its full of drugs, do you? You're quite happy to work for the Terra Nostra."
He was a heavy man, so she employed a robot luggage lifter to transport him to the empty passenger cabin on the lower deck, where she locked the door on him. The gun charge was set to maximum, so she knew he would be out of action for some twelve hours.
Working fast, she dialled up the autoloader and went into the hold to unfasten the container moorings and open the main hatch. The autoloader did its task with despatch. She instructed it to deposit the goods in the bonded warehouse and then tapped out a message to Largo, setting a two-day delay on it. It was a polite apology for not being able to take either of his cargoes after all, citing some vague problem that required a change of plan. She saw no percentage in enraging the Terra Nostra.
That seen to, she made herself a coffee and sat back to think hard. She felt certain that Shingler had been bought off by Largo and for safety's sake he must be left behind for this voyage; in fact, he'd better be dumped altogether. The best plan was to do the Mars run, then head straight for Keravala and the conclave. After that, the others could take the ship and collect him as soon as he had paid her off for her share in the vessel. She smiled coldly - not quite the way Haakon had advised her to proceed, but he would probably be willing to help her with the necessary arrangements. She called him up.
"Shingler ill?" exclaimed Ruzsa. "What is it? Anything catching?"
"We think not," Jenna told her. "But I'm afraid it looks like a brain haemorrhage. I found him unconscious when I came back from town."
"I can't say I'm surprised, considering the shade of purple he turns whenever something annoys him." Faruk commented.
It was a measure of Shingler's popularity that nobody expressed any real distress at these tidings, merely uncertainty.
"What are we going to do?" Bonner wanted to know. "He could be in hospital for months - he might never recover."
Oh, but he would, unfortunately. The doctor that she and Haakon had bribed, would let him out in ten day's time, perfectly healthy save for a slight gap in his memory.
"I suggest we do the Mars run," She said decidedly. "If he's still out of action after that, we'll carry on until we know what the situation is. Do you agree?"
After a moment's deliberation there were cautious nods.
"Get some sleep," she advised. "We'll leave at a civilised hour tomorrow."
Jenna always found Mars much more interesting than Calisto. It was a proper world in its own right, with real landscape - not just craters by the thousand, but canyons, plains, volcanoes and ice-caps. The thin atmosphere provided a proper daytime sky instead of black space, and two friendly little moons whizzed by at frequent intervals. Admittedly its cheerful red hue gave a spurious impression of warmth, but you could get around in a light-weight pressure suit without too much difficulty, which was important if you were trading in the back of beyond.
Mars had dwindled greatly in importance once the interstellar drive was developed. Originally Earth's largest colony planet, it was rapidly abandoned once easier worlds became available for settlement, leaving a small remnant of miners, researchers and rugged individualists who enjoyed having a million square kilometres to themselves. The Federation maintained a traffic control centre, a listening post and some emergency services there, but otherwise took no interest in the place. Some exo-botanical research was done at Coronilla, the Red Planet's largest settlement, but it was hardly a popular posting among academics.
So far had the population declined, that there was no longer even a tax office on the planet, let alone a full-time customs service. Freighters delivering supplies simply landed at the nearest convenient point to off-load them. Payment was generally in cash or kind. Federation traffic control logged every arrival and departure, but its personnel almost never left the comfort of their quarters to investigate anything unless driven to action by some newly-arrived zealot. All in all, a small-scale smuggler's paradise.
Then came the diamond strike. Gem stones, including diamonds, had been mined from the early days, but most veins had petered out more than two centuries ago. The new strike had been successfully kept secret for some time. Most of the first discoverers had made their pile and shipped out to independent territory to enjoy their new-found wealth in style. Jenna remembered conveying a group of happy families to Keledon in the Firefly's roughly converted hold, more than a year ago. Others had hung on for a bigger bonanza, paying the garrison commander to turn a blind eye to their activities, but gradually the news had leaked out and the fortune hunters converged on Mars, along with the dealers, freetraders and other riff-raff.
Unloading the ship went smoothly enough, although Coronilla's docking facilities were much more primitive than Callisto's and progress was relatively slow. Jenna suspected that the lack of automation was designed to create work for humans, which was probably why the landing fees were so much higher than usual. But if the Martian settlers were willing to pay more for their food and equipment, who was she to argue?
The receiving agent didn't turn up until the last minute, which she considered very slack. However, he seemed content with taking a cursory look at the manifesto and a walk round the containers, then they adjourned to the office where the transfer was registered and payment was deposited in the Niven Company's account at a bank on Regis. The profits would then be split up among the crew according to their contracted share. Whenever the Firefly changed its identity, a company account was opened in the new name. The proceeds from diamond dealing, on the other hand, went into a different account altogether.
As the proceedings came to an end, she notified the station manager that they would be delaying departure until the next day so that the crew could have a few hours planet leave.
Ruzsa, of course, had a boy friend in Coronilla whom she lost no time in contacting. Faruk opted for a visit to a video theatre well-known for its adventurous programming. Bonner accompanied Jenna to a restaurant in the settlement's central zone, for it was here that they were to meet the diamond dealer, and she wanted a discreetly armed escort by her side.
Raff was not there when they arrived, so they took a table and ordered a meal. The food at Coronilla had a good reputation since most of it was mostly locally grown, a by-product of the research station, so nobody would be surprised at off-worlder crews dining out there. They were nearly through when they were joined, not by Raff but Grade, an associate Jenna had met once before.
After introducing him to Bonner, she enquired after Raff.
"Well, he's having to be extra careful right now," Grade admitted. "There's a new security chief here and he's been nosing around in Raff's direction."
Damn! Maybe the best thing they could do was to abandon the project straight away.
"No, don't do that," Grade begged anxiously when she suggested it. "Raff's only the go-between. We're the miners, we can deal direct if you're prepared to bring your ship down to the mine."
"What? Land right beside it? That's asking for Security to get a fix on you."
"Well no, not exactly," Grade said. "There's a lot of canyons about 30 kilometres to the north where you can hide your ship. I've got my land-cruiser here. If we stow it in your hold and fly down there, we can drive to the mine and make the transfer. How about it?"
Jenna exchanged glances with Bonner. He nodded. "OK," she agreed. "But I was going to pay Raff in Regan security bonds."
"That's all right," Grade assured her. "We'll accept them."
Jenna grinned. "Planning to emigrate soon?"
"Only sensible thing to do," he said seriously. "This state of affairs can't last much longer. There'll be a crackdown before long."
Jenna rose to her feet. "Let's go back to the ship. We can discuss things properly there."
As they drove to the dock in the huge lumbering vehicle, Grade explained that the mineworkings were on the far side of the planet. When Raff had warned him that he was under surveillance, Grade had journeyed to Coronilla without the contraband, ostensibly to buy equipment and stores for his small community.
The station management showed no interest as Grade drove his vehicle aboard the Firefly. Jenna casually informed them that she would be delivering some gear to a remote settlement before leaving, which they seemed to accept in the usual haphazard Martian way. When it was secured the crew gathered round to inspect the dusty, battered monster in their hold.
"Is that a ceramic coating on the outside?" asked Bonner, ever the engineer.
"That's right. Only stuff that will stand up to conditions out here." Grade slapped the side of his vehicle with affectionate pride. "This one's gone thirty years without a re-coat. Mind you, we have to replace the windows every few years. The dust blasts them opaque eventually."
"How d'you get across Mars these days, now that the stratocruisers have gone?" Faruk wanted to know. "You didn't drive the whole way, did you?"
Grade laughed. "No need for that. The old landrail is kept in running order for the ore trains. I drove eighty kilometres to the nearest depot and hired a bogy truck, put the old dust-cat onto it and hitched onto the next ore train that came through."
Ruzsa turned those big dark eyes on him. "How long did it take you?"
"Best part of two days."
"It sounds like an epic journey," she said admiringly. "Did you have to live in your cruiser all the way?"
"Best way to travel," he assured her. "You depend on your dust-cat anyway. When you're out prospecting you live in it for weeks at a time, so you make it cosy and stock it up well."
"Can it weather the dust storms?" Bonner asked.
"No problem. If it gets too bad to navigate, you find a sheltered spot and sit it out. That's another advantage of the landrail, they're fully automated so they practically never stop running. I came right through this last red-out."
Farouk frowned slightly. "Why didn't you bring the diamonds with you, then?"
"Raff warned me they were searching everything coming in by train. And he was right. They scanned every nook and cranny when I arrived."
"That confirms a decision I made earlier." Jenna told Grade when they were alone. "This is my last run to Mars. I hope you and your family get out soon."
"The minute you pay over those bonds, we pack up and go." He looked rather sad as he said this.
"Do you think you'll miss the life?" she asked.
"Yes. I've always liked the independence. My wife does, too."
"Well, I know there's plenty of places in independent territory where you could set up again. There's no law that says you must settle down to the soft life if you don't want to. Even if you are filthy rich."
He chuckled. "That's true."
She took the ship off just before dawn, in order to land in the last of the light at her destination. It was tricky putting down on such rough ground. As soon as the cruiser was unloaded onto a hard rock surface where it would not leave tell-tale tracks, she sledged the ship into the mouth of a deep canyon where it would be difficult to detect without a careful search.
"Shall I come with you?" Bonner asked as she prepared to leave with Grade.
"No need." she told him. "I trust them because they know that if I don't get back safely, the bonds will be invalidated. Anyway, they've always played fair before. Look after the ship and keep a careful watch for security patrols."
"How long will you be?"
Grade answered for her. "About six hours. It's slow going in places, especially in the dark."
They climbed in and the dust-cat rumbled away across the rocky surface. For a time, Jenna was content to watch the scenery go by, but after a while she became bored and looked around for something else to do.
"Why don't you go into the rear compartment," Grade advised. "There's videos, book-screens and the galley in there. Make yourself as comfortable as you can.
"Good idea," she said, unbuckling her harness.
"By the way," he added, with a slight chuckle, "the blue movies belong to my son-in-law."
The mine settlement was a series of small domes linked by tunnels. As they approached, Grade flipped a switch on his instrument panel, the doors of the nearest hangar slid open for them and they drove straight into the airlock.
"Good," said Grade as they climbed out of the cruiser. "Everybody's asleep except the nightwatch."
A side door opened and a woman came through. "You made good time, Lek. Were you successful?"
"Yes, here's our buyer."
Jenna held out her hand, which was given a perfunctory shake.
"I won't name any names," Grade continued. "Let's get straight down to business." He led the way into a small adjacent room which was fitted out with surveillance equipment. "We won't be recorded in here," he added. "Also, our sentry switched off the hangar camera just before we came in, so there'll be no record of your presence."
The woman produced a satchel from a locker and poured its contents onto the table. Rough diamonds were seldom much to look at, but some of these were unusually large. Jenna dug out her portable analyser and sat down to work through the hundreds of stones before her, grading them roughly by size as she went. She had done this several times before as Shingler never had the patience to examine every stone. Since the analyser scanned for flaws as well as chemical constituents it was a simple task that would take her about an hour, she reckoned. Grade's comrade brought in a supply of hot drinks and snacks, then sat and watched silently as Jenna sorted through the gems. Nobody interrupted them.
Finally Jenna folder up her analyser and began to pack the stones into small bags. "It's all good quality. I'm prepared to pay the agreed price."
A relieved smile lit the miner's face. "We sorted out all the flawed stuff before I left. I took it with me and sold it to the official buyer for industrial use. We kept the good stuff back for you, of course."
Jenna stood up and pulled a packet out of her backpack. "These are the bonds you checked aboard the ship."
She offered them to him, but they were intercepted by the woman, who proceeded to scrutinise them carefully one by one. Jenna smiled to herself, this was the action of a wife if she'd ever seen one. The woman nodded her approval and passed the papers to Grade. The deal was made.
The return journey seemed to last forever. It was with profound relief that Jenna finally spotted the Firefly squatting unobtrusively in the shadowy canyon.
"Stop here," she requested Grade. "I'll walk the last bit."
He stopped beside a large rock, where they paused for a few minutes scanning for any sign of movement, or animal or mechanical heat sources.
"All clear," he pronounced. "The only thing that registers is the ship herself."
"Hmm, it looks as if there's been a minor sandstorm," Jenna said, focussing the visual scanners on the area by the hull. "No sign of any damage though."
"They happen all the time," was Grade's comment.
Satisfied, Jenna slung her pack crossways over one shoulder and reached for her helmet. Grade helped her to check its fastenings and then opened the inner airlock hatch for her.
"Good luck," he said as she waved goodbye.
Once outside, she stepped into the shade of the rock and watched him drive out of sight, then set off towards her ship. Smugglers always kept their transmissions to a minimum, so she didn't announce her approach. If Bonner was keeping a proper lookout he would open the outer hatch for her, if not, her hand control would do it for her.
Sure enough, the hatch stayed shut. She let herself in, put her sidearm in the gun-chest, then struggled out of her pressure suit and carefully stowed it in its locker. Under the influence of the ship's gravity field the bag of diamonds now weighed heavily as she slung it on her shoulder again. It was a pleasant feeling. Smiling, she made her way to the bridge.
"OK you dozy bunch, prepare for immediate lift-off," she said, pushing the door open.
Faruk was sitting in the pilot's seat staring at her with oddly enlarged pupils. Had he been asleep? She frowned. "Where's Bonner?" she demanded. "It's his watch."
"He's in his cabin."
Faruk's face, she noticed, was tinged with green. The back of her neck seemed to prickle as the awful realisation that something was badly wrong flooded over her. She spun round. Two people stood in the doorway; Ruzsa, arms secured behind her back, her mouth sealed with a strip of adhesive tape and her lovely dark eyes dilated with fear; and holding a handgun to her head, a tall Federation trooper with a broad smile on his face.
"Jenna Stannis, I have been looking forward to meeting you. Allow me to introduce myself: Space Commander Marcus, head of Mars Security."
Of course! That was no sandstorm that had scoured the gulley. A military hoverjet had been there. Jenna felt sick.
She stood very still as he advanced into the room. A squad of mutoids materialised behind him.
"I am unarmed," she said.
"I know you are. We saw you check your weapon when you arrived."
"Bonner?" she enquired, dreading the probable reply.
"Ah, he tried to resist. Better for him if he too had been unarmed. Still, all his troubles are over." The smile curled into cruelty. "Yours are just beginning."
More prisoners were being brought down.
"Praevo's not coming this way," said Vila, with a relieved chuckle. "Death Row's in the other wing. I've heard they don't keep you waiting down there, it's straight into the gas chamber and no messing."
Nova winced, but Jenna turned a cool stare upon her informant. "I'm sure it couldn't happen to a more deserving case."
"What did he do?" Nova asked timidly.
"Dealt in Shadow," Vila explained. "One of the big guys, he was. You be glad he's not on the voyage with us. I've heard things about him that'd make your hair curl."
There was a stir as the cage door was unlocked and two guards dragged in an unconscious prisoner, a big man with curling brown hair. He was unceremoniously dumped on a cot.
"Must have given them some trouble," said Vila with patent satisfaction. "He'll have to learn to behave himself where we're going."
Feeling that she'd had enough of his company, Jenna got up and went to the cage bars and watched a few more wretched processions of guards and prisoners. A woman was dragged away from one of the cages opposite, screaming and weeping. She must have bribed a guard to let her in to say goodbye to her man, whose arms Jenna could see reaching through the bars in a last farewell.
She turned away.
Vila was bending over the unconscious man, helping himself to his watch.
Back to B7 Top