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Reminiscences From The Pit

By Frances Teagle
Page 2 of 6

"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.



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