Chapter 1 1
“Look, I don’t want to be a killjoy, but are you gonna sit in that chair or marry it?”
The black-haired customer ignored the starship dealer’s yammering. His focus was fully on the seat before him. It didn’t look comfortable. Ebon and gray like the rest of the freighter, it appeared to have been built to serve its purpose and nothing more. But Cristóbal Rios regarded the furnishing with reverence, his hands noting every contour.
A captain’s chair was a captain’s chair.
He heard the nasal voice behind him, again: “Pal, are you all right? You’ve been standing there a long time.”
“It’s been a long time,” Rios mumbled. Too long. Without looking back, he asked, “What’s the cargo capacity?”
“Plenty. Ninety thousand cubic meters.”
“It’s a freighter, not a concert hall.” Rios turned to face the speaker, the shorter of the pair of starship dealers who had been showing him around the vessel. “Listen—what’s your name again?”
“I told you. Twice!”
“Listen, Mister Twice, if you don’t know an answer, don’t bullshit me. It won’t help you make the sale.”
“Smart guy’s got a mouth,” the short one called out to his partner.
“Don’t be rude,” the reed-thin man said, stepping forward to intercede. “This is Burze—and I am Wolyx, at your service.” Wolyx doffed his hat.
Both he and his huskier colleague wore brown slacks and white shirts, but while Burze’s sleeves were rolled up sensibly, Wolyx’s were buttoned, as was his collar. He wore a tie, to boot. It seemed to Rios an odd choice for Verex III, a barren bit of nastiness where even midwinter was oppressively hot. “Don’t you sweat, Wolyx?”
“Oh, no. Not in here.” Wolyx lifted his arms in a flourish. “Why would I? This ship is paradise itself. Risa every day.”
“If you think this is Risa, you stayed on the wrong planet.”
“Quite amusing, sir.” The balding trader attempted a smile that Rios found wholly unconvincing. Then he gave up and fanned himself with his hat.
Burze rolled his eyes. “We don’t have all day. Have you seen enough?”
“I’ve smelled enough,” Rios said. He winced as he took another whiff. “Did something die in here?”
Burze giggled; Wolyx hedged. “It’s just this planet, Mister Rios. You’ve been outside. But in here, all you need do is cycle the air for a minute and—”
“Paradise. I got it.”
Rios glanced out the forward port at the parking area. Verex III’s volcanic seams vented enough that ground fog was ubiquitous, but he could still make out a number of ships by their silhouettes. One, he noted, was absent: the shuttle that brought him had barely stayed long enough for him to get his duffel out of the hold.
It wasn’t wise to linger long at the spaceport, even in daylight, the pilot had said. “Especially not then. They can see you coming.”
The Federation might be a post-scarcity society, but Verex III was not in the Federation, and possession was doubly implied in the name of Krellen’s Keep, the planet’s largest outpost. It was also the biggest bazaar in the sector when it came to used starships.
Burze tugged at Rios’s arm. “Don’t bother looking at that junk out there. We told you, this machine is just what you want. It’s a beauty.”
Wolyx quickly agreed. “It has everything you could imagine.”
“Yeah, it’s strewn all over.” Rios turned again to look at the debris spread all across the ship’s upper level, stretching all the way back to the warp engine. Discarded containers, broken ceramics, parts of some ancient farm implement—even a stuffed Klingon targ. And that was nothing next to what he’d seen below on the galley and cargo decks. “Did a chimpanzee program the replicator?”
“A what?” Burze asked.
“Which part haven’t you heard of?”
Wolyx intervened again, nearly stepping on Burze’s shoe. “The ship has a very fine replicator. And not one earthly simian.”
“Then what about all the junk?” Rios asked.
Burze snickered. “The—uh… former owner wasn’t available to remove his stuff.”
Seeing Wolyx shuffling uncomfortably, Rios blinked. Okay, maybe something did die in here.
Wolyx recovered and grinned. “We simply didn’t want to wait to put this little wonder on the market. Consider the rest… a bonus. A treasure at every turn.”
“Free crap. I get it. Is the reason it was carrying so much on board because there’s a problem with the towing system?”
“Oh, this model comes with state-of-the-art couplers designed to connect to a variety of cargo modules!”
“Do they still work?”
Wolyx’s grin wilted a little. “They require a little service.”
“No towing system.”
Burze threw up his hands. “When you’re done jawing, I’m waiting outside.” He passed his partner on the way. “Call if this jerk wants to do more than complain.”
As Hard Sell headed downstairs, Soft Sell started in again. “Forgive my associate,” Wolyx said. “But I’m sure you’ll agree, this ship—this yacht, really—is perfection. It’s not missing a thing.”
“It is,” Rios said.
Rios gestured to the empty space ahead of the command chair. “Control panels.”
“Ah. The Kaplan F17 Speed Freighter captain’s interface is holographic. It only appears when authorized.”
“I’m not an idiot, Wolyx.”
“Of course not. I didn’t mean—”
“Oh.” The dealer shook his head. “No, no, they don’t like me to do that.”
They? That would be whomever it was that Burze was waiting with, Rios imagined. He upturned his palms. “I said I had to inspect the bridge. Without the interfaces, it’s just some chairs and a window. It’s an observation lounge.”
“Surely, it’s more than—”
“I’m not paying for an observation lounge, Wolyx.” Rios turned over his hands and lifted them into the air before him. He held them there, fingertips poised over nothing. He shot the dealer ten percent of a smile.
Wolyx considered for a moment. Then he repeated his own name, followed by a curious phrase: “The hoard, the hoard, the journey’s reward.”
At those magic words, glowing holographic control interfaces appeared suspended in front of the command seat. Rios glanced at them for a moment before sitting. “Nice passphrase. What is it?”
Wolyx clasped his hands together. “Oh, I chose that. It’s from The Songs of Uthalla, an Orion classic.”
“Sort of ‘open sesame.’?”
“Oh, you know A Thousand and One Nights!” Wolyx’s voice bounced. “That phrase probably first appeared in Antoine Galland’s version—though I prefer the newer one by Wu Hezar.”
The people you meet, Rios thought, his fingers dancing over the glistening controls. “You read a lot, Wolyx?”
“Every chance I get—which sadly isn’t often in my trade. But my people take books very seriously.”
More than one part of the comment puzzled Rios. The dealer looked human, although that didn’t really mean anything. And it was much more common to hear people referring to stories, rather than books. The physical media still existed, to be sure, but for many they were a curio.
“There’s another line,” Wolyx said, pacing ahead of the navigator’s station. “?‘For the ship is my castle, this chair my throne.’ Now, that really puts into perspective how important—” He stopped as he noticed his listener. “Er, what are you doing?”
Rios allowed the ship’s awakening systems to answer for him. He felt the hum through the command chair—and he liked seeing indicators coming online on the display panel of a class of ship he had never piloted before.
No, no rust there.
Wolyx stepped before him and waved his hands in alarm. “Mister Rios, I’m not authorized to allow you to activate the ship.”
“You literally just authorized me to activate the ship.”
“Yes, but that was so you could see there was a console, not to—”
Rios punched a holographic key, and the hum became a thrum, reverberating faster and faster.
“Really, I can’t—” Wolyx said, only to be interrupted by a chirp from his personal comm unit. Flustered, he answered it. “What?”
“It’s Burze. What’s going on?”
“He’s started the ship.”
“I can see that, moron. Who started the ship?”
“He started the ship!”
Rios lifted a finger in the air to correct: “He’s flying the ship.” The freighter lurched off the ground, causing Wolyx to lose his balance—and to drop the communicator. “You might want to find a seat,” Rios said.
While Burze ranted inaudibly over the fallen comm unit, Rios peeked outside to see several individuals advancing. Whoever they were, they quickly thought better of it. The freighter’s warp nacelles extended well forward from the ship, like a javelin in each outstretched hand; as Rios rotated the ship, everyone on the platform retreated for cover.
Sprightly. The word had been in the sales description he’d been sent, and Rios had found it an odd choice for something that hauled cargo; obviously it had been written by Wolyx rather than Burze. Rios found it to be apt. The freighter spun a full rotation one way and then another as he gained altitude—all while the dealer fumbled alternately for his communicator and his hat. Verex Prime cut through the haze, stabbing light onto the bridge.
“Mister Rios!” Wolyx declared, clutching in vain for an armrest of one of the forward seats. “Descend immediately!”
“Okay.” Rios slammed the virtual yoke and hit the throttle, angling downward toward the rock-hewn structures of Krellen’s Keep. For a full kilometer, the freighter buzzed just above the ground, startling passersby and barely missing several hovering transports.
He worked the controls swiftly, banking back and forth as he searched for a path to space. Air traffic here, skybridges there—and the freighter, weaving below and between. There were minute performance flaws, little divergences from Rios’s expectations. He mentally cataloged them but did not ease back. After another kilometer, he spotted the open sky he was looking for.
There’s a genie in this bottle, Rios thought. Let’s let her out.