I woke from a light sleep to the quiet hum of the ship. A quick glance through the forward windows revealed little except the stars. I carried out my flight check routines. There couldn’t be anything serious or the ship would have woken me with alarms calculated to make the adrenaline kick in. The gauges all read normal and the lights showed clear apart from the galley overload which winked a sullen yellow – ok, so I was low on supplies. I knew that, so why did it always want to remind me. If it carried on annoying me I might rip out the cable and use it for the new belt I was starting to need!
I checked the gauges for the cargo hold – all clear. My cargo was safe and secure. And also disguised. The planets in the Canis system tend to look upon my cargo as contraband and would take a dim view of me were they to see through the subterfuge. The approach to my destination was a subtle one – we were drifting along in at a slow cruise. Not a sign of hurry and clearly visible with the lights on, looking for all the constellations like a ship on a legal trading run. The Humorist was, to all intents and purposes, just that although she did hide an unexpected turn of speed with engines that had not been fitted by her builders. Even so, she couldn’t out-run the marshals or the many pirates that lay in wait to prey on small vessels. I had hoped that the pirates would assume that I had nothing worth stealing with being so visible and that the marshals would ignore such a meekly law abiding ship – so far the gamble had worked and I hadn’t been forced to bare her fangs.
Despite our slow speed, I could now see clearly the rapidly approaching guard stations of Arclon and the planet itself beyond. I slowed slightly more – suggesting that I was perhaps expecting a signal questioning my intentions and was prepared to stop if requested. Sure enough I soon received the first transmission – “Identify yourself, ship and nature of your visit”. That was easy… No point in hiding our identity, they would have already found the ship from its signature in the database.
“The Humorist, Captain Anson and I have a freight consignment for Arclon Central Repository”. All freight inbound would go there (except for contraband items like mine but I wasn’t about to mention that).
The ship’s passive array started to wink warnings to me. We were being scanned, especially in the area of the cargo hold. I hoped they were seeing machine tools for the mining colonies in the mountains of the upper continent. It was a long hard look but when you’ve had as many wars with your neighbouring planets as the Arclonians have, you are always wary in case an approaching vessel isn’t quite what she seems.
“What is your cargo” – I was expecting that too. Fabricating a chain of trading to show the path of non-existent machine tools to my hold would have taken too long. I’d taken this assignment just two days previously and my cargo could not be kept in stasis for too many hours so it was a bit of a rush job which had increased the element of risk and jacked up my price.
“Haven’t you received the Manifest? – I posted it on Terrack two days back”
“We have no Manifest – what is your Cargo?”
“I have machine tools for delivery to Central Repository”
Silence again and more scan warnings from the passive array. To have come so far to fail now would be a very poor show but we were close now and I estimated I needed just another couple of minutes. I left the shields down. To raise them would also raise some eyebrows – well ridges rather than brows. The Arclonians don’t have enough hair to use it to shield their eyes. It would also drain my power reserves and I really wanted them for the engines. I did however check the main engine temperatures and flicked on the power booster switches.
The phones crackled to life again. This time the voice sounded more questioning – more sure that something wasn’t right, even over the translator, and the array started winking warnings of weapons coming on line in the now very close guard towers.
“Your vessel is too light to be carrying a cargo of Machine tools” “Again, What are you carrying and why have you no manifest”
Time had run out – act now or be boarded. I didn’t really fancy the second option. The penalty for carrying a Miekan female, into Arclon space, was likely to be severe beyond even my vivid imagination. I threw caution to the wind and the regulators into full forward. The ship twitched and for a fleeting moment I wondered if I had left the booster switches just a little too late. But then she surged forwards between the two nearest towers, accelerating rapidly and, following my inputs, cranked up and to the left. I doused the lights, upped the shields and the scanjam’s before shutting down the engines and pushing the nose down to allow the planets gravity to pull us in a gentle curve towards the lower continent and the planet’s bottom pole.
Stunned silence from the translator. If they wanted me now they’d have to send a ship to find me and I was running in almost silent mode. The towers were built to fight off battle fleets, not deal with naughty little boys like me and I fervently hoped that they would begin looking in the general direction I’d been going when I first broke through the cordon. I started to receive transmissions telling me to put my lights on, give myself up, along with promises to resolve the matter swiftly and with all leniency – Good, they didn’t know where I was.
We corkscrewed down through the planet’s atmosphere in a descent so slow that the ships skin barely registered any increase in heat. Below I could see the larger of two islands close to the bottom pole and the lights of some small towns. Then a set of lights in a distinct pattern appeared – my agreed landing point and the welcoming party were below. I fired up the environment controls for the cargo hold. We were going to need the right conditions in there now. With the gear down and bringing the Humorist to a hover I waited for the final signal that all was well below. Sure enough, there was the waved blue light from the apex of the vee with which I had aligned. We lowered gently onto the rocky surface scattering dust in all directions.
The ships computer told me that the atmosphere outside was breathable though somewhat on the thick side I released the stasis field in the cargo hold and I stepped out to meet a small delegation of Arclons. My paymaster, the Prince Ankoran, stood with his bodyguards and an elderly councillor. It was one of the bodyguards who spoke – “You have the female?” – His hand resting none too carefully on a sidearm of some sort.
“Yes” – I used the remote to open the doors of the cargo hold, hoping that the period in stasis hadn’t harmed the Lady Mierklana over the two day trip. It was several seconds and I saw the bodyguard tighten the grip on his sidearm. I’d have to watch him, in fact that was about all I could do – coming out armed might have been misinterpreted so I’d left my handgun inside. Then the lady appeared stepping somewhat carefully down the steps onto the surface and stumbling slightly, the effects of the period in stasis still wearing off. The Prince stepped quickly forward to take her arm and they embraced. In an instant it was apparent that their different species and cultures were not going to stand between them anymore than the strict Arclonian laws about off-world relationships.
The bodyguard drew his sidearm and I tensed, expecting the worst. You enter into this sort of trade and you never know for certain how it will turn out. The Prince extended his arm…
“No Enkor – He has delivered as he promised” Then to the elderly councillor “Edra, please pay the Captain as agreed and arrange for his safe departure” I took that to mean that he shouldn’t let the bodyguards mug me once the Prince’s back was turned . Not that my payment would be any use to them – diagrams, schematics and parts to vastly increase the capabilities of the ships engines were really only of use to me and then only when I’d found somewhere quiet on another world to get the work done. And it certainly didn’t mean stopping the guard towers from shooting at me on the way out – that was way beyond the scope of a minor Prince of Arclon.
The Prince and his Lady began slowly walking away. The bodyguards eyed me in a manner that suggested disappointment and a wish for a further meeting in less congenial circumstances. The elderly councillor approached me with an infotab that I took to have the necessary diagrams. He walked stooped as if he carried the weight of a small planet on his shoulders and I guessed that he had been burdened with the task of setting this exchange up on pain… well let’s just leave it at that shall we?
Everything was in order. The diagrams were there along with details of where the parts for the modifications could be found – they had been pre-shipped off world for my collection. And so, we parted company and I again ran the gauntlet of the towers, approaching the line in silent mode and coming as close as possible to the side of one of them before once more throwing the regulators fully forwards and bursting through the line to perform a jinking evasive run. Some of the blasts were close but they quickly lost interest – whatever I’d been doing was already done and they really couldn’t be bothered. They drifted back to the long tedium of waiting for the battle cruisers that never came.
Seven days out and heading for my collection point, though not too directly – it never pays to go directly in space. People get to know where you’re going and might decide to be there waiting for you. Even so, I began to get that feeling that the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. A warning, a gut feeling, that someone is following me. Who, I don’t know – Marshals perhaps, or maybe pirates? I guess I’ll find out when they get close…