(33) Thirty-Three

352-1118 to 353-1118

352-1118 : Jusk / Scorpio / Yonder

It is now 11:30. The crew discusses the route again. The Captain suggests going to Corona via Joloch, since they have not been there before and it might be interesting.

Fostriades is concerned about the trading possibilities, since they are now paying to run the ship and need to generate some income. The catch here is that goods on Jusk cost about twice as much as normal; Mich suggests a mail run, but the locals won't trust an alien Imperial ship with their mail. The idea of passengers is not acceptable -- they are having enough trouble with the passengers they have already.

Jusk is classed as Non-Industrial, TL-5; Joloch is Non-Agricultural and Non-Industrial, TL-B; Hurnarey is Low-Population and Non-Industrial, TL-A; Corona is Non-Industrial and Poor, TL-C.

Fostriades is not impressed by the trade possibilities, to say the least. He explains to the rest of the crew why they cannot possibly make any profit on this route.

Avon puts this into simple words for everyone: they should just get out of here in as little time and as few jumps as possible.

The Captain arranges a meeting with Admiral Lhule for 14:00, and manages to convince him to let him take a marine. The Captain chooses Vana, and on the way asks her what the Admiral will want from him. Vana is mostly uninformative.

Helen flies them in the pinnace. This time they are assigned a very direct flight plan, ending with a landing on the same roof as on the previous trip.

This time, however, the guards at the top door are a perfect matched pair. The guard in the lobby are perfect too, as are the ones on the entrance to the inner room where Admiral Lhule is waiting.

The Captain comments on the change in personnel among the guards; Lhule responds that he "pulled a few strings." They exchange pleasantries.

The Captain declines to add any off-the-record comments to the report that has already been filed by the Anastasia. He tells Lhule that their company trader has been trying to seek out some business for them; Lhule suggests that the prospects might be better once they reach Corona.

The Admiral asks where they will head now, to which the Captain responds that they are going back to the Imperium. The engineers feel, he says, that the ship needs maintenance of a kind that they really can't get short of the Imperium. Yes, they do intend to go through Karakus.

Lhule says that Rufus told him that there are some decent facilities there. "Is he planning to go with you to Karakus?"

"I don't believe he's going to leave the ship very soon," replies the Captain.

"You could give him a message from me, if you would. Tell him Admiral Lhule says put in a good word with the scrambled eggs."

"I'll tell him that." The Captain presents Lhule with a souvenir -- a piece of crystalliron from the cockroach ship hull. Lhule makes no move to touch it. "We'll probably be on our way before too long."

"I gather from the Lieutenant Colonel here," says Lhule, "that things happen where you are."

"I don't know if the rest of the universe stays this exciting all the time?"

"It doesn't. So you'll be leaving soon?"

"I suppose this means you don't particularly need anything to happen right at this moment?"

"Not here."

"OK, we'll be on our way."

Lhule then explains Vana's official status: that Lt. Col. Vana is commander of the 427th Expeditionary Force, which is to pick up the rest of its troops on Corona. Vana reports directly to him. For the time, they are stationed on the Anastasia. He suggests that the Anastasia might, from time to time, put itself in a useful spot for things to happen -- if not, he warns, they might get a little bored, and bored marines are a Bad Thing. The Captain does not think this is going to be a problem.

Admiral Lhule tells the Captain that he will have a special channel set up with the starport authorities to get anything they need. He mentions that their ship's boat pilot seems to have achieved remarkable results. The Captain agrees that she has "unique abilities."

They exchange parting words, and the Captain and Vana return to the Anastasia. The Captain asks Vana to give him adequate warning when she feels she is getting bored. Vana agrees to do that.

The ship's boat docks with the Anastasia at 15:30.

The Captain is ready to jump now, but there is still some work to be done on the ship.

There is in fact about a day and a half before they can leave. Avon considers spending the time more enjoyably. The nearest town is around 40 miles away, and they would need traffic permission to get there, of course. Avon seems unique among the crew in that he doesn't mind all these restrictions the local bureaucracy is imposing.

Avon asks around the crew to find someone to come with him, but Grand Admiral Sir Bridgehead (the obvious choice) can't tolerate the high gravity, and the marines are busy sorting out their unit's organization. In the end, just Chiang Ho accompanies him.

Avon, of course, grew up on a much more restrictive world than this. He has no trouble arranging the necessary permission to fly into town, and even reserves a parking space at the same time. "It's so nice having a well-ordered world," he says.

Avon takes one of the air/rafts, and flies the two of them along the assigned route to town. They are one of the few flying vehicles; as they approach the town center, the traffic cop clearly expects them to fall in line with the groundcars. Avon parks in the groundcar space assigned to them.

This is clearly an entertainment section of town. There are restaurants, bars, nightclubs, casinos and so on. Avon has not been to a casino (or even anywhere civilized!) in quite a long time, and since he is carrying half a million credits, he thinks he will do a little gambling.

This section of town looks pretty high-class. Avon is dressed for a night on the town, and selects the most upmarket casino in sight. He has forgotten to check on local tipping customs, and so tips the doorman 1000Cr. The doorman personally escorts the pair inside and has a quiet word with the manager.

"Would you like a table, sir?" the manager says. "A private box, perhaps? We have a spot for you at our head table, if you like."

Avon accepts the last suggestion. He does not tip the manager in case it is taken as an insult.

The place is reasonably busy. It is indeed quite high-class. Avon and Chiang Ho are led to a raised area, with a roped railing around the edge. This area has a distinctly social elite clientele. There are gaming tables overlooking the main crowd; there is a more private area further back from the main floor where there are tables for eating and drinking.

Avon, of course, does not really know how to gamble. "I'll just be ready to lose a fair amount of money," he thinks, "I'd just like to be an asshole. That's my only goal for the evening. I don't do that very often and it'll be a nice change of pace." There are no good ski slopes around here, after all. He's had almost two million credits for two years now, and hasn't spent any of it. He'd just as well use it now...

The gambling games are the standard ones that seem to be pretty much common throughout the known universe -- cards, roulette, and so on. Avon intends to try 200Cr at each game, and take the one he's doing best at, and blow 10,000Cr or five hours whichever comes first.

The stakes here are fairly high. Most people are betting 50Cr or more as a minimum bet. Avon does fairly well on the roulette wheel, but blows it very fast on the cards -- there are clearly some house rules where he didn't really catch the explanation.

Avon knows he can do better, and tries to win his money back. He decides to put another 5,000 towards the task.

Surprisingly enough, the money starts coming in. He's starting to get the hang of it now, and has picked up the rule about the odd hands and the black cards. He continues to accept the free drinks. Some people start coming over to watch Avon's table, having seen him recover 7 or 8 thousand fairly quickly.

Chiang Ho takes great advantage of the free drinks, and wanders around the tables, placing small bets.

Avon's streak continues. The stakes at the game are going up, and the minimum has risen to 1000Cr. The people at the table are not now the same ones as when the stakes were lower. Avon has kept up with the rule changes as people join and leave the game, and so has now won about 25,000. "If I were smart," he thinks, "I'd quit." Naaah!

As he rises a little in his seat, obviously contemplating leaving, a middle-aged lady with a fur coat and a lot of jewels moves over to him and says "Go on, play some more! I love the way you handle your money..."

Avon decides to play until he has an even 50,000. He loses about 10,000 on the next hand. The lady suggests to the dealer that they raise the minimum stake to 5000Cr.

"Who did you say you were?" says Avon.

"I thought you'd never ask!" she answers. "I'm Alice."

Avon introduces himself. "So what brings you by here?"

"I'm on business. Well, I'm on this planet on business, anyway."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from a small backwater place you'd never have heard of. Just one of the worlds near Lirian. You probably haven't heard of that."

Avon has heard of it. Lirian is just on the Imperium side of Karakus, although the Anastasia's route skirted it to rimward. "I'm from the Imperium," he says.

"Oh really? Gosh. What are you doing out here? Mind if I join you?" she says, sitting down beside him. "I haven't played this game in a while, maybe I can do a little gambling myself."

"It's got some interesting variants. It took me a little while to get the hang of it. I'm having a little string of bad luck now, but I was doing real well for a while. I think I've got back into it."

"Well, I'll bring you good luck."

"If it goes back up to 5000, how many more rules change?"

"Oh, just a few. Actually me sitting down here changed more rules than the change in the stakes. You know that already, of course."

"Would you mind going over the rules changes?"

"Oh, you'll pick them up, you're doing so well. Let's play."

Avon now pulls in 40,000. Alice loses about 20,000.

"Well," says Avon, "You are bringing me luck."

"Well, that's something. So what brings you out here?"

"Oh, we've been sort of hopping around the universe, doing exciting things."

"Are you with a ship, or are you in business?"

"I'm on a ship, that does business, and all kinds of things."

"It's an Imperial ship, then?"

"Well, yeah, I mean it's not like an Imperial military ship."

"I heard there's some Imperial military ships around here?"

"Well we... it's not... well, it is kind of a military ship, it's not commissioned, it's not a ship of the Imperium. Not an Imperial naval ship."

"Oh, you're a spy! How exciting!"

"No. No. No. No. No. We're a... a... I guess you could say we're mercenaries. Sort of. But we've actually spent some time in cockroach space." Avon accepts yet another free drink -- they certainly are plentiful. As for his gambling, he breaks even for a while. "Yes, it was exciting. They're really dumb. Yeah, it was really exciting."

"I hear that they're allied with the Imperium."

"Who?" laughs Avon. "Who is allied with the Imperium?"

"The aliens!" insists Alice.

This really cracks him up. "People say the silliest things. I don't think anyone could ally with them, you can't even talk to them."

"Well, they're attacking from that side, and the Imperium is attacking from the other side."

"The Imperium is attacking from the other side?" echoes Avon. "The Imperium isn't attacking!"

"That's what I'd heard."

The conversation is clearly distracting Avon's gambling. He just lost 60,000, as the minimum stake slips upwards. He is not discouraged. "We were trying to figure out what was going on. Damn strange. Dumb, they're dumb. I don't know how they managed to even... Strong, though."

"Yes, well they've had a lot of effect on trade, of course, all the time. A lot of ships come through; particularly the Protectorate gets a lot of them through."

"They really don't do all that well if you run into them just a few at a time, but you don't usually run into them just a few at a time. They send in huge, huge numbers of enormous ships and just kind of blow everything out of the path."

"I gather that's what they did to the Protectorate when they came through," says Alice, "A great Imperial battle fleet just came straight through the Protectorate, apparently."

"No, no, I'm talking about the cockroaches! What do you mean a big Imperial battle fleet came through the Protectorate? There's no Imperial battle fleets coming through. What would the Imperium want to attack the Protectorate?"

"Maybe my sources were wrong. You hear a lot of rumors around."

"Well, let me put it this way. We've been out in space for a while, and maybe a lot has changed since I've been out there, but I would be really surprised." His gambling improves. The stakes have increased yet again, and Avon has picked up 80,000. He guesses he's now ahead by over 50,000. He thinks he should really quit, since he's done so well...?

353-1118 : Jusk / Scorpio / Yonder

It's getting quite late, but there's no sign of anything slowing down in the club. Alice suggests they sit back and have something to eat for a while, perhaps give the table back to the small-stakes players. Avon thinks this makes sense, and the two of them leave the gambling area and move back to a table.

Chiang Ho is still partying on the free drink and food, occasionally trying a little small-stakes gambling. The house obviously considers he is a friend of Avon, and is treating him accordingly. He's having a great time.

Alice orders some food for herself and Avon. He insists on paying, but Alice tells him it'll be on the house. Avon is somewhat surprised. Alice asks him where they are heading now.

"Oh, we're headed back to a couple of systems," replies Avon, "And to Karakus to get some repairs on the ship."

"So Karakus is a good place to get ships repaired?" asks Alice.

"Apparently our engineers thinks they've got hot stuff there. Original manufacturers parts or something, keeps the warranty intact or something."

"So that would take you pretty close to Lirian, then?"

"Yes, but if you're thinking of getting a ride, the Captain isn't very fond of passengers. We've had some bad experiences with some."

"I don't take up much room. I'd pay my way. I've being doing business here with all the trade coming through, and I really could use getting back to Lirian."

"I could talk to the Captain and the Boss, but whatever they say goes, and they don't seem to like passengers too much. Like I said, well... I probably shouldn't say too much about it, but we had a couple of passengers who made a lot of trouble. I mean, I'm not saying you'd do anything like that, you'd probably be perfectly safe, but there was so much trouble, so I don't think the Captain would agree."

"There's no cargo to pick up here. If you're interested in making money... I won't carry any weapons, or anything."

"Well, Fostriades -- that's sort of our businessman -- he's always interested in making money, but I don't know if he'd go for passengers."

"You could give it a try. Let's see, what's the standard ticket rate?"

"Don't even talk to me about money! I'll let you talk to Fostriades."

"Hmmm. Standard Imperial rate is about 8,000 a jump." (Alice is wrong, it's actually 10,000 for high passage.) "It's a reasonably luxurious ship? Quite comfortable? You seem to be doing quite well."

"Yeah, it's a nice ship. The food is not good but it should be better when we get the supplies on board here."

"I could pay, say, 15,000 a jump?"

It is now around 1:00 in the morning. Fostriades has been looking for deals all day, so Avon thinks it will be fine to call him with this great news. He does.

Steve Howard receives the call. Fostriades is in his cabin. Avon says it's about a big money-making opportunity, so Steve puts the call through.

"Hi, it's William Avon! How's it going?"

"Fine," answers Fostriades. There are strange noises in the background.

"Hey, there's this nice lady here who wants a ride to Lirian and she says she'd be willing to pay 15,000 a jump, so I promised that I'd ask. I know you didn't want passengers, but..."

"It's not my decision, it's the Captain's decision."

"But you're the money person, right?"

"Only half again as much as high? That doesn't seem to be in accordance with costs around here."

"So, like, what should I tell her?"

"As far as I'm concerned, no!"

"Well, Fostriades... Hello? Hello?" Avon turns to Alice. "He seems to think it isn't enough. If you want to talk to him, it's fine with me." Alice offers 25,000. Avon tries to raise Fostriades again. "How about 25,000?"

"You want to speak to the Captain." Fostriades hangs up.

Avon asks Steve Howard to connect him -- he hesitates, but puts it through.

"Hello?" says the Captain, feebly.

"Hi! Captain, how's it going?" says Avon, enthusiastically. "Oh. Were you taking a nap? I'm sorry about that."

"I'm sure Fostriades can bail you out."

"No, I'm not in trouble! Just a money-making opportunity."

"Fostriades handles the money."

"Well, Fostriades sent me over to you," Avon says. Alice suggests that he should just go ahead and take her aboard -- they won't mind, she says.

"What's going on?" asks the Captain, still rather sleepily.

"Oh. We've got a passenger here who's going to pay us 25,000 per jump and I just thought I'd let you know."

"Fostriades said to take a passenger?" the Captain mumbles.

"No, Fostriades said I had to double-check with you."

"Uh... um... where is she staying, are you going to keep her in your room?"

"I'm sure we can work that out."

"Is she in the habit of killing people and taking over ships?"

"I'll ask her. OK, I'm glad it's OK!"

"Tell her we'll have a passenger application form for her in the morning."

Avon assures Alice that there will be no problem. "The Captain has decided to create a little paperwork in the morning -- this planet must be rubbing off on him. He wasn't sure we had any free cabins, but I have a large cabin, we could put a curtain up or something."

"I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem."

Avon thinks it's getting a little late to go back to the gaming tables. "So what else is there to do around here?"

"This is about the best place in town," says Alice. "Do you have any more plans for tonight?"

"Not really. This is fun, but I'm not sure what we're going to do with the rest of the evening. What time is it? Oh! No wonder the Captain was asleep!"

"Really, is it that late already? Amazing how the time flies by."

"Well, can I walk you back to wherever it is you're staying?"

"Certainly, it's right next door. Unless... we could go back to your ship, if you want to."

"I guess we could go back to the ship now, if you like. Let me see if I can find Chiang Ho. Oh, there are all those forms to fill out. Well, you can stay on the ship, that won't be a problem. So your name is Alice...?"

"Yes, Alice Cooper."

"Certainly tonight there won't be any extra cabins for you, though."

"I could borrow your couch or something."

"Yeah, that's fine.

Chiang Ho has gone back to playing a small-stakes roulette table. He is pretty well smashed. They collect him, and walk back to the air-raft. Alice will get her luggage sent out to the ship later.

Avon does not think he is too drunk to drive. There is no doubt whatsoever that Chiang Ho cannot help -- Avon and Alice lay him down in the back seat, and he snores contentedly while they fly back to the ship.

Steve Howard is still on duty on the bridge, and he opens the vehicle deck for Avon to fly in. The air/raft lands perfectly in place. It's about 04:00 in the morning.

The marine on the vehicle deck calls Vana and tells her that Chiang Ho and Avon are back. He further reports that Avon has brought a woman with him, and Chiang Ho is laid out and will probably need someone to carry him down to Sick Bay.

Vana arranges a marine escort, sends Varda to investigate, and goes back to sleep. The marines wake up Sir Bridgehead (why should HE get enough sleep? No-one else has tonight...) to come up and attend to Chiang Ho.

Avon takes Alice to his cabin, ignoring the marines escorting them. Avon takes the couch, leaving the bed for Alice. He apologizes for the state of the room.

The doorbell rings. It's Varda, come to find out what going on.

"Who's the floozy?" Varda asks.

"There's no floozy. This is Alice, she's going to be a passenger. Why are you up, anyway?" asks Avon.

"Somebody," says Varda, staring at Avon, "brought an unauthorized visitor on board our vessel..."

"No, no, I talked to the Captain about it."

"Yes, but the Captain has not talked to me about it."

"He seemed to be a little sleepy."

"I wonder why?" Varda is apparently not pleased. "Perhaps it might have been because it's four fuckin' a.m. in the morning."

"No, it was one when I talked to him," says Avon, helpfully.

"OK. And so the two of you have been doing what for the last three hours?"

"What do you care?"

"I have to fill out a complete report."

"Well, thank you for your concern."

Avon closes the door. He has, it seems, had enough of talking to Varda for one night.

Varda posts a guard in the corridor, goes up to the bridge, and arranges for computer access to be disabled in Avon's cabin with a clear conscience: "If we need a Chief Gunner planetside, I don't think it's going to be any good that he shows up half-crocked."

She questions Steve Howard about whether the Captain has been notified that there is a visitor on board, and about the content of Avon's communications. Steve is not able to help her much.

Varda insists on calling the Captain, over Steve's objections.

"Who is this?" groans the Captain.

"This is Varda."

"You too? Bring them by, have them fill out forms in the morning. Goodnight."

"No, Captain, he already brought her by. She's sleeping in his cabin, with him."

"It's not morning yet."

"I know, it's four fuckin' a.m."

"She's supposed to show up in the morning and fill out lots of forms. Lots of forms."

"I think she wants to get an early start. She's sleeping in the room, I have a guard outside the door, computer access to the room has been terminated. If it's no problem with you, Captain, I'll finish by terminating both of them and then going to bed myself."

"Why don't you wait till morning? Goodnight."

The Captain wakes a while later and calls Varda. "You may not terminate them. Goodnight."

Mich sees the air/raft arrive. He continues with his work on the ship, which he completes that night.

At 9:00, the Captain wakes up. He contacts Linda and asks her to produce some complex paperwork for the passenger and find out as much as possible. "The gunner is bringing some lady on board and interrupted everybody's sleep last night. The forms are for her. And him."

Varda, in full dress uniform and a black armband, then presents herself to the Captain and says she is ready to carry out his orders concerning the passengers. Which orders? To oversee the dispatching of the unwanted visitors, of course!

The Captain does not seem impressed by Varda sense of humor. He tells her she can present the paperwork to them, if she wants. Varda suggests there might be someone better suited...Sir Bridgehead, perhaps? The Captain thinks that would be a little excessive.

The Captain calls Avon's cabin. Avon seems a little sluggish this morning. The Captain asks him to bring the guest to the bridge to fill out the paperwork. Yes, it does have to be done right now -- when would Avon suggest, 4 a.m. perhaps?

Avon rouses himself, then wakes up Alice and tells her that the Captain is anxious to get started on the paperwork. He takes her to the bridge, collecting some coffee on the way. They are, of course, accompanied by a marine escort. The escort, for some reason, are stomping their boots, shouting to each other, and generally making quite a racket. Avon looks rather ill, and wishes they'd be quieter.

They arrive at the bridge, where the Captain greets Alice cheerfully and dismisses the guards.

"Alice," says the Captain, "Can you tell us why you want to travel on our ship?"

"I'd like passage back to Lirian, or as close as I can get. I've been here on business."

"How is it you came out this way?"

"I'm in business, mostly trading in various goods and things. All sorts of things really -- things that make money. This time it's mostly textiles."

"How is it that you've not made plans for your return?"

"I could go back by various scheduled flights through Corona, but the chance to travel on an Imperial ship ... I know they're a lot more reliable and a lot more comfortable, and generally a lot quicker."

It occurs to Avon that he forgot to mention a few things about this ship. Since Alice arrived at night, it's unlikely she noticed the heavy battle damage, for example...

"We're not exactly a standard Imperial ship, you realize?" says the Captain.

"That's all right," replies Alice. "To get through Corona to Lirian I'd have to find somebody who was doing the trip."

"If you travel with us you'll have to accept some fairly heavy restrictions on your movements. As I said, we're not exactly a standard Imperial ship. We are not accustomed to carrying passengers."

"That's quite understandable," Alice says.

The Captain then gets Alice and Avon started on the forms. Alice does say she needs to get her bags sent over, and arrangements are made for her to call later.

Linda hands a very large stack of forms to Alice, and a merely large stack to Avon. He is not impressed.

"Captain," asks Avon, "What is this?"

"We've been working on a passenger protocol," explains the Captain. "I realize that it might seem a little bit cumbersome, but if you could help us work out some of the kinks with it..."

"How about if we file this part in the round file?" Avon asks, holding up his stack.

"Varda in particular is very interested in seeing how well this passenger protocol works, and has offered her personal assistance."

"Well, after the last passengers we got on..." starts Avon. As the Captain tries to drown him out, he continues, "...I can understand why you might want a little bit more information. Captain?"

The Captain strolls off, muttering platitudes.

"Everyone's acting so strange lately," observes Avon.

Avon and Alice start on the forms. Alice really doesn't seem to mind. A continuous supply of coffee no doubt helps.

After a while, Linda comes by with another stack of paperwork. "I'm really not sure what they're for," she admits.

"They're the Captain's revenge for waking him up at one o'clock in the morning, that's what they're for," grumbles Avon. "Oh, by the way Linda, if you want a clue, the Captain gets real grouchy when you wake him up at one o'clock in the morning."

None of the forms are as helpful as the Captain had wanted. Linda, in the limited time available, had put the emphasis on volume rather than content.

After several hours, the forms are all filled out. Alice sends out for her bags; Varda looks forward to the pleasure of tearing them all apart while searching them.

The Anastasia will be ready to take off at 03:00 tomorrow morning, on 354-1118.