(34) Thirty-Four

353-1118 to 365-1118

353-1118 : Jusk / Scorpio / Yonder

Linda is asked to find out about Alice through the starport computers. She does manage to get into the systems, but says she can't access any of the records without leaving a trace. It is decided that this is not worth the risk.

Fostriades finds it suspicious that Alice is filling out the forms quite so happily. At a carefully chosen awkward moment, he arrives with his dogs. Alice is not irritated in the slightest, and Achilles and Zenobia seem to think she's OK -- no more, no less.

Avon, on the other hand, is quite frustrated. He explains to Alice that this is not usual. He has no objection to filling out forms when they're justified, of course, but these are quite pointless. He does, however, think it's an improvement over how they handled Jack and Jill.

Alice's luggage is delivered to the ship around 12:00. It is clearly an expensive set, of the style and amount one would normally expect when traveling planet-to-planet.

Varda takes everything apart. There are a lot of high-quality clothes and jewelry, but nothing remarkable except 2.5MCr in cash. Varda is disappointed to find no weapons. She calls Avon and Alice to tell them they can come and pick it up. Alice is still trailed by a marine whenever she moves around the ship; she doesn't seem to mind.

When they arrive, they find the luggage spread over the cargo receiving area in neat piles. Avon questions whether this was really necessary; Varda replies that it is standard procedure. Avon observes that they have acquired a lot of new standard procedures recently.

Alice expertly repacks her luggage, and with Avon's help she carries the luggage back to Avon's stateroom. Alice will be sharing this cabin, and the one bed, with Avon for the duration of the trip.

This increases double-occupancy amongst the luxury crew cabins: Paula has already moved in with Mich, and Lia has been sharing with Fostriades for quite a while.

While the occupants of Avon's stateroom are busy, Lia searches it to make sure Alice has brought nothing unusual aboard. There is indeed nothing unusual, but Avon's gauss rifle is of course kept in his cabin. So if Alice is carrying any weapons, they are presumably on her person ... and it would be rather hard to hide any weapons with the dress she is wearing now.

Mich and Chiang Ho emerge from their staterooms, to find Fostriades asking for some bean juice. Bean juice? With BRUNCH?? OK...

Fostriades takes a slug and goes to Avon's cabin to collect payment for the trip. Avon lets him in -- he seems relieved it is only the Boss, not a marine.

Alice Cooper and Threasis Fostriades are introduced. She agrees to pay for each jump in advance, one jump at a time, and hands over the agreed 25,000Cr.

Fostriades stares strangely at the 25 feathers in his hand. He looks at Alice. Now he notices she looks remarkably like a chicken, perhaps a sports team mascot. Yes, that's right, he remembers her plucking those feathers from her breast.

Avon looks at Fostriades. "Are you OK?"

"Yes, fine," replies Fostriades. He looks rather spaced out. He thanks Alice, and hurries back to his cabin, where he puts the feathers carefully in the safe.

Mich and Chiang Ho invite Alice and Avon to lunch. The crew comment on the remarkable improvement in the food -- Mich is of the opinion that bacon and eggs is much better than processed whale blubber and green-slime-spam.

Fostriades soon joins them. He gulps down two strong cups of Turkish coffee, and starts to look almost normal by the time Vana, Lia, and Helen arrive.

Mich introduces himself to Alice, carefully wiping his greasy hands on his uniform first. Avon explains that Mich is a good engineer.

Chiang Ho compliments her on looking much less fuzzy than the last time they met; she says he's much more vertical now.

Alice asks about the ship: it's some kind of mercenary vessel, isn't it?

"This old bucket?" replies Mich.

"We amuse ourselves," says Fostriades. "I gather you're into trading?"

Alice explains that she's in business, working for herself rather than a corporation. Fostriades immediately starts discussing trade with her, explaining that they too engage in speculative trade. They agree that there's nothing worth buying here.

Alice asks about the food, rather warily. Mich is vocal in his disgust of their previous rations, while Vana thinks he's being a wimp.

Alice asks about the armament on the ship -- it seems to be fairly heavy for an independent trader? Fostriades and Avon explain that they don't always follow established routes, and have to watch out for pirates. Mich tells her about the omnipresent marines -- they were picked up a while ago and have taken over the security of the ship, he says.

Alice asks where they are headed overall -- she knows they're going near Lirian, which is very convenient for her.

Fostriades says they are going to Karakus.

"Oh yes," she says, "There's some sort of ship repair facilities there, is that right?"

"It's the best place for this ship," says Fostriades.

"Yes," agrees Mich, "We're past due our yearly maintenance, the jump drives are..."

"That's what I thought it was!" exclaims Avon, "I told you there was something about keeping the warranty intact!"

"It can be a bit flaky at times," says Mich happily, "But we're holding it together. Nothing really to worry about."

Alice continues: "So Karakus is an Imperial starport, then?"

"It's a good sized starport," answers Fostriades.

"So there would perhaps be an Imperial Naval base there, something like that?"

"I think it's a private shipyard, isn't it?" says Avon.

"Wasn't it the IFSS?" says Mich.

"So what kind of business brought you here?" Chiang Ho changes the subject, much to the relief of Fostriades.

"Mostly dealing in raw textiles this time around. Finished goods would be good to deal with, but they want to do that themselves. I deal in a few other things, whatever seems to be making the money well, you know how it is."

"So," says Mich, "You're heading back to Lirian?"

"Yes, that's where I run my business from."

"How did you transport your textiles?" asks Chiang Ho.

"I rented cargo space on ships to Corona, then scheduled freight lines from there. I make enough on the speculation that it's worth buying the space for the goods."

Fostriades tries to identify her accent: to him it seems fairly well educated, possibly an Imperial education. "So why the big interest in the Imperium?" he says, "You seem awfully curious about us."

"Well, you don't see many Imperial ships in these parts. You see a reasonable number in Lirian, but not out here."

"Karakus is only a Jump-3 from Lirian," observes Mich, "How come you hadn't heard much about what was there?"

"It doesn't seem like there's much trade going that way. That's why I was surprised when you said it was a big starport."

"Well," says Mich, "Even sending traders out from Lirian to Corona..."

"We've never come across much in terms of starport facilities at Karakus. They've never contacted us."

"You pretty much have to go through Karakus," insists Mich.

"Yes, but no starport contacted us. It was just refueling and on our way, I gather. I spend most of my time in my cabin on voyages -- there's not much to do on most of these ships. It's fairly much a case of catching independent traders when they go through -- there's not many scheduled flights from Lirian to Corona."

"And you came out this way because you thought there'd be some money in it?" asks Fostriades.

"Yes," answers Alice. "There was."

"Have you been to the Imperium itself?"

"No, I've never actually been into the Imperium."

"Pity. You'd probably enjoy it." Fostriades launches into an enthusiastic description of the tourist attractions of Five Sisters. It is convincing, although not too accurate.

"So what sort of things are good to make money on out there?"

"The Imperium is very large and diverse. Madam, you know yourself..."

"What was that one run we were making a killing on?" asks Mich. "There was this one world that just had trees, and barbaric type civilization. Give them trinkets and they'd give us trees, and weed, and corn. We'd ship it, just a couple of jumps away was a high spaceport that desperately needed food."

"You know how it is, Madam," says Fostriades. "you attune your buying and selling to the individual needs of the area."

"I just wondered," says Alice, "If there was anything special..."

"Nothing legal."

"I didn't ask that."

"I find it very useful to be legal. Particularly when it comes to stuff that you're selling."

"One man's legal is another man's illegal."

"Only if you can justify it."

"If one has a signed note from the Emperor," says Chiang Ho, "Anything is legal."

"So what's the Imperium's business out this way?" asks Alice. "Are you scouting out for them or something?"

"Now madam, surely you understand that if we were, we'd hardly be talking about it to you."

"Who knows?"

"But we aren't anyway," says Avon. "We were just out here because we were curious, it was interesting, and the Boss thought we might be able to make some money."

"We got this idea," says Mich, "That we knew to pick up some people who had been lost out in this way for a while. We found them and they weren't as nice as we thought they were. So we're bringing them back." Fostriades kicks him hard under the table.

"More Imperial spies, is this?" asks Alice.

"Imperial spies?" says Mich, "What spies?"

"Yes, ma'am," says Vana, "Why would you bring up the topic of spies?"

"Have you seen a psychologist on the subject of this obvious maladjustment you have?" says Fostriades. "You seem almost to have a persecution complex about Imperial spies!"

"Was there something going on with Imperial spies?" says Avon.

"Well," says Alice, "There must be, mustn't there? The Imperium has spies everywhere."

"You definitely need to see a doctor, ma'am," says Fostriades.

"That's probably true, don't you think?" says Avon. "Everyone has spies everywhere. Any system worth its salt is going to have some spies around to find out what's going on."

"Well obviously I should take security precautions," says Vana.

"I notice you have been," says Alice.

"I haven't. I will now. Thank you for the warning."

"It's just I've heard these rumors, and it seems reasonable to assume that if that was happening, then there would be spies out here. Maybe it isn't the Imperium -- who else would attack?"

"The cockroaches are attacking," says Fostriades.

"She's heard that there's someone attacking from the other side," explains Avon.

"Maybe it's the Zhodani moving rimward," says Fostriades. He pauses. "There's always more money to be made in troubled times."

"That's what I'm doing out here," says Alice. "You've noticed what the prices are like. Maybe you'd like to bring a cargo out this way from Lirian?"

"That could be arranged," says Fostriades, "But we don't normally rent cargo space."

"Well," says Alice, "Maybe we could work a deal where you get a cut of the profit. It depends on how much you have to invest."

"Generally we prefer to do our own investments."

"Well, I have the business connections. We could move some cargoes that might not be able to be moved on regular lines -- perishable things, stuff like that."

"We'll just have to see when we get there. The advice of a good broker, particularly with local knowledge, is invaluable -- although it does usually come with a price tag attached."

"Particularly an Imperial ship, I'm sure, gets a lot less trouble under certain circumstances. If the rumors are right and there is an Imperial fleet moving in, then you won't be so affected."

"If the Imperium invaded I'm sure we'd be better off," says Avon. "I would not consider that something worth worrying about too much."

"Frankly," says Fostriades, "If the Imperium has invaded it will be very irritating for us as well. We are NOT a regular military ship. We are a freelance vessel."

"So are you wanted by them?"

"Certainly not!"

"So have you ever tried any creative cargo appropriating?"

"Madam, we are NOT pirates!" insists Vana.

"We don't need to," says Fostriades, "We do just fine on legitimate business."

"I was just curious, that's all," says Alice. "I like to know what sort of ship I'm traveling on."

"Aye," says Mich, "Welcome aboard, matey!" The real breakfast has left him in excellent spirits, it seems.

"Have you ever taken on such a... you seem remarkably unshocked or worried by it, frankly." says Fostriades.

"Well, you seem honest people," says Alice. "William over here is certainly a good gambler."

This comes as news to the rest of the crew. They all turn to look at Avon.

"Yeah, I made 50,000Cr last night," says Avon.

The crew are impressed.

"You probably just got lucky," says Vana.

"I went in there intending to lose a lot of credits having fun," says Avon. "I think that's maybe the secret. If you go in there to make money, you lose money, so..."

"Well, I was bringing you luck," says Alice.

"Yes, that's true. I was losing until Alice got there."

"Really?" says Fostriades.

"Have you spent a lot of time in that casino since you've been here?" asks Chiang Ho.

"When I come here, yes. I've only been here about four or five days. I followed a simple route here from Joloch, and Hurnarey, following the Jump-2 main."

"Aren't there other ships heading out to Joloch from here?" asks Mich.

"Well, yes and no. There are, but most of them are run-down freighters. Almost everything that is capable of flying has been pressed into service."

"We're 40 years old," says Mich.

"Some of the stuff they're pulling out is 2 or 3 hundred years old. Quite frankly, Imperial ships have a reputation for much better reliability and comfort."

Mich and Fostriades point out that's probably due to the maintenance -- which they are heading back to get.

"This must be a pretty fancy ship if you can't get the maintenance out here."

Mich and Fostriades say their biggest problem is a lack of parts, especially the proprietary General Products components -- even the coffee makers have the GP logo on them. Alice has not heard of GP as a starship builder. Mich explains how baling wire and duct tape can be made to fix most things.

Mich expresses some impatience at the prospect of not having an assigned take-off approved yet. Avon explains that paperwork and ordered procedures are generally a good thing. Mich makes his excuses and leaves to check on the jump drive.

Fostriades asks Alice if she knows anything about the trade coefficients of this area? Since she does, he quickly shuttles her off to discuss trade matters.

Alice seems to have a good knowledge of the specialty trade -- how to find goods which are reached through channels other than the normal trading procedures -- stuff which requires local contacts. This hovers on the dubious edge of legality -- some things are legal in one place and not another, for example. She knows how to get good profit from this business without actually stepping over the letter of the law either buying or selling it. This is a bit too speculative for Fostriades. Alice also has experience in getting things past customs officials without losing too much money in the process -- all using regular legal methods, apparently. Fostriades listens carefully.

Since they are going to be in port tonight anyway, Avon tries to get together a group to go back to town. No-one really seems interested: Alice wants to settle on the ship, while many of the rest of the crew need to catch up on sleep before take-off tomorrow. Fostriades says he'd prefer Avon to stay, as he doesn't want to get woken up at one in the morning again; anyway, who knows what Avon would bring back this time? In the end, Avon agrees to stay on board too.

Fostriades arranges a flight plan, with a take-off at 03:00 the next day. Mich would have preferred to leave at a more reasonable hour like 11:00, but the Captain seems anxious to get off this world. They are assigned a direct path out, at the requested 2g -- they don't want to give away how fast the ship really is.

354-1118 : Jusk / Scorpio / Yonder

Chiang Ho takes the pilot's chair, and lifts the Anastasia off the ground at 03:00. At the meager 2g, it takes until 08:30 to reach 100 diameters. They jump immediately for Joloch.

360-1118 : Joloch / Corona / Yonder

After just six days in jump, the Anastasia emerges in the Joloch system. The jump transitions were remarkably smooth at both ends.

There are automated beacons here, but they merely convey basic system information (like the location of the starport) rather than attempt any traffic control. There are few ships in the system.

It is decided to refuel first of all. Chiang Ho flies the Anastasia to the nearest gas giant, and they arrive at P6 at 15:00. The next 3 hours are spent refueling.

Fostriades doesn't think it's worth going in to the mainworld for trading or anything. Alice says that the place is basically a small mining colony on a cold outer planet, subsidized by government companies. Technically the trade classifications are Ic Lo Ni Va -- basically hopeless. There are some potentially habitable worlds in inner orbits but they have apparently not been explored.

At 18:00 they start the trip to the jump point.

361-1118 : Joloch / Corona / Yonder

The Anastasia arrives at the jump point at 01:00, but of course the fuel is not yet fully purified.

Fostriades collects another 25kCr from Alice.

They wait until that purification is complete, and at 18:00 they jump for Corona. The engines are running very smoothly indeed.

365-1118 : Jump Space (Joloch to Corona)

It is New Years Eve. An appropriate party is planned -- it is possible that the ship may come out of jump on New Year's Day, but if so it won't be until late in the day anyway.