(42) Forty-Two


046-1119 (cont.) : Attica / Querion / Spinward Marches

The Anastasia is alone in a docking bay that has the capacity for several ships. Although Attica is a vacuum world, the temperature is not too cold; gravity is about 0.45g. The docking bay itself is maintained at a thin atmosphere..

The Captain, Helen, Sir Bridgehead, and Brock will visit the presumed pirate boss with Mich's list. As Brock puts it, "The Admiral can take over when we hit a bureaucracy, Helen will deal with the pirates if we run into pirate types, and I'll deal with anybody else, and the Captain will just say 'Yes.' Let's go."

The Admiral dresses up in his fancy civilian clothes. The Captain chooses attire of unornamented black from head to toe, with no insignia. Helen and Brock do nothing special -- they remain in shipboard casual. They will ride to the exit in the GCarrier in case the docking bay vents for some reason.

Brock flies the GCarrier the 500m to a small-vehicle airlock and parks inside. The lock cycles and they step ashore for the first time in a very long while.

The iris valve leads into the domed city. People are going about their daily business. There's electric mass transit. There is a slight haze of cigarette smoke in places -- the ventilators are clearly not up to the standards expected of a starport city (which of course it isn't). Just another typical domed city...

It is suggested that Helen might know where to go. She says she thinks there's a bar nearby, and leads them on into the town.

After about five minutes, it is clear she is lost. After a short pause, though, she gets her bearings and finds the place she was looking for.

Joe's Bar is quiet. It is 11:00 Imperial time, which is 5pm in the local 22-hour day. There's a couple of groups of two or three people in the corners, nursing their drinks and engaging in slow conversation. The room itself is not too small, perhaps 10m by 15m, with a bar at one of the longer sides. The barman looks bored -- perhaps he has been polishing that same glass for the last hour.

Sir Bridgehead feels uncomfortable here. Brock leads them to the bar and orders beers for them all.

Helen says that Bill must be around somewhere, but the problem is getting to see him. She doesn't recognize the barman -- it's been a while, she says. "Brock, do you have a gun with you? Oh, well. We need some way to get the barman's attention, to let him know we're serious."

Brock calls him over. He grabs the man's arm and twists it behind his back. He now has the barman's undivided attention; in fact, the barman can't even twist his head away right now. "Helen, I have his attention."

Helen admires Brock's work. To the barman she says, "We need to see Bill. He wants to see us. We're going to be very profitable for him. We're going to make him lots of money. He'll know me. I suppose you could tell him Robin's back. Go see him now. Right now. I don't care where he is, what he's doing, what he told you, but go find him now. Brock, you can let him go now."

Brock has done a good job -- the barman is undamaged and scurries away through the door behind the bar.

The group now has the attention of all the other customers, who are sitting quietly, watching them.

They wait for Bill. Helen vaults over the bar and pours everyone another beer.

After 10 minutes the barman returns with someone else who looks a lot like Colonel Sanders. This person scans the bar, sees Helen, and greets her warmly as a long-lost friend.

Helen introduces the group: "Gerard Delaney -- he's the person you'll be doing the business with; David Brock; Bridgehead; and you know me. So, let's sit down and discuss things."

The Captain takes over. "Hello, Bill. I understand you run this place."

"Yes," says Bill, "I understand you have some money for us."

"Yes, actually, we do have some available..."

Bill interrupts politely. "A few preliminary questions, if you don't mind, just to know where I stand. How hot's your ship?"

"How what?"

"How hot is it, if somebody comes looking?"

"The title's free and clear. That doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't anyone looking for us, however the ship itself is ours free and clear."

"That's good. I like that."

"Anyone who comes looking for us wants us for other reasons."

"Don't they always," Bill laughs. "So what's your business? I mean, what business do you have with me?"

The Captain shows Bill the list that Mich put together. "Any idea where we can come by this stuff?"

"Yes. You're ship's of Imperial origin?"

"Originally. Our engineer is very inventive -- if what's on the list is not actually available, he can probably work with close substitutes."

"Purely hypothetical question... Were some of the stuff you get to have serial numbers which were obviously stamped there by mistake, because their origin is somewhere else, you'd be able to fix that?"

"Anything that's not quite to spec I'm sure our engineer can fix. He's very talented."

"OK. We can get you your turrets and the weapons systems parts -- that we can certainly do. Most of the stores, we can fix up. Some of these are big maintenance items -- are you going to need facilities to put these in?"

"Well, our engineer hasn't asked for any help, and we have some unusual systems on our ship. He gets nervous when... you know."

"OK. We could get a hoist out there. We can't necessarily come by all of this. How much time do you want to take? We could put out a call on some of this if you needed it badly enough."

"Which items might you not be able to get immediately?"

"There's some specific Imperial..."

"Jump drive related, weapons related?"

"The jump drive stuff is clear. The ship weapons are clear. There's a couple of things here... you must have some ground troops or something. These fighting vehicle pieces are going to be a little tricky -- we'd have to put a special call out on that."

"The bars around here... do they have any, ah... restrictive preferences on clientele?"

"Yeah, they like people who have money, who can pay their bill."

"But aside from that, we can allow some shore leave without having to worry too much about it?"

"I presume if people are going to pick a fight they can stand up for themselves, right? I mean, if you end up with sufficiently few crew that you can't take off again, we can always come to a deal on the ship."

"So how much is this going to run us?"

"I'll have to get back to you on that."

"OK. Listen, the money on the ship is controlled by an individual named Fostriades. He keeps our books. You have your bookkeeper get in touch with our bookkeeper, and if everything looks fine..."

"You'd like a fuel hook-up, I presume?"

"That would be nice. We don't want to be going scooping while we're having maintenance."

"In the meantime... I'm just curious. What's your ship called?"


"Haven't heard of it. Hasn't been any word of it at all."

"Well, we're quite far afield here. Some of those repair items are related. I believe our last recorded location was 23 parsecs from here."

"That's a fair haul. You can certainly run quiet, I'll give you that."

"We were fortunate to find you here. It would have been uncomfortable to come up with nothing but Zhodani. We had just had a rather tense encounter with a Zhodani ship. They mistook us for someone else."

"Odd, that. So, is anybody looking for you now?"

"Nobody that should show up in this area for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks."

"Are you planning to fit this equipment here? When we get towards the end of your safe window, let us know."

"Nobody is going to be looking for us here. Nobody knows we're here."

"I know you're here."

"Unless you tell someone, no-one else will know. I presume that if you do tell anyone, you wouldn't mind them showing up, so that pretty much takes care of it, right?"

"You might want to remind your crew to be careful. This whole town isn't necessarily as selective about its friends."

"How do you manage to maintain this place this close to the Zhodani?"

"There's nothing here. This planet, a few hunks of rock, and that's it. Nowhere to refuel."

"Where do you get the fuel from?"

"Asteroid belt."

"Interesting. We have some former asteroid miners on board." He pauses. "Mr. Fostriades, our Boss, often likes to do some trading when we put into a port. Is there anyone in particular to contact?"

"Just do the usual stuff."

"Is there anything in particular we should be worried about or careful of in this area?"

"That depends what you're worried about and where you go. There've been some Zhodani Naval movements -- one of the border fleets moved out quite suddenly and some reserves have been brought out to replace it. Haven't heard what it's doing. That was quite a while ago, but there's still a lot of shuffling of reserves going on."

"Do you have enough information on their fleets that if we gave you the name of a ship you'd be able to tell if it was in the fleet that moved out?"

"That depends. I'd have to check with my accountant."

"You don't know anything about the Zhodani working in league with the Imperium, do you?"

"Yes. Norris has been trying to calm things down at the border, relax tensions, work with them."

"You wouldn't have any psi experts, would you?"

"Depends whether you're looking for training, or looking for...?"

"Not training. Someone who might be skilled in assessing damage done."

"Not sure what you're on about, but I don't think so. You're certainly not going to find a witch-smeller here."

"We have an individual in custody who we believe to be substantially tampered with."

"Possible, but it might be an expensive service."

"OK, well. Can we buy you a drink?"

"It's on the house," says Bill. "It's good to see you back in town."

"Sometime when you're free... have you ever had bean juice?"

"I've had most things in my life, sir."

"We'll bring a keg over. It's interesting stuff. You probably want to sample it before making it generally available."

"If the buggers can't stand it, they'll end up on the floor. Is this a problem?"

"You might not want it to be generally available. We manufacture it on the ship. It usually brings a good price -- but this would be free. Anyway, you two," indicating Bill and Helen, "must have a lot to talk about, so we'll be heading on back to the ship. It's been nice meeting you."

Helen tells the Captain she'll join them later.

Sir Bridgehead has been strangely quiet -- he's been forced to drink beer, of course...

Brock says, "Admiral, you can stop drinking beer now. Let's go."

They leave Helen in Joe's Bar, and try to find their way back to the ship. When they get lost, the Captain takes over and leads them to the GCarrier. Brock flies them back on board the Anastasia.

They tell Mich about the status of the parts -- most of them can be found, but some may be of dubious legality. Fostriades points out that it is important to resist price gouging, otherwise they will be taken all the time here; he is assured that he has been appointed to do the negotiating himself.

Brock updates the marines on their location, and authorizes shore leave. They are to keep their wits about them, their mouths shut, and travel in groups.

William discusses the situation with Alice. She is willing to stay on the ship, provided she can continue to do business during shore leave, perhaps adding some items to her hand baggage occasionally. The two of them agree that some time ashore would be great -- they have been cooped up in the ship for a long time. Perhaps there's a casino in town? Even the idea of finding a hotel to stay at, instead of living on the ship, is rather attractive.

There are just a couple of kegs of bean juice left, but there is another batch due in a week. Brock puts together a pony keg to take to Joe's Bar for Bill.

According to Mich, the work on the ship will take about a month. He is rather pleased that all the jump drive stuff on his full list will be obtainable. He starts disassembling in preparation for maintenance.

Brock, William, Alice, Varda, and Joe go ashore. Brock leads them to Joe's Bar, but Helen is no longer there. There is someone different behind the bar.

Brock places the keg on the bar and tells the barmaid it's for Bill. She says it was expected, and takes a shot of the bean juice herself. Brock's attempts to be suave are wasted on her.

The place is a little busier now. There are about four groups of 3 to 6 people.

Brock tells her that his friends are looking for a place to gamble. There is a short discussion on how serious they are about gambling.

William, who has brought his gun and half a million credits, smiles. He says he likes card games, and looks through his wallet. She reaches for it, and he shows her. She examines one of the notes carefully to see if it's genuine. She must be satisfied, because she writes down an address and directions which she gives him.

The barmaid suggests that since Bill isn't here, why don't they drink this keg now? She knocks back a few more shots.

A customer tries to get her to serve him. He is told to go away, can't he see she's busy?

Brock slips behind the bar and serves the guy the beer he wants. The young man is from the largest group, and seems somewhat intimidated -- in fact his whole group looks a little out of place.

Brock asks him where they're from. It seems they are students from Attica Poly, in town for the big game against the local university -- the visitors lost. He seems thoroughly irritated at Brock's pointless questions, like "What big game?" and "Who won?", but is visibly worried and trying to be polite.

William looks around to see if there is some threat that is worrying the student, and suddenly notices a pair in the corner who are certainly hoodlums. Perhaps they even noticed William's money? They are apparently ignoring him -- very suspicious.

Anyway, back to the student... He looks a typical student, and has the guilty air of an under-age drinker, although of course no-one is being checked for age here. Brock keeps asking questions -- the youth is a Junior, studying Business Management; he's not really interested in getting on a starship, thank you, and hurries back to his group.

Brock checks to see that no-one else needs a drink, then returns to the crew at the bar. The barmaid is still drinking shots of bean juice.

It is now 14:00, which is 8pm local time. They plan to find somewhere to eat, then go on to the game. The barmaid recommends a restaurant two blocks down -- they leave the keg with her and walk out of the bar. They discuss the locals (barmaid and student) as they walk.

As promised, they cannot miss the restaurant. It is Olde Earthe style, with oil lanterns outside, low ceilings, subdued lighting (electric candles) and so on. It looks fine, although it'll probably be overpriced. The food is much as they would expect of Olde Earthe, although it has a distinct style of its own -- it is extremely good. The wine is adequate but not great. Price comes out to about 25Cr a head. They leave a generous tip.

They follow the directions that William was given, which lead them to a private residence. William realizes that they didn't get the name of the barmaid, so who can they say sent them -- a friend of Bill's?

William knocks. A butler, dressed in traditional uniform, answers the door. Although his dress is conventional, the colors are not -- neon green tie with a neon green shirt, and subdued maroon jacket. William tries to suppress a snicker and fails.

"This place was recommended by a friend of Bill's at Joe's Bar," says William.

"Would you care to buy some chips?" says the butler. He is still standing in the doorway.

"Yes", says William. He starts out small, handing the butler 20kCr.

"Certainly, sir. Right this way if you would, please." He leads them in, and hands William twenty red chips.

William wonders whether these are the high or low chips. He asks the butler about the colors. He is told that these red ones are good for an early stage of the game, and that the colors go through the spectrum, each one being ten times the previous. Cash is apparently also accepted. William regrets that he has not brought much money.

The butler directs the group to a "relatively casual" game. The room has eight people playing a poker variant. There are a lady and gentleman wandering the room, serving drinks.

William gives Alice half his chips, and the two of them sit down at the game. The table has mostly red chips, but some orange -- there are no yellow chips on the table.

The cards look refreshingly Imperial. For the first few hands, William takes it easy while catching on the rules -- both he and Alice bet lightly but lose.

As they get accustomed to the game, Alice and William starts to win. Since William is now ahead, this is when he starts his strategy and tries to lose.

The drinks keep coming around. William asks for the most obscure drink he can think of -- it takes just a few minutes for the girl to bring it back. The drink is perfect, and William is so delighted he tips her 100Cr.

He plays on for a while, mostly breaking even, and then the butler returns and suggests that he move on to another game, now he's warmed up.

They are led upstairs and into a larger room. There are three tables here -- one is poker again, there's a roulette variant with some really high-tech holographic equipment (a lot more advanced than anything else they've seen on this planet), and a dice game.

William chooses the nifty high-tech game. He places the smallest bet that seems socially acceptable -- 50kCr. He gets a grasp of the game quite quickly, placing small bets at first.

The way the game works is that each player puts his bets on, then picks up a little wand and flips it, and colored lights come flying off the end of it and start spinning round. When everyone in the group has flipped their wand, the lights spin round in a complex pattern and come together in one of the little numbered depressions in the table.

Alice and William each lose 50kCr. Alice backs out of the game; she takes a drink and sits beside William to bring him luck. William decides to lose the next 50kCr, and places it on the most bizarre obscure thing he can find. His bet holds through to the next round, if he's prepared to add the same again to it. He does, and comes up the winner. He has won 5MCr.

"If I had any sense, I'd leave right now," says William. He goes to the poker game instead. His lifetime wealth up until now was about 9MCr, and he has just won 50% more.

The game is conventional poker. The stakes are much higher than downstairs -- there are some green chips in players' stacks, although they are not used on the table much.

William is prepared to bet up to a million or so, depending on the hand. He doesn't push the first hand, but his second one is good. There is about a million in the pot, and the other player left in raises it by 2M. William sees the 2M, and raises another 1M. The other man matches the 3M, and puts in another 3M to see William's cards. William wins, for a net gain of about 12M. So far today, he has made 17MCr by gambling.

"Much more profitable than trading," observes William.

At this point Bill and Helen step in from another room. They are surprised to see the group, and invite them into the other room for a drink. It's a private room, except for the servants bringing drinks.

William says he's been doing pretty well tonight.

"I gathered that," says Helen. "Bill suggested that it might be good to relax on your winnings tonight. The guy you were betting against is an interesting person."

"Interesting person? Anything in particular I should know?"

"Don't make a habit of winning too much off him."

"I was planning to stay playing for a little while, to give him a chance to win some back."

"The way you've been playing tonight..."

"Well, so far I'm up 17 million credits, which is really very good... but then I've been betting more. It's been an exceptionally good night, actually, it really has." He addresses Bill, "I'm sorry -- we'll bring you another keg of that stuff. We brought a keg by, but she drank it all. I didn't actually catch her name... whoever it was told me about this place."

"Ah," says Bill, "Judy."

William promises they will bring another one with instructions not to open it, but Bill says they will have to come by when he's in.

William says, "This is a nice place. Is it something you're involved with, or do you just...?"

"The nice thing about this place is you see who has money. Take the chap you were playing against, Rudy... word is, he just knocked down a Zhodani currency shipment."

"He had some money to lose, then, didn't he?"

"Yes, but he's real possessive. Marketing Zhodani currency is... interesting here. There are better places he could have taken it, and he knows it."

"I'm sure he had his reasons for coming here."

"Yes, I can guess what they were, too, given the shape he turned up in."

"Similar to the reasons why we're here, I guess."

"I don't ask, I just hear rumors," says Bill. "So why are you here?"

"To get our ship repaired."

"Well, yes. I was just wondering what you'd hit... or what hit you?"

Brock says, "We're just lost in space."

"As it were," adds William. "Actually the major damage happened some time ago. We've been in areas where it's been very difficult to get good discreet repairs."

"Just out of interest, where have you been?" asks Bill. "Obviously you've come a long way quietly."

William laughs.

Brock says, "You find this mysterious?"

"No," says Bill. "I'm just curious. I make my living by being politely curious."

"Yes," says William, "We've come a long, a LONG way, VERY quietly. I must say, we certainly have. I suppose if Helen and the Captain didn't say anything more, it's not really my place to... I mean, um, Robin."

"Oh," says Bill. "Helen? If you say so. Which name do you want to use?"

"I'll take Helen if you don't mind," says Helen.

"So who's the Captain?" asks Bill.

"You met the Captain this afternoon," says Brock. "Delaney."

Bill says he had the air of a Naval man about him; Imperial Navy, perhaps?

"He apparently had some history in that regard, and I gather," William says, looking at Helen, "Some other interesting history as well, although we don't really all know that much about a lot of us."

Bill says, "I do find it interesting that your ship should turn up here with a retired Grand Admiral on board."

"It's a long story. He certainly livens up life on the ship. He's a damn good doctor, though."

"Is he in any official capacity? How retired is he?"

"As far as I can tell, he's quite retired," says William.

"He's on into dead," says Brock.

Bill continues, "I don't suppose you'd like to give me a hint as to what sort of business you'll be engaged in for the next little while?"

Brock says, "We buy extremely high quality rare jump drive parts, and sell bean juice. You figure it out."

William says, "We just kind of go around and do whatever seems interesting at the time."

Bill says, "That sounds just like you, Helen." He turns back to William. "That's a fair old interesting group, then."

"It's quite a variety of backgrounds," agrees William, "Quite a variety of things we've done.

"You've been doing some fighting certainly outside the Imperium," says Bill.

"I'll give you that," concedes William, "A long, long way outside the Imperium."

"I don't know that I'd really fancy being somewhere that people are using nukes against me."

"There weren't exactly people using nukes against us," says William.

"They weren't people," laughs Brock.

"Excuse me?" says Bill. "Would you care to perhaps clarify that a little?"

"Not for free," says Brock.

"I'll pay you what it's worth."

"Do you have a starmap?" asks Brock.

Bill produces a chart of the Spinward Marches.

"This isn't far enough," says Brock. "Well, we were actually over here somewhere." He is pointing well beyond the spinward end of the map.

"Interesting. It might be nice to have a meeting, have a little chat, see if we can exchange some information."

William says, "Do you think you have some information to exchange?"

"I always have information to exchange." Bill suggests meeting on the Anastasia in a couple of days. This seems acceptable to the crew.

The conversation is pretty much over. William returns to the gaming tables, where he manages to lose a couple of million. He is now only up about 13M credits for the evening.

They all return to the Anastasia. Fostriades is pleased to hear that William has made so much money.

Mich has been tearing the drives apart. He keeps very good records of where everything goes. Fostriades helps him, despite being a wimpy Engineer-7. Mich says he will need Fostriades to help him put it back together -- differently.

"We have redesigned the jump engines to be safer," explains Mich to Fostriades. "You know that black box? I know how it works, and can make more. I'm going to make a bunch more, only smaller." He shows Fostriades the current design, and his new one. It replaces about half the crystal array with multiple anti-matter generators, and modifies the jump governor; if any one of the generators fails, there is enough reserve capacity in the others to take over, so they can do in-jump repairs. The jump governor will need some hefty computer control, with local computer control as well; one of the reserve ship's computers could handle the load, but Mich would prefer a dedicated machine. Mich speculates that they might even be able to pull a Jump-6 with it, perhaps.

Fostriades is impressed. He wonders if they could have learnt anything from their misjump experience to get a clue about controlled misjumps. They certainly have a lot of information from the last one. They discuss how to deal with the medical problems... recruit the crew from the Black Things that Spit, and put everyone else in low berth or drug them?

Midnight local time was 17:00 Imperial.