Fresh Air

gum shoe

Fresh air. Always good. A little thin on this planet but he’d get used to it. Most people probably never noticed. After months aboard robo freighters, he was just glad it didn’t have that sterile conditioned smell.

Selassie Maerich stepped away from two crewmen guiding an anti-gravity lift through the door. Most of the work being done on this ship Gestalt 2 was cargo work, offloading needed supplies. In a few weeks the ship would be gone again with the produce of this little planet shooting to the nearest hub. It all ran to a precise, centrally-planned schedule. Sel was little more than a blip on it.

The sea-green kit of a Unipol officer caught Sel’s attention immediately. It was clearly on the mind of the woman who now patted him down for contraband. She inspected the minuscule frame device he kept in his pocket and the small cylinder that he showed her was a screwdriver. When she was done, she called that he was clear loud enough for anyone around to hear. She knew who he was here to see and pointed him that way. He nodded. The familiarity of frontier people never sat quite right with him.

Gestalt 2’s jagged vertical bulk and the artificial hump of the spaceport were slashes of searing ink on the picturesque farmland that reached out in every direction with its little groves of fruit trees and the here and there houses with broad barns and aging equipment. The sun was huge and too orange in the sky and noon was tinged purple as if the sun had a hidden wound. Now the port was active with hands in every corner making sure that the ship was in good order. Tomorrow it would be deserted and stay that way until the ship was set to launch again.

The woman he was to meet was tall, cracked and tanned by the sun, with her hair bound up tight above her head. Sel casually plucked the listening device that security had planted and flicked it aside before he shook her hand. Amateurs on this planet. He couldn’t hold it against them. Probably weren’t practiced in it.

She was Lithia Ryberg, prefect-chairman of the Ugarit Colony settlements. He was representing Sonnem Requirements?

He was.

They had quite a lot to talk about.

They did, he said, but also weeks to do it in. Right now, he’d prefer to lay down.

‘Come with me,’ she said, and led him to a hovercar nearby. She got in the driver’s seat. Selassie decided to stretch out in the back. The car pushed eight inches off the ground, then zoomed forward over the untracked ground. She looked in her rear mirror at him.

‘Didn’t sleep on the way over?’ she asked.

‘Guessing you’ve never traveled off-planet,’ he said.

‘Never.’

‘Those ships aren’t made for “human cargo.” It’s a real crushed sort of sleep.’

She nodded.

*

Ugarit wasn’t really Sel’s kind of planet. Fresh air was good but you could get that on a civilized world, too. Chairman Ryberg had brought him to their chief settlement, Ugarit One, and put him up in the combine house. It was probably the only halfway-decent place to lay his head in the whole town. It was definitely the only concrete structure. It was used by people from the Combine that owned this planet when they came to visit; they did demand a minimum of comfort. Everything else was wood-built. He felt like he was taller than most of the houses.

He’d make do, of course. He always did. Still. Every second he was here he’d be thinking about how much he could get done if he was back on the Moon or New Zimbabwe. This escapade would be worth it if he could bring it off, but his frame had not made a single ping since he’d landed.

16 hours and nothing. Sometimes things happened. Sel knew that as well as anyone. When he’d made the deal, the engineer said that her man might get a little spooked. He was jumpy, she said. But she could trust him. Except now Dr Olmeg Lanne was lightyears away with 10,000 dex from his accounts and him waiting for this jumpy farmer. Once he saw the schematics he’d have the same again wired to her. Hopefully that kept her honest. If it was a con, she’d still be away with enough to set her up nicely on some cityworld.

For a while, anyway.

Sel watched Ryberg come up the path to the door. He’d honestly hoped to have this done before he started these talks. No putting it off, though. He met her downstairs and she handed him a thermos. Coffee inside. She wanted to show him some farms around the area, give him an idea of what they were already working with. Sturdy equipment, she said, but getting old. Having the Combine replace it had always been expensive. They were down to the wire here. Just farmers. Any savings would help.

The problem was common on these frontier worlds.

Ryberg drove the hovercar out past the settlement limits to the long fields brimming with swaying grain. The transparent dome between them and the outside dulled the heavy thunder of huge threshing machines chewing their way across the fields. Some of them crude powered, she explained. They could generate power but they didn’t have the facilities to charge everything in a timely fashion. Here around Ugarit One they had the benefit of the main generator, but the other settlements had to use more crude. At least that much they could get through the Combine and cheap.

Of course, Sonnem Requirements could give very good deals on expanded power generators. Clean electricity. They were actually very economical, he told her. The spiel was easy. Even without a brain implant, he could have mastered it in an hour. The crude explosion story he told was a bit of baroque of his own, from an early job. At first he said it was a warning. At the end, he said it was a joke. She smirked. He wasn’t convinced and didn’t really care.

They came to a stop beside a large house with a four-angled roof, a team of hoverbuggies out front. The door opened and a man came out, introduced himself as Bexley Church. Sel shook the man’s hand. He knew this part of the game as well. He let Church slap a hand on his shoulder and guide him toward the barn which, like a lot of people’s barns and farms in general around here, had seen better days. Sel wondered if Ryberg was planning to take him around to any others today. Sometimes these outworlders liked to crush you with hospitality.

* * *

The writ from Sonnem was simple: make them put every damn thing you can to paper. Make them put it in ink and make them sign it. It was a figure of speech whose meaning was more concrete out here. The Ugarit Colony was hoping to save some money. Sonnem Requirements wanted Selassie to convince them they just needed to spend that money more wisely. The bones of the agreement were there but Sonnem hoped for a corpulent final form.

Gestalt 2 did not leave for 16 days. That meant that Selassie could not close the deal for nearly two weeks. Until then, he was going to have to endure Ryberg dragging him around to see farmers who could help her understand their situation. Surely he could sympathize with disliking the authoritarian Sol-Centauri Combine? Of course he could. After all, Sonnem Requirements made money with inroads into the Combine’s monopoly. And the money could be used for other things, surely he could see that.

Ryberg looked across at him in the hovercar. It was the second day and they were off from a Mrs Hudros’s farm to that of a Mr Lalenga. He was watching the chaff spewed out the back of a thresher.

‘What even brings you out here?’ she asked.

He looked at her.

‘I mean we do get visitors sometimes. They usually like the serenity, that’s what they say. Like being out in the outdoors. Yet you seem…’

‘Bored.’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s just my way. Sorry. Thinking.’

‘About some cityworld?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I bet you’re from Earth.’

‘No. Annan City.’

‘The Moon! So this must seem real backwards to you.’

‘It’s nice.’

‘Mm.’

There was the hum of the gravity-sleds, the hiss of the air conditioning.

‘They call you a Programmer, is that it?’ Ryberg asked.

‘People call me that.’

‘And you’ve talked to aliens?’

‘A few. Yeah.’

Ryberg exhaled slowly. Beside them passed the fronds of wheat waiting idly for one of those crawling beasts to come take them.

‘Must seem real backwards,’ she said.

*

Chasley Buto. That was the name of his jumpy contact. So jumpy he hadn’t been given the signal in three days. Sel was supposed to be on Ugarit for two weeks but this Buto didn’t know that. He should have got the key and extracted the data by now. He was beginning to worry. He didn’t like worrying when he was so far away from any reassurance.

Selassie mentioned the name to Chairman Ryberg as they waited for a Mr Falus to find a fractured crude tank that he’d never been able to replace. She cocked an eyebrow at him.

‘He’s your communications man, isn’t he?’ Sel asked.

‘One of a few.’

‘He sent a few messages in our correspondence. Well, Sonnem’s correspondence. Brother’s got a sense of humor. I was hoping to meet him.’

‘Huh. Well, he’s not been around lately. Sick, probably.’

‘Probably?’

‘It’s harvest season, Mr Maerich.’

‘Selassie.’

‘If you won’t call me Lithia, I won’t call you Selassie.’

‘Alright.’

She continued, ‘We’ve got a lot on our minds here. Chasley can take care of himself. If he’s really under the weather, he’ll get in touch if he needs to. If he just doesn’t want to work, we don’t need to pay him. He’s about half-nomad as it is. We don’t have the time to spend on a guy like him.’

‘You have an outbreak of nomadism? That why Unipol’s here?’

She shrugged. ‘There’s always a couple. Not everybody’s gonna like the working life.’ She looked up. ‘Mr Falus.’

The reedy man lugged out a heavy cylindrical tank, dragging a long furrow into the ground.

Ryberg didn’t make it sound like there was a mass clear-out going on. Sending a fastlight cruiser over one or two nomads seemed a bit excessive to Sel. And even so, he’d only seen four Unipol officers since he’d been here. If nomads were the problem, why hadn’t they sent a full resettlement squad?

*

Though there were no reps from the Sol-Centauri Combine here, Selassie didn’t have the concrete house entirely to himself. A wing, with a separate entrance, housed the communications and computation equipment that served the whole planet. From here, Ugarit’s tiny technical corps could read analyses from satellites and use the only ansible on the planet. Today there was just one woman inside and she seemed surprised when Selassie entered.

‘You’re the Programmer?’ she asked.

‘I believe so,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry, I just… they said you’d mostly keep out of this area while you were here.’

‘Problem? I can go.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I just sort of forget that we’re in the combine house.’

‘Sorry. Must be weird.’

She started to turn back to her work.

‘Chairman Ryberg’s told me that you work with a guy called Buto,’ he said.

She turned to him again. ‘Chasley? What about him?’

‘He’s an odd one from what she says. Been out of touch lately. Just piqued my interest, thought maybe someone here had heard.’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘Look, sorry, I know this is dumb. Just gets a bit boring sitting around here.’

She smiled. ‘Finding yourself a mystery?’

He shrugged and grinned at the floor.
‘Well, I haven’t seen him in a few days,’ she said, ‘but we usually don’t share shifts and uh. I don’t socialize with his sort.’

‘His sort?’

‘I don’t mean… it’s just…’ She sighed. ‘If you knew him, you’d understand. I’m glad we don’t share shifts more often than not, let’s put it that way.’

‘Little blessings.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, thanks. I’ll quit bothering you, go pursue my mystery somewhere else.’

She waved. ‘Good luck to you, Programmer.’

* * *

Luck is a funny thing. Selassie seemed to have nothing but bad luck since he’d got here. Stuck on a boring as hell frontier planet, doing a podunk deal for tools and parts for a company with less than zero connections, and the reason he’d even made the trip had been out of contact. He’d gone from apprehension to worry, to the point that he’d force-shutdown his brain implants in an effort to make himself sleep.

Now, in the middle of the night, his frame roused him with the signal that he’d been waiting for. Why did Sel think his luck had just nosedived?

He swung his legs off the bed. The frame sat on his thighs and by stroking its sides he enlarged it to the size of a dinner plate. Even with his implant switched on he wouldn’t be able to process information directly as well as visually. The signal blipped onto the frame’s screen along with local topography, landmarks, survey notations. Instructs for him to connect his system with the signal node. Everything he expected.

At this point, he was supposed to ping it back so Buto would know he was there. Then Buto would get in contact, they’d meet and he’d get the key. Selassie didn’t think much of the idea that after three days, Buto had suddenly woken up and remembered to earn his 1,000 dex payout. He decided to play it close.

He crossed the room to the desk and laid his frame out on top of it, expanded it. He liked to have as much space as possible when he was working. He meant to find out just where Buto had buried this node. Now he let his implant kick in, knowing he’d need the extra computing power. Even then, he’d need time. He was connected to nothing in this primitive network. There was barely anything out there to hook on to. To pinpoint this he’d need to gain access to Ugarit’s satellites. At least he was lucky that no one here was likely to be monitoring systems too closely. The technical capacity of frontier worlds like this was always constrained.

By the morning, he’d managed access to two satellites. Weather observers, fairly basic in design. Good enough. All he needed were their positioning functions. He was halfway through the third when he noticed a shape coming up the walk. Ryberg. He let his frame run on automatic and unsynced his brain from it. Then he got dressed and went down to meet her.

Her sub-prefect of maintenance, a Jesi Quirlan, would arrive from Colmont in a few hours. Quirlan had a lot of questions for Maerich and was excited to meet him. Selassie told her that his frame was acting up and he’d need to troubleshoot; he wasn’t sure if he could make it. Chairman Ryberg protested. He wouldn’t be here more than a day. More than anyone, Quirlan needed have his concerns met because he had to know what he could handle and what would need a Techer to come out. If Ryberg and her board were going to sign on any deal, they had to know just what they were getting into, and Quirlan sat on that board.

Sel rubbed his eyes. He felt as though he was trying to feed everything she said into satellite instructs and queries.

‘Six hours.’

She protested. He held his ground. He had to have his frame working, he said. If he broke off too early he might lose his place, make it worse. Break it beyond repair. She frowned and gave in. Six hours. How could she object? She barely knew what a frame was, much less whether he’d need it or not.

His bit about breaking off early was not exactly a lie. Re-establishing connection after he’d been kicked out could take ages. A strong fix would require as many links as he could manage. He only hoped he’d get it done in six.

* * *

If Jesi Quirlan hated to be kept waiting, he carried it well. He didn’t know if he could get through everything – and he didn’t – but he was glad to meet the Sonnem representative anyway. They’d had a cordial conversation, an hour or so. No time to inspect the crews or look over their current equipment; Quirlan had to get back to Colmont and continue helping with the harvest. Selassie assured him that they’d have another chance to meet before he left the planet. They all three of them shook hands and went their separate ways. Sel went to the combine house but didn’t stay long. He’d already observed that they didn’t keep shifts in the communications wing overnight. He slipped out that way and, frame in hand, sought out the signal node.

It was somewhere in the settlement, not hidden out in the fields somewhere. He wasn’t sure of the precise lay of the place. Birds-eye images were not greatly helpful in walking around on foot. No one seemed to be in the street but more than a few were awake in their houses, lanternlight spilling out of windows into puddles on the grass. Sel walked carefully and kept his eyes open.

The night darkness didn’t much affect Sel’s cybernetic eyes, so what might have seemed like greyblack outfits showed plainly to him as sea-green uniforms. Not that these two were trying to hide. That wasn’t Unipol’s style. At first, he thought they were guarding a barn on the edge of town. He kept watching their movements, watching their eyes. When they stopped, where they stopped, when they spoke and when they shushed each other. They were guarding that heavy tractor. Right on top of the signal node.

So. Maybe Buto had gone nomad and they caught up with him. Maybe.

Sel drifted back, shrank his frame and put it away. His only chance to get the data was to take the node itself. Buto might not have known ho to remote link the node to the datastore, it could be all together there. It was a gamble. One he was willing to take. Had to take. But he wasn’t muscling his way past two police. He’d have to wait.

* * *

He’d made a small mistake the day before: he’d told Chairman Ryberg that he’d got his frame fixed. No other way to avoid talks without rousing suspicion, and even that would have been a stretch. That was how Sel found himself fighting to stay awake as Ryberg drove him out to one of their irrigation centers. He noticed her looking at him, practically waiting on him to slide off. It didn’t help keep him awake.

‘We won’t take too long here,’ she said. ‘Just want you to be able to see what we have working here, if it’s something you at Sonnem would stock.’

‘That’s good,’ Sel said. ‘I’m sure they would. An exceptional stock of water treatment equipment.’

‘Under the weather?’

‘Don’t think so. Just one of those nights.’

‘That’s a shame, really.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘I’d got to thinking yesterday,’ Ryberg said, ‘and figured it’d be best if you met everyone important on the planet at some point. You’ve met one of my sub-prefects. Two others are in the city, plus the prefect of Ugarit One and a few of the important farmers. We were going to have a town meet. We’ll still have it, lots to take care of, but if you’re beat…’

‘We’ll have other chances, won’t we?’

‘I don’t know. Not many others where Lt Tanner will be there. He’ll be updating us on our nomad situation.’

‘Lieutenant?’ Sel said.

‘Yeah, he’s the captain of this Unipol patrol. He’s been giving us some advice on how to handle more troublemakers when they crop up. When he can spare the time.’

‘Maybe I should come, then,’ Sel said. ‘If you’ve got a nomad problem, that’s something Sonnem would want to know about.’

Ryberg grimaced. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing. Just precautions.’

Selassie did his best to sink into his seat. ‘Even so.’

She sighed.

‘Right.’

* * *

Selassie didn’t think he’d need all three ladybirds but he always liked to be sure. The long lodge where the town assembled was well suited to the two dozen or so milling about amiably. Most were intimately known to each other, neighbors since birth, families long intertwined. A couple had migrated from other settlements. And there was Hugh Tanner in his smart sea-greens, shaking hands curtly and speaking little.

They had already heard from the settlement alders about how the harvest was going, what machines were wearing down, what needed replacing. Lt Tanner informed them all that they weren’t getting as many reports of nomad movements as they had, due to Unipol’s intervention. They would still like to stay a while and check further. Plus, he’d spoken to Chairman Ryberg about training a local watch group to help prevent runaways in the future.

Many of the alders wanted to talk to Selassie. They all had ideas on what should be part of the contract or questions on what would or could be part of it. Each their bits and pieces that needed getting or augmenting or repairing. Could he help? Of course. One at a time he tried to assure them that Sonnem had everything they would need and they’d be getting a very inclusive deal. A Mrs Eluran with a nasal voice asked a series of questions about prices that Selassie heard with one ear.

Across the room, Tanner was making his excuses. Wouldn’t have time for the chat, he was saying to Ryberg. Selassie didn’t need to hear his voice to read him. It was for the alders, not him, he was saying. As Tanner shook Ryberg’s hand, Sel extracted himself from his conversation. He let his implant take over for his natural motor functions. It took a lot of effort for it to mimic a casual human walk but it did the job admirably. What he needed now was precision. He’d suffer the headache to get this done.

‘Lieutenant?’ he called. Lt Tanner looked. Sel smiled in the fake way that one did in these functions. With a shift of his elbow he let free one of his ladybirds which tumbled down the outside of his arm the blade of his hand where his pinky curled and snagged it. As he reached his hand out to shake Tanner’s, he disappeared the ladybird again, the vanishingly small device undetectable in his hand. Their hands unclasped briefly, then unlocked. Sel’s came up, the ladybird floating on the tip of his middle finger, ring finger, and tapped against the crook of his arm. Immediately, it would flatten itself and thread through his clothing, embedding in the fabric. With the implant working, with his ultra-precise movements, Tanner hadn’t seen just how Sel’s hand had moved and hadn’t felt the dust-light touch of his finger. He knew he hadn’t. If Tanner was cybernetic, Sel would have picked that out. Largely because Tanner would have picked Sel out himself.

‘I’m hearing a lot about nomads lately,’ Sel explained. ‘My employers would like to know anything you can tell us. We’re investing in the planet, you understand.’

Now he shut the implant’s processing down. A sting flashed through his brain and he shook his head to clear it. It started to fade already. The worst would be later.

‘You alright?’ Tanner asked.

‘Yeah. Been a long couple days for me.’

‘We’re not sure just how many nomads there are on this planet,’ Tanner said. ‘Don’t really have the equipment for an extended search into the secondary zones. But we’re securing the settlements, disarming those who look like they’ll cause trouble. No reason not to invest in this place, I guess.’

‘Really? Good to hear, but what will they do when you Unipol guys head out?’

‘They know how to call us, and I’m sure that your company does, too, if they get spooked. Listen, I’ve got to go. Business to take care of. Nice meeting you.’

‘And you,’ Sel said. Tanner gave another goodbye to Chairman Ryberg and left, closing the door hard. Ryberg approached but Sel waved her off, touching his head as if it hurt and sitting down for relief. The pain wasn’t back quite yet. When Ryberg shifted away, Sel reached into his pocket. The tool, which he’d shown earlier to be a screwdriver, he now tuned to receive transmissions from his ladybird. He could hear the sound of anti-grav boosters, the whir of a buggy.

Sel got up and asked for some water. He told everyone that he’d be fine after some rest. Ryberg suggested they do his question and answer now. Sel thought that would be a good idea.

* * *

It was never advisable to run a cycle while one slept but Sel often had no choice. This was one of those times. If he didn’t listen in on Lt Tanner, he might find himself on the wrong end of a pistol. But if he didn’t sleep, he’d be utterly useless between the grogginess and his splitting headache. A headache that wasn’t helped by taxing his implants with even this low stress cycle. It couldn’t be helped. So while the rest of his brain slumbered, a single area ran hot, as it were, so that his hipik could keep feeding him the sounds of Lt Hugh Tanner’s life.

His eyes shot open. He replayed the last audio so he could pick it apart consciously.

‘-sure?’ someone ended. Not Tanner. ‘Guy’s a Programmer. Could have all sorts of booby traps set up in there.’

‘Most people who walk into a Programmer’s place uninvited don’t get to walk back out,’ said someone else.

‘Why do you think I had to size him up?’ A third. Tanner. ‘But he’s not that type. He’s a talker. You charge in on him, take him by surprise. Let him babble. Just bring him here. And remember, don’t shoot unless you have to. Easier if we can claim some nomads got him or something. They hear a gun, we’ll have to figure out some crime to pin on him.’

‘I just hope you’re right,’ said the second.

Sel shut off the audio. When had Tanner got on his trail? Why was Tanner on his trail? Questions he didn’t have time to puzzle out right now. He climbed out of bed, snatched up his hipik, his ladybirds, his frame. He paused. No. Better to leave the frame. He hated to do it – it was his most expensive bit of external hardware – but he didn’t want them scouring all over for him. If they got the frame, maybe they’d think he’d just stepped out. Maybe they’d turn their attention to cracking it. Either way, it could give him time.

He decided to walk out the front door. The recording wasn’t more than two minutes old, they’d need a bit more time than that to gear up. He hoped. In any case, he only saw a pair of people strolling when he walked out. Selassie doubled back to the rear of a nearby wood house. His implant kicked on again and he stifled a little yelp. It wasn’t as bad now because he didn’t care about how complex and natural he looked. He His hands shot up and clamped the edge of the flat roof with mechanical directness. With strength seemingly more than he could possess, he silently pulled himself up and slid onto his belly.

After several minutes, an old hovercar swam up around the other side of the combine house. The three who got out didn’t carry themselves like locals. He could hear the hatchets, one chop, two chop, and in. They were out of his sight now, prowling around the empty combine house. He saw lights flash on, the long glow out of the house’s portholes, and then snap off. There were voices muffled by distance and obstacles. Selassie waited.

He saw the shapes again, the three leaving the combine house for the car they’d come in. He wondered if they’d left empty-handed or if by some miracle they’d left the frame. He didn’t dare check, though. As soon as they’d gone, he climbed down from the roof and set off in the direction of Ryberg’s house.

As he got close, he decided to sit behind a barn and wait. The spheric moon was still high in the air. Stars still bright against their preferred background. Even if Ryberg was willing to deal right now, Selassie wasn’t. He figured that, between his flight and the frame decoy, he’d bought himself a few hours. Enough to wait for daylight. He was already in a corner. He wouldn’t negotiate looking any more harried than he had to be.

If only this headache would give up.

* * *

Chairman Lithia Ryberg answered the door in her nightclothes and rubbed her eyes clear enough to see Selassie Maerich in front of her, cloaked in morning light. He bowed and she let him in, closing the door behind him.

‘I’d really like to get dressed or something, first,’ Ryberg said.

‘Haven’t got time,’ Sel said. ‘Hate to rush, here, but Sonnem’s just contacted me, wanting to have this deal signed and delivered. Trouble with shareholders.’

‘That so? Well, I’m sure I can get my wits about me.’

‘We’d already made a few agreements,’ Sel said. Ryberg gestured for him to sit down and he did, eagerly. ‘Yearly orders for the heavy equipment, maintenance training, maintenance call-outs. All things you need here. If I can link up my hipik I can show you what we’ve already had drawn up.’

‘What happened to that other one? The screen?’

‘Oh, it finally just gave up. One of the reasons I’ve got to get back, actually.’

‘Mhm. Well alright. I do have some sort of viewer, for when the Combine sends messages that I’ve got to review.’ She went to another room and rooted around for a bit before coming up with a small holo projector. Sel glanced out of the window. When she set the device down, he hooked up his hipik and brought up their contract.

‘By the way, when can you have a ship leave? Need to take this back myself, obviously.’

‘Well, twelve days, like you know.’

‘Twelve? That’s the earliest?’

‘Only way we can push it up is to list and launch an emergency flight,’ Ryberg said.

‘Really.’

‘Afraid so.’

‘But this is urgent.’

‘Well… a lot of these clauses, we have to talk about. I can’t really make these sorts of orders without consulting the board.’

‘But you’re chairman-prefect.’

‘Elected by the other prefects. Not my decision alone.’

Sel kept himself from reacting.

‘The basic agreement between you and Sonnem has already been done,’ Sel said. ‘We’re just expanding upon that.’

‘Basic agreement,’ Ryberg reiterated. ‘And we all discussed that. I can’t make any other decisions without them.’

Sel looked hard at the contract glowing in the air.

‘So the basic agreement? Would you sign that?’

‘I’d be happy to. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that we may need in the future. A flexible ordering plan would be preferable. Without that, I can’t be sure that the other board members would go along with it. They do need to be reassured that they’ll have the equipment they’ll need.’

Sel deleted and rewrote as she spoke. Clause after clause pledging large payouts from Ugarit in exchange for large orders from Sonnem were stricken. Sel didn’t attempt to salvage them.

‘How does this look?’ he asked.

She surveyed the sparse document. ‘That’s very agreeable.’

‘You’ll sign it?’

‘I can’t see why not.’

‘Good. And the ship. To take it back and finalize the deal.’

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘we’d have to log an emergency flight if we did that. And it’d cost us a hell of a lot to send, too. Our two robo-launches a year are subsidized by the Combine, but beyond that…’

Selassie glanced out the window. No Unipol yet. He wondered when they’d go back to hunting for him.

‘What if Sonnem paid for it?’ Selassie volunteered.

Ryberg stroked her jaw thoughtfully.

‘That could be possible.’

‘I’ll arrange it.’

Ryberg nodded. She keyed in her signature, then Selassie did the same.

‘Alright, stay here,’ she said as she got up. ‘I’m going to get dressed and call a launch crew together. I’ll come get you when I’ve got everything ready.’

Sel nodded at her and let her disappear. He unhooked his hipik from the viewer and tuned it back to the ladybird on Tanner. He grinned despite the situation. The man was snoring.

* * *

It was impossible to draw a full breath on a robo. Well, clearly he actually was, but with his arms pinned up against his ribs he could never feel comfortable. Once in flight he’d be able to lever out of his trouser press and explore his entire shoe box of a cabin, the only space he’d have for over two weeks of spaceflight. Nothing about fastlight travel was easy. He supposed that’s why they had to have cybernetic men like him jaunt from planet to planet.

At least he’d be leaving. The Unipol troop might protest, but without an extraordinary warrant, no one searched a loaded robo on orders of the Federated Technical Institute. In under thirty minutes he’d be off Ugarit and safe, for the moment, from people trying to sniff him out. But he’d quickly have a new job, one not even as lucrative as this one.

He’d supremely fucked up Sonnem’s contract. Not only had he failed to get anything out of Ugarit, he’d given them a very favorable flex orders plan, one that Sonnem would not be happy about. And he’d put Sonnem on the hook for this very trip. Someone who didn’t know better might think Selassie was a double agent with how thoroughly Sonnem had been fleeced.

Thing was, neither of these had enough cash to convince him to switch sides on any deal. That just made it worse. None of his peers or potential employers would believe he was doing a job for the other side. It would look like stark incompetence. If he’d managed to get the plans away, it would have been perfect. Everyone would understand. Now that he’d failed? He couldn’t explain that he’d botched a no-miss deal in order to get a blown chance to rip off his most stable employers.

His rep was shredded after this. Fit to be torched. But he’d been in this situation before. He could climb back out. He only wondered how many more chances he’d get before his time just ran dry.

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