2951-03-29 – Tales from the Inbox: A Profiteer’s Bargain

There has been little action worth noting at Sagittarius Gate since our interview with Admiral Abarca. The defenses here are quite extensive, and all the more impressive for the fact that there are no planets or large bodies in this system to provide materials, manufacturing base, or work force for their construction. True, the defenses at Maribel are at least as extensive as these, but they are distributed to provide a defense network for a planet, whereas here the “fixed” defenses are in fact fixed to nothing in particular; a few fleet tugs could easily reposition the whole setup into new orbits in a week or two.

This week, I’ve elected to share part of an account sent in by someone who we’ll call Sacha T. (not, obviously, his real name). Sacha is, or more accurately was, an independent contractor in the semi-organized shadow industry of war profiteering. These vultures don’t directly plunder the Navy’s coffers, but they do pick over battlefields, smuggle people and goods across the lines, divert military supplies (probably those of both sides, though ours seem to be easier), and so on.

Sacha’s account picks up in the Anonga system, a backwater in Farthing’s Chain which has apparently become something of a clandestine hub for smuggling of war materiel.

Sacha slouched against the bar, staring into the amber liquid in his tumbler. Most likely, it wasn’t real Earth whiskey, despite the insistence of the nanotattoo-emblazoned barkeep, but it would raise uncomfortable questions if anyone knew he could tell the difference.

Ten years prior, Sacha had been the sort of person who would never have stooped to buying a drink in the cheapest bar on the decrepit waystation in such a sorry excuse for a star system, but now, he was the sort of person who hung around such places and drank whatever foul spirits were poured for him, without the slightest indication of revulsion. After all, the only people who were in his new line of business had long ago learned to bury any tendency toward revulsion which they had once had.

The stool next to Sacha’s creaked as a new occupant sat down. “Bad day there, bud?” The newcomer clapped a bony hand on Sacha’s shoulder.

Sacha shrugged without looking over at the other man. “No worse than most. Just not in any terrible hurry.” Without any outward indication of the shudder which his taste-buds were trying to propagate through his nervous system, he picked up the tumbler and took a sip, trying to picture the taste of a proper old-fashioned whiskey to replace the sickly-sweet, piney solvent which was actually coating his tongue.

“Funny thing about hurry is, you never know if you’re gonna be in it next moment.” The other man slid a reader-slate along the counter.

Sacha took another sip, pretending to savor the flavor, then finally glanced down at the slate. The garish symbols on its face might easily be mistaken for abstract art by anyone not familiar with the ways of the Reach’s underground, but Sacha knew their meaning all too well. Still without glancing over at the other man, he tapped a slashing series of marks in the middle of the screen, the ones indicating the fee. “I’ve seen this piece before, but there were two more green streaks here.”

The other man swiped through the holo-display menu on his section of the bar, then jabbed the icon for his choice of drink. “Would you be in a hurry if they were there?”

Sacha shook his head. “I’d still have time for a few drinks.”

The man took his slate back as the bartender passed by, depositing a tumbler of aquamarine liquid in front of him. Sacha tried not to wince; the only blue liquor on the menu was Bare Starshine, a distilled concoction infamous for its astringent, medicine-like taste, and for the trace toxins which had made most of the Core Worlds ban its import. Unlike the whiskey, the Bare Starshine was probably genuine. His would-be client had something to prove, no sense of self-preservation, or both.

“Y’know, it sounds like you could use those drinks, bud.” The other man picked up his tumbler, swirled it a few times, then downed it, slammed down the glass, and dropped a cred-chit into it. “I’ll go find out where those two marks went.”

Sacha grunted and took another foul sip of his own drink. “I might not have reason to hurry, but you do.”

The man gave no answer except the creaking of his stool as he shoved off from the bar and threaded his way out onto the station concourse.

He was back within ten minutes, which told Sacha that this half-crazed Starshine drinker was only a go-between. The real client was on the station, probably sitting in one of the slightly nicer diners on the balcony deck above.

“You were right. There’s supposed to be two green marks there.” The man tossed the reader onto the bar once more. This time, it slid across and bumped into Sacha’s glass, sloshing foul pseudo-whiskey onto its screen. Sure enough, the symbol for payment had been annotated with two new green streaks.

“I’ve got a good memory for that artist’s style.” Sacha picked up his drink as he surveyed the image to make sure nothing else had changed. “I’ve got an original on my ship. Stop by next shift if you’d like to see it.”

“Hey, thanks bud.” The other man grabbed his slate back and shoved it into a pocket. “Be there around four-H.”