Read Galaxy Blues Online

Authors: Allen Steele

Galaxy Blues (6 page)

“I'd prefer that you keep this information to yourself,” he said quietly. “I'd rather not have it become common knowledge.”

I took the pad from him, then read the screen. Displayed at the top was the logo of Lloyd's of London. Beneath it was an account statement for Mr. Morgan Goldstein, along with a routing number that had been carefully blacked out. And under it was a figure in euros that stretched into ten digits. Ten
high
digits.

“That's my net holdings in this one particular establishment,” Goldstein said, his voice low. “At least of as yesterday morning, the last time I was able to update my portfolio via hyperlink. Sorry, but I'd rather not reveal my holdings in Zurich or the Bank of Coyote. They're considerably larger.”

The datapad trembled in my hand. I wasn't completely convinced, though, so I used my fingertip to move the cursor to the
BIO
tab within the menu bar. Goldstein waited patiently while the screen changed again…and suddenly, I saw a portrait photo of the man seated on the other side of the bars. About ten years younger, with nearly as many hairs remaining on top of his head, but unmistakably the same individual.

“It's okay to breathe,” Goldstein said after a moment. “I do it all the time. Good for the lungs.”

I managed to give the pad back to him without dropping it. He was grinning like a fox as he closed it. “Now then, Dorothy…or may I call you Ensign Truffaut?”

“Ensign Truffaut is fine.” I swallowed, tried to get us back to the informal level. “Jules is good, too.”

“Jules, then…and you may call me Mr. Goldstein.” The grin faded as he slipped the pad back in his pocket. “So you know who I am and what I represent. Now I'll tell you why I need you, and what I can do for you in return.” Another languid drag from his cigar. “You've heard of the
hjadd
, of course.”

Who hadn't? An alien race, their homeworld located in the Rho Coronae Borealis system, they'd made contact with humankind about three years ago, when they permitted the survivors of the EASS
Galileo
to return to Coyote after their ship was destroyed fifty-three years earlier. The
Galileo
had been sent out from Earth to investigate a deep-space object called Spindrift; a foolish mistake by the captain led to a lethal encounter with a
hjadd
starship, but the three surviving members of the expedition managed to convince the aliens that our race meant them no harm. This in turn led to the
hjadd
dispatching an emissary to Coyote, with a small delegation sent not long thereafter.

First contact, in other words. “Sure,” I said. “I was hoping I'd get a chance to see one of them while I was here.”

“Yes, well…you and me both, kid.” Goldstein knocked an ash to the floor. “They've had an embassy here nearly a year, by local reckoning. A compound on the other side of town, not far from the Colonial University. But it's off-limits to everyone except a few people who they've accepted as go-betweens, and only rarely do any of them come out…and only then in environment suits so that we can't see them.”

“But we know what they look like.” I'd seen the same photos everyone else on Earth had: creatures that looked sort of like giant tortoises, only without shells, who stood upright on stubby legs and wore togalike garments that seemed to shimmer with a light of their own. “Pretty weird, but…”

“Ah, yes…and it's the ‘but' that's the crux of the matter, isn't it?” Goldstein studied the glowing end of his cigar. “A year on this world, and we still know little more about them than we did before they arrived. Although they know a lot about us…even Anglo, which their emissaries speak with the assistance of translation devices…they're very protective of what we learn about them. Believe me, I've had my people working at this for some time now. The best insight that I've been given is that they're probably descended from a ‘prey species'…a lesser form of life on their native world…that was subject to attack by predators until they learned how to compete. So they're cautious by nature, not given to opening up to others.”

“So you're afraid of them?”

Goldstein gave me a cold look. “No. Not at all. The Dominionists consider them a threat to their doctrine, but me…?” He shook his head. “If I really wanted, I could have their embassy nuked from orbit.”

“I think someone tried that already.” I remembered what had happened to the
Galileo
.

“True, and I have no desire to repeat that mistake. Besides, it would be contrary to my interests.” He took another drag from his cigar. “The
hjadd
want to pursue trade relations with humankind. Not with Earth, mind you…they don't trust that place, not after what happened with the
Galileo
…but with us, here, on Coyote. We have something they want, and they're willing to bargain for it.”

“And that is…?”

“Patience. We'll get to that.” I shut up, and he went on. “I'm not a diplomat, nor am I a scientist.” Dropping his voice, Goldstein gave me a conspiratorial wink. “Fact is, I'm not that much of a spacer even though I own a fleet of commercial spacecraft. The reason why I was aboard your ship in the first place was because I had to tend to business interests back on Earth, and the accommodations aboard the
Lee
are more comfortable than the ones aboard my own vessels.”

“I was wondering about that.”

“Keep it to yourself.” Another puff from his cigar. “At any rate…I'm an entrepreneur, Jules. A businessman, and a damn good one if I may say so myself. Started out by buying a secondhand lunar freighter that was about to be decommissioned and went from there.” He patted the coat pocket in which he'd put his pad. “The trick to striking it rich is spotting opportunities when they come up and seizing them before anyone else does. And the
hjadd
…”

“Are an opportunity.”

“Kid, I'm beginning to like you even more. Yes, the
hjadd
are an opportunity. Better yet, they're an opportunity no one else…particularly not my competitors…has managed to get their hands on. If Janus can reliably deliver what they want, then I stand to gain a monopoly upon whatever they have to trade in return. Not only that, but I'll have access to any other races with whom they have contact. When that happens, my company will become the sole freight carrier between us and the rest of the galaxy.”

“Uh-huh. And what does the Coyote government have to say about that?”

“Oh, don't worry.” Goldstein grinned. “They're in on it, too. The Federation Navy only has one ship big enough to handle that amount of cargo, and the
Lee
is already committed to the Earth run. After that, they have nothing but shuttles. And since I have the ships they need, they're just as willing to subcontract my company…for a generous share of the profits, of course.”

“Sounds like you've got everything lined up.”

“I've been working on this deal for the last six months, Coyote time. If all goes well, within the next two or three weeks we'll be sending the first commercial freighter to Hjarr…their homeworld, that is. There's just one last detail that needs to be taken care of…and that's where you come in.”

Goldstein glanced at the cell-block door, making sure that we were alone, then he shifted forward in his chair, leaning closer until his face was only a few inches from the bars. “One problem I had with this is putting together a crew,” he went on, his voice lowered once more. “I've got a lot of good people, but I know damn well that some of them are spies for my competitors…just as I've placed my own informants within their outfits. That's the way business is. Everyone wants to know what the other guy is doing and tries to use that info to their advantage. But with something like this…well, the fewer risks I have to accept, the happier I'll be.”

He toyed with the cigar in his hand. “So instead of bringing in a crew from Earth or Mars, I've decided to build a new team from scratch.” He stopped himself. “Well, almost entirely a new team. Out of necessity, my chief engineer comes with his ship. But he's been working for me for a long time now, and I trust him like I would my own brother. For all other positions, though, I've had to recruit local talent.”

I could see where this was leading…and even then, I couldn't quite believe it. “You want me?” I asked, and he nodded. “Why?”

“Because you impressed me.” Goldstein exhaled a mouthful of smoke, then looked me straight in the eye. “It took a lot of guts to steal that lifeboat the way you did, and it took even more to bring it safely to the ground. I know those lifeboats, kid…I've got the same type installed on my own ships…and they're a bitch to handle. And you managed to land one on your own, with no help from either the
Lee
or local traffic control. Like I said, I am impressed.”

“Thank you.” Yet I remained skeptical. “How do you know I'm not just lucky, though?”

“Once I found out who you were, I had my people check you out. You're a rather interesting fellow, Jules. Graduated fourth in your class at the
Academia del Espacio
. Served as a junior officer aboard the…what was the name of that ship?”

“The WHSS
Victory of Social Collectivism on Mars
.”

“Oh, yes. Right.” He rolled his eyes in distaste. “Never could understand the Union Astronautica's penchant for propagandizing ship names.” He frowned. “You might have eventually earned your captain's bars if it hadn't been for that business with your brother.” A pause. “You realize, of course, you could've saved your career if…”

“You're not saying anything I haven't heard before.” I didn't like to talk about Jim, particularly not with strangers. And so far as I was concerned, Morgan Goldstein was still little more than a rich guy who'd come to visit me in jail. “So what is it you want me to do? Be your commanding officer?”

Goldstein stared at me for a couple of seconds, then laughed out loud. “You certainly do have balls, don't you?” Leaning back in his chair, he shook his head in obvious amusement. “I already have a CO, son, along with a capable first officer. What I need now is someone qualified to fly a shuttle, or just about any other small craft we may have aboard.” His smile reappeared. “I had one or two other people in mind, but when I saw that you'd worked as a longshoreman on Highgate…well, I knew I had my man.”

If he meant to knock me down a peg or two, he did a good job of doing so. So I wasn't being recruited for the big chair, nor even for the little one, but for a task that notoriously falls to Academy wash-outs, with my former employment as a pod jockey being the final selling point. If this was a job interview, I might have been tempted to walk out of the room…if I'd been able to, that is.

“Thanks for considering me,” I murmured, trying to keep my temper in check. “So happy to hear that I'm suitable for your needs.”

“More than suitable. You're the very man I've been looking for.” Goldstein became more somber. “That is, of course, unless you want to go home. Then all I have to do is leave and let my friends among the magistrates know that you're not interested. In that case, they'll call you in first thing tomorrow morning. The legal system here on Coyote may not be very merciful, but it is quick. You'll get a fair and speedy trial, and I have little doubt that you'll be deported. After that…” He shrugged.

“And if I sign up with you?”

“Then I put in a good word for you with the maggies, informing them I'm willing to post bail for you if you plead
nolo contendere
. You get one year probation, the government takes into consideration your petition for political amnesty, and in the meantime you go to work for me.” Another smile. “I'll even throw in a salary commensurate with that of a first-class spacer…nonunion, of course…and see what I can do about finding you a room at an inn here in town. So what do you say?”

As if I had a choice? Besides, I had to admit, what he was offering was tempting under any circumstances. In the Union Astronautica, I might have eventually risen to the rank of captain…in which case I would have commanded a Mars cycleship, or even a Jovian freighter, and spent my life shuffling back and forth across the solar system.

At one time, that sort of thing had been my highest ambition. But now I was being given the chance to travel to the stars, to see things no one else in my class had ever dreamed of seeing. Sure, maybe it wasn't going to be from the vantage point of the captain's chair…but better this than a lifetime of sleeping on a prison cot.

“Yes,” I said. “I'd like that very much.”

“Excellent. Pleased to hear it.” Standing up, Goldstein dropped his cigar on the floor. “I'll have a chat with my friends,” he said as he ground the stogie beneath the heel of his shoe, “and send someone by to pick you up tomorrow morning.” He paused to look me over. “If you have a chance, write down your clothing sizes. That's a fine outfit you're wearing, but totally unsuitable for life here.”

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