‘How long have you owned the bar?’
‘Four years. Seems like forever,’ said the barman, pouring another shot of synthetic bourbon for a customer he’d known long enough he didn’t need to be asked. That done, he turned back to the man who’d spoken. The newcomer looked anxious and jittery in his dishevelled suit.
He’s new at this, he thought to himself. I should really let him suffer. Learn the ropes.
The barman would normally string noobs along, making them sweat, but tonight the bar was rammed. A commercial liner had come in, with four hundred NAA tourists on board, for an overnight stay; tomorrow, they’d be heading back into the core worlds, and wherever they called home. Four hundred rich, privileged idiots, nearly all trying to convert the last of their Euros back into Dollars.
It would have made a certain sense to them, sentimentally if nothing else, to carry the currency most commonly accepted in the outlying systems their cruise had taken them through. After all, when the tour guide says, “it’s quicker to haggle with local colonists using their preferred currency, they’ll respect you more,” it’s a hard-headed traveller who’ll call it for the crap it self evidently was.
And the type of tourist who takes a cruise around the edges of the core worlds is unlikely to be what one might call hard-headed.
The guy in front of him was probably here on behalf of the cruise ship’s staff, looking for a decent exchange rate. He’d most likely offer to split the difference between the mid-market and the bid with his broker, a comfortable little scam to lighten the passengers of a little of their wealth without truly hurting anyone.
‘You must get a lot of these cruises through here.’ He had a hook nose and thin, greasy hair that stuck to his skull, making him look as if he’d just been through a downpour. The barman could see the pallor beneath the artificial tan.
‘About one a week. Mostly NAA, but we get them from the PTA as well. Different ships, same dramas. On the whole.’ The barman was called Tan, and his family were long-time immigrants, assimilated into the NAA generations before Alcubierre discovered his singularity-in-a-jar that made interstellar travel possible. Whatever the origins his epicanthic folds suggested, he always thought of himself as pure-bred North American Alliance.
The clamour of the bar reminded him just how badly his staff were run off their feet, and suddenly he wasn’t interested in skewering the green guy. ‘Look, I’m happy to exchange currencies. We’re the cheapest on the station and everyone knows it – including you. Come back later, preferably after the breakfast rush, and I’ll pass you onto my day trader; he’ll make sure we’re both happy with the rate you get. Okay?’
The stranger stared at him. ‘I don’t need currency fencing. Thanks, though.’
‘You came in on the Freedom’s Growth?’ The guy nodded, which only confused Tan more. ‘You’re the new guy, the other crew asked you to come and speak to me?’
A shrug. ‘something like that.’ He was starting to look green around the gills, and it was then that Tan’s heart sank a little. It’s going to be messy, he thought.
‘So what did you want to speak to me about?’
‘Why’d you say that? I haven’t got time for long stories.’ He squinted at the man, trying to get his measure. ‘Especially if they’re awkward.’
‘I’ve got materials I need to sell’ – he hesitated – ‘on behalf of the people I’m here representing.’
‘Let me stop you there, buddy. I don’t care where this stuff comes from, or who you’re working for. Now, can you not just skip to the end?’ Tan was getting very nervous, imagining dead bodies, slaves and any number of other crimes he wouldn’t be prepared to risk his bar over – especially if he was working with amateurs.
‘I’ve got a half-dozen kilograms of uncut emeralds.’
‘I see.’ Tan looked at the bar; he figured his staff could cope, that they were all little heroes in their own way and would rise to the challenge, etc. ‘Tell me.’
‘Three systems out from here, the captain decided he’d take the tourists on a little jaunt onto the periphery proper. Just one jump, of course, and we wouldn’t leave the Lagrange point. The others say he does it regularly, especially when some of the richer passengers pay him to do it. So we jumped into the system, and comms immediately picked up a distress signal. So then he was bound; the log would record the call, we had no choice but to investigate.’ He shook his head, as if it would have been easier to risk a charge of dereliction.
He has no idea, thought Tan. If the authorities discovered they’d not aided a stricken ship, regardless of the prospect of finding survivors, the captain would be discharged – at best – and the crew could be sued by the craft’s owners.
‘It was about thirty AUs from the jump point, but our intra-system engine could do that in one leap. We arrive and find the wreckage of a mining sloop. No bandits in sight, so we set about seeing if there are any survivors – the first officer was very adamant we had to do it by the book. Nothing. Everyone’s dead; all thirty of them. Mainly from exposure.’ Tan shivered at the thought. Better to be blown up than slowly die from lack of atmosphere.
‘Black box shows they didn’t perform their maintenance properly. Seems they performed too many jumps without a mechanic seeing the engine, and one day their singularity went and crushed half the ship before you could say “collapsed magnetic field.” Their entire shipment of iron ore was still there, stuffed to the gunnels. In the captain’s quarters, we found she’d also managed to mine gemstones.’
‘I see.’ Tan was already figuring the cut.
‘We’ve reported the wreck, handled the bodies. We’ve not broken the law.’
‘And you want to get paid for being the good guys.’
The guy was silent, eyes searching the bartender’s face. Tan wasn’t interested in empathy; he was interested in percentages. People used emeralds in displays, navigation and comms. Plenty of buyers out there, especially the smaller companies carrying out research and construction far from the prying eyes of the Great Powers.
‘I know people who have an axe for this stuff. Bid offer is huge, though.’ He shrugged. ‘Given the provenance, obviously.’ He didn’t mention it was the green’s first deal and no one was interested in taking anything from an amateur unless it was worth their while. There weren’t favours for peoples’ own mothers, let alone numpties who walked off a cruiser and asked the crowd straight if anyone would help blur the rules.
The seller looked at him expectantly; he didn’t even know how to ask for terms. Tan sighed inwardly. ‘They’ll need forty percent of the sales price.’
Tan nodded solemnly and shrugged, as if it weren’t his fault.
Bugger, he thought, I should have started at sixty.
‘Bring them in at lunch time, I’ll have the credit note for you then.’ With that, it was done. The green sold his goods and the crew all left a little bit better off. None of them saw life-changing amounts of currency, but then no-one ever did. And yet, life would be a little brighter for each of them, and all they needed to do was square their gain with the lives lost that had made it possible.
Tan reasoned the people on the ship would have had insurance. So who, really, was the loser? He just hoped none of them were group-mind affiliates, because those guys would remember their gems and come looking. It wouldn’t be his problem, of course, but the crew of that cruise liner would definitely regret their victimless gains.