The man was overly neat, Ross thought. Even in a worn envirosuit, the man seemed to exude excessive spit and polish. That suggested a military background to him, and that was one of the red flags they had agreed on before coming to Masaka.
"Mr. Carson, You seem to have some trouble finding work?" the man said with some condescension. "I heard you and your partner lost your ship."
"We lost the engineering pod to a debris strike at the rift," Ross related the official story. "Given her condition, our creditors declared her a derelict and paid someone to haul her in as such. We are now crewing for another operation."
"And that operation is looking for cargo?"
"Cargo, passengers, someone needing experienced salvage operators. Our new employer is not fussy."
"I see," the man let a sour look wash across his face. To this point he had been a real stone face, so Ross assumed that letting the expression be seen was intentional. "I usually deal with the owner or operator, not with their employees."
"I have been instructed to conduct all contract negotiations and I have a good deal of experience doing it. You will not meet my partners," Ross said, letting a low grumble roll across the back of his throat. That too was intentional. "You either have a need we can fill or you don't."
"Oh I have needs that I must fill," the man laughed. "Your ship doesn't appear to be in the registry though, and that means you cannot fulfill most of my needs."
"Well, there are needs, some of my clients have ... but we should perhaps move this conversation someplace more private if we're going to speak of those clients and their needs."
"That's it? That's the best you could do?" Pete asked incredulously.
"No," Ross responded sadly. "That's the closest I could come to getting us legal work. We're dipping our toes in a political controversy, but we'll have some support for our actions from those supporting our passengers."
"Passengers, you say," Dar asked. "and political? How?"
"Okay, here's the whole deal. We're going to Meier's World to pick up seven people. We'll be landing on the planet itself and transporting those people to the VulCor orbital transfer station there."
"That doesn't seem too outrageous," Pete observed.
"Its not, in and of itself," Ross agreed. "What makes it tricky is that we're picking these seven people up at a private field, not at one of the Meier's World ports. These are political refugees who are seeking asylum off-planet. To this point, the local government has done everything in their power to prevent them from leaving without declaring them criminals."
"Why not save themselves a lot of trouble then and just put them in prison?" Dar asked.
"Because these are members of one of the First Families – the original settlers of Meier's World and so part of their ruling class."
"So they are suffering from some sort of internal struggle within their own family?" Ship asked.
"So it would seem, and we are their deliverers."
"For which someone has agreed to remunerate us generously," Pete finished.
"The first families of Meier's World are known to be wealthy, but I don't think we are going to see the family coffers opened in gratitude for the small part we're about to play. We're one of a small army of agents involved in the effort, and not necessarily the one with the best position to make demands."
"So we are being used because we have surface to orbit capability and no registration number," Dar assumed out loud.
"Exactly," Ross agreed. "Now, here's the schedule as current plans have it..."
The Catamount settled through the initial confusion of orbital insertion without problems. The Sondag military guidance systems were designed to handle much more troubled insertions than this one, and the need for a fast drop with minimum exposure was what the ship had been designed for.
"We've got a lock on the landing beacon," Ship reported. "The frequency is far outside of the bands I'm finding other traffic on."
"That's good," Dar shifted his head to look at the display showing the two humans strapped into the two 'crew' seats in their freshly modified passenger cabin. The two men seemed to be calm enough. "Shedding altitude now," he announced, knowing they were listening. "Keep your claws in."
Ross and Pete both chuckled at the Sondag-ism from Dar, until the bottom dropped out and they began a sudden free fall. Getting that sort of feeling in a ship with the kind of sophisticated antigravity controls the Catamount had was impressive and scary. Both men moaned in their seats, but otherwise remained still.
'Good, ' Dar thought to himself. They had passed his first test. He might make warriors out of them yet.
The Catamount dropped through heavy cloud cover, headed for a small mountain range in the southeast corner of the continent visible below them in the view screen. An indicator blinked within it, indicating the source of the beacon.
"Anything on the screens?" Dar asked.
"Nothing," Ship answered. "Some activity very high up still, low orbital."
"All right, give me a ground sweep."
"Already done," Ship answered. "Surface vehicle traffic where you'd expect it, but nothing near our destination. We're not being tracked by anything I can pick up."
"Good, point me towards the emptiest spot you can find." An indicator lit instantly on Dar's own HUD field. Seeing it, Dar pulled the ship hard starboard and down, dropping further into the night below them, breaking through the high layer of clouds that had concealed them and into a layer of clear air between the cloud cover and the ground. With the clouds obscuring him from above and his lack of running lights hopefully aiding in concealing from below, he kept the hard starboard slide going until he'd covered several hundred miles. When it felt right, he pulled back up and into the clouds again, letting the Ship's nav systems keep them headed towards their again invisible target.
"That should be sufficient," Ship said as her sensors told her that Dar had relaxed within his restraints.
"It should, but you know me..."
"You won't let me have control back until we're on the ground, I know."
"Don't sound so depressed," Dar laughed. "You know you have full override authority in case of an emergency. Your electronic reflexes are way better than mine."
"But I'm predictable..." Ship groused.
"EI's just aren't random enough to be good at evasive piloting," Dar explained, and not for the first time during their relationship. "You, Ship, are amazing, but in this one way, you are ... limited in your creativity."
Ship was silent after the exchange. It had been the one thing the Sondag had not been able to build into their Electronic Intelligences. They had given them hope and fear and the ability to aspire and to dream, but they had not been able to give them that spark that made beings creative. Oh, they could synthesize with the best of them, and so in that way made excellent researchers, and scientists. When it came time to be random, or to make that leap of faith or intuition that went around logic if not against it, they were incapable. To Ship, it made no sense that it, having the ability to aspire, would choose something for which it knew it could not hope to achieve.
"We are within range of the landing zone," came Dar's voice over the ship's comm. "You can pick it up on the cabin's view screen if you'd like. We should be landing in a couple minutes."
"Thanks Dar," Ross answered. "Ship, seal the locks now."
"The bridge is sealed," came Ship's reply. "Its your show now."
The two men released their harnesses and rose, making sure the cabin was ready for their passengers, just as they had a half dozen times before they'd broken orbit. They both wore ship suits, modifications of those worn by the Sondag crew, with patches added here and there, particularly the Catamount shoulder patch, stolen right off the cover of the old heirloom Ross Carson had shown them the day they'd had their first conversation in drop bay two. Pete flicked the viewer on just in time to see the landing lights of the private field flicker on, a dull green glow that outlined an oval barely bigger than the Catamount itself.
"Looks like there's an outbuilding to the north," Pete called over the intercom. "Probably want to orient the passenger entryway that direction."
"Roger," came Dar's voice in response, and Pete and Ross saw the ships view start to rotate, even as they dropped so low that they could no longer see the entire area from above. A moment later, they felt a slight bump. "We're down," Dar called. "You're on."
"All right," Pete breathed, "Opening the passenger access." A hatch appeared in the side of the cabin, and irised open until an entry was visible. It was half a head taller than Ross and wide enough for Pete and Ross to walk through side-by-side if they'd wanted to.
"Extending the access ramp," Ross called from the other side of the hatch. A moment later a chime sounded. "Ramp extended and locked."
Pete walked down the ramp to stand at the bottom of it while Ross remained at the top. It took only a moment before a small group of people began moving rapidly towards them. Pete was counting heads and saw far more than seven individuals.
"Problem," he called over the ship suit's comm. "We've got more than seven people coming."
"I'm coming down," Ross said, moving even as he said it. He handed Pete one of the two stun guns they'd acquired for defense.
When the first of the people got to the bottom of the ramp and saw the two men with their weapons, he turned and shouted something to those behind him before turning back to the two men. "Why are you pointing weapons at us?" he asked.
"We were told to pick up seven people. I count at least three times that number." Pete answered.
"They are porters," the man said. "Were we supposed to carry our own bags?"
"I see rich people are no different in your part of space than they are in mine," came Dar's voice into their ears. The two men both stifled laughs.
"Sorry, but we have to be careful," Ross said. "Especially when we are all doing something we're not used to, eh?"
"Dar, open up the baggage bay," Pete called as the man nodded and held out his hand.
"We appreciate what you are doing for us here, our apologies if our lack of foresight caused you worry."
"No problem," Ross answered, reaching out with his own hand. "Welcome to the Catamount."
"I am Guyon Ewhes," the man said as they shook.
"Ross," Ross answered. "Seven only up the ramp, please. You're people will have to carry any personal items they aren't willing to put in the baggage bay themselves, sorry."
"We understand," the man nodded, and began directing those behind him. The shuffling of bags was minimal, with only a few bags coming up the ramps in the hands of the seven passengers.
Once the bags had been placed in the baggage bay, Ross gave the signal and Ship closed it. It took only a moment to get the passengers aboard and seated.
"All aboard," Pete signaled to Dar.
"All right," Dar responded over the ship's comm rather than through the suit so that the passengers heard him. "Lifting off. You've got about two minutes to get them seated and strapped in, and that goes for the two of you as well. After that, well, it could get bumpy."
"Roger," Ross answered. There followed a hurried but not rushed seating procedure as it was decided who would sit next to who in the various seat groupings. In the fully lit passenger cabin it was obvious that this was an older couple, a younger couple and three children, one of them a mere babe in a carrier. None of them seemed that familiar with the harnesses, and particularly panicked was the young mother of the baby, until Pete showed her how to fasten the carrier into a seat harness the proper way.
With everyone seated, Ross and Pete found their own seats and had no more than gotten themselves strapped in when Dar came over the intercom again.
"Prepare for rapid acceleration and high G maneuvers," the calm words seemed to belie their weight. "The inertial compensators may let some of this through."
No sooner were the words spoken than suddenly everyone felt themselves pushed hard into the backs of their seats. Their weight doubled and then they felt a sudden lurch to their left and a loss of gravity. The sickening feeling lasted only a second, but the sensations had gotten the baby crying, as well as the younger of the other two children, a little girl who Ross thought looked to be about five years old.
"Don't worry," Ross told everyone. "Dar is very good at what he does. If anyone can get us through safely, its him."
Fortunately, things settled down quickly, and before the passengers had much more time to register any discomfort, Dar was calling again over the intercom. "On approach vector to VulCor Orbital. Docking in ten minutes."
"Amazing," the older gentleman said. Ross and Pete silently agreed with him. They'd figured they had an experienced pilot, but this showed Dar to be something a bit more than that.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Ship's voice came over the intercom, surprising Pete and Ross, who hadn't anticipated the EI communicating with the passengers. "While our pilot negotiates our docking with the VulCor station command, he wanted me to advise you of a few things. First, and most importantly: the Catamount just finished a serious engagement with unknown forces whose aim was to shoot us down. No orders to heave to were given; in fact no attempt at communication was attempted by the ships who met us."
"What!" The younger man cried.
"Someone knew where we were going and when?" the older man asked.
"It would appear so," Ship answered. "Were it not for our ability to deflect most of their weapons fire, and our pilots abilities at evasive maneuvering, we would surely have been destroyed in the air."
"So it was a trap all along," the younger man said bitterly. "Someone betrayed us."
"So it seems," the older woman said after a moment of silence. "The question is, how thorough is the betrayal? Can we still count on the offer of refuge that VulCor has extended?"
"Were any of our attackers able to follow us into orbit?" Peter asked.
"Negative," Ship answered. "We were met by atmospheric attack craft only, nothing spaceworthy."
"Then..." he began before hesitating. "Look ... I'm no expert on the local situation, but it seems to me that if VulCor was part of this, then there would have been ships waiting for us in low orbit too, not just these atmospheric fighters."
"I agree," Dar's voice came over the intercom. "The people handling the VulCor station's comm just told me essentially the same thing." The pilot's seemingly unflappable voice seemed to settle the older passengers at least, but it was only a moment later that he added. "Docking procedure initiated. We'll have a green light at the hatch in a couple of minutes."
"Young man, what do you think your chances of getting paid are?" The older gentleman asked Ross.
"We're not likely going to see the rest of our payment," Ross answered after a moment of thought. "What we were paid up front will cover our expenses, but that's about it."
"While I am in no position to reward your efforts now, I am a man who honors his debts. If our family manages to survive the current struggle, know that you have a claim on the house Ewhes when the time comes that you can safely claim it."
Ross and Pete shook hands again with the elder Ewhes as well as the son, who gave us his name finally.
"Rogues," he said. Pete's eyebrow went up and the man laughed. "I know, but its a family name, what can I say, except that I echo my fathers words. Our family is in your debt, and we repay our debts."
In the ready room later that evening, after the Catamount was safely out of the system and things put back in order, the four of them discussed the recent events.
"We did break even," Ross commented.
"And we have a potential future in with a first family of Meier's World." Pete added.
"But we still have no mission, no prospect of getting the Catamount registered legally, and no agent to find us work." Dar groaned.
"We did learn that we have a really hot pilot that we can count on," Ross said with some measure of awe in his voice.
"That we did," Pete agreed.
"I could have told you that," Ship said.
The VulCor station chief sat in his comfortable chair in his plush office and stared into the screen, looking at the ship which had just dropped off Guyon Ewhes and his family. The ship was different; alien in its construction, but not so different as to raise his hackles. What it had was a damned good pilot and a pretty good crew, to get those people safely to the station. He knew they were leaving here with no hopes of getting paid for their work, and it was not something he could get away with doing, even if he were of a mind to, which he was not. Still, he liked to see faithful service rewarded, and he'd received orders from his supervisors. He might not be able to pay them their fee, but there were things he could do. Better he wasn't the one making the decision though. He pushed a button on his desk.
"Yes sir," came the smooth voice at the other end.
"Throw them a bone."
"Ross Carson?" a short man asked, stepping up their table.
"You are?" Ross asked.
"Andre Dupard," the man answered.
"Sit down," Ross gestured to the empty chair at the table. "This is my partner Pete Lopez. Can we order you a drink?"
"No thanks," the man snorted. "This place is a dive. I'm hoping we can conclude our business quickly."
"And what kind of business would that be?" Pete asked.
"Someone at VulCor told me that you have a fast ship, a good crew and a need to make some quick money without too much federation oversight."
"We're not looking to do anything illegal," Ross frowned and waved his hand in a negative gesture he'd picked up from Dar.
"Not talking Federation-illegal here, but it's definitely skirting the edges of some local laws. Anyway, its not my gig, I'm just the go-between. Can I arrange a meeting?"
Ross and Pete gave each other the eye, as casually as possible, each looking for some sign of negation on the face of the other. Seeing no sign on Ross' face, and not willing to say no himself, Pete gave Ross a shrug.
"We're being hailed, Captain."
"Kat, have you been watching the old Star Trek archives again?" Ross asked.
"Indeed, Captain," Kat intoned.
"Worf or Spock," Pete moaned. "Pick one and stick with it, Kat. Otherwise it'll get real annoying real fast, okay? What's the hail?"
"a gig from the station requests permission to dock and transfer one passenger," Kat answered, voice back to normal. "They're broadcasting the VulCor code."
"Ahh, our mystery client at last! Acknowledge their transmission, and direct the gig to the passenger airlock." Pete answered.
"Aye, Captain," Kat answered. "And thank you for doing so well at remembering to call me Kat."
"Sure, no problem, we've got to call you something besides Ship when there are customers around anyway, and I like Kat. Its a good human nickname."
"I like it too, and since the ship and I are more or less one..."
"Yeah, Kat and Catamount," Pete said with a grin towards the nearest vid pickup. "You're having fun with English, aren't you?"
"I do like learning new languages," Kat agreed.
"Dar, you okay here?" Ross asked the Sondag. "Anything we can get before you seal the hatch?"
"I'm good," Dar snorted. "This isn't exactly exile to a prison colony after all."
"Yeah, well Pete and I still feel a little weird about having to keep you under wraps."
"I'll be fine, now get to the passenger lock and greet our new customer."
It was only a few minutes later that the passenger cabin's airlock cycled and a short, heavily cloaked figure stepped into the cabin. Ross had joined Pete just in time and the two men stood side by side as the newcomer threw back the cloak's hood.
"Good morning gentlemen, I am Anya Keeler, and I hope you will be able to help me."
'Wow!' both men thought when the attractive young female face was revealed, followed by an equally silent 'Crap!' When she gave her name. Both men had their share of experience with women, from casual to committed. Ross in particular had some recent experience with a Belter, and if this woman's last name really was Keeler, then she was probably upper crust Belter at that.
"Yes, Keeler is my real name," she answered the unspoken questions etched on both men's faces. "I'm an executive purchasing agent for Olivian Interstellar Industries. I'm currently on vacation, and the current ruler of Keeler, President-For-Life Lloyd Xavier Keeler VIII, is my grandfather."
In the momentary silence that followed, Ross snorted involuntarily, causing Pete and Anya Keeler to stare. "Sorry," he said as soon as he'd done it. "It just struck me that we seem to be stuck dealing with the various first families of all the planets in Asgard Space."
"Ahh, the Ewhes families recent escape? It was your part in it that made me think you could help me, actually. I need a ship and crew that can do such things."
"Well then..." Ross gathered himself. "Welcome to the Catamount. We've set up the conference room with tea, coffee and a few light snacks. Lets go get something to drink and you can fill us in."
"All right," Ross said once they were settled in. "What can we do for you Miss Keeler?"
"How well do you know the Keeler system?"
"We've done some work there in the past, though not in this ship," Pete answered.
"We're familiar with the belts. We spent some time doing contract mining there a few years back," Ross added.
"So I don't have to explain Belters to you?" Anya asked, relieved.
"No we've even got a few contacts in the inner belt if we need them."
"Someone could explain Belters to me," Dar's new and oddly accented voice came over the comm.
"That's Dar, our pilot," Ross answered. "You won't be meeting him in person, but he's a full member of the crew. I'd forgotten that he might be interested in hearing about Keeler."
"Very well then," Anya agreed after a sip of her tea. "Could I ask you what you do know Dar, so I have some idea where to begin?"
"I know nothing beyond what can be found in the Federation Encyclopedia and the nav charts," Dar answered.
"Well, that's plenty, really. Keeler is the fifth planet of the system designated as AR-2479-A3. The star itself was once called Irillon Sigma, but the name was never much used outside the original community of stellar cartographers during the Great Diaspora. These days the star and planet are both called Keeler."
"Named for your great, great, great, great, great grandfather?" Dar asked.
"Correct. He was captain of the UPXV Cascade, and he and his crew discovered Keeler and three other planets with useable ecosystems during a six year stretch of exploration in this region of space."
"But only two of the planets are part of what we would call Asgard Space today?"
"That's correct, Meier's World and then Keeler were his first two discoveries, but the third was quite apart from the rest. It was also less than ideal in many ways and was never settled, though it is still mined on occasion, and the second planet in the system is used as a water stop by some ships."
"That would be Caribe?" Pete asked.
"Yes. It seems a shame to have wasted such a good name on what turned out to be so disappointing a world, but the clean, shallow seas turned out to be the only good thing about it." Anya Keeler stood up then and took her cloak off, and the two men were once again rendered momentarily agog. This woman was not just fair of face, but equally fair of figure, and they had both been long in space. Anya smiled when she saw them both swallow hard. "To continue, lets see..."
"Your ancestor returned to Keeler then, after the expedition ended?"
"He did," Anya nodded, taking a drink. "Meier's world was settled first, of course, and the original effort was a failure. Still, the planet was claimed by those who had funded the expedition. It was their right to try and fail, and then try again. They did try again, obviously, and succeed. Five greats grandfather Aaron had retired by then, and with so many of the worlds best industrial megacorps gearing up to provision the second Meier's effort, he saw an opportunity to ride on those coattails, and funded his own efforts to establish a settlement on Keeler."
"That funding always seemed to be less than clear whenever I studied Keeler's history," Ross interjected. "Your five-greats Aaron didn't seem to have the wherewithal to manage private funding, and yet he did manage it."
"That's because he rode the Meier's coattails even more than most knew," Anya laughed. "The initial survey's had shown Keeler's obvious mining potential. The Meier's people knew that as well as my family did. They had deep pockets themselves and struck a deal with Grandpa Aaron. In exchange for funding, Keeler would give them a percentage of the raw materials they mined for the first fifty years of operation. For the next fifty, they would get a price break above and beyond whatever other deals Keeler made. After a hundred years, the two governments could renew or renegotiate the deal. They did, and have continued to do so."
"So where do you fit into the Keeler legacy?" Pete asked.
"Nowhere, really," Anya sighed. "Grandfather Aaron married late in life, but proved to be prolific. He married three times and fathered fourteen children. My five greats grandmother was his second wife Magda. A member of her line has never ascended to a position within the family's ruling council. Nor is it likely one will. I'm the last member of that line and I was recently 'disinherited' by the family council and made to leave the system."
"Once again we're getting entangled with ruling family politics," Dar's voice came over the comm. "This doesn't seem like its a healthy trend, long term."
"Perhaps not," Ross agreed with a frown. "Particularly since we've been told your business is in the Keeler system and you've just told us that you're not welcome there."
"I'm not, but you and your ship would have no problems," Anya spread her arms wide, as if she was encompassing the ship and its crew with her gesture. The gesture reminded both men again that they were talking to a beautiful woman. "Keeler is an open system, you know that. The mining may be good, but the planet itself makes for difficult living. You can enter Keeler space without a Federation registry on the books and no one will care."
"But... ?" Pete asked. "I hear an unspoken but in there somewhere."
"I can't give you a map with an X marks the spot that would let you retrieve what I'm after, so I'll have to go along. I get caught in-system and I'm dead and you are in serious trouble."
"So we're not just being asked to smuggle something out of Keeler, we're also being asked to smuggle you in?" Dar asked.
"How far?" Ross asked. "In-system only, or actually on-planet?"
"On planet, but all you have to do is get me there and get me off again."
"That's it?" Pete asked. "We wont be pack mules?"
She said no, but everyone heard a hesitation in her voice. Even Dar could tell she was holding something back.
"what aren't you telling us?" he asked.
"Once I get what I need on Keeler itself, we'll have to make another stop."
"Where?" Ross asked.
"I don't know. I won't know until I've been back home."
"This is starting to sound riskier than I expected," Ross got up and refilled his coffee cup. He stayed there, leaning against the wall.
"well there will be some risk, of course," Anya shrugged. "But no more than you and this ship should be able to handle, if what I've been told is true."
"All right," Pete said into the silence that followed. "We've heard you out, but we're partners here, a business. We'll have to vote on it. Dar, what do you think?"
"I say yes," Dar answered.
"Kat?" How about you?"
"I vote no," Kat replied. "It sounds too risky."
"I have my reservations, but I say yes."
"Well Miss Keeler, it looks like you've hired the Catamount," Pete held out his hand.
"Wonderful," she said, shaking his hand and standing to shake Ross'. "Who's Kat?"
"Miss Keeler?" the intercom chimed and the voice came out of the dark again, more insistently. "Miss Keeler!"
"Yes, what?" she mumbled.
"time to wake up Miss Keeler," the voice came again. As she came more fully awake she realized it was Kat's voice - the mysterious co-pilot's voice.
"Thank you Kat," she said more clearly. "Are we there?"
"We're an hour from breakout," Kat told her. "We're just serving breakfast in the galley."
"Unnghh..." Anya rubbed her face pushing the last of the sleep away. "Do I have time for a shower?"
"Pete, where's the vanilla?" Ross asked. "Can't make waffles without a little vanilla for the batter."
"Isn't it in the spice rack?"
"No, that's why I'm asking you if you know where it is."
"Dar probably took it. He's practically addicted to the stuff. I even caught him putting some on his steak the other day."
"Yeah, but I don't think he liked the results."
"Speaking of Dar..." Ross triggered the ship's comm. "Dar, were you wanting waffles too?"
"With maple syrup?" Dar's voice came back. "Sure! What are you having with it?"
"Scrambled eggs and fried ham,"
"Could I have my eggs fried? Over easy?"
"No," Ross laughed. "You know we don't have any more fresh eggs. All we've got are the bulk scrambled eggs that come in one liter vac-seals."
"Oh well. Yes, I'll have scrambled eggs and bacon. I can't wait until I can cook again though."
"You cook, Dar?" Anya said as she came through the hatchway. "You can cook for me if you want. If it means I get to meet the mysterious pilot finally."
"Sorry Miss Keeler," Dar's regret could be plainly felt even through the comm. "You know that's not possible."
"I know it, yes. Understand it? Not so much," she teased. "What are you, horribly deformed? Are you some famous serial killer? That's it! You're actually Bradley Barnes, the Corellian Killer!"
"Oh come on!" Anya laughed. "Everyone knows who he is. He killed thirty two women over twelve years! He's as famous as the Federation president. More famous!"
"Dar, we'll get some breakfast your way just as soon as we can," Ross interrupted, heading off the conversation. "Better recheck the breakout parameters. We're under thirty minutes now."
"Right," Dar agreed, closing the connection to the galley with an audible click.
The Keeler system was mineral rich, and in interesting ways. There were two asteroid belts; an inner and an outer belt, both of which were heavy in interesting and often hard to get metals and transuranic elements. The system's Oort cloud was also rich with some of the more mundane but commercially viable minerals such as selenium, tellurium, and magnesium. The magnesium wasn't all that rare, but hard to find occurring naturally in its free metallic state. Keeler's Oort cloud was loaded with the stuff.
The inner belt was where all the really odd stuff was, especially the near and trans-uranics. The outer belt was where the more traditional inert metals were: the gold, silver and platinum.
Keeler the planet was human habitable, but reluctantly so in some ways. For a system so heavy in metals, the planet was surprisingly close to old Earth standards. 'Close, but no cigar' as Pete was fond of misquoting. There was life aplenty on Keeler, but little of it was fit for human consumption. Even worse, or at least more ironic, most of the life there seemed to find humans fit for consumption. Except for the fact that crop plants imported from Earth and the other colonies thrived in the rich Keeler soil, settlers would have been hard to find and even harder to keep. Farming is in some people's blood it seems, and such men and women were drawn to the fecund fields of Keeler's plains.
Plenty of theories existed to explain Keeler, system and planet, but most of those who lived there - and the Belters in particular, just chalked it up to living in an infinite universe and the influence of an old fellow called Murphy. Most of the planet was dedicated to agriculture and forestry. Cattle were raised as well, and poultry ranchers thrived as well, but most of the animal husbandry was conducted under a roof and behind walls. The native animals found imported animals as tasty as they found humans.
Keeler being a rough place to live, its population concentrated where the work was, and the work was in the belts. The inner belt's population centered around the asteroid Niveum and the outer belt's 'capitol' was Lucir. Because of the inescapable nature of the elements concentrated there, Niveum was far less open and freewheeling than Lucir, its outer belt counterpart. The former was locked down and closely held by the energy and power consortium. As with the gold rush camps of an earlier era on Earth, Lucir was rowdy, rough and wide open.
"Lucir control this is Catamount, inbound at your six and north," Kat called over the com. "Do you copy?"
"Catamount, this is Lucir Control, we copy and have your course," came the reply.
"Lucir Control, Catamount requesting clearance for stable orbit," Kat returned immediately.
"Affirmative Catamount, prepare to receive guidance."
"Ready for guidance Lucir Control."
"Catamount, this is Lucir Port Services. Will you be needing shuttle services or fueling?"
"Negtive Lucir, we have our own gig and require no fuel at this time."
Kat let the Lucir computerized parking system blip parking instructions into our navcom – really into a jury-rigged box wired into her control panel that tied Pete's homemade navcom into the Catamount's own systems. The navcom cooked the guidance instructions a little and then handed them off to the Catamount's own nav systems.
"Lucir Control, Catamount is under guidance and estimate two hours to assigned orbit."
"Affirmative Catamount," came the answer. "Welcome to Lucir."
"Cynda? It's Anya."
"Yes, it has been a long time. I'm doing fine, really. How are you? How's Dev?"
Ross and Pete were simultaneously amused and frustrated at hearing only one side of the conversation. The secure beam, voice-only transmission was as secure as Kat could make it, and tapping into the incoming side of the signal would have lessened the security, so the Catamount's crew had decided against it.
"Of course it bothers me, Cyn," Anya Keeler laughed into the com. "I'm a Keeler after all, even if I was never one of the competitive ones. I would have liked a chance to gather my personal possessions before I was kicked out of the system, but apparently I was just so dangerous." Anya drew out and dramatized the 'so', and laughed afterward. There was a long pause where the men could see her nodding her head in silent agreement with something said on the other end. "Well, I would like to at least see if my storage unit is still intact, and maybe claim what's stored there."
"Yes, I'd like to do that too. Maybe even Magda's?"
"Well, our line has never been at the center of things, I'm proof of that, aren't I? Her memorial is as isolated from the rest of the Keeler kin as she was. All right. Two it is."
When the call was disconnected, Anya turned and stared for a moment at the two men who stared back expectantly. "That was Cynda Balarde, a childhood friend. I've been corresponding with her during my exile, and she's willing to help."
"How confident are you that her willingness is genuine and not a trap?" Pete asked.
"Very. Cynda was someone who needed a lot of help herself when we were young. I was her only friend most of her childhood. We were both each others only friends for most of those years, to be honest. She sees my banishment as an injustice, especially given my complete lack of aspirations regarding the Keeler legacy."
"Won't it seem suspicious if she suddenly has visitors from off-planet?" Ross asked.
"Her being such a social pariah and all?" Pete added.
"No. We may have been outcasts during our childhoods, but Cynda has become one of the most successful micro artists in Asgard Space. Her work even sells back on old Earth. We can pass ourselves off as some of her off-planet admirers. "
"Really?" Pete's jaw dropped a little. "I've heard of these micro artists. They carve images onto the inside of crystals and gemstones."
"That they do, and Cynda does it very well. She works mostly on commission now, and it has made her financially secure apart from her family and its connections."
"So you will meet her on Keeler and she will take you to the places you need to go?"
"No, we'll meet her. She'll expect me to have bodyguards, and you two will fit the bill. She will meet the three of us at the Keeler University shuttle pad and we'll go with her to my university storage unit. It was rented under an assumed name and I shouldn't have to worry about it being watched. If there are any questions, we have Cynda for cover."
They had a real problem with planetary landings – not that they couldn't do it, rather it was that Catamount would stir too much curiosity if she were seen landing herself. Her ability to do that was still too large an advantage to advertise openly. She was larger than most private craft and even a good deal of the commercial liners and live freight haulers. As those types of ships were orbit-to-orbit only, so Catamount had to pretend to be as well, for now. When they could manage a landing outside the planetary grid, they were unbeatable, but when they needed to go with the established flow, they were handicapped. Even in the short time they'd been with her, Catamount had become home, and Ross and Pete both felt somehow exposed when they were away from her.
They hired a shuttle and met it at Lucir's shuttle terminal. The local transportation was an independent hire and the pilot a small, rotund man with a non-stop line of chatter that contained no discernible information and which he directed exclusively at the well shrouded figure of Anya. Ross eyeballed the shuttle's controls, comparing them to what he knew. While Pete scanned the display, trying to get a sense of the space the shuttle had to operate in.
The commercial shuttle was spartan, the walls bearing evidence of many coats of paint, and here and there an almost desultory attempt at advertisement, seemingly aimed only at farmers, ranchers and veterinarians. The shuttle pilot only spoke once, just before we broke orbit. Everything else was automated; canned messages that the shuttle crew probably didn't even have to push a button to get started.
"Something like this would fit into one of Catamount's empty cargo holds, wouldn't it?" Pete asked.
"The shuttle? Sure, but one of the newer Perseid Industrial models would be even better. They're a good twenty feet shorter and five feet narrower. This shuttle would have to be parked side down. The PI Comet 212 could maintain its normal orientation within one of the holds – make it a lot easier to get passengers in and out and less stress on the antigrav systems."
"Sounds like you've been looking at some of the online catalogs," Anya laughed.
"Sure, we both do once we're in-system. Some of its wishing, but mostly it was keeping track of what was going on, you know? The news vids will tell you about the latest disaster or political tiff, but when you want to know what people are buying and selling, and what's considered current..."
"You check out the online catalogs," Anya finished for him.
"Exactly," Ross jumped in. "Planetary shuttle duties are one of those things we weren't able to do with our old ship."
"We would have never gotten any passenger business either. The Eudoxus was barely up to the task of keeping us alive, let alone passengers."
"Our old ship, sorry Anya," Ross apologized. "Sometimes we forget you don't know all about us from the old days."
"Didn't you consider the need for an orbital shuttle when you were looking at the Catamount?"
"Well, it was sort of a one-time, as-is kind of deal, and not one were we had a lot of options."
"Why do I keep thinking there's a lot more to this than meets the eye?" Anya asked Ross in answer to that last bit of information. "Especially given your pilot and copilot's reluctance regarding public appearances."
"Strap in folks, we're entering the KU landing pattern," The pilots voice came over the intercom.
"Hold that thought," Ross said as he reached for his web harness. Anya's look of frustration flared even higher than it had just been, but then went away as she concentrated on getting ready to land.
Science Fiction /