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The Blackpatch Job

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue.

The closest thing a backwater planet like Line’s End had to a real ocean-type beach was Lake Chichiturrich, which in the language of the early Chirper inhabitants meant something like “calmingly pretty.” It was certainly that, Jenny Symming thought, idly fingering the stem of an ethanol martini glass. In fact, the lake was at least large enough that you couldn’t see the other side from the wharf’s-edge bars, so it was possible to close one’s eyes and pretend it was saltwater rather than fresh, and that venturing into a boat might lead you into distant unexplored lands, instead of the Line’s End startown a few miles away. The vacationers she saw now—mostly scouts from the base at the highport—were various sorts of humans, usually Imperial, and it must have been the weekend for them, because the boardwalk was choked with muscular Vilani and Solomani military adventurer types, constantly almost running into one another and occasionally saluting.

“How long till Arvil comes back?” said Ramesh Kapur, the engineer. “It’s been like three hours.”

“Who knows?” said Jenny. “Every startown is different. Sometimes he finds nothing, sometimes a cargo is just waiting on the platform. We’ve got a few days in maintenance anyway, so just relax. Arvil can take care of himself.” Arvil was their pilot, an ex-Merchant Marine with a wide friendly face and no discernible conscience. For this reason, he was usually in charge of shopping.

The crowd was so overwhelmingly human that it struck Jenny as a little strange when a hyenalike Vargr appeared in the boardwalk crowd and turned to look at her. The Vargr wore a sky-blue swimsuit—just the trunks—with a matching towel over their shoulder and a silver corkscrew earring going through her—it must be a her—left ear five times, with a small shiny pendant glinting at the bottom. The earring marked the Vargr as a medium-ranking female. Jenny tapped the table to get the attention of her engineer, Ramesh Kapur, who had been staring into his soybeer rather inattentively. The Vargr was headed straight their way, a smile on her muzzle. Reddish fur, with pale pink spots along her flanks. Ears up and friendly, but with a sly look in her eyes.

“Pardon me,” said the Vargr in Gvegh-accented Anglic, without looking in any way humble, “but do I have the pleasure of addressing the crew of the Far Trader known as the Empress Tomatova?”

“You’ve got two of us,” said Jenny. “I’m captain, he’s engineer. And you are?” She did not motion for the Vargr to sit down.

“Forgive me for seeming forward,” said the Vargr, still not seeming in any way apologetic. “It is my…habit to keep an eye on exceptional starships, and when my ship docked, I noted that yours was one of the only non-scouts moored at the startown downport. I believe the model is called a Far Trader? Capable of a two-parsec jump?”

“Three,” said Ramesh. “We upgraded. Not two. Three.”

“Three! My goodness,” said the Vargr. “That must take quite a lot of room. And on a quiet planet such as this, it must take a long time to get fueled up.”

“True,” said Ramesh. “But we were going to be here a couple days anyway. We blew through half our tanks just getting here, and—” and then he noticed Jenny looking at him, and shut up.

“You must be from the Type R merchant,” said Jenny. “At 400 tons, it sort of stands out in a sea of scouts, too. I didn’t catch the name.”

The Vargr nodded. “Our ship is called the Irshusshi. The Vilani word for fortune, you know. We work for the Kutera Merchant Lines, and my name is Ogazharra. We serve freight needs througout the Arnakhish subsector. I am the ship’s navigator.” She looked to her left, ears twitching, then swiveled her head back to face them. “I have a rather…sensitive request. An offer, really. May I sit down?”

Jenny nodded at Ramesh, who scratched his black beard skeptically but slid aside along the bench to give the Vargr room. The Vargr smiled, sat, and leaned forward over tented fingers, back tail curled up behind her like a scorpion.

“Thank you. Now, you should know that I was not always a navigator. I am a native to the Arnakhish Subsector…”

“My sympathies,” said Ramesh, but the Vargr ignored him.

“…And I’ve done my time with all the employment opportunities available in the Twelve Worlds here, including the Imperial Scouts and various odd jobs right across the lake in the startown. In short, I have connections throughout the subsector, and this has led me to my current dilemma.

“As it happens, Line’s End is one of the few places anywhere in the subsector where it is possible to grow healthy, high-quality blackpatch lichen, which—as I’m sure two people of the world such as yourselves are aware—may be relatively easily converted into a drug known as E-High, or Black Dream, or…”

“Ebony Fever,” said Jenny. “That’s what they call it where I’m from.”

“Excellent,” said Ogazharra. “The point is, I have access to a series of rather enterprising young scientists who have just discovered a way to mass synthesize a very high amount of this lichen, at a very high level of quality. And I, in my excitement, purchased everything they had. Which amounts to a ton.”

“You have a ton of mushrooms?” said Ramesh.

“Lichen,” said Jenny.

The Vargr wiggled her hand back and forth. “Not quite a ton. But certainly most of a standard cargo container. And I can see in your eyes, Captain Symming, that you are already doing the math. And I can assure you that, whatever number you have come to, you are considerably underestimating the profit involved. The drug has been popular throughout the subsector for many years, and has also been in very short supply and in low quality. This drug represents the first genuine breakthrough in quality and quantity in the history of the subsector. The first person to deliver this drug to the Twelve Worlds will profit immensely, right before the market becomes glutted. Millions of credits—literally millions—rest in that single one-ton container.”

“Sounds like a great deal for you,” said Jenny.

Ogazharra sighed. “Naturally, I had hoped to be the one to profit in this way. My job takes me readily to all the Twelve Worlds, and it would be a simple matter to vend them on the side after Kutera business, using my lifetime contacts. However…” and here the Vargr became so choked up that it didn’t even seem like an act. “My captain found out and is not willing to risk the consequences of being caught, since there is an Imperial ban on the drug, and there is a regional Scout station at the highport right above us, not to mention a certain…intensity of Imperial presence throughout Arnakhish generally. This is unfair, to my mind. The drug is nonaddictive, has no hangover effects, and results in nothing but pleasure for all involved. The fact that it’s illegal at all is an artifact of outmoded Imperial tradition rather than anything of actual ethical moment. I have argued until my throat is sore, and have decided to keep my job. So I am forced to sell my store of blackpatch lichen at a terrible loss. I was hoping you might be open to the purchase.”

“Why us?” asked Jenny.

“Why not the local scouts, you mean? Any number of reasons. Even when scouts aren’t Imperium operated, their crews often have Imperial histories and loyalties. But even an independent scout on a vacation spot like this rarely has even 1 ton of cargo space. You surely do.”

“There’s another merchant docked down here,” said Jenny. “Why aren’t you talking to them? Or have you already?”

“Ah yes, the Type A. They will be my next stop if you refuse me. I admit, I simply liked the look of your ship and crew a little better. So I’m giving you first opportunity.”

“How much?”

The Vargr looked pained. “One—no, two hundred and fifty thousand. Plus a slight handling fee, of course, so we’re not seen. Perhaps two thousand more?”

Ramesh actually sucked in his breath. Jenny thought for a moment, and said “Done. When can you deliver it?”

“Tonight,” said Ogazharra. “We’ll bring the entire container in disguise. It will look like a maintenance service truck, moving back and forth from a supply train. Also, I have to insist that you take twenty other empty containers as well, just to act as cover for the real product.”

“Twenty one containers is exactly our capacity, so that will be perfect. Sounds like a long night of loading, but it’s acceptable. But no money till I confirm we have at least one container of the real thing.”

“Of course,” said the Vargr, rising and extending her pawlike hand. “Let us consider it agreed upon.”

“See you tonight,” said Jenny, meeting the handshake, and the two watched as the Vargr walked away, apparently to go swimming now that her business was done. Jenny turned to her engineer. “Sorry, Ramesh. I know you were hoping to finally get a turret.”

“That’s okay,” said Ramesh. “This is an amazing opportunity. I hope it’s legit.”

“I think it’s a legitimate offer,” said Jenny. “That’s why I didn’t bother to bargain. But I also think Ogazharra is going to screw us over.”

“What? Why?”

“Her story didn’t make any sense. For one thing…oh, wait. There’s Arvil. We have a few things to take care of after tonight’s delivery. We might be up late.”

And sure enough, there at the end of the boardwalk appeared Arvil, calmly in possession of a smile that said he had a possible cargo. As it happened, Arvil had found a few tons of batteries that would probably sell on Rusaada, but it was a mediocre haul and he knew it, so he was baffled but happy when Jenny and Ramesh filled them in on their new plan.

“Are you sure about this?” said Arvil. “If you think we’re going to get screwed over, why did you agree to the deal?”

“Because I think we can beat her. Because our ship is special in ways she can’t possibly be expecting.”

Arvil rubbed his cheek nervously. “I hope you’re right, boss. The only thing worse than an Imperial prison is a backwater Imperial prison. I’ve been once, and that was plenty for me.”

“If I’m wrong, I’ll give you the ship,” said Jenny. “In the meantime, I need you to go to whatever market you just were and get a bunch of laborers. Six to twelve, maybe. Whoever looks reliable, circumspect, and fast. Especially fast. We might not have much time after the delivery to set up our counter.”

“You got it, boss,” said Arvil.

“And Arvil,” said Jenny, “Offer them good money but not great money. We want trustworthy people, but we don’t want to attract attention.”

The shipment arrived at midnight, as expected, ushered by a handful of humans in Kutera coveralls, who apparently, like the Vargr, were doing jobs on the side. When they left, Jenny walked among the containers and made sure there was only one container of lichen out of twenty-one. In mere minutes, the container was open and the laborers Arvil had hired were at work, using pails and boxes and every spare container they had. Jenny climbed to the top of the cargo unit nearest the rampway and saw that Ramesh was already there, standing aloof and looking puzzled, as if he wouldn’t be infected by the lawbreaking if he watched it from a safe distance.

“You don’t need to be here, Ramesh,” said Jenny. “We were really lucky. The lichen was already cut into bricks. This is going to go faster than I expected. I was afraid we were going to be using scoops and vacuums and watching the clock the whole time.”

“I know, but, by the Suns, I’m curious. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Well, we’ve got a little time.” Jenny pulled out her touchpad. “Everything that Vargr said was factual, but her story didn’t make any sense. Have you seen the subsector map of this place?” She made a few swipes and taps, and there was a map of the Arnakhish Subsector. “She kept referring to the Twelve Worlds, but look. She’s in a Fat Trader, right? It’s got a one-parsec jump limit. Now look at the circuit Kutera Lines must be following—this whole line of systems each one parsec apart: Folly, Iesha, Lupegaa, Line’s End, Rusadaa, Kimarla, Sadiikashe, Shakuur, Fhaia and Eaunna. Ten worlds. Do you see anything weird about them?”

“I’m not really an astrogator,” said Ramesh. “I don’t get maps.”

“Look at the planet codes. This one’s a Type C starport. This one’s a D. Another D there. That one barely has any population. That one has no atmosphere. You said it yourself: this is a miserable excuse for a subsector. We’re only here because it was the closest vacation spot available when we needed maintenance. Out of ten of these worlds combined, you aren’t going to find enough wealthy buyers to take this much product off your hands no matter how much you lower the price. Her story about selling on the side—you know, after her official day job of selling grain and seeds and farm equipment—doesn’t make any sense. None of these places can afford it.”

“Well if they can’t sell the drugs, why are they making the drugs?”

“Because of the other two system planets over here,” she said, and swiped to enlarge. “Especially this one: Imgaa. It’s got the only Type A starport for a dozen light years, a population in the dozens of millions, all of them gamblers, most of them incredibly wealthy, and its law level is on the lobby floor. Drugs aren’t even illegal there. Their neighbor system, Cimmeria, is basically a smaller version of Imgaa. If Ogazharra truly grew up here, she would obviously know this. The fact that she claimed otherwise is very suspicious.”

“So why would she give us the drugs?”

“Look at the map. Imgaa is three parsecs away. For us, that’s one week’s jump. And the first person who gets there makes the killing. Scouts have jump one. She’s in a jump two. She’d beat any of them by a week. But we’d beat her by a week, too. We are the only competition she has, so she has to get rid of us, and it’s worth delaying her own takeoff for a day to make sure this happens. If I had to guess, I think she’s got connections in the Imperial police, and she wants us to get caught in possession of the lichen so that we’ll be grounded. Then maybe she gets the drugs back with a bribe or something and heads to Imgaa herself.”

“But why would she even involve us? We don’t normally smuggle illegal materials.”

Jenny laughed. “You don’t check our holds very carefully, do you?”

“What? What are you saying?”

“I’m sorry. Did you think we were sitting on three hundred thousand credits because this planet really needed evaporators? We made a really good deal on military grade cybernetics. The black market kind. They were hidden inside the evaporators.”

“Captain!” Ramesh put his hand to his throat, and Jenny noticed the four-pointed star tattooed on the back, symbol of his faith. “I don’t want to be a criminal.”

“Relax, Ramesh. You’re not, technically. You’re just an engineer. Seriously, forget this whole conversation if you want. The less you know, the safer it is for you. Half the time even I don’t ask. Arvil is the business expert.”

“So you think Arvil…caused this somehow?”

Jenny shrugged. “I think Arvil went to startown, started bragging about our ship, like you’d expect a salesperson to do, and it got Ogazharra’s attention. Nothing especially foolish. He just showed up and talked to some shady people and that was enough. She gave us just enough of the product to make us interested, and she filled our hold with boxes so we can’t entertain any other offers…such as, oh, let’s say some rival producer’s lichen hidden in a bunch of evaporators.”

“Do you actually think we can pull this off?”

They watched the transfer continue. Jenny checked her pad. They were making really good time. The workers should get a bonus.

“Probably. My only real concern is that there might be another Vargr coming. Do you think you can arrange a fuel spill?”

Ramesh looked offended, but it only lasted a moment. They traded a look that was a kind of conversation, and Ramesh began stroking his beard. When he smiled, Jenny knew she had him.

The workers were sent off with their bonuses and vows not to say anything, and then there was nothing to do but wait for the second boot to fall. It meant more work later, but they wouldn’t be in a hurry then. The point, Jenny told them all, was to remain casual and forget what they’d just done. It was Ramesh’s idea to set up a little folding table for a three-handed game of Hunt the Moons.

“That’s perfect,” said Arvil. “Vargr love that game for some reason.”

They were actually lost in the game and interested in the outcome when they got the signal at the rampway. Imperial security force, scout detachment. Jenny answered the door with another martini in her hand, testament to the casualness of this meeting.

The lead scout—a beardless man so young that he seemed a child, really—glared stiffly under a low cap and waved a touch tablet he was barely referring to. “Am I speaking to the captain of the Empress Tomatova?”

“That is correct.”

“We have received a report that you are in possession of illegal blackpatch lichen which can be used in the manufacture of Black Dream.”

“Oh, goodness!” said Jenny. “That would be a big surprise to me. If you’ve got a warrant, by all means come aboard.”

The man flashed the warrant—his nametag read JAGGOR—and he waved in his people, eight in all, each in police uniforms, including one new Vargr they hadn’t seen before. Jenny nodded as they made their way in, boots clunking and echoing on the metal floor of the cargo hold.

“Black Dream, did you say?” offered Arvil, still sitting at the table. “So that’s what they call it here.”

“This is a much narrower cargo bay than usual,” said Jaggor, frowning.

Jenny nodded. “Yeah, be careful. When we went to a jump-3 ship, we had to make room for the fuel tanks.” She gestured to the left and the right, both of which bore enormous fuel containment chambers, which people didn’t normally see unless they were engineers. “It does eat up a lot of space. The specs are right here if you want to see them. All accounted for. No secret compartments.” She handed the officer a pad with the blueprints. They carried an official signature proving that the math checked out. “Not that we’d reveal any secret compartments if we had any, of course, but I’m just trying to save you time.”

“We’re going to need to check your cargo manifest.”

“You’re looking at it. Twenty one containers, all empty. It shouldn’t take long to confirm.”

The Vargr strode past and paused before their card table. “You’re playing Hunt the Moons?” The name on his uniform read HARANGH. “Who’s winning?”

Arvil raised his hand. “I picked up a few tricks from a Gvegh in Dagudashaag.”

Harangh’s ears twitched and he peered at the cards with interest. Meanwhile the troops opened the crates one at a time. Empty containers are, as it happens, very easy to confirm, and they were indeed all empty.

“Harangh?” said Jaggor. “Are you getting anything?”

Harangh’s snout wrinkled. “Nothing. There’s been a fuel spill recently, and it’s drowning out everything else. I can’t even smell the soybeer.”

“Oh, that,” said Arvil. “We’re sorry about that. It happens with these engines, you know. Aftermarket adjustments are always a little twitchy. In fact, I’d recommend you stay clear of the fuel tanks if you can. They’re pressurized for a reason.”

Jaggor gave the whole room another sweep of his head and sighed.

“Is everything okay, officer?” said Jenny. “You look like you were expecting something more interesting. I don’t know who tipped you off, but if I were you I’d fine them for making a false report.”

He gave up with his entire body. Signaling his team to stop, they dropped their flashlights and tablets and stood at attention behind Jaggor. “Just out of curiosity: Why would you be carrying twenty-one empty cargo containers?”

“Because that’s all we have room for. There’s a vendor on Rusadaa--a friend of mine--who needs some fresh containers and we were headed there anyway. Surely empty containers aren’t illegal?”

Jaggor shook his head with something akin to disgust, and motioned his team out. He was the last to leave, tipping his hat to Captain Symming on the way out.

As soon as they were far enough away, Jenny laughed. “Some Vargr is about to get an angry call from Sergeant Jaggor.”

“What if they come back?” said Ramesh.

“A sophont who…well, let’s just call them an entrepreneur like that Vargr has a lot of contacts, but they’re only good for one favor each. I think she’s just burned her luck on Line’s End. We’ll be gone long before there’s any blowback. Let’s get those bricks out of that tank. Great job, Ramesh, by the way.” Ramesh had hated to do it, Jenny knew, but he’d damaged the fuel tank door so elegantly, with a bulge at the seams and some stress along the neighboring panels, that it genuinely looked dangerous to open. Ramesh did open it, however, revealing almost a ton of lichen, wrapped in paper in hand-sized bricks and resting on the thickest tarp Arvil had been able to find.

“The nice thing about a ship like ours is every time we pull a jump-3, we have exactly one completely empty fuel tank. We can’t fill it without blowing our cover story, and with only one tank left filled, we can just make it to Imgaa, but then we’ll need to refuel completely. Fortunately, I think we’re going to make enough money that we’ll be able to afford to stay on Imgaa awhile.”

“And get a turret!” suggested Ramesh, handing Captain Symming a boxful of lichen.

“Sure,” said Jenny, swiveling to give it to Arvil, bucket brigade style. “Heck, let’s make it a double.”