As always, this is a snippet. All rights remain with me, you may freely share the post, but the content is mine. This is a rough draft. There will be errors, typos, and other issues. There may be significant changes before publication.
Altressa was closer to the hypernode than the world he’d just left. The math was still out of his reach, but Jem had learned enough to know that the gravitational forces created by a solar system interfered with the ship’s hyper engine that allowed it to fold space around the ship and pierce it to another hypernode, like a needle through cloth. He might not know the math, but he knew it would take three days of travel.
As Jem did his chores he mused on the concept of time. The days he kept for ship time weren’t the Old Earth days of 24 hours. His days were, Walter told him, based on a 30 hour cycle that had been established on the network of space stations across the known universe. Planets varied too much, Walter explained. There were a few stations that didn’t keep the standard, but enough did to make it a standard.
Altressa’s station was no different. The planet, on the other hand, was small, and their day-night cycle was almost half the length of his day. It meant that trade went a little faster than on the station.
Jem didn’t really worry about it. His route wasn’t set in stone, and it had been two seasons since they passed through Altressa. He and Walter…
Jem opened the stasis box and heard the pup’s sneeze with an odd feeling of relief. He knew the dog wasn’t a person, but the puppy kisses like he was getting now made him feel much less alone.
“I think you’re still too young. Maybe next trip.” It was foolish, he knew, but he wasn’t ready to put the dog on the market.
The puppy still didn’t have a name. Jem didn’t see any point in giving him a name since his new owners would undoubtedly change it. Like the ship. Walter had told him that before he’d bought it, the ship’s name had been Kraken. Jem considered that it was a much more exciting name than the Scarlet Tanager, but Walter had glared at him and assigned homework. Much later, after a reading that wasn’t nearly as dull as it could have been, Jem was willing to admit that a trader would probably not benefit from requesting port access with a ship that was named Kraken.
It had been his first encounter with the implications of words. It had also been his first brush with the Old World’s pirate legends. He hadn’t stopped reading when the assignment was complete. Jem’s childhood had not been one with room for make-believe. His adolescence had allowed limited time, under Walter’s keen eye. Now…
A chime rang through the ship, and Jem gave the caramel-colored ears one last ruffle.
“Be good. I have to talk to people.” The pup ignored the stern tone, and followed on Jem’s heels happily, his little tongue lolling out.
In the bridge, Jem sat at the board and accepted the incoming call. He waited for a moment until the other end was ready again. Station to ship calls where someone had to come to the bridge were not uncommon. The smaller traders like the Tanager couldn’t afford to man the bridge constantly.
The vidscreen opened and a familiar face smiled at him. “Welcome to Altressa, Scarlet Tanager. Happy to see you again.”
“Hello, Officer Treigh.” Jem found that he was a little nervous without Walter’s presence over his shoulder. “Declaring a visit of two to not more than four ship cycles for the purpose of trading and selling in the market. Will need a permit for docking, and another for the market.”
“Not going planetside this trip?” Jem could see the older man’s eyes flickering back and forth between something offscreen and his face. He knew from experience that the customs officer was typing up the permit requests. Alressa liked to put on a customer-friendly face, hence the welcome mat. Walter had warned him on their first trip to watch closely, though. The laws here could trip you up if you so much as sneezed the wrong way.
Why do we – you – Jem had corrected himself, with a small duck of the shoulders away from a blow that never came from Walter, even when he was cheeky. Why do you bother with Altressa?
It was a rich world, was the answer, and if you behaved they wouldn’t try to cheat you. That wasn’t their way. Jem had pondered that, and had learned the value of it as the seasons passed.
Now he answered the question that had been asked. “Not this trip, I think. I don’t have a lot of goods to move, and am not buying more than I sell.”
Treigh nodded. “You’re a sharp kid, Jem.” Then, unexpectedly, he laughed a little. “Not a kid anymore, I see. I keep remembering you as you were when I first met you, a skinny little runt. You’ve grown.” His eyes flickered away. “I’ll have the tix for you when you dock. See’ya.”
The vidscreen blanked, and Jem felt the heat in his cheeks start to subside. The puppy thumped his tail against the floor and recalled Jem to the present.
“I can’t daydream anymore.” The young man picked the pup up and cuddled him. “You’re growing, too.”
When the docking at the station was complete and the customs officer came onboard, Jem had the wares for the market all neatly crated and stacked in the shipping bay. The rest of the ship was sealed, the beeves were content with automatic feeding and watering, although cleaning their pen would be a monumental chore when he was underway again. The pup was in stasis. He hated doing that to the little dog, but he didn’t know how long he’d be gone, and he couldn’t have a strange animal wandering the station with him.
Treigh held out his hand to clasp forearms with Jem. “No Walter?”
Jem shook his head, feeling the familiar tightness in his throat. The old man’s absence didn’t seem like it was a wound that would ever heal. Only the echoes of his advice in Jem’s head still sounded. Don’t let them see you cry, kid.
That had been a long time ago, and in a place far away. It still applied. “I’m on my own this trip.”
Which implied, carefully, that he wasn’t alone in the universe. People will take down one man, Walter had cautioned him. Don’t let them see you weak.
Treigh nodded, and then looked at the wand in his hand. “All clean.” He said briskly. “Want to show me anything?”
Jem smiled at him, feeling the familiar mask of vendor come over him. He wouldn’t make a sale right here. The Altressans were death on bribery or back-room deals. But if Treigh dropped a few words in the right ears… The gorgeous little lizards really did glitter in the spotlight they’d been positioned under.
Treigh pursed his lips in a silent whistle. “Well, I guess so.”
Jem lifted the tiny creature and transferred it to the other man’s hand. It clung to his finger and blinked big eyes. “Cute as a kitten.” The customs officer declared. “And since you aren’t selling planetside, you don’t have to worry about invasives.”
Jem nodded but didn’t say anything. The lizard didn’t need a sales pitch.
Treigh, reluctantly, set it back into the clear case. “I’d say you might want to try old Abe Mahoney first, before the open market. What’s in the big crates?”
Jem showed him the woolies, which blinked stupidly rather than cutely. “Their wool is graded superfine.” He told the customs officer, who shrugged.
“Can’t tell you anything about them, kid. Livestock does go planetside, you have their papers?”
Jem handed him the plasticard which had the information about the woolies, how they were sterile and clonable only. No danger of them getting loose and covering a continent with their offspring. Jem had done a lot of reading about the invasives of Old Earth and Newstar, and how much had been learned after that latter disaster. Bioengineering on the richer planets like Altressa meant that natural reproduction could be held in abeyance. Other planets just practiced conservation and control.
Treigh scanned it and grunted as his wand flashed an approval code. He gestured at the door. “You have everything you need from there?”
Jem nodded. The hatch to the rest of the ship was already locked and sealed. To come onto the station he had decontaminated the shipping and receiving bay per regulations and would not re-enter the ship until his stay here was over. It was not, as he’d complained on one trip to Walter, a ploy to make them spend more money for food and lodging on the station. He understood the paranoia over the possible threat of a plague. The animals he was carrying were carefully vetted and scanned before they were allowed to leave the ship. Also, as Walter had pointed out, the seals like Triegh was applying to the inner hatch kept anyone from poking about in the private parts of their home.