SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

30. Customs

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

Elsewhere, Julin lay in cramped darkness. He focused on breathing. The air in the crate had grown warm, stuffy and stale, but he didn’t want to think about that. Just breathe.

He felt pretty sure they were still in flight. After the initial jostling as the forklift loaded his crate onto the lighter, he had lain quietly for a while. Then he’d felt the lighter taking off. They couldn’t have landed yet. He hadn’t felt it.

This was a bad idea. Why didn’t they just walk into the spaceport? The Imps were after Kolteo, not him, not Sari. But Vhen had held the line: they must leave no record. They didn’t have time to come up with false identities that would hold up. So he said.

Julin had been skeptical. He’d never needed a false identity before. But he’d been a nobody for ten years, drifting around the Periphery. Nobody had cared who Julin Terch was, not until a few days ago. He didn’t like this brush with notoriety.

And so here he was, packed away as baggage—more to the point, as radiation shielding for the tons of organics in the main compartment of the crate above him. More things he didn’t want to think about.

Just breathe.

He wondered what would happen if they were caught. He felt the pommel of the sword that lay next to him, ready at hand. His other hand brushed the butt of the gun at his hip. He had a shield generator on his belt again. Dorgio’s second-best, all of them, and paid for by Vhen at well above market rates. But still, for Dorgio, that was generous.

If they were caught, he would fight. To protect Sari, at the least. He gamed it out in his head: the first kill would be easy, surprising whomever opened his crate with a quick thrust of his sword. Getting out of the crate would be the trickiest part, when he couldn’t have his shield on. He’d have to come out gun first and hope for the best. There would be at least one other target. It all hinged on whether they’d called for backup or not, and whether it had arrived: the difference between a hopeless last stand and living to fight another five minutes.

He tried to shift a bit, but this space was narrower than a casket. He took a deep breath and swallowed the rising panic down. Just breathe. And hurry up, Vhen.


Vhen Rani brought the lighter down in a smooth glide path, easing in the throttle to reverse thrust as he approached the checkpoint. The interdiction field made the air above shimmer. Bright warnings on the dash proclaimed that the field was near. If he strayed too far off the glide path, the field would disable the lighter and its suspensors and they would fall from the sky like a stone.

Yet he left the controls on manual, more out of habit than conscious choice. Had a flight controller, trained in observing flight paths, examined his work closely, he would have called it fine flying; the lighter never deviated. Not once, not an inch. He would have called it the perfect confluence of skill, nerves of steel, and luck.

But Vhen Rani was never lucky. Instead, he arranged circumstances just so, and luck showed up on cue.

It wasn’t a show. Nobody was watching, and Vhen wouldn’t have cared if they were. He was a man who pursued excellence for the sheer joy of it and for the pleasure that he knew God took in his joy.

The passage through the interdiction field was a great ring vaulting up from the ground. Red lights and a slight shimmer of the air indicated that the ring was closed. Vhen brought the lighter down to a flawless landing before the ring. He unsealed the hatch, extended the ladder, and hopped down to the ground, then adopted a bit of a slouch. Just a bored freight pilot making his rounds.

“Good morning,” he said to the customs inspector who emerged from the guard hut. A second inspector emerged and went over to an equipment shed.

The first inspector, a sallow, disheartened-looking man, grunted in reply. “What do you declare?” he asked in a bored tone.

“I’ve got a load of organics, bound for the Periphery. Here’s the manifest.” Vhen presented a data pad to the man.

The man glanced at it, then pushed past him. “We gotta scan everything going out. So says the Imps.”

Vhen glanced over at the second inspector who was wrestling some sort of equipment out of the shed and licked his lips. “Let me know if I can be of assistance.”

The first inspector grunted again and went to assist his fellow.

Vhen looked about him. The scanner itself would be built into the fence that stood on either side of the lighter.

The equipment that the inspectors were bringing up now was a box, with a long hose connected to a long rigid tube. The second inspector flipped a switch and the box emitted a whine. The first began waving the wand about the containers on the back of the lighter.

Vhen’s heart sank. He hadn’t expected this level of scrutiny. This was a powerful sniffer, and it would surely pick up the scent of two living humans. He reprimanded himself for not sealing them in—he hadn’t wanted to take the time and trouble to find breathing apparatus.

The two inspectors were shouting at each other over the whine. The second man switched off the sniffer. Vhen ambled over. “Everything alright?” he asked.

The first inspector’s eyes had come alive. “Brother, do you know you’ve got a stowaway in there?”

Vhen’s stomach flipped, but he kept a straight face. “Do I?” he asked, cocking his head.

“You sure do. We’ll need to call it in. Hope you’re not in a hurry.”

Vhen clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. He hated to do it. Sometimes he wondered why they’d ever taught him. He really hated to do it, but he didn’t see any choice. If he didn’t, Julin and Sari were as good as dead. He straightened up from his slouch, dipped his chin slightly, filled his lungs, tightened certain muscles in his throat, and spoke in the rich, hypnotic Voice of Command: “YOU DO NOT NEED TO CALL IT IN.”

The inspector, taken by surprise, looked abashed. “Oh, I’m sorry, I was just thinking, given our orders…”

Vhen smiled beneficently. “ALL WILL BE WELL. CALL YOUR FELLOW OVER.”

The man obeyed. “Hey Kel, get over here!”

The second inspector set down the sniffer and walked over. “What’s up?”

Vhen looked from one to the other, feeling pity for them. This was a violation of their wills, and he hated it. “YOU WILL NOT CALL THIS IN. YOU WILL LET ME PASS. YOU WILL NOT MENTION THIS TO ANYONE ELSE.”

The second man looked likewise abashed. “Oh, let me move my equipment.”

They did so, hurrying as they went, while Vhen returned to the pilot’s seat of the lighter. The first inspector then rushed over to the guard hut. The lights on the ring winked from red to green. Vhen waved to the inspectors, who stood respectfully and watched as the lighter lifted up and passed through the ring and into the spaceport proper.

“What a fellow that was,” said the second inspector.

“Aye,” said the first inspector, his voiced hushed with wonder. “I never heard a man talk like that.”

“No, me neither.”

Then they turned and went back to their duties.


Ced Vulcano was having a lousy day, capping off a lousy week, nearing the end of what could only be termed a lousy year.

Business had been bad all year. Tramp freight was getting soaked up by Roilesento’s group. The Peer was absorbing a huge loss to finally run independents like Ced out of business.

It was working. Ced was in debt to his eyeballs. His creditors had stopped taking his calls a month ago.

The last of his crew had abandoned ship two ports back. They’d gotten tired of working for no pay.

He couldn’t blame them. He was getting tired of it, too.

Ced splashed a trickle of water on his face from the sink in his quarters. The recycler was working at an eighth capacity, enough to support himself well enough. He wasn’t too sure about the passengers he was supposed to be taking on.

The passengers who were supposed to arrive any day now.

It’d been “any day now” from his contact at the Combine for more than a week while he languished here at Siben’s main spaceport.

Sure it’d been great of them to purchase his debt. But he wasn’t an organization man. It rankled him, sitting still under somebody else’s thumb.

But he didn’t have a say at this point. He could sit here and starve, or he could give up.

Ced Vulcano didn’t give up. He was getting hungry though.

Then the freight bell rang. Freight? He’d been told to expect passengers.

He threw his coat on and swarmed down the ladder and the companionway to the hold. He slapped away the mollyguard and jammed his fist down on the button labeled OPEN. Warning lights flared, and a siren sounded through the hold. He jumped onto the ladder and slid down to the deck. He stood before the hold ramp as it slowly lowered on hydraulics. Gray light flooded in, along with a cold wind.

He saw a single lighter with a handful of containers. And there, a lone man, the pilot, standing waiting for the ramp to lower. The moment the ramp touched pavement, the man stepped onto it.

“You Captain Vulcano?”

“Last I checked.”

The man chuckled. “I’m Vhen Rani. I’ve got a load for you here. You have a lift?”

Ced nodded. “I do. But I was told to expect passengers.” He held up his hands. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I just need to know what the job is.”

Rani put his hands on his hips. “Get your lift. The passengers will turn up. I’m one of them, actually.”

Ced narrowed his eyes. “You with the Combine, then?”

“That’s right.” He looked back over his shoulder at the field behind, then back at Ced. “Have you got that lift or not?”

Ced shrugged. “Sure. Let me get it.” He went back into the hold, undogged the lift, and clambered into the pilot’s cage.

Ced had always been the sort of ship’s master who insisted on knowing how to do every crucial task himself. This wasn’t his first time solo and he figured it wouldn’t be his last. He wasn’t the best supercargo in the galaxy—his last one had actually laughed at his lift-driving—but he was competent enough.

It was definitely easier to load cargo under acceleration, and he had everything loaded and strapped down in half an hour. Without killing anyone or putting a hole in the hull. With Rani hovering like a mother hen, pestering him to be more careful. What was in these things, anyhow? The man had even insisted at the last minute that two of the containers be loaded so they’d be easy to access, which required some reshuffling.

When Ced had stowed the lift, Rani hugged himself. “Mind if we close the hold? I think the temperature’s dropping out there.”

“Suit yourself,” said Ced. He went over to the bulkhead and hit the CLOSE button.

When the ramp was up and the hydraulics quit their whining, Rani nodded. “Now, about those other passengers.”

Ced’s natural frown deepened. He looked on as Rani went to the containers that had just been loaded and stooped to fiddle with the side. A moment later he was helping a gasping woman with raven-black hair to her feet. Then he went to the other “easily accessible” container and helped a tall, lean, and muscular man out. He looked pale and relieved. They were clearly related. Ced guessed brother and sister.

Vhen turned and held his arm out as if to present the pair. “Captain Vulcano, Julin Terch and his sister Sarisharle Ais.”

Terch gave a courtly bow. His sister, ragged as she looked, presented a perfect curtsy.

Ced sniffed and looked the bedraggled pair over. “Charmed, I’m sure. I hope you realize, my fee just went up.”

Rani smiled. “Oh, Captain. You have no idea.”


Continued in:

Romik must wait with the traitorous Major Mus for Kolteo to return. Where could he be?

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