“That’s them? So where do we start?” he asked the bot. He paused to read Aru’s display.
“We’re approaching the most recently delivered vessels. Odds of finding viable food are highest with those closest to our present location.” Corwin’s response to that was a rumbling of his stomach; food did sound really good.
“Lead on, my little friend.”
They approached a rough circle composed of eight of the most recently acquired mid-sized ships. “I assume these bigger ones will be more likely to carry food?”
“Anything else I should know about?” he asked as he stepped up close to the boarding ramp of a small but bulky cargo-hauler vessel, relieved excitement in his step.
“All vessels stored here implement strict security protocols. Opening one will trigger an alert and prompting action by system security.” Of course he read this last part after he’d already hit the ship’s controls to lower the boarding ramp.
“System security! I thought this planet was uninhabit—” He was cut off by, not the lowering of the ramp, but by the abrupt appearance of a security officer. Corwin could’ve taken the man for a living presence if it didn’t show the tell-tale bright white glow of a projection.
“Halt! Intruder, you have one minute to identify yourself and explain your presence on this world and why you’re attempting to steal this ship.”
Corwin’s mind raced. That didn’t sound like a standard security greeting. “Wait, I can explain! I thought this planet was uninhabited, I’m just looking for food and a way off!”
“50 seconds, intruder. Identify yourself or face the consequences.” The man’s tone was decidedly unfriendly, even hostile. Just then a disembodied hand appeared on the projected man’s shoulder and a female voice spoke.
“Now now, the poor man’s trapped and hungry. Let’s not be too hasty, I would hear his story.” The security man stepped aside, replaced by the image of a handsome woman perhaps in her mid-thirties, sharply dressed more like a company executive than like a security lead. “There, I’ve cancelled the alert.” The “for now” was implied. “I’m Madeline Sobol. Please, tell me what’s happened here.”
Corwin let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. “Thank you, Ms. Sobol. I woke up a few hours ago on this rock, I have no idea how I got here. Someone must’ve dumped me on a transport or something. My name is Corwin Koell, I’m a dealer in antiquities at the Tau Ceti Institute of Galactic His—”
“Are you now,” the woman broke in, somehow giving the impression of leaning forward with interest without actually moving. “Now that is interesting.” She paused to look him over, and Corwin found himself holding his breath again.
Her image in the hollow took a few steps and suddenly she was sitting in a chair, exquisitely manicured nails tapping a staccato rhythm on the arm. “Mr. Koell, I believe we can help each other out. I would like to make you an offer.”
Corwin felt relief starting to seep through him again. “What kind of offer would that be?”
“I represent the owners of all the ships on that planet. I carry the authority to allow you the use of the ship you need to get yourself off-world. And as it happens, if you are the dealer in antiquities that you claim you are, your services could be of great help to those I represent. If I were to authorize your use of a vessel, how would you feel about making a small cargo run on our behalf? Your inspection and sign-off on the cargo would be most appreciated.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” he said. “Just what exactly is this cargo?”
She smiled. “Nothing dangerous, I assure you. Some statuary and other assorted relics of the Dolish Dynasty.”
He tried not to gape; if genuine, such relics could be incredibly valuable. “Forgive me for prying, but who exactly is it that you represent? I’ve never heard of any government or military agency operating like this.”
Her smile stayed just as pleasant, but suddenly it felt the tiniest bit brittle. “Mr. Koell. Corwin. There’s no need to worry yourself about that for now. We’ll get to those details at a later date. Let’s concentrate on getting you off of that horrid planet.”
She instantly resumed her pleasant countenance. “Now I see you have one of our autonomous bot controllers with you; that’s good. You’ll need it to effect repairs to the vessel and get it space worthy again, and likely to help fly it as well. I’m relaying the pickup and delivery coordinates to the unit. You’ll be making the pickup from me directly. It’s a short trip, you don’t even have to leave the solar system. Our manned station is on the next closest planet to this system’s star.
“Once you’ve made the pickup, I’d appreciate it if you’d limit your inspection to verifying the authenticity of the items in question. I want this treated with the utmost discretion. I trust you have no objections?”
He kept a frown from his face; he didn’t really have a choice. It was his only way off-world, even if he was becoming convinced there was something a bit sketchy about the deal. “No, no objections at all.”
Her smile was all warmth. “Well then, we have a deal. I’m so glad we could work this out to our mutual advantage. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
Her image faded, and with a hollow pop, the boarding hatch of the ship unsealed and lowered itself to the ground. Corwin followed Aru into the unknown within, wondering what he’d gotten himself into now.