The Plague Star
“NO,” KAJ NEVIS told the others firmly. “That’s out. We’d be damned stupid to involve any of the big transcorps.”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense,” Celise Waan snapped back at him. “We have to get there, don’t we? So we need a ship. I’ve chartered ships from Starslip before, and they’re perfectly comfortable. The crews are polite and the cuisine is more than adequate.”
Nevis gave her a withering look. He had a face made for it—sharp and angular, with hair swept back hard and a great scimitar of a nose, his small dark eyes half-hidden by heavy black eyebrows. “For what purpose did you charter these ships?”
“Why, for field trips, of course,” Celise Waan replied. She plucked another cream ball from the plate in front of her, lifting it delicately between thumb and forefinger and popping it into her mouth. “I’ve supervised many important researches. The Center provided the funding.”
“Let me point out the nose on your damn face,” Nevis said. “This is not a field trip. We are not poking into the mating habits of primitives. We are not digging around for obscure knowledge that no sane person could possibly give a damn about, as you’re accustomed to doing. This little conspiracy of ours is about to go after a treasure of almost unimaginable value. If we find it, we don’t intend to turn it over to the proper authorities, either. You need me to see to its disposition through less-than-licit channels. And you trust me so little that you won’t tell where the damn thing is until we’re underway, and Lion here has hired a bodyguard. Fine, I don’t give a damn. But understand this—I am not the only untrustworthy man on ShanDellor. Vast profit is involved here, and vast power. If you’re going to continue to yammer at me about cuisine, then I’m leaving. I have better things to do than sit here counting your chins.”
Celise Waan snorted disdainfully. She was a big, round, red-faced woman, with a loud, wet snort. “Starslip is a reputable firm,” she said. “Besides, the salvage laws—”
“—are meaningless,” said Nevis. “We have one set of laws here on ShanDellor, another on Kleronomas, a third on Maya, and none of them mean a damn thing. And if ShanDi law did apply, we’d get only one-quarter the value of the find—if we got anything at all. Assuming this plague star of yours is really what Lion thinks it is, and assuming that it’s still in working order, whoever controls it will enjoy an overwhelming military superiority in this sector. Starslip and the other big transcorps are as greedy and ruthless as I am, I promise you. Furthermore, they are big enough and powerful enough so that the planetary governments watch them closely. In case it has escaped your notice, let me point out that there are only four of us. Five, if you count the hireling,” he said, nodding toward Rica Dawnstar, who favored him with an icy grin. “A big liner has more than five pastry chefs. Even on a small courier, we’d be outnumbered by the crew. Once they saw what we had, do you imagine for even a second that we’d be allowed to keep it?”
“If they cheat us, we’ll sue them,” the fat anthropologist said, with a hint of petulance in her voice. She plucked up the last cream ball.
Kaj Nevis laughed at her. “In what courts? On what world? That’s assuming we’re allowed to live, which is unlikely on the face of it. You are a remarkably stupid and ugly woman.”
Jefri Lion had been listening to the squabble with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “Here, here,” he interrupted at last. “Let’s have no name-calling, Nevis. No call for it. We’re all in this together, after all.” A short, square block of a man, Lion wore a chameleon cloth jacket of military cut, decorated with rows of ribbons from some forgotten campaign. The fabric had turned a dusty gray in the dimness of the small restaurant, a gray that matched the color of Lion’s bristling spade-shaped beard. There was a thin sheen of sweat on his broad, balding forehead. Kaj Nevis made him nervous; the man had a reputation, after all. Lion looked around to the others for support.
Celise Wean pouted and stared at the empty plate in front of her, as if her gaze could fill it with cream balls again. Rica Dawnstar—“the hireling,” as Nevis called her—leaned back in her seat with a look of sardonic amusement in her bright green eyes. Beneath her drab jumpsuit and silvery mesh-steel vest, the long, hard body looked relaxed, almost indolent. No concern of hers if her employers wanted to argue all night and all day.
“Insults are useless,” Anittas said. It was hard to tell what the cybertech was thinking; his face was as much polished metal and translucent plastic as flesh, and only minimally expressive. The shiny bluesteel fingers of his right hand interlocked with the mocha-colored fleshy digits of his left; he studied Nevis with two shining silver-metal eyes that moved smoothly in black plastic sockets. “Kaj Nevis has made some valid points. He is experienced in these areas, where we are not. What is the use of having brought him into this affair if we are unwilling to listen to his counsel?”
“Yes, that’s so,” Jefri Lion agreed. “What do you suggest then, Nevis? If we must avoid the transcorps, how will we reach the plague star?”
“We need a ship,” Celise Wean said, loudly stating the obvious.
Kaj Nevis smiled. “The transcorps have no monopoly on ships. That’s why I suggested we meet here today, rather than at Lion’s office. This dump is close to the port. The man we want will be here, I’m sure.”
Jefri Lion looked hesitant. “An independent? Some of them have rather, uh, unsavory reputations, don’t they?”
“Like me,” Nevis reminded him.
“Still. I’ve heard rumors of smuggling, even piracy. Do we want to take that kind of a chance, Nevis?”
“We don’t want to take any chances at all,” Kaj Nevis said. “And we won’t. It’s a matter of knowing the right people. I know lots of people. The right people. The wrong people.” He made a small gesture with his head. “Now, way in the back there, that dark woman with all the black jewelry. That’s Jessamyn Caige, mistress of the Free Venture. She’d hire out to us, no doubt. At a very reasonable rate.”
Celise Waan craned around to look. “Is she the one, then? I hope this ship of hers has a gravity grid. Weightlessness makes me nauseous.”
“When are you going to approach her?” Jefri Lion asked.
“I’m not,” Kaj Nevis told them. “Oh, I’ve used Jessamyn to move a cargo or two for me, but I won’t take the risk of actually riding with her, and I’d never dream of involving her in anything this big. The Free Venture has a crew of nine—more than enough to handle me and the hireling. No offense, Lion, but the rest of you don’t count.”
“I’ll have you know I’m a soldier,” Jefri Lion said, in a wounded tone. “I’ve seen combat.”
“A hundred years ago,” Nevis said. “As I said, the rest of you don’t count. And Jessamyn would as soon kill all of us as spit.” The small, dark eyes regarded each of them in turn. “That’s why you need me. Without me, you are just naïve enough to engage Jessamyn, or one of the transcorps.”
“My niece serves with a very successful independent trader,” Celise Waan said.
“And who might that be?” Kaj Nevis inquired.
“Noah Wackerfuss,” she said, “of the World of Bargains.”
Nevis nodded. “Fat Noah,” he said. “That would be a lot of fun, I’m damn sure. I might mention that his ship is kept constantly in weightlessness. Gravity would kill the old degenerate—not that it matters. Wackerfuss isn’t especially blood-thirsty, that’s so. Fifty-fifty chance he wouldn’t kill us. He is, however, as greedy and as shrewd as they come. At the very least, he’d find a way to get a full share. At worst, he’d get it all. And his ship has a crew of twenty—all women. Have you ever asked your niece about the precise nature of her duties?”
Celise Waan flushed. “Do I have to listen to this man’s innuendoes?” she asked Lion. “This was my discovery. I won’t be insulted by this third-rate hoodlum, Jefri.”
Lion frowned unhappily. “Really now, enough of this squabbling. Nevis, there’s no need to flaunt your expertise. We brought you into this for good cause, I’m sure we all agree. You must have some idea of who we can engage to take us to the plague star, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Nevis agreed.
“Who?” prompted Anittas.
“The man is an independent trader, of sorts. Not a very successful one. And he’s been stuck on ShanDellor, for want of a cargo, for half of a standard year now. He must be getting desperate—desperate enough, I’d think, so that he’ll jump at this opportunity. He has a small, battered ship with a long, ridiculous name. It’s not luxurious, but it will take us there, which is all that matters. There’s no crew to worry about, only the man himself. And he—well, he’s a little ridiculous, too. He’ll give us no trouble. He’s big, but soft, inside and out. He keeps cats, I hear. Doesn’t much like people. Drinks a lot of beer, eats too much. I doubt that he even carries a weapon. Reports are that he barely scrapes by, flitting from world to world and selling absurd trinkets and useless little geegaws from this beat-up old ship of his. Wackerfuss thinks the man’s a joke. But even if he’s wrong, what can one man alone do? If he so much as threatens to report us, the hireling and I can dispose of him and feed him to his cats.”
Copyright © 2013 by George R. R. Martin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.