It was all going so well when we arrived on Singer. We cleared and landed no problem, the captain met his contact and exchanged. He came back on board in a high good humour, like I'd never seen him before. He showed us all the score - a fortune, half of it in his account now, half when we dropped the cargo at a backwater town a bit round the planet. His smile slipped a little then, when Louvin asked whether delivery to some no-account place was in the deal, and the captain said no, but the customer was always right. He clapped me on the back and, good mood restored, said he'd take us all off-port for a meal.
Leaving the ship I could see that Fird starport, never a good one, had obviously been under attack at some time. Some buildings were part-ruined and a couple of wrecked vehicles had been shunted off the hard-standing and just left there. Outside it was pretty grey, and the people we met looked harassed and downtrodden. Still, we had a great meal at the captain's expense and then, spotting a tailor's shop across the road, on a whim he treated us all to new clothes. The tailor looked amazed as we trooped in, in the ill-matched sandy coloured fatigues and assorted scarves and head-wraps we all wore after our escapades around Collace, but his face lit up when the captain with a flourish placed a bundle of credits on the counter. We all went back on board Silver Thorn full and a bit drunk and laughing at each other's new jackets, colourful and with the puffed sleeves slashed in the way that was apparently the latest fashion on Singer.
Paalsen immediately fell into his bunk and began to snore. I couldn't sleep and thought back to something the captain had said during our meal. He'd set down his drink, looked very serious, and said "This place is finished. Done. The ecosphere is collapsing, the habitable area is shrinking, and what do they do? Have a world war." Looking up at the ceiling he'd said "One person with a bit of nous and a few million credits could make a start at fixing it. A couple of battalions of mercenary infantry, a company of decent armour, a fair bit of artillery of course, and soon you'd have a world government that could at least try." What had he meant? Was he that person, did he think?
Next day we lifted for the hop to the delivery point. The captain had asked permission for low atmospheric flight, and there wasn't a lot of air traffic thereabouts anyway. We flew at no more than five kay high, and as Louvin let me sit next to her for the flight I was able to watch as the terrain went from green to sand, up over mountains, and down to sand again. A green line in the sand showed where a seasonal river ran, and that's where our town was. Paalsen came and sat in the navigator's seat on Louvin's other side for part of the flight, and I heard them saying in low voices that landing anywhere except at Fird was frowned on by the state whose territory it was in. That state was called Crella, I remembered. They concluded by hoping it would be okay as the place we were going was officially part of the same state. I excused myself and slipped away to the cabin I shared with Paalsen, where I checked on my slate what the situation was. Sure enough our destination was technically in Crella, although until defeated a couple of years ago it had been an independent state, Harzeg. Something didn't feel right.
We put down a kay from town, and opened the bay doors. There was a puff of wind as the pressures equalised and Paalsen was on the ramp before it was fully open, watching with his scanscope for a buggy to come along to collect. Zaarushar came to watch and first picked, then bit his nails, a sign that he was on a short fuze; the captain sat on a crate dozing for a start, but after an hour or so began to pace, and after two he went and got his slate. He flicked through some pages, then cursed and flung a box across the bay floor. He brandished the slate at us; red blinked at us from the page. The money had been removed from his account to be held pending investigation, the cargo had been flagged as suspicious, his contact as being sought for questioning. He raved for a moment - "At the arse-end of nowhere, a hot cargo I can't shift, account near empty, the buyer on the wanted list, and I paid good money to make you lot look like that!" - he waved his arm at the three of us in his sight. He turned away for a moment, then turned back, calm now. "And I don't suppose we're in Crella's good books either, seeing as how they own this place." Just then Paalsen called out "Vehicle coming!"
The captain looked at his slate, and out the ramp, and at the slate again. Without a word he went up the gangway to the quarters, and us three looked at each other then went down to the foot of the ramp, taking turns of the scanscope. In no time the captain was back. He had changed out of his new clothes into the old familiar fatigues and was carrying one of the military spec autorifles that were in Silver Thorn's armoury. Still saying nothing he came up behind us, stuck out his hand for the scanner, jerked his head, and watched the approaching vehicle; we took the hint and ran off to get our guns.
I was first back, and I was wrapping my scarf around my face and carefully tucking the end in as I always did. Zaarushar waved a finger at me and sort of pranced, mocking me neatly tying the scarf; he always left his flapping about, probably thinking it looked dashing. I replied in kind, indicating the red string he'd tied about his tea-whisk of hair; that was a sure sign he expected trouble too. He scowled and angrily wound the scarf about his head. He checked his autorifle, ejected and checked the magazine, then looked at the floor for a while; then he checked the rifle, checked the magazine, and so on. And on.
I kept glancing over at the captain. I was expecting him to order me to deploy the turret - in these Hammer merchants the turret was a pop-up one right above the powerplant - but that would have been a sure sign of hostile intent. The approaching vehicle stopped about a kay away and some people got out. The captain seemed to relax and tapped me on the shoulder with the scanscope. I had a look and saw the locals were well armed, and if anything even more rag-tag than us. They all wore some sort of breathing gear - you needed something like that for any strenuous activity in the thin atmosphere, which was a bit ominous.
Armand Lindens (captain & owner)
Mazun Lumarrinu (gunner & our narrator)
Louvin (pilot & navigator)
Paalsen (medic & tough guy)