Guidance From Afar

A quick search through the rest of the junk doesn't turn up anything resembling this mysterious rock, and the beast is snuffling around my ankles the whole time, so I cut my losses and head back out into the cargo bay. Where the hell would Harrowven have put this thing?

Most of the stuff we shift goes here, in these wooden boxes all nailed  shut so that the patrols have to take them apart to figure out what it is and we can leg it before they realise how much contraband is there, but not all of it. The ship's got living quarters and, somewhere, Harrowven converted one of the rooms into an office. If there was something special among a shipment, he'd keep it there, away from the curious eyes of his crew.

I head for the ladder and am about to start clambering up it when I remember the beast. I'm not brilliant with ladders on account of my leg, but I'm pretty sure wolves aren't designed for them either. We'll have to go around the long way to where there are proper stairs.

"You're a pain, you know that?" I tell the creature. It just looks up at me, trusting and dumb. If I'd known that by opening that box I was adopting a beast, I probably wouldn't have done it. I'm not even keen on dogs or their kind -- they freak me out. Come to think of it, I'm not great with animals generally.

But this one seems to like me and I need the company, really, so we make our way along a corridor to where the stairs begin and start our ascent.

Harrowven's office is down the far end of the bay where all the little cabins are, and of course it's locked. I don't bother bargaining with the computer this time, just punch in the override code. Alarms start blaring all over the place, and if there was anyone on the ship they'd be sure we were about to get boarded, but I'm the only one here. I ignore the piercing screech and shove the door open. The office is about the only place that's tidy, and the screen on the desk is awake, displaying a message.

Jane, it says. Dunno why Harrowven's leaving notes for me, or what would make him think I'd see this. Maybe it's on all the screens on the ship and this is just the first I've come across. I know they took you. Not all the landsmen hate us, they sent word. So he's aware of the repercussions of his plan. That's something, I guess. I know what they want. They can't have it. It's too dangerous.

So he does know what the rock is. More to the point, he knows what it could be used for, and he knows that whoever the Owl and Nick are going to sell it to can't be trusted. But what does he expect me to do?

I've got no idea how long ago this message was sent; the screen's shot, and the date's obscured. But just in case, I type one back. Then what should I do? Where is it? As an afterthought I add, What's with the beast in the junk bay, anyway?

When I round I see that the beast has curled up under one of the chairs and seems perfectly content there. It's pretty skinny. Maybe I've been gone longer than I thought, or maybe it wasn't fed even before the ship was meant to leave. Can't help feeling a twinge of pity for the thing. I don't want it, I don't need it, and I sure can't look after it, but the way it looks at me makes me think I ought to try.

I start rummaging through Harrowven's drawers, just in case there's something in there. The alarm's beginning to give me a headache and it occurs to me only now that there's a timer on that thing. If nobody turns it off the whole place is gonna go on lockdown.

This day is just getting better and better.

I'm onto the last drawer. Why does Harrowven need so many staplers? He doesn't even use paper anymore. We stopped with hardcopies since we stopped trading with Grushin; they're the only place that insists on them. And on Cannavan there's no paper at all, at least not in the hands of the landsmen.

The computer bleeps. Jane? Is that you?

So Harrowven's alive. It's me. The Owl and some guy called Nicolas, they're here. But I'm the only one on the ship. What is this rock they want? Also, can I reiterate my question about the dog?

I'd like to say I can imagine him smiling at that but the fact is it's pretty hard to imagine Harrowven smiling at anything, and you probably wouldn't want him to. His teeth are nasty. He got half of them knocked out in a bar fight on Vollmann just after he first picked me up and it's pretty hard to find a dentist when you're a smuggler, you'll be surprised to hear.

A present for you.

As if, I say. What is the rock and where is it?

Harrowven doesn't reply for a minute or two. I start on the lockers under the desk. One of them's full of personal items -- I'm beginning to wish I hadn't looked, because that's a nasty image that's just come into my head. Sometimes I forget that Harrowven's just a guy; he's always seemed so different from everyone else.

It's ore, from a meteor strike.

I know that much. What does it do?

I don't know exactly. There's a pause. I know it's bad news for us. You can't let the Owl get her hands on it.

She's not selling it to gov agents.

They'll find it anyway.

But if it goes through an intermediary they'll never link it back to us. We'll be safe, right? There's a storage locker above the desk, too, but I can barely reach it. I clamber onto the table and yank the thing open, nearly falling as I do. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the blinking green letters of Harrowven's reply.

There won't be a smuggler in the galaxy that's safe if they get that thing, so I've heard. Better you don't know where it is. Then they can't torture it out of you.

The locker's full of money and paperwork, documents and forged ID cards. I shove them out of the way and flick the switch for the inner compartment, and it slowly swings open.

And there it is.

I move back very carefully and pick up the keyboard to type, Bit too late for that. What do I do now?


The End

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