Captain Rokodo looked up from his notes and at the blue-eyed, brown-haired man sitting before his desk. "Thomas Christian Harrison," he said inquisitively.
"Yes, sir," the man said. Nervously, he began tapping his right foot but managed to stop before his prospective employer could see his anxiety. Things hadn't gone too well for him in the past, and he was hoping that signing on with Rokodo's crew could give him a fresh start.
Rokodo looked back at his notes. Without glancing up again, he said, "It says here that you flunked out of the merchant academy, then got fired after only three years of service, without even being commissioned."
Harrison gulped. "I wasn't fired, sir. I was downsized," he said. "And there's an interesting story behind the academy..."
"Can it," Rokodo interrupted. "The fact remains that you're still regarded as one of the best in your field. For a twenty-three year old, that is. With this in consideration, I've decided to hire you on for a trial period of three jumps. You'll be given working class passage and I reserve the right to terminate your employment at any time. Agreed?"
"Yes, sir," Harrison said, his heart leaping.
Captain Rokodo smiled. "In that case," he said, "I formally welcome you as sales manager aboard the Free Trader Hyner. Serve us well, and you'll go far - literally." He stood and extended his hand toward Harrison.
"Oh, thank you, sir!" Harrison said. He stood as well, and shook Rokodo's hand. "You won't regret it!"
Rokodo's grin faded. Solemnly, and with all seriousness, he replied, "Make sure that I don't. We leave for Carse in two days. You're dismissed until then."
Harrison woke groggily. "Time," he muttered, rubbing his eyes.
The alarm clock on his bed stand responded. "Oh-seven forty-eight hours on 159-1107."
"Crap!" Harrison cried. He dressed and gathered his belongings. Less than one hour until the Hyner left port. He had to get to Lunion Down before it was too late!
Harrison arrived at the starport just in time to see Captain Rokodo exchanging words with another man. The man wore a uniform, in the front of which was the Imperial Sunburst. Above it was a patch that read, "Ensign Jack Robinson, Lunion Customs."
"I've got deadlines to meet!" Rokodo shouted.
"You should have thought of that before you agreed to ship twenty tons of illegal drugs. I'm afraid we have to take you and your crew into custody," Robinson said. He pointed at the Hyner and said, "Say goodbye to your ship. This'll probably be the last time you'll see her."
"I'm sorry you had to get involved in all of this," Rokodo said. He and Harrison now resided in the Lunion Planetary Prison. Rokodo had plead guilty and managed to get a sentence of only four days, but his ship was gone now and Harrison, an innocent man, was imprisoned.
Harrison sighed. "I should have expected something like this," he said. "Nothing's ever gone well for me. Ever."
"We're not finished yet," Rokodo said. "I have some friends. They can get me a new ship as soon as we're out of here. You're welcome to stay along as sales manager. Maybe you can keep this from happening again."
It was six days after Harrison's release from prison before Rodoko appeared at Harrison's hotel door. "Hello," Harrison said. "Come in."
"Good day, Mr. Harrison," he said. "No time for that. I just came by to say that I've got a new ship and to ask if you're still interested in being a member of my crew."
"Of course, Captain Rokodo," he said. "When do I start?" A feeling of relief swept across him. Maybe things were changing for him after all!
Rokodo smiled and said, "Right now."
Once aboard Rodoko's new ship, the EijAnr (an ancient Vilani word he was told), Harrison was introduced to the rest of the crew. There were only two crew members other than Harrison and Rodoko, Zacc and Melissa. Zacc's primary function was that of pilot, but during a jump, when flying the ship isn't necessary, he served as the steward for the crew and passengers. Likewise, although Melissa's official position was as engineer, she would often double as the ship's medic.
Zacc was the wild sort, never taking things too seriously, and never taking time to come his hair. Melissa, as Harrison was informed, was a pureblood Vilani and showed many of her ancestor's tendencies toward tradition. Other than that, she was witty, attractive, smart, attractive, talented, and attractive, Harrison noted.
This was definitely a good day.
Harrison studied the data displayed on his hand computer intently, scrutinizing every detail. Finally, he turned his attention to the man shown on his video phone screen, who had offered Rokodo Cr40,000 to carry 40 tons of cargo, allegedly various machine tools, to Carse. "Everything seems in order," Harrison said. "If you don't mind, I'd like to take a look at the cargo before I recommend Captain Rokodo to accept."
"Of course," the man said. "Is tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours good for you?"
"I'll see you then," Harrison said and turned off the phone. Something about this didn't feel right, he admitted to himself. He didn't know why, but he didn't trust that man.
"Is everything to your liking?" the patron said.
It looked like machine parts. Everything seemed perfectly in order, but something kept bugging Harrison, telling him that there was something more to this that met the eye.
But Cr40,000 was a hefty sum, and he couldn't pass that up just because of some vague intuition. He was probably just a little paranoid after the last incident with contraband cargo, he assured himself.
"Everything looks fine to me," he replied. "I'll personally recommend this cargo to Captain Rodoko."
Harrison watched as the last crate was loaded into the EijAnr's cargo bay. He checked it off on his hand computer and put it away. He turned on his wrist comm and informed Captain Rokodo that everything was in place.
"Good," Rokodo replied, "Get to your quarters. We'll be leaving in about thirty minutes."
"Yes, sir," Harrison said and turned the comm off. Suddenly, a feeling of worry came over him. Something was wrong. Against his better judgement, Harrison went to his quarters.
There was an awkward feeling as the EijAnr entered jumpspace. There was always an awkward feeling, but this time it was particularly weird. It probably wasn't a misjump, but it was nauseating anyway.
But that didn't keep him from complaining.
Baron Adrian Walk was the kind of man who thought that since he was a noble (no matter how minor), he was entitled to be treated like some kind of deity. He was rude, snooty, and made you want to strangle him at every turn. That he had bought a high passage for a free trader instead of a subsidized liner was mind-boggling (the thought occurred to Harrison later that nobody else would put up with him). That he had bought a high passage for the EijAnr was just plain cruel.
It was the kind of jump that could only end in a gunshot. Not a jury in the universe would convict them. But the paperwork would just take too long. They'd have to put up with him for a week.
Harrison had always wondered if there was a God. If so, this had be some kind of test.
"Mr. Harrison!" The voice came loud and clear over Harrison's wrist comm.
"Listen Baron Walk," he said, "For the last time: I'm the sales manager. If you have a problem, please take it up with Captain Rodoko. Understood?"
"He isn't responding to my calls!" the Baron said, "And there's an odd smell in my stateroom."
"That's not my problem," Harrison said. He quickly turned the comm off and took out the battery.
Harrison was contemplating the effects of jumpspace on the body of an annoying noble when he made the discovery. Baron Walk had been especially bothersome that day, so Harrison had locked himself in the cargo bay to be alone for a while. He had sat down on one the crates of machine tools.
He noticed that the crate was cold. Too cold. Colder than any of the other cargos. Curious, he tried to open it. It was locked. Now he was really suspicious.
"So what if the crates are colder than the others?" Captain Rokodo said. Harrison had informed him of his suspicion and was now talking over the comm.
"Why would machine tools need to be chilled?" Harrison replied, "There's got to be something more to this than the contractor informed us of. We've got to find a way to open those crates up!"
"No," Rokodo said, "I don't care what you think. There's just no justified reason to tamper with the cargo. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Harrison sighed. He turned the comm off and started formulating a plan. He had to find out what was in those crates. With or without Rokodo's permission.
Harrison suddenly had an idea. He rang Melissa's comm. She picked up.
"Yeah," she said, "What do you want?"
"How good are you at opening locks?" Harrison asked.
Melissa was silent for a while. Finally, she said, "Good enough. Why do you ask?"
Harrison smiled. "Just meet me in the cargo bay after dinner."
"Let me get this straight," Melissa said, "You want me to tamper with the lock on a crate of cargo because you have some half-brained idea that there's something illegal in it?"
"That's about the sum of it," Harrison said. "So, will you do it?"
"Let me think it over," Melissa replied. She paused for a second, then said, "No."
"Captain Rokodo told me you might ask me about this," Melissa said, "He said that if I did he would fire me."
With less than five hours until the EijAnr left jumpspace, Harrison could only pace nervously around his quarters. Something was wrong. He could feel it. He had felt it from the beginning.
Why wouldn't Rokodo let him open that crate? Something was in that crate that shouldn't have been there! He just knew it! But Melissa couldn't help him because Rokodo had threatened to fire him. Zacc would do it, but he probably couldn't. And the only passenger on board was Baron Walk, and even if he could have helped, Harrison didn't want to see him again, let alone ask for anything from him.
The situation was driving Harrison crazy! In desperation, an idea came to him. He grabbed his pistol and hid it inside his uniform. If he couldn't open the lock subtly, he'd force it open!
He sneaked down to the cargo bay, locking the door behind him. He headed toward the crate.
Suddenly, something caught Harrison's eye. On the other end of the bay, something could be seen leaning over another crate. Someone was in there with him!
Just then, the figure turned around. It was Baron Walk. Shocked, Harrison cried, "What are you doing here?" He grabbed for his pistol.
Walk closed the crate (it was not until then that Harrison realized that it had been open). "Just looking for a few of my belongings," he said.
Harrison began walking toward the Baron. "In other people's crates?" he asked. He managed to retrieve the pistol.
The Baron whipped out his own pistol. "I never wanted to do this, boy," he hissed, "but I'm afraid that you know too much." He fired, just missing Harrison's ear.
Harrison returned fire. His shot hit the Baron's chest, causing him to collapse. Harrison could tell that he wasn't dead and quickly retrieved the gun. He pointed it at the Baron's head. He could finish it right now.
Harrison's conscience got the better of him, though, and he put the gun away. That didn't stop him from hitting the man - hard.
Harrison opened the crate that the Baron had been examining a moment earlier. It was cold, just like the one he had intended to open. Inside were large glass tubes. Inside them were human hearts.
Harrison ran to the first crate and blasted it open. This one had livers. A third crate contained lungs.
"Captain Rokodo!" Harrison screamed into his comm. "I'm in the cargo bay. Come quickly!"
Rokodo arrived within minutes. "What's the meaning of this?" he yelled, furious.
Harrison was frantic. "Over here!" he cried, "You've got to see this!"
Rokodo tramped over to the crate and peered inside. He drew a gun from his belt. "I'm afraid I have to kill you now," he said.
"What?" Harrison screamed, "Why?"
"Never you mind!" Rokodo said. He fired, hitting Harrison square in the shoulder of his gun arm. Harrison's gun hit the floor along with him.
Though reeling with pain, Harrison was still conscious. He grabbed the gun with his left hand.
Rokodo fired again, but Harrison managed to kick him in the knees just before he pulled the trigger, tripping him and causing him to hit the ground and his shot to hit the ceiling.
Harrison fired at Rokodo's gun, but his aim was off. Fortunately, it was off in a good way, and the shot hit Rokodo's forearm, causing him to drop the weapon anyway. Harrison slapped it away.
Shaking, Harrison stood. He shot Rokodo once more, this time in the leg. The man stopped moving.
Harrison managed to climb onto the main deck before he collapsed and lost consciousness.
When Harrison woke, he noticed that he wasn't on the EijAnr anymore. He was in a hospital. He sat up. His shoulder still ached, but it was bearable at least.
He sat there for a while, lost in thought. What had happened? Somehow, he had survived, but how? Just then, Zacc and Melissa entered. Harrison could see that they were surprised that he was awake.
"How are you feeling?" Melissa asked. By now they were both hovering over him.
"I've been better," Harrison said, "What happened?"
Zacc answered. "We found you before Rokodo did. Turns out he and Baron Walk were smuggling organs for Ine Givar. Both of 'em are in jail now, just so you know. You're a real hero, man!"
"And," said Melissa, "as the new owner and senior officer of the EijAnr, I hereby bestow unto you a commission and the rank of Fourth Officer."
Harrison smiled and laid back down. "Thanks," he said, laughing.