Zach Hughes: Closed System

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CLOSEDSYSTEM

by Zach Hughes


A SIGNET BOOK

NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY

Copyright © 1986 by Hugh ZacharyAll rights reserved

ONE

The computer was being cranky again. The oldermodels of the Century Series were subject to ion­izationof the Verboldt Cloud memory chambers, and decontamination of the chambers in a well-equipped shop on a civilized planet was the onlycure. In the Ophiuchus sector planets were few, even if one counted Van Biesbroeck's brown dwarf,a gas giant circling VB-8, twenty-one light-yearsout from Old Earth and almost thirteen light-yearsbehind. As for the degree of civilization in Ophiu­chus, that remained to be seen.

Pat Howe had the ship's optics on scan. He wassure that he recognized the obverse patterns ofstars in both Scorpius and Sagittarius, but whendealing with distances measured in parsecs on the far end of a little-used blink route, one did not relyon optical readings as interpreted by the always fallible human mind.

The computer had begun to develop a crustypersonality after theSkimmer's last overhaul. Itreminded Pat of a creaking, proud, overly meticu­lous old man more intent on thoroughness thanefficiency. The computer had gone to H-alpha lightand was laboriously building a composite 360-degree photo map, following a procedure designed for use in the event a ship became hopelessly lost, with not one known point recognizable. However,sooner or later the computer would accomplishthe purpose of checking the ship's position. To haltthe process would have required giving the com­puter detailed instructions, and that would haveinterrupted Pat's dinner.

The nutrition servos were working well, as were,indeed, all of the ship's systems except the com­puter. Skimmer was a smoothly functioning com­plex of hardware, electronics, and subatomic tech­nology that muttered, purred, clicked around Patwith familiar, reassuring sounds. She was in excel­lent condition for her age, squat and squarish,solidly built. She was moderately luxurious insideand all space dog outside, a refitted deep-spacetug, Mule Class. She had become surplus, and thus affordable, when the deep-space tug companies be­gan racing each other to replace the dependableold Mules with the sleek, ultrapowerful Greyhounds.

For five decades, the Mules had been the most reliable ships in space.Skimmer had power to sparein her drive system, because she'd been built to be able to haul in the largest liner, and to be able tomake multiple blinks without recharging the over­sized blink generator which, with the chambers ofthe flux atmospace drive, occupied a large portionof her interior space.

As the computer built its maps on the screen, the nearer stars appeared as haloed, sparklingpoints of light. Pat slid his plate back into thenutrition servo, put his feet up on the console, andmused idly as the Carina Nebula formed on thescreen, its emission nebulosity only slightly altered in shape from the familiar pattern on UnitedPlanets-oriented maps. He was a man at homewith himself and his world, a world which con­sisted of theSkimmer, his library, his own thoughts.

Pat Howe was a sandy blond man, not only inhair coloration but in skin pigmentation. He was abit thin for his six feet, but hard-muscled, staying fit through religiously observed exercise periods both in null-gravity and in the ship's easily acti­vated artificial gravity. Some took him to be in his late twenties. Others would guess that he was nearing forty. Actually, he was thirty-five and, becauseof his emotional stability and his relatively newfreedom, expected to live past that biblically prom­ised age of six score years.

The computer whirred, an electronic chuckle."You're gonna make it yet," Pat said, as the Jewel Box, the galactic cluster Kappa Crucis, formed onthe screen. From theSkimmer's point of reference,the Jewel Box had been glaringly evident to aquick scan.

The computer, almost chortling, leaped with itsold swiftness to placeSkimmer just under two light-years out from the single star wing of the Ophiuchusgroup, just where they were supposed to be.

"Congratulations," Pat said, as the computer de­livered coordinates for orbital approach to Taratwo. Now that he had the coordinates, he was in nohurry to use them. His mind was not quite pre­pared for action.

There were times when it seemed best to post­pone action in favor of some thinking, and Pat wasa man who believed in following his hunches.

The computer flashed a green light at him, brag­ging about a job finished and well done.

"Just hold your horses," Pat said. He punchedup a cup of steaming coffee, with cream and sugar,from the servo and sat easily, feet up, the mugheating both hands as he clasped it. There was nourgent reason for his hesitation, no clang-clang of warning in his skull, just a reluctance to push thebutton and send the Skimmer on to her destina­tion. No harm, he decided, in going over it onemore time.

The ship's papers, and his own, were in order.He was Audrey Patricia Howe, an accredited freetrader, bonded to carry cargo of all classes up toClass AAA pharmaceuticals, of which his currentcargo consisted. To carry the potent drugs inSkim­mer'sstorage areas required a half-dozen permitsand licenses, for in the wrong hands the drugscould produce happy times and headaches. Prop­erly handled, his cargo was as legal as a church.

Was that the problem?

He'd had to express his concern in a polite wayto the businessmen on Zede II who had commis­sioned him. At first he'd gotten the idea that theyhad something other than legal Class AAA in mind.There'd been nothing concrete or overt, just hints that very profitable items could be carried by anaccredited trader to an independent out-planet.

Needless to say, he was having nothing to dowith illegal drugs. UP law might not be present asfar out as Taratwo, but Pat had no intention ofspending his life in the cosmic outback, no inten­tion of risking a negative entry on his record onany planet, no matter how far removed from UP Central.

So the cargo was legal, and he had the rightpapers to carry it. He had done what a traderalways strives to do. He had bought cheap and hewould sell dear, and the profit from the cargowould be a welcome bonus to the fee he'd set onthe commission from the businessmen on Zede II.

Thinking of the size of that fee gave him twoemotions, joy and happiness. Half of it was al­ready on deposit in his account in the UP Bank and Trust Company on Xanthos. The other halfwas on demand deposit on Zede II, requiring onlya coded affirmative from the men who had char­teredSkimmer to be transferred to his account.That coded affirmative would be sent before hedelivered a certain item of cargo to an isolated,private landing pad on Zede II.

The computer blinked its green light again. "Takea break," Pat said, but he let his feet slide off the console, and leaned forward to punch the stand-bybutton on the computer.

On the surface, it was to be a simple operation.All he had to do was blink out to a distant planetin the Ophiuchus sector. He would be contactedon landing by a friend of his employers on Zede II.He would trade his cargo, pick up a passenger,whose legality had been sworn to by the Zede IIbusinessmen, and take that passenger back. Sucha simple mission could have been performed moreeconomically and more comfortably for the passen­ger by any charter yacht in the UP system.

And that, he decided, was why he was hesitating.

The Zedeians, two of them, neatly dressed in thestandard tailored suits of businessmen, had soughthim in his small office on Xanthos, having made atrip of twenty parsecs from the Zede suns. Whenhe realized that they'd deliberately chosen him, a man with a cannon, to do a job which could have been done by an unarmed yacht, he had begun to wonder.

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