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9.

Mors Planch, in his fifty years of service to the Empire (and to his own ends), had watched things go from bad to worse with grim calm. Not much upset him, on the surface; he was quiet and soft-spoken and used to carrying out extraordinary missions, but he never thought he would be called upon-by Linge Chen, no less-to do something so mundane as go looking for a lost starship. And a survey vessel, at that!

He stood on the steel balcony suspended above the Central Trantor spaceport docks, looking down the long rows of bullet-shaped bronze-and-ivory Imperial ships, all gleaming and brightly polished on the surface, and all run by crews who performed their duties more and more by ritual and rote, not even beginning to understand the mechanics and electronics, much less the physics, behind their miraculous Jumps from one end of the Galaxy to the other.

Spit and polish and a shadow of ignorance, like an eclipse at noon

He smelled the perfumery on his lapel to put him in a better mood. The pleasant aromas of a thousand worlds had been programmed into the tiny button, an extraordinary antique given to him by Linge Chen seven years ago. Chen was a remarkable man, able to understand the emotions and needs of others, while having none of his own-other than the lust for power.

Planch knew his master well enough, and knew what he was capable of, but he did not have to like him. Still, Chen paid very well, and if the Empire was going to rank growth and bad seed, Planch had no qualms about avoiding the worst of the discomforts and misfortunes.

A tall, spidery woman with corn yellow hair seemed to appear by his elbow, towering over him by a good ten centimeters. He looked up and met her onyx eyes.

Mors Planch?

Yes. He turned and extended his hand. The woman stepped back and shook her head; on her world, Huylen, physical contact was considered rude in simple greetings. And youre Tritch, I presume?

Presumptuous of you, she said, but accurate. I have three ships we can use, and Ive chosen the best. Private, and fully licensed for travel anywhere the Empire might care to trade.

Youll be carrying only me, and Ill need to inspect your hyperdrive, do some modifications.

Oh? Tritchs humor faded fast. I dont even like experts doing such work. If it aint broke, dont fix it.

Im more than an expert, Planch said. And with what youre being paid, you could replace your whole ship three times over.

Tritch moved her head from side to side in a gesture Planch could not read. So many social customs and physical nuances! A quadrillion human beings could be remarkably difficult to encompass, especially at the Center, where so many of them crossed paths.

They walked toward the gate to the dock aisle where Tritchs ships were berthed. You told me we were going on a search, she said. You said it would be dangerous. For that amount of money, I accept great risks, but-

Were going into a supernova shock front, Planch said, keeping his eyes straight ahead.

Oh. This news gave her pause, but only for a second. Sarossa?

He nodded. They took a pedway to the berth itself, sliding past three kilometers of other vessels, most of them Imperial, a few belonging to the Palace upper crust, the rest to licensed traders like Tritch.

I turned down four requests from local folks to go there and rescue their families.

As well you should have, Planch said. Im your job today, not them.

How high up does this go? Tritch asked with a sniff. Or perhaps I should ask, how much influence do you have?

No influence at all. I do what Im told, and dont talk much about my orders.

Tritch undulated in polite dubiousness, walked ahead to the gangway, and ordered the ships loading doors to open. The ship was a clean-looking craft, about two hundred years old, with self-repairing drives; but who knew if the self-repair units were in good working order? People trusted their machines too much these days, because by and large they had to.

Planch noted the ships name: Flower of Evil. When do we leave?

Now, Planch said.

You know, Tritch said, your name sounds familiarAre you from Huylens?

Me? He shook his head and laughed as they walked into the cavernous, almost empty hold. Im far too short for your kind, Tritch. But my people provided the seed colony that settled your world, a thousand years ago.

That explains it! Tritch said, and gave another sort of wriggle, signifying-he presumed-pleasure at their possible historical connection. Huylenians were a clannish bunch who loved depth history and genealogy. Im honored to have you aboard! Whats your poison, Planch? She indicated boxes filled with exotic liquors, constrained by a security field in one comer of the hold.

For now, nothing, Planch said, but he looked over the labels appreciatively. Then he stopped, seeing a label on ten cases that made his pulse race. Tight little spaces, he swore, is that Trillian water of life?

Two hundred bottles, she said. After we get our work done, you can have two bottles, on the house.

Youre generous, Tritch.

More than you know, Planch. She winked. Planch inclined his head gallantly. He had forgotten how open and childlike Huylenians could be, just as he had forgotten many of their gestures. At the same time, they were among the toughest traders in the Galaxy.

The lock door closed, and Tritch led Planch into the engine room, to examine and tinker with her ships most private parts.


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