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.“Back there’s hard vacuum,” Jeremy said, pointing at another airlock with Danger written large in black and yellow.Machinery clanked and clashed as a can came in, swung along by a huge cradle.No place for kids, his head told him, but these three knew better than he did.“You got to keep to the catwalks,” Vince yelled over the racket, breath frosting against the glare and the dark.Vince slapped a thin rail.“Here’s safe! Nothing’ll hit you in the head! Lean over the edge, wham! loader’ll take your head off!”“Thanks for the warning,” he said under his breath, and said to himself of all shipboard jobs he never wanted, cargo was way ahead of laundry or galley scrub.His feet were growing numb just from standing on the metal.Contact with the rail leached warmth from his gloved hands.The proximity of a metal girder was palpable cold on the right side of his face.“Colder than hell’s hinges.”“You got a button in your pocket lining,” Jeremy said, and he put his hand in and felt it.Heated coat.He found it a good thing.They were mop-up, was what the duty sheet said.Every can had to be washed down and free of dust, as it paused before its trip into the hold.Cans that had been set down, behind the concealment of the hatch, had to be opened, the contents sampled, shifted to another can, and that can, its numbers re-recorded on the new manifest, then had to be picked up by the giant machinery, and shunted to their station while Parton and his aides were running the chemistry to prove it was two tons of dry yeast and nothing else.The newly filled cans acquired dust in the process.Dust was the enemy of the machinery and it became a personal enemy.They took turns holding a flashlight to expose streaks on the surface, on which ice would form from condensation even yet, although the cold was drying the raw new air they’d pumped into the forward staging area.Ice slicked the catwalks, a rime hazardous as well as nuisanceful.Limbs grew wobbly with the cold, hands grew clumsy.Fletcher called for relief and took the junior-juniors into the rest station to warm up with hot chocolate and sweet rolls and sandwiches, before it was back onto the line again.“Wish we had that bubbly tub from Mariner,” Jeremy said, cold-stung and red-nosed over the rim of his cup.“I’d sure use it tonight.”“I wish we had the desserts from Mariner,” Vince said.“You and your desserts,” Linda said.“We’ll have to roll you aboard like one of the cans.”“Not a chance,” Vince said.“I’m working it all off.A working man needs a lot of calories.”“Man,” Linda gibed.“Oh, listen to us now.”“Well, I do,” Vince said.Fletcher inhaled the steam off the hot chocolate and contemplated another trip out into the cold.He looked at the clock.They’d been on duty two hours.They had four more to go.The gathering in the Voyager Blue Section conference room was far smaller than at Mariner, hardbitten captains, two women, one man, who wanted to know why they’d been called, and what they had to do with Finity’s End.“Got no guns, no cash, nothing but the necessaries,” the man in the trio said.Carson was the name.Hannibal was the ship-name, a little freighter not on the Pell list of ordinary callers, but on Mariner’s regulars: JR had memorized the list, had seen the -s- and question mark beside both Hannibal and Frye’s Jacobite, the one that was sharing the sleepover with them.That -s- meant suspect.Jacobite did just a little too well, in their guesswork, to account for runs only between Mariner and Voyager and maybe Esperance at need, but Esperance was pushing it for a really marginal craft, no strain at all for Finity’s End.There was reason the small ships took to trading in the shadows, bypassing dock charges, maximizing profits.“We hope,” the Old Man began his assault, “that we have a good deal in the offing.We’ve got a problem, and we’ve got a solution, and let me explain the making-money part of it before I get to the cost.It’s not going to be clear profit, but it’s going to be a guarantee Voyager stays in business; it’s going to mandate your ships keep their routes, as the ones that have kept Voyager solvent thus far.There’s also going to be a repair fund, meaning credit available for the short-haulers.Mariner’s backing it.So’s Pell.Voyager stationmaster will speak for himself.We have a list of twenty-five small haulers that stay within this reach.Those ships will see protection.”“The cost.”“You serve this reach and you make a profit doing it.You keep the trade only on the docks and you pay the tariff.”“We pay the tariff,” Hannibal said.“On all trades,” the Old Man said, and there was a little silence.The captains liked the one part of it.Salvation for the small operator, vulnerable to downtime charges and repair charges, was inextricably linked to cession of ship’s rights.Anathema.“Who’s going to say our competition pays the same?” That from Jamaica, captain Wells, whose eyes darted quickly from one side to the other in arguments.“Who’s inspecting? Finity, arguing to let station inspectors on our decks?”Difficult point, JR thought.Difficult answer, but the Old Man didn’t pull the punches.“They’ll pay,” the Old Man said, “because there’ll be a watch on the jump points.”“No,” Hannibal said.“You’re supplying Mazian,” the Old Man said, more blunt and more weary than he’d been at Mariner, and the captain of Hannibal sat back as JR registered a moment of alarm.“Not necessarily by intent,” the Old Man said in the next second.“But that’s where the black market’s going, and that’s why there’s going to be a watch at those jump points.The money that’s not going to the stations will have to get to the stations.And this is where the profit will be for you.”Totally different style with these hardbitten captains than the Old Man had used at Mariner.JR took mental notes.“We have an agreement in principle by Voyager, and the stationmaster will be here within the hour to swear to it: there will be provision for ships that register Voyager as their home port.Uniform dock charges, to pump money into Voyager and do needed repair.More freight coming in, going out, more loads, more profitable goods…”“Too good to be true,” Jacobite said.“What if we sign and we comply and here comes a big fancy ship, say, Finity’s size…”“You get preference on cargo.You’re registered here.You load first.”“Voyager’s going to agree to that?” Clear disbelief.“Voyager has agreed to that.”“Way too good to be true,” Jamaica said.“Say I got a vane dusted to hell and gone, and I’m going to borrow money, get it fixed and the Alliance is going to come across with the money.”“In effect, yes.”“I’m already in hock to the bank.”“The idea is to preserve the ships that preserve this station.The Alliance is not going to let a ship go, not yours, not any ship registered here.Fair charges, fair taxes, stations build up and modernize and so do the ships that serve them.You may have seen a Union ship go through here in the last few days.That did happen.The Union border is getting soft.Union trade will come through, possibly back through the Hinder Stars again.”There was alarm.The smaller ships couldn’t make a jump like that.Then Jamaica said:“They open and they shut and they open, I don’t ever bet on the Hinder Stars.Waste of money.”“It’s getting to be a good bet, at least for the Earth trade.Chocolate.Tea.Coffee.Exotics of all sorts.Cyteen’s two accesses to trade are Mariner and Esperance.Voyager is right in the middle [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]