Several Stars Away From Home

The year is 2514.  The Domain family recently departed the neo-primitive world Vermund, leaving behind their robokta, once called Servilla but now known as Aslizette, who has just been involved in a fight on the planet at a place called the Temple of the Black Cloud, and then looked up at IronFort on the assumption her family is safe.  But at this mobile fort and residential space station, they run into unexpected problems.

As Aslizette looked up at IronFort, another pair of eyes were looking down.  Looking for her, though Danny had no idea where in Lakeland she might be.  He had deduced that she was not still at Lakeland DropPoint: he was a bright child, not as academically gifted as little Felicity, but three years older and much shrewder in his judgements.  His eleven-year-old mind grasped quite clearly what had happened to Servilla, and he had already written her a FarMail, which read:

==Aunty, I think you may be awake in your own body.  The recording from the doctoring place which we guard carefully could only be used to make another person, perhaps a very nice person but not you.  I saw you and Samuel Rosamski discuss something.  So maybe you woke up and you are now looking after him.

==If that’s right then my dream was sort-of true, I figure it’s the way the future was. Not true any more because something shifted it.  As Yoda puts it, ‘always in motion, the future is’.  So maybe you are alive and having fun with Sam—who’s a nice fellow and I’m sure he’ll be kind to you.  I can see that you did it because you love us, and knew we were in danger because the spacecraft was short on power.  Maybe it helped that we were five on the shuttle instead of seven.  Is that’s why you pretended to ‘switch off’?—which a robotka really can’t.

==I’ve kept all this to myself, of course.  I honour my father despite his faults, just as you told me.  So I don’t tell him when I’ve been disobedient.  And I wouldn’t upset the girls: Felicity cries a bit for you, though she has a new kitten that keeps her busy and sentimentalised.

==Things here are a bit complex.  I had sent a message to Walt up on IronFort while we were at High Bane.  Felicity got a kitten that she wanted to call Frodo only it was a girl, silly to call it Frodo anyway, might go wandering who-knows-where.  About Walt, I got in touch just to be friendly, but I also remembered that his mother’s friend who’s not been with them long had been getting less nice to her the last few weeks.  Sure enough, Walt and Walt’s mother are stuck for now, after she had a big quarrel with her friend.  He’s gone and left them abandoned at IronFort.

==I showed a picture of her to father, who liked her, but he’d also found himself another one, a nice lady who has a baby only he’s not sure if she’d be good at mothering an elder child like Felicity and me who’s now a Junior and soon going up to Halfling status.  I can tell from all my chats that Walt is well looked after even if his mum changes men a bit too often.  About the other one, how can I tell when all she has is a baby that is too little to say?  It looks a happy baby, but so do most of them.

==I thought maybe two new aunties would be better than one and dad seemed to like it too, seeing as how he goes round collecting pretty women the way I collect pictures of big battles and things, and I’ve not forgotten that I’m not supposed to talk about it too much but I kind of dropped a hint to Walt’s mother and it seemed not to bother her or surprise her much.  I also told her that he’s a super dad and that he never hits people except sometimes big men who argue with him.

==Also he did grab hold of creepy little Manfred Fly just as soon as we were safely landed.  Manfred Fly said he ran into pirates and had to take us on this big switchback ride which I thought was super but which upset the girls and dad was not pleased and later told me that it nearly killed us, I suppose he knows and also he is clever and does nothing while we still need Manfred to pilot for us.  But then when we are safe and landed he grabs the man and took him off for a complaint.  Couldn’t get him arrested though, things are a mess up at IronFort so no one cares.

==The thing is which I think you told me, IronFort and looking after all those Reverts on Vermund is a trilogy between Planet Rossum, Planet Plzen and the bunch of planets run by the Merryweathers.  There is also a Pan-Human Supervising Team but they don’t do much, no one takes them serious.  But now the Merryweathers and us on Rossum are in a squabble and won’t convert currencies any more .  I think it’s a bit like when two kids have a big argument and then won’t let each one in the other’s house nor play with their toys, only this is planets not any more playing with each other’s money.  Here at IronFort, Plzen ganged up with the Merryweathers, not going as far as  joining in with the Merryweathers’ war but the Plzen people are still mad at us that we stayed out of both their wars with the Daringi, especially the one that they lost.

==What this means is that the IronFort authorities won’t take Rosencrowns, and some shops and hotels won’t take Rosencrowns either.  Others belong to Rossumites so that bit is OK, we eat and sleep fine as ever.  But what’s tragic for us and a lot more Rossumites as well is that the interstellar shipping places won’t take Rosencrowns either.  They demand something called ‘hard currency’: I think that means money belonging to planets so big and rich that everyone wants to play with it.  We don’t have money like that and can’t convert which isn’t fair but dad can’t do anything about it.  That was what went wrong for the women with the baby, she’s quite well off but she only brought Rosencrowns since IronFort is supposed to always take them.  And we are not much better off, dad left some ‘hard currency’ in a bank here but now the bank manager has run away and robbed everyone, I thought banking people were there for robbers to rob and then for police to valiantly catch them after a super shoot-out.  It has to be wrong for bankers themselves doing what the robbers are supposed to do.  But maybe it is the big war coming nearer that means everyone’s now doing things that don’t come natural to them.

==We are just now stuck for a ticket home, but dad is working on it.  Says he could try a black marketeer which I don’t follow since most here are white.  And the few blacks I’ve seen don’t look like they had much cash to spare nor keep any markets I noticed apart from a lady selling melons and a man with a snack stall with food I found too spicy when I tried one and we eat fine anyway.  But you probably understand it better than I would.  Like I said, dad is working on it.  We are still sure to get home.

==Loving you wherever you are

==Danny==

Danny was able to send the message using his own Rosencrowns; a lot of things were still possible using Rossum’s planetary currency, just not the vital matter of space travel.  This done, he joined his friend Walt and his mother, and found there was yet another woman there.  She too was interested in knowing if Mr Domain could help her and on what terms.  Optimistically, he tried to explain.

“In our family, we’ve got a nice and very quiet mother, but she don’t do the normal sort of mothering things.  It’s Aunt Servilla who looked after everything important, food and toys and feeding the cats.  And we’ve got dad, of course, he works as a Safety Inspector for the Construction Trade Federation.  It is very important, but we’re not allowed to know more about it till we’re much older.  Sometimes Aunt Servilla goes with him to see that he’s all right, she’s a robotka so she’s much stronger than any human.  Only there are other robotka and things that bad people might have, so sometimes it’s Aunt Millicent he goes with.  Not that she’s an aunt like Aunt Servilla, she’s really just daddy’s friend, but she does tells interesting stories and sometimes brings us presents.  Aunt Millicent is no stronger than Aunt Servilla, she’s an older model of robotka but she’s got some improvements and also she studies combat so she can outfight machines much stronger than she is.

“As for Dad helping you, we are middling rich but just in Rosencrowns.  I don’t know if we could help you though I’m sure he’d like to.  Maybe he can, he really is very clever.”

Mr Domain would have been impressed by his son’s faith in him, had he heard that conversation or seen the earlier FarMail.  And he’d not have disagreed with Danny’s summary of the tangle of interstellar politics and money that was keeping them there.  In fact it was worse than most people knew  The trouble had begun with Rossum refusing to let the Merryweathers transport war material donated by ASSAR through the Edepol Nodeport, which was located on the outskirts of Rossum’s solar system but not unambiguously under their control.

Fixed Nodes—direct links across tens of light-years—could move people and goods much more cheaply and quickly than a starship with its own hyperdrive, but were so expensive that most planets couldn’t afford their own.  From the mid-23rd century, planets began organising themselves into Nodezones, regions of common economic interest that allowed loose trading cooperation between planets that might have very different cultures.  Sometimes the richest world took the plunge, sometimes several planets clubbed together and awarded the honour to a middling world that none of them felt jealous of.  Rossum had been the 5th richest world in volume of space that became Edepol Nodezone, not quite as prosperous as Plzen had been before its wars and much less rich than the alliance of three aristocratic worlds that had later had a revolution and become the Merryweather Combine.

Rossum was supposed to be neutral in the Merryweather War.  There was an Edepol Commercial Court that was supposed to pass judgements and stop Rossum abusing the fact that its own people ran the Nodeport.  The Edepol Commercial Court had so far been deadlocked, which the Merryweathers understood to mean that they could bring in what they pleased, including weapons.  But Rossum had sent out its own small Strikeforce and used the warships to ensure that Edepol Nodeport didn’t ship any war material.  That was the deadlock, pending a definitive Pan-Human judgement that might take months or years to arrive.  So in retaliation, the Merryweathers were refusing to honour existing agreements that allowed them to accept Rossum’s currency in their territory.  Planet Plzen had agreed with them that this should also apply to IronFort, which in theory was shared between them.

Worse, the Rossum Shipping Agent at IronFort had been a man called Mr Blackfriars, who doubled as manager of First Rossumite Bank.  But Mr Blackfriars was missing; people said he had absconded to some distant star with all of the hard currency.  His secretary denied it, but people said that this was maybe because he hadn’t absconded with her.  What was beyond doubt was that many things entrusted to the bank were now missing.  Tickets were no longer valid, and hard-currency accounts at the First Rossumite Bank were quite useless.  There was no other Rossumite bank at IronFort; there was of course Munchausen Interstellar Shipping, which belonged to a Rossumite millionaire called Hugo Horatio Coyle, but that was already overbooked.  Mr Domain had pulled a few strings, but he was a small operator in the eyes of Munchausen Interstellar Shipping.  His family joined a long reserve-lists for places on extra ships that might not even arrive.

Every Rossumite at IronFort was cursing Blackfriars, with some of them devising imaginative ways to punish him.  Mr Domain joined in enough to be polite, but no more.  The man had undoubtedly had underworld help, contacts of a calibre that Mr Domain had no wish to tangle with.  Probably the local ‘Evil Bumblebees’, who were the visible face of major criminality at IronFort.  Maybe something much worse, gangsters rich and grim enough to use the ‘Evil Bumblebees’ as gofers.

It was also moot if Mr Blackfriars was still alive.  People-smugglers were usually reliable; they needed a decent word-of-mouth reputation to bring in new business.  But if you were carrying several millions in conveniently untraceable cash, the business advantages shifted dramatically. Mr Domain himself was careful never to carry any large amounts of cash when he was among dishonest people.  Never more than few thousand, not enough for a sensible thief to risk tackling a ‘One-Knife’ who also had Connections, even if Rossumite Thieves-Within-Code stood low in the hierarchy of interstellar thuggery.

When he’d become a ‘bag-man’, he’d known that there were multiple risks.  The most obvious was a risk of being accused of not delivering the money.  With Servilla’s help, he’d worked out a non-standard solution that had served him well when he’d found himself accused of pocketing cash intended for a particular pay-off.  Servilla had doused herself with a subtle but distinctive perfume and then handled the cash.  This left behind an odour that a human would probably miss but which would be obvious to a robotka.  Blatant enough to be detected by the sniffer-automata that banks used when processing cash, mostly looking for above-average traces of illicit drugs.  But he happened to know that every odour was kept on file, just in case it mattered.  When he’d explained the stratagem, his employers had been pleased and had used some undisclosed method, quite possibly legal, to make a broad search for large chunks of cash paid in with that specific scent upon it.  Sure enough, the money turned up in three distinct accounts that had been newly opened, the three together adding up to exactly the original sum.  They told off the fraudster and he himself was congratulated.

Mr Domain had never seriously considered doing any actual thefts himself.  Who knew what other cryptic ways there were to detect a fraud?  So he accepted his legitimate cut and had been making a comfortable living, until now.  Now he was in the same boat as everyone else, but didn’t bother cursing this ‘Mr Blackfriars’ except for public appearances.  What use would Mr Blackfriars have been to his criminal associates, once he had run away from his official role?  No more profit, considerable risk and definitely something worth robbing.  Robbing and killing, obviously: he’d not have been left alive with all of the things he must have know.

Mr Domain was operating safely at a much more modest level, looking just to get away safely.  He called in a few favours and got hold of some hard currency, UP-Dollars and Gold Ecus.  But it had cost him more than he could spare just to retrieve from the Clown’s Smile the storage module with Servilla in it, even though the ship had nothing to do for the moment. They’d want a lot more before they’d let him take it with him: for now it sat in a bank-vault of the Nine Stars Bank.  At least they’d let him pay for that in Rosencrowns: but then the bank had branches on Rossum.  They’d also know that the storage module was valuable even without the urgent need to recover the well-trained mind of his little Servilla.

He had Servilla, at least he had the means to re-create her.  He had his freedom and credit-worthiness, at least in Rosencrowns.  He was also no longer angry at Manfred Fly; Mr Domain knew that he wouldn’t have had the ready cash to buy himself free from pirates even without the current financial crisis.  Manfred Fly had probably done the right thing: if the man had been less of a creep, Mr Domain might even have apologised.  As it was, he had no further use or grievance and so moved on.

With his remaining hard currency and a sprinkling of Rosencrowns, Mr Domain bribed a little and found a freighter called the Hells Snowball that brought regular supplies to IronFort.  The Hell’s Snowball was officially registered as a SmallTrader, meaning they flew a few hundred metric tons of mixed goods, not the hundreds of thousands of tons you’d find in a Nodetrain.  Vermund in good times had one Nodetrain every month or two: no one was expecting another one very soon, with Vermund now officially a Closed Planet.  The Hells Snowball was now hanging around hoping that it would get a cargo to replace the supplies of Malisti wood, wool and artefacts that it had expected to haul.  It was said that they might take passengers who were ready to travel without much comfort.  There were plenty of these now at IronFort, but Mr Domain had good contacts and managed to be first in the queue.

The captain of the Hells Snowball was a thin tall woman with extremely dark skin, woolly hair and an exotic costume that included heavy copper bracelets.  She was well-qualified, reliable and honest, a point he’d discovered though his local contacts.  She confirmed that the ship had room for a few passengers, if they paid well, but obviously not in Rosencrowns.  After some hard bargaining Mr Domain found that he had enough acceptable money for an uncomfortable hop to Waverley, the nearest inhabited system.  But only for three adults and three children: he’d have to dump one of the women along with her offspring.  He didn’t like doing it to the woman he’d already promised and taken to bed several times on the strength of that promise.  But he also liked the other woman, the one his son had found, agreeing that she was probably the better child-minder and she definitely had been better at keeping Mrs Domain quietly content and doing her ‘meditation exercises’.  He was definitely not going to dump his wife, little as he liked her, because many of his most useful contacts depended on his being the husband of this lady of ancient family, daughter of the much-admired Mervin Domain.

There was one more drawback, Planet Waverley’s polarised politics had recently led to the appointment of a government sympathetic to the Merryweathers.  If that particular government hadn’t fallen again by the time he got there, he might find his Rosencrowns still useless.  Worse, if he got stuck and had to appeal to the Rossumite Embassy, someone might ask for a thorough audit, which would reveal that the Mervin Domain Family Trust had mortgaged the same properties for several different loans.  It would be the ruin of years of work restoring the fortunes of a family whose famous name he had been glad to take, but which had turned out to be nothing like as rich as he’d thought when he’d been persuaded to marry the last fertile female.  He had put in so much effort, had two children that he loved, and now it might all be lost.

Suddenly he had a happy notion: he was an Authorised Signatory of a rather generous account run by Rossum’s Construction Trade Federation.  That had been the real reason for this trip to Vermund: three large payments to intermediaries at Waverley, two more at IronFort before he’d gone on holiday among the Reverts.  All made to people he didn’t know but who had the correct password-phrases, ranging from ‘Meet me in St Ledger, Badger’ to ‘Hope springs eternal, but so do onions’.  He’d done his business covertly enough, and there were no more payments that he knew about, so perhaps the account was now empty.  Sitting drinking with the captain of the Hells Snowball, he decided that it would do no harm to check.

“There is this—not regular, but no one expected such a mess.”  He used his wrist-terminal to cast the correct ‘siggle’ onto the Credit Vetter.  And it lit up with a gratifyingly large sum in Gold Ecus, the eminently hard currency of the gigantic European & Interstellar Community.

“Balls Of Buddha, with that you could charter the whole ship and still have change” said the woman, whose English was fluent but probably learned from a ‘sleeping dictionary’; a drifter content to be kept by a woman.  “Cash like that would be a sweet antelope of a deal, it would be very nice, white man.  Only—not liking to be rude, but I want it vetted that you can use it that way.  Maybe your Construction Trade Federation don’t mind you using their funds for your kids and a couple of concubines.  I’m not preaching, but I don’t need any Interstellar Warrants after me, not even a civil case.  It’s kind of hard to hide a spacecraft unless tah is an out-and-out crook, which I ain’t.”

Never get angry with someone you need more than they needs you, Mr Domain reminded himself.  Especially do not correct their bad English, which can create a permanent grudge.  He knew that fluid use of his funds would be OK with his bosses, who’d go to jail if he were ever desperate enough to tell all he knew.  But what did this woman know of Rossum?  So he forced himself to smile and said “Very sensible, I’d take just the same line in your position.  Your family has had the Hells Snowball for generations, hasn’t it.”

“No, just 58 years.  We’ve changed engines twice and life-support once, she ain’t that old.  Came as a wedding-gift from both families in the dynastic union of my grandparents, each regular in a lineage of generations, one from the Hell Of A Ship IV and the other the Snows Of Kilimanjaro. Hybridised the names. You savvy?”

“I savvy OK.  In fact I have seen the actual original snows of Kilimanjaro, on a brief jaunt through Africa on a trip to Earth that was mostly business but allowed some tourism.  I was enormously glad to see them back again after the Years Of Heat.”

“I hear they fiddled it with weather control, otherwise it would all be bare rock the same as Switzerland.  Yes, I hear Africa is nice and hope to see it one day.  My kindred will give me a trip to Earth when I retire, but not before.”

They chat a bit about families, space travel and related topics, and then Mr Domain made his move.  Not at a personal/sexual level—he’d have liked to add this woman to his collection, but saw little response and anyway it was not the main need.  First and foremost he must seduce her into a business plan that any sensible Small-Trader would reject.

“You have a good reputation, which is why I do business.  So supposing I really did use the funds to charter the entire ship?  You’ve not much chance of a cargo.  Any you did get would be snatching bread out of the mouths of someone worse off and with a less dignified ship.  Could we maybe convert your cargo-holds so that I can take several hundred of my fellow Rossumites back to our common homeworld?  Or at least as far as Edepol Nodeport, where our Rosencrowns will start being honoured again?  I relieve a problem here, and perform an act of public charity that Construction Trade Federation would surely applaud.”

“Rossum’s mesocapitalist and a mellow kind of democracy, according to Rosamski’s Guide, so I guess your people would approve.  Political credits never hurt any builder except maybe on the Tower Of Babel.  I guess it’s OK, and I’d like to trust you.  But if I get it wrong, I could lose the ship where I was born, where most of my crew have been birthed.”

“Most of the people here are well-off, even rich.  And at Edepol Nodeport, it should be possible for them to convert their Rosencrowns into hard currency.”

“But suppose it ain’t?”  Both of them knew that hyperbeams didn’t work between solar systems, meaning that news didn’t travel faster than the fastest ship.  Important worlds might have courier ships; minor places like IronFort relied on whatever came in by whoever turned up.  The news itself would be trustworthy, carried in a Reuters Module that would be protected against tampering, but it could be seriously out of date.

“Rossum could be at war next” continued the captain.  “The latest Reuters Module is 63 hours old and included a message from my home planet’s embassy warned me not to go near your world without essential reasons.  Lots of other planets are advising the same.  Maybe a war has already started and I’d be running straight into a battle or blockade.”

Mr Domain knew it was true, but decided to bluff.  “Hardly likely.  Rossum has never had a war, and we are hooked up with Wisconsinworld, which has such a big fleet by local standards that no one wants to go up against them.  But I understand your concern, I’d probably be as cautious if I was in your position.  So let us seek an adjudication from the esteemed System-Wide Manager at IronFort’s branch of the Nine Stars Bank.”

“The man’s a louse, but a louse with cash.  He can turn your hair-brained idea into sound business.  If he’ll talk to us.”

“Oh, I’m sure he will” said Mr Domain, though he wasn’t sure at all.  His private assessment was that the ‘seduction’ had failed: this captain knew her business and would make no deal unless the Nine Stars Bank were generous, which seemed unlikely.  He was resigned to being stalled at Reception, or even getting a flat ‘no’.  Pleased and amazed when he got an immediate appointment with the Whole-Solar-System Manager, followed by a most enthusiastic endorsement.  Not only did the man give a written statement that Mr Domain’s use of the account was legitimate; he would also permit Mr Domain to use his credit to purchase bank-drafts from the Nine Stars Bank, some to be used for the initial hire and the rest reserved as final payment for save delivery at Edepol Nodeport.  If a dispute should then arise between Mr Domain and his employers, the Hells Snowball would not be party to it.  The Nine Stars Bank was even willing to release the storage modules containing Servilla’s memories, at no extra charge.

It was an oddly generous attitude from a bank manager.  Especially one who must have had access to Mr Domain’s rather colourful credit record, which one accountant had described as ‘like War and Peace without the peace’.  Still, he was doing it, whatever the reason.  The captain of the Hells Snowball thought she was safe, and Mr Domain hoped that this was true; he liked the woman and would not wish this decent lady’s ship to be detained or seized for debt.  The deal was less safe than the captain thought: given the matter of Mr Blackfriars, it was quite possible that the local branch of the Nine Stars Bank was just as corrupt and was giving out worthless guarantees to create confusion while they looted and fled.

Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth.  But also don’t go standing behind its tail.  He trusted the Nine Stars Bank about as much as a cat trusts a dog, but he had little choice and was determined to go down grandly, if he must go down.  If he had dipped into Construction Trade Federation funds for just his own family and the two women and two extra children he’d acquired, he might well have been called a thief unless he could repay the Construction Trade Federation at once.  Which he couldn’t, since the Mervin Domain Family Trust had been technically bankrupt for years and he survived by juggling funds. But if he were grand enough in the way he spent other people’s money, and if he did something that the public might see as noble and humanitarian, he’d probably get away with it.

***

At IronFort, normal business was continuing, as well as it could.  As the captain of the Hells Snowball had wisely said—and as Mr Domain had wisely refused to confirm—the Rossumite Construction Trade Federation was always looking for more political pull.  Power that would be gained by helping the needy and seemingly deserving, and in any case rich and with powerful friends, but not if half the dross of IronFort came with them.  The place had thousands of inhabitants, some of them drifters with no real right to be there.  A valid Rossum passport was not enough; Mr Domain knew such things were easy to fake or get dishonestly.  Rossum was the perfect sort of world for some minor crook to pretend to have come from; neutral, lax and with bribeable officials.  Passports he ignored.  What he would accept was anyone who had a travel voucher in Rosencrowns, or a valid but useless ticket that the Rossum Shipping Agent should have honoured.  Both of these might be recoverable at Rossum, and he also took Rosencrowns cheques even though he was expecting a lot of these to bounce.  He also took five women and three men who had little or no funds but clean records and who sounded OK when he talked to them.  He might get paid eventually, or at least earn some goodwill for the Construction Trade Federation.

Numbers were mounting and the Hells Snowball was not designed for passengers.  It could haul hundred of tons of inert freight, but life-support was limited.  The best spots outside of the crew quarters were three livestock-rooms that might double as guest-rooms.  He decided to reserve one of these for the sick, one for the very old and the third for mothers with small children. Meantime he converted five cargo-holds into barracks, intentionally Spartan; three for single males, one for families and single mothers, one for unattached females.  He set a good example by settling his own family in one corner of the family barracks, next to both of his new woman and their offspring; they had somehow gelled into a friendly little unit and served as a model for the rest.  No one could moan about the conditions when he was willing to put up with the same.

These conversions took extra payments from his Construction Trade Federation account, but the Nine Stars Bank was honouring it and turning parts of his bank-drafts into hard currency, so the work was done swiftly and well.  Better than he had expected: he found that he had 324 passenger places, with only 168 passengers meeting his original strict criteria.  So he started advertising it as a cheap way out, a means whereby people with no connection to Rossum might get to Edepol Nodeport and a direct link to many places, including Old Earth.  This got him some more hard-currency passengers, also he took some non-Rossumite charity cases.  Also three ‘thieves within code’; at least they knew the basics even though two were hopeless drunks and the third was a decaying drug-addict.  It was wiser to fit them in on a vague promise of repayment than to insult someone who might have dangerous friends and a long memory.

Some other drifters tried it, along with several minor criminals.  These he turned away, even when they offered him small amounts of hard currency.  A thief-within-code could be trusted to behave, at least while they were the guest of another of their fellowship.  You died if you didn’t; the Blue Superiors would kill you if the Old Codes & Regulations were breached.  Less regular criminals would not be so self-disciplined, and he wanted no trouble.  All but one accepted this.  The one fool drew a knife with a view to intimidating him, not realising what sort of man he was dealing with.  Whether or not the man would have used the knife was not important: he had drawn it on a thief-within-code and had to be punished.  So Mr Domain threw into his face the boiling-hot jug of coffee he always had at hand and always replenished before an interview with someone who looked dangerous.  He himself was careful to look anything but dangerous, until the need arose to show just what he was made of.  In this case, the knifeman was desperate but unskilful, while Mr Domain was still a street-fighter under his shell of respectability.  The shock of the hot liquid gave him time to deploy the heavy iron cudgel he carried in his briefcase, disguised as a rolled-up and telescoped umbrella.  This useful little weapon he had left on IronFort during his trip down to Vermund, where more obvious weapons were normal and where he found himself clumsy against men who had handled swords since they were boys.  Here he was much more at home: he used the cudgel with accustomed skill, having never allowed himself to get dependent on Servilla, who couldn’t always be with him.  One quick and well-judged blow smashed into the man’s wrist, not quite breaking bone but reliably making him drop his weapon.  From the man’s shocked expression he knew no second blow was needed, so he opened the office door and bundled the man out for the attendant police to arrest. They seized and removed him without dispute or question: clearly they had been briefed to help him.  He suspected he could have gone much further without any come-backs: the IronFort Constabulary seemed the sort of police force who would be happy to dump a dead body for you, provided you paid for the favour.  But he had always been cool-headed in his violence: the man was frightened beyond any possibility of come-backs, so let him go free.

There was no other trouble, and it all seemed a little too easy to his suspicious mind.  The Nine Stars Bank at IronFort was supposed to be a benevolent financial institution, but the Whole-Solar-System Manager had been surprisingly anxious to help.  Mr Domain decided that the Whole-Solar-System Manager had definitely had something to do with the crimes of the Rossumite Shipping Agent.  Naturally he was anxious to ease some of the heat that was resulting from Mr Blackfriars’ flight or murder.  This realisation angered him: normal theft and embezzlement he was tolerant of, but this business had hurt respectable folk, solid citizens.  The various shady deals he’d been involved with had never ever ended with a building that was less than safe, even if it might last less long than it should or contain cheaper material that had been paid for.  Mr Domain had seriously wondered if he should report his suspicions to higher authorities.

On the other hand, a Whole-Solar-System Manager for a big bank was a rather large target for a man like him to take on.  True, the Vermund system contained nothing very grand: an elderly ill-run Mobile Fort; a planet full of impoverished Reverts; the Mars-type planet of Smotherworld that was empty apart from a few thousand scientists; some small mining and chemical-processing operations round the gas giants and ice-giants.  But the biggest banker in a backwater solar system was still way out of his league, so he’d wait till he was back at Rossum.  Take soundings, see whose anger he might be arousing if he spoke.  Or what he might get for not speaking, or perhaps ‘good-mouthing’ the man as a noble philanthropist.  This might be a golden opportunity to lift the Mervin Domain Family Trust out of debt and maybe have enough left over to rescue Servilla.  He worried about her, missed her and wondered if her new man was treating her properly.

Copyright Gwydion M. Williams

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