Whatever else could be said of it, Eudora was a one-horse town. I don't mean just that it was small, and shabby, and probably not worth the cost of its upkeep; the same could be said of most towns on this side of the backwater little planet named Bris. No, I mean that in Eudora, if you wanted anything done, you had to go to the Boss; he was the man with the horse, metaphorically speaking, and if anyone else showed signs of so much as whinnying, he made sure that they weren't able to for long. It worked for him, I guess; he had a nice little hacienda on the outskirts of town, away from the dust of the ports and the noise of ships taking off, and it didn't bother him any that he was sucking his town dry. It sure did make it hard for independent contractors to make a living, though.
As I was rapidly finding out. I had come in a couple of days earlier from the planet next door, carrying a cargo of drill bits for the silver mines a few miles out of Eudora. I had planned to make it my usual kind of stop: I would deliver my goods, pick up another contract without too much fuss, and get out of there and on to a more exciting part of the solar system. I'd never been to Eudora before, but I didn't let that bother me; it's never all that hard to find someone who needs to get their goods—or themselves—off the planet fast, and isn't all that picky about the quality of the ride or the official paperwork.
Only, in this case, it was hard. I tried all the usual avenues—I hung out in the port lounges, I checked the help wanted classifieds on the screens, I asked around in the nearby bars. Nothing. Everyone I talked to looked at me funny, asked me where I was from, and then told me that they didn't have anything for me to transport. Finally, after an oily-looking business man who I heard complain about the costs of government-sanctioned shipping looked down his nose at me and said that he didn't have anything for me, I broke. "Look, what's the big idea? Have I got a stain on my shirt or something? Am I showing signs of the bubonic plague? What is everyone in this god-awful town not telling me?"
I must have looked pretty dangerous right about then—or maybe just pathetic—because the man took pity on me. "If you're going to get a contract in this town, you've got to talk to the Boss. He hands them all out; if you pay him a cut off the top, you'll get something, and if you make the cut generous, that something will be generous too."
I scowled. "And what makes this petty little crime lord think that he can control all of the traffic out of this rock? I'm not a citizen of his fiefdom; I don't have to play by his rules."
The oily man shrugged apologetically. "Yeah, but who are you planning to do business with? None of us are going to go against the Boss. Now excuse me, I've finished my drink." He stood up and dusted the crumbs off his lap. "You could always go to Port Authority, you know. They're looking for people willing to do—ahem—legal work." And become a lapdog for some bureaucrat, with all my IDs on file and a tracking device put on my ship to make sure I didn't make off with any of their goods? I didn't think so. It was much easier to get on the radar than to get off it again, should the need arise, and I wasn't willing to take that chance.
I ordered another disgusting glass of the Eudoran alcohol of choice—why did the cheap bars always have to be so seedy?—and sat, considering my options. At this point, there weren't many of them. Going the official route was definitely out. Kowtowing to this Boss of theirs—well, that was out too. There was no way that I was going to get involved with any sort of gang. The Boss wouldn't trust me, no doubt about that, so he would take a thick slice of my profits and send me with a cargo to some town ruled by a cousin of his, or something of that sort, who would probably send me back here. The only way to escape being shuttled back and forth like a private mule would be to gain the trust of one of them enough to get him to "allow" me to sign onto his gang as an official member—and I wasn't going to let myself get suckered in like that until the sun blew up.
The last choice—and the most attractive option—would be to cut my losses and fly to some other, more familiar planet where there were better contracts open to me. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to happen, either. Eudora was on the back end of nowhere, and due to a slight difficulty involving a sharp-eyed customs official who needed very expensive blinders before she would let me through, I had arrived in the town with barely enough money to refresh my supplies, let alone replenish my fuel. If I could get a nice contract I would be fine, but striking off across the solar system alone was out of the picture. So I was stuck, well and truly stuck.
That was when I saw the girl.
As girls go, this one really wasn't anything special. Her brown hair was chopped short to keep it out of her eyes; her clothes were functional and drab; the knapsack stuffed under her chair was overfull and ratty-looking. She was so fresh off the farm that you could almost smell the cow dung just looking at her. All of that, paired with where she was—a dirty pub a block away from the overland transit station—made her story perfectly clear: she was from one of the dinky little villages out in the country, and was off on her first visit to the Big City, either because her folks needed her to make a purchase for them or as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. She'd probably be fleeced before she walked two steps and return home a sadder but wiser girl. A simple explanation; it happened a thousand times every day.
So why was she looking at me?
I shrugged uncomfortably under her gaze. It didn't matter. Maybe she just liked my looks. My drink done, I tossed a few coins to the barkeeper and left for my ship. A square meal would give me more ideas, and until I came up with any that meant the boring but cheap rations onboard.
Before I got more than a few dozen feet from the door I heard quick footsteps behind me, and a voice said, "Wait! We need to talk." It was the girl, of course. I slowly turned and looked her over.
"No, I don't think we do. Have a good night, now." I swung back around and started walking again. The other possibility was that this was some kind of con, and I didn't have enough money to afford to be fleeced myself.
The girl ran to catch up with me, her knapsack banging against her side in what looked to be an uncomfortable way. "I heard you say you're a transporter. Well, I need transport, and I can pay for it."
I glanced over at her, not slowing. "No, you can't. Do you have any idea what fuel costs these days? Not to mention the cost of my time. What I charge for one trip is more than a rube like you could make in five years."
She raised her chin, and her mouth tightened. She didn't look like she was that used to being turned down. "I can pay you ten thousand dollars. Don't tell me that's not enough for you."
This surprised me. This was clearly not some run-of-the-mill buying expedition to the city, then. Perhaps she was a runaway, and had stolen the money on the way out? That would explain how urgent she was to get away. Funny…I wouldn't have thought, from the looks of her, that she had the guts for that kind of project. Ten thousand wasn't quite up to par, but at least it would get me away from this hole without making me sign my life away….
I must have paused too long, because the girl finally tossed her head and spat, "Fine. I'll find someone else. Good luck finding a contract." She turned away scornfully.
"Wa-wa-wa-wa-wait. Not so fast. Maybe we can work something out." She was right—she was probably the best chance that I was going to get. "I'm Kurt Ransom," I said, sticking out my hand. "What's your name?"
She looked at me warily, as if expecting me to change my mind, but when she shook my hand her grip was firm. "I'm Elspeth." No last name, I noticed, but didn't comment. "Now, where can we talk?"