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Live Free or Die: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 19:05 EDT



    As he drove back to Boston on Monday, Tyler had to admit that he’d much rather work for Chuck on Day Shift. When he’d gone to the general manager and asked if he could scrounge through the rejects that were being returned Chuck had just waved. Among other things, Chuck was a fan and while that didn’t get Tyler many points it allowed them to communicate better.

    People generally didn’t buy something in grocery stores that was dinged, scratched or otherwise marred. They’d eat stuff that had so little nutrition that they might as well eat the box but woe-betide if the box was crushed. So anything that wasn’t visually perfect got sent back to the vendors and either got credited or sold through outlets. There were rules against giving it to most food banks for that matter. Most of it was just thrown away.

    Most of the damage occurred over the weekend so Tyler had had plenty of stuff to pick through and he’d gotten just about one of everything. The likelihood of any of it being compatible to the Glatun, much less valuable, was small. But long shots occasionally hit and it was this or cut trees.

    Tyler really wanted to wangle a ride on the ship. There was no way that was going to fly but it was a childhood dream.

    He hadn’t just come up with TradeHard on the spur of the moment, he’d wanted to be Wathaet from the time he was a kid. His grandfather was in his sixties before they ever met but he remembered the old man’s stories like they were yesterday. Granda had been a crewman, eventually rising to captain, on tramp steamers that plied the South Seas trade back when they were still converting from sail to steam. His stories of trading for copra, fights with gangs in pre-Communist Shanghai and, as they both got older, beautiful island maidens, were some of the highlights of Tyler’s childhood. That and books, mostly SF books once he found them. Combine Norton and Heinlein and Poul with Granda and you got TradeHard, what Tyler really wanted to do when he grew up.

    He’d considered going into the merchant marine rather than college but it simply wasn’t the same as when Granda was a crewman. American crewmen, especially, ran under so many rules, unions and regulations that it wasn’t much different from being part of any other corporation. The soul was gone from it.

    Space, though, had to be different. There was just too much variety available. Sure, there were problems. But they’d be bigger…grander.



    “So for two fifteen minute speeches you managed to make our gate fees,” Drath said, sourly. The ship’s purser blew out a line of spittle and recovered it. “And that only by smuggling out that guy’s stash of gold coins. How the hell did he hang onto those, by the way?”

    “Look up ‘survivalist,’” Wathaet said. “It’s a really bizarre religion these people have.”

    “Unless we can find a rich buyer with a queer jones for alien folk art we’re not going to make fuel! And that doesn’t count the damned mortgage. We are so screwed.”

    “I know,” Wathaet said, lifting his mane in a shrug. “Meeting that guy who used to do the TradeHard comic. He’s bringing some stuff for me to look at. Not much chance any of it will be worth anything but at this point…”

    “It’s about all we can hope,” Drath said. “Well, I hear Norada Lines is hiring. Back to being a cargo handler.”

    “Yeah, good for you,” Wathaet said. “I’m not qualified on anything bigger than a Class IV. I’m going to be doing the Tranat run for the rest of my life. I hate Tranat station! It’s a damned gas mine! There aren’t even any good bars!”#



    “Hi,” Tyler said to the armed guard at the gate. The Spinward Crossing, which was smaller than he’d realized, was tucked into a warehouse in a half-finished industrial park near Reading. Why they’d picked the Boston area was anyone’s guess. Most of the ships that had landed in the US had landed near Washington or LA. “Vernon Tyler. I’m supposed to meet with Captain Wathaet.”

    “Yes, sir,” the security guard said, consulting a list. “Could I see some ID?”

    “Why are there guards on the ship?” Tyler asked.

    “Believe it or not, some people can’t sort out the difference between Glatun and our Horvath benefactors,” the guard said, handing back his ID. “So far we haven’t had any protestors but there have been… incidents in other countries.”

    “Ah,” Tyler said. “I’m not going to cause an incident.”

    “No, sir,” the guard said, opening the gate. “Have a nice day.”



    “Captain Wathaet,” Tyler said as he parked the pick-up. He’d been directed to bring it actually into the warehouse so he was able to park it right by the ship. That was after another security check which had searched the back and underside of the pickup, presumably for bombs.

    “Mr. Vernon,” Wathaet said, stepping down from the cargo ramp. “A pleasure to see you again. What have you brought?”

    “Rare and costly viands from the four corners of the earth,” Tyler said, cheerfully. “You’ll understand if I don’t get into exactly what rare and costly viands.”

    “Of course,” Wathaet said as Tyler started unloading. “Bring them up in the ship. I’ve set up a table and some chairs. It occurred to me after we made this agreement that I was placing myself in trade against the writer of TradeHard. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

    “Those who can do, those who can’t write,” Tyler said, pulling out a set of trays with Dixie cups on them. The Dixie cups had been the most expensive part. “I’ve really got no experience of this sort of thing. Even if we find something I’m pretty sure I’m going to get screwed. I have prepared two hundred and twenty three different possible trade items for your examination. Each of them is of the highest possible quality and chosen from some of the rarest and most sought-after substances on Earth.”

    “You’re behind on your cellphone bill and your ex is still looking at the email she hasn’t sent about being behind on your child support payment,” Wathaet said, taking out a small hand scanner and starting to scan the cups. “I’m pretty sure that these are from the tossed out trash in the stockroom of your store. But it’s not under surveillance or in inventory so I’m not positive.”

    “Bastard,” Tyler muttered, setting the cups down on the table. It looked to be some sort of polymer and was sort of scratched and worn. For that matter the small… hold he supposed was beat to hell. “I hate it when people know more about my life than I do.”

    “Like I said,” Wathaet said, “it’s like not trying to look through an open window. Nothing, nothing, poisonous as hell which is interesting…”

    “What’s that?” Tyler asked.


    “Wow. If we ever do get into regular trade with your people, don’t ever ever accept a Coke.”

    “Thought that was what it was,” Wathaet said. “We’d been warned. And our implants can process it. Would only make us mildly ill. This one is interesting. Not for us. It’s compatible to Rangora systems. Not sure what it would taste like to them.”

    As he was scanning he was picking up and sniffing anything that wasn’t registering as toxic. He paused with one and set down his scanner. His snout practically turned inside out as he gave a long sniff. The mane that ran down his back stood up like a startled cat.

    “This smells…” Wathaet said, carefully dipping a finger into the tarry substance. He took a small taste and rolled it around in his mouth. “This is…”

    Suddenly he drove his snout into the cup and began licking frantically.

    “You okay?” Tyler asked, worriedly.

    “Yeah,” Wathaet said. His tone wasn’t muffled because he wasn’t actually opening his mouth. But it should have been because his snout, which was just a bit too wide, had ripped open the Dixie cup and was covered in a brown-tarry substance. A long, purple tongue emerged and began licking the substance off. “What is this stuff?”

    On the long shot, which seemed to be playing out, that something would be compatible and interesting to the Glatun, Tyler had put the various foodstuffs into the cups and marked then with numbers. That way only he knew what they were. The ‘156’ was barely visible since it had been ripped.

    “Huh,” Tyler said, consulting a hand-written list. “Dragon’s Tears. Figured it would be that.”

    “What is Dr…Wha-buh… Wheeeeeeeeeeet.” The Glatun shook his head and opened his mouth. “Garglaaafawwowluple?”

    “What is Dragon’s Tears?” the collar transmitter asked.

    “Did you just speak Glatun?” Tyler asked.

    “More or less,” Wathaet said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t handle my plants for a second. That stuff has a kick! I think we might be onto a winner here. What is Dragon’s Tears? It’s not anywhere on your information systems.”

    “Tears of a Dragon,” Tyler said. “Nearly impossible to get, very rare and almost secret. You have to make a dragon laugh and cry to get them. First you have to tell a dragon ten jokes it’s never heard before. If you tell it one joke it’s heard you have to start over again. And you’d better tell them fast and well or it will eat you. If you make it through that, then you have to tell it ten sad stories that make it cry. When it starts to cry you dash forward and catch the tears.”

    “You are such a liar,” Wathaet said. “First of all, dragons are a legend like the trakal of my people. Second, if something was that rare and costly you couldn’t afford it. Third, all my instruments say that this came from a plant.”

    “True, but it’s going to make great marketing,” Tyler said.

    “You got any more?” Wathaet said, contemplating the empty cup with slumped shoulders. “Seriously, this is really good. Who knew?”

    “I’ve got some more,” Tyler said. No cameras that could see in the truck bed. “But, seriously, I do need some trade for it. I’ll get some more out of the back of the truck and we’ll trade.”



    When Tyler got back there wasn’t one Glatun but three clustered around the table. He’d brought a squeeze bottle and some Dixie Cups.

    “Why don’t we try mixing it with a little water,” Tyler said. “I don’t have enough to fill these cups. I’m thinking… hundred weight of atacirc per weight of tears.”

    “You’ve got to be joking!” one of the Glatun snapped. They pretty much looked alike but this one had a longer snout than Wathaet and darker blue skin.

    “Hey, Tyler,” Wathaet said, the collar transmitter faithfully replicating his slur. “Meet Drath. He’s the purser. Han’les all the… cargo an’ stuff. An’ Fabet’s a eng… enga…”

    “Ship’s engineer,” Fabet said, leaning forward. “So what is this stuff?”

    “Dragon’s Tears,” Tyler said, squirting a generous measure into a cup and handing it to the purser. If he was reading things right the purser was going to be the guy he needed as hammered as possible for the negotiations. “Very rare and precious.”

    “Not worth a hundred weight of circuitry,” Drath said, taking a sniff. It was the same reaction as before. Light sniff, heavy sniff, nose dive. “Whoooooooo!”

    “Guys,” Tyler said, filling cups. “This stuff really is expensive. Slow down!”

    “Here,” Wathaet said, reaching into a pocket. “You guys like this crap. It’s trash but’ is better than your trash.” He rolled a handful of atacirc onto the table and waved. “Keep it. Go’ anymore?”

    Tyler carefully scooped up the fortune in circuitry and poured some more ‘Dragon’s Tears’ in the captain’s cup.

    “Goorbol computers on this planet,” Fabet slurred. He’d had about three ounces total. “Total trash. Go’ tha’ stuff for scrap! Is scrap! Hah! Is, like, hundred years old! Hah! Is good stuff, this.”

    “Shhhhhh…” Drath whispered, waving a hand around. “Shhhhh… Humans can’ know that! Think i’s… kala stones or something.” He appeared to sneeze several times.

    “So… Drath,” Tyler said, neutrally. “This appears to have some trade value. It is, as I said, a very rare and costly viand on this planet. I think a hundred weight to one is perfectly reasonable.”

    “Me too!” the engineer said. “Stuff will sell for bazillion credits on Glalkod station!”

    “Shhhh!” Drath said. “Shhhhh! Well, Mr. Vernon,” he continued, straightening his harness, “this does seem to have some merit as you shay. But not gr…great and atacirc is, also, very rare and costly…”

    “Your engineer just said you bought it for scrap,” Tyler said.

    “Scrap! And we’re gonna get rich!”

    “He exaggerates. I think that a rate of fifty weight of this… Dragon’s Tears to one weight of molycirc would be more in order…”



    “So…two weight of atomic level circuitry to one weight of Dragon’s Tears,” Tyler said. “We have a deal?”

    “I dunno,” Fabet said. “You got anymore?”

    “I think that is a fair trade,” Drath said, slowly and distinctly. His head twitched several times rapidly.

    “How do your people finalize such things under your laws and are they considered binding?” Tyler asked.

    “Tha’s a little complicated…” Wathaet said.

    “Binding contract shall be established by verbal confirmation of all parties in the presence of a Federally authorized contracting hypernode system,” Drath quoted clearly. “All trade ships as well as banks and public places of consumption are required by law to have such locked systems present for the closure of contracts and such contracts are considered both proprietary and binding reference Federal Code One-One-Four-Seven-Nine-Eight-Three-L-Q-Five. Something like that.”

    “So, you guys agree verbally and you’re bound?” Tyler asked.

    “Try to get a judge out here,” Fabet said. “Or, and this is an important point, a commercial authorities seizure party.”

    “Shhhh…” Drath said. “Are you in agreement or not?”

    “I dunno,” Tyler said, woefully. “I’m feeling like you guys are going to screw me somehow. You’ve got the ship and all.”

    “We’re not going to screw you, man,” Wathaet said, waving a cup. “We’re buddies.”

    “Okay,” Tyler said, mournfully. “I’m practically giving this stuff away but if that’s as much as you’ll go… I agree to two weights of atacirc for one weight of the substance designated Product One-Five-Six, nickname Dragon’s Tears.”

    “Hah!” Drath crowed. “You’re bound now, baby!”

    “Agreed!” Wathaet said. “Feeling screwed?”

    “Very,” Tyler said, his shoulders slumping.

    “You should,” Drath said, taking a sip of the now watered down Dragon’s Tears. “We’re going to get rich with this stuff. How much can you get.”

    “It is actually fairly rare,” Tyler said. “And the real problem is the Horvath.”

    “They’re not going to interfere with our trade,” Wathaet said. “They know better than to mess with a Glatun ship.”

    “No, they won’t,” Tyler said. “But I can’t get my hands on a full cargo of this right away. And if they find out what you’re trading, they’ll come and take it. If they can because it’s a lot harder to obtain than mining for stuff. War. Destruction. No Dragon’s Tears.”

    “Point,” Wathaet said, his crest fluttering. “So we smuggle it out.”

    “Good thing you’re dealing with us, then,” Fabet said.

    “Look, it was only once, okay?” Drath said. “People act like I made a career out of it!”

    “The Horvath own our communications,” Tyler said. “And even if you can hack them… They’re going to be paying attention to anyone who meets with you guys.”

    “Point,” Wathaet said. “But we can disappear easily enough.”

    “You can?” Tyler said.

    “To them, yeah,” Drath said. “There’s an open field which doesn’t have much observation near your home. Meet us there… When can you get more of this.”

    “Tell you what,” Tyler said, thinking rapidly. “I’ll bring as much Dragon’s Tears as I can fit in the back of my truck. I can trade this atacirc for… I should be able to afford that much. The stuff really is expensive. You guys fill the back with atacirc and we’re golden. You sure you can spoof the Horvath.”

    “Yeah,” Wathaet said, more clearly. “Even if they’re paying attention to you, they won’t see you leave you leave your house. We’ll try to make sure they don’t know what you’re picking up.”

    “And you’ll forgive me if I point out I’m going to try to keep you from finding out,” Tyler said. “I can probably get it by Tuesday night.”

    “Tuesday night at nine PM,” Drath said. “It’s called Homer’s Farm. But there’s no farm there.”

    “Long story,” Tyler said. “Okay, I’ll be there. Two weights to one. I’m being screwed.”

    “Great,” Fabet said. “You’re gonna bring more, right?”



    As Tyler drove out of the industrial park he carefully pulled his cellphone out and set it on the dash where it could easily pick up his voice.

    “Well that was a bust! What the hell am I going to do for money now? Those stupid aliens! Damn Glatun! Laughing at me! Like they really liked the sketch. Bastards. What am I going to do now? Maybe Jeff Morris over at AT&T has got some consulting work? Since I’m in Boston, might as well check.”

    He felt like an idiot. But if he was going to get his hands on a truckload of Product 156 by tomorrow night he’d better hurry.

    He kept a glare on his face as he fought his way through Boston traffic and tried very hard not to break out in gales of hysterical laughter.



    “Hey, Tyler. Long time.”

    Tyler and Jeff Morris weren’t exactly friends, they just knew each other. Both had started off in the industry about the same time. They’d worked together a couple of times in different companies. Sometimes they were competitors. A couple of times while working for the same company. IT was like that.

    Right now, though, Jeff Morris wasn’t looking exactly pleased to see his old acquaintance. Jeff had managed to not only survive when so many had fallen, he’d finally worked his way into an office, which in IT generally meant he could make hiring decisions. And he probably had every guy he’d ever sort of talked to at COMDEX begging for a slot. Any slot.

    “Hey, Jeff. You mentioned that you had a project called Babylon you were working on and I might be interested,” Tyler said, sitting down an picking up a yellow pad. He’d looked for cameras on the way in and the only one was on the monitor and it was pointed at Jeff.

    “Babylon?” Jeff said, puzzled.

    “Yeah,” Tyler said, not looking up. “Had to do with a lass.” He held up the pad which said in great big letters: SECURE ROOM! NOW!!!!“Babylon!” Jeff said, slapping his forehead. “Sorry, we’d changed the project name. It’s…” He paused and looked around for inspiration. “SeeFid! It’s called SeeFid now. But it’s really secure. We’d probably better talk in a shield room.”



    “SeeFid?” Tyler said as soon as he was sure the room was secure.

    “C++ for Idiots,” Jeff said. “It was a book on the wall. And you’ve got a lot of nerve making fun of that. A Lass Babylon? Jesus Christ. How did you even know I’d read that book?”

    “Saw it on a shelf one time at a party at your house,” Tyler said. “Only thing even close to SF so it caught my eye. How’s Mel?”

    “Pregnant again,” Jeff said. “Nice to see you and all as I said but why is my department being charged a thousand dollars an hour to use the shield room?”

    “This,” Tyler said, pulling his hand out of his pocket and rolling the handful of atacirc out on the table. “I need a million dollars. Quickly. And I need a hundred grand of that in cash.”

    “Is this from the Spinward Crossing?” Jeff asked, picking up one of the chips gingerly.

    “Where else?”

    “You found something they want to trade,” Jeff said. “It’s not worth a mil. A lot, yeah, not a mil. Among other things about one in ten of the stuff the Spinward Crossing has been selling doesn’t work. And I can’t authorize that sort of money.”

    “I’m going to have more. Quite a bit. I need AT&T to get some people in here to buy it from multiple companies. I’ll cut AT&T in on one percent of whatever I make for being the house. And, obviously, we need to keep this quiet. Nothing electronic.”

    “Agreed,” Jeff said. “But as I said, I can’t authorize any of that.”

    “I know that, Jeff,” Tyler said, sitting down. “Which means you need to shag your ass to the Thirty-Fifth floor.”

    “I also can’t simply walk in on Weasley Rayl,” Jeff said, nervously.

    “You can if you’re holding a million dollars in atacirc in your hand,” Tyler said. “Weasel won’t mind. Really. Especially since this deal ends on Wednesday.”

    “Call him Weasel to his face and it won’t matter how much atacirc you’re holding,” Jeff said, sighing. “Okay, okay. I’ll need to take…”

    “Take as many as you’d like,” Tyler said, waving expansively.



    “Mr. Rayl is in a meeting,” the executive secretary said, sternly.

    “And if I’m wrong he’ll fire me,” Jeff said, breezing past her.

    “I said stop!”

    Jeff opened the door to the President of Northwestern Operations’ offices and strode across the carpet to his desk. Mr. Rayl was, in fact, reading the Wall Street Journal. He looked up as the door opened, tilted his head to the side and set the paper down.

    “This is either important or you’ve just pretty much killed your career,” Rayl said, mildly.

    Jeff walked up to the desk and held his finger to his lips. Then he held out his hands, cupped, so the executive could see the atacirc for just a moment.

    “It’s about the SeeFid project, sir,” Jeff said. “The one we used to call Babylon. Tyler Vernon used to work with me over at Verizon and I thought he might have some ideas. As it turns out, he does.”

    “It’s okay, Bernice,” Rayl said, waving at his secretary. “This really is an emergency. I’ll be in…?”

    “Shield Room Five.”



    “Mr. Tyler,” Weasley Rayl said heartily as soon as the door was closed. “Pleasure to see you in the building again!”

    “Pleasure to see you too, Mr. Weasley,” Tyler said as Jeff winced.

    “It’s… Damnit. It’s Tyler Vernon, isn’t it? Sorry.”

    “We’ve both got the same problem with our names, sir,” Tyler said, smiling. “No offense intended.”

    “None taken,” Rayl said. “What have you got?”

    “I have to meet tomorrow night, clandestinely, with the Glatun,” Tyler said, sitting down. “I need to pick up a pick-up’s load of a certain product. Less than a pick-up’s load, actually. They will trade me a full pick-up of atacirc.”

    “Christ,” Jeff said. “Six petabyte’s of variable use memory, infinite parallel processor and the size of a match head. You could buy… Name a third world country. Name a country. I don’t think anyone’s seen a case of it in one place.”

    “More than that,” Tyler said. “As you said, nobody has seen a case in one place. You can replace a server farm with one chip. The value I saw someone calculate in Wired on a standard dry bushel of it is a hundred billion dollars. Which nobody can afford. A pick-up load is going to distort that price. I still need a million dollars, at least a hundred grand in cash. That’s for those. AT&T gets some serious players that can pay for the rest. I’ll take a check. We’ll negotiate for it here. AT&T gets one percent as the house. And I need to do this quick because time’s a wasting. Among other things, I’ll need to get the money from a bank and they close soon.”

    “Bank’s stay open to surprising hours when the right people call,” Rayl said. “It’s not worth a mil. Among other things…”

    “Some of it’s bad,” Tyler said. “I also got the information that it’s their scrap and about a hundred years old.”

    “More or less what we thought,” Rayl said, narrowing his eyes. “But that sounds like you got more information out of the Glatun than most governments.”

    “They are, surprisingly, fans of my series,” Tyler said, shrugging. “I just remembered I owe them a sketch. That’s beside the point. One mil.”

    “Two hundred grand,” Rayl said. “The hundred in cash is no problem. I’ll call JP.”

    “Not going to just give this away,” Tyler said. “Nine hundred and that’s flat. Novell is just down the road. And I know people there, too.”

    “Two fifty and I’ll make sure you can breeze in and out of the bank. And twenty percent on the trades. Wednesday morning work?”

    “Wednesday morning works but if you think I’m giving you twenty percent you’ve been drinking. Two percent, eight seventy-five.”

    “Eighteen and three.”

    “I’ll tell you truth. I’m not going lower than nine and I’m not going higher than four. Take it or leave it.”

    “I’ll leave it. But I’ll get closer. Twelve percent and five hundred grand. Seriously, that’s a good deal.”

    “Totally sucks. Five and eight hundred.”

    Rayl considered his opponent and shrugged.

    “I’d be doing a disservice to the shareholders if I went lower than ten percent as house, there’s going to be costs involved, and eight hundred is highway robbery. Six hundred.”

    “Seven fifty.”


    “Done. I’ll geek to ten.”

    “Then we have a deal,” Rayl said, standing up. “I’ll need to go get the check cut personally. Eight AM Wednesday morning?”

    “Can you get the right people here by then?” Tyler asked. “We’re talking cases of atacirc. And it has to be all sub-rosa.”

    “We’ve gotten used to working around the Horvath,” Rayl said with a sigh. “They, fortunately, either don’t pay as much attention as people think or can’t count. We’ve simply had to sneak materials through the system beyond what they allow. We are, in other words, used to this sort of thing. I can get the right people here. With their checkbooks. Speaking of which, stay here. I’ll go get the check.”



    Tyler tried not to bounce as he walked to his truck. He still had a lot of stuff to get done and if the Horvath were watching it still could get very sticky.

    “Mr. Vernon! This is a surprise!”

    “Uh, yeah,” Tyler said, trying to remember the red-headed guy’s name. No chance. “Good to, uh, see you again, uh…”

    “Dan,” the man said, holding out his hand as if to shake. In it was a badge. “Hey, could we talk?”

    “Sure…Dan…” Tyler said, trying not to curse. “I’m sort of busy at the moment. Email me?”

    “My van is right over here,” Dan said, putting his hand on Tyler’s arm. “Come on. Won’t take a second.”

    Tyler, feeling both pissed and a tad nervous, got in the black-tinted van. It had been rigged as something of a mobile command post but what was interesting was that there were no electronics. There were some cameras that looked as if they were fifteen years old but super advanced at the time. Chemical photography cameras. And lots of paper.

    “Mr. Vernon,” a man in a suit said. Fifties and a bit chubby with an incongruous goatee. “My name is Senior Special Agent Aaron Spuler. Welcome to the command post of Project 4038.”

    “Which is spying on Tyler Vernon?” Tyler asked. “There are laws, you know.”

    “Which is spying on aliens who can… what was the phrase? Go through our most advanced firewalls so easily it’s like ‘looking through an open window,’” Spuler said. “And anyone who has interaction with them. Because every interaction with ETs is a potential national security problem as long as that God damned Horvath ship is in the sky.”

    “Which is pretty indiscrete of you to say,” Tyler said.

    “Give us some credit, please,” Agent Poore said. “This is a shield car and we made sure you were not carrying your cell.”

    “Maple syrup?” Spuler asked, incredulously. “They’re addicted to maple syrup?”

    “Shhhh!” Tyler said. “Christ, now everybody’s going to know!”

    “Our job is gathering information, Mr. Vernon,” SSA Spuler said. “Not giving it out. And don’t worry about Congressional investigations or something. Nobody wants to know we exist.”

    “Their chemistry is incompatible with ours,” Agent Poore said. “How can they metabolize it?”

    “No clue,” Tyler said. “But they reacted like it was booze or something.”

    “We saw the reaction,” Spuler said, waving at the cameras. “But the problem is the Horvath.”

    “The Glatun apparently have as much control over Horvath information systems as Horvath have over ours,” Tyler said. “Or so they say. We’re going to meet tomorrow night. I need to go get some money and then, somehow, get my hands on a truck-load of maple syrup without the Horvath finding out. They’ll come to me and give me cover for the transfer. Frankly, it feels a bit like a drug deal.”

    “Your truck?” Spuler asked.


    “That should escape their notice as long as they are not actively watching you,” Spuler said. “More would be harder. The flip side is that if this is popular among the Glatun, it could give us some leverage.”

    “I’ve thought about that,” Tyler said, holding up a hand to forestall a reply. “Let me just be clear about something. I’m not going to play puppet to the government. By the same token, yes, I care about that damned Horvath ship and this country and the world and humanity. And I will do my level best to figure out a way to get it out of our sky. But right now, I need to go get some money and find six fifty-five gallon drums of maple syrup. In about thirty hours.”

    “We’re not going to get involved in a purely commercial enterprise,” Spuler said. “But this isn’t on one level. If you need our help, we’ll be around.”

    “Thanks,” Tyler said. “Can I get out, now?”

    “Feel free,” Spuler said, waving at the door. “Just… try not to get the world destroyed, okay?”“Doing my best,” Tyler said, yanking open the door.



    When he got to his truck, Tyler picked up his cellphone and brought up his contacts.

    “Hey, Petra,” Tyler said, trying not to sigh.

    “Tyler,” Petra said. It was that tone. That ‘I’m unsatisfied with the situation but I’m not going to bring it up’ tone.

    “Sorry I’ve been behind in my payments. I’m going to slide some money over this week.”

    “Thank you,” Petra said, civilly.

    “I’m doing some projects with AT&T so the money should be better,” Tyler said. “So…hopefully no more money issues.”

    “That would be nice. It’s hard enough to make it on the settlement as it is. The girls are right here…”

    Tyler thought about his kids every day. What he had not thought about, until that moment, was what that meant in terms of his current doings. It took him less than a second, a very brief pause, to make the hardest decision of his life.

    He hadn’t talked to his kids in two weeks. And he realized he might not be talking to them for months.

    But when you sail in harm’s way, you don’t take hostages.

    He squelched the screaming inside.

    “Don’t really have the time,” he said, airily. “Got to go. Bye.”



    Petra Vernon closed her cellphone and looked at it with a puzzled expression. She and Tyler might have had their differences and schedules might have prevented him seeing the girls much, but he always wanted to talk to them.

    They’d been married for ten years and even over the phone she could read him like a book. Something was going on and it was very odd. And if he didn’t want to talk to the girls there was a reason.

    She made a face and put the phone in her pocket. She’d find out what was going on when it started to smell.



    “Hey, Mr. Haselbauer!” Tyler yelled, waving at the tractor.

    Jason Haselbauer was one of the old farmers in the district. A lot of people had moved in from outside the area of late. Most of those were Vermonters and people from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts looking for somewhere cheaper to live. And immediately wanting to change things so they were as screwed up as Vermont and Massachusetts.

    The Haselbauers, though, were descended from Hessians who’d decided they’d rather farm alongside the Scotts and English of the White Mountains than fight them.

    “Mr. Vernon,” the farmer said in a slow New England drawl. “Pleasure to see you. Fine weather we’re having.”

    “Great,” Tyler said. “Leaves are coming out a treat.”

    “Be good winter for the sap,” Haselbauer said, climbing off the tractor. “Good leaves means good sap. And how are you doing?”

    “Well, sir, well,” Tyler said. For all he dressed like a homeless guy, Haselbauer probably owned more land than Mrs. Cranshaw. And, notably, a maple syrup distillery. And about as renowned for keeping his own counsel as Mrs. Cranshaw was for being a revolving bitch. He was also, Tyler recalled as he craned his head up and up and then up again, the single most massive guy Tyler had ever met. He looked more like a mountain than a human being. “I have a rather unusual request. Are you carrying a cellphone?”

    “Don’t hold with them,” Mr. Haselbauer. “If someone wants me they can call me at home. An if I don’t answer they can come to find me if it’s that important.”

    “Yes, sir,” Tyler said. He’d heard that about Haselbauer as well. “Just rather not have anyone listening in on our conversation. Some people can listen to them even if they’re turned off.”

    “Ayup,” Haselbauer said, narrowing his eyes and adjusting his ballcap. “What have you gotten yourself into, young man?”

    “Simple trade, sir, simple trade,” Tyler said. “The thing is, I need to buy some barrels of maple syrup. But I need it to look as if I’m not buying them. I don’t need anyone knowing my business.”

    “That’s an odd request, young man,” Mr. Haselbauer said, tilting his head to the side.

    “Well, sir,” Tyler said, shrugging. “It’s got a bit to do with the Revenuers.”

    “Ah!” Haselbauer said, his face going hard. “Them. You need not say more. When do you need it?”

    “I’d like to do it like this…”



    “There’s a space-ship landing in Homer’s Field,” Tyler whispered to himself in wonder as the stars were occluded.

    The sky was clear and bright with a thin crescent moon. What the locals still called a smuggler’s moon. New Hampshire had, back in the day, been a major supplier of corn whiskey to the lowland folks. Back when people considered a tax of fifteen percent on their hard work of running a still to be a slap in the face. There was more than one meaning to the state’s motto.

    A shiner’s moon was gibbous, half full, to full. That was when you could see well enough by night to get the still running and the mules with corn up to the hollers. Up in the hollows of the hills the smell of the distilling was caught and held, keeping the Revenue Agents from finding you. Making shine.

    To bring it down to the city folk with their silver you needed good dark to sneak past those Revenuers. A smuggler’s moon.

    “Do you have the stuff?” Wathaet whispered as he stepped off the cargo ramp.

    “Six barrels of first quality Dragon’s Tears,” Tyler whispered back. There was no point to it, nobody was moving this time of night and Homer’s field was back off the road. But the whole thing did have the feel of a drug deal. That was fine by Tyler. Granda had had a few stories about slipping past Revenuers here and there. Family tradition was being upheld.

    “Awesome!” Fabet said, dragging something that looked like a cross between a broom and a forklift.

    Tyler opened up the back of the truck and started to roll one of the barrels off onto the ground.

    “Got it,” Fabet said, sliding the device into place. He carried the six hundred pound barrel away through the air.

    “Anti-grav,” Tyler said with a sigh. “I want.”

    “Might be able to do something about that if this stuff takes off,” Wathaet said. “By the way when my head finally cleared I felt screwed.”

    “Come on,” Tyler protested. “You’re trading trash for something you’re going to make a fortune on. And on that subject, we need to talk.”

    “What?” Wathaet asked. “You want my firstborn?”

    “No,” Tyler said. “I want your corporations.”

    “You want me to give this up?” Wathaet said. “No way!”

    “Come back in about thirty of our days,” Tyler said. “I’ll have two of our heavy trucks loaded with Dragon’s Tears. That’s about enough to fill your cargo hold. But between now and then you need to contact your corporations. I’m going to get as much of a control on this market as I can. I am, hereby, willing to contract that the ship Spinward Crossing, crew thereof, will get five percent of any trade in Dragon’s Tears in which I engage with other parties. If they will, upon determining that there is an economic worth to Dragon’s Tears, engage with major Glatun corporate partners for further trade. Bottom-line, you get five percent of all the Dragon’s Tears I trade for the rest of your life. Well, split however you split stuff. If I’m trading with multiple corporations I can get more than you’re going to get me. Right?”

    “Trade for what?” Wathaet said, thoughtfully. “I mean, you guys are trading for atacirc. Wow, I get 5% of all the atacirc you guys buy? No way!”

    “Think I’m just going to trade for atacirc?” Tyler said. “I’m not sure how to do it but I’m going to trade for whatever you guys use as currency, and not cheap, and then buy atacirc. New stuff that’s not crap!”

    “You guys don’t have a hypernode point on the whole damned planet,” Wathaet said.

    “Then the first thing I’ll trade for is a hypernode link!” Tyler said. “Wathaet, we’ve got a Horvath ship sitting on our necks. We need your big guys to sit up and take notice. That’s not going to happen, sorry, because a small-time free-trader got lucky. It will if they’re making the profits. Think about it. Especially since sooner or later the Horvath will find out about this. And then they’ll cut us both out. In my case, probably cut up. They’ll take the m… Dragons Tears, trade it to your big corporations and you’ll be back to trading with primitive planets for coconut shells and ‘folk art.’”

    “All transferred,” Fabet said. “Hey, can I…”

    “No!” Wathaet said. “That last point has merit I’ll admit. I’ll think about it.”

    “Oh, one more thing,” Tyler said, going to his front seat and pulling out a jug. “Look, I know we’re not contracted on this, but… That primitive folk art? Could I, uh, buy it back from you?”

    “Hell, yeah,” Wathaet said, hefting the jug. “For this? Sure. I don’t get the night painting, anyway.”

    “The painter was kind of cracked,” Tyler said. “It’s the night sky the way he saw it.”



    Tyler started at the tap on his window and sat up, rolling down the window.

    “Were you here all night?” Jeff asked, looking around the secure garage.

    “I had Ireland’s worth of atacirc in the back,” Tyler said, wiping his eyes and yawning. “What was I going to do, sit at home with a shotgun on my lap?” He set the shotgun on the floor.

    “Not to mention what you had up front,” Jeff said, his eyes wide. “Is that…?”

    “Yeah,” Tyler said, getting out. “And two Goyas, a Matisse and some Italian guy from the Renaissance. I couldn’t fit the Venus. Wathaet said he’d store it for me off-planet. I’d appreciate it if AT&T would do me the same service on planet. Lord knows I’m not going to keep them in my house. Maybe Starry Starry Night. It’d look great in the kitchen.”

    “Well, come on up to the conference room,” Jeff said. “We’ll get some coffee in you.”

    “A donut would be nice.”



    “Gentlemen, welcome,” Rayl said, nodding at the executives gathered in the shield room. “Sorry for the crowding but I think this is the appropriate venue. By arrangement with Mr. Tyler Vernon we have a rather large quantity of atacirc available. AT&T will be taking a ten percent cut on all trades. We will be bidding by lot which will be, pardon, a case by case basis.”

    “How many?” an Asian asked.

    “Twenty-six cases,” Tyler said. “All the Spinward Crossing could fit in my pick-up. It was up to the roof. They’re hauling them up here at the moment. There was a problem of spoofing the internal cameras so the Horvath wouldn’t notice.”

    “Twenty-six!” the man had a British accent. “Bloody hell! I don’t suppose you’d like to tell us what you’re trading?”

    “I’ll let the term ‘proprietary’ hang in the air,” Tyler said, sipping his coffee.

    “The atacirc we are getting is, of course, not consistent,” Rayl said. “As soon as it is delivered you will be given an opportunity to examine each case and decide what it is worth and then we’ll get the bidding started.”



    “I think they went a little crazy off that one case nobody could find any faults in,” Tyler said, riffling through the checks. They were the big kind so people could fit all the zeroes.

    “Feeling a bit stunned?” Rayl asked in a contented tone. He was going to come out of this smelling like a rare hybrid rose. He’d just made a fair bit of AT&T’s profits for the quarter in one day’s work.

    “It’s not every day that a guy becomes an instant billionaire,” Tyler said. “Multi… multi-billionaire. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever become a multi-billionaire in a day.”

    “So what are you going to do with it?” Jeff asked. “And is anyone else really in the mood for a drink?”

    “Champagne would be about right,” Weasley said. “Tyler’s buying.”

    “I am in a mood for a drink,” Tyler said. “But first I need to see a lawyer. Besides the tax implications, which are going to be large, I’ve got some stuff to buy. I’ll need to take a rain-check.”


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