The city was called Promise, and it did look promising. It was laid out in a spoke pattern, with public buildings in the center and residential and commercial districts spiraling out. A system of simple but efficient hover busses ran from the terminal at the starport to the alien quarter. Starr stepped off the bus into the bright sunshine, beneath a brilliant azure sky, and took a deep breath. The air was clean here, though dry. He spotted a local tavern on the corner and walked in.
Whatever he was expecting, this wasn’t a dark, dingy little dive. Large windows and skylights made it almost as bright inside as out, even without artificial lighting. There was no bar, but Starr sat down at a table and a robot waiter rolled up to take his order.
“Cannis Ale?” the freighter captain asked.
The robot nodded and rolled away.
Starr looked around. There were about a half a dozen humans that might have been locals and an equal number who obviously weren’t. A couple of them wore the pale green uniform of the Proxian Scout Service. There were also a couple of Zibu and a single D’dtitu, which made sense, because both races were enough like humans that they could imbibe human drinks—even wear human clothes if they weren’t too picky about the fit. He took a deep breath. It was just nice to sit somewhere in the open air, without being enclosed in a tin can.
The robot returned with a tall glass of cold ale. Starr handed him his PH card, which he was sure had a couple of hundred credits on it. The robot held it in front of its face to scan it, and then handed it back to the man. Starr took a sip from his glass. It was good. It was real Cannis Ale, something he had hoped for but not really expected.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
The merchant captain looked around, expecting to see a local—a local human. It wasn’t. He had to look down to see a furry creature about three feet tall—a Castorian. It sported a snout full of needle-sharp teeth in front and a broad, flat tail behind. It was impossible to tell if it was male or female. Their voices all sounded somewhat like human females when they spoke Intercosmo, and Starr didn’t know enough about Castorians to tell gender by sight.
“No, I’m not. Are you?”
“No, not really. Do you mind if I sit down?”
Starr waved toward the seat across from him, which the diminutive being took.
“Are you a crewman on a starship?” it asked.
“I’m the captain of the Nova Dancer, a free trader out of Zarius.”
“I thought you were Zarian, but I wasn’t sure. You humans come in so many different flavors.”
Starr took a slow drink of his ale. “So, what can I do for you…”
“My name is Prinda and I’m looking for passage to Gateway.”
“There must be a dozen liners at the starport. I’m sure half of them are on the way to Gateway.”
“I’m afraid I can’t just walk into the starport. I’m on the no-fly list.”
“If the authorities on Arminger are after you, why don’t they just arrest you?”
“They aren’t really after me, and in any case, I’ve done nothing wrong. There are people here who don’t want to see me go to Gateway though, because of my patron. His name is Pluul.”
“Pluul the Castorian?” mused Starr. “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“I can pay you five thousand PH credits when I reach your ship and another twenty-five thousand when you deliver me to Pluul.”
“That’s a lot of money for a single passenger. All right, but I have to make a stop at Thim. That means we won’t get to Gateway for at least ten or twelve standard days.”
“That’s perfect. Nobody will be looking me going to Thim. Well, nobody would be looking for anyone going to Thim, I think. I’ve got a room at a place on the edge of town called The Pink Ubaxa. Come and get me there tomorrow evening at 10AR local time. Come alone.”
With that, the furry little creature stood up and scurried away.
Starr sat for a while sipping his ale, and then left the little pub and took a walk around. It was a beautiful city. He looked in a few store windows. He walked through a little park. Mostly he just enjoyed being outside. Finally, he climbed back on a bus and returned to the starport. When he reached the berth, he found Viv and Huppy sitting on folding chairs on the tarmac beneath the Dancer.
“Hey, Boss!” called Viv, when she saw him. “I’ve got some cargo lined up for Thim, and there’s a lot more to contract, if you would be so good as to tell me where we’re headed after that.”
“Sweet. I can probably get us a full load. You want me to get on that now?”
“No. It’ll be there tomorrow. Why don’t you take a trip into town—get some fresh air.”
“What? Out in the open? No, thank you. Anyway, the air here is just fine.”
“Can I go talk to the people on that ship?” asked Huppy.
Starr looked at where he was pointing. A freighter just a bit bigger than the Dancer was sitting as its crew loaded cargo. They were flat-faced little creatures with enormous eyes, covered with bluish grey fur, maybe a head taller than Prinda the Castorian.
“Hell, Huppy, I don’t even know what they are. Just because they’re cute and furry doesn’t mean they’re friendly.”