Change your name, change your profession, change your life… The promise of the frontier is an escape from your old life—the promise is there, whether or not it’s actually kept. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Stay. Or go. It had haunted her all night and now she had to go to work — and she’d not yet made a decision.
Out here, nobody was what they seemed. Perhaps it had always been true of the frontier. Some came to be free, others to hide. And some just didn’t think it was your damn business to know their damn business. Now at least one person might have some idea who she was or at least who her family was. Did that put her in danger?
She wished her cousin hadn’t been so indiscreet as to send an actual stamped letter.
A small door opened and the woman who currently called herself LisÃ© Bell slipped into the empty narrow corridor. Standard dress on the station was a one-piece jumpsuit, but she wore a denim jumper over hers and busied herself tying her dishwater blond hair back as she walked. No one wore much makeup out here, but if you set aside the rather drab utility clothes, she stood 170 cm and had a nice face. After leaving the warren of living cubicles in Secteur III, LisÃ© crossed to access corridor B-6 and by the third bulkhead started to encounter one-by-two meter tables loosely strung end to end. Although not yet on the trading floor itself, the owners always made sure they’d sufficient overflow space.
Six o’clock station time came awfully early for anything to be happening in Le Grand Bazar. Technically vendors weren’t supposed to be here yet, but someone had to come in and make sure everything was straightened, so the local traders — the ones who actually lived on the station — filled in.
Space stations were all centers of commerce of one sort or another. What made Le Grand Bazar any different was a combination of location and civility — a reputation for fair dealing which attracted ships laden with buyers and sellers from nearly two hundred light years in any direction. That it was French and most ships spoke Interstellar English only enhanced the exoticness of what would otherwise be an ordinary station in orbit about an ordinary planet, Hernie IV. No one exactly knew what the French wanted with Hernie IV. Perhaps they wanted it merely because it was theirs. The cynical said it made the station look good. You didn’t really need a reason to come out here, where every world held both an opportunity and a curse.
At the fifth bulkhead she found her way blocked with a large desk set crossways in the corridor and one of the young French Regular Army boys standing straight with his heavy autoflÃ©chette cradled in his arms. The computers must’ve already cleared her, because he barely glanced as LisÃ© slipped between the soldier and the registration desk, relieved that word of her family hadn’t spread through the baraque. It was at times hard enough to be English on a French station.
The wags connected the tan uniforms of the regulars with the polyglot languages spoken on station and declared the soldiers in Franglish to be dÃ©serteurs. In response, the current army unit had created a mission patch with two crossed palm trees arching over a desert oasis. They sold well in aisle six for thirty francs each — two for fifty francs. Everything was negotiable at Le Grand Bazar.
The last bulkhead held the triple-wide airlock/blast doors which nominally stood open. The hatch safety lights shone green on the wall panel, reassuring as most residents didn’t even bother with a spacesuit. LisÃ© passed through the doors into the huge open main trading floor — heart of Le Grand Bazar. Most starships and stations held endless mazes of small cramped compartments and corridors. Despite having been planetborn, LisÃ© Bell was still struck by the size of the Bazar, including the seven meter high ceiling. Had she known the truth, she might’ve laughed. The French assembled the core of Le Grand Bazar out of three thousand old cargotainers brought to Hernie IV to supply the original colony. The main trading floor wasn’t actually built — they’d just enclosed a piece of space.
Joining a handful of other traders just arriving, LisÃ© grabbed a bucket and cleaning tool, and found an empty aisle. Everywhere stood the generic one-by-two meter tables. Only loosely the same height, they made for uneven lines. At this hour it all looked cheap and depressing — even the lighting was only on fifteen percent.
But at seven they would start letting the vendors in to claim table space — first come, first serve, fifty francs a table initial fee. Most hired sitters, usually from the large ranks of children who lived at the station, to hold a claim until opening at eight o’clock. A good sitter was paid many times what it cost for the tables themselves. Good locations were valuable and smart traders paid.
“And what are you selling today, Mademoiselle LisÃ©?” Doctor Garrault asked in French. The tall man with the old and sad eyes, always impeccably dressed, tried to show a hospitable front to all the vendors and buyers. He had, in fact, once practiced medicine before the opportunity to improve the lives of nearly all by keeping this station safe, family friendly and open for business every day. That ships docked to the station year round testified to the success of his efforts.
“Whatever anyone has for to sell, I suppose,” LisÃ© answered, watching him closely to see if he looked at her differently. “Pourquoi? Have you an offer?”
“Monsieur Laveque has more shirts than he could sell. He is due to sail at nine this evening. You might be able to take a consignment?” The good doctor had no business interests of his own, save the operation of the station itself, and often tried to help people move merchandise before departures.
“He is 163, non?”
“Er, oui, I believe so,” Garrault nodded, trying to recall the man’s vendor number.
LisÃ© took a minute to pause in her cleaning work to get on her comm link and talk to Laveque’s ship. It took two minutes to set up the deal. At six-thirty she slipped out to the station rim and pick up a sack of baguettes — the standard loaf of bread that had sustained the French for centuries — baked by a station engineer who was happy to spend mornings making healthy bread, then tend his nuclear furnaces later. She’d be back in time to stake her table and then make a few francs selling the bread, while she ate her own breakfast.
At seven LisÃ© moved swiftly when they let the traders back in, but not as fast as the station children who sprinted through the open doors to their regular spots. There was always a rush to get prime space on the high traffic end aisles. For the more paranoid traders, nothing could be finer than those coveted outside tables where no one did business behind you. But LisÃ© liked the second aisle. Plenty out here weren’t used to crowds and would start there, fewer people more likely to browse. Once she marked a place, LisÃ© went straight to the pile of folding chairs and began to set up some for her table and the two on either side. At these she placed a baguette directly in the center.
More people came by, filling in all eight aisles. As the regulars came by, some reached in for a baguette and tossed some coins into a square of paper she had set out. Every few minutes she would stop and scoop up most of the coins. You could trust most of the traders Out Here, but trust didn’t mean you had to be stupid. Earthers assumed most business was done electronically. They didn’t understand no one wanted records kept. Cash meant anonymity.
An Out Space trader set up to her left. Bernard wasn’t a bad sort to be neighbors with and his table would bring in a lot of lookers. What he sold contained the detritus of human life. If it could be brought to space, then someday it might pass his way. Today it was small clip-on lamps for work or reading in one’s cramped bunk or cubicle — and warm socks.
Directly across the aisle a child of about six, wearing a well-used extra-small spacesuit, sat cross-legged on top of a table and waited. He looked to be spaceborn, already having the wily distrustful look in his eyes toward civilization and large groups of people. She did not try to talk to the boy or offer him any baguette. The boy wouldn’t have taken any food from a stranger, not even a pretty English girl. A short while later, LisÃ© noticed he had opened up a pouch and began munching on a handful of pelletized grains in what was essentially kibble for humans. Definitely a spacer child.
As for LisÃ©, her main business was in computers — bought and sold, fixed and rebuilt. It made for an uneven cash flow. Computers were so universal no one ever thought of them and if one broke, then usually the load was shifted to whatever else lay around. But there were exceptions, especially those on the lookout for special needs, and that was how she made a living. Selling baguettes for a few coins or shirts on consignment just kept her from dipping into her working capital for living expenses. Everyone held down more than one job out here.
With an ugly sounding bla-aat announcing their arrival, two of the station’s rental robos wheeled up in the service aisle behind her. The Nordamericanos nicknamed these units Rudes, which annoyed their French hosts. She had about fifteen seconds to slip the first robo fifty francs, then while it dumped its blue plastic storage container, she paid the rental on the second robo. LisÃ© stored three containers yesterday, but she supposed the last one would show up whenever the robos got around to it.
Fortunately she had the first two containers she needed. Placing a thumb on the lock pad, a series of numbers flickered on the tiny screen and then she keyed in eight numbers. The code numbers were meaningless. She’d reprogrammed the units to respond only to the ID sliver around her neck.
The first thing out was a folded white sheet which she spread across her table. It wasn’t cloth really, but a laminated conductive polymer mesh. As she began to lay out her inventory, it noted the ID code on each item and its placement. It would know when anything moved. While she worked, the tables all around filled up as well.
Just before eight o’clock, three haggard looking men in spacesuits joined the small boy in the spacesuit across the aisle. None of them said a word, but as the boy and one of the men got folding chairs, the other two carefully laid out a very worn datapad and four papers on the bare table — one pink, two green and one purple. Whether because of hard times or upgrades, they were selling a local system ship, two ore modules and a tug. Without knowing the details she had no idea if they would get a good price, but silently wished them well.
“What is that? It looks nasty,” a voice with the flat French accent of a Nordamericano interrupted her few minutes of quiet time. Billy Washington had come aboard the station some seven months before and never bothered to leave. No one was quite sure what he had intended to do out here, but he showed up whenever a ship needed maintenance or tinkered and rebuilt odd gear. Apparently this was the first time he’d seen her breakfast. “This is Anglais food? Marmite?” he asked aloud, holding her open jar.
“You’re not Anglais,” she replied, spreading the salty paste on her baguette, “So I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“Yeah, LisÃ©, but you are — so what is it?”
“It is dried brewers yeast extract.”
“I didn’t catch half those words,” he shook his head.
“Sorry,” she smiled, switching to English long enough to get the description out.
“An’ you eat that shit?”
“Merde,” he shook his head again. “You English are crazy.”
Clearly he didn’t know who she was, nor had anyone else given her any odd looks. That meant she had time to think, to decide. Stay. Or go.
At precisely eight o’clock a loud click sounded from the overhead speakers and after a drum roll, Rouget de Lisle’s La Marseillaise played stirringly while the main lights brightened. The French army soldiers fanned out through the trading floor and swiftly strode down all the aisles, then arranged themselves at the door for the opening of the morning trading session.
Showtime, LisÃ© said to herself.
It felt a little like watching a tidal wave sweep by. After seeing so few for most of the last two hours, it always astonished that so many people came to deal. The spacers across the aisle braced themselves against the onslaught of unfamiliar people and she managed to catch the eye of the small boy and smiled, while waiting patiently for the first customer of the day.
She didn’t have to wait long. Faced with a table of used computers and parts, the natural response of people is to pick things up, look them over and put them down. Apparently looking was something one did with one’s hands. As a result, it was the hands LisÃ© watched at all times.
Forty minutes into the trading day, a rapid but soft beeping sound announced the arrival of a robo along the service way. She glanced at the display which said it was from 163 to 088 — herself. Holding up her ID sliver to the large glass lens, the robo beeped once in acceptance. As soon as she cleared her consignment from the unlocked bed, she bopped the robo on the top of its lens head with the flat of her hand, and with another beep, it backed down the service way.
The lot held three dozen shirts. Not a huge number, but if she could sell these, Laveque would probably send her more. The big gamble was in not knowing how many others in the Bazar might also be pushing Laveque’s shirts. It didn’t matter, it was what she had to work with now. Quickly she sorted them. Laveque, as usual, was not very inventive. One dozen very cheap work shirts, one dozen decent men’s shirts and one dozen fine silk shirts — all white of varying degrees. The latter were of a style known locally at Le Grand Bazar as a bride shirt and they were rather scandalously sheer and deliciously comfortable. LisÃ© knew — she owned several. Half a dozen ladies ran a sewing circle and they would elaborately embroider the shirts for a fee. Spacemen often bought them to send home to their wives and girls. Elsewhere they might make nice gifts to a new girl, but that sort of trick wasn’t going to work at Le Grand Bazar.
She arranged for one of the old women to come by and work on the embroidery. There were tourists from an Italian spaceliner in port and they would wander by in the afternoon. Many were retirees on their one great foray into space and would appreciate the thought of supporting crafts people closer to their own age. Perhaps some would imagine themselves living the romantic life out here. LisÃ© never knew whether to laugh at such sentiments or nod knowingly. She had her own reasons for coming to space and reasons for staying at this station so long.
It was probably the Italian ship which had brought that damned letter from her cousin.
The Bazar had been open for two hours when the Japanese showed up — late. LisÃ© had to smile at the captain of the Hiromoto who always seemed amused with the world as if there was a special joke only he heard. In someone else it might seem to be arrogance, but she knew Captain Hiro to be a generous man. Indeed, the three tables Blaze had held for him netted the child a handful of coins. The girl made a show of biting the one gold coin, which made Hiro laugh and earned Blaze a tussle.
“Cute child.” Hiro chuckled to LisÃ© across the service way.
“You pay too much, monsieur,” she replied.
“I doubt that I shall worry about it.”
“Expecting business to be good?”
The Japanese freighter captain’s smile lit up. “Business is always good, Mademoiselle. Here at Le Grand Bazar, people even want to buy my Sonys.” He gestured to the service way between their sections where a trio of robos emerged from below and First Officer Mashashima held a sophisticated control box to direct them to unload their cargo. These were not multi-wheeled robos like the station’s Renaults and Mercams, but his own airglides. And he was right about the purchase offers. Still, it would be impossible for him to replace the Sonys in West Space. The Japanese did not export certain technology directly, so Hiro could only buy them at a Japanese station. Worse, the French would be upset if all their equipment was replaced with Japanese. So while he resisted all offers on his Sonys, he was left with tonnes of other Japanese products to trade.
Two spacers in open suits strolled down the second aisle. It could be nothing, but she wondered if they were a stall-and-snatch pair. The first spacer reached her table and began to examine the work shirts. A tone sounded in her earpiece — something had been picked up and not returned within a few seconds. LisÃ© was very sure of her inventory and a momentary glance showed an ultrathin German-made Schnaubel datapad missing. She touched a control on her utility belt.
A security box at the end of her wares surprised the men by opening up and motoring a cam round which noted their faces and then aimed a wide red laser dot directly at the second man’s side cargo pocket. Such mechanisms were usually silent and swift, but she had modified this one with a speaker which emitted a chattering sound as the cam made its moves, drawing more attention to itself.
Sheepishly, the second man slipped the datapad from his pocket and hefted it, showing it to his accomplice. “This is really thin and light. How much?”
“Seven hundred francs,” she told him. She might sell it for five, but LisÃ© really didn’t expect the man to be buying.
“Too rich for this old man,” the second man said.
“Too bad,” LisÃ© shrugged. “It’s a nice unit. Slips easily into a pocket and doesn’t bulk up very much.”
“Yeah,” the second man said, after an awkward pause, then gently set the datapad back down onto the white cloth. As they wandered off, she got on her comm link and had a short conversation with the sergeant at the registration desk. Within a minute the two spacers had acquired a shadow — two French soldiers who hung back less than five meters. All the traders could see that these two were being watched and soon these spacers would decide Le Grand Bazar was no longer a fun place to work.
At noon the overheads burst into an old recording of Parisien Nocturne, and as the very French sounding accordion music played out, work at all but the food stalls ground to a halt. Newcomers to Le Grand Bazar found this confusing, but they soon adjusted to the idea of having a relaxing break. The hard-core miners and spacers would not notice the change, but they were mostly an antisocial bunch anyway. The men selling their ship across the aisle seemed surprised, then the one with a straggly beard led the small boy away.
Billy Washington arrived at LisÃ©’s table just in time to be handed three large empty wine bottles and some money to go to the wine sellers in the fourth aisle. By the time he came back with the vin ordinaire, a dozen friends had gathered at LisÃ©’s and many types of food were being unwrapped. She covered her goods with a white and red checked tablecloth — and this one was just a tablecloth, no hidden electronics. Overhead, the French cafÃ© music continued to play, as Bernard supplied the stainless steel cups for the wine.
Captain Hiro came by with a small plate of incredibly elegant sushi. As self-appointed Japanese ambassador, he always had his ship’s cook set up and serve. Today the man had been slicing from huge red fish steaks.
“This is fresh tuna,” Hiro explained. “Shipped in stasis.”
“Looks expensive,” Billy noted. “Like a work of art.”
It was precisely the right note to take and Hiro beamed.
When business resumed at one o’clock, LisÃ© had just sat down when one of the spacers across the aisle slid over his table and crossed to her side.
“You have a good databoard for sale?” He made no attempt to communicate in French, even through his comm link translator.
“I have several,” she replied. “For what kind of data?”
The man held up the small datapad from their table. A small image of a ship rotated on the screen. “This is too small. No one can see what we’ve got to sell.”
Of course she had several very nice databoards — two even had factory warranties. But she was pretty sure she knew what he needed. So turning around, she rummaged in her third container and came up with a cloth covered slab.
“This is an old art model,” she explained, unwrapping and turning it on. “Normally this high grade display is very expensive, but as you can see, this unit is very used.”
The man grunted as he hefted the artist’s slate and turned it over, looking at all the scratches and dents in the case. Remarkably the screen was free of marks.
“Diamond coating on the screen,” she anticipated his question. “125 years old. Made in Switzerland. Fifteen hundred francs.”
It was a very low price for such a toy.
“Two memory modules don’t work any more. I haven’t found any replacements. But if your ship demo runs on your R-2600, it’ll run on this.”
The spacer dumped the image from the datapad to the artist’s slate and grunted again at the spectacular display. It took a minute for the men to organize enough paper banknotes to total fifteen hundred francs, but they did pay and LisÃ© was happy to be rid of the unit. No one had been looking for art machines lately. She only knew about them because of her cousin.
Stay. Or go.
One of the dÃ©serteurs, a boy of LisÃ©’s age whose nameplate said TULLE, stood leaning over her table. She’d seen that look before and hoped she didn’t have to carefully deflate yet another lovesick French soldier. “May I help you?”
“Oui. I need one of these special shirts.” He selected one not yet embroidered. As if he understood her thoughts, he hastily added, “I have someone special to decorate it for me.”
That let her off the hook, LisÃ© thought to herself.
But when she looked up just a short time later, she could see Private Tulle in earnest conversation with Sable, Doctor Garrault’s teenaged daughter. This did not bode well at all, and she pointed them out to the old lady. To her surprise, Marie just smiled back.
“She is not so young as you think, nearly seventeen. And he is not so old as you think, not yet eighteen. The good doctor thinks they make a handsome young couple.”
“Then he is not worried?”
“Non. Of course not.”
Whatever LisÃ©’s plans had been, they were ruined by the arrival yesterday of another young French soldier, who pulled a small folded paper from a white pouch worn on his right hip, strap slung over his left shoulder. It was almost an embarrassment to receive a real paper letter out here. Certainly the station hadn’t seen any in long enough that they sent the army to do a postman’s job. And from the scent of polished new leather, it didn’t appear the document pouch had ever seen much service.
“Mademoiselle,” the young man had politely held the letter out.
“Merci,” she thanked him.
He lingered for a moment, then realized he’d overstayed his duty — she wasn’t going to open her personal mail in front of him. Self-consciously he saluted, then smartly turned and marched away. Around her everyone was curious, but she merely slipped the letter into a pocket. She knew it came from a cousin — she recognized the handwriting and the Â£1000 Royal Star Mail stamp from The British Sector on Golden.
No one got letters Out Here.
Billy Washington came back, this time to poke through her pile of computers. “I need a navicomp,” he explained in English.
“Going somewhere?” she smiled.
“Nah — Laveque’s trying to leave tonight and I’ve been doing some upgrades.”
“The man is leaving tonight and you’re just getting around to his navicomp?” The smirk on LisÃ©’s face was broad.
Billy made a face back at her. “It’s the third backup navicomp.”
But LisÃ© wasn’t particularly worried. She had already gone back to her third container and reached down to the bottom. “This is a Sonna — it’s Finnish. I pulled it off a freighter about three months ago and it’s all rebuilt.”
“Too expensive. What else you got?”
“I didn’t even quote you a price.”
“And I didn’t bargain. It’s a Sonna. What else?”
“Well, I have a nice Greenwich-Harriman navicomp. Six thousand francs.”
“That’s English. Five thousand.”
“For that remark — seven thousand.”
“Hey, no fair.” Billy grinned at LisÃ©.
“Six thousand firm, then.”
“Fifty-eight and I’m not bargaining with you. It’s got all the databases loaded. And the Sonna’s ten-five.”
“Ouch. Okay — fifty-eight. Deal. Bill it to 163.”
She tapped her datapad and held it out. “Deal.”
“Whatcha doin’ for dinner tonight?”
“I hadn’t thought.”
“The Japanese are cooking Korean tonight.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
The spacers were leaving their empty table. Two men had stopped and an animated discussion ensued for half an hour. At the end, there’d been handshakes. She assumed they sold their ship. The man who bought the artist’s slate even gave her a slight nod as he left.
At four, feeling somewhat flush from actually selling an expensive computer and all of the consignment shirts, she had one of the local boys fetch her some tea and then she sat back to re-read her letter. Her very rich cousin Ellie was asking LisÃ© to come visit in time for Cousins Weekend, when Sir James opened up the estate for all the out relatives. If the girl wasn’t such a decent sort she might be offended. But really, her family handled the haves and the have-nots a whole lot better than most.
Perhaps it was time to jump home. And then move on.
And then it occurred to her. Ellie wasn’t some spoiled and silly rich girl. She was possibly the brightest mind in the entire Gordon-Dawes clan, and since the family owned all the basic patents on interstellar travel, that wasn’t an idle comment. No, Ellie would’ve understood exactly what getting a letter with a Â£1000 Royal Mail stamp on it would do to LisÃ©’s position Out Here. She wasn’t really asking her to come for Cousin’s Weekend — she was telling LisÃ© it was time to come home.
She looked around. The truth was, she could afford passage on any of the starliners, but she had no patience with being a tourist. Unfortunately, the Japanese weren’t leaving for another week or she might have asked to travel with them. After a few more moments to think, she finally touched her comm link and called Laveque.
They met on his ship. “I need passage Inward,” she explained. “I can pay or I can work. I have an English mate’s ticket.”
The French trader knew she’d rebuilt the newly installed third backup navicomp and figured she knew her way around a starship. He took LisÃ© on as crew without a second thought.
“Here’s your berth,” he said. “We sail at 21.00.”
“Merci, mon capitan.”
The berth was small, but sufficient. It was also near the giant blue cylinder which bore the name L’Engine Dawes. That brought a smile to her face — her cousin’s family built these jump engines. LisÃ© had long ago dropped the Dawes from her last name.
LisÃ© carefully tried to get the maximum amount of material in her limited shipping containers. She’d just jammed two more items in the bottom layer of Box 3 when there was a knock on her door. To her surprise it was Doctor Garrault.
“I understand that you are leaving us, Miss Elizabeth Bell-Hanson Dawes,” he said in English. “I know that I shall miss you — you’ve been quite an asset to the smooth operation of Le Grand Bazar, and I know your many friends will miss you very much.”
His smile in response to the look on her face let LisÃ© know that he’d known all along. “I know I shall miss this station — and the people on it — very much,” she finally replied, also in English. “I could come back, you know. Afterwards. But they always say that you can’t go home again.”
“No, change is inevitable.” He nodded sagely. “Do you have enough containers? We have plenty in Station Stores. It would be no problem.”
“I think I can manage with my own allotment. But thank you.”
“Money? I have a reserve account…”
LisÃ© smiled. “I certainly have access to funds.”
“I suppose you do.” He shrugged. “Containers and money are the sort of things that can make or break a move. And a single woman traveling alone — not everyone is as respectable as on my station.”
“No, that is very true. And thank you, Monsieur Docteur Garrault.” She leaned forward on the balls of her feet to kiss him on the cheek. “Merci, merci boucoup. Au revior, Docteur.”
LisÃ© tossed the last of her personal items into Box 3 and glanced around her tiny space. Le Grand Bazar had been a good place to be for a while. But she was leaving now and did not expect to ever set foot on this station again — there would be other good opportunities when she tired of “the perfect life” on Golden and came back out here. When the Rude rolled up outside, she sent off the last of her inventory to Billy Washington. On consignment of course. He would not get that Sonna for free. Then she loaded up a second Rude and sent it on to Laveque’s ship. One more glance around and then it was time for her to leave. At the dock, she stepped into her spacesuit, flashed her ID sliver at the dÃ©serteur on duty and was logged off the station. Without looking back, she crossed the flexible walkway into the ship and disappeared inside.
Out here, nobody was what they seemed. No one was who they said they were. And everybody knew.
It was time to go.