Hidden Pages – Chapter 23 – The Price of Passage


The ultra reflective skin of the smuggler’s rocketship glowed with an electric sheen in misty darkness of the library’s hangar bay.

“Do you know how to pilot this ship?” Lagressa asked, pulling Beth along towards a wide open loading door at the base of one of the rocket’s three nacelles.

“Sort of,” Beth said. “The bigger problem is going to be getting launch clearance.”

“Is the ship sturdy enough to withstand the attacks of the people who are following us?” Lagressa asked.

“More than,” Beth said.

Beyond looking awe inspiring, the mirror surface of the rocket was a practical part of its defenses, reflecting energy attacks along a wide variety of wavelengths to allow the ships other systems to shrug off fire from vessels well outside its weight class.

Space smugglers had less need for visual stealth, since they were typically far beyond any practical viewing range. When they were in close, their problems tended to be ones that involved lasers hot enough to slice through steel in small fractions of a second. Putting armor and shielding on that scale between herself and the Reilian guards seemed like a brilliant idea to Beth. The downside involved in it didn’t register until a moment after she and Lagressa made it into the rocket’s landing bay and slammed the door shut.

“I don’t recall requisitioning crew from the library?” a young woman clad in a black and silver jump suit said. Beth turned to see that the woman was wearing a suspicious frown that was almost more intimidating that the plasma pistol she had pointed at them.

“We need to get off the planet right away,” Beth said. “And you do too. The Reilians are here and are launching a full assault.”

“That sounds like a profitable problem,” the woman said, and Beth saw the trap she’d stumbled into. The smuggler had no direct tie to the library, and so no direct opposition to the Reilians. The safest, most profitable, thing from the smuggler’s perspective was to capture and sell the two fugitives to the people who were chasing them.

“The Reilians won’t deal with you,” Beth said. “They’ll barely even talk with creatures outside their own species.”

“Those are the best kind of negotiations,” the woman said. “It means they don’t have much experience setting prices in their favor.”

Lagressa started to move forward, but Beth put a hand on Lagressa’s arm to stop her.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the woman said. “Most people are willing to pay enough for corpses that shooting you could be worth it in terms of reducing my headaches.”

“But, can they pay you as much we can?” Beth asked, assembling a backstory in her mind for their presence as she spoke.

Could she be a lost heiress of a stellar empire? No, Beth could feel the narrative pushing back against that. She wasn’t the protagonist of the Century Walk, so thrusting herself into a grandiose roll would disrupt the flow too much. She needed to be some one smaller, some one who would pass unnoticed within the flow of the story that had been written.

The smuggler eyed her potential prisoners.

“Unless you’re one of the Hollow Men, I don’t see where you’d be carrying that many credits,” the smuggler said.

Being one of the Hollow Men could have worked. Beth wouldn’t even have minded being a super powerful hyper tech robot, especially not one that was designed to pass for human and act as a stealthy sleeper agent. What that would have done to Lagressa though was a question Beth wasn’t eager to discover the answer to, especially not when she had a better answer readily at hand.

“We’re not hollow, and we’re not carrying that many credits, but we do have a something you’ll want even more,” Beth said.

“If you say a clean conscience, I swear I will shoot you where you stand,” the smuggler said.

“The clear conscience is a bonus,” Beth said. “No, what we have is the coordinates of a new Class 100 interstellar gate.”

“That would be interesting, but if you’re lying…”

“Then you can space us when it turns out to not exist,” Beth said.

“Or I could force you to tell me where it is now,” the smuggler said.

“There’s a problem with that though isn’t there?” Beth said, a smug smile working itself onto her lips.

“You’re not too tough to talk,” the smuggler said, poking her gun at Beth.

“Well, my companion is, but you’re right, I’m not,” Beth said. “I will sing like a bird. Turn me over to the Reilians and I’ll sing to them too, and what is currently a secret route to a thousand different star systems will become the most patrolled warp corridor in all of known space.”

“And if I shoot you, the Reilians will shoot me on general principle because you’ll take the gate’s location with you to the grave,” the smuggler said. “Clever.”

“Thank you,” Beth said.

“Well, it looks like I am recruiting new crew,” the smuggler said. “Apparently I have a position open for a new navigator and, unless I miss my guess, her personal assassin?”

“Close enough to accurate,” Lagressa said.

“Good. Let’s leave then. I just rebuffed the hull and I’d like to avoid getting new laser burns on it if we can avoid that.”

Less than a minute later, Penny was strapped into the upward facing launch chair on the rocket’s bridge.

“My name’s Jahne Filgiomentos,” the smuggler said. “But you can call me Starshine like everyone else does.”

Beth blinked. They hadn’t run into any old smuggler. They’d run into the most famous outlaw in the Measureless Stars!

Pages turned in Beth’s mind. The narrative was intact. Despite the stress the Reilian invasion was placing on it, the story was continuing, and it was drawing in characters from other novels in the setting. Characters will more narrative weight than an entire planet.

“I don’t think we can run away from this,” Beth said as the rocket engines roared to life. “I think we need to fix things.”