Chapter One

“Rumor has it, Mr. … Jax … is it? that you engage in the … ‘grim business’. Is that what you’ve come to talk about?”

So, that’s the expression on this world …“the grim business” … I’ve heard worse, lots worse.

The man opposite me is dapper to the point of caricature. He’s the image of military self-discipline. He’s sitting straight up in his chair, and he’s locked his gaze on my eyes—the stalking stare of a predator. He even carries a deadly weapon on his hip, as if some kind of combat could break out at any instant. The others at the table are a mix of military and civilian, but all defer to him.

I say into my translator, “I engage in many businesses, bozo, and the grim business is one of them.”

I love this newest version of the translator. I don’t have to keep all the titles and honorifics straight. This guy’s a general or a colonel, I think, but the translator will take care of getting it right, and it will properly “silver tongue” my bluntness.

“We don’t traffic in human lives, Mr. Jax.”

Ah, the virgin denunciation. I love it when I hear that. These people have no idea what “product” is worth, and once I’ve helped them over their squeamishness—they’ll sell cheap, and I’ll stack it deep.

“I understand, General Blowhard, and this is just a courtesy call so we can get acquainted and do future business of all sorts. However, since you have brought up the grim business, let’s start there and clear the air.

“From your perspective, the colonizing business looks grim. My fellow traders and I take millions of people. We take them from their home planets, pack them in our ships, and then set them loose on a strange world. There they must work to pay off their ticket. That’s a bitter irony because many of them didn’t get to ‘buy in’ to going in the first place—they were losers who were forced into the program by winners.

“But that is the perspective of a homebody—one who stays behind. For those that leave, things look very different. The people I carry are world builders, General Jeepers, World Builders! They will be pioneers and conquistadors on their new worlds. If the new world is wild and untamed, they will be terraformers, farmers, and miners. I will give them the tools, and they will build a paradise. And as they build it, they will pay me off. It’s win-win.

“If the world is inhabited, I will give them the weapons and technology to conquer it—conquer and loot. After they pay their fare, I will leave them as the ruling class of a world that needs their training and education to advance. They will be seen by the natives as gods come to their world, and they can build their new world in any image they desire.

“So for those who leave on our ships, the business is hardly grim. It’s the gateway to fulfillment.

“As for me and my crew, this is our job, our role in life. We help civilized life to spread through the galaxy, and we make a buck or two in the process.

“Grim? Grim only for those who stay behind, General, only those who stay.”

He was looking more relaxed now. He’d needed moral ammunition, and I was supplying him boxloads.

“So say you, trader, but why are you here now?”

“Your world, if I may say so, is reaching a resolution. There has been unrest?”

“Of course. That’s why I, a general, have so many civilian responsibilities.”

“Well, the good news for you, General, is that we anticipate a resolution of that unrest soon.”

“We will win?”

I see that the general smiles inwardly. Leaders in these kinds of times always love assurances.

“There will be winners and losers soon, General. When it’s over some will be happy, some will be disgusted, and many will be seeking a new life.”

The general frowns.

“I’m sorry I can’t be more specific. We on my ship can analyze the sweeps of a planet’s history, not the minutiae. That’s why I’m talking with the leaders of all the organizations of importance on your world.

“Winning and losing is important to you. I understand that, but I can’t help you there.

“What is just as important as victory is what happens to the restless after the victory. If they remain, they will extend the unrest and uncertainty. If they extend it too violently and too long, then the change that your world needs to undergo to bring about a better life here can fail, and the unrest will continue in a vicious cycle. You, General, need a safety valve—a way to siphon off the restless without destroying your society, or your credibility as a leader for all your people. Believe me: Pogroms and massacres leave deep scars in the social fabric. You don’t want them if you can avoid them, and I’m here to help you do just that.”

“Trader, you sound like you’ve told this tale to many. You’re offering me solutions to problems I may have. If you’ll excuse me, I have problems that are real today, and I must be about solving them. If you have no further business to offer, then good day.”

He stood; I stood; I held out my hand with a small book.

“This is a book I’ve found most inspirational in trying times. You might find it inspirational as well.”

Without a glance he takes it, pockets it, and continues walking out while quietly consulting with his men.

“Hooked by the book,” I chuckle to myself. This man’s price is secret information.