Harper was going to have to write the entire trip off as a loss. He’d had his fair share of bad runs—nobody could perfectly predict what fate-cursed thing would depress or inflate a planetary economy—but this was the kicker.
There was profit loss on the first leg to Igmat because the system had consolidated their seat of power, doing something funny to their coin in the process. He’d still been able to get a full load of amnentheogens, ironwood and heartstone, which would bring him back into the black at the next stop, where the stuff was an integral part of the governmental priesthood.
When he got to Grenwhal he found the priesthood deposed and their religion shaped up to a point where they didn’t need trances, sticks and stones from their old sponsor planet to worship. Good for them, but bad for Harper, who had to scramble to amass trade stock for the jump to Finder’s Kin.
He’d been able to load enough gryphon hide and sundry to meet the normal minimum demand, but it hadn’t mattered. A new synthetic manufacturing process meant Finder’s Kin wanted less than half the hide and only picked through the sundry.
And so it was for the next system and the next, on down the line, putting Harper in such a state that he was nearly ecstatic when he wasn’t irreparably in the hole at the seventh stop in the run. The self-sustaining trading rhythm was gone, leaving his ship hanging above the last planet in the chain, empty and directionless.
He considered his choices. If he scraped together his retirement cache with the last dregs of his stock he should be able to settle on-planet somewhere, selling his ship or running in-system hops to round out his income. Alternately, he could take all that credit and fund half of one last run, then hope he could squeeze enough profit along the way to build a full trade cycle up again.
Of course, there was always mindless travel. Retirement. The ship was comfortable; it didn’t cost him anything to move it. He had a library and, as long as he could find hook-ups to supplement the kitchen’s algae farm, all his basic needs would be taken care of until he finally died of boredom.
None of it sounded appealing. Harper just wanted his trade route back. With a heavy sigh he set a course to the first system in the line. It wouldn’t hurt to make an empty look-see run one last time, maybe he could figure out where he went wrong. If anything, it’d be a nice way to say goodbye before giving up.
At Igmat the coin was acting in a more manageable fashion. Out of habit, Harper made deals for some of the flotsam in his hold from the failed run, replacing it with trade staples and baubles picked at whim. Though he’d come out even, Harper didn’t let it affect his hopes. At this rate he’d still be trying to build his route back up on his deathbed.
Slumping in a lounger on ship, Harper allowed himself the luxury of getting morosely drunk. Some point later, still in parking orbit around Igmat, he took a tour of the holds, staring at piles of useless stock with bleary-eyed hatred. There were unopened and unwanted crates of ironwood, gryphon hide and whatever else all the systems on his run had decided they’d moved beyond.
Hulking in the corners were bins of sundry, bought in increasing panic and assortment as he’d progressed the decaying route. The holds were mostly empty, but they felt as though they were completely full of useless junk. Harper forced himself to focus on a canister by the door. It took him a moment to place it as the amnentheogens Grenwhal decided they didn’t need anymore. Maybe he could put them to use.
When Harper came to he was sitting on the bridge in his dress whites. He’d bought them from a retired marine when he first started trading, adding trim and decorative needlework during system jumps. They were his regal motley, perfect for impressing dignitaries and romantic interests. Harper tried to remember if he’d taken his drunk down on-planet. He couldn’t think through his headache.
Blinking lights on the navigation board caught his wincing eyes. The ship was no longer parked around Igmat. If he had to be precise, Harper would guess he was exactly in the middle of nowhere. The navigation screen read “Jump sequence completed. Find intra-system travel course now?” Harper’s head continued to hurt.
In the kitchenette, over tea, he reviewed the ship’s log on a handheld screen. After he’d boarded and stored the few goods from Igmat there was a span of automatic updates, the ship checking itself while in parked orbit. Then, in the gap of Harper’s memory, there had been an eight-step sequence of jumps.
Interstellar space was vast and unwieldy. Over time, paths from known system to known system were stitched out, creating wide highways surrounded by the unknown. Systems on opposite ends of known space required multiple jumps, popping back into real space to orient themselves to the maps and line up vectors for the next jump. Ship computers did all the long distance worry work; most pilots just plugged in destination coordinates, picked between routes if there were options and enjoyed the trip.
The log carefully explained that Harper, in a hallucinogenic fugue, had manually entered coordinates that did not match those of any known system. This wasn’t completely irregular. Unlisted planets and systems were easy enough to hide in the void of space and were popular among people who were very rich, terribly unlawful or both. Helpfully, the ship had asked Harper if he was certain of his coordinates. When he confirmed, it extrapolated a jump sequence, letting Harper know it was indefinite and would be updated as each step progressed. With a final okay from its captain, they left.
His teacup rattled against the saucer as he tried not to think about the empty unknown closing in on all sides. Though Harper was a competent intra-system pilot, the distance between stars terrorised him. As soon as he could afford it, he’d invested in a top of the line astrogation system with nascent-A.I that would take care of every variable. The genius system got him here, it could get him back just by retracing its steps.
Except according to the log, he realised as fear burned up his throat, in his fugue he’d wiped the coordinates of the endpoint and each step from the ship’s memory. There was no way to calculate where he was from the surrounding stars because his position was not on the maps. And eight-step sequence meant he was a long way from Igmat, but in the labyrinth of space he could be within interstellar shouting distance of the regular shipping routes and never know it.
Harper let his tea grow cold while he furiously calculated what to do. In basic fact his current situation was not much different than his earlier option of mindless travel. The ship would keep going longer than he would and his food would be bland but endless. Harper hoped the feeling of helpless terror would fade into the background over time.
He set the ship examining the neighbourhood for nearby planet destinations while he bathed. In the shower cubicle it was warm and dark and soothing. By the time Harper was toweling his hair and braiding it back the agoraphobic apprehension had contracted to a knot under his ribs.
On the bridge he reviewed the ship’s findings and felt the knot expanding through his heart and lungs again. There were no possible planetary destinations within intra-system distances. He’d popped out into the gravity well of the most unpopular star in the universe. He felt like crying.
The navigation screen blinked reassuringly at him, waiting to set a course. Harper calculated a safe distance for viewing the star; since he was here he might as well see it. Jumps took no time at all, but intra-system travel was plodding, the ship moving through actual physical space with all of its time and distance variables. The ship gave Harper an estimate of two weeks travel time.
He’d been starhopping most of his life and knew the ways to keep himself sane and occupied during long stretches. In this instance, however, Harper slept through most of it. Even when he was awake he stayed in bed, leaving only for the habitual ship exercises, or to preserve the housebroken status he’d held for some decades.
When he wasn’t sleeping, or staring at the wall in a deep funk, Harper tried to figure out what had gone wrong with his trade route. It was an empty exercise, the odds of returning to known space were slim to improbability and even if he did, he still didn’t have enough capital to start again.
A ship bell woke him in a tangle of blankets. Fishing the handheld from somewhere under his back, Harper cued the remote navigation screen. The ship was a little over a week into its route to the system’s centere and nothing should have been between him and the star but more empty space. The screen, nonetheless, showed a sparse asteroid belt ahead. Harper wondered if he or the ship should be blamed for the oversight. Parameters for the system search had been set for planetary-size bodies only.
None of the rock drifting between the ship and the star was bigger than a moonlet, but it made space feel less empty and Harper began to relax. He reset the search parameters for general survey, if anyone was mining this belt he could drop by and ask for directions. If it was unclaimed he could make a more thorough survey and have something to add to the pot if he ever got back.
When the scan came back negative for man-made structures or transmission signals Harper plotted a course that would take the ship in orbit around the belt, dipping in at points. He didn’t look at the projected time estimate because it didn’t really matter. He may not be lost in nothing, but he still had nowhere else to be.