Joules sprinted across town determined to reach the warehouse listed on the bill of sale and get her new parts before a wounded heart could change its mind.
During the ride in the back of the extremely clean, if still unpleasantly hot, taxi cab, Joules couldn't help but be reminded once again how poorly the Network portrayed these people and how far off from reality that propaganda was.
Instead of a crumbling city Cairo was bustling with the energy of a modern metropolis, even if the architecture remained relatively close to the ground.
Joules didn't understand the logic behind low rises, everywhere in the Network they were building mega-towers with high-density occupation and tiny, ecologically friendly, “footprints”, but here was different. She could actually see the treetops blooming above the buildings as a century of terraforming back-dropped the horizon like a bouquet of flowers.
The nearest hint of the desert that used to hang around Cairo like a fungus was now more than an hours drive from downtown and the sea of green pastures on the way was fed by high volume, nutrient rich, desalinated ocean water. The associated mist that clung oppressively over the vegetation was the sort one usually only found over lush farmland during the height of summer and a very successful growing season.
The League wasn't just surviving better than Joule had been told, it was thriving and had more than it needed to feed its own. It had such a surplus that the Pan-Arabian government running it was using various backdoors – and armies of people just like her – to get the food out and into trade with their less wealthy neighbours. Neighbours that agents of the League frequently solicited to leave the neglectful cold comforts of the Network for the warm embrace of the Leagues true friendship.
This was the most important battleground in the 23rd Century, not the simmering competition for the wealth of space going on between the New Soviet and the West. The battle was for the stomachs of the three billion or so people on Earth, and in this the Arabian League was a Superpower.
Joules leaned forward trying to communicate to the driver an even greater sense of urgency. It was a moot gesture as the taxi pulled along side the Radial Hub Storage facility from which El Bazaar did all his business.
She needed to find someone in charge, so she could bribe him to get her ahead of the throng of other couriers and business, so she could have her items packed to move while there was time. Joules still had two thousand Bob in her possession, money useless outside the League. And although she knew business opportunities might bring her back she was willing to spend every last Bob to get on her way as quickly as possible if that's what it took.
But the person she glommed onto took her away from the business area after looking at her bill and brought her to five crates near a Grav-Cart. He turned afterward motioning to the crates as he started to walk away before Joules could protest.
“This is you!” He said with annoyance while motioning to the crates.
Joules looked at them. Three of the numbers matched her bill of sale, but what were the other two? She moved to one of the mystery boxes and began to tug at the latches to open it when a voice boomed behind her.
“I wish you wouldn't.” It was El Bazaar.
The portly figured leisurely waddled towards her accompanied by that delicious bodyguard and two other figures, one of whom Joules recognized as “Walter” from the poker game. Well, she thought, at least it wasn't “Tulip”.
Knowing full well that she was outmatched, but also not without resources, Joules rose up defiantly. “You reneging on your bet, El?”
No one called him “El” but he let it slide. After all he was somewhat enamoured with her still. He waited until he was closer still to respond, this was a delicate matter and not something to shout across an open space like this, “Not at all my dear.”
Somewhere in the echo of the space Joules thought she heard the flick of a snakes tongue. It was an unnerving sound under the circumstances.
El Bazaar was before her now, the rest hung back, seemingly more concerned with outside threats and interruptions than anything the subject of their boss' attention could muster. That would be their first mistake.
“I request a favour.” El Bazaar slithered again. Joules felt her skin crawl as he closed the distance between them even further and she saw up close his yellowish eyes, sunken deep in his grey, pasty skin. She cringed as she felt the spray of saliva escape past his puffy, leathery lips and land on her. If this had been her first run she would've been ill.
“I thought we closed negotiations already?” She wasn't letting him know her discomfort.
“On the matter of the game and your prize you are absolutely correct. My request involves these to other crates.”
Joules turned and looked at the crates. They were the standard Lower Deck containers common for transport and specifically made for her Starbus. Small surprise really, she had mentioned she owned one.
“I would like,” he continued, “you to deliver these to a place beyond my borders.”
Beyond my borders, Joules liked that. El Bazaar spoke as if the entire League was his own. For all she knew that was true.
“What's in them?” She asked casually.
El Bazaar snapped his fingers and Walter stepped forward opening the briefcase he was carrying and presenting the contents for Joules' inspection. Sunken into the foam was a Kilo Bar of gold, 32.1507 ounces worth of the only currency accepted in any market. “That question is worth more than Ten Thousand Geo-Bucks, but only if its remains unanswered.”
Four Quarkboosters, a 90E Generator and a Kilo Bar of Gold. She'd have to put this trip right up there with the best ones in her life. But, she thought again of the cargo.
“If that's contraband and I'm caught with it I lose my ship. That's not doable.”
“It's not contraband.” El Bazaar replied after a pause, but he offered nothing more.
Joules turned and moved to the cases again, playfully making them nervous, as though she was suddenly going to pop and latch and spill their contents. “The fines for transporting toxins would cost me both my ship and my freedom. Particularly if I have to dump them before I'm searched. I won't risk that either.”
El Bazaar gave a sideways glance at Walter and then nodded him forward. As he approached Joules he reached back and pulled out a small, muzzle shaped devise. Joules almost thought it was a weapon until he flipped the display up to reveal a scanner.
His other hand came forward with a small painted rock, which he offered Joules.
She took the rock and looked at it suspiciously, it was a simple stone with an archaic silhouette of a horse painted on one side. She leaned in to look at the display as Walter slowly waived it over the first mystery crate. Visible inside where hundreds, if not thousands of similarly shaped rocks.
Joules looked at El Bazaar perplexed. The rotund center of this universe nodded at the crates. “We have a client in Buffalo Commons. He deals in these. Aside from the instability of their load within the container, they are harmless.”
Joules frowned, “You're paying me ten grand to drop off rocks half way across the world?”
“The only ships allowed into the Commons these days are Network Military craft or Civilian Aid vehicles. Most Civilian Aid agencies rely on the Rigel Starbus because of its dependability.” El Bazaar motioned around the Hub but meant Cairo and the League, “As you can imagine I don't know many people with either type of craft.”
He caught her hesitation. She caught him catching her, “It's going to take a few days. I've got to get clearance for the flight, make it look like a humanitarian thing.”
That got El Bazaar's curiosity, “How would you do that?” This was the sort of knowledge he might be able to exploit later.
Joules flashed him a mischievous grin, “Volunteer to deliver humanitarian supplies to the region, how else?” In fact, she knew many different methods, it was the reason she wanted the Quarkboosters in the first place, but if she could get a shipment actually going in the zone it would make things easier all around.
El Bazaar nodded, satisfied with the answer even if unhappy with its limitations.
Joules popped the stone in the air and caught it again before palming it to a pocket as a prize. “Where in the Commons do you want them?”
Walter turned and handed her a Data Wafer. On the micro display were coordinates. “You can air drop them, you don't even have to land.” Then he turned, leaving the briefcase behind as he followed the departing El Bazaar and crew.
Joules looked at the crates and containers hoping she wasn't jumping out of a Superpower sized frying pan.