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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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“U.S.S. Lincoln to Vulpecula, the Arch-Merchant has dropped out of warp again. Let’s circle back on impulse and see what’s broken this time.”

Second Mate Wayne “Pappy” Omthon muttered a curse and shut down the Vulpecula’s warp drive. The freighter shuddered and the lights on the cramped bridge flickered as it shifted to impulse.

Pappy turned the command chair to face the sensor console and get a fix on Arch-Merchant, wincing at the chair’s squeak. He’d get it oiled as soon as he had time.

The image on the screen was fuzzy, so Pappy slapped it with the flat of his pistachio-green hand, a practiced maneuver that instantly, if temporarily, cleared up the image. He’d earned the nickname “Pappy” by being far younger than the captain and most of the crew serving under him, a point he was still defensive about. But he prided himself on knowing the ship’s quirks as well as any old-timer.

Arch-Merchant was venting plasma coolant. He sighed, ignoring the sensor display which had gone all fuzzy again. “That ship,” he announced, without a trace of irony, “is a piece of junk.” He slapped the sensor display again, then put in a call to Captain Rivers in her cabin to advise her of the situation.

Rivers was, as he’d expected, mildly drunk. The captain instructed him to use his own judgment, and not to call her again unless there was a core breach. Pappy grunted as the intercom screen went blank, then set a reverse course. It was business as usual.

Both the Vulpecula and the Arch-Merchant were privately owned freighters operating on the edge of former Cardassian space. The fall of the Cardassian Union and the aftermath of the Dominion War had thrown the region into chaos, creating lucrative new trade opportunities, and new dangers as pirates and raiders moved in.

Federation starships were spread thin and overworked, so freighters often formed small, impromptu convoys for mutual protection and safety. Pappy didn’t fear the danger much, but he was just as happy when they were transporting some cargo important enough to Federation interests to warrant a starship to escort their convoy.

On this run, the two ships carried power station components, Cardassian war salvage from abandoned bases now needed to rebuild Cardassia Prime. If Pappy found it ironic that the Federation was paying to ship Cardassian war materials to restore Cardassia, he never would have said so. It was exactly the sort of situation a tramp freighter captain lived for. It was Pappy’s ambition to buy the Vulpecula from Captain Rivers one of these days. His share of profits from this run would be one more step in that direction.

If they ever got to Cardassia.

“Vulpecula to Lincoln. How long are we going to be delayed this time?”

One of the secondary viewscreens cleared, and the angular features of a human Starfleet officer appeared. “This is Captain Newport. Shouldn’t you be addressing that question to the Arch-Merchant?”

Pappy grinned, he hoped not too much. “Since it’s my guess your engineers will be doing the repair work, I thought you’d know best.”

Newport chuckled. “My chief engineer is putting together a repair party right now. We should know more after they beam over. Tell me, why is it—” He hesitated. “How to put this politely?”

“I won’t make you ask the question, Captain. The Arch-Merchant is a corporate ship. She looks clean and sharp for the stockholders, but she’s lucky to make it out of orbit without shedding a nacelle. We’re a tramp, and independent. Our ship looks like the rattletrap she is, but we keep the important systems in top shape, appearances be damned. Most of the time, we’re all we’ve got out here.”

Newport nodded. “Well, thanks for being the less troublesome part of this mission.” He glanced to one side. “Looks like the Arch-Merchant managed to plug the plasma leak on their own. Uncommonly resourceful of

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