Upgrade to a better browser, please.

Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Trader's World

Added By: valashain
Last Updated: valashain

Trader's World

Purchase this book through Purchase this book from Purchase this book from
Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: New English Library, 1989
Del Rey / Ballantine, 1988

This book does not appear to be part of a series. If this is incorrect, and you know the name of the series to which it belongs, please let us know.

Submit Series Details

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags:
Avg Member Rating:
(1 reads / 1 ratings)



A Trader had no home - yet was at home everywhere.

From the Chill settlements to Cap City, from the Strine Interior to the Darklands and out to the space colonies, the Traders were always on the move.

They did the deals, turned contacts into contracts. They collected information, exchanged technologies, undertook espionage...

Always outsiders, welcomed warily at best, at risk always, they and their systems were everywhere but belonged nowhere.

To be a Trader was to live by your wits, survive through training and experience and to relax only with other Traders.

Mikal Asparian was about to enter the world of the Traders.



At eighty thousand feet it was already dawn. A thin pink fingernail of solar disk had hooked the horizon and was clawing its way higher, pulling itself above a line of far-off clouds. In that early light, the slow-cruising Trader vehicle gleamed like a rosy pearl.

The woman of the crew had slept very little. Awake for the past two hours, she had been surveying the land far beneath through one of the image intensifiers in the forward cabin. Three times she pulled in overlays of surface radioactivity and soil maps, registered them to the image, and shook her head in dissatisfaction. Finally she removed the headset and went to sit quietly in the center compartment galley, drinking steaming cola tea and watching through the cabin window the broken line of daybreak as it crept westward. The vehicle she sat in was drifting in the opposite direction at a few miles an hour. They were too high for any sense of movement across the land, but the view beneath was imperceptibly changing.

"Morning, Lucia. Where are we?" The voice, which came from behind her, was thick with sleep.

She shook her head, not bothering to turn. "Nowhere, Nothing on the recent charts. I keyed into Daddy-O for the old overlays, and they show we're in an area that used to be called Dzungaria; but the modern maps have no names and no features, not even the Hive locations."

"See anything interesting down there?"

"Nothing to justify our presence. I'm starting to wonder why Daddy-O gave us these coordinates. We could have been in Orklan by now."

"A statistical anomaly, that's all the briefing data said. You know Daddy-O, everything is statistics and probabilities."

"Well, there's no anomaly that I can find. No sign of strange landforms, no surface settlements, no water bodies, and our data base shows no Hive within three hundred miles."


"Not bad--hardly above general Lostlands background. But look at the landscape for yourself."

She picked up her cup, led the way into the forward cabin, and handed her companion the headset of the image intensifier. There was enough light now for the image to be clear without photon amplification, but Lyle Connery took the set anyway and fitted it across his forehead. After a few seconds he activated the zoom feature and did a slow high-magnification scan across the ground directly beneath the hovering craft.

At full magnification the footprint of the observing instrument was less than ten yards. With that resolution, Lyle Connery could have counted individual plants--even individual blades of grass. But there was not one to be counted. The ground beneath rolled in slow folds from north to south, in a series of shallow-sided hills and vales each three or four miles across. There were plenty of eroded paths showing the course of runoff of heavy rain, but no signs of vegetation. Connery could see dust devils swirling along the barren, dry creek beds and blowing across the cracked red subsoil; there was no other movement to catch his eye, no sign at all of life.

Lyle Connery sighed and requested a spectral analysis. When it appeared on the screen he shrugged his shoulders and removed the headset. "We're in the Lostlands all right. No humans, nothing alive. Not even bacteria."

He set the instrument to perform an automatic high-resolution scan of the whole area and to match composition against library signatures, then turned as far as he could toward Lucia Asparian. She was a big woman, but he was huge, and the two of them were crowded into a small forward compartment that had originally been designed for only one person. While they talked, their knees fought for space.

"Is it all like that?" Connery pointed to the screen where a low-resolution backup display ran continuously.

"So far, it is. I've been watching for hours. It's all like what you've seen. Barren substrate materials. No vegetation. Sandstones and hard clays. No organic content, and not a sign of topsoil."

"Then maybe we've got the location wrong." Connery rubbed his head and reached out absentmindedly to the mug of hot cola tea.

She casually smacked his hand away. "That's not possible, Lyle. I fed in the reference overlays, and everything in the data base matches what we're seeing. We're exactly where we are supposed to be. The only mystery is why we're here."

"So let's call back and ask Daddy-O for details." Connery was already reaching for the console when a clear chime sounded through the cabin. Both of them looked up to the display screen. The automatic scan of the ground had ceased, leaving the observing instrument frozen on a view at nadir.

"See anything new?" Lucia Asparian sounded puzzled. "I don't."

"Neither do I. But that's a low-res screen. Take a look with--"

She was already moving. She had lifted the headset and was peering into it at the high-resolution image.

"There is something there," she said abruptly. "I see why we missed it until we were right overhead. It's a miniature valley. Steep sides on it--and deep--but there's topsoil showing at its bottom... and vegetation! It's tiny, though. It can't possibly hold a new Hive. The whole thing is less than a hundred yards long and thirty across."

Connery's sleepiness had vanished and he felt suddenly energetic and cheerful. "We weren't told to expect a Hive." As he spoke he was reaching for the controls to damp the ionization pad around the vehicle. The cushioning field diminished in range, and the craft began to drift lower in altitude, spiraling down toward the little valley in the center of the field of view.

"Even vegetation here is a surprise," he went on. "So people would be too much to hope for, because we're a long way from--Holy Greasers! Hold tight!"

His final words were a high-pitched shout of surprise and alarm. The screen showed a bursting plume of black smoke in the little valley beneath, followed by the bright orange-white flare of a rocket rushing up erratically toward their craft. Connery cut the ionization field completely to send the craft into free-fall, switched on the propulsion system to full throttle, and threw them into a sideways spiral. The Trader ship twisted and dropped like a broken-winged bird.

The rising rocket turned to follow their trajectory.

"Solid fuel--an antique, but not all that primitive--got targeting sensors on it!" Lyle Connery had wedged his legs under the console and was reaching across to the defense unit controls, while Lucia Asparian had been thrown back hard against the bulkhead. She struggled to sit upright.


"Don't know." Connery hit a panel of switches. "Have to destroy it, even if it is an antique--an impact would do for us, even if the warhead's dead."

The pulse of radiation from the Trader vehicle had been released before he finished speaking. There was no sign of damage to the approaching rocket, but it veered away sharply and headed north with random changes in attitude. Its control electronics were dead. Lucia stared after it through the window until it hit the ground, then pulled herself slowly back into her seat.

She rubbed her head where it had thumped the cabin wall. "I guess that proves how much we know about what's going on in these parts. Taking us down?"

"Have to. Now we know there's something interesting on the ground."

"No heroics!"

"Trust me. I got that out of my system on my first mission." Connery feathered the craft into a gently descending curve, his full attention on the little valley. Lucia Asparian donned the headset again and turned the image to maximum magnification.

"Crops," she said at last. "I can see them now. All along the west side. Pretty ragged growth, but there must be a decent depth of topsoil there and not too much radioactivity. I can see the launcher, too, standing next to a hole in the other side of the valley. Looks absolutely ancient, even older than Daddy-O. Living quarters have to be back inside that hole. Catchment basin next to it, to collect rainwater runoff. Looks pretty full, must be used for irrigation as well as drinking. No sign of another rocket. We ought to be safe enough."

"Got my fingers crossed."

"Looks like they're growing Yankee barley and corn." Lucia Asparian gave the crop area a few more seconds of detailed inspection. "Delaunay variant varieties. That's Yankee technology. Wonder where they got the seed?"

"Keep watching the launch site," Connery grunted. "I won't hold it against you if you don't learn any more about the crop species."

As they descended he was steadily slanting their path farther away from the valley, to present an increasingly oblique target for a ground-to-air defensive system. "I'm going to put us down a couple of miles away," he said. "Then we'll go in slow and steady, on the ground."

"Think they'll have a surface defense system?"

"With that small a living area, it wouldn't make much sense. But I wouldn't have expected any defenses at all, so maybe I'm going to be surprised again. We'd better go in bulletproof."

The Trader survey craft touched down on a gray-red inclined plain of exposed rock. Connery and Asparian pulled on Kevlar-14 coveralls with fitted face masks, slid open the door, and stepped cautiously out onto the rubble-strewn slope. The valley was completely hidden from this angle. It did not become visible again until they were on the brink of the final slope downward.

"We're right on top of it, and still you'd never know there's a fertile spot here," Lucia Asparian said softly. "Good topsoil, no Hives anywhere near, invisible a mile away on the ground, almost invisible from the air--great place for a hideaway."

"But who's hiding here? And why?" Connery, for all his bulk, was moving light-footed onto the final steep slope, leading the way into the narrow north end of the valley. The whole depression was visible to them now. There was no sign of life anywhere in it. Green corn, four feet high, waved gently in the southern breeze, and the temperature was noticeably higher. Lyle Connery was sweating profusely inside his flak suit.

"No way anyone could hide here," Lucia said, "unless they went underground or lay down in the middle of the crops. I can't see any trails leading that way. And there's no way they could have left without us seeing." She gestured to the dark opening carved into the valley's steep eastern side. "They have to be in there."

"Then it's your turn to cover me." Lyle Connery moved down to the valley floor and approached the entrance. He looked at it with disfavor. It was small and narrow, no more than four feet high and three feet across, and it was elevated a couple of feet above the smooth soil of the valley bottom.

"Not sure I can fit in there," he said after a moment. "Makes me claustrophobic just looking at it. It's meant for Hivers, that's for certain." He walked a few paces nearer and shone a flashlight into the aperture. "Blocked off with a door, just the way you'd expect. Must get pretty cold here at night. Looks like pre-War plastic, but I can't be sure. Well, we've come this far, better keep going. Don't come any nearer--I'm heading in."

He was moving forward as he spoke, stepping upward and then crouching to fit into the cramped opening. Lucia saw him reach out, saw the door swing open, then heard a sudden startled cry. Lyle Connery was in the middle of a blizzard of dark snowflakes, swirling all around him. She raised her weapon but there was no definite target other than Connery himself.

"Lyle! What's happening?"

"I'm all right." There was a gasp, then a shaky laugh. "But I'll bet my hair's turned white. They were all over me in a second. They're hornets--a whole nest of them! The door was booby-trapped, and when I opened it I pulled the whole lot down on my head. If I hadn't been wearing the flak suit and helmet... Hell and damnation!" He was suddenly beating at his neck, then capering around in the front of the door. "One of 'em stung me--must have got in at the neck join."

"Stand still." Lucia raised her weapon and bathed Connery in low power thermal flux. There was a louder hum of fury for a couple of seconds, then the whole swarm rose into the air and buzzed off to the south end of the valley. "Now, stop the dance practice and get right inside before they come back."

Connery grunted, swore, and squeezed into the narrow doorway.

"Little tunnel here, goes back a couple of yards," he said after a few seconds. His voice was breathless through the radio. "Then opens up. Dirt walls, pile of hay on the floor--must be a bed. Some dried food around--rotten looking stuff, I wouldn't want to touch it. No sign of a fireplace, must do all their cooking outside. Batch of sharp knives hanging on the wall, and a spare warhead for that surface-to-air missile. And somewhere there has to be..." There was a long pause. "But there isn't. There's no sign of any other way out."

"Concealed, maybe? Look for a hidden tunnel."

"Lucia, there's just no space for it in here. Come on, see for yourself."

Lucia took a quick look around the quiet valley. Nothing stirred. After a few moments she hurried forward and went in through the little door.

The room was no more than ten feet square, with a ceiling too low for her to stand up. She looked around carefully, then went across and moved the pile of hay to one side. Behind it lay nothing but a faceless dirt wall. Small ventilation holes, each no more than three inches across, had been cut in the forward wall. She went across and put her eye to one, and found she was looking out onto the floor of the valley.

She walked across to another one and peered into it briefly. "It's just the sort of mud hole the Hivers would choose to live in. The floor rises so they can never be flooded out, and the airholes run downward. So it must be Hivers--but where are they?"

Connery shrugged and led the way outside. The pair stood for a minute or two, gazing all around them.

"You stay right here and cover me," Lucia said at last. "Don't argue about it. I know I'm overweight, but I'm still a smaller target than you. If you have to talk, use radio contact--and whisper." She moved faster and went ahead on the final slope.

The hornet sting was itching intolerably. Connery removed the gloves of his suit and scratched furiously at his sore neck. He watched in silence while Lucia walked the full length of the valley, turning to look around her every few paces. Finally she began to retrace her steps.

"Nothing?" Connery asked.

"Nothing." After a few more moments she went across to the little pond of the water catchment and stood staring at it. It was built into the side of the valley and stood with its clay and stone retaining wall waist high from the main valley floor. She walked slowly around its semicircle, staring at the base.

"This is the surprise," she said. "You've seen more Hiver communities than I have. How many of them have ponds like this to catch rainwater?"

"None of 'em. Every Hiver I've met has been too scared of being trapped underground by water. That's why they build the Hives the way they do, to make it impossible. Hell, most of 'em hate water so bad they won't even wash."

"Right. So the last thing that any Hiver would ever do is this." As Lucia spoke she was bending down by the foot of the catchment wall, pulling at a rectangular stone in the base.

"You'll empty the whole thing over you if you're not careful," Connery began; but as he was speaking, the big stone came free to reveal that it was no more than a facing lamina of thin rock. Lucia crouched down toward the dark hole that lay behind it. She was still at half-stoop when a small, mud-smeared figure sprang out, dived between her legs, and ran away madly around the catchment pond. "Grab him!"

It was a skinny, naked boy, moving as fast as a startled bird. Connery was already responding to Lucia's cry. He made a dive and grabbed the fleeing figure as it tried to swerve past him.

"I've got him. Ouch!" Connery had released his hold, and the boy was off and running again. He shook his hand violently. "The little bugger bit me on the thumb. Come on, let's get him!"

The youngster was heading right up the steep side of the valley. He ascended the slope at twice the speed that Connery could manage, but once on the flatter surface above he had no chance. Connery's long legs ate up the ground and caught him within fifty strides. There was a brief struggle, then Connery had lifted the boy off the ground and was holding him with one arm around his neck and the other pinioning his arms.

The captive went on fighting desperately. When Lucia Asparian caught up with them she found herself staring at a purpling, half-strangled face and a pair of terrified and angry eyes. She looked at the boy in silence for a few moments, then shook her head.

"He was the only one in there?" Connery asked.

She nodded. "He was. I took a good look. I'm not sure what we should do next, but I think we can go back to the Surveyor now. Daddy-O wanted us to find an anomaly. I guess we've got one."

Copyright © 1988 by Charles Sheffield


There are currently no reviews for this novel. Be the first to submit one! You must be logged in to submit a review in the BookTrackr section above.


No alternate cover images currently exist for this novel.