Near every spaceport on every planet in the human occupied part of the galaxy, there was always a bar or tavern where spacers and their customers could find each other. Such a place on the lawless Bart's World was The Down and Out Saloon in Treasure City. The Down and Out was a hangout of pirates, fugitives and other underworld characters as well as smugglers, legitimate freighter crews and others who plied the starways.

Treasure City was the largest city of Bart's World. It had a population of five million roughnecks, thieves, con artists and gangsters. So many murders were committed a day, that the undertakers were the richest people on the planet. The Down and Out was on the notorious waterfront of the Bloody Sea in the worst part of a town that had no good neighborhoods.

When Rog and Sally stepped through the Down and Out's swinging doors, they were assaulted by a mixture of stale tobacco smoke, marihuana fumes, alcohol, cheap perfume and sweaty bodies. In addition, since the place was crowded, the noise of loud conversations and even louder music from the robot musicians almost blasted their ears off. Drunks staggered around. Prostitutes accosted men with promises of an evening in paradise. All this noise, stench and confusion took place in a gloom slightly darker than twilight in the wilderness.

Rog peered through the haze and elbowed his and Sally's way through the crowd to a table where several spacers were relaxing. Rog and Sally had met most of these men and women on various planets at some time or other as they plied their trade around the galaxy's stellar systems.

He greeted them. "May we join you bunch of space bums."

One of the men, who had only one eye -- the other had been lost in bar fight -- said in a whisky roughened voice, "Sally is welcome anytime, but you, you pointy brain nerd, can go sit in the sawdust. Only real men are wanted at this table." He laughed raucously and switched his chair around to leave room for the pair.

Rog and Sally ordered the traditional rye whisky with a beer chaser. Sally put a friendly arm around the shoulders of the man who had first addressed them. "So Mike, you son-of-a-bitch, what's going on? Do you know any bastard who wants anything shipped in the vicinity of Earth? We're looking to head in that direction."

"Sorry Sal, old girl, but things are fucking slow lately. I got a possible fish that wants a bunch of smack hauled up to a colony on a planet in the Lover's Star system in the Perseus Arm though."

"Crap. That's a thousand parsecs in the wrong direction."

Mike shrugged. "That's all I got."

Rog addressed the other men. "How about you guys? Heard anything interesting lately?"

The replies were, "Nope," "Negative," "Nada." One guy said, "You'd better take the smack gig. Rumor has it that the Galactic Union is sending the navy this way to clean things up. If that happens, things will get really fucking bad fast on Bart's World."

An old geezer, who neither Rog nor Sally knew, spat on the floor. "Smack smuggling. Hell, that's small potatoes." He tapped his head with its unruly white hair badly in need of a trim. "I got info up here that could make one of you hot shots rich if any of you had the guts to follow through with it."

The other spacers shouted him down. "Not the old white hole story, old man. You're so full of bullshit cows are starting to chase you."

Rog, however, was curious. He thought, something about a white hole? What could that be about? "I didn't catch your name, old timer. Mine's Rog Crepzom, and this is my partner, Sally Lazdos." He put out a hand for the man to shake.

"Charlie O'Connor. Pleased to meet you, Rog." He nodded toward Sally. "And you too, Ms Sally. I've been star hopping around the galaxy before most of these bums were born. I've seen and heard things that you wouldn't believe."

Mike cried, "Oh, oh, now you've done it, Crepzom. Now we won't be able to shut him up."

"That's all right. I want to hear what he has to say. What're you drinking, Charlie? It's on me." He signaled the waitress to order another round for everyone at the table.

Sally gave him a dirty look, because they had not been paid yet for the weapons they had delivered and were running low on cash. Yet, Rob was playing the big shot and buying drinks for the entire table.

After the waitress brought the drinks, and they drank a toast to the future, Crepzom said, "Okay. What's this about a white hole that's going to make someone rich?"

Charlie moved his chair nearer to Rog and lowered his voice so that it was hard to hear him in the noisy tavern. "I'll bet drug runners like you are always hearing stories about some lost alien race that existed a billion years ago, one whose technology is so far ahead of anything we humans or any other sapient race has invented that ours is like something built by cavemen in comparison."

Sally began to show an interest. She leaned in close to hear what he was about to say. She commented, "A thousand times by all kinds of con men and crazies. You don't have dementia, do you, old man?"

"Be sarcastic if you like. I know damn well that most of those tales are somebody's twisted imagination. But I found something several years ago that I swear is true, but nobody wants to believe me. Like this bunch here." He wiped drops of whiskey from stained gray beard and untrimmed mustache. "But I'm gonna stick my neck out with you two young people. I figure you're not the types to simply call me an old fool and laugh. You may be just the kind of spacers that I've been trying to meet. You ain't ones to worry about a little risk either, are you?"

Rog said, "So far you ain't said much. What did you find? Some billion year old artifact?"

"Better than any artifact, an artificial stable white hole big enough to drive a starship through."

Sally said, "That's impossible. Quantum physicists tell us that the energy to produce such a thing would suck up a couple of suns. Such technology won't be invented for thousands of years, if ever."

"Maybe it won't be invented by humans or Stygians for thousands of years. But how do you know that some race that lived millions of years ago didn't have the smarts to make it?"

"And you can tell us where this impossibility is located?"

O'Conner tossed down the rest of his drink and called the waitress over to order another round. "For a price."

"Ah, here it comes. We pay you big bucks, and you give us the white hole's coordinates. When we get there it has mysteriously vanished along with you and our dough. What kind of suckers do you take us for?" She tipped her chair back and stuck her thumbs in the cloth of her jumpsuit.

He squinted at her. "Fuck you. I ain't no con man. I was about to say was that all I want is a share of whatever you find on the other side of the white hole. But if that's gonna be your attitude, I'll find someone else." He tossed down another drink and slowly rose from his seat.

"Hold it, Charlie. Sally's just being her usual skeptical self. She's the hardnosed one in this partnership. We'll do it if you accompany us and not ask a tenth of a credit until we return with a valuable artifact."

He sank back into his seat. "It's a deal. Of course, I'll need a small advance for living expenses until we leave."

"Naturally." Rog turned to Sally. "What do you think, Sal?"

Sally leaned forward again. "How far from Bart's World is this supposed white hole?"

"Not more than a hundred parsecs. If you got a fast ship, we could make it in less than two years."

"And when we get there, what then?"

"I told you. We fly through it. Them aliens built it for a reason. There's got to be something fucking marvelous at the other end. Their home planet maybe."

"So, you want us to fly through an alien built white hole. You're nuts. It'd be suicide."

"Listen missy, someone told me that you're a real hotshot pilot that could navigate through anything. Or was that person giving me a bunch of crap?"

Sally looked at Charlie with skepticism, but Rog seemed to think that it was worth a four years' side trip, and she respected his judgment in such things. At the moment it did not look as though they would get any gigs to take them near Earth. She hated the thought of hanging around Bart's World too long. There was too much of a likelihood that they would be robbed or scammed and lose the money they had made by coming there.

"Rog and I need to discuss your proposal. Come to our hotel tomorrow, and we'll give you our decision." She took out some local currency and tossed it on the table. "This should take care of your drinks for the evening and a tip for the waitress. See you tomorrow, Charlie." She knew it would be late in the day, because he would stay in the tavern drinking until the money ran out and sleep the day away. As they were leaving, she turned and said, "And if we go on this wild white hole chase, bring your own booze."

Artifact may be purchased at Page Turner Editions and other online e-book sellers.

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