“And that’s the basics of how warp drive works,” Neal was telling his relatively new crew in a spontaneous training class brought on by a question from one of the teens.
“So you can move anything?” Holly wanted to know.
“Not quite,” Neal replied with a chuckle. “First you have to be able to get a warp bubble around it, and then still have enough energy left over to move it.”
“Is Folly the biggest ship in the universe?” Quickdash wanted to know.
Neal laughed at that. “No, not at all. My Folly is less than half the length of some of the exploration ships that the Federation has been using. While she’s quite large for a privately owned freighter, there are a lot of larger ships plying the space lanes.”
“And this newer section is just an add-on to the old,” Holly added.
“Just so,” Neal agreed. “My current plans call for me needing the extra room before too long; so you guys get to help me break it in a little.”
* * *
“That’s odd,” Neal muttered as they approached a mining station bordering an asteroid field.
“What’s odd?” Weaver asked, as most of the other ears on the bridge turned their way.
“No supply requests, not a one …” he replied.
“Have you seen something like this before?”
“Not very often, as most stations are eager to top off their consumables every chance they get. Like you guys on a road trip, each stop you’d top off the vehicle’s charge and make sure you have enough drinks and snacks to last you until at least the next stop. Unless they have a contract with a ship to bring them what they need, they should be at least listing what they might be interested in.”
“And they’re offering very little to sell,” Tess pointed out. “Scans show their processing systems are hot, but they don’t appear to be doing any processing at this time.”
“Any mining craft or rocks inbound to them?” Neal asked.
“Negative. A few ‘parked’ nearby, but no noticeable activity.”
“Check the nets, public records, anything that might explain them not needing or wanting supplies.”
“Here’s something; they’re not supposed to be here,” Tess informed them a minute later.
“What do you mean?” Weaver wondered.
“Public records show they sent out a bid and there was an open contract to move the station eight months ago. A bid was accepted that would take twelve weeks to complete, and by the dates on those contracts they should have been halfway to their new orbit by now.”
“Backtrack it, I’ll bet there’s a reason for the delay,” Neal muttered.
“Contract was picked up by Sormand Heavy Lift out of Voxxa. They deal with buying or leasing everything from shuttles to warp capable ships able to tow other ships at low warp speeds. They sent a pair of their heavy lift shuttles out to do the move, but seven weeks ago they claimed to be having a problem with one of them. Current claim is they’re still waiting for parts,” Tess added.
“And the contract?” Neal asked.
“Half in advance, and the way the contract was written they can’t be considered default until they fail to have the station in place by the arrive-by date.”
“Where are those shuttles now?”
“In system, but at another station in the asteroids almost opposite from this one.”
“So it appears. Tessro Mining brought out and set up both stations, but this station did so well that they bought their systems out from under the mining company. From what I can find, the other is still under Tessro’s thumb.”
“Why do I want to place a bet that they’ll run foul of their obligations and lose the station if they aren’t moved in time?”
“Because you have a suspicious mind, Boss. But in this case you are correct; failure to do the contracted processing defaults the station back to Tessro. Boss? We could re-rig our heavies to do the job.”
“Even if we did, how long would it take to move them using our shuttles?”
“Max safe power levels the whole trip; eight weeks,” Tess admitted.
“And we can’t hang around that long anyway,” Neal pointed out. “That station was designed to be moved wherever it was needed. With the heat exchangers folded, just how big would it be?”
“Center of gravity isn’t quite centered, but I see where you’re heading, Boss. One point four kilometers long, point seven three at the widest.”
“Just where are you ‘heading’?” Weaver half demanded.
“As you and the kids found out a few days ago; my Folly is really two vessels, and if the back end can push the front end to warp – and Tess says that their whole station is smaller than our front end is …”
* * *
“Damn mercenaries – the lot of you!” the old fox howled.
“So are you!” Neal shot back. “Tell me right here and now that you’ll give two farts in a vac-suit what happens to anyone after they warp out of here!”
“Anything you might try offering is too damn little and too damn late! Just get out of my face!” he bellowed before storming out of the bar that was sometimes used to conduct business arrangements.
“He didn’t even listen to your offer,” Weaver quietly murmured as she tried to calm Starblazer.
Neal softly snorted. “Poor guy’s probably worked decades to get where he’s at, only to watch it all crash from no fault of his own. It doesn’t help that this is a slow motion crash so he gets to enjoy every second of it.”
“So, what do we do now?” she asked. “Or is that it – we let them crash?”
“Hard to get anything accomplished with the principals are mad at each other,” Neal pointed out.
“You’re mad at him?” Weaver asked in surprise.
“Enraged,” Neal agreed with a hidden grin. “So, while the first stringers are busy locking horns, we’ll just send in the second string to play around them,” he added as he looked around the bar.
* * *
There are no drinking laws, only sober ones, or so they say. As such, Neal hadn’t bothered to tell his ‘crew’ what they could or couldn’t drink; as they were all ‘off duty’ and could do as they pleased.
This didn’t mean he had sent them out as lambs to a slaughter though, as each carried a small pack that included a quick sobering agent and an oxygen breather. They of course wore their comm badges, but several also wore small ear buds similar to Neal’s earplugs.
“What we need is information,” Neal’s voice softly told them. “Who else can speak for the station, agree to a contract, or even offer a new contract while representing the station. We also need to find their engineering people and find out how fast they can get this place ready for a move once the movers are here. Drinks are on me if you think it will loosen their tongues. Don’t bother trying to relay anything you learn, Tess will be watching and she will keep me updated.”
Turning to Weaver, Neal added with a scowl, “Since they’re all watching me, I’ll just ‘huff’ my way out of here.” He spilled some of his drink when he slammed it to the table, stood up and stormed out of the bar.
While several conversations started back up, there was a snickering giggle heard coming from one corner. The cat looked to be well in her cups if one went by the number of empty glasses that she was none-too-carefully stacking and then unstacking in turn.
“Leave her alone,” the foxy fox barmaid snapped when she saw a couple of their visitors taking an interest in their drunk.
“Fine,” Alex agreed, “Then you can tell me why this place is so down in the dumps.”
“What? Weren’t you listening to their argument?” she demanded, pointing at the table where Weaver still sat with Starblazer.
“I heard part of a heated discussion, but I’d really like to hear the rest of the story,” Alex said, ignoring her anger.
“What’s left to tell? We’ve already lost half the credits we had reserved to get us moved! We can’t afford to offer another bid, and even if someone accepted what we have – there isn’t time for them to move us! Which part of that didn’t you get?” she snarled at him.
Alex looked down as he slowly shook his head as if to what the barmaid had just said – but in reality he was listening to what Tess was suggesting to him. “You do know that a good bit of the cost of moving your station is paying to drag the heavy boost shuttles out here in the first place – right? So if they’re already local they might accept a much lower bid. As for the time it would take to move the station – if you will follow me?” he said as he started walking toward one of the large ports looking out into space. From there they could see the two-hundred meter access boom that had been run out to where the Folly drifted next to the station.
“So?” she demanded.
Alex gave her a small grin as he said, “One, that beast actually hits warp. Two, the leading spheres section is larger than your entire station – and three, it’s detachable …”
As he watched her face and her changing emotions, Alex continued. “To a freighter captain, time is money, so we couldn’t possibly hang around the eight weeks it would take our shuttles to move your little station. We’re already here, so there’s no extra to/from charges to contend with. So …” he said as his smile grew, “I need two things from you. Who can place a new bid that we can snag, and just how fast can this place be made ready to travel?”
Now looking thoughtful instead of angry she said, “My Mom can sidestep Dad; as for the second, I now wish I hadn’t let our engineer do such a good job drowning her sorrows,” she added, indicating the still giggling cat in the corner.
Raising an eyebrow, Alex tapped his comm badge. “Tess? That anti-pie-eye stuff you gave me – how would it affect someone about two-thirds my mass?” he asked as he pulled a flask from his pocket.
“It’ll just work faster on them,” Tess assured them. “Just make sure you put them on the breather, one-hundred percent oxygen for at least five minutes or they’ll have one killer headache.”
The barmaid snickered. “She’s not going to appreciate us killing off her perfectly good drunk. Pete! Page Mom and then get your tail over here!”
The heavyset bartending wolf came over while wiping his hands on a towel. “What’s up Tash? I thought we’d agreed that we’d let Copper be so long as she didn’t make a scene.”
Tash grinned up at him. “She’s about to make a scene,” she said as she passed Alex’s now opened flask under his muzzle.
Whipping his head away from it after the barest of sniffs, Pete grinned. “I can see now why you want me to hold her down, but why are we doing this?” he asked as he moved behind Copper’s chair.
Tash looked him in the eye as she said, “Because it might just mean this station gets moved with the credits we have left – and in time. I think that’d be worth a free bar tab for Copper for a day or two – wouldn’t you?”
“For a week – hell – a month!” he readily agreed. “Copper, darling? One more for the road?” he whispered to her as he held her wrists and Tash tilted the cat’s head and the flask.
The cat simply swallowed at first, then her eyes opened wide and unfocused as her stomach started to react to the unsettling mixture she was being fed.
“Don’t you dare try throwing up!” Tash snarled at her victim. “Where’s that breather?”
“Right here,” Alex said as he reached around her and pushed the mask onto the cat’s muzzle as the flask was removed.
Over the next few minutes Copper’s eyes went from surprised shock to anger as her ‘good drunk’ was taken from her.
“What the bloody hell?” she started once the mask was removed. “Let go of me, Pete. I’ll give you guys all of two minutes to convince me that that was needed before I start clawing people,” she snarled.
“How long would it take you to get us ready to move the station?” Tash asked.
“Doesn’t bloody matter,” Copper muttered.
“Pretend it does bloody matter,” Alex countered. “Pretend there was a ship out there that could wrap this entire station in her warp field and drag this station along like a kitten does a mouse toy. But time is money to this ship. In hours – how long?”
“Safely? Six hours. Though I’ve got an emergency play book for two and a half – but it allows for a lot of damage to save the station core from a collision or something,” Copper admitted.
“Is that fast enough?” Tash demanded.
Alex nodded. “I think so, but we still need a contract to wave under my captain’s nose.”
“On it,” said an older fox vixen sitting at a table that had been vacant when they’d approached the cat. “I have the power to place the bid, but my mate still has to approve any binding agreement.”
Alex nodded. “We know you only have half the funds you offered the last time, but we don’t have moving into the system as overhead. Tess thinks it might be enough to tempt our captain – despite him just having an argument with your mate,” he told her.
“We’ve been burned once already …” she hinted.
“No payment until the station is in the requested orbit,” Alex countered. “Add a stiff penalty for picking up the contract and not delivering within five days. That should keep anyone else from even thinking about it.”
“What if Sormand Heavy Lift tries to tie it up again anyway?” she asked with a frown.
A pair of giggles caused all heads to turn to a pair of youths.
“That’s easy,” Holly told them.
“They’re on the other side of the solar system,” Quickdash agreed.
“Tess said we’re almost two light hours out from your sun,” Holly continued.
“So that’s over three from here to there,” Quickdash concluded.
“The comms are faster than light,” Tash reminded them.
“Not if your ‘drunk as a skunk’ engineer was ‘playing’ and ‘broke’ it just before you sent out the bid!” Holly laughed.
“And the local light speed comms won’t carry all that well anyway if we’re not deliberately aiming it at them …” Copper said with a slowly growing grin. “Glinda? Give me five and then send it,” she said as she jumped up. “And I’ll start parking what I can.”
“An added bonus,” Alex told her, “anything attached to the station gets moved with it.”
“You seem very positive your captain’s going to agree with all this,” Glinda remarked.
Alex gave her a smirk as he said, “He knew you needed it and was prepared to help before we docked. Your mate didn’t want to deal with what he thought was a mercenary.”
“And just how did he happen to know that?” Glinda asked with a raised eyebrow.
Alex softly snorted. “By what you weren’t doing. A freighter is inbound and finds a station that has no requests, no need for anything? You pushed his warning buttons and he wasn’t going to even dock until he thought he knew why.”
Glinda was thoughtful for a moment before admitting, “I hadn’t looked at it that way, but it would have been a red flag to anyone coming in.”
“While my captain’s only pretending to be an ass, we do have time constraints,” he reminded her.
“I’ll go get that bid out,” she agreed as she got up to leave.
“Tess suggests you offer forty percent of the bid you agreed to with Sormand. We know you still have half of it, but this way my captain can ‘raise’ the bid without going over what you had to pay Sormand if they had made good on their side. And him bumping it up a bit might just make it more believable to your mate …”
“Damn sneaky bunch,” she muttered to herself as she hurried down the passageway.
* * *
“Daniel – get your tail in here – we got a bid!” Glinda yelled at the open office door a few minutes later.
“What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t put out no new bids,” the station manager grumbled as he went to see what his mate was yelling about.
“I got a wild hair up my ass and threw out a bid just to see what would happen,” she snapped back. “I’ve got a live one and I need you to seal the deal before they come to their senses.”
“We can’t afford to pay them!” he growled. “Even if we can get back what that first set of bastards stole –”
“I only offered what we had left!” she snapped, cutting him off. “And it’s pay on delivery! I even added a heavy fine if they’re late!”
“And they took it?” he demanded in surprise.
“Well, they wanted ten percent more – which was ten percent of the forty percent of what Sormand’s bid was!” she quickly added when he started to open his mouth.
His mouth hung open for a moment as his brain processed this. “You mean they’re offering to do it for only forty-four percent of what Sormand was asking for?”
“With the stipulation that we can be ready to be moved within eight hours of them saying ‘now’. Copper says we can do it in six if we have to. Do we lock them down – or give them time to change their minds?”
“Do it, use my codes,” Daniel said as he turned for the door.
“And where do you think you’re going?” she asked.
“To tell that damn mercenary he can shove off!” he called behind him.
Glinda just grinned as she punched in the codes and hit send.
* * *
Daniel was just entering the bar with an evil grin plastered across his muzzle when the visiting ship’s crew’s comm badges all started beeping an alert signal.
“All Folly crew are hereby recalled – I say again, all Folly crew are recalled. First and second shifts are ordered to a mandatory rest period. Third and fourth shifts are to prepare the ship for separation and move orders scheduled for eight hours time.” A second later the same voice was coming from his own station’s intercoms, “Folly to station, your eight hours to prepare to be moved starts now.”
“NO!” he yelled. “We wouldn’t be doing business with any damn mercenaries!”
“Won’t we?” his daughter asked in mock surprise. “You’d rather lose the station than let them help?”
“Oh, we’re not just helping out of the kindness of our hearts, we expect to be well paid for our services,” Alex told her, giving her a wink from the side her father wouldn’t see.
“No!” Daniel growled again. “Get your tails off my station and get the hell out of here!”
“Our station, Father, as I have shares in it too,” Tash reminded him. “In fact, if you say no to this I’ll need to cash mine out,” she said with a glare at him.
“B-But why?” he asked in surprise at this sudden turn of events.
“Because if these guys don’t move us, this station defaults back to them – and I refuse to ever work for them again!” A little calmer she added, “If this station is to default, then I’ll need the funds to hitch a ride off it.”
“Never mind those shares will become somewhere next to worthless if we default,” Glinda said as she entered the room. Looking over at Alex, she asked, “Tell me, boy, does your mercenary ship take paying passengers?”
Tess had been whispering in his ear, so Alex gave Glinda a sharp look and an almost leer at Tash as he said, “Depends on if the captain likes you – though for such sweet things as you two, I’m sure a little something might be worked out.”
Turning back to Daniel, Tash demanded, “Which is it, Dad? Are they moving me with the station, or out of it?”
“Pride has its place, my mate,” Glinda said softly from behind him, “but there can come a time when swallowing it is the best move you can make. This isn’t just about you – we all lose everything if this station isn’t in place in time.”
“And you think they can actually do it? In time?” he demanded.
“They seem to think they can, enough so they agreed to a contract with no credits until they accomplish it and charges if they fail,” Glinda pointed out. “Too bad you didn’t put those provisions into the contract you made with those Sormand thieves …”
Daniel's mouth moved about, the pill he was trying to swallow seemed to have been exceedingly bitter. Finally he managed to mutter, “Do it,” before turning and hurrying from the bar.
“Alex,” Tess’s voice said from his comm badge, “Since you’re already making friends over there, Neal’s decided to make you our go-between. You’re to keep us advised on how their preparations are going. Hint, that means you’ll be chasing their engineer’s tail more than that barmaid’s!”
“The things I do for duty,” Alex sadly said, only to earn a snicker from Tash and a grin from her mother.
“Well,” Tash said with a grin before she stepped right next to and then started rubbing shoulders with the surprised cat. “You see, Dad doesn’t like me hanging out with Pete. So my way of thinking is that if I appear to be throwing myself at you, Dad might see Pete as a safer alternative …”
“Just so long as your pet wolf knows you’re only playing,” Alex replied as he gave her a hug. “He is just a little bit bigger than I am – and I’d hate to have to hurt him!” he finished with a grin and a wink in the direction of the barkeeper.
“Just what we needed,” Glinda muttered, “more male hormones …”
* * *
“The $*&*%#er’s frozen solid!” Copper’s voice hissed through the office’s speakers. Normally Daniel would be one of those lending their engineer a hand, but he couldn’t do that without having to deal with the mercenaries. So instead he slumped at his desk and simply monitored the comm traffic.
“Talk to me, kitten,” came the voice of that damn mercenary captain.
“This radiator has to be folded before any of the others on this side, but two of its pivot points aren’t going anywhere,” Copper replied. “That six hours I promised your people before was if everything cooperated.”
“How long would it take you to replace them?”
“Over an hour each … we are so screwed.”
“Oh ye of such little faith,” Neal said with a smirk in his voice. “Get those flow valves closed off and the electronics disconnected, I’m sending a shuttle over to help you shift that radiator by brute force. Once you’re ready, we’ll cut it at those failed joints and tie it in its parked position. You can then replace things at your leisure at your new location.”
“That’ll work, and take us minutes instead of hours,” Copper admitted. “How much extra is this going to cost us?”
“This contract is to get you guys moved,” Neal reminded her. “I can’t collect my payment if you’ve got your station’s bits and bobs sticking out all over the place.”
“And that’s the only reason you and your crew are being so helpful?”
“Credits are king,” Neal assured her, “Though it did look like one of my boys might be interested in bidding on that cute little barmaid of yours.”
“Her father won’t like her running off with a bunch of mercs,” Copper warned him.
“Heh, I like idiots that can’t see the mercenary in their own mirrors,” Neal chuckled. “Any businessman has to ensure that their business does well, even if that sometimes means other things in his life may not get all the attention he may have thought they needed.”
“He’s not like that,” Copper muttered, just before calling out, “It’s free!”
“And Alpha has it – or it would have crushed your arm just now!” Neal snapped back. “Keep your mind on your work, pussycat – or this station will be in the market for a new engineer before we’re through.”
“Damn, I forgot the thrust I added to the station to help close these panels …” Copper admitted.
“So little thrust you can barely feel it,” Neal agreed. “All the more dangerous because it’s so easy to ignore. If side conversations are too distracting for you, we’ll stick to the business at hand.”
“I’m good. Why did you call Daniel a merc? He isn’t one you know.”
“Isn’t he? While waiting to get the move started I had time to do a little searching on the networks. He’s run you guys hard the last ten years, meeting and beating deadlines; this station and its crew have worked so hard that the owners couldn’t legally keep you under their thumbs. Much as I have built a ship that can push stations around like toys. Oh, Alpha says scans show we still have one more frozen joint to deal with on this side, and Baker reports two joints on different panels on their side.”
“Hold on! You have your crew working the other side?” Copper demanded.
“No, I’m running computer controlled remotes as my current crew is too new to risk on playing in vacuum – much less around things that might crush them like little bugs – as you just tried to do.”
“Enough about that already! It won’t happen again,” she snapped at him as she watched the panel quickly ‘folded’. She was about to call out that they were moving it too fast when it suddenly stopped all movement in reference to the station before slowly drifting to rest on its ‘closed position’ stops.
“Heh,” Neal muttered. “It’s almost too bad all the joints aren’t frozen. Not having to wait on them could have us done and gone in an hour. As for the ‘enough already’, would your regular taskmaster have let it go so quickly?”
“I’d never hear the end of it,” she muttered. “Good thing you pissed him off so I didn’t have him watching the boards for me.”
“We nag because you scare the hell out of us,” Neal told her. “If one of mine gets hurt, I get to be the lucky bastard that has to inform their families. Who would he have to write a ‘We regret to inform you’ letter to?”
Copper was silent as they watched the next panel slowly fold. As it clicked into place she said, “So why does a mercenary care if a local hurts herself?”
Neal softly snorted. “You guys may have never heard of me and my Folly before today, but I’m fairly well known in some parts. And I have a rep – a pretty good one if I do say so myself – a rep that wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if word got out that I got people hurt when I was busy doing something as simple as this.”
“You call this simple?”
“Yeah, I do. Okay, this one’s better than halfway, start cutting that last one free.”
“You are in too much of a hurry with this,” she accused him.
“I’ve dealt with Sormand before, and they wouldn’t be screwing around on a contract like this. So my read is someone else wanted you guys to fail and fail badly. With that in mind, they may not want to give up just because I came along and derailed their plans. So the sooner I get you moved the better.”
“And you don’t think the eight hours you gave us is soon enough?”
“If they’ve noticed your FTL comm’s down, they may wonder what’s up. Light speed, it’ll take about seven hours from there and back – but only three and a half hours for a telescope aimed this way to see your radiators folding and know that something’s up.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Copper admitted.
“That’s why I get paid the big bucks to watch the big picture. That’s also why I shifted my ship the way I did, Folly’s now hiding most of your station from their line of sight. So we’ll get you folded and locked down with all your pushers and miners docked, separate my Folly, my heavy lift shuttles will get everything lined up and then my back end will warp you to your new location in less than five minutes. We’ll release you and run back over here to grab my front end, couple up and one more jump before everything’s as it should be, just not where we were.”
“They’ll detect you going to warp.”
“Sure they will, but for all they know that first jump could just be my Folly leaving. It won’t be until someone realizes our heading or sees where we pop back out of warp at. By then it’s too late for them to interfere with moving you, so I’m doing what I can to keep them in the dark up to that point. Heck, as your new location is only three light hours away from them, to them you’ll actually appear before you disappear,” Neal told her with a smile.
“Free!” Copper called out. As the shuttle’s tractor beams started to shift the last radiator she said, “So how in the hell can you move us in five minutes for less than Sormand could in twelve weeks?”
“First off, I don’t think Sormand has anything that can warp something your size. Then there’s the time spent, while they can have a couple crews and shuttles spending months on just one job, my Folly has to make several stops per month – so I lose more doing it the slow way. Third, I think I get better deals on fuel than they do, so I can do it for a lower bottom line.”
“That last doesn’t sound like a mercenary,” she pointed out.
“Depends on how you look at it,” Neal countered. “Thanks to Sormand’s playing games with you guys, I wasn’t going to make a single credit after coming all the way out here. So I could either mark it off as a wasted trip – or see if there wasn’t some other way to earn some of that credit you hadn’t lost to Sormand yet. Speaking of which, just how dense and stubborn is that station master of yours?”
“Daniel’s not that bad, it’s just all the games and delays Sormand has been playing on us,” Copper complained.
“So you’re saying no one will need to put a kink in his tail or a boot under it to remind him that he will soon have a very real reason to want to buy supplies from me? I’m a mercenary after all – I can’t just hang around out here out of the goodness of that heart we all know I don’t have.”
“I think he might be a mind reader,” Glinda said, startling her mate who looked guiltily away from the comm for the first time in what felt to him like hours.
“How long have you been standing there?” he grumbled at her.
“Long enough,” she tartly replied as she handed him a memory chit. “That’s the least you’re going to buy from them,” she told him before turning to leave.
Daniel was still glaring at the chit when he heard Copper say, “Locked down and done – on this side anyway.”
“Third one just stowed on the other,” Neal replied. “And since the fourth required cutting, that side should be done in another five. As two of your rock pushers are still over an hour out, you’ve got time to come in and take a break.”
“I should inspect everything …”
“Captain,” a new voice cut in, “I’ve got activity at that other mining platform.”
“What do you see, Tess?” Neal asked.
“A warp drive flare – consistent with someone giving themselves a substantial sublight boost.”
“Was there enough for you to plot their course and speed?”
“Aye, Boss. Three quarter light-speed, and heading right for us.”
“So we’ve got a bit more than four hours – if they don’t make another speed change,” Neal muttered half to himself. “They might even go to warp once they can see something’s going on over here. Worse case is they try to intercept us leaving or in transit. Tess, start your separation sequence. Copper, in, now.”
“All hands – including all station hands,” Neal’s voice calmly said from every speaker and comm badge. “This is that damn mercenary captain speaking. Your fellow mining station seems to have taken an interest in your comm silence and is sending someone over to check on you. I intend for them to find a whole lot of empty space when they finally get here, therefore we will be moving in ten minutes.”
“I can’t close up the greenhouses that fast!” a voice protested.
“I don’t recall asking you to close the greenhouses,” Neal replied.
“But the dust will ruin the windows – never mind if anything strikes them hard enough to come through!”
“Ah, I see the issue,” Neal said with a chuckle. “And open or closed, your windows will not be a problem. We will not be giving you a sub-light boost to get you moving, we will be going straight to warp. Your greenhouse will be protected by the same warp bubble that’s about to move you. There may be a little shaking, but I’d be more concerned about any loose bottles in the bar …”
“Separation complete,” Tess reported as the aft half of the Folly slowly backed away from the forward spheres. “Alpha and Baker will start angling the station into position for the grab.”
“I’m in the primary bridge secondary hull,” Neal’s voice said. “I’ll be your tug boat commander for this little trip. If anyone knows or thinks there’s something not completely secured to your outer hulls, now’s the time to mention it. Station control, please unlock your gimbals so the shuttles may turn and twist you without damaging anything.”
“Unlocked,” Copper’s voice called back. “Don’t we need to build up bracing or a cradle to transfer to load?”
“Negative, Kitten. I’ve got more than enough tractor beam power to hold you steady.”
“And go to warp?” she asked in surprise.
“All that and still enough power in reserve to toast a slice of bread – but only one side at a time,” Neal chuckled.
“I wish I could tell when you’re joking!” she half snarled.
“So do a lot of others, Kitten,” Neal admitted.
“Who do you want where?” Weaver’s voice asked. While Neal had taken command of the older bridge aft, Weaver had settled in the main bridge in the forward section.
“Since we’re now in a bit of a rush, you and the kids can just hold the fort while I get them moved. Alex will stay with the station when I come back to recover you. Shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes of me warping out.”
“And if that other ship gets here first?”
“Then Tess can show off some of her defensive capability – if they get belligerent,” Neal told her with a grin in his voice. “And since Alpha and Baker are now clear and we’re all lined up, it’s time to get this show on the road.”
“Wait! They’re still too clossssss –” Weaver heard Copper starting to yell when the station and aft end of their ship suddenly distorted and disappeared, the event gently buffeting them where they sat.
“Tess, what was she trying to warn us about?” Weaver asked.
“Ah, just your captain showing off a bit for the natives,” Tess replied.
“And just how was he ‘showing off’ this time?”
“Warp fields distort local space; the greater size and the change in speed, the greater the distortions,” Tess explained. “Most ships can’t safely enter or leave warp within a hundred kilometers of another ship or station without the risk of causing dangerous distortions which can damage or even destroy either or both vessels.”
“And how far were we?”
“Just under five …”
“So Copper thinks he just destroyed us?”
“It’s possible – oh, and that other ship or shuttle just went to warp. New ETA under three minutes.”
“Stop trying to change the subject,” Weaver retorted.
“It takes even more power, but it’s possible to change the shape and direction of the distortions. In this case Neal just channeled most of them away from us.”
“You said most ships couldn’t do that – what other types can?”
“Most military and some search and rescue craft have the extra power and their people have the training to safely pop up quite close to their targets without damaging them.”
“How many our size?” Weaver wondered. When there was no reply, she asked, “Tess?”
“No others that I am aware of, but that doesn’t mean others don’t exist.”
“Why –” Weaver started, only to be interrupted by the unknown vessel popping out of warp.
“Less than a hundred kilometers – they were trying to rattle the station, good thing I had our shields up in case they wanted to play. Let’s see what happens next,” Tess’s voice told her as several of the teens joined her on the bridge.
While warp capable, the ship now before them was little more than an oversized shuttle, neither long-ranged nor able to keep its crew comfortable for an extended period of time.
It seemed that they had confused the new arrival, as it was several minutes before they decided to try to communicate.
“Who the hell are you?” the small ship finally demanded, the voice sounding more male feline than anything else.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll take this call,” Tess told her bridge crew before they heard her sending to the ship. “We’re the Folly, silly! Just like our transponder is saying – never mind it’s painted across our nose!” the much younger sounding Tess giggled before continuing, “And why isn’t your transponder running? Are you guys pirates or something?”
“None of your damn business – where’s the hell’s the station?”
“None of your damn business,” Tess parroted back. “And before you turned your nose away from us, I saw part of the ‘Sormand Heavy Lift’ crest and the name Thor below it. Don’t mess with us unless you want to get very sore there, Thor.”
“I want to speak to your captain – NOW!”
“You caught him practicing his juggling routine and he doesn’t like being disturbed – he hates dropping things. But if you ask real nicely I might let you speak with our first officer!” young Tess proclaimed brightly.
“NOW SEE HERE –” he started, before the connection suddenly dropped.
“That wasn’t me,” Tess told them with her regular voice. “Someone over there cut him off.”
There was over a minute of peace and quiet, during which Tess informed them that the station had reached its new parking place and that Neal was already on his way back.
“Thor to Folly, if your captain is indeed indisposed, may I please speak with your first officer?” a new voice quietly requested. This one sounded more canine and female.
“Sure thing, just give me a second,” young Tess cheerfully replied. To Weaver she said, “All we have to do is stall them for a few minutes until the boss gets back.”
“I think I can do that,” Weaver agreed with a small smile. “Put me on.” A small light started flashing to let her know she would now be heard. “This is the first officer, how may I help you?”
“You can start by identifying yourself.”
“Why would I bother doing something that you haven’t felt the need to do?” Weaver countered.
“Where’s the station?”
“Where’s what station? Have you thoughtlessly misplaced one?” Weaver asked to the snickers of her bridge crew.
“A station belonging to Tessro Mining was here just a few hours ago,” the voice from the smaller ship sounded strained and there was someone yelling loud enough to override their filters. “It stopped replying to FTL comms right after your ship showed up. You’ll forgive us if we wonder if you had something to do with their sudden silence.”
“Now that’s very strange, because public records show that Tessro Mining doesn’t own but one station in this solar system, the one that was to be moved from this location six weeks ago having been bought out from under Tessro when they couldn’t or wouldn’t fully pay their crews. And as far as the other, we have not and are not preventing anyone from communicating. Perhaps whoever it was merely grew tired of your prattle – much as I am.”
The screamer in the background was breaking through more, and the female sounded a bit put out as she said, “I see we aren’t going to accomplish anything this way. We’re going to try this again, but face to face. Prepare to be boarded.”
“I think not,” Weaver replied with a grin in her voice. “As you have yet to give us any reasons that would make me even consider letting you and whoever’s screaming their head off on board my ship.”
“I order you to drop your shields.”
“That would require you proving that you’re someone with the rights and authority to order around a ship you don’t own,” Weaver told her. “Ante up or fold, pup.”
There was a growl from the speakers before they started receiving video from the smaller ship. “This is Tyler Jack, sector manager for Sormand Heavy Lift. If you have any Sormand Heavy Lift cargo your contract requires you to allow us to inspect it on demand. How long that inspection takes will depend directly on how much you get in our way. Do you understand what I am telling you?” the Voxxan female snarling the last sentence.
“If you don’t mind,” Tess’s voice told her bridge before a second window opened showing Weaver looking much calmer than the real one was now feeling.
The false Weaver smiled as the Voxxan ended her rant and softly said, “It just so happens that you’re in luck, we do have a Sormand Heavy Lift consignment. We agreed to ship it under the 15-E contract, which does indeed allow for a Sormand Heavy Lift representative to shortstop it and take possession of it for inspection. Are you invoking that section of the 15-E contract?”
“I am,” The Voxxan snarled. “Now drop your shields at once!”
“Not before you have provided your authorization codes,” the Weaver head told her with a cool smile.
“What are you playing at Tess?” the real Weaver asked as the Voxxan fumed and started punching in a lengthy string of code punctuated with key words.
“As you heard her threaten, we’ve had some of their managers delay things with their little ‘inspections’ to hold a ship until they were ready for it to leave. Well, a while back Neal made up a new contract that they now have to agree to if they want their junk shipped on the Folly. If they demand to inspect it in route, Folly unloads it for them to inspect. What some of these managers don’t seem to realize is that by ordering us to unload to allow them access to inspect the cargo, they have then taken ownership of said cargo. Which means Folly has completed our contractual obligations and taking the cargo back on board would require both parties to agree to a new contract.”
Several of the teens started laughing and giggling as Weaver slowly said, “Are you telling me she just demanded we dump their cargo out there?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, and she just finished authorizing the release of her company’s cargo,” Tess said with a chuckle. “And wouldn’t you know it, here comes the boss!”
Again they were treated to a gentle buffeting, protected from a rougher ride by the shields – while the smaller unshielded ship was tossed about by the warp bubble’s sudden collapse.
“Drop your aft shields, Tess. Engage tractor beams to cushion the docking,” Neal’s voice ordered.
“Ready for a fast dock, Boss,” Tess agreed. “Be advised that Thor there is Sormand Heavy Lift, and they’ve demanded we let them inspect their cargo.”
“Queue it up then – how much were we carrying?”
“Only fifty carriers worth at this point,” Tess told him.
“And I doubt that toy could tow three of them back to their station at warp,” Neal chuckled. “I’ve got us lined up, I've released control to you for the final docking.”
“Got it, Boss. Did you want to talk to these dummies?”
“Sure, as good a way to kill the time we need as any,” Neal agreed. “Thor, this is Captain Foster. I understand you want to inspect the Sormand Heavy Lift cargo we are currently carrying?”
“Where’s the damn station you $%^^%$#$^%$%!!??” screamed a voice from the small ship.
“Where it should be,” Neal easily replied, “or at least where it would have been going had someone not dragged their heels trying to cause them to be in breach of contract. By the way, I did a flyby of the station still owned by Tessro Mining. Scans showed both of those shuttles ready to launch – which means they aren’t waiting for parts at this time. I’ll be handing those scans over to the independents to help them make their case against Sormand Heavy Lift and get their funds returned.”
“Scans don’t prove anything,” Tyler sneered at him.
“The scans will prove that the shuttles aren’t currently torn apart and waiting for parts, which is more than enough to open an inquiry of you operating under bad faith,” Neal pointed out. “And if a little digging reveals that someone in Sormand Heavy Lift was paid off by Tessro Mining to delay the job Sormand had agreed to do for the independents, I can see some heads rolling as both companies try to prove that it was not sanctioned by either company but by a couple manager types trying to make a few credits at someone else’s expense.”
“You can’t prove any of it,” she snarled.
“I just have to show enough evidence that they bring in a skunktaur to start reading people,” Neal countered. “As you came out here all hot and bothered, Ms Jack, I’m quite sure they’ll have a few questions for you. In fact, I have one for you right now …”
“Did you still wish to go through with this pointless inspection of the Sormand cargo we have?”
“Yes! And you won’t be going anywhere until we’re finished!”
“We’re moving your cargo now so you can more easily inspect it – though you really should have read 15-E a little closer,” Neal said as one of the large cargo hatches opened and a string of carriers started floating out.
“W-What the hell are you doing now?” Tyler demanded.
“As per 15-E: ‘On request from SHL, the shipper will offload any and all SHL cargo, where an authorized SHL representative will then claim custody of said cargo. SHL taking custody of said cargo removes that cargo from any contracts that may have been in effect with the shipper at the time of the request.’ In other words you just authorized and ordered me to dump your cargo out here. What you do with it from here is out of my hands,” Neal told her with a tight smile.
“You can’t do this!” she protested. “I-I refuse custody!”
“I have a full recording of you not just asking but demanding that we allow you to ‘inspect’ SHL cargo. As the contract SHL signed in order to get me to move their cargo stipulates that they can’t delay my ship without me dumping their junk, I can and have. You are now free to inspect it to your heart’s content. Of course you’ll then need to contract with someone to get it where you actually needed it – unless it was meant to be delivered here?” Neal asked. “Either way, we have places to be – there’s credits to be made!”
“Wait – NO!” Tyler screamed as Thor’s sensors registered the large freighter’s engines begin to form her warp bubble. Her ship barely shook this time as the Folly kicked suddenly away from them, the carriers slowly starting to drift apart.
“Did you just put them out of their misery?” Weaver asked as they sped to where Neal had released the station.
“Just a light tap that time,” Neal assured her. “Tess? If she wants to dicker, six times the going rate – but you can let her talk you down to five.”
“Do I have to let her talk me down?” Tess asked, with more than a little pout in her voice.
“Nope, your call.”
“Then she’s going to find out how hard I can play. I didn’t like them yelling at Weaver like that.”
“Revenge …” Neal started.
“Is best rubbed into their wounds with lots of salt!” Tess sassed back.
“I’ve created a monster,” Neal softly muttered, though it sounded like he was hiding a grin.
“Neal, will she really?” Weaver started to ask before she saw his head shake on the display.
“She’s just playing at being the hard-ass. Part of what I’ve tried to teach her over the years is when to ignore being yelled at – and when it’s right to do something about it.”
“Like you ignoring the station manager yelling at you?”
“He was watching his world crumbling; can’t blame him too much for trying to fight back with what little he had. She on the other hand was purely in it for the profit, no matter who she had to hurt to get it. Then there’s me. For me to make any profit from him I had to first steal it back from her.”
“Mercenaries all around,” Weaver slowly said.
“Everyone is,” Neal countered. “Would you steal from Cindy if it was the only way Star would eat today?”
“I’d give it to her!” Cindy protested.
“Of course you would, but that’s not the point. Would you take something of Alex’s to save Weaver’s life?”
“How about to make a couple quick credits because you’re broke?”
Neal shrugged. “You sometimes have to look at why someone’s doing something to determine if they’re doing right or wrong by your definition – but it’ll always be right by their logic …”
“Then there’s your logic,” Mike countered. “You’re righting a wrong for less than half the cost.”
“All the better for them to be able to afford to buy supplies from me,” Neal countered. “Which was why we came out here in the first place. And that reminds me. Tess? I want one of those merchant sampler carriers set up, but I want it in an ugly Plain Jane wrapper.”
“Can do, Boss. Anything special in it?”
“Couple cases of the better booze for the bar I’d think, and some things for the ladies he needs to beg forgiveness from.”
“What are you up to?” Weaver wondered.
“You just might see if he takes the bait,” Neal said with a smile. “Now, let’s go grab those two rock pushers and get them back to the station.”
* * *
Daniel glared at the screen in front of him. He had been sure that damn mercenary would jack up his rates on the supplies, but he hadn’t. They were reasonable – almost too reasonable to be true. He had other things offered, things they could really use, things he’d have marked as needed if they’d known they’d only have the credits for it. But that wasn’t what was causing the latest glare, that was reserved for the last offering on the last page …
1 Carrier on Faith 10,000 Credits (I happen to know you can afford it – do you dare pass it by?)
On top of that he’d thrown that cat that had been sniffing around his daughter off the station after he’d knocked Pete to the ground. His daughter then rushing Pete to her room hadn’t helped matters …
* * *
“Heard you and your sweetheart had a falling out,” Neal said as Alex stepped into his dayroom.
“You could say that,” Alex admitted. “She didn’t like how easily I could toss her pet wolf around.”
“Do any real damage?”
“Only to his pride, which if things went as planned, she’s repairing as we speak. All three of the ladies seemed happy with my work, anything from your side?”
“You made some friends and I think you left them thinking more positive than negative about us, so that’s a win in my book,” Neal told him.
“And I heard we even turned a profit,” Alex joked.
“Which you guys will be sharing in. The last carriers are crossing now so we’ll be out of here in just a little while – in case you need to send them one last message.”
“I might just do that,” Alex said with a grin as he turned to go.
* * *
Daniel gulped. It was the last carrier that had come from the Folly. While all the others had been clean and neatly labeled, this one showed signs of abuse and many half-assed looking repairs. The label plate was blank, but someone had chalked in the word ‘Junk’ on the door panel. He’d wanted to open it without anyone else seeing what a fool that damn mercenary had made of him, but that was not to be either …
“How much did you say he paid for this?” Tash asked from where she stood next to Pete.
“Ten thousand of our credits – on faith it said,” her mother replied.
“I didn’t know Daniel had that much faith in mercenaries,” Copper muttered. “Though if there were any I’d trust …”
“There is that,” Glinda allowed. “Go on, let’s see if he forgave your bluster or rubbed your muzzle in it.”
He’d expected the release to stick and the door to be rusted closed, but it popped with a gentle snap and opened with a touch. Inside were pallets, the ones blocking further access were marked ‘Engineering’. Copper hopped on one of the lifts and started pulling them out. There were others marked ‘Bar’ but the rest just said ‘Odd Ends’.
“Makers,” he heard Pete softly say. The bartender had opened one of the ‘bar’ boxes and was staring at the bottle in his hand.
“Good stuff?” Tash asked.
“If it’s real. You can’t even order this stuff; they sell straight to the high end places,” he told her.
Daniel almost missed Copper’s hiss of “Holy shit!” but he couldn’t miss her shout of glee as she came around her pallet with an open box of computer boards.
“These are the upgrade boards Tessro had been denying us! How the hell did he know we needed these things?” she demanded. “We’ll be able to almost double our production rate with these damn things!”
“The same way,” Glinda said softly from one of the ‘odds’ pallets, “that he knew that some fine silks would help keep my mate from spending the next month or two on the couch …”
Daniel looked back at the inside of the now empty carrier. Unlike the exterior, it was as spick and span as the pallets that had come out of it … except there was something there on the floor in the far corner. Just an off-white envelope. Inside it he found a list of orbits, dozens of them – with mass and yield estimates for the minerals. And a little slip of paper, with a handwritten note.
Coming in we scanned the local rocks and these ‘few’ looked like they ‘might’ be of some interest or use to you. We’ll settle the bill for this when next we meet.
For Profit! (and what we can then do with it!) That Damn Mercenary
“So we’re picking those carriers back up?” Calmmeadow wondered as the Folly made one more trip back to where a station no longer sat.
“So it seems,” Mike agreed with a grin. “Not only did Tess get every credit she demanded, she even charged extra for having to round them all up.”
“Neal thinks you guys could use the tractor beam practice – And we just got a FTL pulse from Glinda,” Tess told them. “All she sent was: ‘What the hell did you do to him? He won’t stop staring at a piece of paper he found and braying like a jackass!”
“Out with it, Tess, what did you and Neal do to him?” Calmmeadow half demanded.
“Well, the carrier surprise held several things they needed to run their processing systems more efficiently, and Neal did a complete scan of the area looking for useful rocks,” Tess admitted. “We actually nudged a couple of the nicer ones towards the station as we were leaving. From what we saw of their engineer, it shouldn’t take her a week to have everything ready to roll, so they’ll have five extra weeks of production that they wouldn’t have had if everybody had played nice.”
“And the station manager laughing like a loon?” Mike asked.
“Their quota requirements figures that the systems are running only half the time because of the time it takes to find and move the rocks – and the low yield of most of the rocks they do find. Instead they’re starting rock moving six weeks early, and will be processing what they do find faster than ever before.”
“So very shortly they’re going to be way ahead of the game,” Mike said with a nod.
“And anything over the quota they can sell for whatever they please,” Tess added. “Which could let them undercut the other station’s profits if they so desire …”
“Which never would have happened if Tessro Mining hadn’t tried to pull a fast one,” Calmmeadow chuckled. “Never get between Neal and his profit!”
Copyright © 2014 Allen Fesler Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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