“The rules of this game are as simple as chess or Go; how the pieces are moved is quickly learned and easy to understand,” Neal was telling those that had shown an interest in his business of shipping goods across the space lanes. “And sometimes it’s even easier than tic-tac-toe when the goods have already been paid for and all you’re doing is moving it from point one to point two.”
“I don’t consider chess or Go to be simple,” Alex countered.
“Nor is this, really,” Neal acknowledged with a grin. “The basic rules look simple enough, but buying and selling on a large and ever-changing market can leave even a chess master shaking their head in frustration.”
“Buy low, sell high,” Brighteyes injected.
“You might think so,” Neal agreed with another grin, “but there are other things that can be even more important than at what price you bought or sold something.”
“Shipping costs?” Calmmeadow asked.
“Figuring the true shipping costs can be an art form all of its own,” Neal told hir. “Before you even consider the asking price, you have to be thinking of who you might be able to sell it to – and for how much. Then you can figure in the shipping costs – which can become much higher if that’s the only reason you’re going to that particular port.”
“And the time,” Alex added.
“Just so,” Neal said with a nod. “There are more than a few things that you’d lose money shipping – even if you got it for free.”
“Name one,” Cindy asked.
“Wheat,” Neal told her. “Nearly every planet grows some type of it, so it’s readily gotten locally.”
“But I thought you said you had some,” Brighteyes wondered, sounding confused.
“I have quite a bit in fact,” Neal admitted. “But I carry it ‘just in case’, not because I expect to be able to sell it at any real profit.”
“In case of what?”
“In case something has wiped out part or all of someone’s harvest. Or in case a station hasn’t seen a good offer for it in a while. One other thing is that it can be that first sale that starts the deals rolling.”
“Meaning you might then be able to sell some your more profitable stuff to them as well,” Weaver suggested.
Neal nodded. “Often the trick is making that first sale; the rest will then follow a lot easier.”
“Unless someone thinks they smell a con job,” Alex pointed out.
“Which is why I mainly deal fairly with those that I see dealing fairly with me and others,” Neal told them. “On the other hand, screw with me and I’ll show you games you’ve never dreamed possible.”
“Anything for a profit?” Weaver asked with a small frown.
“Not always,” Neal said with a shake of his head. “Sometimes you have to step in before a bad situation can get any worse.”
“Care to give us an example?” she asked.
“Hmmm. Let’s say Cindy and Alex were scamming some of the other kids out of their hard-earned funds. I could just let it ride as it’s no skin off my nose who might be losing or gaining a handful of credits. Or as their adopted father I could lay down the law. Or to teach them a lesson I might try to scam them out of the credits they’ve made from the others. Or, if I’m trying to stay out of it as far as all parties are concerned but still blow the deal, I might try to trip up the scam just enough that the marks smell a rat and don’t fall for it.”
“Not that I would ever try to scam any of my little sisters …” Alex proclaimed with a grin.
“Not unless you were sure you could get away Scot free,” Brighteyes countered with a matching grin.
“Is that a challenge?” he countered, his grin growing into a leer.
Neal half chuckled as he shook his head at them. “I would request that you not con each other, but a con isn’t much more than a bet that one person thinks will favor them while the other is pretty sure it won’t.”
“So we have your permission?” Calmmeadow asked with a grin.
Neal’s smile held a hint of evil in it as he said, “With this warning: if it gets too extreme or too one-sided, then I’ll be free to con the swindlers, and I just happen to have Tess to help make the facts change in a heartbeat.”
“Even if no one’s trying to con anyone else, there’s a lot to buying, selling and trading,” Tess warned them. “I’m still sometimes surprised at what will make someone reject a perfectly good offer – or snap up an obviously bad one.”
“Tess’ll work up some exercises for those of you interested in trying your hands at trading. They’ll include the usual base costs, shipping costs, and possible value at our different ports of call. Then you’ll battle each other to get the best deals. You guys do well and maybe I can not have to argue with the ones that refuse to talk to Tess.”
Carlsbad Station happened to be the Folly’s next port of call and some of the teens were looking forward to trying out their new skills. ***
“Folly procurement, this is Alex, how may I help you?” Alex politely asked the mouse morph on his screen.
“Henry of The Thyme,” the mouse replied. “I’ve forwarded what we’d like to buy, but your offered prices are a bit much for a new startup to stomach.”
While no Gateway to Chakona, Carlsbad was a rather large space station with hundreds of small to large shops and restaurants, never mind the station’s core needs. Alex grinned slightly as some new data popped up on his screen; it seemed the shop owner had been betting that a new ship just into port wouldn’t know all that much about any particular shop. But Alex had Tess on his side, and she seemed to live for digging up random and sometimes useful data.
“Are you buying all this for another shop then?” Alex inquired while acting surprised. “The Thyme’s ads brag about celebrating their twentieth year in business this week.”
“Uh, I …” was all the mouse got out before Alex shook his head.
“A hundred-forty-three-thousand is a reasonable asking price for your order,” Alex told him. “If that is too much for you, you may withdraw the order and just order what you can afford. And I will give you one piece of friendly advice. You may have noticed the time limits on the current prices?” At Henry’s nod, Alex continued, “My captain hates the mad dash of trying to complete last minute orders, so the closer to our departure time, the higher our prices will be.”
“Most ships lower theirs,” Henry pointed out.
Alex shrugged and then grinned. “If you look out the window, you’ll see this isn’t most ships, and I’m still discovering how different our captain can be when he wants to be. Now, were you interested in our merchandise at the listed prices, or would you prefer I delete your current request and let you place a fresh order?”
The mouse let out a silent sigh before saying, “As is, at your advertised prices …”
“Thank you, sir. Your order should be hitting the docks sometime in the next two hours. Will there be anything else?”
“Folly procurement, this is Cindy, how may I help you?” she politely asked from a couple of consoles over, the German shepherd morph on her screen glaring back at her.
“This is Admiral Q. You will get me your captain so I can tell him how ludicrous his so-called prices are,” he demanded with a sneer.
Cindy faintly smiled; her training with Tess had included this type of caller as well. “The captain is currently busy with matters of his ship. As you didn’t wish to deal with our sales agent, I will be dealing with you for any matters of buying or selling.”
“Unacceptable! You will get your captain on this line now!” he bellowed.
While she could ‘escalate’ the call if she felt the need, Cindy saw no reason to as yet. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to react to his tone and manner. “As that won’t be happening, was there anything else I can do for you?” she asked with more than a bit of frost to her voice.
“YOU WILL GET ME YOUR DAMN CAPTAIN NOW, BITCH!” he screamed at her.
Cindy was about to snap back, but a message flashed on her screen so instead she took a deep, calming breath before saying, “Please hold for the captain.”
“NO! YOU WILL NOT PUT ME ON H–” the shepherd managed to get out before the screen blanked.
“Tess?” Cindy asked, as she hadn’t hit the hold button.
“There’s no need for any of you to put up with personal attacks,” Tess reminded her. “As he didn’t mute his end, I’m still recording quite a string of profanity out of that wannabe self-proclaimed admiral.”
“Was he someone I should have forwarded to Neal?”
Tess snickered through the speaker. “Oh hell no, as Neal would tell you. Admiral Q’s may think itself a high-end restaurant, but that so-called admiral has never held any rank in any of the services I can search, and other than being ‘nose out of joint’ posh, there’s nothing all that special about his restaurant.”
“So he’s just a blowhard,” Cindy surmised.
“You’ll find them out there,” Tess warned her. “Trust me, had he been someone even remotely important, I would have let you know.”
“Thanks, Tess. Any more calls I can take?”
“No, Alex snagged the last of the current group, and he and Calmmeadow are the only ones still on a call. As soon as they’re done I’ll let the captain know and you guys will have dinner on the station. Dress will be casual, so what you’re wearing is fine.”
Though the captain had said that it would be casual dining, most of his crew used the event to dress up a bit. For most of them that meant dressing up in some of the fine silks Chakat Nightsky had been making for them, though Neal had opted for one of his regular station outfits for this particular outing. Closer to the docks were the cheaper eateries and shops most crews would have used. Neal led them past these and then beyond those catering more towards the passengers of visiting ships. Weaver had eyed him questioningly as they continued past these and into the more posh sections of the station. Cindy let out a soft snort when she saw their destination come into view.
They had already received looks suggesting they weren’t expected – nor really wanted anywhere near these high-end establishments, the maître d’s glare suggested they wouldn’t be welcome at ‘Admiral Q’s’ either. Neal ignored all that and walked into the entrance.
“And just what do you want?” she sneered at him.
Neal leered at the teenaged German shepherd morph as he said, “Foster, party of seventeen.”
“You don’t have a reservation,” she said without bothering to look.
“Then write us up one, bitch. How hard can it be?” he quipped back.
“Bitch? I’ll show you BITCH! SECURITY! GET THEM THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
Neal smiled as she continued screaming for security to remove them. Not seeing any signs that she was going to run down – or change her mind – anytime soon, he shrugged and turned, waving his crew to retreat.
A group of overdressed Caitians were approaching as they turned to go. Neal grinned as he shook his head at them. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” he told them with a laugh, “she’s in a real bitchy mood tonight.”
“What was that all about?” Weaver didn’t quite demand once they were around the first corner.
Neal grinned. “Tess had told me about her father screaming and calling Cindy a bitch earlier, so I thought I’d see how much his daughter liked it. And as that blowhard had demanded to speak with me; it’s not my fault his daughter wouldn’t let me in. Tess, save a recording of that if you would.”
“If that ‘mighty full of himself’ Q screams at my recording again, may I switch to his daughter’s sweet voice for the hold music?” Tess sweetly asked.
“No, I want to save it as an unpleasant surprise for him.”
“Gotcha, Boss. Where to next?”
“Now that I have my petty revenge accomplished, I think you said your data pointed out a couple nicer places to eat?”
“The nearer of which is only fifty meters away, Boss. If you’ll take this next left …” ***
‘Jumpin’ Joe’s’ looked to be about mid-classed as the establishments went, and the low but noticeable noise coming from it suggested it was a lot more family-friendly than the one they’d been rejected from. While what looked like the headwaiter looked welcoming enough, he was frowning as he appeared to be doing a quick headcount.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he told Neal, “but there will be a slight delay to seat such a large group.”
“We can make the room!” a very small fox vixen boasted from behind him.
“You sure, Keitha?” he countered.
“Bet me!” she dared him.
“You’re on,” he agreed, and she disappeared back inside. “I love how often that little scamp proves me wrong,” he told them with a lopsided grin.
“What’s the bet?” Neal wondered.
“Only a credit,” he admitted, “but it’s the bragging rights Keitha’s after.”
It looked like Keitha’s bragging rights were intact as moments later she waved them in and they saw that she was having a couple patrons change tables, but it soon became apparent that she’d missed one little stumbling block.
What sounded like an old air raid siren spooling up was heard from around the corner Keitha had just gone. Heading around the same corner, Neal and Weaver found Keitha speaking to a young Caitian mother as her three or four-year-old daughter drew breath for another wail.
“I’m sorry,” Keitha was quickly telling them. “The mother doesn’t mind changing tables, bu–” before the wailing overran her voice.
“Understood,” Neal’s sharp voice cut through even the wail, momentarily startling the cub to silence. “And there’s really no reason to make them move,” he said a little quieter into the new silence.
The child still wore a pout that warned that there was another wail waiting in the wings, her mother looked worried, and from the corner of his eye Neal could see several chakats starting to stand and gather up their meals. He waved them down without looking directly at them, and then he waved the mother back down with a small bow before sitting at the table across from the cub.
“No one’s going to move you, little one,” he said in semi-passable Ratarsk, both the cub and her mother’s eyes opening wide at being addressed in their native tongue. “But my crew is very hungry; may we perhaps share your table?” In Terranglo he quickly added, “Quick? Holly? Front and center please.”
The chakat and foxtaur youths were quickly by his side, the Caitian cub looking at them in wonder.
“I promise they’ll behave,” Neal told the cub’s mother as he stood, the youths keeping the cub’s attention.
“My daughter loves watching the ships while we eat,” she said in way of explanation.
“Ah,” said Neal, as he noticed that the large view port just happened to be facing in the right direction. “In that case, we can offer you both a dinner and a show. Tess? Give us a little light if you would please.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” his comm badge replied.
There was no change for a moment, and then all the windows on the middle sphere lit up at once. Most of them then faded away, leaving only a few lit, which then started to fade as others brightened. Patterns and colors began emerging from the flowing lights, some moving quickly about the ship while others slowly drifted from one place to another as their colors shifted.
“Good luck getting her to eat now,” Neal chuckled before he found a chair at a neighboring table.
The young Caitian did eventually eat, though it may have confused others when the light display suddenly changed to Caitian script scrolling across to say ‘No more unless you eat your dinner!’
Despite being quite busy, the staff was friendly and quick and the food was good.
“I’m glad we didn’t get in at that first place,” Weaver admitted. “I don’t think the kids would have liked staying prim and proper this long.”
Neal snorted. “If they’d have even gotten to the second course by now. Heh, we’d probably have starved to death waiting to be served.”
“Then why were you trying to get in there?”
Neal smiled. “I was just checking things over. Even though owners change and shops open and close, you still hear rumors of where to go – and where not to, and why. Q likes to badger shippers and make unreasonable demands. He’s good friends with some of the station management, so he gets away with it more than he really should.”
“So you deliberately crossed him to get a reaction?”
“Not at all. My prices are in keeping with what any other ship would charge; in fact ninety-seven percent of my sales here went through Tess and her computerized ordering system without a hitch. Of the rest, only a handful needed more than Tess’s voice to close the deal. But Q thought to try to bully his way through the system. When Cindy didn’t fold, he went from asking to demanding ‘the captain’. Sadly for him, he’s just a very small fish in just a little pond to what I normally deal with.”
“So you don’t deal with small fry?” Weaver asked.
“Oh, I deal with small fry all the time,” Neal countered. “Heck, if you figure credits earned versus time spent earning them, I spend most of my time dealing with the small fry. What I don’t deal with is assholes that think it’s their God-given right to get a better deal than everyone else. Q didn’t ask if he could speak to a supervisor about it, he demanded that the captain of the ship drop everything else he may be doing and see to his needs that very instant. That I won’t put up with, and normally Tess simply gives them one warning before she stops taking their calls.”
“How do you even stay in business?” Calmmeadow asked from the next table over. “I’d think buyers wouldn’t put up with that.”
“Because my prices are normally the same or better than anyone else can offer. Plus the word gets out ‘Be an asshole with Foster and he’ll just close up shop and refuse to do business with you.’ It only takes one or two of those and the rest quickly get the message.”
“But still …”
“Did Q’s get our business today?” Neal asked. At hir headshake he continued, “Knowing what you now know, would you want to try there tomorrow? Do you think your friends would go if you told them about how they reacted?”
Neal grinned as shi and several of the other kids shook their heads. “Now, if you knew someone had stood up to them, how would you deal with them?”
“Wouldn’t it look like two guys fighting and you can’t tell who is in the right?” Quickdash asked.
“Not quite,” Neal told hir. “There are all those others the Folly has already dealt with at this stop. Millions of credits have been exchanged buying and selling, and out of all that only one person thought they had cause to scream at one of my sales assistants? How can anyone with a thinking mind automatically believe that one is in the right?”
“But he might be – you’ve taught us that,” shi protested.
“Yes, but only after you check the facts,” Neal agreed. “Now, if you’d seen the recording of him screaming at Cindy, what would you think?”
“That he was in the wrong,” shi admitted.
“Which is why Tess saves all our communications traffic. While I can refuse to deal with whoever I like, having a reason for it helps if he tries to get the station’s authorities involved with what is really a personal dispute.”
“He’s getting desperate, Boss,” Tess chimed in. “I’ve been dropping his connection every time he turns away or tries to place it on hold – or when he tries to have someone else sit there to hold the line open.”
Neal grinned as he told the others, “Which means Tess has all but tied him to that comm channel and he can’t be bothering anyone else. Heh, some might even think that we’re performing ‘a service to the community’ by keeping this Q out of everyone’s hair.”
“It gets even better, Boss,” Tess informed them. “As your original pricing guide has expired, I’ve tripled the amounts as your standing policies required. For your entertainment – and because I know how much you love messing with others – I saved him ‘shitting a brick’ when he saw the new prices.”
“Watch the language a little more when we’re out in public, Tess. And how much time is left on the current prices?”
“Sorry, Boss, I’ll remember. Two hours.”
“Gives us time and a little shopping and sightseeing before we head back to the ship. Times ten when the current price expires. We should be leaving a few hours after that.”
“Thirty times the base offer in two hours, aye, Boss.”
“Hey, Dad?” Alex called from one of the neighboring tables, “Did you know they don’t offer Fosters beer here?”
“Not everyone does,” Neal called back.
“Ah, but it’s not that. Seems someone you’ve already run into has a forced monopoly on it around here.”
“Really? Hmmm, can’t say I mind doing a little monopoly busting – especially if that’s who we’ll be going up against,” Neal agreed. Seeing Keitha nearby, he called out, “Little Keitha, I have a bet for you!”
“What kind of bet and how much?” the small vixen demanded as she came over to Neal’s table.
“Your standard one credit,” Neal told her. “As to the bet; it is if you get this restaurant’s purchasing agent in here, not only will they buy what I have to offer, but that the purchase will then make you a lot more work.”
Keitha frowned. “If you’re trying some kind of con …”
“Then you win the bet of one credit – and my tip will match the costs of our meal,” Neal countered.
Keitha glared at him for a moment as if trying to read his intentions before she turned and scurried towards the back of the restaurant.
“Boss, this may not have been the best place to do this. While they have a good product and plenty of clients, they’re running on a shoestring here, they literally won’t be able to afford even a pallet of Fosters.”
“Thanks for the warning, Tess; but as you know, I’ll sometimes accept a loss to get the ball rolling if it means a possible gain down the road.”
“I know, Boss. I just thought I’d better warn you just how soft you’ll have to play it.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.”
Through his earplugs she added, “And I just saw the neatest new shock-vid!” Without prompting she played it for him.
Neal let out a quiet sigh when it was over before muttering, “And just when did you see this?”
“I was thinking about ten minutes from now,” she admitted.
Weaver had noticed Neal’s expression change. “Bit into something bitter did we?” she half asked.
Neal shrugged before saying, “Tess is ready to jump the gun on having a little payback. Seems she has whipped up a little shock video she wants to throw on the net.”
“Are you going to let her?”
“Most likely,” Neal admitted, “the question is on the timing …”
“Public note boards are already carrying a few comments about her shouting you away from Q’s,” Tess hinted.
“Really? What the hell, load it up,” Neal agreed. “Best to get it out there before it becomes old news and everyone’s already heard about it,” he told Weaver.
“You sound like you do this all the time,” Weaver mused.
“With a few of them,” Neal admitted. “But most aren’t stupid enough to aggravate the very people whose goodwill they are in need of.”
“And they don’t make for such a bold recording?” she dryly asked as Keitha returned leading an older-looking Siamese cat.
“Joe’s a little busy right now, I’m Ms. Nook,” she said as she came up to their table.
Neal nodded and gave her a smile. “Well, Ms. Nook, I’m Neal Foster of the Folly. We had a deal fall through, so we find ourselves with some excess Fosters beer to sell.”
Nook shook her head sadly before saying, “Q’s got a lock in on any Fosters that hits the docks.”
“Not after they’ve insulted my daughter, they don’t,” Neal stated.
“Doesn’t really matter,” the cat murmured. “Even with Q out of the way, we couldn’t have afforded the prices you were offering.”
Neal frowned as if in thought for a moment before saying, “If my crew hasn’t drank it dry, I should still have a broken pallet of the stuff. I ‘break’ them into samplers for prospective buyers. It’ll be a mixed lot of kegs, bottles, cans, and zero-G bulbs … Tell you what; you and Joe figure out what you can safely afford for a mixed half pallet and send the quote to the Folly.” At her hesitant look, he added, “Try it, Ms. Nook. The worst my sales agent can do is reject the quote.”
Giving him a slight nod, she said, “Thank you, Mr. Foster … any relations to Fosters by chance?”
Neal grinned. “None at all. They brew beer, I move things.”
“Thank you again.”
“One thing, if you will,” Neal requested. At her curious look, he said, “To seal the deal – and to win a little side bet for me – I want you to have Keitha over there make the sign that will proclaim that Fosters can be gotten here!”
“Cheat!” Keitha protested, but she was grinning too hard for anyone to take it seriously.
“Just keeping my promise,” Neal countered. “If they buy it of course.”
As the Siamese left for the backroom, Neal watched Keitha hand something to one of the other waiters – while whispering furiously at him. He in turned pulled something out of his pocket and added it to what Keitha had given him before talking with another waiter.
“Tess?” he quietly asked, knowing that she would be using all of their comm badges to hear and see what was going on around them.
“The staff wants this too, Boss, badly enough that they’re throwing their tips into the pool,” she told him. “And we don’t have any broken pallets of Fosters …” she reminded him.
“Then break one,” he ordered with a small smile. “Pull a couple of everything as if we had made a sampler. And Tess?”
“Reject their offer and propose a counter offer of twenty percent under what you think it was without those tips. Remind them it’s just part of a pallet.”
“You’re cheating again.”
“These strike me as good people,” Neal countered. “So I’ll cheat a little.”
“What would be cheating a lot?” Weaver wondered, having heard what Tess had told Neal.
Neal smirked. “Ever heard of the game ‘Three Card Monte’ or maybe ‘Find the Lady’?”
“They’re con games,” she stated.
“Indeed they are,” Neal agreed, “And with Tess’ transporters I can make the queen disappear entirely …” the scowl she was giving him just made him grin all the wider as he added, “or, she can make every damn one of them the queen.”
“You can do that?”
“I’ve done that. Even got caught once. He was Rakshan, and he was literally playing for his life. He went and flipped the other cards over after his fourth win in a row. I looked down at the cards, then looked back up at him and told him straight-faced in front of his friends: ‘It seems that even those damnable deities of yours want you to win tonight! So, do you accept their decision and my help – or are we going to play this dumb game all night?’ Since he couldn’t figure out how, much less why I’d do such a thing, he lived out the night.”
“And come the dawn?” she softly asked.
“He shipped out with the belief that he would make a difference – for why else would his deities think he was worth keeping alive?”
“But you and Tess did it, not some supposed deity.”
“Perhaps. But what if there were these deities, and if they did want him to live, might they not send him to someone they thought would trick him into living?”
“And you believe this?”
“I believe many things,” Neal said as a message flashed in his glasses, “but what I believe right now is that it is time to leave. Tess tells me she just sent that counter bid, so we have maybe a whole minute to flee the scene before Ms. Nook comes hunting for us in general and me in particular.”
“Did you leave the tip?” Weaver asked as they filed out.
“Of course,” Neal replied, “I even padded it to cover the Catians’ meals and left what I’d promised Keitha.”
“I thought that was only if you lost the bet?”
“For good service and food I tip well.”
“So it seems. And even better when you can make a deal,” she countered with a small smile.
Neal smiled in turn as they left the restaurant. “Even better if that one deal cascades into more. Traders,” he said a little louder, Alex and several others turning towards him. “I just made an after-hours trade. I’ll admit I cheated just a bit.”
“Just a bit,” Alex cut in with a grin.
“Be that as it may,” Neal retorted as he tried and failed to give Alex a sharp look, “Tess has just told me that the deal was indeed made. So, for the next two hours you are free to team up and see what other deals you can make. Tess will offer suggestions on things not currently posted and what you should aim for – and what I might let you get away with. Have fun!”
*** Keitha caught up with Weaver and Neal when they were almost halfway back to the ship, Weaver having slowed them down with a bit of window-shopping with Holly and the two chakat youths.
“What did you do?” she demanded as she glared at Neal.
“What I always do,” Neal replied. “I tried to set a deal where both parties were happy with what they got for what they gave – or are you here to tell me that Ms. Nook was unhappy with the deal that was offered?”
“You lowered the offer!” Keitha protested.
“It’s just beer,” Neal countered. “I don’t care for the stuff myself, but if someone else wants to pay good credits for it, who am I to argue with them?”
Weaver looked between the human and small fox. Keitha looked ready to protest further, but Neal was getting a gleam in his eye – one that warned her that he was again ‘up to something’.
“Tell you what,” Neal said. “If you really think I’m not charging you guys enough, there’s a little something you can do to pay me back …”
“You live here; you know this station and its shops better than I ever will.” Holding his hand out to Weaver, he said, “I’ll give you a PADD – thank you, Weaver – on it you will find some of the things I didn’t officially offer for sale and what I want to get for them. You have two hours. Are you game?” he asked, holding out the PADD to her.
Keitha took it hesitantly, looking at the lists of items it displayed. Her eyes seemed to light up as she exclaimed, “Kelly’s!” and she darted off.
At Weaver’s glare at him, Neal murmured, “I guess she saw something a friend could use.”
“So you turned her into another of your sales agents?”
“Something like that. As I told her, she has the home-field advantage – and she might know a couple worthy types that she can help cut a deal.”
“What if she tries to offer things for less than you want her to?”
“She can’t. All she can do is assist in placing a ‘bid’ for what and how much, Tess then sets up the actual sale.”
“And the kids are doing the same thing?”
“Yeah, the way this station’s fees are set up, it’s cheaper this way,” Neal admitted.
“Active sales agents are charged a thousand credits per month to operate on the station, which usually means that if you don’t have a lot to sell, hiring one of the local sales teams is cheaper than trying to do it yourself. Those sales agents can deal with the public directly or through an assistant. There’s a fee for assistants too, but it’s only fifty credits, as all sales have to pass through the sales agents. Since the local sales teams would want a percentage of whatever I collect from each sale, paying a thousand for my own personal sales agent was much cheaper.”
“So you set up Tess as the sales agent, and all the kids as her assistants?” Weaver wondered.
“And Keitha, I don’t need to get into the trouble of using an unlicensed assistant.”
“I never knew buying and selling were so complicated,” she admitted.
“Heh, it all depends on what rules they’ve decided to set up. Some places you can just open your hatch and trade from there – or at a table at the local bar. Others you can only sell to the station itself – and then they sell it to whoever they like at whatever price-point they’ve decided on …”
“You don’t sound like you think much of that last system,” Weaver inquired with a raised eyebrow.
“I don’t,” Neal agreed. “They can run ships out of business by low-balling the prices, and ruin local companies by overcharging them.”
“Why am I getting the feeling you’ve done something about it before?”
“Couple of times,” he admitted.
“Do I need to sit on you to get all the juicy details?”
“Nah, I’ll give you this one for free,” he offered. Neal then grinned at the way Weaver and a couple others cocked their ears at him.
“It was a small colony that started out with a lot of promise, but it wasn’t delivering on those promises. And most of their problems stemmed from the ‘gift’ of a station. Usually a station benefits both the colony and the ships that come to trade. For the ships, it means not having to drag their ship or their shuttles down and then back out of a gravity well for a few tons of cargo. For the colony, they need only pay for one shuttle trip that might contain cargo from several ships.”
“I take it this gift station didn’t do that?”
“Yes, and no … They did do that, but they cut themselves in for every bit of the profit that they could get away with. Yes, they bought cargo from the ships that the colony needed, but at prices so low it was just barely better than the savings of not sending your own shuttle. They then did the same thing to the colony, charging them just under what it would have cost to deal with the ships directly. The only real benefit the station provided was it made small scale mining of the local rocks in space possible, but once again the station stripped away what profits they could, making it barely self-sustaining for the miners.”
“Are you going to sit there and tell me you don't do what you can to maximize your profits?”
Neal snorted as he gave her a grin. “Of course I go after as much profit as I think I can get away with, but I try to ensure that I don’t fleece them for more than they can stand. Funny as it may sound, I want them to do well so they’ll be there for me to fleece – I mean do business with the next time I come by. The station, rather than helping the colony grow, was slowly strangling it to death.”
“So you stepped in,” Weaver murmured.
“I was actually asked to step in. Most of the other ships were getting to the point that it wasn’t worth going out that way and some were talking about working together to establish a second station. Their representatives came to me for the logistics.”
“Moving a station?”
“Just that. While most stations are brought in in pieces and assembled on site, sometimes it can be cheaper to buy a station that’s being retired – if you can move it for a reasonable amount.”
“Which you just happen to be able to do …”
Neal grinned at her. “There are very few ships that can move much over their own bulk at warp. There are fewer still that can move really large items. One of the things they were concerned about was getting it all in place and running before the owners of the other station could try to counter or fight it.”
“You make it sound so easy to do.”
“Heh, not really, I’m glossing over all the work that had to be done to get the station properly prepped, provisioned, and staffed before dragging it out there.”
“Staffed?” she asked in surprise.
“Sure, the warm bodies to do all the regular work a station needs. And we needed someone that wouldn’t just follow in the first station’s footprints.”
“The ships in on the deal didn’t want to crew it themselves?”
“No, or maybe I should say not enough. A couple ships had a few crew interested, but nowhere near enough warm bodies to properly crew a station. So we had to get creative.”
“You’re going to make me drag each bit out of you, aren’t you?”
“We ended up hiring mercenaries to run the place.”
“Now you’re yanking my tail.”
“No, really. They got a money-maker for between jobs and we got someone that would play fairly with everyone.”
“Wait a minute, who would run it while they were out on a job? And how could you guarantee they wouldn’t shaft someone?”
“Logistics answers the first. Behind every gun team they send out on a contract, there’s a whole support team to back them – a lot of whom never leave their main base of operations. So by letting them use the station as their base, we got someone to staff it for us. As for the second, there were rules put in place for how much they could charge for the different services. Fixed rates for a lot of stuff, percentages for the rest, with a kicker that the total profit couldn’t exceed a certain amount without them forfeiting all their profits for that time period.”
“And these mercenaries signed off on it?”
“No, they signed a one-year contract to run the station. While most of the ship group was willing to give the station up to five years to show its worth, they figured a year was long enough to see if the mercs could actually run it. As well as moving the station into place, I loaned them a heavy lift shuttle that I was getting ready to retire.”
“You just happened to have an extra heavy lift shuttle in your back pocket?”
“No, at that time I’d just commissioned a newer, larger, more powerful and more efficient one and I now had one to get rid of. Leasing it to them was better than selling or scrapping it.”
“The way you’ve been talking I’m assuming it worked?”
Neal chuckled. “The other station never knew what hit them. I parked the new one in an orbit that matched theirs, just opposite of them with the planet always between them. That first orbit the shuttle dropped to the planet with a load that the colonists had said they would pay for – if it could be bought and delivered under a certain price. The mercs had done their homework and even with the shipping charges they came in well under the requested price point.”
“I take it they made friends quickly.”
“You might say that, especially as the timing coincided with the start of the colony’s growing season. They somehow managed a full day before the old station realized that it wasn’t just a one-off delivery from a ship but real competition.”
“I’ll bet they weren’t too happy with the new arrangements.”
“You’d be right. That and the same laws that let them ‘park’ a station in orbit meant anyone else can too.”
“Don’t you mean ‘could’?”
“No, can. A dozen more stations could be added to their orbit. The problem lies in there not being enough business to really keep one station fully occupied, much less two or more of them. Ours only made sense because it would save both sides credits in the long run. Those that were a part of getting the new station set up used it – we wanted it to succeed of course. The colony of course went for the one with better rates and a friendlier shuttle service. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the old station tried lowering its rates and charges, but they couldn’t match what the new station was offering.”
“Did you, I think you call it ‘blackball’ them?”
“Not really. I’d buy and sell to both stations, but I wasn’t about to give the old one any better ‘deal’ than I had the new. Though I think the colony pretty much did blackball them, too many years of getting shafted can cause that …”
“What else did you do to them?”
“Nothing, though the new station had to give up one of its surprises three months in. Through all the cross chatter between the stations and the colony no mention was ever made that the new station was crewed by mercenaries – and that they’d loaded the station with all of their toys prior to it being towed into orbit. So when a pirate ship with half a dozen fighters showed up, they thought they were in for an easy time of it.” Neal’s smile wasn’t pleasant as he continued. “I got to see a tactical playback of the attack. It wasn’t a fight so much as a slaughter, the pirates not getting off more than a couple panicked shots when the station suddenly launched its own fighters.”
“You’re grinning too wide …” Weaver pointed out.
“Eh, it brings back good memories,” Neal admitted.
“So whatever happened to the old station?”
“The mercs bought them out after they went bankrupt, refurbished it, and turned it into a mining station for out in their asteroid belt.”
As Weaver was looking thoughtful, Tess gave them an update.
“Hey, Boss. You’re favorite bellower has given up on getting through by way of the comm systems.”
“Yeah. He’s since hired a couple station security types to escort him to our docking bay,” Tess reported.
“How have the kids been doing?”
“Fairly well actually, though Keitha is leaving them all behind.”
“Heh, no surprise there,” Neal chuckled.
“You do know she’s cheating us – don’t you boss?” Tess complained.
“How is she cheating?” Weaver asked for Neal.
“She got several buyers together and is working out what they can buy together and then split up after we deliver it – while using the bottom-most prices you allowed her!”
“Even at those prices we still make profit, yes?” Neal questioned.
“Well, yes – but not as much as we could have!”
“These are her friends, of course she’ll give them as good of a deal as we let her. We moved some cargo we wouldn’t have without her help, and in doing so we may have made a new friend or two. How long will it take you to offload the goods?”
“Thirty minutes – if they don’t make any more sales!”
“Tell the others to start wrapping things up, and I will see to our little mutt problem.”
“And what did you think we were going to be doing while you were having your fun?” Weaver asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, you can come too,” Neal allowed with a smirk. “Fair warning, it might get loud.”
“Station security. This is Sergeant Chakat Hall, how may I help you?” the gray with a yellow polka dot pattern asked the blank screen in front of hir. It was strange that the caller hadn’t enabled the video from their side, but it wasn’t all that uncommon as some wished not to be identified when talking to security.
“Tess of the Folly,” the screen replied. The voice sounded like a human female, but the sergeant knew how a good voice box could make hir sound just as human. “This is a request for information about any outstanding warrants for the Folly or for her captain and crew.”
As shi checked, shi asked, “May I ask why you think we might have issued warrants for your ship or crew, Ms Tess?”
“Well, it isn’t often I have a pair of security types and a rather annoyed-looking civilian all but blocking my docking port,” Tess replied.
“Have they made any requests?” Hall asked.
“Negative,” Tess told hir. “They just stare at anyone coming near the hatch like they’re trying to catch someone by surprise.”
Hall’s screen now lit up with a shot from the hatch’s camera, showing the backs of three furs standing in front of the closed hatch. A window opened to show their faces, or muzzles in this case. The puma and leopard in uniform shi knew – and also knew that they weren’t working hir shift – but it was the over-dressed German shepherd with them that drew a frown from hir. “So I see. I’ll be right down,” shi told Tess before dropping the connection and grabbing hir cap.
With a little timing prompt from Tess, Neal’s little group reached the Folly’s docking port just as Chakat Hall did.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.
“That’s what I’m here to find out,” Hall admitted as shi gave Neal and Weaver a nod before turning to the three waiting for them. Eyeing hir now nervous-looking fellow officers shi said, “I checked before I came down, so I know you two aren’t on duty. The uniform is for official business, not for personal use. Why are you two down here?”
“Well, Ad – Mister Q asked for an escort, Shir,” the puma replied.
“I didn’t realize the docks were so dangerous the locals wouldn’t come down here without bodyguards,” Neal commented with a frown. Tapping his comm badge he said, “Tess, warn the others to stay alert – ensure phasers are set to medium stun.”
“That – shouldn’t be necessary,” Chakat Hall tried to suggest.
“Either your friends were down here because this citizen thinks it’s scary down in the docks – or he hired them to help him shake somebody down,” Neal pointed out. “The first means my people need to be on a higher alert level, and somebody’s going to find themselves in a world of hurt if it’s the second.”
“Don’t you try to threaten me!” the German shepherd growled.
“No threat involved,” Neal chuckled, “that there was a promise …”
Before the male hormone levels could reach the danger point, Sergeant Hall asked, “Just what are you doing down here, Q?”
“I don’t answer to the likes of you!” he snapped. “But if you must know, this ship’s captain has been playing favoritism games against my establishment!”
“Really?” Neal said. “You placed an order and they refused to fill it?”
“The captain refused to discuss the pricing with me!” Q snarled.
“I was under the impression that you’d need to talk to the sales agent about pricing – not the ship’s captain,” Neal countered.
“All businesses have to deal fairly with all clients!” Q snapped.
“Well, now I know that’s not true,” Neal scoffed, “In fact I tried to go into some hoity-toity place called Admiral Q’s of all things, and they wouldn’t let me and my crew in the door. Tess? Play your recording of the event if you will.”
“And just what do you want?” they heard a female canine sneer.
“Foster, party of seventeen.” Neal’s voice was heard saying. “You don’t have a reservation,” was the reply with a snap.
“Then write us up one, bitch. How hard can it be?” they heard Neal say.
“Bitch? I’ll show you BITCH! SECURITY! GET THEM THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”
As Neal waved the playback off, Sergeant Hall looked and tried to get the feelings of the others. Hir fellow officers looked and felt ill at ease at being caught in the middle of all this, perhaps shi wouldn’t need to give them more than another word or two to keep them from volunteering like this again. The foxtaur vixen was shaking her head slightly, but there was no worry and surprisingly a little amusement on hir muzzle. On the other hand, Q was failing to keep from foaming at the mouth – but the human shi just couldn’t get a good feel for, which for some reason worried hir more than shi thought it should have.
“Of course she wouldn’t seat you! Especially after you called her a bitch! I should have you up on charges!” Q snapped.
“You mean calling female canines ‘bitch’ isn’t the standard procedure for this station?” Neal asked while sounding surprised.
“No …” Sergeant Hall replied. “Why would you think it would be?”
“I monitor random calls coming into the ship, and one of my adopted daughters just happens to be a canine. Tess?”
“Folly procurement, this is Cindy, how may I help you?”
“This is Admiral Q. You will get me your captain so I can tell him how ludicrous his so-called prices are.”
“The captain is currently busy with matters of his ship. As you didn’t wish to deal with our sales agent, I will be dealing with you for any matters of buying or selling.”
“Unacceptable! You will get your captain on this line now!”
“Stop it! Turn it off now!” Q demanded, but the playback just grew louder to drown him out. “As that won’t be happening, was there anything else I can do for you?”
“YOU WILL GET ME YOUR DAMN CAPTAIN NOW, BITCH!”
“Please hold for the captain.”
“NO! YOU WILL NOT PUT ME ON HOLD YOU BITCH! YOU WILL – DAMN YOU YOU LITTLE BITCH! WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU I’LL – ” Mercifully Neal finally waved his hand and the rest of Q’s – and it was obvious to all present by this point that it was indeed Q – bellowing was cut off.
Into the new silence Neal quietly said, “Was that what I was doing wrong, Q? Could I have gotten into your rather questionable establishment if I’d just bellowed and screamed threats at your daughter the way you did with mine? As far as any charges, I’d guess we’d end up as cellmates if you were stupid enough to try it,” he added with a grin.
When the German shepherd did nothing but glare at the security officers – who seemed to have little sympathy for his plight, Neal added, “Like you, I reserve the right to refuse service to whomever I please – and for whatever reason I feel like. Why would I bother with an idiot that wants to argue prices but doesn’t even bother to place an order so we’d have something to argue about?”
“You haven’t heard the end of this!” Q sputtered.
“Neither have you,” Neal agreed with a grin.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Q demanded.
Neal’s grin grew as he said, “Unless the local grapevine has died an untimely death, you should know by the time you get back to that little eatery of yours.”
“I take it you don’t think he’s seen Tess’ little video yet,” Weaver quietly said as Q stormed off, followed at a discreet distance by three furs from security.
“No way,” Neal told her as he watched the German shepherd pull out a comm unit as he turned the corner. “He wasn’t anywhere near mad enough to have seen it yet – and nowhere near scared enough for the implications to have struck home. Tess? What have you seen so far?”
“I seriously doubt that Q can now get home or to his restaurant without hearing his or his daughter’s voice screaming a particular five letter word. And some of the locals have gotten quite creative with editing the video I sent out.”
“There are now several purely instrumental tunes now ‘sung’ by those two with her doing the tenor and him the bass. Then there’s over a dozen more of them just yelling ‘bitch’ at each other.”
“And you just know that darling daughter of his is going to take all this calm, cool, and collected,” Weaver murmured.
“Heh, it’s a good thing sound doesn’t travel through vacuum worth a darn,” Neal chuckled. “Tess? Tell the kids and Keitha to wrap things up and get down here.”
“Aye, Boss. It shouldn’t take them more than a few minutes.”
Alex and Cindy were the first to come into view, followed by Mike and half their teen chakats. Cindy was wearing a strange ‘non’-face, while Alex and the others wore various levels of grim.
“Had a run in with Q, did you?” Neal asked them.
“He tried,” Alex replied. “He then discovered how intimidating chakats can be when they get up on two legs with a full showing of claws and teeth!” he added with a grim smile.
“As I don’t see any blood on you or your cohorts, I assume that the show of force was sufficient?”
Chakat Calmmeadow snickered, “That and those security types behind him! Too many witnesses of who was trying to start things.”
“Don’t forget what else we saw,” Chakat Brighteyes reminded hir. “There had been a couple youths walking ahead of us laughing as they said ‘you the bitch – no you the bitch’ at each other. Then they saw that German shepherd coming and they started laughing at him. He looked like he was going to yell at them – but that’s when he saw Cindy and rushed over like he was going to try to grab her. We kind of got in his way a bit …” shi added, looking a little nervous.
“I will never have a problem with you guys protecting each other,” Neal told hir. “How’d you guys do on sales?”
“Not too bad considering it was all last minute stuff, though we heard you gave us some local competition,” Alex hinted with a raised eyebrow.
“And here she comes now,” Neal said, having seen Keitha round the corner. “So, how did you do?” he asked as she came up to them.
“Pretty good,” she said as she offered Neal the PADD.
Not reaching out for it, Neal gave her a stern look and said, “Correct it first. Not all of the cargo is going where you marked it as going.”
“You knew I combined some of the orders?” Keitha asked, looking a little defensive.
Neal smirked. “My sales agent monitors all deals and transactions. How else could she have known what counter offers would better entice your clients?”
“You were spying on us!”
“No, not really. While my sales agent brought it to my attention, she will most likely tell me nothing of who actually said what – or even who bought what. While she probably saved some records so we’ll know better what to bring the next time we come out, your secrets should be safe enough,” Neal told her.
“This is just a guess,” Tess’s voice said as the data on Keitha’s PADD shifted.
Keitha glared at Neal again before looking down at the PADD. She tapped in a couple quick changes as she frowned at just how close most of Tess’s ‘guesses’ had been.
“Got it,” Tess said. “Just one more thing and we’re done with you – Boss?”
“One last thing indeed,” Neal agreed. “There’s still the matter of you acting as one of our sales assistants. Tess, if you will please?” Keitha’s PADD brought up a new screen as Neal continued, “You may take the credits listed at the top, or you may use them to purchase one or more of the pallets listed for the offered prices.”
Alex leaned over the smaller fox to see what Neal was tempting Keitha with. “Hmmm, looks close to what you offer us …”
Neal nodded. “Your earnings are one thing, but my cargo is business.”
Chakat Nightsky was peering around the fox vixen’s other shoulder. “You definitely don’t want any of those!” shi told her while pointing with a claw-tip.
“Still trying to hoard the silks, Sis?” Alex asked with a chuckle.
Nightsky stuck her tongue out before countering, “No real market here. I even heard one saleslady wonder why anyone would make silk anymore, the philistine.”
Her teeth nipping her tongue, Keitha spent a minute making her choices before handing the PADD back to Neal.
Neal took the PADD and nodded before inserting a credit chit. Removing the chit after the unit beeped, he offered it to Keitha. “Your change.”
“But I zeroed the credits!” she protested.
“And by doing so you made me another sale, and thus deserve to be paid for it,” Neal countered with a grin.
“Well, if you don’t want it,” Alex said as he reached for it – only to have Keitha snatch it and give him a glare.
Neal wasn’t the only one to chuckle their antics. “Ah, there was one thing I almost forgot,” he told her. At her look of confusion he added, “You did lose our little bet …”
Pulling a one-credit coin from her tips pocket, Keitha offered it to Neal. “Best ‘lose’ I’ve ever had,” she admitted.
“And I believe Ms Nook is probably still waiting for her sign to be made,” Neal hinted with a grin.
As Keitha dashed off, Tess said, “Fifteen minutes for me to get the last shipments station-side. There’s a launch window open in twenty-one minutes – unless you guys need more time to shop?”
Not seeing or hearing any protests, Neal said, “Sign us up for that window, I think we’ve had enough fun for one stop.”
“Can do, and you’re not going to believe this.”
“Taxing my credibility again?”
“Q was just arrested – but he’s being sent to the station’s med-bay first.”
“Oh? Any details?” Weaver asked before Neal could.
“From the report Sergeant Hall filed, he knocked a hand player out of a chakat cub’s hand and had his hand raised for another blow when the cub’s parent body-slammed him into the wall.”
“Good thing the sergeant was there or poor Q might have been slashed to ribbons,” Weaver commented.
“Yeah,” Neal agreed. “There was no need to have Q’s bad manners traumatize the cub and hir parent.”
“You don’t care that he could have been badly hurt?” Weaver asked with a slight rise of an eyebrow.
“Do I care that someone’s bad manners got him stomped on? No, not really,” Neal admitted. “I’d be more saddened if the cub had been injured.”
“There is that,” Weaver allowed as she turned to enter the airlock.
“Well, that was a bitching stop,” Redtail commented as the foxtaur vixens joined the rest of the crew in the main lounge.
“I am hoping that word doesn’t become too commonplace aboard my Folly,” Neal dryly commented to the room in general.
Alex gave him a cocky grin as he said, “I’m sure it will only be used when appropriate.” He then looked over at Cindy and snapped, “Get me a drink, Bitch.”
To several stares and more than a couple glares, they watched Alex smirk as Cindy did as she was told.
She drew a glass of water from the mini-bar in the corner of the room as brought it over to Alex. She gave him a little bow as she presented it to him – just before she dumped it over his head!
Alex ignored the snickers and outright laughter and turned back to Neal and said, “As I said, only when appropriate.” Looking up at Cindy he said, “Thanks, sis.”
“Any time, bro,” she replied with a grin and a nod. To the others she said, “He’s used that and worse in our training sessions to try and get a rise out of me.”
“Someone should probably dry off before he reports for duty on my bridge,” Tess suggested as their little meeting broke up.
Minutes from their departure time found the Folly’s bridge properly crewed, and her captain finishing up some paperwork in his dayroom.
“Boss, I’m getting someone trying to force through a secure hard-line connection – it appears to be from the port authority.”
“Odd,” Neal agreed. “There’s nothing they should be trying to tell us that couldn’t be handled through an unsecured comm link; it isn’t more of our problem mutt is it?”
“These are not the mutts you’re looking for,” Tess intoned. “Or at least it doesn’t appear to be.”
“Keep offering them the open link; we’re still scheduled to break dock in a couple minutes so they’ll have to ante-up or fold.”
As Neal continued his paperwork he kept half an eye on the status board running down one side of his display. In normal space the board would be a solid green with everything up and running properly, while ‘parked’ near another ship or station there would be a few yellow lights warning of things that might pose a hazard to Folly or those near her. Currently a full half of his board was in that cautious hue, while another third glowed the crimson of danger. The Folly out-massed most ships – and more than a few stations – so hard docking to one brought with it new risks and dangers all their own. Through the station’s repeaters and Folly’s sensors, Tess kept a weather eye on everything going on outside the station, ready to do whatever was needed to help protect the ship, her cargo and her crew. Standard Operating Procedure included a station’s tractor beams holding a large ship to the station and their docking collars aligned, but when you’re dealing with almost four kilometers of ship, a little more was required. Since docking, Folly’s tractor beams had been holding half a dozen of the station’s ‘hard points’ for added stability and her thrusters would occasionally pulse to match the slight shifts of the station as other ships docked and undocked.
The first red to switch to amber and then green was the docking port hatch. The outer hatch had been in a ‘closed but not sealed’ condition whenever there wasn’t crew or cargo trying to get through it to help keep anyone or anything from wandering on board. With both inner and outer hatches sealed, there was a slight delay as the station-side hatch was closed and sealed. Together, ship and station released their locking points which had held the docking ports to each other. Momentary puffs from the thrusters helped gently nudge the ship away from the station, and more of the warning and caution indicators cleared as the risks they represented were cleared.
The status board was down to a handful of proximity warnings when the tone for an incoming call sounded.
The fox-looking being that appeared on the screen looked like their jaws were clenched hard enough to hurt. The view was limited to the head, but the coloration hinted more to Vulpinoid than fox morph and the hair was teased into a more feminine pattern. “I know who and what you are, Captain Foster. I know how your little scam works and I’m not going to let you get away with it!” she declared.
Neal’s smile held a little malice as he replied, “And what particular scam have I supposedly perpetrated, Ms.?”
“That is immaterial.”
“It is if I’m going to take you seriously,” Neal countered. “It’s hard to believe or be concerned about anything from someone too ashamed to even give their own name.”
While Neal had been speaking, Tess had been going through the news and other station downloads looking for their caller. She scored a hit, which she pinned to the bottom of Neal’s display along with the confidence level as she started digging using the name as well as the muzzle. The confidence level quickly rose, as did the information on their caller.
Their caller either didn’t notice the change in Neal’s smile – or she chose to ignore it. “I know you used some kind of sales point AI system to handle your sales – that’s totally illegal!”
“Use – or non-use – of an AI is not mentioned anywhere in the sales agent rulebook, so it can hardly say yes or no to their use,” Neal countered.
“It refers to the sales agent as a being! Not an AI!” she snapped.
“Hmmm, so now we have to determine if this hypothetical AI is also a being. Tell you what; I’ll let you interview some of my crew and who you're claiming was an AI. Let’s see if whatever it was seems to be a being – or just a poorly programmed dummy.”
“And just what the hell will that pr–” she was demanding when Neal closed the window on his screen.
“What it will prove is that the longer you rant, the further out of range we’ll be – and the less we’ll care,” Neal said with a grin. “Tess, ask a couple of the teens to help you keep her busy.”
“Should I hint that we now know she’s most likely Q’s mistress, and that’s she’s really pissed that as a sales agent, she wasn’t able to get a cut of our profits?”
“I’d save it for the last half,” Neal suggested. “For added fun, you can save this for later entertainment.”
“Can do, Boss. So far I appear to be passing my Turing test as she isn’t figuring it out.”
“Keep at it, but try not to have too much fun with her.”
“Party pooper …”
“I win!” Tess proclaimed to Neal just two minutes before they’d be far enough out to safely engage the warp drive.
“Define win for me,” Neal suggested.
“Well, she thought Weaver, Cindy, Alex and Brighteyes were all AIs – but none of mine! Then there’s the little matter of the entertainment you said I could do,” she said, sounding smug.
“Dare I ask what you did?”
“I saved it as you suggested, and then I was able to offer a couple of copies to our friends on the station.”
“If you thought the bitcher and bitchette team was in trouble, you should see how this one was ranting.”
Neal just shook his head.
“Oh, and here was my last AI,” Tess said as Neal’s screen showed an image of – Neal.
“And here we are again, Ms. Tanka,” the talking head of Neal said. “And as you now know, I know who and what you are; and you now know your little scam has failed. It’s too bad you never managed to get that secure connection; there’s no telling how many others may have been listening in …” he added with a grin and a wink, her eyes growing wide and her mouth opening in horror as the screen blanked.
“You forgot to close with me chuckling evilly,” Neal said dryly.
“Nah, too over the top – even for you.”
“Perhaps. Status?” he asked out of habit, as a look to the side of the screen he was using would have told him what was happening.
“Cores coming up to full power, static tests good, ship and crew are ready, warp in ten seconds.”
“And on to the next challenge,” Neal softly agreed as the warp fields built and the ship shuddered slightly around him as Folly disappeared from normal space.
Copyright © 2014 Allen Fesler Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
Return to the Forest Tales main page.
Return to the Chakat's DenTM main page.