by John R. Plunkett
At the crunch of gravel in the drive, Darkstar's eyes cracked open. A community groundcar had just pulled up; the door opened and a lanky Terran male emerged. Trim build, auburn hair, brown eyes, high forehead, and rectangular faces with softish, friendly features that smiled easily. Darkstar guessed his age at somewhere in the late thirties. He wore a tee shirt, comfortable slacks, and sunglasses.
"Hello, Admiral," Darkstar called, lifting hir head but otherwise not stirring from hir warm spot on the porch. "How was your trip?"
"Interesting," Boyce replied, unloading his luggage and placing it on the grass. The groundcar backed, turned, and drove itself back up the road toward town. "Where's Longstocking and Aurora?"
"Interesting story, that," Darkstar mused, stroking hir chin. "Longstocking made all kinds of plans when shi found out you were coming. It was quite evident shi'd be all over us."
"So what did you do?" Boyce took a seat on the porch, his back propped against one of the posts holding up the eaves.
"I told hir that you were emotionally tortured by things that had happened on Terra, and you'd come to seek solace in my arms," Darkstar responded. "After that shi dissapeared so fast I swear shi teleported. Shi and Aurora are staying with Petalbright, and we shouldn't have to worry about them for some days. But afterward I'll have to tell hir all about how I smothered your fears with my ardent passion, and all the soulful pillow talk you whispered for my ears alone."
Boyce's mouth quirked into a smile. Darkstar, like Midnight and Forestwalker, was a Chakat. Or rather, half Chakat. The other half was Chakamil, a species that officially did not exist. The difference wasn't outwardly obvious; Darkstar resembled a Canadian lynx, having a fluffy gray pelt decorated with dark speckles, black tufted ears, bearded cheeks, and a short, stubby tail with a black tip. Not to mention somewhat oversized paws.
None of that counted as unusual, albeit that Chakats- even those with lynx or bobcat markings- tended to have somewhat longer tails. Looking closely, one might notice that Darkstar's forepaws lacked the semi-prehensile digits common to Chakats. On the other hand, hir claws were quite prominent, even while retracted.
"You laugh?" Darkstar demanded, rising to hir feet. "You think I won't use my feminie wiles on you?" Shi planted hir hands on hir waist, sashaying up with an exaggerated swing of the hips. Shi stropped against him, then plopped down in his lap, wrapping hir forepaws around his waist and rolling over, pulling him with hir. Shi wrapped hir arms around his shoulders crushing his face against hir bosom.
Forest and Midnight had fleshy, volouptuous figures, with very generously sized bosoms. By contrast, Darkstar had a slim, almost wiry build, and comparatively modest sized breasts. A nice handful, which Boyce didn't see as a bad thing at all. Moreover, he could admire them all he liked; Darkstar wore not a stitch. Not even a belt pouch.
"Youre feminine wiles are prodding me in the stomach," Boyce commented drolly.
"I'm glad to see you, that's all." Darkstar gave him a playful lick.
Boyce chuckled, then his smile faded. "I wish I could say that what you told Longstocking was just cover, but it's a lot more true than I like."
Darkstar lay on hir side, stroking Boyce's face with hir hand. "That was a raw deal, all around."
"It was." Boyce nodded. A moment later he sat up. "I came because I needed to talk, Darkstar."
Darkstar cocked hir head. "You mean things you can't trust anyone else with."
Boyce nodded. "I'm really put my foot in it."
"Rand and Onca?" Darkstar ventured.
Boyce nodded again. "Without Cape York, nobody would have cared. With it... at the least I look like an indulgent fop who abused his position for personal gain. At worst... I hindered an investigation that might have intercepted the terrorists before they had a chance to strike."
"Commandant Kuro is waiting to see which way the wind blows," Darkstar put in. "To find out whether she needs to serve your head up on a platter in order to save her own."
"In a nutshell." Boyce nodded morosely. "I'm not under arrest or anything, but it's been made clear in no uncertain terms that I've been a bad boy. Still... I've found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I've managed to put it to some gainful use." He extracted a data pad from his back pocket. "You know how they say, if you want to know what's really happening, follow the money?"
"Yes." Darkstar planted hir elbow and propped hir head up on hir hand.
"I got to wondering. Terrorists need money. But where do they get it? It can't be too easy to trace, or they get shut down. And Cape York needed a lot. You don't get that kind of service from a pack of country yahoos waving guns. So what if it's coming from Amazonia?"
Darkstar lifted hir torso, straightening hir arm to prop hirself in a semi-upright position. "Any reason to think it does? Why there, in particular?"
"No reason, actually," Boyce admitted. "Except that Rand and Onca got me to thinking about it. And those Amazonia Brotherhood clowns had a clubhouse up in the Cape York peninsula."
"Coincidence?" Darkstar asked.
"Starfleet Intel thinks so," Boyce said. "They're investigating on Terra, chasing down the Earth for Humans connection. Problem is, it's like hunting for earthworms. Every time you lift up a rock, there's a great big squrming mass of them. Not condusive to finding one particular worm."
"Indeed not," Darkstar agreed.
"So, because I had too much time on my hands, I looked into Amazonia," Boyce continued. "Turns out Amazonia contracts out penal services to a dozen other systems in the Azure Cluster. Criminals, debtors, undesirables of whatever type, the Amazonia Company actually gets paid a bounty to take them. They get shipped to Amazonia and listed as negative stakeholders. That means they owe the company a debt, which they have to pay off before they're allowed to leave."
"Does it ever happen?" Darkstar asked.
"Yes, every so often. But I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that for most of them, the employment structure is such that it's actually not possible to ever pay off the debt. Once you end up on Amazonia, you're stuck for life."
"How does that profit the company?" Darkstar wanted to know. "It has to be a serious discipline problem."
"It is," Boyce agreed. "And they handle it by not handling it. Some of the conscripts dutifully go to work on the plantations, but plenty more skin off into the jungle."
"Where the Tribes butcher them for invading their territory," Darkstar speculated, grimly.
"Exactly. So the company calls Starfleet, says the colonly is in revolt, and asks for troops to put down the rebellion. Starfleet ends up absorbing all the company's security costs. Starfleet puts up with it because they can't pull out. Amazonia is a legally sanctioned colony, and the Tribes are just squatters, even though they came first. Starfleet can't be seen letting Federation citizens get slaughtered, even if the citizens in questions are the dregs of humanity. And quite a few of the conscripts aren't bad people. They just got into trouble they couldn't get out of. There's also another reason, which I'll get to in a second. It has to do with why Amazonia was settled in the first place. First, the Colonization Authority lost the records, so they really didn't know Amazonia was already inhabited when they opened it up. Second, in the jungles of Amazonia there are quite a number of plants which have proven exceedingly valuable to the pharmaceutical industry. The company sets up plantations, but it's possible to pull a respectable harvest straight out of the jungle if you know what you're doing. The company has a monopoly, so they can set any price they want on what they pay for raw stock. Which they do in their favor, naturally; they pay a pittiance and charge a mint."
"I gather this is where it gets interesting," Darkstar mused.
"You have no idea. The price structure is such that there's a booming black market. Plenty of individual harvesters, not to mention a few plantations, sell their stock under the table. Smugglers pay more on planet and charge less off. So end user corporations are perfectly happy to buy lots with somewhat irregular documentation. But do you want to know what the really interesting part is?"
"The Amazonia Company has an exclusive contract with Westone Interstellar to do all its shipping. Now wold you care to guess how the smuggled stock gets off planet? Particularly with Starfleet patrolling the area?"
Darkstar's eyes narrowd. "It's going on the same hulls. Westone is playing both sides of the fence."
"Not just Westone," Boyce said. "Westone funnels a big chunk of its illicit profit back to the Amazonia Company. It's all a scam, from top to bottom."
"Amazing," Darkstar breathed.
"I haven't even gotten to the good part. It turns out that the majority stockholders in both the Amazonia Company and Westone Interstellar are a cartel of drug companies scattered over a dozen different worlds. Of those companies, one of the major partners is Sterling Pharmaceutical."
"Should I have heard of them?" Darkstar asked.
"Not really. In most of the Federation their products are marketed under different labels. Sterling, you see, is headquartered in the Holy Christian Kingdom of North America."
"You're starting to scare me, Admiral," Darkstar said, hir eyes narrowing.
"So it's purely a coincidence that tremendous quantities of illicit cash are flowing out of Amazonia, through an enormous finnancial washing machine, and into a company that just happens to be headquartered in a country that vocally supports the goals and ideals of Earth for Humans," Boyce concluded.
"I don't suppose you have any proof?" Darkstar inquired after a lengthy pause.
Boyce laughed bitterly. "If I did, I'd be at the Federation Council right now. No, there's no proof. Just a lot of highly suspicious cash flow that no one notices becaue no one's ever bothered to really look at what's going on. Plus, everyone even remotely involved with the Amazonia Company is on the take. The Colonization Authority governor on Amazonia enjoys a suspiciously lavish lifestyle for someone of his pay grade. So do a number fairly highly placed Starfleet officers. With so much cash floating around they can bribe just about everybody, but it's exceedinly difficult to prove anything."
"Why not take it to Starfleet Intelligence?" Darkstar asked. "It may not be actionable, but it sure as Hell warrants investigation."