A Tech Infantry Story
Edward Stasheff & Marcus Johnston
Heth was bored. Bored and frustrated. I used to manage a super-freighter. Now I'm cutting barroom deals with drunken monkeys. Heth floated above his barstool, not really paying attention to what the short human's opinion was on the various beer choices. Heth's beer glass sat in front of him untouched, a straw protruding from the golden liquid, while the ape across from him blathered on about the lack of proper yeast from Earth hybrids. Personally, the fermented liquid did nothing for Heth's metabolism… except make him feel he'd paid too much for an alien delicacy.
Then again, Heth thought, glancing over the apes crowding the spaceport tavern, considering we're on a human space station, I suppose I'm the alien here, aren't I? Heth was K'Nes, a species of floating felines who (to human eyes, at least) looked like the bastard offspring of a bobcat and a blimp. Under his business suit, Heth sported solid black fur, betraying his lineage as a member of the Miao corporate clan. Not that this idiot could tell the difference, Heth thought. Scat, I can't tell the difference between human pelts either.
"…if you ever had a good porter," his potential customer insisted, his movements exaggerated and a little tipsy, "you would know. It's the quality of the hops that makes all the difference. Take this Guinness, for instance…"
Sky Father above, make it stop! Heth was not terribly impressed with his client—what little reputation the merchant had was sketchy, he appeared either inexperienced or simply incompetent, and his sloppy negotiation style bordered on the vulgar. Overall, he was a poor business prospect—which, sadly, was what Heth had come to expect after his demotion. The only jobs he got recently were the leftover ventures too unprofitable or risky for any reputable K'Nes to undertake.
The little black cat smiled politely at the human while his paw fumbled for the snuffbox in his pocket. Nodding at the ape and pretending to listen, he flicked the lid open with a claw, raised a pinch of nepeta to his nose, and inhaled sharply. Within seconds, he felt a relaxing calm settle over him, even a tiny euphoria. Suddenly, floating across the table from an intoxicated bald primate didn't seem so bad. Besides, Heth thought, if it weren't for the apes, we would never have discovered this wonderful herb! Not every human delicacy is worthless…
Heth suddenly noticed the human businessman had ceased his incessant blabbing about beverages, staring at Heth's snuffbox instead. The ape glanced around nervously, then leaned towards Heth and muttered softly, "Uh… isn't that stuff illegal?"
"Not on any human planet," Heth replied, returning the snuffbox to his pocket.
"Well, yeah, I know that… but isn't illegal on your planets?"
"Not since the human occupation of K'Nes space ended six months ago." Heth gave the ape a polite but frosty smile. "Now? The K'Nes Llan is independent, and… well, it is a free market. Nepeta's been legalized… everything's been legalized, for that matter. K'Nes positively abhor government regulation of private enterprise, you know."
The merchant stared at Heth for a moment, then broke into a grin and chuckled, shaking his head. "You cats'll do anything to turn a profit, huh?" He tossed back another sip of his own intoxicant.
Heth suppressed hiss and managed to keep his fur from bristling at the racial slur. The unfortunate resemblance of K'Nes to a Terran species of domesticated house pet had earned them the somewhat derogatory nickname of "cats" among humans… but Heth needed this job too desperately to risk jeopardizing negotiations over a little insult, so he ignored it.
"Actually," the human continued, "that's why I arranged this meeting. I'm sure you didn't come all this way to talk about beer..."
At last, something we can agree on! With a muffled gurgle from his belly, Heth inflated a bit more, keeping his lift gas up. "Indeed, M. Chambers. I believe you had an interest in some… convoy services, was that right?"
"Yes… and no…." The human took another sip of his foul-smelling liquid.
Aha! The cat hid a smile behind his whiskers. Now we get to the real reason I jumped the border to the Andersvald system!
"I do need export shipping, yeah," the tipsy ape nodded.
Heth was a little disappointed. That was easy… which meant it wouldn't pay much. Of course, that was probably why Miao management has given him this assignment. Still, Heth thought, if I'm ever going to get out of this rat-scat mouse hole my clan shoved me into, I'll need to take every opportunity I can get.
"Here's the deal," the human continued, "the Jurvain will pay handsomely for the ore I can supply… provided I can get it out before the Ministry can impound it."
"Yes…" Heth's ears perked up, business instincts alert; this was interesting. "I can see how that might be problematic… depending on why the Ministry wants to seize your merchandise..."
"Oh, they don't. They just don’t want the Jurvain getting it."
"I see…" Heth stroked his whiskers. "And just what do they fear the Jurvain will do with the ore?"
The ape took another sip and glared at Heth. "What do you think?"
Oh, Heth knew. Like the K'Nes, the Jurvain had only recently regained their independence, exploiting the chaos of Earth Federation's collapse to finally overthrow their human occupiers. Unlike the K'Nes, however, the Jurvain were rebuilding their navy with breakneck speed.
Which meant this ape was betraying his own species. For profit.
Heth shrugged, indifferent. It was just business, nothing more—although he'd have to be wary of a double-dealing customer. Besides, Heth had learned long ago that humans were a treacherous and excessively warlike race. What was important, however, was that this convoy job would put Heth in direct contact with a Jurvain military construction supervisor to fling sales pitches and business cards at—and that meant Heth would take the job no matter what. Still… this drunken human didn't need to know that.
"Yes…" Heth said, nodding. "I think I understand your interest in hiring Miao Mercantile for this particular shipment."
"Yeah." The ape nodded. "The Ministry ain't worried about you guys getting the ore—I mean, the K'Nes want peace, right?"
Well, that wasn't exactly true… the K'Nes had every intention of conquering the galaxy—just with finances, not fleets. So Heth gave an evasive answer. "Well… First Patriarch Varrless recently submitted a Non-Aggression Contract to the Ministry of Public Safety, yes…"
"Exactly. Now, I can't ship the ore directly to the Jurvain—but I can ship it to the K'Nes! So… I'm hoping you guys can send it on to the Jurvain for me…?"
So, Heth thought, he sells it to us, and we sell it to the Jurvain… with a modest middlemerchant markup, of course. All above board and legal—barely. It was definitely a grey market transaction; not technically illegal if he did the paperwork right, but exploiting technical loopholes to sidestep the law tended to make customs officials cranky. Still, it was a job, and Heth needed the money.
"But of course, sir," Heth said, pulling his datapad from the breast pocket from his blazer and opening a blank contract template. "My cargo ship, the Bountiful, can be fully loaded and ready to sail in seventy-two hours. How many tons of cargo will we be transporting? Will I need additional freighters?" Thus began the nuts and bolts of business negotiations: departure and delivery destinations, shipping routes and timetables… and, of course, haggling over the price.
"Fifteen percent of the profits?" The ape dismissed the quote with a wave of his hand. "The going rate's ten."
"And for owner-operators and tramp steamers, that's correct," Heth nodded. "But Miao Mercantile offers a much higher quality of service. I'm sure you know that piracy has risen sharply since the Federation collapsed. Miao Mercantile freighters are not only armed and armored—for defensive purposes only, of course—but are also equipped with the latest in stealth technology. You can rest assured that once the convoy is assembled, your cargo will reach its destination intact and safe."
"Well, yeah, sure…" The ape sipped his beer. "But your price is still a little high for that kind of service."
The little black cat approximated a human shrug. "You could go with one of our K'Nes competitors, of course, but none of them currently provide insurance against loss… for an additional fee, of course. And as always, we'll refund your fee if your convoy fails to get through. That's how strongly we believe in the level of our security." Heth smiled behind his whiskers. There isn't a cub born who refuses an extended warranty plan, he thought. Extra-legal shipping is troublesome at best. High reward, but high risk—anything to reduce that risk, and the mark jumps at it.
"Alright, alright, fifteen percent," the human agreed with a grimace. "But I want the insurance option!"
"Of course, sir, right away," Heth answered, adding it to the electronic contract. Finished, he placed the thumb of his paw over the pressure patch at the bottom of his datapad and held it out to the merchant. "If you would care to sign?"
"I… uh…" The ape stalled by sipping his beer. "I'd prefer that there were no written record of this…"
Heth narrowed his yellow eyes. "Oh, but there must be a contract, sir," Heth said politely… but let a bit of iron slip into his tone as he stared the drunken ape in the eye. Everything else in the deal was negotiable; signing a contract, however, was not. "To do otherwise would simply be bad business," he explained. "You can destroy your copy if you wish, but we need a copy for our corporate records. But don't worry," Heth added, "we take the confidentiality of our clients' records very seriously." Technically, that was true… although it was less about consumer privacy than preventing competitors from poaching Miao customers.
Fortunately, the intoxicated businessman seemed to sense this was something K'Nes merchants wouldn't budge on. It didn't stop him from grumbling about it, though. "Oh, alright. But… can't I just sign my name with a stylus? I don't see why you cats gotta do this whole blood thing…"
"Because handwriting can be forged, sir," Heth explained with icy courtesy. "DNA, however, is the perfect signature. Everyone knows exactly who's agreed to what—and unless someone has a twin or a clone, there's no denying it in court." Heth shoved the datapad closer. "Now, if you would?"
Muttering under his breath, the ape reluctantly placed his thumb over the pressure patch on the opposite corner of the datapad from Heth's. The human flinched as tiny needles drew their blood samples with a muffled click.
It was a contract signed in blood, and Heth was honor-bound to abide by it. A deal is a deal.
Especially for Heth. He'd already broken one contract—albeit unintentionally—and was lucky he wasn't terminated on the spot for his failure. His professional reputation simply couldn't take another hit like that. Heth would clear his name someday—but for now, he had to focus on rebuilding his assets first.
The little black cat tucked his datapad away in a breast pocket. "Thank you, M. Chambers, it's been a pleasure doing business with you. Now, unless there's anything else Miao Mercantile can do for you—"
"Actually…" The ape looked up from licking his thumb. "Well, yeah… there is."
"Indeed?" Heth widened an eye, intrigued. He hadn't been expecting a two-for-one sale. He rolled a paw at the human, encouraging him to continue. "Go on…"
The merchant looked around, perhaps a little too obviously thanks to his intoxication, then lowered his voice. "Well, I've heard that your company… well, some of you, at least… occasionally dabble in… other interests?"
"I see…" Just say it! Heth's mind screamed. He knew exactly what the ape meant, of course: smuggling. It was more dangerous, true, but also far more profitable… and Heth needed all the money he could earn. He nodded slowly. " Our company specializes in being discreet, M. Chambers. It's one of Miao Mercantile's best-selling services, actually."
The inebriated businessman seemed confused by Heth vague answer. "So then… you guys do… y'know… right?"
It took effort for Heth not to sigh in exasperation. "M. Cambers… humans make distinctions between ethics and economics. K'Nes do not. We live and die by our contracts, nothing more and nothing less." Heth puffed up slightly. "A deal is a deal. That's the Miao motto, and we leave others to worry about the morality… or legality. Now, animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"The cargo, M. Chambers. I assume you need us to transport something outside of… regular channels, correct?"
"Well…" Chambers looked around the room again before leaning in and outlined his plan in a low voice. "Okay, not me, exactly, but… I've heard the rump Federation's paying big money, and I mean big, to get the families of their Tech Infantry troopers out of the Holy Terran Empire and back into Chairman Smythe's hands."
Animal, then, Heth thought, but it smells like bad fish. "Interesting… my company hasn't heard about this, and we usually keep our ears in the air…"
"Well, yeah, the Fed wants to keep it quiet, real quiet. After all, it wouldn't take much for the Empire to use the families as human shields against the Fed when Smythe makes his move."
"Well, yes… assuming Hunter K'Rrir recognizes Old Grandkitten K'Rrin tied to the raft."
The human blinked, confused. "What?"
"Sorry, old joke. What I meant is that it's not the most effective plan. Now, who's your contact for this job? Someone in the Federation administration, I assume?"
"Yeah, an Earth Fleet officer I know. We served together back in the Three."
"Third Civil War."
"Oh." Heth had to concentrate to keep from rolling his eyes. Whenever humans ran out of aliens to slaughter, they had a bad habit of fighting each other—such as right now. Heth could only assume it was their enormous military trying to justify its alarmingly expensive existence through the continual hostile acquisition of new real estate. Or possibly just boredom. "Well, at any rate," Heth continued, "why involve the K'Nes in this venture? The Federation—what's left it, anyway—has plenty of resources to launch such an enterprise itself."
"Yeah, but you guys got a better chance of pulling it off," the tipsy ape insisted. "I mean, the K'Nes Llan's neutral in the war, right? And you're on good terms with the Empire, too. Besides, you're aliens. Hell, not just aliens, K'Nes! The Empire's never gonna suspect you… well, not as much, anyway. They don't… well, you know…"
...take us seriously, Heth completed the thought. It was sad, but true. The Jurvain, at least, humans respected as formidable rivals... but they considered the K'Nes, at best, merely the punch line of a galactic joke. It had only taken the humans three months to conquer all of K'Nes space, after all.
Still… the merchant had a good point. If anyone could do the job, the K'Nes could. Heth was curious enough to fish for more details. "Alright, M. Chambers, I'm listening. What would be the shipping route of this… transaction?"
"All you gotta do is get 'em across the border from St. Michael's Star to Ashdown."
Heth whipped out his datapad and pulled up a political star map. Just six months ago, almost every known planet had flown under an Earth Federation flag… but then the Caal Invasion wrecked interstellar civilization, the Federation collapsed, and no less than four new human factions had risen from the wreckage. Fighting immediately broke out, of course—they were humans, after all—between the two biggest factions: The remains of the Federation, holding only a few planets but an impressive war fleet, and the nascent Holy Terran Empire led by their God-Emperor Vin Dane. The Imperial system of St. Michael's Star was right on the border between the two, separated from the Federation system of Ashdown only by a short commercial hyperspace shipping lane. The merchant was right—the smuggling run might not be easy, but it would be short and fast.
"And your friend would work out the details?" Heth asked. "Assembly areas, drop-off points… I'm not going to hunt all over a planet to find a handful of humans. I'm afraid they all look rather the same to me."
"Oh, sure, sure…" The ape took another drink. "Well, for the first run, at least."
The first run? Heth noted. Interesting… Apparently, this could be an open-ended, ongoing transaction… and potentially quite profitable. But would the reward be worth the risk? The little black cat pondered it as he inflated more and floated higher. The weight of his jewelry often dragged him down faster than normal—gold was valuable, but heavy. "Did your contact say how much this job pays?" he asked.
The businessman nodded. "Yeah, he said the Fed's paying five grand per person. Half up front in St. Michael's Star, half on delivery in Ashdown."
Expensive for a ticket, Heth thought, working out the math, but hardly worth the danger… unless I can drive the price up. "Well, I have an idea how it could be done, yes," Heth nodded with a casual wave of his paw, "and I suppose I could swing through St. Michael's Star on my return voyage from Jurvain space…. but I'm afraid the risk is too great for that little money."
The ape scowled. "How much you need?"
"M. Chambers…" Heth set down his datapad, folded his paws over it, and fixed the ape with an unblinking stare. "I wasn't suckled yesterday. Chairman Smythe is not going to spend that kind of money for the families of troopers." The K'Nes hovered closer to the human's bloodshot eyes. "I'm betting that the first ones out will be the families of VIPs—senior officers, government officials, and the like. Correct?"
"How the hell should I know?" The merchant shrugged, annoyed. "He don't tell me stuff like that! Just asked me to pass on the job offer, that's all."
"Well, tell your contact the price for moving such valuable merchandise across an active war zone is ten thousand credits per head."
"Ten…?" Chambers stared, flabbergasted.
"For the first couple runs, at least," Heth added quickly, backpedaling. "Once we establish the transit pattern, of course, I could turn the human trafficking over to a subsidiary of ours. Naturally, as our agent with the Federation, you would take a standard finder's fee of five percent on the first shipment… but as we are taking the risks, as well as the initial expenses, Miao Mercantile will take the lion's share of the profits." Heth chuckled quietly at his own ironic use of a human expression.
Even the most dense monkey mind would salivate over a five hundred credits a head. The businessman struggled with his own greed. "I don't know… I mean, I can't speak for the Fed, y'know…"
"Well, why don't you talk it over with your Federation contact." Heth tucked his datapad away in a breast pocket. "If they're still interested, have then contact me to negotiate the details of the contract. I'll be in-system for another few days while I organize your convoy to the Jurvain Commonality. I'll consider the offer open until then."
The ape downed his beer. "Yeah, I guess I'll do that."
"Good." Heth took out a business card and dropped it on the table (humans didn't like shaking paws with K'Nes; they found claws intimidating). "Here's my contact information—plug it into any holophone and I'll respond. In the meantime, I'll be in touch. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with a botanist."
Heth floated out of the bar, mind spinning with cost projections and profit to loss ratios. The convoy's detour through K'Nes space would take him through the Urrin system, where a very special little kitten kept her corporate headquarters. If he could get her attention with the right bribe, then… well, Heth planned to make her an offer no businesscat in their right mind could refuse.
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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston & Ed Stasheff. All Rights Reserved.