This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2001, and reprinted in the March/April 2021 issue.
The year is 1209 on the Imperial Calendar. The Third Imperium exists now only in the history books. The computer virus that was released during the civil war and destroyed countless worlds did so nearly a century ago. Some individuals are once again braving the dangers of the regions beyond the Regency’s Quarantine Border, known to many in the more romantic title of “The Veil”. These explorers are attempting to determine if the virus is still a threat, and if other survivors can be located and contacted. Supporting these missions can come at a great cost…
Large drops of rain slammed against the heavy armored glass wall of the executive conference room on the one hundred and fifty-first floor of Grayson Tower. Lightning blazed in random patterns of silver fury, revealing brief glimpses of the huge storm clouds surrounding the building in the darkness of the night. The storm raging against the outside of the clear wall echoed the tension felt throughout the seven well dressed individuals seated in the conference room. A single voice raised in frustration rose against the pounding noise of the storm.
“As the director of the Hammond Corporation’s Risk Management Division, I cannot accept this plan. Taking a starship, a civilian merchant vessel, outside ‘The Veil’ is too dangerous to consider. That ship is worth an investment of several billion credits to my corporation.” Folding his arms across his chest, the young executive added with an obvious edge of hostility, “The risk is too great, and we will not permit it.” His face showed the blush of his barely concealed anger. Executive Director Jander Watkins leaned back into his soft black chair and waited for the response of the gray-haired lawyer sitting opposite he and his fellow executives at the gleaming black table. For several moments the old man said nothing, allowing the director a moment to regain his composure. Obviously the man was very tense, and was near to losing his temper completely. Instead of an immediate reply, Attorney Palmer Kasch turned his focus to a document folder. Removing a single document, he scanned it for a specific detail, and then slowly and carefully returned it to the folder. He brushed a small dust speck off of the folder’s bright blue Starchaser corporate logo before he returned it to his case. Finally, he looked up and met the man’s challenging stare. All four of the other directors sitting next to Watkins watched closely as he spoke. With a deliberate slowness Palmer cleared his throat and smiled slightly with his best non-threatening courtroom face. He easily met the younger man’s angry and challenging gaze, as a patient parent would look upon a petulant child. He spoke slowly and quietly, with one last attempt to negotiate this exchange peacefully and logically. Palmer did not want to bring in his trump card, not until there was no other choice.
“The vessel in question was a naval vessel before your corporation purchased it, Mr. Watkins. The Rannic Dane was designed for long range survey and reconnaissance missions, with one of the best long-range jump-drives ever constructed. The fact that for the last fifteen years it has been used as a private courier to carry your corporate executives in comfort and speed does not matter. Starchaser needs a high jump rated vessel for this mission, and the Rannic Dane is the only ship in this system that has a chance of making this mission a success. My corporation is willing to make any reasonable agreement your firm desires, be it an outright purchase or a short term lease.” He looked at the end of the table, and the court-appointed Master of Protocol nodded in silent understanding. Every meeting between corporations now had such an advisor present, intended as a precautionary measure against frivolous lawsuits. His nod showed clearly to everyone in the room that the offer was a legal and reasonable one.
Director of Fleet Operations Russell Bryce looked over at Watkins. “Jander, this man has said we can name just about any price we like for the old ship. I say we take them up on it. It benefits both companies, after all. It’s a win-win proposal.”
Jander Watkins shot to his feet in an instant, toppling his expensive chair over onto the floor. Nearly spitting in his red-faced anger, he shouted, “Those self-righteous crab-rats running Starchaser won’t win this time! No one is taking that ship from me! I won’t allow it! It is my decision and everyone will just have to live with it!”
The fury of his reaction shocked everyone into silence, allowing the storm’s dull echoes of distant thunder and driving rain to fill the room. The other businessmen at the table looked at Watkins, and then to the far end of the table for the reaction of the court’s representative. His face contained no humor. “Mr. Watkins. I suggest you take a moment to calm yourself before we continue. I believe there is a fresher down the hall.”
One look at the man’s expression confirmed that indeed Watkins had crossed the line for polite business etiquette. The heat of his anger quickly faded into embarrassment. Nodding in compliance to the Master of Protocol, Jander turned and quietly left the room, loosening his collar as he opened the door. Stepping into the hall he closed the elegantly carved wooden door and paused for a moment to relax, the warring emotions slowly draining out of his body. In the hall he could no longer hear the sounds of the storm outside. Shrugging his shoulders to loosen the tension in them, he headed for the executive lounge.
Entering the room he selected a heavy glass from the cabinet above the sink and stepped toward the water cooler. He paused as he realized something on the top of the cooler was moving. A reptilian creature the length of Jander’s arm rested atop the cooler, and hissed loudly as Watkins approached. Reaching slowly for the spigot to fill his glass, the hiss increased as his hand approached the cooler controls. Glancing around the room for clue as what to do next, Watkins noticed four men sitting quietly in the far corner of the small room. All of them were watching him without expression. The largest one wore a tan cloak and hood, reminding Watkins of a desert nomad he had seen on an educational holovid.
The man gazed out from under the edge of the hood and smiled slightly at Watkins. “Offer him your hand, slowly and palm up. Once he smells your hand, he will allow you access to the water. Make your moves carefully friend. He will bite.” The voice was soft, but it carried a tone that the younger corporate man found quite annoying. Turning and backing away from creature slowly, he stopped. All of the frustration from the meeting flared into a new burst of anger.
Watkins glared at them. “And what exactly would happen if I decided to kill this stupid beast?” He reached under his jacket for the body pistol he carried.
The hooded man’s smile remained on his face, but the pleasant tone of his voice vanished. “I have warned you that the creature will bite. That bite is poisonous and would most likely kill you. Any hostile move on your part toward him would be foolish. He has been trained to recognize a pistol and act accordingly. Beware of your actions. A rash choice might be your last. I suggest you calm yourself,” pausing before adding, “sir.”
“Don’t patronize me, you idiot. Do you know who I am?” Watkins stood to his full height and unconsciously adjusted his suit jacket again, being sure to remove his hand slowly from within it.
The hooded man pointedly looked at the man sitting next to him in a business suit. His companion, a balding old man, nodded in return and spoke for the first time. “You are Jander Watkins, Director of Risk Management for the Hammond Corporation. You are the youngest member of the board of directors and have served as such for two and a half years without a major incident. That is an impressive feat. You have made quite a few friends in the corporate world, but have also earned a small number of enemies as well for your heavy-handed management tactics. You park on level seventy-five with your metallic green anti-grav speeder; a factory custom designed Comet. You have a wife, Clara, and two small children; a daughter named Lystrel who is three, and an older son Jamison who is five. You also collect exotic fish as a hobby, a collection that is valued at over fifty thousand credits.” The man paused for just a second to allow the information to sink in before continuing. “I also can tell you, Director Watkins, that these men would not be impressed by any of those facts.”
Face turning pale, Watkins stepped back, “Who are you people?”
The third man at the table spoke quietly, his voice and face completely neutral. He wore a black and blue uniform that Watkins did not recognize. “We’re from Starchaser, and we’re going to be the new command crew of the Rannic Dane.”
Relieved at the response, Watkins slowly smiled to himself. He knew he now had the advantage in this argument. This was merely an attempt to bluff him, something a company with a real edge would never bother to do. “I hate to tell you gentlemen that you came all the way here for nothing. The vessel is not going anywhere outside the Regency, and that is final.”
The executive turned to leave, and the man in the suit called out to him quietly. “Mr. Watkins, I’d like to point out something if I might. Starchaser has contacted your corporation for access to a vessel that has a jump capability greater than the Quarantine Amendment will allow to be produced by civilians at this time. They are willing to offer a fair exchange in goods or services for that vessel, for lease or for purchase. I understand that you have refused that offer."
“Damn right I did,” Watkins responded hastily.
“And in doing so, you have left yourself open to a new problem. Do you realize that Starchaser is simply trying to recover a vessel that has not returned from a mission beyond the Quarantine Border? Your corporation has the only vessel that would be a viable option to send out a rescue party with any hope of finding survivors.” The man looked pointedly at Watkins for a response.
“So?” Watkins was obviously getting bored with these details. “Why should I care?”
The man in the suit continued, “The corporation you are refusing to assist is the same one that provides the data security for your corporate marketing and investment databases. We also protect your warehouses in the port district and provide security for most of your executive residences. These contracts are clearly defined, but they are written with a very specific subchapter article. This article allows Starchaser to break any contract. I quote: ‘Starchaser Incorporated operates in an area of business that provides access to confidential and proprietary information. Providing security for such information is a service that demands the highest integrity and honor. Many of our employees depend on that integrity to protect them and their families. Therefore, any corporation that knowingly and willingly refuses to assist Starchaser in providing aid to any citizens of Efate in deadly peril shall be unable to hold Starchaser liable for canceling any and all contracts with the same organization. That breach of trust is unacceptable for Starchaser and the clients that they protect. This immediate cancellation of services is allowed to happen only with the approval of a member of the nobility of Efate.’”
The man continued quickly, “Reading the fine print is a good thing, Mr. Watkins. Now you may want to reconsider the ramifications of your decision. It could be easily judged that this action is interfering with Starchaser’s attempt at a rescue, thereby putting the lives of those individuals in life threatening danger by the delays of this negotiation. We’ve made you a decent offer, Mr. Watkins; don’t make us give you a really bad headache.”
“You’re bluffing! You’d never pull all the contracts with the Hammond Corporation! The losses in revenue would be staggering!” Watkins couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Indeed we would, sir. That’s why we’re here.” The man smiled grimly. “I have a list of the citizens of Efate that were onboard the vessel. Would you like to see it?”
“Of course not!” He paused and then smiled slowly. “Wait a minute.” The bluff became crystal clear as Watkins remembered the specific words he was quoted from the contract. “You have to get a member of the nobility to approve that move before you make it. You can’t just cut us off, after all,” he continued quickly, his energy renewed by his argument, “Every member of the system nobility owns stock in the Hammond Corporation. No one would want to take such a staggering risk to their own personal investments.” Watkins grinned and folded his arms across his chest. “You have no patron, therefore, you have no threat.”
His arrogant smile died as the man before him pulled an ivory white document from his suit pocket. The folded paper bore a royal seal. “Would you like to read this, or shall I?”
Two hours later the members of the new command crew of the Rannic Dane were riding a transport from The Grayson Tower to Efate’s Orbital High Port. Starchaser’s own technical support team was on the way to give the waiting vessel a complete inspection before departure. Jerrod Markuur, the astrogator for the mission, absently caressed the scaly skin of his little Water Runner and frowned slightly. “I had no idea Starchaser was so willing to threaten its clients.”
Palmer nodded in agreement, “I had not planned to use that option until I had no other choice. I have to agree that the timing was perfect for my associate to mention it. Watkins had no way to realize that the baron who signed that letter is not Baron Victor Newhouse, the man you gentlemen have met recently. It was his grandfather, Baron Vaughn Brau Newhouse, who disappeared nearly a century ago during the virus devastation. That man signed a blanket letter of authority for the executives of Starchaser in case this kind of thing ever came up.”
“The guy had courage to put that kind of power into someone else’s hands.”
The attorney nodded, “Yes, but now, I wonder if there is going to be any backlash for using it.” He shrugged, “Well, I’m sure we’ll find out.”
The pilot sitting next to Jerrod was watching the creature in his lap with a somewhat nervous fascination. “By the way, is that little critter really poisonous?”
The astrogator scratched next to the small dorsal fin on his pet. He nodded, his tan hood magnifying the gesture. “Just enough to make you sick, but he couldn’t really kill anybody.