Authors: Ian Whates
“Precisely. Nate got out of there with the guardian entity still fully functional. It’ll have rebuilt the defences by now, maybe varied them and probably ensured they’re nastier than ever. We need to be prepared for any eventuality and I wouldn’t mind hiring one more crewmember – some of this equipment’s heavy.”
“Not to mention expensive,” she observed, “judging by the amount you’re after.”
He shrugged. “A lot of this is specialist stuff and will have to be made to order.”
“Hmm… and how exactly did you arrive at this figure?”
“All carefully calculated, I promise you.”
“I’ll want to see a full breakdown.”
“Naturally.” Pelquin struggled to suppress the thrill that coursed through him. If she was asking for figures, she’d bought into the concept already. The rest was just a matter of negotiation and bickering over the details.
“And what are you proposing to offer First Solar in return for this investment?”
Better and better – getting down to the nitty gritty already. “A legal charge over my ship, the
“…which is next to worthless if you renege on the loan and choose to remain at the fringe, where finding the ship, let alone seizing it, would be too costly a venture to prosecute.”
“True, but who wants to eke out a living from the piddling scraps of trade you can pick up around the fringe? You’ve got my history on record. That’s not what I’m about. In addition, I’m offering a ten percent share in the profits made on all Elder artefacts we recover.”
? That’s outrageous. Twenty percent, and I’m being more than fair. Don’t forget I’ve got an entire crew to share the balance with.”
Her fingers tapped the air in a manner which, from Pelquin’s viewpoint, suggested she was conjuring a spell, but which presumably involved something less arcane – calculations, most likely. Seconds later she frowned and wiped her hand across the space, before starting to weave her fingers in a new pattern. At length she sat back and fixed Pelquin with an appraising look. “All right, given the size of the apparent find, I’m willing to come down to forty percent, but that’s as low as I can stretch to.”
Now it was time to play his ace. “Twenty five percent and I’ll throw in this as tangible security.” He produced the gonk with a flourish.
She stared at the innocuous seeming object. “Are you trying to tell me that
is an Elder artefact?”
He grinned. “You bet your sweet asset base it is.”
Still she didn’t extend a hand to take it from him. “Does it…
“Sure does. Do you have anything with a flat surface that’s solid but disposable?”
Reese stared at him, as if trying to decide whether or not he was being serious.
“Preferably metal,” Pelquin added, “though it doesn’t have to be; must be solid, though.”
After a fractional hesitation, Reese spoke into the air, “Jay, would you bring in the silver tea tray please?” There was a further pause before she added, “No, the crockery won’t be necessary. Just the tray.”
Seconds later the door slid open and the secretary breezed in, his every step a study in precision, every footfall a pronouncement of dedication and efficiency. He presented the tray to his boss, who indicated with a nod that he should place it on the small table beside her.
As the secretary departed, Pelquin stared in fascination at what the man had delivered. The tray had a raised rim, with embossed flourishes around the inside edges, and it struck him as far more outlandish than any Elder artefact.
Reese gestured, inviting Pelquin to do his worst. He got up and stepped across, placing the gonk, flat surface down, on the tray. Glancing across at Reese, he saw she was watching him intently. He smiled and raised his eyebrows, milking the moment. The only thing missing was a drum roll. Then, before his dramatic pause could become too irritating, he reached forward… and stroked the gonk with the fingertips of his right hand. Once, twice, moving laterally along its tapering form.
In response, a golden glow emanated from the artefact’s underside and the thing seemed to move slightly, to settle in much the same manner a cat might while being fussed. Seconds only the glow lasted before fading, and the suspicion of movement ceased.
Pelquin stepped back and grinned at Reese, who stared at him in amazement.
“Is that it?”
“Ah, don’t be fooled. Pick the tray up.”
With a sigh that suggested she was humouring him and didn’t really know why, Reese did as instructed. The tray lifted clean over the half-egg lump, to display a gonk-shaped ovoid hole at its centre. The gonk was still on the table. Reese held the tray up and stared at it, her gaze meeting Pelquin’s through the hole.
“Feel it,” he suggested, “run your fingers along the edge. You’ll find it’s smooth and cool to the touch.”
She did so and then picked up the gonk, examining its base. Beneath was nothing except the table: no molten metal, no residue, not even a mark on the table’s surface, while the artefact itself remained smooth and unblemished.
“What happened to the missing silver?” Reese asked.
“Beats the hell out of me. It only ever goes through one layer, however thick, and it’ll go through absolutely anything; well, everything we’ve tried it on at least.”
“And the process is triggered by a simple stroke?”
“Two, front to back. We only found out by accident. Scared the life out of one of my crew, Monkey, first time it happened. He’d placed the artefact on a desk and sat down to study it, but noticed a mark and gave the thing a quick rub. The next thing he knew it was sitting on his crotch. I’ve never seen him move so fast nor yell so loud.”
Reese gave no indication that she’d even heard the anecdote. Pelquin hadn’t really expected the ‘chummy’ approach to work, but it came naturally to him.
“Does it have a purpose, do you think?” she asked
The question might almost have been rhetorical, but he answered anyway. “Again, no idea. It could be anything from a specialist tool to a child’s game.”
Her gaze shifted back from the gonk to him. “And you’re offering this as security?”
“Yeah, that’s right. It has to be worth at least ten percent.”
“Please, Captain, don’t insult my intelligence. This is a trinket. It has novelty value, certainly, and an inherent worth because it’s an Elder artefact, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is the key to Lenbya or anything.”
Pelquin smiled. He found such directness refreshing, especially in a banker. “Of course it isn’t, but it
tangible evidence of an Elder cache.”
“Perhaps.” She studied him thoughtfully. “And you consider this Nate Almont to be fully credible?”
“Yes. I’d trust Nate with my life – I’ve known him for most of it.”
“Ah, but that’s not the issue here, is it? You have to convince
to trust both his word and your judgement, with my employer’s money.”
Which, her words seemed to suggest, was far more valuable than a mere life. His turn to smile. “Quite. After all, that is what banks are here for, isn’t it?”
She didn’t respond directly, instead saying, “I’m still a little unclear why Mr Almont left your service after so many happy years together.”
Pelquin made certain his smile didn’t slip one iota. “We had a falling out.” There was no need for her to know anything about Julia, who had caused the argument.
“And a year later he pops up again with an alien artefact in one hand and the opportunity for you both to get rich in the other.”
“More or less.”
“How convenient. And the matter you fell out about so dramatically, that’s all been forgotten?”
Pelquin shrugged. “Time’s a great healer. We’ve both had the opportunity to cool down and, when all’s said and done, there’s a lot of history between me and Nate, far more than a stupid argument could ever wipe away. Looking back now, the argument was nothing. So yes, it’s forgotten.”
Reese nodded, hopefully in acceptance. “It still seems a little odd that he should turn to you given the bad blood that clearly existed.”
“Not really,” Pelquin replied, wishing she’d stop nitpicking over what he saw as a minor detail and would concentrate instead on the bigger picture. “After all, he’s known me and the crew for years, knows we’re good at what we do and that we can all work together. Where else was he going to go?”
Thank God! There might have been an unspoken ‘for now’ at the end of her sentence, but Pelquin didn’t care, so long as they could move on. Time to get back to business and close the deal. “Now, about your cut…”
They settled on the bank taking thirty five percent, which was higher than he’d hoped but lower than he’d feared. There remained a few ‘procedural matters’ to be dealt with – and Pelquin didn’t doubt these would entail some furious background checking behind the scenes – but he didn’t care. Jossyren were hardly advertising their interest.
Reese assured him the money would be available within a couple of days if everything checked out, and he believed her.
As he headed towards the door it was all he could do not to skip and kick his heels.
“Oh, one more thing,” Reese said from behind, even as the door swished open. “I will of course be appending one of the bank’s officers to your crew for the duration of the trip. Merely as an observer you understand, there to safeguard our investment.”
“Of course,” Pelquin replied, though a passenger was the very last thing he needed aboard his ship; especially one who might suffer from an overblown opinion of their own authority. One man alone made the decisions aboard the
, and it wasn’t any banker. Still, this seemed a small price to pay for the credit line Reese had just agreed to extend to him. With that in place, Pelquin was confident that nothing could stop him from becoming a very rich man indeed.
Terry Reese sat back in her chair, deep in thought as she reviewed the interview with Pelquin in her mind. He hadn’t overstated the case; well, not by much. This might not be Lenbya but it promised to be one of the most significant cache discoveries in recent years and the potential for profit was enormous. It was the sort of thing that could make or break a career.
The amount she’d agreed to lend was significant but well within her remit and, in any case, much of the risk would be offset to other institutions, as was the norm where large sums were committed. Gut instinct told her that this was a good investment… So why was she still hesitant? Because she was taking a gamble, no question about it. She’d learned to trust her instincts, but this was far from being a clear-cut case. Oh, the figures added up; the risk assessment gave a high enough success rating that she could comfortably justify the loan should her judgement ever be called into question, but that failed to take into account the man himself. Pelquin had not been fully open with her, she was sure of that; the risk lay in precisely how much he’d kept back and whether it was personal to him or pertinent to the expedition.
Reese had to wait for a few tense heartbeats before the call she’d been expecting came through.
“Nothing,” a woman’s voice told her. “Sorry, but the images are of too poor a quality to yield anything useful. Either that or they’ve been expertly scrubbed to present as if they are. I can’t even pick up a hint of ambient quasar energy to help us get a fix.”
“Thank you, Paula.” Terry made a point of memorising everybody’s name. She prided herself on such attention to detail and names were important; they were the key to dedication and loyalty. She could address even the lowliest of juniors by their first name after the briefest of encounters, and had been rewarded on more than one occasion with a smile of surprise and delight as a result.
No more than a long shot, perhaps, but she’d had high hopes that the brief footage Pelquin showed – retained by her office systems as a matter of course – might give him away. It was surprising how many would-be prospectors were tripped up in that fashion, by failing to take even minimal precautions. Images generally held a wealth of encrypted information, but not on this occasion it would seem. Thirty five percent of the cache glimpsed so tantalisingly in the scratchy footage would more than justify the bank’s exposure, but a hundred percent would have been so much better.
So, it was Captain Pelquin or nothing. The man was an enigma, one which merited careful handling and a watchful eye. A major mistake was something Terry Reese could ill afford at this stage of her professional life; the potential plaudits on the other hand… She needed her best agent for this one, someone capable of thinking on their feet, of reacting to the unexpected and turning potential disadvantage into an asset.
“Drake,” she spoke to the air, “I’m sending you across the recording of a recent interview. Please study it carefully. This is to be your next assignment.”
Drake was unusually distracted as he left the head office of First Solar Bank. He wasn’t angry; he was determined
to be angry about being sent off world.
. Another ship; another crew; another group of spacers forced to accommodate his intrusion and interact with him. He knew from experience that people tended to respond in one of several ways. Some resented his presence and weren’t afraid of showing the fact, others viewed him as a necessary evil and made the best of things, while still others preferred to ignore him as much as possible and simply stay out of his way. A few, a very few, would accept him for who he was and extend a degree of friendship.
In truth, the latter could often be the biggest pains of the lot. Given the choice, he would prefer to be ignored, since this gave him the most scope for analytical observation and assessment unhampered by distraction, but he knew that was the least likely response. After all, he was destined to be locked away with these people inside a metal tube with limited space, walking the same corridors, breathing the same air, eating in the same galley. Under conditions like that ignorance required a considerable amount of effort, while resentment could fester in no time at all.