Contact: Book 1: Chapter 2
MacDrakin wondered why the constable seemed so touchy. As for Higginbottom’s request, he didn’t fancy coming into town to attend drills and maneuvers. He shrugged and rode to the general store.
Outside the store, MacDrakin dodged the open barrels of cheese, nails and stacks of cookware to get into the store where more goods covered every horizontal surface or hung in nets suspended from the ceiling.
“MacDrakin! It’s good to see you again,” Geno Aterrano said. The elfin shopkeeper was tall and angular with deep grooves in his cheeks like rain-gouged gullies.
“Hello, Geno. I need supplies, but I’m out of cash.” MacDrakin smiled. “Again! Are you up for a bit of bartering?”
“I’m always open to tradin’ for your emeralds.” Geno waved a hand. “Come over to the counter and we’ll do business.”
MacDrakin followed Geno to the counter in the rear of the store. He took a list from his vest pocket and handed it to Geno. The shopkeeper slanted it towards a window to read it, but little light came through the dusty glass. Geno muttered a few words and a flame burst from his fingertip. MacDrakin grinned. Every elf he knew had a bit of magic to show off with.
“Looks like the usual supplies,” Geno said, extinguishing the flame. “I believe I have everythin’ on this list. Hmm, you want fodder for your pony. That’s bulky so I expect you’ll want this sent up the mountain. My delivery boy can take care of it this afternoon. I’ll tell him to drop the supplies outside your house if you’re not around.” He gave MacDrakin an expectant look.
MacDrakin reached into the vest pocket again and took out the emerald. He handed it to Geno who screwed a loupe into his right eye. He held the gem in his fingers and turned it to examine it from several angles. After a few minutes, he took the loupe out of his eye and said, “A fine gem. I’ll take it. It’s worth much more than the supplies on this list. Let me get your stuff and figure out what they cost. Then I can calculate how much money I owe you.”
MacDrakin nodded. If he took the gem to Dun Hythe, he would get much more than what Geno offered, but he needed the supplies now, not in a few weeks. Besides, Geno was honest and would give him the best offer he was likely to get outside of Dun Hythe.
MacDrakin noticed a female dwarf batting her eyes at him. She had a disheveled, uncurled beard, cheap frock dress which was more than a bit ragged and no shoes. She worked for Geno cleaning the store and loading shelves. Like all the dwarf females in town, she came from humble stock and could barely read and write. When it came time to marry, MacDrakin would have to go to another town to find a suitable mate because none of the females in Skensfirth were acceptable to him.
“Can I get ya a cup of water, Mister MacDrakin?” she asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Oh, by the way,” Geno said. “I just got a shipment of prime pipeweed. You want some?”
“All right. I’ll take a pound.” Pipeweed was a mild hallucinogenic narcotic and he enjoyed smoking a pipe of it at the end of the day. It soothed his muscles, often sore after a shift in the tunnels.
“How about a two pound brick of cheese? It’s packed in wax to last a long time.”
Geno dropped a few items and the cheese on the counter.
MacDrakin noticed the Army insignia stamped into the wax. Army surplus, he thought.
“I saw you talkin’ to the constable,” Geno said. “Doing a fine job, I think. Just like the father.”
“That’s true.” MacDrakin decided to talk some more to Higginbottom about the yuk problem. Maybe he was too abrupt with the constable. He needed a break from mucking about in a hole in the ground. Maybe the two of them could go scouting. A ride in fresh air would do him good.
MacDrakin suddenly realized Geno had said something to him. “Sorry. What?”
“Daydreamin’, you were, MacDrakin. Wonderin’ what to do with all your gems?
Geno handed him a scrap of paper with numbers on it. “I have everythin’ on the list and I’ve added up the prices. Accordin’ to my calculations, I owe you twenty silver pennies. Is that acceptable?”
“That’s fine.” MacDrakin scooped up the coins as Geno counted them out and dropped them into his purse.
“Listen,” Geno said,”if you’re ever caught short of cash and don’t want to barter a gem, my cousin can get you a loan. He offers good interest rates.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” He didn’t want to explore Geno’s offer. Elves seemed to have a monopoly on under-the-counter loans; if folks couldn’t get a bank loan, they went to the elves. Every elf clan had a few loan-sharks.
He waved goodbye to Geno and left the shop. Outside, he looked around to see if Higginbottom was still about.
# # #
Albert Webley, a human and the President of The People’s Federal Republican Government of Gundarland, sat behind a huge desk in his office in Dun Hythe. Since he liked things neat, orderly and simple, the only item on the desk was his appointment calendar. The huge room appeared unfurnished with only Webley’s desk and chair, three visitors’ chairs, a few potted plants and a large couch. On the wall opposite the desk, an antique clock ticked away. Always set ten minutes fast, it allowed Webley to end meetings a bit sooner than scheduled. A detailed map of Gundarland filled another wall.
As if expecting to pose for a portrait, Webley always dressed formally in a cutaway suit with identically colored cummerbund and ascot. Today’s color was lilac.
Except for a small adjacent room occupied by secretaries, the office occupied the entire fifth floor of the presidential palace and the windows on all four sides gave splendid views of Gundarland’s capital city. Unfortunately, most of the views showed the city in the embrace of a low-hanging cloud of smog generated by the peat-fired furnaces in the factories and the cooking fires in homes.
The door opened and Francesco Rodrigs entered. Webley smiled at his chief-of-staff, an elf. Webley loved smiling. He did it often because it was one of the two things he did well. His other talent was getting elected to public office. So far he had been elected by landslides to the offices of Deputy Mayor of Dun Hythe, Mayor, Senator and lastly President. And that didn’t count getting elected class president in every year of his school days. In his first campaign in kindergarten, he ran on a platform demanding longer nap periods. After that, naps became his lifelong interest.
Webley gestured to a chair in front of the desk and Rodrigs sat down. He wore his usual outfit: a black linen suit, a white shirt with a stiff collar. Today, he added a pea-green bow tie. He carried a notebook and a sheaf of loose papers.
“Good morning, Mr. President.” Rodrigs was tall, lean and green-haired.
Webley prided himself on the diversity of his staff and cabinet. “Hello, Frankie. I hope you don’t have unpleasant news for me.”
“Just the usual stuff. The Gundarland Times published an editorial today demanding you do something about the city’s pollution.”
“As if I can. To do what the paper wants, I’ll have to shut down factories and that’ll throw vast numbers of workers onto the unemployment lines. And those workers vote, you know.”
“The Dun Hythe News demanded that you abdicate.”
“Perhaps, you should call a cabinet meeting to address the pollution problem,” Rodrigs said. “Surely, the cabinet members can produce some ideas.”
“I don’t like cabinet meetings.” Webley grimaced, something he hated to do. “They all expect me to make decisions. Why can’t those people understand? I put them into office so they would make the decisions, not me.”
Webley frowned at the sound of a knock on the office door. “Who’s that? It’s almost time for my nap.”
“That’d be Boudreau. I asked him to stop by for a few minutes. We have an issue to discuss with you.” Rodrigs walked to the door and opened it.
“Oh, dear. It’s a problem, isn’t it?”
Benoit Boudreau, the half-pint Treasury Secretary waved a hand at the President and took a chair facing his desk. He wore the traditional half-pint garb consisting of tan linen breeches and a white pullover tunic. Like all half-pints, his bare feet didn’t reach the floor when he sat on a normal-sized chair. Boudreau swung them back and forth. His long toe hair had been recently curled. Half-pints preferred to be called halflings but no one ever did.
“Well, Boudreau.” Webley gave him a campaign-type smile. “Making any money?” Webley chuckled at his own joke.
“We need to talk about Crumlish and Sfiore,” Rodrigs said, referring to the Defense Minister and the Interior Secretary. “Their infighting is getting worse and it harms your administration and Gundarland.”
“They’re megalomaniacs,” Boudreau said. “Rodrigs and I agree that you should sack them.”
“If I sack Crumlish and Sfiore, then I’ll just have to find replacements, won’t I?”
Rodrigs sighed. So far, after three years in office, Webley had yet to make his first official decision. Even cabinet appointments weren’t the result of a presidential decision. Rather than face up to a number of selections, he procrastinated on the cabinet positions and eventually filled them with the lame ducks from the previous administration. The Treasury position, empty when his presidency began, remained so until Rodrigs chose Boudreau after Webley ordered him to stop nagging about the appointment and take care of it himself. Rodrigs never expected to become the chief decision maker in Gundarland when he graduated from Wizardry and Liberal Arts College and went to work on one of Webley’s early election campaigns.
“Nevertheless,” Rodrigs pressed the point one more time. “I think it’s time to call a cabinet meeting. You haven’t held one in two months.”
Boudreau nodded his head.
“Why so soon?” Webley turned pensive and tapped a manicured finger on the desk top. He looked at his appointment calendar and then at the wall clock. “I see it’s almost time for my afternoon nap. I’ll think about the cabinet meeting while I rest.”
Rodrigs sighed again. He and Boudreau stood up to leave.
# # #
Higginbottom leaned against the wall outside the town hall. The first floor of the two-story wood building contained her office, a pair of jail cells, a telegraph office, the mayor’s office and desks for the town clerks. The mayor had living quarters on the second floor.
As a youngster, she mused, she had often joined her father when he patrolled the town. On those outings, she wore a miniature constable’s cap and carried a small wooden sword.
Higginbottom’s mother was a dwarf and her father a human. As a result of her mixed parentage, she was, at almost four feet, taller than the average dwarf. Yet, she was also much leaner and her beard was skimpier than the beards of full-blooded female dwarfs.
Skensfirth was a lower-middle-class town with a mixed population of three thousand souls counting the farmers in the fields surrounding the town. The shop-owners were all elves, the farmers and politicians were half-pints and the town dwarfs were mostly day laborers, working in the fields and on the odd construction job. Skensfirth had few human inhabitants.
She saw MacDrakin leave the general store and pulled a face. She could picture herself as an old-maid. All the intelligent young male dwarfs left Skensfirth as early as they could rather then stay and spend their lives in drudgery. The ones who didn’t leave were the ones without any ambition or spunk. They worked for a pittance at hard labor and died at a young age, either worn out by the work or killed in a drunken accident. She couldn’t picture herself in that sort of marriage because her children would be doomed to the same fate.
She decided to walk down and talk to MacDrakin again about the yuks. Maybe she could get him to change his mind about helping out.
Before she could do that, the mayor, Luc Jehan, came out of the building. He wore a green sash, his badge of office, over his white tunic. Like all half-pints, he didn’t wear boots so he could display his hairy feet, a come-on to female half-pints for some strange reason. Half-pints were as tall as dwarfs but only half as wide. Unlike dwarfs, half-pints didn’t grow beards. Their slender builds and mild-mannered features belied their strength, both mental and physical.
She acknowledge him with a nod.
“Hrmph.” Luc cleared his throat. “Did I show you the latest addition to my collection?” He held out a hand with a small reddish pebble in it. “I found it on the banks of the river.”
Higginbottom stared at the stone. “It’s very pretty. A fine specimen.” She never understood why half-pints were such compulsive collectors. Every one of them collected something, often trivial items.
“Constable?” Luc jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “What are you doing about the two dwarfs in the jail cells? They’re snoring so loud my clerks can’t work.”
“They’re just sleeping off a binge. They’ll wake up in a little while and I’ll release them. I only locked them up so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.”
“Hrrmph. I think I’ll pass a law making public drunkenness a crime.”
“You can pass a law, but it won’t do any good. You can’t legislate folk’s behavior. If you want to cut down on drunkenness get some better jobs for the dwarfs in this town.”
“If we had less public drunkenness in town, I’d be able to bring in better jobs.”
Higginbottom shook her head. It was a debate the two of them often had in the last month.
Luc scowled as he stared at the general store. “That damned elf had another midnight delivery last night. Woke me up. You should do something about those deliveries instead of chasing drunks.”
“Why? It’s not against any law to have night deliveries.”
“You know elves always have a finger in illegal things. Those wagons that come here after dark must be filled with stolen goods otherwise the wagon would show up during the day. And dealing in stolen goods is a crime.”
“You don’t know they’re stolen and not all elves are crooks.”
The mayor stomped back inside, slamming the door.
She turned around to see MacDrakin leading his pony. “Yes?”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said before.”
“And?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Since you’re concerned about yuks, why don’t you and me ride close to the border tomorrow? Just to check that everything is quiet. Besides, I know the tribal chieftain over there. We served in the military together and we see each other a few times a year. If we run across him, I can ask about any yuk raiders.”
“That’s a splendid idea.” Higginbottom smiled at MacDrakin. “Don’t you have to work in your mines?”
“I need a break from digging in the tunnels,” he replied. “I’ll meet you here early in the morning? Maybe we can get in some hunting.”
“Sure. I’ll see you in the morning.” She ran inside. It wouldn’t do to let MacDrakin see how excited and pleased she was with his offer.
# # #
While the Black Carrion Flower slid into orbit to analyze the surface of the planet, Yunta retired to her cabin. She fell onto her cot and lay there. Her small compartment contained the cot, a table, a closet, a computer console and a large wall-mounted monitor.
The medicine she had taken lessened the headaches, but her periods still played havoc with her body. She regretted feeling so lousy just when her management and entrepreneurial skills would be required now that a potentially profitable site had been found. Yunta’s mission was to find and mine deposits of minerals such as monazite, bastnasite and gadolinite. From these minerals, rare elements such as Cerium, Thulium and Ytterbium could be extracted. The Furshtanker Corporation was the biggest zaftan provider of these rare elements. After returning to Zaftan 31B, the minerals would be processed to remove the rare elements which were then auctioned off to manufacturers. If the voyage’s profitability target was met, the crew earned a bonus. As the leader of the voyage, she would get credit for a successful mission and that could lead to a promotion. Over the course of her career, Yunta’s corporate tree had grown from a seedling to a sturdy, medium-sized tree. With one more profitable voyage, she would be in line to become a fleet admiral, a necessary step in her path to Chief Executive Officer. No CEO of the Furshtanker Corporation had ever been appointed who wasn’t a former fleet admiral.
A profitless voyage would damage her chances for promotion, and that would derail her fast track to the top of Furshtanker. Like all ambitious zaftans, she had no compunction to show mercy to her crew when profits were concerned. If this planet gave any indication that it held the valuable minerals she sought, she would drive the crew ruthlessly to finding the deposits and transfer them back to the ship in as short a time as possible.
The wall monitor beeped.
The engineer’s image appeared. “This planet looks much more promising than we hoped. Besides the terrain types we have found useful on prior missions, we can breathe the atmosphere.”
Yunta opened her mouth and clicked her teeth. “Good.”
The engineer replied by also clicking his teeth before continuing, “However, the planet is inhabited. The natives appear to have reached the early stages of a technological civilization.”
Yunta bunched two tentacles at the news. Zaftans believed they had a moral right to crush inferior races and enslave them. Over the eons, zaftans had never found a race they didn’t consider inferior. They had developed two methods of overwhelming these inferior beings. One was the military approach and the second used a corporate strategy. In the second, the central government assigned a native race to a corporation for exploitation. The corporation sold the natives sophisticated devices at outrageous prices, prices so inflated that the natives could never pay without taking out loans — from the corporation — at exorbitant interest rates. While that process went on, other programs plundered their mineral, cultural and artistic wealth. Within fifteen years, the corporations owned everything of value, and the natives swam in debt owed to the corporation. Anyone who didn’t obey corporate orders would have that debt called in. Everyone knew zaftan debtor prisons had few survivors.
With the military option, they simply invaded the planet and destroyed the native’s ability to resist. In combat, zaftans had a huge advantage; they were extremely hard to kill because of their multiple brains. Besides the usual one in the top of their torso, every major muscle group had its own processor. All of these brains were linked, but could operate independently. To kill a zaftan, all eight brains had to be destroyed. If one was left intact, it could activate a chemical and hormonal reaction that would grow replacement processors and new body parts.
Usually Furshtanker’s mining operations took place on uninhabited planets and barren asteroids or moons. An unknown native population complicated matters. To her knowledge, no Furshtanker ship had ever attempted to mine a planet inhabited by natives who weren’t primitives. A native population that had achieved technological advances made the situation trickier; they would have a level of sophistication that would make them harder to dupe. She would need all her entrepreneurial skills to turn this mission into a success. The planet and the natives might be worthy of a corporate takeover later on and if so, their discovery would be credited to her. “How long do we have before we must start the return voyage?”
The engineer played with a console. After a few seconds, he replied, “We have fifteen rotations of this planet before our fuel and food supplies will be half consumed.” He put a map of the planet’s surface on the screen. “The planet consists of one large land mass and a number of small ones. The large one is the best place to start because it has many of the types of terrain we always look for.”
“All right. Do a quick survey to identify the best location to start explorations.”
Five minutes later, the monitor beeped again. Shtap, her second-in-command filled the screen. He also served as the ship’s negotiator and emissary to other races.
“What is it, Shtap?”
“I just learned the planet has native populations. Do you intend to negotiate with them before we begin exploring?”
“What do you recommend?” Shtap was the only officer she had confidence in.
“I think we should attempt to negotiate a mining treaty with the natives. That will also allow us to make a threat assessment. We can find out the technological capabilities of their weapons.”
“That is good advice, Shtap.”
“We will need to train the language computer to speak the native tongue before I can open negotiations.”
“All right, but you must learn the language quickly. Will two natives be enough?”
“Two will be fine. One will come from what appears to be the capital city and the other from a likely mining site.”
“Tell Drek to pick up the natives. Anything else?”
“We need a strategy to get the natives to agree to our explorations and mining activities. I suggest we pretend to be experts on pollution control because all the urban areas show signs of heavy pollution. In return for mining concessions, we will offer to teach them how to control pollution. Long before we finish studying the pollution sources, the ship will be loaded with minerals. We can give the natives whatever it is we found out by then.”
“An excellent plan.” Yunta clicked her teeth. “Do it.” She thought of her corporate tree. A regiment of bugs dropped dead and fell off it. “But never mind doing any pollution studies.”
The screen shut off.
She sat on her cot deep in thought. Things definitely looked brighter, but much had to be done quickly. The Black Carrion Flower didn’t have much time to orbit the planet.