2947-11-19 – Tales from the Service: A Reacher’s Repairs
In this continuation of the account from last week’s Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request, Lieutenant Commander Mus’ad Balos arranged for his ship to loiter near the titanic Reacher ship which had appeared damaged in the Botterdowns system right in front of his patrol, hoping to learn something more about the enigmatic xenosapients than humans had ever been permitted to learn before.
He didn’t need to go far for his excuse. The system administration on Botterhill, despite having almost no infrastructure for the mining of asteroid materials, refused to sanction the Reachers’ use of unused asteroids to repair their ship. As the rest of his squadron continued on to planetary orbit, Mus’ad kept his ship near the wounded giant while he tried to figure out how he could make the local authorities adopt a more reasonable tone.
In the end, he didn’t make them see sense – but their automated datasphere bureaucratic network proved far more amenable to the Reachers’ needs.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Mus’ad Balos tossed the hand-display across his desk, and the comms tech barely saved it from clattering to the deck. The fall wouldn’t have damaged the light-weight device, of course, but Mus’ad appreciated the man’s reflexes all the same.
“Sorry, sir. Someone down there must take all those vidcast drama stories about lost Reacher treasure-worlds seriously.”
“Seriously enough to extort the captain of a ship that’s shot all to hell.” Mus’ad folded his arms. Unfortunately, the asteroids were the sovereign property of the system authority. Stealing several – or allowing the Reachers to do the same – would be theft. Even simple minerals poaching carried hefty fines, and to be charged with it while on duty would be a black mark Mus’ad could never escape from.
“They have a point, skipper.” The tech set the discarded hand-display on the corner of the desk. “Never in human history has a Reacher ever given us anything for free. Why did they have to come here, anyway? There are four empty systems within six ly, and they’ve all got to have asteroids. It’s not like being here protects them. Even if every hull in Botterdowns was in just the right spot, we couldn’t make any real difference if their Grand Journey impostors showed up again.”
Mus’ad shrugged. The agenda of the Reacher captain had been on his mind as well. Reachers had never given anything to Terrans for free, but they had also never asked for anything before. True, they had waited for Mus’ad to offer assistance before asking their favor, but they had asked it, and it had not been until several hours afterward that he’d realized how unusual it was. Terran xenosociology had never made much headway into the study of Reacher culture from the beautiful but mysterious trinkets they usually included when bartering, but he’d heard once the theory that in the zero-sum game of their interstellar nomadic travels, the Reachers had likely adopted a philosophy of neither giving nor expecting anything for free.
Seeing that the conversation was over, the comms tech hurried out, leaving Mus’ad to his thoughts. If the Botterdowns system wouldn’t donate a few asteroids to the cause of Terran-Reacher relations, he would have no choice but to hail the titanic ship and forward the civilian bureaucrat’s demands.
The Reachers did not have a reputation for temper, so he doubted the ship would vaporize his little destroyer for bearing such bad news, but still the prospect left him uneasy. He’d offered to help, and the next thing they heard of his voice, he would be asking for his kind to be paid for that help. There was no way of knowing how that would be interpreted.
After wrestling with the distasteful task he’d been handed for several minutes, Mus’ad got up and headed out of his duty office, calling the lift that would take him up to the bridge. The Reachers would understand – they had to. Commerce had led them to break the silence of Earth’s Second Dark Age all those centuries before, and commerce had marked all their appearances since. Surely they had expected there might be a price for the resources they needed.
Arriving on the bridge, Mus’ad stepped into the center. Since he was on duty, no duty-officer stepped out of his way; he preferred to command from the command center three decks below. He could have hailed the Reachers from that station, too, but he wanted to deliver the bad news in full view of the bridge crew, in case the inevitable inquiry needed corroborating witnesses. “Hail the Reacher ship.”
“Transmitting.” The young woman at the comms terminal bent to the task of negotiating a two-way channel with the alien systems on the bigger ship. Everyone shifted in their seats; they seemed to recognize Mus’ad’s tone and recognize that something had gone wrong.
“Of course the ground-rats would make trouble over fifty credits of asteroid rock.”
Mus’ad whirled on his heel. “Who said that?”
Nobody would admit to it; the voice had been a man’s, but of the seven officers and crew on the bridge other than Mus’ad himself, all but the ensign sitting at the comms station were men.
“Fifty credits indeed. Cancel that hail.” The bitter gripe had given him an idea. “How much does a mining license cost in this damned system?”
The voice-assistant software beat the human crew to the answer. “Botterdowns authority uses the standard Frontier rates for mining contracts – five hundred credits per year for a private-use license, two thousand five hundred per year for a transferrable commercial license with no tonnage limit. Datasphere registration is available.”
Mus’ad smiled, calling up the terminal at the captain’s station. Two thousand five hundred credits was two months’ worth of savings, but he was sure it would be worth every penny.
The ship’s computer brought up the cached mining license registration form, and it took Mus’ad only a few minutes to fill it out and dispatch it for transmission to the system’s Hypercast relay node. In an hour, the request would pass into the fully automated registry on Botterhill. Ten minutes after that, it would be in the backup records at Maribel and in the Core Worlds, and his personal account would shrink by an appreciable but survivable sum.
“The Reachers are hailing, sir.”
“Probably going to ask what the delay is. Tell them the locals made us do some paperwork.” Mus’ad turned and headed back to his office to wait the two hours it would take for the license identifier to reach his ship. The automated licensing system came with the usual colonial care package; he doubted anyone on the planet monitored such things.
Mus’ad spent the next two hours in his duty office seeing to the routine forms and approval requests that came with his job as the destroyer’s commander. Though Penelope Ott was a small ship by Confederated Navy standards, its thirty-odd officers and crew still generated a staggering amount of reading for their commanding officer. He could only imagine how much time a dreadnought captain spent on the same chore.
The chirp of a datasphere alert announced the arrival of the registration code, one half of a unique cryptographic key-pair which would match with an equally unique value stored in the registrar system. The registration would allow Mus’ad to mine all the asteroids he wanted within the Botterdowns system – but he didn’t intend on using it. “Bridge, hail the Reachers, and send the line down here.” This time, he didn’t want witnesses. It was the right thing to do, but he didn’t want to make anyone else complicit in case the locals complained.
Besides wanting to shield his officers, Mus’ad knew that any second a furious message from a diligent system authority bureaucrat might arrive, ordering him not to transmit. As an officer of the Confederated Worlds, he would have to obey such an order from a rightful civilian authority, unless the Incarnation arrived to give him the excuse of imminent military necessity.
“Channel open, skipper.”
“Reacher vessel. Sorry for the delay.” Mus’ad hurriedly filled out the license transfer contract, then transmitted its digital signature. “You are free to proceed. If anyone challenges your harvesting activity, present them this cryptographic data token.”
“Challenge, this vessel, Terrans, not.” The deadpan synthetic voice replied almost immediately, and Mus’ad thought he detected a hint of humor in it. “Thanks, this vessel, Terran vessel, legal procedure, completion.”
“Don’t mention it.” Mus’ad thought of the twenty-five hundred credits, but only briefly. “That token is good for one Terran year, and I’m sure the local government would be happy to see you return.”
“Duration, repairs, low. Execute, Terran vessel, duties military, free?”
“That’s right. We’ll get underway and rejoin our squadron immediately, but we’ll be in-system another twelve T-days if you need any other assistance.” Mus’ad was hesitant to leave the big Reacher ship just in time to miss its repair procedure, but he somehow knew Penelope Ott’s continued presence near the titanic vessel would be unwelcome. The Reachers would not want Terran sensors gazing into their ship’s every orifice while it restored its damaged areas.
“Understanding, assistance, value, sacrifice. Completion, transaction, equal value. Farewells, Terran commander, most cordial.”
Mus’ad started as he parsed the Reacher’s jumbled thought. “What sacrifice?”
The Reacher ship had already broken contact, and no voice replied to his question from the enigmatic ship. He hadn’t told them about the credit cost of the license, nor had he heard the terms of a transaction in their exchange.
“Helm, we’re done here. Let’s get back to the squadron.”
“Aye, skipper. Course solution to Botterhill orbit.”