Chapter 40: The Rock and the Hard Place

“What exactly is the deal with these people?” Deacon asked, “are they human or not?”

            “Kinda,” Bonesaw told him.

            “Thanks, Nat, that really helps.”

            “They’re genetically engineered,” the doctor explained.  “They take a blank human fetus and program it with the desired information then grow it to maturity in a tank.”

            “And why the fuck would you want to do that?” Julian asked.  “What are these things supposed to be, some kind of super race or something?”

            “Far from it,” Bonesaw told him, “they’re supposed to be a better breed of slave.  The workers are passive, overgrown and severely mentally retarded.  The science staff is exceptionally intelligent but incredibly frail.  The techs are under a meter tall, fast and nimble.  They use them for operating and repairing the machines.”

            “Insert Roald Dahl joke here,” Julian said but Deacon didn’t bite.  He found this whole affair more than a little creepy.

            “None of them possess an immune system,” Bonesaw added.

            “Seems like a rather glaring omission,” Farrokh said.

             “Not if you want to be sure none of them ever tries to leave,” Bonesaw pointed-out.  “They’re also completely A-sexual.  I guess the manufacturer doesn’t want its customers breeding their own.  According to the medical files I found on the station they’ll all live exactly fifty years and expire.  Termination times are listed to the hour.”

            As the four men entered the long room they could see into the huge chamber beyond where the weird people went about their business.  One of the emaciated scientists sat on the other side of the window facing them.  “He” was hideous looking, like someone starved for years: sheet white skin without a hint of pigment, white eyes and no hair of any sort.

            “Hello,” Deacon said cautiously as he took a seat across from the strange creature, feeling like he might be sick but doing his best to hide it.

            “Hello Mister McAllister,” the creature said in a breathy voice.

            “This is Grand Corsair McAllister to my right,” Deacon corrected him.  “My name is Deacon.  I will be serving as Viceroy of New Port Royale until elections are held next year, in charge of the city and non-military affairs.”

            “Apologies,” it said, “I assumed the conqueror would be king.  I am Lon, senior of my people.  You are our new master then?”

            “Most certainly not,” Deacon informed him, not sure whether to be offended or not; doubtless the creature had reason to be bitter and suspicious.  If indeed that was the case, Lon’s sunken face impossible to read.  “How long have you all been here?”

            “We were awakened some ten years ago,” Lon told him.  “Where we originated I cannot say, except that we were created by the Malzonto Corporation.”

            Julian cringed at that.  A perennial F10 member since the founding of the Federation, Malzonto specialized in genetics and its experiments were infamous.  “What exactly do you do here?” he asked.

            “We were developing a project for Lockhard Astronautics,” Lon explained.  “We are in the final stages of perfecting a compact anti-matter reactor for starship mounting.”  Deacon froze in place as he absorbed the revelation.  Julian and Farrokh had similar reactions, the two men exchanging a pointed look, each thinking the same things: Is he serious?  This could change our entire situation.

            “What do you want?” Deacon asked, leaning on the shelf before him with both elbows and clasping his hands.  Julian stepped away to text a message to Guy:  Come over on a jollyboat, bring Floyd and his weird friends.”

            “I don’t understand,” Lon told him, tilting his rather large head to the side.  “We are in no position to dictate anything.  We are at your mercy.”  The ghoulish creature fidgeted; worried the newcomers were playing games.

            “We’ve taken possession of the station and three planets,” Deacon explained.  “We lay no claim to Sisyphus Rock.”

            Lon was now deeply confused.  “You intend to let Lockhard reoccupy this station?  I cannot help but think you would make poor neighbors.”

            “Indeed,” Deacon said.  “I guess that means you guys are on your own.  Now, you have a commodity of great value; we have practical application for it and considerable resources with which to pay.  What do you want?”

            Lon sat there blinking for several moments.  It was mind-boggling.  Did they mean what they were saying?  He attempted to speak but froze up a moment, still feeling disarmed by this strange turn of events.  “We need more room,” he blurted suddenly.  “Perhaps additional modules could be sterilized and added.  We could excavate the needed room on our side and a shaft could be–”

            Deacon raised a hand to pause, “We can work out the details after, what else besides the extra space?”

            “Food has to be provided, none is produced here.  Water, medicines and medical expertise, our knowledge in this area is almost non-existent.  There are medical-bots but they only perform simple tasks, programmed to euthanize in the event of serious injury.”

            “Easily upgraded,” Doc Shapiro said.  “Plus they can be remotely operated as need be.”

            “It would be wise if there was a doctor at all times,” Lon suggested.  “There is sufficient room in the adjoining chambers.  Perhaps some sort of rotation could be worked-out.”

            “Agreed,” Deacon said, with a nod from the doctor.

            “Some repair work must be done from outside the habitat,” Lon added.  “Lockhard always had a repair crew on site.  There should be sufficient room to accommodate technical personnel as well.”

            Lon found his voice quickly enough, even proving a competent negotiator despite being supremely naive and wholly uninformed on subjects outside the physical sciences.  At length, arrangements were made to increase living space on Sisyphus Rock by forty-percent and a rotating permanent staff would see to emergencies.  Regular deliveries of food and fresh water were scheduled and the Rock’s inhabitants were granted full access to the station’s library database.  In return, they would provide the results of all their research and begin looking into possible new projects for which any needed equipment would be supplied by Nova Royale.

 

The residents of the city were horrified when word of their neighbors began to spread.  Some of the citizens, especially among the templer community, wanted them destroyed.  Others were less bloodthirsty but felt there should be no interaction with them.  While less dramatic then slaying them outright, the end effect would be the same; The Rock entirely dependent on outside supply.  The commanders’ council stood by the alliance however and that was the end of it.  There were far more immediate concerns in any case.

            Chief among these was getting the mini A/M reactor perfected, and doing it quietly.  Guy assembled a crew of ten men, including Fred, Bob, and Ray, to help retrieve and mount the fifty tonne reactor on a robotic test vessel, dubbed Sidereus Nuncius.  She had been brought to Sisyphus with a functioning fusion reactor which first had to be removed.  Though she could have been towed there without one, they wanted to leave no evidence of what was happening.

            While the project could ensure their survival later, knowledge of it leaking-out too soon could easily mean their doom.  The FDF would throw everything it had at them non-stop, and the DSL would likely turn on them also.  Selling these systems, even to their allies, was completely out of the question.  The technology would find its way to the core worlds within weeks.

            Though the Federation would inevitably make the same advancements fairly soon once these ships began to appear, the advantage would be staggering until then.  Not only would available power increase by an order of magnitude, but vessels would no longer be required to hunt down helium-3 sources as fuel.

It also allowed for the possibility of anti-matter beam drives and ship-mounted A/M weapons.  Anti-matter warheads were far too dangerous to transport, as portable magnetic bottles were unreliable and loss of containment would be disastrous in the extreme.  If the volatile material could be produced on the spot however, the possibilities for mayhem were unbound.

            Some eyebrows were raised and questions asked when Guy, within a day of being placed in charge of Nova Royale’s shipyards, was suddenly pulled away to work on an obscure R&D project involving cold plasma shielding.  That couldn’t be helped, his involvement was essential.  Lockhard’s old cover story about the nuclear weapons plant didn’t hold water once the nature of the staff came to light; they had to hope this one did.

            The shipyards were also the source of another problem, faint but insidious.  While most of the technical staff populating Lockhard City were happy enough with the change in management, few of the naval architects felt the same.  They were extremely well-paid specialist-executives whose standard of living decreased considerably under the egalitarian restraints of corsair society.

            Deacon at first refused their demands of being ransomed by auction to companies back in the core, stating they would all be free to go in a year’s time at no cost.  This was no act of mercy; anyone returning to Federation space under these circumstances would be instantly suspect and professionally ruined.  Worse still, it could lead to arrest as spies and collaborators.

            A fact not lost on the shipwrights who protested, calling it “Backdoor Conscription” and making comparisons to the practice of labor bonding, which the corsairs railed against so loudly.  Julian hated to admit it, but there was some truth in that.  In the end, the entire thing proved to be a ruse of the new Viceroy.

            Through Guy’s contacts at Bowcorp, Deacon made private arrangement to sell the lot of them, complete with all the termination paperwork and travel records to establish their being nowhere near the former Hades Rising during this unpleasantness.  The shipwrights were told their auction would be granted on condition they complete their various outstanding projects within six months.  That they had already been sold to Bowcorp and would need to be delivered by that time regardless went unmentioned.

            Julian laughed when Deacon explained it to him, remarking, “And I thought that I was the bastard…”

            Deacon laughed himself.  “We’re responsible leaders now; there’ll be no end to the dirt.  I already miss honest robbery.”

            “Told ya so,” Julian said with a snicker.

 

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