Chapter 4

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Ship Commander Tereshkova only appeared a decade older than me. She also appeared very upset. Given her rank and standard anti-aging treatments, she was probably twice my age. There was no mistaking, however, the scowl she wore or the angry tremble in her voice.

"I'm sorry," I said for the nth time, reminding myself that I actually out-ranked her and trying not to feel intimidated, "but the contract stipulates you only get paid when we get paid. Technically, we're only acting as a-"

"Do you have any idea how close to the margin we owner-operators operate? I have loan payments due and I've already defaulted on nearly a quarter of my crew contracts. Any one of them could file a complaint and I could end up with a lien on my ship and the cost of chartering transport back to Sol!"

"Shines Like the Sun did give you a generous bonus-"

"Only because the ships needed to refit and re-supply! We had to spend that money just to take the job. Besides, you still owe us our boost bonus. We were supposed to have that a week ago."

"Shines Like the Sun is very embarrassed about this. He's promised us an extra bonus for waiting."

"Embarrassed? He's the Cack ruler's brother. He owns whole star systems!"

"Which is how you can know he will make good on his promises. He's only run into a temporary cash-flow problem."

Tereshkova's eyes flashed as she glared into the video pickup. "I'm the one with the cash flow problem and if I don't get some cash flowing in here, you are going to lose a battle cruiser-and that will just be the beginning of your problems!"

She killed the link leaving me with either a veiled threat or a dire prediction. Tired of apologizing for our employer, I ignored the flashing message request icons from the other Ship Commanders and pulled up a view of our one-thousand-plus ship fleet passing single file through the transit station. I knew she wasn't the only one ready to leave. I had spent the whole morning logging similar messages from other SCs.

As we transited to another system in a careful circumnavigation of Unbounded occupied space, a swarm of merchant craft flashed the fleet with messages offering equipment and services at "low, low prices." They paced the fleet like hungry jackals, but not one of our ships signaled a request to break rank. None of our ships could afford to and I knew that only fed their anger.

If we were being hammered with complaints, I could only imagine how badly Sunshine's people were catching it. So it was no surprise when the Cacks scheduled a fleet-wide conference in v-space. We all logged into a virtual audience chamber as spectators to watch Sunshine address the fleet in his shiny plastic plumage. As Sunshine spoke, a machine-assisted human translator provided a second audio feed.

"My dear friends, I thank you for your patience and your trust. My father, the Ruler, once told me before he died, that of all the wealth one can accumulate, the best is friendship. It seems, now, that we are in this situation because of my embarrassing wealth of friends.

"When I first began this expedition, I intended to both deal with a personal problem and do a favor for my friends. Finding myself with more friends than I expected—or deserved—offering to assist me, I could not say no.

"I have not forgotten your difficulties and, having lain awake at night worrying about you, I believe I have found a solution. Negotiating on your behalf, I have secured a contract with Doggedly, a nearby regional manager who is having difficulties with a race outside the economic zone preying on his traders. In exchange for destroying their space-faring abilities, he has agreed to not only cover your boost bonus but to make your next three contract payments. Furthermore, you may take possession of any ship or other off-planet assets you can carry off."

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