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Wildcatter

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Two men, two women, and two herms in a spaceship exploring among the stars. The world they hoped to stake has already been written off by a much larger and better equipped rival company as too dangerous to touch. All through the voyage Seth Broderick has been the lowly gofer, doing the dishes and picking up. Now he is the point man, the prospector. He must decide whether to make the perilous trip down to the surface. Seth is willing to try—if he can think of a way to stay alive longer than ten minutes. Published by Edge Books in paperback and E-Reads in e-book.

Sample Chapter

Day Minus 47

046.12 Nothing in these Regulations or Ship’s Rules shall be interpreted as requiring any member of the ship’s complement to tolerate sexual harassment, or to engage in any form of sexual activity except voluntarily.

General Regulations
InterStellar Licensing Authority
2375 edition

Seth stepped out of the levitator lobby into Mighty Mite’s offices, a reception area the size of a tennis court, luxuriously paneled with what looked like real wood but certainly wasn’t. Huge, glaring pictures decorated the walls: galaxies a-twirling, bizarre landscapes from exotic worlds. None of them could relate to Mite itself, because the Golden Hind expedition was to be its first. Several doors might lead anywhere or nowhere; all were closed. The four young men sitting on couches around the walls were either his rivals for the prospector job or just decoration.
He waded through the carpet to the receptionist, who glanced up with eyes glazed by boredom. Skinny was the latest affectation of female young and she looked as if she had not eaten for months. Limp blond hair hung to her waist, and a blood-red Florenian orchid grew on the side of her neck.
“I’m Seth Broderick.”
She corrected him. “You’re Number Twelve. Take a seat until your number is called.”
He headed to an empty couch. The most interesting thing in sight was a sign above the receptionist’s desk reading: Day -47. Mighty Mite had still to finish hiring its crew, which was cutting it fine if it hoped to launch in a mere month and a half. The cost of building and outfitting a starship was literally astronomical, but if pressure from the creditors was forcing the pace, that would not reduce the risk any. Has anyone seen the first aid kit?
Without another glance at the opposition, he folded his hands on his lap, closed his eyes, and leaned back to seem relaxed. He had detected Mighty Mite playing mind games before, so he had no doubts that he was being observed; perhaps his heartbeat was being monitored. He had already noted that three of the four were sitting with eyes closed, lids flickering as they either read or watched some display visible only to them. The fourth had been in the lotus position, which was definitely overdoing the icicle imitation.
There had been hundreds of applications, of course, perhaps thousands. He had endured three previous interviews and four medicals, each more thorough than the last, and now Mite had flown him to head office in La Paz to meet the great man himself. If JC Lecanard wasn’t ready to make his decision by now, he was probably too inefficient ever to get his fogging ship off the fogging ground. Still twelve candidates with only forty-seven days left until launch? The presence of the others kept up the pressure on Seth, but some or even all of those four might be local actors brought in to play the part of additional candidates. They would be cheaper than plane tickets to Bolivia.
Three of the other candidates, or actors, were wearing formal suits, with calf-length pants, flared coats, and hats with feathers in them, as if they were bankers or lawyers. One of them was almost certainly a herm, although it was always hard to be sure. Lotus was dressed like Seth, in tank top, shorts, and sandals. That was all a guy ever needed these days, as long as he remembered to take a weekly sun block pill. Sun block pills were another exoplanet discovery.
“Number Fourteen,” said the receptionist.
Seth opened his eyes. A door stood open. The possible herm rose, crossed the room, and disappeared. His calf muscles were impressive, but his hips were not true male.
Everyone went back to what they were doing, except Lotus, who hadn’t reacted at all. No one had shown surprise at the number called, which either indicated that they already knew that the order was irrelevant, or else was a test to see if Seth could be rattled.
He closed his eyes again and sub-vocalized the code to check into ISLA’s status page. It showed near-Earth space remaining quiet. Golden Hind was still in assembly orbit, together with two new keels, presently unnamed. Galactic had four in refit: Bolivar, Courageous, De Soto, and Magellan. Indra also had four: Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva, and Rama; but Indra was currently fully engaged in developing its world of Benares and would not be competing. Three of Bonanza’s ships were due in from the Sagittarius sector within days: Canopus, Polaris, and Sirius. They would need time to refit.
So if a good planetary prospect was reported in the next couple of months, Mighty Mite might not face any significant competition for it.
After about twenty minutes the door opened again. Candidate Fourteen stalked across to the outer door, his face expressionless.
“Number Twelve,” Anorexia said. None of the others squawked about having been there longer.
Seth rose and went to meet his destiny.
The CEO’s office was even larger, the carpet thicker, and windows forming two sides displayed a magnificent view of a sandy beach with surf rolling in and palm trees waving their fronds about. Considering that Mite’s HQ was on the forty-second floor, in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, which was itself 3,500 meters above traditional sea level, Seth was disinclined to believe that the scene was real. Besides, it would be centuries before sea level stabilized enough for mature beaches like that to form again.
JC was standing behind a desk composed of a slab of black granite floating in the air with no visible support. Was that symbolic of Mighty Mite’s finances? He was dressed in a formal suit of white starsilk with a matching hat and a large black feather. He had large black-hairy forearms and was bigger than Seth had expected from his vid appearance.
He spoke his name, reaching a meaty hand across the desk to shake.
Seth spoke his, adding, “sir.” Neither tried to crush fingers.
He was told to take a seat. He had a choice of one. Some hugely padded armchairs off in a corner were doubtless for informal chatting, but he didn’t rank those.
On the far side of the desk, JC crossed his meaty legs and studied him for a minute or two. Seth studied him right back, noticing JC taking note of his arms and shoulders. Perhaps he should have worn long sleeves and long pants; in pink.
“Your resume is impressive, Broderick.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Why do you want to venture into the Big Nothing, as we spacers call it?”
“To get rich.”
“This will be a one-ship expedition. You know how risky those are.”
“Yes, sir.” On a ship-by-ship comparison, they weren’t much riskier than fleet expeditions, but Seth was not going to argue with the Great Man if he said the moon was made of cheese.
“Your chances of surviving would be better if you signed up for a tour in downside duty on a development world, where the risks are known.”
“Working for wages.”
“Do you know the odds on a prospector surviving a first landing on a virgin world?”
“Yes, sir.”
“You think you can operate coherently with that kind of risk hanging over you?”
“Yes, sir.”
JC shrugged. “We’re a start-up. You’d reduce your risk if you went wildcatting with Galactic or one of the other multinationals.”
“Still for wages.”
“Good wages.”
Why waste time like this? Why not just tell him he was hired or kick his butt out the door? “Sir, I told you wrong. I don’t want to be rich. I want to be filthy, flaming, fucking, disgusting rich. I want to be as rich as Drake when he took the treasure ship. You advertised a piece of the action.”
“One half of one percent.”
Seth managed to frown. “I was hoping for a full one percent.” In fact a half was astonishing; he’d dreaded being offered a tenth of that. Risks had to offer worthwhile prizes.
JC shook his massive head. The feather waved. “Eighty-five percent for the sponsors, fifteen divided among the crew: five percent for me, three for the captain, and so on, down to the prospector, one half. That’s still enough to make you a billionaire if we find anything worthwhile.”
Seth shrugged and said, “That would do to start with.”
“True, true! Old Mathewson used to brag that he’d built Galactic Inc. on one bucket of mud.”
Seth smiled and nodded. Everyone knew that story.
The big man laughed. “He was lying! He brought back forty-three sealed vials of mud, dirt, water, scum, plant material, and pickled fauna. Forty contained nothing of any interest whatsoever. It was the forty-first vial that turned up the antimalarzine bacillus. Galactic was built on the profits from antimalarzine.”
Seth tried to look impressed, but he’d known that, too, though. He had been working up to this day for more than half his life.
JC adjusted a pile of antique-style papers. “There are safer ways to get even filthy rich.”
“I don’t want safer, I want richer. We had a family legend about an ancestor who was a wildcatter when that meant someone who looked for oil. He struck it big and his descendants lost it all.”
That drew a flash of interest.
“I’ve heard that before from people in the business. And ‘prospectors’, too—men who used to stake gold mines. Tell me more about yourself.”
JC must have viewed at least three files of Seth telling about himself, plus his colonoscopy in living color.
“I was born on a farm in the New Desert.” The rain had gone, the aquifers dried up, the soil blown away, and the temperature reached fifty degrees Celsius by midmorning, when the power went off. “When I was three my parents gave up the struggle and moved into town.” City life had been even worse. He didn’t say more about his parents—his father had worked a pedicab and died of a mugging when Seth was twelve. His mother had taken in laundry, succumbed to breast cancer three years later. The sister he had tried to raise had died of leukemia. When he reached his enrolment in NWTU, the big man barked a sudden question.
“Who paid for that?”
“I won a boxing scholarship.”
“I understood that boxing was outlawed about the same time as gladiator shows.”
Seth granted him a fake smile. “It’s known as ‘pugilistics’ now and we fake the punches.” Officially they did.
“You must have done well, to stay there four years.”
“I was lucky. A lot of my opponents were very skilled at faking comas.”
This time he got what looked like a real smile.
JC consulted the top sheet. “Astronomy, physics, sky-diving, karate, bungee jumping, gym, two medals in weight lifting, three in pugilistics as a lightweight, three more when you switched to middleweight, survival both tropical and arctic, hydroponics, domestic science, biology, organic chemistry, exogeology, exobiology, wrestling, pilot’s license, history of space travel... on and on. You never completed a degree.”
“I hiked from school to school, taking courses from the best instructors—anything that might help me get into space, sir. I never failed a course. Prospectors need to be smart, tough, and fearless. I am smart, tough, and fearless. Plus I know a bit of everything in a pinch.”
JC grunted. He was good, still giving nothing away. He would spring his traps when he was ready.
“I’m not allowed to ask you this, but I will. How’s your sex life?”
“I’m straight,” Seth said. “I avoid entanglements is all. I’ve wanted to get into space longer than I’ve wanted to get into women. I long ago decided I would never say, ‘Bye, honey, look after the kids, see you in ten years.’ I’m promiscuous when I get the chance.”
“Never gay?”
“You’re born with that,” Seth said cautiously, “or not. I wasn’t, but if I was with guys I liked and the nearest woman was a light year away, then I might get drunk enough. I don’t know.”
The big man’s nod acknowledged a slick answer. “Fair enough. I’ll be going along on Golden Hind, plus a crew of five. I wanted five herms, but there aren’t enough good ones around. I’ve put together a first class crew of two women and two herms.”
“I’ve had good fun with herms, sir. No prejudice.”
“I still need a prospector. If I pick you, then you and I will be the only true males aboard. I don’t want to have to fake a coma very often.”
Wouldn’t be hard to give him a real one. Seth judged that he could spot JC Lecanard a baseball bat and still take him in thirty seconds. But if JC fancied himself as stud male among five women or part-time-women, then pink might have been a very good idea.
“I expect you’ve gotten hold of my police record.”
“That would be illegal.”
“So?”
“It’s clean except for a minor incident eight years ago. The court accepted your plea of self-defense.”
“Which it was.” Two muggers, armed with a knife and a shotgun. He’d knocked them both down and disarmed them, but one had claimed brain damage.
“You!” JC roared suddenly, “Are a fucking braggart, too fucking good to be true! I think half of this resume is bullshit. Get your ass out of here and stop wasting my time!”
His bluster impressed Seth no more than his palatial office. Big feathers make big birds.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
“Your next question, sir. You didn’t fly me all the way here to throw me out like that.”
JC went back to the steady stare trial for a full minute. “It won’t be fucking romantic, you know. Years of utter boredom, like time in jail. You’ll be the gofer, bottom of the ladder. You do the housework, because we can’t afford the fancy robots the majors take. You’ll have machines to do the cooking, but you’ll have to wait on table, load the dishwasher, pick up the laundry, clean the showers, tend the hydroponics. Are you man enough to be gardener and cabin boy, Seth Broderick?”
“Yes, sir.” They knew from his resume all the things he’d done to pay for his education. They knew that even now he was a janitor by day, a bouncer by night, and taking a course in Advanced IT on time off.
The big man grunted again. “Any questions?”
“Tell me about Cacafuego, sir.”
Big smile. “I know nothing about Cacafuego—yet. That’s just Mighty Mite’s own name for a target we still have to choose. All new data on exoplanets is funneled through ISLA, which saves it up until the final day of the month and releases it in one super news flash at midnight. Wildcatter ships stand by in dock orbit, waiting for it. If there’s a decent lead they’re off and running. If not, they wait for next month.” Even bigger smile, even less convincing.
Seth nodded as if he didn’t already know all that. The trick was to bribe someone to give you advance notice of next month’s release. Or even two months ahead. Better still; buy data that never did get turned in to ISLA. It would all depend on how much you were willing to pay.
“If you do hire me, when do I embark?”
“According to the schedule, a week ago.” Was that a deliberate slip, to make him overconfident? Or just a lie?
“What gear do I bring?”
“Your body and two kilos of anything you want. That’s it. No drugs or crap like that.”
“How is my share paid out? Who calculates it?”
A cloud-shadow of caution crossed JC’s face; he leaned forward on his desk and seemed to choose his words more carefully.
“You get your share in Mighty Mite stock. We’re a publicly traded company, audited, regulated, the whole shit. One hundred thousand shares authorized and issued. Five hundred shares will be registered in your name prior to departure and held in escrow until you return. Mighty Mite will make or break on this trip. The banks hold a ten-billion first mortgage on the ship and more than that in non-convertible bonds. If you can shovel up some useful crap for us when you go downside, we’ll all be rich, and you’ll get your share. Everything’s aboveboard, no room for double dealing.”
No? It wasn’t how the rich got rich you had to watch, it was how they stayed rich.
“No more questions, sir.” He had several, but none were deal breakers, so he needn’t ask them. He was almost certain now that he had the job, but he wasn’t going to let his guard down until he boarded. And not then.
“The first thing we must do is measure you for your EVA suits. How soon can you check in?”
Seth shrugged, mouth dry, heart beating wildly. “I’m yours as soon as I’ve read over the contract.”
“No affairs to settle?”
“Nothing a couple of phone calls won’t fix.”
JC pulled an “I am impressed” expression. “Give me an access code.”
Seth gave him a random number. “47746.” He blinked and saw his com register a download.
“That’s the offer and the contract terms. You have twenty-four hours, but I’d appreciate hearing sooner if you decide not to come. We have a coupla’ thousand other candidates on hold.”
“I’m a fast reader, sir. I can do it outside, there?”
“Of course.” Lecanard stood up, displaying that ugly, unconvincing smile again. “There’s nothing in there you won’t accept. I know a fanatic when I see one, and you’d sell your balls if that was part of the deal. Welcome aboard, Mr. Broderick. You’re a real find! Glad to have you.”
He held out a hand to shake. Seth saw the crush coming and let it happen. It was bad. He didn’t have to fake his yelp of pain.
One day he’d return that.
But he walked out of JC’s office with his feet not touching the fancy carpet. He had won his lifelong ambition, a trip into the Big Nothing. He also had JC summed up as a bully, trickster, and big-time operator, likely a crook whenever he could get away with it. Hard and untrustworthy. A good man to have at your side, never behind your back.
The receptionist had disappeared. The only other person in the reception area was a youngish blond guy, probably a herm. From the way his eyelids were moving, he was watching sports.
Seth took a seat and called up the new document. The contract was shorter than he expected, because wildcatters basically sold themselves body and soul for the duration of a voyage, subject only to the ISLA’s General Regulations, better known as the GenRegs, and relevant Ship’s Rules. A copy of those was attached and contained no surprises that he could see. As he had expected, anything he discovered, invented, or created would belong to Mighty Mite, with the important exception of his prospector’s EVA log. When he had read everything he confirmed JC’s sig and Mighty Mite’s corporate seal, then sub-vocalized his own sig, and watched as it was verified. He copied the document to his life files back in the New Desert E-Vault.
The blond herm must have been monitoring the Mighty Mite end, because he jumped up and came striding over, offering both hands and a huge grin.
“Welcome, Seth Broderick! Jordan Spears, captain of Golden Hind.” He did not try to squeeze. “Fergawsake, I bin sitting there crapping bricks, terrified Old Ugly would turn you down.”
Seth distrusted gushy offers of friendship. “Why would he?”
Jordan took him by the triceps and led him to the door. “Because you’re so screaming good! You should have seen the rest—trolls, morons, and psychos. I am starving. You were the best by a light year, but there was a shortlist of about thirty, any of whom would have sufficed. Let’s go and eat, and you can meet the crew.”
“Why would he not take the best?” Seth asked as they left Mite’s offices.
Jordan smiled slyly. “Because you’ll be the only other full-time male. Our beloved leader may not want any arguments about his leadership.”
The levitator shot them up to a rooftop restaurant. Seth blinked at the first human waiters and white tablecloths he had ever seen outside a com show. He could see for a hundred miles; buildings and mountains, the curve of the Earth. He was on top of the world.
“This burger is on you?” he asked cautiously.
Jordan laughed. “It’s on Mighty Mite, expense account. Table for five please, view of the sunset.” The moment they sat down the captain ordered drinks and then sat back expectantly. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
How good could anything feel? Life’s ambition on his first attempt? “There are no words for how it feels.”
“Assuming you can sit there long enough to eat, what are you going to do to celebrate afterwards?”
“I want to go down to a gym and utterly destroy a punch bag.”
“I went out and got myself laid three times in an hour.”
“You’re bragging.”
“Sixty-five minutes, if you insist on accuracy. Want to try to better my record?”
Oddly enough, no. Sex, and especially the sort of trade sex Jordan was suggesting, would just cheapen Seth’s sense of triumph. If he had a lover handy, that would be different. “I’ll think about it.”
“Fine. What do you want to know?”
Seth wanted to know if this was the end of poverty. He had just gone on expense account for the first time in his life. For several years he would not need to worry about his next meal. After that he might be astronomically rich, or back to flat broke. Or dead, of course. One chance in three wasn’t too bad, and there were to be interesting side effects.
“I see from Ship’s Rules that we’re going monkeys, not monks?”
That won a wicked grin. “You’re asking a herm? You know our reputation. Besides, what else do people do? It’s the only universal recreation, rabbits in space... You don’t believe me?”
“There’s another universal recreation,” Seth said, massaging his hand under the table. “A lot of people like to play power games.”
“Some do,” Jordan admitted with a genuine-seeming grin. “Not you or me, of course, but we both know one who does. Yes, we’ll do the monkey business. Statistics show that it works best. If you try to ban sex, it just goes underground and people get ratty. The only way to shut it down completely is to feed us chillers, but de-sexed crews get depressed, mistake-prone, and even more quarrelsome than when they’re raunchy. Bed riding will be voluntary, of course, but chastity won’t make you popular. You have a moral problem?”
A herm certainly would not. Herms were notoriously promiscuous. Herms needed to change over every few weeks, to avoid getting locked into one gender.
“Far from it. Who settles the arguments? If JC and I both want the same woman, or two women start fighting over me, who flips the coin?”
“I do. Lucky me. I don’t have anything much to do with running the ship or exploring the planet. My job is the crew. I have to keep us all happy. I am authorized to try analyzing, tranquilizing, and screwing.”
Seth chuckled. “JC fancies himself as an athlete?”
Jordan sipped his drink thoughtfully. “Maybe not. Two women, two herms, and two guys does sound like orgy week, but I think that one of the women is a bit of a prude and the other herm looks forty-ish, so we may be misjudging Old Ugly. He could have chosen better bimbos if that was what he wanted.” Jordan smiled. “You hold four tickets in the lottery. I have five.”
“So what’s the rest of the talent like?”
“You’ll meet them all in a few minutes. They’re on their way.” Jordan raised his glass for a toast. “Bon voyage and happy landings. May you become filthy rich and wallow in unheard of decadence all the rest of your days!”
“Same to you.”
Looking into those laughing blue eyes, Seth realized that he was already being assessed as a future partner and that Jordan Spears must make a good-looking woman when they changed. She might not be as flirty then as he was being at the moment, but one of Seth’s tickets looked like a sure winner.
He took another sip of whatever was in his glass. It tasted of sunshine and smelled like lithe young woman. “Do gofers get as much action as captains?”
“I wouldn’t bet against it,” Jordan said. “All cats are gray in the dark.”