Saturday, May 15, 2021

A Return on the Investment


A trio of highwaymen confronted a pair of dandies outside of Milano, swords drawn. They grinned at the small object produced by the one with dark hair--until, with concussive force, the lights went out. 

Carl Franconi, professor of linguistics, stared at the victims who'd fallen into a ditch. "You didn't kill them, did you?"

"Only stunned," said Commander Moast. "Let's resume our leisurely tour of the countryside." He addressed the hidden comunit in his tunic. "Kyra, what's our tactical?"

First Officer Preston sounded tinny in the receiver. "Spanish and Venetian forces have consolidated in the north. The French are in retreat. Distance to objective is two point three miles."

The two men moved aside for an aristocrat's carriage thundering past, then resumed their trek in dappled sun on the dusty road. 

Franconi glanced about nervously. "Listen, Moast--how can you trust me to stay mum about how you've discovered time travel?--or do I suffer a mysterious accident?" 

"Who'd believe you?" Moast countered. Among thousands of teleportals scattered throughout the galaxy was one orbiting Tau Ceti. Now, to protect it's time travel function, it floated in an asteroid belt. That had been no mean feat.

"It's a violation of contract," Franconi insisted. "You have command of that ship in return for handing over everything you find out there. All captains follow that rule."

"Think so?" Moast went tongue in cheek. "You have a high opinion of your fellow man, Professor. The Consortium is no different. They're trying to shake me down for a 'rental fee', which is money I don't have."

"You'll certainly have it if our mission succeeds, and if we don't get killed."

As profitable as were the missions out of Pluto Station, the central hub for the Earth system, Moast had plenty of detractors. It all started when with an attempt to plant spyware in Orchidia's AI. The technicians were routed by an army of servobots. It seemed the AI had acquired a keen sense of self preservation, and trusted no one but Moast. 

"Remember the agreement," Franconi said. "I get whatever I can negotiate for, apart from the main package."

"You can afford it after all that gold we traded for lire. Don't sweat it."

"But whatever we take back will be brand new, and labeled forgeries."

Moast laughed. "That's the beauty of it. The goods will age accordingly, which is why we can't take back anything living." 

The comunit interrupted. "Destination has six life forms. We're prepared for selective stun on your orders." 

"Stand by," Moast said. He surveyed the impressive villa of Vaprio d' Adda, owned by the Medici clan. Was there anything they didn't own? " Okay, Prof, it's time to test that proto Italian."

They came upon a gardener who frowned at the odd accent, but he admitted them to a cluttered workshop that smelled of oils and varnish. An elderly gent in a floppy hat was working on a sketch of an equestrian monument.

Franconi made introductions, then made his pitch. "You recently accepted a commission of 500 lire for a portrait. We're prepared to double it if you'll paint an alternate version."

The gent made a clenched fist gesture of agreement.

Franconi beamed gratitude. "Imagine it--another Mona Lisa. We're in your debt, Monsignor da Vinci."

So was Moast, who now had a year's rental on the starship Orchidia.

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