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The Cost of Business
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THE COST OF BUSINESS (A DRAGONFIRE STATION SHORT STORY)
COPYRIGHT © 2016 BY ZEN DIPIETRO
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without express written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations for the purpose of review.
Please purchase only authorized electronic editions. Distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.
Published in the United States of America by Parallel Worlds Press
&Thank& you for reading “The Cost of Business.” This work is a short story that occurs between the first two books of the Dragonfire Station series, Translucid, and [_Fragments. _]Both novels are available on Amazon.
No worries about spoilers—this story can be read either before or after reading these books.
Butterflies, sea nymphs, and woodland fairies cavorted on the boardwalk, presenting a stunning display of life against the backdrop of the docking bays. The fact that all this costumed revelry occurred on a space station located in the vacuum of space did not escape Cabot. It made the festival that much more precious to him.
A young girl dressed as a butterfly twirled near, laughing. Before Cabot could step out of the way, she bumped right into him. Her laughter cut short and she spun to face him, startled but still smiling.
“Mr. Layne! I’m so sorry. I was just showing Robert my wings.” Her eyes sparkled with youthful exuberance as she turned and displayed a pair of glittering, multi-colored wings that fluttered with her movements.
Far be it from him to quash her enjoyment. Dragonfire Station had few opportunities to break up the rather regulated life of a Planetary Alliance Cooperative, or PAC, installation. The fact that Captain Hesta Nevitt even allowed for the celebration of the Solar Festival amazed him. The captain had never struck Cabot as the type to encourage gaiety, or anything else not explicitly proscribed by the cooperative. But then, people were always full of surprises. Perhaps one day, the captain would reveal some facet of herself that would surprise and delight him. Cabot lived in perpetual hope.
“Not to worry, Nix,” he assured the adolescent. “I was standing in the wrong place.”
A giggle trilled out of her at his generous assumption of the blame. “You’re standing in front of your shop!”
“Ah, but I was clearly infringing on your airspace. Apologies.” He cast her a teasing smile.
She laughed again and her gaze suddenly tracked hard to the left. “Oh, there’s Arin. He hasn’t seen me yet. I’ll see you later!”
She spun away, her wings fluttering in her wake. Cabot smiled indulgently. Nix, the daughter of a pair of crew members, was a favorite on the station. He watched her as she caught up to Arin, who currently served as the acting chief of security until the true chief returned.
He lingered a moment longer, taking in the sight of visitors to the station mingling among the merrymakers. It all created a chaotic profusion of activity and high spirits. Lucky for him, the Solar Festival lasted the entire week. Revelry had a lovely tendency to make pockets open much wider than usual.
As much as he enjoyed seeing the people of Dragonfire happy and embracing a celebration of life, he never inserted himself into such activities. He was an on-the-fringes kind of guy. The periphery was the ideal spot for observation. Even in his own shop, the goods were the center of attention while he was merely the facilitator.
He ducked back into his store, making a mental note to stock some of the colorful wings Nix had been so proud of, as well as variety of other festival gear. He dealt primarily in technology, art, and collectibles, but he prided himself on his business acumen—as anyone from his homeworld did. Any seasoned trader knew that wherever cubics were being spent with wanton abandon, there was an opportunity to bring some of that action his way. Never mind that doing so would bring pleasure to his community here on Dragonfire—that would merely be a happy coincidence.
After all, everyone knew that his people cared only about filling their accounts. That Rescans only saw other people as an opportunity for profit. Never as neighbors, colleagues, or even friends. No, never that.
Cabot smiled, thinking of Nix’s ebullience as he crossed the showroom of his store. The walls hung heavy with paintings of every style and era, while shelves and pedestals proudly displayed everything from ornate antiquities to hyper-modern industrial sculpture. Cabot prided himself on providing quality items to appeal to all tastes. He walked around the counter at the back of the shop, then ducked into the warehouse. He allowed no others into this private space, and for good reason.
The stockroom was much larger than visitors to his store would suspect. Impeccably indexed and organized bins filled with inventory formed neat rows that utilized every square meter. The majority of the crates contained items he’d tracked down and obtained by the special request of a buyer. That type of inventory had a quick turnaround, in contrast to the stock he kept long-term, waiting for an emerging market to unfold. Cabot had a particular gift for forecasting such things, just as he had a knack for furnishing his showroom with the treasures that shoppers most wanted.
A small portion of the storage units—yes, a mere one-quarter of them—held items of no worth to a businessperson.
For the people on the war-torn planet Atalus, though, those supplies meant the difference between life and death.
When commodities traders came along with crates like these, he paid a pittance for them, then sent these otherwise worthless basics on to Atalus. And why not? Atalans got goods they desperately needed, Cabot contributed to the economy, and he cleared out his warehouse. Until more crates arrived, anyway. Encouraging commerce was simply good business. What did he care that those crates took up space? He had far more room than he needed.
He stepped to the end of the row that housed his most recent acquisitions. Arlen Stinth had just that morning delivered a new addition, as per their agreement. The young Rescan trader gave his profession a bad name. She was altogether too conscientious, too proud, and too fair. If she didn’t toughen up and affect some hardball grit, she wouldn’t make it in this line of work. Cabot had half a mind to mentor her, but he hardly needed the responsibility. She’d either learn on the job, as he had, or she’d find herself a new career.
Maybe she could apply to the PAC academy. He snorted out a laugh at the thought. He could see her doing well at such a spit-and-polish, mind-your-morals sort of career. She’d punch him in the face if he suggested it, too.
If he’d ever had a daughter, he imagined she’d be a lot like young Arlen.
He used an anti-grav cart to move the crate to his workspace. Here, he had bright lights, a long worktable, and dozens of tools to help him either authenticate an item or identify it as a fake.
He lifted out a large polymechrine-lined case and set it on the table. Weighty as it was, the lightweight, ultra-durable synthetic made it an easy burden to bear. The trunk alone was pricy, but necessary by PAC trade law for the transport and storage of crystal-matrix converters. Because they were a required element of an interstellar propulsion system, the converters were always a big-ticket necessity.
He carefully lifted each one out and arranged them on the table in four rows. He now owned a dozen of the little beauties, and while they’d fetch a steep price as they were, he also had a high-quality lot of energy-transfer units. Pairing the two items would double his profit. It always paid to be patient and plan ahead.
Fortunately for him, he possessed a forced-beam scanner. He set to work, ensuring each unit was in prime condition. Not that he distrusted Arlen; she wouldn’t sell or trade anything she didn’t have complete confidence in. But being confident and being correct were two different things, and Cabot hadn’t become a rich man by trusting people.
The converters all checked out, though. No faults, no flaws, and each one in mint or nearly mint condition. Excellent.
He shifted the scanner to his left to turn it off and an odd energy reading popped up. Puzzled, he passed the scanner over the converters again, but they showed nothing out of the ordinary. His gaze fell on the case itself, sitting on the table. Sure enough, when he scanned it, a high output registered.
Very strange. An item like this should emit no energy whatsoever. It was only a conveyance. Unless…
With a sinking feeling, he recalibrated the scanner and wafted it over the case. Immediately, he detected a signal. Arlen wouldn’t have discovered it because forced-beam scanners were an exorbitantly spendy device. Most engineers didn’t even have them.
Even if Arlen had detected the signal, she never would have recognized it as an invitation. A request for a code. With a dreadful sense of curiosity, Cabot set the scanner down and picked up a breaker.
The device merely worked as a key, allowing an authorized recipient to unlock a package. An entirely legal device. But a professional of Cabot’s caliber had certain skills that made the breaker far more useful. The previously secure container became as defenseless as a baby.
It took him fifteen seconds to pop the security. He heard a faint click, then skimmed his fingers over the interior of the trunk. Yes, right there. He felt a ridge on two diagonal corners. With practiced hands, he lifted out the false bottom.
The scanner, which he hadn’t yet turned off, blipped with an ionizing radiation warning. Cabot hardly needed that information. He recognized the small, glowing cubes of Brivinium as soon as he saw them. He’d never had the honor of viewing one in person, but he now possessed six breathtaking little treasures, each one worth a fortune. If anyone caught him with these, he wouldn’t see the light of day for a very long time. If ever.
Cabot had never appreciated foul language. He found it crass, unimaginative, and entirely beneath him. However, in all things, exceptions must sometimes be made.
Quickly, Cabot reassembled and closed the case. With the Brivinium shielded within, the scanner stopped blipping to warn him of the radiation. Hopefully, the station’s systems hadn’t detected the brief exposure and wouldn’t alert security.
He repacked the crate and returned it to its previous spot in the warehouse. Then he sat again at his worktable, where the converters remained, resting his chin on his fingertips. He had a problem. A very big one.
How had Arlen accidentally ended up with Brivinium cubes? If Cabot went looking, he’d probably discover exactly where this Brivinium belonged. The theft had almost certainly been logged with the PAC, though very quietly to avoid embarrassment to the Briveen.
Someone had stashed the goods in that container, and the case had then fallen into innocent hands. Perhaps the thief had been robbed. Or died. Thieves and smugglers had a way of finding an untimely end.
Regardless of how the case had made its way onto Dragonfire, Cabot now found himself in a tricky position. He couldn’t admit to having the stuff; he’d end up in a prison. If he could prove his innocence he would eventually be freed, but his reputation would nonetheless be ruined. He would lose his fortune and his home here on Dragonfire.
He couldn’t point the finger at Arlen, either. The same thing would happen to her, and he wouldn’t allow that. She was too young. Too good.
He sure couldn’t ask for help from Arin. He was a great guy, but Arin’s duties would require him to report the Brivinium immediately. No, there was no one from Dragonfire Cabot could talk to about this.
Carefully, he packed his crystal-matrix converters into a cooled storage container on the worktable. He’d couple them up with the energy-transfer units and sell them off to the highest bidder with barely any effort. If only that could be his sole concern for the day.
As he considered his options for sorting out his predicament, a plan emerged. Supply chain economics had always been his forte. By putting the right materials into play at precisely the right time, a savvy businessperson could ensure a timely output and a smooth operation. Which was exactly what he needed now to get that Brivinium off Dragonfire Station.
Oh, it would be risky, and he didn’t deal in high-risk, high-reward ventures anymore. He enjoyed a far too comfortable life for that. In this case, though, his posterior had been pressed right up against the heat manifold, and he had no choice but to play the big game. He would not let himself get burned to a crisp.
“Are you going to turn me in?” Arlen stood next to the trunk, which Cabot had opened just long enough to show her their very large problem. She was nice-looking, though part of that handsomeness might have been due to her youth. Like Cabot, she had naturally tan skin and light-brown hair. Her eyes were an amber brown, compared to his own blue-gray ones. She had a winsome rugged frame that spoke of Rescan sturdiness.
Cabot admired her composure. Being the connoisseur of people he was, he recognized the anxiety beneath her placid features. “That would save my skin at the direct expense of yours. Since you’re guiltless, I don’t wish to see that happen.”
Instead of reassuring her, this caused her face to harden in suspicion. “And what do I owe you for that?”
“You have nothing I want. What could I need from someone just getting set up in the business?” He laced his words with disdain, which took the edge off her suspicion. Yes, she’d understand derision and self-interest much better than she would altruism. His own distrust of philanthropy ran deep.
“Then why not sell me out?” she demanded.
“Even an innocent transaction involving Brivinium would tarnish my reputation. I don’t need the PAC breathing down my neck on every deal I make for the rest of my life. We can get the stuff back into the right hands, and keep our names out of it besides. We stay clean, the Brivinium gets returned, and nobody has to deal with countless hours of debriefings and administrative work. Everyone wins.”
“If we get caught—”
He cut her off. “We won’t.” He fixed her with a hard look, daring her to argue.
She backed down. The young ones always did. Taking a breath, she asked, “What’s your plan?”
A certain acumen, combined with a few decades’ worth of experience, gave Cabot the skills to retrieve information from the voicecom that, technically speaking, he wasn’t supposed to have. He prided himself on maneuvering within the gray areas that couldn’t result in any charges being brought against him. Even so, it was always prudent to avoid being caught.
In two days, a Briveen ship would dock for scheduled maintenance in accordance with the PAC’s strict protocols for engine safety. The security notes had indicated that the Briveen would inhabit standard guest quarters during the repairs. That would give Cabot time to arrange a business venture.
He opened a channel, placing a call to a pair of human traders who had been darkening Dragonfire’s boardwalk for a little too long now.
Cabot had no issues with competition. In fact, he found that the more trade activity that happened on Dragonfire, the more business eventually came his way. His objection to these two humans was personal. No, professional. Actually, it was personal, because of his dislike of how they sullied his profession. Yes, that was it.
Dirtbags like those two didn’t fulfill their contracts. They lied about volume, freshness, or item origin. They didn’t deliver as promised, and Cabot had no tolerance for that kind of sleazy, amateur behavior. He wouldn’t have that rubbish on his station.
Intending to leave a message, Cabot was surprised when one of the traders answered. It was Morris, the younger of them. He wasn’t bad-looking, overall, but he had the hardness around his eyes and mouth that Cabot recognized as an indicator of nasty temperament.
“What?” Morris snapped.
Cabot wore his most benign, pleasant expression. “How lucky to have caught you in person. I was hoping to schedule a meeting with you.” He paused, smiled knowingly, and added, “A business meeting.”
He had no need to introduce himself to the man. Though they’d never spoken, this was Cabot’s turf. Interlopers would already know of him, just as they knew he’d be aware of anyone who wandered into his territory.
Like a shark that scented blood in the water, Morris was hooked. “When?”
Cabot didn’t let his disgust with the lack of professional manners show. “Would you care to meet this evening in my shop?” He named a time after hours. “That will ensure our privacy.”
Cabot watched the expressions play out on the man’s face. A shift of the eyes, a squint in the left eyelid. Morris was eager to accept, but didn’t want to agree too easily. He wanted to establish himself as an equal, someone to respect.
“We’re busy at that time. We can come an hour later.”
Almost certainly a lie. But no matter. “Of course, that will do just as well. I’ll see you then.”
Without further ado, Cabot closed the channel. It should prove to be an interesting meeting.
“What is it?” Morris’ partner, a compact little human named Standing, frowned at the offering. Inside the hand-engraved box lay an array of carved wooden sticks, stylized gemstones, bells, and embossed candleholders.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Cabot beamed as if he were presenting his first-born child. “It’s a complete Hanardic-era ritual kit. For every possible rite, the proper implements are included, crafted by a master artisan a thousand years ago. Believe me, the Honorable Hrekk of the house Grikkod will be very eager to purchase it from you.”
“Why not sell it to him yourself?” Morris cut in. “You don’t need us.” Suspicion oozed from his voice. At least he had some basic instincts.
Cabot heaved a sigh of regret. “Unfortunately, the Honorable Hrekk attributed a delivery of rancid mandren meat to me. Not my fault at all, you understand. The cargo ship’s cooler unit failed to operate properly. I botched the attrition ritual and, ever since, Hrekk has refused to work with me.” He shook his head regretfully. “A shame, because the man is quite the collector, and has the cubics to do it.”
“What’s the cut?” Standing asked.
“I was getting to that. For doing nothing more than brokering the transaction, I’ll give you ten percent of the profit.” Cabot named a hefty sum. “Of course, you can’t mention me, or Hrekk will throw you out and refuse the purchase, as well as any future dealings with you.”
The two men exchanged a glance. Oh yes, they wanted this deal. Cabot continued smoothly, “Also, there shall be no record of this transaction. Officially, this item does not exist on Dragonfire. Therefore, your contact with me will never be discovered.” He paused, then added the icing to the cake. “With a relationship established, you can look forward to many future dealings with Hrekk. Not something I’d usually allow on my station, but since he won’t work with me anyway…” he trailed off with the shrug of a shoulder. “But should I have something to broker in the future, I’ll know I can count on you.” He gave them his best smile of mutual greed. One of the most impressive in the business, truth be told.
Standing and Morris were practically drooling, but trying to hide it.
“Forty percent,” Standing demanded. Morris looked at his partner in dismay before he remembered to straighten his face out.
The bargaining part. Always Cabot’s favorite. “Forty?” he laughed. “You realize I can easily sell this to many other Briveen who regularly do business with me. The only reason I’m aiming for Hrekk is that he’s an avid collector of Hanardic antiquities and will pay more. The difference is enough to offset your cut. You’re providing a convenience to me, not a sole means of sales.” He arched his eyebrow in a perfect expression of condescension.
“Twenty percent, then,” Standing insisted.
Cabot pursed his lips. “I can go fifteen, but no more. More than that cuts into my own profit. I’d be better off waiting for another buyer.”
Morris flashed a look at Standing. They would’ve done it for ten and Cabot knew it, but he had to give them a sense of control. Make them feel like they’d won something.
“Agreed,” Standing said.
“I assume you know all the proper rituals you’ll need to perform?” Cabot asked pleasantly, looking from one to the other. Of course they didn’t.
The Briveen were known for their standards of taste and quality. Well, for that, and for being the only species evolved from dinosaurs. And their fanatical observance of lengthy ceremonies. Oh, and their cybernetic arms. Okay, so they were known for many things. But they would not normally do business with low-rent ruffians like Standing and Morris.
Hrekk would make an exception once he saw that ritual set. He truly was an avid aficionado of the Hanardic era. If these two fools could manage not to insult him too terribly, Hrekk would gladly dirty his cybernetic hands to acquire the antiquity.
Two heads shook from side to side, confirming what Cabot already knew. “Well then, I shall have to teach you. It will take several hours and studious practice, but I’m willing to do it for five percent of the profit.”
“But that puts us back down to ten,” Morris objected.
“And gets you into a position to do business in the future, which is far more valuable,” Cabot reminded him. “Take it or leave it, gentlemen. My time is worth money. You’re getting a bargain for only five percent.”
That was true. Anyone else would charge far more for the hours of frustration that yawned out ahead of Cabot. These two would not be quick studies. Ah well. Sometimes business was painful.
Standing sighed. “Fine. When do we start?”
Cabot closed the ceremonial kit and stood. “Immediately.”
“No, no, no. Stop dropping your shoulder,” Cabot instructed. “That’s contrition to a Briveen, and entirely the wrong message for an introduction ritual. You want him to trust you, don’t you? Now, begin again.”
Like a chastened schoolboy, Morris began again, bowing, making gestures that were mostly correct, and reciting the required speech. Cabot steeled himself to remain pleasant. When Morris finally stopped, Cabot unclenched his jaw and forced a smile.
“That was better. Let’s move on to the completion-of-business ritual.”
“Oh, come on,” Standing burst out. “You’re making this up.”
“I’m surely not. You’ll need, at the very least, these two rituals. I’m debating on teaching you the attrition ceremony, in case you should bumble the introduction horribly.”
“We won’t!” Standing practically shouted, his nerves on edge from the three hours of practice he’d already done on the first ritual. He took a breath and continued. “We’ll get these two right. I swear.”
Cabot knew they wouldn’t get them perfect. Every head tilt and every finger movement meant something in a Briveen ritual. But they might perform well enough for an over-eager Briveen to accept, so long as they did nothing egregious. And if they committed a horrible faux pas, an attrition ritual wouldn’t be enough, anyway.
“All right. Just the two ceremonies. Let’s get back to work.”
Cabot sank into the blessed silence of his quarters. Remaining pleasant and helpful while those two fools bumbled their way through the rites had strained his patience to the breaking point.
He’d snagged a bottle of fine Alturian brandy before leaving his shop and making a hasty retreat to his personal space. Though he’d never been much of a drinker, the day’s efforts called for it. His nerves jangled like a string of ritual bells.
Ugh. Rituals. Although he respected and admired the Briveen and their fascinating culture, those ceremonies could be a real burden.
He sat in the elegantly modern armchair in his living space, then tipped the brandy down his throat. It burned hideously, all the way down his esophagus and up through his nose. Since it felt so right for the moment, he immediately took another drink.
A long sigh escaped him as he exhaled his tension. Stress was such an unpleasant sensation, and one he normally avoided. He closed his eyes, waiting for the brandy to work its magic, fuzzying the edges of his currently too-harsh existence.
The door chime sounded. Now, who could that be? He had long ago established a habit of not inviting visitors to his quarters. His socializing always occurred in public areas or, on rare occasion, in other people’s homes.
Setting his glass on a side table, he crossed the room and the doors swished open.
“Nixabrin.” In his bewilderment, he instinctively opted for the formality of her full name. “This is a surprise.”
The girl visibly wilted, her youthful confidence immediately punctured by uncertainty.
Cabot hesitated, then gestured her forward. “Do come in.”
Nix brightened, stepping in with the unabashed curiosity of an adolescent.
She simply stood there, taking in the expensive simplicity of his home, which was a stark contrast to the eclectic opulence of his shop. Cabot prompted, “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
He returned to his seat, gesturing to the chair opposite him.
She did as directed, and her attention finally returned to him. “I was hoping to ask you for some advice.”
He raised his eyebrows. He was hardly someone that people went to for guidance, unless they sought expertise in acquisitions or trade negotiations. Which came with a price tag.
“How can I help?” He picked up his brandy glass.
She squirmed, looking down at her knees for a moment. “Well, I’m thirteen, and it’s time for me to select a field of study. You know, my career path.”
Cabot nodded encouragingly.
“See, my parents want me to be an engineer, like them. They haven’t said it outright, but they’re always talking about how it’s the ideal profession and how well it would suit me. That engineering provides the most opportunities.” She twisted her hands together as she spoke.
“But you don’t want to be an engineer,” he supplied.
She shook her head vehemently, causing her long, tawny curls to bounce. She was a beautiful child. Her tanned skin and light-brown hair contrasted stunningly with the vibrant blue of her eyes. Then there was her remarkably symmetrical bone structure. A gorgeous people, those Atalans. A shame about their world, though, embroiled in a bitter civil war. Nix, like all the other Atalans Cabot knew, wouldn’t be visiting her home planet anytime in the foreseeable future. Which left her with no choice but to find a life elsewhere. Perhaps on a station like this.
“I want to go to the PAC academy and become a security officer,” Nix declared.
Cabot took a sip of his brandy. “Ah. No doubt your parents will have reservations about such a…high-stakes career.”
“Exactly. They’ll try to talk me out of it. But I’ve thought it through, and I’m sure. The Chief even suggested giving me an internship if I stay at the top of my class this year. And I will.”
“Did she? That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of her offering that to anyone.”
Nix nodded. “It was right before she left. But she’ll be back soon, won’t she? I’m dying to talk to her more about it.”
Cabot considered his answer carefully. He had no idea when Fallon would return. She’d departed the station two months prior, leaving her legate, Arin, temporarily in charge of the station’s security. Officially, she was seeking further medical treatment after a shuttle accident. Cabot had some strong suspicions about the unofficial reasons for her absence, but those were none of his business. Officially.
“Chief Fallon isn’t one to make an idle offer. I’m sure when she gets back, she’ll follow up with you.” An evasive answer, but those tended to be his favorite.
The girl heard what she wanted to, and relief softened her face. “Should I talk to my parents about it now, to get them used to the idea before the chief returns, or should I wait and have her talk to them for me?”
Cabot set his glass down and focused on her intently. “Why me? There’s a whole station full of people you could ask, many of them with actual experience with the academy and military service. I’m just a trader living in the PAC zone.”
Nix laughed with delight. “Just a trader! You’re one of the smartest people I ever met! You know about all the worlds, their customs, their languages, and how they think. You know the values of things, how commerce and travel works, and how to operate within—and outside—all the different governments. You’re the perfect person to ask.” Her eyes gleamed with conviction. Cabot was startled, and impressed, by the shrewdness he saw there. Well. It seemed the clever child might be suited for security work, after all.
He gave her a tiny nod in acknowledgment of her praise. “I’m flattered.”
He considered her question for a long moment before answering it. “I suggest waiting to talk to them about it. An official conversation can lead to hard words that are difficult to take back. For now, demonstrate your devotion to your studies, and reveal your interest in the workings of security to them. Over time, they’ll see that you have a passion.” He smiled at Nix. “You’re blessed with devoted, intelligent parents. When they see that security is not a passing fancy, they’ll figure out your future plans for themselves. Without you having to debate it with them.”
Nix nodded slowly, thinking it over. “Yeah, and when I’m ready for the internship, the chief’s faith in me will make them take it seriously.” She beamed. “That’s perfect! Thank you, Mr. Layne!”
She bounced up from her seat and nearly tackled him with a hug. Startled, he awkwardly patted her back for a moment before she straightened.
With her problem solved, she said goodbye and tore out of his quarters like a solar storm, leaving him bemused by the extremes of youth and maturity she showed.
He picked up his brandy glass once more, drained it, and put it aside. He thought of Nix’s regard for his judgment, and her exuberant hug. Shaking his head, he smiled.
“Any last-minute questions?” Cabot squinted at Morris and Standing, who were trying their best to look confident.
“I think we’ve got it,” Morris muttered.
Standing placed a hand on the case but didn’t remove it from the display counter in Cabot’s shop. “Why such a big trunk?”
Cabot shot him a look of consternation. “You want to carry an ancient relic through the ship like it’s a sandwich? And what, just toss it to Honorable Hrekk? I suppose you’re going to march right in there and scratch your armpit while you’re talking to him, too.” He made a derisive scoffing sound. “Have I taught you nothing about trading with Briveen?”
Morris sent his partner a look of disgust, as if appalled by Standing’s lack of finesse. Cabot suppressed a smile.
Standing scowled at the rebuke. “Fine. Let’s go.” He hefted the case and strode out, not even looking to make sure Morris followed.
Cabot went to the front of his store, stepping out onto the boardwalk to watch them go. He relished the oddity of watching a pair of two-bit traders striding along a PAC station carrying a trunk full of Brivinium.
He couldn’t breathe freely just yet, though. Having the contraband leave his possession and his shop provided a small relief, but Cabot wouldn’t relax until the Briveen disembarked Dragonfire.
He debated on what to do while he waited. He could follow up on some correspondence regarding the sale of the crystal-matrix converters, but his heart wasn’t in it at the moment.
A Sarkavian woman and a Bennite man strolled into the shop. The woman exclaimed over a display of enameled hair combs. Cabot’s tension unfurled, and he went to do some old-fashioned haggling.
“Just like that?” Arlen seemed stunned, though relieved. The confusion of emotions playing out on her face entertained Cabot, probably more than it ought to.
“Just like that,” he confirmed, feeling smug. “Not only did the Brivinium return to where it belongs, with no way of tracking it back to us, I also earned a tidy profit on the deal.” With the entire episode behind him, he had the luxury of admiring his own efficiency.
“What if those two humans talk to someone?”
Cabot made a dismissive slice with his hand. “What could they say that wouldn’t get them slapped into a holding cell and questioned for days until a lack of evidence got them released?”
Arlen still wasn’t satisfied. “How do you know the Briveen won’t track them down and trace it back to us?”
“They’re not about to admit to having been robbed of their precious Brivinium when they already have it back. They have a very low threshold when it comes to disgrace.”
Arlen sagged against the counter in relief, but only briefly. She straightened and nodded. “I owe you for not turning me in,” she acknowledged.
“You most certainly do.” His wolfish smile came naturally.
“What’s the repayment?” Her eyes were guarded, her business sense kicking in. Cabot had hope for her future in the profession.
“I’ll let you know.”
Oh, yes. It was always better to be the one with the inside edge.
“In the meantime,” he said, guiding her to a seat at the table where he entertained clients. “Can I interest you in a crystal-matrix converter, already coupled with an energy-transfer unit? No doubt it would be a substantial upgrade to your ship.”
She seemed startled by the change of subject, but sat in the chair he indicated.
He turned to fetch some tea, smiling. It was a good day to do some business.
If you’d like to see more of Cabot and Nix, you can continue the Dragonfire Station series with [_Translucid. _]A short sample begins on the next page.
Drifting. Safe, wrapped in layers of gauze and dreams. Not quite aware, yet not fully oblivious either. Just tucked into a pleasant pocket of numb vagueness.
Until sharp sounds and bright lights pierced her sanctuary. Disjointed assaults on her senses made her try to twist away, but she was too swaddled in the ether to move. She wished the barrage would just leave her alone. Beneath the tumult, an insistent sound repeated, catching her attention. The more she tried to ignore it, the more demanding the noise became. With a burst of irritation, she focused on the sound and followed it up, away from the pleasant gauze.
“Em. Em. Em.”
She lifted her eyelids and blinked, trying to clear her hazy vision. The voice stopped its litany. Pale blue eyes stared at her from less than eight inches above.
She turned her head to look past the stranger. She saw medical equipment. Techbeds. Three nurses on the other side of the room, talking to patients. A doctor, watching her.
Why was she in the infirmary? Was she sick? She didn’t remember being sick. She ran her hands down her chest and over her stomach. She didn’t feel any wounds. She clocked a single exit on the far side of the room and tried to estimate how long it would take her to get there. Hard to tell without knowing her physical condition.
The doctor stepped closer and the blue eyes withdrew slightly, providing a better overall view of the pink-haired woman they belonged to. There wasn’t time enough to wonder about her, though, because the doctor spoke.
“There you are. You had us worried. How do you feel?” He handed her a cup. She took it suspiciously, until she realized it was only biogel. Which suddenly sounded wonderful. Her mouth felt dry and her throat rasped.
She took her time with slow swallows, giving herself a chance to assess the doctor. Olive-skinned Bennite with brown eyes. Cultured accent. Probably from a well-to-do family, though she’d never heard of a poor Bennite. Bennaris was one of the most prosperous members of the Planetary Alliance Cooperative. The doctor seemed reasonably athletic, in good physical condition as far as she could tell by looking. He was likely right-handed, given the scanner he held. She did not consider him a threat.
She ran her tongue over her lips, buying time before her reply. What could she say to these people? She had no idea who they were or what their agenda might be. She’d need to be careful.
“My head hurts a little. I’m confused. Not sure how I got here.” Bewilderment was a good tactic. Unfortunately, she was also telling the truth.
The doctor nodded understandingly, while the blue-eyed woman’s eyebrows pulled down with concern. She wasn’t a nurse, so her purpose in this situation remained unclear. She didn’t look like an official. Her features and coloring marked her as a Sarkavian. She had the white-blonde hair nearly all of her people had, though she’d fashionably tinted it a pale shade of pink. Her overalls and calloused hands marked her as a mechanic or engineer of some sort.
The doctor set the scanner down on a table and half-sat on a backless stool next to the techbed. “You got lucky. We almost didn’t get you back in time. A few more seconds and we’d have lost you, along with the shuttle.”
The doctor paused. “The shuttle you took out to inspect the station.” When she didn’t respond, he asked, “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Her gaze flickered between the two of them. Her first priority was to avoid telling them too much. On the other hand, she couldn’t think of anything to say. No memories came to mind.
“I don’t know.”
For the first time, the blue-eyed woman looked away from her, fixing her attention on the doctor. The anxiety in her expression and posture indicated a vested interest in the doctor’s assessment.
The doctor didn’t acknowledge the woman, though. His lips compressed slightly before he asked, “Do you know where you are?”
“Yes. You’re in my infirmary. Do you know what station we’re on?”
She shook her head.
“Do you recognize me?” he asked.
She strongly suspected that by this point, she should. “No.”
He had gone still, his manner grave. “Do you know your name?”
She opened her mouth to answer, and nothing came out. No name rose from the quagmire of her brain. She closed her mouth.
“I see,” he murmured. “Well!” His tone picked up, seeming more energetic. He squeezed the hand of the pink-haired woman, who now looked distraught. “I warned Wren here that the injury to the memory center of your brain might leave you with a few difficulties. It’s very likely that, as your brain adjusts, your memories will return. At least some of them, anyway.”
“How long should that take?” she asked. She continued to ignore “Wren” and focused entirely on the doctor, as he had the answers she needed.
He looked regretful. Not a good sign. “I’m afraid I can’t say. There’s no telling. A week. A month. Possibly longer.” He paused. “There’s also a small chance that your memory could be significantly impaired.”
“Meaning I might not remember anything, ever?”
The blue-eyed woman pressed a hand to her mouth.
“Who are you?” she finally asked the woman. The presence of this emotional person was not helping.
Stricken, the woman looked to the doctor.
“Ah, well. Let’s start with you,” he interjected. “Your name is Emé Fallon. Em to your friends, which means most of the people here on Dragonfire Station. You’re the security chief and second in command.” He gave her a moment to consider that, and when she nodded, he continued. “I am Dr. Brannin Brash, chief medical officer on Dragonfire.”
She nodded again and he paused, putting his arm gently around the pink-haired woman. Supportively. Clearly, her feelings mattered to him. “And this is Wren Orritz. Your wife.”
Zen DiPietro is a lifelong bookworm, dreamer, writer, and a mom of two. Perhaps most importantly, a Browncoat Trekkie Whovian. Also red-haired, left-handed, and a vegetarian geek. Absolutely terrible at conforming. A recovering gamer, but we won’t talk about that. Particular loves include badass heroines, British accents, and the smell of Band-Aids. Visit her at her website and sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date on her releases, or read reviews and interviews.
You can find Zen’s books on Amazon.
Cabot Layne has found himself the unintentional owner of some highly dangerous items. In order to avoid prison, he'll have to use all of his skills as a trader. If he does it just right, he might even turn a profit. The Cost of Business is a short story set in the Dragonfire Station universe. It can be read either before or after reading Translucid, Fragments, and Coalescence. Fans of Star Trek, Firefly, and The Expanse will enjoy this series.