Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl. He shook his head sadly.
“I can’t believe we have to go through this again,” Holloway said. “It’s not that I don’t value you as part of this team, Carl. I do. Really, I do. But I can’t help but think that in some way, I’m just not getting through to you. We’ve gone over this how many times now? A dozen? Two? And yet every time we come out here, it’s like you forget everything you’ve been taught. It’s really very discouraging. Tell me you get what I’m saying to you.”
Carl stared up at Holloway and barked. He was a dog.
“Fine,” Holloway said. “Then maybe this time it will stick.” He reached down into a storage bin and hoisted a mound of putty in one hand. “This is acoustical blasting putty. What do we do with it?”
Carl cocked his head.
“Come on, Carl,” Holloway said. “This is the first thing I taught you. We put it on the side of the cliff at strategic points,” Holloway said. “Just like I already did earlier today. You remember. You were there.” He pointed in the direction of Carl’s Cliff, a massive outcropping of rock, two hundred meters high, with geological striations peeking out of the vegetation covering most of the rock face. Carl followed Holloway’s finger with his eyes, more interested in the finger than in the cliff his master had named for him.
Holloway set down the putty and picked up another, smaller object. “And this is the remote-controlled blasting cap,” he said. “Which we attach to the acoustical blasting putty, so we don’t have to be near the acoustical blasting putty when we set it off. Because that’s boom. How do we feel about boom, Carl?”
Carl got a concerned look on his doggy face. Boom was a word he knew. Carl was not fond of boom.
“Right,” Holloway said. He set down the blasting cap, making sure it was nowhere near the blasting putty, and that the cap receiver was inactive. He picked up a third object.
“And this is the remote detonator,” Holloway said. “You remember this, right, Carl?”
“What’s that, Carl?” Holloway said. “You want to set off the acoustical blasting putty?”
Carl barked again.
“I don’t know,” Holloway said, doubtfully. “Technically it is a violation of Zarathustra Corporation safe labor practices to allow a nonsentient species member to set off high explosives.”
Carl came up to Holloway and licked his face with a whine that said please please oh please.
“Oh, all right,” Holloway said, fending off the dog. “But this is the last time. At least until you grasp all the fundamentals of the job. No more slacking off and leaving all the hard work to me. I’m paid to supervise. Are we clear?”
Carl barked once more and then backed off, tail wagging. He knew what was coming next.
Holloway glanced down at the detonator’s image panel and checked, for the third time since he placed the charges earlier in the day, that the detonator was keyed specifically to the blasting caps placed into the charges. He pressed the panel to answer YES to each of the automated safety questions and waited while the detonator confirmed by geolocation that it was, in fact, safely outside the blast radius of any charges. This could be overridden, but it took some hacking, and anyway, Holloway preferred not to blow himself up whenever possible. And Carl was not so fond of boom.
CHARGES SET AND READY, read the detonator panel. PRESS PANEL TO DETONATE.
“Okay,” Holloway said, and set the detonator on the skimmer floor between him and Carl. Carl looked up expectantly.
“Wait for it,” Holloway said, and swiveled around in his chair to face the cliff. He could hear Carl’s tail thumping excitedly against a crate.
“Wait for it,” Holloway said again, and tried to spy the places on the cliff he had drilled into earlier in the day, using the skimmer as a platform while he inserted and secured the charges into the drill holes.
Carl gave a little whine.
“Fire!” Holloway said, and heard the dog scramble forward.
The cliff puffed out in four spots, spewing rock and dirt and hurling vegetation for meters. The cliff face darkened as the birds (which is to say, the local flying animal equivalent to birds) that had been nesting in the cliff face’s vegetation took to the air, alarmed by the noise and sudden eruptions. A few seconds later, four closely spaced cracks snapped the air in the skimmer’s open cockpit, the sound of the explosions finally reaching Holloway and Carl—loud, but without the Carl-worrying boom.
Holloway glanced over to his right, where his information panel lay, sonic imaging program up and running. The sonic probes he’d placed on and around the cliff were spewing their raw feed into the program, which was collating and combining the data, turning it into a three-dimensional representation of the internal structure of the cliff.
“All right,” he said, and swiveled around to look at Carl, who still had his paw on the detonator, tongue lolling out of his mouth
“Good boy!” Holloway said, and dug into the storage bin to pull out a zararaptor bone, still heavy with meat. He unwrapped it from its storage film and tossed it at Carl, who fell on it happily. That was the deal: Press the detonator, get a bone. It had taken Holloway more than a few tries to get Carl to press the detonator accurately, but it had been worth the effort. Carl had to come on the surveying trips anyway. Might as well have him be useful, or at least entertaining.
Now, it really was a violation of Zarathustra Corporation safe labor practices to let a dog blow things up. But Holloway and Carl worked alone, hundreds of kilometers from ZaraCorp’s local headquarters on-planet and 178 light-years from its corporate headquarters on Earth. He wasn’t technically a ZaraCorp employee anyway; he was a contractor, just like every other prospector/surveyor here on Zara XXIII. It was cheaper that way.
Holloway reached down and rubbed Carl’s head affectionately. Carl, engrossed in the raptor bone, paid him not the slightest bit of mind.
An urgent beep came from Holloway’s infopanel. He picked it up to see that the data feeds were suddenly spiking through their bandwidth.
A low rumble thrummed its way into the skimmer cockpit, getting louder the longer it lasted. Carl looked up from his bone and whined. This noise was perilously close to boom.
Holloway glanced up and saw a column of dust rising violently from the cliff wall, obscuring everything behind it.
“Oh, crap,” he said to himself. He had a very bad, sinking feeling about this.
After a few minutes, the dust began to clear a bit, and his very bad, sinking feeling got worse. Through the indistinct haze, Holloway could see that a portion of the cliff wall had collapsed, the borders of the collapse roughly contiguous with where he had placed his explosive charges. Stark geological striations glared out from where vegetation had been before. Birds swooped into the area, looking for their nests, the remains of which were a couple hundred meters below them, the wreckage muddying and rerouting the river at the foot of the cliff.
“Oh, crap,” Holloway said again, and reached for his binoculars.
ZaraCorp would be awfully pissed he’d just caused a cliff collapse. ZaraCorp had been working hard over the last few years to reverse the long-standing public image the company had as a rampant despoiler of nature—earned, to be sure, by actually despoiling nature on a number of planets it had operations on. The public was no longer buying the argument that uninhabited planets had higher ecological tolerances than inhabited ones, or that these ecosystems would quickly restore natural equilibriums once ZaraCorp had moved on. As far as they were concerned, strip-mining was strip-mining, regardless of whether you were doing it in the mountains of Pennsylvania or the hills of Zara XXIII.
Confronted with overwhelming public opposition to his company’s ecological practices (or lack thereof), Wheaton Aubrey VI, Chairman and CEO of Zarathustra Corporation, said “fine” and ordered ZaraCorp and all its subsidiaries to exercise practices consistent with ecological guidelines suggested by the Colonial Environmental Protection Agency. It was all the same to Aubrey. He was no friend to the various ecologies of the planets his company was on, but ZaraCorp’s Exploration & Exploitation charter with the Colonial Administration specified that the company would receive tax credits when conforming to CEPA guidelines, so long as the incurred business costs were above a meager cost-of-development baseline formulated decades before anyone cared about the ecological despoilage of worlds they would never actually set foot on.
ZaraCorp’s ostentatious new regime of ecological best practices, in other words, helped drive the company’s tax indebtedness to something close to zero, a neat trick for an organization whose size and income were a nontrivial fraction of that of the Colonial Administration itself.
But it also meant that events that tarnished ZaraCorp’s new eco-friendly PR campaign were looked at rather harshly. For example, collapsing an entire cliff wall. The whole point of using acoustic charges was to minimize the invasiveness of geologic exploration. Holloway didn’t intend to make half the cliff fall away, but given ZaraCorp’s reputation, the company would have a hard time getting anyone to believe that. Holloway had played fast and loose with regulations before and had mostly gotten away with it, but this was just the sort of thing that would, in fact, get Holloway booted off the planet.
“Come on, come on,” Holloway said, still peering through his binoculars. He was waiting for the haze to settle enough to make out details.
The communication circuit on Holloway’s infopanel fired up, showing the ID of Chad Bourne, Holloway’s ZaraCorp contractor rep. Holloway swore and slapped the AUDIO ONLY option.
“Hi, Chad,” he said, and put the binoculars back to his eyes.
“Jack, the geeks in the data room tell me there’s something really screwy with your feeds,” Bourne said. “They say everything was coming in clear and then it was like someone turned the feeds up to eleven.” Chad Bourne’s voice came in crystal clear and enveloping, thanks to the skimmer’s one true indulgence: a spectacular sound system. Holloway had it installed when he realized he’d be spending almost all his working life in the skim- mer. It was a wonder in many ways, but it didn’t make Bourne sound any less adenoidal.
“Huh,” Holloway said.
“They say it’s the sort of thing you see when there’s an earthquake. Or a maybe a rock slide,” Bourne said.
“Now that you mention it, I think I felt an earthquake,” Holloway said.
“Really,” Bourne said.
“Yes,” Holloway said. “Just before it happened, Carl was acting all strange. They say animals are always the first to know about these things.”
“So the fact that the data geeks just told me there was absolutely no seismic event of any magnitude in your part of the continent doesn’t bother you any,” Bourne said.
“Who are you going to believe,” Holloway said. “I’m here. They’re there.”
“They’re here with roughly twenty-five million credits’ worth of equipment,” Bourne said. “You’ve got an infopanel and a history of bad surveying practices.”
“Alleged bad surveying practices,” Holloway said.
“Jack, you let your dog blow shit up,” Bourne said.
“I do not,” Holloway said. The dust at the cliff wall had finally begun to clear. “That’s just a rumor.”
“We have an eyewitness,” Bourne said.
“She’s unreliable,” Holloway said.
“She’s a trusted employee,” Bourne said. “Unlike some people I could name.”
“She had a personal agenda,” Holloway said. “Trust me.”
“Well, that’s just the thing, isn’t it, Jack?” Bourne said. “You have to earn that trust. And right now, you’ve got not so much of it with me. But I’ll tell you what. I have a surveying satellite that’s coming up over the horizon in about six minutes. When it gets there, I’m going to have it look at that cliff wall you probably just blew up. If it looks like it’s supposed to, then the next time you get into Aubreytown, I’ll buy you a steak at Ruby’s and apologize. But if it looks like I know it’s going to look like, I’m going to revoke your contract and send some security agents to bring you in. And not the ones you go drinking with, Jack. The ones who don’t like you. I know, I’ll send Joe DeLise. He’ll be delighted to see you.”
“Good luck getting him off his barstool,” Holloway said.
“For you, I think he’d do it,” Bourne said. “What do you think about that?”
Holloway didn’t respond. He’d stopped listening several sec- onds earlier, because in his binoculars was a thin stratum of rock, sandwiched between two much larger striations. The stratum he was focused on was dark as coal.
“Yes,” Holloway said.
“Yes, what?” Bourne said. “Jack, are you even listening to what I’m telling you?”
“Sorry, Chad, you’re breaking up,” Holloway said. “Interference. Sunspots.”
“Jesus, Jack, you’re not even trying anymore,” Bourne said. “Enjoy your next five minutes. I’ve already called up your contract on my infopanel. As soon as I get that satellite image, I’m pressing the delete button.” Bourne broke contact.
Holloway looked over at Carl and picked up the detonator panel. “Crate,” he said to the dog. Carl barked, picked up his bone, and headed for his crate, which would immobilize him in case of a skimmer crash. Holloway dropped the detonator into the storage bin, secured his infopanel, and strapped himself into his chair.
“Come on, Carl,” he said, and goosed the skimmer forward. “We’ve got five minutes to keep ourselves from getting kicked off the planet.”
Five minutes thirty seconds later Holloway slapped open the communication circuit on his infopanel, sound only. “I suppose you’re going to tell me my contract is deleted,” he said to Bourne.
“It is so very deleted,” Bourne said. “And I’m keying in the security retrieval order right now. Just stay where you are and someone will be along to pick you up in about an hour. They’ll take you directly to the beanstalk. Pack light.”
“No chance I can convince you otherwise,” Holloway said.
“No way,” Bourne said. “I’ve got six dozen contractors I supervise, Jack. Six dozen. Not one of them is as much of a pain in my ass as you are. I’m about to make my life that much easier.”
“You’re sure your satellite image is showing you what you need to see?” Holloway asked.
“The satellite takes images at a centimeter resolution, Jack,” Bourne said. “Live images. I am at this very moment staring at the cliff wall you just blew up, and seeing you and your dog sitting on a ledge that up until a few moments ago was inside the cliff. Say hello to Carl for me.”
Holloway turned to Carl. “Chad says hello.” Carl blinked and lay down to rest.
“Carl’s a nice dog,” Bourne said. “Too bad he’s yours.”
“That’s been noted before,” Holloway said. “Chad, if the satellite can resolve to a centimeter, you should look at my hand.”
“You’re giving me the middle finger,” Bourne said, after a second. “Nice. Have you always been twelve years old, or is this new?”
“Glad you noticed, but not that hand,” Holloway said. “The other hand.”
There was a moment’s pause. Then, “Bullshit,” said Bourne.
“No,” Holloway said. “Sunstone.”
“Bullshit!” Bourne said again.
“Big one, too,” Holloway said. “This one’s the size of the proverbial baby’s fist. And there are three more just this big here on this ledge with me. I pulled them out of the seam like they were apples off a tree. This was the original jellyfish burial ground, my friend.”
“Infopanel,” Bourne said. “High-resolution imager. Now.”
Holloway smiled and reached for his infopanel.
Zara XXIII was in most respects an unremarkable Class III planet: roughly Earth sized, roughly Earth mass, winging around its star in the “Goldilocks zone” that made liquid water possible and life therefore an inevitability. It lacked native sentient life, but most Class III planets did, otherwise they’d be Class IIIa and ZaraCorp’s E & E charter would be void, the planet and its resources held in trust for the thinking creatures who lived on it. Because Zara XXIII lacked creatures with forebrains (or the forebrain equivalent), however, ZaraCorp was free to explore and exploit it, mining the metals and plunging depths for the petroleum that humans had long ago exhausted on their own world.
But for all that Zara XXIII was mostly unremarkable, it stood out from all the other ZaraCorp planets in one way: 100 million years previously, its oceans were dominated by an immense jellyfish-like creature that survived on algae and diatoms that themselves fed on the unusually mineral-rich waters of Zara XXIII’s seas. When these jellyfish died, their fragile corpses sank downward into the oxygen-starved depths, covering the ocean floors in places for kilometers. These corpses were eventually covered in silt and mud, and in the course of time, weight and pressure compressed and transformed the jellyfish into something else.
They became sunstones: opal-like stones that did not just catch the light like filigreed fire but were in fact thermoluminescent. The body heat of someone wearing a stone was enough to make it glow from within. Not the garish glow of a light stick at a dance party or a glow-in-the-dark mood ring you’d give your kid, but a subtle and elegant incandescence that warmed skin tones and flattered the wearer. Because every person’s skin temperature was ever so slightly different, even the same sunstone looked different on another person. It was the ultimate personalized gemstone.
ZaraCorp discovered them while excavating what it hoped was a coal seam and decided the funny rocks kicking up in the hopper were more promising than the coal. Since then the corporation had taken the lessons of the old diamond cartels to heart, positioning sunstones as the rarest of all possible gems: found only on one planet, strictly limited and therefore fetching the highest possible prices. The sunstone Holloway held in his hand was worth roughly nine months of income. Cut and shaped, it would be worth more than he’d likely make in three years as a contract surveyor.
Which he no longer was.
“Holy cow,” Bourne said, glancing at the sunstone through the infopanel’s camera. “That thing’s like a jawbreaker.”
“It sure is,” Holloway said. “I could retire on this baby, and on the other sunstones I picked out of the seam here. And I guess I will, since now I own them and the entire seam.”
“What?” Bourne said. “Jack, being out in the sun has made you delirious. You don’t own a damn thing here.”
“Sure I do,” Holloway said. “You deleted my contract, remember? That makes me an independent prospector, not a contract prospector. As an independent prospector, anything I find is mine, and any seam I chart I have the right to exploit. That’s basic Colonial Authority E and E case law. Butters versus Wayland, to be specific.”
“Oh, come off it, Jack,” Bourne said. “You know ZaraCorp doesn’t allow independent prospectors on planet.”
“I wasn’t one when I came on planet,” Holloway said. “You just made me one.”
“And besides which, ZaraCorp owns this entire planet,” Bourne said.
“No,” Jack said. “ZaraCorp has an exclusive Explore and Exploit charter for the planet, granted by the Colonial Authority. De facto, ZaraCorp runs the planet. De jure, it’s Colonial Authority territory.”
“Are you having a problem with the word exclusive?” Bourne said. “An exclusive E and E charter means only ZaraCorp is allowed to explore and exploit.”
“No,” Holloway said. “It just means ZaraCorp is the exclusive corporate entity allowed on the planet. Single individuals are allowed E and E rights on any Class Three planet, so long as they conform to CEPA guidelines and allow chartered corporate entities right of first refusal on purchase of their prospected materials. Buchheit versus Zarathustra Corporation.”
“You’re pulling these so-called cases right out of your ass, Jack,” Bourne said.
“They’re real, all right,” Holloway said. “Go ahead and look them up. I was a lawyer in my past life, you know.”
Bourne’s snort came loud and clear through the infopanel. “Yeah, and you were disbarred,” he said.
“Not because I didn’t know the law,” Holloway said. Which was true, as far as it went.
“It’s all immaterial anyway, because when you surveyed the seam, you were working for ZaraCorp,” Bourne said. “I deleted your contract afterwards. Therefore discovery of the seam and the fruits of that discovery belong to us.”
“They might, if I had used ZaraCorp equipment to do the survey,” Holloway said. “But in fact, I used my own equipment, which I bought and paid for, as specified in that contract you deleted. Since I used my own equipment, legally the right to the find vested back to me when you dropped me. Levensohn versus Hildebrand.”
“Bullshit,” Bourne said.
“Look it up,” Holloway said. Actually, he hoped Bourne wouldn’t look it up; unlike the other two cases he quoted, he’d made up Levensohn v. Hildebrand on the spot. He was about to get kicked off planet anyway. It was worth a shot.
“I am going to look it up,” Bourne said. “Trust me.”
“Good,” Holloway said. “Do that. And while you’re doing that, I’m going to get busy excavating this seam. And when your security goons show up and try to roust me from my seam, I’ll be absolutely delighted, because then I can sue them, you and ZaraCorp under Greene versus Winston.”
Holloway couldn’t see it, but he knew Bourne had stiffened in his chair. Greene v. Winston were fighting words at ZaraCorp because, among other things, the decision had sent Wheaton Aubrey V, ZaraCorp’s previous Chairman and CEO, to San Quentin for seven years.
“Greene was overturned, you hack,” Bourne said, tightly.
“No,” Holloway said. “A narrow and limited exception was carved out of Greene in Mieville versus Martin. That exception doesn’t apply here.”
“The hell it doesn’t,” Bourne said.
“Well, I guess we’ll find out,” Holloway said. “It’ll probably take years to work through the courts, though, and ZaraCorp will get all sorts of bad publicity while it does. We all remember what happened the last time. Also, just so you know, I’ve been recording this little conversation of ours. Just in case you get it into your head to suggest to DeLise and his security goons that they should toss me off this ledge when they find me.”
“I resent that implication,” Bourne said.
“I’m glad to hear that, Chad,” Holloway said. “But I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Bourne sighed. “Fine, Jack,” he said. “You win. Your contract is undeleted. Happy?”
“Not in the least,” Holloway said. “If you deleted the old contract, then I have the right to negotiate a new contract.”
“You get the standard contract just like everyone else,” Bourne said.
“You talk as if I’m not standing next to a billion-credit sunstone seam, Chad,” Holloway said. “Which I own.”
“I hate you,” Bourne said.
“Don’t blame me,” Holloway said. “You’re the one who deleted my contract. But my demands are simple. First, I don’t want to be fined for this cliff collapse. It was an accident, and I know when you sift the data you’ll see that for yourself.”
“Fine,” Bourne said. “Done.”
“And I want a one percent finder’s fee,” Holloway said.
Bourne swore. Holloway was asking for four times the standard finder’s fee. “No way,” Bourne said. “No way. They’ll fire me for even thinking about approving that.”
“It’s one lousy percent,” Holloway said.
“You want ten million credits for blowing up a cliff side,” Holloway said.
“Well, it might be more than that,” Holloway said. “I can see six more sunstones in the seam from where I’m sitting.”
“No,” Bourne said. “Don’t even think about it. The most I’m allowed to authorize myself is point four percent. Take it and we’re done. Leave it and we’re going to court. And I swear to you, Jack, if I get fired for all of this, I’m going to hunt you down and kill you myself. And steal your dog.”
“That’s just low, stealing someone’s dog,” Holloway said.
“Point four percent,” Bourne said. “Final offer.”
“Done,” Holloway said. “Write this up as a rider to the contract neither you nor I contend was ever stupidly deleted by you. If it’s a rider, I don’t have to fly into Aubreytown to approve it.”
“Already done,” Bourne said. “Transmitting now.” The MAIL icon on Holloway’s infopanel came to life. He picked up the infopanel, scanned the rider, and approved it with his security hash.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Chad,” Holloway said, setting down the infopanel.
“Please die in a fire, Jack,” Bourne said.
“Does this mean you’re not taking me for a steak at Ruby’s?” Holloway asked, but Bourne had already cut the connection.
Holloway smiled to himself and held up the sunstone in his hand, turning it in the sun. Even in its uncut, dirty state it was beautiful, and Holloway had held it long enough that his own ambient heat had worked into the heart of the stone, making its filaments glow like lightning trapped in amber.
“You’re coming with me,” Holloway said to the stone. ZaraCorp could have the rest of them, and would. But this was the stone that had just made him a very rich man. It was a lucky stone, indeed. And he had someone in mind to give it to. By way of apology.
Holloway stood up and slipped the sunstone into his pocket. He looked over at Carl, who was still lying on the ledge. Carl crooked an eyebrow at him.
“Well,” Holloway said. “We’ve done all the damage we’re going to do around here for today. Let’s go home.”
Fuzzy Nation © 2011 John Scalzi
(Keep reading! Chapters 3 and 4 are up on io9.com now!)