May 3 2011 8:30am
Fuzzy Nation (Excerpt)
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!)