2951-12-06 – Tales From the Inbox: The Unwilling Subcontractor

I have heard several reports that the being known as Jeb has traveled to Maribel all the way from the Silver Strand region. Jeb is a notorious and prolific arms dealer of that region, working mainly with mercenaries and small local governments under the auspices of a firm called Trace & Co. No doubt he intends to ply his trade among the mercenary auxiliaries to Fifth Fleet.

Nobody knows precisely what Jeb is, possibly not even Jeb himself. What is certain is that he is a creature of shrewd mercantile dealings. This story comes in from a mercenary who traveled with Jeb all the way from the Strand – a mercenary who possibly does not realize that her account elevates Jeb’s reputation rather more than her own. Still, at her direct request, I have used her real name in this slightly edited retelling.

“That wasn’t part of our arrangement.” Magda Salmon crossed her arms, though she wasn’t sure this closed-off gesture would translate properly into Jeb’s alien sensibilities. After all, the creature had no two paired limbs to cross, nor could they fold over its torso, because it had no torso, only a tubular body from which appendages stuck out almost at random, and whose forward end was studded with both sensory organs and electronic sensors. “My contract states that my wingmen and I get off your ship here at Maribel.”

“Your contract states no such thing.” Jeb’s smooth, baritone Anglo-Terran voice emerged from somewhere within the head-end of his form while a mechanical limb attached farther aft swung forward to display a holo-projector. “Observe.”

Magda scanned the text for the first time in several weeks. They’d hashed out the terms for protecting Jeb’s ship, the Dylan Lane, back at Cardona’s Landing. Most of it was standard merchantman-escort verbiage which Magda had seen a hundred times. Jeb had been rather quiet on the topic of who he thought might want to kill him, so no specific terms for the handling of different threat vectors had been negotiated; Magda was permitted to engage all hostiles in whatever way suited her. Since there had been no hostiles to engage, the trip had so far been quite dull.

“A clear reading of the contract states that you are responsible for protecting my vessel until the conclusion of my trade mission to this system.” Jeb reached into the hologram with a whip-thin tentacle projecting from below its single platter-sized eye to emphasize a particular section. “As I am not delivering cargo, my trade mission is not complete.”

“You want to keep us on to protect you here?” Magda frowned, then pointed back up the corridor. “Jeb, half the Confederated Navy is parked in this system. If anyone starts shooting at you anywhere near Maribel, they’ll have thirty Magpies to contend with before they even get through your shear-screens.” Magda paused for a moment. “And if you are worried about the Navy, you are quite mad.”

“I make no comment about the likelihood of danger within this system, Miss Salmon.” Jeb drifted backwards a meter and turned slightly to point its single eye directly at her. “I am only observing that if you depart now, you default on this contract, and I need not pay you. This eventuality is entirely acceptable.”

Magda raised one eyebrow. “I’d heard you were the sort to pinch every credit, but this is just low.”

“It would be bad for business to abandon value which I have already paid for.” Jeb didn’t move, or even blink. Come to think of it, Magda didn’t even know if he could blink.

“So you expect us to just cool our heels until you’ve sold everything you think you can sell here?” Magda turned away. “Good damned luck hiring mercenaries the next time after I tell that around.”

“There is little risk of needing your protection here, it is true. But that risk remains above zero.” Jeb’s mechanical arm twitched away and vanished into a recess along its body. “It was your negligence in not amending standard contract language. My intent to remain for some time was not a secret.”

“And my intent to shove off and find another contract was not a secret.” This was a weak argument, and Magda knew it; Jeb was correct in that it was her job to put her interests into the contract. She briefly wondered whether she could solve the problem by dumping the entire magazine of her Dragan heavy pistol into what passed for Jeb’s face. Probably not; the creature had been doing business in the Silver Strand for longer than she had been alive, and that meant he had to have some way to protect himself from the usual ruffians of that region and the negotiation strategies thereof. At least one of Jeb’s mismatched limbs was probably tipped with a weapon, and fast enough to blast her before her gun even finished leaving the holster.

“Indeed.” Jeb’s voice contained no hint of triumph, but it might as well have. “If you report that I am enforcing the contract’s letter in this way, both our reputations will suffer, I think. Uncertain whose interests will be more harmed.”

Magda turned back around. “Are you going somewhere with this? Because I’ll roll those dice in a heartbeat.” She hated the feeling of being at a disadvantage. Perhaps not enough to risk smashing her own career in order to break out of a few weeks of enforced idleness, but it was probably beneficial if Jeb thought otherwise.

“Absent other incentives, you mean.”

Magda scowled and jutted out her chin. Again, this gesture was probably lost on Jeb, but she felt she needed to take every moment all the same. “Sure, silence is for sale. But it’ll cost you.”

Another of Jeb’s limbs – Magda couldn’t quite tell if this one was a biological appendage or a mechanical one – flashed out holding an identity badge on a lanyard. “For the duration of your contract, I will sub-let your squadron’s services to my customers, and we will share the profit. This badge details your official standing as a Trace & Company employee.”

Magda waved away the badge. “That’s not in the terms of the contract.”

“This is an amendment we could both agree to.” Jeb waved the badge back and forth. “I have forwarded the details to your cabin terminal for consideration, Miss Salmon. You need not answer until tomorrow.”

Magda stormed away without another word. Jeb was a curious creature, it was true – if he wanted to subcontract mercenaries, he could have hired any three outfits in the Strand outright before leaving Cardona’s. Unfortunately, the alternative did not look terribly profitable. For the next few weeks at least, it was probably safe to play nice and do Jeb’s bidding on low profit margins.