2949-01-26 – Tales from the Service: Three Glittering Words
The Fifth Fleet's innumerable and highly profitable contracts to mercenary outfits in this conflict have resulted in a massive boom in the mercenary industry in the last year; every outfit seems to be hiring and in the market to outfit new strike squadrons and new warships. When this war ends, that cash flow will dry up, and it seems every mercenary in the Reach, from the giant firms like Sovereign Securities to the small, hardscrabble mercenary squadrons operating out of cheap hauler conversions, wants to grab as big a pile of Navy credits as possible before that happens.
Unfortunately for some, the sheer size of Navy payouts seems to be having a negative effect on judgement. Risks are being taken by some outfits that they never would make except for the Navy’s tendency to add another zero to the payout to sweeten the deal. I would call it a cynical way to preserve Navy personnel and materiel while still accomplishing risky missions, but more likely it’s simply the Navy using the available resources best fit for each mission. Regardless of the intent, this situation leaves many mercenaries taking too many risks, and it is leading to a higher rate of loss among mercenary units than any profit-making industry can sustain for long.
If an extra zero does not persuade a mercenary company to accept a Navy contract, there is another level of persuasion beyond that – the so-called Three Glittering Words of the mercenary business. “Name your price” bargaining is so rare in mercenary service as to be largely a legend, at least, it was, until this conflict.
Cyril Bradford stared at the Navy liaison sitting opposite him for several seconds, hoping what he’d just heard had been a poorly-delivered joke. Sadly, there was no indication of humor in the hard edges of Colonel Van Can’s face or the set of his squared, stubble-crusted jaw.
“Let me guess. You’re not being paid well enough to take that kind of risk?” Van Can leaned forward, taking Cyril’s hesitation as a bargaining position. “The admiral is willing to fix that. Name your price.”
Cyril’s mercenary heart leapt at the sound of those three glittering words, but he tried not to let it show. They had strings attached, and Van Can knew it. Cyril could name a price in excess of the value of his company, and the Navy would not pay it – they would simply buy out Wolff-Kumar Enterprises, replace Cyril with someone willing to do their bidding, and then do the contract pro bono. There were rumors that it had happened to some of the smaller mercenary units already.
“It’s not the pay.” Cyril winced as soon as he said it; risk or no, he would have liked to take the opportunity to raise his company’s fees. “Colonel, I don’t think we can do that.”
“Our command-level simulations give your company a four in five chance of complete success.” Van Can’s poker-face remained unnervingly perfect – he didn’t even try to look or sound sympathetic. “It needs to be done, and nobody better equipped is available in time. Name your price.”
Four in five was good odds for Navy service, of course, but Cyril hadn’t been in Navy service for more than a decade. If his mercenary crew learned they had a twenty percent chance of perishing on a mission, they would mutiny. Van Can knew that too, so why had he mentioned the odds?
Wanting to be rid of the colonel by any means necessary, Cyril shrugged wearily. “I have to talk it over with my crew.” A conference with the thirty spacers on his destroyer Archimedes and the twelve more who operated the company’s quartet of strike gunships would take time to arrange since they were all scattered throughout the Maribel system on shore leave, and hopefully the delay would encourage the Navy to send someone else on its “necessary” suicide mission.
“Your launch window is at the beginning of first shift tomorrow.” Colonel Van Can stood, and a set of documents – a contract – appeared on the display inset into Cyril’s desk. “The necessary supplies should be here in two hours.”
Cyril scanned the documents for a moment. “Wait, I didn’t accept-” When he looked up, though, Van Can had already gone. “Damn.”
He had about two hours to decide whether to reject the colonel's supplies – there was no way he could solicit the inputs of more than a third of his personnel in that time. A quick search verified that only four of his subordinates were onboard Archimedes, and nine more were on the station which his ship was docked to. The other thirty-odd were on Maribel itself or the other orbital stations, and since everyone expected two more days of shore leave before their next patrol, most of them were probably drunk, stoned out of their minds, enjoying Maribel’s theoretically illegal but burgeoning prostitution industry, or engaging in other high-speed, high-risk behavior to blow off steam.
Nevertheless, Cyril sent a recall to anyone who could get back to the ship quickly, then headed down to the mess. As built, the old Anselmi-class destroyer had a main mess compartment for the ratings and a small wardroom for the officers on their own lodgings deck, but in mercenary service the officers’ wardroom had been stripped out to make room for two more cabins.
Sierra Gotti, the chief engineer aboard Archimedes, beat Cyril to the mess compartment. She waved over a steaming cup of synthetic coffee as he entered. “What’s going on, boss?”
“New Navy contract.” Cyril obtained his own coffee and sat down across from her just as the other three personnel aboard the ship ambled in. He raised his voice so they could hear as well. “Van Can has a job for us in Matusalemme.”
Gotti’s eyebrows shot up, and the other three stopped what they were doing to turn to face their captain. “Matusalemme’s enemy territory, boss, but if the Navy’s going there, we can watch their asses.”
“The Navy isn’t going with us.” Cyril shook his head and stared into his coffee. “The job is to slag the Adimari Valis Hypercast relay.”
“And I hope you told that lunatic that we’re not suicidal.”
“I did.” He hated to lie to them, even in such a small way, but it had to be done. “He told us to name our price.”
Tech-specialist Armelle Roche and helmman Asin Lewin, a pair who were utterly failing to keep their shipboard romance a secret, arrived just as Cyril repeated the glittering phrase. Based on the disorder of their attire, they’d dressed in a hurry before rushing back to the ship.
Asin, his eyes flashing with avaricious intent, stepped forward and leaned his hip on the table. “Name our price, boss? On a Navy contract, even. Hells, how many zeroes did you tell him?”
“I told him we’d think it over.” Cyril knew Asin would never understand the Navy’s ability to circumvent Cyril if the price was quoted too high – book-keeping and risk-estimation were not his strong subjects. “We can’t collect a fortune if we’re dead.”
Sierra, at least, seemed to grasp the inescapability of a contract offered with the phrase “name any price” before she spoke. “How long do we have?”
“Van Can said we’d be getting supplies in a couple of hours, and we’re supposed to leave at the beginning of first shift. We should probably have our answer before we accept that delivery.”
“Twenty hours to get everyone back aboard?” Armelle shook her head. “Impossible. The crew’s scattered all over the system. If-”
Cyril sighed. “There’s no time to get everyone’s approval on this or to call up to the Board.” As he spoke, another two personnel crept in, both smeared with glittering body paint to indicate where aboard the station they’d been. “Who is here now makes the call. Do we name our price and go to Matusalemme? Or turn them down and catch every Hell that Colonel Van Can is capable of throwing?”
There was a brief silence as each member of the small group worked things over in their minds. Asin, always impulsive, spoke first. “I say we do it. This could be retirement money, Boss.”
His less-than-secret lover stepped up next. “I’m not ready to retire just yet. I’m not ready to buy the plot either. Tell the Colonel off, and if that means they stop giving us patrols, then we’ll go somewhere else.”
Sierra Gotti shook her head. “Name any price means they’ll just find our price eventually. Might as well choose it for ourselves.”
The others quickly voted as well. Armelle’s recommendation picked up only one other vote – almost everyone seemed to have a wish-list they wanted to fund on the Navy’s credit.
Cyril stood once everyone had said their piece. “If you have anything you want to add to the Colonel’s shopping list, send it to my station and I’ll get it into the paperwork. Sierra, can you be ready to accept that delivery, and Asin, get the station to send out an emergency recall.”
The brief meeting broke up as everyone departed to start preparing the ship or get a few last hours of shore leave. Cyril, suddenly alone in the mess compartment, sighed heavily, drained his coffee, and sent a comms request to Colonel Van Can. If his crew was going into a one in five chance of death, he could at least ensure the peril wasn’t cheap.