"Milo, you have a call." Isaac, my personal AI, said.
I didn't notice because I was brooding. Again.
“Milo?” Isaac asked me again.
“What?” I asked, my brooding interrupted.
“You have a call,” he repeated.
"Put it on the wall,” I replied.
The smarmy, slightly overfed, florid face of Archibald Cox appeared on the screen. The background looked different. During our first conversation, it had looked like he was talking from an office setting. Now it looked more industrial; scuffed steel bulkheads, other consoles with empty chairs behind him.
"You on vacation, Archie?" I quipped.
"I wish it was such a pleasant reason for my journey," he replied affably. "But, alas, this trip is entirely for business purposes." He sighed. "I'm coming to see you, Captain Sapphire. To resolve our unfinished business, as it were. Have you had sufficient time to consider my terms?"
"I have indeed, my dear Archie," I replied back, just as affably.
"And..." he prompted. "Have you reached a decision?"
"I believe I have," matching him, affable reply for affable reply. Let's see how long it took for him to lose his avuncularity.
"Well..." he said. "Are you going to share it with me or just keep building the suspense?"
Archie was referring to my attempts to Emancipate my Sentient Ship partner at Interstellar Products, SDY712 or Studly (yeah, I know). We had developed a new version of a critical part for Wormhole drives, the MRFC (Magnetic Resonance Flux Capacitors) and started selling them to Sentient Ships. We'd been highly successful to date. Successful enough that we were now in a position to pay off Studly's Imperial Contract and free him from the Empire's indentured servitude. He'd be the very first one. It had the potential to change the balance of power in the Empire.
Our activities had attracted the attention of the Lotus Eaters Society, the secret police of the Empire, specifically, Lilith Morningstar. She kidnapped one of my people, so I put 15 solid slugs through her heart. Nobody fucks with my people.
In her attack, Lilith Morningstar had frozen all my accounts. Archie (her replacement from the Lotus Eaters) had given back access to all my accounts without a struggle (something Isaac had already been in the process of doing...) to demonstrate his intentions; so I was going to start out playing it straight up and see how he reacted.
"I've given it a lot of thought, Archie," I began. "I like working with Studly. I like making money. I would prefer the Emperor, the Lotus Eaters and you were all happy enough with me to let me keep doing those things."
He leaned forward, an intent look on his face.
"So, here's my counter offer," I said after a moment. "I've heard rumors that Dennet Prime is going to propose an Imperial Senate Study Group to investigate the issue of Studly's Emancipation?"
"I can confirm those rumors," he said with a slight frown.
"Then I'm willing to place a bonus payment to Studly, in escrow, of a large enough amount to pay off his Imperial Debt and achieve his Emancipation, pending the outcome of the Study. In the interim, Interstellar Products will extend Studly's existing contract for the duration."
His eyes narrowed.
"If I understand what you're proposing, Captain, you want to maintain the status quo until the Study Group has finished it's work?"
I nodded again.
He leaned back, crossing his arms, a contemplative look on his face.
"What would happen to the bonus in the event the Study Group recommends against Emancipation and Imperial Law is amended to that effect?" he asked.
"Since it's in escrow, it would revert back to IP," I replied.
"And what of your partner's employment contract?" he asked.
"It would have to be amended to follow the new version of Imperial Law, obviously," I snarked a bit. (Sorry, he was getting on my nerves and that's my default reaction.)
He looked up at the ceiling, tapping a finger against his chin, consideringly.
"Of course, if you just agreed to amend the contract now, the results of the Study Group would be rendered moot, Captain. At least in this instance," he countered.
"Studly doesn't have to renew his contract," I replied. "Why would he agree to such a stipulation now? Surely, he'd want to wait for the outcome of the Study Group?"
"I can have Studly declared a temporary ward of the Empire pending a review of his processing systems. During that time, the Empire would be more than willing to enter into a new contract on his behalf; provided the terms were agreeable. Upon successful execution of the contract, I'm confident he would be given a clean bill of health by the inspectors. These things are generally just a formality, you know," he was back to the avuncular uncle schtick.
"I think I want to wait for the outcome of the Study Group," I said. "I know that's what Studly wants as well."
I waited for his reply. This was it. We'd danced back and forth; raise and re-raise, flipping our cards at the proverbial poker table. Now it was time for the reveal; who would win this pot? It wasn't the final outcome, to be sure; but it would let me know how the rest of the contest was likely to play out.
"That's not what the Emperor wants," he said, raising his eyebrows. Conveying gentle disappointment with my refusal to see the error of my ways and simply accept the oh so generous offer from the benevolent, yet stern, Emperor. Archie wanted to help me, he really did. He was sympathetic to my point of view, really he was. But there was a certain protocol to these things, certain realities; and it was high time for me to accept those realities and get on with my life.
Did he really convey all of that just from the tone of his voice, a raised eyebrow and a look of gentle sorrow in his kindly eyes? Well, I might have been taking a bit of poetic license and imputing more of his internal thoughts than I actually had access to... But what the hell? I'm just impudent that way. Heh.
"Well, I guess the Emperor is just going to have to wait like the rest of us, Archie," back to snark mode. "After all, he's bound to follow Imperial Law just like us peons!"
Archie folded his arms and leaned back, a considering look on his face.
"Is that your final say on the matter, Captain Sapphire?" he said, after several moments.
"I'm afraid it is, Archie," I replied sadly. (See, I can do insincere emotions with the best of'em! Heh.)
He pursed his lips, tilting his head to the side, slightly.
"How unfortunate," he said.
I waited for him to continue.
Finally, he nodded.
"I'll be in touch," he said. And cut the connection.
I blinked at the suddenly blank screen.
No blustering, no threats, no monologuing about my inevitable crushing under the steel plated heel of the all powerful Emperor? What the hell just happened? My paranoia reached out and grabbed me by the throat, shaking hard to get my attention. This was it! The die was cast! The bet was placed! A whole host of other stupid metaphors flashed through my brain. I took several deep breaths to center myself. Showtime!
“Isaac,” I said, “please ask everyone to come into the conference room. We have a lot of planning to do and not much time to do it.”
“Right away, Milo.”
I congratulated myself on sounding outwardly calm. Inside, it felt like my stomach had been dropped into a blender set to pulse.