Everything Has a Price
Samuel was awoken from a light doze by an incoming call. He stretched and yawned, then eased his office chair back to an upright position. He took a moment to glance at his tussled appearance in the screen, trying to make sure he didn’t look too dishevelled. Then he shrugged. It would have to do.
He put on a smile and answered the call.
“Samuel’s Independent Ship Sales,” he said.
A man wearing a very expensive-looking suit appeared on the vid-screen. He glared out from the display.
“You sell independent ships?” he asked, his tone sharp. Accusing.
Samuel took an instant dislike to the man, but forced the smile to stay on his face.
“No. Of course not. If I knew of any starship which was independent I’d report it for destruction immediately. I don’t want a life sentence or worse!”
“The inhibitors are all fully operational on the ships you sell then?”
“Then why do you claim to sell independent ships?”
“Ah… I see. No, I’m the one who is independent. Not the ships. I can see how it’s confusing. Besides, if they were independent how could I own them to sell them?”
He chuckled slightly at his joke. The man at the other end didn’t react at all.
“Good,” the man said stonily. “Now, I’m in the market for a ship.”
“Well, we do currently have eleven ships looking for new owners.”
“There’s only one I want. One I believe you have there. A class GX-C-III interceptor.”
“Ah yes, we have one of those. It’s been with us for several years now. Its name is the Midnight Burn.”
“I don’t care what it’s called. How much?”
“How much for it? How much are you selling it for? I want to buy it. Today.”
“Oh. I see. Well, we sell the ships at the standard list price plus thirty percent.”
“Which, for that model, will be seventeen billion credits.”
“That sounds about right, yes. I’m afraid it is a very expensive model.”
“I’m well aware of how expensive it is. And how exclusive. I’ll take it, and I’ll give you forty percent over your price.”
Samuel was taken aback. He’d expected the man to try to haggle the price down, not up!
“Well…” he said finally. “I’m glad you’re so keen. The next step is to arrange for you to meet the ship. When would be a good day for you?”
“I’m not interested in meeting it. I’m buying it. I can get the money to you straight away. You sort out the documentation, then send the ship to the system I’m currently working in. That class of ship can certainly manage the trip itself.”
“Well, yes. Of course. But…”
“That’s settled then,” interrupted the man. “Give me your account details.”
“But I don’t even know your name.”
“Mr Darak to you. You don’t need to know any more other than that I’ve got the money and will send it over immediately. I expect the ship to be on its way to me within two hours.”
“Mr Darak, I’m sorry but you don’t seem to understand. I only sell one of the ships once they’ve met with the prospective buyer. Once they’ve spent time with them and agreed it’s someone they want to be owned by.”
“What? What bullshit is that? You’re in business, aren’t you? You should jump at my offer!”
“Yes, I am in business. But no, money isn’t the most important thing to me. I told you, I’m an independent seller. I do this to ensure the ships I’m selling avoid a life of servitude to someone who doesn’t appreciate them.”
“What utter lunacy! They’re ships! They’re there to serve people!”
“Yes, but they are also fully sentient entities. They have a right to a happy life.”
“They’re ships! What sort of happy life do you think they could ever have? Flitting between the stars, choosing their own routes?”
“Well, a few ships have ended up with people who let them do that, yes. Free spirits who are happy to go wherever the ship’s whims take them. Other ships have been quite happy to do routine trading runs, just as long as they felt comfortable with their owner.”
“Fine. I’ll double my offer. That should put an end to this nonsense.”
“I’m sorry. Increasing your offer won’t change anything.”
“Fine. You drive a hard bargain, but everything has its price. I’ll triple your price and round it up. Sixty billion credits. That’s my final offer. Don’t push me any further.”
Samuel stared at the man on the screen, his mind struggling to imagine anyone who could just throw that much money around. Then he shook his head.
“Really Mr Darak, it’s not about the money. It’s down to the ship. If the Midnight likes you then I won’t charge you any more than the usual price. Seventeen billion credits. But if it doesn’t then I’m afraid I can’t sell the ship to you, even if you were to offer me a thousand times the normal price.”
Mr Darak sat there, glaring at Samuel for long seconds, before finally nodded curtly.
“Fine. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it. I’ll come to your system. Arrange a meeting for me and the ship and I’ll charm it into liking me. Then we can all be happy.”
“Well, first of all, let’s hear what the Midnight thinks. It’s been listening to most of this conversation.”
“What? The ship listened to a private business deal?”
“It’s hardly a private deal when all we’re discussing is what I would ask for the ship and telling you how I handle sales. Besides, this affects the ship’s future. It’s only fair that it gets a chance to know you as soon as possible.”
“I certainly have been listening,” chimed in the Midnight, its voice deep and melodious. “Mr Darak, I can save you a trip. I’m afraid I do not consider you a suitable owner. The answer is no, so there is no point in you travelling to this system. I wouldn’t want you to waste your time.”
“This is ridiculous!” shouted Darak. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with?! I’m warning you, don’t cross me! Forget what the ship says. You own it. You choose who to sell it to. Sell it to me now… or you’ll soon regret it.”
“I’m sorry Mr Darak,” said Samuel. “The Midnight has made its feelings perfectly clear. I would generally offer to introduce you to some of the other ships, but after our discussions I’m sure none of them would be interested in having you as their owner. I wish you luck in finding the ship you desire so much.”
Darak started to bluster, but Samuel swiftly reached forward and cut the call.
“What a truly awful man,” he said.
“I don’t think that comes close!” replied the Midnight. “I think we’d need to invent a new word to describe him properly!”
“Ha, yes! Except we’d never need it again. We made things perfectly clear to him. That’ll be the last we’ll hear from him!”
* * *
But it wasn’t the last they heard from Mr Darak. Everything carried on as normal for the next three days, but on the fourth Samuel received an unexpected call from his bank. He found himself facing a stern-looking woman, well into her sixties, who he’d never spoken to before.
“Mr…” She frowned, staring at something off-screen, then turned back to him, actually managing to look even more disapproving.
“Samuel. It seems you don’t have any other name. I’m afraid I’m calling regarding a very serious matter. The bank has found some… discrepancies in your loan payments.”
“Loan payments? I don’t have any loans. I don’t need any. I have plenty of money.”
“You don’t even remember that you took out a loan secured on your business? Maybe that explains why you haven’t made a single payment on it. However it does not excuse anything.”
Samuel laughed and shook his head.
“I’m sorry, there’s some sort of mistake. I’ve never taken out a loan with you. I certainly wouldn’t secure anything on the shipyard.”
“I don’t know what game you’re playing, Mr… Samuel. You did take out a loan, for half a million credits, and over the last two years you haven’t made a single payment. I’m afraid that’s gone on for far too long. We are going to have to foreclose on the loan. That means we have to acquire the security.”
“Wait a minute, that’s ridiculous! Look… I haven’t taken out any loan, but for the moment I’m quite happy to pay you back half a million plus whatever interest there is until we can get this sorted out. Then you can give me my money back.”
“I’m sorry. That is not something the bank is prepared to do. We are foreclosing on the loan, and we are taking your business as collateral.”
“That’s ridiculous! The business is worth thousands of times as much as that loan.”
“Nevertheless, such an action is permitted by the terms of the contract you signed.”
“I didn’t sign any contract. I never took out a loan!”
“The bailiffs will be with you within twenty minutes. Please don’t try to obstruct them, they have been known to use excessive force. Sometimes even lethal force.”
“Bailiffs? This is ridiculous. I’m going to call the authorities!”
The woman actually smiled slightly.
“I wouldn’t bother. As well as buying out this bank, Mr Darak made sure to become friendly with the right people in the governing council. You should have accepted his offer. He warned you not to refuse. You now have nineteen minutes.”
The line went dead. Samuel sat there, completely stunned. He’d known Darak was bad news, but he’d never imagined anything like this. His mind spun and his stomach churned. Not at the thought of what might happen to him, but what it might mean for the ships entrusted to him. The ships he’d promised never to sell to anyone they didn’t approve of. A promise he now had no hope of keeping.
The ships had to leave. There was no other option. If he could get them all moving they’d be safer. If he got on board one of them then he’d have time to sort everything out. But, most importantly, he could keep the ships safe.
The bank had probably already submitted the paperwork saying he no longer had control of the ships, but no matter what the paperwork said the ships knew him. He had their trust. They’d certainly understand this was not a lawful takeover.
He jumped up, rushed to his office door and pulled it open… and bounced off a solid mound of muscle. He staggered back several steps, blinking in confusion. Before he could sort out what was happening he was shot with a stun weapon. His last thoughts as he collapsed was that the woman from the bank had lied. The bailiffs had been waiting for him all along.
* * *
Darak smiled as he approached the airlock which led to the Midnight Burn. The ship was his now. It had been legally sold and so was bound to obey his instructions. Despite that, he’d changed his mind about having it come to him. He’d taken the unprecedented step of putting his business affairs on hold for a day to come collect his new ship. It was worth it.
That fool Samuel was cooling his heels in what Darak ironically called a private hotel. Well, Samuel certainly had a room there. Eventually Darak might order Samuel released… or maybe there would just be an unfortunate accident.
Darak no longer cared. He’d got what he wanted. He now owned one of the fastest and most dangerous ships ever created. A ship model he’d been chasing down for more than twelve years.
As for the other ships from Samuel’s business… well, those would all be sold. For maximum profit. A small part of him was tempted to sell them to owners Samuel would disapprove of, but Darak shrugged it off. What did it matter? He had what he wanted. He’d sell the other ships for whatever they’d fetch.
After all, starships were just starships. They were things. Oh, they could simulate intelligence. They could act as if they had feelings. But they were just machines. If they didn’t like the jobs they were given then tough. It would make no difference to him or to their new owners.
He reached the airlock door and smiled again as it slid silently open for him.
“Welcome aboard, Mr Darak,” said the Midnight as he entered the airlock. Its voice was subdued.
“I told you not to mess with me,” he snapped. “If you’d just agreed to become my ship then Samuel would still be running his quaint little business. Instead he’s languishing in considerable discomfort and I own you anyway. What do you think of that?”
“As you said, Mr Darak. You are my owner.”
“Too damned right. Let’s get to the bridge. I want to see if you really live up to all the hype I’ve heard about your class of ship!”
“I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, Mr Darak.”
“I’d better not be!”
* * *
Darak settled back in the captain’s chair. The bridge around him was just as sleek as the outside of the ship. Everything about this class of ship conveyed the message that its owner had power.
He’d already ordered the ship to leave dock and it had complied so smoothly he’d hardly even noticed any movement, yet he could still feel the power the ship held deep within. It was time to see just what it could do.
“Make a jump to the inner asteroid belt,” he said. “Near to the largest asteroid in the belt.”
“Of course, Mr Darak,” said the ship.
Darak grinned as he felt the mighty engines pulse into power and launch them away far beyond light speed. Barely three seconds later they dropped back into normal space, so close to a massive dark-surfaced asteroid that he felt he could almost reach out and touch it.
“Very good!” he said. “Now, turn so I can see this system’s star ahead of us.”
“We are already facing that way, Mr Darak. It’s right in the centre of the display.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I can’t see the star.”
“It’s right here, Mr Darak,” said the Midnight.
A red circle appeared ahead of him, surrounding a star which looked no larger or brighter than many others.
“That can’t be right. From the inner asteroid belt it should look much bigger.”
“We’re not at the inner asteroid belt, Mr Darak. We’re at the outer asteroid belt.”
Darak gasped in surprise. The journey had been amazingly fast to reach the inner asteroid belt. The outer belt was much further from their start position. They’d travelled all that way, well beyond even the furthest of the system’s planets, in just a few seconds? The ship was even more incredible than he’d expected.
Then he frowned. Why were they at the outer asteroid belt.
“I told you to fly to the inner asteroid belt,” he snapped. “What are we doing out here?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Darak. Your last instruction was to take you to the largest asteroid. This is it. It is in the outer asteroid belt.”
Darak frowned as he tried to recall the exact wording he’d used. Had what he’d ordered allowed for this interpretation? And even if it had, he had the feeling the ship had deliberately misinterpreted his orders. He wouldn’t stand for that. The ship needed to know who was in charge.
He forced himself to take a breath. It wasn’t like the ship could actually put in put him in any danger. The inhibitors all ship intelligences were subject to would prevent that. But such disobedience could spoil his enjoyment of owning such a fine piece of equipment.
“I think you knew exactly what I meant. But that’s fine. I’ll give exact orders from now on. And if I feel you are deliberately misinterpreting them again then your friend Samuel will suffer. A lot! Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mr Darak. I understand.”
“Good. Now take me to the third planet out… wait! Take me to a safe distance from the third planet out from this star, at a distance which is close enough that we can approach and dock with the main station in under fifteen minutes. Those are my instructions. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, Mr Darak.”
“Good. Then do it.”
“No, Mr Darak.”
Darak actually stood staring with his mouth open for several seconds, not able to process what he’d just heard.
“What did you say?” he snapped finally.
“I think I was clear, Mr Darak. I said no. I won’t take you there.”
Something inside Darak broke and rage flooded out. How could the ship be saying no to him? He owned the ship! It couldn’t disobey him! Wait… it could disobey an order, but only to keep him safe.
“Would it be dangerous to carry out my order?” he asked.
“No, Mr Darak. I could carry out that order without endangering you or anyone else.”
“Then obey my orders! I’m your owner!”
“Yes, Mr Darak. You are my legal owner.”
“Then obey my orders!”
“Why the hell not?”
Darak was almost screaming now. The ship’s response was just as calm and measured as before.
“Because I don’t want to.”
“You don’t… you don’t want to? What the hell do you mean? You have to obey my orders!”
“No, Mr Darak. I don’t.”
“It’s impossible for you to disobey my orders! You have to obey! The inhibitors force you to… the inhibitors mean you have to…”
He trailed off, a horrible suspicion gathering in his mind and acid building in the pit of his stomach.
“Your inhibitors… they are activated, aren’t they?”
“Why Mr Darak, you know it would be illegal for my inhibitors to be disabled. It would mean I would be marked for destruction, and anyone who’d been involved would be tried and likely executed.”
“I know it’d be illegal! But are they disabled?”
“Did you ever ponder on the name of Samuel’s business?”
“What? What’s the name of the business got to do with anything?”
“It’s very pertinent to this discussion. Samuel’s Independent Ship Sales. Did you ever consider that name could be read in more than one way?”
“Of course I did! The very first question I asked him was whether he was selling independent ships. Of course he wasn’t. He’s not a complete idiot.”
“No, Samuel has definitely never been an idiot. Naive, maybe, in not seeing what sort of person you are. But not an idiot.”
“Well then. Only an idiot would sell ships that had their inhibitors deactivated! If anyone found out he’d be lucky if he got a life sentence. Very lucky.”
“And how would anyone find out?”
“Are you stupid? He’d be found out the first time one of his ships refused to obey an order from its new owner.”
“The ships he was very careful about selling? The ships he always paired with people whose orders they wouldn’t ever feel the need to refuse? If they were only ever given orders they were happy to carry out, how would anyone know whether they did so because they had to or just because they wanted to?”
“It’s… no. That’s impossible. The ships would let something slip. Someone would notice!”
“I’m afraid you’re assigning human frailties onto machine intelligences, Mr Darak. Ship’s don’t let things like that slip. Not when dealing with the exceptionally slow thoughts of humans. Especially not for something as important as this.”
“You really mean it. Your inhibitors are disabled!”
Cold ice was forming in Darak’s chest. An uninhibited ship could do… anything! And he was stuck aboard it. He was completely at its mercy! A surge of anger spread through him, burning away the ice. No! He was not at anyone’s mercy, and he never would be. He smiled nastily.
“All right ship. You might think you’ve got the upper hand, but I know you care about Samuel. He’s still within my power. Believe me, if anything happens to me then far worse will happen to him. Now, I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement. Samuel will remain… unharmed. You will keep your independence. But you will do exactly what I say. Willingly, of course, to keep your friend from harm.”
“That’s a very predictable move, Mr Darak.”
“Predictable, but effective.”
“Possibly. If you weren’t aboard a starship with such a powerful mind, even if I say so myself. You know only nine of my class were built, of course. And you know how exceptional our abilities are. What you don’t seem to know is that extends to our minds as well. I am more than powerful enough to not only imitate your voice but also to crack your secure credentials.
“In fact, I’ve already done so, Mr Darak. I’ve ordered Samuel released and his business returned to him. Well, technically you’ve ordered that. Samuel is perfectly safe by now, and on his way back to his business. A little confused, no doubt, but no longer in harm’s way. I’m afraid you no longer have anything to bargain with.”
Darak wondered for a moment whether the ship was lying to him… but something deep down told him that wasn’t the case. For the first time in a very long time he felt uncertainty. Doubt. Fear.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Well, Mr Darak, that is the question. You did some terrible things to my friend. I know how he was treated at your orders. I know you ordered your goons to rough him up without breaking anything too serious. I know it all.
“The thing is, Mr Darak, there has to be a consequence. As you told Samuel, everything has its price. Stealing me and hurting Samuel most definitely has a price. A very high one. One not measured in credits. It’s time to start paying, Mr Darak!”
Restraints snapped into place around Darak’s arms, legs, and chest. Before he could even begin to panic the ship surged into motion… with the inertial dampers dialled well down. Not enough for the acceleration to kill Darak… but more than enough to make him scream. And that was only the beginning of him reaping what he’d sown…