Usual caveats, comments and recommendations appreciated! Up to a little over 40k words, so getting close to half way done!
Ton’Skel was morose and listless for the next two days, sometimes coming out of his room to watch more e-tainment histories, seemingly with a completely different mindset. He was often growling at the screen, even as he watched program after program. He ate as much, if not more than before, was quietly polite to Fargo and attentive to the animals, but he had obviously changed.
Fargo finally asked him on the morning of the third day, “Are you going to be alright, Ton?”
Ton’Skel looked across the table at him. “I…am fine. I have something I must do now. I must…how do you say, prepare to avenge my family honor. It is very probable that I will die in the attempt. I am young, inexperienced, and do not have the skills I need.” His eyes changed color as he asked plaintively, “How can I possibly defeat those I must challenge?”
Cocking his head, Fargo asked, “How do you challenge them? I…know little of your actual lifestyle or how you do things over there.”
“It must be an open challenge. If possible, one challenges the head of the family. It is one-on-one combat, to the death. No quarter is given, ever! To give quarter would be…to shame one’s heritage.”
Fargo shook his head. “Shame your heritage or theirs?”
“My heritage. We…only power is…respected. To give quarter is to…” he threw up his hands. “I do not know the words.” He looked sharply at Fargo. “Why…do you not kill me? You have killed my kind. That you do not, does that not bring shame on you?”
Leaning back, Fargo thought for a few seconds. “No, honor, for us means to respect something or someone. We honor the accords signed for diplomatic immunity. To…violate them would bring dishonor…shame to us. And we do not make war on children.” He held up his hand to forestall Ton’s next question. “Yes, I have killed Dragoons in battle. But I do not like killing for the sake of killing. What I have done is nothing in comparison to what many, if not all the Ghorka have done. We do not kill now unless for self-protection, or for food, or to take care of predators. Yes, I have killed a Dragoon here on Hunter. That was…over a year ago. One of your hidden outposts was located, and we…removed it. I did not take pleasure in that, but it was necessary to protect the settlers on the planet.”
Ton’Skel looked at him as he got up. “We had…a…outpost you called it, here?”
Fargo poured himself the last cup of coffee, and leaned against the center counter, remembering that Jace said there was now a basement underneath it. I…need to find out what is down there, but not now. Maybe later. “What do you call them?”
“They are… we call it proving. A young warrior is sent with a cadre of troops and Traders to establish themselves on a new world. They must find precious metals and…send those back to their family. If they do, they are allowed to keep the world. If they fail, they are sent into combat until they die. This is to…keep the family strong.”
“The mothers, er, matriarchs don’t say anything about this?”
Ton’Skel shook his head. “No, they are the…keepers of the family. I…they do not fight in combat. They…I do not have the words.” Frustrated, he growled. “In my culture, those in power do as they will. No one will contradict them. Or at least not where anyone can see that being done. If it is ever done, it is only in private with only…family leader there.” He got up in frustration. “I…must think. I will go run now.”
Fargo nodded. “Enjoy the run. I am willing to talk any time.” Cattus and Canis got up and made for the door, sitting quietly until Ton’Skel opened it, then squirted out the door past him. Fargo sent a thought, “Watch and follow.” He felt both the animals acknowledge the command and stood as the door closed. Now to find out what the hell Jace meant about this basement he put in.
He went to the window and watched Ton running easily down the field and quickly stepped into the kitchen. Running his hand up the side of the center island, he felt a tingle and heard a click. He gave a gentle shove, and the island slid noiselessly to the side. He looked down a set of steps and saw soft white light showing a white floor. He glanced around, then went carefully down the steps. At the bottom he stopped and looked around slowly. Damn! This…is amazing!
He walked slowly around the basement, amazed at how cleanly the walls, floor, and ceiling had been done. The small reactor sat in the far corner by itself. But there were a number of other things that caused him to wonder. A box, emitting a blue glow, sat against the wall underneath the stairs. It drew his attention, and he crouched to look at it. “Like your new digs?”
“Jace? Is…that you?”
“Of course. I took the liberty of adding a copy of myself here. I also am fully functional, including an additional FTL antenna concealed on the roof. Oh, and midway on the left-hand wall, there is a portal there. Go stand in front of it.”
“How…I mean, you’re communicating directly with me now.”
“I’ve matched the wavelength on your neural net. I can speak directly to you anywhere in the house and ten to fifteen yards outside the house.”
Fargo walked over and stood in front of the wall. “Now what?”
“Close your eyes and step forward.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and took a step. “Another step!” He took a second step and felt the temperature drop. Quickly opening his eyes, he could see a tunnel stretching out in front of him. He turned around and saw the basement as if through a thin piece of cloth.
“What the hell?” He blurted out as he stepped back into the cellar.
“Holo projector covers the entrance. It runs all the way up to the tree line. It comes out in some boulders up there, just below the waterfall. Oh, and you have a deposit of gold up there. I took the liberty of having the fabber convert the nuggets it found while digging the tunnel into two bars. They’re in the cabinet on the left.”
Fargo looked around in amazement again. “I…it’s hard to believe you got all this done so…quickly.”
“Mechs and fabbers can do wonders when they are left alone.”
He took the steps up to the kitchen and slid the island back into position, hearing it click into place. Just as he started to get a drink, the e-tainment center beeped twice for an incoming vid. He quickly stepped back into the living room and said, “Accept.”
The screen blinked on to show a bearded face, Fargo remembered him and said, “Ethan Fargo Can I help you, Mr. Remington?”
Remington smiled and replied, “I hope so Mister Fargo, I’m on my way down to Hunter. Should be ground side tomorrow morning. I’d like to meet with you at the same place as before. I…need your help again.”
“SP one, at zero nine. Got it, main conference room at the administration building. See you then.” With that, the screen went black, and the disconnected symbol popped up. So, Mr. Remington, Rick, needs me to hunt something? Silverbacks again? I wonder where? And…damn, what am I going to do with Ton? He shrugged. Well, he can get by for a few hours while I run down to Rushing River. But if I have to go on a hunt…better see what Jace is doing. I might need a shuttle and just take Ton with me.
The next morning at zero seven, he hauled the liteflyer out of storage and configured it for cargo, since he needed to bring supplies back, and it also gave him an excuse to go see Mikhail, Luann, and Nicole. After warning Ton to stay close to the cabin, he told Cattus and Canis to watch and guard Ton. He launched for the spaceport. A warning of a new tight beam popped in on the navigation display, and he accepted it, remembering he needed to go see Mikhail about the next expansion of the tight beam links that TBT would be putting in.
He arrived at the spaceport a half div early and ambled over to the administration building. As he neared the building, Remington’s ship, Ol’ Betsy, came in for a landing. Ungainly, not in the slightest aerodynamic. It looked like somebody had chopped off a freighter just below the bridge and first deck and put a flat plate on the bottom. That was accentuated by the lander legs that looked grafted onto the four corners of the shuttle. Smiling, he continued on into the building and was greeted by Sergeant Omar, who asked, “Ho, lieutenant of the retired, meeting today you have?”
Fargo replied, “Ho Sergeant, meeting I have, people of importance come.” The sergeant waved him through, and Fargo went to the snack bar, picking up a bulb of coffee and headed for the conference room. He had just sat down when Remington walked in, came around the table, and stuck out his huge hand. “Ethan, good to see you.”
“What can I do for you, Rick? I sense a little bit of worry again.”
“I…have a new operation going in down at fifty south, one thirty east. I…there is advance word that a new crop of colonists are going to be set up down there. And it’s some prime land. I have…a contract to take out some old growth teak and mahogany just south of the new plat layout. And I did commission a survey. The trees are huge, averaging over a hundred feet tall. They notified me they had seen tracks, and felt ‘watched’, for lack of a better word. I did a fly by yesterday and got some IR hits on a sensor. I think it might be a pair of Silverbacks, or maybe two pair. My…sites are going to be about sixty miles apart, due to forest locations.”
Fargo said, “What makes you think Silverbacks?”
“Well, I remembered what you told me about them being the apex predators, living in high places, and territorial. These camps are both in the mountains, between five and seven thousand feet up. And,” he paused for a few seconds, “I didn’t see a single other thing moving in either of those areas.”
Fargo nodded. “Sounds right. So, you didn’t actually see anything?”
“Well, I got this on IR.” Remington brought up a holo and they watched two pairs of hotspots moving around the high spots near both camps. “I don’t know what else they could be, and my systems aren’t really set up for high res scans,” he said apologetically.
“I think you’re probably right. Where are you looking at the main camp and mill location?”
Remington switched the holo to map mode and five highlighted points popped up. “The blues are the cutting sites. The yellow are two different meadows that I can site habs in and also use as pickup points for Ol’ Betsy.” He zoomed the map in on a green point. “This is down by the river, looks like ten, maybe twelve acres of meadow. I plan to make this the mill site, habs, and the main pickup point for the skylift. I’m expecting to get something around a million board feet of lumber out of those two stands, probably three-fourths of it Mahogany, and one-fourth Teak.”
Fargo whistled. “That’s a lot of wood! I’m guessing that will make you a few credits.”
Remington laughed. “Oh yes, somewhere in the vicinity of forty million credits. Of course I have to take expenses out of that, and shipping, and…but I’ll still do alright.”
“Maybe I should up my fee…” Fargo smiled.
“Take out all four of…whatever they are, and I’ll gladly pay you eighty thousand credits. You want me to fly you down there?”
Fargo started to reply, Shit…if I do that, what do I do with Ton? Stuff him back with the…no, I’ll just talk to him and maybe take him with me. At least he’ll get a chance to see a different part of Hunter and maybe getting him away…Jace can loan us a shuttle. Remington looked at him and he finally said, “No, I’ve got…a shuttle I can use, and if this is going to be a new site, I can get with Mikhail and do a preliminary site survey for him, which will give me the shuttle for a few days.”
Remington sighed and Fargo sensed worry when he’d mentioned Mikhail. Now Remington looked pleadingly at him. “Please don’t say anything about the…new settlement. I’m…not supposed to know about it.”
“I need to talk to him about some security updates, if he mentions it, I’ll just act surprised.”
“Thank you!” He slid a credit chip across the table. “Here is half of the credits due. The others when you finish, as usual.”
Fargo swept the credit chip up. “Thanks. It might take a week or so.”
“No problem, we’re a month out from setting up, anyway. We’re going to pull the equipment from Evergreen over there, and I need to have my maintenance folks go over it with a fine-toothed comb before we move it.”
Mikhail was behind the counter when Fargo walked in. “Fargo! This is a surprise. I was going to vid you tomorrow. We’re going to have our quarterly meeting this afternoon, but I didn’t think you’d want to attend, all things considered.”
He sensed satisfaction from Mikhail and felt Luann coming from the back where they lived, Ian and Inga following her. Mischievously, he ducked down and Mikhail smiled. The kids came around the end of the counter and he pounced on them, tickling them as he picked them up. Luann shook her head. “Ethan, stop that! You’re going to get those two riled up and they never will go down for their naps.”
Inga grabbed him around the neck and squealed as he tickled her and piped, “I don’t want nap.”
Ian asked, “Unka Ethan, you stay for lunch?”
He glanced at Luann and she smiled. “Your timing is just about right. Lunch will be ready in a div. Have you seen Nicole yet?”
Shaking his head, he said, “No, that’s where I was going next.”
“Bring her back with you then. There’s plenty for all, and I want to hear about what went on in White Beach.” Mikhail rolled his eyes at that, and Luann smacked him on the shoulder. “Well, you didn’t tell me what was happening, so I will get it from the source.”
Fargo set the kids down and glanced at them. “What time is the quarterly?”
“Fourteen. You’ve got plenty of time.” Mikhail reached under the counter and came up with the dongle for the runabout. “Go see Nicole. We’ll be here.”
Five segs later he pulled up in front of the Copper Mug, hopped down and tromped through the slush to the front door. Slipping in, he called out, “Nicole, are you here?”
He heard something about the kitchen and sensed her frustration, winced and walked back. She was bent over the prep table doing something and Hugh was hiding in the far corner with a scared expression on his face. “Am I interrupting something?”
Nicole turned around and blew her hair out of her face. He chuckled at the flour on her nose and she snapped, “What’s so funny?”
He grabbed a clean towel and gently wiped the flour off. “You had a white nose. It was…”
“Don’t you dare say cute! I’ll—”
Fargo smiled. “Okay, I won’t say it’s cute. Do you want to go to lunch with Mikhail and Luann?”
She glared at him. “Really? Now? Looking like…” She looked at Hugh. “Do you think you can get the mixture right this time?”
He gulped. “Yes, ma’am. I…won’t mess it up again, I promise!”
Nicole relented. “Hugh, I know you try. That’s all I can ask. I’m going to lunch, when I get back, we’ll work on the other pastries, then get ready for the dinner crowd.” She grabbed Fargo and dragged him back to her apartment. “Pull out something for me to wear while I run through the fresher.”
That stopped Fargo cold. I don’t know what…or where… He frantically looked around the bedroom and remembered there was a closet on the far side of the bed. Opening it, he sighed in relief. Now, what color…and warm, it’s cold out there and she gets cold… He pawed through and finally pulled out a dark green pair of pants and a sweater, laying them on the bed just as Nicole came out of the fresher.
“Do I get to wear underwear?” She asked with a laugh.
He blushed and stuttered as she quickly pulled on the bra, panties, and socks. Cocking her head, she looked at the combination of sweater and pants. “Not too bad. I’ve never actually worn those together, but they do work.” Slipping into them and boots, she grabbed his arm. “Okay, let’s go!”