“Are you listening to me? Or are you just waiting for your turn to speak?”
Varton turned his head with a scowl. He wouldn’t even honor that with a reply. Bester knew better.
Better, best. Had he been anyone else, Varton would have laughed at the pun.
“Hand me the Shimadzu.”
Bester huffed. Sure, the HPLC analysis was important. And Var knew his stuff when it came to selecting the best chromatographer for the job. He lost his train of thought, though, just as he’d expected. They’d been using the Phenomenex and he had to sort through the contents of the shelf to find the Japanese model.
“Here. Now, where was I?”
“You’d just gotten Teradezara’s number when you realized that your girlfriend saw the whole thing.”
“Oh, right. You were listening.”
Varton grunted. Practiced fingers turned on the helium valve.
“Anyway, there I was. Shana looked like you could cook a Terzian egg on her forehead. So I told her Tera had asked for the name of Shana’s hairdresser. It instantly changed her tune, let me tell you.”
“Is that right?”
“So you’re seeing what I’m seeing? Time to call in the diggers,” Varton rumbled. “Soon you’ll be able to afford Terzian eggs for Shana, Teradezara, and any of your other conquests.”
Bester’s silence told more about the magnitude of their find than Varton’s flippant remark. Not many things left the tech speechless. Impossible riches on the planet below proved to be one. He wouldn’t be complaining about share percentages for the haul from now on. They’d be set for life when they returned home, especially with annuities compounding during cryo-sleep.
The first diggers the corporation sent were manned. That decision proved to be a tragic mistake and each employee’s speculative earnings increased to absurd proportions. In addition, the bereaved families would be awarded a stipend for their loss.
If, that is, the company could find a way to mine the rich veins of Planet 37926.
Or, as they were being asked to call it, 010010. And the humans quickly learned not to shorten the “zero” to “oh”. A major oversight costing nearly a hundred lives did not need to be compounded.
The first misstep had been taken by early surveyors, who’d indulged in foolish shortcuts. These statisticians had assumed the evidence of some ancient civilization was strictly that – ancient. That had always translated to abandonment. At least it had in the past. Nobody knew to check for nonorganic life forms. No digital or radio signal or heat signature alerted anyone.
Formal negotiations began at once. The Prime, who had no use for Tantun, nevertheless expected to be richly compensated for those resources. They did have a use for water, which had long ago evaporated from the planet’s surface. By the Prime’s estimation, three hundred twenty-one more of the invading organic life forms would yield what they needed to rebuild their world.
Varton and Bester decided all Prime looked alike. For all intents and purposes they not only shared appearance but were literally interchangeable. Address one, address the entire population of 010010. The two lowly techs also agreed that they’d rather be poor the rest of their priceless little lives than hand over walking, breathing beings meant to save lives in a medical emergency.
It was a no-brainer, Bester kept repeating as a mantra. Varton voted to leave. Unfortunately, the ship’s CEO did not preside over a democracy and the company’s bottom line trumped compassion. Cloning units cranked into high gear and the price was met in just under one Standard Galactic month. Superstition ran rampant through the men and women watching mirror likenesses march to their doom.
Mining didn’t take much beyond another month, even with the discontented rumblings of those doing the work. They wanted out of that sector of space as soon as humanly possible. Everyone on board the commercial vessel was exceedingly glad to leave 010010 and its frighteningly alien inhabitants far behind.
Three years later, with her crew waking from stasis, the George Washington V arrived home. The storage capacity nearly exceeded legal limits, every nook and cranny laden with valuable Tantun.
Groggy and stunned to silence, the five hundred nineteen souls on board looked at nothing. Where earth had once spun they found only a void. An ominous electronic blip appeared on the radar, setting off alarms that echoed all through the metal halls of the lightly armed trawler.
“Crap, Bester,” said Varton.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”