The More Things Change – A Rats Tale

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“Thanks for calling Dad, don’t leave it till my next birthday until you call again.”

The image of my son faded to black on the screen before me. With the conversation over I pushed back the chair and headed back into the sitting area.

“So how old does that make him now?” Gabe asked as I took the seat on the opposite side of the room from him.

“I could have sworn it was 24 but Robert tells me today was his 25th.” I replied giving a small shake of my head.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s easy to lose track of our children’s age, they grow up way so quickly.” The older man gave a shrug and took a drink from the cup on the table before him. “Did you ask him about your Mr. Smith?”

“No. I don’t want to involve him if I can help it. I’m still unsure of the relationship between them. I don’t want to cause him any problems.”

“Gotya. So it’s just what I can find out?” Gabe looked at me and gave a nod. “Give me a few days it might take a little while.”

“No worries. If you can’t find out anything with your network of contacts no one can.” It was my turn to to drink from my cup of coffee.

“Are you going to hang out here or have you other plans?” He stood up and headed toward the communications unit that I had just left.

“Not sure yet.” Which was the truth. I had been thinking of trying out mining again. I had spoken to a couple of good ol’ boys last time I was at Wollheim and picked up a few tricks I hadn’t known. On my travels I had spotted a few systems that looked good. Good to me meant pristine ring with a station in the same system, doubt that made me a good miner but I liked seeing my efforts pay off sooner rather than later.

“Ok.” Gabe was already logged into the comms unit and sounding a little distracted. “Try and stick around for a day or two.”

I was putting the cup back in the kitchen area and thinking about heading back to the Asp when Gabe walked in.

“Sol, Alioth and Achenar. If Smith is known there we’ll find out about it soon. I have ‘friends’ in…” I stopped him there.

“I don’t need to know your contacts Gabe. Call me paranoid but if this all goes south I really don’t want to land more people than I have to in my mess.” I put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Yeah makes sense but if they get to you, then get me. Whatever you have landed yourself in we’re in it together. Weather we like it or not.”

“Sorry maybe I shouldn’t have got you involved.” It was a statement, not a question but Gabe answered anyway.

“No, you did the right thing coming to me. Now go get some sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow.” I seldom heard the edge of determination in his vocal tone but hear it I did. I also knew that it would be a waste of time to argue back so I said my goodnight and headed back to the Asp.

Much to my surprise I actually slept well. With all that was going on I expected to have a fitful night but no. I awoke feeling not bad for a guy who hadn’t had any coffee yet, that I would take care of on my way to Gabe’s.

Some months ago, after a visit to see my old friend Judge Karaca I had found the “Cafe Marseille”. It was a little coffee shop off the beaten path and man it made the best coffee in all of Glashow City.

“Hi Aitken, been a while.” Said the cute waitress.

“Yeah, I’ve been busy elsewhere Fasa. How you been?” I’d made friends with the staff as I came in anytime I was in Glashow City.

“I’m good.” She replied with a dazzling smile. “Usual?”

“Sure.” I nodded and as she walked away I pulled out my padd and started surfing through the bulletin board. I wasn’t going to do any work but old habits died hard.

“Don’t mind if I sit here do you?” A calm voice asked.

“No, be my ge….” My voice trailed away as I looked up to see a middle aged man in a dark well tailored suit. “Uh, so you’re not just a face on a screen. Pleased to meet you in person Mr. Smith or does that remain to be seen?”

He sat down at the other side of the small two person table. “I think you’ll be interested in what we have to talk about.”

He stopped as Fasa put a cup down on the table before me. “I’ll have the same if you don’t mind Miss.”

With another dazzling smile she wafted away back to serving area.

“Manners and clothes maketh the man uh?” I quipped after a sip at the delicious blend from the cup.

“Politeness costs nothing Aitken but can have rewards that far exceed that outlay.” A crease, that may or may not have been a smile crossed his lips. “We are what we are and you are a crook. Not as petty as the authorities would make out. But weather intended or not, you have made a name and a living from being on the wrong side of the law.” He paused as his coffee was delivered. After dressing it to his liking and taking a sip he continued.

“Excellent, you also have good taste in coffee it seems.” Another sip and then more talk. “You can tell Mr. Wyndham to end his search, I am about to tell you as much as he will find out. Probably more.”

“Sure I’ll tell him once I make it to his place.” I replied, a small shift in my posture to feel the insurance I carried in the shoulder holster. I didn’t think he would pull anything but better safe than sorry.

“Soon.” Another sip, a moment to gather his thoughts and he continued. “Things are about to change. In the coming hours, days, weeks opportunities will open, my associates and I are in a position where we can use help from individuals such as your self. Interested?”

“Sure, a little more information would be nice but please continue.” I took a pull from my cup and waited to hear what else Mr. Smith might have to tell.

“We are a small group of individuals also, we just have a little more influence than most.” Again what might have been or not been a smile appeared. “We use this influence to steer things in a direction that up until now has keep the universe peaceful.”

“You don’t get out much uh. Murder, piracy and all kinds of nefarious operations happen every day.” I had to interrupt as he was sounding more an more like an Antel devotee.

“Small potatoes Aitken, we look at the big picture. Those and other things may happen in the background but the overall hostility level has remained at a low level.” He picked up his cup and drank in the aroma before taking a sip.

“You must be talking about the Super Powers cos I see high level hostility every time I am in space. I don’t see where I can help you with that.”

“Correct and you and others like you can and do help in that matter.”

“You do all this for the Federation cos I see both sides building up their Navies and one wrong move from someone and it geys ugly.” I nodded toward Fasa and smiled, indicating that I would like a refill. Smith paused and indicated that he was would like a top up.

“The Federation is the area I work in but I do not work for them. We have others that work within the other Powers.”

“So you guys working in the shadows keep the lid on a simmering universe, stopping it boiling over to all out war.” I stopped to allow him to nod at my assessment. “You use or employ indivduals and small groups I would imagine to help you with this pursuit.” Another nod. “Why me?”

“Good question.” He seemed to gather himself for the next statement. “You don’t blab everything you have done or learnt. Take your test out to Swoilz. You informed only two people of your trip and it’s goals. Mr. Wyndham and your friend out in the Sothis Cluster. Keeping ones mouth shut is a rare skill in these times.”

“Test?” Stuff the compliment on keeping quiet, I wanted to know why he had called two mouths of my time a test.

“Yes Aitken, we had to be sure you were made of the stuff we are looking for.” He waited for me to say something. When I didn’t he continued. “The probes were planted but the outpost you found was a bonus. That information has been put to good use.”

I glanced around the orderly little coffee shop. The two and four person tables set out in what appeared to be haphazard order. The few other patrons chatting, smiling and sipping from their coffee cups. Fasa brewing, making and serving said cups.

“If I agree, what do I do and will I make cash doing it?” I broke the heavy silence that had decesnded over our table.

“What you normally do. Run guns, assassinate those that are deemed worthy of that fate. Your everyday ‘crook’ stuff.” He spoke over the cup he had been lifting to his lips. “Only difference is we’ll give you the location and faction we want you to work for. So yes you’ll make money out of it.”

“Federation factions I imagine.” I replied.

“From me, probably. Others will supply you with Empire, Alliance and even Independent factions. While there will always be internal strife, outwardly we wish to keep everyone ready for whatever may come.” The statement was said with a calm, level tone of voice but I read between the lines.

“So the gossip and rumours have some substance to them.” Again it was a statement not a question.

“There are always rumours going round Aitken. Some are based in fact, some not so much. The one you are inferring, might have some truth to it.” Again with the level, calm tone.

“Winter is coming.” I muttered under my breath.

“Perhaps, that remains to be seen. No harm in being prepared. Of course even when you have an assignment you are still free to do your own thing. Word of encouragement Aitken, get back into that Fuel Rat thing.”

“It’s been you and others like you that have kept me out of it briefly.” I said with a little surprise in my voice.

“I offer apologies from my group. The others can take care of themselves.” I wasn’t sure but I think that was his attempt at humour.

“Does your ‘group’ have a name or do I refer to you as ‘Smiths Group’?” He seemed to ponder the question for a few seconds.

“If you mean like ‘Ancients of Mumu’ or brotherhood of so and so, then no. The consortium I represent here haven’t given it much thought.” What may or may not have been a smile once again brushed his face briefly.

“Ok, you can tell The Consortium that I’m in. Do you have anything in mind at the moment or what do I do?”

“Excellent, I’m sure the rest of The Consortium will be happy.” He paused, gave a shake of the head at the title I had given them and continued on. “Plans are being worked on, we’ll be in touch. Go mining or something and thanks for the coffee.”

With that he stood up, nodded at Fasa and left. I took another refill and sat wondering what I had once again got myself into. It was definitely shady, not as shady as The Silver Boys and on a different level but shady none the less. I also wondered just how much he did know about me, especially after the mining quip. Emma/Charity seemed safe, good to know and I might have to call on her for back up sometime in the future.

I paid the bill, leaving Fasa a generous tip. Told her to say hello to her parents and then I returned to the Glashow City walkways. As much as he had tried to put a not in the near future spin on things, I decided that going mining might not last long if I did. What ever was brewing could come to the boil soon and staying close to the center of the bubble might pay off. My mind made up that left only one thing to do.

Tell Gabe what had just happened.

Sorry,a little dialogue heavy but just setting up for 2.1

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