We have what we need. Floro creamed a minimum sample and tried it on himself. He concluded it was safe and probably effective. Then he creamed enough for the rest of us to take while he observed, and we all concluded it was marvelously effective—even Janos has been happily whistling since, albeit in a minor key. We’re down to 4.83 kilos, but we know!
There’s been some talk of going down to get more, but we didn’t talk long. While returning with a kilo of Rubyzin would have made us the toast of Titan, we now have almost five!
We spend two days mothballing Zoo Base—Ooze spelled backwards, almost. Then we load the Blue Rubyzin and ourselves into Amelia Airhead and head out for our orbiter, Crown Base. That’s the most tedious part of the journey. Neptune’s atmosphere is thick, which limits how fast you can climb out. To avoid heat and fuel problems we have to fly Amelia first like a submarine and putt-putt our way up for six hours through the thickest layers. Then relying on propellers and wing lift, it takes us twenty hours to climb through cloud layer after cloud layer until finally we see stars. Once we see stars the atmosphere is thin enough that we can break out little Jimmy Jetson, sort of like a lifeboat within Amelia that uses jets and rockets, and send Amelia back to auto-dock at Zoo. It’s another five hours of using Jimmy’s jets to where the atmosphere is thin enough that we can go supersonic with our rockets. When we finally make it to Crown, it feels like getting home.
From the orbiter we send the good news to Kuarahy Javier, our business manager on Titan. Ten hours later, we get his reply. Titan is currently four light-hours from us, so to hear from him in ten hours means Kuarahy saw the news and got his reply turned around lickety-split. The “extra” two hours was just about long enough for the messages to queue up each way for one of the few big arrays that do interplanetary and ship-planet transmission, and only that fast if they happened to be pointed in our ship’s general direction.
Kuarahy’s face is as bug-eyed and wide-grinning as we expected. “You guys are bringing back how much? Four-point-eight kilos? … Gods of the forests! You do know that REI produces only point-four kilos a year? At current wholesale prices, you’re bringing back more wealth than the nation of Korea produces in a year! Yeah, I looked it up for dramatic effect.” He winks.
“Of course, the price will crash when the word gets out … If the word gets out!”
He lowers his head and mutters to himself, then looks up and says, “Yeah, if the word gets out, there’s really no telling what will happen! In particular, no telling what will happen to us! We could end up rich, but we could end up dead, or in prison! This thought hit you, too, I see. … Yeah, you did so well that we now have a real problem!”
Kuarahy laughs nervously. “Let me think about this. This is just so much bigger than what we hoped for. … Frankly, I’d been practicing explaining to our investors why it was OK that you came back empty-handed. Instead you’re going to be back on time, under budget, and with a whoooole chunkapuddin! Hot doggies!! This is incredible!!!
“Yeah, let’s get a solution to this distribution issue. You said you thought about hiding the stuff, and I’ve thought about that possibility, too. But I think you’re right: It’s not a good solution. You aren’t the only ones that can do this, and the Ruby is at its most valuable right now. We need to get this sold, and sold soon. We need to turn this into conventional wealth before someone does something crazy to us. … I’ll be working on this. … Four-point-eight! … Hot doggies!!” He jumps up and cheers as he signs off.
We start prepping for our return to Titan. It will take about three days to stow the equipment we used for planetary exploration onto the Albumasar, our third-hand cargo ship, and dust off the equipment we’ll use on it for interplanetary travel. Six hours after Kuarahy’s first message, we get another.
“I’ve explained our problem to our two major investors. Whew! It’s a good thing we picked those carefully! Dr. Phoumsavanh and Jabe Kalanov both caught on to the problem instantly and we’ve had some good discussion on possible solutions. I’ll send you more on those in a day or two. In the meantime, both agreed: You want to have brought back something from a comet, the cover story we gave out when we publicized this journey in the first place.
“So before you come home, stop by somewhere and pick up a comet sundae. ’Bye now.”
“Oh yeah. We did say that, didn’t we,” says Nacho as the rest of us nod.
“Nacho, you and I can find us a comet,” says Floro. We let our science officer and navigator work on that while Janos and I, the mere engineer and pilot, continue stowing and unpacking. The two don’t take long to pick a comet that’s not on an obvious Neptune–Titan path, giving yet more cover to our tracks.
Twenty hours into our journey toward the newly discovered Hurtado-Domicó Comet, Kuarahy videos us again.
“OK, I’ve sent you by data stream a spreadsheet outlining our projected numbers for various options. Here’s the executive summary.” He winks as he says the last.
“Option #1: Deal with the devil.
“Jabe Kalanov has been talking to some high-level board people at REI, a couple of liberals that he knows are uncomfortable with their monopoly position and feel the company’s anti-smuggling policies aren’t working well anyway. Jabe hinted to those two that he might be able to put them onto a big cache, but he needed a quid pro quo. What he offered was a large and steady supply of Ruby, and what he got offered in return was REI stock. In a nutshell, in exchange for becoming a major supplier, we’d get part ownership of the company.
“The disadvantage is that we become part of the establishment—Boo! Hiss! Moreover, the chunk of ownership they’re offering, five percent, isn’t nearly as much as I think we should get, though that may be negotiable. We’re offering to more than double their supply of Ruby, so forty or fifty percent would be more reasonable, in my not-so-humble opinion.
“Option #2: Work the black market on Titan.
“The trouble with that is the huge quantity. No existing fence can process more than 20 or 30 grams safely—move more than that and they risk exposure and jail time. So we’d have to spread our wares through dozens of dealers, which is tedious, and each transaction brings its own risks. And I can’t think of a faster way to get believable rumors of a new Ruby source flying. Once those rumors take hold, the black-market price will crash, and we have to look for plausible deniability—there aren’t that many ships launching that might bring back Ruby from a new source, so we’d have some explaining to do.
“Option #3: Come out in the open.
“We could set up our own Rubyzin distribution organization. Unfortunately, that’s likely to be the slowest and least profitable way to go, at least in the short run.
“First, setting up our own shop means bending and breaking laws—which isn’t so bad to do on Titan, but Earthlings will have a hissy fit, and it won’t improve Titan’s image with the rest of the System. So the only people who’ll back us in setting up shop are those willing to risk another Siege of Titan, and they’ll have to be richly rewarded.
“Second, we’ve run the numbers and whew! Even if it was totally legit, it wouldn’t be quick or cheap. But then again, five kilos of Ruby can pay for a lot of express service, so doing it ourselves is a possibility.
“Those are the options we’ve come up with here. Talk about them, come up with your own if you have any, and send me back an answer. At this point there’s no particular rush on things, but the more time we have for whatever plan we choose, the better.”
We look over the spreadsheet Kuarahy has sent us, as a group, then individually. All of us like numbers, so we all spend another half day twiddling the stats, looking at what-ifs, and arguing. We cover lots of ground, including three main alternatives.
What if before we reveal the Ruby, we form some kind of investment group, buy 51% of REI, and then open it up to become a distributor for all Ruby pirates, including us? Is that a possibility? Could we get rich enough before the news gets out?
What if we push the rumor of an alternate supply and crash the price, to bankrupt REI and expose that those guys are neither making money hand over fist, like they’ve promised everyone they would, nor providing much Rubyzin, like everyone wants them to? Would they take their marbles, run away home to Earth, and not bother us independents anymore?
What if we set up a distribution company on Mars instead of Titan? The Martians like making money as much as the next guy, and they don’t mind flipping Earth the bird every so often!
After two days of this, we send back our ideas—not recommendations. At light-hours away from civilization of any sort, it’s expensive and slow to query for data, so we haven’t accessed the info we’d need to sort out good ideas from bad. We’ll let Kuarahy do the research.
Then we sit around and twiddle our thumbs. You do a lot of that on Outer System flights. Even if you’re into science texts, like Floro, or music, like Nacho, or theater, like Janos, or playing games against the computer, like me; everything palls eventually. So we think some more, plan some more, and just to break the monotony, we plan what we should take off of Comet Hurtado-Domicó. If we bring back something that we have to call “just dirty snow and ice”, then that won’t help our cover much.
* * *
Three days later in the mess hall, Janos is the last to sit down with his meal, saying, “Man, this is shit.” He’s always saying that, so nobody responds.
Nacho stops eating long enough to proclaim, “It’s just incredible … seven people controlling the destiny of a package of wealth the equivalent of a medium-size nation.”
Janos replies, “If this is the best we can eat, we don’t control shit, Nacho.”
All of us just keep eating. Then I say, “When you complain like Janos, and a dozen people start running around saying, ‘Oh my goodness, sir, my dearie me, what can I do to make you feel better, sir?’—and they mean it, then you’re a billionaire.”
After another couple of bites, I say, “That may be our ticket to dealing with our Ruby.” Everybody looks up. “We need to spread this wealth around. We need to be thinking about getting a lot of people rich, not just us.”
“You mean like charity?” asks Janos, frowning.
“No. I mean like … if, say, a hundred people are going to become millionaires from this load of Ruby, then we have a hundred people rooting for us to solve this problem fast and good … rooting in their most sincere and creative ways. If those hundred people are already hundred-millionaires, then they already have a lot of clout.”
“It’s a good point,” Floro agrees. That’s the last anybody has to say about the subject right then. But we’re all clearly doing some thinking while we eat and after.
Two days later we message Kuarahy that spreading the wealth should be the heart of whatever plan we decide on, and get back an auto-acknowledge.
Three days after that, we receive a message from Jabe Kalanov. “Gentlemen, I have bad, bad news. Kuarahy Javier has been kidnapped. I’ve received a ransom demand that your entire cache of Rubyzin be handed over in exchange for his life.
“That’s all I have for now. Jabe, out.”