Back in Sol Again: Part 6

6.

Conning the Con Whom Cons

Simon slept like a baby for ten hours, dead to the world otherwise. He was only awoken by his cabin’s door-bell, and the thought to curse Rearden. Then, realizing the bot cared so little for doors it would enter regardless, he sensed someone mannerly wanting to speak to him. That left everyone ship-side, excluding Niala.

Whomever he expected, it wasn’t Lina. Perhaps it was an effect of lingering disbelief that he’d managed to nab her, but mostly he suspected shame. He’d never have turned her away, but finding her first thing in the morning wishing to enter his stately hell-hole, and in his underwear no less, was not his envisioned introduction to his private life. Nonetheless he beckoned her in and quickly disappeared, gone before she could see him inside.

Simon dove into his room, hopping about, half-clad in pants. Lina called out, “Simon?”

“Just a minute!” Then, seeing no reason they couldn’t speak, added, “Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Niala wishes to see us.”

“Is everything alright–”

He’d intended his next words to be “with her,” but fell forward in a fashion so spectacular he was unaware it happened until viewing his subsequently damaged ego.

To understand the damage Simon’s ego took, one must first know that his apartment-like cabin had come fully furnished, as every other room aboard. His furnished, apartment-sized “state-room,” more than enough living space. Throughout it were various surfaces and counters one would expected of a modern living space.

Among those furnished items was a beautifully manufactured oak dresser; long, squat, and expensive looking. Like the millions of others manufactured with it, it was made by a factory that specialized in recreating one of a kind, old-era, antique furniture via new era mass-production tools and materials– thereby completely stripping the antiques of their value, in exchange for exorbitant retail prices. This con, in effect, was known as capitalism.

It was also the same manner of devilish trickery that had taken Earth by storm in the early 2000’s via flashy stickers proclaiming things like “organic,” and “unprocessed,” or phrases like “no preservatives,” and “free-range.” In the end, all any of it came to mean was some gullible fool was about to pay twice the cash for the same old stuff.

Solsians, and Humans in particular, were always abreast of these types of developments. They manufactured, mass-produced, mass-farmed, or mass-whatevered they could. Usually, this process involved some form of grift, sold as a “labor cost” that required charging much greater than the items manufacture so as to allow the middleman, or seller, to profit. With this added cost, they ensured the grifters continued grifting as without being out-grifted by other grifters.

And like everyone involved in that system, someone had conned someone else into believing the beautiful, heavy, and densely dark-wooded dresser was required. And of all people, the circle of conning decided, this particular dresser was required by Simon.

Incidentally, grift is a synonym of con.

Also incidentally, the wood this particular dresser came from was mismarked as defective at the con-manufacturing warehouse. Thus, it was subsidized to go to the lowest bidder in a wholesale– or a giant con whereby a single entity pays an exorbitant sum for many items, with each item being less than each unit otherwise, but still remaining more than the collective cost of the materials together.

Still following? No? Too bad, moving along.

In other words someone was conned into believing buying X amount of those dressers all at once should be cheaper than buying X amount individually. The only reason that fool was right anyhow was because of something called economies of scale. But the truth about the dressers was the company manufacturing them were outright con-men– and when building large orders like that placed for Homer, used inferior materials to profit even more than already guaranteed to.

But as said, the materials for Simon’s dresser were mismarked. Coincidentally, as a result of the conners wishing to maximize profits via hiring “unqualified,” wannabe-con-men called workers, rather than expensive, “qualified” ones. And in fact, though it seems belabored, this dresser was made of not just more dense and thus more valuable wood, it was made of the most valuable and dense wood the company offered.

If it weren’t for this spectacular series of cons, or attempts at them, this dresser might have no place in history, let alone the history of Simon’s damaged ego. Unfortunately for Simon, it did, and several of his rather more hopeful dreams were about to be shattered by it. Most notably, one involving not showing Lina his stately hell-hole whilst half-naked.

He hopped around the room hoping to fit his slacks without being caught pants-less. He’d managed to get them on and pulled half-way up before his brain conned him into believing socks were now warranted. They weren’t. Not quite yet. But his brain believed otherwise, and was conned. As it went, so went the rest of him.

On one, hopping leg.

With nary a hope to retain his pant-clad visage in Lina’s mind.

After the fact, Simon could only remember the event as this: Lina began speaking. Simon called out question. She spoke again, about Niala. Simon spoke; then and there, half-hopping, half-aware of his mistake, he slipped on a piece of plastic snack-wrapper.

One moment, he stood crane-style with one leg up, torso bent toward it. The next moment, he was free-falling at 1G. Just enough to ensure his forehead collided with the especially dense dresser. He was unaware of the moment after, “the moment after that” as he lie on one side, still crane-style, and now unconscious.

While Simon knew at least part of these facts and happenings, Lina knew none. She heard only his interrupted question regarding Niala. A moment later, also Simon’s moment after “the moment after that,” she called to him. A further series of moments later, tense and frightened, she found him lying on his side, unconscious. Given her analytical mind, and Simon’s propensity for being a clumsy ass, she surmised the goings-on that had gone on.

She flew for a telephone-comm, immediately called a med-team. Then Niala, told to her meet them in the infirmary.

Simon knew only the moment of impact and the moments before. Only vaguely recalled any of them, even after he awoke in the infirmary.

A bright light flitted back and forth in his eyes, each lid forced open by a rough mid-finger pad on his forehead. The slight poke of a thumb-like dewclaw honed his consciousness enough to deduce his examiner. The past rushed back in its broken way, and he knew everything.

He swatted the light away, and with it, Niala’s paw. Her face took the place of the blinding light. Contrary to his expectations, she looked concerned. Her brows were inward, her orbits and jaw thinned. She handed the penlight back to a nurse nearby and dismissed him.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a concussion,” Niala said, more serious than usual.

Simon glanced down at his legs, found he was dressed. Beyond his feet was Lina. He quickly flushed with embarrassment, averted his eyes.

“I’ve heard enough to know how it happened, but how the hell’d you manage this?” Niala asked, half crassly but genuinely confused.

“Being cursed,” he mumbled.

Lina managed a smile, “It’s not a curse, Simon.” Niala eyed her. Simon did his best to avoid eyeing her. “It’s me.”

He did eye her then. “Huh? How’ve you–”

“You get stupid around me,” she snickered. “I know the feeling.”

He blushed in earnest this time. Niala might’ve laughed, but couldn’t. Her mood was too sour; enough spread alarm over both Simon and Lina’s faces. If she wasn’t laughing, she was too tense or angry to do so. Neither was good.

Once, Niala could’ve rightfully been called cold, but she’d warmed over the years. Life was an exercise in amusement nowadays. Padfoot Lighting had sharpened her already natural killing-instincts, by showing the universe was a place of cold, harsh realities. As time distanced her from it, she found more reasons to warm and laugh, reveled in them.

She’d been forced to emulate that harsh reality; shown things that could make anyone, of any species, do the same. Since then, only a few, specific incidents had ever made her tense. Simply, nothing was ever as bad as what she’d already seen. That much alone had allowed her to mellow.

Anger was a different story. Anger was useful to Padfoot, so it was honed. The Lioness and her blood-line, already masters of the predatorial arts, feared next to nothing to begin with. Thus her temper was her greatest asset, but could still flare. When it did, Simon feared the collateral damage.

He’d inherited something of the Lion himself through their years of friendship, but nothing compared to the true article. She was the original, he a poor reproduction. Even now, he sensed the original manifesting despite her best efforts.

Simon inched up the bed, “Why’d you call us to Comms?”

Niala glanced up and down the infirmary; one, large hospital room of a few dozen beds, paper-thin walls and doors between them. Another series of cons had led to its creation, but was presently irrelevant. However, Niala heard and knew more than she let-on. A few patients were scattered about, one right next to them. She couldn’t risk relaying what she knew until certain they wouldn’t be heard.

“Can you walk?” She asked Simon.

“Do I have a choice?” He griped. She glared. “Fine. Yes. Did anyone bring my shoes?”

Lina shrugged, apologized. “No. But I got your other sock… and buttoned your pants.”

He reddened, “Right. Thanks.”

Niala gestured them from the tiny “room” and the infirmary. White-painted steel of a bulkhead passed as Niala angled for a nearby conference room. Supposedly the room was to be used for medical-staff meetings, but likely was added as another con between architect and engineer to game the HAA. Organizations were often taken advantage of in that way, and most of the time, couldn’t care less.

Niala shut the door, hurried to a security camera in the corner, then unplugged it. If anyone was monitoring it, they’d have seen her do it. Regardless of what they’d been told, Niala’s face would keep them from doing anything to rectify the situation. When she was finally satisfied they were alone and unmonitored, she stood before them.

“Ingstrom and I spoke to Sol this morning,” she said in a low voice.

Lina’s ears perked up. Simon waited for an “and.” When it didn’t come, he spoke it aloud.

And?”

“And,” Niala began, as redundantly as possible. “We have a serious problem.” Again they waited. Niala continued unprompted, her anger only held back by the lack of deserving target. “The HAA’s diplomatic embassy was alerted of suspicious activity. Their systems monitor all internal connection points when externally interacted with– for instance, when called. During that time, all interactions are recorded and logged system-wide.”

They followed, still lost.

“The system activated during our call-in yesterday, during which time logs recorded a third-party interaction. The HAA confirms someone intercepted our communique.”

Simon didn’t see a point. “Someone eavesdropped, so?”

Lina listened intently as Niala explained, “That log was deleted from the main system, but not the secure back up. They weren’t aware that its erased only once a week by security. That the third-party was discovered at all was a fluke; a technician was ordered to analyze all comm-data between the HAA and Homer to ensure our system is running as efficiently as possible. The tech located and tracked a ping discrepancy to a lone computer within the embassy.

That led to a low-level employee who’s since disappeared. His office computer was wiped, and after locating his employee I-D, he was cross-checked against criminal data-bases and found to be using a falsified name. He was identified as Angmar Zark, a Vulpus-Canid hybrid that’s done two stints in prison, both on Earth and Mars, for hate-crimes.”

Simon’s eyes widened, his mouth hung half-open. For once, it was from serious concern rather than dull foolishness. Lina noticed the shift, sensed something unspoken. “What’s that mean?”

“An Anti-Humanist,” Simon said, swallowing to shut his mouth and wet his throat. “Anti-Humanists hate Humans and anyone they consider a Human sympathizer.”

Niala seethed, her rage understandable now. “Evolved animals know cooperation is more important than isolation. More than that, Anti-Humanists are usually just brain-washed morons. Often when they aren’t, they’re violent extremists masquerading as activists. Dangerous. Everything that started the construction of this ship stems from their hatred.”

Lina thought deeply: To her, anti-Humanists were just protesters chanting slogans, not hardened criminals threatening people’s lives. Judging by the ire and despair in front of her, the latter was much more the case than expected.

“So… Anti-Humanists know we’ve located a new species,” she said, slowly recognizing the enormity of the implication.

Simon spoke it aloud, his defeat evident, “And more than likely, don’t like it.”

“And even more likely,” Niala added. “They’ll try to keep us from first contact. Now they know they have only thirty six hours to do so; that’s the earliest we can make contact.”

The others’ dread infected Lina as it weighted Simon’s stomach. Niala’s face said she felt it too, however little it affected her otherwise. There was little doubt now that the future would be far more interesting than any of them had hoped for, or wanted.

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