So, this one got delayed a day by me out clevering myself. This is the only one of the three tie-in short stories that actually overlaps with a scene in the novel itself, and that scene was so dialogue heavy that I ended up rewriting bits of the short several times in order to keep the amount of identical lines done to a bare minimum. I finally got a result I’m fairly happy with, but the delay in getting it to my usual proof readers resulted in not hitting my original goal of Sunday. Still, it’s here now, so enjoy!
If you’re just now joining in on the story series, this is the final of three tie-in shorts. You can find the other two tie-in stories here: Story 1 – An Unexpected Fate, Story 2 – A Universal Truth. Links for purchasing the novel they tie-in to can be found in the sticky post at the top of the main blog page, or with the universal link (the novel cover image) on the right side of the blog.
A Sucker is Born Every Minute
Ernie almost winced as he saw Jack’s face. Their friendship was an odd one, one that Ernie would freely admit he didn’t understand. Still, there was no question that it was a friendship, and Ernie had come to know his younger friend well enough to recognize that expression. Jack Amaril had an idea and he wanted to involve one Ernie Hart in whatever crazy scheme he’d come up with.
Jack’s mischievous grin had grown to epic proportions by the time he reached the corner table of their favorite café, and he brought a decent sized flex-screen out from behind his back as he slid into the booth opposite Ernie. “You’re going to love this one buddy! It’s my biggest project yet.”
That statement froze Ernie’s hand. He’d been reaching for the flex-screen, but that claim made him want to call the bomb squad, instead of finishing the motion. “Amaril….”
His occasional boss, for those times when Ernie lost his head and accepted a consultant role for an Amaril Corp prototype, waved his hands disarmingly and kept right on grinning. Ernie wasn’t reassured, not even a little, but he let his hand finish its journey anyway. Blasted curiosity was going to get him in over his head one of these days. Well, in over his head even more than he always was when Jack suckered him into helping, but that was so obvious as to not bear mentioning.
Ernie unrolled the lightly scuffed flex-screen, and for a moment he couldn’t understand what the big deal was. It was a blueprint for a ship, sure, but Jack’s think-tank worked on ship components all the…wait just a moment. He tapped, zoomed, then backed tracked and did it again with another part of the ship schematic. He glanced up at Jack, then down at the blueprint. A few more taps and he was sure what he was seeing, though he was still working on the believing part.
Why did Jack Amaril have half-complete builder’s plans for a massive ship, unlike anything Ernie had ever seen? There could only be one reason, and it had nothing to do with sanity. He slowly pushed the flex-screen away. “A whole ship, Amaril? Have you lost your mind?”
Impossibly, Jack’s grin got even wider than it already had been. It looked painful. “Not a bit of it.” He tapped the flex-screen that Ernie was trying to forget existed. “That, my friend, is the ship that is going to break the lightspeed barrier. I’ve got the method all worked out.”
Ernie’s heart stopped for a couple of beats, then started racing. “You’re out of your mind,” he whispered. Then he steeled himself and asked the important question. “And what, exactly, does that have to do with me? Whatever construction corporation you hire to build this thing will have plenty of engineers.”
“Why, you’re going to be the chief engineer for the project, of course. I’m building this one in-house. And I’d never trust anyone but you to get all the fiddly bits right.”
What? Amaril Corp was a think-tank, not a shipbuilder. It couldn’t have more than four hundred employees, maybe five hundred if you counted support staff. There was no way…Ernie’s mind screeched to a halt as it fully processed what Jack Amaril had said. “Oh, no. No way! There is no way in heaven or hell you are suckering me into something this crazy. It isn’t going to happen, Jack. Not this time!”
Ernie looked out the shipyard viewport at the work crews swarming over the ribs and backbone of what would be a four-hundred-meter ship, among the largest ever created. He felt like slamming his head into a suitably hard object at the newest reminder of what he’d gotten into, particularly given the visceral reality of this particular reminder. Maybe, if he rattled his brain hard enough, he could shake the gullibility out of his personality for good.
It had been nearly eleven months since that day in the café, and he still didn’t know how he’d let Jack talk him into this. Worse, it had been much much worse than Ernie could have ever imagined. Building the fifth largest ship in human history, behind only the four city-ships performing mining operations in the asteroid belt, would have been bad enough. But adding the massive expansion the Amaril Corporation had needed to even get this far had required an effort just barely shy of the twelve labors of Hercules.
If it hadn’t been for Elana stepping up to take some of the load off Jack, Ernie was almost certain they wouldn’t have made it. As it was, the fact that Jack’s bodyguard, who had only minimal formal training as a personal assistant, was all that held the upper structure of the corporation together…. Well, it wasn’t a good sign. No matter how much he might like the woman, the fact that they needed her so badly was a firm indicator of just how perilously thin the ice they were standing on was. Thankfully, money wasn’t an issue, yet. But getting enough skilled hands that would take Jack seriously, not to mention training and managing those skilled hands while simultaneously trying to protect from industrial espionage…. Well, there was a reason they didn’t just get Jack a proper PA, anyone trying to help him had far too much access and they’d caught out dozens of spies already. Worse, they were fairly sure they hadn’t caught all of them, even if Amaril Corp had possessed plenty of previous experience with that particular aspect of business.
In the end Elana’s unexpected degree of help had saved them. Before she’d stepped up, there had been a few moments where Ernie was legitimately afraid he’d died and been sentenced to a remote and terrifying corner of hell. He wasn’t sure what he could have done to deserve that. Aside from, perhaps, that time he’d run off with those twins at seventeen. He was fairly sure God understood that there was only so much temptation a young lad with a pocket full of credits could handle, though, so that probably wasn’t it.
The reflection of a haggard looking engineer’s assistant appeared in the viewport and Ernie braced himself, squirrelling his dark thoughts of murdering his best friend away for the next time he could spare a few moments to properly contemplate the benefits of possible methods. Probably in another month or two. Turning to face the alarmed looking younger man, Ernie squared his shoulders and asked, “Yes, Manuel? What is in this time?”
“Sir, it’s the remotes we ordered from Vincent, they—“
Ernie let the words of yet another problem roll over him as he got back to work.
“The line is still running too hot. It’s just a few degrees, but it’s enough to melt everything in the time frame we’re talking about.”
Ernie nodded at Jack’s words, and mentally screamed as he tried not to pull his hair out, figuratively or literally. He hunched over the drafting table and tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable as he responded to his friend’s statement of the obvious. “I know! I know, but I’m out of ideas here. We’ve done everything. Look at this,” he tapped the relevant section of the blueprints, bringing up the latest estimates. “There’s simply no room to put in any kind of cooling, and we can’t lower the output any more than we already have. I just don’t see how we can bring the temperature any lower without pulling the auxiliary engine and shifting everything around.”
Jack protested immediately, and Ernie winced as his boss reminded him that they were running out of time. Even Jack’s resources were starting to feel the strain from the project, and the powers that be were starting to put pressure on him in every way they could. If it weren’t for Amaril Corp being privately held by Jack alone, the entire project would have been scrapped a year ago, at least. They were out of time, and Ernie was one of the few people besides Jack and Elana that knew it. He opened his mouth to suggest forgoing the new comm systems entirely, even if they would be a big help in the event something went wrong. The first word was almost out of his mouth when a most unexpected voice piped up from behind them.
“Hey, why can’t you just run the line through there, by the coolant conduit? If you wrap it around the conduit and strip the insulation, wouldn’t the temperature bleed from the coolant drop the line temperature?”
Ernie almost gaped at the kid. What the hell was Harper doing here? The kid wasn’t even on shift at the moment and this section had been empty when they started. They wouldn’t have had these particular blueprints out, if it hadn’t been, they were too sensitive. They even showed one section of the Infinity Drive, for God’s sake!
It was Jack moving to look where the kid had pointed that got Ernie’s brain working again. His face turned stony, but the kid wasn’t technically in the wrong being here. Still, the suggestion was sloppy, so he could haul him up short on that, at least. ““Henry, you can’t just expect every ship to—”
Jack cut him off, and the expression on his face as he sided with the kid was alarming. Surely he wasn’t seriously considering…of course he was. Ernie listened with growing horror as Jack accepted the sloppy fix. Ernie tried to interrupt, to argue how bad the idea was, but Jack wasn’t going to the budge. Then he was rewarding Henry, and darting off before Ernie could get a word in.
He sighed to himself, wanting to slump at the sheer ridiculousness of it, but then he caught sight of Harper’s stunned face. Why? Wait, did the kid even realize…. Ernie actually grinned. “You don’t even know who that was, do you?”
Harper’s negative response made Ernie’s day. He would have his revenge. A sucker was born every minute, at this time that sucker’s name wasn’t Ernie.