Special thanks to Joe Medina for NPCs
The Hayn’gok was not an unusual size for the Ondal colony’s main docking bay — indeed, many of the cargo ships there were larger — but it was the only Minbari vessel, and thus, made an impression even greater than its size would have.
“Is there anything you want me to say or do?” Kordieh was asking as Morgan prepared to open the hatch.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what sort of reception we’re going to get yet, for one thing.”
He nodded. “I’ll just keep my eyes and ears open, and mouth shut for now, then.”
Opening the hatch, they were greeted with the cracks and flashes of distant welding torches at work and the teeth-rattling groans of industrial loaders. Morgan’s ears went back slightly, a reflex born more of familiarity than noise.
Kordieh looked around, taking in the scene, tracking the movement of people nearest them. Dock workers rushed a large nozzle toward the Minbari craft, inserting and locking it into place with quick, practiced movements. But Kordieh noticed they were all young, in their twenties. Further into the docking bay, a few oldsters were supervising from a distance, scowling. Memories of the Earth-Minbari War clearly lingered here, even nearly fifteen years on.
Morgan pretended to ignore it, having thought about it already. She pointed Kordieh off the landing pad, deeper into the colony. He nodded, falling in a step or two behind her.
Approaching the personnel entry gates, they saw a small woman in a professional dress emerge with fashion plate ease. Morgan sighed quietly, recognizing the type.
“Welcome to Ondal!” the woman said with warmth and enthusiasm. “Are you the Rangers from Babylon 5?”
“We’re Rangers, ie.”
The woman placed herself between them and the next gate, extending her hand. “I’m Rebeca Bassel, Senior Marketing Officer for the Mabuse-Marsh Planetary Combine. Pleasure to meet you! And you, sir! I never met Rangers before.”
“Ie, we have an appointment with you later.” Morgan was doing her best not to give the executive an inch. Kordieh offered a slight bow and a smile.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it,” said Bassel. “But this is such an occasion! The new alliance here on Ondal. Kind of living history.”
“If you say so, ma’am.”
“You’re right, sorry to gush,” she chuckled. “You must get this all the time. Come in, come in! Let me show you around the complex!”
“No need, ma’am — we have a schedule to keep.” Morgan didn’t mention she knew the place, except any newer additions.
Morgan and Kordieh sidestepped Rebeca Bassel and crossed through the gate, into the colony proper. Bassel slipped in behind them. “If you’re on a schedule, you can’t afford to get lost. You could use a guide. On the way, I could tell you about our work here on Ondal.”
“I’m familiar with your exports, and I have reviewed the colony’s schematics, thank you.”
“Good, that’s great! We can talk about them on the way.”
“No. Thank you.”
“The transport rail system is right this way,” Bassel said. “I think we’re in luck!”
Morgan was getting more than a little irritated. “Ma’am, we cannot do our jobs if you stay with us — we cannot be impartial in our listening.”
“That is the conventional wisdom about trade negotiations, that’s true,” Bassel said. “But we’re educated adults. Sophisticated. Well-travelled.”
“Ma’am, we have a schedule. And procedures. Don’t interrupt it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.” She sped up her pace.
“But you are, right now, ie?”
“Not at all,” Bassel grinned, “just keeping up.”
Morgan looked at Kordieh for suggestions, though she knew what the woman was up to.
“No harm in having an escort to our meeting, I suppose,” he said, hoping that Morgan would realize he was trying to play at an attitude counter to her own — good cop to her bad cop.
“Meeting?” Bassel smiled, a curious edge to her query.
Morgan and Kordieh could see people down the corridor filing into an open railcar.
“Ie — your office has our schedule. Your appointment is this afternoon.”
An electronic horn from the railcar announced final boarding. Morgan sped up then, intent on leaving Bassel behind. Giving the exec a faint smile and a shrug, Kordieh bolted to match Morgan’s pace.
“No need to rush! The next one comes in— Oh dear.” Slipped out of her high heels, Bassel snatched them up and scrambled after the Rangers.
It wasn’t especially dignified, but when the car was close enough, Morgan took a small leap to get aboard. Kordieh followed, the railcar already gliding forward when he landed beside her, gripping the side wall of the car with his good hand to steady himself. Even as the doors slid shut, they could see Bassel’s insistent wave of farewell.
“Combat already,” he said very softly. “I hadn’t expected that.”
“I was afraid of it, in fact,” she returned. “The corporate sorts are often grit in the gears.”
“Will this complicate things?”
They were both quiet then, allowing one another the privacy of their own thoughts, until they reached another station. Kordieh followed Morgan as she stepped off the railcar. “Who are we due to see first?”
“The union boss. Not officially the top of the chain, but the miners will all look to theirs first.”
Kordieh nodded. “So probably not as difficult to deal with as our new friend Ms Bassel.”
Morgan made a wordless half-growl. Her opinion was obvious.
Kordieh chuckled and said simply, “Cherie louve.”
She couldn’t help but let a small smile curl. “I am really trying not to be biased, but it is not easy.”
They made their way through the corridors, threading themselves into the marching columns of dusty miners, toward the heart of the ice mining operations. Kordieh looked around, taking in all the details, while Morgan explained to him what she could as they went.
Following the miners’ foot traffic took them into a large commons area with rolling mini-carts for crates and personnel, doors to locker rooms, and screens scrolling with real-time data. A chubby man in jeans and flannel emerged from the streams of miners, taking a ball cap off his head when he approached Morgan and Kordieh. “Hey there, I’ll bet you’re looking for me. Demna Shelton, foreman and head union rep.”
“Ie, we are. Margaret Morgan and Dunstan Kordieh,” she introduced them.
Shelton gave them each a handshake with chapped, beefy hands. “My office is over here. C’mon in.”
Kordieh followed them, slipping his splinted left hand into his right sleeve to give it a little support.
Shelton took them into a small room, just enough space for them and perhaps a few more occupants, provided they were all on good terms. A large window dominated the far wall, providing an impressive view of the mining operations in progress. He corralled some folding chairs in front of a card table decorated with datapads and coffee cup rings. “Here ya go. We’re not fancy, but it all works for us just fine.”
“This is quite all right. The operation is looking good.”
“Yeah, we’re getting some good hits on our exploratory teams,” Shelton said. “Managing the ice and rock layers pretty good. Real solid.” He grinned. “So, have any trouble finding the place?”
“No, I spent a few years here as a kid. Not likely to forget it.”
Shelton raised his dark red eyebrows. “Local gal makes good. You still remember the whole routine?”
“Ie. My parents were shop, not mine, but still….”
“We can always use ’em, believe me,” Shelton said with a chuckle. “Now if you don’t mind me asking, how does your outfit figure they can help us out? I’m not the only one wondering, either.”
“Ie, I understand. For one thing, a larger market for your product, with fewer duties. The sodium chloride mines in the Orion system have gone to being self-owned, since they have the whole Alliance to sell to now.”
“Sure, everybody needs water and all that,” Shelton said. “But we’re just not as big as Orion. And at the rate we’re losing people and costs going up, we’ll never be. MMPC came in with all the shipping we’d ever need, only they always want a bigger cut from us.”
“I know. But you might still be able to renegotiate your contract, for a better deal. I can’t speak to that directly.”
Kordieh coughed softly. “Pardon me. ‘Always want a bigger cut?’ They keep coming back even after you have a contract? That doesn’t seem right.”
“Doesn’t seem right to us either,” Shelton chuckled. “But the combine has the leverage. Raiders keep pounding on any ship coming through, especially ours. MMPC’s got the big trading fleet, not us. They can afford to lose a freighter. If anything changes, the slightest problem — reorganizing the union, better conditions, the neutrino count from our sun — suddenly they can’t afford to ship as much.”
“MMPC. I had not thought… that is a new corp, or else a new name for the old one.”
“That combine is pretty new,” Shelton said. “And predatorial. They like to buy up the small or slow-growing corps and expand into their areas. I heard somebody call it a domino strategy.”
Morgan frowned slightly, then shook her head. “Dunstan, is this something you can look into? I do not understand it.”
“Mais oui. Shall I go back to the ship right now?”
“If you think it would be easier from there.”
“Safer, at the least,” he said, rising from his seat. “I’ll link in when I have something.”
“Good to meet ya, sir,” Shelton called after him.
Kordieh paused, turning back. “A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Shelton,” he replied before setting off at a brisk walk.
Shelton edged his chair closer to Morgan. “Look, you seem like good people. If your alliance is willing to pay the fair share fee — that’s how we finance the union — that’ll go a ways with my people. Beyond that, the people here won’t see much of a difference. With or without some Interstellar Alliance.”
“I do know that,” Morgan said. “Work is work. But there is protection to be had too, more than you can provide yourself.”
“Protection? One of those White Stars? I saw those on the news.”
“I can’t promise a detachment here, but there will be one in the sector. Our president is quite serious about this sort of thing. I know Earth would… forget sometimes.”
“Don’t I know it,” Shelton muttered. “Earthforce patrols were a little scarce for a while. But after the business with Clark, we didn’t mind so much.”
“That was bad business,” she agreed.
He sat back in his folding chair. “Protection. Now that, I can sell.”