Title: Expert Assistance
Author: Robert Collins
Genre: science fiction
Links to buy:
Amazon (print & Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004LGS7KO
B&N Nook: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/product.aspx?EAN=2940012100832
Tell us the story behind the story. What inspired you to write this novel?
A couple decades ago I had an idea for a script. It was a science fiction story that combined revolution plots with pop culture. For a short time I even had an agent. In the end I gave up on the script and tried to turn it into a short story. The rejections that said anything suggested there needed to be more. I took the hint and it became a novel.
The specific inspiration came from Doctor Who revolution stories, Casablanca, and 80s pop princesses. You can also credit (or blame) my loose association with a Doctor Who fan club based in Chicago.
Tell us about the book cover. How does it represent your book? How did you choose the artwork?
Once my contract with the original publisher was over, I tried to find another. I’d already self-published some nonfiction and a short story collection, so I decided to do that with Expert Assistance. I tried to create my own cover, but I just didn’t have the tools.
As it happened, an old friend, Matt Orsman, found me through Facebook last year. He liked my second novel and offered to use his artistic talents to help me sell books. I sent him my cover and asked for his view. He responded in a few days with a draft of the current cover. He had the final version done a few days after that.
The cover of the original version had a Post-it note on a planet that said, “Free me! Don’t forget!” Nice, but not quite funny and in 2-D. I tinkered with the idea of a movie poster, then went back to the original concept. I wanted the note to say “Up With Liberty!” Wittier, and that’s one of the chapter titles. Matt did a good job taking my idea and turning it into art.
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Start by going to my blog, One Kansas Author (http://robertlcollins.blogspot.com/). From there I have links to my website, my Facebook page, the blogs I follow, and so on.
Questor Corporation’s space station Q-12 strongly resembled a yes-man. It was small as corporate stations went, with only six dual-ship docking ports connected by the slenderest of transit tubes. In the middle of the six spindly spokes was a fragile cylinder of low-cost composites. Q-12 was built by overworked accountants, cheap contractors, and economized constructor-bots. It screamed of dealmaking and pliant praise.
The “Skuld” was the latest starship to dock at Q-12. It was wildly out of place next to the station. Although much smaller than the station, it was dark, sleek, and tough. If Q-12 was built by accountants, Skuld was built by military officers in the field.
The starship was owned by one Jake Bonner. He was not a military man, but a working spacer. He was too smart to be recruited, and too in love with space to stay grounded. He had lucked across Skuld on his travels. He had hoped that its power would bring him profit.
He had not yet been so lucky.
As his ship docked with Q-12, Bonner walked onto the ship’s bridge. It wasn’t an accurate term, but it was the best he could come up with. The “bridge” was divided in two. One part was a conversation pit with a large video screen, a couch opposite that, and comfortable chairs surrounding them. Up a half-dozen steps was wide desk with two seats, lighted panels, complex displays, and sophisticated read-outs. Bonner plopped down in one of the seats and waited for the controlling computer to update him.
“The station is acknowledging,” it reported a moment later. Its voice was clipped, precise, and a shade on the stuffy side.
“Patch us in, Odin.” It was an obvious name for the computer; the ship’s name was the Norse word for “future.” “This is Jake Bonner, owner and operator of the free starship Skuld, requesting permission to dock, Q-12.”
“Mr. Bonner, this is Station Q-12,” a polite female voice answered. “Your identity is confirmed. Please stand by to be escorted in.”
“Our financial records show a debt of 8,467 cred-units owed, by you, to this station. You are hereby ordered not to leave this station until the debt is paid back in full. If your debts are not paid within seventy-two Earth-standard hours, your ship will be impounded.
“Thank you for visiting Q-112.” The voice was actually earnest about the concluding sentiment.
Jake held off screaming at the station voice. He screamed at the computer instead. “Odin, why didn’t you tell me I owed them 8,000 creds?”
“Because it is not my duty to watch over you. Or so you have repeatedly told me.”
“Well, don’t just idle, do something!”
“Your debt to the Questor chain has been logged into the main financial computer already. There is nothing legal that I can do.”
“So do something illegal!”
“I refuse to engage in illegal operations just to prevent you from paying your obligations.”
“Now, wait a minute here! Who owns who, anyway?”
“I suggest you cease this emotional display. Allow me to transfer the funds from your savings with Enterprise Banking, Insurance, and Salvage to the Questor Corporation.”
“Oh, alright. How much is in there, anyway?”
“Eight hundred cred-units.”
“All I have is a lousy eight hundred?”
“Not anymore. Your account is now drained.”
“I thought there was 12,000 in there.”
“There was. Seven days ago, your debts to Blake Stations, Incorporated, were paid off. By court order.”
“One of these days I’m going to violently reformat your hard drives.”
“I shall ignore that remark. I am making it known throughout the station that you are willing to take on employment on a cash-up-front basis.”
Bonner held back a groan. He knew from long experience the quality of employment offered by those with ready credits. If the job wasn’t illegal or immoral, it would be boring and simple. The choices would almost always be between bad and worse. And there he was, stuck making those choices again.
“This is going to be fun,” he said morosely.
“Either this, or put me up for sale.” Odin’s tone left no doubt about his preference. “One moment, Jake. I have located a request that is enigmatic, to say the least. Shall I initiate contact?”
“I suppose. Don’t bother with the main screen. I don’t want to get up.”
“Very well. Jake, please meet Daniel and Clarissa Rosen.”
An instant later an man and a woman appeared on the upper-deck console screen. They were dressed alike in drab work coveralls. The man had dark hair, the woman dirty brown. Both seemed to be in their late twenties.
The man spoke first. “Mr. Bonner? Pleased to meet you. We’re from the colony planet Antioch Two. Are you familiar with it?”
“Antioch Two is a mining colony, owned by one Sordius Maxis. It’s population is Class Six, and therefore not a part of the Interstellar Governing Convention. It has been operational for 107 years, and has shown a profit for the last 73.”
“And do you know how that’s possible, Mr. Bonner?” Clarissa asked hotly. “Maxis keeps us poorly fed and clothed, and claims the air is our pay!”
Jake heaved a mighty sigh. He wanted to shout out, “Are there no new pleas in this galaxy? Am I the only human who knows our history?” He had traveled far and wide through human space, so he had heard of oppressed worlds. His parents had given him an appreciation of the history of the human race, so he knew about rebellions, their causes, and their outcomes. So when Clarissa Rosen said what she did, Jake had no doubt what they were going to ask him to do.
It was, however, more than a little frustrating to know where the Rosens were heading. It meant that their job offer carried with it a rather predictable set of actions he would have to take: organization; subversion; then direct action against the regime. If what Clarissa said was true, each of these would be easy tasks to accomplish. There would be no real challenge to the job, just another go-through of the motions that have been carried on since time immemorial.
No, he reminded himself, there would be one challenge: getting paid. Rebels as a rule didn’t have much on hand to compensate hired help. Getting into power might allow them to reward his work, but the odds were that the Rosens were from some podunk colony with an annual income only slightly higher that his present debt load. The compensation was fairly unlikely to equal the amount of work he’d have to put out to help them succeed.
He decided to let the couple down easy. But before doing that, Jake made certain that his hunch was correct. He said to them, “Let me guess. You want me to help you oust this Maxis, so you can replace him with a government that will respect the workers. Am I right?”
The couple’s eyes went wide. “How did you know?”
“I have been around the galaxy a few times. Look, a hired gun isn’t going to make a bit of difference.”
“Mr. Bonner,” Daniel said, “we are prepared to reward your assistance with five percent of our mines’ profits, each year, for life.”
“That’s very kind of you,...”
Odin spoke up in a firm, soft tone. “Jake, if you were to receive five percent, you would earn 75,000 cred-units per year. Minimum. Assuming no crashes in the mineral markets, of course.”
Jake needed a few seconds to comprehend the figure. “Seventy ...five... thousand...?” he stammered. “What do you people mine, diamonds?”
“Antioch Two has the second largest gold veins in human space,” Odin supplied calmly, “along with the fourth largest silver deposits, third richest copper deposits, and so on. Antioch Two appears to be an untapped source of vast wealth in precious minerals.”
It took a moment, but Jake snapped out of his shock. When he did he he realized that the couple had been surprised that he knew what they were going to ask before they asked it. If they didn’t know, he reasoned, they probably don’t know how to go about waging a revolution. It will mean lots of work, but their offer will more than compensate for that.
I’ll be set for life, and I won’t have to take boring jobs like this one anymore.
Pressing his shirt with his hands, Jake sat up straight. “Well, then, I suppose we should... no, we must strive to ensure that colonists on independent worlds are not denied their basic rights. I would be happy to do my part.”
“We’re glad you feel that way, Mr. Bonner,” Clarissa said, seemingly oblivious to Jake’s mood change. “We’re prepared to advance you fifteen hundred creds.”
“Fifteen-hundred? That won’t get me to Antioch Two anytime soon. Can’t you up that a little?”
“We can barely afford that, Mr. Bonner.”
Jake grimaced. His opportunity for the easy life, his chance to stop wandering, his hopes for attracting a young and beautiful love slave, all threatened to sprout jump drives and zip away. He gritted his teeth. “I hate to say this, but...”
“I have uncovered a possible source of immediate income,” Odin announced. “You may accept this assignment, if you wish.”
“Thank you. I accept. Log your advance, and the other offer, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Skuld, out.”
Jake let out a maniacal laugh. “I’m gonna be rich! Filthy rich! Odin, if you were a woman, I would marry you.”
“I am pleased you have such a deep respect for my ability and talents.”
“Oh, don’t be so stuffy. Admit it, Odin. You wouldn’t have guided me to this offer if you didn’t like the idea of me becoming wealthy.”
“Well, I admit that a more reliable source of income would allow for certain advances to my software and hardware.”
“That’s the spirit! Now, what’s this other source of income?”
“The individual is on his way. One moment. The gentleman, Sidney Kraft, is the airlock, and requests permission to board the ship.”
“Let him in.”
The man entered the bridge through the entranceway opposite the control area. Sidney Kraft might have been in his late thirties, but it was more likely that he was faking it. His hair was too neatly in place, his skin too tanned and smooth, and his shape too sculpted. His clothes reminded Jake of a pink Christmas tree.
“You Jake Bunter?” Sid asked. His voice was way too smooth.
“Bonner. Jake Bonner.”
Oh, yeah, Bonner.” Sid approached, took Jake’s hand and shook it vigorously. “I’m Sid Kraft, of Kraft, Kropf, Kretz, and Bartholomew.”
“What do you do? Why are you hiring?”
Kraft appeared mildly surprised. “I’m an agent, Mr. Burner.”
“That’s Bonner. What kind of agent?”
“Aw, come on! You gotta know about us. We’re the top entertainment artist representation firm in the galaxy. We’ve got dozens of stars, from video, to music, to literary, to... Well, you name it, we represent it.”
“I see. I prefer more classic fare than the latest thing.”
“Oh, well, too bad, Mr. Banner. Say, can I call ya Jakie?”
“Thanks, Jakie. You see, I have this problem.”
“Right now I’m working for Evangelyne Martini. You heard of her? She’s great! This kid can sing, act, dance. She’ll be the next great pop sensation.”
“Aren’t they all?”
“She’s about to go on her first live performance tour. We need someone who can get her from show to show.”
“Why doesn’t she just tour with the band?”
“Aw, c’mon, Jakie. Talent never slums with the hired help. Besides, the media will be all over the main tour ship. It’d be much easier to control access if she’s on another ship.” Sid glanced around the room. “The look is okay. Evvie could do her interviews from here.”
Sid raised his hands. “Strictly over the air stuff. You won’t have to worry about anyone boarding.”
“Okay. So all I have to do is get this ‘Evvie’ from one show to the next. For how long?”
“Well, we’re still booking shows, but no more than three standard months. Three and a half at the most.”
“And it will be just her? No family?”
“Her folks have split up again. It’d be bad to have either one, and if they both come they’ll be fighting. Evvie doesn’t need that, not on her first tour.”
“No friends? No entourage?”
“Her friends will meet her at some of the gigs, but they can’t drop their lives for three months. And we’ve got a directive from top brass to keep costs down on this first tour. Anything else?”
Sid’s offer wasn’t quite what Jake was expecting. But the spacer knew money when he saw it, so he decided to see if there would be real pay or hot air. His face became a mask of worry. “I don’t know. I’ve got heavy debts to Questor. They aren’t letting me leave.”
“Hey, no problem!” Sid yanked out a small black box from a pocket. He pulled an ear plug from it, put it in his ear, and tapped a button on the box. “Hey, Nancy? Sid here. I got a fella who can help us with Evvie, but he’s got some high-grav debt. Name? What was that name again?”
“Jake Bonner, Nans. Huh. Hold on.” He turned to Jake. “We’ll bail you out, Jakie, but I need to get your okay on the legal stuff.”
Sid disconnected the earpiece from his perscomp, tapped the screen a few times, then handed it to Jake. “Okay, that one is the independent contractor agreement spelling out the terms we’ve discussed. You’re familiar with those, right?”
“No problem. Odin?”
“My ship’s computer. Odin?”
“Scanning the contract, Jake. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Wow,” Sid said, “that’s some computer. He available for license?”
“No,” Jake answered. He scrolled to the end of the digital contract and signed the screen on the “dotted line.” He started to hand the device back to Sid when Sid pointed to it.
“The next one is nondisclosure agreement covering the tour.”
“Fine.” Jake signed.
“Next is a nondisclosure about any songs Evvie composes, in part or in full, while she’s on board your ship.”
“After that is the guarantee that you have insurance. Then you need to sign the insurance claim waivers for claims against us, from losses to acts beyond our control, and from losses you might incur while you work for us but aren’t related to said work.”
“Is that it?”
“No. Now you need to sign the agreement that you won’t try to harm Evvie physically or mentally. Then you have to agree not to sell any information you gather about Evvie while working for us for a period of at least five years. We also need you to agree not to allow unauthorized media access to Evvie. Oh, we’ll download the interview schedule. We also need you to agree not to allow any personal access to Evvie without getting our approval.”
“Fine. Anything else?”
“Yeah. That last one is your agreement not to work for any other celebrity not represented by my firm while you work for us. You’ll note that we reserve the right to request your services for celebrities that we do manage while under contract for us. Don’t worry, there’s no renewal option.”
Jake signed the final contract. He handed the device to Sid. “Odin,” he asked, “have I signed my life away?”
“Every contract was fair and ethical.”
“Yeah, thanks, Jake.” Sid reattached the earpiece to the machine and tapped the screen twice. “Nancy? Okay, authorize payment on those debts. Done? Okay, kiddo, thanks. Be in touch.” He took out the plug and put the communicator back in his pocket. “There, Jakie, all taken care of.”
“Thanks. When do we start?”
“I’ll download all the relevant data to you, then bring Evvie over.” Sid grabbed Jake’s hand and shook it again. “It’ll be great working with ya, Jakie.”
As soon as the agent was gone Odin said, “Happy to have been of assistance, Jake. Oh, by the way, Antioch Two appears to be a late stop on Miss Martini’s tour.”
“Interesting coincidence. That is a coincidence, right, Odin?”
“I would never do anything that underhanded. As it happens, the leader of Antioch Two is a fan of Miss Martini.”
Jake shook his head. “I hate him already,” he said.