“I better go first. I better go number one.”
Moshe Vanderkellen was twenty years old, the league-leading MVP for Ares War College, and a top-notch fine-line-walker of confidence and arrogance, all too often tripping into the latter. He was still young, though, and even he couldn’t hide signs of nervousness. Angled forward in his seat, he rubbed his hands together while his legs bounced up and down like rapidly firing pistons.
“Well, hold on,” Cassidy said, setting down her pour of neat Lothian Scotch. She leaned toward him and into the armrest of the crinkling leather chair. “We talked about this and it should be obvious given their position in the draft. Neptune Company is not a winning team. I don’t give a damn how good you are, there’s no way you can carry them to victory and there’s no way they’d have your back in a sticky situation. I don’t want to see my friend go down in a shitstorm because he’s only thinking about the number.”
They had thirty minutes until the first round kicked off. Reflections of ten different newscast holograms reflected off Cassidy’s whiskey glass while the spicy scent of Robusto cigars and hum of media socialites floated all around them. Facilities crew members performed equipment checks on the empty stage in front. Moshe’s father was pacing the floor behind his son like an agitated steer, occasionally pulling a jumbo shrimp from the tiny white plate in his hand and biting its head off.
The mother wasn’t there. They rarely ever were.
“But Pantheon could trade up for the spot,” Moshe said.
“No offense, Moshe, but they won’t pay for you. They have two very large holes to fill in their artillery platoon and as much as they’d love to have you, they don’t need a first-strike leader.”
“Worst case,” he said, “Neptune keeps the pick and I can just sit and make them trade me to a better team.”
Cassidy nearly choked on her reaction. “Who told you that was a good idea? I know I didn’t tell you that.”
“That’s what Mason Kelso did.”
“Yeah, and where’s Mason Kelso now?”
Moshe fell silent.
“I know Mason,” Cassidy said. “I can arrange a meeting and you can spend five hours sitting in his shanty living room where he’ll tell you all about matches and bridges.” She took an angry swig from her glass. The burn felt good against her parched throat. “Damn it, Moshe, if I had known you were even thinking that for a second, I would have sent you to his place weeks ago.”
For half a second, Cassidy wondered if she would ever get tired of dealing with these headstrong kids. The thought occurred often, but always for only half a second. In truth, she loved being an agent because she was good at it. She was built for it. Her dad had never had trouble picking the winning thoroughbreds at Los Almas Raceway and Cassidy assumed her skill was some combination of endless hours spent with him and a genetically inherited gift passed down over the ages. She made thirty deals over the past ten drafts that put her at the top of the agency–the top of all agencies. She was always able to land a deal that made both parties happy but scratching their heads over how she’d made it look so easy.
“It’s just, you know, I rocked the scouting combine,” Moshe said. His voice took on a sense of authority, which it often did when he felt backed into a corner. “Obliterated everyone in every category. I outgunned them all, had a higher number of wounded pulled back. And that’s not even counting last season–”
“You’re letting any fool with a microphone and a holocamera set your value. I know you’re the best. You know you’re the best. Every team out there knows you’re the best. But you know what?”
“The best don’t need to say they’re the best.”
That got him. She watched his face reveal a sudden crossing back over that line of arrogance.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Of course she’s right,” Moshe’s father chimed in with a mouth full of caviar and water cracker. “That’s why we signed with her.”
“How long have you known me?” Cassidy asked Moshe.
“I dunno,” he said, visibly trying to close the gap between the neurons in his brain. “Four, five years?”
“Seven years and forty-six days,” Cassidy replied. “I saw your potential when you were still shooting styrofoam missiles at the neighbor kids.”
A smile crept across Moshe’s face. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
“Do you trust me?”
Moshe’s jaw fell open. “You know I do.”
“Then trust me.”
Cassidy leaned back in her chair and exhaled slowly, happy the pep talk was over but knowing it wouldn’t be the last.
“Mercury Marauders,” she said. “They’re going to pay you what we want and I recommend accepting wholeheartedly.”
“Man, they’re like, number four!”
“Stop thinking about the damn number,” Cassidy said. “You worked out with their team taking down those simulated Sand Demons from Argos. And, if I recall correctly, you gushed about the endless trays of post-practice bacon. They treat their players well, especially the top guns. With a refreshed Armored Cavalry and you leading Spec Ops, they’re going to take the title this year and every year you’re with them.”
Moshe frowned. “Yeah, I know. It’s just…after how I performed at the combine, they should all be begging me to come and fight for them.”
Cassidy put a hand on his shoulder. The kid was built like a carrier. Unless you saw him in action, you’d never know that he moved as lithely as a Telessian Stinger zooming through an asteroid belt. Most of the military teams had tank-like soldiers that could haul heavy weapons or scouts that crept and shot forth like the wind, but rarely both in the same person. Moshe would make the solar system proud for the next decade.
Cassidy’s head buzzed slightly and it wasn’t the whiskey. The back of her corneas showed her it was Davis calling in from the Marauder’s war room. She clicked in.
“Talk to me,” she said.
“They’re telling me $650 million for the four years, tops.”
Cassidy could have held the laugh back, but she knew they were all listening in.
“I guess Terry’s OK with an average sixteen casualties per year then? You know, the sixteen casualties that have kept them out of the playoffs for the past three years? What’s another four years?”
There were raised voices in the background. Undoubtedly Terry Lattimore, the Marauders GM, and his commander were pissing on each other over figures. Cassidy looked over at Moshe and smiled. The youngster’s eyes shifted between the bevy of holoscreens in front of them and the empty podium onstage.
“$700,” Davis said after several seconds.
She could sense the amusement in his voice. He was the best assistant she’d ever had and well worth the above-average percentage he took off the top.
“We’ll think about it,” Cassidy said and clicked off.
The time showed 3:20 PM. She gave them under five minutes to call back, deciding to use the window to review her calculations. They’d offer maybe another $25 million, but they’d push her hard on getting an extra year and she’d need to be ready to respond.
They’d likely call out Moshe’s kill-death ratio during his freshman year, and yeah, it came in slightly below expectations, but he had injured his hamstring during a move that saved three squadmates from career-ending injuries. Where were the Marauders going to find a superstar warrior who also knew when to pick up the team as a whole?
And Moshe’s recovery was swift. Since he came off the injury list, he hadn’t missed a single battle. It was like he hadn’t been hurt at all.
“Man, this is so nerve-wracking,” Moshe said. He ran his hands through his thick, wavy mane.
“Hey, I’m here for you,” Cassidy said. “Your dad is here for you.” Moshe’s dad grunted an acknowledgment.
Her head vibrated once more.
“$750, but they want an extra year.”
A buzzer sounded across the auditorium.
“$775,” Cassidy replied. She held firm while there was one last shout in the background.
“Deal,” Davis said.
Cassidy smiled. “He’s worth $850, but we’ll make up the difference with the tactical gear and soft drink endorsements. Tell them to make the pick and we’ll sign.”
She clicked off just as a voice boomed over the auditorium.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 2077 Solar War League Draft.
Sometimes it happens after only six months, maybe a year.
But never this suddenly.
The call came in two weeks after Moshe’s deployment to the Zeta System, but Cassidy had seen it on the news feeds only minutes before they rang her up–the BlackDevil pirates had set explosive traps before abandoning their operating base. A quarter of the Marauders’ starting lineup had been blown to bits, including Cassidy’s brightest prospect. The Marauders lawyer stated that per the standard contract, they would pay Cassidy her percentage based on a single-year value, but they would increase scrutiny over future prospects put forth by her agency.
Cassidy wasn’t the crying type. She was once, but her father made sure it was only once. She dealt with the news how she usually did–a full glass of Lothian tipped back in honor of the deceased.
A few minutes after the news came through, her head buzzed and she clicked over.
“Hi Smith,” she said.
“Yeah, so hey, I talked with Commander DiSouza and he said the Rapiers want Doña to come in and work out with them. They’re simulating an operation on Saladin-12 to capture a band of smugglers.”
“Thanks. I’ll take care of it.”
Cassidy poured herself another glass of scotch and rang up her client.
“Doña, it’s Cassidy. Hey, I hope your grandmother is feeling better–such a sweet woman, which reminds me, when she’s on her feet again, tell her to send more cookies–but before we chat about that, I want to advise you to work on your pistol draws.” She flipped across the records displayed across her corneal display. “Your ratio’s taken a nosedive due to your misses over the past week and we need to make a good impression with the Rapiers.”