Chapter 7 || Chort System Planetside

"Where you get goods?" demanded the oozing, disgusting creature in front of me. It didn't actually speak my language; its beak was unsuited to the task. It held a vocoder in one tentacle that it used to translate between us. Its myriad other tentacles flailed about wildly, and I kept a careful amount of distance between us with one hand resting on my blaster.

“I took it from the hold of a ship that tried to destroy me in orbit. I survived, it didn’t. I salvaged what I could.”

He fail activate suicide measures when you board?”

“He failed to survive my attack, yes. He didn’t have time to activate anything before his power failed.”

Very well. I take goods from you, repair vessel.”

I had never haggled with a Tharl before. This was a learning experience I had never thought to encounter. I had no idea what it considered polite protocol, or what it might consider insulting. I didn’t even know if it had concepts for polite or insulting. I had to feel my way through as cautiously as I had picked my path through the asteroid belt in orbit above.

I was still in the Chort System, having successfully landed on the planet while the fleet forces were battling each other. What I could make out of the fight, it was looking pretty well stalemated. I didn’t think the Federation was going to succeed in taking control. What I did know was that I couldn’t jump the Gilmour without landing for further repairs. With the sensors below optimal, it was difficult to find a suitable jump point. When I did find one, the transition engines failed. It could have been a bad junction or it could have been something much worse. I didn’t have time to investigate it myself because I had already spent too much time wandering around taking sensor readings. It was time to land and get help.

“I’m glad you like it. How much are you going to give me before you take these goods from me?”

Now it was the Tharl’s turn to be confused. “How much what?”

John told me Traders had operated on Tharl worlds before. They had to be familiar with Federation notions of commerce. I didn’t understand his question much more than he understood mine. I tried again. “You understand money? Federation credit?”

Federation money not good here. Federation not trade with Tharl, Tharl not trade with Federation.”

“Well, what do you offer me in exchange?”

The Tharl paused to think about this. “Precious metals. Exotic foods. Art. Oils. Slaves. What you want?”

Exotic foods. Art. Oils. It was talking about luxuries. “How much for my cargo?”

I offer ten tons silver. Eight tons gold. Four tons platinum. Twelve tons ukiya spice. Twenty tons tchrk tapestries and statues. Thirty tons doqqa oil. Ten thousand slaves.”

I blinked. “My capacity is limited to fifteen tons.”

Twelve tons ukiya spice would be most efficient, then. Or ten tons spice, five tons dogga oil.”

I had no clue of the possible value of what I was giving up, or what I was agreeing to trade. I knew I needed to unload the parts I had; it wasn’t compatible with Federation technology, and I was unlikely to find a market for it. I was unsure of my bargaining position.

“I would accept four tons of platinum and eleven tons of spice.”

Its tentacles shivered briefly. “Not acceptable. Goods not worth so much. Ten tons spice, five tons silver.”

“I’m sure I could find a great deal of interest for these goods on Federation worlds,” I suggested. “But for five tons of gold and ten tons of spice, I could forget that idea.”

The Tharl’s twitching tentacles began to thrash about in a frenzy. It didn’t like my suggestion. “Not acceptable,” it repeated. “I offer fifteen tons platinum. No Tharl technology to Federation. You accept now.”

I blinked. Fifteen tons of platinum would make me rich. I had made it desperate by suggesting I would take my cargo home. I thought of Mika and felt good about making it squirm. I had also riled it enough that further negotiation could be hazardous to my health. “I accept. You fix my ship, I take fifteen tons of platinum back to the Federation instead of Tharl technology.”

We have accord. I take goods, deliver platinum, fix ship. You fly away.”

I nodded. “We have accord.” I would have offered to shake but the thought of touching it with my bare hand revolted me. I expect it also would not have understood the gesture. I turned away to get the Gilmour ready for business.

In comparison to Federation worlds, Tharl worlds seemed incredibly diverse. At least, this one had a great deal of intelligent life other than the Tharl themselves. Most of them seemed intent on getting from one place to another in a terrible hurry, or focusing on a variety of tasks including street cleaning. None of them were willing to stop to talk to me, or maybe they didn’t know how. I didn’t see any of them with a vocoder like the Tharl I negotiated with, and I doubt any of them spoke my language.

The streets were set out in a curving manner that confused me. The buildings themselves were built up in a hive-like fashion that appeared to extend underground as much as it rose into the sky. They all appeared to be built of the same uniform material, something rusty brown in colour. I had nothing I could use as a point of reference, and had myself thoroughly lost in very short order. I started peeking in openings of buildings I passed to try to figure out their function. With luck I would find a local equivalent of a hotel or restaurant, and if I was really lucky an information center. Unfortunately, I wasn’t having much luck identifying anything.

The sun was beginning to set in the east when I caught sight of something familiar. Something with feathers. A Timmorakian with bright yellow plumage came scuttling out of a building and headed in my direction.

“Hey,” I said by way of greeting to it. It appeared to ignore me, so I planted myself directly in the way. “Hey, do you understand me ”

Its feathers ruffled and it clacked its beak at me. “Get out of my way, human. I have no time for you.”

“Look, I’ll pay you for your time. I’m lost.”

“Don’t you know what I am? I can’t help you. Find someone else.”

I frowned. That didn’t make any sense at all. “Look, I’ll give you a gram of pure platinum. Just help me find a hotel or something that makes sense around here.”

It stared at me suspiciously. “Platinum? Do you know what you’re offering me? Let’s see this platinum.”

Once again I’d outsmarted myself. I was technically a rich man with fifteen tons of platinum in my hold, but I hadn’t yet taken possession of it. Nor could I until the repairs to the were complete. I had nothing to back up my claim, so I was going to have to bluff my way through.

I did my best imitation of a bristling animal. “Do you know who I am? How dare you suggest that I’m lying? I demand an immediate apology.”

The Timmorakian surprised me again by bobbing its head and smoothing its feathers immediately. “I apologise, Master. This slave deserves to be beaten. It was unworthy of me to question you.”

Slave? Suddenly it started to fall into place. “What’s your name?”

“This slave has no name. It has not earned that privilege.”

“Fine. What was your name before you became a slave?”

The bird bobbed its head again, peering at me with one eye. “This slave’s name was once Trillek. This slave lost that privilege thirty years ago.”

“All right, Trillek. Where can I find the nearest information kiosk? One suitable for a Trader of the Galactic Federation?”

“Great Trader, you must travel two miles that way,” it pointed with a feathery hand. “The building will be marked with a yellow symbol resembling a sunburst.”

“Thank you. That was what I needed.” I turned to go, but was stopped by an impulse. “How much would it cost me to purchase you ”

“Master has not told this slave what price would be suitable, or if this slave is for sale.”

“Fine. What is your Master’s name, and I’ll take it up with him.”

“Her name is Uulugula. She is a very important Tharl, and very busy. She may not be willing to talk to you.”

“That may be, Trillek. But we’ll give it a shot anyway. You’d better go now.”

“Yes, Great Trader. Thank you, Great Trader.” Trillek bowed and bobbed and scurried off faster than before. Watching it go I felt the beginnings of an idea forming, one that would require the cooperation of someone like the Timmorakian. I’d just need to figure out how to buy it from Uulugula.

My head was busy with such thoughts as I went off in search of a building with a yellow symbol resembling a sunburst.

Trillek was right. Uulugula was a very important person; too important to be bothered with dealing with the likes of me. However, I did have the honour to be addressed by a minor flunky over a video connection.

What want you with slave?”

“I desire continued trade with your people. I know very little of your culture or economics. I need someone to bridge the gap between us, so there are no misunderstandings and maximum profit to us both.”

No need for trade with you. Have own merchants. Own shipping. Superior technology.”

“I can bring you resources from Federation worlds. Material goods to make your superior technology. You can beat us individually, but we outnumber you. You need more goods than your shipping can provide.”

Irrelevant. Parity maintained, Federation not a threat.”

I cracked my knuckles irritably. “So, what you’re telling me is that I have nothing to offer you, and no means to purchase that slave from you?”

Have many slaves, to you will sell.”

“But not that one.”

Illogical. Already trained is slave. Until used up, no reason for another to train.”

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. “When do you expect he’ll be ‘used up,’ as you say?”

The creature paused briefly. “Three hundred revolutions projected life cycle for species. Thirty revolutions passed since purchase. Fifty to eighty revolutions estimated, possible more. When expired, will train another.”

A lifetime of slavery, rewarded with death. After which Trillek would be cast aside and replaced like a worn-out tool. I failed to suppress a shudder. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.

“All right. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

The Tharl cut contact without any farewell. It was, I assumed, a busy creature. I leaned back in my chair and absently twisted my fingers until the joints popped.

“Boss? What are you doing?”

“I need that Timmorakian.”

“They just said you can’t have him. What are you going to do next, steal him?”

I said nothing as I contemplated that thought.

“You’re not serious. As if the Tharl aren’t dangerous enough!”

“That depends on if we can stay away from this world, and if they’re touchy enough about their slaves to put the word out about me.”

“It’s an awful big risk, Boss.”

“Hey, I’ve survived worse. How bad could it get?”

“You know what to expect from Federation worlds. The Tharl are an unknown quantity. They might come hunting for you.”

“Then I stick to Federation territory if it goes bad. They already try hard enough to kill me on the way to the ground. How could this be any worse?”

“Would you like me to describe it in detail, or just summarise?”

“Nevermind. I’m gonna go think about this for a while.”

With a little determination and a lot of patience, I was eventually able to find a hyperlink node to use while mine was under repair. John was unavailable; his slow Corba was still in transit. Alec was around, and expressed sincere surprise that I was still alive.

So, you gonna want your share of the money you and John were makin’?”

“Unless you can think of a good reason why I shouldn’t. For that matter, even if you can. Yeah.”

Alright, we spent some of it on a wake but we’ll get it back to ya.”

In my mind’s eye I could see the wake they must have had. It was distracting.

“I’d appreciate it. In the meanwhile I’m waiting for my ship to be repaired before I can jump off this rock. But you guys have more experience with Tharl than I do. What’s with their slave trade? I don’t know anything beyond the propaganda that the Federation teaches everyone.”

Why do you want to know? Running slaves is worse than running drugs, man. They get mean if they find you running slaves.” Alec’s voice took on a harsh note; I suspected he’d seen the results of some of their handiwork.

“I know that. I want to know the Tharl’s attitude about them. Why do they get so attached to them?”

The Tharl are all about dominance. That’s why we have to run the gauntlet to earn the right to trade. If you fail the run and survive they’ll usually kill you anyway unless you impress them; then they enslave you. If they invade a planet, anyone who doesn’t get killed in battle is taken as a slave. They use slaves pretty much the way we would: to handle things they don’t feel like doing themselves. They could build robots to do some of the messy or dangerous stuff they make ‘em do, but they like using slaves. They’re sadistic bastards, and you wanna make sure you steer clear of any of it.” This time I was sure: his voice was shaking with rage.

“Look, Alec. There’s a slave here who knows things I need. I’m trying to buy his way to freedom in exchange for what he knows. The problem is the Tharl who owns him doesn’t want to give him up.”

Then yer spaced. The Tharl never give up a favourite slave. The kindest thing you could do to the guy is to put yer blaster between his eyes and pull the trigger.”

“If I try to smuggle him off the planet?”

They’ll detect the contraband and raid your ship before ya can make the jump. Their sensors are a lot better than ours – a lot. They can break through any jamming the Navy can put out.”

“There’s got to be a way. I need this guy.”

Not gonna happen. Find another one; this one is history.”

He didn’t give me the chance to argue further. He just closed the connection.

I bit my lip and started to walk back to the Gilmour. Alec had given me a lot to think about, but I needed more information. Alec made the Tharl sound like they were gods. There had to be some way I could trick them. I went in search of another kiosk.

I hated to admit it, but I missed working with the computer. The kiosk had a lot of data to search through, and I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what I was looking for. The computer had a knack for sorting through things and pointing me in the right direction. Now I had to do it myself, and I didn’t know where to begin. Technology was a large subject, too large for me to read through. I tried Sensors and found a much more palatable list. But I still didn’t know what I was looking for. I settled in and started reading.

I don’t think Alec exaggerated anything to me. The text went into in-depth detail of the methods used to detect matter and energy, detail that made me dizzy. I know I didn’t understand a tenth of it, but what I did understand made me doubt. The Tharl had gained a lot of knowledge in the past few thousand years, some of it while the Federation was still growing. Their progression was slow but steady, each plateau gained after methodical research and experimentation. The text outlined each advance in the order they were discovered. The most recent discovery explained how to break through Federation jamming, and I sorely missed the computer then. It could have downloaded the details and possibly used it. It seemed to me that in my limited understanding of the topic, none of the principles used were outside the grasp of Federation technology. They just used it differently.

This made me pause. The Tharl were very protective of their technology. They didn’t allow it to pass outside of their control. So why were they so open with their libraries? I looked over the console for a slot where I could insert a datachip. There wasn’t one that I recognized. I already knew from prior experience that there wasn’t a Tharl equivalent of a librarian. If you wanted to learn something from the kiosk, you sat down and input your query. Their security couldn’t be that simple, could it?

One of the first things I’d researched the other day after I’d met Trillek was a map of the city so I could avoid getting lost. I’d also established a line of credit through Illuma, the merchant to whom I’d sold my cargo in case I wanted to buy something…like a slave. I called up the city map and traced a path to the nearest store selling Tharl equivalent of datapads and datachips. It was a long walk, but I hadn’t yet figured out local transport.

The shopkeeper was suspicious of me. “What want you with storage device?”

“I found some research I want to study.”

Study at kiosk.”

“There’s too much for me to study at once. I want to bring it with me and study on the way home.”

The thing shivered its tentacles. I wondered if that was the equivalent of shaking its head. “Not possible. Not take with you.”

I sighed impatiently. “So I can’t have the chip?”

Can have,” it corrected me. “Cannot use. Will see.”

Puzzled, I bought the datachip and a pad to read it and made my way back to the kiosk. I found out what it had been talking about at the entrance. A loud noise blared in my ears, making me jump. The harsh, alien language of the Tharl followed, but there was no translation. I looked around to see if anyone was coming to investigate, but no one was there. After a minute, I tried again.

This time an electric shock jolted me, and I leaped back. The first time must have been a warning. I surmised the warnings must get progressively more dangerous. Properly chastised, I reached into my pocket to remove the forbidden technology. I jerked it back out again with a hiss and an angry curse to suck at my burnt fingers. The shock hadn’t just scolded me, it had burned out the components.

Oh yes, Tharl sensors were very good. I was beginning to think Alec was right, but I didn't want to give up. There had to be a way, I just had to find it.

“I don't know what to tell you, Trillek. The more I read about the Tharl, the more I wonder how we ever hoped to fight them. I don't know how to get you out.”

The Timmorakian ruffled his feathers. “The Tharl are superior, but they do not breed as fast as humans. No one does; that is why humans dominate the galaxy. For every human they kill, three more are born to take their place.”

“That doesn't help me, Trillek. I need a plan, and I don't have one. I don't know enough about the Tharl. I want to know more, and that's why I want you.”

“What will you do with me once you've learned all I have to teach?”

“Set you free. That's what I said.”

“How do I know this? You promise much, too much for me to believe.”

I scowled. Timmorakians are a contentious breed. Every one I'd met since Ansalon had greeted me with a challenge and I was getting tired of it. “Look, I'm risking my neck here. If you can't appreciate that, I can just leave you here and find someone else.”

“No! I apologise, Great Trader. I was wrong to accuse you. You are a great man of great compassion.”

“And cut it out with the 'Great Trader' bit! I'm no such thing. You can stop with the slave mentality, too. As soon as I can get you back to civilisation, you're a free man...bird...whatever. You won't be my slave and you never will be. I want nothing to do with that.”

Even aside from the fact that Alec would clearly kill me if I did. Trillek didn't need to know that. I saw feathers ruffling slightly, but he controlled himself with a visible effort. After a moment he nodded gravely and I found myself staring at his hooked beak, suddenly reminded of one of the natural weapons he possessed.

“I understand, Trader. I will endeavour to comply, but it will be difficult for me until it has actually happened.”

I sighed heavily and shook my head at him. “You know what your problem is, Trillek? Nobody’s been nice to you in too long. You need to go find yourself a woman…or a female…whatever you call them for your species. Do whatever it is that your people do to relieve stress.”

“That would be most…pleasant, but I regret that my owner has not given me leave to breed. There are several females of my species on this world, but I have not earned that honour.”

I flinched at the thought. “You don’t even get to consort with your own kind?”

“I should not be here with you except that my owner believes I am still accomplishing errands. I will no doubt be late, and will be punished when I return.”

“Then go, man! Contact me if you get any ideas. I’ll keep working at it from this end.”

“Yes, Trader.” Trillek left without any further urging. I stared at the plumage retreating from my sight and kept thinking. The answer was probably in front of my nose, but I couldn’t see it. I decided to head back to the information kiosk to see if I could think of another way to search for what I needed.

Trillek’s behaviour puzzled me. Even allowing for the fact that he’d been a slave longer than I’d been alive to the most incomprehensible species the Federation had ever encountered, I couldn’t figure him. He was constantly bouncing between passive and aggressive behaviour as though he couldn’t decide what he wanted to do. I was beginning to suspect he might not last as long as his Tharl masters thought he might. If a human behaved like that, I’d expect them to die of an aneurysm within a year. It put me in mind of the strange Timmorakian I’d tried to do business with on Ansalon. There was something fundamental I was missing here. I made a note to ask the computer about it when I got back to the ship.

A loud noise blared in my ears, making me jump. The harsh, alien language of the Tharl followed, but there was no translation. It was all very familiar to me. I looked around, but nobody seemed interested. I reached into my pocket and touched the already crippled piece of forbidden technology. The Tharl sensors were still reacting to it.

I suddenly understood the flaw in the system. It couldn’t scan deeply enough to see the difference. For the first time, I began to think I had a chance.

The computer made an uncharacteristic pause as I outlined the rough draft of my plan. “I can see one major assumption that could unravel your plan, Boss.”

I gestured impatiently. “Go on.”

“You’re assuming that the sensors working in the kiosk are the same grade as the sensors they use when scanning ships. It’s a fallacious assumption. Would people in the Federation use military-grade sensors to check shoplifters in a store?”

I shook my head. “Different economics, different mindset. I don’t think the Tharl think that way. If I could have found a way to download information from the kiosk, I would have. They don’t use open datanets the way we do in the Federation. They don’t do a lot of things the way we do in the Federation. They see no point in restricting technology, upgrading is merely a matter of cost and availability. That’s why their entire fleet is composed of merchant craft. Once they finish a cycle of research, they throw their energies into production of whatever they’ve discovered. Then they go back and research it again. The process takes a long time, but obviously it works for them. The effectiveness of their sensors outstrips the Federation, but the sensitivity doesn’t. They can’t tell a good chip from a bad one.”

“Then how do they enforce quality control?” the computer wanted to know. “How can they depend on their technology if they have no means to differentiate?”

“That’s what slaves are for,” I replied smugly. “It never occurred to them to give them less work. If something can be done by a slave, why bother coming up with a method that would render them obsolete? That’s why I’ve had to walk everywhere: I don’t have any slaves to haul me around by hand.”

“What about signal tags? Other means of differentiating between people?”

“They don’t use them. They brand their slaves. I learned that from Trillek. Each brand is unique to each owner. If a slave is sold, then the old brand is burned off and replaced by the new one.”

“And you’re sure Trillek knows everything? The Tharl haven’t omitted any important information to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening?”

I scowled. “You’re being obnoxious, you know that?”

“I’m making sure you’ve thought of all the possibilities. There are a dozen reasons why this might not work, and those are just the ones we know about. There could be something else we can’t predict, and we already know how the Tharl treat people they don’t like. Is this Trillek really worth the risk?”

I cracked my knuckles angrily. “Yes.”

“Why? You haven’t mentioned that part, yet.”

“Trillek knows more about the Tharl than anyone else I know. And I’ve gotten to know him too well; I don’t want to leave him here in slavery for another fifty to eighty years until he’s used up and casually replaced. I want him to be able to live the remainder of his life in freedom.”

“You could use that money for other things.”

“It’s a small portion of the platinum the Tharl are giving me. I’ll never miss it. But for Trillek it’s a ransom, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

“Okay, Boss. It’s your call. Got a backup plan in case something goes wrong?”

One of the joints in my fingers popped loudly. “Uh, no. Not really. Do you have any ideas?”

“I wish I did. Sorry, Boss.”

I sighed. “Me too. Now, let’s find a slave trader.”

It was, in fact, ridiculously easy to find a slaver. Finding a slaver selling what I wanted was a little harder. I hunted, I hinted, I left small bribes that might or might not have been understood. I found no Timmorakians for sale anywhere in the Chort System. All doors were closed to me, and I couldn’t find out why. A couple of times I found my temper brimming over and was forced to retreat before I made a fatal mistake. I was getting nowhere fast and time was running out. Repairs on the Gilmour were finished and while the Tharl were happy to take my money from me, I caught a few inquiring hints wondering why I hadn’t yet moved on.

Stubbornly, I stayed. I wasn’t leaving without my slave. It was an ugly thought, but there it was. In the meanwhile, I caught up with news. The battle over Chort had been a costly one for both sides. The Brisbane was declared lost with all hands, her captain given a posthumous award. I thought of Mika and felt my anger kick up a notch. In due time my parents sent me a message wondering if I’d heard the news and wanting to commiserate. I didn’t answer them. I couldn’t. Their heroic daughter had fought the enemy to the last while their cowardly son ran away and got rich off them. It wasn’t a conversation I could imagine myself having.

John called me back and congratulated me for surviving against all odds. Again, I thought of Mika and flushed, but didn't say anything. I suppose he took it for embarrassment and changed the subject to money.

I’ve got your share of the profits deposited in the Soluna Banking Franchise. There’s quite a bit there, and it should have earned a good bit of interest. You can withdraw it from any bank affiliated with them.”

“Keep it,” I snapped shortly. Reminding me of Mika, even inadvertently, had brought my temper to the fore. “I don’t need it.”

I thought you told Alec you wanted it back.”

“I don’t need it,” I repeated. “I’m rich, now.” Rich with money paid for in blood.

Is that so? How’d you fleece the Tharl? I’m sure the Guild would pay a lot to learn that secret.”

“Not now. Later, maybe.”

Are you all right, Hideo? You don’t sound so good. Are they treating you okay? They’re supposed to leave you alone once you hit the ground.”

“I’m fine. They've...they haven’t done anything to me. I’m just working on something here.” But how could I make them pay for Mika’s death if they blocked me from my best source of information?

Well, hurry back. The Horsemen haven’t reformed since Dickie and business has been slow without your tips. I figure another good run like we had and I can afford the latest Corba class. Hell, we could outfit our own fleet and make a real killing. Whatcha think?”

Upgrades? John did very well for himself. He was practically a poster child for the Trader’s Guild: dashing, well-off and extensively traveled. He carried himself like he’d seen it all because, honestly, he had. But he didn’t talk of retirement and he didn’t dream of the day when he could sell his ship and live a life of luxury. It hit me that John loved the challenge of trading; he was an adventurer of the most romantic stripe. He’d never stop moving so long as there was another planet in reach. Money was a means to an end and he was already living that end. I didn’t see why I hadn’t recognized it before; it was what had I wanted too.

I used to want it, I realized. I didn’t anymore. I was rich, had been for some time, but it never really made me excited. At first I thought it was because it hadn’t sunk in. Then I remembered the last time I was making a lot of money I blew it all away because it wasn’t what I was after. The only time I was truly happy was when John and I were plying our way across the sector making it big by the sweat of our brow. Now he was inviting me back, and suddenly I wasn’t interested. Now I wanted something else, but it was still something he could help me with.

“Hold that thought, John,” I replied. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Right now take the money in that account and upgrade as much as you can. Prepare for a run through a warzone. If I can do this, I’ll make us all rich enough to buy our own planets.”

John’s sigh was unmistakable. “You always were a dreamer, Hideo.”

“Not this time, John. Trust me, and do what I told you. I’ll be in touch.” I cut the connection before he could protest further. He might use the money, or he might not. It didn’t really matter. It would take time to set up the ideas forming in my head, but it all started with Trillek. Maybe, even, he could start by helping me rescue him.

“This is unnecessary risk, Trader!” Trillek shrilled. “You seek to destroy me!”

“Shut up, Trillek,” I growled. “Or I’ll take off right now and leave you behind.”

He immediately settled his feathers and stepped back, assuming a more demure pose.

“That’s better. Now I need to know how many of your people are on Chort. Can you find out?”

The avian shuddered slightly. “There are twenty-nine of us.”

“That’s not a lot. How many of them are with your mistress, or master, or whatever?”

“All of them.”

I blinked. That seemed odd to me. “None of the other Tharl own Timmorakian slaves?”

“None. Master Uulugula collects us. We are worked as hard as any other species, but we are...” He clacked his beak nervously. “Showpieces. We are often used in formal gatherings.”

“Why? What’s her fascination with you?”

“I do not know. I only know that the slavers send word ahead whenever they have obtained a new Timmorakian. There is one to arrive in two days. None of the other Tharl ever attempt to bid for them.”

“Which slaver? Get me their information and I’ll try to outbid her.”

“It will be expensive, Trader. We are a rare commodity, and not in great demand. Uulugula cannot buy in bulk as she does with other species, and thus has arranged a set price that compensates the slaver for their troubles.”

“That’s even better. If I can beat that price, then there shouldn’t be a problem, right?”

Trillek clacked his beak again and stared at me. “That may not be possible. Uulugula has been dealing with the slavers for many years, and is an established customer. You are unknown to them. Yes, you have some money, but how much of it will you spend on them? Will you be here in a month to buy again? A year? They may not trade with you.”

I paused. I really didn’t plan to be here inside a week, but nobody said the slavers had to know that. Again I thought of Trillek under a slaver’s yoke and found myself seething.

“It can’t hurt to talk, right? If you can get me the name or contact details for this slaver bringing in the new Timmorakian, then I’ll take care of the rest.”

“What will you do with this other slave? How will it help me?”

“The less you know the safer we’ll both be,” I replied. “You have to trust me, Trillek. I set out to free one slave, but with luck I’ll be able to free two.”

I wasn’t an expert on xeno body language, but it seemed to me that Trillek wasn’t encouraged. However, the next day he provided me with the name and contact information for the slaver coming in: a human by the name of Jula.

I didn’t know what I expected when I met Jula. I certainly didn’t expect what I found. She was as bland and unremarkable a person as I’d ever met. Her hair was a sort of mousy brown, straight and limp as it hung just above her shoulders. Her eyes were a similarly indistinct brown that betrayed nothing of what was behind them. She was neither tall nor short by modern standards, coming to just a hair above my level. Her features were a broad mix of human races without any one in particular coming to the fore. I’d be hard-pressed to call her Asian, Caucasian or whatever. On reflection, it occurred to me that anonymity was her best defense. On further reflection, that created problems for me from the beginning.

“You gotta be the worst GalPol agent I ever seen,” she derided before resuming her chewing in something completely unidentifiable. “We ain’t in Federation territory, so just turn around and hike that cute butt o’ yours off t’where you came.”

I blinked in surprise. “What? I...GalPol? I’m not GalPol. I’m a Trader.”

"Yeah. An’ your Guild don’t mind you talkin’ t' a businesswoman like myself. What did GalPol get on you, Trader? Catch you smugglin’ drugs? Piss off some officer? Jilt somebody's wife? Whatever your troubles, I ain’t havin’ none o’ it.” She stumped off in search of a Tharl to haggle with.

More thoroughly shot down than I’d been in a long while, I wondered if I should chase after her or retreat and regroup for another attempt later on. Then I looked up and realized she’d already taken the choice from my hands; she was out of sight and I had no idea which way she had turned.

I decided then I wasn't going to quit. I didn’t know where Jula had gone, but I knew where she’d be going. I had to hustle to catch her before she could reach Uulugula. To my surprise, I found her at the cargo entrance of her ship unloading a small open-air transport vehicle.

“One! I just want one!” I panted as I stumbled against the vehicle. “I’ll pay double!”

She scowled fiercely at me. “One what? What do you know about me?”

“One Timmorakian. Just one, that’s all I need. Name your price.”

“Get away from me!”

“This is important to me,” I explained in a rush. “I can’t say why. I’m not out to burn you and I don’t work for anybody. I just need your help, and I can pay for it.”

“I don’t need your money,” she told me in a chilly tone. “I don’t want your trouble. I got a sweet thing here, an' ain’t no rookie like you gonna sour it for me. Understand? Now get lost.”

“Platinum,” I said desperately. “I’ll give you platinum. Fifteen tons of it, high quality. I got it locally; it’s untraceable.”

Finally, I had her attention. “Fifteen tons of platinum is more than you’re worth, boy. What’s your game?”

“I need a Timmorakian. It’s complicated, but you’re the only one who has any for sale. I’m not going away without one.”

“You’re determined to be a pain in my ass, aren’t you boy?” Jula’s face seemed to soften for a moment, but it went away just as quickly. “You really don’t wanna make me angry.”

“I’m not trying to make anyone angry,” I replied softly. “I’m just trying to do business with you. I can afford to be generous. I can’t afford to fail.”

“What’s so important that you’ll throw away a fortune for one lousy bird?”

“I’ll tell you that if you’ll tell me where you get your lousy bird.”

Touché, boy. Fine. Buy me dinner tonight an' we’ll talk about your lousy bird.”

I blinked in surprise. “Dinner? Uh, sure. Where?”

“You got money. You figure it out.” She climbed into the transport and sped off.

I had the distinct feeling I had just been set up, but I wasn’t sure if it was a bad thing. Obediently, I went off in search of an appropriate restaurant.

I couldn’t pronounce the name, but I was at least able to find it. The eatery came with the highest recommendations from Tharl and aliens alike. I hadn't found a review by a human, but that was par for the course in this place. I wasn’t much enjoying my stay on Chort and getting desperate for human contact. I don’t know if Jula realized just how much or if her timing was just fortuitous, but I likely would have accepted a dinner date even if she hadn’t tried to blackmail me into it.

Her appearance startled me when she stepped off of her transport. Her skin was paler than I thought, and for the first time I noticed that she had a shadow of freckles around her nose. She was wearing a silky dress that didn't exactly flatter her body, but it wasn't displeasing, either. When she chose, Jula could look almost pretty. Clearly, she chose to now.

She put a hand on her hip and regarded me silently for a moment. Then she smirked. “You look like you seen a ghost.”

“No, you just...surprised me. the dress.” I swallowed heavily and tried to regain my composure. Naturally, she didn't buy it.

“You been outside o' human territory for a while, ain't you?” she asked, and laughed. Her voice had a deep, husky tone to it when she laughed.

“No, it's not...well...yes I have,” I stammered. “But that's not the point. You look good, even if I hadn't seen a woman in a while.” Or touched one. At least it was the truth.

She blushed. I didn't expect that. She didn't brush off the compliment either, as I would have expected. Instead she extended her hand and I took it to lead her into the restaurant.

The Tharl have no concept for what we understand as a “restaurant.” I use the term loosely because there's really no other way to describe it. You enter an establishment that is more like a food bazaar than anything else. You haggle with the vendor for the price of the food you decide you want. Then you carry the food to another vendor and haggle with him about the price you're willing to pay to have it cooked. Leaving the bazaar without cooking it there is considered gauche. This place was rated highly because of the quality and variety of the food being offered, and the skill of the chefs available. Most of the regular patrons had their favorite chefs who were able to demand much higher prices because of their popularity.

It could get very expensive very fast.

Jula took her time picking her food, and I let her take the lead. She knew far more about local cuisine than I did. Her experience was driven home when she steered me away from some sort of domesticated animal that looked to me like a cross between a cactus and a hummingbird. “You don't want that,” she told me with confidence.

“Why not?” I asked petulantly. Then I relented. “What is it?”

“It's a corrangi nestling. They're not found on Federation worlds. There's a species called Alagari who consider them a delicacy, but they're poisonous to us. They secrete an enzyme that acts as a neurotoxin; you'll be singing nursery rhymes when you ain't pukin' up your guts.”

I backed away quickly, and she laughed again. “Don't worry, Trader. The vendor knows better than t' sell it t' someone who don't have two heads.” She laughed again and moved on.

She picked out some sort of purple plant for the two of us, and then it was up to me to pay for it. The Tharl praised its color and I expressed dismay at the wilted leaves. It scolded me for my lack of knowledge about the kulatta pod, and I held firm. It exulted over the pod's fragrance, and I pointed out the spots along the side. I ended up paying twenty grams of platinum for it; nearly a thousand credits on Federation worlds. I had no idea if it was a good deal or not. Then, pods in hand, Jula lead me to the side of the bazaar where the chefs waited for us.

“Yssnda plate,” she ordered. “Low heat, no butra spice.” The willowy creature on the other side of the heating plate swayed and trilled at her. She glanced at me, and I gave her my best look of bewilderment. It didn't take much effort. She sighed and took care of the haggling for me. I ended up handing over another seven grams of platinum. The alien began preparing our dinner and an indescribable scent wafted from its labors. I couldn't tell if the smell was pleasant or not.

“Not bad,” Jula remarked to me as we waited for our food. She picked up a pitcher of water from a communal fountain and we shared a drink. The water was purified and cold, to my relief. “We coulda paid lots more. You're not half bad at haggling.”

“Thanks,” I replied as casually as I could. “It's sort of what I do for a living.”

“Grapevine says you're more than just a haggler. You're s'posed to be some kind o' wiz pilot in a hotrod not meant for trading. An Ophid, a smuggling ship. You lookin' t' cut me out o' my trade?”

I know my jaw dropped, because I had to force it back up. “How did you get that? I'm not a smuggler! Um...most of the time.” Not my most suave, but as honest as I could be.

She giggled and grinned at me. “I got my sources, Trader. I ain't tellin' you who. Seems Galpol wants you, but they ain't been able to catch you. Seems some other people want you too, people Galpol would like to have even more. Now you're lookin' t' cross one of the most powerful Tharls in this sector. You got a real talent for makin' people mad, y'know that?”

I didn't bother to gather up my jaw again. “Who are you, lady?”

She winked at me. “I'm good at what I do. That's all you need know.”

I shook my head and rallied myself. “This Tharl...Uulugula. She doesn't have to know. I've figured out how to take off with Trillek, but it involves me publicly buying another Timmorakian first.”

“How's this?” Jula looked genuinely interested for the first time all evening. Our chef signaled that our food was ready, so we picked it up and carried it somewhere with a little privacy.

“Tharl don't differentiate fine details,” I explained once we had gotten settled. “They fried a recorder I brought into the library because I didn't understand what the alarms were about. Once it was dead I forgot about it, but when I went back into the library they went off again. They couldn't tell it was the same chip they'd already killed, just that it matched what they were looking for. If they know I've purchased a Timmorakian from you, they won't look beyond the fact that there's one in my ship when I take off.”

She paused to chew her food so she think about this for a moment. “No,” she said finally. “It still won't work. They'll know it's Trillek an' not another one I sold t' you.”


“There's a chip in Trillek. I implant 'em at the same time as I brand 'em. I thought it was just t' identify who owns 'em, but now I'm thinkin' it's so's they can tell 'em apart.”

It was my turn to pause and think about this. I shoveled food into my mouth without registering any taste. The computer had tried to tell me, and I didn't listen. This news set me back again, but I was still too stubborn to give up. The Tharl had a weakness; they weren't omnipotent. There had to be a way to exploit it. I would find a way.

“Switch chips,” I said suddenly.

“What?” Jula put down her chopsticks and looked at me in astonishment.

“Remove the chip from Trillek and implant it in the one I buy. We give the replacement a crash course in his new duties and him back to Uulugula. I take off with Trillek and nobody's the wiser, except you're a lot richer and I can learn everything I want to know.” I sat back and sipped my water, inordinately pleased with my own creativity.

Her expression changed fluidly from astonishment to amusement. “That supposes I'm sold on it.”

I frowned. “You stand to make a lot of money on this.”

“I stand t' lose a lot o' money on this,” she corrected. “If Uulugula somehow finds out --”

“She won't,” I interrupted.

“If she does find out, I'll never be able to come back t' this world 'r any other where she has influence. I'll lose all my trade in this sector.”

“Fourteen tons of platinum is enough to set yourself up for life. If you think you can do better than that on a single run, why haven't you already done it and retired?”

She smirked at me again. “I thought you said fifteen tons.”

I shrugged. “I've been spending a lot of money on this. I don't have fifteen tons any longer. I have at least fourteen tons that I can guarantee. But you're dodging the question.”

She giggled again. It seemed shocking to hear it come from her lips. “Yeah, ya got me. Fourteen tons o' platinum is more 'n enough for me to retire. But I'm young an' pretty. I don't need to buy dates yet.”

I gave her a look that she deliberately ignored.

“Point is, why should I stop now just when things 'r gettin' excitin'?”

She was telling me she was another junky for adventure, just like John. Just like I used to be.

“Now you're contradicting yourself,” I pointed out. “First it's too much risk to give up the money you're making, then it's not about money at all but excitement. When are you going to find something more exciting than this that won't kill you?”

She glared at me. We were back in familiar territory again. “You been tradin' too long, boy. Not everythin' is up for hagglin'.”

“Again, you're dodging the question.”

“It ain't a matter of wantin' adventure or money. This is what I do. It's what I am. I'm not about t' just stop 'cause some cute rookie gets a stupid idea in his head. I been around too long for that.”

It was the second time she used the word “cute” to describe me. For a moment I thought to argue further, but I stopped. Part of haggling is to know when to push and when to back off. I judged it was time to back off. “All right,” I conceded. “If it's too dangerous for you, then I understand.” I went back to my chopsticks and put another morsel of food on my tongue. For the first time I noticed that it was very spicy and exceptionally full of flavor. I can't describe the taste in comparison to anything else because it was too alien, but I liked it.

Jula gave me a sigh of exasperation. “I didn't say that,” she insisted. “I just didn't say I was sold on it.”

I risked a small grin. It seemed safe enough, so I let it stay. “So, what did you say?”

“I said I'd have t' think about it. Your idea is insane, but I could see how it'd work. There's more you ain't thought of, but I have. I wanna give it some time, see if I don't think o' some more. Right now I wanna enjoy this meal. I ain't et like this in a long time.”

She had a good point. I hadn't eaten like this in a long time either, so we settled down to enjoy it. To my surprise, I enjoyed the rest of the evening with her as well. There was far more to her than the rough-and-tumble businesswoman she projected. She had a peculiar sense of humor and a quick wit that kept me entertained throughout the night. When the time came that we separated to go to our own bunks, I was genuinely sorry to see her go. I had fun.

“Hideo, meet the new Trillek.”

The Timmorakian that Jula taken me to meet looked nothing like Trillek that I could see. This one's plumage was bright orange rather than yellow, and he was larger and stockier. I felt compelled to point out this minor flaw in the plan.

“The color ain't a problem, boy,” she retorted crossly. “We can fix that up right quick. As for his size, you're the one who told me they can't differentiate. So long as he's got the right brand and chip, they won't care.”

The Timmorakian appeared to take umbrage at my criticism, and I saw those feathers puff out a bit. “Settle down,” I snapped at him. “This is as much for your health as mine. If Uulugala notices you're not who you seem to be, she won't hesitate to terminate your life or make you wish she had. What she'll do to us doesn't bear thinking.”

He paused in mid-squawk, appeared to consider what I had said, and stayed silent.

Satisfied, I turned back to Jula. She regarded me with much amusement. She seemed to have a knack for finding something funny about me.

“What?” I demanded in exasperation.

“Just enjoying watching you establish dominance,” she replied as she gathered up her equipment. “Chillup, this is gonna hurt. Bend over so's I can hit you with anesthetic.”

“Dominance?” Now I was genuinely puzzled. I wasn't trying to dominate anyone. And since when do slavers concern themselves with the comfort of their merchandise? Something about this didn't track right.

“Sure, 's how Timmorakians work out social order. You handled Chillup here like a pro. You tellin' me you didn't know that?” Jula put down the medical dispenser she'd just jabbed against Chillup's rear and picked up a large, ugly looking device to slip her hand into its opening. Then she fiddled with some settings until she was satisfied. “Okay, Chillup. Here it comes.”

“Um,” I said intelligently as she pressed the device against the spot where she had injected him. A strong smell of burning feathers and flesh filled the room. Chillup twittered something that sounded unhappy to my ears. I could only hope the anesthetic had taken effect first.

“You didn't, did you?” Jula looked positively gleeful as she pressed the torture device to Chillup's posterior. I was starting to feel sick to my stomach. “You didn't know Timmorakians challenge everyone they meet t' sort out social rankin'? It's part of their ritual greetin'; nothin' gets done before it.”

I thought back to past encounters with that race and immediately saw what she was talking about. I suppressed a groan when I thought about the money I'd probably lost without that critical piece of knowledge. Not that I'd dealt with them all that often, but it would have been nice to know a long time ago. The Guild never mentioned it, nor had any of my schooling on Rekan. You would think that at least my father might have mentioned it, but no.

Finally she pulled the branding device away and inspected her handiwork. “Yup, that'll do it.” She fished out another tube and sprayed an analgesic against the wound. “You're just about ready. Hideo, time for us t' meet your pigeon.”

I had arranged this meeting with Trillek during one of his rare downtimes. He was waiting patiently in the Gilmour while I dealt with Jula, so I lead the way to my ship. Trillek rose from a seat where he was reviewing something, perhaps the latest news uploaded to my computer, and I watched his feathers ruffle angrily as he caught sight of Chillup. Chillup, I then observed, had already fluffed his feathers and began trilling madly.

My first reaction as they squared off was to try to separate them, but I remembered what Jula had just finished telling me and forced myself to watch passively. The ritual took no more than a few seconds, and it appeared to involve a great deal of noise and posturing. The one who made the most noise – Chillup – won the battle. Trillek seemed to shrink down and cower, and then it was over.

“It will not work,” he informed me immediately. “This one is too independent, too spirited. He does not have the correct demeanor of a slave. They will know it is not me.”

Mindful of my established dominance, I kept my voice gentle. “Chillup knows his business. You just have to trust me.”

“They will discover him, and they will come for me! They will punish him horribly, and they will terminate me after they torture me as an example for other slaves who would consider fleeing!” Trillek started to puff up again, and I began to suspect that my gentle tone was provoking another challenge.

“Stuff it!” I snarled. “They're not going to find out.” Trillek quickly subsided, and I noticed Jula smirking at me again. I faced her with an exasperated sigh. “Are they always like this?”

She laughed outright and nodded. “Yup. Every moment o' the day. Ain't gonna pass up any opportunity to challenge dominance.”

And I was planning to spend at least a week or two with one making my way back to Federation territory. I suppressed a groan and turned back to Twillek. “What you can do to help ensure success is help Chillup understand what to expect from Uulugala and the others in this society. Coach him on who he should know and what his duties will be.”

“I also need t' transfer that chip from your rump t' his,” Jula interjected.

I nodded in agreement. “The faster we can get this done, the quicker we can get you off this planet.”

Trillek regarded Chillup with some suspicion. “Why do you agree to this? I am not important to these creatures. You will gain nothing by taking my place.”

Chillup puffed himself up again, but only slightly. “I volunteered. You do not need to know why.”

Volunteered? This was getting weirder by the minute. While the Timmorakians bickered I sidled up to Jula so she could hear me whisper. “You didn't tell me that. What scheme are you running here?”

She grinned and poked me in the ribs with her elbow. It hurt. “Never you mind. I got my reasons, just like he got his.”

“I've been open with you. You know what I'm doing, and why. I think it's only fair that you clue me in on what else is going on. I thought I was just buying a slave from you so I could smuggle Trillek out.”

She turned and looked me in the eye. “Hideo, you are truly better off not knowing.”

“Now I'm really nervous. Maybe this was a mistake after all.”

She glared at me again, but unlike other times when she glared at me, this time I felt like she was genuinely willing to do violence to me. “It's too late for that. You talked me into this, so we're going to see it through.”

I folded my arms and stood my ground. “If you want me to continue this partnership, then you need to be straight with me. What is going on? Nobody volunteers to become a slave to the Tharl. Am I going to have to 'disappear' after this deal is done?”

She stopped whispering. “That wasn't my plan, but if you keep this up I can arrange it. Do not test me on this, boy. I will do whatever it takes to make sure this happens. Whatever it takes. I don't care how pretty you are, I will spread your atoms across the galaxy before I let you queer this for me.”

The Timmorakians stopped their bickering to watch ours. I opened my mouth and found I had nothing to say. Everything in her expression and body language said that she wasn't bluffing, that my life was in danger if I didn't back down. So much for establishing dominance: I was learning very quickly who wore the pants in this relationship.

“Fine,” I growled impotently. “But you owe me for this.”

The glare slowly disappeared to be replaced by her familiar smirk. “Okay, Hideo. I owe you. Anythin' else?”

The sudden reappearance of her accent made me aware of its brief absence. All I could do was chalk it up to another mystery about her; whomever she was, it certainly wasn't who she claimed to be. I began to have nervous thoughts about the Consortium and kept my mouth shut.

Jula gestured to the others. “Keep goin', there. We got lots t' do, and not much time.”

Chillup's training wasn't complete on the first day; nor was it complete on the second or third. Jula reported that Uulugala was getting impatient for the delivery of her next slave, and Jula had told her that the new slave was developing complications and might have to be put down. Uulugala was not appeased, and the pressure was on.

The holdup was Trillek himself. He kept insisting that Chillup was not ready, that there was still more for him to know. We reminded him of the urgent necessity to make the switch and get out. We couldn't transfer the chip until Chillup was ready to go, and Trillek couldn't go along with him to see how he'd work under pressure. It was all or nothing, and the sooner the better.

Trillek would have none of it. Chillup's responses had to be perfect, or he wouldn't submit. No amount of cajoling, pleading or growling would move him on the issue. It was as though he realized in this situation he had dominance, and he wasn't going to give it up. Jula and I discussed the possibility of simply tying him up, transferring the chip and sending Chillup in his place.

Then he missed our meeting the next day. And the next. At that point we assumed the worst, which was confirmed when Jula brought the news to me. Trillek was dead. Uulugula had gone out to eat at the same place I'd taken Jula, and ordered Trillek to fetch the meal. Trillek stopped at a stall selling something called Jhgala larva and asked for the price. The merchant advised him that the larva were fatal to anyone who wasn't of the Jghisa species, and Trillek immediately tossed the thing down his gullet from where it chewed its way back out. He was gone before anyone could reach him.

We could only speculate what Trillek was thinking, at the time. Chillup suggested that Trillek's fear finally overcame him. Trillek was afraid of what would happen to him if he got caught, that he expected to get caught. We made him feel trapped, doomed to suffer a fate he couldn't face, so he chose his own way out.

After that, there was nothing left to do. Our plans were completely foiled, and although Jula tried to comfort me by telling me there was no way to anticipate this, I felt immensely guilty. I was the one who pressured Trillek into participating, over his objections. I was the one who ignored his stalling. I was the one planning to use him for my own ends, even if I planned to set him free afterward. And Trillek killed himself because of it.

I made the jump as quickly as I could. I couldn't stand breathing the air of that alien world one moment longer.