Ganth sat cross legged in the large tent, facing Ftyjha, the tribal leader, and his most trusted chieftains. Small light cubes chased the darkness from the meeting, casting shadows and the smell of food and drink was strong. Running small arms to nomads and tribals in the Wild wasn’t the most profitable job out there but with all the Syji on the prowl these days, it at least gave the non-space faring groups a chance to put up a fight … at least on the dirt side. Running arms to indigs was frowned upon in Claimed Space but this was the Wild and out here laws and regulations mattered little if they mattered at all.
Ganth had placed several colored blankets in front of him and on each blanket he had placed examples of what he had to trade. A Teneir heavy projector rifle with fully adjustable spy scope, a Scryt heavy projector pistol, Tyje light repeating projector with self-targeting option, a pair of Rtyat bracers, a pair of Wqne combat beam knives with matching combat beam sword, three Sodq variable yield high energy pulse grenades with outputs up to point two kilotons blast point, a Sodq variable yield high energy satchel pulse charge with an output of up to point five kilotons blast point, five sticks of Vxt shapeable explosives with remote detonator and damper plate, a Hgat anti-personnel mine, a Jlakmah surface to air fire and forget anti-aircraft / light anti-spacecraft missile, maintenance kits, portable spy rays, searchpods, a pair of high band scrambled communicators, and the power cells required to operate the various devices.
The tribal leader and his chieftains looked over the displayed weapons and equipment, occasionally using one of their slender, reed thin three foot long chewing sticks to either point to a particular item or feature of that item or to tap another of the tribals and then tap an item in question to bring attention to it. The murmuring and whispering, the gesturing and indicating of the sticks went on with a dull roar and almost non-stop. Ganth was patient, the quality of his merchandise was good and he never cheated those that he did business with. The talking and the gesturing between the tribal leaders went on for nearly an hour, during which time Ganth took the chance to eat a meal pack and drink some of his Ship brewed whiskey while waiting. Finally, Ftyjha looked up at Ganth and motioned for his attention with his chewing stick.
“This is the first time that you have chosen to meet with us privately, Tep Ganth, and while we welcome your presence and the chance to trade for more of these fine weapons, we wonder why you have asked to meet with us … alone. We wonder why you have waited on Tep Garyn to take his ship to visit the northern stronghold before asking to meet with us.” Ftyjha said.
That was the local word for “trusted friend of the tribe but not a member of the tribe.” It was a title that carried some weight, at least within the tribe but maybe not among other local tribes where the view of “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” might apply. Ganth and Garyn had been trading with this tribe almost exclusively and in doing so they had probably given Ftyjha’s tribe an edge over the other tribes in the region but if they had done so, Ganth wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. The politics of the non-star faring were of little concern to him … their jewels and minerals were what tucked his conscience in to sleep at night … or at least that’s what had worked until a few days ago.
“I seek to trade privately, with just you and not the tribe as a whole and for that Garyn is not needed since I offer much and ask for little in return. All of this, five times as much as you see, I offer for one thing and one thing only that you have.” Ganth said, spreading his hand out to wave over all of the displayed equipment then showing his palm with his fingers spread widely indicating how much he had to offer.
More murmuring among the elders, the chewing sticks almost came together as they pointed to each other and back to Ganth. The chief elder closed his eyes and held his hand out in front of him, holding his chewing stick in the exact middle and slightly above him. The other elders became quiet at this sign.
“All of this that we see before us, and you say five times what we see here, for one thing that we have? What, Tep Ganth, do we have that one of such is worth what you offer?”
Ganth closed his eyes and thought of her.
Four days ago, when he had landed here on Ailga with his trading partner Garyn. Garyn had been dealing with the nomadic tribes on Ailga for years now and knew them well. Ganth had been running small arms to the indigs in the Wild for the last six months so it was inevitable that Garyn and Ganth should cross paths when it came to the growing market for wares on Ailga. Since Ganth had no real stake in Ailga, he accepted Garyn’s invitation to trade with him using the protocols and contacts that Garyn had already established … for a cut of the percentage. That didn’t bother Ganth, the percentage was fair and it saved him a lot of up front work in dealing with the indigs himself.
Ftyjha’s tribe was the largest, the most organized and had suffered the most under the sporadic raids of the star wandering Syji. Ftyjha also seemed to have more trade goods than any of the other nomad tribes which made him a prime customer as well as a repeat one for Garyn.
Ganth and Garyn had brought their Ships down in a wide plain on the edge of the nomads’ camp and waited. When the nomads had finally approached in a small group, Garyn and he had left their Ships and presented gifts to the elders, a custom which Garyn explained was as important as it was necessary. Garyn had introduced Ganth to Ftyjha and the other leaders of the tribe. After that, he had brought out examples of his merchandise and placed examples of the local minerals and elements that he would accept as payment for each. Ganth helped Garyn set up his wares and in a short amount of time, the two star roamers had created what had amounted to a bazaar around their Ships with anxious buyers haggling with them over prices and bartering their wares in turn.
At the end of the day, Ganth locked away what he had traded for and what he had left to trade and joined the tribe in their evening festivities. He shared the strong local drinks with those who would drink with him and gave costume jewelry to the females and toys to the children. He shared two evening meals with the tribe, the first being a roasted herbivore hunted just that day and the second being something revolving around a semi-sweet tasting fermented drink and lots of sweet flavored baked goods. All of it was compatible with his metabolism or so his small concealed scanner told him softly so he indulged with the indigs and thought about his growing profit margin for this trip. Garyn was having the time of his life, playing the merry merchant and the entertainer but Ganth drew his fill and politely asked to be excused from the rest of the festivities.
There was only so much crowd that Ganth could deal with.
That first night, on the way back to his Ship, he saw her.
A flash of white, just a glimpse and he had to back track through the crowd to make sure. She was different. Her skin was tanned from the merciless local star but still much lighter than the rest of the tribe. Her complexion was like his, her hair was stark white … not blonde, not platinum blonde … white; pure white … long, bushy, flowing past her shoulder blades and almost to the small of her back. Her age was the same as his or younger, her clothes were simpler; a cloak and robe, in tribal colors, but she moved with the other serving women and always slightly behind … like she was different, like they knew it and like she was supposed to understand her difference as well.
Ganth was reminded of the time when he was eight years old, walking on his father’s land in rural Marion County, Mississippi and he had happened across the white tail deer grazing. There had been an instant when Ganth and the deer had stared at each other and then the deer had sprang into a sprint, leaping as it took off for the safety of the underbrush … it’s bright white tail poked high like a flag.
A flash of white against a sea of brown.
And now he had seen that again, in her. The flash of white. She was like Ganth, an outsider, not a member of the tribe, and he was suddenly curious about her. He followed her discreetly at a distance until she ducked inside a larger tent and vanished. Unsure how to approach her or even if he should, Ganth noted the location of the tent and walked back to his Ship, his mind full of unanswered questions.
There, on the Ship, Ganth trained a spy ray and a search beam on the tent where he had seen the white haired woman enter. Fine tuning the scans down to just her wasn’t hard as there were only three women in the tent and she seemed to be getting ready for sleep … off to the side, removed from the others, in a place that wasn’t as private as it was isolated from the others. It didn’t seem a place of honor, more like a position of unequality, as if she was not worthy to sleep in the same part of the tent as the other women. He watched on his reader plate as the details from the scans began to fill the screen. The information surprised him and he sat back to study it.
She wasn’t a member of the tribe.
She wasn’t even a member of the race that was indig to Algia. Her genetic profile didn’t match those of the women around her and her life had been rough. Scar tissue, some of it recent, showed on base epidermal scanning, old breaks and fractures in her bone structure on deeper scans. Her health was the lower side of good and slowly getting worse, somewhat malnourished, at least one dental cap … a basic medical scan confirmed that along with something else that was even more surprising … she was human or more human than those around her. Oh, the tribals may have looked human but there was just enough genetic drift to make them slightly different than Ganth and in that drift the white haired woman was closer to Ganth in genetic makeup than she was to the tribals she travelled with.
What was she?
Some kind of off world advisor?
Ganth killed the spy ray and search beam then leaned back from his reader plate and folded his hands in thought. What was her story and did he want to know it? The answer to that was simpler than even he thought it would be; yes.
The next night Ganth decided to visit her.
He didn’t know the protocol about doing so or if it would violate any tribal customs or laws but he had to see her. After everyone was busy with the evening festivities, Ganth excused himself again, claiming to be not feeling well and left amid jokes at his expense as to the strength of his stomach and his capacity to hold his drink. Ganth moved through the bustling nomads, angling in a direction towards the tent where he had seen the white haired woman vanish into the night before. Finding a spot where he was not observed, he reached down to his wrist and flicked on his compact sneak field generator and his hush field generator, vanishing from sight and sound.
Ten minutes later, he was standing a few feet from her, looking down on her as she lay there on her bedding, sleeping. She was beautiful, still adorned with the temporary paint that the women of the tribe decorated their feet, hands, and faces with. Intricate lines blossoming out into designs and patterns; it was doubtful that she had done the work herself rather two or three other tribal women had probably painted her earlier in the day. Ganth stood there, staring down at her, wondering … and that’s when she opened her eyes and stared right up at him. Ganth caught his breath but didn’t make a sound.
“So … the young merchant has come to pay me a visit.” She said flatly, raising herself up to support herself on her elbow.
Ganth checked his compact sneak field generator … it was still activated. There was no way that she should know that he was here … for all intents and purposes, the sneak field rendered him both invisible and silent. Even at this close proximity to her none of his presence should be leaking past the sneak field perimeter.
There was more to this woman than he had imagined.
“I know you’re there so you might as well show yourself.”
Ganth did nothing and the white haired woman sighed.
“Look, when I was younger, I had a thigh bone repaired with an Alurium strand. What they don’t tell you is that when a small percentage of people with Alurium implants get around people with sneak fields it makes the Alurium sing or vibrate slightly and that makes my thigh bone buzz. It’s not enough to give you an advantage if someone’s coming for you with a sneak field on but it’ll tell you if someone really close by is wearing one and right now you’re vibrating the sweet hell out of my thigh bone. That’s what woke me and that’s why I know you’re there.”
Ganth thought about that.
“What makes you think I’m one of the merchants?” Ganth whispered, still not sure of what he had walked into but knowing that the white haired woman knew that he was there, with her, in this part of the tent.
“The young one. I can tell by your voice.” She said, smiling and shaking her head.
The white haired woman sat up and looked around, reached a hand out carefully and felt just inches from where Ganth stood. Finding nothing, she let her hand drop back to her side.
“Caught a glimpse of something you liked so you had to get a better look?” She said.
Ganth checked his sneak field generator … he still had the hush field projector active which meant that whatever noise happened within three meters of where he was standing wouldn’t be heard by anyone who wasn’t training a search beam or spy ray on his position at the time that the noise was made.
“So … what do you say, young merchant? Let me see what you look like? I haven’t seen anyone who wasn’t Algian for the last three years now. You’ve seen me … now … let me see you. I’d call that fair, sweet hell, I’d even call it a trade these days.”
Ganth touched the sneak field generator and deactivated it, slowly phasing into visibility and standing there in front of her, just out of arm’s reach. He held his finger up to his lip then tapped the hush field generator twice, indicating that it was still active. The white haired woman nodded and rose to sit on her bedding as Ganth spread his robe out around him and sat down on that before her. They looked at each other for what seemed a long time. The white haired woman reached her hand out and touched the hood of his cloak, moving it slightly to the side. Ganth reached up to his cowl, lifted it back and let it fall around his shoulders revealing his face.
“Not bad.” The white haired woman said, reaching out to trace the outline of his face, his chin but pulling her hand back when Ganth pulled back from her touch.
“Sorry. Thank you. For at least showing me what you look like.”
“It was a fair trade. Now, I’ll trade you my name for yours. Ganth.” Ganth said, tapping his chest twice then touching his forehead in the Algia tribal manner of greeting a stranger.
“Jesera. Jesera Myrn.” The white haired woman said, sitting back down on her bedding and not bothering with protocol.
“You’re not Algian.” Ganth said.
“Really? What was your first hint?” the white haired woman asked, running her fingers through her stark white hair, holding out a bunch of it for him to see and barely stifling a small laugh.
Whoever she was, she still had some fire left in her.
“I saw you last night. I wasn’t sure what I had seen. Something bright white moving through the crowds. I followed you for a little while until you came here. After that I went back to my ship and hit this place with a spy ray.”
“Spy ray? Did you watch me get ready for bed?” she asked coyly.
Ganth shook his head.
“No. I just did some low level scans on you; genetics, health. Nothing too invasive … or revealing. I was just curious.”
“Some people would consider it a fine line between curiosity and voyeurism.”
Ganth lowered his head slightly and smiled checking to make sure that the hush field was still active.
“No. I was curious. Who were you? What were you? Where did you come from? What was your name? What was your story?”
“My story?” Jesera asked. “You throw a sneak field on and come looking for me because you want to know my story?”
“I take it that’s not the usual reason someone comes in here?” Ganth said remembering the low level and deep tissue trauma that the spy ray had told him that Jesera had suffered in her past.
Jesera shuddered visibly and looked away.
“No one ever comes in here with a sneak field … no tribal on Algia has one of those … yet … which is why I knew it had to be one of the traders and probably the younger one because that older trader, Garyn, he doesn’t need a sneak field to go anywhere … especially in here.”
She stifled a laugh and in that laugh was a lot of regret, a lot of sorrow, and a lot of pain. Ganth let her gather her composure.
“So, Ganth … you want to know my story?”
Ganth nodded, leaning back and supporting his upper body weight on his spread palms and locked arms.
“How about this for a story? I was a bonded trading partner for a merchant named Ryld. He and I … we’re Hygans … Hyga, it’s a binary star on the far side of Claimed Space, not many of us Hygans on this side of the Claim and that makes us even rarer in this part of the Wild.”
Ganth nodded, recording their conversation without her knowing, so that he could go back and fact-check her story against the databases his Ship had to offer.
“Ryld and I were shipping out of Yhyhn, not a big trading center but larger than most frontier points and it does a good amount of traffic between the Claim and the Wild. Ryld was like your friend, Garyn, I guess. He saw the Wild as profit and risk. Ryld thought he could make a quick coin off of the locals but he sold to another tribe. I guess he wasn’t as smart as your partner. Ryld only saw a profit margin and it was a good profit margin to be sure. What he didn’t see were the local politics for what they were shaping up to be because there was already what amounted to a holy war starting to brew and the side that Ryld decided to deal with wasn’t going to be on the winning side no matter how much weapons and equipment he dropped in their laps.”
“So Ryld was selling to Ftyjha’s enemies.” Ganth said.
“Ryld didn’t know he was selling to Ftyjha’s enemies, he was just selling. Sweet hells, Ryld didn’t even know that any other traders were active on Algia … knowing that might or might not have changed how he did business but …”
Jesera grew silent.
“When Garyn started selling to Ftyjha, the first thing that Ftyjha did was use the weapons and equipment that Garyn sold to him and his people to wipe out the tribes that had opposed him in the past … starting out with the tribe that Ryld had started trading with. It wasn’t hard … putting projectors against swords isn’t much of a fight … not at range, and for every projector that Ryld could give to the tribe that he was trading with Garyn could deliver ten to Ftyjha’s tribe.”
“Why was Garny dealing with Ftyjha exclusively?”
“Garyn understood the local politics a lot better than Ryld. Garyn was here for months before Ryld, moving among the locals, listening to the stories of the tribes, getting to know who was what and where they were going. After a while, Garyn chose Ftyjha because it was evident that Ftyjha, with a little off-world equipment, could quickly become the leader of the most powerful tribe on Algia … Ftyjha took what he wanted when he wanted and no one could stand in his way. You either joined with Ftyjha, swearing a blood oath for you and your tribe or you died … or worse. I think Garyn was drawn to that because the two of them got along so well.”
“So Ftyjha gets the upper hand, Garyn becomes the head trader in this area and …?”
“And Ryld gets caught in a crossfire during a supposed trade meeting with Garyn.”
Ganth looked up at that and Jesera nodded.
“Ryld’s dead … he’s been dead for over three years now.”
“How …?” Ganth started.
“The whole thing was a setup to begin with. Garyn didn’t want a trade partner, at least not back then; he just needed to get rid of the competition which was a smart move for both him and Ftyjha. Garyn didn’t like sharing the profit margin on Algia and Ftyjha couldn’t have some other trader providing the other tribes with firepower the likes of which Ftyjha was getting from Garyn. It made it harder to conquer or destroy them if Ftyjha wanted to.”
“So Garyn double crossed Ryld.”
“Double crossed us. I was with Ryld when Ryld’s ship gets shot to pieces, Ryld’s wares get taken by Ftyjha, Ftyjha takes Ryld’s head off with a sword, Ryld’s head gets put on a sharp stick probably by suggestion of your partner Garyn and I get to be the plaything for Ftyjha’s warriors … when I’m not serving them … or getting beaten by their women … or having dung and rocks thrown at me by their inbred children.”
Ganth closed his eyes and sighed.
“I wondered what you meant when you said that there were worse things than dying at Ftyjha’s hand.”
“Yeah. There are a lot worse things around here than dying. I know. I’ve seen it, too. Ftyjha has wiped out entire tribes, enslaved others and uses them all to work the land just so he can mine and harvest the metals and minerals that Garyn wants for his wares. The more Garyn sells to Ftyjha, the more Ftyjha uses these weapons to rule over his own people and the harder he works his people to get the metals and minerals that Garyn demands. What you see out there … this pack of nomads … this is just Ftyjha’s favorites. Call it his honor guard, their families, his wives, his children, and his concubines. His tribe is much larger but a good portion of it is made up of captured slaves forced to work for Ftyjha.”
“And Garyn is trading with Ftyjha.”
Jesera laughed again softly.
“Oh, no. Garyn isn’t just trading … he’s backing Ftyjha. Garyn is empire building on a small scale but its empire building all the same. Maybe Garyn has a god vision; maybe he just likes to see what happens when he meddles in the lives and affairs of so many others just for his own fun. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day after all of this is over that Garyn doesn’t burn a hole in Ftyjha and sit on the throne that he’s really been making for himself.”
Ganth shook his head in silent disbelief.
“Ftyjha and Garyn are building some kind of fortress up north … modern stuff. Garyn has had some heavy equipment brought in to clear land, dig tunnels, etc. It seems a bit far for Ftyjha’s people but Garyn has him sold on building it way up there. He’s told him it will let him survive the seasons and stockpile food, water, livestock and equipment.”
Ganth thought about that.
“Maybe it’s not for Ftyjha and his people.”
“Who else could it be for?” Jesera asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure how I could find out either but something like that doesn’t sound like it’s being built for tribals.”
“In a lot deeper than you thought, yes?” Jesera asked.
“A lot deeper.” Ganth agreed.
“So … You wanted to know my story, Ganth. That’s my story. I used to be a free trader and profiteer, like you … but your partner killed my partner and when I thought that he would kill me to make sure that I never told anyone what he had done to Ryld he gave me away to Ftyjha and his tribe like I was just another ware to be bartered for. I almost had my own Ship, Ganth. That’s what I was working so hard for and Ryld was helping me by not taking his full bonded percentage of my trade share. I was so close … so close to being out on my own and now I’m just a slave and a plaything … and I’ve been that way for the better part of three years now.”
“So that’s why they kept moving you about …”
“Yes. They keep me hidden to prevent someone like you from finding out about me and asking the kind of questions that would be uncomfortable for Garyn or Ftyjha to answer. You’re not Garyn’s only partner, you know. He’s got two others that he sometimes comes to Algia with … All I know is that they’re Syji.”
“Yeah. Syji. Surprised me as well but then the face that Garyn shows you isn’t his real face. Your Ship is new, I’ve not seen it here before but sometimes Garyn lands with the two others … the Syji. They each have a Ship as well. When it’s all three of them together that’s when the really big stuff starts to arrive up north because it takes all three Ships to bring it in.”
“These other two partners … the Syji. Do you know their names?”
Jesera thought deeply.
“One’s name is Saryn. He’s pretty tough but not that smart. Garyn seems to handle him pretty well. The other one is Strec, I think. He’s smarter than Saryn, maybe even smarter than Garyn but Garyn has something on him because despite Saryn being smarter than Garyn he’s always bowing down to him, following behind him.
“Saryn and Strec.” Ganth mused.
“Yeah. I’ve heard their names mentioned but I was never close enough to be sure. Seen them a few times … a few times I wished I hadn’t.” Jesera said, her voice trailing off into silence.
Ganth nodded, thinking. If Garyn had links to the Syji then things were a lot more serious than he had thought.
“Look. I don’t know how you got in tight with Garyn but I wouldn’t trust him, not if you valued your life. Everyone is disposable to Garyn, especially if he thinks you’re getting in his way or cutting into his profit. Ftyjha still has Ryld’s skull … If you don’t believe me, look for it mounted just over the entrance to his tent.”
Ganth had wondered about that skull when he first saw it hanging there above the entrance to Ftyjha's tent ... so out of place. Now he knew the story of the skull, and the trader who it used to belong to. Ganth thought of the possibility of his own skull sharing space next to Ryld's skull and he shuddered just a little.
“You’ve told me a lot.” Ganth said at last.
Jesera shrugged and looked away.
“What if Garyn sent me here to see what you would say to me?”
Jesera smiled but it was a desperate, forced kind of smile.
“Then Garyn will probably get you, Ftyjha or someone else to kill me. Trust me, if you killed me right now you’d be doing me a kindness. Have you ever prayed for death, Ganth?”
Ganth thought about it and shook his head.
“I have.” Jesera said. “More than often enough.”
A light started blinking on Ganth’s wrist band and he held his finger up to his lips. A few seconds later, the blinking light went out and Ganth visibly relaxed.
“What is it?” Jesera asked when the light stopped blinking.
“Someone just flicked a spy ray across this area. Broad setting, not focused tight enough to find me with the kind of shielding I’m carrying.”
“That would be my guess.” Ganth said, standing up. “I think he’s looking for me. I left the festivities early tonight to come see you. Garyn’s cautious because he has to be and him not being able to find me might make him a little paranoid as well.”
“If he knows that you’re here then he knows that you know about me.” Jesera said with real fear suddenly in her eyes.
“No, he doesn’t.” Ganth said, smiling. “As far as he’s concerned, I’m not here.”
“A spy ray will pick up a sneak field and a hush field generator.” Jesera said.
“Only if he knows I’m here and he tunes his spy ray down tight. Otherwise his spy ray won’t pick up anything I don’t want it to pick up.” Ganth said, standing up and adjusting his cloak.
Jesera looked up in realization as the visage of Ganth slowly vanished from her sight.
“What I sell to the locals and what I use myself are two different grades of quality.” He whispered. “The problem with Garyn is that he’s too cheap to upgrade himself, he still thinks that Ftyjha is a bigger threat to him than I am and right now I intend to keep it that way. I never trusted Garyn and what you’ve told me makes me glad that I didn’t.”
“I wish I had thought like you do. If I had then I might not have spent the last three years of my life … here … like this.” She said softly.
She felt his hand touch the side of her head, stroke her cheek and run his fingers through her white hair. She leaned forward into his hand, embracing it, holding his hand with her two hands. It was a desperate, longing embrace and one that was as simple as it was justified.
“Jesera? If I can get you out of here do you want to come with me?” Ganth whispered.
“You would do that? You would take me away from here?”
“If I can … if you’ll go.”
“You’re risking a lot … for someone you don’t even know.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Ganth said.
Jesera looked up
“Sweet hells, yes! Please, take me with you! Please!” Jesera begged in a hurried, hushed whisper that was full of sorrow and desperation and pain.
“I will. I’ll get you out of here. It might not be tonight. It might not be soon, but I’ll take you with me. I’ve got to work some things out first.”
Jesera nodded and hung her head, feeling his hand slip away from her.
“When?” she whispered.
“As soon as I can. I promise.”
“Promise? What is this word … promise?” Jesera asked.
“It’s a word used by my people. It means a bond … a pledge of the strongest kind.”
“And what if I’m working for Garyn? What if I’m here to test your loyalty to him and Ftyjha?”
“Then I’d come back here, one night, and make sure that you got the one thing that you’ve been praying so hard for …” Ganth said.
Jesera thought about that.
“Besides … you can’t be working for Garyn. Just the mention of his name causes you to look away like you’re scared to death of him.”
Jesera nodded, realizing her mannerisms probably did give her away.
“I guess I am. You’ll really take me away from here? You’ll take me with you when you leave Algia?”
“Then I can give you something else you don’t have. Garyn’s real name isn’t Garyn, it’s Alul. Styn Alul Beget … he’s Syji as well.”
Ganth thought about that.
“Three years here. What’s a little more time among the locals?” she mused in a good natured way.
But Ganth didn’t answer her … and like that her Alurium strand ceased to vibrate and she could tell that Ganth was gone but he had left her with something that she hadn’t had in a very long time; a tiny little bit of hope and for the first time in a long time Jesera Myrn fell asleep with a smile on her face.
Ganth worked his way through the tribal camp and when he found a secluded area he checked his tell-tales and turned off his sneak field generator. Visible and audible once again to anyone he might meet he casually made his way back towards his Ship. Walking past a few junctions in the camp, he ran across Garyn mingling with some of the women and children of the tribe.
“Tep Ganth?” Garyn asked, looking up from a crowd of tribals that he was seated among. “Are you well?”
Ganth stopped, turned to Garyn and nodded.
“For a trader, I have a condition which isn’t to my advantage.” Ganth said.
“And what condition would that be?” Garyn asked, handing out a few more trinkets then joining Ganth so that they could walk together.
“I’m afraid that I don’t tolerate crowds very well. There’s only so much noise and rubbing shoulders that I can take before I need to step away and be alone for the better part of a good while.”
“An interesting condition.” Garyn said. “Perhaps it is for the best if you partner during your trade meetings like we have done.”
“Having your already established trade meetings to sell my goods in has been a blessing. I do not have your skills of negotiation or your eye for the finer …”
Garyn cocked an eyebrow and looked at Ganth as Ganth searched for the right words to use.
“Intricacies … yes, the finer intricacies of dealing with someone as powerful as Ftyjha. If it had been me, instead of you, who had first met Ftyjha then I feel that the negotiations would not be anywhere near as profitable as they are now. I am but a simple trader, I bow to your years of experience in this skill. You, Garyn, make the skill into an art.”
Garyn smiled and patted Ganth on the back.
“You have learned much, Tep Ganth, particularly in the ways of flattery, but there is much left for you to learn.”
“The religion that I follow has a saying …” Ganth began. “God gave Man two ears and one mouth so that he should listen twice as much as he talks.”
Garyn smiled, nodding.
“I see the wisdom in that saying. Yes, I will have to remember that and use that wisdom as a point of argument in future negotiations.”
The two star wanderers continued on in their walk towards their Ships.
“I have to carry some weapons and equipment to Ftyjha’s northern settlement tomorrow. It’s about an hour from here, even with the Ship. I have told you about the northern settlement, haven’t I?” Garyn said.
“Yes. You said that you were helping Ftyjha build a place to stay during Algia’s more severe seasons.”
“He is a forward thinker, that Ftyjha. Always looking out for his people and that makes good business for traders like me … and you. Would you like to come with me? There may be opportunity there for you to sell more of your goods.”
In the few times that Garyn had talked about Ftyjha’s northern hold he had used the word settlement and tonight Jesera had used the word fortress. Was Jesera mistaken or was Garyn not telling Ganth the whole story? The way that Jesera had described the northern settlement and Garyn’s eagerness to get Ganth to join him there made Ganth uneasy on a primitive level … a level that Ganth long ago learned to trust his life with. Ganth thought long and hard, even made it look so to Garyn and like that Ganth had a plan.
“I would like to go with you, Garyn, but I need to do some maintenance on my Ship before we depart again. If you would take my trade goods with you, I will offer you a percentage of what they are worth if you can sell them for me along with your goods.”
Garyn rubbed his chin and nodded.
“I’m going to lift off late tomorrow morning. Can you have the items transferred to my Ship by then?”
“It will be done.” Ganth said.
“Then we have an agreement.” Garyn said, extending his hand and taking Ganth’ offered hand.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some rest. I am not the social light that you are, Garyn. What little happiness I bring to festivities does not shine its light as far as yours does.” Ganth said.
“Ah, mingling with the locals … that’s where you spin up the extra business. Making the men happy is one thing, but making the women and children happy … that’s part of the trade as well. Some of the women can be very … grateful … if you know what I mean …” the last part had trailed off into a whisper and Ganth nodded because he felt right then that he knew exactly what Garyn meant.
Ganth bowed politely, turned and walked towards his Ship. If Garyn was leaving tomorrow to do business in the far north with some of Ftyjha’s tribe then there was a narrow opportunity to be had but first Ganth had to check his facts.
“Hyga is the third planet of a binary star system known at Olglat. Located here.”
The reader plate glowed with new information.
“That’s a far bit across the Claim.” Ganth said.
Just like she said, he thought.
“Yes. Hygans are rare this side of the Claim though some notable traders have made a name for their selves on this side of the Claim as well as the Wild.”
“Reference a Hygan named Ryld. Specifically any mention of that name in the Wild or in association with business or dealings in and around Yhyhn.”
“We haven’t docked at Yhyhn in over a year. My information could be old or outdated.”
“What I’m looking for falls into this time span.”
“Garyn’s Ship may have more up to date information for that region. Do you want me to try to access share from his database?”
“No! Do not access Garyn’s Ship for information. In fact, until further notice, do not allow cross-links with Garyn’s Ship for any purpose unless I give permission.”
The Ship was silent.
“Understood. Will you tell me the reasoning behind your decision to not communicate with Garyn’s Ship or share resources?”
“Yes but first let me see if I can find what I’m looking for. Afterwards, I’ll tell you a story.”
“Will I like this story?”
“No. Probably not.”
“Then it is not a good story.”
“No.” Ganth laughed. “No, it is not.”
The Ship searched its database.
“One entry found. Sym Ryld Dhant. Hygan free trader. Bonded out of Yhyhn. Operating a Type 3 Class 5A Far Trader. Registered with CPOL as operating under the given name “Taddyer.” Crosses to Taddyer. A Hygan herbivore known for its intelligence and cunning, small, fast, mostly non-aggressive and with a nature of stealing what it needs to survive from other herbivores. Native indig life form to Hyga. Not exported. Considered … closest frame of reference, Earth, would be a “Badger” though there are genetic and instinctual differences. Probability of reference weighted 8.25 out of 10.”
“So his Ship basically was called the Badger. Nice.” Ganth nodded. “The mostly non-aggressive part was wrong though, at least for a real badger, they’re mean things. Any reference to Ryld’s current location?”
“Sym Ryld Dhant listed inactive in trade, possibly missing. No contact information. No official logs found. Missing date, filed by a late trade agreement partner is almost three years ago. Trade partner has filed for claim against Sym Ryld Dhant including forfeiture of percentages and a sizeable lien on Sym Ryld Dhant’s Ship. Currently, no trace of Sym Ryld Dhant or his Ship listed. Reference to Syji activity in area Sym Ryld Dhant last seen. Unconfirmed. Several cross references involve unsubstantiated speculation. Sym Ryld Dhant’s whereabouts unknown. Last formal activity entered over three years ago. Entry has a low key priority.”
“Low key but for everyone he owes money to. Let me give you another name … Jesera Myrn.”
“Uh, Hygan, I believe. Might cross link to Sym Ryld Dhant and if so then that’s the entry I’m looking for.”
The reader plate refreshed with new information and Ganth leaned forward to look at it. A three dimensional picture of Jesera Myrn floated in the air above the reader plate. The same woman that Ganth had visited earlier tonight in the tent on the far side of Ftyjha’s camp.
“Syl Jesera Myrn. Hygan free trader apprentice. Bonded out of Yhyhn. Serving aboard a Type 3 Class 5A Far Trader, the “Taddyer.” Partnered with Sym Ryld Dhant. Multiple credentials. No black marks. Fluent in three languages.”
“Whereabouts?” Ganth asked.
More data filled the reader plate.
“Unknown. Presumably with Sym Ryld Dhant. Last bonded agreements were in or near the time of Sym Ryld Dhant’s last known agreements. Missing. No pending judgments or arbitrations. Three years now though current data may change that assumption.”
“Print me a flex sheet of that image, please.”
A slot near the reader plate hummed and a three dimensional flex sheet with Jesera’s image on it appeared. Ganth took the flex sheet, looked at it, then rolled it up and stuck it in his robe.
“Tell me about Garyn.”
The Ship was quiet for a time then spoke.
“Jhold Garyn Entdi. Yhyhn free trader. Bonded out of Yhyhn. Master of a Type 3 Class 7 Free Trader, the “Replma”. Replma is a reference to Grynoct mythology, it means “the quick of hand is also strong of mind.” No active partners on agreement. Multiple credentials. No black marks. Several infraction warnings. Fluent in three languages.”
“Tell me about Styn Alul Beget.”
“Styn Alul Beget. Known Syji outlaw with ties to three Syji raiding clusters active in local area. Apparently of some rank and command. Low frequency of contact after four years ago. Presumed dead or replaced under Syji customs. Three cross links of possible interest. Non-verified. High percentage of correleation.”
“Give them to me.”
“First cross link to possible Syji activity. Semi-active investigation pending on interaction with Jhold Garyn Entdi for non-allowed trade bonds with three known Syji raiding clusters active in local area. Possible occurrence of trading weapons and equipment with Syji. No evidence found. Cross link ends.”
“Second cross link to possible partnership with Ayd Saryn Moqyr, a known Syji outlaw with ties to Syji raiding clusters active in local area. Ayd Saryn Moqyr wanted in eight systems.”
“Wanted in the Claim?” Ganth asked.
“No. The Wild. Primary listings on Yhyhn.”
Ganth whistled. It was bad when you had paper on your head and a bounty from other outlaws and criminals.
“Ayd Saryn Moqyr listed in common bounty listing. Crimes can be …”
“No. I’ll trust you. If he’s on the CBL then he’s bad news. Okay, so we’ve got Jhold Garyn Entdi who is actually Styn Alul Beget with known ties to the Syji and Alul runs with this Saryn character that does have ties to the Syji … in fact, Saryn is a known Syji.”
“Cross link ends.”
“Third cross link to possible partnership with Gharl Strec Elwhi, a known Syji outlaw with ties to Syji raiding clusters active in local area. Gharl Strec Elwhi wanted in eight systems. One system pending.”
“Are there any images?”
Ganth’ reader plate glowed and Garyn, Saryn and Strec’s images all appeared. Lines linked the images to various other database entries. Ganth thought about what he knew, what he knew now, and what Jesera had told him. Ganth reached over and dialed a cold sweet drink from the dispenser. Popping the sealed top from the liquid tube and taking a sip, he reclined all the way back in his seat, put one hand behind his head and closed his eyes.
“Now …” Ganth said. “Now I’m going to tell you a story and you’re not going to like it.”
And with that, Ganth told the Ship of his time with Jesera and what she had told him. He replayed their entire conversation for the Ship to listen to, including the story of Ryld, Garyn who was Alul, Saryn and Strec. A dead trader, an enslaved Hygan woman and a trio of Syji outlaws with Ganth right in the middle.
“You wanted adventure, you got it.” He told the Ship.
“I understand now why you don’t want any open links to Garyn’s Ship. What will you do now?” the Ship asked.
“Right now I’m going to get a few hours of sleep and then I’ve got a lot of work to do. With any luck we might just make it out of this alive and with some coin in our pocket. Wake me in four, please.”
And while Ganth slept the Ship thought and thought and thought.
“Tep Ganth?” Ftyjha asked again, louder.
Ganth snapped himself back to the here and now of the negotiations in Ftyjha’s tent.
“My apologies, Ftyjha . My mind was elsewhere than where it should be. I meant no insult. I have not the manners of your people or the courtesy of Garyn and this shames me greatly when protocol dictates that I should know better.”
There was a quiet laughter that passed through the gathered group, an obvious acceptance of his self-ridicule and Ftyjha even smiled at Ganth’s admission of inferiority among those he traded with. Dealing with Ftyjha and his tribe was easy … always play the erroneous fool. Ganth sat up with his legs under him, reached slowly into his robe and pulled out a rolled up flexsheet. He unrolled the three dimensional picture of Jesera Myrn and held it up for Ftyjha and his chieftains to see. The residual laughter among the chieftans vanished as quickly as Ftyjha’s smile did.
“What is this?” Ftyjha asked, using his chewing stick to poke at the flexsheet image.
“This. I require this as equal payment for all that I offer.”
There was complete quiet in Ftyjha’s tent.
“Where did …?” one of the chieftain’s started to ask as Ftyjha reached forward and snatched the picture of the white haired woman from Ganth’s hand.
“This? This is what you want? You want this frail, often used toy when you can have metals and jewels? A handful of jewels from the northern fortress could buy you one of these toys for each day of the month.”
“Jewels and metals do not matter to me in this regard. She is what I want. I offer you this for her. Five times what you see before you for her and her alone. Is the offer accepted?”
Murmuring which quickly raised to angry words.
“What is she to you?” one of the chieftain’s snarled.
“What is she to you? What is she, to you, to each of you, compared to what I offer to each of you?”
More murmuring, angry gestures and quick words.
“How do we know …?”
“Once we agree to the terms of the trade, I will return to my ship and bring the rest of the trade goods here. You can bring the white hair to me here. Once we are both satisfied that we have gained what we want, we will close this trade. The white hair and I will go back to my Ship and our agreement will be bond.”
“And what of Tep Garyn?” one of the chieftains asked.
Ganth shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands in front of them, crossing them in the ritualistic and understood tribal motion of dismissing something that was both menial and irrelevant.
“How Tep Garyn chooses to spend his nights is his concern, not mine. I have made my choice and I have made my offer. I ask for consideration and bond, if it please you.”
There was a slight laugh from a pair of the chieftains at Ganth’ resolve. Ftyjha rubbed his beard, looking from the weapons and equipment.
“All this you offer for the white hair?”
“And one more item as well. A gift, to you and your people, Ftyjha.” Ganth said, drawing out a small sologramic projector and keying it to life.
The long, tall cylinder floated there in the air in front of the tribal leaders, coils and wires crisscrossed it at regular intervals. Antenna and a receiver were also clearly visible as was a reader plate and a keyboard. It was as imposing as it was functional. Ftyjha rubbed his beard again in appreciation and nodded as he looked at the sologramic projection.
“I offer you an automated, self-servicing water collector which will provide your tribe with fresh, clean water for many decades to come. It is portable. Self-powered. Self-cleaning. It is easy to operate and in Algia’s atmosphere it will generate two hundred and fifty units of clean, drinking water per day.”
“Two hundred and fifty!” One of the chieftains said out loud.
“Yes. Imagine being able to take a water supply along with you when you travel. Imagine not having to camp near a contested water source or have to defend it from anyone else. Imagine being able to shut down another tribe’s water source without sacrificing your own. Imagine controlling the flow of water to those who stand before you and bringing them to their knees.”
Ftyjha’s eyes were glazed over with visions of power and dreams of a future that he held full control over, a future where his tribe ruled supreme over Algia. Ganth suppressed a smile as he turned off the sologramic projector.
“All of this you offer for the white hair?”
“All of this. Do we have a trade?” Ganth asked.
“Yes!” Ftyjha said, staring at the weapons and equipment in front of him.
The chieftains looked and whispered among each other, some more cautiously and some more excitedly than others.
“Do we have a trade?” Ganth asked again.
“Yes! We have a trade!” Ftyjha shouted loudly.
“Be it then by bond. Go and get the white hair. Bathe her, make her pretty for me, dress her in fine dress and jewelry, paint her feet, her legs, her hands and face, scent her and bring her to this place so that she may be given over to me. While you do this, I will go back to my Ship and bring the rest of what we have traded for to you.”
“Make it so!” Ftyjha shouted and several of his servants rushed to follow his orders.
Ganth stood, bowed deeply, touched the opposite side of his chest with each hand then tapped his forehead, bowed again, turned and left. Behind him the elders of the tribe immediately began to talk loudly among their selves.
Ganth smiled and made his way back to his Ship.
She was beautiful.
Her hair had been washed and brushed. Her feet, legs, hands, arms, and face had been painted with the traditional Algian tribal markings. Her scent was fresh. Her robes were lighter, a mixture of gray and brown, and made of the material that the members of Ftyjha’s tribe reserved for their most honored females. Jewelry had been woven into her hair while anklets, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and a headband had been applied … Of course, none of that really mattered to Ganth but the extra time that it had taken for the members of the tribe to prepare Jesera Myrn had been time that Ganth had needed to prepare his wares for trade as well.
She stood there, silent, glancing around the gathered elders of the tent and then at Ganth as he finished bringing in the alt-grav assisted shipping crates, opening them, and displaying their contents for the elders to see. A hand held reader plate verified the contents of the shipping containers as Ftyjha and the chieftains looked through the trade goods. It was exactly as he had agreed upon, five times the original amount that he had shown them plus the automated water collector. That seemed to draw more attention than the weapons because while the weapons were enough to give the tribe an edge over the rest of the tribes on Algia, the automated water collector was of major strategic importance in and of itself because it gave Ftyjha a decided advantage, especially in the more arid regions where fortress tribes had been able to hold their water sources and deny him from taking territory as easily as he had enjoyed so far.
“How long does the water collector take to work?” Ftyjha asked, running his hand over the large piece of equipment stored there in the shipping container.
“It will take about an hour to start producing the first unit of water and then it should get much quicker. I’d let it produce about five units then throw those away. That should get rid of any trash in the lines or filters. After that … hope you have enough water skins to hold it all.”
“Two hundred and fifty units a day!” A chieftain said aloud, running his hand over the automated water collector.
Ftyjha nodded and Ganth stepped over close to Jesera.
“You look … incredible.” He whispered and she did though her look was quite sullen.
“What’s all that?” she asked in a whisper, nodding towards all the equipment and the elders who were still looking over the automated water collector.
“Your dowry.” Ganth said.
“My … what?” she asked, smiling, not sure of the word that Ganth had used, of what was happening or why.
“Your ransom? Your price to leave here with me.”
She closed her eyes, nodded and was obviously about to say something to the effect of what she thought of Ganth giving Ftyjha more arms and equipment and she probably would have if Ganth hadn’t quietly slipped a sneak field generator onto her wrist while pretending to admire the tribal painted patterns on her arm. Her eyes lit up as she realized what he had done and he gave her a slow, knowing wink in such a way that only she could have seen it.
“It’s keyed to mine, same frequency so stay close to me and hold my hand when we go.” He whispered, turning slightly and raising his own robe sleeve to show her that he also wore a sneak field generator before letting the sleeve of his robe fall back.
He ran his hand up along side her cheek, slowly and she turned her face into his hand. It was meant to be a reassuring touch to someone who hadn’t had such in a long time and it was taken as just that by Jesera.
“Tep Ganth.” Ftyjha said, looking up from the automated water collector. “You are happy with the trade?”
Ganth looked from Ftyjha to Jesera and back to Ftyjha.
“Yes. With your permission, I will return to my ship with the white hair and wait on Garyn’s return. I believe he and I will need to discuss another trade trip … now that you have the means to make some of your plans succeed where before they could not.”
“You have become a good friend of the people of this tribe, Tep Ganth.” Ftyjha said. “I should feel bad that even though you have put down the terms of the trade and you seem happy it is I who have come out much better in this trade.”
Some of the chieftains laughed and Ftyjha joined them.
Ganth stroked the side of Jesera’s cheek again.
“A good trade depends on both sides being happy with the outcome once the trade is bond. I am happy. You are happy. It is a good trade.”
“Yes! So it is!” Ftyjha said, picking up one of the projector rifles and inspecting it.
“When Garyn returns late this afternoon, bring him with you and meet me back here. We have much to discuss, I think … you, Garyn, my chieftains and I.”
Ganth once again bowed deeply, touched the opposite side of his chest with each hand then tapped his forehead, bowed again, turned and left, hand in hand with Jesera.
“Tep Ganth. Maybe Garyn will be late. Maybe that will give you some extra time to enjoy the white hair as much as Garyn enjoyed her before he gave her to Ftyjha and his sons all those years ago.” One of the chieftains called out as Ganth and Jesera left.
“She has served her purpose. The trade was in Ftyjha’s favor. I bear witness to this.” One chieftain said.
“And that is why Tep Garyn is first trader among Ftyjha’s tribe … he does not trade new goods for used goods.” Another chieftain said loudly.
The other chieftains and even Ftyjha laughed at that comment. If that was supposed to rattle Ganth or if Jesera felt anything at all at the comment, neither gave any indication as they stepped out from the tent and into the mid-day sun.
Halfway back to the Ship, Ganth stopped and pulled Jesera close to him as they ducked into the empty space between two large communal tents, pulling his robe around them and blending in with the shadows there. A few seconds later a handful of Ftyjha’s warriors came running by, a mixture of swords and projectors in their hands … heading towards the trade flat where Ganth’ Ship sat.
“What was that?” Jesera asked in a whisper.
“Where I come from, that was called a sell-out.” Ganth whispered back.
“We’ve been sold out. I didn’t tell Garyn that I knew about you. I waited until he was gone to the northern settlement before I approached Ftyjha about doing a private trade for you. All of this was behind Garyn’s back but since all I got out of it was you it shouldn’t have mattered but I guess it did matter after all. I wondered how long Ftyjha would go along with it and I guess he played the deal longer than I thought he would. Ftyjha knows that Garyn is coming back this afternoon from the northern settlement so he probably intends to keep the trade goods and give me, maybe you, to Garyn. You know what that means, don’ you.”
“He’ll kill us if he knows that you know about Ryld … about me. He’ll kill me for being with you.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured going into this trade. He’d get the jewels and minerals that I’ve traded for already and he’d get my Ship which is probably too tempting an opportunity to pass up. A fast ship like that, in trader rigging, would be perfect for the Syji to sneak around the trade lanes in. I figured that Ftyjha had a choice to make … either let you go with me and risk you telling someone about Ryld or keep Garyn in his favor and just tie up a loose end that Garyn should have tied up three years ago … along with the latest loose end; me.”
By now, another group of Ftyjha’s warriors were approaching from the direction of the Ship, meeting yet another group coming from another direction. Words were exchanged, directions given and the two heavily armed groups went opposite paths once again leaving Ganth and Jesera alone together hiding in the shadows between the two large tents.
“What do we do now?” Jesera asked, a slight panic creeping into her whispered voice.
Ganth smiled, rolled up the sleeve to his robe and touched the compact sneak field generator he wore.
“Now? Now we vanish.” Ganth said as they both faded from visibility.
Getting back onboard his Ship hadn’t been that hard even though the area around his Ship had been guarded by about twenty of Ftyjha’s heavily armed warriors. Ftyjha was probably fit to be tied that Ganth and Jesera had just disappeared, especially in the middle of Ftyjha’s little would-be empire and among his best warriors. With Garyn gone and nothing at his disposal but portable searchpods, Ftyjha would have no way of detecting Ganth or Jesera while they were in the sneak field. If Garyn got back, with his knowledge and the far more powerful spy ray system of his Ship it wouldn’t take long to find them if he was determined to do so and Ganth knew that Garyn would be more than determined to find them.
The Ship’s main gantry was still lowered and timing their movement up the main gantry in between patrols required less effort than Ganth would have thought. There wasn’t much left in the cargo hold and what had been left Ftyjha’s warriors had now moved down to the area beneath and under the Ship. The warriors were preoccupied with going through the trade crates and even if they hadn’t been, the sneak field and hush field generators that Ganth and Jesera wore would have prevented any of the warriors from noticing them unless the two of them had accidentally bumped into someone.
There, at the outer airlock hatch, Ganth tapped in a sequence known only to him on a keypad near the airlock hatch both unlocking the Ship and letting the Ship know that he had returned. The hatch slowly unlocked and swung partially open. The noise would have been easily heard by the warriors standing around the bottom of the outside of the Ship if it wasn’t for the damping effect of the hush field generator. When the hatch was open, Ganth and Jesera darted quickly inside the Ship and carefully closed the hatch behind them before deactivating the sneak field generator as well as the hush field generator.
“You act like you’ve done that a few times before.” Jesera said.
“A few times. More or less.” Ganth agreed, motioning for her to follow him on into the Ship.
“I see that everything went according to plan.” The Ship said.
“More or less.” Ganth said.
“Who?” Jesera asked, looking around at the disembodied voice.
“Jesera, meet my Ship. Ship, this is Jesera.” Ganth said, heading towards the main corridor which would carry him to the bridge.
“A talking ship?!” Jesera exclaimed.
“Oh, it’s much more than that.” Ganth said over his shoulder.
“So, what’s the plan now?” Jesera asked as she followed him down the main corridor.
“Now? Now we disappear again, for good, but not before I take care of some unfinished business.”
“Unfinished business?” she asked.
“You’ll see.” Ganth said.
Ganth strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and Jesera strapped herself into the seat next to his. The Ship had already started the pre-flight as soon as Ganth had left for Ftyjha’s tent with the last of the trade goods intended to free Jesera. When Ganth had keyed the sequence in on the keypad at the airlock, the final preparations for blast off had been taken care of by the Ship. Now, all that was left to do was bring the engines online and climb out of Algia for good. Ganth began to bring the Ship’s main power systems up to flight line hold. Throughout the Ship a dull rumble signaled the increase in power and he was sure that those who stood guard around the Ship must now be worried and confused at the sounds that the Ship was making.
“Thank you.” Jesera said, staring out the view plate in front of her seat and reconfiguring her station to suit her better.
From the way that she handled herself it was evident that she knew her way around a Ship.
“I told you I’d get you out of there.”
“You made … It was a … promise. A word that means a bond of the strongest kind to your people.”
“You remembered.” Ganth said.
“You didn’t have to risk yourself for me … you owed me nothing.”
Ganth shrugged his shoulders.
“You told me about Ryld and Garyn and about Saryn and Stec. You gave me Garyn’s real name. That’s got to count for something … at least my skull didn’t end up a trophy in Ftyjha’s tent.”
Jesera shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself.
“Yet. We’re still on Algia.”
“Not for long.” Ganth said, smiling as the pre-flight info flashed across his reader plates.
“True to bond, you freed me but …”
“But?” Ganth asked.
“I’m not sure I’m happy with the price you had to pay.”
Ganth adjusted his controls around him.
“What do you mean?”
“You gave Ftyjha something that no one else has on this planet has …”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” Ganth said, smiling. “It was worth it, though.”
“Was it?” Jesera asked. “My life for how many others? The weapons that you and Garyn and Ryld and I traded to these people … how many lives have those weapons ended on this planet over the last few years?”
“It wasn’t my problem what the indigs did with the guns I sold them. I didn’t care until it got really complicated. If they shot each other up, that was fine with me but if I was somehow backing genocide, I couldn’t live with that. As long as everything is equal, I’m happy. It’s when it gets all one sided that you need to even the odds.”
“It would take a lot to even the odds against Ftyjha, even with his strongest enemy. Garyn has been trading with Ftyjha for years … Ftyjha’s people are too well armed now with off-world equipment and weapons.”
“Yeah? Maybe. Maybe not. It was a lot simpler without all the politics.” Ganth said. “It was a lot simpler when you could just sell guns to stupid tribals and not have to worry about how the guns were going to get used let alone if they were going to get used on you.”
“Yes. Sometimes making a large profit margin requires that you don’t look too hard at what you’re doing.” Jesera said.
“Saw a lot of that on my world as well. It never ended happy. I never intended to do that … guess I did.” Ganth frowned.
Ganth reached for and took hold of the throttle control and the guidance yoke. Under them and around them the Ship began to rumble as its rapid pulse stutter wave engines came online. His view plate showed Ftyjha’s warriors in a state of semi-panic, moving around and under the Ship, pointing their weapons at the Ship or around them and not really sure of what was going on.
“Time to close shop.” Ganth said as he hit the switch to close the cargo bay.
The cargo bay started retracting into the Ship and several of Ftyjha’s warriors moved on to the rising cargo bay and then thought better of it. The few that rode the cargo bay up towards the Ship eventually jumped from the lip of the bay before it could seal back with the hull of the Ship. Ganth watched the indicator light for the cargo hold ramp go from red to green. Sealed and shut and with no passengers.
“Yeah … trading weapons to tribals isn’t all that bad.” Ganth added, checking his systems one last time.
“How can you say that? You know what we’ve done? You know what the weapons that you and Garyn have traded to Ftyjha have caused? And now you’ve given them a source of nearly limitless water and a way to control a resource that has strategically dictated and limited their military campaigns so far …”
“Well, when you trade high tech items with low tech tribals, they don’t always understand what they’re getting in the bargain. It’s hard to recognize something for what it is if you’ve never seen it before. Take for instance that automated water collector …”
“What about it?” Jesera asked.
Ganth pulled out his sologramic projector and keyed it to life.
The image of the automated water collector spun into view, floating in the air between them.
“Have you ever seen an automated water collector before?”
“No.” Jesera said.
“Neither has Ftyjha. In fact, chances are if an experienced trader and spacer like you couldn’t tell the difference between an automated water collector and …”
Ganth tapped the sologramic projector and another image appeared … it looked like the automated water collector minus a lot of parts.
“… a cascade imploder that I dressed up in a bunch of spare parts to look like an automated water collector then chances are Ftyjha won’t be able to tell that difference either.”
The look on Jesera’s face was worth it all. Ganth turned off the sologramic projector and stuck it back in the pocket of his robe.
“Engines are online. Power is optimal. All systems configured for atmospheric flight with option of climb out from gravity well.”
“Lift off.” Ganth said, moving the throttle control forward and gripping the flight line guidance yoke.
Below them the Ship’s engines belched rapidly pulsing nuclear electric fire, instantly incinerating Ftyjha’s warriors who had had made the mistake of standing their ground and pointing their weapons at the Ship. The trade crates that the warriors had been plundering vaporized a heartbeat later as the Ship’s engines lifted its mass gently in a parabolic curve higher and higher, faster and faster. A flurry of projector bolts rose from the camp and into the sky, being directed at the Ship from panicked members of Ftyjha’s tribe scattered around the camp. The few bolts that did find their mark dissipated their energy futilely against the force field that the Ship had erected as soon as it had cleared the ground, the field being complete proof against anything that Garyn or Ganth might have sold to Ftyjha.
“The first mistake that Ftyjha made is that he put all of his best people in one area. That’s just bad decision making as a military leader. It’s amateur, really amateur and I hate amateurs. The other mistake he made was double crossing me to Garyn. I had a hunch that Garyn wasn’t being straight with me on this deal. Gun running is one thing, I don’t mind that but to play politics … I’ve seen too much of that in my life to stomach it anymore especially by a cut rate showman and pretender like Garyn.”
“Minimum safe altitude reached with acceptable buffer.” The Ship said. “Uplink achieved.”
“Hold station and give me a wide, slow orbit of the area five klicks out at three klicks altitude. Be ready to alter position if you notice any change. Allocate reserve power to structural integrity and all main flight line systems.”
“Confirm.” The Ship said and did, throttling back its engines and instead coasting on an alt-grav web it created for itself.
Ganth reached into his robe and took out a small device, small enough to fit in his palm and not much thicker than that. He handed the device over to Jesera who took the device and looked at it, slow realization appearing on her face at what she held. The operation of the device was as simple as it was straight forward. There was a switch on the face of the device, protected by a flip down safety cover with a catch. She cleared the catch, flipped up the cover and put her thumb over the switch.
“The women.” She said.
“Who didn’t help you once in three years when their men came for you. Can you name one of them that treated you like a person instead of an object?”
She shook her head and wiped at her eyes.
“Children.” She said. “There are children down there.”
“From a closed stock breeding regimen that favors hatred and violence. Children who threw dung and rocks at you. Some of them would have grown up to find their way to your tent in the years to come. Their time with you wouldn’t have been remembered fondly by you. How many women and children have the people below you killed to get what they have now? Do you think that they cared about what they were doing while they were doing it? In the last two days I’ve learned one hard lesson … life on Algia has no value. Whatsoever.”
Jesera closed her eyes and nodded. She mouthed something silently, held the detonator close to her chest and stabbed the switch with her thumb, holding it down tight. The detonator clicked once and a pale yellow light lit an outline around the switch then faded to nothing.
“Is that it?” she asked, obviously expecting something to have happened.
When she looked down at her view plate she saw the tribal camp was still there. Ganth reached out and slowly took the detonator from her.
“No. I just wanted to see if you had that in you. If you were going to set off a cascade imploder in a camp full of women and children that you had spent the last three years living among then everything that you told me must have been true.”
Jesera looked hard at Ganth who merely shrugged.
“Damn you!” she said.
“Sorry. The detonator’s keyed to my thumbprint. Only. The way I figure it is that you’ve lived with a hell of a lot these past few years and you’ve got a lot to think about now. No use adding a lot more to that, especially if you didn’t need to add it to what you already had in the first place.” Ganth said.
“You had no right ...” Jesera said.
“Wrong. I had every right because I had to be sure that when I use this you didn’t need to be down there with all the others.” Ganth said as he pressed his thumb down on the detonator switch.
“Detonation signature event detected. Cascade compression field effect formed at three kilometers diameter and one kilometer height.”
The Ship started to buffet. Several alarms started to cry mournfully, lights blinked for attention and the sound of reserve power kicking in hummed through the hull of the Ship.
“Hold on. We may be in for some bumps.” Ganth said as he read his gauges and dials.
“Power scale five by nine. Cascade compression field effect stabilizing across transitory surface area. Power scale now nine by twelve and climbing. Cascade compression field effect continuing to stabilize.”
Ganth directed the spy beams around so that what was happening to Ftyjha’s tribe camp was visible on their view plates. Even he had to admit to himself he wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“Mass compression field effect stability achieved. Effect stable and holding. Estimate 100% device effectiveness. Casualty count confirmed at four hundred and eighty-five last known recorded life form signatures excluding beasts of burden, livestock and other irrelevant makeup. Cascade compression field effect will reach end sustaining point in two point five seconds. Mark. Field effect now collapsing.”
Below them, where Ftyjha’s camp, where his tribe, where his dreams of empire and where his best warriors had followed him was now a pearlescent half sphere a kilometer tall and three kilometers in diameter, seemingly planted in the surface of the planet. The air itself was rushing into the field effect, creating a vacuum. At the edge of the field effect, vegetation was being sucked into the field, loose stuff but even the giant trees around the camp were bending almost in half, their roots beginning to show as the field effect tugged at them … just beyond its effective reach. Air, loose dirt, gravel … everything for three and a half kilometers out from the detonation point was all pulled into the field effect. The pearlescent half sphere glistened like it was mirror wet; like it was made of a seemingly huge drop of mercury and then it began to slowly, visibly shrink. Trees outside the field effect lay at odd angles, some toppled, some partially dragged along the ground towards where the edge of the field had been. Everything for a half kilometer beyond the field effect radius was all now pointing inwards towards the field, like something had beaten the area down almost flat.
As the cascade compression field effect rapidly decreased in size it left behind an ugly colored yet mathematically perfect depression and at the center of that depression was everything that Ftyjha had ever fought for and achieved, including Ftyjha himself along with his chieftains, their families, Ftyjha’s concubines, his wives, his children, his grandchildren, the spoils of war and all the weapons and equipment that Garyn and Ganth had spent the last few days trading to Ftyjha … it was all there, a volume of three cubic kilometers compressed into an ultra-hot, ultra-dense, ultra-heavy solid sphere a thousandth of that in diameter and resting at the bottom of a half kilometer deep crater, sinking slowly into the soft ground there. Residual gasses rose like angry wraiths away from the crater’s surface, long tendrils of scintillating vapors reaching for the sky, almost like the ghosts of those who had been claimed by the field effect and whose mass now was part of the sphere pearl in the center of the crater.
“Sweet hells!” Jesera exclaimed softly, catching her breath and putting both of her hands up to cover her mouth, slowly shaking her head.
Ganth had no words for what he saw.
“That’s for Ryld and that’s for the last three years of your life.” Ganth said. “That’s for selling me out, Ftyjha and that’s for playing me for the fool, Garyn.”
Jesera leaned forward to stare at the view plate. Ganth tossed the now useless detonator into a waste receptacle near his seat.
“So … Ftyjha sells you out and you use something like that on him? What do you call what you did where you come from?”
“That?” Ganth said, indicating the crater on the ground seen in the view plates. “That is what I call evening the odds.”
“What do you mean?” Jesera asked.
“Think about it. Ftyjha and his best were in that camp along with a whole lot of stuff that he got from Garyn and was going to take back to distribute to his other warriors … where ever they are. Not only did I just stop Ftyjha’s power mad plans for this world, I pretty much gave all the other tribes a fighting chance to take back what he stole from them in the first place. Ftyjha is no more, his tribe just got their head cut off, most of their high tech gear went with them and if any of Ftyjha’s people are still out there they’re going to be thinking twice about following in his footsteps … especially after that.”
Jesera nodded, smiled and then shook her head in understanding.
“You evened the odds. For all the other tribes.”
“Now only did I do that but I just opened up a whole bunch of new markets for weapons and equipment.” Ganth said, smiling. “In this business you got to keep thinking ahead if you’re going to make a profit.”
“What?!” Jesera asked in excited disbelief, turning to stare at Ganth.
Jesera’s look was worth it and he quickly let her know that he had been kidding. She looked down at the crater, three kilometers wide, half a kilometer deep and with a ten meter almost white hot pearl sphere buried deep where it had sunk in the very center bottom of the depression. It would take several days for the super dense mass to cool to ambient temperature and be approachable anywhere near on foot.
“I’ve never seen … Where did you get something like … that?” she asked.
Jesera turned to stare at Ganth.
“You found that?! How do you find something like that?!”
Ganth shrugged his shoulders, something that was becoming a habit lately he noted.
“All that stuff that I traded to Ftyjha for you I’d found a few weeks ago, part of an old Syji cache that someone had told me about. I didn’t pay much for the information or the location because there wasn’t much there and the only reason I stopped was it was on my way here to meet Garyn. I figured if it was junk I might could still polish it up and push it off on the tribals and be gone before they realized what I had done.”
“What did you find?” Jesera asked.
“Some dead Syji and they’d been dead a while, lots of old junk, some weapons, some explosives and the cascade imploder. Now that thing had definitely seen better days and I had to dig for a while to get it out. My guess is that the Syji were going to hit something big with that, either that or hold someplace for ransom.”
“Yhyhn.” Jesera said.
“Or Othlos. Or any of the other colonies in the Wild. Something like that … you’d pay not to have someone drop it on you. You’d pay a lot and the Syji knew that.”
“You got the imploder from the Syji? The Syji are pretty aggressive but … where did they get something like that.”
“My guess is that it was some kind of relic left over from one of the border wars. Maybe the Syji had found an old weapons cache from one of the wars and they were trying to salvage it when something went wrong … old explosive, a trap left a long time ago … who knows. Anyway, the Syji find this place, start to steal it bare and … something happens. All the Syji end up dead and a long time after that, I show up and pick up what pieces I can and hope that what I can get out of the place was worth more than what I paid for its location.”
“Cascade imploder. Weren’t they outlawed a long time ago?”
“Yeah, that’s what I read about them which goes to prove that thing wasn’t new. Hell, even when they’re new they’re a bit twitchy. Now, the Ublyx like that technology … don’t blow it up when you can just crush it way down and then pave over it with your stuff. It’s strategic beautification … of your enemy’s home.”
“The Ublyx were noted for their intolerance of other races and cultures.” Jesera added.
“Yeah, which is lucky for the galaxy that so few Ublyx survived the glassing that the rest of the races gave to their home planet. Still, cascade compression is an imperfect technology. The Ublyx stuff is bigger than it needs to be, heavier and like I said a bit … unstable. I’ve been carrying that imploder around for a couple of weeks now and the longer I carried it around the less happy I was to have it onboard but once you pick up something like that you can’t just drop it off … in space, on a planet … where ever you feel like it. Who knows who or what would find something like that … or figure out how to use it?”
“I can understand why.” Jesera said, looking again at the crater below.
“I was looking for a way to sell it or trade it off to someone else … maybe even to Garyn because he had the connections to move something like that. Even what you saw down there, it’s just a low yield tactical range device. The Ublyx had much bigger versions, strategic range stuff and there’s mention of cascade imploders big enough to affect entire planets … which is why I guess the Ublyx went and nominated their selves for extinction by all the other races.”
“You didn’t tell Garyn about it?”
Ganth shook his head.
“I guess I was waiting to tell him about it because I knew how he was, he’d sell anything to Ftyjha, even the food knives in the eatery if he thought he could turn a coin for doing it. I guess I didn’t want something like that left loose on a planet like this. Unless you drop it from a Ship or set it up with a lot of time on the detonator and run like hell it doesn’t have a lot of uses in the local market. I mean, it’s not like they can shoot it out of a catapult and expect to clear the blast radius in time …”
“So all that stuff that you traded to Ftyjha was … junk?”
“If it wasn’t before it is now.” Ganth said, laughing. “Yeah. Like I said this was an old cache and the equipment hadn’t stored well. All I did was clean it up while they were cleaning you up and present it to Ftyjha. They thought they were getting stuff that they’d never seen before when all they were really getting was a bunch of out of spec explosives, projectors that would never fire again and it had all been repainted and repackaged right there in the cargo hold.”
“You tricked them!” Jesera said, smiling.
“I come from a race that has a long history of swindling indig people out of valuable stuff by trading them junk in return.”
An alarm started to sound and Ganth reached forward to look at his reader plate. There was another Ship coming in fast towards them.
“Garyn!” Ganth said, grabbing for the Ship’s throttle and controls.
The other Ship came at them then from high up in an inverted 18 G dive, ray projectors blazing.
Garyn was looking for blood …