Arnt Deals for Keeps
by Vicky Morgan-Keith
Steam rose from the polished bronzewood cup of tea, tantalizing Nuvos with its deep, piquant aroma. He took a small sip, savoring the warm, spicy beverage as much as he savored the few brief moments he had to himself to enjoy the Courtyard Ring. The Stellar Exchange orbital station boasted a multitude of delights for its varied clientele, but of them all the Courtyard was Nuvos’s favorite. Elaborately landscaped gardens with their shady trees, ornamental grasses, and lush ferns dotted here and there with a myriad of colorful blooms lent this particular station ring a pristine, pastoral beauty. The air was pleasant, earthy, and maintained at a comfortably warm and dry temperature. Several other rings on the station could be downright cold and damp, their air musty due to the inadequate number of overtaxed heating and atmosphere filtration units they contained. Most notorious of these were the station’s three gigantic docking rings. Docking Ring 1 was fairly tolerable, reserved for the most influential and wealthy of the Stellar Exchange’s patrons, but the two lower rings held more dangers than cold, stale air. Much more crowded and seldom patroled, they were havens for pirates and criminals of all kinds.
Taking another sip of his drink, Nuvos absently scrolled through his compad, checking for any messages or local station trade posts of possible interest. He appeared to ignore the many passersby traversing the pathway beside the small cafe in which he had decided to take refreshment. He was well aware he drew attention, and most of it from unfriendly eyes. He wore a rich robe of deep blue shamash silk, tied with an intricately embroidered sash of gold and silver thread. Heavy bracers encircled his wrists, made from precious metals and etched with the emblems of his rank and House. His immaculately groomed mane of pale blond hair was bound with combs into a topknot, a currently favored style of his world. All these things marked him as a male of means and status. But it was not his wealth that garnered him hostile glances from the pedestrians. Most of them were as well-dressed and affluent as he was. It was his species. For Nuvos was a Neiran male, merchant and servant to the noble House Aoth-Kol of the Neiran Empire. And while the Stellar Exchange was officially neutral ground, he knew perfectly well, for the most part, he was not welcome here.
Despite this, Nuvos continued to enjoy his tea unconcerned. He was confident he was well protected, his slave bodyguards close by and well trained. Two were gladiators, successful veterans of the famed Arena Eviscorita. All were Shrinaar, honor bound to obey him in return for their future freedom. Nuvos trusted without a doubt they were ready to act instantly in the event someone decided to ignore the rules of station, which allowed all peaceful traders to visit, including Neiran. The last unauthorized assassination on the Stellar Exchange had occurred centuries ago. The perpetrators had been dealt with swiftly and with a public display of violent finality. As unlawful as the prudently anonymous owners of the Stellar Exchange were, it was obvious they demanded certain codes of conduct be obeyed for the good of all. Otherwise trade would suffer, and so would their profits.
A light flashed on his compad, alerting Nuvos of an incoming encrypted message. The Neiran’s eyes widened as he read the processed missive, then he hurriedly tapped on the pad to view a display of the current ships at dock. Scanning the list of recent arrivals as well as inbound ships, Nuvos regretfully took a last sip of his tea, then departed.
Nick Serdan, Captain of the Drifting Grifter, stood in the shadows of the docking bay’s entrance, one hand resting lightly on the weathered leather of the holstered illegal Pulsar pistol at his hip. The other pushed a wayward cowlick back from his forehead as he watched the approaching Neiran through narrowed eyes. Serdan had never dealt with one before, but his first mate, a hulking Alanti Pycryf named Mar, had told him quite a bit about them. So he knew the male now approaching him was not a fighter, and Nick Serdan wasn’t about to be intimidated, even if the Neiran towered nine feet tall! All the same, he cast a quick glance over his shoulder to see the reassuring bulk of Mar planted firmly at the base of the ship’s ramp, Pulsar rifle in hand, before stepping out to greet the Neiran stranger.
As he strode forward, Serdan held his hands out to his sides, noting the Neiran three heavily armed bodyguards, already positioned and assuredly prepared to kill him if there was the slightest indication of trouble. All big Shrinaar males, the trio wore collars typical of slaves. Two bore metal tags in their furred ears stamped with the insignia of the Neiran Arena Eviscorita. Gladiators! Serdan felt his self assurance evaporate. A quick glance about confirmed the lack of any security bots in the area. And while he certainly didn’t want Security showing up and discovering his cargo, he might not object to some arriving if the bargain soured. To cover his concern, he gave the guards what he hoped was a casual nod, then fixed his gaze on his Neiran visitor.
“Captain Nick Serdan,” he said by way of introduction.
The Neiran matched his gaze, a slight smile turning up the corner of the alien’s mouth. “And I am Nuvos, merchant of the noble House Aoth-Kol. My gratitude to you, Captain, for allowing me to view your cargo so…promptly.”
“Perishable goods have a way of spoiling if held too long on station,” Serdan adroitly admitted.
Nuvos’s smile grew. “Perhaps you will grant me a discount on your goods for taking them off your hands and removing your inconvenience so quickly.”
Serdan smiled as well, but his expression bespoke of anything but agreement. “My cargo is nothing but prime merchandise, Neiran. Sure, the longer I sit here might make things more difficult for me, but I dare say that would make a trade more difficult for you as well. You want to do business or not?”
Nuvos scowled slightly. His lips pressed into a thin, hard line before he nodded. “Very well,” he replied, “I will view your cargo. If it pleases me, I will pay your asking price.” He gestured to his guards to follow.
Serdan’s Pulsar pistol was in his hand before they had taken a step forward. The ship captain was no longer smiling. “No guards,” he grated.
The gladiators growled. The tagless one bared his fangs. Nuvos held up a hand to stay them, keeping his gaze on Serdan. “One guard.”
The captain hesitated a moment, then nodded. He motioned Nuvos toward the ramp. He no longer pointed the weapon at the Neiran, but made no move to holster it. His actions seemed to amuse Nuvos who spoke briefly with all three guards before heading to the ramp, one of the tagged gladiators in tow.
Serdan led the way into the ship, followed by Nuvos. Mar and the guard brought up the rear side by side. They passed through a cramped access way requiring the Neiran to duck slightly, making their way to the main cargo hold. Serdan swiped a hand over the security scanner and the doors shwooshed opened. What lay behind them made Nuvos smile, but his guard growled low in alarm.
Nuvos cast the gladiator an annoyed glance and raised a hand. “Mrrowl!” he snapped, “Be still!”
Filling the cargo bay were perhaps two to three score Shrinaar of various ages, from children to elderly adults. All were scantily clad in primitive attire. One older male adult was dressed in a simple worn leather robe. All had their hands bound and their feet hobbled, even the cubs. Some appeared to have been roughly treated. Almost as one they looked to the hatch, eyes wide and dilated, ears flat.
Nuvos’s eyes roved over them dispassionately, quickly discerning the group was fairly equally split gender-wise. He glanced down at Serdan. “Curious. They are dressed quite oddly. Which Shrinaar colony planet are they from?”
The slaver grinned. “They’re not. Had a little engine trouble and ended up on the outer ‘skirts of the Reaches. Came across them when we set down on a small moon for repairs. Apparently they don’t understand Tradespeak.” He sneered, nodding toward his big Alanti first mate. “We had to find other ways to ‘communicate’ with them.”
Nuvos scowled. “Your cargo was said to be in good condition.”
The captain shrugged. “What can I say? We had to convince them it was in their best interests to come along. We’d killed a few, and some decided to put up a fight. Kinda stupid if you ask me.”
The Neiran smiled quickly, proffering a small plastic chit drawn from the folds of his robes. “Nevertheless,” he assured the human, “I will take them all. Your full asking price.” He paused before laying the payment in Serdan’s hand, revealing a second chit. “Double payment if you supply me with the location of where you found them.”
Serdan eyes gleamed at the thought of the Neiran offer. Twice his asking price! And with hardly a quibble! Nuvos wasn’t exactly behaving like the shrewd dealers and traders Mar had told him these males could be. The Nieran wanted these creatures badly! But why? Serdan shrugged mentally. Whatever the answer, for twice his asking price, the captain didn’t really care. He pretended to consider the offer a moment so as not to seem too eager, then nodded. “Wait here. I’ll get the stellar charts for yo–”
He broke off as one of the Shrinaar approached and spoke.
It was the robed elder. “Anna mawe, ro’at,” he said, looking directly at the Neiran guard, Mrrowl.
The captain and Nuvos scowled in unison. Serdan gave the captive Shrinaar an angry shove with his Pulsar pistol, causing the elderly felinoid to stumble to the deck plates. Some of the other captives cried out in alarm and moved forward, despite their restraints. Agitated, Serdan waved his weapon at them threateningly. “Shut up and get back, yo–!”
Once again, Serdan wasn’t allowed to finish his statement. He was suddenly too busy dodging out of the way of the gladiator’s weapon, a strange halberd etched with exotic designs and embedded with deep blue spheres. The big Shrinaar loosed a deafening roar loud enough to rattle the panels of the ship and launched himself at Serdan, his great axe leading the way.
Expecting treachery, the Alanti first mate swung his rifle toward Nuvos who stepped back a pace with hands raised. “Not me, you fool arnt!” the Neiran snapped, stabbing a finger in Mrrowl’s direction. “Stop him! Alive, if you can!”
Mar looked to his captain in time to see Mrrowl’s halberd crunch through the pistol Serdan was attempting to bring to bear on the big cat. Pieces of the shattered weapon scattered across the decking, followed almost immediately by a spray of the gladiator’s blood as a blast from the Alanti’s rifle struck him in the back. The Shrinaar’s roar became a choking cough, and he slumped to the floor, his weapon clattering to the deck beside him.
For a moment there was only the harsh sound of Serdan’s ragged breathing while Mar swung his rifle from Nuvos to the captives who stared in shock. The robed Shrinaar knelt quietly by Mrrowl, resting a gentle paw on the big cat’s shoulder.
“He was disobeying my orders,” Nuvos protested to Serdan, his hands still up. “I merely wish to make the exchange as agreed, nothing more.” He glanced at the fallen gladiator, then frowned at Mar. “A pity. He was quite expensive.”
“Yeah, too bad,” Serdan replied in sardonic agreement, accepting another pistol from Mar before waving the robed Shrinaar away from Mrrowl and back into the cargo bay. The human closed the doors to the hold and jerked a thumb at the captives within, while scooping up the two fallen chits from the floor. “Maybe you can replace him with one of them.”
Nuvos eyed Serdan warily. “Possibly. We still have a deal then?”
The slaver gave the Neiran an unfriendly grin as an indicator light on a surveillance panel flashed in warning. “Well, as much as I would enjoy blowing you out the nearest air lock, it would appear Security is making a patrol of the docks, and I’m sure neither one of us wants them to discover this cargo. So if I were you, I’d make arrangements to take your merchandise and be on your way as quickly as possible!”
“I shall do so immediately,” Nuvos assured the captain. He bent to retrieve the halberd from the deck.
“Leave it,” Serdan rasped.
Nuvos paused a moment, prepared to argue, then thought better of it and nodded. The Neiran made his cautious way past Mar, heading toward the ramp way. “A pleasure doing business with you, Captain.”
“Wish I could say the same,” Serdan muttered after him.
Mar gestured toward the body of the Shrinaar gladiator with his rifle. “What about him, Captain?” he asked. “Airlock?”
“No,” Serdan replied. “Much as I’d like to, someone might see and track it to us. Find a place to dump him on station. Some place no one’s likely to come across him any time soon and do it fast. I want us to appear to be just another freighter looking for work when that patrol gets here.”
Mar nodded, slinging his rifle across his back. With a grunt, he hoisted the big cat over his shoulder and departed. Serdan called after him as he moved down the access way. “And that’s the last time we’re doing that.”
“What?” The big Alanti asked over his shoulder. “Deal in slaves?”
“No,” came his captain’s answer. “Deal with Neiran.”
Kay clambered up the dumpster’s Plazsteel grime-covered side. Her worn sneekers slipped in the filth, smearing it over dangling tattered laces. She scraped a knee as she caught herself and hissed in pain. Tears welled in her eyes, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out like a baby. Kay was perhaps five or six. Earth years, she reminded herself. The small girl knew other planets’ years were not the same as Earth’s. On the Alanti homeworld, she’d be only two! Giggling at the thought, Kay got her mind back on her task. She didn’t want Uncle Norg to be sorry he’d brought her along. She liked ‘looking for treasure’, as he put it, a lot more than being stuck on the ship doing chores.
Kay peered over the dumpster’s side, not quite able to keep from wrinkling her freckled nose at the smell. The lighting in the disposal passageway contaning the wastebin was dim, but she’d caught a glimpse of a glint or glitter. Carefully, she lowered herself down, finding her footing on the mound of trash before picking up items that intrigued her, examing them curiously. Most she discarded, but a few she slipped into the large pockets of the ragged oversized jacket she wore.
Humming softly to herself as she dug through the rubbish, Kay started violently when there came a rap against the dumpster with a loud, metallic bang.
“How’s it coming in there, little Kay?” It was only Uncle Norg. Kay’s breath sighed out in relief as he continued. “You find anything interesting, you just show it to good ol’ Uncle Norg, hear?”
“Okay, Unca Norg,” she answered. “So far just some parts that might be–”
She stopped, peering where she had knocked a large pile of trash aside when Norg had startled her. A furry ear poked up through the clutter of containers stained with gobbits of food, crumpled wrappers, and various plastic and metal refuse. Thinking she’d discovered a stuffed animal, she tugged on the ear, causing more litter to fall aside. Her ‘stuffed toy’ opened its eyes slightly with a groan before closing them again, and Kay realised what she’d found was not a toy at all.
“Unca Norg!” she exclaimed.
Norg’s eyestalk popped up over the side of the wastebin and his eye widened. The Illyrian clambered with surprising alacrity into the dumpster to join the excited child. “Shush, now!” he warned her. “We don’t want a bunch’a security bots showin’ up to take away what you’ve found, now do we?”
Kay shook her head vigorously, sending her ponytails flying. “Look!” she whispered excited, pointing. “I found a big kitty! Oh, Unca Norg, can we keep him?”
Norg eyed the injured Shrinaar skeptically. Medical costs would be considerable, but the Illyrian could do with some muscle to help protect his cargos. This might be just the way to do it. He smiled at the girl, patting her head. “Sure thing, Kay-Kay! You know I’ve never been one to turn away a stray.”