The Merchant of Suragaa
“How could you!?” Laura exploded, shortly after the cabin door shut behind Roselii. She had already been pacing about in a fit.
“How could I what, Laura?” she said simply, sighing slightly as if having gone through this routine many times before—which, she did.
“Make me look like a complete idiot out there!?” the furious captain added, slamming into the couch, “my whole crew is walking all over me!”
“Your whole crew,” she hummed.
“Yes,” she glared, “and all you did was just add to my ridicule. ‘The smartest thing he ever did.’ You’re really going to side with that worthless prisoner?”
“That prisoner both drew fire from the injured freighter and sported superiority over the enemy by having superior armour and field technology. It was both efficient and effortless. Prisoner he may be, but give him the credit he’s due. His idea saved those people.”
“You refuse?” Rose sat at the chair across from her, “Why? Prove to me you’re any better than him.”
“If things had gone my way--”
“We’d have lost our guide to Nywan, helpless traders would be lost with what could be supplies, repairs, food, knowledge of the world we’re stuck on. Need I go on?”
“You needn’t,” she stood, looking out the stern side window, sighing hotly, “and you’re right. We’re better off.”
“You know all about being a soldier,” Rose said plainly, “and about being a student. But being a leader is more. It’s more than just beating a drum. It’s learning to work with the whole parade. Knowing where everyone fits. Where you fit. You need to get people to want to listen to you. Can’t just pay them off, or all they’ll be is mercenaries, looking for the better bidder.”
Laura listened, her only response. She could only glance at Rose here and there as she dealt with an inner frustration.
“They need you,” Rose smirked, still coming across as serious, “believe me, they do. And they don’t like a coward. They don’t like condescension. They don’t like to be discredited. And they really don’t like you losing your temper.”
“Shut up, Rose.”
Rose sat still and spoke no more.
Seconds took minutes long to pass.
“Okay, sorry, Rose,” she turned around again, “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Your crew need to listen to you,” Rose said plainly, “it’s true. That is the nature of a leadership role. But you need to listen to them, too, and not just look at them as lifeless tools for your devise. They’re people. Make them want to be your people.”
Laura looked to the side, knowing all of her friend’s words to bear reason and being unable to deny or refute it. She then looked to Rose, with a single, solid nod of approval.
Haren concerned himself little with petty squabbles, always keeping an eye on the larger picture, though he seemed to relate to Olsein the most. Olsein, the one who did concern himself with all details micro and macro. Olsein, the one who constantly kept his thoughts on a leash, as if those thoughts were a demon of horrid chaos. He studied the older Behraanese man, whose eyes were constantly reading something within or without.
Until the halting of the Skyreign, that leash seemed to be strictly maintained.
“She’s a bit beat up,” Darrick mentioned as Laura stepped on deck, “but she’ll hold.”
“We’ll still fly, right?” Laura asked quickly.
“I meant the freighter,” Darrick’s eyes rolled slightly, “and yes, we’ll fly. Or float. We’ll keep off the sand anyway, if that’s what you mean.”
Visibly, the port flank panels of the freighter began to lift open, exposing large, durable cargo cells within the frame, clearly designated for a loading dock. Crates and various large parts and machines decorated the borders of the cells, while a ramp slid out from under the grated floor, touching down on the sand.
“Looks like someone’s coming out,” Rose announced, gazing over the side of the ship “A man, a woman, and a boy. They don’t seem to be carrying weapons, but their clothes are long and baggy, so I dunno.”
“My bets are the boy’s carrying a rail gun in his backpack,” Darrick smirked her way.
“Probably something better than that show pistol you carry around,” Rose stuck her tongue out.
Ever the actress, Olsein thought.
“Knock it off,” Laura peered over as well, “Rose, you’re the linguist. You’re coming with me. Olsein, do your job for a change and come keep an eye on us.”
“I shall follow as well,” Haren stepped forth, “I do believe I can identify this family.”
“You’re wearing out your welcome on my ship anyway,” Laura glared at him.
“That appears to be the theme,” the man nodded and made his way downstairs.
“Miya,” the Captain scanned the bridge, “Walson. Watch the ship from up here. I’ll get Edge and Sam on lower deck duty.”
The two nodded.
The sun had long since passed its highest point in the azure skies of the archaic world, giving the landscape a golden color not witnessed anywhere on Behraan’s eerie green crust. The gold shone off everything metal, from the open bay doors of the dusty old freighter, to the already-golden Skyreign.
Haren patiently awaited the others at the head of the dune between the two parked vessels.
Laura impatiently awaited the end of the steep face she had to blaze across, while the others seemed to mind it only little, Olsein least of all.
All of them carried weapons, though only Olsein carried anything larger than a pistol. He went into this gesture of diplomacy, fully expecting the wrong thing to be said at the wrong place at the wrong time. If anything happened, he would assume his own version of diplomacy.
There at the base of the ramp stood the man ahead of his family. He was dressed more like a pilot, in a brown leather bomber jacket and loose sand-blasted chaps, with a single bandoleer slung over his shoulder. Large eye guards protected his eyes from the harsh light of the days, and the combed and trimmed black hair, coupled with the carefully shaped pinch on his chin, told the story of a well-to-do merchant, intentions either honest or less than so.
As the Skyreign’s collaborators reached the ramp, the man spoke in his native tongue. Unlike the Kulu’jai raiders with their heavy slang and slur, and the long wind of Hakrum, his words were quick and decisive, though layered with the implication of gratitude, as he bowed shortly and professionally. It then became apparent that his skin was tanned only lightly, a pigment that differed from the near-black skin of Haren.
“He gives us his thanks for saving his life and his family,” Roselii struggled, “he talks real fast. His dialect is some...business version of Nywanese.”
“You have my thanks,” the man said simply, “I did not know you were Spacefolk in hailing. I apologize.”
“Happens all the time,” Laura crossed her arms, “I’m Laura Vinfield of the Skyreign.”
“Maxis Dexa,” he again bowed briefly, looking behind him, “Mahiri, my wife; Zackuum, my son. We are expecting another in following months.”
“Well met,” Rose bowed as well, “Roselii, Olsein, Ha--”
“Yes, Haren, I know him,” the merchant nodded swiftly his way, “though I do not remember a time where he’d come this far east, into the sea.”
The crew simply looked around, unsure of what to think.
Haren smiled faintly, “it is good to see you as well, honoured merchant.”
“But please,” Maxis smiled, waving them closer, “do come in. If not for our hospitality, please look at our wares, and let’s trade!”
“Do you have spare cores and engines?” Laura asked plainly.
Olsein maintained a deep reserve, saying and doing the extreme minimum as talks went on.
“A number,” he waved them over as he sprung and strode cheerfully up the ramp, “some worse for wear than others, but I’m sure I can make something work for you. And, I will make sure you get only my best wares, for saving our lives!”
Laura and Rose looked at each other, speaking the secret language of the eye, and telling each other of distrust and unease. But, those eyes did agree and the two women led on.
The two men moved more cautiously, Olsein greatly so. He looked back, glaring for a long while at the Skyreign, his eyebrows speaking a language of their own.
“They have both stopped,” one watcher whispered to the other, ragged robes and metal buckles rattling in the churning winds. The two stood at the subtle lip of the high plateau, looking over a stretch of flat desert, reaching long beyond the horizon.
“The smaller vessel,” the second figure stretched their hand out, barely exposing a leather-gloved finger, “it is unique. It shines boldly in the Sun, as if in chorus to it.”
“Not as boldly as it perhaps ought,” said the first, stingily sipping at a hefty, sealed bottle the size of a man’s leg.
“Perhaps not,” the second agreed.
“Do you not find it familiar?” said the first.
“The ship. It is as though created out of a colourful dream.”
“A dream,” the second noted.
“But,” the first hummed, placing his hands together at his waist, “as with all dreams, all one can retrieve are fragments. Hints...signs...riddles....”
Silence passed by for minutes on end as the two robed figures silently observed.
“They will find us,” the second finally spoke, “and they will show us more of this...dream.”
“I believe they will alter reality,” the first argued.
“I,” the second began, looking to her comrade, “believe they have yet to understand reality, themselves.”
“What leads you to believe that?” the first asked, looking back through the slits of his masked hood.
“The signature,” she stated slowly, “it boasts the call of Behraan.”
“Yes,” the second nodded, clearly expecting more to her words.
“But its voice is unique....”
The two looked back to the two meeting vessels.
“Yes,” the man finally acknowledged, “unique....”
“There is something more there,” she said, “something beyond just a vessel. Something terribly familiar.”
“The girl,” she replied, “but not just a girl. Is she.”
After a minute, he said lowly, “No. Not just a girl.”
Darrick had an eye open by only half a slit, randomly navigating his left field of view, while he lay stretched out in the pilot’s seat, his feet crossed on the top of the console.
And if only he had the other eye open, he would have been able to steer away from immediate danger.
All too quickly, he felt the flash chill of, what he guessed to be, a statification beam. His whole body became as if frozen in place by a blizzard the farthest planets from their suns could only just rival. Then, thawing to a limp, he crumpled forward and onto the console, shaded by the silhouette of his assailant.
“Certainly, you see something you can use?” Maxis kept that honest smile most of the time, the smile of a man whose life, home and family had been saved by these otherworldly strangers.
Laura, unimpressed by the apparent shabbiness of the wares in the rickety shelves, looked back at him with half of an expression of gratitude.
“The engines needed Energium diodes five millimetres thick and ten millimetres long,” Rose said to Maxis, “they were the first to go in the fire. Do you have any?”
“I do not believe so,” he shook his head, straightening his robes, “Energium is very rare in these parts. It does not occur naturally, after all.”
“Plug it,” Laura hissed, scouring the rest of the hold, “you’re telling me we can’t get off this rock!?”
“Easy, Captain,” Olsein whispered, “I think we should focus on parts for the Core. We can do without engines for now--”
“If your engines have the space, perhaps I could impart to you some neodymium-gold couplings?” the merchant’s hands clasped, “if I am not mistaken, they may conduct enough to feed the engines you had described.”
“That would work,” Olsein agreed with a single nod to the man, “but that will mean a larger core, and we’re already short a core.”
“We’re short a lot of things,” Laura added.
“Actually,” Rose turned back to the group, “just the core is a good start. We could start delivering more juice to the lifters, and that’ll really help us along.”
“Perhaps,” Maxis stepped forth, “if you found your way to Nywan, they may have engines to spare. I am certain their artisans may assist in other necessary repairs to help you home.”
“I may attest to that,” Haren stated, “their workers have the finest hands to ply in vessels and structures and attires.”
“What would it cost for a power plant rated at Twenty-five Thirty-two?” asked Rose.
“I am sorry?” the merchant asked.
“Twenty-five megawatt-hours, thirty-two years.”
“I only have some cores rated at twelve megawatts for fifty years,” he replied in understanding.
“Do you have two?”
The man smiled, “I do. In fine condition too, I must add.”
“And what do you want for them?”
He hummed and looked to the ceiling, “Only your protection, good people. We wish only for your escort to Nywan. I assure you, this would be more than gratitude for the powerplants.”
Laura shook her head, her temples throbbing from how her life had suddenly become dependent on the mercy of others. At last, she muttered, “Fine. Agreed.”
The two cores were easily the size of a fist like Haren’s, with roughly similar dimensions in diameter and height. They glowed an easy, comforting green through the translucent shell, flickering every few seconds. There were clearly dents and scratches to dull whatever sheen might have been boasted from them, but the solid construction of them was their true beauty.
Despite their size, they were deceptively heavy, and had to be carried with two hands by both Olsein and Haren.
The sun had begun its daily commute back to the horizon and beyond, a long shadow extending over the four from their own ship, as they made their way back.
Laura was a number of paces ahead, treading grumpily onward as she brooded over the past few days. This was not the life she had in mind. This was not the life of a great Behraanese Admiral, or Planetary Despot.
Rose, between her friend and leader, and the two men of the party, vigilantly observed the black clouds floating over Laura’s head, guessing at the thoughts she must have been consumed by.
She then scanned the golden vessel ahead, noting its subtle contours and its solar extremities, ones that made the ship personify either a Khrynthoss Dragon, or a Noregaan sunfish, though more like the Dragon because it sat perfectly still, two or three metres off the ground, not making a single twitch, and not disturbing the sand as most hovering vehicles should have.
Skyreign would have been a good Dragon’s name, she thought.
But perhaps not that of a ship as beaten and battered as this one.
While it was difficult to make out more than silhouettes of the deck through the reflective shell, she did notice something highly peculiar.
No movement. The ship was far too still to have moving people upon or within her.
While she accepted it as possible the crew was simply under deck, she could not take any chances. She stepped next to her Captain and hissed over to her ear, “hold up!”
She slowed, mildly confused by her friend’s paranoia, “What, Rose?”
“I sense it too,” Olsein stopped, re-establishing his grip on the core, “something is amiss.”
“Nothing is ‘amiss’ old man,” Laura rolled her eyes, resuming her pace, “the sooner we get aboard, the sooner we can install the cores, the sooner we can get this stupid errand over with, and the sooner we can get back to finding Sehra.”
Rose and Olsein looked to each other, nodding, as if some secret signal they shared had come into manifest. Haren simply watched and continued lugging along the core with one and a half working hands, not any more—or less—alert than always.
Rose and Olsein, however, fast became more alert than always, pulling out their sidearms. Olsein dropped his core into the sand.
Rose’s weapon was a blackened, long-snouted pistol with several dents and scrapes to give some flavour to its otherwise dull appearance.
Olsein’s weapon was a silvery scoped magnum with a shoulder stock found mostly on rifles, boasting that any weapon that small with such recoil should require the extra stability for the sheer destruction it was able to unleash.
Both of them flanked their Captain, still certain that nothing was wrong, as she circled the ship to its open ramp at the stern. Both of them took corners of the opening, peeking into the dark, unpowered cargo room.
And both of them never saw the impending death that nearly missed them, and instead met them halfway with statification beams.
Only then, and not a moment before, as her two companions lay crippled on the ramp, did Laura realize the immense danger she had placed herself in, as she was squarely in between them.
“H-hello?” she croaked, the inevitability of death choking her and weighing her otherwise dexterous hands to the point where the holster full of a gun may as well have been a kilometre away.
Finally, that feeling shed away and her hand knew all the moves. Her weapon was a standard-issued Behraanese Plasmar Pistol, seventh edition. She also knew it as the BPP7, or even more informally, the “Bip-Seven.”
She knew it wasn’t much, but it had a flashlight just under the business end, illuminating the otherwise shadowy room within.
The faint thought of Haren’s inconvenient absence trampled from one end of her mind to the other as she stepped forth into the darkness, quickly pointing her weapon left and right around crates and barrels, trying to conceal her fear, from uncontrolled panting to reined-in and regulated breathing.
The compulsion to make another weak salutation to—whomever--became overridden by her overbearing self-confidence, as she made her way to the stairwell to the midship.
The rec room was empty enough to suggest it was haunted, and Laura knew it very well might have been so, just by a living being. A living being who, in his or her intelligence, took control of her ship while the best half of the crew was distracted by the lowly merchant and his uncultured family.
Quite timely, even.
A living being who, in his or her conviction, disabled, but not killed, her crewmates, and had not done the same to her when she was the easiest target.
A living being who, for some sinister reason, had a point to prove to Captain Laura Vinfield, and she alone.
Was it perhaps a crewmate? She wondered. She suspected Ejjar, for he knew the ship well enough to make it a deathtrap in whatever way he wished.
Perhaps Sam, who pranced like a good soldier who always obeyed orders and stuck his neck out far too much to be true.
Or Darrick. Yes. Darrick. The prisoner. The most logical choice with the most motives for a treason such as this. He knew the ship almost too well for someone who’d been in prison the better part of his miserable life. He must have wanted revenge, and found his chance.
Laura would find him. She would kill him. Her blood boiled as she crept up the stairwell to the bridge, hugging the shadowed side to conceal herself as long as she could.
Darrick could clearly be seen sitting in his chair, facing the console as always, and kicked back, as always.
Her pistol dragged her across the deck over to him, and with her free hand, she flung the chair around on its swivel
Darrick then rolled over, and crumpled helplessly onto the floor, clearly unconscious—and cold to the touch.
No! She so badly wanted it to be him. So badly, she had wanted a good excuse to blow him away!
“You still can,” said the familiar cutting voice of her friend, Miya, as she stepped up behind her, “you can kill him. He’s helpless and unconscious. Won’t feel a thing. Hmm. Neither would you.”
Her blood went from boiling back to freezing. Slowly, she stood, and turned only to see an extended pistol reaching out for her head.