“It could have been worse.”
“We could have landed in totally uncharted territory. This is at least known coordinates. Granted, it could have been better but, on the bright side, we are alive and we are not currently being pursued or fired upon.”
“Yes, but we are literally in the middle of nowhere. How are we doing for fuel? It’ll take us a substantial amount to get back to civilization.”
“About that… We might be running low on Xelium.”
I am beginning to get a headache. I put my fingers to my temples and attempt a massage. Just when I think the worst is over this stuff just keeps on happening. I find myself weirdly longing for an ad hologram to tell me again about Eden, the paradise. I shake it off by clamping down on my teeth. Bringing the sharp edges together. My tongue rubs against them and the sensation suddenly grounds me. Wormhole jumps are bad medicine. They can really mess with your head and mine has been messed with way more than average.
“Are there any occupied planets nearby? Outposts? Trading centers? Anything at all?”
Reed checks the charts and scratches the back of his head.
“There is a tribal planet a reasonable distance from here but there isn’t much information on it. It’s a GT-type planet so they should have Xelium. They may be willing to trade. Shall we go there? It’s fully terraformed so we won’t even need any extra gear.”
“Do we have any other choice?” - I ask sarcastically.
Reed inputs the coordinates. He really is a man of no words, when interfacing with machines is an available option to him. I leave him to his task and go down to check on our Regulator prisoners.
To my annoyance, they are both alive and well and still restrained by the collars. They didn’t try to escape as far as I can tell. I brought down a couple of bottles of water with me and pass them on to the woman.
“What is your name, Regulator?”
“Sam.” - She replies after taking several gulps of water. Her partner refuses it. - “And his name is Raynar. Are you going to kill us? You must know Regulators don’t negotiate for their own.”
“I don’t kill prisoners. Whoever they are. And I don’t plan negotiating with your commanders either. Ideally I would like to drop you off somewhere convenient for me and inconvenient for you. As it happens, we might just be far enough from anywhere important so I will be able to do just that. Get ready, you are coming with me.”
She seems to process it and nods to herself, seemingly relieved. Her partner just spits to the side. I don’t care for his bravado. After all, it’s the same man who had no problem beating me up when I was collared. I have no sympathy for him. I wait as they both get on their feet.
I return back to Reed and Ellie with the two Regulators trailing behind me. It looks like we have arrived at our destination and coming into range of the GT-type planet. Hopefully, we’ll be able to trade with whomever inhabits it. The headache is still throbbing at the back of my head and I wonder whether hyperspace jumps do cumulative damage. There are rumors about that but no one has made enough jumps and been studied for data to exist on it and inanimate objects are no help here. I focus on the task at hand. Giving orders at least provides a distraction from the pain inside my head.
“We will drop off these two here. Reed, take us to the surface.”
We make sure we land near a large habitat but not too close in case we freak out the natives. It unnerves me that we don’t know much about this place. We have no idea what we are walking into.
Despite being a GT-type, it’s a green planet. Why would someone terraform it this far away from literally anywhere? There is greenery everywhere; things buzzing in the air and crawling on the ground. There is blue sky and the sunlight is so bright, it really hurts my eyes.
Reed checks the holomap to see where the settlement is and points to the right. We’ll have to cut through the vegetation. I make sure our prisoners go first so I can keep an eye on them.
We cut past the plants and trees and eventually come into the clearing. There are very basic huts all over it and people in patched up leather roaming about. It looks like a primitive village. I’ve heard about places like this, caught in a timewarp of their own cultural reticence. I had never seen one because … well, my travels in the past never took me near one. That’s not quite where I had been needed. But now …
Reed did mention it was a tribal community, I just didn’t realize it was this tribal. I look around in true fascination, all my senses suddenly alert.
It’s not unusual for people to reject technology and form communities like this. After having seen first hand some of the worst excesses of the ‘civilized’ world a desire to escape from civilization is something I totally get. But there usually is still some civilization present. Some amenities that spell out progress. That is not what’s going on here.
We are spotted by a bunch of kids and are instantly surrounded. They seem friendly and not scared at all. We keep moving towards the largest building to see if we can find their leader and talk to him. I am already thinking what it is we have that might be of value to them.
“Is someone in charge here?”
Wherever I ask the question I am met with blank stares.
“Do they even understand us?”
“It’s standard GX Dialect”, says Reed finally. I have been watching him out of the corner of my eye as he’s been looking at his own information, running scans. I am waiting for something useful from him. “- They should be able to understand us”. He says finally.
The children that had surrounded has had communicated in words I didn’t understand. But then again children are often taught cultural artefact languages in the hope of keeping traditions alive. As a child I remember being made to speak in Tolarian. My tongue twisting around the phonetic acrobatics it required. Parents continue to visit upon their children whatever hang-ups they might have themselves, perpetuating the suffering of the past well into the future. The thought momentarily makes me smile and then I am jolted back to the present.
“There is a large structure just ahead, behind those trees, says Reed. He is directly reading off whatever map is rolling around inside his head. It should be the center of their government.”
He’s using the term in its generic form. I wonder what sort of form leadership takes in this place. Probably oligarchical. Patriarchal or matriarchal. Some sort of rite of passage that is the vehicle via which power and the right to lead is transferred. The thoughts help me structure my approach. I catch the Regulators exchange a quick glance with each other.
“Let’s go. I say and this time I reach out and grab Sam and Raynar and push them ahead of me. Sam stumbles but catches herself, bumps into her partner who grunts in surprise.”
I get the sense they know something I need to know and, Regulator training manual material, they are withholding it hoping for an advantage. Something to help them escape.
Reed’s map reading takes us outside the village, past thick trees and along a path we would never have found without guidance. In a clearing that’s evidently maintained at great physical cost stands a pyramidal structure.
Steps cut into the wood and stone it’s made of lead to an opening at its very top. Talk about a throwback. I have visions of old Technicolor movies from the 20th century. Ancient explorers coming upon natives hidden deep in Terran jungles. This place is an anachronism in ways that I have never met before.
We make our way up the steps. The Regulators in front of me. Everyone else trailing behind.
There are 357 steps to the top. I count them as I take in the details around us. The jungle around the structure is thick, impenetrable almost yet eerily silent. It bugs me. The number of steps bugs me. I am about to ask Reed to check for their significance, see if there is something we are missing here when there is movement at the very top of the structure and a man emerges.
He’s dressed in the same patched up leather as the people we met at the village behind but he’s wearing a necklace made of stone and in his left hand he’s holding a spear. I twitch a little at the sight of it. The Regulators stop dead in their tracks. I bring up my hand stopping everyone else behind me so we don’t bump into each other.
“Strangers.” The man says.
He’s using standard GX Dialect. Part of my brain recalls the training I’ve had. Galactic Exchange is a standard language used across the Terran Universe. It is based upon English with a simplified, utilitarian structure that takes the romance out of it. The running joke used to be that it’s great for negotiating a treaty but impossible to use if you’re trying to establish a relationship with someone which meant that most probably the all-mighty empire builders rising out of old Terra might have been great diplomats but piss-poor human beings.
“Hi.” I say back. “Are you the man in charge?”
“I am Nedlom, son of Meldom and leader of this city.”
Okayyy. The village is a ‘city’ and there is a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to naming children but apart from that everything else is as one would expect in a place like this. The succession line in the name is also an artefact. Without bio IDs how can you establish any kind of credible presence?
“I am Sef, I say. We landed on your planet out of necessity. We need some help.”
He lets my words sink in before he nods. Then, with a grand gesture he motions for us to follow him inside.
The inside of the structure is hollow. Huge. Dark. There are torches selectively placed here and there but their light almost doesn’t make it to our eyes. There is a large fire pit in the middle of the structure and something suspended above it. Smoke is rising from it. Incense. Great.
There are people gathered around the fire pit. A lot of them. Mostly men but also some women. They are standing still looking up at us as we follow Nedlom down a series of zig-zagging steps that are designed to take us to the bottom of the structure.
It strikes me as odd. We had to ascend, from the outside. Enter at the very top and inside we have to descend, in stages, heading for the bottom.
“Basic religious ritual structure.” - Reed says almost reading my thoughts. He’s been scanning a database. The ascend from the outside is cleansing. There were 357 steps. “The numbers 3, 5 and 7 come out of old Terra’s Egyptian past. They stand for Plurality, Death or Punishment and Perfection or Completeness.”
“And the descend?”
“That’s unstructured. There is no logic to the number of steps we are going down on and each set stops at a landing that takes us to the beginning of another set of steps. I suspect it’s just the descend that matters not the steps.”
“Descend into what?”
Sam, the Regulator, turns around, looks at me, almost as if to say something but Raynar throws her a look that stops her. The girl has been walking behind us, bringing up the rear all this time. Now she speaks up.
“This is really primitive. These people still worship some sort of local god.”
“What?” I hiss. This is knowledge I can use in my negotiations with their leader.
“The steps, the set up. I-, my father made me study the ancient archives look at cultures from the past. Whenever you have conditions of extreme impoverishment and Patriarchal power structures you get some kind of convergence with superstitious beliefs that consolidate power. It helps that it requires blind obedience because accepting your leader is part of faith.”
“Great.” I whisper to her.
I realize that despite my extensive capabilities and skillset there are gaps in my knowledge that reflect my very precise role in the shall we say, more civilized part of the universe?
“Nedlom,” I say, and the leader halts his descend and turns to look at me.
“We need to talk. I need to explain the kind of help we need. What we can do for you in return.”
“In a minute.” He gestures towards the firepit at the bottom of the structure. “We talk there.”
He resumes his descend and we follow.
The root of any negotiation is based upon a mutual need. Both parties negotiate because each needs something in return. This makes any kind of talks like this a delicate thing. Give away what you want too quickly and the other party will re-adjust their position to take advantage of you. Fail to understand what is really important to those you negotiate with and you have no read on what they want, which means you are in no position to make a deal of any kind.
This is hard enough when it takes place in your own culture but across different cultures it becomes even more tricky.
We are at the bottom of the structure with Nedlom seated in what looks like a throne made out of animal bones and probably his entire tribe gathered in a tight circle around us.
The talk has been going on for an hour already during which we established that the village has almost everything it needs. Now ‘everything’ is a matter of perspective. So really I am probing to find what it is we can give them in return for the Xelium we need.
Nedlom, for all his projected majesty is actually not very well versed in the GX Dialect. He uses expressions that are warped versions of GX speech and I have to guess at what he really means. When I explain that we have scientific know-how that could materially benefit his village he motions towards someone at the very back of the crowd.
There is movement and a murmur and after some jostling someone is brought forward and thrown on the ground at our feet. It’s a woman. Short dark hair. Stout of body. Around middle aged. Dressed in standard Corporate Planetary Explorer uniform although it is now, more than just a little tattered. Her hands are tied behind her back but apart from that she appears to be unharmed.
“What is this?” I ask.
I see the Regulators exchange that glance again and my senses ramp up. It’s really hot near the fire pit. The smoke from the fire, the heat it gives off, the stupid incense plus the smells and heat from who knows how many unwashed bodies combines to dull your sense of the surroundings.
“This is Tessa.” Says Nedlom. “Our scientist.”
She was, it transpires, part of a much larger expeditionary force that came to this planet. It makes sense of course. A Xelium-rich planet cannot long be allowed to plot its own course.
“Where are the others?” I ask.
“Gone.” Says Nedlom gesturing towards the space above us with both arms.
The roof of the structure is lost in darkness, high above our heads. I can’t even make out the opening we came through. As a matter of fact my eyes can’t focus too well. The stupid heat and the smoke are affecting me.
“Gone?” I ask stupidly. Nedlom nods vigorously. Almost with glee. Tessa, on the ground still looks frozen.
“You want fuel”. Nedlom says, his eyes shining.
After such long time pussy-footing around everything it’s almost a relief.
“Yes”, I nod. “We can give you medicine in return. Solar generators for light and heat too.” I purposely do not offer weapons. I may not be a student of the Ancient Archives like Ellie but I understand human nature only too well. And I have a conscience, despite what others say about me.
“Medicine.” Nedlom repeats the word slowly. Unnecessarily. It’s almost like he is playing for time.
“What happened to your crew?” I ask Tessa in Corporate High Language.
“Dead”. Is her monosyllabic reply.
Negotiations are a puzzle. You take elements that you possess. Let’s call that knowledge. And you add everything that you know. Let’s call that memory and then you filter everything through the dynamic of two parties interacting. Circling around something. That is context. Context changes everything.
I see Sam, the Regulator, finally looking straight at me. Her eyes a plea or a warning. Tessa is still on the ground. Hands tied behind her back. Head bowed in submission. The primitive village’s tamed scientist.
Ellia and Reed are oddly silent. A little glassy eyed. The heat and the smoke. The incense. The incense! And part of me mines a memory of such a long time ago. The setting white, clinical. A whole line of wire-framed skeletons placed in a row in front of us. I am part of a group. Students learning deadly skills. Expert instructors advising us of the best way to break human bones, apply sudden, explosive pressure that damages the skeleton of another person. The bones are clean, white. High-molded for perfection and modelled precisely on human bone tolerances.
Their contours exact matches for the human counterpart. Their shape and size adjusted for imperfections and dirt. My mind maps, on its own now, the bones of the throne Nedlom is seated on.
At that moment Tessa looks up at me. The incense! What are they putting in the incense? Nedlom smiles at me and nods as if he knows we have reached a critical point in our negotiations. I regulate my breath. Notice the Regulators appear to be doing that also.
The firepit. The cauldron above it. I recognize it now for what it is. I am not yet completely affected by the incense. The Regulators are trained to resist it too, but even they have limits. Ellie and Reed are too far gone I guess. I will need to drag them along. We shall have to grab Tessa too.
“Cannibals”. I whisper to no one in particular but Tessa reads my lips. She lets out a small whimper.
From a pocket I take out a small heat charge. It’s blaster-based and intended to create a loud disorientating bang. The thing is I cannot use it without affecting us too. All of us.
“On the ship”, I say, “we have a problem with noise. Every time the engine overheats there is a whining noise that comes from it. It really hurts our ears. It is almost redzone deafening.”
The Regulators perk up. Redzone is the signal for danger alert. They both nod they understand. I have no time to check if everyone else is on board. We may, quite literally, be out of time. I flick my wrist and throw the charge in the fire pit. I squat down and cover my ears with both hands. The Regulators and even Reed do the same. Tessa, can’t. Her hands are tied behind her back. She takes a deep, deep breath and tightens her abdominal muscles elevating her internal fluid pressure. It’s a good tactic. Not as effective as covering your ears and shutting your eyes but it helps.
Ellie is the only one who doesn’t respond. She has no real concept of what is going on.
The heat charge explodes. There is a deafening bang followed by the familiar push of the pressure wave against the skin. To the unprepared it is like a kick has been placed in the center of their body from the inside. Their eyes go momentarily blind as the ultra-white flash of the charge sears their retina, overloads its capacity to deal with light and momentarily depletes the body’s capacity for vision. Their ears give in to the pressure wave. The ringing that follows induces vertigo and vomiting. For large crowd incapacitation there is nothing like a heat charge.
I grab Ellie as she’s about to faint. I have no desire to lose her at this stage. I mention for Reed to grab Tessa and set her free. The Regulators are already balancing on the balls of their feet, ready for action.
“Run!” I yell.
And we’re off and running. Nedlom, blown off his human bones throne is crawling around on his hands and knees in the dark. Helpless as a kitten. Someone, from the very back of the throng where the heat charge would have done the least damage, throws at us a spear. It’s guesswork where we are exactly. It misses all of us but finds its mark in someone who’s also crawling on hands and knees, striking him in the lower back and pinning him to the floor like a butterfly.
He gives a loud howl and then lies still.
“Run! Run!” I am pointing towards the series of steps leading to the very top of the structure and the steps that are outside.
We shall have to run all the way to our ship. Blaster in hand. Preying I do not have to use it. I watch as everyone starts climbing at top speed. I follow behind. Ellie’s dead weight on my shoulder, lungs burning and legs screaming with pain.
We escape. Barely. Without having to kill anyone. A fluke.
Later, as we are floating through space and in the relative safety of our ship I have time to recount what happened. It was ignorance that blinded us to begin with.
Cannibals are not the kind of thing you expect to meet these days, though the signs should have tipped us off. A mining planet with no miners, off most trade routes and with people living in a time bubble worshipping some kind of local god king.
It’s the kind of memory that makes for a great bar story, provided we survive our current predicament and still manage to find a decent bar at some point in the future.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I address the two Regulators.
They don’t want to meet my eyes.
“We weren’t sure.” Sam offers eventually. “There are stories but, you know, they’re just stories.”
I get that.
“How’s Ellie?” I ask Reed.
“She needs a doctor,” I nod. One problem at a time. I turn to Tessa. She’s been quietly watching us throughout all this.
“Well, what’s your story?”