by E rose
The social rules and politics are complex on a frontier planet where criminals are exiled.
Imprisoned persons for serious crimes had always been used in the process of settling new worlds, specifically the stage referred to as "initial settlement". Although it might seem counterintuitive to send what people perceived to be the "aggressive personality types" to bring life to these barren planets; they were actually particularly suited. On every level of the crime hierarchy were prisoners with skills that equipped them for facing tough conditions. Thieves, used to being sly and thinking on their feet, made innovative adaptations. The miscreants and wardens who had only ever known hand to mouth life on the street, found them selves in an only slightly dissimilar squalor. Perpetrators of organized crime, as well as terrorism and corporate corruption, were elemental in, regardless of the means, possessing the discipline and leadership skills needed to from an infrastructure.
Infrastructure is a key word here.
The original idea was similar to the early 19th century practice of leaving a condemned sailor on a deserted island (along with a pistol and a single bullet as the stories go), but on a galactic level. However, if enough of the condemned were stranded on the metaphorical island, they would eventually interact to survive. As time progressed ragtag communities would be formed (transitioning from anarchy to what was referred to as the "Wild West" stage of development). As coordination improved, structures would be built, and towns constructed. Those convicted with labor experience would eventually develop systems of agriculture and basic industry (deemed the "self-sustainability phase").
And despite the rough around the edges aesthetics, and lack of usual creature comforts, a decent standard of living would develop among these towns and cities of defunct outlaws. Infrastructure.
It was at this point that the federation would swoop in, load them back on transport vessels and take them on to the next world in progress. The "translocation and appropriation phase".
Depending on the planets intended usage, new settlers were usually moved directly into the prisoner's old dwellings; filling the farms and factories without a delay in production. Occasionally a sort of crew would be brought in to improve the shoddy construction, paint some walls, fix carpentry; making shanty towns into houses for upper class immigrants. The sloppy cities more slowly converted to shiny metropolises for the most financially elite.
For the corporations conducting settling and production operations, the settlers, and general expansion of human presence in the cosmos, this all was quite well. The prisoners were really screwed if they came in the early stages of initial settlement, or happened to arrive only to be shuffled off to spanking new wilderness during translocation. As the whole initial settlement process could take a century or two, there was a sweet spot where forlorn convicts arriving could experience an appreciable amount of stability, even obtaining prosperity, if they had the stuff to make their way in the still unarguably dog eat dog society built by criminals.
The four-step process for Initial settlement, the nomadic-anarchy stage, the wild west stage, the self-sustaining stage, and the translocation and appropriation stage, had been the plan in store for Beta six, a large mostly temperate planet located in a particularly isolated region despite being in the center of federation space. But the planet's history took quite a turn, breaking off from the corporate plans.
Through a serious of miscalculations, including an underestimate of criminal ingenuity; the planet was able to gain a sort of local autonomy. The federation still managed to turn this into an advantage, giving them an opportunity to get rid of a more troublesome criminal population, not suitable for initial settlement programs, while leaving whatever autonomous body on the planet largely undisturbed.
Calling it a "jail planet" would be a first impression, but it would in actuality likely differ from most peoples preconceived images conjured from popular sci-fi. The planet itself was a confinement, but it was in no way a penitentiary. It was rather more like dumping ground for exiles, and a stage for street justice. "Let the wicked destroy themselves through their vice," could said to be the planets slogan; with the small addition of "somewhere far away where no one else has to deal with them". Regardless, the planet was referred to as Djok, an alien word for hell, since one was sent there for his crimes, and there was no way to get back up.
Jena (pronounced like ch-en-a) wholly disliked visiting the office of the watcher. There was nothing she could do to stop him from checking her out, and she hated that he would derive pleasure from her presence against her will. But her presence was required.
She kept her gaze down as the door slid and she entered the room, what would be a perfect metal cube if not for the grime and garbage making the corners seem like curves and peninsulas protruding into the room. "Sup tubby" she asked halfheartedly as she lay the file down on his desk. They had long since disbanded with the mocking remarks, and witty asides, in attempt to form an at least an interesting if not saccharine working relationship. He looked her up and down then grunted, looked at the file she had placed on her desk, and then began to search for something in a box behind him. She waited while he rifled through junk for half a minute before pulling out an open bag of potato chips. She stood with growing impatience as he inspected the expiration date, then drove his hand elbow deep into the bag, pulling out a jumble of green tubes which he began to inhale unceremoniously.
She cleared her throat and he looked up slowly searching for the sound of the noise. She wasn't sure whether his attention span was really that short or if he was purposely trying to antagonize her. She also half suspected the green french-fries he was engulfing were some kind of narcotic. How did I get to this shithole she wondered.
She saw the little light bulb go on as he processed that she wouldn't leave until he had performed his task, the monumental duty of pushing a button on his desk. She recognized his second of hesitation, probably considering the opportunity to harass her, but then glancing back at the bag of chips and choosing the later. He pressed a button, just the one F-17, for her designated storage unit. She would now have access to the equipment stored in the bay on the floor below.
"Anything I should know?" She asked. The watcher grunted and shifted around in his chair.
"Usual equipment updates," his raspy voice was so low Jena had to strain to hear, "a special armor piece, it's stronger but sub-dermal so more painful obviously. The real pain is more practical than feigning not having the armor, but you won't have to worry about actual tissue damage."
He drifted for a second looking at something very distant in the ceiling. The drugs kicking in?
"There should be some maps. Some changes in territory. One of the newer factions got the idea of trying to take over a drop-in point; exclusive rights to recruit new arrivers, you know. Their region is isolated so there hasn't been much conflict, and it's distant from where I can guess you'll be going," a snicker "but it's made all the factions tense, so heads up for a little heat." He stared up at the ceiling again. And he probably continued to for some time after she had departed.
A large ship circled just around the upper atmosphere, shooting out large orbs at precisely calculated trajectories. The orbs would burn, loosing some of there outer layer as they spun inward toward the planet surface. Little drones shot out of the layers as they were burned off, being launched perpendicular to the fall by the force of the orbs inertia. The orb would eventually burn up completely but the drones glided smoothly to the lower strata dropping off what looked like porto-potties, which subsequently deployed parachutes and slowly drifted towards the surface. Something like a magnet attached to the bottom of the porto-potty ensured that it met its docking location at the "drop-in point". Each porto-potty contained one humanoid life form (none exactly human as you or I would know them but for the most part pretty similar). The survival rate for initial drop in was 96%, up from 92% observed in a survey conducted ten years previously.
Harry reflected on what had lead him to end up in this metal box falling from the sky.
He couldn't deny his guilt, but it had started benign enough. It had been his first year in the military, especially during training, when the rucksacks were tough, and sleep was limited. You could be exercising one minute, and then the next: bed time, be up in six hours. Even if he found a way to relax, meditate, or read a book as he usually did, it was taking away from crucial sleep time, which effected his performance during the day.
Then he spoke to the unit's medic. He always found the dude kind of sleazy, but knew he was dependable. When he told the medic he was having sleep problems, he just nodded without really asking any questions or giving advice. Harry thought he's going to give me some classic "army toughen up" response. The classic army joke went if you were bleeding out the medic would tell you "just drink some water; stay hydrated". But to Harry's surprise the medic whipped out a prescription pad and started writing something. He ripped off the slip and handed it to harry, who grasped it, but the medic didn't let go of the slip. Instead he kind of pulled and leaned in towards Harry's ear.
"Listen" he said "this is a script for trazopam, but it's basically just some vitamins. Not that I'm knocking that holistic stuff. But if you take it to one of the pharmacist around here, show them a piece of paper with some scribbles, they'll give you pretty much anything if your paying in federation credits."
He looked at him for a second to see if Harry got his meaning, it took Harry a moment to realize what he medic was suggesting. Perhaps my sleazy judgment had been right, this does seem a little sketchy, he thought. But at the same time, he was thankful, I mean this is what I came in here hoping to get. Harry took the script and putting it into his pocket smiled and clapped the medic on the back. "Ask for Trivolium, it should knock you out without leaving you groggy when you wake up" and he gave harry a wink.
Trivolium worked like a charm, all throughout his service. And after his service. When he got back to college he could be jittery from drinking coffee while studying but a trivolium tab and ten minutes later he was puffing Zs and waking up refreshed. And this went on after he got his degree, throughout graduated school up until he was ready to start working. Then I got fucked.
Harry eventually excepted the fact that he was somewhat dependent on the medication, without it his sleep was terrible if he slept at all. But he definitely wasn't addicted; he took one pill every night, No more, no less. And it was for a legitimate practical purpose. However, it wasn't exactly legal, and law enforcement was a bit stricter in some places then in the backwash country he had been on tour in.
Harry was also very economical and considering the fact that he didn't much like consorting with the types of people who arranged these things, it seemed logical to buy in bulk. Which is how he got busted at his yearly restock, purchasing about 400 pills, dead to rights with "obvious intention to deal".
Now on his home planet this would have been considered a felony, and he probably would have served some jail time, maybe even rehab. After serving two years he'd be branded with the criminal record that would limit his job options. He'd have to deal with the shame of facing his family. But now he wished that was his situation. Unfortunately, he hadn't been arrested on his home planet. That faithful galactic solstice he'd just been starting an internship engineering a new medical facility on Galato, a Burnaise colony in the Tudor sector. The Burnaise had just a few years before, at the stern encouragement of the federation council, disbanded with their capital punishment in favor of "exile" on Djok.
And now so harry found himself plummeting down to hell.
He felt super claustrophobic, but at the same time if there had been windows, he wasn't sure he would want to see what was occurring outside during his ascent. He had been given some kind of sedative, so he was only mildly aware of the 10G spin he had experienced but had been fully awake toward the end of the 800 meter fall before the parachutes let out and caught. It seemed a very short time till there was a metallic thump and he ascertained that his container was no longer moving.
Jena waited impatiently while the pod confirmed its grounded status and began the speech she had heard too many times before.
"Prisoner Z^3.2, you have successfully landed on the planet federation designation beta six, please listen closely to the following instructions.
Upon entering the planets territory, you have left federation jurisdiction. You are the liability of no established government. Your exile and subsequent isolation will serve as punishment for crimes committed. Any attempts to leave the planet are impossible, but if accomplished will be met with fatality."
Only once or twice in the history of the planet had someone tried to launch off and successfully left the atmosphere (as far as anyone knew). But Jenna was aware of the protection grid around the planet that would shoot anything down on sight: this wasn't the doing of the Watchers but part of an automated system that had been set up long ago.
"The following briefing has been prepared for your well being, based on information available concerning the planet:
The drop off zone you will be released in will likely be heavily populated. It is speculated there will be opportunities for work, a means of livelihood and continued survival. Note that you will be among dangerous individuals; your safety is your own responsibility. It is also indicated that the planet is divided into territorial divisions. The state of these divisions and their relationships are unknown. You may be in a conflict zone or enter a conflict zone if you travel from the drop off point."
In fact, she had chosen this specific drop off point because it was just in between the front of two conflict zones; still neutral, but on the verge of falling into the hands of a feudal lord. It was also one of the largest. The confusion caused by the tense situation among the congested population would be well suited for the stealth of her mission.
"You have been provided with certain provisions:
You will keep your uniform.
On your right forearm you will find your designation and resume. This may assist you in providing for yourself.
You have been given two sub-dermal capsules. They will provide you with liquid and nutrients for up to two weeks. You may still experience hunger pains, but you will not die. After this you will be responsible for your own needs."
The tattoo on Jena's right arm said her name and a list of previous employment. It claimed she had been a mechanic at a large industrial bakery. This was of course, factitious, but she knew how to play the part. She liked this job because it was generic enough to be applicable in almost any situation, especially when most people where unsure what being a mechanic at a bakery entailed. The resume had to be tattooed on, of course, so no one could steal it.
"Although the federation has no bearing on your treatment henceforth, it is desired that you should live and be able to reflect on your misdeeds. If you feel remorse, you may one day come to terms with it. It is suggested that your most immediate concern, however, be survival. Accept your sentence and obtain peace."
This last part had taken some time for a committee of mixed psychologists and theologians to come up with. The pod hissed as it opened, and she shielded her eyes from the sunlight.
6. Red and Blue
Harry looked down at his arms and then up at his surroundings. The pod had released him on the edge of a large city. Now this wasn't the edge of a city like your leaving the suburbs driving into Chicago, there was a literal dessert behind him, with no discernable structures. In front of him, jumbled stalls started abruptly, converging into larger buildings that he couldn't see past.
He paced around for a few minutes having a mild panic attack. Calm down, he told himself, its just like wilderness training in the army. He pushed down the thoughts of never seeing home again, that his life as he knew it was over. I am smart and resourceful, I will be able to survive. I will be able to establish myself. It's not like wilderness training. Look there are buildings. The computer thing said I could get a job. I can still get a job and live in a house or an apartment, just like on Earth.
He looked back down at his forearm, it read:
HARRY KIM - Z^1.315
EMPLOYMENT- ENGINEER/ MINING PLANT
VETERAN - RANK LUITENANT
It seemed dismally short compared to the C.V. he had written when applying to jobs after college; highlighting his experiences that made him stand out as a candidate. When he thought about it, this was a comical metaphor of what he had experienced after graduation, being thrown out into the world with nothing but a degree to vouge for him. At least he wouldn't have to worry about student debts this time.
He wandered toward the buildings. Before long, he was surrounded by stalls of peddlers selling goods. It reminded him of the markets he had seen in the middle east. Sand and dirt roads, stalls made of scrap metal and sheets. The peddlers eyed him suspiciously, some were fingering knives or clubs. They didn't want to haggle with him; they knew he had no money, just a warning that he wouldn't be allowed to take anything. He wondered what other prisoners where like coming in, realizing the vendors themselves could be dangerous murderers, that they might have walked out of a pod just like him. Or maybe they were born here? But having grown up in such a place might make them even more dangerous. He was then glad that he had been dropped off without any possessions, he thought about the computer's warning. In his initial disorientation he would surely have been killed or at least had his things taken by force. No honor among thieves, he said to himself.
As he walked further into the market the street became more crowded. The vendors he had first glimpsed had been old wrinkled but hard; the people here were younger, surly muscular looking types. Scars were more abundant than the tattoos which painted the scene. He saw one man with a cart bump into another, and the man who had been shoved immediately lashed out, hammering the man with cart in the face. But it was like a nonoccurrence. After giving the man with the cart a quick glance, the jabber continued his way like nothing had happened; his expression blank. The man with cart recovered, brushed himself off, and continued down the road without even looking back at the man who had hit him. Harry paused for a moment and wondered if a degree would really be worth anything in such a hostile environment, but he started moving again quickly so as not to disrupt the flow of pedestrians, lest he himself get punched for bumping into someone.
It had been a while since he had taken boxing lessons, but he had kept up with martial arts for some time after getting out of the army. The army had trained him in some hand to hand combat, and he learned to box and spar as well as handle knives at a mixed martial art studio during college. He wondered how well his sparing techniques would hold up in a fight here. Would he be able to defend himself? Or will resisting an attack just get me more hurt... if that man with the cart had responded to other guy, a real fight might have started. The jabber's response had been purely reactionary, he didn't know the man with the carts intentions. When he realized it was a mistake he moved on. Maybe this was indicative of some kind of social code, stopping frequent altercations from escalating. Regardless he recalled one of his boxing teachers telling him "the most important part of the fight is to be aware of your space and keep a proper distance from the opponent". Keeping some distance between himself and any of these people around him was probably a wise course of action.
So, he continued down the street wondering what to do next. He didn't see any help wanted signs.
He was entering what might be called a town square, an intersection of a few roads, circled by vendors with a clearing in the middle, when he noticed a group of three men, moving towards him. From a distance he could see they were all wearing a distinct garb of a faded red color, though each had various pieces of... armor. Armor? Harry wondered as he had never seen such metal contraptions outside of a museum. One man had a full breastplate, while another had metal shoulder guards, and the third had only some kind of metal guard on one of his forearms. The bunch moved in stride and pedestrians moved out of the way as they beelined towards him. He tensed up as they approached unsure of what to do. Maybe these are police, they can see I'm still wearing a prison uniform, will they detain me? He had so far seen people in various drab but none walking around wearing the bright colored prison uniform. It was clear he was a new arrival.
Should I run? He thought. He looked behind him and his heart skipped a beat as he noticed another distinct group of men was approaching from behind him. These wore a faded blue color and similar mixed metal protection. But definitely different... was he about to be in the middle of some sort of gang war? He froze as the two groups coalesced around him.
The three men stood in a line before him, and the other group of four in a line to his other side. The two groups stared each other down, almost ignoring him. His fear waned as he realized this was not a combative situation. The men were armed with what appeared to be swords but were not touching them, and the crowd around their little bubble was moving on as if nothing were occurring. He could tell 'shit was not about to go down', and started to feel a little awkward standing in between the two groups of men when one of them spoke:
"New import, the Gradek Clan would like to consider you for conscription or employment, please show your resume."
Is he referring to me as an import? Harry stared at him.
"Show us your arm." the man in red pointed at Harry's tattoo. There's no point in resisting, he thought.
He held out his arm and the man in red came over to look at it. He proclaimed out loud:
"Engineer with experience. Military veteran." And then addressing Harry, "what planet are you from?"
"Earth" Harry replied. The man in red looked up towards a man in blue who had approached from the group of four. He too looked at Harry's arm and began:
"I represent the Djok Empire under the rule of Raynar. If you can prove your skill in engineering, we are prepared to give you salary sufficient for food and board. However, you seem to be in good physical shape for a new import, and have military experience. If you wish to conscript, you could live considerably more comfortably." He paused for a moment in thought, "You might also be able to practice your engineering skills in a tactical context; this could earn you an even higher wage, but you would need to first come to our territory and have your aptitude evaluated."
They stared at Harry, he realized that was the end of the men's proclamations and they expected an answer.
"Do I have a choice?" Harry asked.
The man in red responded:
"The Gradek Clan is prepared to give you a similar offer. But you do not have to come to either the Clan or to the Raynar," he motioned to the men in blue, "and we will not hassle you. However, I will tell you that it is hard to begin a living without joining a faction. You could begin medial work here, but it is a meager living. Once a person acquires a work or saves enough to open his own establishment they can only reside for a few years before they are forced out of prime space by someone younger and stronger. You have probably seen how the vendors grow week and haggard as you approach the edges of the town." He pointed in the direction harry had traveled from the pod, and continued:
"Most people choose to join a faction. The term of service is not permanent and those who are wise save money and find their desired livelihood after their term. Residing in a territory under the control of a faction you will have stability: there is an order that is enforced by the faction. Although unlike the laws and authority on earth, you will have the safety of a system that punishes those who don't adhere to clan law. Subsequently as a member of the faction you will have a measure of security for your life and your possessions." The man seemed to be giving genuine advice, but his speech had clearly been rehearsed many times:
"There are more factions that are recruiting here, but I will tell you that the Clan and the Reynar have the most power in this region. If you decide to join another faction you may have to travel far to their territory, and will likely receive much less benefits and security."
The man in blue spoke:
"You are obviously a smart man and I can see by your careful consideration that you are in your right mind. Whatever grievous crimes you have committed can be put behind you and you can make a new life for yourself in the Empire."
"I too can see you are intelligent, as is evident by your degree," said the man in red "it would be more prudent to join the Clan. The life in our territory is better, and there is a Clan doctrine that is shared among our people. You will see that not all here are criminals; people have lived here for hundreds of years, there are families and communities. I will tell you that the Empire does not hold its citizen's in such high regard. They also do not value new imports. They will likely shovel you into a dangerous military position and then use you as cannon fodder."
"Ridiculous" sneered the blue man, "the territory of the Empire has unprecedented peace, the clan of Gradek is only one among many and they are constantly fighting. Moreover, give heed to this clan doctrine of which they speak. They will brain wash you into being a member of their cult. As part of the Empire you certainly have security but will still be an individual."
Harry began to speak "I'm not sure I.." but was interrupted by the red man.
"You are not expected to decide right now. This recruitment greeting has somewhat of a formal structure. Since I have been the first to insult Reynar, the Empire can be the first to provide you with a gift, and we will choose also to give you a gift."
Harry was dumbfounded. Where they about to give him a pair of cheesy plastic sunglasses with 'Djok Empire' printed on the side?
What happened was even more surprising.
One man from the blue group approached and handed him a blue garment, along with a few coins.
The first man in blue spoke again:
"These coins will buy you a good meal, a room and some drink, but they are very dangerous here. I would put on that blue uniform right away: No one will rob you if you are wearing the colors of the empire. Enjoy yourself and when you are finished come back to this square and find us. The trip to our territory is a little under a day with our transportation." He sneered at the man in red as he backed away. Obviously, he found his gift a very persuasive bribe.
The man in red who had been speaking to Harry reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. The man in blue actually gasped. Until then everything had been very rehearsed, this was obviously something unexpected. Is he going to attack me?
He handed the knife to Harry hilt first, smiling at the man in blue as he did so.
"I recommend you use the money the Empire has given you as they suggest, but do not done their garb. Nor will we give you ours. If you are fit to join the Clan you will be able to defend what is yours. If you can survive here by either strength or ingenuity come find me in this square when you are ready. We hope this knife will be of assistance."
And saying this the two groups of men glared at each other one last time before receding back into the crowd in their respective directions.
Harry didn't hesitate. Clutching the coins the clothes and the knife he bolted into the nearest awning he saw.
Reynar scanned the faces around the table while he listened to the words of his general. He held this meeting for all his closest advisers on a daily basis for two reasons. First, he demanded to know the details of everything that occurred within and out of the empire. Second, he highly mistrusted his advisers and dared not let them out of his sight for too long. What schemes might the general concoct if he were given a full day unsupervised? What funds might his treasurer usurp if left un-watched? Even his head of security, who stood behind him at the table he did not trust. For this reason, he had personally chosen a security guard to protect his head of security, so that the head of security could be disposed of if he was ever suspected of conspiracy.
The only person he did trust was not present but was certainly observing from some small crevice. Or perhaps he was disguised as one of the servants that lined the walls of the chamber. Either way having Ostro at hand put him at ease for nothing could occur which Ostro would not know about, and he was unfailingly loyal.
The generals report was much the same as the previous day. As the boarders of his empire expanded, more problems arose. The citizens of the previous Union faction on the northern boarder that had recently been absorbed were having problems adjusting to the Empires military structure. Their fraction had run on a sort of class system, with longer established families (those whose ancestors had arrived earlier) staking claims on larger portions of land. He couldn't allow them to keep their self-proclaimed titles of nobility, but instead was trying to make a smooth transition by giving them military positions of comparable esteem. Nevertheless, they still resented being made subordinate, and were not cooperating fully in the effort to assimilate. He decided then that he would bring some of their patriarchs to the capitol, effectively holding them hostage, under the rouse of making them ambassadors.
On the eastern border, the faction called Duras was falling apart just has planned. Reynar felt genuinely bad about the dissolution of this particular faction. Being distant from any of the drop points only those imports that were really motivated to continue normal lives would make there way up there. It was the closest thing to an Edan the planet had. The stable republic government with the power to uphold law, in combination with the driven imports that were its founders, had lead to prosperity. But such a system, even the existence of this alternate way of life on the planet, was a threat to his rule. To take down this enemy he had sent spies to infiltrate their society and begin distributing a highly addictive narcotic. A year later and eighty percent of their population were addicts, begging for the help of Reynar who was the sole supplier of the drug. Their functionality in shambles, the faction would soon disband leaving a void for his Empire to fill.
And then there were the clans in the west. The clans were strong and the dessert created somewhat of a buffer zone between the two boarders. But this area was also littered with Drop off zones. Letting the clans get control of any of these would give them exclusive access to new recruits, an upper hand which he had to prevent. A few struggles had already been fought between his forces and the Gradek Clan, with losses on both sides. He knew the conflict would soon escalate to full out war (he would certainly make it so) and he would be prepared.
But all of this was child's play, the factions small pieces on a game board. He knew each piece, and he knew the board, but he did not know the other players: the corporations, the federation. Most people could not fathom, but he was privy to the secrets of their involvement in the planets development. And as much as his spies could tell him, and even with Ostro nearby, he could not shake his unease of the Watchers; constantly monitoring, knowing his every move, asserting themselves in the smallest undetectable ways with cascading consequences. But the day would come when he would triumph over them too. It is all in the plan. This is my game.
He caught a glimpse of a smirk on the face of a servant watering a plant on the far end of the chamber. Ostro. Even this small gesture was enough for Reynar to recognize him. He would only reveal himself if he has something important to tell me.
The general finished his update, ending with the brief note of reports that the nomads to the south had been making trades with empire outposts on the far edge of the boarder. This was something new and most unusual. The south was a frigid tundra and the nomads were mostly composed of those imports that were too mentally unstable to reside within large groups or follow order of any kind. These types ended up being forced from region to region, and if they were strong enough to survive the trek, were eventually expelled to the frozen dessert. Not much was known of them, but the coordinated effort, and social interaction involved in trading was highly atypical. Reynar's interest was piqued but he was much more anxious to hear what Ostro might have to tell him, so he disbanded the meeting at this point; congratulating each adviser in turn for his excellent work and devotion that day. Then he ordered everyone out of the room.
The servant that had been watering the plant had placed down his earn and walked out a door to a balcony a short time before. Once the room had cleared the Emperor followed. The sun was at its apex and yet Ostro still managed to look shrouded in darkness, hovering in a small nook overcast by the shadow of the keep.
"What have you to tell me Ostro?" he whispered.
"The woman you call Jena has arrived."
This was news.
"How is this known? How many others know? Have you said this name to anyone else?"
"No, my liege, I have discerned her presence from her description alone. Two of my subordinates have this information, but it's nature is unknown to them and would seem insignificant among other assignments. She arrived yesterday at one of the drop zones past the western border, and was noticed at a tavern due to the distinctive scar on her chin."
Her sediment for this scar was something only Reynar was aware of; she had gotten it on indictment to a clan that had long since been disbanded. The process was arduous, and she was proud of it, so she would never remove it, even in the cosmetic alterations she underwent before coming to the surface.
"What may I ask, is her significance, my highness, if it is not to presumptuous."
"She carries a message for me Ostro. If I know her, I will probably find her sitting in my chambers in another day or so. She's not a threat, but please continue to discretely keep tabs on her"
The plan was already in motion and could not be stopped. He looked up at the sky. Are you watching me now?
8. Bar fight
His eyes adjusted to the dim light, it was some kind of bar or restaurant; maybe a saloon like in the old west films, except instead of polished wood the room seemed to be carved out of a cavern. The floor underfoot was wet and muddy earth which seemed odd indoors, the tables and chairs fashioned out of clay or stone. The sole light aside from the door was a low burning fire in a mantle on the back wall. Whatever the place was, it was it was dark and quiet, and the patrons were too absorbed in their food and drink to pay him attention. It seemed like a good enough place to sit and figure out a plan. He sat down at a vacant booth in the corner.
He considered his options and what the men had said to him. I definitely don't want to stay here. Constantly having to look over my shoulder. Being part of a faction or clan, or whatever they call it, sounds like it's the best move. They seemed to value his resume, and he decided he could trust them to watch his back to some extent if he joined them.
But which one? One man had said he represented 'The Empire of Reynar' and another the 'Gradek Clan'. Where there other clans that could be and option? Other empires even? He had no scope of the territory he was in, aside from the fact that the town was outside the borders of at least two factions. Some kind of neutral zone.
He considered the blue clothing that had been given to him. If he wore it he would be 'protected', but he wasn't sure what he was signing up for. No, I won't put on the clothes until I've made a decision, even if it means getting into a fight. He would have to adjust to the harsh reality sooner or later, and he could see that meant either taking or dishing out a beating.
He examined the knife. It was shaped like a tactical blade, the handle curved to fit grooves of one's fingers, the blade about three inches with one side blunt and the other sharpened. Together they curved towards a point. It was sheathed in a thin cloth hardened with some sort of residue. Although well crafted it seemed to be hand made, or hand forged? He had once seen a projection of knives being made in a factory by pouring molten steel into a mold. This was not factory made, he could tell by the irregularities in the metal. He imagined a blacksmith hammering on a hot bar of metal and shaping it into a sword. He had seen this in movies but was not sure if it was an accurate depiction.
He thought about the reaction of the man in blue, the Empire representative, when the man from Gradek Clan had given him the knife. He was clearly surprised. This must be an unusual gift. If so people won't expect me, dressed like a new prisoner (import they had called him), to have it. He could use this to his advantage.
He used the knife to make a small hole in his pants, by the side of his waist, and then cut off a strip of cloth from the bottom of one pant leg. He tied one end of the strip onto a hole in the knife's sheath and the other to the hole by his waist line. The knife could now hang on the inside of his pants and be concealed.
Next, he fingered the coins which had been folded into the blue cloth. They were roundish completely smooth metal with no markings. The metal itself they're made from must be worth something, he figured.
He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye.
He looked up and tensed as an old man came to stand next to the table.
"First day?" asked the old man. He was not giving a threatening pose. Still I shouldn't let my guard down. However, he could use someone to talk to; he needed more information.
"Yeah.. I just got landed about an hour ago."
"I've seen hundreds of prisoners with that fresh look, you'll have some scars in good time." This didn't sound like a threat but more like that worldly advice old timers like to give. Like something Harry's grandfather would say. Perhaps this guy just wanted to make conversation. Or another job offer in the works.
"Uhuh, yeah I'm kind of still figuring my way around. I actually was just offered membership to a faction, not a bad start, right?" He hoped to glean something from the others reaction.
"Not a bad way to start. I actually went the same path myself as youngen some time ago..." he trailed off.
Harry saw him glancing down at the blue garment folded up next to him, and jumped further into the booth just as the man swung his arm up, knife in hand. It would have been a stab to his lateral rib, as he was sitting side ways, but missing its intended target only scraped his shoulder. He kicked out from the booth and made contact with the old mans chest while he was still recovering from the swing. The knife dropped from his hands as he fell to the ground, hitting a nearby table on the way. Harry jumped up from the booth and grabbed the old mans knife before he could get up, but the old man didn't move. Shit is he dead? He stood for a moment looking at the man. He could be dead or faking unconsciousness. He waited about half a minute, and not seeing the mans chest rise and fall, leaned in and checked his pulse.
He was not dead but unconscious. His pulse was weak, and he could feel shallow breaths. The man also reeked of alcohol.
He thought he had been stealthy enough, but the man must have realized that with a blue garb he would also be carrying the gift of coins. He had played up the old timer routine to get Harry's guard down.
I didn't fall for it, he thought. But shit its only been 20 minutes, is everyone I see going to attack me? If the old man hadn't been drunk, been a little more subtle, been a little faster.. I would have gotten stabbed.
The other patrons were watching this happen and could now clearly discern what the old guy had figured out. He considered leaving for a second but then thought against it. It will be the same wherever I go, unless I put on the blue clothes. But he didn't want to yet.
It didn't seem like anyone else was going to give him trouble and were mainly concerned for their own safety. It was also clear he was now keyed up and holding a weapon, which they didn't know he'd had before. He slowly sat back down at the table. As he did so, he caught the eye of a woman sitting at the bar. She was attractive; ear length straight brown hair, dark skin, athletic body, and bright green eyes that were noticeable even at distance. But what really got his attention was that she was wearing a colorful prison uniform just like his.
She had been waiting for Vorik for hours now when the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps she would not have to haggle with the greedy son of a bitch after all.
A new import had just made a scene on the other side of the bar, revealing the Empire clothes he had been given, which were in fact exactly what she needed. Finishing her drink, she stood up and approached him.
She could see him tense up as she approached, and she put her hands up in a calming motion.
"Hey, I know you're a little on edge right now, but I'm not going to harass you. Look I'm a new import just like you, I have no weapons. I just want to talk." He looked skeptical.
Prudence had saved Harry a few minutes ago and he wasn't about to let his guard down for a second attempt, or even an attractive woman. In fact, despite her pleasing aesthetics, she looked even tougher than a lot of the men he had seen, bearing some old and distinctive scars on her face, arms, and knuckles.
"What could you want to talk to me about?" asked Harry.
"Actually," she gave him a coy smile "I was hoping you might be interested in bartering"
"All I really have is this knife, but I know you couldn't have anything to trade." He stated simply.
"Actually, it's that blue uniform I'm interested in. And, I have a well of valuable information I can give you. May I sit?" He looked intrigued and nodded at the seat opposite him.
Sitting down she said, "I'm Jena its nice to meet you."
"Harry." He said coldly and continued, "why do you want the uniform? And what kind of information is this?" He demanded.
She smiled. "Why I need the uniform is none of your business, but I can tell you it would be wise to get rid of it. Everyone who sees it will know you have the money gift, and will try to steel it. And what better way to dispose of the garment then giving it to me, with the benefit of more useful information." He gazed at her levelly, considering.
"How do you know I will not put it on?" he asked.
"Well first you've already been attacked once and still haven't donned it, so you're probably having some qualms about joining the empire. And this is my second piece of advice: don't. The Reynar is a despot and the empire is an erratic meritocracy. I will admit if you are devious and know how to manipulate people you could find yourself in a prosperous position. But there is also an unstable system of strictly enforced rules that might just as likely end you up in a forced labor camp, or on the front lines of a battle."
"What about the clans?"
"It takes a specific kind of character to buy into their doctrine, they value strength and honor, but you will have to endure some tough and dangerous trials to prove yourself. You won't be attacked and robbed in the way people are around here are, but you will be expected to fight to defend the clan once you're a member. It sounds harsh but overall, they are a good-natured people and their way of life is respectable in my opinion."
She thought for a moment.
"Most people choose the empire because of the recruitment benefits, and the promise of wealth and stature, over seemingly demanding induction of the Clan. But you seem driven, I noticed the words degree and veteran on your arm." She smiled again, with her most engaging effort.
"How do you know all this?" Harry asked, again suspicious.
"I'm not fresh off the pod, I've been here for a little while gathering information. I also have some old friends from before prison around who've been here some time already...
So, I think I have provided you with significant information. May I please have your blue garb now?"
Harry had been leaning towards the clan after the speech from the man in red, and some of the points Jena had made had further reinforce his confidence. I guess this is the point of no return.
He handed her the blue garb. It seemed odd giving away and item just for a snippet of advice, he hoped it was worth it.
Jena lingered staring at him. He was unsure what to say.
He is pretty cute, Jenna thought to herself. He seems like a nice enough guy, it would be to much out of my way to help him out a little. Also, he doesn't know what a big favor he just did me. With the Empire uniform she could now inconspicuously sneak into Reynar's territory.
"So." She broke the silence, "are you going to buy me a drink?"
Harry shuddered in surprise, "w-what?"
"You know you want to... and you might get some more useful information."
"Um, I'm trying to conserve my funds..."
"How about this, I know the owner of this inn (so it was an inn). I also know you have another knife on you. That one you took off the old man is blunt which I can see by the scratch on your shoulder, and won't do you much good in a fight. If I could talk it over with my friend I could probably negotiate a meal for us and some drinks, and even a room for tonight in exchange for the knife. You can keep your coins."
He wondered how she had recognized the concealed knife. Against his better judgment she seemed trustworthy for some reason. Maybe it was her composure, she lacked that desperation would that have been needed to go to such lengths just to con him for coins worth a few meals and a night of shelter.
"Ok, but don't try anything funny.' He said as she stood to go towards the barkeep. She pantomimed a curtsy and said "don't worry, ill behave as a model lady".
It dawned on him that she had said "a meal for US... and a room." Was she expecting to share a room with him? He was glad it had taken him a moment to notice this otherwise his cheeks might have turned red while she still sat across from him.