LOST COLONY CH. 08-4

“I’m glad you got picked up,” he said, pouring a glass for Sparr. “Jance and I both got the word out that you might need a lift.”

“Thank you. I’m not sure that the barge crew knew what to think of me and Bogg, but they got us here.” He sniffed at the wine, which carried a not unpleasant mineral scent.

“What did you find there?”

Sparr had prepared himself for exactly this question. He could neither speak plainly of two drones awakening and defending an ingot producing mine, nor convincingly explain the situation in supernatural terms.

“Let’s just say that Omm didn’t cast down all of the machines. There were a couple that hadn’t yet got the message.”

Ost chuckled, nodding his head as if Sparr’s explanation was exactly what he had expected. “So you, ah, introduced them to the faith?”

“If by ‘introduce’ you mean smashing them with a rock, yes.” He winked at Ost, hoping to keep the conversation light. He also wanted to change topics. “You’ve got quite a stockpile of lumber in here.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Ost said. His previous good humor slipped away, displaced by worry. He gestured toward a massive stack of logs occupying fully half of the warehouse. “Remember I told you about the eepay wood?”

Sparr remembered. Ost and Aine had journeyed to Caibo to seek new buyers for the exotic timber. “You said it was difficult to work with.”

“Yes, that, and it’s fiendishly heavy. We can float it downriver to Santi easily enough.” He glared at the pile of trunks as if they were a curse. “But it’s expensive to get it to Caibo, either by Wave or Stone.”

“Can you build ships with it?” Sparr had spotted several of the odd, round ships under construction near the docks.

“I asked Jance,” Ost said, “even gave him a pile of lumber to try.” Again Ost shook his head. “Says it’s too heavy for shipbuilding. Strong enough, but an entire ship would just about sink even before it was loaded.”

“Float it to Caibo then,” Sparr suggested.

“Can’t. Like I said, it’s just too heavy. We can get maybe two trunks on the largest barge, and that’s without any other cargo on board. We have to pay the fee for the entire journey.”

For a time the two men sat in companionable silence, sipping their wine and staring out across the warehouse floor. The mellow mid-day sun streamed in through slats high on the walls, catching the clouds of sawdust thrown into the air by the workers below. Teams of men and women were busy milling and stacking other varieties of trees, but the eepay sat untouched. An idea occurred to Sparr.

“The eepay can be the barge.”

Ost tugged himself back from whatever reverie had held him. “I’m sorry Alain, what?”

“Don’t pay someone to ship the timber on their barge. Make your own barge out of the eepay trunks. When you get to Caibo, disassemble it and sell the timber. I bet the mast, decking, and tillers could be made from eepay, too. You’d be floating on tokens.”

“Well, shit,” Ost muttered. He stared at Sparr for almost a full minute, then turned to the looming stack of logs, his lips moving soundlessly as he performed some sort of calculation. “The widest barge is maybe fifteen meters across. That would equal about twenty of the thickest logs. Another for the mast, say. I could move an entire season’s cuttings in one trip.” His eyes were wide, alive, the earlier worry dispelled.

“You think Jance could build it for you?” Sparr asked. The captain had mentioned constructing a new ship, but Sparr doubted he had already laid the hull.

“Sure, could be!” Ost grinned, turning once more to Sparr. “I suppose you want to be my business partner.”

“No,” Sparr said, “I have a different favor to ask.”

He emptied his pouch of tokens onto the desk.

***

Navigation/control panel mounting frame.

After feeding twenty fresh tokens into the fabricator, Sparr ended up with one new part. Ost had been perplexed with his request to exchange his few tokens for an equal number, but in the excitement of a solution to shipping his timber, had happily agreed to the trade. Sparr was one part closer to a working air car.

But Ost hadn’t been able to help with Sparr’s second request. When he had asked about employment he came away empty. Ost had been more than happy to offer employment, but none of the opportunities were promising. Sparr, Ost thought, might be able to journey to the inland timber camp to help both with hauling logs and providing security. It was work which Sparr wouldn’t have objected to, but it would take him away from Santi for up to six months at a stretch. He couldn’t abandon the fabricator site for more than a couple of days without risking someone else discovering it. Ost had also repeated his suggestion that Sparr help with rafting the wood to Caibo, but that journey would take several weeks.

And he needed employment. Ost himself kept few tokens on hand at the warehouse, and fewer still at his home. He raised no objections to trading tokens with Sparr, but with each subsequent trade more and more of the tokens would be those the spacefarer had already fed through the replicator. He needed to trade tokens with an ever-changing clientele. Plus, without income, he would soon deplete his modest funds. Sparr lived frugally, sleeping in the replication building and for the most part eating food purchased from his fellow vendors at a discount. Still, every day he had fewer tokens than the day before.

Inspiration arrived when he spotted the youth who had been among those who cornered him days earlier in the fabricator building. Sparr noticed him while out refilling his water bottles from a spring that bubbled near the edge of the mountain. The youth’s hands were bandaged, but he tenderly carried a rolled parcel under his arm, attending to some mission. Sparr followed him, and, when the youth turned into an alley, cut him off.

“Hi,” Sparr said, grinning with what he hoped was menace. “Remember what I said would happen if I ever saw you again?”

First recognition, then fear flew across the man’s face. “I, I swear, I haven’t been back there. I don’t even go down that street!” He stumbled back, holding the parcel before him like a shield.

“And yet here we are.” Sparr stepped forward, trying to maintain the threatening facade. He brushed his fingers over the handle of the knife stuffed into his belt.

“Please, please, I didn’t do anything,” the youth stammered. “What do you want?”

“What I want is to cut your throat, but,” Sparr said, easing back somewhat, “help me with a problem and I’ll reconsider.”

“Anything!” His eyes shot nervously between Sparr and Bogg.

“I need to unload some merchandise. Who can do that for me?”

The man relaxed just a touch, pleased to be in comfortable territory. “Imon! Imon can move it for you, doesn’t matter what!”

“Where can I find him?”

“I can take you to him!” the youth said. He began to edge away.

“Wait!” Sparr said, halting the young man. “How much will he offer?”

“I don’t know that,” he said, squirming. “I don’t know what you need to unload.”

“Fine goods,” Sparr said. Bogg’s pack still contained the stash he had been carrying when Sparr was forced to kill the fence. “What will his first offer be? Half of what he’ll sell it for? Less?”

‘Oh, oh,” the youth said, understanding. “He’ll offer less than half for sure, closer to a third.”

“And what’s the most he’ll pay?” Sparr wanted to go into any haggling session well prepared.

“I’ve never seen him buy for twice his original offer.”

The youth might be making up everything he said, desperate to placate Sparr until he could slip free. Regardless, Sparr had little choice. He didn’t have time to search for a legitimate buyer, and for the moment had no other prospects for obtaining tokens. He let his one-time attacker show the way. “When we get there, remain hidden until I’ve had a chance to speak with him.”

Imon’s operation appeared to have been set up with the anticipation of making a hasty escape if called for. Most of his goods were stuffed into a few chests which might have been coolers or plastic storage bins for the original colonists. The rest were scattered across a pair of dingy blankets. In an emergency, the blankets could be rolled up, complete with their goods, and draped across one of the chests. It would only take two strong men, and a minute’s warning, to relocate what passed for the little shop.

And there were certainly strong men. Imon himself wasn’t physically imposing. He stood well short of six feet tall, thin of build, but with a soft middle and an emerging second chin. The men who flanked him, on the other hand, looked hard and dangerous. One, a dark-skinned man with a heavy chest and arms, looked as bored as he did angry. He eyed both Sparr and Bogg, sizing up the potential threat they represented. The other, a light-haired man with a wiry build and ruddy complexion, kept his boredom at bay by chipping intently at a stick with a long knife. Sparr couldn’t detect any pattern or figure emerging from the wood. The man was simply hacking it away in chunks and strips.

“Yes?” Imon asked, his voice balanced between disinterest and optimism. Sparr guessed it had been a slow afternoon in the stolen goods business.

“I have merchandise which deserves to find a good home,” Sparr said. “Perhaps the home of a wealthy family?”

Imon smiled, revealing a mouth stuffed with uneven teeth. “I do serve a select clientele. Let us see it.”

Sparr had earlier retrieved the parcel, which he now laid out for Imon’s consideration. The highlight was a finely-crafted necklace that Sparr believed to have been brought by one of the original colonists. Not just the workmanship, but the materials themselves were unlike anything else he had seen on Kaybe: lapis, amber, and silver, artfully worked, and still gleaming after centuries.

Imon had an excellent poker face, but the brute’s eyes opened wide. Sparr knew at the very least that he held a unique piece. The other pieces of cleverly crafted metalwork were lovely, but the necklace was special.

Imon ran his fingers over each of the pieces in turn, giving no more attention to the necklace than he did the others. “These are nice. Mind if I ask where you came by them?”

“Shong,” Sparr said easily. “I might have liberated them from a pilgrim with more piety than attentiveness.”

“Ah,” Imon said, sensing an opportunity to strengthen his bargaining position. “Shong is a lawless place, not like Santi. Here one has to be very careful dealing with, ah, liberated merchandise.” He smiled thinly, a note of smugness twisting his lips.

“Oh?” Sparr replied. “That isn’t what Nesee told me. She said it was no problem for a man with your select clientele.”

Imon’s poker face faltered. “You know Nesee?”

“Yes, have you seen her? I loaned her quite a few tokens several days ago. No trace of her since.”

Imon sat back, smoothing his vest. “No, but you should have said you knew her. I can help you with these, liberated or not.”

Sparr had rattled the man, but probably just for a few seconds. He needed to press his advantage, establish a high asking price before Imon committed himself. Once Imon’s crew heard a figure from their boss, they would know if he caved. Sparr couldn’t risk the man’s pride getting in the way.

“Anyway,” Sparr said casually, “Nesee thought five hundred.”

For a moment Imon could only stare at Sparr, his face locked in an expression of incredulity. “Five? Five, no. No.”

Sparr stared back, then slowly reached out as if to reclaim the necklace and other trinkets. Imon scrambled to speak first.

“Three! Three hundred at most.”

The wiry man carving the stick shot a glance toward Imon, his face a mask of surprise. Sparr doubted Imon had ever offered close to three hundred tokens for anything before, no matter the quality of the merchandise. He had already won.

“Well, maybe Nesee was wrong, but I’m sure she wasn’t that far off the mark. Four fifty.”

They settled on three seventy-five. The price, halfway between Imon’s offer and Sparr’s counter, allowed the man to save face. Sparr, for his part, was certain he was walking away with twice what he would have if he had let Imon make the first offer. Making sure both the goons saw his blade, Sparr collected his payment and exited the square.

***

If Sparr was pleased with the results of his negotiation, the replicator quickly dampened his mood. After feeding in all of the tokens he had discovered only one new air car part, something described as a Chassis strut – lateral. One problem was that Imon had paid him mostly in larger denomination tokens, representing a value of either five or twenty-five of the more common silver tokens. The result was fewer tokens to feed into the replicator. He needed a way to maximize the availability of the less valuable coins.

“It’s time to find a business opportunity, Bogg.”

With evening falling, Sparr and Bogg strolled through the commercial district. There was little to interest him. Most vendors sold products he had scant chance to acquire, things like produce, meat, or fabrics. To open such a business would require cultivating suppliers, dealing with competitors, and in some cases, managing a perishable inventory. Likewise, commodities like building supplies and scrap would require a capital investment.

As they passed near the docks, he was distracted by a chorus of boisterous cries. A street vendor, selling liquor in drab brown bottles, was doing a good business, mostly with sailors and dockworkers.

“Must be some good stuff,” Sparr said, once the already inebriated patrons stumbled away.

“It’s vile,” the vendor said, looking him over. She was a few years older than Sparr, with flirtatious eyes, undisciplined brown hair, and a plunging bodice. “Try?”

“Ha, okay.”

She poured some into two small cups and both had a taste.

“Yeah, that’s nasty,” Sparr agreed, trying not to cough. “What’s your secret to actually selling this stuff?”

It was the liquor merchant’s turn to laugh. She leaned toward Sparr, whispering in his ear as if revealing the secret of life itself. “It’s cheap.” Her warm breath tickled his neck.

Sparr laughed again. “Okay, how cheap?”

“Four tokens per bottle. Just right for an undiscerning sailor or dockworker with few tokens and a night to kill.”

“I don’t want to know where you get this shit,” Sparr said. “How much for a case?”

“Oh,” she said, “an undiscerning brute with twelve nights to kill?” She tried futilely to push back her rebellious hair. “For you, a discount. Forty-five tokens.”

Sparr took the case, stuffing half the bottles carefully into Bogg’s pack and lugging the rest. The vendor watched him, half incredulous, half intrigued. “Can a girl ask a thirsty stranger his name?”

“Alain,” he said, hoisting the crate. Then, on a whim, added, “Alain of Maryland.”

“Well, Alain of Merrylun, I’m Cee of Shitty Booze Stand.” She inclined her head toward a row of disreputable cottages. “You know where to find me, once you sober up. I’ve been known to give even better discounts to brutes who know their way around a bedroom.”

***

It took two days to find his first customer. A man with weather-worn skin and impressive calluses stopped in front of Sparr’s stall, his attention drawn by the row of bottles. “You have the brown liquor?”

“Yep,” said Sparr. “Three tokens.”

The man’s eyes shot up. “Three?”

“That’s right. Same hooch you find at the docks. Don’t pay more than you need to!”

The laborer hastily bought a bottle, before darting away as if Sparr might pursue him for a fourth token.

“Tell your friends!” Sparr called out after him.

The next day he had two more customers, the day after that, three. Each transaction netted him three fresh tokens, which he set aside to later feed into the replicator. If a customer asked to pay with one of the higher denomination tokens, Sparr would decline, insisting he couldn’t make change.

The plan worked, even as it steadily eroded his bankroll. He bought cases of liquor for forty-five tokens, netting only thirty-six tokens back, but fueling a constant stream of new tokens for the fabricator. The system accumulated parts for heating/cooling systems, farming equipment, prefabricated buildings, modular furniture, and plumbing. Air car parts were excruciatingly rare.

Air car base section – central

Spar snapped out of his reverie. Feeding tokens into the replicator had turned into a daily ritual, rarely satisfying, but necessary. The appearance of a new part drew his full attention. The panel displayed a thick rectangular part with interlocking teeth at each end and jointed at the sides. It appeared no more remarkable than any other part he had located. Then Sparr caught a notice at the bottom of the panel:

Connects with: Chassis strut – lateral

He fabricated the base section, then did the same for the strut. Bogg shuffled over, intrigued either by the noise of the machine, or the warmth it put off. Sparr scratched his muzzle, then, once both parts had cooled, snapped them together. He had at last moved from collecting random parts to constructing the vehicle.

Sparr knew it then, felt it in his soul. He would build the air car. He would build it and fly it. And once he did, he would find the Odysseus base camp.

He would find the truth.

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