MERCHANT PRINCE OF ARCADIA
By Rob Preece
Copyright 2005 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. No
portion of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
without writer permission except for brief quotations in
reviews. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to
actual events or persons is entirely coincidental. Cover
image copyright 2005 by Jane Graves, all rights reserved.
This is the first chapter of MERCHANT PRINCE OF ARCADIA only. If you would like to purchase the entire eNovel for only $3.99, click the 'Buy Now' button. All transactions are processed by PayPal for your security.
"Where is that worthless sniveling pile of bat dung? I swear, this time he's gone too far. I'll rip off his head and stuff it--"
"We're almost there, Captain."
Jake Borenski heard the commotion in the hall vaguely. He hunched over his computer, watched the latest rumor swirl onto the display, and nodded. Commodity markets had topped. Time to sell--everything.
His finger stabbed at the confirm button feeling the tiny prick as the computer sampled his DNA for identity confirmation.
Are you sure you wish to proceed with this transaction? Since lost prehistory, computers had stupidly asked this question rather than simply obeying instructions.
Jake glanced to see that he hadn't made any mistakes, bent to send the final confirmation--and was sent flying into the corner of his room. "Uh--"
"I told you to have the cargo holds ready yesterday." Captain Trabert's face had turned a rather attractive shade of violet. Jake wondered if there was some way to capture the color and start a new fashion statement back home.
He tried to pull his full attention from the commodity corner he'd discovered and to his job. "Uh, I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I said you cost me twenty million com-credits worth of silk tapestries. They're ruined because you didn't do your job." The captain picked him up and shook him. "Guess what? I'm taking it out of your hide."
Jake's computer beeped, signaling that it was still waiting for confirmation. Uh-oh.
He took a deep breath and tuned down the adrenalin running through his system. Twenty million would take a bite out of his profits, but it would leave plenty more. "Just let me finish on the computer and I'll pay you back, I swear it."
"Ha, ha, ha." Trabert didn't have much of a sense of humor on the best of days. Today was a long shot from Trabert's best day. "You'll pay me back with what? Your salary?" The older man grasped Jake's ear and twisted.
"I've made a little money on commodities on the hyperboards. Let me close out my position and I'll pay you."
From the darkening shade of Trabert's face, Jake guessed he hadn't found the right answer. "You let my rugs rot while you played the commodities boards--on my time. Get out."
The old man's command didn't make a lot of sense on an enclosed space freighter, but now didn't seem to be the time to point that out. Jake stood, then reached for his computer.
Trabert slapped his hand away. "Leave that."
Jake barely resisted the ingrained reflex to block the slap and counter. From the look of the ship's guard glaring at him from behind the captain, that was a quick way to get himself shot. "But it's mine."
"It's evidence." Trabert shoved the computer into an insulating pouch cutting it off from the ship's network.
Trabert was a bully and terrible captain but Jake had never seen him go this far. A small bubble of panic accumulated in his stomach and climbed up his throat. "I've got to close out my positions, sir. You know what the Commodity Police are like." Appeal to the shared interest, he thought. Once he'd covered his shorts, he would have enough to buy this bathtub of a space freighter and put Trabert out to permanent pasture. Never mind the twenty million.
"You'll do what I tell you. And I'm telling you to get the hell off my ship. If the Commodity Police are after you, I suggest hiding."
Jake's panic grew. "You can't dump me off on New Earth #47. It's a Class 5 restricted. That's totally against regulations."
"Tell that to the Traders' Board." This time, Trabert's laugh sounded genuine.
There was no Traders' Board on #47 and, scheduled and certified ships barely made it there every year or so. If Trabert was serious, and despite his grin he appeared to be, Jake would be marooned. Of course, being marooned on some god-forsaken planet might be the best place for him if he couldn't undo his shorts in a hurry.
Jake gave Trabert his most engaging smile. "I'll admit I got distracted and fell short on my job this one time. Over all, though, I've been getting superior evaluations. I'd really appreciate a second chance." A chance to jump ship somewhere civilized, that was.
* * * *
Jake Borenski felt like he'd swallowed a mule--a mule that insisted on continuing to kick from the inside of his head.
He groaned, forced his eyes open despite the gluey mess keeping them closed, and looked around. Dirt floor? Wooden walls? Stench of organics? Where was he?
An elbow smashed into the back of his head. "Oi yonna ti gornam."
"Huh?" Jake turned to look at a hugely overweight man with arms the size of liquid oxygen cylinders.
The man's words blurred into something comprehensible as his translator kicked in. Just as well Jake had his implant programmed for all of their stops before he had left home. He'd certainly been too busy since. Not to mention, this was the first time he'd been allowed off the ship.
"Your friends said you're paying. It's one crown, six shields."
Jake suspected his friends were Trabert's ship guards. After they'd stunned him, they'd come here for drinks, dumped him, and left him to pay for his own abandonment.
He pulled up local currency information and calculated. One crown, six shields was more money than the average local would make in a month. What had they been drinking?
"They weren't my friends." He tried to push himself to a sitting position but failed. Gravity here on #47 was brutal, especially after a couple of months on a low gravity cargo ship.
The fat man shrugged with a complete lack of concern. "Should have thought of that when you were offering to pay."
"But I was unconscious."
"Enough beer will do that. Now do you have the money or don't you?"
Jake felt through his pouches. A letter from his mother, a Dear John from his girlfriend in MBA school, and, at the bottom of the last pouch, a fat roll of ship script.
"What conversion are you running?" He pulled out the roll and slapped it on the table.
"Is that for the John Gault? She's left. Left a lot of folks holding the bag too. Guess you were one of them."
"It's all the money I have."
That rated a truly nasty growl. "Do you know what happens to men who refuse to pay their debts?"
If he'd been connected to the hypernet, he could have pulled up all the information on #47 ever assembled. As it was, he only had the limited amount he'd fed into his implant. Which wasn't much. He had the translation program, of course. That was standard. His comm. Was worthless without FTL. Even more worthless were a couple of his last semester's testbooks, The Catcher in the Rye, and a fantasy novel entitled The Arena of Otranto that used #47 as its supposed location were almost its entire contents.
In the fantasy novels he read, castaways always had more equipment or at least special knowledge. Why couldn't he have majored in chemistry rather than ancient literature and business? "You don't have a friendly bankruptcy system, then?"
The bartender just stared at him for a moment, his mouth halfway open. Finally he pulled himself together. "If that's a funny way of saying you've got no cash, I'm not amused. Here in Otranto City we're real civilized. We don't execute our debtors the way they do in the provinces. You pay what you owe, or we sell you into slavery and use the proceeds to pay off any debts. A big guy like you should be worth at least four gold."
Jake reached into his pouches again and pulled out everything he could find. "How much would you give me for this lot?"
The bartender fingered the letter from Jake's mother, then jumped back when his touch activated the letter and Mary began talking.
"It isn't magic," Jake was quick to comfort.
The bartender rolled his eyes. "Just what I need, a joker. Magic." He looked more closely at the letter. "She's a pretty little thing, isn't she?"
His mother? Jake had never thought about her in that way. He wasn't sure he wanted the bartender to think that way either but that was the only thing he'd seemed remotely interested in.
"It'll last forever," he wheedled. "How about I give it to you and we call it even."
The bartender grinned and, for a brief instant, Jake though he was in the clear.
"I don't suppose the wife would appreciate that much," the fat man told him.
"How about the uniform?" Jake suggested. "It's thermally controlled so you can wear it in virtually any weather conditions. It should be. He'd bought it himself when he realized what junk the John Gault supplied.
"You think I'd be caught dead in something that makes me look like a spacer? Besides, you've got ten centimeters on me and I've got a good fifty kilos on you."
"You could sell it. I paid a bundle for this uniform."
The fat man held up a hand. "Give it up. You don't have anything I want."
Trabert's joke hadn't been very funny in the first place. Now it was appearing completely grim.
"I wouldn't make a very good slave," Jake suggested.
"Slavers have ways of fixing that. Are you a good worker?"
This sounded promising, sort of. "You mean as a hired laborer?"
"I pull my weight."
"Yeah, but can you pull my weight?" The fat man's laughter sounded a lot more genuine than Trabert's had. Unfortunately, in both cases, the joke was on Jake.
Maybe he could put his MBA to work.
"How about a deal? I'll put together a marketing plan for you. You'll get enough new business to pay off my debt in no time."
"I've got all the business this city can support."
Jake looked around. He was the only one in the bar. On the other hand, it appeared to be first thing in the morning, local time. The huge yellow sun still hung low to the horizon and, outside, the noise and stench levels were still under control. From what he knew about cities on Class 5 worlds, things were likely to get far worse by the afternoon.
"Uh, do you make your own alcoholic beverages, or do you purchase these from a supplier?"
"Sometimes you talk like a priest, you know. I make most of the beer and mead in the city. The tavern is a sort of sideline."
Jake rubbed his hands together. "Great. How about I give you a complete audit of your operation here. I'll review the manufacturing process, suggest means for improving the quality of the product, and look for ways reduce transportation and labor costs." What a fabulous opportunity. When this was over, he would write a book on how the modern MBA program contributed to business success on #47.
"Are you saying there's something wrong with my beer?"
"Oh, no. It's just that there's always room for improvement."
"And some pipsqueek is going to come in and tell me how to do it, right? Have you ever brewed even a liter of beer?"
Jake did a quick search through his textbooks. He'd planned on an eventual career in business consulting or in commodity trading but he'd taken all the required classes in the more boring aspects of business--like manufacturing.
"I haven't actually brewed beer, but I know a lot about modern process engineering."
The big man didn't echo Jake's enthusiastic smile. "Uh, process engineering refers to--"
"I know what it refers to. It's a fancy name for what I do."
"Great. Well, if you don't want me in the operations side, I can take over your accounts. You'd be surprised how much a good accountant can save in costs and in prevention of bad debt."
"Bad debt is what we're talking about, but that's the first thing you've said that made any sense at all." The fat man grasped Jake's arm and lifted him from the table. "I'm going to give you one chance. You do whatever I tell you to do and I'll apply the standard apprentice pay toward what you owe me."
It didn't sound like a great deal but it did sound better than being sold into slavery. "What does a standard apprentice make around here?"
"Two bits a day."
At that rate, he would be working for half a year before he paid for what the guards had drunk.
"Eight bits, plus room and board."
"Five or I'll take my chance with slavery from someone who values his workforce."
"Done." His new boss spat on his hand and stuck it out. "Hardly anybody wants to work any more. I'll see if you spacers are any better. My name is Manny Delphonte. You can call me Sir."
* * * *
"Right, uh, sir. I'm Jake Borinski. Uh, do you know when the next ship will be calling here?" Sitting on a planet with rampant disease, where the average lifespan was probably less than a hundred, and where mule-drawn carts constituted high technology didn't seem like a great use of his talents. Not to mention he had about two weeks to close out his positions, even at a loss, or his name would be mud with the Commodity Police and he'd never be able to leave.
Manny laughed again. He seemed to find a lot of humor in Jake which didn't fill Jake with any great confidence. "There won't be any more ships here."
Up until then, Jake had been doing his best to roll with the punches. Trabert had been a jerk, but there were always opportunities for men who were willing to work and didn't ask too many questions. For the first time, real panic reared up.
"That's impossible. Your planet isn't a huge consumer, but those hand-crafted textiles have big markets in some of the core worlds. Most of the ships aren't registered, but I'd guess you get one or two a month."
Manny nodded. "I don't mean that they won't come to the planet. They just won't be coming to Otranto City." He turned and spat on the floor. "We've been dying for a few hundred years already; you spacers just put one more nail in the coffin lid."
The fantasy novel on #47 actually did cover this. Jake pulled its contents into frontal memory lobes and scanned the content before responding. If the book was at all accurate, and Jake hadn't seen any three-headed men yet so he didn't have complete confidence in it, space trade was about the only thing propping up ancient Otranto's economy. Without it, it would become just another faded city with pretensions to glory. Well, at least that wasn't his problem. "So, exactly where will the next ships be landing?"
Manny shrugged his massive shoulders. "The way our luck is going, probably somewhere in the Granger Khanate. Maybe a few will go to the eastern Barbarians, although what they'd want from that lot, I have no idea."
"Woolens," Jake told him. "The big planets don't have room for animals to run around and grow fur. It's considered very exotic and just a little kinky to wear something that was originally part of a living animal. It's even kinkier if you can say that human hands actually created the material."
Manny stood and wiped down the table next to where Jake still sat. It was a largely ineffective exercise since the rag he cleaned with had to be at least as dirty as the table.
After a full minute of silence, Manny turned and whirled toward Jake, thrusting a huge fist under his nose. "I've always said you spacers were strange, but that's the strangest thing yet. The barbarians barely have working looms. Their product is pathetic. I could make better textiles in my brewery."
Jake knew better than to argue. He also knew the market for hand-loomed sheep wool back on Vega 2 and Jutland. Twenty thousand kilograms of finished fabric could set a man for life. If he could just go east and somehow corner the market, he could leverage that into a trip back to civilization. Of course the Commodity Police would still be an issue. "Well, that's what they're looking for."
Manny pulled himself a foaming beer. "The Eastern Barbarians haven't even figured out how to handle second fermentation. Pathetic."
Jake stared at the dark beer so thick with sediment that it looked like a soup rather than the clear brew he was used to. To his surprise, he was tempted. Going native was considered one of the great sins of the restored human civilization, but Jake would forgive himself just one slip.
"Mind if I join you with one of those?"
Manny looked at him like he'd grown horns. "Why am I letting you waste my time? There's work to do. You'll eat when it's done."
Jake stood, then collapsed back to his seat. The combination of #47's 138% of Earth-standard gravity and his being recently stunned conspired against him.
Jake wasn't about to try to explain differential gravity, nor the aftereffects of a stunner. "No."
"You look sick." Manny patted him on the back almost driving him through the rough boards that formed the floor under the bar. "Forget about the hair of the dog trick. Just learn your limit and stop when you get there. If you can't hold it, no point in putting it in."
"I didn't drink. I was shot."
"Don't see any bullet holes. No arrows sticking out."
He'd known better than to explain and he'd tried to do it anyway. Jake pushed his hands against the table and forced himself to his feet.
His head swam and his knees felt like rubber but he didn't immediately collapse. The longer he could keep going, the faster he'd get the residual damage from the stunner out of his system.
"So what did you have in mind for me to do today?"
Manny put one of his oversized paw-like hands on Jake's shoulder and twisted him around until he was facing the door. The sun's bright glare nearly blinded him.
"Don't even think about running away," Manny told him, tightening his grip.
"Where would I run?" He would head out the moment he heard about a ship landing, debt paid or not.
"Actually run? Nowhere. You could try to run any number of places. The problem is, you'd never get there and you wouldn't like it if you did. Trust me, be an apprentice, learn a good trade like brewing, and the world will be your oyster."
Did they even have oysters on #47 or was this just his translator acting up?
"Lead on, Sir."
"That's the attitude. Let's see how many of these barrels you can get clean before noon."
* * * *
Jake looked at the huge barrels, each easily two meters deep and nearly that wide. "What the heck are those?"
Manny looked offended. "Beer barrels. Don't tell me you don't even know where beer comes from. You spacers are strange people."
Jake had concentrated on commodity arbitrage, not manufacturing. Still, he knew that beer was brewed in huge syntho-ceramic tanks that were sealed against any atmospheric contamination. "You just put the beer juice in there and let it ferment?"
Manny raised another fist. "You're too old to beat, but too stupid to treat like an adult. Try to listen. It's called wort, not beer juice. And no, we don't just put it in and leave it. What we do with it is my job. Your job is to clean them out. Maybe in a year, you'll know enough to help me with the beer making."
Jake rolled his eyes. He didn't intend to spend anything close to a year being a beer maker's flunky. He'd find some way to put his MBA to use and show Manny that he could contribute much more as a partner than a gofer. Then he'd start figuring out how to amass the credits he'd need to pay off the Commodity Police. A handful of coppers a day would pay off his fines in about ten thousand years. Even if he managed to improve his medical implant, Jake didn't figure he had that long.
"Make sure you scrub the entire barrel," Manny told him, pulling Jake's mind back to the present. "Then rinse it down with the chemicals from the smaller barrel near the spring."
"Yeah, I know. You're worried about wild yeast contamination, right?"
Manny shook his head. "Keep things clean to keep flavor good. I never even heard of wild yeast. What would it do, make the bubbles go sideways?"
Jake rubbed his eyes. So much for the benefits of a classical education. Wild yeast had been a problem back in ancient Earth. He'd just assumed it would be a problem in a similarly primitive planet. But the ancient terraformers wouldn't have brought in that kind of contaminant.
"With no wild yeast, your beer should last a long time."
"Gets drunk right away," Manny confided.
"I see." But Jake's mind was already boiling with opportunities. If beer didn't spoil, maybe the market could be bigger than this one city. And maybe Jake could help create #47's largest beverage enterprise.
"But those barrels still need to be cleaned," Manny growled. "And talking isn't getting it done."
Manny shoved Jake toward the first of twenty huge barrels lolling in the sun.
As a child on poverty-stricken Wayward, Jake had dreamed of being out in the newly discovered planets where a man could carve out a kingdom and marry a princess. In his dreams, he'd always arrived with a powerful weapon the locals would mistake for awesome magic. Well, he was here. So far, the closest he'd seen to a princess was a hundred and fifty kilogram man with a belly the size of a beachball. Of course the closest thing he had to a weapon was the scrub brush that Manny thrust into his hands.
Manny took a deep swallow from his beer mug. "There's lye in the chemical barrel so be careful."
This whole adventure fell into the category of being careful what he wished for. Jake surreptitiously pinched himself to make double-sure he wasn't dreaming. No such luck.
"Right. Twenty barrels. Coming up."
"You should be able to finish those by noon. Then we'll carry out last night's set."
If Manny went through that kind of beer in one night, no wonder he wasn't much interested in Jake's marketing expertise. Otranto might be the largest city on the planet, but it couldn't have over a couple hundred thousand people. Even if there were only a few brewers, that had to add up to some serious beer drinking. He pulled up his implant and calculated that each barrel had to hold about 4.7 cubic meters of beer. The twenty barrels translated to 94,000 liters. Better than a third of a liter for each resident every day.
Either Otranto drank a lot of beer, Manny was exaggerating his daily volume, or this was one of the biggest operations in town.
"Uh, how many of us are working on this?"
Manny grasped for his ear again but Jake had learned that lesson. He ducked away. "Counting you, zero, so far. I'm starting to think that the slave market was a good idea after all."
"Never mind, I'm going to work."
Jake walked to the first barrel. Every muscle complained at the higher gravity #47 inflicted on him. At least he hadn't shifted his cabin to zero gravity the way some career spacers did. Still, he also hadn't trained for anything like this.
He stared into the first barrel.
A yellow, froglike amphibian stared back. "Reek."
Jake wrinkled his nose. "You're right about that, fellow. Stinks to the high heavens. You'd better move out before I start scrubbing."
#47 had no intelligent native life so he didn't have to worry about training his translator to understand frog.
"Let's move, little guy." He reached in and grasped the yellow amphibian.
The thing was slippery and cold. It wiggled in his hand and then, with a suddenly exposed set of sharp teeth, bit through the webbing between Jake's thumb and forefinger.
"Ouch." He threw the frog into the field on the other side of the stream and put his injured member in his mouth. The Arena of Otranto hadn't mentioned poisoned amphibians. He wondered whether the author had ever actually been to the planet.
"That wasn't very smart."
He whirled around.
A pre-pubescent boy sat on the fence that surrounded the used barrels.
"Letting the gar-frog bite you."
His blood circulation alarm confirmed the kid's message. "Poisonous, huh?"
"Usually people don't die. You'll be sick for a week, though."
He scanned his functions, cranked up the toxins filter, and toned down the filter on steroids. If he was going to be here for a while, he'd have to build up the muscles to deal with the increased gravity.
"I'll be fine. I just wonder what other surprises are going to be waiting for me."
"More gar-frogs. They like beer. But you should know that."
"I don't know much about frogs or beer."
The boy stepped down from the fence, approached Jake, and grabbed his hand. "Should be more swollen."
"You mean like this?" Jake let the toxins take full effect for a moment, then clamped back down. The bite responded instantly. Those gar-frogs would make a nice little surprise if Captain Tragert ever decided to visit.
The kid wrinkled his forehead. "That isn't possible."
"What the hell is going on out here?" Manny's deep voice cut through the youth's chatter.
"Your new apprentice got bit by a gar-frog."
"I swear, I am going to sell you," Manny shouted. "Nobody should be stupid enough to get dumped by his shipmates and bit by a gar-frog in the same day. The only way they'll ever bite is if you pick them up. Even a baby knows enough not to do that." He grabbed Jake's injured hand out of the youth's grasp. "I see the tooth marks, but you aren't swelling."
"I'm toning down the toxins," Jake admitted. "I guess its technology that hasn't reached New Earth #47."
"Our world is called Arcadia," Manny growled.
"You didn't tell me he was a spacer," the kid babbled. "How come he's working for you? I thought they were all rich."
"We got ourselves a cull," Manny replied. "And saying he's working for me pushes the definition of work a long ways. Now don't you have studies to do?"
"Eric went to the library to get some new scrolls. I decided to stay and check out the new guy."
"Right. Well, don't distract him. He needs to get those barrels cleaned or he won't eat tonight and we won't have any beer for our customers in a couple of weeks."
"That your son?" Jake asked.
"Daughter. And don't you be looking at her that way."
As if. The idea that he'd ever find a woman from one of the primitive planets attractive was pretty funny, let alone a child that he hadn't even been able to guess was female. "Don't worry about that."
The child under discussion pulled back an arm and swung it in an open-handed slap.
It had been a bad day for Jake. If he'd been on the ball, he would have taken it. How hard could a little kid hit anyway. Instead, his reflexes clicked in. Even slowed by half-again as much gravity as he was used to, Jake slipped into a fighting stance, blocked the slap, then grasped the girl's arm and twisted.
"Ouch." The girl twisted back, fighting with a strength far beyond what Jake would have guessed possible. The gravity effect again, he thought. Why was it that in the fantasy books he'd enjoyed in his ancient lit classes, the hero always ends up on a planet with less gravity than he's used to?
He let go and stepped back. Not a brilliant idea.
The girl waded in, throwing punches and kicks as fast as he could block, until she leaned forward half a step too far and stumbled into him.
Even with the higher gravity, he could have avoided her. A quick glance behind him said that wouldn't be a good idea. Sending the boss's daughter headfirst into a pile of pig dung would not give him high marks.
Instead he caught the child, grasping both arms so she couldn't start swinging elbows and do any real damage.
Something yielded under the girl's jacket and he raised his mental age estimate by five years. She might be a kid, but she was in the process of turning into a woman. She probably wasn't too much younger than he was.
"Interesting," Manny offered.
Jake was too busy holding onto forty kilograms of fighting female to ask just what Manny found so interesting. If he let her go, she'd just start in again. If he held her, Manny would probably have him arrested for fondling his daughter. It was interesting all right, but not in any useful way.
Finally he shoved the girl away.
She planted her feet at the last minute and he ended up doing most of the moving himself. He had to skip to miss the pig dung.
Manny grasped his daughter's ear in much the same way he'd held Jake's earlier.
She calmed down after a minute. "Let me go. I want to learn to fight like a spacer."
Jake looked at Manny imploringly. "Can you keep her away from me? I've got barrels to wash."
"About time you realize that. Castile will help you. Looks like you can use it."
"Dad." It sounded like Castile wanted to help as much as Jake wanted the assistance.
"And no more fighting."
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