Chapter 2

O'Toole rubbed the stubble on his chin. He wasn't sure if he'd heard the translator correctly. Had the seven foot tall Rahman standing before him said he wanted to trade? Or had he said he wanted to mate?

The creature looked at O'Toole dispassionately with its big, bug eyes and repeated the phrase. The device worked on the translation for a moment, then cranked it out. O'Toole was relieved to hear the computer voice say that, indeed, the Rahman was willing to enter into trade negotiations.

He clapped his hands together. "Excellent! What do you have to offer for the metal?"

Again, there was the slow process of translation. O'Toole toed the dirt and watched the dust rise. It was a hot day and O'Toole was sweating, but he didn't mind the heat so much. It was talking to the Rahman he minded. It took so long he was beginning to get a headache. He already knew they wanted what he had. Question was: what did they have in exchange?

He was hoping for relics. Alien relics went for a pretty penny on the black market. It was all the rage back on Earth with private collectors paying zillions for single pieces. O'Toole himself had been the first to export dried Rahman feces. In reply to O'Toole's question, the Rahman worked its outer mandible and made the rasping noise that passed as its language. Simultaneously, its tongue flicked out, testing the air.

When the translation came through, O'Toole was disappointed. "Land," it said. "All mineral rights to the surrounding land." O'Toole took another look around. There wasn't much to see. It was all desert and scrub brush from the spot he stood upon to the foothills which lay twenty miles to the east. O'Toole wasn't interested in mineral rights to any more land. He wanted something he could turn into cash -- fast cash. He shook his head but the motion was lost on the Rahman.

"Just a minute," said O'Toole. He set down the translator as it cranked away at his translation, and he walked back to Sera. Kiri was waiting in the cab, standing on the driver's seat. When she saw O'Toole returning, she began to jump up and down, her delicate fingers furiously signing for candy.

"No candy, no way," said O'Toole, signing back in the negative.

Kiri stamped her tiny feet and crossed her arms as O'Toole climbed inside.

"What did he offer?" asked Sera.

O'Toole looked at the electronic eye on the dash of the truck cab. "Land again. Specifically, mineral rights."

"You're not surprised are you?"

O'Toole shrugged. "Disappointed, I guess."

"Well, you shouldn't be. How many times have I told you that it's these kind of deals that'll ensure your future?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but it don't pay the bills. I can't eat land rights. And who knows if I'll live long enough to make use of 'em? This is baloney."

"Did he offer a sample or say what might be under the ground?"


"Well, make sure you get a sample."

"So you think I ought to make the trade?"

"Yes. I think you should make the trade."

Despondently, O'Toole shook his head as he opened the driver's door. "Hell of a note. This time around, I been out here three weeks and all I got to show for it is a couple of no good promises from the ant people saying I can dig on their land. Big deal." Kiri began to jump up and down again.

"I told you no. Any more sugar and you'll be bouncing off the walls. What's the matter with her, anyway?"

"Same as always. She wants to go with you."

"Well, she can't. One look at her and the bug would change its mind. It'd want to trade for her." O'Toole looked at his pet, pointed at the seat upon which she stood, and in a stern voice told her to sit.

Kiri collapsed in a heap on the passenger's seat and pretended to sob. O'Toole ignored her and got out of the truck. In the distance, a sound like thunder came rumbling over the plains. O'Toole paused and looked at the horizon. As usual, there was nothing to see. There was no accompanying lightning, barely a cloud in the sky. Whatever made the noise was still a mystery. A planetary meteorological event the scientists could not yet explain. Sometimes they blamed radio wave propagation for it, as well, simply because they couldn't explain the broadband interference. In any case, they called it by what it sounded like: rolling thunder.

The Rahman hadn't moved. It waited patiently. When O'Toole approached, its multiple eyes shifted, following his movements . He stopped in front of the thing and picked up the translator. "Sorry to keep you waiting."

The Rahman said nothing in reply. O'Toole knew it was so single-minded, it probably wouldn't speak again until it had the answer it wanted. Well, O'Toole was about to give it to him, or in a Rahman's case, hir.

"All right," said O'Toole, not wasting any more time. "It's a deal."

The translator already had the phrase in memory and it gave the Rahman equivalent.

This time the Rahman's reply was: "So be it."

Upon completion of the translation, the creature stepped closer. This was the part O'Toole hated the most. He held his breath and closed his eyes as the Rahman bent over him, nuzzling its darting tongue through his hair, as it alternately sniffed, licked, and nuzzled him.

The intimacy wasn't just a show of good faith. Actually, all the secreting and licking worked to imprint O'Toole's scent upon the mind of the creature. Later, the Rahman would re-create the odor and pass it among other Rahman so they would recognize O'Toole if they ever came across him on their lands. It was an unbeatable contract.

In addition, the creature gave him a smooth rock the size of his fist and a traditional carafe of essence. Essence was a particularly nasty concoction of Rahman body oils and excrement. They usually gave up a bottle or two at the conclusion of a deal. All the years he'd been trading with the Rahman on Pax Noma and O'Toole still wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with it. The rock was supposed to be a sample from the lands. O'Toole already had a collection, all marked by name of their location. He'd planned on having them analyzed, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

As O'Toole predicted, when the creature was finished, it didn't waste any time. It turned away without another word and started its loping gait across the land, dust clouds rising from its motion.

When O'Toole returned to Sera, he hand-signed to Kiri to get him a towel. She darted out of the cab into the living quarters as O'Toole tossed the rock onto the passenger seat.

"There's your sample."

"Thank you," said Sera.

Kiri returned, dragging a towel behind.

"Here, give me that." O'Toole took the towel and began drying his hair. "Get us out of here," he said.

"Sure," answered Sera, "but you don't have to be so cranky about it."

O'Toole didn't answer the computer, although the truck's engines roared to life.

"You're just not satisfied with your bargain. That's understandable. But, you know, I have a feeling these deals of yours will work out in the future."

"Great. In the meantime, I'm going broke giving everything away. I had to give them a quarter of my metal goods."

Sera's voice took on an outraged tone. "A quarter? You didn't tell me that!"

"I know, I know, what could I do?"

"It's highway robbery."

"Of course, it is, but what could I do?"

"Nothing. They've got you over a barrel for now, but it'll pay in the end."

"If you say so."

Kiri sidled over and leaned against O'Toole as the truck drove onto the dirt track and turned east.

"Maybe I should take an early pension. I could buy a condo in orbit and live it up in low gravity."

"Yes, it would make that cross of yours so much lighter."

"Very funny. Seriously, maybe I could run a way-station for drivers and agents."

"Pax Noma already has a way-station at Prime."

"There's going to be more some day. They'll need more stations. You know, I could sell fuel pellets to the drivers. But only light maintenance. Nothing heavy."

Kiri crawled into O'Toole's lap and pulled his hand atop her feathered head where he automatically began to scratch. "Do you want to drive?"

"No, you go ahead. We're headed for..."

"I know where we're going. The maps reside in my data banks. We're swinging by the nerd camp for a fuel pellet."


"Are you going to sleep?"

O'Toole adjusted his seat. From his perspective, he could still see out the windshield, but now he reclined. Trusting Sera to get to the camp, he relaxed and closed his eyes. Kiri curled up and went to sleep on his lap.

"No. VR leads, please."

Fleshlike appendages came out of holes in the bulkhead behind O'Toole and attached themselves to his skull at a number of points. A visor slid out and colored patterns danced across its interior, throwing shadows onto O'Toole's closed eyelids.

"Ah," he said, "that's better. I was getting a headache."

"Anything special you want to do?"

"Yeah. I'd like to lie around the beach for awhile."

"By yourself?"

"Of course not. You come too. And bring Wanda. Tell her to put on the pink T-back."

"What would you like me to wear?"

"Oh, come as you are and we'll work on it from there. Don't forget the lotion."

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