“Captain, I’m afraid I have some bad news from the Supply Officer.” The First Lieutenant stood at attention, eyes fixed on the main view screen, while a single drop of nervous sweat trickled down his hairline. Captain Adamu absently reached for the demitasse of espresso centered on the tray that the Lieutenant held in slightly trembling hands. She took a small sip. The crema was rich, the espresso perfection, as it should be, since the beans came from her own family’s plantation and roastery on Earth. She tossed back the remainder and returned the empty cup to the tray. She glanced curiously at her usually unflappable second-in-command.
“Are you waiting for an invitation, Banks? Out with it.”
Jack Banks had graduated top of his class at Space Force Academy. He had been an Ensign on the USSF Harriet Tubman during the quantum singularity event of ’18. He had led the security team that escorted Earth’s U.N. representative to first contact with the Mgon^RTok Empire. He had led the combat battalion that repelled two Ja^RTok boarding parties during the Final Defeat. He had not blinked an eye when Captain Adamu refused to surrender their ship under the terms of the Intergalactic Armistice and went rogue. But this was danger of a different sort. He cleared his throat and took a steadying breath.
“Captain, we are out of coffee.”
The bridge went absolutely silent as every crew member stopped what they were doing to listen in with bated breath. The Captain swiveled her chair to face him, leaned back, steepled her fingers and gazed at him with the look that had caused the cephalodian Governor of the Northern Seas on Blik^NTor to gracelessly ink his own travel tank and surrender his forces before battle was even joined. “Explain,” she demanded through gritted teeth.
“SuppO has confined herself to quarters awaiting disciplinary action for this gross oversight. She claims she requisitioned twice the standard quantity at our last supply depot, but failed to account for the extraordinary demand. There is still several months’ supply of freeze dried instant coffee, but at this rate, your personal supply will run out in two days.” The Captain quirked one eyebrow, and Lieutenant Banks actually took a step backward before correcting himself. “Our scheduled resupply is still three weeks out, but I have identified several possible sources of coffee considerably closer.”
Adamu’s nostrils flared, which had once caused the UnderSecretary of the Trang^MTok High General to unconsciously camouflage himself in an attempt to disappear into the tapestries hanging on the walls of the Hall of Negotiation. She turned a graceful hand palm up, inviting Banks to take control of the main screen, “Proceed,” she commanded.
He linked his cuff to the screen, and the room filled with a holographic stellar map. His fingers traced a path on his cuff, and the map orbiting the room zoomed in to an enormous ring space station orbiting a gloriously purple and pink gas giant. “This is Larialurilalo, a trade outpost of the Po. As you might expect, most of what is bought and sold here are superconductors, Quartang particles, and hovesilk. I understand, however, that there is a small market of Terran luxury goods, including coffee. We can be there in six days.”
The map zoomed out and swiveled wildly as Banks toggled his second option, an asteroid belt mining operation just inside the demilitarized zone. “This is actually a mineral extraction facility managed by Exxon/Musk, so while they are not strictly governed by the United Nations, they may balk at trading with rogue interests.” He swallowed, knowing his Captain despised putting fellow Terrans in that kind of awkward position. “I would suggest that commandeering supplies may be a more efficient approach in this scenario. We can be there in four days,” he finished quickly.
The miniature galaxy spun dizzyingly a third time, zeroing in on a small orange moon orbiting a reflective, shimmering planet of almost the same size, clearly rich in heavy metals. “This is Bob22. Nominally under control of the MGon^RTok, but for the most part, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Nearly everything in the galaxy can be purchased here, for a price. There is considerable risk in simply undertaking a trade with the pirates who frequent this moon, but significantly more risk in that --” a red light flashed in a nearby nebula, “this MGon^RTok military station can quickly deploy a fleet, should they be alerted to our presence. We can be there tomorrow at 14:00.”
Captain Adamu turned to the navigator, “Set course for Bob22, Officer Martinez. Banks, assemble an away team, skilled in hand-to-hand combat. We don’t want to attract attention, so we’ll pose as Amazon agents scouting new products and take the Bezos shuttle to the surface.”
“We?” Banks asked hesitantly.
“Of course,” said the Captain, springing to her feet, “I can’t send you savages down there on your own, you’d come back with some disgusting Starbucks synthetic nonsense. Be sure the SuppO is on the team. She owes me. Report to shuttle bay C at 13:30.”
* * *
As their shuttle entered the atmosphere of Bob22, Captain Adamu gave the team last-minute instruction. “Don’t depend too much on your interpreter implants; there’s a lot of criminal and local lingo down there that isn’t going to translate well. Specialist Brogan is here as our authority on Galactic language and customs. When in doubt, defer to her. If you haven’t already, insert your cloaking optics. If MGon^RTok forces scan your retinas, it will identify you as an Amazon product scout. But you should know, this will only buy us about an hour of time, until the signal reaches the closest data center and returns with the revelation we are not who we say we are. So, let’s try and avoid being scanned, yes? SuppO is here to manage the cumshaw. She knows our stores, what we have and what we need. Feel free to trade as advantageously as you can, but keep your eyes on our primary objective: high-quality, shade-grown, single-origin, dark roast coffee beans. Toobin, Lopez, Odom, Sanders, you’re here to kick ass as needed.”
“Roger that, Cap,” the hulking Odom grinned as he strapped a band of EMP grenades to his chest.
The Emporium on Bob22 was the largest black-market exchange in the sector, and the MGon^RTok allowed it to continue to operate within the Empire, despite the obvious criminal activity. There were occasional raids, but the market started back up again within days. Doubtless, important pockets were well-lined with bribes. The Emporium itself consisted of a vast cobbled octagon where a maelstrom of buskers of all sorts vied for the attention of travelers snacking on exotic fare from street vendors while lithe pickpockets circulated the crowd, risking their lives for a few credits. Eight worn stone paths extended from the points of the octagon, each one dominated by one of the galaxy’s major civilizations.
The Terran sector was under close scrutiny by their new masters, and Adamu wanted nothing to do with the Empire. So, while doubtless there was coffee to be found there, instead she guided her crew to the ChiChallan sector. They were well-known hedonists, and exotic food, drink, and mind-altering substances from every world could be found in their shops.
The lane was difficult to negotiate, thronged with crowds creating an almost unbearable din. Intimidating sentries flanked the entrance of every shop. Vendors and hawkers pushed their goods on hard carts, ion daggers at the ready to fend off thieves. Occasionally, an important person was escorted through the chaos by a cordon of guards. There was an awkward moment when Odom, at the head of their formation, faced off with a vicious-looking Ja^RTok leading a security detail for someone in a curtained palanquin. Neither warrior gave any indication of giving way until an impatient voice from the behind the curtain caused the Ja^RTok to grudgingly step to the side. Everyone kept their hands on their weapons as the two groups shouldered past each other in the narrow space.
They found a shop specializing in Terran goods, as indicated by a large purple serpent painted around the entrance columns, holding in its mouth a small dangling blue and green orb with familiar continents painted upon it. Adamu felt an unexpected pang of homesickness, seeing this rendering of Earth in this alien market so very far away. She stepped into the stillness of the shop and took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim, vaguely purple light. A tall, willowy, possibly female ChiChallan in whisper-soft hovesilk robes of brilliant colors approached them and bowed deeply, webbed fingers sweeping the floor to either side.
“Welcome, Earthians! Delegates from Amazon! How delightful! I am Mistress Latha. You are here to buy? Or sell? Or dare I hope both? Shall we retire to a private room to conduct our business?”
The door opened, with gust of noise and dust, and Lieutenant Banks ducked in. He tapped his eye and tilted his head at the door. Adamu looked out to see an official Empire patrol continuing down the street. Banks had been scanned. They had one hour to be back to their shuttle and on their way before they were detained and possibly sparked a second intergalactic war. She touched a timer on her cuff. Time was ticking.
“We would be honored, Mistress,” Specialist Brogan said to Latha, bowing in turn. The ChiChallan leaned toward Brogan, and her neck gills opened wide, their frills fluttering. Her eyes blinked languidly several times before she collected herself and swept them through a beaded curtain into a large circular room with a sunken area in the center, lavish with cushions. At her invitation, everyone relaxed into the pillows as three other ChiChallan entered with trays of Pharzee tea, serving a cup to each.
Specialist Brogan rose to her feet and asked formally, “May I offer Second Breath?”
The four ChiChallan sat up eagerly, as Latha replied, “It would gladden us greatly. You are generous!” Brogan stood before each ChiChallan in turn, exhaling huskily into each face. Adamu knew the ChiChallan had a mildly narcotic reaction to the chemical makeup of human exhalation, but she had never met one in person before and discovered she found the exchange somewhat distasteful. They leaned back into the cushions, eyes closing, lips curling into dreamy smiles. The effects lasted only a couple minutes, while the Terrans shifted uneasily.
The trader was the first to recover her senses. “That was a treat. Of course, we have developed an artificial gas resembling human exhalation, but really nothing compares to the nuance of Second Breath from a real Terran. It is like terroir for your wine, yes? Some ChiChallan have become quite the connosseiurs. Alas, I am still a novice and have much to learn. If I may ask, what did you eat for breakfast?”
Adamu glanced at her cuff. 39 minutes to get back to their shuttle. She interrupted, “Perhaps business first, if you don’t mind. We are looking for new ChiChallan products for trade in our system, and have perhaps some items of interest to you, as well.”
“Of course,” the trader bowed her head, then motioned to one of her colleagues who, somewhat woozily, left the room, “Willachi will bring in some samples of an item that has had excellent response from the few humans who have sampled it. We have been holding a significant supply waiting for an Terran trade delegation.” Willachi returned carrying a tray with apple-sized bright blue pods, prepared in several ways. Latha continued, “This is the seed of the TrokTrok tree. When it is properly fermented, it can be adequately stored for deep space travel. It can be grated to use as a spice, cooked into syrup for a sweetener, or sliced and used in confection. Please, enjoy.”
Everyone sampled a small bite. Odom finished his quickly and speared several more slices before the tray passed out of his reach. He grinned widely. “Tastes like pumpkin pie.”
SuppO reached into the pack she carried and withdrew a small plastic bear-shaped container filled with shimmering golden liquid. The ChiChallan gasped, “Is that Terran honey?”
SuppO nodded. “As representatives of Amazon, we are of course interested in establishing a reliable and consistent source of trade. However, we do have eighteen of these honeybears for your immediate enjoyment while we determine terms of a more formal trade agreement.”
Latha squeezed a dollop of honey onto a silver ladle. Her long prehensile tongue darted out and swiped the utensil clean. She closed her eyes in appreciation. “Mmmmm. Derived from blackberry blossom of North America, if I’m not mistaken.”
Adamu checked the time. 24 minutes left. “You are welcome to this honey as a token of our goodwill, and we will happily suggest to corporate that TrokTrok seeds represent a unique and lucrative opportunity. As a matter of course, we will need to do a further analysis of the chemical properties on our ship.”
“Of course,” Latha nodded, “we will also provide financials regarding supply, pricing, and storage requirements. I’ll even offer a couple of my own House recipes I think you’ll enjoy.”
“Wonderful. Before we go,” Adamu winced inwardly, knowing she was unforgivably rushing the negotiations, “I wonder if you have possibly come across a Terran delicacy that is a particular favorite of mine. It can be difficult to procure on these long voyages. It is a bean called coffee that is infused into hot water for a stimulating beverage.”
“Bleh.” Latha retched delicately into a handkerchief. “Yes, we have, in fact. Last year, we made the mistake of accepting a bag. Forgive me, the memory of the taste is distressing. We discovered, to our dismay, coffee is somewhat toxic to ChiChallan. However, I understand it is of great value to you. Perhaps we can reach an agreement between us, outside the avenues of official business. Willachi, fetch it, if you please.” Adamu watched with avid attention as the willowy assistant rose and left the room.
Latha turned and smoothed her robes over her lap somewhat self-consciously. “I have a request of my own. I will trade you the coffee, and perhaps some additional items of particular interest, in exchange for a request I hope you find a great honor, as I intend it.” She gazed at Banks with something approaching longing. “Even from here, I can taste the breath of that one. I ask that you give him to my House for one year to serve as ---” The Terrans all winced as their interpreter implants failed and fed into their aural receptors the high-pitched gurgle of the ChiChallan native tongue.
Brogan blanched, then said, “Please allow me to explain this custom to my colleagues.” Latha nodded graciously, and Brogan turned to Adamu. “The ChiChallan have an ancient system similar to indentured servitude, but with aspects of fostering or apprenticeship, that they use as both a financial resource and a means of building social networks. Since they have discovered the effects of Second Breath, they have extended this system to humans. It is, as Latha mentioned, a great honor for a non-ChiChallan to be taken into a House in this way. Um. However, many humans find the custom… foreign, and chafe against the restrictions. I have heard the handfuls of humans who have experienced it to describe it as being treated as a very pampered pet. Their sole role in the household is to breathe, as in the ceremony you saw me perform earlier. However, their freedom is severely curtailed during their service, as they are considered property of the House and jealously guarded.”
Adamu nodded gravely. They wanted a slave. Her ancestors had once been bought and sold, and she was not about to participate in such a degenerate system. 16 minutes left. “I am sure we are all appreciative of the honor you offer us, but I am afraid I cannot possibly continue my business without my second-in-command at my side. I hope you understand.”
Just then, Willachi returned to the room and placed on the central table a five-pound bag of coffee marked with a familiar logo. SuppO gasped aloud. The Captain’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. A bag of her own family’s blend! The chances of finding it here seemed impossible. But a moment too late, she realized she had tipped her hand. Latha’s eyes narrowed knowingly, the seasoned trader recognizing a fish on the line. The ChiChallan barely kept the triumph from her voice as she said, “Perhaps you can reconsider. I know your corporate masters have been eager to find a deeper connection to a ChiChallan house.”
Adamu shook her head, “I’m sorry. I really can’t continue without my second-in-command.” The Terrans breathed a soft sigh of relief, Banks most of all. He had been genuinely worried for a moment when he saw the brand of coffee on offer. “However,” Adamu continued, “In exchange for this coffee, and in the interests of our continued relationship, you can have that one.” And her outstretched arm swung around to point at the incredulous SuppO.