by K. McGee
“Wakey wakey! Get that perky little ass out of bed, Karla. We got us a situation here!”
Karla curled into a ball, hands clamped over ears, and for one blissful moment pretended the noise in her room was gone, sleep still possible, that dreaded voice just one of many nightmares she’d been having since the latest reorg.
“Kaaaarrrla! I’m noooooot goooooing awaaaaay!”
Karla let out an exasperated grunt, opened her eyes and sat up. Earthtime 0310. She’d had two and a half hours of sleep. “What the fuck is it now?”
A low chuckle came through the intercom speaker next to her bed. “That’s my girl.”
“Listen, you delusional cretin, I’m not a girl, let alone your girl, and the name is Dr. Antori.”
“Yeah yeah, no time for that. We got ourselves a major cluster fuck up here.”
Karla scraped her curly red hair away from her face and fastened it on top of her head with the band from her wrist. She stood and moved to the bathroom. “This better be good, Money.”
Another chuckle. The sadistic idiot enjoyed waking her.
“Not good, Karla. Not yet anyway. See you in five.”
She washed her face, brushed her teeth, and stepped into the last of her clean jumpsuits, a lightweight black uniform with glowing patches on the shoulders for rank. She wove through discarded clothes as she crossed the room to the door. Normally she enjoyed handling chores old school—the simple labor kept her sane—but today on the way out she stopped at the consul and punched in the sequence for Room Bot: Total Care. Whenever the crisis was over, she wanted a meal, clean clothes and fresh sheets.
Money was pacing in front of the main view screen on the bridge when she arrived. He grinned at her and she nodded. Tall, super fit, jutting brow and jaw: he was typical of the type she had to work with, at least until pols on Earth saw the light and announced another reorg. Or until she found another job. Karla was a scientist and had spent her entire adult life working among scientists. Teaming up with soldiers because some clueless Senate committee decided the immigration patrols weren’t aggressive and pragmatic enough had her planning a career change.
Just get through another crisis, she told herself. Then she’d look for another job, with an employer who wanted scientists, not soldiers.
She moved across the brightly lit bridge to stand next to Money. He was the only one in sight, aside from two Bots clamped to the wall. Immigration patrol ships carried an impressive array of equipment, but since the reorg they were staffed by only four humans; three elite soldiers who worked in shifts and one scientist, on call 24/7. She turned to the view screen Money stared at. Dead center was a small, obsolete ship that had sustained massive damage. Their own ship and five other vessels—friendlies, but competitors—circled the unfamiliar craft like a pack of children eying the last toy on the shelf.
“Oh hell,” she muttered. “When did this happen? Why didn’t you call me?”
“Spotted our stranger there about a half an hour ago, but the other guests just arrived. Looks like we’ve got another bidding war.”
“Who are they?”
“Data still coming in, but . . .” Money tapped on a keyboard in front of him and data appeared on the view screen, superimposed over the view of the ships outside.
She scanned the codes and abbreviations.
As usual, he slowed things down by narrating. “The ship is from Epsilon855. Looks like it was stolen. They sent a distress signal about 38 minutes ago, which is why we’ve got this party now. Hmm, looks like they were captives on E855, not indigenous.”
Captive usually meant held in a refugee camp and released into society a few at a time, sometimes over years, according to “usefulness.” In the worst cases, captives were warehoused as sex slaves or baby making machines.
“But who are they?” she asked.
Money shrugged a massive shoulder. “Still getting a reading.”
Karla watched as more data scrolled past. “How many are we talking?”
“They claim there’s 10k, eighty percent female.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Ten thousand? In that tub?”
He turned his head and raised a brow. “Otherwise known as distress. You want a shot?”
Karla rolled her eyes. There was no denying that the pace of the last few weeks had been exhausting, but it grated when Money suggested a vitadrenalin injection. She sometimes wondered about his composition. She could believe he was unenhanced neural, but his body seemed too good to be natal. Of course, he wasn’t on call day and night.
She walked to the dispenser and got a large cup of coffee. Money frowned; he was one of those purists who thought coffee was poison, but screw that.
A new set of data ran across the view screen and several of the ships began to drift closer to E855.
“What the hell? I thought our latest upgrade gave us a two-minute lead,” she said.
He chuckled. “Looks like everybody got the same upgrade.”
“Keep our place in the circle, huh?” She scanned the data. “So far they look promising. Let’s get a bid in.”
“Without a visual?” he asked.
She sighed. They’d been over this before. Standards of beauty were cultural, and would adjust with the introduction of a new species. But he was stubborn.
“You know, Money, there was a time when skinny blondes were all the rage in females.”
He snorted. “What? A thousand years ago?”
She waved at the screen. “Come on. Something mid-range. Get us a place in the queue.”
He typed away on the keyboard while she read. Immigrants were rated by several official criteria. Most important was Reproductivity Potential. If these refugees couldn’t reproduce in Earth’s atmosphere and with the resident species, they weren’t going to help resolve the shrinking population problem. Computing RP required taking into account the DNA and fertility history of several species. Mistakes had been made in the past, refugees brought in who lived full lives but never reproduced, adding to the aging population rather than helping to balance it.
The second and less important immigration criterion was Contribution Potential, which measured a combination of mental, physical, and social qualities deemed compatible with Earth culture.
And then there was the unofficial criterion, the one Money predictably championed: beauty. Not that it mattered what Money thought. He was there to take orders, not make decisions, unless violence broke out. What frightened Karla was that some politicians on Earth were beginning to talk about the “marketability” of immigrants, discussing them as if they were commodities rather than people.
“Okay, we’ve got a species identified,” Money said. “Looks like they’re . . . originally from Omicron 873. Survivors of a home planet destroyed in 2564. And . . . no visual available. Fuck me.”
“No thank you,” Karla muttered. She scanned the incomplete set of fertility data, trying to estimate an intergalactic rating. “Put in a higher bid.”
“Are you sure?”
“Just do it, Money.”
He tapped the keyboard. The queue of bids came up on the screen, Earth’s bid in red, the others in green. They watched as Earth’s bid floated to the top of the queue and then there was the usual mad scramble as the commanders on the other five ships adjusted their bids. Money tapped away, playing the bidding game, until the action slowed. Their bid rested in second place, a few points below that of Iota 63.
“What the hell are they offering?” Karla asked.
“Class B residences, Class C professions. Still, they’d have to live on I63.”
“True.” They exchanged an amused glance. The bids weren’t adjusted for climate or culture because everyone thought their home planet was superior, but most species would choose Earth over a frozen rock with underground dwellings.
Karla’s shoulders stiffened as she watched the screen. More data could float in at any moment, triggering another bidding war. If the new data was bad news, the top bidder could withdraw its bid and leave Earth holding the bag—an illegal maneuver, but there were no enforcer squads around to prevent it.
Even worse, if the data remained positive a few of the low bidders could form an alliance and pirate the refugees. This scenario had occurred all too often lately. It was the reason the last reorg had enhanced the ship’s weapon systems and brought “elite soldiers” into the process. If Money was elite, Karla shuddered to think what an average soldier was like.
“Too bad this has gotten so complicated,” he muttered. “Back in the old days we could just take what we wanted.”
“Don’t you mean who?” In the bad old days entire tribes from younger planets had been summarily scooped up and transplanted like so many pieces of furniture. And it hadn’t just been Earth doing this: many aging planets resorted to wholesale species abduction to address population decline. After a period of protest and war about a century ago, raids on growth planets were outlawed, and law-abiding planets had been limited to bidding for refugees.
“Oh, wait, I think I’ve found a visual,” Money said. An image came up on the screen. The creature was powerfully built, human in form except for the face, which resembled a frog. “Oh, fuck no! Let’s get out of here!”
“That’s not legal and you know it,” Karla said. “Besides, studies have shown that once assimilated, physical characteristics are the least important factor in—”
“Blah blah blah. You going to share a pillow with that? I’m telling you, let’s go! I’ll erase the records and you can get some sleep.”
Karla was sweating. She’d been having problems with the crew, everything from sloppy reports to casual disrespect, but this was the first time one of them had challenged her directly. “Money, don’t kid about that. Let’s just hope I63 plays by the rules.”
“Who says I’m kidding?”
They turned and faced each other. Money scowled down at Karla, his jaw thrust forward and lips clamped. Karla shook her head slowly and spoke in a soft voice. “Don’t even think about it, Money. I make these decisions.”
His face tightened as if he were struggling against an impulse. That’s the trouble with aggressive, pragmatic forces, she thought.
She turned back to the view screen. “Look, I63 is still there.”
The other bids in the queue had disappeared, all but I63 and Earth. She watched the ships move away, some at great speed, to resume trawling the universe for genetically compatible species. The commanders on the other ships hadn’t waited the mandated interval, but their bids weren’t at the top of the queue. Nobody would report them for leaving early.
Karla stared at the clock on the view screen next to their bid. Three minutes forty seconds to go. More data scrolled past. “High cerebral evolvement. Some psi gifts,” she muttered. “They look good, Money.”
“No, they look like toads.”
She sighed. “That’s not important. You’ve read the studies.”
He snorted. “When were you last home?”
“What does that have to do with—”
“—maybe you should consider going back, getting a glimpse of reality. It’s not all about brains, you know.” He shifted his gaze to her and let it drift slowly down and up, as if he could detect female characteristics inside the shapeless jumpsuit.
She smiled as she thought of her tangled hair and sleep-deprived pallor. “Yes, I know, I’m too gorgeous to resist.”
He shrugged. “Hey, it’s been a while, and I have a thing for redheads.”
She rolled her eyes and glanced back at the screen. One minute to go and . . . I63 withdrew their bid.
“Fuck!” they both said at the same time.
“Assholes,” she said, “file a report.”
“I told you we should have taken off! We could still—”
“—forget it,” she said.
The antique ship carrying ten thousand desperate refugees drew closer, as if whoever was at the helm feared their last option was about to abandon them. Without a host planet to take them in, they’d soon all be dead of starvation or hypoxia.
She sighed. “Go ahead and transport their reps. Might as well get the arrangements under way.”
Money crossed his arms. “I want it on record I argued against this acquisition.”
“Sure, I’ll mention that,” she said. “You want me to report your insubordination as well?”
For once he didn’t answer.
Karla knew their guests would pick up on his anger and revulsion the moment they transported in. “Get out of here, Money.” She waved a hand at the door. “I’ll greet them alone.”
“Four ambassadors, ETA three minutes.” He turned and left, no salute. She thought about what she’d say in a report. She’d never had to write up a subordinate, and she didn’t want to now, but when she left the job, another scientist would inherit Money and his crappy attitude.
She glanced at the transporter platform and the adjacent meeting area, then typed in the code for Hospitality/Ambassador Level. It wasn’t strictly required, but she figured this group had taken a huge risk to find a new home. They deserved a warm welcome. She watched as the two Bots moved off their wall mounts and into action, arranging five chairs around the table, setting down snacks and beverages.
She turned back to the screen and read fast. It would be nice to avoid any major gaffes. They spoke Universal, which made things easier. No delay for language chip implants. Highly adaptive digestive systems. An unusually high rating for Sexual Dimorphism popped up at the bottom of the screen and she frowned, but then a long list of required immunizations came up. She quickly tapped out a command so the Bots could prepare the dosage. No point in taking risks with their ambassadors.
She walked to the platform and assumed the formal welcoming posture, head back, arms wide as if to hug a tree. The transporter buzzed and four individuals appeared on the platform. One was two meters tall with frog-like facial features. The others were slightly shorter, clearly female, with ordinary human faces. Perfectly marketable.
She felt a rush of relief followed by disgust. Marketable. She was thinking like the politicians—like that idiot Money.
As she moved toward the platform, she could see that the six emissaries were malnourished, their robes stained and torn. She read a mix of exhaustion and fear on their faces. No relief; they were still braced for the next disaster.
For the first time in weeks, Karla felt she was right where she belonged. This bid, this moment was what she was trained for. “Welcome,” she said, smiling as she made a decision. To hell with Money; she wasn’t going anywhere.
* * * * END * * * *
Copyright K. McGee 2016