Trading Stakes: a short story by: GF Willmetts.

Responsibility.

I woke out of hibernation with that word in my head. To do this trip, I had submitted myself to a few hypnotised suggestions for my course of action.

Back on Earth, many decades ago now, Marcom, an off-course alien trader had made a fleeting visit. Knowledge he gave freely, our bartering which ended up being a lot of goods, resulted in us being given a single pilot ftl spacecraft. Trading out amongst the stars, we could develop our own space fleet and mankind would become a trader with our own portfolio. We were also told to choose our first trade wisely. Sending a scientist or artist would be pointless. We would need someone with guile who wouldn’t buy a pig in a poke and who could do deals. Good deals. In many respects, a trader who was part con-man when needed to be but not stupid when seizing up a situation.

There was an open invitation for any trader to be stripped of their money and in the space of one year make a profit more than anyone in the, for want of a better word, contest. The way I saw it, to win was also make sure the other contestants were less successful so where I could I also undercut them and, where I could, buy them out. There were some rules. No one was to be killed. It all had to be business acumen. Good or bad didn’t enter into it. That didn’t stop a few trying when I outwitted them.

It was a busy year. I hadn’t made a massive profit but of the dozen left I had made a small fortune. Not enough to win. It was only when it came to learning how to cope with the alien trading spacecraft and waking up in isolation that the others dropped off. Being alone and hibersleep were hardly vote winners. The flight out and back would mean coming back to an Earth where no one we knew would be alive. In conflict with this, there was also a need to be a friendly trader and make friends with aliens. To have any as enemies was asking for trouble. I had to better than that. Was it good luck that I became nominee?

Of course, they wanted a reasonable representative as well. I’d proven I had some sense of conscience but they didn’t want the Earth to be known as a den of thieves neither so I had to submit to several post-hypnotic suggestions as well. It would induce some restraint and make me act fairly. I figured I could probably beat those when I needed to. Do a few trades with the best that the Earth could provide, get some alien machinery that would allow us to build our own spaceships and return to the Earth. Do well and I could make my own mind up whether I would go again. Think on that. Would I really want to stay on a planet that I would barely recognise anymore?

Materials were worthless. Any planet had more than ourselves. We needed to show our inventiveness in inventions and the arts. Make some of the alien traders interested enough to maybe visit us as well some day down the line. I was being given a list of directives as to the type of traders to give our co-ordinates to although I didn’t think that would stop them finding their own way there once they knew we were in interstellar business. Marcom said that was the only reason we never had any alien visitation before. If he hadn’t needed a fuel stop, he wouldn’t have visited neither.

The space drive was many times the speed of light but what took time was the deceleration which would take over a century. All that time, I would be in hibersleep to conserve food and atmosphere. I was also embedded with a translator device. The alien trader had either been very generous or just dumping old technology. His passing comment had been with the distance between stars, any tech would become old quickly. The art was always to trade up but do good deals to maintain the reputation of the species you belong to.

The hardest thing was not to dismantle this spacecraft and see how it was built and make our own. Marcom had shrugged at that. Even if we understood all the tech, it would take a long time to make sense of when we could be trading instead. It would be cheaper and faster to buy bring back the right things instead. Even old-tech would be far more advanced than anything we currently had. My list of choice was to buy equipment and tech books over anything. If I could get a spacecraft upgrade on the first trip, so much the better. They jokingly said I could even arrive back before I arrived. Whether they knew something I didn’t, who knows? For all I know, this could be a cheap recce. Selling trinkets. Get trinkets. Glorified trinkets, grant you. Did they really think the shit I had in the cargo bay was going to be worth anything to superior alien races? The best we had would probably be worthless to them. Still, they wanted a respectable con man which was what a trader really was to do the negotiations. Not really that bent but not likely to be taken for a ride neither. They didn’t want me to trade and just get a few beads. I also said Jack And The Beanstalk didn’t really do that bad on such a deal. I’d just be careful I didn’t get any junk. As if they’d be alive when I get back…unless I arrived before I left. How many of these post-hypnotic suggestions did they implant?

The real problem from the start was Marcom, the alien trader. I mean, he was willing to give up a spacecraft for fuel, non-weapons grade nuclear fuel, but chose thorium. That put the radioactive element back on the market for nuclear plants. But when was a trader honest? I mean, they sent me. Why didn’t Marcom want to come with me instead of going off on his own?

I inspected the scope and would be hitting the trader satellite in a few days. Marcom said these were safe places to visit on my first trip out. Enough time to get some meals under my belt and examine the local broadcasts. In the time in hibersleep, I had also been given some lung implants to enable me to cope with whatever their atmosphere had to offer. At least it wasn’t gills. I wasn’t tempted to duck my head in a bucket of water to test that.

The routine was as instructed. The local computer system would pick up the spaceship’s ID code and dock it for me. Apparently no customs check. Were these aliens naïve not to expert criminals or mercenaries bringing on-board illegal arms and stuff, let alone traders.

Before I left my ship, I put some of the smaller trinkets in my pockets. It would be stupid to get a potential sale and then tell them to wait while I went back and to get examples.

I found out myself when I walked out onto the dock. Imagine the biggest spaceship harbour possible and multiple that up several times and then in multiple tiers. Bigger than big. Commerce must be good. A computerised system looked me and my manifest over. A polite request for some DNA samples, noting it hadn’t come across my species before and would ensure non-toxic foods would be available to me by pressing a handprint on a contact pad at the available fooderies or how that got translated. A change in my stomach was one thing the alien spacecraft couldn’t provide. I was also provided with a tablet giving a list of do’s and don’ts. No dealing weapons was top of the list. No doubt some were done away from these places. Something I wouldn’t have to worry about for now. What kind of vices were catered for would take some working out.

Drugs was a grey area but dissuaded me since there was no knowing what was toxic and, if fatal, face criminal action and had a recommendation for any unfamiliar food to be scanned before tempting it. If there was evidence of eating unfamiliar food by choice then criminal charges wouldn’t apply. Translation: eat in their fooderies if I have to. I had a finite food source on the ship and would need that on the way back. Gambling seemed non-existent or, at least, nothing mentioned.

The fine print also noted that the trading station took 25% of any deal from both parties which explained why things were otherwise free. Sell expensively and it made more. Oh, then there was the security card, to be worn at all times that allowed easy identification of species, planet and name but no open information of destination. Clearly, they were being careful when it came to interstellar war, invasion or illegal trading. Should I ask about the alien trader that visited our world? Maybe he called in a report under some clause and the ship was a trade-off. They didn’t appear to be worried as to who owned the spaceships originally. What if we hadn’t been so willing to trade?

The con part of me always kicks in with if there are so few rules then it also meant there were some unspoken ones as well. It was a shame that I never had a chance to talk to Marcom before he left. From the recordings made, there was an implication that the more traders from one planet meant they probably had the biggest spaceships. That meant they either have been trading the longest or made the best deals or even both. There was nothing mentioned as to whether they gave good deals to the people they bought off of. Do I sell direct or at auction? They did have those so trade would seem to be universal. Even so, without knowing if my trinkets were worth anything, an auction would set a price for anything I sold that way. Other traders would far more likely to want to buy for less than the top selling price. Unless, of course, the commodity price would go up if it was rare.

I was new here, so best to wander and learn than rush any deals. There were a lot of symbols floating. It didn’t take a genius to figure out some were for bipeds and thought it wiser to stay among them then some multi-limbed slimy creature. Nothing against them, but I didn’t fancy being scared shitless on my first encounter. The way I saw these other bipeds was them not all being typical humanoid. Different numbers of eyes, jaw size, tails, etc. Some might only have a pair of walking limbs, but then several arms. All of them going about their own business mingling. At least I was spared from some wise guy eyeing me wanting to be my best friend, multiple eyes at that, as a means to find out more about me before I was ready to give.

I needed to assess everything. Even create some stake money for a little gambling if it existed. That was going slightly against some of the post-hypnotics but if trading was common, then so was gambling and you can learn a lot by how aliens gambled and spot their tells. It would at least help me avoid a pig in a poke. I mean, how else would I know if something I bought was worth the money I spent? There must be some element of gambling when buying anything.

Some of these dudes eyes looked all over the place. I doubt if I could play poker  with them. That was even before I thought some might be mind-readers let alone understand body language better than me. Didn’t seem that likely I could introduce Earth card games to them. Learning what games of chance they are would be just as tough. Two eyes against four. Some of them on stalks. Who could read such body language? I put my thoughts on gambling aside for the moment.

I continued my walk. Being on a space station meant eternal light. I wondered how they would regulate a day or didn’t these people sleep? Perhaps they should have sent a biologist than a trader. All these peoples would be a xenobiologist’s prayer. Maybe there was book or disc on the subject I could buy with a translator and stop them asking endless questions where I didn’t know where to start.

Don’t think this station was quiet it wasn’t. People were either milling around or at their stands with all kinds of goodies to sell. There was no indication of when people stayed or left. It seemed like controlled chaos and no one attempted to speak to me. Maybe there was as many newbies as regulars here, all trying to make sense of what it was like to be here. How did anyone tell the difference between people you liked or disliked? There’s a lot to unravel here so I made the least mistakes.

I also was being ignored. No one seemed to be interested in the new alien. That was more apparent now. I hadn’t actually asked anyone any questions but could be given the cold shoulder. Then again, the groupings rarely broke up and talked to each other neither. I don’t think anyone even looked my direction. So much for being inquisitive. At home, one could even venture the name clique although not much bartering or selling seems to be going on. Were they waiting for an auction?

That thought continued until there was a buzz and my implant announced that it was meal time. The hall cleared and I just followed the crowd to one of the several fooderies around this level. As much as it would make sense to sit alone, it did make me think it would be an ideal time to chat with someone. Hoping that chairs or tables weren’t allocated I sat opposite an alien who had the same number of eyes as myself and copied it by putting my hand on a pad and a designated meal popped up on the table. It’s didn’t look like terrestrial food and I stirred it gently before trying it. No too bad. No stomach rejecting and, whatever it was, was at least palatable and tasty. Probably all the right nutritional values.

The alien opposite me just wolfed it down without looking up. Putting its plate down, it was quickly replaced with another one. I followed suit when I finished, if only to understand the fooderie protocol. A glass of water appeared, although the alien didn’t seem to need one because it didn’t get one. I looked across at other tables and similar patterns went on there. Eating not talking. It seemed that the fooderie was not a place for business or socialising. The alien seemed content to finish its second plate by licking it. At least the meal plates weren’t edible.

I belched and wasn’t alone. Somehow the alien caterers ensured tables for everyone. It was either belching or farting. Wind after eating was pretty common and the fooderie didn’t allow any smell to linger. No one left out for a second sitting. Various people were getting up and leaving. I sat it out. I was curious to see who was left, especially as the alien opposite me went early.

When the tables and chairs dropped into the floor and I landed on my ass, I decided that was the signal that it was time to go. I could only hope the latrines weren’t worked on a similar regime. At least, once I found them. Everyone seemed to have their own business and being kept busy. To break the ice, I needed to find someone with time on their hands or how many he, she or it had.

When I said the arcade was large, I wasn’t exaggerating. Even more, the lights were beginning to dim. It looks like our unseen hosts wanted to call it a day or night here. I only hoped there were night lights as I decided I ought to walk back to my ship. The walls opened up into a series of bedrooms. No wonder no one had put tables against them. All of them started to fill up. No one seemed eager to go back to their own ships. That meal must have been supper. The floor flashed up arrows to a bedroom. Looks like I had been allocated one.

Shrugging my shoulders and thinking complements of the house or space station, I went in and the door automatically closed. It wouldn’t open although a list appeared on the door. In English no less.

Summing up. Confined until morning to prevent thefts. Meals could be called. A john. A shower. A comfortable bed. A change of clothes if needed and a refresher to clean my day clothes. Hotels weren’t any better than this on Earth. I must stop thinking of these extra-terrestrials as having human equivalents of trading or vices come to that. I wonder how many tried to get out at night? No late night gambling. It also meant they enforced honest trading. I pocketed that information and glad I was still casing the joint. Lights flashed and began to dim. Sleep time and me without a toothbrush.

I woke to a bright light flashing. Remembering what happened to the furniture in the fooderie, I didn’t think it wise to hang around too long and used the washroom before dressing. This trade station was one up from being a potential prison. It would be wiser to do some trade and go home. As I put my coat on, a slot in the wall opened and delivered breakfast. No rushing to the fooderie then.

By my time, it was another hour before I was let out and joined the other traders on the arcade deck. This time, they became friendly, some slapping my back and others even shaking my hand with one of theirs. I was suddenly they best next new friend all of a sudden. Picking out the elements of their conversation, they hadn’t seen a species like myself before and thought I might be one of the creators of this space station. Being locked up convinced them otherwise. I was tempted to tell them that would also be the means for them to be infiltrated but thought wise not to say that. No sense adding to their underlying paranoia. I did raise the question of whether we were prisoners or not. Some weren’t sure. When they traded enough and paid the station fees, they were allowed to go but the 25% had accumulated and they didn’t have enough raw cash. There was a feeling that trading across species would be a calming effect and an equality to all the spacefaring species but something had gone wrong here and getting off was getting too expensive. They were looked after, so just had to wait for the right deal to come along.

I did ask the obvious question: had anyone done any real trading lately? I mean, that’s what we were all here for. Most of them had and sent their spaceships home to get more and hadn’t got back yet. Whether there were space pirates getting them before they reached light speed they didn’t know but few of them had enough money to pay the docking fees to leave so a solidarity grew. Did the same apply to the non-oxygen breathers? They didn’t know. No one dared to risk such an alien environment. I wasn’t that keen neither. They kept us apart for a reason but mostly survival.

They didn’t know who the space station’s owners were and any new species on-board was viewed with suspicion. The fact that I ate with them and slept in locked quarters meant I wasn’t. Again, should I tell them that might not be true if they wanted to keep a low profile. That might make them think it was me again. Not a clever idea. I needed to be on their side.

What I did do was explain my spaceship wasn’t mine but a trade deal. Were any of them familiar with my alien trader, Marcom. I gave scant details, wishing I was carrying the photo from the ship. Looking at the various aliens here, he or it could have belonged to any of them. So many eyes and hands. They would look mostly alike until I knew them enough to start telling them apart. There certainly wasn’t enough colours amongst them. Must be living on this space station. Did any of them need vitamin K, natural sunlight or did the station’s AI provide when necessary? That brought some muttering from some. Guess not everything was that translatable. What about sunlight? That brought some understanding. They pointed at the lights. I glanced at for the first time. I hadn’t noticed before but there was some flickering. Guess all modern comforts. Then again, the station made them all honest traders. I wasn’t prepared to test that.

So why didn’t they leave? Docking fees. Without sufficient trade with real currency they couldn’t be covered. The station looked after them, so it wasn’t exactly bad here. Well, not if they didn’t think of this as some sort of prison, although I didn’t say that aloud. I’d only been here a day.

Then I showed them one of my gold watches. Some of the best traders thought it would be a commodity that anyone would recognise. I laughed at what I showed. I mean, what good was a watch in a place like this. I still wasn’t sure what the length of day was here or how they divided it up. I only had an evening meal and breakfast to go by.

Oddly, they took the watches as serious. There was a market for antiques. I was providing some serious trade. Something they hadn’t seen for a while. They thought I had a goldmine…literally They had all traded amongst themselves and had run out of things to sell. Any more and there would be too much going to the space station. I seemed like a breath of fresh air to them. Even better, it was antiques. Did I have the heart to say these were our state of the art and show how backward our technology really was?

Of course not. A sell was a sell and I could see the whole stock gone, pay my dues to the space station and be on my way. They might not have any objections to stay here long term but I had that responsibility drilled into my head by auto-suggestion and needed to get home if for no other reason to get more stock.

I needed better than payment. It would look like beans back home. I offered product exchange and got that. Even if they thought to give me the oldest products, it would still be more advanced than anything we had. I did stress I would like technical manuals for any product they had. The time travelled home should give the ship’s computer time to do proper translations and information about each race encountered.

The port fees were minimal as the percentages on my trinkets. Well less than I expected but still hadn’t sorted out the alien currency. Then again, I had bartered mostly for products more than currency, only getting enough for the port fees. Time to get out of here before the next night lock-up happened. It seemed the trade station recognised gold and would take some of my watch stock as payment. That eased me a lot.

I ordered the ship out of orbit and towards the edge of the star system before I could initiate the star drive and back into hibernation.

Again, the responsibility post-hypnotic kicked in again. I had achieved my objective and got some decent deals. I also completed the favour for the alien trader who needed some currency given to his fellow traders. The belief that ancient gold curios would be worth a lot of money should be enough to trade with the station’s computer, pay their port fees and get them all out. Next time, they would at least be better prepared.

Of course they would go back. So would I. It’s a trading station. People just got caught on the regulations from time to time. A novice species going in could do the deals to get them out and we were traders for life, if you like. I suspect that’s how many species got into the interstellar trading game. A favour system and I had given them something that could be bartered with the trade station. Again, the responsibility hypnotic suggestion had kicked in. Honest trade had to rule. All I had done was given everyone the best deal.

© GF Willmetts 2022

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