One of the closest colonies to Earth is a world called the Crescent. By humans, of course. The niao have some name for it that references some city in their home system. The planet is one of the major trade hubs in this part of the galaxy. Not only is it close to Earth and a few other frontier colonies but it borders Je'Techt space. Two decades ago the two space powers had engaged in a destructive war but now, as things tend to go, the niao and Je'Techt were frequent trade partners. With a simmering undercurrent of contempt, mistrust and resentment, of course.
The moment I gate out, the Crescent dominates my viewscreen. It's easy to see how the planet earned its human nickname. The big blue sphere has just one major landmass and it is in the shape of a giant crescent moon. I like to visit different colonies. I build almost all of my relationships with contacts and informants over the net, so I like to occasionally see them outside that context. Perhaps get a sense of them and a little insight to why or when they might hold something back. Also, I do need to purchase groceries and such from time to time. I can't possibly have anything delivered and the merchants on less official colonies often have extremely limited wares.
A few seconds after I enter into realspace, I am contacted by the ground control of the planet. A holograph of the head and shoulders of a female niao appears just above my control console. She has a long crest of green and gold. She immediately begins speaking, identifying my ship by its registration number and asking me about my business on the planet. I know that greetings are more formal and pleasant for niao. I can't tell niao disgust by their tone or expression but I always imagine that that's what they are feeling when they are forced to communicate with me.
The ship I'm piloting this day is a small single-person junk. It's niao in origin and very outdated. Exactly the kind of ship a human should be able to afford. I can't imagine what would happen if I showed up in niao space at the helm of the Psychopomp. They would probably just destroy me, no questions asked. I named this junk Raven and designed multiple histories of both it and its pilot. The planet’s own computers should be confirming one of them now. The database of active craft in niao-controlled space is mind-bogglingly huge. It is not hard to squeeze through the cracks and register false ships and histories.
"I am here on business, mistress," I answer to her query. "Trading."
She stares at me for a long time, head canted just to the left. "What kinds of products could you be carrying in such a small ship?"
"Everything is on the cargo manifest, mistress," I say politely.
"So it is." The niao pauses for a moment and then continues, "Fine, human. Be aware that we reserve the right to inspect your cargo at any time. Your ship and cargo will be seized if any restricted material is found. You are expected to be familiar with the expectations and laws we have in place to guide human behavior. We do not tolerate any human mischief on our planet."
"I understand, mistress," I say. The niao gives me another long stare and then abruptly cuts the signal. Once she can no longer see me, my lip curls into a sneer. Human mischief? The niao's crest would fall out if she knew half the 'human mischief' I get up to.
The Crescent has just one city, an enormity that stretches across the entirety of the southern part of the landmass. It is nearly two hundred kilometers wide and has ports entering both the east and west oceans. It is the only thing even approaching a city on the planet. The northern part of the landmass is dotted with farms and a few tiny villages. There are islands in the vast oceans but only a few have populations in the triple digits. The economy of the Crescent revolves around mining, fishing and farming the oceans and exporting those goods through the immense port city. My ship is one of dozens entering and exiting the atmosphere at the moment.
I touch down at one of the hundreds of landing platforms that dominate the sky above Crescent City. Being a human means I am restricted to certain platforms. They are, of course, among the most dilapidated despite their managers charging premium prices. I connect with the manager's network and prepay for a spot for seventy standard hours. I always pay ahead for more hours than I plan to use. The prepayment is non-refundable but if a human's ship is on the platform for one second longer than they paid for, the ship is usually impounded. At the least, an exorbitant late fee is charged.
Stepping out onto one of the niao landing platforms has to be a nightmarish experience for any person afraid of heights. Each platform is completely transparent, so that the sun is able to shine through. Not only do niao love the sunshine as much or more than any human but much of their technology uses solar energy. So while I walk to the lift, I can stare straight down at the seemingly endless urban crawl. The view is quite impressive, making me glad the sky is not overcast.
A lift takes me down to the city proper. The tube the lift travels through is similarly transparent, though the disc I and a few other passengers stand on is a translucent blue. All the passengers on the lift are human. None of us speak to each other. I try to appraise them based on their clothing. Like me, two of the three are wearing niao clothing. Strangely enough, naio seem to prefer we dress like them. I am currently wearing an orange sleeveless shirt, purple shorts that hang past my knees and sandals. Much to my private displeasure, I’ve also dyed my hair black.
The other man is wearing a suit. It looks expensive and well-tailored but I am hardly the best judge of such things. He ought to be careful. Human clothing marks him as an off-worlder. Technically, humans are allowed to visit most of the niao colonies to see relations. However, there are vagrancy laws on every niao colony. The Crescent's are some of the strongest. No human was allowed to 'loiter' on the colony without a job. If convicted, a human could be deported back to Earth but a far more common sentence was a fine and jail time. Which was almost always commuted to a sentence of hard labor. Then the colony government either put the convict to work themselves or leased them out to private businessmen. Since the human was a convict, they weren't obliged to pay a wage, just to provide food and shelter.
The naio empire professed a staunch opposition to chattel slavery. One of the reasons they went to war with the Je'Techt even. This wasn't that, said the top minds and leaders. These are convicts after all. Criminals. Instead of incarceration, they repay society for their crimes. They learn a trade so that they can get real jobs. Of course, this was all propaganda to salve whatever passed for a niao’s conscience. After all, why would any smart businessman hire a worker for money when they could rent one for free? How were humans supposed to get back to Earth with no money? And the dirtiest secret of all, how come so many humans left Earth to visit a colony and ended up convicted vagrants? I hope for the man in the suit's sake that he has bribed the right people to make sure he can go home again.
Surely, both the other humans in the lift with me are caught in the vagrancy cycle. The niao clothing they are wearing is faded and patched. They are sallow and skinny. Both of them have a cringing quality brought on by being repeatedly brought low. My mere demeanor used to draw attention from niao. Too confident. Too obvious I didn't know my place. In some ways, I wonder if humans might be better off as actual slaves. Most people will take better care of something they own than something they rent. Either way, the whole thing makes me sick. Simply being stuck in the lift for the long ride down into the city is enough to stoke the coals of my anger into a full blaze.
It is a relief when we finally reach the city and I get to get off. I have to consciously alter my gait and remember to keep my shoulders hunched and eyes on the ground. Still don't know my place, I'm just better at hiding it. The Crescent is one of the best places for a human to blend in. Over a quarter of the population is human. That's millions of humans. More exist here than just about anywhere outside the Solar System. I've been harassed on planets further from Earth with small enough populations of humans that authorities recognize a new one. Especially the few where convict-leasing is not a practice. The hate I get there is different from the contempt here and even more dangerous.
Crescent City is still a horizontal city rather than a vertical one. There was so much room to grow in that direction that as of yet they have not had to create another level of city on top of the bedrock. It is so wide now though that it would be a multi day trek to walk across the breadth of the city. And surely no human should be able to afford to rent a personal ground vehicle, even if he could find a business willing to rent him one. That leaves public transit. Luckily, one thing I will say for the niao is that they have pretty decent public infrastructure.
Antigrav trains wind through every part of the city. It is a simple matter to register for the trains and the surcharge I get for being an off-world human is actually fairly reasonable. I get in the human line for the entrance to the nearest train. It is unpleasant, shuffling forward ever so slowly amongst the crush of hundreds of humans. Many of whom could use a shower. The man in front of me tries to strike up a conversation in Cantonese but I shake my head, pretending I don't understand.
There are special cars for humans, of course, and we are all shoved into one of those. I don't bother to try and find some place to sit. Instead I stand near the back with my arms crossed. The inertia compensators of the train will insulate me from the effects of its rapid acceleration and twists and turns. There are humans on every side of me, pushed up against me. This is one of the worst parts about visiting the Crescent. I'm used to being alone. The lack of personal space is...trying. I distract myself by beginning a new book on the French Revolution. This author has a much different perspective on it than the last. I've determined that attempting to learn about human history is anything but straightforward.
I have been on the Crescent enough times that I don't have to review any of the maps to know where my stop is. A few people get off with me but I still have to make judicious use of my elbows to escape the car before the doors close. It only takes a few minutes to reach my destination from here. The building I stop in front of stands out among the niao architecture as being something distinctly human. It was modeled after classical Chinese-style buildings, being two stories of lacquered wood, rectangular in shape with a flared roof. The sign hanging just under the roof, bright red English letters and Chinese characters, reads: "Honest Abe's Emporium of Fine and Rare Goods."
The door is bamboo and, in keeping with the shop's pleasant old-fashioned manner, a bell chimes when I open it. The inside of the shop is crammed with shelves and shelves of junk, all of it originating from Earth. Abe imports some of that stuff but most of it was pawned by desperate humans trying to scrape enough money together to get off the Crescent. The last, most personal possessions of a human and Abe sells them to other desperate humans looking for something to remind them of home or some niao with a human fetish.
Of course, that business is just a front. Abe is the most successful black marketeer on the planet. So rich that he can act flamboyantly human without incurring the wrath of the colony government. Of course, if they knew about some of his activities, no amount of bribery would keep his head on his shoulders. In a lot of ways, Abe was the hub of all illicit human activity on the Crescent. He is even becoming something of a threat to the traditional niao crime lords. I've saved his skin more than once with a warning that someone was coming after him.
Not that he realizes that the person who warned him is the person currently in his shop. I did it through the net, in a different guise. To Abe, the person walking through his shop is just a freelance smuggler. Perhaps he has connected me with Hachimantaro and thinks he knows who I really am. As if anybody in the universe knows who I really am.
Honest Abe is sitting behind a counter as I walk up. He is a wizened man of Filipino descent with a wispy, white mustache and beard. Despite his advanced age, he balances easily on a stool with his back straight. His light brown eyes are clear and intelligent. He is wearing a white silk shirt, black silk pants, black slippers and a straw hat over his bald head. I'm not sure the history behind the beat-up old straw hat but Abe never appears in public without it. Likewise, I do not know his original name nor the origin of his current moniker. I know enough of American history to know it was the nickname of Abraham Lincoln, the US president who abolished slavery. I do not know if Abe knows that or why he chose the name if he does. As far as I can tell, freeing humanity from the yoke of niao oppression does not seem to be a particularly high priority for the man.
The old man is chatting with a human woman a quarter of his age when I walk up. When he spots me, the pipe he has clenched between his teeth nearly falls out. He snatches it and shouts, "Cato, my dear boy! You never let me know when you're coming to the city."
"And miss that look of shock on your face?" I say with a smirk.
"You little shit," Abe laughs, hopping off his stool with surprising spryness. He hustles around the counter and enfolds me in a back-slapping hug.
"You know you're always my first stop, Abe," I say warmly, returning the hug. I notice the girl Abe had been talking to is edging away. Something about her catches my eye and I turn my head to look at her.
Abe notices and takes a step away from me and toward her. "I'm sorry, dear, I didn't mean to ignore you." He is oozing charm despite being fifty years her senior, at least. I shake my head. The man never shied from using his position to chase women. It's easy to dazzle a girl with a few trinkets when she doesn't even own the clothes on her back. Abe turns to me and with a wink says, "This young lady is Nailah Luciana." The name tickles something in my brain but I dismiss it as unimportant. Looking back at her and gesturing toward me Abe says, "And this insolent boy is Marcus Cato."
I step forward and take her hand in mine. "Pleased to meet you." I can see why Abe was trying to smooth-talk her. Her face is a little plain but her eyes are big and very dark and she has a lovely smile. I can see traces of Mediterranean heritage in her olive skin tone and thick brown-black hair. She is slight but less malnourished than many of the humans I see. Either she has an employer that values her or she's proficient at charming some extra food out of people who can afford it. Her faded green top, patched pink shorts and beaten white slippers would seem to argue against the former.
"Nice to meet you, too," Nailah says with a polite smile. After a perfunctory shake, she lets go of my hand and hefts the small package she is holding in her other hand. She ducks around me and addresses Abe. "Thanks for your help, Abe. I need to get this to..." She whistles a name with more skill than I can manage. I'm also not sure what the name translates to.
"Are you sure you need to run off so soon?" Abe whines.
"He hates to be kept waiting," she says firmly, taking a couple of steps backward. "Thank you again." She spins away and hurries out the door. I notice some scarring on her upper back that the green tank-top doesn't quite cover.
Abe snaps his fingers. "And she is gone again. You're timing could be better, Cato," he grumbles sourly.
"You're feeding her even though she isn't returning the favor?" I ask wryly.
Abe puts a hand over his heart. "Please. I've known that girl since she was ten. I do what I can for all the hungry children of this city." I raise an eyebrow. Abe smiles. "Besides, it would be a true crime to watch those balloons on her chest deflate."
"That's very heroic of you, Abe," I say without real bite.
"You know as well as I do that there's no such thing as heroes. Especially on the Crescent," Abe says good-naturedly. "Come on. I have a bottle of scotch I've been waiting to open." I follow Abe upstairs to his office and sit down as he pours both of us a healthy dose of scotch. It's good. Abe always has the best stuff.
"So how have things been going here?" I ask.
"Same as always, my boy." Abe answers before taking a slug of scotch. "Old Piney knows what he is about. His reforms are keeping the populace happy enough." Abe leans forward and adds, conspiratorially. "And a few tax breaks he pushed through kept the money men from getting too upset."
The reforms that Abe is referring to are laws that banned humans from doing specialized work. Well, specifically, it only banned any person in the convict-lease program but it effectively kept humans out of most work that wasn't general labor. "So all the niao protest of the convict-leasing of humans dried up just like that, huh?" I say with a hint of bitterness.
Abe shrugs. "They only cared that the free work done by humans was causing unemployment among poor niao. They're more like us than you'd think. A lot of them may not like the program but most of them will only stir if it directly impacts their life. And you know well as I do that more of them would support mass deportation than any other solution to the human problem."
I grunt. "I'm not sure how you live here sometimes."
"Money helps," Abe retorts with a toothy grin.
I laugh. "So same old, same old, huh?"
"Nothing changes on the Crescent. Too many people making too much money for that." I nod. Abe is not going to share his secrets with the man he knows as the smuggler Cato. It doesn't matter. Abe keeps me informed in other ways. "Enough of that," Abe continues. "Tell me what you've been getting up to."
"Not much." I spread my arms out wide. "Just traversing this vast universe, looking for deals."
"You do have a talent for it, boy," Abe says, rubbing his hands together. "Don't keep me in suspense now. What have you brought your beloved old Abe?" With a smirk, I broadcast my manifest-not the one I fed to Crescent control but the actual list-directly to Abe. His eyes and smile widen as he scrolls through the list. Since the Raven can't carry much, Cato specializes in very high-priced goods. "Where do you find these things, Cato?" Abe asks in delight.
There's a chance that Abe knows exactly where I get them—by raiding and stealing them from niao smugglers. I have to play the game though, "You know a lot of the pirates that come through Port Royal aren't the most worldly fellows. I can pay a quarter-price for some of this stuff and they walk away thinking they had the score of a lifetime."
Abe chuckles at that. "Way to do it. Leave both sides happy," he says absently. "Just watch out if they ever learn how much you are taking them for. That usually comes back on you in a bad way."
I wave a dismissal with my hand. "How are they going to figure it out? All they care about is food, booze and sex. In fact, I once bought a kilo of Erbium for a loaf of French bread, a jug of rum and a hand job."
The last bit snaps Abe's attention back to me. "What?"
I roll my eyes. "I'm kidding, Abe, but you get my point."
"I do. If both sides come away happy, somebody got swindled," Abe says. "With that in mind, shall we get started with our own negotiations?"
I nod and those negotiations last long into the day. I try to get Abe drunk by encouraging him to go shot for shot with me but he learned a long time ago that I can drink him under the table. Instead, he keeps his wits about him and we both leave disgusted and unhappy. So if Abe's words are true, we both got a fair deal. The income Cato gets from fencing his stolen goods hardly matters to me. It is a drop in the bucket of my personal wealth but the principle of the deal matters to me. Also, Cato would be very concerned about the amount of money he was earning so I allow myself to be swept up in and care deeply about the negotiations with Abe.
Per the usual, Abe will pick up his goods with his own crew sometime during the night. That means that I have a lot of time to kill before I leave the planet. It's time to go shopping.