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The Auctioneer’s Prize

by Nicola Somerscales


“Billions?” he heard many voices rumble back at him. That seemed an unthinkable number for an evolved species.

“That’s right. They have no limits on their breeding. They are free to procreate like the proverbial sacriat.”

His joke brought forth another burst of laughter from those gathered there. Sacriats were indeed vermin on their planet, hunted down for their meat, which was thankfully in plentiful supply.

“Oh, and Ladies... if you’re feeling left out, you might want to take a look at this.” The huge screen flickered back into life, now displaying images of attractive males copied from a television series they had intercepted through one of Earth’s satellites.

“What I propose today is that we take your orders, and then we send all our available harvesting ships to hunt out those humans who fulfil your requirements. They come in many shapes, sizes, and colours,” he advised them, as images of people from almost every country on Earth flashed up on the massive display screen. “Just select the picture that appeals to you most, pick the gender of your choice, and we will add your preferences to the bulk order.”

“What about this one? ” one of his audience asked, pointing to the girl he carried. “Is she for sale today?”

“I’m afraid not. This one is already taken,” he smiled, clutching her a little tighter.

The auctioneer’s assistants busied themselves with taking down people’s orders, along with a ten percent deposit to secure the deal.

On his shoulder, the human girl stirred. He lowered her back to the ground and held her before him. The Venerable Alustrons had promised the girl would be his if he could secure a price above sixty thousand credits for future orders — along with his usual commission, of course.

As he smoothed down her hair, the girl needed no help to translate his thoughts. His intentions were clear for anyone to read.

“Fools,” Jacanthra grumbled, as she strode away from the auction house. “Do they not see how idiotic they are being? He forces them to pay eighty-five thousand credits, then says they are in plentiful supply. How can he justify such a price? How can any of them agree to pay it?”

“I think they were somewhat dazzled by the beauty of the lot. Sometimes, covetousness takes over common sense, even with those who are normally frugal,” Herati said grimly.

“But, eight-five thousand credits, Herati,” she repeated, halting as if the sheer thought of such an amount could stop her in her tracks. “That’s more than I can earn in five revolutions of our sun.”

“I know, but they have the money. You cannot stop them spending it as they will. It is their right.”

She turned on him, then, her eyes blazing. “And once the harvesting ships have returned with enough to satisfy this order, what then, hmmm?” she asked. “Then, others will see them and want them, and you know the Alustrons will never pass up an opportunity to make money. If that happens, and the number of humans increases, there is no way our water supplies will cope.”

“The Venerable Alustrons will not allow that to happen. They live here, too.”

“I’m not so sure. They've always been careful to choose species from regions and planets with climates similar to ours before, but the Alustrons stand to make a fortune from this find. After all, they are the only ones with the ships necessary to travel outside our galaxy, so no one else can find these ‘Humans’. All they will think about is the profit margin possible from such a sale. And with all those credits banked, they will be able to buy water for themselves from any planet in the region.”

“I suppose so,” Herati nodded. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“No, and neither has anyone else in that room. We have to stop this.”

“She did look very frightened. Do you think she understood what was going on?” he asked his friend.

Jacantha sighed, giving him a patient look. “I think she understood enough. So, are you with me on this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to help me stop this?”

He looked worried, watching as all the bidders filed out of the arena and onto the street. Jacantha was renowned for her protests and political opinions, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be dragged into another of her fights. “I don’t know, Jacantha. You enjoy rebellion, but it doesn’t come so naturally to me.”

She grabbed his arm and turned him around, pointing him in the direction of a water pedlar. Behind him sat several dozen crates housing containers of the valuable liquid. The price on the sign read: ‘Water — 30 credits per litre’. “When that sign reads one hundred credits per litre, will it come more naturally, then?” she asked.

He looked back at her in disbelief. “The price will never rise that high.”

“I’ll remind you of your words when water prices soar,” she laughed. “When they bring large numbers of humans to this planet, water supplies will be stretched, and those who have it will be able to charge whatever they want."

He looked at the water stand, then back at her. “What do you have in mind?”

She thought about it some. Although she had a habit of railing against the authorities, she rarely ever took action. This time, she truly felt the need to do something. The Venerable Alustrons had overstepped the mark by bringing a human to the planet. Trading in animals was one thing, but trading in life forms equivalent to theirs left a bitter taste in her mouth.

“We should go to the auctioneer’s house and take her from him. If we can gather enough evidence that she is an intelligent being, our people will surely see the error of this venture. Wealth does not give anyone the right to enslave a member of another species.”

Herati gaped back at her, hardly daring to believe he’d heard her correctly. “Are you in earnest? If we are caught, we will be arrested.”

“Then, we will have to ensure we do not get caught. We’ll go there tonight. Hopefully, he will be sound asleep when we take her. If anyone accuses us, we will pretend she escaped and we happened across her, and we were on our way to return her when she proved just how intelligent she was.”

Reluctantly, Herati agreed to help with her scheme. He didn’t feel he had much choice, since Jacantha rarely took no for an answer once she had set her mind on something. They returned to his house, where Jacantha spent the rest of the day plotting ways in which she might demonstrate the intellect of the human.

Unfortunately, language differences proved a huge obstacle to every test she devised. Their time with her would be limited; if caught in possession of the human and unable to prove their point effectively, the punishment would be severe.

Herati tended his barmuttes, two of which were about to birth offspring. Although they could take care of themselves, he didn’t like the idea of leaving them at such a critical time, since they almost always gave birth at night. But once his friend latched onto an idea, a hurricane could not shake her loose. After ensuring they had clean bedding, and plenty of the moist grains and grasses they required, he felt confident that nature could safely take its course

In the end, Jacantha decided they should just take the human and hope they could overcome the language barrier. After all, even the dumbest animal could understand basic instructions; the human should be no different.

After eating a hearty supper, both she and Herati headed to the auctioneer’s house. Everyone knew where he lived, as he did nothing to conceal his location. He had the largest house in the region, outside of those owned by the ruling family themselves. The original building had been extended several times to accommodate his growing wealth and ego. As was often the case, the additions looked trite and gaudy; wealth did not necessarily equal taste, it seemed.

A light still glowed out of an upstairs window, so they concealed themselves in the shadows nearby and waited for it to extinguish... And waited... And waited.

Eventually Herati nudged his friend. “How much longer do you plan to wait here? Perhaps he has fallen asleep with the light still burning.”

“Do you think we should risk entering?” she asked, less sure of herself now that the time had come to act.

“Either that, or we abandon the idea altogether.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head vehemently. “My conscience will not allow that. Follow me.”

Creeping up to the house, Jacantha peered in through one of the ground floor windows. Everything was dark and she could see no movement, so she slipped around to the door and tried it. To her surprise, she found it unlocked. Theft was common in these parts; no one left their door unlocked once they had retired for the night. She supposed the creature he had brought home with him had proved a distraction in his usual routine.

Glancing at her equally puzzled friend, she eased the door open and stepped inside, treading softly so she made no noise. The house was silent; not a single sound met their ears.

“Perhaps they are not here,” Herati suggested.

“With such a prize for the taking, do you really think he would be anywhere else?” she asked.

He shook his head, following her to the staircase. As she mounted the bottom tread, Herati stopped her. “If he sees us, we will be in serious trouble.”

“What is the worst that can happen? A few months labouring in a mine without pay? We’ll live,” she pointed out. “Now, come on; your planet needs you.”

He rolled his eyes, stepping his way carefully up the stairs behind her. On the next level, the door of the room where the light still glowed was slightly ajar. Exchanging a worried glance, they both headed in its direction.

The door creaked slightly as Jacantha pushed it open, but it caused no reaction within the room. Everything was still.

The bedroom was elaborately furnished with handcrafted pieces from various neighbouring planets, and the bed sheets bore extravagant embroidery all around the edges, far finer work than that produced on their home world.

“Obviously, being an auctioneer pays well,” Herati whispered in her ear, admiring his surroundings.

She signalled for him to be quiet. She had heard noise in the room with them, a very quiet noise, but a noise all the same.

Jacantha edged into the room, rounding the bed slowly. As she did, she became aware of vibrant colour splashed across the floor; crimson pools shining upon the tiles. A feeling of unease punched at her stomach, giving rise to a surge of panic; something she rarely experienced. This colour was a bad sign. This colour should not be here.

Moving on, the source of the vivid decoration revealed itself. The auctioneer lay on the floor beside his bed, his clothes stained with the same shade of crimson that lay all around him. A knife stood wedged in his ribs, and his eyes clouded as the life ebbed out of him.

Jacantha and Herati both gasped involuntarily. This was unthinkable. Someone had deliberately killed the auctioneer. Although the law allowed owning dangerous animals to guard against trespassers, the deliberate harming of a Trilasquon by another Trilasquon was unheard-of in anything other than tales to frighten children. Why would anyone have done this — unless they wanted the human?

A flurry of movement followed their discovery, and as they instinctively flinched away, the human leapt forward out of nowhere to grab the knife and wield it before her. Then, she backed herself into a corner, sliding down the wall until she sat sobbing and shaking before them.

“Di... did she do this?” Herati asked, stumbling over his words as he continued to stare, fixated by the macabre scene at their feet.

“I think that is a safe assumption.”

Jacantha moved forward to check the auctioneer for signs of life, but the human, obviously seeing her as a threat, screamed and viciously sliced the air in her direction. Jacantha held up her hands as a sign she meant no harm, and backed away.

“Is he..?” Herati asked, without daring to voice the full question.

“I think so. If not, he will be soon; it’s hard to tell without actually touching him.”

The girl now pushed up off the floor, sliding her back up the cold wall until she was vertical again. Then, she crept her way out of the room, clinging to the wall and keeping her knife pointing in their direction the whole time until she reached the door. Once there, she ran like fury.

The two Trilasquons watched her go, not attempting to stop her. After a few moments of silence, Herati asked, “Should we go after her?”

Shaking her head, Jacantha knelt beside the auctioneer and checked for a heartbeat. There was none. Staring down at the Trilasquon she had done verbal battle with so many times, a Trilasquon whose name she had not even bothered to learn, she felt a pang of shame. “I won’t pretend I liked him,” she said quietly, “but not even he deserves such a brutal end.”

“We should leave, before anyone suspects us of this crime,” her friend said, tugging at her arm.

She rose, looking around at the floor. Human footprints painted with the auctioneer’s blood lay dotted all around them. “I think they will know who is to blame,” she assured him. “Come on, we should go and find someone to report this to.”

They walked back out into the crisp night air, their heavy, shuddering breaths condensing before them as they scanned the streets to ensure the human wasn’t about to leap out and dispatch them from this life.

Herati shivered, half due to the cold, and half from shock. He pulled his collar in tighter against his neck. “What will happen to her now?”

“If they catch her, she’ll be publicly put to death. You know the penalty for murder, though it I have never seen it implemented in my lifetime. If she’s lucky, she’ll head out into the wastelands and meet her death out there. Nature will be kinder to her than our justice.”

“Do you no longer wish to find her and prove she is intelligent?”

“After what we have seen, I’m not sure she is. What evolved being could do that to another? Besides, I don’t think there will be any need for us to make our argument against bringing humans to our world now. Who would want a creature like that in their home, risking the lives of their family just for a few moments of pleasure?

“No, Herati, I think we can put our rebellion on hold. Intelligent or not, the human has proved our point far more eloquently than we could ever have hoped to. Humans do not belong in this world. Now, let’s find a sheriff and report this atrocity.”

Looking over her shoulder, Jacantha caught sight of a shadow flitting from doorway to doorway, its progress illuminated only by the moon. She knew it was the human but made no comment, letting her make her way out of the town unimpeded. No one need know she had seen the creature, and then its death would not be on her conscience.

Fate alone could decide the future of the auctioneer’s prize.

Copyright © 2009 by Nicola Somerscales

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