Trader’s Lot

by Tom Olbert

 

Callyn smiled and pursed his lips mockingly as the gruff-looking Martian slave trader snarled and drew his knife. “You damned, body-shifting freak! I’ll kill you!!” The man screamed as he lunged for Callyn. Callyn twirled to avoid the thrust, the knife missing his heart by a centimeter.

Callyn moved fluidly, like water engulfing his attacker. He rammed his knee where it hurt the savage most, wrenched the knife from him and laid him out with a broken nose before he could blink. These planet-dwelling genspecs (gender specifics) were pathetically slow and clumsy. Bound as they were to their high-gravity worlds, they moved with all the grace of living slabs of rock on legs. The local cops arrived right on cue, Callyn having deliberately tripped the security alarm in this pleasure suite of the Hotel Olympus Mons. “What have we got here?” the ranking militiaman asked, pointing his automatic pistol at Callyn. “I see a difference of opinion between two men, but I don’t see a female. You better start explaining, pal.”

Callyn smiled as he concentrated, activating his hormonal metamorphosis. The militiamen sneered and guffawed in disgust as Callyn’s breasts grew to their full, lovely ripeness, “his” male genitalia receding as her female persona emerged. “Slight failure of communication,” Callyn said with a mischievous toss of her long, dark hair, her voice suddenly growing softer. “Mind you, he wasn’t complaining one bit while I was in this mode.”

“A damned, two-faced rock-rat,” one of the cops said.

“I want that thing killed,” the slave trader said, sniffling and wiping blood out of his mouth. “She… he… it… deceived me. I thought it was a woman!”

“I was,” Callyn explained with a smile, stepping toward the head cop. “And, for the moment, I still am. I’m sure you wouldn’t disagree, Commander,” she flirted, passing a slender, perfumed hand softly across his rugged face.

The man smiled. The smile abruptly slipped off his face and he roughly shoved her against the bed. “You freaks know the law on Mars,” he barked angrily. “The penalty for gender impersonation is death by a means of the victim’s choice.” He glanced back at the slave trader and grinned slightly.

“Hey, I was just amusing myself,” Callyn said as he straightened up and focused, resuming his male persona. “I’m not in my fertile cycle, so it’s not like I stole any of this clown’s DNA. You think I’d want any of that stupid ape’s characteristics in my replacement?” The slave trader snarled angrily, sitting up on the floor and pressing a blood-reddened medical patch against his nose. “Anyway, before you kill me, I suggest you look at this.”

He reached into his purse and handed the commander his security clearance pass. The holographic card was signed and stamped with the DNA print of Karl Victor Hardshield, the ranking commercial agent for the RedScar Clan, the most powerful family in this province of Mars. The cop snatched the card away and passed a DNA scanner over it, verifying its authenticity. He scowled in disappointment as he handed the card back to Callyn. “Diplomatic immunity,” he said with a sigh. “We can’t touch the freak.”

“What?!” the slave trader cried, struggling to his feet with a cop’s help, still holding the med-patch over his broken nose. “You can’t be serious! That thing soiled me! I demand satisfaction!! Do you know who I am, Commander?!!”

“Yes, I know, Baron Hammerboot,” the policeman muttered with a shrug. “But, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. Get the baron to a doctor,” he ordered one of his men, holstering his pistol. “As for you, little Miss back-and-forth,” he sneered at Callyn. “You’ve caused enough trouble. Pack up your crud and get your gender-shifting butt off Mars, and back to the asteroid belt where your kind belong. Or, you just might find yourself the victim of a gang incident. I expect to find you gone when I come back here in two hours,” he warned as he started towards the door.

Callyn smiled and blew him a kiss.

* * * * *

“Your methods are a little unorthodox, Callyn,” Karl Victor Hardshield said through the holoscreen, a smile crossing his dark, handsome face. “But, you got the job done.”

Callyn smiled at the holo image from the pilot’s seat of his spaceship, now deep in the asteroid belt. “As I recall, Karl, you said something similar right after our first sexual encounter.” A hearty laugh rang out from the Martian bureaucrat as Callyn willed his face back to its soft, feminine visage.

“Same old Callyn,” Hardshield sighed. “As usual, your strategy worked. The locals covered up that little trick you played on Klaus Hammerboot, just as you predicted, so there’s no record of your visit. Or, of my involvement. I trust you had no trouble avoiding the customs patrols after they kicked you offworld?”

Callyn glanced back at the sealed lead containers in the cargo hold. “None. Tell your people I’ll rendezvous with your cargo ship in the Jovian sector in three standard days.”

“Until next time, my sweet,” Karl said with that smile that had always made Callyn quiver, just as his image faded.

* * * * *

“Why the Void aren’t you on your way back here to the inner belt?” Kresh snapped through the holo screen, her attractive features currently set in a very bitchy expression of female identity. “Why are you still in Jovian space?”

Callyn groaned as he maneuvered his ship for docking with the Jupiter space station. He had to play it cool. “Looking for prospects, what else? With the two Jovian empires on the brink of war,” he had to look away quickly to hide the hint of a tear, “they’ll need someone to supply their military fleets.”

“You’re not fooling anyone, Callyn,” the other nomad barked, his features taking on a hard male edge. “I know all about your dalliances on Ganymede and Callisto. You’ve allowed yourself to get far too close to these genspecs. It’ll be the death of you in the end.” Callyn let his mind pleasantly wander, in order to drown out Kresh’s incessant whining. Memories of his last space dock rotation at the Ceres dome still brought a smile to his face. “You actually like it here?” so many of his fellow nomads had asked with disbelieving grimaces on their faces. They were all anxious to finish their dock tours and get back to their trade routes. Freedom. The deep black empty. Planetside ports. Fun. Callyn was the only one who’d bothered to inspect the auto-womb chambers deep inside the asteroid, where the next generation was growing. He’d looked through the glass panels into the amniotic sacs where the little ones slept. He was looking forward to holding some of them. Someday, maybe teaching a few.

It had taken him back to his own childhood on Ceres. And that one shift when a group of genspec refugees had passed through. They’d paid the nomads for transport to Saturn after the Marsies had seized their colony, one of the space habitats in Venus orbit. None of the other nomad kids liked them. Besides being sad all the time, they were weird. Like androids, or something; they never changed. He’d gotten to know one of them, sort of. Kayla, she’d called herself. Female, like all the others from Venus Station. He’d found her slumped against a wall near a waste reclamation facility, crying, and had tried talking to her. He still remembered her face, a little. Large, green eyes, red and puffy with tears. Small mouth, quivering. He’d touched her long, curling brown hair and wiped a tear away from her face. “Don’t cry,” he’d said. “Want to try one of the cyber stations with me? They’re not hard, and they’re really fun. I scored over 200 on Hyper Run last time!” He’d been a little scared when she’d put her arms around him; no adult nomad had ever done that. For a second, he’d thought it was an attack. When he’d pulled away and asked what was wrong, she’d touched his face, half-laughed, half-cried and said how much he’d resembled her little sister. Dead now, along with so many others. Including her infant daughter.

He’d stayed with Kayla through the remainder of her time on Ceres, even though the others had teased him for it. Spending time with her wasn’t as stimulating as playing the cyber stations, or as amusing as interacting with the caretaker robots. But, he liked her, and his company seemed to make her less sad. It was nice, somehow, having an adult all to himself. He’d felt a little sad when she’d said ‘goodbye’ and walked through the air-lock into the transport ship. He’d wondered if he’d ever get to meet his own replacement, someday. “Callyn, are you listening?!”

Kresh’s voice startled him back to the present, but he quickly regained his composure. “Your concern touches me, love, but I know what my boundaries are, thank you. I’m only staying long enough to do a little business… and, maybe, have a little fun… and I’ll see you on Ceres in three standard days.”

“I hope so. I’d hate to see your name find its way onto the blacklist.”

He had to struggle to keep the fear out of his eyes. “When did the Guild start equating friendship with collusion?”

“Callyn…” Kresh wet his lips. “Your impudence is endearing only up to a point. I won’t tolerate insubordination, and the Guild certainly will not tolerate traders with a careless attitude toward belt security.”

Callyn fumed. He was beginning to chafe sorely at their stupid rules. Who were they to judge his every copulation? His every sacred moment? He glared at Kresh. “No one tells me how to run my contracts.”

Kresh raised his dark eyebrows. “Until the next fleet rotation, I’m overseer of all transactions in the Jovian sector. Nothing moves there without my approval, and don’t you ever forget it! Did you at least deliver your cargo on time?”

Callyn shrugged and sighed. “Yes. Twenty containers of nuclear fuel delivered as promised. The RedScar Clan will be able to get their illegal mining operation on Io up and running soon enough. And, we’ll get our cut. I trust Karl.”

“Glad to hear it. See you in three standard days.”

* * * * *

Blowing the credits he’d conned out of Klaus Hammerboot, Callyn stopped off at one of the station’s clothing boutiques and bought one of the frilly, unisex ensembles currently the rage on the Jovian moons. He wanted to look his best for Leyna and Marcus. His heart trembled a bit as he entered the station’s restaurant.

The Club Jove hadn’t lost any of the sparkle Callyn remembered from his last few visits here. The soft ballroom music, the crystal chandeliers and huge, gilded mirrors were just as he’d remembered. Dominating all was the bright red-and-orange curve of Jupiter viewed through the station’s revolving centrifuge visible through the transparent space wall. The men of Ganymede and the women of Callisto still socialized freely here. Leyna and Marcus sat together at their reserved table, waiting for Callyn.

Each of Callyn’s two former lovers greeted him with a smile and a warm embrace. In deference to each of them, he gender-shifted, assuming male guise for Marcus and female for Leyna, kissing each of them lovingly on both cheeks. “It’s been far too long,” he said, a kaleidoscope of memories both painful and sweet playing through his mind. He studied Marcus’s tall, sturdy frame and broad shoulders. The years hadn’t softened him. Callyn gently passed a hand across Marcus’s handsome face, admiring its strong chin, hawkish nose and warm blue eyes. His sandy-brown hair had greyed a touch at the temples and crow’s feet had set in around his eyes. A weathering that only accentuated his beauty. His smile was as bright as the day they’d met. And Leyna. Lovely as ever. Her striking green eyes and elfin triangular face were framed by tresses of artfully styled, dark auburn hair falling across her strong, graceful shoulders. That alluring face had grown a bit lined, but as with Marcus, time had aged her like a fine wine.

With each of them in turn, there had been love, jealousy, bitterness, then understanding, then healing, then love of a different kind. Each had moved on to find monogamous partners, as genspecs generally did. And, somehow, his love for both of them had formed the basis for the friendship the three of them had shared all these years since.

The conversation was light and pleasant over cocktails. But, neither the gin and tonics, nor the witty banter Callyn had used to win both their hearts long ago could smother the fear rising in his stomach. He detected a hint of worry in the cast of Leyna’s eyes. Marcus, though grinning amiably was nervously rubbing his thumb against the black onyx ring his father had given him, as he always did when he could sense something was wrong, but was afraid to broach the subject. Damn, had Callyn become that readable? “So… I hope this friendly get-together won’t earn either of you any cold, lonely nights,” he asked with a mocking wink, lifting his glass and taking a sip.

“Brigitte’s not the jealous type,” Leyna quipped with a smile. “And, her job at offworld com-sat keeps her mind occupied… these days.” She cast her eyes down and cleared her throat. “More late nights for her than I’d like, I don’t mind telling you,” she said with a smile, trying desperately to keep it light. “So, who is she to complain, if I spend one night with two old friends?”

“Yeah, I sympathize, Ley,” Marcus said quietly, eyes down, the ice clinking as he absently swished his drink. “Peter’s been busy, too, out on recon. Little Mike and Ron, they keep asking me when he’ll be home. I never know…” He trailed off and took a swallow of gin.

“Are your governments actually going through with this madness?” Callyn asked.

“It looks that way,” Marcus said grimly, setting down his drink and casting his eyes about the room, glancing at the couples dancing to some Old Earth composition that was being piped in. “A lot of good people have died, Callyn.” He clasped his hands together in a familiar indication of stifled anger. He no longer looked in Leyna’s direction. “We’ll probably never know which side fired first, but it really doesn’t matter anymore. The fire’s started, and there’s no putting it out.”

“Are you even sure who attacked your ships?” Callyn asked. “I mean, it could have been offworld pirates. That kind of thing happens in Mars space all the time.”“Fragments of Ganymedan or Callistan space missiles were discovered among the wreckage at each attack,” Leyna explained with a sigh, brushing aside a lock of hair. “Definitely military. It might have started with hard-line rogue factions on both sides, but Marcus is right. Both our governments are committed now.” Her voice was tight with pain, little more than a whisper, her eyes down. “My trade delegation has already been called home, and all our cargo ships have been diverted to the blockade.”

“Same here,” Marcus muttered, before draining the last of his drink.

“You genspecs,” Callyn said in anger. “Ready to kill each other over land.”

Marcus slammed his glass down and stared at Callyn. “At least, we care about something,” Marcus said, raising his voice, his eyes flashing with anger.

Callyn glanced around and noticed people were beginning to stare. Nicely done, Callyn, he chided himself, sipping his drink nervously and wondering for the first time if there might be Ganymedan and Callistan intelligence agents hovering about, pumping the club’s patrons for information. “Marc, I’m sorry,” he said, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, his armpits stinging under his fancy new clothes. “Leyna… I meant no insult.” They were both looking at each other now, and at him. He could see his own fear reflected in their eyes. The moment had arrived. Taking one last nervous glance around, Callyn forced down his fear and made his move. “Look…” he said, leaning in close over the table and whispering. “I can smuggle you both, and your families to the Saturn colonies. There’s no extradition from there. You’ll be safe.”

They both stared coldly at him for a moment. Then, a cascade of familiar emotions crossed both their faces. Anger. Gratitude. Sorrow. Love. “Callie…” Leyna whispered, sobbing as she reached across the table and took his hand. “Thank you, love. Thank you.” The tears came, and she wiped them away. “But, Brigitte would never agree. I can’t leave her behind. And, I can’t raise my daughters as deserters on an alien world.”

Marcus rubbed his tearing eyes and looked guilty as he laid a large, strong hand on Leyna’s and Callyn’s. “Cal…” He had to clear his throat to keep from crying. “I can’t.” He put a hand over his mouth, his eyes red. “Peter would never… the boys, maybe… I might be able to talk him into that, but…” He winced in agony. Callyn gripped his hand as did Leyna. They all three looked at each other.

Callyn lowered his head, tears running down his cheeks as they both put their arms around him. “You were right, Kresh,” he said silently through his anguish. “A piece of me dies here.”

* * * * *

Europa’s shining, icy pink horizon set against Jupiter’s bright red-and-orange cloud bands filled the viewport of Callyn’s spaceship. A Callistan space freighter sailed past his bow on its way to Europa, its ion jets burning bright amber. A moment later, Callyn’s scanning array intercepted an inter-ship radio message in a familiar code. A code that would have passed for normal space radiation to anyone else. Yet, there were no other ships visible on his radar. His flight computer translated the message as intercept coordinates aimed at the Callistan freighter. His fingers grew cold against the controls. It was time. He plotted a new course, the computer extrapolating the location of these unseen ships. A few minutes later, he made visual contact.

Three military space cruisers. The ships were shielded by stealth radar technology, but visual scans were enough to confirm Callyn’s suspicions. While their rocket launchers and missiles were definitely of Ganymedan manufacture, the ships themselves were unmistakably Martian. Callyn smiled, his heart racing. He transmitted a coded radio message that only one person in the universe should be able to understand, and opened a com channel to the Martian ships. Seconds later, Karl Victor Hardshield’s handsome visage appeared on Callyn’s holo screen. “Callyn.” He looked concerned. “I’d normally be delighted to see you, but I’m rather busy at the moment. I’ll treat you to drinks at the Club Jove once I’m finished here. Right now, I’d advise you to get your ship well away from Europa.”

“I’m afraid there’s a slight discrepancy in our last shipping contract which I need to resolve first, Karl. That so-called mining installation on Io which I helped you supply wouldn’t per chance be a military base, now would it?”

He looked shocked. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No? Ganymede and Callisto have lost a lot of ships lately and are blaming each other. And now, here you are with ships armed with Ganymedan weaponry closing in on a Callistan vessel. It’s not hard to figure out, lover. The Ganies and the Callies wipe each other out, and the whole Jovian sector is wide open for Martian invasion. How ’bout it?”

His expression became deathly cold. “Clever, as always. As perceptive as you are cunning. But, you were not wise bringing your ship into the open, my dear. I’m truly sorry, but I can’t let you publish what you know.” Karl glanced aside and nodded to someone. The three Martian destroyers changed course and realigned their weapons arrays, bringing their missiles to bear on Callyn’s ship.

“I don’t have to,” Callyn said calmly. “You already have.” Two large fleets of spaceships appeared on Callyn’s radar scope, emerging from behind the limb of Europa. Two fleets of space destroyers, one Callistan, the other Ganymedan. They quickly assumed attack formation, bracketing the three Martian ships. “Surprise.”

Hardshield’s eyes flared in shock, then turned toward Callyn and glared angrily. “You set me up.”

“Dead on. Both fleets were tuned in to my com frequency, and they heard every word. Don’t even think about trying to shoot your way out, Karl. You’re surrounded and outgunned twelve to one. It’s over.”

He sighed and shook his head softly. “I’m disappointed, Callyn. Here I thought you and I had something special.”

Callyn leaned back in his flight seat, the nervous tension draining out of his muscles. “It pains me to admit we did.”

* * * * *

Callyn reclined on the silken divan in Kresh’s quarters on the Ceres dome. Kresh looked beautiful as he stood in the dim light pouring himself a drink. They’d run the full gamut these past few hours. Man on man. Woman on woman. Man on woman. “You were marvelous,” Kresh said.

“Likewise.”

“You know, Callyn… you and I are so good together. That’s why I intend to use all my influence with the Guild to expunge this Jovian fiasco from your record.”

“Really?” He chuckled. “You’re a hypocritical snake, Kresh. We both know you’re in a lot more trouble than I am, and you want me to cover for you.”

“I’m not the one who broke client confidentiality.”

“What you did was worse. I checked the computer manifests on recent trade missions in the Jovian sector. It was other nomad traders who supplied the Martian attack base on Io with Callistan and Ganymedan weapons systems. And, as you said yourself, nothing moves in the Jovian sector unless you approve it. You and Hardshield were in on this together.”

Kresh sipped his drink. “It was a business contract, like any other,” he said matter-of-factly, without facing him.

Callyn sighed. “Hardly. If it gave Hardshield’s faction a foothold in the outer system.”

Kresh looked at him with those cold, dark eyes. “And, why should it concern us whether one group of genspecs or another runs the Solar System?”

Callyn winced in disgust. “Don’t play innocent, Kresh. Once the Marsies run both sides of the belt, and they no longer need us as go-betweens, what do you imagine they’ll do? They’ll swarm through these asteroids like a plague of locusts and hunt us into extinction. You know as well as I do, they have no tolerance for anyone different from themselves. They promised you safe passage to the Saturn colonies in return for your help, didn’t they?”

A moment or two of silence while Kresh sipped his drink. “They’re going to win eventually, Callyn,” he said quietly. “I chose to be on their good side.”

“So, you sold out the rest of us to save your own hide.”

“I’m a survivor,” he said calmly. “We were all bred to be.”

“Speak for yourself.” Callyn reached into his purse on the floor and extracted an automatic pistol which he pointed at Kresh.

Kresh dropped his drink, the glass shattering at his feet. “Don’t be a fool. The Guild would never let you get away with it. You know the rules. Nomads don’t kill their own.”

“Not directly, no. But, don’t worry. This gun I’m holding happens to be the property of one Karl Victor Hardshield. I think, once the Guild finds Martian ammo in your pretty skull, they’ll think twice before selling weapons to Mars again.”

“Callyn…” Kresh held out his hands, pleading as he… she resumed female guise. “We’ve known love.”

“Of course,” Callyn said, resuming female guise in kind. “Your DNA is in me now. It will be carried on to the next generation. Nothing wasted. Goodbye, Kresh.” Callyn mused with satisfaction that her child would contain the genetic traits of such good people as Leyna and Marcus. As for the rest, well… a child needed survival instincts, too.

Callyn pulled the trigger.

 

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