The difference between you and me can get a little fuzzy. Hell, the difference between a person and a rock gets fuzzy out in imperial space.
I’d been lingering in Ngaiawang for a week, watching the kids ramp up for the next little skirmish out at Falisci, and running through some minor wear-and-tear repairs on the Asp, when a guy approached me in the bay.
“Good afternoon, Commander,” he stood behind me as I picked up my tools from the deck around the aft starboard landing gear. “I understand you handed in some imperial combat bonds recently?”
“Yes,” I said. Information easily accessible from station records, and not the first time I’d been approached in the last couple days by someone asking if I wanted to head back over to Falisci and do a little more combat work.
“I’m looking for pilots to transport some slaves.”
I was just about to give him the, “I’m going to head out for a little travel, but thanks anyway,” response when this took me by surprise. I stood for a few seconds working it through my grease-caked skull, and my hesitation was apparently taken for interest, so he continued.
“Looks like you’re equipped to haul about seventy or eighty tons in your ship here. With your combat bonds you can afford to buy enough cryos to fill up your hold. This voucher indicates your contribution to our effort here against the pirates, and grants you a ten percent discount on all slave purchases.”
As he spoke he flipped through his tablet, tapped a couple times, and I heard my own tablet offer its friendly alert chime from the bottom of my toolbox where it’d been buried by the tools I’d just collected off the deck. When I looked up again, he was walking away from me. No sales pitch. He didn’t care whether he convinced me either way, so off he went about his routine. I stood there for a minute, wiping my hands on an old rag. Slave deals in imperial space happen as readily as platinum or palladium, just another high-value deal.
After putting everything away, I headed back to the cabin I’d rented while staying aboard Dornier Terminal to get cleaned up. The voucher was just as he’d said, ten percent off slaves purchased at the station. I remembered hearing traders making around fourteen hundred profit per slave over at Henderson Station in Junga, so I pulled up my route planner. Within a few jumps I could land nearly sixteen hundred per slave.
While showering I considered the idea a little more. I was due to check out that day, anyway, so a quick trip and an extra hundred and thirty thousand creds sure seemed tempting. A sense of weirdness lingered over the idea, though, and started to seep in on me.
I checked out of my room, and went down three levels to the processing center. There I found myself watching men, women, and children as they moved through certifications and breeding verification, their skills and assets inventoried, each receiving complete health checks, and then sent into the cryogenic stations to be loaded up for transport. At which point the cargo lifts shuffled them around the loading bays no differently than a load of ore, giving only enough consideration to scan the inventory tag so as to be loaded on the proper ships.
Wandering through the crowds of people rushing around the slave processing area, I made my way into the medical section, which I found most interesting. All of the people being processed, entire families, appeared in exceptionally good health. Better than I could say of myself. As I walked the halls, looking at the people, a woman who had been watching me approached. She smiled and greeted me warmly, “Hello. You are a pilot?” Her voice was soft, with a thick, creamy accent that I couldn’t pinpoint, but which captivated me. Here was the sales spiel that I knew I’d was overdue for.
She placed her hand at my elbow, as if lifting me, and we moved slowly through the corridors as she continued, “All of our people have the best health. This is by law.”
The last word landed like a command, not to me, but one she needed to remind herself of. As she showed me around, she discussed the medical condition of all of the slaves. She told me about how she’d been serving this particular community of slaves as their doctor for the last several years, and had seen quite a few come and go. In every case, all slaves received excellent medical care, even those that came to her with injuries sustained from attempted escape or revolt.
As we moved through the hall, a family approached us; a man with a woman, and three children in tow. He spoke energetically to the doctor, “Thank you for everything, doctor, you have been very good to our family.” Then he shook her hand quickly before being swept along by the flow of people heading into the processing center.
“A good man,” said the doctor as she shifted me out of the stream of people. “He works as an office manager in manufacturing.”
I asked if she knew him long and as she gently guided me along the hall, she said, “For a few years. I delivered his last child.”
We soon passed a man sitting alone on a bench in the hall, whom I had seen earlier when I entered the processing center, and we locked eyes again as the doctor escorted me past.
“This man is being processed for prison service.” She said as we passed, her tone no different than when she described the office manager as a ‘good man.’
At a glance, you couldn’t really tell the difference between him and the office manager. Looking closer, though, there was something in the eyes. One heartily accepted the life that the Empire had assigned him. He was born into, educated by, and lived within the system. In doing so, he received exceptional care from that system for himself and his family. His eyes saw the world laid out for him by those markers, and he clung to the safety that it offered. The other man, brought up in exactly the same way, saw the same markers, the same sense of security, but also beyond it all into the fear and exhilaration of possibility. He saw with hungry eyes. The man on the bench stared at me with those eyes.
Soon the doctor’s movements and melodious voice led me to an office that I’d apparently missed when I originally entered the processing level. She stopped at the doorway, directing me into the office with the same gentle nudge she’d been using to guide me back out of the processing center. A man in a sharp suit bounded up and over, “Thank you doctor,” he said, and waved at her dismissively. As I stepped into the office, she stayed on the opposite side of the threshold, as if it projected an invisible boundary between us. I felt as though I were a fish. All this time she’d been carefully running water through my gills and had just let me swim off into the stream. She smiled, looked me in the eyes, with dark, honest eyes, and disappeared back into the processing center.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Commander,” said the young man. “Sometimes pilots get lost in the processing center during a large batch sale such as this. Lots going on.” He grinned with bright teeth and dead eyes. He slapped me on the shoulder as he took my hand from my side, and started shaking it. “You made it just in time, Commander,” dropping my hand and snatching a tablet hanging by a cord at his side, “Sakeel.” His hand at my shoulder pressured, pushed, and felt jerky as he tried to direct me to a small desk, “We’ve moved so many slaves on this deal we’re nearly out of cryos ready for transport, which is why we’re in a processing rush today.”
I know that in the past I’d moved cargo, no questions asked, and noticed cryos in my hold, mixed in among whatever else needed hauling. I’ve been paid for that type of work. I saw a couple younger versions of myself in the office, ready to take any job to make a quick credit, and a few A to B to C traders closing deals so that they could get back to grinding the sky. A person, processed and locked in a canister doesn’t have any more choice than a rock around here. I stood for a moment, looking around, thinking of myself as the fish in the stream, where I’d go, that I had an entire river of galaxy open before me, the only markers my own, then I turned, and walked away.