Robert Duncan-Enzmann

You can buy all manner of things at Oilcan Harry’s Caveat Emporium. All sales in precious bullion are final and settled on the spot. Oilcan’s Emporium sprawls over a section of the Trade Center known best by its reputation as Thieves’ Market.

Animals, vegetables, minerals, exotics, even humans had been brought to this market and sold or traded at some point. Some bargains required a two-day waiting period. Two days grace; if the rightful owner was interested enough, he could come and purchase his property. Only if the item had been brought to the market under circumstances too outrageous for the sensitivities of the police do they swoop down to recover ‘the goods’, ‘the baggage,’ or whatever you want to call it.

Bernie, Dan, and Sam stayed in one of the finest hotels last night because Bernie is smart. Now they are rich too. It was a gamble that paid off (though they rarely ever do). All three had been working hard at upgrading their ship, suits, and slaves.

Alas, there is no room at the hotel tonight, but in truth, management doesn’t like them. Under his modulated yeasty breath, the manager murmurs, “One night of you three demons, and something about you lingers in our hotel lobby like raw sewage.”

Bernie bellows: “Lus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!” Then heading for the door, he explains, “It means the more things change, the more it’s forever the same old thing.”

As they depart, the over-aged bellhop, who had just loaded all their baggage onto the cart, has trouble turning it around. He manages to keep things aright.

Bernie tips the over-aged bellhop generously. The ‘boy’ smiles while holding his breath. If his face were porcelain, it would fracture.

“A tip’s a tip even the bills stink,” the old boy thinks, “Filthy lucre! I better wash my hands soon.”

Bernie explains, “Boys, we are finally out of here. No more Oilcan Harry’s corner in the Thieves’ Market where they run operations like in Old Peking.”

Dan asks, “Did they have thieves’ markets back then in Old China?”

“Yeah,” smart Bernie knows things, “the Peking Market of Thieves was in-between the Boxer Rebellion and the First World War. The rules of the game were just like the Thieves Market here. The managers here let merchants’ huckster anything.”

Dan Curley, Bernie Barnard, and Sam Wilcox have hit it big. Well, not really that big, those who are really rich don’t by equipment at Harry’ Caveat Emporium. But for them it is big, and they were there to buy.

“We need three spacesuits,” said Bernie, “and make sure they’re a good bargain. Three, or we don’t buy any.”

“Finally,” Dan says to Sam. “We do. We work in miserable cans. And, Sammy, we should have fun too.”

Wilcox grinned broadly, slapped his thighs, stomped his foot, and whistled.

“Fun’s for sale on the third deck! Yup, fun for sale.”

These three regard everything as a commodity. Everything, love, loyalty, wheat, pig iron, spaceships, luxuries, culture – everything and anything, whatever it may be, it is a commodity.

They are rich now. They could retire to pleasant little homes on Earth, marry lovely girls, be respectable. Dan always wanted a garden, and Sam always wanted to marry lots of lovely girls. But can they? No, they can’t. Not people like them. They were young adventurers with a taste for money, the urge of gamblers and prospectors that have touched the edges of motherlodes.

So, what do they want? Dan always asks Bernie, and Bernie always says, “That’s simple. More, we all want more. More of everything, and it’s all there for us, just waiting.”

Jackpot, again. They purchase three gracile spacesuits. No questions asked by Bernie. Such suits were enormously expensive and, to date, had only been sold to the military and a handful of interstellar explorers.

Both Dan and Sam ask questions, however. Were the suits rejects? Stolen section by section? Taken from casualties? Manufactured in the moonlight? It is impossible to say.

Bernie always answers, “Who knows – who cares? Money is money, it buys anything.”

They try the suits out in a vacuum chamber, and although the suits were assembled from what were originally two or more single space suits, they function flawlessly and are luxuriously comfortable. The suits are orders of magnitude easier to operate than the old suits. It would be a pleasure living and working in them. There is only one flaw. Operating instructions are not the originals. Instructions that projected upon the face plates of the suits are incomplete, but even operating at only 10% they were far superior to the price Bernie paid for three. These had not been acquired by whoever it was who stole the suits and fenced them to Oilcan’s. With much struggle and experimentation, the suits were fitted, and the purchase completed.

A new prospecting ship was purchased after a shakedown trial run which, after it started with a tow, was a tight little ship. Wilcox, Barnard, and Dan were excellent mechanics. They know ships like old-time horse-traders knew horses.

The chandler has handsomely provisioned their ship. Then the great moment arrives. “Shipshape” at last. They have provisions for twenty years of wandering if necessary. Luxuries are in the lockers. There have been entertainment discs for years. All is wonderful. But the best is yet to come. Everything is ready for takeoff, and now they will make their final purchase. Fun! Then, they will blast off immediately.

The price is unthinkable. Never before have they done anything like this. The penalties for slavery are severe – but was it slavery? No, it wasn’t, really. It wasn’t slavery. The explanation isn’t simple but perfectly understandable. Women who chose to be in the trade could be had – for a price. It was a steep one, but now they can afford it. They would blast off within the hour.

As they waited in the darkness, the hooded dealer returned with three females as ordered by Bernie. He supposed that it was modesty on the part of the ‘commodities’ that compelled them to wear duffle coats with the hoods up. But all would be discovered, revealed, and extracted before their exciting flight to fascinating destinations.

Sam Wilcox made believe he was a Tom Cat as he stepped in for a closer look at the merchandise; here, he made a very serious mistake – he got too close.

Sam’s prey spotted this and quickly stole his laser pistol, turned, and fired, vaporizing her dealer right there where he stood. She then turned the weapon on Bernie and demanded him to pay.

Bernie is smart, he paid, and two of the three hooded commodities disappeared before the other dealers began to get inquisitive. The third one hesitated to fire at Bernie and tossed the weapon skyward, and fled into the darkness. Just then, Sam watched as his pistol began to fall. He did catch it with a shout, just as another dealer stepped into the light to see what just happened. Seeing Sam with the gun standing next to the pile of dead dealer, Bernie decided it was time to go.

“Run!” he yelled as Sam vaporized the witness with his reacquired old friend and ran after his partners in crime. The three raced to the docs and thence immediately into their newly purchased ship. One does not delay his departure from the Thieves Market – especially now. They launched at once and moved under power toward the Asteroid Belt upon clearing the Station.

The blastoff, climb to orbit, and maneuvering to position for interstellar launch were executed smoothly, gracefully, and with the precision of a ballet. Dan Curley maneuvered the ship like a racing yacht on summer seas. What a difference between this new ship and the miserable bucket they had traveled together in when they made the strike which made them rich. Thoughts turned from disasters escaped to the next prospecting opportunity.

Harnessed into the pilot’s seat, Dan was ecstatic. Life would be luxurious in this chair. This is not a ship in which three dirty men will work, live, cook, and clean themselves, sometimes eat and sort ore. Now, each not only has their own cabin, but each cabin has bunks, a small living room, kitchenette, and bathroom. It’s even better than that. The ship has eight such suites and, in addition, a ship’s galley, dining room, and three living areas.

“If only…”, he thought in the aftermath, “those three hooded beauties would have made for perfect fun.”

Safety belted, used to working in a heaving, rolling, twisting, and turning ship, Bernie cooks a gourmet supper in the magnificent ship’s galley. The chandler over charged him, but who knows when they could buy more. The galley was stocked with enough to last six people 20 years, but now there are just the three. Things don’t always go as planned but the provisions were more than sufficient now.

Bernie inspects the storage room crates to confirm their contents. Bags of flour are stacked on the floor next to the crates marked flour. Bernie is smart. He checks the bill to find he even has more flour than he ordered unless those crates aren’t full. So, he checked the crate that looked easy to open.

He must not have been the only one who thought that because he was right – what Bernie found was an unpleasant surprise.

Wilcox can’t wait. What a banquet they will have. So, while Bernie cooks and pilot-navigator maneuvers the ship Sam visits the ship’s galley to see what Bernie had in store for dinner. There are hours of feasting ahead. The first day out and a real party!

He enters the galley expecting to eat, but Bernie’s not in the galley cooking. Sam calls for him as he checks for him in the stockroom. Just as the door opens, he sees Bernie there just lifting off a lid of a flour crate. His heart suddenly stopped when Bernie jumped and shouted out in fear from what he saw, and smelled, in that crate marked flour. Down came the lid before Sam could see what’s inside.

Bernie turns to stop Sam from looking into the crate. “Nothing to see here, Wilcox – get out!”

“Why? What’s in there?” Then, not getting any answers fast enough Sam asks, “When are you going to start cooking? We’re starving!”

“I’ve lost my appetite, now get out of here,” Bernie tells him.

Thump was the next sound, and it’s coming from the flour crate. Sam’s curiosity overcame his penchant for doing whatever Bernie tells him to do, and he pushes his way closer. Bernie just let him go.

Sam bends forward to remove the lid of the crate and starts to look inside. His eyes adapted to the darkness. His nose is assailed with a thunderclap of digestive smells. Silly words occur to him: castor oil, sewage, vomit… etc.

Then, as he lifts the lid, he is immediately met with a stream of vomit in his face and the same instant screaming filled his ears and crying. It was pandemonium. All at the same moment he is targeted but missed by another projectile of vomit that splattered onto Bernie and made Bernie throw up on Sam as well.

The flour crate was empty except for two vomiting children, embraced by their mother, all naked but covered in flour and vomit, and diarrhea.

“Stowaways from Thieves’ Market. No wonder the chandler was so expensive,” groaned Bernie.

Groping around for something to wipe the stinging vomit from his eyes Sam shouts “Ahh, my eyes are burning!”

Bernie is smart. He ducks to avoid the next projectile as he puts the lid back on the flour crate to gather himself as Sam grabs his coat tail to wipe his eyes.

What Bernie finds in that flour crate is a mother with her twin daughters, about 11, escaping Thieves’ Market before being sold.

“Can we turn back?” he thinks. No. Their ship would be confiscated, and they would be fined, and probably go to prison. They were stuck with these brats, at least for a few months until first landfall. Then he thinks pleasantly to himself, “at least there is a mother to watch the brats. They will not be fun, not real fun!”

Bernie laid down the rules before opening the crate again, “I am your Captain, and you will follow my orders. Before I let you out of this crate and onto my ship you will do exactly as you are told. First, stop all your wailing and crying or you’ll stay here until we decide how to get rid of you.” The noise is deafening, and then it stops.

“Second, you will accompany Officer Wilcox to the brig and get washed down and then fed. And that goes for you too Sam. You three will remain in the brig until further notice. Do you understand these conditions?”

Silence, at last.

Sam followed his orders and marched them off to the brig. He thought the children seemed as enraged as they were ill. Between semi productive retching they howl and shriek with rage at him, the ship, each other, and the universe in general. They are magnificently seasick. Perhaps in a day they will have their sea legs, or then again it may take weeks. Then Sam wants them to dress up real pretty.

Ever the gentleman, Sam looks them over as they enter their cell. They were indeed cute. Cute? Truly beauties with strawberry blonde hair, short and curly. Sapphire blue eyes and freckles added to the pretty faces. They were a little sodden, smelly, and ill-tempered at the moment, but just as filthy as he was.

Alas, beauties they were, but he could see why mommy had a firm grip on both of them. Sam could see these two twins were, at best, only eleven years old. They remained locked in the brig. It would be some time before they were let out.

He reached for a towel with which to mop up the acidic mess from his face, especially from his eyes. For a moment he turned his back on the children in their cell. Lovely mommy seized the opportunity to reach for his laser pistol like the hooded one who stole his gun and got away, but he remembered in time and moved away while drying his head.

Bernie decided there won’t be a banquet tonight. He delivered the news to the other crew member, who now sat sulking with no food or drink. Bernie returned to the brig to clean up and keep an eye on the occupants. Things were not working out as he had imagined.

He finished the cleaning for now, leaving the three miserable girls draped over each other in their cell, breathing shallowly, holding their miserable heads. He would have to return on and off through the rest of the night, maybe over a few days to clean.

At least he was not wearing his new Gracile spacesuit when hit by the juices of the seasick stowaways. They’re safely in the air-lock boxes, waiting for the next treasure hunt.

Days later, after the girls had regained their dignity, Bernie decided to let them out of their cell and into the ship’s quarters for good behavior. He had been thinking about their plight. Why did they even risk trying to get on board? Better yet, how did they end up at Thieves Market to begin with? Some women at Thieves Market choose to be in the trade, and Bernie was smart after all, not cruel. He knew this mom clearly did not. He wanted to know her story. He approached their quarters and unlocked the door.

“We will be in this ship together for some time, at least until the first landfall. Then, you can get off.”

While the twins explored with curiosity only children can have, Bernie talked with their mother.

Bernie, Dan, and Sam had discussed the plight of the girls among themselves for days. Sam was not interested in any female company that could not ‘party’. Dan was a true prospector and did not want any hindrances to their activities. Bernie had sisters somewhere, he remembered them fondly. Whatever decision he made here would affect three lives, two of them children.

“Do you have a name?” Bernie inquired.

“Yes, Elsa.” She shared, her eyes wide and her posture was like that of a cat ready to leap.

“Elsa,” Bernie said gently, “we are not going to hurt you or your daughters. We just have some questions.

She breathed in and out, relaxing. Her eyes darted from one child to the other, and back on Bernie.

“Why were you at Thieves Market, and how did you get on my ship?”

“We were taken there after my husband was killed by robbers. They found no money, so they took us. My daughters will bring a big price on the Dark Market.” Elsa fought back the moisture threatening her eyes.

Bernie almost said, I’m sorry about your man” but she continued.

“You have no idea who we were to be sold to. I could not let that monster have my two daughters. If we died it would have been better. Then we saw your ship, and I knew it had to be better than that beast, so we stowed on board. I am sorry that you were cheated. My dealer deserved to die.”

It was you! Bernie stated the obvious. “In killing him you put us all in grave circumstances, Elsa. We may never be able to return.”

“You shouldn’t be in a place like that now anyway,” she retorted.

“Now? What do you mean, now?”

“You have a beautiful, expensive ship and a respectable amount of money. People like that don’t ever go to Thieves Market.”

“This is true,” Bernie mused. “Elsa, I have a proposition. You definitely seem smart, and willing to kill to make sure your girls are safe.”

Elsa noticed the girls playing by themselves. She stared at Bernie, her eyes boring into his.

“Oh! Nothing like that!” he stuttered. “We have a much bigger ship now, much more than we are used to caring for. Perhaps you would like to stay on with us and help out? You can have your own quarters with the girls. What are their names, anyway?”

No answer.

Bernie smiled, “Right,” and asked: “What do you say? We could just leave you off on the next landfall, wherever that may be.”

Bernie knew Dan and Sam would have rather dropped off the brats as soon as possible. Yet, Bernie had a goal, Elsa could do the washing and even help him cook if she was any good.

“You keep those two out of the way of Dan and Sam, and yes, it sounds like a good idea. If you work out, that is. Trial period begins today.”

The twins glanced their approval as Elsa looked from one face to the other. Several moments passed, in which Bernie felt awkwardly like she was reading his mind. She rested her gaze back on her twins.

“We will work with you, Mr. Bernie. But only you.”

“Deal!” he said.

Long before a landfall had even been spotted on the ship’s GPS, Elsa and her twins had become valued members of the crew. They spent their free time on the simulator. They were going to make excellent pilots.