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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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Zainal could bluster and threaten but, as he had no retaliatory power or armed forces, his threats were empty. Zainal had no effective way to force Kamiton to comply. His priority had been to secure Botany's autonomy and that of the other Terran forced-colony worlds. The martial arm of Catteni was still intact even if the Eosi had been destroyed, and Botany was in no position to succeed against the formidable Catteni fleet—especially now that the Farmers' remarkable and impervious bubble had been removed from the space around Botany. Kamiton would not have permitted an armed and defensible Botany nor had Zainal suggested it. He had aimed instead for restoring all the forced immigrants to their home world—if they wished to go—and independence from Catteni interference if they elected to stay. Botany was the most tenable and developed of the enforced colonies, so this had been quite a concession on Kamiton's part. Possibly it had come under review and criticism from the conservative Catteni, who were now in charge of their home world.

“But we have nothing more than food stores to ransom the goods we need,” Dorothy said, adding, “that is, if I have properly understood what you said. A quid pro quo. Something for something.”

“‘Ransom' is the right word, Dorothy,” Zainal replied, nodding graciously at her.

“And we can't in conscience use the Farmers' stores,” Kris replied. She and Zainal had been leading opposition to that. “At least not for such a purpose. Feeding the hungry on our own world is one thing.”

“Feeding the greedy on Barevi is not,” Peter said firmly. “Have we nothing else with which to barter?” Peter was fascinated by Paxel's dental work, Kris noticed. He caught Kris's eye. “See what Mike Miller has in.”

She nodded, understanding what he meant.

“An ounce for what quantity of goods?” Zainal asked in quick comprehension. “Kris, if you would be good enough to contact Mike?” He jerked his head toward the main communications bank in the hangar. “First we have to know what we have. And perhaps, Paxel, you would be good enough to suggest commodities.”

Kris smiled at Paxel and rose gracefully. “Be right back.” She couldn't help lapsing into a provocative stroll since Paxel was obviously watching her. She was by no means vain about her tall, lithe figure or her long, blond, attractively arranged hair. She didn't consider herself beautiful even if Zainal often told her that he thought she was but she knew that she wasn't unattractive.

She made her way into the main hangar where Jerry Short was sitting, looking extremely nervous.

“It's all right, Jerry, we aren't killing the messenger,” she said with a grin.

“I heard tell the Eosi did allatime,” he replied, not completely reassured.

“The Catteni is a nephew of Zainal's.”

“I don't think that would have bothered the Eosi.”

“Neither do I, but Zainal is not Eosian. Would you please see if you can get Mike on the comm?”

“Mike Miller?”

Kris took what looked to be the most comfortable of the three battered chairs facing the comm unit.

“The very one.”

“Why? Do we need more gold for teeth?” Jerry asked over his shoulder as he looked up Miller's comm-unit number and tapped it in.

“Now, you know, that's a very good notion, Jerry,” she said, smiling at him. One of her private priorities was
going to be new chairs for this place so no one would have back and coccyx problems from long hours on duty. “I wonder how many spare-part packages we could get for an ounce of dust?”

“How much dust does it take to build a gold cap? And do we have any dentists on our roster?”

On another board, Jerry tapped in a sequence. “I'll find out.” Just then Mike's gravelly voice answered the prime call.

“Miller here. What can I do you for?”

Mike was in a good mood, Kris thought at his jocose greeting, and she hated to spoil it.

“Kris here, and it's what I can do you out of again, Mike. I'm begging. Have you mined anything valuable enough to use for ransoming our equipment back from the merchants on Barevi?”

“What?” The force of that simple word reminded Kris that Mike had a reputation as a brawler: a big energetic man who had done hard physical labor all his life and would have been a match in a brawl even with a Catteni. Maybe they should take him with them to Barevi. By the same token, maybe she should not. While Zainal had not yet mentioned a large mission, Kris knew that it would be necessary and would require every other Catteni-speaker. “As I heard it, all they've got is goods they looted from Earth. Thought they were supposed to give it over to us.”

“That was the general idea, but it evidently doesn't work for the Barevian merchants.”

“Thought Zainal had figured out how to make them,” Mike said and started cursing under his breath.

“They've got crates of stuff they can't use, which they won't release until something is paid over. So we just have to cut bait and ransom what is most needed, Mike. I don't like it any better than you do, and Zainal is apoplectic.” Which was hyperbole but she knew that Zainal was not at all pleased by the situation. Terrans had had to swallow considerable amounts of pride since the day
the Catteni invaded Earth, and most people had had to do worse.

“You're in luck, Kris. We've been mining that diamond pipe Sergei found. Beautiful stones. Collectors would pay a premium rate for them,” he added, with an upward inflection that suggested immense curiosity. “Uncut, of course, but it's the ‘water' of the original carats that's important. Let someone else have the stress of cutting the stone to make the most out of it. Didn't think they'd be useful so we've been screening for industrials. The big stones are not something anyone here would want to spend colony credits on.”

“Why? Could you put your hands on more?”

“Why? It was the Eosi who collected gemstones in the Catteni economy. I heard they were all gone.”

“I wonder who'd want gemstones if now they're all gone.”

“Good question, Kris. Anyone got answers?”

“There were a few who hadn't come to the big Council and are still alive and free, somewhere in the galaxy. But I doubt they'd know where the others kept their proceeds.”

“Would they put in an appearance where they could be caught?” Mike asked, surprised.

“Not likely. All I care about now is that the Barevian merchants will take what we have to offer in exchange for what we need. We'll sort out the ethics later.”

“Well, caveat emptor, then.”

Kris chuckled to hear Latin for the second time that morning.

“Yes, indeed. Have you much gold?”

“Actually, we do. Bart Crispin was keen-eyed enough to spot some nuggets and flakes in one of the streams up here and we've had the devil's own time keeping everyone at work in the mine shafts. I let them go prospecting in the evening. Ain't much else exciting to do up here.”

“D'you speak any Catteni, Mike? Does anyone else up
there? We might need to muster you for the aid of the party.”

“New faces would be nice, even if they are Catteni bastards. In fact, you can put me on record as saying that if I could suss out what they are selling, I might be able to suggest other likely items to secure what we need.”

“I'll tell Zainal of your willingness to be in the ransom party,” she said, knowing that Mike would not be a prime candidate, though she might be doing him a disservice. He managed difficult miners handily enough. If he could keep his temper, he might be an asset.

There was also the minor problem that she didn't think Barevi merchants would deal with a woman, beyond selling her food or fabric. She'd managed before only because she was in a Catteni uniform, disguised and bearing proof of her captain's authorization. She didn't care to be in disguise again unless it was absolutely vital.

“How much gold is available?”

“Its value depends on the rate of exchange, but I've over thirty pounds of dust, a bagful of forty-five nuggets of various sizes, and a couple of bars where we melted down the little stuff so we wouldn't lose the flakes.” She quickly jotted down a note about the variety of raw materials. “About a hundred pounds each of tin, copper, and zinc. I'm told the Catteni are in chronic need of raw materials.”

“Thanks, Mike. I'll get back to you,” she said, signing off the line. She gathered up her notes, thanked Jerry with a nod, and went back to the office, where she passed Zainal the note without comment. When he pointed to her scribble of “gold,” she tapped a front tooth.

“The main point is, Paxel, if we bring goods, will the merchants trade?”

The young Catteni leaned forward, opening his hands wide in entreaty. “Any business will be welcome right now, I think.” He gave Zainal a knowing smile. “With the Eosi gone, and no new development available, they are feeling a pinch they haven't known in decades.”

If Kris said “too bad” to herself, she smiled winningly at Paxel.

“Can Kamiton guarantee their ‘cooperation'?”

Paxel shrugged diffidently. “He expected their cooperation before now, especially since your people have provided so many unusual items for Barevi markets and Barevi wants to continue the influx. Barevi has a reputation to maintain.” He grinned. “So the need is always to have many new items to intrigue and entertain customers.”

“I wouldn't have taken the Catteni culture as consumer-oriented,” Peter remarked.

“Never mind that they can't use half the stuff they have in storage,” Zainal said, leaning back in his chair and smiling. “They always did display a wide variety of goods.”

Paxel grinned back. “There are always Emassi to supply. Our scout ships, as you should know, Zainal, often use trade items when encountering a native species.”

“Ah, yes,” Zainal murmured.

“I always wondered,” Dorothy remarked with an acid-sweet smile, “what they first offered Terrans in trade. Beads?”

“Those records are sealed,” Paxel replied, but his eyes sparkled.

“Do you think someone sold you out to the Catteni?” Zainal asked, giving her a sharp look.

“‘Take me to your leader' was never a headline prior to the invasion fleet,” she said noncommittally. “But that didn't mean there weren't private deals made.”

“Nor that it was a very equable trade,” Peter remarked, “whatever was offered.”

“Beads probably, or was it tomahawks and firearms?” Dorothy said with a very bright smile.

Paxel's reference to scouts and ships reminded Zainal of a very important fact. All scouting-mission reports as well as booty were processed through Central Barevi Air Traffic records, as well as where slave ships had taken
their cargoes, so all the records they needed to repatriate Terrans were on file at Barevi—somewhere. Now that he had a legitimate reason to go to Barevi, he could possibly accomplish a lot more than just reclaiming loot. A gold nugget in the appropriate hand and he might be able to review those records. The Resistance movement had lists identifying which ships had landed in which major population centers on Earth, and now he could find out where the various ships had deposited their cargoes. So he'd be able to repatriate specialists vitally needed back on their home worlds. Zainal had no idea how he might accomplish such an exchange.

Lives were wasted on the mining planets. More workers had always been available to the Eosi “development” program. New supplies of workers had been one of the primary aims of Eosi searches. The other had been finding planets with the raw materials necessary to supply the ever-increasing requirements of the Eosi. The Turs had been the first reasonably intelligent species the Eosi had found and were almost as difficult to deal with as Catteni. The Rugarians had been slightly more cooperative, but the Deski had been physically unsuited to the hard labor required of captives. The Terrans were physically more suited to such arduous work. It was likely to prove difficult to exchange the current laborers at those facilities.

This Barevi trip might provide him with more information than Kamiton wanted him to have, but since the opportunity had been dropped into Zainal's lap, he would “stay” with it. It was also a chance for him to take his sons into a Catteni world where, he hoped, they would absorb more of the training they would need to function as adults. The Masai on Botany, where he had sent the boys to study a warrior culture, had done well with them, but they needed more than that to cope successfully in the Catteni culture. He would find a tutor for them at the hiring hall in Barevi. He was pleased that they had learned English—albeit with a Masai cadence—but they
needed to acquire an adult Catteni vocabulary and adult Catteni skills. Kris always wanted to see more of his sons, and this would be a good opportunity. They had toughened and she would no longer feel “sorry” for them and treat them with the softness so often exhibited by Terran mothers. Not that he doubted Kris's sincere desire to do well by her mate's offspring. He had a lot to get under way now that he knew what the situation on Barevi was and how Botany could mitigate the problem. He would wind up this conference with Paxel and send him back—unharmed—to Kamiton, he hoped not much the wiser of how things were progressing on Botany: save that there were Catteni-style cargo ships, KDLs, lying idle outside the landing field.

“Well, Paxel, delighted to see you and do give my greetings to your mother, my favorite sister, and your sire. And to Kamiton, of course. I expect there will be no trouble if I arrive in one of the cargo ships?”

“No, none at all. Kamiton asked me to encourage you.”

“To solve the problem, no doubt.”

“I believe he hopes you can,” and Paxel leaned in a little on the final word, and then realized that might have been less than diplomatic but had the sense not to try to retrieve the error.

“I'm sure he does,” Zainal replied amiably, smiling. “Expect us within five days.”

BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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