Prose Header

The Auctioneer’s Prize

by Nicola Somerscales

part 1 of 3

The Trilasquon Cattle Market began, as it always did, on the fourth revolution after the lunar entirety. The market knew no boundaries between class and creed. This was a place — one of the few on the planet — where they could all come together and set aside their divergences.

Not that they were aggressive in their disagreements, rather they treated each other with indignant indifference. Here, common business owners mingled with relatives of the ruling faction, keen to barter for their share of the wares the harvesting craft had collected.

Those ‘wares’ were both expensive and diverse. The harvesting craft — over two hundred of them in total — belonged to the ruling royal family on Trilasquon, The Venerable Alustrons of Carbodea. Although most previous generations of this dynasty had simply enjoyed lives of excess and debauchery funded by their inherited wealth (not to mention the gifts and donations of those keen to buy into their favour), this generation had decided to start a business.

Seeing the amount in their coffers dropping lower than they considered respectable for a family of their standing, they took most of what remained and invested it in the harvesting fleet, enabling them to bring rare and exotic wares to markets all over the planet. Their business had been more successful than they had ever imagined possible, topping up their finances and allowing them to enjoy their position in society once more.

At the auction, potential purchasers paid a token entrance fee, which granted them access to a multi-directional pod. These pods moved freely around the amphitheatre-style venue, giving their occupants the ability to vie for position when viewing the auction lots that caught their attention.

At times, the vying was little more than a brawl; the customers would barge and thump into one another hard enough to dislodge competing bidders from their pods. Minor injuries were common; it was almost a badge of honour to come away showing your scars, having won your chosen lot.

The Trilasquons were a hardy race. They had to be. Theirs was a desert planet; hot and barren in most parts, but with pockets of tropical forests in an almost continual state of monsoon. These areas supplied the Trilasquons with the precious water the rest of their planet lacked.

They were bipedal, over eight feet tall yet light in build, with large, splayed feet that made walking and working in the desert landscape far easier. However, their narrow frames belied their physical strength. They could lift their own weight and more with ease; they simply chose not to on the most part.

Their skin, dark and leathery, appeared creased with deep lines from an early age, becoming dry and rough as the dehydrating heat of the sun shrivelled them day by day. Their normal diet included little water, their bodies having evolved to be fantastically efficient at absorbing most of the liquids they needed from their purely carnivorous diet.

Meat was eaten either raw, or, on rare occasions, lightly sealed, to ensure it still contained a high proportion of liquid in the tissue. Water was expensive to transport from the tropical areas, so they drank only infrequently, and almost never bathed.

They did, however, allow alcohol purchased at one of these many auctions to pass their lips from time to time, but they were careful to ensure they drank water on those occasions, as the balance of liquids in their bodies was such a delicate one.

What these people lacked in personal hygiene, they made up for in their bartering and fiscal awareness. Some had great wealth, and others had little, but no one ever went without because they always found a way to fund their requirements.

Jacantha sat on a rock outside the arena, watching the huge transport vehicles roll in with the day’s lots. She often came to the auction to view the goods on offer, but never purchased anything.

The prices were far too rich for her blood, but she liked to make sure those with enough finances to bid got a sharp reminder of just who was benefitting most from the sale. In her opinion, only the Venerable Alustrons ever won in these auctions.

Her friend, Herati, spotted her on his way into the venue. Striding toward her, he patted his chest in greeting. “Jacantha. Here to heckle again, are you?” he grinned, his brown skin crinkling around his smiling eyes.

“Of course. Don’t tell me you plan to waste your hard-earned money here,” she replied, squinting up at him against the fierce brightness of the morning sun.

“I wish I could afford to. I simply find myself with a little time on my hands today, so I thought I would come and see what rare delights are to be denied to me this time.”

“Then, we’ll find out together,” she said, clapping a broad hand on his shoulder, and walking in beside him.

As they entered into the welcome shade, the auctioneer called the sale to order. “My good people, your attention please.”

The general buzz of anticipation filling the amphitheatre subsided at the sound of his voice.

The auctioneer, a middle-aged Trilasquon hired by the Venerable Alustrons because of his easy sales patter, enjoyed the power of his position. Outside of this venue, he was one of the faceless masses, no one of importance. But, in the auction house, he commanded attention. He addressed his silenced audience.

“There will be twenty lots today. If you check your programme, you will see the names of the species we have on offer. Could those of you not bidding on any particular lot please make way for those who are? Thank you for your co-operation.”

Jacantha leaned against a wall toward the back of the room and examined the pamphlet handed to her as she entered. Lot 20 immediately caught her eye. The name of the species remained blank, and deliberately so it seemed. In the next field of the table, in incredibly small type, she read, ‘Special Item: Available for Pre-order’. Pre-ordering? That had never happened at the auction before. It made her wonder what scam the Alustrons were pulling this time.

The rumble of conversation resumed as the back of the huge, broad-tracked transport vehicle lowered, and the first crate conveyed down onto the ground. When it was fully unloaded, the auction staff hurried to manoeuvre it onto the correct spot.

Once in position at the centre of the arena, the crate, which was made of nothing more than several opaque conjoining energy fields, deactivated. An awed gasp hissed out from a number of those gathered about, and the jostling began in earnest as more than half of the one hundred pods moved forward to get a better view.

The creature it revealed was a barmutte, and a particularly fine specimen at that. Barmuttes were renowned beasts of labour. They naturally roamed the arid wilds of their native planets in herds, but despite their enormity they possessed a gentle nature and so could be easily trained to do heavy chores. This one, though, appeared huge by even barmutte standards, and as such drew much attention.

The cameras zoomed in on the animal, scanning and logging its dimensions to make them available to interested punters. A screen rose up from the barriers surrounding the arena floor, and within seconds, the creature’s vital statistics appeared for all to view. There followed another sharp intake of breath from those gathered there, and the jostling grew a little rougher.

“Nice,” Herati whistled, nodding appreciatively. “I could do with one of those.”

“Don’t tell me you’re tempted,” Jacantha said, giving him a jab with her elbow. “Whose side are you on?”

“Like I said before, I wish I could afford to be persuaded.”

“Let’s have some calm, please,” the auctioneer cried. “You will all have your chance to bid in a moment. As those of you who already own barmuttes know, they are the ideal cattle to raise in our desert climate, requiring little water, as they absorb almost all the liquid they need from their food, lots of which are available for purchase later in the auction. Now, you can see the quality of the animal before you, so only offers of over ten thousand credits will be considered.”

His announcement met with jeers of disapproval. Barmuttes normally sold for no more than six thousand credits, so that was a considerable leap in price. At least three-quarters of those who had made their way forward to view the animal pulled back to an accompaniment of grumbled comments about greed ruining the market.

Those who remained hovered in closer, some close enough to reach out and touch the creature’s rough skin. He was, indeed, an impressive beast.

“Now you have had time to examine him, I’m sure you will understand the seemingly high reserve,” the auctioneer rasped through his amplifier system. “Not only could he be used to haul transportation and heavy goods but he could also be used to sire many fine offspring.”

Those Trilasquons still showing an interest muttered their reluctant agreement. None of them wanted to appear too desperate to possess the animal in front of their competitors, but they all knew barmutte numbers were dwindling on their home world due to a parasitic infection, so acquiring good breeding stock had now become a necessary expense if they didn’t want the creatures to become extinct.

“This specimen, as you can see from the statistics, is in perfect health with no sign of parasites. He would make a fine breeding male to boost your current stock and to hire out to others. So, who will begin?”

A moment of hush descended as the bidders eyed one another suspiciously, each reluctant to be the first to put their credits on the table. Finally, one of them shouted out, “Ten thousand credits.”

It was the minimum allowed, but it got proceedings underway. After that, the bidding rose in five hundred credit increments until it had reached twenty-two thousand credits. Then, things slowed to one hundred credit bids until finally, all but one punter had admitted defeat.

The auctioneer noted the number of the winning bidder’s pod and moved to the next lot.

“Idiot,” Jacantha said, shaking her head. “He could probably have hired a ship and travelled to Endulla to purchase one direct for less than that.”

“Well, of course he could, but it’s not exactly convenient,” Herati pointed out. “When you think of the time he would have to take out to make the journey, it’s probably worth the extra credits.”

The cage around the barmutte reactivated and conveyed the animal away, ready for the next crate to arrive on its spot.

Before releasing the contents of this one, the auctioneer issued a warning. “We’ve only had three of these animals cross our path before, and if you’re looking for something to guard your family and possessions, then this is the lot for you. Please, do not get too close. These beasts can jump a considerable height, and are unstoppable once they draw blood.”

A dozen or so pods drifted forward, but they remained a safe distance away as the auctioneer had advised. His warnings were neither given nor taken lightly. The walls of the cage fell away, and out of it burst a snarling dervish, more teeth and claws that anything discernible. The pods moved back a little further to be sure of their safety.

This was a trakkat, a fearsome predator from the planet Solatth. The indigenous peoples of the planet were only too pleased to allow the Trilasquon harvesting craft to take them. They often terrorised their villages and attacked the weak and defenceless, which usually meant their children. Fresh meat, particularly stomachs, provided them with almost all the water they needed in their diets, which made them ideal for a dry region such as theirs.

“We have a special offer with this trakkat today,” the auctioneer announced. “If you purchase this wonderful guard animal, we will throw in a free control collar... should you feel brave enough to put it on.”

Laughter echoed around the chamber. Putting those collars on was not as impossible a task as it seemed, as long as you sedated the animal before approaching it. The auctioneer’s attempt at humour met with appreciation, all the same — from everyone but Jacantha, that is.

“A free collar, indeed. With the inflated reserves you set here, I would expect at least a dozen of them,” she chimed in, raising a few embarrassed giggles from those closest to her.

“Ah, Jacantha. I was wondering where you were today,” the auctioneer countered. “I will happily throw in another one, if the purchaser promises to fit it to you.”

The ripple of laughter was much louder this time. Jacantha had a reputation at the auction. Not many people there welcomed her supposed attempts to show them the light. For the most part, they tried to ignore her, but the auctioneer sometimes struck back.

With Jacantha silenced, the bidding for the trakkat began, starting low at five hundred credits, while the animal paced and spat. It was a muscular creature, not huge, but immensely strong, and capable of walking on only two legs. When it wanted to move at speed, however, it used all four of its sinuous limbs to power itself along. It looked almost ape-like in appearance, but its teeth and claws showed it was far more likely to enjoy a diet rich in freshly hunted meat than the mostly fruit-based eating habits of their distant relatives.

One pod ventured closer. The trakkat sprung into action, swiping the craft and almost tipping its occupants out. The claw marks in the metal were clear to see. It had torn right through the thick plating with little effort.

“Who would dare venture near your home knowing what damage this creature could do to them?” the auctioneer said, making the most of what could have been an insurance nightmare.

The bidding went wild. This guardian had certainly proved its worth in the eyes of the audience. The final price rose to three thousand, seven hundred credits — a previously unheard-of price for such a feral animal.

The auctioneer’s assistants tranquilised the animal and fitted its collar, dragging it back into position where its cage could once again activate. Then they conveyed it away.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Nicola Somerscales

Home Page