A new stand alone short: “Breakfast of Champions”

Breakfast of Champions


Mackey Chandler

                Secretary of State for the United Americas the honorable Lewis Poule examined the urgent  message printout with distaste. The third alien race known to Humanity in Survey System 8423, three hundred odd light years from Earth had suddenly developed a problem. The Abroteen as their own language named them and their world, more commonly known as the Beagles, were upset about some matter that was difficult to explain. Very few Humans spoke much Abroteenian and none with absolute confidence. The Abroteenians spoke English but with a occasional lack of rational syntax and seeming spontaneous word combinations that resulted in it being called ‘Abrish’.

The Beagles had a steam engine level civilization that had not lifted them off their planet. So an error in dealing with them would not result in a nuclear bombardment or UA ships being excluded from their part of the heavens. However trade with them was very profitable. They bought electronics and machined goods that were difficult or impossible for them to produce, and trivially easy for automated machine tools to create. They sold handmade crafts and exquisite jewelry at a price impossible to match with human labor.  That trade should be safe guarded if at all possible.

The United Americas ruled from the Aleutians to Tierra del Fuego. They basically owned the Western Hemisphere, but The Eastern Bloc, the self styled Association of Allied States were in direct competition for off world resources both system and interstellar. If they didn’t patch things up with the Beagles the Easties would be there sucking up to them with better trade terms like white on rice.

The trouble was there was an election in four months. President Hernandez was going to lose even if it was publically impossible to admit it. He personally would be removed as Secretary because the likely winner Senator Wu hated his guts. The place to be was here looking to his interests and profitable retirement. Not three hundred light years away on a God forsaken primitive planet arranging a trade treaty that Wu would try to repudiate when he returned.

He brought up his organizational chart to consider who he could send. Everyone directly under him was too senior to send. Most of them knew they were outgoing already and would resign before they would accept a mission isolating them from home during the presidential transition. Most had seats on various corporations and  charities lined up waiting for them. Many were too old physically to wish the rigors of travel and months of isolation. They were fond of their comforts with good reason.

His finger went down, down, further down the organizational chart, hesitated a few times but ended up on the fifth tier at the end of a branch. John Champion was Deputy Assistant to the Associate Minister of Interstellar Affairs. He was young enough to travel with no issues and ranked low enough he’d likely not be purged by the incoming administration. Best of all he would likely know any refusal of an assignment would mean he would never advance to the next level and his career would be over before it ever took off. Perfect.

Secretary Poule wrote a brief memo having the Trade Minister Belson brief Mr. Champion on what was an acceptable outcome for their negotiations and send him off with limited portfolio.

* * *

            Mr. Champion was ambitious. Rather than protest a hardship post he was nodding agreement before the Minister finished briefing him. “You can count on me sir. I’m happy to have a chance to prove myself,” he said, practically snatching the portfolio out of his hand.

“Your attitude is commendable. Tell me, have you ever been off planet?”

“No, sir. Not even to Luna. I’ve been to Tokyo and Cape Town for the Department. If you have any suggestions from your own experience I’d be honored if you would share them.”

Don’t go, was what immediately sprung to mind, but he could hardly say that…

“You are slightly built Deputy Champion. That is an advantage. Accommodations on a space ship tend to be cramped. You should limit what you plan to have open and use aboard ship. Four outfits are probably sufficient. You can ship the rest ahead. I’d have it sealed under bond because anything shipped interstellar is worth a great deal just in shipping fees. Usually the fees exceed the costs of common items like clothing. But the common things you are accustomed to aren’t available in the Beyond.”

Champion looked confused but held his tongue.

“If you have any medications you favor take a supply. Especially any prescriptions. If you have a favorite candy or liquor spend the money to send a case ahead. I’d take an extra com pad and several libraries of reading material and videos. Read up on the world and see what the travel guides tell you to take. One world they may suggest a pair of rugged boots and on another world an insect net. I’ve never been to Abroteen myself so I suggest you do some research.”

“Four outfits? I thought a diner jacket, Tuxedo and white tie ensemble, for shipboard and maybe entertaining on planet.  A formal day coat for official calls. A few business suits for informal meetings, some sports clothes and exercise outfits for using the gym and sauna.” He stopped at the look he was getting.

“Abroteen has never been a port call for passenger liners,” the Minister assured him. “There is no tourism for either their culture or any unique natural features. It is just too far out for the amount of time most have for a cruise too. It is a commercial system and there are regular bulk carriers and on rare occasions a military vessel will stop to show the flag. I’m not aware of any business that was so urgent the Department ever sent a fast courier. The occasional businessman or academic studying the Abroteen take passage on a freighter with passenger accommodations, which is what you will do. You don’t have to worry about dressing for dinner or using the gym. Since the invention of gravity plates nobody has seen any need of a gym on a freighter.”


“Indeed, this will not be a vacation. But it is a chance to enhance your career. It is a serious problem and you would not have been chosen to go take care of it if we didn’t have the upmost confidence in your abilities,” he lied.  By the time he got to Abroteen he’d likely have new bosses completely unknown to him back home. Whether he did well or failed would no longer matter much to the people who sent him. They’d be retired.

“Go, do your research. I’ll make sure you are given a generous allowance for personal items and shipping, and I’ll see you get the hardship stipend for the remoteness alone. Don’t doddle, but in the next two or three days have the Department book passage for you.” He leaned back with a finality that announced the interview was over. With a little luck the kid would shut up and go away.

“Thank you sir, I’ll do my best,” he said, standing up clutching his papers. He appreciated the brevity so much he shook the boy’s hand.

* * *

            The Beagles were not much to look at. Champion couldn’t see why they’d picked up that name. Beyond the ears they looked more rabbit-like to him, especially when they moved fast, they loped more than ran. They were not as entirely hairless as Humans, but wore clothing, tending to trousers and tunic for both sexes. The norm seemed to be wild patterns and glorious embroidery rather than solids. He’d never seen one in the flesh. It appeared they didn’t maintain an embassy on Earth.

The videos of the planet were so similar and familiar that when something was alien it was all the more jarring.  The streets looked like historic pictures of Human cities in many ways. The gas lights with glass globes and cobbled streets might have been from pictures of old London.

A steam locomotive has to look a certain way due to the physics of the engine. The cars though were not the same. Instead of the railroad providing cars they were private. They ranged through every size and color imaginable. Apparently garish decoration was a form of advertising. A gypsy caravan would be deemed bland in comparison. Some were simple flatbeds and some palaces on wheels. One could rent a car if you were not wealthy enough to own one. Or you could own a car and sell space on it independently of the railroad. The world was rich in metals and that was how they paid for Earth goods. Their money was coinage and any script just a certificate to be redeemed for coins.

John Champion loaded most of the material to his com to study on the trip out there. The advice from Minister Belson he took to heart. He spent his own funds to acquire a formidable supply of coffee and Scotch. He bought eight boxes of the best Havanas, fifty dollars a cigar.  The Department paid the shipping and not a penny of their money went to the goods so they could not complain. It was all just ‘personal goods’. If he returned early he could likely sell them at a profit.

Clothing he found out was dirt cheap on Abroteen. A hand tailored suit was the cost of a light lunch back home. However a pair of knit briefs with an elastic waist couldn’t be had for any price. He loaded up on dress socks and t-shirts. Hand knit socks and even bespoke shoes and boots were cheap. But a pair of light running shoes with all its synthetic materials was strictly an Earth luxury.

“Deputy Champion? This is Lisa in Travel Services. I have three vessels leaving within the week. You have your choice between the a Greek flagged vessel that carries a crew of six and four passengers, or a Brazilian vessel in which you would be berthed in the bunk of a crewman they are running short, or an American flagged vessel with a crew of six and again accommodations for four passengers.”

“Is that four and six combo pretty common?” John asked.

“Yes , a lot of Advanced Composites/Boeing hulls are set up that way.”

“Do you have any advice? Have other Department people shared their experiences with you?”

“Unofficially, I would pass on the Brazilian ship. If you bunk in the common room you will have zero privacy for six weeks. The Brazilians have almost no concept of personal space in an already cramped environment. And I’m told they tend to spend their off shift naked or nearly so if that would bother you. They tend to cook a lot of very spicy food and you will eat whatever the crew does.”

“Thank you, unofficially I really appreciate the straight story. What about the Greeks?”

“The Greeks are rumored to run a really easy going ship. If you are not standing watch and don’t have the conn they  are not big on regimentation. The stories about Greeks liking boys are said to be true on long voyages. They are pretty easy going and open about that too. They drink a lot off duty. And some have just raved about the Greek food, but others came back vowing to never eat anything with  tentacles or feta cheese the rest of their life.”

John thought about his size. He was very slight framed and boyish. Skip the Greeks.

“How about the American vessel?”

“Culturally it would probably be the easiest. And it’s always good to support our own merchant fleet,” Lisa agreed.

“Is there a ‘but’ in there somewhere?” John asked.

“Not a big one. The vessel is the Yellow Rose, and it is a private ship, not a large corporate line. They actually have better safety inspections and cleanliness reports than the big lines. It’s just the Master and owner is a Texan and tends to hire westerners. Some find the subculture irritating. But of the three I’d take the Yellow Rose if it was me lifting,” she assured him.

“I appreciate your candor.  Book me with the Yellow Rose, please.”

* * *

            A shuttle was really not much different than an airliner. Especially not any different from a ballistic hypersonic. When he crossed the dock and hit the call button by the hatch of the Yellow Rose it was a different world though. It was a real airlock not a door, and it opened into a corridor not one big cabin. The walls had take holds if they had to be in zero G, and the ship smelled different.

The Second Officer, Will, shook his hand and saw him to his cabin. He grabbed the bigger bag without being asked as if he were a porter. He was thin but maybe twenty centimeters over the two meter mark. He didn’t explain if the name was his family name or given. The man had on Jeans and a checked shirt with piped edges and snaps instead of buttons. He didn’t affect a hat, but he did have on boots. The corridor rang with the hard heels. At his neck was an oval of turquoise on silver as a bolo tie. John didn’t know that particular subset of jewelry, but he knew a piece of hard rock turquoise like that was probably worth five thousand dollars. He had on ring and bracelet to match. His belt buckle was very different but John didn’t want to stare at it.

“Let me show you where everything is,” he told John agreeably. It was so cramped John stayed at the door as Will lowered and raised the bed, which took half the floor space, showed how to open the locker and set the lock. There was the luxury of a private bath about a meter square with a toilet and fold down sink. With the door closed there was barely room to stand and turn to use the shower or you could do so sitting on the lowered toilet seat. There was no tub.

The wall screen was big and you could set it for a variety of decorative themes. Lighting and ventilation and a temperature range of six degrees Celsius could be set. A fabric chair folded up and hung on the wall. Gravity could be set plus or minus a fifth G.

“Watch schedule and a short bio of each crew member is on the computer. The ship runs on Zulu time. Mess schedule is on there too. There are always cold sandwiches and snacks in the mess. Beer with your palm print. Crew gets less, you can have one every three hours since you have no duty. If you had any bad allergies or religious dietary restrictions they wouldn’t have taken you as a passenger. But if they screwed up on that now is the time to run before you are stuck with us for six weeks.”

“We have a really good environmental suite on the Rose, you should have no trouble running out of water. We allow sixty liters a day and a generous allotment to the galley for you. If you hit forty liters in the shower the ship’s computer will warn you and again at fifty.”

“Is there an allowance for laundry?” John asked.

“There’s a shore bag in the locker. If you leave any laundry out in the corridor the purser or cook will take it to be vacuum tumbled. That generally gets it cleaner than wet or dry cleaning. There is a recessed take hold in the wall you can tie the bag closure to. I don’t recommend you use it on woolens regularly as they get dry and brittle unless you restore lanolin to them with a spray. And it destroys leather, but it works really well for everything else. Computer is built in the com. You can plug your unit in and the ship will give you free cycles as they are available. If you try to hack into the ships computer I must tell you Captain  Travis sees no humor in it, and he is the law between the stars.” He wasn’t smiling at all and John sensed he wanted a response.

“Thank you, I’ll take that advice to heart.” That got a nod, and he excused himself.

He tried the bed. Set it a little harder. Then eased off the gravity a little. He had room to lay flat on his back with his arms at his sides, and not a hands breadth more. He thought about Will fitting in a standard bunk. He wasn’t sure the man could even get his legs straight.

The computer said it was 14:07. Dinner would be served at 17:30. He looked at the crew bios briefly and set the on-screen wake up timer to take a nap.

After the Second Officer John wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they all be dressed in western garb? Or would they wear uniforms? He wore his own jeans and a plain shirt hoping to fit in.

He was a few minutes early. There was a place set at the end that must be for the Captain. Nobody was at the other end seat. Three crewmen were already seated along the opposite side. Two he recognized easily. One didn’t look much like his picture at all. And the Second Officer was there, still in his western garb, while the other two were casual but not uniformed.

There were apparently only three passengers. His place was marked with a card furthest from the Captain. Another passenger, a man, was seated next to the Captain. He was dressed casually in Khakis and a sport shirt, and John would bet a week’s wages he had on tassel loafers under the table. Between them was a petite woman of Oriental ancestry dressed in whites that looked almost like a tennis outfit except for the large broach on her collar he suspected was a video cam.

The Captain entered and sat down. He was dressed casually, but better than either of his male passengers. He had on chocolate brown slacks and an open collar black shirt that was either real silk or a good synthetic. A very light jacket was unstructured and a deep crème with a lot of texture and darker threads scattered in the weave. He was entirely bald and had simple hoop earrings.

As soon as the Captain sat a crewman hurried in and started serving with a cold shrimp cocktail.

John noted the crewmen didn’t touch a fork until the Captain took a sip of water. However he engaged the near passenger in conversation after sampling one shrimp himself.

The man, Albertson, was forthcoming about the purpose of his visit to Abroteen. He dealt in small electronics from hand-held games and phones to hearing aids. The natives had not even possessed telegraphs when contacted. Someday they would make their own, but for now modern electronics might as well be magic. The products were deliberately made to be difficult to reproduce too.

The woman, Wu, got his attention next, and John was surprised she was not just of Eastern extraction but a native of Macao. The Abroteen had bought a very limited amount of batiks and printed silks from Earth, but trade in them was uneconomical. She was going to establish a manufacturing facility and bring in a half dozen Human workers to print on native fabrics. They would hopefully keep the process a trade secret.

It bothered John that Eastern sphere commerce was coming to a Western influenced world, but it was a tiny niche market. He’d known they didn’t technically own a patent on the world like a colony. But one never heard of cross trading in the news unless it was a conflict. He was somewhat upset his briefing did not cover just how much cross trade went on between the two spheres of interest.

The Captain glanced around the table and laid his fork across the edge of his appetizer plate. John saw why he delayed now. Everyone was through and the server took that for a signal to clear that course.  It paced the dinner at a pleasant tempo.

“Mr. Champion,” the Captain finally got to him. “I’m given to understand you are a government official. Does your visiting Abroteen  portend a change in status for the world?”

“I hope not. As I understand my instructions, I’m to smooth over some matter about which the Abroteen are upset. I don’t have an in depth briefing, but the local ambassador is supposed to tell me more. If I can placate them readily I hope things remain relatively unchanged and I can return home swiftly with a quiet resolution to my credit.”

“You haven’t been to the world before?” the businessman asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, I’ve been reading everything I could, and I brought a lot of material along to read on our voyage. Perhaps Ms. Wu and you would give me the benefit of your own experience and help me avoid any pitfalls?” he suggested.

Wu inclined her head to give Albertson first privilege.  The crewman returned with grilled steaks and sweet potato fries. He didn’t ask anyone how they wanted them cooked, John noticed.

“Keep everything as simple as possible,” he counseled. “Are you familiar with the blanket method of trading?” he asked John.

“No, I have no idea what you mean.”

Captain Travis took a bite of his steak and nodded his approval to the crewman. John found his pink in the middle and faintly seasoned. He had no complaints.

“If you don’t share a language with someone you can still trade. You lay a blanket out and put an item you wish to trade on it. Several identical items are easier actually. The other side of the trade puts what they consider a fair exchange on the blanket. If it is agreeable you take away the item offered and leave your offering. If you don’t like it you can just let it set, or you can remove one of your items to change the exchange ratio and see if that will be taken. If you want an entirely different trade offered just move it over to a new blanket. Get the picture?”

“Yes, you bid back and forth until one side accepts the offering.”

John was surprised to see all the gristle and almost all the fat that edged a strip steak was trimmed away. But then he realized; why pay to haul something that would be discarded? The sweet potato fries had something hot on them. Hot paprika maybe? They were good.

“Well our trade with the Abroteen has never successfully progressed beyond this method. The few times we tried writing an actual contract in English it was a disaster. We still sometimes trade by laying things out physically, but fortunately we have good hard translations of numbers and our respective calendars.  We can for example put a drawing of a miniature machine screw on a paper with a number to be delivered and a local date. They then write in how many coins of what metal they will provide for those terms. If they cross out an item and write in a new offer it is just like moving the physical item. This progresses down the sheet until both sign their chop under the other’s offering and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ which terms we are very certain on also, or one side just removes the paper and terminates the negotiation.”

“That has resolved any problems?”

“Well, a few times I have seen trades where I signed and wrote ‘yes’ and the fellow let it sit for a few days and then wrote ‘no’. I suppose that is buyer’s remorse. No harm. The only time a fellow brought his copy back and crossed out his ‘yes’ and wrote ‘no’ we called in a bunch of other traders and told them we didn’t understand. They started yelling at the trader pointing at his chop. He wasn’t having any part of it. Most of the Abroteen that have any status wear some sort of medallion around their neck. I can’t translate them of course, but they ripped this guy’s medallion off and beat him around the head and dragged him outside. We never saw him again so it’s pretty plain he isn’t a trader anymore,” he said smiling. The crew all seemed to find that amusing.

“How about you Ms. Wu? Are you an experienced Abroteen trader?” John inquired.

“No, this is my first trip. However I had extensive training with several experienced hands. The primary thing I had driven home was the agreement to avoid cultural pollution by introducing new technologies. I will have to take significant pains to not let our in house techniques be observed and copied by the natives.”

“How is it we can supply electronics with integrated and optical circuits but batik is forbidden?”

“Batik is an immediately adaptable technology. They will get it all eventually, but the idea is to make it a prolonged process to slow the culture shock. By the time they can dissect a cell phone and understand what makes it work they will have advanced to the point they are ready for it.”

The Captain spoke up. “The cynic in me notes this concern for their cultural stability happens to have the happy effect of extracting the maximum possible profit from the conveyance of the technology. I’m glad to report it will continue well past my projected retirement.”

“Seriously Mr. Champion, if you are not familiar with all the details of the Technology Transfer Protocols I’d review them carefully and ask the Ambassador for the latest files on them,” Wu said. Albertson nodded solemn agreement.

The server had returned and put out hot yeast rolls and various relishes.

“The ship has fairly up to date files on the matter if you care to check the partial Web in the public files,” the Captain offered. “We need them to review manifests and any personal items we take down planet. A lot of spacers just stay on the station for fear of breaking  the regulations. If you just go down with your clothes on your back you are pretty safe, if you don’t talk after a few drinks.”

“We don’t know anyone like that,” ventured the Second. “Well not on this ship,” agreed the Engineer.  It didn’t seem sarcasm. He was spreading apple butter on a steaming roll.

“There was the fellow who bought a Abroteen muzzle loading rifle as a collectable,” Travis reminisced, “he looked it over and asked the smith if he’d put on a rear sight with a hole instead of a post. They line two posts up. Then he was dumb enough to bring it home. They didn’t have too hard a time tracking down the source of that improvement when peep sights showed up all over suddenly.”

Albertson nodded at the story. “One of our people got in trouble and got handed a hefty fine. He chartered a fishing boat and when he lost a hook to a big fish he put the new one the line with a snell knot. He tried to say knots were obvious, but they didn’t buy it. The natives never invented it and it’s about 40% stronger than the same line and hook just knotted on the eyelet. Pulls in more and bigger fish, so it is significant to both industry and the ecology.”

Dessert was a choice of baked custard or a coconut-lime ice cream.  John went with the ice cream and it was served with a few mint leaves and a thin slice of lime. Ms. Wu got the custard and it was drizzled with a caramel sauce. Six weeks of this and his pants might not fit.

* * *

            The next morning John was a bit grumpy. He liked a cigarette or two in the morning and that was prohibited on a space craft as was his evening cigar.  At least there was decent coffee available and he added a dash of whiskey from his flask. It wasn’t his usual breakfast of Champions being minus the nicotine but it would do. He slept in to ten O’clock and showering and dressing took him a half hour so he only had an hour and a half wait until lunch. He entirely avoid the disgusting uncivilized sight of people eating half cooked eggs early in the morning. By noon he was functional and ready for human company.

Lunch turned out to be an informal affair, a simple buffet set on a sideboard. Only one crewman sat at the table and the lady was not present at all. Mr. Albertson ate with his computer open on the table working and gave him one polite nod. Another crewman came in and hastily assembled a sandwich and a few pickles and such and hurried out. Next time he’d do the same John decided. He retreated to his room and studied the object of his travels further.

It would be easier to take the Abroteen seriously if they didn’t look like a bunch of clowns. Both sexes favored baggy pants and tunics. They apparently had some rule against plain colored fabric. At least in the pictures he was studying he had yet to see a garment without a printed pattern, mostly shiny fabrics and eye assaulting yellows and reds and orange. Even the occasional green or blue was of the fluorescent variety. Then add polka dots or swirls or geometrics including checker squares. Tops and bottoms seemed to be deliberately mis-matched. If he had only known he’d have brought some plaid Bermudas and a paisley shirt. When in Rome and all that.

He woke up early, his personal clock still  off, and threw on the previous day’s outfit just to go grab a carafe of coffee. It was just past 0500 on the ship’s clock and Mr. Albertson was coming out of Ms. Wu’s room with his tie over his shoulders and carrying his shoes. John nodded pleasantly at him but the man stared straight ahead and pretended he didn’t see him. That amused John. The man didn’t need to be embarrassed on his account. It did surprise him how quickly they came to an understanding. But then both were professionals at negotiation. He hoped to do so well on Abroteen.

* * *

            The last shipboard dinner was a relief. He’d tired quickly of every variation of grilled meat and experienced at least a dozen kinds of beans in tomato sauce with something or another added. The bread had some form of corn in it way too often for his favor, and the variety of vegetables was too limited. He did not consider Cole Slaw a vegetable. The desserts he had to admit showed some imagination. He didn’t recall any of them repeating the entire trip. The sole time they had fish it was fried catfish, and he had absorbed a lifetime limit of barbeque sauce. Ms. Wu had been increasingly absent as time passed. He suspected she was saving a bite from lunch or hitting the snacks in the evening.

* * *

            Docking came very late in the day by the Zulu time the ship ran on. Middle of the night really, but he was ready to get off the ship. He’d gone to bed early and caught almost four hours of sleep. Even if this was the God forsaken middle of nowhere the crew assured them there was a decent hotel on station. They were going there before heading down. They agreed to send his luggage with their own and he planned to stop for a drink and a bite of anything neither Tex or Mex and sleep for about eighteen hours to get in sync with the local clock.

The purser opened the lock and lead the passengers down the ramp to the dock. There was an official with the station to verify their identity and log them on the station. John hung back and watched the process with the other passengers. There was an anxious looking man standing back on the dock who ignored Wu and Albertson so he had to be waiting for him. The fellow was small, perhaps a hair shorter than John even, and had a receding hair line and the start of a middle-aged belly.  He presented his State Department credentials and passport and watched them get scanned. As soon as he had them back the fellow rushed forward and offered his hand.

“Deputy Champion? I’m George Yates with the embassy. We are so happy to have you. The situation with the Abroteen has actually deteriorated. They are holding up trade on a number of shipments waiting to speak with you. They refuse to speak with the Ambassador anymore and are waiting for you. I get the impression they think Ambassador Rollins might be lying about sending for a special envoy. The last few days there have even been people outside the embassy throwing stones and shouting nasty things.”

“Could you be more specific about their complaint? I keep hearing generalities.”

“Well, we had a dispute on a trade deal. There were some bad units and the supplier didn’t have enough spares on hand to cover the bad ones so they demanded a cash refund if they couldn’t make good on the defective units. Cash on Abroteen means coins. They wouldn’t take any check or credit or script of any kind. So the native company asked for arbitration. The supplier seemed to agree, but when the Ambassador offered to be an arbitrator they simply made fun of him. And they complain we don’t respect their law which we don’t see at all. It seems to accept arbitration.”

“Made fun of him how?” John inquired.

Yates blushed deeply and scowled. “It’s just scandalous. They mocked him for being old and I’m ashamed to even repeat it, but they called him a “lard ass” in public. They said he couldn’t defend the contract and to get a serious arbitrator. I have a private shuttle on hold. Follow me and we’ll drop right away. We’ll be given priority clearance.”

“This is the middle of my night,” John protested. “My luggage is all going to the station hotel and I have a seat reserved to drop with the crew of the Yellow Rose in about thirty-six hours.”

“Oh my, no. It is the express order of the Ambassador you come right now. I dare say we might have riots if they find out you are on station and dilly-dallying.  I’ll see to it your luggage is forwarded.”

What was there to do? He followed the man. The shuttle was the smallest he’d ever seen. Two crew seats and two passenger seats behind. They only had the one pilot however. An economy that he didn’t appreciate. This whole things was slowly pissing him off. He desperately needed another cup of coffee, a smoke, and he didn’t appreciate being bullied.

They dropped away from the station and the pilot asked control for a hot straight in approach. The drop was hot alright. The air outside was glowing as the shuttle sliced through it. The way the pilot yanked the shuttle around in a couple high G turns left him swallowing hard to keep the last cup of coffee down. The runway approached at an angle that made John think they would crash on the end of it and solve all his worries. That was when he realized there was no engine noise. This was an unpowered glider shuttle and they either landed in one pass or crashed.

The flare out squashed them in the seats and the nose lifted so high the runway disappeared from the forward view. Then when the wheels touched down they were thrown forward against their straps for a long time as the shuttle braked down the long runway.

“I’m opening the hatch and dropping the stairs,” the pilot informed them. “They’ll have to put a new door gasket on but they said they are willing to pay for  that to save you sitting in here fifteen minutes waiting for the hull to cool. Just be sure to hold your arms in and don’t grab the hand rail until you are a couple steps down the stairs. The hull right around the hatch opening is still hot enough to burn you or singe clothing.  Thanks for your business,” he added.

There was a vehicle waiting on the tarmac, sort of a mini-trolley with a ridiculously thin tall smoke stack and lots of brass trim.  It had a platform on the back with stairs up from each side and most of the coachwork was wood with magnificent carving and bright painted panels of art inside the fancy moldings.

“This is what passes for a limo locally,” George Yates informed him. It was comfortable inside with a half dozen big plush chairs. There were no seat belts and the no steward of any sort. As soon as he was seated George pulled a cord dangling by his chair and the vehicle lurched forward making a chuffing noise that built to a steady hum.

“Internal combustion engine?” John asked him. He had seen a few automobiles in museums and seen one operated at an event in a park. But he’d never ridden in one.

“External actually. It has a steam engine and is more like a little locomotive than a car.”

George was making a call on his phone as he spoke. John didn’t catch much but he caught a few ‘sirs’ so the man must be speaking to the Ambassador.

“We are going directly to the Abroteen Supreme Court,” George informed him. “The Ambassador will meet us there.”

“What exactly do you do at the embassy George?”

“I’m an aide to the Trade Delegate and concern myself with trade from other spheres,” He explained. “I’ll be watching closely what Ms. Wu who come out with you is up to,” he explained and gave a little wink.

John just about choked on the unexpected wink. George was a spook. He didn’t look like one.

* * *

            The Ambassador got out of his own limo and waved it away as they approached. He was pushing the edge of ‘elderly’ John decided. He was carrying enough extra weight he wouldn’t be winning any sprints, but portly would have been a kinder description. it was disgraceful to mock the man if only out of respect for his office.

The Abroteen Supreme Court looked as serious and important as any Earth nation court. The building was imposing and marble, but black marble veined in green and white and gold. There were columns across the front, but they were hexagonal instead of the fluted round Greek columns of Earth.

The steps were spaced for alien limbs, shallower in height and deeper in width. They required two small steps instead of one. There were guards at the doors, dressed the same so it must be a uniform. They wore weapons sheathed, but carried a little wand like a conductor’s baton.

“Hold! Who wants justice?” one guard asked, but they crossed wands like they were halberds or something, not little sticks.

“Ambassador Rollins, Aide Yates, and Deputy John Champion of Earth,” John growled.

They both stamped solidly on the pavement and said, “Pass Deputy John.”

“Friggin’ nonsense,” John muttered. “Who did they think we were?”

The hall they entered was wide and impressive. The floor was laid with mosaics that seemed to tell a story. He saw mountains and rivers and castles depicted, armies clashing and sailing ships maneuvering. Eventually he saw railroads and cities without walls. It had to be a history.

It ended in a circular room under a dome. The floor was a depressed circle with stairs leading down to a floor only twenty meters or so across. Two groups sat across from each other and nine Abroteen sat between the two. One of the nine stood up and waited. The guard who let them in came up beside them and announced: “Deputy John, Champion of Earth and associates.”

“Little fellow ain’t ya?” the Abroteen asked insolently.

“You can’t imagine how tired I am of hearing that,” John assured him. “I’ve been big enough for everything life has thrown at me including better men than you. I came here straight from docking. You want to get this show on the road or you want to stand and trade insults until lunch? I could easily ask where the hell you bought that clown outfit you got on? My God the purple!” He shook his head.

“Really John,” the Ambassador started to reprove him, but the Abroteens on  both sides drowned him out stomping on the stairs with their boots. By the third stomp they were in sync and fairly rocked the place with the noise.

“Why are they doing that?” John asked.

” That is their way of applauding. The crowd likes your spunk I’d say,” George told him.

“Good, good,” the official agreed, “We go to the sacred yard.” He announced. Everyone got up and headed out the back way.

“What’s this about?” John asked. “They go outside for hearing instead of using the fancy building? It don’t make sense.”

The mob from inside was surrounding something ahead of them and others were streaming in. They made just barely enough room to let them in. He got to the inside and it was a big circle of bare dirt, about fifty meters across, but groomed like a clay tennis court. That was something with which John was intimately familiar. The same official that led them made a sweeping gesture inviting him on the dirt, but held a hand up and stopped the Ambassador and George.

John looked at the crowd pressing in. He didn’t have to know the language to know what they were doing, coins and slips of paper were changing hands with much discussion and flashing of fingers held up as numbers. They were placing bets on the outcome.

“You show respect finally,” he said. “We go Earth we give Earth law same stuff.”

“That is a huge thing, Deputy Champion,” the Ambassador called from the edge. “We’ve been trying to get an agreement on that with them since we made contact. That’s why no Abroteen have ever visited Earth. They always refused to subject themselves to our law. They demanded even their cook and janitor have diplomatic privilege.

“How does this work?” John demanded. “I ready to arbitrate, but where are the parties at conflict?”

“You Earth Champion,” the Abroteen explained slowly like he was speaking to a little kid.

“You for Earth company. Abroteen Champion soon here. He for Abroteen company. No split, no draw. You win say settlement. He win he says. Simple. You go out circle lose. You die lose. You both die complicated. Do over or companies say  heads or tails,” he said making a flipping motion.

“This is a trial by combat? That’s not what we mean by arbitration! This is not at all what I expected to be doing!”

The alien shrugged big shoulders inside his purple robe. “Tell scholars work Abroteen/English dictionary,” he suggested. “You in circle,” he said pointing at the ground. “Walk away now lose. Stay you fight,” he promised. “First Ambassador say he be Champion. Old as rocks and no faster. Now you,” he couldn’t read the alien face but he sniffed disdainfully.

“I am not leaving this circle,” John told him between clutched teeth. “Where the hell is this Champion?” he             asked enraged.

“He there,” pointed the purple fellow and stepped back outside the circle.

An Abroteen stepped in the circle and got a modest thumping of feet for his efforts. At least a few folks were cheering the home boy on. An official of some sort came into the circle and stabbed a big sword into the dirt by each Champion. “Visitor, first. Pull from ground to start,” he instructed.

“Thank you,” John said looking the sword over. It was ridiculously big. The coffee was working through him and he left the sword there since it was his option, and walked to the edge of the circle. There was a low murmur from the crowd. Some apparently thought he was going to walk out. He unzipped his pants and relieved himself on whatever passed for grass. A few of the natives barely got their silks out of the way before he let loose. He walked back to the sword amid a bunch of what sounded like sneezes.

“They’re laughing,” George called from behind him.

He didn’t have to ask if they were laughing at him, because he looked across the circle at the Champion. He was very unhappy, shifting his weight from foot to foot and looked at John slit eyed.

Hmm, so that’s what they look like pissed off. He needed a smoke and really didn’t give a damn if this over sized bunny worked himself up until he had a stroke waiting for him. He drew out a cigarette and lit it. There was a ripple of surprise through the crowd at the lighter. Pretty soon the near edge of the crowd melted away from the smoke, coughing.

“Do you fight Deputy Champion?” The guy in purple called from the sidelines.

“There some kind of rule how long this can take?” John growled at him.

“All end by sundown,” he admitted, unhappy. John was starting to understand their body language a little. Both the purple clad fellow and the Champion were exhibiting extreme nose twitching. He might be a rabbit, but John did notice he was a damn big rabbit, about half again as big as most of the others in the crowd. Twice what John massed at a guess. Besides really not liking any references to his size, John had also grown up with a father who would give him a second licking if he came home beaten. There wasn’t a whole lot of back down built into his personality. He tossed the butt down and stepped on it, and yanked the sword out of the ground.

The Champion made a theatrical show of drawing the sword and thrust it at the heavens. Then he swirled it nimbly in figure eights, shifting it from hand to hand, and ended with it held double handed before him in a high guard.

“That’s mighty pretty,” John said loud enough for the crowd to hear. Another round of sneezy snickering ran through the ranks. John started walking steadily toward him. He didn’t know much about sword play, but the object was to stick him with the damn thing. He was having trouble just holding it up so there was no way he could get fancy with it.

The hired Champion of the Eastern Continent Trading Company was a professional. He knew all seven hundred and thirty-six sacred movements of the sword in perfection. Each posture and movement had a proper response. The holy eighteen initiating actions started a duel. From them one could move into ever increasing complex branches. Only certain actions followed one another. The hand was set up for the next motion by the previous. It was as formalized as ballet. He had no idea what the hell this crazy alien was going to do holding the sword at an angle no Abroteen wrist could duplicate with all the grace of a butcher getting ready to stick a Princhen fat for market.

He wanted to initiate the exchange, but John was already shoving the sword forward in the general direction of his guts. It sort of looked like a number twenty three, the woodpecker, which was not a proper opening gambit, but he shifted to the corresponding defense.

The sword was simply too heavy to hold up and when John got it extended one handed the point plunged out of his control right under the graceful guarding movement of his opponent and sank into the alien’s foot. The noise the fellow made was definitely a new one he’d not known an Abroteen could make. He barely managed to hold on to the sword. It seemed to be stuck in the boney part of the foot and the noise it made when he jerked back made John a bit sick to his stomach. It almost yanked out of his hand.

The Abroteen seemed to be too angry to be subtle anymore and hobbled forward with the sword raised straight overhead in both hands.  He doubted he could deflect such a stroke so John turned and ran along the edge of the circle. The crowd was yelling all sorts of things in Abroteen. He had no idea if he was being called a coward or urged on to greater speed. Maybe they just saw their bets close to a pay-out. The Champion could not keep up with him with the injured foot and he pulled away.

After two turns he was about a third of the circle ahead, the alien was losing heart and gave up a straight pursuit. He turned and crossed the middle to cut him off.

John stopped. He was as tired of running as the alien, who hobbled across the circle leaving a line of red footprints behind. He approached John cautiously, sword back to the side like a baseball bat. Nothing fancy now, he just wanted to cut him down like a tree.

As tired as he was he drew back slightly and telegraphed his intent. He swung with everything he had and it swished audibly through the air over John’s head as he ducked. Abroteen can’t squat. Their back legs don’t bend that way. He followed through wildly, having expected resistance that wasn’t there. He spun, dropped the sword trying to balance, took two mincing little steps and poised, toes over the edge of the circle arms wind milling to avoid a fall.  John planted a foot flat on his big bunny butt and shoved. He sprawled flat in the grass.

There was s shocked silence and then a minor earthquake of applause.

The purple guy walked out blank faced. “What your will hot-shot Champion?”

“My will is to go get a meal and sleep half a day. About this time tomorrow I’d like to speak with somebody from both companies and find a solution that is just.”

“Huh – Not make contract never was?” he asked surprised.

“That hardly seems fair to me. I want to ask questions. It seems to me both of them were being a bit unreasonable and I want to judge after getting facts.” He ignored the noises from the Ambassador.

“It shall be done,” the purple clad  fellow said in perfectly good English for once, and damned if he didn’t bow.

* * *

            The next day on the Ambassador’s balcony, he looked out over the Abroteen’s capitol. If he looked in the distance it didn’t look much different than Paris. He wondered if they would keep it pleasant or mess it up with sky scrapers and huge boxy buildings as they learned ironwork. He’d slept until almost local noon.

The Ambassador was having lunch, a chilled soup and cucumber sandwich. He didn’t have much to say.  At first he thought it was disapproval of his cigar and the whisky he requested for his coffee. But after awhile he figured out the man was afraid of him from the previous day’s performance. He was pretty sure it wasn’t a set-up. The man had no more idea than him what the Abroteen intended when they arrived.

If they had accepted the Ambassador as a Champion he would have walked right out of the circle once he understood. That would have been bad for Earth’s reputation in the long term. That was likely the other half of why he was unhappy with John. He knew he’d have never even tried.

“If their Champion had you balanced on the edge of the circle he’d have cut you down from behind instead of planting a boot on your ass. You know that don’t you?”

“Undoubtedly,” John agreed. “He was young and aggressive and would be looking to be hired as a Champion again. He might have bumped me out if I hadn’t stabbed him in the foot, but there was no forgiveness after that. I’m satisfied it serves our interest to show them a gentler way.”

“That in itself is probably a social intervention. Those can be worse than technological revelations. However, if you read the protocols as Ambassador I have the ultimate local say in what is a violation. I thought your improvisation yesterday was masterful actually, but I’m concerned what you are going to do in this meeting today.”

“I have no idea what I’ll do before I hear the matter,” John explained spreading his hands. “All I can assure you is I will do nothing to put Earth in a bad light, or act spitefully toward either party. Surely that is enough to accomplish when matters are thrust upon us like this?”

“You could have cancelled the contract out as they expected and as they surely would have done themselves if they had won.”

“Yes, that would have been the easy solution. But I’m not sure it would have been the best thing for how they regard us. Perhaps there is a better solution they can respect and see as superior.”

“See here, you sound like you intend to meddle in their law.”

“Not at all,” John insisted waving the idea away, “I’m Champion and I won so I can do anything that pleases me and it comports perfectly with their law.” He was right and the Ambassador knew it. But he probably wished he wasn’t enjoying it so much.

“Could you have the kitchen bring me something after all?” he requested. “I think I could face one of those sandwiches if they could find some meat to stuff in the thing.”

* * *

            “His Excellency isn’t joining you?” George asked  when he got in the limo.

“He indicated he had other talks with the political leader while I speak with the judiciary.” John explained. “I think he did that to remove himself from whatever I do. Tell me George, which way did you bet on the outcome of the duel yesterday?”

“I bet five gold pieces against you at ten to one,” he admitted sourly.

“Do the Abroteen bet a lot?”

“They bet on bloody anything! They stop and buy a sweet roll and they will toss the store dice for double or nothing. They sit in a café having a toot and they will bet on what song will come on the radio next. If you roll against them make them use a cup. These boys have magic fingers,” he complained.

“I didn’t think you were as clueless as the Ambassador,” John told him. “Come along if you want to see how it goes. I don’t think they will argue with a Champion about his guests.”

* * *

            They were lead to the same tiered bowl under the main dome of the Supreme Court. The crowd was smaller today, the nine judges separating a small group of Abroteen from an even smaller mixed group of Abroteen and humans.  If the Abroteen company executives were at the trial yesterday John didn’t recognize them. The Human company owner immediately apologized for not being at the trial. “We were on station, by the time we were told and had a shuttle hired it was all over,” he explained.

The nine indicated he should seat himself on the steps below them, and invited him to officiate however pleased him. They motioned George to sit behind them. As soon as he was seated on the third step the Abroteen who had been in purple yesterday approached and held out the sword he’d used. “You left this stuck in dirt. It polished, sharpened and got sheath. You guardian now. It third ranking instrument arbitration our court.” He had on an eye searing tangerine tiger stripe today. How could John turn it down? So he took it with both hands.

John sat, put the sword across his knees, and asked the Earth company to pick a spokesman.

They apparently had that all arranged. A middle aged fellow in somewhat casual clothing stepped up and faced John.

“What is your position with the company?” John asked for the crowd.

“I’m Bert Ferguson, founder and principle stockholder still.”

“Who are those two in expensive suits frowning at us?”

“Those would be the company lawyers,” he said without needing to look.

“Can they practice Abroteen law?”

Anybody can practice Abroteen law,” the fellow insisted. “You come before the court and state your case. There are records of decisions, but no real lawyers like we have. The lawyers are for me to deal with Earth law.”

“Tell me in your own words why things got to be such a mess we progressed to trial by combat.”

“We sold the Eastern Continent Trading Company a couple thousand walkie-talkies. They have far less population over there. It’s a lot drier, and it will likely be a long time before it is economical to use cellular systems. They are using them for stuff like keeping in touch with shepards and for police with their deputies. The rich even buy a few for their servants, that sort of thing.”

“We reserved a hundred to replace any bad ones. That seemed plenty given our experience with similar units. These aren’t cheap kids toys, they are mil spec hardened units that should be dust proof and water proof and very shock resistant. Trouble was they turned out to be crap. We ran out of replacements and we’d sent most of the money home. We retained just enough cash for local expenses and we simply don’t have the money to buy them all back. Once they invoked arbitration that ended any further settlement by law.”

“Did you understand what they meant by arbitration?”

His lawyers were trying to hush him, but he answered anyway. “Not at first. I was pretty sure what they meant later, because we had a couple champions come and offer their services. Apparently having a government hired Champion is like having a public defender at home, a token defense for the poor. It’s a way for the inexperienced or guys who lost but survived like yesterday to get back on the game. I didn’t know what they meant about The Circle until then.”

“Did you tell the Ambassador about that?”

“I don’t tell the Ambassador anything,” the man scowled. “He lives to tell us we can’t do anything and would be happier if this world was closed so he wouldn’t have to actually do anything.”

“Are you still willing to make good on either the funds or the radios?’

“I have new radios. Another brand but they are on the same band. They were already in the pipeline but the guy from ECT wouldn’t wait for them. The money went to pay for them back on Earth. It’s spent. So it’s the radios or nothing.”

“I may have some questions still. Who speaks for the Eastern Continent Trading Company?”

“Me,” said an Abroteen standing quickly who looked too young.

“What is your position with the company?”

There was a brief discussion of position with a couple councilors.

“I middle son and heir.”

“Why isn’t the owner speaking?”

“The family says me to speak. Papa owns. He holds,” the boy showed with a hand, “but for us.”

“Why did they decide that?” John asked, refusing to let him off the hook.

“Father doubt everyone,” he explained. John had never seen an Abroteen wring his hands before. “Has been good. Was needed. But now bad. Doubt old house servants, doubt me.

“So the family does not feel the same?”

“No, we count days. Same as old business. Done faster can’t. Earthmen want money fast same we want radios fast. Too late what old man do we hear.”

“I am ready to make a decision. Last chance to speak if you don’t think I have all the facts.”

“Know this, Champion. We gave money back. Not like Earthman.”

“If you get new radios do you think your buyers will give them another try?”

He considered that briefly. “Most. They need. Most want radios not money, nobody want wait no radio, no money. I same,” he concluded and sat down.

“I want you, Mr. Ferguson to replace the bad radios with new ones, and give the Eastern Continent Trading Company an extra new radio for every ten they turn in. After ninety days no more bad radios can be turned in. You can’t promise they will last forever. At the end of ninety days we end all obligations and any new deal between you two has nothing to do with me or this trial. If you want to trade with each other in the new radios besides replacing the old ones that is up to you two to work out terms. I suggest you ask Mr. Ferguson to post a performance bond if you buy from him again. Questions?”

“Bonds are not recognized in Abroteen law,” Ferguson informed him. “I’d be willing, the bookies or the banks would write one, but most forms of insurance are not recognized as enforceable contracts under their law.”

“They are now. I demand they be allowed as a part of my judgment.”

“Will that stick?” Ferguson asked shocked, looking past John to the Supreme Court.

“He can do?” the Trading Company heir asked big eyed with surprise.

“Word of Champion is law,” the guy in the tangerine tunic answered simply.

John stood up and laid the sword across his shoulder. “Last chance to say anything before I declare the matter settled. Don’t complain later you didn’t get to speak.” He looked around. There was a murmur of voices, even among the Court, but it died out and nobody stood up.

“We’re done here,” he announced and turned to the Court. “You want me to hang on to this?” he asked, patting the sword.

“Unusual was justice of Champion,” the guy in tangerine admitted. “The Court says all of them it served both parties most excellently. Third sword now named Sword of Earth Justice, good you guard.”

* * *

            “You certainly have those boys snookered,” George said when they got in the limo. “I was sitting back there on the steps and the junior member of the court was whispering in my ear. He said you were playing with the other champion and it is only in great strength you can afford to show mercy. I can’t believe you changed the whole mess about insurance by decree. The Ambassador has been beating his head against the wall on that since he came here.”


“What John?”

“What Deputy, you mean, or What sir? If you want to go back and go in the ring with me I’d be happy to accommodate you. I imagine the court would find it very entertaining. Swords or bare handed, pickle forks or road flares, I don’t really care. The spook thing doesn’t impress me any more than all that fancy sword twirling the kid did. Understand?”

“Yes sir, I will decline that invitation, thank you.”

* * *

            The Ambassador asked John to dinner. He got dressed decently for the first time since Earth. It was just the two of them, and an impressive dinner for two. There were several Abroteen items that didn’t really provide any nutrition, but could be tolerated and were a novelty.

“You did a smashup job on this my boy. The head guy, the Tas they call him, was very happy with the outcome,” he said smiling and jolly.

“If you are pleased too then I’m satisfied. I wanted a good note in my file for a job well done and a quick turnaround home. A little career builder for when something comes open for a promotion. Could you have your secretary inquire what will be leaving for Earth soon with an open berth?”

“Yes, I just had him search that,” the Ambassador said smiling. “I think I can promise you a substantial promotion too,” he said agreeably. “The sister ship to the one you came in on, the Hopalong Cassidy, will be undocking in about eighteen hours. It’s a bit of a rush, but I intend to be on her.” That got a quizzical look and a slow feeling of dread from John.

“The Tas was rather adamant the Earth Champion should remain here. Lord knows he was never happy with me. I will make every effort to press for my temporary assignment of you as acting head of mission be followed by a full formal appointment as Ambassador. Let me tell you, very few young men of your age have ever snagged a ambassadorship, but I think your record here will leave them little choice given the insistence of the Tas. You have accomplished more in a few days than has occurred over the last several years. I hold no resentment of that, but I’d look rather silly and superfluous to stay on after such sweeping changes.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir,” John said stunned.

“I can imagine,” Ambassador Rollins said smiling. He stood offered his hand. “I’ve been trying to get relieved for the last year,” he admitted. “This is a perfect opportunity for the both of us.”

“I wish you the best in whatever your new endeavor is, sir,” he shook his hand numbly.

“Thank you, Champion. I’m seventy-two you know. I have quite a few healthy years left with medicine the way it is. I intend to find a quiet little place in the Caribbean with good fishing and relax  and enjoy myself for awhile. George will brief you on other more mundane matters we have been dealing with day to day. I’ve got to finish packing up the mementos I’ve collected if you will excuse me.”

He laid his napkin on the table and marched out.

George came in and sat at one of the other chairs with no setting.

“What just happened here?” he asked rhetorically.

“I believe you were a victim of your own success, sir.”

“Are you eager to be relieved at this post too, George?”

“Not at all, sir. I will in time go home, but until then I will make the most of my time here.”

“How many humans on Abroteen, George? Is there any sort of society?”

“There are usually less than a hundred humans on world. However they change rapidly as the ships come and go. Most traders and spacers would find an invitation from the embassy for dinner a treat, so society here might be what you make it.”

“I take it Ambassador Rollins did not chose to do that?”

“No sir, he looked down on merchants and spacers. But I don’t, and a word to the wise, if you treat them with respect you find all sorts of favors offered. There is considerable traffic on the ships off the manifest if you know the crews.”


“No need to smuggle, sir. Everything is pretty much wide open if you are respectful of the protocols for technology transfers. And very few get out away from the Capitol and see any of the world. It is a very rich world in metals as you know. Perhaps I should mention that even as isolated as the Ambassador kept himself his trinkets and mementos we packed up and sent up to the ship added up to about eighty kilograms. Every local merchant and prince that came to see the Ambassador over the last four years brought some ring or medal or little bowl or statue as a gift. Most of that eighty kilos is gold and platinum.

“No kidding? I suppose there might be a bright side to this posting after all.”

“I don’t get gifted much,” George allowed. “But I get out into the country every few weeks. They have a decent rail system and you can go to a small town to do a little trading on your days off. Just to give you an example  I had a pilot friend run me in a box of ballpoint pens last month. They are allowed technology. I set up a little table in the town market and paid the local cop a silver coin to ignore me. I traded for this and that people brought more than cash money. One old woman brought me a old pail with a hole worn in the bottom, about a sixteen liter bucket and held out for two pens. She was very happy with herself. The bucket was platinum.”

“I take this to mean you aren’t holding a grudge about yesterday?”

“There is no advantage to getting in a pissing match with the Ambassador,” George concluded. “You are either very, very, good or incredibly lucky. What does it matter to me which really?”

“I’m not the Ambassador yet.”

“Hah! The bookies are betting forty to one you are confirmed by the end of the month. No way I’ll take a gram of that sucker bet.”


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