The ride back to the main ship was a continuation of the previous scene and Les' strange behavior. Tikk had wordlessly moved so that Les and I were pressed into the wall close together, and when I asked when we expected to arrive on their planet it was Les that spoke up.
"We need to collect sufficient power before we are ready for the Zorb leap. We will send a Zorb to absorb all the waste your species has somehow been unable to dispose of properly. It should be about ten fractions before we are prepared to leap. Do not worry. Your people will be secured." Les saying all of this only made me feel more concerned. It was very possible nothing would work out the way I was hoping.
"And once we are on planet?" I asked as we were entering the cargo bay of the main ship. My question went unanswered.
As we had approached the ship from Kepler I was able to see the shape Tikk had explained to me earlier. The ship was a huge acute angle but the connecting point was rounded and black while the lines forming the angle were the same bright white as everything else. It certainly stuck out in its surroundings. The black was obviously due to the massive portal in the control center, and I could make out a dotted line of black rectangles that were the various viewing portals in all the rooms lining the hallways. I pulled myself from the wall and jumped out of the hatch as soon as it opened. I wanted to be the first one out so I could organize the unloading. There was plenty of room in the cargo area for everyone to stand comfortably, but I didn't know where we would put them for the jump. Les and Tikk were following close behind me and so I turned to ask, "Where should I tell them to go? Do they need to be injected with your language first?"
We had rounded the ship and Les lifted his hand above his head and swiped in a downward motion. The back of the ship began lowering to reveal the people pressed against the walls inside.
"Just push yourselves away from the wall. You should come away easily." They did as I said and started to move forward gingerly. "Wait." I waved my hands so those in the back could see and turned to Les. "Well, where do I take them?"
"To the holding chambers at the back wall." Les motioned with his arm and then began to walk towards the cargo area where two large viewing portals flanked a wall. "They will be secure and out of the way here." He did the same up-down hand motions as before and wall that separated us from the room melted into the floor.
"There are facilities and food supplies if they need them." The other two ships had been opened and Judas was making his way around reiterating my instructions. I found Ming and enlisted her help in having everyone make their way towards the two rooms along the back wall.
"They want everyone to go into those holding chambers." I held her arm and pointed toward where Les stood. "There is food and toilets, and everyone will be safe during the flight in there."
She glared in Les' direction. "Looks kind of like a jail cell or a science exhibit." Her face turned back to me. "Do you trust these guys not to kill us, or … I don't know… do something really bad."
Even though we were separated from the group I lowered my voice. "I have no idea what is going to happen, but I do know we have no real option here. Let’s just get everyone settled and I can start trying to get more information out of them." I attempted a smile then turned to the crowd of frightened looking people in the middle of the room.
"Ok everyone, you see that opening? That’s our luxury accommodations; we will be safe in there during the flight. It won’t take long." I could feel my frustration at their blank stares growing, but thankfully Judas stepped in.
"Ok,” Judas exclaimed as he stood up. “Li family, the Zhaos, Jacobsons, the Jiangs, Duskys, Monroes, and the Lynn family, stop staring at me and move your butts into the room. I need to use one of those toilets." Ming grabbed her cousin by the elbow and began walking towards the chamber and the crowd shuffled into motion. Judas stopped next to me as everyone else made their way towards what could very easily be the last room they ever stayed in. "You and I are the only Sturgeons left." He cocked his head to the right and gave my shoulder another light punch. "I'm assuming you're going to go talk to our saviors?" Judas motioned behind me and as I turned I could see Les standing near the exit to the hallway glaring in our direction.
"Yeah, I'll come find you when I've gotten a bit more information about what they intend on doing with us." I hesitated, wanting to spend more time with him. "Hopefully you will all get injected with their language at some point so I don't have to keep acting as the go between."
I turned back to find Les’ stance unchanged and cut the interaction short.
"It’s really nice to see you, Judas." I returned his shoulder punch and joined Les at the opening to the hallway.
Once all the humans had made their way inside, a dark red crew member, Innc, swiped his hand along the wall and the two sliding doors closed. Innc stood outside the chambers while the rest of the crew made their way out of the cargo area. Les waited for me beside the exit.
"I don't see why you have to lock them in and set up a guard." I stopped short, placed my hands on my hips, and made what I hoped was a disapproving look. "It's not like they have anywhere to go."
"Come, it has been a long day and we must eat." He turned and began walking down the hallway before I could respond, so I followed him but made certain to stomp as loudly as possible in protest. Les lead me in the direction of the main deck but passed it and turned into the first room down the living corridor. It was yet another large white room, but there was a long table in the middle of this one. Still no chairs but the shelves on the left sidewall were filled with what had to be food and cooking utensils. The Par's food is as colorful as they are. Bright blue, green, and orange melons sat in a bowl. Some kind of flesh that was more purple than red was laid out on a white counter top, and yellow bushels of leaves were being cut up and prepared for use by the alien named Ruun as Tikk looked on.
Les approached Tikk and asked, "Will there be sufficient fuel?" Tikk was standing near a small grey hole in the wall that I assumed lead to a Zorb, and was using a silver tool to crush the yellow florets into liquid.
Tikk put down the juicing machine and turned to face us. “Yes, and then some; we will be in Sharronn within an hour." Tikk seemed to notice me for the first time and jumped into action. "I'm sure you are very hungry. Rehydrate first." He handed me a jar which I placed under the small faucet that was located beside the waste receptacle.
"Did you enjoy the mixture I gave you before?" Tikk grabbed the device that rested on the counter behind him. He held it out so I could see a small amount of yellow liquid sloshing around in a jar connected to the bottom of the apparatus. "Very delicious and efficient form of consumption."
My stomach grumbled and I was reminded of that fact that I hadn't really eaten all day. “Uh, is this the only stuff you guys have? What will the rest of my friends be given?" There were five other crew members in the room leaning against the table and drinking multi colored pulpy mixtures from large jugs.
"This is the best way to transport and consume food while on long leap missions. Liquid is easily derived from our own waste water and moisture collected from the juice plants, but most of our storage space is used for our supply chamber, which is filled with our frozen produce and protein. When the food is crystalized it is easier to store and to break down into its basic nutrient rich form when prepared for consumption, but that means it must be prepared while still frozen and so becomes juice extract. We are able to consume less and gain more."
Tikk returned to his compressing and looked over my head at Les. "Do you want to join us in the recreation room after this? I do not plan on training long, but the exercise will help me sleep."
He removed the now full jar from the device and poured half of its contents into a separate container and handed it to me. "You are also welcome to come, or you may return to the humans. I promise Innc and Runn are taking good care of them and preparing enough sustenance for all to be satisfied. We gain nothing if they are not healthy and impressive specimens."
He chugged his drink down and I raised mine to my lips for a small sip. My face contorted into a crumpled grimace before I could help myself. "Oh man, I guess the best way to go with this stuff is to avoid all olfactory interaction whatsoever." I held the liquid as far from my body as I could. Les and Tikk tilted their heads in confusion.
"It is consumed for its nutritional value not its odor." Les was in the process of making his own concoction as he said this.
"Do you not like the taste? Juwakkwon beast is my favorite of the quadrupeds." Tikk shrugged his shoulders and finished the last of his in one slurping gulp.
"I don't mean to be picky. It’s very filling, thank you." I held my breath as I tilted the contents of my cup toward my mouth, and followed it immediately with a gulp of water. "And I would like to join you in the recreation room if you don't mind. If you're willing to teach me how to use whatever weird machines you have down there."
I tipped the remainder of the yellow pulp down my throat and tried to drink it all before it registered on my taste buds. There was a mini-gym on my pod and I had always been active despite my years in stasis. I could tell by the physical condition of my new companions, that the Par value a fit body even more than humans do.
“You are more than welcome, and our form of exercise is simple to learn. Les?"
Tikk took the now empty container from my hand and tossed both towards the hole on the back of the cabinet. Les' liquid meal was purple and nearly the same shade as himself. This juxtaposition lead to my questioning the origins of the Par's magnificent fluctuation in color tone, which inevitably lead to me smiling in wonder at my new life.
Les threw his empty container in the same hole and said, “What pleases you?"
Both he and Tikk angled themselves toward me. I was taken aback by being caught, but they both grinned as if waiting for me to tell them a joke.
"I was…” I reminded myself that the only dumb question is the one not asked and so I said, "What gives you your pigment? Is it the food you eat?" I indicated the colorful, frozen bounty laid out on the counter.
Both males burst into laughter and I was left without an answer for about thirty seconds while they scoffed. Tikk was the first to notice my disgruntled stance.
He calmed down and answered, "Our pigmentation is by choice. Mostly parents choose it when their child is born, but it is fairly easy to have your pigmentation changed if you wish."
"How do you do it?"
"An injection into the spine, similar to the one used to inject you with LiquiParin. The brain then directs the injection to the epidermis where it is assimilated."
"You got a pigment change, right?" Les asked Tikk.
"Yes, my parents chose blue, but I just never felt that was really my color." Tikk and Les shared a look that indicated that they knew something and had no inclination to let me in on it.
"What do you look like without the color?"
"Par's epidermis is naturally black or grey, like Cykk."
Les spoke up. "It seems as if all our recent inventions have been directed at physical beauty" He shifted his feet and rolled his large shoulders. "We have given up on progressing our cause or regaining our dignity. Now all the Par want are jewel implants and the brightest epidermis." His eyes flicker to my own and for a moment I think I saw shame. "Even a civilization as advanced as ours is obsessed with the superficial."
"Fine, Les, we all know of your distaste for the Par's obsession with physical appearance, but not all of us are genetically disposed to be beautiful the way you were, and your parents chose such a magnificent color for you." Tikk beamed at his commander and patted him on the arm as if comforting an elderly female. My mouth could not help but fall open as I marveled at the way Tikk teased the male I supposed a tyrant.
Les was satisfied with the conversation and walked toward the exit. "We will see if you can handle yourself with Par weights." This comment was obviously meant for me, and his lips formed a sly smile before he turned and left the room. Tikk nudged me with his elbow and let out one of his gurgling laughs before jogging after Les.
I followed them about twenty meters down the hall. When I entered the room the expansive viewing portal that made up the wall opposite the entrance caught me off guard, but I was becoming accustomed to the feeling of entering space every time I went into a room located along the outside of the ship.
By the time Tikk and I entered Les had already began to toss around two small green spheres. Runn and Bryyl could be seen on the far side of the large room. They had connected themselves with an expandable rope and were running in opposite directions, each trying to pull the other behind him. As I got closer to the wall on my left I could see a row of drawers full of different colored spheres.
”Fun, exercise balls. Do I just pick my favorite color?" I reached for a green ball in the far right drawer.
"Those will be the heaviest. The yellow are the lightest and they go up as you work your way down the wall." Tikk pulled out a purple ball from the middle drawer.
As he started to handle it I could tell the spheres were malleable like most of the objects I had come into contact with since I met these guys. Tikk pushed his right hand into the ball and gripped the side. A handle formed and he lifted the weight above his head and began bending and straightening his elbow. "It just depends on what you want to do. Les and I will sometimes play a game for agility, or we work on balance and strength individually. There are also cardio tracks along the opposite wall." Tikk indicated the area where Bryyl and Runn were pulling each other around.
"It can go in both directions simultaneously?" I waved my hands around as I continued to watch the two males running at full speed in opposite directions but neither moving from their area more than two steps.
Les laughed as he squatted with a green ball extended straight in front of his body. "That entire area is a running track. Simply begin to run and the track will register your request no matter the direction."
"Again with the condescending voice; not necessary." As I spoke I moved to the right side of the room. I felt the floor begging to shift backwards. I picked up my feet and began to walk then jog as the floor moved towards the entrance quicker.
"An intuitive treadmill." I exclaimed as I noticed the floor only quickened to a pace that pushed me but did not cause me to overexert myself as it shifted to create an incline.
"It is a running track." Les corrected as he sat down the green ball and moved toward the forming water faucet indention.
"I know." I said, without taking my eyes off the stars outside the window. "Humans had something similar to these and it was called a treadmill. I don't really understand the name now that I think of it."
I kept my pace and we all remained silent for about twenty minutes. Les and Tikk shifting weights and changing positions, Runn and Bryyl completed their competition and moved to the weight area. At one point Les pulled three green balls out of the drawer and to my amazement he started juggling them while balancing on one leg or the other. Then Tikk pushed the handles in to reform his ball and grabbed two more. He joined in with the juggling action and they began to pass the balls to each other in between juggles. I stared at them for a good two minutes. My mind began to wonder as I watched the two aliens preform their strong man act, and I then I remembered why I had joined them to begin with.
I turned to face them and the floor easily shifted beneath my feet so that I continued to run in place. I asked both of them, "What do you intend to do with my people when we land on your planet?" I continued to breathe in my nose and out my mouth as the track upped its incline. We were just a few buddies working out and talking about the fate of the human race. "I assume you boys do this for profit and not for the warm fuzzy feeling you get from helping others."
Neither of them stopped or even broke their gaze. Which was a good idea since there was a dangerous amount of weight flying between them.
"At this moment I don't really know." Les didn't even sound like he was out of breath. "Most likely you will be put to auction. Unless you have some hidden attributes I don't see; I believe humans will be useful for no more than manual labor of some kind, even after the language implant. I can tell from your technology that your species has nothing of real value to contribute to ours."
He let his head tilt in my direction for a brief moment. "If your people had all been as attractive as you I would have suggested a more leisurely line of service work, but the majority of them will most likely become general laborers on Qualittia or Trallcore." Tikk was obviously feeling the strain of the work out, but Les made no sign of tiring and it was apparent that he was in control of the game.
"You're going to sell us off like cattle? You expect us to just live out our lives as slaves?"
My outrage must have registered with the track because at first I sped up, but then the floor crawled to a halt and I stood akimbo facing the two males.
"This is bullshit. We’re living creatures that deserve some kind of opportunity to prove ourselves. Educate us. At least see if we can contribute more than labor." I was waving my arms all over the place. Les grunted and both of them caught their weights. I continued my rant not even pretending to maintain a calm demeanor.
"I get that you need to profit from this, but you can't just sell us off like that. The whole reason they all agreed to come was so that humanity could survive. If you split them up how is that going to happen?”
"It is very likely your species can breed with our own." Tikk tossed his weights back into the drawer and filled himself a jar of water. "That is probably what will happen. Our species and the Harlukkna have created a new hybrid species but can only do so through artificial means. Our anatomies are far more compatible, and your species has too few numbers to reproduce successfully. It will be interesting to see what comes of our mating."
Tikk paused with the jar raised to his lips and looked between Les and me. "I do not mean to infer that you and I will mate. That is certainly not the case. I only mean as a scientist I am interested in what a hybrid of our two species would be like." Les had set aside one weight, had given the other two handles, and was raising them above his head in a flying motion as he watched our now awkward conversation.
"So we’re going to be slaves that also get used for breeding experimentation every once in a while." My gaze shot between the two of them, and I was more aggravated by their laid back attitude than by the reality of what my people were facing.
Les finally replaced his weights and walked toward us. "I do not know why you insist on becoming upset. Your people will be sold. Most likely as laborers, some possibly as personal servants, but they will all be fed, clothed, and sheltered. They will also be given payment after they have worked off their initial purchase fee. It’s all very common." Les was standing between us now, and he pressed his body close to mine. I could smell his sweat as he said, "You do not need to worry about any of these technicalities anyway. You have already been paid for." With that Les nodded at Tikk and made his way out of the chamber.