A science fiction short where a former gild trader, or slaver, is interviewed about his previous involvement in the trafficking trade.

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Interview of Zethién M’ro, Former Slaver (48 A.R.)

 

Zethién M’ro: I tell this only because I am forced to by the Reconciliation Commission and they have threatened to take my ribbondrive away if I don’t.

Interviewer: Really?

ZM: They didn’t call it that of course, but that is what they meant by it.

I: What did they call it?

ZM: Requisition. (Laughs)

I: Why are you laughing?

ZM: Because that’s what we used to call our catching raids. Requisitions. They think they are funny. But it isn’t funny to me. I cannot live without my ribbondrive. What do they think? I can make a living without a ribbondrive? No. They laugh at me, but I’m not laughing. For me, you see, it is a matter of life or death. It is everything.

I: What do you mean by ‘making a living?’

ZM: Of course, your sort, you never understand.[1] What, you think someone like me can walk up to an assembler and it responds? That I just walk into a biodome, dock at a colony, and they let me in? Take what you need, give what you can? (laughs) Of course not. They do not let me in, they pretend like I am not there. I see you don’t believe me, but it is different out here on the Edge. What you were before? That matters out here. Yes, it still matters, whether you believe it or not, Primer. That’s why the Commission still carries on, even after all these orbits. They’re still out to punish us. Punish us for doing our jobs. What, I was supposed to know? I was supposed to say to them No, I will not do that? It was our way of life. The only lives we knew. But enough. Here I am, without a ribbondrive, unless I speak to you. If I want to earn, if I want to eat, if my family want to eat, I have to speak to you. So hurry. Ask your questions.

I: When did you first become involved in the trade?

ZM: Like all of us I was born into it.

I: When did you go on your first raid?

ZM: I went with my father and uncles when I was ten, but I had been on raids before then, but as a spotter not a catcher. I was a better catcher than a spotter and they realised that quick enough.

I: Is it usual to start so young?

ZM: Yes.

I: Perhaps you could tell me how a raid would normally begin.

ZM: You already know this.

I: I would like to hear it from you.

ZM: So you have the spotter. A youngster, eight or nine orbits old. Any older, no chance. It has to be someone small enough not to be noticed. That is important. You cannot use someone too pretty either, they must be invisible. I was lucky I was not a handsome boy, but not so ugly either. There are lots of ways to attract attention in those places, you might be too fat or have too many teeth or matching socks. It sounds silly now but that kind of thing was very important. I remember my first time as spotter. My uncle, he pulled me down in front of him on the floor of the shuttle and he looked at me all over, for nearly twenty minutes. He looked at everything about me. In my ears, even. I have never been looked at like that before, and I wriggled. He slapped me and said to me, “Ze,” – that is what they called me back then, you see – he said, “Ze, if one thing about you is wrong they will spot you from a ly away and they will cut your throat and cook your balls for breakfast.” I stopped wriggling after that. He was right, of course. They looked out for us. I heard of boys, boys without clever uncles like mine, boys whose uncles didn’t check their ears or their toes or their tags and well, let’s just say the stories my uncle told were not all lies.

I: They were afraid of you.

ZM: They were animals. Did the Dynasties not compensate their families? We never hurt them. Why would we? But if they caught one of us, it was always the same. They had no mercy. I lost many friends to them, over the orbits. An uncle, too, but not the clever one. Another one. They sliced his dick off and fed him to their dogs. Barbarians.

I: How did the spotting work? What were you looking for?

ZM: The spotter did not find them. The word, spotter, it doesn’t translate so well. I don’t know what the Concord would be. No. That had already been done, the finding I mean. All the spotter did was follow them. Keep an eye on them. We couldn’t risk drones. They were too clever for that. They were careful. You had to have somebody on the ground watching them. When the gild was in the marked place the spotter would send the signal, and then the catchers would come. You had to be quick, because they wouldn’t collect the spotter for a few days, so you had to make sure you could get away, find somewhere to hide for a few days. The sound of the catchers always attracted attention.

I: The sound?

ZM: Yes, the crack. You know. The sound of the snatchercraft as it breaks atmo. Boom-Boom.

I: A sonic boom?

ZM: The catchers, they had to be waiting out in orbit, otherwise they’d be seen and shot down. In and out, you know, before they could make a lock.

I: Why did the catchers use shuttles to abduct the children? Why not use subtler methods?

ZM: You don’t understand. It was the only way to do it. You could not just walk up to a gild and take them. How would you get them away? They were chipped. They’d find you straight away. No, in and out, that was the only way.

I: All the children were chipped?

ZM: Yes, even the poorest. They were not stupid. There was nothing they feared more. They put it in as a baby, you know, even if the cost meant the family ate crushed crem for months. They all had them. Deep in the brain, so it cannot be removed. Not easily, anyway. Of course we removed them on the way back to the Empire. No House would buy a chipped child, not even the Jethen or the Blak, who would take even the skinniest runt for a gild. But removing the chips took time, and you had to be very careful, otherwise you end up making the gilds blind or retarded or something, and then you had to space them and it was all a waste of everyone’s time. There was no way to remove a chip on the surface. There just wasn’t the chance. It was all very specialist, you know. That kind of thing, well it draws attention. Like I said.

I: The Dynasties always claimed that the gilded children were offered as tribute, voluntarily, by the Edge worlds.

ZM: Lies, of course.

I: You never encountered the practice?

ZM: It never happened.

I: You’re sure?

ZM: My family had been catching for hundreds of years. I never once heard of anyone being volunteered as, how did you call it? Tribute? No. Unthinkable.

I: Did a family ever try to sell you their children?

ZM: Who says that? No, that never happened. No-one would do such a thing.

I: Why not?

ZM: You ask me such a question? After all that has happened?

I: There were rumours… There was a great deal of poverty on the Edge worlds before 8109…

ZM: No. Ask anyone out here. The idea… (grunts). Unthinkable. However empty their stomachs. Such a thing would never be allowed, even if some crazy parent had that sick thought. You think these people would live out here, live like they used to, only to give up their own children, their only hope? No. Never. They were poor, but they were not cowards.

I: You sound as if you admire them.

ZM: No. They were savages. Ugly people, with ugly ways. But that I can understand. What you say, that’s a very different thing. I ask you – would you give up your children to fill your stomach? Knowing what would happen? No, of course not. You would rather give your arm, your eyes, your heart. That is why they hated us, why they feared us. Because we all knew how valuable their children were. No. If the Empire was to have gilds then it would have to take them by force.

I: But if someone had tried to sell you their children…

ZM: Not one of us would accept. The idea makes me ill. It is shameful. I see you don’t understand. You look at me, a catcher, a slaver, as they call us now, and you think I am without a heart, that I am without values, without an understanding of what is right and good and what is shameful and wrong. Of course. I can see the confusion.

We were hunters, you see. The predators. And they were the prey, the herd. We both understood what we were. They feared us, they watched the skies for us, they attacked us wherever they could. We try to outsmart them, and they try to outsmart us. A back and forth. Tricks like the chips, like the snatchercraft, so many tricks and bluffs and so on. Nets, holograms, decoys, traps. You name it we saw it. But they would never volunteer for that, do you see? What, you think a herd would just leave their young behind for the predators? Offer them up on a plate to us? It is against nature, against reason. No. It could never be voluntary, could never be mutual. We made peace with what we did based on our understanding of right and wrong, our understanding of necessity, of traditions. We hunted, we caught, to live, and they did their best to stop us wherever they could, to keep their young from harm. That was timeless, that was the way it was always done. You see it on every world, in every place where an animal eats meat and an animal is meat. This is not unnatural; it is the most natural thing in the galaxy. The hunter must be fed, and the Empire was always hungry.

(After a few moments) Besides, the young of cowards? They would never have survived the gilding. (Laughing) There, I see I have said something you do understand.

I: Did you ever take children from your own planet, Corath?

ZM: Never.

I: Why not?

ZM: We would have been cast out.

I: By whom?

ZM: Why, everyone. But we would never have the idea in the first place. Only an outsider would think us capable of that.

I: So your people knew what you were doing was wrong?

ZM: Wrong? Childish Primer. You do not understand. It was not about right or wrong. If it was happening elsewhere they tolerated it. Like poaching. That’s the way we saw it, the way they saw it. If it is happening to someone else, if it is someone else’s field or stream, someone else’s young… And remember, we never did the gilding. That was someone else, that was the Empire, the Dynasties, that was their ways and what they did with them was not our business. We just brought them from the Edge. Supply, demand.

Besides, we’d been doing it for centuries. Hundreds, thousands of orbits. Ever since there was a market for gilds, we have been catching. It is a way of life for our people. Or was. They pretend differently now, of course, but back then it was a fact of life, and everyone knows that the hospitals and the skyports and the universities on Corath would not have been built without catcher money. People, they have short memories for things like that. It is only when they see old catchers like me that they remember, not when they are sitting in the theatre my sweat helped build.[2]

I: I’m interested to hear more about the catching process. You said that the spotters didn’t pick the children. Who did?

ZM: Right. The spotters were just there for the snatch itself, as the eyes on the ground. The older men, the older catchers, they picked the ones we wanted.

I: How did they choose?

ZM: They had a knack for it. They could see the ones that would survive the gilding, the ones with the right dimensions. It was a talent, you see. They were very good at seeing in one single moment whether the candidate was right. They were very rarely wrong. Maybe one or two a trip, if that. Eventually I got to see it, too. It came with practice, but I think maybe we are born with it, too. That predator instinct, like I was saying before. Passed down from fathers to sons, in the blood maybe.

I: You make it sound like the children on the Edge worlds were never left alone; that their parents were always on the watch for you, fearing abduction. How did you get an opportunity to choose the children that were to be abducted?

ZM: Oh, a thousand different ways. Like I said, we were full of tricks.

I: Can you give an example?

ZM: So we would see them at the school, at the beach, at the market, at the park, in their gardens…

I: See them?

ZM: Yes. What, you think they kept their children inside all the time? No. They must go out. They must go to school, mustn’t they? They must be playing with their friends…

I: But how did catchers, outsiders, get close enough for that?

ZM: These are big worlds, many worlds. There are, what, thirty planets on the Edge?[3] All full of children. So many children. And we look the same, we talk the same, we dress the same. We can blend in. They hated us, and we hated them, but we looked the same. Or we could if we wanted to. It was our livelihood.

(Cit. M’Ro begins to impersonate the accents and dialects of citizens from a number of Edge worlds. After he is done, he asks for a break, and smokes two cigarettes, one after the other, in silence, before resuming.)

So you see, no-one could point to you and say, “He is a catcher”. No. And they could not keep their children inside all the time. The herd was big, and we were few, and patient. Plenty of opportunities. We pick and chose the best, and though they tried there was not much they could do. Even the smartest, even the richest, we could always find a way, if we decided that was the one. There was always a moment to look at them, always a few seconds to catch them. Always.

I: How was Corath regarded by the other Edge worlds?

ZM: I don’t want to answer that. I am not interested in that. We did not care how they thought of us.[4]

I: Okay. What happened once you abducted the children? Once you had snatched them?

ZM: So we would wait for a few days, then we would pick up the spotter, and then drop him off at the next site. And then repeat.

I: Where would the children be?

ZM: The gilds?

I: Yes.

ZM: In surgery. It took the bots some days to remove the brain chips. Sometimes they had other augments and such, if they were rich enough. We scooped all that. Then they went into cryo. They were never awake when I saw them. I never spoke to one of them. They were unconscious from the moment of the catch to the moment we sold them, still in stasis, at the market.

I: On average, how many gilds did you catch each trip?

ZM: It varied.

I: Based on what?

ZM: Market price. Edge gilds fetched a premium, but sometimes there were other sources of supply. Wars and so forth. And the clones, well, you know all about that I am sure. It also was depending on how many spotters we had in the field. How many other catcher crews were operating nearby. How many potential gilds we’d identified on our trips planetside. And sometimes just how much we wanted to get away from the Edge. Lot of variables, you see.

I: Did the market price alter the number of children you took?

ZM: Of course. We had fixed costs to cover, but there was no need to be taking risks overfilling our tanks with gilds if we could clear a nice margin. Catching was dangerous. We did not do it to become rich. We did it out of necessity. If the price was high, we took fewer. No point in risking our necks. We were not greedy. We did what we had to do.

 

 

[1] The interviewer is originally from Helo-Prime, whilst Cit. M’ro is a native Corathian.

[2] Corath still refuses to make reparations to the other Edge worlds for its role ín the gild trade, and is not yet a full member of the Confederation.

[3] At its peak, it is estimated that approximately twenty thousand children were abducted from the thirty-two Edge worlds each standard orbit for the gild trade. The Edge population in the pre-Revolutionary Era was close to seven billion, meaning there were roughly 0.3 abductions per 100,000 population.

[4] Corath and the other Edge worlds were perpetually at war throughout the late Empire period, with particularly fierce skirmishes between 7700-7850. The economic and military advantages of the gild trade for Corath were profound; the Corathian fleet retained control of most of the shipping lanes between the Edge and the rest of the Empire during the period despite coordinated anti-gild efforts by the other Edge worlds. Other than Corath, no Edge world participated in the gild trade except as involuntary suppliers of children.

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