Apparently deciding there was no more amusement to be gleaned, the pirate officer moved away from the net confining Red and Callina. “Bring the prisoners to the beach,” he said, still in Basic. “We’ll see what exactly we’ve captured and decide what to do with them.”
A moment later, a pirate soldier scooped up the double burden as if the net and its contents weighed nothing, hoisting them a good eight feet off the ground onto its shoulder. Carrying them with ease, the alien took the path toward the lake. Head down over his captor’s spiny mantle, Red couldn’t do much more than endure the next few moments until they were tossed carelessly onto the sand by the lake. Fortunately, the way he was trapped in the coils of the net, he cushioned Callina’s fall. He heard thuds and cries of pain or protest as a few other prisoners were deposited close by. Craning his neck painfully, he found the Primary in the net next to him on one side.
Figures that guy would survive, while Meg…he forced himself to redirect his thoughts. “Hey, how you holding up?” he asked Callina.
“I-I’m okay. What are they going to do with us?” she whispered.
“Hard to say. I’ll protect you as much as I can.” He made the promise, knowing full well there might not be anything he could do. “Our treatment will depend on what brought the Shemdylann here.”
“Silence.” The closest guard kicked sand at them, and Red closed his eyes against the shower of grit.
A few moments later the sticky webbing dissolved, as a Shemdylann soldier passed a light emitter over them, set to the proper frequency to counteract the coils. Before he could make a move to do anything, Red was pinioned from behind by one alien, while another dragged Callina by her hair into a position next to him. He and the other survivors were in a line, seven altogether, facing the insect-like Shemdylann officer, lounging in a complicated seat brought for him by his subordinates. A lower-ranking officer stood behind the chair, waiting to carry out any orders. Shemdylann by the dozens bustled to and fro on the beach, setting up some kind of apparatus, more of the strange chairs, and performing other tasks. One or two of the hulking, dark red-and-black creatures had wandered into the lake to their double-jointed knees and were staring at the Falls. Assessing the odds, Red took note of the three large craft crowding the landing pad. Too many to all be from one ship, unless it was a battlecruiser. The Shemdylann must have a major presence in this planetary system.
“I didn’t expect to gather slaves here, did you?” The commander spoke over his shoulder to the waiting officer.
“A bonus,” the subordinate said, snapping his mandibles in apparent pleasure.
The Shemdylann in charge waved one appendage at the prisoners. “Remove your outer clothing, humans, in order for me to assess your value.”
Glancing at each other as if for courage, most of the group prepared to obey the order. Mr. Finchon stepped forward.
“What are you doing? Don’t provoke them.” His stepdaughter grabbed his elbow.
Shaking off her grip, he adopted his usual arrogant stance and said, “I invoke the rules of the Freemarket Repatriation Pact.” Chest puffed, chin jutting, he waved his right wrist. “I have the terms here, on an embedded chip.”
“What’s he talking about?” Red asked Mr. Bettis, who was standing on the other side of Callina.
“Like an insurance policy, very hush-hush. Some of the wealthiest in the Sectors paid through a broker on Freemarket for the right to be ransomed rather than killed or enslaved in the event of capture by the Shemdylann,” Finchon’s assistant replied.
“Now, this is intriguing,” the commander was saying, clicking his mandibles. “Bring him to me. If you lie, human, your death will be protracted and entertaining for my crew.”
“No lie.” Not waiting for escort, Finchon strutted to a position in front of the chair and stood motionless as his wrist was scanned by a subordinate who rushed forward, instrument in one pincer. “I’m Ahmeril Finchon and I like to know who I’m dealing with. You are?”
Making the guttural cawing sound that was a Shemdylann laugh, the officer said, “Like all of your kind, you believe in your own importance, despite the evidence to the contrary.” Tapping his clawed toes on the sand, he studied the scanner as his soldier held it close. “Hmm, I’ll make a tidy profit on this trip besides the other rewards. Congratulations, human, you do have the prepaid right to transmit a hefty ransom through the Freemarket broker.” Opening a pouch at his belt, the commander withdrew a chain made from intricate silver links, with one cuff at the end. Leaning forward, he snapped the shackle over Finchon’s left wrist, saying as he attached the other end to a loop piercing his carapace, “You’ll stay with me at all times, both for your protection and to ensure I collect my reward. And I, by the way, am Captain Ar-Taan-Crxtahl, since you have such a desire to know who holds your fate in his claws.” The alien yanked on the chain slightly and cackled anew.
Biting his lip, the billionaire regarded the cuff with distaste, turning it on his wrist with one finger, but said nothing.
“Sir,” the soldier with the scanner said, “According to the terms of the agreement, he also paid for the right to ransom anyone else he chooses.”
“A well thought out codicil,” said the commander. “I applaud you. Are there any among this clump of humans you wish to add to the deal? At full price, of course.”Finchon turned on his heel in the sand and frowned at his fellow prisoners, assessing each one in turn.