In the same very wide world as The Tod’cxeckz’ri Paper
Everybody knew the Tojibarri stole people. It was the first thing you learned when you were in the Corps: when you were on a Tojibar-held territory, you went in pairs or triples, you didn’t drink or eat anything you hadn’t brought with you, and you never went into their forests in less than a group of twelve.
Everyone knew it, and yet Unther hadn’t ever met anyone who’d known anyone who’d been stolen by the Tojibar. Yes, they traded in slaves – many of the Ring worlds did – but most of those slaves were one of the three Variations on humanity common to the Tojibar territories. Not great, doing that to their own people, but not Corps business, not something Unther could fix on his own, and not a threat to someone wanting a drink.
Thing was, they’d been using the buddy system and everything. And Unther had been sitting in the back of a public park, his back to his partners, shoulders touching. Sure, they’d been a little bit relaxed, but they’d been on duty for fifteen Central hours; it was time for a break.
He’d sipped his drink – fruit juice, not even fermented. He’d taken a bite of his energy bar. He’d bounced his shoulders off Kay and Gwinn. And then he’d lost consciousness.
By his estimation, that had been either twelve hours ago or a really freaking long time ago. The sun had been high in the sky and now the planet’s three moons were reading just past midnight. It had gone from too warm for armor to too chilly for nudity, and it seemed that all Unther was wearing was restraints.
He’d opened his eyes and assessed his status — cold, naked, bound — when the Tojibar stepped through a curtain he hadn’t yet noted as an entrance point. His mind was a bit foggy, he noted. He was going to have to do something about that.
She was an actual Tojibaru, too, not one of the Variations that had been claimed under the wide umbrella of the Tojibarret Empire. She had the classic smoke-grey eyes that, rumour said, could see into the infrared. Her blue hair was down to her waist, and loose, uncommon for Tojibarri out in the world. Equally uncommon, she was almost as naked as Unther; she was wearing a short silk robe just two shades darker blue than her hair and slippers just two shades lighter.
Unther tried to sit up, but there was not nearly enough give in his restraints. He settled for nodding politely. The blue hair said she was royal-caste. What he could see of her arms suggested she was psy-breed as well. The Tojibarret Empire was outside of theFoedus Planetarum and only on nominally peaceful terms with them, but their nearest planets were placed such that they’d allowed Corps bases there. That meant Unther had been given basic briefing on the Tojibarri that consisted mostly of “don’t go alone; don’t piss them off; really don’t piss off the blue-haired ones.”
He didn’t think he was in a position to represent the Corps, but Corps training was deeply ingrained. He nodded politely to the women and waited for her to speak.
“You’re quite lovely, out of that uniform. Far too square and stuffy. Why does the Corps wrap its men up in such boxes?”
Unther snorted. “Boxes? That’s a new one. Usually people say, well, tubes,” he admitted. “Or packaging.”
“Packing.” She tasted the word, her long blue tongue darting out and licking the air. “I like that. Well, now I’ve unwrapped you, and you’re a lot more attractive this way.”
“Thank you, Toj…” He let it trail off, hoping she’d fill in a name. She just giggled at him.
“That’s the other reason I like Corps people, not just because I get to unwrap them and nobody else has seen all this deliciousness.”
That seemed to imply several things, some of which Unther didn’t really want to unpack at the moment. He cleared his throat. “Other reason, Toj?”
“You all know the proper forms of address and don’t have to be taught. If we grab some tourist, they spend a lot of time whining and complaining and then they don’t like the clothes or the accommodations and they never, ever, learn when to say Toj and when to say Toji, much less to bow when they’re addressed. You don’t have to bow,” she added offhandedly. “You’re all tied up. It doesn’t really lend itself to all the proper forms.
“But Corps people.” She leaned forward, leering at him happily. “You’ve gotten all your training in sleeping where you’re told and obeying who you’re told to, and all that’s left to be done is convince you that it’s, say, me, or one of my siblings, instead of your commanding officer. And since you’re all tied up… you’re generally easy to convince.”
“You’ve taken a lot of Corps-soldiers, then?” Of all the things she was suggesting, that was the easiest to get his mind around.
“Oh, dozens. Not me, my collective. But for all that buddy system you seem to love, it’s easy enough to sneak up on you. And then you think you’re safe…” She smiled cheerfully at him. “Oh, you’re going to be fun. Are you going to fight the restraints? I love it when you — well, Corpsmen-you — fight it. You get all worn out and panting and it’s just delicious.”
Unther frowned at her. “You’re enjoying this.”
“Of course I am! What would be the point if I wasn’t enjoying it? I mean, this is purely for entertainment value. Half-challenge, half-watching you fight it.”
Then maybe there was a chance of getting free. “Tojibarri don’t sell outsiders,” he offered. “They sell their in-Empire races, but nobody’s ever seen an outsider at a Tojibar slave auction.”
“Oh, no, of course not. Your Foedus would get so upset, and then there’d be a war, and you’re a bit bigger than we want to bite off all at once. No. We sell our own where outsiders can see. Pretty Corpsmen like you… you stay in the private collections.”
“Collections.” His mouth was dry. Unther wetted his lips and considered matters. “That sounds ominous,” he offered.
“Oh, well, in the older collections, I suppose it could be tedious. But for you — well, you’re my first! And that means you’ll be kept quite busy. Now. You have three choices. You can obey every order I give you, I can fit you with an obedience collar — your Tod’cxeckz’ri have such a lovely set of technologies — or I can implant a little chip in your brain that does the same thing, but with a much stronger, ah, risk-and-reward system.”
He’d heard a few things about the Tojibar brainware technology, and one thing he knew was that the Foedus had no way of undoing any of the implants. On the other hand, if they had stolen Tod’cxeckz’ri technology, those master-slave marriages were for life. Unther licked his lips. “I’ll do everything you say.”
“I thought you might say that.” She grinned at him far too happily. “Just keep in mind that the moment that you don’t, I get to pick how to punish you, and if one of those other options is needed.”
Shit. “Of course, Toj.”
“So I’m going to untie you, mostly, and then I’m going to teach you about serving me before I show you my collection room. I think it’ll be fun.”
Of course she did. “Of course, Toj.”
She pulled a tiny jeweled… something out of her pocket and did something with part of the… something. From the light reflecting off of the jewels and the way she was holding it in her hand, that was the extent of what Unther could determine.
Still, the restraints holding him to the platform released, and he sat up. She gave him a moment, so he took the opportunity and stretched, working kinks out of his shoulders and back.
“Your Variant doesn’t deal well with being bound of their backs,” she clucked. “The tail’s part of it, I’m sure, and that little ridge you have on your spine. Stand up for a moment, if you want.”
Unther couldn’t move. He was staring at the Tojibaru. “Repeat that,” he demanded, and then, carefully, “please?”
“Your Variant – with the tail and the back spines – you don’t deal well bound on your back. It’s in the manual.”
“The… what again? Please repeat, Toj.” He was falling back on military protocol and he knew it, but she’d actually said she liked that. She couldn’t — well, she could complain about it, she was a Toja, but she probably wouldn’t. “Signal loss,” he added by way of explanation.”
“The manual for your Variant. The Tojibarri have them on every Variant we encounter. Yours is one of my favorite. I really like the tail…”
Unther cleared his throat. “You’ve encountered others like me?”
“Well, of course. You didn’t think you were the only back-ridged tail-spiney green-and-turquoise-haired humanoid with this particular scale pattern just above your tail base, did you?” She ran a finger over the most sensitive part of Unther’s body, just under the last of his spine-ridge. “I mean, it’s a unique combination, and the Founders must have had an interesting locale in mind when they designed your Variant, but you’re not unique unique…” she trailed off. Unther’s shock must have been showing on his face. “You didn’t know, did you? You thought you were…”
Unther shook his head. “I couldn’t be the only one. I’ve had my DNA coded and it’s too stable. There aren’t any radiation markers or anything, so I wasn’t just a what-if twist or a mutant. But I’ve never met another one like me, not even close.”
“There aren’t any close.” Her voice had lost all its merriness. Unther found himself revising his estimate of her age from early-adulthood to at least a decade or two later. “There aren’t any Variations anything like yours. But there are others who are like you. And my sister has two in her collection.”
Sister. Unther swallowed. The Tojibarri did not have strong family ties. From what he’d read, they actually had much the opposite – they often with go years without talking to their closest familial relations and sometimes couldn’t stand to be in the same room as their own kin. It was, from what he’d gathered, why they kept “Collections” in the first place. “Have you, uh, actually met others like me?”
She trilled quietly, the soft noise translators had never been able to figure out. “Five. One was in my parents’ collection. He went to ashes and dust when the collective was bombed by a rogue Corps faction ten years ago. But the other four – I served as a collector for a few years, before my collective settled in to its current role. And I’m on speaking terms with my oldest surviving sister.” She leaned against the wall and looked at him. “You’re lovely, you know, your kind. BUt it hadn’t occurred to me that you might not have ever encountered any others. Doesn’t the Foedus keep records on all the Variants?”
“Yeah. yes, they do, Toj. But I – well, I’ve been in the Corps since I was old enough to join, and my superior officers always told me there was nothing to be found on my Variant. They allowed for the genetic testing once I reached high enough rank, but they seemed to think anything more was a waste of time.”
“If your only family is the Corps,” she mused, “your only loyalty is the Corps. So. I’ll give you the manual, and I’ll see what I can do about getting you in touch with another member of your Variant. But tell me, how is it that you didn’t know anyone of your own species…?”
“Foundling.” He didn’t like saying it, even now. A lot of cultures, cultures that were active parts of the Foedus, thought any child not held onto by their parents had to be defective. “Found me in the Foedus office in a spaceport.”
“…far enough away that they’d never heard about your Variation. That’s rough. Did anyone ever look into a child-stealing ring? Sometimes they can’t find a market for a specific child, and since if you hold on to a child you can’t sell, it costs money you’re not making back…”
“I’m not sure that’s better than my parents not wanting me, Toj,” Unther answered dryly. “You, uh, seem to know a lot about slave trades.”
“Like I said, I was a collector for a while. It’s not my preferred profession, but here in the Empire, it makes good money.” She stared seriously at him. “Do not make the mistake so many Corpsmen do and assume that slavery exists only in – or because of – the Empire. Your Federation of Planets is huge, and almost every practice exists somewhere in its wide galaxies. The Empire does good business selling within the Foedus Planetarum, if only covertly and secretly.”
Unther swallowed. If she was telling him this… “I’m here for life.” He didn’t bother making it a question. “There’s no going back.”
“There’s no going back,” she agreed. “The Empire does not take people temporarily – and neither do I. You are mine, Unther, and you will be until one of us dies.”
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