Written for hobsonphile who wanted some humour with Stark and Crichton.
In the Market
"All right everyone, don't forget. Back at the pod in three arns," Zhaan called after the rapidly disappearing crew.
"Yeah, whatever." Crichton's attention was already on the food stalls. "Chocolate, chocolate, surely there's some equivalent somewhere in this galaxy of--" He leaned over and sniffed a tray of likely-looking brown squares and recoiled in disgust. "Ugh! ... chocolate. You'd think."
"Shock a little?" Stark asked, peering over Crichton's shoulder, inadvertently close to the original Aztec pronunciation.
"Choc-o-late," Crichton said clearly. "It's brown--like that stuff there--and smells like childhood, and the best sort melts at body temperature so it just ... dissolves ... in your mouth." He closed his eyes and savoured the memory.
Stark looked appalled. "It sounds like dr--"
"All right, all right, I get the general idea. Look, Cyclops, let's split this place up between us. You go that way, I'll go this. We need food and not all crackers either, even if they're just you."
Stark no longer tried to understand the strange things Crichton said. "Right," He nodded. "No crackers. Look, since it's just us two getting food, I'll take one half and you take the other." He spread his arms to indicate the left-hand side of the market. "My side--"
"--and my side, yeah, yeah. I get the picture." Crichton sketched a salute. "See you later, Moshe Dayan."
Stark was enjoying himself. He was free, he had money to spend, and he had friends. Life was good, a possibility he wouldn't have considered a few monens ago. He ordered protein cubes, dried vegetables, powdered soup, various herbs and spices he liked the smell of, and some growing plants he thought Zhaan might like, and had them all sent to the docking bay. He took particular pleasure in paying the bearers twice the market rate, and thanking them with the politeness due to another being. So what if they looked at him funny? It made him feel very, very good indeed.
So he was disposed to be friendly when a purple-skinned fellow with orange eyes and rather unsavoury yellow teeth of an unnerving sharpness made his acquaintance.
"Nice day, isn't it?" Purple-features said.
"Yes!" Stark said, then wondered if he meant the weather. He looked up at the sky to check that it was an acceptable shade of blue. It was. "Yes, it is!"
"Enjoying yourself?" There really seemed to be far too many canines in that mouth.
"Yes, I am, I am!"
"Shopping for your owner?"
The day seemed less pleasant. "I don't have one," Stark said with dignity.
A large purple arm fell across his shoulders. "Capital, capital!"
Then Stark felt the unmistakable prod of a gun in his ribs.
"And walking capital is just what you are, my lad. Not often you come across your actual Stykera. Ah-ah-ah, don't try anything now, mate. I'd only have to stun you and drag you to my stall, and that's no good for the merchandise, is it?"
Stark thought about this for all of two microts, and made a break for it.
Crichton bought round flat bread, some vegetables--or were they fruit?--that reminded him of tomatoes and bell peppers, some small sweet cakes that he thought Chiana would like and was sure Aeryn wouldn't, and a selection of dried meat whose provenance he didn't enquire into. He ordered them all delivered to their pod at the spaceport, and decided to wander around and enjoy the alien sights and sounds and some of the smells. He considered looking for multiple-headed birds as a special treat for Aeryn, then decided that sucking the brains out of little avian skulls did little for a woman's mystique. Hey. She could make do with chewing a wad of jerky.
Stark woke up to find himself chained to a raised platform next to something green. A tentacle of the same colour was prodding him. He recoiled violently.
"Get that thing away from me! This is my side! That's your side. My side! Your side!"
"All right, all right, I get the point." The creature sounded huffy. "It was intended as a friendly gesture."
"Put it back here and I'll, I'll ... tie a knot in it and bite it."
At first Crichton thought it was another Banik displayed on the slave stall. He shook his head to clear it in the hopes that he was seeing things. "Man, Stark. What the frell are you doing there?" He then caught sight of his companion and took a step back. "Whoa, Cthulhu! Taking a break from enslaving the lesser races? Isn't this slumming it a bit?"
"My name is Kerendip, sir," the creature next to Stark said, politely. "And I'm a slave myself so I couldn't do any actual enslaving."
"Stop fooling around, Crichton, and get me out of here!" Stark pulled frantically at his chains, then slumped in defeat.
"C'mon, don't go all Banik-depressive on me here. Look, I'll buy you."
This didn't make Stark feel much better; his head sank lower. Crichton looked at the sign overhead.
Hand-written on a board nailed underneath was:
Highly recommended for the discerning funeral home or hospice.
Damn, but he wished the translator microbes could turn weird alien squiggles into something intelligible. He pursed his lips and nodded sagely.
"And you are?" he said to the purple guy who stood under the sign with his arms folded.
"Srabba of course. In the market for a slave?"
"How much is the Stykera?"
Srabba smirked. "If you have to ask---"
"Yeah, yeah, I know, I can't afford him." Crichton changed tactics. "But you know, he's actually mine." He tried to ignore Stark, who was making wild gestures and shaking his head behind Srabba.
"He said he didn't have an owner."
Crichton sighed and leaned in, confidentially. "See, he does that. Never really took to slavery."
"Yours, huh?" Srabba put his head on one side. "All right. What's your mark, then?"
Mark? Srabba had grabbed one of Stark's hands and was peeling the rags back from it while Stark averted his head and hummed desperately. Ah. Now, what would be a likely one? "Uh, let's see, a little circle?" Crichton frowned. "Or was it a cross?"
Srabba twisted Stark's hand so Crichton could see the tattoos on it, then exposed the other one. "That's funny. I don't see either." He raised his eyebrows--or the places they'd be if he had them--in pretend shock. "Peacekeeper! Could you be lying by any chance?"
Damn. "Look, he's my fr--uh, Banik. My Banik."
"Not legally, he isn't."
Crichton sighed, looked straight at Stark. "Hang in there, Nelson. I'll be back for you."
Stark watched him leave with a sense of rising panic. What could he do? Crichton couldn't afford him, and if he came back with Aeryn or D'Argo, people would get hurt. Maybe him or one of his friends. His humming gained in both pitch and volume.
"I thought your name was Stark."
Stark didn't answer.
"Stark? I thought--"
"What?" Stark blinked at Kerendip while his brain processed the question. "Oh, Crichton does that," he said dully. "He makes up names for people. I think it amuses him." Stark turned his back on Kerendip and curled up in the foetal position. The thought of not seeing Crichton or Zhaan and the others again was almost too much to bear. Especially Zhaan. He thought of her serene face and her smile and ... he wished he hadn't. It hurt too much.
Even through the intensity of his emotion, he sensed rather than felt Kerendip's approach and whipped round. "Keep that thing away from me!" He made a grab at the tentacle and snapped his teeth close to the tip.
Kerendip retracted it rapidly and huffed a sad sigh, blowing out the tendrils around his mouth. It was often hard to make friends with the other slaves. For some reason they did not seem happy with their lot.
Some time later, after Stark had been looked over by a funeral director, a doctor from the local hospital, and an assassin with a conscience, he became aware of a bad smell. He looked reproachfully at Kerendip. "What is that? Move away!"
"What?" Kerendip stared back. "I didn't do anything."
"That smell!" Stark gagged and clapped his hand over his mouth. It was worse than a rotting Budong. "Did you eat something that's been dead too long?"
"Huh?" Kerendip raised his head-bulge and his tendrils sampled the air. "Mmmm. You mean that pleasant floral aroma?"
"Attention!" a voice said, distorted and amplified by a megaphone. "There has been a gas leak. Please clear the area. Please clear the area. Please do not panic. Do not panic."
This of course had the opposite effect. People abandoned their shopping and stalls and fought to be the first to safety. Srabba was among them.
"Hey!" Stark shouted. "What about us?"
Srabba looked back briefly. "Everything for itself, that what I say. Good luck!"
Stark whimpered and crawled to the edge of the stand and vomited over the side.
"Here ya go." A hand with a white tube in it appeared in front of his face. He looked up. It was Crichton, and he had another tube in his mouth which he talked around. "Suck on this baby. It's a fresh-air stick. I dunno, filters the big molecules out or something. I could make a fortune with these things back home. Passive smokers'd snap 'em up."
Stark took the tube and drew on it gratefully. Crichton was right: he got good clean air. He grinned up at him, clamping the thing between his teeth.
"See? Told you I'd come back." Crichton put his megaphone down and offered Kerendip a stick. "Want one?"
"Why? It's a pleasant scent. It reminds me of spring flowers in the meadows back home."
Crichton looked appalled. "Haven't got the coordinates of your homeworld, have you? I'd really like not to visit there." He held out an instrument he'd had tucked under his arm. "Here, I'll cut you both free." He turned it on and a laser sizzled viciously into the boards of the slave-display stand, raising a wisp of smoke.
Stark leaned back, his feet trying to push him through the back of the stand. "No no no no." His wide frantic eye swivelled to a point behind Crichton, and he jerked his chin repeatedly at something.
Crichton turned to see a set of keys hanging from a nail. He looked disappointed. "And I was looking forward to seeing if this thing could cut through metal like butter like they claimed. Well, they did say fat, but..." He shrugged and unlocked Stark, then approached Kerendip.
"What are you doing?" Kerendip asked. "I belong to Srabba. If you haven't paid the market rate for me, then taking me would be theft."
"Slavery's a crime where I come from," Crichton said.
"And so it should be! It's obscene!" Stark said, staring at Kerendip. "How can you be happy to be owned by someone?"
The lids of Kerendip's almond-shaped green eyes lowered and rose twice. He sounded puzzled. "I am a worker. That is my function in my society. I live to serve."
Stark sound a disgusted noise and looked away.
"You mean you come from some sort of hive culture?" Crichton said, interested. "You're a great big green worker ant like in A Bug's Life?"
"I have no idea what you mean, but there are others who plan and give orders. My caste's function is to serve, and I like it that way."
"Man," Crichton said, unlocking Kerendip, "you can still do that. You ever heard of employment? It's a great concept. Someone treats you like dren and you get paid for it."
"A slave gets food and board." Kerendip stayed where he was.
Crichton was nonplussed. "Yeah, well, I'm sure any boss'd be happy to give you that instead of a salary."
"What would be the difference then?"
"Aaaaugh!" Stark waved his hands around, momentarily lost for words. "You could leave! If you didn't like it, you could go! You'd be free!"
Kerendip considered this. "I could choose to change owners?"
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Stark grabbed a couple of tentacles and tried to pull Kerendip upright.
"You have nothing to lose but your chains," Crichton said, striking a pose as if he were stepping forward with his chin up, and raised a fist in the air.
"I've already lost them," Kerendip said, a bit sadly.
"Don't worry. We'll find you a good job!" Stark put his hands on Kerendip's shoulders, or at least on his sides immediately below his head-bulge. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I think you'd make a good bartender. I bet you could carry a lot of glasses."
"About fifty," Kerendip said proudly, "attached to my suckers with all my tentacles coiled in."
"There! You see! You could serve and clear a whole bar in one pass!" Stark grinned. "Come on, we'll find you a nice place and you can serve us first."
Kerendip cheered up. "I'd like that."
"You're both drunk!" Zhaan said reproachfully. "You didn't buy much food, and," she looked at the laser cutter and the gas canisters hanging from Crichton's belt and frowned, "D'Argo and Aeryn were buying tools and weapons."
"C'mon, Blue. I bought us some fresh-air sticks, some gas that'll clear a room in 10 microts flat, a cutter, a megaphone ... damn, left that behind ... and I got something else you like a lot."
Stark stood in front of Zhaan and grinned crookedly at her, the effect spoiled slightly by a soft belch.
Zhaan looked from Stark to Crichton and back to Stark, put the stories she'd heard together, and smiled.