The Station and the Bazaar (Chronicle)

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The Station and the Bazaar

It's lucrative. I can't deny that. And I suppose money is what many people do it for; the ones who're working at the lesser levels, who like to stay inside this artificial structure of risk and reward, never looking outside of it.

I'm sorry. I'm forgetting myself.

I don't know who you are. With any luck, we're related, either through our genes or through a shared purpose, but either way, I'm going to speak to you as if you were at one and the same time immensely talented, and utterly undisciplined with your powers of persuasion. Like a five-year-old with a gun. It feels like most of my tribe has put down roots and started weaving our history in with the Republic, but I have not, and I am not going to betray the purpose of the Thukkers' endless journey by sharing this information with those cowed, freedomless, worried little settlers. I'm going to assume you're a traveller, like me. I'm going to take it as a given that you know how to make your living out in deep space, and by that I'm also assuming that you know how to barter with others, because the only ones who create everything they need are farmers.

I hadn't even planned to record this, but you know how it goes. You're trading with people from strange places, you pick up something that might be interesting - such as a bespoke implant that, once injected into your throat, and that was no goddamn picnic, let me tell you, once injected it picks up the vibrations in your vocal cords and transmits them to a small interpreting module nearby - and even though you start using it for business, like telling your automated warehouse supply system to start selling off certain goods at discount the very second someone drunkenly brags about the shipment of same they're expecting at any moment ...

Well, you know how it is. You start to tinker. You teach it to recognize more than just the monosyllabic commands it started out with. It's not that you don't have other things to do, believe me, if your inventory grows to the size of mine you'll never lack for numbers to tweak - but, you see, with all the people you meet during every day and night, you'll be putting on some act, some costume, some learned set of behaviors aimed at extracting the maximum of whatever you want from them at the minimum payable price. You'll talk to thousands, memorize everything there is to know about them, the names of their families and loved ones, their home cities, their accomplishments and their ailments, whatever makes them feel they're connecting with you.

And you'll be so alone that eventually you'll start talking silently to a machine as if it were a person. And find yourself thoroughly unable to shut up, if the last couple of minutes are anything to go by.

So, first things first. Remember who you are and why you're doing this, and no, it's not for the money. We are travellers and explorers; we are the ones who are always moving, always encountering the strange and new, always uncomfortable with those who'd prefer to tie us down. Doesn't matter whether it's by force, by law or by the lure of tomorrow being the exact same as today. We live on the outskirts, and our morals are shaped by the necessity to make difficult decisions with no guidance but our own instinct.

Not that money isn't nice too, you understand.

I started my trade working only with other Thukkers. Although our group would regularly encounter people from other factions, either because we travelled into their part of space or because we simply bumped into them on the way to somewhere else, neither I nor anyone else at my level was even allowed to see any of them. Our leaders would do the wholesale bartering, then funnel the outcome down to us at a much higher price, and leave us to smear whatever tiny percentage onto the goods that we could muster while selling them to the general population onboard our cluster of vessels.

It was years before I was allowed to deal with the outsiders, and even then I was under strict supervision. I began only as a silent partner, an assistant who'd look up information on our storage and finances, help drive the price down by looking for faults in the proffered merchandise or its dubious origins, or just act my part in whatever two-person play we put on once we'd gotten a good read on the seller's inner character. To this day I can wordlessly express several dozen degrees of dismay, a fair few ways of being concerned without causing offense, and at least one or two ways of being satisfied with the outcome.

Curiosity nearly overcame me on several occasions, either because the merchandise was so strange and new to me, or because I simply could not figure out why the sellers had been in this place, at this time, to offer their wares to us. It's been the reason for my success, and the bane of my existence: I construct stories for these people. Whatever I learn of them, I'll fill in the blanks, until I have mapped out their entire lives and careers in my own head. I make very sure I never reveal these fantasies of mine - the only sin worse than forgetting a customer's life is to openly mistake it for someone else's - but they've helped me tie together innumerable details about all the people I've dealt with, and in so doing, retain those details.

It's memory palaces. No implants, no access to offsite data banks, nothing mechanical that can break or delay or stiffen up my manner. When I see someone, and while I'm warming them up with my opening patter, I take a quick mental walk through a construct of my own imagination, whose primary features are the details of their lives and whose connecting walkways and supporting walls are the fictions I've constructed to bridge them.

That's all that selling is. Seeing patterns and acting on them.

I saw so many patterns that eventually I graduated to the highest echelon of our group's traders, and was allowed to deal with outsiders entirely on my own. I loved it. Still do. One of the unwritten rules in training yourself to see patterns is that you can't ever allow yourself to stop. If you find yourself in a closed system with no fresh input, you either have to settle for having those pattern detection talents stiffen and rust, or, far worse, expending them on the endless variants in the same old routine. That way lies utter neuroticism - paranoia, anxiety, probably eventual psychosis. Outsiders weren't just a curiosity to me, they were an absolute necessity.

When the tribe began its discussion of whether or not to settle - long before we were even extended the invitation by the Republic - it didn't take a whole lot of pattern recognition to see that we would splinter and I would be in the minority. Most people, even self-proclaimed adventurers, genuinely prefer their lives to have a high ratio of stability to unrest. It's not that you have to be brave enough to dare live in the swirling vortex of New Eden's deep space, because the gods know I've packed up my things and run plenty of times; you just have to be restless and infinitely curious.

I didn't foresee those qualities coming to the fore if I was enmeshed in the Republic, so I struck out on my own. I had several contacts in every faction, the darker ones included - you'd be amazed how well you can make out dealing with Sansha's Nation so long as you never under any circumstances turn your back on them - and I decided that I might as well spend my days travelling through the cluster, meeting more people, and discovering more patterns.

It took some time to set up - I needed to build backup stores of various goods both planetside and in orbit in practically every constellation through known space - but eventually I was in a position where my word was as good as credit and I could be choosy in who I wanted to do business with. I never stayed anywhere for too long. You want your customers to become familiar with you, to consider you a pleasant addition to the background of their lives, but the moment you start developing anything like real friendships, you need to leave. It's alright. You can stay in touch, and if you're travelling through the area later in your life, you'll have standing offers for drinks and talk. That's assuming you're no longer doing business with them, mind. Personally I can't give you any advice on retirement, other than suggest you stop before you die, as I intend to do. Someday.

Eventually my travels brought me even deeper into what's known to the general public as pirate space, and to talented traders as a chaotic whorl of money, danger and death. I'll tell you some other time about the astonishing people I've met here - the charming, pedicured Angel representative, the Blood Raider who I noticed never needed to blink, the Nation escapee whose words came out just a fraction of a second before he moved his lips to form them - because now we're with the Guristas, and oh my, what a ride it's been. These people understand me better than those of my own tribe.

They are high-functioning madmen. There is no other way to put it. Historically, other factions may have had stronger drive overall to acquire and develop their tech, but once the Guristas do lock on to something, they give it their absolute and unrelenting focus no matter how much danger they're facing. Anyone who wants to restrict those abilities, even if they appear to be offering safety and comfort in their stead, is not on your side. This is why you cannot trust the four empires, not even the Republic. The only way someone else can keep you safe is if they know where you are and what you're doing. You would let them inspect you, analyze and categorize you, and put restrictions on what you're allowed to do with yourself, without ever getting a chance at returning the favor. If you feel comfortable with the idea of living like that, get out of this business and don't ever look back.

I knew they'd found an object of interest back when stories of guerilla research sites started cropping up. Rumor had it that the Guristas were making the most amount of progress, simply due to how fearless they were in their experimentations. I didn't start my journey to their space right away - the sites were shrouded in secrecy, and were being destroyed by the pirates themselves if uncovered - but I did make some tentative arrangements, including having some of my backup stock moved in the general direction of where the Guristas seemed to be making the most progress.

It paid off. They started drawing on it - which was profitable, yes, but which also meant they wanted to go through private channels for their needs even if it came at greater cost, and that meant I needed to be there; to personally broker deals, to trade in greater volumes, and to see what these people were all about. I wasn't too worried about the risk, not then.

These places are a marvel of secrecy. The Guristas have multiple installations, spread out across not just their own region but those of other factions, where their people have taken over or simply bought out the existing owners. I haven't made my home in any particular one of them, and instead travel frequently between those whose administrators I trust a sliver more than the rest. I hired locals to take care of moving inventory - scrutinized by machinery, of course, because it'd be an insult to a Gurista if you simply gave him the keys to your house - and spend my time taking in new sights, getting to grips with each new place I find, watching the people I meet and the people they surrounded themselves with. A real Thukker understands that a being standstill amounts to little more than waiting for trouble.

No, it's more than that. It's not just your own motion, it's that of everything around you. You've got to be sensitive to fluctuations, not just in prices, but also in atmosphere, mood, odd situations. Like when someone's probably about to not just refuse your offer but also pull a weapon. You've got to see, if not their precise intentions, then the frame their actions are creating, the ghostly silhouettes of what they might do and the effect it would have on you.

Also, speaking of inspecting others, I was quite serious about memorizing everyone's origins. Be able to recall a person's name, and at least one big and one small city on their planet of origin. Not their current home planet, or station or wherever they sleep in the present; but where they came from. What pulls at them.

Your own origins won't be important to anyone else, so keep them important to you. It'll be something to hold on to when your identity starts slipping away, and it'll keep you from making stupid mistakes like losing out on profit in sales, or staying anywhere too long when it's gotten too risky for any of the myriad of reasons that eventually crop up. Develop quirks that are only an act, and don't let them turn into habits. People will expect them, little things that they think they can use to nail you down as a particular type of person, preferably one they can look down on ever so slightly. If you do this right, they will overestimate your obstinate, haggling nature while underestimating your planning and resourcefulness. If you do it wrong, it won't just put people off, it will give them something too memorable: a corridor in their own memory palace that leads to you, everything they recall about you, your accent and looks and all the other details you should desperately be trying to hide in plain sight. They should always be looking for your wares. They should never be looking for you.

And oh, are they are looking for wares. There's a brisk trade going on here. I've seen implants in secure containers, changing hands between people whose pupils contract and expand like heartbeats. I've seen secured transmissions of brand-new blueprints for vessels that are not ever going to be flown by empire officers. There've even been hauls of components that I'm damn sure will be used to build something meant to go much, much faster than a spaceship. They're hungry. The Guristas have always been that way, but now there's something more; I've begun seeing it everywhere I look. They may be running these installations like blackmarket trade hubs, but these were labs before they were bazaars, and there are parts that are still completely closed off to me and anyone else.

Which should be fine. It should be fine. A little mystery helps. It brings in visitors wanting to browse the more murderous of our tools on offer. If you're allowed to be here at all, selling your things, it means you're personally trusted not just in accepting orders and delivering on them, but in being around the Guristas and around new and sometimes quite astoundingly illegal pieces of technology. It may be scraps from the table, but that's how it always is for peddlers and salesmen, and these are some very juicy scraps.

But I've begun seeing patterns that, frankly, are starting to worry me.

The Guristas are too organized. Too fastidious. Drunken, stupid brawls have slowly receded to the absolute minimum you could expect of suicidal pirates, and not because they have been ordered to rein it in. They're holding back on their own initiative. Staying focused. And that concerns me.

Oh, this place will be attacked at some point. All places are, eventually, if they make even the tiniest ripple in the dark oceans of New Eden. Trick is to know when. If the people around you are becoming so preoccupied with their private projects that they stop acting like the dangerous group of brigands you know they are, then others, elsewhere are going to notice, and they are going to want to know what's so important about this place and the people in it.

I think I know what it is.

Ships have been spotted, undocking from the facility. Ships going very fast indeed. But not capsuleer vessels; just small ones, like the tinny little training craft the Guristas use for their dogfight training. One stargazing customer said he saw a few of them zipping around, in jerky, jittery swirls that looked like military maneuvers being run by automated drones, but the models were like nothing he's seen elsewhere, not even in high-end Gallente labs. He was convinced they were being flown by humans, in which case the jitteriness would make perfect sense - you'd expect an experimental vessel to handle a little rough on its first few tests. I told him I agreed with him. And I did. I think they were being flown by something human.

But I watch, too. I see patterns. And I recently acquired a holovid - which I am going to destroy soon enough - showing a little over ninety seconds of these craft in motion.

They certainly seem entirely fearless, in Gurista fashion. Completely unfettered, which I adore. Going very close to each other. Zooming around. Firing.

I don't care what they are, in the end. But I've watched the video over a hundred times and I know without a shadow of doubt that they're using live ammo in close combat exercises, which means two things. First, the Guristas entrance exam clearly has gotten even harsher than it used to be. And second, there's a change coming; and when you're in the midst of change, you'd be amazed at how many enemies you suddenly have.

I don't know if these craft will affect anything, in and of themselves. They're just different. That's what a pattern is: something that sticks out, a signal in the noise. And this fitful dogfighting, helmed by Guristas who walk around with a frightening purpose, on this station that they let us use for black market trading while they do their research as if the only purpose for having us here was to obscure what they're really up to - it's doing something to us. Calling us. I want to be part of what's going on here, and I want it to be a part of me.

And that's why I'm leaving.

Living here has been dangerous - a word that means fun, but also means goddamn dangerous - and I could long ago have left for the safe pastures of the empires. But the balance of power is shifting, and a wise man is willing to take a few risks. That's one thing. The profits are greater here, that's another. But it's also that this really is the future. There is something great happening here. Everyone shares - information, curiosities, small things they've found or witnessed. They don't do that in the empires any longer. They want to keep things quiet and to themselves, and to be able to stop development. They think that tighter restrictions are the equivalent of mitigating risk, when in fact the more people you get involved, the better your chances that your problems will be uncovered and resolved before they turn into big problems.

So I'm leaving, before they catch up with me here, whoever they end up being. I'm going deeper into insecure space, to spread the word, and see where these patterns lead me. Who knows, maybe I'll end up with the capsuleer alliances, if they haven't torn each other to pieces by the time I get there.

It's been a busy day. I didn't lower my prices, because that would have attracted suspicion, but I haggled a little less forcefully than usual. They'll just think it was an off day for me. With any luck, they'll only spot the pattern after I'm gone, and I won't have to find out what happens when our enemies find this particular bazaar.

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