Read The Rings of Haven Online
Authors: Ryk Brown
“Allow me,” Jalea offered. She placed an order in the local language, immediately being handed five larger dishes filled with a mixture similar to what Nathan had just sampled. After receiving the orders, Jalea handed the woman some small, dark gray chips, gesturing for her to accept what was probably an over-payment on Jalea’s part. The old woman bowed her head respectively, thanking Jalea for her generosity.
Having all been reduced to eating dehydrated emergency rations for the last two days, they eagerly devoured the dishes of food. Vladimir, who Nathan had come to realize would eat just about anything, inhaled his portion with his usual rapidity. Danik and Jalea, both being familiar with the local cuisine, consumed their portions without hesitation. Jessica, however, did not appear as enthusiastic as the others.
“What’s the matter, Jess?” Nathan asked. “Don’t like your molo?” he asked with a grin.
“Tastes kind of like mushrooms,” she stated, trying not to complain.
“Yeah, and tofu,” Nathan exclaimed, obviously enjoying his serving much more than Jessica.
“Not exactly crazy about either one of those,” she stated, forcing herself to tolerate the unusual taste and texture of the molo. “You sure this stuff is safe for us to eat?”
“Delicious!” Vladimir announced, scooping up the last of the orange sauce with his fingers. “It reminds me of the cooked cabbage my grandmother used to make.”
“Maybe we should buy some of this molo? Take it up to the ship and have it analyzed. How well does it keep?” Nathan asked Jalea. He was met with a look of bewilderment. “Does it go bad quickly? Does it need to be refrigerated or something?”
“Ah, no. It is usually dried in the sun or in dehydrators. Then it remains safe to eat for a very long time. Some people will season it before dehydration and consume it later while still in its dried state.”
“Molo jerky,” Nathan joked. Again, Jalea was bewildered. “Whattaya think, Vlad?”
“What is this jerky?” Vladimir asked.
“You know, jerky. Dried strips of seasoned meat?” Nathan looked at Vladimir, who showed no sign of understanding. “Really? You’ve never heard of jerky?” Nathan shook off Vladimir’s ignorance of the concept, turning back to Jalea. “So, maybe we could buy some molo here?”
“These people only sell individual cooked servings, as do most vendors in this area. Perhaps farther down we will find someone selling larger amounts of fresh molo.”
“Lead the way, then,” Nathan agreed, turning to the old woman. “Thank you. It was very good,” he complimented, nodding respectfully as he placed his empty dish on the counter.
They spent the next half hour winding their way casually through the crowds of shoppers, trying to move in much the same manner as the locals in order to blend in, just as Tobin had recommended. The street market reminded Nathan of the week he had spent with his academy roommate Luis in his village in South America. They had spent an afternoon meandering about a street market much as this one. It had been the first time that Nathan had spent time outside of a large metropolitan area, and it had been quite a culture-shock for him. Back then, despite the fact that it had still been on his homeworld, it had been a totally alien environment to him. He found it surprising that this market—a thousand light years distant—felt no more alien to him than that village in South America had a few short years ago.
They stopped a few more times along the way, sampling more of the local cuisine. As Jalea had told them, everything they tried seemed to have molo in it as a staple. There had been very little variety in the available ingredients used, but their culinary creativity did not seem impaired by the lack of variety.
Jessica had expressed concern over Nathan’s willingness to sample just about everything he came across, despite Doctor Chen’s recommendations to the contrary. Nathan had dismissed her concerns, likening it to a trip to another country back on Earth. He had further supported his lack of caution to the fact that the ship was nearly out of food, and he doubted they could wait for the already overworked physician to complete complex analysis of all the consumables found on this world.
“Who are the goons?” Jessica asked, spying a pair of burly men. They were cloaked in matching black robes that covered their combat gear and weapons. They were standing near a closed door to a small office of some sort, constantly scanning the crowds, looking for no one in particular.
“Enforcement agents, for the controlling family,” Jalea explained.
“They always gear-up so heavily?”
“Gear-up?” Jalea asked, uncertain of her meaning.
“The body armor? The heavy weapons? The comm-sets?” she elaborated. “They look like they’re ready for a ground assault.”
“Such types prefer to display their strength so as to intimidate potential foes,” Jalea said.
“I know the type well,” Jessica mumbled. “Are there many of them around?”
“They are usually spread evenly throughout the city.”
“Are they like law enforcement or something?” Nathan asked.
“They have no interest in rules,” Jalea assured them. “Other than the ones involving payment, of course.”
“Like I said,” Jessica reiterated, “goons.” Jessica cast a side-long glance at them as they passed. “I don’t like goons,” she said under her breath.
Nathan noticed the type of street vendors was rapidly changing away from prepared foods and goods to bulk produce. There was plenty of pompa root for sale, as well as several other varieties of similar roots. Nathan spied a few odd fruits, various herbs, and even some purple-looking vegetables that looked a bit like tomatoes. Of course, there was also plenty of molo at every table. Some of it was pale, some darker, and some of it was already seasoned and dried into what Nathan would forever think of as molo jerky. There was even some that appeared to have been purposefully aged nearly to the point of spoilage, something that Jalea insisted although safe, was an acquired taste.
“At the end of this street, there should be vendors that deal in the quantities we require,” Jalea explained. “Most of the vendors here have traveled in from far out in the country to sell limited amounts of their small harvests, in order to purchase things that they cannot produce themselves. We need to find a local grower who lives not too distant and can deliver large quantities.”
“What do you think we should buy?” Nathan asked.
“As much as we can, I would expect. And of course, plenty of molo.”
“Why?” Jessica objected.
“Despite its rather unusual flavor, it is quite nutritious. Many people exist on diets that are ninety percent molo.”
“If you call that existing,” Jessica protested, shuddering at the thought of eating nothing but the odd, slimy fungus.
As Nathan and Jalea continued their stroll, Jessica stopped, pretending to inspect a bundle of herbs, picking it up and sniffing it as she glanced back at the two goons she had spotted earlier. Satisfied the two men had not taken an interest in them, she continued on her way.
She caught up to Nathan and Jalea a few moments later. They had stopped at another vendor table and were looking over the selection of raw molo spread out neatly on the table when Jalea began to speak. “Good day to you, sir,” she offered in a manner that caused Nathan to believe it to be a standard greeting on Haven.
“And good day to you all,” the merchant returned. He was an older man, similar in age to their late captain, and had obviously worked outdoors as of late. His hair was pulled back in a short, tight tail, and he wore the clothes of a man who worked the land. There was a manner to him, Nathan noticed, that belied his current trade. Something about the way that he moved, the way that he carried himself. He stood tall and proud, unlike the beaten down farmers he had met in Luis’s village. “Are you interested in some molo today?” the farmer asked.
“Possibly,” Jalea said. “If it is fresh and of fair price.”
“Harvested daily,” he boasted. He picked up a piece of the fungus and tore off a corner, handing it to Jalea to inspect.
She held it up to her nose, drawing a sniff in gently to inspect the aroma. She bite off a small piece to taste. “Perhaps to soon?” she commented. “It’s still bitter.”
“It will finish aging in another day,” he insisted. “Then it will be perfect.”
“Of course.” Jalea looked about the table, noticing that there were very few varieties available. “Do you mostly sell the paler varieties?”
“I usually have some of the darker varieties. But most of my stock was purchased earlier today. I will have more tomorrow, after today’s harvest is concluded.”
“Then you live nearby?”
“Not far,” he said. “Are you looking to buy in quantity?”
“Yes. An unfortunate accident has left us with a large and hungry crew to feed. We might also be in the market for other types of produce as well.”
“How many mouths must you feed?” he asked.
“Maybe fifty, for a few weeks at the most.”
A puzzled look came across the farmer’s face for a moment. “I believe I can supply you with what you need,” he promised. “If you like, you may travel with me back to my farm after the market closes. Then you may see for yourself what my humble enterprise has to offer.”
“A most gracious offer, sir. I shall consult with my colleagues. Perhaps we shall see you at the day’s end.”
“I look forward to it,” he replied graciously, as they turned and walked away.
* * *
Tobin’s vehicle pulled to a stop near his ship in its berth at the spaceport. As Mendez and Weatherly dismounted, another vehicle arrived, delivering four unkempt men.
“Who are they?” Mendez asked Tobin, his hand sliding inside of his cloak to find the butt of his weapon. Tobin gestured for Mendez to remain calm, as the four men approached.
“May I help you?” Tobin asked the leader of the group.
“We’re members of the harvesting team you hired,” the apparent leader of the group announced. He handed over a small ID card to Tobin for inspection.
“We had expected a single representative,” Tobin stated, taking the man’s credentials.
“We hoped to ride up with you. It’s a bit cramped in the other ships.”
Tobin inspected the man’s credentials. Satisfied that they were legitimate, he returned them. “Of course. There is just enough room for the four of you. You may board now. We will depart shortly.”
The four new arrivals made their way past and boarded Tobin’s ship. Mendez watched as Tobin made arrangements with the ground crew in preparation for departure. After a few minutes, Tobin returned. “Shall we depart?” he asked as he climbed aboard. Sergeant Weatherly followed him in, and after one last look around, Ensign Mendez became the last to climb aboard.
The ship’s hatch closed automatically as its engines began to spin up to full power. The ship began to roll slowly out of its berth and onto the taxi-way, turning left as it exited its berth.
Mendez looked at the men sharing the small cabin with himself and Sergeant Weatherly. The four of them were dirty, with unwashed hair and worn clothing, and were somewhat lacking in dental hygiene. The leader of the four was staring at Sergeant Weatherly in a menacing fashion. At first, the sergeant chose to ignore the man. But by the time they reached the launch pad and began to rise up off the deck to begin their flight back to the Aurora, he had endured enough.
“Can I help you, old man?” Sergeant Weatherly challenged.
“You look like a soldier,” the old man stated with suspicion, as he looked him up and down. “The only soldiers I know are the Takar.” The old man looked Weatherly and Mendez over before continuing. “Are you Takar?” he asked, a trace of hatred in his voice.
Sergeant Weatherly could tell that the old man was trying to bait him. “No,” he answered without missing a beat. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve killed a few,” he added, a smile creeping onto his face.
The old man squinted at Sergeant Weatherly for several seconds, a grin finally breaking through his stern gaze. He laughed openly, spitting onto the deck. “I like you.”
“Well, that just makes my day, it does,” the sergeant answered.
The ship continued to rise in altitude as it streaked away from the spaceport. As it continued to accelerate, the turbulence became more severe. It wasn’t as bad as it had been during their descent, but it was still a pretty rough ride. Mendez looked out the window nearest him and saw three ships forming up on their starboard side. Two of them appeared to be small cargo shuttles, while the third one was equipped with some sort of an open scoop under its belly.
“Who the hell are they?” Mendez asked no one in particular.
“Relax, them’s ours,” the old man informed him, a puzzled look on his face. “First time in the rings, boy?”
“You might say that,” Mendez admitted. “What’s that little ship for?”
“That’s the harvester,” the old man explained. “Scoops up rock and ice from the rings and brings it in to be processed.”
Mendez watched as the little ship danced about the others, bobbing in between them and maneuvering around from once side to the other. “What’s wrong with that guy?”
“Oh, that’s just Josh, showing off again. That boy couldn’t fly a straight line if his life depended on it!”
The nose on the ship began to pitch up, as her engines began to scream louder, accelerating them up and out of the little moon’s thick atmosphere. A few moments later, the shaking began to subside as the air thinned and they entered the blackness of space once more.
* * *
The five of them continued to stroll down the crowded street, weaving in and out of the surging crowds as they made their way past the produce merchants. Nathan felt more than one person’s glance linger on their group a little longer than he thought normal, which made him a bit apprehensive.
“I get the feeling we kind of stick out in the crowd,” he whispered to Jalea.
“No more than any other visitor to Haven,” she insisted. “Most of the shoppers are residents of this world. It is rare that an off-worlder shops the street markets here. Most of them don’t even come to the surface. They just hire through proxy.”
“I would think a crew would want to leave their ship, even if only for a few hours,” he offered. “Even if just to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.”