11. Two years went by and things had settled into a routine.

Tula had her own affairs to take care of. She awoke every morning in the bin box she called home. After washing herself, she made her way to the shared common room and prepared herself a meal. As she passed the other tables many of the aliens asked her to join them to eat, but she had become used to saying no, preferring instead to eat alone. Tula had learned that keeping her distance was the best way to survive. If she sat with someone that might mislead people into thinking that she had favorites. Sometimes, when an alien waved a limb towards an empty seat, she was reminded of Earth. A vague memory would arise of her middle school lunchroom. It seemed that then, where you sat was important. It meant you were popular. She could hardly remember what wanting to be popular felt like, but she could vividly remember it feeling as though it was the most important thing she could achieve. Back then she would have gladly sat with anyone and everyone if she thought that it would help her socially. Back then it was a worse to be alone. It struck her as strange that now it was what she preferred. The memory of it all was hazy and made her tired. The idea of worrying about anything other than making it through another day seemed trivial. She remembered that part of her life as though it had happened to someone else. As though it was a vid she'd seen once, starring a carefree human that was most certainly not her. Whenever the memory of her old self crept up on her, that girl that lived inside of her wondered for a fleeting second, if she was considered well liked by the other aliens. She knew that she still used her smile, as she did back in the lunchroom. Her mother had always told her that her smile was her best asset. Here, she could never tell if her smiles helped her in her dealings or not. Smiles meant such different things to different species. Faces were

poles apart here. In one culture a blank stare might mean absolute joy, in another, a smile might mean terror. She wondered if the aliens asked her to sit with them because they wanted to get to know her. But even though she'd been here for years, they were still alien to her. And if one thing was universal, it as that no one cared at all for Humans. She’d tried hard to overcome the handicap of her species. She tried hard to be considered not Human, but Tula. It struck her as strange that she was the same girl who once sat in a classroom and looked up at a blue sky. She tried to remember what the clouds looked like above her, but couldn't. Now there were only walls and ceilings. Windows were not something that you saw much of in the underguts. "Tula, please, join us," the Atafafaa waved his little third arm to an empty seat. She'd done his family a favor a few weeks before. She could see that their little one was thriving from the medicine she'd managed to trade for him. "No, no," and then Tula curled her hand to imitate the aliens little arm. Each species had its gestures. Tula knew them all. She moved on from the table, reconfirming to herself that she could only do her dealings if no one thought that they were preferred. Favors, more than chits, were the most important currency on the station. Heckleck had taught her well. She tried to keep everything about business and have no sentimentality about what she did. Many favors were owed to her, but she owed very few favors to anyone else. That's the way Tula liked it. It kept things simple and she always knew where she stood. As always, there was an empty table in the corner. It was an unspoken agreement with all the gutter dwellers to make sure that a table was always empty for her. She would

eat alone head down, concentrating on the plate in front of her. Grateful for it. Eating every last morsel. Like everyone in the gutter, you never knew when you might eat again so she always ate everything in front of her. When she was done eating, she would begin the process of trolling for jobs. She ate and listened. Aliens clicked, thrummed and spoke Universal Galactic around her. The PA made its periodic announcements. "Sylenium Fabric has been ordered from the Glorious Imperium and will arrive from the Center Systems in due time." The Yertina Feray needed repairs. Maintenance needed to go outside and fix some of the solar panels and make adjustments on the hull. Repairs needed to be done regularly, but maintenance had not been able to replace the space suits that they had that were old and badly damaged. Monians made the best fabrics. "Repairs to the hull are being processed but until that time station functionality will be low." Every since the Provisional government had been set up in the free zone, getting things to run on the station had become trickier. It was through these forbidden interactions that Tula had made a place for herself. She had risen in the underguts, to be known as a person with power herself. It had been a long time since anyone treated as Hecklecks errand girl. One knew that Maintenance could not ask the Monians who lived on the station for the bolts of fabric; it was a breach of protocol. They could not ask anyone for help. But they could hint, by making an announcement. Tula got the hint. She wondered if Tournour had arranged for the announcement knowing that she would hear it. She suspected that he did things like that when he needed something to get done. Maintenance needed to be done

now. If the crew didn't get outside and fix things, everything on the station would fall into disrepair. Disrepair was never allowed on a space station. It meant death. Which is why she found herself now bartering with a Monian. Tula hated the way Monians stared. She also hated the way that they looked, oily and green, but they were the key. She needed twelve bolts of their fabric. Ever since the Imperium took over, goods were nearly impossible to get. Trade regulations made trading on the station nearly impossible, but without things going to where they were needed nothing could get done. Today the Monians had the fabric that everyone needed to make space suits with. Tula slammed her fist on the table and stood up. She leaned in close to the Monian and she opened her mouth as big as she could so he could stare inside her throat. It was an act of submission and it was respectful. Of course, her throat had none of the things that a Monian throat had but the alien before her went through the motions of staring deeply into her throat. He came in close putting his eye right up to her mouth. Tula tried not to gag as his oily forehead brushed her lips. "Two bolts," he said pulling away, now ready to do business. "I came for twelve." "Impossible!" "Come on, you're going to tell me that it's impossible? Didn't you tell me once that you sang at the Cattleyou Canyons? With the hero of Mickmukiak? I thought you had twenty children? The number twelve should be nothing to a get like you." "I have to account for every bolt. My people make the finest fabrics and they are in high demand. Two bolts I can make disappear, but twelve. Impossible. I don't even have twelve bolts."

"You're going to tell me that it's impossible." "Yes." "Well then I suppose I'll just have to find someone else for all of the Machi Leaf I have in my possession." Tula got up and started to make her exit. "Wait!" She didn't turn around. She didn't say anything. She just let him think. Monians were addicted to chewing Machi leaf. She didn't have any Machi leaf, but she knew it was the one thing that would make a Monian think twice. "How much Machi can you get?" the Monian finally asked. "How much do you need?" "For twelve bolts? I would need thirty bales." Now that was impossible. Thirty bales may have been possible if shipping from the nearest agricultural planet was more dependable, but basic foodstuffs were a nightmare to get these days. No one knew what ships would make it through. Some weeks on the station everyone cursed the species whose ships had docked because that meant it would be the only palatable cuisine of fresh-ish foodstuffs till the next ship came. Not many ships made a point of passing by Yertina Feray. One couldn't be too picky about food. "I can get you twenty-three bales," Tula lied. Monians did not like round numbers. An off number like twenty-three would seem to the Monian that she could get it. If she'd said an even number he'd know she was lying. "Perhaps I can free up five bolts," the Monian said. Tula looked at her arm and pretended to concern herself with an imaginary thread. "Seven, if I'm clever."

Tula looked up at him. She knew she had him. "You're only clever enough for seven?" "I'm very clever." "Well, the Monian consult before you would have been clever enough for at least nine." The Monian stretched his neck out as high as it would go to show her that she had insulted him. Everyone on the station knew that the old Monian consult had been an imbecile considered to be an embarrassment to his people and had been sent home in shame and likely already killed. Now the Monian knew what was really on the line. Reputation. "You'll have the twelve bolts." She exited. As she walked to her next destination she calculated the number of favors she'd have to call in to get a ship with Machi Leaf to make a stop at Yertina Feray. It was more than she'd wanted to use, but it was worth it to have maintenance owe her a favor. She allowed herself to smile as she made her way to the arboretum. The grounds keeper Thado owed her and he had at least one bale of Machi Leaf. One bale would get her the twelve bolts. She just had to promise that the other twenty two bales would make their way to the Yertina Feray in an acceptable time. Thado was on a ladder picking some blue trests that had ripened and looked ready to eat. She watched him for a minute, but then her eyes drifted to the window. It was one of the biggest on the station. She loved to look out at the planet below. It was called Quint. It looked angry to her today. Right now the largest ocean on its surface was facing them. She could see white-capped waves dotting the water below. She knew it was because it was the wind season now. Winds were whipping over parts of the planet at high speeds. She

wondered what it sounded like. She missed wind. She watched till the dren line came into view. "Here," Thado said and as she turned he threw down a trest which she caught and began eating. The juice was sweet and delicious. They would bring in quality items for her when she traded them. "What can I do for you?" Thado asked. "Machi leaf," Tula said. He shook his head. "It's not doing well right now, some pest someone brought on board is eating it." "One bale." "It will be a skinny bale," Thado said. "Just make it look pretty," Tula said. Thado descended the ladder and then handed her two baskets of Trests. He also handed her a flash pad with a wish list of things he needed. Legally he was not allowed to sell anything from the arboretum. But the trees and plants would fruit and flower and Thado would not be able to trade them until the paperwork had been approved. By then, most things had already rotted. It seemed a terrible waste. So he gifted the fruits and vegetables to Tula who made sure that they were gifted around the station. In return, the things that he needed seemed to find their way to him. Tula took a cut and no rules were breached. She had just finished dropping off the first basket when Tournour and his goons cornered her. She'd been eluding him for weeks. That was good for business and for her credit account.

"Tula," Tournour said, taking one of the trests from the baskets and eating it. The juice got caught in his beard. "Your hair looks shorter." "I don't want to talk to you," Tula said as she handed him her currency chit. One of his goons took the chit and swiped it removing all the currency from her account. She hated when he took all of her credits. "I've got a job for you," he said. "I'll pay you... Gent, how many cul credits did we take?" "1300 cul," Gent said. "Why that is a lot, Tula. You've been ambitious. Are you saving up to try to find a sponsor?" Tournour said. "Tournour, you've got blue juice in your beard." He shrugged. "I'm also much richer right now." "Get to it," Tula said. "I'll pay you 1100 cul credits for you to tell me what the Tomani people are up to." "I'm not a snitch." "Isn't it worth it for that sum of credits?" "My credits." She had never liked the way he’d come back from his planet crueler than before. She didn’t recognize him from the Loor who let her steal a plant. She still had the plant. She once gave him back a cutting of it as a payment. He’d laughed, but accepted. "My money now," he said. "I’ll tell you what they are up to," Tula said. "What they are always up to. Sleeping upside down. Using sonar. Spreading rust everywhere."

"The trouble with the Tomani," Tournour said. "Bad food." "Are you hauling me in, or are we done?" Sometimes she got tired of him picking on her. She was busy and had things to do. Some days she did not want to do the clever dance with him. She would rather leave or be taken away than play the game. Tournour took four more trests from the basket and gave one to each of his two goons and kept the other two. "Now we're done," he said and went on about his rounds. But when he finally left, she couldn’t help but smile. He always made a big show of taking everything from her. Technically, a person with no allegiance was not allowed to even have a currency chit. The account she used was dead, one that belonged to someone who had forgotten about it. But she knew from the fact that he let her keep the trests that he was aware that she was trying to get the bolts of fabric for maintenance and that he wouldn't get in her way. That still meant she'd have to get a new credit account. That would cost her another favor. The day was getting to be expensive. But this was the pattern to Tula's days. As the station revolved around the planet below, she weaved through the levels in what seemed to be a random chaos but was actually a carefully and finely tuned orbit of barter and negotiation. By the end of the week the Machi Leaf was set to arrive in a month with a Dornian ship and Maintenance crew had its twelve bolts of fabric. Tomorrow would bring a new crisis and a new challenge.

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