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“Oooofff!” The impact of the animal on Regen’s lap distracted him from the task of entering new course coordinates for the planet Volla. Hitler, his pet skeen, looked up into his master’s face with a pleading expression the big Bremen knew only too well.
“I know you’re hungry, but I gotta set in this-here new course for Volla. Gimme a few minutes, will ya?”
The ugly animal gave a gurgling moan and jumped back to the deck of the spaceship. He sat down near Regen’s feet but kept his beady red eyes glued on his only source of food.
“Yer gettin’ too fat anyway. You nearly knocked the wind out o’ me that time. I should put you on a diet.”
Hitler cocked his head to one side and hissed softly at the suggestion of any cutback in his daily rations.
Regen was the only man in the galaxy who didn’t shoot skeens on sight, and it was hard to understand why. Skeens had absolutely no endearing qualities. They were about the size of an average dog, but as ferocious as any jungle cat. Half mini-dinosaur and half giant rat, their hindquarters were covered with brown fur and sported a naked, rat-like tail. The forelegs were small and ended in vicious looking claws. The head was a transistorized version of a tyrannosaurus rex with jaws capable of crushing bones, and teeth like small, white razors. They ate anything they could chase down with their blazing speed, but they were partial to small, warm-blooded animals. Regen kept an ample supply of rodents aboard the ship, but in a pinch the skeen would have to subsist on dry kibbles.
Skeens were the scourge of every freighter in the galaxy, and each year ruined more cargoes than all other causes put together. Maybe it was foolish for Regen to pull that egg from under the heel of a fellow crewmember on the Honida Maru, but taming such a violent creature was a challenge he couldn’t resist. After reading a book about a horrible war on 20th Century Earth, he’d named his pet after the vicious dictator responsible for the carnage. Over the last seven years, the unlikely pair became inseparable.
The course lights finally blinked green all around, and Regen led Hitler to the room housing the food animals. As soon as the rodents saw the skeen, they began a nervous chatter and raced in circles inside their wire cages. Regen dumped the unlucky victim on the deck, and it scampered off in stark terror with Hitler in hot pursuit. He watched amused until they vanished down one of the stealth ship’s many cable tubes.
Regen returned to his consoles and found the communicator light blinking with a call waiting. He punched the receive button, and the screen came alive showing a middle-aged Andran smiling broadly.
“Hi, Rollum, what’s up?” Regen asked.
“I’ve looked over your inventory of gold artifacts, and I think I can use some of them, if the price is right.”
“Give me your best offer, and we’ll see if we can do business.”
“Well, this one’s worth four times its bullion value.” The screen changed to show an eight-centimeter tall golden antelope mounted on a marble base.
“I can give you six times bullion value for this one.” A curious looking statue of some goddess with the head of a lion filled the screen.
“I’ll take all of these things you got?” The screen showed a smaller object about two centimeters long shaped like an insect of some kind.
“I got about a hundred and fifty, or so. They dumped those things on us by the handful back on Agam Valeem. The natives said they’re some kind of magic charm.”
“They’re chakmas. You find them in a lot of primitive cultures. The priests at the temples sell ‘em to the superstitious suckers. This one’s supposed to cure whatever ails you. All you have to do is say the right prayer, bake it in some bread and feed the stuff to whoever’s sick.”
“What if they swallow the thing?”
“No chance of that. You’d notice something this big in your mouth no matter how sick you were. They spit it out and sell it for its gold value, usually about ten percent of what they paid for it. It’s a real racket.”
“What makes people fall for that garbage?”
“I’ve heard it works, sometimes. The most popular ones are the kind that make a member of the opposite sex fall for you. They come in all shapes depending on where you get ‘em. This one’s from Binta. Kind of obvious what it’s for.”
The screen showed a small phallic symbol.
“What do you do with that one?”
“You drop it into a glass of wine, and it’s supposed to drive the gal nuts for you. There’s all kinds. I’ll give you ten times bullion value for any of ‘em, but more for this one.”
The screen showed a stylized fish of some kind. It was tiny, not more than a centimeter in length. “I’ve never seen one like this. What’s it for?” Rollum asked.
“The suckers I got this from think it grants your fondest desire. Sort o’ like a genie in a lamp kind o’ thing. All ya do is swallow it, and all your dreams come true.”
“I’ve heard about these things, but I’ve never seen one before. I know a collector who’ll pay through the nose for it,” Rollum said.
“Maybe I should find this thing and try it out myself,” Regen said.
“They’re only good for one wish, and it’s almost certainly been used up, or the sucker wouldn’t have parted with it. You have to get it re-blessed, or something, for it to work again.”
“Too bad, that ‘un had possibilities. What about the rest o’ the load?”
“Bullion price minus 30% for my cut.”
“You payin’ alimony, or somethin’? That’s a pretty healthy cut.”
“Shop around. Times are tough right now. We got a deal on the non-bullion stuff?”
Regen didn’t need a lot of time to think about the deal on the artifacts. It was as good as any he was likely to find, but he made a note to shop the bullion stuff around a little more.
“Deal on the non-bullion items. You sure that’s all the good stuff? I’d hate t’ melt down the rest and find out I just destroyed the Mona Lisa, or somethin’.”
“You know I’m the best art fence in the business. Would I let you melt down something I could make a buck on?”
Regen knew the little Andran wouldn’t pass up anything of artistic value. Andrans were avid collectors of all kinds of artwork, and they often paid well above market price for anything striking their fancy. He was lucky to have Rollum on his side.
“Okay, I’ll sort out your stuff and see you in about two o’ your days, if all goes as planned. Mark the things you want on the video and transmit it back.”
“Nice doin’ business with you, Regen. See you in two days.”
The screen went dark, and Regen waited for the data transmission to end before moving to the compartment housing his share of the loot from Agam Valeem. Opening the bulkhead door, he was surprised to see Hitler sitting on a pile of golden objects, wolfing down the creature Regen released earlier.
“How’d you get in here?” Regen asked as he looked around the cargo bay for any possible access point suitable for a skeen. He figured the small rodent could probably go anywhere he liked, but Hitler was much too big to follow by the same route. The skeen didn’t look up from his meal.
“Oh well,” Regen selected a medium sized container and called up Rollum’s marked listing on the computer screen. He sorted through the loot, placing Rollum’s items in the container. After two hours of sorting gold, his back and arms needed a rest. He was about to find his bunk for a nap when Hitler jumped at a small pile of booty in one corner of the bay. He barely caught sight of the furry head before Hitler scooped up the hapless animal in his powerful jaws, along with some smaller gold objects. Before Regen could intervene, the gold and the animal were sliding down Hitler’s gullet.
“Stop that, Hitler! You’re eatin’ up my profits. Get out of here!”
Regen shooed the skeen into the companionway and closed the door behind him, then yawned, stretched his arms and back, and turned toward the control center. He checked the ship’s sensors and the communications log before laying down for a well-deserved nap.
He hadn’t slept long when he was awakened by a heavy object pouncing on his chest. A pair of red, beady eyes stared intently into his face, and the foul breath of the skeen assaulted his nose. It hissed like a fiend from hell, and Regen swept it to the floor with a quick motion of his arm.
“What’re you doin’?” Regen roared as he swung his feet over the side of the bunk and reached for his pistol. The skeen crouched just out of his reach in the dark room and continued to hiss like a cornered snake.
“I guess you’ve finally gone wild like ever’body said you would. God, I’d hate to shoot ya, but if you don’t calm down, I’ll do it.” He raised the pistol and waited for the skeen to make its move. The hissing continued, but Regen thought he heard a harmonic in its tone. The animal’s eyes seemed to soften, and it bolted for a ventilation shaft.
Regen re-holstered his pistol and scratched his head. “I’m gonna have t’ test those rats for rabies. Hitler must’ve eaten a bad one, for sure.”
He went to the hold and passed each cage through the medical unit. None of them tested positive.
“Oh well, maybe he was just in a bad mood.”
At that moment, Hitler walked through the doorway and settled calmly at his master’s feet staring up at him with pleading eyes and cooing softly.
“Oh, you wanna make up now, eh?”
Hitler cocked his head to one side and gave the Bremen a quizzical stare.
“Don’t give me that innocent act. You’re gonna hafta be on your best behavior the rest o’ the afternoon if you want another snack. Now get outta here!”
The skeen recognized the tone, though he understood none of the words, and ran through the door just ahead of his master’s kick. Regen returned to the cargo hold and resumed sorting out Rollum’s part of the treasure. He moved a crate full of odd bits and found the cable run both Hitler and his victim must have used to enter the compartment earlier. It was a bit small, but skeens seemed to be able to shrink as needed to get where they wanted to go. The sort was finally complete except for one object – the chakma Rollum identified as being worth so much more than its bullion price. He went through the smaller pieces again, with no better luck.
“That must’a been one o’ those Hitler swallowed. Well, I’ll have to check out his skeen box every day now.”
Regen had trained Hitler to use a litter box, but cleaning it out was no pleasant task. The skeen’s diet of small, furry creatures was not conducive to sweet smelling stools. Now, he would have to tear apart each of the little balls to find the chakma, and he was not looking forward to the job. As he turned to leave the cargo hold, a leathery head appeared in the cable run opening and began to hiss at him.
“I told you, no snacks ‘til you can behave. Now git!” Regen threw one of the larger gold objects at the skeen, and it ducked back inside the small metal cave.
Regen sat down at the ship’s control console and checked the progress of his flight. The craft had received a good boost from the outer planets of the Volla system, and would easily make the target planet in twenty-four hours. He needed to check bullion prices quickly, and sent out an electronic message to a dozen potential partners for illegal gold. As he worked he noticed Hitler skulking about near the bulkhead on his left. Evidently, the skeen got his message about leaving him alone for a while. He turned his seat to recheck the navigation console and saw a brown streak vanish down the passageway to the cargo holds. He turned back to where he’d seen Hitler, but the skeen was gone.
“I knew you was fast, but that’s a new track record,” Regen said to the empty cabin.
Dinner was the next item on the agenda, and Regen moved to the food console to select his meal. The long journey from Loomisa had consumed the best parts of his food supply, but the remaining choices weren’t that bad. He punched in his selection just as Hitler scampered through the door. The skeen sat obediently at his master’s feet and looked up at him with as much affection as a skeen could muster.
“Well, that’s more like it,” Regen said as he reached down to pet the repulsive creature. “How ‘bout some dinner for you too?”
Regen led his pet back to the cage room and selected a victim. The creature ran for its life as soon as its feet hit the deck, but Hitler only continued to look up at Regen with his usual mealtime expression.
“Oh, that one didn’t suit your fancy, eh? Well, I guess now that you’ve turned over a new leaf, you can be picky.”
A second release saw Hitler off in hot pursuit of his meal. Regen returned to his own dinner, enjoying his favorite movie while he ate.
After dinner, Regen prepared for his last night in space before landing on Volla. As he changed into his pajamas, he noticed Hitler’s head protruding from one of the ventilation tubes.
“Hi big fella, do you need a snack?”
A hissing noise behind him made Regen turn around. There, sticking out of another ventilation tube, was a skeen’s head. His gaze rebounded to the original location, but the head was gone.
Regen scratched his head as he stared at the two openings. "I'll have ta check the blueprints fer this bucket o' blots. He's figured out some fancy shortcuts."
As he was marvelling at the skeen's speed, Hitler leaped from a cable run and ran to his master's feet.
“What’s goin’ on, boy, you sick?” Regen knelt to pat the leathery head as Hitler responded with a frantic gurgling noise he always made when he was frightened.
“What the hell are you afraid of? We got a ghost, boy?” Hitler only hissed and jumped up on the bed.
“Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, at least not yet, but if you’re scared, you can sleep with me tonight.”
Regen joined his pet and was soon sound asleep.
The next morning, Regen fed Hitler. As before, he rejected the first rodent only going after the second one his master released.
After eating breakfast, Regen hailed Rollum.
“You ready to do business?” Rollum said in response to Regen’s greeting.
“Yeah, you got all the artifacts, but Grutchik beat ya out on the bullion. I’ll be at your place in an hour and a half.”
“See you soon,” Rollum said as the screen went blank.
Regen landed his ship close to the Andran fence’s seaside villa. It was a lovely area with high, snow-capped mountains in the background. The sand dunes surrounding the huge villa faded into a white beach running for miles in either direction. Lush forest started at the base of the mountains and marched up to the snow line.
Rollum stood at the low stone wall surrounding a large patio and waved to Regen as the ship came to rest only a few meters away. Regen shut down the drive system and opened the ground level hatch. It was only a few steps down the spiral ladder to reach the fresh sea air and the hot scorching smell of the sand. Rollum moved toward him.
“Welcome to my house, Regen. Where’s Hitler?”
As the Andran spoke, a greenish brown blur streaked past Regen and vanished into the dunes.
“I guess he can’t wait to get some real food,” Regen said. “I think he’s tired of the rats I got him on Loomisa. You got anything around here he’d eat?”
“We’ve got vulla by the hundreds. I’ll have my people trap some for you, and you can see what he thinks of them.”
“Sounds great. How ‘bout some of your boys unloadin’ my stuff?”
Rollum called to some men observing the pair from the patio. They moved down to join the group, and Rollum gave them orders.
“Regen’ll show you the stuff. Bring it inside to the sorting room.” He turned to Regen. “After you show them what to bring in, we’ll have a drink or two before we settle up. You had breakfast?”
“Only spacefood junk. I’d appreciate a home cooked meal for a change.”
“You got it.” Rollum turned to another man. “Wait here and show Regen to my library. We’ll have breakfast in there. See you in a few minutes, Regen.” Rollum strode off towards the villa while Regen led the men into his ship.
“The stuff’s in there in a container marked for Rollum,” Regen said as he opened the door to the cargo compartment. One of the men jumped back in surprise as a green streak sped past his legs.
“Holy shit! It’s a skeen!” the man shouted.
“How’d he get back in here?” Regen said as he scratched his chin. He turned to the men. “Don’t worry. Hitler won’t hurt ya, and there’s no more skeens aboard. Go on in.”
With the cargo moved to the villa, one of Rollum’s men led Regen into an ornately decorated room with bookshelves along two walls. Large, open windows made up most of the other two walls, and the pleasantly cool sea air blew lazily through the ceiling to floor curtains. Rollum rose to greet the Bremen extending a glass of light golden liquid.
“Welcome Regen. Have some of this stuff. It’s the best Mourlin wine I’ve ever tasted.” He raised his own glass toward Regen. “Here’s to a profitable deal for both of us.”
Regen raised his glass in response and they both took a long sip of the wine.
“That is good stuff,” Regen said as he smacked his lips loudly. He knew that Andrans required such indications of appreciation for fine food or drink.
A woman appeared in the doorway carrying a large tray.
“Breakfast is ready, sir.”
“Just set the tray on the table, Azirah,” Rollum said. “By the way, this is Regen, a friend of mine.”
“Pleased to meet you, Azirah,” Regen said. Azirah responded by dipping to one knee and extending her right hand, palm up.
“Touch her palm with your right hand, Regen. She’s a Vollun, and that’s how they say hello.”
Regen did as requested, and Azirah rose and backed out of the room.
“Hard to get good help like that anymore,” Regen offered.
“Here on Volla, there’s a lot of people out of work right now. If things pick up, she’ll probably leave me for a good job the first chance she gets. Sit down and eat.”
The pair sat down, and dove into the delicious meal. Regen suddenly stopped eating.
“You did tell your men not to shoot Hitler, didn’t you?” Regen asked.
“Oh sure. Don’t worry about him.”
As Rollum spoke, Hitler came bounding in through an open window and curled up next to Regen’s feet.
“I guess he got his fill of whatever kind o’ rat you got ‘round here,” Regen laughed.
Rollum joined in the laughter just as one of his men appeared carrying the carcass of a dead skeen.
“Sorry, boss. Rikka saw this thing and shot it out of habit. He was in the city when you put out the word on skeens, and nobody filled him in.”
Rollum and Regen looked from the dead skeen in the man’s arms to Hitler sleeping soundly at his master’s feet.
Regen got up and moved to inspect the animal’s corpse. He carefully opened the mouth and then lifted one of the hind legs.
“This one’s a female. I didn’t think you had any skeens here,” Regen said.
“We don’t. She must’ve come in on your ship,” Rollum said.
“No way. Hitler’d never tolerate another skeen aboard,” Regen countered.
“But, you said this one’s a female. Wouldn’t that make a difference?” Rollum asked.
“It might, but where would I get a female skeen? I’ve been in space since I left Loomisa, and I never left orbit there. There’s no way a skeen could get aboard.”
“Well however it got here, it’s dead now. Let’s go check out the loot,” Rollum said. “Just go bury that one, and tell Rikka he shot a stray – and not to worry.”
“Sure, boss.” Rollum’s man left the room with the skeen as Rollum and Regen moved to the sorting room. The treasure was laid out in order, and Rollum inspected the artifacts.
“Where’s the one shaped like a fish?” Rollum asked.
“Hitler ate that one, and he ain’t passed it yet. I’ll go back to the ship and check his box.”
Regen found several new stools in Hitler’s litter box and carefully tore apart each one with a plastic knife. The putrid smell even penetrated his filter mask, but he found the tiny golden fish on the second try. He cleaned it up and returned to Rollum.
“Yeah, he passed it. I think I got all o’ the stink off it.” Regen handed the chakma to Rollum who sniffed it and pronounced it sufficiently cleansed.
As Rollum was transferring the funds into Regen’s accounts, a thought suddenly hit the big Bremen. Yes, it had to be the only plausible explanation.
“Remember what I told you about that thing-a-ma-jig?” Regen asked.
“The fish chakma? Sure, it’s supposed to grant your fondest wish if you swallow it,” Rollum replied. The realization of the situation suddenly hit the Andran.
“You don’t suppose Hitler made a wish, do you?” Rollum said.
The two men stared at each other for a moment before their eyes came to rest on a contented looking Hitler curled up in one corner of the room.
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