As he walked up the steps to the trading plaza, Liam spotted the huge trader already set up on the side of the plaza opposite the entrance. It was prime territory. Liam’s trade goods, sent from Earth, had been moved to a secondary table.
Liam had no idea if that was normal or not, but he had no intention of arguing with a nine-foot-tall alien. So he moved to his new spot and started arranging the copper pots and boxes so potential customers could see them.
Prarownt was nothing like Liam had expected. He’d been a kid in California when the first Earth ships had made contact with another alien species—the Anla. Early reports had made contact missions sound exciting and dangerous. By the time Liam had joined the war effort, humans had found the Rownt, and the early trickle of bootleg videos showing the oversized aliens and their odd looks and rural lifestyle had caught humanity’s attention. It was like finding out that dinosaur-turtle men were alive and living like the Amish. So when Liam had received his transfer to the linguistic division as a tech assigned to facilitate trading, he’d expected to explore an alien race. He’d wanted adventure and maybe he had a few fantasies about making some grand discovery about these reptilian aliens. Linguistics might not be the most exciting field, but he’d hoped to advance human knowledge or engage in debate.
Instead, the assignment included a lot of walking through wild fields and standing around trading tables waiting for someone to buy his goods. Rownt didn’t exactly engage in small talk, so Liam had no opportunity to make any grand revelations. It was boring—like the front, only without the intermittent periods of utter terror and imminent death.
Luckily, Liam liked boring.
Standing in the trading plaza, Liam could enjoy the songs of native birds and the rustling of leaves. One songbird kept repeating a complex set of whistles and chirps. Trellised pillars held up a wooden canopy that shaded the area. Vines climbed the latticework until the whole structure seemed almost alive. The other Rownt sharing the plaza with Liam had a table full of various pots and ceramics. He stood in front of his trading table with his tail wrapped around his leg and his eyes half closed. His skin had the soft purple hue Liam considered normal. He’d sometimes spot a darker Rownt, and on one occasion had seen an alien so pale it was nearly humanish in color, but the vast majority of Rownt had a fairly consistent color.
Liam leaned against the low wall that marked the edge of the trading plaza and pulled out his computer. He opened one of the midcourse grammar tutorials on sentence construction and started rereading the information. He’d passed his tests already or Command wouldn’t have approved his reassignment, but that didn’t mean Liam could actually speak the Rownt language. When Craig, the other trader, had first brought Liam to the square to introduce him to the first Grandmother who happened to pass by, Liam had stumbled through a few Rownt phrases. All his hard-won knowledge of Rownt language had evaporated under the stare of one of those enormous females. But Liam had never given up, and he wouldn’t back away from the challenge of speaking the Rownt language.
Hours passed. The sun slowly shifted in the sky so that a ray of light bisected Liam’s table. Liam loosened the top two buttons of his uniform as the heat started to build. Liam’s eyes nearly crossed as he, for the fourth time, studied the tritransitive structure of Rownt verbs. Verbs conjugated according to who performed an action, on whom the action was performed, the object involved, and the attitude intended by the doer. But no matter how much Liam cared about the proper conjugation of verbs, his attention span had a limit.
For a time, he tried pacing the trading plaza and watching the few Rownt who wandered this far from the center of town. However, every time Liam passed near the other trader, the Rownt watched. Liam had the feeling he was breaking some social taboo no one had explained. Craig had given him very little information on correct behavior, just issuing vague promises that the Rownt seemed fairly hard to offend.
Rather than risk finding a way to offend his hosts, Liam headed back to his table, picked up his computer, and started one of the technically against-the-regs games Craig had loaded. For a while, he amused himself with a simple matching game that required him to figure out codes on a security system before cops showed up to arrest his game character. Liam wondered what Rownt would think of the game, but he had no way to know.
Liam looked up when a new Rownt stepped into the plaza. He was smaller than most of the aliens, but he was still taller than the average human being. This new trader walked to the other side where the potter had set up.
He walked past the potter’s table, stopping several times to study pieces. Each time he silently returned the piece to its place, not shifting any toward the circle marked on the table that indicated goods to be traded. After the new Rownt examined or at least touched every single pot, he headed for Liam’s table.
The first time a Rownt had walked toward him, Liam had felt a cold and panicky sort of fear. They were huge. If a Rownt decided to lose his temper, he could break Liam into tiny, bloody pieces. However, in the time Liam had been coming to the trading plaza, he had never seen a Rownt show the least bit of emotion.
So the fear had faded into a softer sort of wariness. He kept track of the Rownt near him, but he had stopped expecting an attack. He also didn’t expect a trade. Three other Rownt had come and looked at Liam’s wares before buying pots. Liam had asked Lieutenant Spooner to request text goods, but Liam still had copper boxes on his table.
This new trader picked up the small text page Liam had set out. Formal trading precluded speaking, so Liam had typed a short explanation of the types of metals and the processes used to create the decoration. Every trader who came to the plaza gravitated to the text. They studied it so intently that Liam got the feeling they regretted leaving it behind. One trader had even put the page into the trading circle, but Liam had been so shocked he had failed to react, and the trader had left. The informational text definitely got more interest than the actual bowls.
This new trader headed for the corner of Liam’s table where a particularly large copper box stood, and his trajectory brought him uncomfortably close. Liam tried to stand his ground, but at the last second, he flinched back. His hip hit the table, and he blurted out a sharp, “Fuck” as copper tumbled to the tile floor.
Immediately he froze. Speaking in the trading plazas was forbidden—a cultural taboo. Liam held his breath, expecting one of the Rownt to grab him and rush him out of the space at any second. He would be disgraced. Command would send him back to the front to die. A thousand fears and thoughts clanged around in Liam’s head until he couldn’t think straight. It took him several minutes to realize the two Rownt only watched him with large eyes.
Taking their lack of action as a sort of forgiveness, Liam dropped to his knees and began to gather up the copper. He froze again as the new Rownt crouched down beside him and picked up a fallen box. He turned the piece over in his hand, examining the decorated top before he set it on the table.
Liam could only stare at the enormous hands. Rownt didn’t help each other, or that was what Command said anyway. Rownt were one-hundred-percent mercenary, which is why they had not technologically developed as fast as humans. They had solar panels and a power grid. And clearly they could refine metals since that was Liam’s main job—obtaining ship-grade metals. However, they were still largely agrarian, living in small villages surrounded by farms. Their lack of cooperation precluded them from forming larger cities or industrial centers, and if Liam believed Command, there was no reason for a Rownt to help him pick up his goods.
When the Rownt stood, Liam grabbed the last few copper bowls and scrambled to his feet. His nerves were frayed by this unexpected change in behavior, and he was almost vibrating with a need to do something. Ideally he would like to run all the way back to base and ask Lieutenant Spooner to explain this new behavior. However, Liam was not only a sergeant but a linguistic technician. He’d earned his promotion, and now he had to prove himself worthy or the military would be very happy to take his shiny new rank and kick him back to the front.
Indecision kept him standing beside his table until the Rownt pulled trading tokens out of a bag. He dropped five coins down on the table and watched Liam. Relief washed though Liam. He knew how to handle a trade.