“It is the answer to your problems,” said the alien, who gave his name as “Marq.” The name sounded archaic in the Realm’s Mother Tongue, but Kai had heard it before. He sat watching the feed as Tishla questioned him.
“How so?” asked Tishla. “Is this the magic root of our children’s tales?”
Kai admired his concubine’s manner as he watched her on the screen. Her gown, her long white hair, and her regal posture gave her an authority no indentured servant should ever have, but Marq probably knew nothing of that. For all he could tell, she was the real authority here on Essenar. The true power behind the throne. Sometimes, Kai wondered that himself.
Marq laughed his strange little laugh. “We have a similar tale about magic seeds. Does yours include a giant? Do giants actually exist among your species?”
“They did, once,” said Tishla. “But we’ve weeded out that genetic anomaly. Where do you come from?”
“And where is that?”
“Juno isn’t so much a where, as a what. Juno is my employer.”
Tread carefully, love, Kai silently thought. He’s a cagey one.
“And did your employer teach you our Tongue? Your language is very fluent, but your accent does nothing to hide your alien origins.”
Marq looked down at his hands, perhaps the least alien aspect of his appearance: Five fingers with the opposable thumbs most primates had evolved. Well, that the Realm knew about, anyway. “I’m sure you’ll agree mastering a native accent, particularly so far from your Throneworld, would do little to mask my origins. Besides, my tongue doesn’t perform all the same functions as those of your species. Curious how random evolution makes them so similar, yet so very different, isn’t it? But you don’t have me locked in a little room to talk about that, do you? You want to know who I am and what I want. How did I get here? What’s that ugly little root I brought? And why do I want to talk to your governor?”
Tishla looked flustered, a reaction Kai had not seen since they were childhood playmates. “Well, yes.”
“I came,” he said, “aboard a projection drive ship. That is why there is no hypergate record of my arrival.” He reached up his sleeve and produced a slip of paper. Kai could not remember the last time he had actually seen paper, and suspected Tishla could not either.
“The ship is parked in your asteroid belt,” Marq continued. “It is a converted ore freighter, which allows me to run it by myself. By the way, I don’t recommend that, even with your technology. Anyway, it has a small launch that allowed me to come planetside. There is a record of that at your main spaceport. Or was, anyway. I was told to land in a quarantine section when your latest riots broke out. Tell me. Is your spaceport operational again?”
That put a little steel in Tishla’s spine. “Assuming we do not simply kill you for spying, we will provide you passage to Ramcat in Laputan space. I assume your people do business with the Laputans these days?”
Marq’s strange little smile widened to reveal little, white teeth. “Much to the Laptuans’ chagrin. So, you do want the ship?”
“It’s not a matter of whether you give it to us or not, Mr. Marq…”
“We’re taking it.”
“Then I suppose you’ll need me to upload the security code.” He leaned back with his hands folded across his chest, looking very much like a gambler who held the winning hand and doesn’t care who knows it. “As for the root, it’s a gift, courtesy of Juno.”
“Why would I want an ugly little root?”
“Your people are carnivorous, more so than mine. Like us, you can create protein substitutes. But your people still require fiber and starch to sustain themselves in times of food shortage, which I’m sure you’ll agree includes now.” He picked up the tuber. “I could give you seeds, but had I successfully gone through your entry protocols, they simply would have been confiscated and destroyed as a potential contaminant. This, on the other hand, is a sample.” He pointed to a bud on the surface of the root. “These are what my people call ‘tubers,’ and on our ancestral world, they have eliminated famine time and again. Once we mastered genetic manipulation, we were even able to make them grow in the polar regions. My employer specializes in this kind of work. However, we are much newer to the industry than the older food engineering entities, some of which date back to before my people’s last global war.”
Tishla took the tuber from Marq again and examined it. “And these buds?”
“If you skin the tuber,” said Marq, “and simply toss them in a field somewhere, the buds will grow into perfect clones of the original plant. From there, you can take seeds and modify the genes as you see fit. You have flowering plants on this world? Small creatures that will help pollinate them?”
Did they? Kai asked himself, knowing Tishla would be wondering the same thing. It’s all our immunologists can do to keep ahead of the parasites.
“Just so you know,” said Tishla, “my master is not Jod. We’re not going to believe this is just going to blossom into the lush garden of our creation myths. Not without some evidence first.”
“To follow your metaphor,” said Marq, “the giant in question is Juno. And Juno is the one giving you the gift. Freely. We would actually consider it a favor if you took this tuber for your own purposes. We only ask that you let us see the results of your work.”
“And why would you do something like that?”
“You are familiar with the concept of the free market?” When Tishla nodded, he said, “Such markets are not so free when more established entities rig the market for their own purposes. Juno is simply looking for new ways to compete.”
Kai wondered why he did not completely believe that. He could see from Tishla’s expression she wasn’t buying it either.