Damnation, where was the hacking ship? Tellan trotted along the terminal deck, dodging the few carts operating at this time of night as he searched for the Kelso Red
. He’d gone to the bar the shopkeeper had recommended. He hadn’t made a move to hire any guards since most of the beings around him were a scary lot he didn’t care to sit near, let alone camp with on an isolated planet. He’d downed a quick drink and tried to tune his ears to any word on current conditions in the Empty Quadrant. Instead of overhearing a valuable tidbit that might help in his quest, he’d merely developed slight indigestion and his mouth was left distressingly dry. So, cutting his losses, he’d left and made his way to the dock, his bag of effects bumping along his back with every step. He hoped the supplies he’d purchased were waiting as promised because there was no way he would manage to survive on what he could carry.
With relief he spotted the ship, its outline familiar from his study of the images on the ticketing marker. It was much smaller than he’d imagined. A little knot of worry burrowed in his belly, and he cast about, looking for the supplies he’d paid for. What would he do if they weren’t here? The shop was certainly closed, and he had to leave when this ship did. There wasn’t another taking the route he needed for another three days, and any delay was unacceptable. What had been an adventuresome lark in theory was instead a solitary, forbidding expedition better concluded quickly. He couldn’t wait to return to Domid and all the comforts which awaited him there: his family, his lovely apartment, the buzzing clubs and bars he habituated.
Tellan circled the landing gear, careful not to trip on the haphazardly piled pieces of equipment and tangled lines of hydraulic tubing littering the area. Hopefully the interior of the Kelso
wasn’t as disintegrated as its berth seemed to be. Darkness lurked beneath the ship’s belly, and he made his way cautiously, eyeing each stack of gear he passed. Would there be an identifying mark or…the idle thought fled as he caught a swift movement from the corner of his eye and turned to identify the source. Big crates obscured his view and he edged around the corner of a stack, craning his head to capture the widest view. There, a darker shadow flitted beyond a smallish tower of something blocky encased in bright orange translucent sealant spray. He shuffled closer, his new brandish bar raised in his hand in case he needed to use it.
“What are you doing?” A deep voice rumbled from behind and Tellan jumped in his boots. With a suppressed curse and his heart thudding in his throat, he whirled to find the large man from the outfitter shop standing close, his pale forehead wrinkled as he stared with those light eyes. He’d been wrong to think them blue; they were an arresting shade of cool turquoise, something he hadn’t been able to observe in those fleeting moments before.
“I’m looking…I’m seeing…” Drat, his childish stammer had returned at a terribly awkward moment. Singing the common words in his head to clear his tongue, he tried again. “I’m looking for my goods. Did you bring them?”
“No.” The big man clamped his full lips together and looked over Tellan’s shoulder as if bored. He was still encased in black and grey, even more layers this time, which made him appear too large to fit in standard accommodations. Could he even wedge those thick legs and that span of shoulders into a jump seat, let alone work the safety straps over his bulk?
“It’s right there.” The other man’s gesture startled Tellan and he jumped again, free of the irrelevant speculation about how much the big fellow weighed or the actual diameter of one of his thighs. He pointed at the orange bundle and Tellan spun around, nodding rapidly as if he could see through the wrappings to verify the contents.
“I see…of course…very good. Thank you.” The empty phrases clattered out of his dry mouth. Something about this fellow set him off. He hadn’t been this on edge around a man since he was a youth at his first social mixer. To be fair, this Jorant was intimidating, and there was no one around to help if in fact he should need it. Not that he would; he sensed no threat.
“Are you Atavaq?” The query rolled off his uncooperative tongue easily. The big man blinked and his mouth hung open for a moment before he replied.
“Yes. That’s true.”
Tellan tried to smile. “I’ve never met one before. Will we be enemies?”
He was trying to make light of the newfound enmity between their peoples, but perhaps this would not register with Jorant. He seemed very literal.
“Are you going to attack me?”
“Of course not!” Tellan shook his head rapidly. He was confident he could handle himself in a fight, had spent plenty of time in self-defense classes, but taking on this walking wall of muscle and cool control wasn’t something he would volunteer to do. “Are you going to attack me
A slow shake of the head relieved him somewhat. The Atavaq stood there and made a slight rumbling sound. Tellan wasn’t sure what to do next. This wasn’t exactly the sort of social encounter he excelled at. Meeting beautiful people and inviting them to clubs he promoted was more his forte.
“Did you go to the Twin Cup?”
“I did, as a matter of fact.” Tellan paused and considered the question. Should he ask this man for a drink? The idea held an odd allure even though his schedule wouldn’t allow it. “We haven’t been introduced properly. I’m Tellan.”
The big man suddenly slammed his forearm across his chest and made an abbreviated bow. “I am Jorant. Did you drink the special?”
Confused by the question, Tellan shrugged. “I think so. I asked the tender for what she recommended and had that. Half of the drink, actually.” The unwelcome reminder of what he’d imbibed brought the vaguely medicinal flavor back and he suppressed a burp.
Jorant nodded his head, his thick neck rocking back and forth. “Served you some illio
then. They make it with wichiti grubs.”
Tellan swallowed hard, his acid reflux transforming to outright nausea. “Grubs? Live grubs?”
Jorant quirked his lips in what might have been a miniscule smile. “Not alive for long. They ferment in the mash.”
“Good grief.” Tellan sucked in a breath and willed his stomach to remain where it was. He really wanted to go home now. “And you like this illio
Jorant narrowed his eyes. “No. It makes my tongue peel.”
Tellan shut his mouth and told his brain to start working again. The idea of the skin inside his mouth sloughing away was too awful to consider, not when he had so many more pressing issues. “I wish you’d been there to advise me against it.”
The big Atavaq moved his shoulders like he was trying to shrug something off. “You would have sat with me?”
“Of course. I’m sure you have a great many stories to tell,” Tellan said, then stopped short when he remembered the other man’s reluctance to speak of his time in the Empty Quadrant. Now Jorant peered at him with narrowed eyes as he made a half step forward, all his attention riveted to Tellan.
“Do you have a place on this ship?” He gestured upward at the dented belly of the Kelso
and Tellan nodded. “And you leave tonight?”
When he answered in the affirmative, Jorant rumbled something in another language under his breath, then spoke. “Did you hire guards?”
“No.” Tellan kept his answer short, again aware they were quite alone in this section of the hangar. Was Jorant trying to imply something or intimidate him, or was he here on a mission from his employer to again direct him to the Twin Cup to take on the security recommended?
“Where are your friends? Aboard already?”
Tellan shook his head, again reluctant to reveal his solitary state to a near stranger. It wasn’t as if anyone from home was going to dramatically arrive just before the ship’s hatch closed prior to take off, but it was a pleasant fantasy to contemplate.
Jorant nodded and glanced at the bundled pallet of supplies. “Do you need help getting that aboard?”
“I thought a stevedore would—” Before Tellan could say more, Jorant had slipped past him with agility that belied his size and grabbed at the edge of the stack of crates, sliding it along the smooth surface of the deck as if it weighed nearly nothing. He towed it to a different location, then reached to his belt and retrieved a stout tube which he banged on the closest landing strut. The hollow metallic chime startled Tellan and he jumped, then flinched when a large section of the ship’s hull seemed to fall away, revealing a hatch and loading ramp. A grizzled-looking woman swung down and began to bark at Jorant in a pidgin patois. Tellan recognized one word in six. The Atavaq didn’t even slow down as she questioned him but simply kept the supplies rolling up the ramp and into the hold of the ship. Tellan followed them both on board, wondering if he was supposed to offer a tip.
With a grunt and a flex of his arms, Jorant had the supplies firmly butted up against the bulkhead while the little woman cackled over some form on her hand-held. The Atavaq gestured at Tellan, and she fixed her bright gaze on him, then scuttled his way brandishing her device. “Sign here! Go go smack!”
He made his mark and half listened to her garbled welcome aboard and explanation as to where he was supposed to sit. Jorant leaned against the crates, his gaze fixed on the open loading hatch. She scurried away as the sound of raised voices and activating mechanical parts filled the air. Tellan reached into his pocket to search for some coin. Whatever the going rate might be, he had no idea, but he pulled out what seemed to be a fair sum. The Atavaq intrigued him like no one had in quite a while, and that spark of curiosity was worth far more than a few marks.
“Thank you for your assistance,” he said as he held out a gratuity which would buy the man a couple of drinks at the local tavern, which Jorant seemed inclined to avoid. The man glanced down at the coins gleaming in his palm, then fastened his cool gaze to Tellan’s.
“I can help more. With what you need.”
For a wild instant, Tellan thought Jorant might be referring to something intimate. His belly warmed and his muscles tightened as he considered how the other man’s wide hands would feel against his skin, gripping his thighs, pulling him down. He gave a slight shake of his head to free himself from the lustful image, and Jorant’s expression hardened.
“I assumed too much. Apologies.”
“No, that’s not what… I was just—” Again his juvenile stammer had returned, and with some embarrassment, Tellan reached for the other man’s arm, non-verbally trying to reassure him he hadn’t meant to put him off. Jorant flinched when he made contact. Tellan caught his gaze and wondered if he should let go, if he’d perhaps encroached past the personal space requirements of the Atavaq culture. But Jorant didn’t rear back or shake him off. Instead he stood quietly. Tellan allowed his fingers to slide away over the rough surface of the shirt through which he could feel hard planes of muscle. “I was thinking of something I shouldn’t have. I’m not sure what else I might require.”
The Atavaq sniffed and jerked his head back a bit, as if he was testing the wind. “Hest was not wrong to suggest you have a guard or two. It is very difficult in the Empty, and not everyone you encounter will be trustworthy.”
Tellan tightened his lips so he wouldn’t smile. “Can I trust you?”
Jorant’s forehead wrinkled. “No one has contracted me to harm you.”
The ship vibrated under their feet and an unintelligible voice called out over the comm system. It seemed they were close to take off. A few more questions to this interesting man were perhaps possible. “What would it cost to hire you?”
The other man tilted his head to the side as his eyes took in a hazy, calculating sheen. “When I worked for Hest, he gave me room and a meal a day, plus fifteen marks a week to help move heavy things, keep an eye on the place.”
Jorant’s expression tightened as if he’d experienced a sudden pain and Tellan wanted to ask him what was wrong, but the return of the little woman interrupted him. She marched up to them and waved her finger under their noses. As she chattered, he picked up a few references to cost of a fare and taking off. Tellan tried to make calming motions and attempted to tell her he’d already paid. She shook her head and her face reddened as her voice went higher pitched.
Again, Jorant looked past Tellan’s shoulder, and he followed the other man’s gaze. He was peering out the opened hatch. “Are you looking for someone? I didn’t see anyone out there.”
The big Atavaq heaved out a breath and focused on the woman, rapidly asking her questions in a dialect Tellan couldn’t make out. She fired answers right back, still shaking her finger in the air. Jorant rubbed his hand along his square chin and blinked his luminous eyes as her tirade wound to a close. He reached into a pouch attached to his belt and extracted the two coins Tellan had just given him, which he attempted to hand the woman. She screeched and shook her head.
“Are you attempting to book passage? That’s nowhere near enough.” Pleased to put his newfound expertise with calculating costs to use, Tellan did some rapid calculations in his head. “You’ll need much more, depending on where you want to go.”
The look Jorant turned on him made him almost take a step back. It was equal parts frustration, fear, and shame if Atavaq used expressions similar to Domidians. The idea that such a formidable man might be at a loss filled Tellan with the unaccustomed urge to help. “How much more?”
A sudden inspiration took hold and Tellan turned to the glowering woman who had planted her small body between them, clearly not willing to give a millimeter of deck space to someone who hadn’t paid for it. “I will pay for his passage.”
Jorant gave him an appraising stare. Tellan cleared his throat. “Can I put you under contract? Passage and a meal a day if you help me move heavy things? A bonus when you deliver me home safe?”
The big man was silent for a moment, then suddenly dropped to one knee and lowered his head. The little woman made a squawking noise and stepped back as if she was afraid of being crushed under his bulk.
“I pledge my service to you, Tellan of Domid. My fealty is yours.”
Uncomfortable with the show of servitude, Tellan reached for Jorant’s arm again and attempted to pull him up. For a moment his efforts resulted in nothing, but then the Atavaq regained his feet and gave a nod. Feeling as if he should acknowledge this strangely formal moment, Tellan also inclined his head. “I accept. Thank you. For the time being. We’ll see how it goes.”
Stammering again. Where was his charm? Where was his sophistication? Tellan decided he was out of practice. Being so far from home and spending time in these primitive surroundings had pared away all those niceties. Jorant went quiet as Tellan plodded his way through communicating with the little woman and soon enough the other man’s passage was booked and a seat assigned.
“Do you need to collect your things? I believe the ship departs very soon.” The whine of the engines increased and the woman rushed away, perhaps to tie things down or harangue the pilot.
Jorant shook his head. “There is nothing left for me there.”
Unease wriggled along Tellan’s nerves and he began to second guess his impulsive decision. After all, he knew nothing about Atavaq, very little about the man in front of him, and somehow he’d become an employer. They might irritate each other on the journey, or worse.
“What would you like me to do first?” Jorant’s practical question brought Tellan back to the moment.
“I, ah…nothing. That is to say… We should find our seats and secure ourselves, don’t you think?” Why was he asking? He should be telling, be firm and decisive as servants required. Jorant merely huffed out a breath and turned, making his way up the narrow passage the woman had used earlier. Tellan hesitated, still trying to organize his mind. Right. He’d started this solitary, reckless adventure at the hazardous threshold of the Empty Quadrant. He’d hastily acted and now had a thoroughly intimidating guard. Hopefully that wasn’t some indication of cowardice on his part. Hoisting his belongings, which had slipped off his shoulder at some point in the proceedings, Tellan made his way deeper into the ship, farther into the odd tale he was making up as he went.