Jupiter’s Gambit

This weeks story is inspired by westerns as well as the various cantina scenes from Star Wars. Don’t really think I need to say much more than that, so here is Jupiter’s Gambit.

Faded and damaged baby blue paint peeling down from the tops of the walls signifies how little care is taken of the den. If it has a name it isn’t displayed anywhere, which means only those local in this part of Haranth know it.

Not a huge surprise considering how the town is not the kind of place tourists would ever want or think to come. After all, there isn’t much here except dust, rock and three suns that if you believed in a divine being would leave you thinking their placement must have been some kind of cosmic joke. You see the trio of stars are positioned at exactly the worst positions imaginable for a proper day/night cycle and as a result night is barely more than a few hours long, in the winter.

To say that Haranth had always been a backwater, life sucking sort of a place wouldn’t be true however. At one time it had been a busy starport fuelled by the Orian mines a few miles to the south east. Sadly, those deposits ran dry long ago. At least, at depths that any mining crew would be willing to plummet and risk their necks for with the still ever decreasing price Orian fetches.

As for what the substance is, well that is simple enough to explain. It’s a component used in the manufacture of starship fuel. Or it was until a group of brilliant minds discovered a way of making a synthetic variant at a fraction of the overall cost and which additionally happened to burn one third longer and brighter when mixed with the other ingredients that has long since formed starship fuel. And no, we are not talking about the jump kind used to traverse massive distances in blinks of the eye. What we’re talking about here is the stuff used between said jumps, the actual fuel. It’s what allows vessels to navigate into station docking clamps, hulking cargo bays or through orbits and in atmospheres. Not that any of that matters a dot to Jupiter who continues to examine, lazily, the room that surrounds her.

The woman is new here, newish. But Haranth certainly isn’t her home. She’s from across the galaxy but ended up here because jobs were taken, wires got crossed, mistakes were made, along with a fresh selection of enemies and before she knew it, boom she was grounded, her ship a flaming wreck.

The only positive out of it all was that it seemed, seeing as it has been a couple weeks since her stranding, that those after her head think she perished in the crash.

Every so often the slender woman clad in cracked brown leather flight gear, padded across the elbows and knees in horizontal strips, feels someone sidle closer to her than she would like. The first few times she’d reacted poorly, but that had been in a different den, not this one. Thankfully Haranth doesn’t have much in the way of law and order; so as long as you don’t cross someone with clout you tend to be fine. None of those she’d dropped had possessed much of anything, which is why she is still standing.

Sick of examining what is around her principally due to the state of its decay, Jupiter drops her chin and stares into the thick blue liquid that is sat in the wide shallow glass between her hands. Her long green hair slips forward to hang elegantly from its pink roots. She sighs silently, her shoulders dropping. Then just as she considers taking a swig of… she can’t remember what it’s called because the name is one beyond the capabilities of her tongue to replicate, a shadow appears at her side. Jupiter offers no reaction. It could be that whoever this is has no interest in her and that they are only attempting to order a drink from the…

“Hey pretty lady, you look new here. How about you and me get better acquainted?”

Arms against the metal surface of the bar, bent at the waist because all the stools had been taken long before she arrived, Jupiter inhales slowly then raises her head and fixes her orange eyes on the wide framed flat nosed bucket headed Balrot that is leering disgustingly at her.

His eyes clearly like that they see as they sparkle unlike any other species in the galaxy might. You see, Balrot’s have the capacity for lust but not love. The problem for them is that their lust is clear for anyone with eyes to see, seeing as it is their eyes that give away said emotion. That extends not just to people but their lust for things as well.

Chief amongst the things they lust for most is always money. It’s why so many of them tend to be hired muscle but never negotiators. After all, what good would a negotiator be if the other party could read them like an open book that has font the size of a billboard? The answer is none at all of course.

Having fixed the Balrot, a decidedly more ugly specimen than most of his brethren, with a stare, Jupiter blinks slowly, exhales and then with fingers tightening around the glass in anticipation says, “Not happening, now or ever. You’re not my type and I ain’t in the mood.”

Nostrils puffing, angry and ready to fight because Balrot take everything personally, largely as a result of having been brought up to believe they are the superior species in the galaxy, the bucket headed alien begins to lean in. It’s clear he is about to grab Jupiter when all of a sudden the glass that had been in the woman’s hand slams into the side of his head. It’s enough to stun the Balrot, which is all Jupiter needs and sees her deliver a swift kick to the backward facing knee joints of his legs. In an instant the Balrot shrinks to two thirds of his height and that puts him roughly face-to-face with his intended prize that will never be.

Without warning Jupiter grabs the protrusions on either side of his rectangular head, that vaguely resemble ears, and pulls him in close. His eyes burn fierce with anger, but just behind them is fear, the primal kind.

Balrot once their weakness is exposed only ever want to retreat. Why anyone continues to fear them is anyone’s guess seeing as their backward facing knees are that aforementioned weakness and everyone knows about it.

“Listen shithead. I’ve had a real bad couple o’ weeks and the last thing I want is more shit on my shoes…” the Balrot looks down. They take everything literally, which is why the alien looks so confused when he spies no stains on Jupiter’s shining nearly knee high brown boots adorned with metal clasps that are more form than function.

A quick slap from the green and pink haired woman soon returns his attention to her, but it is administered only after a quick rolling of Jupiter’s eyes.

“… but if you push me I will add you to the pile of bodies fixed to my name. You get what I’m saying? Or do you need a demonstration?”

The response while forthcoming is not verbal but rather a quivering of the Balrot’s lips. How they manage to make both top and bottom do that Jupiter will never likely know and doesn’t rightly care. What she does care about is that a response has been given and a clearly compliant one at that. Hence, what is why she releases her hold on the Balrot who quickly skitters away to lord knows where because Jupiter doesn’t see it as she turns back to the bar.

With the excitement over the music resumes, not that she had noticed it stop, and the bartender, an old robot with arms fashioned from tubes sections, covered in dents and scrapes queries, “Would you like another drink?”

Jupiter hesitates at first, wondering if her actions were disproportionate, they weren’t. Then it strikes her that her last drink was wasted on the Balrot and replies, “Sure, but make it a double.”

With that she slaps down her payment, far too much for a single drink, double or not.

“Don’t carry change.” Is the bartender’s synthesised reply meant to imitate organic speech.

The woman’s response is a shrug that’s followed by, “Then leave the bottle once you’ve poured.”

Without another word that is exactly what the robot does once he’s finished pouring the double showing no signs of hesitation. It’s no surprise at all seeing as bots, especially of the age of those like this one serving as bartender, contain no ability for self-learning. They are what they are but because of that it makes them the perfect tools, workers, subordinates or whatever else you might wish to use them for. Doesn’t mean they don’t have their limits, they do, but it’s been a long time since they were learned. One such learning event, some decades earlier, occurred when a particularly greedy Pflerin tried to use an army of bots to take over one of the small fringe worlds governed by some royal house or another. His efforts didn’t end well.

In fact, bots were worse than useless and the Pflerin spent the rest of his days, so the story goes, in the palace cells serving as the laughing stock of all others imprisoned. To add insult to injury it is said he was forced to entertain said other prisoners while dressed as a jester.

Sipping at her freshly poured drink, the thick blue liquid is far better tasting to Jupiter now than when she first was poured the beverage in one of the other of Haranth’s dens.

With her thirst quenched for the moment those orange eyes return to scanning. Quickly she discovers that many sideways glances regularly slide her way in the aftermath of the confrontation between her and the Balrot.

She offers no reaction to any of them outwardly but inwardly a wide smile is sat across her face. Sure, she could let the smile manifest physically but she thinks that might not be the best of decisions. After all, in her experience looking pleased with yourself frequently leads to the meanest, most bad tempered souls wishing to line up and take a shot to you. And Jupiter should know seeing as she made that mistake as a teen and still has the scar up her back, covered in ink now, to prove it.

Hidden or not the reminder remains fresh in her mind.

Ever since then she’s erred on the side of caution, been a more careful sort of soul, happy to sit back, blend in, fix anyone who gets the wrong idea and then return to her business so not to draw any added unwanted attention for longer than is required, if it is at all.

Not an easy thing to learn. Truthfully, it took Jupiter years to get to a point where she could execute on it properly and not only because she’s a human. Sure, that makes it hard enough in the galaxy, but a human woman with a striking look, well to many of the races in the galaxy that’s an invitation to insert themselves into her day. Not just the males of the various species either. The women of some of the galaxies inhabitants can be worse, especially in the instances of races where the females are the alphas of their species. Thankfully none of said species are present in this den, currently. Doesn’t mean they’re not in Haranth and couldn’t walk in at any moment however.

“Making friends again I see.” A familiar voice says moments before sidling up next to Jupiter, in a natural gap, to join her at the bar.

“You know me Ulio, I’m always friendly.” A fleeting smirk appears at the corner of Jupiter’s mouth as she looks the broad shouldered man with his shaved head right in his dark eyes.

Smirk gone she takes a large swig of her drink and feels the burn across her tongue. It happens every time after the liquid is sliding down her throat.

The first time she’d drank what the people in Haranth call, Aratcha, Jupiter was sure the burn would last forever, and that it would only get worse the more she drank. She’d been wrong, thankfully, on both counts.

To be honest the orange eyed smuggler thinks she would go so far as to call it mildly pleasant to her pallet now.

What it seems almost incapable of doing however is getting her drunk. That isn’t a brag on Jupiter’s part. Her trying to make out that she can drink massive vats of alcohol without it having an effect on her. Rather, it’s an indication of how incredibly weak the proof is, because that she can drink a bottle of it and end up only a marginally tipsy.

Probably just as well too or she’d have been deep in the sauce from the amount she’s been drinking since arriving with her crew in Haranth and frequenting these dens.

When first she had arrived the plan had been to get the first transport off-world and head for a major planet, but Haranth doesn’t have transports for passengers, it was soon discovered. Cargo, absolutely, but as a person if you wish to get off-world you have to agree to work for some seriously dangerous people.

Not the sort of thing Jupiter wished to get herself or her crew, yes she has a crew, involved in seeing as they had already only recently escaped a narrow brush with near death over what was barely a misunderstanding.

At least that is how Jupiter and her crew see it. Chiefly because they were utterly oblivious to the reality which was that they were ferrying stolen goods. If they’d have known that they never would’ve taken the job.

Yes, it might sound odd that a smuggler would have qualms about transporting stolen goods but there are some people in the galaxy you don’t mess with and Venom War are one such group that should be counted on that list, by everyone.

In fact, they should be at the very top of said list seeing as they are the largest criminal organisation in the galaxy with operations, ships, bribed officials, law enforcement, etc, etc on the vast majority of worlds. Save for backwater dead-end nowhere planets like Immirol, the name of the planet Jupiter and her crew are currently stranded upon.

“Am I to take you have a plan?” Comes the query from Ulio who has asked purely as a result of having caught sight of a look in Jupiter’s eye he knows well.

Right after the broad shouldered man waves to signal the attention of the bartender who quickly shifts its way down the metal bar, pitted but otherwise shinning, to him.

“What can I get you sir?” Is the ‘greeting,’ if it can be called that, Ulio is met with.

“Got any Ba’Aroch?”

Ulio’s pronunciation is perfect, as if he were Xyalu. He isn’t. Like Jupiter he is human.

“Indeed sir, coming right up.” The bot chirps popping a glass, from seemingly out of thin air, delicately atop the bar a millisecond prior to the deep swirling pink liquid being poured until the narrow cylinder is three quarters of the way filled.

About to plant payout down Jupiter butts in and assures, “It’s on me, old friend.”

“Captain…” Ulio blurts instinctively but thankfully quietly enough that only he, Jupiter and the bot hear before he realises his misstep and holds his tongue.

“It’s alright.” The green and pink haired woman assures flicking the payment toward the bot who despite its primitive appearance manages to catch the token mid-air with deft precision and then scoot off having left the bottle.

“My thanks but wasn’t the payment a tad…”

“Why the ‘tender left you the bottle.”

“Ah.” Is the only response uttered in the moments prior to Ulio taking several savouring sips from the pink Ba’Aroch.

How he drinks the stuff Jupiter will never know. She’s tried it before. The first time it almost put her flat on her back it was so strong. After that she swore she’d never drink it again. It didn’t quite work out that way as she did partake some years later. Since then however she’s steered well clear of the stuff. Not because of its punch though but rather due to what that second indulgence resulted in; a long night where she was in no way alone or left feeling proud after.

No longer feeling his thirst needs quenching, Ulio asks, “So what is the plan?”

His statement sounds rude to his ears without the inclusion of captain at the end but the idea is that a low profile is kept. He nearly blew it. It’s the first time in weeks he’s committed such a snafu, but not the first time since they became stranded on Immirol. If you’re wondering why that is well it’s quite simple. If Ulio, or any other member of her crew for that matter, were to relentlessly address Jupiter as captain it might lead to scrutiny, questions, investigations. That is the last thing any of the crew of the now ruined sprinter cargo class vessel that had been named Rixus wants.

Draining the last of her wide glass only to immediately refill it with more of the mild alcohol, Jupiter sighs. Ulio knows his captain well enough to be sure that such an outburst means she has an idea but that it is likely risky, perhaps borderline dangerous. Paired with their location, Haranth, he is also acutely aware that whatever options there are that exist are few in number. It means that while he might not like whatever the plan is, his captain certainly doesn’t by her reaction, he’ll go along with it so long as she isn’t considering working for the gangs to buy passage to get them off…

“See that table over there…” The green haired woman with pink roots gestures toward a disc shape atop a spindly central pillar bolted to the concrete plinth that disappears into an alcove draped with soot speckled velvet cloth. The cloth is hanging from runners that clearly no longer function as they should but when they did would’ve provided the capacity for privacy, away from prying eyes.

Following the direction of her gestures Ulio soon spots the table frequented by a heavy set Qijek, bare-chested but otherwise adorned in clan armour. Ahead of him, removed from the table and stood at their full height is a single guard blocking the path to said Qijek, while at the table are a couple Tunins who look hugely uncomfortable.

“I do.”

“Think he might be our only way off this rock.” Is the succinct reply from Jupiter who downs the rest of the contents of her glass in one as if she is nervous.

If she is Ulio sees no obvious signs, bar counting the downing of the liquid, as her hands are not trembling, and nor is any other part of her body for that matter.

He thinks he recalls what she is partaking in as Dutch courage. The meaning of the term is lost on him but feels he is using it appropriately. Jupiter, if she were aware, would agree with the use of the term as she too has heard it but is equally clueless to its origin.

In fact, it would likely start her down a rabbit hole of considerations about how it is funny what things have and have not persisted during humanities long and storied history.

As a child she had considered embarking on a life of historical learning. That was until the galaxy had come crashing through her world, ripping away what in her oblivious youth she had thought could never be affected, let alone ruined.

Ideas of a child, is what she would brand them nowadays. Still, she cannot doubt that those days were some of her best. Though, that is not to say that Jupiter has not seen things that she has kept with her ever since, wondrous things. If she claimed otherwise she would be lying, doing herself a disservice, for the smuggler has seen far more of the galaxy than most life tourists likely ever will and wouldn’t trade her experiences for anything, except maybe currently for a starship.

Ultimately, the last thing Jupiter wants to be is stuck in Haranth or on Immirol in general. That just isn’t her idea of a life, just another form of prison. Space, to her, is freedom. Planets are cages without bars. The sooner she is off Immirol and back amongst the stars the better.

“What makes you say that c…?” Ulio catches himself just in time, clears his throat takes a swig as if suddenly his throat went dry but continues no further.

“Cause that Qijek has seen different people every third of a rotational axis, so is either a dealer or a trafficker.”

“He could be a slaver forcing people indebted into working in the mines.”

“I thought the mines were closed?”

“Apparently not.” Is the reply from Ulio who several seconds later looking at the face of his captain.

Her orange eyes study him, silently demanding answers as to how he knows this.

“I too have been doing some investigation; forgive me.” His head bows in that way only those born in the villages of the Crathbi are inclined to.

The Crathbi while human are an off-shoot sect who largely shuns the modern era in favour of honour, respect and over apology. Ok, the last one is what, from her experiences with Ulio, Jupiter would say is their creed, but honour and respect are very much at the forefront of Crathbi culture. Truth-be-told they are an oddity, especially amongst humans who largely have forgotten the days of numerous cultures in favour of one that is singular and all encompassing.

“Apology unnecessary…” The woman assures turning her attention back toward the alcove with the Qijek in. The Tutins are being hurried away by a new couple Qijek’s, smaller than both their boss and the real big one blocking the path to him.

The leader of the Qijek’s digging into the feast laid upon the platter with the sort of manners you might expect from a member of his species, which is to say none at all.

“…but you could be right about…”

Out of nowhere a human, leather skinned and heavily tanned, wrapped deep beneath dust stained rags, slides into Jupiter’s field of view with a beaming gap toothed smile of overly white teeth.

The smuggler captain rolls her eyes but can guess what this random stranger wants and that is…

“Can I get you a drink?” Gap tooth asks trying to act all cool, calm and collected.

“I’ve got one. Thanks.” Jupiter replies, making sure to play nice for the moment but wondering if she guy is brave or stupid. Her guess is the latter unless he wasn’t present when the whole Balrot episode unfolded earlier. It’s possible. More patrons than normal seem to have rotated in and out of the den with its yellowed overhead lighting strips that clash with the white skirting strips, too many of which are flickering at the edges of failure behind their dirt caked lenses. She just doesn’t buy that he’s one of them. He looks more like a dweller to her, the sort that once in a place like this only leaves when he’s forced to.

“No harm in getting another.” The overly eager human quickly adds paying no attention to the clear signals from Jupiter. The ones that scream she is not interested, now or ever.

“I’ve got the bottle, I’ll be fine.” Comes the assurance from the smuggler who with her other hand gestures that Ulio make no move. He’s the protective type, as much a bodyguard as he is a friend and crewmate. Not because she’s a woman but because she is his captain.

One scene is enough, two might be pushing it, she thinks. Though, if whoever owns this den is amongst the customers Jupiter hasn’t fathomed out who they are. To be honest none look like what she imagines would be a proprietor of a place like this but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t missed something, someone. Hell, he, she, they, it, could be in the back, if there is a back. Her guess is that there will be a back. Whether it’s an office like you get in cities on major worlds or just a box room that was originally some storage closet is a different matter altogether.

“Think you’re too good for me, is that it?” Gap tooth blurts his face a mass of irritation because apparently he isn’t used to receiving rejections.

“Not what I said. I’m just here to drink with a friend. I don’t want trouble. But cause it and like the last guy that came looking for some you too will be rushing off tail between your legs.” The threat delivered is in no way veiled as it sits alongside the polite refusal, Jupiter hopes, will be more than enough to keep the situation from boiling over.

“Lying bitch, you’re not here with…”

Ulio steps forward. Jupiter’s arm appears to block his way forward as he scowls at the gap toothed guy showing no respect.

At the sight of the bald Crathbi human with broad shoulders and plenty of muscle the unwanted suitor gulps, his eyes wide and darting as if he imagines he is surrounded and about to be torn to shreds by a pack of Uror, native wolf-reptiles found only on Immirol.

Speaking of Uror, that first night following the destruction of the Rixus almost saw Jupiter and her crew become dinner for the pack animals when the group stumbled into a cave hoping to use it for shelter. Thankfully Uror are blind in the face of light, so they shined some into their eyes leaving them dazed and easy to outmanoeuvre. Still, there is no doubting that they are fearless, vicious creatures in possession of wide vertical snapping jaws filled with teeth and a whip like tongue that coils round their prey.

“I want no trouble, just…”

“Leave.” Is the demand from the smuggler captain who can visibly see the gap toothed suitor trembling in his boots.

The suitor does exactly that. Not quite fleeing in a terror filled panic but clearly in a manner that suggests he fear for his health if he doesn’t withdraw with some haste.

Unlike the last fracas involving Jupiter the music has not restarted following a pause on this occasion. Rather, it seems no one was aware whatsoever of the interaction bar those involved in it. Learning that the smuggler captain without a starship breathes a sigh of relief, turns back toward the bar, cursing that she will have to maintain position until she can be sure the Qijek is not wary of her presence, and chugs on her freshly poured glasses contents.

“Not what you had in mind, I suspect.”

“Too right, but it is what it is.” Comes the response from the orange eyed woman who shrugs without looking toward Ulio.

Aware of the play they are in the midst of executing, he too makes no effort to look her way and rather keeps his eyes faced forward.

The idea here is to make it look as though they are acquaintances not colleagues, friends. Not the easiest thing for Jupiter to do after so many years but every time it’s been necessary to perform this little act Ulio seems to have no trouble at his end carrying off the ruse.

She wonders, and not for the first time, if she should take it personally, of course she shouldn’t. If Ulio had ever been inclined to betray her he would’ve done it long ago.

However, she would be lying if she didn’t admit to herself that going back to standing, bent at the waist, leaning against the bar drinking is quite a ways past boring to her now. Not surprising when you consider that she’s been in this den for hours. How many she hasn’t a clue. She only knows that it is hours. She could check but isn’t inclined to.

It’s unlikely it would draw attention if she did but regardless the decision she has reached is that the risk is not worth the meagre payout and either way would not put her any closer to her goal of getting off Immirol. Hence, that is why she focuses on other things, chiefly her drink, which she drains, pours another to replace it and drains that with very little interaction between her and Ulio who plays his part too. That is until Jupiter feels the time is right, once more.

As it just so happens the smuggler captain pushes away from the bar about the same time as the other three members of her crew arrive, greet Ulio who called them over to him.

None of them make efforts to converse with Jupiter. They too are well versed in how and when to engage and not.

Still, essentially ignoring them does leave the green and pink haired woman feeling a tad guilty. They are her family after all and deserve to be treated as such at all times, but needs must. They understand and if they hold reservations show no hint of it. That pleases the smuggler who having grabbed the largely empty bottle of Aratcha slinks across the dens open floor dotted with clusters of patrons, many of whom converse in hushed tones, toward the alcove with the Qijek.

Long before she reaches the massive Qijek guard blocking the narrow path to the table occupied by their boss the guards nostrils begin to flare angrily. A snarl appears across the massive beasts face too.

Directed at anyone else it would serve as a sufficient warning to deter their approach, but not Jupiter. She has a plan and that plan forces her to reach the Qijek in the alcove dry chewing the stale dens air as the conditioners hum noisily above their heads struggling to stop the space from becoming a wet stinking sweat box.

If there were another option available to the woman she would take it, as long as it wasn’t worse than this one. Currently she believes the only way it could be worse were if she was walking into the clutches of a gang boss. There is no way this Qijek is counted amongst one of the gangs. More likely he’s a smuggler, like her, and what is it all smugglers have? Well, usually anyway, why a ship of course!

A smirk slides across Jupiter’s face. She hopes it’ll distract, maybe soften the guardian Qijek a smidge prior to her arrival. In reality all it does is result in an intensified snarl.

From that look Jupiter gets the distinct feeling the mammoth Qijek might charge. She thinks she remembers hearing that they do that on occasion, when they are at their most aggressive. Something to do with hormones and cycles, not the most predictable either, she believes but isn’t a hundred percent sure on.

If she were she wouldn’t have brought the near empty bottle along for the ride. The one she is making excruciatingly sure she does not carry in a way that suggests it might be a weapon. Rather, it has to look as though she has indulged far too much.

An added half stumble and sideways misstep thrown in every so often should be enough to sell it, she hopes all the way until she reaches not the Qijek guard but a cluster of very close by patrons chatting in a circle.

Without warning or hesitation Jupiter butts into their conversation, writhes about a bit like you might expect of a drunken fool, even drapes herself over a number of the group, then departs and ‘bumps’ into the guard Qijek as if she was oblivious to his close proximity.

The response is a growl followed by, “Move long. You no business here.”

The broken English, a language now more commonly referred to a Universal these days, makes it clear that the guard is absolutely more muscle than brains. Jupiter thinks that should work to her advantage.

“Aw come on, don’t be like that. It’s not what you said the other night when I was about to go down…”

A sudden unexpected shove nearly sends the smuggler captain flying several metres across the room. Yet, somehow Jupiter manages to prevent such a fate. What she can’t stop is her face quickly turning red and angry in the fractions of a second prior to her blurting, “What’s your problem?”

Many of the faces in the den turn toward her and the massive Qijek, principally those closest to her.

“You need a serious attitude adjustment.” Are the next words out the human woman’s mouth and are accompanied with a pointing an index finger aimed at the Qijek guard who rumbles a loud growl in reply.

Many of the patrons shrink into their boots or back away slowly expecting this standoff to turn into a full blown altercation. And if you were to ask the patrons they would put their money on the Qijek ending up as the victor. Truthfully, Jupiter might too.

Sure she’s armed, but wow he is big she realises while craning her neck to look him in the ugly hairy pig nosed face. The one that’s littered with deep folds and deeper jagged scars which are coloured almost white against his otherwise grey epidermis.

“Bo’aran ikto herehen jissipin bal’loch.”

“Well fuck you too you massive sack of shit.” Jupiter spits back defiantly.

To be honest she didn’t get all of what the Qijek just said to her but the gist of it is that she is a spindly human whore diseased and unfit to mate with. Not the sort of insult the smuggler would ever take lying down.

And no, the anger Jupiter feels isn’t staged one bit, its real. No one speaks to her like that and gets away with it. Still, fighting does not seem like the best course of action if she wishes to get off-world intact, free and healthy.

“Beerdin alaj.” The Qijek at the table spits looking mildly amused and embarrassed by his guards’ outburst.

In reply the guard does little more than snarl again, clearly at Jupiter, then returns to their post, eyes facing forward as if the human woman with colourful never existed.

“Run along little girl before Beerdin is permitted to eat you for my entertainment.” A cackle rumbles out of the reclined fat Qijek.

Evidently unlike Beerdin, the guard, this Qijek speaks almost flawless Universal. It doesn’t surprise Jupiter but there is no doubt her chance at an audience is ruined. However, she is not giving up on her, crew included, only chance at getting off Immirol. But to have hope of getting anywhere she does the only thing she can, feigns defeat.

As soon as attention is away from her however, about a third of the way back to the bar, she double backs, spies that the fat Qijek in the alcove has a fresh set of visitors and commits once more to this adjusted plan.

Unlike previously Beerdin doesn’t see her approach until it is too late, the bottle crashing against his face sending shards cutting at his already scarred flesh.

A growl fills the air, uncontrolled rage. It’s followed by the spitting of blood, then a wiping of his face which is buried beneath more of the deep marine wet that courses through his veins.

And with that Jupiter is past him, up the step onto the plinth and greeting the fat Qijek who rather than displaying anger reveals he is impressed. That is until Beerdin bears down on Jupiter, about to be grabbed when disgusted he spits, “Beerdin defeat is your humiliation. Take it with pride and get back to your post. If anyone else gets past you I will have your imissen, is that clear?”

“Yes, Porotor.” The confirmation is given alongside a curt nod.

As Beerdin departs Jupiter makes sure to shoot him a victorious smile alongside a wink. Both of which the Qijek guard takes in the taunting manner they are meant and result in a permanent sneer across his face.

Still, he returns to serving as a blockade between the rest of the den and the alcove frequented by his superior.

The previous visitors having been dismissed, evidently with business not conclude as they begged and pleaded, Jupiter takes one of the empty seats. To be honest she hasn’t a clue if Porotor is this fat Qijek’s name or title, hence why she waits for him to begin.

“Brave human but angering a war Qijek is not wise. They have long memories and longer periods suffering from bloodthirsty aggression.”

“It’s not personal, just business.” Is the reply from Jupiter who makes sure to shrug as she delivers the lie.

Usually it wouldn’t be personal but anyone who calls her a diseased whore unfit for mating doesn’t deserve anything other than a grudge, especially as it was, at that point, largely unprovoked.

“To Beerdin and his war ilk it is personal, always and forever.”

The words strike the woman as more advice than warning, so she takes it as exactly as that; says no more on the subject, which clearly pleases the fat Qijek, seeing how he soon announces, “I am title Porotor, Vericenilius is my name and you are…?”

“Jupiter. I have no title.” The explanation might not be necessary but felt appropriate in the moment.

“You humans rarely do. I understand it little, unlike your language.”

“So I hear. You are quite adept.”

Long ago the smuggler captain learned that it’s vital to pour praise on a mark when trying to manoeuvre oneself into a position with the aim of getting a more favourable outcome than might otherwise result from bartering.

His resulting chuckle is a good sign. It’s followed by, “Buttering me up with words such as these will not aid you, so why not dispense of this dance and get down to business, shall we?”

The Porotor leans in, his gut straining against the rim of the disc shaped tabletop until it loses the battle and spills over the edge. An eager smile cut across his thinner less scar afflicted features make him barely more appealing than the mug of his lapdog Beerdin.

“Suits me.” The orange eyed woman replies before cocking her head at an angle and folding her arms across her flight suit covered chest to make it clear that she is waiting for the Porotor to speak before she is willing to further.

Vericenilius thinks the woman clever for her kind. Humans, in his experience rarely prove to be adept at more than a tiny number of things beyond being good cannon-fodder. And the only reason they are good at that is because they are so numerous.

If they were better organised, less prone to in-fighting, the Porotor thinks humanity might’ve been capable of conquering the galaxy. Alas they are not and so there is little risk of such a seismic shift in the eras before the final death.

In Qijek culture there is a belief, a universally held one, that one day all things will cease to exist and that in the time after there will be only the dark void of empty nothingness. It’s a fatalistic view, one which throughout their eras they have never strayed from since its inception. It’s also why the time prior to its inception is called The Period of Staggering Blindness.

“What is it you want? For your kind always wants for something.”

“Honestly?” Jupiter replies ignoring the insult.

“Only a human would ask such a thing as to any other species it would be obvious that honesty in this interaction is essential.”

Suppressing the urge to roll her eyes because she’d forgotten how irritating Qijek can be, Jupiter quickly replies, “I need a way off-world and I think you can offer it.”

A snort is followed by,”And what gives you that idea Jupiter?”

“For one you’re not wearing gang colours…”

“Astute and correct, I am not with the gangs of Immirol or anywhere else.” The Porotor exclaims loud and proud, interrupting the smuggler captain who soon continues.

“Two, you don’t look stupid enough to be involved in trying to restart the Orian mines.”

“Again, you are correct. Though, making such a bold proclamation was more than a tad brave.” The Qijek pauses. When next he speaks his tone is different.

“I wonder; if you had been wrong what would you have done?” A sly smile appears on Vericenilius’ face. Clearly he will not speak again without a reply and knowing that Jupiter has to admit, “I’d have had to start a brawl.”

No sooner have the words left her mouth than a forced overly sweet smile carves its way across her delicate features.

The fat alien might take it as a joke but it isn’t one, she is deadly serious. That is exactly what she would’ve done. Thankfully, she hasn’t been forced too because she called it right, the Porotor isn’t involved in the Orian mines.

On the surface she might’ve looked cool and confident during the declaration but she sure as hell didn’t feel it. Right beneath the surface all Jupiter could feel was panic, mountains of it.

As soon as the Porotor reacted the way he did however it evaporated leaving the smuggler able to breathe a mental sigh of relief.

“Ha ha. I like you Jupiter. Most humans are not so funny. You on the other hand, I think I could get along with.”

“Does that mean we can work out a deal?”

The laughing from Vericenilius stops, his face turns cold, his concentration severe, strong. He fixes his two black eyes on Jupiter, adjusts himself without thought or care for present company then pulls back his head, raises his chin and…

Jupiter already knows what’s coming. She’s met enough Qijek in her time to have seen plenty of flat out refusals, or worse, refusals followed by conditions.

Yes, it sounds contradictory and that is because it is. But, Qijek like to do things their way and it seems the Porotor is no different, which is why an agreement with a Qijek should always be seen as a last resort. The best way of describing them after all is that they are fanatical, all of them unwavering in their collective belief. It’s why they don’t understand most other species in the galaxy, especially humans.

“Sorry we can’t do business, I was hoping we could be civil.” Jupiter blurts already on the move before she is finished delivering the rehearsed line.

Her speed is something shocking to Vericenilius who has no time to react, largely because of his gut size, before the human woman is behind him with a blaster wedged into the side of his head not nearly as hard as he feels he would do if roles were reversed.

“Betrayer! You think this will do what? Change my mind! You are one, we are…”

A loud sharp whistle tears from between the smuggler captains lips, piercing painfully the ears of Vericenilius. Its primary aim is not to inflict pain but rather call her crew. Not that it was necessary to do so seeing as they had already made sure, minutes earlier, to split and position themselves in the best spots in anticipation of what might, and now has, come to pass.

The signal however is followed by the drawing of weapons, an array of armaments largely suited to securing a place of similar size, if not perhaps so confined, as this.

“That answer your question Porotor?” Jupiter mutters in his ear with a purr of victory which boils his blood and sends him into a rage.

“Beerdin, take them!” Is the bellow which leaps from the rear of the Porotor’s throat.

Alas, no sooner has he roared those words than his eyes fall upon his guard, the best in his clan enterprise. Instantly, he discovers the reality that Beerdin is otherwise disposed, unable to break from the human who has subdued him. The Porotor thinks this a grave embarrassment, as well as an affront to the might of his kind. About to blurt something to such an effect, Jupiter slams him in the side of the head hard with the sharp edge of her blaster. His vision is thrown into a blurry mess, his head spinning, he grumbles but does naught else.

“Now, you understand you’re not running the show. How about we chat, properly? This time about the options available, not as part of some deal that would benefit you and damn me.”

“I offer you nothing but death.”

“Being on this planet is death.” Is the response fired back from the human woman.

“No, on a planet you are free. But when I am done freedom will be a word you do not recall and will never again experience.”

“More threats; I don’t think so.” Again the smuggler captain smashes the sharp edge of her blaster into Vericenilius’ head. This time his skin tears leaving a gash. His lower jaw chatters angrily but he doesn’t attempt to break free.

Clearly is angry, but not so much that he’s stupid enough to risk losing half his head by being shot by Jupiter’s blaster.

Contrary to popular belief blasters don’t fire lasers. Such things are simply stories told by children, as result of their lacking knowledge and fanciful imaginations. Rather, blasters fire superheated metal bolts that are fashioned into shapes better suited for maximum penetration compared to the bullet shaped projectiles of humanities distant past.

“You will pay for this.” Is the promise spat out.

“How do you figure that?” Comes the swift counter.

As if on cue and without another word spoken, a half dozen Qijek appear sporting the same clan banner across their armour as Vericenilius and Beerdin. The Porotor begins to laugh. He thinks victory is his, signed and sealed.

“You think this means you’ve won Porotor? Far from it.”

“Ha. Stop child. You are not a killer. And you cannot best me. You are an opportunist, a thief, a gerintow, gutter rat. This planet you think a prison is freedom. You should’ve taken it when you had the chance.”

“No, space is freedom. I’ve lived in it nearly my whole life and I’m not giving that up. You keep your worlds, your cages. And before you make any assurances that you have no ship, be aware I know you do. You aren’t from Immirol. You’re a visitor stocking up before shipping out. I wasn’t sure before you gave me your name but once you did I knew you were a smuggler, like me.”

“You speak lies! You are no smuggler.” The Porotor blurts startled, alarmed. Jupiter might even go so far as to say the Qijek sounds fearful. But of what she cannot imagine. Sure she knew the name Porotor Vericenilius but they have never met, interacted, bartered against one another for contracts.

“Then what am I?” Try as she might Jupiter cannot escape her curiosity, her will to learn what she does not know at present.

“A fool!” Vericenilius begins to move. Jupiter knew long before she put this version of a plan into motion that if this happened she would have little way of stopping the fat Qijek, so she doesn’t try. The same cannot be said for Ulio who fires a debilitating stun barb into the Porotor’s shoulder. The impact is followed by a convulsing shock that sends the alien back into his chair. The item of furniture groans noisily against the sudden weight thrust back into it but holds.

During that opening Jupiter takes moves into a commanding position that sees her hold a finger over the end of the stun barb where a surge button resides. Said button is capable of delivering several additional bursts of nervous system disabling electric shocks. Still, she reminds the Porotor that she is armed by driving the muzzle of her blaster into his mouth.

It’s a risky manoeuvre but the smuggler doubts that Qijek can chew through metal; it seems almost as ludicrous to her as blasters firing lasers. Still, she admits that it’s a risk.

“Final warning, stop delaying.”

It hasn’t escaped Jupiter’s notice that the Qijek numbers have doubled, putting her and her crew at a distinct disadvantage.

“Ha. You are outnumbered; no matter what you lose.” Is the garbled reply from the Porotor as he speaks with the barrel in his mouth.

“Really willing to lose your life to win?”

“I’m a Porotor, it’s in my nature.” Is the slurred reply he delivers, confidently.

“You mean you’re just as much a brainwashed pawn as the rest of your species.”

“Fuck you human, you know little more than a babe, Qijek will see the end, finality. It is our destiny.”

There is a breath, a pause. During it you would, under different circumstances, expect it to be filled with further words. No such thing transpires. Rather inward breathes are taken, mainly by the other patrons. Few of those present will be innocent and fewer still will be decent, but doubtful any ever expected a stand-off in their local den in Haranth quite like this one.

Vericenilius smiles, “Your move, Jupiter.”

The smuggler captain without a starship nods to the members of her crew, who return the gesture in kind. Then she speaks, “Why thank you.” Her smile is far wider and more wicked than the Qijek Porotor’s, and it only grows when she fishes something out a pocket in her brown flight suit and holds in before Vericenilius’ eyes.

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