Chapter 10: Party of Five

 

The entrance interview at the portal station went smoothly enough, for someone loaded with enough weapons to furnish a small squad. Much to Jekh’s amusement, the only moment in which the officer showed some resistance was when they mentioned being in Harmony for professional purposes, although the USIC’s paperwork settled that after some examination. Guess their biggest worry is that outsiders will steal their jobs, not that we’ll kill them, the eblian mused as they put away their passport, on the way out of the border control booths and into the reception area.

Jekh paused for a moment to take in the crowd, both of arrivals and of those waiting for them. A small group of fleshy, bloated creatures gathered around one of their own kind, in a long, silent embrace. Insect-like humanoids exchanged curt greetings before hurrying on. A young man with shriveled gray skin tried in vain to shake a hulking scaled creature’s claw. Humans, of course, of several different colors, accounted for a large portion of the people, perhaps most; still, this was by far the most diverse crowd the eblian had ever seen in person.

“You Jekh?” a squeaky voice asked. The mercenary looked around, but failed to find its source. “Jekh Telok?” it insisted. Looking down, they saw a small monkey, decked in tactical leather, holding a sign with that butchered version of their name.

“Almost right,” they said. “My full name’s… ah, nevermind. Call me Jekh. And you are…?”

“Kemut. I’m the crew’s infiltration specialist. And, uh, a sen-ji, if that’s what you’re wondering. Local species.” The monkey extended a hand, grinning.

“I was, actually. Glad to meet you, and to get to know your people.” Jekh shook the small hand. “So… how’s it gonna be?” they continued, after a moment of awkward silence.

“Right!” Kemut crumpled up the sign and dashed to the nearest litter bin. “I’ve got a cab waiting outside and a hotel reservation for you. Anything you need to take care of before meeting the folks?”

“Nah, I’m good to go. Just gonna check in and drop my luggage.” They flicked Kemut’s shoulder pad. “I see you’re geared up, so maybe I’ll do that as well.”

“Good, good.” The sen-ji walked toward the promenade with a bouncing gait. “We’re on a tight schedule here, probably rolling out tonight… sorry for the short notice.”

“I’m ready. Got some good sleep… dunno, little enough ago. Hard to tell with that fixed sun.”

Kemut bared her large teeth in a wide grin. “Austolus, right? Man, that place sounds like a handful.” She motioned to a waiting two-horse cab as the pair reached the street. “But hey, at least there’s no gate-lag to worry about, right? Since it might as well be Harmony time there anyway.”

“They keep time with some city back in the human homeworld, but I get your point.” Jekh heaved his bags up to the cab’s baggage compartment when it pulled up. “Any hour of the day is as good for sleeping as any other.”

“That’s true, but then again, that’s just as true anywhere else, if you’re determined enough!” Kemut leapt up into the cab, perched herself up on the far end of the leather seat, and motioned for Jekh to follow her.

“Hah! Good joke!” Jekh crashed into his side of the seat, making the cab bounce a little bit. The driver closed their door and moved to the driver’s seat in front of the cabin. “And not just a joke, a truth as well! You’re a smart guy.”

“Girl,” Kemut said. She tugged at the short fur on the sides of her face. “See? No white whiskers. No white tuft at the tip of my tail either.” She pulled her tail forward and wagged it a little for emphasis. “So you can tell the next time you meet a sen-ji. Got it?”

The cab started rolling forward, as its horses trotted across the asphalt. “Hey, thanks,” Jekh said. “Sorry for the misidentification.”

“No biggie, alright?  I can tell you’re not familiar with my folk. Oh, and just in case… the human in our crew is male, and the kyrrztli, uh, the insectoid in case you don’t know that, is female. And the other one is… well, a shaugmar.”

“I’m familiar with the kyrrztli race. Gotta know my work opportunities. But thanks for the intel, that always helps for us.” They looked out the window as the cab clambered on through the busy streets. The evening sky was overcast, waiting to unleash what looked like a long night of rain. Buildings covered with bright signs in all colors of the rainbow passed by, trimmed by a steady flow of pedestrians on their sidewalks, hurrying home with their heads down and their hands in their pockets.

“Nope, nothing special going on today,” Kemut piped up. “That’s what you’re wondering, right? What’s with all this movement, this much past business hours? It’s always crazy here, that’s what.”

Jekh nodded gravely, still looking out the window. The image of New Eugeron’s unmoving sun came suddenly to their mind. The cool weather in this place spoke to the presence of a more conventional day-night cycle, but somehow, they still felt trapped in an eternal day.

The pair made a brief stop at a well-appointed (though cramped) hotel, where Jekh dropped their luggage on the bed, quickly donned their plate armor (custom-fitted and much more comfortable than that stupid uniformed armor provided by that Austolan company, they couldn’t help remarking) and strapped on their weapons. They and Kemut left at once and, before long, found themselves standing before a rustic-looking house nestled between two commercial galleries. Cacceri’s – Fine Pyranian eating, the sign above the door said.

“We’ve got a reservation here,” Kemut explained. “Briefing dinner. I went ahead and picked the restaurant, since I’ve been in town for a while. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Jekh said, as they entered the place. “I’ve had much worse briefings.”

The place strove to maintain a traditional West Muranian ambiance, with its exposed brickwork, fake oil lamps (with permalights inside, of course), paintings featuring pastoral scenes, and aged acacia furniture. A waiter in stereotypical Pyranian garb – patterned dark-red robe wrapped around her right shoulder, cotton undershirt, faux leather sandals – directed the duo toward a round table in the corner, after being given Kemut’s name. Two of the five places were already occupied by what appeared to be a human-sized, upright-walking grasshopper wearing a sleek and vaguely military-looking suit, and a red-haired, light-skinned man in an old leather overcoat, faded jeans and chain-link armor.

“Hey there, folks!” Kemut deftly climbed up one of the two high chairs set by the table. “Jekh, here’s Kilykki and Rajaat, our crewmates.” She nodded toward the kyrrztli and the human in sequence. “Crew, meet Jekh.”

“Glad to make your acquaintance.” Jekh shook hands with the two. “I’ll be your muscle, I guess. What are you guys up to?”

“Psionics”, Kilykki said curtly. “Ample combat experrience using psychic peewers to handle any seert of threat”.

“We’ve started on the entrees, if you guys don’t mind.” Rajaat waved at the small pile of flatbread on the table, one of which with several pieces torn off already. A few small bowls of spiced paste flanked the bread. “Try the chickpea dip, it’s awesome. Oh, you mean our specialty? I’m a channeler with the Red Sunrise. I run psychic interference as well, more focused on tactical support though.”

“They got paranto too? Oh, here it is!” The sen-ji climbed on the edge of the table in order to reach the flatbread at its center, tore a piece off, and dipped it into the honeyed pimento paste. “Love this stuff.”

“Red Sunrise?” Jekh turned toward the human with an intrigued look, as they settled onto their seat. “Don’t know that company. So it’s under contract, then?”

“Nah, just me,” said the human. He stuffed a piece of bread covered in chickpea paste into his mouth. “And it’s not a company at all, man. Hmm,” he swallowed. “We’re a collective of independent agents joined by a common philosophy of psyche-jamming, each of us doing our own thing in independent pursuit of a higher goal, which is disrupting the decaying paradigm our transplanetary society has calcified into and planting the seeds of a new one, based entirely on decentralized cognition. Total mental revolution, my friend.”

Jekh sneered. “Sorry, dude, but you’re not making any sense at all to me.”

“Deen’t bother,” the kyrrztli said. She used a spoon to pour some ground-meat paste on top of a previously-used piece of bread. “It’s Reshepan neensense. They’re tee drrunk on keeperativist thinking.” She brought the bread up to her mouth and shoveled the meat in with her flexible mandibles.

“You sure you don’t want any of it?” Kemut pressed some bread with paranto into Jekh’s hand. “Try this, you’ll be glad you did.”

“Alright, alright!” The eblian bit into the snack, chewed, and made a grimace. “Eugh,” they said, with their tongue sticking out. “What do you have here that could improve this crap? Is this salt? Damn, it’s gonna be a rough dinner.”

“I’m used to this kind of rigid-minded resistance,” Rajaat said with a smile. “I’m not worried about it. Each mind has its own revolution when it’s ready for it.”

“You okay?” Kemut tapped Jekh’s shoulder, ignoring the political talk. “Don’t worry, we’ll find something you’ll like here.”

“I really doubt it.” They struggled to eat some plain bread. “It’s still gonna be human food.”

A thin, aging man with light-brown skin and a green robe approached the table. “Is everything going well so far?”

“This stuff’s great, man!” Rajaat lifted up the cup with chickpea paste.

“Waiting feer the last perrson to place our eerders,” Kilykki said.

“I hate the food, but I wasn’t expecting any different, so…” Jekh shrugged.

The host’s eyes widened with a mix of concern and offense. “Why? Is there something wrong with the entrees?”

“Well, it all tastes like crap to me, but that’s par for the course for your kind of food, so it’s not really a surprise,” Jekh said with a matter-of-fact tone. “I suppose I could put some dirt on it, see if that could improve it, but your dirt is probably garbage, so there’s not much I can do here except soldier on and swallow this stuff if I don’t wanna starve.”

The poor man just stared in disbelief, mouthing some half-formed objections, while the rest of the table sat in stunned silence. “What? It’s true!” Jekh protested.

“Pardon my colleague’s extremely unfortunate choice of words,” a tinny voice coming from the restaurant’s entrance said. It was attached to a diminutive humanoid with a large, bald head, big oval eyes with a uniform dark-blue color, three dark-blue dots on their forehead, and glittering purple skin with the look and texture of powdered crystal. They were clad in a discreetly brocaded gray robe. “My name’s Varkanis Shadowknife, and I’m the fifth in this dinner party. In any event, what my fellow actually meant is that native Asheran species, including both eblians like them and shaugmars like me, have rather specific dietary requirements. We require significant amounts of minerals, such as silica and calcite, in our diet, in order to maintain our mineralized flesh. Any food that’s lacking in such ingredients, which of course includes the entirety of human cuisine, will taste terribly bland and unappealing to our specialized taste buds, no matter how exquisite it is to species physically adapted to the fare, such as our other colleagues here.” They waved at the other three diners, who nodded enthusiastically. The host seemed relieved. “Therefore,” the newcomer continued, “with the proper nutritional supplements, I’m certain we could partake of this house’s delicacies with pleasure, and learn the joys of Pyranian cuisine in ways that would otherwise be closed off to our physiology. My friend’s… ill-advised suggestion of including dirt might actually work toward that end, if not for the fact that raw, untreated dirt from any place – our own homeland included – may be contaminated with harmful substances that make it unsafe for consumption. Fortunately, I have some Asheran food additives here that should do the trick.” They produced a couple bags from inside their robe. “If you wish, I could provide you with some recipes that could be offered as alternatives for Asheran customers in the future, in order to prevent such displeasures.” The shaugmar offered a wide smile to go with the speech.

“Thank you so much for the clarification!” the restaurant’s host gushed, with a smile and a handshake. “I… I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.  Please, don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything, or if we could help you two in any way.”

“It’s fine,” Varkanis nodded. “Don’t worry about it. These supplements should tide us over nicely this evening. We’ll discuss those recipes later, alright?”

“It’s a deal!” The man seemed genuinely happy. “I’ll let you folks go over the menu, and will send a waiter shortly to get your main course orders. Uh… allow me.” He pulled the remaining high chair back so that the shaugmar could climb on it.

“Thank you very much,” the shaugmar said. “We’ll let you know.”

“Wow!” Rajaat said, once the host seemed out of earsight. “You really saved our bacon here! I thought we were gonna get kicked out of this joint, thanks to Big-Mouth over there.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it,” Jekh said. “You said exactly the same thing I did, only with a lot more words. What’s the goddamn difference?”

Varkanis smiled wickedly, as they opened the menu and lazily eyed the options. “The difference, my friend, is that unlike your people, us shaugmars know how to talk to non-Asherans. You’d best keep that in mind and let me do any talking from now on.” They closed the menu and tossed it aside, disinterested. “By the way, as you might have already guessed, I’m your pointman, which means I’m in charge of this sorry little exercise. No need for introductions, I’ve been over your files. Let’s get our dinner orders over with already so we can move on to the main course, shall we?”

“But isn’t the main course what we’re going to order in the first place?” Jekh asked.

Kemut let out a squeaky laugh. “They mean the mission plan, silly!”

“Wouldn’t hurt to just say what you mean,” Jekh grumbled, trying to find something worth trying in the menu.

Further chapters coming soon…