Reese pressed a hand against her forehead, fighting anger and worry. Once she had her breath back, she rose and squirmed past the crates, growling an imprecation at them that might have wilted their corners had they had ears. She strode to the lift, down to the lower deck and out the ramp to the starbase’s floor.
Three figures labored at the back of the Earthrise. The vessel’s systems had been engineered to Alliance specs, something that not only included her computers but also her cargo holds. The Earthrise had five cat-12 spindles: long cylindrical strength members twelve inches in diameter that could support Type-A and Type-B sized cargo bins. Each spindle could hold twelve, for a total of sixty bins, though the Earthrise rarely ran to capacity.
“What’s up, Boss?” Sascha asked, grinning. Unlike his twin sister, he did not wear socks on his tail or his feet.
Reese grabbed a bin and tossed it on the belt. “We have to pack it up and shove off immediately. We’ve been given a task.”
“Ooh!” Irine said, yellow eyes widening. “A contract? Finally?”
“Did I say a contract?” Reese said gruffly. “I said ‘a task.’ ”
“She means we’re not getting paid for it,” Sascha said.
“Yeah, what’s the deal, Reese?” Irine asked, folding her striped arms over her chest.
“Work now,” Reese said. She grunted as she pushed another bin onto the belt. “We don’t have much time to get this done, especially if we don’t want these things to rot before we can get them to a useful port.”
“Like anything’ll rot with the temperatures you keep the ship at,” Irine said, rolling her eyes and padding, feline-silent, to the next bin.
The last of the rooderberry bins rolled up to the collar, spun into position, and sped down the spindle to the retaining clamp. Another clamp followed it, and Reese pressed the pad that levered the belt back into the cargo bay. Twenty bins hung neatly off the spindles in the echoing emptiness. Had Reese had the wherewithal, she would have seen the other forty spaces filled with exotic spices and fabrics and novelty items that would have returned her poor enterprise to some semblance of profitability…but because she’d managed to become indebted (almost literally) to a stranger whose name she didn’t even know, she was honor-bound to go chasing a wayward alien across two sectors. And then post his bail!
Reese sighed, rubbed her stomach, decided not to ponder her probable ulcers. “Meeting in fifteen. Get moving, people.”
“We’re doing what?” Irine exclaimed, striped hands twitching on the mess hall table.
Reese leaned back against her chair, letting her silence speak for her. As she expected, Bryer, the Phoenix, had nothing to say; the giant birdlike creature rested against the front of the chair, straddling it so as to give the full length of his metallic plumage unrestricted space.
The round ball of fluff on the table between the Phoenix and the Glaseahn only ruffled part of its neural fur, turning from ivory to rosy peach in places.
Irine, in her socks and little else, was pouting. “So what… we have to ride in like champions and rescue some random spy? For nothing?”
“Not for nothing,” Reese said. “In return for the money that this person gave me to save me from bankruptcy before you people came aboard.”
“Who is this person, anyway?” Sascha asked.
“Which one?” Reese asked. “The spy or the one with the money?”
“Both,” Sascha said.
Reese smothered a small grin. “The spy’s an Eldritch.”
That came from so many places at once she couldn’t tell which of them said it first. Kis’eh’t got the first words after: “I hear they can start fires with their minds.”
“And read your thoughts,” Irine said.
Kis’eh’t said, “And sense your feelings. They always know when you’re lying.”
“That’s the last thing we need,” Irine said.
“I hear they bathe in honey,” Sascha said.
Reese stared at him. So did everyone else with eyes—even Bryer. The tigraine shrugged and said, “Something to do with keeping their skin white.”
“Honey won’t bleach skin,” Kis’eh’t said. “Moisturize it, maybe. But bleach? Not unless Eldritch honey is actually some other substance entirely…”
“What do I know about Eldritch honey?” Sascha said. “They’re supposedly all rich, too. And they’re all princes or princesses. And they all require servants, because none of them know how to take care of themselves.”
“Is this guy in for a slap from the universe!” Irine said, shaking her head.
“He’s in jail,” Reese said dryly. “I think the slap’s already been delivered.”
“This is troublesome,” Kis’eh’t said. “An Eldritch… this being may have specialized needs, Reese. No one knows what they eat, what their normal medical profile is like, how to treat one that’s sick… no one even knows how properly to address them or what social or cultural mores they hold to. How are we supposed to save one of these creatures and make him comfortable?”
“I’m not sure,” Reese admitted. “And since the packet I received wasn’t exactly forthcoming with any of that kind of material, I’m not sure we’ll be expected to do this perfect.” She pushed her data tablet to the center of the table with its gleaming pale picture of their charge. “That’s him. Hirianthial Sarel Jisiensire.”
“Say again?” Sascha said.
Reese repeated it.
Kis’eh’t shook her head. “We’ll let you address him,” she said ruefully.
“At least he’s handsome for a human,” Irine said.
“He’s not human,” Reese said. “He’s Eldritch. And don’t forget it, if you don’t want him snooping around the inside of your brain. Anyway, there’s only one thing I think we can take for certainty… you’re not supposed to touch an Eldritch. So if all possible, let’s try to keep bodily contact to a minimum.”
“Awww,” Irine said.
Sascha, studying the picture, said, “Angels, boss, I have to agree with her.”
“Yeah, well, if you want to come on to him, be my guest,” Reese said. “Just don’t expect me to put your furry behinds back together if it turns out he can blow things up by looking at them funny. And if we break him, I think our benefactor’s going to be very grumpy.”
“Speaking of, who’s the person with the money?” Sascha asked.
“I don’t know,” Reese said. “I’ve never seen her face.”
“Her face?” That was Irine.
Reese shrugged. “Just a guess.”
“A trap?” Bryer said into the following silence.
“I don’t know why she’d bother,” Reese said. “Obviously the woman is bleeding rich. If she’d really wanted to sell me, you and the rest of us into slavery, she could have just hired someone to do it long before now.”
“I wonder who she is,” Kis’eh’t murmured. “Who would know an Eldritch? One who left his world? It’s most peculiar.”
“For all I know she’s the Faerie Queen of Eldritches and he’s her errant prince,” Reese said with exasperation. “Wondering about the assignment is pointless. I owe this person a debt and I’m going to pay it. Since I own this ship and I hired you, you’re all coming along. If you don’t like it, I can give you your severance pay in rooderberries.”
The silence was refreshing.
“Now,” Reese continued, “If you twins would be kind enough to set a course for Inu-Case, I would be much obliged.”
The two Harat-Shar, still grumbling, rose and left the mess hall.
“We’ll have to hope we can sell them to whatever poor sots live there, then,” Reese said with a sigh. She stood. “I know it’s crazy.”
“Honor is the best form of craziness.” Bryer said.
Reese eyed him. “This is not about honor. This is just good sense. If someone loans you money, you pay them back.”
Bryer canted his head. Of all her crew, he struck her as the most alien. Even Allacazam, with its lack of eyes, mouth or even any obvious personality, seemed less threatening than Bryer with his whiteless eyes and narrow pupils. They made the Phoenix look wild, even though he rarely made a sudden move. “About more than money.”
“You’re right,” Reese said. “Now it’s about flying all over the galaxy posting people’s bail.”
Again, that steady stare. This time Reese ignored it and picked up Allacazam, watching its colors—his colors, she’d never been able to think of him as an it no matter what the u-banks said—flow to a muted lilac. “You’ll want to man your respective stations. We’ll be casting off in ten minutes.”
Kis’eh’t rose, stretching her hind legs and wings, then padded past her. Bryer followed. Reese watched them go, then dropped back into her chair with a sigh and cuddled the Flitzbe. She pet the soft neural fibers.
“I wish I was as sure about this as I have to seem to be,” she said.
She heard a rising chime, felt a wash of muted lilac, Allacazam’s way of asking a question. She’d never questioned how they managed to communicate; few people in the Alliance truly understood the Flitzbe, and those who did weren’t exactly writing How-To communication guides for people like Reese. All she knew was that from the moment Allacazam had rolled into her life, things had felt easier. Not necessarily been easier, but at least felt that way.
“Of course I have to seem confident,” she said to him. “But still… an Eldritch? Slavers? I’m just a trader, not a hero. I don’t want anything to do with something this dangerous.”
The Flitzbe assembled an image of her dressed in plate mail with a shining sword. Reese laughed shakily. “Right. That’s not my cup of tea. Speaking of which… I could certainly use something for my stomach. And then to go check on the fuzzies to make sure they haven’t secretly diverted someplace more pleasant.”
The smell of sour yogurt tickled her nostrils and she hugged the Flitzbe. “No, I don’t honestly think that badly of them. It’s just that this is hard enough without having to explain it to them, too.” She sighed, ruffling the top of his fur. “Hopefully it’ll be quick and simple and we can drop him off somewhere and that will be the end of that.”
She knew better. From the flash of maroon that washed over Allacazam’s body, so did he.