J’qiqe P’char’trph’al sidled through the tavern, doing his best to not brush up against anything – or anyone. He’d never dreamed that he’d be forced to set foot in a place like this, a place so disreputable, a place filled with such… undesirables.
Even shrinking down his tall frame, however, drawing in the slender limbs of his exoskeleton, he knew that he attracted attention. After all, he was a P’tchar, and they held a definitive place in the social strata. Even these bottom feeders, these commoners, these mercenaries, understood the high status that he carried on his ornately engraved shoulder pauldrons.
Given the choice, J’qiqe would never have come here.
But he no longer had any other options, and he knew it. Tension settled on his mind like an ever-present weight, like standing in the gravity well of a massive gas giant.
He stepped up to the bar, managing to squeeze himself in between the burly shape of a Troon and a smaller, fur-covered humanoid that J’qiqe didn’t recognize. The Troon’s green skin glistened in the dim light of the bar, with thick bristles of hair protruding out here and there, and J’qiqe shuddered as he tried to avert his eyes.
The P’tchar had a mantra for dealing with other species, lesser species, lower species. True standing means standing high in the eyes of all. Even these lower species respected the P’tchar because of the standing that they commanded, and they earned that standing through their actions and treatment of other races.
Distasteful as it might prove. And he, after all, had no other choice but to be here.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the bartender sidled down to J’qiqe. “Well, well, well,” he rasped, drawing out the words. “A P’tchar, is it? Do I need to bow, your highness?”
Thankfully, J’qiqe’s translator unit was top of the line, and he understood the sarcasm. “I intend no disrespect,” he stated, choosing his words automatically as he relied on many solar cycles of training. “I am here to seek a particular companion, one that I have never met – although heard much talk of. Perhaps you can help?”
The bartender’s compound eyes shifted, but J’qiqe understood this part of gathering information. Slipping his smallhand into one of the pouches about his waist, he drew out a flexible plastic chit, placing it on the bar. Although appearing opaquely white on the surface, the chit glittered from the complex electronic circuits contained inside.
“And I am more than happy to recompense you for such information,” he added, as politely as he could manage.
The bartender’s eyes twitched as the many lenses focused on that chit. It was an interesting question, in a universe populated by such a wealth of resources and so many different species, what might be used for currency. Some species attempted to stick to ridiculously backwater standards of gold or other precious metals, but those standards inevitably failed. How could one regulate gold as a currency, when all it took was one Hexamel-tech star converter to turn out a nearly unlimited supply?
The answer, of course, proved to be surprisingly simple. True AI might be banned across the stars, but all races depended upon powerful computers to guide their ships, to run the mind-bogglingly complex equations to determine value of various goods, to connect to the Stellar Network. Those computers required processors, chips to perform billions of logical flips per second.
Those computer chips, their nano-architecture all but impossible to create for all except the most advanced species, became the perfect unit of currency.
J’qiqe made sure that, when he set the chit down on the counter, the serial number faced the bartender. It wasn’t the newest model, certainly not as up-to-date as the chips in his own ship’s computer, but still quite recent. That single chit was likely worth enough to buy this entire bar.
“Who’re you looking for?” the bartender asked, his eyes not leaving the chit.
J’qiqe chose his words carefully as he answered. “A mercenary,” he said. “The best one.” And then he did the hardest thing for any sentient to do, especially when collapsing under a mountain of stress, weighing down his thoughts like iron.
For a long time, the bartender just looked at him. J’qiqe had never truly mastered the art of reading faces with compound eyes; he’d trained on watching pupils, which the bartender simply didn’t possess. But he waited, fighting back desperately against the fear that crept higher and higher in his sternum.
And then, finally, he won the battle. The bartender, perhaps realizing that he couldn’t keep his other customers waiting, lifted one of his four thick limbs to point down the bar, towards the back corner.
“Over there,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. The shrug had, perhaps, become the most widely spread and universally understood action in the galaxy. “She’s the one playing some game, with the clank.”
A female? J’qiqe admitted that it made some sense. In many species, the females proved dominant, larger and more bloodthirsty than their counterparts. He nodded and moved away, leaving the chit behind him on the counter. It vanished in an instant as the bartender snatched it up.
He headed deeper into the bar, casting his eyes over the tables. He passed another couple of Troons, laughing as they grunted back and forth and sloshed drink into their mouths and down their massively muscled chests. More of those short, furry humanoids; they resembled a pest species from J’qiqe’s own planet, although he tried to suppress that thought. They chattered in high-pitched tones as they leapt about animatedly.
And then, at the back of the bar, he spotted her.
His first impression was surprise, consternation. The bartender must have been lying, making some sort of joke that his translating unit didn’t catch! The two mismatched individuals peering down at a board of carved pieces looked like the least intimidating patrons of the bar, by far.
He focused on the female, first. Human, he knew. Relatively recent arrivals to the galactic stage, but they spread quickly, driven by their curiosity, natural trading ability, and adaptability. They were strangely willing to risk themselves in dangerous environments, trusting cobbled-together suits and technology to protect their fragile bodies. Although this led to a high rate of mortality, they also secured many dangerous jobs where other species balked, and sometimes even managed to earn decent coin.
But the mercenary he’d come to hire, the one on which he’d pinned all his hopes… was human? J’qiqe felt despair rising in his thorax, but tried to fight it down. Focus on the details.
She was young, he deduced, recalling his limited experience with human biology. He’d traded with them before, and they accumulated lines on their soft skin as they aged. This one had to be quite young, barely out of adolescence, judging from her lack of lines. Her rubbery, expressive face was set in a frown of concentration as she peered down at the board in front of her.
And opposite from her… J’qiqe’s lung flaps fluttered in surprise. “A clank,” the bartender had said. J’qiqe assumed that he meant some sort of gaming automaton. But this one looked far more advanced, a massive, towering six-limbed beast of metal. A cyborg of some sort? A rogue AI, even? Surely not – the other patrons would have torn it apart were that the case. It had to be some sort of programmed companion, perhaps a minder or nanny for the young human.
As he watched, trying to make sense of this, the young human reached out. With delicately soft fingers, she lifted a piece from its square on the board and advanced it two steps, placing it down. “Check,” she announced.
J’qiqe recognized the game. Chess, an ancient human simulation of combat. The rules were arcane, but the overall strategy was fairly simple. Computers solved every outcome within weeks of learning the rules.
Surely, the young human – girl, he remembered, that was the proper term – wasn’t playing against an AI companion. Not at a game like chess, where she’d stand no chance of winning. He took one more step forward, clicking his limbs to announce his presence.
She had to have realized he was there, but she just held up one finger, not even turning her flat face towards him. “A moment,” she said brightly. “I want to see how the Turk responds.”
The Turk? Her robot companion? J’qiqe didn’t have time for this. “Please,” he said. “Are you the mercenary I sought to hire? Please, I need your help.”
“Yes,” the girl replied, her eyes still not moving over to him. “I know. Very interesting. Pull up a seat and wait.”
Inside of him, J’qiqe felt anger suddenly blossom. She tried to put him off? He, a P’tchar, who’d reached out expressly to her? Why, he could crush her without a second thought-
The clank – Turk, she’d called it – reached out and picked up a piece, moving it forward to block the advance of its opponent on the board. “Mate in three,” it said in a monotone.
The girl, surprisingly, laughed. “Sure, but you’ve been saying that for eight moves now,” she said, flashing small teeth.
“Perhaps if you obeyed the rules-”
“But where would the fun be in that?” The girl laughed again, a soft tinkle, and then turned suddenly to J’qiqe. “So,” she said, and waited.
It was his cue. “I am J’qiqe P’char’trph’al, and I come to you in desperate times,” J’qiqe began. “I seek to hire you for-”
“Yes, I know.” She looked at him, small bright eyes taking in his tall and slender figure. “A P’tchar. Interesting. Pull up a seat, Jack, and let’s talk.”
J’qiqe decided to let the butchering of his name slip by. He needed her, plain and simple. He took a chair and sat down next to the young human and her metal companion, praying that they’d be able to help him, and began to talk.