Cassie frowned at the P’tchar, watching him move with such prissy, fussy little movements. She’d never actually met one of the renowned traders in real life, but the purple-tinged black exoskeleton, the long and slender limbs, couldn’t belong to any other species.
A praying mantis, she thought as she watched him carefully seat himself at her table. That’s what he resembled. A purple-and-black praying mantis, with large, worried eyes, on the verge of breaking down over some internal source of stress.
But he had money, and he wanted to hire her. So she was willing to listen.
“I seek to hire you,” J’qiqe began. Unpronounceable name, of course. All the P’tchar had them. Cassie mentally labeled him as ‘Jack’ in her head from this point forward. “There is a mission of utmost importance, one that might mean the difference between life and death for not just me, but my entire clan. And you may be the only one who can help.”
He waited, his big eyes focused on Cassie. She found it a little unnerving, how the eyes seemed to come together to focus on her from opposite sides of his head, but she didn’t let it show. She remembered the mantra that her mother taught to her.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You are the rock around which the universe flows. Be steadfast.
Across from her, the Turk kept its full attention on the game, still in progress, but Cassie knew that it was listening keenly as well. It was probably already calling up its archives on the P’tchar, now that Cassie had made the confirmed identification, playing back all of its log files to bring itself up to date-
“The problem,” Jack was now saying, “is of a rather delicate nature, to be oblique. It is, perhaps, not the best topic to discuss in such a public location.” It looked about at the other members of the bar, withdrawing its long and slender limbs in even further against its skinny armored body. “Could we perhaps talk somewhere else?”
Cassie could invite the P’tchar back to her ship, but she felt no inclination – yet – to do so. After all, this might still be some trap. She’d fallen for those in the past, and they’d cost her dearly. She wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“Right here is fine,” she said blandly. Be the rock around which the universe flows.
Jack hesitated for several seconds longer, almost long enough for Cassie to open her mouth. But doing so would lose her position of power in the negotiation so far, and so she held back her all-too-human impatience.
The move paid off. “Very well,” Jack said finally, his entire body slumping even further. “The problem regards an apparatus, of sorts, that belongs to my clan.” He grimaced, clicking his mandibles audibly together in frustration. “Belonged to my clan, at least, until it was stolen.”
He leaned forward, his smallhands dropping to the pouches at his waist as his largehands grasped the table, claws tightening and flexing. “And I need your help to get it back.”
Cassie’s instincts told her that the P’tchar was telling the truth. This felt like too much of a stretch to be some sort of trap. But what sort of device would require the services of her, a murky figure who took great care to keep her past quiet, to retrieve?
“What sort of apparatus?” she asked casually.
“It does not matter,” Jack answered immediately, clacking his mandibles again. “What matters is the question of retrieval, and how quickly it can be completed.”
Cassie didn’t consider this an acceptable answer, but she put a pin in the issue, planning to circle back later. “Who took it?”
“I am uncertain. Evidence suggests a heavily armed and very dangerous force.”
The P’tchar winced a little. “The slaughter of my clan.”
Even with what little she knew, Cassie grimaced in sympathy along with him. She knew that the P’tchar operated in clans, using a long line of relations to establish trading networks that spanned the entire galaxy. The loss of an entire clan essentially left a P’tchar homeless, marooned, with no connections to provide trading opportunities and income.
J’qiqe was, essentially, destined to die in poverty.
Although not yet, she amended that thought a second later, as the P’tchar’s smallhands came out of his pouches, bearing a dozen more chits. He held them out to Cassie, almost pleadingly.
“My resources are not as vast as they once were, and will diminish more by the day,” he confessed. “But they are yours, if you can aid me. Avenge my clan. Help me to recover the apparatus. I will give whatever you ask.” He paused, the little chitinous covers over his book lungs fluttering with soft clacking noises as they banged against other parts of his exoskeleton.
“My whole family,” he said softly. “All of them, cut down like mites at a slaughter. Such incredible violence.”
He was alien, totally different from her. Cassie knew that, were their pasts compared side by side, their experiences, there would be almost no overlap. How could one empathize with another that was so alien, so different?
But she felt that empathy slice into her, keen as the knife she carried at her belt.
Her eyes moved to the Turk, still sitting motionless. “Evaluation?” she asked.
“Not enough information to draw a conclusion.”
Cassie guessed as much. The Turk couldn’t guess at everything, and she had very little to go on. She would be a blind beggar, feeling her way about in the darkness. Jack would offer what help he could, but one look at the withdrawn, half-shrunken insectoid alien told him that he’d be of little use in many situations, even less in a battle. The chits in his hands told her that he had considerable funds still at his disposal, despite what he said, but she wasn’t in dire need of money.
But that blade of empathy twisted in her stomach, and she knew that she had only one answer that she could give.
“If I accept, you’ll need to tell me everything,” she pointed out.
The P’tchar nodded, although his eyes shifted away. “I’m sure that we can make an agreeable arrangement.”
It was an evasive answer, and Cassie saw a glint in the Turk’s eyes. He’d caught it, too. But it still didn’t stop her.
“Then you’ve got yourself a mercenary,” she replied, holding out her small hand. “And as soon as you tell me what you’re holding back, we’ll get started.”