‘Nice rock, Ace. Loverboy did good. Maybe a little too pretentious for me, but that’s me.’ Freya has been blinking blearily at the tiny four-diamond cluster on my ring finger.
‘Meow,’ I purr. I am way too happy for anything to kill my vibe.
‘What can I say? Now all you need to do is find a different male.’ Freya smiles. ‘Seriously I don’t know how you can put up with him. I can’t believe you want to be partnered to Captain Knots.’
I sigh. We have had this conversation over and over. Nathan and I grew up together and have only been engaged for a month. Even I admit Nathan can be a bit uptight but he is a good guy. Unfortunately, my best friend and future partner did not hit it off. It probably had something to do with her asking him to quit being a kiss-arse and him calling her a skank. Things have gone downhill from there.
All our recent conversations end this way. Getting partnered is no longer as easy as it used to be to get married in the old world. Health check-ups, genetic counselling, psychiatric evaluations and innumerable permissions from the powers that be. All in the interest of producing the healthiest offspring. I guess Freya just doesn’t want me to make a mistake.
She is in a good mood today. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she topped the final rank lists and starts Grav training next week. It has always been Freya’s dream to be a space medic. And I have been granted entry into the Cybernetic Bioengineering Training as I have always wanted. Hence, the celebration to end all celebrations.
On the last count, this is our fourth shot of quaz, an odorless tasteless alcoholic drink from fermented seaweed. It may contain enough alcohol to knock out a Tarfilian, but it sure feels great going down. Speaking of Tarfs, there is a bunch of them playing a game of cubes a couple of tables down. Very popular as bodyguards and hired muscle, they are enormous, hairless, grey-skinned humanoid beings with ears like mini trumpets. Their sense of smell is supposed to be so well-developed that they can track a target from miles away. Most adults are over seven feet. They’ve been openly eyeing us with their eerie lidless topaz eyes, and it’s making me a bit uneasy. I surreptitiously smell my armpit and arrange the used quaz shot glasses in neat islands of four, my nervous tell.
Did I tell you about my OCD tendencies? Not a germophobe but I do like everything arranged in neat groups of four. The symmetry of it is…. soothing. I tend to involuntarily lapse when I am nervous or anxious.
Jo’s is the local watering hole and as safe as it gets in Sector 27 or Leviathan, as we affectionately to call it. A successful drinking and dining establishment run by a Yeri ex-pirate, Khěpshal , who secretly reminds me of Hellboy but is a big ol teddy bear, Jo’s is well known for its fine liquor and exciting company. The décor is reminiscent of an Irish pub of the old days with slightly rundown furniture and an excellent bartender. The long polished wooden bar and barstools add to the atmosphere, with seating areas scattered in the shadowy corners and alcoves. A rusty old bronze plaque with ‘Sláinte’ inscribed on it hangs lopsided on the rough concrete and metal wall. Faint music plays in the background.
We discovered Jo’s through a very happy coincidence. During the early days, Freya and I found we liked each other’s company and decided to look for a shared apartment. We were house-hunting, and from the outside, Jo’s looks like a run-down building on the verge of being condemned. Caught in a dust storm, we tried the door and found our beloved hangout for the next five years. Those of us who are in the know also benefit from the moonshine and bootlegged booze. Jo stands for Josephine, his beautiful human wife.
Usually, one capable bartender mans the till unless it is a public holiday. A Telirian couple are holding each other, doing a slow spin. The species, as a whole, seem enamoured of earthen customs and music. With them, it’s hard to tell if they are males or females. Though they are human-sized, that’s where the similarities end. Head filaments that resemble antennae, a face full of all sharp angles, and bodies that look skeletal when compared to humans. There are so many species that now call earth home; it’s hard to keep track. The numbers slowly increased since the second wave as earth slowly is turning into a marketplace of sorts. It is a pit-stop for some of the more powerful species who have agreements with the Circle and have been allocated entire sectors for classified purposes. However, Sector 27 is still the hotbed of commerce, legal or otherwise. Crime is rampant especially in the peripheral ghettos of Leviathan where our internal security forces tend to turn a blind eye. I remember a time when my Gramps used to stare when we passed aliens on the street. Don’t get me wrong; he was just fascinated. His generation saw the occasional extraterrestrial dignitary; we went to training school with many of them.
A wolf-whistle interrupts my thoughts. Freya is really on a roll tonight.
‘Look at that one…I’d do him.’ She whispers in a sotto voce. Not that it matters. Most extraterrestrials have an extremely well-developed sense of hearing.
‘Free, stop it.’ I growl, just a tiny bit embarrassed, even though should be used to her shenanigans by now. ‘You don’t even know if his equipment is compatible. Or even if it is a he.’
She gave me the look. THE look…a little unfocused, but still a warning.
The ‘don’t lecture me, mother’ is implied.
‘One of these days, you’ll find yourself in hot water and…All I’m saying is watch your six, Free.’ I offer cautiously. This is a recorded message that I’ve replayed a thousand times. You can never predict what will come out of her mouth when she is drunk.
Her eyes shine as a dopey grin spreads across her face ‘Hey, that’s why I have you. My sister from another mother.’ A fleeting sadness crosses her face before she reaches for my hand.
‘Your sister would have ratted you out to your mother.’ I answer, taking her hand. We are both aware that our paths will soon diverge when we start specialized training.
‘As sisters should’ She daintily burps into the back of her hand and continues ‘Sometimes, I think you were born in the wrong era. Live a little, Ace. You aren’t partnered yet and once Nathan gets his hooks into you, he is going to go puppet-master on you.’
‘That’s not going to happen. Why do you hate Nathan….’I try for the millionth time to have it out.
‘Well, there’s a blue-eyed dude staring holes into you. Hey, that rhymes.’ She changes the subject abruptly as she downs another shot. Freya can be very stubborn if she has made her mind up about something. She also does not engage in deep heart to heart conversations unless she initiates it. ‘Why am I a magnet for the losers?’
‘That is a barefaced lie, and you know it. Micah was nice. As was T’miren.’ I really liked her last boyfriend. And the one before. But she is too ‘bodacious’ to settle-quote and unquote.
‘A-a-a-a-and, we’re leaving…’ I try to spot the bartender. He’d been flirting with Freya all evening, but where is he when you need him?
‘Ace, you’re so pretty. I wish I had your hair. It smells like coconut.’ Freya is either a very happy drunk or a sad one. You never one which one you are going to get.
‘Free, stop pawing my hair!’ I try to keep her in her seat as Re’dthio, the Drumeian bartender, returns with his four arms loaded with crates of supplies.
‘What? I’m just checking if it tastes like coconut.’ replies Freya, tugging at my hair.
‘You’re drunk. We’re leaving,’ I say, finally, finally catching the bartender’s eye. He scans the biochip embedded in my wrist for the Zinns owed with a knowing smile, his eyes on Freya. Earth once had different currencies for each country but that has since migrated to the universal digital currency for ease of transaction anywhere in the known universe.
‘All done. See you tomorrow?’ he smiles flashing a mouthful of tiny sharp teeth, all four muscular arms on the bar.
‘You bet, sweetheart,’ sings my brain-dead buddy, batting her impossibly long eyelashes.
‘You look like you could use a hand,’ says the smoothest, most resonant voice in clear Lyonettian, the preferred language among the upper crust. Intense luminous eyes in a light shade of brown and gold look down at me. That’s Me, not Freya. Freya always gets hit on. Cerulean blue eyes and a body like a goddess. Shining tresses of the purest gold. What’s not to like? And I make a pretty good wingman: brown hair and brown eyes. A decent figure, but even she will admit my bum’s too big.
He is unusually tall for a human and leanly built. A face which borders pretty, but I suspect anyone calling him that wouldn’t try it again from the expression in his eyes. High cheekbones flank a straight patrician nose and full lips draw back to reveal even teeth. A face that tells me he comes from wealth because everyone has scars in this world. If he has any, they are hidden beneath his expensive clothes or he has the Zinns to have them removed.
‘Makhyë̃ raNaath. If you lovely ladies are not in a hurry, may I buy you a round of quaz?’ he says, as he folds his seven-foot-something delicious body onto the barstool. Bringing me back from my wool-gathering.
‘We were just about to lea…..’ I reply in Empyraen, the common language among working-class humans. It has evolved from multiple earthen languages, predominantly English and Chinese. Lyonettian speakers always get my hackles up though I speak it fluently. Freya’s sharp heel presses into my shoe-covered toe in a not-so-subtle hint. ‘But one more cannot hurt, I guess’
His grin widens to reveal a dazzling smile.
‘Wo-ow, what sharp teeth you have.’ It’s out before I can stop it. I sound like Little Red.
A dimple cuts into his right cheek.
Be still, my heart. I’m engaged, not blind!
‘Hi, I am Arwen. May I call you Mak? Your name is a mouthful’ I ask.
His brows draw together in a frown.
‘It is unusual to shorten one’s name.’
‘But I guess it should be alright if it’s the custom here.’ He sounds doubtful
I’m usually very good with accents, but his has me stumped. Maybe this is not a good idea.
‘Mak, it was really kind of you to offer, but we were on our way…’I try again.
‘You’re not from around here, are ya?’ interrupts Freya. She’s finally managed to peel her jaw from the floor but is back in business at the speed of light. She is on the hunt. Mentally, I shake my head. Here we go again.
‘No, I’m here on business. We just came in for a drink. ’Mak answers smoothly.
He leans in, and I can smell lemon and spice. It is an expensive fragrance. Citrus of any kind is. In fact, he reminds me of a lemon drop. I love hard candy. Well, candy in general. Hence the bum.
‘We?’ Freya enquires.