I was down on my luck yet again when I decided to sign on with a realspace freighter contracted to deliver unstable goods from one end of the Farseer Imperium to the other. It’s lonely, thankless work. About five hundred days of flight from one star to the other with nothing but your crew for company.
It’s enough to make anyone go crazy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I had spent six months drifting back and forth among the orbital stations around Migo III, burning through my credit and my reputation in equal measure, before they both finally ran out on the same night in Dox’s bar.
The bar was one of those industrial types — functional, not fashionable. Because it serviced drifters like me, it came with an identity crisis that couldn’t decide between giving you a reason to keep going and giving you an excuse to forget it all. Most of its clientele were transient types, coming in off of the sector warp station or else heading out of the planet spaceport. They stopped by, grabbed a bite to eat or a stiff comfort before continuing on their way to who-knows-where. As a result, the owner tended to keep a short tether on people’s tabs, making them pay between orders. But he had seen me enough times, and knew I was good for my word, that over the months he had loosened up around me.
See, I wasn’t always a vagabond. Wasn’t always a drifter either, but that’s a different story.
Up until about a year ago, I had a steady job. And between then and now, I haven’t gone too long without a spot of day-labor. But the docks had hit a dry spell, much as they had back home when I was growing up, and as a result my source of inconsistent income had vanished.
I was able to make my meagre earnings last for about three and a half months. And then I was able to scrape by for a couple of months after that on the goodwill of the stations’ inhabitants.
But that night, goodwill was running low.
As I ordered my third drink for the night, Dox informed me that my tab had gotten high enough, and it was time that I paid for some of it. I assumed he was just in a foul mood because it was the end of the month and rent was due, or he was having trouble with the local licensing authorities, or something of that nature, so I waved his insistence off as I chugged back the mug of tar.
Dox knocked the mug out of my hands with one of his arms, spilling half of the contents over the polished steel of the bar.
“Did you hear what I said?”
I stared up at him through half-lidded eyes and nodded.
“I let you hang around here a long time. I know you were good chums with a bunch of the old boys from around here, but most of them’re gone now. So I can’t count on them to pay your bill, and neither can you.”
He leaned over the bar, coming within six inches of my face.
Now, Dox is of a species that isn’t usually conducive to public relations, but is perfectly suited for running a no-nonsense establishment on one of the meaner ends of the galaxy. He’s large, grimy, and has enough arms and legs that he could lift you over the head, while punching you in the face, and dancing a polka at the same time.
Obviously, not someone you want to mess with.
Obviously, someone you want to steer clear of as much as possible.
Obviously, I tried. And fell over the back of my stool.
How I managed to avoid cracking my skull against the deckplating is beyond me, but I didn’t, so I unfortunately retained consciousness.
By this point, Dox was practically climbing over the bar to jab a finger in my face, and looked as though he were about to accuse me of all manner of wrongdoings involving interspecies relations between myself and his cat — which would be like impregnating his daughter, from what I know of the old Western tropes.
Before he managed to reach my throat with any of those powerful arms of his, someone else stood up to the bar and dropped a card on the counter.
“How much does he owe?” said the stranger.
Dox and I both turned to stare, although I turned mostly so I could wriggle my way to my feet. I wasn’t about to make a run for it, not in my condition, but I liked staring my saviors in the eyes, rather than up their legs.
Said savior wasn’t the prettiest Jesus I’d ever seen, but I decided he’d do, considering the state I was in.
A dull, orange beak dominated the majority of the stranger’s face, marking him as one of the hundreds of sentient avian species from around the galaxy. Tender-looking pink skin gave the impression that the rest of his face had been peeled back from his head, almost like a hood, leaving only the muscles exposed. Tiny, deep-set black eyes twitched from me to Dox in quick succession, sizing us both up, though I couldn’t determine if it would affect his decision to help me at all.
Obviously, inebriated as I was, I didn’t have a chance of identifying his species, though I wracked my head in an effort to do so.
“Well?” said the avian. “How much?”
Dox gave a number, and even I was surprised at how far he’d let me go.
“Are you gonna tell me you’re good for it?” said Dox, narrowing his four eyes into slits.
My avian savior tapped his card on the counter and then held it out for Dox to inspect. “You should find enough funds in that account to cover what he owes you. Go ahead and process the order.”
Dox gingerly accepted the card in one of his hands and began busying himself with the order while still eying the stranger as often as he could. Clearly, he didn’t think the man’s money would be as good as his word.
In the meantime, however, the avian was doing a remarkable job of not-giving-a-shit about Dox’s opinion, turning instead toward me and offering a hand. Or would that be a wing?
In any case, I declined to shake. Not because I was intentionally trying to be rude, I’m just not big on physical contact with strangers, even when they’re clearly trying to help. I’ve been pulled into too many fights that way.
Besides, I needed both hands on the bar to keep myself steady.
“Name’s Guhle,” he said, lowering the hand back to his side. “Looks like you got yourself into a bit of a spot.”
“Looks to me like I’m the one who got you out of it.”
I nodded again, slower this time. I didn’t like where this was going.
Guhle sighed and crossed his arms across his chest. “Alright, look, I’ll get straight to the point, since you’re playing Mr. Friendly over there.”
But Guhle never had a chance to get to his point. Because at that moment Dox returned, interrupting whatever Guhle had planned to say next. Apparently everything had checked out, because Dox handed the avian back his card with a muttered “Thank you very much,” before turning back to look at me.
I didn’t even have a chance to react. Between my inebriation and Dox’s own innate speed, things happened way too fast for me to even have much of a memory of it. But I know what happened.
After handing the card back to Guhle, Dox surged up over the bar, lifted me up off of my feet, and punched me in the gut before chucking me across the room.
I landed hard on my side, choking on my own lack of oxygen. The alcohol in my system didn’t help either.
“He’s yours now, stranger,” I heard Dox say. “Get him out of here, and make sure he doesn’t come back.”
A moment later, I felt someone at my side and opened my eyes to find two sturdy boots on the deckplating before me. Guhle didn’t lean over or offer to help me up or anything. He just stood above me for a moment before asking if I needed any help.
In response, I rolled onto my hands and knees and threw up before collapsing in my own bile.