By Vicky Morgan-Keith
There was little room in the cramped confines of the cabin for Mrrowl to move about–let alone stretch. They’d locked him in here at gunpoint once the ship was secured after the failed attack. Mrrowl winced slightly as he flexed and twisted his side, then nodded in satisfaction. One would think the shot had done little more than singe his fur, but he knew better. He’d felt the blast, and he’d seen the blood spread across his xenon mesh vest. But now, just a few hours later, the injury was all but healed. He flicked his ears in amazement. The little female. She’d healed him. Healed him with no more than a touch!
The big Shrinaar’s brow furrowed in thought. He’d heard of such things years ago, before the Neiran had captured and enslaved him. While growing up on the GDF outpost on Orizon 2, his father had told him stories while home from patrols. Legends of strange Shrinaar who were living conduits for the power of the stars and knew hidden mysteries of the universe. Cub tales, his mother had always grumbled, but Mrrowl had never tired of listening to his father speak about the Sa’uk vo’ats, sky river elders, of the various Shrinaar tribes.
There was Ya’lar of the Taum’o’nan tribe, an esteemed oracle, who used his powers of precognition to save not only his own tribe from a massive earthquake, but several nearby tribes as well. Shar’na’lo, Healer of All Tribes, left the clan of her birth to wander her world, tending to any sick or injured she encountered. So great was her healing power it was said, that Shar’na’lo’s own body rejuvenated itself, causing her to live many centuries beyond a normal lifespan. But the mighty warrior Chur’wor was Mrrowl’s favorite. Skilled in the use of weaponry as well as formidable cosmic forces, Chur’wor protected his tribe for many years. His battle prowess was nothing short of legendary.
Now few tribes even had a Sa’uk vo’at. Mrrowl shook his head, the guard hairs of his neck prickling. He thought he might have met one when he was still a slave. Before Norg found him and took him in. Before his friend died and Mrrowl had fallen in with Spar’s gang.
Mrrowl’s ears went back, his lips drawing back in a silent snarl as he reflected on the events that had trapped him in servitude to Spar. Working for the Alanti had proved worse than his early days as a gladiator enslaved to the Neiran. At least in the arena those he had slain had possessed weapons of their own and could fight back! Spar possessed no such sense of fairness, preying almost exclusively on the unarmed or helpless. Regret and shame caused an angry roar to well up in Mrrowl’s throat, but the cabin door suddenly whisked open, and he swallowed it.
The female Alanti stood in the doorway, flanked on her left by an uneasy Illyrian wearing a dark brown leather duster coat. The beautiful little Shrinaar who had both shot and healed him stood quietly on her right.
“I’m Paz Valador,” the Alanti informed him, taking a step into the room. “captain of the Mako’s Run.” Her right hand rested lightly on her holstered pistol while she gestured to the Illyrian with the other. “This is my first mate, Sparg.”
The Illyrian gave Mrrowl a wary nod, which he returned. The little fellow held his weapon out and ready, although not pointed directly Mrrowl’s way.
“…and this is Shre’ka,” Captain Paz continued, with a nod to the Shrinaar healer hovering uncertainly in the doorway.
Mrrowl pricked his ears forward and gave Shre’ka a slow blink, a friendly gesture. She merely stared at him out of her great blue-green eyes and said nothing. I could get lost in those eyes, he thought. Tearing his gaze from hers with an effort, he looked at Paz. “I’m called Mrrowl,” he offered.
“What did your gang want with me, Mrrowl?” the captain asked, her voice terse.
Mrrowl blinked in surprise. “What?”
Paz scowled. “Don’t be coy!” She snapped. “I asked you a question! Your pyswan boss said to take the female and kill any others! Why was your gang after me?”
“But!–Spar wasn’t after you,” Mrrowl protested, sliding a glance to Paz’s right.
Both Paz and Sparg followed Mrrowl’s gaze.
“Shre’ka!?!” the Illyrian squeaked in astonishment.
Paz, too, was dumbfounded, but she managed to hide it. “Why?” she inquired sharply. “What could he possibly have wanted with Shre’ka?”
“I don’t know,” Mrrowl growled. “Spar and I weren’t particularly close. I just know when he told us what the job was, I decided not to remain part of his gang any longer. He crossed a line!” The big Shrinaar’s lips skimmed back from his teeth in a silent snarl. “I’ve been a slave; I wasn’t going to help Spar enslave someone else!”
“Like hell!” Paz retorted in disbelief, drawing her pistol. “You almost took my head off with that axe of yours!”
Mrrowl drew himself up, casting Paz a baleful glare while his face rumpled into a disquieting grin. “If I’d wanted to take your head off, guppy-girl, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“He speaks truth,” came a quiet voice.
All eyes flashed to Shre’ka. Paz considered her a long moment, then asked “You’re sure?”
“Really sure?” Paz reiterated, with a dubious look and gesture toward Mrrowl. “I mean, he’s a really big guy!”
Shre’ka nodded again.
Paz frowned as she considered the little Shrinaar. Shre’ka hadn’t been with them long, but she had certainly exhibited abilities Paz found…unsettling. They were too akin to the powers of the Alanti pysci for her liking. Paz had never felt at ease around members of that subrace of her people. Their appearance and the forces they wielded struck her as somehow unnatural. She didn’t know how Shre’ka knew the things she knew, but so far the little Shrinaar had always been correct, and Paz had begun to trust her counsel.
She let go a long breath. “All right then,” she said, reluctantly holstering her weapon. “He stays for now. Let’s let our guest get some rest.” She waved Sparg and Shre’ka out, then followed, pausing by the door controls.
Mrrowl made no move to follow. Or to lie down. “What’s going to happen to me?” he asked. “You going to drop me off somewhere?”
“Not sure,” Paz replied, “By any chance, would you be interested in a security job?”
Mrrowl’s ears came up in spite of himself. “Maybe. What’s it pay?”
Paz felt disdain sweep across her face. “Merc, huh? Money all that’s important to you?”
Mrrowl said nothing, but Paz could see the muscles of his jaw clench. He glared at her, and she glared right back, refusing to look away. “You know who hired your boss? Who his contact was?”
A shake of the head.
“What were your ports of call since your previous job? Can you at least tell me that?”
Mrrowl’s ears flattened. He snarled suspiciously. “You want me to confess to something so you can turn me in to the authorities for a reward!”
“Hey! You intruded on MY ship, remember?” Paz pointed out harshly. “Who’s got more cause not to trust the other?”
Mrrowl’s ears sank. He rumbled a gusty sigh. “You do, I suppose,” he conceded. He sat silent several moments. Paz thought he was going to refuse to answer, but finally he continued. “We’d been by a trading outpost on Kaskar II, Danev Station, and the Bazaar on Osshk.”
“Your ship’s name?”
“The Last Chance.”
Paz made a few quick notations on her techpad. “All right, here’s how this is going to work,” she told him. “You’re going to stay locked in here while I check this out. Then we’ll see.”
“We’ll see what?”
“We’ll see about you taking on that security job.” The Alanti gave him a wry smile. “As you probably noticed, we could use a little muscle on this ship. So behave yourself, get some rest, and try not to tear things up in here. If everything works out, these might be your new quarters.”
Amused by Mrrowl’s astonished expression, Paz walked out, but not without securing the door behind her, of course.