Ushen-Takaan had never been afraid.
Well, that wasn’t precisely true. He had been afraid plenty of times in his life. When he had been a child he had been afraid that monsters would gobble up his feet in the night if he didn’t wear socks. He had been afraid when he got stuck up a tree.
Ushen-Takaan got nervous too, and thought he might have had a real panic attack once or twice — his forbidding father had that affect. But he had only felt true fear twice in his life. Once, when his mother didn’t come home in two weeks like she usually did when she went on one of her trips, and the second time when his father had told him, a month later, that she probably wouldn’t be coming back at all.
Since then, though, Ushen-Takaan’s life had been absent of terror and so when he felt a chill work its way up his spine he attributed it to the weather and trembled for the cold and not for any hypothetical lurking in the dark.
It was a quiet night on the island of Cualli, which is what you might expect from a place with only a single town. The town, if you could call it that, was a line of old shops ascending from the pier and surrounded by a tropical forest.
At the bottom of the hill was a sign battered with age and sea wind. ‘Welcome to Cualli!’ it said in chipped paint. There were a few houses scattered about the island, isolated dwellings on narrow, beaten dirt roads. There were no lights from any of their windows. The people were all asleep in their sleepy island town.
The Rej-Jir were not precisely the type of species who would at first glance be capable of garnering a description like ‘sleepy’, but that was really only the word for it. Some people lived quiet, contented lives indifferent to personal mythologies.
Even though their culture and creed demanded constant drive, the truth was that culture and species alone could not alone define an individual, and there were more than a few Rej-Jir who could not resist the allure of a peaceful island beach.
Ushen-Takaan was not a local himself. He was a Zurxok, and one unfamiliar to the Mayane Archipelago, besides. This fact didn’t bother him. Relations between the Zurxok and the Rej-Jir had been affectionate from their inception millennia ago, and given the overall lack of crime on the Rej-Jir home world of Naxetektonaktl, Ushen-Takaan saw no reason not to wander the empty street, alone, at night.
The cobblestone street underneath his boots was smooth and very flat, bordered by closed shops with hand-painted signs. Inside their glass windows were empty pastry cases, displays of outdated fashions and handcrafted toys. There were also bookstores, or, more accurately, scroll stores. Through their windows, he could see high shelves stacked with long reams of parchment rolled around fine wooden cylinders. There was even an actual Rej-Jir apothecary, too, how novel in the modern day!
At the bottom of the road was a humble seacar station to take him back across the sea to Rayucan. From there, the next step in his itinerary was to get back to the mainland, get his ship out of storage, through customs and back home.
Maybe en-route he could snatch a few hours of sleep. Life in the military had been difficult, and spiritually unfulfilling, but Ushen-Takaan found being a freelance spacer had its own challenges. Without a consistent schedule, it was difficult to maintain a corresponding circadian rhythm. He was always a little bit tired.
He could see his reflection in the shops he passed. He was a tall Zurxok, broad-shouldered, clad in dark cloak and hood, nondescript apart from the box he carried. It was tucked safely underneath his arm, lacquered and hand painted with flowers. Lovely, of course, but its contents were more interesting.
The antiquarian from whom he picked up the parcel was a Rej-Jir so old her skin color had faded to lilac, eyes milky from the weight of centuries. Somehow, she had struck him as being beautiful. It was uncommon to see the physical evidence of old age when the technology for approximating endless youth was so common and accessible.
“May I ask one question? From whom did you originally receive this?” Ushen-Takaan had asked her, politely, as she took her time wrapping up his parcel.
The old Rej-Jir’s voice was measured, a soft and serious thing. “It was one of your Illusionist’s who handed it off to me. She found it in their archives, some forgotten trophy lying underneath a heap of junk I imagine. Who put it there, I know not, she would not say and I do not think even she knew.”
“Why did she give it to you?”
The Rej-Jir, Xoltenan, slid the box over the counter to him.
“I am old. Obviously,” She said wryly. “I’ve been…a collector, for longer than you could imagine.” She gestured around her. “I’m a relic-keeper, and I trade these relics for other artefacts of similar worth. The Illusionists have not often done business with me, so of course, when offered the opportunity to make a trade, I accepted. The Illusionist asked for a fetish in exchange for the sword, and I trade this sword with you in kind — although in your case, I trade for wealth only.” She gave a rather sinister chuckle then, displaying mandibles which had lost their teeth.
Ushen-Takaan pondered that exchange as he continued his descent. Older Rej-Jir tended to do that — speak as if on the verge of free verse or in odd statements. Then again, even young Rej-Jir tended to make peculiar statements, non-sequiturs and the like. He supposed it was because the Rej-Jir possessed unusual powers of the mind and could convey much with a mere touch or glance. The Zurxok were barred from these hidden channels of communication and this shaped their social interactions in a more practical manner.
Or, he thought, perhaps this was all pointless conjecture and Xoltenan was just a crazy old lady, Rej-Jir or no.
Ushen-Takaan reached the bottom of Cualli’s main street, stepping through the stone arch of the station. Inside, the lanterns burned brighter, although there was not much to see. There was not another soul around, the ticketing office was closed, and the only sound was the gentle slap of water on a docked ferry’s hull.
The ferry had pink barnacles growing all over it, and words written in Xixika, the most common Rej-Jir language, painted in red on its side. Ushen-Takaan peered at the characters. ‘Marvellous Maltaceth’s Cruises!’ He examined the dingy ferry critically. It looked anything but marvellous.
Ushen-Takaan looked around in annoyance. He had arranged for Captain Xalathycal to fetch him at this time, sharp, where was she? He wrapped his cloak around himself and secured the box more firmly underneath his arm. He would probably be less cross if he had thought to buy a snack earlier, but he had eaten a filling lunch and figured he could endure the rest of the day. Clearly, he couldn’t, and his stomach rumbled.
With no choice but to wait, Ushen-Takaan paced the stained concrete of the station, becoming increasingly aware of the relative silence and the prickling feeling at the back of his neck. There was a particularly strong gust of wind which set the light fixture above his head swinging. The changing shadows warped the architecture into shapes and forms which disturbed Ushen-Takaan for no reason at all.
The itch between his shoulder blades had returned with a vengeance. Could the Spy have followed him? It was always possible. Then again, he’d never felt this kind of…unease.
By the stars, was he really such a coward? He had always thought of himself as being brave. Why did he feel so vulnerable just because he was alone at a ferry depot?
Minutes passed in which Ushen-Takaan tapped the small pistol tucked within its holster, his fingers impatient and let his eyes dart around. He sensed danger, no question about it, or at least felt as if he were being watched. He wondered what to do.
Ushen-Takaan was a trained military operative and certain he could hold his own in a fair fight. Then again, simple cynicism told him that if a fight did erupt, it probably wouldn’t be fair.
Where was that blasted captain? What in hell was she doing, taking a nap? He considered his options as the long minutes ticked by. Should he return to Xoltenan’s shop? There was a Rej-Jir cabal stationed on Cualli. Maybe they would help him get back to Rayucan, and while they were at it, arrest the idiot captain for unprofessionalism.
Ushen-Takaan was spared further decision making by the sounds of movement around him. It was a slithering, wet sound, the sound of something heavy being dragged raw across mud and grass and concrete. Ushen-Takaan dropped the box, pulling the pistol out of his belt with a practiced movement.
Now his mind was calm.
This was combat, and he was retreating to that special place in his mind reserved for situations just like this one. He placed his feet apart, both hands on the handle of the gun, strong arms steady, breath even.
The light fixture above him shattered suddenly, spraying glass over the floor but he did not flinch. The other sources of illumination in the station sputtered and died in a cascade of shattering glass, but Ushen-Takaan still did not flinch.
Letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, he shifted around so that his back was to the water. From where would his foes originate? Perhaps the roof — his eyes fluttered there for a moment.
More likely they were skulking around just on the other side of the archway in his blind spot. It would be quite easy for them to poke their head out and get the perfect shot, but Ushen-Takaan knew all about the perfect shot and he was not going to let them have it. He sidestepped to the right and then pulled the trigger.
A bolt of plasma soared from the pistol and splashed, sizzled, on the stones of the archway. A warning shot. The scorch mark it left behind was shaped like a crescent moon.
The serpent sounds ceased and the other few lights remaining in the station buzzed back on. Ushen-Takaan narrowed his eyes. Maybe it was some stupid neighbourhood kids playing a prank. He imagined they were playing with the electronics and had been surprised when the person they intended to scare pulled out a gun and almost blasted their buddy’s head off. Should he go check?
That would be just perfect. Ushen-Takaan’s stomach lurched horribly at the thought of killing an innocent, let alone a kid. The lights go out and he starts shooting up a small-town ferry building? He was as crazy as his father! Ushen-Takaan gave himself a mental shake and lowered the gun.
He made to step forward, intending to walk outside and ensure he hadn’t murdered anyone, when behind him the world erupted with a tremendous roar, sending him stumbling forward two paces. Something heavy and cruel slammed him in the small of his back and he fell onto the concrete, splitting his lip and breaking his nose.
The gun slid out of his hand. Woozily, he turned to face his attacker. Ushen-Takaan’s eyes widened, taking in the enormous shape, before the darkness closed in on him and he was gone.