Shane Kelworth sighed as he sat down on a rickety stool at the bar, his limbs restless and jumpy from the artificial gravity of the station. He rubbed his legs absently, feeling trapped already, even though they had just boarded half a cycle ago after more than two solar weeks’ journey through the local star system.
A hunk of stone and metal and glass haphazardly wrapped around several gravity generators, orbiting Kellar, an oblong asteroid circling a weak blue star whose name Shane had already forgotten. He used to have a great memory, but lately he no longer had the energy for holding such details, the demands of his business taking precedence over everything else in his mind. Grimacing to himself, Shane waved at the bartender, his thirst for a drink even stronger now.
Bright, almond-shaped violet eyes peered down at him from a blue face circled with small pink follicles around dark navy lips. The follicles waved a bit in the air as the Harteen spoke.
“What will it be, stranger?” the Harteen asked in perfect Common. He was tall even for a Harteen, his brown jumpsuit tight against a tall lithe body and long blue arms and legs. The collar about his neck was green, indicating he was not yet bonded.
Interesting, thought Shane as he pretended to think about his drink choices, staring at the being in the corner of his eye while he picked at a stain on the fake wooden countertop. By all appearances, this young Harteen appeared to be their latest mark, if Aldora’s intel from their hacked outernet crawls was any indication. Still, Shane could see the man was on the clock, and he wasn’t one to start business in the middle of someone’s work day, so said business would have to wait. Besides, Shane did want that drink after all, and he knew Harteens took their work seriously regardless of what family caste they grew up in. He finally raised his eyes to the Harteen’s own, and nodded, gesturing vaguely with a hand at the lower shelf of bottles behind him.
“Gral’nak,” he said.
He saw the Harteen startle a bit at that, the almond eyes widening; most humans couldn’t handle the sharp, hot bitterness of the Harteen’s signature liquor, made and bottled only on Harteenal.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard a human request gral’nak,” the Harteen said. He stared at Shane with what could have been wonder.
Shane smiled up at him.
“Might be the last, too,” he replied.
“Let’s have it, then,” he said.
The Harteen shrugged and took out a glass and a clear blue bottle from beneath the counter and set it down in front of him. Shane watched as the Harteen nimbly unscrewed the bottle cap with his three fingers and thumb, each finger ending in a round knob. He poured a thin amber liquid into the glass, filling it almost to the brim, turning up the bottle with a flourish so as to not spill a drop. Closing the bottle tightly, he pushed the full glass towards Shane, who took it with a nod and raised his glass.
The Harteen startled again at the words of the traditional toast in his native tongue, and the thin navy lips turned upwards in a smile, pink follicles waving.
“Honor be to yours,” he replied in Teenali with a nod, and Shane tipped the glass back, swallowing the gral’nak in one gulp. His body long used to the sharp burn, Shane managed not to choke as he swallowed, reveling as the warmth of the liquor flowed down his throat and settled in his stomach in a warm haze. He was always cold traveling in space, no matter how high he turned up the heat on the ship, and the spicy heat of gral’nak—somewhat like cinnamon, cloves and pepper with the burn of a strong whiskey—was a comfort on stops during his journey.
Too bad it’s so expensive, Shane mused, though even if he could have afforded a bottle, gral’nak didn’t keep well on ships anyway. Something about hyperspace affecting the chemical composition of the more subtle spices.
Shane watched as the bartender’s almond-shaped violet eyes blinked once at him, the grey sclera of the being’s eyes making his purple irises seem to glow under the dim lighting of the bar. If not for his extensive familiarity with Harteens, Shane figured he may have found the taller man’s gaze unnerving.
“How is it, Sir?” the Harteen asked him in the formal form of Teenali, a gesture of respect between a servant class and a customer of the merchant class. It was a holdover from the ancient feudal period of Harteenal’s eons-long history, now practiced off-planet by Harteen and those who bothered memorizing enough Harteen formalities to do business with them. Shane was one such person.
“Spicy and hot, like it always is,” he replied in the same formal tone, not bothering to hide his satisfaction, and gestured towards the bottle beneath the counter.
“One good drink deserves another, Friend,” he said, using the title of respect a merchant would use towards a servant who had fulfilled a request, and the Harteen nodded obediently, taking Shane’s glass and refilling it before handing it back to him. Shane nodded his thanks and sipped his second drink slower, enjoying the taste and the way it muddled his thoughts just enough for him to relax.
“Most humans do not share your fondness for our traditional drink,” said the bartender in a subdued tone of curiosity, busying himself by polishing some more glasses, still in formal tone but with just a hint of openness that indicated a wish for more conversation.
The vast majority of Harteen never opened up to strangers outside their species, or even their own family caste, and yet this chatty, unbonded Harteen bartender was talking to a human like he did so every day. Maybe he did, Shane had no idea. Ormec Five wasn’t exactly a small station, but it wasn’t like an Inner Planets lunar mall, either. Still, it was unusual, and once again, Shane considered that the Harteen man before him was indeed their mark.
“I’m not ‘most humans,’ Friend,” he replied easily, sipping his drink before placing it down on the countertop and smiling up at the man. Harteenal seemed so far away now from his early days as an Inner Planets Council diplomat, and he welcomed the chance for friendly conversation with its people, even if their formalities proved tiresome at times.
The Harteen turned his head to the side quizzically, his topknot and follicles waving in abject confusion.
“Ah, it’s an old Earth saying,” said Shane, ducking his head to show his embarrassment at the gaffe of a merchant’s unclear order to a servant. “It means, ‘share the gossip.’ Share what’s new, here, what’s newsworthy. I haven’t been to this sector in two solar weeks, and I think it’s been three or four years since I’ve stepped foot on Ormec Five. Pretty sure this bar wasn’t even here, back then.”
“Ah. It was not, Sir, as far as I know,” the Harteen replied. “I started this position one year ago, after leaving Harteenal. I got my bartending trade license just before I left home.”
He gestured a thin arm about the dingy bar, populated by various species nursing a drink and ignoring—or alternately, adding to—their various life troubles.
“It is not the most respectable establishment, by Harteen norms,” he said, “but neither is it of openly uncouth decorum. My family approves of my station, at any rate. They send me additional credits, when the need arises.”
“Not really, Sir,” said the Harteen, leaning towards Shane and fixing his large eyes on him in an unabashed stare, the glasses now forgotten. “This bar is fairly normal, even for an off-world bar. In fact, out of the entire past year, the most unusual patron of this establishment has been you, Sir.”
“Is that so?” said Shane, grinning.
The Harteen spread his three-fingered hands in a shrug, the wide corners of his alien mouth turned upwards in his own smile.
“An ordinary looking male human, whom I have never seen before thus far in my tenure, walks in and starts speaking formal fluent Teenali to me,” said the bartender, “and goes so far as to order—and actually drink—not one, but two glasses of gral’nak. Truly, Sir, if there is any ‘tea’ to spill, that tea is you.”
“Well done, my Friend,” Shane replied with a nod, moving from formal to casual Teenali with the possessive term, indicating they were now on equal social standing. “I suppose my own presence is a form of gossip, one could say. Suffice to say, I spent some time on Harteenal, enough to learn Teenali and to appreciate your homeworld’s people and their culture.”
Shane looked at his glass, still half-full of amber liquor, then back up to the Harteen behind the counter.
This is Part 1 of a two-part story. Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!