The Short Fic Weekly Challenge Thread!
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11.04.2012 , 01:20 AM |
: Rixik (Bounty Hunter much much later)
: Sal’s Diner
No class spoilers. Set roughly 10 years prior to
. Rixik is eight and he doesn’t yet have that name. Close on 3300 words.
This is the earliest thing I’ve written for Rixik, though I have earlier backstory for him. For those counting, in
, Sal makes Rixik twenty-two, and that obviously doesn’t jibe with him being eight in this story occurring ten years earlier. It’s not an error, and it’s not a retcon. Rixik was in fact 19 in
, Sal deliberately fudged his age older. By twelve he’d stowed away on a freighter (
Rodian Engine Wizard
) and seventeen convicted with the crew (of a different vessel) for spicerunning. Some of this was mentioned in passing over in the AU thread.
“That’s it,” whispered the boy, pointing down the alley.
His partner, a younger Twi’lek boy, grabbed his threadbare shirt and yanked him almost off his feet, “If you’re lying,” he hissed in Twi’leki, “I’ll break your fingers.”
The older boy brushed him off, “Relax, wannabe. Sal and the Old Man feed us more than Jenks does. Or you can go hungry. I don’t care.” He shrugged, indifferent.
The smell of cooking drifted down from the vents. The younger Twi’lek didn’t recognize the odor, but his stomach did, gurgling in hope of a meal. He checked the alley. It was empty, except for his accomplice leaning against the neighboring building. His belly growled again, impatient. He darted across the alley, stepping up the two stairs to the diner’s back door. A repulsor field, meant to discourage vermin, pr*ckled on his sandaled feet. He gave his confederate one last look over his shoulder before putting his palm on the admittance pad.
The door slid open. It wasn’t locked. The Twi’lek hesitated. Doors were locked. Doors had keys. Doors didn’t open for him, not without some persuasion. Beyond the door was a storage room of some kind. He could hear the sounds of beings moving around farther inside. Busy, bustling sounds. Then the door slid closed again, leaving him on the stoop with the anti-vermin field still stinging his toes.
He glanced over his shoulder again. The older boy was gone. He grimaced. Figures. He tried the door-pad again, expecting it to be locked. To his surprise, it slid open again. This time he stepped over the threshold and into the back room. The door slid shut behind him. He spun, slapping his hand on the door pad, knowing it wouldn’t open.
The Twi’lek peeked out of the doorframe. No shocks. No alarms. No nothing, just a dingy Nar Shaddaa alley with trash banked up against the buildings and rats scurrying in the shadows.
He withdrew, letting the door slide closed again. He was in a well-stocked storeroom. Shelves went to the ceiling, packed with items he couldn’t name except a few. It didn’t look like food. His stomach muttered again at the smell wafting in from the adjoining room. The one with all the noise. The one with all the people.
He began examining the bags, boxes, and bottles, hoping for something familiar when he heard a step from the adjoining room. He looked up, frozen, guilty, his hands on a half-empty jug labeled ‘poptree syrup’. A tall Human female wearing a stained apron, her hair done up in an impossible style and an eye-gouging shade of orange stopped outside the storeroom. “Oh, you’re a new one,” she said. Before he could respond she called into the far room, “Sal!”
The Twilek heard an answering call from the busy room, “How many of ‘em, Lindy? I heard the door what, three times?” Caught! His stomach gurgled and knotted itself into an acid ball. He wanted to shrink into the shadows and disappear with his prize.
“Just the one,” she yelled back, “New one.” She turned back to the boy, smiling, “Put it back,” she said.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her screaming hair. He let go of the jug and it rocked back to its regular position. Some sticky from the outside of the container remained on his left hand. He touched one finger to his lips. Sweet exploded. He looked back longingly at the dark fluid. He just lost a whole jug of sweet.
He heard a heavy step behind the girl at the door and another face appeared beside her. Male. Human. White wispy hair slicked back over his skull, a scattering of cybernetics across his forehead, sparse salt-and pepper beard. He was pudgy, rounded shoulders draped in a magenta knitted sweater. His brown eyes were quick and clear, appraising the Twi’lek. “Go on, Lindy, lunch crowd,” he said. She giggled and bustled back out to the customers. “You’re new, kid. Friend send you here?”
The other boy wasn’t his friend, but Jenks had owned him longer so he knew all the tricks. That also meant he could send the new kid off into the bad places if he wanted. He could still bolt for the door if the Human hadn’t locked it remotely. The Twi’lek nodded once.
Sal returned the nod, “Thought so. You look hungry. You hungry, kid?”
The boy’s stomach picked that moment to growl again, answering for him. Sal’s lips twitched in a suggestion of a sympathetic smile. Sal didn’t look like he missed many meals. The boy wanted to shrug it off. To not let Sal know he'd be happy stashing the bottle of syrup someplace where the others wouldn’t find it and drinking it over the next several weeks. But that was one lie he didn’t think this Human would believe. So he nodded again.
A worried look crossed Sal’s face, “You…can speak, can’t you?” he asked.
So they did that here, too. He still had his tongue. And control of it. “Yes,” he murmured in Basic, same as the Human’s speech.
Sal relaxed, “Good thing. Hard to enjoy food otherwise, son,” he said.
The boy stiffened. Jenks called him son. Called all of them ‘son’ or ‘daughter’, right before he beat the crap out of them. If Jenks called him ‘boy’ he was safe for the time being. He’d learned that already.
“How about a sandwich?” Sal asked.
The boy shrugged. He wasn’t sure what a ‘sandwich’ was. He’d never seen that label on a nutrient bar. He decided to go with a safe answer that didn’t showcase his ignorance and might help him figure out what to expect, “What kind?”
Sal snorted, “Picky? You’re a bit scrawny to be picky. What kind do you like?”
He never got to choose his nutrient pack. He was lucky if he got one at all since he wasn’t big. The older kids grabbed them all. At least his old owner made sure everyone got one to start with. So if he had a choice, what kind of food would he want? “Sharptooth caviar,” he said. That’s what rich people ate. If rich people ate it it had to be good.
Sal burst into laughter, “You’ve got good taste, kid, I’ll give you that,” he said. “No caviar here. Special today is roast nerf. How about a roast nerf sandwich?”
Nerf-flavored nutrient bars were alright. “Okay,” the Twi’lek replied.
Sal nodded. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his sweater, “Your friend tell you how things work here?” he asked, “It’s not handout. My food’s worth something. So we can work a trade, you do something for me—“
The Twi’lek bolted. What an idiot he was. Double-crossing, two-faced, lousy kid. He wasn’t so stupid he hadn’t heard about Jenks’ special clients. When he caught up with the older boy he’d do his best to break more than just fingers. Assuming he got away from this slimeball. He darted around the far side of the shelf toward the back door. But Sal had a shorter trip and longer legs.
“Whoah, little man, slow down,” Sal said, keeping the door closed, “Not gonna hurt you.”
The boy skidded to a halt, heart pounding. He’d never make it out through the front. Sal had him cornered. He stared into Sal’s brown eyes. The boy blinked first. The straightness left his spine and he slumped. He’d lost this round. The Human could do what he wanted. With luck, he’d still get something to eat out of the bargain. He was prepared to pay a pretty high price for that privilege right now.
Sal squatted down to be nearer the boy’s height, “Jumpy little thing, aren’t you?” He looked more closely at the Twi’lek, the natural mottled markings on his lekku camouflaging thick finger-shaped bruises where someone grabbed and hung on. More bruises disappearing beneath his thin, cheap shirt. His eyes, sunk in dark hollows beneath hairless brows. “You’re one of Jenks’ kids.”
No point denying it. Just get it over with. Maybe eat. He nodded again.
Sal sighed. When he spoke his voice was soft and gentle, “I was trying to say that my food isn’t free, and your time is worth something too. I got a lot of customers now on the lunch rush, and my dishwashing droid is on the fritz. Be nice to have someone help with that for a little bit, but I can’t pay you credits unless I go through a whole lot of rigmarole. Get Jenks’ permission, file your time, and he’ll keep what you earn anyway. Doesn’t seem fair to me. So how about this. You load my ‘washer for a while, I’ll give you a nice roast-nerf sandwich and something to drink. Since you’re new, I’ll even give you a half-sandwich advance on your salary. You can eat that before you start. Sound like a fair trade to you?”
The Twi’lek scuffed a foot. It sounded too easy, is what it sounded like. After? What about after? How long? What if it took too long? What if he came back to Jenks empty-handed?
What did this Human really want?
Sal took his hand off the door, “Come on, little man. Got a first-aid kit too, for the bruises. You’re an employee if you want to be, so those are free. I won’t stop you if you want to leave, but if I know Jenks, you won’t get anything from him today but a fist. I think a sandwich would suit you better.”
The boy looked at the door. Then at Sal. If he was going to get hurt either way, Sal at least offered a more sure promise of food. “Okay,” he muttered.
Sal smiled broadly, “Well then, little man, let’s get you your advance. What’s your name?”
The Twi’lek dropped his eyes. Hardly anyone used his name, which was fine, since he didn’t like it. “Shen.”
“Hrumph,” Sal grunted, rising, “that’s…eel, isn’t it? Twi’lekki? I don’t really speak it.”
The boy’s head snapped up. It did mean eel. Back on Naos it referred to a specific slime-eel that often got into the sharptooth traps and ate all the fish inside, leaving the fisherman with a fat worthless eel and a trap full of slimy goo. He sometimes pretended that it meant he was slippery and swift like an eel. But really, shens were pests. “Yeah, it’s eel, yeah,” he said bitterly, “I hate it.”
“Well, I can’t keep calling you boy,” said Sal.
“Everyone else does,” he snapped, forgetting his place, forgetting that it was unusual for a Human to know Twi’lekki. Realizing his mistake, he stood stiff, waiting for the slap. He had a cry and tears all ready. Sometimes they quit if they thought they hit hard enough the first time.
“So you don’t like your real name, and I don’t like calling you boy,” said Sal, scratching his beard, “we’ll have to think of something else, little man. Come on into the kitchen.” Sal turned and proceeded to the other room. The boy followed after a moment, puzzled.
The kitchen was bright and shiny, clean and bustling, even in the middle of the lunch rush. The smell of food was intoxicating. There was a Zabrak with a big knife, chopping plants into smaller pieces with blinding speed and almost mechanical precision. Another Human in a splattered apron sweated in front of an array of simmering vessels and shallow pans full of sizzling…stuff. The girl with the orange hair leaned over a pass-through crowded with heaping plates, selected an impossible number of them and disappeared. The Twi’lek heard conversation from the other side, lots of it, overlapping languages, laughter, the voice of the orange-haired girl scolding someone, but not meaning any of it.
He looked around, bewildered. None of this stuff looked like food. Not like any kind of food he’d ever eaten. It didn’t come in a package, for one. Someone had to make it, for another. This was rich people food. He wondered why Sal didn’t have caviar. He had all this other stuff.
Sal leaned up to the pass-through, “Jyo-Tak?” he called.
“Ayuh?” came an answering voice.
“Need a special back here. Special special,” said Sal.
“Gotcha, boss,” came the reply. In a moment, the top of a brown head with spiky hair barely tamed under a hat peeped over the pass-through. A plate appeared beside the others, going the wrong way, “One Sal special-special. Pickle?”
Sal looked at the Twi’lek, a questioning eyebrow raised. He nodded in agreement. Whatever a pickle was he was getting one. “Yeah,” Sal said. A dark brown, clawed hand placed a pair of bright yellow disks beside the mysterious sandwich. Sal collected the plate and returned to the boy, “Come on, little man, there’s a table back here.”
Sal led him to the very back of the diner, to a wobbly round table tucked up against the wall between a heavy metal door with a thick latch and another, normal door. Both were closed. Sal set the plate down and pulled a bit of paper from a stack in the middle of the table, “Half now, half later, little man.”
By this time, the Twi’lek’s stomach was gurgling and he was swallowing a constant stream of saliva. He took a seat and reached for the unfamiliar delicacy. It was sort of oval, thin brown slices of something layered with bits of plants, all pressed between a pair of sponges. It was warm to the touch. Juices dripped onto the plate from the slices. Nerf, he realized. That was what nerf looked like. What nerf smelled like. Not much like a nerf-flavored nutrient bar.
He picked up part of the oval. Took a bite. A small bite. Can’t let Sal think he was really that hungry. The flavor that hit his tongue was sublime. There was the savory warm meat, vegetal crunch, a bit of acid, rounded out with the soft grain of the bread enclosing the filling. Soft-chewy-crunchy all in one. He tore into the sandwich, utterly forgetting the Human seated across from him, the others in the kitchen with him, everything but the world of flavor and texture in his hands at that moment. An all to short moment. He reduced the half-sandwich to crumbs in a heartbeat. Then he ate the crumbs. Licked the juice running down his arm before realizing Sal was watching him.
He shoved his hands in his lap. The pickles and the other half of the sandwich beckoned. The orange-haired girl wandered by and set a steaming cup on the table.
“Thanks, Lindy,” Sal said. He pushed the cup toward him while the girl trotted back up front. “Go ahead, little man.”
The Twi’lek reached out with greasy fingers for the mug, drawing it close. Stimcaf, he figured. He’d had that before. Dark and bitter, it stomped on tiredness, fatigue, and hunger until it wore off. But it wasn’t. The heady steam that rose from the cup gave off a sugary aroma. He took a tentative sip. It was almost scalding hot, but rich and mellow, creamy and sweet. A bigger sip burned the roof of his mouth. It met and married the sandwich in his belly, snuggling together in warm, contented bliss. It, too, disappeared far to fast.
The boy realized, too late, that Sal could have laced the food with drugs. He hadn’t tasted any spice, but there were other kinds of drugs. The food was unfamiliar, so he wouldn’t know if it was tainted. With his stomach not gnawing on the inside of his ribs for the first time in forever, he didn’t care. Didn’t care what nastiness Sal might have planned. Like the minor pain of his scalded palate, it was more than worth the satisfaction of being full.
Sal stood up, “So, you ready to help out with the ‘washer?” he asked.
The Twi’lek slipped down from his chair. Time to pay for the meal. At least he
a meal out of the bargain, which was more than he got with Jenks. So what, exactly, was dishwasher slang for, he wondered. He imagined a number of unpleasant things, fueled in part by stories the older boys told.
He followed Sal to the far end of the diner. One corner in the back was given over to a noisy machine. A multi-armed droid sat in the middle, grabbing dirty plates, cups, and silverware and placing them in wide trays, sending the loaded trays down a conveyor. The conveyor passed through a tunnel that hummed like an ultrasonic washer or a vibe-shower. The trays emerged out the far end, clean. Another droid replaced the clean items in racks for reuse and sent the trays back down to its partner.
It washed dishes. That was all it did.
Sal approached, hands in his pockets, and the loading droid clattered to a halt. He turned back to the boy, “See? Darn thing keeps blinking out on me. You mind putting the dirty stuff in the trays for the vibe-sanitizer? Just until it comes back on.”
The Twi’lek had a sneaking suspicion that there was nothing wrong with the droid. But if Sal wanted him to do the droid’s job, and that was all he had to do to get the remainder of his sandwich, he wasn’t going to argue with him. It was a lot easier than anything else he’d had to do. Nowhere near as awful as he thought. “Okay,” he said.
“Customer sent this one back,” Sal said, handing the boy a wrapped half-sandwich, “Why don’t you take it for later.” The Twi’lek seized the food like it was treasure and held it tight. “You get hungry, little man, you come back. I’ll find you something to do if you’re hungry.”
“Okay,” the boy replied. He padded off toward the storeroom, cheap sandals slapping on the floor.
Sal returned to the kitchen and entered the office. Another man was already there, sitting in the padded leatheris chair in the corner. He was bald and wrinkled, stocky, a gladiator gone to seed. He held a lit cigarette, the smoke wafting up into the vent. Sal closed the office door and sat on the chair’s thick arm. “New one today, old man.” he said.
“I overheard,” said the Old Man, resting a hand on Sal’s leg, “Saw him on the security cam. Another one of Jenks’?”
Sal stroked the strong fingers, “Yeah. Looks like he just got a new batch from offworld somewhere. Kid’s got a weird accent. Not Ryloth, though.”
Sal’s Old Man puffed on his spice cigarette then stubbed it out in the tray, “That damn fagin. He’s got no business being near kids, let alone owning ‘em.”
“Don’t I know it,” Sal agreed, “Kid wouldn’t even let me put kolto on him. Said Jenks would notice. Beat him again, worse.”
He shook his head, “He’s trouble, Sal.”
“He’s just a kid. Seven, eight maybe.”
“Kids grow up. Get wiser,” said The Old Man, “That kid’s only eight and already he can’t see but crooked. What the hell does he grow into?”
The Twi’lek clutched the extra wrapped half sandwich close to his chest and palmed open the back door. He stepped out and froze. In the alley behind Sal’s diner was a tall, thin whipcord of a man. Not quite human but similar. Hairless, ears with a slight point, dark marks around his too-small eyes. A bulbous, splayed nose, the nostrils almost on the sides, a thick line of flesh connecting to his upper lip. Dressed all in shiny black leatheris like a swoop biker. Jenks.
“I’ve missed you, my son,” he said.
The door slid shut behind him.
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