“Voted the Iron Sector’s 6th Best Solarway Services in 2335 by Readers of Where? Magazine”
The lights of Station 34-Alpha glistened as the improbable starbase rotated in the darkness of space, artificially tethered to the orbit of the nearby moon.
Home – at last.
OK, maybe it wasn’t home home, but definitely it was the closest thing I had.
Our agency premises existed on the former site of an ill-fated Pritan bakery. Food poisoning was bad at the best of times, but when it came to Pritan cooking, it could be lethal – and this particular business learned that lesson the hard way. Fortunately for myself, however, the recent deaths on these premises meant that they came at a ridiculously low rate; nobody else was keen to be associated with such a tragedy.
As Te’rnu and I stepped out of the shuttle onto the base, we were quickly hurried out of the busy docking terminal. I stopped for a moment on the promenade to take a long, deep breath.
The smell of “home”: rust, fuel, and just a little bit of body odour.
‘Are you coming?’ Te’rnu asked. I glanced over at him; his face suggested that he was asking this sincerely, and not just trying to hurry me up.
I’m not entirely sure there’s a single passive-aggressive bone in his body.
‘Yeah. Let’s get back,’ I replied. ‘I could do with a lie down.’
We wandered along the strip to our home – weaving between the busy workers, who pushed through the crowd with their out-turned elbows, and the oblivious visitors, who came to sudden halts in the most inconvenient of places – until we arrived at our dark and damp corner of the station.
Te’rnu pressed on the security panel… and was told that the door was already unlocked.
We peered into the room and saw that everything we owned had been thrown about or turned upside down.
‘What has happened here?’ Te’rnu asked.
‘We’ve been burgled.’
I walked into the room and began to do a quick mental inventory of our most valuable possessions.
‘But…,’ Te’rnu asked. ‘But why?’
I shrugged. ‘People just suck like that.’
Everything we owned still seemed to be here, roughly in place, if now on its side or upside-down.
‘Do you see anything missing?’ I asked, brow furrowed.
Te’rnu glanced around the room. ‘…No.’
‘Look for clues,’ I instructed him.
‘Yes. We’re supposed to be detectives, after all.’
We avoided touching anything while we looked – and captured images of the site in its current state.
‘They have looked through everything, it seems,’ Te’rnu murmured after a few moments, ‘but taken nothing.’
‘What the hell would someone be looking for in here?’
Te’rnu shook his head; I pursed my lips in response.
‘Doesn’t make sense, does it?’
Unable to see anything that we’d missed, I sat down on the sofa – but not before repositioning the cushions.
‘We should sort out our security,’ I mumbled. ‘Didn’t think we’d need anything serious, but… apparently we do.’
I rubbed at the muscle in my right shoulder, wincing as I pressed too hard.
‘Te’rnu, why don’t you grab us some dinner. I’ll start cleaning up in here.’
‘Rykernite or Turknani?’
I shrugged. ‘Dunno. Whatever you want.’
I flashed him a soft smile. ‘Great.’
Surveying the room in front of me, I still gleaned no ideas about why someone might have broken in here, if not to take anything. I figured that maybe I was tired after this case; perhaps in the morning, after I’d gotten some sleep, some revelation might present itself to me. Forsaking my promise to Te’rnu that I would begin to clear up, I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off.
I awoke as Te’rnu stormed back into the premises, a triumphant grin on his face, food under one arm, and a large case in the other. This did not bode well.
‘I have something for us,’ he announced.
‘Yeah,’ I replied, rubbing my eyes as I came to, ‘Food, hopefully.’
‘Yes. And something else.’
‘I can see that. What is it?’
‘You gave me the task of improving our security. I am pleased to say that I have done just that.’
I bit my lip, leaving a gap in the conversation which would otherwise have been filled with a facetious remark.
‘Imagine Z’h’ar,’ Te’rnu said, hands up in the air as he set the scene through wild gesticulation. ‘Away from the busy strongholds, many villages eke out an existence in the harsh environments of the Yr’yu foothills.’
Te’rnu paused for a moment, and looked down to find that I had pulled up a chair and was currently eating my way through the first of the takeaway food.
‘I’m enjoying this pitch so far,’ I told him. ‘Go on.’
‘Not only do these villagers contend with occasional landslides destroying their homes and sandstorms decimating their crops, but they must also fend off the vicious creatures that live in the peaks.’
‘Vicious creatures?’ I repeated, mumbling because my mouth was full, ‘Love it! Tell me more.’
‘They prowl silently on their four legs. Their keen eyes pick out their prey on the slopes below.’
‘What about their teeth?’ I prodded, my own mouth miming a knawing motion.
‘Yes!’ Te’rnu added, almost jumping on the spot with joy, ‘Huge, scary teeth! They could bite a person’s head off!’
I laughed softly, causing a little food to fall out of my mouth, which I sucked back in. ‘Am I supposed to believe you have one of these things in that box?’ I nodded to the crate that Te’rnu had placed on his desk.
He held his index finger up to me.
Te’rnu loves that ‘one moment’ hand signal so much, maybe I should teach him the middle finger one too. That’d blow his mind.
‘Not quite!’ he replied. ‘But something similar. I don’t know if you have met… I forget his name… S… Steve? I believe he is a man. I didn’t ask about his genitalia, this time, though.’
‘Steve. He is a Terran on this station. You really should socialise more.’
‘No, Te’rnu, most people just don’t speak to every single person who crosses their line of sight.’
‘Steve,’ Te’rnu continued, completely ignoring my dig at him. ‘Is a merchant of exotic animals. A very successful one, too, it would seem. I told him of our dilemma, of the Yr’yu hillbeasts, and asked him whether he happened to have a tamed one we could use as security.’
‘Just how big are these hellbeasts, Te’rnu?’
‘Hillbeasts. You said hellbeasts.’
‘Fine,’ I replied, shaking my head. ‘Hillbeasts. How big are they?’
‘About two and a half metres in length.’
I sighed. ‘And how wide is this room, Te’rnu?’
He narrowed his eyes and surveyed the perimeter of the room. ‘Perhaps… two and a half metres?’
Te’rnu scrunched his mouth up for a moment. ‘It would not fit, would it?’
‘It would not.’
The Arellian shook his head. ‘This matters not! Because I did not, in the end, put in an order for a Yr’yu hillbeast.’
‘I think that’s for the-’
‘Steve, however, being the helpful man that he is, told me about another, similar, beast.’
‘A more compact one, perhaps?’
Te’rnu tapped the top of the crate, chest swelling with pride. ‘Precisely. But despite its smaller size, this creature is still packed with dangerous features. It can see six times better than the average Terran, or four times better than an Arellian, and it has the highest-developed…’
He trailed off.
He held up his index finger, and pulled a tablet from his back pocket. After pressing the button on the side, it whirred into life, and Te’rnu began to read from it.
‘It has the highest-developed binocular vision of all animals on its home planet.’
‘…which is?’ I butted in.
‘It has razor sharp teeth, spread across its wide jaw. Perfect for a stronger and wider bite!’
‘Did this Steve write this, by any chance?’
‘And rounded ears, designed to catch even the highest of frequencies.’
‘He’s a good salesman, I’ll give him that.’
Te’rnu continued to ignore me. ‘They can jump many times their own height, and, because they’re able to rotate their spine up to 180 degrees, they always land on their feet.’
Wait a minute…
I stood up and walked over to the crate, before unlocking the latch.
‘Wait!’ Te’rnu called out, eyes wide with fear. ‘Don’t do that! It is dangerous!’
The end of the box fell to the desk, revealing the supposed monster lurking inside.
The ginger cat looked briefly up at me with big green eyes, before returning to licking at its lifted paw.
‘That’s a cat.’
‘Yes,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘A “felis catus”, I believe is the technical name for it. It is, as I say, a vicious killing machine.’
‘You want a cat to guard our agency premises?’ I asked, eyebrow raised higher than I had known was possible.
‘Did you not hear me? They are vicious killing machines!’
A dinging sound echoed around the room as the cat scratched at its neck with a rear leg.
‘It has a bell on its collar!’
‘That is for safety! To warn us that it is around! And to strike fear in the hearts of would-be thieves.’
I pulled at the collar to get a look at the name tag; the cat seemed completely unphased by this.
Not a great trait in a guard animal.
I turned back to the Arellian. ‘It’s called Prince Piddlepants!’
Te’rnu’s mouth opened with awe. ‘It is royalty?’
I shook my head in exasperation. ‘No! It’s not royalty, it’s a cat! You know, like, a pet!’
‘It is not a pet! It’s a monstrous creature! With eyes that can see in the dark! And it’s able to… to sense prey from…’
Te’rnu’s attention was captured by the cat behind me.
‘Is it…,’ he continued. ‘Is it licking its own genitals?’
I turned around. It was.
Shooting Te’rnu a face that he was becoming well-accustomed to, I waited for the penny to drop.
‘…Steve!’ Te’rnu shouted. He began mumbling to himself as he stormed back out of the room, ‘…I thought you were…’
I didn’t quite catch what Te’rnu had previously thought of Steve, as he had charged out of earshot.
Now alone once more, I thought about actually beginning the clearing up process – but found myself strangely hypnotised by Prince, the cat.
He stared up at me with big, round, green eyes, as I slowed approached, hand out-stretched, meaning to stroke him. As my hand grew near, he stood up, and pushed his head into my palm, brushing himself against me.
‘You’re not even the least bit dangerous, are you?’ I asked him.
He began to purr – and that was all the answer I needed.
I played with him for a few minutes longer – before I was rudely interrupted by a cough at the door.
A client? Now? While our agency looks like this?
As I turned my head, the short, round Pritan came into view.
Not a client. Worse.
‘Saotchun,’ I muttered.
He smiled that same old smile; it was almost friendly, but just about warped into a snarl.
‘Did you have anything to do with this?’ I asked.
Saotchun laughed. ‘If only I had. Bet you’re wishing you stayed working for me, right about now.’
Prince started towards Saotchun, tail raised playfully, purring loudly. I pulled him back towards me.
No. We don’t like him, mister.
‘You know I don’t,’ I replied.
‘We actually paid to get new Laztec security installed last week,’ Saotchun boasted. ‘Thought it might be a worthwhile investment, and, besides, there’s plenty of money coming in.’
‘Good for you.’
‘Little harder than you thought, right? Running an agency? There’s more to it than just accidentally solving one large case, you know.’
‘We’ve solved other cases, Saotchun,’ I mumbled, pulling Prince back again. ‘Just finished a big one on Abinax, actually.’
Saotchun laughed. ‘The smuggling case? We’ll see about that…’
Before I had a chance to reply, I heard Te’rnu’s voice coming from outside, behind Saotchun. ‘Steve says there’s no refunds, because-’
Te’rnu stopped when he saw Saotchun standing in the doorway.
‘Excuse me, please,’ he said.
Saotchun remained still for a moment, staring Te’rnu down, before standing aside to make room. As Te’rnu entered, Prince’s eyes widened, and he made off towards his Arellian friend. I let him go.
‘So, are you needing to hire us, or…?’ I asked Saotchun.
‘Nope. Nothing needed. Just checking in on my favourite competitor, that’s all.’
‘Well… piss off, then. We have work to do.’
Saotchun looked around the room pointedly. ‘Yes. I can see that.’
He flashed us one last snarl before turning his back on us.
Te’rnu turned to me. ‘I am going to leave Steve a strongly-worded review on the Station listings.’
Without waiting for an answer, he spun around to his desk, meaning to tap on the in-built console… only to find Prince laying across it. Te’rnu picked him up and moved him to one side, but Prince returned to the same spot immediately.
‘I think he likes it there,’ I offered.
Te’rnu sighed. ‘I will do it later.’
He touched Prince’s paw gently, and Prince responded by tucking it under his belly.
‘Oh!’ Te’rnu called out, suddenly. ‘I meant to say: I also reported the burglary to the station police. They said not to touch anything until they come by. You didn’t start cleaning at all, did you?’
I shook my head.
‘Good. I didn’t think that would be a problem with you.’
I began to formulate a pissy response to that jab, but my console began to beep. There was a new communication coming in from the Abinax client.
‘Huara!’ I began. ‘How are you? Everything OK with the report?’
‘Yes, erm…,’ she started, and the tone of her voice made my heart drop. There was a repressed irritation, or even anger, to it. ‘Your report tells me that you successfully apprehended the smuggler?’
‘That’s… that’s right, yeah,’ I responded, less enthusiastically than when I had first answered the communication.
‘Well, I’m afraid to say that you haven’t done that at all. Quite the opposite, really – the Stirliks are… Well, they’re everywhere.’
‘Yes,’ she responded, getting more curt by the minute. ‘In fact, because you told the local police that you’d caught the culprit, they dialled down their operations. Which meant…’
‘Which meant that those who were distributing the ‘Liks had a bit more breathing room.’
‘…Yes,’ the client replied. ‘So you can see, then, that I’m not best pleased.’
I said nothing, not knowing quite how to best handle the situation. Somehow the silence was worse than anything that could have come out my mouth.
‘I can expect you to land back here first thing in the morning?’ Huara asked.
‘If not sooner,’ I replied.
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