Chapter Twenty-Six – Upgrades and the Ties of Family
While Mannarius and Dhruv were visiting the mechanic, Citlally went with Endan and Jalingan to get something to eat. She’d already unpacked her things, and it didn’t take her long to become bored with sitting around in her room. They’d also invited nurse Iratze, but she’d declined the invitation, stating that she was awaiting clearance so that she could help in the medical center.
“She’s pretty dedicated,” Endan noted while he looked around the room, trying to remember where he’d put his shoes.
“Gliesians usually are,” Jalingan told her. “Whatever work they get into, they take it very seriously, and work to excel at. They don’t do anything halfway.”
“That’s nice to hear,” Citlally said as she wrapped her scarf around her neck. Like many space stations, Tanoora Prime was a bit on the cold side. “I hope it’s not the kind of excelling that comes with a terrible amount of pressure.”
“Not at all,” Jalingan told her, leaning against the doorway. “The Gliesians approach everything with what you might call love. They all care a lot about things, and if someone doesn’t care yet, their desire to care is fostered, not ordered.”
“It’s too bad that human culture isnae more like that,” Endan said. “Oh, here they are.” He pick up his boots of tanned leather from the far side of the bed and sat down to put them on. The others gave him a couple minutes, and he finished tying his boots as quickly as he could, grabbed his leather jacket, and walked with the others into the hallway.
“Were you pressured to excel as well?” Jalingan asked him as they mowed through the hall towards the lifts.
“Not so much,” Endan replied, “but plenty o’ people back home are. I hear that it used to be a lot worse, too. Luckily my parents were more reasonable.”
“Well, good for you, at least,” Jalingan told him.
Down on the commerce and dining level, they found that the station had gotten a huge influx of influence from Earth’s Far East a few years ago. Japan had been especially popular, and there were plenty of Japanese textiles for sale. Citlally was most excited to see the variety of Japanese restaurants.
“It’s like Little Tokyo down here,” she said as they passed by a ramen stand. “It smells amazing!”
“I’m surprised you like it,” Jalingan told her. “I thought that a – What does Endan call you? – that’s right, an Aztec princess. I would have thought that an Aztec princess like you wouldn’t be interested in this stuff.”
“I love it!” She told him. “You have to remember, Earth is united under a banner of peace. Even a few centuries ago, Japan was famed for most aspects of its culture. I love my family’s traditions, Jalingan, but pretty much everyone back home is encouraged to experience other aspects of the world.”
“That’s fantastic, Jalingan told her. “So, do you like sushi?”
Citlally exchanged a knowing glance with Endan and barely managed to hold back a giggle.
“Is that a good thing?” Jalingan asked the other man.
“Aye, lad; it is if you wanted to head to that sushi bar,” Endan told him as he gestured his head towards a door topped with Japanese-style curtains that bore the characters for sushi.
“It is settled, then,” the half-lion said with a grin. “We’ll get sushi for lunch!”
“I’m sitting at the bar!” Citlally declared as she dashed ahead of the others. She lifted one curtain panel they way she always had back on Earth – the Japanese way – and was lost inside.
Endan and Jalingan followed at a more natural pace. Inside, the establishment had been made to look like a traditional Japanese restaurant. Citlally waved at them from the bar, and they sat down on either side of her.
“I already ordered some sake for us,” she said. ‘They have Hakkaisan, if you can believe that. No wonder Japan has been doing so well economically; they export so much to Tanoora Prime!”
“You don’t waste moment, do you?” Endan noted.
“Why would I?” Citlally replied. “I miss good sake. It feels as though it’s been forever since I’ve had any!”
She grabbed a menu and looked it over. “I wonder if they have edamame.”
“Maybe,” Jalingan told her, “if not something like it. I should probably tell you that they get their fish from all number of planets.”
“That makes it all the better,” Citlally replied. “It will be interesting to try fish from different places! Any idea where the rice comes from?”
“It’s grown in the sunlight of Deneb,” the sushi chef told her. “We got the seeds from your home world a few years ago, and we’ve been growing our own rice ever since.”
“That’s incredible!” Citlally told him. “I bet it’s amazingly delicious, too.”
“You’re definitely going to like it,” the chef told her. “Do you want soup, too?”
“I’ll take whatever you have,” Citlally told him.
The chef turned around and called back to the kitchen. Then he gave Citlally and the others some time to look over the menus. It was not long before the sake came, and she filled a little glass for everyone.
“Kampai!” she called out, raising the tiny cup. They all tapped their glasses together and took a long drink.
They went through their first pitcher of sake just with the time that they spent poring over the menu. The chef at the counter explained that it changed often, depending on where the fish came in fresh from that day. He refused to buy anything that was dangerous like Earth’s fugu, and had access to a database so that the various species who came to eat with him could ensure that the particular variety of fish was safe for them to eat.
“How did you learn how to make sushi?” Citlally asked the chef as she watched him roll balls of rice in his palms for another table’s order. His hands were wide and thin, and they looked exceedingly flexible. Whatever he was, he was definitely not human.
“There is a man from Japan on the station,” he explained. “An old man. He wants to see lots of sushi being made here, and he loves to teach his art.”
“You never know who’s going to perfect it, do you?” Citlally noted.
“I think that’s why he taught so many of us. We go to his trainings every few days in order to improve our skills. He has taught us how to cut the fish, how to make sure that it’s fresh, everything.”
“Even how to cook the rice and pour the sake,” the waitress added as she brought by another pitcher. Due to its high quality, it was being served chilled, and Citlally loved it best that way. Still, she was feeling a bit chilly, and her next request was for a cup of hot green tea.
Everything about the restaurant was authentic and traditional; they had matcha imported from the hills of Japan, and crop of edamame that had been grown, like the rice, on the planets orbiting Deneb (and some on the moons orbiting those planets).
At long last, they placed their first order. The closest thing to salmon that was available was a bright pink fish from a distant moon. Something tuna-like was fostered in huge tanks right there on the station, and there were the thumb-sized eggs that she’d called uzura no tamago back home. There were cucumbers – another crop brought all the way from Sol’s third planet – and Citlally relished even the most basic roll of them all: the cucumber roll.
The three of them were on their third specialty roll when Jalingan’s comm bracelet began to beep. He pressed a button on it, held his wrist up close to his mouth, and said, “Jalingan here. Who is this?”
“Mannarius calling,” a voice came back through the tiny speaker. It didn’t sound pleased to have to be speaking to the half-lion. “Any idea where Endan and Citlally are right now?”
Jalingan grinned at them. “They’re with me,” he told Mannarius.
Citlally could hear him grumbling through the speaker on the comm. “In your quarters?”
“No,” Jalingan told him. “We’re down on the dining level.”
“Where exactly?” Mannarius asked, starting to sound irritated.
“We’re having sushi,” Jalingan explained, “at the Hoshi no Sakana.”
There was a moment of quiet on the comm, and Citlally assumed that it was Mannarius and Dhruv having a conversation wherever they were, probably debating whether or not they should meet up. Finally, his voice came back saying, “Sushi sounds fine; we’ll see you there soon.”
They had finished their roll and were wondering whether they should order more by the time Mannarius and Dhruv finally found them. The Lion strolled into the restaurant with his co-pilot at his side and sat as far away from his cousin as he could.
“How did it go with the mechanic?” Jalingan asked him as Citlally passed him a fresh bowl of edamame.
“I don’t want to talk about that yet,” Mannarius grumbled. “Right now, all I want is a good meal.” He accepted the menus that Endan handed him and glanced them over. Then he handed them to Dhruv.
“What do you think so far?” he asked Citlally. “These space stations tend to get fish in from wherever they can, rather than relying on just one planet.”
Citlally nodded, a smile crossing her face. “That’s good to hear. Earth’s oceans used to be terribly over-fished, but with the revolution, sustainability became a high priority.”
“I’m glad that it no longer has to be about a particular species of fish,” Mannarius told her as he handed Dhruv some of the edamame before he finished it off on his own. “I’m also glad that you like sushi! It turned out to be one of the more popular things in the galaxy.”
“Considering that we’re out exploring the galaxy,” Citlally noted as a big grin crossed her face. “I’m just glad that fish are for eating, and not for putting in your ears!”
Endan gave her a humored look, then shook his head as he laughed. She fell into a fit of giggling.
Mannarius looked completely confused. “What in the world is she talking about?” He gave Dhruv a worried look. “Is she okay? She didn’t eat anything bad, did she?” He gave Jalingan a warning look that said she better not have been harmed on his watch.
“It’s sort of a cultural reference,” Endan explained. “Citlally loves reading twentieth-century science-fiction books. There is one in particular that she finds especially amusing.”
Mannarius didn’t seem to think that that was enough of an explanation. In fact, that seemed to confuse him even more, “Wait, is it comedy or science-fiction?”
“A little of both, really,” Endan admitted. “In the books, they use certain fish as translators. It’s worth a read, if you want to get into Terran literature.”
Mannarius smirked. “Maybe, but for now, I have to agree fish are better as food.”
The captain and Dhruv ended up ordering a few platters of sushi of their own. The waitress was more than happy to bring out more sake, and a couple more bowls of soup for them. The chef looked pretty excited to see them as well. The rest of the restaurant didn’t look terribly busy – not because of any issue of quality, but simply because the station was a big place with a lot of other dining options.
“Do you have more friends coming?” the sushi chef asked them.
“Not today,” Citlally replied.
She didn’t find out until Mannarius was on his second pitcher of sake that he’d already had several glasses of mead. She wondered whether all Leomians could hold their alcohol as well as he could; despite how much he’d had, his behavior was still rather reserved.
“You look worried,” Dhruv told her after he noticed that she’d been watching Mannarius for several minutes.
She blinked and shook her head. “He surprises me is all,” she explained. “Most people can barely sit up after that much alcohol.”
“Well,” Dhruv told her with a slight chuckle, “just don’t ask him to pilot his ship right now. He tried that once, along time ago, and his orders came out all wrong.”
“What about you?” Citlally asked the co-pilot. “Would you be able to fly right now?”
Dhruv shrugged. “Not well,” he admitted. “Besides, it is against Galactic Flight Regulations. They have some kind of database filled with data on how much alcohol – and other intoxicants, for that matter – each species can tolerate and still function properly. It’s not worth the hassle being caught flying while drunk.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen him drink so much before,” she said.
“But it’s nice to able to relax like this!” Mannarius told her. “Dhruv, you should have had more of Finneryl’s mead. It really is exquisite!”
“I had plenty,” Dhruv replied with a smirk.
Mannarius ended up eating a great deal of food, from sushi to noodles and tempura. Dhruv, meanwhile, seemed much less ravenous. The chef served one final platter of sushi to the party for their dessert, giving them an explanation of the fish along with it.
“There is an ocean on a moon in the next star system,” he told them, “where a plant just like sugar cane grows.”
“Oceanic sugar cane?” Citlally asked.
The sushi chef nodded. “Their oceans are far less salty than the ones on Earth. The important thing is that there is a species of fish that lives in those sugar cane forests, and it feeds on it. The sugar makes the fish exquisitely tender and sweet.”
The platter had a veritable army of nigiri laid out across it, each ball of rice with a perfectly-cut piece of fish laid across it. The flesh was a vibrant shade of pink, like the outside of a dragon fruit, interspersed with fatty layers of delicate yellow. Each pair was topped a little bit differently than the last; two were left plain, two were topped with chopped golden fruit, two with what looked like cream, and so on and so on.
“The rice is sticky sweet rice,” the chef added. “Please enjoy it!”
When he walked away, Endan let his wife choose the first two pieces that she wanted to try, then passed the platter down to Dhruv and his captain. Everyone had plenty to choose from. It was an impressive fish, the way it was sweet and tender, like biting into the ripest of mangoes. It was served colder than the rest of the sushi, and Citlally loved every bit if it, most especially the pieces with slivers of red chili nestled on top. By the time they finished dessert and the rest of the sake, they were more full than they’d been in ages.
Jalingan had gotten up from his seat half-way through dessert and disappeared to somewhere for several minutes; Citlally had assumed that it was the bathroom. She thought differently, however, when Mannarius asked for the check and the waitress looked confused.
“Did you forget, sir?” she asked the captain.
She laughed softly. “Oh, sir, you’ve had so much sake!” Then she patted him on the back and told him, “You forgot that your bill has already been paid.”
Mannarius blinked and looked up at her with the most baffled expression Citlally had ever seen on his face. “Now that is one thing that I would definitely remember. I cannot possibly forget the flow of money from my account.”
“Not you, sir,” the waitress told him. “Someone else in your party took care of the whole thing. Please, sir, have a wonderful rest of your day.” She gave him a traditional bow and walked away.
Mannarius watched her leave, wanting to stop her and ask who it was, but she was already gone behind the curtain to the kitchen in the back. He turned to Dhruv and asked him if he had paid.
“It wasn’t me, captain,” Dhruv told him. “I thought we’d planned on splitting the bill.”
Just as Mannarius was turning to Endan, Jalingan got up from the counter. “Let’s get going,” he said, in a tone that told the others how eager he was to leave. “I could use a cat nap after all that food. Anyone else heading back to their room? We can walk together.”
“It was you, wasn’t it?” the captain said, looking straight at him. He got up, too, although more slowly.
Jalingan gave him a curious look. “What were you saying? Come on, we should make room for more customers. This place is bound to get a rush any minute now.” He didn’t wait for everyone else, but began walking towards the front doorway, The hostess bowing to him as he walked by.
Mannarius hurried after him, leaving the others to decide whether they wanted to rush with him. Dhruv thought it better to wait for Citlally and Endan to get out of their chairs and stretch their legs, and walked with them out into the main hall. They found the captain and Jalingan by the lifts, the half-lion looking disappointed that he’d been caught up with.
“Why did you do that?” the captain was asking him. “I’m more than able to pay for my own food.”
“Maybe so, but you have a ship to upgrade,” Jalingan told him, “and my last job paid a pretty hefty sum.”
“That’s the other problem!” Mannarius growled. The doors to the lift began to open, and he grabbed his cousin’s arm to keep him from leaving. “I don’t want you spending that black money on me. You earned it serving the K’zzyrch, and now you think that Citlally is supposed to appreciate it buying her dinner?”
Jalingan glared at him. “I’m not explaining this to you out here,” he said between gritted teeth. He looked over at Citlally and the others as they walked up. “I can explain it in private, but not out here.”
Mannarius narrowed his eyes at him and shook his head. “Forget about it. I don’t want to be in the same room as you.” He stormed into the lift alone and closed the doors, leaving Jalingan with Dhruv and the others.
“Wow,” Citlally said, “is he really that upset about you paying the bill?”
“You heard him,” the half-lion sighed. “He thinks it’s blood money.”
“And you think otherwise?” she asked him.
Jalingan looked around and shrugged. “Like I told him, I would be stupid to explain it out here.”
“Oh, right,” she said, “it’s the –”
“You just do not know when to shut up, do you?” Jalingan rolled his eyes and turned around, gesturing for them to follow him to the next lift. When there was nobody else around, he gave her an apologetic look.
Jalingan kept the conversation on other topics while they made the trip back to his room. For whatever reason, he wasn’t willing to risk anyone overhearing what he had to say. He seemed glad that they did not cross paths with Mannarius in the hallway where their rooms were, and used his key card to open the door to let the others in.
“I hope you don’t feel too cramped in here,” he said as he closed the door behind them. “It’s a much smaller room than yours, but I’m used to this.”
“It is fine,” Citlally assured him as she looked around.
It was a fairly small room, much like a budget hotel room back on Earth, with just enough room for the bed – which was much narrower than the one she and Endan would be sharing – a small table with one chair, and walking space. There was one other door in the room, which Citlally supposed was the bathroom. Jalingan offered her the chair, and she took it with thanks. Endan and Dhruv sat on the edge of the bed, and Jalingan ignored their protests and sat on the floor, leaning his back against a wall.
“I don’t like showing that side of me outside of work,” Jalingan said to Citlally. “You’ve probably noticed that I have to act rather coarse when I’m on a job.”
“I understand,” she told him, her voice gentle.
“Well,” Jalingan went on, “I don’t like it. When I’m out there, I’m usually doing two jobs, and only one of them well.”
“It’s the thing you didn’t want to talk about on the dining level?” she asked him. “The…” Her words faltered, unsure whether she could say it now.
“The best-kept secret in the galaxy, yes,” he told her. “Like I said before, I only snapped at you because it has to stay that way.”
“So why do you think it’s not blood money when you were working for the K’zzyrch?” Dhruv wanted to know.
Jalingan scoffed. “Because I may have been under contract with them, but they had no idea what a terrible job I as doing. I wasn’t paid to tell prisoners to do as they were told – like I did with Citlally and a lot of others – and definitely not to sort out where they ought to go based on what would make their escape easier or their experiences less painful.”
“Mannarius says that you shouldn’t be working for them at all,” Dhruv reminded him.
“He thinks,” Jalingan replied as he shook his head, “that I should be killing K’zzyrch on sight. He is a fool for thinking that I could wage a war against them all on my own. The fact is, while they thought I was helping them in their slave trade, I was really only there to get people out and spread information.”
“As secretly as possible,” Dhruv added for him.
“That’s the only way to do it, “Jalingan told him. “We can’t tell the K’zzyrch and the Wilang, ‘Ha ha, we took your slaves!’ We’re not stupid. We pretend, and we subvert. They have no idea how fast they cycle through slaves. We mercenaries have all the wool in all the worlds pulled over their eyes right now. What I have is not blood money; it’s the coin of freedom and rebellion.”
“You need to find a way to explain that to Mannarius,” Dhruv told him. “He thinks you’re helping them.”
“So do they – and that’s how we like it!” Jalingan replied. “There are plenty of others like me, you know. We have the K’zzyrch trusting us, and that’s just what we need. They have no idea about our subversion. They think they have all the races of the galaxy under their boots, and they have no idea how wrong they are.”
“Are you really sure, though?” Dhruv asked him. “Are you certain that what you do doesn’t actually help them in some way?”
“I’m not going to have proof of the best-kept secret in the galaxy,” the half-lion said, trying not to sound too irritated. “You can argue all you want that telling her to behave helps them, but I only told her because it was for her own safety. But you know, I also helped her get the hint about going to the mines. That’s a big deal for us when it comes to Sardonia: getting people to the mines. Once you’re in the mountains, it’s not that hard to escape.”
“Like he told me,” Citlally added, “nobody cares if you disappear from the mountains.”
“How do they not have radar systems to pick up on ships coming in to take away their workers?” Dhruv asked. “I thought the K’zzyrch had given the Sardonians advanced technology that they couldn’t have developed on their own.”
“They did,” Jalingan told him. “They also hired mercenaries to get it all set up.”
Dhruv stared at him, his mouth hanging open in sheer awe. “You mean the mercenaries…”
Jalingan nodded, a proud grin crossing his face. “The Wilang have no idea how to run the radar systems. As far as they know, either they don’t work sometimes, or they work in some kind of quirky way, or they’re told that it is working just fine. They truly do not know the difference, but they like to be told that it’s working, so usually the mercenaries tell them what they want to hear. Any time there’s an incoming ship, it is always a K’zzyrch ship. As far as they know, there are no unwanted visitors on their planet. It happens like that all over the galaxy.”
“And the Wilang never check to make sure their systems are working well?” Dhruv asked him.
“You mean run them themselves? No,” Jalingan told them. “That is underling work. They pay mercenaries for underling work. Even if they wanted to use the system themselves, they would have no idea about how it had been sabotaged. The Wilang cannot understand the technology they’ve been sold, and they should never have been given it.”
“But isn’t it bad for them to think that you’re serving them?” Dhruv said. “Doesn’t that give them more power?”
Jalingan shook his head. “Quite the opposite,” he laughed. “The best, and arguably worst, thing that you can do to your enemy is give them an over-inflated sense of superiority and dominance. That’s the whole point of subversion. We let them think that they’re winning. We let them think that we’re serving them. They couldn’t be more wrong. The more they think we’re obedient to them, the easier it is to separate them.”
“So how much longer until they can be completely stopped?” Dhruv wanted to know.
Jalingan shrugged. “That’s the thing about maintaining the secret. You have to be incredibly patient. We can’t broadcast our messages, but rather have to share information along different channels. Usually that means in person; sometimes it could be a ship-to-ship communique, but even that is risky. One wrong broadcast means being found out, and them being able to stop us, or prevent whatever we had planned. They have to trust us, they have to have their guard down, otherwise they’re too hard to fight. Mannarius is smart enough to understand that; he just refuses to accept that I’m doing something important, something good.”
“Why is he still angry, then?” Citlally asked.
“It’s because of the upgrades,” Dhruv explained.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” she said. “What does Mannarius have against his cousin?”
“Like I said,” Dhruv went on, “I can’t explain that. But right now, today, he’s worried about the upgrades on his ship.”
“What’s wrong with the upgrades?” Citlally asked.
Dhruv looked like he already regretted having said anything.
Endan was curious, too. “Does the mechanic not have the parts that he needs?”
“Oh, well… Umm…” Dhruv looked pretty reluctant to answer him.
“No, Dhruv,” Citlally insisted, “if it is important enough for you to say that Mannarius is upset about these upgrades, it must be pretty serious. What’s going on?”
“Forget about it,” Dhruv told him. “I wasn’t supposed to say anything.”
“Well,” Jalingan told him, “you said something. Now say the rest.”
Dhruv shook his head. “No,” he insisted, “just forget about it. I’m not getting Mannarius mad at me, too.”
“Then you’ll have me mad at you!” Jalingan told him.
Dhruv looked entirely unconcerned. “I can deal with you being mad at me,” he said. “Not my captain.”
Jalingan narrowed his eyes at him. “I have an idea,” he said curiously. There was a certain cunning tone to his voice. “It’s the money, isn’t it? He was so upset about me buying dinner, it couldn’t have been just because of where I get my money from. He’s upset about how much money he has, or doesn’t have. Exactly how far out of his price range are the upgrades?”
Dhruv looked away, pursing his lips together, determined not to talk.
“Is he right?” Citlally asked. “Are the upgrades too expensive?”
Dhruv looked down at her, pity filling his eyes, and his firm expression softened. Still, he didn’t say anything.
“Dhruv, come on,” Citlally urged him. “There’s no reason that Mannarius should have to pay for his upgrades on his own. If he needs them in order to take me to the Heart Nebula, it’s only fair that I should help out.”
“He has no intention of taking any of your money,” Dhruv told her. “You’ve only just had your accounts restored by the Galactic Union.”
“He doesn’t have to ask for it,” Citlally told him. “We’re offering.”
Dhruv glanced the way, an uncertain expression crossing his face.
“You should just thank them,” Jalingan told him. “They want to help.”
Dhruv shook his head, sighed, and looked down. “Normally this isn’t any of my business. I don’t like to get into others’ accounts,” he said. “The thing is, Mannarius helped them reinstate their accounts, and I’m sorry, but he knows what the numbers are, and he knows that none of them are enough.”
“So I’ll help, too,” Jalingan him. “Let’s just get this done.”
Dhruv’s eyes widened and he shook his head vigorously. “Are you kidding? After the way he reacted when you bought dinner? He will never stand for it. No matter how much you try to explain, he will never accept money from you. What is the point in wiping out all of our accounts anyway? I want us to get to the Heart Nebula as much as anybody else does, but I think that we should seriously consider booking passage on a transport ship. The fare – even for all of us – is a lot less than the cost of these upgrades.”
“Mannarius won’t do that,” Jalingan reminded them. “When it comes to his precious Lionstar, he means what he says – absolutely.”
“Maybe we can find a transport ship that will ferry the Lionstar inside,” Dhruv suggested. “I just don’t think that we can continue to consider that to not be an option.”
“He’s going to have to be humble and accept it,” Jalingan said. “I can help out. Just get him to let me!”
Dhruv shook his head. “There’s no way. First of all, he would insist on paying you back, and you know how he refuses to be indebted to you. Even then, I’m not sure whether he would be able to pay it all back.”
“Come on,” Jalingan said. “It can’t be all that much. What kind of numbers numbers were you given?”
“No way am I telling you that,” the co-pilot said. “Don’t even try asking!”
“Fine,” Jalingan said, “but you’re all being ridiculous!”
“I might have something that could help,” Citlally said, her voice timid and soft.
Everyone look to her. “What do you mean?” Jalingan asked when he saw that Dhruv wasn’t going to.
“There was something that Allanah gave me,” she explained, choosing her words carefully, “when I was back on Sardonia. I can’t remember what she called it, but it sounded kind of important. I can show it to you, if you want.”
“You held onto it for this long?” Jalingan asked. “Wow!”
Endan looked at her curiously. “What is it?” They could tell that she hadn’t yet shown him.
“Let’s see it, then.” Jalingan looked as though his curiosity had been piqued.