Welcome to another free read Wednesday!
We’re back for the most recent addition to my new story, presented through the flash fiction group Wednesday Briefers.
Each week, the contributing members write a chapter/story with a maximum of 1000 words, trying to get the most out of the word limit. For me, it helps keep me writing when my schedule gets tight. Win/win!
Arad and Roku share a meal with the Nightingale crew.
Missed the first installment and want to start at the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
“Bryce isn’t eating with us?” The spicy aroma made Arad’s stomach growl as he took a conservative scoop of noodles from the serving bowl. The Nightingale either had a much better food selection or a proper cook. Maybe both.
“Don’t take it personal. She prefers her own space.” Seated next to Hodge, Yosei poured water into cups from a plastic pitcher.
Bryce’s voice hovered out of the ceiling. “But I do like to join the conversation.”
“And her decontamination protocols.” Sarcasm dripped from Yosei’s words, but her cups didn’t spill a drop as she passed them around the table to Roku, Arad, and the rest of the crew.
“I’ve never had meningitis.”
“Neither have any of us, which I must say seems highly unlikely given all of our pasts, but if it keeps you from going psycho and murdering us all in our sleep, you do your thing.”
A soft chorus of chuckling circled the group which included Bryce. Arad knew contagious insanity didn’t exist, but witnessing this version began to shake his beliefs.
“You get used to it.” Hodge reached over and slid the main dish closer to Arad. “Here, have a little more. We have plenty. You’re not on the streets. You don’t have to ration it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Nothing I haven’t seen, or lived, before. No shame in survival.”
Arad took another full ladle, grateful the noodles were spicy. It would explain the heat in his face and neck. He’d been reducing his meal size, little by little, for the last two weeks to compensate for Roku’s needs. In Grey District, free meals were hard to come by for those with nothing, so stretching food was an unfortunate skill he didn’t like to broadcast.
Before he’d been cast out, Arad’s family had grown increasingly distant, too obsessed with financial matters to cultivate their personal relationships. The Nightingale crew bantered amongst themselves with a familiarity Arad never knew yet longed for just the same. The differences in how they all interacted only heightened his sense of otherness while it warred with his need to belong. Yet, this ragtag lot of misfits enjoyed each other’s company and radiated closeness. Even Yosei, as the newest acquisition, appeared to enjoy the bond, smiling and joking with them all. Is this what family is?
As is sensing his unease, Roku reached over and placed his hand on Arad’s thigh. The warm pressure centered Arad at once, reminding him, Nightingale or not, he wasn’t alone anymore.
Conversation continued to flow as they ate, and Arad felt more and more like one of the group as the meal went on. Casual chat eventually shifted to the Ansariland, and Yosei rambled off her newfound knowledge of the ship’s schematics as they planned their repair schedule.
“From what I’ve seen, the hull breach isn’t massive and doesn’t intersect any major internal systems. It’s mostly a panel rupture, so we should be able to patch it and restore access to the engines. After that we should be able to restart the core and get them running.”
Hodge nodded. “Sounds good. We have a stretch before our next appointment. Do we have enough time?”
“I’ll have time to upgrade a few systems as well. Some of the OS protocols are over two versions behind the current model. I have to deal with that so the ship doesn’t explode.”
Alarmed, Arad spun to Hodge, who promptly shook his head.
“No ship ever explodes from old software. Pakko, can you suit up early tomorrow and seal that hole?”
“I suppose I could be persuaded to help out our handsome neighbors.” Pakko leaned over so he could peer under the table. “I like your clothing choices. Kilts rock.”
Roku’s wardrobe was still comprised of what few items of Tank’s old wardrobe could be modified for use. His black t-shirt had been slashed open at the neck and down the sides to give him breathing room. The kilt only reached mid-thigh and like other had to be split near to the hip to avoid indecent exposure.
“I don’t own much. Hopefully if we get the engines functional, I can get something less revealing.”
“Do you see me complaining?”
Arad agreed with Pakko, but he wasn’t about to encourage him. While he didn’t want to think of Roku with anyone else, he knew the tiger was too even tempered to be baited so easily. Even after the scene in the cargo bay, Pakko couldn’t be completely put off. Apparently, if the scowl that vanished as fast as it appeared was any indication, Vosh took issue with Pakko’s flirting. Understandable given their obvious relationship. Pakko seemed hardwired for polyamory and Vosh… not as much. He’d been sizing them up since they’d arrived—normal for security staff—even as he slurped down the last of his food. At first Arad assumed it was simply a case of being cautious, but now he wasn’t so sure.
With a sly grin, Vosh turned his attention on Roku. “You look pretty sturdy, Roku. How much you bench?”
Roku shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“I’ve heard some felines are quick but not as strong, but tigers can be both.”
“I haven’t spent much time figuring it out. The Ansariland’s equipment is designed for human strength, not DemiShou.”
“I can think of a few ways to test it.”
“Oh here we go…” Hodge rolled his eyes with a laugh as he sat back in his chair.
“What are you suggesting?”
“A little sparring action in the gym. You and me.” Vosh’s idea would seem innocent enough to a casual observer, but Hodge’s reaction confirmed Arad’s suspicion. Every con he’d ever seen and performed happened much the same way. Start a line of suggestions. Lead the mark where you want him to go. Then go for the prize, using their ego against them if necessary. “Unless you think you can’t handle it.”
“Roku…”—Arad put a hand on Roku’s wrist, grinning at Vosh—“Kick his ass.”
Want to start from the beginning? Click here for Chapter 1
Be sure to check out the other Wednesday Briefers!