Arnett was the first to raise the mug up to his lips. He glared at the large man over his mug rim. The man obliged a return glance, until he threw himself into his stout. The crowd went nuts, chanting. Arnett looked around.
What a sad crowd. His opponent’s two friends and an old man who had taken a liking to Arnett at the bar. Over at another stool, a patron watched over his shoulder. Arnett slowed his drink.
The stout was rough. The kind of thing you could feel hit your stomach. Arnett was not much of a beer drinker as it was, but here he was chugging the strongest brew in the place. He wondered who he did it for.
The large man had already slammed his mug to the table, empty. With a burp he let out a cheer, eyeing Arnett as he pretended to down his drink. With a drunken grin, he grabbed a second mug of the stuff and begun downing that as well with great fervor. His two friends didn’t even notice Arnett put his mug down after attention was off him.
“You alright, son?” said the old man.
“I was never going to beat him,” said Arnett, “But I can always out smart him. Him and his two friends are so far in already, they won’t know the difference.”
Sure enough, Arnett grabbed his second mug, and switched it with the empty mug his opponent had slammed on the table. His two friends didn’t even look up from their cheering, and Arnett shrugged as if to say, ‘See?’.
Arnett slammed the stolen mug on the table again, immediately picking up his original mug and pretending to hurry. This caught the attention of the opponent's team, who looked and laughed at him only just now starting his second drink.
With a mighty roar, the large man’s second mug slammed the table, and he belched victoriously. Only now his eyes seemed to cross, and his cheer was more of a moan.
His two buddies toasted their own drinks with a cheer, and both took very generous swigs. They were too occupied to notice the look of confusion on their drunk friend’s face as he stared at the full mug in front of him. With an angry growl, the big man grabbed the mug and began to drink violently.
Arnett couldn’t resist a grin. Lowering his mug again, he confirmed all three of the large men were deep in drink before he swapped out the mug once more for an empty one. Returning to his fake swigging, he barely caught his opponent slamming the drink down out of the corner of his eyes.
His friends were beginning to get suspicious as they had finished their celebrating, realizing their large friend had finished a third drink. Arnett’s luck held as the large man belched loudly, his face now showing signs of slowness. He stared blankly at the table, and eyed another mug in front of him. Without a single thought, he scooped up the mug, and began to lightly drink from it.
The man’s eyes were glazing over and he stared through Arnett as Arnett watched in awe as he slowly finished off his mug.
Arnett waited until just the end, and slammed his mug down when he thought his opponent was close to finishing. The old man, cackling at Arnett’s trickery, gave out a fake cheer. The man by the bar rolled his eyes, unimpressed with the gag.
The large opponent allowed his empty mug to fall from his hands, clattering onto the table. He didn’t even let out a burp as his eyes crossed and he slammed into the table, hard. His two friends were drunkenly attempting to figure out what had happened, but one jumped to help their passed out companion and forgot the ordeal, the other was more interested in ensuring Arnett’s mugs were actually empty.
Arnett leaned forward, letting out a small burp with great effort. He snatched up the large man’s purse which sat on the table, and collected his own. Arnett winked to the old man, tossing him a few ciams for aiding his con, and stood up, being sure to add a wobble for the performance.
“Gennelman,” slurred Arnett, a smile on his face, “I bid adieu.”
The large passed out man gave a groan, barely touching consciousness. The two drunken friends struggled to lift him, but only managed in all three falling to the floor.
Arnett dropped the act and walked up to the bar.
“I’ll settle the tab,” said Arnett, grinning as he tossed the drunkard’s purse on the counter, “It’s the least I can do with my winnings.”
The bartender shook his head, subtracting the necessary ciam from the small purse before tossing it back at Arnett.
“I assume you are aware of this man’s silent tax?” smiled the Bartender, fondling two ciam himself, “And I suggest you leg it before he awakes. It’ll be more than a tab he’ll want when he comes to.”
“A gentleman doesn’t stay long,” smiled Arnett, “I would appreciate a water, though.”
“Gentleman? You still pulling small scams like that and call yourself a gentleman, Joel?”
Arnett sighed. He closed his eyes and shook his head. However, the moment passed and he put on a joyful face and turned to the speaker.
“If it isn’t Cornelius Zhao. Old friend.”
“Save the sass, Joel,” said Zhao, “What sand storm washed your sorry butt out here?”
“Work always brings us to Astam,” said Arnett, “We get around easily enough. People always want professional services.”
“Yeah, but good help is hard to find these days,” said the man, “Lucky for you, people settle easy enough.”
“How’s the crab-hunt, Corny?”
“How’s the promotion, sod-ball.”
The two were at each others faces. Zhao was a tall, well built man. His tan skin and ragged close did not hide a much better physical body then Arnett’s, and as they stood, glaring at each other, Arnett could tell he wouldn’t win in a fight.
“You need more legs to do half the work as me.”
“You need more crew before you get to even compare to me.”
“You need a fancy title to feel in charge.”
“At least the title I gave to myself means something, Lieutenant. People know I’m in charge of my ship.”
“Ha! That old clunker? It’s practically a platform with legs.”
The two men took a step back, both eyes shooting to the ground. It was Arnett who first smiled and raised his eyes to meet the new figure approaching. A young woman was walking up to the pair. She held a scowl on her face, eye both of the men with distaste. She wore stained overalls and a stained blouse underneath. Her hair was jet black and ear-length, held back by a pair of gritty welding goggles. She had a pair of heavy-duty gloves sticking out of one pocket.
She allowed her glare to focus on Zhao.
“Captain? I didn’t recognize you, bickering like a school boy.”
“Matching wits with your equal, then?” she said, tutting playfully, “My mistake.”
“Hiya, Cyndi,” playfully sang Arnett, “Aw, did you get all cleaned up for me? I’m touched.”
“You still tightening bolts for this loser? How has he kept you around this long?” asked Arnett, “Let me buy you a drink. I got a bunk just your size on the Scorpios II.”
“I highly doubt that,” said the woman, “Nothing on your ship is my size.”
“She’s above you, Drillbit,” said Zhao, “Cyndelle, I was just-”
“Getting a drink, I’m sure,” said Cyndelle, “Why don’t you make your way to the market and restore us on some rice or something. I think you have to be this mature to order the grog from now on, ok? I’ll handle the Scorpion.”
“Woah, I like that,” said Arnett, who winked at Zhao, “The Scorpion will catch you later, Crutches.”
“Watch your step, Drillbit,” said Zhao, “Every day you get closer to a butt whooping.”
“Aw, for free? Gee Mister.”
Zhao walked away but Cyndelle punched Arnett’s shoulder.
“Drillbit, that one will stick,” she said, chuckling to herself, “Why do you yank that chain, Arnett? One day your life might depend on him.”
“Who? Captain tight ass? No way,” said Arnett, turning his attention back to Cyndelle, “What do you see in him? The Cyndelle Nosilla I know wouldn’t-”
“Wouldn’t what? Maker her own way?” said Cyndelle, “What do you know about me, Joel? The same you know about him. Captain Zhao is a lovely, gallant man. He isn’t like the rest of the crews out here in the desert.”
“Because he scoops some Kovy?”
“Whatever needs to be done,” said Cyndelle, “We’ve relocated them from settlements. Altered migration patterns. Sure, we sell a few of the good ones. It’s a dangerous job. But that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Cyndelle hopped up on a bar stool and ordered a beer. She waited for it to be placed in front of her before continuing.
“He cares for his crew. He’d die for each and every one before he allowed any harm to come from them. But he’s also strong. He sees the greatness in them and doesn’t allow them any time to slack on it. He pushes us to be better, faster, stronger. He’s a leader.”
“Good for him,” said Arnett, “He’s pushy. I can be pushy.”
“You can be a good leader,” said Cyndelle, shaking her head, “You would’ve been a great deckhand, you know. As friends, the two of you would’ve done amazing things.”
“Hey, I do amazing things daily,” said Arnett, “I don’t know if you heard: I have my own ship. I also have a nice crew of my own, minus one you.”
“Joel, you know what I mean,” said Cyndelle, “You know, you aren’t the whippy kid I knew all those years ago. You’ve actually grown up a little, dare I say it.”
“Say it,” smiled Arnett, pretending to bask in the praise, “I have become quite a stud.”
“Just, think about it, ok?” said Cyndelle, downing her beer quickly, “There’s a lot more use out of you when you aren’t doing… this.”
She gestured behind Arnett, who turned at the pile of bodies groaning on the floors. One of the big guy’s friends began to try to stand, cursing as he did so. Arnett turned back, shrugging.
“Abbot likes it. You’d like him.”
“Abbot? Who’s that?”
“Sweet kid. Probably the second best person on the Scorpios II, by far.”
“What happened to-”
“The answer to that question involves something about separate ways and a packed bag,” said Arnett, shrugging, “But Abbot, he makes me forget ol’ what’s his name.”
“Joel, you go through more people than I can count,” moaned Cyndelle, closing her eyes, “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Come on, That Norman guy. He was just… too gun happy.”
“Alexander? You know, there’s so many Alexanders…”
“You have got to be kidding me,” said Cyndelle, standing up and paying for her beer, “The little nervous kid?”
“OH! Fired,” answered Arnett, “He was, like, three gunners ago, I think.”
“He wasn’t good.”
Cyndelle shook her head, before giving a half hearted salute to Arnett.
“Lieutenant Drillbit, maybe one day you’ll figure it out,” she said, “But for today, I guess you are lost.”
“I accept your apology,” said Arnett, “I’ll see you bright and early on board. Lunch is at three. We’ll ship off as soon as we can.”
“Can’t, I’m needed,” said Cyndelle, “Even if I wanted to, they need me at the Grand Prix. We got a real-”
“Grand Prix? You gotta be kidding me,” said Arnett, “Is that a thing?”
“Catch you around, Drillbit,” smiled Cyndelle as she walked for the door, “My path is to White Haven as fast as we can go.”
Arnett let out a small sigh, before turning to eye the commotion behind him. The two friends of the large guy were stirring, and moth of them were angry. Arnett winced and decided it was time to bail.
Jumping down from the barstool, Arnett lost no time running out of the bar into the hot, smothering sunlight of Astam Junction.