0.2 - Auld Acquaintance

Part 1: Introductions

The hulking noob sidles up next to Chon-Zek. It’s actually, he notes, an almost graceful movement, for all the brute’s size.

“Hey,” the noob says.

I am a professional, Chon-Zek considers. Fraternization for the sake of idle banter and chit-chat is distracting and unproductive – but establishing lines of communication can lead improve the job outcome both through a sense of false camaraderie and by learning more of a co-combatant’s capabilities. Also, as improbable as it seems, this lunk might someday be competition.

“Hey,” Chon-Zek says, his head barely nodding, showing no outward sign of his internal deliberations. He believes that keeping a stoic, unreadable, even inscrutable visage is the sign of being a professional.

“Are … am, being called Twigs.”

Chon-Zek barely nods again, as they both watch for the target to arrive at the 89th floor lobby. I know that already, dolt. The boss introduced us.

“You am being called Chon-Zek.”

Another bare nod, if with flared nostrils.

The noob grins. “Is first job with partner, not gang.”

Is there a point to this? Chon-Zek fears not.

“Am … to ask you … for answer?”

Chon-Zek finally turns and looks at him. “If it pertains to the job, fine. If not, would you please … be … quiet?”

The noob’s brow furrows. Chon-Zek assumes that, even with a xeno, that means concentration and thought. Parsing my words. I didn’t ask to babysit this creature. I hope he can do the job. Though, to be fair, the boss wouldn’t have saddled Chon-Zek with an incompetent. At least, he’d assumed the boss wouldn’t. Perhaps this is a test.

The noob’s facial expression changes, and a serrated smile breaks across his face. “Ah! Yes, is good question for job answering.”

The creature talks as crudely as his size would imply. Chon-Zek has always known that there’s a certain class of bruisers, muscle, leg-breakers, who are good for little more than combat fodder and intimidation. Some are hired for their stature; others might show promise, but the hard life of physical violence takes its toll, leaving them as dimwitted as their appearance indicates.

This noob is probably of that last category, assuming he ever had the native intelligence to rise much higher. I’ve never even seen one of his race before.

Chon-Zek is aware, at least from an academic standpoint, of the dangers of judging intelligence by appearance, especially when language is a problem. But it’s still hard to shake that prejudice.

The noob nods again. “So, what is Chon-Zek?”

Now it’s his turn to furrow brow. “What do you mean?” Is he looking for a resume? Is he unsure of my species? Is he simply confused?

“Is Chon-Zek … like Twigs?”

Nope. No better. Chon-Zek sighs. “I honestly have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Ah. Speaking clearer. More clear.” The noob nibbles one lip with a lower canine the size of Chon-Zek’s thumb. “Am being called Twigs because … break bones like … tree small branches. Snap! So, Twigs!” He gives a gravelly chuckle of triumph. “Is … Chon-Zek … funny word for something?”

Chon-Zek stares for a moment. I don’t have to answer to this … looming creature. I – But he finds his mouth moving in a different direction. “I am being – I am called Chon-Zek because that is my name. I am of the clan-sept Chon, the third or brightest of my generation, Zek. It is my name, and I use it with –”

He reins himself in. Some Syndicate types prefer to hid behind aliases. Others take on noms de guerre, of their own choosing or that of their peers or bosses, to convey a reputation or intimidate their foes – just like the incongruous “Twigs” before him.

Chon-Zek has always considered himself above all that. His family has a long tradition within the Syndicates, sometimes under as many as five different capos, but always proudly bearing their true name, trusting that it would provide sufficient reputation and intimidation. If you took his name back even further – the more formal Traveyn Kif Chon-Zek – one would recognize individuals known for Syndicate activities and triumphs for generations.

“Oh,” the noob says, looking strangely disappointed. “Was hoping words mean … something important.”

A red light goes off behind Chon-Zek’s eyes. “It is my name, dolt!,” he hisses. “It is the most important words, most important thing of all!” He pokes the noob in the chest – well, the abdomen, perhaps. “It is a name that I bear with pride, a name that already has gathered the reputation necessary to lead this job, and I will not have you or any other walking pile of muscle and bone question –”

“Hold thought,” the noob says, his hands shooting out to grab Chon-Zek’s upper arms. Before he can protest, the noob has quickly, but gently, set him aside. Then the noob runs – Seven Stars, how he can run! – out into the elevator lobby, where the target has just stepped in, the doors closing behind him. The noob is on the target before Chon-Zek can react, let alone the target realizing what is going on well enough to pull the gun by his side. A mighty punch down onto the target’s head, and then in another moment the target, all 130-odd kilos of him, is flying over an adjacent balcony.

It’s unlikely the damage from the punch will be discernible after an 89-story drop.

The noob strolls back to Chon-Zek. “Sorry, no fun for you, but am seeing – am saw gun, so thought better to make quick, yes?” He offers another toothy grin.

Chon-Zek just stares. “He – you –” Ancestors, this idiot distracted me, made me take my eyes off the job – and then actually executed it. He – how dare --?

“Ha!” the noob barks out a laugh. “Next time let you have first go. Or maybe fight you for it, yes? Even with simple name that means nothing, bet you good fight!” He claps Chon-Zek on one shoulder. “No worries, friend. Here, share my not-clever name with you, too. Am named Yae Kvyr.”

“Yae Kvyr”

“Yes, you get good … but bad accent.” He claps Chon-Zek on the shoulder again with bruising strength. “But maybe go now before goon squad come? Just like smart guy, yes?”

The noob, Twigs – Yae – turns and heads down the hall toward the evac stairs. Chon-Zek stares at him, glances back at the elevator lobby, then hurries to catch up … feeling strangely like he’s been behind all night.

Part 2 - Promotions

“You don’t frighten me!”

Actually, the clerk of the import/export shop looks terrified – sweat on skin, knuckles white on the broom she’s handling like a combat staff, slight tremor in the voice. Chon-Zek has studied the signs. He’s calculated four ways to deal with the clerk, based on traditional Syndicate practices, matrixed against the priorities of future Syndic use of this firm for moving goods in and out of the system, further possible use of the clerk once she can be blackmailed for past cooperation, the risk the clerk will not be adequately cowed and might actually talk with her associates or even the cops, and the need to set an overt example for others who might resist Syndic blandishments or commands (balanced against the desirability for a covert example that won’t attract law enforcement).

Chon-Zek has come to the vaguely regretful conclusion that the risks of letting the clerk – a middle-aged woman named Janis Akitan – walk away from this late-night confrontation in her shop might outweigh her future utility. In which case, taking care of the matter quickly and quietly and terminally is probably for the best, and might even let the Syndicate insert the next person in the job as their own inside person.

Unfortunately, much to his frustration, it isn’t his decision to make. The Boss has put this particular job under the leadership of the “partner” assigned with him. Chon-Zek has been fairly successful in staying away from the hulking brute for the past few years – there are inevitable path-crossings, of course, but nothing where he’s had to rely in the undisciplined lout. He no longer thinks of Twigs as a noob, of course – the xeno has enough notches on his arm to garner some respect from his fellow muscles and leg breakers and hatchet men – but it doesn’t mean that Chon-Zek is at all sanguine about following Twigs’s lead here.

Besides which, the whole matter is ridiculous. My skills, my knowledge, my legacy, all clearly make me the man the Organization ought to be investing authority into. To take orders from this once-indentured xeno barbarian is appalling. It’s just – not right, not the way things ought to go.

Chon-Zek has done some research into his associate, searching into files he really ought not have access to, but considering it a worthwhile risk investment. The creature still barely speaks recognizable Interlac, and while he’s clearly a quick study in imitating use of technology, he comes from a primitive, backwater people who were too stupid to accommodate and survive. How has this dolt been given lead on this job, compared to – well, what I can offer?

The lamp goes on. Ah. That’s the trick. This is a test. Can I get along with someone I consider unqualified without question? It’s something any Syndic leader would want to know. But, beyond that … Can I advise persuasively, and turn a potentially critical failure into a success? Do I seize the initiative, effectively take command, and prove my superiority and worthiness of advancement?

He considers the arguments needed to sway Twigs to the obvious conclusion about what needs doing. He might let the thug start taking the wrong course, then correct him, but that’s probably too risky – the creature is mercurial at best, and if this goes south, Chon-Zek does not intend to go down with it. He opens his mouth …

“Why?” Twigs says to the clerk, head tilted.

Chon-Zek has been deep enough in thought that he has to replay the conversation thus far. So, apparently, does the clerk.

“‘Why’?” she asks, questioning the question.

“Why you are not frightened?” Twigs says. He sounds genuinely curious. “You are facing two very dangerous crooks,” he continues. Chon-Zek winces internally, and sighs. Yes, all fine and well to be deemed “very dangerous” by this walking meat grinder. But it’s – well declasse, not to mention possibly risky, to call oneself a “crook” to a potential victim. One makes reference to the “Organization” or “My Employers,” and to oneself as a “businessman” or “interested party” or, if wanting to lay on a bit more implied threat, a “problem solver” or “troubleshooter.”

Calling oneself a crook or thug or killer or hitter – well, that just always ends up in some audio file played in court. Idiot.

“You – you don’t frighten me,” the woman says. “I – my husband was bigger than you. I showed him the – the risks of trying to push me around.”

Twigs gets a big, pointy-toothed grin on his face. He throws a glance at Chon-Zek. “Liking this one. Has spunk!”

“Tick-tock,” Chon-Zek says back. “We don’t have time for this. She’s uncooperative. We should kill her and move on.”

Twigs frowns, the brow between those two horns visibly furrowing even with the overhanging hat brim shading his face. “That hardly seems like any fun.”

“This is not ‘fun’!” Chon-Zek bites off, then catches himself. Calm! Be the voice of reason – assuming can respond to that . “The Boss – our employer – wishes the woman’s cooperation. She won’t give it. Her successor might … if we make an appropriate example of her.”

Twigs nods slowly. “Hmm. Yesssss, but – am in charge. Will make sure Boss is happy, but –" Twigs turns back to the woman, whose hands gripping the broom are visibly trembling. But she’s not backing down, the stupid cow. She’s brought this on herself. “Tell me, if try to ‘kill you and move on,’ what you do?”

“I’ll – I’ll fight you! With my dying breath!”

“You think you can beat? Can win?”

“You just try me. Even if I lose, you’ll know you’ve been in a match, I’ll tell you.” She spits on the counter between them.

“HA!” Twigs barks out a loud laugh. To Chon-Zek he says, “Really liking this one. Make good wife for someone like you.” Both Chon-Zek and the Akitan woman sputter, as Twigs turns back to her, and says, “Okay.”

She stops sputtering. “Oookay?”

"We fight.”

Chon-Zek smiles, lips thin. At last. Enough wasting time.

She swallows, then regrips the broom. “I’m – I’m ready!" She snorts, the noise coming out as half-gasp. "You’re brave enough, two against one. That’s the way you prove your manliness?”

Twigs laughs. “Of course not.” He turns to Chon-Zek. “Which one should fight her first? Must decide.”

Chon-Zek starts. “Wait, decide what now?”

“You are right,” Twigs says, nodding. “Elimination bout.”


That’s when Twigs’ fist comes out of nowhere and slams into Chon-Zek’s face.

The darkness goes from comforting to painful gradually, until Chon-Zek’s eyes snap open (painfully), and he sits up (even more painfully).

“No, no, you rest,” Twigs’ voice says, a massive hand pushing him (still further painfully) back down against the cushion.

Those are probably the wrong – or least helpful – words to say. “What? Wait --” Chon-Zek says, trying to shift away from that restraint, but coming up against the back of the sofa. “The hell? You hit me!”

“Yes, yes, did hit you!” Twigs replies. Chon-Zek’s eyes are focusing. His nemesis’ face is wreathed in a grin. “And you hit back, quite hard!” He holds up his left arm, wrapped in a bone-knit sleeve. “See? Very precise blow for man looking so dizzy.” The hulking figure, sitting on a chair next to him – Chon-Zek can see they are in the waiting room of the boss’ office – chuckles. “Take a sucker punch well. Will remember that.”

“I –” Chon-Zek has no idea how he got here. “What – the Akitan woman, what happened --?”

“Oh.” Twigs looks a little disappointed. “After elimination, said she gave up. Is in with Boss now, making arrangements. Boss is very happy, said to tell you. Woman was worried about you, but told her you are tough guy, probably not suffering any permanent damage, especially with excellent med tech people here have, yes? Almost as good as food. Back on homeworld, it --”

“Yae,” Chon-Zek says, using Twigs’ actual name to interrupt the commentary. “How – did I get here?”

He frowns. “Philosophy? Not sure have right words to explain Folian ontology, story of creation, but will –”

“No, here. On this couch. In the boss’ office.” He swallows. He hurts all over, his head is ringing, and he can see that one of his legs is in a sleeve similar to Twigs’, mercifully numb. “Please tell me you didn’t –”

“Could not leave you at shipping office, Chon-Zek,” Twigs says, looking somewhat affronted. “Unprofessional. Carried you.”

“Carried –”

“Arm was broken, so had to sling over shoulder.” He chuckles. “Probably good thing you sleeping. Not helpful if you are screaming. Goon squad might notice.”

Chon-Zek closes his eyes. “Through the front office.”

“Well, was bringing woman, too, so yes.” Twigs nods. “Other muscle all very concerned for you, thinking woman beat you up. Am telling them, no, how you knocked out, and they think is great story, want to hear it again later with drinking. Maybe you feel good enough, join along with drinking.”

My reputation – a dozen generations, two dozen, and this …. He shudders.

Twigs grins. “Not bad for first job in charge – get woman to cooperate, and bring back story for drinks. You think maybe boss let you back me up again on other jobs?”

Chon-Zek sighs, lies back, and tries to let the blessed, painless, unembarrassing darkness reclaim him.

Part 3 - Resignation

“And where the holy fuck do you think you’re going, Twigs?”

Twigs, in his usual duster and hat, but with a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder, looks away from the shuttle station newswall. “Ah! Friend Chon-Zek – you come to say farewell! Did not expect, but welcome to happening.”

Chon-Zek’s hands are on his hips, his face stern. No, not again. I am not letting this buffoon – “Firstly, I am not your friend, Twigs.” Anything but. You’ve made my life miserable since I first met you, and in the three years since that incident with the Akitan woman, there are still people who call me “Sucker Punch.” No, we are not friends. “Second, I am returning from off-planet, where the Boss had me straightening out matters with a group of miners. I had no idea you were going anywhere, and, in fact, have been told you are not. The Boss is not happy with you, Twigs, which delights me to no end.”

The xeno is frowning under his wide-brimmed hat. “You are – leaning on little children?” He shakes his head. “This is why am not working with Boss more. Besides, this is not sector where things will be happening.”

Chon-Zek blinks. “Leaning on – oh, for Setra’s sake, you idiot. Miners, not minors. People who extract raw materials, not younglings.”

“Oh. Oh, ha! That’s good to know. Was worried about you, friend Chon-Zek. People who prey on children, they are --”

“I told you, I’m not –" He pauses, his brain catching up with all the Twigs twaddle. "Wait, not working with the Boss – Twigs, are you deserting? Without permission? Without paying your release fee?”

The xeno shrugs, a gesture that always looks a bit odd to Chon-Zek, given the alien’s skeletal structure. “As you said, Boss not happy. No way to make happy and still do what must do. So …” Twigs shrugs again.

Chon-Zek grins broadly. “Ah, but this makes me very, very happy.”

“How so, friend Chon-Zek?”

He doesn’t let even that minor, repeated irritation break into his pleasure. “Because it means that I can finally kill you.” And with a backward flick of his wrist, the forearm holster pushes the holdout pistol into Chon-Zek’s hand, and he pulls the trigger.

Chon-Zek has been studying Twigs for years, usually to his own physical detriment, but learning as he did how the xeno moves, what his tactics are, what his vulnerabilities are likely to be. He knows Twigs is fast, but even he has to obey physics and even his remarkable muscles can only push him from a dead stop so fast. Chon-Zek is sure that he can point and fire at this range, with this limited a warning, before Twigs can get out of the way.

Unfortunately, the one-shot blast doesn’t dead-hit the xeno, but the duffel bag that Twigs hurls in his direction – a heavy weight, but far easier to throw than getting the multi-meter tall body moving to dive for cover.

The bolt punches through the duffel, but deflected and refracted enough to make Chon-Zek wonder what Twigs has in there. It’s a distracting thought that comes even as he realizes that the xeno isn’t taking advantage of the throw to dive for cover but –

– charge.

“Shit!” Chon-Zek shouts as he starts to reach reach for his regular pistol, then aborts that move to block the swing that Twigs is throwing at him.

It’s an instinctive move, a move he’s trained for, and a horrible mistake that Chon-Zek recognizes an instant or two too late. Twigs’ very name gives the clue as to why, even as a block that would work against most attackers, from Hegemon Knife Fighters to the Governor’s Haremnists from his own homeworld, fails here. There’s too much force, too much impact from the blow to safely deflect it, even with proper angle and movement – and he feels the bones in his left forearm fracture, sacrificing themselves (to give them credit) to keep the punch from landing solidly.

Chon-Zek spins around in full circle from the conveyed momentum, trying to move away from the living freight transport that is the xeno even as he stumbles and falls at his feet, shrieking in pain as he rolls over the crippled limb.

The light crowds on the shuttle platform have mostly scattered – this neighborhood on Mitchell is used to such violence breaking out, and know that blasters don’t distinguish between combatants and collateral damage. Chon-Zek scrabbles backwards across the ground with his feet and one elbow until he comes up against waste container, spilling over with greasy paper and empty cups. Twigs looms over him, a broad smile wreathing his face. “No, no,” the xeno says, “am thinking you cannot kill me. But you can give good workout!”

Twigs pauses, then puts a hand to his side, and draws it back with a wince. Chon-Zek’s blaster bolt did actually, partially, strike home, and the human can now see the charred scar in the other’s coat. “You can’t run, Twigs,” he says, is voice thin with the strain of his own pain. “The Boss, the Syndicate, they won’t forget. They’ll hunt you down. Nobody leaves without permission. Nobody leaves without payoff.”

Twigs shrugs, which again ends in obvious pain. “Yeah, knowing the drill. But – need money to get to where am going more than Boss needs. Plus …” he trails off, making vague, abortive gestures with his thick-fingered hands. “Am liking to fight, yes, but Boss, she just likes hurting people to get their money, to have power. No, wait –” He pauses, then corrects himself, “Okay, am liking fighting to get money, too. But is nothing personal! But … well, not sure is personal for Boss, either.”

Twigs purses his lips, then holds up one meaty finger. “Got it! Is some people Boss wants to hurt who cannot hurt back. Yes? Isn’t fun. Isn’t fitting. Take out other capo or muscle, or lean on business guy who has bodyguards, or breaking into shop of competitor and messing things up or robbing payroll – even leaning on someone who is blackmailing or has other leverage for power, yes, then using fists is both fun and profit. But little old man late on payments for shark loan? Threatening kids of uncooperative politico – no, those are not good things. No. Will not do any more.”

Chon-Zek shakes his head. “You’re mad.”

The xeno frowns. “No, no just a little irritated. Was good gig, learned much.” He breaks into a sharp-toothed grin. “Learned very much, like where am needing to be going. Backtracking trail of people, see if door can be knocked on and opened. If not?” He chuckles. “Will find way to spend time until it can be.”

Chon-Zek ponders whether he should cross-draw the dagger he has in a pull sheath up his left jacket arm, but it would hurt like hell and probably just get his other, uninjured hand stomped into the plascrete platform. Besides, he knows Twigs well enough to recognize he’s probably – probably – no longer in danger, no “fun” to fight, unless he makes himself an actual threat.

Next time. And there will be a next time.

Aloud, he says only, “They’ll hunt you down, Twigs.”

The grin becomes, if anything, wider. “If so, will be another way to spend time, while waiting.”

“Waiting for what, damn you?”

Twigs crouches down beside him. “For door to open,” he says, his voice lowered as if conveying some great and terrible (if amusing) secret. “Then see what is on other side. With luck, family.”

“Your family is dead, Twigs,” Chon-Zek snarls. It’s probably unwise as a provocation, but he feels the need to strike out, to hurt this xeno in some fashion, emotionally if he can’t manage it physically. They’re all dead on that stupid little barbarian mushroom world you call home. There is no family for you any more.”

Something crosses the xeno’s face, an emotion Chon-Zek. “Ah. Maybe. Maybe not. Back on Old Country, maybe not.” He snorts, then the smile is back. “But, if so, at least have made friends here.” He grabs Chon-Zek’s hand, gives it a vigorous shake.

Unfortunately, it’s Chon-Zek’s left hand. The one with the broken splintered bones connecting it to the rest of his body. He screams.

The xeno frowns. “You should see that is looked to,” he says, gravely, getting to his feet. “Good-bye, friend Chon-Zek.” He turns to leave.

“I’ll –“ His voice is hoarse . He gulps down air, trying to overcome the waves of red pain coming from his arm, lying at a horrible angle on his chest where Twigs dropped it. “I’ll kill you, Twigs. I swear by my ancestors, I’ll fucking kill you!” His good hand starts to fumble, awkwardly, cross-handed, for his pistol.

The xeno stops, turns back. “Ah. Now that sounds like fun.” He raises one of his great-toed bare feet, and smashes Chon-Zek’s head into the pavement. As consciousness spirals away into darkness, Chon-Zek can hear the xeno say, “But no longer ‘Twigs.’ You call me by right name, I tell you before. You remember, yes? Yae."

Part 4: Outsmarted

The groundtruck slides to a quiet halt behind the flophouse. It sits there for a few minutes, its windows opaque, with only the light ting of cooling powerplant metal giving it any sign of life.

Then the cab door opens, and Chon-Zek gets out, his eyes flicking about behind smartgoggles, calculating angles, compensating for the pools of darkness in the late night gloom of Harriman City.

Beyond the goggles, he’s dressed a little differently than he was a several months back, at least to a professional’s eye. Bounty hunting is not the same as leg-breaking and general goonery, and drawing on his professional knowledge, plus the stories he heard during many dozen family dinners growing up, he’s dressed for the role. His overcoat has some nice built-in tech, ablative panels and impact-reducing fabrics built-in, and it can even double as a survival shelter if reconfigured properly. It cost him a tidy cred, and he’s aware that his cash reserves are low, what with the equipment and travel costs, the bribes paid to draw on his Syndicate contacts to try and find his prey, and all of that on top the debt he went into buying out his membership in the branch of the Syndicate he belonged to.

And that doesn’t count the cost of the truck’s cargo.

They could have given me a leave of absence. After all I’ve done, my legacy – even with the embarassment, they could have – but, no …

Chon-Zek realizes he’s gone way out on a limb, financially, professionally, and even emotionally. The Boss advised him against it – “Vengeance is only good business when it’s about business, not vengeance” – but he took the plunge. It was never a choice. Pride, anger, fear – all drove him to it, and carried him the past months. He’s pulled in a few bounties along the way, small, petty targets, for practice, for creds, to start to build a name. He’s had no time for more, consumed by his real hunt.

But it will all have been worth it if he can bag this particular bounty. It will restore his reputation, certainly. And it will, yes, net him a pretty cred from the Syndicate for recovering a deserter. And as far as emotional payback goes …

Chon-Zek eyes the largely-dark flophouse, the goggles helping him to see a few figures in windows, perhaps watching him back. He mentally reviews the reports he’s gotten back on his target’s movements, and gets out of the dank air, back into the truck to wait.

I’m not sure what will happen after tonight. Do I continue with this career? Or do I return to the Syndicate, resuming my life there, within their embrace, furthering my family’s destiny? He is enough self-aware to realize that such a question must wait for the morning. All he knows is that the long hunt is over, his prey is found, and all that is left is to enjoy the show.

Chon-Zek watches, and waits. The back street is mostly the backs of buildings, many of them showing just blank walls. A few are desolate and abandoned, at least one tumbled down in an earthquake into a field of rubble and weeds.

And it’s quiet, especially within the cab of the truck. Not even the occasional warble of goon squad vehicles can be heard.

At length, he sees in the rear view mirrors, what he has been waiting for, coming from the direction predicted.

Yae strolls down the back street like he hasn’t a care in the world. The lighting on this street, three or four layers off the main drag, is hit or miss, wide-spaced poles, half of them malfunctioned or vandalized, but there’s enough with the smart optics of the goggles to catch Yae’s silhouette, his size, that ridiculous hat …

Chon-Zek’s local contact (an appallingly expensive private detective agency here on the planet, which irritatingly refused to give him a Syndicate rate any longer) spotted the xeno three weeks ago, recognized him from the flyer Chon-Zek had sent out, and tracked his movements regularly to and from this flophouse. There is no other reliable nexus of behavior; the xeno’s been spending some time at the spaceport (far too crowded for Chon-Zek’s purposes), but the target’s other outings have been hitting – dining at – little eateries and restaurants all around the city – with no pattern discernible and no repeat visits.

Well, of course. If I owned a restaurant and that oaf visited, I’d do my best to be sure he didn’t return, either.

At any rate, the flophouse seems the best location, both because he returns to it each night and because the types staying there – transient spacers, people down on their luck and spiraling into homelessness and death, folk desperately hoping to for a break to let them get off-planet, that sort – aren’t likely to complain about a disturbance, or be listened to if they do.

Chon-Zek steps once more out of the cab. Show time, you son of a bitch. On hitting the crumbling plascrete pavement, he calls out, “Yae Kvyr!”

The figure, a few dozen meters away, pauses. Then he points a beefy finger. “Friend Chon-Zek!” He holds open his arms as though Chon-Zek should run forward into a bone-cracking embrace.

Chon-Zek smiles, and taps the programmed softbutton on his handcomm.

The rear of the truck opens, and the beast leaps out.

It occurs to Chon-Zek, not for the first time, that there are much simpler ways of killing a being. A shot in the back. A snipe from a rooftop. But those would be … unsatisfying, at best. A Yae whose head was blown off, a hole punched through his torso, would die far too quickly for Chon-Zek’s liking

Besides which, worst-case scenario, the lumbering xeno would duck at the wrong moment, or the gun would jam, or the shot wouldn’t actually kill him. Ditto for rigging a bomb in his room, that sort of thing.

No, for certainty and for poetry, Chon-Zek knows that Yae must not only be killed, but defeated.

The pengristch bounds out of the back of the truck, hitting the ground with a tremor that Chon-Zek can feel through his boot soles. It stands two meters tall at the fore-shoulders, its four limbs as big around as a standard human torso, massive hooked claws exceeded in their terrifying size only by its cavernous maw, which could likely bite that same hypothetical human in half. Its stench of chlorine and rotten meat is staggering.

Chon-Zek paints Yae with a green laser target from his handcomm, and pushes a second softbutton, triggering (so he’s been assured by the “exotic creatures” merchant from whom he rented the beast) the attack instinct. The pengristch’s central eye snaps to the light, it lets out a roar that seems like to break every window on the block, then it bounds toward Yae –

– who has been standing there, seemingly frozen in terror, staring at the creature.

“Is beautiful!” the xeno finally intones. “But did not get you any—”

The pengristch lands its last jump directly in front of the xeno, dwarfing even his mighty frame, and bats him aside with a massive paw.

Yae flies through the air and crashes into the building across the street. The pengristch bounds after him, and he barely has a moment to get back to his feet, shout “Yes!”, then – Chon-Zek can’t see, but it looks like the creature is attempting to swallow him whole. Or perhaps half, which would suit Chon-Zek just as well.

There are dueling roars and yelling in the shadows by the wall, and Chon-Zek has to step a bit closer and to the side to see what is going on. He stares when he sees that Yae has somehow managed to brace his feet against the wall, and used that support to grab the pengristch’s upper and lower jaws, holding them open beyond the ability of the creature to close them, even as it howls and scrabbles to get proper purchase, its clawed limbs digging deep gouges into the plascrete below.

For what it’s worth, Yae himself is clearly being pushed to the limit, face in a grimace, letting out a series of grunting, hooting sounds of strain and despair and –

No! No, he’s not – he’s laughing. Laughing by all the --!

“Dammit, Yae,” he screams. “I’m trying to kill you! Stop enjoying this!”

The xeno’s grimace turns upward slightly into a broad grin. “No!”

Chon-Zek stomps his foot. “See!? This is exactly why I’m trying to kill you!” He stomps on the ground again. “Every time, you just laugh and laugh and joke and don’t take anything important seriously!”

Yae gives a final sideways shove, pushing the pengristch aside so that its forward lunge drives it into the cast block wall with a loud thud. “You are wrong, my friend. I take this very seriously.” He puts all of his weight into a massive punch at the side of the pengristch’s head. “It is the sort of challenge that even the women will sing songs of! If any of them knew –”

The pengristch lashes out, a massive backhand from a forelimb sending Yae ass-over-teakettle through the air, landing with a loud bang atop a garbage skip.

Chon-Zek growls at the creature, which is now just standing there, somewhat dazed from the impact. He targets Yae again with the laser and presses the attack button. The pengristrch roars and races toward Yae, who’s rolling off the skip, while Chon-Zek chortles. “I’ve got you this time, Yae. Always the strongest, always the biggest – but not anymore! Not anymore!”

Yae makes a snorting sound. “You wound, Chon-Zek. Am not always biggest – though, maybe mostly am, since homeworld.” He sidesteps the charging beast deftly, though with a bit of a stagger at the end. “But as child did fight bigs –” He waits a moment until the pengristch charges him again, then leaps forward, like some insane game of hopfrog from Chon-zek’s childhood, legs splayed to either side, thick fingers looking tiny interlocked on the pengristch’s head. He vaults the beast, hits the ground behind it, and runs as fast as he can back toward the other side of the street.

“—and learned things, and from fighting smallers,” Yae shouts over his shoulder, pursued by the pengristrch. He reaches the other side, and dives forward himself, grabbing a light pole (it bends precariously), swinging himself around in a circle, and slams both of his feet into the side of the creature’s head.

Even with the size disparity, the impact is enough to stagger the pengristch. Howling, it lashes out again, claws snapping the light standard.

“Ha!” Yae grabs up the light pole, a four meter length of extruded polycarbon fiber, and hefts it like pike. “Now, see how smart beast is, too. And take good look.” He pokes it lightly with the end of the pole, which is still glowing. “Is pengristch, from Wilhelm, I think.”

“You know it?” Chon-Zek boggles.

Yae shrugs, gives the creature another poke, a bit harder. “Have read, just a little – but no spoilers! Never thought would meet.” He gives another poke. “Do owe you for experience,” he adds, politely.

The bounty hunter fumes. The creature is batting lightly (relatively speaking) at the end of the pole, but not charging, or biting it off, or knocking it out of Yae’s hands. I was promised a savage, unstoppable killer, dammit! He play the green laser across Yae’s chest again, attracting the beast’s attention, then stabs his thumb down on the handcomm to trigger the attack response.

The creature screams with range, but instead of any of the responses Chon-Zek was expecting (or, it seems, Yae), the pengristch uses its clawed forepaws somehow to grab the light pole itself and, before Yae can react, swings it up, then down again – Yae still holding on, as he smashes into the street with a loud grunt – then flings it upward, Yae losing his grip and creating a high arc (shouting as he does, “Oh, is smart!”), to land with a loud crash atop a hapless groundcar parked a half-block away.

The pengristch rears up, roaring, then bounds after him, Chon-zek in cautious pursuit.

“To slay –” Yae shouts out, voice strained, painfully sliding off the far side of the vehicle, "-- to slay such a creature, in its right mind – this would be truly great.” A shuddering sigh, ending with a wince. “Alas.”

Yes, Chon-zek thinks, alas you’ll never do it.

The creature lands atop the groundcar, just where Yae had been moments before. It’s actually the size of the groundcar, which means four of the vehicle’s six pneumatic tires explode with the impact. Yae ducks under a scythe of claws, going to his hands and knees. “Alas, is not fair, friend, forcing creature to fight. Takes away all fun.” He tucks and rolls away as the pengristch, howling, leaps down at him, batting at Yae like a cat trying to catch a ball.

Yae rolls away from its reach and rolls to his feet, staggering with a distinct limp. “So stop forcing.” His left arm snaps back, then forward, throwing the broken plascrete pavement fragment he picked up while on the ground. It smashes into Chon-Zek’s right hand, the one holding the handcomm, sending the device tumbling through the air into the darkness and weeds and rubble.

“You idiot!” Chon-Zek screaming with pain. “That comm cost more credits than your ugly head is worth!”

Yae shakes said head, sadly. “Too much attachment to material things is unhealthy.”

“Fuck you!” Chon-Zek retorts. “I’m ending this!” He reaches down with his off hand (the rock seems to have broken some bones in his primary, which only makes him more angry) to cross-draw his blaster, when he realizes he’s forgotten something.

No, he’s missing something.

Where’s all the roaring?

Chon-Zek looks up, and sees the pengristch has stopped, and is gazing at him with all three of its eyes, then at Yae (whose back is turned it), then back to him.

“What are you doing, you stupid beast?" Chon-Zek yells. "Kill him!”

Yae sighs. “She is not under brain control now. I think maybe she is not so eager to fight.” Yae throws a glance back at the creature. “Not sure why, but the galaxy is a strange place.”

“Wait – if you knew the beast was under my control, why did you take so long to attack my comm?” Yae starts to open his mouth, and Chon-Zek holds up a (broken) finger. “No. Let me guess. ‘ Where would challenge be in that, friend Chon-Zek?’”

Yae beams at him. “Yes! Yes, you understand! Am so happy!”

Chon-Zek starts fumbling again for his blaster, and the pengristch starts a booming growl. He pauses, and the growl stops.

“See?” Yae says, still with the smile. “Is smart. And maybe a little angry at you for the button pushing and pain and all that. You think?” He looks back. The beast gives a snort.

Yae claps his thick-fingered hands. “Well, would love to be catching up, asking about old friends, but had only come by to pick up things. Shipping out tonight. Big trip. Maybe find what am looking for at other end. If not?” A shrug. “Lots to eat. Lots to fight. Plenty of ways to make honest living, no?”

The pain of his hand is beginning to spike through his anger. “I’m … going to kill you, Yae.”

“Ha! That is spirit, friend Chon-Zek! But not today. Today – tonight – you have personnel problem to work out.”

He turns to the pengristch. “Next time, will settle, yes? Will be a great song made after. Meantime, you and friend Chon-Zek, thinking you have matters to discuss.” He gives a slight bow, which the beast mirrors with its – her – head. Yae winks at Chon-Zek. “Smart!” he whispered, and then turns and strolls toward the flophouse.

The pengristch turns its massive head back to Chon-Zek. The bounty hunter considers how long it will take him to draw off-hand, whether the blaster will even be effective, the difficulty level of finding the handcomm in the night-shrouded debris of the fallen building, and how far away the truck is.

“Well,” he says, “shit.”

That wraps up the saga/backstory of Monster and Chon-Zek for now. It started off with much more modest plans, fleshing out a bit of background and getting to know Monster a bit better in his early years, including a desire to work in the snippet of dialog that Mike came up with. It kind of metastasized into a multi-part tale told from the perspective of Chon-Zek, Monster’s Official Muscle Playbook Not-Friend, playing (as it turned out) Herbert Lom to Monster’s Peter Sellers.

I hope it was entertaining, even if I took some artistic license in how formidable Monster probably is in game terms.

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