Like a bell tolling the hour, spaced to the edge of suspense-laden uncertainty, a spoon clanged against a glass five times. It came from the direction of a furry little imp who sat in front of a half-full quart of milk five stools to the right of Eal. Although no weapons were visible on his person, his attire spoke strongly of gunslinger. It was likely the profusion of bandoleers—empty though they were—, belts, and hoops, from silicone to silk, that bedecked him from shoulder to shin; or maybe it was the dusty leather jacket slung over the back of his chair, ridiculously longer than he was tall; or the horrifically tarnished bronze buttons that assaulted the eye at every opportunity. From tail to nose, he happily and cluelessly screamed rust and grime, like a doll dipped in blood and left out to dry; everything except his sunlight-bright eyes and the white nibs of his barely-exposed canines.

With unshod paws curled around his stool’s highest rung such that his knees almost came to his chest, Eti leaned forward and attentively contemplated his milk. It was harder to make out his reflection in the matte liquid than on the glossy surface of the bar. Even moreso, given the patterns his fur made around his eyes and snout.

It took maybe a second for his focus to break, not because his attention span was off-kilter, but because the scrutiny of the room briefly latched onto him and that made him nervous. 

What would they see? he wondered, face down, ears drooped in worry.

Maybe an animal, because of his fur; or a sex slave, because of the collar around his neck; or, if they were concerned with self-preservation, they might try to figure out his role and whether he hid any weapons under his loose attire.

It didn’t last too long. Gunslingers were perpetually in vogue and aliens came in all shapes and sizes. Only a few eyes still lingered in his direction, because, after an awkward glance, they realized that the youngster who occasionally glanced their way with mischievous bashful innocence wasn’t an alien; not in the traditional sense of a naturally evolved being from some planet or other. Eti was outright bizarre, at once subtle and genuine in his mannerisms while undeniably synthetic, as if some poor soul were thrust into the mechanized bowels of a mannequin. Yet, he wasn’t a fursuiter or a freak who projected some ostentatious hologram to hide his identity. He was the genuine article, undeniably alive with personality in droves, in spite of his engineered origins. 

Eyes were still on him, just a few, but that made him blush adorably through his ruddy fur-covered cheeks. If anything, the thin black and white streaks on his face made it all the more obvious. Too shy to speak, he rolled a penny over the knuckles of his left paw and sent it bravely away from him in the hopes that it would remove him from the limelight. Heads down, it landed loudly before Eal Sermonde and presented the relief of a an eagle with a banner caught in its beak that read E Pluribus Enum. Around the edge were the words United States of America, 10oz Fine Silver One Dollar. As with the kid’s buttons, it was very tarnished and ancient. 

Despite his embarrassment, which the coin did little to soothe, a cool glass of milk wasn’t a commodity to be wasted; so, rather than reflect on the reactions of those roundabout, Eti lifted the tankard in his paws, brought the pearlescent liquid to his muzzle, and drained a great big third of what remained. He licked away the white beads that lingered on his whiskers and let loose a glorious belch of utmost satisfaction. It seemed at odds with his shyness earlier, or maybe it was simply happy oblivion. It didn’t matter. The milk was delicious! Yet, despite that preoccupation, he did manage to catch what the newest entrant into the Twisted Tentacle managed to say:

— Do you know about the planet Earth? 

Such brash naiveté! 

Without a moment wasted, he sub-vocally activated his retinal HUD and brought up the planetary transportation logs for the last several hours. The only indication anything differed about him were the luminescent blue rings that appeared in digitized patterns around his irises, a tell difficult to spot in a storm of advertisements that lit up the lounge and painted every reflective surface in shades of neon. As he began, it seemed an imposing amount of information that represented millions of comings and goings; however, simple observation of his mark yielded a few assumptions he could make: female, probably a freelancer, with the sad—rather, pitiable—scent and mannerisms of one who recently spent months alone in deep space and now wanted to make friends with the first common ground she stepped onto. God bless hormones! After all, without them where would a critter like him hope to find a mate? Not that he was active in that endeavor. Tangent aside, Eti sniffed again, and contemplated the fumes that lingered on the woman’s person. Just under an hour from her trek from the port, he surmised; and, if he wasn’t mistaken, the one nearest to this den of dubious iniquities. With time and place analyzed, he skimmed only a little longer before he figured out whether she came aboard a transport or had her own—bingo. He found it: a CX-class vessel, which meant it didn’t necessarily require much in the way of a skilled crew to operate. She almost certainly traveled here by her lonesome, although with his nose alone he couldn’t completely rule out synthetic companionship or something more dangerous.

Meanwhile Eal, who nearly turned out to be a stoic dud, had, through no fault of his own, become the perfect patsy. What a lucky coin toss! Even so, that was only half the battle. Finding a mark, that was. The next phase, the one that actually challenged him, approached. He knew where her ship was and where she was, now he just needed a way to get on board. If he bided his time, she might just hand it to him on a silver platter.

So, he quietly drank his milk and listened.

Eti Naris