I rushed around behind the counter, trying to keep up with what seemed to be a ceaseless barrage of trishem orders. The machine was steaming, the plant milk foaming, and the customers just kept coming. Same as every day, really.
“I asked for nian milk,” an impatient Mondian snapped at me. The Mondians were one of the least offensive alien races on Thodos III, even though they resembled dragons if one was imaginative enough. I pictured the customer breathing fire at me in annoyance. It was something I wasn’t certain the Mondian could actually do, despite their appearance.
The idea wasn’t particularly upsetting. If he took me out right then, at least I wouldn’t have to fill any more orders. But I shook the thought off. No time to be morose about the fact that I was basically a slave here on the station, doomed to live the same day over and over. Until I died, most likely.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll get your correct order out right away.” I apologized and reached for the offending cup.
He grumbled under his breath. “Never mind. I don’t have time to waste for some stupid human to just mess it up again. What’s a guy gotta do to get a decent cup of trishem around here?”
You could make your own trishem! I clamped my lips shut tight, resisting the urge to say it out loud, though I wanted to. If you weren’t a human on Thodos, you most likely had a nice apartment somewhere on the station. That apartment almost definitely had a trishem maker, and if you were really that tight on time, you could brew your own.
The alien races, whether Vinduthi, Mondian, Fanaith, Nazok, or any other of the numerous species that inhabited the station, only came to a shop like mine as a luxury. A small luxury, but still, one I didn’t have. They had the disposable income to ignore their trishem makers at home, leaving them to collect dust while spending four times what a damn cup of trishem was really worth.
If a fraction of that went to my pocket, I probably wouldn’t have been so bitter. But it didn’t. It all went to the owner of both the shop and my contract as an indentured servant. Orcan, the owner, was a green-skinned, tusked Dargun who didn’t even bother to come into the shop most days. Why should he, when he could collect his profits virtually by percomm while I did all of the work?
“Have a nice day, sir,” I called at the Mondian’s retreating backside. I almost felt him roll his eyes as the door at the front of the store slid open. I didn’t have time to worry about an unhappy customer now, though. Not that I really cared, anyway. What were they going to do, complain to Orcan? If they managed to find him, I had a few complaints of my own.
“How can I help you?” I asked, forcing a fake smile for the Kolluskian next in line. His tentacles waved in the air as he stared at the holographic menu board, clearly having no idea what he wanted to order despite having already had fifteen minutes in line to figure it out.
“I’m on a low-pthymalate diet,” he murmured. “Do you recommend the laxian flavored trishem or the double shot of carotine?”
I had to force my jaw to unclench to answer him. “Sir, I’m not a nutritionist. You can scan the barcode at the end of the counter with your percomm for nutritional info.”
He glowered. “You work here, and you don’t know what you serve? If I have to look up the nutritional info myself, then I’ll have to get back in line!” He waved a few of his tentacles behind him, indicating the massive pile-up that had only gotten longer while he deliberated. Like I wasn’t aware.
“I’ll just do the laxian,” he finally grunted. “Though I wonder what I come here for if you can’t even make a simple recommendation. I could brew my own trishem at home, you know.”
“That’s true. You certainly could,” I replied shortly, trying hard to control my temper. Humans were at the bottom of the food chain here on the station, and mouthing off was a dangerous game for sure.
After the morning I had, though, it was hard to remember that. Not like he’d ever roll off his round ass to figure out how to work a trishem maker when it meant he couldn’t come here every day to boss me around instead.
Eventually, one annoying and demanding customer after another got their chance to berate me and left more or less satisfied. I, on the other hand, was only left with sore feet and the beginning of a headache.
Truthfully, a cup of trishem probably would have helped, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t allowed to sample the goods, and I didn’t have the money to pay the ridiculous prices set by Orcun.
Still, the sweet smell of the laxian flavoring made my stomach growl lightly. I skipped breakfast that day to cut down on my ridiculous food bills. Groceries ate up the little money I got every week, so I had to figure out a way to stretch my budget. Starving, I guessed, was the answer.
Exhausted and finally facing an empty shop, I shuffled my tired legs out to the tables to grab a chair. My plan was to move it behind the counter for now so that I could at least sit, but when I got to the chair, I didn’t have the energy for another step.
Instead, I sank down into the seat right where it was and prayed whoever came in next didn’t scream at me for unprofessionalism.
“Just a couple more hours, and at least the rush is over now. You can do it, Claire. You do it every day. Every day because it’s not like you ever get a day off. So, suck it up. One more day down on the contract. 3,076 more to go.”
Nearly two years ago, I signed an agreement to work here on the station for ten years in exchange for free admission. The majority of the residents here had money and could buy their way on the station outright, but for a broke human like me, it was the only way to afford a place here.
At the time, I thought at least I’d have a safe, warm place to stay with easy access to food. The station was completely self-sustaining, with medical care, grocery stores, restaurants, entertainment, and more. The choice seemed obvious compared to staying stuck on Earth, where I was probably going to freeze or starve to death on a street somewhere.
“Maybe it was,” I reminded myself. “Yes, it feels like it’ll never end, but you’re alive. It’s something, right? There are worse things you could be asked to do than serve trishem to snotty aliens, you know. Don’t be so ungrateful. You’re just cranky because you’re hungry.”
The door slid open, and I jumped up so fast that I knocked over the chair I was sitting on in the process. I hurried to straighten it, glancing up anxiously to see who caught me sitting on the job.
I sighed in relief when a familiar face with the most gorgeous, swirling, dark red lines etched across the side, crowned with a set of horns running back from each temple, looked back. He raised an eyebrow at me in amusement.
“Bad day?” Thelev asked.
“Aren’t they all?” I muttered, but I moved to return to my proper position behind the counter anyway.
Thelev reached out to grab my arm, stopping me before I could get away. My heart skipped a little at the touch. I’d always thought Thelev was almost unbearably sexy, though, of course, I’d never dare tell him that. Even if I had the nerve or thought there was any chance a powerful Vinduthi like him could have any interest in a human like me, I still wouldn’t dare.
The Vinduthi were the most powerful gang on the station here. I was scared of the rat-like Ewani, mostly because they were disgusting. Even the Nazok, with their creepy jagged teeth and manipulative, untrustworthy nature, were best avoided.
But all those concerns were at least tripled when I thought about getting involved, even superficially, with a Vinduthi. I’d heard they ran at least a third of all the organized crime here on Thodos. And there was a lot of organized crime.
Nope. Better to keep my nose clean, work my way out of this damn contract, and just admire Thelev from a distance. I could appreciate his fine muscular form with my eyes and stay safe at the same time.
“Sit,” he urged me. “You know I’m not going to tell on you. Vinduthis aren’t snitches. Besides, who would I tell? There’s no one else here!”
I laughed a little, but he didn’t have to twist my arm. I collapsed back into the chair, eager to at least take another minute or two to rest. “Just let me know when you’re ready to order.”
He shrugged. “You think I haven’t served trishem before?” And with a wink that made my stomach feel like the station just lurched under my feet, he headed behind the counter.
I gasped at first, glancing toward the door to make sure no one was there to witness this. Then I couldn’t help but giggle as he continued to strut around like he owned the place.
I watched with intent as his fingers nimbly worked around the tiny metallic knobs and buttons on the expensive machinery. He had an air to him, like someone who took great pride in handling delicate procedures with ease. I momentarily considered how else he might be good with those agile fingers.
I shook my head in an attempt to rid myself of those thoughts. They were wholly inappropriate, if not completely welcome.
“Do you have a similar machine at the casino?”
He stared at me blankly for a moment. “Maybe?” he finally pondered. “It’s not really in my job description.”
The truth was, I had no idea what Thelev actually did at the Black Star Casino. I knew he was an employee there, and that was about it.
I figured because he always came in for a pick me up late in the morning, he must have been some kind of a go-to for the big shots running the casino, kept up till all hours of the night just to have to do it again the next morning. Maybe that was another reason I was so attracted to him. I felt like I could relate to his hardworking, bottom-of-the-barrel spirit.
“Hey, are you guys getting some new customers at the casino?” I asked suddenly, remembering the unfamiliar faces I’d seen the past couple of days. It wasn’t like we got a lot of passersby here on the station, so new people definitely stood out.
“Business is going well,” he agreed.
“That’s not… no, never mind.” I decided maybe it was better not to ask. Maybe the Vinduthi had a connection to these newcomers, with their reptile-like, scaly skin. The less I knew, the better. That had always been my policy with the gangs, and I wasn’t going to let myself get curious now.
Curious girls were dead girls here on Thodos. I’d rather stay stupid forever. Stupid girls could ogle the hot Vinduthi as he strutted around behind the counter, biting his sexy lip while he tried to work out how to use the data pad to charge himself for the trishem he just poured.
And if he noticed, well, I’d just play stupid then, too.