If he closed his eyes (and maybe covered his ears) he could almost think he was back in that little hole-in-the-wall bar in Galveston, the one with the tiny basement windows rusted wide open, and the low-hanging ceiling fans that only worked for a few seconds, and only if you gave the blades a push.
Mostly, it was hot and dark, crowded and loud, and it smelled of the ocean.
And if this place was crowded with the sort of people you only saw in Galveston on Halloween (and only if you were really, really high), and if the salt water it smelled of was from the huge, back-lit tank on the stage (as there was no ocean at all on this rock), well. You couldn't really expect too many parallels to a dive bar on Earth out here in the Uncharted Territories.
John rocked back on his heels, protecting his drink as a stocky, leather-skinned alien pushed past him, not even looking as she yelled excitedly over the din to her slim, feathered friend. The whole place was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, and the patrons had an edgy, excited expectation in their voices. It made John a little nervous. These folks were waiting for trouble. He really could use a break from trouble.
It had been tempting to vote for staying on the ship. Or for letting Chiana and Sikozu come down for supplies while the rest of them stayed on Lo'la – this place had a textbook case of Bounty Hunter Hangout syndrome.
But Lo'la was a small ship. So very much smaller than a Leviathan. And even the empty space at his back (he missed Aeryn) seemed to press in on him, heavy and tight. If they'd stayed on that ship much longer they might have thrown each other out the airlock.
The bar, for all its crowding, was at least a different set of elbows knocking into his spine. Unfamiliar smells and voices.
And the not-really-beer beer was good.
He took another drink as he made his way through the crowd to the edobo tables. From what he gathered from D'Argo and Rygel's explanation, the game was something like black jack, mixed with a healthy dose of Go Fish, and maybe a little bit of checkers. Rygel seemed excited about it, though D'Argo had just rolled his eyes.
The dancer in the tank was a swirl of glitter and vivid paint at the edges of his vision, but he tried to keep his eyes carefully on the crowd. There was a sort of dreadful glee in the air – like the crowd at a race track, watching the car in the middle of the pack, the one taking chances just a little too reckless. Waiting for the fireball.
Someone ran full tilt into his leg. He looked down to see a knee-high alien with a turtle's beaked mouth glaring up at him. "Here you," he barked, poking at him, "You watch where you put your boots, Sebacean." The fronds of feathery hair over his ears lifted sharply, like a terrier's. "I'm B'Lozzin, a scout for Crichton's Gang, you know. They'll cause you all sorts of problems if they hear you stepped on me."
John almost dropped his drink, fighting equal urges to draw his gun and laugh out loud. "Crichton's Gang? What would they be doing way out here?" He was pretty proud of himself – that had almost sounded natural.
The little alien drew himself up a little higher, but the bearish arm of his neighbor swept him off his feet. "You've never been closer than three solar systems to Crichton's gang, you gleebo. Come on, let's pick up our chips before someone takes you seriously. You know when they get here they're just going to expose you for a fraud." The hulking alien lifted B'Lozzin up onto her shoulder and moved away. B'Lozzin glared back at John, ear fronds pointing sharply to the ceiling.
John gave a little wave. Well. The crowd was on edge because Crichton's Gang was on its way. Of course. How the hell did anyone even know they were in this sector?
He scanned the crowd again, noticing the extra scrutiny the Sebaceans were getting. That he was getting, himself. "Frell," he muttered.
It looked at least like they hadn't recognized him yet. But if he was hanging out with a Luxan and a Hynerian . . . Sikozu, they wouldn't know, but Chiana they would. Their best bet of staying under the radar would be to stay separated.
But he didn't really have any way of telling any of them that.
And it looked like it was too late anyway. Eyes were turning towards the edobo tables, and he could hear D'Argo yelling.
"You dumb Tresnak! Why in Hezmana would you do that?"
He couldn't hear Rygel's answer over the swelling roar of the crowd.
For a full minute, he let himself entertain the thought of just slipping back to Lo'la himself. Not that he'd leave (he wouldn't be able to, anyway, without D'Argo to fly the ship), but he could stay out of the chaos that he could feel closing in on him.
He missed Aeryn (he always missed Aeryn). For a moment, just a fraction of a microt, he expected to hear her voice.
When he didn't (as of course he wouldn't) he finished off the drink in his hand and grabbed another from one of the many bar-goers hurrying to join the brawl around the tables. A good number of them were more intent on grabbing chips than throwing punches, but there seemed to be plenty who just wanted a chance to have some fun.
He found Rygel then, bringing his hoversled up above the boiling mess of feathers, horns, and fins that the crowd was turning into.
D'Argo's deep voice was still overcoming the din – "Get back down here! This is your fault! Who cheats at edobo?"
Rygel's answer had that glass sharp thread of scorn that meant he was embarrassed. By getting caught of course, not by the cheating itself.
"It was double or nothing! Fa-pu-ta, this is what I get for bringing barbarians to high-class establishments!"
D'Argo seemed more interested in tearing Rygel limb from scrawny amphibious limb than he was in the crush of fighting around him. It was reassuring, in a way, seeing that D'Argo didn't feel any real threat from the crowd – but John sighed anyway. The owners of this place wouldn't be enjoying the brawl as much of the participants. Somebody would call for security soon.
He took a deep breath and yelled over the noise, waving his new drink over his head. "D'Argo, Rygel! Kill each other later. We've got to scram before the cops show up! Where'd Chi and Sikozu get to?"
The girls were probably taking bets off to the side somewhere, safe and sound. But the question got D'Argo's attention.
The Luxan grabbed hold of Rygel's hoversled, keeping him in place while he looked around. Almost absently, he knocked a couple of heads together, giving himself a little more space when the combatants fell senseless at his feet. He didn't bother stepping over them when he made his way to John's side.
"You left my chips on the table, you miserable fekkik! I need those. They're mine!" Rygel's hoversled whined sharply as the Hynerian struggled to remove it from D'Argo's grip.
"You stole half of them anyway, Rygel, stop complaining," D'Argo growled.
John lifted his drink again as someone took a swing at him. They really did have good liquor here – he didn't want to waste it.
The stage was empty. He thought he'd seen the dancer peeking out of the stage door just a moment ago, but she was gone now. Probably smart, that one.
He felt almost manic, ignoring the brawl exploding around them while at the same time knowing that he was a at least part of the cause. Yelling out D'Argo's and Rygel's names like that would have focused all the crowd's speculation into certainty. They knew who they were for sure, now.
He decided to blame it on the drink.
It probably had more to do with the empty Aeryn-shaped hole in his life than the drink, but the drink at least was around to be blamed.
"Chiana?" he asked again, as D'Argo reached him. Rygel was pouting now, lips tight.
"There's a shop just outside this establishment," the Luxan said, still holding tight to Rygel's sled. "Sikozu went to find some supplies."
"And Chiana doesn't trust her enough to let her go alone," John said, knocking back his drink. "Let's go find them."
The brawl at the edobo tables was spilling rapidly out into the rest of the establishment, but oddly, there was an amorphously empty space around John and the others. Wide eyes and open mandibles melted back into anonymity – he noticed B'Lozzin ducking behind his bearish friend's back – only his knobby hands showed, gripping her shoulders.
He paused at the door to let D'Argo drag Rygel through. D'Argo met him eyes, still grumbling to Rygel about his unsavory habits. He'd noticed the crowd's response, too.
Well. John shrugged. There wasn't much to be done about their reputations now. They had blown up almost half of the things they said they had.
He felt like yelling 'boo' and seeing what would happen.
But somebody would want to see if they really were as scary as the rumors said, and that sort of thing never ended well for anybody (look what happened to Hitchcock).
And he'd finished his drink, anyway. Time to go.