“WHAT is the problem?”
Cael swallowed and glanced at the Moungren he was tangled up with.
“Just a misunderstanding.” He pushed the man back to the opposite seat, away from him and Ilya.
“That tells me nothing, zhwach. I expect a complete answer when I have to ask a question. What. Is. The problem.”
Ilya gasped into the breather, pressed hard to her face, remembering the warning of Dr. Vitor-Bieito. She still couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, but Alberich’s look of contempt for Cael was hard to miss, and then there was the way looked through her altogether. It made her feel like she were nothing, invisible, an ugly scrap of padding on the seat; and she couldn’t decide if that was better or worse than the contempt.
Cael was careful to continue in commons. “The gentleman had mistaken Ilya for a prostitute.”
Alberich sighed and rolled his eyes, “Of course he did. Just tell him you both belong to me.”
“You belong to me and he is not to assault my property. He should at least understand that.”
“Oy! Fat man! Let da girl decide for herself.”
He ignored the Moungren man and continued to talk to Cael.
“Do as I say.”
“He… heard you.”
“I’m certain he heard me. However, I doubt he has the capacity to comprehend. Any reasoning beyond his immediate, base needs are irrelevant to his kind. I think you are more equipped to speak to that.”
“What did you say ‘bout me?”
“You see? First it was sex, now it is ego.”
The Moungren man stood up, grabbing the bars stretched along the ceiling for balance.
“Oy! You talkin ‘bout me? You tink you’re better dan me?”
Alberich cocked his head and took a breath to answer when Cael dove at him, blocking his mouth with both hands.
“Shut up!” He hissed. The large man grunted in protest as Cael pressed his face in close. “Are you trying to get us killed? We’re out numbered here.”
Alberich pushed him back toward Ilya, knocking over the bike in the process. The few men beyond were still watching the scene intently.
“Nonsense, he craves hierarchy like any mongrel. You just have to remind him of his place.”
There was a definite reaction on the train to the word ‘mongrel.’
“What da kak?”
“Did he just say dat?”
The other men were now pulling themselves to their feet.
Ilya felt panic rising in her throat as she watched Cael flail around trying to placate the angry men staggering toward them in the erratic lurches of train.
“Don’t listen to him. He’s an idiot! It was a joke! He didn’t mean it! He doesn’t know what he’s saying!”
Alberich continued to lounge across his seats, unfazed.
“You all feel so empowered by your little revolution. You think you’re free but you’re just slaves to a new master.”
“Shut up, fat man!”
“Still scurrying in the dark like roaches; still… clinging to the surface of this godforsaken moon. Still working to death, I’m sure, risking your life to mine the nearby asteroids. And for what? Or more accurately, for whom?”
“We work for all of us, kak!”
“You tryin’ to bad talk Edgard Dessal?”
The men had made their way in front of the overturned bike, and were now looming over the relaxed Alberich.
Ilya whispered into Cael’s ear. “Cael what’s going on? Do something!”
“Nope, he’s on his own. Move.”
Cael pushed her back until they slid off the seat.
They quietly backed toward the sliding access door to the next car. Cael felt behind him for the latch as the men focused on the Alberich.
“Simply answer me this,” the large man continued, “how the rebellion improved your lives?”
The door’s gears squealed as it finally slid open, but no took notice. Cael shoved Ilya backward through the doorway and closed it without waiting for the answer.
Cael turned to face their new car to see a few more Moungren men looking up at them curiously. More accurately, they were looking at Ilya, who was panting heavily into the shell of her breather. He took her by the shoulders and gently guided her to a set of seats along the wall closest to them. They sat down with a hard thud as the train rocked its way around another bend. A muffled howl just could be heard over the rumbling of the train, and they both sat stiffly pretending not to hear it.
Either the other men didn’t hear or didn’t care, and soon went back to their own magazines or devices.
A gust of air rushed in as the doors slid open again to allow the hulking shape of Alberich through, followed awkwardly by Ilya’s poor bike. The racket brought new interest that again quickly faded once he sat across from them.
“So,” Cael began in commons, “what was their answer?”
“Hmm?” Alberich was positioning the bike before him so the seat could be his pillow again.
Cael leaned in. “You had asked how their lives had improved.”
“Ahh….” The large man yawned. “To put it politely, they exclaimed that they didn’t have to answer to likes of me anymore.”
“And then what?”
He hunched over, resting his head on his hands. “I reminded them that I was not some dull-witted Novafolk.”
“Cael?” Ilya tugged at his arm.
He glanced down the car again. “Ilya, come sit on the other side of me.”
“I don’t think we want to know. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, pretend to sleep… and be ready to run as soon as this train stops.”