Ellen reappeared in the morning with a rented building materials synthesis machine. The machine sat in the back room of the business, churning out a thick, see-through material that would sit in place of the glass. Tito hung out at the front bar of the restaurant, monitoring Ellen. She used her tools to extract pieces of the thick glass that used to protect Nicor Noodles from things like bricks.
“You alright over there?” Tito asked.
“Yeah,” she said, not looking away from her work. She had been at work for a few hours without any kind of break. She didn’t stop to check her mobile or anything. Though, if she was new in town, she wouldn’t have many people to talk to. Tito thought it wouldn’t hurt to try.
“So, what planet in the Federation are you from?” Tito asked.
“Human colony,” Ellen clarified. “You wouldn’t’ve heard of it.”
“Must not’ve been so special if you left.”
“Well, it was one of the ten colonies that the Feds gave to us when we first came here.” Ellen dodged a piece of glass that fell down near her head. She leaned over to pick it out of the frame. “For what that’s worth,” Ellen finished.
“They just gave you ten planets?” Tito asked.
“Ten colonies,” she emphasized, leaning against the exterior of the frame. Saying ‘planets’ just makes it sound…weird.”
“If you say ‘planets’, it makes it sound all small. That’s thousands and thousands of people on that planet, trying to make it their own. That’s a colony.”
“And we’re the Empire,” Tito said, sitting on the counter. “And as far as I know, we want more colonies, too. I see those colony ships leaving orbit all the time.”
“I saw those from up on the satellite,” Ellen said. “It seemed kind of, I don’t know, scary.”
“Scary how? ‘Cause of how big they are?”
“Well, it’s just…there’s not just people like you or me on there. It’s all blassnaughts, those giant guys, and those…the not-Parracks.”
“Sure,” Ellen said, folding her arms. “If I ever meet one of those guys, I wanna see if they’ve got those talons I’ve heard about. I heard they can cut through thick armor.” As Ellen was speaking, Tito saw his uncle Keet jogging down the block. He waved Keet over.
“Keet!” Tito shouted at Keet. Keet stopped, leaning against the doorway.
“Good morning, Tito,” he said, breathing heavy. His head feathers hung off to the side, and his wifebeater was sweaty. Indeed, he was wearing a light metal gauntlet for self-defense.
“Morning,” Tito said. “My new friend Ellen wants to know; can your talons cut through armor?” He shook his head.
“Only through light armor,” he said, flexing his sinewy arm. Ellen extended her arm towards him. “I’m Ellen.” Keet embraced her elbow.
“Keet Speero, Speero Dojo,” he said. She rubbed her arm, smarting from the strong greeting.
“He runs the martial arts place down the street,” Tito said. Ellen put her hands on her hips.
“Martial arts, huh?” she said. “Lemme see that metal thing. ” Keet showed her his hands. His hands had sharp talons on the end, surrounded by a light metal gauntlet.
“This is the kle’shain, the main weapon of military-style Hauke combat, my main discipline.” He extended and retracted metal claws from the tips of the gauntlet. “You make a series of slashes until you render your opponent unable to fight. The aim is to disable your opponent.” Ellen studied the gauntlet close.
“Doesn’t look super heavy. Can you fly with something like this?”
“Assuming the wind and sand don’t get in the way,” he said. “Or a blassnaught.”
“It’s handy to have an uncle who knows how to kick their asses,” Tito said with pride.
“Uncle?” Ellen said. “How does that work…?”
“Long story,” Tito said. “He’s my mom’s husband. If you see a girl who looks like me, but frowns all the time, that’s my sister Kate.” Ellen scratched her head.
“I’m gonna need a diagram for all of this,” she said. Tito and Keet smiled at each other.
“We’re all family,” Keet said, standing proud. “No matter how many roofs we reside under..”
“Right,” Tito said. “Speaking of family..we’re having a family meeting tonight, right?” Keet nodded.
“Yes, of course.” Keet put a hand on Ellen’s shoulder. “You should come. I’m sure they would appreciate your hard work for Nicor Noodles.”
“It’s just a job,” she said, shrugging him off. “I don’t need a medal or anything.”
“There’s gonna be food,” Tito said. “And you won’t even have to pay!”
“Making up for no free lunch?” Ellen said. Keet whistled.
“Very sharp! You’ll do well here.” He got into a jog again. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said with a wave. Ellen looked back at Tito.
“Sure I’m not crashing your family thing?”
“Nah,” Tito said. “We might have to find you another chair, though.” Ellen folded her arms.
“You’re warmer than my own family,” she said with a sigh. Tito didn’t reply. He just leaned against the window again.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s not all hugs and noodles.”
In the evening, the Nicor and Banno families held their monthly meeting. It was held at Nicor Noodles’ function room, the only place with enough tables and chairs for the two families. Tito and Ellen sat near Tito’s father and his cousin, who seemed detached, as usual. Uncle Keet sat with Kate, who chatted with her sister-in-law, Rook. Kate seemed inclined to nod off as Rook went on and on about the gossip from her remote classes. Tito’s mother, Deena, was outside on the phone. Tito’s grandfather Bento sat with his hands folded next to his wife Shara, who spoke with joy to Tito’s twin aunts, Fenmi and Fensu. While they played off of each other in conversation, their husbands couldn’t be more different in chemistry; Wozz drummed his fingers on the table, finding little to talk about with Gord, whose eyes seemed lidded. Uncle Brudon was more of a proxy to Aunt Konbi’s attempts to pacify her three preteen children, who fought with one another. Uncle Kitso was nowhere to be found; he was either asleep or otherwise caught up in some scheme that would be evident when he tried to escape from it. Last off was Wheaton, Tito’s other grandfather, who talked to Brudon with his hands flying everywhere. Wheaton’s fiancee, Getti, sat with her nose in her mobile. He went to the front of the hall and clapped his hands together.
“Alright,” Wheaton said in his typical loud voice, “We gonna start?”
“Wait,” Ray interjected. “Where’s Kitso?”
“Ain’t that the perennial question. Let ‘im get here if he gets here.”
“Kit’s always been more of an ‘if’ kinda person over a ‘will’ kinda person. Get me?”
“Whatever,” Wheaton said, rolling his eyes. “Movin’ on.” Wheaton paused and wheezed all over the front row before continuing. “First off, we got a guest, ain’t we?” He beckoned Ellen, the only human in the room, to stand up in front of everyone. It was like a forest of fur and scales interrupted at the front. Her eyes darted across the room.
“I’m Ellen,” she said. “I’m new in town.”
“Where are you from?” one of Tito’s younger cousins piped.
“How old are you?” another chimed.
“You know the blassnaughts are gonna skewer you,” the other continued.
“Quiet, you two,” Aunt Konbi lashed out. “You know better.”
“Yeah, right,” Rocky muttered. The cousins settled back into their seats and piped down.
“Anyway,” Ellen said with a raised voice, “I fixed the window this morning. It admit that I didn’t expect to have a big job like this right away, but it got done.” Ellen looked around the function room, pointing here and there. “Though, I see a bunch of little fixes I could do for you, if you want.”
“I mean, we really appreciate it,” Ray said, forcing a smile. “I just wish we could pay you sooner rather than later.” He looked toward the crowd for sympathy, though Tito could see he was searching for people’s mobiles, which held precious credits. No one seemed to relent, though, which made his smile droop.
“Panhandling again, son?” Wheaton grated. “At least you ain’t on the street, like Kit.”
“I saw Kitso get hit with some rocks the other day,” Rook said. “I almost had the nerve to go and chase those reptons down! Little punks…”
“Those blassnaught’s’ve got little else to do,” Shara said, her voice warbling, but strong. “Imperial authority’s lax around this dustbowl.”
“It used to be a lot worse,” Bento added. “You used to have to carry weapons out in the open. Nowadays that’s just for military.”
“You were never a good shot, Bento,” Wheaton chuckled. “Your only hit was this here noodle shop!” He rested his head on his hand. “You know who I’d like to hit, though. Comes with or without a horn on top of a fat head!” Gitta pulled down Wheaton’s clenched fist while Brudon shook his head.
“You’re lucky they didn’t come inside and cause trouble,” he mused. “You’d be surprised what I see on my store cameras.”
“No wonder everyone’s asking me to teach them the ‘one finger ‘blass buster’,” Rook said. “I dunno what that’s even supposed to be, but if we wanna keep people coming in, I figure I might have to make that a real thing.” Keet put his palm on his face as Rook played around with her feathered fingers. Deena came back inside, stowing her cell phone in her back pocket.
“Sorry,” she said. “I had to take a call. What were we talking about?”
“Blassnaughts,” Otto said, his fist against his cheek. “What else would we talk about at these meetings, sweet Ragna…”
“They’re not all bad,” Deena said, going to her seat. “I’m friends with some of them. They’re a really shrewd people.”
“Yeah, and what do they say about you?” Otto shot back. Deena paused, unsure of how to reply.
“Why would that matter?” she said. “I don’t care about what they think.”
“Well, a lot of people here do, and I’m sure the blassy Imperial Council has a pretty solid opinion of my dusty ass.”
“I’m sure that they have you and every other business in Southtown in mind,” she concluded. Otto folded his arms and leaned forward in his seat, staring at the table.
“Easy for you to say,” he huffed. “You live near them. You take the same trains. But as much as you think that it’s all the same playing field, it’s not. Me and Ray know pretty well, and you should, too.”
“Just because I live in Uptown doesn’t mean that I’ve got any special privileges,” Deena said with a firm voice. “Just this week I tried to call a major real estate agency and they wouldn’t even return my calls, because they could tell through the phone ID that I was located out of a repton district.” She stared right at him. “So when you say that I’ve got it easy, let me tell you, I don’t.” Otto rolled his eyes.
“You ain’t got a brick through your window, do you?” She didn’t reply.
“Look,” Ellen said. “I won’t pretend I know what you go through. But, you’re all a big family, right? You’ve gotta stick up for that.” Everybody just stared at her. Wheaton snickered to himself.
“God, I love shit like this,” he said. “Yeah, we’re a big, happy family, human.” He slapped his knee. “Ain’t that right, Bento?” Bento just sighed.
The meeting went on as normal. No matter how much Ray tried not to beg, but politely ask for money, no credits came his way. The family filed out of the restaurant, giving Tito a wave while either avoiding Ellen or giving her a curious glance before they went on their way.
“Talk about a warm reception,” Ellen said, smoothing back her hair.
“They just don’t know you yet,” Tito said. “You might be a human, but you’ve done a good thing for the noodle place.”
“I might be leaving,” Ellen said. “Pay me within two weeks.” She left the restaurant with her equipment. Tito felt like all the warmness between them had been air-conditioned away. Before Tito could lock the front door of the restaurant, he stopped in front of someone who was trying to come inside.
It was a blassnaught.