Nova Refuge: Human Intelligence

What is that thing?” asked one of the patrons. The bartender shrugged, not even looking at the man, focusing only on wiping down the counter. If he had more money, he’d get some kind of little cleaning robot to do this work.

But, unfortunately, he was far from rich. He could barely afford the rent on his bar in this shoddy corner of the space station: Ymir VI, a station orbiting a planet in a fringe system, still being mapped out by Xarkon. Whoever came to this bar just wanted a cheap drink – and that was just what they would get.

Look at me when I talk to you, pops,” snapped the patron, tapping his finger impatiently on the counter. With bored eyes, the bartender finally looked at him.

Watch it, son,” he said. “It takes me about as long to call soldiers in here as it does to tap your damn finger.”

I don’t believe that, old man.”

Silently, the bartender glanced over the faces of the seven men all sitting in a row together at the bar. They were just workers on the station, not soldiers. And they were right: he couldn’t call soldiers in here fast. His comm system was busted, and he didn’t have the money or knowhow to fix it.

Now that he had the bartender’s attention, the apparent leader of the little worker gang held up a thumb over his shoulder, pointing it in the direction of the only other patron currently in the bar.

Then he ordered, “So tell me what the hell that is and why you let it in here.”

He didn’t have to look. Before he finally turned his gaze to the would-be offender, the bartender already knew what this man was talking about.

Seated at a table in the corner was an alien unlike anything any of them had ever seen. He’d been on the station a few days now, apparently hired by some Xarkonian officer under the table. Whether or not that was by the rules, the bartender had no idea. But there sat a lean, muscular alien, covered in golden fur, tipped here and there by highlights of white and silver that blended into his coat, creating strangely beautiful patterns.

Or, at least, they would’ve been beautiful to anyone who actually looked at him in admiration or curiosity. The bartender shuddered slightly in fear at the mere sight of him. That wasn’t even counting the armor the alien had on – and the thick, highly customized assault rifle leaning against the wall by one of his big, animal paw-feet. The bartender had only one way to describe what this alien looked like…

Reckon it’s a wolf with hands, walkin’ upright,” the bartender replied flatly, turning back to the workers. The thing even had a wolf’s legs, encased in armor, and a wolf’s tail to go with his wolf head. “A big one, too. You boys just ignore him.”

The lead worker flashed an ugly smile, but it faded fast. “I’ve seen that animal around, talking to one of the Xarkon commanders. Seems like he’s getting paid a lot more than we are.”

Some of the other workers grunted in agreement, a few of them swearing. Sweat began to gather on the bartender’s wrinkled forehead. And then the man said exactly what the bartender didn’t want to hear.

I think we need to teach it a lesson.”

For God’s sake, don’t,” the bartender hissed. “You really think you can take that thing on? Look at it – it’s the size of at least three o’ you!”

We’re gonna find out,” the ringleader said flatly, grinning toothily again before he got to his feet. He pointedly banged on the counter one more time before he turned, leading his companions over to the wolf-man’s table.

The wolf-alien didn’t look up at him, as if he didn’t even care.

You a mercenary?” the lead worker demanded.

Slowly, the wolf-man looked up. He wore a full suit of blue and gold armor, the blue matching his pair of azure eyes, and it left his muscular arms bare. But he wore nothing on his head or face… and that drew even more attention to the various scars that crisscrossed it, one running down a portion of his muzzle, over his lips.

He narrowed his eyes for a moment before he answered flatly, in a gruff voice, “You want to back off.”

The bartender cringed as the lead worker gave a laugh, looking around at his fellows and ordering them to laugh with him – which they did. At first, the wolf-man alien didn’t react.

Like hell,” replied the lead worker. “There are seven of us and one of you.”

The wolf-man’s answer was simple: “There are five of you, at best.”

He scoffed. “Five? Can’t you count, mutt?”

The other two will run,” said the wolf-alien, “if they’re as scared as they smell.”

Again he laughed, and again the other workers laughed with him, but even the bartender could tell now that several of them had to force it even worse than before.

Then, in a casual motion, the wolf-man rose to his feet. The moment he did, the workers stopped laughing, their eyes going wide. Four of them took a step back. The wolf-man almost didn’t even fit in the bar, as tall as he was.

But the lead worker swallowed his fear, sneering. “Tryin’ to be scary, huh? You can’t do anything to us around here. Try to, see how far you get! We’re not scared of you, fuzzy—go on, pick up that rifle!”

I won’t need to,” said the wolf-man.

Everything happened at once. First, the leader charged, fists swinging – and then, with one sudden motion, the wolf-man hit him so hard in the jaw that he flew across the room, slammed into one of the tables, and landed in a heap. The bartender just caught a glimpse of the lead worker’s jaw swollen and hanging awkwardly off his face before he was lost in the debris of the broken table.

Three more rushed in at once, hoping to overpower the alien. One had to jump up to grab onto one of the wolf-man’s arms in an attempt to restrain it, but considering his feet were no longer on the floor, it took the alien no effort to sling him across the room with a seemingly casual flick of his arm.

The other two were no trouble, as one tried to kick the alien in the groin, but he caught the man’s leg in his hands and snapped it at the knee with one simple twist. The last one leapt up for the alien’s back, wrapping his arms around his neck.

Even that didn’t seem to bother the wolf-man, but the bartender’s eyes went wide as he saw a set of long, wickedly sharp claws suddenly seem to spring out of the alien’s fingertips, without him even flexing his hands, like daggers popping out of sheaths on their own. Reaching over his head, he grabbed the man by the shoulders, sinking his claws in so deep it made the worker scream just before the wolf-man threw him off his back.

The remaining three workers hesitated, standing their ground. Only then did the bartender realize that the wolf-man had barely moved for the entire fight.

He looked around at the other workers, his tail giving a single twitch. His fur bristled, and he raised his hackles as he peeled back his lips, revealing huge, sharp teeth, stark white against his blond muzzle. They were teeth designed for one purpose: to rend flesh.

The guttural growl that sounded low in the wolf-man’s throat – so loud and deep the bartender felt it vibrating in his own chest as it seemed to shake the whole room – sent the last three workers running. They stumbled over each other to get out the door and back into the space station proper.

Silently, the bartender looked around, his eyes wide. The four workers who had attacked the wolf-man still lay where they had landed, stunned, some of them bleeding. Those who were still conscious were too scared to move with the alien still present.

Picking up his assault rifle, the wolf-man slung it over his back, and he ran one huge hand – his palm and the insides of his fingers covered by black paw pads, like a wolf’s – over a pistol holstered on his hip. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was a wolf, the bartender could’ve thought he was any other soldier quickly checking his gear. The claws on his fingers slid back to wherever they had come from, disappearing as if commanded to do so by a mere thought from the wolf-man.

He turned, padding over to the bar. The bartender paled and shook from head to toe, taking a step back – only for his back to meet the wall, almost knocking over a few bottles of booze.

The wolf-man reached to his belt and drew something out of a pouch there: a chip, the kind that held digital Xarkonian crowns. He set it neatly on the counter in front of him.

Looks like I underestimated Human intelligence,” said the wolf-man simply. “Three of them ran.”

The bartender said nothing, his voice stuck in his throat.

In response, the alien slid the crown chip closer to him. “Use this to clean up the mess.”

He turned to leave.

But the bartender suddenly found his voice, and he called out without thinking, “What are you?”

Silence. He felt a cold wave of fear run like ice through his veins. The bartender wanted to sink down and hide behind his counter when the wolf-man’s tail flicked and he glanced over his shoulder, his ears laying back for half a second. The bartender almost thought he saw his life flash before his eyes. Any second, he could be in that wolf-man’s terrible grip, choking the life out of him – or those instantly-appearing claws could slash his throat open, or…

The wolf-man gave a short chuckle that made the bartender freeze.

The name’s Jakûl… but Humans call me Jak,” replied the wolf alien, with a hint of a smile on his face showing his long fangs again. “And I am a Wrognoth.”

With that, the wolf-man turned and strode out.