ooking back on it now, I might have been a little disturbed when I was "persuaded" to ride with Captain Keena and his pack of Rakin pirates. OK, I'll admit it I was completely nuts. But I was in Chicago the day the Madrac came. Seven feet tall with dull green scales, they looked like mini-Godzillas with ray guns and space ships.

If you had seen the people vanishing by the thousands, the streets decorated with corpses. The screams of a human tidal wave of fear; their pleas for mercy unanswered. You might have been driven crazy too.

I was. Now, armed only with blades, I have killed over a dozen of the damned Madrac. My insanity transformed to rage. Both should have killed me by now.

They probably kept me alive. Judging by the familiar clicking steadily approaching, like a dozen three-hundred-pound women marching in metal stiletto heels, I will need them again.

A Madrac soldier wears no boots. Their leather feet are tipped with dagger-sized claws protruding from four reptilian toes.

The noise from the passageway grew slower. He had caught my scent here in the slave's quarters. Except for some rickety cots, the room was bare. I couldn't hide if I wanted to. And I didn't want to. I'm the only free human left in the galaxy. No Madrac goes unpunished.

I took a quick mental inventory of my weapons. My sword on the left. Knives with seven inch blades were in each boot. And, of course, Heckle and Jeckle, two throwing daggers, sheathed horizontally at my lower back.

To think aliens with technology that is nothing short of mind blowing surround me and I'm using cold steel. The pack tells me slow moving hand weapons are safest. A stray blaster shot -- or bullet -- could take out the artificial gravity or life support. Then everyone on the ship would be dead. Me included.

Bullshit!

Pack members carry guns. I've heard weapons fire. It's another way to harass the lowly zatya.

The oversized prehistoric head swung around the corner. Death had cornered me again and was taking his time.

Unblinking eyes scanned the room. Satisfied that I was alone, he strode in, inflating his scaly green chest with confidence.

Silent for a moment, we glared at each other. The beast cracked his lipless mouth to display freshly sharpened fangs. Long orange spikes. He slowly extended both arms and opened his palms, revealing four deadly claws on each hand. Madrac don't need hand weapons because Mother Nature made sure they came standard. He could kill with his bare hands, feet or teeth.

Scary as hell. Every race in the galaxy fears their merciless brutality.

I just want them to die.

I stood motionless as he continued his little display of intimidation. I didn't see him. Not exactly. The horrible images of Chicago appear and make my heart explode. Fear becomes rage in an instant. The pain triggers an adrenalin bomb.

"Just kill yourself. It'll save me the time and you your pride."

There was a brief pause. He didn't charge. They always charge when taunted. Instead, the corners of his mouth turned upward as if smiling, and he spoke to me. His low guttural voice echoed against the metal walls.

"Earth-born pirate, guilty of theft and the murder of Madrac soldiers." He took a few small steps closer. "I am ordered to bring you into custody, either in shackles or in pieces."

Then he charged. At fifty feet, it gave me only seconds to make a move. He barreled towards me, head down, claws extended. I was ready.

In a practiced motion, I felt for the comforting cold steel of the daggers in the small of my back. You can't avoid a charging Madrac, you have to kill him before he gets to you. I let Jeckle fly. A good deep shot to the eye would kill instantly. A missed shot would leave you with a half-blind, pissed-off killing machine. Even as the knife left my hand I knew I had the latter.

It struck his left eye on target -- not deep enough. Still running at top speed, he struggled to remove the dagger, raising his head slightly to reveal the small patch of tender skin at the base of the throat. Another sweet spot. One more chance to get it right.

Heckle flew after his brother. After a few quick turns it hit the mark, throwing the beast off balance. Still running, the Madrac twisted and writhed. I stepped to the left to avoid his body crashing to the ground next to me. He slid into the cots destroying about a dozen. Onyx blood pooled on the floor. The reek of the salty fluid choked me before the air recycler could do its job.

His chest barely moved. The damn thing was still alive. His eyes focused on me as I drew closer. I gripped the hilt of my sword with both hands, raising it above my head. The Madrac glared at me. I hacked through the thick skin and bone, like chopping down a tree spewing thick black sap. Knowing that another one of these evil bastards was dead made the chore worthwhile.

After I removed the head and retrieved Heckle and Jeckle, I sawed the claw off its right index finger for a trophy. As I cleaned my blades I laughed a nervous, almost psychotic, laugh. Less than a year ago I was running multi million dollar advertising campaigns. Now I'm millions of miles from Earth, chopping up giant lizards like some freaky space serial killer. Jeffery Dahmer meets Buck Rogers.

I reached down to tear a piece of fabric from one of the cots to wrap up the claw. The force of the Madrac hitting the ground had loosened a metal floor plate. Son of a bitch, the bastard had helped me find the smugglers' hole. Hidden underneath the floor plate were the best spoils of all: cash.

All independent haulers are smugglers: drugs, weapons, anything illegal. Good ones have smugglers' holes all over a ship but the slave pens are never used. Ironically, I learned the trick from the Rakin who owned this ship -- owned up until about two hours ago, that is. About a month back he had double crossed my captain. He had betrayed us to the Guardians, the galactic police force, for a bounty. Captain Keena knows how to deal with back stabbers.

This heist was payback.

There were enough stacks of Grailian certificates to keep "my" pack, drunk for months. I stuffed the cash into a collapsible hold sack. Certificates are lighter than paper so a bag full of them fell gently across my back as I tossed it over my shoulder. I tapped a button on the small communicator that hung around my ear like an annoying cell phone earpiece.

Nothing. I tried again. . . three times.

Something was wrong.

Was the signal jammed? Had a security goon avoided capture and gotten out a message to the Guardians? It wouldn't be long now before a patrol arrived to spoil our fun.

I wasn't worried about the Guardians or some renegade security trooper. The possibility of another Madrac showing up had my heart pounding. One I can handle. Two or more in a row, or at the same time, is fuckin' hard.

The pack always sends me against the Madrac. Any job that is messy, exhausting, or dangerous is reserved for the lowly zatya -- me.

My communicator doubles as a translator but it doesn't know slang. I think zatya means "stupid monkey" or something like that. Just another way the pack humiliates me.

And uses me. Feeding my anger so I'll fight out of vengeance. The newest recruit. The only human and the Madrac's most wanted criminal.

An uneasy feeling came over me. Had the shuttle crew left without me?

The click of an incoming transmission sounded in my earpiece.

"Angoose, return quickly!" I could barely make out the garbled, yet familiar voice. I could hear screaming and the clang of weapons in the background. "Under attack!"

The only member of the pack that called me "Angus" was Lucky, my sole friend. He wouldn't send a message like that unless the shit had really hit the fan. With my adrenalin still in overdrive I drew my sword, running at full speed for the main cargo bay.

I could hear the screams and commotion as I rounded the final corner. I dropped the bag to protect the money from a fight.

At the doorway my left foot caught a cable and I flew forward. Face first on the unforgiving metal floor, the breath knocked out of me: I couldn't move. I could only see patches of light. My hearing was fine. The sounds of battle had faded, replaced by an annoying combination of rapid hissing, "the Chaffing," and low howls.

Lucky grabbed my left arm with his fur covered paw to help me up. My right hand shot for his throat and squeezed with every ounce of strength.

"What the fuck was that?" I barked.

"Orders, my friend. Must obey." Lucky's eyes widened as my grip tightened.

The hissing that surrounded me became low harsh growls. The eyes of the pack felt like a storm cloud slowly moving overhead. I had crossed the line and needed to stop.

"Fuck you, Lucky."

I released his throat and threw him to the ground. As I wiped the soft black hairs off my hand I turned towards the pack.

"And fuck all of you, too!"

I had to take a deep breath before I really lost my temper. I owe my life to Captain Keena. The Rankin rescued me from Earth. They treat me like shit but they let me kill Madrac. I repeated my mantra as I retrieved the sack of cash.

When I reached it, the shuttle was full. Prilim, the batau, our hunting party leader, waved his paw to hurry me on board. Everyone else was strapped into two rows of seats against the walls. It was a tight fit around the stolen goods.

I moved toward an empty seat. Prilim sprang up, grabbing the bag on my shoulder. I spun toward him. His other paw pushed against my chest.

"Wat tis, Zatya?" Prilim's gray paw forced me to the ground. "Going to keep tis for Zatya, tief?" He turned away from me to open the bag.

"Aww, shit!"

My mantra had failed.

I sprang to my feet, grabbed Prilim's arm, and spun him back toward me. The bag fell to the floor.

Prilim was a head shorter than me. He hated it when I stared down at him. A low growl escaped from the pit of his stomach. He bared his needle like fangs. Murder filled his eyes.

"Well, Zatya," He said in a surprisingly calm voice, "to fight Madrac is fooliz, to fight your batau is suicide."

"My name is not zatya. I'm Angus Jason Flynn, you fucking stray!" I shoved him into the wall. "As of today I have killed fifteen Madrac, more than all of you assholes. I'll be happy to increase the body count with one arrogant Rakin!"

The rest of the hunting party rushed me. Basa's scrawny arms wrapped around my legs. A brief glimpse of amber flashed before my eyes as Raslo's fist connected with my jaw. I tried to fight back but the damn cats outnumbered me. My face kissed the floor and shackles embraced me. And the Chaffing-- a thousand bike tires sporadically losing air -- was so painful; it made my ears itch.

After we docked with the main ship, they threw me, beaten and bloody, into a holding cell that smelled of cat piss. At least they removed the shackles.

For two hours I lay on a metal bench attempting to sleep. Finally, Lucky arrived. The guard closed the main door and the scent of recycled air overpowered the litter box that was my cell. Lucky passed the black sash tied to his right arm over the lock prompting the door to open with a loud metallic clank.

The black sash was not only a symbol of rank it was a security pass and tracking device. They were reserved for the bridge crew or batau. Officers. Out of reach for a tailless "zatya".

Lucky opened some water and passed it to me. He sat a make shift first aid kit on the bench next to me. I had no intention of speaking but Lucky never could stay quiet for long.

"Angoose could zarpen claws on any random member of ta pack. Not Angoose. Angoose attack ta batau." Lucky lay back against the bars, his paws behind his head. "Nice job."

"Is that some kind of crazy cat-joke?" I wet a cloth and washed my face. "I'm sick and tired of getting pushed around. Just because that fucking stray wears a black sash doesn't make him better than me."

"No. It just gives autority to trow Angooses' furless carcass into ta cold dark of space," he said. "Wat finally made Angoose fight tat cruel beast?"

"Lucky, I've risked my life, followed orders and never stolen from the pack!" I threw the now bloody cloth to the floor. "And I'm rewarded with every piss-poor job and regular thumpings disguised as aggressive battle training!"

"Angoose 'urt my brain. Are all 'umans confusing like you? You do not question orders, even fooliz orders. You take beatings. You are bigger and stronger tan Rakin and could pound us to dust. You act like a slave, not a Rakin 'unter."

"What the hell are you talking about? I do my job better than all of you. . . you career pirates. All I want is a fair cut. You'd think after killing fifteen Madrac warriors I'd get some respect."

"Angoose is known as an insane freak tat welcomes deat'. Kill Madrac? You mutilate tem." Lucky sat up to look me in the face. "Your bounty is ten times more tan any pirate in space. You 'ave no fear against anyone who stands against ta pack. Yet, Angoose won't defend Angoose."

"So what! I don't mess with the pack because I don't want to get punished. I focus on turning those slimy green fucks into stains on the floor. The Madrac took my world. I take a few of them. It's a fair trade."

"Do you want revenge or a glorious way to end pain?" Lucky stood and walked towards the door. "Captain Keena wants you to meet Jadie on Palpa Dra. Offer to negotiate wit 'er, ten leniency -- maybe."

"Oh yeah, he'll be lenient alright. He'll allow me to live another day. Another day of cleaning toilets and getting my ass kicked." I picked up the bloody cloth and threw it at his head.

Lucky ducked and closed the cell door. "Angoose, orders are to say noting. Captain Keena 'as plans on Palpa Dra. I tink captain won't kill you. Not till you're done."

Lucky walked away chaffing my ears as he left. That sound! I hear it all the time. At dinner. In a battle. Always that damn racket!

Even after he left I could still hear the hissing. Wait, did he approved of my actions? No. The punishment for attacking a superior is severe. It must be. I've never seen it happen in the six months I've been here. It doesn't matter. I let my anger get in the way of common sense and now I would pay.

My overwhelming need for revenge has given me the reputation of being a great pirate but it has also shot me to number one on the Madrac's most wanted list. My capture would make a Madrac soldier's career or some sleaze ball bounty hunter rich. But it must be dangerous for the pack. I'm a liability. My attack on Prilim would be the excuse they need to get me off the ship and earn a fat bounty on the side. I had to think of a way out of this mess.

Fighting the entire pack would be suicide. Begging for mercy just wasn't my style. If I wanted to escape I'd need someone outside the pack to help.

Jadie. I had to convince her to help me. She'd do me a favor but I dreaded the price. When a six and a half foot, estrogen fueled Amazon resembling Satan's little sister calls to collect, you had better pay.

Captain Keena had discovered that Jadie had the hots for me and exploited that to fence his contraband. She was a Roose, which are humanoid. She was also some sort of Godmother in the black market of Palpa Dra. And she didn't trust the Rakin.

I awoke to a sound that made nails on a chalkboard a lullaby. I found Lucky scraping his claws against the thick metal bars.

"Good morning, 'unter," Lucky announced in a cheerful tone. "Captain says I go wit you. Meet Jadie. Make sure noting fooliz 'appens. Get up, lazy monkey."

"I don't remember agreeing to meet with her."

"You did not," Lucky waved his black sash against the lock. He tossed me my disguise.

It was a long, black, hooded cloak that had become my uniform for any trip off ship. Without covering myself with the cloak and gloves I'd stick out like a clown at a funeral. There were two types of humans in the galaxy, slaves and me.

The captain convinced the harbormaster we weren't carrying stolen goods with the customary bribe. Lucky and I missed the "fun" of unloading all the loot. We had to meet Jadie.

A Dra is an amazing thing. The word translates to "floating city" or space station. They're about the size of a large farm town. They had everything most cities would have: schools, farms, restaurants and even pompous bureaucrats running the joint. They normally orbit mining worlds or agricultural planets.

Palpa Dra was different. It was outside normal shipping lines tucked away in a backwater system. So it had a top notch criminal underworld. Drugs, gambling, prostitution -- they were all illegal but the Guardians rarely bothered about them as long as they got a hefty cut. Slavery was legal. Its trade was meticulously governed and protected. On Palpa Dral, Guardians were everywhere, busily looking the other way. Nevertheless, I had to hide, not just my face but also my volatile emotions.

I would cover my face and walk with my hands together, looking down to avoid being recognized -- a proper slave. We would make our way to the other side of the Dra on foot to avoid any transport security checkpoints.

The huge iridescent lights gave the illusion of sunshine. I would pass aliens of various species, just going about their lives. We walked down the peaceful streets that seemed untouched by the horrors outside. For a moment it almost felt like being back in my little hometown in Illinois.

Then I caught a glimpse of my face on one of the dozens of monitors that hung like long, vertical flags. They swayed gently in the artificial breeze showing news updates, ship arrivals and wanted criminals. I saw a scarred, long haired human wanted for murder. My three dimensional image rotated and looked nothing like the young Chicago hotshot I knew six months earlier. That quickly destroyed any momentary feeling of comfort. I lowered my head again, out of caution and frustration.

As we ventured into the dangerous part of town, you could see this area was run, not by appointed officials, but local gangs. Anxiety replaced the comfortable suburban atmosphere. It made East L.A. look like a slumber party pillow fight. Even the Guardians stayed hidden. This was where I felt safest.

The slave auction block was a landmark. We were getting close to our meeting place. As always, I looked to see what species were up for sale. The Madrac have invaded dozens of planets in the name of the Grailian Union so there was always a new catch of the day. The slaves today were Trabarans. They were a small, peaceful, reptilian species who were just minding their own damn business. Just like us lowly humans.

"Do not look up, fool. Ta slave block crawls wit Guardians." Lucky grabbed my arm with one hand and lowered my head with the other. "Ta tavern is close. Keep your 'ead down and move."

We made our way to a tavern where Jadie does most of her business. Two large Roose stood guard at the door, arms crossed. The Roose are about six foot seven and with fire engine red skin. Every hair on their body is jet black and they are all built like pro wrestlers. Especially the women. That is why Jadie made me uncomfortable. Jadie was strangely attractive but, as my cousin, Charlie, always said, "never screw a woman that can lift you over her head." Wherever he is now I'm sure he's happy that I am heeding his advice.

At the door the guards recognized Lucky and led us into the club. They herded us towards a table in a dark corner near the bar. This place, like all great hangouts, never changes. We had to pass two of the three, smoke filled stages. A main stage at the center normally featured two strippers, and another was placed near the door so passers by could catch a glimpse of what they were missing. The bar was at the back and stretched the length of the tavern. Today the females on stage were Rakin. Even without any clothes they were still just fur covered, wet nosed aliens to me.

As we passed the first stage on our way to the table, a dancer strategically spun around so her tail gently hit the back of my neck, slowly wrapping around my throat. The cat on stage had thin horizontal white stripes that ran down her back against her silky orange fur. She shot me that familiar gaze every stripper uses to entice suckers to get drunk and toss her money. With a simple glance a female of any species can make even the ugliest male believe he had a shot, without realizing all she wants is his cash.

"No time for play, Angoose." Lucky grabbed my arm. "We 'ave work."

"You're right." I politely removed the tail from my neck. "She isn't really my type."

"That is good ta hear," the familiar, smoky baritone whispered from behind. "I wouldn't want ya wastin' yer time with a stinkin' Rakin. Now tell yer pet ta go away."

With a nod from her, Jadie's henchmen grabbed Lucky and drug him away from the table and back out the door.

Jadie affectionately brushed the back of her hand against my face as she removed my hood. We sat facing each other. Jadie produced a device that looked like a cell phone from a hidden pocket to view the downloaded manifest of our stolen cargo. A wave of her hand brought a waitress with two large glasses of Mala.

"The life of a Rakin hunter is treating ya well, Angus. Yer growin' stronger. Ya got scars. Like a Roose." She affectionately reached out her meat hook and caressed a fresh scar from yesterday's beating. "Now ya hit a rich target and ya bring it ta me first."

I gingerly extracted her hand -- careful not to agitate her. I took a long drink, hoping to hide the nervous sweat forming on my brow.

"Yes I always think of you first." I took another large swallow of the warm dark liquor to calm my nerves. "We swiped everything from chop parts, high grade hooch and even food canisters. I won't take anything less then eighty thousand."

"For that kinda money I should get somethin' more than stolen goods." The muscles in her jaw flexed as she grinned. "Ya have anything else ta offer?"

I raised my eyebrow and shook my head. My weak attempt to play cool worked. She accepted the offer with little haggling. That was unlike her. Even if she likes you she'll try to screw you out of some cash, or worse, screw you.

She flagged another round of drinks. I finished my first glass and reached for the second. It was killing the pain from my beating and lack of sleep. Jadie pressed a few more buttons on her viewer and slid it to my side of the table.

"I got some exotic items taken from yer home planet. I need yer help." I reached for the viewer. Her crimson fingers scraped against my pallid hand like seductive sandpaper, not releasing her toy. A white burn patch on her arm pinkened. Was she blushing? I pulled the viewer away. "I'd like t' know their value," she said. "I'll pay ya, o'course."

Scrolling through the images of items stolen from Earth was like looking through a pawnshop: jewelry, weapons, some paintings and even books. And liquor -- there's always liquor. Aliens of all types had a thing for booze. Whoever got this stuff made one hell of a haul. I saw cases of scotch, tequila, almost any type of spirit you could think of, even beer.

"Your people did good." I placed her computer back on the table. "It's worth quite a bit. I'll give you the details but let's discuss my fee first."

"Name yer price, Angus," Jadie said, "I'm sure we can arrange some sort o' deal."

"I'll need five thousand up front, a case of that beer," I paused for a moment wondering how she would react to my next demand. "And I need a favor. I have to get off my ship fast. Is the crew that took this stuff going back to Earth soon?"

"No, yer people started some kinda half assed resistance back there. It's too chaotic for another run. But why are ya leaving yer crew? They're the only ones that wouldn't kill ya or turn ya in for the bounty."

"I'm not so sure about that. I guess I'll take my chances with what I can find here on the Dra."

Lucky had snuck his way back to our table. He scooted me over. "Never figure out if tis red skinned Roose wants to rip out your 'eart or steal it," Lucky said signaling to the waitress for a drink.

"Don't combine business with either sorta pleasure. However, punishing my bodyguards for letting ya slip away will be fun." Jadie stood up blocking the overhead light. "I'll arrange yer payment and have it delivered to yer ship."

"No, Jadie," I held her arm as she rose. "Bring my payment here and send the rest to the ship."

"Fine, ya been with them long enough to know." Her ashen eyes fixed on me over a lascivious grin. "If ya get into trouble --" she gently removed my hand, "or feel like grabbin' me again, ya know what to do."

Jadie sauntered away her holster tapping against the metal buckles running down her pants. She watched me over her shoulder as she left. I waved for another drink. Lucky's ears lay flat against his skull.

"Wat she mean 'if you get into trouble'?" Lucky asked, "You planning anyting stupid?"

Something behind me caught Lucky's attention. His expression changed.

"What the fuck is happening?" I asked.

"Find out very soon." Lucky stared towards the entrance.

I whirled around. The rest of the bridge crew, black sashes tied to their arms, were making their way into the bar. At the same time, I heard Jadie rushing back toward us.

"Quickly, with me," she whispered.

"Time to go." I pulled the hood back over my head and rose from my chair.

"Wat you doing, fool?" Lucky sprang to his feet. "You insane?"

I turned. One punch sent Lucky crashing backwards into the table.

"Sorry it has to be this way, bud." Jadie pulled me with the force of a truck.

"There's a private room beyond the bar. A hatch in the floor'll lead ya to the lower level."

We ran down a narrow hallway at the back of the room. Jadie opened a small door, exposing a private room with two couches, a stage and small bar at the other end. Jadie's hand gently touching my back was comforting. For a moment. My feet lifted off the ground as she shoved me into the room. That brought the score to cold metal floor: three, Angus' face: zero. I jumped to my feet in an adrenalin filled panic. I could only watch as Jadie slammed the door with a crash.

"Holy shit! You giant, freaky bitch! You knew about this the whole time!"

"Don't worry, Angus," her gravelly voice muffled by the metal door. "I bet a hundred certs that you'll kill at least four of them before they can take ya."

Frightened by the prospect of getting mauled by the entire pack, I frantically reached for my weapons, mumbling to myself the entire time.

"Fucking, flea bitten, ass licking strays. Worthless, ungrateful, pussies."

Even in the chaos of the situation I laughed. All this time I had never thought to call these giant cats 'pussies'. My nervous laughter echoed as I made sure Heckle and Jeckle were still safe in their sheaths.

There came a loud banging at the door.

"Out, Angoose!" Captain Keena bellowed.

Sweat formed under my clothes as I reached behind my back for the knives.

"The lock is on your side!" I yelled. "If you want me, then come and get me!"

The click of the lock and the door handle echoed in the small room. I raised a dagger over my head and pointed the other outward. The door swung open and Captain Keena stood casually at the entrance, his paws slowly rubbing his oversized, white stomach. He noticed the blade in my hand and his manner became much less relaxed.

I let a knife fly toward the captain. With surprising quickness, he moved away. It pierced the thin metal interior wall, with a hollow thud.

"You damn, traitors!" I switched the other projectile to my right hand. "This is what I get for trusting you idiots!"

Before I had time to aim, Lucky, Raslo and three others charged from the hallway.

"Wat in name of all ta gods is going on?" Captain Keena yelled. "Bring tis zatya outside."

Lucky and Raslo forced me back into the main room. I saw the entire bridge crew move, lining up to get a look. Other members of the pack entered, filing in behind the officers. The captain pointed to Prilim. He was carrying a dark rag draped across both his paws.

"I don't need a blindfold, you fat bastard!" I struggled to get free. "I'll face this with my eyes open you ass licking stray!"

Captain Keena patted his belly self consciously. "Wat Angoose rambling about?"

"Angoose tinks you give 'im to ta Madrac for a reward." Lucky held me tighter. "Prilim, you beat 'im, maybe. Tat will keep 'im quiet."

"You hit me again, you furry jackass and I'll tear out your heart! I'll kill all of you. . ."

The captain pointed to Raslo, then to me. Following Captain Keena's order he covered my mouth. The smell of Raslo's spicy lunch reached my nose before his tan paw did.

"Bounty on zatya's 'ead, very large. Good idea, maybe." Captain Keena raised his arms to address the pack. "Wat does ta pack tink? Give 'im to Madrac? Or Guardians?"

For a moment the pack stood silent. Low growls began to rumble. Some cried out 'Guardians!' still more call out 'Madrac!' I couldn't believe my fate was in the hands of these ungrateful fuckers.

"Wat do you tink, zatya?" Captain Keena approached with his paws behind his back. "Wat to do?"

"Go to Hell!"

I slammed my head backwards cracking Raslo's skull. My left hand freed, a punch sent Lucky to the floor yet again. Spinning, I aimed my right foot at the captain's crotch. As I turned I saw the captain holding a small blast pistol aimed at my head.

"Stupid zatya!" The captain yelled. "Reward means noting. Good 'unters die in raids not in prison cells."

"But I'm a wanted criminal, I'm putting the pack in danger by being on your ship."

"We are all wanted criminals. You are different. You are a 'uman tat kills Madrac." The captain lowered his gun. "You are feared. You are respected. And," he paused and held his arms wide apart. "You are profitable. Wat captain, wat smuggler dares stand against ta Great Angoose Fleeen?"

"Then what the fuck is this all about?"

Captain Keena shoved his gun back in his pants and found a chair. He lowered himself into his seat and took a drink from the bar. And then he began that damn chaffing. The rest of the pack joined in, driving me near the brink of madness.

"We just 'ave fun. I ordered silence. I did not know if I trust your kind. I did not know if you 'ave ta spirit of Rakin 'unter? Ten you attack Prilim. Final proof. You are Rakin!"

"What in the fuck are you talking about?" Two steps towards the captain and a cautious paw hit my chest.

"Angoose, from ta first day, you defeat every opponent like a blood drunk Roose. Pack beats you like a slave and you won't fight back. Until now." The captain leaned forward in his chair. "Don't trust creatures tat follow blindly. Must 'ave desire to defend not just ta pack. Must 'ave ta spirit to defend self! A suicidal 'unter is wort' noting!"

"I've been risking my life and my pride for the pack." I realized a smile was now beginning to show on my face. "And all I really had to do was just kick Prilim's ass? I'm beginning to understand the warped Rakin sense of humor, Captain."

"Angoose understands!" The captain threw his drink to the floor and pointed at me. "Give it now, Prilim."

Prilim approached with the black cloth still draped across both paws. He tied it on my arm, tugging with just enough force to make it painful.

"You prove yourself a brave 'unter. Welcome to ta pack. . . broter."

"A black sash? You've got to be fucking kidding me. I'm getting a promotion?"

The Captain stood and gripped my arm at the sash. "Choose ten of ta pack for a 'unting party. Batau."

Jadie appeared from behind the bar carrying a bucket with various types of beer from Earth and placed it on the floor in front of me.

"You knew about this the whole time?" I reached for a beer. "You let me believe I was in danger?"

"Nah. And I lost some money," Jadie barely patted the side of Lucky's face. "I'm very disappointed ya didn't kill this one during the escape." Jadie gave a final slap strong enough to spin Lucky around. He fell into Prilim's arms.

Almost immediately all the Rakin in the room began waving their arms and shaking the walls with their loud ear-chaffing racket.

I was stunned. The crew that just moments ago I thought would give me up to the authorities, were now my friends. I twisted open the beer and chugged it.

I looked around for a place to sit and the only spot available was the center stage. Two Rakin dancers positioned themselves on either side of me. Sitting there with strange cat like aliens rubbing up against me I found myself starting to laugh uncontrollably. Six months ago a busy day would have involved an expensive client lunch and yelling at underlings.

In the past two days I've killed my fifteenth seven foot lizard, fenced contraband, flirted with a bright red woman the size of an NFL linebacker, and got a promotion to a higher rank of pirate. As I laughed the crew began to stare as if I had gone completely insane.

That's when I realized: no one in the pack had seen me laugh before today.

"Captain Keena! How many of you strays do I have to beat to be captain?"

Captain Keena glared -- his teeth bared, his ears twisted backward. The pack quieted as they waited to see what the captain's reaction would be. His lips folded back over his teeth as his ears perked up.

"Lets not tell him ta trut about using powered weapons!" The captain shouted so everyone in the room could hear.

The pack began that ridiculous, chaffing again but this time something was different. The captain had made a joke. That was when I realized the horrible ear damaging noise wasn't aggressive, or mocking. It was laughter.

The pack was shocked to see me laugh because they had never seen me happy. I have been too angry to realize that they were happy the whole time. No matter how dangerous or horrible the situation, the Rakin still find ways to laugh. Thankfully, at least for today, so have I.

THE END

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