He didn’t have to see the fight to know it was bad. The roars were enough to tell him that. Where had everyone come from? Then he saw the shooting area was empty. Of course a fight like this had attracted everyone. He didn’t want to think about the Samalians who might be following him.
He pushed his way through the Samalians in time to see Tristan slam a woman on the ground. “Tristan Stop!” Every Samalian froze. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Tristan looked at him, then at the woman he was holding down, hand around her neck. For a moment Alex worried he’d break it, but Samalian necks were well protected. “I’m teaching them what a real fight is like, not the stepping around you’ve been doing.”
There were four more Samalians on the ground, each in obvious pain. “You’re beating the crap out of them, what are you trying to do, kill them?”
Tristan pushed himself to his feet. “That’s what fighting’s about! You don’t learn anything by just getting scrapes. You’ve got to feel it for the lesson to sink in.”
“This isn’t your job. You need to build the wall.” Alex pointed to the half-finished structure.
“Then maybe if you taught them properly, I wouldn’t have to come here and help,” Tristan’s tone was low, menacing, but Alex no longer believed in that threat. “You call that helping?” He yelled, indicating the injured Samalians. He wanted to believe in it, desperately, He wanted to be scared of this man again. The excitement of not knowing if today was the day he’d kill him.
“What do you call what you’re doing? Dancing?” Tristan yelled back. “Are you even trying to train them? Did anything I teach you stick?”
“Do I look like the kind of monster you are?” he put as much hate as he could in the words. Anything he could to get Tristan angry enough to strike him. “Unlike you I don’t need to beat someone to an inch of their life to feel like I’m teaching them something!”
Tristan staggered back. “Alex, I never.” The ferocity was gone. Uncertainty replaced it. “You were never in danger, Alex. I know what you—”
“Really? You know what I can take? Tell that to Cornelius when you almost killed me.”
Tristan staggered again, Alex’s words could have been fists for the way he reacted. “It was only once, I was angry. I lost control.”
Alex motioned around them. “And this isn’t you losing control again?”
“No, I know what—”
“Go back to your wall.”
“Alex, I just want to help.”
“I don’t need your fucking help,” Alex growled, and the words stabbed Tristan. He slouched and walked away. The next words were growled under his breath. “I need you to finish that wall so you won’t let me talk to you this way ever again.”
Jacoby moved to the center of the makeshift circle. “Okay people, I think that’s going to be it for today. Rig, get everyone to put their packs in the charger, have the fighters take the injured to be treated.”
People moved around them, but Alex ignored them. He watched Tristan reach the wall and then kick it down like a sullen child. If he remembered how to cry, he would.
“What the fuck was that?” Jacoby asked, angry. “I thought this was supposed to help him get better. This doesn’t look like anything resembling better.”
Alex rounded on him. “You think I don’t know that! You think this is what I want? And what the fuck are you doing to help?”
“Watch the tone, Crimson. I might not be able to beat the crap out of you like you seem to be looking for, but I’m not going to let you talk to me like I’m some second-rate lieutenant.”
They glared at each other, and Alex made an effort to reign in his anger. “I’m sorry,” he lied, using every trick Tristan had taught him to seem sincere.
“Look, Alex. I know this is screwing with you. You and him have a complicated relationship, and it doesn’t look anything like this. I get it. But you need to admit this isn’t working. Let’s just go. I can have the hover ready to fly under a day. Let’s go home and bring in specialists.”
“Alex, you need to—”
“No.” It took most of his willpower not to snap, not to scream. He made Jacoby the job. He had to con him into accepting this was where they’d stay. Anger wouldn’t do that. “We need to give him time. This is harder on him than us.”
“Alex, what’s so difficult about building a wall?”
Put as much truth into the lie as you could, that had been one of the first lessons Tristan had taught him. “Samalians are wired differently than us. They have a core attribute. Tristan’s destruction.”
“Come on Alex that’s crap. Tech’s fixed plenty of stuff. He even rebuilt Montgomery’s water condenser from scratch.”
He clamped down on his anger. “Tech is an act, Jacoby. Everything Tristan did there was to maintain the facade of a friendly Samalian, everything. Have you ever seen his workshop? Everything in it is either something that will cause destruction, or something that he needs to know about so he can get himself out of trouble. Guns, explosives, locks, ship design. There is not one thing in there about building anything. That wall is the most difficult thing Tristan has ever had to do.”
Jacoby looked at the wreckage of the wall. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Look at him and tell me that isn’t what you see.”
“I see someone in pain Alex. I see someone so desperate for that pain to end he’ll try anything, even if deep down he knows it isn’t going to do any good.”
“Well, that isn’t what I see. We’re staying. We’re staying until the wall is built. You can leave if—”
“I’m not leaving, Alex. I told you that before.”
Alex nodded. “Then I’m going to go see to Tristan.” He headed for the House. He made it halfway there when Hea’Las came out, carrying a bowl with the unguent in it. Their eyes met and her ear canted in the negative.
She was right. As much as he wanted to see Tristan. It wouldn’t help either of them. He should be angry she had a rapport with Tristan he didn’t. But he was just happy there was one person here the Samalian seemed willing to listen to.
And she didn’t look like she was about to kick them out for the damage Tristan had done. Now Alex needed to see what he needed to do to mitigate the damage it had done to the rest of the community.
* * * * *
When he reached the town, he found the injured in the center part where he’d held his first training session. Benches had been brought out, and they were seated on them while people ministered to their injuries. Instead of it being a somber affair, there was a sense of joviality to the occasion. If he hadn’t seen the way they’d been beaten, Alex would think they were celebrating a victory.
He found Rig’Irik. “How are they doing?”
“Really? They’re proud of getting beaten?” He’d noticed Samalian didn’t have the same reaction to losing a fight a lot of the humans he’d fought against or by their side had, but he’d never seen them rejoice at losing a fight.
“They fight,” Rig’Irik used a Samalian word Alex had never head before. “Lots pride in that.”
Alex tried to make the word Rig’Irik had used and knew he’d mangled it. His throat wasn’t build to produce half the sounds Samalians used. “What does that mean?”
Rig’Irik gave the sound Alex had come to associate with chuckling, then spoke to himself in Samalian. “One who wins.” He said, although his tone was uncertain. That certainly defined Tristan. Rig’Irik shook his head. “fights with little, still wins.” He shook his head again, then raised his voice and spoke in Samalian.
A voice replied, Sartas, and she exited a house. She walked without apparent problems, but the Samalian seated at the closest bench stood to let her sit. She wasn’t one of the leaders, but people deferred to her just like they deferred to Rig’Irik. He wondered if Rig’Irik’s authority came from his mother, or if he’d earned it on his own.
“You have questions?” her breathing was hard. Rig’Irik said something, but she shushed him.
“Rig’Irik called Tristan something he’s having trouble translating.” Her ears twitch in the affirmative, but she didn’t speak. She was going to force him to mangle the word again. So he spoke it as best as he could.
She smiled, the full showing of teeth kind of smile he’d found menacing the first time Tristan had done it. Tristan used it to that effect, but he’d learned that Samalian didn’t find a show of teeth menacing.
“That is good. Better than some who took pride in how they butchered my language. The word is one we use to describe a group of our people who believe all this to be a hindrance to their survival.” She motioned around them.
“That, the people, the technology.”
Alex smiled, and she chuckled.
“We have little because it is expensive, and we can manage without a lot of it, but they believe any but the most basic technology is detrimental. That it erodes our will to survive. Makes us soft.”
“They think Tristan is one of those, what, survivalists?”
She thought the word over and her ears twitched. “That is a good word. Survivalist. Yes, they see him as such. He sleeps by his wall, instead of inside the House, or your hover. He’s killed some small animals when he runs and eaten them.”
Alex hadn’t known about that. “And those are things survivalists do?”
Her ears twitched. “They live in forests, or the mountains. Away from others. In small groups. One family, maybe two. They hunt for their food, make what they need. Have little to do with others. Some have their own language.”
“Okay, Tristan is nothing like that. He has—had—a house, he loves technology, knows more about that than most people I know, more than me. He has nothing to do with people like that.” He trailed off as he considered the sleeping arrangement in the house. A thin mat directly on the floor. Showers as cold as bearable. Food had been minimal until Alex had started cooking. Tristan could easily survive on nutrient bars.
Then there was when they were on any jobs that weren’t in a city. Alex had thought they’d been roughing it that first time with Emil, but he’d had a tent. After that Tristan hadn’t allowed him one. They’d slept outside, in the cold and rain. Just like he was doing now. It had taken some work for Alex to convince Tristan he needed at least heat blankets since he didn’t have his fur.
Tristan did have a habit of going for the minimalist way of living whenever he could. Was that because of his upbringing?
Sartas watched him. She had remained silent, letting him think.
“So there’s what, honor in fighting one of those survivalists and not getting killed?”
“They are tough. They fight to kill, they think that every fight is to the death.”
“Do they realize that if Tristan had wanted to kill them, none of them would be alive?”
She shrugged. “They lived, that’s all that matters.”
Alex watched the group. The care and reverence those tending the wounded used. There hadn’t been this level of it after any of the training sessions. He realized one of the women was no longer with them and decided not to think about what she and whoever had tended her wounds might be up to now.
“So I don’t have to worry about any of them trying to get revenge on Tristan for the beating they got?”
She tilted her head in the inquisitive way Samalians did.
“Humans wouldn’t take kindly to being so thoroughly beaten. They’d try to prove they are better. Try to Ambush him, maybe get a few friends together to up the chances of winning.”
Her ears canted. “If one wants to test himself, it will be from the front. But they will leave him be. Your friend has made it clear he doesn’t wish to be part of us. They will respect that.”
Alex chuckled. “You people are strange.”
She smiled. “Many humans have said the same. It is why the corporation wants to make us an attraction. We are different from you.”
“That’s why they should leave you alone.” He turned to leave and stopped. “Do you mind if I come talk with you again, when I’m not training this bunch? Everything I know about your people comes from stuff I read over the net and I’m realizing it’s pretty bad. I get the feeling I’m going to be here longer than I thought, so I’d like to know you better. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to be an insult.” He thought he'd asked because he wanted to acquire more information on them. So he’d know how to better handle what might occur, but when he stopped talking, he found he was genuinely curious. His only example of Samalian behavior was Tristan, who was so human Alex hadn’t learned anything from him, and the research which was either purposely or accidentally wrong.
She studied him, her ears unmoving, her face still. “Come and ask your questions,” she finally said. “And I will decide if you should know us.”
He nodded and headed back toward the training ground and the hover.