“What are you having, then?”
The bartender was a tall man, with thick, greasy hanging in his face in a wave. He was thin, his cheekbones and bones in the back of his hands were prominent. His complexion was sallow and his skin was as oily-looking as his hair. He was chewing on what looked like a genuine wooden toothpick – an expensive habit in these parts.
Seeing her uncertain frown, he smiled and said, “Let me make it simpler for you – I know the variety can be overwhelming. Do you like it to taste like alcohol or not?”
Mary shook her head. “Not.”
He nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere. All right, sweet, sour, savory, tart, or bland?”
Mary considered as she let her eyes travel to the holographic display above the bar. Sports, sports, sports, dancing, and someone in formal clothing waving their hands and speaking vehemently – either politics or religion. As she did, she felt an all-too familiar pressure in her thoughts. It always felt like an obstruction in her stream of thoughts, like a partially submerged rock in a river that the water had to negotiate its way around.
<<Bartender: You aren’t really here for a drink, are you?>>
Mary bit her lip. “Savory? When I think of drinking something savory I think of broth. Do you have alcoholic soup?” She let her eyes wander to the holograms again, watching as scored of huge reptilian figures in archaic gear tackled one another while wrestling over what looked like an egg. She projected back to him, <<Mary: Why, what do you think I’m here for?>>
The bartender laughed and wiped the hair back from his forehead. He had a ring on his middle finger, a large silvery band with a rectangular black stone set in it. She caught the briefest whiff of expectation and excitement from him. He’s expecting me to react to the ring, not that I have any clue what that is about. “Well, we can make you some broth if you like, but I bet you’d want something stronger. Nah, some people like their drinks to taste like food. Ever had a beef shake?”
<<Bartender: I think that you’re here to play the game. Find some way to make a little credit off of the gullible or the desperate.>>
“I think that I’ll go with sweet.”
<<Mary: I’m not part of your ring club, guy. What do you want?>>
“Of course. Do you like fruity, sugary, or exotic? Also, sharp or mellow?” He turned around and walked towards the back wall, inspecting bottles and nozzles as he waited for her reply.
<<Bartender: You came alone and took a long time to come to the bar and were hovering around tables. What are you after?>>
“Um, exotic and sharp.” Mary prepared her ID for scanning. The small iridescent card was in her pocket, and she saw the bartender glance back sharply as she laid it on the counter.
<<Mary: There were a couple of people that I’ve met but haven’t been introduced to yet. I was hoping that they’d notice and say hi. See the two Diplo officers sitting with the … whatever that is? The scaly and hairy person? The older of the two was in my first briefing. I don’t know anyone on the station yet, really.>> Mary carefully tried to project an air of mild frustration.
“Exotic and sharp it is! Time for some Tanalurian Tropical Torrent!” He pulled down on two nozzles and began releasing them into a cup.
<<Bartender: Nice routine, hon, but I’m not deficient. You were scoping them.>>
“Wow, sounds… exciting.” Mary managed a raised eyebrow. The bartender stopped combining the bright yellow and red fluids about three quarters of the way up the glass and reached for a jar filled with dark liquid and small, oblong objects.
<<Mary: What business is it of yours if I was? You’re not a Strainer.>>
“You have NO idea.” He said aloud as he opened the jar and reached into it with a pair of tongs, pulling out what looked like a soft, slick purple egg. He turned it around in the light, grinned, and dropped it in.
<<Bartender: Thought so. No, I’m not, and neither are you. It’s my business because you’re in my bar.>>
The egg started to fizz and break apart in the drink. Little purple dots floated to the surface. He turned back around and presented it to her with a flourish, swiping her ID casually with the bar scanner at the same time. He folded his hands and leaned forwards expectantly.
Mary picked the large drink up and sniffed at it. It had a sharp tang that was evocative of citrus and made saliva flood her mouth. The little purple dots turned out to be slick little spheres. She took an experimental sip, grimacing at the slimy texture of the orbs but pleasantly surprised at their slight spicyness. She carefully chewed one between her premolars, and it fell apart easily under pressure. She swallowed the rest of her mouthful and looked up.
“That was … good. A lot of flavor, and it doesn’t taste even remotely alcoholic.” She licked her lips.
<<Mary: So are you going to report me?>>
The bartender nodded and waggled his eyebrows. “Be careful with that. Anything else I can get you?”
<<Bartender: That depends. Are you going to be honest with me?>>
Mary sighed, thanked the bartender, and turned to walk towards an unoccupied table. She hoisted herself up to perch on the seat and pretended to watch something mindless as she carefully sipped the Tanalurian Tropical Torrent.
<<Mary: I don’t know what I was looking for, guy. I just wanted to see what they were up to. I can do this; it doesn’t mean that I do much with it.>>
Two Vislin were involved in what appeared to be a martials arts competition. The two sinuous figures stood in place, weaving back and forth, and occasionally lunging forward to tap the other in the chest or belly or neck. One of them stumbled as they leaned back to avoid a strike and she could see the crowd behind them in the upper portion of the projection go wild.
<<Bartender: Official training or did you sign up for a course? Or did you just figure it out on your own?>>
Mary twirled the drink with her finger and pulled out one of the slimy purple blobs. What is this stuff? I’d honestly rather not know.
<<Mary: I knew that I had talent. I’ve read a few things, basic practice kind of stuff. I’ve never told anyone about it.>>
A rowdy group of young Sec personnel jostled past the table. One of the guys smiled at her as he passed. She smiled back, trying to look distracted and unavailable.
<<Bartender: Sounds like you don’t want to attract attention. That’s smart. Nosey Awakeners and SCAPE everywhere. You’re in luck on this station – the fungi are mostly busy and there aren’t a lot of Watchers.>>
The human Sec officer who had smiled at her began to make his way back over to her table. She mumbled. “Maurice, can you run some interference?”
“Let me out and I’ll see what I can do.” The smooth, stentorian tones of her Brin came out of her pocket. She pulled out the projector and put it on the other available seat. A large man, bald with a bushy black beard and pitch black eyes appeared. He smiled at her and turned around to the rest of the room, scanning the crowd.
<<Bartender: No matter where you go, though, someone is going to notice.>> The bartender continued in her head. <<Bartender: That is, unless…>>
Maurice spotted the guy who was making his way over and waved to catch his attention. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head firmly. The officer’s face fell, and he shrugged and turned to rejoin his companions. She felt a little bad. He was cute, and she hadn’t been lying when she said she didn’t really know anyone on the station yet. She made a note to keep an eye out for him when she was less distracted.
<<Mary: Unless what?>>
<<Bartender: Unless you’re really interested in not being noticed. If that’s the case, then maybe we can help each other out.>>
“Mary? Are you alright?” Maurice looked concerned.
“Yeah… just a little distracted.”
“Is there something that I can do for you?”
“Just … just make sure no one bothers us. Give me a few minutes.”
Maurice nodded, with a look of dawning comprehension, and put his hands atop hers. It was odd, seeing his large, hairy fingers covering her smaller pale ones but feeling no pressure or warmth. She had never quite gotten used to it.
<<Mary: I am. What are you proposing? Does it have to do with that ring you showed me earlier?>>
<<Bartender: Maybe. Tell you what, my quarters are 15-3-57. Come meet me there after my shift. We’ll have more time to talk. For now, enjoy your drink.>>
Mary sent him a wordless assent and looked up at Maurice. “All right, I’m better. Are you okay going back into my pocket for now?”
Maurice pursed his thick lips and sighed. “Do I have a choice?”
Mary frowned. “Of course you do!”
Maurice nodded. “Then if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d rather hang out here while you socialize. After all, you can always come back over if you have need of more … interference.”
Mary smiled. Of course, he’s been lonely and cooped up. “I’m sorry you’ve been away for the last couple of days. It’s just … the Mauraug that I’m working with right now…”
Maurice nodded magnanimously. “I understand. You don’t want to spook them or make things uncomfortable. However, I’d like to have a little social time as well.”
“Of course!” Mary moved over and carefully hugged the empty air of his hologram and picked up the remains of her drink. “Let me know if you want to leave early. I’m going to go talk to Dimples over there.”
She moved through the crowd, carefully feeling the psychic pressures around her. As far as she could tell, the bartender wasn’t scanning her. That was good. The thought of the meeting later twisted her insides and she needed a distraction badly. This was going to be a long night.