Friday, November 29, 2013

Featured Species - The Hrotata

Name:  Hrotata

“There is never a truly compelling reason not to be friends.” – Hrotata Maxim


The Hrotata are bipedal mammalians, covered with a sleek fur and featuring large, expressive eyes and mouths.  They stand at roughly 1.75M, although there is great variety in their height and general size due to a large genetic base and variety of worlds of origin.  Their fur often has tiger-stripe patterns, and naturally tends towards blonde, red, brown, black, and grey, although they take great delight in coloring it all manner of unnatural hues.  They have small, black, sensitive noses, swiveling ears, and a slightly pronounced muzzle.  Humans have described them as having bodies resembling those of earthly seals or otters, with faces reminiscent of lemurs or raccoons.


            The Hrotata race developed as a species of small mammalian scavengers on Hrotata Prime, often following in the wake of the Ththraathumm, the precursors of the Taratumm.  They would feed off of the remains of those fallen to predators, and occasionally steal the eggs of the common reptilian species of the planet.  They claim that their sapience was developed due to the need to use strategy in the face of physically superior predators and egg-layers.

            The Hrotata have always benefited from the other races on their world.  They learned sea travel and navigation from the Taratumm and chemistry and metallurgy from the Vislin.  Ever since they have been sapient, they have served as a bridge between the two other sapient races of their world, working first as spies and then as merchants and diplomats.

            The Vislin and Taratumm needed diplomats badly.  Ancient aggression had merely been exacerbating by advances in technology and increase in population.  While occasionally the Hrotata were themselves subject to violence, it was usually instances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When it seemed like near-annihilation of the Taratumm was imminent, the Hrotata stepped firmly between the quarreling brothers, and revealed to them what they had learned through recently discovered advances in communications technology: that there was a whole galaxy of other races beyond their planet.  This fact was used to cement the importance of tolerance and even cooperation between all of the races of Hrotata Prime.  The Pact of the Great Family was forged, a short but succinct constitution for their new state of interspecies peace.  Resistance was rare and quickly quashed, sometimes violently.

            As the Matriarchs of the Great Family, the Hrotata quickly propelled their coalition forwards into space flight and colonization and terraforming of nearby worlds.  Early interactions with the Tesetsi proved beneficial to both parties.  The Tesetsi valued the genetic variety and unusual solutions and workarounds that the biology of Hrotata Prime provided.  The Hrotata and the rest of the Great Family benefited from advice and application on terraforming and exobiology.

            Hrotata space was not far from Mauraug space, however.  The Mauraug Covenant took notice of the expansion of the Great Family’s territories and began to attempt to impose tribute from those that they claimed were using their space.  This would have been a small side note in a massive Zig and Mauraug war had the Hrotata not made contact and peaceful overtures to the normally isolationist Zig leaders, and initiated diplomacy between the Zig, the Tesetsi, and others who had been subject to Mauraug aggression, creating the first incarnation of the body that is the modern-day Collective.

            The Hrotata were livid at the treatment of mankind at the hands of the Mauraug Covenant, their own allies.  Many of them realized that they would have been subjected to such treatment had the Collective failed, and saw mankind as an infant race to be fostered and protected from savage aggressors.  Mauraug relations with the Hrotata have always been cool, as the Mauraug see them as interfering upstarts and the Hrotata and Great Family see the Mauraug Covenant as a crumbling edifice of totalitarian dogmatism.

Native Technology:

            Although much of the credit for the development of the Great Family’s energy technology goes to the Vislin, there are many among the populous Hrotata who have chosen life paths of scientific research.  The Hrotata have been known to be very capable non-linear thinkers, which helped immensely with developing unusual solutions to problems of physics.  The Vislin may have developed the base of the Energy Tech, but the Hrotata creativity gave it much of its edge.


            The Hrotata are a carbon-based, DNA-based mammalian life form.  Like the mammals of earth, they are warm-blooded, have fur, produce milk and bear live young.  They are primarily nocturnal, and as a result have large, sensitive eyes and ears, as well as dark, mottled fur that helped to protect their ancestors against detection in the darkness.  Their olfactory senses are quite refined as well.
            They have a robust immune system, due to their ancestors’ carrion feeding habits, and seldom take ill.  They are also fairly resistant to toxins, as these are a common defense mechanism in the rich biology of their world.  Indeed, the Hrotata produce and extremely mild poison in their saliva that produces a very mild euphoria in most compatible life forms.

            The Hrotata have a relatively quick metabolism and a high birth rate.  Like humans, their race can breed at almost any time, and if their reproduction is not restricted their population expands rapidly.  Their life spans are on the shorter end of the scale for galactic sentients.  Their medical technology is advanced enough to protect them from many of the ravages of old age, but their quick metabolic rate causes tissue to wear down more quickly than in many other species.

            Their bodies are compact and tend towards solid, flexible musculature.  The Hrotata are very streamlined and have extremely efficient bipedal locomotion but often drop to all four for bursts of speed and improved balance. 

            Average Height: Five and a half feet

            Average Mass: 75 kgs

            Average/Maximum Life Span: 60/90 yrs


            Masters of interaction and synthesis, the Hrotata integrate cultural practices of numerous species into their own, first those of the Great Family and then most of those of the other races that they have encountered and have worked with.  Their culture is extremely diverse and widespread, as they enjoy sampling foreign practices and experimenting with alien mores.

            Hrotata religion has been compared to the human religion Hinduism.  It is a vast collection of traditions and philosophies with many branches tied by a few commonly held beliefs and ideals.  There are many gods, although whether they are a manifestation of greater divine, individual beings, or embodied ideals varies upon the sect.  Likewise, their interpretation of foreign gods differs, sects hold that they too exist and hold a similar place in the cosmos.  Their faith involves offerings to the gods as an act of communion; the Hrotata make an offering and then partake of the offering themselves, sharing their chosen deity’s essence and growing closer to it by doing so.

            Amongst themselves, Hrotata tend towards a matriarchal culture, with the breeding females being in charge of a given den and the females past breeding age functioning as administrators and chieftainesses.  Although males become involved in their politics there is an obvious bias towards female leadership; culturally male Hrotata tend to be more interested in active roles in the military, scientific and medical fields although they also enjoy acting as cultural attaches and diplomatic liaisons.  The males are far more likely to choose careers that put themselves in dangerous circumstances, hearkening back to the days when they were the food gatherers of their dens.

Dance is an essential form of Hrotata expression.  Their lithe bodies, high energy, and almost genetic joi de vivre culminate in a rich tradition of acrobatic dance performance.  Dance works itself into nearly every aspect of their life.  One well-versed in Hrotata culture can pick up great nuance from their movement; body language is as important to the Hrotata as every other form of communication.  There are ritualized dances preformed for religious reasons or to mark important events, but more importantly in some ways a Hrotata will often gyrate and twist to represent their emotional state.  A Hrotata holding still is either unwell, deliberately trying to hide their emotions, or displaying strong displeasure (known as Stilling).

            Their mimicry of other cultures sometimes troubles those with strongly held beliefs in propriety; as an example, the Hrotata who admire human Catholicism will often attempt to perform their own Masses and Transubstantiation without the aid of a priest and as a consequence may offend Catholic sensibilities by eating the Flesh and Blood of Christ for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  This sort of behavior tends to cause great consternation in humans and the Mauraug, tolerant amusement in the Ningyo and Zig, awed reverence in the Awakeners, and grievous annoyance in the Tesetsi.

            There are many followers of the Awakener philosophy among the Hrotata, blended seamlessly into their practices, and as a result telepathy has become vogue in their culture.  Aside from its more obvious uses to a race of merchants, diplomats, and assassins, telepathy allows one to experience another’s perceptions; useful to a diplomat but quite addictive to a hedonist, and the Hrotata boast no shortage of hedonists among their kind.  Hrotata telepaths are highly valued for their skill and intuitions into motive but often trusted less than telepaths of most other races due to fear of their skills at manipulation. 

            Their love of communication and interaction does have a dark side.  Their skills at extraction and subversion have produced no shortage of swindlers, slavers, and cartel lords.  Since the other members of the Great Family follow them on most endeavors, the actions of some few have brought shame on the many more times than they would like to remember. 


            The Hrotata are inquisitive and curious.  A need to understand motive, probably developed in their role as scavengers as a defensive quality, defines much of their interactions with others.  They feel a need to understand the reasons behind what they perceive in both social situations and intellectual ones, which contributes to their scientific creativity.

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 6

Jump back to Full-Throttle Ahrottl Chapter 5              

                Ahrottl’s breath came quick, her heart beating a steady but rapid pace, as the outer airlock door opened.

                In front of her was a vast expanse of grey metal, hovering in the void, and between her and it was nothing but space.  Empty space, but for particles and energies that were outside her range of perception.  Empty space, but for the ghosts of the crew of that colossal station that she imagined waving to her, calling her forward.

                “Securing the line.”  She said, and reached around the outside of the cabin door, briefly dizzy from the scale of what she was witnessing.  She closed her eyes, and felt with her suited paw for the loop beside the airlock door, and hooked the end of her line through it, snapping it shut.  She opened her eyes and tensed her body, ancient processes in her hindbrain gauging the distance and angle between her and the open docking bay ahead of her.  Her hips wiggled as she crouched, and sprang forward.

                She flew, not feeling the velocity as she might in an environment with gravity and air, but watching the universe slide by her silently.  She felt a bubble rising up from deep inside of her, pushing past her rips and into her throat, and she let out a wild, chittering scream of exhilaration, wonder, and terror.  She slid effortlessly through space, the motor attached to her suit feeding out line in time with her velocity.

                The closed doors of the docking bay were approaching rapidly.  Floating in dead space with no gravity, turning effectively would have been impossible.  Reluctantly she fired a small jet on the back of her suit, slowing her approach.  Her kind was acrobatic and loved to play in low gravity or gravity-free environments but she knew that if she did not slow down at all she could easily get injured; she might be weightless but her mass had not changed at all.  She held her forepaws forwards as she landed against the docking bay door.

                Ahrottl glanced around, seeing something that looked suspiciously like a handhold close by, on the frame of the gate.  She reoriented herself and let a small blast of her jet carry her towards it, grabbing at it quickly before she slid past.  She reached back and grasped her line in one hand, then tied it to the handhold, tethering her to both this station and the mining ship.  Feeling a bit more secure, she nosed her comm back on.

                “Is the pickup working?”

                “Yup!”  Came Gerry’s voice.  “We can see you, and see through your helmet.  Is everything all right?”

                “As all right as it can be.  How are you doing on opening that outer lock?”

                “We’ve found what appears to be a control panel on the inside of the lock.  We’re attempting to compare it to the other panel that we found.”  Mother Superior said in her crisp tones.  “Your time might be best used examining the outside and seeing if you can’t find the same.”

                Aware that her face was visible to the rest of the crew, Ahrottl merely whirled her whiskers instead of screwing up her face and mimicking Mother Superior.  She began to look around for other handholds.

                The outer lock seemed to be lined with them, at about two meters apart, each roughly a meter from the frame.  Others grips were placed even further out, roughly a meter and a half past the first row, and seemed to have even more space between them.  Ahrottl moved gingerly, heading “up” (the direction that her head was currently oriented), rung by rung, looking for some sort of manual control or more lettering.

                An irregularity in the surface caught her eye; she moved to examine it.  A square seam in the surface of the ship, perhaps ten centimeters on a side, was depressed into the hull within easy reach of one of the rungs.  “What do you think?”

                Non-committal noises came over the comm.  Ahrottl shrugged and pressed against the plate gently with her suited paw.

                The panel turned dead black against the grey background and images popped into view.  A series of colored circles, each highlighted with a symbol, connected by white lines in an arrayed pattern.  Ahrottl nibbled on her lip while looking them over.  The symbols familiar ones from previous experience with the alien alphabet, and they had a different quality; angular where the others curved and flowed, blocky where the others seemed to have some nuance.

                “What do you think?”  She asked of the crew.

                “Your guess is as good as mine.”  Maria said.  “Probably better.”

                She looked it over and contemplated it.  The circles ranged in color from primary hues to mixtures, a few of them similar shades, and there were twenty two of them in all.  The arrangement was roughly oval.

                “Maybe it’s a numbering system.”  Timmy suggested brightly.  “They may have been generated by a different culture, or created to look deliberately different from the rest of their script to avoid confusion.

                “So this might be a number pad?  Hmmm.”  Ahrottl scanned it again.  “None of the symbols are the same?  A base twenty two number system?  That seems…”

“Unlikely, given that they resemble the Vessels, which resemble the humans and Zig.  Most species seem to have number systems primarily based on their number of available digits for counting, with the exception of the Mauraug who use a base six and the Zig who use a binary system now, but did not start with one.”

Ahrottl twirled her whiskers and banged on the docking bay door in frustration.  “Come on!”

Mother Superior’s voice came over the communicator, “There seems to be a change.”

A couple of the other crew members murmured in surprise.  Ahrottl, blind to what they were viewing, asked,  “Well?  What is it?”

“There’s a sequence forming on the panel by the door.  It looks like a series of symbols – similar to the ones that you’re seeing.  Maybe it’s the entry code?” Maria suggested.

“It’s better than guessing.  Can you relay the image to me?”

“I’ll take care of it, ma’am.”  Timmy provided helpfully.  Soon enough there was a small holo of the inner panel floating in the helmet of her suit; she manipulated it with her tongue and nose until she could see it clearly.  The symbols did seem to match, and it looked like a sequence, a pathway from one end of the oval to the other.

“Now I just have to hope that I’m going in the right direction.”  Ahrottl said, and began pressing the glowing circles in sequence.  They each dimmed after she touched them, and when she reached the end, the oval faded, leaving behind a blinking message in the script.

“Any change?”  She asked, and then saw the miniature holo sent by the probe shift its vantage point rapidly, looking as though it was careening.  “It appears that the pressure has dropped again.”  Timmy said, as Ahrottl saw the massive docking bay doors slide silently open.

“Well… that worked.”  Ahrottl said, wonderingly, and swung herself around the edge of the frame of the doors and began to propel herself inwards.  She floated past the ship, trying not to give in to her curiosity and look in to the port, and brought herself straight to the inner airlock.  “I’m going to unhook now – the outer doors probably won’t close with the line still in them, and if they do, I’ll still be tethered either way.”  She unclipped herself and watched silently as the line floated away, at first lazily and then snapping to as the mechanism on the mining vessel began to reel it in.

She licked her lips nervously and looked at the floating probe beside her – a grey cylinder, wider at the center than at the ends, with antennae and manipulator arms extending from either end – and then turned her attention to the door and its panel.  The sequence that had been there before was gone, and was replaced by the previous image that they encountered.  She pressed the light blue button, gripping on to the handhold beside the inner airlock as she did so.  As predicted, she shook a bit as pressure returned to the chamber.

                Ahrottl let out a long breath and said, “All right.  Now I’m going to try and open this thing manually.”

                Recalling the sequence that the probe had touched that had caused the repetitive message to play before, she began tapping buttons on the panel.  This time, a different message appeared, and she could hear faintly through her suit a different message being played.

                The airlock slid open effortlessly to a gruesome tableau.  “The Red Key…” Ahrottl murmured in her native tongue, and fell back on her rump, dizzy and stilled, while the crew shouted their concern and confusion for her over her suit’s comm.  “The Red Key…”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Update - An apology and a promise...

Hi there, this is Laine speaking as herself and not just jotting down another chapter of a story.  I'm coming on to explain why there has been a dearth of new stories lately.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been involved in several local community events, and helping to coordinate the memorial service for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, where all of the names of transgender people from around the globe who have been murdered as a result of being who they are over the year (that are reported, at least) are recited as a solemn remembrance and a reminder of how far behind much of the world is (a goodly number of the names were in first world countries).

This has occupied a lot of my free time and just about all of my free energy to the point where I've taken ill over the last few days as a result of kind of burning out.  Today, I started working on new content for Empyrean Dreams, and you should start seeing new material again come Friday.

So, I apologize for the interruption, and promise that it won't be permanent.  The tales of Lotus Station will continue!

Monday, November 11, 2013

S.C.A.P.E. Goats - Chapter 3

                “They want me to kill Rell.”

                “Really?  Are you going to?”  Maurice asked in his smooth tones.  He wasn’t projecting, but speaking quietly over the public intercom in the commode that she had found not far from where Mary was supposed to intercept Rell on his way back to his quarters.

                “Of course not!  But I have to make it look like I tried at least, don’t I?  Pass word along.  I know it’s short notice, but it has to be done.  It’s going to hurt like anything for him, but at least he doesn’t need his body.”  Mary whispered.

                Maurice cleared his throat.  “Well, you’ll need to make sure that you don’t hit his actual center.  Aim low, the lower the better.”

                “I know.  You know, when you join the Society they do make sure you’re familiar with basic Awakener physiology.  I’m just grateful that he’s using a Vessel and not occupying a sentient host.”  The water in the sink started to taper off.  She reached up and waved her hand in front of the sensor again.

                “Did you lose the dummy?”

                She rolled her eyes.  “You don’t need to be jealous, Rice.  It’s a copy of you, a heavily edited copy at that.”

                “I’m not jealous.  I’m unnerved that anyone would try to take an artificial intelligence hostage.  Did you have anything else to report?”

                “Yeah, their recruiter is nasty.  Like really nasty.”

                “Well, it should make you feel good that you’re going to get him arrested.  Anything else?”

                She shook her head.  “Nope.  About to start stalking Rell.  Please tell him I’m sorry.”

                “Tallyho.  I’m out.”  The intercom grew silent.

                Mary stretched and stood up, looked at herself in a mirror and closed her eyes, using a technique that she had learned shortly after joining the Society for Civilized Psychics to fold her memories of the conversation up and neatly store them away for later recovery.  By the time she opened her eyes, she knew that she had just spoken with someone, but would be hard-pressed to say who or what about.

                She washed her hands and did a quick job of brushing her hair into her ponytail.  She stowed the brush in her bag and reached into the sleeves of her jumpsuit, pulling out the soft gloves that had been folded inside them and making sure that they were fastened tight around her wrists.  She did the same with the suit’s hood, pulling it up and over.  It didn’t conceal her face from the front but did a good job with the sides.

                Mary opened the door and started walking casually along the public corridors, occasionally passing other personnel.  She kept an eye out for any kind of suspicious activity as she did so, but didn’t spot anything too out of the ordinary: a couple of Engineer Corps repairing what looked like an air duct, a small group of youngish Zig stumbling drunkenly and chattering at one another, a lone Mauraug Security officer cursing under its breath and fiddling with an implant in its arm.  No one that she recognized, no one was out of place, and no one who knew her.  Perfect enough that it made her nervous.

                She turned a corner and saw Rell in front of her, turning a corner himself not twenty meters away, and walking in the same direction that she was.  Trying to remain casual she glanced around, keeping an eye out for sensors, and she quietly undid the drawstring on her back.  She closed her hand around the weapon that had been provided to her, a small plasma pistol, as small as they could be made, as she fell into step with the Awakener ahead of her.

                His Vessel was tall, and had its silvery hair combed meticulously into a topknot.  The rhizomes that emerged from his ears swayed gently as he walked.  He was wearing grey trousers and a red shirt, both trimmed in black, the signature uniform of the Society.

                I know this won’t kill you, but it’s gonna hurt like hell.  I’m sorry, Rell.  She thought as she adjusted her bag.  Keeping her head down, she tugged her hood forwards.  She was twenty steps to her turn, then ten.  At five she pulled the weapon out, aimed low, and fired.

                A hissing crackle ruptured the air as a tiny bolt of plasma fired out the end of the gun.  Blue-violet energy resolved into a streak and struck Rell squarely in the back of the knee, charring his suit and leaving little trails of light coruscating across it.  He made a noise that sounded like none she’d ever heard before and collapsed on his side, grasping at the limb, still facing away from her.

                She pursed her lips.  Not good; it wouldn’t even look like she tried to take a vital shot.  She fired again, aware of the gun getting hot in her hands.  The second bolt tore through the lower part of the Awakener’s ribcage and his body began to convulse.  She took a couple of steps closer, trying to see – yes.  A white mass, thick and slimy and covered with black dots, was rising to his lips.  It flung rhizomes forward and pulled itself quickly away from his body.

                She fired a last time at the prone figure, this time at the head, and had to clamp her jaws shut as she felt vomit rising in her mouth.  The head collapsed inwards, hissing and bubbling.  She worried that the plasma bolt had hit close enough to the escaping fungal body to singe it.

                The gun had grown dangerously hot in her hands.  She knew this would happen; the bartender had told her that it had been tampered with.  It had an extremely faulty power cell, and would start to slag after just a few shots.  She bent down and scaled it away from her, towards Rell’s Vessel’s form, watching as it began to glow and melt before it slid into the body.  She pulled her hood down, turned the corner, and ran.

                Two corridors down, and one over.  She stopped running, tried to resume her previously casual pace, the adrenaline causing her to tremble with every movement.  She pulled the hood back and tucked it in as she walked, and did the same for her gloves.

                Poor Rell.  That had to be horrible.  She couldn’t even imagine having to put up with something like that, and for the first time in several years began to wonder about her fitness for her role.  The Society wasn’t something that you retired from, of course, but you could technically become an inactive member.

                She made another left and came out onto a main thoroughfare; though at this time of day it was relatively quiet.  A Tesetsi followed by a retinue of small quadrupedal creatures carrying totes skittered past her, nearly knocking her over in their haste.  At least I’m not the only one in a rush.  She headed to a nearby lift, found it empty, and got in, setting it to take her up a couple of levels.

                The lift was too quick for her to do any mental shuffling, so she took a moment to sit in a public area.  It had green plants in pods and adjustable chairs set around small tables.  She took a chair, closed her eyes, and carefully went over the last half-hour in her mind, editing carefully.  She left in her fear and concern but removed any reference to the Society or to actually having known Rell.  Then she opened her eyes, stood up and began to walk purposefully to a destination that she had chosen earlier, pulling her hair out of the ponytail and setting her shoulders.

                She walked to another corridor, found the door she was looking for, and rang the bell.  The cute Sec officer from the club answered, looking a little disheveled and perturbed.

                “Um…”  He frowned.  “Mary?”

                “Yeah.  I remembered that you said you liked playing cards, and I wasn’t doing anything, so I thought I’d stop by.”

                “Oh.”  He turned around, scanning his room briefly.  Mary could see a tiny projected figure sitting on a table, legs crossed, doing what looked to be reading an even tinier book.  The figure looked at her, looked up at him, and raised her eyebrow sternly.

                He grinned sheepishly, making the dimples that had first caught her eyes appear again.  “Yeah, just a minute.  I have to have a word with… well, just a minute.”

                The door slid shut again.  Really?  You need to talk to your AI before you let me in.  Almost creepy.  She waited for a couple of minutes, and had almost decided to leave, when the door slid back open.  Dimples (or Casey, as she had learned his name was) had neatened himself up a bit, and his brin unit was nowhere to be seen.

                “C’mon in.  I just  - I was having a chat with my AI, and…”

                “I understand, it’s cool.”  Mary followed him in.  His stateroom was immaculate compared to the swampy mess of the bartender’s.   A couple of green plants hung from the walls.  There wasn’t much in the way of decoration, and his bed was folded back, leaving room for a table and a few chairs.

                Mary sat down at the table and Casey pulled out a projector and started to set it down.  Mary shook her head and smiled.  Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a small white packet, a little smaller than her hand and flipped one side open.  From that she pulled out a deck of cards.

                Casey looked impressed.  “Real cards?  I’ve never played with those.”  He grinned again, his dimples deepening.  “Where’d you get them?”

                “Oh, I got them from a dealer on the last station that I was on,”  Mary said airily.  “but they’re real.”  She knocked the deck against the table and split it.  “Made from wood.  From trees.  From Earth.”

                “Whoa!”  Casey’s eyes lit up and he reached out towards them.  “Can I touch them?”

                Mary chuckled.  “Of course you can – once I’ve shuffled them.  It’s bad luck otherwise.”

                Casey watched raptly as she riffled the cards several times and finished with a showy cascade.  She started to deal.

                “Wait, we didn’t choose a game.  What do you want?  War?  Go Fish?”

                Mary shook her head, grinning.  “Nope.  I’m not the kind to leave things up to chance.  Ever play Goofspiel?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

S.C.A.P.E. Goats - Chapter 2

                Mary pulled her Brin out of her pocket.  “One last scan?”

                Maurice’s voice came out in a grumble.  “I told you already, you look fine.  Besides, it’s not like you’re going there for a date.  Or are you?”

                Mary sighed and shook her head.  “Just scan me and show, please.”

                Maurice was silent as she held the unit at arms’ length for a moment.  She swapped hands, held it still again, and then looked at the screen.  She saw an image of herself on the screen, altered to show her with both of her hands down.  She was dressed in a one piece suit of stretchy grey knit cloth that included feet and left just her face and hands bare.  Her skin was pale and smooth, her hair dark and curled to the point of looking a bit tangled.  Her small body was rounded and soft in all directions, from her snub nose to her belly.

                Non-threatening, vulnerable, and unassuming.  Most of the humans who pass me won’t remember me, and most of the non-humans will think I look like every other human.  Perfect.  I hope.

                Mary took a deep breath and strode out of her unit, following the directions Maurice had obtained from the station data net to the room that the bartender had indicated.  She shared a lift with a pair of canoodling Hrotata and had to re-route when she noticed that one of the corridors that she had planned on taking was occupied by a bunch of Security officers crowded around what looked like a busted-open door.

                She finally found the place, a grey doorway in a corridor lined with many nearly identical doorways, and rang the bell.  She waited for a couple of minutes, shifting her weight back and forth and trying not to look around nervously and rang the bell again.  She checked the numbers on the door and the surrounding chambers at least a dozen times and began to grow concerned.

                “Looking for someone?”

                Mary let out an undignified yelp and spun around.  There was the bartender, wearing tight black shorts on his knobby legs, a white undershirt, and a shit-eating grin.  The door behind him was open.

                <<Bartender: What, did you expect me to give you my actual room number?  Please.  Act casual, and surprised to see me here.  You came up here looking for Gundar Peck, the guy in the cube across from me.>>

                Mary breathed deeply several times and swept her hair out of her eyes.  “Um, I’m sorry.  Do you know Gundar?  I was coming up to visit him.”

                The bartender snorted and shook his head.  He leaned against the open door frame, his lanky body leaving ample space for her to see the rather messy cubicle behind him.  “Gundar?  He’s probably on duty.  Or drinking.  I almost never see him around here.”

                <<Mary: Ooookay, so what now?>>

                “Could you give him a message for me?” She asked.

                <<Bartender:  Well, I’m going to invite you in, and you’re going to seem interested. >>  She didn’t need the psychic connection to feel his leer.  Mary shuddered internally.

                “I don’t know, like I said, I don’t even really know the guy.  Doesn’t mean you have to leave, though.  If you’re looking for someone to hang out with, maybe have some fun, well, I’m right here.”  The leer became visible at this point.  Mary swallowed.

                “I don’t know – I was looking for Gundar.”  Mary sent a wave of petulant annoyance towards the bartender, the psychic equivalent of sticking her tongue out.  “Are you sure you don’t know when he’ll be back?”

                The bartender’s eyes darkened and his brow furrowed.  His lip drew up in a sneer.  “No,” he said in a nasally, mocking tone “I don’t know when he’ll be back.  Why, is he your boyfriend or something?”

                <<Bartender: Don’t mess with me.  Play along or run along.>>

                Mary winced.  “No, I uh… just wanted to talk to him.  Say, are you doing anything?”  She asked, knowing that it sounded lame.

                He grinned again, and her stomach roiled.  I do not want to go into that room.  “No, I just got off of work.  Say, didn’t I see you down at the bar today?”

                Mary forced a laugh.  “Oh, I thought you looked familiar!  Yeah, you served me the Triple Tropical Tornado!”

                The bartender sneered again, or smiled – it was hard to tell the difference with him.  “Something like that.  Why don’t you come inside?  We can talk in here, I don’t want to bother the neighbors.”

                “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!”  No one hearing her would think that she was being sincere, but she was at the end of her rope with this creep.  She walked in, painfully aware of him looming over her and leering down at her as she passed into his sordid chamber.  The bed was out, and the sheets were half off and yellowed.  Everything looked unwashed, from the food-stained table to the greasy chair-arms to the floor scattered with wrappers and unevenly placed plastic bottles.  She looked around, back to a wall, trying to find a place to sit that wouldn’t make her feel as though she was going to leave with some kind of unpleasant contagion.

                The bartender (who had been staring at her ass as she walked in, she could tell) turned all the way around and stepped in, as the door swung shut.  He crossed the room, carefully picking his way past the trash on the floor with his long strides, and sat on the head of the bed, patting the mattress beside him.  “Come on, it’s the most comfortable seat here.”

                Mary shook her head.  <<Not a chance, buddy.  This is as far as I come.  If that means I have to leave, then I’ll be right on my way.>>

                He raised an eyebrow.  <<What makes you think you can just leave?>>

                Mary snorted.  <<Because you don’t want to get any more attention from Sec than I do, and if you don’t let me leave you know they’ll come looking.>>

                He gave a supercilious smile.  <<Unless I’m paying them.  Get over here and sit down.>>

                Mary swallowed and carefully moved around the piles of bottles and chose a spot a good meter away from the bartender and sat crosslegged on the bed facing him.  She saw his eyes travel down to the juncture of her legs.  Does this pig have no shame at all?

                <<Bartender:   Better.  Nice.  So.  You’ve got a nice little talent on you.  You also don’t want to be noticed.  We can help with that.>>

                <<Mary:  Who is ‘we’?>>

                The bartender shook his head.  <<Not so fast, little girl.  We need to know that we can trust you.  We need to know that you’re not going to go running to the Strainers ‘cause you got scared.  We need you to do something for us.>>

                Mary swallowed and looked away from him.  <<Like what?>>

                The bartender leaned forward.  She could smell his days’ old sweat.  How was it that he hadn’t been written up for hygiene yet?  <<<Bartender:  First, hand me your Brin.>>

                “What?!”  She sat up straight.  “The hell I will!”

                He raised his eyebrow again.  <<Bartender:  If you want out of this room alive, you’ll hand me your Brin.  Now.>>

                She reached into the pocket of her suit and pulled out her Brin, the unit that held Maurice, her AI and passed it over to him wordlessly.  He grinned and took it and stood up on the bed, treating her to an unpleasant view until she looked up, following his motions.  He opened a drawer in the wall, fiddled with something that she couldn’t see from the angle that she was at, put her Brin in, and closed it.

                He sat back down, markedly closer to her.  He leaned forward again, reached out, and grabbed a lock of her tangled hair and tugged on it, drawing her closer to him.  He made a show of sniffing her hair and sighing appreciatively before tugging out several strands of it at the root.  Without speaking, he reached up and stowed them in another compartment.

                <<Bartender:  We have everything that we need now to make sure that you won’t fuck us.  Unless, of course, you want to.>>  He gestured down at his body, and she turned away, wondering just how disgusted she would have to be before she decided to end this.

                <<Mary:  You have my AI and my genetic material.  What else do you want?>>

                He set his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on them, his eyes still wandering over her body.  <<Bartender:  Pay very close attention.  There’s a Strainer who works in Docking Bay 7.  He’s a Moldy, an Awakener.  He goes by the name Rell.  We need him gone, without him knowing who did it or why.  Fortunately, he’s a creature of habit, and we know his patterns.  I will give you a weapon, and I want you to take care of him.>>

                <<Mary:  You want me to kill a cop?  Seriously?  What do you have to offer that’s even close to worth the kind of trouble I could get in for that?>>

                The bartender stuck his tongue out a bit.  <<Bartender:  Anonymity.  Protection.  Training, advanced training from people who aren’t beholden to the Collective or its regulations.  Also, one of these.>>

                He turned his right hand so that she could see the ring again, the dead-black oblong against faded silver.  She was quiet for a long moment, and then nodded slowly.

                <<Mary:  All right.  Where’s the gun?>>