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.