Major Ethan Frohman hated space bars, particularly the military kind. It wasn't so much the uniformity as it was that they were always cleaner than a drinking establishment should be, and usually too much like a cafeteria for him to relax in. Not that he was much of a drinker anyway. Even though he'd recently discovered a smooth little number called "D-P-G". What few friends he still had always looked surprised when he ordered it, he imbibed so seldom.
And his dislike for these places had increased since his transfer to the Special Investigations Unit. Now, whenever he went anywhere in military circles he was met with instant wariness, eyed with suspicion, fear, and sometimes hostility.
It wouldn't have been so bad were the S-I-U tunics cut like everyone else's, but someone in the Network decided the lighter shade of green, a sage green to their hunter green tunic, would benefit his job. It did nothing of the sort, instead it instantly identifying him as an unwelcome "outsider" on the prowl, something that too frequently gave the guilty a head start when the pursuit phase of the investigation arrived.
Ethan was over weight by nearly 30 kilos and on that basis alone he hated the tunic. Why anyone would think it was a good idea to dress those who "police" the military in outfits that were so conspicuous was beyond him. Subtly went out the airlock when you stuck out this badly.
So as he crossed the threshold it came as no surprise to him that the entire room chilled and all eyes fell upon him, noting his arrival, and broadcasting their every thought. The Special Investigations Unit guy was here! Why? Who are they going to pick on this time? Hope it isn't me! What a jerk those jerks are!
Ethan tried to ignore it, hard to do when your every step is watched; and he crossed the surprisingly large space, making his way toward the counter, where he sat. His only companion was the automated Bar-O-Matic server unit, which continued to polish the countertop as though trying to avoid notice. Sheesh, even the robots acted guilty.
"D-P-G, please." He said it with a tone of absolute boredom, it was a practiced tone.
The Bar-O-Matic whirred a half second as its 64 Gig processor found the recipe or whatever it had to do to make drinks happen. Man, why do they put such slow processors in server-bots? It was a question for the ages he supposed.
The Bar-O-Matic arm swung out with the drink in its vice-like grip and paused mere millimetres above the countertop , waiting for Ethan to thumb the pay-square, which he did. The glass was placed down without a drop spilled, accompanied by the soft, playful chime indicating a completed transaction and then the Bar-O-Matic rolled down the rail, returning to the far end of the counter and its cleaning cycle.
Ethan looked up before taking a sip of the beverage. He always sat at the counter because they always had a mirrored wall behind them. He smiled, few would ever realize mirrored walls behind the bar counter was a legislated requirement in the Network, you had to put a mirror behind the counter or you couldn't get a license.
And the whole reason had to do with people like him. There was nothing like keeping your back to everyone while watching everything that went on behind you. It was the sort of great thinking that completely flew in the face of the stupidity of his tunic. Bureaucrats… go figure.
He realized though that the owner of this place was pushing the line with the mirrored wall rule pretty far. They had a busy collection of bottles and vials on glass shelves covering much of the mirrored surface, not enough to completely block his surveillance but enough to limit what he could see in certain directions.
And in the center of the mirrored wall was the bar's name, "BLACK HORSE 11", cut out of a inlaid dark, smoked glass, subtle but nice, and most importantly still reflective.
Without moving his head Ethan continued to look around. On either side of the short, mirrored wall was the large viewports displaying the impressive panoramic view of Lagrange space. The top few decks of Station One had plenty to look at. The slow drift of the Station brought both Luna and Earth into view once each hour, and the steady stream of large and small spacecraft made this place more exciting than any airport.
That was another plus right now, most eyes invariably drifted back to looking outside, even in this place, whose clientele was made mostly of off-duty Hornet drivers. Ethan glanced at the wall chrono impatiently, what was taking so long?
"Wanna refill?" He heard the voice and shook his head automatically before recalling first that the server was supposed to be mechanical. A second later he recognized who the voice belonged to. Ethan's head snapped to this new arrival. It was always a surprise to see him, considering…
"Aren't you dead?" He said quietly.
The nervous little guy on the business side of the counter looked around, his eyes darting to and fro from under his worn, red maintenance cap. Ethan looked at him closer. He looked healthy, rested, but nothing like he remembered. The scruff of beard, the drawn down cap, even the cut of hair had completely transformed his friend. Oddly for the better, he thought.
"You shouldn't be walking around in that tunic," his friend said plainly.
It was a quiet admonishment, which Ethan understood too well. His friend was doing everything he could to avoid attention while Ethan's tunic remained a veritable beacon.
"Couldn't help it."
His friend sniffed, putting the past where it belonged, "So, what did you want to talk about?"
His friend stiffened, everything about him tensed. "You realize this is permanent?"
"Yeah, I know."
"You can't be darting back and forth, on and off the registry. It won't work that way and they'll figure out what you're doing, which'll spoil it for the rest of us."
His friend sighed. He ran his weathered hand across the bristles on his chin. He took another deep breath, "OK. I can start setting things up right away." He paused, shifted gears in an odd way and looked at Ethan intently, "Why you doing this?"
It was a very good question. Ethan would have to abandon everything about his past and disappear to make this work. He'd go underground in a society that thought it had no basement. Dropping off the registry wasn't something you took lightly. Like a snake it nearly meant leaving your skin behind.
He didn't feel like sharing that though, so he deflected his friend, "How do we do this?"
His friend reached into a pocket on his grey coveralls. Good disguise, no one ever paid attention to maintenance people. He pulled out a small unit, which Ethan recognized as an old-style pay unit. He held it out for him with one hand while the other came up bringing all five fingers together like the beak of a bird, it was then Ethan was reminded of the fact that his friend had a prosthetic hand. A darkness washed over him as Ethan remembered the events leading up to that loss.
"Put just the five finger tips on this." Ethan did as instructed until the device gave the traditional chime of a transaction completed. His brow furrowed, that shouldn't have happened with fingertips.
His friend looked around again, scoping the entire room for threats. Ethan wondered if he'd get that way too. His friend turned to him after a pass of the area, "Give me your keys."
That made sense; his keys had trackers on them. He hadn't been sure of that until the Berlin Incident, help came way too fast. Ethan reached in his pocket and pulled out the tiny chip that was his keys. He handed it over. Without pause his friend went to work.
The middle finger tip of his prosthetic retracted and a series of high tensile tools extended which he used like the precision instruments they were to access the inner workings of the key.
Ethan watched as his friend worked very quickly with the small device. "What are you doing?"
"Once you fall off, a signal will be sent through the Network until it finds this unit, at that point the tracers will be disabled and you'll…" His friend looked up and then spotted something over Ethan's left shoulder. His eyes went wide, "Oh, crap!"
Without conscious effort Ethan turned to look. He saw nothing but the same sea of green that he had before. When he turned back his friend was gone. Ethan stood, peering over the counter top, trying to see where his friend had gone. There wasn't enough time for him to go around the wall and even in the reflection of the mirror Ethan could see there wasn't any room beneath for him to hide. How did he do that?
The voice came from behind him. Before he slumped back into his seat, or turned to look, he knew whose it was. She had the icy crisp tone of an executioner, particularly one who enjoyed her job. "Drop something?"
He looked up, catching her gaze in the mirrored surface while he was still leaning over the countertop. The Bar-O-Matic unit was already issuing a string of electronic expletives, none of which anyone understood.
Ethan glanced back over his shoulder and met her gaze before sliding back to his seat. She glided into the seat beside him with that grim grin of hers, the one that spelt trouble in all caps.
"Hello Ethan. Fancy meeting you here."
He knew that was a lie. If she had wanted him then he had no doubts that she knew exactly how to look.
"She", Ethan had grown to calling her that, waved off the Bar-O-Matic unit with a fluid motion as she turned, leaning into him. Ethan wanted to recoil from her. He certainly didn't want to look at her. The slightest thought of what they had done together sent shivers through his soul now.
Her incredibly pale complexion, in stark contrast to her dull chestnut brown hair, had been one of the things that drew him to her at first. Funny how things change.
Actually, it had been her availability that had trapped him. He was vulnerable then; stuck in a lonely time with a freshly wounded ego and the need for a hot sweat over a cold body... and geez her body sure was cold, wasn't it? He shook his head, recalling every detail. It was the same process most of them experienced in the beginning of the recruitment process.
Now, however, he found her almost jaundiced and when he remembered that he'd never seen her in sunlight, he entertained the idea that she was akin to some fictional monster, like a Vampire or something that couldn't endure natural light. It was a fanciful thought that did nothing to lower her menace.
She didn't pick up on his discomfort though, or if she did her true nature decided to have fun with it as she leaned into him, seductively, even putting one hand on his arm. "How soon can you get a team together?"
It was a contradictory set of images, her body language played on their past intimacies while her words were all business. He tried not to react but knew the hackles on the back of his neck were rising. He wanted to bolt but knew that would raise so many flags that he'd never have a chance to escape.
He raised the drink to his lips and took a fair sized sip before answering, "Depends on the mission."
She relaxed, pulling off him a bit. He must have been convincing, either that or she was trying to decide on another way to toy with him, her hands came together on the countertop as she sat in a way that would make a Victorian schoolteacher proud, "It's just VIP-sitting."
She said it as one word, Vip, like it was someone's name. Ethan's brow furrowed as he looked at her. VIP-sitting? You don't enlist covert mercenaries to baby sit a V.I.P. unless... "Someone put a hit on someone important?"
She smiled wistfully, "If that were the case we wouldn't try to stop them."
Now she had his interest. She saw it and continued, "It's General MacPherson."
Ethan sat back and thought about this.
MacPherson was the ranking Flag officer in the Network. He occupied the Council seat at the big table and represented everyone in uniform to the budget makers. He was also the first Ground Ops rep to occupy that post in a quarter century.
Ethan smiled, that's why he was so important. Fleet Ops had upset the budgetary balance over the years and MacPherson was shoehorned into that post to correct some of that imbalance. That being the case though, why had she implied no one would shed any tears were the General killed? He looked at her, his expression asking for more information.
She saw it, "The Admiralty pushed a hard sell on the good General when he first took the post, and he bought. Last years budget saw nearly 70 percent of funding spent on the Fleet."
That was ten percent worse than before MacPherson took the job. That meant half the funds were available for Astral weapons and support. That was bad.
"I'm supposed to change that?" As he spoke he saw a bloke in grey-coveralls moving through the crowd of off-duty Hornet jockeys. He tried not to react. Gilmore was risking a lot by such a visible transit. But wait, that person had a grey hat...
Not perceiving his lack of focus she continued with the same urgency as before, just as well as it brought him back to the conversation. "We need the General to spend more time with the best personnel that Ground Ops and the Astrals have to offer. We need him to see their worth, ideally before the end of this month's U.E. table."
Ethan looked at her wide-eyed. The European table of the United Earth Conference was set to start in Baden-Baden, three days from now. He shook his head as he swiveled his seat back to the counter and took his glass again, raising it to his lips as he spoke, "That's not possible."
"You can't VET a security force in less than a month, hell, the authorized list is locked down twenty-five days ahead of things."
She smiled at him again, that playful blink-and-I'll-swallow-you-whole look that gave Ethan the creeps. "So we back-date the file, silly boy. Who do you think controls that list?"
That was true. It bothered Ethan that they didn't follow their own protocols. Everyone else would have to, even if lives were lost. Another reason to bail. "How many people do you want?"
"Twelve should do it, four on a shift. Make sure each team has a good lead, we want him to come around."
"So, it's an influence mission?" He knew it was, he just wanted that confirmed.
She smiled seductively, "They all are, dear boy."