The doors creaked as the corporal walked in, and all eyes were on him at once. Conversation didn’t stop… but the attention shifted like the wind, like the dust in your eyes before the storm of the century. He’d been places like this before – knew the sights, the sounds, the ebb and flow. Thomas Evercharge was a strong man – muscled like a tank, disciplined like a soldier, scarred like a battlefield. And why not? He’d seen all three – been all three. So when he walked in, he cast an eye around, and then moved right up to the bar and ordered a glassful of the strongest thing that wouldn’t kill him; sat right down like he’d been coming all his life. This wasn’t a place for strangers – but Thomas was no stranger, after all.
He sniffed the drink, tossed it back and made a face as the stuff burned down his throat and lit his stomach with a painful warmth that soon subsided to bearable. He set the glass down with a pair of 20-credit coins – real coins, vintage metal, before they became plastic. The barkeep strolled over – crew-cut black hair, faded red-and-white striped apron, just like back in the ‘80s. God, Thomas missed that decade; 2081, the year that “Simon Peter,” the un-known scientist who didn’t feel like publishing his work in his own name, unveiled ring travel: 11-dimensional wormholes in geosynchronous orbit around wherever humanity sat. Earth first, of course, though in all reality they orbited the moon so they could be closer to the surface. Mars. Eres. Alpha Centauri Gamma-3. It only grew from there. Old west all over again, the Corporal’s glory days. 2093, New Years’ Day: the “Rebellion” made its face known, a collection of farmers who decided they didn’t like their planets ruled and taxed from a billion miles away. 2095, June, brought war. 2095, September, ended the war outright, but the rebellion wasn’t dead – ideas are harder to kill than that. The farmers weren’t farmers anymore – now that the interplanetary Republic went and squashed their uprising, they were martyrs fighting oppression, not farmers fighting taxes.
Martyrs. Damn it all to hell.
Thomas reached down and was unsurprised to find his glass was full again – he tossed the second drink down, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head. God, it was hard to get a buzz anymore. The Republic had behaved like children, responding with a completely out-of-proportion retaliation when a few civvies hijacked a ring. The corporal had been a private when he enlisted to fight the rebels – he’d been promoted for tactical genius, strength under pressure, and a whole list of other positive traits. Thomas didn’t much care for rank – it just gave him more authority to exercise his doctorate in civilian-military intercessions, sending nonlethal, capture-and-detain orders. Wasn’t a wonder his missions had something like a 99% success rate: most of the rebels he fought, they saw him in command and surrendered, as much to avoid defeat as spend a year in prison and then go quietly back to their farms with nothing more than a fine and civil demerit on their records. Far better than a gram and a half of lead hollowing their head out. Thomas actually kept a running total… something like 400? He’d saved 400 lives, right? Ha.
Two more 20-credit coins. Funny, the coins were about equal to a US dollar again. People were putting faith back in the Republic – about time, too. The barkeep slid Thomas’ glass off the table, polished it with a rag, and set it back with a pair of ice cubes in it, eyeing the payment – and 300% tip – that Thomas had left on the counter. Evidently, the man decided he’d make more money here than with his other customers – most of them were just nursing their drinks, anyway. He bent over a little, just enough to rest his elbows on the counter.
“How ‘bout a chaser on the house?” he invited. Thomas nodded gratefully.
“Four clovers, half-glass only. Thanks.” The barkeep pulled a hose from beneath the counter, thumbed the hologram until a quartet of clovers appeared, and filled Thomas’ glass with the green-tinted liquid. Thomas waited respectfully until the hose was under the counter again before picking up his drink and sipping it – heavy sugar content, vague taste of honey. The barkeep leaned back, polishing a glass he seemed to procure from nowhere.
“Forgive me for statin’ the obvious, but you aren’t quite a regular here, are you?” Thomas shook his head.
“On a frontier world? No.” He sipped his chaser, and then set it down, centering it on the water mark it had left a moment before. “No, I’ve got my family waiting for me a few rings back. I’m here looking for someone.” The corporal paused and looked back up – his server had on a poker face.
“…What’s your name, son?” The man eventually asked. Thomas looked away before speaking.
“Tom. Don’t go by much more than that. You got a name?” The barkeep shook his head – either he didn’t have a name, or didn’t feel like sharing. On a frontier world, it was more likely the former than the latter.
“Alright, Tom, take a listen here…” the barkeep leaned in close – Thomas glanced around discretely before leaning in as well. “…I been around, I got a fair idea who you’re lookin’ for. Honest, though, you may as well pack up and leave, save your breath, maybe your life. I’m just sayin’, I worked here four years, and he been here long before me. Ain’t been a person yet walked away from his table without a scowl. Two left in bags.”
Thomas nodded. “When’ll he be here?”
The barkeep nodded in the direction of the shop’s corner, and then pointed to a seemingly empty table, hard to see through the room. “Twenty says he heard our whole conversation.”
The corporal stood slowly, turning to the end of the saloon and sliding the man another 20-count coin.
“Sure he did. He’s the wrong guy if he didn’t. Protect your family,” he said, the customary “farewell” of the frontier worlds, and started towards the table.
Now the conversation was definitely fading, and the other patrons of the bar were focusing intently on the madman approaching the dimly lit corner table. Thomas ignored them: he’d only lose focus if he spared them any more mind than obstacles to walk around. He slid into the seat, and gradually, across from the table, a man took shape.
The decloak was slow – first an outline, a distortion like looking through a marble: the world was a little too compressed at the edges, a little too clear in the center. Then shapes took form, the area turned grey from the edges, and at last, true color broke through, even though there wasn’t too much to see. The entire thing lasted no longer than three or four seconds – and Thomas was face to almost face with the man most people thought of as a myth, referred to with half-reverence, half-awe simply as “the surgeon.” He was dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt that went over his left eye, revealing half of his right – seeming to glow in the darkness. Faded black cargo pants accented the upper-body attire; his arms were crossed, and a pack sat below the table: Thomas found it by accident with his foot. The man looked up, focusing one startlingly blue eye in Thomas.
“No,” he said, and tilted his head back down.
“High Councilor Abraham,” Thomas replied, and the man looked back up, interest in his eye.
“Go on.” Thomas pulled a small data-chip out of his wristwatch and passed it to the surgeon. He extended one hand, and Thomas was struck by how old it looked – the veins were plainly visible on the surface of his skin, and callouses seeming decades old crossed and roughed his palms. The man in black plugged the data-chip into his wristband – a series of schedules, buildings, addresses, vantage points, and other data appeared. A high councilor, handed over on a silver plate – reelection was due soon, anyway. Abraham was always a bit of a militant extremist… Thomas regarded his life as an acceptable loss. The surgeon looked back up.
“Trustworthy?” he asked. Thomas nodded to the holograms – the man looked back, and watched as Thomas’ name, rank and authorization scrolled past. He looked up again, eyes narrowed but only his right visible. Thomas winced as a voice scratched its way into his head, but didn’t move beyond the unconscious reflex.
[Third core’s pass. Midnight. Des. Not my name, but I’ll answer to it. Come alone.] The man stared at him a moment, and then spoke with his real voice: “Go away.”
Without another word – or thought – he tilted his head back down and shimmered, becoming semitransparent. Thomas stood up, brushed himself off, and walked away with a neutral expression on his face. He didn’t say a word as he left the bar, but the patrons had gone back to their drinks and low conversations long before Thomas made the door. To them, he was just one more person turned down by the man in the corner. The republic’s most trusted corporal opened the doors and stepped out into the orange-and-purple twilight, adjusting his sleeves as he did. He looked up and down the street, and then turned North and started walking back to his bike. Nonviolence only went so far – 99% of the rebels were the kind of people you’d meet on the street and not think twice about, but a tiny fraction, maybe 500 in all… they were fanatics. They were dangerous, sick in the mind, actually believed it was them against the world. Care and time would fix most of the farmers’ wounds, financial and physical, but the sick ones couldn’t – wouldn’t – be doctored back to kindness with the Republic. Their injuries ran deeper, far ingrained in their minds and beliefs. Thomas sure as hell couldn’t negotiate with them. Seeing reason? Diplomacy? They’d made it clear that that was out of the question.
That was why Thomas had hired a surgeon – to work where a doctor couldn’t.