The big man toys with his drink, tipping and rolling the glass from one side to another, allowing the whiskey to creep all the way to the lip of the glass before pulling back. He’s drunk enough now that the noise of the crowded bar has been smoothed over, and even the omnipresent blare of Experientialist Pop on the outdated speaker system is almost bearable. On a screen behind the bar, a scrolling newsfeed distills the events of the galaxy into short, easily swallowed shots, complementing the four he’s already poured down his throat.
TERRAN Combine, ATLAS Syndicate & MARS Prosper League engaged in high-level negotiations; Arrival of Emeryn Grace (Atlas CSO) and Gwayn Erebus (MPL Board) at Combine Special Operations Base confirmed; Major infrastructure announcement likely; Details of so-called “Omega Project” forthcoming.
The man grunts and takes a drink. The bite of the whiskey barely registers on his deadened tongue.
TAU Scorpii war rages on; UNION of Sol fortifies position in central star cluster; LUNAR Directorate & MARTIAN Commonwealth forces engaged in heated battles in adjacent systems.
Just as the man raises his glass again, someone shoulders into him from behind, causing him to spill what’s left of the whiskey into his lap. A flare of anger rises in his gut at the intrusion, and just as quickly subsides when he recognizes the unnaturally smooth face of the man sidling into the empty seat beside him. “Ezekiel,” he growls, wiping off the whiskey with clumsy brushes of his wide hands. “You vain bastard. Watch it. Makes it look like I pissed myself.” The other man laughs, causing his impossibly sleek, almost rubbery facial implants to stretch to their limits. The servos in his cybernetic eyes flash briefly as he winks. “How do I know that wet spot wasn’t there before? Never could hold your liquor Grimes.” Grimes chuckles, signalling the bar drone for a pair of whiskeys.
CASUALTIES reach 10 million; Astrophysicist Jeremiah Bentram calls on all sides to end conflict, citing human cost & stagnating economy; Spokesperson for First Citizen Xander Laurent says Directorate committed to support ‘valiant defenders of rule of law and human rights on the frontier.’
“I was holding it just fine before the interruption. What brings you down to the lower levels, Zeke?”
“Let’s say I’ve come to celebrate,” Ezekiel says. The drone arrives and smoothly sets the drinks down in front of them. Grimes makes a motion for the bill, but Ezekiel waves him off. The implant in his right eye flickers as the drone processes the payment. Grimes raises his glass in thanks
“What’s to celebrate?” he asks. “Galaxy’s at war, the bridges are closed, everybody’s in uniform like it’s a goddamn military parade. If you’re not choosing sides, you may as well be in the gutter. I’m a commander, not a cheerleader.”
With a sarcastic salute, Grimes takes a slug of whiskey.
“Too bad, I think you’d look quite fetching in Martian red,” Ezekiel laughs. “But I doubt the rigours of military life would have suited either of us. Not exactly the kind of discipline that piques my interest. Luckily, I have another option.”
Grimes lifts an eyebrow. Ezekiel flashes a blindingly white sliver of teeth.
“You remember the good old days Grimes?” Ezekiel lifts his glass towards Grimes. “No oversight on the frontier. Just grab what you can get, and if someone crosses you – ”
“You cross them out!” Grimes grins.
The two men clink glasses.
“Never liked the military,” Grimes says. “Who wants to be some cog in the machine for the bloody Directorate? Or the Martians or the Unionistas. Hah! Sounds like baristas.”
“Good old Grimes. I knew I came to the right person.”
Grimes glances at the man, forcing himself to focus. Ezekiel was a friend, an ally from his time on the frontier during the Beta program, but as a commander he was always in deep with the Tianchao, and that was sometimes more trouble than it was worth. It dawns on Grimes that his friend’s presence was not an accident.
“What is it you want Zeke?”
Ezekiel gestures to the scrolling newsfeed.
“I take it you’ve heard of the Omega Project?”
Ezekiel examines the tip of one blue, perfectly manicured nail.
“Well, I happen to have a little insider information that might interest you. With the bridges shuttered by the blocs, who do you think is suffering the most?”
“Aside from the families of the 10 million dead?”
“Yes Grimes,” Ezekiel sighs, rolling his perfect eyes. “Aside from them.”
“Us. The commanders.”
“Ah,” Ezekiel says, fingering the edge of his glass. “That’s where you’re wrong. Other parties have far more at stake than you and I. Remember, the blocs don’t have a monopoly on Dysons.”
Grimes shakes his head.
“The Sovereign Six? You’re dreaming. Their Dysons are reserved for their own use.”
“Not for long. That, my soggy friend, is what Omega is all about.”
Grimes leans back in his chair, staring at the man beside him.
“One of your little clan friends tip you off about this?”
“Let’s just say I trust my sources. So how about it Grimes? Omega is going to be big. The Combine and their friends are going to need every commander they can lay their hands on to open up the new frontier. Even a washed-up drunk like you. And well, the other factions won’t sit idly by. Say the word, and I can get you in with the first wave.”
The thought of getting back on the frontier cuts through the haze of drink like a straight razor.
“Alright,” Grimes says, trying not to let his excitement show. “So why tell me about it? We’re friends Zeke, and no offense, but you’re not exactly the generous type.”
“Well, let’s just say my colleagues and I would like you to keep your eyes open when you get there. And naturally, you’ll be sharing any insights you have with us.”
Grimes signals the bar drone.
“So now it’s a choice of gutter, cheerleader or spy?”
“Come on Grimes, isn’t it a small price to get back out there?”
Grimes is silent. He notes Ezekiel’s patent-leather shoe tapping impatiently against the floor. Savouring the moment, Grimes watches the drone glide smoothly towards them.
“What good’s a spy who can’t see straight, eh?” Grimes mutters, giving a half-smile to Ezekiel.
The servos in his friend’s eyes widen in anticipation. Grimes turns to the drone as it settles in front of him.
“Coffee,” he says. “Black.”