[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander August 18, 1996]
I stopped just inside the tavern door, giving my eyes time to adapt to the darker interior. Maniac's message had requested an urgent meeting, but he was nowhere to be seen. Over in one corner, an old man and a stupid-looking kid were bargaining with a scruffy smuggler and his hairy sidekick. At the coffee machine, a short-haired geek was playing with his monkey. In a booth just to my right, a skinny hooker was having strawberries and champagne with a rich pretty-boy businessman. But no Maniac.
For a moment, I was overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu, but it quickly passed. That had been another bar, a long time ago and far, far away. I shook my head to clear it. I could see well enough now. One drink, and if no Maniac, no Blair. I had another thousand hectares to plant, I was expecting a mail-order delivery any day now, and I had no time to wait for him. I started making my way through the crowd.
On the way to the central island, I selected a tune from the jukebox: rockero from the Celeste system. I hated the stuff, but it reminded me of an old comrade. Via con dios, Vaquero.
I seated myself on a stool. One of the bartenders, a dumb-looking blonde guy, was mixing drinks at the other end. A short, surly, frizzy-haired bitch took the tray and started serving customers. The other waitress, a tall, skinny blonde, was waiting for the dark-haired barkeep to fill her orders. When he was finished with her, he came over to talk with me.
"Howdy, stranger. I'm Scam Alone. I own the bar."
We shook hands. "I'm Chris."
"What'll it be, Chris?"
"I'll have a 'kitchen sink'."
Say, I haven't served one of those since the last Girl Scout convention." Scam quickly mixed seltzer, fruit juices, V-8, and ice, and placed the concoction before me. "You a troop leader?"
"No, a vet." I sampled the drink. Ahhh, that hit the spot.
"No kidding? Say, Doc, I wonder if you could give me some advice. My cat has been acting awfully finicky lately, and--"
"Hey, pal, spare the price of a drink for an old vet?"
"Another pet doctor?" exclaimed Scam. "Must be a convention!" He shook his head and left to attend a new customer.
I turned to look at the derelict who had interrupted us. Boy, this flyer had really gone downhill. He was mangy, malnourished, and he smelled of alcohol. I normally have no use for people who try to hide from reality, but something told me I should help this guy out. I reached for my wallet.
"Here's two credits. Do me a favor, get out of this place and get laid instead." I thought for second, then reached for my wallet again. "Here's two more. Make it a human."
"Thanks, man. I won't forget it." He started for the door with a new spring in his step. Already, he was beginning to look like a new man.
"Wait a sec!" I called. "Do you have a--"
He turned and held one up in his hand. "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." He waved and was gone.
Scam, having finished with his other customers for the moment, resumed our conversation. "I've seen too many guys like him, Chris. There just aren't enough jobs to go around after all the military cutbacks. You can buy a man's soul or a woman's body for the price of a meal. It's getting to the point-- He stopped and looked at me more closely.
"Say, haven't I seen you somewhere, Doc? On the holovid, maybe? You're..."
"No, I'm not." I hastily paid for my drink and went to look for an obscure booth. Dammit, where was Maniac?
I tried to see over to the other side of the bar, where a commotion had broken out. I couldn't see very well, but I heard a shrill woman's voice. "I am NOT an alien! I am a human being!" It was the blonde waitress. Ah, Maniac must be here at last.
The girl stormed past me just as I arrived on the scene. Yup, there was Maniac, stooped over, one hand on his reddened cheek, the other picking two credits off the floor. As he stood up, he looked at me accusingly.
"Did you tell her my real name is 'Todd'?"
I shook my head. "Not this time, Maniac. You blew it all by yourself."
He obviously didn't believe me. "So thanks for nothing, Colonel--or should I say 'Farmer'--Blair."
I slid smoothly into the nearest booth. "It's a peaceful life." I refused to be baited.
Maniac took the seat opposite. He was obviously intent on insulting me, probably to make up for his humiliation with the waitress. "Well, like I always say, you're either an earthworm, or an eagle."
Or a two-meter neon blue magic marker topped with a talking penis. Jeez, what colorblind clown designed the new Confed uniforms?
"Don't knock the lowly earthworm, Maniac. In a way, most 'higher' life forms depend on it. Even your eagle." I couldn't really blame the guy for his ignorance. Even I hadn't appreciated the significance of the "lower" life forms before assuming a life that depended on them.
"Phylum annelida, class oligochaeta--that's 'segmented terrestrial worms' to you, flyboy. Nature's perfect earthmover, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years."
"Without earthworm burrows, air wouldn't penetrate the soil. Without worm castings, the soil would lose its fertility and most terrestrial life would eventually perish."
"Colonel, I didn't--" Maniac's eyes were beginning to glaze over.
"In fact, I've been more successful here than most because I imported genuine Terran earthworms to--"
I was interrupted by the sound of breaking glass near the bar entrance. The short waitress was scuffling with a grim-faced tough. Despite his size and muscles, she was holding her own until he pulled out a vicious-looking knife and went for her hair.
Maniac couldn't pass up the chance for another taunting. "Hey, Colonel War Hero, why don't you show us how an earthworm handles something like--Hey! I was kidding!"
I wasn't. Nobody interrupts me when I'm talking about earthworms! Despite my instant reaction, however, I was cool. I had come to Nephritis to nurture life, not take it. I decided on a low-key approach.
By now, the spacer had the bitch by the throat and had sliced off about half her hair (which actually improved her looks). I touched him on the arm. "This little one's not worth the effort. Come, let me get you someth--."
Whoa! This guy was pissed! Instantly his knife was at my neck. "No, let ME get YOU a knife in your throat!" he growled.
Oh, this is going to be fun. "You call that a knife? Now THIS is a knife!" My trusty lightsaber practically leaped into my hand! Whoosh! Voom! The stranger's knife was severed at the haft! He dropped it like a hot potato and took a step back, eyes suddenly full of fear.
Unfortunately, in the act of slicing off the blade, I had also managed to slice a barstool, a table leg, a pitcher of beer, and two arms. Shit!
"Sorry. Sorry, everybody." Damn, I always got carried away with that light--
Footsteps behind me! I whirled, trusty lightsaber splitting the air with lightning! Whoosh! Voom!
"Wow, Ace, that was--Yiieeee!"
Oops. It was only Maniac. Fortunately, no serious damage done, but a scorch mark ran across his uniform at thigh level. Also, to the litter on the floor were now added a whiskey bottle, two more bar stools, and a lamp. Shit!
"Sorry. My fault. Sorry, everyone." I retracted my trusty lightsaber. By now the brawler had vanished, taking the two halves of his knife with him. The waitress was sitting up and massaging her throat.
Scam was kneeling beside her. "You OK, Gnarla?"
She gave him the finger. "I still didn't get my damn tip," she croaked.
To me, Scam said, "Thanks for helping her, Doc." I nodded.
I turned to Maniac. "Sorry, old buddy, I--"
"Forget it," he squeaked. He was slightly bent over, hands protecting his nether regions. He never took his eyes off my trusty lightsaber, even though it was safely on my belt again. "I just came to tell you that you've been recalled to active duty. Meet me at the spaceport tomorrow at 0800." Still hunched over, he hobbled out of the bar. A couple of one-armed patrons hurried after him, no doubt headed for the regen clinic down the street.
I just stood there, looking at the door. So the call had come at last; the quiet life was over. Absently, I pulled out some cash and handed it to Scam. "Sorry about the damage, Scam."
He didn't seem to mind. "Boy, that's some pigsticker you got there, Doc... Hey! Lightsaber! Now I remember! Aren't you the guy from--"
"No, I'm not!" I quickly made my way out of the bar.
All the way home, I tried to think of the best way to break the news to Robin and Rachel. We had grown close, the three of us, building a new home for ourselves here on the edge of Confederation space. Now I was being dragged away from them, perhaps forever. How would they take it?
I pulled in at Zeke's place, ostensibly to ask him to look after my farm while I was gone, but also to put off the moment when I had to confront the girls. Zeke was more than willing; he owed me a favor for eradicating his Arcturian megamole infestation. Fortunately, it had only taken one of the two T-bombs I had smuggled off the old Victory. I kept the second in reserve in case of a recurrence. Megamoles were nasty critters.
It was full dark by the time I got home. The sectoids were singing their spring songs and the air was sweet with the scent of blossoms. I didn't pay much attention, though. My thoughts were on the unpleasant scene to come. The lights were on, but the girls were nowhere in sight. They must be waiting for me in back.
Uh-oh. They were both in the kitchen, and I could tell from their attitudes that they knew something was up. Rachel was seated at the table, and Robin was standing quietly near the stove. Neither said anything when I walked in.
Well, I had always been direct with them, so I said it straight out. "Girls, I've been recalled to active duty. I leave tomorrow."
The news hit them hard. I had hoped they'd understand, but they were obviously devastated. I tried to look on the bright side.
"Look, probably all they want is for me and the other reservists in this system to fly local patrol and escort duty until the current troubles die down. I bet I can get back here on weekends to see you, and the whole thing will blow over in a few weeks." I could see that helped, so I threw in a sweetener.
"Zeke will be taking care of the place in the meantime. I know you both like Zeke." Indeed they did. The girls brightened considerably on hearing that news. Now to invoke their sense of duty.
"I need you both to be strong while I'm out there. Knowing you're behind me 100%, I can concentrate on the job at hand and make you proud of me." Good, they were practically standing at attention now. "Can I count on you?"
I had 'em. Rachel replied with an emphatic "Meow!" Not to be outdone, Robin added her own "Woof! Woof!" and wagged her golden tail enthusiastically. I had never been so proud of them.
"My brave girls! Come to daddy!"
I was packed and ready for bed just in time to catch the end of the news. Apparently the situation was much worse than I had thought. The Great Confederation Dissembly was considering a declaration of war against the Border Worlds. Not surprisingly, Admiral Geoffrey "I'd-sell-your-soul-for- a-press-release" Tolwyn was also getting into the act.
I suppose it was an impressive sight--democracy in action, and all that--but personally, I couldn't get too excited about a bunch of politicians running around in capes. Even my old friend Paladin--excuse me, the Honorable Senator James Taggart--had gotten caught up in the fashion. He stood at the lectern, cape billowing behind him in a breeze from some hidden fan.
"I have asked the Admiral to investigate and report back to us in 60 days." He paused, and fluttered his cape just a bit for emphasis. "In two months, we shall vote on war or peace; same bat-time, same bat-channel!" With a flourish, he raised both arms and spread his cape to its full extent. The other Dissembly officers on the dais stood and did the same, to a standing ovation. Now THAT was impressive!
The holoview shifted to that idiot correspondent, Dam Blather. "This concludes our live coverage of Admiral Tolwyn's speech to the Great Dissembly. Barbie?"
They cut to Barbara Dahl in the TCN newsroom. "Thanks, Dam. And don't call me 'Barbie!' Er, ahem. These next few weeks will tell if there is any hope of resolving the rising tensions between the Border Worlds and the Confederation. Tune in tomorrow night when our political analysts examine the controversy over cape fashions: 'bold statement or pathetic juvenile role-playing?'"
She gathered her papers and looked engagingly at the holocams. "Good evening. This has been the TCN Nightly News. I'm Barbara Dahl."
Damn, that Barbara was cute. With her combination of beauty, poise, charm, and voice, she could make a stock market report sound like V-K Day. She was, in fact, the only reason I still watched the news. Otherwise the stories lately were too depressing.
As I crawled into bed, the girls jumped in with me and settled into their accustomed spots. I began the short petting ritual that normally soothed us all to sleep in minutes. Tonight, however, my thoughts were restless. The political news was worrisome enough by itself, but it also meant that two old and very dear friends could be in deadly danger.
The sudden end of the Kilrathi War had left me with a serious personal dilemma: I had fallen in love with two women who were both in love with me. In the last hopeless weeks of the war, when we faced death every day and rules went out the window, this wasn't a problem for any of us. We were desperate for human warmth and comfort, and accepted it on any terms. When peace broke out, however, it seemed somebody would have to be hurt--badly.
Cool, classy Flint, or passionate, earthy Rachel? I just couldn't commit to one and hurt the other, but my delay and uncertainty were hurting all of us. Yet I dithered on until, finally, the choice was made for me. Rachel and Robin, drawn together in their frustration, discovered that they were more interested in each other than they were in me.
Actually, it was more than that. With brutal honesty, I told myself that the real problem was my own compulsion to bury myself on some obscure farm world. Fifteen years of unrelenting war had burned out my own yen for adventure and excitement. I was set on becoming a steward of life instead of a killer, a builder instead of a destroyer. The girls, on the other hand, were still young and full of zest. Their own tragic experiences had only left them all the more determined to see the galaxy and live life to the limit. If they couldn't live that life with me, then they would live it with each other.
We still cared for one another, so at least we parted as friends and without recriminations. To tell the truth, I was too preoccupied with plans for our new life on Nephritis 2 to make much of a fuss. I factored them out of my computer projections as if they were just one more parameter in the model. If only I could have factored them out of my heart as easily.
We tried to keep in touch, but I hadn't received anything from them in a year. The last I'd heard, the girls had pooled their back pay and bought a war surplus transport. They were making an uncertain living hauling cargo and passengers between outlying Confederation planets and the Border Worlds. If the unknown terrorists continued to disrupt frontier commerce, Rachel and Robin could easily be their next victims.
My companions were fast asleep. Presently, despite my anxiety, I drifted off to sleep myself, only to dream of Robin and Rachel pursued by pirates, Kilrathi, and insurance salesmen.
Previews from Chapter 2:
"Better use protection, there, Romeo!"
"Maniac! Maniac! Check six! Pirates! Pirates!"
"I want you to seek out and destroy these vermin wherever they operate."