Ruckerman’s Pub is hosting a trivia night competition, so there’s a decent crowd already building up even before taking into account the appeal of happy hour as off-work citizens (quite a few of them offworlders who have made the Stellar Consortium their adopted home) gather to let off some steam. Among them, currently hunched at the bar and glowering at the holovid, nursing a glass of prune juice, is Leopold Van Heusen.
Formerly of the Vanguard, Grayback Nimblefoot now is retired and has taken over the leadership of his house. The elderly Demarian noble enters the bar after a day of dealing with Consortium bureaucrats over various political issues concerning Demaria presently. A little slower than he was, his gray mane now showing tinges of white fur, he walks with the aid of an ornate ebony cane with a gold handle shaped like a Demarian paw in a fist. Stepping up to the bar, he finds a seat near where Leopold is sitting, and orders a glass of Demarian wine. “Chilled, and in a clean glass.” he adds.
For the second time in a week, his contact didn’t show. But no matter, Jeffrey Corris finds himself not far from Ruckerman’s Pub and wandered over after waiting for a while. Settled in at one of the stools at the bar, he has ordered some ale and waits to see what the evening might bring as he ponders his next move.
The bartender, a Castori on a floating repulsorlift board, acknowledges the Demarian’s order with a soft hoot, then slides toward Van Heusen and inquires: “More prune juice?” The weasel-like human peers through narrowed eyes at the bartender and then pulls the half-full glass closer to himself. Shakes his head with a grunt.
Grayback settles onto a stool to await his drink, casually tapping into a terminal on the bar his entrance into the evening’s trivia competition. “I do rather enjoy trivia. Will you be participating as well?” he inquires of Leopold.
The bartender whirs over a few moments later with the old Demarian’s drink. Leopold eyes the terminal as he considers the question about trivia. He grumbles: “I don’t play games.”
Grayback takes up his drink and takes a sip. “Ahh, perfect. Thank you.” he nods to the Castori, and taps into the terminal his account code to pay for the drink. He then looks to Leopold, and also nods, settling in to enjoy his drink until the competition begins. “Well, they are not always everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.”
Leopold sips his prune juice, then finds his attention drawn to the holovid news. The big headline: Layoffs at SparkTech Defense. The newscaster, a Timonae, explains that the company is cutting 750 jobs in San Angeles due to streamlining after the Stinger X automated fighter project was discontinued.
Grayback’s ear twitches towards the holovid, and shakes his head slightly. “Such a highly controversial project. One that could have saved our soldier’s lives from dying in the vacuum of space, but then there are those who don’t want people replaced with machines.” he says, taking a sip of his drink. “The age-old question.”
“It isn’t about replacing people with machines,” Leopold growls, clenching his jaw as he watches the broadcast. “Wasn’t, in any event. Still need a pilot, right? Just less risk to crew life and limb. It’s a fine project.” He grunts. “*Was*.”
“I admit I was not privy to the particulars of why it was cancelled. What is your perspective on it?” Grayback inquires, taking a sip of his drink.
“My perspective?” The human gives a dark chuckle. “I was the chief accountant on the project. Lived and breathed it for the past six years. Then, on a political whim, the Consortium Council decides we’re spending too much. My services, it seems, are no longer required.”
Grayback nods. “Ah, I see. Money seems to be what everything boils down to.” he says, sipping his drink.
“I wish it was just about money,” Leopold replies. He stares at the glass on the bar counter for a moment, contemplative. He turns now to regard the Demarian. “It’s about sovereignty and human dignity.” His eyebrows lift as he considers the alien next to him and returns his attention to the glass. “I don’t think you’d understand, really.”
Grayback in turn raises an eyeridge. “In what way would I not?” he asks, taking a sip of his drink. “We are all in this together, are we not?”
Leopold scoffs. “*We* are not in *this* together.” He raps the knuckles of his right hand on the counter, just beside the near empty glass.”Humans have sacrificed so much that made us best in the name of lifting up offworlders and outsiders. The unmanned Stinger project is just the latest example of gutting ourselves in the name of interstellar cooperation.”
Grayback narrows his eyes a bit, his tail giving an agitated twitch. “I see. You are right, I do not understand. I fail to see how any one race is better than any other. We all have our strengths, our weaknesses, and all bring something to the table.” he says coolly.
“You don’t bring *anything* to the table,” Leopold insists. “All you do is *take*. You people keep taking and taking and taking, until there’s nothing left for us to *give*. You won’t be satisfied until we’re a husk turning to dust beneath your feet.”
Grayback finishes his drink, and slides it aside, turning towards Leopold, his ears starting to lay back a bit, and his hackles raising slightly. Still, he retains his calm demeanor, at least for the moment. “To be blunt, sir, that is a load of bumbler shit. All the various worlds in this Consortium share resources. I’m sure the Nobles of our world if they so chose could raise quite a protest in regards to bumbler meat exports from our world, as well as silicon deposits for circuits. However, we do not, as it is for the betterment of all.” he says, his tail giving a very agitated series of twitches. “Centaurans rarely need anything from anyone, they are very self-sufficient, but their intellects have helped further technology for all in ways you could not have even imagined before you contacted them.” he says, taking a deep breath. “It sounds to me like you have been reading the waste of synthpaper being spread around by those calling themselves the Dukes.”
“The Dukes know a thing or two about a thing or two,” Leopold replies, waggling an index finger at Grayback. He shrugs, then takes a final gulp of his juice. Smacking his lips, he sets the glass down on the counter. “The worst of it all started when we put ourselves in thrall to the Hivers. Now, we’ve got, what, *Nall* and their Light Singer lapdogs crawling across the Line of Pain, begging for a home?”
“A thing or two about a thing or two? How wonderfully vague.” Grayback says with a snort. “I am Demarian, our world has had a hatred for Nall for a very long time.” he says, ears laying back a bit further at the finger wag. One might notice his claws twitching a bit out of his paw tips. “There is a… deep loathing, to be sure. Yet, they have suffered an incredible tragedy. It would be cruelty to simply turn a blind eye, even for a former enemy. There have been examples of that happening in your own history.” he says. “The Hivers tricked us all. I was /there/ when we threw off their thrall, commanding the SCS Gettysburg. So when you say that you know a thing or two about a thing or two, don’t forget there are some who may have actually lived through what you are touting as evidence.” He takes off his coat, and pulls down his shirt to show his right shoulder, where there is a rather ugly scar. “Their undead tried to drag me off to their chambers to make me one of them. There are many of us who have fought for not just humanity but everyone. So to be blunt again, sir, all of that is a load of bumbler shit.”
“Refill?” the bartender burbles at Leopold. The man shakes his head. “I think not.” He nudges the empty glass toward the Castori. Then he looks at Grayback, no finger waggling this time, and says, “Thank you for your service, I suppose. The Gettysburg did quite a number on Val Shohob, as I recall. And a whole bunch of other aliens, yes?”
Grayback narrows his eyes a bit. “The OS Drive malfunctioned. Not exactly something one can predict. Are you claiming humans have omniscience? I think not.” he says coldly. “It was a tragedy, but one of fate, and not of any action by any one individual.”
“It was a brilliant accident,” Leopold answers with a wistful smirk. “The one nice thing about my sudden unemployment is the possibility of applying my talents to other worthy projects. Park another Gettysburg next to, say, Centauri? Flip a switch. Say good night.”
Grayback’s ears lay totally back now. “So to further your racism, you would resort to genocide? An accident is one thing, intentional destruction of a world is another.” he says with a bit of a growl. “The Nalls tried to do that with Demaria ages ago… they learned a hard lesson that day, and have never again attempted it. Something to note for your ’cause’.”
“Oh, relax,” the man says, chuckling. “It’s just a hypothetical. We’re just spitballing.” He looks at the empty glass, then waves down the bartender. “Might get that refill after all.”
Grayback however isn’t deterred. “So your group gets their kicks envisioning the mass murder of those they don’t agree with, or think are lesser then them? Do tell me if I have that wrong, as I’d love to hear the explanation as to why.”
The Castori takes the glass and whirs behind the counter toward the storage room, where a young man with tousled brown hair emerges with a bottle that he offers to the bartender. “That’s the last of the prune juice,” he tells the Castori. The bartender bobs his snout. He turns toward the counter, sets down the glass, and opens the bottle. While his drink is poured, Leopold replies to Grayback: “The Dukes aren’t *my* group. They’re a group for *everyone* that matters. We don’t owe anyone an explanation, least of all people like you.”
“And who, pray tell, determines who and who does not matter?” Grayback says. “You do indeed owe an explanation to ‘people like me’, of your intolerance.”
The bartender whirs over on his platform, delivers the refilled glass, and then moves on to assist the next customer. Leopold lifts the glass, takes a gulp of juice, then sighs before he returns his attention to Grayback. “Hey, forget I said anything. I’m just having a shitty day. I’m in a mood. It’ll pass. Eventually.”
Grayback motions to get the bartender’s attention. He relaxes… slightly. “I can understand that. Sand Mother knows I’ve had stressful moments in my life, but they have passed.” he says. “I’ve lived among various races my entire life. I spent two years on Sanctuary cooperating with others, many humans included, for our collective survival. So I tend to find such viewpoints distasteful.”
Now it’s Leopold who stiffens. His jaw clenches. He looks the old Demarian up and down. “You were there, then.” Voice dripping venom. “You probably helped send him off to his death.”
“I presume you mean Duke Buchanan? Oh yes. In fact I testified at his trial.” Grayback says. “He received the fate he deserved, as he was jeopardizing Sanctuary’s return home. Ironic, isn’t it, that a human judge sentenced him to Comorro in exile? He was not missed, to be sure.”
“Calling it ‘exile’ might’ve helped you sleep better all these years,” Leopold responds, leaning closer to the Demarian, bringing that finger up to wag again. “But you murdered him. You’re a killer. Every last one of you simpering traitors, killers to the last.”
“I would highly recommend you keep that finger out of my face, sir.” Grayback says with a growl. “Duke Buchanan was a threat to Sanctuary, period. If he could have had his way, he would have jettisoned every non-human on the ship. And you call us murderers? He WAS a murderer. He only got off on a technicality because the witnesses against him very conveniently were murdered. There is little doubt he ordered the death of a Demarian, I saw the video record myself.” Grayback says, his ears now fully laid back, his hackles almost upright, and his tail twitching wildly. “It came down to the needs of the entire crew of the ship versus one intolerant individual. We chose the crew, and he was exiled from the ship. He was placed where he had ample opportunity to survive, if he died after that, it was due to his own actions.”
“He was a *hero* to the good people left behind by the xenophiles,” the man answers, leaning closer. Sweat beads on his forehead. His skin has become rather ashen. “Duke Buchanan deserved better than execution by aliens. Duke Buchanan deserved a statue…” His cheeks puff a bit and he puts a fist to his mouth. His eyes widen. He coughs, makes a gagging noise, and ALMOST vomits on Grayback. Instead, he turns his head just in time to splash the counter.
“Xenophiles? You call saving hundreds of thousands of people cowards? The Kretonians were destroying worlds left and right, many of them would be dead of Sanctuary had not escaped. No one could have predicted the Otherspace drive malfunction that sent us across the galaxy for nearly 2 years. It was the denizens of that area that helped us return, and Duke Buchanan deserves a tombstone rather than a statue, one that reads ‘Here lies a pitiful man, whose fear and intolerance were the end of him’.” Grayback says, as Leopold decorates the bar counter. “You’ve been reading revisionist history written by those who share the same disgusting views.”
If Leopold seems unimpressed by the Demarian’s speech, it’s only because his eyes are bulging and his hands are clutching at his own throat as he staggers backward against the bar counter. His face is now an unhealthy bluish color. He glares at Grayback, jabs that finger one last, weak time, and rasps: “You…poisoned…me…” And then he collapses on the floor.
Grayback stops, now noticing that Leopold isn’t acting and is in real distress. As Leopold collapses, he motions for the bartender. “Call an ambulance, quickly!”
The Castori taps an earbud and vocalizes a command: “Emergency response unit to this location.” From the storage room emerges the young man with tousled brown hair. He walks over to stand next to Grayback and says, “That worked exactly as well as you thought it would.”
Grayback looks to the new arrival. “And who pray tell are you? I’ve never seen you before in my life except when you brought out the prune juice he drank.” he says, ears back and tail twitching. “What kind of sick game is this?”
“Hey, c’mon,” the man says as he watches Leopold twitch and froth on the floor. He runs a hand through his mop of hair. “Another xenophobe down, right? Old habits die hard.”
“Old habits? Sir I have absolutely no idea who you are.” Grayback says. “If this is some sick game, I suggest you stop it now.”
Sirens whoop outside. Leopold gives one last spasm as the Castori bartender peeks over the counter, standing on his furred tiptoes atop the hover platform. “Duke Buchanan was just the start,” the young man says. “That’s what you told me, anyway.” He wobbles his head back and forth, huffing in what may be a poor mimicry of the Demarian: “Death to xenophobes!”
Grayback narrows his eyes. “I have told you nothing.” he snarls. “I have no idea who you are, and I have never met you. You seem to forget I was in law enforcement… I know the game you are playing. I also know the rules.” he says, motioning to the lapel pin he is wearing. “Say hello to my little friend… this recording device is with me always. It saves constantly to my cloud account, which is constantly backed up. How is it humans used to say it? Smile, you’re on candid camera?”
Paramedics enter the pub, knocking aside chairs and tables as they bring a hoverstretcher to maneuver next to the motionless man on the floor. One kneels to check Leopold’s vitals. “Pulse, but it’s weak,” he says. Another drops to a knee on the other side, taking out a medical scanner. “What did he drink?” “Prune juice,” the Castori answers. “He seemed to enjoy it,” the mop-haired young man chimes in, turning his attention away from the infuriated Demarian.
Grayback steps back out of the way for a moment, allowing the medics to do their job. If his eyes, however, could fire laser beams, the mop-haired man would be a pile of ashes at the moment given how hard he is glaring at him.
The medic with the scanner looks at the output on the holodisplay and then tells his partner: “Administer a dose of Zizupan. That should neutralize the toxin.” After that instruction is followed, the scan-medic reviews the next set of results. “He’s stable. Probably won’t gain consciousness for a few hours, but he’ll live.” The tousle-haired man elbows Grayback. “Good news for you, I guess.” He tilts his head. “Or is it?”
Grayback scowls. “If you think you can frame me, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” he says, ears still laid back.
The young man shrugs, crossing his arms as he watches the medics load Leopold onto the hoverstretcher. They guide the platform toward the exit. “Hey, you’ve really given me a lot to think about,” he tells Grayback. “Let me know if you need a character witness.”
Grayback lets out a low growl, and turns towards the bartender. “I’m going to need a refill.”
The Castori burbles at the young man standing next to Grayback: “Back to work, Mr. Gettleman. Dishes in the kitchen.” A long-suffering sigh. He runs a hand through his dangly hair. “Duty calls,” he mutters. He starts toward the double doors that open into the kitchen, then stops to look around and see the medics disappearing outside with the hoverstretcher. He tilts his head, pondering something. “Maybe Dad will take your case. Who knows?” Then he’s gone through the doors.
Grayback’s eyes widen, his tail takes an irritated twitch. “Can’t believe that thieving shyster actually spawned.” he growls to himself.