The smell of stale beer hung in the still air, like a layer of solar sludge. People bustled all around me, making the grey-black deck plating ring with each drunken stagger. A little ahead, to my left, a table of gamblers shouted and cooed as their game played out. The cool arch of a bulkhead climbed the wall behind me, supporting a mezzanine above me and a small window set into the station wall. Through this, the massive curve of the rest of the space station stretched out into the dark, star shot expanse of space. Sound erupted from the gamblers. I shifted in my stool, it was a wretched stool, but in my line of work comfort was a luxury. Gralnick had picked this place to make me uncomfortable, knowing it, of course, didn’t change the fact that I was. But with a deep breath, I gently pushed my discomfort aside. I must appear to be in my element. He was already too suspicious.
I never took my eyes off the distant door. Careful seconds passed before I saw him. Tall and lean, he moved through the pub door like a king into a throne room. Pallid skin giving way to dark scales across his brow and neck. Eyes, vicious yellow, and as harsh as the three suns of Alpha Centauri.
He surveyed the room before meeting my gaze. A smile, as gaunt and cold as the man himself broke across his reptilian face. He nodded and weaved his way through the throng.
When he reached me his smile widened and he sank gracefully into the seat opposite me. As he sat his blazing eyes locked onto my face. I returned the smile.
“Palatine Gralnick,” I began, in a soft, welcoming tone. “Please, sit. I was surprised to get your carrier wave.”
The reptilian Palatine nodded, his gaze finally shifting from my face, to watch the slow turn of the station’s orbit.
“Yes, it has been too long.” His eyes moved back to my face. “How is your father? Recovered any? Navigating a shuttle through the Nequam Via is a dangerous business.”
His smile stayed warm but the cool eyes bored into me. I managed to keep my face blank as a wave of cold fear washed through me. They were tracking the old man. Perhaps Gralnick was more suspicious than I had thought? I forced a relaxed shrug into tense muscles.
“He’s doing just fine, thank you for asking, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. Life in the consortium treating you well?”
“Very well.” His thin hand extended delicately into the air and he reached for the screen built into the wall. Quicker than I could stop him he placed an order for two Meridian shots.
“Now, sorry Seck but my time is quite limited. I trust your task is coming along? The powers that be do grow impatient.”
It was my turn to nod.
“I just need a little more time to decrypt the final security layer then you should have a back door straight into the Alpha Conexus’ central database.”
“Ah good, good. How long?”
The stale air pressed in on me. I had been in so many situations like this one. But as an eager young waiter brought our shots I felt a keen sense that I had never been in as much danger before. Never had I had such trouble slowing my racing heart as I did facing that of the reptile of a man.
“A week, maybe two.”
Gralnick’s face twisted for a moment but he sighed and lent comfortably against the table.
“Well, if it must it must.” Long fingers wrapped around his shot glass. He considered me over the rim of the violently blue liquid.
“Your shot Seck.” his voice was soft and chilled, like the scaled skin of a viper.
Quickly I nodded and picked up the glass. Nursing it like the aged scotch it most certainly wasn’t.
Gralnick sighed “One last question. An eager young clerk came to me yesterday, positively vibrating with naive ambition and told me that someone, an anonymous someone, had been systematically accessing our classified files.” He paused. His eyes held me, gauging my response as the bottom fell from my world. Dread crawled along my skin. Oh god.
“You wouldn’t know a way to better safeguard against such a danger would you?”
I knew that for just a moment my dread had shown. There was a flicker across his face, rage boiling underneath his skin. I tried to take a casual breath.
“I’m afraid without a more in-depth knowledge of your own security protocols there is little advice I can give.”
He frowned for a moment then he shrugged hugely, dark blue uniform shifting around him.
“A shame.” He stood in a sudden flurry of movement that made me flinch outwardly. Now towering against the chaotic glow of the bar he said. “Well, I must be away, I apologize, but there is no rest for the righteous.” he raised his shot in a toast. “To the Empire.” He barked.
Slowly I raised my own shot, watching the blue dance of liquid death. I had the distinct feeling that if I drank the shot I would not leave the star system alive. I was more sure however that if I did not raise it in a toast to the Empire, I would not leave my seat alive. It would not be frowned upon for a Palatine to shoot a person who refused to toast the Empire. With a resigned breath I spat, “To the Empire.”
I tipped the sweet tasting alcohol into the back of my throat. Maybe it was my fear, but I felt the cool liquid slide down my esophagus and pool deep in my body. I was barely out of the bar before the pain started.