D’Artagnan’s

“I don’t think I can serve you much more, Buster. You know I’ll get in trouble. You want a coffee?

One ear bent and the other standing stock straight, Meyer braced himself against the bar and frowned. “Whatcha mean, barman? I’m schtill pullin’ innnnnnn FM radio on these thingsh,” he gestured, lazily pointing upwards, aiming for his rabbit ears but missing — wide right — and pointing at Clifton instead.

“My, you gotta take it a bit easy. What about a little soda bitters, huh? You like soda, right?” Clifton threw his arm around Meyer’s shoulder.

“Y0-yeah, yeah, I do. I do. What about a shoda bitters, ffffflat top?”

“How about a double ‘paying your tab’ since you didn’t last week?”

“Aw, c-cm, c-commonnnn, Mickey–”

“Clifton?”

The lemur sighed. He brushed a tuft of Meyer’s hair out of his eyes as he gently held him by the shoulder with one hand and tapped him between the eyes with the other. “Mye, we gotta pay the man.”

“Ye-yeah. Yeah. I…I know, I know it,” the hare frowned, fishing his billfold out of his front pocket, dropping both elbows on the dinged-up heavy-lacquered turquoise bartop with the same degree of force a crane accident might have, rummaging through his cards and cash.

“Sorry, Mick.”

The pangolin tending bar laughed hard enough to shake his scales. “Ehhh, he’s — you’re both — the best customers I’ve got.” He eyed Meyer with an edge of disdain. “But uh, are you sure he’s okay?”

Clifton stuck his thumb out and stuck himself in the sternum. “I’m taking care of him tonight. What could go wrong?”

Meyer fished out a half-broken debit card, chip half still intact, and threw it down on the bar. “Here,” he managed, stifling a dry retch.

Mick stuck the card in the reader without much of a second thought and waited for it to process. The attached thermal printer tried its college hardest, barely eking out a respectable “D’artagnan’s Copy” that Clifton snatched before Meyer had a chance. He took the half of the debit card too, just in case.

“H-hey, wh-hwat’s the idea here!” Meyer protested.

“You didn’t tip last time,” Clifton chided, pulling a pen out of his sweatshirt pocket and scrawling in a hasty 30% atop the tab before pulling a twenty spot out of his jeans and slipping it under the receipt.

“I didn’t?”

“You didn’t. C’mon, let’s go. Up we go.” Clifton reached under Meyer’s arms to help lift him off the stool but, being a little under a foot shy of Meyer’s 6’4″ frame, this didn’t do much to help in any reasonable way, and the hare stumbled backwards.

“Hey I got it, I got it. I got it. I can stand. Cliff you’re not my godshdamn mom,” Meyer slurred, yanking his arm from Clifton’s hand.

Clifton chuckled. “Okay, big guy, c’mon. Let’s get a cab, okay?”

“Okay.” He turned his head over his shoulder and hollered something that sounded like “Thanks, Mick!” but slurred together in a highly inappropriate way. Mickey just threw his hand up to acknowledge it, half paying attention, half pocketing the extra twenty bucks and chuckling to himself.

– – –

“Did you have fun tonight?”

“Yeah.”

The streetlamps dashed across the back seat of the cab every half second, finding their way across the pair’s lap and back again, the only light in the new moon evening. The soft hum of the cab’s hybrid motor barely registered over the road noise of tires hitting bridge strips and pavement, thrumming a soft and steady percussion without an accompanying melody. Clifton ran his fingers through Meyer’s hairtuft.

He leaned in to Meyer’s bent ear and whispered gently. “Do you wanna go back to my place and fool around?”

Meyer tried to pull his head out of Clifton’s lap, placing a paw on Clifton’s shoulder and giving the lemur a sheepish grin, blue eyes locking with yellow and somehow seeming present and distant all at the same time. “I wanna go back to our place and fool around,” he said, slightly more sober but nonetheless worse for wasted.

The whiskey-soaked hare’s paw slipped off Cliff’s shoulder and fell behind his back, finding its way under the back of his partner’s hoodie, seeking purchase along the small of his back, soft fur against soft fur, scratching gently at the waistband of his jeans.

“Well, let’s at least get you home first and we’ll see how much you’ve got left in you,” Clifton chuckled, knowing full well he’d be hauling Meyer up the steps to their apartment.

“Mmmmmmokay,” the hare murmured, practically half asleep already.

“Mmmmmmokay,” Clifton half-whispered back.

Faith

“Have you ever met a Lyrician, Ms. Ulbrecht?”

“I can’t say that I have, sir,” Cynthia replied.

“They’re detestable. An utter failure from Aldyne Genomics. I can’t believe the project was allowed to begin, let alone continue. I had no say in it. Gennaro was told to abandon it before he fled the planet with those…filthy embryonic aberrations. My grandfather had assurances that the program was disposed of. We let them run around and the gods-damned United Nations even gave them territory. We’ve employed them, Ms. Ulbrecht.”

Cynthia took a sip of her whiskey. “I feel a bit far removed from this, Mr. Aldy–”

“How did we let this mess get so out of hand? How Dr. Gennaro was allowed to continue his abominable experiments is beyond me, but I’m not entirely convinced they’re not still ongoing.”

“Sir, M-mr. Aldyne, Alyx Gennaro has been dead for at least a hundred years. They’re…if you…I mean, we can’t. They’re a part of society now.”

“Do you know the population? Do you know there are only a few thousand Lyricians? A handful. Barely enough to register on a system-wide census. An afterthought. Pathetic creatures.” David Aldyne frowned, pushing back his chair, standing up, stretching his arms behind his head. “The project was to find ways to enhance extra-solar colonists, not to create a race of filthy gods-damned halfbreed two-legged animals,” he spat, the derision in his words as toxic as the poison in his infusion rig.

“I can’t say that I’m following your reasoning, Mr. Aldyne.”

“Project Lyric’s brood exist as an abomination, Ms. Ulbrecht. Nothing more. It is a stain on the Aldyne name, and it is a stain on Federated society. We know where they’re holed up, right?” he hissed. A chirping from his waist, followed by a little pressurized ping, sounded the delivery of the incandescent blue plasma needed to keep that Aldyne name alive. Another Aldyne First.

“Sir, we can’t send AlDef after the Lyricians on Old Terra. Doing so would be brand suicide, it would be in violation of several United Nations protectorate agreements. It could lead to a legacy of damage to the Aldyne name. I would advise against it at all possible costs.”

“Aldyne funds the United Nations practically single-handedly. I want you to do what you’re paid to do and put our boot on their necks. The McMurdo Concordat should be nullified and the Lyricians need to be rounded up and destroyed. This Project needs terminated with alacrity, Ms. Ulbrecht. Speak with our envoy at the UN and see that it’s done. Our five year plan does not include these vermin. Have I made Aldyne’s position clear?”

“Of course, Mr. Aldyne. What about SKHI’s position? Guldsommar’s?”

“What of them? I am not troubled by ditch-diggers and gas-dredgers. This is an Aldyne problem, and AlDef will take care of it. Frame it as a rescue and recovery effort. The other corporations on the council will see it as janitorial and the UN will simply oblige us to do as we wish.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll draft the resolution right away. General Assembly meets in a week, we–”

“A week? I meant now, Ms. Ulbrecht. Do what you have to do.”

Cynthia stifled a sigh. “I understand, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll act accordingly.”

“Cynthia?” David whispered, crackling through the com-link.

“Yes, Mr. Aldyne?”

“I trust you. Get it done.” His visage faded, and the terminal shifted from full opacity to transparent once again, [Commlink Closed] flashing across the center of the screen in bold yellow letters.

Cynthia Ulbrecht stood and stretched, reaching behind her head to pull out the pins holding her bun together, letting her black hair cascade down past the shoulders of her forest green blazer, exhaling the breath she’d half-held the entire conversation with The Aldyne Group’s President, Executive Director, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Dr. David Nolan Aldyne. Talking to him always consumed a majority of her spoons.

She gestured at her terminal towards the address book, flicking through her contacts until she’d located Rowan Murphy, United Nations Security Council President, and hit the record button on the messaging modal.

“Ro, it’s Cynthia. We need to have a conversation about the rat problem in Antarctica.” She affected a bit of lust in her voice, just enough to fool any mood analysis software. “It’s been so long since Antwerp. Give me a call when you have a moment. Please? she barely more-than-whispered before closing the connection.

She slugged the rest of her whiskey. Gods have mercy on her.

Now THAT would be an Aldyne First, she chuckled to herself.

Escape

Vision blurred, breathing ragged, blood chilled, and adrenaline pumping, Gideon managed to swing his head into a position where he could see his captor.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” the angular figure seemed to say, opening their lighter with a metallic snik, flame sparking and drawing closer to their…mouth? beak…? before disappearing completely. “Gideon, buddy, look, you’re lucky we found you!”

A deep inhale, then a huge exhale. Mentholated secondhand stung Gideon’s nostrils. He coughed.

“Cold out there on the ice, Gid. You realize if we hadn’t found you that the Peacekeepers would have, right?”

“Who…who’s we,” the lemur spit, the taste of copper in his mouth. Was that…blood?

“Right now, bud, the only important identity is yours,” suggested his captor, whose black-gray visage got closer, coming into focus as they approached him, squatting down to meet Gideon eye to eye. Their tone was critical, harsh, unwelcoming. “It’s also important that you’re out of the cold. Antarctica is no place for an Aldyne dick trying to track us down, okay?” Another exhale.

Gideon couldn’t help but inhale this time, ragged and painful. Something was very wrong in his chest.

“What’s Aldyne doing out in this region, anyway? We’re not hurting anyone. We’re minding our business.”

“If you’re minding your business,” Gideon spat, licking his chops, tasting his own blood, “we wouldn’t–”

Whatever he had left to say was cut off by what felt like an electrical circuit in his ribcage. His whole body felt like he just ate an exploded battery. The fellow in whose possession he now found himself had stuck him with a shock rod in his open wound. Gideon screamed.

“We were minding our business. Now you’re minding our business. Our mutual acquaintance here didn’t want to peg you with a railgun from a few kilometers out but we don’t have a lot of options here at McMurdo. Your company decided to send your hired guns and you are the only one left from your team.”

His captor pulled the device out of his chest wound and Gideon took his first breath in what felt like an hour. “Honestly, my guy, I was not expecting Franklin to haul back any survivors, but since you had the good fortune not to keel over, you need to answer some questions, or I’m going to introduce you to a whole host of experiences I guarantee you corporate security hasn’t prepared you for! I’m not gonna ask you again! Why are you here!”

“I’m…” Gideon started, vision blurring again. The realization that his team of four was…where were they? Were there four? “Aldyne sent my team because we’d received reports of a Lyrician Liberation Cell out near McMurdo.”

Flake paused. Why would Aldyne Defense be trying to apprehend Lyricians? Why would they send a Lyrician security team to arrest others of their kind? This land belonged to them. These two were practically brothers.

None of this made any sense.

“AlDef is working with the UN now? Why?”

“They just sent me out here for recon, I don’t know what they were planning on doing beyond that! I’m just following orders!”

“Who cleared this operation? Who gave you those orders?”

Gideon spat, a mixture of fuchsia blood and hot saliva, in his captor’s face. That much he could see clearly. It didn’t take long for him to regret it when he felt the business end of the shock rod in his chest again, and his body seized like he was chewing on jumper cables.

“You were not invited here, blood traitor,” his captor sneered. The lemur could feel the air choke in his windpipe. “You took the side of the oppressor. You took their guns and you came to hunt us down after we’d been ceded this land in the McMurdo Concordat. You have the gall to literally spit in my face?”

A series of alarms, sharp and piercing, came from somewhere nearby. Gideon wasn’t able to make out where.

“Hey, Flake, he’s hurtin’ I think.”

“Frank, I think if there’s something wrong with our guest it isn’t my problem, right?” Flake removed the rod from Gideon’s wound. Gideon’s vision started to clear. He took a deep, ragged breath, choking on the air.

“Get this son of a bitch some respimix and medgel for his wounds. Where’s their skimmer?” the bird hissed, tossing the rod on a nearby utility cart, flexing their hand to loosen the joints.

“No skimmer. Big lander though, bear-loaded. Plenty weapons. Cal and Kethri said it had a small nuke. Looked mean. On their way out now to bring it in.”

“A lander? You said you only took out three AlDef guys plus” — the bird stopped, glaring at his captive coughing up hot pink phlegm on the floor — “this dipshit. What kind of lander was it?”

Franklin, a giant panda with more muscle than brains, frowned in deep thought, big black eye circles furrowing, wrinkling the scar across his forehead. “Uh…real big. Show me cards.”

The jay pulled out a deck of ship identification flexes from their back pocket and spread them across a table. Gideon was still catching his breath. “Which one of these.”

A beat passed. The klaxons from the medical equipment strapped to Gideon’s wrist started hollering again. Franklin laid a huge pawfinger on top of a Holland Aerodynamics atmospheric transport. “This one,” he said, proudly. “Cal say we can leave orbit if we take.”

Flake’s eyes went wide. “Yeah. Yeah. We definitely can leave if we take.” They paused again in thought. “Make sure he’s healthy enough to travel. We’ll need his biometric imprint to get the thing started, and it’ll only work if he’s alive. I need to go out on the frost and make sure they’re not planning on sending anyone else down here.”

“I worry?”

“Yeah, big worry. If AlDef is sending expedition teams that means the UN has no interest in honoring the treaty they signed handing this land over and we need to get the hell out of here.” Flake made a few talontaps on their wrist-worn datapad.

“Folks, uh, I hoped I’d never have to say this,” Flake’s voice came echoing throughout the McMurdo Station’s PA system. “I guessed correctly. The UN is about to clear us out. They left us a carrier. We’re on our way to secure it. Pack only what you can carry and be prepared for departure in twenty minutes.”

Franklin frowned. “We go?”

“Not without him,” Flake grimaced, brow furrowing, as he gestured at Gideon’s exhausted frame bleeding pink on the concrete floor. “Once he’s got a rebreather and he’s bandaged, get him in a thermal jacket and put him in a brace. We need to move.”

[next: https://steller.space/2021/02/14/departure/]