“If you could just wait here in the lounge, Mr. Truman, someone from the Vanguard should arrive to summon you when the time comes,” says a female adjutant as she waves through the entrance toward the bar proper.

Billy Truman nods, then wanders into the lounge.

Kinako looks up from her datapad at the word “Vanguard,” until then she was sitting at her usual table, with a half a mug of opaque green tea and a small bowl of red-skinned, rough-textured little fruits. She tilts her head at the wandering Billy, and gives a brief, polite nod of greeting.

Maxwell glances over at the new arrival from his spot at the bar, then turns his attention back to the paper he’s writing on in a thoughtful manner. His beer is barely even touched.

The pug-faced man gets to the bar, thumps the counter with his knuckles, and tells the bartender: “Belter Special. And that better be the real filtered stuff and not the Texas piss-water they try to pass off in Louisiana.” He glances toward Kinako with a nod, then scowls at Maxwell. “Texas could do us all a favor and drop into a goddamned chasm.”

“Konbanwa, good evening,” Kinako says, frowning very slightly at the scowl, despite the fact that it is not directed at her. “It seems as though you are having an evening of poor humors, sir. Perhaps you should have some tea? You are, of course, welcome to disregard my advisement; it is merely a suggestion. But they have an excellent brand of ceremony-quality tea matcha here. It is very good, and soothing to the senses.”

Maxwell takes a sip of his beer, and raises an eyebrow. “What’re they getting up to this time? Afraid my studies kept me from paying em much attention for awhile, there.”

Truman grunts. “Tea’s not gonna fix Texas. Assholes beat one of our border-walkers to death. I did that job until about six years ago. They say they don’t want shit to do with the Consortium, but all the time their people are creeping across the border to enjoy our way of life. One kid gets shot, maybe he had it coming, and suddenly the Texies think it’s open season on our boys.”

“Aah,” Kinako says, quietly. She turns her mug of tea around, and picks it up, prodding the table pad to transfer her order over to the bar. After packing up her datapad, she heads in that direction. “The news has been unfortunate, that is beyond disagreement. But we are a distance from Texas, and are unable to solve the extensive unrest and disharmony from here, yes? What is my immediate concern is your discomfort. If, of course, that does not trouble you further. I do not wish to intrude.”

Maxwell cringes “Not the best news I’ve ever heard, certainly.”

Truman accepts his beer. Tastes it. Sighs. “Well, it ain’t piss-water for a change.” He manages a smile, then says, “Glass the whole territory, far as I’m concerned. We don’t need the grief, given what’s coming.”

Kinako frowns thoughtfully. “I am afraid I do not understand the usage of ‘glass,’ but from the context I am going to guess that there is violence involved. Also there are many differing theories as to what is coming. The Vanguard has advised that no one jump to conclusions, and I am inclined to agree. It is stressful and causes disharmony.”

Maxwell nods “I’d just as soon ignore em for now. Right now I’m more interested in finding some good work. Though I won’t deny some curiosity about that message.”

“I could give a shit what the Vanguard advises,” Truman replies. “They’re just doing the job, trying to keep the population calm. What the hell do you expect them to say? Batten down the hatches, aliens are coming? No way. Can’t panic the sheep.”

Kinako purses her lips, and orders herself another tea. “I… see. Well, no, I must agree that I would most certainly not expect them to make a statement like the one you are describing, sir.”

Maxwell takes a long drink of that beer he’s got. “Be a rather strange public service announcement, alright.”

Truman takes another drink of beer. “My little brother was on the Pinnacle. That’s his voice on the message. Sure as I’m sitting here, they found something out there and it killed him and his crew, and now it’s coming for the rest of us.”

“My condolences for your loss, sir,” Kinako says, taking a sip of her existing tea. Her expression has gone mostly professional, diplomatic, but the empathy is genuine.

Maxwell nods “Indeed.”

“Thanks,” Truman replies. “We all knew it was a no-return trip, really. But I wanted to know he made it. That they found a new world. Make the sacrifice worth it.”

Kinako absent-mindedly peels one of those small lychee fruits from the bowl. “Well,” she says, tone remaining even, “Perhaps more transmissions will be located, with better information, or perhaps the current transmissions will be decoded properly and better information will come to light.”

Maxwell nods “It’s almost certainly more valuable a message than a compedium of cookbooks. I hope, anyway.”

“Maybe,” the captain’s brother replies. “So what do you people do here, anyway?”

“As of yet, I am waiting for some unpleasant business to be solved,” Kinako says, shrugging. “I may return home; or, if is required that I remain here, I will seek housing and employment here. If the situation is indeed dire I may in fact be needed.”

Maxwell stretches a bit “Well, right now I was attempting to prove that this hexagon has seven sides. But that’s just a hobby. Recently got my Masters degree, and came down here in the hopes of finding some gainful and hopefully space related employment.”

Truman knits his brow. “Hell, son, everybody knows a hexagon’s got eight sides.” He shrugs and takes another sip of beer. “I know people, though. You looking for work here, maybe I can put in a word.”

Kinako blinks several times, and delicately eats a piece of lychee fruit before peeling another. She seems content to let the gentlemen talk.

Maxwell smirks “Well, even proving that a square has four sides can take a surprising amount of effort. But it’s just an interesting way to pass idle time, really. But yeah, any assistance in finding good folks to work for is welcome. Not really familiar with the area.”

“Well, gimme a name and I’ll pass it on,” Truman says, chuckling. “Cos, my brother, went to college with that dizzy nerd Busby. I can set you up, no doubt.”

Kinako looks up from her tea. “Oh, dear. Is he suffering dizzy spells in addition to the Continuous Partial Attention syndrome?”

Maxwell raises an eyebrow at the prognosis, but takes a sip of beer to clear that up. “Maxwell Cooke. Physics boffin.”

Quill steps into the lounge and makes his way to the bar. His favorite drink is already waiting for him, the lounge’s sensors having picked up his implants before he came in. He sips it, focused seemingly only on that. After enjoying the long sip, he looks around, quickly taking in the surroundings and patrons.

Truman coughs his beer out through his nose, splattering the counter, as he cuts a look at Maxwell. “Look, son, what you do in the privacy of your own bunk, that’s your thing. But I wouldn’t go telling everybody your business like that. Doesn’t look good on a resume. Unless maybe they take resumes for holoporn.”

Kinako leans courteously out of the way for Quill to fetch his drink, offering a polite “Konbanwa” in his general direction. Any other pleasantries will have to wait, as Truman snarfs his beer all over the place based on an innuendo that is so far out of her linguistic range it doesn’t even register. She stands up to fetch some napkins, and approaches Truman’s seat. “Are you all right, sir?”

Maxwell nearly chokes on his beer at that reaction. “Uh, fraid you misheard me, sir. Just meant I studied physics. The subject. That science that’s responsible for making cars move and rockets fly.”

Quill is only half paying attention, so whatever is going on around him doesn’t quite register. After Maxwell nearly chokes, Quill’s attention snaps fully to what’s going on. “What’s this about holoporn? I didn’t know this was that kind of bar, but I’m in.”

Truman whistles. “Thank god, son. You had me worried I was going to up-talk some freak to Bob Busby. Pretty sure he’d stop taking my calls after that.” He tilts his head toward Kinako and says, “Look, we grew up two blocks from Vanderbilt, but Cos always had the brains. I’m the muscle. My kids forgot more about science than I could ever know – even with one of Spark’s grab-all lenses. Anyway, I’m fine. Stupid, but fine.” Finally, he frowns at Quill and is about to speak when the adjutant walks back into the bar and says, “Mr. Truman, the team is ready to meet with you.”

Kinako bows a little bit and leaves the napkins on the bar, retreating back to her small oasis of tea and fruit. “Pardon my intrusion, then, it seemed as if you were choking on your drink,” she says. Whether she doesn’t understand all of the porn talk or whether she is diplomatically failing to acknowledge it is not casually obvious.

Maxwell snickers “Not trying to cause trouble. No matter what some of my old professors might claim.”

Quill shakes his head and says dryly, “Ah, shame. Just when the party was about to get started.” He sips his drink quietly. His eyes dart back and forth as he reads/watches/listens to whatever his neural implants are sending to his eyes/ears. He says outloud but mainly directed to himself, “Ah, that’s where I know you from. Brother of the Pinnacle captain.”

Truman nods, finishes off his beer, then meanders toward the waiting adjutant. “Thanks,” he grunts at her as they step out into the promenade.

And that’s about the time Quill’s PDA pings.

Kinako finishes the last lychee fruit and looks somewhat forlornly into her tea mug. “…well, I hope he finds some kind of peace in that meeting. What a troubled gentleman.”

Maxwell nods “Not the happiest fellow I’ve ever seen, alright.”

Quill blinks at the ding. He taps his finger in the air, signalling the PDA in his pocket to display the message on his contact lenses.

“Although, if he is genuine about giving you a work reference, that would be fortuitous? As much as a work reference by someone who has only just met you can be logically valued,” Kinako offers to Maxwell. Quill seems to have the edge of her attention, but she’s not attempting to engage him in conversation while he is communing with the infospirits.

An obscured figure in shadow, backed by green light, materializes in Quill’s field of view. “You have shown an interest in providing assistance with the quantum encryption of the Pinnacle message. Does your interest persist?”

Maxwell nods to Kinako “Well, it sounded more like a potential introduction. Which hey, is better’n getting your resume tossed in the circular file.”

Quill looks confused for a moment, those confounding infospirits. “Yeah, definitely. I love a challenge,” he responds to whatever realtime message he is receiving.

“Well, here is hoping that gentleman’s, ah, unhappiness, aggression, and such, does not cause him to neglect or negatively impact your recommendation. Otherwise you could speak with General Jensen-sir, he is very nice,” Kinako says, still politely paying more attention to her tea and her current conversation than whatever Quill is up to. Hopefully it’s not porn.

Maxwell takes a good sip of beer. Or would, but it seems to be empty now. “Seemed nice enough when I ran into him the other day, alright.”

“Very well,” the obscured figure replies to Quill. “We will allow you to audition for the task. We have stored the data from the first letter in the message, ‘T,’ on a secure server managed by Spark. The server’s infomatrix address will be transmitted to your device within the hour. After that, it is your responsibility to gain access to the server and conduct a thorough analysis of the contents of that part of the Pinnacle transmission. You have 72 hours to complete the task. Naturally, you will have to find your own data storage solutions to manage the unpacked data while you analyze it. If you are discovered hacking into Spark computers, you are on your own. Is this understood?”

Quill smirks and nods to the infospirit. “Of course, wouldn’t expect otherwise.” His fingers on his left hand begin rapidly twitching as if typing on a PDA.

The transmission from the obscured figure clears, leaving Quill with the usual view of the room.

By Brody

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