Rucker’s Pub: A V-shaped bar counter serves as the centerpiece of the most popular tavern aboard Sol Station. More than two dozen tables and booths – lit by cylindrical blue-white plasma lanterns – are available around the pub. Narrow, pyramid-like support structures span floor-to-ceiling at several points.

Vechkov sits at the bar, stump of a burnt-out cigarette dangling from his mouth as he orders another beer from the bartender. His rumpled fedora sits awkwardly on his squarish head, his eyes lost for the moment in the shadows beneath the brim.

Kethren wanders into the pub accompanied by a penguin at his side, atop which is seated a curious kitteny-ferrety creature who seems to be enjoying the ride. The wandering quite naturally takes the party to one of the bar stools, from which a beer gets ordered.

Vechkov glances over at Kethren and his menagerie. The cigarette stub perks upward as the right side of the Ungstiri investigator’s mouth curls in bemusement. “Sure hope they can hold their liquor,” he grunts.

The penguin at Keth’s side emits an amused Wark! Keth just chuckles “Holding stuff is what Kail there, does. The furry critter on his head, that’s Floriana… she can consume quite a lot when she wants to, and I haven’t noticed her having issues with spirits.”

Vechkov tilts his head. “Huh. Okay, then.” He raises his beer glass in salute, then lowers the glass and goes back to staring at his knuckles.

The door to the Pub opens and from outside enters Rafael Santiago, one of the Mars representatives on the Consortium Council. Somewhat out of his element, not having been on Sol Station, he looks around. “All I want is a damn drink until my ships ready to take me off this god forsaken space coffin.” He says to himself as he looks for a place to sit.

Kethren offers a friendly wave to the arrival before taking a swig of his freshly delivered beer.

Vechkov pockets the cigarette stub from his mouth, then pulls out the crumpled pack of cigarettes from his jacket and looks toward Santiago. “Y’know your ship’s a glorified coffin too, right?”

The councillor offers a polite nod to Kethren, turning to Vechkov. “Perhaps. But at least we can hit the thrust and flee from danger. This thing sits here waiting to go up in a quasi-orgasmic blaze of Earther arrogance.” Santiago snorts moving towards the bar and ordering some sort of Martian drink. “Believe me, if I didn’t have to be here for a meeting, I’d be back on Mars or San Angeles.”

Kethren raises an eyebrow at the unrelenting cheer of the councillor. Folks are sitting at the bar. The ones without menageries seem to be grumpier, and arguing about the relative merits of space coffins.

Vechkov gives a gruff chuckle. “How are the thrusters on Bradbury Dome doing, anyway? Speeding you away from danger?” He shrugs, plucks a fresh cigarette from the pack, then tucks it into his mouth without lighting it.

“I prefer the confined of Olympia Dome, myself.” Santiago retorts. “Perhaps if the Vanguard took Mars and Martian citizens’ security more seriously, we wouldn’t have such a poor view of our Consortium… friends.” He offers a smile and nod to the barkeep after delivering him his drink.

James Sterling tramps into the pub and plunks himself down on a stool at the bar. “Gimme a beer,” he grunts at whatever staff member is nearest. “Guinness.” He turns his back to the bar, leaning his elbows on it, and peers about at the other patrons in the place.

Kethren nods to the latest arrival, and takes another swig of beer.

Vechkov takes the unlit cigarette from his mouth, regarding Santiago with a shrug. “Cry me a nebula, Solar Baby. I grew up wanting to admire folks who pioneered Mars, but ultimately you’re all a bunch of soft-handed, paper-pushing whiners begging for people to take care of you. I’ll take Ungstiri toughness any day of the week.”

The Martian politician puts his drink down, facing the man. “My family helped settle Mars. They helped map Utopia Planitia, Olympus Mons and dozens of other areas. They saw the first Domes built. Created stability. A way of life. And for what.. Earth interference. We haven’t been in control of our own destiny for a moment after colonization. One day that will change.” He snorts again, taking a sip of his drink. “Might be way I can’t get my way onto the Budget and Finance, or Military Oversight Committees. Bastards.”

Sterling doesn’t know the context of the conversation between the squat guy in the overcoat and the one in the snazzier clothes, but he appreciates the former man’s snarkiness. He chuckles as he tucks one hand into his inner jacket pocket to retrieve a somewhat crumpled cigarette packet emblazoned with the lacklustre emblem of one of the cheaper available brands.

Kethren shrugs lightly at the arguing, orders a packet of nuts, and continues with his beer.

Vechkov smirks. He takes a sip of beer, then sets down the glass and tugs on the brim of his fedora. “Yeah, it’s all a big conspiracy to keep you from controlling the Consortium’s purse strings. Right. So, tell me something, Rust Worlder. What would you try to accomplish on *any* of those boards you rattled off? Some pork barrel spending for Olympia? Maybe a new Vanguard base on your south pole?”

Santiago lets out a loud laugh that carries throughout the pub. “The Vanguard. Our fearless protectors.” He shakes his head. “We don’t seek to entrentch more Earth influence on Mars. Not at all. We’ll rid Mars of the Earth infection. A true independent Mars.”

Sterling turns his attention to fishing out a cigarette and sticking it in his mouth. He lets the packet drop onto the bar and leans back to retrieve a lighter from his jeans pocket. His gaze wanders from the political arguers and lands on Kethren. He offers the fellow a smile and a slight inclination of his head as he lights his cigarette.

“Aw, hoopin’ hell,” Vechkov mutters. “*This* song again? You *really* want independence? Look real close at that planet of yours. Think real hard about the delicate nature of your place on it. You’re all a bunch of bugs in little bubbles on a hostile rock. You’re prisoners as much as pioneers of your environment. You talk about how this station’s some horrible space coffin, but Olympia wouldn’t fare much better with a bulkhead breach. You couldn’t survive true independence until you found someone else to back your play and keep all your folks breathing. Who’s going to do that? Lord Fagin? The Nall? Maybe you can pick your devil, but you’ll always be in hell.”

“The Nall and Fagin are options. But not our only options.” Santiago replies, offering a sinister grin before taking a swig from his drink.

Kethren tears open the fresh pack of nuts, and leaves it on the counter so Floriana can scurry up and enjoy the snack. Another sip of beer, and a nod is offered to Sterling. “So what brings you by?”

“Eh, just thought I’d get outta HQ fer a bit. Rennie keeps stealin’ my damn sandwiches.” Sterling pauses to take a deep drag from his cigarette, smiling at the little kitten-ferret. “What’s shakin’ with you?” He nods in acknowledgement to the bartender as his Guinness arrives, but leaves it at his elbow for the time being.

Vechkov nods at Santiago, then downs another swig of beer before he replies: “Yeah, another option might be to pull up stakes and go find an actually habitable world to call home. It’s a big old universe. But y’all pretty much doubled down on the Red Planet, right? Put up or shut up, then, that’s what I say. You want to walk away from the Consortium? I’m sure the Pirate King would love to capitalize on that level of discord. Go for it. Doesn’t matter to me.”

The politician grumbles abit as he finishes his drink. “Earth would never let Mars pull out from under its thumb.” He shrugs, letting that discussion die as he thinks it over more from his chair.

Kethren shrugs lightly as he scratches the calico enjoying her packet of nuts “Oh, you know how it is. However nice a place you have, you need to get out and see other places now and then.”

Sterling chuckles. “Guess so. Not that REM is some kinda palace or anything.” He takes a sip of his beer, smiling at Kethren over the rim of the glass. “How’s yer Disney planet?”

“You’re a master of the soundbite,” Vechkov observes of Santiago as he cradles his unlit cigarette between two fingers. “So that’s the Martian tactic, is it? When your arguments fail, blame the Consortium for holding your yoke too tight? You gotta quit trying to have it both ways. Can’t play the victim one minute, then turn around and go all self-reliant scoundrel the next. Wrecks your credibility.”

“You should concern yourself with things that you have better knowledge of, good sir.” Santiago replies, turning slightly so the man is in his view.

Vechkov gives a wry smile that doesn’t quite reach the corners of his eyes beneath the brim of his fedora. “Oh, I’m pretty much in the business of poking around where I don’t belong. I get paid for bad habits.”

Kethren shrugs at Sterling “Apart from the occasional idiot who misses the signs and wanders off into the wilderness when the guards aren’t looking things are fine there. The paperwork does rather pile up on those occasions…”

“And what exactly is it that you do?” Santiago asks.

“Paperwork,” Sterling snorts. “Even when I ran a PMC I had one of the lads take care o’most o’that.” He takes another drag from his cigarette. “Hateful.”

“Private investigations,” the Ungstiri answers. He swaps the unlit cigarette from one hand to the other. “If you *really* think someone’s got it out for you, I could probably ferret out the facts. But, as much as I’d love to take your money, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t yield much. I just don’t think bureaucracies are competent enough, in general, to pull off conspiracies like that.”

“You’d be surprised, good sir. Very surprised.” The politician replies.

Kethren smirks as he drains his beer and nods to Sterling “Sure, but there’s always too much of it to do, and not enough underlings to spread it around among.”

Vechkov hunts through one of the many pockets in his trenchcoat until he finds a dog-eared holographic flimsy with his business data encoded on it. “The name’s Vechkov Prague. You get serious about surprising me, give me a call. It’s never cheap, but you pay for my tenacity.” He stands, plunging his hands into the pockets of his pants. “Shuttle to Ungstir leaves soon. I’d best be on it or the wife’s going to think I’m stepping out on her.” With a tug of his hat brim, the private investigator starts walking toward the corridor.

Sterling laughs. “Then ya need more underlings!”

Santiago takes the business card, and tucks it away in his coat pocket. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He nods, thinking. “Rafael Santiago,” the politician replies in introduction, “but I suspect you already knew that. Have a safe flight.”

By Brody

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