Two Minutes to Midnight

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The expansion wars had changed things. Gell Miller saw it everywhere he looked. The climate of life was different. People were more wary, tenser. They smiled less, joked less, and spent more time looking at the ground. Everyone on the sidewalks walked a little faster; everyone on the hovertrain held their umbrellas and briefcases a little tighter. Gell had been affected as much as anyone, and more than most.

For the past few months, Gell had taken to moonlighting as a bartender at a dingy pub on the ground floor of the Jirage hotel in Li Phan. All things considered, it wasn’t too bad for a second job. Most of the night he got to sit at a stool behind the bar, resting his feet after long, tiring days as a teamster on the stardocks. The regular crowd was small and undemanding and had usually headed home by 11:30, leaving Gell to daydream his way through the last couple of hours of his shift, thinking about the past, when one job had been enough, when he’d still had a brother and a sister-in-law, and longing for the future, when his houseful of nieces and nephews would be able to help feed themselves.

One of the downsides of working at the Jirage was that it was close to the spaceport, which meant that it attracted its fair share of off-world guests. Every now and then they would find their way down to the bar to drink off their hyperjump lag or kill some time before their taxi arrived. The aliens tended to sequester themselves in dark corners, hiding their inhuman faces behind high, stiff collars or growling into their acidic, imported beers with gravelly, low-register voices that wavered in and out of the limits of human hearing.

Gell had learned that the safest way to serve his non-human customers was to leave well enough alone. Travelling aliens were rarely interested in small talk, so he stayed behind the bar, one eye watching for refill requests and the other scanning the net on the screen built under the counter.

Tonight was one of the quiet nights. The regular crowd had all gone home, the counter was clear, and the pub was empty other than a couple of frog-like doads stretching their long legs in one of the booths in the back. Human customers didn’t often stay very long when they realized there was a doad in the room. Recent peace negotiations hadn’t defused the heightened tensions between the two species. No one expected the ceasefire to last for long, anyways. Gell could see that the doads were nervous, sitting here in the heart of one of the most heavily human planets in the system, but in the fashion of all business agents, both human and alien, they were doing their best to drown their nerves in alcohol.

A newscast was playing on the wall-mounted screens. The anchor was detailing the increased rates of species violence in Li Phan over the past few months. Just this morning a young woman named Danika Erlin had been killed by an illegal immigrant, a doad who had smuggled himself onto the planet aboard a merchant shuttle. The anchor’s lips were turned down in a tightly rehearsed display of concern as he welcomed his guest analyst, a human sociologist who was widely known for his extreme proposals to completely shut down alien immigration.

Gell changed the channel.

Shortly before midnight a tall, powerfully built human entered the pub, his right arm tucked against his side in a cloth sling. He was young, maybe mid-twenties, and was wearing an old jacket, heavy boots, and a scowl. His eyes were dark and downcast.

Gell heard the tone of the doads’ conversation change, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up a little. As the man stalked up to the bar, eyes cast down to the floor, Gell did a quick mental count of the number of drinks he had served to the aliens over the past hour. Must be something like three pints of beer each. Was that too much for a doad? It was in his policy booklet somewhere. He should have been thinking about that. They were big, heavy creatures (no, not creatures: people, Gell reminded himself), so conventional wisdom would suggest that they could probably handle a fair amount before completely losing their heads, but every alien’s blood chemistry worked a little differently.

“Can I help you, sir?” said Gell, loud enough to be heard in the back of the room.

“A double shot of vodka,” the man mumbled, pulling up a bar stool, “and keep the bottle handy.”

Gell reached under the counter and procured a glass and a bottle. “What’s the occasion?”

“Do I need one?” The man downed the double shot, holding the glass somewhat awkwardly in his left hand. “Another.”

Gell poured out two more ounces. “People drink for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s a celebration. Sometimes they’re mourning. Either way, maybe I can help.” He put a little extra emphasis on the last word and flicked his eyes towards the doads, who had stopped talking and were now openly watching the counter.

“I don’t need your help,” growled the man.

Lowering his voice, Gell said, “Planning to start something with that busted up arm of yours?”

No reply.

“Let me guess… It’s a doad’s fault you’re wearing that sling, isn’t it? Maybe you got jumped in an alley and you’re out looking for revenge. Fine. Who am I to get between a man and his death wish?”

Glaring at Gell, the man held out his glass for more.

The bartender held onto the bottle. “Sure that’s a good idea, son?”

“Pour me another.”

“Sure, fine. Like I said, it’s your funeral.” Once more Gell filled the glass, and in a moment it was empty.

The doads were muttering to one another again, Gell noticed. They were probably reluctant to start a confrontation inside; there were security cameras. Outside was another story. Maybe if Gell kept the man at the bar long enough they’d lose interest.

“So, what did happen to your arm?” asked the bartender, trying to get the man talking.

“What time is it?”

Gell was caught off guard by the non sequitor. He glanced at his watch. “About two minutes to midnight.”

“Time for one more, then,” said the man.

“What happens at twelve? Gonna turn into a pumpkin?”

“Something like that.” The man downed his drink and leaned on the counter. “I’ve got surgery tomorrow. I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight.”

“Getting your arm fixed up?”

“Joined the army. Volunteered for a special program. They’re going to replace it. Weaponize it.”

Gell had heard of the experimentation the army had been doing with biomechanical “upgrades” for its soldiers, but he’d never met someone who actually seemed to support the idea. “So, what, you were going to lose the arm anyways and figured you might as well get something out of it?”

“No, arm’s fine. It’s just prefrozen. Nerve-deadening preanaesthetic. Makes the recovery easier afterwards, supposedly.” The man used his left hand to lift his right arm out of the sling, held it over the counter, and let it drop. It flopped onto the counter with a thud, completely lifeless. “Can’t even feel it,” said the man.

There was a small tattoo on the palm of the hand, a heart with the initials D.E. underneath.

The doads were following the conversation from their booth. This target seemed to be getting more and more tempting for them. Not only did the man have one completely ineffective arm, but he was also about to join the human military. Gell thought he could see the aliens licking their lips with their long, narrow tongues.

“Why would you do this to yourself voluntarily?” Beyond the need to keep the man talking for his own sake, Gell was legitimately curious.

The man chuckled ruefully. “Call it a clean slate.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

Nodding towards the limp appendage, the man said, “This hand has some stains on it, stains that don’t come out easy. New hand won’t have any stains.”

“Sure, but it’ll be the army’s hand,” countered Gell, “and they’ll just order you to go stain it some more. Violence is violence, son.”

The man slowly shook his head. “That’s not the kind of stain I mean.” He rubbed at the tattoo on his palm with his finger, and Gell noticed that the skin around the ink was chapped and dry, as if the man had been scratching at it.

The doads rose from their table and approached the counter, mean looks on their faces. Apparently they weren’t the most patient of species. Gell muttered, “Speaking of getting your hands dirty…”

The man looked over his shoulder and stiffened as the doads approached. When they were ten feet away, he reached into his jacket, withdrew a handgun, and turned it on them. His deadened right arm swung off the counter and hung at his side. The gun shook in his grip.

Both doads recoiled.

“Pay and leave,” the man directed, his voice cracking. “Today I don’t need much of an excuse.”

The aliens cautiously reached into their back pockets, withdrew handfuls of bills, and dropped them on the floor. With their webbed hands held out in front of them, they backed out the door and into the street.

The man swung his arm back onto the counter and placed his gun beside it. Gell allowed himself to breathe again.

A minute passed. Finally Gell broke the silence. “You… aren’t supposed to have that in here.”

“Put me in a uniform and I am. Allowed to pull the trigger then, too.”

Gell thought of the six little children at home, only two of whom were his. He thought of his brother, shot down while flying escort for a merchant freighter, and his sister-in-law, a Marine, caught in an ambush while on patrol. He said, “When you’ve got that uniform on, the bullets go both ways. On either side of it, someone ends up dead, leaving people like me behind to deal with it. Who’re you gonna leave behind, son?”

The man narrowed his eyes and stared at the tattoo on his palm. Gell saw the initials again and made the connection. “Danika Erlin. You knew her?”

“What time is it?”

“You think she’d want you to do this?”

“What time is it?”

“You think you can bring her back?”

“What time is it?”

Gell relented. “It’s 12:03.”

The man hesitated, rubbed the tattoo, then grabbed his glass. “Pour me another drink.”


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