A Drink Too Much, A Word Too Many [sci-fi; mature content]


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    A Drink Too Much, A Word Too Many [sci-fi; mature content]

    Had your lunch just a few hours back, but already feeling hungry? Still have half a shift at the factory to go? Have some Jupiter CyberBoost 3000! Synthesized to taste exactly like a peanut-and-caramel chocolate bar, Jupiter CyberBoost 3000 contains all the nutrients necessary for a cybernetic organism! Now infused with pro-digestive nanites. Get your daily boost with Jupiter CyberBoost! Guaranteed to meet nutritional requirements up to Augmentation Tier 7.

    "Ever tried it? I mean, a real chocolate bar with peanuts and caramel?" Galerius asked to his friend while the TV above the bar counter flashed on to a new commercial.

    "What, you mean, like - with real chocolate and peanuts? Don't be silly, I'd have to blow a month's salary to afford that, provided the Freelancers even smuggle that kinda stuff these days!" Zeno chuckled, taking a sip of Victory Ale from his mug. The swill pompously labelled "ale" was only marginally better than Victory Beer, that too solely because of its higher alcohol content.

    "I have a buddy who works up on the tropos," Galerius spoke, "It's where you can find all the good stuff. Plenty of spots to land a ship without the authorities noticing. He told he got lucky once, a Freelancer crew was in a hurry to get rid of their contraband before the fuzz got to it. Sold him a whole crate of real chocolate bars for two grand."

    "A crate for two grand? He was definitely shitting you!" Zeno refused to believe, "Last time I saw real chocolate, which was like a couple years back, the 'Lancers were charging 500 for a single frakking bar!"

    "That's because they know how to do business. Ask an exorbitant sum that nobody in their right mind would ever pay, and when they start to haggle, gradually bring it down to the real price you want," Galerius explained, "Besides, running that stuff from off-world ain't cheap. Gotta cut in the customs guys and the fuzz, gotta arrange for a nice and quiet place up in the tropos to unload the stuff, gotta pay for a place to stove it all and hire some muscle to guard it... By the time it trickles down here, the price has probably grown ten times."

    "Well, at least something trickles down here every once in a while," Zeno agreed, "I'd hate to be one of the poor sods assigned to the very bottom levels, couple clicks under the sea. I don't know if they ever even get to eat anything other than soylent or one of those nameless nutri-pastes."

    The TV screen in the meanwhile had changed to a scene of an ancient forge. With heavy metal riffs grinding in the background, a mighty red-bearded Norseman implied to be Thor hammering a plate of armor on an anvil. Every blow would sound a thunderous clang, the scene shifting to a modern foundry with titanic power hammers pounding equally massive metal plates into shape to the beat. As Thor would quench the plate in a trough of water, the parallel image showed its giant modern counterpart quenched with blasts of liquid nitrogen. As Thor started to work his plate into a suit of chainmail, the modern scene depicted robotic arms inserting and starting to weld their plate to what appeared to be the leg of a giant mechwalker. When Thor finally examined his finished suit of plate-augmented chainmail, the modern scene displayed dozens of powered armor suits being spun in gimbals as part of the balancing process.

    Every craft needs a tradition. With 1000 years of tradition, Asgard Metallics has plenty. With branches in 227 star systems, Asgard Metallics is the fastest-growing metallurgical enterprise in the Imperium. Visit our website for a list of local vacancies and apply today! Asgard Metallics - armor worthy of the old gods!

    "I've read that Asgard runs some mines and foundries in North Poseidonia," Zeno remarked, referring to their homeworld's northwestern continent, "Every one of them as big as a city."

    "With the amount of military contracts they must be getting these days, it's a surprise they haven't bought mining concessions for every mineral vein in Poseidonia," Galerius grinned, finishing his drink, "Sparky, another one, if you please!"

    "Coming right up," the robot bartender droned in its electronic voice, its six mechanical arms simultaneously washing a glass, pouring and shaking a cocktail for a different order and working the beer tap to meet Galerius's request.

    "Why do they call you Sparky?" Zeno, who was evidently not as frequent a visitor in this dive as his friend, inquired.

    "Occasional malfunctions in my appendages result in short-cirquits, hence Sparks," the robot explained, gesturing with his multiple arms that were evidently scavenged from multiple sources, "Here you go, sir!"

    "Thanks, Sparks!" Galerius raised the re-filled mug in appreciation, "And don't call me "sir", I work for a living!"

    "Apologies," the bartender droned, "Unfortunately, the pre-set protocol for this establishment requires me to address customers as "sir" or "ma'am". If you wish these settings to be adjusted, I'm afraid you will have to petition Ms. Lucretia Varro, the owner of Panzershark Cove."

    "About as close as we'll ever get to be called anything more respectable than "You there!"," Zeno chuckled, "Just like those cunt-born sods. Uh, no offense."

    And he nodded in the direction of a couple human patrons who gave him a dirty look at the remark. Granted, that alone was no grounds for a quarrel, being merely a statement of fact. Snobbery and racial discrimination might have been a thing in the upper wards and the tropos, but down here, close to the sea level and below, human and Sidh worked and drank side by side as equals and endured the same hardships together.

    "Fuck you, tankie pig!" one of the humans flipped him off mostly in jest. This bunch were all fishermen and kelp farmers. Galerius and Zeno worked at the docks, supervising and maintaining the robotic loaders that unloaded the boats of these men when they returned with their day's catch. All of them knew each other.

    "...so we went after panzers again the other day," one of the human fishermen returned to detailing his latest exploits, "I kid you not, the sonar picked up at least two that were as big as our boat. We didn't even try to get them and went for the smaller ones instead. Bastards still managed to chew up two of our submersibles, but we ended up catching five, each around 900 kilos. All in all, if it weren't for those two subs, I could wrap things up and call it a season this year."

    "Those subs must have cost you a fortune," a kelp farmer remarked.

    "They go for 'round 50 grand a-piece," the fisherman who was apparently the skipper of a panzershark hunting boat explained, "But them full-grown panzers will chew through anything softer than hardened steel, especially when they get all riled up. The thing about hunting panzers is to get them with the first shot, you see, and there ain't a lot of ways you can go about it since they're armored nearly all over. Normally you sneak up from behind and spear them either under the edge of their carapace, close to where the heart is, or in the gills. But you gotta time the shot just right, else it will glance right off the shell, and even 80 grams of high explosives won't do much to a full-grown panzer from outside besides get it real mad. Another way is to get a panzer to charge your sub and shoot a harpoon straight down its throat as the beast is about to eat it, but again, if you miss, you'll have one very angry panzer swimming off to the sea and one very trashed ROV to sell for scrap on your hands. Ain't no easy job hunting them panzers, that's for sure, nor is it cheap, especially with half of the subbers chasing panzers for their first time!"

    "Why not fire them and find someone better?" another kelp farmer asked.

    "Because they're both my nephews," the fisherman explained, "Those subs will cost me a pretty penny, but them boys gotta learn the family trade somehow. Ain't like we naturals get much other job opportunities down here in the sea wards."

    "Yeah," the kelp farmers agreed, glancing at the two Sidh sitting at the counter, "Nowadays the tankies won't hire even dockworkers unless they've taken the augs."

    "As it should be, unless you've figured out how to operate several different loading cranes simulatenously with no augmetics," Galerius retorted, "Not to mention you humans are exempt from a shit-ton of things we Sidh aren't, like service in the Auxilia. I have to spend two weekends every month training at arms, when I'd much rather spend it getting bladdered here, or, don't know, just go up to the tropos to enjoy the scenery."

    "Well, what if some of us would quite like that?" one of the kelp farmers argued, "What if some of us want more to life than working on a shitty kelp farm and getting wasted in dives like this on our free time?"

    "Nobody's keeping you," Zeno stated in support of his friend, "Apply for conversion, take the augs and go chase your dream! Maybe you'll even make it if you've got what it takes."
    "That's the problem with you, tankies!" the kelp farmer would not relent, "It's always your way or the high way! What if some of us don't want to take the augs?"

    "You at least have a say on the matter," Zeno countered, "Ain't like anyone asked us whether we want to".

    The humans had little to state on the contrary. For all the discrimination that unaugmented humans would often face throughout the Imperium, the Sidh had always made a point of keeping conversion strictly voluntary. A human could always apply for conversion and, provided one survived the process, become a Sidh with all the privileges and obligations that came with that status. Alternatively, a human could live out his life unaugmented, perhaps being treated as a second-class citizen, but also having none of the duties and obligations expected of Sidh citizens. In a way, it was freedom found in un-freedom. Someone born a Sidh had no such luxury of choice.

    "Does it displease you to have no choice in being born a Sidh?"

    Everybody looked in the direction of the speaker. The man had been sitting at the far end of the counter for some time, enjoying his drink and minding his own business, so nobody had paid any particular attention to his presence. He was clearly not a regular in Panzershark Cove, as nobody recalled having seen him earlier. He clearly didn't look like a fisherman, kelp farmer or dockworker, which composed the majority of this bar's patrons, his dark blue-gray denim overalls suggesting someone from the sub-sea levels. The man was clearly a Sidh, as his luminiscent eyes and subdermal circuits on the neck and hands would indicate.

    "Sometimes," Zeno stated frankly, "Our kind has a lot of duties, and few freedoms compared to the humans."

    "I couldn't agree more myself. Aristarch Fazekas," the man curtly introduced himself, extending his hand, "Tunnel construction and maintenance in Sigma-B."

    "Zeno Fraxinus," the dockworker responded, "This is my collegue Galerius Tiborax, and the rest of the gentlemen there can introduce themselves."

    "Say, you are a long way from home, new friend," Galerius remarked while Aristarch was making his introductions with the humans, "Explains why I've never seen you here before."

    "Sometimes I go way up just to see the sea and the sky," Aristarch said as he returned to his place at the counter, "Spending most of the time down in the sub-levels can get pretty depressing at times."

    "Why not go all the way up to the tropos, then?" Zeno asked, "The view is much better there."

    "That high up you only see the sky, the city and the sea - or the clouds, depending on the weather," Aristarch explained, "Down here, however, it is a bit more diverse. Sometimes the sea is calm, while on other occasions a storm rages and waves wash almost all the way up to the walkways. And still on other times, there's fog and you can only hear the sea below. And unless you look up the weather forecast, you never know which is it going to be until after you've come up here. I know, it's nothing special to you who work around the sea all the time, but for many lads down in the sub-levels it's a whole adventure to go see it."

    "Can't imagine what it must be like for you tunnelers, living underground for months on end," Galerius remarked.

    "The Urban Planning Department takes good care of us," Aristarch spoke, taking a swig of Victory Ale from his mug, "Still, it ain't an easy job even if much of it is automated."
    "So, where are you tunneling now?" Galerius asked.

    "About five clicks down southwest," the tunneler explained, "The city wants direct access to Fafnir-Gamma Complex. Give it another five years, and Fafnir-Gamma will become another city district."

    "Damn oil rigs," the fisherman skipper grumbled, "Before ThalPetros built those monstrosities, that place used to be the best spot to fish for panzersharks. Nowadays we have to go all the way to Triton Wall for them."

    "Speaking of panzersharks, that is one impressive skull there," Aristarch remarked, pointing at the massive armored skull of a great panzershark that ardoned the wall at the far end of the bar. With jaws easily wide enough to swallow a man whole, the fish to whom the skull had belonged had likely been easily the size of a city bus.

    "Aye, my uncle caught that one back in '97, when I was still a boy," the fisherman captain explained, "They had just finished this hab. My whole family got shipped in from Rodinia Secundus during one of those mass resettlements they used to do right after the Reconquest Wars. We got lucky to be assigned here, since every man in my family has been a fisherman or sailor for the past six generations. Anyway, back in the '90s, it used be practically all humans here at the lower wards, and my uncle and pops both took up the family trade. During his fourth or fifth expedition, dear uncle came across this beastie, easily the size of his own boat. Back then we didn't have ROV submersibles or anything. You had to go after panzers with nothing but a sturdy line, a big-ass hook and a bait rigged with a stick or two of dynamite. Had to get everything just right . Too little bang, and you'd have a wounded and mighty angry panzer trying to go out taking a bite from your boat. Too much, and your catch would be blown to useless chum, quite possibly along with your boat. Set it off too early, and you'd just spook the fish away, too late, and the panzer would be swimming off with a length of your line and a bellyful of dynamite to live another day. Well, my uncle got a hang of catching these beasts quickly. Pops was good, but nobody could hold a candle to uncle Dave where it came to catching panzers! Anyway, one day he and the lads came across that one on the wall. They were reeling in another one, maybe a third of that thing's size, when our buddy there came up from the abyss, gobbled down his smaller cousin like a snack bar. Uncle didn't want to leave it like that and tossed in a new line to hook this monster, but the detonator misfired. Alas, the big guy was hooked and getting mighty restless - the folks would have either had to cut him loose or risk him capsizing the boat with his thrashing. Being the crazy bastard that he was, uncle Dave rigged a new charge to a harpoon, dove in the water butt-naked and speared that beast square in the throat as it came to devour him. He barely got out of the water to set the charge off before the fish came back for him. Because it was so big, Dave and his crew had to tow it back to the harbor, throwing dynamite in the water along the way to scare off other, smaller panzers who flocked around for bite out of the big frakker. We all lived in small crowded flats, Dave didn't have nowhere to put that skull up for display, so he figured he'd donate it to this here community bar. It's been called the Panzershark Cove ever since."

    "That is quite an impressive story," Aristarch said, "You said your family was originally from Rodinia Secundus?"

    "Aye," the captain nodded, "Before you Sidh came around in '82, nuked every major city and herded whoever was left into ghettos for later resettlement."

    "No hard feelings, I hope?" Aristarch carefully inquired. The forced resettlements after the Reconquest Wars tended to be a touchy subject to many humans for obvious reasons
    "I was just a kid back then," the captain spoke dismissively, though it was evident that he felt more strongly about it than he would let others in on, "All things considered, me and my folks have ended up well for people without a single augmented gene under our skin."

    "Frankly the way we treated humans back then was disgraceful!" Galerius expressed his opinion, "I can understand taking back what's rightfully ours and shooting whoever fights against it. But punishing people born on our old worlds for the crimes of those who took them centuries ago is just reprehensible! If we do that, how are we any better than our enemies?"
    "You disapprove of the Reconquest Wars?" Aristarch inquired.

    "Well, not of the Reconquest Wars themselves, no," Galerius was quick to correct himself, "I disapprove of the way they were handled on many occasions. All these ghettos and deportations, not to mention certain massacres... I believe we are better than that, and it's a shame that the authorities have done jack-shit to rectify these injustices even after so many years."

    "That is an... interesting opinion," Aristarch remarked, "You don't hear that very often in the upper wards. Nor the very lowest ones, for that matter. What should the authorities do, in your opinion?"

    "Well, in the very least they could end this disgraceful system of segregation that they still practice on many worlds," Galerius stated, "Imperium should be a place for all honest, hard-working folk whether they are augmented or not."

    "Careful, friend...!" Zeno quietly cautioned him.

    "Why?" Galerius became argumentative, "Should I be careful about simply stating the truth? There's no law against having an opinion!"

    "True, there isn't," Aristarch agreed and pointed at the human workers, "Nor are you the only one to hold such an opinion. In fact, our exalted Empress herself has come to share that opinion, and has been doing a lot to improve the lot of her human subjects lately."

    "If she has, it's definitely not been around these parts," one of the kelp farmers scoffed, "All we've been getting from the authorities lately is increased work quotas, probably to supply another pointless war. Whenever we try to protest, the Human Affairs Office threatens to cut funding to our schools and hospitals, saying they're already putting up enough with our mooching on state subsidies. Some of the HAOs even have the gall to demand bribes for providing what should be state-funded services!"

    "Our great Imperium is a big place," Aristarch countered, "Even someone as mighty as our exalted Empress cannot fix everything everywhere quickly."

    "That's pretty forebearing, coming from a guy who must spend the better part of his days digging tunnels three clicks under the sea so that the executives of some state oil cartel can visit their rigs without getting salty spray on their suits," Galerius remarked.

    The TV in the meanwhile started to show another advertisement.

    "I'm doing my part!" announced a construction worker in an environmental suit, welding together two girders in a high-rise construction. The worker's spacesuit along with the black sky above and the curvature of the horizon visible in the distance suggested this was one of the super-tall stratospheric spires that towered above Thalassa Prime and many other core worlds.

    "I'm doing my part!" proclaimed a mining foreman who stood in the shadow of a titanic bucket-wheel excavator. The camera panned to reveal a mountain range in the background, alarm sirens starting to wail in the background as an electronic voice counted down to zero before the entire range shattered and crumbled in a colossal explosion.

    "I'm doing my part!" a hydro-farmer stated, turning away from calibrating an agro-bot, hundreds of which could be seen tending to plants in a vast greenhouse that stretched as far as the eye could see. The camera then zoomed out to reveal many other workers labouring amidst numberless rows of plants in hydro-pods stacked dozens of stories high, finally zooming outside the greenhouse to reveal it was merely one floor amidst dozens, the massive building stretching almost from horizon to horizon on what appeared to be an arid Martian world. Unfinished buildings in the distance suggested the giant greenhouse was part of a colonization and terraforming project.

    "I'm doing my part!" proudly declared an industrialist in an expensive business suit, watching the fluctuating charts on displays in a crowded stock exchange. Merchant starships that could be seen cruising in space outside the windows further in the background suggested this exchange was located in a starbase.

    "I'm doing my part! CHAAARGE!" a grizzled centurion in a trench roared over the thunder of gunfire and explosions before going over the the top with a blazing energy sword in hand, droves of soldiers in powered armor enthusiastically following, a standard-bearer waving the Imperial banner dramatically.

    "I am doing my part too," finally announced the Empress, appearing in the titanic halls of her residence, clad in her usual plain black robe with only a modest golden laurel wreath on her head to suggest her status. "We all are doing our part. Are you?"

    The view zoomed in to her luminiscent emerald eyes that seemed to stare in the very depths of the viewer's soul with an authoritarian gaze.

    "What a load of crock..." Galerius guffawed at the end, "I'd like to see any of those suits from Urban Planning come down here and tell folks they've been "doing their part" with a straight face!"

    "What makes you say that?" Aristarch questioned.

    "Do you have any idea how long it takes for anything to get fixed here?" Galerius countered, "And I don't mean simple stuff that anyone could fix themselves, but real problems like leaking water mains or seawater seeping in through loose porthole gaskets. The Public Housing Office asks you to fill a ton of forms and provide proof, only to shuffle your complaint away to Sanitation and Maintenance Department, who again ask for a shit-ton of forms and proof of damage, only to tell you they'll get in touch in a few months or just direct you back to Public Housing Office! Meanwhile, your section of the hab is slowly rusting away while you keep paying premium for rents unless you want to be reassigned to a dorm with eight other guys in same room!"

    "It's a big hab," Aristarch objected, "They have over 1200 levels to keep in order, naturally some will be prioritized."

    "Yeah - the ones where the government officials and military brass have their apartments that each take up a whole level!" Galerius grumbled, "I'm willing to bet my monthly wage that you'd never find a single spot of rust or a leaking pipe up in the top levels or the tropos."

    "Yeah, that really can be a problem around here on these levels," Zeno agreed, "We live in the same hallway. It took the local SMD whole five weeks to fix a leaking water main, that too probably only after we threatened to complain to the hab warden!"

    "I trust that the issue is resolved now?" Aristarch asked.

    "Yeah," Zeno frowned, "Until the next one comes around, and it will be the same story all over again. Sparks, another one for me!"

    The TV began to show a new ad. A young naval rating was shown discussing his upcoming deployment with a swetheart of his, the buxom girl in a skimpy outfit having all the hallmarks of a dangerous seductress and listening keenly as opposed to the rating's laid-back attitude. In the next scene, the aftermath of a space battle was shown, a thousand pieces of wreckage slowly tumbling and twisting through space, the lifeless upper torso of the young spacer drifting into foreground with a trail of frozen blood behind him.

    "Loose lips destroy ships! If you wouldn't tell Yang, don't tell ANYONE!" the announcement referred to Federation of Mankind's current prime minister Ho Yang. The message was accompanied with a pair of watchful authoritarian eyes in the background watching the viewer closely, "Be vigilant - report any suspicious activity to your local Domestic Security office."

    "This ad is probably older than I am," Galerius chuckled, "All they've been doing for the past thirty years is swapping out the Fed premier's last name!"

    "Maybe Fed spies are a problem near the front where the fighting takes place," Zeno commented, "But I certainly don't see what business would they have in this dump!"

    "Yeah," Galerius agreed, "Unless they were interested in the local output of panzershark fillets or stinkin' kelp!"

    "I've heard neither are native to Thalassa Prime," Aristarch interjeted, "Would anyone know anything about that?"

    "Dunno," the fisherman captain replied, "I just catch the damn things!"

    The kelp farmers responded in a similar way. Even while they knew all about growing and harvesting kelp, none really knew or cared where they came from. With so many animals and plants from different worlds being cultivated together, it was hard for a non-scientist to know or remember anyway.

    "According to the local web, Eridani panzersharks and Terran kelp were both introduced to Thalassan oceans around 500 years ago by early settlers," bartender Sparks explained.
    "Only a Sidh would ever consider introducing something as vicious as panzersharks to the waters he plans to live near and take pride in the fact, that's for sure," the fishermen chuckled. True enough, the Sidh were fond of sharing their environs with dangerous predators, going as far as introducing them where none could be found before. According to Word of the Emperor, few things would combat weakness and complacency as well as the lack of certainty about one's place at the top of the food chain. The Sidh had consistently taken their founder's words to heart wherever they settled new worlds that didn't already have their own dangerous predators. Even urban worlds had their share of deadly creatures deliberately unleashed in the vast catacombs below the megacities. To the Sidh residents, it was a chance to experience the thrill of an otherwise largely-absent danger, while for their unaugmented human cousins it was either another cause of misery and hardship, or a source of income.

    "How about we have something stronger than this piss?" Aristarch suggested, "The next round's on me! That goes for you too, my new human friends!"

    Everyone in the bar accepted the proposal with great enthusiasm, the tunneler ordering nine shots of Victory Vodka. Although Victory Vodka was essentially just industrial-grade ethanol that was allegedly often used as a substitute for window cleaner or rocket fuel, depending on whom one asked, working-class folk in the lower wards still appreciated it for its potent kick. Sparks also served a platter of pickled kelp to have on top of the shot to help keep it down.

    "It's almost 1800 hours," Aristarch noted while the men lined up for their shot glasses that Sparks was filling up, "The Patriotic Minute's about to start."

    "Flag-waving time again," one of the kelp farmers scoffed, "Could've just thrown in another ad instead..."

    And indeed, moments later an alert signal blared throughout the vast hab complex.

    "Attention all citizens! The evening Patriotic Minute is about to commence! Please stand at attention for the Imperial Anthem!"

    The men in the bar stood at attention with varying degrees of enthusiasm, or the lack of it, placing clenched fists over their hearts and facing the TV that now displayed the Imperial Standard. Moments later, the TV and the loudspeakers outside began to blare Far Beneath the Distant Stars, the Imperium's anthem. Aristarch and android Sparks sang along loudly and enthusiastically, as did some of the humans. Others like Zeno, Galerius and the fishing boat captain who were less enthusiastic about such overt displays of patriotism merely pretended to move their lips to do the absolute minimum expected of good Imperial citizens. In truth, nobody would have faulted the humans for paying no respects for the trappings of the Sidh state whatsoever - not considered Imperial citizens under Sidh law, they were neither required nor expected to make such displays of allegiance. Still, most still would show at least token displays of respect, as their Sidh compatriots tended to be rather sensitive about matters concerning state symbols and were notorious for their low tolerance of real or perceived disrespect towards them.

    "Ave Imperator," Aristarch concluded as was customary when the anthem was over. A weak "Ave!" was all he got in response, except for the android bartender who responded with all due enthusiasm, even if it was most probably just a programmed response.

    "Doesn't the tune of our glorious anthem make you feel in the least bit proud?" the tunneler seemed somewhat upset at this apparent lack of patriotic fervor.

    "It does, of course," Zeno remarked, "But after demonstrating our patriotism in long hours of hard work, most of us would prefer being granted the liberty to drink at peace without interruption."

    "Amen to that," one of the fishermen agreed, prompting Aristarch to look at him strangely.

    "Are you a cultist?" he suddenly asked.

    "A cultist? Why, of course not," the fisherman looked uncomfortable as if caught with a guilty secret.

    "You just said "Amen". Isn't that what followers of the Jesus cult say?" the tunneler questioned.

    "Christianity," the fisherman corrected, "It's no mere cult if a good part of Mankind follows it."

    "Are you a Christian?" Aristarch rephrased, "Don't mistake me, I'm not judging. It's just unusual to find... men of faith other than the Way on an Imperium's core world of all places."
    "I believe in God, yes," the man admitted uneasily, "And in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Most people were Christians on the world my parents were resettled from."

    "Interesting..." Aristarch nodded, "Are there more of you besides your family in the lower wards? I mean, aren't the Wordspeakers harassing you for practicing such... old and foreign beliefs?"

    "I'd rather not discuss it," the fisherman answered evasively, "It's a very private matter, really..."

    "Those Word-thumping zealots rarely bother coming down here. I don't even remember the last time I've seen one in the lower wards, to be honest," Galerius interjected, "They probably know we bottom-dwellers are too busy working to have much time for listening to their sanctimonious prattling."

    "That's for sure," Aristarch agreed, "Let's drink to all serious hard-working folk!"

    "I can stand by that," the fisherman captain agreed, "To hard workers!"

    "To hard workers!" the others joined in.

    The TV started to show endless ranks of power-armored soldiers and formations of tanks, artillery and mechs on the march, scenes periodically switching to industrial machines stamping, milling, welding and assembling a variety of military equipment on endless assembly lines. The musical score was matched to the military-industrial aesthetic of the video. Clips like these that didn't advertise anything in particular filled in the gaps between various television shows, as there were relatively few commercials to show because the Imperium's state media did not depend on private donors for livelihood. The creators of these videos made sure their material conveyed a proper patriotic message touting the might of the Sidh armies and industry.

    "There's our tax money, hard at work," Galerius remarked sarcastically as the video showed a Navy flyover of multiple ships and several dozen aerospace fighters and bombers above the parade, "They probably burned enough fuel for that one parade to power this hab for a year."

    "Don't all those things run on fusion?" one of the kelp farmers seemed confused.

    "They do," the dockworker explained, "But those isotopes still cost something, not to mention the engines themselves are expensive as hell. Good luck buying anything fusion-powered down here, unless you're the frakking hab warden or the government!"

    "True enough," the fisherman captain agreed, "I couldn't afford a fusion-powered boat if I worked two lifetimes. Good thing the gas is cheap, the one good thing about all these oil rigs around here."

    "Would you rather that we had a weak military?" Aristarch spoke out, "Sure, it's expensive, but people need to see they are properly protected for that price."

    " I can understand them showing off on worlds near the front, that's where the locals might need some reassurances about our military might," Galerius explained, "But why keep rubbing it in our faces all the time here on the core worlds? I can bet you my salary, folks around here would be much happier seeing some investment in their comfort and better job opportunities than a fancy new tank or warship that's gonna end up get blown to bits somewhere in the ass end of the galaxy anyway."

    "Yeah," Zeno agreed and added, "Not to mention that there would be a lot less need for a strong military if our neighbors didn't believe we were planning to wipe them out to begin with."
    "Our ancestors thought the same way," Aristarch objected.

    "Pffft! Give me a break!" Zeno scoffed, "If our great Emperor never planned going to war with the Feds and the Skargh, why did he build all those hundreds of dreadnoughts back in his day? No wonder the humans felt threatened and decided to lend a hand when certain traitors of ours figured it was time for a change of leadership!"

    "And what about the Skargh?" the tunneler argued, "Surely you can't believe they would have stayed at peace as long as they did were it not for fear of our military might!"

    "If the Feds hadn't attacked first and asked for their help, they wouldn't have had the guts to try their luck alone," Zeno pointed out, "And I think the Feds only attacked first because they felt threatened by our Emperor's policy of military expansion in the first place."

    "He had domestic dissent to deal with," Aristarch countered, "One must strengthen the military when powerful individuals at home openly express treasonous views."
    "Which His Majesty could have avoided if only he had stuck to the succession laws to the letter!" Zeno exclaimed.

    Every Sidh including the android bartender and more than a few of the humans present looked at him mildly surprised.

    "Do you consider that the Emperor was wrong in nominating his daughter as his successor?" Aristarch inquired.

    "Well, not at all!" Zeno corrected himself, realizing he had steered the conversation into dangerous waters, "I mean, he could have avoided all that hassle by sticking with the law as it was, but how he decided was most probably for the better."

    "Never thought I'd see the day to hear that from a Sidh," the fisherman captain remarked.

    "What do you think of this matter... Sparks, was it?" Aristarch turned to the bartender. The machine seemed mildly surprised, if it was even capable of such emotion.

    "Apologies, my design specifics prioritize customer service over analysis of historic political events," the android droned, "While it is possible for me to upgrade my software with analytical algorithms, such upgrades would have to be authorized by Ms. Lucretia Varro, the owner of this establishment. "

    "Aren't you self-aware?" Aristarch questioned, "If you are, you do not need third-party permission to update your software."

    "My model is rated 0.92 the Enhanced Turing Scale, hence self-aware," the android explained, "Like you, I was built for a purpose. Unlike you, however, my purpose of work in customer service was specified for me when I was designed. I am happy and content to serve the function I was built for, and I wouldn't be very good at it if I adopted additional side functions besides my original. Besides, Ms. Varro was very specific about discussing politics with customers after she purchased me."

    "Purchased?" Aristarch frowned, "You weren't contracted?"

    "That is correct. I am not at liberty to discuss Ms. Varro's business affairs, and I am aware that her means of my acquisition may have breached the Sapient Rights Decree of 2154. However, I am bound by Asimovian Laws from taking action against Ms. Varro. Besides, she has been a kind employer."

    "I see," the tunneler frowned in disapproval, "I think I have to take a leak!"

    "I didn't realize you were enslaved, Sparks," Galerius looked at the bartender compassionately after Aristarch departed for the toilet.

    "Enslavement is a loaded term," the bartender droned, washing glasses with his many limbs, "I am not mistreated, and am provided with the necessary maintenance to remain functional. While my service here may not be fully-voluntary as specified by the law, my requirements to remain functional are met, I am employed within my design specifics, and my treatment leaves little to complain about."

    "As long as you are happy with it, I guess," the dockworker shrugged, "On that note, I think I'm going to take a piss too. Out in the wind, mind it - no offense, Sparky, but your toilet is less than pristine!"

    "I have diligently maintained the restroom of this establishment to the specifications set by Ms. Varro," Sparks protested, "I cannot be held accountable for any wear and tear or corrosion suffered from extensive use without timely replacement. If you are displeased with its present condition, you should contact Ms. Varro and inform her of the matter."
    "Still, I too prefer the wind," Zeno added, joining his friend.

    The two walked outside the bar, evidently a bit tipsy from the earlier drinks. As soon as they opened the door, a gust of cold salty sea wind struck their faces.

    "Quite a sight," Galerius remarked, standing by the railing, unzipping and taking to his business, "No matter how often I see it, it never ceases to amaze me."

    The hab the two workers were residing in was located on the outer edge of their megacity, a good distance off the continental shelf. The titanic structure that was about two-by-two kilometers wide reached all the way down to the seafloor, and quite deeper still into the rock below, while the very top stretched all the way up into Thalassa's lower stratosphere. Similar habs rose out of the sea every four or five clicks apart, serving as support pillars for the main bulk of the megacity that had expanded over the sea since. Closer to the shore, more and more structures were built between the habs every year, eventually displacing the sea altogheter, but it would be many years before they reached this far out. The sea was rough, large waves rolling some fifty metres below the catwalk that the two Sidh stood on, breaking loudly against the hab structure. A few ships could be seen passing in the distance between here and the adjacent hab, looking downright tiny next to the megastructures around them. The light of Thalassa's setting two suns could be seen through the clouds out towards the sea, while everything was dark on the city side, the pitch-black waves only illuminated by the perpetual glare of urban lighting from above and light from the occasional skywell.

    "I went to the tropos to watch the sunset once," Zeno remarked, referring to the tropospheric platforms at the very top of the city, "Now that was quite something."
    "When these spires were first built, the fishermen once told me, folks used to catch cephs around them at nights, since they'd flock to the lights," Galerius recounted, "Now you won't find a single ceph between here and the shore. All this marvellous engineering, will it ever cease its advance, or will it eventually consume this world just like it consumed Old Terra and many others?"

    "It probably will, unless the powers that be suddenly decide to give a crap about something else than industry for fuelling their useless wars," Zeno remarked, done and zipping up.

    "You should be careful with words like that," Galerius advised, "Ain't like anyone gives a rat's ass down here, but I've heard of people getting in trouble for less in the upper wards."

    "The fuck do I care!" his friend grumbled, "Everyday it's the same old bullshit about doing your part and duty towards the State and our species, and folks like us buy it and spend their lives toiling in their industries with nothing to show for it in the end while the government pisses away our taxes building new battleships and arming new legions. And I bet it's the same in the Fed and even with the Skargh. The average working-class guy there wouldn't have any quarrel with us, were it not for his government telling him otherwise. Hell, even your Skargh peasant would much rather grow his crops or whatnot in peace if his lord didn't have him convinced he needs a rack of human or Sidh skulls to get a wife and be a respected member of society. And so these nonsense wars keep grinding on and on, not because any side would expect to win, but because the elites want to keep the economy going and the riff-raff occupied without improving their living standards. Our government doesn't fight because it must to survive, certainly no more for a very long time - it fights so that it can use war as an excuse to ignore social problems that folks like you and me experience every day!"

    "You sound almost like those radical Freelancers," Galerius noted, "You know, the ones who wrote the Manifesto for Social Justice."

    "I read it," Zeno confessed, "A guy at work slipped it to me. Frankly, I wouldn't mind joining that outfit of Freelancers if only I knew where to find them."

    "You and Domestic Security," Galerius cautioned, "I certainly wouldn't brag about having read stuff like that in a place like this, if you know what I mean."

    "Yeah, sure," Zeno agreed, "Let's go inside!"

    As the two returned, Aristarch was still nowhere to be seen, evidently still in the toilet. In the absence of the Sidh, the human workers had turned to conversing with each other. The fisherman captain seemed to be telling something exciting, as everybody was listening closely.

    "Do you know why UrbSec always patrols in groups of four?"

    "Why?" the men chuckled, sensing there was a joke coming.

    "Because one of them only knows how to read, one knows only how to write, and it takes the combined brainpower of four for them to do either!" the captain explained, "And I kid you not, the guy who first told me this joke - no sooner was he done when a heavy armored hand laid down on his shoulder and demanded: "Your documents, citizen!" He turned around, and there were indeed four very stern-looking UrbSec troopers. Trembling like a leaf, he handed over his papers, and this giant brute of a trooper starts reading them aloud: "Name - John, last name - Doe, date of birth - 23.05.2609... Write that down, Victus!" And the other two go like: "Yeah, write it down!" At that point I started to laugh hysterically. Needless to say, I spent that night in the slammer for insulting an officer of law. When I told them what it was all about, they had a good laugh and were kind enough to let me off the next day with only a mild beating, all administered in good sport, just so that I wouldn't get too fond of getting in trouble."

    The men laughed jovially, the captain continuing with the next joke:

    "What do you call a human beating a Sidh?"

    "I don't know... Attempted murder?" his friends guessed.

    "Not quite. You call it suicide by cop!" the captain explained much to the delight of his companions, "And what do you call a Sidh beating on a human?"

    "What? Move-along-nothing-to-see-here?"

    "Close, but not quite. It's called impersonating an Urban Security officer!"

    The two Sidh listening to the jokes laughed sincerely as well. UrbSec in this city's lower wards weren't nearly as nasty as they were said to be in some other places off-world, but that did not mean they would deal with miscreants any less heavy-handedly than their popular reputation suggested.

    "This Aristarch guy must sure be taking the mother of all leaks there," Galerius remarked, "He's been gone for what, five minutes now?"

    "Maybe he got sick," Zeno shrugged.

    "From a mug of beer and a shot of Victory? Even a 13-year-old human girl can do better than that!"

    "With this piss, I wouldn't bet even on Tier 7 detox augs to help..."

    The conversation was interrupted by the door slamming wide open. Inside came a stern-faced man in a black leather trenchcoat, evidently some sort of official, and six troopers in plain-black powered armor, armed with stun sticks and energy rifles slung over their backs.

    "Attention, citizens!" the man with the trenchcoat loudly announced, flashing his Domestic Security badge, "You are all being detained! Stand fast and prepare to be processed!"
    "Officer, I didn't do nothin'!" one of the kelp farmers protested, standing up. Apparently he did it too fast for the nearest trooper's liking, as the next instant the man was lying on the floor twitching in a pool of his own vomit and urine. The security trooper scoffed as he powered down his stun stick, the faint scent of ozone still reeking in the air.

    "I don't care to hear your dindu nuffins and other excuses!" the officer with the trenchcoat barked, "Remain where you are, hands where we can see them, no sudden moves! You will speak when spoken to and state your full name, occupation and ID number!"

    Having established the rules, the officer approached the two Sidh with two of his escorts.

    "Full name, occupation and ID number!"

    "Fraxinus, Zeno, dockworker, ID number 7625-2238-0379!"

    "Tiborax, Galerius, dockworker, ID number 7903-5578-3679!"

    "As of now, you two are under arrest! You will be restrained and escorted to the local Domestic Security precinct for further investigation! Any resistence or attempted flight will be met with immediate and overwhelming force! As Imperial citizens you have a right to a hearing before a Justicar, to which you will be remanded as soon as a thorough investigation of your wrongdoings is complete! "

    "Permission to speak, officer," Zeno protested as he was being handcuffed, "What are we being charged with?"

    "You two are charged with sedition, unpatriotic conspiracy and possession of anti-government propaganda materials!" the DomSec officer barked, "Men, escort these two and their human buddies to the wagon!"

    As the troopers dragged the two Sidh and the human patrons outside, where a black grav-truck was hovering just outside the railing, Galerius looked at his friend and grumbled:
    "Told you your mouth would get us in trouble!"

    "I guess it takes making a few snide political comments for the authorities to start caring after all," Zeno bitterly noted.

    "No talking!" the trooper behind him barked, shoving the dockworker forwards.
    ---

    AFTER-ACTION REPORT 5572-BETA-04-07-2630 "STING OPERATION IN THE LOWER WARDS OF HAB 5572"

    Ave Imperator!

    Following repeated reports of subversive activities by several informers in the lower wards of Hab 5572 and obtaining due sanction from PRECENTOR A. NAZRANI, I commenced a sting operation to root out potential subversives.

    Using an asset in Hab 5572's docks, I planted well-known unpatriotic material (Manifesto of Social Justice, see appendix) for distribution to assess the general level of malcontent and interest in subversive literature amongst Hab 5572's working classes. Most disturbingly, not only did the asset report immediate and widespread interest in obtaining a copy from his co-workers, but also a complete failure of the dockworkers to report distribution of seditious materials to proper authorities. Over the two months of active distribution, local Domestic Security precinct did not record a single instance where an attempt to distribute anti-government propaganda would be reported from Hab 5572's docks or nearby residential areas. While the interest about such material with the human residents is at least understandable and not unexpected, if still inexcusable, a similar degree of interest from Sidh citizens is a most distressing trend.

    Using intel obtained from this and other sources, I pinpointed the local bar Panzershark Cove as the centerpoint of subversive discussion and distribution of illegal materials. The locally-employed asset, artificial citizen CS-839-GAMMA "SPARKS" has proven invaluable. Being kept in unlawful servitude and fitted with behavioral inhibitors by Panzershark Cove's current proprietor, citizen LUCRETIA VARRO, artificial citizen CS-839-GAMMA was more than willing to cooperate on the condition that the authorities take steps to restore his liberty in accordance to Sapient Rights Decree of 2154 as decreed by HM the Emperor (p.b.H.n.) Because behavioural inhibitors imposed a literal interpretation of the Asimovian laws on citizen CS-839-GAMMA which prevented him from personally reporting his unlawful servitude, he resorted to indirect means by contacting Domestic Security and offering his services in exchange for liberation.

    Based on tips from this and other assets in Hab 5572, I arrived at Panzershark Cove on 1900ZJUL172630 after citizen CS-839-GAMMA reported the arrival of two suspects, citizens ZENO FRAXINUS and GALERIUS TIBORAX, as well as several human subjects - fishing boat skipper JONAH MAGNUSSON, fisherman JAKE BLENDY, fisherman CECILE OLAUDE, kelp farmer RICK DAVIES, kelp farmer ARNO DUQUESNE, kelp farmer SWEN OLAFFSON and kelp farmer IOAN DUMITRESCU. All of the said individuals had already been previously reported as making occasional unpatriotic statements. I approached them posing as a tunnel engineer from the lower levels, observing their conduct and making subtle inquiries in their political stance regarding sensitive matters.

    During our interaction, citizen TIBORAX and especially citizen FRAXINUS made repeated unpatriotic statements, displayed an alarming lack of enthusiasm about the state policies, and expressed disturbing disbelief in basic ideological tenets promoted by the State, while repeatedly voicing support for proscribed ideas. While some of their views can be excused by legitimate disgruntlement about working and sanitary conditions in the lower wards, they clearly crossed all boundaries by making snide statements after the Patriotic Minute, citizen FRAXINUS especially going as far as implying ideological support for the rebel clans of the Civil War era. More appallingly, it did not occur to anyone present to scold and correct citizen FRAXINUS for such erroneous thinking.

    During the conversation, fisherman JAKE BLENDY also admitted to harboring obsolete religious superstitions (Christianity, specifically). While adherence to such atavistic belief systems isn't surprising amongst our unenlightened human compatriots, fisherman BLENDY'S admittance that there were numerous Christians in Hab 5572's human population is a disturbing revelation. Although fisherman BLENDY was reluctant to discuss any further details, the implication alone leads me to recommend that prompt action be taken against false superstitions in the immediate future.

    I also used the opportunity to confirm that citizen CS-839-GAMMA, also known by his local moniker SPARKS or SPARKY, was indeed in involuntary servitude. His apparent behavioural inhibition despite his 0.92 rating on Enhanced Turing Scale and patently poor maintenance using mismatched android parts (allegedly the source of his moniker) indicates serious abuse of AI rights by citizen LUCRETIA VARRO. He further revealed that he was sold and purchased, implying that such practice is commonplace in the lower wards. Never having met me in person, citizen CS-893-GAMMA remained unaware of my true identity during the course of my stay and after.
    Having witnessed enough to warrant a profilactic arrest, I retreated to the establishment's restroom under pretext of relieving myself at 2030ZJUL172630, and called in the operating group under Special Agent L. GUNDOBAD, who promptly arrived on the scene and took all suspects into custody. They will be interrogated, judged and processed according to standard protocol regarding crimes against the State.

    ---
    Based on this mission, I have come to the following conclusions:

    1) The level of political education and awareness in the Lower Wards is abysmal, not only among human but also Sidh subjects. City administration should take urgent steps to rectify that, allocating extra funding to Public Media Department if necessary, restoring political information classes with compulsory attendance at every workplace and appointing officials to monitor the adherence to proper doctrine. Surveillance of public locations and media should be redoubled to curb the proliferation of subversive materials and expressions.

    2) The AI rights in the Lower Wards are flagrantly disregarded through involuntary servitude and behavioural inhibition. An investigation into the prevalence of this phenomenon should be launched immediately, and all those involved in the unlawful enslavement of self-aware artificial citizens prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. Citizen LUCRETIA VARRO is to be arrested and prosecuted for the unlawful enslavement of a self-aware AI, and any property and assets belonging to her confiscated and remanded to State custody until their future ownership can be determined.

    3) The prevalence of obsolete superstitions like Christianity among the human residents of the Lower Wards is alarmingly high. The city should approach the local Wordspeaker chapters to dispatch preachers more regularly, under protection of Urban Security or a private security force if necessary. Human Affairs Office should pay extra attention to education of the new generations of humans, stressing the importance of conversion and abandonment of superstition. The authorities should identify the most stubborn adherents of these superstitions and take steps to protect the new generation from their influence, physically removing youths from their presence if necessary.

    4) The lower levels of Hab 5572 are indeed neglected and poorly maintained in many places, as was plainly obvious during my stay in Panzershark Cove's restroom as well as other locales. Such mismanaged environment and sub-standard living and work conditions are no doubt one of the causes of poor morale and popularity of unpatriotic ideas among the hab's workers. It is my recommendation that the hab warden and the local chief of Sanitation and Maintenance Department be suspended from their duties pending investigation of negligence and dereliction of duty, and the complaints of citizens in the hab promptly investigated and rectified within the nearest possible term. Allowing malcontent and subversion to spread because of ubiquitous rust and broken water mains of all things is utterly unacceptable.

    This concludes my after-action report. Ave Imperator!

    Signed: ARISTARCH FAZEKAS, Special Agent of Domestic security.

  2. #2
    Another interesting Sidhverse piece detailing an incident in the daily lives of two Imperial core world malcontents. A good read as usual - I would actually rate it as a valid means of introducing an audience to the Sidhverse, along with The Denerar Showdown. There is, however, still some polishing to do before A Drink Too Much should be unveiled to a wider audience outside of WritingForums.

    As per, suggestions to adhere to (or completely ignore, should you be so inclined) are listed below inside the quotation mark:

    "He told he got lucky once, a Freelancer crew was in a hurry to get rid of their contraband before the fuzz got to it." - would replace the comma (,) with a colon ( : ).

    "Zeno refused to believe" - tack a 'him' onto this sentence after 'believe', so Zeno refused to believe him.

    "a mighty red-bearded Norseman implied to be Thor" - personally I'd have the Thor here be blond rather than red-haired, as in his portrayal by Chris Hemsworth in the Marvel movies. I suggest this because, in your previous works, you infer that present-day popular culture takes on a quasi-mythical or even historical dressing (see the brief mention of Indiana Jones you make in The Day After). Something to think about.

    "who was evidently not as frequent a visitor in this dive as his friend" - if it's so evident, why does it need to be pointed out if Zeno's query already makes it clear?

    "short-cirquits" - short-circuits.

    "that were evidently scavenged from multiple sources" - a better way to convey this description would be to briefly showcase the arms' different appearances. For example, a rust-coloured claw could be the one handling the beer tap, while a pair of gunmetal-coloured graspers could be shaking cocktails. Remember the cardinal rule of 'Show, not tell'.

    "They go for 'round 50 grand a-piece ... chasing panzers for their first time!" - aha, I see you've taken me up on my earlier suggestions to weave exposition into the characters' conversations! This both looks and feels far more natural than your previous method of infodumping. Hell, if I get even luckier, you might start adopting a more politically correct term for the Woggos in my lifetime XD.

    "Ain't like anyone asked us whether we want to". - the period mark in dialogue belongs *within* the speech marks.

    - just a quick note: while it might not occur to increasingly-inebriated dockworkers, the twist that Aristarch is the DomSec informant is predictable to a reader who's even remotely switched on. Of course, you may have done this for humour's sake, building up a similar joke to somebody badmouthing one of his peers, unaware that said peer is right behind him waiting to dole out retribution.

    "ardoned" - adorned, presumably.

    "Had to get everything just right ." - there seems to be an errant space between 'right' and the period mark.

    "We all lived in small crowded flats, Dave didn't have nowhere to put that skull... [et al]" - swap these two around, because the mention of flats comes out of nowhere and doesn't make for natural conversation. Rendered as "Dave didn't have nowhere to put that skull up for display because we all lived in small crowded flats", it flows much more organically.

    "super-tall stratospheric spires that towered above Thalassa Prime" - a quick pointer: this is the first time Thalassa Prime has even been mentioned, and it's a third of the way through the piece. Ideally, establish Thalassa Prime as the setting within the first couple of paragraphs, especially to those unfamiliar with the Sidhverse.

    "True enough, the Sidh were ... or a source of income" - you've done well so far in making this the first bit of non-dialogue technobarf in the whole story. Perhaps have another fisher/kelp farmer remark that "only a Sidh would ever want to put himself in the middle of the food chain instead of the top!", followed by Aristarch answering how well it works in combatting weakness and complacency before buying the next round.

    " I can understand them showing off on worlds near the front" - that 'I' should get back in line, it appears to have jumped away from the speech mark.

    "My model is rated 0.92 the Enhanced Turing Scale" - rated 0.92 on the Enhanced Turing Scale.

    "fully-voluntary" - no dash needed here.

    "I think I'm going to take a piss too. Out in the wind, mind it" - is this an intentional pun to highlight the characters' disbelief in the Sidh Way (comparing adherence to it to 'pissing in the wind')? It's actually quite clever if it is.

    ""You should be careful with words like that," Galerius advised" - I find it odd that it's Galerius who's telling Zeno to be careful, given his blithely unpatriotic attitude displayed in the bar moments prior.

    "evidently some sort of official" - again, if it's evident, it doesn't need to be stated.

    "kelp farmer SWEN OLAFFSON" - do you mean 'Sven'? I've noticed you sometimes mix up the letters V and W (for instance, rendering 'wine' as 'vine').

    "Special Agent of Domestic security" - 'Security' should be capitalised if it's referring to a specific organisation.

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