Human Touch

He first came into Eldorado during a miserable lunchtime shift. La’ash was fairly sure she was the only one to notice him enter, and she only saw him because she had no other customers to serve. Only the regulars and diehards had made the effort in the face of the torrential downpour. There was Bella, at her normal table, gazing into her glass and wishing for her prince to come. Zoran and Marcus were over in the corner, watching the flog scores coming in from Celtus Prime. Then there were I’ka’la and Yan (who had contacts in InfoServ, giving him insider information – at least that was his claim), who had taken one of the private booths to discuss the deal of a lifetime (La’ash had long since lost count of how many deals and how many lifetimes Yan had promised; none of them ever came through).

All in all, it was a day that could use something to enliven it and when he walked in, La’ash suspected she had just received her wish. At first glance, he looked like any other human in Tospa – tall, dark haired, tanned skin – but the livid scar that ran down the side of his face told La’ash he wasn’t quite the same. Then there was the animal wariness in him. The tension in his stance as he surveyed the room. Was he looking for threats or simply choosing the best seat in the house? La’ash wasn’t sure until he took up a seat in the corner where he could look at both the entrance and the door that led out to the comfort stations.

A soldier, then. Or an ex-one at least. La’ash had seen plenty of them since the end of the war. It didn’t matter which side they’d fought for, all of them had that nervousness that told a tale of a conflict in which neither side had been above unsavoury tactics and biochemclear weapons. All of them constantly with one eye on their escape route. All of them scarred in some way.

She shook her head, dismissing the thoughts and turning her attention fully to the new customer. Who he was, what he was, didn’t matter. Taking his order did.

“Welcome to Eldorado,” she called, stepping out from behind the bar. “First drink’s on the house. What can I get you?”

The soldier glanced briefly in La’ash’s direction, before returning his attention to scanning the room. “Isn’t that an old fashioned Earth custom?”

“What can I say; we’re an old fashioned establishment.”

“But you’re not from Earth.”

“No, but the bar’s owner is and he insisted. So, what’ll it be?”

The soldier looked back to La’ash. “Do you carry sorba juice?”

La’ash smiled. “What kind of bar would it be if you couldn’t get a sorba juice? Neat, on the rocks or with a twist?”

For a second, La’ash thought the soldier was going to smile back, but he thought better of it. “With a twist.”

La’ash nodded. “You got it.”

She made the drink: three parts juice, one part firewater, stirred together and served with jacorani dust. She brought it over to him and, this time, he did smile. It made the scar on his face pucker and no sooner had his lips curved upwards than they’d flattened again.


“You’re welcome.” La’ash smiled in return. “You let me know if you want another.”

He nodded, but said no more. La’ash returned to her post and started to wipe down the plasteel surface. It was already clean, of course, but it made her feel better to do something other than just stand, slack-jawed.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldier. He hadn’t yet taken a sip of his drink. Instead, he started at it, watching the jacorani flicker on the drink’s surface. Every now and then, he reached for the glass, but stopped short, letting his hand drop back into his lap again. It almost seemed to be a game he was playing with himself and though La’ash tried not to outright stare at him, to see if he would finally take a drink, his actions occupied her attention.

When the move came, it was almost too fast to track. The soldier’s hand reached out, grabbed the glass and poured the drink down his throat in one. The glass was slammed back onto the table and the soldier sat back. His expression haunted. La’ash wanted to go and ask him if he wanted another, but at that moment Bella came up to the bar to order another denubian long tail and by the time La’ash had served her, the soldier had gone, leaving a tidy pile of credcoins on the table beside the empty glass.

La’ash shook her head. She wondered what the whole visit had been about and suspected she’d never find out, but he’d tipped well. Better than most of her regulars, at least, so she’d think fondly of him.

Three days later, to her surprise, he was back. The bar was busier, so she didn’t see him enter, but when she saw an order come in from the servitor app for a sorba juice with a twist, she looked up and across and there he was, seated at the corner table once more.

Again she served him. Again, he went through the ritual before sinking the drink in one. Again, he vanished, leaving behind a pile of credcoins. This time, enough to cover his tab, plus the tip.

And so the pattern was set. The soldier never showed up two days in a row, but he would appear at least twice a week. He would order one sorba juice, with a twist, work up his nerve to drink it, then vanish almost the moment the glass hit the table again.

And La’ash grew more and more curious. He only seemed to come in during the lunch period, sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later, but always when she was the only staff member on-shift. She checked with the other bartenders and they confirmed he never showed up for their shifts. Just hers. The thought crossed her mind that he was, perhaps, coming in to see her, but she dismissed that thought as quickly as it came up. He barely spoke. Barely even looked her way when she spoke to him. She was tempted to ask him, but there was something of the wounded animal about him and she sensed any outright questions would probably scare him off. So La’ash held in her curiosity and made sure to always offer him just a smile and his preferred drink.

Then one day, La’ash realised she hadn’t seen him for more than a week. She started to track his absence, checked with the other staff and as the weeks began to mount, she felt concern. It was possible he’d simply moved on from Tospa. The place was a crossroads where people arrived and departed every day, so it wouldn’t be that strange if he’d just hopped a transport and headed out. But she knew, deep down, that wasn’t the answer. Her next fear was he’d succumbed to his demons, the ones she’d noticed on his very first visit to Eldorado. But a trawl through Tospa’s public records showed up no bodies that matched the soldier’s description. It didn’t prove he wasn’t dead, but it did suggest he hadn’t died here.

That left a few possibilities of increasing outlandishness, culminating in the truly ridiculous notion that the soldier had been some long lost royal hiding out on Tospa until it was safe for him to return home. The moment that thought crossed La’ash’s mind, she knew she was too invested in a man who’d merely come into her bar for an occasional drink.

Then the package arrived, almost three months on from the soldier’s last visit. It showed up just after the main thrust of the lunch rush. Bella was at her normal table. Zoran and Marcus were waiting for a new flog season and debating which team would be on the up and who’d be the competition whipping boys. I’ka’la and Yan were in their usual private booth, though today’s topic was the investiture of a new president in the Galactic Alliance rather than the deal of a lifetime.

The package was small, not much thicker than La’ash’s thumb and roughly as wide as her hand span. It was also, to her surprise, addressed directly to her and not Eldorado’s owner. Seeing as she had no customers needing her attention, she slit open the wrappings and found, inside, a selection of data disks and a single piece of flimsy on which were scrawled the words, “All the answers to the questions you were kind enough not to ask; when the time comes, you’ll know what to do”. Below them was a signature that she could barely make out.

Even without that, she knew the sender was the soldier and she was surprised by the flash of relief she experienced as that realisation dawned. For him to be sending her a parcel, he surely had to still be among the living. But now she really did have a quandary: finish her shift, or go home now and find out the truth.

For the first and only time in La’ash’s career, she called someone in to cover the rest of her shift.

La’ash took her time, when she got home. Made herself a meal and a hot drink, and only once she had both a plate of food and a steaming mug of rakta did she look again at the disks. She took note that they were numbered and inserted the one labelled number one into her reader. What appeared on screen was a familiar visage, scar livid down the side of his face. She pressed play.

“La’ash Androvan, you are probably wondering why I’ve sent you these disks, and you’ll wonder it even more when you learn my story, but the answer is simple. In all my time in Tospa, you never once treated me as less. You saw my scar, you know what I was, but you treated me as someone worthy of respect. I didn’t know, the first day I entered Eldorado, what I was looking for, but in you, I found it: a human touch. Simple kindness. It helped me to realise what I had, have, to do.

“There are things everyone knows about the war. The atrocities committed. We who fought; none of us have clean hands. But some are more blood-drenched than others. And there are still secrets. I know one. It should have got me killed. The scar shows that they tried…and failed.

“I was hiding on Tospa. I know that now. I know that I have to bring this secret to light. Your kindness towards me has shown me that there are still decent people in this galaxy and that the truth is owed. To those who fought, to those who died and to those who survived. Most of all, the truth is owed to people like you. Decent people who should know why the war was really fought.”

That appeared to be the end of the message. La’ash blinked, feeling both surprised and slightly nauseous. What on earth could her soldier know that would be so dangerous people had tried to kill him? What people, for that matter? She hastily swapped to disk two.

The image that appeared was of a briefing room. There were soldiers in uniform. She recognised their rank patches as being those of senior members of the Galactic Alliance army and she thought she even recognised two or three of them as beings who’d been paraded as war heroes. She pressed play.

What initially assailed her was the general noise of a group of soldiers assembling for a briefing. Her point of view was unsteady, as if the recording device was fixed to a person rather than a wall-mount, but that stabilised as everyone sat. Of her soldier, she could see no sign. And then the briefing began. It was being given by an iron-haired human with the rank of general. She didn’t recognise him, and at first, his words meant little to her. He talked of troop strength, and artillery emplacements, all of which were details that La’ash didn’t comprehend, but then she caught a name. Cavreni IV.

La’ash paused the recording, feeling her palms sweat and her stomach churn. Cavreni IV was decimated by a commando raid, so say, carried out by separatists. It was the incident that brought war to the galaxy. Surely…surely she wasn’t watching what she thought, was she?

She rewound the recording and started over. This time, she forced her brain to listen to the details and as those details battered at her brain she knew she was, indeed, listening not to the after-action report, but the planning stages of an attack. Cavreni IV had been attacked by her own protectors.

How had her soldier known about this? How had he gained ownership of this recording? But then it got worse. The iron-haired general said, “Colonel Ashdene, you have some thoughts on this?”

The picture jiggled as the person wearing the camera stood. Then he spoke and La’ash had a name for her soldier. “Yes, General. I’ve been studying the plans and I believe tactical strikes at the planet’s power grid sub-stations will do the job.”

“You don’t favour bombardment?” One of the other high ranking men, a Vendron, from the way his bald head was splotched over with blue, looked surprised.

“I don’t. It’s imprecise and the separatists lack the capability. If you wish this to look like the work of terrorists, it must be a terrorist attack.”

Again, La’ash paused the recording. Her soldier had been in on this briefing. Her soldier had been in on this mission. Her soldier was a war criminal with crimes no-one knew about. She swallowed, debating for a moment, whether she wanted to see any more. But as she considered the matter, she spotted another face she recognised in the briefing. An Istensi, like herself, bearing a rank patch of Lieutenant Colonel. One of the most junior officers present…and one of the few she could put a name to. Dara’av Goulnash. Soon to be sworn in as the new Galactic Alliance president.

Numbly, La’ash pressed play and listened as her soldier, Ashdene, and the others hashed out the plan. One thing she did note was that Ashdene seemed to be a moderate. His ideas seemed to be based around the idea of minimising loss of life, where others, notably the Vendron general, seemed to favour more blood-drenched solutions. It didn’t make her feel better, knowing Cavreni IV’s ultimate fate.

The recording came to an end when the meeting broke up.

La’ash swallowed down her rakta and grimaced when she realised it was now stone-cold. She debated making another, then shook her head and put in disk three.

The image that appeared was another briefing room, but this time there were only a couple of occupants. One was Edan Vrasic, the leader of Cavreni IV’s government at the time of the attack. His face was florid and angry looking. The other was an unremarkable looking human woman La’ash didn’t recognise; her expression wasn’t much different from Vrasic’s. She guessed there was a third person present and when she pressed play, that hunch was confirmed: Ashdene was also there.

“Colonel Ashdene, I ought to report you for mutiny,” Vrasic was saying. “The story you’ve spun is incredible. And slanderous.”

“I agree,” said the woman. “It is so absurd. In this little fantasy of yours, what do the Galactic Alliance forces hope to gain?”

“A pretext for war,” was Ashdene’s answer. “They can’t go after the separatists unless the separatists commit acts of terror and sedition and, so far, as you both know, the last thing the separatists want is the Galactic Alliance to come after them. They’ve been peaceful.”

“They’ve been a bloody nuisance,” Vrasic retorted. “Acts of piracy are up, so too is theft.”

The woman, though, hesitated. “It is true that there is a certain increase in crime, but only last week the separatists sent back to us for trial a group of pirates who’d been claiming to be separatists and using that as their excuse.”

“Smoke and mirrors.”

“So I agree with Colonel Ashdene there’s no reason to go after them at this time. What I find absurd is that the Alliance would use Cavreni IV as the target.”

Ashdene had an answer: “Cavreni IV is on the edge of the disputed zone and is a ripe target. If I think like a terrorist, this would make an excellent place for the separatists to make a statement, and the Alliance military has plenty of minds who can think that way. It’s part of our training. Now please, I am begging you: increase your security around your planetary power grid installations.”

“Why are you telling us this, Colonel Ashdene?” asked the woman.

“Because I don’t want there to be a war. Wars are messy and a lot of innocent people get caught up in them. Please, don’t let the civilians on Cavreni IV be the first in that category.”

The recording ended there, and now La’ash was confused. Ashdene had been in the planning meeting, had advanced the plan for the Cavreni IV attack and now he’d warned the Cavreni government of it? It didn’t make sense.

Or did it?

Ashdene was clearly trying to prevent the war. He’d worked with the government forces to get a moderate plan in place; now he’d worked with the Cavreni IV authorities to thwart that plan. It seemed like a fairly solid effort of diplomacy. Except…

La’ash felt her stomach lurch. It hadn’t worked. Vrasic had ignored the warnings and while the attack on Cavreni IV attack started as a targeted attack, someone had blown up the main reactor that supplied power to the capital. It had released a cloud of toxic gas and radiation and inside five days the planet was a dead husk.

Her hands shaking again, La’ash swapped to the fourth disk. This time the image was the HUD from a pair of night-vision goggles. She suspected she knew what this would show her.

She pressed play and was immediately overwhelmed with the noise of weapons fire while the image was jittery as the wearer of the goggles ducked for cover. The attack was in progress and not going well. So Vrasic had listened, after all. But then she realised this wasn’t one of the power grid sub-stations; this was the central power plant. And Ashdene wasn’t dodging the weapons fire of the Cavreni IV authorities, but from members of the Alliance’s commando force.

“You didn’t think your little excursion would go unnoticed, did you?” The speaker was unseen but La’ash recognised the cadence as being characteristic of an Istensi unused to speaking Galactic Standard.

“This whole plan is madness, Dara’av,” Ashdene retorted. “Start a war and the separatists will fight back. It’s a war that no-one will win.”

“The separatists must be brought to heel.”

“Why? Why does it matter? It’s supposed to be an alliance, not an empire. People should be free to leave and join, as they want.” As he spoke, Ashdene fumbled with his weapon, trying to reload.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” Dara’av Goulnash’s tone was sneering. “How fitting, then, that you’ll die here and be the clue that leads everyone to the conclusion we want.”

Crouched behind a console, Ashdene peered around and saw Goulnash and two other commandos scanning the room. Then there was a jerk and Ashdene pitched forwards. It took La’ash a moment to realise that someone, or something, had hit him from behind.

Goulnash crowed. “There you are. Perfect.”

The image jerked around again as the night-vision goggles were hauled off and then tossed aside. The rest of the recording was upside down, but it gave La’ash a view of Ashdene being dragged into the centre of the control room. One of the commandos kicked out at him, catching the side of his head, and from the way the tension drained from Ashdene’s body, La’ash realised he was now unconscious.

She then watched on in mounting horror as Goulnash directed the commandos to plant charges. The last of these had a timer. It was set running and Goulnash and the others evacuated, leaving Ashdene’s unconscious body in the control room. There was a bright flash, and then the recording stopped, though La’ash could fill in what had happened next. The charges had exploded, causing the reactor explosion.

She swapped out the disks for the final one, unsure what to expect. What she got was another image of Ashdene. This was clearly much more recent, perhaps recorded at the same time as disk one. She pressed play.

“So now you know the truth. I cannot let Dara’av Goulnash become president of the Alliance. His hands are stained with the lives of those who died on Cavreni IV, as mine are. As much as I tried to stop it, I failed and attempts aren’t praised by history. Only successes.

“They will say I was mad. They will say my mind was broken by the war. Perhaps they’re right, but I know my course of action now. And by now, your course should also be clear. Share this information. Every last minute. Spread it through the galaxy so that everyone will know.”

Ashdene paused and glanced away from his recording device for a moment, then looked back, his expression sad. “This knowledge will bring trouble. It might bring more war, and for that I am sorry, but the truth should be known. The people of Cavreni IV, of the Alliance, the separatists, they all deserved better.”

That was the end of the recording and La’ash ejected the disk with a heavy heart. Ashdene was right; this was information that needed to be broadcast to all the corners of the galaxy. The question was, how? And just what was Ashdene planning?

She was still chewing on those two questions the following afternoon, back behind the bar in Eldorado, when Yan asked for her to switch on the coverage of the presidential inauguration. Without really thinking about it, La’ash agreed, but as soon as she saw Dara’av Goulnash’s face she was reminded of just what she’d learned the evening before. As she watched the elaborate pageantry, she took note of how many beings in uniform there were. Goulnash was a decorated former member of the Alliance military, so it made a degree of sense, but she wondered: was one of those beings Ashdene?

A movement just off behind Goulnash’s smirking face attracted La’ash’s attention. She knew that gesture. It was the same one she’d seen over and over again at the table in the corner. Ashdene, working up his nerve to down his drink. The footage didn’t show his face clearly, but she knew who it had to be. There was no drink this time. Instead, he was reaching for his side-arm.

La’ash knew what was coming next. The master of ceremonies announced the name of the new president. Goulnash started to step forwards. Behind him, Ashdene drew his side-arm and fired, using that familiar turn of speed. Goulnash collapsed, the shot having taken him high in the back. The soldiers either side of Ashdene seemed frozen in surprise for a moment. Then there was pandemonium and then the feed cut.

Faintly, La’ash said, “Yan, were you bullshitting when you said you had a connection to InfoServ?”

The confidence man, who looked ashen at what they’d just witnessed, shook his head. “My brother’s a researcher there. Why?”

La’ash thought of the data disks and the story they told. Thought of Ashdene’s confession. “We’re going to make sure a brave man and an entire planet get justice. And maybe start a war.”