Autonomy, Part III
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"Uh, well, luckily I'm a VIP," Trauss coughs out, not having been prepared to switch from a stealth mindset to the glad-handing and lying through teeth of his life on Earth. He takes his helmet off and smiles, unzipping and removing his gloves. The disco ball powers off as almost all of the onlookers turn back to their drinks and resume chatter; his tactical suit is far from the strangest outfit in his line of sight. He walks over to the counter, noting that he's one of about fifteen humans in the establishment and hoping that he didn't miss the Foundation logo being present somewhere on this suit.

"Can you confirm that you safely arrived?" Λ asks through the speaker in the steel ball capping the conch piercing on his right ear.

Trauss doesn't answer as he approaches Xyreaux. The man — person? entity? — is about the same height as he is, though bulkier and wearing a blue dress shirt with a black tie tucked into slacks. "Hello there. Xyreaux, is it? My name's Cyrus." He extends his hand, smiling and making direct eye contact. "Came here from one of Dark's clubs on Earth. What's left of it, rather."

"Uh-oh. I'll shut up," Λ whispers.

Xyreaux hesitates for a split second before clustering his tendrils into an arm-sized rope and shaking his hand. His skin reminds Trauss of that soft, rubbery material some toys on Earth were made of: the kind that would get sticky if you didn't put baby powder on it, except Xyreaux clearly doesn't need any powder. "Welcome. I do hope you didn't have trouble parking your craft on the asteroid. We didn't choose which connectors led to which location, but we worked with what we got." He stares, his eyes bright and lidless with no depth. Trauss starts looking for a different way to read his face.

"It was fine. There's definitely enough room on there." He takes a seat at the counter.

"So, what can I get you?" Xyreaux asks, the tendrils that hang like a mustache curling upward in symmetry. Trauss still can't see a mouth under there, but that must have been the equivalent of a smile.

He lowers his voice. "Well, I'm not really in the mood for a drink, truth be told." He leans in, wincing as he takes a guess at what to say. "I came here because I heard news through Dark's fellas that you were working on a way to… get out."

The tendrils hang loosely again, flapping silently when he speaks. Trauss can't see them as anything other than a handlebar mustache now. "Sure am, friend. If you want to test it out, there's a waiver waiting for your signature."

Trauss laughs. "That sounds tempting. There's no reason to rush, though; I just wanted to ask you up-front." He looks over his shoulder at the curved, semi-opaque screen in the corner displaying a human newscaster. Most of the people sitting around it are also human. "I should take a look around here first, get a view on the war from some other standpoints before I make any decisions like that."

"I get you, I get you. Relax, enjoy the place a little. You sure you don't want a drink?"

"I guess I'll take- if you have, like, hard apple cider, or something. Like 12 ounces."

"Sure!" His face tendrils curl again, but he uses several on one side to count something to himself as he looks for a glass. "There are fifteen languages and five measurement systems going on in here at any given time, so pardon my slowness."

"You're all good, my friend."

Xyreaux fills the glass with amber liquid from one of several dozen taps inlaid in the red brick behind him and sets it on the counter, the warm yellow lighting making it look darker than it is. "On the house. You came a long way."

"Thanks, that's kind of you." He drinks from it and drops a single metallic SOL coin into the tip jar. Xyreaux looks back with a nod and twists his mustache. Standing up, Trauss ambles over to the corner where an English news station is playing.

"That was not at all what you said was on the other side, but it seems to have worked out, because no one's acting weird," he mutters once no one is standing near him.

"We will update our maps accordingly. Your handler at Orbital Area-11 sends his apologies. Thank you for improvising successfully."

"Publicity was my thing," he says with a shrug.

"So I read. Now, since you're safe for the moment, please allow us 20 to 30 minutes so that Orbital Area-11 staff can adapt to these unforeseen circumstances and develop a new requisition plan."

"Gladly." He takes a long chug of his drink and leans against the pillar behind the cluster of tables, watching the TV. The newscaster is saying something about Twelve Stars and the involvement of Milky Way and Andromeda planets in attacks originally thought to be targeting Ortothans only. Trauss doesn't feel educated on any of it.

"Are you drinking?"

"Uh, it's pretty tame, but yeah."

"Well don't drink a lot of it. That body has never consumed alcohol before."

He hadn't thought of that, but it seems obvious now. "Gotcha." Λ doesn't talk again. He walks closer to the TV.

"…thought to be a result of Twelve Stars targeting systems failure or anomalous influence, these attacks were reciprocated before they were analyzed, thus resulting in escalating violence between all affected parties-"

"Say, buddy, do I know you?" a man in a plain red baseball cap asks as he walks toward him. He's American: white with messy brown hair and a leathery face, and a southern accent.

Trauss does know him: He lived in Wilmington — right beside Site-42 — and caused several ruckuses as the local 'crazy' conspiracy theorist. None of them were notable in the long run, but clearly this man has gotten to space somehow, so he isn't going to make assumptions. How old could he be at this point? 75? "I don't think so, man. I'm from Los Angeles."

"Aw, shoot. Well, you can tell I ain't from the west coast. With that fancy outfit you look like a- like the bald version of a uniformed fella that lived down in my town. If the place still exists," he mutters as an afterthought. "Have a good one, young fella. Oh, and don't drink the tap water here, I mean goddamn."

Trauss walks back over to the bar counter and sits down beside someone's pillow that was left on the counter. It's a spherical purple thing with fuzzy nubs all over it, and doesn't really fit the rest of the bar's homey but neat decor. He pushes it to the side, surprised to feel that it's fleshy.

It's not a pillow; it's a sapient entity with no limbs or orifices which can communicate only through touch and move itself and small objects only through telekinesis or muscular contractions. It explains this to him directly in his mind via his left hand. "Oh, I'm so sorry," he whispers, pulling his hand away.

It scoots itself closer and wiggles the nubs on the side facing him. He hesitantly sticks one finger out, watching Xyreaux conversing with two of the bar's guards and laughing. His earpiece whines as a voice fades in, switching between incomprehensible different tones and sentences before settling on a middle-aged male voice with a British accent. "Hello, hello. My name's Ray. Let me tell you, it is always a wonder to come across a human with a phone or a Bluetooth or whatever the hell this thing is. Do you know how hard it is to make sales just by mysteriously imparting concepts into people's brains? Most of the people are drunk in here anyway, and it really doesn't turn out good in most cases for that reason."

He stares at Ray. "Uh, yeah, that makes sense."

"It does, my man, it really does. Anyway, um, let me tell you about what I'm selling. It's something that you can sell too if you want. You can call it cosmetics of a sort. Are you interested in selling cosmetics?"

"I don't think so, Ray."

"Not even if I give you my card and let you know that there's no pressure-"

"Mmm, nope. No thank you."

"Okay, fair, fair. Well, what brings you around this neck of the woods, then?"

"I'm from Earth and I just wanted to check it out, I guess."

"Mmm, I see, I see. Do tell me: What do you think of this war?"

The two men talking to Xyreaux smile and walk into the back again. Trauss relaxes his shoulders a little. "I'm not going to lie, I don't know jack shit about it."

"Well, Twelve Stars really don't like the Ortothans. Anyone from any side of the, er, political web will confirm that for you; it's just a fact. But until recently, they were only attacking Ortothans for that reason. But now they're not. Some people say it's a glitch in targeting systems, but they struck about twenty or so specific cities on specific planets in both galaxies. Doesn't that seem odd to you?"

"Yeah. It does." Trauss hopes his as-of-yet-nameless "handler" that Λ was talking about can hear all of this for the Foundation's records.

Ray doesn't say anything else. Having his finger on its body starts to feel awkward. "Well, it's been good chatting with you, but I gotta run to the restroom." It's not a lie.

"Have a good night, mate!"

He lets go and moves to the bathroom. There's only one of them, which is the opposite of what he expected in any space civilization. He goes into a stall to have privacy and spend 45 seconds peeling the top half of his suit off, still feeling strange in this body.

At the sink, the two men who'd just been speaking to Xyreaux — or maybe just two men dressed the same — flank him and cross their arms. "Hi. Mind if we ask you a few questions?"

"Not at all, fellas. I know it's standard."

"We appreciate it," the shorter one says. "Come with us, please."

"Alright." Fuck.

"Ops is requesting access. From Orbital Area-11. Just say 'yes' somehow next time it won't raise questions in order to confirm, and we can get you out of this."

Whatever's about to happen sounds awful, but he doesn't have any ideas for believable lies, so it'll have to do.

"In the future, you can just allow remote override by default and you won't have to do this."

Xyreaux waves the tendrils coming out of his sleeve. "Don't worry about them. You'll be back out here in a minute, alright?"

"Yep."

His earpiece beeps twice as the men escort him into the back room and down the hallway. He feels a sharp pain in his head, his vision blurring.

"51174, this is your handler at Orbital Area-11. You will address us only as 'ops'. Do not say anything to them; I will say everything for you. Just walk and act normally."

The men motion for him to walk into a small side room with a steel table and four chairs in it.

"Sit in that chair furthest from the door. Act like you trust them. If I tell you to, stop moving your body. If you can't make the switch discreetly, we will pull you out entirely. If this is understood, glance to your right."

He does it. The men sit down across from him at the table. "Hello, Cyrus. I hope you know we have to do this with everyone from Earth who comes through. Earth is mostly populated by hostile groups of interest and civilian individuals who hold little to no trust for Marshall, Carter & Dark. If you are indeed a loyal customer or colleague, surely you will understand our dire need for scrutinizing security."

"Certainly," his voice says. He feels his pulse increase in surprise. "I can provide you with the phone number of Jeremiah Westminster, the associate of Dark's and personal contact of mine who permitted me to know the Lounge's address."

"That would be preferable. One moment while we retrieve the phone." The taller man leaves the room, closing the door behind him.

"If you can't relax yourself, I'm going to transfer you out. Just don't do anything from this point forward. We will take care of what you do and say."

How the hell is he supposed to just not use his body? He feels himself panicking. The other guard comes back in and sets a half-meter-tall device on the table, ignoring the handset attached to it and instead uncoiling a wire from its mass of similar ones surrounding the antenna. He plugs it into his smartphone. "What's the number?"

"Your physical reactions are compromising your cover. 51174, we'll transfer you back as soon as it's safe to do so."

He doesn't have the chance to finish his next thought.

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