He sat at his usual place in an odd little alcove at the end of the bar. It was an ill-lit and uninviting corner; it kept away the passersby—the other regulars all knew to leave him alone, and in that sense they did well to accommodate. It’s why he kept coming back. He and Skip—the barman—had conducted their transactions for months without so much as a Will it be the usual? or a Here’s your change, get home safe. The longer they didn’t acknowledge each other, the more he liked Skip. Hell, Skip might be his closest friend now.
Then a newcomer came through the door. Loud and arrogant without having to say a word. Occupation force, some minor officer on leave; the haircut gave him away, that and the way he instinctually removed his jacket and folded it neatly over his left arm after he crossed the threshold. He didn’t stop to survey the seating, just waltzed in like he owned it, and kept on walking, all the way to the dark little corner in the back. He took a seat. Ordered a drink—loudly, in stilted natiyome. And then noticed the man he’d sat next to. Looked him up and down without subtlety. Saw the color of his skin, and how it contrasted with all the metals and plastics and ceramics of the replacement parts—where the flesh had long ago been blown off. Came to his own conclusions.
“I bet you’ve got some stories,” said the officer. He’d switched to kaztahar—the language of the occupiers. “Say, did you fight in the Unification War, old man? Let me buy you a drink.”
Old man. He was no such thing yet, though perhaps the bottle had weathered him a might. In fact, it wasn’t looking likely that an old man was something he would ever be, but he wasn’t much concerned about it. Not much concerned about anything ahead of him. Always behind. Always behind…
“Unification War…” he said, remembering.
“Yes,” said the officer, still in kaztahar, “though it hardly seems this is a unified planet. After all you sacrificed, and they still have the nerve to rebel,” he waved a hand around the bar, gesturing his disgust for the locals, “Each of them, and in secret, in the night. Without honor. Maybe by the time I’m your age things will be different. A dream, anyway. But here I am going on and on. We both have our drinks, so let’s hear your story.”
The man bitterly gulped his remaining liquor—no small amount—and said, “I was no soldier. I was twelve during the war. My mother had come here earlier—the only good thing to come from your world—and stayed to be with my father. And to help the rebellions. When you bombed my home, I lost every part of my body that my parents hadn’t covered with their own. I lost them both; and my own humanity, if I’d ever had any to begin with.” At some point he’d switched back to natiyome, unthinkingly. Everyone in the bar was staring, rapt. None of them had known so much as his name, as he’d preferred it. He turned back to the officer and said in crisp kaztahar, “Thanks for the drink,” and spit in his face.
The officer snapped to his feet, knocking over his stool, and made to grab his sidearm. But the bar’s patrons stood as well. Their eyes told the officer what would happen if he retaliated.
The man limped out of the bar, shuffling and clanking alternately, and wondered with agitation where he might find another drink.