There seems to be one universal feature of all outposts, no matter whether they're in the middle of a desert, a forest, or at the bottom of a sea. Sociologists call it the 'third place.' It's where you neither work nor sleep, deal with your peers or your family, but instead you interact with your community, with strangers, with the other people who are important to the stable life of a neighborhood. It never matters how large the community is; if it exists, in needs a third place, a place for strangers.
Bigger communities have three. The first is the reading room, the second is the coffee shop, and the third is the bar. Which one a person goes to depends on what that person needs.
Furry needed a drink.
With a sigh she slid down behind a table in a booth with dark- red leather in the chair and faux-wood top. It was obvious to her that the entire room had probably been built by nanochine constructors and probably had used a complete "how to build a bar" program without modification. This place looked the same as all the other outpost bars to be found all across the galaxy. There may even be a bar in the llerkin embassy exactly the same size, shape, and dim lighting as this one.
The only advantage this place had over many of the others was that this one, at least, had once been a real bar. It had been the school's "watering hole" once upon a time. Evidence had turned up only the mildest of alcoholic drinks, but there had been a series of intoxicants served here all the same.
She pulled up a menu and selected a shot of scotch whiskey. She figured she should start small. It burned going down her throat, made her eyes water, and made her stomach contract painfully.
"Drinking alone?" said a voice she didn't recognize. The face, though, was vaguely familiar. She looked up and said, "Chatenni, isn't it?"
"And you're Jofuran Shigokai," he said.
She gestured toward the other chair. "Have a seat. And call me Furry."
"If you'd rather drink alone, I can leave," he said.
"I don't know what I want," Furry admitted. "Except maybe to get stinking drunk. That's the right phase, right? 'Stinking?'"
Chatenni nodded. "That's the right word." He looked at the menu and selected a beer. It appeared on the table almost immediately, and Jofuran goggled at the size of it. "Are you going to drink all that?"
He nodded. "I am. And maybe you should too." He dialed up something on the menu and handed it to her. "It's called a cream stout. You'll like it."
She looked at him dubiously and took a swallow. Her nose pinched up for a moment, and then she sighed. "It's better to drink than the scotch."
"You're supposed to drink both. One puts out the fire of the other, and both get you drunk."
She nodded and ordered another scotch. "Are you sure you want to be drinking that quickly?" Chatenni asked.
"Nix will stop me if I'm about to get alcohol poisoning, right Nix?"
The menu on the tabletop blinked and one word appeared there. "Yes."
"See?" Furry said. "Nix is one of my oldest and best friends. Nix is Mom's AI." She tossed the scotch into the back of her throat, shivering as it went down. It burned sweetly, and she enjoyed the feeling of it. She looked over at him. "So, why are you here?"
He grinned at her. "To get drunk."
"Really?" she asked.
"Really," he said.
"So," she said, "how did your life get so fucked up that you ended up here?"
"What makes you think my life is fucked up?"
She grinned. "I think it's empathy. Do you believe in it?"
"I know some special people have it," Chatenni said, taking another deep drink. "I'm not one of them."
"Neither am I," Furry said, looking down at her third shot-glass. The alcohol was definitely kicking in hard. She could feel the warming sensation traveling up her neck and taking possession of her head. It felt wonderful in its own right. If only her stomach would stop complaining.
Chatenni kept up with her, drinking his beer in huge gulps to fuel a drunk in that massive centaur body of his. He looked at her and asked, "So why do you want to get drunk?"
"You really wanna know?" she asked. Even she could tell that her vocabulary was slipping.
"Because I think I'm losing Nickolai."
"Your lover?" Chatenni asked. "No offense, Furry, but I find that hard to believe. You guys have been together for nearly a century. You must have passed the breakup point a long time ago."
"People change," Furry said, shrugging and knocking back another drink. "People change all the time." She looked him up and down as the hurt within her swelled up to be spoken. "You know what I hate? I hate the fact that I'm not one of the eminent species. I hate the fact that I'm not a human being, and I can't give Nickolai that human sensation that he obviously needs, or he wouldn't... he wouldn't..." She tried to get the tears under control, but the tremble in her lip was too strong, too forceful. "He wouldn't be with that witch!"
Chatenni sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I don't know what to tell you there, Furry, other than that I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose."
"Nobody does shit like this on purpose," Furry said. "I know that. I just don't know how to make it right, or even if there is a way to make it right." She sighed, taking another gulp of the beer. "So, why are you here?"
"Because I don't have any empathy."
"I thought we'd eshtablished that," she slurred.
"No, I mean I really don't have any. I don't have a clue what other people are feeling and thinking. I could dress up in a field of horny clues in the middle of clue mating season and douse myself in clue musk and I still couldn't get a clue."
Furry giggled. "Now that's an image I won't be able to get out of my head for a week."
Chatenni said, "I lost my girlfriend this week."
Furry looked up. "What happened?"
"I wasn't paying enough attention to her. I feel bad about it."
"Why not?" Furry asked. "I mean, why weren't you paying enough attention to her? Was she, like, needy or something?"
"No, not really. As girls go, she was pretty low maintenance. She was even the same species. It's just that I'm much happier being alone. It takes less effort than being intimate." He sighed. "I guess I'm not someone meant to find a lover."
"Do you want one?"
"I guess," Chatenni said.
"I don't know why you'd force yourself if you'd only guess that you want one. You don't know?"
Chatenni shook his head. "From time to time I just want to get laid, but that's not the real thing. I can take care of those things myself. It's more like... I want friends. Good, intimate friends, without feeling like I'm responsible for their pleasure."
Furry nodded. "In bed, you mean?"
"Oh," Furry said. "My head is numb."
"You've been drinking too much."
"Is that what that is?" Furry said, casually tossing back another drink. She'd forgotten. Was that five... or six? "I'm still thinking about him."
"Maybe that's a sign that you want to keep thinking about him."
"I want him to go away," she said.
"I don't think you do."
Furry stopped, dropped her head to the table. "No, I don't think I do think I don't. I mean... Oh, forgetaboutit." She picked her head up and looked at him. "Hey, do you wanna fuck?"
"Me?" Chatenni asked, looking surprised.
"Yeah, you," she said. "Kolya said that if he was gonna be with what's-her-name, if I found someone I liked I could have them on the side too. Well, I don't want a lover. I just wanna get laid. Would you lay me?"
"Furry, I'm drunk. You're drunker. Drunker? More drunk? Never mind. It's stupid to make decisions like that when you're..."
"Stupid?" she said, grinning. "It's not like it means anything, right? I mean, you can't get me pregnant and you can't make me sick, so it's just sex, right?"
"Sex still means something to what's going on up here," he said, pointing to his head.
"Yeah, it means I wanna have it."
"If you don't wanna, I unnerstand. Nobody wants ta fuck Furry anymore. It's okay. I'm used to it by now. You don't wanna do it, P'nyssa Shardik wouldn't do it, Kolya won't do it. 'sokay." She was starting to cry.
Chatenni slid out from his half of the bench, which remained ready to accept a 'tauroid form should he decide to come back; for the time being, it was his seat, after all. "You've got P'nyssa on your list? That's quite an impressive list, then. But, no, Furry, actually, I would love to get to know you better. But like I said, I don't seem to be the kind of person who want to take responsibility for your happiness. So I'm not going to. But more than that, it's better if you got it all out of your system, because you seem to be a miserable person right now, and then go back and figure out what it is that you really want." He walked around the table. "Come on, you've had enough."
"I can still see his face in front of me."
"Good. That means you love him."
"It means I want to rip his fucking heart out with a fork and eat it."
"You don't really mean that, do you?"
"No, not really. But I don't know what to do."
"Neither do I," Chatenni admitted. "But something's gotta be better than sitting in this bar all night, getting sicker and sicker as we pour various poisons into our bodies."
"Yeah." Furry said. "Oh, fah, my stomach!"
"You'll be okay."
"No! I gotta get to a bathroom... like, now!" She ran to the door marked 'H' and disappeared. From the other side, Chatenni could hear the sounds of someone losing control of their innards in the most painful way. He listened as it wont on for some time, until Furry was well into the dry heaves and the sound was becoming intolerable. He dialed up a cure from the menu and barged into the bathroom on her. She was kneeling in front of the toilet. At least the had made it that far.
"Here," he said, wrapping the tab around the edge of her ear, where her underlying fell was most exposed.
Furry immediately fell against the wall. Chatenni tried not to look at her as he handed her a towel from the supplies rack. After a few seconds, she said, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Chatenni said. He reached down and picked her up.
"I'm still drunk," she said.
"And I'm still just going to take you to a coftel and put you to bed."
He saw tears in her eyes, but he recognized gratitude when he saw it. "Okay."
The coftel was only a few steps down the corridor from the bar. It had apparently been a storage room back in the college's early days; the shelves had been moved out and temporary coftels, one-person roomlets barely big enough to hold a bed and some luggage, had been set up. Chatenni grabbed one and dropped Furry into it. "Be right back," he said.
When he returned, Furry was unconscious. A quick check showed him that it was normal sleep, not an alcoholic coma, but he turned her on her side just the same. He left a liter of water on the headboard with a note reading, "Drink all of this. You're dehydrated" on it.
He didn't know if the night had resolved anything for either of them. He wondered if she would be okay, and hoped that she would be. For him, though, Rima had been... an opportunity, maybe a lost one. For Furry, though... he thought she still had a chance.
He sighed. "Good night, Furry. Sleep well."