With a muffled grunt Dorian sat straight up in bed, instantly awake. Dorian had two kinds of dreams, pleasant dreams about his childhood friends and family, sepia tinted with nostalgia, and the nightmare. He only ever had the one nightmare, and while irrelevant details occasionally changed, it was essentially the same every time. He was back on asteroid Minerva, pinned under the solar smelter that the tiny mining community used to process the raw ore of the rock as molten metal poured over his combat suit. The perfect white glare of the refractor redirected the concentrated energy of the sun directly onto his face. Sometimes the nightmare would start earlier in the day during his patrol, or during the brief firefight that led him to be in such a terrible position. Other times it started as the glowing metal spilled from its damaged container and ran over his shoulder and helmet, filling every crevice of his suit and lighting every nerve on fire in a slow parade across his flesh. It always ended at exactly the same point, when he finally lost consciousness in the nightmare and jerked awake in bed, covered in sweat and the terror of that moment where he thought he might be dying, and hoped it might end his suffering.
Crossing the tiny apartment with three large strides he ejected the sink from its niche in the wall and winced as the mirror light winked to life. Dorian took a moment to closely study the crevices and fjords of the left side of his face before vigorously rubbing it with cold handfuls of water from the tap. The pearly white regularity of his left eye was a stark contrast to the crystal blue of his right. The doctors had tried to reattach the blue cosmetic shroud that camouflaged the left in the same way as the right, but the graft would never take. Like so many of the problems related to that accident they just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In this day and age, skin grafts were a common successful treatment for severe burns. New skin was cloned from an unaffected region and encouraged to grow over and cover the burned area. Dorian’s grafts never took though, and looking in the mirror now he could see how his skin seemed to melt and furrow from the left side of his head, down the shoulder and across his hip. He looked like a candle left in a window on a hot day.
The part the doctors had the hardest time understanding was why his ocular implant was malfunctioning so badly. Not only would the shroud graft not take, leaving him with an eye that looked like polished ceramic, but it wouldn’t stop cycling through all the spectrums. The normal implants allowed a soldier to switch modes, using his implants to amplify visible light, view the normally invisible spectrums like infrared, and even to a limited degree other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum including radio waves. All that information can be confusing though, so most soldiers tend to leave the implants on the visible spectrum unless engaged in combat. Dorian couldn’t stop his left eye though. It cycled through the bands almost randomly, sometimes so fast that he seemed to get all the data at once, other times getting stuck in a single mode for more than a day. The doctors had given him some medication to reduce the impact of the headaches, but none of them could figure out how to make it stop.
Normally when a soldier leaves the Legion his combat implants are removed. They are after all military property and expensive to boot. The implants run the course of the soldier’s body, increasing his dexterity, strength, visual and auditory acuity as well as granting him greater physical and mental endurance. They represent a sophisticated and outrageously expensive technology, that along with a meticulous selection program and rigorous training regime are the reason the Legion is such an effective combat organization. Some unknown complication of the damage suffered to his body prevented them from being removed from Dorian during his medical discharge. This inability was a considerable policy snafu for a number of weeks. Civilians weren’t allowed to posses and use such powerful military hardware, but Dorian had been judged “unfit for military duty” due to the extent of his injuries. Committees were formed and studies were undertaken before a Legat Commander finally decided that too much time and effort were being wasted on such a trivial decision.
With the typical Legionary terseness he had said, “Legionnaire Grayle is a soldier, a man of honor, yes? He is not a criminal and we have trusted him to use these tools as a soldier, we will trust him as a civilian. These implants do represent a considerable cost though, we will recover them from his corpse.” At this point he patted Dorian on the shoulder and looked into his good eye before continuing, “Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t force us to take them from your corpse prematurely. Understand?”
The Legat had patted his shoulder another time, holding his gaze for a few more moments, seemingly sizing up Dorian’s character, measuring him as a man before continuing briefly. “It might be hard for you son. The Legion is feared and respected, but not always well liked. You might not be a member of the Legion any longer, but you’re still a Legionnaire. You’ll always be a Legionnaire. Semper Fidelis.”
The Legat offered Dorian a crisp salute and he never saw the man again. The next morning he noticed that the nametag on his hospital room had been changed from “Legionnaire First Class Grayle” to read simply “Dorian Grayle.” Then they stopped the medical tests and prodding that had been a constant part of Dorian’s life for the last eighteen months and he was swiftly discharged into civilian life with a small stipend and promises that his skills could be leveraged into a quality civilian career.
Six months later, and all Dorian has to show for his life is this tiny apartment twenty floors above a Chinese-Italian deli and discount furniture store, a thin dossier at an employment agency, and frequent nightmares. The pension he received from the Legion was just enough to cover the rent and a spartan diet. His job prospects were poor at best. All the vaunted skills he had used as a Legionnaire were essentially useless as a civilian. Valet parkers rarely found it necessary to use their vehicular charges as offensive assault barriers. Short order cooks frequently weren’t required to cut the throat of a sentry relieving himself while on patrol. Mailroom clerks were almost never expected to know the best composition and placement of a shaped charge explosive.
With eleven years invested in military service, Dorian had little in the way of experience to offer the civilian world. He had joined the Legion straight out of school, and left with his father’s harsh words licking fire on his heels. For a time his mother had written to him, telling him that his father really didn’t mean what he’d said, begging him to make up. When his sister had died in a shuttle failure Dorian had been on Arcturius suppressing a colonial revolt. His mother, perhaps incapable of understanding that he was indisposed, blamed the argument between father and son for his inattendance at the funeral. She had stopped writing him then. Her last dispatch to him was an uncharacteristically taciturn paragraph about how stubborn he was and how it had torn their family apart leaving her with no children. Her silence wasn’t even broken by the death of his father, something that Dorian had to learn about through a chaplain. She refused his correspondence after that, deleting it before even reading it.
After his discharge Dorian visited his mother. At first she had refused to even open the door, yelling at him through the panel to go away. When she finally relented and opened the door she wouldn’t let him enter. She looked him over and claimed, “You look like how you make me feel. Go away. Don’t come back.” She had closed the door then and when he continued to try and get her attention, she had called the police.
He was left with nothing but a duffel full of clothes, now useless uniforms, and a few mementos of service. His neighbors would look the other way when he approached, clearly uncomfortable to look him in his pearly eye and ragged face. The only thing Dorian had left was the routine of the military, something he strictly abided to. He awoke early every morning to do PT. The running and calisthenics helped clear his mind, purify his resolve. He took his breakfast in Zhao Antonio’s on the first floor. And spent the rest of the day trying to find work. His dinner was small and he took it confined in the blank walls of his undersized apartment. For after dinner entertainment he prepared his clothing - an odd looking combination of thrift store slacks and jacket with Legion issue parade footwear, shirt and tie – for the following day's trial of employment searching.
Today was already shaping up to be a fair example of how poorly he felt his life was progressing. A glance at the small bedside clock revealed that he was awake earlier than normal, but not early enough to return to sleep. Dorian escaped into the trance of no thought that accompanied pushups, kata, and running until the sun began to blush the tower sawn edge of the city's horizon.
Antonio was pleasant enough to him, but came far short of being outright friendly. Neither he nor his wife would look Dorian in the eye, but they were realistic people and would take his credits in exchange for his plate of frittata and crullers and a hot bowl of congee. Antonio’s wife, who he presumed must have a name even though he’d never heard it, made him sit in the back corner. “You scare off the customers” was one of the only things she had ever said to him and Antonio never admonished her for it. Breakfast was the more lavish of his two meals a day though, and he liked the food at the deli, and despite his fading sense of pride, he wanted to like Antonio. If for no other reason he needed to believe that it was possible for him to have human interaction that didn’t involve pity and uncomfortable silence.
During his meal he frequently consulted the data pad and hard copy that contained the list of employers he was to visit and the official records of his life. The employment office sent daily updates to his pad, informing him of potential jobs that suited his skills and experience. All too often Dorian would arrive at a prospective employer only for them to take a single look at his ruined visage and inform him that the position had been filled already or that it was being held specifically for another. On occasion they would be as forthcoming as Antonio's wife and tell him that he would not be good for business. Although it was frustrating, Dorian tried very hard not to hold a grudge against these people. It was easier, in his mind, to forgive the words of those that told him the truth. At least they weren't hiding behind a thin veneer of pleasantness and subterfuge. They were honest about it; they didn't want his ruined face associated with their business. Dorian could respect honesty, even if it wasn't beneficial to him.
The cross town rides on the LEV to hasty interviews were among the lowest point of Dorian's day. It was unavoidable for him not to eavesdrop on the whispered conversations of the other passengers when they discussed him. If he sat on the left hand side of the car and stared out the window, he could minimize these uncomfortable circumstances by hiding his scars out the window. When he did so though, he had to watch as the city spun by below him. Watching civilization speed by at such distances reminded him of the turbulent and swift drop ship runs from orbit onto some unsuspecting target and the thrill it always gave him as he was bounced around in the thick atmosphere. The gut flipping transition from weightless orbit to the relentless tug of gravity had always made him feel alive. It heightened his sense and forced electrifying adrenaline to pump through his veins.
The first few stops of the day were as uneventful as always. They had been the kind of manual labor jobs that everyone could do, but few of the truly needy could get hired for. Next on his list was a position as security guard for a jeweler. For reasons unclear to him, most of the civilian world seemed to equate military experience with private security, despite the two having little or nothing to do with each other except a uniform. And yet, those businesses that employed private security almost never wanted ex-military people to work for them. They were seen as an expensive liability, potentially combat crazed loonies who would abuse extremely small amounts of power and push around their civilian bosses by knowing too much about how to perform security tasks. In reality, most security positions only required a rudimentary understanding of the field. Employers only wanted security guards to act as living scarecrows, frightening off would be thieves and providing customers with a false sense of security by their very presence.
Dorian wasn't about to throw away a job opportunity simply because it was a stupid job though and so he arrived at the impressive store front of Bueller's Jewelers with an undeserved and practiced air of optimism. Before entering Dorian straitened his tie in the reflection of the thick armored window and attempted to buff out the mornings foot travels by rubbing the toes of his parade shoes along the back of his pants leg. He couldn't help allowing himself a smirk at the blinking blue sign above the door and imagined the owner's wife thinking herself clever for creating the sing song name and the owner wincing as he complied to maintain matrimonial peace.
As Dorian stepped towards the door, the remnants of his amused facial expression melted away as swiftly as many people assumed his face had. The door slid aside with a pleasant chime and he immediately took in the new surroundings with the practiced eye of a seasoned combat veteran. He noted the sensor pods at the corners of the room, judging from their size and placement he guessed they were a combination of motion sensors and off site video monitoring. Dorian observed the display cases and their pricey contents locked away behind sturdy yet transparent armor and memorized the location and dress of the ten people in the establishment. Three women and seven men. The women were coupled with three of the men; two of the men were employees, scampering around the couples and the cases, displaying wares. The remaining two men, one of whom was missing a hand, were engaged in a quiet conversation alongside a particularly shiny display unit. All of them were dressed with expensive taste and made Dorian's outfit appear like the hand me downs and cast offs it really was.
One of the two men engaged in conversation, the one with the average compliment of hands, looked in Dorian’s direction as the door announced his entrance and did a surprised double take. Excusing himself quietly he advanced on Dorian with an air of aggressive displeasure, as if he were about to address an insect that had the discourtesy to attempt a crossing of his kitchen floor. The man was cloaked in a severe gray suit that matched his thin gray pallor. The gray hair on his head had retreated a safe distance from his forehead and combined with his thin eyes gave him the appearance of constipation personified.
“May I help you sir?” the Gray Man spit out, making the honorific sound forced and uncomplimentary. His eye trod over Dorian's exterior and it seemed clear that he believed Dorian did not belong here, that maybe he was lost or possibly had mistaken this expensive and well regarded jewelers as a soup kitchen or bar.
Dorian stuck out his hand “My name is Grayle, Dorian Grayle. The employment office sent me. They said you might have a job for me, that you’d be expecting me.”
“Ah. Yes.” The Gray Man's gaze completed another circuit of Dorian, reevaluating his appearance as his lips pursed and twitched in renewed disapproval. “The employment office. Hmmm, there seems to have been a miscommunication Mr...”
“Grayle. Dorian Grayle.” The Gray Man had still not taken Dorian's hand, although he had reached a single index finger to the corner of his mouth, as if attempting to pull it down and increase the resolve of his grim frown. Dorian lowered his hand.
“Yes. Mr. Grayle. As I said, some error has transpired. I notified the employment office that we were in need of an employee to manage security. Mr. Tean, our previous security manager fell ill for an extended period of time and abused our rather generous acceptable leave policy. His employment was terminated and what we desire is someone to manage the security at this and several other facilities.” Dorian's heart tumbled minutely. He allowed himself a small amount of hope at the Gray Man's words, a hope that was ill deserved as the man continued in a more and more condescending fashion. “What we don't need, Mr. Grayle, is a minimum wage sympathy monkey to fall asleep watching the door and get paid a full days labor for a half days nap. Good day.”
The last words were delivered with a short dismissive wave of the hand and the Gray Man turned to resume his interrupted conversation when Dorian lost his composure. The frustration of months of unemployment and the derisive mockery of strangers had built to a crescendo in Dorian's mind. This man, with the brief amount of hope he had offered and then so cruelly thrashed, had sent Dorian over the edge and his pulse was pounding in his ears.
“Don't turn your back on me you simpering shit.”
Dorian immediately had the attention of the Gray Man and every one else in the room. A few attempted to politely ignore the uncomfortable outburst while other's openly stared at the disfigured man. At least one woman made an audible gasp.
“I've spent all damn day, every day, for the last six months, riding the LEV and pounding the walkways just to beg sanctimonious ‘men’ like yourself for a job. A simple job. Any job. Only to find that a single glance from little men in positions of power has disqualified me without even a cursory review of my credentials.”
The man turned to address Dorian with a look of slight trepidation. “Now see here, there's no need t...”
“I'm not finished!” Dorian shouted “I've gotten used to people like you, judging me without even giving me a chance. I know that my face is a mess that could make a baby cry and old ladies scamper. But I have never, not once, been outright insulted to my face the way you just did.” He intended to heap all his anger and fears on this one man. “How dare you! I'm more than qualified to maintain the security of your facilities. I spent eleven years as a Legionnaire, protecting the lives and liberties of sorry sack whiny cowards like you.”
By now Dorian had the undisguised attention of everyone. Those that had been pretending to go about their business had abandoned the charade in favor of drinking in this melodrama. Dorian, for his part, was reveling in this therapeutic monologue.
“I'm a fucking decorated veteran! And you have the gall to suggest that I'm incapable of satisfying your pity requirements just because my face looks like pudding!?”
The Gray Man's mouth stood open and an uncomfortable moment of silence washed over the room and its occupants. His eyes flicked back and forth nervously, searching to either side of Dorian’s imposing frame for a calm port in the storm of tension.
Dorian made a small movement of his head, his eyebrows rising slightly at the Gray Mans lack of rebuttal. “I'm done asshole. It's your turn to talk.”
The sputtering reply that eventually wormed its way out of the Gray Man's mouth made Dorian feel a little better. “I, uh. Well... It seems, uhm, why don't we retire to my office. I can review your credentials and we can discuss your experience...”
“I said fuck you.” His words were delivered with a granite calm. “I've decided, just now, to file a complaint against you and this business with the Veteran's Office. I think you'll find that your business from military and federal service employees will decline sharply.”
“Well I don't see that doing that is entirely necessary Mr. Grayle. As I said, if you would follow me to my office...”
The Gray Man's words were cut off by the pleasant sound of the door chiming three times, announcing new customers. Dorian turned, experiencing an odd sense of dislocation as his eyes refused to agree with each other. The right eye saw nothing. It was as if the door had malfunctioned. The left eye recorded three human shaped orange heat signatures cloaked in the purple wash of high frequency electromagnetic discharge rushing towards him and the Gray Man.
Operating almost entirely on instinct Dorian placed a meaty hand on the Gray Man's chest and another in his belly and bodily lifted him up and tossed him over the display case into the corner. Spinning with the movement he extend an arm and lashed out at the narrow spot between one of the orange heat signature’s head and chest. The hardened edge of his hand caught the orange blob that his right eye said wasn't there and connected solidly with meat. The orange human shape did a neat spin around the fulcrum of Dorian's arm and landed with the loud thud of a wet sack of produce.
There was another gasp from one of the women. Dorian appeared to have attacked the Gray Man and then begun a crazed dance macabre with himself in the middle of the room. Dorian for his part had engaged all his combat systems and senses, reveling in the physical outburst that was the perfect therapeutic compliment to his earlier verbal one.
It was immediately apparent to him that the three men entering the store at high speed and cloaked for stealth were likely not interested in pursuing the legal purchase of a star sapphire for their sweetie. This assumption was further reinforced when one of the remaining orange outlines engaged him in melee with a weapon that sparkled to his eye with radiant energy. They briefly circled each other warily while the remaining man secured the door.
The Gray Man had by this time regained his sense of composure, and had stood up from behind the display unit and began demanding answers. “Now see here, shouting is one thing but I won't stand for physical abuse. I'm going to call the authorities immediately, you'd do well to...”
For the first time since Dorian's outburst someone other than he or the Gray Man spoke up. It was the man with one hand.” That’s not a bad idea Bueller, but we should probably let this boy finish the job first.”
The Gray Man looked more confused than ever. “Job? I don't. Mr. Kraine I don't believe I understand exactly what...”
Mr. Kraine had taken a defensive posture very similar to Dorian’s and had backed up against the wall. His silver eyes were scanning the room and he didn't look at Bueller when he responded, “This ain’t what it looks like. You'd better prepare to defend yourself if he can't finish the job.”
Dorian and one of the thieves had been circling each other warily, making feints and quick jabs to gauge the other's defense. When it became clear that Dorian's first strike had not been a lucky swing, that he had actually penetrated their stealth, and could locate their position, they disabled their cloaks and instantly the entire room was aware of the danger they were in. These were not your ordinary street thieves. They reacted with calm and decisive action that exhibited professional training. As soon as it was clear they were confronting a target upon whom their invisibility had no effect, they diverted power from the stealth mechanisms to other combat systems.
Facing Dorian now were two largish men. One held a baton that sparkled with the promise of electric fire. Both had the tell tale lacing of blue vein work under their exposed skin that revealed they had poorly installed implants. Cheaper and less effective black market varieties, they where very similar to Dorian’s own combat systems but grossly inferior.
Dorian watched the thief with the baton advance on him again. Out of the corner of his left eye the other one sprouted thin, green, straight edged lines from his fingertips and ran at him from the side. In his preferred environment for the first time in almost two years, Dorian felt alive, jacked up on adrenaline. He blocked the swift kick of the first attacker, capturing the leg under his arm, and grabbing the opposing arm below the wrist holding the baton as it came towards his head. With a violent twist and a crack that satisfied Dorian's ear, the arm broke and splintered. Pulling the broken arm back towards him Dorian used the broken splinters of the radius and ulna to pierce the flesh of the arm and nearly pulled the destroyed hand from the man's body. His actions produced a scream that let Dorian know he was doing his job right.
Using the momentum of this gruesome act, Dorian spun the man around to block the attack of his companion, who met with an unexpected obstacle and bounced back several feet. Dorian used the brief respite to retrieve the baton from its previous owner. With the thief's leg still held securely under his arm, Dorian forced him to the ground with an efficient leg sweep and jabbed the end of the baton under the thief's chin before emptying the device's power cell into his throat. The man spasmed and went limp. As Dorian released the corpse the other thief renewed his attack.
Backing away from the attackers hands and their deadly promise, Dorian avoided his blows. The green traces that his left eye saw and his right eye couldn't make out, indicated a unimolecule blade. It's eerily sharp edge comprised of a single molecule chain that was thin enough it could cut through nearly anything with all the effort it would've taken Dorian to cut through warm cheese with a knife. His opponent was painting a deadly display of attacks and backing Dorian around the room. More than once the thief missed Dorian as he dodged out of the way only to cut deeply into the armored glass of a display case, which would dutifully obey the laws of physics and slide away from its former parent to rattle on the floor.
The thief neglected to recall the position of his fallen comrade though, his neck still broken from Dorian's first brutal attack and his body still invisible on the floor. He lunged, tripped on the invisible arm of his teammate and in that instant of imbalance Dorian reached, quick as a snake, and grabbed his wrist in one mighty paw. Using the thief’s forward momentum, Dorian pulled him forward and flipped him over, bending his wrist in. As the thief fell, Dorian pulled up, breaking the wrist and drawing the blades at the end of the thief’s fingers through the man's torso and shoulder. The thief's body flew through the air, landing in a bleeding pile and leaving Dorian holding his entire arm and some of his shoulder and chest.
The thief looked confused at first and fell over when he tried to use his nonexistent arm to leverage himself up. Looking down at the gushing hole that ran from his shoulder to hip the man started to scream. Almost comically, he tried to cover the enormous wound and push back a few organs that were beginning to slide out with his remaining hand. He had neglected to withdraw the deadly sharp blades though, and his actions only made the hole larger and more ragged, his eyes bouncing from the enlarging wound and between Dorian and the other astonished onlookers with silent cries of help that were dichotomous to his constant gurgled screaming.
Dorian and everyone else in the room watched as the man died, the remnants of his life staining the floor around his limp form. Dorian and Kraine were the only ones who didn't appear to be frozen in shock and horror. Bueller's gray and taut face had taken an even more unhealthy sheen and his adam's apple was bobbing uncontrollably as if he were about to vomit. Dorian noticed that a red lance of arterial blood had arched across Bueller's face and jacket.
Bueller's response was gagged and almost carried his breakfast with it. “You, oh my god. What did you do? You just, just killed them.”
“I just saved your life, and I still don’t want your fucking job. I can't stand people like you,” Dorian spit out, “you cry for our help, and when we respond with the brutal force you desire you toss us aside in disgust. Condemn us to lives of poverty and forgotten promises. I did my job. I did what you wanted to do, but couldn't.” Dorian turned and retrieving his satchel from where he dropped it, stepped through the door as it chimed pleasantly in his wake.
He was no more than ten steps down the walkway when Kraine caught up to him and spun him around with a single word. “Legionnaire.” Kraine looked Dorian up and down and settled his gaze on the single pearly eye. “Goddamn son, you look like the painting in the attic. Which unit did you serve with Legionnaire?”
The man's question demanded a response and he had the countenance of a man used to getting what he asked for. Dorian didn't even flinch when he mentioned his appearance. This was a man who'd give you straight answers to straight questions, even if you didn't ask him. “Tenth Legion. Company Five. Interdictor platoon, sir.”
Kraine extended his left arm, sans hand to Dorian. One handicapped freak offering another the source of his shame. Without blinking Dorian grasped the stump where a hand used to reside and shook it like he would have anyone else’s. “I'm Centurion Kraine, Seventh Legion, Second Company. Retired of course. Lost my wing on Antaries a few years ago.” His unwavering gaze into Dorian's eye was at once comforting and disarming. No one had looked him straight in the face since the accident.
“You did some damn fine work in there son. They let you keep all your implants?”
“Yes sir. Something about the injury prevented safe removal. I expect they’ll want them back after today though.” It hadn't occurred to him until just now that what he had done might be illegal, or worse, draw the Legions in a bad light.
“Nonsense. It was self-defense son. I take it you're having a hard time adjusting to civilian life?” Kraine's manner was brusque but his last sentence was delivered with a certain compassion, or perhaps empathy that set Dorian at ease.
“Yes sir. Haven't had a job since I got out, and can't stand the way no one will look at me. It's like I don't exist.”
“Son, I know where you're at. Believe me, I've been there.” Kraine rubbed his jaw and for the first time he took his gaze from Dorian's eye and let it wander over his shoulders and down his flanks before resting on his shoes. Kraine let out a short laugh. “Are you wearing parade shoes?”
“Yes sir. Only shoes I got that'll take polish.”
Kraine shook his head and looked back up into Dorian's face. “Well, you passed my muster son. I got a job fer ya if you'll take it. It's right up your alley from what I can tell. It'd be kinda like security work, but more, more offensive than defensive. I have interests that need protecting and from what I just saw, I think you can handle that. Whadya say?”
“I'm not looking for charity sir. I don't need handouts, I have my pride. But if you got a job that needs doing, I can do it for you.” A weaker man might have shed a tear, or choked up at finally finding a place, a person that would accept him at face value without reservations. Dorian was not a weak man.