Paragon
Chapter One
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"That's great news, Tom. It's always good to see those in need being helped out by our fellow citizens. Now let's go on over to Diane for our 'Eyes on the Skies' edition. Diane?"

"Thanks, Rachel. It's a bit cloudy over the city of Esclium, with a chance of rain later in the day at sixty-five percent. So keep those umbrellas on hand, fellow Esclians, because you might get soaked this evening! Back to you, Rachel."

"Thanks, Diane. Well I know I've got my umbrella handy. How about you, Tom?"

"It looks like I'm getting soaked tonight, Rachel, because I forgot mine! But what I haven't forgotten is the kindness that the Center of Ongoing Research and Enhanced Experimentation showed our city three years ago, during perhaps our greatest time of need. Tsu Yun has the story. Tsu?"

"Thank you, Tom. While it's hard for many of us here in Esclium to relive the pain that this week brings, the swift actions by the CORE have not yet been forgot—"

"Aster!"

With a start, Aster jerked upright and, taking a small rag from its rack behind the counter, began wiping the coarse wood down. "Yes, Jack?" she asked, keeping her head down and trying not to sound as startled as she was.

From the corner of her eye, Aster could make out the bar's owner as he grew closer. Tall, broad-shouldered and fit, he looked more like a lumberjack with his thick red hair than the owner of a small-town bar. He could be cute, Aster surmised, if he ever shaved that forest he called a beard and wore clothes that were not stained with beer and who knows what else.

"Dammit, Aster, I don't pay you to sit around all day and watch the news," Jack stated, leaning up against the counter and rubbing his palm over the bar's surface. Aster almost winced as he grimaced in distaste. "This counter should've been polished by now. We open in five minutes, and it's rough as nails!"

"Let me see if we have some back here." Disappearing behind the counter, Aster searched the shelves beneath the bar, moving things aside and probing the back spaces with her fingers; nothing but rags, glass bottles and air.

"Do you know how hard it is to find decent wood these days?" Jack questioned, drumming his fingers on the bar as Aster continued her search. "This may not be the best quality out there, but it's the best we got here in this shit-hole-of-a-planet, and that polish'll keep it that way."

"Well," Aster clanked some of the bottles together to give the impression that she was still searching; she had quit rummaging through the bar shelves a while ago. "Why did you opt for wood in the first place? Trey's bar across the street has that sleek black granite. Gives the place a very modern, clean look. It's cheaper, too."

"Yeah, and it's also short on class. This whole planet's short on class!" A small, exasperated sigh elicited from Aster as she leaned her head against the bar. 'Here we go again,' she thought as Jack's rant progressed: "Everyone's too worried about the next big thing; always competing with each other for bigger and better. It's no wonder that the crime rate is high on these outer planets! We've forgotten how things used to be; no one's got class anymore. What is it that I always say?"

"Always give your favorite employee a monthly raise?" Aster clanked a few more bottles together as a small grunt escaped Jack's lips.

"Nice try, but Hilda's my favorite. No, what I've always said was—"

"The class is in the wood," Aster rolled her eyes as she spoke along with Jack's statement.

"You're damned right it is, and don't you forget it."

'I could, Jack, if you'd ever let me,' Aster thought, another sigh rising up from her throat. He was a generally pleasant man, but it was times like these where she had to refrain from lashing him over the head with a liquor bottle. She had only been employed at Classic Jack's for three months now, but already the bar owner's daily tirades were becoming tiresome.

"Have you found that polish yet?"

"We're out of wood polish, Jack," Aster sighed as she stood back up and leaned against the counter, wringing the rag listlessly through her fingers. "We've been out for three weeks now."

Jack slammed his fist down on the bar, but Aster hardly flinched. Over her period of employment, she was well-accustomed to his harmless fits. "Dammit, Aster! Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did, Jack," Aster explained, biting the agitated edge off her tongue as she busied herself with organizing the bottles that lined the back wall. "You kept putting it off."

Ding!

Aster turned around to greet their first customer of the day. Then, turning her attention back to Jack, she withdrew a drinking glass from beneath the counter and began wiping it down. "You still have some chairs to take down," she stated, nodding toward a group of tables in the far left corner of the bar. "Wouldn't want our customers to think we've lost our class now, would we?" With a playful wink, Aster set down the glass she had been cleaning and turned to help the man that had just walked up.

"Afternoon, Mike," she greeted, paying no mind to Jack as he grumbled off to finish unstacking the table chairs. "The usual?"

Mike, a rough-looking man of about forty, nodded, jabbing a thumb in Jack's direction as Aster searched the back wall for a bottle of whiskey. "What's got Jack all in a tissy?"

Aster glanced up from pouring Mike his drink, watching as Jack finished arranging four chairs around one of the wooden tables. "You pay him no mind, Mike," she said as she slid the half-full glass across the bar. "He's foaming at the world today. Didn't you hear? It hasn't got any class."

With a snort, Mike downed his glass of whiskey and slid it back across to Aster. Shaking his head, he slapped a fist against the counter. "Woo!" he exclaimed, rubbing his face with a wide, calloused hand. "That's some strong shit!"

"Old, too. The dealer that Jack ordered it from claims that it's Old Earth quality."

Mike glanced from Aster to the glass bottle in her hand. The label was worn, the colors faded from a once vibrant red to nearly gray, but the liquid inside shone a bright, warm amber.

"Now that is class, my dear." Mike rapped a knuckle on the counter. "Fill me up again, Aster. I'm celebratin'."

Aster obliged, filling up the drinking glass halfway again. Sliding it back to the balding man, she leaned forward on her elbows. "What's the occasion?" she inquired.

"My birthday," the man grunted, raising his glass to the overhanging lamp above the bar and watching, entranced, as the tawny liquid sloshed back and forth. "One more year down the hole, 's all that means."

Aster congratulated him as Mike took another long gulp. Shaking his head and whistling loudly, the burly man twirled the glass around in his hand. "That is some potent stuff, girl. Goes straight to the belly, like a bullet." Aster could only grin as Mike rotated his shoulders. "Hard to find whiskey like that anymore, ain't that right?"

Aster shrugged, turning around to place the whiskey back up on the back shelf. "I suppose. Anything from Old Earth is hard to come by these days."

"Kind of like you."

Aster froze, her fingers lingering on the half-full bottle. She watched as the bright amber liquid sloshed back and forth in the glass container. For several moments, the only sounds in the tiny bar were the scraping of wooden chair legs on the hardwood floor as Jack continued to rearrange the tables.

'How does he know?'

Slowly, Aster lowered her hand and glanced over her shoulder. "Wh-what do you mean, Mike?" she stuttered, nervous fingers fiddling with the pendant hanging loosely from her neck.

"Don't play dumb with me, Aster," Mike exclaimed, setting his glass down and rising from his seat. "We both know what you are."

Pulse pounding, heart racing, Aster took several quick, deep breaths before composing herself. 'Stupid girl, it's impossible; he doesn't know!' When she turned to face her customer, her face was a mask of light humor and tranquility. "I really don't know what you're getting at," she said, forcing her voice to remain still.

Sagging his shoulders, Mike lowered his head and sighed. "Well, you forced it outta me, Aster," he said, reaching inside his coat pocket. "You've been avoiding this long enough. Time to get what's coming to you."

'No, I can't go back!'

She could feel it moving through her—her muscles flexing in anticipation as years of training suddenly kicked in, her mind bending out of focus as long-buried reflexes took over. Her senses were suddenly heightened beyond the normal level, and all she could do was watch from the backseat of her own mind as everything she had struggled to keep at bay was suddenly unleashed.

Before Mike had a chance to take out whatever was in his pocket, Aster placed her hands on the bar and, using both of her booted feet, pivoted on her palms and kicked him to the ground with unnatural force.

Everything began moving in slow motion then—Mike's free hand grasping at air as he fell onto his back, mouth hanging open in surprise; the chair in Jack's hands falling to the ground as he hurried his way to the bar, arms outstretched as if he could catch the falling man from the other side of the room; the front door swinging open as another customer walked in, eager to fend off the heat and wet his lips with a nice, cold drink.

Before Aster could react, time suddenly sped back up. Her mind snapped back into focus, her senses returned to the normal level and, her balance thrown off by the shock of what she had done, she lost her grip on the counter and rolled off the bar onto the floor next to Mike. Jack and the other customer arrived at their sides a moment later, shock and disbelief written all over their faces.

'What the hell did I just do?'