They let him out of the cell before breakfast rolled around, which to Drago’s mind was a big darn shame. Breakfast in the drunk tank was traditionally a bowl of low-grade printed paste that consisted of little more than warm grease with gravel in it, together with a spongy piece of something that would be bread if it came from a better fabricator. If you left it a while, the gravel softened until you could grind it with your teeth, at which point the gravel revealed itself to be chunks of salt.
It was nothing short of the best hangover medicine you could get. Almost worth going to the tank for in the first place.
Drago sighed when the corrections officer opened the cell door and stood looking down at him with evident and grossly unprofessional nervousness.
“Unclench, son,” he said quietly, and swung his legs off the side of the bunk. He still felt a residual fizz in his joints, as well as an insistent sensation that he was actually somebody else controlling the huge, admittedly-fragrant body in the cell using some sort of sophisticated remote control. The universe was a fabulous game when you were juiced. One that was extremely difficult to finish without ending up in the tank. “I’m the one who did bad things.”
The officer cleared his throat, but to his credit did not step back when Drago hauled himself upright. If he had, Drago was still just juiced enough to have decided he was going to rush him. Just for fun. “Exit interview.”
“Yeah,” Drago said glumly, “I know.”
Humans had gotten used, on a cultural and social level, to being the tiny ones. The small, aggressive, primitive, posturing monkeys just seconds away from grabbing a handful of faeces and letting their feelings be known. In a room full of glacially-serene seven-foot-five Molren, a human could generally expect to do a lot of looking up, in every sense of the phrase. Add a freezer-suit-clad eight- or nine-foot aki’Drednanth or two into the mix and you really started looking like a midget. About the only smaller sentients out there – aside from the occasional diminuitive dumbler – were the robotic extensions, the giela, belonging to the Fergunak. Those were usually little more than shoulder-high to a human, although they made up for it with a confronting attitude, offensive decorations and the psychological weight of the colossal son-of-a-bitching shark two rooms over who was actually controlling the creepy little thing.
Drago ‘Brutan’ Barducci, at seven feet seven inches, was taller than most Molranoids and bulkier than all but the Bonshoon. Oh sure, Molranoids still had weight and speed and strength and agility and intelligence on him, but damn it if he didn’t have size. That was one victory on the statistics page that he’d take to his grave.
Still wasn’t above a bit of poop-flinging on occasion, though.
He stretched, rolled the last juice-sizzle out of his shoulders, and lumbered forwards. Now the guard did step back, but just to usher him politely down the corridor. Smart kid, he approved, noticing the way the officer kept out of arm’s reach and didn’t go for the rookie panic-grip on his weapon. Of course, Drago was pretty small bananas compared to a drunk-and-disorderly Bonshooni, and these lads would be trained to handle them. He ambled out of the cell and headed towards the interview rooms. He knew the way.
Barducci, given his enormity and able-esque physique, was often mistaken for a big, stupid brute. Indeed, his nickname – Brutan – was occasionally shortened to Brute, and most people thought that was what Brutan the Warrior had been anyway.
 It was often suggested that he had been printed in a fabricator with slightly-warped size settings.
 Not to his face, but Drago had a way of finding these things out.
In fact, Brutan the Warrior had been a cunning tactician, a soldier of great deviousness and ingenuity, and had been possessed of a mind that was as keen-witted as it was ancient. The fact that he’d also had the body of a fuck-off enormous barbarian warlord had been … well, something of a joke on his Holy Brothers’ part, according to the stories.
Anyway, Drago considered it an entirely apt nickname precisely because he knew the mythology behind it. And just as the real Brutan had used his misleading appearance and martial might as a means of concealing his intellect from people who saw only the brute, so too did Barducci.
“Room seven,” the guard said from a regulation ten paces behind him, “coming up on your left.”
“Yeah,” Barducci said again, and stepped through the open door. His exit interviewer looked up, and Drago felt real surprise for the first time in … ooh, at least a month. “Skell,” he said. “Holy shit.”
The scruffy young man was sitting cross-legged on the cold metal tabletop of the interview desk, an organiser pad in one hand. He gestured Barducci curtly into the chair – a chair that had been placed, Drago noted, a solid fifteen feet from the desk, well out in the open space of the room.
“Barducci,” Skelliglyph said in a crisp, efficient tone.
“Why are you sitting on the Goddamn table?”
“Because if we both sat in the chairs you would loom,” Skell said. “I hate it when you loom. I don’t even like it when looms loom, and that’s all looms can actually do.”
“Still crazy as a shithouse rat, I see,” Barducci grunted, settling into the interviewee chair. This, like everything else in the compound, was designed to stand up to punishment from an overweight Bonshooni. It took Drago’s weight effortlessly.
“Now is that any way to talk to your exit interviewer?” Skelliglyph said in an injured tone, and tapped something onto his pad. “I’m putting down here that you are not adequately rehabilitated and that you pose a clear danger to civilian society.”
“Good. Can I go now?” Barducci started to rise. “I might still catch breakfast if I-”
“Not so fast. I’m also recommending you for a long-haul Corps mission. Best place for you, out in the black with a bunch of like-minded jarheads,” the young man – although he’d always been a young man, as long as Drago had known him, and that meant he couldn’t be a young man, not really – looked up with a half-smile. “I’ve got the forms here to get you off this drunk-and-disorderly, and reinstate your command credentials. Want to be my Chief Tactical Officer?”
“Do you want me to be?” Drago asked, duly logging his second instance of surprise in as many minutes, and then – because it was Çrom Skelliglyph – giving up on logging any subsequent instances for the foreseeable future.
“Obviously. And you want to get back into a command position, with full access to all the toys you love so much,” Skell raised the pad. “Can do.”
“What’s the catch?” Drago asked, preparing to stand up and walk out the moment Skelliglyph said there wasn’t one.
Skell didn’t play that way, though. It was one of the reasons Drago hadn’t turned straight back around and returned to his cell the moment he set foot in the interview room and saw the mad bastard sitting on the table. “The catch is, there’s someone we’re going to need to break out of prison.”
“I’m assuming, from the way you say that,” Drago said thoughtfully, “that there aren’t any forms on your pad to help with this one.”
“Oh, Hell no. This isn’t a drunk-and-disorderly we’re talking about. In fact, I’m all tapped out for favours getting you out of here and onto my crew. The rest,” he waggled the pad again, “is going to be strictly off the books.”
“Aren’t these exit interviews usually recorded?”
“Give me a little credit, Brute.”
“You’ll have to sweeten the deal.”
Skell looked surprised. “Really? You’re in jail and I’m dangling an officer posting on a starship in front of your big bent-arse nose, and I’m going to have to sweeten it?”
Drago leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. “You want me to bust someone out of prison,” he said, “presumably as a condition for my reinstatement. If I get caught, I’ll bounce straight past the drunk-tank and end up in the real deal.”
“Only if you get caught.”
“With the added drawback of ending up with you as a cellmate.”
“I’m an excellent cellmate.”
“So yeah, you’re going to have to sweeten it.”
Skelliglyph sucked in air through pursed lips, rocked back in his lazy lotus position, set the pad down between his feet, and put his hands on his knees. “Okay. W’Tan is signed on as XO. And you know who always comes tagging along when she takes a long-haul mission.”
“Ruel?” Drago frowned. “Lareth Ruel Ganon? I feel I ought to remind you, this is meant to be a sweetener. As in, an offering that generally makes an unpleasant prospect more palatable.”
“You’ll be Chief Tactical Officer,” Skell said in a tantalising tone. “You’ll outrank him by a couple of echelons, and even if he is doinking the XO, they’re Molren. She’d never play favourites. He could be right in the middle of doinking her, and if you busted him for breaching protocol she’d cosign the reprimand.”
“That’s even worse,” Drago replied patiently. “Punching a superior officer in the face is a heroic regulation breach. Punching a subordinate is…” he twisted his face in disgust. “It’s like rearranging an able’s ration pockets.”
“But he could-”
“And stop saying ‘doinking’.”
“Alright,” Skell said in exasperation. “I’ll arrange something. You’ll get your chance to give Ruel a whupping, without the shame of beating an underling.”
“Well now I’m just agog with curiosity,” Drago rumbled. “They call you the Machiavelli of space, but even I’m sort of looking forward to seeing how you ‘arrange‘ this one.”
“Machiavelli is consistently misunderstood and mischaracterised,” Skelliglyph complained. “He wasn’t a manipulative evil schemer. Anyone who calls me that is correct only by chance, and they’re actually trying to be insulting.”
“Can’t imagine what that must feel like.”
Skell laughed. “Touché,” he picked up his pad again. “So, are you in? Or do I put my mark on the other column?”
“So we bust this hardened criminal out of jail,” Barducci said. “Then what?”
“Then,” Skelliglyph replied airily, “I thought we’d steal a starship and go and see the galaxy.”