Ralph did a double-take when the girl walked into his bar. She was backlit by the glare of the sun outside, and in that bright rectangle of light the slender girl seemed to walk with a gait that every bartender in the docks could recognize easily -- the slightly pained walk of a person who has been in space for a long time.
"Wow! This is amazing!" she cried out before checking herself, slapping her hand over her mouth with a squeak. Ralph imagined he could feel the heat from her reddening ears. He chuckled. Not a spacer. A tourist.
She approached the bar and almost tripped on a stool; she was looking everywhere but where she was going, her eyes round and filled with wonder, trying to take in the entire place at once. The people sparsely populating the bar watched her with amusement. At this hour most of them were tourists as well, but this girl -- she raised yokel to an art form.
She sat in front of Ralph with a sigh of relief. "Been walking all over," she said.
"What are you having?"
She scowled for a moment. "What's good here?"
"We've got everything, same as everywhere else."
"Everything, huh?" She hesitated. "What do you like?"
"I'm a whiskey man, myself. Scotch."
"I'll have one of those."
Ralph was starting to wonder if serving her at all was a good idea. There was something about her, innocence combined with a volatility that he hesitated to mix with alcohol. Still, just by walking in she lilfted the mood in the place. One small one couldn't hurt. "What kind of Scotch?"
"Whatever kind you like best."
"It's pretty expensive."
"I can splurge. It's my first day in town."
No kidding, thought Ralph. He pulled the bottle down, set the spout to the minimum.
"What's that thing?" she asked.
"It makes sure you get exactly the right amount," he said.
"Neat! I was in a bar once where they put lines on the glasses."
Neat? Now that she was sitting in front of him, Ralph was less sure about her age. She talked like a teenager, but one from thirty years ago, with an odd twang to her voice that he couldn't place. Her face was more mature, but she carried hopeless enthusiasm with ease.
He placed the drink in front of her. She approached it like a gazelle inching toward a watering hole, knowing that a leopard might be hiding nearby. She lifted the glass and sniffed. Her eyes got round. "Oooh." She nodded. "It's got the Earth in it." She took a tiny sip and contemplated it.
Ralph was pleased with her response. She might be a novice, but she understood. He showed her the bottle. "This comes from the Orkney Islands. Every Scotch carries the character of the place it was made."
"It's like a memory," she said. "I like that."
A group arrived, loud and boisterous. Another followed. Soon the waitresses were bringing in drink orders, and Ralph excused himself. He turned up the music a bit, to better match the developing mood. Periodically he glanced over to see how the tourist was doing, and whether she had finished her drink so he had an excuse to talk to her a little more. She was once again looking around the bar in wonder, unconsciously moving with the music, smiling innocently. He was going to have to watch out for her later. She was here to see spacers, of course, here to see the men and women who moved between the stars. They would eat her alive.
She set her glass down, hesitated with head cocked, then tapped the bar with her fingernail, listening carefully. She laughed. "This looks like wood, but it's really some kind of plastic! That's great!"
Ralph shook his head. Maybe she was already drunk when she came in.
"Is it always crazy like this?" she asked over the music as he passed her.
"Crazy? This is dead. There's a shuttle coming down later. Then you'll see crazy."
She looked around, slightly alarmed. "This is dead?"
"This is going to be great!"
Before long the bar began to fill with a steady stream of people, stylish and sexy and clever, waiting for the Orbital Bus and the money it brought down from beyond. A media crew arrived and began to set up. Must be a long-hauler in, Ralph thought. Most of the world called the long-hauler crews 'spacers', but to Ralph's mind there weren't any real spacers anymore, except perhaps for a few old kooks. Not like in the old days.
Ralph had been too young to fully understand it at the time, but he remembered the uproar caused by the Spacer Exodus. The real spacers -- the explorers and prospectors, the ones who drifted alone between the stars -- had all simply packed up and left, disappearing with a few hundred of Earth's most talented into the unknown. As Ralph grew up their story dominated popular culture, raising the spacers to the thing of myth. He and his friends played at being spacers, and all the books he read had Ed and Skippy and Tequila Mary conquering new worlds. Ralph took some local pride that it had been a bartender working not far from here who had organized the whole thing, in cahoots with Captain Ed Smith, the oddest spacer of the bunch.
If there were any of those sort of spacers left, Ralph had never seen one. They certainly wouldn't be coming in to a place like this.
Ralph waved to the next group coming in, the crew that would spend the next hours making sure that no one went thirsty as long as they had money. "Hey, Mike."
Mike came behind the bar. "Hey, Ralph. Who's this?"
"This is, uh ..."
"I'm Mike." He held out his hand.
"Emily," she said, shaking it.
"Where you from?"
"Oh, gosh, you've never heard of it."
"You'd be surprised. What's it close to?"
She laughed. "It's not close to anything. It's got to be the most boring place in the universe. That's why I'm here."
Ralph was a little jealous of Mike's easy way of chatting up the tourist. He'd seen her first, after all.
Emily held out her hand in Ralph's direction. "You're Ralph?"
"Nice to meet you."
He shook her hand, then saw that her glass was empty. "You got enough in the family vault for another?" he asked.
"Yeah, but ... I liked that one, but I need to try some other ones, too, to find out which one tastes most like my home."
Mike slapped Ralph on the shoulder. "She talks about the stuff just as nutty as you do. Serve the lady her drink, I'll handle the barbarians."
Soon it was much too busy for Ralph to linger over the tourist. The club was coming to life, awash with people from space. The long-haulers arrived, smiling and uncomfortable in shoes, enjoying the lights and the sounds. Emily watched from her barstool, so excited at the commotion that she could hardly contain herself. By getting there early she had claimed some prime real estate, close to where the alcohol came from, and before long she was being pressed on all sides. To Ralph she appeared nervous, but her giddy excitement was unmistakable.
It was only a matter of time before one of the sharks spotted the innocent girl sitting goggle-eyed at the bar. Ralph found an excuse to move closer as the man sidled up next to her.
"Now I remember why I come back to Earth," he said.
Emily looked a bit confused. "Why?"
"Because I knew that somewhere on this planet there was a girl as beautiful as you."
Ralph groaned at the corny line, but he'd seen it work often enough before. Emily's response was difficult to read. "But -- " She stopped herself and said instead, "yes, statistically, it's by far the most likely place."
The other man hesitated, but Emily seemed sincere. "My name's Alan," he said.
"Are you named after the famous bartender?"
The tourist failed to contain her surprise at his guess. "I am!" Ralph rolled his eyes. Half the girls on the planet were named Emily, after the legendary bartender from The Shed, gone now along with the spacers to parts unknown.
"It fits," the man said. "You have the stars in your eyes."
Emily laughed self-consciously, finally aware that she was being hit on. She blushed. "I have drops for that," she said. "The doctor says they'll be gone in a couple of weeks."
Now things were going more according to his expectations. He laughed at her joke, then turned serious. "I just got in from Smith's world," he said. "Deep Space." Ralph could hear the capital letters when he spoke.
Her interest was piqued. "Do you have a Navigator?"
He smiled condescendingly and patted her arm. "The computer does all that, but of course we have a full crew." Emily didn't answer, so he tried a more direct line. "It's lonely, being a spacer."
She nodded with enthusiasm at the new direction the conversation had taken. "Yeah, it is. Honestly, I don't think I could do it. I'm too loud, anyway." She said the last quietly, wistfully. "But they seem to like the solitude."
"They? I'm a spacer, honey."
The tourist looked confused. "No, you're not." The statement was so simple and matter-of-fact that it stopped Ralph short. He stopped pretending to be working.
The would-be spacer considered arguing the point, but in the end muttered an imprecation and went to find someone more willing to jump in his lap. Emily sat, looking distressed. She saw Ralph nearby. "I think I said something wrong," she said.
"Don't worry about him. He's a truck driver and he just expected you to kiss his ass because everyone else does."
"I think I should go."
Ralph thought fast. "My shift is over soon. Can I meet you somewhere?"
"Have you been to The Shed yet?" Any tourist who came to the docks would also want to visit the place that had once been the haven of the true spacers.
Her expression darkened. "No."
"It's a complete tourist trap now, but it's quieter than here, and you ought to see it while you're in town."
"I suppose I'll have to go there eventually. How much longer until you're off?"
"About an hour, but if you want to wait for me over there..."
"I'd rather wait here, if you promise to keep looking out for me."
"It's a deal."
Ralph cornered his coworker at the far end of the bar.
"Mike -- do you think there's something odd about that girl? About Emily?"
"Well, she's so fresh off the farm that she's still got hay in her hair, but she seems nice. Her smile's infectious; you gotta like that. She likes you, which definitely qualifies as odd. Why?"
"Have you ever seen a real spacer?"
"Ralph, that girl is no spacer. No way."
"I know. She even said as much. She said she was too loud."
"She's probably right."
"It's the way she said it, like a simple fact. As if she would be a spacer if she wasn't so loud. She seemed a little sad when she said it. Plus, she was surprised that the bar wasn't made of wood."
"Yeah. When we leave, just take a look at the way she walks. She may not be a spacer, but she is definitely not from around here."
The next guy to hit on her was another of the long-haulers. He was subtler, more conversational, trying to draw her out. She seemed to be enjoying the conversation, which to Ralph's mind made him more dangerous. The man signaled for drinks. Ralph chose the next stop on Emily's tour of Scotland and headed over. He poured her mini-shot and then set to work on the man's drink -- slowly.
The man took exception to Emily's tiny drink. "Hey! Don't be so stingy! Give the girl a full drink, why don't you? Don't worry, Emily, I'm buying."
"Oh, it's all right," she said. "This way I can try more kinds. Ralph, this is Milton. Milton, this is Ralph."
Ralph thought the name sounded familiar. "Milton Torvalds?" Torvalds was the captain of a long-hauler, and had the charisma to make himself a media darling on Earth.
"One and the same."
"It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Are you famous?" Emily asked in a state of near-awe.
"I guess you don't follow the exploits of us spacers, then."
Emily opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself. Ralph decided to mix his next few drinks in the same neighborhood.
"My ship just got back from a run to Smith's World," Torvalds said.
"Where else have you been?"
"Oh, I've been to all the colonies. I piloted the first Big Boat to Smith's, and to ES-6 as well. I was the first person to see them after old Ed Smith himself."
"Do you always know where you're going?" she asked him.
He laughed. "Of course! I'd be a terrible captain if I didn't."
"Then how will you find what you're looking for?"
He was still chuckling. "What do you mean?"
"If you're looking for something and you don't know where it is, to find it you can't know where you are, either." She looked at him earnestly, willing him to understand.
Torvalds laughed even harder. "You know, that's so crazy it almost makes sense. You're a trip, Emily. I like you."
She stared into her Scotch. "I don't think I'll ever find it."
Captain Torvalds hesitated, and Ralph wondered if he had seen the look in her eyes when she said that. It was the look of someone lost and adrift in a sea of questions.
A member of the camera team came over and caught the captain's eye. "It's time, sir."
He sighed. "Got to go feed the beast."
"The Big Eye?" Emily asked, happy for the distraction.
"Now there's a phrase I haven't heard in a long time. Yeah, the Big Eye needs my ugly mug for a few minutes." He put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll be right back. Then we can go somewhere quieter."
Emily had recovered and her smile was sincere. "Thanks, but I have plans already."
"Aw, come on ... tell you what. Come have a drink with me and then we'll catch the shuttle up into orbit. You can even ride in the cockpit. You never forget your first time in space."
The technician fidgeted. "Uh, sir?"
"All right, all right. Stay right there, Emily." He left, and Emily turned thoughtful once more.
"You OK?" asked Ralph.
"Yeah. Just a bad memory."
"Good news -- my shift just ended. You still want to go?"
"Yeah. This place is starting to get a bit ... overwhelming."
Ralph came around the bar while she validated her payment and climbed gingerly down from her stool. While they made their way through the crowd, Ralph looked back to see Mike watching them. Mike nodded. No doubt about it; she walked like a spacer.
Captain Torvalds was near the entrance, talking animatedly with a woman holding a microphone. The bright TV lights were unnecessary, Ralph suspected, but they created a sense of spectacle. As Ralph and Emily pushed around the edge of the bright splash of light, Ralph saw Torvalds glance their way and then do a classic double-take. He broke off his story in mid-sentence, watching Emily walk and, Ralph assumed, rethinking their conversation. The reporter followed his gaze, but simply assumed Torvalds was distracted by the pretty girl. The captain recovered and continued his anecdote, but Ralph could feel people watching them now. It was only a matter of time until Emily became the object of curiosity.
Outside, Emily took a deep breath and looked up into the darkening sky. "Is it OK if we walk slowly?"
"Sure. It's not far." They didn't say anything more until they got to The Shed. The silence didn't feel uncomfortable.
She hesitated at the door, staring at the sign without seeing it.
"You want to go somewhere else?" Ralph asked.
"No, that's all right. It's just going to be a little strange."
"Yeah, I know. Thanks. I'm lucky I found you." She opened the door and went down the steps.
The bartender looked up as they entered. "Hi, Ralph. It's been a while."
"What can I get you guys?"
Emily asked for what had been Ed's favorite beer. "Do you still have that?"
"Of course. Gotta have it ready for when the old man comes back."
Emily hesitated. "But he's not coming back."
The bartender winked. "Oh, you never know." The possibility that a spacer might return was part of the attraction of the place. He gave her the beer.
She thought for a moment and nodded. "I guess you never do know. Not with Ed." She took a sip. "Pretty good," she said.
Andy was looking at her speculatively. "Ed took the brewmaster with him, but the brewery's stayed faithful to the recipe. We've even got Mary's Tequila, but people only drink it on a dare."
"I'll have the same as Emily," Ralph said.
While Andy pulled Ralph's beer, Emily turned to survey the place. The new ownership had made some effort to keep the quiet atmosphere of the original Shed, but there was no mistaking this for the place where spacers had once sought refuge. All around were memorabilia from that time, knick-knacks and souvenirs for sale. On the far wall was the famous photo gallery. Ed Smith's picture was in the center, along with a photo of Emily's namesake, once the owner of The Shed, and now unknown. Surrounding them were the photos of the other spacers who had vanished into the unknown. Emily took one look at the wall and started laughing.
"Oh, my gosh! Ed would go nuts if he knew he was trapped up there with everyone else. Right in the middle! That's so funny!"
She walked over to the wall to get a closer look. Her outburst had attracted the attention of the people at the tables nearby, and some of them were chuckling as well. She really was a bit too loud for that bar, Ralph mused.
"Who is she?" Andy asked quietly as he topped off Ralph's beer.
"Her name's Emily. She's visiting."
"You're picking up tourists, now?"
"Something like that."
"Where's she from?"
"She never said."
"I can see why you like her. She's effervescent."
Ralph nodded slowly and took a sip. "She does bring a room to life."
"Good luck, buddy."
Ralph joined Emily in front of the photos.
"Someone rearranged them," she said. "They're all mixed up." She surveyed the portraits of the Unknown, the spacers who had left Earth never to return. In the old days it had been the tradition for returning spacers to visit that wall, to see who had been added to the gallery, who would never be seen again. Reason for disappearance: unknown. With that bunch it was easy to imagine that some of them had simply chosen not to return, to keep flying, playing games with infinity. That was the romance of the spacers -- the Unknown would carry their secrets to the end of time. Humanity would fade without ever learning what it was they found out there. Ralph knew the names of all the Unknown, and the date each had last been seen. He had studied these photos many times before.
The photos of the spacers who had all vanished together in the Spacer Exodus had question marks instead of dates. Emily touched one of those, and quietly whispered a date some years previous. A chill raced up Ralph's spine; the person in that photograph had truly disappeared into the unknown, some time after the Spacer Exodus. Whatever paradise the spacers had found out there, it was still not enough to satisfy their wandering souls. Emily repeated the ritual with two more question marks two more who had traded human company and probably life itself to seek the larger answers.
She put her finger on the question mark beneath Ed's portrait, closed her eyes, and took a ragged breath. Her voice caught as she recited a date, and Ralph felt a lump form in his own throat. Even Ed was gone. It was irrational, Ralph knew, but he had always felt that the most famous member of the spacer fleet would show up again some day.
Emily lingered in front of the portrait. "It was my fault," she said, her voice tiny. "I was too loud. They all left Earth to find someplace quiet and then I was born. It was painful for them to be around me, and impossible for the Navigators." After a few moments she took a breath and moved on, scanning the wall until she found the portrait she was looking for. Another question mark. The woman looking out at them from long ago had a haunted expression on her face. Danger Amy, one of Ralph's favorites. Emily whispered another date. She was weeping openly now. "I'm sorry, mother. I should have left home long ago."
The bar had gone still, and her words carried through the silence. Her sorrow was a tangible thing, filling the room. Too loud. Ralph understood with a start. It wasn't physical noise she was referring to. 'Her smile is infectious,' Mike had said. That was just the start of it. All her emotions were infectious. Effervescent. It would be difficult for the sensitive psyches of the spacers to be around someone who radiated her emotions the way Emily did. It would be like someone talking loudly in the library, all the time, driving everyone crazy but unable to stop no matter how much she wanted to.
That would be bad enough, but she lived in a community of wandering souls. Spacers left. Their patriarch left. Her mother left. Naturally, Emily blamed herself. Now she had exiled herself to Earth, where it was so noisy that everyone was nearly deaf already, where people she cared for would not disappear.
Emily took a deep breath and started to pull herself together. "I'm sorry," she said to Ralph. "I thought I was ready for this."
"It's all right." They stood in silence for another moment. He thought of a question that spacers had asked each other from time to time, if the stories were true. "So, what are you looking for?" he asked her.
She smiled, but the sadness was still there. "I don't know," she said, "but it sure as hell isn't up there."
Ralph laughed at her reversal of the traditional response. She was going to be all right; she just needed time. The media would find her eventually, but maybe if the two of them kept moving they could delay the inevitable. "You want to go for a drive?"
"In a car?"
Her eyes lit up. "Neat! Where are we going?"
He hadn't thought that far ahead. "I don't know."
She nodded. "I've always wanted to go there."
She was a spacer, all right.
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-12-24