April 24, 2017

 

Left Behind

 
 
 

Agnes stood outside the bar, pausing as she always did to watch the simple sign swing in the wind, an anachronism in a world of holos and neon. A deception. The Shed wasn't the place it had once been, many years ago; no longer was it a haven for those who roamed the stars. The spacers were gone, now, their fate unknown; they were legends that beckoned to those who remained behind. The spacers had all left, but memories of them lingered with Agnes, images from a time the world had been different -- somehow disconnected with this one, as if time had skipped a beat -- a world seen through the eyes of a person who no longer existed. When the spacers left they had taken a part of Earth with them, and a part of Agnes.

It was still a quieter place than most, still a place for Agnes to go when she needed refuge. The door didn't stick the way it had when it was made of real wood, but it still had an old-fashioned handle and opened on hinges. The stairs down from the door were still the same, and the music that greeted newcomers still filled the place without crowding anyone.

The first significant difference Agnes felt when she descended into the bar was the absence of Emily, the bartender who had always been there to greet the spacers when they returned to Earth. It was her greeting that officially announced the return of a wanderer and her farewell that marked their departure back out into the blackness of space. It was Emily who had maintained the gallery of photos on the wall, images of the spacers who would not be returning. Now Emily's own picture was up there as well; she had climbed aboard the Little Boat and vanished with Captain Ed and the entire spacer fleet.

"Good evening, Ms. Stephenson," the bartender said cheerfully. She had long ago given up on getting him to call her by her first name.

"Good evening, Andy. How are you?"

"Can't complain. The usual?"

"Yes, please." She sat at the bar; the alternative was a table alone. She wasn't in the mood for conversation, but there's alone and there's alone. Andy was a good bartender, though, and would leave her to her thoughts if that's what she wanted.

"Any news from the unknown?" he asked as he fixed her martini.

"Nope. Whatever they found, they're not telling." It was a joke of sorts between them; after the spacers had left Agnes had been asked a lot of difficult questions, as if she had some magical way to contact the departed spacers, some way of knowing what was going on out there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The spacers were out there, somewhere, beyond the reach of human comprehension, perhaps alive, perhaps not. Prospering or starving or killing one another or just lost beyond any hope of rescue, there was no way to tell.

She accepted her drink and watched the light reflect off its surface. In the old days, she had come here when life outside seemed too much to bear, when the solitary battles she fought threatened to overwhelm her. Now those fights were behind her, her battles won. She was too tired to find a new fight, too tired to do anything but sit on a bar stool and remember the only people she had ever thought of as friends.

Her eye caught motion and she turned to see two middle-aged women approaching her. She groaned inwardly when one of them asked, "Excuse me, but are you Agnes Stephenson?"

"That's right," she said. Agnes wasn't terribly worried about what would follow; in the old days she had been branded a populist hero, a traitor to humanity, and many other things, and she had had to be careful on these chance meetings. Now she was just another celebrity who hadn't done much lately.

"You knew Captain Ed?" the other one asked.

"He was my client," she said, though the women already knew it.

The two exchanged glances. The Captain Ed fan club just seemed to get larger as time passed, as the media turned him into an ever-greater hero. All he had to do was stay away. The portrayals of Ages in the popular accounts of the spacer exodus were not always as flattering.

"What was he like?" the first woman asked. "I mean, really."

Agnes had learned long ago that when someone asked that, they didn't actually want to know the truth; they wanted their own romantic notions confirmed. She was too tired to play their game, however, too tired for anything except the truth. "I don't know. I don't think any of us ever knew him."

The two women digested that for a moment. "What I don't get," one of them said, "is why you didn't go with them."

Agnes turned back to her drink. "Someone had to stay behind," she said, though she wasn't so sure anymore.

* * *

Agnes Stephenson knocked on the senior partner's door at precisely the scheduled time. As she entered, Mr. Thompson and his guest stood. "Agnes, this is Edward Smith," her boss said. "Mr. Smith, I'd like to introduce you to Agnes Stephenson, one of our brightest young attorneys."

Agnes shook the man's hand. "Mr. Smith, it's a great pleasure to meet you." Even at a glance it was easy to believe that this man was a space explorer. He was small and pale, nothing like the daring men and women in the vids. There was something else, though, a feeling that part of him was out there between the stars even now.

He would be her client, if she could land him. She should have been excited; it was unusual for the junior member in the firm to be given a high-profile client this early in her career, but Agnes was under no illusions. He was to be her client because the only thing the firm liked about him was his potential income. Ed Smith was a spacer, just as likely to vanish forever as to make the firm any money. Mr. Smith smiled awkwardly; in all likelihood he knew he was being foisted off.

"The pleasure is mine," he said. "Mr. Thompson tells me you are the resident expert on space law."

"As much as 'space law' can even be said to exist. The field is in constant flux. "

"Is it? That's good." She wondered if he had heard her; his eyes never seemed to focus on hers. She could see why the others in the firm had been hesitant to take him on.

"What sort of services will you be requiring?" Agnes asked.

"Oh, the usual, I suppose." He looked around the office, and at her boss, before returning his wandering gaze back to her general direction. "May I buy you a drink?" he asked.

"What would you like?" Agnes asked. "You can't practice law without a well-stocked bar."

He pursed his lips. "I know a place where it will taste better."

It was not until later that she realized that her first trip to The Shed had been a test. Back then, before the spacers started making the big finds, before the rest of the world realized what 'spacer' really meant, the bar had been anonymous, just a little backwater pub near the spaceport, eclipsed by the glamour and noise of 'the docks', a string of clubs providing noise and sex and stimulation to people coming in from the beyond. Few people realized back then that the people who longed for the docks while out there were not the sort to be exploring deep space. The real spacers sought refuge from the clamor of Earth while dirtside, and lifted again as soon as they could. The Shed was their bar.

The door stuck a bit as Ed pulled it open. Stairs led down into a quiet place, a little on the dark side, soft music filling the space with a gentle sadness. Agnes descended the steps self-consciously, feeling the eyes of the other patrons follow her. She was halfway down the steps when her telephone purred softly; she switched it off without even looking at who was calling.

"H'lo, Ed," the bartender said. She was already pulling a beer for him.

"Hi, Emily. I'd like you to meet Agnes."

Emily was on the younger side of middle-aged, difficult to tell for sure. Sandy-blonde hair framed her angular face. Emily cast a brief speculative glance between them but Agnes didn't think Ed noticed it. "What would you like?"

"I'll have a vodka martini, and I'm not afraid of a little vermouth." She pulled out her credit chip and looked around for the receiver.

"It's on Ed's tab," Emily said.

"That's all right. My firm will pay."

"Agnes is my lawyer," Ed said, which was as close as he ever came to saying she was hired.

"Are you in trouble?" Emily asked him.

"Not yet."

When her drink was ready Agnes followed Ed to a table at the far side of the place. On the way he stopped and said hello to a couple of the other patrons; each time the conversation was brief, little more than acknowledgment of the other's presence. Several tables held groups that hardly spoke to one another at all, but she could feel the camaraderie they shared. It was kind of nice, being around people who didn't speak just to hear their own voices.

Before they even reached their table Agnes' eyes were drawn to the photographs on the wall. Perhaps two dozen portraits were there, simple head shots. Beneath each was a name and a date. Agnes didn't have to ask who they were, this was obviously a memorial to the spacers who had lost their lives.

Ed surveyed the photos with her, silently contemplating his lost comrades.

"What happened to them?" Agnes asked, sure that with each portrait would be a story of ill fortune.

Ed didn't answer for a while; Agnes was starting to get used to the long gaps in their conversation. "Who knows?" he finally said. "They went out, they didn't come back."

She studied the faces and felt a chill, the icy touch of the Unknown. "Then they might still be out there, some of them. Might still be alive."

"Could be. No way to tell."

No way to tell. The people on the wall were somewhere between living and dead, in a state of permanent uncertainty. Agnes made a mental note to read up on inheritance law as she sampled her drink. Not quite right, but close. Ed was right, though. It did taste better here.

"The problem is," said Ed, "That I might become very wealthy soon."

Agnes laughed. "Most people don't consider that a problem."

"It seems a nuisance, but it has its uses. I'm buying my own boat."

Agnes' heart skipped a beat. "But that changes everything," she blurted.

"I hope so."

Agnes had to stop and think about the implications. Space exploration was a lucrative business, and the rules were written by the corporations who monopolized space travel. When valuable resources were discovered, it was the company that found them which benefited most. If a planet Ed Smith found as an individual was colonized, he would become wealthy beyond calculation. Huge colony ships were already on the drawing boards, preparing to populate any world that could support it. The Big Boats would carry mankind far beyond the home star.

If Ed found a planet that could be colonized, people would try to change the rules to take it away from him. Agnes was going to have a fight on her hands. She sat back, wondering if she was going to regret taking this client. Her gaze wandered back to the photos on the wall. The gallery would grow over time; ships would fail, human bodies would fail, events unforeseen and unforeseeable would combine and take a life. The spacers weren't out there for the money, Agnes was sure, it was something else they were looking for, but they would need someone down here to look out for their interests. It wasn't just Ed Smith she would be fighting for, it was something much larger, something she might never fully understand.

Next to her seat was a portrait of a pioneer, gone five years now. He was looking out somewhere past the camera, and for a moment Agnes thought that when the picture was taken he was already planning never to come back. "Roach," Ed said, looking at the same picture. "Guys like him, I wonder what they found out there. That's why I want my own boat. So if I find something it won't belong to some asshole who never even looks up."

Agnes would have a lot of work to do, and most of it had to be done before Ed got back from his first trip in his own boat. Things would be much easier to accomplish before the people involved came to terms with the changes that Ed represented. The trick would be to convince them that they were strengthening their own positions while in fact they were making independent exploration possible.

The two spoke for a while longer, not about business specifically, but about small things that somehow added up to a question neither of them could answer. When she left she switched her phone back on to review the list of calls she had missed. The one she had ignored as she descended into the Shed was from Ed Smith. She laughed. They were going to get along just fine.

* * *

"Stephenson's coup," the legal journals had called it, when the world realized that she had effectively pulled the rug out from under the space exploration companies. It wasn't long before all the spacers could afford their own boats, and the corporations discovered that the spaceship wasn't the key to profit, but the pilot. Few people had the temperament to spend solitary months adrift between the stars.

Her early successes were largely forgotten now; Stephenson's Coup had become a name connected to the spacer exodus, and her role in it. Captain Ed may have been the leader of the expedition, but Agnes had been the one in charge of getting the Little Boat built, stocked, and, most important of all, populated. All the legal groundwork had to be taken care of before Ed found his perfect planet, while people still thought of colony worlds as harsh places.

That Ed would find a better world was a matter of faith. He seemed to believe it, though, for reasons he never explained. The uncertainty didn't make recruiting any easier, except for one key person. When Emily called, Agnes had hurried over to the Shed. She sat at the bar, on a stool she would be using for decades to come.

Emily set to work on a martini. "Ed lifted today," she said.

"He'll be back."

Emily nodded, but she was troubled. "He said -- he said some weird things."

"Do you believe him?"

"I don't know. I think so. Do you?"

Agnes chose her words with care. "I believe that he believes it. That he's going to find something better than anything he's found before. A new chance for humanity. I don't understand how he knows, but I don't have to. All I have to do is build a ship like none that has ever been built before and fill it with the right people and technology to make his dream work."

"We," said Emily. "I told him I'd help."

"Thanks," said Agnes. "You probably understand what Ed wants better than anyone. The colony has to be completely self-sufficient. All the Big Boats are constructed to make colonies that can still count on Earth, especially intellectually; the Big Boats carry people to work the machines, but the thinking is being done here. We have to load out boat with all the skills and knowledge to allow the new colony to prosper entirely on its own."

Emily nodded. "And it has to be quiet. A place for spacers." She looked around her unassuming bar. "We need this, on a planetary scale."

Agnes laughed. "How hard can that be?"

* * *

Agnes watched as Emily took a final look around The Shed. Emily's worn canvas bag was by the stairs; in a few minutes she would hoist it on her shoulder and walk up the street to the space port, take one last look at Earth's blue sky, and leave forever for parts unknown. Agnes sipped her martini. The new bartender already had it almost right. "I can't tell you how many times I wanted to strangle you in the last few years," Agnes told her friend.

Emily smiled. "Yeah, we make a good team, don't we?"

"I'm going to miss you."

"It's not too late to change your mind," Emily said.

Agnes listened to the music for a while before answering. "Someone has to stay behind."

"Your staff knows what to do."

"There's a battle ahead. The Space Authority is going to try to make your colony their property. I'd go crazy if I never heard how it turned out."

Emily smiled. "You're just looking for a fight."

Agnes laughed softly. "Yeah, could be." It was true enough, as far as it went. Very soon, there would be a lot of people screaming very loudly here on Earth, when they discovered that Stephenson's Coup had just been a preliminary skirmish. Agnes had used every ounce of her persuasion, along with vast amounts of Captain Ed's cash, to get the brightest minds of Earth, from theoretical physicists to zero-g plumbers, to sign on for the design and construction of the Little Boat. One science magazine had called Little Boat "the crowning triumph of humanity." What no one on Earth yet realized was that most of those same people would be passengers on the colony ship as well; Captain Ed was taking the best of Earth with him on his voyage into the unknown. Science and technology on the mother planet would be set back a generation, and most of the credit for that went to Agnes. "People are starting to figure it out," she said. "You better lift before they block the port."

"They can't do that," Emily said. "You made sure of that."

"I made sure they can't do it legally. But some panicky bureaucrat might try anyway. Actually, I hope they do try something overt, but not until after Little Boat is ready to boost."

Emily watched Agnes with concern. "When they know the whole story, they're going to come after you with pitchforks."

"In the long term, it will be all right. Once we get past the initial hysterical reaction. They've already approved everything; they just didn't know what they were approving at the time. I'll be able to protect the colony's independent status."

"But..." Emily hesitated.

"What?"

"Does it matter? They won't even know where we are."

"In the long term, it will matter. For the next guys, it will matter."

"Agnes, there's something you're not telling me. The real reason you're staying here."

Agnes regarded Emily -- her colleague, her partner in crime, her friend. It might be generations before the world understood the revolution the two of them had fomented. Up there in orbit was a spacecraft, the embodiment of a grand theory, still unproven. Emily would be on it. She would know the answers to questions that would haunt Agnes for the rest of her life. But Agnes didn't belong in that world. She belonged here, on busy teeming noisy Earth, a place where she could put on her armor and fight for a cause, where brashness and histrionic style were assets and a sharp wit and sharper tongue her weapons.

If that armor also kept people at a distance, condemning her to a life of solitude, that was all right, too. And that, ultimately, was the reason she would stay behind. Her throat tightened at the thought of living in the quiet intimacy of the new colony. The place sounded... crowded.

"Maybe I'll join you later," she said.

Emily surveyed the wall on the other side of the room. "I never got your picture."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"No, but after we boost tomorrow, you'll be Unknown to us."

"Me and ten billion others."

"Yeah, but you're the one who matters. The one we will all wonder about."

"One way or another, Emily, you'll hear the end of my story."

* * *

"Another?" Alan asked.

"Why not?" Agnes said without looking up from her empty martini glass. Here it was, the end of her story. An old woman, her body failing, drinking alone. The Iron Lady, her colleagues called her when they thought she couldn't hear. Respected, feared, sometimes even liked, but while her legend faded into history she was still around, unable to fade away with it. There are no sunsets left to ride into; the hero has to stick around town and listen to the uncomfortable silences.

No sunsets down here, anyway. Perhaps, she thought, she should buy herself a spaceship and just start flying. One last picture for the wall, a footnote in the story of the Unknown, a dust mote in the cosmos.

The door opened and two people came down the stairs. Agnes recognized Ralph; he had been a regular here when he was younger. A real space-head. The girl that was with him was a tourist, and obnoxious. Agnes tried, but she just couldn't tune out the girl's chattering. She had the whole bar laughing along with her now. Her name was Emily, of all things.

It was when the girl approached the famous portraits on the wall that Agnes understood who the girl was, with a jolt so strong she spilled her drink. She felt the tangible sorrow as the girl said goodbye to some of the faces on the wall. She knew them -- after the exodus. When the girl got to Captain Ed's portrait and gave the date of his disappearance, Agnes was crying along with her.

The couple soon left and Agnes sat on her stool, frozen, her mind running in circles. Wherever Emily and Ed and the others had gone, now someone had come back, a native of that world. And that meant...

"You need a replacement?" Alan asked as he wiped up her spilled drink.

Agnes shook her head and stood. "Not tonight," she said. "Busy day tomorrow."

"Oh?"

Earth Space Authority would make a move soon; it was looking for a case to use to overturn the Space Access Act and other key parts of Stephenson's Coup. On the other side, the Spacefarer's Union would try to spin the spacer colony as an alternate home world, using it for leverage to gain more independence from Earth. The other colonies... Agnes smiled. Everyone was going to come out of the woodwork for this one, all her old rivals and allies, all the old gunslingers and the new kids looking to make a name for themselves. Her heart beat faster; she hadn't felt like this since the legal storm caused by the Little Boat's departure. Someone had to stay behind. She had been right, and she wasn't finished here yet. The final battle loomed.

"There's going to be a fight, soon," she said. "A good one. After that I'm going to visit some clients."

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-21


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