"What's it like, out there among the stars?"
The man on the television screen scratched his stubbly chin and regarded the interviewer. "You're not among anything out there. You're alone, surrounded by little dots." The lights of the studio made him look wan; he was hardly the image of the robust space-faring hero that filled the pulps.
The pretty young woman pushed on gamely, despite her uncooperative guest. "It must be beautiful."
"For a day or so."
"Yes, that's true."
Finally something she could work on. "They say it takes a special breed to be able to tolerate that sort of solitude for so long."
"I suppose 'special' is one word for us."
"What word would you use?"
"Really f -- ed up." The television producers bleeped over the word but left the meaning clear. Somehow it was acceptable that way.
Captain 'Tequila' Mary Kline chuckled at the shocked expression on the interviewer's face and muted the sound on her television. Ed would be at The Shed tonight; she'd be sure to give him a hard time about his moment of fame. Imagining Ed, one of the most reclusive of them all, standing at the focus of the Giant Eye made her chuckle again. Served him right for finding the best planets.
Tequila Mary lay back on the hotel bed and closed her eyes. Her room was sealed up as well as any spacecraft, but still she could feel the difference. There was a pressure here that no physical barrier could stop, a force that could not be measured by any instrument but one every spacer knew was real; the pressure on her nerves from all the other people all around her, pressing against her own psyche and squeezing her until she had no choice but to shoot back out into space again, like a watermelon seed squeezed between fingers.
Her boat was ready for her, waiting patiently in orbit; her clearance had come through moments before. She was ready to escape the cradle of humanity.
She opened her eyes again and watched the surgically optimized interviewer struggling to keep a cheery face glued on over her mounting frustration. Ed, for his part, seemed unaware of her discomfort. But the Giant Eye demanded Ed, space hero, and it would have him, even if it cost the woman her career.
Now that Mary was able to leave, the desire to flee was building steadily. Hell, why wait? Time to get off this clamorous little planet and back out into the velvet peace of the void. Past time. She jumped up and grabbed her bag. People would understand.
She was at the door when she turned back to turn off the television. It was a close-up of Ed, and she saw his jaw flex, saw his need to turn and run from that television stage and the idiot questions. She dropped her duffel. She owed it to Ed, at least, to say goodbye.
What would he say if she told him she wasn't coming back?
Tequila Mary paused at the door of The Shed. Somewhere the Giant Eye was watching this door, but it did not reach inside. Mary wasn't sure just how it was that Emily kept the media at bay; perhaps it was the mystique of the spacers themselves. Perhaps it was the assured destruction of that mystique, a product the Giant Eye sold, that kept it away. Nothing was more damaging to the media value of spacers than spacers themselves. Perhaps Ed had been reminding them of that this afternoon.
She opened the door and stepped into The Shed for the last time. Everything she did tonight would be for the last time, every face she saw would be for the last time. When it was over, she'd have her last tequila, catch her last lift to the shuttle, and kick off her shoes for the last time. She would spark her engine and gradually ease out of orbit, and with that act she would do something for the last time for the last time. Then she would be free.
"Gonna miss you, Mary," Emily said from behind the bar. Emily could tell at a glance when a spacer was lifting. Tomorrow some voice on the radio would clear her for deorbit, but it was those words from Emily that really mattered to those who knew. Emily pulled a bottle down and poured a shot of Mary's favorite. She set the bottle next to the glass. "May as well kill it; no one else drinks that stuff."
In the past, Emily had always been content to save the bottle for Mary's return.
"Ed's gonna be getting drunk tonight," Emily said.
Mary suppressed a laugh. "Did you see him?"
"Nah, don't have a TV. Wouldn't be surprised if Ed broke the whole damn network, though."
"He's not that philanthropic."
"No, but he is that ugly."
"I heard that." Ed shut the door behind him and came down the steps. He sidled up next to Mary at the bar. He sighed, as if setting down a heavy burden. "Holy crap." His epithet was heartfelt, but didn't seem to apply to anything in particular.
"Hey, Ed," said Tequila Mary.
"Hey, Teek." Only Ed called her that. Others had tried, but it never felt right.
"Want some?" Mary gestured to the bottle.
Ed looked at it and made a face. "Teek, there's tequila, and then there's ... that."
Emily plunked a sweating glass of Ed's favorite beer in front of him.
Mary took a reflective sip from her shot glass. "You ever notice how Emily always has the right stuff on hand whenever any of us come down?"
Ed nodded. "She had mine on tap before I even knew this place existed."
Mary poured herself another shot. "To Emily."
Ed hoisted his beer. "To civilization's last hope."
Mary offered him the bottle. "C'mon, have a belt. I'm killing the bottle." She thought the implication was obvious but Ed didn't seem to catch it.
"Tell me in the morning whether you killed it or it killed you."
"I'm lifting in the morning."
Ed nodded slowly. "Yeah, you have that look."
Mary poured another shot for herself. "You sure you don't want some?" It was important to her now, that someone share with her. This is my blood ... The guy in that story had been leaving as well.
The door banged open. "Where's Ed?" a boisterous voice called down. "Where's the media whore?"
Ed cringed. "Hello, Skippy." Skippy was a relative newcomer, but already no one remembered his real name. Ed had called him Skippy and the name had stuck. This was Mary's first time dirtside with him, but she had heard plenty of stories on her last visit. He was by far the most extroverted of the spacers; Mary had wondered how he kept his marbles during years of solitude.
"Easy," Skippy had joked to the spacers, tapping his noggin. "I've got a whole three-ring circus going on up there. Never a dull moment." All agreed that he was fun to be around and certain to commit suicide.
"Tequila!" he said, advancing on the bar. He lifted the bottle and took a gulp. "Uh ... hoo! That's not very good." He set the bottle down.
"It's an acquired taste," Mary said.
"The same way ebola is an acquired disease. You find someone who'll drink that with you, Cap'n Mary, and you're done looking."
Looking. It was a common refrain among spacers: 'I don't know what I'm looking for, but it sure ain't here.' The three settled into a comfortable silence. Among spacers, even with Skippy, conversation moved at a different speed. Mary glanced over at Ed. His expression was distant, his eyes focused far beyond the walls of the bar. She always got the feeling that he was far away, even when they were together.
Yet it was Ed who finally spoke. "You know why I called you Skippy?"
"My first time out was a boat of ten."
Skippy shuddered involuntarily. "I've heard about those cruises."
"There was a guy on that boat, named Skip. He was the social center. Wanted everyone else to participate."
Skippy nodded slowly. "That'll scar a man."
"Sorry about the name. Didn't think it would stick."
"Pf. Somewhere there's a onceler bragging that I'm named after him. It's all right. You cringe and run for cover when we're both on the rock, Ed, but you were the one who made me a spacer. You saw it before I did."
"I heard that story," Mary said. "You were over at the docks after your first cruise when Ed found you."
"Yeah. I was trying to get some other onceler to steal a boat with me, for a few hours of peace and quiet."
"But what I don't get is what the heck Ed was doing there. He hates the docks." 'The docks' referred to a row of bars and clubs that catered to the crews just down. They were filled mostly with 'bus drivers', crews that handled the short hauls in Earth's backyard, and 'oncelers', deep-spacers who had completed their first and only voyage, who had not yet realized that they were never going back out. The free-flowing cash and pent-up libidos of returning crews attracted a glittering, noisy, and expensive sort of crowd. None of the spacers liked the docks, but the thought of Ed in one of those places was particularly odd.
All eyes were on Ed as the old spacer pondered his answer. Finally he nodded slowly and said. "It's a secret."
Skippy cocked an eyebrow and threw a speculative look Ed's way. Meeting a 'special friend'? Ed drank his beer. Mary was sure there was another reason, and she was sure she'd never hear it.
She watched the unofficial captain of the spacer fleet. He was scowling, wrestling with something inside his head. Perhaps he was mulling over astronomical data, planning his next cruise, judging where the best planets might be found. Perhaps he was deciding what to have for dinner. Skippy winked at Mary and quietly separated himself, joining Danger Amy and Tom Not-Me at a table. Emily found plenty to do at the far end of the bar.
"You sure you don't want some?"
"Let's give it a try." Ed lifted the bottle and swirled the contents, hoping, perhaps, to precipitate the demons lurking within. Nothing happened. He paused to watch the liquid come to rest, then drank. "Not as bad as I remembered," he said, wiping his mouth.
They sat in silence for a while longer, passing the bottle.
"What do you think I'm looking for?"
Ed considered for a while. "Same thing as the rest of us, I guess."
"But what is it?"
"I've had some time to think about that recently," Ed said. Mary laughed. Spacer humor. "It's a funny thing, isn't it? The more time you have to think about a question, the more elusive the answer seems." Ed took another swig. "The first stories ever recorded by human hands were about people searching for something. Searching for answers, searching for redemption. Searching for a way home. There are some ancient Sumerian tablets that give those people a name."
"What's the name?"
"Well, it's in Sumerian, of course, but it translates to 'spacer'."
That made at least six thousand years that spacers had been searching for something. "So you think there's nothing? No answer anywhere?"
"There's an answer." Mary was surprised at his certainty, even though she shared it. Ed lifted the bottle in salute toward the far wall of the bar. "Some of them know." On the wall was a gallery of photos, a memorial to the spacers who had lifted but never returned. Status: unknown. Mary wondered how long Emily would wait before hanging her picture alongside the others.
The answer was out there, Mary was sure; but she would never find it until she cut the umbilical that still bound her to mother Earth. The answer was out there, beyond the point of no return, in the darkest corner of the universe. That's where she was going.
Ed pushed the bottle into her hand. "Damn, Teek, I'm drinking all your booze."
Mary took a sip. The bitter drink coated her tongue and left a residue in her throat. She checked the label. Same stuff as always. "This really is pretty bad, isn't it?"
"Now, Mary, you can't be talking that way about your beloved ... uh, tequila-like product. Without the fond memories of our chosen spirits, none of us would ever come back."
She took another swig and suppressed a grimace. "You're probably right about that." She handed the bottle back to him. "Kill it."
Ed looked at the remaining swallow, swished it around in the bottle. "You sure you don't want it?"
"Think of it as my good-by kiss."
He drank, tipping the bottle up and holding it inverted until no drop remained clinging to the glass. He made a face as he set the bottle down. "You should brush your teeth more often."
Captain 'Tequila' Mary Kline stood and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Ed."
Ed nodded thoughtfully, then met her eyes for the only time Mary could remember. "I'm glad you were down this time."
"Maybe I'll see you later," he said. It was always 'maybe' between spacers.
Mary hesitated, but somehow she could imagine that if she ever saw a human face again, it would be his, out there where it didn't belong, where it couldn't possibly be. She'd ask what the heck he was doing there and he'd say, 'it's a secret'. She smiled at the thought. "Yeah, maybe. I'd like that."
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