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January 30, 2023

Between the Stars

By Jerry Seeger

The old man walked slowly, his feet shuffling along the smooth sidewalk, seemingly invisible to the people pushing past him. How can my knees hurt? he wondered, They're plastic and metal. But they did hurt, they always would hurt, and there was nothing to be done about it.

He was surrounded by noise. Music blared through the open doors and windows of the bars on either side of the street. Businesses clamored for attention, trying to divert some of the money streaming past. Vehicles of all sizes hissed and groaned as they flashed by. From the pavement rose the sounds of thousands of shoes, clacking and clomping and squeaking and scuffling as people walked singly and in groups, all talking. Talking when there was no one else there, just whispers in their ears from other places. Talking even when the person they were talking to was also talking to them. Talking when there was nothing worth saying, nothing that hadn't been said a million times before. The worst kind of noise.

He turned onto a once-familiar side street -- quieter, but not as quiet as he remembered it decades ago, the last time he'd been there. The old man had sworn he would never come back. Another broken promise.

A block ahead a loose knot of people milled about, blocking the sidewalk. Some carried holocameras, others fiddled with electronic gear, while a few lounged on stools, dressed in calculated professional casual, with a hint of sexy. Reporters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who had returned from the unknown. The spacer girl, the press called her. Born among the stars, child of the exodus, now returned to Mother Earth. Current whereabouts: another mystery.

The old man hesitated but continued up the street toward the reporters, toward the door to The Shed. If the reporters were outside, they probably weren't inside.

At first the assembled press ignored him, as everyone else did. He was too slow to be interesting, just an obstacle on the sidewalk. He reached the edge of the group but rather than go around he stepped carefully through them to the door of the bar. One of the cameramen, likely out of boredom, pointed his camera at the old man and hit the switch. In some air-conditioned room far away a facial recognition program did its job, and the old man heard a whisper from the cameraman to a pretty reporter. The old man's state-of-the-art ears picked up the whisper easily. "Robert Jorbin," the cameraman said. The reporter looked blank. "Spacer," the cameraman added.

"Mr. Jorbin! Could I have a word with you?" the reporter called out, but by then the old man was halfway through the door. He closed it behind him without looking back.

~

The first thing the old man noticed was the music. It wasn't bad, just a little louder than it had been in the old days, and lacking the weight of his most fondly remembered songs. He stood at the top of the steps that led down into the bar as his eyes adjusted to the low light. Intellectually he had known that The Shed must have changed since he was last there. Perhaps it would have been easier to adjust if it didn't resemble the original at all, but there were enough similarities to make the differences jarring.

The bar was unchanged, its dark wood polished (real wood, though few people knew that), but there was a young man behind the bar he didn't recognize. The old man began a slow, careful descent of the steps, scanning the tables for familiar faces. The tables were all occupied, filled with tourists excited by the prospect of the spacers' return. If there were any old friends among them, the old man didn't recognize them.

On the far wall were the photographs. More now than the last time he had been there, dozens more. He had visited that shrine every time he came down from the stars, to see which of his friends were now numbered among the lost. Official cause of disappearance: unknown. Few who were not spacers understood the literal truth of that designation. It was the unknown that had called to the spacers, lured them out into the depths of space, and it was the unknown that had taken them.

Most of them. A few came fleeing back to Earth, engines overdriven and melting down, to live the rest of their lives in fear of the night sky.

The old man crossed the room to gaze at the pictures. About half of them had dates with the names, the last day that the explorer had been seen by another human. The other pictures were labeled with question marks. A different sort of uncertainty. They had all left together, the entire spacer fleet, leaving the noise of the mother planet, leaving the flashing lights and televisions and the pressure of ten billion souls. Leaving the old man. Gone somewhere, to make a world of their own. And have children, apparently. One of them was back now.

A neatly-lettered sign indicated that copies of the photos could be purchased at the bar.

The bartender looked up as the old man approached. "What are you having?"

"Bourbon on the rocks," the old man said. He chose a bar stool where he could watch the door.

"One Spider Bob coming up," the bartender replied and set to work.

"What did you say?"

"We name the drinks after the spacers that used to drink them. Bourbon rocks is a Spider Bob." He put the glass in front of the old man and turned away.

"You moved the pictures around," the old man said.

The bartender paused and turned back. "The spacer girl said the same thing."

The old man nodded. "That's what I heard."

The bartender studied the face of the old man. "She got everyone excited again, thinking the spacers were coming back."

"Good for business?"

"Yeah."

The old man squinted at the bartender. "If I bought this place and gave it to you, what would be the first thing you did?"

The bartender smiled at the joke. "Let you arrange the photos any way you wanted."

The old man returned his own ghost of a smile, showing teeth that weren't the originals. Too white, he thought whenever he saw himself. Too new. "What's your name, son?"

"Andy." The bartender offered his hand.

"Robert," the old man said, taking it. "Now get back to work."

~

The door opened silently, not sticking like it once had, and sunlight spilled into the bar. The door closed again and a female figure descended the stairs. It was the reporter who had called out to the old man. Andy scowled at her.

"You know our policy, Miss Chen," he said.

She turned and looked at him innocently. "Surely a reporter is still allowed to have a drink. We have a reputation to uphold, you know." She turned to show she wasn't carrying anything, a meaningless gesture. "No cameras, no recording equipment."

Andy hesitated. "All right," he said.

She flashed her trademark smile at Andy as she sat next to the old man. "Thanks. I'll have a beer. The one Skippy drank. He's my favorite." Skippy was boisterous for a spacer, camera-friendly and always with something to say. By far the best interview in the spacer fleet, until his ship had arrived home on autonav without him inside. He'd left a note, written by hand on a bulkhead with ink improvised from his food. "Party's over," was all it said.

She sipped her beer. "Not bad," she said to the space in front of her. Nothing she said or did betrayed any interest in the old man, but they both knew why she was there. She was willing to wait, though, to let him get comfortable with her presence. She'd be good at fishing, the old man thought.

They finished their drinks at the same time. "Another?" Andy asked them both.

"Sure," the reporter said, and looked at the old man for the first time. "How 'bout you?"

"All right," he said.

Andy brought their drinks and they settled into silence again. After a few minutes, when Andy was at the other end of the bar, she broke the silence. "My name is Li."

"Robert." He didn't offer his hand.

"I know that," she said. "You were a spacer."

The old man nodded slowly and took a drink. "That was a long time ago."

"You were grounded."

"It was a formality. I wasn't going back anyway."

"Why not?"

He turned to look squarely at her. "You've read the report."

She nodded and took a sip of her beer. "I read it. But there's something missing. Something you didn't tell them."

"What makes you think I'll tell you, then?"

She shrugged and smiled. Her teeth were bright white, and it looked right on her, a contrast to her olive skin. "For now, I'm content just to know that I was right."

The old man returned to his drink. When he finished it, another was waiting. Miss Chen smiled and raised her fresh beer. Before she could restart the conversation the old man's comm hummed. He pulled it out slowly and with stiff fingers brought it to life. He read the message there and nodded to himself. After a few keystrokes the comm went dark and the old man put it away. His face bore a mischievous smile that the reporter found endearing, perhaps a glimpse of the man he had once been, before he had come haring back to Earth. A 'home burn', the spacers called it. When a spacer came back on a home burn, they never went out again.

The records showed that since that day Robert Jorbin refused even to look at the night sky.

The old man sipped his drink. He was waiting for something, the reporter was certain. Perhaps the same thing she was waiting for. The return of the spacers. That was why Chen had been sent there, to spend days hoping for a glimpse of a returning hero. She drew the job because she was not needed elsewhere. Expendable. Yet maybe her exile wouldn't be a complete waste; the old man had a story to tell, if she could coax it out of him.

"Have you been coming in here all these years?" she asked.

"Nope." He scratched his arm and stared straight ahead.

"You're back because of the spacer girl?"

"I suppose."

"Do you think she'll come back in here?" Chen tried to keep the eagerness out of her voice.

The old man shuddered and took a drink. "I hope not. Not while I'm here, anyway."

"Then..."

He fixed her with a red-eyed stare. "I could have gone with them, you know. When the spacers left they offered me a berth on the Little Boat. They offered one to all the nutters who did a home burn and glued themselves back to the planet. None of us took them up on it."

"Why not?"

He turned back to stare straight ahead. "They didn't really want us. We're broken. We remind them that they might break, too, when the moment arrives."

"Your file says you're afraid of the stars."

He rolled his eyes. "They never did understand."

"Understand what?"

"It's not the stars that frighten me, it's what's between them." Before she could say anything he raised his glass. "Hey, Andy, hit me again, would you?"

~

After five minutes had passed in silence the old man carefully rose from the barstool and shuffled toward the photographs on the wall. "You comin'?" he asked over his shoulder. Chen grabbed her beer and followed, her fashionable shoes loud on the laminate floor.

The old man stopped in front of a picture. Chen caught up and saw that he was looking at the portrait of Tequila Mary. He looked at it for a long time. "Never really knew her," he said, and took the photograph from the wall. He set it on a table. The people sitting there cleared space, content to watch the developing drama.

Chen looked back over her shoulder to see how the bartender was going to react. Spacer or not, she had the feeling the old man was defiling a holy shrine. The bartender was talking to someone on his comm and seemed too absorbed to notice. "What are you doing?" she hissed.

"Fixing it," the old man said. He took down two more photos.

"What's wrong with it?"

"Give me a hand here. You might learn something."

Chen reached out to the picture directly in front of her. Henry "Blackie" Cook, the label read. Instead of a date it had a question mark. Blackie had left with all the others in the spacer exodus. She started to remove picture, but couldn't bring herself to do it. This isn't my bar. These aren't my people. I have no right. Behind her, the bartender laughed and closed his comm.

"Are you sure this is all right?" she asked the old man.

"It's okay," he said. "The owner said I could."

Behind the bar, Alex was still laughing. "You didn't waste any time, did you?" he called out.

The old man smiled but didn't turn around. "Didn't want you to forget your promise." He took another portrait down. He frowned at Chen. "You gonna help or not?" Startled, she tugged at Blackie's portrait. It resisted for a moment then released itself from the wall. No lightning came to strike her. She took down another, feeling the thrill of mischief. She smiled. Before she took down each portrait she paused and studied the face, read the names of legends. Danger Amy, now with a date where once there had been a question mark. Jake the Jake, unluckiest of the spacers -- or luckiest, since he'd lived to tell his stories. One after another she added them to the pile.

She stopped at the portrait of Captain Ed, unofficial leader of the group. It was Ed who had found the new spacer world out there, its location still unknown. It was Ed who had funded the spacer exodus, and who had persuaded many of Earth's greatest minds to go with them. The myth surrounding the ordinary-looking man in the photo grew every year.

"That one's going in a special place," the old man said. She took it down and placed it on a different table, separate from the rest of the pictures. The tourists seated there looked on with curiosity, but didn't touch the famous portrait.

Before long the wall was empty. "Now what?" the reporter asked.

"We put them back the right way."

"You remember where they all were?"

"If you know what to look for, you can sort them out. Even most of the spacers never saw it. I didn't see it before I came down for the last time."

Chen nodded but the old man didn't continue. She knew better than to push. He stood in thought for a few moments, then took the top picture from the pile. He held it up, gazed at the image for a moment, and handed it to her. "Over there," he said, and gestured to the right.

She walked a few paces and held up the photo. "Where?"

"That's fine."

She hung the picture. When she turned back around the old man was seated at the table with the stacked portraits. He handed her another picture. "Look at it carefully, then hang it over there." He gestured back to the right.

When she was done she returned to where the old man stared at the next photo. He had become solemn. "Over there," he said, gesturing to the left.

She studied the portrait. A woman's face, dark-skinned, brown-eyed, black hair cropped short. "Captain Beatrice 'Hell Dog' Higgs" the tag read. The date of her disappearance was not long before the exodus. Chen hung it on the wall in the area the old man had indicated. He handed her another and gestured back to the right.

"I could dig up archive photos of the wall before it was rearranged," the reporter offered.

"What would that teach you?"

They continued to sort the pictures, hanging only those with dates. The spacers who had left en masse were not returned to the wall. The group on the right grew more quickly, according to some pattern she could not divine.

After a few minutes Chen's comm whispered the news in her ear. "Get this" her assistant said, "The spacer just bought the whole damn bar and gave it to the bartender, all in a few minutes. That's one wealthy crazy guy." Chen cut the signal without responding. The story was getting interesting, and she was right in the middle of it. Somehow, the pictures on the wall were at the heart of everything. If she learned their secret, her career would be back on track.

The photos themselves were amateur. Some of the spacers smiled, others looked serious, a few looked shy, like it was an ordeal to be photographed. Some of the photos were old, others newer, but there was no pattern to their placement that she could discern.

The old man picked up another photo. He rubbed his stubbly chin. "What do you think?" He handed her the photo.

A man's face looked out at her, haggard and weary, eyes red-rimmed. Captain Jaime 'El Professor' Martinez. He was not one of the famous ones. "Left side," she said, not sure why. Something in his eyes, in the way the looked past the camera, like he wasn't seeing the room around him at all. Like part of him was still out in the unknown. She lowered the photo and studied the old man's face, and for a fleeting moment she thought she saw the same haunted look.

She hung the picture. "What happened to him?"

"I don't know. Maybe nothing."

"What about you?"

"Maybe nothing."

"You don't remember?"

The old man thought for a moment before answering. "Out there, between the stars, without any warning, you come to a line." He hesitated, shook his head, started over. "It's like you're walking along and suddenly you're at the top of a cliff. To find what you're looking for, you have to take one more step." He took a sip of his drink and gestured to the pictures on the left. "That knowledge changes you."

He looked up at the ceiling and took a breath, let it out slowly. "Others, like me, run back to Earth to cower in shame for the rest of their lives, avoiding the pitying gazes of the true spacers, avoiding the stars. Avoiding the promises they made."

The reporter waited silently, afraid even to move lest she interrupt his reverie. She waited a long time. Around her tourists came and went, laughing and talking. The old man handed her another portrait.

"Cinnamon," he said. The word hung there between them for a moment. "It started with a faint smell of cinnamon. Don't know why. Then I saw..." He blinked and his gaze returned to the present. "I saw forever." He took a drink. "I saw wandering, searching, but never finding anything. Forever. I saw hell."

Chen wasn't sure how to follow that. Had the old man actually seen something or had he just gone mad? She looked at the portrait she held. It would go on the right.

"I promised I'd go back," he said.

"I think people can understand why you didn't," she said.

"I suppose people can," he said, with an odd emphasis on 'people'. He wiped his hands over his face and took a deep, ragged breath. "We better finish up," he said.

They worked in near silence until all the portraits with dates were back on the wall, with no discernable border between the groups, unless you knew what to look for. He stood next to her and they surveyed their handiwork.

The old man touched a portrait with his gnarled hand. "They said I was crazy. For a long time, I thought they were right."

"Now you don't?"

"I have no idea," the old man said. He thought for a moment, picking his words carefully. "Did you ever wonder how Ed managed to talk all those scientists into going with him? How he got them to leave their labs and their research, to drop everything and vanish into space?"

"Of course I've wondered," she said. Her heart beat faster. Solving that mystery could make a reporter's career.

The old man nodded. "I think Ed showed them something. Something beyond all understanding, that challenged the very fundamentals of science. Something so astonishing that if I told you what it was, you'd think I was crazy. I might even think I was crazy."

"What was it?"

The old man looked at her speculatively. "Help me clean up." He began gathering the portraits they had not hung back on the wall.

"What are you going to do with these?"

"Save 'em until they're needed, same way Emily did back in the day."

"And Captain Ed?"

A hint of mischief returned to the old man's eyes. "He gets a special place of honor." He picked up the portrait of the most famous spacer and walked to the far corner of the bar. In the short hallway that led to the toilets was another door, unmarked. The old man opened it to reveal a wheeled bucket with a mop and cleaning supplies. Bob cleared space on a shelf between a bottle of cleanser and a package of sponges. He set the portrait on the shelf and stood for a moment, contemplating it.

Ed Smith had the look, Chen realized, but it had been many years after the exodus when he finally disappeared. Somehow seeing eternity had been different for him.

The old man closed the door to the closet.

"You're leaving him in there?"

Again the smile. "Ed should have been more careful what he wished for."

"But people will want to see it."

The old man shrugged. "They'll know where to look." The old man turned and shuffled back into the main room, pausing and looking over the place. "Guess I'm through here," he said. He returned to his barstool and climbed aboard. Chen followed and gestured for another round.

"They're on the house," Andy said. "I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Jorbin."

"You'll be cursing me soon enough."

Chen smiled. There are two kinds of crazy, she thought. Here was a sort of crazy she could understand, the sort that makes a good story. A lovable nut who gives away bars for oddly romantic reasons. "What's it like to be back here after all these years?" she asked.

The old man shook his head. "That was Spider Bob. A spacer. Not me." He took a long pull on his new drink. "I wonder what Emily did with my picture, after my home burn. What she did with all the ones who couldn't hack it."

"What did you see out there? What could convince Earth's greatest minds to drop everything and go out there?"

The old man raised his drink, looked through the amber liquid, and set it down again. His voice dropped to a rough whisper. "He looked a lot like me," he said. "Like a younger brother, maybe."

"Who did?"

"A wanderer, I guess you could say. Like I was."

Chen set her beer down on the bartop with a bang. "You met an alien?"

The old man concentrated, choosing his words carefully. "Not exactly. When I met him he became human, taking his form from my imagination. A spirit, maybe. Older than the stars around us, moving between galaxies, still searching."

Chen tried to hide her disappointment. She tapped her foot against her barstool's leg and looked at her watch. There were two kinds of crazy. An old coot giving away a bar was fun, a broken man hallucinating imaginary friends was just sad. Space ghosts. There was no market for that kind of nonsense.

She was feeling the effect of the alcohol, and no doubt the old man was pretty drunk. She looked over to the wall, at the portraits of the people with the same look the old man had. Were they all crazy? Why not? Spacers were a pretty odd bunch to start with.

It was time to get out of there. Maybe she could salvage a few minutes of human interest for a slow news day, but that was all. She stood and offered her hand. "Thanks for spending time with me," she said. "Can I contact you to schedule an interview on camera?"

The old man shrugged and thumbed her his private number. He watched her leave without blinking.

~

Andy freshened the old man's drink, and hesitated. The old man seemed different now, in a way Andy found difficult to define. He had made a decision.

At the end of the bar was a display case with Emily's old camera, the one she had used to take many of the photos on the wall. Andy unlocked the case and pulled out the archaic machine, fiddling with it as he walked back over to where the old man sat. "Say cheese," he said.

The old man looked up and Andy took the picture. "For the wall," he said, and the old man nodded.

Spider Bob finished his drink, stood, and walked on aching knees to the stairs.

"Gonna miss you," Andy said, a phrase that dated back to the beginning of the spacer fleet, but not uttered on Earth for thirty years. Not like this. Andy felt a chill rush up his spine as he felt his place in history.

Spider Bob smiled. "Say hello to the spacers for me, when they come in. Sorry I couldn't wait around."

Andy nodded. "They'll understand."

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-06-07
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