As I drift in toward Earth I hear the young ones talking between the ships, excited to hear the voices of other humans again. It's the same old chatter. They use phrases like "getting out of this tin can" and "breathe the sweet air of Earth". I must have said those same things myself back when I was their age, and somewhere some weathered traveler had rolled his eyes, much as I was doing now. Some things never change.
"Spacer is a state of mind," My old friend Burt had said before he vanished in the inky black. No one dies out here, they are simply never heard from again. Either their drive has failed and they're still alive in their metal coffins, doomed to die of old age and loneliness light years from help, or they have found paradise and decided to keep it to themselves. No way to tell.
"Home," a lot of the kids called Earth. Once they touched the ground and looked up at the sky, most of them would never go back out there.
My first cruise had been on a big boat, with a crew of ten. You don't see crews that big any more. Even back then the expense of keeping ten humans alive was taking a big slice out of the profit margin for the ship. For three years I was ass-to-elbow with those other nine people, and when we finally slipped into orbit around the mother planet I could not get out of there fast enough. I was home, and I was rich.
Riding the shuttle down I couldn't even look at my crewmates. They were exchanging sentimental farewells, resolving to keep in touch, and making all sorts of promises that would be forgotten the moment the hatch door opened. I just wanted the hell out of there. Skip clapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would be going back out. "There's no way in hell I'm going back out there," I said. None of them was surprised -- or sorry -- to hear me say that even while they made their plans to sign on to the same ship next time.
Near the port was a knot of four or five bars, known as "the docks" and frequented by crews just back down. The legend of the docks grew in our hearts while we were out there, until now everyone in the crew was looking forward to blowing off a little steam. I had visited one of the bars briefly before we had left. I envied the spacers and the way they swaggered. I envied their camaraderie. Orbiting the spacers were the beautiful people seeking the glamour of association, offering themselves in exchange. I had yearned to have my own constellation. I had wanted to be a spacer, and now I was. I would step into the bar and they would recognize me for a kindred soul.
I had no intention of carousing with my crewmates; I had seen enough of them to last a lifetime. But I looked forward to getting drunk, getting laid, and most of all seeing new faces. They would understand in those bars.
When the hatch opened there was a rush as my crewmates eagerly surged forward, so I waited until everyone else was off before getting up. My shoes pinched; I had not worn them in a long time. Carefully I made my way down the stairs and onto the solid Earth. For our own protection we were in a large hangar. It felt vast. The ship orbiting above dwarfed it, but this was one single space. I took a deep breath. The sweet air of Mother Earth was chilly and smelled of kerosene and hot metal. "I can't wait to get outside," Sue said. Her voice bounced around in that huge place and seemed to come from everywhere. Mark let out a whoop and sprinted for the door. The rest followed, laughing, except for Captain Jones. She stood next to me and I reflected that of all the people on that tin can she was the one I might actually miss.
"You going to the docks?" she asked.
"Yeah. Be nice to see some new faces."
She chuckled. "I'm too old for all that, now. Well, see you 'round."
"See you." I didn't think I would, but there was no point going on about it. I picked up my duffel and left.
The company had arranged for us to sleep in a hotel connected directly to the landing complex. My credit voucher was waiting. I tossed my bag on the bed and went straight back out. I knew where I was going.
I stepped out the front door of the hotel onto the busy street and stopped dead in my tracks.
They say that the sidewalk is wider in front of that door to compensate for the spacers standing and gawking at the sky. I felt the heat of the sun on my cheek even as it descended to the west. Puffy clouds, gray on the bottom, brilliant white on top, drifted serenely, and as I watched began to show hints of orange. The air was alive, brushing against my skin, filled with sound and smell and birds and bugs and people. People everywhere, pushing past me, shooting by in their cars at reckless speeds only meters from me. No one gave me a hard time while I stood there. I was a spacer.
"Ha!" I called out, startling a woman passing near me. The sound vanished into the sky. Sore feet forgotten I headed toward the docks. I was never leaving this beautiful planet again.
It was still early in the evening, but the port is busy day and night, so the bars are as well. I started to go in the first door in the row when I heard Skip's hearty laugh come from inside. I moved on to the next bar.
I stepped inside and it was as I remembered it. Loud and bright, with the scent of sex in the air. I stepped up to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender looked at me oddly for a moment and turned to pull me a draft. I sipped the sweet nectar and looked around. The spacers were there, moving as I had remembered them, only now it looked more like tired legs and ill-fitting shoes.
"You just get in?" a pretty girl next to me asked.
"Yeah," I said.
She slid closer and took my arm. "You want me to give you a proper welcome? The first time after you've been in space is always the best."
All those beautiful women in there and the first one I met was a prostitute. She was pretty enough, but I was looking for something else. "No, thanks," I said. "I'm still getting my legs underneath me."
"Oh, I'll knock you right off them again," she said.
"Maybe later," I said. She gave my arm a squeeze and forgot me as soon as her back was to me. I ordered another beer. The music seemed to be getting louder, the laughter more forced, the air more cloying. The beer was good, though. I looked around the place I had dreamt of for three years. I had timidly entered the sacred hall before and I had not belonged. Now I was back and I still didn't belong. I still wasn't a spacer. I would never be a spacer.
Another woman approached, dark and slender, dressed to kill. Another prostitute. She slid her hand up my back to rest on my neck. "Hi, sweetie," she said.
I turned to face her, ready to brush her off. She looked at me oddly, the way the bartender had. "What are you doing here?" she asked. She sensed it, too. I didn't belong.
I became defensive. "It's as good as any place, isn't it?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to be rude. It's just, well, this is a oncelers bar. We don't see many spacers in here. Usually they avoid the docks like the plague."
"I'm not a spacer."
She laughed. "You should go over to The Shed." She borrowed a pen from the bartender and drew a quick map on a napkin. "It's quieter and they have better beer. I'd go over there with you but there's just too much money in here. Tell Annie that Claire says hello. You'd like Annie, I think."
"Thanks," I said, inspecting the map. The Shed was nearby, an easy walk even in my shoes. She kissed my cheek. "Gotta put beans on the table," she said, and set her sights on a new client.
My glass was empty. The bartender looked questioningly at me through the noise, but the raucous arrival of Skip and the rest my crewmates decided me. I shook my head. I would find a quiet place and have a few more beers and get myself straightened out. I just needed some time to adjust. Maybe later I'd come back and find Claire. I slipped out before anyone recognized me.
It was dark out, and getting cold, but I found the place easily enough. It was on a side street, its hand-painted sign lit by a single bulb, casting crazy shadows as it swung in the wind. The wooden door stuck a bit as I pulled it open and stepped down into the quiet murmur of the room. Old, sad music filled the place but didn't crowd it. I crossed over to the bar and settled onto a stool. I inspected the taps and was happy to see one of my longingly-remembered favorites. I ordered. "Are you Annie?" I asked the bartender.
"No, that's Annie over there." She gestured to a table where two men and a woman were already looking over at me.
Three years in a tin can with her and I had never known my captain's first name. "I thought I might see you here tonight," she said.