Copyright is held by the author.
JUP STOOD behind his bar, wiping the plastic surface idly with his remaining good arm. It was quiet inside and the usual hum of filtration fans had been muted at great cost. Generic piano music played from hidden speakers, unremarkable except in its consistency under the murmur of conversation. The bar-top was situated in a corner of the largest room of The Hearth of the Hive, a roughly spherical enclosure with only a few well attended tables. This was not the pub’s true size though. Many small hallways were tunnelled into the rough-hewn walls, and lead away to an anthill’s worth of nooks, each pathway looping around on itself and splitting to reach the cellar and balcony level. The maze-like interior made Jup’s establishment a primary destination for many of Acraepheus’s inhabitants, whether they were looking for a place to lock lips, lock down deals, or take a moment for themselves. Each alcove was stuffed with a wooden table, sturdy velvet-covered chairs and a button to light up a panel under the bar — a button you’d never press if you knew Jup. Orders were meant to be made in person or not at all. Questions about why he continued installing those buttons, and kept them in good repair, were met with a stony silence, his default interaction.
The late afternoon crowd was buckled into their seats, enjoying huddled conversation and stiff refreshments. Jup, sensing that some regulars would be needing replacement drinks (he did nothing to dissuade the rumours that he was psychic) filled two ovoid glasses, ochre liquid slopping out in the exaggerated manner that low gravity produced. He swept up both containers in his one hand, hopped over the bar and glided into a hallway, touching the ground only to maintain his forward motion. Jup placed the cups on the table without a word, received a nod from the two seated men, and returned to his spot.
There was a domed skylight set in the centre of the room’s roof and it revealed a star field, rotating slowly. Dim amber lighting clothed everything in a wistful hue, unlike the harsh white brilliance of the rest of the station. He heard tinkling glasses and cutlery accompanied by gentle laughter. If Jup were the sentimental type he might have sighed with contentment. Instead he itched at his stump. The peaceful moment was broken by the muffled thumps of someone stomping towards the entranceway.
In another moment the hatch was forced violently inward, and a figure in a spacesuit stood framed by the opening, identity hidden by a helmet that was twisted around backwards. The person’s gloved hands slid against the helmet, scrabbling uselessly for a source of leverage on the perfect sphere. Stepping forward blind, the figure tripped over the lip of the hatch, falling, or floating, forward. A deft midair roll kept the figure on booted feet. Everyone in the room had stopped talking or eating to watch the surprising new arrival. Jup, unperturbed, set to making a complicated drink, involving spices and a single lopsided lime. The suited person tried a new tactic to remove the helmet, hooking fingers under the locking ring and pulling up. The fabric of the suit stretched and then gave with a series of pops, ripping the neck-hole off altogether. Chrysanthemum Chen, lead engineer, skilled pilot, and subject of a hotly anticipated docu-drama, threw the helmet to the floor.
“Fuck! Who designed these piece of shit gloves to not have grip pads!” She pulled at the zipper behind her back, “Probably the same chucklehead that said, ‘Oh, no don’t use your real suit for the shoot, we can’t see your tits at all!’ Dearie me, I’m sorry R&D put so much vacuum hardening and radiation padding on the only thing between me and infinity.”
Chrys worked her way out of the torso of the suit, letting it dangle around her waist. Everyone recognized her and knew better than to stare in star-struck awe or comment on her continuing tirade. Chrys hopped across the room and sat down at a tall stool in front of Jup. She reached a sinewy arm over the slick surface of the bar and grabbed one of the spare shammies that lay neatly folded in a pile, freshly laundered.
“I’m ruining this,” she said, and set to wiping the thick layers of makeup off her face. Red, black, and yellow smeared onto the towel in response to her vigorous ministration. Jup placed the finished drink in front of her, and started making another one. Chrys threw the towel at the hamper, and drained the cup in one gulp.
“Phowaah. Thanks, Jup. These documentarian types. They come, hat in hand, saying they want the real story. The real me. Then, whoops! We didn’t realize you were such a bitch all the time. Here, say this instead. Also can you grow your hair out? Wear this costume? Natural makeup only, we swear. No public interviews, really!”
And on it went, Chrys muttering about her thousand grievances and Jup wordlessly supplying her drinks; a usual night as far as the crowd was concerned. Conversation rippled through the winding corridors, sound hushed and intimate. As evening approached, marked by the announcement of “Sundown” over the P.A., attendance swelled. The recent docking of a transfer shuttle added to the usual host, new arrivals clogging the asteroid with their bumbling gait. Tourists that swept through restaurants and dispensaries like a locust horde, collecting souvenirs and experiences to crow about once safely back home. Amir arrived to start his shift, helping to wait tables with a heart-stopping smile and infinite grace.
The timbre of the place changed. Louder. Boisterous celebrations for arriving safely, for being in space, and for how good the potato skins were. Chrys started to draw more attention too, from some who had only seen her on video. They whispered and pointed. Chrys hunched over the bar, trying to keep her head down. A man separated from his braying compatriots and approached, waddling in the unfamiliar Gee. Jup’s violent grimace, scar tissue wrinkled by a scowl and a milky eye glinting with disapproval, had communicated more than enough to keep the throng at bay so far, but the man did not seem to notice. He took the stool next to Chrys’.
“Another for me, and one for the lady as well,” he said. Jup did not move.
“Jup has me covered. Piss off,” snapped Chrys.
The man laughed, still at ease. “Perfect! Now I’ve made an opening overture and still get to keep my credits.” He extended his hand. “Roger Adams. Nice to meet you.”
Chrys turned to look at him, all set to spit fire. Jup also leaned in, ready to hogtie the intruder and float him out the door. Roger looked like he was in his late 50s, grey at the temples, wide smiling face disarming somehow. His introduction seemed genuine and friendly, lacking unwanted feral attraction or the shaky, nervousness at meeting someone famous. The moment stretched.
What the hell, she thought. She gave his soft hand three pumps. “Fine. But I’ve had it to the gills with the media today, so tell me what you want quickly. Autograph? Pic?” Chrys eyed his gut, “A date?”
“Ouch! Message received. No, I only had a question. Just feeling curious since I saw you at the interview earlier today and you seemed wholly miserable.”
“I was wholly miserable. Out with it.”
“Right, why does the mighty Chrysanthemum—”
“Chrys if you like your teeth where they are,” she interrupted.
Roger laughed again, unruffled. “Sure! Why should the mighty Chrys need to bow to these profiteers?”
“But why stay with the Agency then? I’m sure there are a hundred private outfits that would fall over themselves to offer you a job. Why allow yourself to be forced into that whole rigmarole?” he asked, polite but insistent.
Chrys looked up at the skylight, watching the stars slide by as the rock they all huddled in rotated. “That’s a hell of a question, Roger.” She had asked herself the same thing many times today, and it seemed like it came up more and more each décadi. Chrys had therefore collected a number of rationalizations, excuses, and reasons to allow the Agency to push her into doing public appearances, and that damned movie. Looking around the bar, Chrys took some time to codify her thoughts, and Roger waited patiently. She appreciated him for it and wondered what his day job was. He’d been able to approach her and start a conversation when she was at her most dismissive. Jup, who had slipped away at some point to deliver drinks, returned from the kitchen with a tray heaped with finger foods. Breaded tofu fingers, French fries, veggie sticks, and sauces to go with them. He wafted the tray down in front of Chrys and Roger, and watched them for a second, reading Chrys like a clearly labelled chart. She did not notice, deep into introspection as she was, but Jup nodded to Roger, satisfied that he had not overstayed his welcome, and drifted to the other side of the bar. Roger helped himself to a fry, and then made little hooting sounds, trying to cool his mouth down as the hot inside seared his tongue.
Chrys laughed, crunched on a carrot, and started speaking, half to herself it seemed. “I put up with the Agency because I have to. I have no other choice. The Agency owns Acraepheus, so they have the right to say who stays and who goes. Sure, corporations can influence that decision with money, but then I’d be in debt. To a corporation. Seems like a bad idea. So I stick with the devil I know, and won’t make any waves, so they don’t think about demoting me.”
“To an office job?”
“To earth! And I will not go back.”
“No?” Roger had a shrewd look.
“No! I won’t go back to shit on my boots and dust in my lungs. Trapped under 500 kilometres of atmosphere. Trapped by a gravity well that takes 2 million kilograms of fuel to lift out of. Trapped by bureaucracy and expectations and a slow death of looking at the stars and never knowing more! If I wanted to leave this pebble, I could suit up, and jump off!” Chrys realized she was shouting, and looked down at her clenched hands in embarrassment. It was possible she’d had too much to drink. Roger, genial, unflappable, Roger did not react at the outburst like the others in the bar, staring and whispering.
“I understand. Sort of. We’ve left our home, and for the first time in centuries the seas are uncharted and immeasurable. We don’t know what we don’t know.” He paused. “And it’s good that you feel that way too.”
“I’m so glad I have your approval for my feelings, mister,” Chrys sneered.
“I don’t mean it that way! It’s good because it allows me to confidently offer you a job. One without debts or hidden clauses.”
“Oh, I should have known, if you didn’t want to meet me or screw me, it’s because you’re trying to hire me. Well, thanks for your consideration, but, as I explained, I’m fine where I am.” Chrys got up to leave.
“Jesus, just hear me out.” Roger’s eyes turned flinty for a moment. “We’re going out far, Chrys. Round trip time measured in years. And we need people like you, not for your name, or for your face, but because you can fix stuff, fly stuff, and even learn new things. That’s a rare enough skill even counting those who don’t already know orbital mechanics.”
“Is it important?”
“Incredibly. Terrifyingly. I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t. We don’t all hate grass between our toes.”
Chrys sat back down and looked at Jup, still minding his own business at the other side of the bar. She knew he had his good ear pointed at them though, and smiled inwardly.
“Jup, some ice water please. Roger here is going to try to convince me to do something incredibly stupid.”
Outside, the asteroid kept turning. Unaware of the multitude of human experience happening within, squabbling and science and love and boredom, it instead regarded the stars, reflecting ancient light off of its nickel-iron skin. The stars, with lives measured in millions, viewed by ephemeral mankind as ever-burning points of light. The stars, which were going out, one after another.