Aphelion Issue 255, Volume 24
October 2020
 
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The Red, The Black, and The Gold

by Jeremy Zentner




The holo-imagers flicker in and out. 

For a brief second, I see the grim-gray of the bar.  The table I’m collecting dirty glasses from is also flickering a little.  I give it a good whack before it turns back to the polished image of a handcrafted wooden piece of furniture.  Looking up, I check to make sure the vid is still working too.

The news is on. 

There are a few static-ridden images of expanded bodies enveloped with crystalized blood.  A voice in the background comments on fundamentalist neo-theists.  Terror cells that plague the system.  War still presses on between the Martian fundamentalists and the UN loyalists on the red planet.  Back Earthside, there are reports of UN agents arresting a mass of neo-biblicalists and Buddhist-Supremacists. 

Cracking down on the tyranny of superstition. 

Ceres never gets this heated. 

It’s been a pretty slow night and I’m thinking of hitting my bunk.  Third shifters won’t get off for another three hours so I can get some sack time.    

“You still here, Jax?”

I hear a groan.

“Alright, just don’t freak out my rush hour.”

That’s a joke and I’m the only one who laughs.  Not much of a rush hour on a place like this.  Ceres Station probably has about twelve hundred people on it at all times.  Two-hundred and fifty people if all of the liners happen to disembark at the same time.  Most of the travelers don’t stay longer than a few hours before departing to their next venture.  They generally don’t even leave ship unless there’s a problem with the loading drones.

Technically Ceres Station has a life support system that can sustain five-thousand-two-hundred and fifty-three people, with a possibility of five extra children below the age of five. 

It never gets that busy anymore.  Not with the mines hollowed out.

Just a cold point of harbor between the Jovian planets and the two “civilized” worlds.

Then I hear it.  The automation of the hatch doors sliding open.

My eyes turn to the entrance and see what stands there.  A lady in blue.  Her skin-tight pants connects to her blouse by a waist-zipper that has a miniature chain to pull on.  The teeth of the zipper curve up from her right lower hip to wrap around up to her left ribcage.  Her figure is fine with those classic hips.  Definitely someone who doesn’t live in the black.  She’s tall enough, I suppose, but her hour-glass figure is still a bit too lovely to make her a void-dweller.  Most folks living in space are rather slim and even fragile. 

This woman is not fragile.  Planet bred. 

Around her neck is a silver necklace that holds an emerald orb at the end.  It’s one of those patriotic charms that politicians seem to wear.  In this particular case there’s something inside the transparent orb.  Something like a plus sign.  Or a cross.

She’s definitely the type of woman you never dare call girl.  Even lady would be rather insulting.  Woman is the word for her.  And ma’am if you’re looking to rain down flattery. 

Then I realize my jaw I still open.

“Sorry, is this place open?”

“Uh, sure.  Yep.  I mean, I was about to sneak out for a bit given the absence of my clientele, but, uh, yeah, we’re open.”

“Great,” she keeps walking in and takes a seat on a stool.

I get my rear behind the bar as quick as possible while pressing the power button on the dreary news, “What will you be having?”

“Gin and tonic,” she says.

I silently thank the cosmos I had Gin on the last order list.  New liquor usually takes two years to get in, unless I find a shipmate willing to sell his own stash, “I guess it’s nearly four in the morning Ceres time.  You on that time or lagging?”

She huffs, “Almost midnight for me.  They have me surfing the vacuum so much, I’m gonna get seizures soon.”

“I take it you don’t haul freight often?”

She almost giggles, “No, not really.”

“So, uh,” I finish mixing her drink and slide it to her.  “What do you do?”

“I guess you can call me a UNi,” she lifts the glass.

I ignite an e-cig and pour myself a glass of club soda, “Government stuff, huh?  Like a Federales?

“Beg your pardon?”

“A Federales.  It’s an old Mexican cop.  Cowboys would fight them in what was called the Wild West.  A division between ancient Mexico and US.  Lots of conflicts of interests.  Wars for settling the area were fought.  More criminal stuff as well.”

“So besides a barkeep on an asteroid, you’re a historian?”

“Hah, well, not really.  This place is called Gold Rush to give that old cowboy tavern type of feel.  I had to look up quite a bit of historical sims to get the holo-images programmed just right.”

“Interesting.  So why call it Gold Rush?  Why not just Ceres Bar and Grill?”

“Well,” I puff out a stream of vapor.  “One, I don’t grill anything.  Meats and veggies cost an arm and a leg out here.  And two, Ceres is the direct metaphor of the Gold Rush.”

“I’m not following.”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of engineers, scientists, miners, all rushing out in these parts to make a fortune.  But what they generally tend to find is that their golden opportunity was only worth just slightly more than the whole trip.  I mean, sure, these people plan and budget as much as they can, but sometimes a ship hits a micro-meteor.  Every now and then someone’s engine ruptures.  Sometimes they discover that their precious mineral is found on a closer moon and suddenly the commodity floods the market bringing the price of their loot down to nothing.  That’s kind of what the place pays homage to.  The Gold Rush was full of empty promises and broken dreams.  Settlers would spend their fortune moving west and never find an ounce of gold.  They would get robbed and shot just for giving the wrong look.  Native tribes were slaughtered so that profiteers could simply have a crack at procuring that precious metal.  Ceres is the embodiment of human greed.  I can think of no better name to call this place.  It’s a place that dines so many broken dreams.  Hell, it’s kind of a broken dream in itself.  Thought I could make my fortune here, ended up just eking on by just like everyone else.”

I can’t tell if the woman is about to frown or give one of those dopy pity smiles.  Stupid self-loathing words, why did I have to go on like that? 

“I am surprised to find a real live person tending a pub all the way out here,” she finally says after an awkward moment.  “Every port I’ve visited typically has a culinary-bot serving drinks.  And grilled food.”

Her smile is so malicious it’s arousing.

“Yeah, maybe on an orbital dock.  Or even on a moon somewhere, where they have factories and such.  Ceres Station is more like a cast-away island though.  We don’t have factories and we certainly don’t have AI techies.  I once thought of leaving this place staffed with bots, but those machines generally break down every year or so.  That wouldn’t matter much with a warranty, but that wouldn’t include the shipping.  Shipping a brand new drone to Ceres Station costs nearly as much as it costs for my very own life-support here for thirty years.”

“So, why choose Ceres to open a bar?” she asks taking a drink.  Why not just open up a tavern on Phobos?  There’s a lot of troops there needing a drink, I hear.”

“That would be something to think about, sure.  I don’t know.  I’ve been mostly a life-support logistics specialist for most of my career out here in the black.  I would stock up ships with the proper rations and oxygen tanks, water.  Sell entire hydroponics bays and ventilation systems.  It paid well and I got to be under my own management, more or less.  A lot of the time I would be an on-call emergency logistics transporter.  If an orbital or a mothership I was stationed on received a distress call from another ship about to run out of oxygen or water or what have you, I would be dispatched on a high-speed rocket to deliver the emergency supplies.  Sometimes I would even deliver a medic to help out with injuries or severe illness.  Pregnancy even.  I made a lot of cash on the emergency runs.  You would not believe how grateful people were.  The company paid me double when out on a run, but the ships paid me in fortune.  One ship gave me nearly five grand in crypto-coins.  One freighter gave me a cut in their freight haul.  Another even offered up their female engineer as proposition—“

“Oh, well did you take them up on that?”

“Hah… Nah, that was just a little too weird for me.  But I did take them up on some whiskey aged nearly two centuries.  It still sits right there,” I point to a bottle behind me sitting on a top shelf with a label that read 2125.  “A sip from that will cost you a hundred yuan for a shot glass.”

“Interesting, so a life in freight rescue has made you a liquor connoisseur.”

“A little bit, yeah.  There’s a lot of time for people to waste in the void, so liquor is the most treasured commodity.  Pretty hard to come by, too.  After one of my contracts I probably made nearly five million in any currency you can think of.  Enough to establish any pub I wanted.  Thought about going back to Earth, but when I went to look at some sights in the high rises…  The people.  There’s just too many.  Don’t get me wrong, working in space can be one of the loneliest things in the system, but what’s even lonelier is living among twenty billion people and not being able to talk with a single one of them over the crowd of other voices drowning you out.  So I went to where I felt most at home.”

I take another drag.

“And oddly it’s on a piece of junk rock station out in the middle of eternity.  And with the high demand for booze, I thought it was a for-sure money maker.  But the booze is more precious than company I’m afraid.  I mean, just look around.  Folks would rather drink in their bunk or galley than have a little social time in a pub.  It could be worse, I suppose.  It’s pretty good company right now.”

I sip on my club soda, watching her intently. 

“Well, maybe this place just needs a woman’s touch,” She says with the most minute smirk.

I smirk back.

Like the devil’s clockwork, my little drunkard patron groans out of his inebriated slumber.  The lady and I both roll our eyes to the waking corpse.  Jax stumbles on over to the bar and I begin to put on a pot of coffee.

“Well, let’s take a look at the news,” I press a power button on the table and the holo-imager brings up the screen.  Initially the hologram resembles a yellowed newspaper with old press-print around what’s supposed to be a nineteenth century black and white photo or sketch.  Instead, we see the perfect clarity of a newsfeed. 

The reporter is saying something about the Martian Fundies working off world.  Assassinating anyone connected to the UN Peacekeepers.  The last victim was a Colonel on leave from red planet combat duty.  They say he suffocated on his way Earthside when a suspected neo-theist shut down the ventilation systems for his bunk block.  The suspect hitched a ride with forged UN credentials on an orbital dock.  All of this three-dimensional news drama caught inside a gigantic old west paper hovering against the wall. I thought it was cute once.

Jax, my drunkard patron finally takes a seat, “How are ya?” he grumbles to the lady in blue.

“I’m well.”

“What’s your name?”

“Miranda,” She giggles.  “What’s yours?”

“Lieutenant Hintz, Jax.  Jax Lieutenant Hintz, Special Void Forces.  Continually drunk.”

“I bring over a cup of coffee, “The Lieutenant here is a war hero.”

“Is that right?” Miranda says with a fake astonishment.

“Nah,” Jax says.  “Nothing bigger than a tall tale.  Just a run-down vet.  Did my time for the UN.  Never plan to set foot on the red planet again.  Or Earth for that matter.”

“A vacuum dweller, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says without even looking a Miranda.  “Of course, finding aspirin in the black is a bitch.”

She smiles.  I don’t.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear,” Jax says looking at her.

“Oh, it’s no trouble dear,” Miranda says as she brings up a hand-purse I didn’t even notice before.  She opens the silver lock and digs in to retrieve a pill bottle.  “Here,” she slides the unmarked meds over, “always a goody a girl keeps in her purse.”

“Thanks,” he pops the lid and throws in a pill.  “Maybe that’s all I need to do, find a nice space-faring bride and good bye hangovers.”

Miranda smiles at me.

I grin a little.

“You got chow here?” Jax asks me.

I get a can out from under the bar, “Just rations.  Three yuan.”

The man delicately opens his wallet and finds nothing, “You take UNi creds by any chance?”

“Just take the can and sit somewhere I can’t hear you.”

He takes the rations and trots off back to his little booth.

“Generous.”

“Nah, I just wanted to get rid of him.  Besides, I’m not too sure how long those rations have been expired.  I might feel bad if he pukes.”

“Hm,” to my shock Miranda takes the e-cig out of my lips and puffs.  “Well, a guy as drunk as he is probably going to excrete something.”

“That’s the truth.  Perhaps, you would like to finish that drink somewhere else?  Avoid the vet’s illness and such?”

“Hm,” she takes another drag.  “Well, where ever would I go with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in another on this lonely depot station in the middle of the dark?”

“This station doesn’t have to be all that lonely.  Not where we’d be going.”

She smiles with little intention of reply.

“I mean, I know what it is to leave some place for the vacuum.  When you finally figure out you’re not making that fortune you set out for and you’re just alone by yourself.  It’d be nice to find someone to be alone with.  We could be alone just for a little bit.  Two loners in the middle of forever.”

She makes a long silent sigh as vapor drifts out of her nose, “I wish I could.  I really wish I could get a bit of heaven here, but I’m afraid I have to be leaving.  I’m sorry.  I’ve made promises and I have to keep moving.  I have work waiting for me on the red planet.”

“Ah,” I said in a sad way.  “You have work waiting for you that tells you to hop rocks and then go to a war zone?”

She seems to get upset even though her face won’t really show it, “Yeah.”

“Well, okay.  I suppose I can get that.  Tell me, why did your obligations send you here?  People who come out here searching for their buried treasure are usually just running from trouble.  Or towards it.  Even in a bucket like this, even that soldier boy over there, he’s been running from some pretty insidious memories.  Since I doubt you’re running from such troubles, maybe you’re running towards it.  Is it something you want to be doing?  Is it worth the price of a gin and tonic and a half smoked cig?”

She’s silent.  I feel mean now.  Cruel, trying to guilt her into the sack. 

“I don’t know,” she exhales.

I sip my club soda and relax my interrogative tone, “Well, I’m sure it’s for the best.  So.  You’re a Martian girl?”

“Yeah,” she hands back the cig.  “I better go now.  If I miss my depart time it will be another month before I can find a ship heading for red.  Hard getting safe passage to Mars these days.  With the civil strife and now these conspiracies about assassins plaguing the newsfeeds.”

“Could imagine.”

She smiles again, “Well, you ever want to find roots on a real world again, maybe consider the red.  That is, if you can stomach it.”

At that, the lady leaves me and my little veteran friend.  She leaves us for a world.  A world full of red, and not just for the rusted iron in the soil.  She leaves us for that hellhole, but it’s still an entire world and nothing like a depot station built on empty promises and broken dreams.

I put the e-cig back in my mouth.  Still has a good couple of puffs worth of vapor in it.  I take a seat across from Jax.  It looks like the poor drunkard has passed out again. 

“Hey, Lieutenant?  Still with me?  Don’t tell me all those years in the service made a light-weight.”  Still he lays there.  I take another puff, “Alright, but I’m gonna take that rice casserole.  And don’t expect a yuan back.”

I take the can and am about to dig in with the spoon I swipe from his chilled hand.

Chilled.

“Jax?”

I lift up his face.  His eyes are vacant.  No foul breaths emerge from his dry mouth.  Even his skin is fading into a bleached-tone.  Poor bastard.  All he ever wanted to do was take that war-check of his and drink himself silly out in the black.  Now he’s dead for what reason I cannot fathom.  The deeper mystery is who that lady really was. 

And why I’m not going to tell anyone. 


THE END


2020 Jeremy Zentner

Bio: Jeremy Zentner has published short stories in science fiction, horror, and supernatural fiction. He has also been the recipient of the Lois C. Bruner award in creative nonfiction. He lives in rural Illinois, USA.

E-mail: Jeremy Zentner

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