by Rebecca Hodgkins
The Rocketeer leans against the chrome bar, nursing a drink. She has a few choices of scenery--bad choices, in her opinion. Like always, the Rocketeer picks the best of the worst; the view out the window of the space station orbiting Mars. She looks down at the red surface polka-dotted with rockets, shiny silver spears pointing back at her, at the station, at the stars beyond. Just a quick jump down, then into a rocket, and back out into the Black again.
And none of these bucks taking up the rest of the bar know what they're in for, she thinks.
The bar is typical for a space station. Chrome tables and stools. Stale smell of air recyclers working too hard. The inevitable mirrors everywhere, which she avoids looking into. Glasses piled with bubbles of alcohol, since the simgrav messes with liquids. Makes your blood feel funny, too, or it always has to the Rocketeer, so she keeps it turned off when she's in the Big Black. What's the point of gravity when you're so far away from everything else? Using simgrav's like paying for sex, which she wasn't above doing in the early years, but has learned to do without.
One group in the corner is messing around, throwing little balls of alcohol at each other and being crude. It's their first trip out from Earth no doubt, and they think they're something else. They're talking about the flight to Mars, and one guy brags that his rocket went to the belt beyond and dodged a few asteroids before circling back and docking. Bullshit, she thinks. She's the only real Rocketeer in the whole damn bar, and it's eating at her tonight. She rubs her ancient scar.
Oh, these young, dumb Major Toms. The Rocketeer takes a swig, pops the alcohol bubbles between her teeth, like tiny grapes. The bartender was smart or experienced enough not to offer her the water she's supposed to be drinking this close to a planet. To my continued health, she thinks as she tips her head back for another drink.
The Major Toms don't even notice her watching them. Then again, she suspects they're ignoring her. She's got the air of someone who will tell them how it is, and they don't want to hear that tonight. They are scared senseless but don't want it to show. And they should be, but not for the reasons they think. They don't know the Big Black. They haven't stared into it, or else they wouldn't be excited about all those rockets waiting for them.
They would be bored as hell, like her.
The Rocketeer looks back out the window, so she doesn't realize a Major Tom has joined her until she feels a tap on her shoulder. The contact makes her jump. She hasn't been touched in decades.
Margo pulls her hand back quickly, but her eyes stay fixed on the Rocketeer, continuing to study her ever since she drifted into the bar. Up close, she notices the must smell an old uniform gets after so much time. The suit is not skintight but tailored, black armor protecting the Rocketeer against black nothing. There is a glitter of dust from a different place on her service boots. The Rocketeer has that peculiar frailty of the long-time flyer. Her body is stretched, emaciated, a side effect of not enough gravity. Because she has so little body tone, a mini-rocket on her back keeps her up, an anti-gravity pack fighting against the simgrav. The vets all have one. The rocket is very conspicuous, silver metal against the black fabric of her suit. Her body becomes the space against which it flies, Margo thinks. When she walks, she moves like she's at the bottom of a pool.
The Rocketeer's eyes are blue, almost white, like hot stars. They shine from staring out into far places far too long. They make the Major Tom flinch. Whatever her original intentions, she looks like she regrets crossing the bar.
"I'm sorry," she tells the Rocketeer. "I shouldn't have--"
"What do you want?" The Rocketeer's voice creaks like stressed metal. Usually, she doesn't feel anything at all anymore, but there's a note in the Major Tom's voice she hasn't heard in ages. She feels a pull backwards. It makes her angry for the first time in years, and she's not even sure why.