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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

William Ledbetter is a writer with more than fifty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra. He's been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his wife and three spoiled cats.

A wintry blast followed the bearish man into the Grover's. He growled, stomped snow from his boots, then waved as greetings filled the tiny bar. Annie stopped in the middle of making a whisky sour to stare as he shrugged out of his heavy coat and hung it up.
Jose nudged Ed and nodded toward Annie, then they both laughed. She glared at them, finished making the drink and sat it in front of Bianca, whose hair was pink again this week.
"Where you been!" Jose said over his shoulder. "We almost had to drink your share of the beer!"
The big man took a stool next to Ed. The name tag sewn to his blue uniform said Karl in red script. "I'm beat. I think half the houses in the county had heating problems today."
"Any scantily clad housewives call you today, Karl?"
Annie sat a huge mug of beer in front of him. He gave her a warm smile and drained half the glass in a single swig. "No, but the ones who answer the door in their bra and panties, when it's ten degrees outside and their furnace is broken, well... they're not exactly subtle."
Laughter warmed the bar. Everyone raised their glass and drank.
Bianca leaned in close and said in a conspiratorial voice, "Hey Annie? Would you waltz around a cold house in your lacy undies to catch a handsome repair man?"
Annie leaned on her elbows, lowering her face down opposite Karl's. In her smoothest Texan purr, she said, "You know, even though I hate this cold Yankee weather, my personal furnace works just fine."
Hoots and yells filled the small room. Karl smiled, started to speak, then glanced down at his wedding ring and drained his mug.
"Well, Annie, I think you're just too fucking subtle," Bianca said.
Opie stumbled through the door amid swirling snow, waving a glowing tablet. Bianca's smirk changed to a bright smile and she removed her coat from the adjacent bar stool. Of course Opie wasn't his real name, but the smiling redhead looked just like Richie Cunningham.
"Hey! Did you guys hear the news!" he said and dropped the tablet on the bar. "Some astronomers in Australia got radio signals from aliens!"
"Ed's been talking to aliens ever since they inserted that probe a few years ago," Annie said.
Ed flipped her the finger.
"No, this is serious shit," Opie said. "It's all over the freakin' internet."
"Turn it on," Karl said and motioned toward the large TV behind the bar.
Annie sat another beer in front of him, then turned it on.
"You won't find anything on there," Jose said. "About two hours ago Sabrina Kalashnikov announced that she's going to marry her brother's ex-wife."
As predicted, all the regular news channels were filled with Sabrina's pouty face, but the financial news channel had a header that said: ALIEN CONTACT! The subtitles scrolling across the bottom said that the signal had been confirmed by nine observatories around the world and SETI.
"Holy crap," Annie whispered. The bar was quiet for several minutes.
"It's a good thing they're forty-seven light years away or we'd probably pepper them with nukes," Jose said.
"If we consider the superiority of the human species, the size of its brain, its powers of thinking, language and organization, we can say this: were there the slightest possibility that another rival or superior species might appear, on Earth or elsewhere, man would use every means at his disposal to destroy it."
"Oh jeeze, he's rattling off quotes again," Bianca said.
Ed snorted. "Where do you get this shit, Jose?"
"I can't remember who said that one," he said with a shrug.
Opie held up a finger and tapped repeatedly on the tablet. "Jean Baudrillard. A French... semi... semiologist?"
"This shit really scares me, guys," Bianca said. "I mean aliens are real? That's always bad in the movies."
Opie hugged her. "They're too far away to worry about invasion. Our fastest ship would take thousands of years to get there."
"Actually, on a cosmic scale forty-seven light years is pretty close," Jose said. "They could have a much higher technology level than us and maybe some kind of warp drive that lets them travel faster than light. Scientists at NASA are actually working on something like that called the Alcubierre Drive."
Ed elbowed him. "Stop it, Jose. You're just scaring her more."
"Can it really be considered contact?" Annie asked. "I mean we've heard their radio signal, but we haven't had time to decipher it and we haven't sent any kind of reply."
Opie poked at the tablet again. "It says here they were microwave signals detected in the hydrogen band. What the hell does that mean?"
"It means they're trying to pop all of our popcorn from a distance," Karl said. "Bastards."
Annie laughed.
Jose shrugged. "Over my head."
Bianca whispered something to Opie, then they both pulled on their coats and headed for the door.
Ed's fists clenched and he stared into his drink as they waved and disappeared into the black, snowy night. "I don't get it. Bianca could get so much better."
Annie snorted. "Oh like you, Ed?"
"Like freakin' anybody! She's a doll, so why does she go home with him?"
"What the hell does it matter if we found aliens when it takes almost a hundred years to ask a question and get an answer?" Jose said.
Annie stared after Bianca and Opie for several seconds then glanced at Karl. "Because in the cold and the dark, it's just better not to be alone."
They all raised their glasses high in the air and drank together.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Author Comments

The idea for "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" came to me when I was discussing with a friend the reasons why a civilization might want to try and contact other civilizations in the galactic neighborhood. There seems to be a lot of reasons to stay hidden or "dark," but a lot fewer for taking the risk of making contact. Considering the distances, trading goods would be nearly impossible and even exchanging information about technology and culture would be very difficult. But just maybe the certainty of knowing we're not alone in the cold darkness would be reason enough.

- William Ledbetter
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