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’ve not 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 skin-tight 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.
“I wanted to ask….” The Major Tom’s eyes shift to the scar on her cheek. “How did you get that?”
“By talking to an old Rocketeer after my first launch.” She’d gotten the scar in a place like this one, before her first deep trip, when she was a stupid Major Tom herself. She’d back-talked a senior Rocketeer. She didn’t believe they were slave-trading miners out there. She didn’t believe a lot of the bad things about space back then. He gave her the first reason to change her mind.
“And he did that to you. And you didn’t turn back.” This Major Tom won’t turn back from their conversation, either.
“No. Just the opposite. Heard about the slave-trading and couldn’t get out there fast enough.” She’d helped take care of that. And I come back, and it doesn’t mean shit. The world has moved on.
“Thank you for your service.” The Major Tom seems sincere. Her cheeks are round, apple-fed, still puffy from the trip.
The Rocketeer almost smiles. “You’re welcome.” The Major Tom leans in closer to catch the words.
“What’s your name?” The Rocketeer surprises herself with the question.
“No wars to fight out here anymore, Margo. You exploring or settling?”
“Exploring, you could say. Is that why you first came out here?”
“That had something to do with it.” Oh, she wanted to explore all right, when she was younger. She used to climb trees, big oaks in the forest near her home, all the way to the top, just to stretch her hand our farther, to the moon, the stars, and the red dot of Mars winking promises back at her. But that wasn’t the whole reason why she’d left Earth. She went to a carnival once as a little girl, and she dropped a shiny new dime into a fortune telling booth, and she got a slip of paper that read, “You will live forever.” So she became a Rocketeer.
It was one of the things she told herself before every battle. And now before every long stasis that takes her deeper into the Big Black. You will live forever. But what does it mean, when nothing tugs at you anymore? Except this girl. Her accent. It tugs. The Rocketeer lets the anger slip away, just a little, to see what else she can feel.
“Why else are you out here, Margo?”
Margo takes a long look at the Rocketeer’s face. Handsome but severe, her face is like a stone cliff eroded by wind. Why do I see wind around her? Solar winds that scoured her down, eroded away any softness, sending her into space like driftwood. Because the Rocketeer has no softness left, Margo decides she can trust her.
“I’m out here because I have lymphoma.” Margo laughs a little. “They can colonize Mars, they can mine the Kuiper Belt for water, but they still can’t always cure cancer.”
“I’m sorry.” The Rocketeer’s voice creaks and breaks, and Margo hopes it’s from age, not sentimentality.
“The radiation broke down my lymph system. My legs swelled and it put a tremendous strain on my heart. Seems I already had a congenital defect. So my doctor came up with this radical plan. Without gravity, he said, there’s nothing to pull the water down into my legs. It all gets distributed evenly. So here I am. I already feel better.”
“So here you are. You’re not staying on Mars. You’re going deep.”
“Yes. As far as I can. My doc is working with a team to program my rocket to treat me while I’m in stasis. Maybe by the time I reach some distant moon, I’ll be cured. Maybe not, but I’ve got to try.” Margo bites her lower lip.
“And if it doesn’t work, you’ve at least added years to your life. Is that what you think?”
“No. Those are empty years, I know that. I’m not a fool. No, if it doesn’t work, at least I’ll die standing on a new moon. I will have gone somewhere, done something amazing.”
The Rocketeer actually reaches out and touches Margo’s hand. It is a light touch, brief. It is all the Rocketeer can take. Maybe it’s all this girl can take, too, she thinks as Margo’s attention turns to the waiting rockets Marsside.
“You’re from the Midwest. I can hear it in your voice,” the Rocketeer says.
Margo looks back and smiles. “I’m from Northern Illinois. Green Town, in the Forest District.”
“We called it the Rock River Valley when I grew up there.” The Rocketeer watches the girl’s eyes as Margo calculates the years those words carry with them. Will they widen, or can she hide her surprise?
They widen, but just for a second.
“Forest District. Is that supposed to be ironic?” The Rocketeer remembers the riots, the mobs, people crawling over each other to get to a can of beans. She remembers the fading abundance of her home, loggers clearcutting her beloved woods, the resources that everyone fought over at the end. That was the final reason why she left Earth; the sight of her treeless town hollowed her out and sent her running.
“It’s not ironic at all.” Margo tilts her head. “You haven’t been back in a while, have you? They replanted seventy or eighty years ago. Mom’s looking pretty healthy.”
“You call Earth, ‘Mom?’”
“We do. And Mars is Dad. We run to him, he picks us up and tosses us into the air, laughing. All those rockets, built from iron ore mined in space. We’ll just keep flying and flying, until we find somewhere else to land.” Margo looks back out the window. “There she is now.” Margo points, and the Rocketeer thinks she’s singling out a ship, until she follows her finger to the small blue planet in the sky. “She’s getting lonelier by the day. It won’t be long until there are more of us up here than back there.”
Margo leans away from the bar. “Good talking to you,” she says, and walks back to the Major Toms. The Rocketeer watches her confident stride, no illness apparent. Maybe Margo would stand on a distant world someday, still strong. Maybe she’d stay there, build herself a new life.
More of us up here than back there. The Rocketeer thinks about that. She flies alone now, no crew. All veteran Rocketeers become that way, driven into solitude like animals that can’t live in the pack anymore. In the end it wasn’t because of the wars. That was living. It was the boredom afterwards, life in the Big Black. The derelict ship she came across housed a single Rocketeer too, dead from a failed stasis. She towed the rocket all the way back to Mars. They were probably incinerating his body right now. He was old enough to have fought beside her, too old for any family to care about or claim the ashes. The Rocketeer watched Earth rise as the space station fell around its Martian orbit. Would he want to go back?
Maybe he would. Maybe I do, too.
Back to a place where a woman can find some peace after living forever.
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