I stumbled through the cavernous ruins of old Philadelphia with little more on my mind than my next drink and the song I’d heard at the last bar. I was having a fantastic time. This morning I’d graduated college with a few dozen good friends, all aces in the fields of biology and physics. I’d even already been placed at a large scale terra-forming firm, ready and set to work on the new Luna dome or maybe on the Mars expansion, even though I’d probably be stuck designing better grav-flow toilet systems for a while. Seriously though, being comfortable on a zero-G shutter was turning into a bigger deal than you’d think. As more and more of humanity moved into space for tourism, exploration or life it was the little things that were coming to matter most.
I wandered alone through the broken streets. I couldn’t remember how long ago I’d lost my friends. I knew half of them had bugged out at the border between new Philly and the old section of the city. The ruinous area I was wandering through was little more than burnt out warehouse and long-haul shipyards.
I liked the idea of the long-haul spacers far more than the reality. It was a romantic concept, like the pirates or navies of old, but the reality was way worse than I could possibly imagine. I was certain of that. Even with all the tech innovations of the past 80 years no one had been able to force their ways around the light speed barrier equations. Equations derived by Einstein and Lorentz that stated that time slowed down as you approached light speed. That meant that the faster you went the slower time flowed. For the long haulers on the ship only a year or two would pass between docking on earth, but it could be 50 or even 80 or more years passing on Earth.
So far only the first of the long haul ships had returned. Each had rung in to fanfare and a hero’s welcome by descendants and a few extremely aged friends they’d left behind.
I was headed down to old Philly now for one such landing. The “Mercy” had put to deep space about 75 years ago and returned this morning with a cargo full of Uranium ore and a dozen other rarities earth had been running low in when they left. Things like titanium and francium, rare items before asteroid mining had reached its peak.
But the crew stories were the important part. They were living pieces of history, singing old songs, wearing old clothes, and dancing old dances. They told stories of star clusters and planets ripe for colonization. They spoke with old accents and were ever to know anything of the recent past. Most of my drinks at the last bar had been bought by a long -hauler named Curtis who had wanted to know anything I could tell him about the last 80 World Series. And being a Baseball buff I had happily obliged.
The ‘Growling Bear’ bar held a crowd you could gear from half a dozen blocks away. Music roared I to the night and the crowd poured alongside it into the street. This area of the district was otherwise largely deserted this time of night so no one bothered to care enough about the noise to do anything about it.
My face split into a grin and I staggered forward into gleeful jog, joining the crowd. I started laughing almost as soon as I hit the bar, pushing up to the worn marble surface just as a mountain of a man yelled “Drinks on me!”
I cheered his good taste with the rest of the crowd and snaked a beer from the barman inside of a minute later. Thank God for good timing. Sometimes I think I was just born lucky.
The party was wild. There was absolutely no doubt about that. About 10 minutes after grabbing my beer I stumbled into a clear spot in the crowd a stopped, staring stupidly around me at the silence. Something hit me hard in the jaw and I spun around wondering what it had been. The roars and shouts in this area were of a much different hue than elsewhere. It wasn’t until the next fist landed in my gut that I realized I’d wandered directly into a very large and multi person fistfight. Well, I’m as game as the next fellow, so I snapped a fast kick into the knee of the nearest man, slugged the last of my beer, and threw myself on top of two smaller men nearby with a howl of joy.
I never knew what started the fight, or really who was on which side, but 15 minutes later I was one of the 5 still standing. All of us were grinning ear to ear and bleeding from half a dozen places. We roared with laughter and stepped over the fallen bodies back toward the bar, any disagreement long forgotten.
On one side of the bar there was a more quiet corner, an island of peace in the storm. I sidled near enough at one point to learn it held the ship’s Captain, and several recruitment officers. The “Mercy” had lost several good hands and need replacements for their next ship out. I stayed as far away as I could, though part of me wanted to sidle closer to the Captain. She was lustily built in her mid-40’s and I chuckled at the idea that by the time she got back into town I might be hitting on her as a younger woman.
I ran into Curtis the baseball fan again near the bar and hugged him sloppily, thanking him for pointing me toward this amazing night. He laughed out loud and shoved me back toward the quiet corner, asking if I’d signed yet. I laughed, and was about to explain that would never happen when the man-mountain bought another round. Curtis and I cheered together and spilled half our beers in a sloppy toast before drinking deep.
By the time the party was beginning to slow the sun was coming up and I was almost too drunk to stand. I hummed along sloppily with music that had stopped several minutes prior, my glass still half full. Four of the men still standing were the other victors of the earlier fight. There was the man-mountain of flowing beer, and even Curtis was still standing. He leaned on a stool near the Captain’s corner and swayed slightly with the turning of the earth.
I waved a farewell and started staggering in the vague direction of the door, not sure if I could still find a cab this time of night. It wouldn’t be the first night I’d slept off a bender in a doorway or alley. College was full of such fun.
I think I was about halfway to the ever moving door when the voice rang over the sound of people snoring. “Mr. Cord! What’s the count?”
It was a woman’s voice, deep and full-throated, ringing through the bar with the familiarity of command. The man mountain stood tall and turned toward the Captain’s corner, suspiciously sober-looking. “17 brave souls.” He called back.
“17 is not enough, Mr. Cord.” her voice echoed across the bar. She smiled. “Find me some Volunteers.”
I’d heard the rumors, of course, people missing after a long haul ship left dock. Curtis himself had said something earlier, something back at the first bar. What had it been? I thought backward and thought hard, vaguely picking his voice out of my stupor. “You enjoy the party, man, but whatever you do, you don’t be there when it ends.”
I hadn’t paid any attention at the time. I had been focused on counting how many times the Cubs had won the series in 80 years. It had been zero, but at the time I was drunk enough it had required counting.
People started surging around me, roaring drunk with booze and shock. Several of the men still standing held heavy wooden sticks ready in practiced hands. I ducked a swing and ran toward the door, adrenaline forcing the booze from my mind. The next man to come at me got a punch in the gut and my knee in his face. Something hit me in the shoulder and I spun, catching a glimpse of Curtis’ face looking vaguely apologetic before another blow came crashing down.
I looked up from the floor. The alcohol had absorbed most of the hit and my eyes focused on Mr. Cord, the man mountain, standing over me. He had seemed so friendly when he was buying drinks. I slammed a heel into his leg, but his lips curled into a mocking smile. “Welcome to Galactic Fleet service, Boy!” He said.
The hard wooden club came crashing down again and everything went black.