Two Moon Tavern

“You can’t get there from here” is the answer most receive if they ask. This establishment is for spacers: older, more experienced hands with the unavoidable occupational scars—visible and otherwise—of at least a decade in the out-there, who dislike the optimistic clatter-chatter of bright-eyed youth; those with a thousand-kilometer stare.

   “A booth in the back corner, please.” The hostess knows the routine. Our group makes the same request, in the same words, at the same evening hour, on the same day of the week—every week. We’re a very exact and precise gathering. Not all of us are in port every week, or even monthly. But we always seem to have a quorum of six for her to seat—never more, never less.

     Late arrivals get shuttled off to the bar front or reading room for less boisterous conversations. In the twenty-three years previous, only once did this meeting of liars fail to form. This entire station sector had been blocked when the fast clipper Horizon III attempted to dock inside Corona Station’s manufacturing block. Things were, to say the least, unsettled by that event. Yet, we found our bearings the following week.

     Food, drink, and braggadocio bullshit stories are on the agenda and, tossed in for flavor, the occasional show-and-tell. We have a chairperson to keep things nice and tidy, settling disputes and ruling on our tall tales’ veracity, and rating the several storytellers’ deliveries. As the evenings wear on, the chair’s pronouncements become a bit slurred—brew will do that. We expect it; we promote it. He gets free drinks.

     The chair’s selected by rule: the third member to show up is it. Most of us try not to be third. It eliminates you from joining in and cajoling narrators to be more forthcoming, or at least more provocative in their facts and delivery. Tellers are routinely interrupted by accusations, shouting, table-thumping, and the occasional reach-across. If you stay within the broad bounds of some credulity, you’re safe from any verbal stones cast your way.

     On that peculiar night, I’d arrived first. That night has never left my conscious mind; every word remains, refusing to be banished to the fog of memory. Our table included Chief Waterson, the most grizzled spacer in the universe, or so it seemed to us. His attendance had sporadic gaps of years between visits. Everybody knows Waterson as the lone survivor of the Mining Disaster of ’27.

The manner of his survival, what he had to do, sends shivers down my spine. When the Chief attends, out of respect and awe, we maintain a civil and quiet reverence for at least the first fifteen minutes. What started this curious night was Waterson seating himself third. I’d seen him at the bar, leaning into his drink, hanging back, waiting. Highly unusual.

     Meetings start with current events, but not the sort the planet-bound humans sop up. We have a routine. Our news pieces cover who’s been promoted, demoted, thrown in the brig, and which ships have degenerated into piles of metal scrap but somehow continue to follow the Nav-Lines. The juicier bits, the who’s-screwing-who gossip, are saved for dessert. Eventually, everyone learns everyone else’s business out here.

     That evening, Waterson presiding, each of us in our turn shared the requisite stretched, short tales as the round-robin progressed. I noticed Waterson had skipped Danny, the youngest at tonight’s gathering, saving him for what reason I hadn’t a clue, but would soon learn.

     At last. “Well, Danny,” Waterson boomed, “what have you brought to the table tonight?”

     Danny’d been fidgeting for the last two hours. He started with, “I’m not sure whether I should, in all respects, share all I know, but I need to get it out there, away from me, as far as possible.”

     “Don’t hold back,” Waterson demanded. “I’m sure we’ve all heard shakier stories than yours.”

    Danny cleared his throat. “I’ll tell this one straight up, no embellishments, no sidetracks.” We felt Danny’s trepidation radiating like a beam-rider shedding excess heat.

     “I was in a single-seat mining unit. You know the sort: limited propulsion, enough to move around your designated exploration area after Momma jettisons you on the proper trajectory. I was on my tenth day when the sensors went all screwy. Something massive was off my lower port quadrant, where only an empty void had been a few seconds before. Of course, I couldn’t see anything at that distance.

     “I commed the mothership, sent ’em my sensor reading. They told me to move in but take precautions.

     After a few micro-pulses to get me going in the right direction, it took three days to get close enough to see it. My primary concern on board was my dropping oxygen and water reservoirs I had remaining. That and the fact I’d need someone to give me a tow, or at least a resupply.”

     Terry, ever impatient, rapped his knuckles on the table. “Get on with it, or this’ll take all night.”

     Glancing at Waterson and receiving a nod, Danny continued. “I’ll get right to it, but I’m skipping over—”

     “Please do!” came the chorus from several, well-lubricated listeners.

     “Well, as soon as I got close enough for a visual, I still didn’t understand what it was, but it was definitely something man-made. I latched on, intending to examine it in detail without the need to spend propellant for station-keeping. You all know the viewports in those units are small, usually scratched all to hell.”

Some grunted, some nodded, but Artie demanded, “Are we going to wait for dawn before this concludes?”

     Danny was getting more than a bit annoyed. “As I was saying,” he said, jaws clenched, “I couldn’t see much, but my sensors were returning one thing one minute and another the next. So, I suited up to go EVA. When I undogged the outer lock door, my spotlights revealed the most starkly strange sight imaginable. You all remember the Wanderer, how it seemed to dissolve in full view of Exeter Station, without a trace, about fifteen years ago?”

     Just the name of that ship gives spacers the willies. “Now you’ve gone too far!” I said. “Are you going to sit there and tell us you found the Wanderer?”

     Jutting out his chin, Danny threw back, “Not making any such claim, but this thing had once been a ship.” He leaned forward, gazed from man to man, proceeded, almost whispering, “The difficulty in the determination was it appeared to’ve been turned inside out, wrong side backward.” He halted for a moment; eyes downcast, seeming as if he’d bitten off more than he should have. He pushed on. “There were things . . . living things crawling all over it.”

     “Ho, you had us going.” Terry laughed. “So, you’re saying you discovered non-human intelligent life out there, and you’re the first to do it?”

     Danny stammered a weak, “W-well, it was that . . . or things that had once been human.”

    My imagination’s gears turned. I watched as Danny’s eyes lifted to Waterson, looking for support or perhaps encouragement. I didn’t care which because this was too far off track from our usual orbit. The Chief nodded for him to continue. An ominous cloud of superstitious doubt formed, holding steady above the booth.

     “Let me tell you, I didn’t waste time getting out of there. But before jumping back in the airlock, I grabbed the closest piece of that thing at hand. Needed something, anything, to show I wasn’t making up a story for the retrieval crew who’d meet me later. Still in my exposure suit, I unlatched, thrusted away, not caring if it was the right direction.” He looked up, challenging everyone at the table. “I bet any of you in my place would’ve done the same. Gave me the shivers for some days . . . thinking one of those horrors might’ve hitched a ride. Or more. Once away, I turned the cameras on the hulk. It hung there, infested, not moving . . .”

     I don’t recall who said it, but it was said: “Don’t you dare pause. Get this over with so we can have dessert, by god. This is becoming tiresome.” Beneath the speaker’s bravado lay the unmistakable tone of bump-in-the-night primal nervousness.

     “Well, then it sparkled! Sort of a fizzle, and then it dissolved, just like in the videos of the Wanderer. In a few seconds, there was nothing left but the big, black empty.”

     Chief Waterson had remained quiet during Danny’s entire rendition, nodding in a few places, idly scratching a deepening groove in the table with a finger of his metal hand. That is, until Bennet broke the silence with a bellow.

     “This is the most unbelievable cocked-up, cross-wise tale to ever grace this assemblage! You have successfully stunk up the entire evening. Couldn’t you have thrown in something believable, something possible, something probable to prop up your gas-bagging?”

     Three others grumbled their approval of Bennet’s outburst. I’m ashamed to say I was one. Waterson began tapping his fingers, drumming them louder and louder, metal on plasti-wood until silence was met. We waited for him to pass judgment.

     “The lad’s story is straight and true, right down the line,” he pronounced. To Waterson, everyone was a lad. “I say this because I told him the story exactly as it happened. Coached him on his delivery and all the finer points, I did. If I’d told the tale, there would have been no challenges from any of you bilge-cleaners, and that’d be no enjoyment, no entertainment for me.”

     Sweeping the gathering with a squinted eye, he reached into his satchel, withdrawing a stained cloth ship’s bag, cinched at the top by a knotted drawstring. The bag had Wanderer stenciled diagonally across its width. Indrawn breaths accompanied the withdrawal of hands from the table. The disappearance of that ship, the manner of its demise, sends quantum chills through the blood of every spacer. No one wanted to be close to that ghost thing.

     Waterson’s mechanical hand reached in, ever-so-slowly exposing a small, dark segment of what was hidden inside. With determination, he quickly unveiled the remainder, slamming it down in the center of the table.

     No one breathed, nobody twitched. Everyone recognized what it was. We knew its brothers. A ship’s log canister, designed to survive almost any cataclysm, even plasma jets. This one had been badly distorted, warped, and blackened at one end. The other end presented a smooth, diagonal, mirror-smooth slice-through. Still, we made out the unmistakable embossed imprint of W15390, the Wanderer’s hull number.

     “Before you ask,” warned Waterson, “the bag is one I had made up for this curiosity.” He leaned in, whispering so only those in attendance would hear. “Found out what misfortune befell that ship and what caused it.”

     With that, he leaned back, crossing his arms—a sure sign he wouldn’t share that information. Not that anybody wanted to be infected with that knowledge.

 

✽✽✽

 

Like Danny, I needed distance from that story. I think all who heard it that night felt the same. We never spoke of it again, no rehash, no “remember whens,” no critiques. But for two weeks, something drove me, pulled me along, so I did a bit of archaeology into the Wanderer’s past.

     Closure, I needed closure. My interest in further investigation ended with a reading of her last crew manifest, those aboard before she’d disappeared. I suppose I could’ve looked deeper, scoured the net for more and finer details, but I didn’t. On that page, it stopped there on the last name: Waterson, Earl, Chief Propulsion Technician. I never told anyone.

     Chief Waterson was never seen again after Danny’s tale. Not in the Two Moon Tavern or on any charted space station. That was twenty years ago. Today, a thick brass plaque hangs on our booth’s wall, welded in place, engraved with two words: Wandering Waterson. I put it there.

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