The view was spectacular, a false-color rendering of what the astrogator sees looking out on the bubble of realspace around our ship. It took up the entire outer wall of Archangel Micheals' forward lounge, the 'wet' one for passengers and off-duty crew. The shields kept other-space at bay, but it crowded in on us. Something pinged off to port, and then again. Something wanted in badly...
There are things out here, that aren't quite there. No, I tell a lie- we definitely aren't all here, in that other space where we travel between the stars, but the predators, they are. They find rather tasty the stray atoms of matter from our starships, which slip through the shields and decay into other-matter.
I imagine an entire dying ship is like a seven course meal to them.
I sat at the bar considering the remainder of my bottle of smoky old Everblue whiskey, listening to the crowd, keeping my thoughts to myself. But they had company.
"Big damn monsters!" The grizzled old engineer was saying. "They pace us from time to time in otherspace. Occasionally they go after a starship. Considering the ones which go missing every year, they must take a few, but there are of course no survivors."
The rookie hanging on every word shivered appreciatively. A jumped up tunnel-farm mechanic with stars in her eyes (but don't we all, or why else brave the void?), she was equal parts rough, idealistic, even optimistic. God bless her and keep her so, for at least a little while longer. I turned away and tried to ignore them.
"You play that thing?"
A whippet-lean young spaceborn man had ghosted right up into the stool next to me. In the weak faux gravity he moved with an effortless grace, and he indicated the guitar case at my feet with the tip of a ship's knits bootie, not quite touching. Ship's manners, 90% pretense and bending over backwards to avoid giving offense. Good thing- if he had scuffed up 'Betty' I'd have had to hurt him.
"I do, when I want to."
"Do you, ma'am? Want to?"
He had an easy smile with just a hint of mischief, but a tad young for me.
"Maybe I do, if you know what you want me to play..."
The smile left his face and he dropped his eyes to his brew. "I'm partial to 'Burning Leaves', or the 'Captain's Daughter'."
"'Leaves' is a sad song, homesick and bittersweet... I'll sing it by and by. The 'Captain's Daughter' is just what this crowd needs to liven things up- good choice." I reached down and picked up 'Betty', caught the barkeeps' eye. She nodded, slightly less bored and I took the little corner stage, a step up was all.
The 'Captain's Daughter' is a bit of a crowd-pleaser and a traveling bards' stock in trade. It's about all the unlikely and racy things a captain's daughter might get up to, and all the unlikely and unfortunate things that might happen to an errant crew-member, pun definitely intended. We must have gone through thirty verses before I took a little break and then asked for requests. I got 'Green Hills', which I hadn't done in years, 'The Death-Song of Defiant', 'Columbia's Rest', 'Bottled Lightning', 'The Big Rock Candy-Mountain', 'Walking in Memphis', 'The Man in Black', and ones that had been old when starships first left Earth- 'Amazing Grace' and 'The Wild Rover'...
An executive from the Golden Stars asked for 'Katyusha', which I knew in Old Russki and Nihongo, so I sang it twice, and 'Men of Harlech' in Welsh, which fell a little flat as I was the only one who spoke it, and then Teklish. I go out of my way to learn the old songs in their original words if I can, as well as bastard Teklish; I have a gift for picking languages up and it pays off time after time. I'm not rich, but I could move from one end of the spiral arm to the other without going through customs once, and there have been a few misspent years where I have... lost myself, gone walkabout.
I kept my word to the kid and played 'Burning Leaves' as things wound down.
"...But the leaves of the forest, back on my Homeworld,
Flash to ashes, flash to ashes, and bitterness I taste.
Gone are the old-times, here are the war-times,
Full of fear and rage, revenge and hate, want and waste.
Remember, remember, the burning promise,
That things will be a-borning, renewing again?
In the ruin of my forest, on my wasteland,
There are hard little nuts, all hidden away.
Hopelessly optimistic, those brown little things,
So patiently they are waiting, come whatever may…"
The barkeep had cut the kid off, so he was drinking a bulb of juice. She'd put my bottle away and got it out for me again, and said to the crowd "Last Call!" They kept her busy and I poured myself the second to last shot from the bottle of whiskey.
"The barkeep knows you, says you've been around..."
"Really? She's a talker, that one," I said glaring at her. She smirked and gave me an ironic two-finger salute. "Let's see, I first ran into her on 'Nautilus'; Lucy was a purser and kept bar in the rear lounge of 'Naughtie' for second class. The big liners proved out thirty years ago, but she had a nasty little disagreement with the Company and got bounced down and then all around on the tramps. 'Mike' is a step up, but he's pushing three hundred if he's a day-"
"'Archangel Michael' was in Shadow Fleet, used to be a heavy cruiser, during The Hiding. My grandmother was her last war-captain; my Dad and my uncles captained her for a while, until they sold out. The Captain-Owner... signed me on as a bit of a legacy."
"How's that working out?"
He sighed. "I can't really say for sure. I've got a whole set of friends and enemies on this boat that I never made, 'ties of heart and blood' my grandmother would have said. I... I haven't sorted them out yet."
"Good luck with that."
"What keeps you..."
I turned to face him and waited him out.
"Why did you choose this life?"
I shrugged. "I was a refugee at first, and I've been on starships since I was four. Picked up music cause I've got a little talent, both for playing the guitar and for playing a crowd. Starship crews'll let any old bum dead-head, if they're interesting and not too picky about where they sleep or..." I smiled. It has been an interesting life. "The chow. But choose the life? No. I fell into it, or it chose me, whichever."
The kid nodded. "I guess it chose me, too."
He blinked. "Yeah, I guess I am at that."
Golden Stars- Zolotoy Zvezdy