The bar was the most worn part of the way station, save for maybe the waiting area seats with a view of Jupiter. The doors were fully removed and stacked beside the doorway. Inside was a corral of booths and one long bar with stools a straight shot from the doorway. The atmosphere was marked with a few more spots of chatter than the waiting area. Grunts in sweatpants and grey shirts branded with their company names—probably given when they were hired—muttered and chewed together. Looking at the shirts, Shaun recognized a few names as mining companies. He was aiming for a cozy booth, but a group wearing the logo of a scrapping company that had skipped out on his last paycheque stole the last soft seats. Shaun eyed the group before he sighed and relented to take a stool at the bar.
He swung his leg over the seat, and as he rested his weight down, an order screen flipped up with a subtle click. He swiped through menus until he found an approximation of spicy chicken wings and scanned his company card. Next, he located the rye, and tapped three times before swiping his personal card. Shaun could hold his liquor at least as well as any 24-year-old carpenter—or even better, given his six-foot-something height. Besides, he had hours; he had discovered that light speed wasn’t fast enough to get his flight in on time. This was the last luxury station on the Tenari Line before it turned to utility stops for workers, so Shaun was going to enjoy it as much as he could.
The station itself was interesting to Shaun. He appreciated that it didn’t have a right angle in it. He had seen this organic structuring before, but it was usually just a decorative shell over a perpendicular frame. The Tenari station over Jupiter was pure structure, like a big ivory ribcage in the sky.
It took no time at all for the wings to come and even less for the rye. He sank back the three shots of rye before biting into his food.
“Bland, ain’t it?” said a crackle of phlegm resembling a voice. Shaun looked over and saw the noise was emanating from hulking man farther down the bar, roped in an elaboration of harnesses and belts that only a soldier would wear. Each was loosened to a drape, but they creaked when he turned toward Shaun to lift his drink in a friendly salute. The man grimaced through the burn of his liquor, and exposed a smile of half metal teeth.
Shaun lifted his imitation chicken to meet the man’s cheers, and smirked. “Yeah, this crap may as well be paste.”
“It’s the same shit from camp,” said the man, drawing a guttural breath that echoed out his nose, “and well spotted, kid. It’s paste. But …” He rolled his neck, then stared upwards for a stretch of time. Shaun noticed his eyes were stained red, like someone in the grip of a savage hangover.
Shaun waited, taking another bite of his food. “But?”
The man kept his neck bent back, but rolled his head toward Shaun and smiled again. “But, I got the secret to flavour right here.” He reached into the unzipped portion of his body armour and pulled out a small glass bottle filled with red liquid. He hunched over the bottle on the bar to examine it, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, then slid it toward Shaun.
“What is it?” Shaun asked.
“Brewed it myself from a Tenari root,” the man said, tapping at his order screen. “Closest thing to a pepper you’ll get out there. It’s—” He turned to Shaun, lowered his voice, and said carefully, “—a hot sauce.”
Shaun picked it up. He’d bought powders and pills from more unsettling men than this. He shook a few drops into his food, then slid the bottle back to the man. The food now had an earthy spice—something warm and sour. “Man, it’s like I’m back on Earth.”
The burly man reached for his bottle, then slid it back into his jacket. Before him lay another line of clear shots of liquor. He slugged each back methodically, saying nothing.
“I’m headed to Tenari,” Shaun offered between bites.
“Watch out for the sand,” the man grumbled below the din of the bar.
“The sand?” Shaun asked.
“Yeah, the sand. This platoon came back from the flats near the equator in Tenari. They were burned by plasma, missing some limbs—war shit. But they were all just a bit too … friendly about it all. The first night there wasn’t a snore from the tent. Next morning about half of them were gone—just gone. Gear was still lined up and everything. The rest were a putty, bleeding through their cot.” He blinked his eyes a few times and glanced over at Shaun. He seemed like a different—more sober—person for a moment.
Shaun’s face contorted. His attention had fully turned away from his food, despite the spice. “What happened to them?”
The man nodded enough to creak his belts, then continued. “At first, we didn’t know. But the gore … it … bubbled—even crawled. Their bones were punched through like driftwood with termites. We got shoved out the tent,” He cleared his throat, “and it went into quarantine. Only folks in big rubber suits went in after that. Then they burned it. Some sort of parasite, we figured. The company never said much of anything about it, but after that, going to the flats meant wearing a gas mask.” The man tapped at his screen again. A little elevator rose out of the floor behind the bar and slid another line of shots before him. He drank them methodically.
“I went to the flats a couple of months later, y’know, kid?” he said, placing his last shot down.
Shaun’s food was growing cold, but he kept his eyes on the man. “Oh? They look how you expect?”
“I don’t really remember what I thought they would look like. Stretch of red coarse sand as flat as anything. So flat you could see the curve on a small planet like that. Strange sand, too. It crumbled like eggshells when I squeezed it in my hand. Spilled some liquor when I was cooking in the evening. The puddle sank into the sand but it … wriggled, uh … bubbled a bit. Started to spread out, like lines of ants so small you couldn’t see ’em, but the formation … well, water don’t run uphill, y’know?” He looked over at Shaun and giggled a bit. “Only the wet sand crawled, though. Dry sand just tossed about in the wind. Some guy in the group scooped a whole mug of sand up and filled it with water. It swirled and swirled in that mug for an hour until the sun dried it out again.” He scratched at his neck, then concluded with a laugh. “Wore our gas masks after that, I’ll tell you.”
“Shit, man,” Shaun said, “There ain’t no cities or nothing in the flats, right? I’m supposed to be reno-ing a city.”
The man chuckled through his phlegm, then coughed a bit. “Naw, no cities in the flats. Just war. When we came back to camp from the flats, y’know, everyone was in good spirits. Happy to leave ’em, I guess. Lots of us took up cooking and drinking. Even folks that usually kept to themselves was always out pouring a drink with some group. Relief, y’know, to be back from the red sands. Whole camp caught on. We drank the place dry—even the lightweights found their feet after a few rounds, like we were drinking for two.” He laughed again and squeezed his bloodshot eyes shut.
“You going home to carry on the party, then?” Shaun asked, trying to lighten the mood.
He shook his head. “War’s tough on people, even without the shooting. I’m the only one with the health to go back—”
A tone interrupted, announcing the boarding of an earthbound vessel. The man pushed away from the bar and stood. Shaun expected him to stumble flat with all he’d drunk, but he stood firm with not a waver to his step. He walked over to Shaun and clapped him on the shoulder. “Watch for the Tenari sands, kiddo. And keep your food covered—the winds whip dust up into everything.” Then he walked off with a smile.
Shaun sat and stared at the shelves of booze for a while, wondering if he had made a mistake. After an hour or so, the anxiety left him, and he ordered another row of rye. He knew he was careful. And anyway, he had bills to pay.
Written By Rory
Edited by Lindsay Vermeulen
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