Salvatore Ambulando’s Detritus: The Day the Sky Became Like Dirt (or Markus Wells Has a Drink)

On Thursdays, the slow flow of traffic on Kegel Station made St. Pete’s Pub an acceptable place to get away from people.

Jax, the bartender on duty this particular Thursday, was wiping down the brass when the old-style wooden door creaked open. The bright light from the promenade outside the bar reflected in the big bartender’s glasses, and he stroked his mustache waiting for the ancient door to close so he could discern the details of the person who was only silhouetted in the doorway. The owner of St. Pete’s had salvaged the door from an old pub on the surface of Earth. He insisted it brought character to the establishment, and to his credit, St. Pete’s was consecutively one of the highest rated businesses on the orbital station – mostly on charm alone. All other businesses on the station had automatic doors.

Jax didn’t recognize the patron who made his way up to the bar, and that immediately struck him as unusual. The Happy Hour crowd was almost always regular, and even those that didn’t make St. Pete’s their regular bar were at least recognizable as frequent visitors to the station.

“Scotch. Neat,” the man said as he sat down in one of the antique bar stools.

Jax eyed the man a moment. His accent was definitively British, but lazy enough to indicate the man roamed quite a bit in his life. He wore either a very old, or very expensive replica of an old English football jersey. His dark hair was shot with grey, and his face was dark with a few day’s worth of stubble. He looked out of place, and in Jax’s experience, that sometimes meant trouble. The trip to Kegel was short but expensive. Dayorbiters ran on frequent flights between Kegel and Kennedy Stations, but it still took at least five hundred credits to get to a station on the dayorbiter route. Kegel Station, being a space elevator hub, got quite a few freeloaders that ran the dayorbiters perpetually.

Jax glanced at the old bottles on the top shelf, before grabbing a glass and clicking it against the trigger of the synth-tap.

“I said scotch, not synthspit,” the patron said, watching Jax with a detached interest. “Do you serve a lot of synth here?”

Pouring out the synthetic equivalent to a single malt scotch, Jax pulled a step stool over to reach the high shelf. “More than I’d like to. I prefer the real thing myself.”

“Good man,” the patron responded.

“Any preference?” Jax queried as he elevated himself.

“Nah,” the man replied, laughing a bit. “Just stay away from the Islay, old bean.”

Jax snagged a dusty bottle of an old Speyside and dropped heavily off the stool. He poured the man a little over and then one for himself.

“Name’s Markus,” the man said, offering his hand.

Jax took it and smiled at the firm handshake. “I’m Jax,” he said, already starting to like this strange man.

Raising his glass to Jax, Markus said, “To good scotch and to those who’d know the difference.”

“Cheers,” they said and drank.

Jax left Markus for a few minutes, going about his usual opening routines. Thursdays were quiet, but always interesting. Anticipating a few regulars, he started a rotation of jazz and electronica on the audio system. Switching on the telefeed, Jax quickly scanned the channels for a gravball game or a jet race. He paused briefly on a new report about trouble on several of the colony worlds. The Global Federation of Earth was accusing the colony on Titan of a military buildup and the development of advanced weaponry.

“Fuckin’ colonials,” Jax cursed under his breath.

“We were all colonials once,” Markus said, overhearing Jax. “We’re never really from where we’re born, and never really die in a place we’ve been.”

Jax grunted a chuckle and switched over to a sports channel. Returning to the bar, Jax pulled up a stool next to Markus.

“What line of work are you in?” he asked Markus.

“I’m a writer,” Markus replied flatly.

Jax’s brow wrinkled as he turned the response over in his head. “Like a scriptwriter for holos?”

“No. I write novels.”

Novel writing had been an abandoned art for centuries, but a few die-hard writers kept up the practice, spending what little money they could make to print and publish their own material.

“Man,” Jax exhaled, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen a novel in ages.”

“I write science fiction,” Markus explained. “Though, these days what haven’t we done? What could I possibly write about that would be considered futuristic?”

“Aliens?” Jax offered.

“If there were aliens, we’d have found them by now,” Markus said. “We’re stretched out through three systems now and nothing more than a microbe. It was edgy back then, now its just kid’s stories.”

Jax sipped on his scotch and watched the old man talk about his craft. He could tell it was what Markus needed – its what made Jax a great bartender – a purveyor of the remedy to a man’s madness.

“Science fiction was almost always about the future. The possibilities branching away from the present, spreading to the horizon, a universe of possibilities. Now, the future is no different than the present and science fiction is a thing of the past. We’ve mastered interstellar flight, we’ve solved our energy problems and found infinite resources. The frontier is gone, the sky that stretched unreachable above us, has become like the dirt beneath our feet. Our culture is rich, the government functions effectively, every human has the essentials. What place does science fiction have in utopia?”

“This isn’t utopia,” Jax stated. “I see people in here all the time who prove some humans haven’t evolved for centuries. There’s greed, and hatred, and bigotry.”

“Save me the sob story,” Markus said wearily. “Science fiction isn’t about who we are, its about who we have the opportunity to be. Utopia is every generation. Everyone wants to think they’re the pinnacle.”

“So what does that mean for you?” Jax asked.

‘Well,” Markus said, and then drained the rest of his scotch. “What time is it?”

“Nearly three o’clock,” Jax answered.

Standing, Markus Wells, a direct descendant of the very family tree that sprouted one of the fathers of science fiction, dropped one hundred credits on the bar and turned to leave.

“You might want to hop on this next dayorbiter, Jax,” Markus called back to him as he left.

“Why’s that?”

Stopping at the door, Markus turned back to him, a strange sad look on his face. “When the future runs out, sometimes you have to return to the past to find it again. There’s always a reset button.”

With a final creak, the ancient door slammed shut.

An hour passed and several regulars came in, bringing their pointless lives with them on the tips of their tongues. Jax found it difficult to get the old man out of his head. There was something about him that Jax felt he should have noticed, a mysterious darkness hanging about the man. Continuously, Jax would be able to drown out the thoughts with his bartending duties, but the figure of Markus always returned to his mind’s eye.

At 8:45, there was a ruckus outside the pub. Jax pushed through the crowd gathering at the door and forced his way outside into the blinding light of the promenade.

Blocking out most of the view from the massive clear dome that separated Kegel Station from open space was a giant military vessel. The sun glinted off missiles and laser batteries, all aimed towards the station.

As the first blasts shook the station and Jax witnessed people floating out into the vacuum of space, Jax could not help but wonder if somehow Markus was involved.

What Jax saw outside the station was a reset button with teeth.

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