Go to sleep, both of you.
Do you want a sad story, or a happy story?
You’re right, I don’t know many happy stories. Did I ever tell you about the time I met Emily Davis on board the Adriana?
It is a sad story, but there were some happy moments.
No, this isn’t a war story, the Adriana was a cruise-liner. One of the very finest. This was just after the war.
Hush now, I’m telling you a story.
I’ve told you about the SS Alabama before, haven’t I? Yes, of course I have. Well, after the war, me and the rest of the crew had opportunities, see. We could have captained colony ships, we could have run for the senate if we’d wanted.
Yes, your uncle could have been a senator.
Because we were heroes, that’s why.
Yes, your father was a hero too. They all were, really.
Losing a war doesn’t mean you’re not a hero. Sometimes you have to do terrible things to win a war. I met a lot of people who did those things. Sometimes choosing not to do them makes you the hero. But you’re getting me sidetracked. I told you, this isn’t one of those stories. This is about the Adriana and Emily Davis.
After the war, I wanted to be forgotten. Everyone was telling stories about the Alabama, about all the great things we’d done. I could only remember the terrible things. People kept telling me that the war was over. It didn’t feel over. It felt like we could be thrown back into chaos at any moment.
Yes, I was right, wasn’t I? Your Uncle’s cleverer than he looks.
All my old friends went off to become starship captains or politicians or get buried. I packed my bag and signed on with the Adriana. I even changed my name.
No that’s not my real name.
Well, now I’m telling you otherwise.
I was a barman. Why? When you grow up you’ll discover there’s plenty worse jobs than that and I told you, I wanted to be forgotten.
Well, when I was younger — especially after the war — I found that I liked a drink a little too much, so I figured being behind a bar would suit me just fine.
You’re right, it wasn’t a very clever idea. I wasn’t as clever back then.
How did I get the job? I was very charming and handsome.
What do you mean, ‘what happened’?
I didn’t know where we were going, or at least I don’t remember now. I just knew it was far away. Just like now, these kinds of ships only carried the rich and famous, so the crew had to be ship-shape and Bristol fashion. There were no strangers to spacemanship there, no sir.
No, I didn’t tell them I’d sailed on the Alabama.
I told them I sailed on a different ship.
Most of the crew were older, yes. The kind of gnarled old hands that are more at home in low gravity than they are on dry land. A lot of people hadn’t given up on the war, not just yet anyway, but this crew had seen enough. They had stories to tell, but their glory-hunting days were over and so were mine.
Yes, they liked me.
Because I was young and charming. And because from time to time I’d steal a bottle of whisky from the bar and share it with them.
Yes, I would have been in trouble if I’d been caught.
No, I never did.
Every week the ship would throw a ball. I suppose the kind of passengers we carried got bored easily. We’d have to shape up and provide service. You should have seen it. It was funny after I got to know the crew. These were men who had carried rifles, worn helmets and kevlar jackets. But here they were, in buttoned up blazers, carrying trays of champagne flutes, and plates of caviar, or salmon, or whatever people ate.
Some fought on one side, some fought on the other.
No, none of them knew your father.
Yes, I did ask.
What were the balls like? We held them in this great big dining hall. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, but the walls were transparent on both sides. That meant you could look out into the galaxy as you danced. It felt like that’s all it was sometimes, a dance floor suspended in space. On some nights, we’d pass right by a star and it would look like that wall was made out of fire. We’d dim the wall of course, so it was translucent and wouldn’t blind the high and mighty on their special evening. You’d look at someone and half their face would be fiercely lit, the other half just darkness. It was on one of those nights that I met Emily Davis.
No, that’s not her real name either.
Her real name was Annabelle, but she was Emily Davis when I met her. That’s how I remember her. Actually, I met her brother first, Johnny Davis.
No it isn’t.
Sometimes people use fake names when they’re scared of something finding them.
No, I wasn’t scared. I just wanted a fresh start.
I was at the bar watching the dancing, see. They all knew the steps, even when the songs changed. Every trot, every skip and every pirouette was exactly measured and nobody missed a beat. After a while, a young man dressed in a blue jacket and gold waistcoat detached himself and sauntered over to me.
No, it wasn’t real gold, it was just the colour, otherwise it would have been hard to dance.
No, I don’t know how they make them. Hush now.
Truth be told, I was still watching the dancing. After years of fighting, it was nice to watch things like that. And also, the young lass he’d been dancing with was still out there and she was a damn sight more interesting than he was.
He leaned off the bar and took off his bow-tie, undoing a couple of his buttons as he did. Then he clicked his fingers at me. Kids, don’t ever click your fingers at the bar staff, OK? It’s the best way of announcing to a room that you’re a bad person. But I looked up, smiled and said: “What can I get for you, sir?”, because that’s the way of the world.
“Make me an Old Fashioned, my man, and give it a twist.” He said it just like that.
Yes, he does have a funny voice, doesn’t he? “Give me a twist!” He said it just like that.
An ‘Old Fashioned’? Easy. Place a brown sugar cube in a glass, splash on a few drops of bitters and a dash of water. Crush it up and drop in a couple of ice cubes. Top it up with bourbon, and you’re ready to go. Some people will tell you to use rye, not bourbon, but your father always used bourbon, and so do I. He taught me all that.
Yes, even though I was the older one.
Yes, I will show you, when you’re a little older.
Anyway, that’s what I did and that’s how I did it. When I’d finished he passed me some money and I thanked him. Everything on the ship was complimentary (that’s what rich people call things they’ve already paid for) but we still got tipped. Always tip the bar staff, kids, no matter how much the drink cost or how little money you have. That said, I made more money on that one trip than I did in a year of fighting, even with the prize money. He asked me something.
“Did you fight in the war? You look too young”.
“Yes sir, I did.” I told him. He stiffened his back and looked me in the eye when I told him that. Even though I was staff, and for all I knew he was royalty, there’s a basic level of respect certain kinds of people have for each other.
“Did you win or lose?” he asked me. I’d had a few drinks myself at this point.
“I don’t know if anyone really won, sir,” I told him, “But I was on the side that claimed victory.” Remember this, there’s a way of showing people things without actually telling them, you’ve always got to be careful about that. This man wasn’t careful, and I could see by the way he looked at me that we didn’t fight on the same side. He was proud, but he looked haunted. He was running from something.
“Did you lose anyone?” he asked me.
“A younger brother.” I told him.
No, he didn’t know your father. Look, I’m sorry kids, but the only person in this story who knew your father was me. This isn’t one of those stories, see. It was after the war had just ended, when your mother was still carrying the both of you.
He held out his glass to me, and he said
“Cheers.” I nodded back to him and he drank. He told me, without speaking, that he’d lost people too.
“Emily.” he said. In all that time I hadn’t realised that the girl he was with had stopped dancing, and now she was approaching us at the bar.
Yes, she was pretty. She was more than that though, she was… Well, let me tell you. I told you about the walls earlier? On one side, her skin was a pale bronze, light making patterns on her cheeks as the ripples of solar plasma shifted millions of miles away. The sunlight reflected in her eye and it sparkled like…
Well yes, like a diamond. Only neither one of you have ever seen a diamond, so that’s not very helpful is it?
Your mother’s wedding ring? OK, yes just like that. On the other side, her face became ghostly pale, lit only by the distant light of a thousand other stars. That eye didn’t sparkle, it just watched.
“Are you having a drink, Emily?” the man said.
“I am.” She said. “What do you recommend?” It took me a moment to realise she was talking to me, and not to him.
“Well, your gentleman’s having an Old Fashioned.” I said “But if I say so myself, I make a pretty fine Fitzgerald.”
Yes, your father taught me that one as well, don’t interrupt while I’m in the middle of something. She laughed.
“I’ll take a Fitzgerald.” That’s how she always spoke, she chose her words carefully and never took longer than she needed. Unlike Johnny, who only seemed to realise what he’d said once someone else heard him.
After insisting I took a sip, she enjoyed the drink. Even when her brother went back to dance, she stayed with me at the bar. We didn’t talk about anything much, but we drank a lot. I showed her how to make all kinds of different drinks. At the end of the night she dragged me onto the dance floor to teach me some steps. She insisted. There’ll be a time in your life when you meet someone, and you’ll know straight away you’re going to be great friends. Well that’s what happened.
After that, Emily started showing up at the places I was working. If I was working the bar, she’d be drinking at the bar. If the lads needed help in the engine room, she’d get herself lost and find her way there. I got some grief off the lads for it, but nothing serious. Like I said, they were a fair bit older than me, so they had a clear enough idea of what was going on. For the short time she was on the ship, me and Emily got to know each other pretty well. Her brother too, actually. He wasn’t all posh accent and swagger. He had his principles and he lived by them. I mean, sure, he had all the arrogance that a privileged childhood burdens you with, but losing a war will knock some of that out of you.
We’d drink together in the evenings I wasn’t working. The three of us would find a quiet corner, a bottle of something and a pack of cards. They taught me Topple the Marquis, and I taught them Blind Bugger’s Grip. Turns out they’re the same game. Then Johnny would usually turn in early. That’s called tact, kids.
Yeah, I got to know them pretty well by the end. They were the only people on board who knew I’d served on the Alabama.
Johnny didn’t believe me when I first told him, but he got competitive when he was drunk. He blurted out that they’d led the defence at New Ilium, and I swear Emily nearly cracked the bottle of whisky over his head.
Yes, that is where your father passed away.
No we can’t visit, it’s not there anymore.
New Ilium. Your father had stayed out of the whole business until then. He only picked up a rifle to defend his home. The place is almost a myth now, but back then, people remembered. People hadn’t forgotten the terrible things that happened, on either side. They remembered Annabelle and her brother, who led the defence almost to the last soldier and disappeared just before they could be captured. People were still looking for them, I heard. I told myself the war was over. They were Emily and Johnny to me.
Well anyway, not everyone wanted to leave the war behind like we did, even after the amnesty. Some people were still very upset, as Johnny found out one of those nights.
It was like when we first met, they were dancing, I was drinking. I mean working. The journey was nearly over, so we were holding a special party. It was called a masquerade.
A masquerade is a party where everyone dresses up, and wears a special mask. There were foxes, wolves, eagles, all kinds of things.
No I didn’t wear a mask. I was working, I wasn’t really a part of the party.
We were just on the outskirts of a solar system, so the star was too far off to light up the room. It was just as beautiful though; we were passing a small ice planet, which gleamed like a nugget of silver in the distance. All the chandeliers were lit up, the electrical flames dancing and casting shadows about the room. I was mid-way through making a drink when they went out.
The guests loved that of course — any bit of excitement to make the journey go faster — but once you’ve served on enough ships you learn otherwise. If you’re out there floating around millions of miles from anything, power-cuts become bloody terrifying.
No, you can’t tell your mother I used that word.
I don’t mind saying I was scared, but nobody started screaming until the lights came back on. The noise started in the middle of the dance floor, but underneath the masks you couldn’t tell who was screaming. I vaulted the bar. I was more agile back then. I forced my way through the crowd and burst into the core of the assembly that had formed in the centre of the room. Emily was crouched down over Johnny, who was on his back. He’d been stabbed three times in the belly. I tried to block Johnny from view, scanning the crowd for knives, weapons, anything. All I saw were the masks.
“Help. He needs help” She kept saying that. “Tell the captain. He needs help.”
Johnny was beyond help, and I knew the captain, see. Now like I said, we’d left the war behind, but the captain hadn’t, no sir. He’d fought on the winning side, and he was an idealist.
An idealist is someone who cares more about ideas than people. I doubted the ideas he cared about were compatible with helping a servant of the lost cause. I had a pretty clear idea of the kind of person who’d want Johnny dead, and they’d have just as much cause to hurt Emily.
I held her until one of the lads, Tom he was called, grabbed Emily and dragged her through the crowd. I followed in their wake. He was just a little guy, Tom, but he made sure people made room for us. He took us right back to the bar and into the stock cupboard.
I was still dazed, but Tom had a good head on him. He made sure nobody had followed us before closing the door. Then he started ripping off his clothes. I didn’t know what he was doing. But Tom fought on the same side as your father, see. It’s a rare moment, when you see someone feel the old tug of duty, but Tom didn’t hesitate. He knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.
“Take these, ma’am.” He said, and he passed over his grimy blue overalls. They were baggy, but Tom was a short guy, and they fit well enough. “Our boy Walter will get you down to the engine room. You can hole up there ‘til we sort out what’s what.”
I opened the door and peered through, while Emily lingered for a moment. It was chaos outside.
“You were…” Emily didn’t have to finish the question.
“Thomas Knox, ma’am. Corporal, 41st Royal Light Infantry. We laid down arms after New Ilium, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” she said.
It was time to go, and we all knew it. Emily and I went one way, Tom the other. Once we were clear, we ran. I never once had to tell her the way, because all those times she got lost and ended up in the engine room, she was never really lost, see? When we got close, I grabbed her hand and pulled her down a different corridor.
“What’s wrong?” She said. “Where are we going?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” Apart from the obvious, I thought. “There’s one quick stop we have to make.”
You aren’t supposed to bring guns on board a ship. I’m sure you can guess why. Well, I told them, I’m not bringing a gun on the ship. It’s a memento, see? Just a memory of my service during the war. Service on the winning side, I made clear. After all, I said, it doesn’t even have any bullets in it! They were sewn into the lining of my duffel bag.
The crew quarters were right above the engine room. Obviously the person who designed the ship assumed it would be crewed by robots who don’t need to sleep. When we got to my cabin, I reached under my bunk for the bag, and emptied out the contents.
“You have a lovely room.” Emily said. It was filthy, and smelled of the other three men I shared it with. She had a private cabin, which was nicer. I smiled at her, and gave her the gun. It was nothing big but it was heavy, and comforting to hold.
I flicked open my penknife and started hacking at the stitches of the bag. One by one, I picked out the bullets and handed them to Emily, who loaded them without a word. Once I’d found the sixth one, she loaded it and cocked the pistol.
“OK?” She asked. I nodded.
Emily led the way to the engine room, choosing her steps carefully and peering around every corner. When we turned onto the final corridor we saw Tom slumped against the door. He hadn’t found any clothes, and just like Johnny, he’d been stabbed three times in the belly. Before I could stop her, Emily had teased open the door and slipped through, gun first. I followed her and closed the door. The engine room was noisy and full of clanking machines I half understood. Emily stalked through every nook and cranny to make sure we were alone.
As she did we heard footsteps pounding down the corridor. I grabbed hold of a monkey wrench that lay abandoned on a worktop.
“Stay here.” I told her. I braced myself, and crept to the door. When it swung open I brought the wrench down on the man’s head. Now, I’d hit people before — sometimes you have to — but never anything like that. He went down like a sinking ship, right next to Tom. When I looked, I realised it was Paul, another crewman, my boss actually. He forgave me for it later. I’d been shaking before, but that settled my nerves, see. Gripping the wrench in both hands, I crept past him to make sure there was nobody else coming. When I got to the end of the corridor I heard two loud cracks, not half a second between them.
I ran back to the engine room and threw open the door. I swear to you, Emily came within an inch of blowing my head off but she stopped in time. At her feet were two masked bodies, dressed for dinner with holes in their chests.
“Walter.” I dropped the wrench and approached the bodies.
“Walter.” I looked over at her.
“Walter?” She said. “I need to get off this ship.” I nodded, and picked up the wrench.
The room was full of snarling gears and rumbling pipes, but I knew which one I needed. It was the machine in the middle, the big one. There was a huge rotating cylinder, and underneath a delicate little box, overflowing with naked wires. I’d had to patch it up earlier on the voyage, so I knew what I was looking for. Tentatively at first, and then more forcefully, I started tapping the box with my wrench. It took a few minutes, but I hit the sweet spot. The cylinder stopped spinning, and the whole ship shuddered, throwing us both to the floor. Then the sirens started.
Within the hour, the Adriana was making an emergency landing on the tiny ice planet. Emily held me as we hurtled through the atmosphere. We came down in the snow, within sight of a small outpost or settlement. I never learned which. In all the confusion that ensued, it was easy for her to slip out of the hangar. She was still dressed in Tom’s overalls and a thick fur coat I’d claimed in the war. I stood shivering on the gangplank as she left. She turned around once to wave me goodbye. She even pulled the hood down, so I could see her one more time.
Yes, that is the last time I saw her.
No, she didn’t kiss me goodbye. There wasn’t time.
Loved the way the interruptions added some comic relief and completely (for me) changed the character of the story. They acted as little breaths, little places to stop, gather myself and think about what had come before. It elevated a good story beyond that, giving me a different lens to view it through. Nice work.