The Martian Chronicle was the place to drink for anyone in the capital city who was anyone. While Frankie didn’t necessarily enjoy the atmosphere of high traffic night clubs, there was an open tab on alcohol that wouldn’t cause brain cancer.
Frankie leaned on the bar, trying to look casual and feel relaxed, but as with most public places he went with the crew of the Rosebud, he just ended up feeling out of place. Granted, there were few places in the galaxy that he actually ever relaxed, but at least in his bunk, he didn’t have to worry about anyone figuring out where he really came from or how he ended up drinking with a rowdy freighter crew after hours in Gale City.
He took another sip of the dark ale in his glass and admitted to himself that it wasn’t so bad after all. At least the alcohol was good, and Trigg was paying for it.
He glanced around the bar, looking for his crewmates. Janet and Stubb were on the dance floor. Janet danced with a certain wild abandon, her dark hair flowing around her smooth shoulders. Stubb swayed rhythmically but looked decidedly awkward compared to Janet’s abilities. The two seemed inseparable, even after Janet’s promotion to acting chief a year ago. If he remembered correctly, she would soon be confirmed and permanently instated in that role. Stubb remained in cargo but spent a lot of his extra time helping Janet around the ship, handing her tools. They both insisted that they weren’t a couple, but Frankie thought that if they had wanted to be, they would be perfect for each other.
Trigg and Lucky sat at the end of the bar in a relatively quiet corner, concentrating on a single flex screen, their heads nearly touching. He could tell by their body language that they were deep in discussion, probably about some obscure book they had found at a market somewhere. Lucky gestured to something on the screen and began ticking off points on her fingers. Two drinks sat on the table in front of them, ignored as their discussion deepened.
Frankie took another drink, holding the dark ale in his mouth as he watched his friends enjoying themselves. He was grateful that the crew of the Rosebud had been willing to take him and give him a place to live and a name to use when he’d had nowhere else to go, but he still occasionally felt outside the group. He didn’t know why he still felt that way—he’d been with the crew only a couple of months less than Lucky, but she had managed to acclimate and make the Rosebud her home much more than he probably ever would.
He swallowed, remembering the night that tore him from his own home and family. A single shot from a revolver, and he’d found himself in the cold desert night with no future. He’d fallen as he’d fled, getting dust in his mouth, the bland taste drowning out his fear. Now, that same bland taste seemed to color all of his interactions. He was just going through the motions.
“You look glum.”
He turned to see that Janet had, once again, sneaked up beside him. She was sipping a drink from a wide glass—probably a rum and soda if she followed her preferred patterns.
“You are always intense enough for both of us, so I figured I needed to balance it out,” he said, swigging from his ale again.
Janet swirled her drink and batted her eyelashes, feigning innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Stubb appeared at his other elbow, the shorter man starting to show signs of intoxication. “You always just lean on the bar and look…what does he look like, Janet?” Stubb asked.
“Glum,” Janet said.
Stubb shook his head. “No, you used that one already. Choose another word.”
“Sombrío, ¿no?” she said after a moment. “My abuela used to call Papa that all the time.”
“I’m pretty sure that is just Spanish for ‘glum’,” Stubb said.
“Well, you always look grumpy or glum.” Janet sipped from her drink. “Why is that, Frankie?”
Frankie sighed and took another long pull of ale. “Well, gee, I don’t know, Janet. Maybe it’s because I’m in exile and will never see my family or friends again. Maybe it’s because you keep calling me a name that doesn’t really ring true to me. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t see any other life than this and being trapped isn’t really a good feeling.”
Janet’s jovial mood vanished, and her face turned serious, a wave of surprise flickering through her eyes before quickly disappearing. “I thought we were your family, Frankie,” she said. Frankie could barely hear her voice, as it had turned cold and quiet in the heated noise of the club. A flicker of remorse pricked his conscience, but the alcohol in the ale was starting to affect his brain and he ignored it. He shrugged and turned back to watch the dancers under the lights. He could sense that there was more about to come out of Janet’s mouth, and he was ready for it. Any argument she could make, he could counter with the rough reality of what he had been living the past several months.
Stubb stepped around Frankie and stood by Janet’s elbow, gently reaching out and putting a hand on her shoulder, cutting off further words from her. “Hey, it’s okay for him to feel frustrated, Janet,” Stubb said. “Not everyone understands the crew the way you do.” He leaned closer to her. “Just give him more time,” he said, so quietly that Frankie barely heard him.
Janet’s facial expression didn’t change as she took another large swallow from the drink in her glass. “Drink up, Frankie,” she said, forced joviality in her voice. “We’re paying for it.” She gestured across the room. “Plus, looks like you have an admirer.”
Frankie followed her gesture to see a slender, olive skinned woman on the dance floor. She was staring at him, impossibly long and dark eyelashes fluttering against her cheek as her body slowly undulated to the music. The dim lights in the ceiling shone cast a golden crown on her silky hair, the dark tresses cascading down her back. She bit her lip as she made eye contact with him, one long finger beckoning him to join her.
Surprised, Frankie looked back over his shoulder at Janet and Stubb. Both grinned, Janet’s hurt feelings apparently forgotten for the moment. She gestured for him to go, reaching out and grabbing his near-empty glass. “Go, go, go,” she said. “Remember, make good decisions!”
Frankie felt a small smile quirk the corner of his mouth. “Yes, Mom,” he said. Trying to ignore the proud parental looks he was receiving from Stubb and Janet, he pushed off the bar and headed towards the dance floor.
The woman who had beckoned him over began to dance as a new song came on the loudspeakers, turning around so he could see her entire figure. She was truly exquisite and in his inebriated state he couldn’t help thinking she was a walking—or rather, dancing—work of art. Her dark dress was made from some sort of silky shimmering fabric and clung to every curve of her body in a way that was sensual and yet tasteful.
“Hi,” she said as he approached, her voice husky and warm. “I’m Della.”
“I’m Frankie,” he said.
“I like that name,” her husky voice purred in his ear, her long arms twining around his neck. He instinctively wrapped his arms around her in response, his hands resting lightly on the curve of her hip. She moved closer, her breasts lightly brushing again his chest. He flushed, and tried to back up a little, but she smiled through full lips. “Don’t be shy, Frankie,” she said. “Just dance with me and enjoy it.”
He took a deep breath, thinking it had been a long time since he had been this close to a woman and it wasn’t a situation he was really equipped to deal with, but the deep amber eyes looking at him in the golden light made him want to try it out and see what might happen. The alcohol warming his chest didn’t help to clear his head either, and he pulled her closer. As they swayed to the music, he tried to ignore the feeling of Janet and Stubb staring at the back of his head and just enjoy the woman’s warm vanilla scent.
He caught a flash of burnished gold out of the corner of his eye and saw that Janet and Stubb had turned back to the bar top and were carefully ignoring him swaying with Della on the dance floor.
She was tall, her height aided by the large heels on her shoes. They stayed together on the dance floor for a few more songs, dancing close enough to touch. Her smile was a little shy, but her physical contact with him wasn’t. She asked about his livelihood, fluttering her eyelashes at the mention that he was a spacer and spent most of his days on a cargo ship traversing the galaxy.
“That must be so…lonely,” she’d said, after hearing about how he didn’t have any family or any friends outside the crew he worked with. “It’s sad that someone as nice as you would have to spend all that time in the cold void of space all by himself.”
He shrugged in a self-deprecating way, saying it was the hand he was dealt, and he supposed he would have to live with it. She sighed, biting those soft, full lips and shaking her head. She mentioned not be brave enough to leave Mars—she had been born and raised on the Red Planet and didn’t ever see getting to see any other planet in the galaxy. The alcohol coursing through his blood stream was definitely making him feel bolder than he would have felt otherwise. He tucked a finger under her chin and gazed deep into those rich eyes, telling her that she was braver than she could even imagine. At her shy and embarrassed smile, he was overcome with tenderness and leaned in, his lips meeting hers in a gentle yet firm lock. To his surprise, she quickly deepened the kiss until they were fully, passionately engaged. He cupped the back of her head, breaking to take a deep breath, but resting his forehead against hers.
“We should get out of here,” Della said.
He nodded, not sure he was capable of a full sentence. He opened his eyes, ready to follow her anywhere, but was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw another tall woman, her dark skin and black clothes making her difficult to recognize in the dim light.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” he asked, not even trying to hide the irritation in his voice.
The woman’s face contorted into a grimace and she reached out and slapped him across the face. “You’re such a bastard,” she snarled. “I wait months for you to come back to Mars, and instead of calling me I find you here trading saliva with the first woman you see?”
Della stepped away quickly, her hands releasing Frankie’s waist. “Wait, is he with you?” she asked the angry woman.
“He was,” the other woman spat. “Told me he wanted me to wait for him and everything, then disappeared into space for months at a time. Let me guess, he told you how lonely he was, only having his crew for company and all?”
Della’s face fell, and she looked up at Frankie. “I mean, yeah,” she said.
“Don’t believe it,” the angry woman said. “Sorry to bust your evening, lady, but honestly I just saved you a world of hurt.”
Frankie looked between the two women, struggling to keep up with the exchange through the haze of alcohol. He turned to Della, a pleading look on his face. “I don’t know who she is at all,” he said, reaching out to her. “Please, don’t go—”
“Forget it, Frankie,” the angry woman said. “Leave her alone.” She made a shooing gesture towards Della. “Look, he pays for part of my apartment. I’ll take him home and sober him up. Just be glad you dodged a bullet. Go on now, sweetie.”
With a sniff, Della disappeared into the crowd of dancers. She didn’t look back.
Frankie frowned, surprised to hear the angry woman using his name. His own irritation was sobering him up quickly as he looked her up and down. She was dressed in a sensible business suit, a white collared shirt peeking out from under a dark blazer. Her black hair was thick with what he realized were multiple tiny braids, all of it woven together into a thick bun on the back of her head. When she spoke, her teeth flashed white in the darkness of the club. He knew he was still a little drunk, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember ever having met her before in his entire life.
“I really don’t know you, do I?” he asked her.
She took him by the elbow and started steering him towards the side exit door. “No,” she said, her voice just loud enough to be heard over the music.
They stepped out into the clear Martian night, the cold biting through Frankie’s shirt. “I left my jacket inside,” he said, turning to go back in.
“Here,” she held out a dark leather jacket to him. “I picked it up before I saved you.”
He scoffed and snatched it from her hand. “You ‘saved’ me? Really, lady?”
She smirked and shook her head. “I guess you haven’t heard about Jose’s Girls, then?” When he shook his head, she continued, “They’re prostitutes. They prowl the nightclubs, flirt with the vulnerable, and then after the deeds are done, they extort the men for money.”
Frankie frowned at her. “You’re lying—prostitution is illegal on the colonies.”
The woman snorted a derisive laugh. “Prostitution is only illegal if someone gets caught,” she said. “So, I just saved you the most expensive and illegal night of your life.”
Frankie grumbled. This definitely wasn’t the most illegal night of his life, and while he was relieved he hadn’t gotten trapped into having to pay for the evening, he definitely did not want to admit any of that.
“You’re welcome,” she said, interrupting his grumbling.
“Thanks, I guess,” he said.
She pointed down the road behind him. “Spaceport is that way. Have a good evening, and stay out of trouble, Frankie.” She turned and walked away in the opposite direction, making long strides in sensible shoes.
“How do you know my name?” he called after her.
She tossed a wave over her shoulder, not turning around. A moment later, she turned the street corner and was lost to sight.
Shivering in the cold, Frankie pulled on his jacket. He stuffed his hands deep in the pockets and headed back to the ship, still muttering curses to himself.
Frankie returned to his bunk on the Rosebud, feeling dejected. The cold of the Martian night seemed to have seeped into his very bones, causing him to ache all over. He sat down heavily on his bed and scrubbed two hands over his face, trying to dispel the fatigue calling him to collapse onto the bed and just sleep his woes into oblivion.
A quiet ping caught his attention. The personal computer station in his quarters was flashing a small, green light. He reached forward and keyed the screen to life, seeing that he had received a message while he was out at the Chronicle.
He pulled the message up and was surprised when a large amount of text filled the screen. In a time when video conferencing and voice transmission was the cheapest form of communication between the planets, text-based messages were considered a more formal approach to communication. The sender’s contact card appeared in the top left side of the screen, showing a headshot of an older, distinguished looking gentleman in a suit and tie. His salt and pepper hair was cropped close and a neatly trimmed goatee covered his chin. The postmark was from Earth, which Frankie found strange, as he didn’t have any contacts on Earth at all.
He looked down to read the message.
To: Francis Staple
I hope this letter finds you in good health. Allow me to introduce myself: I am James Francis Staple, III, of Staple Holdings. For reasons that I can explain at a later time, your name appearing on a crew manifest out of Newport triggered a series of tracking algorithms owned and managed by my family.
You no doubt have noticed the similarities in our names, and it is this very similarity that has prompted this message. I would like to offer you a deal—a business arrangement, if you will, that I think will be beneficial to both of us.
I have managed to find the flight plan of your current ship of occupation, the Rosebud, and I see that we are scheduled to be on Newport at the same time, in about a week. I would very much enjoy the opportunity to share a meal with you, based on your availability and the local time your ship arrives at dock. I have included the contact information for my hotel while on Newport and eagerly await your call once you land.
I thank you for your time and attention in this matter.
Frankie read the letter three more times, each time becoming more confused by its content. He had no inclination of what kind of business arrangement could be made just based on a name, no matter how similar it was. When he had been rechristened as Francis Staple, Frankie had not received a middle name, just the two names that appeared on his identification card. At the time, he had been in a distracted state of mind and did not think to ask Jonas, the tech wizard who had facilitated his rebirth, if the lack of a middle name would affect the believability of his dossier. Concerned, he quickly pulled up the Net and ran a search on the name Francis Staple, finding no records more recent that six months. All older records appeared to refer to the man that had sent him the message, and his family.
Troubled, he shut off the computer screen and sat back on his bunk, fists clenched and thumbs twiddling nervously. Maybe it was a scam targeting everyone with the last name of Staple. It couldn’t be a particularly unusual name, right? Not in a population spanning entire swaths of the galaxy. However, in thirty years of being alive, he had never once met another Staple, either on his home planet of San Pedro or on any of the other colonies he had visited.
He yawned, causing his jaw to pop near his ear. There was nothing he could do about any of this tonight, he realized, as sleep began to creep over him. In the morning, he would ask Trigg’s opinion on the message. Maybe he could even contact Jonas Solomon on Newport. What other surprises he could expect from his name going forward?