Companies and governments “seeded” vast sectors of space with remotely-piloted drones and the infrastructure to support them–automated repair stations and a network of tiny, cheap hyperspace relays. They took advantage of the fact that propulsion and communication technologies had evolved far faster than the ability to put a human in the driver’s seat. A person traveling at speed in one of the remote drones would be reduced to chunky salsa even if they’d had air to breathe.

But with the relays in place, a person with a decent connection on Earth could pilot a remote drone nearly in real-time, doing surveying and exploration work that completely automated probes couldn’t. And they could sell the minerals they found and potentially habitable sites for future colonization, if the technology ever appeared.

Cam had cashed in his college fund to buy a rattletrap of an RPD, and he spent close to ten hours a day hooked up to its interface, exploring places he’d never see with his own eyes and scraping together just enough cash from what he found to keep the operation going.

Big scores happened all the time–just never to him. So when he saw that a promising system already had a drone in orbit, he wished for the thousandth time that his tiny ship had some kind of offensive weapons.

Lightoller adjusted the picture to try and cut out some static. “Come on now, Navy boys, come on. Don’t want to lose the feed.” He’d promised good, hard, stolen Navy intel for the Zouaves, and he intended to deliver.

“…thanks to the availability of cheap cigarettes and rotgut where I grew up, I’ve gained a lifelong fondness for both,” the interviewee—Peg, wasn’t it?—said. “Plus, they make me look cool, and having a nasty, smelly cigarette in between your lips makes it less likely a guy’s going to stick his tongue in there.”

“Wonder if that’s really the sort of thing the Zouaves are interested in?” Lightoller muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Well, they weren’t specific.”

“Not that I have to worry so much; I don’t make as many trips ‘down south’ as most of the writhing hedonists my age,” Peg continued. “And honestly, when my last memory’s of Darren Winston, filtered through a whole lot of drunk…well, I’m glad for both of us that he must’ve been shooting blanks. After I left home, I never saw him again, and that’s a good thing in my book—he had exactly one virtue, and it wasn’t his wit or sparkling personality. Not exactly husband or father-of-my-children material.”

“Look, miss, if we could just get back to the-” one of the Navy men began, clearly uncomfortable that his interrogation had been hijacked.

He was cut off. “Then again, there are precious few that are qualified for that job opening. The benefits are great, but you’ve gotta have a top-notch resume and be willing to relocate. There’ve been some promising candidates, but the last prospective hire decided to pursue opportunities elsewhere. We didn’t…gel…on an ethical level, which is to say that he accused me of having none. I’m of two minds on the subject of reproduction anyway; while it’s obvious the universe could use another such as me, the same gene pool spawned my dumbass cousin. I figure that’s one bridge to cross when I come to it, hopefully in the arms of a well-sculpted Adonis.”

Isn’t it wonderful to sit out, late at night, and watch the stars?

Of course, you probably haven’t.

Few have, anymore.

The night sky is one of the things modernity has taken away from us, and the ever-lit nature of our lives is not going away. Let’s face it—darkness is frightening and dangerous. But like many such things, it is also beautiful, a windswept wonder spelled out by celestial candles.

After a fleeting glimpse of what few glowing points make it through the humming fluorescent veil, who hasn’t wished they could lay out in an open field away from everything? What a simple pleasure it could be, watching the night sky spin overhead with no distractions save those found in nature and a soft piano tune in mind?

“You’re a miracle worker, Peg,” McClellan said, reaching for the cup. “I’m bloody parched.”

Peg yanked the cup back. “Parched enough to pay in advance?”

“Parched enough to break your arm and take all I want straight from the faucet!” McClellan laughed.

Peg snickered. “Go ahead! No one knows how to work the thing but me.” She stroked one of the pipes, gently swirling McClellan’s beer as she did so. “I built it. It’s my baby. You can barely find your own stick in the cockpit.”

McClellan raised an eyebrow. “It’s called a yoke.”

“Or you could take your business elsewhere,” Peg continued. “I do believe you can get some beer in our home port, if you go down the right back alley, but that’d be quite the wait. Why, it’d be weeks and weeks before you got some mead in you.”

McClellan licked his lips, and slapped a handful of worn company pay slips onto the bar. “You play dirty. Beer me. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned bartender talk? Maybe the occasional ‘I’m sure it’ll work out, Mr. McClellan,’ or ‘I sure do value your business, Mr. McClellan.'”

Peg ran a rag over the metal plate that served as a bar. “I’m not a bartender,” she said. “I happen to be a highly trained United Nations Transport Service communications officer. Important people have my voice in their ear when things get done. I just moonlight as a bartender when there’s nobody important to talk to.”

“There’s never anybody important to talk to out here,” McClellan snorted back. “This Theta Proxima milk run is the ass-end of space.”

Gather around, everyone, for I’d like to tell you a story.

Now, this was a very long time ago, when children stayed children until they were forced to grow up and anything was possible as long as you did it before lunchtime. A little boy lived in a little house on a hill under a great oak tree with his family. And, every night when his chores were done, he would sit under that tree and look up at the stars until it came to be bedtime. It was a very long way to anywhere, and anyone, else from that little house, and the boy often felt like the stars and the great fuzzy belt of the Milky Way were closer than anything, and anyone, else. He used to dream about what, and who, might be looking up at his little star from far-off cosmic hills under far-off cosmic trees.

Of course, there was no way for him to be sure–or so you might think! As it happens, the boy’s house had a very well-stocked library, and he would often take a book to read when the moonlight was at its brightest on hot summer nights. One of the books talked about a lonely castaway on a desert island lost in the seven seas, who had sat under a palm tree on an island hill and wondered the same wonders as the boy. The castaway had written a message and put it into a bottle, which he’d hurled into the vast ocean–not looking for rescue, since he’d come to love his little island, but rather looking for a friend. The bottle had returned bearing a message from a prince in the far-off orient, with the castaway and his new friend exchanging many such bottles in the pages to come.

The boy was enchanted by this idea, and one day he wrote a letter of his own, sealed it up tight in a bottle, and flung it into the sky with a little help from his slingshot.

It was many days later that he found his bottle under the great old oak, warm to the touch and bearing a message back. It was unsigned, but spoke of another child on another hill impossibly far away, sitting under the same sky and wondering the same wonders as the boy. That was the first of many bottles which came and went into the great starry expanse from beneath that old oak on hot summer nights, as the boy and his new friend wrote each other about their shared questions, hopes, and even dreams.

Then, it so happened that the boy’s last bottle went unanswered for a very long time–much longer than usual. When a bottle finally appeared, it looked as if it had been through a fire.

The message inside was brief. It read, simply, “help me.”

We’ve been good friends for years, he and I. I would’ve followed him anywhere. To Hell and back, as it were.

Well, he hasn’t been the same since the accident. I really can’t blame him, but…

When I he came here, I followed him. “Here” is out in the middle of nowhere. Hardly anything for me or he to do.

He doesn’t mind.

It’s what he asked for.

For all our talking, I don’t even think my old friend knows I’m here. His mind’s elsewhere.

I’m not unhappy here…it’s quiet, relaxing. But I can’t help feeling that I’m needed elsewhere. I’m a healer of men, and I don’t play golf. Always hit the sod farther than the ball. And somewhere out there, there must be people in pain.

Injured, suffering, or worse.

If I weren’t out here, could I be helping them? I don’t really have much of a chance to help people anymore. Healing is God’s work, and it’s just not needed much here.

Are my gifts going to waste?

I wonder, should I leave? Abandon my friends here, my old friend, and go? Try to seek out those of greater need, and help them? See my family, my children more often, perhaps? I don’t hate it here, and occasionally my skills are needed. A lot of people depend on me–psychologically. I don’t have the training, but I know how to listen. I know how to coax out a smile with a little joke. And I have enough years under my belt to have advice to spare.

So should I leave, and try to use my God-given gifts to help as many as I can?

Perhaps I should, but not right now, not yet.

Zero gravity does funny things to your mind. One minute you’re clinging to the floor, then it becomes a wall, then a ceiling. Tim had a little zero-g training, but nothing had ever been this bad. His one ride on the Vomit Comet paled in comparison to the real thing, and even that had filled two puke bags. Tim was on a nonstop roller coaster with shifting directions, and it was making him sick.

Angrily, he thought of what he’d been told before signing up for the trip—that the artificial gravity was foolproof, that there was no need for any specialized training, that no commercial craft’s gravity had failed in over ten years.

Then again, the men in those fancy suits were safely on terra firma, and who could have predicted such a catastrophe?