I’ve been a cosmic barmaid for longer than I can remember, and I couldn’t be happier. I love chatting up customers, mixing drinks, and hearing stories from across the galaxy. I share my own tales from the stations and starships that I’ve worked on, and when I get bored, I move on. It’s not like I’ll ever run out of places to go: Look up any civilization in the galaxy and you’ll find some form of a bar, tavern, or speakeasy as a centerpoint of their culture. It’s a universal constant.
I arrive early to work this morning, so I have the back to myself as I get ready for the day. I pull my hair up into a tight knot, slip on my old sneakers, and tuck my sleeves down to cover the swirling ink that ripples across my arms and down my torso. In my youth, I had a kind of “let them stare” attitude about the tattoos, which were unique even in all-species-welcome establishments like the Cat's Eye Tavern. About ten years ago, though, I transferred to a bar aboard the Wolf-359 orbital outpost. After you have a customer barf on you in zero-G, you tend to take some precautions. Some folks’ stomachs just don’t mix right with the moving optical illusions that pattern my skin, so I cover up.
I take a moment to gauge the room from behind the bar. The Cat’s Eye isn’t the prettiest tavern I’ve ever worked in (talk about those mahogany finishings on Vega 7!), but it’s a solid dive for solid folk. Between Denebian karaoke on Sundays and half off Earth cocktails biweekly, we tend to draw a representative crowd of the station’s finest blue-collar workers.
This morning, it’s mostly empty. The booths are scattered with a few early risers, and Table 2 has been colonized by the usual coterie of Ygalians, a hibernatory species from the Tertiary Sector whose entire society sleeps for a full standard year out of every eight. The Ygalians have been coming every morning for the past year, so I start prepping their order before they can even wave me over. Despite their sticky tentacles that tend to stray where they shouldn’t, I’m going to miss them next month when they disappear into their hibernation pods. Plus, they tip well.
The front bell rings, dragging me out of my reverie. Andy’s always said we don’t need a bell, that the whoosh of the automatic doors is distinctive enough on its own. It adds to the ambience, though, and immediately draws my attention to the strange group that waltzes into the tavern.
They’re shirtless. Shirtless, in a spaceport. Jupes, could you get more macho-man than that? I’ve seen a lot of creatures come through the Cat’s Eye, but most wear some sort of emergency suit in case of an accidental airlock breach or carbon scrubber failure. These guys, though, are bare-chested, bare-breasted, and proud of it. I’m so shocked that it takes a moment to register that each of them is covered with…my tattoos.
Well, not mine, exactly. They’ve got a range of colors to them, but all are in the strange looping script that I’ve never been able to decipher. Some ink swirls faster or slower as it drifts across their skin, and I am struck by the same hypnotic effect that I must instill in others. No wonder that poor Deltoid puked; I would have, too, if I didn’t have years of seeing my own reflection to anchor me. One of their party leans over to murmur something to another, who starts snorting laughter. Incredibly, her tattoos start to glow, as if in response to her glee. I’ve never seen mine do that.
I shake my head, realizing I’m being rude. The one in front, a stocky human, asks for a table, and I point him to a booth near the viewscreens. I don’t have time to ask any of my burning questions, though; Table 2’s plasmic fajitas are getting unbearably hot, almost melting my metal serving tray. “I’ll be with ya in a sec,” I call over my shoulder with feigned nonchalance. “Seat yourselves.”
I drop off the fajitas and busy myself in the back for a moment, cleaning glasses. I need to breathe. You’ll think I’m lying, but I have truly never wondered where my tattoos came from, or if they’re even tattoos in the first place. I’ve always had them, and with a life spent waiting tables for Axians and Zotorbs, I just took my weird skin as another oddity of the galaxy. I guess I had assumed I was just your average, odd human, but now that this motley crew has come through with their glowing tattoos, I’m not so sure. I need answers, more than I’ve ever needed anything else. How do I even start?
I’ve never been subtle. My last ex told me I was so straightforward that I was “no fun to figure out”, as if I were some kind of puzzle box. Screw her, anyway. So, I march over to the newcomers’ booth, where they seem to be arguing over the menu projected from the table. They don’t even notice me, as deep in discussion as they are. I clear my throat and they quiet down.
A blue individual whose species I’m unfamiliar with pipes up from the far corner. “I’ll have a---”
I cut them off with a glare, and their head literally shrinks down a bit into their chest. Must be from one of the Terrapin clans, then.
“Who are you?” I demand, deciding not to stumble through any pleasantries.
“That depends,” says the willowy, four-armed Vespan to my left. “Who are you?”
I say nothing, rolling up my sleeves in answer. Her eye widens in unmasked shock. “Where did you get those?” she asks, reaching out a finger to trace along my right arm. My ink reacts immediately, encircling her finger like iron filings on a magnet.
“Dunno.” I shrug, as if this happens every day.
“Let me guess,” the stocky human says, “you’ve always had them?” I nod. “And you never questioned them, either.” I shake my head.
He sighs and leans back, a grin splitting his face like a Denebian swan about to pounce on its prey. “Where are you from? Who’s your family? What’s your name?”
I open my mouth to answer him, but I realize I can’t. Huh. Where am I from? What did I do with my life before I became a barmaid? Dread seeps into my veins. My own name…how could I forget something as simple as that?
I’m sure my face is a mess of puzzlement and sudden fear, but the human just nods sagely. “Just as I thought. Typical. You don’t know, do you? Never thought to wonder, never asked why?”
I don’t answer, but he doesn’t seem to need one. He rises, and his crew stands with him. He reaches out a hand and for a moment I think he’s going to touch my tattoos too. Then he grasps my hand in a surprisingly warm grip, giving it a shake. It must be some sort of Earther greeting. I shake it back, a little confused.
“Well, No-Name, we’re off to the Horsehead Nebula,” he says, releasing my hand and shuffling out of the booth. “You’re welcome to join us, if you like. I can’t promise comfort or closure, but I can promise that we’ve all got the same questions, and we won’t stop until we find the answers.”
I take his offer in for a moment, frozen in place. I look around at the crew, everyone a different size, shape, and color. All connected, however, by these swirling tattoos and a missing past. My tattoos, and my past. When I give my answer, of course it couldn’t be anything else:
“Hell yes. It’s about time I moved on, anyway.”
The sound of the front bell fades behind me as I follow them to their ship. I don’t look back.
[Prompt] Being a tavern wench is good, honest work. You wear long sleeves, not to hide scars but swirling tattoos. You’ve always had them. Today, an adventuring party comes in. The shirtless ones have the same tattoos, and theirs not only swirl … they glow.
Pulled for submission to Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Jackie’s hand shook wildly; it took three tries before the quill would spit ink onto the weighty parchment. Official Stepmother Registry, 1821, the form read. Several other names already filled the top quarter, though it was only February, and Jackie couldn’t help but feel nervous puzzling out the looping scripts. Margaret Sophia Longwood, Anna Borisovna Petrovik, Maria Teresa Ruíz Gonzales... just plain Jackie looked so small and lonely below these magnificent monikers.
But, nothing to be done—as the ink dried, Jackie oozed a faint orange glow as if carved into hot metal and sunk deep into the parchment. The first step was completed, and all that was left to do was wait.
No one ever spoke of what went on in the trials. The women that emerged held their lips tight as oyster shells, and those that didn’t emerge wouldn’t be spilling their secrets anytime soon, either.
Jackie had never heard of a man taking the trials, though. The law clearly stated that expectant stepmothers were to undergo the grueling ritual, so it followed that stepfathers were to be exempt. But, well, he wanted to do things right, and though Josef had begged him not to risk himself unnecessarily, he couldn’t help but feel it would be cheating to do otherwise. The thought of starting a new life with the man he had come to love, and his sweet daughters, only to have it be taken away on a technicality... it was too painful to bear much consideration.
The clerk gave Jackie a curious sidelong glance, but said nothing as she rolled the parchment back up and tied the official yellow silk ribbon into a neat bow. She gestured at the door behind her, barely looking up from her other work.
Jackie swallowed, wiped his sweating palms on his trousers, pulled open the weighty door, and ... almost walked straight into solid oak. Right.
Jackie pushed open the weighty door, nervous as hell.
Great start, Jack.
The fairy appeared after Jackie’s third trial.
He had already waded his way through a moat filled with sleeping crocodiles and balanced a stack of porcelain bowls ten high on his head. In all, Jackie was feeling pretty good about himself. But before him lay his nemesis, his downfall, the one test he had hoped he wouldn’t find in here: A needle, some brightly dyed thread, and fabric stretched across a wooden hoop.
Jakcie swore up and down. “It’s not fair, not my fault that I wasn’t raised on this stuff! Tell me to make a table, a chair, a tiny wooden soldier! Anything but this!” He eyed the embroidery hoop with suspicion, half expecting it to leap off the table and bite him.
As a child, he had watched his sisters mastering the art of embroidery; though it seemed interesting at first, he quickly disabused himself of any hopes of becoming a seam...ster? He had received such a tongue-lashing from his mother over the tangled thread and bent needles that he had been afraid to try ever again.
And here he was, facing the dreaded hoop once more.
“Need any help, dearie?” Jackie jumped, startled by the soft, high voice hovering right over his left shoulder. Turning, he saw her--the fairy godmother! Of course he recognized her, who wouldn’t? Petite blue dress, gossamer-thin wings elegantly holding her aloft, and that magic wand! The stories in the papers didn’t do justice to her golden locks and tiny cupid’s-bow mouth set between round apple cheeks. And she was so small, barely three inches tall!
“I, uh, hello!” Jackie couldn’t think of how to address a famous fairy, so he settled on a bow, almost holding his hand out for a handshake before realizing how preposterous that would look.
“Hello, Jack, darling! My, how fun. Do tell me, what is a man doing in here?”
Jackie relayed his short life story to her. How his mother suspected his feelings for other boys and bundled him off to become a carpenter’s apprentice. How he grew to love his craft, how he met Josef when he’d come in to have a beloved childhood toy repaired. How they fell madly in love, and how deeply he cared about Clarissa and Maribel. How he didn’t want to replace their mother, but instead bring his own love into the family.
“Oh, dearie, what a romantic story!” the fairy squeaked, literally glowing a bright, joyful pink. “Please, let me help you out! With a wave of my wand, I’ll have this task done in no time at all, and you can go home!” She flicked her wrist and the embroidery hoop sparkled with magic. Josef couldn’t help but gasp; a beautiful seaside scene stitched itself into the fabric, complete with tiny pinwheeling gulls and delicate shore-grass.
“Beautiful, no? Hurry up, we can’t keep Josef and the girls waiting!”
Jackie took a step towards a door that had materialized in the far wall, so tempted to pull (or push?) the handle and go home. He could see their happy faces before him now.
But no. No, that would be too easy, just like it would have been too easy to lay low and skip the trials entirely. If he was going to do this, Jackie would do it right.
“I’m, er, flattered by your offer, Mrs. Godmother, ma’am. But I think this is something I need to do alone.”
The fairy nodded sagely and waved her wand again, resetting the fabric to that daunting blank canvas.
Jackie picked it up and began, biting his tongue in concentration. He tried to channel the dexterity he’d learned carving tiny wooden figurines for the shop, imagining all the dollies he would carve for the girls once he survived this task. It was hard, just as hard as he remembered from his childhood. But he pushed away his doubts and fears, concentrating just on the task at hand.
After hours of cursing and struggling with the needle and thread, Jackie sat back to look at his masterpiece.
It was hideous. He had tried to recreate the view out of Josef’s front windows, of the towering Grandfather Mountain surrounded by his many grandchildren hills, but the stitching was uneven and the colors flat. More of a gray blob than a magnificent vista.
Jackie sighed and set down the hoop, looking up at the fairy godmother. “Well, that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Is it enough, do you think?”
If you’ve never seen a fairy in a fit of giggles, just imagine a high tinkling noise and lots of somersaults.
“This is possibly the worse piece of embroidery I’ve ever seen,” the fairy managed, after calming her laughter.
Jackie sighed, palms sweating again. He knew what this meant—no one ever came back from the trials having failed. They were just never seen again. He waited for her pronouncement of doom.
“But... it is enough. You’re free to go to Josef and the girls, Jackie.”
Jackie looked up in wild surprise. “I, uh, what?” he stammered. “You just said it was awful!”
“Ah, I did,” she answered with a wink. “But you did it yourself. Tell me, what kind of a trial would this be if we let stepmothers—er, or stepfathers—wish away their problems? Step-parenting is a noble and difficult task, and those who would take the easy way out do not deserve the distinction. You passed, Jackie, not because of your embroidery skills—which are, I will repeat, the worst I’ve ever seen—but for your honesty and commitment to hard work.”
Still in shock, Jackie stood numbly and pushed open the door. This time, it gave, and he almost left before turning back.
“Can I keep this?” he asked, reaching back for his hideous creation. The fairy nodded, and he snatched up the embroidery hoop before continuing through the doorway.
Josef and the girls would surely get a good laugh out of it.
Written February 2021.
[WP] A vengeful Queen Cinderella makes it a new law for the future stepmoms to go through various difficult and dangerous tasks if they want to marry the widowed fathers, many have failed. A maid falls in love with a widowed knight with kids, the fairy godmother comes to help her succeed at the tasks.
"... A soul?" Charles scoffed. "That's it?" A chuckle rippled around the table. The man in the deep purple vest waited for the laughter to die down, staring at each of us in turn. When his black gaze lighted on me, for a moment I was gripped by an icy panic, cold fingers of fear massaging my temples and traveling down my spine. Then it passed, though the memory did not. In my companions' faces I saw my own experience reflected, and I knew that the expression on my own must have looked just as surprised, just as nervous. It wasn’t so much the odd bid—a single soul was low, of course, but not insanely so—as it was the stranger’s ineffable confidence and terrifying gaze that tore at my gut.
Finally, the interloper returned his arresting attention to Charles, one eyebrow arched in---was that amusement? On anyone else, the expression would have seemed cartoonish, ripped directly from an animated villain, overblown and two-dimensional in both senses of the word. But employed by him, the thin-lipped and tightly expectant look was enough to quell even the ever-present smirk on Charles's face. Charles swallowed, nervous, and his smile returned, though this time with a hint of unease. It was the kind of smile one puts on to mask an unwilling and unwelcome flip of the stomach, when one does not want to give off even a whiff of weakness, but is failing miserably. Although I, too, was put off by the newcomer's icy manner, I almost admired him for his ability to rattle Charles. Not in the eleven centuries that I'd known him had I seen my oldest friend truly scared. Not that I’d never tried—fear was my specialty, after all. Charles had always responded to my efforts with a hearty chuckle and a wink, though, promising me Next time, maybe.
"Right.” The swirling blue light cast by the vial gave Charles’s already gaunt face a decidedly sickly tint, as if he had aged a thousand years in the last minute. “Well, the opening ante is low tonight, accounting for the absence of a certain demon-who-shall-not-be-named, so one soul is fine enough." Nervous laughter echoed the unease of Charles's obvious rambling. We all knew who he was talking about; Gregor was notorious for driving up bids, a religious devotee to the motto: What fun is a gamble if you haven't got ten thousand lives on the line? In his absence, Friday Night Poker had had a relaxed and tame atmosphere; that is, before the arrival of this stranger in mauve.
“And?” The stranger’s face no longer betrayed any emotion, his smooth visage unmarred by wrinkle and dimple both.
“. . . And?” Charles looked puzzled. A bead of sweat would have trailed down his temple, I’m sure of it. That is, if Charles were capable of sweating.
“Oh! Right. Uh, lads, what was it again?” Charles paused, his index finger riffling the deck with a palpably nervous energy. No one spoke, all of us momentarily paralyzed.
“Sixth-Circle Hold ‘Em?” offered Peggy then, weakly. I quickly nodded agreement, and the others followed, eager to get to playing. Anything to distract from the growing tension, so thick now that one could cut it with a blade, serve it on a platter, and call it charcuterie.
The stranger nodded, sage and silent, and Charles dealt out the first hand. After everyone had their two, I took a quick peek at mine. An ace of hearts and a queen of diamonds. Unsure of what to think of the high but incongruous face values, I called Jezebel’s weak bid of twenty-three head. To my surprise, the usually aggressive Peggy and Damar were both mute as they pushed their cards away. Folds, both. An odd choice, but given the oddness of the situation already, I couldn’t blame them. Still, the icy chill that had taken hold of the room had piqued my interest, in the same way that it had extinguished theirs. Who was this mysterious stranger, that he could inspire such fear with only a glance? I knew then that I wouldn’t fold—I couldn’t, not until I had him figured out.
The stranger and Charles both called Jezebel’s twenty-three, neither raising, and that was the first round done. The flop came next—Jack of clubs, queen of hearts, ace of spades. My heart sped, as it always did when I saw I had a real shot at something good. I tried, again as always, to control myself, to not give anything away. I stole a glance at Charles, but his eyes were locked on the stranger. Jezebel raised her earlier bid, a hint of confidence in her voice as she intoned--one hundred head, nineteen fingers. So she had something. Not good news for me, then, unless she had a run. I called, the stranger raised by thirty head, and Charles unexpectedly folded. The smile had once again fled from his face. His eyes flickered to the vial in the pot, and mine followed.
The substance inside—a deep cobalt blue that was part liquid, part gas, part something else—arrested my attention, refusing to let go. I barely ripped my gaze away to glance at the turn (ace of clubs, accompanied by a collective gasp and a whistle from Damar), and call the bet, whatever it was. At this point, I was beyond caring about wagers. There was something familiar about the soul, something in the way that it flitted about. It was beautiful in a terrible way, dancing within the glass like a caged bird fretting itself against the bars of its gilded prison. Whose soul was it, I wondered. It had to be somebody worthwhile, for the stranger to offer it as an opening ante. But, the larger question remained: was the stranger confident—or arrogant—enough to wager a soul that was actually important? Or was this a run-of-the-mill sinner, with a tragic backstory or an aborted redemption arc? Somehow, I got the sense that it was the former, that this soul was special. That we had a chance here, proffered by this strange man in mauve, to win a real prize.
Feeling a now-familiar, icy prickle in the back of my neck, I looked up to see the stranger staring directly at me. He smiled then, a wolfish grin that cut across his smooth face in a violent slash. There was my answer, then. There was something, someone in that vial, that was vitally important. I was seized with a hunger that surprised me, an all-consuming avarice that took my breath away. I didn’t want to win; I had to.
With just three of us left in the game, the stakes were high for the last reveal. Charles burned a card and emitted a barely audible “Styx” before flipping the last. My heart leapt again. Queen of clubs. I had it. A full house. The vial was mine. Jezebel, seeing the triumphant look on my face, she folded, her mouth twisted in disappointment. I bid two hundred head and turned to see what my opponent would do. The look on his face once again stopped my heart. Had he beat me? Did he, improbably, impossibly, have the other two aces? For a moment, he said nothing. Then, “Call.”
It was over. Now for the reveal. My heart ached in anticipation, my hunger turning to a ravenous thing, a beast within me. I had to win. The greedy beast agreed, pacing, clawing at the floor of my ribs, roaring its assent.
The stranger flipped his cards over suddenly, with little ceremony: An ace of clubs. And a two of spades. Incredibly, he had almost nothing. I had won. The beast yowled, and I reached out for the vial, heart racing, fingers closing around its delicate neck. When I looked up, however, the stranger’s face was not etched in the defeat I expected. Instead, a small smile of triumph twitched at the corners of his mouth, and I was gripped with a feeling of panic, with a certainty that I had somehow made a grave mistake, a terrible misstep that could not be taken back.
“Well done, Ammika,” he said, and a small part of me wondered how he knew my name, how he had known about this game, and who had invited him. “Enjoy your reward.” The way he stressed reward sent another shiver of disquiet through me, but before I could muster a response, he pushed his chair back from the table, grabbed his coat, and left without so much as a goodbye. The air should have lost some of its awful tension, but somehow, his departure made the silence maddeningly more strained.
The eyes of my friends were all turned to me. I was still stretched across the table, gripping the tiny bottle with a crazed possessiveness. I knew, and they knew, that I could no more resist from uncorking the vial than either of us could resist the torture of a deserving soul. It was in our natures, in my nature, and it was with this certainty that I felt my thumb peel itself from the glass neck and push the cork from its niche with a satisfying pop.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a shriek pierced the silence, a peal we had all heard a thousand million times before. It was the scream of the damned, eternally rebounding around the cavernous, endless halls of Hell. It was a scream I had heard before, but not in a thousand years.
It was my own soul, my own scream that catapulted from the tiny mouth of the insignificant bottle. The scream of a soul that I had cast away years ago, wholly confident that I would never lay eyes on the thing ever again. And it was the scream of my current body that ripped from my own throat as my soul, at last, was reunited with its other half, that terrible beast finally sated. And it was the scream of my own consciousness that knew, with dreadful certainty, that an eternity of torture and pain lay in my future. For if Hell looks unkindly on the poor commonplace sinner, how much more would I suffer, for having fallen from the ranks of the demons into the ranks of the damned?
First written in 2019.
[WP] Prompt: The man smiles, and puts a single vial filled with a swirling blue gas into the pot. “A soul,” he sneers. You aren’t exactly sure which one of your friends invited him, but Friday Night Poker just got significantly more interesting.
I have always loved to write short fiction, and pursuing a PhD hasn't stopped me! Most of these stories below were inspired by writing prompts from various internet sites. One day soon I'll submit to an actual writing magazine. For now, just enjoy.