Gather No Moss
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.
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.