Captain Llewellyn Gavin Crayford — “Captain Crayford” to many, “Cap” or “Cap’n” to most of his crew, and “LG” to his friends — disembarked from his ship, Running Light, with a sigh. Most of his crew were already off the ship, glad to have some shore leave. His ship was now officially down for maintenance for at least a week, with just a rotating skeleton crew for the duration. The Chief Engineer and he had agreed that the three starboard Quadron Engines were running hot and there was too much risk of them failing at just the wrong time the next time they got into combat. Thankfully, LG had enough of the right contacts to get them bumped almost to the top of the list for maintenance here, much to the probable consternation of other ships and their crews. His ship would be next-but-one to get a maintenance crew swarming all over her. After all, official Imperial Naval ships always got first priority.
As he always did when he disembarked, he turned back to look at her. She was a sleek ship, occasionally glinting against the endless darkness behind her as some of the dock lights flashed off her hull. Sure, she showed some scorch marks here and there, and some mild pitting from hitting various things, but, aside from the engine issues, she was about as ready to go as the first day he’d gotten her. Running Light had seen many docks and many stations, but every time he saw her like this, he couldn’t help but think back to how she became his.
His was to be the next name put onto The List. Being on The List meant he was now officially in the queue for promotion to the then-exalted rank of Captain — granted his own ship and allowed to run it however he saw fit. Well, run it according to the dictates of the Imperial Navy, that is. The very next day after learning he was about to get on The List, he was summoned to the High Admiral’s office and shown in without delay, something that never happened. The Admiral, alone in his office, explained that Crayford had shown “promise” — the Admiral had accentuated that with actual air-quotes. And, as such, he had been selected for an opportunity that would never happen again for him. This was a one-time offer, and he would have to accept or reject it before he walked out of the office — no mark against him for rejecting it.
The “advantages” (air-quotes again) of this offer were that he would get a ship; he would even be allowed to name her (something every officer dreamed of but was impossible for Naval ships unless you were supremely — one might even say “imperially” — well-connected). He’d barely have an initial crew to run her — just enough to get her undocked and dock somewhere else. But he could hire, fire, and promote crew as he wished beyond that. Promotions for any of crew, though, would be with the understanding that any ranks he appointed would be, at best, provisional within the normal hierarchy. Any of his crew wanting to transfer to regular service could expect the loss of a couple of ranks and would then discover the need to prove themselves all over again.
All of that for his own ship, though! His orders would, however, be in a much … “grayer zone” (the air-quotes had become almost worrisome by this point). There would be a great deal of latitude provided, but he generally would still be held to the mandates of the Imperial Navy, and dire consequences would befall him and his entire crew if he ever went completely rogue.
Of course, he’d barely needed enough time to draw a breath before agreeing and accepting.
Having gotten past his usual reminiscences, LG decided it was time for a drink. It wouldn’t do to be completely unpresentable when wandering the dull monochrome corridors and tubes of the station, so he looked at himself in a reflection off the large floor-to-ceiling window he’d just used to look at his ship. He slowly assessed what he was wearing from head to toe.
The cap needed to be straightened, and the rank insignia on his dark gray jacket — shoulders and collars — were dusty as they’d sat in a chest since the last time he’d been on a station. The jacket was open and hanging, showing a white linen shirt underneath, unbuttoned halfway down, of course — there are limits to how much he would do to make himself pretty.
The standard naval bright blue sash had been replaced with a dark blue sash with bright blue tips, barely connected by some haphazard loose thread. Just below his sash on his left hip was his saber — peace cord clearly visible, and on his right, his holstered blaster snapped closed. Black pants with no other discernible markings ended with his boots revealed underneath. The boots were sorely in need of polishing, but the operating budget for the Running Light, substantial though it was, didn’t exactly include enough for a captain’s cabin boy.
Adjusting his cap and pulling down on the hem of his jacket to straighten it slightly, he knew exactly where he wanted to go for a drink, and even knew just how to get there. That path started with asking a random passing station spacer how to get to a maintenance bay that LG already knew was on the distant other side of the giant station.
After getting a very convoluted set of directions, he closed his eyes to pick a different direction and then started walking. Opening his eyes again after he was moving, he purposefully made five wrong turns (not that they could have been the right ones given his starting direction) and wound up in a corridor that looked just like all of the others. The difference, of course, was that this one wasn’t on any of the station maps. Halfway down the corridor, with one of the wall-lights flickering occasionally, there was a very incongruous door.
There was nothing remarkable about there being doors in a station. But they didn’t normally have handles and hinges. Usually, doors slid aside into the walls or retracted into ceilings — they didn’t swing open. A smile started to form on his face as he realized he had, once again, made it to the Pub.
The pub he’d gotten to is, of course, the Nowhere Pub. It is a multi-dimensional, cross time and space, pub. Try and conjure from the deepest recesses of your mind the darkest, seemingly most unfriendly, not-where-you-belong pub. Now magnify that several times. You might just come close to the interior of the Pub. There are tables scattered across the floor and around the edges of the room — which is barely visible. On each table is something which you would think are candles — you’d be wrong — providing barely flickering sparks of light.
There are similar lights hanging over the bar. Behind the bar are several taps for beer and ale — all of which are unlabeled, having merely blank wooden pull-levers attached to them. There’s a multitude of bottles against the back wall, either similarly unlabeled or with labels that are impossible to see or read. Of course, the Pub has a bartender. He’s usually a cheerful sort and, when not serving drinks, spends most of his time polishing the glasses and mugs.
What’s the allure of the Pub? It’s got a few.
For one thing, any drink that exists — somewhere or somewhen — is available to you. Name a beer, and they’ve not only got it, but it’s on tap. Pick a vintage liquor, and they’ll have a bottle — open and waiting to serve you a shot. If you insist on a cocktail, hardly a favorite of the usual clientele, the bartender will have just the perfect ingredients for the absolutely best version of it, you’ve ever tasted.
And the clientele — Ah, you’ll find all sorts here; ranging from barbarians just walked in out of icy tundra, to nomadic priests finally made it out of the desert, all the way to space marine officers who’ve come out of a successful battle. This is where they go to have a drink, or five, and relax.
The Pub is where stories are swapped. Just don’t try to start a fight. You’ll get one warning from the bartender that behaving that way will require him to call the Bouncer to put an end to it. That always settles the point.
Oh, and the other distinction about the Pub? It’s got two kinds of customers. The Regulars and the One-Timers. You don’t know which one you are until you try and find the Pub again. The Regulars can always find their way back. The door they open to leaving the pub will always be the same door they used to enter it — returning them back to wherever they came from.
As for the One-Timers? Well — they get one chance. No one else uses that door? They’re headed back home and never finding it again. They go out through a different door, though, and who knows where they’re headed or if they’re ever coming back.
How do you figure out which type of customer you are? You walk out the door and see what happens. Or, you discover you can find the Pub again.
Sometimes, though, the Pub seems to be good at finding just the right One-Timers. They need a drink. They need to hear some stories. They need … something.
No matter what, the Pub is always an interesting place to visit — if all you’re doing is visiting.
The door swung open, and he stepped inside, closing it behind him to try and avoid blinding everyone inside with the cold, sterile lights of the station. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and flickering not-candle lights. While he waited, he heard the bartender call to him, “Captain! Come on in! You’ve got a drink waiting for you from last time!”
LG made his way to where the stools were, grabbing one and swinging himself onto it. “First off, I’ve told you — in here; it’s LG. Captain is for when I’m working, and I come here to get away from work! Now, what’s this about a drink? Gods, I still remember the last time I was here. What, by the stars, was the fermented piss that guy shared with me? I wanted to claw my eyes out by the time I got back to my ship.”
The bartender smiled. “That, Captain,” he emphasized the word, “was Blue Dragon Piss, casked in the 24th year of His Supreme Brightness Kalveriaw’s Throne, and bottled in the 16th year of His Supreme Brightness Wranliet’s Throne.” He closed his eyes and looked down at the floor, “Long may their bloodline rule the Twenty-Seven Kingdoms.”
L.G. stared at him, his mouth dropping open. “You just made that shit up while you stood there. ‘Long may their…’ None of that exists, you D’kertian-headed dolt!”
“Well, perhaps not on any of the planets or systems you’ve been to. The gentleman, though, who shared his bottle with you was, unbeknownst to you, showing you a great sign of respect. None but the imperial bloodline and their houses may partake of those beverages. Or, of course, those they choose to share the bottles with.”
“Blue Dragon… You’re kidding, right? And what was with all that jibber-jabber at the end to just name a bottle of booze?”
“I wasn’t kidding. That really was fermented and aged dragon urine. From, as the name indicates, blue dragons. Count yourself lucky he didn’t ask for a bottle of the Purple Dragon. You’d still be wandering around wondering who you were and why you were seeing all the sounds around you. And the jibber-jabber, as you call it, is required to be recited every time we name the bottles. It’s part of the contract that allows us to stock it for those permitted to order it.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.” He thought back over how he’d been greeted when he entered. “What was that about a drink waiting for me?”
“After you downed your … 8th glass … You had felt it necessary to leave, presumably to start the previously-mentioned eyeball-clawing. Before your drinking companion subsequently left, he stated how very much he’d been entertained by your stories about battles in space and aliens. He didn’t believe a word of it but thought you were one of the greatest jesters he’d ever met. So he insisted on leaving a drink for you. He could not leave another shot of the Blue Dragon, so he made sure that your drink would be put on his tab. Thus, your first drink tonight is compliments of Prince Filbrantian, first son, and heir-presumptive, of His Supreme Brightness Wranliet.”
Since Crayford hadn’t planned on anything refined, he asked the bartender to pick something appropriate so long as there was absolutely no urine or other excrement, from anything or anyone, involved in the collection and fermenting of his drink. The bartender smiled and poured a double shot of something setting the glass next to a mug of ale. “There you go — your first drink of the evening. While it’s customary to drink it as a bomb,” mimicking dropping the glass into the mug, “it is perfectly acceptable to have them separately.”
Just then, the door slammed open, allowing bright light to come streaming in and a brisk, humid air to blow in. Crayford yelled out, “Shut the damn door! You’re letting all the dark out!”
“Sorry, sorry…” A scrawny young man pushed the door closed behind him, pausing as everyone did to adjust to the interior of the pub. He was a sorry sight indeed. It looked to be some sort of naval uniform he was wearing, but what were those? Yes, his jacket had tails! The hat he pulled from his head had definitely seen better days. He had a sack slung over his shoulder.
When the man came over to the bar, it was easier to see that all of his uniform had seen better days. The collars and shoulders had tears, most likely where insignia had been pinned. Almost flinging himself onto a stool, he laid his arms and head on the bar and spoke out of the side of his arms. “Whatever is the strongest, cheapest rum you’ve got. I’m on my last 10 silvers, and I mean to get as solidly drunk as I can before I have to go back out there again and try to figure out what to do next.”
Crayford looked the lad up and down as best he could in the dim light. The other man’s back heaved as if he was trying not to sob. With a quick glance at the bartender for approval, he pushed his glass and mug over. “You look like you need this more than I do. These were a gift from … a friend … So I’m going to pass them on to you. Have a drink. Care to share your story?”
The bartender smiled as if he’d seen this situation many times before. He drew another mug for Crayford and then turned away to start polishing mugs and glasses.
“Thank you.” The young man sniffled and lifted his head. “Drew Ridge. Formerly Lieutenant Ridge, but that stopped being the case just moments ago.” He turned to Crayford, seemed to notice the insignia at his collar and shoulders. “Ah … sir!”
“Well, you guessed right. Captain Crayford, but, in here, I’m just LG. Ranks happen outside of the Pub, not inside. This is where we go to get away from those.”
“Yessir. I mean … Yes, LG, sir. I mean…” Ridge stumbled over his words, trying to get his head straight about what was going on.
Crayford laughed. “Don’t sweat it. Now, what’s this about your … untimely retirement?” He smiled at the seeming witticism.
Ridge winced. “We’d just come back to port. It had been a slow, boring trip for most of the way.”
“They’re all like that. At least right up until they stop being slow and boring. And right then, you’d better be on the top of your game, or you’re the one eating shots instead of drinking them, in odd company, afterwards, eh?”
“Yessir. Well — anyway. We were a couple of weeks out of returning, and I had the watch. I caught sight of a tiny flicker right at the edge. Informed the captain and he trusted my eyes. We set off on a chase. They just didn’t have our speed, though, and we caught ‘em. A couple of shots across their bow and they struck colors! We’d caught one of the last major pirates.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry, privateers … that was harassing our merchant ships.
“Captain told me how well I’d done in noticing it and insisted that I join the prize crew as we brought both ships back home!” Ridge was now almost gleaming with pride and paused to slam down most of the mug, waving it towards the bartender. It was quickly refilled without another word spoken.
“So, after that, we get into port and all of a sudden it’s time for a Reduction of Force, and Crew Dispersal. All officers with ten years or more of service put on half-pay. Everyone else…” He mimicked a salute. “Thanks for your service, and we forgot to tell you that this all happened a month ago, so your prize ship isn’t yours — it’s the full property of the Crown who will do with it as they see fit, but that does not include paying off for the damn thing!”
Ridge tugged at the lapels of his jacket. “All I’ve got is what I’m wearing and what’s in my sack there. They wouldn’t even let us keep our insignia, sir! Said we might allow them to fall into the wrong hands or something. Pulled off and tossed into some bag like they was nothing! … Like … Like … like it was loot, taken by one of the pirates we’d just been fighting!”
Crayford smiled, a thought forming in his head. He turned to Ridge, “You were a Lieutenant? Good eyes, you say?”
Ridge seemed to perk up a bit with the feeling he could talk about his strengths. “Yessir. Real good eyes! Never needed optics, and no one in my family either!”
“What other ship skills do you have, Ridge?”
“Pretty good navigator; I could always tell where we were by the stars.” Crayford worked to keep himself from laughing. “And I could scramble up the rigging with the best of them. It’s one of the reasons I had that watch. I liked being up there and able to see forever.”
At that, Crayford couldn’t contain himself any longer and had to laugh a moment.
“What about family? Got a woman and kid waiting for you?”
“No, sir. Never had time to get a woman and none of my other family are left anymore.”
“Well … you said your name is Drew?” A quick nod of agreement. “Well, Drew, it just so happens that I actually have my own ship. Captain Llewellyn Gavin Crayford. And I’m always on the lookout for decent officers.”
Ridge’s mouth opened and his eyes brightened. “Sir? You’d take an unknown lieutenant who was just summarily dismissed? You just met me in a pub out in the middle of nowhere?”
LG smiled and looked over at the bartender. “Oh, that’s sort of the point. Some times, being Nowhere has its advantages. Now, as for the offer…
“She’s the Running Light, and I have quite a bit of … discretion in how I crew her. You would be a fully-commissioned officer in the Navy, but, realistically, you’ll never be able to transfer to another ship. The mandatory loss in rank for transferring off would make that … prohibitive. One of the downsides of the level of discretion I have, unfortunately. On the other hand, I’ve never had someone want to leave that way. Had a few decide their traveling days were over, and some who left in a bag, but … those are hard stories, and we all know them.
“I’d bring you on as a Midshipman, but if you can prove yourself to me and the rest of the officers, I expect you to earn your first promotion … or two … rather quickly. I do reward competence and ability — quite well, in fact.”
“Sir … while I appreciate the offer … and I hate what they did to us … I did swear an oath to serve the King. I can’t sail in anything that would be forced to go against the Navy that just tossed me away.”
“Oh, not to worry. I think I can safely say that you will never cross paths with any of your former shipmates or their ships.” LG smiled again as he thought about it.
Ridge took a slow drink from his mug.
“Now, while you’d be commissioned, we do tend to operate … somewhat outside of the … certainties that define most navies. That’s also part of my discretion. We aren’t privateers or pirates, but I’ve been known, on occasion, to fly different colors for the purpose of distraction or even downright subterfuge. We’re on a good mission, though — I can promise you that.”
Ridge pondered this and then poured the rest of his mug down his throat, following it with the double shot He then leapt to attention. “Sir! Lieutenant … I mean, Midshipman Drew Toby Ridge, sir! Reporting for duty, sir!”
Crayford picked up his mug and drank it down, then stood up. “At ease, Drew. I told you already. We leave the ranks outside. Give me a moment to settle up, and we can head to the ship and start getting you acquainted with what crew aren’t on shore leave..”
He looked at the bartender who shook his head. “Nah. Sometimes it’s just too obvious that the drink is courtesy of the Pub. Just make sure you bring this young man back here for another drink, y’hear?” Crayford smiled and nodded.
“Sir, I promise you! Put me on your ship, and I’ll prove to you just how good I am at navigating by the stars!”
Crayford put his arm around the younger man’s shoulders pulling him towards the door. “By the stars? Drew, you are about to go on an adventure like you’ve never imagined.” He opened the door into the cold corridor of the space station he’d walked in from.
“We don’t navigate by the stars. We navigate between them.”