Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Single Malt Spacecraft

The first time Fresia tasted scotch, it was true love. She was twenty-two. Her boyfriend had just turned twenty-one and had gotten a bottle of Glen Livet from his dad. He poured a shot for himself and for his friend, but none for Fresia.

“Come on,” she said, “I want to taste it.”

“Girls don’t like whisky,” he said. “Trust me, you’ll hate it.”

“Let me find out for myself.”

“Not for what this costs, sorry.”

The friend gasped over his empty shot glass. “Oh, that’s good.”

Her boyfriend put the whisky on the top of the fridge where he knew Fresia was too short to reach.

Later, when the guys were in the next room, she climbed on the counter to get it down and drank straight from the bottle.

It tasted like lying in the sun on a perfect summer day, like only the best parts of caramel. She took another, larger swig, and didn’t wipe the lip before putting it away.

• • • •

Fresia’s ship broke through the cloud layer and approached Burke Lakefront Spaceport over the slate-colored waves of Lake Erie. The buildings were the same faux-1950s revival she remembered, but they were dingier, glass gone to smeary opacity, the lawns unkempt. A lot changed in forty years, though to her it had been two weeks.

Fresia hoped looks weren’t everything. She banked to land and the bottle next to her foot tipped against her. Single malt scotch: Glen Fresia, forty years aged. A very small batch, a very special batch.

Fresia opened the cargo doors and got a face full of muddy lake scent. This was her third trip home, her third gamble, throwing herself forty years ahead of Earth so she could keep her dream alive. Her Glen Fresia. Last time there’d been a pair of softly glowing silicone loader bots. This time she faced a crowd of human laborers. Surly human laborers.

A young man detached himself from the crowd. “Well come, Miss Fresia.” He said “welcome” like two words and “Miss” like he was translating it.

How much had language drifted this time? “Are you the port relativity liaison?”

He bowed. “Nope. I’m Stuart. You would remember my grand mother.” He held out the metal card she’d given to her home business agent, who had refused paper on what felt like religious grounds.

She took the card, afraid it was the only surviving artifact of her last visit. “What happened to this place?”

“The war,” Stuart shrugged. “But Miss should make a killing. Nostalgia is large these days. And dang . . .” he picked a ceramic superhero out of its foam cradle. “I haven’t seen one of these since I was a child.”

“Is my storage locker intact?” The warehouses near at hand looked like rotted teeth.

“Nope. Grand salvaged the contents. Moved all south during the war, and back again. Little different location. I show you.” He set the superhero reverently in its place and waved to the porters. “Care this!”

• • • •

The new warehouse looked like a sandcastle version of a barn. Stuart caught her staring. “Slurock. You have this when you were home last?”

“No. What is it?”

“Silicone mud mix sprays out of a hose. Goes up fast. Flexible for earthquakes. Ugly as butt, right?”

“I wouldn’t pick it.” Fresia wished he’d move faster.

Stuart passed his wrist over a sensor on a post to open the door. So they were doing it that way now. One hundred and twenty years had passed since her first trip out, but there were always doors, always some means of opening them. The interior walls looked like marbled plastic and were probably another new material she’d never heard of. The doors just looked like doors, though.

Fresia felt her shoulders unclench the minute she saw her casks. Here was something timeless. She stroked the wood she’d abandoned to the vagaries of decades a few weeks ago. Next to it were the business ledgers, hard copy to ensure they survived, and what had been a top-of-the-line data interface forty years ago. Fresia flipped the little box open and the screen projected above it. “Is this going to work for my sales and purchases?”

“Not sure. The . . . datainfrastructures suffered.” He pronounced “data infrastructures” like a single, multisyllabic word learned phonetically. “Grand saw it coming, though. Tracked your holdings and transferred as need.”

“Bucking for a tip?”

“You pay my family well,” he said, with the careful nonchalance of someone bucking for a tip.

Stuart showed her how to approve purchases on the device imbedded in his wrist. They were using ceramic casks now, lined in printed oak. She worried over the effect on flavor, but Stuart insisted there was no supplier for real oak casks.

She transferred a bonus to Stuart and made a gift in his grandmother’s memory to a charity. “Looks like I won’t be upgrading the ship,” she said. Not terrible. This was not the worst she could have found things. Glen Fresia would live another day. “Tell me, what’s new and cheap and made of something that ages badly?”

He looked disappointed. “How you get into this . . .” he waved his hands helplessly.

“Junk dealing?”

He narrowed his gaze like sunlight in a lens, like he was trying to burn understanding into her. “I mean . . . your ship? This independence?”

“How’d I get out of my trucking contract?”

His response was a widening of the eyes, eagerness. His grand had to have told him the story: Intrepid trucker makes it good on a lucky stash of comic books. “You’re trying to get me to brag so I like you.”

Stuart ducked his head but couldn’t hide his smile. “It working?”

• • • •

Fresia spent the night with Stuart. He wasn’t handsome, but he was enthusiastic, and she felt a need to press flesh to flesh.

The guilt set in before her sweat cooled. Liking Stuart was a betrayal of her idea of herself as a celibate space pirate, sworn off men, giving her heart to the more reliable affections of scotch whisky.

And she knew she’d never see him again.

God, she was selfish. Did she really think it would always be worth it?

Too uncomfortable to sleep, she explored Stuart’s apartment. It felt familiar. Possibly it was old-fashioned, an artifact of the family’s business selling nostalgic items from exactly forty years ago. Stuart followed her into a kitchen that looked like his grandmother’s. He put his hands on her bare hips and kissed her shoulder. “Hungry?”

She wasn’t particularly, but it was a chance for fresh food. “Yeah.”

Stuart fried eggs wearing silk sleep shorts. Downy hairs on his stomach, skin taut and smooth as eggshell. It was the best he’d looked. “When will you . . . quit?” he asked. He looked back when she didn’t answer. “I . . . meaning it must be lonely, all those years.”

Now he was bucking for more than a tip. “Feels like a few weeks to me.”

He slid a plate in front of her. It smelled of garlic and cheese, comforting and savory. “A few weeks can be lonely, too.”

The eggs were a little too hot, crispy on the edges—exactly how she liked them. “I have Whisky,” she said, meaning her cat, but she could tell from the sudden widening of his eyes that he worried she was an alcoholic.

Well, she loved scotch, too.

She finished the eggs, felt tender toward Stuart for worrying, and they made love again, long and slow and this time she fell asleep after, and that was good.

In the morning, Stuart wouldn’t look at her as they signed the final agreements.

That wasn’t to be helped. It stung leaving people behind when she first signed up, and it would sting again. She imagined the hard acceleration pushing the emotion right out of her.

It didn’t.

When the gees leveled off, she curled up in her beanbag chair in the rec room. The week of travel stretched before her, empty. Weeks could be lonely, too.

Whisky sauntered in, yowling his displeasure at the AutoCat Pet Crate decanting him. He never got the hang of acceleration-gravity and would mew piteously and slink on the floor, showing his horror at being heavier than expected. The AutoCat kept him safe from that, but it was akin to a daylong trip to the vet.

She crawled to him. “I’m sorry, baby. Takeoff and landing are awful.” He avoided her with his chin raised in righteous indignation.

Well, he’d come around when she started a movie.

As always, her agent (she had to stop calling him Stuart in her head) had provided her with a curated collection of film and books from the past four decades. It was in the original contract, for her own good. She had to try. Try to catch up, understand, relate. The memes slipped from under her so fast. She had to be ready to integrate with society when she hit the ground for the last time.

The first movie she queued up didn’t make sense at all: footage of streams and fields, uncut flying paths that crawled under leaves or swung up to where a person’s head should be.

Whisky yowled and hopped neatly into her lap, turning once and dropping into a puddle of warm orange fur. She was forgiven. Take that, Stuart. She had Whisky, and whisky, to keep her company.

She uncorked the latest scotch. It had a wheat-like touch to its mellow oak. Not as caramel as the last batch. A delightful change.

She’d had good luck, overall. Her first batch started with the purchase of a five-year-old cask and it had come out fragile forty years later, vanishing on the tongue with sharpness and clarity like an icicle. She switched to buying new mash and barrels. One cask in the second batch failed—a slight air leak that might not have damaged it in ten years had turned the contents weak in forty. Maybe the new-fangled barrels would be a good thing. Safer. There could be new flavor influences to discover.

She scratched behind Whisky’s ears. The next film started, and it made even less sense. Discordant music fading in and out, flashes of still images. How depressing and futile her little film festival was! A condensed trip to a past skipped over.

She left the player going in the background and re-read A Wizard of Earthsea while Whisky purred on her stomach.

In the middle of the second chapter, she fell out of the story, thinking about Stuart, about his blue silk shorts and the way he leaned back on the kitchen counter, half-turned to her. He was living in fast-forward. How many fried eggs had he eaten? The thought hurt. She pushed it down. Any guy could feel perfect if you only knew him for a day.

A week later, the ship decelerated.

Style and culture changes were slower on Glieseg. The spaceport building had added two new wings, and moving sidewalks had been put in. She couldn’t quantify it, but it felt like there were more people—maybe that was just the sidewalks moving them faster.

She found, to her horror, a thriving nostalgic trinkets market along the arrivals bay. Truckers like her setting Earth imports out under cloth awnings. The second table had the wax butterflies Stuart had suggested she buy. Swarms of them. Well, no money in those, then.

Her previous agent, Tracy, met her, still recognizable for his lopsided smile, leaning on the arm of his middle-aged daughter. “We’re anxious to see the news from Earth!” he said.

“Still not accepting bank notes?”

He laughed. “We’ll upgrade and repair your vessel and feed and house you, never fear. It’s a public good, that you bring novelties and stories.”

Fresia gestured at the bustling market of other truckers. “Seriously? What am I adding?”

Tracy patted her arm. “Oh, how you capitalists think! A thing doesn’t have to be unique to be welcome. Now be happy! See what I’ve arranged—goods from the new colonies for you to take back to the mother planet.”

“New colonies! I miss a lot when I’m en route. Still no faster than light radio?”

“How would that even work?” the daughter scowled. Tracy cackled delightedly and they spoke rapidly in a patois. Daughter rolling her eyes and gesturing, father waving ideas away with one hand. They were close speakers, people who touched a lot. Fresia felt the empty air between her and them.

She sleepwalked through the day, feeling like she’d left a kettle on back on Earth.

In the morning, Fresia was loaded up with news and data files as well as the promised exotic trade goods—a crate of biological specimens suspended in sparkling energy fields.

“I was lucky to see you twice,” Tracy said, smiling-sad in the way only old people could pull off. He shook her hand a long time. “My grandchild, Patra, will greet you next time. I am training her. Unless you wish to stay?” His fingers closed, tugged on hers.

She couldn’t bring herself to speak in response. She hugged him. She knew when she first set out that she’d end up not at home on either side of her route, but she hadn’t really known. What was the difference, between intellectual-knowing and real knowing? Tracey probably knew.

• • • •

The colonist’s film collection started with a news report specially made for her to bring to Earth. Usually she liked these prosaic, easily digested stories. This time it felt like a highlight reel from four seasons of a sport she didn’t follow. Names, dates, numbers . . . did any of it mean anything?

She had a double shot, neat, of Glen Fresia Number One. Life wasn’t so bad. She lived in endless luxury of fine alcohol.

She tried to gather Whisky into her arms, but he turned and hissed at her. She gave him extra food and a wax butterfly to destroy. She thought about the casual intimacy between Tracy and his daughter, between him and this granddaughter she would meet next time.

Stuart could be a grandfather by the time she got back to Earth. She started to look forward to meeting his kids, seeing what sort of people they turned out to be, wondering what they would reveal about him in their attitudes and manners.

• • • •

Just outside of Earth-controlled space, Fresia was seized with certainty that no one was living on the home planet anymore. Where was the air traffic control signal?

A long, anxious second past the usual time, the signal was there.

Burke Lakefront had a strange, organic feel this time, like the buildings had melted or grown fungus on them. The lake had retreated, a beach of dark sand separating the old break wall from sluggish waves.

She was met by a dour-faced, boney man who introduced himself as Cic.

“Are you Stuart’s son?”

Cic spoke stilted, formal English, and almost sneered as he identified himself as Stuart’s cousin, once removed. “Stuart died unexpectedly. Heart attack at forty-three. He did not make adequate arrangements for your business.” Cic’s lip curled in distaste as he handed her a slender package. “He left you these.” It was a packet of letters, a one-sided conversation of years. Fresia cried, not because Stuart was particularly special to her, but because he wasn’t.

Cic studied the port lights over her head like a surly teen avoiding watching his parents kiss.

“Sorry.” She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. “Let’s go.” It would all be worth it, for the whisky. Wasn’t that her agreement with herself?

The warehouse was still there, but had grown soft folds like a cake left out too long. The casks were not.

The data link Stuart had left for her didn’t work. Cic said, “It would not matter if it did. The bank is gone. You have no dollars.”

Still reeling from the news about Stuart, half her mind on what his letters might contain, Fresia wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. “No dollars? My money? Nothing is left? Where is my whisky?”

“I took it as payment.” He looked like he thought this a generous concession.

“Payment for what?”

“For my services in your absence.”

“I need you to tell me what happened to my whisky. I need my ship serviced so I can take off again. I need to buy more whisky.”

Cic folded his arms. “How is this my problem?”

• • • •

After several hours of negotiation and grudging translation, Cic admitted he’d moved the casks to the bottling facility, but hadn’t been able to pay for processing. Fresia arranged to have the whisky bottled in exchange for a percentage of the yield, with the box of bio specimens and the tchotchkes from forty years ago going to Cic to pay for whatever it was he felt he’d done for her. He certainly hadn’t safeguarded her business. No new casks of fresh liquor to age. There would be no tryst on this trip! She spent the night back on her ship, eating the last of her supplies from the colony.

“Damn you for dying, Stuart.” She set a shot in front of the empty chair opposite her.

Compared to Stuart, losing all her amassed fortune impacted her emotionally like losing a particularly long game of solitaire. They had only been numbers in a computer. It wouldn’t bother her at all if she could get back on her route!

She had always known she had a limited number of trips in her tank. Despite that, she hadn’t formed a Plan B.

The security system projected an image of Cic in front of her. He was knocking on the cargo door. Ugh. He looked even more of a prick in side-view.

She opened a channel rather than get up from her sulk. “What do you want?”

“You have no fuel. There is no reason to hold on to this ship. You will sell it to me.”

Fresia slammed down her bowl. Not that he heard that. He was squinting up at the security light over the hatch.

Whisky hopped on the table and started eating the spilled oatmeal. She pushed him off. “That’s bad for you, cat.” He ignored her.

Fresia grabbed a bottle of Glen Fresia Batch Two (it came in particularly heavy glass) and stomped to the cargo door. She brandished the bottle. “I’m not selling. Not to you.”

Cic was nonplused. “The port will demand rent.”

“You could get me in the sky again, you cheat.”

His cold expression didn’t change. “I could. For your whisky.”

Fresia lowered her hand. She looked down at the lovely, caramel-colored liquid sloshing in the clear bottle. She had a store on the ship, one case from each batch. “How much?”

“All of it.”

“Oh, fuck OFF.” She slammed the door shut. Back in the galley she watched him shrug and walk away on projection.

Glen Fresia Batch Four came out peaty, complex and dark despite the mellowing of age. No discernable new flavor from the artificial oak. It paired well with instant oatmeal and depression.

• • • •

The next day, probably at Cic’s invitation, the port authority visited. The chief officer had bushy ginger hair and a little tablet she consulted after every sentence, as though it was transcribing or translating for her.

“We do not accept barter,” she said, after Fresia offered a bottle of whisky.

“It’s very valuable!”

A glance down, a word mouthed, a glance up. “It is not currency.”

“For the love of Jupiter—no, don’t translate that,” Fresia was already frustrated with how slow the conversation was going. Of course, now the officer was checking her plea not to check. “Don’t you know anyone who would be willing to trade scotch for cash?”

The officer’s eyes widened. She didn’t check her tablet. “Scotch?” she asked, with perfect, clear understanding.

A lucky break at last! Fresia waggled the bottle. “I don’t suppose you’d mind a sip while we haggle?”

The officer looked adorably heartbroken. “We must . . . propriety . . . no bribes.”

Cic skulked just outside the cordon for Fresia’s ship, looking like a cat watching a fish gasp its last. Fresia put down her bottle. “No bribes. But if you put me in touch with someone who can buy my scotch,” she paused to let her reading catch up. “I will then have money from that sale for fees.”

“We do not have authority. We cannot contact food merchants.”

But this woman did care. Fresia could see that. She cared about scotch. She put her arm around the official’s shoulders. “How would you like to help humanity itself?”

“No bribes.”

Fresia nodded. “No bribes. A legitimate business deal, and a public good. If you can’t put me in touch with a food merchant, can you put me in touch with a government?”

The official looked doubtful, but she also kept looking at Fresia’s bottle. “That would not . . . be against the rules.”

• • • •

Fresia left Earth for the last time, misty-eyed and much poorer—she’d ended up trading all but one bottle each of her hard-gotten whiskies. (The open bottles, which she had to keep.) She had her fuel and bills paid enough that the creditors wouldn’t stop her launching.

No Glen Fresia Batch Five aging, alas, but she had something better in her hold: Four bio-stasis beds full of tiny, fresh-sprouted barley plants. Twenty packets of dried yeast. Peat moss and oak saplings. All through an agreement with the Scottish Cultural Union. They were happy to have her promise to stop selling American-aged scotch on Earth. She’d find someplace in the stars to plant her fields, some place she could settle down and watch them grow, official property of Scotland, minus reasonable personal use.

Glen Stuart had a nice, Scottish ring to it.

The future tasted malty, with hints of hope.

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert is a software developer from Cleveland, Ohio. She is a member of the Cleveland science fiction workshop, The Cajun Sushi Hamsters, attended Clarion in 2013, and joined SFWA in 2014. She has sold over 50 short stories to markets such as Analog, F&SF, and Amazing Stories. She has ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and plays for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team. Her website is