Ten months out here, and he still couldn't get used to the stars. The constellations themselves looked the same as they had on Earth -- astronomically speaking, Lagrange point 2 wasn't much of change in location. When he'd first come here, Hob had expected them to look different, but they didn't. That both made him more comfortable, and it bothered him. The thing that really bothered him was that from here he could see both the Southern Cross and Cassiopeia in the same evening just by walking to the other level of the bar. Any old sailor will tell you that just isn't right.
Still, New St. Louis was a refreshing city to live in. For the first time in centuries, he was somewhere completely new. The station billed itself at the Gateway to the Stars. That wasn't quite true yet. It was really just the gateway to the moon, and, as of the past two years, the gateway to Mars. It was a good place to set up shop and make a living selling goods wholesale to people starting businesses farther out in space. It gave him opportunities to visit the new colonies to swap goods and stories with the colonists.
This wasn't the bar he usually went to; he preferred the cheap hole-in-the wall place at the center of the station most of the time. Photon was anything but a cheap bar, but then, when you had floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights overhead, and glass floors, all floating in the abyss of space, your HVAC bill had to be astronomical.
Still, Hob thought, he ought to be somewhere classy this evening. He’d considered returning to London for the occasion, but he couldn’t see the point. The old White Horse Tavern had been paved over and turned into a power station thirty years ago. All that was left of the old meeting place was pictures in his head. At least he didn’t have to do math with the time zones -- everything on the station was set to Greenwich Mean.
He took a seat at the bar and ordered a bottle of the oldest wine in the house. He swirled a little of it in his glass, listening to the sounds of the piano across the room. He pulled a battered paperback from his pocket and began to flip through Gwen’s old copy of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.
He thought of old loves and old friends, all lost. He ordered more wine. Hours passed. At 11:59, he raised his glass to no one in particular. "I didn't really think you'd make it, old friend. I knew you were gone. Still, it's been a hundred years since our last drink, and I thought it would be even more sad if neither of us raised a glass to the occasion. Here's to tradition. I know you were always a sucker for tradition."
Then it was midnight. Hob Gadling downed the glass in one gulp. Then he poured himself another, set it aside, and turned back to his book.
Matthew was getting impatient. He flew around the throne room, perching on statue after statue. He even went so far as to peck at one of the stained glass windows, until it tried to reach out and grab him. He retreated to the back of the throne.
"Where could the kid be?" said Matthew to no one in particular. He scratched at the throne restlessly. “It’s not like him to just run off when he’s got work scheduled, without leaving a note or anything.”
After half an hour, Matthew couldn’t stand to wait any longer, so he flew off in search of Daniel. He flew through the tunnels and catacombs, but he saw nothing more than the nightmares changing shifts, some getting dressed for the night and some going on break.
He flew over the ramparts and battlements. He nearly got knocked out of the sky as the Fashion Thing, dressed in an orange and blue jumpsuit and some sort of odd helmet, bolted past him on her broom. He flew down to the gate and perched on the wyvern’s head. “Hey, have you guys seen the kid anywhere?”
“I am not certain of our master’s whereabouts at this moment,” said the gryffin.
“Which is really too bad,” said the hippogriff. “He said he would bring a newly created type of apple for me to try today.”
Matthew flew on until he found himself in the library. “Hey Lucien!”
“You’re a smart guy, right?”
“There are some people who would say that, Matthew.”
“Do you know where the kid ran off to? He was supposed to meet me in the throne room two hours ago.”
“You know, Matthew, after nearly a hundred years in his service, I would have thought you might cease referring to him as ‘kid’”. Lucien removed a book from a shelf, examined it, and returned it to a shelf lower down.
“Well, what else am I supposed to call him? I’ve never really been a ‘Yes, my lord’ kind of guy. And the boss was ‘the boss’. I can’t call him that.” Matthew spotted a bug on one of the large old tomes and snapped it up in his beak with a satisfying crunch.
Lucien recoiled for a moment, then picked up the book and peered at it nervously. “Oh, dear. I hope nothing is trying to eat the glue on the spines.” He placed the big book aside on a little cart. “You know, Lord Dream was supposed to join me during my inventory today. I hope no trouble has come to him.”
Just then, a nearby closet door burst open, and out poured a cloud of dust and a pile of empty paint cans. The cans clanked around the feet of a thin scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head.
“Damn it all. #^*@^% fleece for brains *&&%# How could he let us run out of blue paint? About a billion people are going to end up with lime green skies in their dreams tonight if this is all I have to work with. When I find him--” Merv looked up from the cans. “Oh, hey Loosh.”
“Good evening, Merv. Are you also looking for Lord Dream?” said Lucien.
“What me? Oh, yeah, well, he was supposed to restock the paint today. I haven’t seen him, and I’ve been through every store room in the castle trying to find some more cerulean.”
Matthew preened a few feathers uncomfortably. Merv lit a cigar. “So you guys haven’t seen him either? Huh. Sure hope he’s okay.”
I was 1 am, and Hob was reading poetry drunkenly to himself. “Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
Another man sat down at the bar next to him, and Hob gave a halfhearted shove at his collection of wine bottles, moving them about half an inch and entirely failing to make a clear space for the stranger. The stranger ordered a glass of white port. He was wearing a pale business suit. Hob noticed that his skin underneath it was even paler.
“You been on the station a long time, friend?” he asked. Small talk had always come easy to him, and he’d had a lot of practice. “It’s hard to get much sunlight up here unless you want to fry your skin off.”
The pale man took a sip of his drink. “Why, yes,” he said. “I’ve been here since the first shuttle came.”
“Funny,” said Hob. “I haven’t seen you around here before. Of course, I haven’t been here so long yet, and this isn’t usually my kind of joint.”
“Oh?” said the stranger. “So what is it that brought you here this night?”
Hob took a long breath and thumbed the book absently. “Well,” he said, “I came here to have a drink with a friend. Sort of. Well, he’s been gone a long time. A drink for a friend, I guess.”
“It looks like you’ve had several,” said the other man.
Hob chuckled. “Yeah, you could say that. Well, I have a lot of old friends who I don’t get to see anymore. This one fellow, though, I thought he’d outlast even me.”
“Tell me about your friend,” said the pale man.
“Well,” said Hob, now staring back into his wine glass, “That’s tall order. He was a larger than life fellow, that one. Proud. Kind of old fashioned, even by my standards. A flair for the dramatic. Prim. Obtuse as hell.”
“And you miss this individual?”
“You’re bloody right I do. It’s not often you can have a drink with someone and be sure they don’t want anything from you, that they just want to see you. He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve or anything. More like under a few inches of kevlar. But deep down I could tell the bastard cared about things a whole lot. Seeing him, it always made me feel young again for a little while. Sometimes it made me feel a little small and stupid. It was a nice change of pace. Seeing him always gave me hope for tomorrow.”
“So what happened to him?”
“Well, see,” said Hob, “That’s part of the reason I brought this book.” Hob flipped to the page that contained ‘Harlem.’ “He was a dreamer, my friend. Had some big dreams. The biggest. I think he dreamed a bit more than he could chew. And in the end, Mr. Hughes was right. Something festered in him, then it exploded.”
“No, Mr. Gadling,” said the stranger, putting a cool hand on Hob’s shoulder, “Mr. Hughes was only half right.” Hob finally looked up from his book and his booze, into the pale face next to him with its dark eyes glowing like green stars.
Matthew came in out of the wind, puffing hard from the exertion, and perched on a rock. “Hey, Eve, can you spare a rat?”
“Hello, Matthew. I thought you were going to be out with the Dream Lord tonight.” She presented him with a dead rat on a simple earthenware plate.
“Ooh, it still has the eyes!” Matthew pecked eagerly. “There’s a lot of good, refreshing fluid in eyes, you know.”
Eve sat down on another rock nearby and smiled slightly. “I do my best to keep a fine table.” She watched him eat contentedly.
“Anyway,” said Matthew, “No one at the castle has seen the kid around all day or night. I was wondering if you’d heard anything.”
“I’m sure that if he were in need of us, we would have heard something,” said Eve. “He has a great many matters to attend to. Perhaps something came up that required a personal touch.”
“You know what matter he’s supposed to be attending to? What his person is supposed to be touching?” grumbled an angry voice.
“Oh, hello, Cain,” said Eve. A tea kettle and three simple cups now sat next to her on the rock. “Why don’t you calm down and have a seat?” She offered him one of the cups.
Cain slapped the cup aside with the back of his hand, and it shattered against the wall of the cave with a splash of scalding tea. “He’s supposed to be working on my house! I’m supposed to have a whole new wing full of new mysteries. We have blueprints! We have a schedule! It’s all written down and notarized!!!” He spun another cup of hot tea around and around, balanced on a fingertip.
Cain hurled the cup of hot liquid through the mouth of the cave. A yelp came back from the other side. Abel appeared in the doorway, hunched and holding one hand over his rapidly swelling right eye.
“Hey, Abel,” said Matthew. “You know where the kid is?”
“I kn-know lots of things,” said Abel.
Cain walked over and pinched his cheek with ruthless affection. Abel winced. Cain crooned into Abel's ear, "And is my dear brother going to share this little secret with a few loyal servants of the Dreaming who would dearly like to know?"
"W-well," stammered Abel, retreating behind a stalagmite, "I c-could tell you."
Cain rubbed his hands together. "Indeed you could."
"Of c-course, there's the long story version and the sh-short version."
Matthew had just finished his rat. "If it's all the same to you, make it snappy. I've spend enough time today already trying to find the kid."
Abel had drifted farther into the cave, and Eve was handing him the last cup of tea. He took a swallow and cleared his throat. "Years ago, on the night of our last Lord's funeral --"
"Abel," interrupted Cain, walking over and grabbing the tea kettle, "You aren't giving away secrets again are you?"
"B-but, y-you asked me t-to!" whimpered Abel.
"Did I, dear brother? Did I ask you to ruin a perfectly good mystery for all the inhabitants of the Dreaming?"
"I c-can tell it if I w-want to," said Abel. "On that night, the new Dream Lord got to meet his family for the first time. They had a meal together in the castle, but some of them he also talked to alone--"
Cain lobbed the kettle towards Abel. Abel looked up as it whistled over his head and crashed into a stalactite, which fell down and pierced him through the chest. Abel slumped to the floor.
"Must you do that, Cain?" asked Eve in a tired voice.
"A fine question," said Cain. "Must I?"
Matthew looked at Abel's pale, stunned face and its swollen right eye socket. He glanced at Eve and Cain, then back to Abel. He fluffed out his feathers. "I'd better get out of here," he said. Then he leapt off his rock and flew out into the lime green sky.
“You’re another one of them, aren’t you?” said Hob softly. “His brother or something. You know, I met your sister a while back. I had a dream about this other fellow, too. A tall man with red hair. He and I, we were walking along a beach with my friend, even though it was years after my friend died.”
“I am not your friend’s brother, Mr. Gadling." The pale man glanced at the book of poetry. "Though in a way it is true that I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins." His eyes twinkled a little. "Another wise man once said, 'Only the phoenix arises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.' Mr. Gadling, have you ever heard of the Other Egg of the Phoenix?"
Hob shook his head. The pale man continued. "It is said that when it comes time for the phoenix to die, it lays two eggs. One is black, the other white. When the phoenix dies, it is born anew in flame, hatching from the white egg." The stranger paused and sipped his port. "No mortal knows what hatches from the black egg. Would you like to know?"
Hob hesitated. "This isn't, like, some big secret that's going to get me in trouble to know, is it?"
"Not at all," said the stranger, "Although it would still be best for you to avoid telling anyone."
"Okay, so, what hatches from the black egg?"
"The black egg is where memories are born. When the phoenix dies, something changes in the mind of everyone who ever saw it. The entity that was seen before passes from life into memory."
Hob studied the face across from him intently, its lines both foreign and familiar. "My friend, when I saw him after he died, in that dream on the beach. He was the black egg? And you're the white?"
The pale man raised his glass towards Hob. "Precisely, Mr. Gadling."
Hob raised one eyebrow. He said gruffly, "So, are you here to take over his obligation and responsibility to have a drink with me every hundred years?"
The Dreamlord's eyes dimmed. "Well, yes and no." He wrung his hands for a moment. "As I have said to many, I am not him. Yet, I do also remember you, fondly. For many years I have considered introducing myself properly, but I did not want to be presumptuous. Indeed, once I arrived on the station tonight, it took me longer than expected to steel myself to the possibility of the meeting not going well, and I have missed the appointed date by more than an hour." Hob's expression softened. The Dreamlord continued, "My predecessor always had a stormy relationship with the mortal world. And with the Dream realm, for that matter. The mortal realm is both inspiring and ... problematic. But his friendship with you was a positive force, both motivating and stabilizing. If you would be interested in renewing the tradition with me --”
“You buying?” interrupted Hob.
“Excuse me?” said the Dreamlord.
“A bottle of the finest whiskey they’ve got and you’re in.” Hob grinned.
The pale man smiled and got the bartender’s attention. A minute later, the bartender was back with a dusty bottle and two fresh glasses.
The pale man raised his glass. “To friends old and new.”
“To friends. Old and new.” Hob drained his glass. The bar looked different. It was made of old, stained wood like he remembered from the White Horse in London. The stools were wooden, too, and rickety. The tables and the piano were gone. The windows were gone. The world was nothing but the bar, their stools, and the stars. “I passed out, didn’t I?”
“You did. But it makes little difference to me. Now that we are here, let us walk.”
So they walked along the stars, following the curve of the Milky Way, sometimes talking and sometimes silent. In the distance a small patch of blackness flapped across the heavens, visible only by the winking of the stars as it slipped past them. The Dreamlord stopped and turned to Hob. “It is perhaps time for me to return to my home. And the bartender will be waking you and sending you to yours any minute now.”
Hob nodded. “Yeah, I should probably clear out of Photon before I get forcibly removed in front of potential customers.” There was a long silence. “Well,” said Hob, “It’s been nice to meet you. See you in a hundred years then?”
“I was thinking we might change that part of the tradition. A hundred years is a very long time, even for those such as us.”
“Okay, so when?”
“Let us say once a year, on the longest night, when the need and the opportunity for fresh hopes and dreams is at its greatest.”
“It’s a deal,” said Hob. He extended a hand for the Dreamlord to shake, and found the bartender gently shaking his hand where it lay limp on the bar.
“Sir, we’re closing now. Do you need someone to help you back to your residence?”
Hob shook his head and let the room come back into focus. “No,” he said. “I’m fine. Actually, I’m really good.”
“There you are! Finally! I’ve been through half the dream realm looking for you!” Matthew swooped down and perched on a white-clad shoulder.
“Hello, Matthew. I am sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
“Inconvenienced? I was starting to worry that someone had locked you up in glass bubble somewhere. I’ve been shedding feathers all over the place out of nerves. Where in creation have you been?”
Dream smoothed Matthew’s ruffled feathers. “Many places, Matthew. Many places. Some briefly and some for longer.”
“That’s it? ‘Many places?’ You dropped all half a million things you were supposed to do today and you won’t even say where you were?”
“I had a very important alternative agenda for the day, Matthew. One that it would not do to reveal to all my staff.”
“Gee, kid. That’s just the right thing to say to put my mind at ease.”
They continued walking for a moment. "Matthew, would you say my predecessor was a responsible individual?"
"Sure, kid. To a fault."
"That is it precisely. I must confess, I find it hard not to be the same. Perhaps it is my nature to believe that if I apply my focus thoroughly enough, I can create a perfect realm. But lately I have been feeling the strain of that focus."
"Oh, no. You don't get to go all self-sacrificing on us, too. It hasn't even been a century yet!"
“When I first took up this role, my siblings gave me some advice. My elder sister spoke of having empathy for others. My elder brother spoke of how one may often only get oneself out of trouble by simply assuming everything will work out for the best and leaving things be."
"Destiny said that? That's pretty talkative for him."
"Not Destiny, Matthew."
"So, today I decided to try out a new policy. Once a year I will take a day to pointedly ignore the rules and responsibilities of my office."
"Wait, that's your big secret? C'mon, everybody needs a day off once in awhile."
"Do not belittle the effort, Matthew. It was much more difficult and intimidating than I expected. I have been meaning to give it a try for years, yet somehow I could not. But today I found the motivation, and it was quite freeing."
"Of course, now you get to deal with Cain and a grumpy pumpkin when you get back."
Daniel nodded. "Yes. Well, Merv is resourceful. It will do him good to see that I trust him to manage things from time to time. I'm sure Lucien has done his inventory without me. And Cain... Well, I do not think I will ever teach him patience, but it may be good every so often to give him a desire that no amount of complaint or murder can fulfill."
"And me, it's supposed to do me good having you disappear without a trace?"
"You, dear Matthew, must learn to worry less. But perhaps next time you can accompany me for part of the day. So long as you keep my little secret."
"Sure thing, kid. No one will ever know you're not a 100% hardworking stoic who never takes a break from the line of duty. Say, what's in the bag?"
The Dreamlord was holding a white shopping bag labeled New St. Louis Hydroponics. They walked up the winding stairs to the castle gates, and the Dreamlord spent the next hour idly feeding apples to the hippogriff under a lime green sky.