Sunday, January 20, 2013

Last Pub Til Earth by John Sims

An enterprising pair of spacers open a pub in the orbit of Jupiter; by John Sims.

Jerry Mandarin sat at the interface of The Two Tuns, groaning, the pub's low ceiling making him look even bigger and taller than he was. His business partner Walt was reminded of one of those fishing gnomes you used to see in gardens - back in the 21st century when people still had gardens.

Above the door was a beautifully painted sign, with a picture of Earth, stating: The To Tons. Last Pub Before Earth. Proprietors: Jerry Mandarin and Walter Bixby Wiley. The sign-writer was cheap. He was also dyslexic. Walt liked it all the same; he was like that, he could accept imperfection, whereas Jerry was a real perfectionist and the sign irritated him. That made Walt like it even more.

Jerry groaned again.

"Are you looking at Trilaxian porn again?" said Walt while he polished the bar with real beeswax-based polish, a remnant of the days before the great bee disappearance. Walt didn't subscribe to the theory that the bees were aliens and had simply gone home.

He found the smooth natural wood comforting. He wasn't keen on simulated wood. Nothing simulated for Walt Wiley, he was an old-fashioned sort of guy and proud of it.

"According to this," said Jerry, "our engines are only running at 80% capacity."

Walt paused. "That's OK, we're not going anywhere." Walt may have been small, even puny, but he prided himself on his logic. He thought it was his duty to prove that ginger hair is no obstacle to logic.

"I sometimes wonder how you have enough brain power to walk upright. We're orbiting Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system; if our engines fall below 40% we'll be caught in its gravity, pulled in and destroyed."

"So call a nuclear engineer." said Walt. "Do I have to do all the thinking in this partnership? The Laznivci left a list of useful numbers in the office. Get a good one; if sales are as good as they said we'll earn enough to pay for him in a couple of hours. "

Six hours later there was one customer in the bar, a Palavraci, the most boring race in the galaxy. He sat at the bar, huddled over a half pint, waiting for anyone to stand still long enough for him to engage them in conversation. Conversation being him talking and the victim listening until he fell asleep.

Jerry looked around the empty bar. "Not exactly rushed off our feet."

The Palavraci seized the opportunity like a hawk spotting a mouse. "You know of course that the Laznivci are the biggest liars in the galaxy? Can't believe a word they say. I heard it from a good source that they once sold the moon Io to an out-of-towner who only stopped off in this sector to refuel. Apparently..."

"Just hold that thought," said Jerry, nipping out of the bar "I've got to change a barrel... or something."

He passed Walt in the corridor. "Can't stop," he said, "barrel's gone off. There's a customer in the bar for you."

Closing time came and Jerry poured himself the last drops of the Irish whiskey, the most expensive bottle in the bar, if not the solar system. "We can always sell the place and move back to Earth."

"Go back to Earth without jobs? In the 22nd century? Are you mad? Anyway, who'd buy it? A pair of mugs like us only come along once in a lifetime."

"The Staids are out now. The Apathy party's in."

"True, but they haven't changed anything. There's still the highest tax in the universe on alcohol, that's why we're out here in the first place. And involuntary euthanasia for the terminally ill and unemployable."

"Ah, the good old days," said Jerry, "when euthanasia was voluntary. How did the blandest politicians ever to draw breath manage that?"

"Everyone was too busy getting drunk before the tax came in to notice it. Anyway, that wasn't them, that was the Sterns. The Staids introduced Mary Poppins robots to look after the kids, that's what swung it for them. Who could resist Mary Poppins?"

Jerry stared at his partner, wondering if he was playing dumb or had been hanging out near the nuclear engines too long and fried his brain.

"You know why they finally fell, don't you?" said Walt.

"Their leader was found dead from auto-erotic asphyxiation."

"Ah, I thought that wasn't widely known. I was told it in confidence."

"It caused the collapse of the party," said Jerry with a groan. "How could that not be widely known?"

In the corner of the bar an antique grandfather clock loudly ticked away the moments. The artificial gravity and recycled air suited it. On 22nd century Earth it was considered inefficient, it failed to keep time to the nanosecond of accuracy, so it, like Walt and Jerry, equally inefficient, ended up in space. Walt liked it, it reminded him of home.

"How about throwing a fancy dress party with cheap beer?" said Walt.

"We're orbiting Jupiter, most of our customers are aliens, they already wear fancy dress."

"Good point." Walt had to admire his partner's business skills.

Jerry smiled. "How about tarts and vicars, but cross-dressing?"

"I'm not dressing as a woman, I have a moustache, I'd look ridiculous."

"That's the whole point of it, Walt."

"Can you imagine asking a bunch of Harzug to dress as women? It would be terrifying. They destroyed one trader's ship simply because his translator was on the blink and his message's introduction came over as 'hi sexy.'"

Tick tock. Tick tock.

The Palavraci returned. "Did I leave my keys here?" He looked around the bar. "You know what this place needs? A good party. On Palavrac we go mad; poetry readings, mime prose, pin the tail on the sperm, all that mad stuff."

"WHORES!" said Jerry, jumping, causing even the ever-unflappable Palavraci to look at him with offence. "We can introduce a brothel."

"Over my dead body," said Walt.

"It may come to that if we have to go back to Earth as paupers. We can get the twins to fly in and sort something."

"No," said Walt firmly, and added for effect, "hell no."

"Yes," insisted Jerry. "Phylis and Dixie are just what this bit of space needs. You're only against it because Dixie's always trying to get into your pants."

Walt shuddered. It was a scary thought.

A week passed with barely any increase in trade. The door of the Tuns opened as gently as when a hurricane hits, and two allegedly middle-aged women strode in, side by side, as if they owned the place. It was impossible to say exactly what age they were, such were the skills of 22nd century cosmetic surgeons.

That they were really twins had always been a matter of debate as they didn't look the least bit alike, indeed Dixie had the reddest hair in the solar system while Phylis was a brunette.

"You called?" they said in unison.

Walt groaned.

Dixie was beside him in a flash, putting an arm around his shoulder with a grip like a Denati death crush. "Walt," she sighed, "Have you missed me that much? You poor thing. Never mind, Dixie's here now."

Walt couldn't explain it but he had to admit that the place suddenly seemed to be full of life. Even the clock in the corner seemed quieter, as if in awe of their presence.

The next day Walt, partly because he was hiding from Dixie but mostly because the ship's engines had dropped to 75%, was in the office looking for the number for a engineer that came highly recommended by the previous owners. Walt's knowledge of nuclear engines could be written on the point of a needle and he knew it.

He made his way to the bar. "Engineer'll be here in a couple of days," he said. "He suggested moving farther out if we're worried. Anyone know how to do that?"

"Should be in the handbook," Jerry said. "We can probably just adjust the autopilot. How much is it going to cost?"

"An arm, a leg and a testicle, probably," said Walt. "He won't say until he's seen the engines and it depends on if it needs any parts or not, but it's a small fortune just for the call-out." He looked around, wondering where the twins were but not missing them. "I looked at the handbook, it's in Laznivci. I can't make any sense of it and it's as thick as a phone book."

"It's time someone invented an instant translator that works on print," said Jerry. "We need a proper pilot." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Be careful what you say, there's a gang of Harzug in the corner, you know what they're like when they're drinking."

"They're like that all the time but at least they drink a lot."

Dixie entered and stood behind Walt. "There you are. I've been down in the engine room looking for you." She looked over at the Harzug. "I thought I could smell money. How long have they been in?"

"About half an hour," said Jerry. "I've already had one challenging me to combat."

Dixie said, "Oh, they do that all the time. They're big pussy cats really."

Walt looked over at their captain as he stood up, stooping to avoid banging his head on the ceiling. Walt had a cat when he was young, it was demented and hissed at him whenever their paths crossed. He could see a similarity although the Harzug more resembled Tasmanian Devils crossed with ancient Spartans.

Most bars in the solar system barred the Harzug because of their constant fighting and damage to the fixtures and fittings. True they seldom attacked humans, simply because they saw them as inferior and not worthy of combat, but it wasn't unknown. To say they were the most short-tempered race in the galaxy was an understatement, but that didn't stop anyone from saying it.

Business had been picking up steadily since the girls moved in. This night they were quite busy, the Harzug in one half of the bar and everyone else in the other, with a large gap between the two.

Their captain strode to the bar, still managing to stride and look intimidating even though the ceiling was six inches too low for him. He glared at Walt like an owl sizing up a rat. "Drink," he said. At least that's what it came out as through the translator.

Walt thought he'd try levity on him. "No, thanks, I'm OK. Thanks." He smiled.

"Drink for me, not you." He glared at Walt again, misinterpreting his toothy smile as bared teeth and responding in kind.

Walt suddenly felt very, very alone. That was partly because Jerry had slipped out of the bar and was laughing himself silly in the corridor.

In the corner of his eye he could see Dixie's hand hovering by the stun gun under the bar, an essential tool in space bars, and about the only thing that would bring down an angry Harzug short of blowing his head off.

"Sorry," said Walt quickly. "Our translator's playing up. Laznivci technology."

The Harzug laughed, but even that sounded like a war cry. "Laznivci technology! There's no such thing. The whole race are liars too."

Walt was beginning to realise that he and Jerry were the only people in the universe who didn't know that.

The Harzug took his drinks and rejoined his comrades, pointing at Walt, saying something and making them all laugh.

Dixie sidled up to him. "Whoa, Hoss, that was some seriously quick thinking. For a moment there I thought we'd be dragging your lifeless body back in through the air lock. Has nobody ever told you that the Harzug have the sense of humour of German undertakers?"

Walt was thinking of a reply when, true to form, a fight broke out among the Harzug. Their captain, offended by something his first mate had said, picked up Walt's beloved grandfather clock and hit him with it. It broke into many pieces, a sacrifice that was wasted on the first mate who responded in kind with a table.

Something stirred deep inside Walt. It was like the first rumbling of a long-dormant volcano. Inside his head something broke and sent him jumping over the bar and rushing not away from the fray but directly towards the Harzug captain, picking up a chair on the way.

The Harzug saw him coming, saw the bared teeth and the chair, and was a fraction too slow reacting. He hit the floor with a sound like a sack of lead pipes falling from a tall building and landing on a sack of lead pipes.

The ensuing silence was absolute. Everyone in the bar was in shock - except the Harzug crew, who seemed to be in some sort of awe. No-one, least of all an especially puny human, had ever floored their captain before, albeit many had tried, that being the quickest way to promotion aboard a Harzug ship. It was starting to dawn on them that they now, according to their own rules, had a human captain. What was worse, he was a captain who couldn't even adjust the autopilot of his own ship.

There was one word missing from the Harzug vocabulary. The word 'mutiny.' That came under 'career move.' For them the problem of serving under a captain they didn't like was simple to solve; the first mate and his accomplices carried Walt to the nearest air lock.

Jerry was brushed aside, despite his best efforts. Walt clawed at the ceiling before his hands were bound. He saw the air lock inner door slide shut and a group of laughing Harzug fighting to get the best view through the little round window as they prepared to blow him out of the ship.

Through his closed eyes (he'd always closed his eyes to pray) he was aware of a bright flash. He held his breath, knowing that it wouldn't do any good but he couldn't think of anything else to do. The door slid open and a hand gripped his shoulder like a Denati death squeeze, pulling him back into the ship.

Dixie blew the end of the stun gun, like a wild west gunfighter in a B-movie, and spoke to the now prone Harzug crew. "Never... ever... get between my Wally and me." She paused. "Not when I've got a stun gun under my skirt."

Walt did what every red-blooded man would do, he saw Dixie in a whole new light. A light that was kindly and soft, sort of rose-tinted and fuzzy, that highlighted her stunning red hair and artificial girly curves.



Life was going pretty well for Walt after that. They hadn't had any Harzug in for days. That was good enough for Walt on its own, but trade was also picking up due to the stories shooting around the galaxy of the barman on The Tuns who single-handedly captured a Harzug fighter ship and lived to talk about it. Everyone wanted to see him.

It was at that time, as is the wont of Fate to spoil a good party, that the engines failed.

When the engineer arrived Jerry and Walt thought it best to stand over him, hoping maybe it would help.

"You're not helping," he said. "I'm going as fast as I can here. These engines should have been serviced years ago. They were bound to fail sooner or later."

"Can you make it sooner?" said Jerry. Jupiter's starting to look awful big."

"This isn't Star Trek," replied the engineer. "When I say it'll take a day, then a day and a half is what it'll take. Anyway, it looks more like a week now. Have you sent out a mayday?"

"Phylis is doing it," said Walt. "We figured she'd have better luck. You know, like in the old days when people hitch-hiked, always use a woman to do the thumbing."

The engineer looked at Walt as a mother looks at her idiot son, then pulled out a piece of engine and with a classic mechanic's intake of breath said, "There's your problem right there. Your intake manifold's burned out."

"I don't suppose you have a spare on your ship?" Jerry asked.

"Sure, I keep a spare pub aboard just in case."

Even Walt picked up the sarcasm.

"You need a tow. My little tub's too small. You need something powerful."

They stood in the bar, watching all the tiny ships undock and move away from them before they got dragged in with The Tuns. They were mostly single man cargo ships, slow and clumsy, or super fast high torque smuggling ships, built specifically for evading the law but not for towing pubs.

"We can all fit on the Daisy," said Dixie. "Even a big lump like Jerry, but it's a shame to lose the pub when we were starting to do well."

As they were preparing to abandon ship a little dot appeared between the pub and Jupiter and headed toward them at high speed. A voice came over the comms. "Prepare for docking, puny humans."

"Typical bloody Harzug, come to gloat," said Jerry. "We're closed."

"We know," replied the Harzug captain. "We haven't just come to gloat. We're responding to your desperate begging for help, it's getting on our nerves - and you have to take your finger off the comms button when you're talking amongst yourselves."

"Are you sure you have enough power?" Jerry said.

There was laughter from the Harzug ship, Walt wasn't sure if it was coming through the comms or directly from their ship.

"Yes, we're sure." More laughter. "Personally I'd happily lay off and watch your puny ship get torn to pieces by this planet's gravity but you humans have already left enough junk in this solar system. Last week we got a panel dented by a human glove. What's a glove doing in space? We've sent a strongly worded demand to your leaders for compensation but we're not holding our breath."

"See?" Dixie said. "I told you're they're just big softies inside." She moved closer to Walt and he to her. "You just have to be firm with them."

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