You don't have to work here long to see everything: everything, at least for a while. You think you are wise. You think you are worldly. You think you have seen everything. Then your very first day on the job you see something so outrageous that you think: now I have seen everything. And then the next absurdity comes along.
It's not like normal bars. Your typical place has a mix of locals, barflies, accidental travelers. Mostly there will be only one or two stray off-worlders: out of place shadows who are probably looking for something, who have some plan, who want more than the drinks and counter food. Some Tellurian will wander into a bar on Nevia, looking at the floor, edging up to the bar like it were going to bite him if he startled it, will order a cold zeeple and, while he's running both hands along the outside of the shivering bottle, under his breath ask where he can find a Nanurian: even though there is a Nanurian flashing six colors just at a table thirteen standard galactic feet away. A Prozoan, struggling with the gravity, will stagger in and tell the bartender this place was on the Registry Of Zamphyte Worship Zones, expecting to extort half price service -- and then stay to be overcharged by ten percent. Two BoBabs will come in howling and snapping and scaring all the locals who have never seen a BoBab, outside of the nesting period; they will settle entwined at a table nearest whatever window looks cleanest and order a fisker of gleam, and the bartender will have to ask them for that concoction's perilous ingredients list.
But not here. Here in a corner of the transfer station you get one of just about everything. Barfucates will come in wearing their public suits and order thimble drinks to be poured directly into their access chutes. Razores dejectedly wallow in, sit on the broad benches at the far end of the bar, and spend all night chasing the lumcrawlers scurrying across the counter where I have set them up as free finger food to salt the customers' drinking nodules -- and get the greediest chasers buying quart after quart of Zinn Quadrant beer.
Every one of these patrons knows the drill. Each has crawled or stumbled or danced into bars in every way station and transfer point and salvage shop in the galaxy. You don't over charge these customers. And you don't set up too palatial a suite of free food, or pretty the place up too much, or contract for more than one Nanurian: if you do more than the customary, they think you are trying to gain favor with them, they think you have an agenda, they think in the ever watchful bottoms of their brains that there is something they have that you want. Here for a hitch in travel, they seek basic service with basic inebriants and unremarkable finger food at expected prices, and to be a bit less alive when they head out to continue their journey. They want a bit of a stupor, or an hour with the Nanurian, or thirty minutes of suspended animation: and no tentacles whipping across their laps or feathers in their faces or locals pointing and asking what, dear God, is that appendage good for.
The worst I've had here was the time the Phoriphant showed up, walked directly up to the bar and said, "Zeungslatz."
I said, "Excuse me? I don't really know that one, but my pidgin is not all that good so maybe you have another name for it?" I had, up to that time, never seen a Phoriphant, and had no way to guess what he might be asking for, what might fizz his flames, what he might cherish while his life is rolling up at the corners as he awaits the next transport. I'm told Phoriphants don't get out much.
He leaned a little in towards me, like it were some secret, or as though perhaps the name he was going to give me might, by a handful of species, be considered fighting profane, and he said, "Zeungslatz!"
As I said, I had never seen one before, and I did not know much about Phoriphants, but that is not unusual. You can't know every species. You learn more and more as you go on, but even by the time you have a few colossal revolutions behind you, there is still always some dark quadrant dweller who collects himself or herself or itself on a bar stool and you look straight through him or her or it, and think: zueth, I hope he, she or it knows what fills the need, because I could not find the need of this thing with a depth finder, two freegeans, and a galactic standard half hour head start.
That being said, I had the best night of my life with a species I had never seen before, after she wandered up to the bar and spent the rest of the night patterning strombo after strombo, and then asked me for an after-hours tour of the station in that sort of voice that said she had no desire for any tour of the station. What a night, and my apartment turned inside out, and the whole of me entirely coiled into happy exhaustion -- at least until morning, when I learned this species is typically asexual and I might have been manually, so to speak, refilling the bladder on a weak organic balance gyro. With that knowledge, only the exhaustion remained. But I don't think about it.
Phoriphants are pretty solid and take well to a standard atmosphere mix, and this one at first seemed to be getting along just fine and my only worry was whether I could concoct whatever it was he was asking for. I have a lot of ingredients, and all sorts of mixing devices, and a few empatheters, as well as about every steady state molecular injection system ever made; but sometimes the task is simply a lentil too far.
I noticed then that this Phoriphant was at that moment about twenty percent bigger than when he had first walked in. That is always bad. That is one of the two or three things you do not like to see, even if it might be normal for the species at hand. Nothing good typically comes of it, whether it is emotional, chemical, sexual or gravitational. A lot of species change size, but typically not in a bar when placing an order. And even in this utilitarian establishment, there are breakable things about: particularly when a solid block of lead by some species is a breakable item. I didn't want to be rude, but I suspected I could not wait long, so I hit the environment hazard button. Thank Loris the alarms have been silent ones for years. No general panic. But by the time the two Guardians slung around the access portal, and with their truck got behind him, the Phoriphant was nearly fifty percent bigger than when he came in and I was screaming at the unlistening, workmanlike Guardians, "I didn't serve him anything! Not a sip, not a taste, not at smell! I gave him nothing!"
As one of the Guardians tipped the Phoriphant back onto the truck's tractor feed, the Phoriphant said, "Zeungslatz! Zeungslatz!," waving three of his short arms as though to swim; and the other Guardian cautiously said to no one in particular, but perhaps to me in general, "Her"; and just as the shield slapped down behind the, by then, gutturally expletive -- I think -- grumbling Phoriphant, we all heard the explosion and it seemed even the station rocked: and I thought for a minute there would be a hole drilled somewhere and the atmosphere would start leaking and we would all be in life support bubbles, with the strobe bursting and the sirens gurgling and the tracer mist coming down in fathoms, and each of us privately left with only what we could grab nearby in the half second before gel.
That is what you think when you've never seen a Phoriphant shed. They usually can time it around their travels, but every so often they go into a molt right in the middle of a long trip, or a delay punts them off cycle, and they have to let fly wherever they are. Like this one, they will try to get to the nearest official and request a pressure chamber, but I did not know what he -- well, she -- was asking, or demanding, or warning me about. Of course, that was then. I know now. I keep an eye on Phoriphants. Actually a quite pleasant species, if you care for that sort of thing.
Next day, having had to delay her transfer, she was back in the bar, a third of her original size, stuffing into her feeder slits a plate of barely toasted zuches like it was a last meal, and tilting back fisker after fisker of lamentine.
You would never have that happen tending bar in the industrial section of a small rock circling a half burnt out sun, or taming your manners in an inner city smut palace serving contraband scintles to uppity power brokers who tip you a day's salary for your being fulfilled in their service. Out here, you get to see it all. Out here, you are providing something and getting something, and things happen that keep you tethered in your own skin like a clutch of maribunds in the atmosphere of Jupiter.
I keep moving. Looking busy makes busy. The place is never really crowded, but the key to financial success is that there is always someone coming through. The transports run on a highly choreographed schedule, maximizing the use of the facility's support structure and staff, and keeping a fairly consistent number of entities milling through the public areas. The only bad times are when you get a run of clientele that can't take the mix of atmosphere standard enough to support most species: and those end up staying pretty much to the lower decks in un-serviced comfort bins, counting their change, or grooming, or tapping latency theory on the walls as they wait for the next hop unit in their travel itineraries to arrive, get fueled, get cleaned, get blessed and get back on the rails to get shot into the physics of interstellar traffic. But those bad times don't last, and there are relatively few of that kind taking up market share in the galactic travel trade, and so I can expect business in just about every slot of the time bucket.
What more can you want? A customer base that spends, if not much, consistently, that has no hidden agenda, and which has to be out before they overstay their welcome? So the light out here is artificial and the air grown only to adolescence and the food synthesized. I can get a hop to a planet if I want it. I can clip into my savings and get a stationkeeper discount ticket to any of the great, crowded city worlds; or I can decide to toast my cheedas alone on a dull and silent-as-BoBab-eggs agricultural outposts, where the beauty is so sharp it can cut through exposed skin like the Zuxic atmosphere. My neighbors come and go. Which is generally a good thing. I don't have to worry about the Nanurian I am dating imprinting on someone else and starting to rent out her connection ports in any other name than mine. I have a domestic routine, and I am happy sticking to the ceiling of my private apartment.
I have a place as a service agent. I get to complain to station management. I sit in on the planning meetings. I get to argue the priority on my shipments. My parents never thought that I, a simple Prince of Chicago, would get to manage my own bar, and to do so in a transport station besotted with a thousand species, all carrying standard galactic currency credit cards. They thought at first I should stay at home, study the holes in inter-galactic flight theory, or get one of those basement jobs in tech manual illustration.
No. Stations like this are a small democracy. And, at the end of the day, the administrators wander in, ask me if I've developed any new concoctions; quiz me on what is selling and the time-bucket patterns around the purchases for specific product brands; ask if my Nanurian girlfriend, George, is flashing in lusciously repeatable patterns today; or if I have been able to get over the smell of that Mallafed who had the small tear in his suit, which he never noticed, but which nearly killed everyone around him.
I lean back, the contact magnets on my skin suit clacking and cracking. I have a place here. I have a cast of characters who depend upon me. I look out at the Universe and know that coming in tomorrow could be anyone and anything from anyplace out there, and I get to try to make them happy. I get to try to make them forget who they are and where they are going. Do you get the opportunity to do the Universe such service?
Along with being a purveyor, in one way or another, of finger food, sex, alcohol and body odor, I am a cure for the galaxy's social and private boredoms. A galaxy's gift to itself. Maybe a part of the Universe's great happiness conveyor belt. And it pays well.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Ken Poyner. All rights reserved.