By Caroline Misner
A Morbian followed me through the portal; his long slippery tail left a trail of slime on the floor. I had noticed him before in the docking bay outside the orbiting Galaxy Bar and Rest Stop where I parked my own ship after popping out of the mouth of the black hole. His ship was a relic that appeared less worthy of space travel than my own dilapidated clunker.
The bartender must have been human once — or at least a crossbreed of one. His bald head floated in a bell jar of luminous green fluid. Green is a rare colour in that sector of the galaxy and it reminded me that I was only 30,000 light years from home. The rest of his body was composed mostly of various arms and appendages, both organic and mechanical, that purred and squeaked as he poured drinks and mixed concoctions of dubious intoxicants. He smiled when he saw me approach and little bubbles rose up from his nose.
“Hey human!” he said in a voice muted from the fluid. “We don’t see too many of your kind way out here.”
“There’s a good reason for that,” I grumbled and tossed my haversack onto the bar. The bartender continued to grin.
“This may not be the classiest place in the universe,” he admitted, “But it’s convenient. Right smack in the middle of the galaxy.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I said and slipped into the nearest barstool. The Morbian that had followed me moved to the end of the bar. He sat in a puddle of his own sludge and stared at me with those small bulbous eyes. It’s very unusual to see a Morbian alone; they usually travel in herds. They look like mounds of dung with their brown wrinkled skin and pudgy bellies and round bald craniums; and they smell even worse. They wear no clothing or bother to cover themselves in any way, preferring instead to insulate themselves with a thick coating of slick brown mucus. I ignored him and turned my back. I needed a drink badly.
“What can I get for you?” the bartended placed a pair of tentacled limbs on the bar and leaned closer.
“What have you got that I can drink?” I asked.
“For you, human, something special,” A robotic arm in dire need of an oil change reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle. A real glass bottle! I thought. And all the way out here. I was in for a treat. A small corrugated worm bobbed in the amber fluid. “I’ve been saving this for the next human that walked in here. Real tequila! Straight from the land of Mexamerica! You like tequila, human?”
“Call me John,” I replied as he poured the fluid into a small metallic cup. “And leave the bottle.”
“Long journey?” the bartender asked.
“You could say that,” I replied and shook my hat until clouds of dust puffed up from the brim.
“Proprietor!” the Morbian bellowed and slapped his fist on the bar. “I demand you serve me now!”
The bartender’s head bobbed in its fluid as he poured some sort of thick rancid smelling ale into a stein and handed it to the Morbian. I gathered the tequila bottle and the cup in one hand, my haversack in the other and moved to a table farthest away from the bar. I was in no mood for making small talk with the bartender.
I leaned back in the chair and sipped my drink. The tequila had been diluted with some sort of neutral tasting liquid—not water but something else designed to mask the strong taste of the liquor. I didn’t care. It had been so long since I tasted anything from home. Spelunking the caverns of the asteroids orbiting the Galena 90 system had filled me with a homesickness I didn’t know I was capable of feeling.
It was only out of acute exhaustion that I bothered to travel via a wormhole. There must be at least a thousand of them tunneling through space. It was easy to hitch a ride on one. The sensation was not unlike the drop from the top of a rollercoaster. Just plunge your ship into a black hole that ends in your chosen destination and off you go. The ride is smooth, but rather boring. The wormholes are devoid of any stars or comets or asteroids and are so vast it’s impossible to see the other travelers whizzing by. But that’s why I liked it. I shut down my engines and cruised along in peace with my hat down over my face and my boots, still caked with the debris from my last expedition, on the dashboard so I could catch up on some much needed sleep.
I scanned the room for Woomaz, a new partner that the company was sending me. I was informed that he was Poddiq, so he would be easy to spot in the crowd. The Poddiqii are a species of sticky formless goo from Alpha Metori that can change their shape at will. I use the word “he” loosely when referring to Woomaz. The Poddiqii display no distinguishing features to discern them from male or female. They reproduce by pulling of a blob of goo from their bodies when they get too big and waiting until it sprouts eyes and begins to speak. Sick.
The portal entrance glowed bright scarlet, a signal that another ship had docked and the passengers were heading inside to refresh themselves on whatever concoctions it took to intoxicate them. I spotted Woomaz immediately when he entered the bar on the heels of a herd of Morbians. He slithered along the floor like a puddle of purple mucus and I was amazed the slime left behind by the Morbians didn’t stick to his body.
“Over here!” I called and waved my hat over my head.
Woomaz’s yellow eyes flowed through his body like a pair of rotten eggs floating through jelly. His body made squishing sounds as he approached me, and I cringed. He was even grosser than I had expected.
“John Wildish?” his voice was a high pitched gurgle.
“Yes. I guess you’re Woomaz,” I inadvertently reached out to shake his hand before realizing he didn’t have a hand to shake.
“Sit down.” I pointed at the other chair and tried to hide my faux pas.
Woomaz flowed like a waterfall in reverse and settled in a pool on the chair. I sat down and stared into his eyes, hoping that I was looking in the general vicinity of his face. I had no idea how I would use this creature in my excavations.
“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked.
“I little,” I admitted. “When I was a kid I used to eat stuff that looked like you for dessert.”
“Your appearance is strange to me,” he replied. “But if it will make you feel better, I will try to make my appearance more appealing.”
His body churned and undulated; a portion of it stretched upward into a makeshift neck. A head formed on top of it, but there were no discernable features, just the eyes that continued to stare at me. Eventually the body formed into a vague humanoid shape with two limbs under the shoulders and presumably some legs — possibly quite a few — below the table.
“Better?” he asked.
“A little,” I said and pushed the bottle across the table; the little worm sloshed in the liquid. “Here have a drink on me.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“Tequila,” I said and beckoned the bartender to bring over another cup. A prosthetic limb reached across the room and set it down on the table. “It’s a human specialty. Drink it. It’ll put hair on your chest.”
I realized what I said and laughed. The tequila was beginning to show it affects.
“What is that you are doing?” Woomaz gasped.
I shook my head and poured the tequila into his cup.
“It’s called laughing,” I said. “I haven’t been doing enough of it lately. But if you want to work for me, you better get used to it.”
“I would be honoured.” Woomaz said. His arms oozed across the table and encircled the cup. The tequila slowly disappeared into his gelatinous flesh.
“You’re not one of these species that’s always so concerned about their honour they can’t get anything done, are you?” I groaned and drained my own cup.
“Oh, no!” he replied. “I will work hard and assist you any way I can. Golfish said you were a very pleasant master.”
“He did?” I chuckled.
I wasn’t surprised he mentioned the old bastard. Golfish was an amphibian who ran the company like a demagogue. We never saw eye to eye on many things and probably never would. He had been trying to make my life miserable for longer than I cared to remember; by sending me this wimpy blob for an assistant, he was succeeding.
“Yes, he speaks very highly of you,” Woomaz continued.
“Did he tell you what I would need you for?” I asked and refilled both our cups. The bottle was almost empty and I contemplated buying another if the bartender had one.
“Yes,” Woomaz said. “You excavate caves in search of ancient artifacts.”
“Close enough,” I said, not wanting to get into a long discussion of interplanetary archeology, a relatively new science since no one really cared about those old relics until recently. “Right now I’m looking for these in the asteroids of Galena 90.”
I dumped the contents of my haversack on the table. Grey stones the size of unshelled walnuts spilled out followed by a cloud of dust. Woomaz lifted one and peered at the strange markings encircling it.
“What is it?” he asked.
“No one knows,” I replied. “But Golfish is very interested in getting his flippers on as many as he can. I dig them up, ship them out to him and get a few coins back in return. Do you think you can handle that?”
“I will try,” Woomaz put the stone back down on the pile. “There are prayers written on the side. Exultations to some goddess.”
“You can read them?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “I am fluent in over a thousand dialects from various sectors of the galaxy, both ancient and contemporary.”
“Well!” I beamed and lifted my cup in a toast. “You just may come in handy after all.”
I drained my cup and glanced over at the Morbian who had trailed me into the bar. He stood with the group that had come in with Woomaz, quaffing the contents of his stein. At least I think he was still there. Morbians all look the same to me, and the tequila was making me see double. They murmured to one another in their own guttural language, glaring and pointing in our direction.
“I don’t like the looks of them.” I said and tried not to make direct eye contact.
“They are harmless,” Woomaz said. “I hitched a ride on the hull of their ship. That is how I got here.”
“You can travel through space without a ship?” I asked.
“Yes, we Poddiqii do not require oxygen or the protection of cabin pressure. We can survive indefinitely in the vacuum of space.”
I was amazed his body didn’t become stretched to the thickness of a hair while hurtling unprotected through a wormhole. Shaking my head, I refilled both our cups. The bottle was almost empty and the worm bobbed in a shallow pool at the bottom.
A crumpled wad of tissue sailed across the room and bounced against the side of my head. I didn’t have to look. I knew who threw it. It landed on the table and I brushed it away, knowing better than to confront a Morbian over a paper cocktail napkin. Murmurs of satisfaction rippled throughout the herd.
“There is an inscription on this,” Woomaz picked it up and peered at the indecipherable handwriting.
“What does it say?” I asked, not really interested.
“’Your father’s stench is as foul the Varkurian mud swamps,’”
“That’s probably true,” I said and lifted the cup to my lips.
“I don’t think they meant it as a salutation,” Woomaz said. “I think they meant to insult you.”
Another rumpled ball of paper struck me between the eyes and landed on the pile of stones from Galena 90. A throaty sound rumbled from the Morbians, their species’ form of laughter.
“What does this one say?” I asked, bemused.
Woomaz read the paper. If he’d had a face, he would have frowned.
“I don’t care to repeat these foul expletives,” he said. “But basically it means your sister copulates out of season.”
I placed the cup down on the table and began gathering the stones into my haversack. I could almost feel the heat of their stares boring into me.
The next wad of paper landed squarely in my lap. I secured the clasp on my haversack and tightened the drawstring around the lumpy contents.
“What about this one?” I picked up the napkin with two fingers, not wanting to touch the slime left behind by the Morbian’s paws, and tossed it to Woomaz.
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