Wrong Place, Wrong Time

I have no idea how the universal translator works. It just does.

The thing about keeping bar in an interdimensional speakeasy is that nobody really speaks English, except for myself, and I don’t speak Alien. Nobody really speaks “Alien.” “Alien” isn’t one language, it’s every language, and even some modes of communication I’m not certain even qualify as language. Which makes it pretty difficult to order drinks. That’s where the universal translator comes in.

Guy comes up to the bar, places an order. He may have a frog-face with a tongue as long as my arm and a vocabulary made up entirely of burps, but what I hear is “vodka martini, please, with two olives.” I mix the drink, hand it over, and the customer goes away happy. If I concentrate, I can still hear the words (or grunts, blusters, clicks, pops, whinnies, howls, random weird smells, or whatever else his species uses for communication), but my brain hears it in English.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I somehow got a translator to the United Nations, but there’s a non-zero chance it would be World War III, so I try not to think about it too hard.

The other thing about the universal translator is that it makes for some pretty unlikely friendships. Folks come here from all over to drink and make friends that don’t even exist in their home worlds. Take Ybuwyn, Kaloolon e Tuttadit-Pepelexa, and Drearien for example. These guys have been drinking buddies for as long as I’ve been working the bar.

Ybuwyn is a Relmsquitch. Squat, tusky, with loose red-brown skin, he looks like a sad walrus, if sad walruses ever wore laser pistols and flew spaceships. Kaloolon roams the highways and byways of his native Askaterrinick, robbing passersby and thrilling them with his dash, wit, shining blade, and fashion sense. His species is a kind of deerlike centauroid, with four arms, four hooved legs, and a long face with tall rabbity ears. As for Drearien, I never quite get a good look at him. His form shifts, depending on who he’s talking to. When he orders drinks from me, he looks mostly human, but a bit off in a way you can’t quite put your finger on.

Hey, I don’t judge. I just pour the drinks. Besides, they tip well.

Ybuwyn was having a bad night. He sat alone at the bar, slumped over so far that the tips of his tusks rested on the wood, a half empty schooner of draft at his elbow. He held a heavy disk of dark metal in his manipulators, spinning it idly on the bar top.

Kaloolon and Drearien entered together. Kaloolon’s hooves daintily trip-trapped on the wood floor as he fussed with his plumage, while Drearien wore his usual dark suit, blacker than black. They joined Ybuwyn at the bar and I poured their usual; Irish coffee for Kaloolon, extra whipped cream, and a sidecar for Drearien.

“What,” asked Drearien, pointing a talon at the disk, “is that?”

“It’s a medal,” Ybuwyn moaned. “An acknowledgement of service, a reward for a job well done.”

“Oh dear,” Drearien commiserated. “That’s the sort of thing that will destroy a being’s reputation.”

“I know.” He buried his face in his arms. “I am RUINED!”

Kaloolon and Drearien looked at one another. “There, there,” Kaloolon said, patting Ybuwyn awkwardly on the shoulder. “Have another drink, and tell us all about it.”

YBUWYN’S STORY

There’s been a war going on forever. Two great galactic powers, Ashkushlantea and Benois, mutually antagonistic across generations for patriotic reasons everybody pretends to understand, and for real reasons nobody can remember. Sometimes the war is hot, sometimes it’s cold, sometimes the border shifts a parsec one way or another.

There’s a fine living to be made for a clever pilot with a quick ship and a name for discretion willing to cross the border for the sake of interstellar commerce. And I’m one of the best there is!

I heard of a job, a bit out of my standard run. Cargo consisted of only one passenger, but the price was good so I put in a bid. They nibbled. So I cozy my little runner up to the proper berth and the passenger strolls in through the airlock as handsome as you please, and full payment up front.

The trick to getting across the border is keeping the scopes and scans peeled for patrols. Every time one showed on the scope, I dodged the other way. And then there was another. And another one still. I kept dodging, looking for my way across the frontier. But somehow there was always just one more patrol in the way.

I figured my bad luck couldn’t hold forever, and then it got worse. Suddenly it wasn’t just a patrol on my back, it was damned Ashkushlantean Naval task force headed for me! I gave up on stealth and chose speed; hit the engines for full burn and bugged the hell out, headed straight for Benois space.

That’s when they started shooting. And then the Benois Confederation forces showed up and started shooting at me from the other side. Well, they were probably shooting at the Ashkushlanteans, but that’s no comfort when you’re the one in the middle!

I didn’t sign up for this. The money wasn’t nearly good enough to stick around, and with one another to shoot at, why the hell would either side care about one little rim-runner in the first place? Time for Plan C— dump my cargo and run. I got my passenger into an escape pod and was just about to lock the door and jettison him when something kicked me hard in the caudal area, and I blacked out.

I came to in the pod. We were on the drift in a cloud of smithereens that used to be my ship. The battle appeared to be over, and the Benoit were scanning the wreckage. They found the pod. They brought it on board. I was expecting to be arrested, but that’s when I found out who my passenger was. The Ashkushlantean Emperator’s dentist, who had sold out to the Benois, and had the bad sense to choose MY ship to defect on!

The dentist spun the Benois a tale, avowing my heroic sacrifice and all I had done to preserve his miserable life. Called me a hero! And all I could do was smile and nod and keep my mouth shut because we were a long way from any kind of port and what else was I going to do?

They took me to the Benois capital. They gave me this medal. They put my face on banners as tall as buildings. I was on every newsfeed. They held a parade in my honor. Every being in the Benoit Confederation and half of Ashkushlantea knows my face now! No ship, no anonymity— how the hell am I supposed to make a living now?

Kaloolon shook his head sadly. “Ah, my friend, I too, know your woes…”

KALOOLON E TUTTADIT-PEPELXA’S SAGA

The great and the good in my land cannot be trusted to tell an honest rogue such as myself from the dishonest and hypocritical Upright. Which is, of course, how I steal from them. Either way, they will try to bind you with their shackles of respectability, with obligations, with chains both real and metaphysical. Better to live by ones wits on the Great Road than by the dictates of Society. Besides, crime is so much more fun.

I never worried about the risks of capture, for I have been blessed with a gilded tongue. There has been one price or another on my head since I was a mere colt and relieved my peers of their pocket money. I spent it on fine clothes, as you see here, because a well-dressed being will be forgiven almost anything, while an ill-favored one almost nothing.

I had left my usual haunts around Alfor, as there had been some unpleasantness and my absence was urgently required. I thought to try my luck in Oromer, on the sea past the Nivus Mountains. Naturally I kept both eyes open for any opportunities that might come my way. And I found one when I encountered a young filly at a crossing.

She told me her name was Zenfad, and asked where I travelled. When I told her I was bound for the great ports of Oromer, there to better my fortune, she implored to join me, for she was afraid of encountering some danger along the way. She repeated tales she had heard, likely at her grand-dam’s hearth, of the Dread Priests of the Atramentous God, whose minions were said to stalk these lands. I made light of these superstitions, and assured the filly that she’d come to no danger while in my care.

I strove to cozen and comfort her, to gain her admiration and trust; for a country-bred filly, in good health and some prettiness, brings a good price in the slave markets, as long as I could get her there. I amused her by telling her tales of my travels, and if perhaps the details were not quite truthful, in the strictest sense, one may be forgiven for embroidering one’s own legend upon occasion. I may have implied that I was of noble birth, although sadly unable to take my rightful place. And when she questioned whether we should step wary of the fabled razebills, of the firedraks, of the toad-like sloughsuckers, I conjured a merry laugh and told her to have no fear.

“For here are a flock of razebills now!” I called. “Fear not! See how I shall dispatch them!” In truth I identified them as common scissorbirds, which are hardly any danger at all, and spearing a few upon my sword point drove the flock away.

The filly emerged from the bushes where she had been cowering, and if the common pottery beads around her neck glowed a little, surely that was merely due to the light of the sun as she stepped out of shadow.

In the marshes along the Previs River we encountered the squat, splayed mound of an enormous water dog crouching on the path. This one was bloated with swamp gasses to an incredible size. I bade the filly stand behind me as I shot it with my carbine, then flung myself bodily over her to protect her from its explosion. And if her hands scorched the velvet of my coat, I did not notice at the time.

As everyone knows, save perhaps the readers of broadsheets, firedraks are mythological. The high passes in the Nivus Mountains are blasted by the scouring winds, not by acids and flame. However, these uncanny heights unsettled my little companion, and she clung to my side, muttering to herself until we were through. Perhaps she was speaking prayers— I really didn’t pay attention. However, I did not forget to praise her for her bravery, beauty, and brains as we descended to the plains; I find these little complements gladden the hearts of ladies, and then they forgive us of many misbehaviors.

At last, after many days of wearying travel, we passed through the gates of Oromer. I suggested we take our ease at an inn I knew, where she could take her rest. The landlord was an associate of mine, and I knew he could be depended on to keep her shut away while I scouted the slave market for the best price for one such as she.

But to my horror, she called out to the first patrol of Oremer’s garrison we encountered. “I am the Grand Duchess Grazelinna, daughter of the Princessa Spectacular, and I bid you take me and my companion to my mother at once!”

“Grazelinna?” I murmured. “But I thought your name was Zenfad?”

“Hush, my darling,” she whispered to me. “We are now safe in my own city, and no longer need to hide ourselves. The Dread Priests have been thwarted! Their prophecy no longer holds! This is a day for celebration!”

Her guards surrounded us and escorted us to the palace, into the presence of the Princessa Spectacular. Soon the entire court rang with the story of how the Grand Duchess Grazelinna had been abducted by the Dread Priests of the Atramentous God that she might become the Brood Mother of the Thousand Evils, according to an ancient prophecy. How she had escaped their Dominion with the assistance of a wandering hero (here she meant myself); how we had together defeated the razebills and water dog— she by casting spells of confusion and fire while I bravely provided a distraction. How her spells of concealment allowed us to pass through the firedrak’s lairs without detection.

As for myself, I felt quite faint when I realized how brave I had unwittingly been.

They gave me no medals, my friend. They offered me no uniforms. What they have given me is far, far worse. I have been named Consort of the fair Grazelinna, to rule by her side once the reign of the current Princessa Spectacular has run its course.

Every so often I visit the slave market, and wonder what price I could have gotten for her.

Drearien grunted. “Prophecy. Prophecy is the worst, isn’t it?. Prophesy is what got me in the mess that I’m in today.”

DREARIEN’S TALE

Look at me. I am an imp of minor mischiefs, and I like it that way. Irritations and annoyances, that’s my game. Misplaced valuables. Drawers stuck closed. Burned toast. If my target loses their temper, is cross to their child, and adds the merest tittle of sin to their karmic burden, I call that a job well done. The work is interesting, the hours are good, and nobody bothers me.

Sure, there’s a larger picture to be considered, and ultimate battle between Good and Evil to be waged. But that’s management’s problem, and none of mine. I prefer to be out in the field, away from the bloody office and its politics.

One fine evening, I am out and about on my rounds, as usual. I had just convinced an almost reformed drunkard that one or two couldn’t possibly hurt, and I was feeling fairly pleased with the state of my world. I was looking for something really interesting to do. So when I catch a glimpse of an angel rummaging around the garbage bins in an alley, I decided here was my chance for a little bit of fun.

“Good evening,” I said, strolling by just as casual as casual could be.

The feathery bugger jumped about a foot in surprise. “Er, hello?” he replied.

“And what brings you out on such a fine night?” I asked.

“Oh, ah, just, you know, taking a stroll? Getting some fresh air?” he said, trying desperately to be casual.

“In the garbage?” His halo was on crooked, and there’s nothing quite like a celestial robe for showing the stains.

“Ah, well, I was just– er– just looking for– something… Oh, bother!

Well, that’s angels for you. They can’t curse for shit. Terrible at lurking, too. They haven’t got the talent for it, nor the training, and and they have that divine glow. I, on the other hand, passed my lurking course with flying colors. A natural born lurker, me.

“Can I help?” I offered. “We imps have excellent night vision. It’s the glow from our eyes, you see– natural flashlights.”

“No no no no no! I couldn’t possibly trouble you!”

“No trouble at all.” I began kicking through the rubbish on the ground. “This thing you’re looking for. What’s it like?”

“Well, actually, that’s very kind of you, but there’s really no need.” He was getting more and more nervous the longer we spoke. I could barely keep from laughing. “I really should go–” He tried to edge his way around me.

“What’s the hurry? Late for an appointment or something?”

“Ye-es?”

“If you’re waiting for a garbage collector, I’m afraid they don’t pick up along this street until Tuesday.”

I had finally gone too far, and the angel drew himself up to his full height. “BEGONE, FIEND!” he cried. “I HAVE BEEN TASKED BY HEAVEN–”

“Imp, actually,” I interrupted him.

“I– what?”

“Imp. That’s me. Not a fiend. Different department altogether.”

He closed his eyes and tried again. “I am tasked by Heaven to deliver a message.”

“What sort of a message?”

He sniffed. “A very, very important message!”

“Ah. An epiphany. You are lurking– not very successfully, I must say— in this dreary alleyway, waiting for some shmuck of a mortal to pass by all so you can ruin the rest of his life with Divine Revelation. The poor fellow. I wouldn’t wish a fate like that on my worst enemy.”

“Now, just a moment–”

“Come to think of it, I think I would. Wish that fate on my worst enemy. Hell is widely known for our imaginative tortures, after all. Well, whoever it is, I’m sure he’s all saintly and deserving and will be along any minute. I’ll just see myself out, then?” I left him sputtering.

What they apparently don’t teach in Angel Academy is that we Hellspawn can smell a saint coming for miles. It’s so we can present them with extra temptations and so forth. To steal a saint’s soul from Heaven–well, they’ll give you the keys to Hell’s executive washroom if you can pull that one off. Employee of the Month for eternity, and I rather had an idea.

I spotted the saint as soon as I stepped into the street. He was ridiculously easy to divert– I just told him there was an adorable puppy stuck down a storm drain a few blocks over, and he hurried off. After that, all I had to do was send one of my own thralls walking down the alley. Considering the neighborhood anybody would do for perverting a Holy Destiny— every one was a pimp, pusher, or podiatrist.

How was I supposed to know the Epiphany wasn’t intended for the saint? How was I supposed to know that the Word of the Divine in the ear of back street grifter would usher in the greatest religious revival in a generation, but in the service of a false idol? How was I supposed to know that the Senior Demons and the Archangels were getting tired of waiting for the End Times, and had decided to give it a little nudge?

Like the two of you, I was “rewarded” for a job well done. They gave me a “promotion.” They appointed me to the bloody Heaven/Hell Joint Task Force for Apocalypse Coordination!

“Sounds like a desk job,” Ybuwyn said.

“It is.”

Kaloolon shuddered. “You are in Hell, my friend.”

“Of course I’m in Hell, I’m an imp,” Drearien grumbled. “This is worse.”

Ybuwyn shook his head. “Respectability. It’ll be the death of us all.”

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