Jabe let out a groan between gritted teeth as he lowered the quivering barbell to the ground with a thump that rocked the tiny room despite the automated shock-absorbing floor built into the Bethdish Galaxy Gym for the mega-lifters. The big, blue-skinned humanoid mopped a sheet of sweat from his massive forehead with a towel, then bent down to unload the hundred-pound plates weighting the titanium-reinforced bar and slide them onto their racks. Jabe may have looked like a brute, but he prided himself on being tidy.
Done with his workout, Jabe threw the towel over his basketball-sized shoulder and headed for the showers, a quarter-ton mountain of bulging, sky-blue flesh topped with a crew-cut of coarse white hair framing his roundish head, which seemed a shade too small for his outsized body. He was large even for a Keien, those lumpy humanoids whose home-planet’s extreme gravity imbued them with super-Herculean musculature.
A quick shim-shower and shave later, Jabe stood in front of the mirror as he changed into his work clothes. His granite-like chest rippled as he pulled a baggy black T-shirt over his loose gray pantaloons. He turned to admire the neon logo scrawled across the back:
The Bar at the Bad Part of the End of the Galaxy
Isaac Newton wrote some of the Laws of the Universe, but he missed one: for every bar there must be a bouncer. For the last two weeks, Jabe had been filling that role for Bethdish’s most infamous watering-hole.
Jabe hummed as he shambled across the street to the Mare, looking up at the in-coming traffic from the spaceport that was passing overhead like fireworks. He breezed in the doors and up to the bar, where a tall, blonde humanoid female was wiping up a spill.
"Hi, Trixie," Jabe smiled bashfully as he leaned over to throw his gym-bag behind the bar.
"Hey there, Jabe," the woman shot back, then bent down and switched off a micro-blender. When she stood up, she held a huge glass filled with a thick yellowish sludge.
"One post-workout banana smoothie, doused with proto-enzyme powder," she chimed, setting the mug down on the bar with a smile that spun the butterflies in Jabe’s rock-hard stomach like a roulette wheel. Jabe harbored a secret crush on Trixie the size of a gas giant.
In fact, his affection for the lovely waitress was what had inadvertently landed him his present job. He had arrived on Bethdish just short of a month ago, seeking work as a tech on one of the myriad freighters buzzing in and out of the busy spaceport. Jabe was a good tech, but a heavy case of nerves caused him to re-wire a damaged droid backwards in his first job interview.
The result melted down both the droid and any hopes Jabe had of getting work on the docks. The big Keien’s dream had been to travel the galaxy on a freighter, but being stranded on Bethdish, he ended up where every washout does sooner or later in the City of Lights – the Mare Inebrium.
It was just after the mid-day rush when Trixie was serving a frothing drink to an eight-armed Arachnophod whose appetites were unfortunately not confined to the menu. Now, Trixie was a seasoned veteran at dodging gropers and grabbers, but even she was unable to watch eight lecherous hands at once. Just as one lusting limb was about to get through, Jabe reached out with a mitt-like hand and stopped it.
Enraged, the arachnophod turned on him, whereupon a fight ensued the likes of which even the patrons at the Mare had never seen. Arachnophods are rightly feared as the most dangerous hand-to-handers around, but Jabe, perhaps inspired by the close proximity of Trixie, won through and in the end slung the slightly mangled spider-man out the back doors like a sack of crenshoons. The brawl left the Mare looking like the survivor of a meteor swarm.
"You’re pretty handy with your fists," Max, the bartender, said to a panting Jabe as he surveyed the extensive damage. "You know, with the new jump-lanes opening to the Nebulae, we’re getting a lot more rough trade in here. How’d you like to work for me?"
A chance to see Trixie everyday and get paid for it? To say no was literally not an option. Jabe’s heart leapt like a Tarellian dune-dancer. He had been bouncing at the Mare ever since.
Jabe sipped at his smoothie as he looked around the bar. It was still early, so there were few patrons. Speakers and a sound system were being set up for a band on a makeshift stage beside the dance floor. A banner over the top proclaimed "THE SPACE GIRLS."
"Hey, Jabe," Max called from behind the bar. "You’re a tech. The band is having trouble with their setup – can you give ‘em a hand?"
"Sure," he answered, wiping banana-flavored foam from his lip. He went over to the oversized speaker-setup and opened up a panel on the side with a tiny screwdriver. Soon a jungle of wires sprouting in all directions surrounded him as he worked away.
"’Ey, mate," he heard a voice over his shoulder. Jabe turned around with the screwdriver in his teeth. A short humanoid dressed in outrageous flowing purple clothes was standing there. He appeared to be the manager of the band.
"Will it work or not, man?" he asked, eyeing the mess of protruding cables.
"You’ve got a big problem," Jabe said, scratching his head. "This speaker system is set to broadcast in a couple thousand different frequencies for different races, not to mention pushing the whole thing through a Galactic Translator. The micro-processor you’ve got hooked up here is just too small to modulate the entire thing."
"Crimey!" the little man said, mopping his brow. "Can you do anything wiv’ it, mate?" Jabe had a hard time understanding the man’s thick accent.
"I can try to re-wire it, but the best thing is to find a bigger processor," Jabe said.
"Do what you can, man – we’ve got a show to do in less than an hour!" the man spluttered, waving his arms in the air as he headed backstage. Jabe nodded and turned back to work.
He had barely been working ten minutes when he felt a bump on his tree-sized leg. Jabe looked up.
"Oh, sorry, Jabe," the man said, not really looking at him. He was a thin, pale man in a white lab coat and old-fashioned spectacles, with a wild shock of reddish, almost orange, hair splashed in all directions.
"Hey, Dr. Camforrt," Jabe said with a wave.
Like most of the regulars of the Mare, Jabe liked the good doctor, even if Camforrt was a bit strange. The man was a brilliant freelance scientist and inventor well known on Bethdish, but his intellect was marred by an absent-mindedness that tended toward disaster.
He had a tendency to work on several projects at once for different contractors, eventually forgetting and confusing for whom he was working on what invention. A few months earlier he had scared the daylights out of the staff by forgetting one such invention at the bar that for anyone knew could have been capable of destroying the planet in any of a plethora of ways.
Camforrt shambled up to the bar and laid a small box on the countertop. It was about as large as shoebox with a barrel protruding from one end and a big red lever on top beside a tiny keypad. Max, wiping up the bar, looked down at the device as if Camforrt had put a live snake up there.
"What’s that you got there, Doc?" he asked cautiously as he put down his towel.
Camforrt ran a slender hand through his unruly hair with a nervous laugh.
"This is something I thought you or your visitors might be interested in, Max," Camforrt said, indicating the stage. "I call it the Wardrobe Warper. It’s a new invention for performers, allowing them to make ultra-fast costume changes between acts. The device produces a plasti-form covering that molds to the target in any outward appearance they wish in the blink of an eye."
Max raised an appreciative eyebrow. Neither he nor the doctor heard the front doors open or saw a tall form enter.
"I’ll show you," Camforrt continued, encouraged. "The device will outfit any creature, no matter how small or large, in clothing of your choice. Let’s say you needed your bouncer to be in a tuxedo for a visiting dignitary who was arriving on short notice. Come here, Jabe," Camforrt called, waving his gangly arm.
Jabe put down his tools and rose to his feet, then disconnected two long cables running to the bar’s wall circuits to cut the power to the speakers. He may have looked like a brute, but he prided himself on safety.
"Stand here," Camforrt directed. Jabe obliged with a sideways look at Max. "You just adjust the dial like this to take into account the size of the subject… set in the coordinates… then presto!"
Camforrt pulled back the red lever with a flourish. A whirring sound came from the box, then a silver flash shot out from the barrel, looping around the astonished form of Jabe several times before drawing tight like a lasso in a band of metallic-looking rings clamping his brawny arms to his sides. Jabe looked up, puzzled.
Camforrt said nothing, merely stood looking at the box in his hand intently. After a long moment he slapped his forehead with a foolish grin.
"This isn’t my Wardrobe Warper!" he laughed. "This is the new gadget I was working on for Inter-galactic security forces. It’s a non-lethal weapon for apprehending criminals. You’ll find those cords much too strong to break, Jabe. They’re made from a new alloy of orbium and plassteel," the Doctor noted in a pedantic tone as Jabe shrugged and fidgeted trying to free himself.
Max shook his head and went back to wiping off the bar.
"Well," laughed Camforrt. "I imagine that bounty hunter I sold the Wardrobe Warper to is pretty upset."
Suddenly the silence was broken by an unmistakeable click.
Camforrt, Max, and Jabe turned. Standing in the middle of the bar was a tall, thin-limbed droid whose exterior was a dull silver armor. Easily topping seven feet, the droid had a bullet-shaped head from which one red sensor gleamed balefully. In its steely arms the droid cradled an over-sized projectile weapon pointed directly at Camforrt.
"IG-88!!" the Doctor yelped.
"Your assessment is correct, Doctor Camforrt," the droid intoned in a flat electronic voice tinged with a slight echo. "I attempted to apprehend a subject on Beta-Max with the device you sold me. The dinner jacket it encased him in did not detain him."
There was a pause.
"Result: failure. Response: revenge." The droid opened fire.
Max reached over the bar and grabbed Camforrt by the shoulders as the first slugs from the weapon slammed into the mirrors lining the walls behind them. The bartender pulled the hapless inventor roughly over the bar and dropped them to safety. Glass and liquid rained down on them as the droid stitched the walls with lead.
Jabe, still restrained by the banding, was unable to run, but he was able to hop. Bouncing like mad, he struggled to get out of the line of fire of the berserk droid. He had almost managed to make a row of couches when his gargantuan feet slipped on a puddle of Lithium Fizz. The big humanoid fell heavily on his side, then started to roll like a barrel toward the dance floor.
Jabe came to a rest against the stage as the battle droid was reloading, feeding another belt of slugs into the machine gun. The big bouncer caught one glimpse of Trixie, cowering under a row of cocktail tables, and that was all it took. Taking in a mighty breath, the Keien gave a heave and flexed his Herculean arms, rending Camforrt’s bands into keychains.
Gaining his feet, the bouncer snatched up a fistful of the cables running from the stage sound-system, then charged the bounty hunter robot. The droid turned around with a whir of servo-motors to bring his rifle to bear on the massive blue hulk.
There was no time for it to fire, however, as Jabe thrust the mass of cables at the droid’s barrel-like chest. There was a hiss and a shower of sparks as the wires spot-welded to the droid’s body armor. Jabe was thrown several feet from the shock, where he bounced off a mirrored wall with a thud.
In the middle of the dance floor, a high-pitched whine emanated from the twitching body of the droid, whose arms and legs wheeled in an erratic pattern. Suddenly there was a loud POP! and the whine was replaced by a blaring, heavy disco beat bleating from the speakers of the stage.
Jabe rose unsteadily to his feet as Max and Camforrt peeked cautiously over the bar. In the far corner, Trixie stood and brushed herself off. Suddenly the little man in purple came running out from backstage.
"Great stuff, man!" he yelled to Jabe with a thumb’s-up sign. "Sounds great – how’d you do it?"
Jabe scratched his head as he approached the gyrating form of the droid.
"I dunno. It looks like when I short-circuited the thing, the sound-system kicked in and integrated with the droid’s processor. It’s got more than enough power," he said with a shrug.
"Whatever it was, it was great," the little man exulted. "And so were you – I saw it all from back there. Shake and bake, man!"
Jabe looked sheepishly toward the floor.
"Come here girls," the manager called out. "You gotta meet this guy!" From backstage, five humanoid females, the Space Girls, filed out, each in a distinct costume with her name written in glitter across the chest.
"We’re going to need a security man, girls – and we already need a sound man. Why don’t we bring ‘im on the road wiv’ us?" he asked. "What do you girls think?"
"I think he’s a hunk," purred the one called Sporty Space.
"And cute as a Wookie!" giggled the girl with Baby Space printed on her blouse. She leaned up on tip-toe to give the bouncer a kiss on the cheek. Jabe blushed a deep shade of mauve.
"How about it, then? Want to go on tour wiv’ us?" the manager asked. Jabe hesitated, then shrugged and looked over at the bar, where Max stood with his arm around Trixie. The bartender looked at the woman, who looked at him, then back to Jabe.
"Don’t forget to write!" Trixie said with a grin.
So if chance ever finds you with an hour or so to kill on a waystop called Bethdish, go and check out the storied confines of the Mare Inebrium. Once there, you can point out to your friends the rows of postcards from exotic locales neatly taped on the wall behind the bar and you won’t have to ask why there are scorch marks on the dance floor.
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