Across the Sea of Stars


For just an instant, the only sound in the cavernous bar was complete silence. Announced by the fading, echoing metallic chime of a skeletal being's silver-gray, ornately-wrought walking staff falling unexpectedly to the floor, the quiet spread quickly. Starting from where the being stood, at the deck plates in front of F'nordalp'leen's immense diamond-glass viewport, it moved from table to table, from being to being, from floor to twenty-meter ceiling. It was one of those miraculous moments where all of the chatter of voices stall at once, the grating honks and screeches of moving chairs and tables rest, the percussion of the machinery pauses, and the Universe's ultimate, utter silence speaks in eloquent counterpoint.

One might think that such silences would be more common, inspired by the viewport-framed, up-close, face-to-face meeting with the churning power of the blazing maelstroms of McCutcheon's Nebula. Only those who weren't native to the sector kept turning their eyes or other electromagnetic sensory organs towards the huge window. To newcomers, after a long journey in the muted pastel fogs of hyperspace, it's like learning the spectrum all over again. The brilliant colors from the nebula flood through the diamond-glass that stretches from floor to ceiling, along the entire length of the voluminous room. The place is famous for it. Tourists plan entire vacations just to come here, to capture their image in front of the turbulent vortices weaving ribbons of fire through incandescent gas clouds.

Conversations picked right back up, glasses clinked, machinery clanked, and the moment dissipated. If the bartender noticed, it was impossible to tell. The usual flurry of its tentacles flashing over the bar seemed unfazed as they continued to mix a dozen drinks at once.

Several of the patrons were watching the being at the viewport. They weren't watching because the stranger, a squat meter tall barrel of bony ivory plates, was out of place. Just the opposite - F'nordalp'leen's and the station are at the conjunction of nine major hyperspatial routes - there's always some new species walking, slithering, floating, flying or rolling into the bar.

That's why the bony being was of interest. Ro#chon, a golden-feathered avianoid perched at the end of the bar, was recognized by the regulars as the mediator of wagering in the place. When Ro#chon raised a spiky talon to peck at a small computer tablet, it was official. The newcomer at the viewport was a new race, never before seen in the establishment. Credits, coins, crystals and colloidal proteins changed hands, fins, claws and pseudopods. They bet on everything at F'nordalp'leen's, except, perhaps, the occurrences of unexpected silences. Those moments are too rare.

The being at the viewport was oblivious to the exchanges it had caused. It continued to stare out into the depths of the nebula. Few were watching when its skeletal structure stiffened mechanically, its legs extending, telescoping it to an impressive height, nearly triple that of its original state. No one noticed when rings of cylindrical chitin snapped rigidly into place along those bony legs, creating a frozen tripod of support. Three arms stretched above the creature, in the same stiffening frieze.

Then the being began to keen, in a shrill, piercing, but recognizable Standard.

"Give praise to the Gods, for their magnificence is made manifestly plain by the vision before us."

Patrons do not bet on silences because they are so rare. Patrons do not bet on alien tongues that slice through every other conversation in the bar, in outbursts of frequencies and volume that threaten even the hardiest of auditory organs. They are too frequent.

Some of those in the bar turned to watch, annoyed by the alien's painful voice, bored by the nebula out of familiarity, or simply amused to see something they could talk about the next time they left the bar. Most just continued to drink whatever beverage they preferred, no matter how noxious, volatile or toxic. All of them heard the being, whether they wanted to or not.

"While the Gods are unreachable and untouchable, it is clear that they can touch us!"

Captain Maggie Gale snorted at that, then started laughing softly. It was a pleasant laughter, smooth and infectious.

The theologically-inspired being was also sensitive to sounds, with enough discrimination to catch the laughter through the static of other conversations. It was also perceptive enough to understand the human's reaction and to take umbrage at it.

The alien twisted, rotating a trio of eyestalks in Captain Gale's direction. It saw a human female, almost two meters tall, thin, dressed in a tight-fitting blue jumpsuit. Her face was fair, with a hint of color in her cheeks, framed by a fall of blond hair cropped at her shoulders.

As it twisted, the alien began screeching a sound reminiscent of a ship about to tear itself apart from the tidal strains of a black hole. It turned its entire body, untwisting slowly and deliberately, reaching a claw down to pick up its staff. When its digits wrapped themselves around the metallic rod, the hand lifted it quickly, as if to test its grip, preparing for conflict.

The chitin along the legs shifted, and the creature moved, with surprising speed, to where Captain Gale sat. She was at her usual table, with her usual cohort of friends, enemies and business competitors, not far from the viewport. The alien held its staff out, in a martial position parallel to the floor, about the height of Captain Gale's head. At two and a half meters, the stranger loomed over her. The being's shriek continued, unabated, throughout its movements.

She didn't move, although several of her friends tensed for a fight. Fights weren't uncommon in F'nordalp'leen's, which was why there was a trauma unit discreetly located next to the washrooms. Poisonings too, despite the huge sign over the bartender that says "Patrons are responsible for their own biology" in dozens of tongues.

Several of the glasses at the table continued to shake from the piercing voice, threatening to shatter. The cacophony in the bar around the table surrendered, silenced into submission by the pure shrill tone from the being.

There was relief when it stopped, and silence. This was different from the last - it was forced, unnatural. There was tension, a threat, perhaps even something to wager on.

"Is this some kind of infidel blasphemy?" the alien keened, its wail forcing the silence out again. Its staff vibrated ever slightly, as if the being were about to strike Captain Gale.

One of the tentacles from behind the bar stretched the entire unlikely distance and plucked the staff from the alien's claw. The room remained silent, only now it was the quiet of anticipation and relief.

Ro#chon's claw pecked at a timer. A quick flip of the computer tablet held in another claw displayed the time for all to see. Discussions broke out over the entire bar as credits passed quickly back and forth. Patrons had seen this before - and there were always bets on what the bartender would do next.

The alien looked startled at the loss of its staff, but refused to turn from Captain Gale.

"Is this blasphemy?" it asked again.

"No," she smiled, leaning her tall, thin frame back to relax in her seat. "It's just not true. Some Gods are real and touchable, if you know where to look."

The alien shuddered.

"I have been seeking the Gods for more than two hundred Standard yearcycles." The painful pitch of the alien's voice threatened several nearby beings' sound organs once again. Captain Maggie Gale held up her hand.

"Please, go on, but lower your voice, if that is possible." A Reus conceded defeat, throwing up its wings at being unable to wager further and headed towards the trauma unit, its blood-equivalent oozing from its three ears.

"My regrets." Its voice dropped two octaves, into a far less piercing tone, making it far more tolerable. "I have consulted with the holy beings of nearly a thousand worlds, and learned of their great quests, all ending without direct, provable contact with a Deity. They have told me that the search should be sufficient, that faith should suffice. You would contradict all of them?"

Captain Gale lifted her glass of port and sipped slowly. When she was done, she waved her hand to a nearby seat, inviting the alien to sit.

"Yes, I would. And there's proof."

Even her friends at the table looked surprised by that.

"C'mon, Maggie." Dugar, the retired Goshan Imperial Marine, shook his head. "You've told us some tales in your time, but Gods? I don't think so." His thundering voice, deep, resonant and commanding, matched his immense bulk. Heads turned at the bar.

"Bottle of port?" she asked. It was the usual stake, in one of the favorite pastimes in the bar. "One bottle of a declared vintage from Freedman's Planet, in exchange for proof of a God."

Dugar smiled and nodded. Those listening from the bar began waving credits at each other. Several of the bartender's tentacles collected the chits, cards, papers and coins, and placed them in a well-worn tray. Still others counted the number of new tentacles visible. There were always standing bets on the number of unique tentacles that the bartender would use in a Standard hourcycle. The record was twenty three; a liner of Flwylyt tourists had emptied into the bar during the station's night cycle. With six hands, three separate drinking orifices, and a strong tolerance for something green that reeked of methane, the Flwylyt had kept the bartender very busy.

"I would hear of this," the alien shrieked, the voice no less unsettling at a lower volume. It had found a way to sit, maneuvering three leg appendages around the seat, collapsing them in the process, shrinking back to a meter and a half in height. "I am named Theem Seeker of God, of the race Fantanni."

"And I am Maggie Gale, Captain of the independent starship Vortex of Chaos, of the race Human. It is a pleasure."

"Is the offer of this port beverage necessary for the tale?" The others at the table laughed.

"No, but Maggie does love the stuff," teased Dugar. Maggie glared at him for a moment, a playful retort. They'd known each other for a long time.

"Thank you, Theem Seeker of God, but it is not necessary." She took another sip from her glass. "This will do just fine."

"It was about eight Standard yearcycles ago, after the unpleasantness with the Chern finally settled down..."

Continued in Part 2...