Across the Sea of Stars

The Slowest Spacecraft

There was a real crowd at F'nordalp'leen's, enough to widen the spread significantly on the bets of how many of the bartender's tentacles would have to become visible in the current hourcycle. Most of the visitors were crowded up against the diamond-glass viewport that made up one entire wall of the cavernous bar. Normally the view of McCutcheon's Nebula was more than enough to bring tourists from distant sectors of space. Today, the turbulent ribbons of pyrotechnic gas twisted by immense electromagnetic vortices were eclipsed by the sheer beauty of the graceful golden symmetries of the Jewel of Her Father's Eyestalks. The Jewel seemed more of an artistic masterpiece than a spacecraft; every nuance was an aesthetic pleasure to behold. She was what the crowd wanted to see. Today, the blazing Nebula paled.

The crowd erupted in sound, a vaguely unpleasant concoction of noise. It happened every time the Jewel fired her elegant reaction jets to maintain her position outside the giant station. To those pressed close to the window, these mundane actions were a marvel. The ones who would not be so impressed were scattered at tables, benches and perches throughout the rest of the bar, where they could consume their personal poisons despite the crowd.

"Secondfather E'efff?" It was an inquisitive voice booming from an alien towering above most of the rest of the crowd. The question, phrased in Standard, came from something reminiscent of a purplish spear of asparagus almost four meters tall. Gently swaying on a constantly shifting cluster of foot-roots, it was nothing out of the ordinary for F'nordalp'leen's. Those sentients in the room that had offspring recognized the tone of a curious child.

"Yes, Offspring J'orrr?" The loud answer came from a similar being standing somewhat further back in the crowd. It wasn't clear how an intelligent stalk of asparagus could create such a resonant, carrying voice - but it did. There were no visible vocal organs, at least from the viewpoint of those who walked, slithered, rolled or crawled along the floor of the bar. The Hetherhol triad that floated near the ceiling might have been able to tell if there was a vocal organ atop the stalk, if each of their six tendril eyestalks weren't all intertwined. Whatever the bartender had pumped into their meter-wide leathery green buoyancy sacs seemed to have had the desired effect. It wasn't clear if the Hetherhol were drunk, mating, or simply trying to untangle themselves. They were too busy to say.

However E'efff and J'orrr managed it, their voices were deep and powerful. Those in the farthest recesses of the bar could understand the conversation.

"This Jewel of Her Father's Eyestalks is the fastest spacecraft known to all, correct?"

"That is correct, J'orrr. The captain reported its time between the Human planet Marguerite IV and the Klorn homeworld. This time translated into a velocity nearly one part in five greater than any previously recorded. It was recorded at one part in five below the maximal output of the engines. The captain and crew will leave here shortly for Freedman's Planet, and they will attempt optimal operation. It is expected that the Jewel will surpass its earlier performance." Those sentients in the room that had offspring recognized the tone as that of a parent pleased to be able to satisfy the curiosity of its child.

"Secondfather E'efff - what is the slowest spacecraft known?" Those sentients in the room that had offspring recognized the tone as that of a child with a question that a parent could not satisfactorily answer.

"Offspring J'orrr, there are many spacecraft that do not maintain a relative motion. The Jewel of Her Father's Eyestalks does not move from her position outside of this viewport. It has a velocity of zero. The spacecraft Glagg Nuir Methadin has the same velocity, and will keep it until we board for the journey to M'k'y'u'g. This is a common occurrence."

"But Secondfather E'efff - this answer does not satisfy. Which is the slowest spacecraft known?" The parent stalk did not respond, except for a slow, almost subsonic, hum. Those sentients in the room that had offspring recognized the tone as that of a parent trying unsuccessfully to mentally rephrase a reasonable answer into something that the child would accept.

"Secondfather E'efff, if I may?" Captain Maggie Gale stood up from her usual table not far from the viewport. She was known to the regulars in the bar, to the masters of the station, and to many a being in nearby sectors of space. Tall, thin, with blond hair cut short above her shoulders, the Captain was almost as much a part of F'nordalp'leen's as McCutcheon's Nebula - when she wasn't off somewhere in the vastness of space.

"You have an answer that will enlighten my Offspring J'orrr?"

"And perhaps yourself as well. If you will join me? I am Maggie Gale, Captain of the independent starship Vortex of Chaos, of the race Human." The pair of sentient purple vegetable-like aliens moved out of the crowd to Captain Gale's table. They collapsed their foot-roots into a condensed base as close to the table as they could, which seemed to be the nearest equivalent possible to a human sitting with her. They still reached more than a meter above the standing Captain.

"I am E'efff of Grove F'rrrnkell, of the race K'rrrstaaa. This is my Offspring J'orrr. I bend to the gentle rain of your wisdom in this matter." E'efff bent slightly.

Captain Gale introduced the others at the table. They were friends, like Dugar, the retired Goshan Imperial Marine. They were enemies, like Taddkorrado, the Wipploi manager of the most popular multi-species restaurant at the station outside of F'nordalp'leen's. They were business competitors, like Walder, another Human, who was already unconscious from the alcohol consumed at the table.

When the formalities were complete, the elder alien turned quickly on its foot-roots, to face the cluster of tentacles that was F'nordalp'leen's bartender. "It would please this one to provide liquid sustenance to the Captain, of her pleasure, suitable to her biology. The Offspring and I will have Waters of K'rrrstaaa. Please add the Ammonias of Harmony to mine."

Tentacles flashed at the bar. Credits changed hands, stalks, flippers, and other grasping digits, as yet another new tentacle became visible. There were small patches of uniquely colored cloth wrapped around the ends of each tentacle, which was how those bettors at the bar proper could keep track. That made the count nineteen, which was nearing the record of twenty-three.

"It is a pleasure, E'efff of Grove F'rrrnkell, of the race K'rrrstaaa," Captain Gale replied, even as the tentacles from the bar reached across to the table, to set the drinks down. E'efff and J'orrr slid a small cluster of foot-roots up from below the table to settle into the containers holding their Waters. Maggie sat down in her comfortable chair, inhaling the fragrances of the glass of port placed before her. The bartender knew her preferences from long experience. She took a sip and savored it. There was a hint of smoky chocolate that warmed her as it drifted down her throat.

"Captain Human Maggie Gale - what is the slowest spacecraft known?"

"Yes, Maggie, please tell us," Dugar interrupted, his voice deep and booming from long days commanding sentients in the Goshan Imperial Marines. "How can you go slower than the examples cited by E'efff? I've been around enough to know he's right."

She smiled. Several of the regular bettors at the bar turned to watch what came next. She lifted her glass and took a second sip, deeper than the first. The cool liquid slipped quickly down her throat while the fruity bouquet tickled her nose.

"The usual bet?" If she could tell a story that showed a slower spacecraft than those cited, the others would buy something special for her. If not, then she'd buy a round of something special for those at the table. Credits were placed on the bar, betting on the outcome. Odds were offered on the amount of direct involvement she'd had in the tale, and on how many people, planets or civilizations were affected by the event. Longer odds were offered to those willing to guess, in advance, at her answer. The bartender scooped all of the chits, credits, coins, and crystals up with a deft tentacle, placing the bets into compartments of a familiar tray. The wise money rarely bet against Maggie Gale.

"All right, but this is one you're going to buy. I think I'd like a bottle of the '58 from Freedman's Planet. That's one fine port."

"Don't forget that when you're paying for it," she laughed.

"Captain Human Maggie Gale, please, what is the slowest spacecraft known?" There was the clear whine of youthful impatience in J'orrr's words.

"J'orrr of Grove F'rrrnkell, of the race K'rrrstaaa - to explain this, I must provide some of the background. My tale may seem slow to begin, but since it leads to the slowest spacecraft, that only seems natural." She stopped to pick up her glass of port, which was almost the color of J'orrr. She sniffed at the fine fragrance, as if it contained the secret of her story.

Continued in Part 2...