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Somewhere beyond the stars, well past the scattered light of the unknown universe, in a realm so distant that no life of any kind has ever ventured there, and where the fundamental rules of time and space have never applied, there’s nothing.

If you find yourself in such a place, you know you’ve gone too far.

Closer in, there’s interesting stuff.

There’s Hotworld, a civilization suffering beneath the heel of another who they happened to piss off for reasons lost to history. Their tormenters, who are not nice people in general, wrapped a string of unbreakable but elastic neutronium around a groove they excavated in the planet’s equator. This they connected to a fixed mass-driver of unparalleled power which alternately propels their world toward the sun, then yanks it back whenever the string has unspooled as far as it will go. Hotworld, which is now essentially a giant inhabited yo-yo, oscillates back and forth toward its sun for all eternity, its distance to that orb ranging from approximately that of Venus to approximately that of Mars, a condition which requires its busy population to live in cities on wheels that must constantly travel first north and then south to escape the seasonal weather extremes at either latitude — a lifestyle which is difficult enough when the artificial intelligence controlling their planet’s plight doesn’t decide it wants to Walk the Dog.

Not a nice place.

There’s also Pollenworld, a planet universally allergenic to anybody unlucky enough to land upon it. Its atmosphere is gray with blobs of fluffy shmootz so clearly the sworn enemy of every being with nasal passages that just to look upon it, from orbit perhaps, causes fits of uncontrollable sneezing that leave streaks on navigation panels and utterly ruin the dignity of starship captains. The forces of evolution attempted to compensate by producing life forms that were essentially nothing but cavernous nasal passages with feet, in the theory that creatures with nostrils the size of hula hoops wouldn’t find themselves irritated by allergens; this, alas, failed to work, and the sentient creatures doomed to life upon its surface were forced to develop a planetary civilization with a culture entirely devoted to nonstop honking at each other. Evolution, which is well known as a wacky beast, attempted to take pity on them by pinching their humongous nostrils shut on both ends, a solution which didn’t stop them from feeling the need to sneeze but which did change their planetary culture to one entirely based on great gobs of brain matter backfiring out the tops of their heads. They are certainly one species with a bone to pick with the tissue of space-time.

Also: not a nice place.

Finally, there’s Mouthworld, not so much a planet as an advanced organism the size of a planet, lined from pole to pole with literally billions of sharply-fanged mouths. One would expect that if you landed on this planet you would take one step away from your rocket-shaped spaceship only to feel a sudden violent jerk as a forked tongue snaked from one of those mouths, whipped around your torso, snapped your spine, and dragged you screaming toward the slavering, salivating fangs of the nearest toothy fissure; that you would draw your blaster from its belt-hoster and fire zap after zap of superheated plasma at the gaping maw, screaming die die die as the teeth, impervious to your fire, merely snapped together hungrily in expectation of the fine treat to come. You would think that, but it’s not what happens. In actuality, Mouthworld would starve to death if it needed unwary space travellers for sustenance. It lives off starlight. The mouths aren’t there to devour you, but to criticize you, saying all sorts of nasty things about your dayglo orange jumpsuit or wondering why it’s been so long since you called your Mom. Travellers who break down on Mouthworld tend to use the blasters on themselves rather than bear yet another warning not to slouch.

None of them, nice places.

And then there’s one more place, which is particularly Not Nice.

Any guide directing travellers to the notable sites of the universe (and yes, you can include that one, if you want, as long as you don’t bring it up here; jesus, we’re sick of hearing it mentioned, already) includes a compendium of the sleaziest and most appalling bars in all of space-time. This is usually intended to aid the unwary in avoiding such places, but you never know; sometimes people seek out the bottom of the barrel deliberately, in the apparent belief that the monkeys who previously occupied that receptacle left some Cartier or Tiffany jewelry somewhere in the cocktail of unpleasant and malodorous substances that always percolate to the bottom of any container left unwashed after its usage for the mass storage of chittering lower primates. (Also, some people are just plain sleazy themselves, and like anything best compared to bodily fluids just naturally like to seek out their own level.) In any event, whether you run screaming from such establishments in favor of fashionable fern-bars where the water costs more than the beer, or run leering toward them in search of undiscriminating members of your preferred sex and species who won’t have any problem indulging the kink that gets you dropped down trap doors in all the respectable places, the ranking of sleaziest bars anywhere and anytime is a list that most guides assemble with the greatest possible diligence, using a variety of arcane scientific criteria ranging from the diversity of the communicable diseases to the number of wet hacking coughs each patron is permitted to spew before being denied access to the establishment’s one communal napkin.

Narrow the list down to the hundred sleaziest, and you have a hundred places so sleazy that mere inhalation within their walls causes a degree of cranial fermentation that renders the actual drinking of alcohol redundant. Narrow the list down the fifty sleaziest, and you have fifty places so sleazy that even Batman would fear breaking through the skylight in search of stoolies he could beat up for information. Narrow the list down to the ten sleaziest, and at least seven of them will be places situated on the same strip of Patterson, New Jersey, in 1967. But use the process of elimination, selecting from that ten one bar so devoid of any redeeming feature, so absent the homey quality that allows these shrines to incipient alcoholism the pretense that they’re friendly neighborhood hangouts where everybody knows your name, and you will find, out of all creation, in all of space and time, the tavern where you go only if your definition of drowning your sorrows includes the possibility of sinking over your head in the slime trails of all the previous drinkers who have been to that den of iniquity before you.

It’s called Ralphs.

There is no apostrophe. It is not owned by anybody named Ralph. It uses the word the same way another famous bar, in another era, used the word Cheers. That place cheered; this place ralphs. It is situated in the worst neighborhood of the worst city on the worst planet of the worst solar system of the worst star cluster in the known universe; you cannot get there by accident, as in, let’s say, taking the wrong exit out of hyperspace, pulling over next to the steaming mound of rubble a generous person would call a building and leaving your wife and kids in the vermin-laden swamp that is the closest thing Ralphs has to a parking lot so you can run inside and ask the scarred and glowering patrons whether they know the best way to Disney’s new park on Orion. You have to try to get there, overcoming all the barriers an aghast and revolted universe is bound to place in your way, and the worst thing that can possibly be said about sentients who manage it is that they did so knowing fully well that once they arrived they would have nobody to associate with but a bar filled with other sentients who wanted the same thing.

Enter Ralphs and you’ll find in place of a scowling bartender and array of liquor bottles a single massive mound of quivering flesh that serves both functions. A product of highly advanced genetic engineering, this creature (which has no name, but which is sometimes called Callahan), has an IQ somewhere in the lower single digits and a body chemistry that feeds on a combination of abuse and stale cigar smoke and excretes a substance identical to cheap whiskey. Anybody who wants a drink can simply swagger up to this pathetic beast, blow smoke in the sucking orifice it possesses instead of a face, call it the foulest name in his personal lexicon and nail it with a sucker punch. Hard liquor oozes from the point of impact. On busy nights the bar at Ralphs is crowded with a double line of thugs and misanthropes shouting obscenities at the top of whatever they have for lungs and wailing away at the blubbery invertebrate with both fists, while confederates dart in and out catching the effluent with any of the dozens of unwashed glasses that litter the surrounding floor to ankle-depth. On quiet nights the creature just sits there in a puddle of iridescent raw corn liquor, trembling as it waits for the abuse, the delicious nourishing abuse, to start again.

I told you the place was called Ralphs for a reason.

Then there’s the jukebox, which is deliberately kept stocked with songs that everybody hates. It tends to stick on those particularly awful, playing them again and again and again and again while the aggravated patrons do things like set it or fire or encase it in cement. An indestructible creation of the Bettelhine Munitions Corporation, apparently intended to demoralize any planetary civilization less ridden with scum than this one, it never stops playing; it just selects another highlight from the career of Neil Diamond or Michael Bolton and revs up again, scarcely noticing when the aggravated cyborg at Table Four knocks it over with a surface-to-air missile. Sometimes it says “Ow.”

But by far, the sleaziest and most pathetic element of a night at Ralphs is the regular discussion of those notorious interstellar rogues, Ernst Vossoff and Karl Nimmitz.

On the night we join them, the discussion was being led by a globular creature with one gigantic eye on a stalk; you could tell he was a pirate because that eye was covered with a patch, and he kept bumping into things. He squirted the jukebox with a noxious foul-smelling acid and said, “Arrrr. I knew those lubbers many a time, back when they were just starting out; made one entire run through the coal sack with me comet shield on the blink, so I suited ‘em up, strapped ‘em to the front of me starship, and gave them a couple of ice picks to take care of incoming traffic. Wasted many a genomat treatment growing them new bodies whenever they got smashed to atoms, but saved money by paying ‘em minimum wage; and grateful they were to get it, too. Arrrr.”

“I had a cousin who knew them,” said another patron, this one a muscular and bulletproof alien in blue tights and red cape. He was in the midst of attempting to turn off the jukebox by slamming it repeatedly against the walls and ceiling. “He said they’d lost their latest starship on some expedition or another, and were earning money for a new one by standing on the big red X in a coin-op nuclear bombardment range. Little kids used to come in after school and fork over their lunch money for the pleasure of nuking the two most famous losers in the universe into hydrogen ions. Most of the money was taken by the arcade’s management, of course, but poor Ernst and Karl still raked in twelve cents per vaporization. It probably took them a couple of thousand years just to buy their way out of their contract, but even so …”

“Annnnh, yer both full of arcturian noodles,” muttered another patron, who joined in the fun by pelting the offending jukebox with olive pits from an endless supply he kept in his vest pocket for just that purpose. He was only half-involved in the discussion, being deeply engrossed in the single issue of Anvil-Man Comics that represented what was for him a lifetime’s supply of reading matter; he tended to forget the storyline between perusals, and thus always reacted with supreme astonishment when the bad guy got smooshed flat by the hero’s namesake weapon. “I met Ernst Vossoff years ago, before he hooked up with his idiot partner. He was the most formidable man I ever knew; he could reassemble a star drive faster than you could say Jack Robinson with your tongue tied behind your back. He spoke seventy interstellar languages, knew eighty forms of martial arts, and mixed a mean cocktail. If he ever fell on bad times — and I admit he did, frequently; folks just kept dropping those banana peels out their windows on any thoroughfare he chose to travel — it was because the universe just couldn’t tolerate the one mind capable of bringing it down. There aren’t any words for how deeply I admired him, how without reservation I pitied him, and how sorrowfully I had to hurl him out that airlock in hyperspace. He turned up alive again, of course; he always did. Wonder what happened to him?”

“Arrrr,” said the eyestalked pirate, “Me too.”

“And me three,” said the spitcurled alien.

All three blasted the jukebox with incineration beams, just for emphasis, an act which made it glow red hot before its internal cooling system freed it to play yet another encore of “Stand by Your Man.”

That’s when the lady entered the establishment.

It was rare for a lady to cross the threshhold of Ralphs. Women, sure. Women are fully capable of being every bit as sleazy as men; they have to, in order to keep up. But ladies are another matter — let alone beautiful ladies. This creature was pure diamond-edged perfection; she had a face so radiant that the bartender immediately spewed pure Johnny Walker, a walk so sensual that the local volcanoes spewed carbon monoxide just to maintain the world’s otherwise undisturbed awfulness, and red hair so sleek and shiny that any automobiles in the vicinity would have stopped under the mistaken assumption that they had just encountered a stop light. Her eyes would have been piercing if they had actually possessed cutting edges, but they were eyes and therefore didn’t, thus making that an inappropriate and stupid adjective. There was not a right angle on her entire body, whatever that means. It would have been fair to also say that she had a pair of legs that just wouldn’t quit, except that her ability to stop walking when she reached the jukebox would have proved that statement, too, a lie. She was Eden, Xanadu, Atlantis, El Dorado, Epcot. She was not just perfection, but the quintessence of perfection, redundant as that seems: paradise in human form.

The jukebox switched to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of “Louie, Louie.” The lady grabbed it with both hands, lifted it high over her head, and slammed it hard against the barroom floor, imbedding it in the semi-liquid muck that appears on the floor of any bar sleazy enough to never see the business end of a mop. The impact resonated powerfully enough to register on seismographs. The jukebox said, “Ow,” and switched to a sound effect record of monks hitting themselves over the head with boards. Satisfied, and flashing a seductive smile which immediately turned the knees of every sentient in the bar to goo — even those which, by natural phenotype, already were goo — she produced a long-stemmed champagne glass, sauntered over to the bartender, whispered something too soft and seductive for anything with merely human ears to discern, and received pure Dom Perignon in tribute. This she sipped daintily while marching past a room filled with the fainting and awestruck to take her rightful position at the table where the pirate alien, the spitcurled alien, and the alien with the comic book all sat gaping, their respective tongues dangling in the regularly-spaced grease spots that here served as the equivalent of checkered tablecloths.

She said: “You want to know about Ernst Vossoff and Karl Nimmitz? Not the made-up stories you’ve been regaling each other with, but the real thing? Their failures, their triumphs, their loves, their losses, and their ultimate fates? You want to know what they were like, and where they are now?”

The silence in the bar was a physical thing, too big to be weighed and too acrid to be used as an ingredient for bread.

The eyestalked alien spoke for all of them. “Arrrrr.”

“Then listen up,” the beautiful woman said. “Because I’m the only one with the full story …”

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