by Larry Niven
The Draco Tavern isn't just a pub. It's how and where humanity interacts with at least 28 sapient species throughout the galaxy. Somewhere among these trillions of alien minds are the answers to all of the universal questions.
So it's worth the expense, but costs are high. Keeping supplies in hand grows more difficult every time a new species appears. And Siberian weather tears the Draco Tavern down as fast as we can rebuild it.
When a year passed without a Chirpsithra ship, we were glad for the respite. The tavern got some repairs. I got several months of vacation in Wyoming and Tahiti. Then that tremendous chirpsithra soap bubble drifted inward from near the Moon, and landers flowed down along the Earths magnetic lines to Mount Forel in Siberia.
For four days and nights the Draco Tavern was very busy.
On the fifth morning, way too early, 124 individuals of ten species boarded the landers and were gone.
The next day both Gail and Herman called in sick. I didn't get in until mid-afternoon, alone on duty and fighting a dull headache.
We weren't crowded. The security programs had let the few customers in and powered up various life-support systems. All of them were gathered around one of our biggest tables. Eight individuals, five - make it four - species, including a woman. I'd never seen her before. She was dressed in a short-skirted Italian or American business suit. Late 20s. Olive Arabic features. Nose like a blade, eyes like a hawk. I thought she was trying to look professionally severe. She was stunning.
The average citizen, human or otherwise, never reaches the Draco Tavern. To get here this woman must have been approved by her own government, then by the current UN psychiatric programs, Free Siberia and several other political entities. She'd be some variety of biologist. It's the most common credential.
Old habit pulled my eyes away. The way I was feeling. I wasn't exactly on the make, and I didn't need to wonder what a human would eat, drink or breathe. Tee tee hatch nex ool, her Chirpsithra life-support code was the same as mine. My concern was with the aliens.
I recognized the contours of a lone Wahartht from news coverage. They're hexapods with six greatly exaggerated hands, from a world that must be all winds. They'd gone up Kilimanjaro in competition with an Olympic climbing team. Travelling Waharthts are supposed to be all male. This one had turned a high-back chair around and was clinging to it, looking quite comfortable. He was wearing a breather.The three Folk had been living in the Kalabari, hunting with the natives. They looked lean and hungry. That was good. When they look like Cujo escaped from Belsen with his head on upside down, they're mean and ravenous and not good bar company.
Gray Mourners are new to Earth. They're spidery creatures, with narrow torsos and ten long limbs that require lots of room, and big heads that are mostly mouth. I'd at first taken them for two species; the sexual disparity is that great. Two males and a female; the little ones were males, if that protrusion was what I thought it was.
In this gathering of species all seemed to be getting along. You do have to watch that in my line of business.
As I stepped into the privacy bubble the woman was saying, "Men mate with anything "and then she sensed me there and turned, flushing.
"Welcome," I said, letting the translator program handle the details of formality. "Whatever you need for comfort, we may conceivably have it. Ask me Folk, I know your need."
One of the Folk (I'd hunted with these and still never learned to tell their gender) said, "Greetings, Rick. You will join us? We would drink bouillon or glacier water. We know you don't keep live prey."
I grinned and said, "Whatever you see may be a customer." I turned to the woman.
She said, "I'm Jehaneh Miller"
"I'm Rick Schumann. I run this place. Miller?"
"My mother was American." So was her accent. Briskly she continued, "We were talking about sex. I was saying that men make billions of sperm, women make scores of eggs. Men mate with anything, women are choosy." She spoke as if in challenge, but she was definitely blushing.
"I follow. There's more to be said on that topic. What are you drinking?"
"Like hers," the Wahartht said. Miens rarely order alcoholic drinks twice, but some just have to try it.
The female Gray Mourner asked, "Did our supplies arrive?"
They had. I went back to the bar. Beef bouillon and glacier water for the Folk. Screwdrivers, light, for the woman and the
Wahartht, but first I checked my database to be sure a Wahartht could digest orange juice. I made one for myself, for the raspy throat.
The Gray Mourners were eating stuff I'd never seen until that afternoon, an orange mash that arrived frozen. Tang sherbet?
I assembled it all quickly. I wanted to hear what they were saying. A great many aliens had left Earth very suddenly, and I hoped for a hint as to why.
And, given the conversational bent, I might learn something about Jehaneh Miller.
As I set down the drinks the Wahartht was saying, "Our childbearers cannot leave their forests, cannot bear change of smells and shading and diet, nor free fall nor biorhythm upset. We can never possess much of our own planet, let alone others. The females send us forth and wait for us to bring back stories."
A Folk said, "You travellers are all male. Do you live without sex?"
The Wahartht jumped; he tapped his translator. "`Survive without impregnation activity?' Was that accurately your question?"
"Without scent and sonic cues, we never miss it."
Jehaneh nodded and said to me, "Most life-forms, the mating action is wired in." To the Wahartht, "Does that hold for sapient species too?"
The Wahartht said, "Impregnation is a reflex to us. Our minds almost do not participate. Away from our females, we take a tranquilizing biochemical to inhibit a sometimes-suicidal rage.
I said, "I'm not surprised."
"But what should I miss?"
A Gray Mourner male cried out, "To return from orgasmic joy and be still alive!"
The other male chimed in. "Yes, Wajee! It always feels like we're getting away with something." I grinned because I agreed, but he was saying, "We think this began our civilization. Species like ours, female eats male just after he takes his generative pellet."
I think I flinched. The woman Jehaneh didn't. She cogitated, then asked, "What if you shove a beefsteak in her mouth?"
They're not insects, I wanted to say. Aliens! But nobody took offense. All three Gray Mourners chittered in, I assumed, laughter.
Wajee said, "Easy to say! No male can think of such a thing when giving generative pellet. Like design and build a parachute while riding hurricane! But what if two males? One male have sex. The other male, he put turkey in Sfillirrath's mouth."
Jehaneh jumped. "A whole turkey?"
The female smiled widely. Yike! Her jaw hinges disjointed like a snake's. Sfillirrath was twice the mass of either male, and her smile could have engulfed my head and shoulders too. She said, "On Earth, a turkey or dog will serve. Taste wrong, even if feed spices to the animal, but size is right. Size of Wajee's head, or Shkatht's bead. See you the advantage? Can have sex twice with the same male! Get better with practice, yes, Shkatht?"
"Almost get it right," Shkatht said complacently. "Next time for sure."
Wajee said, "Got to get one part right every tune-"
They chittered laughter Wajee said, "Accident can happen. Turkey can escape. Resting male can be distracted, or remember old offense and not move quick."
Sfillirrath said, "But see antiadvantage? Males don't die. Too many males. Soon every female must have many mates, or else rogue males tear down cities."
Wajee said, "Mating frequency rises too. Too many mouths. Must invent herding."
"Herd, then tend crop to feed herd. Then cities and factories. Then barrier hag over placer tube," Sfillirrath said, "so don't make a clutch of infants every curse time! Now we mate without mating, but need cities to support factories to make barrier bags, laws and lawmakers to enforce use. Control air and water flow, cycle waste, spacecraft to moons for raw resources, first contact with chirpsithra, beg ride to see the universe and here arc we. All for a perversion of nature."
Jehaneh asked the Folk, "How do you keep your numbers in bounds?"
"Breed more dangerous prey," one answered.
The female Gray Mourner asked, "How do human beings pervert sex practice?"I asked the woman, "Shall I take this?" She gestured, Go. I suppose I shaded the truth a bit toward what she might want to hear "What Jehaneh said isn't all true. Most of us don't mate with anything but adults of the other gender Most men know that most women want one mate. Most women know that any man can be seduced. We make bargains and promises and contracts. We compromise. To go against human nature is the most human thing a human being can do."
The Folk all laughed. Jehaneh was watching me. I said, "We're a young species. In an older species the sexual reflexes would be hardwired." I wasn't sure that would translate, but none of the devices paused. Any space traveller uses computers. "But with us, sex involves the mind. We're versatile."
"We have barrier bags too," Jehaneh said. A moment's eye contact, condoms, of course, and had I caught the reference? I flashed a smirk.
Still, I wouldn't be needing a baffler bag tonight. The rasp at the back of my throat told me that I'd be snuffling and coughing and attachment free. I was lucky it had held off this long.
A Folk asked, "How are you versatile? Male with male? With sexual immature? Outside species?"
Sfillirrath asked, "Triads?"
"You've been reading the tabloids," I guessed.
Jehaneh said primly, "All of that has been known to happen. We discourage it."
"There are legends," I said. "Old stories that weren't written down until centuries after they were made. Mermaids were half woman, half sea life."
"And mermen," she said.
"Jehaneh, those are modern," I said. "When sailors were all men, mermaids were all women with fish tails and wonderful voices-"
Jehaneh asked, "Are you an anthropologist, Rick?"
"In what discipline? What is your education?"
I'd been lecturing on her turf. My head throbbed, the day's low-level headache lurching into high gear. I must have caught what Gail and Herman had stayed home with.
I reeled off some of my credits. "If you're an anthropologist, you might consider working here for a year or so. We rotate fairly frequently, and both my steadies are out at the moment."
"No, I'm a bacteriologist."
Bacteriologist? How was I going to get closer to a bacteriologist? I was trying to plan for the long range. . . and the aliens weren't following this at all.I said, "We humans, we do seem wired up to mate with strangers, outside the tribe. At least in fiction, yeah, Jehaneh, we'd mate with anything. Fairies were powerful aliens, nearly human, not very well described. Humans with goat horns or animal heads, goat legs, fish tails, wings. Some were that tall," hands eight inches apart, "others the size of mountains. Spirits in trees and pools of water, angels and devils and gods from various myths and religions, they all mated with human beings in some stories. I'm telling you what's buried in our instincts. We don't always act on our instincts." I realized I was rambling.
"Rick, do you have any visual aids about?"I gaped. Jehaneh's smile seemed innocent, but the question was impish. "I don't think so." A raunchy thought crossed mymind. "Did you want a demonstration?"
"I don't think you'll be up for that," Jehaneh said.
"No, not tonight ... flu."
She shook her head. "Invader. I came here to keep it confined."
Confined. Invader. Bacteriologist. A murky truth congealed: I didn't have the flu. Some alien disease had come with the chirpsithra ship. I started to say something to Jehaneh, tried to stop myself, and found my thoughts running away.
The Wahartht leapt to the table, then the wall- He scuttled toward an upper window, his 36 fingers finding purchase where there was none. Jehaneh reached into her purse.
In that moment's distraction I turned to run - wondered what I was doing - and every muscle locked in terror. Not even my scream could get out. The goddamned flu was thinking with my brain!
Jehaneh aimed her purse. The Wahartht fell, stunned. I saw it all from the corner of my eye. I couldn't turn my head to watch.
Jehaneh reached forward and turned off my translator She spoke into her own. "Bring them in."I couldn't lift my arms. Escape was impossible: The host was fighting me. My head was beating like a big drum.
Sfillirrath's long, fragile arms set a cap of metal mesh on my head. She spoke into her own translator It was a chirp make, crudely rewired. I heard, but not with my ears and not in any language of Earth, "For your life, you must speak."
I chose not to answer.
Two armoured men took charge of the Wahartht. One took his breather and dropped it into a bag and sealed it, and set another on his face.
Gail and Herman came in. They bent above me, looking worried. Gail said, "Rick? You're very sick. We were too, but they cured us-""Don't agree to anything!" Herman said fiercely. "Not unless you want to make medical history!"
Sfillirrath spoke. "See you these humans. You took them for hosts some days ago, you and your Wahartht pawn. Your colonies bred too fast for their health. In another day they would have killed them, but human defenders acted first. Most of your colonies on the ship are dead too. How did you reward a Wahartht, to make him betray so many?"
I said, not with my voice, "Simulate mating. The drug he takes to tranquilize depression does not leave him alert and happy. I do."
"And what fool would assume that sapient beings cannot fight bacterial invasion? It may be that you, indeed, are not truly sapient."Stung, I answered, "Am a star-travelling species. Hold many worlds."
"Your number in the host is?""Currently ten to the ninth operators, one entity. Operators are not sapient, not me.
"Breed to ten times as many, entity becomes smarter?"
"Only a little.""But too many for host. Rick Schumann would die. Kill host - is that intelligent?"
The voice in my mind asked, "Fool, do you expect intelligence to stop an entity from breeding?" I thought that was a funny remark, so I whispered, "Ask any elected official."
Gail said, "Rick, the chirp liner is still near the moon. The point was to get all the tourists into closed-cycle life support and not start a panic on Earth. There’s a sapient microscopic life-form loose. This rogue Wahartht has been leaning over our drinks with his breather on, distributing the bacterium as a powder form. Normally, it spreads as a, urn, a social disease. Under proper circumstances it is a civilized entity, not especially trustworthy, but it can be held to contacts. But as a disease it could ravage the Earth."
I could barely blink.
"We can make treaties with sapient clusters of the bacteria. That's you. Some species can't tolerate it at all, and some clusters won't negotiate. Some aliens won't volunteer as carriers, either Herman and me, we would have. Hell, we're grad students! But there wasn't time. They rushed us to Medical and shot us full of sulfa drugs."
Sfillirrath had gone on talking. "There is a chemical approach to halt your cell division. Antibiotics would kill you entirely, as they have killed your other colonies. Which will you have?"
I felt terror from both sides of my mind. "If my operators do not fission, still they die. When the numbers drop enough, I am gone. You would make me mortal!"
"Give you empathy with your host.""Monster, pervert! What would you know of empathy? I will accept the contraceptive."
"You must buy it," Sfillirrath said coolly. "This first dose is our gift."
"Jehaneh, give him the first shot."
"Two boosters to come, else the sulfa drugs. We will discuss terms."
Jehaneh pulled down my belt and pushed a hypodermic needle into the gluteal muscle. I barely felt the sting.I listened to Sfillirrath's terms, and agreed to them. They included measures for the health of my host. My host was to be treated for arthritis, cholesterol build-up, distorted eyesight, a knee injury and flawed teeth. I was not to make colonies without permission of a willing host.
Jehaneh offered herself as a host, under rigidly defined conditions, and I agreed to those terms. Xenologists of many species would interview me periodically.
I was feeling more lucid. When I could stand, they took me to Medical.
Morning. I lay on a flat plate with a sensor array above me. I'd never seen the Draco Tavern medical facility from this viewpoint.I felt wonderful. Rolled out of bed and did a handstand, something I hadn't done in some time.
Jehaneh caught me at it. "I'm glad to see you're up to exercise," she said, "What do you remember?"
"First flu, then invasion, now it's an embassy. Jehaneh, I hear it. It's thinking with my brain. I think it has the hots for you, but that could just be me.
"We agreed that I'll take a colony from you. Remember?"
"No. That sounds risky! Jehaneh, it would be like being an ambassador to, well, Iraq."
"They do build embassies in Iraq," she said, "and this is a star-travelling intelligence. What might I learn?"
"Huh. Your choice. And it'll fix" I was remembering more of the negotiations. "I thought I was in pretty good health, but it wants to do a lot of fixing. To show how useful it can be. You're the brain it really wants."
"Do you recall that it's a sexually transmitted, urn, entity?"
I did. I leered.She paused, then asked, "We've both had the usual blood tests, yes? Our guest would fix that anyway. Do you have room for me here? Just until I can get infected." She didn't like that word. "Colonized," she amended herself.
"Positively. Maybe I can talk you into staying longer My bed has one or two unearthly entertainment features. And if 100 breeds of alien are going to be interviewing your guest, well, the Draco Tavern has the best communication and life support systems on Earth."
She smiled. "We'll see."