To Dance With the Girls of Ios-5
By Ted Blasche
IN THE DARKENED ALLEY, a solitary figure paused under a long neglected sign that read “The Port O’ Call.” His three-fingered hand smoothed the hastily scribbled note, then shoved it back into a pocket. Satisfied that he had the right place, the old spacer pushed on the door.
The taverns on the lower side of the spaceport all bore the mark of age and neglect. This one was no different, except that the inside was even more begrimed than its exterior.
A well-tended horseshoe shaped bar dominated the center of the room with a few tables and chairs dotting the shadows. Absent the overpowering odor, this tavern might pass muster; the stench was anything but absent. The mystery offerings that passed from the kitchen gave unfortunate reminder that this hostelry existed in the shadow of the garbage scow fleet.
The smell, coupled with glimpses of the fat spattered cook might lead a discerning patron to wonder what ground rat might taste like. Fortunately, for the owner, few such patrons frequented this underbelly of the port. The tavern was most definitely a place where men would come only to drink, but to Cudy, this hole-in-the-wall felt like home.
At one end of the bar sat a clean-cut college type, nursing a glass of malt. What planet is he from? Must be the one I’m supposed to be meetin’. Cudy approached. “You the news guy?”
Joe College turned and expended a hand. “Jim Caster, Spacers Digest.” When he looked down at Cudy’s deformed hand, Caster frowned and dropped his without contact. After an awkward silence, he asked, “And you are?”
Bastard! The old spacer stifled the urge to jab his remaining fingers into the upstart’s eyes but answered, “Just call me Cudy.”
“Mr. Cudy, do you know why I asked to meet with you?”
“That’s Cudy. I ain’t no Mister. You got the money?”
Caster produced an envelope and laid it on the bar. “Cudy, then. Do you know why I asked to meet with you?”
Squirm, twerp. Cudy pointed a knarled finger at Caster’s glass. “First things first. Buy me one of those.”
Caster sampled the liquid while waiting for Cudy. Among other things, he discovered that once past the smell, its flavor proved even worse. He grimaced but signaled the barkeep who proffered one moderately clean mug of the greenish yellow liquid for each of them.
Cudy took a deep gulp and laughed, a throaty sound bereft of joy. “Takes some getting used to.” He drained his glass, sat it on the bar and reached for the envelope.
Caster placed his hand on the packet. “Talk first.”
Cudy sat back looking at his companion, then back at his empty glass. “What do you want to know?”
Caster once more signaled the barkeep. “I was hoping to hear about how you chose your career as a civilian spacer.”
Another guttural grunt, “Never had a career.”
“But all those years in space! Surely that’s a career.”
“Ain’t no such thing. More an obsession than anything else.”
“Obsession? I don’t understand.”
Cudy downed his drink, plunked the empty glass on the bar and reached once more for the envelope.
Caster was faster, intercepting his grab. “Not until we talk.”
Thwarted, the old spacer changed tack. “You keep this glass filled and I’ll explain.”
Caster signaled the barkeep and Cudy slowly rocked back and forth as he spun his tale.
I made it through vocational school, but it wasn’t much fun. I weren’t much on school learnin’ and girls pretty much treated me like I had STD or somethin’ ’bout as bad. I’d have skipped out early, but the judge told me that he’d put me in jail if I didn’t stay with it. He said that if I made it through, my probation would be lifted on the day I graduated. So I stuck it out and counted down the days ’til I’d be free.
I’d pretty much given up hope of amountin’ to much of anything until I found out I had the gift. Didn’t even know that I had it until the test day, and it surprised the hell outa’ me. Test day was when all of these companies came to examine us for what they called avocashun or somethin’ like that.
I didn’t do so good until the Fleet guys set up that contraption they use to test people who want to join up. I was failin’ all of the tests the regular outfits were givin’ so I figures, “What the hell?” and I stepped up. They put me into the middle of this open space and flipped a switch somewhere.
Bloody balls, but it was a kick! I ain’t never seen such a sight. Everythin’ went black. Then there were stars all around me. I let out a whoop and laughed my ass off. Must have scared somebody, cause the thing kicked off and I was back where I started, standin’ in the middle of nothin’.
That pissed me off, so I yelled, “Hey, why’d you do that?”
The Fleet guy yelled back, “You was screamin’. What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’,” says I, “I was havin’ fun. Turn it back on!”
They allowed as they wouldn’t do that until they saw my grades, so I sat down on the floor and waited.
I guess they didn’t like what they saw, cause after they talked to the principal, they straightway kicked my butt out of their area. That didn’t bother me much, cause I didn’ want to be no swabby, nohow. But I wanted to get out of where I was, and I got this idea.
On graduation day, I made for the closest spaceport. Most of the outfits didn’t like my qualifications any more than Fleet. They just laughed at me and sent me on my way. I was beginin’ to regret my poor grades, when one of the guys told me to try the Last Gulp.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a bar down K Street near the garbage scow landing pads.”
I did exactly what he said and found myself standin’ in front of a run-down shack with the words “Last Gulp” scrawled over the door. I went inside. It was too dark to see, so I stood at the door until my eyes adjusted.
There was a couple of tables where older guys huddled, talkin’ real quiet like. They paid me no heed. The bar ran about half the length of the room with ten or so stools, most of them empty.
I decided to take a seat at the bar but as soon as I put my hand on the bar, the guy on the other side stopped me. “Before you plant your ass, kiddo, I’ll be seeing some proof you got a right to be here!”
I reached for my wallet and pulled out my ID and held it up, but all he did was laugh. I didn’t get the joke but everyone else did and joined in, leavin’ me there getting madder and madder.
Finally he quit laughin’ long enough to choke out, “I don’t give a rats ass how old you are kid. I want to see money. If you can’t buy a drink, you can’t use the john, you can’t sit here to get warm, and you can’t look for a trick.”
My cheeks must a turned red ’cause they felt real hot. I pulled myself up to my full six foot as I yelled, “I got money.” I pulled a green fiver from my pocket and slammed it on the bar.
His expression changed at the flash of green. “It would seem that you’re welcome here, son. What’ll ya have?”
The barkeep picked up a glass that looked like it might have been washed in the last year, and filled it from the tap. Foam was still running down the sides as he sat the mug in front of me. “Anything else?”
I picked up the drink and took a deep swig. It was warm, and not too good. The dark liquid tasted bitter and stale, but I thought it would be best to look like I was used to it. I took another swig and sat the mug down. “Yeah! A fellow up at the union hall said a guy who keeps his mouth shut and works hard might find a job here.”
“He did, did he?”
“He sure did.”
“And just what kind of a job might that hard workin’ guy be lookin’ for. Floor scrubbin’ maybe? Or maybe you want my job?”
The room went so quiet you could hear the water drippin’ into the sink. They was all starin’ at me ... barkeep, folks at the tables, everybody. “No,” says I. “I want to ship out on a starship.”
Every spacer in the room burst into laughin’. The barkeep stopped first. “Not many starships down here on this side of the port, Bucko. Maybe you should see a recruiter.”
“They don’t want me.”
“Give any reason?”
“Said I didn’t measure up.”
“Kid, if you didn’t pass their test, you won’t be worth spit to any ship’s captain.”
“I passed their test, but they didn’t like my class standin’.”
The barkeeps voice softened a bit, “Bad grades?”
“Pretty much bottom o’ my class.”
“But you passed the Fleet Spatial Awareness test?”
“The one with the stars?”
“That’s the one.”
“Yeah, it was a blast.”
The barkeep looked around the room, “Anybody got an open berth?”
They all shook their heads no, but one fellow finally spoke up. “The Lavender Lady just landed and I heard they were short crewed. Cap’n Jeremy may be in the market for some fresh meat.”
Several of the crowd nodded approvingly, but I didn’t particularly cotton to bein’ called meat. The barkeep must have realized I didn’t like what I heard. “New hires are always called fresh meat, kid. Don’t get your shorts in a knot. Every captain usually makes the rounds on the first night they touch down, so he’ll probably be dropping by in a few hours. You can wait around ... or come back later, your choice.”
I decided on later, so I finished my drink. After thanking the keep for his help, I wandered down to the landing pad to check out the Lavender Lady. Most of the pad was filled with garbage scows in various stages of loading. The squat lookin’ ones carried anything they couldn’t sell out to the asteroid belt. Seems they also dumped the dangerous stuff in holes left by mining operations.
The Lady was the largest ship on the pad. At one time that baby must have been a regular interstellar gem but those times were long gone. Looking a bit tattered around the edges, she was surrounded by those smaller ships that made up the garbage fleet. I asked around, but nobody knowed what her cargo was, or if they did, they were clammed.
I got back to the Last Gulp about eight and found the group pretty much the same as when I left. This time they looked up from their drinks and smiled. The keep even waved me over to the bar and pulled me another draft.
“The Lady’s cap’n ain’t been in yet, but I suspect he’ll be by any time now.”
I was about half way through my third mug, and it was beginnin’ to taste pretty good, when the door swung open. A sharp lookin’, clean-shaved guy glided into the room. He was dressed in a jumpsuit, complete with a sidearm and holster. I thought he looked out of place in this dump, but everybody greeted him like he was some long lost brother. I kept my distance until the room settled down.
The barkeep called the guy over and introduced me, “Cap’n J, this guy says he wants to ship out. You got a berth for him?”
The guy looked me square in the peepers. His eyes were steel gray, almost dead, and made me feel downright itchy. “You got a name, kid?”
“Billy Joe Cudpepper, sir.”
The cap’n looked skeptical. “Well, Billy Joe Cudpepper, just what makes you think you are fit to serve on the Lavender Lady?”
The barkeep backed me up. “He’s passed the Spatial Awareness Test.”
Captain Jeremy’s expression changed, “You have, now?”
“Sure did.” I added with some pride, “If you mean that black room with all the stars, I—”
The captain cocked his head to one side. “If you passed their tests, Mr. Cudpepper, why didn’t you join the Fleet?”
This was getting pretty old, but once again I explained that nobody liked my grades.
The captain expressed some amusement, “Then what makes you think I’d like them any better, Mr. Cudpepper?”
I didn’t have no backup plan, so I decided to be honest. “I’m a hard worker, and I won’t ask for much. All I want is to get the hell out of here.”
Once again the room burst into laughter. The captain joined them. Then he held up his hand. “On that, we all agree.” He paused like he was thinkin’ real hard, then stuck out his hand. “If you mean what you said, I think I can oblige.” As we shook, Captain Jeremy added, “Get your gear and report to the Lady within the hour.”
I was embarrassed to admit, I didn’t have any.
He sized me up. “You’re in luck,” says he, “one of my crew got himself killed during this last trip. Pulled the wrong lever in the crapper and got his guts sucked out his ass.”
That sounded pretty ugly so I asked, “Does that happened often?”
“Only once for him but that was enough.”
A few patrons chuckled, but the spacers who knew the danger of those infernal devices scowled. The cap’n ignored the laughing jackasses as he explained, “That’s why I have an opening. You look to be about the same size. Report to the first mate and tell him I said to give you Starky’s things from ship’s storage. Get checked out in the emergency kits before I return tomorrow. We may be lifting off on short notice.” He turned to the barkeep. “Does he have a tab?”
“Just a couple a mugs o’ the cheap stuff.”
The captain turned back to me. “Consider the debt paid. It’ll be an advance for signing on.”
I didn’t understand. “But I didn’t sign on.”
He nodded again, “Oh yes you did! A spacer’s hand shake is as good as his signature. Now get your butt over to the Lady. You’ve got a lot of learning to do before we take off. Let’s hope your grades on my ship are better than they were in that dirt-hugger school. If not, you get left behind.”
I ran to the Lady and reported to the first mate, who kinda looked like a pit bull after the fight. He grumbled a lot about my being a raw recruit as he rummaged the lockers for the dead guy’s stuff. He made clear how to use each piece as he handed them to me. When he was done, we stowed everything in one of the empty lockers and put my name on the door.
After a short tour of the ship, he showed me where I would sleep. I’d heard about how cramped crew quarters were on starships, but this seemed a lot better than what I was used to, so I settled right in.
Over the next several days I discovered that when there was a purpose for the schoolin’, I could learn real easy. The days were long, but each evening the crew would gather at the Last Gulp to swap stories and generally let their hair down.
I learned a lot from those meetings, like the cheap crap I drank on the first visit was rotgut. Too much of it could burn out your brains. Real spacers got the bottled stuff, so I never ordered another draft.
On the third night, the Lady’s second mate, Jamie Higgins, got into a row with the crew from a garbage scow out of Marsport. Funny how guys as ugly as sin on a bad day were ready to fight over the quality of women.
One of the newcomers was insisting, “I tell you, the women of Marsport are the best. There ain’t no comparison anywhere in the colonies.”
Higgins laughed, “You got to be kiddin’. I’d rather date my own sister than a woman from Marsport.”
The other guy growled, “And you probably do, cause nobody else’d have her.”
Chairs flew and tables flipped as bunches of men rose to defend the honor of women they’d never met. It was a silent standoff, each crew waiting for the other to move. Finally, a decrepit old coot at the far end of the room rapped his cane on the bar. Everybody turned to face him.
The old guy began. “I’ve met more than my share of the female species over the years. Sit down and I’ll tell you about real women.” We all took our seats and I’d swear that his face began to glow as he spoke. Slowly ... softly like remembering a dream, he began, “When I was a green kid, not much younger than him,” he pointed at me, “I signed the articles as a mate on the Pegasus out of Moonport. We usually ran the three-corners route to Mica, Adrianna and the asteroid mines of the Hellas system.” He sighed. “Those were good days, until we lost our contract at the asteroid mines.
“We needed new freight or we’d go bust. Finally, the Cap’n took on a cargo of buckyballs. We would deliver them to Ios-5 in exchange for a load of ore. Since they were mining high radiation metals, most ships wouldn’t touch the deal, but we didn’t have a choice.”
“What’s a buckyball?” I interrupted.
The guy next to me elbowed my ribs. “Compressed carbon, harder than diamonds. They’re used for drill bits and insulation against the radiation. Now shut up and let the man finish his story.”
Embarrassed, I mumbled, “Sorry.”
The old man cleared his throat and continued, “We made the trip without much trouble. Oh, the pirates did make a run at us, but the old man was one hell of a pilot, so we made it to safe harbor at Ios-5. Since we sustained some damage, we had to stick around until repairs were made. Six weeks, more or less, we made Ios our home.” He heaved a sigh, “Now there was a port o’ call to remember.”
He settled back into his chair, gazing toward the ceiling as he continued, “Not many ships called on Ios-5. Radiation and pirates saw to it. The folks there appreciated that and couldn’t do enough for us. The mining company picked up our meal tabs, women loved us and to top everything off, the miners were always buyin’ us drinks.”
Voices rose from the mass. “Screw the miners, tell us about the girls!”
The geezer took a large swig from his bottle and began again. “Ah ... yes ... the girls. Best of all was the girls. Hard bodies they had, with firm breasts that you could feel through your jumpsuit as they pressed against you. When they danced, they undulated against your hips. And in bed! They moved like tigresses in slow motion ... everywhere at once and always willing to give just a little bit extra. Some of the crew thought it was because the radiation had affected their men so they couldn’t perform, if you know what I mean.”
Laughter rippled through the listeners but he paid no mind. “The girls of Ios-5 needed some satisfying that their own men couldn’t provide.” He winked. “And we all know the thing that can’t be had is the thing we want most. They didn’t care if we were poor as dirt or as ugly as the back side of a muskox. All they wanted to do was dance the bedroom tango with anyone who could carry the right rhythm. I spent the greatest, givin’ist, six days of my life at that port o’ call, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.” He paused once more. “But those are long gone days. Now I’m too old to take an Ios-5 girl to the dance.”
We all sat slack-jawed as he took a few minutes longer to describe a couple of the girls he’d “taken to the dance.” We pretty much held our breath until he finished, then we all exhaled as one. I shook my head. “Man what a place!”
He leaned forward, “It ain’t the place, sonny, it’s the girls. Mark my words on this, the girls of Ios-5 are the best in the universe.”
Everyone left the bar that night making plans to sample the best girls in the universe. Come hell or hollyhocks, I just knew I’d get to Ios-5, even if it was the last thing I ever did.
I crewed on the Lavender Lady for five years until I managed to hook on to a supply ship headed toward the three-quarters route. I accepted a one-way assignment just to get to the mining asteroids and laid low, waiting for an Ios-5 berth. That ended up taking almost a decade.
I stevedored while waitin’ and managed to cut off a couple o’ fingers unloadin’ scrap parts from junk freighters. They said they wouldn’t pay to get ’em sewed back on, so I had to learn to do without. Stevedoring took its toll on my back too, but I just knew it would be worth it.
Finally an ore carrier named the Warthog stopped to calibrate one of its engines before makin’ the run to Ios-5. They offered me a berth and I couldn’t pass on the chance to join his crew. Fingers or no, we shook on the deal.
The cap’n warned me before we shook that the radiation might cut as much as five years from my life. Hell, I didn’t care. It would be worth it just to dance with the girls of Ios-5. When I said as much, the cap’n looked confused as he scratched his head. He waved his other hand toward the ship. “Take one of the upper bunks, the radiation is less up there. We lift off in about four hours.”
The trip was intercepted by a pirate ship that managed to ambush us in route. It was kinda funny, cause when they saw our cargo manifest, they hightailed it out of range like a scalded jackrabbit. The rest of the trip was quiet.
We arrived on the evening of our sixty-third day out from the asteroid mines. I ran the landing checklist, but my mind wasn’t in it. Then I packed, drew my pay and struck out for the nearest settlement, determined to get my first dance before nightfall.
The air was thin and I could barely breathe by the time I found something resembling the Last Gulp. I entered the place, to be greeted with stone silence. Dingy, barely lit, and smelling of sour beer, that place was anything but invitin’, but bad as it was, I stayed. By now, I was desperate for a drink and a few minutes rest before I moved on to greener pastures.
The old guy behind the bar asked, “What’ll ya’ have?”
“A bottle of beer.”
“Ain’t got no bottled beer. All we got is home-brew draft or hard stuff by the glass.”
It was warm as piss and worse than the rotgut they sell here so I nursed it as I caught my breath. When I felt ready to move on, I asked if there were any other watering holes in town.
“Nope, this is it.”
Not believing him, I kept on talkin’. “I meant some place where there’s free food and all the free booze you can drink.”
He gave me another one of those stink-eye looks I was getting’ used to seein’ by now. “Ain’t no place like that on this rock, buddy.”
One of the other guys added, “The company used to have a Founder’s Week and everything was free. They even flew in entertainment, but they don’t do that no more.”
I asked why not and the bartender rubbed down the bar as he answered, “Hell, most of the mines have played out, so they don’t need to keep a pool of miners ready to work.”
I asked about girls, a guy near the other end of the bar piped up, “Maybelle comes in once in a while, but she’s near sixty. Other than her, there ain’t none.”
Says I, “But that can’t be true! I was told that the girls of Ios-5 were the best in the universe.”
The barkeep stopped wiping the counter. “I don’t know who told you that son, but the guy was either crazy or drunk as a skunk. Right, Willy?”
A miner at the end of the bar turned to leer at me. “Right.”
I leered back. “That’s sure not the way I heard it.”
The old guy sounded sincere. “Whoever told you different was wrong. There ain’t nothin’ to speak of, let alone brag about on Ios-5, but if it’s hot and willing females you want, I can help you out.”
“Bet yer sweet ass. Best I ever seen ... enough to straighten your hair and curl your eyelashes ... the memories of a lifetime.”
I moved closer, “You got my full attention, fella, tell me about ’em.”
The guy took one last swallow from his mug o’ beer, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and started in. “Let me tell you about the girls of planet Earth.”
I swear I only hit him once. But the judge sent me to the prison mines for three to five. After that, I spent the last four years or so working my way back here.
Cudy pushed his empty glass forward and let out a belch that ripped the silence.
Caster did a quick calculation. “That makes you about forty?”
Caster shook his head, “But you look—”
“Older? It’s a real bitch out there ... sucks the life out of you ... beats you down.”
“All in all, would you do it again?”
Cudy dropped his head and his voice. “No girl is worth what I’ve paid.”
Another spacer entered the bar to take a seat opposite Cudy. Late to the tale, he barely heard Cudy’s last comment when he interrupted, “Girls? You won’t find any around here. Nothing but dirty faces and open palms. But if you really want to meet the best girls in the universe, I know where they are.”
Caster looked over and asked, “Where?”
The stranger put both hands on the bar and began, “Let me tell you about the girls of Ios-5.”
Caster marveled at the accuracy with which a three-fingered man could heave a beer filled mug. The newcomer never saw it coming, a slow motion arc, trailing stale ale like jet exhaust as it sailed across the room. Before patrons could respond, the projectile struck its unsuspecting target square between his eyes. The stranger tumbled backward, sprawling onto the floor where he lay twitching like a flipped cockroach.
Shocked, the newsman was first to react. He rushed to check on the victim now groaning his discomfort, but when Caster turned back toward Cudy, all he saw was an empty stool. In the confusion, both spacer and envelope had vanished, leaving nothing but a tell-tale swing of the tavern door.
Ted Blasche is a retired army lieutenant colonel who has contributed several articles and chapters to military publications. After retiring, he turned his hand to writing science fiction and has several story projects under way. “To Dance With the Girls of Ios-5” is his first published work of fiction.