The Klockwerk Kraken

an excerpt

Chapter One

On the outside it masqueraded as a run-down, dirty warehouse, but the Klockwerk Kraken had a reputation for being the closest and most unique bar at the Switchpoint Station port. An enormous graffiti painting of a mechanical octopus sprawled across its opening. Behind the airlock door, a stone bar stood sentry before crooked shelves arching like the tentacles of a giant cephalopod. Cozy, but rickety tables filled most of the hard, polished flooring, with high-backed booths along the shadowed walls. A pool table and a couple of ratty poker tables covered with peeling green felt completed the vid-perfect setting of a port-side dive bar.

But the Kraken served the best--and the last--drink many of the patrons would enjoy before the Nothing. Tonight a bus of thirty lost tourists, mostly paunchy, middle aged well-to-dos with a couple sets of honeymooners swarmed the bar, while the station mechanics scrambled to fix their spaceship's navigation and guide them back to the sightseeing lanes.

Teo welcomed the business. He just wished it came at a more opportune time. Like when the supply ships from the Middle hadn't skipped his liquor delivery. Again.

The other bars on Switchpoint struggled too. Switchpoint Waystation's official name was the "Spiral Arm Three Outermost Resupply Station". But the spacers who visited it called the station the "last fucking stop before a whole lot of Nothing and then three star systems before you leave the galaxy". It advertised itself as part waystation, part strip mall. Managed under the benevolent tyranny of the station's Port Authority, the station interior boasted bars, restaurants, and shops. All carried overpriced items in the windows for the travelers or unlucky souls headed for the Nothing, and low cost 3D printed goods for the locals.

But Teo didn't traffic in printed hooch. He brought in, or sometimes blended, the real stuff and everyone who patronized the Kraken appreciated it. Spacers flying to the Nothing, taking cargo to the mining colonies near the end of the galaxy arm always stopped at his place first. He pulled in stray scientists on rotation at remote information gathering camps, too. They got mighty cranky if they missed their last real drink before heading into the Nothing. Not to mention the occasional tour bus of sightseers visiting the galaxy's outer reaches to experience the "great frontier".

Teo juggled the comm hooked around his ear as he kept all arms and appendages working to fill drink orders. Two of his ruddy tentacles filled partha flutes for a back table, while a hand and the other two tentacles mixed a complicated cocktail. That left one hand to flip the transparent visor down so he could view both his family on the comm and the busy bar in front of him.

"Can you hear us all right, Teo? There's a lot of noise, and we can't see you."

"Yes, Mom, I can hear you. I can't set you up on the screen right now. I've got you on the visor. It's just my voice this time." His words came out a little more clipped than he meant them to as he nodded at a squat man at the end of the bar waving a hand for service.

A chorus of "Hello, Mrs. Houdin" rang through the bar, followed by laughter from his regulars. Teo's face reddened, and he made a rude gesture in response, thankful his hands were out of view of his family. The regulars hooted, and he turned to face the crooked liquor shelves on the pretense of searching for a substitute to one of the more exotic spirits no longer in stock. There were a lot of empty spaces on the shelves. Maybe he should start storing the glassware up here to fill them in. The dull roar of conversation pressed harder against his back.

"Tell all those nice people hello from us too, Teo. I'm glad you have such caring friends."

"Mom, I'm not telling the entire bar hello for you."

"Hey, you talking to your mom? You're a good son." An old-timer dressed in neon loafers and bright synthocotton softies elbowed onto an empty stool. His hair wisped around his head like a white cloud. He was old enough to have escaped from the nursing bots. But his shaky hand produced a well-worn payment chit, and he slid it across the bar toward Teo. "You got bourbon?"

Teo nodded, half listening to his mom's conversation while giving the old-timer a smile.

"And your cousin Ana is getting married this rev to a nice young biophys. Do you want to talk to Ana? Ana, dear, is your comm link on?"

Teo slid another pitcher under the draft lever and grabbed the toppling pyramid of used glassware from Margee, his part-time server. He'd called her when Phil at the port check-in commed to alert him about the tour bus docked for refueling and repairs. He'd woken Jerry out of a sound sleep and asked him to come in too. His grill cook had shuffled in, droopy-eyed and yawning, but promising not to burn down the kitchen.

"Hi, Cousin Teo! We've already picked the band for the wedding and--"

"Hey, when can I talk to Teo? Why isn't he on the screen?"

"Teo's at work, Bartle. He told you when we connected."

Teo snagged a short tumbler with a tentacle. He filled it to the legal limit and then gave it to the old man.

He winced as his parents, siblings, two sets of grandparents, four aunts, an uncle, and two cousins, all with their assorted children, argued on the linkup. He both loved and hated the regular phone calls from home.

A ding sounded and Teo reached for the plate in the window behind him.

"That's mine." A woman in a red jumpsuit grabbed the food out of his hand.

"Jerry--" Teo called through the opening to the kitchen. "Can you sub for a minute?"

Jerry walked out, apron still on, and handed a silicone spoon to Teo.

"I've got the beef stew simmering, an order of burgers to flip, and a pan of potatoes in the fryers." Jerry took a deep breath, face stricken as he got a good view of the mob at the bar. "If I don't return, tell my wife I love her."

Teo backed into the other room. "Thanks, man. I'll just be a minute."

Jerry nodded, and pasted on a smile for the roaring crowd.

Teo slid into the fry cook routine while his family continued to argue in his ear.

"Mom, hey, Mom? I'm gonna have to end it early this week. I've got a full bar and we're short-staffed."

"Do you have to, Teo?" His nephew Aleks jumped into the camera view. The close up of the little boy's forehead and eyes appeared and disappeared until his mother called him to the sofa within range of the wide transmission camera.

"Yeah, buddy. Mom, I'm signing off now." Teo hissed as a tentacle brushed the stove when he flipped a burger. The pain seared down his appendage and he smiled fiercely to keep an expletive from slipping out of his mouth and through his parent's living room speakers.

"Well take care of yourself, Teo. We love you." His mom's answer echoed as the rest of the family chorused their love and good-byes. "Oh, and I'm sending you some flashes from Sute's baby shower, the one for the twins. Bye, dear."

Teo bumped the link button, and the visor cleared. He sighed, tearing off the commgear, and then finished plating the orders.

Teo loved his family--he did. He came from a wonderful, smothering, boisterous clan. But they didn't understand why he'd left home. Didn't know what it felt like to feel other. Feel like a piece that didn't quite fit into their puzzle, their lives. So when he'd reached majority, he'd kissed his mom, shaken his dad's hand, and caught the first transport off Celos. He'd joined the flotsam and jetsam of the galaxy, the rare Celosian to leave hearth and home planet.

And quickly gotten sick of it.

Because his otherness became a whole universe more pronounced around two-handed humans. It took time, but he'd begrudgingly learned to embrace it, and finally find peace with it. He'd even thought about going home again, but after becoming a citizen of the galaxy, he didn't have as much in common with his family now.

And he owned the bar. His gorgeous, sprawling, roughhouse of a bar.

Teo backed into the taproom carrying the food. He handed it off to Margee and Jerry, mouth quirking up in a grin as he assumed his regular station behind the stone counter.