art by Melissa Mead
by Mary E. Lowd
Archive was telling stories at the corner table when Cobalt Starstrong came in. Cobalt looked at the rapt audience, mostly Heffen refugees, and thought about joining them. Archive was a wonderful storyteller, but Cobalt had heard him before. So, he took a seat at the bar.
"Bring me something I haven't tried before."
The bartender gave him a nod.
"But, uh, make sure it's something I can metabolize. Non-toxic to humans and all that."
The bartender swished his elephantine snout as if to sweep away the mere suggestion of poisoning a regular patron. Especially one that tipped as well as Cobalt.
The drink was ready in a jiff.
Cobalt was just taking his first sip and grimacing at the strength of the frothy, amber concoction when a woman he'd never seen before at the All Alien Cafe walked in the door. She was tall. Too tall, he decided, and something about the way she held herself made him think of a bird.
The woman watched Archive and his audience for a moment, like Cobalt had, before looking around and heading to the bar. In fact, it looked to Cobalt like she was heading toward him. Cobalt knew he was a good looking guy, so he couldn't blame her, and he was working real hard to come up with a clever opening line when the woman stuck out her hand awkwardly toward him and said, "I'm Maradia. An engineer. From Wespirtech."
Wespirtech scientists were among the most brilliant in the known universe. They had discovered and translated the language of stars, proving stellar sentience once and for all. They were not, however, known for their social skills.
"Have a seat," Cobalt said. Then, to assure himself of his status, he launched straight into a story about the time he tricked a frezzipod into a challenge of wits over the rights to the best magno-billiards table in the cafe. Very little of it was true.
"So, you come here a lot," Maradia asked when he was done. During the story, she'd ordered herself a soda water, and had been taking small sips, almost as if she were looking for something to do: A way to avoid eye contact or fidgeting with her hands.
"Sure," Cobalt answered. "My cargo runs bring me through Crossroads Station a lot. It's a big import/export hub."
"I meant this bar," Maradia said. "You come to this bar a lot."
"Oh, right," Cobalt said. "Home away from home and all that." He thought a moment and added, "Or home away from ship, in my case." He took a few minutes to brag about the specs of his souped-up cargo hauler. Maradia wasn't interested. Her eyes kept drifting to the corner. And Archive.
Annoyed and at a loss for why his charm wasn't working on this strange bird of a woman (let alone why she'd approached him so brazenly in the first place), Cobalt decided it was time to offload her. "You know," he said, "That guy in the corner--his name is Archive--is another regular here. And he can weave a yarn like an Abeliod tafetta-spider. You should really go give him a listen."
Maradia stared at Archive.
"You'd be doing yourself a favor," Cobalt said. What he meant was that she'd be doing him a favor. Then, he could get back to... well... sitting at the bar and drinking. But, in peace. Without the pressure of flirting with some woman he wasn't interested in anyway.
"He has an audience a lot?" Maradia asked.
"Sure," Cobalt said. "Every time I see him, he's surrounded like that."
Cobalt turned his bar stool so he could look at Archive too. "The Heffen refugees are particular fans."
A group of the fluffy-furred, dog-faced aliens was still crowded around Archive. In comparison, Archive looked especially striking: his skin was smooth and faintly blue, purple-blue; his four arms were long and slender; his eyes were huge, silvery, and faceted. He looked like a cross between a praying mantis and an old Earth Hindu statue.
"I think they like him," Cobalt said, taking an unusual turn toward the ponderous, "because he's a refugee too. He tells stories about his world.... Though, he never knew it."
Maradia looked at Cobalt, and Cobalt assumed the look was a question.
"Archive's a robot," he said. "An android, created by his race to carry all the memories of their world and culture. See, when their star went supernova, they weren't technologically advanced enough to save themselves. But they sent out Archive, like a message in a bottle--an android that looked like them, to preserve their physical form, with a memory full of all their art, and history, and culture. He was activated for the first time by the Expansionist explorers who discovered his escape shuttle."
Suddenly, Cobalt felt awkward telling another man's stories. "Like I said, you should go listen to him."
He thought that brush off would be enough, but Maradia was looking at him curiously now. "You sound..." she said, "...like you've listened to Archive a lot."
"Everyone who's been here long has."
Maradia looked down at her soda water, and, with a strange tremble in her voice, said, "Can you tell me one of his stories?"
Cobalt wasn't sure why this woman, who was so forward with him, was so strangely tentative about Archive. But he suddenly realized there was more going on here than he'd thought. "Sure," he said.
So, Cobalt told Maradia the story of an ancient king on Archive's world who traded each of his four arms in turn to an animal-god for four different improvements to his kingdom: first, sturdy buildings built from the bones of their planet, then aqueducts, followed by magnificent statues and works of art. Finally, the king asked for the animal-god's own children--tamed and civilized--to serve the king's people.
It was a just-so story--a legend on Archive's world to explain the first great city and the domestication of their work animals. The funny thing was, Maradia seemed to have heard it before. She smiled in all the right places. Except... sometimes a moment too soon.
"Now you tell me a story," Cobalt said. "How about the story of how Maradia had her heart broken by Archive?"