Doggerel from the Drunkard’s Walk

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It was my first year off planet when I heard this one. You’ll just have to go along with my tempered version even though the slang was more imaginative and often anatomically precise. But that was only our fiftieth year off earth and maybe we were just a bit lustier then than now. However:

“Give us a broo, Cob.”

All back bar workers, be they terrestrial or other off planet sap (short for sapient in those days) were Cobs to a Spacer. There was no insult meant. Even if you called a sap a sap, I recall it was good natured for the most part. It was like we were all in it together, you know. Whatever “it” was.

But those words were a cue, too, and acted to alert any creature that had audio sensors to the fact the speaker was a returned out-rider. And if he had gone far enough into the least known reaches of interstellar space, he may well have returned from having “tested the envelope,” the riskiest venturing into the unknown a sap could do.

Man and his many intelligent friends throughout ten galaxies still had centuries of exploration ahead of them. A new face could take its place at the bar and call for broo and heads or what served as heads would turn in the direction of the speaker and a sort of silent alliance was formed.

It meant that here was one who had come back alive to tell the tale.

Every man or monkey who could talk was reverently listened to when he ordered up at the Drunkard’s Walk / Brownian Motion. In those days you could learn something new from each trip out because every voyage was testing the envelope. We all aimed a little farther into the star charts, challenged ourselves and our ships, got a little bit of red in before we had to shift blue and return.

Afterwards, the tales were told at the Drunkard’s Walk and sometimes they held a kernel of truth in the re-telling. Occasionally you learned something important when a Spacer started talking, something that might save your hide if you ever ran across it yourself. Forewarned and all that.

There was a first round tradition practiced at the Drunkard’s Walk in those days. Any Spacer who could lurch his way up to the newcomer would offer to buy. Myself, in this case. And, like I say, it was when I was only an ensign with the polish of the Academy still on me that I grabbed the opportunity to offer the first broo — an Aldebaran import with an improbable taste that came in tankards about this size, as big as these pints we’re sharing now.

I introduced myself and I must have seemed a bit cocky though dog nose I tried to be humble. I was a bit like yourself then: convinced of my own ability, but too young to realize how pompous I appeared to everyone else. There I was, a blustery young fool, in front of someone who should be able to teach a trick or two, but, like you, I just couldn’t keep from acting like I was the demigod that the Winjib warrior caste of Gamon ought to worship.

This Spacer said he was VerHoef, descendant of true terrans and a proud heritage it was. Something Germanic followed as he saluted his broo and me, I think, for having bought it for him.

He had just made planet fall, he said, one of a dozen crewmen on a Volvo class ship and yes, he’d tested the envelope and it is dark and cold out there, he intoned.

If I remember anything about VerHoef it was the chilling way he had of looking at me and how he managed to scare me witless with his one-eyed stare and frighten me with his breath as he downed the pint of broo in one lungful of a gulp, set the empty flask down on the counter and began to tell of the esp distance he and his crew discovered on this latest trip to the fringe.

“But order us up another broo,” he said with a wink that took up the better part of his face, “and I’ll describe the esp distance as I’ve experienced it on the second planet of the Betelgeuse system.”

He waited until I paid before he continued:

“We’d about decided there was nothing with the brains above a trained dogfish down there. We were sure that world would soon become another mining camp. It would be over run with every credit hungry species that follows a First Fall. Of course, if we could find a higher intelligence, one on a level with or greater than any of your local garden variety saps, sovereignty would revert by charter and the planet would be off limits until trade agreements and Federation stewardship could be set up.

“Jocko was our naturalist, so it was reasonable that he spotted the dominant species first. He gets credit for discovering the esp distance, too, I suppose. And he will also get kicked up a grade or two for recognizing that our old standard of intelligence which rested on a sort of ability–to-build-a-fire rule was no longer a test for sentience.”

Right, son, I know that rule covered a lot of ground, but that’s what they used as a rough guide in those days. I can’t begin to tell you how wrong it was.

“I must say modestly,” VerHoef told me as he displayed anything but humility when he puffed up his chest and quite uncharacteristically demonstrated a personal vanity that by rights he earned with this new discovery, “I will say that our detection of the esp distance is going to break that build-a-fire law and give us a damn wider view of what constitutes Federation inclusion.

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