Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille serves the best matzoh ball soup in the Galaxy, and hires some of the best musicians you'll ever hear. It's a great place to visit, but it tends to move around--just one step ahead of whatever mysterious conspiracy is reducing whole worlds to radioactive ash. And Cowboy Feng's may be humanity's last hope for survival. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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March 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille by Steven Brust
I've been a wild rover
For many a year.
"The Wild Rover,"
Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille has the best matzo ball soup in the galaxy. Lots of garlic, matzo balls with just the right consistency to absorb the flavor, big chunks of chicken, and the whole of it seasoned to a biting perfection. One bowl, along with maybe a couple of tamales, will usually do for a meal.
As for entertainment, Feng gets some of the best Irish musicians you'll ever hear--good instrumental backing, fine singing, some stupendous fiddle playing, and driving energy. Hell, some of the songs are actually Irish.
I was there that Thursday, sitting in my favorite booth--back middle, just under the picture of the big, grinning Chinese fellow with the mustache and the cowboy hat--while I waited for the rest of my band, the Jig-Makers, to finish tuning. It's my favorite booth because you can see the whole dining room to your right and most of the taproom to your left, and you get a great view of the stage.
We weren't playing tonight, but Fred, the manager, let us use the stage to practice. The place used to have live music every Wednesday and Thursday, as well as on the weekends, but it didn't pay, so Fred canceled it. He was the practical sort; not me, I'm sentimental. This has caused me any number of difficulties, but there it is. My other problem is that I'm easily distracted. Sorry about that. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Thursday. Which reminds me: Did you hear the one about how, after the nuclear attack, the town of Sanctuary, Venus, had to change its name? To Sanctuary, Jupiter? Anyway, Thursday was the day someone lobbed an atomic warhead at Jerrysport, Mars, and reduced it to rubble.
It was damned uncomfortable when the bomb hit; we must have been within a mile or so of ground zero. If we'd been much closer that would have been it for us, and I might never have found out what goats are really useful for, but it wasn't, so I did and maybe I'll tell you. In any case, I was knocked to the floor, and then I rolled and something fell on me and I blacked out for a while. It hurt to wake up again, but I didn't mind too much, since I was having a confused dream about Irish ghosts and they all looked like geeks.
Fully conscious, I decided I wasn't injured, since a headache doesn't count as an injury. Diffuse, pale light came in through the frosted windows high on what had been the west wall when the place was built and the north wall in Ibrium City and the south wall in London and Jerrysport. The room contained vast quantities of ambient dust. I thought about my band over in the taproom, but they were safer there than I was here, as long as the pool tables didn't start flying around. I was pleased I remembered them; one effect the jump has, we've learned, is disorientation, to a greater or lesser degree. I'm not sure why. After the first one, it took me a few days to remember even the most basic things, and a month later there were still bits and pieces coming back. And with the jostling we'd gotten lately, it was bound to be pretty bad.
I pulled myself up to a sitting position and looked around. Fortunately or unfortunately, there had been no customers in the place, but that wasn't surprising, as I've found that business always slacks off when there's a nuclear alert in a city.
Someone said, "You all right, Billy?"
Billy? I blinked twice. Yeah, that was me. I looked for the voice, and spotted a likely-looking pile of debris--likely-looking mostly because it was moving. I stood up, decided I weighed more than I should, and sat down. I tried again, took a couple of deep breaths, and helped remove a table, tablecloth, and part of a booth from Rich Vonderick, who had a neatly trimmed beard, a bear-like build, and the personality of a rabid crocodile on Valium.
"I'm fine," I told him. "You look a bit dusty, though."
"Yeah?" he said. "What could have caused that?" This was irony.
"Something about an atomic warhead, I think." So was this.
"Yeah," he said. Then, suddenly, "Eve!"
"She's in back," I said quickly. "I saw her just a minute or two before it hit."
"Oh." He relaxed. "Okay."
See that? I had trouble remembering who I was, but had no trouble remembering who Eve was, or where I'd just seen her. Fascinating thing, the mind. I said, "Glad you were here."
I snorted. "I'm not going to get left behind; I have too much to do."
"Uhh...ask me tomorrow."
"Right." He looked like he might be about to argue, but instead said, "Where are we?" as if I'd know.
"We'll find out," I told him. "When the place opens for business. Got your tool kit?"
"Always," he said, glancing around and spotting it. "Why?"
"It'll probably be useful in getting the lights working."
He nodded. "Any idea who else made it through?" There was a certain amount of tension in his voice; we've both known people who happened not to be in the restaurant at the right time.
I said, "I'm pretty sure everyone did."
"Good," said Rich. "In that case, how about if we ask Libby for a drink?"
"Drink?" said someone behind me. I turned around in time to see a short, pretty, dark-haired woman walking in from the taproom.
"Hey, sis," I said. "How is everything?" A moment later it occurred to me that she wasn't really my sister; I just called her that.
"Hi, Rose," said Rich. "How do you feel?" Rose. That was it.
"I need whiskey," she said.
"How's the band?" said Rich.
"Jamie broke a D-string and the bridge on my fiddle collapsed and Tommy lost his last pick and we can't find the tipper for the bodhran and I need whiskey." She blinked twice by way of punctuation.
I said, "But all the instruments are okay, right?"
She cocked her head to the side and said, "If the instruments weren't okay d'you suppose I'd be so calm?"
"Damn," said Rich, who only pretended not to like our music. I think.
I said to Rose, "You aren't scared or anything, are you?"
"Noooo," she said patiently. "I just need whiskey." Then she frowned. "I couldn't hear at first, though, and that scared me. And it sounds like you're talking through a tunnel, although it isn't as bad as it was a few minutes ago. And I forgot where this room was for a minute."
"It's the jump," said Rich. "My vision keeps going in and out. It probably will for a few days yet."
"Whiskey will help," said Rose confidently.
I went up to the hole in the wall where waitresses got drinks. Then I turned back and said, "Libby isn't here. She was probably in back or something when it hit. I hope she's--"
"I'll look," said Rich.
"Nothing can happen to Libby," explained Rose patiently. "She wouldn't allow it."
I tended to agree with her, though I couldn't say so. At that moment, however, I heard her in the kitchen calling to Fred to get the power switches. I felt tension go out of my shoulders. Then I wondered where the power switches were and it bothered me that I couldn't remember. I closed my eyes and saw my hand reaching to open a metal box--right. Top of the stairs, back of the kitchen. I opened my eyes.
"What is it, Billy?"
"Nothing. No need to stand on ceremony." I shuffled around to the bar and came up with a bottle of Jameson, passed it to Rosie, sat down.
"Thanks," she said, cracked it, and swallowed some, and closed her eyes. A beatific smile lit her face. Then she came up behind me, still holding the bottle, put her arms around my neck, and kissed my cheek. "We were worried about you. We didn't know where you were when the bomb hit."
"I was in here waiting for you guys to tune, as usual."
"Ohhhh," she said, and kissed me again. "You could have asked about the rest of your band."
"If anyone had been hurt, you wouldn't have been so calm."
She nodded. Then, "You know," she said in a reflective tone of voice, "getting nuked all the time is really bad for our practice schedule."
Rich held out his hand. Rosie put the bottle in it and he took a hit, passed it back, at which point Eve came in. Rich stood up and they held each other for a while. She was short, with long, straight hair that must be called "fair" rather than "blond." It was a touching sort of scene, the two of them standing there, broken by Jamie's voice from the next room, calling, "Rooose!"
She turned her head so she wasn't yelling into my ear and called back, "Yes, dairlin'?"
"I need smokes!"
She kissed my cheek again and sashayed back into the taproom. I walked over to the waitress stand and got coffee started. Rich raised his head from Eve's shoulder and said, "Want to look around outside?"
I said, "You crazy, Charlie?"
"How do you know we aren't going to be hit again?"
He shrugged. "How do you know we are?"
I shrugged. "Maybe later," I said.
"Oh, c'mon. Aren't you curious about where we landed? And when?"
"Yeah. But either I'll have plenty of time to look around, or there's no point in it." He had made me curious, however, so I went over to one of the windows and pulled the heavy blinds aside. It was daylight, and we seemed to be in a light commercial district--if this time and place made those distinctions. There was a great deal of variety in style and size of structures, but, judging by a pair of preteen boys who were locking their bicycles and a middle-aged couple who were walking by, the people looked like people. This was good. I was always afraid we'd end up somewhere with one-eyed, green-scaled monsters who eat radios or something. Just people, though. Two women walked by, arm in arm. At the time and place I had left, they wouldn't have done this. In London they would have, but it wouldn't have had any significance. In Ibrium City it would have meant they were lesbians. In Jerrysport it meant even less than it had in London. What the hell.
No one was looking at Feng's, though, which was good even if expected. I'll never know how that's done, but let the record show that I'm curious. The kids finished locking their bicycles (I made a note of the fact that bicycle locks were used) and went into the building directly across the street from us. It showed every sign of being a bakery. I hoped it was a good bakery, so Feng's would carry fresh bread like we had in Ibrium City. My mouth watered as I remembered that crusty sourdough from the--
The place that was now radioactive dust. Great. Isn't it fun how you always remember the right sort of stuff?
Presently Rich stood next to me and watched for a while. I said, "I think I'll go see how my band is doing, maybe do a tune or two, then I'll worry about the outside."
"Okay." He looked down at Eve and said, "How 'bout it?"
She nodded, her head still buried in his shoulder. I wondered if she wanted to see the outside, or just didn't want to be separated from Rich. He said, "I'm glad I put the bike in the back hall this morning. Was that this morning? Never mind."
I said, "Going to get the power working first?"
"Good," I said, moving toward the taproom. "Have fun."
Big, blond, bearded Jamie was smoking a cigarette and holding a dustpan while Rose swept shards of glass into it. Tom, tall and very skinny with fair hair and scraggly beard, was blotting the floor with a bar towel.
My instrument was, indeed, still in its case next to the table. I sat down and hauled out banjo and tuner, plugged the one into the other, and tuned to an open G. I had a moment of panic that I'd have lost this skill, at least temporarily, but I guess only my head was affected, not my fingers.
Jamie said, "Shouldn't we help get, uh, this place in shape?"
"Feng's," said Tom.
"Yes, we should," I said. "But I'm not going to. Not until I've done a couple of tunes."
"All right," said Jamie. "What should we play?"
"Something we already know," said Rose.
"Good idea," I said, "since all of our music is probably buried under three tons of flour in the back room."
Tom said, "We could go back there and play flower music."
Jamie said, "You're so weird."
Fred came strolling through the taproom, turning off lights that didn't work, I suppose in preparation for restoring power. He said, "I trust everyone survived the experience?"
"Uh-huh," said Jamie.
I heard sounds in the next room that were probably Libby taking care of this and that.
I picked up the banjo, feeling just a bit guilty, and said, "'Beggarman.'"
Jamie said, "Right."
Tom said, "Maybe we're so far in the future they don't have beggars anymore. Then we can't play it."
Jamie said, "You're so weird."
I hitched the capo up another two frets, slipped the fifth string under the nail, checked the tuning again, adjusted it. Then I said, "One...two...one, two, three, four--" And we did it. It's our own arrangement, three times through the whole thing, bumping the speed each time, with a vocal verse the first and second. It's a good warm-up tune. I blew the first run-through of the "a" part at top speed, but that was okay. By the time we were done, we were all much calmer. Just about that moment the lights came on.
"Yea," I said.
We played about another half dozen tunes, then Tom put his mandolin down and announced, "I'm hungry," as if he were amazed that this could happen.
"So am I," said Jamie.
"I could eat," said Rose.
"Yeah," I said. "Me, too. I guess that means we ought to find out what we can do to get the kitchen working. I'll ask the Fred unit." I sighed, knowing that this meant I was about to be put to work. Nor was I wrong.
* * *
An hour of hard labor later, Fred joined us at the table, one arm protectively around Libby, who needed protecting like I needed a pet armadillo. Fred was thin, quiet, and nowhere near as dull as he looked. In addition to being cook and waiter, he was de facto manager of the place, and, according to Jamie's theory, was someone who actually spoke with the semimythical Feng himself. Libby was of medium height and buxom and exuberant and charming. She said, "So, what a fun place this is. Someone should find if they still have Hags disease so we'll know whether to put pancakes and flounder on the menu." Fred and I chuckled.
Jamie said, "That reminds me. I got this from, uh, I don't remember. Some guy in Jerrysport. Watch." He stood up and stomped on the floor, like, stomp stomp, wait, stomp stomp, wait. "You know what that is? CPR for a Hags victim."
Jamie thought this very funny. So did Rose. Actually Libby and Fred chuckled, too. There's no accounting for taste.
Speaking of taste, we were all eating gyros and saganaki with baby peas in vinegar when Rich and Eve came back in, wrapped around each other as usual. We turned and stared at them. Eve was smiling and Rich had that glow in his face that he gets after a wild motorcycle ride.
"Well?" I said. "What's it like?"
They sat down at the table with us, and Rich said, "What can I say? I laughed. I cried. I fell down. It changed my life. It was good. The end."
"Thanks," said Jamie.
"Does that mean we're at the end of the universe?" asked Tom.
"What's the place like?" I said.
Rich smiled happily. "I don't think we're in the same solar system anymore," he said.
There was a great deal of quiet all of a sudden. Tom said, "Well, really, what's a star or two among friends?"
I said, "Did you get funny looks, riding the bike around?"
"A few," he said. "Not many."
Jamie said, "How odd is it?"
"The bike?" said Tom.
"The sky's funny," said Rich. "It's great. You should go look at it."
Jamie gave an exaggerated shudder, which he did well. He was very big, and much too handsome for his own good.
Tom said, "What kind of movies do they have here?"
Rich ignored him. I said, "Man, you're weird."
"That's Jamie's line," said Tom.
"Man," said Jamie.
Rich said, "The big news is that I didn't see any signs of nuclear warnings, or alerts, or anything. We might be here for a while."
"Good," I said, and meant it. "I've been needing to be somewhere solid for more than--however long we were in Jerrys-port."
"I know," said Rich and Libby together.
"About this sky," said Rose.
"Yeah," said Rich, his eyes shining. "It's like, really high, and sort of pale, and there's a kind of white-looking sun in it. It might be a white dwarf, I don't know anything about astronomy. But it makes the ground look--"
"What are the buildings like?" asked Jamie.
"Go and look," said Rich.
Eve broke her customary silence long enough to say, in an almost inaudible voice, "There's one that looks like a giant golden arch, and we were going to ask if we could get hamburgers there, but it turned out to be too far away."
Rich smiled a Mephistophelian smile within his beard and sat down at the table next to Eve. Fred went back to get him some food. Libby said, "I could see looking around myself, if you macho types aren't going to wimp out."
"Oh," said Jamie. "A challenge. I think I hear a challenge."
"A touch," said Tom. "I do confess--"
"Come on," said Rich. "Let's do some exploring."
"If we stay here, will we be inploring?" asked Tom.
At which point the first customers of the new location walked in, wearing that first-time-at-a-new-restaurant look. The guy's hair was done in that puffy-in-front style that we'd just left in Jerrysport, and he had orthopedic clogs on his feet and tight straight-legged dark pants with a loose dark shirt. His companion had a miniskirt and high black boots that made me think of the Beatles. I decided I was going to like this place.
They took a corner booth. Libby got up to go back to the bar in case they ordered drinks. A few surreptitious glances at the customers told me that they weren't making surreptitious glances at us, which meant we didn't look too out of place, so that was good.
Jamie, keeping his voice low, said, "Well, Rich, did you find out the name of the city?"
"No. I get the impression that it's a colony world, though. There seems to be quite a bit of off-planet export."
"That doesn't prove anything," said Jamie. "Why didn't you get the name?"
Rich blinked. "Can you imagine walking up to someone and--"
"Yeah, I see your point. Did you find out what year it is?"
"Local year sixty-one," he said.
"Did you find out when the colony was founded?"
"Or how long the local year is?"
"Well, that's real useful," said Jamie.
Rich said something not very nice to Jamie, and I cut in before things could get worse, saying, "You didn't get any indication of when we are compared to where we were? Um, when we were. I mean, you know what I mean."
He shrugged. "Transportation technology hasn't changed much. Like I said, my bike didn't get too many stares. They do have one thing I haven't seen before, though." He got the I've-found-a-new-toy gleam in his eye, reached into his back pocket, and pulled out what looked like a socket wrench.
I sighed. "All right. Where'd you find it?"
"A sale in a hardware store. I traded the electric ratchet press for it."
"The one that got you so excited you couldn't stop talking about it?"
"I never got it to press evenly. The guy up the street likes playing with broken things even more than I do."
I sighed and nodded. "Okay." I looked at the object in his hand again. "What does it do?"
He told me.
I said, "What?"
He tried again.
I said, "Never mind. I'm sure it's important. Is it for the bike?"
"Hmmm," he said. "I hadn't thought of that. I could probably use it to--"
"I don't want to hear about it."
He sighed. "Nobody speaks electronics, nobody speaks motorcycle."
Which reminded me of something. I said, "Do they speak English here?"
"Some. Most people speak French."
"It's Canadian French," said Eve quietly.
"Great," I said. "Do any of us speak it? Except Eve, of course."
"Fred speaks some French," said Jamie.
"Good," I said. "He can take orders, at least." I gave a listen to Fred and the couple who'd come in, and, yeah, it did seem like French. They were pointing at the menu and Fred seemed to be smiling and nodding. Maybe they thought a menu in English was an affectation.
"Should we practice?"
"Speaking French?" asked Tom.
"Sure," said Jamie, ignoring Tom.
Rose said, "I don't believe I could do that right now."
"Why not?" I asked, trying to keep irritation out of my voice.
"I don't think I feel quite like playing, just at the moment."
I caught Tom's eye. He shrugged. "All right," I said. I got up and went into the back room, opened up the case, and put my banjo into double-C tuning. While I was doing that, Tom came in and picked up Jamie's Gibson six-string. His movements were quick and precise. Tom was built tall and thin; something like Fred only more so--he always looked a bit emaciated, whereas Fred just looked skinny. Tom's hair and beard were light, whereas Fred's hair was dark, and he had the sort of fine skin that made one think he would be unable to grow a beard.
While we were checking our tunings, Tom said, "Do you know that all of our instruments are antiques now?"
"Scary," I said. "'Arkansas Traveler'?"
"All right. Start it."
Then we were lost for a while in melody and countermelody and variations, and the sweet sound of strings. Every time we came back to the start, I moved further up the neck, and Tom made his part more Baroque, throwing in frills and rolls that ranged from old-timey to rock 'n' roll. At one point I heard someone give a "whoop" and I wondered who it was, but my eyes were closed by then and I couldn't spare the concentration to open them. I started double-thumbing and Tom starting doing tremolo like he was playing mandolin and we blew it out the top, came all the way back, and ran through it once in its simplest, most basic form, and ended together on a bluegrass lick that I don't think either of us had planned.
When I opened my eyes, Libby was there, grinning at us and practically emitting sparks. She laughed and shook her head. "You guys were really plugged."
"It felt all right," I said. God, aren't we modest?
Tom was doing his down-home hick smile.
Jamie came in and joined us, along with Rose. Apparently Jamie had spoken to her, because she picked up her fiddle, looking only a little sullen. We practiced until about three in the morning, then crashed on the floor in back, as we had every night for the past--how long? Two weeks, maybe? Several hundred years? Depends how you count it.
The first jump had been to London, and we'd stayed there about five months, during the war. That was when Fred had started letting us live right in Feng's. Then we'd been hit again and found ourselves on a lunar colony that hadn't existed when we were hit--we'd gone about six years into the future and landed in the middle of another atomic war. We were only there a few days, three, I think, before we were hit, and we found ourselves another twenty years in the future, on Mars, and there was a nuclear alert in the city. Two days later, kerblam, and here we were.
Before I fell asleep, Jamie rolled over and said, "Hey, bror?"
"Do you have any idea what this is about?"
"Well, no. Yes. I don't know. We walk into a restaurant, get hit by a bomb, and--"
"Get thrown through time and space?"
"Don't be ridiculous. It could never happen."
"Yeah." He turned over. Tom started snoring. Rose, between Jamie and me, shifted. Jamie said, "Do you believe in God?"
"No," I said.
"I don't mean necessarily the--"
"I know what you mean," I said.
"But, look, I don't mean to sound all mystical, but why were we spared?"
"Maybe we were in the right place at the right time, is all."
"But what is it about this place--"
"Ah-ha," I said. "Now, that is just the question I've been trying to figure out. I do not believe that a supreme being or a primal life force or a great energy pool has singled us out to play Irish music to the cosmos. But there is something about this place that makes it bounce when nuclear weapons hit it."
"Yeah," said Jamie. "I want to know what it is."
"When you find out," I said, yawning, "tell me."
"I will," he said.
I wanted to ask him if he meant he'd tell me, or that he'd find out, but I don't remember doing so, so I must have fallen asleep.