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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chapter 7: Charle's Crescent

'Finally!' you sau as you breakdance on top of a wedding cake, "A new chapter, ah, what what! I do say let me get my monocle." Infact, I daresay that sounds like a capital idea, gentlemen. This is a chapter that focuses prominently on galactic society, so get your top-hats ready!

EXCERPT: The Assisted Relay Traveller’s guide to LOCAL SPUR

(Line 310000 – 310042 TRANSLATED: Spacer Pidgin v3.5.12 TO: written paragraph form, Human English.)

Entry: Alpha Scopii, Alpha Scorpii 1, Charle’s Crescent, that big ring thing, [I truncated this. You wouldn’t believe how many stupid semantic links you guys use to refer to this blasted thing. Oh, and my favorite;] space Las Vegas.

Charles’ Crescent, as it is often called by citizens of nearby Farsol (mostly harmless,) was first uncovered by Farsol scientists soon after the recovery of open-source hyperdimensional-enhanced observatory systems from well-meaning participants of the BUSEI committee soon after first contact.

The involved astronomer went by the name of Sir Charles Sampson and was famous for his post-contact postulations of the wider universe. Ultimately, he proved to be mostly mistaken. For example, his original hypothesis of the use of a ring-shaped object orbiting a red giant was that it was a “cooling system for a massive matrishka brain capable of simulating entire universes.”

However, his mistake there was only partial. He was right in assuming it was part of a larger system. That system, however, is commerce. And, you just don’t get any finer commerce than at One, as I like to call it. Of note are some of the exotic dining centers that one can reach on a very small amount of Basic Universal Marks.

Such locations as the “Get Rid of It bio-salvage buffet” offer filling food for incredibly cheap prices, though the stomachs of non-scavengers are expected to expel their contents after eating there [and, no, not in the RIGHT direction, humans.] However, for those who don’t want to suffer acute food poisoning, there’s always “The Golden Fields” which is an enclave of pre-contact Chazaar culture frequented by the most aggressively conservative Chazaar patricians this side of Cha’Ri!

Unfortunately, that means that in order to get to your food, you’ll have to brave a number of mildly hedonistic apex predators who are grumpily awaiting their own meal and may declare a non-lethal duel for eating rights. Unfortunately, such duels have only been proven to be non-lethal to other Chazaar.

Be assured, though. It is possible for any hitchhiker to find what they need on Alpha Scorpii One, including a nice clean towel.

Sunrise 8: Charles’ Crescent

“This is traffic: Militarized Handling Department,” my babbler approximated the incoming Rele-communications. The voice was that of a collected, calm and vaguely masculine human, relatable and clear. If we would’ve been on the civilian traffic control band for freighters and the like; I’m sure the voice would have been a lot more showy and flamboyant. “Warship SSW-DCV1 Sunrise; your approach is confirmed. Please send information for an encrypted gateway to your RCS systems so you may be guided in.”

I was strapped down in my crash nest on the bridge. We were in full maneuvering positions so I was fully locked down by pads and belts, suspended just high enough off the deck to distract me with uneasiness. I suppose some simulation time would rip that little issue straight out of my mind, but I hadn’t really done that yet.

I managed to tear myself away from that as I patched into the communal view. I wanted to get a better looksee at what we’d phased out of Rele-space on a collision course with. In an instant, the horseshoe-shaped front three-quarters of the bridge shifted over to transparency. The only hint that I was actually looking at hull plating were the not-quite complete switchovers between the artificial view and the real windows. The glass reflected -- islands amidst flat, perfectly colored, imposed vision.

Perfectly colored, painfully bright vision. I was smitten by intense light that cast no shadows on the actually existent part of bridge. But the light was also dispersed, like sun-rays through a static snow storm… I wasn’t sure what was doing it, but that sure as hell wasn’t what we were making rendezvous with. Might as well check the rear cams myself.

Suddenly I got a prompt for whisper chat through the ship from ‘Sam. That prompted the red phone to Moscow to pop up. I instantly became worried about alerting everyone else on the bridge I was passing notes and picked the bloody thing up before it could even chime. Then I remembered I had my own private console and there weren’t any snoops around like when I was in the office.

“Don’t click to the rear facing cams yet,” she thought spoke over the line, output tinged with the whispery, low volume of secretiveness. “Remember our bet?”

“Yeah,” I thought-spoke, trying to sound uninterested. “Why?”

“SSW DCV1 Sunrise, local area network connection confirmed. T:MH will now automatically guide you in.”

“Hold on, click over when I say.” Well, this was getting more interesting by the second. Not to mention this girl knew how to build tension, I felt like a blindfolded tot on Insert-Festive-Gift-Holiday-Here day. “Okay, go!”

I jubilantly switched over with zero hesitation, then proceeded to be slapped dumb over the face with awe. We were coasting towards a huge, silvered ring floating in space. I patched into RADAR sensors and got some gauge on the size… it was huge! The thing was a massive ring, thirty kays in diameter! My view blatted with noise and pixel lag as I upped the resolution for a realtime close up…

What in the hell was this? It wasn’t actually one ring, there were two, like two massive decks stacked atop each other, one deeper inside the “ring” than the other. The lower one was ablaze with daylight, giving off dayglow, vivid greens and silvers… it was a Stanford Torus colony! A huge one! It reminded me of my first days out of the countryside when I was just a kid, when I’d thought Los Angeles’ urban development and financial sectors were the biggest damn things ever… oh, how wrong I’d been.

“Thought you’d like it,” ‘Sam said triumphantly. Why, kind mista’ Boregarde! For me? I stopped myself as I realized my eyebrows were wresting over the top of my forehead and my jaw had long ago unraveled to the floor in sheer awe.

“SSW DCV1 Sunrise, be advised, your acceleration burn will be underway shortly. If you are not already prepared for high delta v flight, please ensure you are within the next thirty seconds.” I suppose I should recap, once again, we were facing AWAY from the structure. Handling relative velocity from other solar systems was a real pain in the butt. So, ships just stopped most of the time.

“Everyone,” ‘Dan said cordially over the shipwide channel in his basso voice. “Please check your restraints. We are now on final approach for intercept with A. Scorpii one.” What an inauspicious name for such a crazy space city.

“SSW DCV1 Sunrise, t-minus ten to acceleration burn.” The automation counted down the seconds, then our torches lit. I watched from the rear view over the back of the hull as the ceramic panels ringing the engines fanned outward. The rasping rumble of the huge methane torches shook the hull, making my teeth chatter. I was squished back into my suspended chair as we hit heavy gees.

The ring was coming on faster and faster for a little while, gaining on us until it dominated the wide-angle view. I got a good view of what we were heading for in the mean-time. The central spoke of the huge, spinning ring was hollow at the center and full of hundreds of little suns of various colors, while the inner walls glowed and pulsed through a blinding number of color sequences.

As the thrusters burned away, I also noticed some tubular extensions running along at even intervals from the center and spiraling out to meet the main ring. The entire structure looked as though it belonged in a jet engine the size of a small moon. But it was obviously built for some other purpose. It had to be something that pertained to one of our jobs, our crew or our ship. I wasn’t sure what combination was most likely.

The rumbling subsided as the torches hissed down to a manageable burn. The ceramic vectoring plates slid tighter to focus the exhaust lance, creating cresting rings of hot gasses behind us. The central spoke now dominated my view, a huge geodesic dome with a giant hole in the center. The border of the ‘landing bay’ was frequented by running lights, dancing and looping around the border in complex, attention grabbing patterns.

Soon, the engines had rumbled to a stop, giving off a lancing puff of inert methane as they terminated. Our reaction control thrusters adjusted us ever so slightly as we coasted along. A few scarce minutes later, the hull ceased being a shadowy, pitch black phantasm haloed on one side by red light and was instead bathed in the vivid, colorful aquarium glow emanating from the landing bay proper.

“So, why are we here?” I asked aloud, my babbler automatically broadcasting over the ship network.

“A very observant question, indeed,” ‘Dan bellowed jubilantly. “Though we have accrued some supplies from earth, our advanced systems require maintenance and fitting.”

Advanced? Huh. I wonder what that meant. Another thing… I wonder; how advanced?

We coasted along through the delineated precise guidance rings projected onto our enhanced reality network. Meanwhile, I flicked away the rear view and looked out the side of our forward enhanced reality portal. I was once again slapped senseless.

"...Great rings of 3d signs danced like living friezes, counter rotating along the walls of the bay in a display of the full color spectrum, as well as the other safe spectrums my eyes weren’t designed for, so the sensor highlights told me. The area was an aquarium glow of entrance bays and buildings that were big enough to outstrip many terrestrial counterparts. Starships zipped about the space in arcing lines, buzzing like road traffic expanded into another dimension of freedom...."

The entire space was like a massive terrace of decks and gates whose purpose was clearly marked by the legions of glowing red and yellow enhanced reality graphics provided by the traffic control feed. The thrusters on the nose of the Sunrise huffed, making us gently pirouette in space to face the nearest surface of the wall. Thrusters powered on to nullify the last of our approach momentum as forward thrusters pushed us into a drift towards a gate.

We formed into a daisy chain with other ships on approach. Scarcely thirty meters ahead of us was a small logistics craft, jetting along on thrusters mounted on spindly poles that looked like insect legs. The graphic surrounding the edges of the massive gate, nearly seventy meters in any direction, flashed over to red. The scrolling BUSEI barcodes popping out into 3d space read “Gate 3 now taking in entrants, cross traffic be advised.”

We coasted over cargo unloading terraces stacked one atop the other like a contour chart of a hill, then into the gate and past the blazing red information portal. The tunnel dove down past the glass windows of offices and observation areas, likely under the influence of induced gravity this far into the structure, where gravity from centrifugal force was minimal.

‘Entrants’ began dropping from the line, thrusters pushing them into branching corridors until we were next. Our gas thrusters huffed as we were pushed into a slightly more claustrphobic corridor. It went on, lit only by blue service lighting, until our thrusters hissed us to a complete stop.

It reminded me of a lung, efficiently sorting air molecules into individual points of rendezvous, bringing them into a larger organism.

There was a loud thump as the ship shook briefly. The mechanical whirr of hydraulics conducted through the hull as we were pulled from the tunnel down into a confined bay. There was a series of bangs and thuds as we settled down into the small service area. “SSW DCV1 Sunrise, landing sequence is now complete. Please disembark from your craft so it may be interned to station services for requested fitting and refueling.”

We switched out of crash mode and my seat lowered from the spread-eagle, flying-guy position it was in to a comparably normal sitting position near the floor. My straps snipped out of their fittings and the pads confining my limbs rotated away with a nonchalant whirr. I rose with a long yawn and popped my back into a more comfortable position, making my piggyback slither slightly to readjust. I’d spent too long clammed up in a tin can. I mean, we were still technically in a tin can, but it was a bigger one than most.


The tile and metal egress bay had opened up into a well-lit walkway. The climate was fairly human, if a bit wintery. The air also had the slightest smell of incense, maybe a mask over the general smell of biological detritus that could exist in a closed system under constant use like this one was.

Our merry band was on all sorts of walking tempos, from ‘Sam’s highly spaced, stealthy tip-taps to the eight legged skitter of our arachnid captain and boatswain. The collective noise of our passage was like a wordless break dancing parade, walking along the polished, gray and tan marbled surfaces of the metamorphic rock that made up the floor.

“So,” I began awkwardly. “Just WHERE in the hell are we?” seeing as ‘Sam had been so (un)kind as to spare elaborating what this place actually was. All this sensory stimulation and now we were in a boring, earthy-colored hall. I was nervous, like an anciant Aztek warrior dropped in the middle of downtown L.A. during peak traffic and hooked into the Los Angeles Network Experience.

“Chill out, Solen,” ‘Sam said, more cold and distant than I anticipated. Perhaps there were too many watching eyes. “You’ll see.” I got another ping from ‘Sam, and we connected for a thought convo’ over the port network. “Trust me, man. You won’t be disappointed,” she whispered. Bridgett looked at me quizzically. I wasn’t sure whether it was out of concern or shameless curiosity, or if she knew what was going on.

When we got to the end of the hall, there was a capsule shaped transit pod waiting for us. The thin glass doors on our side parted sideways as the capsule unsealed, revealing a nicely finished, terrestrial cabin with lush red carpet flooring. It seemed slightly damaged from use but visibly clean. ‘Dan and ‘Zin jumped up onto one of the chairs with the distinct jerkiness of their powerful, hydraulic limbs. Polina and Bridget sat down next to each other on one side and ‘Sam motioned me in.

I shrugged and took a seat on the side with two free seats. Hopefully ‘Sam wouldn’t miss the gesture. Though I realized as I sat down that it could also come off as “I’m clingy.” Lovely.

Well, that was the message she may have well gotten, as she sat down next to the BFF squad and left me alone with the two stooges. ‘Zin went ahead and leapt urgently into the seat next to me, making me flinch briefly before I stifled it.

I got distracted by the grunt of motors as thick metal doors emerged from their hiding places on the flanks of the pod. The four metal wedges met on rubber seals and locked down with a thud as thick, airtight shutters closed over the glass doors to the hallway. About then I began to wonder what the hell kind of ride I was in for. Vacuum seals meant one of two things, open space or high speed. I didn’t like the former idea to much, seeing as this pod didn’t seem to have any climate systems to maintain us cut off for longer than an hour.

There was a brief rumbling, likely air being cycled out. As the noise ceased, I saw the wall ahead of me, beyond the acrylic dome at the front of the capsule, slide noiselessly away. When it removed itself from my view, the capsule set off into the tubular opening that had been hiding behind the wall.

The pod whined as we coasted serenely into the tunnel before we spiraled down and away from the station. We exited into what I assumed was the main tunnel with a pronounced *THUMP*

“So,” I began as I started settling in. “We’re getting refits, what’s the occasion?”

We bounced along, service lights flicking by at frightening speed. “I told you when you were hired,” ‘Sam said flatly. I pouted and my eyebrows slumped, but that wasn’t really specific enough. I’d taken it for a hook. Furthermore, I’d been worried most about NOT DYING at the time…

Oh, that was right, rich benefactors, I forgot. Score! “Right,” ‘Sam said as she noticed me grin like a shark. Polina looked at me like I was insane.

‘Sam got my attention again. “Essentially, we’re taking all the crap from Farsol we were lugging around and putting it to good use. Unpacking.” Save the fact that the unpacking involved things that liked to go boom when improperly handled. Hence the professional refit, I suppose.

I looked up as the wall on our right side zipped away and I was suddenly staring at empty, hard vacuum. It was about then I deduced we’d been shot out into space. My stomach suppressors gave me a little go-go kick to fight the feelings of vertigo and motion sickness that threatened to overwhelm me. Then, a truss flew by and I realized I was actually looking through a huge, panorama window. My lack of immanent fear of death let me take in the red-tinged, nebulous sky of the system surrounding us

I looked out at the dozens of multicolored suns trundling lethargically away from us, a few occasionally flashing out of existence. To the scene’s left was the huge red monstrosity that had dazzled me through the enhanced reality feed on our approach. We were either really, really close to a standard red giant, or we were far away from a really bloody huge one.

Wait, if we were in Alpha Scorpii, then that was Antares! Antares is a huge star, it makes the sun seem like a spec of dust! Also; for those of you who don’t know the scale, the sun makes Farsol 3, our home, look like a spec of dust. I thought about it for a second… a station like this would likely eat a lot of power, and I was still seeing a huge cloud of rice-grain looking devices around the star.

“’Uhh,” I spoke up thoughtfully, still not really having broken the ice with these guys... eh girls, mostly girls. “Is that a Dyson cloud around the star?”

“Yeah, actually it is!” Polina’s gaze shot up from the floor and she beamed happily. Ramble will begin in tee minus five. “Alpha Scorpii is the location of a fairly recent power project. This place is really big on that… lots of power hungry stuff is staked out here. It’s so cool!” she shook her shoulders with nerdy elation. “Stuff like labs, call-in server clouds…”


“…What’s more amazing is how clear the orbits are, it’s no wonder this system got so heavily developed!” ‘Sam had a look on her face like she was pining for the pod’s doors to slide open. That was whether or not we’d yet settled down to speeds where the surrounding air stream wouldn’t rip us to shreds.

“Wow,” I said with semi-manufactured enthusiasm. Infrastructure planning and analysis wasn’t really my forte’… but, unlike ‘Sam, I found myself feeling rather amused by Polina. She sort of reminded me of myself. The only difference was she liked things in general and I was a fanboy of the technology and processes of fighting things in general.

We’d cycled out of the high-speed vac-tubes and out into open air. Our capsule was decently fast, even when in the presence of drag. I surmised the four tracks spaced evenly around the capsule were a frictionless magnetic levitation setup. It was actually rather nice, if more archaic than I’d expected with the size of this colony. But then again, I’d been stuck in the space boondocks for a LONG time. It tends to make them thar city slickers take on an almost magical quality.

Gravity defying buildings leapt and arched over us as we swung down into a canyon of concrete, office windows and hanging parks made of untamed, vaguely terrestrial nature. We flew past planter rows alive with greenery and patches of things that likely qualified as such on other planets. Despite this, I guessed they couldn’t support the really crazy stuff in this biosphere. It looked decidedly mammalian.

However, I was seeing a few glimpses of very alien things occasionally popping into view as we banked into turns. They looked like hamster-tube terrariums jumping between some of the more peculiar buildings, each containing biological crap in very odd primary colors.

The pod decelerated as we banked into a right angle curve off the main line and looped into a station. The ‘station’ was pretty much just a little steel-and glass (mostly glass) shed that opened up onto a big footpath latched onto the side of an even bigger building.

The four space-doors on the appropriate side of the pod parted with a labored grunting racket before a gracious little safety cover slid up to bridge our step between the pod and the station. I let everyone else get up before I walked out. I always found it easier to do things gentlemanly.

I shielded my eyes against the artificial, but still very convincing, sunlight streaming in from between the tops and artificial ceilings of the leaping skyscrapers. I realized about then that I was stuck somewhere around thirty minutes after Dark O’clock. I was on Farsol Military Cycle. It was a lovely second-based system that totaled to about 27.7 hours (roughly a hundred thousand seconds.)

Trouble was I was on second seventy-one thousand one hundred and twenty right now… I should have been fast asleep! Curse my own lack of foresight! No wonder the ship had been so empty when I grabbed a dinner bar!

I tried to distract myself by pivoting stupidly about and gawking at the buildings. There were a ton of concrete, safety-barrier lined walkways shooting across the city-canyon like the guy who had manned the bridge-gun during construction had been a bad shot. A rainbow cacophony of beings more diverse than those little holding-hands-around-the-world pictures kids in pre-school make was toddling about all over the walkways and in those weird tubes I’d seen. We, apparently, weren’t the only to-and-fros here. About then I almost toppled over because I leaned too far back.

“Damn it,” I said aloud as I rubbed my eyes. Polina, ‘Sam and, after a brief pause and a squeak of realization, Bridgett, all turned around and looked at me with some concern (except Bridgett, who just looked confused and had a go at rubbing her eyes, too.) “No, no,” I said, waving dismissively. “I’m fine.”


There was a hellish blatting in my ear, prompting me out of a half-sleep stupor.

I squelched the chirping in my brain coming from my link to the city network. Apparently, according to the brain-o-gram gnawing into my thoughts, my requested personal effects that I’d left on the loading ramp had been whisked away to my room in the hotel. I was a bit preoccupied, however. This was the first time I’d gotten a look at ‘my’ ship. Damn, it was kind of… beautiful in its own special way, I suppose?

I stared at and walked around an enhanced-reality mockup of the scene. Maintenance arms occasionally slithered into the artificial view to slap in or remove mechanical giblets. They really weren’t making my appraisal easy.

“Why does my ship look like the barfed up remains of a flounder?” I tepidly asked in a voice slurred with fatigue. “It hardly looks atmospheric-flight worthy.”

“It hardly looks attlescopic smoothie?” ‘Dan asked, his babbler synthesizing the rising pitch of human confusion.

Oh, bugger. I gave myself a slap to the chin and shook off the woozies and said what I’d said again, just with more of my IQ behind it.

“Oh, be assured,” ‘Dan said jubilantly in his deep, synthetic rumble. “This ship’s performance is top of the line in comparison to current Farsol craft of similar size.” I looked at the weird, variable surface, stubby, strafed wings and realized that I somehow wasn’t convinced a frame this weird could fly.

It also had absolutely no vertical tailplanes, which made me nervous. What was worse was the paintjob. The colors overall were okay but… “’Dan,” I began incredulously. “Why the hell is there a parrot head on the nose of MY new ship?”

“I thought it was a good decision when we originally christened the craft. I found I was quite fond of the terrestrial birds on Farsol when we began looking for potential employees there. I especially like the avian creatures from the tropics of your planet. ‘Parrots,’ as you said.” I wondered if it was some edibility thing or an actual feeling of pleasure at how they looked. I wasn’t sure I could make that call with these two yet.

“Yeah, but ‘honed explosion machine’ doesn’t exactly scream ‘Parrot!’” I said.

“Would you like to not fly it then?” ‘Zin asked with about as much of an incredulous tone as I’d used.

“Indeed,” ‘Dan said. “If you are displeased with this role than we may assign you a new one.” Then I remembered that being the ship’s networking officer was boring. Doing it eternally for the next few years would leave my sanity a shambles!

“Well, if you put it that way; never mind!” I said, swiftly changing my mind about my amazing new parrot- erm, ship.

“It will be fully prepared for combat and at your sole discretion by the time we next set off.” ‘Dan said. “We expect you to run simulations before then.”


“Screw simulations,” ‘Sam said incredulously, smiling a bit predatorily as she pushed open my suite’s door and put her hands on her hips. “Wow,” she said after looking me over like a piece of meat. “You humans sure wear some, eh… confining clothes.” I’d thrown on my office suit. If anything, nothing had changed with office garb. Of those too paranoid to allow their workers to work-from-home telecommute, anyway. That included the Stellar Fallers, military organizations have to worry about the haxor, you know.

I, in turn, glanced over ‘Sam’s choice… she looked like she’d dressed in the dark. She had all kinds of multi-robed scarfs swung over her shoulders, covering over an open, burlap-looking jacket, all opening up onto a decidedly human, white, babydoll tee shirt. I looked up at her skeptically. She sure looked like she wasn’t dressed to go ‘out,’ unless out meant a multicultural trainwreck between god only knew what.

“What?” she raised an eyebrow at me, glaring with a slight hint of accusation. “This is the sort of thing we wear… when not out in public.” I could see why… once again, the tee and sheety thin pants she was wearing suddenly didn’t seem too modest. That might have just been her figure, though, she wasn’t exactly designed to fit into anything without a fight. Muscles did that.

“Blah,” I said at length. “Do your worst, I’m guessing human standards of fashion don’t apply here.”

‘Sam guffawed. “Damn right, you may very well be one of a few dozen here.”


“The Merge,” as its name roughly translated, was a very odd place. There were little squatty tables all about on fluffy polymer carpet, made up into orderly, brush-like rows. Their amber yellow nudged shoulders with the orange of the gassy habitat that was the district we were planted in. The venue seemed to be encased in some huge acrylic bubble suspended like a chandelier from a rapid-transit station we’d taken through the gassy fog to get here.

I’d seen some weird transport cars on the way; Shaped snowglobes with weird, bump-like seats occupied by slumpy cephalopods. Or there were the ones with little floater aliens at their center, held mysteriously in the center of the pod by some obscure yet invisible system to avoid painfully bumping the sides. The Merge was, indeed, a weird sort of hangout.

As we walked in, I got a welcome card shot at my face through the network. I unpacked the media file, letting the nicely customized audio, done in shoddily translated, vibratey human speech, play out.

“Welcome, to the merge, an intercultural hub of exchange and social activity!” came the generic words of an equally generic, white, Anglo-Saxon. “We have prepared an aggregate neurohaptic and visual enhanced reality feed to fit your cultural uniqueness…”

I checked their credentials as the manufactured voice continued to patter away. Then I pinged them at the BUSEI cloud, got a positive response and shrugged. It was good to play safe when neurohaptics were involved. The things hackers could do with a direct line to your motor nerves are scary. All the same, I jacked into the likely exorbitantly hard to compile feed. Likely some lovely procedural thing, I really didn’t care how exorbitant it was because it was free.

The antiseptic white, pearly plastic and yellow rubber brush carpeting flicked away and I was suddenly in a smoky pub with a completely wrong layout. I was surprised that was the only thing wrong with it. I took a moment to look around, neon signs proclaiming “Beer!” and “Woo!” blazed away in lazy reds, blues and yellows, highlighting the ornately carved, but fake, ceilings above us. Even the orange twilight from outside was overwritten by forested night beyond the span of the bubble.

“Crazy, huh?” ‘Sam said, making me jump as I remembered she was right next to me. “Drink?” I shrugged. “Thought so.”


The scene emerging as we descended a staircase spiraling down a cone at the center of the bubble was absolutely mortifying. To my left, a mass of wet tentacles stewed in a pearly pink, bubbling bath with some of its pals. How did I know where one began and the other ended? They were orange, brown and midnight blue respectively, and shifting colors on the fly as I watched.

I didn’t get much more comfort as I looked right, where there was what first appeared to be a ball pit full of ornate crystal stones. In actuality, the stones were moving. There were also some more bloated ones hanging out in the air above them, perhaps of a completely different species. One loudly belched fire and shot into the ball pit before slowly spinning back up into the air.

I looked back at ‘Sam with what, I imagined, was an expression of perplexity so extreme it was almost militaristic. “What the hell is going on in this place?” I asked quite pointedly. At this point, I would have not been surprised if a Japanese school girl dove into the tidepool with Tentacle, party of three and had at it.

“Can’t you tell?” ‘Sam asked innocently. No. “They’re getting drunk.”

“Bwuh!?” I grunted in a moment of simultaneous revelation and confusion. Alien metabolisms; alien alcohols… or equivalents thereof. Another of the floaters spat fire and pirouetted off across our path, cussing noisily in BUSEI Spacer-speak about doing nasty things to rocks and their mothers. “Erm,” I pointed at him as I looked to ‘Sam. “That a fissile eating critter?”

She nodded. “Munching on dirty fissile material, probably,” she remarked. “Judging by the smell at least,” her nose crinkled, as did mine shortly thereafter. We made to evade the stink-cloud of burning sulfur and singed hair smell. “Bar or booth?” I paused to think, but found my mind was too jaded with such mundane thoughts and would rather ogle the funky aliens. “Hmm,” ‘Sam began again. “Both?”

“By your command,” I began flakily, “skipper.” She pouted at me in thought, maybe waiting for her babbler to process that last word.

“That would be ‘Dan,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, completely missing the joke. “Lets go,” she said, turning and waving her hand toward a raised deck shaped like a squished amoeba (but in rustic wooden paneling.)

I shrugged. It was a credit to her she’d only missed two (very different) words since I’d met her, seeing as she was technically a space-alien of earthly doom.

I then got another surprise and started sensing a bit of a similar tune to when we’d descended the stairs… the communal, upside-down-funnel-cake shaped bar we were heading for was surrounded by a handful of humanoids… but different.

“There she is!” one man with orange skin covered in tribal paintings exclaimed. His Cyclops eye nested in a cybernetic visor clicked and pivoted to watch her as we moved to sit.

“Make some room for my friend?” she asked. A fellow with Anglo-Saxon features who looked a tad more like a hobbit hopped down from his chair and took another to the other side of the table. He was oddly without augmentations, besides his rather un-diluted, Saxon ethnicity and tiny stature. It was odd because a lot of the Saxon lineage had melted away with the Space Bubble.

“No worries,” he said in a nasally replication of an old scouse accent. “It’s been a while, yeah, lahv?”

“You could just say hello,” she said. I looked around silently at the others. The members of the table were either below six or above seven feet tall, and I noticed the difference. ‘Sam’s head was barely below the halo of white light shining from what was a cheap bar lamp in my simspace, adorned with an old CFL bulb, not actually casting the light. The same went for a handful of people at the table, it was about then I noticed one of the floaters pootling about over a plate of silica interlaced with glowing things across the table from me. Quite the diverse crowd.

“So, what brings madam mysterio around our parts once again?” Another questioned. His neck was replaced by a gray prosthetic of geometrically sectioned polymers marked with some wings-and-wrench symbol and emblazoned in a BUSEI with a corporate identifier.

“Regular business,” she said casually. Because evading an outlaw cyborg, pirates and an AI was ‘regular business.’ But I didn’t want to bring that up, because I didn’t know if we’d signed a non-disclosure agreement with our clients or not. Also, I didn’t yet want to find out for sure if that was, indeed, regular business. I tend to get afraid, especially when I’m supposed to be having fun. It can be a very minor problem sometimes.

“I also had to snag this boy here,” she threw her thumb my way. “He’s with FS:SF,” she looked at me again. Well, at least I existed, apparently. “don’t you have some hot-shit nickname, Mackai?” When a few humans around the table heard that remark, they raised their eyebrows at me with a sort of knowing amazement. Either that or I’m a narcissist and imagined it. I’ll not judge that myself (because I love me.)

“Ehm,” I began. “Puppetmaster is the one most-“ there were whispers with varying degrees of skepticism and amazement from most of the dozen or so members of the table. It’s funny how my own ability to talk shit quickly outpaced me a while ago and shot around the FTL network, doing my work for me.

“Blah,” one said. “I don’t believe you. And even if you were, you still can’t compare to any of the guys with Starward. Not even you and the rest of SF brass have enough of a mind between them to compare!”

“Starward Security and Escort is made up of like THREE guys!” Another proclaimed, sporting a scruffy black beard and Hari-Krishna robe emblazoned with an outbound colony logo on it, anointed with gold-leaf Sanskrit. “Ehm, make that aliens,” he said, plucking his fingers together to diffuse his embarrassment.

“Three very awesome aliens,” another said tentatively.

“Where’s my drink,” I commented dourly. Just then, a pink-haired waitress blipped into existence in front of me wearing a skirt, a lycra top, and not much else, save some convincing cat ears.

“You rang?” she squeaked over a closed net channel.

“Sure,” I said at length. Though, it hadn’t taken me long to figure out why she’d blipped in so conveniently on time, another mock-up. “How about a vodka martini –and no, don’t shake it, stir it.” I’m not James Bond. It would have been a sin to pose as him. He was our floor’s de-facto hero back at Shangri-La. We all had a thing for flatmedia back there.

The doll blipped away and I looked up again.

“… and that’s why human political stance is isolationist and manipulative,” the Starward proponent proclaimed.

A tall fellow wearing a shirt showing vital readouts on his chest leaned down below the lamp, which apparently existed in his simspace as well as mine, and grunted. I also noticed he was quite clearly of the same species as ‘Sam, maybe her gateway into this group? His heart monitor was flashing a bit faster and a symbolic looking emoticon that looked like an angry cat glared at us from his sternum. Luckily, his demeanor was much more controlled. “You’re a spacer, SinSpace, so you have no right to judge a society you’re no longer part of.” He then slowly turned on the Anglo-Saxon, apparently representing the Farsol side from what I managed to sponge.

He spoke again. “And you have no right to judge superiority as a patron and merchant of Farsol, PureHustler.”

“You’re quite right, mate,” the Anglo-Saxon conceded. “Unless we want to end this in a very non-commerce-like fashion, it would be best if we do as the corporates do-”

“And stow our grudges,” I mechanically finished for him. He was from the Shangri-La crowd if he knew that slogan. It was a face-saver I’d heard escorting merchants on cool down missions. I got some funny looks from those not in the know, but it was really no big deal… I think?

“So,” Mecha-neck began, cybernetics chattering as he looked in my direction. “Why don’t you educate our friend from Starward about how you Farsol riff-raff do things down town?” Visor-guy’s eye whizzed and clicked to focus on me. Hmm, I do believe this will be a make-or-break moment.

“Well,” I began, squaring my shoulders and sitting up on the stool. “You all know the corporate spiel, so I’ll spare you.” A few people relaxed. “But, do you all know the net-cauterizing flash-bomb? The one everyone in the lower bridge has been using to secure data networks infected by Marketeers?” Everyone nodded. “I was chief designer.” I waited for the furtive, impressed whispers, trying hard not to grin.

After a long pause: “Not bad,” Mecha-neck commented. My mind-grin disappeared.

“During my first tour fifty years ago,” I continued.

“Not bad,” he said again.

“Ehm… while fighting pirates during all waking hours?”

This time he paused, The Starward bloke looked me over, blank AESA radar eyes staring me down before a smile passed over his face. “Hahah!” He howled suddenly. It seemed he was one of those spacers who still wasn’t sold on the benefits of body language, because his expression didn’t change even one iota as he laughed. “You ground-worms are funny people!” he howled. A bunch of red warning placards blipped into existence and surrounded our sitting space, proclaiming we needed to use inside voices.

We all sat still for a few seconds before they went away. I pinged ‘Sam. “Does this happen often?” I whispered over our connection.

“I wouldn’t know, never met these guys before,” she said, much to my astonishment. “Not in the flesh, anyway. They’re fringe members of the local security watcher’s guild. Half the time I’m here the people in port I meet are unfamiliar.” Poor girl, though somehow I don’t think she needed my pity. So I didn’t say anything.

A plastic sphere tentatively hovered toward our table. The white polymer surfaces were studded geometrically with little, hissing air jets that seemed to be working hard to correct for the coriollis force of the colony’s rotation. It seemed to be unaltered by the enhanced-reality running over my vision, save a little flopping ribbon hanging from the bottom that read “WOOOOOOOOOOOO!” on it. Seriously, is this what it thought we humans liked to read? I mean, we say it a lot when we’re drunk… but seriously.

It hovered above the table, in front of the anglo-saxon. A moment later, it twirled down to the table, then there was a clunk like glass-on-glass. As it rose, it revealed an authentic, frothy beer, sitting on its landing site.

He dropped a tablet into the brew, which seemed to explosively dissolve. The madness sent flecks of froth across the table.

My curiosity hacked my mouth. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Nano machines,” he said. “The bar-engineers make beer tha’s terrible here.”

“Ersatz?” I asked.

There was a pause and he was staring off into space for a moment. I suppose, given an upbringing by spacer parents from the isles, he wouldn’t know that word. It was one the yanks had made up long ago when wars still existed. “Very,” he said. “Here, I’ll clear it for you.” By that, he meant a feed.

The whole table turned to look as he made an output stream public. Weird, 2d graphic-forms hovered around the mug. He dragged sliders and clicked infinitely thin, nonexistent keys. It was sure a lot of effort just for a brew.

Finally my drink arrived, once again, via jet assisted server. Now we could get down to business.


A few more white plastic drone drops later and here I was, cheek to the table. And, by a few, I mean one point five. Really, it doesn’t take much to put me under, when my internal chem.-systems on my piggyback weren’t on, anyway. I turned ‘em off for times like this. Though, I’d played a few jokes while seeming to convincingly get drunk, all the meanwhile recording the stupidity of my friends. I was, though, high on the watchlists of many viewers of DarwinDebochery.rhub.

The table pretenders had had their fun meeting the newbies and left. It was just me and ‘Sam. It had been for a while, mostly involving silence. What can I say? I’m not the most social chap that ever existed.

“You know, I don’t get you humanss,” ‘Sam said through a slight slur. Of course, the slur was quite unlike a human one, because it seemed to subtly involve several octaves. It was another start to end in awkward silence, likely. I wasn’t feeling massively up to pissing about. But I was determined to break the ice… at some point.

“What’s not to get?” I asked neutrally, trying not to spoil her tangent. This was a genuinely good proposition.

“Well, you’re almost like us… it’s kind of funny,” she said, contemplating her mug of neon-green brew -- capped with bio-luminescant kelp -- from the vantage point atop her folded arms. “But you’re just not… quite… there.”

“Mmhmm,” I hummed. Now I was really interested.

“Like, take your fur for instance,” she said, looking attentively up from her beer like she was about to go on a roll. “You only have it on your head… it looks like you’re all participating in chemotherapy or something, or you’ve all taken a short walk off a long pier into a pool of toxic waste just shy of being up to your forehead.”

“Oh,” I groaned with disgust. “That’s pleasant.”

“Heh,” she guffawed. “Should have never said anything… nothing.” She lapsed into a weird, pluralistic grumble of orderly tones, maybe the equivalent meaning in her language.

“Eh, noo,” I insisted. I wondered, though, if she was going to start using her babbler. That was seeing as she seemed almost too pissed-away to do any lingual thinking.

I began again, “Yeah, but think about my end.”

“Yeah, flyboy?” she questioned wisely. “What DO I look like, hmm?” I couldn’t tell if she was daring me to try, on pain of… pain, or goading me on.

“Well,” I looked her face over again. She had this odd, triangular nose sticking out from a clean ark from there to her forehead. It was weird, because it looked almost human, but it didn’t have that point because of the exaggerated bridge. So, she looked like a fuzzy animal… predatory… that ate things. “You look kind of like…” I thought a moment more. “You look like an otter, almost.” But it was more like a dash thereof upon a human. My mind leapt for a millisecond as I came up with an idea in ym drunken stupor. Exactly who would put a dash of otter on a human frame?

She laughed in this sort of world-weary, melodic drawl. It had some distinctly human elements, but they seemed weird coming from her. “That thing?” A big square panel with a flat video popped up ahead of her in the public space. A little, sleek animal dashed and jumped off a rocky crag into the water. “Heh, they’re kind of badass.” The scene changed, and the muted burbles of under water noises dominated, emanating gently from the screen’s general area. “Hmm,” she drew plaintively. “Remindsss me a bit of…” then she said something that sounded like ‘rent skis’ said in fast forward with the s sounds massively exaggerated.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Home, you idiot,” she scowled at me as her head lolled away from the screen and bumbled over to look at me. “I mean, I look like an otter after all, right?”

“So, wait, your species is aquatic?”

“Ding, ding… d-ding,” she mumbled. “Fucking Sherlock… winner… you’re the… frigging,” she fell into another series of multi-octave mumbles. “Fucking Farsol syntactics,” she mumbled under her breath.

Awkward silence.

Her gaze shot up to look at me again. “Just don’t call me an otter,” I nodded. “Do I look like I’m enjoying myself?”

I raised an eyebrow, she continued to look at me intently. So I overtly shrugged. This is my body language, this is you. Zoom, right over your head.

“Cos I am. Can’t take no one out for a g-good time on that ship.”

Then a thought occurred to me. “This can’t be how you… um, your people… have a good time, can it?”

“Nope,” she said. “Old habits, from elsewhere.” I wanted to ask what elsewhere, but I held off.


“Shuth up!” I slurred, forgetting temporarily which way was up. “I can jump it because there’s no actual gravity in the colony!” This was a brilliant theory! “I just jump,” I sluggishly pointed left, then spun around and pointed right, realizing my error and still trying to maintain my imagined semblance of coolness. “Tha’ way. Really fast. Then, ummm.” Well, assuming this worked, I would smack into the far wall. But, who gave a shit; it would be worth it. I would prove that Farsol could succeed in counteracting the centripetal force of a standard class toroidal colony on my first real visit to one!

“You’re dumb,” ‘Sam giggled, girlishness only showing through in the pitch of her voice. All the same it seemed to fortify me a bit, or maybe I was just really drunk.

“Hey!” I said accusingly, then uttered, “watch!” a few dozen times. “…watch, watch, watch.”

“Okay,” ‘Sam said, putting her weight on a railing and looking sexy… like sexy sex… yeah.

Wait, what mind did I have thinking that? Screw it.

“Okay,” I climbed up on the railing, “here we go!”


I carefully nursed the heavily built up, polymer foam cast around my arm as we rode the tram back toward the commercial district. The area inside tingled with wetness. There were likely some very nice medical bio-systems in the gel, maybe engineered chemical boosters. I was still too wasted to be sure.

‘Sam was with me on the opposite side of the car, bouncing about awkwardly as the tram moved about. “You,” she began, stuttering a bit. “You really shouldn’t have done that.”

“Thank you, Stephen Hawking,” I said, trying to get some semblance of sarcasm in my voice. I winced every time the car made a sudden course change.

“Just go to bed,” she said.

“What about you going to-“

“Don’t say it,” even drunk, she hid behind a venire of self-denying detachment. “Just go to sl-“ she fell to the car floor like a limp water baloon. Now, I’d kicked in my blood scrubbers, so I was quickly becoming sober. However, I also reeked of the stuff, smell wise. That was mostly because the scrubbers were cycling the crap out a small aperture just behind my neck in the form of vapor. I avoided it when I wanted to keep up appearances, because it was just creepy.

When the tram began to slow, I leaned down. I was pontificating to the best of my current ability about how I’d wake her up. I poked her in the shoulder a few times, then her eyes opened.

“What the hell did you do!” She jumped up and skittered on all fours up to the back of her previous seat. “Drugged mah’ drink!”

“No!” I howled in my defense.

“Oh,” she said coolly, flopping down into both seats. “My bad.” That’s a quite astute observation.

Just then the doors cycled open.


“You know,” Polina said, walking in step between me and ‘Sam. “It can get a bit nuts out there, and it’s not exactly great for our professional image to have our squaddies getting piss drunk.” The self righteousness in her tone was unmistakable.

“Tch,” ‘Sam clicked with annoyance, turning to cock her head arrogantly at the girl. “You try toting a gun and ssshooting it at things that like to move ‘n breathe.” Polina did her best to look defenseless. ‘Sam shrugged, shook her head and walked faster, outpacing the two of us remaining.

I got a ping from ‘Sam as I watched her butt swing-swing off into the distance. I opened the channel she shoved in my face while she was looking utterly innocent of any activity, save walking towards her room. “Girl thinks she’s the ship’s secretary.”

I gestured agreement down the line and she closed it soon thereafter. She turned and pressed the pad to open her suite door. She only paused long enough to give me a look of wariness, like I should do the same and bugger off, before she disappeared into the room. A swish emanating from the plastic sliding door marked her complete exit. I was thinking that was a good idea. Being around another, seemingly less defensive woman while drunk was not an idea I cherished, judgment now having a better hold on me.

I looked back and saw Polina appraising me rather favorably. Unfortunately it wasn’t hot to me it was just kind of cute. This was not a come-on I was looking for. “You really ought to get some rest,” she said a bit awkwardly. “Heading out a diurn from now…“ she trailed off weakly.

I nervously splurted an awkward goodbye and turned into my own room, barely clearing the door as it slid open. I quickly closed it behind me.

“You sure you don’t need anything?” she asked plaintively, but with an awkward hint of suggestiveness.

“No,” I yelled through the heavily soundproofed door. “I’m fine.” I was, mostly. It was only later that I really realized the subtext of the whole series of events since I’d arrived in the lobby.

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