The Joneses #5

A Hot Time in the Old Town

Luna sat in the cockpit of The Starcrossed, staring out the window into empty space, trying to ignore the commotion in the back.

“Now, thread that green wire,” Holly said over the comms, “No Dad, the green wire.”

“This is green,” Wolf barked.

“That’s blue.”

“What color is this?”

“78.43 percent blue, 18 percent green, 3.57 percent grey,” Tycho croaked.

“See?” Wolf said. “It’s got green in it.”

“It’s one to the left of the exhaust regulator,” Holly grumbled. “The left, Dad.”

“I need a beer,” Wolf sighed.

“We just got started.”

“Beer will keep me from putting my foot through your monitor.”

Wolf entered the cockpit with two bottles and handed one to Luna.

“We have a little under three hours until the ion pulse drives are out of power,” Luna said, “After that we’re at the mercy of inertia.”

“Are we near anywhere?” Wolf asked. “Maybe we can refuel.”

“Nowhere within range. Space is full of shit and none of it is near us.”

“What about that?” Wolf pointed out the window.

“What?” Luna squinted.

“See? That circular hole in space.”

“What the hell? Holly? Are we near any celestial bodies?”

“Nope,” Holly replied. “You’re in the boondocks.”

“It may be a rogue planet,” Wolf mused. “Steer toward it. If anything, we can land on it and conserve fuel while I got the sub-light online.”

The ship drifted into orbit around the wayward body. Luna switched the spotlights on and they could see the surface below them. It was littered with the ruins of a sprawling urban center. Skyscrapers were split like trees, and personal conveyance vehicles were twisted around each other and pinned under the rubble. Skeletal remains of what one could presume to be the former inhabitants were dotted about, but not enough to account for the population of a city that size.

“What could have done this?” Luna wondered aloud.

“A supernova?” Wolf offered.

“A supernova would have torn the planet to dust,” Holly replied, “This was pulled out of orbit and jettisoned into space. Far enough from the gravitational influence of its home star that it now wanders rogue. This may have been deliberate.”

“Somebody just lassoed a planet and flung it into space?”

“It’s possible, if someone could somehow generate enough gravitational force to move the planet without breaking it.”

“Grand theft planet,” Wolf said. “That’s some high-level larceny.”

“Why does this feel like the work of someone we know?” asked Luna.

“Yalda?” Wolf replied. “He’s more into running planets than stealing them.”

“Maybe he was making a point?”

“If he was making a point, he'd make sure everybody knew about it. This all looks like someone was hiding it.”

As they drifted over the devastated landscape, looking for a level surface to land, they saw just over the horizon what looked like searchlights. The closer they drifted, the more lights they began to see, until the entire horizon was aglow with lights of many colors. They came upon a massive crater that seem to fall endlessly into the planet's interior. The ridge of the crater was lined with blinking lights, holographic billboards advertising casinos, bars and brothels, and signs shaped like arrows pointing down into the hole with running lights re-emphasizing the direction the arrows wanted the beholder to go. The largest display of all spanned hundreds of meters, flashing towering letters that read: SUBTERRANIA.

“What the hell,” Luna said, mouth agape.

“This place isn’t on any GA registries,” said Holly.

“Welp,” Wolf said smiling, “Looks like we a found a place to refuel.”

Once they had docked, Luna, Wolf and Tycho walked along a wide street that seemed to corkscrew its way down the side of the crater. An occasional cross street spanned out over the void and linked to the other side. The streets were lined with endless rows of shops, dwellings, hotels and casinos, packed with pedestrians and pushers, and salesmen hawking food or tchotchkes. There was even a stand that offered to take your picture while getting probed by an animatronic Zeta Reticulan in exchange for a small sum of credits. One of the hawkers jumped in front of them waving gaudy chains and rings in their faces. When Wolf put his hand on its shoulder to push it aside a blue grid pattern formed under his hand.

“Oh cool,” Holly sang in their comms. “Corporeal holograms. Hang on.”

The alien salesman began to form the blue grid pattern shimmering up and down its body. Its shape began to change into a young woman with straight hair pulled into a long ponytail, wearing a blue jumpsuit and a pair of glasses with various attachments protruding and lenses on swivels. She was holding a clipboard which when she set aside, disappeared into the same grid pattern.

“Holly?” Luna asked.

“I hacked it,” Holly replied. “This is weird.” She looked around and at her hands. “I’ve never been in two places at once, but it was on my bucket list.”

A staggering alien wandered up behind Holly muttering incoherent grunts and tried to slap his hand on her buttocks. Her hologram phased and the creature passed through her, lost his balance, fell face down on the ground and started snoring. Wolf poked it with his foot. It snorted a few times and resumed snoring.

“Okay,” Wolf said. “Great trick. I need a drink or whatever they got here.”

“The only problem is that my movement is limited to the area around the hologram generator,” Holly said, pointing to a small box on the ground.

Wolf leaned down, picked it up and put it in Holly’s hand.

“Drink time,” he said walking down the street. Luna and Tycho followed. Holly trailed behind, looking at the box askance.

“This doesn’t seem like it should work like this,” Holly said to Tycho as she jogged up to meet him. Tycho’s chrome helmet bobbed in agreement.

As they walked through the streets, they noticed posters everywhere. They all featured the silhouette of a robot spreading its arms like a zen guru superimposed over a lotus blossom, all accompanied by phrases like ‘Labour for Peace’, ‘Live for Peace’, and ‘Sacrifice for Peace’.

“They like their peace,” Wolf quipped.

“For as chaotic as it is,” Luna began, “It doesn’t seem there’s much trouble.”

“Seems like a working anarcho-capitalist settlement,” Holly said.

“Disheveled, but not unsanitary,” Tycho added.

“What do say we retire here, Lun?” Wolf chuckled.

“I may take you up on that.”

They entered a small restaurant and slid into a booth. Holly sat turning the box over, examining it with a look of consternation. A squid creature, holding a small notebook and a pen, strolled up to the table.

“Oh, bipeds,” the creature cooed. “Are you Zentaxis?”

“We’re human,” Wolf motioned to himself and Luna. “I don’t know what he is.”

Tycho produced a series of angry clicks.

“And she’s a hologram,” he motioned over at Holly.

“Pfft,” the squid made a raspberry sound. “Holograms never order anything.”

About an hour later, Wolfram was cleaning off a horseshoe shaped bone with his teeth. The others were slouched in their seats, contented in their fullness. Except Holly who was there as a hologram.

“How was your green meat?” Luna asked Wolf.

“Coppery,” he replied. “How was your stew?”

“Unidentifiable. How were the grubs, Tycho?”

“Roach larvae; acceptable.”

“They were a treat to watch you eat,” Holly said, looking at Tycho sidelong.

Tycho belched.

“Can I get you anything else?” the squid asked, oozing up to the booth.

“Just the check, thanks,” Wolf replied, “Oh and do you know where we can get our ship fueled?”

“Filling stations have all closed for the cycle, but they’re all along the upper rim of the crater. They’ll open up again in a few hours. The strip never closes though. Should be enough to keep you occupied until then.”

“What is this place?” Luna asked the squid.

“Well Subterrania is a resort town that grew up along the ridge of the crater created by the miners. The deeper the crater gets, the deeper Subterrania spreads.”

“Who are the miners?”

“Don’t really know. Nobody does. Nobody’s ever seen them. We just see the metals and whatnot they dig out of the planet and leave near the base of the town. The traders sell that. All the uranium and plutonium and whatnot gets loaded onto the big ship what comes every few cycles or so.”

“How did the planet get this far out into space?” Holly asked.

“Nobody really knows that either. Somebody just found it out here and decided to set up a resort town off the GA’s grid.”

“When’s the last time the ‘big ship’ was here?” Wolf asked.

“Oh, it’s been a spell. Probably due any cycle now. Here’s your check. Place is empty, no rush.”

“Now,” Wolf said. “About that drink.”

The four wandered down the street of blinking lights, barking vendors and carnival noises. From time to time they would see peculiar, ashen humanoids dressed in thick, worn denim, with expressionless, blank stares, setting them apart from the other carousing pedestrians. They would stand motionless, focusing on nothing in particular with cloudy, white eyes. Some, however would be standing facing the ‘Peace’ posters like they were studying them, or worshiping. Holly approached one, studying its face. It didn’t appear to take notice of her.

“Holly, be careful,” Luna scolded.

“Mom, I’m a hologram.”

“Well, don’t stare. You’ll make the poor man feel uncomfortable.”

“I don’t think it feels much of anything.”

“Holly. Don’t be rude.”

“No, I mean I’m not getting any life reading. No heat signature, no neural signature. Nothing.”

“Scanning through hologram, ineffective,” Tycho chirped.

“I’m using the ship’s sensors.”

“Seems like he’s tripping out on that poster, though,” said Wolf.

Holly leaned in close and examined the poster.

“It’s code,” she said, “Instead of pixels, the image is made up of tiny ones and zeroes.”

“Can you read it?” Luna asked.

“Imaging it now,” Holly replied. “I’ll take a look and let you know in a few.”

Holly’s hologram distorted and rippled with the blue grid, changing back into the previous vendor who was hopping and down, spitting and screaming at Wolf, Luna and Tycho.

“Moving on,” Wolf said as he ushered his group away.

Yaldabaoth paced the length of the bridge of Vijeda’s battleship and flopped into a chair next to Vijeda.

“Are you going to miss it?” Vijeda asked.

“I think so,” Yalda replied, “That fucking dump made me bank. But after this shipment we’ll have more than enough plutonium and uranium. At which point that place is just one big, flashing liability, “Sure will be fun to watch burn though.”

“Do we have time for that?”

“Vijeda, after this last run we’ll have nothing but time. Comms guy, whatever you’re called, get Peace on the line.”

Yalda waited and a frown crept across his face. He snapped his fingers.

“Hey, comms guy,” he barked. “Open a connection with Peace.”

“I’m trying, sir, but there’s no response.”

“What do mean ‘there’s no response’?”

“Do as Your Demiurge orders, whelp,” Vijeda snapped.

“There’s just no response, sir,” the crewman pleaded.

Yalda bit down on the skin of his knuckle, took a deep breath, then pulled out a pistol and shot the crewman in the face. He fell, twitching to the deck.

“You. What do you do?” Yalda pointed at a random crew member.

“Um, I man the subspace deep scanner console,” the crewman stuttered.

“I don’t know what that is,” Yalda huffed. “You’re comms guy, now. Keep trying to raise Peace at Subterrania.”

“Could Peace be ignoring you?” Vijeda whispered to Yalda.

“Buggy piece of shit. I had the best AI specialist in the galaxy design him for me. Disemboweling his wife in front of his kids wasn’t enough motivation. Guess I’ll have to go after his kids, now. He’s got enough to make a point and save some for later. I could make them fight each other to the death.”

“You were born to the wrong species, my friend,” Vijeda chuckled. “Such ruthlessness is revered among my people.”

“The difference, Vijeda, is that you people do it for its own sake. I have a purpose that’s bigger than any life. Bigger than life.”    

Tycho and Luna stood on the sidewalk in front of a bar counting the ashen humanoids, whose number had grown since they first started spotting them. Wolf emerged from the bar pinching three glasses of gold liquid in his hands. He handed one to Luna and another to Tycho. Tycho took the glass and dumped its contents into a plastic pouch hooked up to tube that led to his helmet, then handed the glass back to Wolf. Wolf took the glass, frowned and put it on a nearby table.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Wolf said, raising the glass.

“You were drunk last night,” said Luna.

“Yes, but I have no idea what this is.”

As Wolf put the glass to his lips one of the ashen humanoids, as if hearing and unheard command, began attacking the nearest pedestrian.

“What got into that one?” Wolf asked, sipping.

“They’re all doing it,” Luna replied.

A wave of stampeding alien revelers began running along the street toward the where the ships were docked.

“Is this a thing that happens?” Wolf said into his glass.

The aliens were soon overtaken by a slow moving mass of the ashen humanoids. A group of them shambled over Wolf, Luna and Tycho. Luna extended her wrist blades and backed toward the bar. Wolf continued to drink while he broke the rim off Tycho’s empty glass and jabbed it into one the humanoid’s faces. The humanoid kept approaching, pressing its face into the glass.

“Huh,” Wolf grunted into his glass, an eyebrow arched, “No blood. Not only disappointing, but weird.”

Another groped at Luna and she sliced its hand off. Again, there was no blood or reaction. Tycho was striking them in the head with the butt of his rifle, but they persisted in their advance.

“I guess they’re not into Peace anymore,” Wolf said. All three fled into the bar.