Space Juice

A Sci-fi (Mis)adventure

Copyright © 2016 Dan Wild

Chapter 1 – SCR 1845-6357B –

The ship thundered through the cosmic ether breaking all known laws of physics, except the law that allows science fiction writers to make a living speculating about laws being broken. To be precise, the ship was only breaking the laws of classical Newtonian physics, and a few of Einstein’s too. The ship: the Anaconda. An assorted collection of parts from a secondhand shipyard on Crete 581d, industrial hub of the known galaxy. Not much was known about the known galaxy, and even less was known about the uncharted areas beyond the Outer Rim.

How could anyone speculate what was beyond the Outer Rim, only a small fraction of the entire galaxy, when people didn’t even know what the entire galaxy looked like? The Milky Way was a barred spiral, with belt of stars thrust through it from end to end like a shrimp on a barbecue. The popular myth of the Milky Way as a splendid, symmetrical spiral persisted long after scientists had contradicted that popular image, proclaiming instead that it was bisected by a barge pole.

The Outer Rim was home to thirty-nine or forty inhabited planets, depending on whether Pluto was counted as a planet. Many wars had been fought over this issue, most of them at astronomy conferences where flablets were thrown and Plutologists stabbed with electronic styluses.

All known inhabited planets were within a radius of fifty light years. Except for Betelgeuse, which was 500 light years away, linked to everything else by an ancient warp gate of unknown origin whose technology had never been replicated.

Of course, there was the Outer-Outer Rim, far beyond the frontier colonies. This was myth. Most who ventured beyond the Outer Rim into the Outer-Outer Rim never returned. There were no refueling outposts in the Outer-Outer Rim, no radio relays, no satellite TV.

The Anaconda thudded through hyperspace, well within the Outer Rim. It shuddered through hyperturbulence, heading to Zorge in the SCR 1845-6357 system. SCR 1845-6357 was a binary system with three planets. Zorge was the second planetary body from SCR 1845-6357A, also known as Pavlov. SCR 1845-6357B was a brown dwarf orbiting Pavlov, a red dwarf. No one had bothered to give SCR 1845-6357B a proper name befitting a healthy brown dwarf star. Instead, whenever anyone referred to SCR 1845-6357B they had no choice but to call it SCR 1845-6357B. Luckily SCR 1845-6357B was rarely mentioned, because saying SCR 1845-6357B all the time requires energy, and energy costs money.

The Anaconda cavorted through hyperspace towards Pavlov with all the elegance of a Martian rally driver on his final set of tyres. Gaston D’Imbroglio had fallen into hypersleep with his mouth open. A trickle of saliva caressed his chin. His subconscious imaged the terrain of Zorge, and how interacting with the Zorgons was the perfect opportunity for his next anthropological treatise. The Anaconda escaped the clutches of non-reality and emerged within striking distance of Zorge. Everyone was asleep, except Zorgeous the Zorgon. The Chitters lay scattered on the floor of the repair bay among wires, springs and a busted bag of giblets.

Marley – Captain Chuck Marley – sat with head lolling over the dashboard.

Hyperspatial travel had different effects on different species. Humans and Chitters fell asleep. The Chitters were the first to wake and quickly became hyperactive.

The loud banging from the repair bay woke Gaston. He was surprised to find Marley talking to himself in some way-out dream dimension: “Watch without wanting, watch without wanting…”

Gaston roused himself. “Marley. Wake up! What are you dreaming? Are you in some ancient world?”

Marley’s arcane drawl returned to Standard Galactic Standard: “Pass me another goblet, and don’t sit on my…What? Gaston!” Marley blinked. “How do you feel? I bet a scholar like you never dreamed of becoming a traveller, let alone a First Officer.”

Gaston replied, “During the jump you gained access to the hyperspatial moment. If you can remember any details of your dream–”

Marley was incredulous. “We’ve concluded our first hyperjump and you want to psychoanalyse me?”

The clock radio began to buzz with the latest solar weather from Pavlov. Alarm clocks were programmed to go off after the jump, but because of the shrinking of time-space during warp speed they always activated later than the time set. Marley headed to the cargo hold to check on Zorgeous.

The Zorgon stared at him as he approached.

“I appreciate your efforts in bringing me back to my home world. Now if you could loosen my restraints.”

“Our efforts?” said Marley. “We’re here because of you. And you can stay right in the hold until we work out who you are.” As an afterthought he muttered, “and whether you’re valuable.”

“I’m sure you will find out soon enough. And maybe then you will have second thoughts about restraining me. I sense something in you. Something different and better than your fellow species planetside.”

Marley’s skull faintly tickled. He turned away from Zorgeous. “Don’t try any tricks.”

Gaston appeared in the hatchway. “Captain?” He giggled. “A hauler is on its way up. We’re going to make a 30% profit on pizza and giblets.”

“Not bad Gaston. Should be just enough for some juice to get us out of here.” The end of his sentence was obscured by a sudden drumming, like popcorn exploding onto sheet metal. “Time to feed those Chitters some gourmet metal before they put any further dints in the repair bay.”

The hauler was nothing more than a dinted pink hovercab with a trailer attached. The struts rattled as the hovercab circled out of the atmosphere of Zorge, a dusty orange planet half covered by crimson clouds. The hauler sidled up to the Anaconda. The transmitter crackled: “What type of ship is this? Where the hell am I supposed to dock?”

Marley directed him to an area below the bridge on the port side. The pilot was overeager on his approach and thudded into the jutting airlock module. Heavy magnets struggled with the hovercab, but finally captured it with latex balloons enveloping the hatch.

A bearded man in his 50s squirmed through the hatchway. Marley pulled him through.

“I’m Jed, welcome to Zorge.” Jed directed Marley and Gaston back towards his vehicle.

 The hovercab plunged towards the surface and Marley’s stomach made friends with his neck. After an ungainly landing Marley was brave enough to open his eyes and look out the window. He saw a giant electronic billboard: “Zorge. Innovation and Creation!” Beneath these words a woman in a tight-fitting lab coat held a bubbling test tube. Her hair was as white as her coat. When she poured the tube’s contents Marley was slightly unsettled to read the words, “Seek, watch, believe” bobbling around the screen. They resonated curiously with the subconscious messages bubbling in his head.

Zorge was strictly divided into human and Zorgon. The Zorgons had become increasingly restless about the human presence. Humans were now only admitted into their territory after a strict search for all equipment. This prevented many from entering the capital. For as soon as they could afford it most humans could not resist robotically enhancing themselves, installing intelligence chips, culinary regulators and chrome-plated abdomens.

Jed, Marley and Gaston paced across the tarmac. A trolley cruised by them towing their goods for import.

“You’ve made a fair exchange,” said Jed. “My tip is to get your hands on some vials of red dust. It’s going to be the next big substance, the next space juice.”

Marley stroked his cheek, feeling for the smoothness promised by the application of his sample vial.

“Red dust will be more than useful for just skin care,” said Jed.

“Do you have any idea,” asked Marley, “why a Zorgon would leave Zorge?”

“Impossible! Not a single Zorgon has left since the diplomatic mission to Crete, 70 years ago. We all know how that ended.” The Zorgons had refused all offers of technological assistance and had threatened to walk out of the assembly. The only point on which they relented was permission to film an episode of Universal Idolatry on Zorge. This was enough for humanity to gain a foothold.

The temporary structures erected by the film crew had now expanded into a burgeoning scientific settlement.

“What would you say,” said Marley, “if I told you I spotted a Zorgon on Crete 581d?”

Jed laughed. “I’d say you were delusional.”

They glanced at a scrolling news display. “…Guardian agrees to greater access…First visit to settlements in over a decade welcomed by scientists…Unrest in Ungarloot.”

“Where’s Ungarloot?” asked Gaston.

“A satellite town 30 miles south.” Jed pointed to a rugged mountain ridge that crossed the northwest. “My business is fine, as long as the unrest stays there.”

Marley glanced at Jed without turning his head.

Gaston impatiently punched a few buttons on his flablet. “Jed, you aware of this? This announcement by the Guardian?” He pressed play. A Zorgon filled the screen, minus its antlers. Without these spindly, grasping tentacles, the Zorgon looked less alien: “I am the Guardian. My will is clear. But the Antlers of Amplitude must be recovered.”

Marley turned directly towards Jed. “The Antlers of Amplitude? What the hell are they?”

“I think I’ve heard of these,” said Gaston. “The Guardian here is chosen because of his latent psychic sense. The elders then saw off his antlers and attach the Antlers of Amplitude in their place. They have been passed down through generations. They bestow a persuasive power to anyone who can successfully wear them. There have only been five Guardians in the last 200 years.”

“That is ridiculous,” said Marley. But secretly he questioned his narrow-mindedness. “I don’t suppose, Jed, you’ll give us a scenic tour?” Marley looked at the financial readout on his flablet. With the 50,000 credits secured from the pizza and giblet exchange, he could afford some sightseeing.

Jed quickly replied, “Anything for credits. We’re all safe up in the skies.” He banged on his chest three times. It sounded like a bell tolling. “I won’t get anywhere near Goramus with my chrome-plated abdomen. Especially with its bonus ripple chip. Let’s look at the little critters from above.”

‘Little critters’ did not spring to mind when Marley thought of Zorgons. They were creepy, rickety, but they weren’t little. At least not the adults.

“Can you fly us back to my ship first? I have a little extra cargo. Your trailer won’t be required.”

Chapter 2 – Tourists –

Mountains capped with red snow poked through the clouds. Jed had to be on the watch to make sure he didn’t pilot the cab into one of these jutting edifices. He kept the craft above cloud cover so as not to be spotted by anyone on the ground. His cab was equipped with powerful sonar systems that could distinguish a pebble from an altitude of 15 miles.

Marley and Gaston intently watched the graphic display panel for any signs of movement on the vast plains between the peaks. They also kept their eyes on their fourth passenger. The Zorgon’s claws were bound behind his carapace.

“Now that you’re back where you want to be, what do you think we should do with you? Bearing in mind you set off my ship’s launch systems, giving us no alternative but to leave immediately.”

The meter ticked over and a metallic voice chimed “5 credits, 10 credits, 20 credits, 50 credits”.

“Is that all your computer does?” Marley looked exasperatedly at Jed’s meter. “You must do quite some business running this hovercab.”

Jed nodded at Zorgeous. “You must do quite well in the kidnapping industry.”

Zorgeous finally spoke, “They did not kidnap me. I kidnapped them. Unintentionally.”

Jed laughed so hard he started coughing. Marley thought of rebuking him, but right now silence seemed more strategic.

After a minute, Zorgeous continued. “There is an assistant to the Guardian. I was one of five acolytes, charged with protecting our ancestors’ relic, the Antlers of Amplitude, ensuring the continuation of courtly protocol. I was sent to Crete 581d by the Guardian’s favourite. Probably because I had my doubts about humans on Zorge. He told me that Zorgons must become used to human presence and that I should mingle among them. But my orders came less and less. I asked to return. But the chief acolyte said things had changed. The Guardian had named him the Hierophant, saying he had become old and weak and needed an assistant to govern.”

Jed stared fixedly at the flight screen. “At the moment we lie south of Goramus, the capital, which we approach in twenty minutes…or, I should say,” and Jed warily took one hand off the stick and patted his chrome plated abdomen, “in 500 credits time.”

“Give me one good reason,” Marley said to Zorgeous, “Why we shouldn’t just hand you over to your fellow acolytes in Goramus. Jed will be more than willing to open the hatchbay door in 20 minutes.”

“For 500 extra credits,” said Jed. “And there’s no hatchbay. Just a good old ejector seat.”

Zorgeous’s face turned purple. “I give you one good reason. For red dust. It is found in abundance on Zorge. That is why you humans are here. You know it’s useful, but you don’t know what for. I will give you the secret Marley.”

Marley rubbed his cheek. The application of red dust had done nothing for him.

Zorgeous guessed at his thoughts. “Cosmetics are the least of its properties, although it is known for making the most awkward of Zorgon males attractive to any Zorgon female.”

“It hasn’t worked on human females,” Marley said cautiously.

“Then it hasn’t been properly prepared.”

The clouds parted and the red sun of Zorge pierced the window of the hovercab. As the rays of Pavlov touched his cheeks, Marley realised of all races, the Nunchians of Foon would pay highly for red dust. If he could obtain a large enough shipment his financial worries would be over.

The hovercab slowed to a halt. Jed cut all engines except the equaliser, keeping them at a steady altitude. Although filmy clouds had reappeared, the graphic display panel provided the eavesdroppers with an accurate representation of the surface.

The capital of Zorge, Goramus, was not large by human standards. But the Tower of Guardians was awe inspiring enough to protect the worker Zorgons, which was most of them, from the overarching questions of the universe, such as why dark matter was not dark, and why red dust cannot be seen in the twilight.

The Tower of Guardians had five levels, and a level was added with the succession of each new Guardian. The total edifice was an impressive 100 feet high. Zorgeous pointed out that the construction of the tower was not, and could not have been, completed using Zorgon labour alone. “The Antlers of Amplitude are brought forth at the time of a new Guardian. These antlers can move stones the size of this hovercab with ease. But only in the right hands. And only after being dipped in…can you guess?”

“Red dust,” Marley said quickly.

“How perceptive Chuck,” interrupted Gaston. “And you’ll be interested to know the Tower resembles ancient temples found in forests of early Earthen civilisation, with multilayering, pyramidal symmetry and–” Gaston stopped as the viewscreen showed a crowd of agitated Zorgons assembling outside the jagged slabs marking the entrance.

Zorgeous impassively watched the display attached to the seat in front of him. “They are demanding to be shown the Antlers of Amplitude. If they don’t see them within one day they will storm the Tower. If the Guardian has truly lost them and did not display them to his people for the Anniversary of Rorns five days ago, one of his acolytes may take his place.”

The Zorgons also seemed to be angry at something even more out of place. On the pediment of the first tower layer was a VT screen. A sharp whistle emanated from two stone hollows either side. When Jed zoomed in, Marley saw two loudspeakers, large enough for an afternoon performance of the Seven Sisters. There was earsplitting static. The screen flickered.

“This is unheard of,” said Zorgeous. “Human technology within the borders of Goramus?”

“Perhaps,” said Marley, “it is time to catch up with the times.”

An ovoid face crystallised on screen. This Zorgon had a low forehead, jutting chin and smaller antlers than usual. Many Zorgons, not having seen a VT before, were stunned by the size of the head. They leant back. Some scratched their antlers in the ground.

“It’s the Hierophant,” said Zorgeous.

As if hearing Zorgeous in the hovercab, the Hierophant began speaking: “One day remains, my Zorgons. If the Guardian’s antlers are not returned we will enter a period of mourning. For our Guardian, and our history. But out of the flames of loss a new beginning can be forged. Know that if it comes to this, I will be there to see you through it.”

The message terminated and was replaced with an advertisement for Jinko’s Takeaway captioned, “Now with special red sauce.”

A dizzying shudder rocked the hovercab. A low whine came from the back seat.

Zorgeous was stiffly upright, his eyes white. His antlers vibrated sending sparks around the hovercab.

The hovercab’s computer whined desperately: “Warning, engines depowering. Hull integrity threatened.”

Jed fiddled at knobs, rapped on screen readouts. “Peggy, divert system power to the engines.”

“I suppose now is not a good time to be asking who Peggy is,” said Marley.

“The hovercab computer,” said Jed. “If you don’t stop the Zorgon I’ll have no choice but to eject him.”

Marley reached over to the Zorgon and slapped him on the leg. He whacked him on the head. There was no reaction. Zorgeous’s eyes were completely white.

Some of the discharges from Zorgeous arced from the hovercab down towards Goramus. They seemed to seek the tip of the Tower of Guardians.

“Get him away from here,” said Gaston. “The tower has gripped him in its power.

“Peggy, reduce the attitude jets to 50%. Divert all engines to the thrusters.” Jed swung the pilot’s wheel and the hovercab banked steeply. They were losing altitude fast but putting distance between themselves and the Tower.

The sparks emanating from Zorgeous gradually dissipated. The pupils returned to his eyes. He breathed heavily.

When Jed had the hovercab comfortably under control, the first thing he demanded was 5,000 credits for a full diagnostics wash. He cruised into the human settlement west of Goramus and left them in front of a modest hotel.

Chapter 3 – Martian Rocks –

Marley berated himself for choosing the cheapest room. For a few more credits he would have got something bigger than this shoebox. It had no windows. No fridge stocked with strangbrew. Not even complimentary tea. But at least it had a neon massage chair. At the moment it was occupied. By Zorgeous.

The neon chair enveloped Zorgeous with subluminal bursts of photons. His antlers glowed a steady green, a hue Marley had not seen on them. Zorgeous had his eyes closed and for the first time he seemed peaceful, almost content. Despite not sitting in it, Marley could feel the glow of the chair like a cushion on his forehead. The glow was specially tuned to desensitise neural activity, inducing a detached, stress-free state. Marley adjusted the mechanism of the chair until Zorgeous emerged from his trance. Gaston had gone to Jinko’s Takeaway, keen to try the new red sauce. Marley was free to interrogate Zorgeous, without Gaston’s commentary.

On the side of the neon chair was a wheel the size of a palm. Marley turned it, increasing the concentration of the photon bubble. Zorgeous’s head swayed from left to right and returned to a deeper trance. He spoke with a detached drone. “I was a loyal acolyte. Loyal and unquestioning. My stay on Crete 581d taught me one thing. To question. I followed every order of the chief acolyte blindly. If I had not done so, if I had summoned the courage to consult the Guardian, there would not now be a Hierophant and our traditions would not be in jeopardy.”

“Perhaps,” said Marley.

Zorgeous’s left antler glowed faintly. He appeared to have stopped breathing. But he snapped awake. He pointed his antlers directly at Marley, his eyes focused with intent. “I sense another agency behind this. An alien. A human!”

Marley averted his eyes from Zorgeous’s gaze. “Don’t look at me.” But secretly he suspected that the human presence on Zorge was not all benign. He need only look at his own behaviour as an example. He was having thoughts about letting Zorgeous go. He had caused enough trouble already. Marley didn’t think kidnapping was his thing even if it was somewhat justified.

Adaptation did not happen in a day. If humans could take many years to change how long would it take Zorgons, with their slow-burning, almost disinterested existence? The Sirians had many times warned of the dangers of foisting new tech on races not yet ready for the leap. Jovian Jellyfish went so far as to propose a blanket ban on contacting such races at all.

Marley couldn’t imagine life without tech. His alarm clock was proof of that. Humans had developed in short sporadic bursts. But in between those bursts were long plateaus, as if evolution had stopped off at a roadside diner and decided to marry the waitress. For the first 300 years after the space shuttle was launched, all humans had done was sparsely settle the solar system. Only two forms of life were found on other planetary bodies, and neither of these offered humanity any threat or opportunity for enlightenment. The first were rocks on Mars. For one hundred years humans lived on Mars without realising there was extraterrestrial life. Then an astronomer who specialised in discovering stars and mapping planispheres decided to project his telescope onto the Martian dunes. By comparing photographic plates he noticed that several of the rocks shifted position every half-Martian year. The rocks were analysed and found to have tiny filaments that enabled them to slowly traverse the dunes in search of other rocks.

Zorgons weren’t exactly rocks. Marley loosened the bonds binding Zorgeous to the neon chair. He left the setting on medium, with a gradual release back to lower power. He went to find Gaston and assumed that when they returned, Zorgeous would be gone.