Solarbum Jaunt. Written 2002

I wrote this in 2002 while living in Beirut.  I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories.  So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one.  Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading.  This means I only have six to go.  So, here is a glimpse into the mind of a 21 year old angry young man, a nascent traveller, with designs on becoming well-travelled and loved.  Looking back, I don’t like it very much. I see in it a melancholy reflection of my own insecurities and sadness. The kinds of things one needs to get out in writing, before one gets to heart of the matter. I’m going to post the other three I’ve written, then get started on new creations.

Solarbum

In a hot, gas-filled corridor crisscrossed with grimy pipes and tubing that served as the ship’s bowels, Palin stooped uncomfortably, cleaning away rust. The metal intestines and articulated plastic capillaries squirmed randomly about the place, carrying gases and fluids needed to keep the ship running until it reached its next port of call.  The groaning engines sounded, as always, as if they were about to explode. Or implode.  Or maybe even invent some new from of plode-ing, prefixed by ultra, super, or hyper. 

Palin and his bunkmate, Ohno were in the lowest section, by the shipping containers and the reactors, instructed to clean anything covered with rust or grime. And on this ship that meant, simply, everything.  Sweat poured out of his forehead and temples as he scrubbed, cutting white streaks across his grease-caked jaws. Oily black grime covered his overhauls, but the effect was barely noticeable, as the things had been caked with filth when issued to him. They were old-fashioned cloth and not self-cleaning.

The pipes he was scouring at the moment were situated behind a mesh of others, forcing him to stand in an awkward bowing position he could only hold for about fifteen minutes.  He put his reduction stimulator down on the black metal grating of the floor and stood, arching his back.  A vicious and heavenly series of pops traveled up his spine.

‘Back crap, man’ Ohno said.  Palin looked over at the large Japanese Rastafarian reclining in a jumble of rubber tubing a few meters down the dim corridor. A dozen feet beyond, the corridor swung away to the left. Ohno was smoking a kind of extra solar dope he called Garbo, the existence of which Palin had been ignorant before his arrival on board, nanodrugs being the limit of his experimentation.  His once-virgin lungs were well acquainted with smoking now, having roomed with Ohno since then in the same six by four closet. Its bright blue and purple leaves were like a fashion accessory to the man. 

‘Work too hard, man.’  Ohno said, holding out the joint, ‘Chill.’

Palin wiped his forearm across his brow, took off his gloves, and walked over. ‘Are you just going to sit there and get stoned all day?’ He took the joint and inhaled deeply. 

‘Yeah, man. Freedom.’

Palin laughed out a great cloud of smoke. Ohno used the word freedom in the same way some people used ‘um,’ or ‘like.’ Not for the first time Palin desperately wanted to point out to Ohno that, despite the dreadlocks and the smoke, he was not Jamaican. 

‘What if you get caught?’ He asked, passing the joint back.

‘Boss man not here. Easy.’

‘Damn, my back hurts.  I hate this crap.’ Palin pressed his hand into his lumbar. At eighteen, Palin had never performed anything resembling physical labor.  He had therefore underestimated the shortcomings of the activity and signed on as a grunt laborer on the freighter with little compunction. He regretted the decision now, especially because the whole thing was so unnecessary. 

‘Sit, man, chill.’ Ohno motioned to an adjacent pile of tubing with his hand.  A

reduction stimulator identical to Palin’s except for being anal-retentively spotless, lay beside him, in the same position it had all day. His overhauls he wore on his legs only, and the upper half lay underneath him. ‘Take this, easy.’  Again the Garbo changed hands, after Palin collapsed onto his back. 

‘When do we get into port, again? I hate this place.’

‘What’s to hate? Free food, free trip, man.  Bed, too, all free. Freedom.’ 

Palin blanched.  Ohno wasn’t exactly given to fits of verbosity, rarely exceeding three words in a sentence.  For him, that statement was a Jeffersonian oration. 

‘It’s not exactly free, we have to slave our asses off scrubbing rust in the hottest part of the ship, Ohno.’ 

Ohno wrenched his bulging, muscular frame onto one elbow, turned sideways, and pointed a thumb at his chest.  His upper arms, as big as Palin’s head, writhed beneath the skin.  ‘Lookit me, man. I’m not a slave. Freedom.’ 

The mild hallucinogenic effect of the Garbo started to kick in, and Palin sat for a moment staring at the bulging bicep.  Although he didn’t disapprove of he didn’t use them, either. He’d always considered kid kind of vain.  Ohno evidently endorsed the idea.  His torso was an inverted pyramid with tree trunks for arms.  Palin, by comparison, was thin as a rake.  His jumpsuit hung like a parachute.

‘Point taken. But if you get caught by one of those dickhead ship’s crew assholes then you’re free ride’s not going to be so free any more.  No more freedom.’ He folded his hands behind his head and reclined fully.

‘No, man. What they gonna do? Dump me in space? No, man. Just not pay me. Let me off at port. This ship dyin’ anyway.’

‘Still, I wish I’d just paid for a ticket on a jumpliner instead of working my way across.’

‘So why didn’t you?’ Ohno asked.  ‘Money problems?’

‘Nah, plenty of money, mom made sure of that.’

Ohno’s expression turned quizzical, or maybe just stoned.  ‘So why you here, man?’ Waving an open-handed arm around the reeking hallway.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time,’ Palin said in a smoke-filled voice.  The sodium pentathol-like effect of the Garbo kicked in, and he could only speak the truth. ‘I thought it would be a meaningful experience, somehow.  Real living, like. Something I’d remember or something, y’know?”

Ohno just laughed. A deep, almost contemptuous laugh the way someone laughs when they watch old movies of people trying to build early flying machines. 

Don’t know how she’s still living. Ship’s the biggest piece I’ve ever seen,’ Palin said, changing the subject. In truth, he chose the Vossoff based solely on its well-used appearance.  He equated its appearance with experience, and experience with life.  Life experiences: that was what he was after.

‘Been on worse, man.’  Ohno said.

‘What are you going to do when we get there?’

Ohno brightened, and a grin spread across his face. ‘Man, New Port City Crazy.  We gonna have a time.’ 

Palin brightened. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah man. Crazy time.  Freedom.’

Palin turned toward Ohno, who was rolling another cigarette.  The latticework of the grill behind the Japanese Man pulsed slowly, almost imperceptibly. ‘Like what? What is there to do?’ He asked, though he already knew.

‘Everything to do. Smoke bars, drink bars, nanobars. All peoples like us, man.’

New Port City, a sprawling megalopolis of 200 million people, was the largest shipping port in the Local Group.  It was a Mecca for solarbummers and youthfully exuberant tourists with a system-wide reputation for no-holds-barred decadence. Palin had heard virtually nothing was illegal there. 

‘How many times have you been there?’

Ohno inserted a small black pellet into one end of the joint, put the other end in his mouth, and sucked hard.  The tip burst into a small blue flame, lighting the dope. ‘Lot, man.  Crazy city,’ He said.

Heavy, echoing footfalls on the grated walkway interrupted their break. They rose and made preparations.  Palin grabbed his tool and leapt back into his hole to frantically resume work.  Ohno extinguished the joint’s cherry with his foot and pulled up the rest of his uniform. He scooped up a big, glopping handful of ooze collected at the base of a pipe, spread it about his hands, fore arms, and stimulator. He picked out a random pipe, flicked on the device, and moved it slowly over the corroded surface, breaking down the grime at a molecular level and turning the rust back into iron. 

A pudgy member of the full-time ship’s crew with too much forehead and a receding chin sauntered around the corner wearing a sneer and air of superiority. His pant legs were tucked into his boots military fashion. 

‘What’re you two up to there?’ The man demanded in a military-like cadence.

Palin pulled himself out of his hole. ‘Cleaning, like we were told.’ Ohno kept at his cosmetics.

‘Oh, yeah, then what’s that smell there?’

‘Smell?’

‘Yeah, you heard me. Smells like you boys been uh…’ He raised his eyebrows twice and, bringing his hand up to his mouth, made a motion with his thumb and forefinger like he was giving a cat a blowjob.  ‘Smokin’ some…stuff.’

‘Stuff?’ Palin asked in mock confusion, holding back a chortle. He knew the asshole couldn’t smell anything because the whole ship reeked so strongly of chemicals, rust, and filth that after a few days on board the olfactory nerve just shut down.

‘Don’t play dumb with me.’  Then his face lit up as if he’d suddenly had a brilliant thought. ‘Let me see your thingies,’ He said with a sneer.

Ohno and Palin held out the slender black cylinders.  Both were filthy, but Ohno’s was almost comically so. Jerk scrutinized them with a scowl, and disappointment flashed briefly across his face, followed by anger.  ‘You,’ He pointed to Palin.  ‘Quit slacking off.’ 

‘I haven’t been,’ Palin said, his voice rising.  ‘I’ve been slaving at these things all goddamn day.’

Asshole arched his eyebrows again, and opened his eyes as wide possible, making his big bald forehead wrinkle.  ‘Yeah? Then why ain’tcher your oxidonzer as dirty as his?’ He hooked his thumbs under his armpits and let out a soft sigh of satisfaction with his bit of Holmesian deduction.

Palin looked over at Ohno’s hands, dripping with goo, then up to his softly smirking face. ‘I…I don’t know,’ He said after a pause.  ‘Sorry.’

‘Yeah, thought so.  You can’t put nothin’ by me.  I’m gonna have my eye on ya.’ He pointed two fingers at his eyes, then one at Palin.  ‘Don’t slack off.’  He walked away.

Ohno collapsed into his nest, giggling.  Palin hurled his tool and gloves against the wall with a curse, and fell onto his back beside him.  They didn’t move for the rest of the day, except to pass joints back and forth. 

Two weeks later Palin and Ohno were standing with the rest of the grunt crew at the main exit hatch, waiting to disembark. For the rest of the journey, save for the moments when he had to look hard at work, he’d done nothing but get stoned all day, and the absence of physical exertion made the rest of the trip only very uncomfortable instead of absolutely hellish.  Their final pay came to just over 7,000 credits apiece, or almost exactly the cost of a jump-liner ticket along the same route. 

‘This a crazy weekend, man.’ Ohno said, pointing to his check. 

‘I’m sorry?’

‘New Port City, man. Crazy weekend.’

‘Oh, right.  So what’s the plan, then?’

‘You’ll see, man. Surprise.’ Ohno grinned wide, shifting his pack to a different shoulder. He carried an old-fashioned black canvas duffle bag of indeterminable age, covered with rough ink drawings and quilted with sew-on patches.  Palin, by comparison, toted a 4,000-credit ultra-pocketed travel backpack, a parting gift from a worried mother making sure her son wouldn’t be uncomfortable during his first time away from home.   The bag was waterproof, fireproof, guaranteed for life, and could be converted to an emergency tent or four-person life raft.  It also contained a built-in Solar Positioning System, distress signal/homing beacon and view screen. All packed into less than a kilogram. Holding it now, and looking at Ohno’s, Palin thought it looked…touristy.

‘Crazy city.  We gonna have a time.’ Ohno muttered.

‘Freedom,’ Palin said, literally quivering. ‘This is my first time on another planet.’ Ohno made a sound like a giggle.             

A rough, loud jolt sounded as the Vossoff set down, and a short time later a large section of the wall dematerialized, and they stepped out onto the gangplank.

*

Eighteen hours later, on the cold, bare, aluminum floor of a filthy room with, Palin awoke with a severe hangover, not knowing how the hell he got there. He still wore all of his clothing, including the black zippered jacket and heavy boots. He was rolled up in his survival blanket, and his spare sweater was keeping his head off the floor.

A low, colorless light shone through the window and he briefly thought it must be morning, until he remembered that Sirius Prime only made one complete rotation every 20 Earth days, and it was their equivalent of noon when the Vossoff docked.

‘Window shut.’ He said, wanting the light to go away.  No wall materialized in the windows place.  The thing was built in.

  What time is it? Palin thought.  His the contact screen on his left eye flickered to life and glowing red numbers in a rough typewriter font flashed over his pupil.  The time seemed to hang in the air above his head and he saw the amount of time that had somehow passed since he’d arrived. Yesterday. Goddamn, what happened?

Again the screen changed, and he saw the ramp of the ship in front of him as he exited. He registered a fast-forward and in a flash the previous day to him in condensed format. He saw the short, sensory-overload of a walk through the buzzing docks and frenzied streets of Harbourville to a cheap youth hostel. A fat pixilated clerk checked them in, which took all of two seconds. Then he was back on the street with Ohno taking a short trip to a nanobar to meet with the Russian brothers Joe and Joe, two other grunt-workers from the ship.

The Joes had been assigned to a different part of the ship, and he hadn’t had much contact with them. He saw and remembered injecting a spray out of an unmarked orange canister they bought him, and then the feed cut out.  He must have disconnected the jack, he thought. It was all black after that.  He tried actually remembering what happened but couldn’t. No snatches, half-remembered, of doing something somewhere in a highly drunken or stoned state.  No memories at all, not even blurs of memories. Just blackness.    

He propped himself up on one arm, and the pain, a dull throbbing behind the eyes, came as soon as his head left the floor. No one else was in the room. Though was quite forcibly hung over, he didn’t remember drinking anything.  His open pack was still in the corner, right where he had thrown it.  He struggled to his feet and stumbled over.  So far as he could tell, everything was still there. Only the blanket and sweater were taken out.  Turning around, he looked the rotting mattresses on rusting metal frames; the reason why whoever put him to bed didn’t put him on a bed.

Ohno’s black canvas pack wasn’t in the room.   Palin couldn’t remember him leaving. He couldn’t remember anything.  He stopped trying when his bladder started violently contracting, nearly doubling him over with the need to piss. Bolting for the hallway, he almost walked into the door before remember he had to open it.  The floors outside were just like the room and clanged softly under his boots he made for the end of the hallway past the rows of scarred, peeling doors, to the communal bathroom.  In his brief time away from the ship his sense of smell had recovered, and the pungent, acrid odor of urine and feces hit him before he even got to the door. 

Now his head wasn’t just throbbing, it was methodically exploding.  Every pulse of blood to his brain felt like he was sniffing crushed glass.  The effort of getting to the bathroom and the clouds of methane rolling out of the door made him nauseous, and for a moment it seemed as if the vomit would come before the piss.  By the time he got to the toilet, exhaustion pushed all hygienic considerations aside and he collapsed onto the seat, buried his head in his hands, and pissed sitting down.  Luckily, he picked the one toilet out of 15 whose seat was not coated with feces, urine, vomit, semen, or blood.  Sometimes fortune smiles on the suffering.

The bathroom was of the sort one would expect to in a crumbling, beneath the bottom of the barrel place like his hostel. Half of the sinks were ripped from the walls or shattered.  The faucets were corroded in shades of white and green, and many of the knobs were missing.  Those that worked dripped, leaving dark brown stains like crap in a toilet bowl, running from the point of impact of the hard water drops down to the drains, which were all clogged with bad things. The mirrors, although unbreakable, were nonetheless obscured with graffiti.  Once white grout, long since turned brown and back, filled the spaces between tiles.  There was no visible way to clean or dry any part of one’s body.  Palin looked to his side with bloodshot eyes to read what someone had scrawled on the wall while apparently doing a very naughty thing.   

Fifteen minutes later the strength returned to Palin’s legs and he felt strong enough to attempt the journey back through the hallway.  Very few of the doors he passed still had numbers, but one that did stood out when his eyes crossed it: 77.  For some reason he knew that was where the Joes stayed the night before. A dozen-legged bug crawled out of the hole punched in the middle of the call screen.  He knocked: no answer.  He knocked louder, with his feet, and the doorframe around the bolt gave way, letting the door swing wide. Inside, a dozen tiny bipedal rat-creatures, feeding on open food containers, scattered into a pipe sticking out of the wall. He was too hung-over to be amazed though.

From the look of things, Joe, Joe, Ohno, and not a few other people apparently threw quite a party there.  Dozens of bottles, some alcohol, some hyperdrink, sporting a myriad of labels in several languages littered the floor, along with the remains of the beds and a card table. Nanospray cartridges of every color covered the floor like candy sprinkles on a cupcake. He scanned the room but didn’t see travel any bags.  The Joes were gone, and Ohno, he guessed, with them. A lone chair stood undamaged in the middle of the chaos, which Palin sat down on when his strength left him again.

While resting his head on his hands he surveyed the cartridges on the floor and saw one that was unused.  He picked up and turned it over in his hands. Silver lettering on a black background read ‘Dark Star Supershot.’  Uppers.

Back in his room, he retrieved his dermjack from his pack and shot directly into his neck. Ten seconds later the bots hit his brain, giving a slight reprieve from the hangover.  Probably not for long, he thought, but enough to grab his bag and get the hell out the place before someone found the Joes’s room and blamed him for the carnage. The elevator at the end of the hall didn’t respond to his repeated calls, and that meant walking the thirty flights of stairs down to the lobby.

The stairway was as filthy as the bathroom. The landings appeared to have been leased out as storage spaces for some kind of chemical waste. The last few steps of each flight were completely obscured by heaps of garbage. He leapt over them, fearful of what the piles might conceal. 

Palin, now riding high on the wave of a nanofreak, was glad he’d taken the hypershot.  Without it, he’d have never been able to make the trip.  The nanobots were reactionary; it turned out, and kept upping the speed every time he felt sick.  By the time he got down, he was wired to the gills.

Down in the small lobby, he slipped past the very fat desk clerk, shrouded in a bank of smoke, and out into the street. Not that he knew where he was going.  Not that he cared, either, just as long as it was elsewhere, a condition conveniently satisfied by everywhere.

Upon first arriving, he’d been too stunned to really see the city.  The seething masses of people on the dirty sidewalks, the thousands of personal transports, the huge, decaying buildings stretching upward until they disappeared in a ceiling of brown haze. Now it hit him in all of its glory.  Harbourville was like a humming bird on amphetamines, buzzing with life and activity.  Bright neon signs blinked and strobed in the daylight.  Bars were crowded to capacity, because, as it wasn’t going to be night for 120 hours, it didn’t matter how one set his or her drinking schedule. Countless spaceships ranging in size from personal craft to freighters that would dwarf the venerable Vossoff crisscrossed the sky in orderly rows.  The right side of the street was all buildings, and on the left were the endless 50-story docking stations of the harbor. 

The stations were huge square lattice works of metal and cement-like buildings without walls. The ships docked at the very top of the structures, on which sat the monumental cranes that unloaded their cargo into the circular 100-foot wide freight elevators.  He could see thousands of people scurrying about them, welding, hammering, and carrying.  At the top of the station nearest him, the nose of a massive ship poked out over the street below.  The circular elevator descended from its belly like a newborn child.

He was too tweaked, though, to be awed or overwhelmed.

Heading down the street, his aim was to find a more habitable establishment than the bombed out barracks he’d just vacated. The hangover gradually crept back into his brain as walked, and the sun stabbed his eyes like needles, even through the smog.  He was pretty sure the light even made a high-pitched ‘shing!’ sound, like the drawing of an infinitely long blade.  It was time for another bump, and he stepped into the first thing like a store he found, a place selling pornography, drugs, and groceries.  He couldn’t find any Dark Star; just something called ‘White Star,’ in an identical style can. At the counter, next to the guns and mints, was a medical rack.  There were blue cartridges marked ‘hangover,’ and orange ones marked ‘crash.’ He grabbed two of the blue ones, put them down next to the White Star, and handed his credit chip to the clerk, who appeared to be covered in head-to-toe clear plastic wrap.

There were just over 500 credits left on his chip, according to the receipt. That was about one day’s pocket money. He would have to replenish it from the other chip in his bag, the one he kept all of his money on, just as soon as he got to a hotel.  He did all three sprays before leaving.

Whatever the Dark Star had done, the White Star did times ten. Complicating things, the blue pill cartridges turned out to be some sort of violent speed.  His veins sizzled as he hurled himself down the sidewalk, trembling, eyes wide, body moving at the speed of the city around him.  He gnashed his teeth and clenched his sweating fists.  No thought of a hangover now.  No thoughts at all now, really. His thigh muscles twitched convulsively every time he lifted his legs.  Dark brown sweat stains engulfed his clothing.

After what might have been 2 or 20 blocks he came to an establishment that, for the presence of a janitor cleaning the lobby, looked respectable. The woman who checked him in didn’t seem to notice his uncontrollable grunts and craning of the neck

Palin stayed in the room for 10 hours, pacing around the room or sitting crouched on a chair, rocking back and forth.  Even though he didn’t smoke, he ordered a carton of barbiturettes sent up and chain-smoked all 300. Twice he switched on the news feed, but the influx of information into his head threatened to throw him into sensory overload and he had to turn it off. He shed all of his clothing soon afterwards, and laid naked on top of the blankets, sweating and smoking, wishing for the tweak to end, please end.  He just needed to sleep. Every minute seemed like ten.   Finally, sleep came. It was a restless sleep, and lasted only four hours. 

This time piss wasn’t the first thing on mind; thirst was. The 10-hour nanofreak had sweated all the moisture out of him. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow.  His eyes were even dry. Dehydration caused a dull ache throughout his muscles.  It occurred to him that as far as he could remember, he’d had nothing to drink since arriving. 

He walked over to the screen on the wall and pressed it.  It flickered to life.  He touched the icons as they appeared on the gas-crystal display, ordering bottles of spring water, food, and two bottles of wine. 

With the food coming, he returned to his bed to wait, and his thoughts drifted back to Ohno’s departure. He felt hurt. A knot started to form in the back of his throat.

Then the room service came and he turned his attention to the giant bottles of water and piles of artificial food substitute molded into spaghetti form.  He inhaled the food quickly, not stopping to open the wine until he finished sopping up the last of the sauce with his bread.  There were no words to describe how much better he felt.

Palin sat back on the bed and drank three glasses of wine.  Everything was okay, he thought.  The trip had gotten off to a rocky start, but that was none of his fault.  It was going to be all right now. The situation in the hostel was a tough one, and the misadventure with the speed had made things worse, but in the end he made it through on his own. He felt rather proud, actually, even mature. He was finally holed up in a comfortable hotel room, ready to begin life.  He felt like a shower, and maybe some sightseeing.

An hour later, changed and out into the city, he strolled lightly, taking in the bewildering diversity of Harbourville. Away from the docks, small, cramped shops and bars populated the bottom floor of every building on both sides of the street.  Above them, the buildings appeared to turn into apartments.  He passed a dentist’s office next door to a whorehouse, next to a bakery, next to a mosque.

This part of the city was densely packed that there were three more levels of sidewalks above ground level, attached to the building facades. The side streets looked the same. There was no rhyme or reason to the place.  It looked as if some immense god had taken a perfectly good city, put it in a bag, shook it up, and poured the contents out in a great pile. To just do this part of the city would take weeks, he thought. 

For the first time he remembered how much he wanted to see the Sirius A an B up close.  The binary stars were supposedly one of the most visigraphed tourist attractions in the Local Group. He looked upwards, but the uniform brown smog still hung in the air, obscuring any view of the suns.

After a good bit of walking, careful all the time not to sway from the street he was on for fear of getting lost, he stopped by a coffee shop to rest.  The place was decorated eclectically.  Rifles, shrunken heads, musical instruments and erotic paintings hung on walls that were one giant, continuous collage of old black and white photographs and magazine clippings. A few people were around the place, talking or shoot up or sitting with feeds plugged into their temples.  He bought a coffee at the counter, found an empty two-seat table by the wall, and sat down. A pretty girl in a tank top and cutoff shorts immediately grabbed Palin’s attention.

Her hair was died half a dozen different colors, and she sported nanorobotic tattoos that flickered and changed forms at a constant, slow pace that reminded him of how the grating in the Vossoff looked when he was on Garbo. She wore hiking boots and a backpack similar to his sat by her.  A fellow solarbum, he thought. 

After a few minutes of periodic staring on his part, their eyes happened to meet.  She quickly looked away, as did he.  When he looked back half a cup of coffee later, she was looking his way again, but again, averted her eyes. 

Many of his imagined scenarios began just like this, with chance meetings with fellow travelers, invariably pretty females.  Should I go talk to her? Wait to see if she looks at me again. On the wall he noticed a page from an old calculus book had been pasted on the wall.  It was a cubic matrix equation.  He started working the problem in his head to appear calm, but watched her all the while from the corner of his eye. She looked at him again. This time he kept his stare, and, after she glanced at him yet another time, he got up and went over.

But then bad luck stepped in. It might have been fate, playing catch up for the fortunate toilet seat earlier. The nanobots he had injected hours before in the small shop suddenly reactivated themselves, triggered by the coffee. He’d been warned about doing unknown brands here, because they were sometimes defective and didn’t cycle themselves out. 

The resurgent bots hit his brain and his muscles started twitching again, violently. Palin was so caught off guard by this he didn’t see the briefcase someone left by a chair five feet in front of tattoo girl.  His foot hit the bag, and he lurched forward, his arms outstretched and quivering.  He saw the girl’s terror-filled face as she looked up at him, grasping for her key chain. And then – blackness. 

Palin collapsed onto the floor in heap. Above him, the girl stood, hysterical, surrounded by a self-defense force field.  The blue aura of the fields stun range extended a foot outward on all sides.

‘He tried to attack me! He tried to attack me!’ She sobbed.

Fifteen minutes later Palin came to, as a very large bouncer was dragging him out of the back of the store into a reeking alley filled with ooze-covered garbage and mud puddles that shimmered with psychedelic oil-made rainbows. . Seeing Palin awake, the seven-foot tall man threw him up against a wall and drew his fist back. Palin held up his hands and started pleading.

‘Oh, please, no, don’t hit me, it was an accident. Please.’ He said.

‘Accident hell. You tried to attack her.  We don’t allow that.’ He slapped Palin hard. Blood poured from one of his nostrils.

‘No, no no. I tripped. I wasn’t trying to attack her I swear. Please.’ He was crying now.

‘What were you doing walking over to her, then?’ He slapped him again the other nostril gushed forth.

Palin grunted in pain. ‘Oh, God, stop please. She’d been looking at me, I was just going over to talk.’

‘Why did you think she wanted to talk to you?’

‘She-She’d been looking at me.’

‘And?’

‘And nothing, just looking at me.’ 

‘That’s it?’

‘Yeah…I…I guess I made a mistake. I’m sorry.’ 

‘Yeah. You did,’ He threw Palin down into the garbage filled alleyway. The asphalt scraped both elbows badly. ‘Come back and I hurt you.’ The bouncer said, then turned and went inside.

Palin got up and ran down the alleyway to the road, where he turned and headed back toward his hotel. His head killed him, and he was miserably wired. He held his sleeve to his nose to stem the blood because his first aid kit was in his pack.  He made it back to the hotel without incident.

He washed up in his room and injected a first aid cartridge.  He felt his nose and elbows tingle as the tiny medics went to work. He couldn’t believe his rotten luck.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he cursed his clumsiness and weakness.    He felt embarrassed, he felt stupid, and his head felt like hell.  And then, while returning the first aid kit, he found that Ohno had stolen his main credit chip, and he felt sick.

*

At the police station Palin was met with a mixture of incredulity, bewilderment, and finally pity, when he explained that he was reporting a theft and actually seemed to expect somebody to do something about it.  With all the animation of  a tree sloth on barbiturates, a very fat androgynous desk clerk waved him to a bank of touch-screens built into a wall.  After entering his name and EID number, selecting ‘theft – monetary’ from a pull-down menu an describing the nature of the crime in fifty words or less, the computer thanked him for his input, told him it would take four to six weeks to process his report, and advised him to have a nice day.   

‘Go to hell,’ He told the thing, walking off. 

Fifteen hours of searching.  Fifteen hours of walking up and down sidewalks and streets whose names he did not know and all of which looked the same.  Fifteen hours of walking into every run-down hostel he passed, also all alike and too many to count, only to be told time after time that, no, he hadn’t ever stayed there. Fifteen hours of realizing that, while riding on the crackling energy of the Dark and White Stars, he’ bolted through the streets far too aimlessly to ever find his way back.   At one point he passed by a store for some water and, noticing again the orange ‘crash’ cartridges by the counter, made the connection with drugs he’d been given by the Joes.  Palin had lost it all: 53,000 credits. It was gone, and never coming back.

How the hell did it all go so wrong?  It was supposed to be the adventure of his life.  His boring, stable, exactly the same day-in and day-out life. How could bumming around the stars for a year possibly, conceivably, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever go wrong?  All of the experiences travel offered were supposed to build upon his inner self like coal polyps, slowly transforming him into a mature, complex individual. But all of those experiences were supposed to be good ones. He never took the time to imagine anything bad happening. 

After 53 hours on Sirius Prime, he’d certainly experienced things he never would have gotten to back home, but he didn’t, at the time, consider that a positive.  His adventures here had been uniformly awful, not horizon broadening.  They gave him no polyps.  Just sore legs, the recurrent tweak of defective speedbots, and no money, stranded light years from home.  The ear-splitting roar of a ship taking off overhead shook the ground.

The ship! Of course! 

As unpleasant as the idea seemed, the Vossoff was now his only chance. The room in the hotel was only reserved for one 25 hours and he didn’t have enough credits left to pay for another. There might be enough left for a cab-ride, though.  If he could reach the ship before it left, maybe he could get hired back on….

Palin remembered overhearing that the ship would be leaving for Earth again 55 hours after docking, which didn’t leave much time.  He made to race back to the hotel for his bag, only to find that after all those hours of wandering he’d again become hopelessly lost.

After some minutes, he located a taxi stand. The only transport available was an idling hodgepodge of yellow spray painted scrap metal that barely looked like it could hover.  The driver informed him that the amount on his card was, funnily enough, exactly enough for one short trip across town. So where to?

And he couldn’t remember the name of the hotel.  He hadn’t cared when he checked into the place.  And now he didn’t know.  There was no time and not enough money to search.

‘The docks, where the large cargo ships come in,’ He said, in the voice of someone who’d just been kicked in an open, freshly salted wound with a steel-toed boot, while lying face down in the mud.

‘Know the dock numbers?’

‘It was in the eighties.’

‘Kay.’ And they took off.

He leaned back in the seat, put his face in his hands, and sobbed quietly in the back of the filthy cab.

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