Heya, folkses! I’ve been busy these past months trying to take care of some non-writing projects, like painting the exterior of my house (long overdue!) and getting two rambunctious kittens settled in to my home and repairing all of the things they’ve broken. So I apologize for my absence!
It is only now I feel like I’m able to turn my attention to a new book project, and this one will be a standalone space caper starring Rollie Tsmorlood from the There Goes the Galaxy books. As I begin plotting, and reminding myself where I left off, I ran across this short story I’d written featuring Rollie, set in the Greater Communicating Universe. So, a little treat for fans of that book series, if you never got to check it out on my old blog site! Happy reading! — Jenn
Never agree to be Lookout when you’re pressure-locked into a Personal Smoking Enjoyment helmet, Tseethe Tsardonee decided.
Sure, the headgear met Greater Communicating Universe (GCU) public safety standards. And since Tseethe had been smoking so long he’d evolved to actually feed off the stuff, it wasn’t like the helmet was exactly optional these days. It was medicinal. Survival. Prescribed even. He was smoking his way to continued good health.
But the heavy bubble around his head and neck reduced his peripheral vision. It compromised his reaction time. Tseethe looked out across the desolate Hyphiz Deltan street, jumping at every imagined movement before his smoke-fogged lens, leaping at every crackle of sound that filtered through the in-helmet audio.
He suspected he was losing that air of brusque, fearsome self-possession he’d worked so hard to craft over the past Universal years. It was the first time he felt like a liability.
Not that he’d ever tell Rolliam Tsmorlood that. Tseethe still needed the yoonies from this job to fund his own Underworld endeavors. Projects more profitable, dignified– more sane— than busting into a fragging Print Liberation Lounge to steal something no life-form whose brain hadn’t gone free-space would even want to touch, let alone add to his criminal resume.
And while Rollie was pretty off-orbit by GCU standards, he did pay well and reliably. Plus, the man hadn’t noticed Tseethe wasn’t 100%; fragging the LibLounge surveillance system into nanoparticles took most of his attention now.
“Um, nice little fire ya got going there,” Tseethe observed. Even through the night shadows and his clouded visor, he could see the flames licking what was left of the Klinko® Exterior Intruder Repellant System.
“It’ll burn out in a minute,” Rollie assured him. The camera box was melting in on itself. “Prob’ly.” Something spit and flared. “Any time.” He cleared his throat, redirecting his weapon’s sights on the LibLounge front doors.
And WHOOSH! The doors whisked open, an electronic voice shrieking, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Come in! Just don’t hurt us!”
Tseethe leapt back, his own hand-laser drawn in a flash. It was a trap; it had to be. He peered through the smoke for oncoming assault, but the streets were lifeless. The LibLounge remained still and dark.
Rollie made a sound that was either a cough or a laugh. “Property Self-Preservation Personality Module,” he explained, stepping over the threshold. His equipment, stashed in a convenient hoverbox, trailed dutifully behind. “Fear sensors; they’re new. The real estate insurance people lobbied for ‘em. Supposed to reduce property damage claims.”
“What about theft?”
“Funny you mention it. Turns out, theft insurers prefer security systems that don’t just give up under duress. It’s all being hashed out in court.” A small lantern pierced the darkness, and Tseethe could see the tall man with the white-yellow hair kneeling beside a large silver drop-off bin. “Meantime, it’s all gone silent alarms now.” Rollie pulled a thin rectangular device from his toolbox and slapped it on the bin. “Which reminds me: aren’t you supposed to be looking out?”
If he were paying any attention, he would have seen Tseethe already positioned in the doorway. Frankly, the fresh night breeze was a relief from the powerful LibLounge smell. The whole place reeked of baked grains and spices, roots, berries, small dead things, large dead things made into small dead things, and whatever other delicacies they pureed into those muddy-thick shakes of theirs. He knew some people raved about the stuff. Even craved it. But it was all too unnecessary for Tseethe’s tastes. Give him a bottle of Carsoolian pod liquor and a funnel and he was a happy man.
The smell of refreshments mixed with the smell of customers past– ones whose Regimentation Hours of Mandatory Recreation were routinely spent here. At the LibLounge, customers would savor the latest infopills, Capsule Club discussions, and the thrill of exchanging their burdensome volumes of print for instant knowledge and in-store discounts. It was a good deal, really; the LibLounge helped GCU communities declutter, ease into the latest infopill technology, and the print incineration was free.
Meanwhile the street outside remained silent. Tseethe checked the clock in his helmet: Regimentation Hour Two, local time. That meant Mandatory Sleep on Hyphiz Delta, when all sensible native Hyphizites completely shut down, hearts’ beats slowing to nothing, brain activity minimal. They wouldn’t feel a growing night chill, the pinch of a passive-aggressive spouse, or hear the friendly sounds of breaking-and-entering. Yes, the good people of Hyphiz Delta would replenish their energy supplies for the dawn of another productive day.
Due to its populations’ unique vulnerabilities, the planet was well-protected from potential outside invasion, but its government wasn’t too concerned about rebellion from within. The people were comfortable in their current system, acclimated and fulfilled. Crime rates were low. Rebellion was never officially scheduled, so no one saw it as a priority.
Sure, occasionally there’d be a renegade who challenged Regimentation in a public way. But the offender would be captured, labeled a prib, and promptly exiled from the star system.
The planet’s Night Shift Regimentation Enforcement officers were on-the-job for just those occasions, but over time the work was known to take its toll. Most of them started with such simple aspirations: an exciting RegForce career and 2.5 progeny, that extra half-progeny looking so idyllic perched on the mantle when company came. But living life off Regimentation Schedule for too long, well, it tended to do things to some Hyphizites.
Things like heightened aggression, illogical thought, paranoia, the relentless drive to stun whatever moved and paper every physical surface in a colorful array of citations… Tseethe and Rollie had seen this behavior up close, at their own dramatic stunned-and-papered exiles. Ninety-seven percent of the time, the planet’s bedtime enforcement warriors had nothing to do; they waited around for stuff like this.
They would have salivated straight through their stiff collars if they knew two pribs had found a way to slip back into the system, even for a day-trip. It reminded Tseethe of that old Deltan proverb: “Remember the joy of launch, for reentry is what burns you.”
He was debating what that even meant– and whether he should have packed more flame-retardant gear– when down at the end of the street, something wavered. Something he hoped was a simple trick of the streetlight on his in-helmet smoke.
The swirl of vapor thinned to tendrils, offering a clearer view. Tseethe’s hearts joggled. “Rollie, they’re coming,” he said. “About 500 kroms away. Looks like a standard surveillance patrol. I don’t think they’ve spotted us, but you know that won’t last.” He turned to see Rollie still kneeling by that collection bin, fiddling with the key decoder.
“RegForce,” grumbled Tsmorlood, “If only they’d all sleep the sleep of the Just, Productive and Fragging Dull, like everyone else on the planet.” The man’s orange-gold eyes were fixed on the key-cracker. His fingers moved across the device slowly, methodically, as he scanned for the right unlocking sequence.
Tseethe turned back to the street, tracing the progress of the uniformed beings. Now that they were closer, he could see they were short, dark men– definitely not native Hyphizites– with the same bland features, the same perfectly smooth, strategically-organized receding hairlines. It only meant one thing. “Simulants– flaming Altair, they’re Non-Organic Simulants, Rollie! Our local boys outsourced the night shift to the polymer people. You’re gonna have to hurry.”
Rollie was still fooling around with that decoding device like it was a Vos Laegos showgirl at an after-hours party.
Tseethe let out an exasperated sigh. “Can’t you just laser the fragging bin? We’re kinda short on time here.”
But Rollie fixed him with an orange astonished glare. “Laser it? There’s print in here.”
“Of course,” Tseethe said through clenched teeth. “We can’t laser it; there’s print.” Captain Rolliam Tsmorlood was perfectly willing to stun, melt, disintegrate or blow up anything that got in his way in a 30 krom radius, unless it happened to be a completely obsolete hard copy of P.K. Flutterbitt’s Field Guide to Deep Space Fauna and What Will Eat Your Ship. Or The Black Hole Vacation Planner. Or The Intergalactic Gourmet’s Supernova Meals in a NanoSecond.
In fact, it didn’t matter what it was. If it was print, Rollie Tsmorlood was for it. Ninety-eight percent of the Greater Communicating Universe, including Tseethe himself, had gratefully switched to infopill because it was instant and simple with stellar knowledge retention. You couldn’t beat it for speed, flexibility and important kachunkettball stats.
No one missed print. Yet here was Rollie, ready to rescue the fragging stuff from the LibLounge purging bins like he was looting the Royal Coffers of Tiv-Vanees.
“Okay, what is it with you and print, anyway?” He was tracking the humanoids as they crissed and crossed from business to business in their methodical duty. “I know you enjoy a good lost cause, but flaming Altair! It’s all on infopill. It takes up space. What’s the fragging point?”
Tseethe glanced at the guy long enough to catch a smile as cold and serrated as a Marglenian fighting fish, right before it gets its dinner to-go. “The point, mate, is that someday… maybe not tomorrow… maybe not soon… but someday… print is destined to live agai—Ah!”
The exclamation was followed by the sound of minor avalanche. The collection bin door had released, and print came a-rumbling and a-tumbling to the floor. It echoed from the metal bin.
It was picked up by the robo-RegForce, who began to run straight for the LibLounge. “Incoming!” Tseethe checked the settings on his weapon. It was an XJ-36, a hand-laser on the affordable side, but accurate enough for both distance and close-range situations.
Rollie Tsmorlood was busy piling the print into the hoverbox. “It’s the smell, isn’t it?” he was now saying meditatively. “Of time, and use, and experiences. You don’t get that with an infopill.”
“It’s fire-or-bail time, man,” Tseethe announced, bracing his helmet against the doorframe; the XJ-36 had a little kick.
“Print’s tactile. Requires a bit of effort,” Rollie went on. “And portable, but never gives you indigestion.”
“Fire-or-bail!” Tseethe shouted. “Fire-or-bail!”
“Whereas, you down an infopill with a Feegar Bourbon — I guarantee, mate, you’ll be coughing up whole paragraphs of chemical coding before the night is through.”
Tseethe fired– one! two! In seconds, the Simulant RegForce officers were flat-out and fried across the LibLounge Welcome mat. Systems sparked. Fluids oozed. The fear sensors in the front doors were crying hysterically from witness trauma.
Tseethe stepped over to admire his laser work, and was impressed how much collateral damage had come from two clean shots. Sure, the Simulants could probably be rebuilt, but it would cost the RegForce more than a few yoonies. Not to mention all the paperwork they’d have to file with the Non-Organic Simulant labor union. Those guys were sticklers.
Turning, he saw Rollie holster his own still-smoking weapon. Tseethe had suspected there had been more laserfire than just his, but with lasers, you never could tell. He always wondered why the manufacturers didn’t add noise, make ‘em glow blue or something, just for safety and dramatic effect.
Somebody should write a letter, he thought.
“Time to launch,” Rollie announced. The filled hoverbox rose from the ground and hummed gently, stirring up crumbs and wrappers and print ash that hadn’t been caught by the LibLounge cleaning robots. It ruffled the top-layer of print in the hoverbox.
It ruffled the pages of Moople the Mootaab Goes to Mig Verlig.
“AGH! Stop!” Tseethe let out a short, sharp exhale, and slammed his hand down on the hoverbox power button. The box sank and whirred to the ground. The print settled.
“Frag it all, Tseethe, what gives?”
Tseethe smoothed back the book’s front cover with a trembling hand. Moople the Mootaab Goes to Mig Verlig. Through smoke, he read the title twice, just to be sure.
The slim volume was faded and stained. It depicted a young mootaab — a type of Hyphiz Deltan livestock raised for its useful fibrous coat — running away from home, separating from the great purple herd. This uncertain creature stood in the busy mass transit depot of the Farthest Reaches Cosmos Corral, holding a ticket in one of its six three-toed feet, and leading luggage twice its size. (Unusual behavior for your average livestock, Tseethe granted, but Hyphiz Deltan childrens’ lit tended to take some liberties.)
“Tseethe, mate, something wrong?” he heard Rollie say faintly.
But far from anything being wrong, it was all coming back. Suddenly Tseethe recalled dozens of important life lessons Moople the Mootaab had taught him. Like why you should never even think of separating from the herd. Why you should adhere to a strict daily Regimentation Schedule. And why you should never, ever, ever discharge an XR-25 hand-laser without proper supervision.
“You’re not hit, are you?”
“Nah,” Tseethe managed. He was hit, though — stun-gunned by memories, lasered by time. He hadn’t seen Moople the Mootaab Goes to Mig Verlig since he was barely out of Didactics classes. His second-level maternal archetype — he called her “Nana” — used to read the tale to him in a hard copy version, just like this. That book once belonged to her M.A. Sure, the story was total Hyphiz Deltan propaganda, but it was also a Tsardonee tradition. There was even an XR-25 hand-laser — really just a starter weapon — which they passed down along with it, generation to generation.
If it hadn’t been for Moople the Mootaab and his whiny conformist ways, Tseethe might never have become the creative, independent thinker that made him such an up-and-comer in the Underworld today. And he had that brainwashed, six-legged purple skein of fiber to thank for it.
“Look, mate, we’d better launch,” Rollie was saying. “Don’t know how many Simulants signed on for night shift, yeah?”
“Oh.” Tseethe looked up, as Rollie powered the hoverbox again. It rose, swirling up more crumbs and blowing an old bookmark from the collection bin. “Right. Of course. And, um, this is mine.” His hand shot out and grabbed Moople off the stack. He drew it toward his helmet. It smelled like the impact-resistant polymers and tangy astrodynamic metals of a good old-fashioned in-ship toy storage unit. “Y’know: payment. For my help. Along with the yoonies you owe me, of course.”
Rollie glanced from the book to Tseethe and back again, one pale eyebrow reaching new stratospheres in query. “Okay…?”
“Stellar.” Tseethe tucked the book into his pocket. “So let’s go. What’re we waiting for — the whole fragging RegForce to bust down the doors?”
“NOOOO!” screamed the doors, electronic voice buzzing in terror. “For the love of Hyphiz Delta, NOOOOO!”
But Tseethe and Rollie were already slipping through darkened streets on their way to the ship, the hoverbox of print trailing close behind. Some might have said that box was a little like a young mootaab hastening to rejoin its herd, grateful to return to the fold after a tiring adventure.
Tseethe didn’t, though. He missed it all through the smoke.