Just as I was going out of my mind, the shunt dumped me and my peroxide head at 11:15pm local time—three hours out of schedule—on the Central City Intergalactic bubblemac.
Due to the late hour, the bus was abandoned except for the computer controller, three kids with a mechanical dog, and me. The kids wasted no time in sicking their aluminum and bristle pet on me. Half way to Middle Zone, they pushed the attack button and up whoofed Fido, chain link teeth clacking and grinding, its LED eyeballs blazing with tin-headed ire.
"Driver!" I yelled, with no response. The fuses had been jacked and the commlinks stuck in open phase so no security options were available. No street side cops, even if there were any in this part of town, would be summoned.
As a fully-hipped Earthling, I knew that if I moved a muscle, Fido's motion detector would signal a clamp down. A clamp down is a move copied from some pit bull that had a digital recorder strapped to its head one day long ago. It was fighting another of its kind at the time while money rapidly changed hands just outside the ring. At one point in the bout, the pit pull with the camera would have clamped down on its opponent, holding on till a bone snapped, a neck crumbled, or the honorable opponent suffocated. On this day after the pit bull wannabe jettisoned onto my lap, I sat rigidly still, because the original cameradog would have been particularly mad at the time of the virtual programming. Assuredly, its clamping powers would have been heightened by the tension in the air. If said human dared to move said muscle, surely a bone break and flesh wound so deep it would take years to stop pussing, would ensue. I was quite sure the kids had not kept up with their pet's preventive maintenance schedule; it was all rusty hinge and jagged edge. I'm not a brave person when it comes to pain and besides, I was having trouble recalling when I'd last received a tetanus shot. I used my foot to move the wicker case over in the direction of the fun-loving kids. That's what they were after, that wicker basket.
Just before the bus lurched to its next stop, the youngster with the dazzling neck chain and handy remote clicked Fido back off my lap. His pal with a naked chest, scarred from some ritual akin to the Sioux Indian sun ceremony grabbed my wicker box. The four of them lit out madly through the bus door, Fido bringing up the rear.
"Fuck you and your little dog too!" I shouted after the door had closed behind them. "And that goes for you as well," I called up to the computer console running the bus, as if that would hurt its feelings.
"You're welcome," came the canned response.
I was not amused. On the other hand, I was hardly upset. Wicker cases cost the equivalent of fifty cents on Shap. I always purchase one, fill it with bricks, and carry it with me whenever I have to return home during the night hours. The strategy went with my old territory, Earth.
I stood up when Target Lane appeared on the overhead readout. The bus lurched again and the exit expanded open. I placed my baggage in manual mode and dragged it off the bus, one step at a time, making a big show of how heavy it was. It slumped dead on the street off the bottom step and lay there from the ballast I had stowed earlier when I was stomping off Shap.
The bus took off behind me and seeing no roving gangs of three and a dog, I reverted the bag to self-propel mode and took off for home: the big complex in the middle of five slightly smaller complexes called Indigo Village.
The stars were probably out. I had no idea, though, since the light from the Village prevented any see-through. Plus the permanent haze created by the daily movements of thousands of jet propelled conveyances, toys, conveniences, and assorted other things kept anybody from ever seeing anything, day or night. The permanent gloom in Indigo Village and elsewhere stank of the primitive fossil fuel exhaust as well. After the pure, rare air of Shap, it was particularly difficult to endure.
Seems odd to escape back to this dive, but the Shaps had been giving me the creeps. I'd been experiencing a fit of unshakable nostalgia for about a week and been needing to get home. Truth be told, I had business to take care of. The fit about the hair was just a final straw sort of thing.
My work on Shap was cake for the most part. Practically everybody in security off planet has a cake walk. Shap isn't the only heaven out there. Most of the planets don't even need us. They all have advanced civilizations. The odd thing about advanced civilization is that once they're advanced enough to be a threat, almost by definition they're not. Like it's an unwritten law of the universe that if a civilization gains nuclear fire power, it also gains enlightenment. Everyone knows it, but nobody says it out loud. Least of all people like Tucker, my boss, owner of a diplomacy corporation, the type that ensure peace on any of its contract worlds.
Tucker and people with connections, power, and media access like hers, keep the paranoia back home boiling. "We need to keep our vacspace safe," they like to say. "You just can't imagine what a power hungry culture with fast spaceships and curious aliens could do to our lovely and vulnerable Earth." As if Earth has remained the pristine planet it was back in the twentieth century.
So Tucker gave me the Shap assignment. I spent my days sending back reports on the various moods (or should I say "mood") of the Shaps, the lay of the land, what we could do if they ever decided to attack, which no Shap in their right mind would ever consider doing because they were basically a happy people. Tucker never reported that happy shit though. And even if she had, nobody would have heard it. Everyone back at Tucker Central was too busy scanning and planning over the Shap high tech med facilities, their central intelligence think tanks, and the heart-beating centers of their civilizations. The Tucker Enterprise command big dogs rubbed their hands in glee over their main points of interest on the Shap globe, waiting for the day the natives stepped over the line.
Maybe I was bored by the clean air and general contentedness of Shap. I needed a little jazzing maybe. Maybe that's why I did my hair. Maybe I was scared. Then again maybe I just needed to get laid.
I walked down Target through the outer complexes where several all-night parties showcased the swing and play of the Earth-bound—the people here that made it happen. A bottle crashed onto the cement just ahead of me. Loud, beatless music careened from the strobe-lit windows of the fourth floor. People came and went, the outdoor elevator never stopping. Over by the side wall, crouching behind a scraggly shrub for some semblance of cover, a couple tangled in an excuse for lovemaking. They grappled and clung more than swayed and embraced.
I moved on, entering the inner complex where somewhere on the far side with a view of the courtyard me and my true love, Bell, had a love nest. Bell was an artist: sensitive, always saddened at my extended leaves from planet Earth to bring home the bread. Over-the-top talented, he could never hold down the standard dishwashing job others of his like mind seemed capable of. He was what he was and he provided the flavor in the life of someone who had a job in diplomacy, a fairly tedious occupation. I was mad about him.
Too late I saw the duo with the brickbat. They raised their weapon and I immediately dropped my hold on the stowaway baggage before I got a chance to place it in "manual." They'd have an easy time of it now. It was my first mistake of the trip. The bag was a goner for sure. God I hated this place.
For a few moments I listened to them whooping and hollering as they effortlessly guided my bag down the side alley, then I ran into the complex, not wanting to hang around when they discovered nothing but the ballast inside. People like those two get mad when they come up empty handed. And let's not forget about the brickbat.
I hated losing that bag; it was my best effort, even if it was just another front for urchins with dogs or blunt objects. I'd owned this stowaway for five years now. The bag symbolized everything for me. Bell had given it to me and it had provided me with five years' uninterrupted luck. Now what was going to happen? My luck had run out.
I turned my thoughts to Bell, the anchor in my ever-switching career. Without Bell, I'd have had no centralized lodestone, no magnet drawing me home. Indeed he was my comfort and my reason for existence. Bell and that bag represented my whole life. Without Bell, I would have jettisoned off Earth, this used up, burnt out pit of thieves, sin, and daytime TV programming, long ago. Earth was passé as far as I was concerned, but Bell loved it, thrived in its rich-with-dirt atmosphere. He was an artist and needed the stimulation.
Me? I needed a clear view like the citizens of Shap had, but that was a problem. Shap was a little too predictable, a little too clear, sane and safe. I liked the people there, to be sure. My contact, Cam, was affable, polite. Cam even supported a nascent sense of humor, but in the end, Cam was not much different from the rest. Cam didn't even have a gender. Just like the rest.
The air of Shap was superb: a clear 20/80 mix of O2/N2 and everywhere infused with a native perfume so delicate of fragrance, one didn't notice it so much as miss it when it wasn't there. A combination of locust and chamomile blossoms laced with orange flower water quivering over a half-strength damask base might describe it. And it was everywhere you went.
Crime? Non-existent. Shame, jealousy, fear, sloth—all bred out of the native Shap's consitution. They were flawless, except for that one little flaw: they were all alike. And did I mention not a single one of them had noticed my hair? As if it was impolite to comment on another's appearance. Any differences were regarded as imperfections. But even so, why didn't Cam at least say something? We were buddies, working together every day for almost six Earth months. And I'd done it purportedly in respect for their year-end celebration. I'd done it for the people of Shap to show them I was with them in their celebratory spirit. I liked them and wanted them to know it.
"Bell, I'm home," I called as I stepped inside the apartment. A strainer full of unshelved dishes sat in the sterilizer bin. Art projects consisting of cardboard and Styrofoam sculptures, half-glued, half-shaped, and utterly formless, lay strewn about the floor and table and every horizontal surface in the room. Gobs of paste or glue dripped down from counter to floor. The whole room was a Salvador Dali project.
The sight got my blood racing just like in the old days. Like last weekend. It recalled Bell's intensity, his never ending energy, his ability to go hot and cold instantly, to explode, surprise, and change, to execute, to stimulate. I remembered last weekend and all the last weekends in an instant and it made my heart break.
"Back here, Hon," Bell called with half a heart. He'd been sleeping I supposed.
I stepped over the various projects through the hallway and up to the bedroom where Bell lay naked under the covers. His black hair was disheveled and stuck to one side of his sheet-embossed face. His chest sagged slightly as he sat up. Had he aged since last weekend's torrid love-making?
I flopped down onto the bed next to him and he clamped a hand on my shoulder, "Good to see you, Sweetie," he said. "Nice hair color."
I heaved a sigh, didn't bother to lean over for a kiss. I looked at his hand on my shoulder and a tear fell upon it.
He sat upright. Surprised. Shocked even. I shocked the shocker.
"What's wrong," he said.
"They stole my stowaway baggage," I said and closed my eyes to kiss his hand.
"Did they get anything?"
"So what then?"
"That baggage was my good luck."
"Not much luck if it got stolen."
"Yeah," I said.
"You know if you would stop trying to surprise me, I could meet you at the bubblemac and escort you home."
"But then I couldn't surprise you."
"Why are you crying?" he asked again.
I sucked in a deep breath of stale bedroom air and sank back into his chest. I fit comfortably as I knew I would. I dropped another tear and answered, "Nobody noticed my hair."
"I noticed it."
"You're an Earthling, you're trained."
"So who else matters?"
"Why?" he asked. I noticed he didn't put his arm around my shoulder, like he would have. Like he should have.
"Because it's my home now, it's where I live."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the text message you sent to Tucker. You thought you sent to Tucker, mid-week remember? A Freudian slip sent it to me instead. Very flowery language you use. I recognize the day-after similes. I even pulled up the mailbox I'd saved. Same exact phrasing and rhyme scheme. Bell, the genius artist, has run out of ideas. I'm not so hurt as I am appalled. I threw a fit and dyed my hair and now I'm going home since I've delivered my final love message to you. I have a thing about breaking up in person."
Bell said nothing as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The sheet stuck between his thighs and twisted around in the bed behind him. I knew he'd say nothing. They become predictable once you figure them out.
"I'll come back for my stuff in a month or so," I said. "I have to get back for a celebration for which I purportedly dyed my hair, but nobody noticed. So you see why I'm crying. I did it for them, and none of them noticed. They're my people now. It's sad."
I stood up from the bed and walked to the bedroom door. Turning there, I said, "I'm leaving here for a safer shore. Safer and cleaner, but rather boring. No surprises, but maybe that's better. Maybe that's what I want."
Bell said nothing, too shocked to retort. I shocked the shocker.
Later, after the return shunt had deposited me on the hub and I'd taken the worm tube to Shap's first moon and was now on the rocket shuttle for the planet itself, I retrieved my text messages. I was in a rotten mood, having accepted my fate as a cuckold and a mover from excitement to safety. I'd rectified my mind in regards to Shap, but I remained unsure. It was a beautiful, aesthetically pure planet. No heartbreaking going on here, but no heart throbbing either. It'd be like growing up, I guess. Not so much old age as maturity. Now I could relax and sustain, instead of fight and move.
My text messages contained the expected apology from Bell, short, poignant and utterly empty. The man was all pompous artistry with nary an original phrase in his body. What did I ever see in him?
The rest of the messages were work-related. Directions from Tucker (who had no idea she was the next one on the list to get the shove-off from me), festival schedules of events, places I needed to be and when, and one last, lone message from Cam, my buddy. My other in this planet of others.
It was a quick message. All it said was: "Forgot to mention, I like your new hair color."
Story Copyright © 2007 by Sue Lange. All rights reserved.
About the author
Sue Lange's latest book, WE, ROBOTS, was published in March by Aqueduct Press (http://www.aqueductpress.com/orders.html). Her first novel, Tritcheon Hash, was published by Metropolis Ink in 2003 (http://www.metropolisink.com) and is available at
Amazon.co.uk. Her short fiction has appeared in Adbusters, Challenging Destiny, Sentinel SF, and Apex Science Fiction & Horror.
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