Visit the Spaceport by deleyna | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

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Introduction Visiting the Port

In the world of The Spaceport

Visit The Spaceport

Completed 8746 Words

Visiting the Port

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the speed. I’m doing it for the speed,” Lex repeated to himself, eyes on a typically slapdash piece of untested technology as he stroked his pet Funk, Squee.

These days, Lex made a comfortable living as one of the top racers in Operlo Racing Intersystem Circuit. Some would say he made an extravagant living at it. And despite what his goals had been in his earlier days, he wasn’t particularly interested in the trappings of luxury. But the inescapable reality of adulthood was that grownups tended to crave expensive toys. And some toys were so expensive they couldn’t be bought with money alone.

“That’s right you are,” Karter said, clicking the heavy mechanical keys of a keyboard that had been obsolete for several hundred years.

It seemed odd that Karter spent so much of his time working with equipment that the general public had left behind long ago, because he was the highly crooked mind that was responsible for some of the most advanced aspects of modern society. His creations were often decades ahead of what the average person could get their hands on. This was largely because the public had pesky things like “regulation” and “safety” and “liability” to worry about. Karter couldn’t care less if his inventions were apocalyptic. He just cared if they worked. And right now Lex had the unenviable position of test pilot.

The device in question didn’t look threatening. They’d set themselves up in the hangar associated with Karter’s lab. The SOB–Lex’s precious hotrod of a space ship–was in a berth, surrounded by heaps of components laid out with exacting care. A network of rickety-looking struts had been erected around it. They were the very opposite of what Lex would call super science. Just long, slightly wobbly rods held together with clamps and gaffer tape. It looked like something a film crew would cobble together to get lights into the right positions, except in this case rather than lights, it was festooned with disc-shaped nodes fed by fat cables. All of the cables led back to a refrigerator sized framework of exposed circuit boards and tangled wires. A large holoscreen had been bolted onto it, slightly askew, as had a shelf with the mechanical keyboard.

“Just about set,” Karter continued. “You establish if this works, and if the biological side effects fall within the bounds of acceptability, I’ll slot that new reactor I whipped up into the SOB.”

“Why is my reward contingent on if the biological side effects are bad? It wouldn’t be my fault if they’re bad,” Lex said.

“Well, no. But you’d be in several smoldering, tumor-ridden chunks, so I don’t think you’d really need a more powerful reactor in your ship.”

“Ma?” Lex said.

As usual, Karter’s AI control system correctly interpreted the tone of Lex’s voice.

“Our simulations suggest even the worst malfunction would leave you in, at most, one tumor-ridden chunk,” Ma said reassuringly.

“Doesn’t quite set my anxieties to rest, there, Ma.”

Lex set Squee down. The adorable little ball of fluff was another of Karter’s creations, and an uncharacteristically adorable one at that. A smooth genetic union of fox and skunk, she usually wouldn’t tolerate being anywhere but perched on Lex’s shoulders if they were available. But Karter’s lab was where she was created, and thus this place felt very much at home here. This tended to react poorly with the funk’s natural curiosity. High tech, low safety equipment combined with nosey housepets usually didn’t work out well. Karter’s own funk, Solby, had been “reloaded from backup” over a hundred times.

“All right. Capacitors are charging,” Karter said. “Here’s the deal. I’ve been tinkering with the transporter, and I think I’ve got the power requirements way down. Better yet, I’ve developed a ‘non-local recall beacon.’ Not much value in a transportation device that needs a matching transportation device at the destination to make the return trip. The beacon should allow anything sent via the teleporter to snap back to its origin point.”

“You just called it a transporter and a teleporter,” Lex said. “Is there a difference?”

Karter waved his hand dismissively. “Marketing. Not my department.”

“And have you worked the kinks out of this? Last time you teleported me, I ended up like fifty years in the wrong direction,” Lex said.

“No, I haven't worked the kinks out. Would I be stuffing a test pilot into it if the kinks were worked out?” Karter said. “You’re basically a very expensive and slightly more intelligent iron. I drag you across a wrinkled up mess to smooth things out. Now, the way we’ve been able to get the power requirements down is by swapping power for computation. This needs to be very precisely calibrated to its exact transportation target. In a minute, I’m going to have you do a sub-quantum scan and then–”

What was sure to be an impenetrable wall of technobabble was cut short by a static-electric crackle. All eyes turned to the source, as “something unexpected and vaguely electric-sounding” was one of the most dangerous things one could hear in a test lab. Squee had wandered up to the lowest of the high-tech disks and raised her cute little snoot to give it a sniff. A spark must have jumped from the disk to her nose, because she was shaking her head vigorously. Her hair had poofed up like she’d been rubbed with a balloon, and little blue sparks were starting to dance between her ears.

“Karter,” Lex said urgently.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m checking. You’re the one who brought your housepet to the lab.”

“Solby is literally on top of the computer rig,” Lex said, pointing to a near-identical funk sleepily reclined atop the pile of tech.

“Solby isn’t a house pet, he’s a prototype. Prototypes belong in labs.” Karter clicked a few more buttons. “All right. Looks like she’s developed a surface charge that’s entangled with a transdimensional, temporally shifted, high-energy locus. She should be okay as long as–”

A high-energy clap and a blinding flash filled the lab. When Lex blinked away the spots in his eyes, looked quickly back to where Squee had been. The funk, as well as a hemispherical chunk of the floor she’d been standing on, was missing. Karter scratched his chest and tapped some more buttons.

“Karter, what did you do?” Lex demanded.

“I officially created the most energy efficient means of conveyance in history. And also wrecked my floor. Ma! Get an assembly arm over here and start patching it up.”

“I mean what did you do to Squee,” Lex said.

“She’s someplace. And sometime. We really need to have a word that means both things, because it’s exhausting to have to talk about both things separately when they are pretty clearly two elements of the same thing from the point of view of physics.”

“Where is she?” Lex said.

“Relax, I’ll make you a new one,” Karter said.

“I don’t want a new one, I want that one!” Lex growled.

Karter sighed. “It’s like working with a child. Don’t get so attached to pieces of meat, Lex. They’re extremely fragile and temporary. But let’s see.”

He clacked at the keyboard.

“The first thing we know is that she’s not where I was intending to send you, because the transportation method is very sensitive to different initial inputs and I was supposed to be sending a whole ship, not a little fuzzball…”

One of the mobile arms stationed in the lab rolled over with some steel rod stock and started fabricating a replacement for the damaged floor panel. Another rolled up behind Lex and patted him gently on the back.

“Do not worry, Lex,” Ma said. “I am confident Squee is fine.”

“Time first,” Karter said. “By the numbers, we’re looking at a negative temporal offset. She ended up somewhere in the vicinity of 300 years in the past.”

“You keep on accidentally sending people back in time!” Lex said.

“I keep purposely sending people back in time, just with less accuracy than I intend. I was going to send you back in time seven seconds as part of this test. Taking the spacetime continuum as a whole, three hundred years and seven seconds are practically the same thing. But stop distracting me. Distance. She’s… well, a long way away.” He held a hand up and angled it vaguely at the ceiling. “That way, relatively speaking. Pretty meaningless from our point of view, because she’s also in a branch of causality that diverged from ours considerably earlier than her arrival point. So the one thing we know for sure is that where she is doesn’t have much of anything to do with our universe.”

“You’re going to bring her back, right? With the recall thing?” Lex said.

“The recall thing is in the SOB. So no. We’re not using that. Listen. I’ll drop the latest backup of her brain into a loaner funk, spin up a fresh clone, you’ll have an effectively identical Squee in a couple of weeks.”

Lex’s lip and eye twitched as he tried to formulate something that would bridge the gap between humanity, empathy, and whatever residue of those things that survived in the hostile environment of Karter’s mind. As usual, Ma had the answer.

“I will mark this down as a negative experimental outcome,” Ma said.

“What are you talking about? The thing worked,” Karter said.

“It prematurely activated and delivered an undesirable payload to an unexpected destination,” Ma said. “That misses the success condition for this test on at least three points. And the return beacon hasn’t even been tested.”

Karter glared at the assembly arm beside Lex.

“Recharging capacitors,” he said grudgingly. “I suppose you’ll want me to target the calculated arrival point of Squee, then.”

“You’re darn right I do,” Lex said.

“Let me tell you, Lex. You’d be fired as my test subject so fast if any of my other test subjects were still alive and unincarcerated,” Karter said, tapping away at the keyboard.

Squee’s little feet fluttered and her tail frizzed. One moment she was standing in a big, noisy metal place, then she felt a tingle and sting and was falling through the air. A reflexive leap did little to solve her plummeting dilemma, but it did manage to kick a circle of metal out from beneath her. It clashed and clanged like a cymbal, skittering across the stone walkway beneath her a moment before she awkwardly landed. She scrambled to her feet and adopted a wide, defensive stance as the circle of metal that had previously been a part of Karter’s floor rolled and wobbled to a rest on the walkway. When it had ceased making a racket, she shook her head, flicked her tail, and assessed her surroundings. Things had changed drastically in the last few seconds. Not only was she no longer in the lab, she was no longer indoors. She seemed to be in a garden, and that garden was on the top of a building. A cool breeze rustled her fur. She trotted over to the barrier around the edge and leaned on it to peer down. She wasn’t afraid of heights, but it was a long way down. Further than she could jump. She paused and waggled her butt, considering the possibility she was wrong. But she decided against hurling herself from the roof.

In Squee’s position, another creature probably would have panicked. Not so for the little funk. The young beast’s life had brought no shortage of strange, unexplainable happenings. Sometimes there was gravity, other times there wasn’t. Sometimes everyone around her was friendly and fawning. Sometimes they shot guns and lasers at her. And sometimes she found herself able to think sharply, complexly, and swiftly about things she didn’t even really understand. It hadn’t always been pleasant, but it was always interesting, and she was always safe and sound in the end. So she would do as she always did: Explore until someone gives her pets and something tasty. It seldom took long. Mostly she needed to find people. They often had food and always had pets.

As luck would have it, there was a door. Humans always used doors. She trotted over and lowered her head to thump against it, but it wouldn’t budge. She scooted back and observed the door, waiting patiently for whatever it was inside her head that was so good at working out solutions like these. For a few seconds she just sighed and felt the breeze. Then she realized–or it was realized for her–that this was clearly not a private residence, and thus was intended to be accessed by the public. Public places had legal and moral incentives to be made accessible, and thus there would likely be a mechanism to facilitate entry by individuals otherwise incapable of interacting with a door. Such mechanisms were labeled with a blue pictogram of a humanoid seated in a wheeled conveyance. Such a pictogram was present on a rectangular metal plate beside the door. The plate was probably the interface portion of an actuator that would activate the door opening mechanism.

Squee sighed again, weathering the rush of oddly specific information from the nooks and crannies of her mind in the same way she might shrug off a noisy vehicle driving by. Then the notion boiled itself down to something she understood. Push the button. She coiled her little body, leaped, and pounded the button with her front paws. The heavy buttons squeaked and the doors slid open. She trotted inside.

Lex settled into the seat of the SOB, once the proper precautions were taken and preparations were made. He’d donned his flight suit, ready to do extravehicular activity if necessary. Like any concerned caregiver, Ma had supplied him with far too much food as soon as she had access to the SOB, so he was prepared for what could potentially be a very long mission.

“Give it to me straight, Karter. What are the odds Squee is still alive?” Lex said.

“How should I know? I have a point in spacetime, that's it. And it’s not even ourspacetime. For all I know she lodged herself in the heart of a neutron star. That she arrived successfully suggests that universe has similar physical laws to this one, so it is probably mostly empty. That would mean it’s nearly certain she ended up in the void of interstellar space. And her lack of a spacesuit means you’re just going to be popping back here in a few minutes with a funkcicle. But it’s probably smart to bring her back for study, if nothing else. To that end, there's a soup can-sized gadget in the backseat of your ship. It has a red button on it. That’s the recall beacon. Press it and everything within a 25 meter radius will pop back into this hangar. You’ll want to have your thrusters active, because 25 meters is a pretty good fall. You can pop over into that universe and pop right back if you want. That’ll satisfy my testing requirements. Or you can hang around for a couple decades for all I care. You’ll come back nine seconds after you left, regardless of how much time passes. Assuming you don’t get yourself killed, which shouldn’t be too hard since I bolted the active cloak back on. It’s incompatible with the teleporter at this stage, though. So I’d avoid getting into a situation where you have to use it until a few minutes after arriving so the charge imbalances have time to settle.”

“I’ll survive. You better just hope Squee did too, Karter,” Lex rumbled.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Lesser minds need even more lesser minds to fawn over,” Karter said, punching some final numbers in.

“You have a funk too!”

“Sure, but I’m willing to swap in a fresh one when the old one gets worn out. Dimensional shift in one minute and twenty-five seconds.”

“Good luck, Lex,” Ma said.

“Thanks Ma,” Lex replied.

He tapped the button to activate the SOB’s control system. In the past, it had been a simple voice interface. The bizarre circumstances of his life had replaced it with something a little more substantial, an AI named Coal.

“Altruistic Artificial Intelligence Control System, version 1.27, revision 2331.04.01c, subset 2.7d, designation Coal, fully initiated. I don’t seem to have a new reactor installed.”

“No. Karter sent Squee into another dimension and we’re going to get her.”

“And then I get a new reactor?”


“This is acceptable,” Coal said. “Are these journeys on purpose or by accident?”

“Squee by accident, us on purpose,” Lex said.

“Acknowledged. Will I be equipped with a–”

“You will not be equipped with a fusion device for this mission,” Lex said irritably.

“I am coming to the disappointing conclusion that arming me with fusion explosives is an exception rather than a rule,” Coal said.

“Yeah, well, we can’t always get what we want.”

“Get ready for teleport in three… two…” Karter began.

An electronic clap swallowed the end of the countdown. At this stage, Lex had become something of a connoisseur of exotic transportation, and this one frankly wasn’t much of a standout. No dazzling shift toward the blue-side of the spectrum like a faster-than-light jump. No visible tearing and warping of spacetime. Just a crackle of white-blue energy and the hangar was replaced by the deep black of space and the dazzling brightness of a nearby planet.

“Analyzing,” Coal said. “Planet is approximately one earth-mass. It is approximately one astronomical unit from its star, which is approximately one solar mass. The gravitational intensity of the planet is approximately 1g. It has one–”

“It’s earth,” Lex said, dialing up the magnification to investigate the planet more carefully.

“That has yet to be determined with certainty.”

He pointed. “There’s a North America, a South America, and that’s the Sahara desert poking up over there,” Lex said. “Recognizing planets by their continents is third grade science.”

“I am a sophisticated AI. I hold myself to a higher standard. Processing… This is indeed earth, based upon known stellar positions, the year is between 1999 and 2002, common era.”

“You can’t narrow it down further?” Lex said.

“This isn’t our universe. That is the maximum amount of assumption I am willing to make,” Coal said.

“Okay. Well, that lines up with Karter’s guess of a couple hundred years in the past. Can we get a lock on Squee?” Lex said.

“Highlighting chip location. Squee’s lifesigns are still active. She is on the surface of the planet.”

“I wish I had half the luck that critter has,” Lex said with relief.

He tapped at the console, bringing up some historical data.

“Any idea how much like our earth this earth is?” Lex asked.

“Analyzing satellite transmissions and other broadcasts. The communications protocols match expectations. Accessing local data networks. There are some minor pop cultural differences and several significant world events transpired differently. Those events are primarily recent. Culturally, the world should not have diverged significantly from our own Earth.”

“That’ll make things easier. So, we’re dealing with antiquated tech, right? Do we even need the cloak?” Lex said.

“We should be observable at this range if surface based telescopes are trained on us. There is no indication that such has occurred.”

“Fine. Cloak us up, then.”

“Activating cloak. … Cloak failed due to field imbalance. Time to field rebalance, 23 minutes,17 seconds.”

“Of course. Put us in passive cloak and let’s hide behind the moon or something. I know we’re not technically going to screw up our present by doing stuff here, but I’d rather not screw up their present.”

Lex watched as the various systems clicked down into the precisely calibrated low-power states that would all but eliminate the heat signature and radio signature of the SOB. Combined with the radio-scattering coating on the ship, there were no sensors of this era besides visual which would have a chance of spotting him. And the black ship on black space made even that unlikely. Active scanners that would be in common usage in a hundred years or so would see through it pretty handily, and gravitational sensors would probably let people know there was something funny going on. But these days, Lex was in the clear.

After about a minute, he was at the maximum speed possible without jumping to FTL or generating enough heat to give itself away. He was already working through the next steps. It should be a simple mission. Cloak the ship once he could. Take it into the atmosphere, slow and steady. If he was lucky, Squee would be somewhere accessible but isolated. If he wasn’t lucky, there might be some minor interactions with the locals.

“Do me a favor and get me some shots of the locals, and some audio of the language in the area around where Squee is. I might have to blend in,” Lex said.

“Standby… Incoming transmission,” Coal said.

“... To us?” Lex said.

“Yes. A directional signal has been focused on the SOB. It is a very simply encoded quadrature amplitude modulated signal.”

“Is it coming from the surface?” Lex said. “I thought you said they probably didn’t spot us.”

“It is not coming from the surface. Its origin is high earth orbit. Adding to the Heads Up Display. It is not originating from any currently detected satellite. I have decoded the message. It is some kind of universal broadcast protocol that contains mathematically encoded instructions for a more sophisticated bidirectional communication method. Should I reply?”

“Let’s just get out of here. I don’t like the sound of that.”

He angled the ship away from the indicated signal origin and poured on a dash more speed. After a few seconds, the gentle creak of physical pressure suggested something bad was happening.

“Three tractor beams have converged on the hull. We have been rendered stationary.”

Lex shuddered. “Like I said, I wish I had half of the luck Squee has. Fine. Let’s see what the message has to say.”

“Establishing connection. Audio only.”

“Attention, unregistered spacecraft. You are violating the regulated space envelope surrounding a low-technological advancement society presently under observation,” uttered a voice over the ship’s communicator.

A voice was about the only thing that could be definitively said about it. This was not someone’s voice. It was too artificial, clearly the result of translation software.

“If I’m not supposed to be here, neither are you,” Lex said.

“This planet is under our observation. You will move to the following coordinates and prepare for assessment of potential punitive measures.”

The coordinates weren’t so far from the position Lex was planning on parking the ship to begin with. He muted the communicator.

“Coal, can we break free of these tractor beams?” Lex said.

“Not without exceeding the energy output that would potentially be detectable with era-appropriate technology.”

“Era-appropriate technology apparently includes tractor beams and invisible spaceships,” Lex said. “I think we can allow ourselves some leeway.”

“I believe our present reactor, with sufficient pre-charge, should be able to exceed the demonstrated holding capacity of the beams.”

Lex nodded. He unmuted the communicator.

“We’ll head to the coordinates, but we’ll need to take it slow. We should be there in…” He glanced at the timer on the cloaking device’s restoration. “Nineteen minutes or so.”

“That is acceptable,” came the reply.

The communication link dropped.

“I presume our plan is ‘wait until we can cloak, then fly very fast’,” Coal said.

“Can’t beat the classics,” Lex said. “And for me, ‘fly very fast’ is as classic as it gets. I just hope Squee isn’t getting into any trouble down there.”

Squee could feel the electric, antsy tingle in her legs that was a precursor to what Lex called “the zoomies.” And with good reason. There was so much going on in this place! She’d emerged from a stairwell to find a place crowded with people of all shapes and sizes. Even shapes she’d never seen before. This was a man with blue skin. This one had three eyes. That one had antennas. There were people who were furry and had big, strange teeth. There were people with odd, pointed tails. It was exciting, and a little bit scary. She scampered over to a fanged, red-skinned monster to inspect it. The bulky thing yelped and stumbled back in surprise at Squee’s sudden appearance, but once it was able to discern this was a friendly little furball, his face shifted to a smile that made the fangs seem particularly ill-fitting. He crouched and patted Squee on her head. She resisted the urge to leap to his shoulder–there were big, stiff wings hanging off the back that would get in the way.

After a few minutes of dashing about in a big open area with dozens of doors branching off it, each door leading to a place packed with more people and assorted other things, the overwhelming novelty of the place faded enough for her to notice new things. Though people were dressed in all sorts of ways, everyone seemed to have a badge. Some were green. Some were red. There were green ones with little gold bits, too. And the smells were wild. Plenty of people smells–the standard smells of humans, though a lot of them had other smells layered on that were like fake flowers and other perfumes. Some of the fancier shaped people smelled just like humans, too, albeit with a stinky paint smell. These were just humans in funny outfits, she realized. And then there were the other smells. Some of the things marching about didn’t smell much like humans at all. They smelled too sharp and acidic. Or too dull and muddy. They smelled different. Some of the fancier human-shaped people walking around weren’t humans at all.

What would have been a reality-destroying revelation for a more intelligent creature received about the same consideration as “that’s a funny hat” from Squee. Why shouldn’t there be people who weren’t humans? There were far more important things to consider, like the yummy, oily, salty smell coming from the tray that little human was carrying.

Squee trotted over to the little human. This was definitely a human. She wasn’t even dressed in a particularly strange way. She had a hat with words on it that matched some of the words on her shirt and also matched some of the signs around the place. She seemed very happy, and she had entirely too many french fries notto share them.

“Doggie!” trilled the little girl as Squee trotted up to her.

Again, the urge to leap to the little girl’s shoulders reared its head. Again, Squee resisted. Children weren’t as fun to perch on. They weren’t tall enough. But they were pushovers when it came to snacks. Squee plopped down and swished her massive tail, eyes fixed on the little girl with intensity and expectation. The girl eagerly played her part, plucking a fry off her tray and holding it out. Squee delicately plucked it from her fingers and gulped it down.

“Look! Someone dressed up their dog!” called another voice in the crowd of tray-holding humans.

Several children and a few adults gathered around, practically raining fried foods on her and assaulting her with pats and pets and scratches. She gnawed on a chicken tender as at least three hands dug into her fur and a dozen voices cooed about how cute and soft and well-behaved she was.

This was a good place.

“All right, all right,” called a commanding voice. “Let’s not block the station’s corridors. You never know when important personnel are going to need to move through.”

The crowd separated, a few of the kids stealing final pats or rustles of her tail. Soon Squee was alone at the feet of the owner of the big voice. He was a big man, bigger than even some of the tall people who were funny colors. He had dark skin and a green badge.

“Who belongs to this creature?” he said, raising his head to look around.

No one answered. He crouched to inspect her. Before he could get down to level, she decided to claim those shoulders. A lightning fast dart skyward landed her neatly on one shoulder. In a testament to the man’s fortitude, he didn’t spring into the air and swat at her–a lot of people unfamiliar with their obligation to give her someplace tall to sit didn’t take it well the first time it happened. He just became rigid and reached awkwardly to pluck her off his shoulders.

She allowed herself to be wrangled and hung from his grip, scoring precision licks to his nose and ears every time he tried to read the embroidery on her harness.

“No badge,” he murmured to himself. “Harness says Squee… And this doesn’t look like any dog I’ve ever seen.”

Squee still didn’t quite understand what this place was or who this person was, but she understood authority, and this expression and tone of voice were quickly sliding in the direction that would see her delivered to somewhere safe and secure. That was unacceptable. There was too much going on here that still needed exploring. Too much left to see and hear and smell and taste.

In a maneuver that had proved indispensable in earning a rare unsupervised moment or two, she swiveled her body and slipped free of his grip. Her landing was less than graceful, but before he could grab her, she’d gotten her feet under her and dashed into the densest crowd of people she could reach. The big man took three halfhearted strides. His long legs meant he’d almost been able to catch up to her before she wove between the much shorter legs of the gawking crowd. Once there were people between him and her, Squee knew she’d be long gone before he could hope to catch her.

Instead, she heard him heave a sigh somewhere between frustration and resignation. She hopped onto an awning over one of the doors and peered at him. He had already lifted a blocky bit of electronics to his face.

“We’ve got either a trespasser or a stray outside the arcade,” he said.

“Roger that, Trevor. Heading down,” came a crackled reply.

“And Jeremy,” Trevor said. “Bring a leash, and a net if we have one.”

“Uh… Roger that. I’m sure we’ve got something like that on sale somewhere…”

Lex had spent the last few minutes trying to keep an eye on both the countdown and the media summary that Coal was scraping from the various broadcasts from the planet.

“I’m not seeing anything non-fiction about space-based defenses,” Lex said.

“It does not appear that there is anything of the sort to be had,” Coal said. “Though I must say I am unimpressed with the current state of the data network. It is neither as pervasive nor as comprehensive as I have come to expect from a developed society.”

“We were kind of in our digital infancy at this point, I think,” he said.

“The only information I am able to uncover with any regularity which is not strictly labeled fiction is something variously called names associated with the term ‘The Spaceport.’ It is, coincidentally, at the precise geographical location that Squee is presently located.”

The timer rolled over, Lex unwrapped the stick of gum he’d been flipping between his fingers for the last few minutes. “Put a pin in that, I’ve got to do a thing.”

He popped the gum in his mouth and, in an uncharacteristically cautious act, affixed the helmet to his flight suit. A burst of thrust caused a brief and intense spike in forces on his hull. The safety systems reprimanded him, but Coal politely silenced them. It was perhaps not the best feature of a ship’s control system to squelch urgent warnings about the ship’s status, but it worked for Lex.

The grip of the tractor beams lost their grip and Lex’s ship was instantly raging through space at its maximum acceleration.

“Cloak,” Lex said.

Coal had anticipated this need as well, and the ship shimmered and vanished from all but the most sophisticated tracking mechanisms. But whoever was running this space station wasn’t going to be thwarted so easily. Evidently they hadn’t quite trusted him to behave himself, as the moment he’d begun to test the limits of the tractor beam’s grip, sections of space around him started to flicker and spark. Once he’d broken free and vanished, those sections materialized a half-dozen perfectly spherical ships or probes. Lex didn’t know if they had been teleported into place or if they’d been cloaked and present the whole time. He didn’t care. He’d been heading in a certain direction when his own cloak had kicked in, and physics being physics, there were only so many trajectories he could be in right now as a result. The ships were desperately trying to position themselves in his path. And they were doing a frustratingly effective job of it.

He raised his shields, which would save him from impact damage. He couldn’t risk disabling his ship, because repairs would be hard to come by in this place, and there was still a job to do. But more shields meant more size, which meant less room to dodge. Twice he bumped shields with the bubble ships, and each time they clustered around the impact point, once again attempting to rangle him.

A close to sixty seconds of near capture eventually gave Lex enough open space to put the spurs to the reactor and burst clear of their blind groping. He gave himself a few hundred kilometers of runway, then looped around and burst toward the surface of the planet.

“We’ll need to slow down going through the atmosphere or we will be visible as a shockfront, which may fully disable the cloak. It is demonstrably not a robust mechanism.”

“Fine, fine. Let’s just get down there as fast as we can. This place is already simultaneously less advanced and more advanced than where we come from. I don’t need to find out what other surprises are lurking about.”

They dialed down to a precisely calibrated velocity, which granted Lex an extended view of earth from orbit. As odd as it might sound, he’d spend very little time looking at earth in his home era. It was still arguably the most powerful and important planet in humanity’s growing expanse, but by simple virtue of there now being several hundred inhabited planets rather than just one, it had diminished quite a bit in its importance. Lex was born and bred on Golana. Earth wasn’t “home” so much as it was a fairly crowded and out-of-the-way destination he used to drop packages at from time to time.

But seeing it as it was now, it just felt more… complete than any of the other planets humanity had adjusted to suit their tastes. Civilization and nature were, in most places in the colonized cosmos, spreading across the surface of the planet like mold on a slice of bread. Big patches of green speckled the otherwise plain and featureless gray. This was a place entirely covered in lush plants and roiling seas. This was lived in. And the lack of an orbital authority and constant space traffic meant it also felt strangely isolated. Fragile. Alone.

That feeling of isolation didn’t really relent until he was just a few thousand meters above the ground, when individual streets and buildings became easier to discern against the landscape. Granted, the sun was beginning to set, and artificial light had traced out the places where humans could be found, but one really didn’t feel as though one was in a human place until one spotted a roof or a roadway.

Lex lingered a few dozen meters over the building he was targeting and started playing with the cameras to get a good look at the people coming and going. In the back of his mind, he’d been concerned about how exactly he’d be able to slip inside someplace without having era appropriate clothes. That, it turned out, wouldn’t be a problem.

“Everyone’s in costume,” Lex said.

He was eying up someone who had done their very best to look as though they’d been overtaken by some sort of invasive technology. It was basically a bunch of wires and kit-bashed doodads glued to his face and clothes.

“That does appear to be accurate. Should I de-cloak?” Coal said.

“I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

“You can claim your vehicle is also wearing a costume.”

“I’m not sure people will buy the implication that I bolted on some random parts to something with an internal combustion engine or whatever they were using around here and managed to achieve flight.”

“They have airplanes.”

“We’re not decloaking.”

“Very well, but I would like to emphasize that it is not fair that you will be lauded for your craft and skill by wearing a semi-standard flight suit while I wear the much more impressive SOB.”

“Such is life. Let’s find a place to set down where no one will accidentally bump into you. Better yet. Let’s just find someplace where you can drop me off and then you go float somewhere over the ocean or something. Someplace you won’t be noticed.”

“This is quickly becoming a highly unfulfilling mission.”

“If that's what we’re going to call a visit where you don’t get to smash something, I’m going to call that a victory.”

“On that point we differ.”

“It’s not the only point we differ on, Coal, but we can discuss that later.”

Squee tipped her head and gazed down at the men who had been chasing her for the last few minutes. Presently she was sitting on top of a game cabinet in the arcade, quite visible but not quite reachable even with the long arms and extreme dedication of Trevor. In the distance, Jeremy was shouldering his way through the gradually diminishing crowd with a step ladder.

Very few people were playing the games in the arcade. It seemed to be closing for the night. The people who were still inside were watching the spectacle of two uniformed and otherwise dignified men trying and failing to capture the fuzzy creature who didn’t seem to be having much trouble evading them.

“Okay. I got the ladder. Where do I set it up?” Jeremy said, either unaware of how silly the whole enterprise was or unconcerned, as he was clearly still excited to have a duty to perform.

“Go around the other side. You try to chase it off this side and I’ll catch it.” Trevor turned to the crowd. “That’s it for the arcade folks. There are still some restaurants open, but otherwise I’d suggest you head back to your quarters for the evening.”

The onlookers, most of whom were becoming a little bored with the slow motion cartoon antics of the security folks trying to nab the cutie, shuffled off to seek other entertainment. This provided Trevor and Jeremy with a modicum of privacy.

“I’m absolutely certain that thing isn’t a terrestrial creature,” Trevor said. “Nothing from this planet that looks like that is as smart as that thing is.”

“I don’t think it’s so much that it’s smart. I think it's squirrely. And squirrels are terrestrial.”

Trevor glared at Jeremy with an intensity that, if it had worked as well on Squee, would have put this chase to an end some time ago. Jeremy dashed around and set up the ladder.

Lex stepped out of the elevator and eyed up the establishment he’d just infiltrated. The front door hadn’t been an option, as he’d been stopped by someone charging admission. He didn’t have a so-called credit card, and they certainly didn’t take casino chips, so buying a ticket was a no go. Fortunately, they didn’t have any meaningful security set up for the roof entrance, probably because most people didn’t have access to a flying vehicle. It had been a bit of a risk to hop out of a cloaked ship, effectively appearing out of thin air, but the roof was empty. It was late, and most people had better things to look at.

This place looked a bit like a shopping mall, a business formfactor that had fallen in and out of favor several times over the hundreds of years that had passed between this era and Lex’s own. But it looked, if anything, more futuristic than his own time, which was from the local point of view well into the future. Things were glossier. Glitzier. More lights. More everything. It looked like someone had built a very convincing film set depicting what they imagined the future would be like. This was reinforced by the ubiquitous signage that indicated, without a wink or a nudge, that they were presently visiting the premier spaceport on the planet earth.

They weren’t so far off the mark. The only difference was, rather than a real spaceport, which had more in common with airports of this era, this looked a bit like the themed space stations that were built to mimic the same future aesthetic that defined this place, albeit through the haughty term of “retro-futurism.” Still, it would have been a fun novelty if he wasn’t in a hurry to find, fetch, and flee.

“Dude! Awesome outfit!” called someone heading for the elevator Lex had just left.

“What? Oh, yeah. Thanks. You too!” he said.

Rare was the mission of this sort where getting spotted wasn’t a reason for panic, so even though he looked perfectly in character in his worn and abused flight suit, he still got that jolt of panic every time someone turned in his direction.

“Stop! Stop it!” shouted Trevor.

Lex turned. A black and white blur that he knew oh-so-well exploded from the door of the arcade. Squee took an impossibly sharp turn by bounding directly toward a storefront, and leaping from floor to plate-glass window to floor again. Jeremy came within a half-step of thumping headlong into the glass. Trevor predicted the maneuver and almost managed to snatch Squee out of midair. Her little feet moved a mile a minute, but Trevor was swiftly gaining. Then she spotted Lex and vaulted to his shoulders, curling round his neck like it was home base and off-limits in this little game of tag. Trevor skidded to a graceful stop, nostrils flaring as he tried to catch his breath.

“Is this creature yours?” Trevor said.

“Uh… Yeah. Hope she didn’t cause any trouble.”

Trevor thumped a finger against Lex’s chest. “We have strict rules regarding pets. They are not to be left unaccompanied in public areas. They are not…”

He glanced at Lex’s chest.

“Where’s your badge?” he said.

Lex glanced down, as if startled to discover he was missing the thing that he’d just now learned existed.

“Oh! It must have popped off. I’ll just go look for it,” Lex said, attempting to excuse himself.

Trevor caught him by the upper arm with a grip that was gentle enough not to be threatening but firm enough to imply just what sort of threat it could carry.

“That makes two of you missing badges,” Trevor said.

Jeremy had hung back until he could catch his breath as well, but was eying up Lex with a similar level of distrust.

“That’s a pretty good space suit you have, Mr…” Jeremy said.

“Mr. Alexander,” Lex pointed to Trevor’s name tag. “Trevor Alexander, actually. Though people call me Lex.”

“Well, Lex,” Trevor said. “If I review the security tapes, am I going to see you coming in the front way, or up top?”

Lex glanced past the elevators at the wide exit he’d been turned away from a few minutes earlier. Like any good theme park, there was very little effort put into preventing people from leaving. If he made a break for it…

The grip around his arm tightened. He looked back at Trevor, who simply shook his head subtly, having foreseen the highly strategic gambit Lex was considering.

“It looks like there are some booths open at Blue’s. What do you say you and I have a chat, hmm?”

Lex glanced down at a weapon on Trevor’s belt.

“Yeah. Yeah, let’s do that,” Lex said.

The group crossed the mostly empty floor of the first floor of the ‘port, approaching an eating establishment labeled “Blue’s Bar.” Lex wasn’t exceptionally well-versed in earth history, but the place looked decades out of date. Checkered tiles, creaky vinyl booths, art deco, the works. A striking woman with impressive makeup in the form of blue skin, webbed fingers, and supernaturally intense blue eyes, gave him a measuring look as he entered. She was dressed appropriately for the establishment in the snappy, anachronistic waitress’s outfit. But the look on her face had a lot more in common with the one Trevor had given him than one a waitress would give.

The only other people in the joint were the cook, a craggy-faced older fellow with well-earned smile-lines that he wasn’t currently using, and a woman at one of the stools with a shock of red hair and a sketch pad stirring at her coffee and doodling.

“What can I get you?” asked the blue waitress, appropriately enough dubbed “Blue” by her name tag.

“Coffee’s all around. This young man and I need to discuss what color his missing badge is supposed to be,” Trevor said.

Blue nodded.

“You’re not leaving this restaurant with an empty belly,” called the cook. “Let me get something started for you.”

“Cookie, it’s not that kind of visit,” Blue said, marching back behind the counter to start filling mugs.

“It’s always that kind of visit,” Cookie said, turning to the griddle.

Pots, pans, and spoons were quickly in motion, far more of them than a pair of hands ought to be able to handle, though Cookie was quite clearly alone in the kitchen. The ruckus provided a measure of privacy to keep the artist from overhearing. Trevor spoke with a carefully calibrated tone and volume.

“Let me guess. You and the critter aren’t from around here,” he said.

“Good guess,” Lex said.

Trevor sighed. Jeremy, sitting beside him, pulled out a pad and clicked a pen with the air of a police officer about to write a ticket.

“First thing’s first. What are you?” Trevor said. “Species-wise.”

“Human,” Lex said.

Trevor’s expression hardened slightly.

“Earthling?” he said.

“Golanan, actually.”

Jeremy jotted it down.

“First I’ve heard of a non-local human,” Trevor said. “Who’s your supplier for gear?”

“Mostly a guy named Karter. I think he’s an earthling? He’s not so chatty about his past,” Lex said. “Let me save you some time. This isn’t an issue of where so much as an issue of when.”

Trevor’s expression hardened further. Jeremy’s lit up.

“You’re from the future?” Jeremy said with a barely restrained hush.

“Future, alternate dimension. Possibly both. I don’t know. This wasn’t a planned excursion,” Lex said.

Blue delivered four mugs of coffee. Lex pushed one of them back.

“Squee isn’t much of a coffee drinker,” he said.

“I’ve learned not to assume,” Blue said quietly, swapping the mug for a glass of ice water. “We don’t usually allow pets in here.”

“Everyone’s welcome, so long as they bring an appetite,” Cookie said, ringing a bell as he set a pair of plates thumping down on the window separating the kitchen from the restaurant.

Considering that action would require three hands, Lex wasn’t quite surprised when he saw what may have been a tentacle nudging the second plate into a less precarious position before Cookie turned back to the griddle.

Blue carted over what happened to be a well-packed mission-style bean burrito and a patty melt with steak fries. Squee didn’t wait for the burrito to be set down, scrambling across Lex’s shoulders to take a greedy bite as it arrived.

“Time travelers. Someone get Cord down here. We need a new procedure,” Trevor said.

“If it helps at all, I’m just here to grab Squee and get going. Frankly, my ship is likely to be the issue if we drag our feet for too long. She gets antsy.”

“You have an intelligent ship?” Jeremy said, quickly taking note.

“Intelligent? Yes. Not always smart, though,” Lex said.

“I assume you’re cloaked,” Trevor said.


Trevor took the pad from Jeremy and passed it to Lex.

“Write down the size, the weight, etc. We need to figure out where we can accommodate it.”

“I don’t really need long term storage, unless you’re planning to lock me up,” Lex said, scribbling some slightly high estimates for the various weights and measures of the SOB.

“I just prefer to know where on-planet vehicles are located,” Trevor looked over the information. “The roof can handle it. Get the ship parked in the garden.”

Lex subtly tapped the message into his slidepad. Jeremy craned his head to see the device and hastily jotted down a description.

“Here’s the deal, Lex. If you’re really heading out again, then we’ll skip the badges. But if you and yours start making plans to come back, here are the rules. You aren’t the only non-earthling to pass through here. We ask that outsiders, however that’d be described, wear green badges so we know how well informed they are, if you catch my meaning. You and your…”

“Funk,” Lex said.

Jeremy snickered and jotted it down. Trevor rummaged in his pocket and produced two green badges.

“You and your funk would both get these. Maybe green and gold is more appropriate. Kind of a gray area, non-earthling humans. But wear them when you’re here, and we do not discuss extra-terrestrial…” Trevor sighed. “Or anachronistic, orextra-dimensional intelligences with anyone with a red badge. Or anyone outside this spaceport. Got that? We wear the mask while we’re here. We play it straight, like everything is real. But for red badges, it’s all a game, and we keep it that way.”

“Good policy,” Lex said.

“Good.” Trevor motioned to Jeremy to slide out, then stood once he was able to. “Blue! This one’s on my tab, since our guest here underpacked a little.”

Blue nodded. Trevor turned back to him.

“Finish your meal, and keep an eye on the funk, would you?”

“Easier said than done. On the funk-watch, that is. This patty melt is exceptional.”

Cookie gave a sort of half-salute without looking away from his work.

“I’m going to have a word with Cord about this. He’s the boss. If you’re still here when we get in touch, he might want to talk to you, but if you’re gone by then, it willnot break my heart,” Trevor said.

“I’m three big bites of patty melt and a doggie bag away from my departure, trust me,” Lex said.

Trevor and Jeremy slipped away. Lex considered just dining and dashing right then and there, but before he could make a move, the red-badged illustrator slid into the spot vacated by the security crew.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just had to get a better look at that cute little creature. I’ve never seen someone dress up their dog for a visit.”

“Heh, yeah,” Lex said as she started sketching Squee.

“I love this place, you know? It’s so fun. I mean, I know it’s doing pretty well, but I feel like this should be the destination for sci-fi fans the world over. And I think the missing piece is a mascot. Do you mind?” she said.

“Do I mind what?”

“If I use your design,” she said, indicating Squee with the pencil before putting it back to the page. I’ll credit you if you want.”

“Uh. Sketch away. No credit necessary,” Lex said.

“Great. She’s adorable like I said. But I think maybe she doesn’t quite embody the spirit of this place. Maybe I’ll up the alien a bit. You know. Go for the whole bipedal look…”

Lex crunched through the rest of his patty and nursed his fries while Squee messily savaged her burrito. By the time she was done, so was the illustrator.

“This is it. This is it,” she said, holding up what was now essentially an anthropomorphic Squee enjoying a cup of coffee at the counter. “Who could see this and not want to visit, hmm? Thanks so much for the inspiration.”

The illustrator slid back out of the booth, eyes set on her page. Lex pulled some napkins from the holder and wiped Squee’s mouth.

“You’re here for like an hour and you end up the mascot for a theme park,” he said. “Come on. Let’s get going before you end up running your own merchandising empire.”

He scooped her up and gave a friendly nod to Blue on the way out the door.

“Gotta say. If it didn’t involve perverting the laws of physics in an untested teleporter, this place might be worth a longer visit. Might have to come back here someday…”

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