Sunday, October 12, 2014

History of the Universe 5: AAA3794

By the 60th century the mostly alien advances in space travel and the invention of human friendly breather bugs and Berring suits had made discovering habitable planets fairly simple.  While finding these liveable worlds was relatively easy, legally claiming them remained a costly and time consuming venture.  The paperwork alone to acquire an entire planet could take a competent team of lawyers up 5 years to forge.  Once owned, the taxes on these enormous private residences were phenomenal.  These mostly cold and empty worlds were an expensive but popular vanity purchase for financial mogules, entertainers, politicians, and professional athletes.

The newly purchased worlds were always initially vast money pits.  Each planet was different, most were devoid of life although some of them came with native flora or fauna bordering on the sentient.  The worlds had different build capacities, different solar and lunar schedules, some had a convenient abundance of water, and some were covered with a lacework of highly acidic poison rivers.  The most costly aspect of purchasing a vacant planet was the bribing of inspectors.

It was the job of inspectors to decide whether or not a planet could be safely used by people.  There were lots of reasons why a planet might be considered unusable.  These planet inspectors went over each world with a fine toothed comb making natural studies of resources, plant and animal life, geography, geology, and every other factor that may come into play down the road in a dangerous way if the planet was to be used for any human purpose.

This is because after the initial costly acquisition of a planet, they all were used by humanity at large.  Even the smallest planets are very big places with plenty of room for the private lives of the rich and famous, and a little commerce on the side.  They all become way stations among the stars, restocking and refueling areas.  Some of them, depending on the financial straits of the owner, even become tourist vacation destinations.  A passing planet inspection score was crucial.  The more deadly the planet, the higher the bribe, and the bigger the bribe, the better the score.  Inspectors were eager to be thorough and purchasers were eager to pay through the nose in order to recoup the most possible cash from their investment.

Lee Aaron was one of the most sought after planet inspectors.  This is because he was known in the business as one of the cheapest planet inspectors.  Lee had suffered through a gambling addiction in his youth that had caused him to take obscenely small bribes for several years in a bid to keep business steady.  One of these bribes had notoriously resulted in the brutal murder of an entire 5 generation high wealth banking family by an intelligent tribal society of dog like creatures that had been marked "harmless indigenous beasts" by Lee's inspection.  The entire planet had to be exterminated after it was determined that the encounter had left these harmless indigenous beasts incompatible with interstellar traffic.  The planet reverted back into the public domain and was snapped up by the Gold Star Cruise and Resort Company.

As it often goes in the financial world, the greater impression was made by the money saving possibilities of dealing with Lee Aarons than by the slaughter of the hapless family and the annihilation of the several billion alien species that had dwelt on the planet prior to purchase.  Lee's bold, dirt cheap, and deadly inspection had made his career.  He never had to worry about getting work again, so long as he kept his bribe rates relatively low.

The final casualty of Lee's most famous inspection was his gambling addiction.  He found himself unwilling, maybe even unable, to rely on chance for excitement or gain.  Lee Aaron paid off his bookies and filled the void left by his old friend and menace with newer and more reliable medicinal companions.

Planet inspectors were not permitted to wear Berring suits or breather bugs, those advantages would have compromised their senses and impaired results.  Despite the fact that anyone purchasing a planet would undoubtedly own those things, the inspection was meant to determine livability for even the lowest common denominator.  Specifically, the poor.

Lee Aarons lived in his ship.  While his self medicating habits ate a significant portion of his earnings, his expenditures were far less than they had been with that old whore, lady luck.  His ship was state of the art.  Lee had no wife, no children, no home, no pets.  No obligations, nowhere to be, and no when to get there.  Every 12 hours the solar vitamin D light in his quarters would gently shift into a soft simulation of moonlight, and that was the solo spaceman's cue to begin dosing and singing.

Lee didn't have an impressive vocal range, but he was not tone deaf.  There were a few songs he favored while drinking, others while smoking, and a mixture of song snippets he liked to shriek while over stimulated via non drinking or smoking methods.

The night he got the call to inspect a planet in the Harker system, he had been drinking rum and singing a song his grandmother had hummed when he was a freshly orphaned boy to ease him through his many nightmares.  Lee's parents had been killed by a cracked furnace seal as they slept.  Lee had lived because he loved the sulfur smell after a rain and had fallen asleep with his window open.  His younger sister wasn't so lucky, she'd had a nightmare of her own and was sleeping between his parents.

"My youngest son came home today, his friends marched with him all the way, the fife and drums beat out the time, while in his box of polished pine, like dead meat on a butcher's tray, they brought my young son home today"

He'd had to look up the words in order to learn the song that had soothed him through so many bad dreams.  Lee was not surprised his grandmother had only hummed the melody.

The call went straight to text, which is what Lee preferred.  He didn't need a prospective client catching him injecting, snorting, drinking, or smoking anything while singing raucously.  Lee wasn't famous for his professional decorum but he was an incredibly private man.

"Planet in Harker System.  Previous Injector Bissing.  Mush Job.  Setting Gay Gay Gay 3 7 9 4.  Replete That's Alpha Alpha Alpha 3 7 9 4"

Lee never failed to get a kick out of his ship's call system voice to text errors.  Previous injector bissing could only mean previous inspector missing, however, and that wasn't a laughing matter.  That meant that this planet might house hostiles of any kind.  Natives, beasts, germs, weather situations, the danger might be myriad or singular but it certainly existed.  Not too different than any other job, Lee mused, and he could certainly appreciate the narrowing down of chance's role.  He would know to be even more wary than usual, and that was not a terrible thing to know in advance.  Lee sent his job confirmation code and set his ship to AAA3794.

"A man he would have lived and died, til by a bullet sanctified, now he's a saint or so they say, they brought their young saint home today"

AAA3794, or Gaygaygay, as Lee had taken to calling it in his head, was a stunningly beautiful planet.  The smokey outer atmosphere blended metallic purples oranges and blues like oil on the surface of a puddle.  Once on the planet, the gentle light from three small suns wafted through this shifting ethereal filter and kissed everything it touched with a deep and perfect warmth.  There was a slight breeze when Lee landed.  His instruments indicated the air was thin but breathable, no small  miracle when considering the unique requirements of human survival and the vastness of the universe.  Tall maroon trees swayed back and forth along the edge of an ocean so clear that Lee at first thought the creatures swimming under the surface were floating along on currents of air.

The sea animals themselves were things of intense beauty.  Schools of fish with metallic shimmering skin to match the sky and long ribbon-like fins darted here and there in a meticulously orchestrated ballet.  Large amorphous creatures drifted more slowly below, every now and then upsetting a small cloud of gold sand that shimmered as it slid down their bright velvet backs to return gently into the still bosom of the sea bed.

It looked like an advertisement Lee had seen as a child for a faux fish tank.  All of the soothing comfort of a pet, none of the inconvenience or sadness that caring for a life might bring.  Perfect little brightly colored solar powered fish swam back and forth while bubbles streamed from the clean sandy tank bottom in gently swaying rows.  This was better.  Lee could see larger sea creatures further out, a pod of whale like animals crested at once in the distance, spraying the air with a fine mist of droplets that caught some blue from the sky and reflected it like a tiny patch of Earth twilight.  Lee felt a sharp pang of homesickness, his first in years.

He decided to search first for the previous inspector's ship.  If there was information that had been gathered and cataloged already, that could save him an exorbitant amount of time.  He boarded his ship and sent out a local distress call.  If the missing inspector's ship hadn't been disabled, it would respond to the distress call from his ship automatically with a location.  This worked, and within minutes Lee had navigated his ship down next to a shimmering late model compact Star-Fly.

This ship was far smaller than Lee's, indicating that the occupying inspector had a base home and only needed the ship for commuting and work purposes.  The hatch was open and the food stores had all been removed.  This was worth noting, and may have meant that advanced beasts or even aware beings were lurking in the forest waiting to ransack Lee's own stores.  There was no sign of a struggle, however.  Lee's detail oriented mind made note of the fact that items were missing which might only have been taken by someone (or something) familiar with their use.  The small silver medi-bag, water purifier, basic survival equipment, all of it had been stripped carefully from the ship.  Shinier looking and certainly more interesting electronic equipment had been left behind.  Lee wasn't there to figure out what had happened to the missing inspector, he filed all of it away under "interesting" and moved on.

He found what he was after in the flight seat, the previous inspector's completed planet report.

"AAA3794: Designation Uninhabitable", Lee sat heavily in the captain's chair and read on.  "Three suns prone to radioactive bursts, overheated environment, unsufficient to sustain life beyond plants.  Toxic plants in abundance, moss and bacteria laden mold in abundance."  There was more, but Lee stopped there.  Maybe the purchaser hadn't offered enough of a bribe?  The assessment was not harmonious with Lee's own brief initial notes.  The differences were so jarring, Lee wondered if the previous inspector might not have had a personal gripe with the purchaser.

This could all wait until the morning, however.  While the three suns outside shone as beautifully as they had upon his arrival, Lee's wristwatch told him that dusk was setting in aboard his own ship.  With the amount of traveling to different worlds that Lee accomplished so frequently, one of the measured luxuries he allowed himself was a set sleeping schedule.  If he landed on a world that enjoyed an opposing schedule to his own, he might stay up a little later or get up earlier to take advantage of natural light, but overall, he never altered his body's basic understanding of day and night as dictated by his own ship and home.

It might seem as though even a former gambler would enjoy living in the moment, but gamblers by nature are superstitious animals.  Superstition and habit are old friends.  Lee boarded his own ship just as the moon rose on the sky simulator that covered the ceiling, lit a bowl, and began to sing.

"And the moon rose over an open field.  Kathy I'm lost I said, though I knew she was sleeping.  I'm empty and aching and I don't know why-y-y, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all come to look for America", Lee's smooth breathy tenor filled the cabin and almost drowned out the low melody coming from just beyond the hatch.  Lee paused, took another puff, and turned on the viewer.

His Grandmother stood on the steps of his ship, her smiling lips pursed with the humming that came through the door and her hand absently stroking the air where a sleeping boy's head might have lain had there been a bed in front of her.

"Grandma?  Meme?"  Meme had been his name for her when he was a boy, May-may, it was pronounced.  His grandmother's father had been from real Earth France and she was very proud of having spoken old Earth French in the home.  He could remember her telling him about the rose bush she took such meticulous care of, "The original clipping was from Versailles, it was brought over more than nine hundred years ago.  This is the same plant, regrowing again and again, you'll have it when I pass"  Lee hadn't taken the plant, it had died when his Grandmother fell ill and became unable to care for it any longer.

His grandmother didn't answer, and instead walked humming off into the maroon woods at the edge of the clearing.  Lee put down his pipe, put on his shoes, grabbed some safety equipment, and went after.  He'd brought his stunner, a device capable of laying a powerful electrical shock on anyone or anything within thirty yards that wasn't heavily grounded.  He'd also turned on his recorder, all planet inspectors have recording equipment installed directly in their iris for the sake of convenience.  When activated, everything they see is recorded and sent back to their ship where they can later review the content for the sake of accuracy.

Although the woods were not dark, Lee lost his Grandmother almost immediately.  He kept on towards other light voices that lilted towards him, a woman's laughter?  After a short while Lee came out on the other side of the woods and found a man and young girl sitting on the beach he'd landed near.  The man wore modern clothes, like Lee's, the mousey haired and plain girl was dressed in a school uniform that Lee recognized from his days on New Earth.  The girl turned, smiled at Lee, and began to hum, "My youngest son came home today..."

The man rose and turned menacingly, placing the still humming and smiling girl behind him.  Lee recognized him as a fellow inspector.  While he couldn't recall his name, theirs was a lonely job not given to professional comradery, he recalled the short old man from trade meetings as a friendly and nearly retired chatterbox.

"Look old timer, I was called in to finish your job here, I don't care what you have going with that kid, I'll get paid whether you're missing or found, relax"

The girl rose and took the old man's hand in hers, rubbing it gently, "don't fight my love, I can be for him too, you're only two, you're only two, mon cher",  she murmured sweetly into his ear loudly enough for me  to hear.  The old man looked at her as if she'd struck him.

The girls words did soften the man and he allowed Lee to come near enough to speak in normal tones.  "I'm Arnold Scarber, and this is Lottie Scarber, my wife!" the man said proudly by way of introduction, once it became clear to him that on a planet of three he could not escape Lee's acquaintance.

"Oh I know, I'm too old for her now, but I wasn't always.  My sweet Lotte died 55 years ago.  I don't know how she's here, but she's here, and it's a miracle, my miracle!"  The plain girl looked at him sadly and squeezed his gnarled hand gently with her short soft fingers.  "Not yours, ours", she chided him gently, waving her hand towards me.  Arnold's face fell wearily.

Lee was able to get the story from them slowly.  As it turned out, much of the workings of this "miracle" were unknown to Arnold himself.  He had been so thrilled to have his only love back that he hadn't asked very many questions.  Arnold was old enough and dumb enough to know not to ask questions for which he might not like the answer.  Maybe Lee had been enchanted enough to forget himself and chase his grandmother through an alien forest, but there are different kinds of love and each kind of love has a different kind of longing.  Lee wanted answers, he was fascinated but he had seen nothing worth a man's life and livelihood.  Lee had never thought of himself as a sentimental man, he was the solo starman.

Eventually Lee left the couple for the evening and went back to his ship, having stayed awake through his artificial night for the first time in his 35yr career as a planet inspector.  He slept like a baby under the warm simulated vitamin D soaked sun.  He dreamed of his parents and sister as he'd found them that morning so many years before in their bed.  This time, in this dream, they all woke up.  His sister Deirdre's small and cold gray face and sunken eyes filled in and she ran to jump onto him for a piggy ride, her little soft hands clutched his wrinkled pajama top and her body warmed his back.  Lee's father ruffled his hair and his mother made him mouse ear pancakes.  And all of it under a colorful oily metallic sky.

Lee watched the replay of his evening with the Scarbers when he arose, more refreshed than he had been in years.  And more keenly aware of his loneliness than he had been since he'd ridden as a new orphan in the police ship to his grandmother's house.  Waking up can be cold and warm at the same time.  Lee was experiencing a resurrection of more than lost people.  He was waking up in the bed with his parents and sister, he was awake enough now to mourn his family and regret his life spent quietly as though any movement or noise might disturb their rest.

On the tape Lee had recorded, the old man chattered away proudly as a large silver worm suckled at his ear like a newborn baby on a mother's breast.  Lee remembered the conversation, here when the man turned towards the worm, he was talking about their first meeting.  Arnold had been too shy to ask Lotte out on a date, but some girls had arranged a cruel prank and sent him a note that convinced him to go to her house in a suit with a carnation.  The cruel girls didn't realize the sweet and shy couple needed that nudge, and their prank led to a whirlwind romance and young but happy marriage.  This had been Arnold's only love.

Lee's long dead Mother had been there rubbing his head when he awoke.  She watched the tape with him there in his ship, her hands more gentle than he remembered.  She gave him a bath, and brushed his hair, and helped him get dressed.  He reminded her that he wasn't a little boy anymore and didn't need any help, and she reminded him that she had missed him growing up.  He let her make him breakfast, mouse ear pancakes like his dream.  And then he turned on his iris cam and looked in the mirror.  A beautiful silver shimmering worm was attached to his neck and face.  Lee touched the worm, and his mother smiled behind him, gently rubbing his shoulder.

Lee Aarons changed the name on the Scarber report to his own, and sent it in.

2 comments:

  1. Reminds me of Ray Bradbury. Good stuff :-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. thanks very much, hugely flattering comparison!

    ReplyDelete