It’s Not Like Home, Is It?
The place was cozy and dark, filled with soft multi-colored mood lighting.
“Slinky,” Hank heard Ida, his personal artificial intelligence whisper in his ear. If she had been a human, the Captain of the Lordstar and the Dalida was sure she would have sniggered.
“Shush, you,” he muttered, earning a look from the man who stood beside him, General Steed of the Confederate army. “Not you,” Hank said hurriedly. “I was talking to—”
“Your hot-bot, I get it,” Steed rolled his eyes and turned back to the scene in front of them.
It was a bar–kind of. Hank frowned as he looked around the establishment. It had all of the hallmarks of one of his favorite types of places in the universe, but there was also something deeply wrong about it.
What is wrong, is that it’s a bar on New Earth, Hank realized.
It had two separate bar counters, behind which stood their tenders quietly filling synth tubes and crystal glasses with drinks. Scattered everywhere else where a selection of floor-mounted tables as well as hover-tables off to one side, where the clientele would perch on stools that would ascend upwards to their new vantage point.
There were soft voices and gentle laughter mixed with the clinking of glasses like crystal bells. At one end of the room was a subtly-lit podium, where odd electronic and orchestral noises accompanied a trio of dancers.
“Now we’re talking!” the large Madigan said with a grin, when he noticed that each of the dancers were women. Young, twenty-something women at that. But Madigan frowned a moment later when he saw what the three dancers were doing.
“That’s not dancing,” the big man said, watching as they made strange, expressive flourishes with their hands or legs, followed by quick, staccato movements or languorous stretches.
“It’s expressive, you brute,” said Lory Cox off to one side.
“It’s weird,” Madigan grumbled, shaking his head as he instead made his way to the nearest bar, with Hank following behind.
“Well, it’s certainly different…” Hank said, as he signaled to the bartender. “A round of the strongest stuff you got!” He said with a grin, before his smile faltered just a little. This would be the first drink that he’d had since he put that bottle of Scotch back into the Captain’s drawer. What had it been–a couple of weeks or more?
“Only if you’re sure,” Lory was at his elbow, saying under her breath. She knew, Hank saw–even if he hadn’t told her about his recent tea-total decision.
“It’s a celebration,” Hank said, although his jaw was just a little tighter than normal. It wasn’t that he was addicted to alcohol–it was that he wanted to prove a point to himself, and to the Jackal who was still safely locked down in the Dalida’s Brig.
We’re all slaves to something, but we get to choose what it is… the Captain remembered. He didn’t want to be a slave to battle stimulants and alcohol anymore. He wanted to be different, to be the best man he could be–and thus a hundred times different than the dangerous, reckless assassin known as the Jackal.
“You’re right!” Madigan slapped him on the back, almost throwing him over the bar.
“Uhm…” a much nervier voice said from the back. It was Professor Serrano, definitely looking like a fish out of water as the Cook and Engineer Cortez was leading him by the shoulders straight to the front of the bar, right under the three dancers. Cortez was cackling, and Serrano was blushing like a schoolboy already.
“A bit of R and R?” Steed raised the first tumbler of glass that was slid across the table towards them. “I think we’ve deserved it, haven’t we folks?”
All eyes looked to Hank, who was looking at the small tumbler filled with a golden-amber liquid. “We have,” he said, seizing it and holding it up to the light. It shone with promise, and Hank’s throat suddenly felt so very dry.
Heavens, I’m going to enjoy this, Hank thought as he nodded at his crew, and raised his glass—
“Captain Snider?” a voice behind them interrupted their toast. Hank was very tempted to ignore the voice and down the drink instead, but all of the other crew members around him had paused too and were looking expectantly over Hank’s shoulder.
Just great, thought Hank, turning on his stool to see—
Behind them stood a tall man in the same kind of part-encounter suit, and part-jacket ensemble that First Councilor August Bradbury had worn, only this one’s jacket was made out of twisting shapes of deep blue.
“Councilor Pheta December,” the man said.
What is it with you New Earthers and seasonal names? Hank thought. He might even have asked the question, were it not for the look that the man was giving them. Councilor December was tall, with dark hair that hung to his jaw, and his eyes were a startling grey. He was also looking as though he’d just eaten a lemon.
“Is there something wrong?” Hank said, setting his drink down on the table.
December’s eyes narrowed as he looked at them and nodded. When he spoke, his words were clipped and exact. “Yes. I am afraid that there is.” He moved his hand to his side a little, where there appeared to be a holster–but not for a gun. Instead, it was a metal rod with what appeared to be buttons on it.
That’s a weapon, and he’s showing me that he’ll back up whatever he’s about to say next if any of us even consider looking at him funny, Hank knew. The Captain tensed, and he saw that Lory, Steed, and Madigan beside him did the same.
“It’s okay,” Hank murmured, although his deep tone indicated that it was anything but. “This is all going to go easy, isn’t it?” Hank looked up at the Councilor. He didn’t know what this man had thought that they had done–but Hank wasn’t about to be pushed around by anyone. It didn’t matter just what planet he was on!
I should have known, Hank thought. New Earth is just like any other human planet…
“It will go easy if you comply,” Councilor December said. “Your ship. That space vessel that you came here on has been quarantined by my forces.”
“What?” Hank started to rise from his stool.
“You are clearly not aware of our rules–but the office of the Second Councilor is to oversee any and all domestic affairs,” December said precisely. “First Councilor Bradbury deals with ideological and contact issues, and I deal with home security.”
“You’re the chief cop around here, then?” Hank growled at the man.
December blinked, and moved a hand to his jacket.
Hank saw Lory stiffen, and in the brief heartbeat that he had before she could do anything, Hank had taken a smooth step to place himself between the chief policeman or general or whatever December was, and the rest of his crew.
If he wants to throw my crew in jail for something, then he’ll have to go through me first… Hank was thinking.
“Your space vessel breaks New Earth biological laws,” the Councilor glared at him. “Our planet has been pristine for almost three hundred years, and now you bring that here–with its chemical rocketry systems, its dangerous reactor placements, its clearly-outdated design–and heaven alone knows what viruses contaminating it!”
“Viruses!” Hank coughed. “The Dalida is clean, goddamit!”
“I think that the Councilor is talking about the shuttle, boss–not the Dalida,” the voice of Ida suddenly chimed into the conversation. “Thank goodness he hasn’t seen the contents of Cortez’s laundry basket.”
“Not now, Ida!” Hank hissed out of the corner of his mouth, earning a further glower from December.
“This is serious business, Captain Snider,” December said. “If your space vessel manages to infect New Earth with some godless virus that we have wiped out centuries ago, then it could spell catastrophe for the colonists here!” December reached into his jacket and pulled out what Hank saw could only be a mobile screen. He was surprised, as it was the first of such devices that he had seen here on New Earth.
Somehow, I thought they would be more advanced than that, Hank thought distractedly. Like, they’d all beam thoughts directly into each other’s heads or something else sickeningly advanced.
“Here.” December held up the screen so that Hank could see the state of his shuttle.
It was fuzzy.
He was looking at a still image of the shuttle where they had landed up on the plateau, and it appeared to be covered in a blue-purple fuzz. “That was not there when I parked it!” Hank said hotly. “If there’s any contamination, then it’s your planet that’s doing it!”
“No, sir, you misunderstand. That blue is an antibacterial, probiotic spore that we have covered your vehicle with.” December looked as though this was the most frustrating conversation he had ever had.
“A spore.” Hank said suspiciously. “You covered my ship in mushrooms…”
“An antibacterial probiotic,” December repeated. “It’ll eat every alien virus you recklessly tried to infect our planet with and will not harm your ship in the slightest.” December pocketed the screen, and slowly drew out the metal rod instead. “And this is a more common probiotic, which I intend to administer to all of you as none of you have been decontaminated.”
“Like hell you are…” Madigan growled.
“Ida?” Hank said sullenly, and in a moment, she had analyzed the contents of the metal rod and found that it contained nothing more that beneficial ingredients. “It’s safe, boss. This guy is telling the truth.”
“Fine.” Hank waved at Madigan to calm down and presented his bare forearm to the Second Councilor December. There was a sharp jab, but when Hank looked, he could see no marks on his skin at all. “C’mon, crewmates,” the Captain said glumly, rubbing his forearm all the same as he stepped away.
I could really do with that drink about now, he thought, but held off as first Lory, then Steed, and finally the very large Madigan, his face full of misgivings came forward to get their own shot. On the side of the room, a woman stood next to the embarrassed Professor and the eager Cortez, performing the exact same procedure.
“If this does something funny to my insides, I’m going to ram that funny little stick right up your—” Madigan snarled at Second Councilor December, as the man ignored him and jabbed him all the same.
“Ow!” Madigan grumbled, slapping and rubbing his arm as December stood back.
“There now. All better,” the Second Councilor gave them a small, victorious smile. “I’m sure you’ll inform me when you want to travel off-world, Captain,” the man nodded.
I’m sure I won’t! Hank thought as he waited for the man and his aide to leave the lounge bar before he resumed his seat. “Well, there’s always one on every planet, right?” he muttered to the others as he swept up his tumbler once again.
“To the best goddam crew in the Milky Way!” He called out, eliciting a loud cheer from the members of the Dalida, and an encouraging ripple of applause from the nearby New Earthers.
I never want to fly with anyone else, Hank knew, and threw back the amber liquid.
“Argh!” Hank, along with Madigan abruptly sprayed the liquid all over the bar.
“Oh my god,” Steed was pulling a miserable face as he clutched at his belly. He’d swallowed his. Lory didn’t look that much better, either.
“What in the crap was that!?” Hank burst out. He’d never tasted anything so foul in all his natural-born days. It certainly wasn’t any whiskey that he knew.
“BBK. Beet, Broccoli, and Kimchi synth?” the New Earther bartender had rushed over to them, looking alarmed. “I thought you said you wanted the strongest stuff that we have. The BBK synth is the most invigorating macrobiotic synth-juice you’ll ever experience!”
“Alcohol. I meant alcohol.” Hank gasped. It felt like he had just drunk a salad. With compost added.
The bartender looked at him strangely. “There’s no alcohol on Colony 1, sir,” the man said seriously. “We’re a dry planet. We only serve vegetable synths.”
Hank looked in horror at Madigan and Steed, who were also looking mortified. Lory however, was much more sanguine about the whole thing.
“We thought this place was a paradise, Hank–it doesn’t mean it’s Heaven,” she smirked at him.
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