You can tell, even now, where somebody made a last stand. You’ll be walking through mostly intact buildings, and you’ll start seeing bullet holes. There’ll be scorch marks, too, sometimes, where a surface has been protected from the weather. Then further in there’ll be a ring of buildings gutted by fire and riddled with holes, empty husks, sometimes just the foundations. In the middle of it all will be one intact building. That one will be boarded up, reinforced, an ersatz fortress. There’ll be a breach somewhere, of course. Inside, you won’t even find bones; but you will find supplies.
It’s a sweet gig: house band, Wednesday nights, year round. It’s like an airport bar gig, except it’s a spaceport, and half your audience are aliens who’ve never heard human music before. They tend to listen intently. God knows what they’re using for ears, some of them. There was one thing in a water tank that wanted the bass amp pushed over into contact with the glass…
It’s the humans that get annoying. I don’t know how many more times I can reasonably be expected to smile politely at some stupid ‘cantina band’ joke. That movie’s 60 years old anyway.
“But, how does it work?”
“Excuse me, Senator?”
“The gate, how does it work? I mean, why. On what principle? What’s the mechanism?”
“Oh. They didn’t say. They just sent the plans. For the thing and for the tools to make the thing, too. Didn’t say why it works. How it works is, you turn it on and send an object into one end. Doesn’t come out the other end, it comes out the other end of a gate somewhere else. We select the where, beforehand.”
“And you want to build it?”
“Hell, no: I think it’s a terrible idea.”
They did the excursion boat tour of the system before the ship left, sent me the pics: Mom and Dad posing in suits on Mars, on Europa with Jupiter half the sky behind them. Right now they’re probably on some distant planet standing stiffly in front of some unlikely piece of alien architecture.
“Are you getting this? Are you!?” the voice was shaking with excitement.
No wonder, too. Even through the external cam, the alien’s suit was impressive. As much vehicle as suit, a six armed machine spider with an environment pod suspended in the middle.
In the pod: something out of Lovecraft.
“What’s it doing?”
“There’s lights in there, like it’s looking at displays. Scans, maybe? Of me?”
“Or the Chariot.”
Almost casually, the alien reached over with a spidery mechanical arm and pulled the vehicle out of the ditch Rane had driven into.
“Yeah. Mighty neighborly of it. Him? Jesus.”
Noemi sat silently as the Commander read her CV as if he hadn’t known her her whole life.
“Where would you like to work?”
He asked as if he wanted an honest answer, so she gave one. “I’d like to work in the farms, if I could.”
“Everyone does. Spin gravity, close to quarters, little suit time,” he smiled. “We’re shorthanded, as you know, in a lot of sectors. Some people can’t take free fall. The truth is you’ll do lots of jobs in your lifetime.”
“No reason you shouldn’t start at the farms though.”
“Thank you sir.”
I joined the Deacons right after getting out of the Army. They’re always looking for urban combat vets. Pay ain’t as good, but there’s less risk, short of large-scale rioting. After training I requested a post in my hometown, Harrisburg, and they gave it to me. So one Sunday morning I ran into my high school Biology teacher, the smartass one who gave me a D. So I violated him on a 12-43, Failure To Perform Observance. Turns out he had some anti-soc priors, schismatic stuff, so they gave him 3 years re-ed in Arizona. Revenge is sweet, ain’t it?
“Great night, man.”
“Yeah. Awesome. Hey did you check out that girl Victor from A/V club brought?”
“Dude. I know. Like girly that smash would ever do with Victor. What do you think, hooker? He’s got the credits...”
“Naw, that had to be robotic, kid.”
“Totally. His dad works for USRS. She was too fresh to be a hooker; even a real classy one would be more used up than that.”
“Do you think he’ll hook us up…”
“Are you kidding? After you stuffed him in his locker three times this year? Not a chance, kid.”
We had a breakin, did I tell you? Two weeks ago. Ion and I weren’t home, thank god: the children had a recital at school. When we landed in the carport, the police were standing in the yard. Some illegal burned through one of the back windows and went straight for the pantry. The police sergeant said the house robot was still holding the body by the neck when they got there. It must have been cleaning the kitchen when he came in. Trying to steal food, with all my jewelry upstairs… and Ion’s paper money collection! Can you imagine?