Chapter Four: Goodnight Moons
I am drinking something wickedly alcoholic called Rocket and staring at an evening sky with two moons.
My drinking companion, Hank the bartender, is another clone of Halley who swapped his gender by choice. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, I just learned that one version of me went full on trans. Did I secretly want to be a dude too? I give Hank a good long look. He is sprawled in a lawn chair here on the rooftop garden of his bar, casually sipping his booze. He is certainly handsome, suspiciously so with his access to a body sculpting Shaper. Chiselled jaw, dark curly hair, a muscular body that bespeaks too much gym time, a cute smile. He looks good. But I’m definitely more in the camp of wanting to be with him than actually be him. Although, no, nope, definitely no fucking your male doppelgänger. Can he guess what I’m thinking? And now I blush...
Another drink of Rocket, short for Rocket Fuel. Burns down my throat, takes me to the moon. Moons. Fuck.
New topic. Hank's rooftop garden is surprisingly nice. The 'second floor' of Hank's Hideaway bar is split between Hank's apartment and his garden, meaning that he has space for a patio for getting hammered on Rocket, and room for plants. And it seems the good barkeep also has a green thumb. The edges of the patio have wide planter boxes bursting with bright and exotic looking flowers, most of which I don't recognize but smell kind of amazing. Around this, Hank has garden beds filled with vegetables, some climbing up metal frames, others in sprawling vines. I think I see zucchini and English peas, which is comforting. Although, I doubt they call them English peas here... Hank even built a small greenhouse and seems to be growing purple tomatoes in it. I had always wanted to have a proper garden, and it seems that Hank realized that dream. I'm a little jealous. Of the garden, not the penis.
After Hank's customers left for the evening he closed the bar, fetched a bottle of Rocket, and led me up to the roof. He explained that today was the First Night of Shift Change, the five day Flotsam weekend for the human community, and people by custom spend First Night visiting family or close friends. And so he always closes the bar to enjoy some quiet before a hectic bar crowd descends for the rest of the holiday. Plus he added, pouring Rocket into a couple glasses and directing me to a lawn chair, it isn't everyday you get to drink with new family. We toasted, drank, and have been enjoying some companionable silence since.
I take another sip of my drink and enjoy the city views from the rooftop. The city, imaginatively named Flotsam City, is built onto a large, almost cylindrical mesa of red stone. Thie city perched on its mesa sticks right out of the Junk Desert and is surrounded as far as the horizon with twisting piles of mostly metallic space junk debris. The only other feature that breaks through the trash heap is a second, shorter but wide-topped mesa that serves as the city's spaceport. I secretly hope it's called Jetsam. Jet...sam. Like an airplane. I'm hilarious.
From my vantage point on the roof I can see the city seems like it has three parts. The top of the mesa is dominated by a single structure, some sort of large, reflectively silver building that is separated from the rest of the city by a sheer drop of naked cliff. Next there are a series of terraces cut into the mesa like steps, home to an attractive assortment of stone buildings that seems to perch possessively over the lower city. Finally, where the mesa transitions from vertical to sloped, is the random looking warren of improvised buildings that make up the rest of the city. Which is where Hank’s Hideaway lives and where our heroine, me, is getting drunk on Rocket.
Under a two moon sky.
Hank sees me looking at the towering mesa and points at the silver structure on the top. “That,” Hank says dramatically, “is the Enclave of the Greys, the forbidden city of the administrators of Flotsam.” I give it a long look and realize it is a perfect sphere sprouting from the flat top of the mesa, smooth and reflective, like a bead of mercury glinting in the evening sunlight. It definitely looks forbidding and futuristic and chillingly alien.
“Our alien overlords?” I ask.
Hank laughs. “Hardly. The Greys are a pretty hands off bunch.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “The Greys are the most technologically advanced, powerful species on Flotsam and probably in our galaxy. They have the best tech, control the most space, and have won every war with an upstart species that thinks they can...” and he switches to a cartoon voice, “Conquer the Galaxy! But they mostly want to be left alone to do their thing... which is, well, kind of mysterious. They're a private bunch. Their Spawning Worlds, their homeworlds, are completely off limits to outsiders, and on shared planets their huge arcology cities are private. That isn’t to say the Greys are xenophobic, they are super cool with aliens living on the majority of their planets and Grey Space was one of the first places that tolerated free humans. Aliens just have to follow their laws and respect their boundaries.”
“So they are more like our alien landlords?”
“Yeah, kinda. And also kind of like the galactic cops. The Greys have an Enclave on Flotsam mostly to keep an eye on it. Since the Nexus wormhole network dumps trash into the star system, the Greys have decided to administer Flotsam to watch out for any strange, dangerous technology that shows up and confiscate it. They aren’t really interested in governing Flotsam, so all of us are pretty much free to do as we want as long as we don’t kill, harm, or enslave sapients or do anything that interferes with their mission to interdict dangerous space relics. It’s basically a free port.”
“Cool” I say, for lack of anything more intelligent. ‘What do they look like?”
Hank snorts, “Right, duh, okay. The Greys looks like stereotypical aliens. You know Roswell aliens? Like that. Big, bald, teardrop heads with huge black eyes, slit mouths, and nostrils without a nose. They are short, like four feet tall and almost always wear sequin jumpsuits when you see them in public.”
I do my best little alien voice, “Take me to your leader! Prepare the anal probes!”
Hank laughs, which I decide somehow makes him more handsome. “They don’t actually talk.” He touches his head with a finger. “They are psychic. Also they are weird. They don’t seem to have like, a cognitive model like us humans. So they tend to be cryptic and obtuse if you ever interact with them.” Hank makes his thoughtful face, "Talking to the Greys is like being a deaf person trying to describe colour to a blind person who only wants to talk about music. It is equal parts trippy and frustrating. But they mostly keep to their enclave, so you probably won’t have a lot to do with them. You are way more likely to interact with their drones and AI officials.” Hank points at a silver sphere flying lazily over the city.
I suppress a shudder. I’m not sure I like the idea of being spied on by little aliens and their robots. I drink another mouthful of Rocket. At least drone surveillance isn't anal probes.
I point at the terraces with the fancy stone buildings, “Is that where the fancy people live?”
Hank nods, “Some wealthy sapients live up there, yeah. But it’s mostly corporate offices and consulates.” Hank makes a very Halley frowny face as he organizes his thoughts. “Most of what makes the local economy work is collecting the valuable salvage the Nexus spits out. A bunch of that comes from mining the Junk Desert here on Flotsam, and the rest comes from crews that scour the debris fields in space. The salvage generally breaks down into three types: valuable metals and materials that get collected in bulk and shipped to other planets for recycling; functioning tech, especially slightly illegal weapons, which mostly get sent to blackmarket shipyards that do shady refits; and advanced, unique alien artifacts that get sold to tech companies for reverse engineering. Up on the terraces are the corporate offices of salvage brokers that buy scrap from the Salvagers and ship it to other planets. There are also offices of most of the big tech companies, since a single cool tech artifact can be a huge, wildly profitable discovery. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s enough of a game changer to make having staff on Flotsam a necessity.”
That all makes a kind of sense to me. ‘Why the alien governments? Looking for cool tech too?”
Hank nods, “That’s part of it, the first consulates opened on Flotsam just to buy cool tech directly from Salvagers. Any tech advantage, especially military stuff, is worth a lot to some species. But the main reason there are so many consulates here has to do with diplomacy and the Nexus. The Nexus is a weird kind of travel network. Different locations that access the Nexus have different... potentials? Which means that it’s very easy to make certain trips and difficult and very time consuming to travel to other places. In kind of a random way? Because Flotsam is the trash heap of the Nexus, it has a really convenient potential. Basically you can get to Flotsam quickly and easily from pretty much everywhere in the galaxy. There are other Hubs, other common convenient places to travel, but they tend to be nice places with strict governments. Flotsam is a free port with administrators who don’t really care what the locals get up to, so Flotsam has become a place where different governments can meet on the downlow, and have backchannel communication. So pretty much everyone started to keep consulates here. Flotsam is the best secret diplomatic hotspot that every knows about.”
“Cool,” I say, because this time it actually is cool.
Hank nods, “Yeah, there is a lot cloak and dagger spy stuff. The ease of getting to Flotsam also makes it a hotspot for crime and smuggling too. It’s an interesting place to live.”
Says the guy who is another clone of the woman I am also a clone of. “So alien landlords up top, then the fancy people, then the rest?”
Hank fiddles with a glowing wristband. A hightech smartwatch? After a moment he looks up and nods. “Basically, yeah. Below the Terraces are the main neighbourhoods of the city, spread out in a ring around the mesa. The lower city breaks down into a few districts, based mostly on the main species that live there." Hank points at the spaceport Mesa in the distance. I look and see an arrowhead shaped spacecraft cruise in toward the mesa, execute a smart little turn, and then gracefully drift toward a landing space. I also notice that the spaceport is linked to the main city by a suspended rail system that supports large cargo trams that shuttle between the two mesas. "The part of the city closest to the spaceport is the Port District," Hank explains, "and its pretty much what you'd expect. Lots of bars and hotels and boarding houses that cater to visitors and the hardcore Spacers that spend months in the black between port calls. It's home to the main entertainment district on Flotsam with most of the clubs, taverns, bordellos, casinos, and theatres in the city. It's also where you'll find the Arena. You should definitely make a trip out that way soon, but make sure you bring a grownup, it can be a pretty rough neighbourhood."
"Aye, aye," I say. "I wouldn't want to get shanghaied"
Hank makes an uncharacteristically serious face. "That's not really a joking matter. The Greys might forbid slavery, but enforcement of their rules ends at orbit. Seriously, be careful around the Port."
"Next to the Port District we have The Human district. Humans make up more than a third of the population of Flotsam and are a mixed bunch coming from all over the place. Most humans are from other Grey territories, here to try their fortunes on Flotsam, but there are members of all kinds of interesting human subcultures. You get escaped human slaves, members of weird cults exiled from their home systems, and members of splinter groups that really challenge what can be defined as human." Hank winks, "Rumour has it there are even a few Earthlings here."
Hank points off the roof to the footpath right in front of the bar. I crane my neck to see a troop of four armoured humanoid shaped beings. They are wearing what looks a lot like combat gear: armour plates on their torso, nylon-esque webbing, so very many pouches, and heavy rucksacks. Under their gear they are coated in a dull, gunmetal grey substance that looks skintight. The substance covers their heads too, forming a smooth metallic shell that completely hides their faces. “Those are Ürnauts,” Hank says. “They are one of the more extreme human groups on Flotsam.”
“What makes them extreme?” I ask.
“The Ürnauts are heavily into cybernetic body modification. That grey coating on their bodies is their actual skin; those helmets are their heads. And inside of that skin their body is riddled with implants and enhancements. Many of the Ürnauts you see are more machine than man.”
I giggle, and say lustily “I always love meeting people who are more machine than man.” Fuck, what? I gotta slow down on this Rocket.
Hank chuckles, “Hale’s you outta ease up on the Rocket throttle there.” Dork. “Another serious bit of advice is to maybe give them a wide berth.”
“Why? Will they assimilate me?”
“No. The Ürnauts are extremely lawful people. But in a lot of Flotsam they are also The Law, being in charge of security in the human district, at the port, in the terraces, and in many businesses around town. They are basically fair, but they take order very seriously, and will absolutely punish anyone they catch breaking pretty much any rule. No exceptions, no second chances, no nuanced leniency. And their justice can be... well, it can be pretty harsh and a bit disturbing. I wouldn’t want to experience it firsthand. Often the easiest way to stay on their good side is just to keep out of their way.”
“Okay,” I say.
"Anyway, the diversity of humanity on Flotsam makes the human district into more of a collection of smaller neighbourhoods that each cater to a certain flavour of humanity. Hanks Hideaway and Clementine's place are in The Purple Quarter, which is the neighbourhood furthest from the Port."
Hank stands up, a little unsteadily, and waves me over to one side of the roof. He points at a plaza covered in outdoor restaurant seating, which I realize is actually the roof of a downslope building that must be a cafe. I look at the patrons and notice something odd about them: they're aliens. "Those are Blues," Hank explains. I take a longer, harder look at the alien patrons and immediately notice that they have blue skin. Hence Blues I guess. Otherwise they are humanoid enough to almost but not quite pass for human. They are taller and thinner, with angular lanky bodies that look kind of like someone took a picture of a human and stretched it vertically. They have narrow, elongated faces with striking cheekbones; thin, almost lipless mouths; big crescent nostrils on thin noses, and large dark eyes. They don’t look like they have any hair on their bodies or heads and instead wear shawls or amusingly pointy Sci-if hats. The Blues don’t seem, at least from this collection of them, to have more than one sex or gender: no breasts or curves or size differences.
“Just one sex?” I ask.
“Blues have females and males just like humans, but they don’t really have secondary sexual characteristics or dimorphism. Male and female Blues basically look the same, even when they're naked. Their genitals are internal, unless in use, so they have closed slits that only open to show a penis-like or vagina-like organ when they couple.”
“Not to them, Blues use scent cues and pheromones to convey gender and sex signals. For them it’s not how they look, it’s all about how they smell.”
“So we just sniff them?” Gross.
Hank laughs and shakes his head, “Humans can’t process their signals, so it’s mostly polite to just use neutral pronouns when speaking to them. Blues only refer to each other by gender for sexy times and courting, so calling them “they” or whatever actually matches their custom.”
"That's very PC of you."
"Well, it wouldn't do to insult the neighbours." Hank points off in the opposite direction of The Port, "Because the next district over is the Blue District. Blues make up another third of the city and have a much more unified culture than Flotsam's humans. Their part of the city is centred on their Congregation Hall, which you can just make out the top of..." Hank points and yeah, I can see a tall spire sticking out of an onion shaped dome painted in a mute, aquamarine. "That's the centre of Blue life, with pretty much everything organized around it. The most important shared buildings and wealthiest neighbourhoods are built right next to the Hall, and the poorest or most uncouth are hidden on the edges of the district."
I frown. "That sounds kind of shitty."
Hank does a kind of shrug sway, "Well no more so than anyone else in the galaxy. Blues are generally pretty good sapients. I mean, individually they are like anyone, some good sapients, some assholes, but as a species they are tolerant, peaceful, and socially minded. They really do make an effort to look out for every member of their species, it's part of their Contract of Social Responsibility... which, fuck," Hank takes a drink of Rocket, "I am both too drunk and too sober to get into it. But basically, the Blues are alright. They also get along great with us humans. So much so that this neighbourhood, The Purple Quarter, is a mixed one that is shared pretty equally by humans and Blues."
"Purple because Blue and Red... for humans?"
"Exactly! The Purple Quarter is the squishy interface between Human and Blue districts and caters to both species. There are marketplaces that swap cultural items between species, restaurants with human and Blue dishes, and clothing printers who carry designs for both species, and a bunch of other businesses that cater to everybody. The Purple Quarter also gathers a bunch of weirdos, outsiders, and artists from either species which means the neighbourhood also features a bunch of galleries and experimental theatres and giving everything a bit of a bohemian vibe."
"I've always been a sucker for that kind of twee shit."
Hank ignores my barb and I pout a little. "The Purple Quarter, probably because of its inclusivity, also attracts other aliens. Most of the more gregarious and human-friendly species make their homes in the Purple Quarter. They may only make a tiny fraction of the sapients on Flotsam, but there are some remarkable aliens living here among us."
Hank's smart watch thing beeps at him and he walks over to the side of the roof. A kind of shitty looking quadcopter drone buzzes into view and hovers above Hank. Emblazoned on the drone is the logo of a centauress wearing a cowboy hat who looks a little too much like me, like Halley. I try not to read too much into this. The drone seems to scrutinize Hank for a moment before releasing a plastic cargo pod from its underside and lowering it on a cable into Hank's waiting arms. Hank unhooks the cartoon, and the drone flies away, spooling its cable as it goes. Hank pops open the cargo pod and a rich food smell hits me. My stomach growls, I realize that I, this clone iteration, has never eaten a meal. Me hungry.
Hank pulls out a few of small, plastic cartoons and hands me one, along with a utensil that resembles a cross between chop sticks and tongs, a kind of hinged food pincer. Eagerly I open the carton to find a box full of noodles smothered in sauce with cubes of some sort of meat. I scoop up some noodles with my pincer and lift them to my mouth. Hesitantly I take a nibble and am rewarded with a burst of savoury and spice, something like cinnamon/peanut with tamarind. I take a bigger bite and it definitely reminds me of Thai food. "This is good," I say before jamming a larger pincerful of noodles into my mouth.
Hank smiles, "I thought you'd like it. It's from a Blue noodle shop a few blocks away, and is kind of Blue/Human fusion joint. The meat is Vat Meat, in case you were wondering. Flotsam has greenhouses out by the ocean, but we don't have a lot of livestock, so we eat a lot of vat grown meat. It's a bit bland on its own, but it works just like chicken in things." I could only agree as I continued to wolf down my noodles. Food food food food! Say one thing about Halley, say she has a healthy appetite. Especially when she is drunk.
I finally come up for air. "The Port, Humans, Blue District... what's left?"
Hank hands me another carton with something like pickled cucumbers in it. "There is only one major district left and it belongs to the Reptilians."
"Reptilians?" I ask, mouth full. "Like... the lizard people aliens who are secretly the British Royal Family or the rich people who run the world?"
Hank smirks, "Actually kind of, although they never ran the Earth. And the only Reptilian to have anything to do with the Royal Family was a defector who had infiltrated Earth to make a deal with the Nazis but instead fell in love with a duchess."
"You're fucking with me!" Right!?
Hank shakes his head. "The Reptilians are one of the only alien species that still keep humans as slaves or indentured servants. They thought WW2 and the invention of atomic weapons would end the Earth experiment, which would end the protected status of Earthlings, opening up the planet to be exploited. So they sent an agent to Earth to try and trade alien technology to the Nazis for slaves. But he fell hopelessly in love with some minor royal and went native. And then the war ended and the Earth experiment was allowed to continue, either in peace or in an anthropologically interesting mushroom cloud."
"Wild," I manage with a mouth full of pickled-whatever.
"You'll know a Reptilian when you see one," Hank continues, "they look almost exactly like you would imagine: big crocodile looking people with green scales, fangs, tails, and stocky, bulging muscles. They are big and mean, fairly technologically advanced, and very xenophobic. The Snakes think they are a superior species and that other sapients, particularly humans, are inferior and deserve to be subjugated. Hence, I guess, the human slavery. The Reptilians believe they should be running the galaxy and even waged a war against the Greys to display their dominion. A war that fortunately they lost: the Greys totally, completely kicked their ass. So now here they are, another client species to the Greys, rooting around on Flotsam with the rest of us." Hank and I both shovel a tong-load of noodles into our mouths, synchronized eating style. He chews, swallows, continues: "The Reptilian's claim to fame is running the Syndicate, the organized crime on Flotsam. Most of the drugs, vice, and smuggling on Flotsam run through the Syndicate and basically every Snake on the planet works for them in one way or another." Hank gives me smouldering serious eyes, "I cannot emphasize enough that these are bad, violent sapients who will jack you the fuck up if you cross them." Dramatic pause. "They are forbidden by the Greys from taking Slaves on Flotsam, but they will indenture anyone they can. Do. Not. Make. A. Deal. With. Them." Smoulder. "Ever!"
"Okay" I say. "Reptiles equal bad."
Hank nods. "The Reptilian District is also home to a few other alien species. The Reptilian Empire remains vast and contains a bunch of vassal species, some of which live with their rulers here on Flotsam. And, since the Reptilian District is quiet, some of the more private alien species have compounds there too. It's definitely not the friendliest part of town for humans." Hank gestures broadly, encompassing the entire city, "And thus concludes my oral tour of Flotsam City."
And seemingly right on cue a voice shouts, "Hail! Barkeep!"
What the fuck? I Follow Hank over to the edge of the roof and look down. Standing on the ground in front of the bar stands a remarkably massive woman of some sort. The first most obvious thing about her is that she is very tall and very muscular, easily a seven foot tall amazon. The second most obvious thing about her is that she has four arms and four very impressive breasts. The woman is blonde and beautiful in a vital, handsome kind of way, and smirks at us roguishly. "I have travelled far to slake my thirst!" She thunders. "I shall not be denied!"
Hanks smiles and rolls his eyes. "Freya, you know the door recognizes you," he calls to her.
"What? I shall have to take your castle by force?" She booms a jovial and slightly frightening laugh and runs towards the bar door. "I shall take no prisoners!"
Hank looks at me and blushes. "So, uh, that's Steadfast Freya. She's kind of my... lover?"
Woah! "Your girlfriend is an Amazonian Alien!? Kinky!”
Hank blushes darker. "First of all, she isn't an alien. She's a Nordic, which is kind of like a breed of Human. Second, she isn't my girlfriend because Nordics don't really do the whole monogamous relationship thing."
"That is because Pair Bonding is for the fearful," Freya says grinning as she bounds into the rooftop garden. "Fear of being alone and fear of competition with romantic rivals. The Courageous live in the moment and take what succour fortune provides. Life is too short." She smiles broadly as she takes me in. "Oh-ho! Another Halley!" She is suddenly hugging me, crushing me to her large breasts with a fearsome amount of strength. "What number are you?"
"Twenty-four," I gasp into her chest.
"Well, 24th, it is a pleasure to meet you. I always enjoy meeting a new Halley," she releases me from her four-armed embrace. "Fair Hank, do I need to be jealous?" Hank blushes darker still. I worry he might faint.
Freya booms another laugh and sweeps up the smaller man into her arms, kissing him hungrily, her extra arms roaming his body. Hank returns the kiss, the world falling away from him as gives into her passion, hands clutching her muscular, but somehow still soft ass. Freya starts to stroke the front of Hanks pants and reaches up with another hand to unclip the coils of her tightly braided hair, letting it fall over her shoulder. Hank makes a kind of growling noise deep in his throat. There is frankly something primal there, a wild abandon to a hunger that I’m finding intimidating but more than a little hot. Maybe i should start taking notes?
This tangle of kissing and fondling goes on longer than I am comfortable with starts to seem like it might be about to level up to full blown sex. I make a kind of coughing sound and then, when that's ignored, I make a louder almost retching noise. Which does the trick, the two lovers pull apart and blink at me. Hi I'm Halley, time displaced clone? Hank grins sheepishly at me and blushes and Freya just smirks happily, unembarrassed.
“Sorry....” Hank says a bit breathlessly. “We, uh, having some catching up to do...”
“Dont be weak!” Freya booms merrily and slaps Hank playfully on the back making him stumble. “We are going to fuck! I have been in the cold embrace of space since last Shift Change, with naught but my greasy, stupid crewmates for company.” Freya licks her generous lips and I get the message. Girl is gonna get hers.
I paste on a forced smile, trying to be cool and not maybe a little jealous. Which is stupid because it's not like I was planning to have sex with my male clone or the muscular not-actually-an-alien woman. That would be a stupid decision. Not least because Hank is one of the only people I know on a strange planet and I don’t really have any other place to go... I cough a little, “I’d tell you to get a room, but, well, I think I might need to find a room of my own...”
Hank smiles easily, “I have an extra bedroom you can crash in tonight. It isn’t much, but it’s a room with a bed. Sound good?”
I realize that I am both quite drunk and very sleepy and that bed sounds like a wise solution. "Yes please."
I am shown to what would generously be called a closet with a cot in it. But fuck it. I crawl in and lay down and close my eyes on an alien world with two moons and try to ignore sounds of loud, athletic sex.
(And here is "So Much Worldbuilding Exposition!" Thanks for all of the kind words! I'm glad people are digging my attempt at writing something a bit more substantial. Don't worry though: there will be smuttier chapters and weirder TFs ahead.)