Saturday, September 25, 2010

More Antisocial!

Chapter 2 of Antisocial!, the sequel to Virus!


One of the most dreaded places in the entire galaxy is the main terminal of the wormhole depot near Ophiuchus V. First of all, it was designed with complete disregard to things like movement and traffic flow. The placement of gates stairwells, escalators, and shop doorways facilitated beings bumping into each other every five feet. A rare hour went by when there wasn’t a fight of some kind, usually by beings who had never been to the depot before. Veterans, on the other hand(s), were used to it and just sighed a lot.

Then there was the fact that it was constructed without even the slightest consideration of aesthetics. Words simply cannot describe how depressingly awful the architecture and design is. Galactic Traveler magazine once described the Ophiuchus V wormhole depot as looking like the result of Frank Lloyd Wright eating, partially digesting, and throwing back up the main lobby of the Chrysler Building.

Shops of all sorts were strewn randomly around the perimeter of the main concourse, and the Food Court, many said, was aptly named, because in it you felt like you were on trial for your life, combining the most inedible food from twenty-five different worlds and cultures. All the various cooking smells coalesced into a thick miasma that hung over the food court like a pall and challenged anyone to actually remain hungry, or at the very least not be violently ill.

Needless to say, the wormhole depot was an ordeal even under the best traveling conditions. And “best traveling conditions” was not a phrase that even remotely applied to Zev Zyzzyx and his wife Eep. They shambled into the main concourse from Gate 9 and Zev collapsed onto a plastic chair—one with the least number of stains—in the waiting area and panted heavily.

“I tell you,” he said, “they need to do some sort of maintenance on that thing. I’ve never traveled in a wormhole that was so unstable. I can’t actually find a part of my body that doesn’t ache right now.”

“I’m surprised you can find any part of your body at all,” said Eep. “You haven’t used your real form in at least six or seven years.”

“Longer than that, I think.”

Zyzzyx was a shapeshifter whose normal form is somewhat squidlike and tentacled, but, after emigrating to Earth more than a decade ago, morphed into the physical form of American actor Ernest Borgnine and remained that way—largely because his wife Eep had fallen in love with him while he was in Borgnine form. Why mess with a good thing?

Actually, it had been about five years since Zev Zyzzyx traveled off his home planet of Gargleplax. He was shocked at how far into disrepair some of his most heavily traveled wormholes in his youth had fallen. Blame it on galaxy-wide budget cuts.

Beings traveled with relative speed and ease throughout the Milky Way Galaxy by means of a series of wormholes that the Galactic Transportation Bureau (GTB) had constructed several decades earlier. Wormholes clustered at various nodes or depots scattered throughout the galaxy. Travelers sit inside small egg-shaped pods and, when a wormhole opens—which they do at set times, like train schedules, only more reliable—the pod is inserted into the hole and shunted along to the next wormhole depot, where travelers can transfer to other wormholes or catch a shuttle to the planet nearest to the wormhole depot. To get from Gargleplax to Earth takes four transfers, and each one appears to Zyzzyx to have involved a less and less stable wormhole. The GTB has been strapped for cash for decades.

“Well,” said Eep, who had been doing a lot more off-planet traveling than Zyzzyx lately, “they’re experimenting with a private toll-based wormhole over in Orion and the fares and surcharges are outrageous. You have to pay $50 for any luggage you are carrying. They even have telepaths on the staff who scan travelers’ brains and charge them an additional $100 for emotional baggage. They claim its for the benefit of service personnel.”

“I bet.”

“You should never take it. They can tell if someone is a shapeshifter and they’ll charge a separate fee for any additional physical forms you could take.”

“I’d be broke by the time I got to Scorpius.”

“Speaking of being broke, there’s a pretty big gift shop here. We have forty-five minutes until the next wormhole opens...”

Eep was a sucker for a good wormhole depot gift shop, and the one on Ophiuchus was one of the most elaborate—and deeply upsetting. T shirts that read “Ophiuchus V is for Lovers” were offset by similar T shirts that read “Ophiuchus V is for Bitter Enemies.” There was an entire wall of shelves devoted to coffee mugs designed for every conceivable mouthpart. One souvenir Ophiuchus V mug for the spider beings of Arachnis XII cost more than the entire U.S. space program, due largely to the complexity of its manufacture.

The biggest point of contention, however, involved gift store items of questionable taste—well, taste being a relative term when it comes to wormhole depot gift shops. The beings native to the planet Ophiuchus V, which was the name given to the Class M planet orbiting Alpha Ophiuchi, are tripedal, have three arms, and have faces dominated by an eight-inch-long maroon-colored nose. They are a very kind, mild-mannered species (with three hands, they are known for their exceptionally complex yet beautiful piano music), and in some ways their docile nature has made them ripe for parody throughout the galaxy. When the wormhole depot gift shop opened, the first items to be offered for sale—created by the GTB’s Gifts & Novelties Division—were big plastic noses, Ophiuchian versions of the old Earth Groucho nose and glasses, exaggerated plush toys, decorative tripods, a spare arm that can be attached to another being’s chest with Velcro, and many more such gifts. There was also a relatively respectful action figure of Queen Cleolanta, one of Ophiuchius V’s most important historical figures.

The crème de la crème of the gift shop, if that’s what you want to call it, is a large ceramic teapot, the body of which is a sphere painted to look like the planet Ophiuchus V, while the spout is a long red nose. The tea is dispensed from the nostrils. Galactic Traveler magazine has voted the Ophiuchian teapot the “tackiest gift shop item in the galaxy,” a close second being the Mount Rushmore bookends sold on Earth.

It should be said that the Ophiuchians were themselves none too pleased about these items, but once they saw how much money they were making as a result of the sale of them, them swallowed their pride, took an extraordinarily deep breath, and let it be.

Zyzzyx looked at Eep. “I don’t need a rubber nose.” He suddenly looked around. “Hey, what happened to Astra?”

“He had to go in the pet pod. Because of the bad wormhole conditions, the GTB disallows luggage and pet carriers in the same pod as travelers. He should be along shortly.”

Zev and Eep, being two distinct species from different planets, were incapable of interbreeding, and had no interest in children of any kind anyway, but did adopt a pet Squog which, as its name suggests, is somewhat reminiscent of a squid crossed with a dog. It is covered with shaggy gold-colored fur, has four legs, as well as a dozen flailing tentacles. It lacks a head in the conventional sense, has two large eyes on either side of its torso, and in the center of the tentacles, a razor-sharp parrot-like beak. It lives predominantly on dry land, but is partially aquatic and likes to frolic in water. Zev has found that the resulting smell is a combination of wet dog and day-old seafood. (Basically, Astra was Eep’s idea.) The Squog is a highly intelligent species, and Zev found that the only obedience-related challenge was teaching Astra the difference between “brother in law” and “chew toy.” They had the Gargleplaxian equivalent of 911 on speed dial for a while.

Zev sat back on the seat and closed his eyes for a moment. Eep stared into space, started, then rolled her eyes. Zev looked at her.

“What’s wrong?”

“Another beet from my brother.”

Social media had made its way across the galaxy, of course, and given that the Festerians—Eep’s race—were telepaths, their version of social media took place mentally via what were called “brain tweets” or “beets.” Many folks on Festeria lived for the beets, but they tended to give Eep a headache.

“What’s he doing now?” Zev asked.

“He just had a sandwich and found some mystery eggs in it. I told him to avoid that deli.”

Zev grunted, and rubbed his temples. “All I can say is that I am very happy your brother found a hack to disable the marketing chip. I really couldn’t take that right now.”

“He said he got it from an O’Reilly book,” said Eep.

Laws had been passed that prohibited anyone from traveling throughout the galaxy without a marketing chip installed in their brains. Each chip included a being’s name, home address, planet of origin, phone number, e-mail address, blood type, average yearly income, type of car/spacecraft driven, favorite color, favorite food, religion, sexual orientation, physical attributes one found most sexually alluring, and so on—basically, every aspect of one’s personality. The marketing chip enabled all of the marketers and advertisers in a given public location, like a wormhole depot, to target someone with true one-to-one marketing that took the form of vivid hallucinations and holgrammatic pop-up ads, often featuring relatives, loved ones, ancestors, and even religious figures, all hawking various products and services. These “ad-visions” often drove people into complete and utter insanity (there was a psychiatrist call button located next to the defibrillator), but their return on investment was dynamite.

An Ophiuchian redcap wheeled out a metallic box the size of a filing cabinet. It was dotted with inch-wide airholes and something could be seen moving about inside.

“Mr. Zyzzyx and Ms. Eep? I have your pet.”

The box shuddered and the creature inside—Astra—made a noise that sounded like an opera tenor gargling with a nylon stocking filled with Jell-O.

“Aww,” said Eep, “isn’t he cute?”

“Please sign this acceptance form,” said the redcap to Eep, unlocking the metal container from the handtruck with his left hand, holding out the form in his right hand, and offering a pen in his center hand. He sniffed reflexively, an Ophiuchian idiosyncrasy.

Eep signed the form, tipped the redcap, and the Ophiuchian tri-toddled off. She leaned over the pet carrier. Astra was still lurching violently back and forth. “There there, mummy’s here now. Did you have a nice trip?” To Zev she added, “He really doesn’t like traveling all that much. He gets very grouchy.”

“I know how he feels.”

Eep looked over at him. “Zev, is everything all right?”

“What do you mean? You know how I hate traveling.”

“It’s not that. It just— in the past five years, you seem to have gotten...I don’t know...more morose and less playful than you used to be.”

“Have I?”

“Remember the first time we traveled, we were stuck in this depot because of some serious wormhole instability or something.”

“That narrows it down...”

“There was this hideously disgusting couple from Proxima Centauri—newlyweds, we guessed, they were just all over each other. And the guy had to pee or something, so you decided to play a trick on them and shapeshifted into his form. I could read your mind so I knew it was all a joke, but you and she started going at it—and when the guy came back, he was shocked to find his wife making out with...himself. I thought it was hysterical.”

“How puckish of me.”

“Then...” she was really starting to crack herself up at this point, “you decided to shapeshift into an Ophiuchian, but you had forgotten that you can’t shapeshift your clothes, and, well, that third leg had nowhere to go.”

The memory brought a smile to Zev’s face. “Yes, and all the females were staring at, result with lust and admiration.”

“Actually, I think they were agape with horror.”

“It’s a fine line.”

“We used to have a lot more fun, is all I’m saying,” said Eep. “And I was just wondering if everything was all right. I could read your mind, of course, but you know I hate doing that.”

You do? he thought.

“Yes, I do!” she said.

“I rest my case,” said Zev, smiling. “Anyway, yes, I feel fine. It’s just...I don’t know. A kind of ennui, perhaps. It’ll pass.”

“I hope so.”

Eep got up, took a deep breath, and walked over to the Food Court across the concourse. She ordered a pastrami sandwich for herself, an Arcturan grot with cheese for Zev, and a large slab of raw Ophiuchian malm steak for Astra.

When she got back to the seats, she was aghast. “Astra! How did you get out of your carrier! Get off those seats! And why are you wearing Zev’s pants...Oh, I see. Cute.”

Zev popped back into his normal form. ”Gotcha!” he said with a laugh.

“Now that’s more like it.”

She handed Zev his grot, lifted the lid of the pet carrier, and tossed in the malm. She quickly closed the lid. Inside, Astra convulsed wildly and ate his malm steak with a noise that sounded like an inner tube filled with geese going through an industrial meat grinder. Which wasn’t far from the case, actually.

After lunch, they still had another twenty minutes before the wormhole opened, so they sat back and napped. Suddenly, Eep was jolted awake. Her eyes popped open and she stared straight ahead. “Oh, my god!”

That woke Zev. He looked at her. “What is it?”

“A rebeet from my brother. Tharbax Cannuutuu’s ship was attacked.”

“What? Why? By whom?”

“I don’t know.”

Zev reached into his pocket and took out his mobile communicator. He made a quick call. When he was done, he snapped it off.

“It was the Ziij,” he said.

“The Ziij? But why? Sure, they’re not the most agreeable race in the galaxy, but they’ve never attacked anyone before.”

“I don’t know. Tharbax is at General Pid-I mean, General Armstrong’s now. When we get to Earth, I’ll drop you off in New York and head out to New Jersey. This is serious.”

“Who’d want to attack Tharbax Cannuutuu? That’s just crazy.”

“I don’t know.”

They got up and nervously paced until the wormhole was due to open.

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