PART I - SOMEONE ELSE IN DEEP SHIT A LONG LONG WAY AWAY
Chapter 1. The Word For World Is 'Mudhole'
K'Thallians are one of the most widespread of the Galactic Human sub-races. Found on most worlds accessible by starship, the K'Thallians originated on a roughly Earthlike world with more than double Earth's gravity and atmospheric pressure. Adaptable, durable, enormously strong, and as a general rule, not hugely intelligent, the K'Thallians have been exported as contract labor (and, in some more lawless and therefore semantically honest regions, slaves) throughout the outward spiral arm of the Milky Way on more than 1200 of the well exploited 7000 World Lines. K'Thallian metabolisms require two to three times as much fuel as the Galactic Human baseline, making them easily exploitable, but also making them extremely short tempered when they've missed a few meals.
-- Touring The Milky Way For Fun And Profit, Webster Madison
Since you should always open a story with something exciting, and because I was actually jumped by a K'Thallian scavenger gang within five minutes of my arrival on Betel VI, let me tell you how it went:
They came at me from five directions when I was near the middle of the six way intersection. I'd had no chance to get off the street, even though I'd spotted them encircling me nearly a block back... the buildings lining the narrow, crowded thoroughfare were tall, ancient, stone monoliths of vaguely (to Earth perceptions) disquieting proportions, with sealed and guarded second floor entrances at the top of steep metal ladderlike stairways.
K'Thallians average around five and half feet tall, nearly that broad, and seem to be built out of stone, leather, and rubber. Two of the five closing on me had lengths of flanged metal in their hands that looked as if they'd been stolen from a construction site somewhere (the jagged ends looked as if they'd been chewed down to size); the other three were bare fisted. Since their bare fists were the size of Daisy hams and would most likely hit like bowling balls, this wasn't much comfort.
The classic move in these situations is to jump up and over the oncoming onslaught, and although it's generally really stupid to let your feet leave the ground in a real life fight, I almost succumbed to temptation, given how short they were, and how hard and fast they were stampeding towards me. However, instead I rolled to my right as the crowd opened up, hitting the palms of my hands and rolling neatly in between two of my opponents, coming to my feet behind them as they barreled by. From there I could have done many things, including my favorite tactic when fighting unknown opponents... or, actually, anyone I think can hurt me... namely, run the fuck away.
So I did, after first pulling some flash powder bombs from the limbo in my magic Gloves of Holding and scattering them behind me. The ffsssts!, WHOOF!s, flares of actinic light, and bright white, acrid billows of smoke did a wonderful job of not only making the K'Thallians lose sight of me for a crucial few seconds, but of riveting the attention of every human and nonhuman being on the street while I bent nearly double and scuttled crablike (or eeled, if you prefer) back into the stinking, reeking, motley mob.
By the time I let myself mostly straighten up again, my Hired Gun uniform of careworn denim jacket, blue jeans, and cowboy boots had morphed into a shapeless grey robe with a big hood. My magical belt that doubled my already impressive strength was wrapped around my bare waist under the robe, my cowboy hat had gone back to limbo, and my yellow leather gloves were tucked into either sleeve. With hood up, I won't say I looked just like anyone else in the crowd, but I certainly looked a whole lot less like the only Earth human on the planet... and hopefully, a great deal less like a target for wandering thugs.
Oh, I'm sorry. You wanted a big fight scene with flying kicks and savage punches and maybe a couple of explosions? Wait for the movie to come out. While there is no bigger BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER fan than your humble correspondent, I'm here to tell you that in real life, those spiffy looking high kicks will get your leg ripped off at the hip. Furthermore, violence is not fun, reality is not a Mortal Kombat game, and anyone with any brains knows that the best way to defeat an opponent is to outlive them, and the best way to outlive them is to avoid being dead for longer than they do. Basic wisdom, but entirely inconsistent with getting into an actual fist fight with five extremely strong and tough opponents when you can just leave instead.
I'd already noticed that there was a lovely looking city of gleaming silvery towers hanging in the sky over the... er... less lovely looking... slum (I assumed) I happened to be walking through... and, more importantly, that spacecraft appeared to land at and take off regularly from that city in the sky, as well. Therefore, I had to get up there.
I was wondering whether it would be easier to build a hot air balloon or hijack something when I realized I was being surrounded by the K'Thallians, and, well, I dealt with that, and now, a few blocks further on, I was back to my initial train of speculation.
I didn't need to worry about food; I had magical steam trays stowed in my gloves from my very first interdimensional adventure for the Tarlians. A safe place to sleep, however, was an entirely different matter... but not one I needed to worry about in the immediate future, anyway, since I can stay up without sleep for around 120 hours if I really need to. (I don't like it, and you don't want to say anything mean about Sarah Michelle Gellar or old SPEED RACER cartoons in my earshot from about the 100th hour onward, but still, I can do it.)
Which brought us right back to the problem of needing to be Up There, when I was Down Here.
Keeping a careful eye on the sky city as I shuffled along with the apparently constant and perpetual crowds through the apparently eternally narrow, smelly, squalid, teeming streets, I noted (with my three times best possible Earth human vision) several small black dots rising up from below and dropping back down from above... so, apparently, there was traffic between here and there. I just needed to figure out where 'here' was, and then hitch a ride.
Of course, brain surgery is easy, too: you just get something sharp, and someone who will hold still long enough, and...
In the past... whatever... I'm going to say 'month'... since wrapping up the Death Football adventure, I'd spent most of my time haggling over various points in my contract with the Tarlians (such as making sure my ex-wife didn't get put into my new, ongoing adventure series as a co-star, among other things). Other points, however, were making sure that when they kicked off their new, certain to be a hit, interdimensional adventure serial EARTHQUEST: THE JOURNEY HOME (A Webster Madison, Hired Gun Adventure), I was placed not only within my own native timeline/dimension, but somewhere within, oh, say, a few hundred light years of Earth.
I got no say, of course, over specifically where they dropped me off, but I did manage to insist it be a planet with a spaceport (they wouldn't have dumped me on a backwater anyway; they wanted an interstellar romp, not gritty survival in some jungle or desert) and I also narrowed it down to a specific section of the outer spiral arm of the Milky Way where Earth's system is. Then, in what spare time I had, I studied everything they had on file about the places, and more specifically, the peoples, who lived in that area.
Since the Tarlians, like their competitors for psychic energy, the Verrane, regard every sentient being in the universe as being at the very least a potential customer, their databases are extensive. Over the course of several weeks, I memorized vast reams of stuff on hundreds of Galactic Human sub races and dozens of sentient nonhuman races, the cultural traditions and taboos of hundreds of worlds and societies, the varying tech levels to be found spread through that particular area, and the different political and governance systems I'd have to be wary of, as I tried to beg, borrow or steal a ride or rides home.
The recorded data the Tarlians let me study is full sensory; not only did I know what all these races looked and sounded like, I also knew what they smelled like, felt like (mostly when you punched them, which is what I was primarily concerned with) and in some cases, tasted like. Three times greater than best possible human (Earth human) in all normal human talents and capacities allows me to study fast, learn quickly, and remember everything
Lost in thought, I'd been paying little conscious attention to my surroundings as I jostled, bumped, thumped, and squirmed my way along those nasty little avenues. Still, apparently my subconscious had been soaking up the ambience. It wasn't until a small, green tinted moon appeared in the narrow slice of sky I could see at any given time from the bottom of the deep canyon created by the monoliths on either side of every street, though, that enough clicked together in my mind for me to realize where I was.
Betel VI, known as a variety of things to its various populaces depending on their language, most of which translate roughly as "Mudhole". (Some of them are much more profane, and the Lydians, for reasons known only to them... and perhaps not even to them... call it "Ph'neezz-kchow", which certainly deserves a 'god bless you' from any Earth human who hears it, but which actually translates fairly exactly into English as "Full Spectrum of Rationality". Which would tell me immediately, even if I hadn't already learned it from study, that the Lydians ingest a lot of hallucinogens.) Mudhole rejoices in a roughly two tiered society... the upper caste, natives and tourists, who live in the pretty floating cities and party party party, and the lower caste, natives and... well... more newly arrived natives... many of whom are former tourists... who do all the work, pretty much as slaves of the corporation that runs the planet.
Nominally a province of the Argle-Bargle Imperium (it's not really called the Argle-Bargle Imperium, the actual name of the political entity that Mudhole is a more or less apathetic member of is a series of whistles and klicks that don't translate well, as they signify some ancient potentate's proper name, and a word that more or less means 'region where that person is boss'), Mudhole is in reality pretty much run as an exclusive resort and residence for the upper executive class of the Interstellar Sales Corporation. (Again, that's a translation, but it's a pretty accurate one. ISC makes almost nothing and sells damned near everything and is probably the largest, most influential, and wealthiest commercial entity in our entire section of the Milky Way Galaxy... but they measure wealth in material terms... minerals, chemicals, energy interactions... and as such, are of no real interest to either the Tarlians or the Verrane, who deal exclusively in psychic energy.)
ISC, like most mercantile entities doing business in the Argle-Bargle Imperium, operates under an Imperial license, the terms of which are pretty much, "you pay your taxes, we leave you the fuck alone". So it is that while Mudhole has an actual Imperial governor, (sskaa-Lrrn Bnnfagle, a fairly young Ichthalian currently between gender choices) Its Honorableness has little to do as long as ISC ponies up the quarterly valuta. Its planetary force of Imperial Killers (hey, that's how it translates) is mostly decorative, and what law exists is pretty much in the form of ISC regulations, and enforced by ISC Conservation Troopers (whom are considerably more efficient and dangerous than even non-decorative Imperial Killers).
All this I'd learned from the Tarlian databanks. They had a great deal of material on ISC, mostly because, in another hundred thousand years or so, when the sentient life in this quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy in this timeline has evolved enough psychic capacity to be able to pick up telepathic projections, the Tarlians (or the Verrane, or somebody new) will most likely end up dealing with them... or someone like them... as middlemen.
Going over all this data in my head, I realized that it meant getting up to the spaceports in the sky, and thus, off this lousy rock, was going to be a little tricky. The economy on the surface of Mudhole is a slave economy, with no real cash or much of anything else of worth changing hands, ever. The downsiders work in various factories (the huge, disquieting monoliths) in exchange for food and shelter... if they're lucky. The constant Brownian movement on the streets results from shift changes, staggered to take advantage of every minute of every day and every night, because the sleep cubicles are also assigned by the shift, with every work day starting with one slave-worker being shaken awake roughly by another one who wants to get into his cot.
Not everyone is employed; there are always misfits, incorrigibles, and other losers who wind up on the streets, can't get or hold a factory position, and generally avoid starving to death only because they get dragged down and eaten first... or manage to join a gang that keeps itself fed by doing the dragging down and eating. Unlike other slum cultures, there is no criminal subclass because the only laws are there to protect the upsiders, who can't be reached, much less hurt. There are no pawnshops, no jewelry stores, no banks, no liquor stores, no drug dealers... nothing worth stealing at all, because the only things of worth on the surface are food and shelter and labor, and all of those things are commodities controlled by ISC.
I was finding this all very depressing.
A shadow passed over me and everyone within twenty yards of me and then skimmed on down the street. Looking up, I could see a saucer shaped craft moving at little more than a brisk walk thirty feet or so above my head. Most of its bottom was a transparent oval mirror. I was fairly certain that from the other side, that mirror was transparent, and probably crowded with upper tier tourists, come to gawk at the lowlife down below.
Thirty feet away. Ten lousy yards. Moving at a relative snail's pace... but it might as well be light years, for all the good it could do me...
Wait. TWENTY feet, from the top of one of those narrow metal staircases leading up to a monolith's entrance... seventeen feet, from the railing around the platform at the top of those ladders. And the best jumper in the world can leap seven or eight feet up... which meant I could jump at least twenty, twenty five... even without factoring in my strength belt.
I bolted. People (human and non) got shoved every which way as I shot down the street, knocking anyone who got in my way head over whatever as I hauled ass, trying to not only catch up with the slumming saucer, but get a good ten or twenty yards ahead of it. My shapeless robe morphed into bike pants and a tee, my cowboy boots turning into spike soled athletic shoes, my feet slamming the muddy cobblestones of that nasty street with a sound like machine gun fire as I ran. From above it must have looked like Bugs Bunny tunneling under Elmer Fudd's lawn, except the clods of dirt getting thrown to either side were protesting factory drones.
I passed into the saucer's shadow and just as quickly, back out of it. I was moving against the crowd, which was good, because by now a good two or three seconds had passed and people were actually shoving to get out of my projected path. As the now yammering and gesticulating crowd opened up ahead of me, I picked up more speed, and drew a bead on the narrow metal ladder-stairs I meant to vault to the top of and bounce off to reach the saucer.
Once I reached the saucer, I could only hope there was something to hang onto... or, if I were really lucky, some easily accessible way to get inside. Still, I was willing to bet that if some insane downsider actually jumped on top of an upsider vessel, the pilot's first panicked instinct would be to head back upstairs... and I was sure that if I could hang on at all, I could hang on long enough to pull out Vastator and cut my way inside.
I veered towards the stairway, ready to jump, grab, whirl around, jump, and grab again...
...and caught, from the corner of my eye, someone at the top of a metal staircase to my left I was bulleting by, pointing a long black stick with a slender metal needle sticking out of the end of it at me...
There was a blinding flash of bluish white light, and something hit me like a wall of fire, and I distinctly remember being hurled up into the air, tumbling head over heels, utterly limply, and seeing the metal ladder I'd been running towards looming up...
I'll bet it hurt like hell when I smashed into it.