CRATER LILIES: a novella. Read it here, in its entirety.

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This story flooded my mind so easily I thought it only appropriate to share it with the world, warts and all. Please enjoy, and please leave me a comment.

It’s a funny, science fiction romp with plenty of adventure.


CRATER LILIES

By Nathan Goldschot

 

“About time,” groaned Allison, hearing a familiar roar. Katie’s weather-battered Buick rounded the corner, illuminated by the pale orange street lights. The rust-tinged relic hurtled up the street before screeching to a halt in front of the coffee shop where Allison had suggested they meet up.

An irate man in a black Mustang leaned out of his window, finding himself trapped behind Katie’s double-parked sedan. “Move your ass!” he bellowed while pounding on his horn.

“Screw you!” yelled Anne from Katie’s back seat. She cranked down her window and flipped off the frustrated man as he accelerated around the Buick through the opposing lane.

Allison sighed as she hurried toward the car. She regretted not choosing to meet her old classmates somewhere further away from U Dub. Although most of her “sisters” at the Kappa Zeta house were off partying for spring break, there were still plenty of prying Greek eyes left on campus who would delight in spreading rumors about her association with such unsavory characters. She couldn’t care less about her reputation, but having to field a bunch of questions when her housemates returned would be detrimental to her goal of remaining invisible.

Katie honked the Buick’s horn incessantly as Anne beamed a smile and waved at Allison with both hands. The wayward pair were Allison’s only remaining friends from high school; the rest of her cohorts had left town for greener pastures after graduating.

“Stop honking, I’m here!” Allison rushed to the driver’s side door and pulled the handle to no avail.

Katie leaned out the window and looked Allison up and down with a sneer. “How much for a go-round, babycakes?” she grumbled in a low voice.

“You can’t afford me,” said Allison. “Besides, you two look more like hookers than I do. Just unlock the damn door, please?”

Katie shook her head. “That door finished rusting shut a couple of weeks ago. You’ll have to get in the back with Annie.”

“Hookers? This is our rock gear!” protested Anne. Allison opened the back door and slid into the seat beside her.

Katie craned her neck to look at Allison. “You look like a grunge rock throwback in that flannel, Allie. Gross.”

“Whatever. Let’s just go,” said Allison, crossing her arms. “Don’t call me Allie!”

“Okay, chill…I’m just giving you a hard time,” said Katie. “I’m glad you finally decided to hang out with us. Why aren’t you spring breaking with the rest of your Zeta hags right now?”

“I’m too low on cash to be traveling…plus, it’s not really my thing,” said Allison.

“Broke huh? Explains why you’re working the corner,” said Anne with a smile.

Allison rolled her eyes. “I met you guys here to save you some gas!” She squinted at her friend’s outfit. “Sorry I called you a prostitute, Anne. You look more like a pirate.”

“Well, I kinda am. This is my Halloween costume from last year. I just modified it to look more rock star than buccaneer.”

“Gucci leather all the way for me,” said Katie, hollering proudly as she sped up the block.

“That’s a knock-off skirt and you know it,” said Allison. “Where are we going again?”

“To the Showbox to see a band my cousin recommended. They’re called The Interrobangers?!

“Oh, I’ve heard of them!” said Allison, perking up. “They’re just a keyboard and drum duo, but they have a big sound. They’re actually from around here.”

“Ugh, let’s just go get drunk somewhere instead,” said Katie, dejected.

“No way! Come on, you’ll like it,” said Allison.

Anne kicked Katie’s seat, “Just go, bitch. No changies.”

“Changies…is that a thing?” asked Allison. Anne just shrugged.

“Fine, but if I don’t like it I’m leaving,” said Katie as she steered the Buick toward the heart of the city.

The Showbox Theatre was crammed into the middle of downtown, making parking a challenge. Katie finally found a spot a few blocks away from the venue. The young women took to the sidewalk, sneering at the tourists gathered in front of Pike’s Place Market.

“Hurry, they’ve already started!” said Allison, starting to run. She could hear a heavy drum beat through the walls of the venue.

“Wait up, we’re wearing heels!” complained Anne, trying to keep pace.

Katie stopped and crossed her arms. “Screw this, I’m leaving. I bet that drummer isn’t even hot.”

“Drummers are always hot. Besides, this was your idea!” said Anne, pulling on her arm. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

All three women eventually met up again at the door and paid the cover fee to get inside the hall. The crowd was meager but in high spirits and the band was remarkably loud. “They’re a brother and sister duo!” yelled Allison over the noise. “Pretty good, huh?”

“What?” yelled Anne in response.

“I’m going to go get a beer!” hollered Katie as she left the floor. Anne followed her but Allison stayed behind, enjoying the cacophony. She clapped loudly when the song finished. The skinny young woman behind the keyboard sustained a strange sample that sounded like crying babies trapped in a stone well, letting the noise rattle around the room for a few seconds.

“Jesus…enough, Gerrie,” said the man behind the drums as he leaned up to his microphone. “Hello, we’re The Interrobangers?! I’m David and this maniac is Gerrie. Before you get your hopes up, no, we’re not an enigmatic touring band from Japan…we’re Korean-American and we live a few miles from here. We don’t have a record to sell but if you’d like to buy a t-shirt that’d be great. Please keep in mind my sister spray painted penises on all of them but maybe you’re into that. On with the show.” The drummer launched into another breakneck beat as his sister slammed her hands along the sample buttons of her keyboard.

As Allison started bouncing to the syncopated rhythm she accidentally bumped her shoulder against the young man beside her. “Sorry!” she said, brushing her long blonde hair behind her ear.

“What?” asked the man, leaning closer.

“Sorry!” she yelled.

The man smiled and nodded. “Yeah, they’re great!”

Allison laughed. The guy was cute, in a geeky sort of way. She decided he’d be better company than her friends, who were busy drinking themselves into a good time with fake IDs and five dollar pints.

Allison and the young man beside her out-cheered the rest of the crowd when the band finished their song. The drummer–looking perpetually bored–moved his face against his mic again. “Next up, our friend Peter is going to join us on stage to help us perform a cover of ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’ from black metal legends Mayhem. Give him a hand.”

A pale man wearing studded leather lederhosen stepped onto the stage holding an accordion. He threw up a two pronged salute with his hand and the crowd went wild. The band immediately launched into an absolutely punishing song. Allison had no choice but to back away as her ears began to throb. She retreated to the bar with a smile on her face, but was immediately disheartened to see to see her friends flirting with a pair of jocks in a darkened booth.

Allison sighed and sat at a small round table near the door. A few seconds later the man who had been standing beside her near the stage entered the doorway and begin scanning around the room. She raised an eyebrow and wondered if he might be trying to find her–if so, he apparently hadn’t noticed her haunting the secluded table in the corner. Seemingly unable to find what he was searching for, the young man slumped his shoulders and trudged up to the bar.

After mustering some courage, Allison stood up and approached the young man from behind. “Two pints please,” she said over his shoulder before he could give his order to the bartender.

The young man spun around and his eyes lit up. “Oh! I mean…hey. Aren’t you the girl I was standing next to by the stage?” he asked, obviously trying to play it cool.

“Yeah…it got a little too loud so I retreated. Were you looking for me?” Allison asked with a smile.

“No! I mean, I’m glad you’re here…but…yeah. Loud, right? I have a…thing.” The young man pointed to his ear nervously. “Anyway, don’t I know you?”

Allison laughed. “You do look really familiar. Did you go to West?”

“Yeah! That’s it. I think we had a couple classes together. I’m Alyn.” He stretched his hand out for a shake.

Allison moved beside Alyn and leaned over the bar. She gave the bartender some cash and grabbed two bottles, one of which she put in Alyn’s outstretched hand. “I’m Allison.”

“Is this mine? I mean…thanks. Next one’s on me.”

“Sure.” Allison looked over at the dim booth occupied by her even dimmer friends. Katie and Anne were oblivious to her presence, mesmerized by the thick-shouldered jocks sitting across from them. She returned her attention to Alyn. “Let’s go back to where I was sitting before. I can’t stand to listen to those girls over there cackle.”

“Is it pirate night?” asked Alyn, looking at Anne as he followed Allison. He sat down at the table across from her and smiled. “Cheers,” he said as they clacked their bottles together. After taking a drink Alyn gave her a thumbs-up and sustained it indefinitely.

“Um,” said Allison, feeling confused.

“Check it out,” Alyn wiggled his incredibly double-jointed thumb. He could nearly fold it backwards on itself. “I noticed how you were holding your glass. We can do the same trick.”

Allison laughed. “Oh…yeah! You’re right.” She lifted her thumb up and bent hers backward as well. “Cool! It totally grosses out everyone else I know.”

“If we started a thumb wrestling tag team we could dominate the sport.”

Allison shrugged. “It’s nice to know we have a back-up plan if things don’t work out.”

“What are you studying? Are you at U Dub now?” asked Alyn, after taking a sip of beer.

Allison pushed her hair behind her ear again. “Yeah, I’m at the Kappa Zeta house.”

Alyn raised one of his narrow eyebrows. “Really? I wouldn’t have pegged you for a sorority girl, no offense.”

“Thanks for that,” said Allison with a sigh. “It’s a long story, but I probably won’t be there for much longer.”

“Cool, cool,” said Alyn, not wanting to pry. “I’m not sure what school I want to go to yet. I guess I better figure it out soon. That’s what pretty girls like, right? Listlessness and Indecision?”

“Oh yeah, they go crazy for it,” said Allison with a laugh. “So, does that mean you think I’m pretty?”

Alyn snorted with surprise and Allison giggled again. He took a long drink of beer and then simply nodded.

“Thanks,” said Allison. “We better hurry up…I don’t want to miss the rest of the show.”

“Yeah, I’ll just stuff a little napkin in my bum ear and I’ll be good,” said Alyn.

“I’m glad you said ‘ear’ after ‘bum,'” said Allison.

After finishing their beers they returned to the front of the stage together. Thankfully, the sadomasochist accordion player was no where to be seen. The rest of the concert was considerably calmer and quieter, shifting to a more ambient sound. Allison and Alyn managed to continue their conversation with only half-shouts.

Out of the corner of her eye Allison saw Katie and Anne leaving the bar area with the two bulky men they had met. “I’ll be right back,” she told Alyn as her friends made their way toward the exit. “Hey, wait!” she yelled, running to catch up with them.

“Oh, hey Allison,” said Katie, drunkenly. “Can you find a lift home? Um…these gentlemen are going to take us clubbing. Say hi, pretty men.” Anne laughed into her hand as the men waved.

“Oh,” said Allison. “Sure. Have fun. I’ll catch up to you later.” The group left without another word. Annoyed, Allison walked back over to Alyn.

“You okay?” asked Alyn.

“Yeah, I kind of want to get some fresh air though.”

“Mind if I tag along?”

Allison thought about it for a moment. She barely knew the guy but she didn’t want to be alone. “Yeah…sure.”

They left the floor as the band rattled on, walking past the penis t-shirts at the merch table before exiting into the cool evening. “It’s only 9 o’clock,” said Allison, peering at her phone.

Alyn seemed nervous. “Well, if you don’t have any plans, I know a great place we can get a little bite to eat. Personally, I always wind up eating late.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Allison. “Okay. Food sounds pretty good right now. Hold still for a second.” She pulled up her smartphone and took Alyn’s picture.

“What are you—”

“I sent your name and photo to my uncle; he’s a cop and a third degree black belt. If I should disappear he’s going to come after you with a vengeance so I wouldn’t get any ideas.”

Alyn chuckled nervously. “That’s actually brilliant but you don’t have to worry. My intentions are pure…I’m just hungry and I like your company.”

“Alright then. Where’s your car? How far away is this place?”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be a quick trip. Before we leave though, I want to show you something really cool that most people around here don’t know about. It’s sitting on top of that old warehouse around the corner. It’s really easy to get up there using the fire escape.”

“What? What is it?”

“Come on, it will be easier just to show you.”

“Uncle. Black belt. Kill you,” said Allison.

Alyn chuckled. “Let’s go!”

Allison pursed her lips. “Fine. I must be crazy.”

“Great!” said Alyn with a grin.

Allison followed Alyn for a block and then they cut through a narrow alley to a lonely steel ladder hanging off the side of an immense brick building. “You have to be kidding me,” she said.

“Nah, it’s easy,” said Alyn, pointing upward. “Once we’re to that platform it’s just a matter of walking up a few stairs.” He went and grabbed a plastic milk crate leaning against the wall of the warehouse and put it under the ladder. “I’ll go first.” He quickly climbed the ladder up to the platform, his converse clanking along the rungs. Once at the top he smiled down at Allison. “Your turn.”

“Christ,” said Allison, her nerves wracked. She slung her small purse around her shoulder and started climbing. Her anxiety eased once Alyn helped her up to the platform. “I guess that wasn’t so bad.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Alyn. “Did you know they used to make can openers in this old factory? Just can openers. Weird, right?”

“I guess,” said Allison. “I hope you didn’t bring me here to see some old can openers.” She followed Alyn up four more flights of rickety steel stairs until they stepped over the lip of the building to the rooftop. Once at the top she immediately gasped. “Wait…am I dreaming? This can’t be real,” she said, feeling off-kilter.

Alyn shrugged. “I think I’m the one dreaming. I never thought I’d meet anyone else who liked The Interrobangers?!

“This isn’t about the band…it’s about the pulsating, glowing sphere hovering a few inches off the ground behind you!”

“Oh, that. But it was a great concert wasn’t it? The black metal accordion was little much though,” said Alyn.

“Okay, listen up,” said Allison in a grave tone. “It’s not like me to abandon my friends after a concert to go hang out with some strange guy…and this is exactly why.”

Alyn looked confused. “What do you mean? We’ve been orbiting each other for years. I know this is the first night we’ve really gotten to hang out but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a stranger.”

“I said you were strange, not a stranger,” said Allison.

Alyn frowned. “Huh. I don’t know…I sort of thought we were hitting it off.”

“Alyn, when you said you had something to show me I thought you were talking about the view, not a…what the hell am I even looking at?!”

“Oh, right…the spaceship. We’re taking this to get that bite to eat, if you’re still down for it.”

Allison took a few steps back. “You drugged me. That’s it…I’m on drugs. You slipped molly in my beer or something.”

“No, never!” said Alyn, looking offended. He turned and faced the glowing orb. “I just thought this might be something you’d find interesting. If I told you what was up here before we climbed the ladder would you have believed me? I don’t think I would have believed me.”

“So, you want to take me somewhere in your spaceship?” Allison laughed and shook her head, attempting to stave off her shock. “Okay, this is some big joke, right? Katie and Anne put you up to this, didn’t they?”

Alyn waved his hand over the front of the sphere and a seam revealed itself slowly, parting the object’s curved surface until a hatch was revealed. It opened up with a clunk, and a puff of green steam wafted into the night sky. He turned his head and looked back at Allison. “Sorry, what was that? I missed it.”

Allison eyes bugged. “Oh…um, nothing.”

Alyn stepped into the sphere. The windowless interior of the orb was formed with a single piece of bright orange, molded plastic. The wall was lined with small unlabeled buttons; each one blinking white in seemingly random patterns. A pair of black leather seats were bolted to the floor, clashing horribly with the rest of the interior. “So, are you coming or not? I’m kind of hungry.”

Allison shivered. She wasn’t sure if she’d able to blink her eyes ever again. She stepped up into the sphere without fully knowing why and sat in one of the mesh covered seats. “Let’s go, before I change my mind!”

“Comfy, huh?” said Alyn with a smile. “I lifted these seats from my cousin’s ’79 Charger. It’s been hidden under a blue tarp in his garage for years…he won’t even notice they’re gone.”

“Uh huh,” Allison managed to squeak out.

“Are you cold? You’re shivering…but you’re also sweating. Should I just take you home?”

“Yes!” said Allison. “But not in—”

Without warning the orb shot into the sky. The funky orange plastic started fading along with the sphere’s outer shell until the ship was completely transparent except for the blinking square buttons and the car seats. Allison gasped and gripped the edges of her chair. She craned her neck over the cushion and looked through the floor, watching he rooftop they had been on disappear as they shot ever upward. Soon, the entire city was reduced to a puddle of twinkling lights. The moon and stars almost seemed closer than the ground.

“Oops! Sorry, I forgot to warn you about that. The walls are still here you just can’t see them. Check it out.” Alyn tapped his foot on the floor and it made the sound of hollow plastic.

Allison bit her lip, trying to hold back a scream. She slowly uncurled her body and slid her feet off the lip of her seat and tapped her doc martins to the floor. “Thank Jesus,” she whispered, hearing the clunk. The orb pushed into a hazy cloud filled with filtered moonlight before emerging to an unobstructed view of the stars.

Alyn smiled seeing Allison’s wide eyes. “Nice view huh? Okay, hold on…I mean, you won’t feel anything but this might seem strange.”

The ship accelerated impossibly fast. Allison let out the scream she was trying to hold back. When she opened her eyes she saw the sharp angles of her sorority house’s moss-covered roof about 100 yards below her.

“You said Kappa Zeta right?” asked Alyn.

Allison nodded. Her heart was pounding. “Yeah, no…I mean yes, this is it.”

“Do you want me to touch down near the front door or the back?”

Allison looked at Alyn intensely. “Just tell me two things…and I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“What? Sure. Anything,” said Alyn with surprise.

“Are you an alien?”

Alyn chuckled. “Nope. Human to a fault.”

Allison squinted at him. “Alright, I believe you. Number two: if I go on this…dinner date…with you, am I going to regret it?”

Alyn ran his hand through his thick, chestnut colored hair. “I don’t know. I mean, you probably won’t be bored.”

“Could I get hurt?” interrupted Allison. “Traumatized?”

“No…no way. I’d never let that happen,” said Alyn, earnestly.

Allison went silent for a long moment, looking down at the yellow light glowing through the window of her bedroom. She started nodding wordlessly.

“Allison?”

“Alright. Fuck it. I’m hungry. Let’s go.”

“Sweet!” said Alyn. “Here we go. This trip is going to take a bit longer than the last, just to warn you.”

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t you want to be surprised?” asked Alyn.

“I’ve had enough surprises,” said Allison, lying. Alyn’s unshakable nerves somehow made her feel calmer.

“We’re heading to a sub orbital platform on Proxima Centauri b. There’s a buffet there you won’t believe.”

The orb silently blasted upward again. In a single second the city disappeared. After bursting through a cloud bank the curvature of the Earth continued contracting until the entirety of the North American continent was revealed, stippled with tiny lights. Soon, the full circumference of the planet became visible–its southern hemisphere glinting like polished amber as the sun crested its edge.

Allison gasped. “Incredible!”

“Yeah, I never get tired of seeing that. I’d orbit here for a bit but I’m starving.” The surrounding stars disappeared as the ship accelerated, replaced by the blinding flash of endlessly stretching beams of light. “We’re creating a quantum singularity so we can dip through a fold in space-time. It might feel a little bizarre.”

Allison’s stomach lurched but the sensation quickly subsided. She took a deep breath.

“Oops, let me tint the ship a bit.” Alyn punched a random button and the white light softened enough for Allison to open her eyes all the way. “The way the starlight stretches always looks like a barcode to me. I know it’s disorienting, but 4.2 light years goes by quicker than you might expect.”

Allison looked at Alyn. “How far?”

“25 trillion miles, give or take a few,” said Alyn. “Really though, we’re taking a massive short cut.”

“How can you be so nonchalant about all this?” asked Allison, stunned. “Is your uncle Chewbacca? Are you Doctor Who?”

Alyn laughed. “I wish…on both counts. I’ve been flying in this spaceship since I was ten. I guess I’m just used to it now.” He suddenly had a far away look in his eye. “It’s amazing what you can get used to.”

“Where did this spaceship come from? ‘Spaceship’ makes it sound a little outdated, doesn’t it?” asked Allison.

“I guess. That’s what my Dad always called it though,” said Alyn. “He didn’t even bother to give it a name.”

“So, this thing was your dad’s?”

“Yeah. Before you ask, no, my dad’s not an alien either. He built the ship himself after NASA canned him for being too reckless. He’s was a genius astrophysicist but also completely pig-headed…definitely not a people person.”

“I can’t believe one man built this.”

“Yeah, it was all him for the most part. It helped that Dad’s best friend from high school had become a billionaire. She fully funded all his research and never questioned anything he proposed, no matter how crazy the project sounded.”

“This is definitely crazy,” said Allison, enthralled by the light show. “Is this billionaire anyone I might have heard of?”

“I don’t think so. Her name’s Brianna Lothrin. She made her fortune gaming the real estate market in the 90s. Like a lot of her banker buddies, her sense of morality was…malleable…which left her with a ton of disposable income.”

“Did she fully grasp what your father was trying to do?”

“No. I just think she had a vague notion that she’d somehow be able to profit from Dad’s research. Back then, any theory with ‘quantum’ in the front of it was pretty controversial. My dad wasn’t interested in getting published in journals, he just built things. This ship is his legacy.”

“I remember now! Your dad got a lot of local press after NASA booted him. It was kind of a big deal on the news for a few days.” Allison felt a sudden pang of sadness. “I also remember hearing he had died a few years back. The reporters weren’t very kind to him.”

“Yeah, well…he wasn’t exactly the best dad or husband. He ended up having an affair with his billionaire benefactor and my mom was pretty distraught. She demolished his work and torched what little research he had written down. Mom didn’t know about his final project…this ship.”

“It must have been hard when your dad died…I can’t imagine. At least he taught you how to fly this thing.”

“Barely. He never had much interest in helping me follow in his footsteps. I really have no idea how most of this stuff works mechanically, only in theory. Some people I’ve met while traveling have helped me figure some stuff out but I’m still baffled by most of this tech. After Dad was diagnosed with MS he finally opened up to me a bit more but it was too little too late.”

“So, he taught you how to drive, but not how to fix the engine. Bummer.”

Alyn nodded. “Oh, hey…I almost forgot. Put this on.” Andrew handed Allison a strange gray sash. It resembled the padded strap of a messenger bag with a pink jewel harnessed in its center. “It’s important you keep this strap on the entire time we’re together.”

“What?” asked Allison, putting on the strap. “Why?”

“We’re here!” said Alyn, distracted. The white beams outside the ship faded and the star field came back into view. “Welcome to Proxima Centauri b, or, ‘Hurm,’ as the natives call it.”

“Hurm,” said Allison. “Shit. We’re going to see aliens, aren’t we?”

“We’re the aliens around here. It’s best if you just think of the Hurmians as special effects creations until you get used to them. They’re a lot like humans, except for the lack of ears and the orange skin…and the compound eyes…and the tusks. Make sure to speak up, they don’t hear so well.”

Allison felt a chill roll through her. “I want to go back.”

“Took late,” said Alyn. He landed the spaceship on a gleaming, metallic platform orbiting a brown planet covered with massive, swirling storms. “We’re going to run into a lot of strange things here. Some species are going to look a little frightening but remember they’re all here to eat, just like us.”

“But not eat us, right?” asked Allison, feeling shell shocked.

“Nope. Here, speaking of eating…eat half of this before we go,” said Alyn, handing Allison a pill.

“I’m not taking drugs, Alyn,” said Allison, firmly.

Alyn shook his head. “It’s not drugs, it’s food. One tablet is the equivalent of an entire meal…nutritious, too. Half a pill should be plenty.”

“Wait, you took me 25 billion miles—”

“Trillion,” interrupted Alyn.

Allison groaned and shook her head. “TRILLION miles just to feed me a tablet…that you already had in your ship?”

“Well, this is going to a mostly virtual dining experience. The food on distant worlds tends to be incompatible with human anatomy.”

“Incompatible?”

“Yeah, a lot of the ingredients found in these dishes are completely toxic to humans. In addition, a lot of off-world recipes contain silicon-based organisms our bodies aren’t able to process. That said, most of it is so freakin’ delicious.”

“How would you know if you can’t actually eat any of it?” said Allison, sniffing the tablet Alyn gave her.

“Some of the stuff is edible. Again, it will be easier if I just show you.” Alyn pressed another seemingly random button and the walls of the orb’s interior suddenly became opaque. The bright orange plastic was even more of an eye burn than the streaking star field had been. The hatch opened, revealing a full view of a platform covered in strangely etched patterns gleaming in the sun. Ships of incredible variety were moored in docking bays on the edge of the structure.

“It’s so…shiny here,” said Allison before coughing a few times into her hand.

“The air’s a little thin but you’ll get used to it in time. Humans apparently suck up a lot more oxygen than other intelligent life forms…it’s probably why our species doesn’t live as long.”

“Alright…I’m ready.” Allison steeled herself and swallowed the half-tablet she had been given.

Alyn cringed. “Ohh, you really should have chewed that up a bit, you’re going to get gassy.”

“Now you tell me!” Allison’s pulse raced as she stepped out of the sphere. She saw a pair of lanky aliens—nearly ten feet tall–walking on stilt-like legs toward the silver dome on the end of the platform. They had no discernible features except for a single gaping hole coming out of their heads. Their clothing was a wild mismatch of rainbow colors and loud patterns. “Special effects, special effects,” she mumbled to herself.

“Don’t worry, that race is pretty even-tempered…just try not to look them in the eye,” said Alyn.

“What eye?” asked Allison, baffled.

Alyn ignored Allison’s ire and offered his arm to her. She accepted and they walked slowly to the gleaming, bulbous dome.

“That’s a restaurant? It’s bigger than the KeyArena!” remarked Allison. She did her best to ignore a sentient gelatinous cube skidding by her, leaving a pearlescent trail in its wake.

“This place is more like a theme park than a restaurant,” said Alyn. “Welcome to the The United Culinary Embassy Center for Interplanetary Epicureal Exploration, better known as the Culinary Dome.”

“Right,” said Allison.

Alyn walked up to a serious looking Hurmian standing behind a podium. His clothing looked remarkably Victorian, festooned with a myriad of bustles and buttons. The extraterrestrial concierge said something that sounded vaguely like Portuguese to Allison’s ears.

“I’m fine, Murdar Dar. Nice to see you again,” said Alyn. “My date and I would like to make immediate dinner arrangements.”

“Murderer?” whispered Allison into Alyn’s ear. “Is he dangerous?”

“No,” Alyn whispered back. “That’s just how his name is pronounced in English.”

“How many chambers will you be requiring this evening, Sir?” asked the Hurmian, suddenly speaking with flawless English.

“I believe four will suffice.” Alyn looked at Allison. “Sound good?”

Allison shrugged.

Murdar Dar handed Alyn what looked like a plastic motel room key. “Enjoy your meals, Sir,” he gave a nod to Allison, “Madame.”

“Thanks,” said Alyn as a massive door slid open vertically in front of them. Allison clung a little tighter to him as she stared at what could only be described as a floating wheel of Swiss cheese graced with an impressive pair of crystalline antlers. It growled at her with disapproval.

Allison quickly looked away. “How did that Murder guy know English?” she asked Alyn.

“Oh, I used to come here with Dad quite a bit. Murdar Dar became fluent in English after speaking with us for just a few minutes. Hurmians learn languages faster than any other race.”

Allison let go of Alyn’s arm as she slowly came to her senses. She saw the plastic room key in his hand. “What the hell. Do you actually think you can scare me into going into a hotel room with you?”

“No, no,” said Alyn. “Think of this place more like a Karaoke Bar, but with food.” They walked through a beaded curtain which instantly warped them to the 24th floor of the dome. Allison farted from the surprise of the transport then blushed.

“You should have chewed that tablet,” said Alyn, smiling.

Allison punched him in the arm. “Not funny.”

They kept walking until they found a door with the same symbol as the card. Alyn pushed the card into the space between the handle and the door jam and started jimmying it back and forth.

“Are you breaking in?” asked Allison, looking around nervously.

“No, this is just how they do things here. It’s pretty stupid.” The door popped open and Alyn smiled. “Gets easier every time. Come on in.”

Allison walked in, marveling at the view of planet Hurm from the massive window. Everything in the room was wood paneled, looking decidedly from the 1970s. In the center of the octagonal space was a puffy purple couch surrounded by four unmarked doors. Two bizarre headsets were sitting on a tiny table near the sofa. She suddenly felt a little dizzy. “Either I’m overwhelmed or under-oxygenated,” she said, approaching the couch. “Wait, am I about to plop down on some alien being that’ll try and kill me for sitting on it?”

“Nope, that’s just a couch,” said Alyn. He handed Allison one of the headsets. “Put this on.” He picked up the other cheap-looking device and tucked it behind his ears. Two plastic prongs with glowing bright blue tips extended in front of his mouth.

“Okay.” Allison put on the black headset tentatively then sat on the edge of the sofa.

Alyn sat next to her and smiled as he flipped the room’s key card around and pressed a button. “Here’s an example of what we’re in for…you’re gonna love this.”

Allison gasped as a blue light projected from the barbs on her headset onto her mouth. She pinched her lips tight.

“This light tastes like a chocolate chip cookie times a thousand. Go ahead, open your mouth.”

Allison closed her eyes and slowly opened her mouth. Her eyes immediately popped back open as the sensation of melted chocolate and crumbly cookie flowed against her tongue. “Oh my god.”

“Your first virtual cuisine. You’ll have to ‘chew’ with your mouth open, like a toddler might. It’s a little weird,” said Alyn. He demonstrated for Allison and she laughed at the absurd sight. “Here, I brought this for you so you can hold it over your mouth if you’re feeling self conscious.” He handed her a red Chinese fan covered in pandas.

“Uh, thanks.” Allison splayed out the fan and held it in front of her face. Feeling ridiculous, she began an open mouth gnashing motion, and realized that temporarily blocking the projected light replicated the sensation of the cookie crumbling inside her mouth. “This is so weird, but it’s tastes amazing!”

“The taste buds are stimulated on a molecular level by means of scattered photon pulses, combined with a specialized pheromone mist. Genius, right?”

“I’ve never tasted anything so amazing,” said Allison, marveling. “It’s too much! I…need to stop…no more, please.”

Alyn tapped the card and the blue light on their headsets turned off. “I know, right? It will eventually start to feel more natural.”

Allison licked her lips. “That was a little intense,” she said with a laugh. “Why couldn’t we just have the real thing?”

Alyn shook his head. “I wish. That’s called a voth cluster. It grows on a voth plant.”

“From planet Voth?”

“No, the planet’s called Vith,” said Alyn. “One bite of the real thing and you’d bleed out from every available orifice. Not pleasant.”

Allison cringed. “Yeah. No thanks.”

“That’s what so great about this setup! With this technology we can sample foods from countless inhabited worlds without worry. Behind each of these doors another delicacy is waiting for us…each one more perilous than the last, and more delicious.”

“I don’t usually like my food perilous,” said Allison.

“Trust me, it’s worth it.”

“Fine, I’m game.”

“Alright then, let’s try door number one! Once we walk through the beads hanging over the door frame we’ll be transported to a café on plant Maurs.”

“Mars? The red planet?”

“No, this Maurs has a ‘U’ in it. You can also call it Wolf 1061c if you rather…13.8 light years from Earth.”

“Maurs is fine,” said Allison. “Shouldn’t we have just flown there directly? I hope you don’t mind answering one billion questions.”

Alyn smiled. “It’s cool. The Culinary Dome is a unique place where denizens from different planets can sample foods from thousands of different worlds. The doors around us are actually wormholes that open into fully sanctioned zones on alien planets–sort of like embassies in a way. They’re safe, secure spaces…unless someone travels outside the designated areas.”

“Oh,” said Allison. “If we’re eating simulated food, why not just simulate it at the dome?”

Alyn shook his head. “Alien cultures tend to be fairly secretive about their recipes, even simulated ones. Many don’t like the information leaving their home worlds. A lot of these foods are deeply cultural–ingrained with pride and meaning. Some planets have even gone to war over misappropriated food stuffs.”

“Wow,” said Allison. She envisioned a war over a Twinkie and couldn’t help but laugh.

“What?” asked Alyn.

“Nothing. Let’s go,” she said with a smile. “Tell me about the Maurtians. Three heads? Nine elbows? Two teeth to share between all of them?”

“They look a lot like us, but tend to make poor choices in regards to facial hair. A lot of mutton chop sideburns. Plus, they like glitter. A lot of glitter.”

“Tacky.”

“Totally. But their caub salad is amazing.”

“Caub with an ‘a.u.,’ right?”

“You catch on quick! Actually, it’s called a caub moarth, but yeah, it’s totally a salad.”

Allison followed Alyn as he opened the wood paneled door and walked through a beaded curtain. Once again, she felt dizzy as she stepped through the beads. When she opened her eyes she was in the middle of a riveted steel room in front of a steel table with two steel benches. Two steel bowls were on the table, each filled with what looked like a fairly normal looking salad, aside from the color. “This is a cheery place,” she said with a sneer.

“All Maurtian architecture looks like this,” said Alyn. He pulled Allison’s chair out for her then took a seat at the table across from her.

Allison smiled. “Trying to take a gentlemanly turn after giving me a fart pill?”

Alyn let out a nervous laugh. “Yeah…pretty much” He ran his finger along the rim of his steel bowl. “So, we have a decision to make.”

“Okay,” said Allison, her chair screeching as she pulled it up a little closer.

Alyn pulled the little plastic card from his pocket. “I know it looks great but we better eat this virtually.”

Allison looked at the salad. It was beautiful, with leafy blue and red leaves, green polyhedron-shaped fruit of some kind, and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts (although they couldn’t have been). A light dressing was drizzled over the top. She picked up a two pronged steel fork from the table. “Why can’t we eat it? Is it poisonous?”

“No, not at all, I just think—”

“Well, I’m digging in, then.”

“Wait!” said Alyn, urgently.

Allison lowered her fork. “What?”

“See those red caub leaves? Ingesting even a small amount will give you an orgasmic feeling that rolls through your entire body. It will be one hell of a first course.”

Allison, raised one of her sharp eyebrows. “Oh, and is orgasm salad an old favorite of yours?”

“No! I’ve only ever had the virtual version. You don’t get the same effect through the headset–but it’s still delicious–which is why I brought you here. I forgot about the…um…side effects until you started picking up that fork.”

“Yeah, right,” said Allison with a laugh. “You’re just an interstellar pervert.”

“I swear it’s the truth,” said Alyn, blushing, “but I deserve that. So, go ahead and put on your—”

Allison took off her headset and slammed it on the table. She looked at Alyn with a grin. “You go first.”

Alyn swallowed hard. “Really?”

Allison nodded, not breaking her intense eye contact. “Chicken?”

“No way.” Alyn plucked a bite of salad from the bowl. Slowly, he put it into his mouth and started chewing. Immediately, his eyes rolled back in his head and he arched his back and groaned. He pounded his fists to the table as his entire body started shaking. After a moment, his breathing returned to normal and his eyes focused again. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Damn!”

It took several seconds for Allison to stop laughing. “Need to change your pants?”

“Thankfully, it’s just an orgasmic feeling. Your turn.”

“Alright.” Allison put her headset back on and tapped the side. A green light shined into her open mouth and she started to chew. “Mmm! Hints of walnut, sharp cheese. There’s some great texture on those greens, er, reds. Is that a mild, pickled habanero dressing maybe? Spicy! Heirloom tomatoes at the finish…and a richness I can’t begin to describe. Yum!” She turned off her headset. “Fun. What’s next?”

“No fair,” whimpered Alyn, standing up with wobbling legs.

“At least you got some action on your date,” said Allison, helping him up. As they headed for the door, a “man” with poufy mutton chop sideburns walked in the steel door. He had to turn sideways slightly to allow his huge glittery shoulder pads to make it into the room. Allison went pale at the sight of his gun, which wasn’t whimsical in the slightest.

“Oops, almost forgot. They need to body scan us to make sure we’re not trying to smuggle anything out,” said Alyn. “Stand side by side with me.”

“Heysheed!” shouted the tacky alien as he raised his gun. Allison closed her eyes tight. She felt a warm light move from her neck all the way down to her toes. When she looked over at Alyn, she saw a yellow beam scanning him in the same way.

“Cawpalenta!” said the man. He did some sort of strange bent over salute that Alyn replicated. Without another word he turned and went out the door; his shoulders leaving behind a storm of glitter as they scraped through the exit.

“We’re in the clear,” said Alyn. “Let’s go back through the curtain.”

“I’m probably going to need a cancer screening after being subjected to that beam,” said Allison.

Soon, they were back in their paneled room within the Culinary Dome. They both collapsed to the couch and laughed.

“This is beyond nuts, you know that, right?” said Allison with a smile.

Alyn shrugged. “That was pretty mild. A lot of the galaxy I’ve seen is completely incomprehensible–absolutely frightening.” He quickly changed his tone. “Don’t worry though, the rest of dinner should go smoothly.”

Allison looked out the window of their room in wonder. “This is going to sound weird, but there are animals flying outside the window right now that look exactly like dragons I used to draw as a kid. That’s it…I must be dreaming all of this.”

Alyn smiled. “The window is coated with a special screen that analyzes your brain waves for pleasant imagery derived from memories, even dreamscapes, then replicates them in real-time over the actual scenery.”

“Creepy,” said Allison, suddenly frowning…her sense of wonder replaced with unease. “What if I were thinking about gross butts falling from the sky?”

Pleasant imagery,” said Alyn. “Besides, these screens are typically shielded by content filters to ensure everything projected is family friendly.”

“Can you turn it off, please?” asked Allison, sitting back down.

“Yeah, of course,” said Alyn. He scrambled over to the window and tapped the corner. The dragons disappeared. “Speaking of drawing dragons…you were always more of an arty chick in high school. How did you end up in a sorority?”

Allison puffed her cheeks then exhaled. “I’m a legacy. My mom will be a proud Kappa Zeta until the day she dies. She expects me to bleed purple and gold and follow in her footsteps. Thankfully, U dub’s art program is decent enough, so I’m going to attend classes for a year before dropping out.”

“Not feeling it, huh?”

“No. I just want to keep Mom off my back until I figure out what I really want to do with my life. I rebelled against her all through high school and it was completely pointless. Being sneaky turned out to be easier…not that I’m proud.”

“That’s tough,” said Alyn.

“Yeah. When I strike out on my own I’m going to be burning a lot of bridges. I guess I’m not quite ready for the flames. What about you? What does a guy with a spaceship want from life?”

Alyn smiled. “Good question. I’m kind of floundering at the moment to be honest. I enrolled in the engineering program at U Dub but I chickened out. I haven’t told my mom yet. Things have been strange since she moved to Phoenix with her new boyfriend. My older brother is moving back home next year to sell our old house and he expects me to have my shit figured out by then.”

Allison laughed. “Sorry, I just can relate. Even though you’re able to go anywhere in the universe you’re stuck with just as many earthly expectations as I am.”

Alyn nodded. “You’re right. My life is a study in irony.” Alyn got lost in Allison’s grey eyes for a moment before he stood up suddenly with outstretched arms. “You ready for the next door?”

Allison popped off the couch with a smile. “Sure! What’s inside this one?”

“Leave your headset on the table. You won’t need it.”

Allison groaned. “What’s the next salad going to do to me?”

“It’s not a salad,” said Alyn. “Let me ask you, did you ever have to climb the rope in P.E. class?”

“Yeah, all the way to the top. I was good at it.”

“Excellent,” said Alyn. “I sure as hell wasn’t.” He opened the second door and waved for Allison to join him. They walked through the beaded curtain and stepped onto a large, flat rock shrouded by the shade of a dense forest. Only a few thin shafts of golden light managed to break through the canopy above them. A gentle breeze cut through the warm air but left the soaring trees unrustled; their leaves so lofty their shapes became indistinguishable in the verdant mass.

Allison felt a little woozy but the disorientation resulting from warp travel via beaded curtain seemed to ease a bit with each jaunt. “It’s beautiful here,” she marveled. The forest floor was completely covered in a crystalline, azure sand. There was no vegetation on the ground besides the white, straight trunks of the trees. Long vines were drooping from above, surrounding the bare stone platform in every direction.

“This is the culinary nature preserve on Gliese 667 Cc,” said Alyn. “This planet is tidal locked–one hemisphere always faces its red dwarf star and the other is stuck in eternal darkness. The entire population lives on the equator, which is the only inhabitable zone.”

“Gliese what? What do the inhabitants call their planet?”

“No one knows. The locals communicate with each other telepathically and seem to have no interest in giving names to anything. Because their minds are all linked, the populace just instinctually knows what and where everything is in their world. You don’t need names when everything is instantly identifiable.”

“Whoa, cool,” said Allison.

“It does make them a little reclusive, though. They don’t have much interest in interacting with other species…but they’re friendly enough. I doubt we’ll see any Gliese 667 Ccians while we’re here, though.”

“I’ve never seen trees so tall,” said Allison, craning her neck upward.

Alyn bent down and rose up with a spear longer than his body. He put it in Allison’s hand. “You’ll need this.”

“A spear? What for?”

“This dining experience will be decidedly more physical than the last,” Alyn twirled his own spear with a smile.

Allison glared at him. “If you expect me to hunt, it’s not going to happen!”

“This isn’t hunting. We’re in the midst of the harvest season…the lances are for gathering the fruit of these trees. I call them ‘balloon fruits.’ I know it’s not very original, but keep in mind I named them when I was twelve. Look, there’s one now!”

Allison squinted and saw a strange green ball with blue spots floating down from the treetops. It was essentially a deflating balloon, pushed in random directions by jets of air escaping from a series of ports in its hull. She couldn’t help but laugh at the pinched farting noise it made as it plummeted erratically.

“Those are the most delicious fruits in the entire galaxy,” said Alyn, “well, as long as you squeeze all the gas out before you cut one open.”

“So we run around and spear them? Does only one fall at a time?”

“These trees don’t produce much fruit. We’re actually lucky to be seeing one at all. Hopefully there will be more…it doesn’t look like we’ll make it to that one in time.”

“It’s not that far away. We can just run over and grab it.” Allison started to move off the rock but Alyn grabbed her wrist.

“Hold up…look.”

Allison watched the fruit touch down to the blue sand. The ground next to it began to swell. Suddenly, a slimy, tripartite jaw opened up under the fruit and swallowed it whole. Both the fruit and beast disappeared immediately. Allison backpedaled to the center of the rock. A few seconds later a loud belch sounded and a fountain of blue sand erupted where the fruit had been devoured.

“I call them Balloon Suckers. They’re sort of a cross between a hippo and a slug…slimy little guys. They’re completely blind and will go after anything that thumps into that sand. After swallowing a balloon fruit they grind the leftover pits in their gut then use the gas they ingested to wretch the remnants back up to the surface. All this blue sand is the ground up seeds of balloon fruit.”

“I could have been killed!” gasped Allison.

“Nah, I learned the hard way that Balloon Suckers have no interest in eating humans. They’ll just slap their wet jaws on your legs, suck on them for a bit then leave. They won’t hurt you…you’ll just end up with slimy, stained clothes.”

“Lovely. So, how were supposed to get one of these fruits? This rock we’re on isn’t that big.”

“We’ll use those vines. Each of them has a natural knot on the end you can rest your feet on while swinging back and forth. When we see a fruit, we’ll swing from vine to vine until we can stab it with our spears.”

“Right. Easy,” said Allison, skeptically.

“You can tuck the lance behind your back right into that sling you’re wearing. It should stay snug there. Just pull it out when you need it.”

“Is that why you gave me this?” asked Allison, pulling at the sash.

“No.” Alyn pointed to the canopy. “Whoa, here comes another one! Come on…you start swinging toward it and I’ll stay on this side in case it changes course. We can’t be sure where the fruit’s going to land.”

Allison immediately grabbed a vine and started swinging away. “Like this?”

“Perfect!” said Alyn, smiling ear to ear. “I’m impressed! If you fall, haul ass back to this rock.” He grabbed his own vine and started to swing back and forth. The sound of the flarting fruit became louder as it tumbled closer.

Allison nimbly grasped another vine and swung further away, keeping her eye on the twirling prize. “I can almost reach it!” She pulled out her spear and nearly fell, but somehow managed to maintain her grip with her other hand. Her feet clamped the tangled knot at the end of the vine a little tighter. “Yikes, this is tricky. I can’t stop spinning.”

“Doing great!” yelled Alyn. He wished he was able to change vines so efficiently. The pair swung back and forth as their sputtering quarry wobbled ever closer. Allison thrust out her spear and jabbed its husk but only managed to gouge a hole in its side, making the fruit fly faster and wilder.

“Crap! Get it!” yelled Allison.

Alyn swapped over to another vine with a grunt and pulled out his lance. He thrust it outward but missed his target. Left with a poor angle to strike again, he instead slapped the fruit toward Allison with his pole. “Incoming!”

The fruit rapidly accelerated toward Allison, leaving a squealing fweet in its wake. “Too fast!” she called, unable to bring her spear around in time. The green orb smacked her in the chest and she lost her grip on the vine. She wrapped her arms tightly around the fruit as she fell, gagging at the warm gas it expelled in her face. After colliding against the soft blue sand she quickly rose to her feet with a groan, still holding the fruit. A mound of sand rose in front of her and she froze in place. “Shit!”

“No!” yelled Alyn. He swung, vine to vine, across the expanse then landed with a thump next to Allison. “We don’t have time to make it back to the rock and we can’t reach any vines from here. We only have a couple of seconds until the Balloon Sucker gets here.” He quickly took off his jeans and put them over his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” asked Allison. Alyn picked her up in his arms, and held her up as high as he could with a determined look on his face.

“It will be over soon, don’t worry,” he said, as three slimy purple jaws rose from the sand and surrounded his legs. “Oh god oh god.”

Allison closed her eyes tight, listening the glorping wet noise and feeling Alyn tremble. “Ew ew ew!”

“Did I mention it also has three tongues?” said Alyn, his voice wobbling. Finally, the jaws slid slowly off his legs and disappeared back into the sand. He ran back to the rock as quick as he could, still holding Allison in his arms. They both hopped on to the stone and collapsed, panting. Alyn’s legs were gleaming with slug snot.

“Do you happen to have a moist towelette?” Alyn asked Allison. They both laughed loudly.

Allison wiped the tears from her eyes. “Seriously, thank you. I’m sure that couldn’t have felt very nice.”

“Uh, no…at least I had time to take off my jeans.” He pulled his pants off his shoulder and slapped them on the rock.

“You must love those pants.” Allison took off her flannel overshirt and carefully wiped off Alyn’s legs. “There, good as new. This wasn’t one of my favorite tops anyway.”

“Thanks.” Alyn blushed and quickly put his pants back on. “At least you held on to the fruit.”

“Ugh, it farted in my face,” said Allison. “You expect me to eat this?”

“Trust me, it’s amazing. Just sit on top of it to let out the rest of the gas.”

Allison plopped on top of the fruit and the gas slowly flurped out of the its husk like an oversized whoopee cushion. “This is disgusting.” She picked up the deflated orb and handed it to Alyn.

Alyn promptly ripped off the fruit’s outer husk revealing gleaming white meat on the inside. He plucked out a few bright blue seeds, shining like sapphires. “I wish we could keep these, but it’s against the rules.”

“Damn, too bad. They’re gorgeous!” said Allison.

Alyn threw the husk and the seeds to the ground and some slug jaws rose up to claim them. He then ripped the inner fruit in half, each chunk about the size of a grapefruit. “Enjoy,” he said, handing a piece to Allison.

“Um, I’m not going to trip balls eating this or anything, right?”

“Nope, perfectly safe.”

Allison took a bite and her eyes lit up. She devoured the rest in seconds and licked her fingertips. “Super sweet, but not sickeningly so. I love how those tiny cells pop in your mouth. That texture is unearthly.”

Alyn took a few big bites and grinned. “Almost makes it worth being slurped on…almost. Like I said though, we’re lucky…sometimes you don’t see a single balloon fruit. It can take hours for one to fall. I’ve—”

“Look!” said Allison. A balloon fruit was coming down above their heads, falling back and forth with little spurts of air that kept it on a steady trajectory. It landed directly in front of Alyn on the stone. Allison nabbed it with a laugh.

“Figures,” said Alyn with a sigh. “Well, let’s have some more.”

After finishing the fruit the pair went back to the door frame, standing alone atop of the rock. They pushed through the beads and arrived back in their room at the dome. Allison promptly threw her wet shirt into the trash. “Did I get any goo on my tank top?”

“Nope, looks good,” said Alyn, trying not to stare too long. “Um…want to rest up for a bit? There are some good virtual drinks on the back of the room card.”

“Okay,” said Allison sitting close to Alyn on the couch.

“Go ahead and put your headset back on,” said Alyn. He flicked a raised word on the back of the silver card.

“Virtual drinking is a little awkward,” said Alyn. “You kind of have to open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue like—”

“Hold up…wait a minute,” said Allison. She reached up and pulled at the prongs of her headset, making them expand a few more inches.

“No, that’s too far out,” said Alyn.

Allison then bent the prongs toward her face and put them directly into mouth like a pair of straws. She looked at Alyn and blinked, tasting the flavor of a fruity punch with a kick of spice against her tongue. When she had her fill, she tapped the headset and the straws retracted. “Delicious.”

Alyn was shocked. “I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time?” He made the same modifications to his headset and his eyes bugged out when he tasted the drink. “Oh my god, that’s so much easier.”

“Dork,” said Allison with a grin. “Cue up that death cookie again.”

Alyn pressed the button for the chocolate chip cookie they had earlier. They both put the prongs back in their mouths and chewed normally until the program ended and the little prongs retracted on their own.

“I feel like such an idiot,” said Alyn.

Allison shrugged. “You don’t have to totally mansplain me through the universe…I’m more resourceful than I look.”

“No doubt.” Alyn stood up and walked to the window. “The sun is setting behind Hurm, check it out.”

Allison walked over and joined him. Hurm’s yellow star was dipping below the curvature of the planet, creating a shimmering green halo above the violet atmosphere. She shook her head and sighed. “Why would you ever come back to Earth after seeing all these wonders?”

“I want to see your dragons again. Do you mind?” asked Alyn, evading her question.

“I guess not,” said Allison. She pressed the corner of the window. The pink serpents came roaring back, slowly undulating back and forth through their view. Wisps of white smoke flared from their nostrils. A steady curtain of fluffy snowflakes began dropping out of the sky.

“What’s with the snow?” asked Allison.

“It’s picking up my brain waves too. I used to live in Eastern Oregon. It snows heavily in the winter. I miss it sometimes.”

“It’s nice. The dragons don’t seem to mind the cold,” said Allison. “You never answered my question…how do you will yourself back to our trashed planet after seeing all of this?”

“Earth’s not so bad,” said Alyn. “After you’ve spent some time traveling to other planets you start to realize that the hidden wonders of the universe can only distract you for so long before a deep loneliness sets in. Being with the people you truly care about is the only thing that really brings meaning to your life. Everything else is just window dressing.”

Allison turned and brought Alyn’s attention to her. She leaned closer and shared a tender kiss with him for a few seconds. She blushed as she backed away. “Sorry.”

Alyn was blushing too. “I…don’t mind,” he said sheepishly. The sun disappeared behind the planet and the stars started blazing brightly. “These are mostly the same stars you’d see from Earth. It’s sort of comforting in a way.”

Allison hopped over in front of another door. “I’m ready for the next trip.”

“Okay, but it’s going to get a little intense in there…and it might take awhile.” While Alyn talked, Allison walked through the door. “Hey, wait up!”

Alyn sprinted through the beads and found Allison lying on the ground when he arrived. He ducked beside her, seeing terror on her face.

“Everything is exploding out there! It’s a warzone! We need to go back.”

“We’re safe, don’t worry,” said Alyn. “See that blue haze? We’re protected by a force field here. Nothing can hurt us unless we step outside those walls.” A smoldering brown landscape covered in craters lay just outside of the shell of blue energy. The air was thick with black smoke and swirling sparks. Clusters of bombs whined as they rained from the sky in almost clockwork intervals. Beyond the smoldering battlefield were other blue force domes, each protecting a different building. Some of the structures were mere huts and others towering skyscrapers. All seemed to be completely undamaged.

Allison stood up slowly. “Why would you take me to a war zone?”

“Remember how I said some alien cultures had waged wars over recipes? This planet is engaged in a culinary standoff.”

“Why would the Hurmians let anyone come here?”

“Because there’s something on Tau Ceti f that tastes like nothing else in the galaxy. This stop is a little different than the others, though. The embassy has no borders, per se…you’re free to wander around the countryside if you don’t mind being potentially blown to bits by bombs. Unfortunately, there’s no virtual component to this cuisine, which creates some potential danger.”

“What food is worth blowing up the planet?”

“It’s called crater lily. The petals of the flower are like the everlasting gobstopper of the outer galaxy.”

Allison looked at him with confusion. “Pardon?”

“Willy Wonka?”

“Oh, right…okay,” said Allison. “How could anything grow here?”

“That’s the thing…crater lilies only grow in the gunpowder-stained soot of fresh battlegrounds. It takes a thousand pounds of bombs to ready the soil before a single flower will grow.”

“And the people here…they’re fighting over the flowers?”

“In a way. This battle has been ongoing for a thousand years. The original conflict has been mostly forgotten but the battle rages on simply to sustain the growth of crater lilies–the flowers are always divvied up equally between the two sides. No one dies in this war unless they’re stupid. These blue shields are impervious…they protect the people who live and work in the battlefield.”

“Wow. These must be some flowers,” said Allison. She looked through the force field and saw a small field of white lilies under a blue dome a few hundred yards away.

“Once they find a flower growing in the field they immediately put up a force dome around the area and start farming crater lilies there. They can usually harvest a few hundred before the soil stops producing and they have to start dropping bombs again.”

Allison shook her head in disbelief. “Can’t they just use gunpowder fertilizer or something?”

“Probably, but battlefield farming has a long and storied past. It’s a great honor to farm the lilies. The process is steeped in tradition and glory and even has a religious aspect. But yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”

“And they’re going to let us just take a lily?”

“Yes. That dome you see over there is for visitors. We’re each allowed to take one flower. The only problem is that we have to cross the battlefield twice to get there.”

Allison took a step backward. “Um, no.”

“Don’t worry. The bombs fall in predictable intervals, just not always in the same place. After the next explosion we’ll have 33 seconds to run to that dome.” Alyn pointed to a shielded building about 50 yards away. “Once there we’ll wait for the next blast then run to the shielded lily field.”

“How does the force field let us in but not the explosions and debris?” asked Allison.

“The force domes repel objects based on their velocity and size. Anything moving fast enough to cause harm is blocked from entering…shockwaves, fragmentation shrapnel and the like. Fine particulate is also repelled.”

“Does that mean I have to run slower?”

“No way. We’ll never reach enough speed on foot to achieve that kind of velocity. Feel free to sprint.”

“Okay. What’s inside the building over there?” asked Allison, pointing. “Under the first dome?”

Alyn sighed. “Oh, it’s just a gift shop for culinary tourists like us. It’s completely overpriced and all the merchandise smells like putrid meat. It’s not worth checking out.”

“Gross,” said Allison. “Alright, I can do this. I used to run cross-country.”

“Great, the ordinance should hit any second. Get ready.”

They waited side by side anxiously at the edge of the dome for the explosions to start. A series of ten bombs fell right outside the force field exactly on schedule.

“Run!” yelled Alyn as the smoke cleared. They both tore across the field, down into a shallow crater and up the other side. Alyn tripped on the edge and fell to the dirt. Allison stopped in her tracks and scrambled back over to him and helped him back up. They made it into the dome seconds before bombs started falling in the distance.

“Thanks,” said Alyn, panting.

Allison stood up first. She kicked Alyn in the leg. “Don’t do that again, dork!”

“Ow, okay,” said Alyn. He stood up and looked at the boxy building in front of them. It was sitting on a patch of blue plastic grass next to an orange plastic tree. “Well, they painted the gift shop pink since I was here last but I can still smell the nasty odor inside the place.”

Allison pinched her nose. “Ugh. Me too.” A lonely, bulbous looking creature with three arms waved at Allison. She waved back, forcing a smile. It’s skin turned from brown to bright blue as it grinned in return.

“Well, they seem friendly enough here.”

“Despite all these bombs, the Tau Ceti f‘ers aren’t so bad…the citizens at least.”

“I’m sure all the mother f‘ers are proud of their little f‘ers,” said Allison with a laugh. Something at the edge of the gift shop’s force dome caught her eye and she ran over for a closer look. “Hey, check it out!”

“What is it?”

Allison kneeled down and reached through the dome.

“Wait! Stop!” yelled Alyn desperately.

Allison rose back up with a crater lily in her hand. “Look, there was one just sitting out there! We don’t have to go to the other—”

An ear-piercing alarm–the analog of dying cats–filled the air. Allison dropped to her knees and cowered. Alyn ran up and put his arm around her. Blue lights emerged from the edge of the gift shop and started to strobe.

“What’s going on?” yelled Allison through the noise.

“Don’t worry! It’s going to be okay. If things get too intense just break your sash!”

Allison looked at the strap with the pink gem strapped around her. “Break it? Why?”

“Trust me, just—”

The roar of a nearby jet engine drowned out the alarm. Allison gasped and backed against the gift shop, still holding the lily. Alyn jumped in front of her and held out his arms. A massive ship resembling a red cube with a shark’s fin on top landed just inside the force field. Three beings similar to the one manning the gift shop emerged from the craft, each running down the ramp in a spinning motion.

Alyn and Allison were quickly surrounded by snarling red soldiers. “She didn’t know the rules! It’s my fault, take me!” Alyn yelled to the menacing trio. One of the creatures threw a shimmering purple bag over Alyn’s body and tossed him over their shoulder. Allison screamed as another f‘er threw a bag over her as well. Seconds later she lost consciousness.

Allison opened her eyes slowly and groaned, unsure how much time had passed. Her head felt like it was full of cotton. She was in a tiny black room with one window and a door. The crater lily she had picked was lying on the floor beside Alyn, who was still passed out. She leaned over and shook him awake. “Alyn…Alyn!”

Alyn woke up with a jolt and instantly jumped to his feet. “Allison! Are you alright?”

Allison stood up. “Yeah, I’m fine. I thought you said these f‘ers were easy going. Why did they…” She looked at the flower at the floor. “Is it because I plucked the lily?”

Alyn picked up the flower with a sigh. He took a deep breath and stretched his back. “Yeah. This is my fault. I didn’t warn you not to pick any lilies outside the force dome. Tourists are only allowed to pick them from the designated patch.”

“Where did they take us?” asked Allison.

Alyn moved to the tiny window. He could see the platform with beaded door where they had first arrived about a football field’s length away. “We’re in luck! We’re right outside the gift shop. I think they local authorities decided to keep us in this pop-up cell until they can figure out what to do with us. There’s a little force dome around this box.”

“That’s lucky?” said Allison. She looked out the tiny slit of the door and saw one of the f‘ers standing guard with its back to the cell. It was holding a vicious looking spear. She quickly stepped to the other side of the room. “There’s one standing outside!”

“Shit, they put a guard on us. At least we haven’t been transported to the capital yet. If we have to face the district’s governing council…well…it’s not going to be pretty,” said Alyn, hushing his voice. “The f‘ers in charge are proponents of swift justice and we can’t exactly expect a jury of our peers.”

Allison saw the offending flower lying on the floor. “Just for picking that?”

Alyn nodded and picked up the lily. “Well, we might as well give it a taste.”

“I lost my appetite,” said Allison.

“I don’t know why they left behind the evidence to our crime but it might be a good idea to destroy it.” Alyn pulled off one of the petals and waved it under Allison’s nose.

Allison immediately perked up. “I’ve never smelled anything so intense. I can almost taste it already!”

“When the f‘ers try to synthetically replicate this aroma it ends up smelling like rotting meat for some reason, at least to humans–nothing like the real deal. Go ahead, take a bite of petal.”

Reluctantly, Allison took a bite. Alyn did the same. A warm sensation surged through their bodies simultaneously, culminating in a sharp chill that dissipated with a flutter just beneath the skin. They sighed and leaned against each other.

“I don’t know if that’s worth an endless war, but it’s pretty damn good,” said Allison, in awe. They both took turns finishing the petals. They were left with a feeling of contentment, despite their situation. The pair slid down the wall of the cell, side by side and held hands. They kissed passionately for a moment, but Alyn looked troubled as their embrace ended.

“What is it?” asked Allison. She wasn’t used to seeing Alyn’s confident spark so diminished.

“Allison, you have to break that sash I asked you to put on earlier.”

She looked down at the odd strap with the pink gem. “I keep forgetting about this thing. What’s it for, anyway?”

“I didn’t want to have to tell you this unless it was absolutely necessary. These straps we’re wearing serve as a fail-safe. They’re constantly connecting us to the spaceship, even when we’re not inside. Once you release that buckle on your strap it will be like none of this ever happened. You’ll wind up on a predetermined point in an earlier timeline.”

“Hold up. The spaceship is a time machine too?”

“In a way. My dad was obsessed with the idea of the multiverse. The theory suggests multiple universes are all occurring concurrently across infinite dimensions. Essentially, each decision you make creates another universe…another branching path. Every choice leads you to a new universe, leaving your former reality behind.”

“Ow, my head.”

“I know. Normally, once you’ve quantum shifted into another universe you’d have no way to return to where you came from…aka the past. You’re left in the present with only your memories. My dad found a way to essentially leave a bread crumb trail as you moved through your personal timeline, through all the quantum phase shifts and branching universes. Using the spaceship’s computing power, you can backtrack through splitting realities and return to the past–sort of. Unfortunately, you can’t go any further back than the point in the timeline where you started leaving those ‘bread crumbs.'”

“Unbelievable.”

“There’s a catch though…and it’s a biggie.”

“What?”

“Once you travel back to a point in your previous timeline you lose all memories of what you’ve done past that point. It’s like a hard reset.”

“Wait…so, if I yank this thing I won’t remember anything we’ve done tonight?”

“No, but my dad came up with a small concession to the problem. He developed a quantum-locked computer, or QLC, that stores all its data at a singular point in the timeline of the operator’s choosing. The pink gem in our sashes is recording video footage that is being constantly transmitted to the ship’s QLC, not in the present, but to that same predetermined point in the past. When the strap breaks the wearer will return to the beginning of their journey with no memories of their trip. As a consolation they can access the spaceship’s QLC video archive and see exactly what happened to them before they tore the strap–or more precisely–what never happened.”

“But no actual memories remain? What the hell? I suppose you could just do the exact same things all over again, though.”

“Not really. You may arrive in a future similar to one you’ve already experienced but it’s never exactly the same. The bread crumbs disappear once you’ve backtracked and you’ll never find the exact same path forward.”

“Why not?”

“A near-infinite amount of conscious and unconscious choices are being made within a person’s current universe every second. Our destinies are constantly shifting and changing chaotically. Time is like a giant tangled ravel of endless spaghetti noodles, we just can’t perceive it that way or we’d all go insane.”

Allison stared at the window at lilies and explosions. “So when I break this sash, where will I end up?”

Alyn went and stood beside Allison and heaved a sigh. “If things turned out badly tonight, and they obviously have, I didn’t want you to have to relive a traumatizing moment after accessing the QLC footage back on that rooftop. I’d hate for you to walk away from this night full of fear and regret.”

“Tell me where I’ll go,” reiterated Allison.

“I made your predetermined point separate from mine. If you break the sash you’ll end up outside of the club just before the concert. You’ll go through your evening and we’ll never meet each other…at least not until our High School reunion.”

“Not funny. What could possibly happen tonight that I’d want to forget everything? Sure, we’ve experienced a temporary setback here, but it’s nothing we can’t overcome…right? Besides, won’t we just meet up at the club and go through all of this again anyway?”

“No. My predetermined point is different. It puts me back in the spaceship long before the concert starts. Once I review the QLC footage I’ll realize that going into that club is a bad idea and likely, I’ll just return home.”

Allison shook her head. “Listen Alyn, I know you’re trying to protect me but there’s no way I’m letting you wipe away my memories of this night. It’s not fair. I’m a big girl…if things turn out badly I can handle it.”

“The sentence for crater lily poaching is death by impalement.”

“Oh,” said Allison, wide-eyed.

“But hey, we can live in the now, right? Just because the evening’s coming to an end doesn’t—”

“Shut up and smile again,” said Allison, with an intense look. “Smile! Wide!”

Alyn did as ordered and flashed a cheesy grin. “What is it?”

Allison reached up and plucked something from Alyn’s teeth. She smiled and held her finger in front of his eyes. “Ah ha! I knew I saw something stuck to your tooth.”

“Ew. I’m glad you didn’t see that before we kissed. Embarrassing.”

“Notice the color?” asked Allison, holding the speck closer.

“It’s red. It’s part of a caub leaf!”

Allison sneered. “Have you been having micro orgasms this entire time?”

“No, you have to ingest it.”

Allison peered at the little leaf. “Is this enough to give someone a mind-melting toe curler?”

Alyn laughed lightly. “Totally. You want it?”

“No!” Allison half shouted. With the speck of leaf pinched between her fingertips she walked over to the black door banged on it loudly. “When the guard comes in, distract him!”

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Alyn with dread. Allison was shouting and slamming on the door with her fists and feet. The guard grunted angrily then shouted something incomprehensible. When Allison wouldn’t stop her pounding the angry f‘er began unlocking the door.

“It’s working,” whispered Allison. She ducked down and hid behind the door as it swung open, revealing the irate guard. He pointed his spiked staff at Alyn.

Alyn gasped and grinned wide, raising his hands in the air. “Don’t stab! I just wanted to say—”

Allison jumped on the globular crimson guard from behind and wrapped her legs around him. The stout creature snorted in surprise and started to spin around wildly. She shoved her fingers holding the bit of leaf deeply into the guard’s throat, and pulled her hand back out, covered in saliva. The guard managed to knock her to the floor with a kick and Alyn hurried over to drag her to safety.

The guard’s yellowing eyes went wide and he started to quiver. He collapsed to the cage’s floor and started to shake and drool in a blissful daze.

Allison put her hands in front of her mouth. “Oh god, I hope I didn’t kill him!”

“He’s fine! The door’s open…run!” yelled Alyn, pulling her by the arm. They skirted past the shivering guard and then ran out of the black box into the cratered expanse. “Head for the warp door!”

“What about the bombs?” yelled Allison.

“I’ll keep my eyes on the sky, you just run!”

Together, they tore over the cracked ground toward the blue dome in the distance, jumping over deep holes and berms of blasted mud. A whistle sounded above their heads, steadily growing louder. Allison could see the beads of the door frame beckoning to her.

“FASTER!” screamed Alyn.

Allison couldn’t keep herself from looking over her shoulder. Ten cube-shaped black bombs where tumbling through the smoky sky. She felt an arm wrap around her waist and lift her from the ground.

Alyn pulled Allison through the force field as a gigantic explosion expelled a wall of red hot shrapnel and dirt behind them. They collided with the platform next to the door where they had arrived, hearing particulate hail against the blue dome.

“We made it!” yelled Alyn, his ears ringing a bit. He helped Allison up. “Are you–”

“I’m good. Come on, let’s go before that angry beach ball wakes up,” said Allison. They hurried to the beaded curtain but before they went through Allison flipped off the planet in anger. “So long, f‘ers!”

When they were back inside the Culinary Dome Alyn slammed the door then collapsed to the floor beside Allison. “Maybe give me a little warning next time you tackle an armed guard?”

“Right,” said Allison. She couldn’t help but laugh. After a few seconds she stopped and turned to Alyn with a serious look. “Will the f‘ers follow us?

Alyn sat up. “I don’t think so. If they come after us they’ll be admitting two teenagers overpowered one of their elite guards. They’re a prideful people and they’re going to see this as an embarrassment more than anything else. Hopefully they’ll write us off as a couple of entitled brats.”

Allison took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. “I guess we are. At least me…plucking that lily was a pretty stupid move.”

“How were you supposed to know? Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the crater lily fields were made off limits to tourists for awhile.”

Allison pouted. “Aw, we ruined it for everyone?”

Alyn nodded. “We may be ruiners, but at least we’re alive.”

Allison jumped on top of Alyn and put her hands on his shoulders. “See, the strap’s still on…we’re doing fine. I’m not traumatized in the slightest.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Alyn with a smile. He didn’t want to admit how much he enjoyed feeling Allison so close. He put his hands on her hips, rolled over top of her, then leapt to his feet.

“Hey!” said Allison. “Where were all those spry moves earlier?”

Alyn stepped closer to the window. “I out-jumped an explosion, what more do you want?”

“True,” said Allison, standing up. “Only one door left. What’s inside?”

Alyn’s playful mood dissipated. “You know what…that was a terrifying ending to a perfect evening in my eyes. Why don’t we just head back to Earth?”

“I want to check out the other door!” protested Allison. She noticed Alyn still looked troubled. “Hey, what’s wrong? I can tell there’s something you’re not telling me.”

“No, I just…I think it’s time we went home.”

Allison scowled. “Alright, I like you, so I gave you a pass on keeping quiet about this stupid sash, but that’s all you get. You’re not allowed any more half-truths or need-to-knows. Out with it!”

Alyn sat on the couch and slumped. “You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

Allison sat on the arm of the couch. A tear rolled down her cheek.

Alyn sat up, concerned. “Allison?”

“I think I already know what you’re going to say. I’m not an idiot, you know? The little things you’ve been quietly predicting–all your confidence when you should be scared out of your gourd like I am–it’s all adding up. You’re Groundhog Daying me, aren’t you?

“Groundhog Daying?”

“You know, Groundhog Day! That movie with Bill Murray where he repeats the same day over and over until he gets everything right! Until he gets the girl.”

“Whoa. No, this isn’t like that at all…not really.”

“I knew it! You’re doing the same thing to me again and again…or…is it different women each time? How often do we go on this little date of yours?” Allison stood up and walked passed Alyn to the window, realizing the depths of her disgust.

“You want the truth Allison?” Alyn stood back up, daring not to approach her. “I’ve taken five girls here…and their names are Allison, Allison, Allison, Allison and Allison. It’s only ever been you.”

“So, you’re some interstellar stalker. How many times have I put out for you? Or is that the ultimate goal?”

“It’s not like that! I admit, I do have ulterior motives, but they’re not…sexual. Will you just let me explain?”

Allison turned to face him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “What choice do I have? If I break this strap you’re just going to try again, right?”

“Please, Allison—”

“Shut up! Fuck you, Alyn! All your talk about the future never happening the same way…that was all bullshit.”

“No! Major events may be similar each trip, but the devil is in the details. Your reactions, what happens inside those doors, it’s been different every time. Yes, I’ve ran through this scenario hundreds of times…but it’s always been by myself except for these last few tries.”

“Tries? I’m guessing you’ve figured out just what to say and do to get me to kiss you. What’s the trigger, Alyn? What makes me fall for you, exactly?”

“Allison, I swear to you, my intentions are pure and my feelings are real! This trip has been so different than all of the others and I can’t even begin to explain why. Nothing I’ve watched on the QLC prepared me for any of…this!” Alyn tugged gently at the strap crossing his heart.

“Bullshit,” said Allison, dismissively.

“I would never toy with your emotions! Please believe me,” pleaded Alyn. “This is the first time we’ve ever been so…intimate. This was not my plan.”

“Then show me the video on the QLC so I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Yes, right…wait.” Alyn dropped his gaze. “The footage on the QLC is quantum locked. We can’t look at it until we’ve returned to the fixed point.”

“Convenient,” said Allison. The room went deathly quiet for a long time.

“You’re right,” said Alyn. “I’m a creep, and an asshole, and I’m sorry. I just…I just needed your help. I should have told you from the beginning. I shouldn’t have let it become something more.”

“My help?” Allison brushed some of her hair behind her ear. “What are you talking about?”

“My dad. This is all about my dad. He’s not dead, Allison…he’s in prison. A prison on a distant planet behind that last door.”

“Your father’s still alive?” Allison stepped closer to Alyn, her anger overtaken by surprise. She didn’t video footage to know he was telling the truth, she could see it in his face.

“Just as Dad’s symptoms were becoming unbearable, he finally found a cure for Multiple Sclerosis at the edge of the galaxy. After making a full recovery, he faked his death and destroyed his research so he could leave the Earth behind to explore the cosmos without worrying about someone following in his footsteps. When I learned he was about to leave for good I asked if could go with him. Begrudgingly, he agreed.”

“Wow, you really left everything behind? So, what happened?”

“Things went well for awhile. I was learning how to pilot the spaceship and seeing the type of man my father was for the first time…warts and all. However, it wasn’t long before Dad ran into trouble on HD 40307 g in the Pictor constellation, called Skreeank by the natives. He tried to steal a valuable artifact housed in a Skreeankian museum but got caught in the act.”

“Your dad’s a criminal?”

Alyn nodded. “I had no idea what he had planned. He told me he was there to pay off a debt. I waited in the spaceship for days for him to return but he never did. When a security squad tracked down the spaceship and attacked I had no choice but to leave my father behind. He’s been locked up in a prison especially designed to house criminals offenders from other planets. I’ve yet to find a timeline where he didn’t end up incarcerated…but I can’t just leave him there to rot.”

“Alyn…I’m so sorry,” said Allison, walking closer. “But how could I possibly help you?”

“You’re smart, you’re strong, and most importantly…you can do this.” Alyn lifted his hand and bent his thumb backwards until it was nearly touching the back of his hand.

“Excuse me?”

“The anatomy of a Skreeankian is a lot like a human being’s, aside from their four long arms and double-opposable thumbs. The cell doors in the prison where my dad is being held aren’t barred by typical locks–they open by means of a series of pressure pads that receive input from all 20 Skreeankian fingers at once. I’m able to put both hands into two of the four locks by bending back my weird thumbs but that still leaves me ten digits short. I needed to find someone willing to break their thumbs or with a genetic trait like mine to help me open the door to my dad’s cell. The first option never panned out…that’s why I brought you here.”

Allison suddenly felt relieved, if a little confused. “You just needed another freak!” she said, staring at her own thumbs.

“During my previous trips I figured out how to sneak out of Skreeank’s culinary embassy, infiltrate the prison and get to my dad’s cell–the layout never changed that much—but I can’t get passed the damn cell door. I brought my best friend Doug along with me once but his thumbs weren’t able to bend backwards like mine. It ended miserably but luckily, he doesn’t remember a thing.”

Allison laughed. “Sorry, I just…I don’t know how to feel right now. So, you’re telling me you just used me for my thumbs? This was somehow easier when I thought you wanted to get inside my pants.”

“Not used, recruited! Remember that smart and strong part of you? That’s essential,” said Alyn. “I found several people with the same thumb-bending ability but for a myriad of reasons none of them seemed fit to accompany me. I went to that club just hoping to have a good time, never expecting to find someone with the same bizarre grip. When I realized you shared the same trait I was terrified. I never had the balls to approach you back in high school and I sure as hell didn’t know how I’d ever convince you to come with me to outer space.”

Allison blushed. “Really? I barely noticed you back then…no offense.”

“None taken,” said Alyn.

“How many times did I turn you down for this trip?”

“You never turned me down. Talking to you turned out to be easy.”

“Or maybe I’m just too nice.”

Alyn smiled. “Yeah, maybe.”

Allison bit her cheek and looked out the window into the darkness. “Why didn’t the other four times we attempted this work?”

Alyn exhaled loudly. “We’ve never made it this far. Every time I’ve told you the truth you’ve gotten angry and broken your strap. It doesn’t matter when or where I spill the beans…it never works out. I’ve never blamed you for being angry and I won’t now…it’s alright.”

“Yeah, I tend to be pretty easy going unless someone pisses me off.” Allison turned around, looking determined. She was holding her strap tightly. After staring at Alyn intensely for a few moments, she dropped the sash and walked up to him. “I’ll help you…on one condition.”

Alyn couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Anything, just name it.”

“I want our point of origin on the timeline to be exactly the same. I don’t care how messed up things get…if these straps break I want a chance to review the footage with you on that quantum lock computer in the ship.”

Alyn nodded slowly. “It’s a deal.” He walked up to Allison and carefully put his hands on her sash. He pulled a silver card out of his pocket and pressed it against the pink gem. “Alright, now, just need to reset the date.” After pulling back the card he flipped it around he tapped a few raised areas in the center. “It’s done. We’re synced up. I’ve pulled your recovery point a little further up the trail of breadcrumbs next to mine.”

“That’s all it takes?” asked Allison. “The fail safe will take us both to the same place and time?”

“If your sash breaks you’ll be on the roof of the can opener factory beside me in the spaceship, ready to review the QLC footage.”

“Good,” said Allison. “I don’t want to vanish before your eyes.”

Alyn sighed. “I should fess up. The reality of the situation is a little stranger than you think.” He looked at his strap. “It’s probably not fair to call this thing a ‘fail safe.’ Tearing the strap doesn’t destroy this universe or transport your body or consciousness anywhere. The broken sash simply alerts the QLC to render the video you’ve recorded thus far. The footage is then quantum shifted to the beginning of your bread crumb trail so an earlier iteration of yourself can review it and potentially change their destiny.”

“Hold on, what?”

“This isn’t time travel. The other Allisons who pulled their straps didn’t see or feel any noticeable change afterwards. I can only assume what followed was an awkward trip back to Earth in the spaceship with you hating me the entire time. Or maybe we reconciled? We have no way of knowing because when the strap breaks the QLC stops recording.”

“Christ. It got a little creepy again.”

“I know. But remember, there are untold Allisons in untold universes. Actually, I take it back…it’s best not to think about that stuff. It’s disheartening to wake up knowing there will be a billion billion billion slightly different versions of yourself created by the time you step in the shower.”

“Yikes,” said Allison. “It’s completely ludicrous.”

Alyn pursed his lips. “Infinity has a lot of storage space, apparently.”

“Yeah, okay, let’s just move on. Time’s wasting. I don’t want to do this again…probably.”

Alyn’s smile stretched ear to ear. “This is going to be a piece of cake, don’t—”

“Worry. Gotcha. Never worry,” said Allison, with a smile. She went over and opened the door. “Sorry for calling you an interstellar pervert earlier.”

“Takes one to know one,” said Alyn, stepping through the final doorway.

“Hey!” said Allison, following him through the beaded curtain.

After the bright flash they arrived on a cobalt blue plateau stretching endlessly into the horizon under a dusky, cloudless sky. The landscape was layered in thick stone slabs of various sizes—some so large they seemed to stretch for miles. There was no vegetation, no dirt, not even a stray pebble on the ground. A crisp breeze whistled low through the crevasses between the jagged rocks.

“What a strange place,” said Allison, which truly meant something after all she’d seen during the evening. There were no signs of civilization except for an unremarkable wooden table sitting near the bead-shrouded door frame.

“Very little life ever sprang from this world. Organisms have a tough time establishing themselves on these huge, rocky shards. The Skreeankians fled their homeland thousands of years ago and colonized this planet after discovering it had a breathable atmosphere.”

Allison picked up a small, nondescript square of plastic sitting on the lonely table. “What’s this?”

“As you can probably tell, Skreeank’s culinary embassy isn’t very popular. To sample their food you’d scan that hunk of plastic with your virtual dining headset.”

“Why didn’t we bring them?” asked Allison, setting the little card back down.

Alyn scanned the horizon. “We didn’t come here for the food–and trust me–you wouldn’t want it. Their featured dish tastes like concentrated ox farts. No one ever comes here to dine–virtually or otherwise–which makes this the ideal place to infiltrate the planet.”

“I get it,” said Allison, scraping her heel on one of the slabs. Some of its blue color came off on her boot.

“The Hurmian Culinary Dome is the perfect way to get to Skreeank’s surface without a security clearance. Unfortunately, quite a few versions of my future self were blown away in the upper atmosphere before I discovered this ‘back door.’ Sometimes there’s a guard stationed here but more often than not they’ve left the post abandoned. I’m not even sure if the Skreeankians realize they still have a culinary embassy.”

“How many times have you attempted to rescue your dad?”

Alyn stared up at the thick stars for a moment. “Too many times. To be honest, I don’t really want to know. I do know I get a little closer each time…at least I did for awhile.”

Allison was shocked. “Alyn…I’m so sorry.”

Alyn shook his head. “It’s okay…it’s not like I remember all that failure. I only archive the highlights on the QLC so I don’t have to sit through all the ugly footage.”

“So, you must be really good at this infiltration business considering you’ve done it so many times.”

“I wish. This isn’t like that movie with Tom Cruise where he keeps repeating the same day to kill the aliens and gets more skilled each time. I don’t remember shit.”

“They Groundhog Dayed him too? Hmm. I never saw that flick but it sounds pretty similar to your situation.”

“Not really. For me, it’s more akin to watching Indiana Jones for the first time and then proclaiming yourself an archeologist without any of the whip or boulder evasion skills. You’d fall and die in the very first punji pit. Despite doing the same crap over and over I never retain any knowledge or gain any muscle memory.”

“Oh, right. That sucks.”

“The QLC footage shows that the prison is usually laid out the same way each time I attempt a run. A few times though, the floor layout has been vastly different. Sometimes the door on my dad’s cell doesn’t have the same locks…sometimes…” Alyn trailed off.

“What?”

“It’s rare, but sometimes my dad’s already been executed.”

Allison gasped. “How do you keep from going crazy?”

“I probably am. You’d be a better judge.”

Allison held Alyn’s hands and kissed him quickly. “You’re alright.”

“Thanks for that,” said Alyn. “Are you ready?”

“Sure thing, Dr. Jones,” said Allison with a nod. “Where do we go? It’s flat, blue and barren in every direction. I’ve never seen rocks like these.”

“Oh, that’s because they’re painted.”

“All of them?”

“Each of Skreeank’s nation are defined by a different primary color, and each color represents a different faith. Each year when night falls they paint these stones as a religious rite.”

“They painted hundreds of acres of rock blue in a single night?”

“One full rotation of this planet would be equivalent to a year on Earth. One night here lasts six of our months. A new night has just fallen and the locals will soon be out in droves to cover Skreeank Prime with a new coat of blue paint. Hundreds of miles away, Skreeank Alpha will be freshly painted red, and Skreeank Proper will shine bright yellow. Thousands of years ago they would paint the landscape by hand but now it’s done with massive star ships.”

“I guess religious fervor is a powerful force the galaxy over,” said Allison, marveling.

“Each Skreeankian has four idle hands to keep them busy,” said Alyn. “Come on, it’s this way.” He hopped off the stone platform of the embassy and headed north.

Allison looked around nervously. “Where is everybody?”

“The population lives underground in gigantic, carved caverns. There’s nothing buried beneath this place, though. The guard that abandoned this post never seemed to have any transportation but I figured he couldn’t have walked to work. I eventually found a warp station he was using under one of these slabs. I left myself the coordinates on the QLC. It should be close by…if it’s even here in this universe.”

They walked for a few minutes but saw nothing that looked like a doorway. “I don’t understand, it should be here,” said Alyn, looking at his watch.

“I hear something clicking,” said Allison.

“Yeah, me too.” Alyn hopped over a rocky outcropping and located a modest looking doorway embedded in the stone. Silver beads hung from the empty frame, clacking together in the wind. “The warp door!”

“Let’s go through,” said Allison, stepping up.

“Not yet. This door would warp us directly to the guard’s neighborhood. There’s nothing there for us…unless you enjoy sulfurous caves inhabited by xenophobic alien rednecks that like to throw blue rocks at non-believers.”

“Yeah, let’s skip that,” said Allison. “So what do we do?”

Alyn leaned down to the edge of the door. He pulled a multi-tool out of his pocket and pried open a little hatch near the bottom of the frame with a grunt. He winced as he bashed his knuckles. “Ow.”

“You need a sonic screwdriver,” said Allison.

“No kidding. Luckily my Leatherman usually does the trick.” Alyn fished a small black chip out of his pocket. “I left myself instructions on the QLC to procure this little beauty from a black market tech dealer on Kepler-62e. It’s pre-programmed with coordinates that will redirect this door’s warp function. If all goes well it should put us directly inside the prison complex.” He pushed the chip inside a small slit and closed the hatch again, which promptly fell back open.

“Couldn’t we have done this from any beaded doorway?”

“I wish…this planet has a network of atmospheric warp dampeners to prevent outsiders from reaching the surface. Only local transit is allowed. That’s why we had to come here through the embassy.”

“Can you really trust some random hacker guy to give you the correct coordinates? What if it puts us in deep space or inside the rocks?”

“Boc’s not random, he’s one of my Dad’s old friends. He’s more of a glorified mathematician than a hacker. The brains of the Gosshimasturs are huge…their race even looks like a pile of brains, with stumpy little legs.”

“Yuck,” said Allison.

“Essentially, they’re living quantum computers. All of the galaxy’s wormhole technology relies on the equation chomping powers of Boc’s people. My dad learned a lot from them…it’s not easy directing a singularity to warp space time as you see fit.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Can you trust him?”

“I had reminded myself on the QLC to pay him with a hundred pounds of pewter. He seemed thrilled by the transaction so I think we’re alright.”

“Pewter huh.” Allison sighed, giving in to the insanity once more. “I never imagined teleportation would rely on beaded curtains.”

“Yup. Each one of those beads contains sensors that scan your body and…you know what, it’s not important. Let’s go.” Alyn jumped through the curtain and disappeared. Allison swallowed hard and followed him.

“It’s pitch black!” said Allison. Her body was pressed tight to Alyn’s.

“Yeah, we were supposed to end up in a janitor’s closet. I think it worked,” Alyn whispered. He jimmied the door and fell out onto a bright yellow stone floor in a long, featureless yellow hallway.

“That wasn’t nearly seven minutes.” Allison stepped out and helped him up. “Ugh. Everything’s yellow,” she said, squinting. “Is this the nation of the mustard worshipers?”

“Pretty much. We’re about to join their cult.” Alyn fished around inside the closet and brought out a can of paint and a wide, bent looking brush. He handed Allison a rubber band and an ankle-length yellow smock. “Tie your hair back. They don’t clean anything here, just paint over the dirt. These janitorial ponchos will be perfect for hiding our missing arms.”

Allison looked unenthusiastic. “You’re going to paint me yellow, aren’t you?”

“Close your eyes.” Alyn quickly slopped Allison head to toe with yellow paint. “The denizens of Skreeank Proper worship a yellow god. They dye every part of their bodies yellow in reverence, even their teeth. If you walk by anyone on the staff don’t smile.”

“Not a problem,” said Allison, feeling sticky and irritated.

“My turn,” said Alyn, urgently.

“Absolutely,” said Allison. She took pleasure in glorping the viscous yellow paint all over his body.

“A little thick, isn’t it?” said Alyn, after a cough.

“Yeah, I hope we didn’t overdo it.”

“Help me push this,” said Alyn, wheeling a wide cart from the closet. “We’re going to paint over stains all the way to my dad’s cell.”

“What if the real janitor comes back?”

“Hopefully he won’t.” In a final touch, Alyn took some stray yellow rags out of the push cart and tied them around Allison’s head and his, hoping it might somehow seem fashionable to the Skreeankians.

“This will never work,” said Allison.

“Shh. Skreeankians are bald so we’ll need to cover up our hair. Just… stay lowish. Not too low, though.”

Allison’s heart pounded next to Alyn’s as they made their way down an extensive hallway. When they finally turned a corner they were greeted by the sight of hundreds of doors lining the walls on both sides of a long corridor.

“Does this look how you remember it…I mean, how it looked on the QLC?” asked Allison.

Alyn nodded. “Yeah, Dad’s cell should be around the next corner.”

“Crap!” Allison blurted as she noticed a yellow, four-armed man walking their direction. His monochrome appearance camouflaged him against the hallway. A strange rifle–also yellow–was slung on his shoulder.

“It’s a guard. Let me do the talking. I’m decent at the language…my dad and I have dealt with the Skreeankians for years,” whispered Alyn.

The bulky man in the yellow uniform squinted at the pair of janitors as he walked closer. Behind him, a yellow woman walked out of a doorway and sealed it shut with her four outstretched hands. She was wearing a uniform covered with dozens of pockets and pouches—another guard.

“Greetings Fruit!” said Alyn, in Skreeankian.

The male guard raised an eyebrow and stopped. He put one of his hands on the cart, halting the pair’s progress. “Are you two new here? You look a little young for this kind of work.”

“Uh…yes, new arrive. Muchly thanks.”

“What in yellow is wrong with you?” asked the annoyed guard.

The female guard walked closer and put two hands on the man’s shoulder. “Ease up, Hallin, don’t you remember the memo we got? The warden said the High Priest was going to transfer a few mentally disabled Skranks here from the temple to work menial jobs. The release order must have gone through.”

A look of disgust crossed Hallin’s face. “But Lallos, look at how thickly they’re painted! The only thing I hate worse than a Skrank is a fundamentalist Skrank. The temple has no business sending brain-dead zealots to a government facility!”

“Calm down, Hallin. They can’t help being stupid,” said Lallos, shining a condescending smile at Alyn. “Don’t blame these little fools for being overly religious…the feeble always seek comfort in the Lord’s mercy.”

Allison did her best not to look them in the eye or show her teeth. Her hands were shaking on the rail of the cart.

Hallin seemed to be getting angrier by the second. “They’re wearing rags on their damn heads, Lallos! If I have to look at these Skranks every day I’m going to end up killing one.”

Lallos kept grinning, her sharp yellow teeth on full display. She moved closer to Alyn. “Don’t fret little ones, he’s just cranky because he hasn’t had his splonty yet.”

Alyn nodded. “Don’t worries…praise yellow!”

“Praise yellow,” said Lallos. “Hey, I think there’s a big black stain at the end of the hall, why don’t you guys check it out?” She patted Alyn on his head rags.

Allison and Alyn resumed pushing the cart, when the male guard put his hand on Allison’s shoulder. She squeaked and froze up tightly.

“Hold up. The boy seems plenty stupid, but this one looks fine…if a little quiet. Turn around girl, you’re no Skrank,” said Hallin.

“Turn around,” whispered Alyn, leaning over to Allison. “Act disabled.”

Allison turned around slowly, feeling like she might pass out. The menacing guard grunted at her with clenched fists. Disabled? she wondered.

Allison rose her arms high in the air, revealing she only had a single pair beneath her smock. Alyn’s blood went cold.

Hallin’s eyes popped wide. He turned away and dry heaved as he leaned on the wall. “She’s a two armed freak! I think I’m going to be sick!”

“Are you happy now, moron?” asked Lallos, smugly. “Is she skranked enough for you now?”

“Just go, you invalids! Get out of my sight!” said Hallin, waving them along, trying not to vomit.

“I meant mentally disabled, but that worked,” whispered Alyn.

“I hate you,” said Allison. “I think my bladder emptied a little.”

“At least it’s yellow.”

Allison punched him hard in the arm as they rounded the next corner.

“Hey! Wait…this is it! My dad should be behind the sixth door down the hall,” said Alyn.

“The yellow door?” Allison sniggered.

They abandoned their janitorial cart and ran to the cell. There were no windows to let them look inside. “Dad’s not going to be able to hear us in there. Do you see those indentions for your fingers?”

Allison looked. “Yeah…whoa…those thumb holes are seriously bent. I don’t know if I can push mine so far back.”

“We have to try,” said Alyn.” He moved over and put his fingers in the ten notches on the left. With no shortage of grunting he finally maneuvered his thumbs into the slots. “Ahh…this sucks. Hurry! Do your side!”

Allison moved her hands over the indentions on the right. She forced a thumb into its hole. It hurt like hell but finally it slid inside the notch. When it came time for the next thumb she was at a loss. She used her teeth to bite her loose digit and push it into position. A loud clank sounded and the door split down the center.

“It worked! It’s opening!” said Alyn.

The door opened revealing a seven foot tall bipedal beast. It had several eyes on stalks and a mouth swirling with dripping tentacles. Its claws were gleaming, even brighter yellow than the hallway. It clomped out of the cell on grotesquely bent legs and growled.

“Is this your dad?” Allison asked Alyn. They backed off and flattened themselves against the opposite wall.

“Um, wrong door. Dad must be in the cell on this side of the isle, directly behind us.”

The algae colored prisoner quickly lost interest in his hapless rescuers and started shuffling down the hallway toward their janitorial cart. The monster flattened the cart like a tin can against the wall with one swipe of its grotesque hand. Yellow paint exploded everywhere.

After breathing a sigh of relief, Allison turned around and shoved her hands into the locks of the door they were leaning against. “This one, right? Hurry the hell up!”

Alyn jammed his hands in the indentations and the doors began to open. The steam cleared with a pneumatic hiss, revealing a heavy-set bald man, painted yellow from head to toe. He was sitting on a yellow bench reading a yellow book. He dropped the paperback and stood up slowly, looking dumbfounded as he stroked a hand through his thick yellow beard.

“Son? Thank Christ…that book was terrible. Struggle of the Atomic Heart my ass.”

“Dad!” Alyn ran up and hugged him tight, tears leaving streaks in his face paint. “You’re alive!”

“Yup, who’s the chick?”

“Samson Gold, meet Allison Anderson,” said Alyn with a smile.

Allison shook his hand, “Allison Anderson the Fifth.”

Samson smiled. “Clever girl.” He turned to Alyn. “This only took you five times to get right?”

“Not so much. Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Alyn. “Follow me.”

The trio ran down the hallway past the crumpled cart, heading back the way they came. They skidded around the corner and saw the two guards they had passed earlier pointing their rifles at the hulking inmate they had inadvertently liberated. The creature let out an ear splitting scream.

“Not this way,” said Samson.

“Hold on,” said Alyn.

The olive green convict lunged at the guards and smashed them both against the wall before they could fire. Thick paws hammered against the Skreeankians’ heads until they slid down the wall to the stone floor, unconscious. The creature turned and stared at Alyn then gave him a friendly wave.

“Oh, he’s cool. Let’s follow him,” said Alyn. The group tentatively followed the hulking alien as it lumbered along the hallway. Samson stole a rifle from one of the unconscious guards,

“How do we get back to the embassy?” asked Allison.

“We’ll have to blast our way out,” said Samson. “Just as soon as I can figure out how to fire a four handed rifle. Christ!”

“Dad, forget it,” said Alyn. “The livery should be close to where we warped inside the prison. Once there, we can steal a patrol ship. After that, it’s just a couple hours back to the embassy’s warp door.”

“A couple hours? Won’t they catch up with us? We’re fugitives!” said Allison.

Alyn shrugged. “That’s the best I can do!”

“Should have thought this through a little better, boy,” said Samson.

“Seriously? Do you know how hard I’ve—hey, what’s he doing?”

The green beast had stopped moving and was staring directly at the wall. It let out a strange gurgle.

“Do you know this guy?” Alyn asked his father.

“No, but I know of him. His name’s Bill. His home planet, Pirn, is a major resource for pharmaceuticals throughout the galaxy. I know a bit of his people’s language”

“Bill?” asked Allison, dumbfounded.

Without warning, their green friend smashed directly through the rock wall and began attacking the surprised guards stationed on the other side.

“Duck!” yelled Samson, pushing down Allison and Alyn as gunfire rang out. Only Bill was left standing when the smoke cleared. His expression remained indefinable. He waved again.

“Friendly little murder monster,” said Allison, shaking her head.

Bill gurgled a series of wet hacks and Samson nodded.

“What’s he saying?” asked Allison, watching as the beast smashed through more rock.

“He told me to tell the ‘little worms’ thanks for letting him out,” said Samson as he waved away the dust and went through the new hole in the wall.

“Well, this has been a lucky fuck-up,” said Alyn. Allison nodded in agreement.

“We’re in the evidence room,” said Samson, looking around. “Bill’s ship should be in here.” The ‘room’ was a humongous natural cavern, lined with row after row of tall steel racks covered in brass boxes and strange looking objects. Massive stalactites covered in lights were hanging from the ceiling.

Bill gurgled again.

“Bill says his ship is probably in the impound bay. He says if we can find some fresh cells to power his gravity drive he’ll let us tag along,” said Samson, examining the rifle he’d taken. “Alyn, take Allie and search the racks over there. Do you remember what a Series TP power cell looks like?”

Alyn nodded.

“Find at least five cells then meet us at the north end of the cavern,” Samson pointed ahead of him then threw the weird rifle over to his son. “Have the girl help you shoot this thing if you run into any opposition.”

“Okay!” Alyn grabbed the split-stocked gun out of the air and looked at Allison. “The power cells look exactly like a roll of toilet paper. Follow me.”

“Series TP. Please tell me that’s a joke,” groaned Allison.

“It is.”

“My god…this is just the evidence room? This place is huge! How many prisoners are in this place?” asked Allison, rubbernecking.

“Around 59,000,” said Alyn. “The complex stretches for miles.”

“Well, I won’t bad-mouth your brain guy anymore. His math was on-point,” said Allison. “We could have been searching this place for weeks.”

“These rack are chock full of batteries…the TP cells should be here somewhere!” said Alyn, getting frustrated as they ran down the aisles.

“There, that looks like butt wipe at the end of that row!” said Allison, pointing. As they hurried to the stack of TP they heard loud footsteps clomping on stone. “Alyn, look out!”

Alyn stopped in his tracks. A few yards away two angry looking yellow guards were rushing towards them holding sparking batons aloft. “Hey, you two, stop right there! Why are you here?” yelled one of them.

“I don’t think I need that translated,” said Allison.

“Get beside me!” shouted Alyn, as he brought the gun off of his shoulder. “Here, you hold the top, I’ll hold the bottom. We have to squeeze all four of these triggers at the same time.”

“I’m not killing anyone, Alyn!” protested Allison.

“It’s a stun gun. It won’t hurt them…much.”

Allison quickly grabbed the gun as Alyn instructed, bending her body into an awkward pose. She put her fingers near the triggers on the back of the long rifle as Alyn put his digits through loops on either side of the barrel.

“I’m ready!” said Allison.

“Ready…fire!” yelled Alyn. The gun unleashed a huge burst of flame that engulfed the racks ahead of them, making several rows of batteries explode in a violent chain reaction.

“Shit!” Alyn threw away the gun and flattened to the stone floor beside Allison as the yellow guards ran off in terror, their uniforms smoldering. A few seconds later the explosions abated.

“Stun gun?” asked Allison, coughing through the smoke.

“I guess not,” said Alyn, dropping the weapon. “Why the hell would that guard be carrying incendiary rounds?”

Allison walked up grabbed an armful of TP cells. “These are a little scorched, but I think they’re okay, let’s go!”

A shrill siren began to sound all through the cavern. Yellow lights on the edge of every rack ignited and began swirling. “Shit, we better hurry,” said Alyn. He sprinted with Allison through the cavern with the TP until they heard Samson shouting for them.

“Over here!”

Allison ran up and Samson grabbed the power cells out of her arms. He handed the batteries to Bill one at a time. The monster used his huge claws to open a panel on his ship and inserted each cell with surprising dexterity.

“This can’t be his ship,” said Allison. Bill’s ride looked like an over-sized peach pit with a pair of huge jet engines poking out the end.

“It’ll do the job,” said Samson. A hatch opened up from the side of the lumpy craft as it powered up with a piercing hum. Bill scurried inside and moved behind the ship’s yoke.

“Get in there, you two,” ordered Samson. Alyn and Allison dove into Bill’s ship without argument. A dozen armed guards rushed the craft as Samson hurried up the ramp. Yellow plasma blasts collided against the pit, leaving deep gashes in its dirt-brown hull.

“I can’t believe we’re going to make a break for it inside a glorified walnut shell,” said Allison as she sat down on a small ridge of wood jutting from wall. “Is this even a seat?” she asked Samson.

“Yes,” said Samson as he sat on a protuberance beside Bill. “Tie those ropes around your waist, girl…this ride could get bumpy.”

“Freaking ropes?!” said Allison, tying an overhand knot around her waist.

“It’s better than nothing. Okay, Maybe not…just try not to think about it,” said Alyn, shuddering as an explosion rattled the side of the ship. “Shit, the Skreeankians are pissed.”

The ship’s engines roared to life and it lifted into the air, promptly colliding with the stalactites on the cavern’s ceiling. “Nice job, Bill, you hung us up on the rafters!” complained Samson.

Bill belched a response and pulled a long lever beside him. The ship’s engines flared, making the hull reverberate as he attempted to pull free from the rocks. Sharp cracks echoed through the cave as some nearby stalactites began to shatter. Allison gritted her teeth and cringed.

“Don’t worry,” said Alyn, full of worry.

“Stop telling me not to worry!” screamed Allison.

Bill hacked and hocked as he finally broke free from the crumbling stalactites. A sharpened boulder larger than a Buick ripped from the ceiling and crashed to the floor. The Skreeankian security team below scrambled away from the shattering slivers of rock, buying Bill some time to correct his course.

“Bill says we’re going through an air vent directly above us. There should be just enough room to squeeze through. Hold on,” said Samson, struggling to tie a rope around his substantial middle.

The pit ship tilted and rocketed upward, smashing through a yellow vent covering. Allison felt her stomach lurch and her head spin. She grabbed on to Alyn tight. “I’m going to close my eyes now. If we survive, let me know.”

Alyn held Allison close as the ship scraped through the vent. His teeth were rattling from the vibration. A loud blast sounded a few seconds later–then everything went quiet.

Alyn and Allison opened their eyes, clinging to each other until the pit stopped shaking. “I think we survived,” said Alyn.

Samson turned around with a laugh and clapped his hands together once. “We made it! We’re out of Skreeank’s orbit.” He stumbled over and hugged Alyn and Allison tight. “Good job, kids! I can’t thank you enough for busting me out of there.” He patted Allison on the back. “You got some real heart, Allie.”

“You’re…you’re welcome, Sir,” squeaked Allison, still white. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she hated that nickname.

Bill gurgled again. Samson scooted beside him. “What’s that, Bill?”

More gurgling.

“Oh, I see,” said Samson, lifting a bushy eyebrow.

“What’s he saying?” asked Alyn.

“Well, ol’ Bill here says he’s a little hungry after all that action. He was wondering if he could eat one of our legs to hold him over till the next port.”

“What?!” Allison clamped her hands around her mouth to keep from screaming.

“Yeah. Bill says he’d prefer one of the girl’s legs, but he isn’t picky,” said Samson. “He’s says it’s the least we can do.”

“Why didn’t he just eat one of those guard’s legs?” asked Allison, appalled.

Bill gurgled excitedly.

Samson shook his head in disgust, “What, you think poor Bill here is some kind of a savage? He says he’s going to use his world-famous spice rub on your leg then slow roast it to perfection. I’m not sure which world.”

“Dad, we’re not giving him one of Allison’s legs,” said Alyn, flatly.

“I know, I know…hold on,” whispered Samson. He began to gurgle some soggy words to Bill.

Bill nodded and hacked out a wet response.

“I asked Bill to give us a little tour of his amazing ship before he prepares his snack,” said Samson, standing up. “He said he’d love to show us around.”

Alyn leaned closer to Allison. “Dad’s got something up his sleeve, don’t—”

“Don’t say ‘don’t worry,’ ever again!” interrupted Allison, with a hushed yell.

The pit ship wasn’t much bigger than a motor home you might find on one of Earth’s highways. Bill gurgled on and on, pointing to things on the walls, seemingly proud of every gadget, indentation and crank. Everyone feigned incredible interest.

“Really? How fascinating,” said Samson in Bill’s language as they made their way to the back of the ship. “What’s this again?” he asked, pointing to a small, circular door.

Bill opened the hatch and bubbled on about some features.

“Escape pod, huh. Can you show us how it works?” asked Samson in Gurglish then English, so the kids could understand him.

Bill folded his bulky body into a tiny seat in the escape pod and slorped out some words.

“So, you just pull that handle huh? And I assume this red button is so an outside operator can launch the pod?” asked Samson in both languages.

“Oh god,” said Allison with a nervous gasp.

“Only if you unlock it from the control panel near the yoke you say?” Samson looked at his son with wide eyes.

Alyn got the message and sneaked to the front of the ship. He started flipping switches until the lights on the escape pod blazed red. “That’s it!” he yelled.

“Eat this!” Samson kicked a shrieking Bill backwards then slammed his hand on a red plunger above the door. The pod launched with a pop and began spiraling into space away from the ship. Allison screamed as the vacuum created by the gaping hole threatened to suck her out of the hull. Samson–grasping tight to a wooden beam above his head–used his free hand to grab Allison’s shirt until the airlock finally sealed itself. She trembled as her feet finally touched down to the steel grating.

Alyn ran up from the front of the ship and steadied Allison. “Oh my god. Are you alright?”

“Yeah…I think so,” said Allison, straightening herself.

Samson smiled. “Whoops, should have told you to step back a little, Sigourney.”

“You’re as much of a maniac as your son,” said Allison.

“What?” asked Samson and Alyn simultaneously with innocent looks plastered on their faces.

“So, what’s going to happen to Bill?” asked Alyn, feeling a touch guilty.

“A Skreeankian patrol will undoubtedly pick up his pod. Good riddance. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer about that leg of yours,” said Samson, putting his hand on Allison’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m not ready to rock a peg leg yet,” said Allison.

Samson returned to the front of the ship. After wiping off the ‘seat,’ he sat in front of the ship’s yoke and punched a few buttons. He looked back at Alyn and sighed. “Please tell me my spaceship’s not still sitting somewhere on Skreeank.”

“Nope, it’s moored on Proxima Centauri B outside of the Culinary Dome,” said Alyn, as Allison walked up and sat on the other side of him.

“You snuck onto the planet through the embassy of vittles?” Samson laughed. “Genius!”

Allison noticed the yellow paint starting to flake off her hands. “Ugh, I’ll never ask for lemon in my water again.” She stared out at the void through one of the pit’s oblong portals. “How long will it take to get back to the platform?”

“Luckily, Bill’s ship has a singularity drive,” said Samson. The ship lurched hard and vibrated for a few seconds. “Annnd…we’re here. Damn, this little peach pit has one hell of an engine.”

“I know Bill wanted to eat part of me, but I kind of feel bad for him,” said Allison.

“Don’t,” said Samson. “I looked up Bill’s criminal record on the ship’s console. He was chewing through legs all over the galaxy before the Skreeankians locked him up.”

“Gross,” said Allison. The pit’s ramp opened and she stepped out into the fresh air on the platform. “Whew, it smells like rotten peanut butter in that thing.” She was elated to see the oversized Christmas ornament they had arrived in was still moored nearby. “Won’t the Skreeankians be after us too? We’re fugitives.”

Alyn nodded. “Yeah. We’re going to have to lay low for awhile and hope our trail stays cold. Don’t wo…” He paused, catching himself. “Have no fear….they’re not going to bother checking a backwoods planet like Earth. You’ll be safe.”

“What…you’re just going to take me home now?” asked Allison, crestfallen. Samson displayed a sympathetic smile as he stepped in front of her and held out his hand.

“I can’t thank you enough, Allie. I don’t think Alyn could have pulled off that rescue without your help.” Samson shook her hand.

“It’s Allison….and you’re welcome,” she said, still unsure how she truly felt about the man. “Thanks for saving me, as well.”

Samson turned to Alyn. “I’ve been yellow for weeks. I’m going to head over to the dome and take a long shower. How about I meet up with you both at the greasy spoon on the ground floor in about an hour?”

“Sounds good, Dad,” said Alyn. “I’m glad you’re back. I still can’t believe it…I think I’m in shock.”

Samson ruffled Alyn’s hair. “You done good, boy.” He turned and clomped away toward the chrome-covered dome. The rising sun sent streaks of orange and purple light across its silver curves.

Allison looked confused. “I thought this was a facility for culinary exploration, not a glorified truck stop.”

Alyn laughed. “The facility caters to travelers. I suppose the ground floor would be akin to a ‘Flying J.'”

“Still, the actual restaurant here must be incredible,” said Allison, her stomach rumbling.

Alyn shook his head. “Ironically, no…think truck stop again.”

“Really? At the Culinary Dome?” said Allison, disappointed. “Oh well. I’d eat anything at this point. That tablet you gave me is wearing off.”

“They do have a decent cheeseburger there.”

“Really?”

“Well, they’re called something else, but same concept.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Allison. “Your dad is a lot more…rugged…than I was expecting.”

“I know. He despises ‘nerds.’ Isn’t that funny? He’s a walking contradiction in every way. He definitely has a…challenging…personality, but he’s still my dad.”

“He saved my leg and my life. I shouldn’t have called him a maniac.”

Alyn laughed. “I think it made him respect you, actually.” He tugged at his yellow clothes and listened to the thick paint crack and crinkle. “Ugh, I could use a shower too.”

“Want to take one together?” asked Allison with a perfect poker face.

Alyn swallowed hard. “Excuse me?”

After pre-paying for some time in the washroom, Alyn and Allison walked into their rented stall together–still wearing their clothes–and let the water jets in the circular chamber hit their bodies. A ridiculous amount of yellow pigment flooded off of them and swirled down the drain. After sharing a round of laughter, Allison bit her lip and took off her shirt. Alyn did the same.

“Are our sashes waterproof?” asked Allison.

“Yes,” said Alyn, feeling faint.

They moved closer and helped remove the rest of each other’s clothing carefully, leaving just the straps on their bodies.

The shower turned out to be an exercise in incredible restraint. When their time ran out and the spigots went dry, the pair stepped out and dressed in cheap clothing with indecipherable logos they had purchased from the gift shop. They were both blushing uncontrollably.

“I mean, it’s only our first date,” asked Alyn. “We shouldn’t push things too far…right?”

“Right,” said Allison half-heartedly.

They collided together and began to kiss passionately. They were taking their clothes back off when a bell sounded and the room went black–their allotted time in the washroom had run out. Laughing, they collected their wet clothes in a shopping bag and hurried past a perturbed bi-pedal rhinoceros holding a scrub brush.

They went back outside the ‘truck stop’ area and leaned on the wall, holding hands while watching the parade of strange beings filter in and out of the dome. “It took awhile, but I’m not frightened of this place anymore. I’m not ready to leave,” she said with a sigh. “This really sucks.”

“I know, but it’s not safe for you to stay right now. We’re already wanted on two worlds and there’s no telling how many other planetary systems my dad’s pissed off. After I get a handle on his misdeeds I’ll come back for you. I promise our second date won’t have any strings attached…if you want a second date, I mean.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Allison, grinning.

Alyn looked at his watch. “We better go find Dad before he orders a pizza.”

“But I like pizza.”

“Well, just think about how the quality of pizza degrades as you move west from New York to California…then add a few billion miles.”

“Oh, yuck. Yeah, let’s go.”

Murdar Dar gave Alyn and Allison and nod as they went back inside the dome and proceeded to the modest diner. When they arrived, Alyn’s father was no where to be found. He wasn’t sitting in one of the booths or at the lunch counter. “Oh no.”

“What’s wrong? Where is he?” asked Allison, as a Hurmian waitress looked at them in confusion.

Alyn ran out of the diner and back outside as Allison chased him. “Tell me what’s going on?!”

Alyn skidded to a stop in front of the bay where he had originally parked the spaceship. It was empty. “Goddamn it…no!” He fell to his knees and pounded his fists on the silver platform.

“Alyn?” Allison sank down beside him, already knowing what had happened.

“The bastard left me…again. After all we did to save him! He didn’t even bother to say goodbye.” Alyn stood up slowly, his eyes clamped closed and his teeth gritted.

Allison’s phone started buzzing. She picked it up and gasped. “It’s for you…somehow your dad left a message on my phone.”

“What?” Alyn grabbed the phone gently and looked at the text.

Sorry Son, but it’s not just those dirty Skranks that are after me…I’m afraid I’m in deeper trouble than you know. My rush to cure my disease led me down some roads that were highly questionable and mostly illegal. I don’t want your life wrapped up in my past mistakes so please don’t come looking for me. You have your own path to travel and your own destiny to discover. I’ll see you again one day…I promise. Don’t bother replying, I’ve already ditched this phone.

-Dad.

P.S. Take Allison home in the pit ship…or don’t. Let her decide. I like her a lot.

“Dad,” said Alyn, lowering the phone. He took a deep breath and handed the phone back to Allison, forcing a smile. “He’ll be alright.”

Allison’s eyes suddenly filled with terror. She grabbed on to Alyn. “I don’t want to disappear!”

“Allison, what’s wrong?” Alyn realized both of their straps had severed and were lying on the ground in front of them. “Don’t wor…panic! You’re not going to disappear. Remember what I told you?”

Allison held to Alyn tighter. “Right…okay, I remember now.”

“It just means our breadcrumb trail’s gone. No more resets.”

“We’re not going to forget anything that’s happened, right?”

“No. The earlier versions of ourselves at the beginning of our shared timeline will get to review the QLC and act accordingly. They’ll see what happened to us up until the moment the straps fell off. As for us…well, we’re moving forward into uncharted territory with only our memories to guide us, just like every one else in the universe.

“Good. I’d rather keep my memories than have the false sense of security.” Allison looked up at the stars and smiled. “I can’t imagine how we…they…are going to react to the video footage on the QLC.”

“Let me tell you, it’s fairly mind blowing to review the tape,” said Alyn, picking up the sashes.

“Yeah, but was there any footage of us sharing a shower last time you watched?” asked Allison.

Alyn blushed again. “No. Oh my god. Awkward.”

Allison shook her head and snickered. “Why did our straps fall off, anyway?”

“Dad must have disconnected the latches remotely.”

“Why?”

Alyn shrugged. “I don’t think he wants me to attempt any more do-overs. The QLC will show my former self that we freed Dad, but it will also show that he asked I not come looking for him again. He wants me to start living my own life, not keep worrying about his.”

“No more Groundhog Daying,” said Allison with a grin. “I’m glad your dad disabled the straps. I wouldn’t want to forget this night. Although, I guess one version of me did…but…ugh, it still makes my head hurt.”

“I know,” said Alyn, with a smile. He kissed Allison tenderly. “You were absolutely heroic tonight.”

“Yeah, but I also went to second-base in a shower with a guy I barely know.”

Alyn laughed as their embrace broke. “Truly, your bravest feat.”

Allison looked at the pit ship. “So, I guess this is ours now, right?”

“For all intents and purposes,” said Alyn. “I bet you anything Dad left the access card in the ignition.” After a little bit of searching he found the knob that engaged the pit ship’s hatch and lowered the ramp. After climbing inside they saw the access card was indeed still in its slot.

“Can you fly a walnut?” asked Allison.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.”

“At least it’s aired-out a little in here,” said Allison. “Or maybe it was your dad that smelled like peanut butter?” She picked up something sitting on one of the stubby seats–a crystal sphere with a small cube at its center, pulsating with violet light. “What’s this? It’s pretty.”

Alyn gasped and grabbed it. “Holy shit.”

“What?”

“That’s stabilized Astatine, the rarest element in the universe! It’s worth a fortune.”

“Whoa. Hey, there’s a note stuck to the bottom,” said Allison, pulling it off.

Alyn carefully plucked off the pink sticky-note and read it.

Son, this cube is pure Astatine, stripped out of that artifact I ganked from the skranks. Thankfully, the dopes never realized what had been hidden inside their stupid reliquary so they won’t miss what I extracted. I was able to smuggle it off-planet with a trusted associate before the bastards threw me in a cell. After my buddy fenced his share of the cube he stored what was left in a security box on Kepler-186f. Seeing as it was just gathering dust, I’ve decided to pass it your way.

As soon as we touched down together I ordered a courier to transfer the cube here, to the Culinary Dome. I knew it’d take about an hour for it to arrive…thus the long shower. After you cash in this little baby, ditch Bill’s pit then pick up something fast for you and Allison to tool around the galaxy in. Have fun.

“Sneaky son of a…” said Alyn, smiling. “Once we hock this Astatine we won’t have to worry about cash for a long time.”

“I don’t want to be a downer but that’s stolen property,” said Allison. “Shouldn’t we give it back?”

“When the Skreeankians caught my dad with the artifact, they didn’t realize he had already hollowed out the Astatine core. Dad says they didn’t notice a difference once the object was back in their hands…at least not yet.”

“Won’t they come after us if they figure it out?”

“They’re already after us. Besides, the cube’s clean…in contains no trace of the artifact. It’s all good-ish.”

Allison slide behind the yoke of the pit ship. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”

Alyn raised an eyebrow. “I thought I was taking you back home?”

“Like hell you are,” said Allison, shaking her head. “I’m about to take a semester abroad…way abroad. Are you coming with me?”

“Of course!” said Alyn, beaming. “Are you sure you want to try and fly this thing, though? It can be a little tricky.”

“I’m a quick study, remember?”

“What about your black belt uncle? Won’t he come after me?”

“Maybe. Better watch your ass.”

Alyn sat beside Allison as she activated the peach pit’s thrusters and rocketed away from the gleaming platform. Together, they launched toward infinite possibilities as the Culinary Dome on Proxima Centauri b shrank in the distance.

“Where are you taking me?” asked Alyn.

Don’t worry,” said Allison, with a sly grin.

END

 

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