It was 1986 and life on Arth was good, for the most part—both moons colonized, two centuries without war, and a space program bursting with planetary designs on a habitable neighbor. They were doing quite well, for hominids. I still have a great fondness for your kind, despite what you did to me… but no, this isn’t my story. I want to tell you my story, believe me; it’s what I was born to do. But I can’t. Not yet. Wouldn’t be fair.
This story is about Arth: a lovely blue planet under a young sun.
And Murton V. Klapp: my leading human.
Why him? Because without Murton Klapp I never would have gotten to tell my story. And let’s be honest, my story is much more important, I think you’ll agree. But Murton deserves to have his told first, so you can at least understand why he did what he did.
He found me. When no one else could, when many had tried and failed, he discovered me. After countless millennia of waiting, my throat hoarse from calling out in the black, he heard me.
Now, would I have chosen him? Out of all the billions of galaxies and trillions of stars and schmazillions of people?
Ehhh… probably not.
He was, what most humans would call, an asshole. But since I have neither ass nor hole, I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment, or judge. He was looking for me, just as I was looking for him, without either one of us realizing we were searching at all.
Murt was a human, which is to say he had his flaws. Since I’m flawless myself, again I can’t comment, at least not from personal experience, but I’ve seen it time and again: races riddled with wounds they can’t see. Not at first anyway, not until they fester and bubble up in all sorts of drama. But intelligent beings learn. And Murton Klapp, for all his faults, learned.
So I reckon it’s only fitting that we begin at the foot of his educational arc. Not at the start, you don’t have the time for that, but I feel I must do him justice by giving you a taste of the grit before the gravy. He would want that.
He once told me that his life had been ripped at the seams for years before our encounter, but this moment I’m about to describe was the true beginning of his unraveling. To him, this was the falling apart. But to me, it’s more like the first glimpse of a harbor at the end of a long, landless voyage.
So. Like I said, it was 1986. Murt was in his office, glaring at a great midden of unattended paperwork. It sprawled to the edges of his mahogany desk like some vanilla beast marking its territory. Its eyes were scrunched-up balls of ignored rocket fuel invoices. Its teeth were tax forms, power bills, his employees’ resignation letters, and in their midst, holed with cigarette burns, was the latest offer—a business purchase contract, awaiting his signature.
He stabbed his cigarette into the name of the purchasing party like some crazed peckerbird, then snatched up the offer and thrust it into the zip-teeth of his shredder. It vanished, and Murt was feeling rather accomplished in its absence.
But then the power bills drifted over the desk toward him, circling, whispering. Pay me, they said. Paaaay meeee.
He shoved them away and hurried to the Caffeinator. As it burbled and steamed, he flicked open yesterday’s newspaper and gave it the old up and down, the quick west to east. There was new work on the skyway, a new idiot on the city council, a new station on Umbra. But Murt had no time for the new; not with this old mountain of bills to take care of. So, he dropped the paper, seized his mug of scalding tar, and returned to the desk, ready to excavate.
The power bills never stood a chance. Printed on premium paper, they took a few minutes to digest, but they vanished all the same. Murt patted the shredder like it was a pig crunching bones. “Pace yourself,” he said.
He lit another cigarette and smoked for a while, reading Gemmin’s resignation letter. The turncoat booshwakker, as Murt had taken to calling him; the latest of his pilots to jump ship for the opposition. But at least Gemmin had had the decency to resign, not just saunter off like all the others. Still, into the belly of ol’ gnasher it went.
The next one made him pause. This was the punchcard of Dackard Broose, his senior employee, and Rubbish Rockets’ most experienced pilot. A good, reliable man, if getting on in years.
Was this too much? Too far?
Murt was a fan of the act-now-think-later approach ever in vogue among humans. He pushed the timesheet into the ravenous machine. Broose was probably going to quit anyway.
And as the timesheet of old Broosey sank into the coiling haze of cigarette smoke, Murt was disappointed to find it hadn’t made him as happy as he thought it would. Hm. Shredding wasn’t doing the trick then. It was a nice high, but fleeting, always chased by that annoying stab of remorse. He needed something else, some other way to scatter the pigeons.
At times like this, he was glad his office was full of distractions.
He shot to his feet, stalked around the desk to walls packed with shelves, shelves packed with glowing display cases, cases packed with models of rockets, space stations, satellites, probes. Those who dared refer to them as toys were swiftly subjected to excessive ridicule and encouraged to find the door before the door found them. These models were limited edition. Mint condition scale replicas, not to be touched. Ever. He gazed upon the silver fish of the Sygnus, Arth’s first interplanetary liner. But it wasn’t his models he needed right now, nor the bookshelves stacked with every Herman Sabre novel, all the Captain Jim Milligan adventures; Murt’s longstanding fictive oasis. It was his vinyl collection that compelled him this particular evening. He pulled out an old favorite. Esperella Rains by Alvis. Classic stuff. Soul-salving ear chocolate.
He eased the record from its sleeve, its oily grooves like the rings of a dark planet. He gave it a quick blow and placed it on the turntable. The phonograph, like most of his favorite things, was an antique. A walnut and brass masterwork. He lowered the stylus into the groove and the music began, a deep jumping beat, alive and punching. Then came the banjo, now the fiddle. Foot tapping, fingers a-clicking, Murt turned it up. Sound waves rattled the cases and he hopped and shimmied back to the desk, where he danced around the paperwork.
I know what I need, he thought. A shower. This will take no time at all once I’m clean and clear-headed.
Forty-five minutes later, the door behind his desk swung open and steam billowed forth. Alvis was still belting it out, finishing strong on the final chorus of the album when the pale, hairy form of Murt Klapp emerged from the hot cloud like an alien from a landed saucer, toweling its nethers with unrestrained enthusiasm.
The office door opened, and for an instant the ripping whoosh of rocket engines drowned out the music. Todd Berringer trickled in.
“Ahoy!” shouted Murt.
Todd cringed at the sight of Murt’s dangling awfuls. Poor awkward Todd. A small human with the look of well-beaten dough, something not quite done yet. Even his beard was apologetic fluff, clearly intimidated by Murt’s glorious and symmetrical mustache of the intrepid explorer.
“What’s the scuttlebutt, Todd?”
Todd closed the door against the roar of the yard and the heady waft of fuel. Murt breathed in the citrusy scent. He loved that smell like he loved his office—his sound-proofed sanctuary. A shipping container it once may have been, its outer skin still bearing the scars of a previous life hauling ingots to the moons, but on the inside it was reincarnated with teak-paneled walls, a crystal chandelier, a definitely-not-fake Thumerian rug, and a half-inch sonic barrier; enough to dim even the cluster thrusters of the Harrowbird. Worth every penny.
Todd wiped engine grease from his fingers with a rag held together by engine grease. His pink face glistened with sweat. “That’s me done for the night,” he said. “The ‘bird is on a half tank. Vagrant’s on autofill, should be ready for the AM, but we really shouldn’t fly it again till we get those stabilizers replaced. I put a new ladder on the ‘bird this morning, so that’s one less thing. Oh, and Pad Six is out ‘til we get more scrubbers. Last launch almost set it on fire.”
Murt worked the corner of the towel into his ear. “How’s our gas?”
Todd shook his head.
Moving on, thought Murt. “So, you’ll be in for the morning jump?”
Todd rubbed his fingers through the rag. “Can’t take the morning.”
“I told you,” Todd said quickly. “I’m driving to Scarva to pick up the coolant valves.”
“Whatever, I’ll take it with Broose.” Murt ignored the ghostly reproach of the shredded timesheet. “Higgs is on for the afternoon then; we’ve got that load from the refinery.”
Todd shrugged. “He’s scheduled, but still on leave.”
Crud, that’s right. The silly old bugger had broken his wrist climbing down from the Harrowbird a week ago. That ladder had been loose for months, and now a Workplace Incident Reimbursement application lurked somewhere in the shredder fodder. And it could stay there.
Murt threw the towel over the back of his chair. He pulled a pair of trousers, neatly pressed, from the drawers behind his desk.
Todd sat in the leather chair as Murt covered himself. “Did Raff make another offer yet?”
“No,” Murt lied. “No letter, no word. The Farser goche must have finally gotten the point.”
Todd hung his head. “We should have taken his last one.”
Murt tucked his shirt and reached for the waistcoat, tired of this old conversation. “We’re not selling out.”
“Better than being frozen out.”
Murt raised a hand. “If he calls, I’ll negotiate. That’s all I’m promising.”
And of course, right then, the phone rang.
Murt looked at it.
Todd reached for it.
Murt pounced on it. “Rubbish Rockets, you dump it, we hump it.”
The voice on the other end was wearing a suit, a very expensive suit. Sounded like a tight silver tie, and pinstripe trousers stretched over a fat ass. It said, “We do not have to be in opposition, you and I.”
Murt sniffed. “Veira? You sound awful. You haven’t taken up smoking and overeating, have you?”
There was a chink of ice on delicate glass, as the voice probably imbibed something expensive. A mythic vintage, kept in a crystal decanter. Then a loud swallow and the sigh of someone utterly submerged in wellbeing. The bastard.
“Very droll, Mister Klapp, very droll indeed. I celebrate a keen sense of humor in my business partners.”
Murt swiveled away from Todd’s expectant stare, wrapping the cord around himself. “I’m sure you do, and I’m sure you’d appreciate all my inventory and local savvy too, as you appreciate my pilots, eh?”
“Great negotiation,” Todd muttered.
Murt slapped the air over his shoulder. Raff’s voice was honey, thick and sticky in his ear. “Mister Klapp, you wound me. I make you an offer and you think me naive.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re naive,” Murt said. “I think you’re a conniving Farser, born with a silver fork in his ass, gagging on a superiority complex that forces him to shit all over the small business owners, the real entrepreneurs, you fly over to our hemisphere and think you can just buy up whatever you see. Well, the day I sell my business to the likes of you is the day I start walking backwards and talking Farser.”
When Raff stopped chuckling, he said, “I am offering you dignity, Mister Klapp. Reject the offer if you like, but think of your family. In less than a month I won’t have to buy your little business. I will wait for the last fleas to hop off, then make good use of those pads.”
Murt twisted the wire around his knuckles. “Rubbish Rockets is mine.”
“Everything changes,” Raff said. “Accept the offer, keep your name, we can work together.” He sipped and licked his lips. “Or don’t.”
By now Murt had so much of the cord in his fist that he was hunched forward, his nose inches from the dial. “I would rather live the rest of my life on Farside, with your tiny moon and your pasty kin than see my creation in your porky digits.”
Raff hung up, still chuckling.
Murt untangled himself.
“So,” Todd said, “how did that go?”
Murt produced a cigarette from his waistcoat. The lighter flicked once, twice. No spark, so he flung it at the wall. It clanged off the iron lockers by his desk.
“Here,” Todd said. Murt snatched the lighter and lit up. Todd didn’t smoke, never had, yet always had a light. As Murt often reminded him, you can’t spell Todd without odd.
Murt took a good long drag and pocketed the lighter. “So that was Raff on the phone just now. We negotiated.”
“You know,” Todd said, still wiping grease from his hands, “when we started this business, we said it was for the good of the city. We were cleaning it up, making things better.”
“That’s right,” said Murt. “It was a good idea. It was our idea. Not his.”
“Murt, we’re broke. We have no pilots. Part of business is knowing when to cut losses and quit.”
“Todd,” said Murt, sitting back in his chair, “if your toes itched, you’d cut your leg off.”
Todd ran a filthy hand through his curls. “Did Mikkel come speak to you this morning?”
Murt raised his eyes. “No, why?”
“Well, I saw him after he punched out, walking out the gate with his flightsuit over his shoulder. I was at the shed, said I’d see him tomorrow and he just laughed. Did he tell you he was leaving?”
“Must have forgotten,” Murt said, and started sifting through the pile for Hans Mikkel’s timesheet. He found it, and set about crushing it into a very, very tiny ball. The tireless shredder strained and choked, but managed to get it down. “There we go,” said Murt, rubbing his hands together.
“We can’t just short him his last paycheck,” Todd said. “It’s bad juju.”
Murt glanced at the shredder, then to his old friend. “If I had my way, they’d all be shoved into the compactor and jettisoned with the next load.”
“If there is one,” Todd said.
Murt waved him off. “And don’t give me this juju stuff, alright? Good or bad, it doesn’t exist. And before you say it, neither does your flouncy-wouncy cosmic retribution or fate or destiny or any of that inevitable consequence booshwa you go in for. Quitters don’t get paid.”
“Forget juju then,” said Todd. “It’s bad business. He’ll go to the Standards Bureau and then we’ll really be in the shlap.”
Murt refilled his coffee. “To huck with the Bureau,” he snapped. “Bunch of shoulder-perching knobs.”
Todd gave a sad little head-shake. “This is what I’m talking about, we used to be in this for the good, Murt. Now you’re just bitter and I’m just tired.”
Murt slammed his hand down, splashing coffee and cigarette sparks across the desk. “Then go home and stop whining to me about it.”
Todd stood, pocketing his rag. “You should go home.”
“Should I,” Murt said, pretending to scrutinize an upside-down tax form.
Todd walked away. He paused at the Gateway Gazette article framed by the door. ‘Radical graduates clean up’ was the headline, with a big half-page photo of them both standing proud on Pad One in front of the Harrowbird, their first rocket. They had those stupid wavy hairstyles of the seventies, wore big smiles and fine suits, and had a hand on the other’s shoulder. Rad Grads forever.
“Just promise me, Murt. You aren’t working the yard solo again.”
Murt found a pen and clicked it. “You think I have time for launches with all this shlap to wade through?”
Todd nodded. “You’re not alone, you know.”
Murt scribbled nonsense into the margin of a resignation letter. “We’re all alone, Todd. All of us alone together, floating on this ball through empty space, and so far the evidence strongly suggests that if we have any bright neighbors, they damn sure have the good sense to stay away.”
Todd looked like he was going to say something, then faced the door.
“Oh, and Todd.”
Todd turned, hand on the latch.
Murt lifted a shopping bag from a drawer. “Drop this off at my place.”
Todd walked back and accepted the bulging bag with weary resignation. “More toys?”
Murt shot him a glance. “Just drop it off.”
“Don’t you think he’d rather see his father?”
Murt stared at his oldest and only friend. “Don’t give me that,” he said. “Not you. I get enough of it from Vee. First, she wants me to be a father, then moans when we have no money, and then berates me when we have to sell the house, the car. I can’t be here and there—I can’t do both. I tell you, back in the day, the only cash men would spend on their wives would be for a nice tomb.” He barked a laugh. “Thems were the days.”
Todd fished around in the bag and withdrew an action figure of Captain Jim Milligan, swashbuckling adventurer, hope of humanity and explorer of the unknown. The arms could swivel, C-shaped hands open and ready for Jim’s laser pistol or electric cutlass, or any number of accouterments, each one child-chokingly smaller than the last.
Murt grinned. “Go on, give it a wee pull there.”
Todd tugged the pull-cord on the figure’s back, and from beneath the perfectly molded mustache came the strident voice of Captain Jim. “Fear not, my boyos! By the mast of our sweet Mary Sue, we shall prevail!”
Murt giggled and smoothed his own mustache.
“You know he’s ten,” said Todd. “I haven’t seen Jake play with these for years.”
Murt’s smile evaporated, and he stopped footering with his mustache. “For Cripe’s sake, Todd, I know what the lad likes.”
Todd turned. “Fine. But it ought to be you.”
“Mmhm,” said Murt, not looking up, “You can lecture me from the other side of the door. Goodnight, bye-bye, fare-thee-well. If you see Veira tell her I’ll be home in the morning.”
And Murt wondered then, How strange would it be if Todd were to get angry, flip the desk, slap me hard in the face and shake me, call me an inconsiderate bastard and explode out the door, boot first. But Todd did what Murt knew he would do. He performed his sad little headshake with a pathetic lungfart of a sigh and eased the door shut like he had just finished putting Murt to bed.
Murt waited for the muted thud of a car door, the cough of ignition. But when Todd’s uneven gait clambered back up the steel steps to the door, he felt his jaw clench. Todd dribbled back in with the thunder of neighboring pads, carrying a blanket. It was scarlet and heavy and smelled of cheap car freshener.
“Get that away from me,” Murt said, shrugging it off. But Todd draped it over his shoulders and said, “You’d do the same for me.”
“If the price was right.”
Todd dropped the blanket and gave him a pat. “Goodbye, Murt.”
There was a loud breeze of fuel, and the door clicked shut. Todd’s feet clunked down the steps. Murt ceased his doodling and shoved a hand through his peppered hair, rediscovering his bald patch. He pulled a thumb-length comb from his waistcoat pocket and dragged it through his wiry lip-forest. The tickler was getting scraggly. Veira used to call it that in their early years, but those playful jabs quickly dissolved into sullen silence when Murt refused to give in. She just didn’t understand the way of the mustache. Never had.
He stood, tucked the comb away and straightened his tie. He fastened the pearl buttons on his linen waistcoat and pulled up his silk socks. Then he scooped his keys from the desk drawer and flicked to the small brass ring with a tiny replica of Wayfarer on it—Arth’s first interstellar probe, and the catalyst of his obsession with spacecraft. Wayfarer was chained to a dull, jagged key.
He took it to the rank of six iron lockers that stood floor-to-ceiling along the wall. The chunky padlock on the cage sprang apart. He opened the first locker and removed what appeared to be a bundled patchwork parachute stitched together by a reluctant child. A stench of old sweat and onions assaulted his olfactory organ as he pulled the suit on, leg by leg and arm by arm until it was zipped up the middle and buckled at his waist and shoulders. It was more patch than flightsuit really, but they were quality patches. He clipped the helmet and gloves to his belt.
The second key on Wayfarer’s ring opened locker Two. The tabernacle of the Harrowbird. His old workhorse. Singing Esperella Rains at the top of his lungs, he opened the passkey lockbox and removed the active set. Bronze on Toosdays.
Cage locked, keys in hand, Murton Klapp leapt into his flight boots at the door and exploded from the office.