Aeryn stared at Crichton for several microts. "I don't believe I heard you correctly. It sounded like you said you were staying on Moya."
Grinning, Crichton said, "Yup. That's what I said."
"Crichton, you never stay on Moya if you don't have to. Usually you can't get off the ship fast enough."
They were standing in the hangar, preparing Moya's transport pod for travel. Since it, like Moya, was organic technology, it was able to function in Liantac's otherwise untraversable atmosphere. Aeryn's Peacekeeper Prowler--the ship she'd been issued during her tenure with the Pleisar Regiment--and Crichton's module would be useless on this trip.
Aeryn was absolutely right, of course. Crichton doubted that the others would ever truly understand why he was always so eager to go on-planet wherever they went--after all, they were born into societies where interplanetary travel was as common as crossing the street back home. But for Crichton, a man who'd always dreamt of navigating the stars while growing up on a world that could barely get its act together for a trip to the moon, being able to step on a new world was an experience he never wanted to pass up.
Well, hardly ever.
He said, "Thing is, Rygel's spent the entire solar day it took to get here quoting me chapter and verse about Liantac. It sounds way too much like Vegas or Atlantic City for comfort."
"I'm going to assume that, like every other incomprehensible reference you make, those are places on your homeworld?"
Crichton nodded. "The last thing I want to do is trigger unnecessary homesickness. So I'll just stay here."
Aeryn shrugged. "Suit yourself."
"Meanwhile," Crichton said, handing Aeryn a list, "if you see any of these parts lying around, I could use them for my module."
Taking the list, Aeryn said, "Fine," without bothering to look at it.
Crichton smiled. "What, no smartass comments about why I should bother doing repairs on my silly little module with its primitive engine?"
Fixing him with her classic don't-frell-with-me look, Aeryn said, "Would it do me any good?"
"Prob'ly not, no."
"There's your answer."
The door to the hangar opened, and Rygel, Chiana, and Zhaan entered, followed by their new passenger. Like all Lians, Rari was bipedal, but apparently descended from avian rather than simian stock. He had dark feathers on his head, there was vestigial plumage on other body parts that on a human or Sebacean would be hair, his arms were fairly long relative to his height, and his legs were disproportionately short. And he had a beak instead of a nose and mouth.
That beak made talking to him interesting, as he couldn't make any sound that involved the pressing of two lips together--B, F, M, and P sounds were a lost cause. This was a brief source of confusion when Crichton had to explain that he was not a "Selacean."
"I'd like to thank you all again for taking me home," Rari said.
Zhaan gave Rari a small smile. "There is no need to thank us, Rari. The seven hundred retri you paid us shows your gratitude."
The retri--which only came in coins--was the currency of Liantac and, from what Rygel had said to Crichton, it was good on many other worlds as well. Given that the coins were made of precious metals--gold, silver, and something the others called "nelg"--most folks would probably take them as currency of some kind or other. The money was to be split evenly among the crew--a hundred each for the seven of them, including Pilot, whose share would go toward supplies for Moya, since he had no true material needs beyond caring for the Leviathan.
"Still, I am grateful. And I think you'll find my homeworld a very hospitable place."
"I'm counting on it," Rygel said with a laugh.
Chiana's mouth couldn't decide whether to smile or sneer. "I think it's safe to say that Rygel's hundred retri will work its way back into the Liantac economy very quickly."
"Hah!" Rygel said. "You'll be chuckling out of the other side of your mouth when I've accumulated enough wealth to buy this planet."
"Can we please go?" Aeryn asked, sounding almost pleading.
"Yes, we should," Rari said, looking at Aeryn and Zhaan. "I can direct you both to the places you'll need to go for the items you seek."
"Thank you," Zhaan said.
Within a few microts, the five of them had boarded the pod. Crichton left the hangar so that Aeryn could complete the departure sequence--which included exposing the hangar to space.
Part of Crichton thought that he should have gone planetside. True, it might have triggered homesickness--on the other hand, it might have been therapeutic.
No, he decided. It's not worth the risk. Twice, Crichton had been put into scenarios intended to make him believe he'd made it home. He would not put himself in that position again, even in so indirect a way as going to a place similar to Vegas.
And from the way Rygel described it, it was fairly similar, down to the entertainment. The image of an overweight Elvis Presley playing to a room full of aliens suddenly came into Crichton's head, bringing a smile to his face. I can just see the King crooning "Viva Las Vegas" to a bunch of drunken bird-people... He moved into a clumsy approximation of the classic Elvis pose and started crooning, "Viva Las Vegas! Vi-i-i-i-iva Las Vegas! Thenkyew. Thenkyew verra much."
Then he looked quickly around to make sure that there were no DRDs nearby. The Diagnostic Repair Drones performed various physical functions on Moya on Pilot's behalf, and they weren't actually sentient, but Crichton still would've been embarrassed to have one of them see his performance.
Now, unfortunately, the tune to "Viva Las Vegas" was running through Crichton's head. Normally, when unwanted songs would invade his consciousness like that, he'd be able to mentally cleanse himself with something from Charlie Parker's oeuvre--usually the solo from "Ornithology."
That, sadly, didn't seem to be working. No matter how hard he tried, the Yardbird's trademark saxophone sound always modulated into the King crooning about Vegas.
Bird, my man, you're failin' me, he thought.
So he gave in, and started singing "Viva Las Vegas" as he went to the Command.
Or tried to.
By the time he made it to the Command, he had tried several times to dredge the lyrics up, but he couldn't remember anything aside from the "Viva Las Vegas!" refrain at the end of each verse.
"What nonsense are you uttering?" D'Argo asked as Crichton entered.
"It's a song. It's called 'Viva Las Vegas'," Crichton said, singing the title in the manner of Elvis.
D'Argo snorted. "Your definition of 'song' is obviously a lot more liberal than mine."
With a bark of laughter, Crichton said, "Don't go pulling the musical high ground with me, pal. I've heard you make noise on that shilquen of yours."
Pilot came over the comm, "The transport pod is safely entering the atmosphere. The high levels of larik particles are having no impact on the pod."
"The whozits particles are what's keeping inorganic ships from working, right, Pilot?" Crichton asked.
"Cool. Keep us posted if anything goes wrong." He turned back to D'Argo. "Anyhow, I can't get this song out of my head." Crichton then proceeded to "sing" the entire first verse, after a fashion--it was more of a hum, really, since he substituted "da" for each syllable until he got to "Viva Las Vegas!"
"I see," D'Argo said. "You can't get it out of your head, so you're determined to get it into mine. At least Luxan songs have words."
"So does this," Crichton said, exasperated, "but I can't remember them. And I can't exactly call up www.elvis.com and look 'em up. So I'm stuck." He sat down. "Okay, maybe if I take this slowly, line by line."
Closing his eyes and ignoring D'Argo, Crichton spoke aloud to himself: "Try to visualize that time you saw that garage band cover it. No, that won't work, you couldn't understand a word they said. Think, John, think."
"John," D'Argo said again.
"Let's see, first line has something about a city in it."
"What?" Crichton finally said, opening his eyes and turning to D'Argo.
"If you insist on trying to remember that idiotic tune, do it somewhere else."
"I'll call you if something happens."
"Some pal you are," Crichton muttered as he got up. "Can't you at least take pity on me in my hour of need?"
"I'd rather you took pity on me and not give me an hour of need," D'Argo said with a menacing smile.
"Fine," Crichton said, heading toward his quarters. "Catch you later, dude."
At least D'Argo was smiling, Crichton thought. A cycle ago, he'd have kicked me out of the Command at the top of his lungs while holding his Qualta at my throat instead of gently with a smile.
Crichton stopped in his tracks. A cycle ago. When did I stop thinking in terms of years? He shook his head. Probably around the same time as I forgot the lyrics to "Viva Las Vegas."
Sighing, he continued to his quarters, trying to construct the first line beyond the word "city."
Chiana first saw the lights from orbit.
The pod made one orbital pass, then began its descent. The bonosphere was choked with larik particles, but the lights--which, based on what Rari and Rygel said, were from the Casino--penetrated even that gloom, at least to some extent.
Once they descended into the lower atmosphere, she got a better view of the planet. Most of what they saw was fairly uninteresting plains broken up by an occasional body of water.
Then the Casino came into view.
At first, she could only see the glow. Holograms, signs, decorations, bright lights, all in shimmering, vibrating colors. As they came closer, she could start to make out details. Some of them advertised products. Some of them displayed the name of the establishment. Some listed featured attractions. The big holographic signs were obviously for the fanciest places, but Chiana was most impressed with the two-dimensional signs that still managed to look striking--doing the best they could with what they had. Chiana admired that.
The common theme was that all of them were selling something. Chiana had the feeling she was going to like this place.
It took her several microts to notice that the signs were all attached to one large building.
Actually, the word "large" didn't do it justice. The Casino was apparently one massive complex that dwarfed Moya in size. In fact, Chiana thought, you could get three or four Moyas in there. All the different establishments--gambling places, restaurants, bars, entertainment centers, the stores that Aeryn and Zhaan intended to go to, and everything else--were located inside this one huge structure.
Rari said, "Ah, I've missed this place. It's good to be home."
Chiana shrugged. Of all those on Moya, she was the only one who had no desire to go home--she had been an outcast on Nebari, having had the temerity to think for herself--so she didn't share the others' feelings of homesickness.
She did, however, share Rygel's desire to explore this planet. It looked like a fun place. Especially for a girl with a hundred retri in her pocket...
A small holographic image of a female Lian with her yellow feathers done up in what Chiana thought to be a hideous pattern appeared in front of Aeryn. "Greetings, and welcome to Liantac, the greatest planet in the galaxy! You are not on our scheduled manifest. Please identify yourself so we can expedite your arrival and service here on Liantac."
Chiana shuddered. The relentlessly cheery voice reminded her a little too much of her fellow Nebari after they'd been mind-cleansed--a fate Chiana had been earmarked for before she'd been rescued by Crichton and the others.
"We're from a civilian ship," Aeryn said. "We're transporting a local named Rari."
"Please wait a moment," the hologram said. Then: "DNA scan verifies the presence of Citizen Rari. Welcome home, Rari! We hope you will remain home for a long time to come."
"Thank you," Rari said with a smile. "That is my intention."
Chiana rolled her eyes. Rari sounded as fake as the hologram. There was something about Rari that had rubbed Chiana the wrong way from the moment he came over from the Luxan trader. She wasn't sure how much of it was Rari and how much was her own distrust of someone whose face she couldn't easily read--facial expression cues that one had with Nebari and other races weren't there with the beaked Lians. Even so, there was a certain insincerity that Chiana got from Rari that she didn't like in someone other than herself.
"Excellent," the hologram said. "DNA scan identifies the rest of you as a female Sebacean, a female Delvian, a female Nebari, and a male Hynerian. Will you be visiting the Casino?"
"Yes," Aeryn said, and Chiana noticed the disgust in the Sebacean's voice.
A display with some kind of navigational data that Chiana found completely incomprehensible appeared next to the image of the woman. "Please follow this route to Hangar Bay 72. From there, attendants will direct you to a dock that can accommodate your pod."
"Thank you," Aeryn said. "Go away now, please."
"Upon your arrival, you will be given free--"
"I said, go away!" Aeryn repeated. "We've identified ourselves and I have the information I need to land. You've served your function. Go away."
Without losing the cheery tone, the hologram said, "I don't see any need to take that tone. We're only trying to provide you with the best service possible here on Liantac, the greatest planet in the galaxy!"
Chiana tried and failed to contain a giggle at the look on Aeryn's face. The ex-Peacekeeper looked like she wanted to strangle the hologram--Chiana knew the look well, having been on the receiving end of it more than once.
The hologram droned on about the gifts they'd receive and recommended various places to go. Aeryn finally landed the pod at the outer edges of the Casino in an area marked with a large numeral 72, and sure enough, a male Lian directed them to a slot in the bay.
"Enjoy your stay here on Liantac, the greatest planet in the galaxy!" the hologram said, and finally winked out.
"I knew we shouldn't have come here," Aeryn muttered as she exited the pod.
"Oh, come on, Aeryn," Chiana said, "lighten up. They just want to make sure that we have a good time here."
"I'm not here to have a good time."
Rygel exited the pod. "Well, I am. The next time you see me, I'll be disgustingly wealthy."
"Halfway there, already," Aeryn muttered.
Zhaan smiled. "Come, Aeryn. Let us go and do what we need to do."
Nodding, Aeryn said, "The sooner the better. We'll meet back here in twelve arns."
"Twelve arns?" Rygel said imperiously. "That's not nearly enough time!"
"Put it this way, Rygel--in twelve arns, this pod goes back to Moya with or without you. Clear?"
Rygel's ears drooped. "As clear as Luxan blood."
With that, the Hynerian steered his ThroneSled toward the exit.
Chiana smiled. "Well, I'm going to check out some of those drinking establishments."
"Mind if I join you?" Rari said. "I can show you some of the finer taverns--not the ones the tourists go to, but the good ones."
At first, Chiana was going to say no. But for the first time, Chiana got a sense of sincerity from Rari. Interesting, she thought. And worth exploring.
She smiled. "If you can keep up with me, you're welcome to come along."
From the beginning, Aeryn Sun had wanted nothing to do with Liantac, and the planet itself had done nothing to convince her otherwise.
She wasn't sure what annoyed her most, the garishness of the décor or the obsequious cheer of every native she encountered, from the hologram that invaded the pod to the attendant at the hangar bay. The latter had gleefully announced that parking privileges cost a quarter retri per arn, with a minimum of four arns, those first four arns payable up front. Sighing, Aeryn paid one retri out of Moya's share, then she and the Delvian followed the signs to the northern end of the Casino, which was where Rari had said the best merchants were.
Perhaps it's neither the garishness nor the false cheer, but the frelling noise, she thought as they walked down the concourse. Aeryn had spent all of her life on board ships where things were orderly. Even in the turmoil aboard Moya, there was still a certain structure, a certain quietude. But here, everything bombarded her. It was as if a wall of sound surrounded her. Even the noisiest taverns she'd been in were quieter than this.
Everyone around them seemed to be in a ridiculous hurry. They ran eagerly into the gambling places, or the restaurants, or the entertainment halls--as if they were in such a rush to part with their money.
That was probably what disgusted her the most. Everything here was designed to part visitors from their cash as quickly and efficiently as possible--and the visitors seemed eager to take part in this. She'd seen that eagerness in Chiana and Rygel on Moya, and now in almost every single person around her. Aeryn shook her head. I will never understand this. And I will never understand why we came here.
"It seems that we must take this monorail," Zhaan said, pointing to the sign indicating such.
"Fine, let's go."
The monorail cost another quarter retri each. The person who took the fare said, "Thank you so much for riding the Liantac Monorail, the best monorail on the best planet in the galaxy!"
Somehow, Aeryn managed not to punch him.
They stood on the platform, waiting for the next monorail to show up. Aeryn had thought they would be among the few aliens present, but the platform seemed evenly split between Lians and offworlders. Obviously those ferries do decent business, she thought, though from what she knew of Liantac before the catastrophe, the percentage of offworlders used to be a good deal higher. Even so, there were a good number of non-Lians, ranging from Sebaceans to Luxans to Sheyangs to Vorcarians to Ilanics to Halosians. She even saw an occasional Nebari--probably outcasts like Chiana, she thought, since I can't imagine their oppressive society approving of their citizens coming to a place like this.
A woman walked up to the two of them. She held a pile of small chips engraved with an ornate logo. "Would you two like some free passes to the Harilear Club?" she asked, holding out two of the chips. "We have a special tonight for any offworlders--first two drinks on the house. And Licit will be performing two shows every night."
"No, thank you," Zhaan said with a polite smile.
The Lian woman moved closer to Zhaan. "I really think you'd like it. Licit is the most popular singer on the planet, and we've got some fantastic--"
"She said no," Aeryn said, moving between the Lian and Zhaan.
"You don't understand, this offer is only--"
"No, you don't understand. You have five microts to move away from me before I remove your feathers with a dull blade."
The woman's eyes went very wide, then she moved on to irritate someone else.
Zhaan grinned. "Nicely handled."
"Yes, well, you have to know how to reason with these people."
A monorail pulled in.
"Welcome to the Liantac Monorail, the greatest monorail on the greatest planet in the galaxy, which is brought to you today by Ornara's Emporium, home of the finest Haunan tables on Liantac."
As they boarded, Zhaan said, "Well, I'm sure Rygel will wind up there, ere long."
"Think it'll take him all twelve arns to lose the hundred retri?"
"Don't be so sure. I saw him when he deliberately lost at Tadek to Kcrackic. Rygel does have some skills."
"Most insects do."
The monorail had a dozen or so rows of bench-like seats facing front. Each wall was covered with an advertisement of some sort, which changed every ten microts. Aeryn dutifully ignored them.
The one on the front wall was a bit harder to ignore, as it had an audio component and was staring her in the face. Presently, holograms of two Lian males, dressed in outfits that rivalled the signs outside the Casino for garishness, began to speak.
"Hello there! I'm Willby!"
"And I'm Yaren."
"We're the proprietors of--"
Together, they said, "Willby and Yaren."
Willby continued solo: "You can fulfill your every pleasure at Willby and Yaren."
"That's right. Whatever your fantasy, whatever your enjoyment, you can find it at Willby and Yaren, or your money back."
"That's a guarantee--we promise to give you pleasure no matter what it is."
"And if you don't get it, you'll get a full refund of your entry fare, plus free drinks all night long."
"There's a thought," Zhaan said.
"You could go there."
Aeryn looked at Zhaan as if she'd started budding again. "You can't possibly be serious."
"Why not? They guarantee your greatest pleasure. Why not go in there and say your greatest pleasure would be to blow up the planet?"
In spite of herself, Aeryn had to laugh.
"Actually, that's not a bad idea."
"The worst that can happen is that you get your money back and free drinks," said Zhaan.
They spent the rest of the monorail ride pointing out the stupidities in the various advertisements--a relatively easy task, and one that Aeryn found herself enjoying.
When they arrived at the stop that was closest to the merchants on the northern side, Aeryn said, "Thank you, Zhaan. I needed that laugh."
Zhaan simply smiled that irritatingly enigmatic smile of hers. "My pleasure." She looked around. "Rari said that the herb merchants are this way, and that used parts emporium he recommended that way. Should we arrange to meet somewhere, or simply rendezvous at the pod in eleven-and-a-half arns?"
"Let's just meet back there. I don't know how long this will take--though, honestly, I'm not holding out much hope. If this place hasn't had any ships by in thirty cycles, I can't imagine they have anything useful."
"Perhaps not," Zhaan said, "but it's worth looking."
"Definitely. Parts of the Prowler are being held together with little more than good thoughts. In any case, I'll see you at the hangar bay."
Zhaan nodded. "Very well." And she went off in search of the herbs and medicines she required. Aeryn had no idea what it was, exactly, the priest would be getting, but she also trusted that whatever it was would be beneficial. Zhaan's skills as a healer had proven tremendously useful on more than one occasion.
As Aeryn proceeded down the concourse, a Lian man walked up to her holding a pile of chips. "Hi there! When you're done shopping, how'd you like--?"
Aeryn glared at him.
"No, I don't suppose you would like," the man went on, barely missing a beat. "My apologies." And he walked off.
First intelligent person I've met on this frelling planet.
She almost missed the place, as it didn't have a brightly colored sign or holographic characters imploring people to enter or any other such thing. Instead, it was a simple entryway with a two-dimensional sign in block letters. STRAN'S USED PARTS EMPORIUM: BUY AND SELL NEW AND USED SHIP PARTS. REASONABLE RATES.
The entryway was through a curtain of wooden beads hanging from the top of the doorframe. Inside was an open space. The walls and floor were strewn haphazardly with parts of every type of ship Aeryn had ever seen, and several she didn't recognize.
Here, an engine part from a Peacekeeper command carrier. There, a communications array from a Sheyang transport. Over here, a command chair from a Hynerian imperial cruiser. Next to that, weapons from a Luxan military yacht.
At the back was a desk, currently unoccupied, sitting in front of another beaded entryway. The only unoccupied floorspace was a narrow path that had been cleared from the front entrance to that desk.
A voice sounded from the back: "Be right out! Feel free to look 'round!"
"Thank you," Aeryn said, happy to do so. She was amazed at the collection of stuff. There wasn't enough here to make one functioning ship, but the sheer variety was astonishing. Leaning side-by-side up against one wall were a Scarren plasma conduit and a generic-looking connector port. Sitting on the desk were a pile of Tavlek gauntlets. Involuntarily, Aeryn shivered. She, Crichton, and D'Argo had had a bad experience with one of those drug-delivering monstrosities that heightened aggression. She never wanted to see one of those frelling things again.
There was a pile of spare engine parts in one corner, and she was about to start sorting through it when she heard the rattle of beads. A Sebacean man came out from the back room.
"Hello, I'm Eff Stran, and I--" he started as he walked out, wiping his hands with a cloth of some kind. He was fairly scruffy-looking: unkempt hair, scraggly beard. It reminded Aeryn of what Crichton looked like when he'd been trapped on Acquar.
He cut himself off when he looked up at Aeryn.
Suddenly, his face contorted under the beard and he screamed, "Get the frell out of my store!"
He reached behind the desk and pulled out a pulse rifle. It was Peacekeeper issue, to Aeryn's surprise and dismay. "I said get the frell out of my store, you Peacekeeper khan!"
"There must be some mistake, I--"
"Oh, there's no mistake, Officer Sun." At the use of her name, Aeryn recoiled as if she'd been slapped. "You have five microts to get out or I'll kill you where you stand."
"Look, this must be some mistake. I've never even seen you before."
And then, in a flash of memory, she realized exactly who he was. Once she got a good look at the face under the beard and hair...
Technician Eff Stran. How could I have forgotten?
In a subdued voice, she said, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize that--I'm sorry," she repeated, lamely.
Without another word, she turned and left, half-expecting Stran to shoot her in the back, half-disappointed that he didn't.
As she made her way back toward the monorail, she spoke into her comm. "D'Argo, can you hear me?"
After a moment, D'Argo's powerful voice sounded through the tiny speakers. "Yes, Aeryn, go ahead."
"I'm going to need you to take my place down here. I've run into a--problem with the store that provides spare parts."
"What kind of problem?"
"A personal one. If I take the pod back up, can you find the parts that Crichton and I need and then meet up with Zhaan?"
Aeryn heard Crichton in the background--it sounded like he was singing something. I'm not even going to ask, she thought.
"Under normal circumstances, I might refuse. I'm a warrior, not a purchasing agent." He paused, and then continued in a lower voice, "But I'll be more than happy to get away from Crichton for a while."
"Has he finally gone insane, or is this just the latest example of his usual idiocy?"
"Apparently, there is some song from his planet that he can't remember the words to. He's been trying to re-create the memory since you left. I tried to kick him out of the Command, but he keeps coming back. Remember what you said about being around Zhaan this long having an effect on me?"
Frowning, Aeryn said, "Yes?"
"Well, I suspect you're right, as it's the only way to explain why I haven't killed him yet."
Somehow Aeryn managed to smile. "Well, I should be back up there in an arn or so, and you'll only have this blotching planet to deal with."
"I'll manage. See you in an arn."
As Aeryn got back on the monorail platform, she realized that, by taking the pod out before the first four arns was up, she'd be forced to forfeit the entire retri she and Zhaan had paid up front.
But, since the alternative was getting shot by Stran, she had no choice. She respected Crichton's wish not to come on-planet, and D'Argo was the only other person on board she'd trust with this sort of thing.
While she stood on the platform, a Lian man walked up to her. His speckled feathers were all standing up perfectly straight, and he wore an outfit with enough clashing colors in it to give Aeryn a headache just to look at him.
"Hi there," he said, standing much closer to Aeryn than she liked. "You know, you have the most wonderful features. I work for Dallek Enterprises--we run several of the entertainment venues here on Liantac, and you would fit in perfectly with a little 'alien goddesses' show we've got going."
"'Alien goddesses'?" Aeryn repeated as the monorail pulled in.
"Yes, exactly. We've already got three Nebari and two Luxans, but a Sebacean like yourself would really make the show. Why, put you in a nice satin number, and--"
Aeryn punched the man in the side of the head. He fell to the platform, breaking some of his upright head feathers.
The women on the platform applauded as Aeryn boarded the monorail.
It did nothing to improve her mood.
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