by John Cooper Hamilton
Once Earth’s gross world product was high enough to afford the dues, the Interstellar Commerce Bureau lifted the EM blanket around Sol. Galactic Civilization was revealed, with its messages of peace, advanced knowledge, and easy credit.
Built in the following boom, Europa Ascending had the best of everything. Even the crew was the best money could buy, with a genotype custom-designed for the vessel.
All from a single clone family, a distinct people existing nowhere else, the crew developed their own name for the ship.
* * *
Blue and white “Egg Basket” patches on uniformed arms, translators in their ears, Rudy and Vaska Ascending walked the main concourse of Cor Caroli’s “Mall of the Orion.”
Rudy, rubbernecking, took in the thousands of aliens. Clever acoustics kept the sound down to a roar. “What’s it really called?”
Vaska glanced at her pad. “Second Galactic Arm Central Exchange Venue.”
“Fancy that. A Central Exchange Venue only a hundred lights from Earth. How many vendors?”
“Over seven hundred thousand.”
“How many Starbucks?”
“You remember we’re the first Earth ship here, right?”
Vaska looked at her pad again. “Just two.”
Rudy stopped and an alien the size and shape of a six-legged terrier hooted as it rebounded off him. “Great! How about some coffee. I could use—”
“HOLO REP OR TRUE?”
“What the hell?” Rudy glared at the waist-tall red and yellow striped canister beside him. The shout had come from an opening atop it.
“Apologies.” A light on the can blinked. “You have small ears. Holo rep or true?”
“What are you talking about?”
“If I may...?” A passing alien, one of the buffeting horde and looking like a cross between a blue bear and a beetle, halted by Rudy. It gestured at the canister. “The Ferd wants to give you its pitch.”
“An inscrutable four-dimensional being offering strange and amazing items or abilities, some of which may come with a terrible price.”
Rudy blinked. “Uh...”
“There’s a whole row of them right here, see?”
“I thought they were trash cans.”
“I dropped half a sandwich in one.”
“Well, it’s the Ferd’s now.” The alien’s ears wiggled. Rudy hoped it wasn’t a threat.
“What’s it asking me?”
The blue alien raised several arms. “Do you want to see the Ferd, or a representation based on your appearance?”
Vaska shrugged. “What do they look like?”
“Their true form is terrible. Like small zyrka fruits.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
The alien put a paw over its midsection, opened its sideways mouth wide, and belched. “I think so.”
“Let’s go with holo rep.” Vasked raised her voice. “Do you hear me, Ferd?”
A small hologram appeared over the canister. The Ferd’s representation, it looked like a mini-Vaska, or a female version of Rudy.
“Hello, friends,” said the Ferd. “Every day, people come up to me and say ‘Ferd!’ and I say, ‘Do I know you?’ and they say, ‘Ferd, what will fulfill me?’ Before today, friends, I could not answer.”
An alien like a giant carrot stopped to watch as the holo-Vaska dissolved into an image familiar to both Ascendings.
The Ferd said, “This system, folks, is a reliable single-star model, yellow, with eight planets, assorted smaller bodies including a ready-made asteroid belt, and boasts not one but two intelligent species!”
Vaska said, “Two?”
The carrot wandered away, but the bear-beetle said, “Interesting! My mate is about to litter. I was thinking of getting her something vast and three-dimensional.”
“Hey!” said Rudy. “That’s Sol!”
“Make the blue one bigger.” The blue alien pointed. Earth swept to the center of the Ferd’s image, then expanded to the size of a tomato.
Leaning closer, the bear-beetle said, “What are those marks? Is it damaged?”
Sounding just like Vaska, the Ferd said, “Slight wear from the indigenous species.”
“Hmm...” the alien didn’t sound thrilled. “What’s the species like?”
“Carbon-based, plenty of juice. Very compact, very convenient.”
The bear-beetle ignored Rudy. “Convenient? For what?”
A laser shot from the can and played over the alien’s flat teeth, then scanned its wide, herbivorous gut.
“For many things...” The Ferd hesitated, then raised one finger. “Projects! It’s an engineering mammal.”
“Do they have dorfuls?”
“Yes, but they don’t know what they are.”
“Hey!” Rudy snatched at one of the bear-beetle’s arms. The alien retracted it.
Rudy noticed the blue alien had four sets of eyes. All four focusing on the Ferd, the alien said, “What colors do they come in?”
Rudy turned to Vaska. “Can you believe this?”
She was staring at her data pad. “Impossible!”
“I know, right?”
Rudy could see the Mall’s logo in the corner of Vaska’s display. She said, “I mean, my God! The thing can sell it!”
Vaska yelled, “They’re selling our planet! Close your mouth and stop them! I’ll see what the ship can do.”
The bear-beetle, still talking to the Ferd, brought a claw down dismissively. “I don’t care if they do tricks. What’s the planet’s temperature?”
“512 sin.” The mini-Vaska glanced at Rudy. “That’s 289 kelvin, sir.”
The bear-beetle grunted. “I’d like it a little warmer.”
“Not a problem!”
Rocking from side to side, the blue alien said, “Um, no. The rest of the system is good, though. We can knock out the four inner planets and put in a feroil loop. I have everything on my ship.”
Grinning, the Ferd said, “A fine plan, sir!”
Rudy didn’t think Vaska actually had that many teeth. “Wait, what?”
“Maybe I should ask my mate...” The bear-beetle took a step back.
The Ferd rolled its eyes. “Sir, this system is on sale. It won’t last long.”
Rudy grabbed the bear-beetle. “You can’t buy it. It’s my planet!”
“This gentleman,” said the Ferd, “knows a good bargain.”
The alien shook off Rudy’s hands and pulled a data pad out of its mouth. “I’ll take it.”
“Cash or commodity?” The Ferd smiled.
“Just a second...” She looked at him, eyes-wide. “The sale went through.”
Rudy stared at the silly little mini-Vaska and the absurd alien. “I don’t understand.”
“‘Easy credit’! It’s... it’s complicated.” Her face looked bloodless. He was, he knew, exactly the same shade.
Another bear-beetle arrived. The first one said, “Do you like it? Look, isn’t that a wonderful gas giant? The colors! We just have to clear away the rocks in the middle.”
Vaska shoved her data pad into Rudy’s hands. “Sir! Ma’am! You’re not going to use the inner planets?”
The alien looked at his wife. She belched. Vaska said, “May I have the blue one, please?”
The bear-beetle said, “You have to haul it away yourself.”
Vaska and Rudy looked at the Ferd. “Every day, people ask me, ‘Ferd, do you have an affordable 100-million terawatt drive?’ And every day, I say, ‘Of course!’”
Vaska said, “Thank God!”
Mini-Vaska nodded. “Every time, every single time, they say, ‘Praise to the Higher Power!’ and I say, ‘You’re welcome, give me a list of everything your species owns’.”
Vaska and Rudy stared at the Ferd, mouths open.
The Ferd smiled. “Everything. For my friends, five percent off. But no dorfuls.”
Copyright © 2016 by John Cooper Hamilton