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043-500

THE BRIDGE OF THE TUMBLEWEED

 

“Man, this took for EV-er,” May says, rolling her head back. She’s right; the Tumbleweed only runs at half-speed currently. But they have now arrived at the periphery of Scar City.

 

“Sorry Philo, I’m sure this is scenery you were not looking forward to seeing again anytime soon, having quit the Casino and all,” Sam says.

 

“It’s okay,” Philo says. “May reprogrammed some things so I now read as a human on the Casino’s scanners. So I don’t think the Casino people will bother me.”

 

“Unless they get a look at you directly,” May says. “For that we’d need a really big square wig or something.”

 

“True. I will maintain a low profile,” Philo says. “Meanwhile, I think I shall tap into the Casino surveillance systems to see what has been updated since I was last here.” He pulls a cord from his suit pocket, plugs it into the side of his head, and then plugs the other end into the console in front of him. He crosses his arms and waits.

 

The Tumbleweed pulls to a stop and hovers near a rock outcropping. An enormous canyon cuts into the ground ahead, growing wider and wider as it approaches the horizon. Scar City sits on the bottom and sides of the canyon, hence its name. In the late afternoon haze, neon lights can be seen flashing from the assorted buildings in the main part of the city. Some of the buildings are just light projections on the rocks, to make the city more exciting-looking.

 

Dr. Mangrove comes in, pulling on a lumpy sweater. “Well, I’m off,” he says. “Time to go find some repair materials.”

 

“Don’t get picked up by any more goons looking for Sam,” Rebecca says. “This is your captain speaking.” Rebecca is more concerned with her father than with protecting Sam, who will need to take care of himself. She didn’t ask for him to wind up on her ship.

 

“Yes dear,” Dr. Mangrove says. He straightens his spectacles and is gone.

 

Sam turns to Rebecca and smiles. “I think it’s time for a visit to the Casino. Come with me. There’s something you should see.”

 

Rebecca looks doubtful. “With all the people looking for you?”

 

“It’s a huge place. They won’t know I’m here. It’ll be fun. Promise.”

 

“Okay fine,” Rebecca says. “Feller, May, keep tabs on the communications channels. If you pick up anything interesting, let us know.”

 

“Alrighty,” Feller says, and pops open a soda.

 

Philo pulls the cord from his head. “If you need cash, let me know and I’ll fix a Blackjack table for you,” he says over his shoulder.

 

“Uh, thanks,” Sam says.

 

Feller, May and Philo are left alone on the bridge. Philo plugs back in, and after a few minutes, he says, “There it is again.”

 

“What, Philo?” May asks.

 

“These digits. There is a series of digits that seem to have nothing to do with the surrounding code, but they repeat themselves throughout the system. It’s as if someone planted them there.”

 

“Huh,” Feller says. “Send em over and we’ll see if we recognize anything.”

 


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042

RADIO NEPTUNE: Hello! This is Radio Neptune coming to you from wherever we are.
It’s time for Science Minute, in which we bring you some fun facts about our weird planetary home, Neptune.
Like this: Did you know the core of Neptune is actually blue? Yes it is, in tribute to the blue color that Neptune used to have when observed from Earth.
And now here’s our guest, Bernie Farfan, sunlight amplification maintenance engineer. How are you today, Bernie?

BERNIE FARFAN: Uh, I’m fine. Thanks.

NR: Great. Tell us a little bit about your job! You work on the sunlight amplification system?

BF: Okay. Right. So there’s the sun, right? And it’s really far away. So we’ve got this series of relays, or what have you, and those take the sunlight and make it, you know, stronger, and pass it along until we get it here on Neptune.

RN: And your job is to maintain the relays?

BF: Well, I maintain the receptors here orbiting Neptune. You know, make sure they’re working and all. They got interplanetary folk for the far-off stuff.

RN: So what’s it like, doing maintenance on a sunlight receptor, Bernie?

BF: Well it’s hot, I’ll tell you what. (laughs) By the time the sunlight reaches our neck of the woods, it’s been heated up like a pancake on a hot grill. And we need it, you know, we’ve got a big ol’ surface to cover. We don’t want to become a permanent ski resort, you know? Or turn everyone into human popsicles.
So we go out there in our suits, you know, and we calibrate the receptors to make sure we’re distributing the light and heat evenly and that the day/night system is running properly. The stress out there can do a number on your equipment, so we have to just keep going around – we start at the beginning and go to the end, and then we start over again.

RN: Sounds like quite a job, Bernie. So tell us – what does Neptune look like from out there? Ever get a chance to just enjoy the view?

BF: Yeah, sure – the storms are something to see, big swirls. Impressive. Other than that, you know, I’ve gotta keep my eye on what I’m doing, so I don’t spin off into space or cook one of my coworkers.

RN: Well we wouldn’t want that.

BF: No, sir.

RN: Well thanks, Bernie, and be safe up there, okay?

BF: I certainly will, sir.

RN: This has been Radio Neptune Science Minute, tune in next time when we ponder Gravity. Until then, remember, each day is a new chance to get out there and do something worth putting on the radio. Like Bernie, here.

Until next time!


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041

SCAR CITY CASINO HOTEL

 

Debra Millman flails her arm around, sweeping for her glasses on the nightstand. There is no reason for the hotel room phone to ring. Nobody knows she is here.

 

Maybe the hotel staff need to bring towels or something.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Good morning, Agent Millman.” The voice on the other end is slightly shrill.

 

“Yes?” Debra says. This isn’t good. “Who is this?”

 

“We need to meet.”

 

Agent Millman sits up on the bed. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m not meeting with anybody. Don’t be ridiculous.” In her head Debra is calculating how quickly she can exit the hotel. Her cover is clearly blown.

 

“It’s regarding your investigation of the murder of Angelica Brubeck,” the voice says. Its pattern of speaking is strangely staccato, with weird little pauses between some of the words. Could this be EarthAdmin checking up on her? Or maybe it’s a computer-generated voice. Maybe she can trace it. She’s plugging wires into the side of the phone.

 

“Don’t bother tracing this,” the voice says. “You can’t.”

 

Debra stops fiddling with the wires. “Look,” she says. “I’m having nothing to do with you unless you can offer a whole lot more information, and I mean right here, on the phone. Not in a meeting. I’m not walking into anything.”

 

“Fine,” the voice says. “You meet with me, I will hand you a digital backup of Angelica Brubeck. No strings attached. Then you can talk to her yourself.”

 

Debra considers this. “Someone made a backup?”

 

“Yes, and I – we – have it. We retrieved it from an explosion site. Whoever tried to destroy it didn’t realize the casing was impervious to being blown up.”

 

“Okay. We meet on neutral territory. The Western bank of slot machines in the Casino. Third row, third machine. Half an hour.”

 

“Fine,” the voice says.

 

“And bring the backup and proof that it works,” Debra says, “or I walk away. And disappear.”

 

“Half an hour. I will be wearing a black veil. Goodbye.”


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040

THE BRIDGE OF THE TUMBLEWEED

 

“Get us out of the Badlands, Feller,” Rebecca says. The Tumbleweed lurches forward as it takes fire from below.

“Out of the Badlands? How do you get out of a place that has no borders?” Feller asks.

He’s right: Anything on Neptune that isn’t otherwise-named gets referred to as “The Badlands.”

“I don’t know,” Rebecca says, “but let’s at least get closer to Scar City and regroup.”

The Tumbleweed picks up steam, but too slowly. An engine has been hit and now the vessel sounds like an old lawnmower. No time to stop now.

“We’re gonna limp along here,” Feller says. “But at least nobody’s shooting at us any more.”

“Can you pinpoint the source of the fire?” Rebecca asks.

May has taken a seat next to Feller. “It looks like it came straight up out of the dirt,” she says. “There’s no sign of anything from the camera. Not even a hole in the ground.”

“Weird,” Sam says. “Someone really doesn’t want us there. But where is ‘there’? And how did they mask their weapons like that?”

“We’ll need to perform repairs,” Dr. Mangrove says, appearing in the doorway to the bridge. “And for that, we’ll need supplies. Anybody know if there’s been a drop from Earth in a while? Given the number of people who seem to be looking for us,” he shoots a look at Sam, “we may want to keep a low profile. But I’m going to need materials.”

“Let’s see what Radio Neptune has to say,” Feller says, and switches on the radio.

“… sucked under the surface again. We repeat, stay away from the drop site today. We want everyone to stay up on the ground, safe and sound. Don’t get dropped into a hole just because you want some wire or a circuit board…let the experts sort it out.”

“What the…?” Sam says. “More surface weirdness?”

“Indeed,” Feller says. “Sounds like getting shot at isn’t the only hazard out here.”

“Alright,” Rebecca says. “Scar City may not be our best move right now, given the number of parties interested in getting a hold of Sam here – and Philo, too. The Casino will be on the lookout for him. I’m sure they’re not happy that this huge chunk of technology – no offense to Philo – just walked out their door. So, let’s try finding this drop site and see if there’s anything we can salvage to repair the engines. We’ll go in nice and quiet, no big scene. If we don’t see anything, or nothing’s left on the surface, we get out. Alright?”

“Sounds good,” Feller says, punching in their course. The Tumbleweed shudders, turns, and cruises forward at half-speed.

 


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039

SOMEWHERE IN THE BADLANDS, NEPTUNE

 

“It’s happening again,” Feller says. “It’s a fourth Calamity… only tiny. A micro-Calamity.”

 

The surface of the planet buckles underneath the Tumbleweed, but then solidifies again.

 

“Let’s go to a higher altitude, stay out of range of whatever this is,” Rebecca says. “Does anybody know where Sam is?”

 

“I’m right here,” Sam says. “I’m back.” He grins.

 

“Great,” Rebecca says, shooting him a look. She will talk to him about leaving the Tumbleweed unannounced later.

 

“Hello everyone,” May says. “I’d like to introduce – or re-introduce, I guess – Philo.”

 

Philo steps onto the bridge. He’s dressed in a vintage 1960s suit and a narrow black tie with a crisp white shirt.

 

“Hello,” Philo says. Everyone looks up at him.

 

“Wow. You made him, like, seven feet tall,” Sam says.

 

“I just followed the specs,” May says.

 

“This is unusual,” Rebecca says. She’s leaning over a display, replaying some footage. “Look at this. This here, is the surface in its normal state. Now during the Calamities, the surface imploded in a random pattern, and all over the planet at once. But look here,” she points. “This – this is way too regular. Too localized. These collapses seem almost controlled.”

 

The group peer down at the monitor. “Are you suggesting that the surface is being manipulated in some way?” Sam asks.

 

“All I’m saying right now is, it’s not behaving like a Calamity. We need to find out how much area is affected,” Rebecca says.

 

“Scar City’s structure underground is controlled by a gravitational grid,” Philo says. “It exerts force in predetermined patterns to form the caverns and the access tunnels.”

 

“True,” Rebecca says. “But what we’re seeing is just collapses. Things getting sucked underground without warning.”

 

“Maybe that’s the idea,” Sam says. “Or, maybe the Scar City grid is malfunctioning.”

 

“We’re not anywhere near Scar City here,” Feller says. “Unless it has expanded into the Badlands.”

 

“Well, if it’s a malfunction, that’s not good, and if it’s under someone’s control, that’s not good either,” Rebecca says. “And if someone is controlling it, then the question is, who?”

 

An explosion rocks the Tumbleweed. “Holy cow! We are being fired upon!” Feller yells.

 

“Get us out of here,” Rebecca says. “Let’s get some distance and then we’ll regroup.”

 


 

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