Title: Star Hopping
Author: Austin J. Schuster
Summary: Mikhael Voight was someone with a seemingly growing inability to tell the truth. Now, living at the edge of the galaxy on the vagrant and indulgent planet of Dionysus, he finds himself confined to the company of harlots and thieves. Little does he know, Dionysus isn’t far enough to run from his problems, and he soon discovers that everyone he meets in his new life is temporary.
Word Count: 5,466
IMAGE: “Scifi bar” @St-Pete/Deviant Art
CHAPTER 1: SIX YEARS LATER
Location: Dionysus; Earth date: September 9th, 2624
“Absinthe and Tonic, please.” The young looking man said, handing the bar tending bot his currency card. He leaned against one of the pillars inside the club and sipped the drink, feeling the familiar and prolonged burn in his stomach. He lit a cigarette. The club itself was carved out of solid rock, and was divided into two floors- the top, where the bars were, and the bottom, where a sea of people writhed directionlessly to the sound of pounding music. He slouched deeper against the pillar, feeling the effects of the absinthe and cigarette merge into a pleasant haze, he continued to scan. More of those people who go a round in cloaks… Girl, long red hair..? No, guy with long red hair. Hmm. Taller woman, silver hair? Too old. His inner thoughts were disturbed by a touch on his arm. He looked down at a young woman, anywhere between seventeen and twenty five.
“I’ve seen you here the past two nights.”
“Oh?” The young man muttered, looking over the edge of the mezzanine into the crowd, taking a drag from the cigarette.
“I said,” She pulled his face towards hers. “I’ve seen you here the past two nights!”
“I can hear you.”
“So, what are you looking for?’
He shrugged and looked away again. “Trouble I guess.” Her hand floated up to his chest, as if it were buoyant in the very air of the dank club.
“I think you found it.” She said. He scoffed, studying her up and down; she had a buzzcut, and tattoos all over her body.
“You’re not my type.”
“Oh!” Her brow lowered and her lips curled, revealing luminous teeth. He looked at her lips then back at her eyes.
“You’ve got great eyes though.” He said, making her expression softened.
“What is your type then?” He shrugged, and walked back towards the bar for another drink.
“Absinthe and Tonic,” He told the bar bot, then turned to her. “What do you want?”
“One pill of Hallelujah, and some Rosé” She popped the pill with a draught of wine and smiled at him. “What is your type?” She asked again.
“I dunno.” He said, downing the Absinthe.
“Long hair?” The guess evoked a painful memory. He lit another cigarette.
“Come with me, my friends and I have a table.” She said, pulling him alongside one of the walls of the upper floor. Apparently “Friends” meant one other girl, staring at the ceiling in a drugged out haze. “This is Astrid.” She said, motioning to her friend. Her skin was pale and her hair was dark. She looked skinny.
“What’s your name?” The girl with the short hair asked.
“Mikhael…” She said, as if contemplating the name, studying him up and down. “How old are you?”
He laughed for the first time in months.
“I’m thirty one.”
“Thirty one? Aren’t you a little old to be clubbing?”
“Not if you had to ask me how old I was.”
“That doesn’t make sense… You look younger.”
“Yeah, nine total years in cryo will do that to you.”
“So you’re not from around here?”
“Fuck no,” Mikhael said, taking a drag. “Besides, I’m not sure why my age surprises you compared to the rest of the demographic in this club.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of these people… It’s just not a club demographic I’m familiar with.”
“Well, if you’re not from around here, many things aren’t going to be familiar to you.” Mikhael didn’t say anything, thinking about what the comment meant. “Don’t you want to know what my name is?” She asked. Mikhael looked back at her, disinterested. “Of course you do. Because you’re here to find girls, but you’re shy. That’s why you were looking at people from up high.”
This made Mikhael smile again, as he let out a syllable of laughter.
“What’s your name?” He caved.
“Deidra. But you can call me Dei.” She smiled again, showing perfect teeth enveloped by those full lips, then moved in closer to her friend Astrid, and shook her out of her stupor. “Hey, this is Mikhael.” Astrid nodded at him. “Any luck finding anyone?” Deidra asked her. Astrid shook her head.
“No. I’m gonna go to the VR bar.” Astrid said in a tired voice.
“Okay. Make sure you go to the licensed one. They feed you, the Evening Star ones don’t.” Astrid shrugged.
“It’s cheaper.” She said, then she got up and left. Mikhael was sitting alert now, specifically from hearing the words Evening Star. He lit another cigarette, this time with trembling hands.
“You should really stop smoking those, they don’t have the Cancer shot out here.” Deidra said. “Take this instead.” She said, handing him a clear capsule filled with white powder on it, with a pair of angel wings stamped onto it with red ink.
“What is it?”
“Yeah, you know, Hallelujah.” Mikhael carelessly popped the pill with a swig of Absinthe. The warmth the alcohol provided didn’t subside however, but seemed to permeate from his stomach, and all of a sudden it felt as if his entire body was pulsating with waves of warm energy- and he felt drunk, really drunk. He let out a slow and stoned giggle.
“Woah indeed.” She said, popping another. Then, with dreamlike fluidity, she stood and straddled him, and cradled his face. He stared into those intense blue eyes, outlined in black. He could feel her warm breath on his lips, and as he closed his eyes and kissed her, he could still see those blue eyes staring into his mind on the backs of his eyelids. She pulled back with a gasp, saliva dripping from her lower lip. “Your place or mine?”
Mikhael laughed again.
“At least some norms stay the same, even on this end of the galaxy.” He said as she smiled and hugged his head towards her chest. “I have a place we can go.” Mikhael said.
And so they left the club behind, ascending from it’s depths and coming out into the cool air of Dionysus. The late night sky hung above them, illuminating the rocky landscape with dim and purple light. Despite being terraformed atmospheric wise, the barren planet was still a little chilly.
The underground club was situated on the edge of a sparse settlement, just like any other to be found on Dionysus. Mikhael staggered a little, leading Deidra to his hover bike. The engine roared to life and she hugged his waist, and the bike accelerated into the desert, disappearing over the horizon within seconds.
Mikhael woke up slowly as the glass of his bedroom window gradually illuminated with the growing daylight. As expected, his bed was empty. He stood and looked out at the expanse of desert before him. His room was on the top level of the mansion-sized compound he’d purchased two months earlier. It had been two months since Mikhael had Star Hopped from the Hadrian System to the Godfried system- with six years of cryosleep in between of course. It was two months and six years earlier that he’d narrowly managed to avoid the authorities from Mars and gang members of the Evening Star who were out to get him for his stolen fortune. But with leaving Detective Peter Hanson chained to a pipe on the dark side of Phantasos, and escaping with Halt, his loyal robot friend, his current predicament was nothing short of a miracle. He had gotten lucky. Sometimes he wondered about Hanson, if he ever gave up and went back to Mars to see his wife, or if maybe he was even still searching for him- but all of these options were conjured out of guilt. In reality, Mikhael feared and even half suspected that no reinforcements actually made it to Hanson, and that he was still chained to that pipe, suffocated in his envirosuit and slowly rotting on the cold side of Phantasos.
He shook these thoughts as he left his bedroom and made it to the bathroom, but just barely. He lurched over the toilet and vomited. He began to feel lightweight, and dizzy, and he lay down on the floor. “Lights, dim.” He said. The room got dimmer as he rubbed his eyes. As he lay, trying to catch a breath, he realized that the shower was on. Out stepped Deidra, steaming and naked.
“Are you okay?” She asked. “Was it the Halle-”
“No,” Mikhael said, waving a hand dismissively. He rolled over and reached up to the bathroom counter for a cigarette. “It’s the cryosleep. The side effects. I have nine years total under my belt and I only took about two months in b-” He vomited again.
“Jeez. They say anything over four with no break in between is dangerous. I’m surprised you’re still alive.”
“I’m surprised you’re still here.” Mikhael muttered, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Mikhael waved a dismissive hand.
“Hand me those pills by the sink.” She did so, and then helped him into the large shower, where he lay underneath the hot water and she sat on one of the benches until the medication kicked in, and he felt able to stand again.
“So, nine years of travelling just to come here?”
“This isn’t first place I came to. First I was in the Hadrian system, then I came to Godfried. The first place I arrived at was Salacia.”
“Why didn’t you stay on Salacia?” Salacia was one planet over, closer to the Star Godfried. It was a water world, covered in a global ocean with floating cities.
“Too much rain I guess,” Mikhael said, lying.
“Where are you from?” Dei asked.
“Why did you come here?” She asked, tilting her head. Mikhael glared.
“It’s a long story. But what about you? Where are you from?” She shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“Wait,” she said, hearing her phone ringing. She disappeared into the bedroom, then came back. “It’s Astrid, she needs my help.”
“What’s the matter?”
“She went back to the Evening Star’s VR bar, apparently she’s in over her head there or something.”
“Wait,” Mikhael said, getting out of the shower. “The Evening Star? Like the crime syndicate?”
“Ah fuck-” He said, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and his forefinger. Deidra stepped back into the bathroom, now clothed.
“What?” She said, studying him. “You should know this system barely has any influence from interstellar authorities, especially not all the way out here on Dionysus.”
“I know that, that’s why I came here in the first place.” Mikhael said, taking a pistol out of the medicine cabinet. The dark and ambiguous comment pleased Deidra. She bit her lip and looked at the grim looking man loading the gun through narrowed eyes, her pupils black pools of desire. When he looked back up at her, she contained herself, switching her expression to disinterest.
“Where is this shit hole?”
The assumed “shit hole” the two were going to was apparently somewhat near where the club was on the edge of sec-18, Dionysus’s most populous settlement, with a population of only twenty thousand.
“There.” Deidra pointed from over Mikhael’s shoulder. He directed the hoverbike towards a jagged looking building made out of recycled ship parts. Steel chimneys thrust out of the husk-like building in a random fashion, emitting dense wisps of foul smelling smoke. The backside was surrounded by a twenty foot wall with steel doors. After parking the hoverbike, Deidra led Mikhael to a door on the front of the building- no, not a door, but a curtain rather. They entered an elevator covered in dense graffiti once inside, and began a descent deep into the ground. The elevator came to a rickety halt, and the doors opened unveiling possibly one of the more disturbing places Mikhael had seen; They were in a low ceilinged room illuminated dimly by incandescent lights, and all around the floor were mattresses where people lay with their heads connected to virtual simulation machines, which lined the east wall. Wires slithered across the floor to connect people from across the room. Two men stood against both walls with clubs. Mikhael tightened his grip on the pistol in his coat. He looked at the two of them. Neither seemed to recognize or pay any heed to him.
“Don’t just stand there and stare, follow me.” Deidra said, leading Mikhael into the dim recesses of the chamber. His boots grazed the toes of the comatosed, many of which looked extremely malnourished- and if one were to enter the room without knowing the simulation machines purpose, they may assume that these were diseased patients hooked up to a life support system. Despite this not being the case- many looked as if they were half dead already, with grey and mottled skin exposed. Some were naked, and to Mikhaels greater displeasure, incomplete. His grim hypothesis of some of these people selling everything, including the clothes on their backs, paled in comparison to the ones who had missing limbs, surgically removed.
“Don’t look in between those curtains.” Deidra said back to him.
The world seemed to go quiet as he did. In a gap between curtains, he saw a bony torso of a man, bisected above the pelvis, with all four limbs severed.
Mikhael curled his upper lip in disgust. Finally they came to a corner of the room where Astrid was sitting on a mattress near the wall. There was a man standing next to her.
“She owes us two hundred and sixty frieds.” The man said, holding out his hand. Deidra handed him her currency card and he tapped it on a handheld device. “Much obliged,” He said, then looked down at Mikhael. “I’d get her something to eat. She was drunk, or on something at least, when she plugged in last night.” As Deidra sat next to Astrid and tried to help her up, Mikhael noticed one of the patrons next to her was awake- unplugged rather, and was picking beetles up off of the concrete floor and eating them with a gangly arm- the only limb he had left.
“Let’s get out of here.” Mikhael said, helping Deidra lift Astrid to her feet, too easy of a task, Mikhael thought, guessing she only weighed just over one hundred pounds. Once outside, Deidra turned to Astrid.
“You need help Astrid. You can’t keep coming here. You’re going to lose more weight if you do, or worse.”
“I miss him so much.” Astrid said in response, her lip quivering. Deidra seized her friend by the shoulder.
“That’s why it’s dangerous Astrid. They tailor your simulations to make you dependant. He isn’t real Astrid! He’s dead and there’s nothing you can d-” Astrid pushed her hand away, and sunk to the ground, overcome with grief. Her shoulders began to tremble, and she made sounds akin to sobbing. Mikhael didn’t know what else to do but stand above them and stare, utterly disturbed. He lit a cigarette. Deidra looked up at him after a time. “I need to look after her for a while. Thanks for coming with me.”
“Yeah, don’t mention it.” Mikhael said, and watched as the two young women disappeared into the empty streets of the town. He tossed the cigarette half finished into a drain, and turned back towards his hoverbike. It was parked on the side of the Evening Star’s building, and despite the outside being seemingly abandoned, he took long strides to get to his hoverbike, wanting desperately to leave the strange place, which he found unsettling even in daylight. Out of his peripheral vision just near his bike, he saw a narrow alley obscured by steam rising from a vent on the ground, only, the steam wasn’t the only thing moving from within the alley. He turned just in time as the steam parted and a man materialized from the alley. He was a near middle aged man wearing a long tattered grey coat. Underneath was a lopsided-buttoned up shirt, and he wore a pair of baggy purple pants. His hair was black and wild. He moved quickly and seized Mikhael by the collar of his coat and shook him.
“Eh! Hghay!” The man rasped in a gruff voice, staring through Mikhael with unfocused eyes. Mikhael placed his hand firmly against the man’s chest, pushing him back.
“Get the fuck off of me,” He warned, gripping the handle of his pistol. The man backed off and revealed his palms.
“Ay there,” He said in a more human demeanor, extending his hand to Mikhaels. Mikhael looked down at it skeptically. On a planet like this, caution came before manners.
“What do you want?” Mikhael asked.
“Have you seen it?”
“No!” The man said, half to himself, pressing his palms against his ears. “Her, have you seen her?” He said rapidly.
“Who?” Mikhael asked. The man waved a dismissive hand and began rifling through his tattered coat. At this point Mikhael had the pistol already drawn, held at his side behind the length of his coat.
“What’s your name, friend?” The man asked.
“Jack.” Mikhael lied.
“Thomas.” The man said with a curt nod. Mikhael shook his hand this time, although he wasn’t sure why.
“What’s this?” Mikhael asked, noticing the man had handed him a ticket; a seemingly authentic ticket for boarding on an interplanetary ship.
“It’s so you can see her, Michael!” The man said, the crazed look returning to his eyes. He grabbed Mikhael again by the collar and began violently shaking him. “You have to go and see her Micheal! There’s nowhere else for you to go!” Mikhael pushed the man hard in the chest, sending him stumbling back a few feet.
“How do you know my name?” Mikhael asked. Michael was close enough- and he’d just lied that his name was Jack; his current alias.
“There’s nothing here for you! There’s nothing here for anyone! This place is sick! We weren’t meant to come here!” The man followed Mikhael right up to his hoverbike. He considered holding him at gunpoint, and demanding how the man knew his name, but he felt in no mood. The man continued to ramble senselessly to Mikhael as he mounted his hoverbike, and as he sped into the distance, the strange man continued to shout inaudibly and wave his arms.
CHAPTER 2: THE ARCHITECT OF DREAMS
Once back at his compound, Mikhael sat in a high ceilinged living area, thinking over the strange events that had taken place the night before and that morning. He stared through the twenty foot tall windows that overlooked a narrow gorge behind the compound. The terraforming process left the atmosphere with a lot of water vapor, and as a result, the sky was almost always cloudy. He heard a door open at the end of the room, and in came Halt, his robotic companion.
“Hey Halt.” Mikhael said, sitting up and extinguishing his cigarette.
“So? Give it to me straight.” Mikhael said. Halt had just returned from a meeting in Sec-18 with a financial advisor, who was apparently legitimate.
“Well, as we discovered when we got here, your forty million Martian Dollars aren’t going to take you nearly as far as we thought they would. Despite it being worth a lot less out here, we still thought we could make it last for you, you know, for life, if you made it last. But the exchange is quite poor.”
“You know how I like it Halt, cut the shit.”
“You spent over half on the compound.” Halt said.
“How much more do I have?”
“Fourteen million Martian Dollars, but that’s only worth five million Frieds.”
“Well I could always sell this place.”
“Or invest the five million. I suppose you’ll have to decide what you’re going to do with the rest of your life before you make any more financial decisions.” Halt said, turning on the gas fireplace.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mikhael said, getting annoyed.
“Well, you don’t have people after you anymore. No Martian Police, no Evening Star thugs who want their money back. You can do whatever you want, but as of recently you haven’t seemed inclined to do much of anything besides drink and smoke, and sleep the day away.”
“I’ve told you Halt, it’s difficult. I have a hard time staying on my feet sometimes.”
“The cryogenic withdrawal isn’t an excuse to sit around feeling sorry for yourself.” Halt said, snapping his fingers and pointing at the dishes on the coffee table. A servant bot came in and cleared the plates.
“Well look at you, king of the robots. You fancy yourself so much now, you think you’re apt to give life advice, hey?” Halt looked at Mikhael with a smug grin, sinking into an armchair next to him.
“I’m just saying. Listen to me Mikhael. Against all odds you were able to escape the consequences of your actions, and you’re now able to use the money you stole however you want.”
“I suppose you’re not good at giving moral life advice.” Mikhael said, smiling. Halt shrugged.
“I’m a machine after all, I’m just presenting it the way it makes sense mathematically. You’re doing effectively nothing with the resources you have except hiding away on some forgotten planet in a nice mansion for yourself.”
“I have reason to be paranoid. The Evening Star, I found out last night and this morning that they’re still out here.” Halt raised an eyebrow at this. Mikhael began to tell him of the simulation den that was ran by the Evening Star, and of Deidra and Astrid.
“So that was who was in your room this morning?” Halt asked.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? The Evening Star is active, on this very planet, and you’re more concerned over who I shared my bed with last night?” Halt laughed, and Mikhael noticed a light flash inside his artificial eyeball, as it always did for some reason when he found something funny.
“Yes, because at least it means you’re not thinking about Terra Ashbrook anymore.”
“Ah- so this is what it’s all about, is it?” Mikhael stood up, offended.
“Sit down! I know you miss her, but sitting around waiting for her to come is a waste of time. She’s a doctor of Xenobotany now, six years away on Phantasos.”
“But this is the place she told me to go to Halt. Maybe she meant to tell me because she wanted to meet me here.”
“We’ve been over this, she told you because she knew it was a place that had minimal if any interstellar authority present. She cared about you, but only enough to recommend a safe place for you to disappear to.” Mikhael considered it, and it made sense- but then he remembered her last words to him, unfinished before the police had arrived to try and take him away.
“She never got to finish what she was trying to say to me though. You don’t know what she was going to say-”
“And neither do you!” Halt almost shouted. “It’s stupid to sit around waiting for her to come.”
“She told me to wait Halt. Wait for what?”
“She was telling you to wait because you were walking away from her, hurt, because she told you she didn’t want to be with you.” Mikhael had his back turned to Halt now, lighting a cigarette as he peered out the tall window.
“What am I supposed to do then, Halt?”
“I told you, if we go back to Salacia, your money will go a lot further. That would be the first and most intelligent thing to do, maximize your potential. From there, the question becomes, what do you want do do?” Mikhael finished the cigarette in front of the window, thinking about the question. His inability to answer it angered him.
“Coming here was a mistake.” He said, turning for the door.
“That’s what you said about coming to the Hadrian system too! But guess what? You’re here, and you can’t go back. Your body will give out if you freeze yourself again. Are you homesick? Do you miss Mars?” Halt shouted to him as he paced across the room. “You can’t go back Mikhael! You can’t just freeze yourself and go somewhere else when things aren’t going your way anymore!” He shouted. Clearly Halt had had a lot of pent up frustration with Mikhael’s behaviour. He continued to shout, even as Mikhael slammed the door.
He sped across the desert on his hoverbike, uncertain on where he was going at first. The smooth metamorphic landscape blurred beneath him as he rose and fell over the rocky foothills. Dionysus lived up to it’s name at this time of day, where the clouds in the sky swirled in twists of mauve and purple, like wine spilling into a jug of water. The wind blowing in his face made his mind go quiet, reminded him of flying hoverbikes on Mars, back home, before everything fell apart- before he found himself on a bizarre planet at the edge of the galaxy, and the edge of human civilization itself, straddling the border between normal and the obscure. His reflection on his misspent adulthood made him feel completely alone. Into cryo at twenty two to get away from the thugs he robbed blind on Mars, followed by just barely three months on Hadrian Jose Major, then another six years in cryo just to come to this place he thought, looking around at the empty planet around him. Once he became certain of where he was going, he had an answer to Halts question; what did he want to do? He wanted to see Terra, and he had realized that that was possible. He pushed the grim images of the simulation den out of his mind- an existence like that was for people that had no money, something of which he had plenty, at least for now.
“Mikhael?” Hearing her voice again was enough to make the long-desolate garden of his heart feel like it was blossoming once again with beautiful flowers.
“Terra?” She was standing there, with both arms crossed. They were back in the lab, together, alone. The little details in her face were forgotten in simple memory, but apparently some part of his mind, maybe photographic memory, had remembered them.
“Terra, I’m not a scientist.” Mikhael said, taking the lab coat off.
“I know that.” She said, followed by her signature glare-smile, half annoyed, half amused.
“I’m sorry again for lying. I had no other choice. I had to hide somehow, They would have found me otherwise.” She looked at him for what seemed like a long time, and he couldn’t look away.
“I know.”She said, as if finally coming to terms with it.
“How goes the botany?” He asked, moving closer to her. She smiled this time.
“Good thanks. I’m a senior researcher on Phantasos now. How’s Halt?” The question brought Mikhael back to where he was- but he wasn’t there at this moment, not for a while at least.
“Let’s not talk about him. I want you to tell me why you told me to come to the Godfried system?”
Terra took a deep breath.
“I told you to go there because it’s safe, and remote. Far away from any kind of interstellar authority.” She said, looking him in the eyes. He looked away, wanting out of the simulation for some reason. “And…” She said, looking at him again, “I told you to go there because it would be safe for me to come and meet you there someday. I meant to tell you when you were walking away, and we got separated… I was actually going to come with you, funny enough.” She said, then giggled a little. “But that was what my heart wanted. I really meant to say that I intended on meeting you in the Godfried system, on Dionysus.” She continued to stare into Mikhael’s eyes, and for the first time since he’d been with her, he felt whole again. The lack of purpose his physical body felt no longer mattered.