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Planet Zebra

By Pete Moss
November 16, 2001

"We'll convene this tribunal by stating the creed for the record. As such and according to the council of churches convened at Rome in 2098: Given that there is no other form of life in the universe, that earth is the sole source of life in the universe, that the human race is the sole form of sentient life in the universe, that for any human to assert otherwise is heresy, punishable by death. The tribunal is now convened. Bailiff, please swear in Mr. Abdul Steinberg."

"You swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, with God as your witness?"

"Sure, OK."

"Answer yes or no Mr. Steinberg."

"Please, just call me Abdul, I never liked that name Steinberg."

"Answer yes or no please, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, so help you god?"

"Yeah."

"This tribunal of inquiry is hereby instated. We will ask a few preliminary questions..."

"Go for it."

"Please do not interrupt Mr. uh...Abdul...."

"Sure, just lemme know when you want me to tell you my story."

"Well we have to get these preliminary questions...."

"Ok, shoot."

"Mr. Abdul..."

"What?"

The Tribune and the bailiff looked at each other. The Trib shrugged, the bailiff rolled his eyes.

"You are Abdul Steinberg, convicted child molester?"

"I'm not a molester."

"You were convicted at Brooklin, New Siberia on or about..."

"I didn't molest anybody. Them kids came to me, the ones that was curious I showed them how to maximize their enjoyment, the ones that wasn't, I let them alone. People don't grow up all at the same rate, some peeps are ready sooner...."

"Mr. Abdul, you were duly convicted in an authorized court of law..."

"Well that's another thing, whose laws were they? Anybody ask me or them kids, huh? No, some stodgy old fruit in some far-away place just decides...."

"Are you denying you are a convicted child molester?"

"That's right..."

"I have the documentation right here on my screen."

"In my own heart I'm not guilty and that's all that counts. Them kids enjoyed themselves, some of them went on to be world famous entertainers in the sex field, using tricks I taught 'em, and did any of them come back and stand up for me after I got popped?"

"Well as a matter of fact, there was one Phoebe Jingles who organized a petition..."

"She did?! I'll be darned, I never heard about that..."

"Wait, we're getting completely off the point. This tribunal is concerned with the events of the drilling expedition to Sirius 4, planet Zebra."

"I was about to ask what you were so interested in my sex life for," said Abdul.

"Mr. Abdul, you are bordering on contempt."

The bailiff looked at the Tribune. The Tribune looked back. The bailiff nodded. The Tribune clicked a few buttons and then studied her screen for a moment.

"I see here you have a A-1 plus rating as a drilling rig technician, which makes you immune from many felony charges and all misdemeanors, nonetheless Mr. Abdul I would urge you to cooperate with this tribunal."

"Of course I will. I told you to go ahead already."

"Please give the tribunal an outline of the events leading up to the assignment to planet Zebra."

"Some little Jap came where I working, out by the Methane Mountains at Oil City. He said his company had secured water rights for a planet that was right on the way between two other planets. They wanted to get this water deal on line ASAP. Most of the water was locked up as ice, few hundred yards below the surface. They needed a driller. I'd been at the current spot at Oil City for a year and a half, hadn't come up with anything. The Jap bought my contract and had me transferred."

"We landed. Place was dark. There was some real sharp geographical features. Lot of canyons, cliffs. It was cold. Maybe the 5th or 6th planet out. That sun is fairly hot, still you couldn't go out without a suit. I don't know what the count was on the atmosphere. We all just wore our suits, better safe than sorry. Place looked pretty bare, you know. So we got the rig and got drilling. We hit water after barely 45 minutes. Lots of it, a gusher. The heat of the drilling melted this big puddle. We radioed in that things looked good. Then we went and started on an exploratory program. Two out of three shots we hit. We had lakes everywhere. We called HQ and said it looked like a winner. You know what water's worth nowadays. We barely got off the radio and they had construction crews there to putting up tanks and pumping plants and loading gear. We'd barely been on-world two pay periods and they were already shipping out. They use splits. You pump 'em full, they fly out to the orbit, split and let the water just float, course it freezes solid out there. Then an interstellar comes by and sticks its tube in and sucks up whatever it needs. It's routine, pretty basic. That's the way they like it. Makes for a cheap, efficient op. So we keep drilling and stuff. Piping the water to the shipping docks. But we're way ahead of schedule. We're only having to work like two, three days every pay period to keep up with the shippers. So you know how guys get bored."

"There was some mention of a drug problem?"

"They were wantin' to set up a still. I said go ahead. Little alcohol never hurt. But some of the guys on the crew had other tastes. They wanted some crank."

"Crank?"

"Amphetamine?"

"Oh yes."

"I didn't see how I could stop them. I didn't think it would matter anyway. I wanted to drag this job out cause it was such easy money, but sooner or later the investors are gonna catch on. Any old C3 coulda run this op, they don't need an A1 like me, at my pay scale. Anyday the bean counters are gonna run the figures and we'll be outta there, no matter how many bogus difficulties I can cook up. I figured we had two pay periods before they replaced us with cheaper staff. I didn't see any of the tweakers getting out of hand in that amount of time."

"Tweakers?'

"Speed freaks, you know, the ones that dig the amphetamine."

"Amphetamine is strictly illegal in all parts of the universe. The fact that amphetamine use is exceptionally counter-productive is long recognized..."

"Yeah I know, that's what the official line is from the Shareholders Union. Anyway everybody knows it gets used...."

"For that matter, setting up a 'still' as you called it for producing alcohol..."

"Hey look, whattaya think? You get out there on some fuckin' planet, some ugly bare old rock floating around a weird color sun, you got no family, you stuck on this little drilling rig with these assholes, working some boring ass bit of business day after day, you ain't makin' no money either, you see your whole future stretching ahead and know you gonna' be doing that same shit the rest of your pathetic ass life..."

"Mr. Abdul, your self-pity is profound. I've never encountered...it's almost enough to induce nausea..."

"Hey judge, you have to pass a stupid test? It's not me I'm feeling sorry for..."

"Mr Abdul!!!!"

"Hey you ever wonder why I'm an A1, with a plus? Huh? It's cause I got empathy! I let my crews have their stills...."

"Mr. Abdul! Consider the ramifications. Amphetamine abuse is a well known cause of hallucinations and paranoia..."

"Well, we're comin' to that. If you just let me talk and stop butting in with all your hoity-toity earthside attitude."

"Let it go on the record that this tribunal in no way condones the rather, uh, loose, style of administration that Mr. Abdul appears to advocate," said the tribune, speaking into her recorder.

"OK, fine now that you covered your ass can I get on with the story?"

"By all means."

"Anyway that wasn't the thing. They couldn't have cooked up their first batch of crank and we already had our first incident. It couldn't possibly have been any of that Amphetamine Psychosis to where you got bugs crawling on your skin or any of that. Even if they cooked up the all time purest batch of crank ever. It takes weeks of steady abuse to get to the point where you seeing that kind of crazy shit. Anyway it was one of the drunks who made the first sighting. And don't go off there either, because it takes even more to drink yourself to the point where you seeing pink elephants or whatever. All my guys were doing was making some pruno out of the canned fruit cocktail. Barely stronger than regulation Malt Liquor. You could drink that all day for years and not get so much as a tremor, let alone a full on hallucination."

"So what was the incident?"

"I think it was genuine."

"What did it consist of?"

"We had these puddles, you know, there was so much water we weren't being all that careful. And they'd freeze over, you know. So one of the guys, he was a Ruski or a Swede or something like that, he makes some skates and starts up with the ice skating, pretty soon, everybody is playing this game the Swede called it 'hockey'. It was cool, seemed like the point was to get up some speed skating and crash into another guy as hard as you could, whoever stayed standing was the winner. You'd get 7 or 8 guys out on the ice all amped up on crank or pruno, some of them even used both, and they'd be blasting around on their skates, bashing into each other and there would be like a pot, you know and the last man standing took the pot."

"How utterly barbaric!"

"Yeah but it was good for moral. you should have seen the guys working on their skates and their strategy. You might think the biggest guy would win the pot every night, and he did at first, but then one of the little guys came up with this idea where he was skating around and around. The big guy would just sort of lumber out on the ice and dare anybody to knock him down. But the little guy was just skating rings around the big guy and making fun of him and the big guy tried to keep up, but he couldn't catch the little guy, the little guy was such a fast skater, and the big guy got all wore out and then the little guy just skated up to him and gave him a tap and the big guy lost his balance, and boom!"

"I can see that was a somewhat ingenious diversion..."

"Damn straight. So anyway, after that the guys were out on the ice all the time honing their technique. Whoever was the defending champ was literally out there every moment he wasn't working. That was Klik Freethinker, so here he comes one night, into the mess hall, his eyes popping right out of his head, didn't even take his skates off, blabbing away about he saw something."

"Yes?"

"So that was the first incident. Most of the guys thought he was trippin."

"Trippin?"

"You know...trippin, to where your brain gets ahead of you."

"You thought he was seeing things?"

"Exactly."

"Now you said 'most of the guys'..."

"I knew Klik wasn't one of the heavy users, anyway the still was barely up a pay period at that point and far as I know the tweakers hadn't made a single batch, they was missing some iodine or something."

"But what exactly did this Mr. Freeman say he saw?"

"Spiders."

"Spiders?'

"Yeah, with six legs and all."

"So then what happened?"

"Nothing really. There was a lot of joshing and kidding around. But only for a few days."

"Yeah?"

"Then the spiders came right up to us. They really dug the water. I guess they'd never had liquid water, they were just used to snow and ice. We'd be out there and the spiders would circle around us. We'd be skating around, you know and all these spiders would be watching us, except you couldn't really put your eye on one. You'd see shadows, on the periphery of your vision. But every time we drilled a new hole there'd be a horde of spiders, until the water froze up, which usually took about a shift and a half. They'd circle around the puddle and just lap it up."

"I thought you said they stayed out of the direct line of sight?"

"Well after we realized we were all having the same, whatever...hallucination, cause there are no other species except the ones the arose on earth, right? We set a trap. We got some heaters and we dumped out some water. Then we dimmed the floods and went inside and turned on all the cameras..."

"But none of the tapes showed anything..."

"Well....they had some kind of cloaking, I don't know, we measured the water and there was water missing that couldn't be accounted for any other way, certainly it was disappearing at 10 times the rate we could account for due to evaporation, even on a place that was twice as warm as Planet Zebra..."

"Yes, that was noted."

"Anyway. It was the same thing. You could see them, but not if you looked directly at them. They were only there in your peripheral vision, and only when they moved. Later on we found out, you know, it was an adaptation, plenty of earth species have evolved the same technique..."

"Well, not exactly..."

"I know, there's the part about how do they know when you're looking at them, right?"

"Yes...one does wonder how an alien species would be able to make that right off the bat."

"But anyway...they figured us out soon enough. I came down from bunking out one shift and there was one of them in the lap of the watch commander."

"You swear to this?"

"I don't know. I mean this is where everything gets really really weird. They turned into our pets. You know, it felt good to have one of them, how to say it? "

"Like a cat?"

"Sort of, I guess, I've never had a cat, actually."

"Well, cats are warm and fuzzy and they cuddle up and purr..."

"No, no, nothing like that. These things were actually cold and slimy and they didn't make any noise at all."

"So what was the attraction?"

"I don't know. It's just that when you had one...when you were holding one....you just got this...this feeling....like everything was gonna be alright....like everything was gonna be....good....I'm not explaining it right, they just gave off a....vibe...."

"This is highly unbelievable...."

"You're telling me. I wish we coulda' got pix. I mean these things were really ugly, you know?"

"But when you had one in your lap it made you feel good?"

"They were like perfect pets, what can I say?"

"So then what happened?"

"Well....some of the, uh, spiders, were better pets than others, you know? Some of them had way stronger vibes."

"Yeah?"

"So the crew got favorites. They started fighting over a few of the spiders."

"And your saying this was how the murder occurred?! Jealousy over the affection of phantom pets, the existence of which defies one of the prime tenets of human religion?"

"Hey, it freaked me out too!"

 

 

 

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