Truth and the Goddess Arl - Part One
At the bottom of the cargo ramp, Alex stood gaping in awe at the bazaar of the bizarre that stretched out before him. Tens of thousands of people went about their business, appearing and disappearing through the doors of the myriad shops that lined the walkways.
As his eyes scanned the crowd, several oddities popped out almost immediately. When Bethany said this was a pirate outpost, the last thing Alex ever expected was to see actual pirates milling about. Sure enough, though, he spotted a group of men nearby dressed from head to toe like long-lost extras from Pirates of the Caribbean. If that wasn't bad enough, to behind those men, he found several other styles of clothes clashing in this wild assembly of history. Men and women dressed in business attire Alex could find walking the streets of his own city in his own time moved through the crowds. From his spot on the cargo ramp, Alex picked out as least six centuries worth of styles in the masses--and those were just the styles he recognized. Given the time difference from his own time to the current present, there were at least five more centuries of styles he couldn't account for that filled the scene.
"What's the deal?"
Bethany glanced up from a glorified shopping cart she'd just brought over. It hovered about a foot off the ground and seemed to move with hardly any effort despite Bethany's size compared to the cart. "Deal with what?"
Alex waved a hand at the crowd. "That. Why all the different styles? Is everything retro here?"
"Thank the Goddess Arl for that. The pirate community more than any other take her teachings very serious."
"She's big on being yourself. Not letting society dictate what you prefer. That kind of thing. If you like clothes that went out of style 1000 years ago, then wear those clothes. Who gives a damn?" Bethany pointed toward a towering spiral in the center of the outpost. It whirled around and around up into the sky, high above any other manmade structure in sight. "That's her temple. We'll stop by once we work our way there."
"Can't wait," Alex said dryly.
Shopping made Alex uneasy. While it was good to get out of the ship and on land for once, the crowds of people were not all that welcome. Especially when you could turn to your right and see some dude dressed up like a Viking warrior. Freaks.
As they strolled along one of the many walkways, glancing through storefront windows, the strong aromas from the various food vendors mixed into a medley of humanity and food that didn't do much for the appetite. Every so often, though, Alex got a good whiff of frying meat that nearly brought him to a halt. He hadn't had so much as a hamburger since he boarded that ship of insanity. With half a million credits to his name, each passing restaurant-on-the-go drew him closer.
Bethany apparently noticed. "If you want to stop and eat, just say so."
Truth be told, there was only one thing stopping him. He didn't want to eat at a restaurant with Bethany, lest she get the idea it was some kind of date. "I'm all right," he said. His stomach had other ideas.
Bethany shrugged. "The computer equipment you want to look at is down at the other end of the plaza. We can head there first and then work our way back, or we can just walk back after we're finished."
"Up to you. I don't even know why I'm here."
"I needed a big strapping man to protect me," she said as if it were the most obvious answer.
"Again, I wonder why I here." Was she delusional? Alex wouldn't know what a muscle looked like on his own body.
Grinning, Bethany nodded toward a door to their left. "Let's get the food then."
Grocery stores hadn't changed much over 500 years. The aisles were still stocked with food; gentle music still filled the air. The checkout lanes looked a bit different. Alex paused long enough to watch a few customers merely walk away from the aisles and leave with a carts overfilled with food.
"Is the food free?"
"How do you pay?"
Bethany nodded at the doors they passed through to enter. "Anything that goes through is checked and tagged. Your ID implant is scanned and billed automatically. A record is sent to your SoftPAD."
"There's two of us. How do they know who to bill?"
As they made their way down a canned food aisle, Bethany tapped at a display on the cart just below the handgrips. It read: 24982184. "Ship ID," she said, plucking several cans of peaches off the shelf.
"And if you don't have a ship?"
"Then you put your own personal ID."
"What if you don't put anything?"
"Then you're vaporized as soon as you walk through the doors."
Alex's eyes had started to wander over the body of a hot little number a bit farther down the aisle. When Bethany said that, however, he jerked his head around only to discover the grin she struggled to hide. "Not funny."
"You ask too many questions. But that's to be expected, I suppose, from someone like you, old timer."
Alex kept to himself as Bethany and he walked the aisles, filled the cart, and then headed for the exit. His eyes drifted up toward the arch over the doorways before stepping through. Even though Bethany was joking, the paranoia was still present.
All that food shopping had made him hungry to the power of ten. The fresh fruits and vegetables alone did a number on him. From what Bethany told him, they often bought fresh food but used it up quickly on a ship that didn't land for supplies three or four months at a stretch. Lucky for Alex he showed up well into one of those stretches.
Ah, what the hell? "Sure," Alex said. "Let's eat. Something greasy and terribly deadly on the arteries."
Bethany parked the cart outside a shaggy old diner about a mile from the shop where they bought food. As she headed for the door, Alex hesitated. "You just leaving this here? Won't someone steal it?"
"No," Bethany said over her shoulder. "Nobody will steal it. Long as our ship code is there, nobody will touch it. Pirates don't steal from other pirates."
"What's to stop someone from just removing the code?"
"Need the password to do that."
"What's the password?"
"My thumb print."
"So if anyone tries to cut off your thumb, I should run out here and save the groceries."
Inside the diner, Alex slid into a red-cushioned booth. The gentleman that he was, he took the side of the booth without the large rip in the seat. Bethany squirmed a bit but otherwise didn't protest verbally as she got comfortable. She did however narrow her eyes to slits for a moment.
"What's good here?"
"How do I know? Never been here."
Bethany popped out of her seat and leaned back across the booth to stick her head over the shoulder of the man seated behind her. "What's good here?" she asked of the couple.
Alex scooted deep into his seat, trying to hide behind a menu he wasn't really reading.
After brief conversation, Bethany dropped back onto her seat and grinned. "She likes the Urga steak. He likes the plain old cowburger."
"Animal from a planet you don't know. Bit too tangy for me. You might like it."
"I'm assuming a cowburger is a hamburger."
"Probably. I've never heard of a hamburger, but who knows?"
When their food arrived, Alex was pleased--for once--to discover a cowburger was in fact a regular hamburger. His first taste of real meat in what seemed like a year went overwhelmingly well. In an instant, all the troubles of the past and those yet to come vanished within that single blissful moment of pure heaven. With his eyes closed, he could almost pretend he was home and this was all a bad dream.
"You're supposed to eat it," Bethany said with a mouthful of fries. "Not have an orgasm."
A while later, "This is nice," Alex made the mistake of saying.
Bethany beamed at him. "Yeah, it is."
"What else do we need to get?" He tried to change the subject quickly. "Besides my computer parts?"
"The ship needs some computer parts, too. That's all we need to get--" Bethany squinted. "Oh, eetee. I forgot Franky's peanut butter."
"He'll be all right without it."
Bethany laughed--soft, melodic. "He needs it. You don't want to be trapped on a ship with him if he doesn't have peanut butter for four months."
"Well, we better go back."
"Nah. You get it. I'll reimburse you once we get back to the ship. While you do that, I'll head toward the temple. We'll make a short stop there, take a look around, introduce you to Arl, and then we'll finish shopping and get back."
"Arl is here?"
"Not exactly. You'll see."
Before he could protest having to fetch Franky's peanut butter, Bethany was out of the booth and arranging payment for the meal. Alex headed out and back toward the grocery store, taking a moment outside the diner to find the entrance to the temple amid the lingering people.
After picking up the jar of extra smooth peanut butter--that label would forever he burned into his brain--he headed toward the temple. Nearing, he spotted Bethany and then paused. She was off to the right of the temple, without the cart. A large man with hair raining off his shoulders had his hand around her arm. He thought she knew him, but then he saw her struggle against his grip in a vain attempt at freeing her arm. From this distance, Alex could make out the cold sneer on the man's face as it shot a dagger of dread through Alex's chest.
They were far enough to the side of the temple that none of the passers-by took notice of them. The causal conversations among the throngs of people drowned out any calls for help Bethany may have been making.
Alex worked his way closer. He had no idea what he was going to do. The man was at least twice his size. The gun strapped to Alex's thigh weighed heavily with each step he took--the jar of peanut butter in his hand all but forgotten.
As he neared, the smell of sweat and years of dirt emitted from the man, destroying any lasting memory Alex might have had of that glorious meal. "Problem?"
"Alex!" Bethany gasped.
The man shoved her roughly against the wall of the temple, and then turned his head toward Alex and smirked. "What are you supposed to be?"
"Let her go," Alex said. He swallowed hard.
"Or what? She your daughter? You his daughter, little girl? He want to watch as I defile his daughter?"
"She's not my daughter. Let her go."
Bethany struggled harder at the distraction Alex brought to the situation. It wasn't a wise choice, though. The man just shoved her against the wall again; her head bounced against the concrete blocks with a sickening thunk. All the while the man's attention remains on Alex.
"Well?" he said, sending a wave of deadly breath over to Alex. "What you going to do, hero?"
Maybe the peanut butter would be good for something after all. Alex brought the jar back, fully intent on hurling it at the unwashed head of the stranger. Instead, the simple motion was enough to kick the assailant into action. He kicked out at Alex, a steeled-toe crashing into Alex's stomach with such force, for a moment, Alex couldn't breath, he couldn't see, he was almost sure the kick had killed him. Then a wave of pain washed through him and the world came back into view--albeit a bit fuzzier. He was faintly aware that the peanut butter jar had fallen to the ground and rolled away.
Alex watched, disabled by the kick, as the man tossed Bethany to the ground. He glanced once over his shoulder, happy with the edge of the building blocking the view of the proceedings from the casual onlooker, and proceeded to pin Bethany to the ground.
Somewhere in the back of Alex's mind, he felt something snap. Whatever twig, string, or piece of hair that had been holding back the last ounce of sanity within him had finally given way. There were no moments left for him to consider his actions. His choices were made and there was nothing he could do. In that moment, he surrendered to life. There was much he could take, much he could ignore and belittle, but this man had carried Alex over the threshold into a new realm of reality--one where Alex Sterling no longer held in check the very fabric that made him do the things he did.
Pain ignored, Alex charged the man about to perform unspeakable acts on Bethany. A beastly wail blew forth from the depths of Alex's insanity, so powerful and so primal that the man stopped and looked up just in time to see Alex's pistol fly from its holster and jam into the man's mouth. Several teeth knocked loose as the barrel of the gun filled the man's mouth and pressed into the back of his throat.
In all his life, Alex had never seen such a look of pure terror fill the eyes of any man--least of all a man threatened by him. And in that moment, Alex actually savored that expression.
Then his finger found the trigger of the gun as if by instinct.
To be continued...