Welcome once again, Layz and Jents, to another edition of the Earthman Mystry Adventure Hour Progrim.
From the ancient sands of Mars to the deepest Neptunian ocean, the air is electric with the promise of adventure.
The space lanes come alive as craven bandits and mad pirates launch their assaults! But wait. The Men, Women and Everyen of the Instrumen Corps are here to defend us! Can these brave enforcers of law and order beat back the tide of chaos that laps at the very edges of civilized life? Can our heroic adventurers ply the lost lanes of the outer system and find the hidden treasures of empires long vanished, kingdoms long dead and dynasties long forgotten before they are lost forever to the predations of black marketeers?
We turn our attention to the planet Uranus; the paradox planet, the puzzle box world, where normal is turned on its head and the familiar is prey to the fantastic. The Oranosians, native residents of that sidewise world, lock their culture away behind their vaunted star shield, hiding from the system at large. Few outsiders ever venture there, and scarce are the Earthmen who’ve seen their legendary sky cities, carved from the very clouds themselves. But venture they must, for the Instrumen have-
“Bring him up,” a finely dressed Oranosian Investigator said as he turned the crystal radio off.
Two Oranosian guards twisted the crank, lifting the Earthman out of the Pit while the Investigator watched impatiently. The chain strained, not against the weight but from countless ages of use. The pulley system creaked and groaned as it slowly moved its load away from the mouth of the Pit and over solid cloud. With a flick of a switch, the claw holding the prisoner’s wrist chain released, sending him tumbling down. The rest of the Pit’s occupants howled at the injustice of having their punching bag stolen away.
“Welcome back, Earthman,” one of the guards said.
The Earthman was wiry, but tough. Scarred and weathered, but still very much a youth. He wore grey, machine pressed clothes and a threadbare winter poncho, the same one he had on when he was first rounded up in the streets of Illapatwua. One of his boots was missing, no doubt kept as a prize by a resident of the Pit.
“Stand him up,” the Investigator ordered. The guards did so, dragging the half conscious Earthman to his feet. “A pleasure to finally meet you. Emilio, is it?”
“Who wants to know?” the Earthman asked in a harsh whisper.
“Investigator Publi Ganash of the Zizivan Court of Imprisonment,” the Investigator said, motioning to his bright sash.
“Yeah that’s my name,” the Earthman said after a moment.
“Bring him to my office,” Publi told the guards.
“Wait,” Emilio said. “I want to hear what happens to the Earthman on the Mystry Adventure Hour.”
The guards dragged the Earthman behind them, following Investigator Publi through the tunnels and halls of the prison. They passed rows of other Offworlders, lounging in their cells, waiting for their turn in the Pit. Obsidian Saturn folk, giant Jovians, the occasional Barsum, golden Amtri, a pair of Martians, jade Neptunians; it wasn’t a stretch to say the prison system of Uranus was more diverse than its cities.
The dark, damp halls of the lower prison gave way to the upper, brighter corridors where processing and administration were located. As high as they were in the prison, they were still far enough undercloud that the dim light of morning could barely be seen. Save for the occasional methane lamp, the only light to be had was the natural luminescence of the Uranian clouds of this layer. The amount they saved on lighting and heat made building cloud prisons very popular this far down.
After climbing many stairs and passing increasingly comfortable looking offices, they ended up in an apartment sized room. A row of old style filing cabinets imported from offworld lined the back of the room. There were also lounging seats, bubble chairs, and personal squishy beds oriented around the place in some kind of pattern that must have been the Oranosian version of Feng Shui.
The guards sat the Earthman down, then stood by and waited. Investigator Publi got behind an official looking desk, also imported from offworld, and collected a stack of leathers together. With so little in the way of flora, leather was the writing canvas of choice for the inhabitants of Uranus. Emilio sized him up quickly. The Oranosian was wrapped in dark sturdy robes and a bright sash which signaled his high station as a Court Investigator. He had a plain appearance despite his gaudy clothes. Flat features, small round eyes, wrinkled head shaved clean of Oranosian wool, skin a light tinge of blue both from diet and the unrelenting cold. Gangly limbs ended in long, slender hands with six dexterous digits. A born bureaucrat.
“Oh, unchain the Earthman, would you?” Publi requested. The guards did so. Emilio rubbed his aching wrists once the freezing cold clasps came undone. “Can I get you anything? Stim juice? Creamed balga root?” Emilio shook his head no. “Of course,” Publi said, making an expression Emilio couldn’t read. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it? Perfect time to get meaningful work done.”
The Earthman shivered. His breath hung in the air in thick puffs and if he didn’t blink often enough, he could feel his eyelids start to dry up from the chill. “What’s with the nice treatment all of a sudden?” he asked after a long pause.
“It came to our attention that the recent raid in the Illapatwua spur might have swept you up in error. I was assigned to review your case,” Publi said.
“I’ve been rotting in here for days and you just now decided to get to this?” Emilio asked, irritated.
“The new government is still settling in; solidifying its hold on the region. It’s common for people to get lost in the… shuffle, during chaotic times such as these.” Publi opened a hatch in his desk and started fishing around. “What’s that Earth saying? Coups are quick, the rest is not? In any case, New Guard style rule is quickly becoming a staple of Oranosian politics so I imagine it won’t be long before the High Order legitimizes our claim over the city. Until then, we will have to make due with what resources we have. Your patience is appreciated.”
“Am I getting freed or not?” Emilio asked.
“That’s what we’re here to determine,” Publi replied.
“Will I get my stuff back?”
“Your belongings are being well cared for in the evidence wing. Ah, here it is.” He retrieved a small disc and placed it on the desk in front of Emilio. He switched it on and it made a sound like a satisfied sigh. “Could you please state your name for the records?”
Emilio coughed, then said, “I am Emilio Delmundo of Earth.” The disc flashed blue.
Another pause. Then, “Instruman. I’m an Instruman.” The disc flashed blue.
“An Instruman. Now that is interesting. There’s only one Instruman assigned to this world, and I know for certain you’re not her. So what brings you all the way out here to Oranosia?” Publi asked.
“Visiting holy sites,” Emilio replied. The disc flashed orange. Publi tsked.
“Holy sites. There are a lot in Ziziva aren’t there? The perfect cover.” Emilio didn’t like where this was headed. “You very religious, Mr. Earthman?”
“Enough to visit Uranus,” Emilio replied. The disc flashed blue and Publi chuckled. Emilio wondered if Oranosians actually understood humor or if it was just another offworld import to them; a curiosity.
“Your entry papers state that you came here on a spiritual pilgrimage, but after some research I have concluded that this was a false pretext.”
“You calling me a liar?” Emilio asked.
“If the pouch fits.”
“Well, I’m kind of in a bind then because I don’t have much in the way of proof.”
“Your honesty is refreshing,” Publi remarked. “Don’t worry. We have ways of verifying your claims.”
“Are these the same ways you use to make people talk?” Emilio asked. Publi looked confused. “You know what? Never mind.”
“Once more. Why are you here on Oranosia?” Publi asked. Emilio didn’t respond. Publi felt his frustration growing. He knew Earthmen could be stubborn and Instrumen doubly so. “I understand that our planet has a reputation in the rest of the system. Some of it is earned. But there is much Offworlders do not know about us. We are labeled a pesky mystery and then written off. Perhaps that is why for all the hundreds of Instrumen that protect the system, only one concerns herself with us.”
“You can’t blame us for that. You close yourselves off to everyone else. There really isn’t a need for an Instruman presence in a place so isolated.”
“Isolation disturbs you?” Publi asked.
“We’re enforcers of interplanetary law and arbiters of cosmopolitcal matters. Other than the space lane entry and exit points that are anchored here, this part of the system is kind of irrelevant. But I guess you guys like your privacy.”
“Sovereignty, Emilio. It is not just a matter of pride. Self rule is vital to our tzvilu,” said Publi. The Earthman shrugged at the word. “Sorry, you don’t really have an equivalent for that in Terrestrial. Tzvilu is akin to a code. A life philosophy, only more so.”
“Is that why there are more prisons here than the rest of the Outer System combined? Because you love self rule so much?” Emilio asked.
“When one cannot discipline themselves it falls to communal sovereignty to do so. The same is true on many worlds.”
“I’m sure the political dissidents you threw in the Pit feel the same way.”
“We stray from the topic. Why are you here on Oranosia?”
“To freeze my ass off,” Emilio replied. The disc flashed blue.
“Mock this investigation at your own peril. You still have a chance at freedom, Emilio, but this curious lack of detail about your travel is fertile ground for all kinds of accusations to take root. Instrumen have reputations for meddling in affairs not their own.”
“How about a rumor that I went on a brew filled, hedonistic romp with a seemly Court Investigator? I love those.”
Publi sputtered his dissatisfaction, but fought to keep his composure. Stoic thoughts and appearance were part of his personal tzvilu. He cleared his throats. Composure.
“Why did you come here? Hmm? Are the Instrumen operating outside of their charter? Are you acting as a rogue law enforcer?”
“You’ve been listening to too many radio plays,” said Emilio.
“I came here to look at statues. You have lovely statues here.” The disc flashed a color that was neither blue nor orange but somehow both.
“We can do this the difficult way, if you prefer, but you will wish we hadn’t,” Publi said. Emilio yawned.
“Can I have my stuff back now? I really want my stuff back.”
“Answer the question, Earthman. Why are you really here?”
Emilio sighed, then grinned a pitying grin. “If I told you, you’d regret asking,” he said. The disc flashed blue. Publi deactivated the disc and pocketed it.
“I have been a Court Investigator for many hundreds of rounds. I can handle anything you say,” said Publi.
“I want my stuff.”
“Answer my question.”
“If I do, will you give me my stuff?” Emilio asked.
“Do you enjoy wasting time?” Publi asked.
“Just yours,” Emilio replied.
Publi removed his personal shocker from its holster and set it on the desk, facing Emilio.
“I will give you one final chance.”
“Come on, you’ve got nothing to pin on me. You didn’t even know I was here a day ago.”
Publi nodded. The guards grabbed Emilio and held him down. Publi aimed his shocker squarely at Emilio’s chest.
“One… final… chance. Why have you come here, Instruman?”
“False imprisonment is a punishable offense, you know. I should be hauling all of you in for this,” Emilio said.
Publi pulled the firing mechanism. Emilio knocked his own seat out from under him, pulling one of the guards forward and in the way of the shot. The guard fell to the floor, convulsing and screaming through grit teeth. Emilio got to his feet and grabbed the other guard’s stun prod. He maneuvered behind him and jabbed the sparking device into the guard’s neck.
Publi fired again, hitting the second guard by mistake. Emilio threw the guard aside and leapt on the desk. Publi jumped back in surprise. Emilio grabbed a coral lamp off the desk and threw it, ruining Publi’s shot as he fired again. The Earthman jumped, stun prod held above his head, ready to strike. Publi fired one last time, hitting the Earthman. The round sent waves of current pulsing through his system and sent him sprawling to the floor. Publi let the air in his lungs go. Composure.
“He leapt in the air. The fool,” Publi said, straightening his sash. “And he thinks I listen to too many radio plays? Guards. Get up. We’re about to earn our bonus pay.”