When a tall, dark alien stranger meets a coffee robot.
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Starry, Starry Night
The trip home was much easier than the trip out, assuming one ignored jet lag, or more properly, spacetime lag. It had been a quarter past ten o’clock Central Daylight Time on a warm, July morning in Detroit when Herk stepped into the men’s restroom at Dick’s Drugstore, entered the furthest stall, locked the door, and flushed the john. He’d barely released the knob when the white porcelain toilet transformed into a metallic bowl with a transparent seat set to vaporize any waste sent its way. He flushed again, this time hearing a mild hum instead of the whoosh of water, and the portal he’d come to know so well closed. Having emerged from the stall, which had thankfully been empty this time, he washed his hands out of habit and exited.
It was just past the second of thirty hours that marked Taucetus’s third day of a ten-day week. The sun wouldn’t rise for another five-and-a-half hours and then he could look forward to fifteen hours of sunlight before night fell again. Time was steady on Taucetus. It was sturdy, strong, reliable; everything on Taucetus was steady. He was home, and it was mid-winter. It never snowed on the planet, nor did the temperature ever drop below freezing, but the wind could be biting, and here, near the ocean, it bit hard.
Herk pulled up the collar on his red and black checked suit coat, buttoned the top and bottom buttons, though he knew that was a fashion faux pas, and headed out into the cold. He was lucky. Though the streets were barren, the taxis were running and a blue hovercab pulled up almost immediately after he thought in the request. Herk was lightyears past the simple implants most used on Taucetus and relied on brainwave interactions with his remote computer arrays. Essentially, all he needed to do was think of a request, and his custom-designed implant would bounce it off any friendly, available satellite and direct the request to his master controller, an AI he called Becky. Becky would then tap into the right series of databases to bring him the answer. He didn’t know whether Becky was the brilliant one or him, but it didn’t matter since he also wasn’t sure where he ended and she began. That was especially true since he’d installed a version of Becky on every Aligned World he’d visited.
Home, Beck, he thought.
The taxi’s female voice answered, “Tower Block Alpha Central, North Ocean Way, entered.” The cab took off with a mild hum. Herk gestured and set the inside temperature to seventy-six degrees, the temperature he had become accustomed to in Friday’s apartment. Their final—for six months, he reminded himself—lovemaking session had spilled over into the next morning, and before he could drag himself out of there, three more days had passed. It was fortuitous, as it turned out and not just because Friday had been far more pleased that he’d bought her an engagement ring than she’d initially led on. It was a lucky break because Herk had discovered funk music during his time on the Rock and in Detroit. Friday had taken him record hunting, and his bags were loaded up with as much of the local vinyl as he could carry.
Twenty minutes later, just as the view of the churning verdant ocean came into view—and into smell, mere moments later—the taxi’s interior light switched on and it pulled itself to a stop outside his tower’s front door.
“Destination complete,” she said. “Validating charges … transaction complete. Please mind your head when exiting the vehicle.”
Herk minded it as much as he could, sliding his long legs out before risking sitting erect. He grabbed his handfuls of Michigan booty and entered the building. It was a tall, narrow, efficient building built from stone quarried from one of Taucetus’s moons and colored glass processed in the ancient factories in Lerato’s Reku’Denga district. There was no unneeded ornamentation in the structure’s design, but as light caught the windows it illuminated the building with kaleidoscopic hues that made it a glimmering landmark. That was how most things seemed to work in Taucetus. If it didn’t have a function, it didn’t exist. The residents and businesses that occupied the tower needed to see out, and the robust, invariable sunlight lowered the owners’ operating cost by providing both light and heat, therefore, windows were the obvious answer. Being Cetusian, they had almost certainly negotiated a price for the ornamental glass that didn’t exceed what they would have paid for clear panes. The result was a beautiful structure that was the gem of the North Oceanic neighborhood it dominated, but that was missing the unneeded costs of frivolity.
Herk stopped at Coughee House, one of a thousand such coffee shops that dotted Meren, his city. “Give me a big, tall black,” he said to the coffeebot. The robot looked at him, his domed head blinking blue to indicate a humorous mood and turned to the task. “Best make that two,” Herk said. “I think this is going to be a rough morning. Got a lot of catching up to do.”
“Two big, tall blacks,” said the robot.
Herk was certain he heard it snicker, but he didn’t know why.