Yet I have never really written or talked about the Sol System.
I have introduced you to many interesting people over the years, but never really introduced myself. Sure there is a small stub about me at the end of the magazine each and every time and I am proud to say that there many among my readers that take the time to write or send a message, but for the purpose of this new series of features, I think I talk a little more about me, just so you get a feeling for what this is all about.
My name is Alex Cunningham and I was born on Shell-Scoop Fourteen, one of the many floating cities that developed out of the old fuel refineries established on the largest planet of our solar system.
As you, my readers, of course, know I work for the Galacto Graphic Magazine and I have an office here on Mercury.
Yes I know we are not as famous as National Galactic Magazine but we still reach over 50 Billion subscribers every month. A fact we are very proud of and this is a perfect spot to say thank you, to you our dear readers for making it possible for us to travel this magnificent United Stars of the Galaxy and bring you stories and images from so many wondrous places.
Now as I mentioned I was born on Jupiter, but we don't call ourselves Juppies as an article of that other magazine once claimed but we call ourselves Floaters, Solarians or in most cases just Union Citizen, mostly because even though Jupiter is the Sol systems largest planet, it has never reached the population numbers to make it an independent place and send a representative tothe Assembly .
(I will talk much about Jupiter and the floating cities much later in this feature.)
My wife was born on Sedna, a 1500 meter asteroid in the Oort Cloud and part of the many Trans Neptunian Objects that can be found in the outer reaches of the Sol System. Her place of birth is about as far as you can go and still be in the Sol system.
Until recently my wife and our two kids Aikuu and Ninezero had a home on Luna , but now as the kids moved out and found places and families f their own we decided to buy ourselves a small Living Asteroid in the Kuiper Belt .
From the outside, it is just a small irregular shaped dirtball, but the previous owners have remodeled it just recently, On the inside, it is just as we always wanted a home to look like.
Now Miscyri Laydnee , the lovely Saresii chief editor usually smiling at you from her cover column had the idea for a new feature series. She wanted me to make a Journey from Sol Castle across the Sol System and then to the most distant Union Outpost accessible to civilians but write not only about the destination but about the journey itself and about the stops and people I will meet in between.
This features is intended not to make a report about a single exotic or distant location but rather as a snapshot of the Union itself, showing our readers just how vast it had become.
Not a scientific or scholastic report, but an ad hoc street-level view.
Even though I have not really begun this assignment yet, I feel this might just be the most exciting adventure of my career.
01 SOL CASTLE
I begin my journey walking right out of my Office, that is on the 200th floor of the United Publishers Building . This floor and the seven floors beneath it belong to GGM magazine . I and 400 others work here to get a new issue to you via GalNet and Union Post Office every month.
Other magazines and publications are also produced and published here and all are made for United Publishers Inc. a company belonging to the Apollonia Media Group .
The building reaches exactly 3000 meters into the currently very dark sky. It pierces the transparent Duranium copula that domes the city called Heliocaminus City . One of the seven main communities here on the first planet in the Sol System.
I am Human Terran and thus a NiOx breather , find an environment temperature between 20 and 30 degrees most comfortable. I do have a personal Grav Adjuster on my belt, but at the moment it was not active, as the City maintained an artificial grav environment of one G . As the natural gravitation of Mercury was only 0.38.
No one around us really gives a great thought about the fact that we move unhindered and in comfortable street clothing from one planet to another and that the Union has colonies and outposts in some of the most hostile environments imaginable. Yet there is an army of technicians and engineers to make sure that a human , an Ult , A Non-Corp , a Klack or almost any Union member species can travel and move with great ease.
Here in this corridor, we are about to meet the first person I want you to meet on this journey. He is only twenty meters down the corridor and since he is a Spindlar , he doesn't need a ladder like his colleague, aPan Saran human does. This Spindlar is the head of Facilities of this office tower and the Pan Saran is one of his technicians. Those two are part of a small team of beings and robots making sure all those environmental systems work at peak efficiency.
Our offices were on a level outside theprotective dome and only the wall separated us from environmental conditions quite unhealthy for a human like me.
“Hey, Twowhite and hello Phillipus .” I greeted the two as I approached. Twowite the Spindlar had his head inside a removed ceiling panel while Philipus handed him tools.
“Oh hello Alex . I right with you, but your Saresii boss has once again complained about the ambient temperature in her office. I am telling you that girl is more sensitive than my finest temperature sensor.”
Phillipus a tall and athletic built Pan Saran laughed.”We live near Tangier on Earth, that's the North Africa region and yet my wife gets cold feet. We advanced far Mr. Cunningham but human females, Saran , Terran or Saresii do get cold easily even in the 51st century.”
“I am actually collecting material for my next feature and you two are the first I am going to mention. It is exactly these everyday things I am after for this feature.”
The Spindar relaxed the muscles of his telescopic legs and his head became visible. “Gee, Alex don't you think this is going to be mighty boring? I always love your features. The last one about Green Hell was really amazing, but who wants to know about a Spindlar facilities engineer ?”
“Or a Pan Saran janitor for that matter?” Phillipus added.
“I do and I hope a few billion readers will as well. We always focus on the big stories, the exotic places without realizing just how interesting and exotic we are in our daily lives.”
Phillipus put the tools back in the robotic toolbox that was floating behind him and scratched his chin. “Well I am not so sure if you could call Twowhite or me exotic, Mr. Cuningham but perhaps you should come to our house on a Threeday and try the homemade Pilau my wife prepares the real traditional way, now you could call that exotic.”
Twowhite closed the ceiling panel. “That is because it is the nicest word you can come up with, describing whatever it is your wife fabricates. Alex, trust me you want to be as far away from Earth when his wife cooks. It's her declared hobby, traditional cooking that is but she isn't very good at it.”
Phillipus kept smiling at me and said. “Well it's the only thing that comes to mind when I think of anything exotic in my life.”
“If you stop to really see your surrounding you will find just how amazing it all is. Here we have a Spindlar, home to a world that is almost 900 light-years from here, and a Pan Saran working together in a building that is on a planet with a natural environment deadly to all three of us. You Phillipus, commute every day from Earth to Mercury, have you ever stopped and think just how amazing that could be to a colonist on a fringe world or perhaps to a Togar ?”
The Spindlar shook his head in a very human gesture. “Spindlars are from a world 900 light years from here. I was born on Venus . That's just a few light minutes from here. I am a Spindlar by race affiliation, a Venusian by birth, a Solaner by definition and with great pride and a Union Citizen by law and right.” He paused and then said. “But I see what you are saying and I think I look forward to your next feature.”
Phillipus padded his toolbox. “If you do want to feature something about me, then you should include this SnapOn Robo Box . Not exactly exotic or anything but I bet there are Kartanians and Togar out there who would kill for one of these. There is nothing more beautiful in this Universe than a well-stocked toolbox, Mr. Cunningham.”
“Yes, I think I will include a few images of you and your toolbox.”
After I said my farewell to these two I continued to the cluster ofIBT tubes at the end of the corridor. Four access doors for the Inter Building Transport system next to each other. The vertical part of this system was in transparent tubes on the outside of this building.
One of the IBT capsules carried me down, but above the city dome the vista was not very spectacular l as we were in theMercury night period that took almost 88 earth days and it was completely dark outside the domed city. Somewhere to the east was the planet's capital, Messenger City and the original SII Needle .
SII had its first HQ right here on Mercury and while they moved their HQ to Omni Planet almost 2000 years ago, the biggest Giga Corporation in the Union maintained its payroll office there and it is by far the largest single employer of the Solar System .
Now theIBT capsule had carried me beneath the dome I was approaching street-level fast.
Here on Mercury as on all places of the Sol System OTT, Old Terran Time was kept and all places had the same time of day , set after Greenwich Mean Time and so it was just about noon time all across the Sol System. The Sky simulated onto the inside of the dome was baby blue with a few lazily floating cumulus clouds. Now thinking about these little local things, I found it quite humorous that they also simulated the sun against the inside of that dome, they did that almost everywhere but here on Mercury the closest natural neighbor of our sun it was something of a paradox, but then during the long Mercury Night it was very dark outside and the light was way too intense during the Mercury Day , so a simulation of the Sun as it appeared on the sky of Terra actually made sense.
Since the days before the Ascent ,Terrans divided their working day into work breaks and the most important one was of course lunch. While other Terran habits were long forgotten or had mingled with the cultural aspects of many thousand other civilizations, the tradition of Lunch was readily adopted by others and became a Union staple.
There was an old and common joke that the Galactic Council would win a war easily if they attacked the Union at Lunch hour because no one was on their posts.
Of course, the second Galactic Council was now disbanded, Kermac Central a cloud of atomic dust, the joke had a kernel of truth. Especially now witnessing the many office workers streaming out of the various buildings.
Some of them would head to Mozart Crater Park to buy lunch from one of the vendor bots and enjoy sitting in the grass or at wooden benches by Mozart Crater Lake . Others were on their way to the Trans Matter Tunnel connection and have Lunch on Earth . Most of them, however, spent their lunch hour right here along Pioneer Boulevard with many lunch restaurant options. I saw Klack workers crowding a Sugar Water vendor not far from where the IBT had taken me. The dealer, easily recognized by his bright red and green uniform and the floating vendor stand. I actually knew him. The Vendor was a trunk nosed Yokuta named Vimba Gort . He operated that Klack Sugar water cart for many years and did good business. He also carried Coke and other Sodas both humans and Klack enjoyed. Of course to Humans, it was a drink and to Klack it was a form of food.
He was a wonderful source of information if there was any rumor in the Galaxy you could be sure Vimba knew about it. Right now at Lunchtime with so many hungry Klack he was of course too busy to share a few of the newest rumors with me.
Simply standing there in the warm fresh breeze of asimulated Terran Spring day before the United Publishers Tower was a sight to see if one took the time to actually see what was going on. How many times had I myself rushed in and out to some assignment without really seeing it.
A huge Saturnian woman in her all coveringshroud in a shrill pink had her face veil pulled back and enjoyed a massive sandwich that would have feed an entire Terran family for a day, while sitting by the UPT fountain and talking to a not much smaller Quadiped . The four-legged being held a similar-sized sandwich roll in his left and a Sparklebright soda in his other.
Only now did I notice an Ult who used the lunch break to take a dip in the Fountain, submerged up to his head. The three had from the looks of it a heated discussion.
I walked over and greeted them. “Happy lunch hour, Citz I am Alex Cunningham ...”
The trio interrupted their discussion and the Ult got up a little more and said. “I know you, Mr. Cunningham, you are one of the traveling columnists for GGM , right?”
“Yes, I am.” I felt a little surge of pride being recognized. “I am sorry for interrupting your conversation but I am working on a new feature and wondered if I could be so bold and ask what it is you are discussing.”
The Quadiped was wearing a black outfit of four-legged pants and a T-shirt featuring the Union Flag and a picture of the Devastator ,clearly indicating that he was a typical member of his species. Quadipeds were famous for being Union patriotic to an almost fanatical level. He said. “Of course Mr. Cunningham, we could not agree who the greatest Union Hero is, as if there could be any doubt. I am Hank Pluribusunum , the Ult in the water is Wapp Stemks and the Saturnian lady is Wilhelmina Steinberger .”
The Saturnian woman, almost three meters tall greeted me with a hand wave and said. “It is exciting to meet you Mr. Cunninham. Of course I know of you as well, We are technically colleagues, I am the Editor of Heavy G ,a lifestyle magazine and we are just five floors below you. I am always jealous of the wonderful features of your magazine.”
“It is always a delight to meet others in the same business and working for the same media company. I must admit I have yet to see a copy of Heavy G.”
The Quadiped pointed at his T-Shirt. “To answer your initial question, Mr.Cunningham. It was my shirt that started the argument. What do you think?”
“About your shirt?”
“No not the shirt, the Devi of course. It is, of course, the best and most famous ship of them all. Even that new super ship they found or all the extra Devi sized ships we have now. It is still the Devi!”
TheUlt spread his arms. “But I heard the new ship, the USS Dominator is supposed to be commanded by Stahl . They even made him a special rank , Admiral Captain . I tell you the Devi will be forgotten soon. It is Stahl who makes a ship famous.”
The Saturnian woman added. “I think it is the Tigershark . They only recently published some of that ship's logbook. Oh, I can't get enough of that one.”
The Quadiped was not convinced. “I remember you had the awesome luck to write about the Devi , so what do you think?”
“Well the Union History is unquestionably linked to Admiral Stahl and that incredible ship, we all know as the Devastator. Maybe the Eternal Warrior will make new history with the Dominator but this will take time. If the question is who is the most famous ship of all times, then it is without doubt the Devi. After that exchange, I stepped onto a slide belt segment and said. “MonoRail.” The invisible field microphones projected all over the street picked up my request and theslide belt segment I was standing on changed lanes and linked into the mainline. This was a modern two-speed, two-direction slideway with 300 x 150 cm syntho-rubber squares linked to each other. Unlike simple beltways, slide belt ways could accept destination wishes and each segment could be linked and unlinked to join or leave slide streams to reach a destination. Soft assist fields kept passengers from hurting themselves or falling over during direction changes. My destination was the Tuttle Shuttle Port and it was on the other side of the planet, I could have used the TransPlanet shooter or the new Transmatter Connection between Heliocaminus and Rembrandt City , but I opted for the old and still popular surface Mono Rail that connected all towns and cities on Mercury. MMRS had a reputation for great passenger service and providing an excellent lunch. The slideway carried me to the Monorail station and the projected float a sign informed me that the next train would arrive in 12 minutes. The train would make the trip to Rembrandt in 7 hours and 45 minutes. It traveled at nearly 1000km/hr but it made a few stops along the way. The Planet shooter could make the trip in two hours and of course, TransMatter was instantaneous, but I looked forward to a pan-seared Ilasian goat filet . Of course, I could haveprinted me a steak or a meal at any of the Public Vent-Matics , but no matter how much SII Foods and the other Vat and Artif Food Companies claimed that it was as good as the real thing,I still believed to taste a difference. I stepped onto the elevated Mono Rail platform and was pleasantly surprised to see a sizeable crowd waiting for the next train. The Mono Rail was after all the oldest mass transportation system here on Mercury and it first opened 2399 and since it was 5050 accroding to the OTT Calendar that happened 2,651 years ago. Of course, it had been modernized and expanded many times since then, it was still an ancient concept. Like most citizens of the Sol System, I preferred Old Terran Time over Union Standard . It had primarily to do with the human biological clock that, after all this time still had the old Planets rhythm imprinted and to us, Humans of Terran descent, the day with 24 hours and a Year wit 12 Month and 365 Days simply felt right. The Monorail platform was a transparent tunnel with two tracks. The Equator West and the Equator East track . The Double-track circled the Mercury completely around and a round trip took a little over 14 hours. The tracks itself were made of Compacted Duro Crete , as it was impervious to the large temperature changes and were elevated about 30 meters above the actual ground. The line had a few tunnels as well, if I recalled, as had made the last trip with the Monorail about 10 years ago. The transparent pipe tunnel was closed with a triple force field membrane and could be closed with a physical gate in seconds. A melodic sound rising through the entire Audio Spectrum announced the arrival of the Noon 20 train . Colorful safety energy curtains shot up so no one could step onto the actual tracks, of course, companies did not miss the opportunity to project advertisement and public safety announcements on the energy curtains and I was reminded that Polonium Coins despite their popularity on worlds outside the Union and despite their rad shield casings were illegal anywhere in the Sol System and on Mercury and that every Union Bank would gladly issue a Credit Box in the equal amount. I had made a living traveling to the fringes of the Union and knew about this dangerous habit of Non Union civilizations. I had paid informants with Polo coins myself and always carried an Auto-Doc able to neutralize Polonium Poisoning , but I was glad it was outlawed as a form of tender within the Union. In my desk, in the office, I still had a plastic bag full ofAttikan Attipaw Coins the only legal Coinage form of tender in the Union as far as I knew. The train came in and despite the tight seal of the membrane forcefield brought along a fine scent of metal and dust. It was called the Scent of Mercury by the locals and there were protests when the Monorail company wanted to fix and tighten the forcefield seal, by adding a mirror silicone layer to the trains. There was only a trace atmosphere out there and no one could ever take a breath outside so this was the only way smelling how Mercury was supposed to smell if it had a breathable atmosphere. I knew school classes came here only for that and the 'Oh and ahs' of children not far from where I was standing confirmed that there was a class here today. The train itself looked sleek a bluish silver with large viewports and twelve segments. It was 20 meters in diameter and about 1000 meters long. It featured luxury cabins with sleeping accommodations, a fast-food restaurant and a fine dining compartment. There was a spa and there were shops. I purchased a Top Lux Cabin via my PDD and it communicated with the PDD of a Klack in MonoRail Uniform . TheKlack wiggled his antenna and this member of the largest Union Member civilization said via his voice box. “Welcome Sir, your cabin is upper-tier number 4. I wish you a pleasant trip to Rembrandt City .” I thanked him and asked. “What is on the menu today?” "Our famous Ilasian Goat of course and we have a rare delicacy called Fangsnapper Steak all the way from Planet Nilfeheim .” “Reserve me a table for 1400.” “Yes Sir, the table is booked.” I always loved the interior of these old Mono Rail trains with red carpet, wood paneling and polished brass. In here there was not a hint of theScent of Mercury , but an aroma of Vanilla , coffee and the faint odor of cigar smoke from the smokers lounge. Here everything was still a little Retro Earth and even the most progressive minded Terran Human always felt quite at home in an atmosphere like this. The Cabin was cozy and comfortable with corduroy upholstery, brocade curtains and a nice table of polished wood right next to the large window. It didn't take long and the Monorail departed and slipped through the other energy curtain and accelerated fast. The old train used, if I remembered the explanation of the Museum guide correctly a system of magnets that made the train hover. This modern train usedArtiGrav to neutralize its own mass and a projected Grav repulsor point at the end of the train, there was nothing in the actual tracks needed for propulsion. The Landscape outside was more or less invisible as it was very dark, but occasionally there were lighs of a surface settlement or the dancing lights of a crawler. The character of Mercury outside the domed and underground cities had changed little since man came first to this harsh world. Then a large industrial complex with thousands of floodlights looked like a Christmas tree . That huge plant was pumping liquid iron from the core and processing it in large Billets, strings of steel 50 meters long and 5 meters thick. Each of those strings hundreds of tons loaded aboard sturdy and ugly transporters and shipped toSol Hub where the steel was sold and shipped wherever steel and iron as needed. The bright red glow of the hellish hot metal liquid pouring from forcefield pipes could be seen from miles away. Only a few years ago I had done a feature on that Iron Pump and Steel Mill . It was almost time so I made my way to the Restaurant. I decided against my all-time favorite Goat and opted for the Nilfeheim Special . It started with white seaweed bud bread stuffed with crisp fried Snapper bacon and glazed Onions. It was even more delicious as it sounded. The waiter, a distinguished Thauran was about as perfect as a waiter could be. He knew the food and where it came from, how it was eaten, and what went with it, He recommended a crisp beer from Planet Holstein for the appetizer and for the Tyranno Fin Fish stew ala Olafson a spirited wine from the Thauran Planet Azure . The Stew was as good as any bouillabaisse I ever tasted and the Fangsnapper steak had a strong but very tasty flavor. The meal ended with traditional Neo Viking Sweet Meats and a cup of strong Terran coffee . Now carefully swirling a fine Carlos Primeros Brandy from Spain Earth and a real tobacco cigar hand-rolled and selected on a planet called Tabacum almost 1000 Light years from here, between my fingers, I stared out the viewport seeing nothing but my own reflection and a few dots of light in the far distance. I knew we were crossing the Caloris Basin impact region and would soon make the first stop at Ilias where the Homer plane begun and the Monorail train would pass from night into day. In my mind, there wasn't anything more fascinating than our own United Stars of the Galaxies . I picked up the leather-bound elegant menu and leafed through the culinary offerings and it read like a map of the Galaxy. Trolom soup from across the Bridge , Aroma Grass Cakes from the Attikan Commonwealth in theLarge Magellanic Cloud . Saresii Salad , Ultanese Huglan with squiggle worms, Klack Honey Water Wine and this was only a small cross-section of what was available on a MonoRail train restaurant. I had seen the menu choices on Luxury Clippers and then there was GalNet where everything could be ordered. Even hot meals delivered in Zero Stasis Boxes . Mercury had a predominant human population but that did not mean there were no other Union Members . There were, of course, Klack and Ult and Andorians , there was a large Sauron and a Spindlar and a group of chirping Holdians right here in the Restaurant. The Waiter came and asked me politely, “Sir we are seated to capacity and I have a guest who likes to dine, would it be acceptable if he shares your table?” “No, not at all, I am almost done anyway. “ “Please don't hurry Sir. You have not tried our Archa Ice Cream yet.” “Archa Ice Cream?” “Archa is the name for a planet and a species that is far in the Coreward Sector that isGalactic south to the Klack Empire . They discovered ice cream about 30 years ago and have not only become the biggest per capita consumers of ice cream but also the greatest ice cream experts.” A tall very black man approached the table, he wore the Navy Black Uniform of a Commodore and as I glanced on hisRibbon display , I noticed the Blue of the Medal of Honor and a host of other high decorations, He bowed stiffly and said, “Shaka Nebele , the Maitre De said it would be alright,” I got up and extended my hand, “But of course Commodore Nebele . I am Cunningham, Alex Cunningham.” “Not the same Alex Cunningham who writes for Union Galactographic Magazine ?” I could not help the feeling of professional pride as such a distinguished high ranking officer of the fleet recognized my name. “The same.” I gestured and the Commodore sat down across me and my chin dropped as I noticed the Devastator Honor Ribbon underneath the Helmsman logo . He had served aboard the most famous ship of the Galaxy, and his rank pins made him aBattle Group Commodore . The small golden 1 above his rank pins declared him to be Battle Group Commodore of the First Fleet . In civilian terms he was a Navy Celebrity of the top tier, He most likely spoke with the Eternal Warrior himself on a daily basis. But as amazing all this was, the reason for his dropping chin was theblue and black service pin with the little shark symbol. This man had served aboard the Tigershark . Only last year did the Navy acknowledge its existence and released some of the accomplishments and adventures of that ship and crew. When Stahl revealed on Channel 1 some of the things this crew did the Union had a new buzz word “Tigershark” and the declassified version of its Logbook became the most popular download on GalNet . Every reporter and media man would give his soul to the devil to speak to one of that ship's crew and yet I didn't want to alienate the man by bombarding him with questions. So I bit my tongue and said nothing.” The black man smiled disarmingly and said. “ I can’t tell you all too much as it is still classified and I take my oath and all that quite seriously, but not all is secret.” He pointed at the menu. “The Ice cream thing was started by my dearest friends Krabbel andMao Vouza , both former shipmates of mine.”
“Sir, I read the declassified version of the Tigershark log . I heard the Eternal Warrior speak about you and we all know it is only about ten percent of what really happened and even those ten percent are almost unbelievable. “ I babbled like a waterfall hoping to say the right things and added. “I didn’t mean unbelievable. I meant utterly fascinating. Did you really travel with Sobody the Merchant ? Is it true you encounteredreal Ghosts and a living Dust Cloud ?” The black man stared dreamingly past me and out the window. “Yes Mr.Cunnigham we traveled with Sobody , Ordbeer is as real a Ghost as science allows for those things and Dusty almost crushed our ship to bits before he too became a friend.” He sighed. “It is only ten years ago I we completed out last mission on the Tigershark . I am married now, have two kids I am very proud of and the Eternal Warrior has put me in line for the Captain Seat of the Eradicator but I miss these days..