Janet Delane wasn't supposed to be a spaceship captain. She's fresh out of high school, and she has trouble with technology - it seems to hate her personally. Now she's been drafted into GUPPEAS, an interplanetary peace organization, and put in charge of the SS Turkey and its misfit crew. She's in over her head, she's crushed out on a rival captain's boyfriend, and she's trying to negotiate peace with the Exalted Leader of Pluto, who's just banned....CHOCOLATE?!
THE COSMIC TURKEY
CHAPTER 1: A TOWN NOT CALLED MARTIAN
Thanks to recent advances in technology, my floatcar can self-navigate, adjust for traffic, and insult my outfit—but it still can’t find me a decent parking space. If it could, I might have avoided the arrest that started the whole mess.
I was living in a town with no name, which sounds like it should be somewhere exotic and frontier-ish, but it was in Connecticut instead. I’d left high school three months early, after causing a slight accident in science class that turned the teacher into a giant electromagnet. He convinced the school to give me a diploma if I promised never to come back. I seemed to have a strange effect on anything mechanical, to the point where my ex-boyfriend Pietro called me Jam-it instead of Janet.
The town was only nameless because the corporation that had previously owned the naming rights, Interglobal Monotonous Generalities Unlimited, had gone bankrupt. According to the charter, we couldn’t get a new name until the City Council had properly considered all suggestions, subjected them to public inquiry, and chosen the top seventeen for a vote. Tonight was the decision, and I was rooting for something meaningful, like Nerthus, the name of an ancient Scandinavian earth goddess. Or maybe something fun to say, like “Flibbertigibbet.” If nothing else, I was going to oppose names like Willow Springs for a town with no willows and no springs, or anything drab like Industry or Harmony or Saint Anything. I had vague plans to attend the local college, which would share the town’s name, and Industry College sounded painfully dull.
I pulled my floatcar into the parking structure across from a brick building with a makeshift sign: “___________ City Hall.” The garage was surprisingly compact, with vehicles stacked in columns of twenty, each hovering a few inches above the next. The whole place smelled like fuelstone, a nose-assaulting combination of burnt rubber and mildew. I passed up three different spaces that were a little too small, then got cut off for the next one by a Saturnian driving a Saturn. Finally, I squeezed into a spot in the top row.
My floatcar was one of the junky old ones, shaped like two crisscrossed canoes with eight antennas pointing out of random junctures. I couldn’t help comparing it with the sleek model below, the kind that folded down to the size of a dinner plate. I couldn’t afford the compact model, much less the fancy kind with the built-in time warp, where the pilot could send it into the future until it was needed. Those last ones were technically illegal, but rich people found ways to get around that, usually by paying the fine in some other century.
The meeting had overflowed from City Hall, so loudspeakers were set up in the courtyard and street in front of the building. I elbowed my way through the crowd in the courtyard: big-eyed Mercurians with their cone-shaped ears, tentacled Uranians, Venusians glowing with their mysterious inner light. And I, Janet Delane, one undersized human, squeezing my way between two gigantic Alpha Centaurians as I inched closer to the building.
A giant screen atop the building showed the scene inside: a human in a kiwi-colored suit and bow tie standing at the microphone. “I think we should call it Industry City.”
“Boring,” I muttered. “Do we even have any industries?” I worked at the only factory in town, a packing plant that made edible air.
A Venusian with a bright purple aura was entering the building. I couldn’t tell from here if it was my ex-boyfriend Pietro, but it looked like his aura color. I decided I’d stay outside and watch the screen.
The next speaker was some sort of giant insect, possibly a mutated aphid, wearing a backward baseball cap. “Every town should have a good theme song,” the bug said in a raspy voice like fingernails on plasteel. “Who doesn’t love to hear Chicago Is My Kind of Town, or I Left My Heart in San Francisco? Or It’s Great to Be Alive in Death Valley? So I’ve narrowed the name choices down to either Unchained Melody or Your Love Is Like a Cold Slice of Pizza. Or if you like country music, maybe I’m Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life.”
“Thank you,” said the mayor, a helmet-haired Earthling descended from a long line of senators, governors, and upscale mobsters. She handed off the microphone to an elderly woman in a too-short okapi-print dress with Zhorb printed across the butt.
“Saint Zhorb doesn’t have a single town named after him yet.” The woman sounded outraged at the injustice.
“No saints,” I groaned, trying to get around the shuttlecraft-sized Alpha Centaurian in front of me. “Would you want to see that on the side of a garbage truck? Saint Somebody trash removal?”
On my left, another gigantic Alpha Centaurian peered down and asked, “What religion is Saint Zhorb? Catholic or Flubertarian?”
“No idea!” I yelled back, hoping he could hear me up there.
A third Alpha Centaurian moved in on my right, so now I was completely wedged in. On the plus side, they radiated cold, which was a relief from the heat of the crowd. On the downside, they were blocking my view of screen.
Voices kept booming from the loudspeakers. “Let’s call it Glzrxplexis!”
“I heard Queelchu will make a large donation if someone names a town after her.”
“Queelchu? The actress? She hasn’t made a holofilm in fifty years!”
“How about New New York?”
“There’s already a New New York and an Old New York and a Middle-Aged York.”
A familiar voice broke through. “We should name it Martian.” I recognized the voice: it belonged to my brother, the only person who’d come up with that.
“This isn’t Mars! It’s Earth!” The gurgling voice told me a Plutonian was speaking. Weren’t we still at war with Pluto? It was hard to keep track.
“It’s a great name,” the first voice persisted. Definitely my brother. What was he doing here?
“How about New Mars?”
“Not Mars. Martian.”
The Alpha Centaurian looked down at me again, his indigo eye larger than my head. “There are no Martians. Are there?”
“No!” I yelled back.
“What?” The Alpha Centaurian bent closer to hear me better. A lock of his hair flopped loose and knocked me over. “Sorry,” he said, and reached a finger down to help me up.
From where I’d landed, sprawled on the ground facing away from the building, I was probably the only one who saw what happened next. A time-warped shuttlecraft blinked into existence near the top row of the parking structure. Someone must have set the timer wrong (underestimating the length of the meeting, no doubt). The time-warped craft displaced one of the fold-up models, which was jolted into unfolding, which in turn knocked another floatcar loose and sent it flying…straight across the street, through the screen, and into the roof of City Hall. Outlined in black was a giant smoking hole shaped like two crisscrossed canoes. A stray antenna dangled a pair of fuzzy twenty-sided dice, the ones I’d hung from my mirror for luck.
Unfortunately, my registration papers inside were still perfectly legible. I learned this when the speakers boomed, “Janet Delane, report to security!”
I contemplated trying to disappear, running off to Regulus Prime or something. But I’m even worse at rule breaking than I am at technology, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave the scene of the crime. With assorted eyes and eyestalks staring at me, I made my way inside to the security desk, which was staffed by a four-inch-tall Betelgeusian. There was a twisted glowing paperweight next to the desk, which I eventually realized was the remains of my floatcar.
I tried to explain my situation to the security officer. “It wasn’t my fault. It got hit by the time-warp shuttlecraft that reappeared.”
“There was no time-warp craft found in the parking structure.” He didn’t even look up from the papers on his desk, probably because it took all his strength and concentration to handle a pen that was as tall as he was.
“It must have time-warped out of there,” I argued.
He gave a tiny snort. “That’s what they all say.”
“So this has happened before?”
The Betelgeusian finished writing out my citation, then laboriously tore it off of the pad and held it up to me. It looked like a tarp over his head. Who even uses real pens and paper anymore, instead of plasma slates?
“You’re to report tomorrow to the Superior Court of the City of…” He called out to the people who were still milling around, “Did we ever decide on a name for this burg?”
“New Saint Harmony York Springs,” answered a bright green Saturnian.
“Ugh.” I rubbed my temples.
“Yeah,” the Betelgeusian said, “I was hoping for Glzrxplexis.”
_ ~ _
The next day, I went to plead my case before the court. A makeshift banner with the town’s new name drooped across the courtroom wall, partially obscuring a portrait of the mayor with her pet emu. Half the letters were obscured in the folds, so it looked like it said “Newt Hark…rings.”
A violet glow alerted me to Pietro’s presence in the corner. He snapped a picture, then started typing furiously on his phone, probably posting on his blog. I made a point of ignoring him and watching the trials before mine. Pietro snickered, just loud enough for me to hear.
The other defendants included people charged with petty theft, defacing corporate logos, ballroom dancing under the influence of hallucinogenic quarks, and sneaking candy into a movie theater. I was surprised by that last one: who knew our town had a movie theater? Some offenders got off with fines, one was accidentally acquitted, and a few were led away to jail. The jail uniforms were a cheerful yellow, with an ad on the back for a children’s breakfast cereal.
When my turn came, the robot judge was unimpressed with my explanation. “The damage to the building was forty-four million credits,” it intoned metallically. We have the technology to give robots human voices, so I assume it just liked sounding sinister. “You will reimburse the cost to the city.”
I didn’t have forty-four million credits. I probably didn’t have four credits. “What about the time-warp vehicle?”
“There is no record of a time-warp vehicle being present on that occasion.”
My voice rose in frustration. “Because it time-warped away!”
“That is what they all say. The court’s decision is final. As a first offender, if you cannot pay the fine, you have a choice of one year in jail, one year in the military, or one year in GUPPEAS.”
“The Galactic Universal Peacemongering Paradigm Emergent Action Spacefleet. A new project in interplanetary cooperation.”
I’d never heard of it, but “peacemongering” sounded good. Jail sounded bad. Military sounded worse. So, GUPPEAS it would be. I was given thirty-seven-and-a-half hours to settle my affairs before reporting for duty.
There wasn’t much to settle. I wouldn’t miss my tedious job at the edible air factory, and they wouldn’t miss me after I emailed my resignation. College might as well wait, since I had no idea what to study. As for dating, I’d given it up after Pietro dumped me the night of the zero-gravity prom, when he decided that little malfunction was my fault.
No school, no job to speak of, and no boyfriend. My parents were on assignment in another star system, and I’d have to send them a message explaining what had happened. Later, I decided. Right now, the only thing left to do was call my brother. I pulled out my GeniusPhone, which was last year’s model but still had a higher IQ than the ex-boyfriend. Calling me Jam-it the Technology-Slayer, as if that even made sense! “GeniusPhone,” I said, “place a call to—”
The phone sprayed a shower of red and green sparks, then gave a dramatic wheeze and fell apart in my hand.
I made the call from the call panel in the courthouse.
My brother’s round face filled the screen, squinting as if he’d been out all night. “Hey, Janet.”
A Uranian mer-slug came up behind me, dragging its tentacles and leaving a trail of goop on the floor. It pointed a tentacle at the call panel.
“Hi, I wanted to tell you—” I stopped. “Why are you bald?”
“I’ve been working on designing a hands-free razor, and it worked so well, I got a little carried away.” My brother grinned. “Were you at the town hall meeting last night? It was wild.”
The Uranian tapped a tentacle impatiently. Sorry, but I got the call panel first. “Was I there? Hello, my floatcar got knocked through the roof, and I was arrested!”
“Oh yeah—I forgot about that after the fight broke out between the Larch Springs people and the Saint Something-or-other people. And I had the best name.”
“Yeah, Martian. There isn’t a single town on Earth named Martian.”
“Martian, I have to tell you—”
The Uranian peered over my shoulder. “That’s not a Martian,” it said. “That’s an Earthling.”
My brother had this conversation often. “No, I’m Martian,” he said.
“Everyone knows there’s no such thing as Martians.”
Usually I let him go on and confuse people if he felt like it. Not today. “His name is Martian. Martian Delane.”
“But I was actually born on Saturn,” he added helpfully.
“Not now!” I snapped. Once he got started on that story, there would be no dragging him back. “Martian, the reason I called is I got arrested, and they’re making me join this thing called GUPPEAS. Peacemongering something something spacefleet. I need you to store some of my things.”
“Can I use the parts from your floatcar?” Knowing Martian, he’d probably rejigger it into a musical toothbrush or a solar-powered Geiger-counting deep fryer.
“Sure, whatever’s left of it.”
“What did Mom and Dad say about the whole arrest thing?”
My face warmed with embarrassment. “I haven’t told them yet. I’ll figure something out.”
“Cool. Let me know how to reach you.”
A Venusian walked by, giving off a translucent lavender glow. “That’s not a Martian.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Just don’t.”
_ ~ _
The next day, I reported to the GUPPEAS headquarters with a duffel bag stuffed full of my belongings slung over my shoulder. I was greeted by a smirking Venusian man with slicked-back blue hair and a lime-green aura. I’ve heard that Venusians don’t have auras on their home planet; it’s some sort of reaction to the colder temperatures in the rest of the galaxy. Colors are very individual; my ex-boyfriend Pietro used to go from lavender to deep indigo to show degrees of pleasure. On the GUPPEAS officer, lime green apparently meant smarmy. His cologne had that new spaceship smell, hot metal and glue, but his smile was more like a used-spaceship salesman.
“Janet Delane? Welcome to GUPPEAS. I’m Vertin Bogler, the Undersecretary to the Oversecretary to the Director of Recruitment and Retention.” He handed me something that looked like an oversized cell phone with straps at both ends. “Here’s your beepity-beeper.”
“Communications device. It’s short for Boron-Edged Electrum-Powered Integrated Technological Yadayada Bifurcated Electronic Eleventy-Purpose Existential Radio.”
“Of course it is. What else would it be short for?” I let him attach it to my arm with the straps.
“You don’t get a weapon, of course, this being a peace organization.” He gestured toward a device mounted on the wall. “We tried using felicinators, which put the targeted creature in a really good mood, but some species like Plutonians tend to torture people when they’re in a good mood.”
“Felicinator is short for…”
I stopped listening, his voice providing a dull background buzz as I looked out the office window at the spaceport. The ships hailed from all over the galaxy, and I recognized some of the styles, from the deceptively simple Saturnian saucers to the constantly moving Cassiopeian ships made of living matter. My eyes were drawn to one elegant ship that looked like a Terran design, shaped like a golden dragon with wings half unfurled. Would I get to serve on a ship like that?
“Captain Delane?” Bogler’s voice broke in.
That was weird. There was a captain with the same name as me?
Bogler took a heavy box off his desk, grunted, and thrust it into my arms. “Here are the forms you’ll have to fill out.” He picked up a pile of folded clothes in several too-bright colors, and tossed them on top of the box. “And there’s your captain’s uniform. I’ll show you to your ship.”
Wait, did he just call me “Captain”?
He flitted across the room to the lift, and I staggered after him as best as I could, half carrying and half dragging the box. “There must be some mistake. I’m not a captain; I’m a felon. The charge was wanton and mildly atrocious destruction of government property.”
“That’s all very interesting, Captain,” he said. “But we never make that sort of mistake. Don’t forget to get your paperwork done.”
“Paper? You mean, like, from dead trees? Doesn’t the ship’s computer do your forms?”
“The forms aren’t compatible with your ship’s computer. We’re not sure what is compatible with your ship’s computer. We’ve sent it to seven technicians, a psychiatrist, and an acupuncturist.”
We stepped off the lift and emerged next to the port, in an area that appeared to be the salvage yard. In front of us stood a battered husk of metal shaped like an ugly long-necked bird—a turkey, maybe—with the tail about to fall off. It was burned in some spots and rusted in others, with a shuttlecraft-sized hole in one side.
“Here’s your ship,” he said, giving it a cheerful pat.
I stared. “Can I change my mind and go to jail instead?”
The tail fell off.