by DJ Tyrer

JEM HATED THE Outer Worlds: Everyone was so damn happy. Back in the Inner Systems, people lived real lives full of work and stress, jammed close together in crowded tower-blocks and aboard maglevs. But, out here, people had space and time and neighbours they liked. Pioneers. Hippies. He’d found that word in the dictionary, while passing the time drifting in-system; it suited them perfectly. Nobody had the right to be so happy.

He settled himself down in the corner of the tavern to nurse what the locals called a beer. It didn’t taste a thing like the beers back home, but it had plenty of alcohol in it, so he couldn’t complain. It got him bladdered and that was the main thing.

The patrons of the bar were having a sing-song. Back home, people had the sense to keep quiet, watch sport on the screen, relax. Not all this noise and bothering folk. But, then again, they didn’t have a screen. They didn’t even have proper walls. No plasteel or supercon for them, but wood. Had he known anything of history, he might have drawn comparisons with the Old West. He supposed it made some sort of sense: There were so few of them, they could live in individual houses rather than tower after soaring tower. They didn’t need proper building materials; they could make do.

He took a deep drink of his beer. At least, this world had beer. Some made copious use of drugs, both native to their worlds and imported, but many more of the Outer Worlds eschewed such things; some even banned coffee! Jem hated those worlds the most of all: Everybody so happy and no means for him to escape for a time.

He finished his beer and called for another. The barman slid it down to him and he slid some scrip across in return. Even that simple transaction was so different to the Inner Systems: A mug carved from wood and paper money rather than a plastic cup and e-currency.

At least, the barman kept quiet and no longer tried to engage him in conversation. Back home, bars were mostly automated; efficient and silent.

Jem liked a drink, but he was no drunk. He knew all the stories about pilots like himself getting rolled by the oh-so-friendly inhabitants of the Outer Worlds. He knew to keep his senses about him, more or less. It was because of that, he noticed the two fellows watching him as he rose and tottered off towards his room. Probably thought he was blotto when, really, he was just merry.

The pair stood and followed after him. They were smiling like idiots, just like all the other locals. Only, right now, the smiles seemed sinister rather than goofy. He neither needed to be sober nor savvy to realise they were coming for him with a purpose. Strangely, he felt almost cheered that the locals weren’t all the goody-two-shoes they affected to be.

Jem readied himself for the attack he was certain was about to come.

It came. One to each side, aiming to grab his arms, expecting him to be drunk, not expecting him to twist away. Unfortunately, he was just drunk enough that it seemed his feet hadn’t been expecting the twist either, and he went down in the middle of the corridor. The pair’s momentum carried them forward and they tripped over him to fall flat on their faces, the three of them in a winded heap.

Right now, he really wished the planetary laws allowed him to carry his taser; it would’ve come in useful. Instead, he dragged himself to his feet, while they did the same.

Jem tried calling for help, but his slurred shout wasn’t loud enough to carry past the raucous singing and laughter coming from the bar.

Spending too much time in a cramped spacecraft had taken its toll on his fighting skills as much as the booze and it didn’t take them more than a moment to bash him senseless.

About the last thing Jem was conscious of was a bag being pulled over his head. Hessian, had he known what that was.


Jem blinked his eyes open, then wished he hadn’t: One of the locals’ faces was close up against his, with its horrible fixed grin.

‘He’s awake,’ the local said, maintaining the grin.

Jem was tied to… something wooden. Always wood.

He seemed to be in a forest clearing. You saw forests as you flew in to the crudely-cleared spaceport. You never saw trees like these, vast, soaring things, in the Inner Systems. There, pot plants were a rarity. He’d never actually been in a forest before, except where the landing site and settlement were connected by a track cut through one, and then had never strayed. The place seemed unnatural: Strange musty smells, worse than the town.

‘What’s going on?’ he managed to say.

‘We’re making you one of us,’ the grinning man said.

‘You’re what?’

‘You’re going to join our community.’

‘Why would I want to do that?’

‘You were selected. We need a new host.’

‘Host? What are you talking about? Let me go!’

‘We’ll let you go as soon as you’ve become one of us—then, you’ll never want to leave…’

‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’

‘You will, shortly. In a moment, you shall know bliss.’ The grinning man turned to the figures behind him. ‘Bring forth the god.’

God? Religious nutjobs, thought Jem. So many of the Outworlders were, he knew, abandoning the Inner Systems to the godless.

‘You’re planning to, ah, convert me?’ he asked.

‘Yes, convert,’ said the man. ‘Convert you from your pitiful human state and make you one of us; make you happy. Now, behold the god.’

An attractive young woman approached. In normal circumstances, she would’ve caught his attention. Instead, what he stared at was the object she held in her hands: A dark-brown mottle-black blob of slimy flesh that was like nothing so much as an enormous slug. The woman held it out to him.

‘That’s your god?’ He would’ve laughed, had he not been bound at their mercy.

‘In a moment, you, too, shall know bliss,’ the man said and he opened his mouth to reveal a fat black tongue lolling within.

Jem shuddered. If that was why they were all so happy round here, he would much rather remain a grouch.

The woman lifted the blob nearer to him and pressed it towards his lips. Jem twisted his face away, but knew he had little hope of resisting it.

‘In a moment,’ the man repeated, ‘you, too, shall know bliss,’ and showed his black tongue once more.

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