Rigel isn't just one bright star, it's five. One of them brighter and bigger than the rest. The result is that there's a heck of a lot of planets in their orbit wooshing around, and nights are as bright as they would be on earth if the moon shone full every night.
I find myself wishing I could go back there and see it. It's been a while. Moonlit nights on earth are cool and quiet. Starlit nights on Rigel-5 are humid and full of bugs.
It's a real jungle on Rigel-8. Literally. The majority of the continents are covered in rainforest, with trees that grow as tall as the planet's gravity will allow.
The only one of us who seems to be having any fun right now is Sword Lesbian.
Rain does not soak through chitin, I suppose.
"Why do you all walk with your heads down?" says the tall Betelgeusean. She points her sword forward. "It is only five miles to the target Mr. Space Slug Captain set for us, and goodness, look at the plant life! I only see stuff like this on Batyle Jauza in greenhouses!"
It is true that the plants of Rigel-8 exist in every color of the rainbow and more. Indeed, the leaves of each plant exist in every color of the rainbow and more. I've seen leaves that are electric blue, and I've seen yellow leaves, and I've seen pink leaves, but not all on the same tree. Having so many different sun-stars in the sky, the plants presumably evolved to soak up as many wavelengths as possible. But who knows. I'm wet, I'm hot, I'm tripping over roots. The plant forms of this place are twisty and bend, and full of flowers that seem to attract no insects, not that they could fly in this rain anyway.
"Five miles for you is easy," says Klunk. "You can just clamber over the tree trunks. Us poor humans, though, we get stuck. Well. Mot of us do. I'm enjoying not having legs right now."
"Trade places?" says Aristede. He's got mud on his trousers up to his thighs.
"I'd prefer to rest," says Ramon. "Hauling Aristede out of that bog took the wind right out of me."
Sword Lesbian picks up Ramon and carries him in two of her arms. "We push forward," says the bold Betelgeusean, "And then we rest when we are close. Does that work?"
"If we rest too close to the drop sight we might be discovered," I say. I point towards a place where a bassive trunk is leaning on another massive trunk. "There below that tree, we can sit for a spell."
"But -- "
"Who votes for sitting down?"
Aristede sat down in the mud.
"That's one vote," I say. "Ramon?"
"I want to get this crap over with."
"It will give me a chance to build a fire and heat up our canned food. Oh wait, all the wood around here is wet. I bet everything on this entire planet is wet all the time. I bet the people on this planet have no fire. I bet they never discovered fire. I bet they never figured out how to cook food. Does this planet even HAVE a civilization? What are we even dealing with here? I think we got into this mess without actually knowing what we were getting into. I bet the car is sinking into the mud five miles behind us. I think We're going to sink into the mud and die. Well, everyone besides me. I think we're all going to catch hypothermia and die. I think the Captain of the Space Slug sent us here to get soaked and die and lose the Barracuda. I think -- "
"I brought Filbert's Patented Start-Anywhere Fire," I say, pulling a square shiny foil of my pocket.
"I vote for taking shelter then."
And so we sit beneath the mighty trunk, a merry fire warming our soles and our hearts.
"Come to think of it," says Sword Lesbian, "I was losing a significant amount of stamina for being cold back there. I feel much more energetic. I think I could get back into hiking now."
"For Rigel's sake," says Ramon, "Slow down for a few minutes. What's got into you? Why are you so hot to trot? What's so all-fired important about checking out this mining operation?"
"I want to do right for the people I have taken up with," says Sword Lesbian. "It is important to me that I am useful at all times."
"Yeah, but, every damn minute? Give yourself a break."
"I, uh...I don't feel that I deserve any." Her antennae droop. She hunches closer to the fire. "In terms of time, I mean. I've kind of been wasting my time. Saw things I could have helped. Didn't help. You know how that is."
"I feel you," says Ramon. "Want to talk about it?"
"Let me put it this way, Ramon. I've led a life of nothing. For all that Betegeuseans know how to make anything they desire, overindulgence in the ability leads to a life without parameters. Like playing a game that has no rules. I grew bored, and in boredom I grew depressed, and in depression I saw terrible things happening around me, and did nothing. Until at last the Student Loan Company offered me real service. I took it. I was betrayed. I am numb now. Somewhat. I find the concept of this Red Barracuda amusing. It might just turn my life around after all."
"It sure turned me around," says Klunk. "I was kind of aimless until I heard about the Barracuda. "There's really not much to do on Planet barracuda besides race cars and fix cars and talk about cars. I hated the notion. But when I heard the legend of the Barracudas, I thought, hey, I have to learn how to fix cars so I can fix The Big One someday. I held out hope that a Barracuda would come back without really believing it would. And lo and behold, one of them comes dropping out of the sky, and my life comes crashing down. And yet, my hard work paid off after all. Funny how that works out -- it's like my life was unfulfilled until I met you guys. I'm half the woman I used to be and yet I'm finally in the right place."
"I was content to sit hiding in the Tsingy Bemaraha", says Aristede. "Daddy's money kept me in candy and all I had to occupy my time was collecting old vehicles. Then I took up with Ramon, little knowing that his attempt to dig my gold would bring MY life crashing down. And here I am, stuck on a miserable rainy planet, stuck with a bunch of jerks who will rpobably never settle down. Robin and Ramon here changed my life. Not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I think I'm glad to be out of sight of my father for once."
"I wish I could see my mother," says Ramon. "But, you know, once I found that car in the junk pile, I knew it would take me and Robin far and away, and I never really looked back to home. Even when I had the chance. Maybe I didn't want to think about everything I left behind here. Terrible grades and broken promises to people I loved. One failure after another. I'm having a lot more fun driving through the galaxy."
"In Ramon," I say, "I found someone who refuses to pry into my past. I met him before the Barracuda, and yet, he only really came alive when he found it."
"What about your past?" says Sword Lesbian.
"Never mind. How did you get that name anyway?"
"Chose it. 'Sword lesbian' is a rough translation of what my actual name is in my own language. I figured it best fit my character. How did you choose your name?"
"Robins whistle their whims," I say.
"Wait," says Klunk, "Your parents didn't name you Robin?"
"My parents can shove it up hard," I say.
"Do humans not usually choose their names?" says Sword Lesbian.
"Our names are given to us at birth," says Aristede, "and never changed thereafter. Most people are content with what they have."
"No naming ceremony? No ritual of adulthood where you choose a name?"
"I chose mine," says Klunk. "Planet Barracuda has three different adulthood initiations and the name choice is the last one after our aptitudes are measured. I figured, I've dropped so many tools that "Klunk" was the best descriptor of me. Ah, but I bet most humans follow the custom of Earth."
"That is a shame," says a small voice from behind me. "You would think that a species that had expanded to so many worlds would have diverged in cultures by now."
I turn around.
The figure before me is short enough that while they are standing, they can look me in the eyes as I am sitting. Four limbs. Two arms, longer in proportion and skinnier than that of a human; two legs, somewhat stumpy and ending in thick claws. Purple, scaly skin and a head I would compare most closely to that of a lizard, though the top of the head extends into something that looks like long twigs, with little balls of fluff on the end.
"Whereas we," continues the figure, "the people of the planet Tikolumtik, we cannot even seem to get off the ground. Oh, visitors from strange worlds with wondrous devices and vehicles, and though they teach us much, they have to leave before their vehicles sink into the mud. What a pity. And the devices they give us, we cannot replicate them, so we ask for more, and more, and I want to make all those devices sink into the mud as well. Will you help me?"
We stare at the figure for a minute, before Ramon says, "Sorry, little dude. I don't think any of us have seen a person like you before. We're new here."
"Then perhaps you wish to know of our kind," says the figure.
"There's a couple things I do know about this place," I say. "First of all, nobody works much metal here. It's too expensive to get a mining operation going here. There's no refining facilities here. Therefore, this planet doesn't have Spelunkium."
"Spelunkiwhat?" says the figure.
"Bingo. We've been sent on a wild goosechase. Maybe this was even a trap. Get us to sink the car in mud and get us stuck here forever."
"Talking of traps," says Klunk, and she points upward.
The treetrunk above us has opened its eyes.
Ramon and Aristede scream and try to spash water onto the fire to douse it. Unfortunately, Filbert's Patented start-anywhere fire is difficult to put out. Aristede kicks the fire's container into a nearby pool of water. The water begins to bubble.
The tree rumbles and grumbles, and rights itself, though it extends a mighty branch over us to keep us dry.
"Is this a trap?" says Aristede.
I point to the tree behind them. It, too, has opened its eyes.
And all the trees around us, and all the tall bushes around us, in their myraid of shapes and colors, rise from where they sat, and stump over to surround us.
"This not a trap," says the figure. "This is my city. This is my people. I am Tikreelkara, and I am a pollinator of Tikomuriten, the last pure city on the planet."
"Suddenly my life feels a great deal more exciting than I had wished for," says Sword Lesbian.