Getting the Hell Outta There

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As the fierce battle raged below, Ace had a white-knuckle grip on Betty's steering wheel and rocketed through the atmosphere at fourteen times the speed of sound. Everything shook like a paint mixer as the ship breached the atmosphere and blasted into outer space.

A few empty fast food containers rattled off the dashboard and floated up for a second before the artificial gravity kicked in. When the containers hit the floor, Ace kicked them over into the pile on Ivan's side of the cabin.

Ace engaged the dark matter hyperdrives and pushed Betty through a curtain of multidimensional light, slipping out of normal space and into hyperspace.

When Ace was satisfied they were safe he flipped an analog switch labeled "autopilot."

"All yours, Betty," he said.

"Confirmed, Ace. Autopilot engaged. We are trucking at eight million times the speed of light," Betty said in her somewhat robotic, yet soothing, female voice.

Years ago, when Ace first took ownership of Betty, she had a nerve-grating, sterile audio interface. "Welcome, new owner. This interface will guide you through customizing your new Valdovian Ultra Space Freight Hauler smartship." It sounded like nails on a chalkboard.

The voice was the first thing Ace changed. It took him almost an hour to get the cadence and timber of it right. When he was done, Betty sounded breathy and intimate yet firm and stern. Just the way Ace liked his women.

By the time Ace was ready to customize the exterior, his sobriety had long since been kicked to the curb. He had been celebrating his nebulacard tournament victory and sampling the fully stocked bar aboard his newly acquired smartship. The mix of booze and the bizarre set of circumstances that resulted in his triumph had left his head fuzzy and filled with strange thoughts.

Ace initially lost his money in the first round of the tournament and had to scheme a way to earn some quick cash to get back in the game. He figured if he could earn one hundred credits fast, he could re-enter under a hard-luck ruling and have a chance at the big win. In a twist of fate, he met a slagrunner at a bar who specialized in black market media from underworlds, the technologically backward planets not affiliated with the Galactic Union. Fetish collectors loved to get their hands on the media because it was forbidden to actually visit those planets.

The man never gave Ace his name, but prepaid two hundred credits and said the best way to transport the goods was by uploading the content in a living brain.

"A small device will be strapped to your skull," the slagrunner said. "It will store the underworld media in your prefrontal cortex temporarily. It is quite painless. You won't even notice it."

The process only caused slight brain damage (no more than the swill Ace was drinking) and it paid well so Ace figured why not.

Ace had no idea that his brain would be exposed to cultural artifacts from Earth. But there they were among Zentali opera, Mundial folk music, and Hodarki poetry slams. His first conscious encounter with Earth.

In a perfect scenario, Ace would have retained no memory of the media pumped into his brain, but a lightning storm raged that night on MegaReno. When the buyer strapped Ace into the retrieval unit, a power surge botched the process leaving bits and pieces behind.

Most of the stuff left behind were just impressions. Ghost images. A man hitting a ball with a stick and the roar of a crowd. Loud guns firing tiny solid projectiles. A bar full of men punching each other and throwing chairs. A mustachioed outlaw with an infectious laugh driving a black vehicle with a golden bird painted on the hood. Weapons of war raining hellfire down on sleepy towns. A child eating small grain circles covered in white liquid.

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