The Big Bang Truck Stop, Alienn Arkansas
“No. Absolutely not.” Diesel Grey regarded his elderly aunt Dixie Grey with a disbelieving eye. She’d really gone too far this time. As thin as the proverbial rail, his aunt looked harmless, but attitude alone made up ninety percent of her body weight. “We have a certain reputation to uphold and—”
Aunt Dixie cut him off. “Stop right there.” She fixed a sardonic stare on him as her palm lifted parallel to his chest. “First of all, this is a truck stop not the Vatican. Our standing in the community could use a little upgrade, if you ask me.
“Second of all, I wear a silver lamé skirt every day of my life with my hind end hanging out for all the world to see at the Cosmos Café. Do not preach to me about our reputation.” She lifted the other hand to put air quotes around the word “reputation” as if she didn’t believe they had a good one. He noticed her long, decoratively lacquered, over-the-top nails. They were hard to miss.
The Nebula Nail Salon, located on Main Street in downtown Alienn Arkansas, was known for its far-out, celestial designs. Currently Aunt Dixie had a swirly, sparkly lavender, white and green base design mimicking a galaxy with tiny 3-D planets affixed to the end of each nail, making it seem like ten little planets revolved around her fingertips. For a moment, he couldn’t take his eyes off them, but needed to respond.
He took a deep breath. “First of all, what you’re proposing doesn’t even come close to qualifying as an upgrade to our current standing in the community. And second of all, you were the one who cut eight inches off your skirt, making it shorter than the uniform of any other waitress in the cafe to show off your assets, as you so expressively call them, much to my dismay. Do not act like I made you do it.”
Eyes flashing, Aunt Dixie said, “Hey, the shorter the skirt, the bigger the tips. Everybody knows that.”
“Fine, whatever. But your hind end hangs out every day because of your choices, not mine. You can’t throw that on me.”
“Sure I can.”
“How do you figure that?” He resisted the urge to cross his arms over his chest, guessing it would make him look too preachy. He also purposely stretched his fingers to keep from making fists. Balling up his hands would definitely make him look hostile, a look he knew wouldn’t help this situation in the least.
Diesel watched as his aunt searched the ceiling for a moment as if it would give her the perfect sarcastic retort to make her point. Her head dropped briefly, then slowly lifted as her expression hardened. “I am your elder, Diesel. Elders are to be respected. That means my word is law.”
He lost the battle of not looking hostile. Rolling his eyes, he dropped his gaze to stare at his aunt. “I do respect you as my elder, Aunt Dixie. However, a wet T-shirt contest at the old folks’ home to promote the Big Bang Truck Stop is a bad idea on so many levels I can’t name the top ten contenders in a logical order. And hear me when I tell you that I won’t allow it.”
She drew a big breath to continue the argument, but he leaned forward across his desk.
“Contrary to your views on elders, I am the one in charge here, so my word is actually law. Therefore, you may not use our truck stop logo T-shirts in this manner. Nor will I donate them for any project of this nature. Think of something else for your new fundraiser. I know—how about a nice bake sale?”
“Killjoy!” Aunt Dixie turned and stomped off toward three other elderly women waiting just inside the open door to his office.
“Sorry, girls, the wet T-shirt contest is a no-go, thanks to Mr. Spoilsport over there.” A ringed-planet thumbnail shot over her shoulder to gesture in his direction. “We’ll have to think up another fundraiser for the old folks’ home, and it will not be a stupid bake sale.”
“Boo! Hiss!” the other ladies all hurled in his direction. Mrs. Green even stuck her tongue out. He didn’t take it to heart. He knew they wouldn’t hold a grudge…well, they wouldn’t hold it for very long. He hoped.
Diesel had never expected to be popular as the one in charge and he’d been right. In the here and now with a foursome of elderly ladies booing and hissing him, he could only do his best not to laugh. He pasted on a tolerant smile as they filed out of his office. There were days when his most difficult chore was not rolling his eyes every five seconds at a task or problem facing him.
As soon as his “elders” exited, his brother entered with a piece of thick, gray message paper in his hand. “Guess what?” Axel asked, staring down at the page he carried.
Axel looked up sharply. “No? Why? What’s your problem?”
“You just passed them on the way in.”
His brother laughed. “So you officially turned down the wet T-shirt contest at the old folks’ home, huh?”
Diesel shouldn’t be surprised, but asked, “How did you know about that?”
Axel shrugged. “They asked me first. I told them they had to ask you.”
“They knew for a fact you’d turn them down. I’m a softer touch. They always come to me first. Didn’t you know that?” Axel’s brows curved inward as if he were puzzled by Diesel’s complete lack of understanding as to the way things worked.
“Yes, I knew that. But why would you do that to me, Bro? Next time, it’s your turn to nix their outlandish idea of the day.”
“No, thanks. That’s why you get the big bucks.”
“Wait a minute. Does that mean you knew about last month’s fundraiser scheme for the pin-up silver fox candid calendar?”
Axel laughed until tears actually filled his eyes. “Now that would have been a humdinger of a moneymaker, wouldn’t it?”
“Some kind of dinger, anyway.” That observation only made Axel laugh harder. One day, Diesel thought, he was going to roll his eyes back so hard, they’d stick and stay lodged upward forever.
Axel finally wiped his eyes and handed over the paper he’d brought up from the communications center downstairs. The gray color meant it was a high priority message. Diesel hoped it wasn’t bad news from their home planet, Alpha-Prime. His brother was uncharacteristically joyful, so maybe he could relax on that front.
“Check it out. We got it!”
“What did we get?” Diesel studied the paper, gaze fixing immediately on the initials UGG—United Galactic Gulag—centered at the top of the page.
“The detention route contract.” Axel sounded very proud of himself.
Diesel huffed. This was dubious good news at best. He set the sheet of paper down on top of the dozens of others on the desk in front of him. “You mean the Galactic Gulag Run?” he asked sardonically.
Axel sighed. “I hear the disdain in your tone. Don’t be difficult. This is good for us. The money this deal brings in will help keep us operational and more viable as a way station in this area of the galaxy.”
“We’re already operational. What’s wrong with simply being a galactic way station for space travelers on their way to nice vacation destinations instead of the big house?”
“We’re too far out from the popular vacation routes nowadays. This quadrant of space isn’t hip anymore.”
“Not hip?” Diesel started to roll his eyes, but stopped and shook his head. He needed to find a better way to vent his annoyance. If he didn’t, he’d go blind or spend the rest of his life staring at his brain.
He took a deep breath and attempted a more positive approach. Perhaps yoga was the answer to combating his growing stress.
“The Paradise Planet is a beautiful tropical place to vacation—”
“Yes. And it was awesome for our grandparents. But now we’re competing with adventurous vacation destinations for the younger generation like the Gothic Ice Floe Planet and Lava Rock World, both of which are in the Tri-Spiral Galaxy way on the other side of this galaxy. We’ve had this discussion before. I thought you were on board.”
“I am. You’re right. This is good for us.” His tone sounded impossibly forlorn to his own ears.
“So why the resistance?”
Diesel looked up at his brother. He wasn’t getting information he hadn’t heard before. He knew he was merely parroting the voices of the current council of elders.
He was in charge. He did have the final word, but the council—made up of retired former leaders of the Big Bang Truck Stop and its alien underground operation—always wanted their voices and opinions considered.
Every single one of the elders’ minds was firmly planted in the past, as were their strict ideas for this venture. At one time or another, each of the elders had been in a position of power—either upstairs or down—before retiring to a position on the council.
His father was a council member, but spent much of his time traveling the country with Diesel’s mother, Xenia. Zebulon Grey understood Diesel’s leadership issues since he’d once faced his fair share, and generally left his eldest son to it. Diesel hoped he’d be just as reasonable when the younger generation took over. Perhaps he’d also travel far, wide and continually like his parents in their spiffy new RV.
Diesel and Axel, along with their brothers Cam, Wheeler, Gage and Jack and even little sister Valene, all knew the future in this part of the Milky Way was ever-changing. They needed to adapt and change with it or become obsolete. Alpha-Prime, in the Caldera Forte Galaxy, wouldn’t let them simply operate as the Big Bang Truck Stop, the largest full-service refueling station in south central Arkansas. There had to be something worthwhile for them beyond the single reason their people had come here so long ago. While profits from their business made the Greys successful by Earth standards, and in the surrounding area of Arkansas, the ruling party on their planet always wanted improvement.
“The Bauxite mine will always keep our people in the area,” Axel said out loud. “Folks on Alpha-Prime will always need fuel.” Diesel would volunteer to stay, as would his brothers and every other off-world-born resident of Alienn, Arkansas.
“But we both know it would only take a handful of the folks from our planet to handle the mine alone,” Diesel said. “We also need to keep the way station viable for galactic citizens traveling in this region of space. Any regularly scheduled traffic only helps our goal to stay on this planet.”
“Because we like Earth and we want to live here forever, right?”
“Yes. We do.”
Earth was a great assignment. The more Alphas who lived here, the more people from Alpha-Prime they needed to keep things running. If more people visited or volunteered to live and work here, they might realize the perks, but so far only a small portion of their out-of-this-world visitors had ever ventured beyond the truck stop into the beautiful landscape of Arkansas, much less the country. The last person to voluntarily come to Earth to work and live was their orphaned cousin, Stella Grey.
Typical visitors to Alienn’s way station were all understandably impatient to get on to their galactic vacation destinations. The few who wanted to explore Earth had to go through a rather elaborate procedure to procure a guide and understand the rules they all lived by here on Earth, the primary one being that no human could know aliens lived among them and had for years.
Only a handful of extraterrestrial visitors had gone through the necessary and lengthy procedures to get a permit to explore beyond the safety zone that was the truck stop.
Alpha-Prime’s strict colonization prerogative kept their people’s numbers on Earth restricted so as not to reveal their existence and promptly rile up the indigenous population, or rather, the puny earthlings, as the ruling party members always said under their breath during discussions of Earth. They were only partly kidding about the nickname.
Humans tended to have quite a strong reaction to exposure to extraterrestrials and not always in a positive way.
The colonization prerogative of Alpha-Prime was mostly in place for planets where Alphas permanently resided and the indigenous population was aware of their existence.
Earth had not been so categorized. The Alpha community on Earth had started as a mining colony, but they’d maintained the truck stop for nearly as long. Earth was not even on the list for the indigenous population to be notified as to their presence in the near or even distant future. As far as the home planet and the elders who’d retired on Earth were concerned, it would remain that way for quite some time. The ruling party members on Alpha-Prime were not convinced earthlings were ready to accept aliens in their midst.
Diesel mostly agreed with that assessment, but once in a while he wished their existence was out in the open. He had several human friends and wished he didn’t feel like he was lying to them by omission each time they conversed.
Meanwhile, the elder council was here to ensure he and any future Fearless Leader kept with the old ways of secrecy as much as possible. That meant the council members poked their retired noses into his business every chance they got and any manner of change was usually met with indignation at best, outrage the rest of the time.
Diesel said, “I wish the elder council was more agreeable to any kind of variation in our routine. We so much as change the scheduled gelatin flavor at the Cosmos Café on any given day and there is a mass organized protest—usually with Aunt Dixie, protest sign in hand, leading the way ready to sanction me for crimes against humanity.”
Axel grunted. “Wish in one hand and poop in the other and see which fills up first.”
“Stop with the hillbilly proverbs.”
Axel shrugged. “Stop wishing for foolish things.”
“Change is not foolish. Until I took over last year, nothing much had changed since our people arrived on Earth.”
“So things are different. Thanks to advances in human technology, now we have to do a better job of hiding our existence from the population, but the councils here and on Alpha-Prime don’t seem to get it.
“If we get found out and anyone can prove it or we don’t erase their memories quickly enough, the rulers on Alpha-Prime will yank our operation out of here so fast our heads will spin off, then use an experimental Defender bomb to level the place and ensure local memories of our very existence are forever erased.”
“So break it to the council gently,” Axel said. “You’re good at handling them, Diesel. That’s why we voted you into the job.”
“I’m the eldest in our family and I worked my butt off to be in charge. That’s why I’m here, not because of any vote.”
“That you know of.” Axel grinned and Diesel relaxed. His brother was just winding him up. He took another deep breath and read the few words on the contract signature page for the Galactic Gulag Run.
“If you explain the reasons why this is so important, the council will understand.” Axel tilted his head and added, “Or they’ll boo and hiss and stick their tongues out at you, but you’ve already survived that kind of torture more than once.”
That was the truth. Anytime Aunt Dixie and her friends were involved in an unpopular decision, they always booed, they always hissed and someone always stuck their tongue out at him.
“Right.” Diesel studied the gray paper again, rereading it quickly.
“What are you going to do?” Axel asked.
“I’ll sign the contract and tell them all about it later. Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, right?”
Axel looked dubious. “Sure, Bro, whatever you think.”
Diesel thought he’d rather consign himself to the worst prison in the United Galactic Gulag system and spend the rest of his life doing hard labor, sledgehammering granite-like boulders down to pea gravel, than break this news to the council of elders.
Axel was right, though. This was a good contract for their purposes. It would add significantly to the bottom line of his Earth-bound colony.
Often he secretly asked himself, What would my father do?
He well knew his father had once tried to procure the same type of prison contract, but had been shot down by the council. His father had stopped asking them anything important soon after and advised Diesel to do the same.
Zeb Grey had been one of the best leaders the colony had ever had. Diesel had big space boots to fill when his parent retired, but he knew his father had been very ready to step down and let him take over. His mother wanted to travel across the country. His father, as always, wanted to indulge her. Currently his parents were somewhere in the continental U.S. in an RV enjoying their retirement.
Diesel knew his father might have signed the UGG contract without any input from anyone else, if retirement hadn’t been on his horizon. He’d left the decision to Diesel, because he was the one who’d have to deal with it in the long run.
Diesel signed the document with a flourish, agreeing to the ten-year contract for a monthly service run from Alpha-Prime in the Caldera Forte Galaxy to the prison planet XkR-9, in the Andromeda Galaxy by way of the Milky Way and Earth. It would be steady, regular income for the next ten years, making it harder for Alpha-Prime to shut them down on a whim. Plus, the way station would receive a generous stipend for each and every UGG ship beyond the scheduled monthly run that landed here for service, rest and relaxation during the long trip between galaxies.
Before Axel left the room, Diesel’s assistant, Nova Greene, raced into his office. She looked distressed. Now what? He should’ve called in sick, even though their kind never got sick in the way humans did.
“What is it, Nova?” he asked, mentally bracing for yet another chaotic issue this evening.
“There’s a young woman out here asking for you.”
“Who is it?”
Nova’s already large eyes widened and rounded as she whispered, “It’s a human.”
Diesel put a finger on the pinch of pain above his right eye. Not hiding his annoyance, he asked, “Could you be a little bit more specific, Nova? There are quite a few humans roaming around on this planet.” He saw Axel bite down on the inside of his cheek but fail to stop the large smile that shaped his mouth. Diesel gave him a stern look and he subdued his amusement.
Nova pushed out a long sigh. “She says her name is Juliana Masters.”
“And you don’t believe her?”
“Oh, I believe her all right. I also know she’s about to be very big trouble.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read her mind.”
Axel, unable to hold in his inappropriate amusement any longer, laughed until he had to wipe away the tears rolling out of his eyes again. “I love coming to your office,” he said. “It never fails to entertain.”
Diesel inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. “I told you to stop doing that, Nova. It unnerves folks, most especially human folk.”
“Be that as it may, she has lots of questions swirling around in that pretty head of hers.” Nova tapped the side of her temple with a finger indicating where the human’s questions were swirling around.
“Questions about the truck stop?” Diesel wasn’t opposed to answering questions about their “human” business. It was very successful for an Earth-bound venture and he was proud they’d sustained it for so long as a profitable business enterprise. It was also the only subject he could talk about in all honesty with humans.
“No. She’s got a boatload of questions about—” Nova lowered her voice as if the whole world might hear, “—the rumors.”
“The rumors? What specific rumors are we talking about?” He mentally pushed out a very long sigh. He already had a good idea what rumors, but there were a few choices and he needed to hear her say it.
Protocol was protocol.
Every place had rumors. He didn’t believe anyone truly knew anything of importance, though. Then again, given his day so far, perhaps he should knock on wood to ward off any evil luck about to come his way. Too bad he wasn’t in the least superstitious.
“You know, Diesel. The rampant rumors of space beings living and working around the Big Bang Truck Stop and in the nearby town of Alienn, Arkansas, along with the vast conspiracy theories of why cellular service doesn’t work for ten miles in any direction here.”