There are a few reasons that I don't like coming to Planet Betelgeuse.
The first is the spelling, because when I punch it into the navigation systems I always wonder what fucking idiot thought that was a good way to spell "Beetlejuice".
The second is the fact that the place is way too famous for its strip clubs, far more than any other aspect of the place, so there's pushy advertisements for them everywhere in the tourist part of town. Bright billboards and people handing out cards and animated graffitti and it's just...when Ramon wants to go to a Betelgeuseian strip club I go because how could I possibly leave my best friend. I mean he's driving the car, so I'm going to Betelgeuse anyway, and there's barely anything to do here in the tourist areas besides visit the strip clubs -- unless you want to get a grasshopper burger or fill up on gas. (The grasshopper burger will do that to you anyway.) It's not that strip clubs are literally the only thing IN the tourist areas -- there's book shops and such -- but it's thoroughly integrated with the stripper industry. Usually you'll have a hot Betelgeusian hawking a book or taking your order and then suggesting you visit X club or Y venue, and suddenly you find yourself stuffing cash into a carapace, more out of obligation than enjoyment. There are customs that are enforced through great amounts of social pressure here, here where people are told to enjoy themselves and be uninhibited. (There are rules, too, and they are enforced harshly.)
There's plenty of Betelgeuse that isn't the Red Light district, but you can't get to it. You're allowed to get to it, but you can't. Betelgeusian cities are typically placed with the toruist trap areas at the base or top of cliffs, and the rest of the city is hung from the cliff face itself. No ladders. If you don't have eight legs then you're out of luck. And there are cities on the planet where they obviously don't expect foreigners, because there's not a flat horizontal surface within city limits.
And that's the thing I hate most about this planet: they didn't think to make things convenient for me.
It's night on Betelgeuse, and the neon signs drown out the stars, or they would if these were any stars at the moment. I'm standing outside a combination strip club/gambling hut with my crew. Klunk is eyeing the rest of the city that's stuck on the cliffside. Aristede is checking the menu posted outside the door. And Ramon is smirking at me.
"Wanna go to a strip club?"
"We're kind of pressed for time here," I say.
"Are we?" says Aristede. "If we're orbiting the event horizon of a black hole this big it might take us longer than the age of the universe to actually hit the point of no return. We're dealing with a phenomenon that we don't fully understand here -- a black hole bigger than any in the known universe, possibly in the history of the entire universe. Maybe this thing is big enough to be kind of safe?" He turns around. "Maybe we have time enough to visit a strip club."
"We're pressed for time," I say.
"I take it you don't want to visit a strip club," says Ramon.
"No, I don't want to visit a strip club. I never wanted to visit a strip club. I think they're silly. You have to pay to watch people take their clothes off. I don't see the appeal."
"But all those times we went before -- why did you never say anything?"
"Never mind," I say. "We need to figure out how to talk to someone around here who has an excellent grasp of theoretical astrophysics and Betelgeusian Pictoral Logic. So we're probably going to have to ask around the parts of town that aren't strip clubs, which is to say -- " I point up.
Ramon cranes his head skyward.
"The rest of the city," I say. "Klunk, you can get up there. Can you speak Betelgeusian?"
"No and no and no. My people have no contact with the Betelgeusians. They hate us and we hate them. We work with mechanics and they do theory. They're a bunch of speculative nerds and -- ”
"Sounds like your people have contact with the Betelgeusians."
"In the Galactic senate from across the room. Too close for comfort. Anyway I refuse to speak Betelgeusian. So I wouldn't be much help -- ”
"Can you carry me up there?" says Ramon. "I can speak Betelgeusian. Fluently."
"No telling how much I can lift," says Klunk, "but let us find out."
Ramon grabs her from behind, about the waist, and says, "hup hup." Klunk swiftly rises, carrying Ramon without any seeming trouble or lack of speed. When they have ascended to the height of the cliff city, Klunk rotates until the stump of her missing arm is pointed perpendicular to the cliff. The glowing cloud where her arm used to be glows brighter, and she and Ramon fly towards the city. Aristede and I watch them go, until they have vanished amidst the domes and vines.
"Impressive sight," says a voice behind us, "and sometime I should figure out how that works. But in the meantime, I heard you were looking for someone who understands theoretical astrophysics?"
Aristede and I whirl around. There before us is a Betelgeusian, a big tall bug of greenish-yellow carapace and orange compound eyes. Her mandibles are large and her antennae are short. She is dressed in the many drapes and folds of the red and gold uniform that marks an official stripper. Which means I shouldn't risk touching her. I begin to back away.
"I'm not on duty right now," she says. "Not for a few minutes. I wouldn't report you for accidentally bumping into me. Now, what's this about theoretical astrophysics?"
"Theoretical astrophysics," said Aristede, "and clown cars."
So Aristede and I are sitting in chairs in the midst of the club. The big yellow-green bug lady is pretending to do a private dance for us. We're pretending to be interested. It's safer than risking the appearance of dating the strippers. That's a no-no. And a "no" from security is said with a laser blast to the face.
"So here's the thing about black holes," says the lady.
"Wait a second," says Aristede. "We didn't even get your name."
"Theoretical Astrophysics Lesbian," says the lady.
"Yeah and I'm Daddy's Favorite Car Collector Gay," says Aristede. "What's your actual name?"
"That's it," says she. "That's the full name I put down on documents. If you don't like it -- ”
"It's a mouthful," says I. "Can we call you Astro?"
if it is possible for a Betelgeusian to look begrudging, this one does. "Fine," she says, "You may call me Astro. Now, as I was saying about black holes --”
"Wait," says Aristede, "is Sword Lesbian your girlfriend?"
Astro stops dancing. "She took off into space ten years ago without telling me. I'd say she is most certainly not. Anymore. Now, as I was saying about black holes -- ”
"Wait," says Aristede. "Is everyone on this planet named 'Job Description Lesbian'? Are you all lesbians?"
"A high rate of homosexuality is a highly desireable thing in a species that lays eggs but has reduced its infant mortality rate to 1%. Now, as I was saying about black holes -- ”
"Wait," says Aristede, "You didn't answer my question exactly."
Astro puts a claw on Aristede's lips and says "I would dearly like to tell you about black holes. If you would be so fucking kind as to let me do the thing that you came in here to have me do? Thank you -- Oh for Betel's sake." She turns her head 180 degrees. "Guys, it's fine, they're not doing anything wrong."
But the big burly bug guards with six laser guns each are pointing them at Astro. "You know the rules," says one. "No touching the patrons or you're toast. You just touched a patron. Therefore you are toast." The charges on their lasers start to light up.
Astro turns her head back to me and says "I am sorry to do this to you in such a public setting, my dear. I had hoped we could find a more intimate moment." And then she spreads her wings.
The wings of Betelgeuisians are one of the main reasons people come to these strip clubs. Not that they get to see them often -- in fact, they almost never do. But oh, that one time that you do, that's all worth it. So people keep coming, hoping they'll get lucky. It's a gamble. It's almost exactly like putting your coins in a slot machine, only you're not getting any money otu of this payoff. No, you're getting a memory. Because the wings of the Betelgeusians, when released from their elytra, shine bright with every possible color of the rainbow, and with impossible colors, and with shapes between the veins that look different to everyone, and people say it's some kind of psychic thing, like the wings are looking for your deepest desire. And when I gazed into the wide wings of Astro, I'm pretty sure I saw myself piloting a warship to smash the SLC fleet. And I'm pretty sure I saw myself sitting on a pile of gold. And I'm pretty sure I saw my mother telling me she was proud of me.
There are stars in the galaxy that people call holy, for the beings that live within their light are said to prosper in peace. The few who have been to those stars tell of being bathed in a feeling of utter tranquiility. Nobody speaks in that light. There is no need, for everyone knows just what they need to do.
The light that shines in the room where Astro has spread her wings is almost enough to replicate that feeling, for in the sudden and utter silence, all who had been quarreling subside, and the burly guards lower all twelve of their guns.
And even as Astro folds her wings, even as she strores them, even as she takes me and Aristede by the hand, even as she leads us out of the building, nobody says a word.
I am standing with Astro and Aristede at the base of the cliff, where high above, Klunk and Ramon are descending to meet us.
"You wanted to talk about black holes," I say.
"Not at the moment," says Astro.
"Then I have a question unrelated to black holes."
"Why the heck did you think you and I were going to have any intimate moments?"
"I, uh...maybe I'm a little impulsive. Are you not a lesbian?"
"I'm not female," I say as I tuck my hair behind my ears. "Nor male. Not by my reckoning."
"I thought humans only came in one or the other. What exactly are you?"
"I'm a captain."
My two intrepid crew members reach the base of the cliff. Ramon looks a little frustrated as he says, "We got as far as someone who claimed to know a great deal about astrophysics, but they wouldn't talk to us because we were foreigners. Someone named Marker Lesbian claims to know all about Betelgeusian Pictoral Logic but they said that their knowledge was not fit for the ears of outsiders."
"What if a Betelgeusian was willing to vouch for you?" says Astro. "Maybe they'd be willing to talk to me. Captain, grab hold of my Elytra and I can carry you up the cliff face."
"Are you joining my crew?"
"I told you I was impulsive. And I think I just made myself look like an idiot in front of my entire profession, so...if you've got, like, a Space Pirate Ship or something around here then yeah, let me come aboard."
"What say everyone? Aristede? Ramon? Klunk?"
Aristede looks indifferent. Ramon gives a thumbs-up. And Klunk, well, she's looking mighty interested in Astro.
"Welcome aboard," i say. "Let's get moving."