I take a sip of Space Cola and place it back in the cup holder.

"You usually drink more that at once," says Ramon. "What's up?"

We're currently coming in for a landing over Carla Marli, the island city on the watery planet of Squelch.

"What's up, first of all, is that they must have changed the formula while we were away. This stuff sucks. Or maybe I've lost my appetite because -- "

"We can get you a new hand."

"Well, that's part of the problem, but I'm actually more concerned about how you were sticking with the car when everyone else wanted to see Klunk work. Do you care about the car more than us?"

"Someone has to be the getaway driver in case things go wrong!" says Ramon. "I'm glad you were able to come striding back instead of running, but on the off chance you had to com back running you would have wanted the car running, right? Right. Anyway, tough luck about your hand there."

"Not half as bad as Klunk. Cripes almighty, the stuff she's given up to get machines working. And then, she tells me she can make prosthetics out of stuff around the station! Does she not understand that I don't want her to be in there?"

"Feeling protective?"

"Feeling guilty. This is twice she's lost limbs while trying to fix a running engine. I don't understand why she hasn't thrown up her hands in frustration."

"Because she's only got one."

"Don't even joke about that. You've never lost a limb."

"Not yet. But it's clearly a hazard of space travel. I've seen plenty of people with metal limbs, electric cyes, yadda yadda. They don't seem the worse for wear. And Klunk, well, she always tells me that replacing their arms with metal limbs is a rite of passage. Not that she had replaced her own yet. Maybe she thinks this is an opportunity? You've got to admit, the way she lost her arm was less painful than it might have been."

"Fine. I still don't understand why Aristede wanted to stay on the station too."

"He said he wanted to learn more about mechanics."

"Yeah, but we've got a car to experiment with right here."

"Oh no. You are not having them experiment with my precious car."

"See, I knew you liked the car more than me!"

"It's a rare item!" says Ramon. " And It gets us where we want to go without much maintenance at all. Almost like the legendary old Silver Ghost. Oh, and it's supposedly a holy relic."

"Do you think it's safe to have Aristede in the station instead of here?" I glance at the backseat, which, for once, has its cushions in place instead of being cast aside. "If we need to do any Trickery, Aristede's the only one who knows what the buttons do."

"I can dodge anything someone might throw at us," says Ramon. "Aristede doesn't use the Special buttons very much anyway. Remember he said he wanted to study the forum posts about it in peace? There's plenty of space on the station to do so right now. It's even quiet now. They've got it powered down to do more repair work. How come you haven't gone in to see the place?"

"I'm still expecting the Clown Car to explode with the amount of things that Sword Lesbian has managed to stuff in it."

"Ah, but that is the nature of a Clown Car! You can fit as many people as you need in there. Easy-peasy."

We're getting close to Carla Marli now. The place is administered as one city, but it's really four cities -- three on the outside making a mis-shaped circle, and one in the center. The center is an island that anchors the other three. Its towers are built tall and solid with narrow windows. The rich folks inside prefer to keep their business away from those who would spy though the windows. I read somewhere that it used to be a tiny fishing village, but that was probably long before this place became the capital of the Separatist Alliance. The second city, making a bit less than one third of the circle surrounding the island, is a shantytown on stilts and barges. I'm sure that the folks in the towers would love it if the next hurricane managed to get rid of all those watery riffraff entirely, but the rifraff keep rebuilding. The next third of the circle is an island-sized floating platform that holds an orderly collection of low, wide domes and pedestrian walkways. These are the seats of government and the very most expensive residences. A planned city. What a pity the Separatist Alliance chose to make their home in such an abode. And then there is the last third...which must have looked like the Government sector at first, but then they just kept stacking dome upon dome, until the whole thing looked like the pile of bubbles that you get when you blow through a straw into your milk. That mess, I like that mess almost as much as I like the stilt town. That's how you build a city: let people build the houses any which way and they'll work something out. 

What a pity that the government of the Separatist Alliance chose to build a Planned City and not simply move into an existing one. Then again, when you plan a city you can design it to efficiently accomodate safety features like sea walls. Government Sector has big sea walls, and each sector of the mis-shaped circle of Carla Marli protects the towers in the center from the effects of storm surges. It's almost like hiding your city behind a marsh.

"This place looks like they really jammed it together," says Ramon.

"They did. the government sector and the middle-class sector used to be far away from here, before they moved to this island. I wonder if the islanders were happy to know that a city was coming to them, instead of the other way around."

"I bet you could ask their descendants in the stiltville. Where can we land here?"

"Well," I say, "If you put it down in Stiltville, you'll have it stolen by someone looking to get off this island, and if you put it down in Central Town, you'll get it stolen by a rich brat who likes to joyride, and if you put it down in Bubble Town, you'll have it surreounded by a bunch of middle managers who keep saying their vehicle is nicer. Let's land in the center of Embassy Plaza."

"I think I see a parking lot on the edge of Stiltville," says Ramon. "Oh, and one near Bubble Town. I think we can land without causing a ruckus. Only...how do we get into the city undetected? Our names and faces are probably plastered all over the place now."

"We've got fake ID cards and six helmets that our young friends aren't using."

"yeah, about them...I didn't manage to get a chance to ask them about what all happened on their home planet. Did you?"

"None of them want to give me any details. I don't understand why. Ah, whatever. If we ask to borrow their helmets I'm sure we can pass through the city without trouble."