Home Despot (Big Pulp, Feb. 2010)

Marty knows more about planet-busting than anyone else at the store.  Which was why, when his latest iridium tributes came up two hundred goddamned tons short and he realized it was time to fire up the ol’ 350SK Atmo-Blaster, he’d talked his boss into letting him turn the big boom into a demonstration class.  Marty gets a cut of the tuition fees, the store gets to show off the high-end equipment, everybody wins.

“Now, the first thing you need to know about planet-busting,” says Marty, getting their attention after the guys have oohed and aahed over all the big iron in his lair, “Is that everything you know is wrong.  There’s no surprise in that – the big boys have to sell their mass warpers and solar refocusers, after all.  They spend thousands of creds on flashy advertisements, showing screaming natives running in terror – as if a good planet-stripping will solve all your problems!  Truth is, in thirty megacycles of being a professional tributee, I’ve blown up maybe eight planets.  You don’t need to go zapping biospheres most of the time, but when you do … Well, that’s why you’re here.”

One of the students is a middle-aged nebbish with so much hair in his ears it looks like he’s smuggling paintbrushes.  He raises his hand.  “You said ‘tributee.’  Don’t you mean ‘overlord’?”

It’s exactly the kind of misunderstanding that Marty lives for – he grins with pride as he realizes that he’ll be the one who teaches these weekend warriors how to use their tools correctly.  But today’s class is gonna take some work.  Each of his five students have arrived bolted to the gills in their deathsuits, even though the course materials specifically said to leave the native-scarers at home.  He’s the only one who needs to be suited up today.

Marty marks two guys as trouble right away; one of them’s wearing a spendy Macross Contractile jumpjetter that’s bristling with ion cannons.  Marty can see from the way the guy’s dry-firing his missile ports that dude is itching for a native entanglement – but while Hotshot there is lost in dreams of killing armies of guntuggers, all those test-fires will jam the Macross’s oh-so-finicky guidance fins the first time he flicks the “raze” switch.

The other dude’s so jacked for battle that his neck-foils are locked into battle position, his face lost behind a reinforced oval of smoked glassteel.  But though the Tetsujin Go-suit’s a deadly model, Marty notes the empty mounting racks where the default weaponry has yet to be installed.  Probably a fresh upgrade.

“Good question!” he says, polishing his glasses.  “Personally, I don’t like the term ‘overlord.’  Talk to most of the weekend ‘overlords’ – ask ‘em how many credits they’ve squeezed out of their territories!  Watch their faces.  Oh, they’ll brag ‘til their face is ochre about how many guntuggers they’ve atomized, but count the tons of vanadium on their dockets.  They got nothing.

“We, on the other hand?  We are tributees.  Our goal is to infuse a planet with exquisite terror, drop by every five megacycles, pick up the tribute the natives have painstakingly mined for us, and sell it for a tidy little profit.  That’s the smart way to go.  Otherwise, you spend all your weekends quashing rebellions.”  He looks pointedly at the two troublemakers, Hotshot and Smoked Glass.  “Now, who here has a planet?”

Marty sighs with relief when everyone raises their hands, although Smoked Glass takes his sweet time about it.  Cocky bastard.

“Good.  No newbies.  Now, who’s got more than one planet?”

Ear Hair reluctantly raises his hand.  “I’m overlording – tributing – three.  But….” He winces.

Marty nods sympathetically.  “Lemme guess.  You can’t keep the natives in line, and you’ve dropped, what – seventy, eighty creds on microtargeting virus-splicers and self-replicating deathcrawlers?”

“A hundred.”  His fellow students whistle.  Ear Hair tries to shove his hands in his pockets bashfully, but instead his armored gloves scrape furrows into his deathsuit’s onyx-and-gold paint job.  “And I’ll tell ya, those buggers are dug right in.  I refinanced my house to get a Burtt Stingfly bot-generator – the Hivemaster, real top-end stuff – and the locals blew the damn thing up before it enviro-adapted.”

“Ah, I hear that all the time,” says Marty.  “‘There’s no money in tributing,’ they say.  ‘All your credits go to buying bonesplinter-beacons to suppress rebellions.  You get tied down maintaining one solar system.’  But me?  Honest to Gods: Seventy-six planets call me their master.”

The class gasps.  Marty grins cockily; his boss harvests two hundred civs, a fact which Phil rubs in at every opportunity.  But still, seventy-plus is no slouch.

“Well, actually, they call me Martulax the Destroyer – that’s my nom de pillage – but my natives know the score.  That’s why I don’t need to blow up planets.  But lemme ask you a question:  How’d you prep for your invasion?”

Ear Hair squints as the rest of the class looks at each other in confusion – well, except for Smoked Glass, who glares at Marty as if he’s trying to sucker him into a duel.

“Prep?” Ear Hair finally squeaks.

Marty throws his head back and laughs.  “See, nobody wants to tell you about prepping a planet!  It’s all about the flashy hardware – ‘This Vadren Auto-Sweep Napo-Jet D50K is guaranteed to conquer six billion primitives or your money back!’”

And right on cue, now Hotshot with his Macross jumpsuit raises his hand, trying way too hard not to roll his eyes.  “Excuse me, Marty, but I paid twenty creds to learn how to blow up planets, not to hear lectures on scouting.”

Marty takes the pencil out of his mouth; it’s gonna be a pleasure, putting this guy down.  “Okay, hotshot,” he says, leaning back against the smooth black curve of his Anderton 24-Port Touch-Sensitive Control Panel.  “What do you use to blow up a planet?”

“I have a Decker 5015 Inertia Repercussion Wire-Drive,” says Hotshot, crossing his arms smugly.  “Takes a planet’s existing speed and redirects it in any direction you choose.  You can bowl ‘em right into the sun.”

“Aw, yeah,” Marty grunts, unable to suppress his pleasure at that kinda power.  The other students eye Hotshot with envy; they can’t afford heavy iron like that on their salaries.  “You fire it up?”

“Yeah.  Knocked a gas giant into the sun to teach my slaves a lesson.  You shoulda seen how the methane layer went up when it hit the convection zone – sunspots wobbling off, the arc of flame as the core melted and dropped out…. It was awesome.”

“And yet, somehow,” Marty said cheerfully, “You’re here.  How impressed were those natives, chum?”

“…They weren’t,” he admits after an all-too-satisfying hesitation.

“They didn’t even understand what was happening, did they?  They just saw craaazy lights in the sky.”

“…maybe.”

“So you spent all that cash to impress who?  A bunch of pre-industrial idiots who think the sun’s a flashlight shone by demons.  You spent all that money and you still have to fight them one by one – and worse, you knocked that solar system out of whack in the process.  Without that gas giant to stabilize the gravitic well, ten creds says your core planet’s orbit’s shifted.  You’re lucky if it’s not frozen or baked by now.  Nice job, overlord.”

The rest of the class giggles – well, except for Smoked Glass, who clenches his gauntleted fists.  Hotshot hangs his head.

“Can’t I fix it?” he begs.

Marty cuts the guy a break; after all, Hotshot is a paying customer.  “Yeah, sure.  Just get a gravitic calculator – I can sell you one now, it’ll analyze your snarled well and set up the right perihilions for you.  But it’ll take you a lot of shots with that fancy-shmancy Decker 5015 to massage everything back in place.  You’ll spend least three weekends shaving orbits before you knock out all the gravitic decay.”

More giggling.  Hotshot sits down, his ego cut flat to order.  “Aw, man….”

“Could be worse, chief.  At least you got a pre-fab civ.  But that’s the first rule of thumb: Blowing up planets is a last resort.  The whole reason you’re shattering crust is to teach some stubborn civ a lesson.”

Another raised hand tells Marty these guys are getting into it.  “How can you teach them a lesson when you’ve destroyed their home?”

“You can’t,” says Smoked Glass, and Marty shudders; dude sounds like he knows.  But Marty ignores him.

Good question!  All those ads mislead you.  They show guntuggers shrieking in terror, cities collapsing…. I’d say half the people I talk to blow up the inhabited planet, then sit around with their thumbs up their ass wondering where the tributes went.  No, the goal is to blow up a neighboring planet and scare the shit out of them.  Tear the moon out of their sky, and they’ll give you their daughters.”

“So how – ”

Prep work!” Marty says, pounding a fist into his palm. “Find a civ that’s just discovered space flight – they’ll know exactly what it is that you’re doing!  Okay, we’re dropping out of warp – see that planet there?  Anyone know what we’re looking for?”

They peer at the monitor, talking among themselves, and Marty realizes these boys have read about prep work, but no one’s told them how important it is.  After losing a few bad habits, they could be solid tributees.

“…The halo?” they venture.

“The halo.”  He taps his pencil against the viewscreen.  “That gentle fuzz of satellites and discarded ships that pre-warp civs leave in orbit.  You’ll want to use the Chomsky Quadro-Lobe Neural Sweep Analyzer as a followup, of course – don’t get the cheap models, go with the Chomsky Transglobal S20 to find out what kind of firepower they’re packing.  Anyone ever cheap it out?  You?  Aw, I love stories like this.”

“I got one of those awful Stern Radiometers….”

“Oh, man.  The ones who pick up the cheap ad space at the back of the tradecasts?”

“Yeah.  They claimed it would monitor all radio transmissions and compile the collected data into a standard Global Weaponization rating… But this civ was telepathic.  They didn’t need radio.  And they’d already colonized two other planets.”

Everyone groans in sympathy except for, of course, Smoked Glass, who’s drumming his fingers impatiently on the folding chair.

“I spent hundreds on suppressors.  I even borrowed my friend’s Nesmith 40MK SatWeb Stringmines to clog the system’s intra-planet traffic and I injected all their atmospheres with Casse Ozone Debinder, but I still lost.  Their ships were junk, but they sure could churn ‘em out….”

Marty pats the guy on the back.  “They need a hundred ships to capture one of yours – but they’ll get a hundred ships if you cross ‘em too late on the tech curve.  And don’t even get me started on the cheap-ass ventilation shafts on some of these weapon platforms… No, for maximum efficiency, you need a civ that’s barely off the ground.  The kind where a thousand of their ships won’t scratch yours.  And – yeah?”

Ear Hair again.  “How many planets do you have to scan to find a civ like that?”

“Lots.  That’s why nobody likes prep.”

Marty hears the whirr of neuro-motors as everyone slumps in their deathsuits, and he feels a little bad for them; they wanteasy answers.  He could sell them a K-Brick Population-Cluster, spouting all that happy-crappy bullshit about how it force-evolves any populace from monkeys into servants overnight – hell, he’d probably double his commission if he pushed crap like that.  But Marty spends half his time pounding vacuum in search of the knockover civs, because he knows the truth: good tributing takes dedication.

“You need a population low-teched enough where you can use the weapon of your choice – I like the Gibson S-45 Neurometer myself, because making an entire nation burst into song and dance gets their attention.  But you want something flashy, with big explosions if you have to… Yes?”

To Marty’s surprise, Smoked Glass asks a question, his speaker volume turned up so loud that Ear Hair and Hotshot shield their ears.

“What is the relevance of the suit?” Smoked Glass asks, his voice low and deadly.

“Ooh, yeah, I should talk about that – don’t skimp.  It’s how they view you; they see flesh, they’re gonna go, ‘Oh, I can hurt that’ and then you’re warding off brawny heroes by the dozen.  No, you want a self-polishing exterior, something that doesn’t chip when someone chucks a rock at you – and you want one that has a Jungian slot-in to the Chomsky Transglobal.”

“Is that the one that turns you into a God?”

“Kinda.  It analyzes a civ’s core beliefs and subtly tweaks the armor so that your outline profile matches up with their most powerful beings.  You want a 60%/40% mix on that thing, by the way – everyone I know cranks it up to 100% evil at first.  But you show up as the archetype of all their Death Gods, they freak out and figure that maybe killing you will restore the balance and wham!  Rebellions-a-go-go.  With 60% angel, 40% demon, they figure, okay, maybe it’s God’s will.  And then –“

Smoked Glass cuts him off.  “The weapons!  What sorts of defensive/offensive capacities do you have?”

Marty feels weirdly defensive – there’s something about this guy – but then he remembers: Paying customers.  Be nice.

He taps his chestplate.  “See any weaponry here?”

“My scanners detect none.”

“That’s ‘cause there ain’t any, chief.  I pack light forcefield protection when I’m working, to ward off feedback explosions – but if you’ve gotten to the point where natives are infiltrating your goddamned base to duel with you, you’ve lost.”

Smoked Glass chuckles, an evil sound that makes Marty wish he was somewhere else.  But before he can ask what that chuckle’s for, Ear Hair raises his hand again.

“So what do you say in the first broadcast?  Any tricks?”

“Uh… Yes.  Obliterate a major city before the first broadcast.”

“Oh yes,” Smoked Glass purrs.  “I remember that one.”

“After they see their monuments atomized, you can say pretty much anything as long as it includes the words ‘You dig, I take.’  Oh, and after a while, every civ asks for new technology to help them mine – don’t give it to them.”

“They’ll use it on you?” asks Ear Hair.

“Chief, if you’ve picked a civ that can understand how to reprogram a Digby K-157 Excavator module, then you’re fucked from the get-go.”

“So why – ”

“Because the whole point of tributing is getting cheap labor.  Sure you can get the stuff for them, but then why not just dig it yourself?  Remember, only the miserly overlords survive.  Planetary invasions aren’t cheap.  Full-scale mining isn’t cheap.  But scare ‘em enough that they think you can invade, and they dig you a path straight to wealth.”

“So what motivates you to blow up a planet?” Smoked Glass asks.  “Do you… enjoy it?”

Marty really isn’t liking the ‘tude on Smoked Glass.  “I don’t enjoy it, sir.  But when someone fucks with you, you gotta fire warning shots across the bow.  Now, take this planet down here – they’ve been running below quota for four cycles.  They’re just not feeling the fear any more.  See those three dark patches on the continent?  Any guesses as to what those were?”

“Former capitals,” said Smoked Glass.  “The graves of a million resistance fighters.”

“Damn skippy.  And look – these folks are just getting blasé about city devastation!  Check the Chomsky.  See that population spread?  See how it shows that they’re moving out to the countryside?  They think they’re so clever. So today, we’re gonna blow up their moon.  And – yes?”

Smoked Glass is getting on Marty’s nerves now.  “How does a man judge when to slaughter millions of natives?”

Marty sighs.  “There’s no hard and fast rule as to when you have to pull the trigger, but remember: natives are just like you.  You don’t wanna dig mines, they don’t wanna dig mines.  You like easy shortcuts, they like easy shortcuts.

“But the difference between you and some podunk overlord is that an overlord razes a planet into lifeless alkali flats in search of some mythic 100% tribute rate.  Whereas you will recognize that bureaucracy, greed, and pure-ass incompetence are forces more powerful than any K-47 Zimsky Self-Propelled Crust-Stripper.”

Smoked Glass keeps his hand up like he had to go to the bathroom.  “But how can you judge?” he insists.  Meanwhile, Ear Hair and Hotshot are inching away from Smoked Glass.

“You just gotta feel it,” Marty says.  “But do it sparingly.  Planet-busters are expensive – and remember, a smart tributee buys only what he needs.  Anyway, the tool we’re going to use today is the Punxatawney Atmo-Blaster 350SK, which, if you’ll look behind us, is that gigantic soda-straw battery of focused mass reflectors.”

He taps a few buttons on the Anderton, and the viewscreen floats down to show them the impressive gunmetal-gray cliffs of endless turrets, enough to paint a hundred square miles a second.  Smoked Glass makes a strangled noise.

“The Punxatawney is a great tool – and it’s a lot of fun to use!  Sadly, it’ll set you back three hundred creds, and trust me, planet-busters are the one tool you never want to skimp on.  Rent if you have to – ‘cause if you thunder, ‘I will blast your moon to dust’ and you just push the dirt around, well… Just pack it in.”

Someone else raises their hand.  Thank God, it’s not Smoked Glass.  “Excuse me, but isn’t that moon airless?  I don’t see a fringe …”

“Good eye there, chief!” Marty says, smiling broadly to show them what capable tributees they are.  “That sucker’s purest vaccuum.  But the great thing about the Atmo-Blaster is that technically, it’s just a bunch of low-grade mass redirectors that shove anything out of their way.  It’s like a meat tenderizer set on the planetary scale.”

Smoked Glass has walked over to the viewscreen, leaning in tight to peer at it.  “And that’s what you recommend for ultimate devastation?”

“Well, not for ultimate devastation, no.  If you want complete dissolution of planetary mass, get a Solar Refocuser – but it’s hell to align and all it does is melt stuff.  Not terribly useful.  Or you can get a Core Impactor to implode ‘em – but again, you wind up knocking the gravity well off true.  But the Atmo-Blaster can blast a surface like nobody’s business.  It’s damn near foolproof.”

Hotshot looks like someone just took away his lollipop.  “So… we’re not actually going to blow up a planet?”

“Oh, I will.  Just not fully.  Watch!”  Marty fine-tunes the targeting routines, and within seconds the moon’s cratered surface is webbed with red lasers; he doesn’t tell them how many hours he spent before they arrived calibrating the Atmo-Blaster.  That’ll come later.  For now, fireworks.

He goes to thumb the trigger; Ear Hair clears his throat.  “Excuse me, um, instructor, but…. Shouldn’t you make the announcement before you blast?”

Now it’s Marty’s turn to blush.  “Oh.  Heh.  See, even the pros get carried away….”  He loads the Chomsky, and his suit ripples.  “Note how it’s cranking my Mazinger-G to match this planet’s Jungian profile – see how the white panels are raising up in back to mimic wings?  They practically worship birds here.  And – quiet, hot mic here…

“PEOPLE OF DIRT-PRIME!  YEAH, YOU.  YOUR LATEST TRIBUTE IS INSUFFICIENT.  DON’T FUCK WITH ME.  NOW WATCH AS YOUR MOON IS OBLITERATED!

He hits the “Play” button to unleash his malicious laughter – Marty’s got a weak chest, but Delgado Threateners has some great canned stuff – then waves the guys over to the control panel.

“Now, aiming the ‘Blaster isn’t too tough; just set the spread, use the lasso tool to mark off the surface area you want blasted, and let the tool do the work.  It’s like a shower of impacts, really splashy – in an atmosphere, the rhythm of the mass drivers will squash the air out from under a place, causing a vacuum vortex that’ll suck the survivors out right to the sky.  It’s a great way of destroying strongholds.

“Now, what we’re going to do in the vacuum is to blast the crust right off.  This won’t get you the 100% core exposure you’ll get with a dedicated crust-stripper, but on the other hand, you can see the showers of rock exploding into space from billions of miles away.  Down on the ground, it’ll look like the whole thing’s going up in a cloud of smoke – which is critical, ‘cause you can’t hand ‘em all telescopes to watch the devastation.”

Hotshot frowns.  “But it’ll still be there…”

“Trust me, they won’t see a difference.  There are going to be rains of fire on the surface as the debris lands, and huge tidal waves as the moon’s orbit restabilizes, and an outside chance that the full planetary orbit wobbles a bit and wham!  Their farmlands are desert.  One cycle after your latest moon-flensing, you’re gonna have 100% of your quota sitting on the dock.  Nothing reminds a guy not to fuck with their master like the gouged eye of their own moon glaring down at them.

“Now,” Marty says.  “Who wants to press the button?”

“I think I’ve heard enough.”

Smoked Glass pops his helmet, revealing a distinctly alien face with two eyes and only a single nose – but what troubles Marty is the black iron gun in its hand that’s aiming straight at Marty’s third eyebrow.  That’s a revolver, Marty thinks, and squints in to see whether it’s the automatic kind that jams or the revolving kind with a weak stopping power.

The other students look frantically to Marty for instructions – except for Hotshot, who’s finally achieved missile lock.  But as predicted, Hotshot’s ports jam and he fiddles, furiously, trying to clear his locked weapons battery.

Marty breathes deep, doing his best to radiate calm to his class.  “Who are you?” he asks, easing back a step back towards the Anderton panel.

“My name is irrelevant.  All you need to know, Martulax – or should I say ‘Marty’? – is that we natives will tremble in fear of you no longer.  In secret, we hid in our deep-sea coral laboratories, breathing stale wisps of recycled air until we unlocked the secrets of the warp drive.  And then we tracked you back to your – store – and in the cover of night, we hijacked this suit.  Now we will be the ones to own this ship – and you have taught us how to destroy your own homes!  We will blast your own world…. Just as soon as we destroy you!”

Smoked Glass pulls the trigger, five times.  There are a series of ratcheting clicks and a sharp, acrid scent.  Smoked Glass looks down at the gun in confusion.

“Now,” Marty says expansively to the other students, “Everyone have an inertial dampener installed in their lair?”

They all nod yes.

“That’s why.  It’s supposed to protect you from shrapnel if one of those Atmo-Blaster’s nozzles gets clogged, but the net result is that anything travelling at potentially injurious speeds gets dampened to null zero.  Which works extra-well on guntuggers.”

“I’m not a guntugger!” Smoked Glass cries, dropping the gun to go for Marty’s throat.  “I’m a human!  With dignity!  And I – “

“You can also lower the field in a given area,” Marty says, thumbing a button on the Anderton.  The gun goes up like a grenade as the five bullets, whose speed had been dampened the second the gunpowder had gone off, suddenly roar back to life while still locked in the five separate chambers of the revolver.

The shrapnel blinds Smoked Glass, who falls to the ground writhing.  Marty pokes another button and a trap door drops Smoked Glass into the patent-pending Lucas-Warren Thermal Pest Disposal Chamber, which incinerates pesky lair-intruders with a minimum of fuss.

Marty looks down into the smoking hole, troubled.

“Anyone wanna tell me the lesson we should take from this?” he asks.  The remaining students gather round one by one, peering into the pile of burning fat.

Ear Hair scratches the back of his neck.

“No tyrant can last,” he says, so choked he can barely whisper.  “We can oppress them, we can destroy their homes, we can even kill them…. But we can’t kill all of them.  We can’t kill hope.  And one day, that hope will kill us.”

“Nah,” Marty says, rolling his eyes.  “Hotshot?”

Hotshot ventures a cautious smile.  “Keep your inertial dampeners calibrated to below speed-of-sound limits?”

“You got it!  Remember to check the settings before every planetfall, just in case of pesky intruders.  Now – who wants to pull the trigger?”

They all yelled excitedly like little kids about to attend a party, and Ear Hair won the coin toss.  There was scattered applause as the noise began to build, a constant pounding thrum like a continent-sized massage chair.  They took turns sectioning the planet, improving their blasting techniques as the crust was broken apart and the people below shrieked in endless, unyielding agony.

They all agreed it was the best class they’d ever had.

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