Entry Service

Grivo’s ship plummeted through the atmosphere at 5X terminal velocity. From the city floating on the ocean surface of the moon, a thin grey streak ran across the sky.

The metal shutter doors over the windows of the cabin pulled up to reveal the vast emptiness of Ganymede. Silver waves reflected in the rays from the small sun on the horizon. The small furry Gederian pressed up against the window from the dash and looked over the curvature of the moon below. His ears perked up and his spiny tail weaved slowly back and forth. In the distance five circular citadels connected by sturdy bridges floated on the ocean surface: the capital.  Grivo looked over to Lynda who had passed out from her dose of Mox V. She reclined deeply into the passenger seat with a sheepish grin plastered on her face.

Slowly, the lights in the cabin began to return and the glow of various controls on the dash returned. Grivo looked away from the human woman to the dashboard and sat back in the pilot’s seat. On the smart windows, the trajectory of the Ganymede entry services program showed an orange pathway down to the city far below. Grivo hit some switches to bring the electronics back online.

After a few silent minutes the surface was much closer and the curvature of the moon was becoming a flatter angle. The silver metropolis below neared quickly as the ocean waters closed beneath them.

A generic tone came over the speakers and the voice of an automated woman came over the comlink:

“Thank you for choosing the Ganymede entry protocol service. We are happy to report a successful entry. You now have landing permits for Capital City, docking bay 94 on the near side of the main citadel. Your trajectory and velocity can be modulated by the program, but manual control will be restored once a safe operational speed has been achieved.”

Grivo sighed. He looked to the speedometer and leaned back in his seat to wait for the program to take the ship down to the dock.

“Would you like to participate in a short survey to reflect upon the nature of your entry? This can help us fine tune our program to better serve you in the future.”

“No.” said Grivo into the comlink.

There was a short pause before the voice of the woman returned

“Thank you. This survey should not take more than five minutes.”

“No!” said Grivo.

“Question one:” Said the program as the ship hurtled closer towards the city. “On a scale of one to five, one being completely unsatisfied and five being most satisfied, how courteous was your GES representative.”

“Umm. three.” said Grivo as he massaged his temples. Lynda stirred in the passenger seat.

The recorded voice returned. “Question two: How comfortable was your entry experience. One being most uncomfortable and five being-”

“Ahh, are we there yet?” muttered a dazed Lynda.

As the surface neared, Grivo looked back to the speedometer. The speed was unchanged from entry.

” Um three.” Said Grivo into the comlink. He sat up in his seat and looked over the dash.

Lynda laughed “What does that mean?”

“I’m answering this survey. We’re just coming in.”

Lynda settled back into her chair. “Wake me when we land.”

Grivo’s brow furrowed “…But, our speed should have slowed by now.”

The ship shot trough the air of Ganymede towards the city below, now growing larger in the windows.

“Question Three:” Said the automated woman “How successful would you rate the GES program?” Grivo’s eyes flew over the controls and he began to pull back on the throttle. Nothing changed. The city neared before them.

“What?” said Lynda picking her head up.

“We’re coming in too fast!” said Grivo, now flipping switches and trying to pull the controls back.

The voice of the recorded woman was confused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. On a scale of one to five, how successful would you rate the GES program?”

“I don’t have any control, the program is locking me out.” The city was now much closer. Somewhere in one of the towers below, a worker monitored the ship’s progress. A smile spread across their lips.

“Are you Kidding me!” Lynda said, now bolt upright in her seat. The waves below could be seen lapping against the citadel platform in the sun.

“I need to override the program” said Grivo, suddenly diving below the dashboard near the rudder peddles. He began to claw at the underpannel.

The calm voice returned: “I’m sorry, i didn’t catch that-”

ONE!” yelled Grivo as he threw off the panel and began to pull out wires.

Their altitude continued to plummet as Lynda gripped the armrests of her chair. WIth wide eyes she watched as the silver city infrastructure filled the windows. Grivo pulled out a circuit board form beneath the dash and threw it across the cabin. Lynda rose as the towers below became clear. Speeder car traffic and monorails zoomed below in the tangled cityscape of the growing city below.

“What should I do!?” screamed Lynda looking over to Grivo’s feet sticking out from under the dashboard. The spines on his tail were frayed outwards as he furiously ripped out wires and electronics.

The survey continued. “Question Four: Would you recommend the GES program to any future travelers? Say yes or no.”

“NO!” Grivo yelled, “Take the controls, pull the thruster back and pull up on the wheel!”

The windows and towers were now flying by as the ship hurtled into the city at a blistering speed. Lynda shook away confusion and jumped the center console, grasping the controls with white knuckles and pulling back as far as they would go. The hanger was fast approaching in the main central tower.

The ship rocketed through traffic to the surprise of commuters on the skyway.

Red and blue lights began to flash in front of Grivo’s face as the wires hanging around him shook with the motions of the ship.

“Question five. Would you be willing to donate to the GES in order to reduce the cost of entry? Please say yes or no.”

Lynda closed her eyes and put her whole weight into pulling back on the wheel. Buildings and speeder cars were all around them as Grivo pulled out one last wire from the tangled underpannel. The ship groaned and shook as the craft suddenly hurtled upward at fantastic speed. Lynda held fast to the controls as they shook in her hands. The hanger building loomed in front of them and in a split reaction, Lynda twisted the wheel around. Dampers opened all around the ship and the thrusters dimmed as the craft corkscrewed away from the tower, spinning with velocity out over the city and into the sky. Grivo was flung from under the dash, past Lynda, and into the ceiling.

Lynda pulled back on the throttle and straightened out the ship’s course before letting out a deep sigh. The ship drove high above the metropolis and slowed to a safe and quiet speed.

Lynda crumpled over the dashboard and breathed heavy, the sweat beading on her neck and face.

“We made it.” she said

Grivo let out a manic laugh. Lynda looked back to see him dangling from the ceiling, the spines on his tail stuck into the upholstery.

The automated woman on the comlink returned:

“This concludes the Ganymede entry protocol service. Thank you and enjoy your stay here on Ganymede.”

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A touch of backround during descent.

The Drug Lynda had just taken (called “Mox V”) is made and refined from a planet that now shares it’s namesake. When the galactic system was still new. The small, greyish blue planet on the very edge of the system was horrible and arid with little life and no known resources. One plant grew in huge patches on the planet, it became known as the Mox plant. The Mox is a twisting and woody vine that grows in tangled brambles that are attracted to any type of heat but need the liquid of the frozen poles. One of the original research team members sent there by the intra-galactic science corps. noticed that the Mox had within it a compound that could act with certain nuro-receptors of some intelligent life species with, potentially, very interesting effects.

The long and short of it was that this researcher stole several samples of the plant and worked nine years before distilling out the compound. In a total it took the attempts of five methods before it became Mox V as it is known today across the galaxy. The researcher’s second step was to take it themself and study the effects. What the scientist found was that it produced a heavy euphoria accompanied by psychoactive hallucinations and a rush of positive and racing thoughts. The dose they had taken lasted for three days.

The researcher took the remainder of the drug across the star systems to every club rest stop and major city with the help of his roommate and two friends. They sold it cheap, until everything that had been distilled was gone, and the market was clamoring for the drug. It’s saving grace and the biggest reason for it’s success was that it worked in settings of adrenaline or relaxation. Whether dancing or locked into a couch, the drug was phenomenal…and addictive.

Still yet known was that the drug was from Mox V (at the time the planet was called G7875N75) and the strange plants that grew on it. When the research team moved on. The researcher, roommate and two friends took what money they had made and bought property where the plant grew most rampant. Because no known resources were on the planet, it was never claimed. The planet was cheap and in ten years the drug money paid for the planet to be bought and made sovereign in the galactic system. The planet’s only export, deemed illegal by many systems, was the drug Mox V.

Great industrialized distilleries covered the surfice, and all manor of “enthusiasts” make trips there. Some live there. They say that the air is lightly dusted with the purple vapor it produces. The researcher stepped down as the president of the drug planet and left his roommate in charge. But not before emptying out the vast treasury and searching for adventure.

That was how that planet got it’s name, and until recent to our story, it was the only place one could get Mox V in the galaxy.

The researcher was a small Gederian. They are small and have a coat of reddish-tan fur. They closely resemble something canine from old earth but walk on two legs and have opposable thumbs. They lave long ears and a tail with many spines like that of a hedgehog.

The name of the Gedarian researcher was Grivo.

Mox V

“Bing Bong” came a soft and irritating alert from Ganymede Entry Protocol and Services. It echoed around the cabin’s comlink speakers.

“You have successfully downloaded the standard entry package. The standard package is updated every fifteen minutes and has a success rate of sevend-”

Grivo Switched off the comlink  with a curt flick of his wrist on one of the knobs outlined with a neon green on the intricate dash. With another flick of his wrist the little furry alien twisted a neon orange outlined knob. Just as he did so, radio waves from earth’s past brought the sounds of Pink Floyd to the ship in a descending orbit around Jupiter’s most civilized moon colonies.

Grivo reclined back in his pleather chair, stretching out his little arms before crossing them behind his head. The little tufts of fur on his elbows stuck out from the sides of the pilot’s chair. His long ears rubbed against the material before they relaxed about the sides of his face. He let out a deep sigh that whistled between his sharp teeth and finally he crossed his legs.

Lynda on the other hand was suddenly struck with a tense paralysis once more.

Fucking hell, why now. She thought as the moon grew closer. It’s small, it probably barely has an atmosphere. 

She looked down to see her nails digging into the coarse tan fabric of the passenger seat. She looked out the window and saw only madding space or the moon which was now dominating half of their view.

She looked to Grivo. His eyes closed; stomach rising and falling in a soft peace beneath his flight suit.

She felt her knee reflexively bobbing and looked for something to take her mind away from the rising tide. She scratched her elbow. She scratched her jaw. She felt beads of sweat on her brow. She turned suddenly to the little alien.

“Are you always this calm when you’re about to do an atmospheric push.” She said. Her eyes grasping at Grivo to say something to distract her.

“Hmm?” Said Grivo, his eyes opening slightly. “Why aren’t you. You paid for them to do it. Does that not bode well on your nerves?”

“It’s…I’t’s not that I’m nervous…” Said Lynda “I just have a conniption about planetary entries.”  Lynda’s left ankle pocket began to feel very heavy.

Grivo shrugged “It’s just a Lunar entry. Over in three minutes.”

Lynda’s teeth began to chatter, and her skin felt as though she was being bitten by lice .

“I’m trained fully myself. I’ve done it lots of times. Eventually you accept that you’re gonna make it or not.”

Lynda’s eyes groped to the window. Madding space. The moon which was just a pinprick before was now looming before them as they descended. She could make out structures and formations on the surface.

“Don’t worry. Atmosphere entry is way over hyped. I guess you haven’t done it too often, but it’s really not that difficult.”

Lynda’s scalp felt like sandpaper. She let out a irritated breath and reached down into her ankle pocket.

“It’s fine.” She said, scratching with her other hand as she raised a cylindrical device. It had a large metal cylinder with a blue button. A glass chamber at one end became a mouthpiece with a rubber tip at the end.  She stopped to calm herself before  putting the mouthpiece into her mouth. “It’s fine” she breathed. “I have ways to cope.”

She pressed the blue button and a wave of vapor snaked through the glass chamber. She pulled the device away and took a sharp secondary breath before letting her arms fall. She closed her eyes and a plume of vapor spread out into the cabin.

Grivo glanced over to see Lynda fall back into her chair as the smoke trailed from her head. Her arms slumped over the armrests and the cylindrical device fell to the floor. He shrugged and closed his eyes.

Lynda’s eyes opened. They were dilated to the edge of her iris’s. The lights of the cabin waved in and out of focus as the motion outside the window continued beyond care or worry. She felt her body being enveloped by the puffy passenger chair. She laughed as fire began to creep up the windows of the cabin.

Metal-alloy shutter shields lowered  in front of the windows. Blocking out the view. The lights inside the cabin flickered and faded away to darkness as the ship began it’s long and turbulent decent to the surface.

Lynda’s eyes made patterns in the blackness and felt soft swaying nudges in random directions. She giggled as the ship continued on.

Mox V? thought Grivo

There are worse problems. thought Grivo

A Glimpse at Grivo

Why are you doing this? Thought Grivo.

I should be asking you the same question….Thought Grivo.

Don’t question my decisions…you…cant see she’s homesick.

So? Why should we give a damn?

Well she got us off Talfur and fixed the ship. We do kind of owe her.

We don’t owe her anything, and your right, she did fix the ship, she did get us off Talfur. But let’s not forget the time sensitive material on Gredux 5676.

It will only be a slight detour.

No. It wont. There’s no jump gate to Earth anymore. It could take weeks, months even.

Whatever. We’re stopping at Ganymede. We can figure out our plan from there.

We could just leave her –

Don’t even think about it. Thought Grivo.

Fine…

Lynda returned from the rear quarters of the ship. Her face was a little more stretched. She looked at the new course they were taking. Away from the jump gate further into space and towards the small moon of Jupiter. It had once been an Earth Colony.

“Where are we going?”

Grivo looked back at her. Her worn red flight suit had droplets of water on it. her normally round face seemed to hang and her eyes hung downward.

“Ganymede…then Earth” he said finally before facing towards the windows.

Lynda lifted her head.

“What. Really?!” Said Lynda before she composed herself.

“Ahem well um why?” she said.

“I just felt that…um …well the thing.” Grivo glanced away, his furry brow furrowed over his eyes. “Alright I felt sorry for you.”

Grivo turned to see Lynda utterly speechless. She watched him like she had never seen a four foot anthropomorphic fox alien before. The little alien looked back up indigently at her.  Lynda raised an eyebrow and then convulsed with a snerk before bursting into laughter.

“HAHA…YOU….haha- felt- sorry.!?” She said, supporting herself on the low roof of the cabin.

I knew it. Thought Grivo

“Shut Up.” Said Grivo Turning back to the controls of the ship.

“I…” Lynda gasped “I’m sorry. You don’t feel Anything!”

“You know I can still change my mind, and we could move on to the conduit. A good few thousand of light years away.”

Lynda calmed herself and walked over to the puffy passenger seat.

“Okay i’m sorry,” she said stifling another outburst “Thanks.”

She plopped herself down and threw her boots up on the dash holding back a secondary aftershock snerk.

“Even so. it would be good to stop on the moon before we depart. The ship needs supplies and some real tools. It would suck if we fell apart during the jump.”

“Don’t you go into like another dimension if you fall out of a jump?” said Lynda

“Hell I don’t think anybody knows. Why would you want to try?”

“Just a thought” Lynda said. She thought for a moment as the ship began arcing towards the moon, away from the gate.

“Look Fox We-”

“Don’t call me that.” Said Grivo.

” – We don’t need to go to earth. It’s a kind thing to offer. But Lets just be on our way after we get the supplies.” She leaned over and switched off the radio which seemed to be playing Elmore James at the time. “The music from my home planet spurred a…momentary… weakness on my part.”

Grivo looked over as Lynda returned to the laid back position, stretching her legs back out and placing her red boots on the dash.She crossed her arms and watched as the gate slowly passed by the wide window. Grivo pivoted towards the atmosphere of Ganymede.

Good. She doesn’t want to go. That’s that. Thought Grivo.

But she’s probably just saying that. Insist on it.

Where the fuck is all this empathy coming from? Ganymede, Sure: supplies and whatnot. But there is TREASURE waiting for you on 5676. Yet it’s only there as long as a salvaging satellite or a patrol ship doesn’t swing by.

That said. Imagine what undiscovered gems could be on earth…

Lynda glanced over to Grivo. The Alien was piloting with a spacy concentration. Silent and unmoving. She reached over and grabbed an old magazine from the side of the dash and opened it. There was an article about a new craze sweeping the galaxy about five years ago.

Suddenly Grivo jumped from his chair and ran across the dash. Lynda heard his paws tapping across the console a split second before the magazine was ripped from her hands and replaced by the intense teeth and eyes of Grivo’s desperation. He grabbed her by the shoulders.

“DO YOU WANT TO GO TO EARTH OR NOT! TELL ME NOW! YES OR NO! NO OTHER WORDS! RIGHT NOW!”

Lynda yelped and threw Grivo off of her. He fell to the floor but the alien rose quickly out of a roll, standing defiantly at her.

Lynda felt the ‘yes’ burning inside her from some deep place that she had tried to cover up. But the voice of her job, her profession, that which she prided herself and lived on for so long told her to stick to the plan. This weird little Alien had a bounty on his head so big, she could buy her own planet.

But the music in her soul put up a great argument.

“N…uh” She said, looking away.

Grivo watched her, his mind racing between binary points.

Go

Don’t

Go

Don’t

Lynda turned back to him. “Just give me some time on Ganymede to think about it. Jeez.” She said before turning back to the window.

Grivo lowered his arms. His tail coiled and a frustration broiled so hot for a moment. But then like a switch of clarity and calm, Grivo said:

“Okay!” and hopped gayly back up into the pilot seat. he pressed a few buttons and clicked the intercom for entry procedures.

Weird little creature. Thought Lynda.

part 4—> http://bit.ly/1z2Ym3r

Gateway to the Distant Stars

The ship glided effortlessly through the inter-space traffic. Cruisers, frigates, saloons, two seaters , and a ponderous dreadnaught were all moving along digital pathways towards Ganymede and the hyperjump gate in orbit there. Jupiter loomed behind Grivo’s ship as he moved his furry hands across holographic buttons on the dashboard. The low red ambient light illumined the little alien  as he steadied the wheel and operated through the spaceway. The smooth jazz from the radio passed away as a steady electronic beat came in with heavy synth and drums. A voice came over the radio, the frequency and waves were from a dead time.

“This is Double-you Ex See I, college radio at 91.7 on your radio dial. Keep Kickin it.” The music then went into an 80’s style overdrive. The lights of the space-lanes passed seamlessly with the beat.

Grivo looked from the traffic to Lynda, watching the window in the passenger seat. The human woman didn’t move, but in the reflection of her face on the window, a liquid seemed to be pooling in her eyes.

“Is she sad?” Thought Grivo as he focused back on the road.

He looked back. “She might be sad.” Thought Grivo. Yet he said nothing for some time.

“Ahem,” He said, clearing his throat. “You know, your Earth music isn’t that bad. that jazz smooth stuff was ….nice, but I like this, it reminds me of Telphi in the Sergardi quadrant:  fast thrills, amazing food, hot dancers in every club and…um”

The 80’s overdrive faded into The Guns of Brixton by the Clash.

Grivo looked back quickly to see that she had not moved and the liquid was slowly rolling down her cheek.She wiped her face with her sleeve, sniffed and attempted a resolute demeanor.

“Yea.” said Lynda. The neon lights of the spaceway and the thrusters of passing ships moved across her face. “you know we aren’t that far from earth…well, not relatively far.”

Grivo looked back over. “Oh yeah?”

“Mhmm” said Lynda, “Same solar system.”

“No shit.” Said Grivo looking back forward to Ganymede and the swiftly approaching hyperjump gate.

There was a long silence as the music of Steely Dan’s Asia flowed into perspective. Grivo gulped down excess saliva that seemed to be building in his throat.

“Ah, more jazz smooth. Does earth have different music, or is it all just this stuff down there?”

“We used to have a lot of types of music on earth.” Said Lynda looking away from the window, into her lap.

“oh.” Said grivo looking back forward. “Right”

Another long silence continued between them, the space was filled with the keyboard skills of Donald Jay Fagen.

Grivo watched the road, ships weaved and sped through the lanes.

“There was Metal, and pop, and rock, Jazz of like a million kinds, opera, beroque, blues, BLUES!, motown, and funk, and disco, EDM, punk, rap, hip hop, and fusions between all of those things!” Said Lynda suddenly talking. Grivo watched her continue. It seemd as though she was trying to yell at space to hear her more than participate in a conversation.

“It all started with folk musics. Little tribes of people on our planet crawling out from whatever cave or rock they lived under. Wherever we came from, people made sounds. We did it to keep us happy, to remember sad times, to help us understand. To keep us from being afraid of the dark…”

She let her head hit the glass quietly, looking down into the vastness of madding space. Her hair trailing down around her as tears began to flow silently from her eyes, blurring the stars.

Grivo was focused on driving. But his ear was cocked towards her.

Lynda spoke into the glass. “Music was everything. It said what words just never could. It gave feeling to that which you never experienced, opened your eyes and reached into what made you what you were….and it was ours… it was our soul. And you didn’t need to be from the same time or place, you didn’t need to speak the same language in words to know how they felt or who they were and learn something new about the whole godamned experience of it all. It was…it was just human.”

The space between the next song lingered. As the Hyperjump gate neared a longing song by Vera Lyn warbled it’s way onto the radio in a rising crescendo of wistful pain. “…I’ll be looking at the moon,” Came over the hi fi as Ganymede passed slowly by the window. The gate loomed before them. Dominating the view from the cabin. A structure made to whisk the two travelers across time and space with imposable science and technology. A second existed in silence until Vera returned with her chorus. “buuuut I’ll beeee seeeeeinnnng youuuuuuuu.”

Lynda stood up. “AND THEN STUFF LIKE THAT WOULD HAPPEN!” She yelled and left the pilot’s cabin.

Grivo glanced back as the door closed with a hydraulic hiss. He looked back down to the instruments. At the gate before them. He sighed and pressed a few buttons turning the wheel and shifting the ship into the exit lane towards the moon of Jupiter.

A few moments later. Lynda came back. her face a little more loose and stretched.

She looked over the instruments and course.

“Where are we going?” She asked

“Earth.” Said Grivo.

part 3—> http://bit.ly/1yNqdEa

Radio

The radio sputtered with static. Garbled voices of various pitches whirred into focus and then away with the rapid switch between stations. A band of blue green light waved with the frequencies in the center of the console behind scratched and dirty glass. The green numbered preset buttons below stood at attention between two knobs outlined with neon orange against the darkness of the cabin.

The static waved like rain on a metal roof, became interlaced with pops and waves, or receded for a moment to give way to the muffled voice of some alien creature. Nothing clear or decipherable could be heard. In the vast world of radio frequencies, nothing was picked up by the device.

Lynda swiveled her chair away from the window.

“It’s busted. Why do you keep trying.” Her crossed arms ignored the brown canvas of the puffy foam passenger chair.  Beyond the glass behind her, the neon lights of the spaceway and other ships in the night moved quickly across the stars.

“You don’t have any appreciation for frequency jumping do you?” Said Grivo. The little fox looking alien stood on the edge of the pilot’s chair, his claws digging into the imitation leather material. One of his furry hands was on the console of the radio and the other held the wheel.  His face was alight with an animal curiosity at the radio while the frequency band reflected blue green off of his dark glistening eyes.

The sounds of the dead radio whirred and jumped some more around the hi-fi rigged surround sound system of the ship’s cabin. The strange and abstract noises from mysterious sources fell flatly on Lynda whose face somehow depressed further into her crossed arms. The blaring static and garbage noise polluted her mind with a rising landfill of rage until she snapped.

She flung her arms out at the little creature.

“CANT YOU PLEASE JUST PUT ON A SONG for gods… sake-”

Just at that moment, her wide eyes cooled. Her mouth hung open and her arm muscles relaxed as a driving back beat of pedal drum and bass guitar smited her. With crystalline clarity the groove arose from the sea of static. The song was graced with the presence of a guitar. It’s silver strings vibrating smoothly along the frets. A soft soulful saxophone meandered above it all.  The notes hit her like heat to butter. A lone voice took over singing words in another language which could have meant anything to her.

The song had a magical effect on her until the saxophone’s solo was beginning to rise and a curtain of dense static dropped over the experience.

“Eh, not my favorite tune. Too lounge music don’t you think?” said Grivo turning the dials with a fervency once more.

“Hey! Change it back!” said Lynda

“Oh you liked it?”

“YES! That song was from Earth!”

Grivo looked back with a confused tilt.

“My home planet.”

The static continued around them, Grivo seemed to be thinking the same thing.

Lynda furrowed her brow. “It made me nostalgic.”

Grivo flicked his wrist and the music smoothly retook the cabin. Lynda sat back in the chair and swiveled it towards the window. Grivo let go of the dial and focused his eyes and both hands on piloting. The white and yellow electronic lines on the glass showed the safest lanes of travel as ships switched between them. Their thrusters were a myriad of colors.

“I have no idea what nostalgia is. But it must be nice for you humans. I ether like music or I don’t.” Said Grivo

“No.” Said Lynda “It’s not like that…it’s …well…uh…It’s that the music makes me think about other things. Nostalgia is like a kind of homesick…but for memories too…”

It was Grivo’s turn to furrow his brow. “Why would you want to be homesick?”

“It’s not like that- just- just forget it, lets just listen to the song in peace.” Said Lynda, her arms resuming their crossed position. She looked out the window at the approaching hyper-jump gate, in orbit around Gatamine while french smooth jazz played around the alien’s spaceship.

Part 2 —> http://bit.ly/1BxzbWa