Read Near + Far Online

Authors: Cat Rambo

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Near + Far (30 page)

The next day, Desla managed to flood the shop. All three had had digestive problems due to an excess of cream pastries and the eliminatory near the shop had overloaded and backed up. He waded through an expanse of dirty water, opening the shop door to see more water pooling in the aisles, bearing on its surface a film of dust, lint, and scraps of packing material. He turned the water off at its source and sent for a registered plumber before setting the trio to mopping. They carried the water, four dirty buckets at a time, to the recycler so he could reclaim at least some of the fee.

"Look," he said to Tedesla. "The three of you might search around for another job. I will lose the shop in three days to others with a prior claim, and I will not have anything for you to do."

"We can do that," Tedesla said. It patted his arm. "Do not worry, Akla's husband. We will help provide for the household, and keep you in the style which she would have wished."

"That's not what I meant," he said. "I mean, I will have an excess of goods and no place to put them while I look for more shop space. The room will be quite full."

Tedesla's ear frills quivered eloquently with disappointment, but all it said was "I see" before going back to helping mop the water from the floor.

In between researching ways to save the shop, he tried to find them living space, but there was an influx of visitors—a trade market was being held within the next three days and so he resigned himself to another week of their presence. He kept them on a schedule opposite his own, pointing out its efficiency in keeping the store constantly open, and paid Alo2 double the usual wages to keep an eye on them.

Meanwhile he found a private access unit and searched through endless datanets, trying to find a legal loophole in between constant trips to the eliminatory to soothe the burning in his groin. He stopped on the way home for more bulbs and ignored Ercutio's questions. Every search had closed another door. When he got to the store, he found Bo waiting with advice.

"One of the new employees came from a Jellidoo background so I asked them about the culture," he said to Kallakak. "You need to be careful of what you say to them. Their specialty is libel and slander, and they'll provoke you into saying anything that you can possibly be sued for."

"As though taking the store were not bad enough?" Kallakak grumbled.

"Rumor says we might be in for a governmental tumble," Bo said.

"So soon?"

"This has been a pretty apathetic government; a lot of old-timers aren't too happy with it."

"But still, if it were to change within two days, that would be a quicker change than any I've seen here," Kallakak said.

"True," Bo said, "But I thought the mention of it might cheer you up. How are your new additions doing?"

"They haven't done much so far today," Kallakak said. "Sla tried to eat a tourist's pet last night, apparently, but Alo2 stopped it in time."

Bo snorted.

"They're coming for dinner anytime now," Kallakak said, glancing at the light level in the corridor.

But the next people to come in the door were not the cousins, but rather the pair of Jellidoos. Kallakak smiled politely at them and signaled unobtrusively with a midhand to Bo, who drifted nearer, staring at them.

"We have heard that there have been acts of sabotage in the shop," the man said. The woman pointed at the colors on the back wall. "And water," the man added. "There has been a broken pipe?"

"A small problem, quickly solved," Kallakak said. Sla and the others came through the door just in time to catch the last.

"Is there a problem?" Sla asked. The three came to look at the Jellidoos as well.

"We do not want any more damage to our property," the man said. "We are prepared to offer a sum for immediate vacancy. Or else we will begin charging for damages to what will be our property."

"Never!" Sla said indignantly and behind him, Bo rolled his eyes at Kallakak, mouthing the words "libel and slander."

"You have no right to oust Kallakak! You are very bad people to do so!" Desla added.

"Tell me more," the woman said, listening avidly. "Why should we not oust him?"

"He named this shop after his wife and she remains to watch over it, with love and affection!" Tedesla said despite Kallakak's frantic signal.

Kallakak opened his mouth to correct it, then shrugged and remained silent.

"How so?" the man demanded. "Do you mean she still lives here?"

"In her death, as in her life, she remains by his side!" Sla declaimed. "Looking after him with eternal devotion."

"A ghost!" the woman exclaimed, paling. She and her compatriot exchanged glances.

"It is a trick," he said, but she shook her head. "Ballabels cannot lie," she said. "See his ear frills?"

Although they could, Kallakak thought, neglect to correct mistaken impressions. Akla had left aboard a freighter, saying that she wanted to "find herself" and had never come back. No sane Ballabel chose a life of solitude, and he had not wanted to correct the cousins in thinking her dead. She would have, he thought, preferred that.

"Will you be withdrawing the claim?" he said to the man as the Jellidoos pushed their way through the cousins towards the door. The woman spat and made a gesture he did not recognize as his only reply.

"Nicely done," Bo said as she exited.

Kallakak beamed at the cousins with effulgent satisfaction. Fumbling behind the counter, he took out an unopened decanter of spirits and fumbled at the stopper.

"So the shop is safe?" Tedesla said.

"Yes," Kallakak said, pouring drams into mugs patterned with glittering stars.

"We don't need to get jobs after all! We can keep working in the shop!" Sla said.

"Well," said Kallakak. "I don't know if I'd go that far."

Afternotes

While at Clarion West, I wrote two stories ("Amid the Words of War" and "I Come From the Dark Universe") set aboard a space station named TwiceFar. "Kallakak's Cousins" is the third story I set there, and was the first to sell, to Sheila Williams at
Asimov's
. In it, I deliberately used physical elements to force reader identification with the beleaguered Kallakak, and then followed up by heaping problem after problem on him. I'm also fond of the cousins, as well as the Ballabel social structure's intricacies. Akla will surely get her own story at some point.

My vision for TwiceFar is that it's a station prone to revolution as well as frequent hostile takeovers, in a constant state of economic and political flux, a theme that I tried to explore in a fourth story, "On TwiceFar, As the Ships Come and Go." A fifth story has been hovering for a while in the back of my mind and hopefully will make its way out by the end of this year.

The story was reprinted in several places, including Russian magazine
Esli
, and appeared in audio form on the most excellent podcast, Escape Pod.

Amid the Words of War

E
very few day-cycles, it receives hate-scented lace in anonymous packages. It opens the bland plastic envelope to pull one out, holding the delicate fragment between two forelimbs. Contemplating it before folding it again to put away in a drawer. Four drawers filled so far; the fifth is halfway there.

"Traitor," say some of the smells, rotting fruit and acid. "Betrayer. Turncoat. One who eats their own young." Others are simply soaked in emotion: hate and anger, and underneath the odor of fear. It lets the thoughts, the smells, the tastes fill it, set its own thoughts in motion. Then it goes downstairs and sits with the other whores, who make room uneasily for it.

It is an anomaly in this House. Most of the employees are humanoid and service others like themselves. It is here for those seeking the exotic, the ones who want to be caressed by twelve segmented limbs even though it is only the size of their two hands put together. They want to feel chitin against their soft skin, to look into the whirl of multicolored eyes and be afraid. For some, it only has to be there while they touch themselves to bring them to the flap and spasm of mammalian orgasm.

Others require its physical assistance, or its whispered obscenities telling them what they want to hear. It has learned what words to say.

It has never seen others of its race in this port. If it did, it would know that this place, far away from that distant front and its fighters, had been invaded by one side or the other, that soon the bombs, the fires, the killings would begin.

It was raised a soldier. Its clutch-mates and it were tended until old enough to have minds, and then trained. It was one of six—a small clutch, but prized for its quickness and agility. They learned the art of killing with needle throwers, and once they had mastered that, they were given different needles: fragments that exploded, or shot out acid, or whistled until the ears of the soft-fleshed creatures who called themselves the Espen, their enemies, exploded.

Over the course of their training, they were provided with hundreds of Espen. They were allowed to select their favorites. Some of them played unauthorized games. They told the prey they would be freed if they killed a hunter or if they killed each other, because it made them fight harder.

When they were dead the clutch-mates were allowed to take fluid from their bodies. It liked the taste of their spinal liquid: salty plasma tinged with panic, complicated enzymes that identified where they came from. It became a connoisseur; it could name each of their three continents and tell you on which its victim had been spawned. None of its siblings could do the same.

The names such creatures call their clutch-mates differs according to many factors: the social position both hold, the spatial relationship, the degree of affection in which they are held that day. For the sake of simplicity, call them One through Five, and reserve the name Six for it. One was simple-minded but direct, and never lied, in contrast to Two, who loved to talk and tell stories. Three was jealous of everyone; anytime the others were talking, it would intervene. Four was kind-hearted, and had to be prodded before it killed for the first time. Even after that it would hesitate, and often one of the others would perform the final stroke. Five and Six were often indistinguishable, the others said, but they thought themselves quite separate.

In those early days they lived together. They groomed the soft sensory hairs clustered around each other's thoraxes, and stroked the burnished chitin of carapaces. It did not matter if what they touched was themself or another. They sang to each other in symphonies of caress, passing thoughts back and forth to see how they unfolded in each other's heads.

They were not a true hive mind. They depended on each other, and one alone would die within the year lacking the stimulation of the others' scent, the taste of their thoughts, to stir their own. But they were their own minds; it acted by itself always, and no other mind prompted its actions. It insisted that until the end to the Interrogator.

They were like any clutch; they quarreled when opinions differed, but when others intruded, they held themselves like a single organism, prepared to defend the clutch against outsiders. At sleep time, they spun a common web and crawled within its silky, tent-like confines to jostle against each other, interlocking forelimbs and feeling the twitches of each others' dreams. Five and Six had the most in common, and so they quarreled most often. Everything Six disliked about itself, the fact that it was not always the quickest to act and sometimes thought too long, it saw in Five, and the same was true for the other. But there was no fighting for position of the sort that happens with a clutch that may produce a queen or priest. They knew they were ordinary soldiers, raised to defend the gray stone corridors in which they had been born. And beyond that—raised to go to war.

There is a garden in the center of this house, which is called The Little Teacup of the Soul. Small, but green and wet. Everything is enjoyment and pleasure here—to keep the staff happy, to keep them well. This spaceport is large, and there are many Houses of this kind, but this one, Bo the manager says, is the best. The most varied. We'll fulfill any need, Bo says, baring his teeth in a smile, or die trying.

The staff's rooms are larger than any spacer's and are furnished as each desire. Its cell is plain, but it has covered the walls with scent marks. It has filled them with this story, the story of how it came here, which no one in this house but it can read. It sits in its room and dreams of the taste of hot fluid, of the way the training creatures struggled like rodents caught in a snare.

One of the visitors pretends that it is something else. Tell me that you are laying eggs in my flesh, he says, and it crawls over him and says the words, but it is not a queen, and its race does not lay eggs in the living. It holds his skin between two pincers and tears it, just a little, so he will feel the pain and think it is an egg. He lies back without moving, his eyes closed. My children will hatch out of you, it says, and makes its voice threatening. Yes, he says, yes. The pleasure shakes him like a blossom in the garden, burdened by the flying insects that pollinate it.

Everything was war, every minute of every day. The corridors were painted with the scent of territoriality—the priests prayed anger and defense, and the sound of their voices shook the clutch-mates to the core. They were told of the interlopers, despoilers, clutch-robbers, who would destroy their race with no thought, who hated them simply because of what they were. They massed in the caverns, the great vast caverns that lie like lungs beneath the bodies of the Espen cities, and touched each other to pass on the madness.

They were smaller than the Enemy, the soft fleshed. With limbs tucked in, they were the size of an Enemy's head at most, and every day the Espen people carried packages, bags, that size. So they sent ships laden with those willing to give their lives for the Race, willing to crawl through their stinking sewer tunnels or fold themselves beneath the seats of their transports, blood changed to chemicals that would consume them—and the Enemy—in undying flame, flames that could not be quenched but burned until they met other flames. They watched broadcasts of their cities, their homes, their young, burning, and rejoiced.

They put One, Three and Six in armor of silver globules, each one a bomb, triggered by a thought when they were ready. They flew at night, a biological plane with no trace of metal or fuel, so it could elude detection, and entered their city. Dropped at a central point, they clung to the darkness and separated, spreading outward like a flower.

Six found a café, full of the Enemy, drinking bitter brews that frothed like poison. They had no idea it was so close. The little ones ran around the tables and the adults patted them indulgently. They did not resemble the hatchlings Six knew, and each one was different in its colors. On the walls were pictures that did not show war: they showed clouds, and sun, and birds flying. It could smell the liquid in their bodies and knew it was on the third continent. It had tasted them before.

A child saw Six where it lurked, up near the eaves, and screamed. Some force took over its limbs and it could no longer move. The area emptied, and it watched the death numbers tick downward as the blast radius cleared, trying to figure out what to do. Their soldiers shot it with a ray like crystal, a ray that made the world go away.

When it awoke, its armor was gone, and it could destroy no one, not even itself. Even the little bomb that would have shattered its body and freed it was gone, an aching, oozing cavity where it had rested so long inside its body the only trace.

The Espen talked to it. They said they were its friends, they said they were its enemies. They said it would be spared, that it would be killed. They cut away two of its limbs but ceased when they saw it did not hurt. They burned it with fire and acid, and laughed when it made sounds of pain. They mocked it. They said it would be alone forever, that its race had been killed. They said they would kill it too, if it did not communicate, if it did not tell them what they wanted to know, even though it had no knowledge and did not know what the priests at home would do next.

And when it could make sounds no longer, they made it into a trade. They gained three of their own in exchange. And when it was back among its own kind, the questioning began again, although this time it was by the priests. The Interrogator was a large, dark-chitined creature; the assistants said that the Interrogator's clutch-mates had all died in the war.

The first day the Interrogator came and asked questions: What had it said to the Espen? What had it revealed about their own armies and weapons? Why had they kept it alive?

Why indeed? It did not know and said as much. The Interrogator looked at its mutilated body, at the stumps of limbs, at the raw places where they had pried away the carapace and burned the soft exposed patches, and went away without another question, trailed by two assistants.

The next day, the questions came again. What had Six said? What had it revealed? Why was it alive? Six said it did not know and the Interrogator came closer to where it crouched, favoring its injuries. It reached out a forelimb and rested it lightly on a pain point. The touch was like fire all over again.

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