Short Fiction: Reciprocal Pilferage

Complements: EMERALD WAKE

Most of the rotating globes of free-floating pudding hadn’t been touched. Flan was always a big hit with the passengers, but they never went for the tapioca. That was fine with Linesman Singer. He’d made a habit of popping up for dinners and brunches at the zero-gee EyeCity lounge, ready to lend the cooking staff a helping hand with dish outs. It was easy work, always coming down to Singer reassuring the odd patron that eggs used in the floating island dessert were indeed free range. Post clean-up was tiresome, so Singer was never turned away. For his trouble, there was access to all the tapioca he could carry.

Usually.

While spooning in several mouthfuls, Singer glanced over at the assistant hoovering up blobs of wayward sweets. The fancy orbits the sous prepared only lasted the initial buffet pass. Rogue crème droplets freewheeled in all directions. The vacuum pack hummed softly, inhaling briskly as the nozzle hunted them down one at a time. He was making his way inexorably towards Singer.

The spherical room was clearing of clientele. A few were dotted here or there, but staff had free lanes of traffic. Singer could see the white clad crewmembers flitting about with platters and trays. Cleaners tidied the area with baker’s racks. Most of them kept away, busy elsewhere.

A loud voice spoke nearby, startling the unusually vigilant Linesman.

“Call me Clark,” said someone familiar.

Singer looked into the vaulted ceiling – situated below him at this perspective – and nearly swore. Mr. Ras was just wrapping up a conversation with a gaudily dressed woman. He floated, looking like a bent mantis. The woman was enjoying his company, thumping his chest in a jovial way before heading off.

He looked his way. Singer’s throat clenched on a bunch of coconut cream. Mr. Ras was his supervisor. Somehow he’d found him.

Singer left the spoon to twirl away as he oriented to meet his approach. Mr. Ras didn’t seem particularly happy, but that was hardly a change. Time to get grilled. Just please… please tell me to finish up here before reporting to my station.

Linesman,” Ras said. “Report.”

Always so formal. Ras never used names, other than relaying orders about an outside party.

“Hey supe,” Singer swallowed. “I mean, sir.”

He’d return the gesture.

“As much as I like to see the… ah, initiative to satisfy the needs of our inside customers, we have a situation.”

So this wasn’t about him being away from his post?

“What’s going on?” Singer raised an eyebrow to feign interest.

“Some alien naturists are outside Catseye’s hull. They’ve been plastered there for dangerously prolonged periods.”

“You mean alien passengers?”

“Obviously. Catseye Star-liners are equal opportunity partners. We do not discriminate on grounds of creed, religion, origin or genus. ‘Bilateral symmetry or naught, we’ll see you to your destination and back.’”

“Oh, right. Obviously.”

Ras lifted a hand to brush a knot of food away from one ear.

“We need to get them moving again. It’s everyone’s duty to perform adequate safety regulations per individual alien-entity norms. We can’t endanger life through inaction, even when deemed culturally unsound by corresponding species.”

“That serious, huh?”

“These barnacles have been in string-shadow for the past 17 hours. That’s pushing well into tolerance thresholds.”

Jesus. This guy doesn’t even need to use a handheld Portois to sound like a jerk. It’s like he actually cares to remember this jargon! Impressive.

“We’re nearing the point in-voyage that the window will completely close on their outside excursions. Thanks to inverse-square law, they can’t ‘rough it’ this far into interstellar space. We’re sailing too far from Sol’s rays to keep them adequately engaged and energy-filtrating.”

Singer nearly scoffed.

“What are they, plants?” Crap. He’d said that aloud.

“Life forms of all types: animal, vegetable, mineral and variational-hybrids thereof are completely acceptable.”

“Okay, right. So – beam them a frequency. Tell them to get back inside.”

“This species is no-comm.”

“What?”

“They do not interact in the same frequencies as vocalizers.”

“So shoot a firework. Something.”

“These barnacles respond to proximity and intent. We need to send an able-bodied crewman for a vicinity conference.”

It felt as if Singer’s feet fell away from him, or would have if he wasn’t floating to begin with. The gruel in the pit of his stomach suddenly turned to ice.

“You aren’t saying – I can’t go out there!”

“It’s mandatory, Linesman. You have to step up to regulations.”

“I’m not even certified for spacewalks!”

“You will use a Bathy Tube. All highly automated.”

“But what about… them?” Singer indicated to the still industriously working kitchen staff.

“Their insurance coverage won’t allow them to take such an untoward risk.”

Singer didn’t think his heart could sink any lower.

“But you, Linesman, are not encumbered by such policy.”

Singer made to throw out that this should be security detail’s problem, or it fell under navy jurisdiction, but he realized that the lounge was a self-contained ‘hub’. They were more or less detached from the bulk of Catseye.

Which was exactly why Mr. Ras should never have found me here.

EyeCity café itself was casting the shadow over the naturists. Management would send a nonessential-someone close at hand. Especially if it meant security wouldn’t be put off lining up an expeditionary force en masse. What quaint hypocrisy.

The Linesman wasn’t getting out of this. He didn’t have a choice, but Singer would kick and scream the whole way…

“What about air?” said Singer.

“Your tube will recycle latent oxygen. The air you breathe out is mostly oxy anyway. There is plenty of time.”

“Controls?”

“Preprogrammed coordinates.”

“Return trip?”

“Already scheduled.”

“The aliens?”

“Just get close and they’ll disperse. Probably just need a reminder; but scrape them off the plating if you have to.”

Singer winced. He was drawing a blank. There really wasn’t much room to weasel.

“And you’re sure about him…” Singer gestured toward the vacuum-laden crewman, who was currently elbowing his device in attempts to bring it back to life.

“He’s a union member. Can’t touch him.”

Goddamn it.

It was almost calming. Singer’s perspective lazily shifted as his one-man craft corkscrewed round and round. The Bathy Tube was slipping along a sophisticated ‘string’ that reached out across Catseye’s many hubs and luxurious condominiums. The linked network diverged like an insane technological spider web. Most of it lay hidden by the trackless distances and snuffing black void, but every so often a glint of light caught in such a way that Singer was treated to a dazzling spectacle.

And there were the stars; always the stars.

The Linesman wouldn’t have it. Any of it. He was still gritting his teeth at Mr. Ras. Clark Ras, that uncaring tool of a manager. Singer would start using his name. Just to spite him. Yeah, that’s right Clark. How professional indeed!

It felt as if a cloud passed overhead. His world dimmed perceptively. It took a moment, but Singer realized that he had passed into the café’s shade. EyeCity would have loomed behind, if he were able to turn and see. The dining craft wouldn’t dwindle much, which should have been reassuring.

Below – ahead, Singer saw an angular structure. It was probably a casino. It was daisy-chained into an arched semicircle, looping off into Singer’s personal horizon. In one direction he could make out the signifying moniker of a fitness center; a wide swath of stylized pink cladding specified the facility.

Nebu-Liners always made sure to keep things appealing to the eye. Shuttling passengers had discerning tastes after all.

Singer spotted the naturists.

Mr. Ras had called them barnacles. At this distance, they looked more like starfish to Singer. They could have been black scuffs on the bulkhead, but as he approached, Singer could make out the slightest movement darting through their spindly bodies. Probably guzzling all the sunlight they could. Yet, for some reason, they made no attempt to exit the shadow.

How any living thing could survive in a void was amazing. Singer glanced at a readout. It flickered red, just as Ras had warned. It was the radiation detector. When buildup became hazardous, the light would steady. Singer would have to “get back like it was yesterday” once that happened.

Singer tried not to think about all the energized particles tearing through him, but it was a lengthy descent.

Before long, the Tube was scooting free into a noiseless landing. The Coriolus effect drew him down as effectively as gravity. It was that same rotational momentum that kept the string taut without actually touching anything. Motive roadways, some called them.

If all went well, he’d be heading back up again.

There was a sense of urgency as Singer watched the string recede, like a fisherman’s line in slow motion. It was the casino. It was orbiting, ushering him and the naturists away. The spin wasn’t fast enough to get the aliens into sunlight on time.

They’d need a little bump.

Singer goosed the treads a bit and felt the reverb up through his seat. The flexiglass screen wobbled and he was underway.

Progress was akin to a slug on a wall. The uniform ‘skyline’ made movement hard to judge, but touchdown was good and close. There wasn’t a lot of time to prep for contact. Singer was on top of them in the next moment.

There wasn’t a reaction, much less a greeting. Singer wasn’t sure if they knew he was there. Maybe he’d snuck up on them? Hard to gauge when they didn’t have backs.

The Linesman parked the tube a few feet away and folded his arms across his chest. How easy was this supposed to be? Something about proximity. Not that a horn would be of much use out here. Singer edged forward a few times, practically dancing on their root-like toes. Nothing.

He tapped on the inside of his cage.

Nothing.

The aliens were dark. Not exactly space-black, but pigmentation must have been crammed wholesale into every square inch of skin. Or was that exoskeleton? It bloated and twisted like gelatin, but Singer instinctually associated it with hardened chitin or bone. Perhaps he’d find out with a handshake.

If only he could make it that far.

His hands were probably too clammy to use the external enviro-gloves.

The naturists appeared like lopsided mounds of stringy antennae. There was no symmetry to them. All of the seemingly random offshoots or tuber-like growths undulated in the same motion he’d seen from above.

They moved together. Every last one of them; and there were a lot of the creatures – every one of them flexed as one. That was their only saving grace. A kind of uniformity was at play that told Singer that these were indeed intelligent beings.

What the hell were they doing? On the face of it, Singer might guess they were waving. But that was humanizing something that wasn’t human. Not even close. The naturists were filtering or filtrating… whatever Ras had said. Only…

Shouldn’t they at least be facing the sun? Don’t dandelions turn?

Would they really need to dance about like idiots to get the energy practically humming around them at all times? Even now, the ambient radiation was intense. Plenty to gorge on ‘til bursting. If your species was into that sort of thing.

The naturists were up to something else.

Wait.

They had been waving at him. During his spiral descent, the vines or appendages or whathaveyous – they’d been fixated on his approach. Maybe if he wasn’t moaning about Mr. Ras at the time, he’d have seen it.

They weren’t focused on him now.

The aliens faced away from the direction of the casino’s rotation. Back the way they’d come.

“Hmm,” Singer mused. He busied the Bathy Tube into a protracted roundabout turn. He’d look behind him.

Immediately, he was startled to see a single alien naturist suspended in the void. It was tucking itself into a bowl, probably feeling the full brunt of the Coriolis effect. Pale pouches, like a car’s airbags, were deflating and retracting from view as he watched. It was going to land nearby.

How it was able to navigate through space, in the buff, would forever be a mystery to Singer. The thing brushed by so easily, it was almost narcissistic. The being was close enough that he might have been able to touch it, had he taken to using the enviro-gloves from before.

It brought something with it. Clutched in an array of florets, Singer could see a frosted cylindrical casing. He saw the word “Neapolitan” clearly on the side until the creature landed like a willowy parachute. What would a space-plant want with ice cream?

Singer’s mouth started watering.

There was movement all over the place. The naturists began scuttling back and forth with what had to be excitement. A few reached out to the newcomer with – reassurance? Gratitude? A few even expanded their internal gas bladders and launched away. They weren’t heading into the light.

The bulk of them scooted across the ship’s hull, heading towards the loading dock. They were going inside.

Linesman Singer was dumbfounded. What was going on out here?

Something clicked. These guys were raiding EyeCity’s storeroom. Or perhaps one of the supply tugs that came and went periodically. Management had sent Singer out on protection detail. He wasn’t here to commune. He was here to scare them off because actual security didn’t want to get their hands dirtied with alien politics.

As much as human rules applied aboard the Catseye, you’d always find rules being bent to keep the clientele happy. Hell, ritual raids might be the naturist’s way of complementing good service. You didn’t want to undermine a good reputation. The company could sacrifice a few choice goods if it meant they’d get a whole planet of paying customers.

A lone alien stayed behind. It curled its tendrils, facing him. Inviting him. Singer leaned to one side and could see the ice cream bearer leading the group. Neapolitan sounded very good right now.

An orb of light flashed behind one eye.

Inside the tube, a steady red glow shone against the Linesman’s face. He wasn’t exactly ignoring it.

A little acute radiation syndrome wouldn’t hurt any. He’d probably just get a stomach ache. Maybe a little quarantine time to himself. That wouldn’t be so bad. He’d get some ice cream out of the deal.

Just like getting your tonsils out.

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