Why Spec is Absurd and You Should Embrace It

Perhaps I should suffix that title: If You’re A Weak Little Pissant Like Me

Welcome back to Outwardbounder in a bran’ new rotation! Revolution? You know, that circuloid motion this planet makes through its gravity well? The trip around the host star that has been arbitrarily labeled by its inhabitants? Twenty-Thirteen!

We made it past Twelve and the ball keeps on turning. Glad to see you all.

Outward’s outward journey continues:

 

 

Around these parts, the term ‘realism’ can be readily underappreciated. I get that. When hosting a speculative fiction blog, I constantly find myself trying to rationalize the intricacies of that pie up there in the sky.

But hey: it’s that time again. We’re long overdue. Time to break into the New Year with a dazzling display of pretentiousness. But not too much. I’m not bombastic. Just a bit tedious. Outwardbounder 2013’ll start out a little conservatively, if I can help it. I’ll take it easy with this post.

Try to elucidate on that realism.

Awkward justification time!

Here’s where I’m going with this–

Imagination can be a messy business. It’s a real balancing act. It all depends on your end goal. Satire is fun, but easy. (In SF or pure speculative fiction, it’s simpler to laugh at the green Martian than to learn how its vascular system works) I use humor all the time; whenever I feel like I’m sounding too much like a lunatic –or when I’m attempting to hide the fact that I know fuck-all about the topic. I lay it on heavy. But realism… that’s another kind of beast.

A lot of corn isn't always a bad thing.

A lot of corn isn’t always a bad thing.

Science Fiction conveys with it a tough crowd. A bunch of rabid piranhas who would tear me apart if they new I needed to use spell check to spell piranhas just now. You gotta push the envelope, or you’re as good as gone. As bad as B-movie notoriety or pulp fiction. (The genre, not the movie. Quentin is all kinds of great.)

It’s an arena of ideas, and there are many ancient gods that came before. There’s a long history of genius SF authors, all of them smarter than you’ll ever hope to be. They’ve already snapped up the juicy entrails of the speculative carcass, and all you’re left with is the refuse.

How can you hope to find your voice? Will your message be forever drowned out? Are you worth listening to? Even more importantly—are you worth taking seriously?

I’m familiar with how genuinely painful it is for your blood, sweat, and tears to be sadistically torn to shreds. If anything, there’s something particularly gruesome about someone labeling your work as trite, clichéd and unbelievable. That derisive snort they make as they toss your WIP aside cuts finer than a knife.

My shit is… implausible? That, I can stomach; but if it’s enough to break a reader out of my story entirely, I know something is seriously wrong. That’s where the coatings come in.

You can do one of three things: You can salvage your draft by converting it wholesale into a satire, or focus more adeptly at reality 101. The third one (which I’m not really focusing on here) is to just embrace your inner sadist and welcome ‘the pulp’ with open arms. Nuttin wrong with that route either.

My argument isn’t that “humorizing” your science fiction is a copout. Read Douglas Adams. My stance is that making a genuine push to “make that shit more believable” is much more challenging, and in the end, just as rewarding. Harden up that flabby fiction and rediscover the depth that was there all along.

SF is a tough racket to break in, full stop. Here there be pitfalls; and in such a variety, your head will spin.

Take the ‘predicting the future’ trope. That’s almost what SF is all about. There’s so many ways you can slip up. Overlook something here or misjudge something there. You can also completely ignore shit. *cough* pulp! *cough*

The fun thing about predicting the future? Your stuff ages quicker than a hopped up mayfly. There’s nothing quite like seeing the word ‘obsolete’ solidify over your front page in real time.

The answer? Be like me and focus on the tropes that the naked eye just ain’t patient enough to stick around for. Evolution! Stick your story world in a far off point in the future. Alien Galaxies! Stick your story world on a far off point in the galactic horizon. Alternate realities! Prove sentient toucans from another universe wrong, jackass!

Aliens, alt. worlds and evolution are the bread and butter of my speculative forays. They’re also delicious flavors in any spec fiction goulash. But I have to be honest…

Impatience and carelessness can undo those stories just as quick.

You can also do everything right. Take your time, focus on your craft. Read up on what jive your peers are hip to these days. You can bring a truly novel approach to your subject and ‘still’ be ridiculed, scoffed, and mocked. Just ask Dougal Dixon. I’ve never seen anyone play with a line so razor-thin.

When the man’s on, he’s on fire. He’s also prime for the voracious internet meme hoards.

Leech men from a distant future! Personally, I love this, but I can see why it makes the rounds o' ridicule

Leech men from a distant future! Personally, I love this, but I can see why it makes the rounds o’ ridicule

 

There will always be stumbles on your marathon to publication or acceptance. We can use all the defensive mechanisms in the book, but we still have to get our shit out there and seen by the readership. And they will laugh. The healthy majority of them will be those damned ‘derisive snort-ers’. Most people won’t like your shit.

But you aren’t writing for them. You’ll find your niche. You’ll find your crowd. Everything has a following.

Let the others laugh. You’re doing what you love.

And us readers are better off for it.

Trilobite: Words on Wednesdays

Okay. Yes. I’m aware that I’m posting this on Thursday. I blame it on my closing shift — bloody day jobs. This week at The Write Practice I took a stab at some Spec Poetry.

Trilobite

Noun

  1. any of numerous extinct Paleozoic marine arthropods (group Trilobita) having the segments of the body divided by furrows on the dorsal surface into three lobes

Reverb shakes the water column;

a cascade of pressure reception, too close.

Straining water flexes weakened cuticle.

A trilobite hunkers in, rolling, enrolling;

tumbling away, just in time.

Compound eyes tac an escape.

Hungry ones roll into view;

flaps churn along a sinuous body.

A wave, juddering trilobite-ian senses.

Down and down;

a fragile underside limb tongues between dorsal sutures.

A gill tasting, breathing.

Guzzling to fuel greedy instinct.

Clamps closed again, not swimming;

Diving

Sinking

Fleeing

A trilobite relies on a flicker’s reaction.

A trilobite trusts the appraisal of intuition.

There is no time for hope;

but if he did, the trilobite would certainly cheer

for stiffened spines –

When Opabinia scuttles close for another pass.

Heartfelt Lyrics

Today’s The Write Practice has us playing the part of musician, with a little help from Carl Dylan. Check some of his sage advice on the subject of wrangling the muse. It’s invaluable, and can be applied to writers of all stripes. (I can never get enough of Thomas Jefferson quotes)

Besides, who hasn’t wanted to be like Paul McCartney or Elton John and pump out a moving ballad about love?

The actual writing practice of The Write Practice is to spend 15 minutes slaving over four lines of music. You’d actually be surprised at how much time can be invested in something so ‘simple’.

Here’s what I came up with.

Sorrow’s well reflects her eyes
Static time crackles on; (all we’ve ever known)
This loneliness pokes and pries
Yet I’d wait forever; (locked with you in stone)

Ah, long distance relationships.

I also want to thank my own special someone, without whose patience and complete love, I literally couldn’t survive. Two years isn’t enough. This is just the beginning.

The Next Big Thing

With National-Novel-Writing-Month drawing to a close, many writers have their attention locked securely on current projects. Those masochistic enough to succeed with their 50,000 have my sincerest — congratulations. I’m very proud of you guys. Witnessing your progress over the month has been more than a little inspiring. You all deserve a round in celebration: alcohol or applause, your choice.

I found this the perfect time to strike out with my own round of The Next Big Thing. I’d love to learn a little more about what you guys have in store for the future. This is, after all, when things start getting interesting. Edits upon edits, peer reviews. Shining stories are hammered out of the laborious molds you’ve crafted in November.

What better time than the present?

I wasn’t brave enough to undertake the rigors of Na-No-Wri-Mo this year; but in true writerly style, I’ve got my own ongoing project knocking around. I need to put something up here in order to get the ball rolling after all.

So lets see what we’ve got.

1.)    What is the working title of your next book/short story/project?

Yoan ex Novo.

2.)    Where did the idea come from for the book?

Sparks of inspiration trace back well into my childhood. I could try to pin it down to some philosophical fascination I have with the unknowable and the fathomless depths of time… but it’s more likely that I’ve always had a thing for monsters. I always found myself identifying with the stop-motion beasts or poorly hidden men in furry suits. They were my protagonists. They captured my imagination. The original germ of the idea arose a long time ago. I’d always wondered how different things might be if beings like them were running the show.

3.)    What genre does your book fall under?

Solid Science Fiction, if you wanted to paint with heavy brushstrokes. Probably Anthropological SF if you wanted detail.

4.)    What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

What was that I said about guys in suits earlier? I would probably have a seizure if an effects company like Jim Henson Studio or Stan Winston Studio to tackle some creatures portrayed in the story. Though knowing how far motion capture has come, I’d absolutely love if Andy Serkis were involved in any kind of iteration. Gotta have your pipe dreams, you know?

5.)    Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ve always imagined Yoan being picked up by an agent, but as I am currently amid the throng of the unpublished, it shall remain in the aforementioned pipe dream category. I do have goals for future self-publishing schemes as well.

6.)    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A human consciousness from the 21st century is cloned by the next dominant species of a future earth. Bonus sentence: shenanigans ensue.

7.)    How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

How can I answer this without sounding more like an amateur? I can’t? Oh. Well – I’ll tell you when it’s finished.

8.)    What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Yoan ex Novo would draw its strongest parallel with Jurassic Park. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a parabolic retelling. The ‘once rulers’ of the planet find themselves miraculously resurrected only to butt heads with the new head honchos; though it isn’t meant to be a Crichtonian cautionary tale about scientific hubris. Yoan aims to ask more questions than it answers. Who has the intrinsic ‘right to exist’ in a situation like that, etc?

I’d also compare it to William Golding’s The Inheritors, as it chiefly features a nonhuman intelligence and its means of coping with a very human threat.

9.)    Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Once again, I can’t really narrow it down to a singular cause. Not one person in particular inspired me to buckle down and pull my head out of the clouds. There’s an amalgam of motivation, from my love of sweeping Attenborough documentaries to deeply paranoid Science Fiction about the human condition. Ultimately, it’s a story that I’ve kept bottled up for so long, I feel a bit guilty keeping it out of the sunlight.

 

10.)     What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s an adventurous coming of age story about a single person who becomes the focal point that decides the fate of two terrestrial alien cultures. It’s got giant talking neo-monkeys and imprinting corvids that could ace an IQ test. There’s love, genocide, extinction and climate change – long-spanning and epic travails seen through a modern day lens.

I’ll nominate a couple very talented writers to take it from here. Chris J. Randolph, Jeff Ellis, and Scott Zachary (whose teasers for a post-apocalyptic thriller look plain awesome). These are three guys we all need to read a lot more of.

Keep writing everyone. Never stop creating.

Antediluvian: Words on Wednesdays

A piece of flash fiction inspired by the good folks at The Write Practice and their word of the week format. Constraints were to include a President and a storm. The times we live in, eh?

Also! Congrats Obama.

Antediluvian

adjec­tive:

  •  of or relat­ing to the period before the flood described in the Bible
  • made, evolved, or devel­oped a long time ago
  • extremely prim­i­tive or outmoded

The hibernating ship Anomalocaris began to stir after a universe long slumber. Ageless subroutines booted to life on a solar scale. In the time it took a nearby star to first luminesce under thermonuclear fusion, Anomalocaris’ antediluvian systems managed to become self-sufficient.

Life signs spiked deep within the rousing vessel. A president awoke to raucous clamoring that permeated from outside the hull. He ran a diagnostic and learned that a system was ejecting far too much radiation to conform with known stellar parameters. This universe could not be so different; he was awake after all.

Sensors reached out into the storm, relying on outmoded detection algorithms. Equally antediluvian methods filtered data effectively, yet slowly. Feedback reported in an instant. The president’s display banished pools of darkness from his face with a shock of plasma. His irises contracted in the light.

Anomalocaris’ armor plating, usually relegated to protection against eroding timespans, was under direct attack. Bombardment rocked her as she woke. Had been pummeling while she slept. He checked: For millennia. A static appraisal revealed that there was indeed an intelligent cause. Radio bands were chockfull of chatter. Alien sounds.

“Kids these days,” the president said. His voice was a rasp. He’d wake his constituents. It was time to go to war.

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.

Short Fiction: Lunch?

Lunch?

Complements: Photios

The Star-liner “Catseye” wouldn’t stay in drydock for long. She’d stop over just long enough to pick up her final bevy of passengers before setting out for Epsilon Eridani; a young system renowned for spectacular solar displays. It was a short round-trip pass, perfect for adventurous senior citizens and soppy honeymooners alike. Eridani was one of the closest stars that Catseye Cruise Ships offered clientele voyages to, yet it was still a grueling 10 month affair for Linesman Singer. With no vacation prospects for non-naval crew, Singer would take every opening he got. This contract had him all lined up until November.

He glanced at his wrist-chronometer and wagered he had a good ten minutes before a castoff order was piped through the PA. He’d make it. Singer was faster than a bunch of octogenarians whose flash of late-life insight saw them dovetailing their pointless existences with an equally pointless “escapade into space.”

His stomach growled.

Linesman Tam was still chattering in his ear. Singer had told her not to come, but since when did anyone ever listen to him? The older woman cast looks over her shoulder as they drifted through the dimly lit corridor of this unnamed space station. Unnamed because it wasn’t humanmade. Unnamed because it was probably only pronounceable if you had sixteen collated tongues. The hexagonal tube made him uneasy. It made Tam downright jittery. He could hear it in her voice.

“Why is it so d…dark?” she said.

“Just be thankful Celsius is smiling down upon us,” Singer hissed. “Dark we can handle. But cold…” He trailed off as he neared an entrance plank jutting surreptitiously out of the wall.

“Here we are.”

“What’s that? Is that the canteen?” Tam said, fumbling for something at her waistband.

“Sure is,” Singer replied. “It’s a doorway.” He floated towards it at an angle. It was covered in thorns, which probably gave traction to the designated alien species that used it. Singer didn’t care. He’d been told that they served Earth delicacies. Fast food.

Thank you Catseye and your many sister yachts. Octogenarians gotta eat.

Linesman Singer anchored himself and began kicking at the plank. The noise he made rattled his companion as she brought her Portois into view. She flicked it open and fingered the screen until it sputtered to life.

“You still keep that thing?” Singer said between grunts.

“Travel advisory states: Condition Orange, graded C,” Tam said.

Singer paused long enough to shrug.

“The Mammalogue Rough-Toothed Ringed Leatherglutton is in rut. They’re cleared for this branch of the station!”

Singer kicked harder.

“This is their ‘estrus cycle’.”

“You know, all that, what you just said? That’s just noise,” Singer said through clenched teeth. “I’m getting my burger. Shipboard accommodation comes out of your pay. You do realize that, right?”

Tam’s eyes stayed averted; illuminated from below.

“I know what I’m doing,” Singer said, redoubling his efforts.

A great squeal sounded and half of the wall folded in on itself like an ornate amalgam of dominoes. Though clearly distressed, Tam followed her younger coworker inside. The Portois started flashing red.

Within was a galley, if you could call it that. It was pressed flat, top to bottom. It reminded Singer of being inside an empty tyre on its side. There was movement all over, but it was gloomier in here than out in the hall.

“Allotropic gasseomorphs primarily exchange thermoception for visual acuity.”

“Shut up, Tam.”

She was quoting again. He hated when she did that.

“It explains why the lights are out,” Linesman Tam complained, looking up. “We aren’t supposed to be here.”

“There’s a bunch of creatures hunched over that hole over there. I bet that’s where the food comes from.”

Singer pushed away from the wall, but was instantly halted when Tam clasped his shoulder.

“Are you insane? If you get caught–” She recoiled, throwing a hand over the ship’s ensign emblazoned on her right shoulder.

“Go ahead. Waste your time. We’d be lucky to even find a human in here, let alone one who could trace us to the Catseye.” Singer glanced down at his own badge. Like they’d even see it!

“Why the hell did you even follow me, Tam?”

A heavy shadow fell over the pair of crewmates. Though the murk seemed to deepen, Singer turned and was able to see an enlarged being hovering nigh-motionless above them. It didn’t seem to breathe, but the rise and fall as it bobbed made Singer venture that the thing was – smelling them. It flipped a muscular appendage into a nook in the floor and pulled itself a little closer. It was shaggy, and smelled of rust and melons.

It whistled something out of a flume-like series of grooves along its ‘side’. Tam started fumbling again.

“I take it this is your Spikey-Tailed Mammal Podge?” Singer said without turning.

Tam thrust her twinkling Portois high overhead. Her lip was a severe line.

The rush of air congealed into a heavily accented form of English.

#forms of beverage# #meat grind# “Disclosure: humans served here” *HUNGER!*

“Whoa, hold it, fella.” Singer patted his hands through the air. “We’re here for the baconnaise and sirloin. Back off.”

Tam tried to speak, but was unable for the first time since he’d known her.

“That thing translating?”

The wooly figure of the alien split like a torn seam. The two crewmembers looked into an unfurling carapace. Like a silent snarl. Those were definitely teeth glinting in there.

“Listen, if I don’t get pension for this cruise, you sure as hell don’t get to eat me.” Singer frowned. He folded his arms across his chest and the chronometer started peeping. Castoff in tee-minus.

Damn it! He’d wasted his lunch break again.