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Blood and Bone
by Joseph Green

Inseparable
by Evonne M. Biggins

Captive Skin
by Eric Del Carlo

Terra Forms by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
and Justin Adams

On the Snark Watch
by Karl Dandenell

Pitching a Bug
by Chet Gottfried

Fly, Robin, Fly
by C.E. Gee

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by Eric M. Jones

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by J. Richard Jacobs


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Pitching a Bug
by Chet Gottfried

NOTHING IS MORE DANGEROUS than facing an enraged Gorgohorribilis in the enclosed confines of a space station. The huge monster had fully engorged the air bladders that formed the immense crest on his head and along his neck and back. The subsequent roar could blast anyone’s eardrums into oblivion. And do you want to talk about the long serrated talons decorating its fingers, the stuff of nightmares? Those claws could rip out my heart and tear it to shreds.

How I wished I had a weapon! Anything would do, a knife, sword, neutron blaster, or a piece of broken glass. Well, a neutron blaster would be the preferred method for subduing the beast, but such a device would do little good, not for me, not now. The authorities, what there were in this region of the galaxy, took a dim view of shooting an employer, no matter how angry or dangerous he happened to be.

“Raddel, how could you be so stupid!” Wharton roared at me. He happened to be not only a Gorgohorribilis, or Gorgo per the general staff, but also the owner of Heavenly Solar Systems, my place of employment. “Do you want to see me ruined? My shop reclaimed by my creditors?”

Gorgos are carnivores. Wharton’s breath told me what he had for dinner each day of the past week. All Gorgos, no matter how wealthy, made wretched sales reps. They couldn’t sell a steak sandwich to a starving Epod, one of the few creatures whose appetite outweighed a Gorgo’s. That explained my position as a sales rep but not why I ended up in a meaningless piece of the galaxy. Gorgos were wizards of finance, which explained why he owned the shop.

“Why don’t I throw you outside the shop?” Wharton roared. “Maybe a dose of absolute zero might do you some good, inasmuch as I would never have to put up with such idiocy. Although . . . maybe it would be better to have you arrested. A dozen years at hard labor might teach you about justice. Yes, you are a criminal! Nothing less than a cold-blooded murderer—of me, my family, and all the relations who depend on my support.”

My “crime” didn’t bother me too much one way or another. I had allowed a return, and as the senior sales rep I had to handle all returns as well as other complaints. A customer was totally unhappy with her solar system, which was nothing as described. She had paid for a number of features, which were clearly botched by our tech department, which apparently didn’t know a comet from a planet. Hey! It happens during the busy season, when everyone wants a special graduation present for the offspring. I heard that Wharton had the unfortunate techie, who was responsible for that solar system, incinerated, so some of the Gorgo’s threats were real. To date, however, the boss hadn’t incinerated any of the sales staff or dropped them off into deep space minus a suit.

On the other hand, I knew little about the Gorgo legal code. Maybe I had committed a crime—according to their standards. Keeping track of all the legal systems of all the worlds was next to impossible, so I didn’t let it worry me too much. I was a good sales rep, even if the Gorgo forgot that fact from time to time.

“I won’t kill you today if you make a suitable sale to compensate for this.” Wharton didn’t wait for a reply. He suddenly turned away, stomped into his office, and slammed the door hard enough to vibrate everything in the salesroom.

I would have preferred two weeks’ notice and no recommendation over death, but the monster paid better than most. The other sales rep present, Donovan Trewood sighed. Trewood wasn’t the victim of Wharton’s wrath, but it might well have been him. Trewood made the original sale, and whereas the techie screwed up big time, Trewood’s instructions were not the clearest in the universe. One of these days the blame will rightfully fall on Trewood’s shoulders. As far as I was concerned, Trewood was the real enemy, someone ready to steal any customer who walked into the shop. Luckily, my seniority gave me first choice, and I never refrained from throwing that in his face or whatever part of his anatomy happened to be available. Unfortunately, my status had no influence on respect, and Trewood was always attempting some sort of camaraderie.

Trewood smiled complacently at me. “Gorgo really roasted you.”

“Shut up.”

“I thought we’d need a new sales rep,” he said.

“Shut up.”

Our conversations often followed that pattern. A merry jingle interrupted us.

Man, but was I ever sick of that jingle. Day in, day out, it ran through my head. If only there were some way of turning it off or sabotaging the thing. Still, the musical spurt signaled good news: a customer had arrived at the outer airlock. A good sale today would compensate for yesterday’s disaster.

Many people asked why Heavenly Solar Systems was located in a space station orbiting an otherwise abandoned planet. The wags had it that a space station allowed limitless parking. The theoretical number of customers who could enter our shop was endless. The truth was elsewhere. We were here because of the cheap rent and zero real estate taxes. Limitless parking? Don’t make me laugh. Our shop only had two airlocks to which a mark’s ship could attach. Between those two airlocks was a third, for those who couldn’t make a direct seal with our station or who were too impatient and wanted to rush in and buy a solar system. Few people ever entered through the third, and those who did were trouble, with an impossible or ridiculous set of demands and in the end could not afford the price. We had lots of window shoppers, because few people could afford a new solar system. Yeah, it’s an unfair universe.

The overhead monitors discreetly tracking the customer revealed a lovely scene: an Ardean Maximal escorted by three humanoids. Seeing an Ardean anywhere meant money—they were the species with more cash on wing than any other sentient race. And burn it they did, with squadrons of servants about them. Of course, if a person happened to be for all intents and purposes an oversize bird with wings instead of arms, you’d need a ton of servants. Maybe the Ardeans were the deep thinkers of the galaxy, or happened to be luckier than any other species at the stock market, but let’s face it. No matter how skilled one is with that long bill of theirs, lacing those fancy sandals up the leg would be impossible.

I wondered what riches they paid their servants. Maybe I missed my calling? Maybe I should be spending time with the better races of the galaxy? On second thought, looking at the dull faces of the servants, either the pay was particularly bleak or they were beaten into submission. The mysteries of an Ardean mansion or luxury spaceship were beyond me, so I simply did what I did best, blanking my face into a mask of welcome and well met.

Trewood would have loved a shot at them, but he knew that I had first call on anyone entering the shop. It took enough cigarette burns to get that point across the idiot.

“Would sir or madam enjoy a little refreshment?” I asked.

The taller humanoid answered. “Yes.”

“A little creme de menthe?”

The humanoid nodded. “In a shallow bowl, please.”

And not too large, if I remembered correctly. It tended to be a little embarrassing when an Ardean took a bath in a dessert treat. Of course, why crme de menthe should be popular with Ardeans was beyond me. Call it another one of the galaxy’s mysteries.

I snapped my fingers, and Trewood glared at me. Fixing the drinks was his specialty, and I happened to know that snapping my fingers irritated him enormously. Served him right! He should have been the Gorgo’s target, not me.

“And what type of solar system would madam or sir prefer?”

“Something for the children.”

I glared a little at the humanoid servant. He might have made it easier on me by defining the gender of my customer. One couldn’t tell the sex of one Ardean from another without looking at its cloaca, which would be as gross an invasion of privacy as is possible. Probably against the laws of many planets too. Of course, Ardeans can speak as well as anyone, but they refused to make the effort to talk to any of the lesser races. Beneath them and all that. What was the point of immense wealth if not for such joyful habits?

“For the children . . .” I murmured. I knew exactly what to show, but for a successful sales pitch, I had to pretend to be thinking intently. Ardeans like that. Everyone who pretended to be someone liked it as well. I let Trewood return with the drink and allowed a few minutes for the Ardean to get a pleasant glow before I said anything more.

“What I propose,” I began with my best cautionary voice as if the pitch would only be made to a select few, “is a binary system.” To turn on the virtual display and to impress the Ardean and its entourage, I said crisply, “Binary display, factor 425x, inspired view, detailed, special 4001y,” and a few additional commands of increasing complexity. In truth, I only needed the first two stipulations, but no one likes to think that his or her new solar system comes out of a box. Customers prefer thinking that they’re special, and so the additional commands are hot air that do nothing except create a better atmosphere for my sales pitch.

The lights dimmed, and accompanied by suitable synthesized music, a virtual display of the binary system and planets appeared overhead. Pointing at or mentioning any feature would immediately enlarge its view.

“Each star,” I said, “has a standard complement of planets, say, four rocky and capable of supporting life, as well as three gas giants. The gas giants are so pretty and playful. While life evolves on the smaller planets, children enjoy watching the gas giants capture additional moons and comets. The primary feature is that when life does evolve and forms civilizations, there will be much war, something children enjoy. They can watch it on a small scale of planetary development until it peaks. Then comes the feature I like the best. Typically interstellar travel takes a long time to develop, given the distances involved. But with our unique binary system, by a peck at the button or a simple word command, you can bring the two stars as close together as you want. Your children will have all the thrills of a dramatic and spectacular interstellar war. And I can tell you, it doesn’t get much better than that: entertainment throughout all stages of development, relative to the planets and your children.”

I had them! I had enchanted not only the Ardean but the humanoid servants as well. Whatever I may say about the Gorgo, his shop did possess all the latest and best features of solar system construction. What was more, this was going to be a big sale. Evolution is all very fine and well, but children don’t often have the patience to wait and see it through. The enhancer kit, which had a superlatively high price tag, would allow the kids to skip all the dull stuff. I couldn’t see any Ardean settling for anything less.

A glorious contract was in sight when that horrid, ridiculous meaningless jingle broke in over the sedate music of the binary display. Someone new was coming into the shop. My immediate thought was, Let Trewood handle the mark. I was busy and couldn’t afford to be distracted, but out of the corner of my eye I saw that the customer was coming via the middle airlock, the one without a spaceship docking port. I sighed inwardly. The occasional wealthy eccentric might enter that way, or it might be the survivors of some horrendous crash or another, but we discouraged those as much as possible. I glanced at the overhead monitors and cursed. It was a bug, which would be a nuisance in the best of times. I didn’t have time for such nonsense and hoped the creature would take forever in trying to get out of its spacesuit, leaving me enough time to finish my sale to the Ardean. Nope, that wasn’t to be. The bug, which I recognized as a Megillan, once in the inner airlock, swiped off its spacesuit in record time.


I motioned to Trewood to take care of her. It would have to be a her, or at least 51 percent female: Megillans included many different partial sexual identities. They lived in enormous family colonies. A female Megillan in charge of the kids would have the resources of many individuals, which was understandable, since such family colonies had children by the thousands. Keep in mind, the resources of many Megillans didn’t amount to much since they were the bottom feeders of the galaxy, at least in terms of job description. I caught his momentary frown as he took the Megillan aside, but as much as I might sympathize with the situation, Trewood deserved a tough break.

Having dealt with the nuisance, I resumed eye contact with my Ardean. I was ready to move into the kill when Trewood appeared next to me—grinning. That idiot was grinning! No one ever grins before an Ardean. It was unthinkable, so I dug my elbow into Trewood’s ribs and transformed his grin into a suitable grimace.

“Excuse me,” I said as humbly as possible to the Ardean, “while I confer with my assistant.”

Trewood maintained his grimace as I dragged him by the arm behind the sales desk.

“What is it,” I hissed into his face. “Can’t you handle the easiest transaction—with a bug of all people?”

His grin came back, an evil grin. “The bug wants to return her solar system. She says it doesn’t work and wants a refund.”

I looked into the corner where Trewood had left the Megillan, as woe-begotten a bug as ever I had seen. I suppose there’s something about a bug alone in the corner that makes it look miserable. Then again, most bugs looked miserable most of the time. Then it hit me, but it couldn’t be. Or I wished it couldn’t be. I had sold her a starter kit not that long ago, or so it seemed to me. Time in the galaxy wavered all over the place, and our solar systems were planted in the fast loop to minimize waiting for key events. What was the bug’s name? Ah yes, Lata. She apparently recognized me too, since she clicked a friendly greeting. Talk about bummers.

As the senior sales rep I couldn’t avoid talking to her. I had no alternative except to tell Trewood to finish the sale with the Ardean. “And remember, I get half.” I deserved far more than half the commission, but that was the shop rule. A sale divided among reps resulted in equal shares if one started and the other closed the deal. It didn’t matter who did the actual work, which in this case was all mine. The only thing I expected Trewood to do was blow the sale, something completely in the realm of his possibilities.

I dragged Trewood with me and went and bowed to the Ardean. I introduced Trewood, the bastard, and explained that he would handle all the particulars now that the Ardean was happy with her or his binary system. Before the humanoids could mutter a word of protest, I left the group and greeted Lata who had remained in her corner, a proper bug indeed. I don’t know how she managed to do it with her compound eyes, but a steady stream of tears streaked across her face. In between sobs, her mandibles clicked through every last downtrodden fact about her purchase. (I won’t try to reproduce her clicks, so think of them as someone irresponsibly snapping her fingers during a tale of woe.) 

“I bought a simple starter set,” Lata sobbed.

I couldn’t imagine my selling her or her being able to afford anything else. Megillans never save enough to make intelligent decisions. Really, they fritter their funds over nonsense, cosmetic surgery (they’re partial to extended antennae), and the like.

“Of course,” I murmured. “A most delightful purchase. It had nine planets and a cute little sun.”

I agreed with her. The attraction of the starter set was a brilliant colorful star. Well, not particularly brilliant, but lots of cool features, sunspots shooting out flares and similar effects. That aided evolution no end.

“I was promised—” Lata began, and I cringed inwardly. No one in the shop ever made so much as a promise of anything. Starter sets are starter sets, with various known weaknesses, but I admitted to myself, many of our statements could be construed as promises. That is the art of selling, and almost all the denizens of the galaxy are aware of the fact.

I put a friendly arm around her carapace and urged her to continue.

“You promised me a bug-filled evolution, something to entertain the kiddies. You see, I’m responsible for ten thousand of our young ones, and I expected the burden of all the work I do would be reduced somewhat while they enjoyed the educational spectacle.”


“There’s nothing more educational,” I said while casting my eyes upward, “than seeing how bugs will rule a star system.”

Her eyes opened very wide. “The first thing to go wrong was that the fifth planet disintegrated. One moment it was there, a splendid place, and then as fast as a blink, dust and dirt and microplanets were everywhere.”

I made a mental note to come down on the tech department. She wasn’t the first to notice the instability of the planets that went into starter kits. We did have to keep costs down, but that was no reason why we couldn’t supply our customers with a stable set of planets. That should be the least of it.

“A planet breaking down happens from time to time,” I said. “I prefer to think that it adds to the excitement of owning your own solar system.”

Lata continued to sob. “I wouldn’t have minded if the poor planet broke apart and the bits stayed in place, but it caused havoc among the inner planets.”

“Oh?”

“Yes,” Lata sniffed, or as best a sniff she could do, which sounded like knuckles rapping on a table. “The fourth planet suffered the immediate effects. It lost its oceans and most of its atmosphere. The second planet was progressing in a wonderful way to a lush, tropical paradise—ideal for arthropods—but lost its three moons and settled into becoming a hothouse well beyond the tolerance for anything living. As for the first planet, it was knocked into a new orbit much closer to the star. Trapped in such a close orbit, one half of the planet seared into a molten desert and the other half froze beyond endurance.”

“You haven’t mentioned the third planet. Surely that endured?”

“Perhaps you could call it endurance. The third’s development was pleasing at the outset, but collisions with pieces of the woebegone and broken fifth planet turned it into something else. The end result was that it received a moon far too large for the planet, and the tides became devastating. But I have to say that evolution progressed at first, but then it became worse and worse. All the beautiful arthropods had to give way to other life forms: reptiles, mammals, and so on. The arthropods there did develop compensating habits, but they lost the glory of developing intelligence and civilization. Instead, humanoids dominated everything, and you wouldn’t believe the havoc they caused. Would you credit it: They didn’t like or were afraid of insects. The humanoids called them pests and disease carriers. What chance did insects and the other arthropods have to develop their own civilization?”

I made the mistake of glancing toward Trewood and the Ardean bunch, and I had to do a double-take. I couldn’t believe it! The Ardean had starting preening, which meant that my beautiful sale was going down the tubes. I had to finish off the bug as quickly as possible.

“It couldn’t be that bad,” I insisted.

“It’s worse than that.”

“Let me have a look. I’m sure something could be done to balance everything. Do you have your order number available?” 

Lata told me, and I had the shop computer simulate the solar system’s present condition. The simulation was far more modest than that for the Ardean, but I had the same basic commands available and focused on life at the third planet. After a few minutes, I had to admit that Lata was correct. “The situation is terrible, but it isn’t hopeless. As with other humanoid species, they’re remarkably unstable and on the brink of self-destruction.”

“What does that mean?” Lata asked.

“All we need to do is add a few more features, and the humanoids will provide their own solution to your problem. If you add to your solar system the Hybrid Thermal Exchange, which happens to be on sale this week for 20 percent off, you can accelerate the obvious self-destruction by increasing environmental temperatures on the third planet.” I checked the simulation. “They’re already on that road themselves, but let’s give them a helping hand. Mammals become crazed when too hot and do the most ridiculous things. The increased heat will bring all-out war. It will be entertaining for your kiddies, and you can watch the humanoids destroy not only themselves but also all the artifacts of their so-called civilization. Consequently, after the nuclear winter, arthropods will become the dominant species and be allowed the time to fulfill their destiny.”

“How can I ever thank you?”


“Purchasing the Hybrid Thermal Exchange, which is on sale. And there’s a bonus for buying it.” I lowered my voice. I didn’t want to frighten the Ardean if he or she happened to overhear me. Avian races can be so sensitive. “For this week, the Hybrid Thermal Exchange includes a free magnetic field reverser. If you want to see the so-called higher lifeforms go crazy, reversing a planet’s magnetic field guarantees chaos.”

“That’s wonderful!”

With her small purchase, I not only made a customer happy but also saved my job from the talons of a dreadful Gorgo. As the Megillan left the station, I turned my full attention to Trewood and the Ardean group. My so-called assistant hadn’t failed yet. I had time to rescue the situation. I put on my best sales rep expression of friendly interest and helpfulness as I went over to them and elbowed Trewood out of the way and out of his share of the commission.

“This particular binary comes with a magnificent Oort Cloud. You won’t believe all the splendid features it has.” END

authors

gottfried


Chet Gottfried presents
us with a very curious character study of  a
couple of enterprising aliens in the confines
of an out-of-the-way
space station.


Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. ReAnimus Press has recently published three of his novels. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”