by Shane Tourtellotte
The alarm clock rang on a far bench. “Shut that off, Minchita,” said Tehl-Voyf Krinn Hfue Chuul. He never took his eyes off the separation boiler and the wump wine bubbling behind the glassed viewline.
Minchita Prupo silenced the clatter and came back to the workbench. “You’re supposed to see off Simi Chuul,” he said, softly insistent.
“I will, in just a moment.” Tehl-Voyf glanced at his notes, then back to the boiler—to find something staring back. A glehk stood atop a coil, its shiny skin glinting black and gold. “Minchita!”
Minchita saw the glehk and grabbed it before it could harm anything or skitter away. “Sorry, Se Chuul. I’ll spread some more komitehf powder around.”
Tehl-Voyf piped a high note of affirmation. The storage space he’d converted to a laboratory had its faults. It was too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and too easy for pests to infiltrate. But it was his, for a little while longer anyway.
Minchita came back from getting rid of their visitor and slipped close to his ear. “Se Chuul, your wife.” He pinched Tehl-Voyf’s notepad between his left thumbs. “I can handle the separation. Please, go now.”
Tehl-Voyf hesitated, then handed over the pad. “Thank you,” he said abstractedly and made for the door.
He weaved out of the storage spaces and cut through the kitchen, heading toward the reception area at the front of the house, where she met her clients and merchant colleagues. There was Meil-Kahd Hfue Chuul, flanked by three assistants. Her traveling robe ballooned out at her very gravid belly, and a fetching checked veil fell from her chin, decorously covering the feeding pouches now fully distended on her neck.
“I caught you in time, dearest.” He grasped her wrists, anything higher blocked by her cumbersome sleeves. “Now please, Meil-Kahd, don’t exert yourself too much, not this late.” He raised his voice for the attendants. “Hear me? Make sure you pamper my wife.” Not one showed any sign of listening.
“They’ll do their jobs, so I can do mine. If I get that connection with the regnant family, and that gets me a contract, it will be worth all my exertions.”
“I know. Just . . .” He knew pushing would only make matters worse. “Just keep in touch.”
“I will. Make sure the rooms are ready for Mother. And don’t work so hard in the lab. You don’t have to save the world today.”
His temptation to make reply was cut off, as he heard clopping in the street outside. The coach was here, to take them to the rail-carriage depot. He gave Meil-Kahd’s wrists a quick caress, felt her strokes in return, and had to let her go. He followed her to the street and watched her entourage help her inside to the middle seat. She couldn’t look out or wave as the coach gained speed and joined the flow of traffic.
Tehl-Voyf went back inside, feeling her last comment chew on him. She had been generous supporting his studies but with hints of indulging a favored child’s follies. He did not have long to show that her attitude was mistaken.
The spicy tang of komitehf hit his nostrils the moment he opened the lab door, revitalizing and repulsive at once. “Did it,” said Minchita. “Strong enough to keep them out.”
“I know. It’s almost strong enough to keep me out. Let’s get working.”
The boiler had nearly isolated what they hoped was the active ingredient in the wine. They judged the right moment and measured off the thick fluid into a graduated jar. Tehl-Voyf got out the next wine jars for separation, while Minchita went to a corner and leaned on the wall.
“I’ll need you back, soon as you can,” Tehl-Voyf said.
“The jar makes the wine,” Minchita answered, “and this one is cracked.”
“Who isn’t?” This chiding got Minchita back to work presently. The fatigue was a fact of everyday life, the enemy they fought at such stacked odds.
There had been several names for it throughout the ages, but everybody today knew it as the Malady. It had cursed the yehdol race for at least a thousand years, since the time of the Great War. Some contended that the Malady had always been with them, and that the general moral collapse after the war had led people to whine about their adversity, rather than carrying on with what they couldn’t change. Tehl-Voyf didn’t believe that, especially as he thought he could change it.
The Malady defended itself vigorously. The illness weakened the body, dulled the mind, and eroded a spirit deprived of the support of those two buttresses. All those effects combined to frustrate attempts to analyze, understand, and cure the disease. If it was divine punishment, as some others held, it was a diabolically clever one.
Tehl-Voyf and Minchita ground through their work, trading periodic breaks between them to refill their leaking stores of energy. One always had the sense that one possessed greater reserves, greater potential, that were always out of reach. It brought frustration, and self-reproach, and greater exhaustion as one pushed harder than one really could.
Soon, Tehl-Voyf was at the point where he only wanted to get something to eat, then lie down for the night. After one more jar of wump wine concentrate, he told his assistant they were done for the day. Minchita breathed something in relief, in his own language. That still nettled Tehl-Voyf, but he was too tired to be too angry.
“I’ll see you back here in three days, Minchita, for a full day’s work.” Minchita tooted a weak affirmative. “And you do know my wife’s mother will be here, starting tomorrow?” The toot was weaker this time. “I’ll do my best to keep her away from you.”
“Thank you, Se Chuul. Still night to you.”
* * *
Tehl-Voyf had one of his stints at the dyemaker’s plant the next day. It wasn’t full-time labor, but it brought in money for the household, and for his experiments. It even gave him a small pool of test subjects for his Malady treatments. Some of those volunteers got their latest doses of wump wine concentrate during the noon-meal break.
His boss pulled him aside late in the break. “How much wine are you giving them?” READ MORE
by Brenda Kait
Illustration by Eli-Bischof
A cold wind blew across Linsnrt’s back as he walked down the ramp from Treasury Court. Across the stone plaza, a vid wall replayed the final snrlgar match of the United Championship. Linsnrt watched his old team until the lead charger made a stupid move. Before captivity, Linsnrt had charged professional snrlgar with ferocity and reveled in the fans’ homage. But during his wartime captivity in human space, human audiences had responded almost as loudly to what they called “a tentacled, trunkless elephant” juggling trinkets. The similarity was disconcerting.
Best to get home. The new, live moss installed in his nest the day before would soothe his frustrations.
At the edge of the plaza a call came from behind Linsnrt. “Ho! Charger!”
Linsnrt turned. A Hrakt his size, but muscled and shiny, approached.
“Linsnrt! It is you!”
“Anggrot. You’re bigger now.”
They twined tentacles briefly, looking each other up and down.
“You’re slim these days,” Anggrot said.
“Yeah, my digestion is all messed up. The food in human space, even their so-called universal alien food, barely works.”
“I didn’t know you were back yet. Did you see the championship?” Anggrot pointed a tentacle at the vid wall.
Linsnrt forced the tentacles on his cheeks to hang limp. Anggrot had made the stupid move. “Congratulations to everybody on Hrogt. I’ve been in Treasury Court—getting myself declared undead, reclaiming my house, all that stuff. My bonded mate even signed a contract with somebody else, so I have to replace her. I haven’t had time to watch much video.”
“I’m Hrogt’s lead charger now. I grabbed the winning plume. Not as good as you were, of course, but I get the job done.”
“That’s the important thing.” The tip of one tentacle coiled, and Linsnrt shook it loose. He backed away from Anggrot to rejoin the Hrakt leaving the plaza, but Anggrot followed.
“I saw a vid of your release. You were lucky to live through all that.”
“Lucky and more.” Linsnrt’s captive life in human space as Samson the Magnificent was a memory he shoved to the back of his mind daily. “Say, do you know of a training pit that’s available soon?”
“Longropes might have a spare one. Hrogt is full up.”
Longropes? Linsnrt’s tentacles twitched. “Thanks. I’ll check.”
“Longropes needs a charger. If you don’t want to retire, you might try them.”
Charge with Longropes? Never! Linsnrt’s tentacles coiled to his cheeks, and he blew air through his mouth to relax them. “I haven’t thought of playing yet. I just want to see what I can do.”
“You gotta start somewhere. Work up. Ag-glarh!” Anggrot raised a tentacle and joined the flow of pedestrians.
Linsnrt watched Anggrot’s back cut through the smaller Hrakt around him. “Ag-glarh.”
* * *
That night Linsnrt vidded the chief of Longropes. Tunggot, a former snrlgar player whose skin now hung loosely over his frame, looked surprised to see him.
“Linsnrt! This is an honor.”
Linsnrt’s tentacles coiled partway. “Tunggot, you’re embarrassing me. I’m getting back into shape, and I wondered if you had a training pit I could rent.”
“Rent? For you it’s free. I’ll tell security to let you in.”
Linsnrt rubbed his snout with a tentacle. “I appreciate it. I’ll be over tomorrow at sunup.”
“Sure thing. Ag-glarh!”
* * *
Before dawn Linsnrt rolled out of his nest and started the autobrush. His skin tingling, he headed for Longropes’s headquarters.
Three muscular Ropers and a child who had shed only his forward dorsal plates awaited him beside the training pit. A layer of dew made the undisturbed mud into a brown mirror, and looking at himself, Linsnrt had a moment of self-consciousness.
“Ah, I’d rather be alone, Hrakt. This is my first mudout, and I’m probably going to embarrass myself. I’d rather no one else saw it.”
The teammates slowly turned toward the exit. The child raised a short tentacle. “Can I grapple with you?”
Linsnrt wrapped half his right tentacle around the other’s left and squeezed gently. “Now you can say you grappled with the great Linsnrt. Get out of here.”
When he was alone, Linsnrt walked briskly past the equipment rack, into the pit, and slipped. Damn. How could he have forgotten how to walk in mud? He flexed his toes and concentrated on grasping the bottom.
His right front toes did not spread as much as before (damned human foot-chain), but after several minutes they relaxed enough for walking. Linsnrt charged imaginary opponents all across the pit. When he reached the other side, he gasped for air (damned immobile captivity). He was in worse shape than he had thought. He put the memory aside and turned for another pass through the pit.
After two more passes, Linsnrt collected stakes topped with small plumes from the equipment rack. Anchoring the stakes in the mud with the plumes at the height of an opponent’s tailplate, he filled the pit with targets. When he charged, his first tentacle strike grasped the plume perfectly; subsequent strikes hit further and further off the mark.
Damned . . . His tentacle work was awful. It was just as well he was practicing in the Longropes pit—he wouldn’t want Hrogt to see him in this shape.
* * *
Linsnrt sloshed through Longropes’s mud pit every morning. Most of the team came in twos and threes to see him. He greeted all but shooed them away before he exercised. READ MORE