[Editor’s Note: Read the entire story from the beginning!]
After filing a report about the incident at Hanaplero spaceport — an elaborate process that required the rest of the day — Lozlian sent Dr. Duval the agenda for the following day’s meeting with representatives of the Centers for Imperium Science. Exhausted, he left the sky blue hexagonal alcove assigned to him in the Kroleni Regional Administrative tower, an unadorned cylinder of steel, glass and shiny stone, which sat only one high-speed train stop east of the now-shattered spaceport. His soft brown eyes squinted in the typical Tuvulot twilight, as the planet’s brilliant sun eased down into the horizon.
On an ordinary day, Lozlian would have headed home as soon as his shift was over. Years of Kroleni education and indoctrination hadn’t taken the “country” out of him. He still felt his best in close contact with nature. That is, even though the domed suburban complex he lived in was nothing like the burrows and grottos of his early childhood. What mattered most were the smells of the soil, the decaying leaves in fall and the sound of the running brook that was only a half-day’s hike from his sedate neighborhood. Improbable as it was, he still entertained the fantasy that, should he tire of the civil service, he could return to his home province and take up the simple life again.
Yet a fantasy it surely was. For one thing, the Kroleni had subtly, yet permanently altered the terrain of Lozlian’s homeworld. Though a marvel of ecological balance and health, Tuvulot would never be “wild” again. On the reservations where they now lived, Lozlian’s mother and the rest of his clan could enjoy only a shadow of the old ways.
“You’ll never know what you lost,” his mother had told him. “The Yonopcry world, my world, is gone.”
Lozlian shook his head and forced himself to think about anything else, lest thoughts of home trigger a telepathic connection he didn’t want to deal with. Maybe that’s why he decided to have dinner in town for a change. Besides, he was too weary to cook. If he were mated already, he reminded himself, he’d have someone to share the household chores with. But that was another touchy subject he dared not entertain. In any case, if he’d really been so bothered by cooking and cleaning, he could have put in for an android assistant as his Yonopcry supervisor had. The thought of it made him shiver.
What do I want with a creepy metal-face? he asked himself.
“Metal-face” was a slur that he’d never think to use in front of Achimlemoor or any of the other Kroleni officials he sometimes dealt with. Some of them were cyborgs and one, known as Kichliaardonta, was a full-functioning, independent android. Funny thing was, Kichliaardonta was probably the most personable Kroleni that Lozlian had met. Maybe it was because he lacked the subroutines for arrogance.
Lozlian snickered. How easy it was to think stupidly smart thoughts when you knew just enough about a topic to get it all wrong. His mood lightening, in spite of himself, he could feel his stomach yawning. But where to go? In the last five years since entering the Kroleni civil service, he’d only occasionally been asked to entertain visitors at a restaurant and only at establishments selected by his office.
Fortunately, only a few meters into the square that surrounded his office tower, a sleek, silvery city directory came into view. Its bright touchscreen winked out at him invitingly and displayed a series of menu buttons, arranged in a tantalizing pattern. The third button on the right read “restaurants” and, on a whim, he tapped it with the furry index finger of his right hand.
A 3-D, angled aerial view of the square hovered in the air at waist level. It even included a tiny avatar of himself, which turned and waved at him. Lozlian smiled. After the day’s disturbing events, he was grateful for even the smallest touch of humor.
“What kind of food?” the avatar called out to him.
He was about to answer, when he felt a distinctively insectoid hand grip his right shoulder. A reedy male voice echoed in his ears.
“I know a fantastic eatery, right around here,” said the voice. “I suggest you follow me … unless you’d prefer to lose your appetite altogether.”
Lozlian gently brushed the shiny, narrow hand off his shoulder and turned around. A tall insectoid in a frayed, dark green flight suit snarled at him. Lozlian’s spine stiffened.
This guy must be a Chitinist, he thought.
According to the official Imperium news service, the Chitinists were an anti-government cell that proclaimed the superiority of exoskeletal species over all others. A nasty bunch, they advocated harsh repressive laws to curtail the civil liberties of “bone-luggers” like the Yonopcry.
“Look at you,” he said. “Aren’t you hot in that fur coat? Never mind. The restaurant’s over this way.”
Lozlian stayed put.
“I’m a member of the civil service,” he said. “Anything that happens to me happens to Councilmember Achimlemoor.”
The middle-aged insectoid shook his head.
“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t make me use force. You’re young and I’ll wager you haven’t even been mated yet. Get on your high horse with me, and I’ll make sure that never happens.”
“What do you want?” asked Lozlian. “You can tell me here as well as in a restaurant.”
“Fine,” said the insectoid. “Thought you might like to meet a few operatives who could help you up the Kroleni ladder. But since you’re determined to stay a peon, here’s the deal: Whatever you think is going on with the human delegation, you’re dead wrong. That star drive talk is
pure ventilator slime. The real news is that they’ve developed a sonic weapon that could kill every insectoid in the sector in a matter of three rotes. You sure you want to be part of that?”
“So you know this and the Kroleni Council doesn’t?” asked Lozlian. “Kind of hard to believe.”
“Listen, Kid,” said the insectoid. “You look like a nice guy, so I’ll let you down easy. Your contacts on the Council are the dimmest bulbs this side of a brown dwarf. They want that star drive and figure they can fight off any human attack later on if they need to. Only problem is, they’ve overlooked one thing: The humans are ruthless. That attack at the spaceport? Pure theatre. The Chyloradrins bought them out ten cycles ago. They’re the perfect decoy.”
“That’s … that’s some story,” said Lozlian.
“Right,” said the insectoid. “Be skeptical. That’s good. Now train that skill on your masters. Ask yourself this: When was the last time Achimlemoor answered a direct question about her plains for the Yonopcry?”
“I …” said Lozlian.
“Gotta go,” said the insectoid. “There’s a patrolbot about twenty meters ahead of us that keeps looking in my direction. We’ll talk later. My name’s Ralshinatinoor. Input me into your comlink the next time you feel suspicious. Don’t look at me like that. I’m telling you: You will.”
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His head spinning, Lozlian watched as Ralshinatrioor crept away into the crowds that were streaming in for the evening meal and a night out. In the near distance, he thought he saw the bright orange, conical patrolbot heading his way, until it, too, was swallowed up by the growing crowd. Still hungry, he cast about for a small cook shop to get lost in, but was again distracted. A large cluster of townsfolk had formed a semi-circle around a street performer.
Eager to push his encounter with the conspiratorial insectoid out of his mind, Lozlian insinuated himself into the edge of the crowd and peered over the heads of the performer’s avid audience. What he saw, of all things, was a human, masquerading as a Kroleni in a hilariously grotesque mask. A miniaturized sound synthesizer, hidden in the mask distorted the human’s voice into reedy pomposity. On the ground next to him was a bright red metal casket.
“We are your natural … superiors,” said the masked performer.
The way he tripped over his ill-fitting silk robes on the word “natural” foretold more physical comedy to come which, Lozlian realized, was the main attraction. A small ovoid device in the center of the circle projected a holographic display reading “Meet Humsecta!” Despite the Kroleni’s low-impact type of domination, this was about as provocative a name as anyone could imagine.
But the audience took no notice, especially when Humsecta went into his signature array of flips, spins and mid-air kicks. He landed with astonishing grace, bowed and opened the metal casket. A cute, diminutive android version of himself climbed out and worked the crowd for donations, with a credit tile reader in each hand. After several more bows, Humsecta continued his banter.
“I mean seriously,” said Humsecta, “You furry types are OK, as long as I remember to … talk … real … slow. Just kidding. You’re all telepaths so I don’t have to. Do you know what I’m thinking? No you don’t, and you know why? BECAUSE I NEVER THINK ABOUT ANYTHING!”
A garish brass fanfare blasted the airwaves from inside the metal casket. Humsecta raised his arms in triumph and strutted about with his knees jutting up high on each step like a crazed marionette. The crowd clapped and cheered. The fanfare quit as abruptly as it started, and left him hanging, in an embarrassingly awkward pose. He rolled his eyes, straightened his costume and returned to the center of the circle.
“Anyway,” he said, “at least you’re not nasty little scaly things like the Chyloradrins. They remind me of a handbag my grandmother used to take out on holidays. OH COME ON! IT’S A JOKE! And anyway, they’re nothing compared to the hooms. Sizzling seismographs, when did the Cosmos cough up that glob of I-don’t-want-to-say? Must have had indigestion from eating in one of your restaurants….”
At the mention of restaurants, Lozlian remembered he still hadn’t eaten. He turned away and began inching out of the crowd when Humsecta spotted him.
“Oh, a deserter eh?” he said. “Well, aren’t you a disgrace to your uniform?”
Lozlian waved him away and started moving again.
“Aw, I didn’t mean it,” said the performer. “Give me a hug.”
The crowd clapped and stomped its feet so vigorously that Lozlian knew he’d better play along. He shuffled up to the strangely clad human, with his arms out. Humsecta, miming a hug, drew him close enough to whisper in his ear.
“Watch out how you handle yourself around Chitinists,” he said. “Once they mark you, you’re in for it.”
Lozlian nodded, pulled away, and pushed through the crowd as fast as he could. As he headed toward a small cook shop he’d seen earlier on the holographic directory. he heard Humsecta rouse the crowd once again.
“See, all better,” said the performer. “And I didn’t even have to throw him a fish!”
The laughter faded as Lozlian entered the cook shop and sat down at a tiny table. But the human’s words, like those of Ralshinatinoor, seemed to blare out at him louder than when he’d first heard them. And how in the shaman’s sacred grove had the human known about his encounter with the Chitinist?
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Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.