Out of the Depths

© 2004 Charlotte Babb for Port Nowhere

Aunt Silky was no worse than any other boss Jule had known. The Chow Down’s kitchen was the same too. The food smelled different, but everyone still got hungry at the same time. Jule wasn’t allowed anywhere near the preparation process, but he watched and learned as he mopped, washed dishes and dumped the wastes into the reclaim vat. Even the waste was sold, a few microcreds a kilo.

He fed from the leftovers, and they all drank a few globes of Nicovan beer when the cycle was done, which Aunt Silky provided to keep the help from stealing it during the shifts. Nothing new, nothing more than he expected, except that he had hoped to be allowed at least to chop vegetables by now.

Jule’s problem was Bax Tuvalu, head cook. Bax had bet that Jule would not live more than a strechiz. He didn’t like losing his bet. He didn’t like Jule living with Trillfin either. Mating with Trillfin would make Bax an actual member of Aunt Silky’s family, a step closer to his owning the Chow Down one cyke. He saw Jule as a threat to his plan.

“Sape!” Bax bellowed. “Get this out of my way.”

Jule didn’t answer. He wiped the leavings off the cutting board. Bax was making as much of a mess as he could, just to keep Jule busy. Aunt Silky either hadn’t noticed the waste, or her reclaim kickbacks had gone up enough to make it worthwhile.

Or maybe she was waiting for Bax to twist himself enough rope.

As Jule approached the reclaim vat, he heard the rhythm knock of one of Aunt Silky’s suppliers, a backdoor boy from deep in the Rock. He rapped back a different beat, and got the correct answer. He opened the hatch just enough for the kid’s grimy hand to thrust in a net of tunnel fungi from the lower levels.

Jule reached for the globe of water to pay him, but on an impulse, he said, “Wait.” Below the opening, he saw a thin, humanoid face with large golden-green eyes peer up at him. He scooped up the scraps and dropped them into the kid’s hand, then set the water globe where the kid could reach it. He smiled, nodded.

The face smiled too, then vanished with the water.

Jule picked up the fungi, then turned to see Aunt Silky standing behind him. He raised his chin, exposing his throat, but her expression didn’t change from its usual inscrutable disdain. She did, however, nod just a bit.

“You’d better clean those good. No telling what they were grown on,” Aunt Silky said. “Bax is busy just now.”

Jule bowed, but allowed himself a bit of a smile. Cleaning was only one step below chopping, and chopping was next to cooking.

Bax would be furious.

He brushed each delicate fungus with a soft brush. They called these tunnel lips, not too different from the tree ears that he knew, crunchy without much flavor. His grandmother said they were good for the blood too. He wondered what the kid ate, other than scraps. Tunnel lips weren’t nutritious enough to live on, probably too valuable to eat, if they were swapped for water. This was no farmer’s market kid; he was a hustler and a survivor, worth cultivating as a guide. Jule would keep some of his food aside for the kid, for the next time he came.

“What the flaming Core do you think you are doing?” Bax yelled as Jule laid the fungi on the drying racks. “Get out here and mop the dining room before the midcyk rush.” Bax gestured with his knife.

Jule did not lift his chin to Bax. “Aunt Silky told me to clean these.” He finished placing each one carefully so the air would circulate properly. Then he grabbed the janipod and mop, and headed for the front.

***

Jule was glad to see Trillfin when she came back from work every cykul, talking of who had come and gone on the shuttle. He told her about all the gossip that came through Aunt Silky’s, whether it made any sense or not–Charlie the envirosuit salesman had come by. Aunt Silky threw him out but not before he managed to make a deal with Bax. A mangy-looking Bansnict had brought a container of chapaw and delivered some message that Jule hadn’t managed to overhear while he was bussing tables. Trillfin knew most of their names, and sometimes even told Jule stories about them. Jule told Trillfin about the kid and the tunnel lips. But Trillfin wanted to hear his stories about his home world. She was like a little girl hearing her first fairy tales.

“They dig holes in the rock and put dead people in there and leave them?” Trillfin shuddered. “Nasty. And what a waste.”

Jule hadn’t tried to explain embalming. As dirty as the Rock was, Trillfin had never seen soil. Local farming here was done on slurry–not clean, reclaimed sludge like the official food producers used, but home grown, composted from…he didn’t think about that. If he died here, he hoped Trillfin would throw him down the nearest lava vent and not reclaim him. But he would get off the Rock before that happened, out where he could see sunlight and blue sky again. He hadn’t learned what he came here for, yet.

The part that Trillfin liked best to hear about was day. She had seen the stars through a dome, but she could not understand the daylight and sunshine.

“What do you mean, it gets light and then the lights go off? The lights stay on all the time unless there’s a powerout or a quake.”

“Vestia III is like most planets. It revolves around a sun, so every cykul it rotates, with the sun shining only on one side. The light side is called day.”

“I think the Rock rotates, but I never figured that it mattered.” Trillfin shrugged. “I have heard that sometimes you can’t see the Galaxy from the domes. Business goes down.”

What Trillfin refused to listen to was his description of the ocean, miles and miles of open water, water to swim in, water she could breathe while she was awake, water with light shining through it. She would laugh at him when he would try to tell her about it.

Trillfin would be as out of water on Vestia III as Jule was on the Rock. She was making him a home here. He might even take her with him when he left. But now he needed to know more–something that would let him get past Bax, something only he could do to show Aunt Silky.

“What’s in the Depths?” Jule asked Trillfin one evening. “Who lives down there? How do they survive?”

“I’m not taking you there, if that’s what you’re after,” Trillfin said, her eyes showing white all around her pupils. “It’s dangerous. They’d slice you up for a sandwich with your eyeballs on the side.”

“Kids live down there, don’t they? The ones who bring the tunnel lips and the slime weed?”

“Most of them die kids too. As soon cut your throat as look at you. Some of them wear the teeth of the ones they’ve killed. It’s tribe magic.” Trillfin shook her head. Her voice took on a stern, because I said so tone: “You are not going down there.” For a moment she even looked like Aunt Silky. She wasn’t nearly as dumb as she acted sometimes–none of the Nicovans were.

Jule smiled. “Of course not. I just want to know about them. So I’ll know what not to do. Where not to go.”

“Don’t go down.” Trillfin said. She wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the evening. She climbed into her sleeper early and closed the hatch with a sharp click.

***

Jule missed the next opportunity to talk to the kid from the Depths. Bax was taking a break when the kid knocked on the hatch, so he took the bag of fungi. He also opened the globe of water and drank half of it before he gave it to the kid. He tossed the globe through the opening, so the kid would have to chase it. Bax tossed the bag at Jule, not caring if the fungi were bruised in the process.

Since Aunt Silky had allowed Jule to clean them once, it was beneath Bax to do it now.

Jule swore under his breath. Now the kid wouldn’t trust him at all. He’d made an impression, though. The mushrooms were large, firm, the best Jule had seen. So the kid was hungry. Jule would find a way to feed him.

Bax wasn’t making it easy. He had stopped making more of a mess than was necessary. Maybe Aunt Silky had said something to him, or maybe he was bright enough to know see that he didn’t need to provide a reason for keeping Jule on. Jule tried to keep out a bit of his own supper for the next time, but Bax made sure everything was scraped into the reclaim vat. Bax personally counted the water and beer globes every time, too; not that he didn’t take one with him now and then.

Jule figured that Aunt Silky was waiting to see how he would handle Bax, but until Jule got sick she ignored them both.

One shift, as he was mopping up, Jule noticed that he was sweating, even though he felt cold. It was all he could do to drag the janipod back towards the kitchen after the dinner rush. Aunt Silky called him to come up to her perch by the cashbox.

“You look bad, even for a human, Jule. How do you feel?” Aunt Silky put her digipods against his forehead. “No fever. No color. How long have you been here?”

“Four stretchiz, I think. I’m just tired.”

“No, you’re sick. Leave the mop there.” Aunt Silky pulled Jule’s sleeve up and looked at his scrawny arm. It was greenish white, like fish belly. “Go home. I’ll be around later.”

“I’m fine, really.” Jule’s eyes struggled to focus on Aunt Silky’s face. He leaned heavily on his mop handle.

“I don’t know much about humans, but something is wrong.” Aunt Silky let her words soak into Jule’s brain. “I don’t know what it is–we don’t use ka’frindi. Maybe you don’t know good fungi from bad. Spores, maybe.”

Jule’s head was already swimming. “Whatever you say, Aunt…” He couldn’t quite get the words to come from his head to his mouth. The last thing he remembered was clutching the mop handle to steady himself.