Out of Water

© 2004 By Charlotte Babb for Port Nowhere

“You there, Neek! Get me a list of the ten best restaurants in Port Nowhere,” Passenger L25 demanded, his human face tilted so he could look down his nose at the stewardess while remaining seated.

Trillfin Skorm raised her chin, lowering her dorsal lobe to her back, a sign of acquiescence and submission. But she gritted her teeth as her digipods stroked the information into the read-sheet printer. This human had been more trouble on this one shuttle run than everyone she’d served in a week. He’d wanted a pillow, then he complained about the lighting, and wanted a complimentary globe of water—lots of attention but nothing he would have to pay for.

She brought him the list, cadged from memory—it wasn’t worth the time to pull something like that from the comlink.

“Mastre,” she said, lowering her lobe again. She added a bit of undulation to make her semi-transparent uniform flow across her banded skin. The Human had been staring her all the way from Dome Seven, asking for some service or another every five minz. It was enough to make her skin crack, and he was rude as well. Everyone knew that Nicovans never complained, never stood up for themselves and never talked back. He took advantage.

Trillfin didn’t care about that—part of the job description. She wanted off planet. One day she’d find the mark to take her. She was pretty sure this wasn’t the one, but she played her part anyway.

“Which of these is considered the second best?” He was young, less than halfway to middle age, and not as well-dressed as most of the offworlders who came through Dome Seven. Nevertheless, he had an imperial manner that spoke of privilege and estate, a youngest son, perhaps, hiding out from the family or disinherited, but he probably didn’t have the money to eat in the second best restaurant in LevThree, much less LevOne.

“Does Mastre inquire about the food only, the ambiance or the menu?” She tilted forward slightly to show off her chest, which didn’t match human standards, but it did serve to distract him. He was definitely a mark.

“Food, of course, Neek! All the dancing girls, animascreens, and costumed waiters can’t disguise mediocre food.” His face reddened. His voice raised enough to catch the attention of some other passengers who had been successfully ignoring him.

“Starview’s the best,” growled the Modajai trader in R25, his huge, scaled body wrapped in a business toga that cost more than Trillfin would make in a year. “Why take anything less?” His bony face and hard muscle expressed his general disapproval.

Trillfin removed herself from the passenger space to allow them to speak without appearing to listen while she finished the end of shift tasks.

“I have my reasons,” the Human said. “What would you recommend, then, for the food?” He glanced at the back of the shuttle where Trillfin had disappeared.

“The Crater’s good, ” said a Vamir lady, her pointed ears aimed at the human, though she held a read-sheet in one of her four hands while the other three played with her jewelry. “Raw boveen, served at blood temperature. Throob!” The Vamir purred to herself, with a bit of a smile that revealed the sharp fangs behind her furred lips.

“I prefer the Double Dome because they don’t use ka’frindi,” added a space jockey, apparently Human, but covered in a worn jumpsuit of reptilian skin except for his eyes, which were covered by shades. “I want to see what my food is and what it really tastes like.”

All of them spoke to the Human like he was a Neek, like he was nothing, laughing in his face with their suggestions. The Crater was a LevThree meat market that would eat him alive—maybe literally—the Double Dome was a brothel catering to the most twisted of kinky cross-species entertainment. He didn’t seem to realize it though. Trillfin felt a bit sorry for him. He wouldn’t last long on the Rock, but maybe his family would pay a ransom for him or at least send him enough credits to roll on. He might be worth the trouble to take care of.

Trillfin sounded the bell that signaled the end of the shuttle ride, interrupting the conversation. “Mastrizes and Mastres. Welcome to Wayamr, the trading post at the edge of the galaxy, where every exotic thing can be found for your pleasure. Please retain your seating until the shuttle stops. File out the doors to the left. Thank you for choosing the Wayamr shuttle service.”

The human looked pale as he pulled his travel tunic around him, facing the door as if it led to the Surface. He swallowed at least twice, but straightened up, listening to more suggestions from the other passengers, each of them a worse choice than the last.

Trillfin decided she would play a tour guide to hustle a few more credits for her trouble. Her shift was over for the cycle anyway, but she wasn’t ready to go back to her pod. She’d take him to get a bite from her aunt’s clan at the Chow Down. While not even listed on the tourist map, the food was excellent.

Not that the Human would know the difference, for all his arrogance. They didn’t get many offworlders there. The clan might enjoy playing with him.

Three Bansnict kits spotted the Human as soon as he got off the shuttle. They crowded around him, their tails twitching and their paws patting him, promising him everything from the best price on straz to their very own virgin sisters—as if any Bansnict understood the concept. If he had any thing loose in his pockets, it was gone by the time Trillfin shooed them away.

“Get out of here, you little thieving furballs!” Trilby screeched, making a supersonic noise the Human could not hear, but which made the Bansnicts cover their ears and yelp. She nicked the load of the one child young enough to pass near her. Although timid and meek, Nicovans had a light touch. She smiled, lowering her lobe to the Human again. “Mastre, if you would like a guide, this one would be honored to…”

“I am quite capable of handling myself, Neek.” He brushed himself off and straightened up again, sauntering off towards a tube that would lead him as far away as he could get from the restaurant spiral. She watched him for a moment. He couldn’t help hunching his head into his shoulders—a sure sign of an offworlder. None of them appreciated a couple hundred meters of good, solid beryllion overhead.

Trillfin shrugged, forcing her shoulders down to release both her tension from work and her interest in the Human. She went to her lockpod to change clothes. She hadn’t gotten much from the Bansnict, a few creds and an ID tag for a LevOne rim dweller—an Ophid. She couldn’t use the ID, but she could sell it or maybe get it reprogrammed. Living on LevOne would be one step closer to off-world.

Of course it was also one step closer to being between the Rock and Nothing too.

The creds would buy her a quick meal, so she wouldn’t have to cook before she slid into the sleep tank. She took a quick mist, not wasting creds on a full shower, but glad to have her skin wet again. She slipped into her tube robe, which only revealed her species by the ridge of her lobe in the hood. Some of the slave traders were bold enough to snatch a female, even right under the noses of the Connies. Her silver and black skin banding might draw their attention. It was an asset on the shuttle with her transparent bit of uniform, but not outside Main Tube.

She walked through the tube, taking the drop down to the Bubble on the Rim of LevOne. It was a little pricey, but the food was better than average. The Bubble had a dome where she could see the stars. She had tried to get a job there, but they wouldn’t hire a Neek. They said she wouldn’t get used to the idea of only a skin of plastalloy between her and Nothing. Agoraphobia, they called it. But when she showed her credits, they let her in soon enough, even if she had to sit near the kitchen, far from the dome.

Trillfin had never been on the surface, the Rock under her feet and Nothing but distant suns overhead, but she knew that was where any future she had would begin. Just working on LevOne was more than almost any other Neek achieved, unless they rode herd on sani-bots. She wanted to breathe fresh air and have a chance to learn how the Offal lived and where they got their strange ideas. She didn’t want to live and die a Rocker.

She ordered a deep-level fish, pearly white from being raised in the dark tunnels that ringed the reclaiming vats. The large fins were crispy fried; the meat pulled from the bones, arranged in a sunburst on her plate with a tiny dot of blue-green ka’frindi in the middle. She let it grow across the white fish while she ate her salad. It was a special treat, a relief from the usual blocks of sauced toufood she ate in the pod. It might all come from the same plants, but it was nice, as the spacer had said, to see what it really looked like before the ka’frindi spread itself to made the flavors intense, triggering endorphins. She wondered why the Human wanted the second best restaurant?

She took a bite of the fish, now veined with ka’frindi. Its flavor spread from her mouth into her face, her ears, even to the far tip of her lobe. No wonder offworlders came parsecs to get ka’frindi. Nobody could grow it anywhere else. If she could manage to get enough of it, she could buy a ticket off the Rock. She stared at the stars outside the dome, leaning into the endorphin mix. If she could breathe space, she could walk naked on the surface between the Rock and Nothing. Equally likely.

She made herself eat slowly. The ka’frindi would only last half an ower before it went into its next life cycle, which was disgusting, but she wanted to spread out the effect as long as she could.

In the kitchen, someone started yelling.