Surface Tension

© 2004 Charlotte Babb for Port Nowhere

“The Chow Down? Yes, Mastre, I know where it is,” Trillfin Skorm said, for the tenth time today. “Take the drop by the Crater on the Main Tube to LevThree. You can’t miss it. Don’t get out of sight of the drop, though.”

Jule Emyril had made a name for himself and the Chow Down. People came down from LevOne and even LevTwo to sample his cooking. But neither he nor his Nicovan roommate, Trillfin Skorm, had the credits to get off world. It was all they talked about when they went home. They had long ago stopped pretending that Jule would get his own place…why waste the credits? Trillfin overheard Aunt Sulky tell someone that they were a sad couple: they didn’t know they were in love, they weren’t able to mate and make a family, and they’d never get off the Rock.


One cykul when Trillfin woke up and slid out of her sleeptank, Jule was already awake, waiting for her.

“Trill, I’m going up to LevOne!” He didn’t even wait for her to dry off or get into her robe. “Aunty has a job for me, cooking for some Offal. Finally, I have a contact!”

Trillfin stretched and flapped her gills to close them. “Aunty has the contacts. Do you get paid or does she?”

“Can’t you be happy for me?” He had lost the offworld slouch, as the weight of the rock ahead no longer bothered him, but he sagged in a Nicovan posture of defeat.

“Sure, you know I am, but with Aunty, credits are thicker than water. What’s the deal?”

“I don’t know all the details, but I’m supposed to go up today to meet them, and Aunty said you could show me the way. It’s your cykul off, right? Then you could go with me, maybe as a guide and help me talk to them. Please?”

“Fix me some food, Sape, and let me wake up.” Trillfin recycled the water in her sleep tank into the refresher, then picked up her best robe to wear into the LevOne residential district, one that she knew only by reputation. Aunty had put Jule up to this, as he still couldn’t navigate half a level away from the Chow Down without a guide. He just had no sense of space. She wondered if all Offals had flat-thinking.

She smelled something good from the kitchenette…not that she had the ingredients Jule was used to working with in the restaurant, but he could make something good out of raw toufood and rock fungus that grew in the tube three spirals down. She didn’t know why he knew it would be good. But that was his talent. Maybe this would be their ticket out. And he still wanted her to go along too, not just as a guide. She always had the thought that this was just an arrangement, a comfortable one for both of them, but just temporary until something better came along. And she had hoped that nothing would.

She sipped the hot, fishy broth that he made to energize them in the morning, and had a plate of scrambled toufood with bits of green stuff sprinkled over. She never asked what it was. It was good, and she told him so.

“Of course I’ll go with you to the place.” She rubbed his head with her hand. “Now do you see why I insisted we spend credits on that new robe? Your offal stuff just wouldn’t do for them.”

“You were right.” He stood up and paced, two steps across and back. “Can we go soon? I don’t want to be late, or get all worked up before we get there.”

“All right. I’m ready.” Trillfin smiled. “You’re getting worked up and we haven’t left yet. She swallowed the last bite of toufood and swigged the broth. They never had leftovers. It saved on recycling credits.

She led the way, playing the Nicovan servant for the Human Mastre Chef.

“Now remember, you’re a Sape…I mean, a Human. You look people in the eye, and you demand what you need to do your job.”

He laughed and shook his head.

“No, I mean it. I’ve even heard you talk back to Aunt Silky, and you are still alive. No Neek would ever do that.”

At that Jule straightened up, stretched his neck out and tucked his chin. He showed no sign of submission or meekness, and even gave Trillfin a few orders to get the practice.

“Find us the quickest route, Trillfin,” he said. “I must not be late.” At first, he sounded petulant and whiny, but his confidence and his imperial manner returned to him. He began to swagger just a bit, towering over Trillfin.

She dropped her chin and stared up at him across her eyesocket ridges while they stood waiting for the LevOne drop tube, Trillfin whispered back to him, “Don’t get too used to that, Sape. I know where you sleep.”

He grinned. “I wondered how much of that you would take.”

At the LevOne landing, a Consolidated Guard checked their identification and the invitation Jule had to enter the residential area. His patron was to be Mastriz Zabayaba. The Connie gave them directions, along with orders not to stray from the prescribed path.

“Up there they pay for security and protection,” the Connie said. “They get it.”

“As is right,” Jule said. Trillfin said nothing.

They climbed a spiral through several turns, the closest to the surface that Trillfin had ever been. When they found the address, it was an airlock. They buzzed the owner, allowed their palms and retinas to be scanned by the Iron Eye and gave it their invitation. In a few moments, the door opened and they were admitted.

When the air pressure equalized, the door ahead of them opened into an incline of luxury neither of them had ever seen. Free running water cascaded down ledges to create tinkling waterfalls between growing exotic plants with multicolored leaves and flowers, all in shades of teal, cream and burgundy. Insects made chirping and singing noises. Jule was impressed, but Trillfin was amazed.

How could someone waste so much water?

“Trill, think,” Jule said. “The water is recycled. They just pump it through, over and over. They may even use the plants to clean the water so they don’t have to buy water.”

“Can you imagine having credits enough to own your own water?”

Surely people that rich could spare enough to send a couple of people off world. But would they?

When they had climbed what seemed like two spirals up the winding path, they came to another airlock. This one was smaller and different, with straight vertical lines and only a curve at the top. It made Trillfin uneasy. It just didn’t look right.

Jule walked right in as soon as the doors slid open. That too was different, but Trillfin had no choice but to follow. She stood in front of Jule, remembering her role as his servant.

But when the second door opened, she shrieked.