By Arón Reinhold
Artwork by Trevor Garza
“Shuhkǂ, who is it now?” Nick said, tossing his neural headset down with mock anger at the incessant sound of the door tone. He was fairly short for a human, and struggled to excavate himself from the absorbent bio-creche, which was clearly meant for a larger humanoid. He kicked his way past empty cartridges and half-eaten meals wondering about the mystery client.
“Couldn’t be Gler, he’s off-planet…Jhishi? What day is it? No, no, that’s tomorrow.”
In the corner, his koala-like friend’s eyes widened in surprise at Nick’s sudden disappearance, noticing he was gone only by the time he had already reached the door. The koala turned his big head, scanning the room like syrup.
“Oh, goddamnit! It’s those fucking dolphins or whatever again, those fish fuckers.” Nick peered through the camera at the unexpected visitors. “I told them never to come here. They attract too much attention from the Aks.” He didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just send a courier instead.
The koala had finally located Nick through his fog, replied late to Nick’s first exclamation. “Huuh? Whoo’s heeere?” But Nick ignored him, the Koala was slow on the uptake, especially when on his poison of choice.
“Maybe they’ll go away…” Nick listened to them click on about something, but of course they didn’t go. “Please, at least stop activating the door tone.” He felt the tendrils of a headache forming. They had been there making the door go ‘don den don’ for 10-minutes already, conspicuous in their shuhkǂing wetsuits.
“Maaaaybeee theeeey’ll leeaaaave.” Another leaf of wisdom from Eugene, though they obviously weren’t leaving. That wasn’t the Koala’s actual name, of course, but Nick could only ‘master’ so many tongues and their varied sounds. Besides, both ‘Eu’ and ‘gene’ appeared in the name, just wedged between several alphabets worth of other letters.
“How to make them gone?” Nick mused. He hadn’t quite experienced this specific problem yet, but this was another tally on the ‘drawbacks’ column in dealing to aliens. Although, technically Nick was the real alien here, the only human on all of Klargon VI. He thought back through his experiences since being dropped off like a hot sack by that crusty shipper, shuddering at his recollection of the first few days. Klargon VI was definitely not the place to be homeless, as if that was a picnic anywhere, he would know. But at least he got recruited by Gorg (that rich slob!) before the week was over, otherwise he might’ve been pecked to death by the Aks.
“Yessss!” Nick hissed, seeing that the unwanted clients had finally crossed the street, after blasting his camera with a series of hostile whistles. But then he realized the door tone still hadn’t ceased, and just his luck, it didn’t for the rest of the day.
The next morning Nick rubbed his sore eyes, unsure of his exact location. After the dolphins ditched, he and Eugene had blasted off to space on some fermented super-koala concoction. The oppressive door tone had transformed into a particularly sick beat, and even now the walls were still waving at the right BPM. He was groggy, but he remembered his living room after a few blank blinks.
Nick stepped into the bathroom and leapt from his feet, smashing into the ceiling lights at the dark silhouette of someone in his shower. He fumbled around, then grabbed a feather duster from underneath the sink. “Okay, you shuhkǂ-hole, don’t make any sudden moves!” He said, then flung open the sealed door, revealing a young Ak.
The red bird warbled in fear. “Please, Nick! Don’t pluck me!”
Nick saw that it was just his friend Takka. “You plucky fowl, you. What the fuck are you doing in my pad?” He slugged Takka on the wing, then collapsed onto his bed, his heart still racing. He pulled out a large glass piece and lit a flame, then pulled it down onto a purple powder, which popped like fireworks. He filled up the cylinder with a gradually darkening smoke, emptied it into his lungs, and then blew out a black, oily cloud. Now his heart was crawling. He looked at Takka, still waiting.
“W-well.” Takka stood on one foot, then switched to the other in a blur. She had always been a nervous creature, but her talons clacked faster than usual.
“Come on, out with it!” Nick said, his voice hoarse from full-body coughing.
Takka cocked her head to the left, listening to the street traffic. Then to the right, discerning other renters behaving normally. “I overheard something terrifying!” She fluttered in explosive bursts at the memory. Nick cleared the bowl, reloaded it, then offered purps to Takka. She took the piece, but started clucking up a panic attack, while Nick sighed, eyeing the untouched bowl. “Gorg was talking to Zeech about the quality of the new slug drops when Zeech pointed out…”
Nick pulled open a drawer next to his bed and took out a black condenser, then slurped on his secret stash of Varian hot gas. Within fifteen seconds he stood up and started strutting like a chicken, while Takka shook nervously. “Nick, Nick! The police are on to you, they’ve got an undercover informant that’s going to buy from you today!”
Nick whipped his head around like an owl, then back and forth several times, still out of his mind. But then his intense high ended and he was interred in Takka’s quaking anxiety. He waved at Takka for the piece, and she passed it back, apparently unaware she was still sober. A deep lungful helped clear away the hot gas crash.
“Look, Takka, I appreciate your concern, really. But we both know Zeech is a consummate liar, and even if he told the truth to Gorg, he’s probably just coming down from his…habit.”
Takka did not seem comforted. Suddenly she took off in flight with a loud caw, spreading feathers throughout the whole apartment. Someone had pounded on the door. “It’s the informant!” She screeched. It wasn’t the informant. Nick stumbled over Eugene’s inert body, but managed to fight his way to the door. He looked through the camera and saw something that defied categorization, a slimy, iridescent tube with floating…organelles (?) in its flesh (?).
“Oi mate, your neighbor Zeech sent me. I need some flour.” The thing said in a contrabass voice, conspicuously loud, trying to establish a solid cover story. Nick started unlocking the door, working his way through a series of locks longer than a keyboard. Finally he poked his head out, glaring through red eyes. “Hey, uh…dude, thing. Whatever. Be cool. That’s a Schedule I drug on Klargon VI.”
Nick became a purple demon, crunching his teeth in a demented smile. “Shut up, get inside now!” He let the slime tube waddle into the apartment, then turned and scanned the hallway. His eyes darted back and forth like a metronome. Satisfied, he pulled the door shut and glared at this unknown client with a shining reference. Takka still hadn’t come down and was flapping her wings with wild-eyes. “Informant! Informant!” She cawed without end.
Nick faced the client, who extended (bulged?) a small chunk of its flesh towards him. Nick grasped the protrusion in a handshake, but the client jiggled like Jell-O. Nick tried again, this time gripping the slime straight-on, but the client continued wiggling and emitted an audible rumble.“Mate, you got it all wrong. Do it proper, like this.” The slime tube retracted its bulge and then pushed it forward again. Nick reached out with his fist and bumped it, producing a wet squish. “Ace! Now look, I’d like to get a bit pissed. My name is Skwosh. Zeech sent me because he thought you might have some Cantarian beetles.”
Nick raised his eyebrows at the request, then narrowed his eyes, dwelling on Takka’s warnings. “No way, that’s too hot.”
“Bollocks! I’ve been itching for it. Impossible to find, innit?”
“I wouldn’t know, I don’t touch anything that can kill…well hurt the intended imbiber.” Skwosh appeared to look Nick up and down, though there weren’t any visible sight organs. Nick reddened and checked his clothes, realizing they were wrinkled and stained beyond recovery, then attempted to smooth out his bedhead last minute, without success.
“Fuck, I’m a wee gutted.” The slime tube said, sagging. Nick stroked his thick brown beard, then ran to the back of the living room, nearly tripping over Eugene, through the tiny bathroom to another locked door. This time he peeled open his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and slapped a rhythmic pattern on the door before the lock disengaged. Inside was a small bedroom, though without any sleeping device, nightstand or clothing. Instead, there were shelves and shelves of assorted drugs, all sorted by climatic requirements. He rummaged through the last shelf, the cold storage items, and found a leaden box with a faded label at the bottom.
“Don’t you worry, I got something that’ll light you a fire.” He whispered from his squat. “Ever try Sour Plutonium?” Nick yelled, donning thick gloves and heavy goggles. He grabbed a metal pincer from the cleaning receptacle, which he used to carry the precious container to his customer. “What the hell?” Nick asked, stepping out from the bathroom to a sight of unrivaled bedlam.
Skwosh had partially absorbed (devoured?) Takka, who was now kicking her erratic legs out from the slime tube’s side. She faced Nick through the semi-transparent gel, screaming muffled squawks while Skwosh bounced with good humor. The whole living room had been knocked about, instruments were painfully strewn across the floor, and molding food waste covered almost every surface. Nick crossed from the bathroom and tripped over Eugene, sending the whole box tumbling into the air, its lid flying open.
Both Skwosh and Takka dove away from the unsecured container as a blazing blue seared the whole room. Takka curled up like an egg while Skwosh rolled around, wailing like a whale, both dreading the burst of alpha particles invading their bodies. Nick took off his gloves and grabbed the box, closing its lid and extinguishing the light. After a minute Skwosh stood up, bits of plastic and old spaghetti floating inside, nearly splattering with chortles. “Fancy a gas, innit?”
Nick smiled. “Like I said, I don’t deal in anything too hot.”
That afternoon, Nick and Takka were lost in a sea of thrumming melodies. Nick surfed the only saxophone on Klargon VI, while Takka laid out a complex burst on the make-shift double-bass pedals. Eventually the tide receded and they leaned back, contented and emptied. Nick was just about to load another bowl of the good stuff when suddenly Eugene sat up with a claw pointing straight to the ceiling, and shouted “Eureka!” He looked down and patted his pockets, unaware of everyone’s bemused expressions. Both Nick and Takka exchanged looks, as they hadn’t been entirely sure Eugene was going to come back down. He had slept through everything so far. Eugene looked at them, his eyes like lasers and face contorted in a delightfully stupid grin.
“Hey guys, I’ve got a terrible idea.”
Nick and Takka were on the floor sitting criss-cross from Eugene before he could register to blink, even though his nervous system wasn’t yet entirely wasted. Takka swiped the find of a lifetime from Eugene, and Nick pawed it from her, then examined the tiny paper squares. They all bore the image of a thirsty black hole, slurping on a slushie. “Is this what I think it is?” Nick asked, using a scanner on the tabs. It was. Eugene started to say something, but Nick popped two of them under his tongue, and passed the rest to Takka.
“One is more than enough, most take half…” Eugene stopped as comprehension bloomed. The others were starting to dance in excitement, though the drug had not begun. The only thing left for Eugene to do was match them, so he did. Then he promptly fell asleep. Nick and Takka looked at one another with hazy eyes as they suddenly went to warp. Nick ended up in another solar system, somewhere ancient and autumn, smelling of mummified leaves. He orbited the star and the planets like a boat churning its way around a river. Then he was orbited in turn. He felt something older than smoke observing him, something that swept aside the menagerie of planets with half a breath. And that something spoke to him.
“Niiiiiiick.” The entity breathed out like a regal lion. “Do not trouble yourself with the affairs of others, they have their own lives, their own limits.”
“Wow, that was loud! Can we- can you turn it down a little?”
“Listen to the wisdom, Nick. Your people are going down the wrong path, but this needn’t be.”
“Oh, I hear you. But, and this might just be me, it’s so loud, like Eugene’s snoring.” The entity clutched the star like a hot coal, and space became sweltering. The black began to evaporate like menthols. Nick tried to remember the entity’s words, wondering whether there had been promise of a deeper connection to the cosmos, something to give his life meaning, but then promptly forgot about the whole interaction, except years later when he occasionally trotted the tale out to one-up others’ consumption stories.
Nick came to, realizing that the room had become hot! The climate control was broken or turned up to high, but he couldn’t tell, because he was fucking high. The room was a bundle of colors that wriggled like worms. He was about to burrow into the rainbow soil when he suddenly spied a cake on the counter at the kitchenette adjoining his living room. He approached with a knife and fork, his lips and tongue wagging like a cartoon. Alas! The cake began melting, all over the counter.
Nick was furious, so he rallied his troops with a sweeping score. Of course, only Takka was conscious, but together they made their way across man-eating gummy bear mountains and shoveled as much cake into their mouths as they could before it ruined the carpet. Don den don! Nick’s eyes were wide with panic, but his pupils were wider. He ran to the camera to see his visitor, but then looked back with suspicion at Takka, who was still eating air. The potential client was a being with gray skin, dressed all in gray, carrying a gray briefcase. Nick rubbed his eyes and looked again. Vibrant colors jangled and clashed everywhere but on the ashen man. Nick popped out of the door like a horizontal prairie dog, nowhere near his gourd. The client jumped back aghast, shiny gray shoes clacking.
“Hey gray guy, what do you want?”
“I’m a Gray, Bahbo Dih.” Bahbo bowed low. “May I enter your abode?” Nick recalled hearing talk of the Grays, though he’d not seen them yet on this cosmopolitan planet. They were invariably accountants or attorneys, and were always working with the powers that be. He was on guard immediately. Though the Aks only held Klargon VI within their talons while the Clades slept, there were many worlds envious of the booming economy.
He suddenly understood that Bahbo Dih was the agent of some bored king or CEO trying to undermine the militant Aks, who were after Nick. But with that realization came anger, since Klargon VI was more than a home to Nick, why, it was the best place to sell drugs! A transition of power would just mean a relaxation of the hawlike vigilance of the police, which would mean less risk but more competition! Nick needed the risk to maintain his lifestyle, to indulge his habit of forgetting. He resolved from that moment forward to protect the drug trade from this liberalizing menace, this suited blight. And he knew the only way was for them to be caught with drugs. Nick had to sell them some drugs.
“-sell me some drugs?”
“Wait, did you just say that out loud?” Nick asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“No, I mean did I just say that out loud?”
“Say what out loud?” Nick couldn’t remember what he said, nor whether this guy was here to pick-up, but had the hissing suspicion that this client was involved in some kind of government business. He realized that he ought to not sell them any drugs.
“No, you didn’t say that out loud.”
“Say what out loud?”
“Sell them some drugs.”
“No, I don’t need to buy any drugs, I sell them.”
“Ah, yes, well, good. Um, I would very much like to buy them.” Nick’s eyebrows collapsed like a traffic jam. He beat on the horn. Beeeeep beep! This whole transaction smelled like a cologne-soaked setup. It was too easy. Takka’s raspy warning of a police informer echoed in his ears, so he brushed her away, and she whispered to herself in the corner instead.
“Is it okay if I activate a vent?” Nick asked, wrinkling his nose. “It’s just that your cologne is really too strong.” The gray guy shrugged and looked at their immaculate fingernails. Nick activated the vent, which covered up the background noise of Takka’s tics and displaced the stanky l’eau de toilette.
“So, what kind of drugs are you trying to find?”
The gray man looked at Nick with a blank expression, eyes half-closed. “Colorful ones.”
“On my homeworld, everything you see is just gray. Of course, when we travel to other lands, there are many colors, but we are prohibited from taking any. The Aks are especially severe about denying us Grays colors of our own, though we do their business for them.” Nick had never been to Daboh II before, so he couldn’t confirm Bahbo’s perspective, but he sympathized. There had been many times Nick had been denied drugs, whether on his own homeworld, which grew vast fields of many splendent chemicals, marked solely for offworld use, or when he escaped from his parents to become a Galactic Customs agent, but kept being reprimanded for not turning over requisitions.
“So, what exactly do you do with the colors?” Nick was convinced at this eternal moment that colors were actually the superior beings and did with you, rather than the other way around. He struggled with them like serpents, trying not to be bit by spectral fangs. He was losing.
“Why, I eat them!”
A devilish thought crossed Nick’s mind. This ‘client’ was really just trying to buy drugs, why, any old drugs. Now, a police informant would not know a drug if it bit them, or they it, but they would know the slang, especially for purposes of eavesdropping. If Nick could just get the gray guy to talk street, but proved them innocent about the effects itself, then that would close the case.
“Would some purp do it for you, then?” Nick asked in a sly conspiratorial manner.
“Yes, absolutely. I would love to try some.”
“Well, now, hold up. I don’t sell anything that could harm or kill an intended consumer. I need to make sure that 1.) you’re an intended consumer, and 2.) this won’t harm you.”
“That sounds reasonable to me, please continue.”
“Well, okay.” Nick was confused by Bahbo’s willingness to cooperate, when clearly this would thwart the gray agent’s efforts. Nonetheless, he scanned Bahbo with his device and pulled up data on his species. Nick read from the hologram that consuming purp would indeed make Bahbo Dih, or any Dahbo, die. “So, you’re sure that you want to buy and consume some purp?”
“Yes, please, I’m dying to try colors.”
Nick paused at the being’s odd choice of words, realizing that perhaps Bahbo knew of his own plan. But then he wondered why Bahbo would be so indirect, so insidious. Most police informants were fried drumsticks. Then it hit him with all the force of the law, a veritable nightstick. Bahbo was either an attorney, and thus privy to the manipulations of language, or an accountant, and thus much too direct to be playing such games. In either case, the gray agent was working for the Aks, part of the government! Nick thought to himself that he shouldn’t sell Bahbo any drugs after all, remembering Takka’s kernel of truth. Then he nearly lost his mind altogether with an insane idea. Nick leapt to his feet and bumped into Eugene’s prone body, almost losing his balance.
He recovered and ran through the bathroom and smacked his head on the ceiling so hard he saw lights. Takka shrieked in return from the shower, trying to hide a feather duster behind her back. He ignored her, trying to calm his pounding heart, and then patted his head while circling his tummy at the locked door. Inside his den of drugs he scanned a selection safe for Bahbo, vibrant with the taste of a whole rainbow, and also a bag of skittles.
The gray agent called from the other room. “Please, I only have a little window to buy these drugs.” So Nick ducked through the bathroom, shielding his eyes from any terrifying silhouettes, tip-toed over Eugene and then Takka, who had tripped over Eugene and was now totally covered in duster feathers, and then held out his palms to Bahbo.
“One of my hands has the real drugs, the other has a bag of skittles.”
Nick knew then that he had outwitted this moxie agent. Bahbo would surely have to go back with their gray suit and gray briefcase to their gray corvette and drive on out of this world. But then Bahbo leaned forward and sucked the colors right off of the skittles, one at a time, savoring the green one the most. Nick fumed at Bahbo’s good taste, that was his favorite, too. He registered that Bahbo had ignored the drugs, and really fumed this time, like an idiotic dually belching at a more gas-efficient vehicle. Nick had been mentally outwitted and aesthetically outclassed. He tugged at his unwashed gym shorts. But then Nick remembered that he had been recording with his neural implant, and no one would be able to tell the difference between skittles and drugs. Take that Bahbo!
Nick slapped his forehead, recalling that he hadn’t wanted to sell Bahbo drugs after all, on risk of his government connections. He turned off his recorder and was about to delete the incriminating video, when all of a sudden it was as if a weight had come off his shoulders. Nick turned to thank Takka for removing the ceiling lights, which had earlier become stuck around his head, but then she reminded him of the police informant with a loud screech. He looked back at the video and smirked, these were advanced recordings, they included spectroscopic measurements, so the police would know these were perfectly legal skittles.
Suddenly the gray guy leaned over and pulled the colors right out of all the drugs, except the green crystal, sucking for what seemed like an eternity. Nick jumped up and down in frustration, that was his favorite drug, too! But now he was caught selling drugs to the police informant! He started to frog leap in fury, then fell over Eugene.
“Thank you so much for your kindness. And the privacy of your apartment! I would surely have lost my job with the Aks if I had been caught.” Nick was floored, so he stood up and winked at Bahbo. He had won after all, Nick had captured him green handed! But then he remembered he had turned off the recorder before Bahbo consumed the colors from the actual drugs. Nick fell to the floor again, this time pounding it in agony. He was going to be a cooked goose if this kept up. So Nick turned around and yelled at Takka to stop fiddling with the climate control, brushed off the feathers he had picked up from his fall, and went back to meditating.
The gray guy continued. “And, since it’s my homeworld that’s the source of color prohibition, I’d likely be jailed upon my return.” Nick sat up. He had recorded the gray guy sucking on skittles, that would be enough after all. He had saved the drug trade here on Klargon VI, there would be one less police informant! Bahbo sighed. “Even just the thought of losing my position as lead attorney for the Drug Enforcement of Aks makes me feel really gray, especially right as our strict policy is being brutally attacked by several outside interests. Those damn liberals!”
Wait. Nick’s mind split with the drugs and the harrowing, mercurial circumstances. If Bahbo lost his job, the DEA would be down a key attorney in the midst of a War on the War on Drugs. And Nick would be down a means of living! He swore and deleted the video of the skittles. Then he got up and started to rush the gray guy out the door before anything else could contradict his understanding.
He finally looked Bahbo straight in the face as they reached the threshold, and could’ve sworn the attorney had more color to his face than when he first arrived. But then, Nick realized, his own drugs had recently peaked, so who knew? As soon as Bahbo walked out the door, Nick’s memories of him faded to gray.
Turns out that Eugene’s idea was, in some ways, terrible. Mostly terribly tiring. Nick and Takka tripped almost the whole rest of the day, and both collapsed on the floor next to Eugene afterwards. Nick had a pounding headache and didn’t even want to look at the back of his eyelids. Plus, he knew he would have to clean up all of those feathers by himself.
Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door. Each rap of the unknown fist lanced Nick’s languishing mind. He barely managed to stand, tripped over Takka, then Eugene, and finally made his way to the door. “Shuhkǂing, hairless shits!” Nick spat. The dolphins were back. And the door tone rang don den don the whole night.
About the author: Arón Reinhold is a Texan who reads and writes. He studied English Literature at the University of North Texas until graduating in 2014, working subsequently as a grassroots organizer to effect a just and sustainable society. Recently, he returned to fiction out of a love for the craft and its inherent promise to envision a different world. Reinhold has been published by Wicked Shadow Press, Frontier Tales, Bewildering Stories, The Raving Press, and Black Petals. He has upcoming publications in Schlock! Webzine, and SavagePlanets.
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