A very different planet.
Cole, in the most dignified, reasonable tone that he could muster, said, “Kenneth, seriously, you don’t want to lay your eggs in my brain.”
Kenneth, who was dangling Cole upside down by one leg, said, “Stop squirming, Cole. You’re making this very difficult.”
Kenneth had a truly wonderful voice—cultured, warm, soothing.
“I don’t mean to be a scold, Cole,” he said in that voice, “but you shouldn’t gamble if you can’t pay your debts.”
“Kenneth, I can’t even begin to tell you how well I’ve learned that lesson,” said Cole. “In fact, I—whoa! Is that your ovipositor?!”
“Mm-hmm. Oh, come now—you don’t have to make faces.”
“No, no, it looks fantastic—have you had work done?”
“Nope. Just clean living. Hold still, please.”
Kenneth’s voice did not match his appearance.
His appearance, while not precisely defying description, did manage to challenge it mightily. A casual observer would quickly note an overall design direction that leaned heavily on marineinspired elements—tentacles, claws, tentacles with claws; a fin here and there, hints of bioluminescence; plus an overall squishi- and squidginess. Added to the mix were subtle insectoid influences: boldly colored patches of exoskeleton; clumps of coarse, rigid hair.
And eyes. Many, many eyes.
Kenneth did, however, have a really sensational voice.
“You’ve got a really sensational voice,” said Cole.
“You’re too kind.”
Cole was in no way a casual observer. He was at the moment an exceedingly up-close and upside-down observer, face-to-face—or face-to-whatever—with Kenneth’s complex mouthparts and impressive array of eyeballs, swaying on their lengthy stalks.
Cole could see his own reflection in dozens of their shiny black surfaces. His overall design direction placed him squarely in the human category. His flight jacket was hanging around his ears, providing a backdrop for his dark hair and a face that rated a solid eight on the official Handsome Scale. Right now, however, his face merited about a 4.5, distorted as it was from gravity pulling it in the wrong direction, and from sheer terror.
The most immediate cause of that terror was Kenneth’s ovipositor, hovering just at the edge of Cole’s peripheral vision, the hairy appendage ready to posit Kenneth’s ovi where Cole very much did not want them posited.
“You know, Kenneth, have you ever considered doing any VO work? I could probably put you in touch with some people,” offered Cole.
“You remember the Xhat’s campaign? ‘Xhat’s Poog Sticks—’ ”
“ ‘—the poogiest sticks of all,’ ” finished Cole. “Of course! I love that one! I can’t believe I didn’t recognize it!”
“Really? That’s very gratifying to hear,” said Kenneth. “Anyhoo, where were we. Oh, right. My brood.”
“Kenneth, stop! I can get Karg’s money!”
“That’s what you told me on InVestCo Four, and InVestCo Seven, and FunWorld World.”
“No! I mean, yes! But this time I mean it—I can get it. I am getting it!” Cole gestured up, or rather down, at the assortment of coins and bills that lay strewn on the pavement of the alley.
A few of Kenneth’s eyeballs lazily extended down on their eyestalks to examine the money.
“Wow. Four point three-seven percent of what you owe. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
They were alone in the alley. Just a few kilometers away were the towering buildings and broad, ordered streets of the Bourse, the largest of the Exchange Cities of InVestCo 3, the largest of the habitable planets of the Financial System system. Beings of all shapes and sizes were bustling about there, happily buying and selling and putting and calling and marketing and branding and shareholding and producing and consuming and whatever else the more-or-less honest folks did.
High above the planet, above the branding campaigns that scrolled endlessly across the upper cloud layer, the advertsats patrolled the orbits, zooming up with aggressive cheerfulness to welcome visitors from other planets and systems across the galaxy, places where yet more folks were buying and selling and commercing and et cetera. Places where very few beings—if any—were being dangled by one leg by a creature like Kenneth, and desperately wishing they had a big gun.
Cole had a big gun. He’d pointed it at Kenneth when Kenneth grabbed him. Kenneth ate it.
“Kenneth, this money is just a down payment. I’ll get the rest.”
“How, Cole? More gambling? Another inept smuggling mission? Some complex scheme, doomed to failure from the start?” Kenneth sounded almost sorrowful. “You know, I think you should reflect on the life choices you’ve made. Some beings are just born to be itinerant space adventurers. Others aren’t. You know who’s really good at it?”
“Uh, jeez. Let me guess: Teg.”
“Teg!” said Kenneth, apparently not hearing him. “He’s courageous, handsome—”
“He’s not that handsome.”
“He’s not that handsome.”
“Oh, please. He’s easily a nine point four, and an honest nine point four. He certainly didn’t need to pay some kid to hack into the dating-service system and boost his Handsome rating from a seven point six to an eight.”
How did Kenneth know about that?
“I know a great deal about you, Cole. Don’t forget, I’ve been following you for quite a while. Anyway, this is all academic,” continued Kenneth. “Have you been consuming a lot of the local fish lately?”
“High levels of amargam. Very bad for my offspring.”
“You know, now that you mention it, I’ve been on a total bender with those fish. Fillets, steaks—”
“—uh, soup, fish sticks . . . uh . . . sashimi! Raw sashimi! Raw!”
“Strictly speaking, ‘raw sashimi’ is redundant. So, which of your eye sockets would you like me to use?”
“Kenneth, listen, I’ve probably got amargam coming out the hoo-ha!”
“Well, fifty thousand eggs, I’m sure some will survive.”
“All right, Kenneth, I didn’t want to do this. But I’ve about had it.
I’m going to count to three, and you’re going to put me down, and then you’re going to give me back my gun, which was very expensive.
“Two three,” said Kenneth, finishing for him.
“Kenneth! Farg it!” Cole kicked and thrashed about violently. He took a vicious swing at Kenneth’s collection of eyes. The eyes easily moved aside, like wheat parting gently before the wind.
Cole was left panting, exhausted. His shirt succumbed to gravity and flopped down, bunching up under his chin. He could feel the cool night air on his rather pasty belly, not quite as firm as it once was. He sighed.
“Kenneth, please—this is humiliating.”
“Nonsense, Cole. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I’d think you’d be proud to host my young.”
“Not for me. For you. This is beneath you.”
“Tell me about it.”
Kenneth’s ovipositor drew back to strike.
“Hold on!” said Cole, “Can’t we just hee hee hee!”
Kenneth paused. “Something’s amusing?” He sounded amenable to joining in the joke.
“No, I’m hee hee hee!” said Cole. “Your tentacleheeheeheeee!”
Kenneth was holding Cole by his right leg, a tentacle wrapped around his calf. An unseen patch of that coarse insectoid hair had started to brush Cole lightly on the sensitive skin above his ankle.
“Help! Hee hee heeeee!” screamed Cole. “Heehee SOMEBODY HELP ME HEE HEEEEEE!!”
“Cole—ho ho ho—it’s no use. Ho ho ho.” Kenneth was now chuckling jovially. “There’s no one—ho ho—around.”
“Hee hee hig hig hig!”
“Ho ho ho! The stress monitors—ho ho!—have been disabled.
The police won’t be respondinghohohohoho!”
“HEE HEE HEE!”
“HO HO HO!”
It was true about the stress monitors. Cole had made sure of that, although it was Bacchi who did the actual disabling. The cleanscrubbed network of alleys, set within the warehouse district, was the perfect location for an ambush. Which is why Bacchi had chosen it to ambush the tudpees, and Cole had chosen it to ambush Bacchi, and Kenneth had chosen it to ambush Cole.
“Ho ho ho!” repeated Kenneth, jiggling with laughter, the ovipositor quivering as it approached Cole’s right eye.
Cole’s sheer terror expanded far beyond its original borders and became all-engulfing, overwhelming terror. He opened his mouth to scream. “Hee hee heeee! Hee hee heee!!” was what came out.
“Hohohohohoooo!” replied Kenneth.
“Hee hee hee hig hig hig!”
“Hee hee hee hee heeeeeGACK!”
Cole’s laughter was abruptly cut off as Kenneth wrapped another tentacle around his neck and squeezed.
“Sorry—ho ho—about that. Ho ho ho,” said Kenneth. He let out a big sigh of pleasure, wiping several eyes with another rubbery limb.
“Aaaah. I’ve always so enjoyed our conversations.”
“Kenneth,” croaked Cole, “Wait. You can’t do this. We’re two old pros. There’s a grudging respect between us.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
The ovipositor was drawing back again, coiling to plunge its way through Cole’s eye socket into his skull.
Cole clapped his hands over his eyes. Two tentacles pulled them away. He shut his eyes as tight as possible. He felt a slight sting near his right eye, and his eyelid popped open of its own accord—and he couldn’t close it.
“Sorry. I’ve had to paralyze your eyelid.”
Cole stared unwillingly at Kenneth and his hideous ovipositor.
“Kenneth, wait. Wait! Wait!”
“Too late, Cole. Feed my young well.”
And things had been going so nicely.
Ten minutes prior to his encounter with Kenneth, Cole had been watching two innocent, gnomish-looking tudpees, hardly taller than children, as they made their way down the narrow, dimly lit alley. Concealed in his hiding place, he could just barely hear them as they chatted in the high-pitched and pleasing tudpee language.
“Heeblee beeblee,” chirped one.
“Heeble leeble beeblee,” chirped the other.
Add conical hats and they wouldn’t look out of place standing motionless in someone’s garden. There’s a species you can trust, thought Cole. Their tastes simple, their clothes demure; hard - working, blameless craftscreatures and merchants and keepers of records.
Other than that idle thought, Cole had no interest in them. He had a great deal of interest in Bacchi, who owed him a great deal of money. And wow, did Cole need that money.
He’d been tracking Bacchi for quite a while, trailing him from FunWorld World to InVestCo 3, and carefully observing him over several days as he made repeated trips to the sprawling warehouse district. Except for a waste-treatment plant, the area was dominated by massive buildings that existed solely to store financial transaction records printed on nearly indestructible Payper. Those Payper financial transaction records, in turn, existed solely to enrich the Payper Corporation, which had skillfully lobbied to require that all financial transactions be recorded on nearly indestructible Payper.
Bacchi had clearly been reconning the alley behind the treatment plant for what Cole assumed were nefarious purposes, because if Bacchi had a purpose, it was by definition nefarious. There’s a species—or at least a member of a species—that you can’t trust at all, thought Cole.
Cole had watched him deactivate the stress monitors half an hour ago, ensuring that the authorities wouldn’t detect any untoward activity. Then Bacchi had climbed into his hiding place to lie in wait. But for whom? Not the tudpees, who wouldn’t have anything to steal. They were now about ten meters from Cole, nearing a battered Dumpster.
“Beeblee heeblee,” said one, cheerfully.
“Leeble leeble beeblee,” said the other with equal cheer, apparently agreeing with his compatriot.
Cole shifted, itchy and uncomfortable. So who was it? Why come here, where most of the foot traffic was of the robotic sort?
And then the top of the Dumpster exploded open and Bacchi leaped out, his gun ready even before his boots hit the pavement.
“CHUPETU BALALAAAAH!” bellowed Bacchi.
“EEEEE!” squeaked the little tudpees, throwing their tiny hands in the air.
“The money!” said Bacchi.
“Eeee!” repeated the tudpees, and turned to run away.
“Stop!” shouted Bacchi, starting after them, and then he was nearly wrenched off his feet by his long jacket, which was snagged on the top of the Dumpster. “Crap!” He yanked at his jacket, pulling the teetering Dumpster over with a crash, putrid garbage avalanching forth over his lower legs.
“Stop!” he shouted again at the fleeing tudpees, and fired in the air. “Eeee!” they squealed again, and stopped running and instead began pelting him with refuse.
“Hey!” he said, trying to aim his gun with one hand while simultaneously fending off gobbets of rotten food and worse with the other. Several tudpee-size handfuls of fetid rubbish splattered off his forehead before he could fire a second shot, this one blowing a six-inch crater in the ground between the tudpees and spraying them with chunks of pavement. The garbage throwing stopped.
“The money,” said Bacchi, breathing heavily, “now.”
Bacchi was humanoid, if one wasn’t too strict about the number of digits on each hand or the tail. His skin was mottled and blotchy, his nose a thick, flabby, semiprehensile thing that dangled obscenely to his chin. The gun was a Firestick 14, the handgun of choice for those who want to blast large holes in their enemies. “The money!” repeated Bacchi, cocking the weapon.
“Eee!” repeated the tudpees.
And then Cole made his entrance.
Farg, it was perfect—the timing, the surprised tudpees, the stunned expression on Bacchi’s face, the patch of flattering moonlight
Cole had stepped into and then leaned out of to hide an unbecoming titter.
“Drop it, Bacchi.”
Bacchi hesitated, his gaze flicking from his own gun to Cole’s Firestick 15, the handgun of choice for those who want to blast even larger holes in their enemies. The copywriters at the Firestick Corporation weren’t especially creative, but they were honest.
Bacchi threw his gun down in disgust, the weapon making a wet noise as it hit the thick layer of garbage around his ankles.
“Yayyy!” the tudpees squealed, and scampered gratefully to their savior, clinging to Cole’s legs like frightened children.
“It’s all right, little fellows—you’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you,” he said. “Watch the pants,” he added, brushing at a smear of something unrecognizable.
“Oh, farg me to tears,” said Bacchi. “You’re pathetic, Cole.”
“Um, which one of us was hiding in a Dumpster, waiting to ambush some tudpees?”
“Um, which one of us was hiding in another Dumpster, waiting to ambush me?”
Cole scraped a half-rotted melon rind off his shoulder. “It was labeled as a recycling bin,” he muttered.
“So now what, Mr. Cosmic Crime-fighter? Here to save the day?”
“That’s right, Bacchi,” said Cole. “Don’t be frightened, little creatures,” he added to the tudpees. He patted one on the head in a paternal fashion. The tudpee made a cooing sound.
Bacchi snorted. “Hey, guys, ask him what he’s really here for.”
The tudpees looked up at Cole with innocent, inquiring expressions. “Don’t listen to him,” said Cole reassuringly. “I’m here to help.”
“Still owe Karg all that money, huh?”
The tudpees were whispering nervously to each other.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do. And guess what, Bacchi? You still owe me!”
“Well guess what, Cole? I’d have the money right now if you hadn’t so rudely interrupted me!”
“Uh-huh. You were going to get twenty thousand NDs by robbing some hardworking, innocent tudpees of their candy money, or whatever it is these little guys buy.”
Bacchi cackled. “Innocent? Innocent?! You’re such an idiot, Cole. Those two pulled the Tablex job.”
Cole looked sharply down at the tudpees. They looked sharply up at him.
“EEEEeeeEEEEeeeEEEEE!” said the tudpee, his vocal tone changing with each downward shake that Cole gave him. Cole was holding him upside down by his little ankles, money raining down on the pavement.
Bacchi and the other tudpee were trussed up against the wall.
“Heeblee beeblee!” said the trussed tudpee.
“Sheesh, what a mouth,” said Cole.
A few minutes later and Cole was practically skipping down the alley, his spirits buoyed by the sudden upswing in his fortunes.
“Heh heh heh!” he cackled, counting his money.
Then, abruptly, “Erk!” when one of Kenneth’s tentacles snagged him around the midsection and jerked him into another alley.
Then, “AAAAAaaaAAAAAaaaAAAAA!” as Kenneth shook him up and down by the ankles, exactly as Cole had done to the tudpees.
And that brought him to the present.
And in that present he was dangling in an alley and Kenneth’s hairy appendage was drawn fully back, and in about one second it would uncoil and strike and plunge through Cole’s eye socket into his skull, filling it with eggs, except he wouldn’t even be allowed to die, he’d be a zombie, completely aware but unable to move, until Kenneth’s repulsive offspring hatched, and they’d eat his brain and come bursting out of his mouth and ears and nose, and for some reason just as the ovipositor started to come zipping at him like lightning Cole blurted, “I’m in love.”
The ovipositor jerked to a halt a centimeter from Cole’s paralyzed, unblinking eye.
“What?” said Kenneth.
“I’m in love,” repeated Cole miserably.
“What is it?”
“Love? It’s when two people—”
“No, no, the creature. The object of your affection.”
“Oh. It’s a Samantha. I mean, a she. Human. Her name is Samantha. We’re engaged. I love her.”
“How did you meet?” Kenneth sounded genuinely interested.
And so Cole told Kenneth about the chance encounter outside a bar on You’ll Have a Blast Vegas, and how they’d talked until the double sunrise, and how beautiful she was and her wicked and naughty sense of humor and how she loved to gamble and how they’d gotten engaged after she bribed a guard to free him following a rather disastrous experience trying to move some counterfeit pakk on Remco B. Kenneth listened intently, mm-hmming and oooing and ahhing and you-don’t-saying at all the appropriate junctures, occasionally prodding Cole for more descriptive details to help paint the scene.
“How would you classify your love?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just trying to ascertain the underlying nature of your affection. Is it the ‘Oh, this entity will do, I think I’ll spend a little bit of time with her and mate in a nonprocreational matter’; or is it ‘This creature is wonderful, I must officially link myself with her in some permanent fashion’; or is it ‘Wow! I love this creature! I love her! I love her I love her I love h—’ ”
“It’s that. The last one,” said Cole.
“Can you elaborate? Explain the sensations you feel when you think of her.”
The sensations? The sensations. “It’s . . . it’s the kind of thing that takes your breath away. Makes it hard to breathe.”
“The kind of . . . longing, I guess that’s the word . . . that keeps you up at night, because you feel it so intensely that it’s painful.”
“Ah. Bad poetry?”
“It inspires a heretofore undiscovered taste for bad poetry, and, say, sappy songs.”
“Yes. Exactly,” said Cole.
“And would you say that overall it feels like morning on a spring day, where everything just feels right and magical and the whole universe seems open to you?”
“Uh, yes. Yes it does.”
“Ah. Now, mind you, we don’t have spring where I come from, so that one doesn’t quite have the same resonance, but I think I understand the overall gestalt. Still, something strikes me as not quite right, and I’m not sure what it is,” said Kenneth.
Somewhere in the back of his mind something struck Cole as not quite right, too, and he wasn’t sure what it was, either. But at that point he didn’t much care.
“Anyway . . . ,” said Cole, trailing off. He was exhausted and his eye was dry and he was resigned to his fate. “Do it.”
The impact with the pavement nearly knocked him unconscious. For a few moments he didn’t realize that Kenneth had released him.
He gingerly put a few fingers up to his frozen eye, making sure that there wasn’t a gaping hole there.
Kenneth was already gliding smoothly away. “I’ll give you until dawn, Cole,” he said. “Get the money and I’ll let you go free.” A few eyes popped up and looked back at Cole. “You won’t try to run, right?”
“I promise,” said Cole. “I promise.”
Then near unconsciousness became simply unconsciousness.
From the Hardcover edition.