Originally published September 2020, by Infinite Worlds Magazine
I remember being you, the you that made me, me. Sometimes, I like to think I can shout back through time at you, try to keep things from going tits up the way they did. It never works, but let me try again.
It all starts when you decide to be an asshole on E 11-18.
It starts before that, actually.
It starts with your ship limping through the outer reaches of the Galactic Trade Organization’s designated space. Fuel reserves are shot. The engine needs an overhaul. Food stores are low—you’re thanking a god you don’t believe in that you squirreled away that chocolate bar when you did. Captain Enid sent a distress signal, but there’s not much Guard presence this far out.
The ship’s got enough fuel to reach the furthest-most planet in the GTO: designation E 11-18, home of the Emkath, a sapient race of extreme pacifists best described as a cross between velociraptors and standard poodles. E 11-18 is a culturally and technologically advanced enough planet that it should suit your repair needs, according to the ship’s computer.
“Fuckin’ weirdos,” you complain to Enid, because you’re a speciest asshole. You’ll learn eventually, but that lesson will cost you dearly.
“Those ‘weirdos,’ as you put it, have the power to blacklist us across all of GTO space,” Enid warns, and I’d urge you to listen if you could hear me, which you can’t. “I need you to find an appropriate gift for our Emkath greeter, Hestercliffe.” Captain Enid leaves you to your task, one you’d prefer not to be assigned, but you’re an asshole, not a dipshit. You know not to argue with the captain.
You pull up the public files on the Emkath, sneering at the pics of brightly scaled, curly-haired androgynous dino-people dressed in so much embroidery that you want to pluck your eyes out cuz you hate fun, always have.
The Emkath are particular, you learn. As a species, they have a list of food allergies long enough to wrap around Saturn several dozen times. Thus, there’s a planet-wide ban on bringing any number of food items that humans would consider staples into orbit. The files state that anyone found to be in breach of this quarantine will be cheerfully declared a bio-terrorist, sent on their way, and will become the focus of the galaxy’s most passive-aggressive smear campaign. No charges filed. No imprisonment. Just a fun little black mark placed next to your name. Stars, I wish you could hear me right now.
“Yeah, right,” you scoff, as you follow the related link for something called the Great Ghosting of Cascogen 5. You skim the article. Some Cascogenian schmuck managed to get their whole planet embargoed after forgetting to take an apple out of their bag before heading through bio-security on E 11-18. “Well, shit.” Yes, trust that. Follow that thought. Save yourself and your crew from what’s coming.
You tab back to the Emkath profile, reading the list of no-no items more carefully than you had before.
“Oh, come on!” You shout at your tablet screen. “No onions, no mushrooms, no fuckin’ silver. What sort of lily-livered species is this?” The kind that has the power to change your life, but you don’t believe that yet.
“Problem?” Captain Enid asks over comms. The ship’s corridors have a terrible habit of carrying sound, and you’ve never been very good at indoor voices.
“Yeah, this planet sucks. You can’t even bring whipped cream.”
“You ever seen what happens to an Emkath who eats canned whipped cream?” Enid asks in a tone that suggests she has, and it ain’t pretty. It’s not, by the way. They burst out in hives, and inflate like sparkly, scaled balloons.
“What? Do they get a rash?” you sneer, rolling your little asshole eyes. Come on, wake up to the seriousness of all this before it’s too late.
“You’d better be taking this seriously, Hestercliffe,” says Enid, crackling over the comm. “The carrageenan in whipped cream can cause tachycardia and complete cardiac arrest in an Emkath.” Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that. It’s just the hives and swelling are so spectacular that they make death seem inconsequential. Maybe I’m still a bit of asshole, okay. Some of us are incorrigible.
“So, we don’t give them whipped cream as a gift. Why can’t we bring it on the planet?”
“Their planet, their rules, Hestercliffe.” There’s a beeping over the comm. “Shit. Gotta see to this. Don’t you fuck this up for us. I want to get out of this mess still able to be employed as a hauler in GTO space. I’m not cut out for smuggling.”
“Why do the fuckin’ Emkaths even need a gift?” you grumble to your crewmates as you eat fried fish with sautéed onions and mushrooms. Contraband, according to the file on E 11-18. “What are they, children?”
“It’s their culture,” says Kay-Kay, the pilot. You’ve never much liked her, but she sure can fly when your ship isn’t gimping through the distant reaches of the known galaxy, leaking fuel. “We gotta play by their rules.” Yes, listen to Kay-Kay. Learn from your crewmates before it’s too late.
But you shake your head and push back from the table to continue your search for the perfect gift. “Well, it’s stupid.” If only someone else could be in charge of this, but the techs are busy keeping the ship from killing you all, the pilot and the navigator are keeping the ship on course, and you’re just the medic. Important, but not exactly a vital part of actually operating the ship. Even you can admit that.
Let’s see. You’ve pretty much ruled out giving your designated Emkath greeter any foodstuffs. I mean, sure there’s the sea salt and hazelnut dark chocolate you’ve got stashed in your quarters that would technically fit the bill, but that shit was pricey, and no way some alien raptordoodle is gonna separate you from your chocolate. I know how you think, and if I’m honest, I suppose I’d still have a hard time giving up that chocolate bar even though I know what happens next. Even though I know you’ll regret it later when you’ve got bills to pay, and a black hole’s worth of student debt constantly threatening to suck you in, and a black mark by your name whenever GTO-certified ship owners do a background check against your resume.
Anyway, no food. The file on the Emkath says they like jewelry, but as a species, they’re allergic to almost every kind of metal there is, except gold. You smirk. “Greedy little aliens.”
You think you see through them. You don’t.
“The little shits aren’t allergic to metal. They want to stockpile the shiny stuff, grow their planetary wealth, and the entire GTO’s been suckered into believing them because they’re cute and have a lot of food allergies.” Idiot that you are, you grin at what you perceive to be your own brilliance. I would wring your neck if I weren’t so attached to eventually inheriting it.
You drop your tablet in triumph on your bunk and go to dig up the ugliest piece of jewelry you brought with you on this work trip. There’s gotta be a can of gold spray paint lying around this ship somewhere. Amazingly, there is.
You go with Captain Enid on the shuttle down to the planet to arrange the transfer of supplies. You want to see what the fuss is about. Also, to see if your plan works.
“Where’s the gift, Hestercliffe?” Captain Enid fidgets in the shuttle seat. For someone who doesn’t like confined spaces, she sure chose the wrong career.
You reach into your pocket and pull out a box tied with a bow, just like the Emkath files recommended. At least you listened to one thing, even I will give you that.
“Looks good.” Enid takes the box and inspects it as the shuttle slows its descent. “What is it?”
You brace for the stomach lurch that’ll come when the shuttle touches down. I still hate that feeling, like suddenly, momentarily, you don’t exist, and then it all comes crashing back. “Necklace.” You grit your teeth. “Something an old girlfriend gave me.”
“It’s not cheap, is it? The Emkath don’t like cheap.” Enid looks worried. You’ve never seen her look so concerned, but you brush it off as an overreaction. She’s been under a lot of stress lately. She hasn’t slept.
But what if it’s not. There’s a little niggle of doubt in the back of your mind. LISTEN TO IT!!! Take the box back, give the Captain your chocolate instead. You brought it with you, just in case. Granted, it was just in case one of your crewmates found it and stole it, but still, you have a choice. Do what I couldn’t do.
You shake the doubt away. You always do, because you’re not yet me and what’s coming is what turns you to me. I know that, but still, I wish you’d chosen differently. “It’s 14-karat gold. They’ll love it.” And you genuinely think they will.
Enid raises an eyebrow and tucks the box into her lap as the engines turn off, and suddenly the loudest sound is that of the blood in your ears. “Thank you for your sacrifice, Hestercliffe.”
The fasten-seatbelt sign pings off, and the Captain scrambles to unfasten her safety belt and launches to her feet before you can respond.
You follow her off the shuttle and into the long and winding customs and immigration line.
The wait is interminable. If you’d known it would take this long to be allowed on the planet, you would have stayed back on the ship and let Kay-Kay accompany the Captain, but you’re here.
You were always coming here.
Here to the line where an Emkath security guard gives you and Enid a narrowed, slit-pupiled eye. Where that guard sniffs the air so profoundly that you can practically see cartoon air sketched from you to the guard’s nostrils.
“You!” says the guard in a voice that is surprisingly high and thin for a scaled alien with canines to make a wolf envious. “Come with me.” The guard lifts the stanchion’s stretchy strap and beckons both you and Enid out of line to meet your doom.
“What the fuck did you do, Hestercliffe?” Captain Enid glares at you from her bench across from you in the galaxy’s coziest holding cell. The seat is upholstered. There’s art on the walls which are painted a soothing blue. It was the last nice room you ever spent time in.
You cross your arms, still too stubborn to acknowledge your mistake, let alone admit to it or, stars forbid, apologize. “It’s not my fault they’ve got such paranoid security. How was I supposed to know they’d be able to detect the nickel content with their scanners?”
“You had to be an asshole, didn’t you?” Enid looks like she wants to punch you. Sometimes, I wish she had. Maybe her violence would have been easier to handle than her self-control. “You always think you’re sooo smart that no one will ever see through your genius. Well, guess what, dipshit, this planet is full of people smarter than you. They’ve got the best education system in the entire GTO, and teaching is the highest-paid career on the planet, so they’ve also got the best teachers in the GTO, which means this planet’s just about the smartest planet there is, and you thought you were smarter. You absolute idiot.”
You bite your lips. Are you an idiot? “It can’t be that bad.” Stars, just admit you’re an idiot and be done with it. Become me already so I can tell Enid I’m sorry. So I can take the blame, and the rest of the crew can go about their business.
But you’re not me yet. “Oh, it’s bad.” Enid is red-faced with rage now. “You, me, my ship, the rest of the crew, we’re gonna be out of the GTO on our asses. No more cush contract work for us. You’ve ruined us.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Enid glares at you harder than she’s ever glared before. “I never liked you, Hestercliffe. I hired you cuz you’re good at your job, and you mostly stay out of the way, but you’ve completely fucked us now. Lucky for you, we’re a contractor and not representing a company or a planet. Do you know the kind of trade war you could have started?”
You still don’t understand what a big deal this is. Maybe you never will, or maybe when you’re me and you’re sewing up the head of a pirate after an attempt to board a GTO freighter went south, and the ship is taking heavy fire from the Guard, you’ll stop and wonder if maybe Enid was right. Maybe you were an asshole.
I know I do. Every day, now that I’m a medic of a pirate ship, picking off the weak from the GTO convoys. Now that Enid’s a drunk, telling tales of her glory days, back when she was a big-shot captain, freighting for the GTO. And Kay-Kay…I wonder what happened to Kay-Kay.
“What are you thinking about, doc?” The pirate winces as I tie off another suture. We’re out of anesthetic, but she’s holding up like a champ as I sew her scalp back to her forehead.
“Did I ever tell you about how I got here?” I snip the thread and go to start the next suture, fingers moving almost automatically.
The pirate almost shakes her head, but stops. “How?”
Maybe it’ll be easier to tell someone other than myself. “Well, it all started when I decided to be an asshole on E 11-18.”
© 2020, Emily Randolph-Epstein
Originally published September 2020, by Infinite Worlds Magazine