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by Nicole Kimberling
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: A little uncivil disobedience is good for the soul? Gaia Jones is on A-Ki space station for one reason, and it's not to ogle the hermaphroditic aliens. She's out to make a name for herself and her line of intoxicating human snacks. Not easy in A-Ki's tightly controlled society. Her task gets even more delicate when she rushes to the aid of a dying alien--and finds herself the unwilling guardian of a shunned alien ghost named Kenjan. And the new owner of his slave. The danger mounts when Kenjan's grieving lover, the powerful leader of the Kishocha, offers her a dream and a nightmare rolled into one: a new store all her own with a strange double purpose--half snack bar, half shrine. The catch? She must spend the rest of her life there, tending Kenjan the Heretic's ghost. Or the entire station will be destroyed. There's only one way to gain both her freedom and justice for Kenjan--teach both the powerful government elite and the Kishocha theocracy a lesson in uncivil disobedience? Warning: This book contains excessive consumption of clams and clam-based snacks. Also, gratuitous abuse of orange dye, as well as summary decapitation, forbidden love, alien sex and one beloved hamster named Microbe.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
79 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [394 KB]
Reading time: 236-331 min.
Chapter One: A Clean Sink
In the employee bathroom of the A-Ki Station Happy Snak, Gaia Jones brushed her teeth and pondered a mysterious odor. She took a deep gulp of recirculated air, tasted it and coughed. It wasn't good. The humidifier was turned up too high. And what was that chemical smell? She gagged on the acrid tang. At first, Gaia assumed the smell emanated from her toothpaste. Enhanced with arcane East Indian herbs and state-of-the-art calcium bonders, the toothpaste claimed to harness the powers of magic and science to dramatically increase the longevity of space-faring teeth. The toothpaste label depicted the god Shiva holding a red rocket with the word A-Ki stenciled on its side.
A-Ki Station looked nothing like a rocket. It hung, like a massive bowling ball, an interloper between the moons of Mars. The human sector looked tiny; just a circle of boxy towers adhered to a huge inscrutable orb. On Earth, humans were at the top of the intellectual pyramid. Out here humanity clung, wart-like, to the outside of the alien spaceship the size of a small moon.
Gaia spat out a wad of white foam and rinsed her toothbrush, confident that her teeth would endure forever, even if the rest of her was going to die of overwork--maybe today.
Daytime wouldn't begin for another twenty-five minutes, but Gaia liked to open early, to catch the shift-change customers. It was her one advantage over Treat Bonanza. Their labor union prohibited extended hours.
She ran a hand through her short, silky hair. Her face could be beautiful or ghastly depending on the light: high cheekbones, square jaw, full mouth. She wore no jewelry. Gaia shrugged into her yellow and blue Happy Snak smock. She liked the anonymity of a uniform. She liked its wide, deep pockets. The smock resisted flames and grease and repelled overly personal glances. The smock and Gaia resonated perfectly.
Again, Gaia considered the air. Should she get her respirator? Gaia couldn't remember her respirator's current location, or if it was charged. She found her hand-held.
"Find and charge respirator." She tapped the send icon. Then she remembered that her mother system and the hand-held refused to communicate. She sneezed. "Find out why the mother system won't talk to the hand-held. And ask the food court office about the air this morning once they're finally open."
She could call climate control instead, but they charged a fee for answering nonemergency calls. Gaia didn't know how much the fee was, but knew she didn't want to pay it.
Had she become too much of a cheapskate? The manager of Treat Bonanza probably would have called, but he didn't share Gaia's values. He didn't care about serving a few extra customers who just got off the graveyard shift. He had a private shower and toilet. He didn't have to share soap with corps-enlisted women and the maintenance crew. The manager of Treat Bonanza didn't have to personally pay all the bills either. No, she decided, she wasn't a cheapskate, just fiscally responsible. She was, as the many sales brochures she received called her, today's entrepreneurial woman.
Gaia squeezed down the tiny hall that led to the back kitchen of Happy Snak. She surveyed the shining silver tranquility of her completely clean prep sink, which had yet to bear the indignity of greasy deep-fryer baskets. She hit a code on the hand-held and automated processes began all around her.
The hamburger press chirped to life. The hot-holding tray, laden with inserts of bacon-cheese sauce, mattar paneer and refried beans, blinked on and started warming. The kebab rack began to roll, and the rice cooker began to steam.
Gaia sensed a malfunction. She fixed her gaze on the deep fryer, which was flashing error to her via its tiny screen. She punched in a couple of numbers, and then it, too, whirred to life. The day's first problem solved, she looked up through the open doorway to the yellow service counter. The coffee machine gurgled a greeting, its rich aroma valiantly battling the noxious air, which floated in from the grate at the front of the store.
Gaia rounded the service counter and squatted down in front of the storefront grate. She twisted the manual latch open and felt jealous of Treat Bonanza's automated door. All Bonanza's manager had to do was push a button and the whole apparatus rose gracefully up like an opera curtain. Gaia had to muscle hers up ten feet every day. She'd made a halfhearted attempt to save sufficient money for an automated grate after the food-court supervisor commented that Happy Snak's manual model looked cheap. Gaia had promised to update by summertime. That was three years ago.
But before she could heave the heavy grate up, she convulsed in a series of violent sneezes. As soon as the office opened, Gaia told herself, she was going to have some strong words with the food-court supervisor.
Had there been some catastrophic failure of the atmosphere generators? She felt sure that if the food court was contaminated, the station alarms would sound. But then, maybe not. No one else was here yet to notice.
Gaia shoved the grate up. Outside, the food court was dim. A faint blue light illuminated the empty tables and chairs that stood like rows of blue plastic soldiers.
Pressing her hand over her mouth, Gaia stepped out onto the concourse. She half-expected to find a broken chemical line. Instead, in the weak night-light, she saw an alien. She recognized the Kishocha immediately. Kenjan, Consort of the Divine Oziru, Ruler of A-Ki Station.
Kenjan's muzzle swirls were thin, white and symmetrical. Its cranial tendrils cascaded over its muscular shoulders, but instead of being resilient and bouncy, the tendrils hung limp. It wore a long vest made from small shells, pearls and teeth that had been wired together to form a fabric. The vest stretched down to the alien's mid-calf, shimmering in the eerie light.
Kenjan swayed between two blue chairs. Steam curled up off its black shoulders. A sudden wave of bitter vapors rushed up into Gaia's face. Throwing her arm across her nose and mouth, she staggered back, realizing that the biting stench emanated from the Kishocha.
Kenjan fell to its knees. It clutched at the base of its throat. The two chairs it had been using as support clattered to the tile floor. Then the alien looked directly at Gaia, drew back its arm and weakly flung something small and shiny near her feet. Gaia dodged. The object skittered harmlessly under the front counter.
"Are you all right?" Gaia choked on her words. The Kishocha did not reply or even seem to hear. It just kept clawing at the purple flesh at the base of its throat, and moaning. Gaia knew, from the informational programs all merchants had to watch, that the Kishocha's genital area or "pit" was located at the base of its throat. Was this some kind of bizarre, toxic masturbatory act? The way the Kishocha dug at its most sensitive area did not seem sexy.
Gaia looked up and down the concourse. Empty. Still covering her nose and mouth, Gaia approached.
"What should I do?" Gaia asked. The Kishocha dragged in a sickening, wheezing breath, and croaked out some garbled Kishocha word that she couldn't decipher.
"I don't know what that means," Gaia said.
"Water," Kenjan croaked in English. The alien reached out and gripped her hand. A strange acidic tingling spread across Gaia's palm.
"Okay." Gaia tried to pull her hand away, but the Kishocha held on to her like a lifeline. "We've got to get to my store."
The Kishocha tried to stand, then collapsed to the floor.
"Help me," Kenjan whispered. "I die."
Gaia looked into Kenjan's eyes. Barely visible beneath its swollen black lids was a sliver of violet iris.
"Please, protect me." The alien's speech degenerated into a string of unintelligible Kishocha.
"I'll protect you. Don't worry." Gaia shoved her hands under the Kishocha's armpits. Her hands numbed. That couldn't be good. Clumsily, she dragged the alien back into her tiny store. Her arms shook with the exertion of pulling the alien around the service counter to the big sink in back. Gaia propped Kenjan up against the sink. Her shoulders ached.
She grabbed for the spray nozzle. Her fingers slapped haplessly against it. Her fingers swelled and reddened. She could no longer feel them.
"Please, water." Kenjan lay slumped at her feet. She hit the cold water icon with her elbow and tried to rinse her own hands. It seemed to help a little. Awkwardly, she fumbled the spray nozzle toward Kenjan. Water gushed out over the Kishocha's face and cranial tendrils, jarring the alien back into semiconsciousness. It pulled the nozzle toward its still-bubbling pit. Gaia followed its motions and flushed the oozing area until the water ran clear. The nozzle fell out of her hands and she scraped it back up again. She needed help.
"Kenjan," she said. The alien looked blearily up at her. "Can you hold this? I need to get help." She pressed the nozzle into the alien's flaccid grip, rushed to the service counter and hit the emergency alarm. Immediately, a revolving red light in front of the Happy Snak flashed into life and a siren began to wail. Her emergency screen flickered on. A young embassy man appeared.
"Yes, Ms. Jones? What's the problem?"
"There's a Kishocha dying on my floor," she said. "I think it's Kenjan."
"Remain calm. Help is on the way. In the meantime, do not touch the alien. You're likely to get a severe burn."
Gaia regarded the fat red flippers at the ends of her wrists. "Yeah, I'll watch out for that."
"Please remain calm, Ms. Jones, qualified professionals are on their way."
She ran back over to Kenjan, who seemed to be unconscious. The spray nozzle lay beside the alien, gushing water down the floor drain. She seized the nozzle and started spraying Kenjan again.
"Hey!" she shouted at Kenjan. "Stay with me. Help is on the way."
Kenjan pulled its eyes open. "Have you protected me?"
"Yeah, I'm protecting you. You're going to be okay."
Kenjan pulled in a shuddering breath. "I feel hot, like the desert."
"Vasha a migonu!" A low Kishocha voice barked from behind her. Six Kishocha rushed into her store. Two carried spears. Another four carried a coffinlike box. A pair of human medics followed.
"Oziru am Kenjan Zhota!" The lead Kishocha shoved Gaia aside. She fell backward into the foul water that had pooled on her floor. The Kishocha guards lifted Kenjan and slid the Kishocha into the coffinlike box. The box immediately began to fill with pink fluid.
Gaia tried to regain her feet. "Is Kenjan going to be all right?"
The male medic caught her, forced her back down and slapped a respirator over her face. "They're doing their job, ma'am. Everything will be all right. Keep this on. Maybe you won't have to pay for a new set of lungs."
"Holy Christ, look at her hands." The female medic grimaced. "Get some neutralizer on that." She looked back into Gaia's eyes. "This might sting."
A wild white spray of foam spewed out of the canister. Gaia felt nothing. She stared at the floor where Kenjan had lain. The tiles had blackened and cracked. The theoretically impervious rubber mats had melted. She tried to move her fingers and couldn't. Cold nausea sank into the pit of her stomach.
She said, "I'm going to lose my hands."