Kush Apbuscan would never forgive Ambarr Ping for marrying his sister.
They had been friends for forty long cycles. Their friendship had lasted through school, through puberty, and even through that time Kush had dyed Ambarr’s genital prong bright yellow.
In fairness to Kush, he had been very drunk when he’d found the yellow dye, and Ambarr had not been awake to protest.
In spite of their long friendship, however, and in spite of the obvious love Kush’s sister had for Ambarr, Kush promised himself on the day of the wedding that he would never speak to Ambarr again.
This made life difficult for all three of them.
It is hard enough to avoid family when living in a good-sized town. In a large city, it can sometimes feel as if the people you want to avoid have moved in next door. But when you live and work in the ass-end of the Hupt Galactic Expanse, on Fargone Station, at the dead-end of level 6, blue section, there is no chance of avoiding anyone. And ever since the Virtual Cinema had closed down, business had dropped to practically nothing. So what was there to do day after day but drink chai and visit with the neighbours? And what was there to do when the one thing there was to do was the one thing you’d sworn never to do again?
Which was pretty much what Cara, the aforementioned sister, wondered one morning as she looked out the front window of the shop she shared with Ambarr, into the front window of Kush’s shop, which was directly across the Via.
What was Kush doing?
Not three minutes ago, four Hupt officers had shown up, bristling with armour and weaponry. One after another, they had trooped into Kush’s shop. Surely they were not there to buy boots.
“Hoi, Gimgim!” Cara called, pushing aside the beaded curtain hanging over her doorway. The chai seller changed direction, pushing his cart ahead of him.
“Cara-mai,” he said, dipping to the side respectfully. “The usual?”
“Naa, Gimgim, it’s too early for me,” Cara said. “But do you know what our Kush is up to? There’s four Hupti in there even now.”
Gimgim nodded a shrug. “Kush-mai keeps his self to his self.”
“Hoi, Gimgim,” Ambarr said. He’d been in the back with his inventory, an oft-dusted collection of fasteners and hoo-dings and whatnots. In his hand he held the cover of an old hyper-drive, neutrino-ports dangling. “You got gallyblots today?”
Gimgim reached into the top of his cart and pulled out the sweet. “Just the one, Ambarr-mai?”
“Aah,” Ambarr confirmed. “What’s our Kush up to, then?” He indicated the shoe shop with one tendril, wrapped a second around the gollyblot, touched a third to the pay-screen on Gimgim’s cart.
Now one Hupti exited Kush’s shop, then another. They strode across the Via, horny feet clicking on the composite floor. Gimgim tilted so far to the side his vents nearly touched the floor.
“Move the cart, chai-chai,” the first Hupti said. Then, to Ambarr: “You hight Ambarr Ping?”
“Ahh,” Ambarr said. He’d already popped the gollyblot into his mouth. The word came out sticky and sweet.
“You will come with us.” The Hupt officer indicated the direction Ambarr was expected to take with one sweep of his weapon.
There was a stunned silence. Then Cara said, “Hunh?”
“Ambarr Ping, you will come with us.” There was a buzz in the Hupti’s voice that said its vox-machine needed recalibrating.
“Whyever?” Ambarr said at last, swaying toward Cara and back again.
“You are compelled,” the second Hupti said. At this, the last two officers came out of Kush’s shop. Kush himself stood in the doorway, watching.
“Kush, you fool, what have you done?” Cara called to her brother. Then, “Go, Ambarr, I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Ambarr handed the hyper-drive cover to his wife. “Well,” he said, swallowing the gollyblot in one quick snap. The Hupti surrounded Ambarr, and marched him down the Via. Before they disappeared over the curve, Ambarr stretched one tendril up in confused farewell.
Gimgim straightened slowly, multiple eyes looking after Ambarr, and Kush, and Cara. Cara was already striding across the Via, even as Kush backed into his shop and slid the door shut.
“Kush!” Cara hollered, kicking the door. “You will tell me this instant what you have done!”
Kush elected not to. Cara continued banging at the door. Mingma and Ringma opened their door, theirs being the next shop spinward, to see what the commotion was about. Mingma had obviously been aroused from sleep, it was rubbing its face and peering widely about. The dusty curtain hanging in the shop window on the other side of Kush’s actually twitched. Of the methane breather next to Cara and Ambarr, there was, as usual, no sign.
“You come out this instant! Kush! The Hupti have taken Ambarr! What have you done?”
Ringma peered over Mingma’s shoulder, then at the chai seller. Gimgim rolled his cart to the junk store, whispered the sad tale to Mingma and Ringma. Their mouths dropped open in dismay.
“Cara-mai,” Mingma said, wrapping its robe around its shoulders and approaching. “Come in. We’ll have chai and decide what to do next.”
“Kush!” Cara screamed, kicking the door so hard that she dented it. “You will fix this, Kush!” Mingma draped one half of its robe over Cara, murmuring gently, drawing her away.
“I’ll never speak to you again, Kush!” Cara cried. “You fix this NOW or I’ll never speak to you again!”
Mingma steered Cara into its shop. Ringma helped Gimgim get the cart over the threshold. It clattered into the dusty silence and sat there, gleaming.
“Chai,” Mingma said, settling the distraught Cara onto a stool. “Hothot, just like you like it.” Gimgim pushed a cup into Cara’s hands.
“I’ll kill him, Mingma-mai,” Cara said. “See if I don’t!”
“Kill him after you’ve finished your chai,” Mingma advised.
Kush had hoped to feel satisfied.
And he did, for a few heartbeats. The look on Ambarr’s face! Priceless! He’d nearly choked on that damned gollyblot! Kush had wrapped himself in his tentacles and danced a one-two in his shop. Then Cara had crossed the Via, and Kush had felt his bubble of joy pop.
Cara was angry. Her skin had gone the dark shade Mother’s used to when Kush had done something very bad. Her voice, saying his name, had made him want to change his name so it wasn’t him she was screaming at. He hadn’t been expecting that.
The voices of his neighbours’ faded as their shop door closed. He could smell Gimgim’s chai, spicey and sweet, and he salivated. He usually bought a cup at this time, but as Gimgim had gone into the junk shop with the others, it appeared Kush’s chai would be late today.
Kush peered around his shop. He could still smell the oil of the Hupti weapons, the strange odour of their whirring and clicking parts. He could still see the impressions of their horny feet on his finefine carpet. One of them had knocked a display over. Kush used his fore-tendrils to straighten the display: bright boots for workdays and soft shoes for hometimes. The store was quiet. It was always quiet at this end of the station, and with news going around that the Hupti had been here this morning, it would likely be even quieter than usual today. Kush considered taking the day off. Why not? He’d had a shock, hadn’t he? Didn’t he deserve a day off?
This thought brought back all the anger and all the hurt. Kush placed the last shoe carefully, then backed away, tendrils twitching with emotion. How dare he! How dare he even think about it! Kush felt a grim certainty settle on him. He was right to have called the Hupti. Ambarr deserved everything he got.
A soft chime sounded as the door opened.
It was Gimgim, the chai-seller. He had his cart with him.
“Good, Gim-mai!” Kush exclaimed, banishing his hurt feelings from his face. The honorific was a deliberate flattery. “I was just craving a cup of sweetspice! How timely!”
“I know my customers, Kush-mai,” Gimgim said. Kush thought, however, that Gimgim’s bow was slightly less deep than it had been yesterday and the sweetspice, when it was delivered, slightly less sweet than he liked. The suspicion took all the pleasure out of Kush’s morning chai and he found himself wishing Gimgim would just go, rather than settling down on the bench, as he always did, for their morning chat.
But Gimgim was not inclined to leave.
Gimgim wanted to talk about Ambarr.
“I think, Kush-mai,” Gimgim was saying, “that if you would go to the Hupt and tell them you were mistaken, they would release Ambarr-mai without delay.”
“Why would I do that?” Kush sneered. “He is suspicious! Last week he spent two hours in the shop next door! With the curtains always drawn, who knows what goes on in there? Could be anything!”
“Malus-mai is a harmless old one,” Gimgim soothed. Kush started. He had never heard the name of his neighbour, even after thirty cycles at the end of the Via on level 6. And Gimgim, who only passed through, knew not only the neighbour’s name but also felt confident to judge if he was harmless or not!
“Ambarr has secrets in his soul,” Kush said. “I know it, and soon the Hupti will know it.”
“You know no such thing, Kush-mai,” Gimgim chided. “You’re small and angry and lonely, and it’s your own fault. Ambarr loves you and would be your friend again if you could only set aside your foolfool pride. Cara-mai loves you, too, but if you don’t fix this with the Hupt she’ll never speak to you again. Nor will I, for that matter. You’ll have to go all the way to level 4 for a decent cup of sweetspice.”
“Ambarr deserves everything he gets,” Kush said, but it rang a little less true than it had earlier.
Gimgim sighed. “This is my fault,” he said.
Kush blinked. “What?”
“I thought I was being helpful, Kush-mai,” Gimgim said. “I hoped that if you knew their plans you’d take the chance to fix things between you and Ambarr. I didn’t expect you to do this.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Kush insisted.
Gimgim stood. “You’re a poor liar, Kush-mai,” he said. “You need to sort this out, and quickquick, or you’re going to turn into a lonely old man with curtains across your shop window.” Gimgim opened the door, pushing his cart ahead of him.
Kush watched him walk down the Via, and then suddenly it was too much. He stepped out the door. “The sweetspice was not very good today!” he shouted after the chai seller. Across the Via, Cara saw him and slammed her door. The beads crackled and rattled.
Kush seethed. It was not his fault! He was innocent! Minding his own business (literally), and then there was Gimgim with his story and sad eyes and comforting pad on the dorsal hump. And ‘maybe Kush-mai should talk to Cara and Ambarr,’ and ‘maybe Kush-mai should let by-gones be by-gones, before it’s too late’.
“Cara!” Kush trumpeted, striding across the Via on long rear tendrils. Now it was his turn to pound on her door! The door opened. Cara stood there, ruff flaring.
“It had better be good, Kush,” she said.
Kush spluttered. Kush found his words. “You should have told me you were leaving!” he exclaimed. “I should not have found out from the chai seller!”
Cara’s ruff drooped. “Was that was this was all about?” she asked. “You called the Hupti to take Ambarr away because of hurt feelings?”
“Well…” Kush said. “You should have told me.”
“We wanted to tell you, you fool!” Cara snapped. “But you haven’t spoken to either one of us in twenty-two cycles! Now suddenly you care about where we go and what we do?”
“I had to hear about it from Gimgim!” Kush protested. “How do you think that made me look?”
“Frankly, I don’t care how it made you look,” Cara snapped. “You don’t have a say anymore in where we go and where we live. Ambarr has been nothing but a good and loyal friend, a kind and loving husband. And this is what you do?” She shook her head. “You’ve a smallsmall soul, Kush. Get your coat.”
“What for?” Kush said.
Cara rapped him smartly with her dominant tendril. “To the Hupt section, fool, to get Ambarr released. And stop that waving. You’re not in the right, Kush. You never have been.”
By the time brother and sister arrived at the Hupt section, way way way at the top of level 2, Kush was much chagrined. Cara had wept all the time they passed through sections 5 to 3. The air was cool and thin in the upper sections, the light brightbright and the people…the people! Braxassia from Ttitxc on tall stilt-like legs; Mumeropi from Galapoood sucking on their pipes; round, silent Oofery from their nebula-orbitals. Many more Kush and Cara had never seen before, wearing a baffling array of colour and skin and clothes and scent. Cara shivered in her coat.
“You can’t leave,” Kush said. “You won’t be happy out there.” With his fore tendrils he indicated the black expanse of space beyond the composite walls of Fargone Station.
“We can’t be happy here, either,” Cara said. “No business, no future. We live off station shares, Kush, and they get smaller and smaller each day!”
“I don’t need so much,” Kush said, surprising himself with his generosity. “You could have some of mine!”
“We want a family, Kush,” Cara said. “We’ll never get a license as long as we stay on the station.”
“You’ll never break even on the shop. You’ll probably never even find a buyer. And how could you afford the tickets?”
“We don’t care about the shop. For a long time we thought we did. You remember the shop was Ambarr’s aunts’s, then his grandmother’s before her? It was the granddam’s legacy, Kush, but now the legacy is a weight keeping us from the life we want. We’re leaving. We’ve been planning this a long, long time, Kush.”
Truth was, citizens had been leaving Fargone Station for years. Since the Noaath conflict had really heated up, the colonies Fargone Station had been built to serve had gradually emptied. Fewer and fewer civilian ships came through. Then, for a while, it was all military heavy vehicles. That was a good time for business; Kush still kept a supply of military wear for when those ships came again. But that had been cycles ago, the war had moved further into the KriKriVi sector, and only the Hupti—who didn’t need boots or shoes—had stayed behind.
The lift doors opened and they stepped out into section 2. It was silent except for the hum of life support. The silence was somehow more threatening than the mass of peoples on the lower levels. Cara hesitated. Where to now?
“Here,” Kush said. He activated a terminal by the lift and inquired after Ambarr Ping. There was a brief pause, and then lights along the wall lit up and pointed the way over the curvature of the floor and down a series of narrow corridors which ended in a small office with a desk. Behind the desk, a Hupti officer entered data into a ‘screen.
Kush stumbled through an explanation.
“You filled out the proper forms,” the Hupti said, checking its records.
Cara rapped Kush with her tendril. Confronting the Hupti officer, she’d gone uncharacteristically silent.
“Well,” Kush stammered, “I made a mistake. Ambarr Ping is innocent.”
“We have your signature,” the officer stated. It’s vox-machine rasped.
“I retract it,” Kush declared.
“Please wait here,” the officer said. Kush and Cara settled onto stools. The Hupt disappeared into a back corridor. The door swept shut behind it.
“Therethere,” Kush told Cara. “They’ll bring him out soonsoon and we’ll all go home.”
They waited some more.
The Hupti officer came in again at one point and sat down. Kush rose on his tendrils. The Hupt said nothing. Kush sat down again.
When the Hupt left the room again, Kush said, again, “Soonsoon.” But he didn’t sound convinced.
Finally a monitor buzzed. Kush glanced around. Cara glanced around. The Hupt reentered the room and approached them. He handed them a scandisk.
“What’s this?” Kush said, taking the disk.
“A copy of the charges levelled against Ambarr Ping at 3298, today,” the Hupt officer said.
“The what?” Cara cried.
“But I didn’t mean it!” Kush exclaimed. “I was just trying to scare him!” And, to give Kush credit, that sounded mean-spirited even to him.
“These are very serious charges, citizens.” The Hupti read from his ‘screen: “Conspiracy against a Governing Body, Forgery of Official Documents, Intent to Deceive a Governing Body, Disruption of the Peace, Smuggling with Intent to Deceive. The list goes on.” The Hupt’s vox-machine twitched and shifted to an approximation of empathy. “A lawyer is recommended. You may go.”
There was a beep and a piece of memory paper slid out of a slot and onto the desk in front of them. Cara stared at. Kush picked it up. “What is it?” Cara whispered.
Kush read the card. “It’s a preliminary hearing date,” he said, nonplussed. “But it was a joke! A lesson, don’t you see?” But the Hupti had turned its ears to ‘off’ and the lights were pointing, quite firmly, out of the office.
By the time Cara and Kush got back to level 6, blue section, Cara had had enough of Kush’s excuses to last her another twenty years. They had made one stop on the way home: to a legal office on level 4 that had been recommended in a footnote on the memory paper given them by the Hupti officer. Cara had left her contact information and kicked Kush in a hind knee when the secretary had required a deposit. Kush had touched the pay-screen reluctantly.
Now Gimgim, setting aside his regular schedule in favour of the upset in blue section, poured chai for all of them: Cara and Kush, Ringma and Mingma (whose pouch was humming from the busy mass of egglets nestled within), and himself. They settled into a cracked and faded conversation circle in front of the shuttered cinema.
“Yaya,” Ringma said, settling back on its tail, “this smuggling business is very serious. Poorpoor Ambarr.”
Fargone had closed its ports to war refugees ten cycle ago. The station, Command argued, no longer had the resources to feed and clothe and house the tens of thousands who were showing up at the docks on leaky barges day after day. Suffering from hypoxia, hyperthermia and various burns, lesions, broken bones and psychological trauma, the refugees were first placed in Fargone’s vast, empty cargo bays. The intention had been to hold them there and then allow them to return home when the war abated. But as the war had been going on for millenia now, there seemed no hope of it ending. Then, the organisations which had promised help to the refugees had themselves succumbed to ongoing conflict. Fargone Station, telling its citizens that it, too, was a victim of war, had finally restricted its docks, even going so far as to fire on the unfortunate few who sought shelter here.
It was all politicking, of course. Fargone was the size of a small moon, and as many citizens were leaving the station as trying to enter. Had the refugees been given a place to call home and a chance to work, rather than locked idle into cargo bays, their numbers could have kept the station viable. But no, immigration was halted, Fargone, as a result, became closed to business, and its citizens packed their belongings and departed.
Refugees got in, of course, small numbers of them smuggled aboard cargo ships with sympathetic captains. They slipped into the populace with barely a ripple. Long-time citizens recognised them, if they cared to look: people with wide, nervous eyes who bore names that didn’t quite fit their frames. They slid into spots left vacant by citizens who had moved on to better worlds and better lives, took up homes and businesses and identities which were not their own. For the most part, the diverse population of Fargone allowed them to blend in seamlessly.
“Freeloaders,” Kush fumed. “Soon there’ll be no real citizens left!”
“Shut it, Kush,” Cara said. Then, to the others, “Why do the Hupti suspect our Ambarr? We mind our own business, keep ourselves to ourselves. Nothing happens down here! We’ve never even been censused!”
“Oh-oh-oh,” Kush said suddenly. Mingma and Ringma exchanged looks. “What about the alarms going off in the middle of the night?” he said. “They went off again last night, did you hear them? Security never finds anything, but maybe there is something. Maybe.”
“The security system is as old and falling-apart as the station, Kush-mai,” Gimgim said, refilling Kush’s cup.
“Mice and rats in the pipes,” Mingma said.
“Cockroaches in the wiring,” Ringma said. It sipped its chai.
“Nono,” Kush said. “There’s something going on, suresure. The station is full of Nuaath sympathisers. I read it on the newsfeed just last week.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “They think the Bright is making too much money from the war, otherwise they would stop it.”
“You give the Bright credit for control they do not have,” Gimgim said quietly. “The Nooath Huupa are very powerful, and the insult done to them by the KriKriVi was great. The Bright has its hands full simply protecting Nooath’s neighbouring systems.”
“I don’t understand why Fargone doesn’t welcome incomers,” Cara said. She looked around at the silent Via, the empty shops. “It would be so nice to see people here again! Remember how it was, Kush, when we were smallish? Remember the vendors and hawkers? Remember the music and the dancers?”
“Ahh,” Kush said, but he would not let the issue of smugglers and criminality go. “What about him?” he said, pointing at the methane-breather’s shop, its windows filled with fog and an unidentifiable assortment of things on display. The airlock still held a curled ‘going out of business’ sign. It had been posted there as long as Kush could remember. “Why isn’t he on the lower levels with the other methane breathers, ahh? Isn’t that suspicious?” Kush swiveled on his stool, warming to his conspiracies. “Or that one, ahh?” He indicated the curtained shop with his dominant tendril. “Whoever sees him out and about? What goes on in there? That’s the questions need asking, I tell you.”
“He’s a harmless old man,” Ringma said firmly. “And that’s the last we’ll hear about our neighbours’s from you, Kush-mai.”
Cara reconsidered her feelings toward her brother, and decided she couldn’t stand the sight of him, which was a hardship. Even though Kush had refused to speak to Cara and Ambarr for the last twenty-two years, Kush had relied upon, at least, catching Cara’s eye now and then so he could reinforce that he wasn’t speaking to her. Now, Cara was taking a mean kind of revenge on him. She never looked his way, never once, and when it was time to go speak to the lawyer, she took Mingma with her, not Kush. When it was time for the preliminary hearing, it was Gimgim who accompanied her, leaving his cart (the chai seller without his cart! How strange!) in the junk shop with Ringma and Mingma.
The day of the hearing, Kush busied himself with his inventory, shuffling dog-eared stock cards in hopes that something might have changed on them since the last time he’d looked. Cara and Ambarr’s shop was dark and shuttered. Kush disliked the look of that, as it reminded him of their plans to leave the station and start a family without him. The thought of it made him angry all over again, and the cold knot that had been twisting inside him since Gimgim had first shared the news grew a little tighter.
They wouldn’t leave. They couldn’t! They’d grown up here, knew no other life! They couldn’t be happy anywhere else! Kush stopped his shuffling as a thought struck him. If he, Kush, uncovered the true smuggler (an easy task, he assured himself, criminal minds were not the sharpest), Cara and Ambarr would be so grateful they’d stay for sure! Kush might, might, mind you, consider renewing his friendship with Ambarr, if the other expressed his gratitude in a pretty enough fashion.
He occupied the rest of his day with planning, and was just about to put the first part of it in action when something strange happened. It was getting late, the lights dimming to reflect the circadian rhythm of species which had evolved planetside. Cara and Gimgim had not yet returned. Kush was pushing his footware display back into his shop. The door to the junk shop opened, and Ringma (or was it Mingma? The pair shared the burden of the eggsac between them and it was hard to tell which one it was) pushed Gimgim’s chai cart out the door; being unaccustomed to the burden, the cart wobbled on the threshold. Before Mingma (or was it Ringma?) could right it, there was a muffled exclamation from inside the cart.
“Can I help you with that?” Kush asked.
Ringma (Kush recognised its voice as soon as it spoke) answered, “Thanks, no, Kush-mai, I have it,” and lumbered off down the Via with the heavy cart.
When the lights in Cara and Ambarr’s shop came on, Kush went straight over and knocked on the door.
“Ringma’s up to something,” Kush stated simply when Cara, after some hesitation, opened the door.
Cara looked tired. “Aren’t you going to ask me about Ambarr?”
“Do you remember how quickquick Ringma was to explain the alarms away?” Kush said, excited. “Cockroaches in the wiring, he said! Cockroaches? In a space station? Ridiculous.”
“What are you on about?”
“I saw Ringma with Gimgim’s chai cart!” Kush exclaimed. “There was someone in it!”
“You’ve been watching those vids again, have you?”
“I heard the person cry out! Maybe Ringma’s drugged him!”
Cara glared at her brother. “Will you call the Hupt on Ringma now? And then who? Mingma? Gimgim? Me?”
“If I tell the Hupt, then Ambarr will go free. Isn’t that what you want?” Kush was confused. Was Cara’s obsession with Ambarr’s imprisonment clouding her mind?
“No…yes…oh, Kush, you foolfool creature!”
Kush waved his tendrils up and down, distraught.
“These are our friends, Kush. Our family!” Cara sighed. “Gimgim and Ringma and Mingma, the old man and the methane breather, even! Everyone else has gone, but we have stayed! I don’t care what you think you know! Ringma is family!”
“But Ambarr…” Kush protested.
“You don’t understand anything, do you, Kush?” Cara said, and closed the door.
It was a troubled Kush who went to sleep that night, and he was still troubled when the glitchy alarms woke him yet again. He lay on his pallet, watching the sulphur-yellow lights strobe across the shutters of his shop. Then he sat up. He had to know for sure.
Quietquiet, Kush shuffled to the door and peered through the shutters. It was full night in the Via, the emergency lighting throwing long, threatening shadows along the composite floor and up the walls. Other than that, it was still.
Then, a shape. Large and looming with a hunch-backed gait.
The methane breather, Kush thought, recognising the bulk of the respirator strapped to its back. Of course. He was tempted to call the Hupt right now, but he waited. Better to see what, exactly, the methane breather was up to.
It stopped outside Ringma and Mingma’s. There was a fold in the darkness as the door opened. A figure darted out, followed by two, smaller ones, then a fourth. They were bipedal and slender, looking frail and delicate compared to Ringma (or was it Mingma?), who came out with them and shut the door behind it.
Then another figure! Gimgim with his cart!
Gimgim held the side of the cart open while the four creatures climbed inside. Then Gimgim and the methane breather strolled away down the Via casual as you please. Ringma (it might have been Mingma), adjusted the pouch with the eggsac and straightened. The alarm stopped. The lights went out. Kush was left in darkness, mind racing. He should call the Hupt. He’d seen the smuggling himself! He had proof! He could have Ambarr released and everything would go back to normal.
Or would it?
Cara didn’t want to stay on Fargone. She wanted a family, and no birth licenses had been awarded on level six in fourteen cycles. However, so long as Ambarr was in lockdown, she wouldn’t go anywhere. Maybe it was better that Ambarr stay where he was?
Kush had had more words with his sister in the last ten days than he’d had in the last twenty years. Even though most of the words were angry, they were, at least, speaking again. That was something.
Kush retreated to his pallet, considering. No one knew he’d seen anything tonight. No one need ever know.
No one told Kush that Ambarr had been released. The first he knew of it was when the party started, three days after the alarms had gone off.
Gimgim came by with his cart the next morning, his sideways bow of respect, Kush knew, signifying nothing. The chai seller poured the sweetspice, opening and closing the cart so efficiently that Kush—not for lack of trying—couldn’t see within.
“Such good news about Ambarr-mai, ahh? Lack of evidence!” Gimgim said smilingly. “Why didn’t we see you last night?
Kush had heard the music, of course, and the laughter. He’d sat inside, shutters closed, waiting for someone to come over and ask him to join them. He’d considered just going over to see what the get-together was about, but the longer he sat there, no one coming to collect him, the harder it had been to go out. By the time Kush realised no one would be coming, it was farfar too late to join the party. Everyone would know he’d been waiting for an invitation. His tendrils curled at the thought.
“I was busy,” Kush said, and Gimgim accepted that excuse, though they both knew that the last time anyone had been busy on level 6 had been many, many cycles ago. Gimgim began to push his cart out of Kush’s shop.
“Wait!” Kush said, and Gimgim did. Kush suddenly didn’t know what he’d been going to say. There was an unpleasant tang in his mouth. Kush washed it down with sweetspice. “It’s very good,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Kush-mai,” Gimgim said. Halfway out the door, he turned back. “Kush-mai,” he said, “you were missed, last night.”
It was a kindness, but Kush knew the truth. He’d heard the music and the laughter, he’d seen his neighbours dancing on the Via.
He hadn’t been missed at all, at all.
Cara came knocking the day before she and Ambarr were due to leave. Kush watched her cross the Via, and he retreated to the back of his shop, blood pounding in his ears. He felt his innards collapse to a small cold ball in his abdomen. Cara knocked.
“Kush!” she called. “I know you’re in there! Let’s not leave it like this!”
Kush, though he could not have said why, did not move.
“Kush! Brother!” Cara called again. “We’re leaving tomorrow. Please, Kush, let’s at least say goodbye to one another.
She waited outside his door. One minute. Three. Kush could see the shadow of her on the shutters. She remained still. Then, softly, “Kush?”
Kush’s tendrils bent and he sank to a stool.
“Ambarr forgives you,” Cara said. “I forgive you. We should have told you our plans. It was wrong that we didn’t.”
Her fore-tendril brushed the shutter. He could see her silhouette. “Please, Kush?”
“Our time-stamp is 7390, Kush. We’ll be leaving at 62. Kush?”
Cara’s shadow swayed over the shutters. She left.
Ambarr put the last bag by the door. The shop had been swept and dusted, the systems turned to ‘low’. Cara had the keycard, minus the one she’d given to Gimgim, until he should need to pass them on.
“I’ll just leave it on the counter, then,” she said, putting the keycard down and arranging it neatly. It was worn, edges soft, older than Cara and Ambarr combined.
“I’m sure that’s fine,” Ambarr said. He barely looked at the keycard, which had once been his proudest possession. His two weeks in lockdown had hardened him somewhat. He’d come out looking taller, more grown into his shape. “Time to go.”
The lighthauler they had reservations on had docked yesterday, the crew had switched out and now the ship was ready to depart. Cara and Ambarr would spend three months aboard, before transitioning to the deephauler which would carry them far from this outer system, counter-spinward, to a brand new superstation in the heart of the Bright. It had taken Cara and Ambarr eight cycles to save up the credit for the tickets.
“I should go to him,” Cara said.
“I should try again.”
“Leave it, wife,” Ambarr said gently. His tendrils wrapped hers. She leaned into him. “He’s made his feelings clear.” And so they stood, husband and wife, in the shop that had been home and shelter for them all their married life. “We should go,” Ambarr said at last, clearing his throat.
Ambarr opened the door, took up their small cases. On the Via stood their neighbours: Ringma and Mingma (Mingma carrying, today, though the pouch did not look much bigger), the old man, leaning on his stick, even the methane breather, face obscured by the smoke from its respirator. Ambarr closed the door of the shop after Cara. Then, one by one, their neighbours swayed sideways (the old man’s bow was stiff, but all the more touching for that). Cara felt emotion prick around her eyes.
“Good luck,” Mingma said.
“Good voyage,” Ringma added.
A glyph of friendship scrolled across the methane-breather’s translator.
The geriatric bowed again.
Cara glanced toward Kush’s shuttered shop. There was no sign of her brother. “I’ll give him your message,” Mingma reassured her. “I have it here,” it touched a pocket in its overall. “He will get it.”
“Many thanks, Mingma-mai,” Cara said. Her voice was no stronger than a whisper.
“Here he comes!” Ambarr boomed. Cara’s heart leapt, but it was the chai seller he’d seen, coming with his cart to help them carry their cases to the docking ring.
Gimgim stashed their bags in the cart, then it was time.
“We must go,” Ambarr said, twining his fore-tendril around Cara’s. They followed Gimgim, waving at their neighbours until the bend of the Via obscured them.
“Kush didn’t come,” Cara said.
“He has too much pride,” Gimgim said. “He cannot bear to admit he is wrong.”
“He is like our father was,” Cara said.
“I remember your father,” Gimgim said. “He had goodgood qualities, too.”
“Thank you, Gimgim-mai,” Cara said.
“Well spoken, Gimgim-mai,” Ambarr added.
The lift from level 6 was empty save for the three of them. At level 4, some few others joined them. By the time they’d risen beyond command, the lift was half-full with citizens preparing to depart Fargone. No one spoke. They were long-timers, these people, Fargone citizens four and five generations past. Their ancestors had built the station, dreamed of a promising future for their children. None of them were leaving Fargone lightly.
Then the warning lights, and the computerised announcement. Cara draped a warm coat around herself. Ambarr did likewise. Gimgim did not, his species not bothered by the cold, or the heat. Pads and tendrils and grippers of various styles reached for safety-holds as the lift slowed and ‘down’ disappeared. The mag-clamps on Gimgim’s cart engaged with a sharp click. The lift opened. Cold air rushed in, painful in the throat and the lungs. Cara gasped with surprise.
Scanners beeping, the citizens were directed this way and that. There was an interminable wait, then it was goodbye to Gimgim, whose all-level pass did not grant him access to the docking ring. Ambarr took the cases and grabbed hold of the C-dock rail. Cara said goodbye, took hold of the rail, and waited for the final door to open.
It was Kush, shivering without a coat. He edged out of the adjacent lift shyly, a blush of uncertainty colouring him pink.
“Kush!” Cara dropped the rail, flung herself at her brother. Tendrils reaching, she embraced him like she’d not done since they were children.
“They asked me join them,” Kush said, sipping his sweetspice. It was hothot and delicious. Kush thought he might order another.
“Will you?” Gimgim asked.
Kush and Gimgim, Mingma and Ringma, were sitting on the bench outside Kush’s shop. Kush paused, rubbed at the floor with a rear-tendril.
“It is a difficult decision,” Mingma said. Its pouch hung comfortably from its abdomen, “but Fargone will always be your home, Kush-mai, whether you go, or not.”
“And if you chose to go,” Gimgim said, pausing, then continuing in a quiet rush, “you needn’t worry about the shop. I can take care of it, like I took care of Cara and Ambarr.” Gimgim offered another round of chai, on the house, while Kush considered what it was, exactly, Gimgim had done for Cara and Ambarr.
Kush watched Gimgim go. Mingma and Ringma sipped their chai. Maintenance must have done some work on the circulation system. The air smelled fresh and clean today. Kush felt he needed to fill the silence.
“So, when will they hatch?” he said, gesturing to the pouch.
Mingma and Ringma exchanged a look.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry!” Kush said quickly. But then something occurred to him. Cara and Ambarr couldn’t get a license. No licenses had been awarded in fourteen cycles. How long was Mingma and Ringma’s species’ gestation?
Mingma leaned forward, spreading open the mouth of its pouch enough so Kush could glance inside. He had an impression of metal and wires, an interface, an antenna.
“We call it ‘Cockroach’,” Ringma said, laughing.
The glitchy alarms. Kush’s eyes widened, then he felt himself blush. Not so ‘glitchy’ after all!
“Am I the only one not in on this secret?” he asked finally.
Mingma’s tone was gentle. “Pretty much,” it said, “although Cara-mai and Ambarr-mai knew nothing about it until Gimgim asked if they would let us have their shop.”
“Those poor people have lost their homes, Kush-mai. They have nowhere else to go,” Ringma said, “and Fargone needs citizens. Why shouldn’t everyone benefit?”
“But…but what about the Hupt?”
“There is that,” Ringma admitted. “After Ambarr was taken away we talked long and hard about what we were doing, how we were risking our neighbours. But, Kush, how can we see suffering, and do nothing?”
The next day, two bipeds moved into Cara and Ambarr’s shop. They turned on the lights, turned the systems from low to high. Kush watched them from his bench, ‘screen on his lap. He’d been reading the long history of the Noaath conflict. He’d learned much he had not known before.
Kush pushed himself upright, crossed the Via and knocked firmly on the door of the shop.
There was a long delay. The door opened. The biped’s face was long and narrow, with wide, surprised-looking eyes and a deep slash of a mouth. Kush recoiled, wondering if the flap on either side of the head were some kind of overgrown gill.
“Can I help you?” the biped said.
Kush rumbled deep in his abdomen. The biped’s accent was difficult to understand, its odour unfamiliar. “You should have the shop open by now,” he said abruptly. “The Hupt don’t usually come down here, but if they did, they would know the shop should be open by now.”
There was a pause. “Thank you.”
The biped was joined by a second, taller biped. It said something to the other in a language Kush did not know. The smaller one responded.
“Um,” Kush said. “Um.”
The bipeds waited patiently.
“You can ask me for advice,” Kush said nervously, “if you need it.” He jerked a tendril behind him. “That’s me, over there. Shoes.” He glanced down at their tiny, wedge-shaped feet. “It will take me some time to find shoes made for those,” he said, “but I can do it.”
“Thank you,” the short biped said again after (presumably) translating for its partner.
Kush turned around. Then he turned back. “What do I call you?”
“I am Cara,” the small one said. “And this is my husband, Ambarr Ping.”
Kush managed a bow, deep and formal to hide a spasm of loss. When he straightened, his expression was open. Friendly, even, he hoped.
“Cara-mai,” he said. “Ambarr-mai. I am Kush. Welcome to Fargone Station.”