The ship’s crash left the cook stranded on an alien planet as the sole survivor. A large creature decides to take him in rather than eat him, the industrious varclid known as Gouch. He would like to use the man’s expertise, and there’s plenty of meat left around from the crash…
(reading time: 1 hour, 7 minutes)
Head Chef at Cave Gouch
Gouch’s territory was quite large for a male his age. Usually, a varclid’s range shriveled and curled inwards with their body, but Gouch’s body was still as strong as a steam engine, which allowed him to maintain a domain with ten miles of pristine rocky coastline, a wetland of forty square miles, and a patch of dense forest around three square miles. With all that land to himself, it wasn’t inconceivable that a human might occasionally stumble in.
Gouch approached the massive object carefully, flicking his purple tongue in and out rapidly to judge the air around it. Its smells were mostly foul with burnt metals and fabrics, but there was a rich sweetness behind it all as if a barbecued pig had accidentally been doused in kerosene. The object had broken up into three pieces and each of them was partly sunken into the pale brown mud of the wetland. Though its impact had blackened much of the surrounding vegetation, nothing had caught fire. One of the reasons Gouch had fought so hard to oust another varclid from that wetland some forty years ago was his fear of fires. If his territory was made mostly out of dry timbers and yellow crackleweeds, one errant lightning strike could destroy his entire life. Instead, thanks to his thoroughness, a strange human bounty had landed with a harmless squish… harmless to him anyway.
It was drizzling, so by the time he climbed the metal side of the smallest section and looked inside the biggest tear there were three inches of water on the bottom. All kinds of strange things sloshed around in the reddish water. Gouch knew he had to act quickly, lest whatever treasures the humans had brought with them spoil or rust, so he clamped his massive clawed hands around the edges of the hull and pulled. The whole thing squealed and groaned as the two sections of metal bent inwards, mostly sealing the hole. Gouch climbed over the top of it and landed with a splash on the other side. Then he pressed his hands up against the hull and forced both his legs and his tail against the soft ground as hard as he could. Two thirds of his sixteen foot long body had been swallowed by the muck before the capsule even budged, but once it was moving Gouch managed to keep it going. It would be much easier to examine the treasure in his cave, by the light of his labors and with his hand lens.
Fortissimo Dhool, in contrast, never had much of a territory at all. He grew up the second youngest of seven brothers and three sisters, and when he received anything it was already an antique. He shared every room with his younger brother, like two sickly soft crabs always pinching at each other, stuffed into the abandoned shell of a larger crustacean. By the time Fortissimo was born his mother was very tired and viewed him as more of an aftershock in her life as a parent. Fortissimo seemed like the perfect name given how his crying felt so much louder to her than that of her previous children, an endless shriek like a fiddle bow being dragged across her inner ear bones.
Little Forty Dhool had to become exceptionally good at complaining to get what he wanted. By the time the vicious predators of his household had all eaten more than their fair share of the evening meal, there was rarely anything left but bone and gristle for Forty; so he harassed his mother, for hours if necessary, until she would make him a grilled cheese sandwich. Sometimes, just to spite her, he would go the extra mile and make her cook up some bacon to go with it. When things had to get done, there was little Forty wouldn’t do to accomplish them. When a hand-me-down shirt had three too many holes, Forty would wear it all the time and sit next to his baby brother, whose most notable trait was chronic vomiting, and wait for the inevitable splash. Then his mother had no choice.
That’s how Forty got everything in his life; he called them ‘creative grievances’. Over the years these grievances increased his grades by several points, convinced a recruiter to let him apply for StarJob positions even though he was a few years younger than the average, and got him promoted to his current position. StarJob was the most reputable service that matched up young people who were fresh out of something, whether it was school or prison, with long distance starships in need of staff. They found him his perfect match; she was bulky, obsolete, jagged, and she’d been around the galaxy more than once. Her name was United States Shuttle Hotblood.
The U.S.S. Hotblood ferried welders, engineers, general laborers, and several tons of heat-resistant metal sheets between Earth and a few volcanically active planets where government bigwigs were overseeing the construction of magma-powered terraforming towers. Fortissimo’s shore leave was rarely more than a day, so he never bothered to go and see one of the towers. All of the action he needed was aboard the Hotblood, where every new trip meant a new group of friends and more chances to show off his skills with a skillet. After three hard years of work, Forty had become the Hotblood’s head chef, a veritable wizard at turning stingy rationed ingredients into something you’d request seconds of. Given a thirty pound block of bland cheddar, a bag of potatoes with more eyes than Argus, and some wimpy scallions, he could make a hearty soup that had the crew and passengers convinced he’d somehow snuck a brick fireplace and a cauldron aboard.
He was in the middle of adjusting the heat under that morning’s batch of two hundred pancakes when the Hotblood shook. She was an old girl, so tremors weren’t unheard of, but that one felt different to Forty. Deeper. Longer. Louder. Hotblood needs a doc, he thought. Maybe even a specialist. The shaking came again, rough enough to make him put down his spatula and grab the oven handles to stabilize himself. Three spice jars fell off the shelf and bounced against the rubbery floor tiles. Forty had never added to the copious food stains on the tiles until that moment, when the jug of pancake batter toppled over and vomited up its contents like someone who hadn’t gotten their space legs yet. She’s sick, Forty repeated to himself. Sick as a dog. Sick as a wet cold dog. Do we have to? I don’t know if I can…. Abandon ship…
Fortissimo cried out in pain as the shredding of flesh on his left arm roused him from his unconscious recollections of the crash. His eyes opened wide and were greeted by the face of the devil: red, leathery, and with a multitude of tiny horns for eyebrows. The face had its teeth wrapped around his arm and was lifting him up and out of the puddle at the bottom of the escape pod. At the sound of his cries, it dropped him back into the bloody water. Forty pressed his left arm against his chest and scrambled up against the side to keep it away from the puddle beneath him. There were four long gashes all along his forearm, with a disturbing ribbon of skin here and there. He did his best to swallow the intense pain behind his grinding teeth and look back at the face. Surely it would try to chew him out of there again, like a raccoon pulling a mussel from its shell.
“Oh you are alive,” the face said, seemingly surprised. Its voice was deep, impregnated with both a growl and a hiss, like the unholy sounds of a tiger and a python whispering secrets to each other. “I apologize about the arm; I didn’t think you’d need it anymore.” The face disappeared, but returned a moment later with a red box in its jaws. It dropped the box, which landed with a splash in front of Forty. He identified it as a first aid kit. “Go ahead and heal. We can discuss things when you’ve got it wrapped up,” the face said before vanishing again.
Inside the first aid kit Forty found a type of smart bandage, called an iceworm, that looked like gauze woven around a series of light blue beads. He wrapped the bandage around his forearm as many times as he could and popped one of the beads between his fingers. That started a chain reaction that popped the rest, turning them all into splashes of gel that rapidly stiffened. His arm seemed to catch fire for a moment as the gel disinfected the gashes, but for once Forty his held his moans in. The gel then turned cold and numbed the pain. A varclid, he thought. So we crashed. We crashed on the planet Pythagoras. An entire universe of blackness I could’ve sunk into peacefully and instead I land here. The only other planet with anything smart enough to talk.
“Are you coming out?” the varclid’s voice called. “Or do I have to come get you?” Forty stood up. Bloody water drained out of his pant legs, far too much for all that red to have come from his arm. There were no other bodies around him. What did that mean? Had all the others escaped? Or was he just lucky enough to be the varclid’s dessert? Think… How many were on the lifeboat with me? Petrom, Romero… Delea… Dayton? No, Dayton got pushed over and went to the next pod down… Simmons, Lucas, and Eltrad. Six. Six other people who were supposed to share rations and stories with me until that boat floated us to a civilized shore.
“I’m coming,” Forty whimpered. He’d never spoken to an alien before. The varclids were something you learned about in high school biology, not social studies. Their discovery had disappointed most humans with their expectations colored by old films and books. The beings humans concocted were written as if the face of a planet was the side of a coin and any society on it must have a uniform philosophy. There were the invaders with their black eyes and giant frog skin heads that wanted to reap our resources and obliterate us, and then there were the glowing, hovering, benevolent god-like ones that wanted only to enlighten us. The varclids were neither.
What do I know? Forty thought as he climbed the side of the destroyed escape pod with his good arm. Think back to those bio quizzes… what’s so special about the varclids? First he remembered the basic physical details: tetrapods, bumpy skin ranging from gray to red, long tails, mouths full of teeth, brow ridges too, and very human-like hands. All in all they were frighteningly close to dragons with amputated wings.
Now what’s going on upstairs? How do they think? He didn’t have time to remember, because he leapt down from the pod and landed on the soft brown dirt. The shelter that greeted him was quite surprising. He’d expected a damp cave littered with tusked alien skulls and primitive glyphs drawn on the walls. It was indeed a cave, but it was put together in ways he had never expected. He turned at the sound of rushing water to see a waterfall ten feet wide. It entered, along with some beautifully scattered daylight, from a great crack in the chamber’s ceiling and continued down into a tunnel underneath him. He didn’t know at the time, but that tunnel eventually connected to a subterranean river that fed into one of Pythagoras’ two massive oceans.
Forty and the remnants of the pod stood in a pit some twelve feet deep and sixty feet long. They shared it with a number of small creatures that looked like green lizards with red membranous wings sprouted from their brow ridges. Any time one of the creatures tried to fly, the wings made a pathetic flapping noise and they tumbled to the ground. Forty could see that several slits had been made in the membrane to keep them from escaping the pit. There were wooden hutches with wire doors off to one side that contained a number of different dried plant branches. He pushed aside the thought that he was surely standing in the varclid’s pantry and analyzed the rest of the cave.
From within the pit he couldn’t see the entrance or any exits, but he could see a gigantic wooden wheel sitting on a track on the pit’s right ledge. Thick twisted bundles of metal wire emerged from its base and ran along the walls and ceilings like wandering roots. Some of them terminated in great glass bulbs shaped like drippings of hot wax. They weren’t lit, so when Forty spotted the varclid’s head peaking over the edge it was partly in shadow.
“Welcome to my home,” the varclid said. Forty just stared for a moment, mouth agape. The bloody water dripping from his clothes quietly stained the ground.
“Where… where are the others?” Forty asked. “Please.”
“The others are dead, killed by the impact. You are the only survivor I found.”
“Are you going to kill me?” Forty asked. He was too terrified to beat around the bush. Death would be better than choking on each breath and wondering where it belonged in the countdown of his life.
“That depends,” the varclid said playfully. He reached behind him and pulled out a data sheet he’d scrounged from the lifeboat. His claws tapped at the tiny object delicately, sorting through its memory for the information he wanted. “I must confess I lost myself in this ingenious thing. I never thought I’d get the chance to use a computer. My industry is nothing to ignore, but there’s only so much one mind can do compared to the buzzing billions of humanity.” tap tap tap “You are…” tap “Fortissimo Dhool, yes?”
“Yes,” Forty replied. tap tap “You found my name on that sheet?” tap
“Oh yes, along with more valuable information. I have an immediate concern. Answer me truthfully or I will kill you. Can this device access human data webs?”
“No,” Forty said after thinking about it for a moment. “If it was out of the atmosphere maybe… but otherwise there’d have to be a signal tower on Pythagoras.” The varclid’s facial expressions were strange, but Forty thought he detected disappointment in the flare of its nostrils. The creature set the sheet aside, losing interest.
“This planet’s proper name is Dahrugash,” he said, hissing each syllable.
“Sorry,” Forty apologized. This, at least, he could understand. After all, he wouldn’t appreciate some tentacle Cyclops from a bad black hole parking on an Earth beach and calling the planet Miriam or Trevor. “What is… your proper name?”
“I didn’t have one, but while you were bandaging yourself I remembered you humans use them as identifiers, so I picked one. My name is Gouch.”
“Okay Gouch,” Forty said, desperately hoping that straight talk would get him out of that hole, “Are you going to let me go?”
“No,” Gouch said plainly. His head pulled back as he walked away, but Forty could still hear his words flowing off the cave’s walls. “The computer informed me that you were your ship’s cook. I’ve never had much time for the subtleties of food preparation myself; I’ve been too concerned with advancing my industry. You’ve probably noticed my electric lights.” Gouch’s torso appeared off to the right as he shoved the great wooden wheel down its track and into the flow of the waterfall, which started it turning and creaking. After a few moments the cloudy bulbs flickered to life and made the cave seem much warmer. “Electricity! I’m only eighty-one seasons old and I’m already farming light!” he boasted. Eighty-one seasons for a varclid was two hundred and twenty years for a human. Gouch disappeared again, but his voice continued, louder this time to compensate for the turning of the wheel and the humming of the lights. “You can imagine my surprise when a lucky star falls out of the sky, containing a tiny master cook sleeping off his trauma. I’m very glad you’re here Fortissimo. I look forward to learning more about humans through you. I hope I’ll enjoy the human touches you bring to my food. I can see it now!” Forty heard Gouch exhale as he lifted something heavy. The sound of his burdened footsteps drew closer. “The sauces,” the varclid roared, “the herbs! The roasts! I hope you’re getting excited Fortissimo! And here…. Are your first ingredients!”
A massive metal block with two doors landed in the pit in front of Forty. It was the freezer from the lifeboat, still functioning thanks to its internal battery. When the Hotblood fell apart that freezer was full of frozen rations that could have lasted a crew of ten several months, but it had been emptied by Gouch. The left door, jarred loose by the drop, swung open and Forty saw the frozen face of Liam Delea. Four more bodies were crammed in that compartment, limbs broken and twisted to fit. Bloody icicles hung from curled fingers and earlobes. Every last eye was frozen open and covered in sharp little crystals.
“I put them in there a few hours ago since I wasn’t sure how long it takes you humans to start putrefying. I did tell you that I’m no cook.”
Two Weeks Later
Forty placed the last of the venison strips on a wooden skewer and set them over the fire pit Gouch had allowed him to dig in the pantry. He sprinkled the strips with little red flakes from the stores, something that Forty thought tasted like rosemary kissed with a bit of red wine. It wasn’t the most creative recipe, but he’d already done everything he could with the deer meat: pot pies, tortilla wraps, stews, tartare, jerky…
He never tasted any of it himself; the meat was reserved for Gouch. Pythagoras had plenty of options for the human palette. There were waxy green bulbs the size of watermelons that tasted like artichoke hearts, flat fruits with purple flesh, grains that could be smashed and mixed into dough, and spicy leaves that seemed to solve the century old human problem of a salad that tasted good sans dressing.
“Dinner in five minutes,” Forty called out of the pit. “Sorry, twelve breaths,” he corrected after remembering the varclid unit of time. Gouch leapt into the pit and reclined against its edge, the tip of his tail warming itself near the fire. All the lizard-like creatures, called chavis, fell over themselves trying to scurry away.
“Questions while we wait,” Gouch suggested. “You first?” Forty thought as he stored the rest of the herbs away. He wasn’t sure he had any more questions after foolishly wasting the biggest ones on his first few days there.
Why do varclids hate each other so much?
It turns out hate wasn’t the right word. They were almost like devices that all had the same electrical charge. They repelled each other. An adult varclid was a solitary hunter, and that bred-in behavior naturally became the foundation of their morality. To smell other varclids was inappropriate. To see others was great cause for concern. To trespass in another’s territory was a death wish.
How do varclids learn anything if they never see each other?
The shenrushoh of course, which translated roughly to ‘towers of lasting thought’. Where ever the boundaries of varclid territories touched, they would build tall structures out of wood, stone, or metal and adorn them with hundreds or thousands of hooks. Upon these hooks a varclid was free to leave information for others of the species, usually printed or written on rudimentary papyrus or velum with natural inks. It was difficult for Forty to imagine how many thousands of years it must have taken the language to develop, considering no varclid would ever hang around another long enough for a discussion. It was, in essence, all done by mail, with each varclid acting as their own postal worker. In the time of Gouch, the towers were sophisticated enough to be divided into four sections: scientific discovery, recent events, entertainment, and philosophy. Gouch spent an hour or so every other day rifling through different stacks and reading the work of other varclids, none of whom he’d ever seen, who, lacking names, never signed their work. Gouch himself was quite proud of the process he’d used to create filaments for his light bulbs and had posted that information on the nearest shenrushoh. These towers were also the way Gouch had learned English. Any time any human print made it to the planet, varclids were particularly diligent about posting copies at the towers. Within a few generations most had learned the tongue out of curiosity or boredom.
Why do varclids interact so little with humanity?
The two species were simply not compatible. Varclids were confused and often disgusted by the social nature of humans. They had thought such interactions suited only to the dim segmented creatures of Pythagoras that scuttled beneath rocks. There was no varclid government to speak of, so nobody could appoint an official ambassador. Humans had tried to pick the ambassadors themselves, but the efforts often went awry. The first one tried to take over the ship as it left Pythagoras and ended up killing everyone aboard. The second was less violent, but clearly had dangerous intentions. She only seemed concerned with human technology and was caught gathering blueprints and computers to send to Pythagoras. Though it was bound to take them centuries at the very least, the humans weren’t too keen on the idea of varclids in starships of their own design, so they sent that ambassador back and picked a third. That one seemed decent enough; he made speeches about the varclid way of life, claimed to have made several human friends, and participated in various political summits for more than six years. This peace was merely a coincidence, because one morning the ambassador had been offended by his maid’s lackluster dusting and bit off her head. When the troops stormed in he was lounging on a custom made couch, sipping at a glass vial of water, and asking what all the fuss was about. After all, it wasn’t like maids were in short supply.
So Forty’s well of questions was running dry. This didn’t worry him too much, because Gouch had always seemed more interested in extracting information about humanity from him than providing any of his own. Gouch’s boasts of personal accomplishments in metallurgy flew over, or perhaps far, far under, Forty’s head as he had never had occasion to see the factories that processed metal for humanity. He’d never even seen money take a form more physical than numbers on a screen. Forty thought about their interactions over the past few weeks and wondered if Gouch considered him to be a friend. Were varclids capable of friendship? Certainly not with each other, but maybe with something small, fleshy, and barbed only with hostile words.
“I’ve got one,” Forty said, “If you never see other varclids, how do you guys… you know… reproduce.”
Before he answered, Gouch reached down and grabbed a chavi that had wandered too close. He ripped its tail off and dropped it so it could once again flee into the corner near the hutches. Chavis were like Earth lizards in that the theft of their tail was easily forgivable. It would grow back in a matter of hours provided it had plenty to eat. The tail muscles continued to spasm and wrapped around Gouch’s finger tightly. Gouch chomped the tip off and chewed while he spoke.
“The females go to the edge of their territory. They find the small neutral strip of land between their own home and someone else’s, usually only about fifty feed wide, and dig a burrow which they fill with fifty to sixty eggs. Then she leaves. The first male to find the eggs fertilizes them and then leaves as well.”
“How do they survive with nobody to take care of them?” Forty followed up. He stuck his hands into the cold waterfall and rubbed them together vigorously. Got to get this deer blood off, he thought. He raked his fingernails along his nail beds. All of it. No more blood on these hands. Off off off.
“They, being nothing more than foolish animals at birth, rely on safety in numbers. As they grow they spread out more. We will tolerate the presence of the young for a time. Once their brains begin to grow and we can see thought in their eyes, they will need to find their own home. This is the most dangerous time in their life because they can no longer hide and aren’t as intelligent as their competitors. Only the truly deserving carve out a home of their own.”
“So you carved this place out?” Forty asked. He lifted the wooden skewer off the fire and handed it to Gouch. He cast his eyes down, but still heard the tender meat being ripped and chewed.
“There isn’t much empty space left on this continent,” Gouch said with a full mouth. He swallowed. “I won this territory by defeating an older varclid in combat. You should have seen what a mess it was. The fool hadn’t even gotten around to producing paper yet. It took me seasons to scrub his palsied scrawl off these walls.” Gouch licked his lips. “This is delicious by the way,” he complimented. “You’ve finally found the perfect spice blend. I should like to have this again tomorrow.”
“Sorry,” Forty said, a thick snivel bubbling in his nose, “that’s the last of it. Back to Dahrugash meat for you.”
“That is a shame,” Gouch said. “I suppose I could cook you up if I get desperate. Hah.” Gouch poked Forty with the tip of his tail, nearly knocking him over. Forty held his ground with his head still down, like a withering mushroom in the rain.
That night, Forty tossed and turned in his sleep. There was no silence in the cave, thanks to the waterfall, so he always felt deaf in his dreams, with nothing but static coming out of the mouths of the players.
Speak up, Forty thought. I can’t hear you. What? What? The bloody figure of Eltrad spoke again. Eer nah dee, it claimed. Forty still didn’t understand, so Eltrad tried more forcefully. Flecks of ice and dark red vomit flew from his mouth as he declared, Eer nah dee! Forty cupped one hand around his ear and wiped the flecks of spittle from his face.
WE’RE NOT DEER!
The illusion was ripped away like a shower curtain in a tornado. The sky tore and turned red. The other crew members surrounded him brandishing carving forks. Their tongues flicked in and out like Gouch’s. One of the forks was thrust into his gut and Forty felt the two prongs tearing away.
He shot up out of the dream and clenched his abdomen. He caught his breath and cleared his face of snot and tears. The trick had worked well enough during the day, which was good because it had been absolutely vital to his sanity. Fortissimo Dhool was no cannibal chef. He had too much dignity to dirty his hands fondling the remains of his friends, cleaning them, cutting them, rubbing them with spices. That was a task for savages. Venison he could manage. It might even have been venison. Forty had never seen a live deer before; they didn’t really exist in the wild on any planet. The skull looked a tad stunted… but it could still be a deer. The hooves had strange bony projections… probably some variety of birth defect, which explains how it couldn’t escape Gouch. There were no antlers… so they all must have been female.
The truth came for him at night by taking the form of ghosts. We’re not deer, they said. Forty hadn’t slept restfully since the crash, but he hoped that ability might return to him now that the venison stores were empty. He stood up and felt his way around in the darkness, tapping past the spice hutches, the freezer, and the fire pit. Eventually his hands found a neatly folded pile of uniforms. Gouch had no desire for the pelts. Forty held one up next to the waterfall and let it unfold. Weak beams of moonlight came through the holes. Since that little dirt pit was now Forty’s world, the waterfall was its edge. In the darkness below the waters turned to mist in the firmament. A spirit could do the same. His grip loosened and the uniform was taken by the water, down into peace. Goodbye Eltrad. Goodbye Simmons. Goodbye Petrom. Goodbye Lucas. Goodbye Delea.
Forty’s fingers rubbed against each other. There were not enough goodbyes. He remembered a friendly acquaintance named Anita Romero. In a way they were a little more than friends because they had shared a moment of intimacy that many married couples don’t. They had both stumbled into the escape pod around the same time, tangling their feet together and falling over. In each other’s eyes they’d seen the fear of death. Romero’s uniform was not in the pile. Only five deer had been prepared for Gouch.
Gouch had said that was all he found. Why would he hold back the details about Romero if he knew? Did she simply sink into the marsh before the varclid had discovered the scene? Was there one more ghost to haunt his dreams that couldn’t be put to rest? He would have to wait until the next night to find out, because Gouch had risen for the day. The varclids seemed to be crepuscular, since he rose just before Pythagoras’ star and did heavy labor around the cave. He would relax in the afternoon with reading and music, and then go out to gather supplies and monitor his territory in the evening before returning for about five hours of sleep each night. Forty heard him sliding metal rods into his forge and stoking the fire with a bellows.
“What are you making today?” he asked from the pit.
“New hinges for the door,” Gouch called back. “The old ones have rusted out.”
“The cave has a door?” Forty asked, surprised. The surprise was only momentary though. He should’ve remembered Gouch was a particularly industrious varclid, focusing more on physical crafts like metal, glass, and woodwork, nothing like the ascetic ones he often mentioned that barely found time to eat because they were so busy writing dramas, solo musical pieces, and treatises on existence. He also had a penchant for the designs of humans, perhaps even envy. Forty wondered if Gouch was seeking some kind of intellectual boost from simple mimicry. Of course there was a door.
“It’s some of my best work. I’ll show it to you,” Gouch said, which shocked Forty much more. The varclid ambled over to the pit on all four limbs and then reached his hand down. It would’ve been difficult for the limb to be more menacing, with its red color, sharpened claws, and tiny slits of flesh all along the top half that seemed to dilate slightly every now and then like human gooseflesh, but in that moment it only looked like opportunity. It was a way out of the pit, even if it was just for a moment.
“You’re going to let me out?” he stammered.
“You can’t go anywhere,” Gouch said with a laugh. “All you’ll find outside is more varclids, and you don’t know if any of them would keep you alive.” The creature tried to mimic a human smile, which gave Forty gooseflesh of his own. Still, there was some undeniable warmth in the outstretched hand, so he climbed into it carefully like someone trying to settle into a swing strapped with dynamite. Gouch’s fingers wrapped around his waist like a belt and he was lifted out of the pit. The varclid rose up on his hind legs and placed his human pet on his shoulder like a father might their child.
Forty saw the cave in all its glory for the first time. Much of the floor was purposefully coated in paper-thin curls of wood, like sawdust in a hamster cage. Away from the moist air and the spice rack, everything took on a more invigorating scent; there was the bite of metal, the zest of dried wood, and the chalkiness of stone. Gouch strode past an opening that led into a deeper chamber of the cave, prompting Forty to wonder how big it was. Perhaps the varclid had even mined out his own expansion.
When they came upon the door he realized it wasn’t quite what he had imagined. The hinges hammered into the stone were atop the semicircular portal so that it swung open from the bottom like a dog door. Fourteen pieces of green wood, each thicker than Forty, were bound together by horizontal iron bars and inlaid with shells from the alien marsh that projected long curved spines with their tips filed off. It was gorgeous, but much more importantly, heavy. Forty’s mouth tightened in dismay; there was no way he could ever lift such a thing on his own.
“And you can look at it whenever you want,” Gouch offered sweetly.
Three Weeks Later
Chavi wing membranes rained into an iron pot of bubbling oil. The oil had come from some basketball-sized nuts that Gouch had to smash open with a hammer. Their flesh was an orange-tan color and smelled like both blood oranges and walnuts. Forty stirred the oil with the largest wooden spoon he’d ever used to keep any of the skins from sticking to the bottom. Gouch had crafted him an entire set of human-style kitchen tools recently and he had to admit they brought much more personality to the food than the bright plastic spatulas and ladles of the Hotblood cafeteria. In a few minutes the wings would begin to bubble, crisp, and curl. When complete they looked like red transparent pork rinds and Gouch had difficulty resisting them. Forty covered the pot and hurried over to his preparation table so he could quickly skin the fresh ushtoch Gouch had caught. The creature had proved confusing initially thanks to its tangle of both tentacles and limbs, but Forty had quickly worked out a route for his knife. He sliced around the tentacles like someone cutting a stencil of the ocean, and peeled back the green skin.
While his chef scurried back and forth, Gouch sat nearby with his back against the wall of the pit. In one clawed hand he held a stack of velum scrolls and in the other his hand lens. The lens was a thick piece of clear blue glass that reminded Forty of the soda bottle frames one of his schoolteachers used to wear. He knew better by now than to mention Gouch’s failing eyesight as it was quite a sensitive subject. Last time he’d brought it up, Gouch didn’t let him out of the pit for four days and brought him only bitter grasses to eat that gave him some very peculiar nausea and made his saliva thick and yellow. With each passing day he grew to appreciate how vain the varclids were and how little they understood it. To them pride and value were one and the same, and there was never anyone around to challenge that. Gouch was the best at everything Gouch did.
Forty dragged the pot over to the waterfall and drained the oil into it before pulling off his stitched heat mittens and removing the chavi chips. He rubbed a flat stone against a jagged white one, dusting the chips with sharp little salt crystals.
“The chips are ready,” Forty said, “Do you want them as an appet…”
“Silence,” Gouch ordered. He lowered his hand lens and the velum. Whatever he sensed, Forty knew it had to be serious. The story his captor had been reading was the latest in his favorite series about a varclid who lived on a star and did amazing things with the energy he harvested. Nothing had made him put the stories down until he was finished before. Forty set his salt rock down gently, not even daring to rub his hands together to get rid of the white residue. Gouch rose up onto his hind legs, strode across the pit, climbed the side of the water wheel while it turned, and stuck his head out of the waterfall’s entry hole. Forty held his breath. Could it be a ship? Have the search parties finally come? In his heart, Forty knew he’d been written off. All the pieces of the ship that landed in this area of Pythagoras had been quickly swallowed by marsh or dragged into varclid caves. Passing ships would have scanned the area, but if nothing popped up they wouldn’t have much reason to be more thorough. There were always plenty of recruits for StarJob positions; he was as replaceable as the neon kitchenware he used to sling greasy burger patties with. Maybe as replaceable as the patties.
Gouch’s head retracted, face horrifically contorted by anger. He’s going to eat me, Forty thought, but that was the furthest thing from the beast’s mind.
“The nerve!” Gouch roared. “The fiend! Thinks me decrepit?” Gouch bellowed in Forty’s face. “Thinks me dead already? As if standing tall is nothing but my death spasms! Can you believe the nerve Forty? Can you osh theen ro shurvay? Chaunteshreech osh therench oshronay!” Gouch seemed slightly startled by his own decaying into his native tongue. He bit at the air as if he was trying to catch an agile fairy, then he leapt out of the pit in one great bound and stormed off to grab something from his stone shelves.
When he came back he held two wide wicker baskets stacked on top of each other. Each was six feet wide and held thousands of sharp white objects. Gouch dropped into the pit and separated them.
“Help me with this,” he ordered Forty, who obediently hustled over and examined the baskets. He recognized the objects as varclid teeth. Many times he’d seen Gouch pull out a tooth during a meal and toss it over his shoulder. Like sharks, varclids replaced their teeth extremely quickly. Forty had no idea he was keeping them.
“What are these for?” he asked. “What’s going on?”
“This is armor,” Gouch said bluntly. “Your little hands will be useful. Watch me.” The varclid picked one of his old teeth out of the basket with two fingers and held the base of it close to one of his eyelids. He looked like he was about to put in a contact lens. Forty watched in mild disgust as one of the slits of flesh on Gouch’s face opened and revealed its pink interior. The slit accepted the base of the tooth and closed around it. The varclid pulled his hand away, displaying the new spike as an example.
That’s why his brows look covered in teeth, Forty realized. He just leaves those in all the time. To make his face his own.
“Hurry Forty,” Gouch hastened, grabbing a handful.
“Alright,” he replied, picking up a smooth tooth out of the basket. “Where do you want me to put them?
“Why are we putting your… armor… on?” Forty asked a few minutes later. He was slowly working his way up Gouch’s ankle, sheathing it in ivory spines.
“There’s another varclid. Younger male by his smell. I took in his scent last week. The vile thing stepped foot in my range. Left a print and everything. The sight of it… made me retch. He touched my land!” Gouch’s arms flew up in a gesture of rage, nearly slicing Forty’s chest open like a vest. “I was prepared to forgive the atrocity. You never know if they’ve just accidentally gotten impaired off some fermented fruit, but now I know he has the worst intentions. Intrusion. Theft. The barbarian. He’s forcing me into combat… into contact! Reeeeeehhhhhoooooaaarrrrrrk!” The varclid bent over and retched while Forty started a new line of teeth.
“So you’re going to kill him?” Forty asked.
“Of course,” Gouch answered. “It’s the only option. That monster will take my home if I don’t. If that weakling were to step foot in here… if he claimed my wheel and my forge as his own… wherever my spirit might be I’m certain it would explode. I know you humans don’t understand such moral matters. This cave is my being. It’s as much a part of me as my tail or my throat. For him to intrude… it’s infection… murderous disease… a foreign body that must be extracted and will most certainly leave a scar.”
“How will you find him?” Forty moved to Gouch’s spine and continued placing. Just like planting bean sprouts, he thought.
“His stink spreads through my air as we speak. I can already tell he’s waiting for me, close to my lowest shenrushoh. I bet he plans to retreat there once he sees loss is inevitable. Coward thinks I won’t follow him into intellectual territory. Thinks I don’t have the stamina to hobble onto a neutral road, like some verhash retreating into its own shell! He’s seen his last season, rosh var reethunvaleesh!
“What if he kills you?” Forty asked. He regretted it when it was halfway out of his mouth. Gouch might kill him just for suggesting the possibility. Instead, the varclid looked at him somewhat warmly, like a soldier patting his dog’s head before shipping out.
“Then he’ll take everything.” Gouch tapped Forty’s sternum. “I’ve treated you nicely Forty. I expect loyalty should that happen. If that fiend enters this cave, the easiest way to kill yourself would be to simply jump into the waters. You’ll drown in the flow or be battered against the rocks. He can’t have my human either.”
Forty nodded, but said nothing. The task of placing teeth was repetitive enough to let his mind wander, but he couldn’t for the life of him see a way out of this. Even if he could escape the pit he had no way of contacting a ship, and the victorious varclid would claim his prize quickly. Perhaps they’ll kill each other. Unlikely… I can’t believe it… but I have to root for the home team. At least I know what he wants. The deer have fled and I am trapped… but I can live this way. I can be quiet, forever if I have to, if it means I get to keep all my blood. Swallowing complaints every day was painful, like burrs dropping into his stomach, but it was surely less painful than death. He did still have his passion. His new kitchen was flushed with unexplored ingredients. There was some happiness to be had there, now that the last bits of venison had been washed from the knives.
“You’ll win,” Forty encouraged, faking a smile. He felt sick. He felt invisible chains on his wrists and something cold and clotted dripping down his back. Blood he could not look at because it might appear human.
“Thank you for the statement,” Gouch said. The two of them continued working for another two hours. When they were finished, every available slit held a tooth. In order to improve his captor’s chances, Forty had skipped over all the chipped and broken ones. Every bit of bite counts. Only the underside of the varclid’s throat, abdomen, and limbs were bare, as there were no slits to fill. The rest of him was a sea of jagged waves, clinking together like a delicate instrument whenever his flesh rippled. He sounded like icicles breaking against a frozen pond. Even his eyelids were filled.
Gouch removed the baskets from the pit and returned them to their stone shelf. He told Forty he would return shortly, then lifted the massive door and exited the cave. Forty listened to it swing back and forth until the sound of the water overtook it. What do I do now?
With an unknown amount of time to spare, he did the only thing that came naturally. He cooked. If Gouch returned, Forty could reward him with an eight course meal that would further convince the varclid of his loyalty. If he could fake devotion for a season or two… YEARS, Forty reminded himself. Years. Gouch might give him more freedom. If he could be allowed to go outside he might be able to set up some kind of signal that passing ships would recognize as human. Until then, his greatest tool was his carving fork.
He uncovered a small pit-within-the-pit filled with mud. In it squirmed six limbless creatures that looked disturbingly similar to prophylactics. Forty wrestled them all out and tossed them into a bowl. He consulted his notes, which were scribbled on a few great sheets of velum Gouch had granted him. The hurch, as the varclids called them, first had to be rinsed in water to remove the slime and mud. Then they were sliced like thick sausage, revealing gelatinous green flesh in a network of gray fat. Step three: toss with usuch root, sheech stems, chavi eyes, chavi fingers, and a few squeezes of puruch juice.
In addition to the stir fry, Forty hopped back and forth between a number of dishes: domed quiches, blackened arthropods, fresh squeezed juice cocktails served in vessels he could bathe in, and a powdery brown dessert that Forty compared to dehydrated hot chocolate. By the time he was finished, many hours had passed and there was very little light entering the cave. Lost in a storm of aromas and steam, Forty finally noticed the thick layer of perspiration he’d built up and a few tiny burns on his fingers and forearms from splashing oil and pan edges. He foolishly wished that some capsule would drop out of space and take the food back to humanity. He did not need to return, but the food should. That was what he had to offer.
There was one message in a bottle he could create. Surely Gouch would let him post his recipes at a shenrushoh. If he died in that pit in that cave on that planet, at least some culture, alien as it may be, would have a touch of Forty.
Worry crept in. Everything started to go cold as he busied himself with the cleanup. A chavi had hopped into his mixing bowl and was licking shreds of vegetables out of the bottom. He grabbed it by the tail and pulled it up, forgetting their defense mechanism. The tail broke off and the chavi scurried away. The rogue tail reflexively wrapped itself around Forty’s wrist and tightened. Then it tightened some more. And some more. Gods and stars, this thing is tough, Forty thought as he tried to pry it off. The tail squeezed tighter. In under a minute his hand was turning blue. The dying thing only relented when he dug into it with a large knife. He flexed his fingers and felt blood trickle back in. He stared at the tail, which coiled into a perfect circle on the ground. An idea popped into his head. An idea that could elevate a man from his pit.
“What is that intoxicating smell?” Gouch asked. Forty whirled around to see the varclid standing over the pit. His chest was slashed open in three spots, part of his upper lip was missing, which revealed his purple gums, one of his claws had been ripped out, and several patches of his toothy shell had been scratched away like the hide of a flea-bitten dog.
“I knew you’d win,” Forty shouted, not even having to fake the happiness. “I’ve got everything worth eating on this planet down here. Hurry up, you’ve let most of it get cold already.”
“Just a moment,” Gouch said as he stepped into the pit. “First I must rid myself of this sullied armor. Much of it has that fiend’s blood on it.” Gouch stepped to the edge of the waterfall, turned around, and let the water flow down his neck, back, and tail. He raised his great hands like someone trying to indicate the size of god, squeezed them into fists, and flexed his shoulders. Hundreds and hundreds of teeth popped out of their slits and were washed away, looking and sounding like someone dumping a basket of chipped porcelain. The varclid then dropped down to his stomach, grabbed a wooden bowl of juice, and chugged the entire thing in four great gulps.
“You’re supposed to savor it,” Forty pestered.
“Don’t worry Forty, everything will taste perfect right now, for justice has prevailed.”
“So… you killed him?”
“Oh yes. The best part is that I was right about his cowardice. He tried to retreat past the shenrushoh, but I ran him down and tore him apart not a hundred steps from it. Since his body fell outside my territory, I didn’t even have to move it. Such a blessing to not have to touch a fell thing like that. Literal rotting evil. Anyway, let’s not discuss it while I eat.” Gouch crunched into the arthropods, claws and legs cracking in his powerful jaws.
“I guess I’ll join you,” Forty said. Although much of Pythagoras’ food was palatable enough, Forty still ate from the rations Gouch had emptied out of the freezer. Even stored at room temperature they would last close to a year. He grabbed a box and a can out of the stockpile and sat down near Gouch. The little box of food was blue and emblazoned with a picture of a cartoon turkey diving into a pool of gravy. There was a little trademark emblem in the corner. A few tears dropped onto the box. How could he miss that? Even the way his species abused the concept of food opened the floodgates in Forty’s mind. He wished he was back in the smoggy streets of his home planet’s markets, tasting free samples of flash-unfrozen cinnamon coated pineapple chunks or ripping the plastic off a duck leg that was more hormones than meat. If he was back there he could find plenty of sympathetic ears for his grievances. Instead he had Gouch, whose ears were invisible and situated somewhere close to his jawbone.
He popped the top off the coconut water drink can and swigged. The crying had blocked his nostrils, so he sniveled after each sip to catch his breath. Gouch looked over at him and stopped his feast.
“Why are you unhappy Forty? What more could you want? You’re a chef! Your industry exists in a perfect environment now. I provide your raw materials and nothing can get in your way. Where has your passion gone?”
“I’m not a varclid Gouch. Life is more than industry. I need people.”
“No you don’t,” Gouch countered quickly. ‘It’s time someone broke you of your silly social delusions. All you humans do to each other is break your own rules and visit violence upon the more creative of you. You restrict ideas because they make the foolish uncomfortable. You band together and create unwieldy armies that kill far more than whatever the perceived enemy is. The varclid way is the best way. No… togetherness,” he spat out the word like a piece of indigestible gristle. “No togetherness means no war. No pressure. Every varclid gets exactly what they deserve from the cornucopia of nature. We build our own worlds. We are our own royalty and our own peasants.”
Much of the speech made sense to Forty. Gouch was largely right, but it couldn’t change the way he felt. It couldn’t change his humanity. The thought of preparing a ten foot table full of incredible gourmet food and then slowly working through it by his lonesome was extremely depressing. He swallowed the last of the coconut water and tossed the can into the waterfall.
“It wasn’t right what you did,” Forty said bitterly.
“What are you talking about?” Gouch asked, pulling himself closer to his pet. Forty could feel his hot breath against his shirt and smell his own handiwork.
“What you did with the de… with the bodies of my friends. What you made me do. That wasn’t right!” The last sentence came out as a pathetic roar, like a lion trying to scare away the sedatives pumped in by a dart.
“They were all dead Forty. Should I have let them go to waste?”
“No, you should’ve let them go to rest. Rest! Respect for the dead, not something you’d understand. It’s human, Gouch. We feel the pain of the dead. One human lives for all humans. You made me break that oath, one I never even knew I’d taken. You made me disrespect the dead!” Forty tossed his unopened food box into the water as well. It was as close as he could come to incinerating it, and he felt very much like destroying things. A bit of fire returned to his mind. He hadn’t intended it, but he was complaining just like his old self. It felt good.
“You live on Dahrugash,” Gouch growled. “You don’t need those human ideas anymore.”
“It goes against your ways too,” Forty argued. He gripped an imaginary spear, ready to hurl it into the varclid’s heart.
“In what way?”
“You made me touch my own kind,” Forty whispered, spear flung. Gouch’s eyes widened. His great maw closed. “Could you imagine,” Forty spoke slowly, “if I was your size and I dumped a pile of dead varclids on you. I ordered you, on pain of death, to skin them, debone them, dice them, and cook them? If I made you smell their boiling blood? If I made you plunge your arms into the gore of your fellows?”
Gouch’s head swung to the side sickeningly. Forty continued with his graphic descriptions of varclid disemboweling. It’s not the gore, Forty remembered. It’s the touching. What would happen if I told him of the horror of conjoined twins? If I described human sex and birth?
“If their blood soaked into the thin skin of your palms?” Forty finished. Gouch’s front legs faltered like he was aboard a speeding boat and his head and neck slammed into the ground. Then the beast’s mouth opened wide and emitted a disturbing sound, like a boar choking on a whole lemon. The sound was followed by a river of Forty’s food, now partially digested. Gouch’s vomit pooled in front of him and he scrambled away from it like a tiny lizard on a patio fleeing human sandals. Forty wondered if that was the first time the beast had ever puked.
“You’re right,” Gouch admitted, panting. He closed his eyes and spat out a few teeth without bothering to pick them up. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to keep you I should show you some respect. I should never have made you… do those things. I’m sorry. I apologize.” Gouch seemed confused by the words.
“Guilt is oddly heavy isn’t it?” Forty said. Gouch did not repy. He picked himself up and exited the pit, leaving more than half his food untouched.
“I am sorry Forty,” the beast said, voice dripping over the pit’s edge like strong-smelling glue. The faceless apology didn’t mean much to the trapped human. It was like god apologizing to the damned as they burned in hell. If you’re sorry, then why am I here? He thought.
The Final Week
A scream rushed through the cave like a wave of fire. A human scream. A scream that did not belong to Fortissimo Dhool. It had been three days since Gouch’s apology, and things between them had been agreeable. Forty even, on occasion, enjoyed explaining human culture to the varclid. Gouch could understand the appeal of most things if Forty simply came at it from the right angle. While he was repulsed by the idea of team sports, he was intrigued by other forms of competition like chess-by-mail. He knew the varclids would become obsessed with the internet if they had it. What was a shenrushoh if not a search engine? If they ever got it they would surely suffer the same fate as humanity, with the average individual losing most skills connected to the physical world. Would they survive that?
Forty stood in his pit, frozen in place by the sound. Vegetables sizzled in the pan. A can of pineapple juice dropped out of his hand, a few drops clinging to his lips. A human woman screamed, Forty thought. This isn’t like the nightmares. This isn’t a human cry from the mouth of a fleeing doe. This is real.
“Gouch!” he shouted. “Gouch what was that? Have they come for me? What are you doing? Answer! Answer!”
His captor crawled with great swipes of his reptilian legs over to the pit and tossed a red mess into it. Then he clasped one hand over his left eye and spat what Forty assumed to be varclid curses.
“Eesh ran! Eesereech ran! Thorny humans! Your deception! Your lies! Delayed poison!” Blood dripped between his fingers. “Missed my eye by barely a claw! Not for lack of trying!”
Forty dropped to his knees in front of the red mess. Anita Romero. Anita Romero, who was supposed to be resting peacefully at the bottom of the marsh after dying quickly, with no pain, in the impact of the crash. Romero could not haunt him with the others because she had not been dead. She most certainly was now, with her neck lolling at an unnatural angle and her eyes looking open and gray like sooty hail.
“Anita,” Forty whispered, tears joining and falling from the tip of his nose. “What is she doing here?” he asked, volume swelling. “You said she was dead! You’re the deceiver!”
“Don’t turn this on me,” Gouch boomed. He pulled another basket from his shelves and extracted some first-aid, placing a very gooey leaf over his injured eye. He roared at the pain of disinfectant. “She was supposed to be a surprise for you! Nothing but trouble from day one! She had no industry of value. Always shouting to be released, as if she could go anywhere. I can’t believe she didn’t spoil the surprise with that mouth.”
“Where was she?” Forty asked. He reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, but pulled it back. He had Gouch’s approval. He’d done what Gouch asked, like a dog. Forty had been a pet while Romero had been a human. Never gave up her dignity, never stopped her complaints. Never sympathized with the enemy. All while Forty made dinner for his master.
“I kept her in a deeper part of the cave. I have more store pits back there. There’s more water as well.” Gouch replaced the leaf with a fresh one and grimaced again. “Once she calmed down I was going to give her to you as a gift. Then you would have bred. It was going to be grand! Varclids breeding humans! I could’ve posted the domesticating process… kept some of the children for my own and bound the others with food and instructions at the shenrushoh. In no time at all, ten generations maybe… we would have all the labor we would ever need! Imagine the industry each varclid could have with a herd of humans at their disposal. Humans to chop wood! Humans to drag stone! Humans to prepare food, tidy the cave, and plow the land. With all that extra time at our disposal, we’d be swimming across the stars in no time! And it would have all been thanks to you and Anita.”
“What happened?” Forty asked numbly. Of course Gouch thought being the progenitor of a slave race would be a present for his loyal pet. He wasn’t angry, because Anita’s frozen stare drained his rage. Something would have to be done, but it would not be done in anger. It would be done out of necessity.
“She lied!” Gouch bellowed. “Made her words soft and submissive. Pretended she understood the situation. So I decided to extend the same gesture of friendship I did to you. I was going to lift her out and show her the door. I reached my hand out… and the vicious bug jumped from it. She hopped to my face and stabbed me with a filed rock! Tried to blind me!” Gouch hopped into the pit, picked up Romero, and held the limp body in front of Forty. “Make her into a pie! That’s what she deserves! And I want it to be the best pie you’ve ever made Forty! The flakiest crust! The plumpest roots! The thickest creamiest sauce! The best ingredients you have! She should be your masterpiece!”
“No,” Forty answered plainly and quietly. He rose to his feet. He was not a dog and she was not a deer.
“Do it!” Gouch ordered.
The varclid roared into the face of his captive. Globs of spit landed on the human’s chest. The beast’s hot breath blasted him and pushed his hair back, giving him the perfect view of his massive purple tongue. The tongue he’d pampered so thoroughly so it could now glisten inches from his flesh. Any closer and he would be an afternoon snack.
“The answer’s still no,” Forty repeated. “You apologized for this, remember?”
“Fine!” Gouch shouted. “Raw it is then!” He shoved the corpse into his mouth and chewed violently. Bones cracked. Blood spilled. Forty stood his ground. When the monster was done he stormed out of the pit and went about his business, his great aspirations of starting the first human farm in tatters. Forty waited. Romero had given him the strength. Strength enough to do more than complain and whine until he’d wedged himself into a safe place.
Hours passed, marked by the near constant hammerings of Gouch in his forge. The creature was taking out his anger on a hapless piece of metal, pounding it way beyond effectiveness. When he finished it would be the first lackluster tool he’d ever made since it was born out of frustration.
Forty was glad for the noise. The forge was built into a wall facing away from the pantry, so Gouch would not be looking in his direction. He silently approached a sleeping chavi and wrapped one hand around its snout so it couldn’t cry out. With one great tug he ripped off its tail. He dropped the creature and used both his hands to keep the tail straight, which took incredible effort. After that, he ran over to the edge of the pit right below the waterwheel and waited for the right moment. It had to be quick, before the severed tail lost its will to grab. The great wheel turned and creaked with the rush of the water. Forty released one end of the tail, jumped, and swung it like a whip, extending his reach by several feet. The end of the tail wrapped around one of the wheel’s spokes and lifted him up. He hung quietly and waited for the apex of the turn. He could see Gouch’s back and shoulders, hunched and unaware, as his chef escaped. When the wheel was at its highest point, Forty released the tail and climbed to stand on top of the structure. The great hole in the stone that ushered in the waters was within reach and he could only hope the edge of it wasn’t so wet that he couldn’t grab hold. He leapt again and suppressed a grunt as his stomach hit the rock. The water hid the sounds, he thought and hoped.
With another minute of struggling he pulled himself out of the cave and leaned up against another outcropping of stone beneath the water. Out. Free. My god, the air! There was an aromatic breeze slipping behind the waterfall and rolling over him. Gone was the moldy scent of water on stone. Now he smelled gluttonous grasses that feasted on rain and starshine. He smelled the bitter and earthy trees of the nearby forest. For once in his post-industrial life Forty felt like frolicking. Unfortunately, that was not part of the plan. The plan required him to wait. The waterfall would hopefully hide his scent from the varclid, and when he noticed his charge was missing, he would assume he’d escaped and run off. According to the plan anyway.
As Gouch had so blatantly said, even if he did escape, there was nowhere to go. Only monsters to find. So his monster had to be dealt with. The puny man had no chance of besting the alien in combat, but he had a chance of manipulating it. For that he would need a secret ingredient. Forty waited for over an hour. The day’s light faded. If I have to do this in the dark, then I do it in the dark.
Eventually Gouch exited the cave. Forty leaned out to watch, but stayed ready to retract behind the water. The varclid seemed to be in a bit of a panic, whipping his head and tongue in all directions. He stood on his hind legs and surveyed the great openness of his territory. I bet this is the first time your home felt a little too big, Forty thought. Gouch cupped his hands around his mouth, the go-to loudspeaker of any pet owner upset about a runaway.
“Forty! I’m sorry! Come back! There’s nothing out there for you! The others will eat you! You know it! I’ll keep you safe!” he shouted. The darkening sky ate up his pleas and Forty said nothing. It’s too late, he thought. The faces of his dead shipmates returned to him as a panel of judges passing down Gouch’s verdict. Diplomacy has failed.
“I won’t chase you!” the varclid exclaimed, trying a new tactic. “I know you’re smart… and I respect your humanity! I’ll let you come back on your own and I promise your pantry will still be here for you!” With that Gouch lowered his hands and waited. His human did not come bounding back. After a minute he returned to the cave and gathered up some documents. Then he left again, carrying the documents in a shoulder pack.
Good, Forty thought, He’s going about his business. Returning those stories to the shenrushoh to get more. Forty had gleaned from earlier conversation that Gouch’s current batch of stories had come from the ‘upper’ shenrushoh. Since Forty needed to visit the ‘lower’ one, he waited until the varclid was out of sight, climbed off the cave, and proceeded in the opposite direction.
Making it around the stony outcropping that the waters came from took a few hours on its own , so it was pitch black by the time he reached the back end of it. Forty spent the night in a tree, lulling himself to sleep by listing the ways Pythagoras trees differed from Earth ones, not that Forty had spent much time with those either.
Earth trees aren’t this symmetrical. All these have five main branches… like a starfish.
Earth leaves don’t have these black veins in the middle.
Earth trees don’t rustle this noisily. Guess they mind the wind less.
Whatever that thing with the hundred legs is… those don’t live in Earth trees.
Earth trees have nicer things. Bird nests. Sweeter fruit. Lovers’ initials carved in.
Forty slipped out of the waking world. No ghosts bothered him; they knew it was being dealt with. When the light returned Forty awoke, descended the tree, ignored the pain in his back, and continued on.
Around midday he found what was clearly the edge of Gouch’s territory. Forty didn’t know if there was some subtle olfactory cue adding to the clear change in vegetation along a straight line, but he recognized it as a sort of fence. He followed the angle of it for a while and eventually came to a sort of hub clearing. There were several rows of trees and shrubs planted around the middle, each one expertly pruned into a rounded shape. The center sported a metal pole some thirty feet high and covered in metal hooks, leather straps, and wooden clasps. Simple books and scrolls hung off it in layers so dense you could barely make out the central pole. The shenrushoh. It was quite a sight, but not one Forty could fully appreciate. He was too close to the varclids to appreciate the art of their culture. It was impossible to step back and judge their work within the proper frame when he was a fly on the canvas asphyxiating under the drying paint.
What he sought was lying about fifty feet away in a shallow ditch. It was no wonder Gouch had immediately shoved the crashed humans in the freezer. Earth rot must have seemed unnaturally quick to the varclids. The corpse Forty stared at, although dead for four days, looked pristine. Only a few bugs here and there picked at the eyes and tongue. Perhaps there’s a chemical in them, Forty thought, doing his best to channel a xenobiologist. Maybe they need protection for when they’re young and small, so something makes them taste really bad. Ammonia or something. If that were true, it could present a problem. He needed the meat to be mild. Easily disguised with strong herbs.
The varclid Gouch had killed for threatening his territory was only a little smaller, but much fiercer looking. Tooth spines lined its entire back and its bottom jaw. Its coloration was a little darker and its limbs a bit lankier. Must’ve been a hell of a fight, Forty thought, staring at a great slash down the monster’s throat. Its tail had been ripped off as well and was laying half out of the ditch. The circular stump where it had been connected looked clean and perfect, like it was meant to pop off. Well I’ll be, Forty snickered internally, They’re related to the chavis. Big mean old varclids forced to bunk with chattering little chavis.
Forty lowered himself next to the body and ripped a tooth out of its hide. The flesh still held onto it stubbornly, contracting after it finally relented. Avoiding the stomach, Forty used the tooth to cut into the hide under the armpit, where it was softest. He sliced and dug, sliced and dug, until he found the perfect strip of flesh about eight inches long. It was just about the size of a chavi filet. He separated it from the gray strands of fat and discarded the tooth. He brought the meat over to the nearest stream, a shallow little thing that had been moved to curve around the shenrushoh, and washed the meat in it. He massaged it under the flow of the cold water for several minutes, doing his best to cleanse it of the smell of the carcass. He found that it was probably the skin and the saliva that carried the unpleasant scent, because when he took another look at the corpse the slit he’d opened up under the arm already had some flies on it. The filthy tired chef slipped the meat into the belt of his pants and under his shirt to conceal it. Then he made the return journey.
“You came back!” Gouch gloated warmly upon lifting his door and seeing the disheveled man.
“Someone has to make your dinner,” Forty said sarcastically, “otherwise you’re likely to shove any old thing in your mouth.”
“Everything is as you left it,” Gouch said, and placed his hand on the human’s back to urge him into the cave. Gouch sniffed gruffly and stuck his tongue out in Forty’s direction a few times. He leaned in, inhaled deeply, and coughed a little. “You smell like… others,” Gouch said suspiciously, wiping the smell off his face with a forearm.
“Yeah, sorry,” Forty apologized, “I ran into another varclid at the edge of your territory. The guy looked like he was about to swallow me whole. Seemed a few fibers short of a blanket if you know what I mean. I told him I was owned by you and there’d be real trouble if he interfered. Luckily he bought it. Anyway, that’s why I came back. It’s safer here.”
“I certainly would make real trouble,” Gouch said, obviously flattered. “I’d never let such an asset be stolen! Make sure you shower before you prepare dinner.”
“Yeah, I’m on it,” Forty said and strode over to his pit. Am I about to get back in there willingly? Yes. It’s the plan. It’s okay because it’s part of the plan. He hopped in and felt the moist cutlet shift on his back. “What are you up to?” Forty asked nonchalantly.
“Oh I’m stitching together some new fishing nets,” Gouch answered from out of the pit, “I’ll be down as soon as I smell the food.”
You could be a little more precise, Forty thought nervously. Making sure the varclid wasn’t watching, he shifted the cutlet to be completely under his waistband and then removed his shirt for a quick shower. He put himself under the water and hoped the cold flow would cool him down. His blood was pumping like steam and his heart continued accelerating. His life hinged on the next few minutes. Even if his life was lost, his humanity, the dignity of his species was at risk as well. If he didn’t succeed, it was like a gargantuan metaphysical tally would appear in the varclid score column.
After the shower he dispatched a sleeping chavi and brought it over to the preparation table. Once it was properly skinned and divided he checked one last time to see if Gouch was watching, and then slipped the varclid cutlet in with the others. Its color was a little darker, so he quickly improvised a solution by rubbing it with a salty brown sauce he had stored. Then he coated all the cutlets in a gooey clear solution he got from a few brown eggs. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t even know what would eventually hatch out of such eggs or if that was what they even did. Either way, it made a decent binding agent that held the shredded clover-like leaves of the rursh plant to the cutlets. Forty dusted them with a few more powerful extracts and powders, sometimes sneezing from the concentration of the concoction, and then placed them over the fire. After fifteen minutes he flipped them over. A perfect golden-brown.
“That smells exotic,” Gouch crooned as he crawled into the pit. He poured himself a bowl of thick pink fruit pulp from a glass vat and garnished it with a few slices of something red and melon-like. He lapped at the bowl thirstily.
“It’s a recipe I’m working on,” Forty said. “It might not be quite perfect yet, so sorry if it tastes… you know, experimental.”
“I’m sure it will be good,” Gouch assuaged. “You haven’t made anything yet that I didn’t enjoy.” Forty held out the wooden tray full of cutlets and Gouch took them. He dropped one into his mouth like a fisherman would a whole sardine. In his stress, Forty had lost track of which cutlet was vital. Gouch would need to eat them all. Trying not to watch too closely, Forty poured himself a glass of the pink pulp and sipped at it. Maybe food is the only thing we could really share, he thought as he savored the sweet slime. It tasted like a cotton candy smoothie mixed with the whitish border flesh of a watermelon. Forty craned his head up and looked at the cave ceiling. He tried to see it impartially, as if he’d never woken up inside it with a shredded arm and a pile of frozen corpses. It truly was an excellent home, for either of them, but not for both.
“They were good,” Gouch said with his mouth full of the last bite. He tossed the empty tray to Forty, who barely managed to catch the heavy thing without spilling his pulp. “Good… but… like you said, experimental. There was something about them. Too many clashing ideas I think. Perhaps you should try simplifying your vision.”
“So I should just focus on one flavor?” Forty asked, all the heat of his nerves snuffed out like a candle tossed into a blizzard.
“Yes I think that’s wise,” Gouch agreed. “Sometimes I get too caught up in my big ideas as well. I remember this one time I tried to mine two minerals from the same…”
“I’ll focus on the varclid,” Forty interrupted. Then the only sounds were the sounds of the cave: the falling water, the turning wheel, and the buzzing lights. The two animals, perfectly perpendicular in their visions of life, stared each other down. They were puzzle pieces that refused to fit together. Hell, Forty thought, We’re not even from the same picture.
He expected the varclid to begin retching or claw at his own throat, perhaps rip his stomach open with one of the kitchen utensils. None of that came. Gouch did not writhe or gag. He did not scrape his tongue across the dirt floor, but he was aware. Forty could see it in those intelligent eyes. Gouch knew he’d ingested part of another varclid. Cannibalism: the prime and nearly unimaginable sin. Contact that could not be undone. A hell of togetherness.
Gouch walked, on all fours, over to Forty. The staring continued. It had to be done, Forty justified. We’re not compatible. It doesn’t matter how weak or strong either of us is. The two of us can’t be friends and we can’t be siblings. We’re destined to just take turns being predator and prey. Gouch opened his mouth to speak.
“I can’t believe I shared a home with such evil,” he said softly. He did not see the point of taking Forty’s life. Whatever strange dynamic had worked in that cave for the past weeks, it was over now. As was Gouch’s industry. The varclid turned toward the waterfall. He raised himself up onto two legs and put one hand in the flow. He exhaled. Then Gouch fell forward and down. He was taken by the waters, to be drowned in a dark compartment of Pythagoras.
Fortissimo Dhool was just as much a victim of his mindset as Gouch, because his thoughts stayed small and local for the foreseeable future. He thought only of himself and the crew of the Hotblood as he raised himself out of the pit with another chavi tail. After that his main concern was hurrying before another varclid tried to claim the territory. He thought only of salvation while building giant signal fires in the shape of the words ‘help this human’. For two days he bathed in the glow of the most powerful complaint he’d ever created.
Then the ships came. They came with new clothes for the poor survivor. StarJob was kind enough to bring lots of money to purchase his silence about the Hotblood crash and Forty was kind enough to give most of it to the family of Anita Romero. She was the only one claimed by the tortures of Pythagoras instead of the crash.
Forty was taken away to build a new life. The ships stayed a while longer, while men with slightly bigger minds removed every piece of human equipment from Gouch’s territory. They took the wreckage of the escape pod, the freezer, and even the remaining rations. They analyzed Gouch’s handwriting and quietly removed all his documents from each shenrushoh. When they were certain they’d scrubbed the area of human advances, they too left. It’s a shame their minds weren’t quite as big and forward as Gouch’s.
The varclid had buried the data sheet he’d used to discover Forty’s profession in his cave for a day when he might be able to use it as a blueprint for his own. The ships missed it. The next varclid to claim that cave and fill it with industry would not. She would smell the hands of the cave’s old master in that patch of dirt and find a powerful device. Something to help the varclids one day swim the stars.