Chat-your-own-Adventure #32: The Citronella Moth

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience voting to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Sheet Buffalo                          Eleven Million Dollars                   Citronella Moth

It was her first night back on planet Perfosia since the complete and total subjugation of its nature. She was staying in a resort that had only been open for three weeks. The infrastructure had been there much longer, put in place by robots and remote-controlled construction machines. The finer points, lighting, decoration, atmosphere, could only be achieved by human workers, but they couldn’t move in until the monsters had been forced out.

That nasty business was done. Its native life was burned out and replaced with standard Earth fare. She lounged on a golden fainting couch with white cushions, out on the balcony overlooking the fresh forest of maples and oaks. Hidden massagers in the cushions tackled every tiny knot in her back from public space transport, sapping her of the strength to even stand. She was barely awake, barely capable of keeping her glass of white wine held upright.

She did notice that the trees weren’t exactly the same. She was born after Earth, but the museum-continents where her wealthy family was based were said to be essentially identical. She knew all the joys, now quite expensive and exclusive, of running around in creeks catching salamanders or trying to map a backyard by stars that were actually just fireflies.

Perfosia’s trees had awfully bright leaves tinged with colors like pink, green, and yellow. Their bark was white as birch no matter what species. The smell from it all was simply intoxicating. In fact, there was essentially no perfume, cologne, or deodorant industries on the planet, as the smell emanating from its plants, both new and old, simply overpowered them.

The government’s privatized terraforming had removed all traces of animals, but they could scrub away every stain. Discolorations of bacterial colonies had proven resistant, but it was hoped that simply having Earth organisms flood the place would finish them off. Instead they had merged with the trees and insects, inserting themselves into the reproductive process. So far no harm had come of it, and it even made for better post card pictures.

Her name was Zell Fairantine. Most of the time she too was just there to improve the post cards. She was a professional influencer and socialite. No launch party was complete without ten to fifty people liker hired to fill out its red carpet. The true launch party for the resort wasn’t until the following night, when the family that owned the place arrived. Until then she could just relax and take in a new sort of fresh air.

A moth fluttered by, landing on the rim of her glass. Slowly she brought it up to her face, watching its furry legs fumble with the wet edge. It too had strange color on its wings and eyes: white like sea clouds that could turn stormy at any minute and lavender suited only to petals. It didn’t seem afraid. She sniffed at it. Something like citronella. Even stranger.

Take a Photo                                        Drown it                                     Take it Inside

Zell was reminded of a documentary she’d once seen on ancient fashions. There had been a recreation of a rather rare form of decoration, where women glued living June bugs to small metal plates and then sued them as hair ornaments. Their iridescent green shells and occasional attempts to fly away made their heads the center of attention, for good or for ill.

She also remembered her science classes growing up, where she was encouraged to find bugs, place them in the freezer until stiff and dead, and bring them in to classify them before the instructor. Perhaps she could do that, turn this strange moth into a wide-winged pin over her breast for the party tomorrow. She slowly sat up and then rose to her feet, keeping the glass as still as possible.

One step. A second. She was already off the balcony and the moth seemed none the wiser. Its proboscis simply dabbed at a drop of wine on the rim, perhaps enticed by its flowery bouquet. The freezer was in her suite’s kitchen; it, like nearly everything else, was plated with a printed gold sheet. She saw herself in it like a mirror, suddenly thinking herself silly for bothering with the moth at all. She wouldn’t have to dwell on it, for there came a knock at the door that startled her and disturbed the creature. It fluttered off behind the couch of the living area and out of her mind completely.

Sorry I’m late,” a man said through the door. She recognized his voice. It was Raum, who was to act as her date tomorrow. They were going to go over the detailed plans for their socializing. They were paid well for their influence, so they made sure to actually work for it. There was positioning to consider as well as the other attendees and what substances tended to make which people the right kind of intoxicated.

Are you?” Zell asked in her droning voice. “I have no idea what time it is, so you are forgiven. Come in.” He was roughly the same age as her, just shy of forty. She was in a satin sea foam nightgown complete with billowing transparent scarf, but he was in full evening wear, testing out its fit for tomorrow. He had under one arm several rolls of silver plastic. No doubt they were the floor plans for the various locations the party would flow to and from.

She held out one hand, urging him to move to the sofa and coffee table. He did so, unrolling one of the sheets and pressing its corner, which activated its programming. She leaned over his shoulder when he sat, rubbing his chest with one hand, watching the little numbered circles and the faces within light up. The program held the names and behaviors of every known guest and socialite on the list.

So have we decided which member of the family we’re going to target?” Raum asked, ignoring her wandering hand. She was always a touch close for comfort after her second glass, but it never affected her scheming ability. She stepped over the back of the couch and sat down next to him, practically stabbing one face with a sharp polished nail. The circle held the portrait of a young woman with spirited cheeks and a smile that looked like it never left her face.

Her, I think,” Zell suggested. She was Mary Oxlid: third and youngest daughter of David Oxlid, who owned the resort and about three hundred others on ten other planets. “I’ve seen her in the background a few times. Never knows what she’d doing. Play the simulation.” She waved her hand around, having forgotten which corner to press. Raum went straight for it. Mary, the poor innocent girl with the most targetable of names, started moving around the floor plan for the indoor pool area, which bled into the glass-domed botanical garden.

Pushed into Pool                             Bother Server                      Reflect in Garden

The two schemers watched closely. The party-planning sheets, as they called them, were not cheap. They were fed every bit of data they had access to on both the buildings and people involved in each gathering. Its predictions of the evening’s events had a margin of error of only a few degrees or percentage points in any direction, assuming the guest list was wholly accurate.

The avatar of Mary seemed skittish, moving back and forth, obviously making small talk with several of the drink servers rather than the guests. Zell usually felt nothing for her targets, her and Raum both had played this game, seduced men and women alike, for more than a decade. Yet when she looked at the downright nervous flickering of the heiress’s face she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of familiarity. That was the way her old self walked, when she cared what others thought.

There’s an opportunity,” she whispered when she saw Mary veer a little too close to the pool. Judging by the log of predicted actions, someone swimming had called out to her, drawn her to the edge. The avatar of her older brother rushed up behind her, bumping the edge of her circle, sending her into the water.

That twit’s going to push her in,” Raum noted. “What are you thinking? We stop it from happening? Take the wallflower aside and tell her we’re just like her. We like the quiet. Or maybe the sound of the crowd through exactly one thin wall. That’s good. This girl uses never uses up all her invites for her family’s events. We can slide into those slots.”

She likes women, so I’ll go in first. You might be able to just relax and stuff your face with…” At that moment the citronella moth reasserted itself, flying right into her lips and causing her to sputter and flail. She dropped her glass on the party-planning sheet. It was waterproofed, but the weight of the liquid was counted as a thousand conflicting finger presses, sending the avatars swirling around drunkenly and bouncing off the walls.

That’s what you get for charming everything that moves,” Raum said, jumping up and wiping the party-planning sheet clear. Zell was hunched over behind the couch, wiping her lips. She whirled around in search of the moth, but it had disappeared again, not before leaving a shockingly foul taste on her. She licked her lips again, nearly causing a wretch. It tasted somewhere between a dusty old carpet and windshield wiper fluid.

That bug,” she sputtered. “It was so beautiful. It smelled like a hundred candles I’ve bought. That taste though. Bleuck!”

You’ve pretended to like worse things,” Raum mentioned. “Remember those black bean desserts at the Jackhare racing track?”

There was profit to be made there,” Zell spat. “This was just a moth. Secretly mad that it smells like all the old death stuff on this planet. Intent on bringing me down with it by dive-bombing my mouth. I didn’t swallow it did I?” She ran her tongue across the roof several times, trying to feel for a separated leg or antennae. Nothing. It was probably back out in the night sky by now. The two returned to their planning sheets, looking for other targets and opportunities.

Guest List                                         Pool Incident                          Alone with Mary

Zell couldn’t help but think that the citronella moth was a bad omen. For what, she had no idea. It could’ve been anything from it carrying a terrible disease, to the food at the party being trash, to her tactics being too successful and Mary trying to stick her tongue down the professional partier’s throat. Her thoughts on it waned as the following evening wore on.

Their invitations went through fine, the opening band was quite good, and the air of the party was sufficiently free-spirited. People, including their rivals in the business, wore all sorts of experimental things meant to be both evening wear and bathing suits. It was best to prepared for all environments.

Zell’s gown wasn’t waterproof, for wearing such a thing would be an admission that she could fail. Nobody would be going into the pool if they didn’t want to. Raum was off on a separate target: a much older woman whose conversation wasn’t likely to make him break a sweat.

At first Zell kept her distance from Mary, gathering details the party-planning sheets couldn’t provide. She wasn’t just shy and convinced she didn’t belong there; she was also nervous. Chewing on her nails whenever there wasn’t an hors d’oeuvre to grab. Her red dress would’ve fit correctly if she just relaxed, but that was impossible, especially not with someone yelling at her from the pool.

Now was the time. She walked closer to the edge, her shoes clicking as they went from wood to blue tile. Zell made her move, sliding along swiftly and silently, practically invisible despite the straight line she moved in. Mary had to think it was an accident. She was close enough now to see the obvious knowing smile of the idiot in the pool. He was in on this little prank, practically winking to Mary’s brother as he snuck up behind her.

Zell moved in front of Mary’s vision, her stance just wide enough to account for the planning sheet’s margin of error without making her pose look unnatural. It was the sort of subtle thing possible through only years of practice. It wasn’t a good fit for Perfosia. The planet hadn’t event tried subtlety. All of its organisms were eliminated in one violent stroke. Zell could’ve done better. She could’ve convinced all the plants, animals, and even the protists that she was their friend. She could lull them into a false sense of security and bring out the poison or the knife at the exact right moment, after the peaceful sigh and before sleep.

Mary stopped. She had no choice but to focus on Zell. The woman opened her mouth, ready to put her at ease with a single word, but then the taste of the citronella moth came back. It bloomed in her mouth so suddenly that that she immediately coughed. Her eyes waters. Mary ran up to help her, but there was her brother. She was pushed right into Zell, and both fell into the pool. Zell was under the water, letting in coat her tongue and the inside of her cheeks, but she heard the laughter above. She’d failed because of that damn bug.

The taste was gone before she surfaced, becoming nothing but a momentary cloud in the water. Mary’s kicking leg disturbed its vaguely moth-like shape, and then it was gone, just one part per million parts water.

Leave the Lifestyle                         Plead with Forest                  Confide in Mary

When she came to the surface she had an uncontrollable urge to leave the party. She scrambled over the edge, hissing like a blind old cat that had accidentally dropped into the bath. Ram was right there to help her up. Their partnership was more important than any lost connections from a single night, but she shoved him away, careful not to make contact with his skin.

It was too late though. She knew that. She’d underestimated Perfosia. It did know subtlety, and it had survived humanity’s onslaught. She ran for the exit, out into its night sky with a thousand stars far brighter than most planets thanks to low level of light pollution from its incomplete colonization. She found the boundary between the resort’s property and the wilderness of birch-bark trees.

She kicked off her shoes and ran deep into its leaf litter until she was up to her ankles. When there was nothing but darkness and the chirping of crickets, a chirp with a rhythm separate from the ancestral Earth’s, she dropped to her knees.

Please,” she begged the trees. “I’m sorry. I know what we’re doing to you. Whatever you have planned, don’t. We didn’t mean any of it. It’s all reflexes. We destroy. We build. We celebrate until the buildings fall apart. It’s nothing personal!” The trees gave her no answer, though the chirping did cease.

The colors and smells of these new plants and animals were the same as her tactics at all the parties that had started to blur together. It was influence. It was spreading your self thin, but not the real you. It was pretending to socialize just to survive and thrive. It was being a beautiful moth, being invited inside, opening yourself to freezing and becoming ornamental, until you found that moment to fly into someone’s mouth and become a part of them.

The bacterial colonies of Perfoisa were planning something. They’d used her to transfer something waterborne into a pool full of influential people who would be off the planet in days, often to swap fluids with their friends, and more fluids with their associates. If they couldn’t have Perfosia, they could perhaps have a say in everything. Be in the background of every photograph.

I’m sorry,” she told the trees. “I won’t be leaving.” She couldn’t. Enough of it was going to spread already. Whatever was in her had to stay there. She was settling down, perhaps in that very forest that might’ve been listening. She looked up just in time for a cloud of fluttering moths to move all around her. They didn’t crash into her face, instead touching the furry tops of their wings to her earlobes, which were about the same size.

There was no impact, but she fell backward anyway as the moths fluttered away. She didn’t know how long she was on her back in the leaves, but Mary’s face appeared over her.

Are you alright?” she asked. Of course she had come. She knew somebody was alone. Neither of them were though. They were both in that water, touched fleetingly and so significantly by a moth’s wing. Zell never thought of herself as having a future, but there was one swelling in her mind now. She would have to explain all this to Mary, tell her how her choices had been taken by people she’d never met, and hope she could live with it instead of wandering off to use everyone and everything else.

I am,” Zell answered. “Thank you. I’ve just never seen such beautiful moths.”

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