Written by Monica Evans
There’d been a mix-up at the hub, they said, and the whole group had gone sixteen light years in the wrong direction. Somebody was fixing it, and somebody else had been fired, but they were still stuck on the wrong Orbital for at least one rotation, with no resources and no booking, and everybody was mad about it. No one would take them in until the station manager forced Jilly to do it. Now she had six of them shuffling around her café, driving off her few remaining regulars and not ordering anything. Six Pneumostomes. Dregs of the universe. And they were getting slime on things.
At least they were trying not to. Every now and then they’d try to push their trails into a little pile, which mostly spread it farther around. They were having trouble with their translators, filling Jilly’s café with their own loud, garbled language. Elsewhere, someone was hastily converting an empty storage bay to fit them as best they could. Not that there was a lot of extra space on Orbitals, but Jilly didn’t see why they had to stay with her until then. Slime was hard to clean. And nobody would be getting any sleep, not until the next transport came and they all left.
Jilly was wiping down sauce bottles, only three of which were edible to her – and none of which were edible to Pneumostomes – when one of them, the leader, she thought, squelched over to the bar and sat down. Sort of.
“Getcha anything?” she said.
He gestured to his translator, tied back with a thin cord and blinking faintly. Broken. His eyeless stalks swung side-to-side, which she interpreted as a no.
“Fair enough,” she said, and went back to her wiping. She was running out of things to clean behind the bar. There would be more than enough slime later. “Can’t clean it up, though,” she said to herself. “Not while we’re open.”
The leader shifted slightly. He hadn’t understood her, Jilly thought, not with a broken translator.
“And it dries,” she said, making sure to keep her voice pleasant and low. “I get that everybody’s different and everything, but really.”
A small screen behind the bar flickered with images of British soldiers in the sand, courteously discussing tactics. Jilly didn’t have many human customers. It helped to have the sound of her native language in the background, without the whine of the translator, and pronounced correctly. The alien had turned his wide head toward the screen as if he was watching, even without eyes. Maybe he registered the flickering motion, or the radiation. Maybe it smelled good to him. You never could tell what others would find soothing.
“You like that, huh?” she said to him, half over her shoulder. His companions were sliming their way across one of her better tables, and she gritted her teeth. “I’ve got a thousand of ‘em on loop. That’s one of my favorites, though.”
The alien turned toward the sound of her voice. “When I was a boy,” he said slowly, and she almost dropped the glass in her hand, fumbled it to the bar top. He tipped one of his stalks toward her, like a smile. “Apologies,” he said. “To startle.”
“You were never a boy,” she said.
“No. When I was a young. Younger,” he corrected himself. “We used to have your music. Movies. On the screen.”
“You learned English?” Jilly’s eyes widened. “Nobody speaks English on this station. Hindi, sometimes. A little Mandarin.”
“English,” the alien said. “Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish. Bantu. German.”
“German?” Jilly whistled, long and low. German was all but a dead language. “That’s something.”
“A gift,” he said. His voice was resonant and rich with a timbre like an old movie star, incongruous coming from the flat, heavy head. “My people. Good with languages. Diplomats.” He tugged on the broken translator. “Now, no need. No use.”
Jilly nodded. Her grandparents had been heart surgeons. She was going to be a surgeon too before the Orbitals, before the influx of species and technologies made Earth’s medical knowledge obsolete. Anybody with a core spanner could do in five minutes what her grandparents took a lifetime to learn. Now she owned a café. “Nobody wants specialists anymore,” she said. “But English! I haven’t heard it without translators in years.”
He tilted his stalks toward the British soldiers and the sand. “That one,” he said. “I know it.”
“You’ve seen this movie?” Jilly put the bottles down and leaned both elbows on the bar top.
“Match trick,” he said.
She nodded excitedly. “Right. He puts a match out with his fingers, and the other guy says it hurts, hey, what’s the trick. Great scene.”
They talked for a bit about motorcycles and long shots of desert vistas and the expense of stunt camels, until one of the others came up and touched stalks with him. “Time to go,” he said, sliding up and out of the bar stool. Hesitantly, he drew a little bottle of fluid from his folds. “Foam, then wipe,” he said. “When it dries. We are sorry.”
Jilly winced, then flushed. “I don’t mean to complain,” she said.
“Worse with stress,” he said. “We try not to stress.”
“Well,” Jilly said. “Thanks.” She stopped short of saying that they were welcome in her café anytime, because she knew they’d never come back to her out-of-the-way Orbital. “I’m sorry,” she said instead.
It’s not, she thought, but they were already leaving. “How do you manage?” she said at last, as he passed through the door. “The way that…” That we treat you, she thought. “The way things are?”
He turned, leaving another trail behind him, and thought for a moment. “The trick,” he said, in a perfect imitation, “is not minding that it hurts.” Then he was gone.
If you liked this story a second story by this author in the same setting is available to supporting members.