A Planet for Rent
is the English-language debut of Yoss, one of Cuba’s most lauded writers of science fiction… Yoss’ smart and entertaining novel tackles themes like prostitution, immigration and political corruption. Ultimately, it serves as an empathetic yet impassioned metaphor for modern-day Cuba, where the struggle for power has complicated every facet of society.”
—NPR, Best Books of 2015
“This hilarious and imaginative novel by Cuba’s premier science-fiction writer gets my vote for most overlooked novel of the year. Yoss’s book imagines a world where Earth is run as a tourist destination by capitalist aliens who have little regard for the planet or its inhabitants.
A Planet for Rent
is a perfect SF satire for our era of massive inequality and seemingly unchecked environmental destruction.”
—Lincoln Michel, VICE
“In prose that is direct, sarcastic, sexual and often violent,
A Planet for Rent
criticizes Cuban reality in thinly veiled terms. Cuban defectors leave the country not on rafts but on ‘unlawful space launches’; prostitutes are ‘social workers’; foreigners are ‘xenoids’; and Cuba is a ‘planet whose inhabitants have stopped believing in the future.’ The book is particularly critical of the government-run tourism industry of the ’90s, which welcomed and protected tourists—often at the expense of Cubans—and whose legacy can still be felt today.”
The New York Times
“Can one Cuban author boldly go where none have gone before and inspire American readers? Heavy metal rocker turned science fiction writer José Miguel Sánchez (known by his pen name, Yoss) believes he can… Science fiction fans… will be interested in the way Yoss addresses important questions about the future: Who are we? What does it matter to be human? And, what is our place in the universe?… Yoss’s novel is part of an international literary canon of science fiction classics that makes invisible walls visible by showing everyday readers how inequality segregates people by class, politics or ethnicity.”
—NBC News Latino
“The best science-fiction writers are the peripheral prophets of literature—outsiders who persuade us to explore an often uncomfortable vision of the future that shows us not only what might be, but also what should never be allowed to happen, thereby freeing our imaginations from the shackles of our blind rush toward so-called progress. One such prophet lives ninety miles off the coast of Florida, in Havana, and goes by the name of Yoss… Some of the best sci-fi written anywhere since the 1970s…
A Planet for Rent
, like its author, a bandana-wearing, muscly
, is completely sui generis: riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heartwrenchingly compassionate… Instantly appealing.”
did for surveillance, and
did for censorship,
A Planet for Rent
does for tourism… It’s a wildly imaginative book and one that, while set in the future, has plenty of relevance to the present.”
“Devastating and hilarious and somehow, amidst all those aliens, deeply deeply human.”
—Daniel José Older, author of the
Bone Street Rumba
“A compelling meditation on modern imperialism… A fascinating kaleidoscope of vignettes… A brilliant exploration of our planet’s current social and economic inequities… Yoss doesn’t disappoint, sling-shotting us around the world and the galaxy… Striking, detailed… Yoss has written a work of science fiction that speaks to fundamental problems humans deal with every day. This is not just a story about alien oppression; it’s the story of our own planet’s history and a call for change.”
—SF Signal, 4.5-Star Review
“Interesting and entertaining… deeply tied to the island nation’s politics with a satirical edge.”
“[Yoss’s] work is modern, dynamic and yet deep and thoughtful… It’s wildly inventive, imaginative fiction, with a real edge to the writing—there is an energy to the prose that is almost tangible and to get all this through a translation is nothing short of remarkable.”
—SFBook.com, 5-Star Review
“Cuba has produced an author capable of understanding science fiction by writing it like it’s rock and roll. Yoss is a thoughtful author who simply seems to understand his work and science fiction better than many of us.”
To Vicente Berovides, professor of ecology and evolution.
To Yoyi, muse of the first version of XXXX… G from back in 1999, in which laketons were still continents, a version now lost on account of… better leave it there.
To Elizabeth, my real-life Cosita, who inspired me to write this second and, I hope, truly definitive version.
sludge al frente and a la derecha, ten centímetros knee,” Narbuk peevishly announces through my ear buds.
His voice reminds me unpleasantly of a screechy old machine in need of a lube job. But that’s not the worst of it. Worst is, he seems to go out of his way to mangle the grammar and syntax of the Spanglish language, stubbornly dropping prepositions and mutilating verbs like he’s doing a bad impression of a native in a third-rate holoseries.
Regardless, the Laggoru can monitor my progress from a distance, and the radar he’s using gives him the overview of the situation that I want.
The spot he’s guiding me towards flashes blue on the 3-D virtual map of the tsunami’s intestines, which I can see superimposed on the upper-right-hand corner of my helmet’s visor. Doesn’t look promising to me, but in the lower-left-hand corner I see Narbuk’s face, looking like a hypertrophied iguana, insisting, “Boss Sangan, please mira, check. Ves now. Si the damn bracelet of the gobernador’s spoiled wife be there, us probablemente leave.” For variety’s sake, he now starts in on the complaints. “Agua here smell muy strange después del morpheorol y el laxative. Hoy not be buen día for el tsunami bowel cleanse.”
You have to prep before you can operate. In this case, to tranquilize the “patient” before I started exploring its innards, we dissolved enough morpheorol in the water to sedate a small city for a whole week.
Good thing morpheorol doesn’t really affect humans.
But we never expected it would take almost half a day for the critter to absorb the sedative through its gills. If we’d known, we’d have injected it intravenously.
I feel like reminding Narbuk that I’m the one taking the risk of traveling through the tsunami’s intestines while he’s lounging around and following my “inner voyage” over remote imaging from out there. Why should he care if this was a good day for giving an eighteen-hundred-meter-long animal an intestinal cleanse?
As if any day would be.
Hey, a guy could turn that into a pretty good joke.
But no point wasting time working it out. In spite of his, let’s say, dietary restrictions, Narbuk will always be a Laggoru, and Laggorus just don’t get irony.
Not because they don’t understand our language well enough. Narbuk isn’t the best example here; some of them even speak it better than half the humans in the colonies.
It’s just that in their culture, things either are or they aren’t, and that’s that. No nuances or shades of meaning for them. That’s why they have about as much of a sense of humor as a rock does.
Funny thing is, that’s exactly what makes them so hilarious to be around. Not that they ever get why the people who hang out with them are always cracking up.
That’s why, among other reasons, they’re so appreciated in the Galactic Community.
I was really lucky I could hire Narbuk and even luckier I could keep him. Hardly an hour goes by when he doesn’t set me rolling with laughter. Besides, I have to admit, he is really sharp. Three years ago he didn’t know any more about veterinary biology than I do about classical Cantonese linguistics, but today he’s an incredibly productive secretary-assistant.
Be that as it may, today I’d better warn him to keep it under his hat. There’s too much at stake to risk letting him ruin it with his bellyaching. Governor Tarkon must have at least half a dozen of his men eavesdropping on our frequency. The three or four Amphorians that hang around the dry dock might be listening in, too. We’re pretty near their area of influence, true enough, but I still think it’s kind of suspicious to find them here.
So I warn Narbuk, “Wátcha tu tongue, lagartija. This is an op oscuro.”
Then I aim the vacuum hose at the chosen spot, praying that the jewels we’ve been hunting for all day will turn up here, inside this clump of sludge.
Of course my prudent command to watch his tongue has the opposite effect on Narbuk.
“Op oscuro, Boss Sangan? La criatura es almost two kilometers de larga, central island naval repair dry dock, much many soldados when no hay guerra? Oscuro impossible. What me decir bad? Me doubt el Gobernador Tarkon only now discover tercera esposa very much spoil, no muy smart,” he insists. Narbuk is as indelicate, undiplomatic, and tactless as every other member of his species. And just as genetically incapable of taking a hint. “Bien educated, muy smart mujer no drop wedding bracelet cuesta millones de solaria. No drop bracelet al sea, no drop tsunami mouth.”
Bingo! The intake of the portable vacuum hose finally dislodges the object in question from the monster’s intestinal mucus, and…
Another disappointment. The clot of sludge doesn’t contain a platinum wedding bracelet inlaid with Aldebaran topaz but the semi-fossilized skull of some small local fish, which the tsunami no doubt swallowed thousands of years before we humans invented the González drive. Or even the wheel, most likely. These animals are really long lived. In fact, so far we haven’t seen any of them die except from accidents. Possibly only the laketons of Brobdingnag are longer lived.
Shit. How much longer am I going to have to slog through the… the shit of this oversized sea worm?
“The tsunami debió haber startled her when it yawned en su cara and ella found herself mirando at its lovely fangs de veinte metros,” I say, trying to stand up for Mrs. Tarkon out of sheer racial solidarity. Though I kind of doubt her “carelessness” was just an accident. From the little I know of female psychology, she most likely felt bored and left out while her husband was dealing with a thousand and one emergencies, and she wanted a little attention. “Olvídalo and keep your eyes en la imagen del radar. Ya debíamos haber encontrado the trinket. I’m getting cansado of this business.”
Tsunamis have a pretty rapid metabolism for such huge invertebrates. Not even six tons of morpheorol will keep this worm out of action much longer—and I’d really rather be as far away as possible when it wakes up. I don’t think it’s going to thank me for this trip through its guts, or for the eleven tons of laxative we first gave it. Orally, of course. An enema would have been too much to ask.
“Job es job,” Narbuk philosophized. “Que worth es, worth es well. Yo hope que el pago is generous, compensate very mucho dirty trabajo.”
“Te voy a dar some ‘very mucho dirty trabajo,’ you half-bit Kant. Keep your trap cerrada, or la próxima it’ll be you down the critter’s gullet,” I threaten jokingly, then trace a wide arc in front of me with the vacuum hose, the way a soldier from centuries past might have mowed down half a dozen enemies with rapid-fire tracers from his laser blaster.
Someone might say that wasting time playing games during such a serious mission is tempting fate. But the fact is, after six hours of running around inside a digestive tract that fancies itself a labyrinth, and wading sometimes shoulder deep in crap and gastric juice, and getting your hopes up every time you inspect a lump of indeterminate gunk you find stuck to the mucous membrane, anybody would have given up believing in good luck. And would be feeling sick and tired.
What did I say. Same song, second verse: no bracelet.
“Gimme algo de data, assistant,” I tell Narbuk, then wait for his reply. “Según the map, diez more minutes, y I should be coming out the back end… Pero if I don’t have Mrs. Tarkon’s precious platinum bracelet, tengo miedo que I might be better off quedándome in here.”
More than my reputation is at stake. The governor’s bodyguards didn’t look all that friendly. And forget about the Amphorians. Those helmets of theirs make them look like two-legged bulldogs. Methane-breathing gear on a human world? That gives you something to think about.
Offended, Narbuk replies, “Boss Sangan, me sorry but no can do that. You por favor knock self out si necesita, but animal me da very mucho allergy.” As always, he’s oversensitive to any allusion I make to his peculiar problem. “Me Laggoru banned y no como meat because no hunt. Tú sabes.”
The reptilian Laggorus are also famous throughout the Galactic Community for eating nothing but meat they’ve hunted themselves. And they hunt without energy weapons or projectile guns or gizmos of any sort, using nothing but their terrifying fighting claws. Old-school, straight-up predators.
But of course, just my luck, the assistant I hired is the only vegetarian wacko of the whole lot.
And he doesn’t get why I think he’s funny.
Sure, could be worse. Narbuk doesn’t eat meat, but he’s as good as the best of them at handling the retractable steel claws Laggorus use for hunting and fighting. With him by my side, I’m never afraid of a bar brawl.
Not that I’ve been to many bars lately. But when I do go, there aren’t many guys who dare to tangle with me.
I admit, I don’t know the first thing about karate-do or judo. Or wushu, baguazhang, pencak silat, krav maga, or any other secret martial art. I hardly even have to resort to my fists.
As Sun Tzu wrote thousands of years ago, the best strategy is not the one that grants victory in battle, it’s the one that lets you win without even fighting.
Intimidation, in a word.
And it turns out I’m a born expert in that art.
The good old-fashioned art of fear.
Faced with that, almost any opponent will opt for the equally ancient and effective martial art of turning tail and running.
Hey, don’t think I go around threatening people or putting on childish strong-man demonstrations, like smashing stuff or lifting heavy objects with one hand. The truth is, I don’t have to do
Let’s just say, I’m a little taller and bigger all around than your average human.
In fact, quite a bit taller and heavier than the average
The honest truth is, very few humans are bigger than me.
So what usually happens with most of the hotheads out itching for a fight is, they take one glance at me, and—after practically falling over backwards trying to look me in the eyes—they whisper something to their buddies and go back to staring down the other big guys at the bar.
They never bother Narbuk, either. Not only because his species has a reputation for being quick and lethal with their claws (they don’t keep them for show).
Turns out, while the Laggoru weighs barely half as much as me (these reptilian guys are really slim), he’s also four inches taller. A real giant among his kind, as I am among mine.
That was another thing for us to bond over from the beginning.
It’s definitely nice to hang with someone who doesn’t constantly make you think you’re freakishly large by human standards, and who genuinely understands when you complain about the crap that seems to have been made with dwarves in mind.
The hell with statistical ergonomics. We big people have rights, too.
If you disagree, go find yourself a tag-team partner. The Laggoru and I challenge you, here and now. Or wherever, whenever.
Before long, Narbuk and I were inseparable buddies. My mother always told me to hang out with the biggest guy around. Not bad advice, I admit. Just a little hard to do when you yourself are always the biggest guy around.
As if the problem of size weren’t enough, there’s also the matter of sex…
That’s a long, complicated story.
Before the Laggoru came along, I had two other secretary-assistants. Both females.
So the jealous sorts can run their mouths off about my supposed misogyny…
Enti Kmusa, the first assistant I hired, was a human from Olduvaila. A direct descendant of the Maasai people, she was tall and skinny, like most
individuals who grow up on low-gravity worlds. Almost as tall as me, in fact. The Maasai were a famously tall ethnic group to begin with.
Slender, elegant, almost feline, especially in the way she walked… That was Enti. I could easily imagine her trekking across her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’ ancestral savannah. I called her “my black panther.” And I have to say, exotic as she seemed at first, with her pure black skin, her large, dark eyes, her shaved head, and her filed teeth, she was also incredibly beautiful.
She was also organized and efficient, and she exuded natural likability from every pore. The largest creatures in the galaxy didn’t scare her or make her foolishly squeamish. As a result, clients began to swarm my office.
They came from all over, from every race.
But that was where the problems started, too. The lanky, stunning descendant of the Maasai had, let’s say, some minor prejudices against the other intelligent species of the Milky Way.
No matter how much energy the Human Section of the Galactic Community Coordinating Committee spends trying to fight racism (now that it’s finally been convinced to give up denying there is such a thing), it seems this complex problem will continue to haunt us humans for centuries.
It must be our civilization’s fault, with its peculiar and violent history, I guess. Few intelligent species have attained space travel with as many visible racial differences among themselves as we have.
When “my black panther” started losing clients for me through her flagrant xenophobia, I thought about firing her, but after considering her other valuable qualities I decided instead to hire another girl to help with the non-humans…
Nobody can accuse me of being intolerant and intransigent, or of denying people a second chance.
I think I picked a good one, and in fact it all seemed like smooth sailing at first. An-Mhaly was a Cetian, and like almost all Cetians she was nearly as tall as me, but also as pleasant as a professional flight attendant and as delicate as a porcelain doll, with a fascinating smile. As if that weren’t enough, her beautiful contralto voice went perfectly with her height.
Like all Cetians, of course, she also had yellow eyes with no visible pupils, skin that went purple or mauve when she got excited, a retractile spiny crest on the top of her head, a three-forked tongue in a toothless mouth that harbored one of the most complex and efficient mastication systems in the galaxy, and six plump mammary glands.
The first time you see a Cetian female, it’s impossible not to think of the old joke (dating back to before the González drive, you know) about one guy who asks another guy, “Te gustan your women con lots of tits?” The other guy says, “Not really. Más than three son sort of a turn-off, pa’ decirte la truth.”
I later learned that, because of a whole bunch of details that a simple human boor like me can’t even appreciate, other Cetians consider An to be an extraordinary beauty. But as for me, I wouldn’t have cared if she’d won Miss Galactic Community. Long story short, I didn’t find her bosomy abundance all that stimulating, erotically speaking. Quite the contrary.
If I’d been a thirsty baby I might have thought differently, of course…
Call me a racist if you must… but the truth is, even though her species is the closest to human of any in the Galactic Community (according to interspecies medical specialists, at least, and they should know, eh?), I’ve always thought that calling Cetians “humanoids” stretches the meaning of the word too far.
Maybe anthropoid, at most. Or better yet, gynecoid.
Now, I still found her pretty—but only in the same way I might think a purebred horse or a tiger is handsome. Still doesn’t mean I’d want to go to bed with them. For the record.
Sure, I must have been swayed by knowing that any attraction I felt for her would be doomed to fail. If her six splendid breasts wowed me (to make matters worse, she always kept them on gloriously open display, Cetian style), if they gave me the harebrained thought I might get intimate with her… No, better not even think about it.
Some hook-ups are, shall we say, just plain physiologically impossible.
Not her fault, I admit. It’s just sheer bad luck that her exotic biology is incompatible with ours. But you know, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.
Or inject a turnip with blood, if you’re a donor…
That’s where my problems began.
Enti and An-Mhaly could be (and indeed were!) outstanding secretaries and well-disciplined assistants. They were physically strong and didn’t gag at the sight of blood, guts, or other disgusting bodily fluids from any species of oversized creature. But regardless. They were still female.
So what happened next was entirely my fault, no one else’s.
I should have seen it coming. Women (and by extension, apparently all female humanoids, or gynecoids, in general) are like cats, or like the marbusses of Mizar that all women love so much: When you call them they don’t come, and when you don’t call them, there’s no way to get rid of them.
Professional gigolos are well acquainted with this paradox. They take advantage of it with what they call the “inaction strategy” or “boredom as bait” or something along those lines. And they say it
I guess there’s some strange part of the female psychology that simply can’t stand being ignored by a male, interpreting it as a personal insult or a challenge they have to confront, come what may, whatever it takes.
Even if what it takes is joining forces with someone who might be her worst imaginable enemy under other circumstances.
As a result, what a coincidence! Both assistants fell in love with me (or told me they did) just a few months after they started working together.
I later came to believe it was a conspiracy, something they’d agreed on.
Because each of them declared their love to me within a few hours of the other.
Kind of suspicious, don’t you think?
Though I suppose they’d deny it, even if you boiled them alive.
Jan Amos Sangan Dongo, the most eligible bachelor alive, chased by the greatest beauties of two species.
Must have been my good heart, I guess. Because if it was my body, forget about it.
I’m well aware that I have the body of a troll. And a face not even a troll would touch.
Me, a Don Juan.
That’s right. I never tried to kindle any kind of romance with my two assistants—and now I realize that might have been a terrible mistake. I probably should have at least traded a few double entendres with them, commented on how physically attractive they were… I don’t know, anything but pretend I didn’t find any sexual charm in either of them.
Which, to start with, wasn’t even close to true.
In general, my opinion is that love and work don’t mix. My parents taught me as much, without even resorting to words.
But I don’t want to think about my parents now.
And hey, it’s not like I was a saint. A man can’t live on bread alone, especially not if he’s a veterinarian biologist… as some of my clients can attest. (Cetians apart, of course.)
But the office was the office, and my assistants were my assistants, nothing more.
Human or Cetian, no discrimination.
My policy: Don’t shit in the dining room.
So, since I wasn’t interested in having either of them as a partner (or to be honest, since I didn’t think it was in the cards—I maybe could have had a crazy one-night stand with Enti Kmusa, but I’d have been crazy to even think about it with An-Mhaly), and since, in spite of all their feminine solidarity, the two “hopelessly in love” females were starting to act jealous of each other, especially around me, I decided to make a clean break and simply get rid of them both. No explanations. A triangle is a pretty precarious geometrical figure.
Naturally, I had to give them each a hefty severance package for firing them without notice. Plus, for the Cetian—this is one of the downsides of the Galactic Community Coordinating Committee and its painstakingly achieved interracial equality!—a substantial bonus for “xenophobic discrimination” and “psychological distress.”
I guess it wasn’t all that much. Poor kid even tried taking her own life after I rejected her.
I felt terribly guilty for several days, until I found out it’s a fairly common practice among her race. In some ways the Cetians remind me of the samurai from ancient Japan on Earth: they often prefer death to dishonor.
Aha! Okay, then. Learning that fact made me feel a little better.
Only a tiny bit better, though, to tell the truth.
The whole business, with all the subsequent complications over the Cetian, left me so paranoid about the idea of “assistants” (female or not, because in this era of galactic sexual liberation and interspecies pansexuality, you never know) that I worked solo for the next few months. And in my field, working without a good assistant isn’t hard, it’s impossible.
The worst of it was that, going overnight from two assistants to none, my productivity took a nosedive. My client list, too. Robots can help a little in certain situations, of course, but nothing takes the place of a capable assistant with gumption. Especially not a secretary-assistant, and a fairly bright one, like Enti or An-Mhaly.
Even less both of them at once.
That’s how things were going for me when the Laggoru, Narbuk-Alr-Quamal-Tahlir-Norgai, contacted me over the holonet one day.
He rubbed me the wrong way right from the start with his clumsy mangling of Spanglish. And when he admitted to having no experience as a secretary or a lab assistant, not to mention the “minor detail” that, even though he’s a Laggoru, he’s pretty uncomfortable around animals in general (a generous description of his strange zoophobia), I was tempted to tell him then and there, “Gracias, but don’t call me, mejor yo te llamo, y don’t hold your breath.”
But no other candidates tried out for the job, he needed it urgently, and I was just as desperate to find an assistant who, even if he wasn’t a model of efficiency, at least wouldn’t start making uncomfortable erotic passes at me…
These are strange times. One of the downsides of galactic integration is that some intelligent races have practically turned interspecies sex into a sport. Kerkants, for example. They can hardly create a family anymore without “cohabiting” with at least two different rational species first. No matter what sort of air they breathe.
But Laggorus, being traditionalists, still strongly disapprove of such promiscuity.
Must be because they have six or eight sexes (it still isn’t completely clear), none of which corresponds directly to the male or female of humans or any other species. Some believe that not even the Laggorus themselves fully understand their baroque system of sexual castes and sub-castes. Wouldn’t surprise me.
I didn’t care exactly which sex Narbuk belonged to. Just so long as he was equally uninterested in my sex.
Be that as it may, Narbuk-Alr-Quamal-Tahlir-Norgai came for an interview with his future employer with little hope of getting the job… But the fact is, whether because I needed an assistant so badly, or because he was even taller than I am, or because he immediately admitted to being misogynistic and heterosexual, he started work for me that same day.
It was a good move. Though even now I’m not totally sure he’s exactly what we’d call a male if he were human, I’m quite certain he has absolutely no sexual interest in me.
Of course, one month later my formerly well-ordered professional schedule was in total chaos. Besides having no sense of humor, Laggorus have no talent whatsoever for office work.
Though, to tell the truth, I can’t complain. I don’t know how, but I’ve almost doubled my old client list…
Maybe orderliness is overrated after all.
“Boss Sangan, sludge, dos metros, front.” His screaking voice shakes me from my reflections.
I notice his dorsal pleats slowly distending.
What does that mean? Interpreting the emotions of a creature who doesn’t express his feelings through facial muscles is kind of complicated. Exhaustion? Or hope, maybe?
“Algo ring-shape inside. Me know us find already muchos fish bones. Now el corazón tell me something mucho good,” he declares.
Ah, it seems there is hope, then. I sip some water through my helmet’s built-in tube and slog through the mud (not actually mud, unfortunately) like a hippo in my excited rush to the spot he’s marked on the map.
You have to take a Laggoru seriously when he tells you his heart tells him something. After all, Laggorus have six hearts, not one. They also give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. Of course, they aren’t really reptiles. Most of the zoological categories we apply to fauna on Earth have no meaning in any other ecology in the galaxy. Our planet is not the measure of all things.
Just in case, I prepare myself for another disappointment, in the best Zen way.
“Seek y encuentra, hunt and captura. That’s what la vida is all about. Has it occurred alguna vez to you, mi esteemed colega Narbuk-Alr-Quamal-Tahlir-Norgai, that when tú vas hunting por algo o looking por alguien, you have todo tipo of disappointments, you take lots of decisiones equivocadas—but el verdadero joy of discovery solamente comes once? The hunt is therefore más importante than the result.”
After a short silence, the Laggoru quickly retracts his dorsal pleats, which I believe is a clear display of disapproving surprise, and replies, “No, Boss Sangan. Never me think esto. Sound estúpido. If hunt es más importante, why hunt algo? Maybe find it. Mejor hunt nothing, then never find nada, verdad?”
“Huh. Yo guess so,” I mumble, cursing his implacable logic as I point the vacuum hose towards the latest piece of sludge and pray to all the gods I don’t believe in, the gods of Earth and every other planet, that this will finally be Mrs. Tarkon’s damn wedding bracelet, not another sludge-covered fish vertebra.
I’m dying to get out of here…
If it’s the trinket, and her loving spouse keeps his promise, I’ll be a little richer than I was before.
Well, a lot richer, actually.
And why wouldn’t Mr. Tarkon do what he promised? You might think an ordinary veterinarian biologist wouldn’t pay attention to these things, but in lots of human colonial enclaves the governor is practically a god. The Amphorians hang around him for a reason: There are trade deals with Nerea only he can authorize.
Contraband deals, too…
Hmm, that’s an interesting thought. It might explain a lot… Is there any illegal substance trafficking or alien bribery going on around here? Wouldn’t shock me. Tarkon seems to have quite a budget at his disposal. Not unlimited, but pretty flexible at least. Locating me and getting me here from the other side of the galaxy in less than two hours couldn’t have been exactly cheap. A round trip in a private ship equipped with a González drive, a shuttle flight to the planet’s surface—fast, I don’t deny it, but I had to put up with eight brutal
’s for a few
The orbital space elevator would have been more comfortable, but slower. And cheaper, too, plenty cheaper.
Not even counting details like the cost of a few tons of sedatives and laxatives, or the emergency bonus, my fees aren’t exactly modest.
They couldn’t be. Unusual expertise is expensive, and I’m unique.
The sign on my office door on Gea and my holonet ads all say the same thing:
NOTHING IS TOO BIG FOR US
As long as it’s alive…
I’m Dr. Jan Sangan, the “Veterinarian to the Giants.” The only veterinarian biologist or animal doctor in the whole galaxy, human or alien, who specializes in extremely large organisms.
Tsunamis clearly come under my purview. These little cuties, the symbols of Nerea, are the largest known aquatic life form in the galaxy. So far, at least.
Of course, there are much larger free-floating organisms in space. Genuine leviathans of weightlessness, such as the ten-kilometer-long threshers. And concholants, which can be up to twice that size. Not to mention the laketons of Brobdingnag, planetary leviathans that make even those titans of weightless space look tiny.
But, regardless, tsunamis are
. Males of up to three kilometers long have been found. They owe their expressive name to the fact that when they swim rapidly or whip their tails in anger or in play, they make waves reminiscent of the waves caused by seaquakes on Earth.
Nerea, their home planet, is a giant ocean dotted with three or four archipelagos. The water is fifty kilometers deep in some parts. Good thing, too, because tsunamis would find even the Marianas Trench in the Pacific a tight squeeze.
Though tsunamis, like many living species in the galaxy, have no exact equivalent in the taxonomy of pre-González drive Earth zoology, they could be placed halfway between echinoderms and polychaete annelids.
That explanation should satisfy all the laymen, I’m sure.
You could also think of them as gigantic sea worms. Basically, they’re huge worms with segmented bodies covered in bony plates (articulated exoskeletons), legless, with multiple hearts (two per segment; as for Laggorus, heart attacks don’t cause these critters much more than mild discomfort), and so on and so forth. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce simply, without going through metamorphosis; females of reproductive age lay eggs that hatch into small versions of adult tsunamis.
Too large to be bothered by predators, tsunamis swim wherever they please, and when they’re hungry they simply open their cavernous circular mouths, filtering entire cubic kilometers of water through the sieve formed by their enormous teeth (their only function), then swallow everything trapped in the net. They are the Nerean equivalent of Earth’s blue whales, though they often swallow “planktonic” organisms half the size of a full-grown man.
At first, the new human colonizers on the planet were appalled by the amount of edible biomass these coldblooded behemoths were consuming and feared they would damage their fishing boats and ferries, so they tried to exterminate them with bombs, mines, and torpedoes.
But their exoskeletons proved so tough and their tissues regenerated so quickly and with such vitality that the colonizers soon realized it would take too many powerful bombs to destroy them all. The shockwaves alone would have destroyed much of the rest of the planet’s rich marine life, too.
Their next plan was to poison them, or engineer viral plagues specifically targeting tsunamis. Of course the Ecology Subcommittee of the Galactic Community would never have allowed anything so risky, biologically speaking. Also, luckily, someone realized in time that leaving thousands of tsunami corpses to decompose all at once would create a terrible hygiene problem. There simply aren’t enough scavenger organisms in the Nerean ecosystem to process that many enormous corpses at once. The risk of epizootic disease would be too great.
Taking all of this into consideration, plus the “friendliness” that made them tourist attractions (many visitors pay good money to experience the thrill of swimming with these titans—while wearing ultraprotective suits, of course; the “frolicsome” creatures never attack anything too big to swallow, and we humans are a little large for them, but you might as well guard against a chance swipe of the tail that could almost send you into orbit, right?), not to mention their status as the planet’s unique and iconic species, the human colonizers finally decided to let the tsunamis continue happily scarfing down most of the seafood on their planet.
I imagine they also came to understand that any cure would be worse than the illness. As is so often the case in ecology.
That’s what I call taking lemons and making lemonade.
Though many people still get a shock every time one of these “harmless little worms” pokes its enormous cylindro-conical head through the water’s surface.
I can perfectly picture Mrs. Tarkon, leaning sensually against the rail of the high-speed ferry on which local political bosses transport her powerful husband from one island to another, playing with the limpid water… when suddenly one of those gigantic maws emerges beside her, the innocent tsunami version of a kid jumping out from behind a column and shouting, “Boo!”
Or rather, in this case, “
Maybe I misjudged her; you can’t blame her for dropping the bracelet. It’s a miracle she kept the hair on her head…
“How go todo, Boss Sangan?” Narbuk asks, worried by my silence. “Be problemas? Malos intestinal parasites? It be jewel o no?”
My assistant isn’t kidding about the parasites. The “illegal aliens” these super-extra-grande creatures may harbor often constitute the greatest danger to those who venture inside them.
Once when I was working inside a juggernaut, removing an
pulmonary neoplasm, half a dozen freeloading nematodes almost half a meter long decided I was a competitor and, more than willing to get rid of their bothersome rival, attacked me with their suckers.
Their circular mouths produced a powerful acid. Good thing I was wearing my ultraprotective suit, which they weren’t able to pierce. But it was an experience I’m not anxious to go through again. Not one bit.
Fortunately I haven’t found any unexpected guests inside the tsunami. If juggernauts—mollusks from the planet Colossa that are “only” six hundred meters across—can host acid-spewing worms like those, this giant could be infested with parasites twice the size of a rhinoceros on Earth.
“No. If there had been alguna, the laxative must have gotten rid de ella. As for the sludge—todavía I can’t say,” I grumble, disappointed. “It’s resisting, por ahora. Must be a very old cyst. Dáme more time.”
Indeed, the mass adhering to the mucous membrane of the anesthetized giant’s intestine won’t budge, unmoved by the suction hose.
I turn up the power and keep going, absorbed in thought.
Such a fuss over a simple bracelet. If it had been a wristband terminal belonging to any citizen of Nerea, it would have been tough luck, adiós, fuggedaboutit. After all, it’s so cheap to make them, so easy to buy a new one.
But this was the governor’s respectable wife’s very own priceless, irreplaceable platinum wedding band, inlaid with Aldebaran topaz, so of course it was a disaster.
Tarkon’s security detail reacted swiftly. One of the muscular bodyguards grabbed a harpoon gun (there’s one on board every ship on Nerea) and tagged the monster with a radio transmitter dart—showing off his excellent aim in the process, since it’s never a bad idea to angle for a personal recommendation for your next job from an influential governor.
Then they dumped hundreds of gallons of fish blood (the best possible bait) into the water to draw the tagged giant into a shallow naval repair dock nearby. Shallow for a tsunami, that is; it’s more than two hundred meters deep. They penned it in there by lowering the sluices and brought me in as quickly as possible.
Good thing the lovely little beastie didn’t start wagging its tail before I got here. No matter how strong the monomolecular steel a sluice gate is made from, it could not withstand more than a few blows from an armored tail half a kilometer long and weighing dozens of tons.
Setting a new galactic speed record, I was here just four hours after the worm swallowed the bracelet uninvited. Since the metal detector found no trace of the jewel at the bottom of the dry dock, I deduced that it must still be inside the worm’s guts.
Wasting no time, Narbuk and I anesthetized it by filling the dock with morpheorol. Using a couple of cranes, we lifted its head above the waterline, and just when it looked like the whole operation was going to be easy as pie—localize the bracelet, give the worm a little jab, and extract it…
Things started getting complicated.
Tsunamis are blind as bats. Their most important sense organ for detecting prey in the oceans of Nerea is electromagnetic.
If anybody plans to press a metal detector against the skin of an animal that can sense electromagnetic fluctuations of a few microvolts or a tenth of a gauss ever again, he’d better warn me first—so that I can get as far away as possible.
Half a galaxy away would be nice.
For the record, it wasn’t my idea. A certain irresponsible Laggoru came up with it… But in any case, the immediate result of the attempt was a reflexive flick of the tsunami’s tail that sent a couple dozen tons of water sailing into the air. The water fell more or less uniformly onto Mr. Tarkon, his wife, their bodyguards, the local political honchos and their guards, the Amphorians… and me.
Most ironic of all, the only person that the downpour missed was Narbuk himself. Thanks to his animal allergy, he was standing a good hundred meters back.
Since the “find and recover” tack was obviously not going to work, I went to plan B: force the worm to let go of it. The massive dose of laxatives that we administered orally worked great. In less than five minutes, the stuff filling the dock wasn’t exactly water anymore… and the smell forced us all to put on gas masks.
You could tell right away, our tsunami lives on a fish-based diet.
And its stomach is so big that a good part of the menu must have time to rot inside before it even starts getting digested.
A lovely scent for aiding digestion, to be sure.
Everyone whose appetite is piqued by scatology, raise your hands… Sorry if I didn’t raise mine. I had one hand busy pinching my nose and the other covering my mouth to keep me from retching.
Without much luck, I admit.
Good thing we didn’t give it the laxative before trying the metal detector, otherwise we would have gotten splashed with… Better not even think about it.
But the damn bracelet still refused to appear.
When my stomach was more or less back to normal, it occurred to me that the priceless jewel might have gotten caught in one of the creature’s stomach pleats, or lodged in one of its intestinal folds, and I decided to go after it the old-fashioned way.
Even if we had something that could overcome the minor obstacle of its exoskeletal plates, it would have been insane to try drilling through the epidermis of a creature with a nervous system so rudimentary that even while deeply sedated it was capable of reflexive movements such as the unforgettable crowd-bathing swipe of the tail. Nobody wanted to risk a second shower, especially since this time the water falling on us wouldn’t precisely be crystalline.
So with a vacuum hose in my hand, and wearing a proper anti-magnetic, everything-proof suit that an aide to Mr. Tarkon had quickly commandeered from one of the planetary system’s solar patrol ships (I’d have been crazy to go in without one, after the incident with the little worms and their acid suckers inside the juggernaut), I marched smugly, a new and voluntary Jonah, straight up to the monster’s jaws.
My thinking was that, if animals half the size of a man fit through its mouth, I could get inside, too. With a little effort, some lubricant, and a bit of pushing, of course.
Twenty minutes later, perhaps due to my somewhat larger-than-average body type, it was proving to take an awful lot of pushing. Not only by me, but also by four of Tarkon’s bodyguards, who were trying to use brute muscular strength (something they don’t lack, let me point out) to shove me down the monster’s gullet.
Since none of my lubricants were helping much either, I cut to the chase and injected twenty kilos of an extra-powerful muscle relaxant straight into the worm’s pharynx. This dilated the creature’s throat enough to let me through, making me the first veterinarian biologist to study the digestive system of the largest aquatic animal in the galaxy from the inside—and while the animal was still alive.
That was six hours ago.
Since then I’ve been wading ponderously in my ultraprotective suit (designed to protect an astronaut from cosmic rays and micrometeorite impacts in the weightlessness of space, it isn’t exactly light or easy to move in on the planet’s surface, not even with the aid of its powerful servomotors), through a thick, dark haze that my helmet’s headlamp can’t truly dissipate.
Luckily, after my tight squeeze down the tsunami’s throat, its esophagus and stomach both turned out to be large enough to walk through standing upright, which was really something for me. I could even have parked a small spaceship inside if I’d had one handy.
The cartridges of monster muscle relaxants I brought with me have allowed me to make my way through the valves of the digestive system, from one to the next: stomach, small intestine, and finally, large intestine. I still have two shots, which I’m saving for my triumphal exit: the anal sphincter.
Lucky I can’t smell the liquid I’m walking through. Sometimes up to my waist, sometimes all the way up to my neck. Glad I’m not a Juhungan now. With no sense of sight or sound, they rely entirely on smell, touch, and taste to understand the world. This would not be any fun for them, I’m sure.
Ever since the laxative episode, I thought the whole operation stank, no pun intended. But I never expected I’d be regressing to my infancy. Playing with poo—and for keeps, on a grand scale.
I don’t even want to think what would happen if the ultraprotective suit failed…
It’d make for a pretty tragicomic epitaph:
ASPHYXIATED IN EXCREMENT.
Of course, there’s shit and then there’s
The laxative was a good idea… Considering the consistency of the fecal matter the colossus expelled in its first bowel movement, I would have needed a sonic drill or an even more powerful excavation tool to make my way through a full colon.
Maybe the critter had been constipated, and that’s why it had surfaced, to swallow some air…
This piece of sludge here won’t come loose. With all the accretions removed, it turns out to be a nearly perfect sphere, some ten centimeters in diameter. In the dim light of my personal spotlights it looks an iridescent white, like mother-of-pearl. A fecal pearl? Interesting… But now’s not the time to study digestive-system oddities.
I’m starting to lose my patience. Narbuk, who can see everything from his vantage point, tells me it’s less than a hundred meters to the back end. But I’d rather buy Mrs. Tarkon a new bracelet, Aldebaran topaz-encrusted platinum and all, than go through the whole business of sedating this monumental worm and inspecting its digestive system a second time…
So I give the old sphere a few light taps with my ceramic-armored glove, testing it…
Hurray for intuition! On the third tap it splits in half, proving to be more a thin crust than a gelatinous coating.
And, hallelujah, the glimmering bracelet falls straight into my hand!
Almost clean even.
Almost. Let’s not exaggerate.
A moment of triumph like this makes the whole intestinal trek of the past few hours seem worth it.
I dance a quick jig, shit-kicking included.
“Misión accomplished—got it,” I announce, terse but contented, unceremoniously pocketing the bauble in a flap of the suit. I keep moving along, much more quickly now. “I’m heading out de aquí like a rocket, Narbuk. Quieres saber something funny? Sabes what pearls are? The bracelet was encased in a structure muy similar. Fecal pearls! Probablemente tsunamis secrete a kind of nacre, aunque they aren’t mollusks, to proteger themselves from contaminantes de heavy metal. Platinum es básicamente inert, though… They must grow increíblemente quickly también, unlike oyster pearls en la Earth. I wonder if they’d be worth algo…”