by Rod Clark
Abbie Kryler was in an evil mood. Maybe it was the way the light in the
Wit's End Tavern slithered along the ersatz mahogany paneling. Maybe it was
the way the Xoollian merchant Xlluum trailed his proboscis in his soup,
playing with the morsels that cavorted there, or the fact that Kryler was a
little drunk and had forgotten the precise nature of the deal she and
Xlluum were discussing--something about the immediate delivery of a small,
but problematic parcel.
"Ten thousand cc's," Kryler bluffed drunkenly, "not a cent less!"
Xlluum's ear's undulated like angelfish in a dark aquarium. Blue sparks
waltzed on the surface of the transvoice imbedded in the fat forehead like
a giant sapphire. "Okay, already!"
Just like that. "Okay already." No negotiation. Nothing. Ten thousand
clipcreds! Something about the deal made her skin crawl, but Kryler was
desperate, not to mention deeply in debt. A penniless space tramp had to
eat, didn't she? Cosmocredit would have her farming lumifungus on the
frosty side of Mercury if she didn't come up with some scratch pretty damn
quick, and without at least an advance soon, she might even have to go
"Deal," she said.
The digitract and DNAcog of the parties was rapidly confirmed by the bar's
notary comset. Ten thousand into a lunar Jovian account in Kryler's name.
Xlluum, apparently in a generous mood, even bought her another drink.
"Trusting soul, aren't you?" Kryler observed.
A blue box emerged from behind the azure curtains that concealed Xlluum's
lower extremities and slid onto the table. "Iz delivered," announced Xlluum
"Where to?" asked Kryler as she squinted at the contract on her wristcom.
"Iz delivered," Xlluum declared emphatically.
She glanced again at her wrist. The binding document was written in
Xoollian pictograms--and did not look like a standard delivery form. Instead
it had the flavor of a more formal legal document. An uneasy feeling began
to settle in Kryler's stomach.
"So where do I take it?" she asked.
"Away! Away!" Xlluum's ears waved delicately toward the door.
"Away? Away to where? Away from what?"
Xlluum trembled like a mountain of jelly, "Me!" it squealed in pain--or was
it ecstasy? "Away from me!"
Kryler hoped the transvoice was malfunctioning. She eyed the box on the
table with fresh trepidation. Carved onto its cerulean surface was an
intricate pattern of fanged and coiling monsters in the process of
consuming each other, or possibly intertwined chains of snakes swallowing
each other's tails. As she watched, multiple prey seemed to slide deeper
into multiple mouths. Although the box did not seem to be getting smaller,
in a moment of drunken clarity it seemed to her as if--
"The damn thing is swallowing itself!" she muttered,
The blue sparks did a quick two step--jumped to a foxtrot, then back to a
waltz. "We are all swallowed," Xlluum observed through the blue jewel of
the transvoice. "It is in the nature of Xugslith, and … (the azure
sparks danced uncertainly, as if choosing a word) … Zugzwang."
With finality the alien rose, and waddled in stately fashion toward the
Zugzwang? Kryler frowned. If her sodden memory served her correctly,
zugzwang was a position in chess (or was it in life?) where you were
screwed no matter which way you turned. Not a good omen.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Xlluum hesitated at the door and then waved his probosci expansively to
indicate their surroundings. "Us, box, bar, roids, planets, stars!" The
blue sparks paused majestically. "Zugzwang!" And with a swirl of purple
petticoats it was gone.
Xugslith … Zugzwang … What was the connection? Kryler downed the
dregs of her glass as she contemplated the seething blue conundrum on the
tabletop which seemed to have inched closer to her than before. A tiny
reptilian face surfaced in the blue spaghetti--winked at her salaciously,
and submerged. What the hell was this thing? And why had it been delivered
Crazy fucking aliens, thought Kryler. What most people knew about the
melancholy Xoolians you could scribble on the back of a cocktail napkin--but
even that little was startling. To start with, Xoolians didn't go forth and
multiply, they withdrew and diminished; merging with another of their
species at "death," forming one individual where two had existed before--a
kind of mitosis in reverse. In this manner, their numbers divided in half
at intervals of about a century, while concurrently condensing the
intellects, pomposity, and capital of the dwindling species--and wasn't one
of those intervals about due?
Currently, in solsystem, the Xoolians (allegedly the last remnant of their
race) numbered 512 incredibly ancient and wealthy individuals which, rumor
said, was due to diminish to a still wealthier 256 in the near future.
Xoolian mythology of immeasurable antiquity maintained that in the
beginning, the universe had consisted of nothing but Xoolians and that the
universe and all other species had evolved from their excrement--a theory
that many sneered at, but none had disproved. And what would happen to that
very last Xoolian (and all that wealth? and the universe?) when the final
interval arrived? No one knew.
Just as she was asking herself: "What kind of mess have you gotten me into
now, Kryler?" the clipsharks chose that moment to leap out of the murk of
the fake mahogany walls. In the glow of drink, Kryler had not noticed their
approach, and now her exit was blocked. One scaly form closed in from each
side, the pink restraint belts snaking out from their sleeves. Darn it! And
just when she had made a good score! Resistance was impractical. Customer
violence in a merchant fleet bar was a solsystem offense, whereas escape
from a "shark" almost anywhere else was strictly a civil matter between you
and Cosmocredit. And yes, she had known this was coming. Clipsharks might
be blind as bats, but they were enormously sensitive to the delicate aroma
of debt, and the perfumes of guilt and anxiety that accompanied it. Not
bright, but far cheaper for Cosmocredit than mechanical collectors, they
could track an individual across a galaxy by the spoor of their financial
defaults with the lazy efficiency of a Morbian serpent hunting a mouse in a
barrel. At this proximity, escape was impossible--so Abbie closed her eyes,
and waited for the inevitable.
The struggle was brief and ferocious as pink ropes and chittering cries of
battle lashed the air. After a sobering pause Kryler opened her eyes to
stare in astonishment at the two sharks lying tangled with each other on
the floor in a heap of writhing pink loops. As she lurched from the table,
the box seemed to leap into her hands. In a trice, she was out the door and
down the alley, clutching her new acquisition, running hard.
Speed was critical. Whatever had confused the sharks into pouncing on each
other instead of her wouldn't last long. It was colder out under the domes
than she remembered, and the local syngrav made her legs feel like lead,
but driven by a sense of self-preservation forged on a hundred grimy
meteoroids, she raced toward her destiny--which met her abruptly at the
corner. Kryler had just glanced back over her shoulder to check on her
pursuers, when the yellow whiskers of the street beast enveloped her as it
whirled out of a cross street. Numbly she felt herself dashed to the
plastcrete, then snatched upward into a cocoon of velvety pods as the
creature thoughtfully ingested her and raced on. As she slid down an
auxiliary esophagus into stomach number four, she lost
consciousness--passing into a realm where blue monsters wriggled around her,
swallowing each other's tails in an ecstasy of slithery delight …
Streetbeasts possess a variety of stomachs to sort the contents of their
3:00AM sweeps. Although they slide peacefully over heavier objects such as
cabpods, they do tend to be a bit over-enthusiastic in picking up stray,
less massive items from the landscape. Stomach number four was used as the
"drunk tank," and also doubled as a pound. That was why Kryler woke some
hours later on a lumpy cot in a place of grey walls, smelling of cats and
stale booze. Clearly some sort of budget detox facility. She couldn't see
the box anywhere, and the place stank even worse than it should, her head
hurt abominably, and something heavy and damp lay across her feet. How much
worse could things get?
Worse lay across her feet. A pale green body lay sprawled across the foot
of her cot--naked, with two heads. But the most alarming thing about it was
the curved Xoolian dagger deep in its back. Then she noticed that all the
other cots were empty and that aside from a few rapidly disappearing cats,
she was alone with the lime-colored corpus delicti. Suddenly, the doors at
the end of the room swung open, and a fierce looking swat cluster burst
into the room, bristling with blasters all leveled in her direction. She
rubbed her eyes--but this was no illusion. "Abbie Kryler!" bellowed the
cluster. "Extend your uppermost appendages toward deep space and stay
perfectly still. You are under arrest for double homicide."
"Double homicide?" she incredulously enquired of her lawyer two stressful
"I'm afraid so, Ms. Kryler," said Atty. Strigley. "From the D.A.s point of
view two heads are worse than one. Something settled in the new covenants
confirmed at the last Roidbelt Conference, I'm afraid. Two heads, two
votes, two beings. Morgaines are a somewhat paranoid species to begin
with--and when they joined the consortium they insisted upon a clause in the
treaty that gave them double protection under ecliptic law. So you're up
for double homicide, my dear--and unfortunately, since this will be a matter
of some expense." He pronounced the last two syllables with moist
"But I didn't do it!" wailed Kryler.
"Unfortunate, but immaterial."
"The knife was Xoolian!"
"Ah yes …" Strigley made a note. "I had forgotten about that. Theft of
a Xoolian knife. I'm afraid that charge will have to be included. And
illegally removing fingerprints! Oh, my, I'm afraid this looks very, very
bad! Very expensive …"
Strigley's eyes brightened. "Perhaps ten thousand?"
"Ten thousand ccs??--I don't--" and then she remembered that she did. "Ok--get
me a comp ad and I'll cover it."
"Are you referring to your lunar Jovian account? I regret to inform you
that those funds are frozen pending an investigation of a recent
transaction--something about illegal trafficking in sacred Xoolian
artifacts? No, no--I'm afraid we will have no luck there. Have you any other
assets, my dear? Anything at all? Some valuable item, perhaps, that
was in your possession when you were arrested?"
"Well--as a matter of fact …"
Predictably, the courtroom where the preliminary hearing was held was not
well heated or ventilated. The resulting discomforts, Kryler imagined, were
designed to irritate the judiciary and reduce empathy for those pretending
"Innocent or guilty? Innocent or guilty?" boomed the judge. At first Kryler
thought there was an echo in the room, but looking up through the haze of
her hangover, she saw that the judge, incredibly enough was a Morgaine.
Both heads regarded her with unmistakable venom.
"Make sure and plead guilty to all charges," whispered Strigley. "That
would be best."
"Best for who?" Kryler hissed back.
"Best for whom!" corrected Strigley sweetly. Then, seeing the expression on
her face, he muttered "Best for me, okay? Show a little
consideration. I'm managing a busy schedule here!"
"I DIDN"T KILL THAT GUY!" Kryler bellowed.
Hearing her, the judge frowned down doubly and darkly, fingering the lace
at her throats.
"Er … those individuals--I'm innocent."
"Innocent/ innocent/ on/ on/ what/what/ basis/ basis?" bellowed the
Morgaine, blinking its six orange eyes in fury.
"I didn't do it, judge."
"How/how/ didn't/ didn't/you do/ you do/ it?/ it?" screamed the Morgaine.
"She's got you there," said Strigley, but his smirk vanished abruptly as
Kryler seized his collar in her teeth, hurled him to the floor and began
pummeling critical parts of his anatomy with her feet--which the deputies
had inadvertently forgotten to chain.
Her new cell smelled slightly better than the old, and they had tranked her
with something almost pleasant before dumping her in this quiet cubicle
with softly padded walls. Clearly she was considered a prisoner of some
importance. But why? At least that stupid box was nowhere in sight. She
knew she should be upset about the loss of (her property? her
responsibility?), but she could not seem to work up any sentiment but one
of blissful relief. By the time she had finished her breakfast cube of
wafl-w/srup, the door to her cell swung open and a dumpy looking policeman
entered briskly and regarded her mournfully as she sipped her syncaf. The
name tag on his uniform said: CAPTAIN TOU CHIN.
"All this time I thought Ms. Kryler was just a hapless roid hopper," he
said sadly. "A nice kid down on her luck. All this time I've been cutting
you slack because I felt sorry for you--and this is how you repay me!"
"I've never seen you before in my life!"
Tou Chin looked confused. "Oh … Sorry, the anti-recidivist app kicked
in." He fiddled with his chest console and cleared his throat. "So …
um … What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?"
"You gotta believe me, Captain. I'm not a murderer."
"The lawyer survived."
"No--I mean the Morgaine."
Tou Chin sighed and scratched his chins. "I have to say--you are the only
individual I know that has ever been given two death sentences to run
concurrently--and then miraculously offered a release!"
"A conditional release, young lady. It seems you have friends, or at
least associates, in very high places. All charges have been dropped at the
request of a Xoolian by the name of Xlluum, who seems to feel you have
serious business to conduct on his behalf."
"--as you are no doubt aware, is one of the richest and most powerful
Xoolian's in the galaxy. When he conjoins with the eminent Xlluut in just a
few days' time, he will become, cumulatively speaking, by far the richest
sentient organism in solsystem. Among myriad other assets, Xllumm already
owns a string of synthetic asteroids including--"
"Indeed--so for reasons not fully disclosed, all charges against you are
being dropped, on the condition that you acknowledge the box as your
personal property and depart the neighboroid with the item in hand within 24 hours. A free fourth class ticket has been provided to
you by Xllumm for any reasonably distant destination. "
"Third, if you absolutely insist …"
"Why do Xoolians do what they do? No one knows--and it can be dangerous to
ask. Get outta here, Kryler--and take that damn box with you …"
"I gave it to that weasel Strigley!"
"Hmmm. Yes …. Well, Mr. Strigley is a relatively new face on this
roid--and after some rudimentary research into the artifact in question, he
has kindly decided to leave it in your possession until ownership matters
are fully resolved--merely attaching a lien to your impounded funds for the
balance of what you owe him in exchange for--"
"--screwing me over and leaving me broke! But Xlluum--"
"--also disavows ownership, referencing some subscript in the bartop notary
agreement you agreed to? I'm afraid the box is your property, and a
condition of your release is that you must take it with you." A
pleading look came into his eyes. "Please!"
What the hell?
What was spooking Tou Chin? Kryler was out of her depth here. Had been, it
seemed, ever since--
"Oh crap, it doesn't matter. I'll take it with me."
Tou Chin looked massively relieved. "You realize, if you're not offroid
with the item in a Terra 24, your release is null and void?"
"Twenty-four? There's no way I can catch an e-clipper in that interval--and
I'm totally broke! Where do I eat? Where the hell do I sleep?"
"No problem there," said Tou Chin, with an evil smile. "You have been
graciously offered room and board this evening at the Xoolian Shrine of the
Perpetually Unfortunate, just down the block."
, she told herself, as she walked swiftly away from the jail with the
artifact tucked under her arm. Given the attitude of local authorities,
there was little chance she could get rid of it until she was off-roid.
Meanwhile the nasty thing under her arm was vibrating faintly, almost
purring into her armpit. Mother of Roids, the damn thing seems to like me! She was suffering
a terrible hangover--and that wasn't the worst of it. Tailing people was
obviously not something in the Xoolian skill set. Every time she glanced
behind her, large purple-clad shapes darted quickly out of sight or
suddenly pretended to be fascinated by the less than lovely merchandise
displayed in dusty shop windows. Especially preposterous was Xlluum itself,
wearing a huge trench coat and a giant fake walrus-like mustache while
darting from doorway to shadowy doorway.
Abbie was not eager to visit her overnight accommodations at The Shrine of
the Perpetually Unfortunate any time soon, which meant she had several
hours to kill. She needed to think, and she needed a drink--so following her
thirst, she let herself wander into progressively sleazier neighborhoods
that might have bars with the kind of anonymous clientele and cheap prices
she was looking for.
Deep in thought, she found herself passing an oddly familiar building. Odd,
because she had never been on this roid until recently, familiar
because--and then she remembered: Wong Abdoul's Planet Pawn shops were a
franchise across the ecliptic; each unit possessing the same weathered
store front and greasy window, the same dangling ersatz neon sign striving
to capture the flavor of the kind of pawnshop your great great grandmother
Edith might have taken her pearls to, when great granddaddy Elbert was
devastating household accounts by hitting the sauce too hard. Franchises,
she reflected, were no longer designed to give people what they wanted
anymore, but rather what they expected. The place was a dump--but if there
was anyone on this forlorn ball of sky-scum that might give her the real
lowdown on the item she possessed, it would surely be Wong Abdoul.
She thrust open the door, ringing the ancient brass bell that welcomed you
into myriad virtually identical Planet Pawns across solsystem, varying only
slightly in the type of second-hand goods available for sale. Here in glass
cases, glimmering under ancient fluorescent lights, were rusty ray guns,
glittering Morgaine diadems, old atomic watches with bands sufficiently
elastic to garnish the limbs of a dozen cognitive species, brass and
chromium knuckles designed for six to ten fingers, assorted carbon, plastic
and ceramic cutlassry for use in back alley abattoirs, personality
transforming pods in every imaginable flavor and persona, sexual toys to
titillate the desires of myriad sentient beings--and naturally, yes! There
behind the counter, giving his newest customer his most kindly and
obsequious smile, the dumpy and devious Wong Abdoul that she remembered so
Not the one and only Wong Abdoul, of course. Every Planet Pawn had a clone
of exactly the same proprietor, each learned in plethoras of arcane trivia,
each wearing the same garish turban dripping with rhinestones, the same
worn silk kimono sporting chili stains. Nevertheless--it was almost pleasant
to see him. As his limpid gaze met hers, there was a little flicker that
raced across his eyeballs as he ran her face through the PP datacom.
"Ah! Ms. Kryler!" he purred. Bowing deeply. "So-o-o nice to see you again!
What can Wong Abdoul do-o-o for you?"
She plunked her treasure on the counter: "What can Planet Pawn can give me
Abdoul made a mou of distaste. " 'Planet Pawn' is indeed the title of the
franchise, which as you know, is successfully ubiquitous across the
commercial strata of the roid belt--but I personally prefer 'Wong Abdoul's
Emporium of Rare and Precious Things.' The latter title has a certain
poetry to it, don't you think? What can I say? There is a certain subtle
cascade of consonants there, a ripple of velvety vowels, a scintilla of
sensory seduction; whereas the crude abrupt alliteration of 'Planet Pawn'
tends to leave one a bit--"
"HOW MUCH FOR THE GODDAM BOX!"
"Ah yes, the box! The box!"
He dropped his eyes to the box in front of him, began to reach for it, and
froze. Chips buzzed behind his eyes. He darted from the counter and
returned a moment later wearing gloves, face mask, and protective goggles.
He examined the box gingerly, touching it only as one might touch a stove
to see if it was hot, emitting small sounds of surprise and understanding.
Finally, he took a step back, removed his goggles, and stared wide-eyed at
"Ooohhh, unfortunate maiden! I hesitate to mention that concatenation of
calamities, that dominion of downward dominoes into which you have--no doubt
inadvertently--stumbled; that vast abyss of darkness on whose rim you totter
like the hapless Martian mountaineer whose grapples fail on the indomitable
face of Peak Bradbury, or perhaps like the mad Medea as she trembled at the
sill of her tower window, watching Jason sail away across the wine dark
sea, or possibly--"
"THE BOX! THE BOX!"
"Yes, yes! Forgive me! The box! Ms. Kryler … I regret to inform you,
that you are in possession of a most evil box, perhaps the most evil
box. It is known as the Xugslith! Although admittedly a Xoolian artifact of
intriguing historical interest and fascinating provenance, it is of such
undesirable usufruct that no rational person would wish to possess it. No
indeed! Yet given that such a painful reality is fait accomplis--I
must tell you that such possession is a most serious and dangerous matter--"
"Dangerous? Because …?"
"Because possession of the Xugslith delivers the possessor into a series of
worse and worse calamities, each greater than the previous, until--"
A chill came over her. "Until what, exactly?"
"Not death necessarily," Abdoul clarified soothingly, "--at least not
right away! The truth is, the Xugslith likes to … play with
its food. It will lead you into serial disasters, but it is somewhat
whimsical. It might for example, allow you to skirt one disaster so that it
can steer you into something even worse …"
"Sweet Mother of Morg!"
The series of disasters she had encountered since receiving the box now
made an evil kind of sense. Abbie had always feared that someday she would
stumble into a mess, or a series of messes so bad she would never escape.
Now, it appeared that her worst nightmare had found her and attached itself
to her--like a vampire burr from the dark forests of Dunham III, like a
parasitic leech in the virulent swamps of LEM23, like--Omigod! She was
beginning to think like Wong Abdoul!
"So um, what if, like, I just gave it to you as a gift. Then you could turn
Abdoul seemed to convulse, his kimono trembling like a sack of jelly.
"Not quickly enough! I'm afraid that the drawbacks entailed by even
temporary legal ownership of this item are onerous, and seriously undermine
its value when offered for sale. In short, my dear, words alone are
insufficient to explicate the depth of your dilemma, as King Claudius once
declared to Polonius, the time has come--"
"--for more matter and less art?"
"Quite so--In brief, you possess, or more accurately, are possessed by, the
ultimate curse box, the canister of devils, the proverbial can of worms.
That which contains the uncontainable--but not forever! That which is easily
acquired, but not so easily let go. That which should never be opened--and
"Very slowly-- you see, there's lot of bad shit in there that wants to get
out, hence the serial disasters that impact the host, and--"
Abdoul continued to explain, but Abbie had stopped listening. Black spots
swam before her eyes, and she clutched the counter for support. Clucking
with sympathy, Abdoul flipped the open/closed sign in the window, and drew
Kryler gently into a small parlor at the back of the shop, planted Abbie in
an ancient Bauhaus chair and bustled off to make tea. As she waited,
darkness brewed around her. The box, which she had unconsciously carried
with her into the depths of the establishment, seemed to stir in her lap
like a sleeping kitten, casting a pale blue light on the surrounding
"So don't hold anything back." she said sourly, when Abdoul returned with a
steaming pot. "Give me the bad news."
"Legend has labeled the Xugslith the grandparent of all bad boxes," Abdoul
explained, while pouring the tea into ancient Willowware cups.
"It has been called by many names, and has wandered through many worlds,
even in ancient times, our own. It is the penance of Pandora, the dreaded
Canister of Klongg! The imprisoning bottle of a thousand evil Djinn cast
into the sea by King Solomon! The death pod of the Plutonian Morg! The
coffin of Vampires! The locker of Davey Jones! In short, my dear, due to
its venomous provenance, I can offer you nothing for this rare and
Kryler took a long shaky sip of the fragrant tea as Abdoul continued.
"According to the legend, one of the original, myriad Xoolian onspring, the venerable Xleerex, decided to extirpate from the
universe a plethora of evil entities known (in rough translation) as "the
ineluctables" and lock them in a canister of his own invention, confined in
a pocket force field stolen from one of the incarcerated entities, a
certain snaky blue entity …"
His voice trailed off uncertainly. They regarded the Xugslith with mutual
trepidation. Judging by the squirming of its cerulean surface, it knew it
was the center of attention.
"So how does one--"
"--dispose of it? Unfortunately the Xugslith tends to attach itself to
individuals who have a certain penchant for disaster," Wong continued, "and
seeks to explore that potential for its own entertainment. I'm afraid that
once possessed of--or by the box, it is not easy to become
dispossessed. You could try selling it in the bars or on the plastcrete--but
by dint of long experience I can tell you, the locals are more wary of
Xoollian gifts than offroid tourists like yourself--and frankly this is not
a popular vacation spot--"
"I wonder why?"
"--In fact the likelihood is that you will only become dispossessed when
your potential for disaster is exhausted, or it--"
"--kills me. I get it." Kryler picked up the box gingerly and turned it over
in her hands. It vibrated faintly and seemed to glow with a pale blue
light. It had no hinges, no sign of a lid. If it really is a box, she
thought, there must be a way to--
"Whatever you do, don't try to open it!" Abdoul declared anxiously. "Its
evil ambiance is only a small portion of its potential. It is said, when
the box is opened, that whatever is inside will destroy the universe."
"Suppose I just leave it at the shop of a local merchant?" she observed
"It will find a way to follow you!" Abdoul said hastily. "It doesn't like
being separated from its … provisional host. And when it catches
up--it gets angry!"
"Hmm …" Thinking over recent events, she guessed he was probably
right. "Okay, Wong--what are my options?"
Wong Abdoul shook his head sadly.
"Alas, doomed maiden! Escape is not so easy. Once the Xugslith roamed the
Milky Way, feasting on the disasters of myriad victims. Now it finds itself
trapped in the in the dingy cul-de-sac of solsystem dreaming of the day
that the Xoolians will find a way to repair the FTL drive that will allow
it once more to cruise a universe teeming with beings ripe for torment, and
feast among the stars. Until then it must reluctantly feast on humbler prey …"
"Allow me to explain. The Xugslith arrived in Solsytem a century ago in the
hold of a Xoolian ship that experienced a malfunction of its FTL drive and
was forced to land on the red sands of Mars. Thus our solar system was
first made aware of the existence of Xoolians, of somewhat intelligent life beyond our bailiwick, and excitingly--the existence of a faster than
light drive that might someday allow some of us to escape this galactic
backwater. Unfortunately that drive was broken, and of such an alien
technology that no branch of our sciences could unravel its mysteries. And
regrettably, the Xoolians themselves, allegedly the last remnant of their
species, had merely purchased the drive from other aliens light years
before--and had little idea of how to fix it. The awful fact was, they were
marooned in solsystem, perhaps by intention, and the dreadful box
was marooned with them! In fact, it has been suspected for some time that
our solar system has been a Xoolian dumping ground, for unwanted items and
entities, much as the ancient land of Terra Incognito once known as
Australia was used as a dumping ground for convicts, and in ancient New
"--ah yes. Options! Dispossession is not easy. Death of course, is a viable,
if not savory alternative. If the Xugslith is stolen, or legally seized,
possession transfers to the new carrier. The challenge is to find some
idiot who will voluntarily take formal possession of the box. Then, again,
it might get bored with you and abandon you for more interesting prey."
With a nervous glance at the box, which had taken on an intense blue glow,
Wong snatched the cup from her hand.
"And now, my dear, if you don't mind, it is high time for you to be moving
on with the artifact in tow. We wouldn't want the Xugslith to start feeling
comfortable here, would we?"
As she slammed the door of Wong's emporium and strode briskly off through
the dim streets with the box under her arm, her mind buzzed with questions
that badly needed answers. Were there ways to become dispossessed of the
Xugslith that Wong had not mentioned? Where on this roid could she find an
individual who would be dumb enough to accept custody of the box--or could
be conned into doing so?
And where on this roid was she, exactly?
Deep in thought, she had not been paying attention to where she was
walking. Luminescence under the linked domes was typically dimmed and
brightened in a 24 hour cycle meant to emulate Earth light patterns, and
since she had emerged from Planet Pawn, the streets had become darker and
more menacing. She had no sooner realized she was in a bad hood at a bad
hour, when she heard a crunch of debris on the plastcrete behind her. As
she whirled to confront the threat, the thuggle pack that had been stalking
her for blocks leapt for her throat.
One thuggle is not such a dangerous thing. Weighing only about thirty-five
pounds and possessing only one large tooth apiece, a single attacker can be
fended off with a swift kick or punch--but when a "thoog"--or pack of
thuggles descends upon you and no help is nearby, the consequences can be
dire--since thuggles typically not only rob, but subsequently snack on the
bodies of their victims.
Swiftly she was hurled to the ground and firmly pinned. Having secured
their prey, the thuggles inexplicably paused, conferring feverishly among
But why, exactly, was their spiky fur standing on end? The answer lay
nearby. In the pale glow of the dim street, the surfaces of the box were
coiling and recoiling in a manner that conveyed an unmistakable feeling of
menace. Was there an issue of custody here? Taking advantage of their
suddenly loosened grip, Kryler struggled free and staggered away from her
Almost immediately, a phalanx of dumpy purple shapes materialized in her
path. Shit! She darted down an alley to the left, and found herself
In a small walled courtyard with no exit. Great! This was it. Behind her
the alley echoed with the screeches of pursuing thuggles, and the violet
thunder of the Xoolian contingent following in their wake, headed by the
venerable Xlluum itself! Turning to face her pursuers, Kryler called up
every swear word, every vituperative scrap of imprecation she had collected
in her years of hapless wandering in this sordid little system she had
never been able to escape, and hurled them in the face of the converging
POK! POK! POK!
Oh fabulous! What now?! Loud hissing sounds reverberated from above, and
large smoky things began bouncing on the plastcrete around her feet. What
the hell? Something huge struck her shoulder and crushed her to the earth.
Out of the corner of her eye, as she plunged into shock, she saw the
thuggles scampering off into the roidscape bearing something limp and pale
that looked remarkably like somebody's left arm.
Someone was speaking through a dark gelatinous fog. "Being hit by a meteor
in a domed roidville! Astonishing, dear girl. Astonishing! What are the
odds against that, I wonder? Spectacular! Absolutely spectacular."
It sounded remarkably like--oh no! It couldn't be!
"Meteor showers are incredibly rare in this quadrant of the eclip," the
oily voice of Wong Abdoul continued. "The domes are self-sealing, and the
odds of a citizen actually being hit by a meteor are infinitely
microscopic, unless, of course …"
"Unless you have a meteor magnet in your pocket."
That was her own voice, a raspy croak unmistakably her own, yet seemed to
come from elsewhere. As the fog rose she found herself lying propped up on
a not very soft surface, surrounded by a room that was grim and grey--except
for the jarringly garish form of Wong Abdoul, who waved playfully at her
from his precarious perch on a stool at the foot of her bed.
"No doubt," he began, seeing that her eyes were now fully open, "as you
emerge from the narcotic murk of your most recent disarming calamity--"
What was he babbling about? Kryler tried to rub her eyes with her left
hand, but the effort failed. She looked in horror at the stump of her left
shoulder swathed in pink gauze. "AYYYYYY!"
"--you are no doubt wondering where you are, and why I am here. A perfectly
reasonable, if somewhat metaphysical query, given the recent concatenation
of calamitous events, which have so cruelly impacted on you--"
"Really, my dear! You need to relax if you want to heal!"
"In the health services wing of the Xoolian Shrine of The Perpetually
"The Xoolian--?!" she began wrestling with a nest of tubes and restraints.
"Abdoul! You gotta get me out of here!"
"Calm yourself, dear maiden. Do you realize that when you were attacked by
the thuggle cluster, Xlluum and his friends were actually trying to rescue
you before you were hit by the meteor that disarmed you?"
"Why would they--?"
"So that you might carry the Xugslith a tad longer, so that with luck, you
might carry it offroid to some distant nook of solsystem, never to be seen
again--or at least not for a tranquil interval."
"Tranquil for them. Even in past eons, before they were
marooned in this dingy orbital cul-de-sac; when they cruised the galaxy
searching for a place to rid themselves of the Xugslith, they felt guilty
about dumping their baggage on others, while at the same time enjoying
temporary relief at its absence. I say temporary because, unfortunately,
for this sad species--the artifact, after cavorting briefly in the
misfortune of other beings, has a habit of drifting back to its original owners."
"To the Xoolians?"
"Like a beastly boomerang of badness?"
"If you don't mind," Abdoul observed crisply, "attempts at poetic metaphor
are best left to me. Are you aware of that Xlluum is due to merge
financially and bodily with Xlluut the Magnificent at the end of this week?
Naturally, the custody of the Xugslith is a somewhat painful matter for
both Xlluum and his reluctant mergee. It was hoped that the Xugslith might
be discreetly distanced from them both during this delicate interval--but
rather than accept that fate, you have selfishly resisted the honor of
ownership. It is true, of course, that you have suffered minor discomfort--"
"It was a very small meteorite! A small price to pay for the honor of
carrying the Xugslith!"
"If it's such a frigging honor, why don't the Xoolians keep it to
"Be reasonable, Kryler. How many Christians wanted to be crucified?
Furthermore, possession of the Xugslith by a Xoolian citizen can actually
be detrimental to the flow of free enterprise across the ecliptic. Given
the need to preserve the economic health of solsystem, isn't it reasonable
for lesser species to share such burdens?"
"With the exception of certain collaborators of the Arab/Chinese
"Swedish, actually--but you cut close to the bone. Not much economic
activity in this sector for a franchise of this variety," Abdoul reflected,
"and little tourism. Only a few minor merchants and assorted vagrants that
no one will miss--and given that new recipients of the Xugslith tend to
frequent Planet Pawn franchises to obtain provenance of that which they
have come to possess, it was only natural that in time, the local Xoolian
consortium would engage me for the sacred task of bringing these
individuals to a full understanding of the responsibilities they bear. To
that end, it is my misfortune to inform you that it is probable you will
soon be returned to incarceration to stand trial for double homicide. After
being convicted, following a noble but futile defense provided by defender
Strigley, you shall swiftly be transported to a remote penal institution at
the rim of the system where you and the Xugslith will be cellmates for an
uncertain interval until--until--"
Abbie glanced ambivalently at the malignant artifact, which perched on her
bedside table, vibrating softly. "Till death do us part?"
"Rest assured that your death in the near future would not be in the
interests of the Xoolian consortium," Abdoul observed. "And at the facility
in question you will have the finest medical care regardless of any
injuries you may suffer."
"If I had two hands I would strangle you."
Abdoul frowned disapprovingly. "I should warn you that a negative attitude
can only make things worse."
"WORSE? How could things possibly be worse?"
Abdoul looked at her in horror. One did not say such things in the presence
of the Xugslith. As if on cue, the grey wall by Abdoul's elbow collapsed
with a sudden crash. Through the wall strolled a menacing captain of the
Venusian sector of the clipshark brigade, his helmet glittering, his pink
belts wriggling with anticipation in the rising dust like the tentacles of
a Saturnian cephalopod.
"NO! No!" shrieked Abdoul. "NOT NOW!" but his cries were quickly smothered
by a wad of pink spaghetti.
"Abigail Kryler," boomed the captain in a voice that seemed to echo
cavernously along the bleak grey walls of the shrine. "Given that you are
deeply in hock to Cosmocredit, irresponsible holder of multiple notes
throughout solsystem, including hundreds of unpaid bar tabs; and that,
furthermore, in attempting to flee such financial responsibilities, you
have violated clip regs A23 through X5023, thus magnifying the seriousness
of those crimes, you are hereby dispossessed of any and all personal
assets, including all possessions personal and custodial, body parts
natural and artificial, commercially valuable neurotoxins, tissues, and
marketable memories. Therefore, in accordance with the law, you shall be
taken from this place and delivered to--"
But Abbie did not hear the juiciest parts of the final indictment being
levied against her, since, at the moment the wall had given way, she had
jacked her pain management control to the max to blur the words of her
impending sentence. No sense in rushing into something bad when there was a
handy way of delaying consequences, was there? And as she descended
somewhere soft and deep, the muffled shrieks of Wong Abdoul sounded like a
Was it a dream, or something else? Abdoul, wearing a pale purple smock that
looked suspiciously like a piece of Xoolian apparel, was beckoning her to
accompany him somewhere. Why the hell not? Still elevated by the buzz of
the Xoolian drugs, Kryler floated in the wake of Wong Abdoul, as that
substantial individual led her through the maze-like hallways of the Shrine
of The Perpetually Unfortunate, whose grim walls were punctuated with
little iconic niches holding pictures of what she presumed were Xoolian
martyrs, many of them non-Xoolians, some of them human. There were even a
few from Terra One with names inscribed beneath their portraits: Walt
Kelly, Rodney Dangerfield, Who and what the hell was Eeyore?
Then they arrived. To Kryler, the shrine auditorium reminded her of a small
town opera house she had once seen in a viddoc of ancient Wisconsin, a
vintage neighborhood back on planet Earth. The seats, designed for
fundaments far wider than those of most humans were arranged in
conventional patterns. The walls of the theater were adorned with heavy
purple curtains that rippled uncertainly. Above the staging area was a
giant blue transvoice extending in a long strip across the top of the
curtain--to provide crude translations of the performance.
What unfolded was a cross between a rather terrible Martian Opera she had
seen years ago at the Bradbury, and some Noh theater she had once seen
performed by Japanese space pilgrims at a breakfast theater on Pluto.
Throughout their performance, the Xoolians faced her, rather than each
other--their odd features twisted in what could only be expressions of
profound disdain. As if she had let down the Xoolian Empire, as if she had failed the natural flow of the universe in some fundamental
way, because, as Abdoul whispered fiercely in her ear, she had prematurely
let the box go. But was it her fault that the clipsharks had walked through
the wall of their dumpy shrine, and seized the damn thing? Obviously not--so
why did she feel strangely guilty anyway? As if she had just been dumped by
a difficult, but dearly beloved partner?
The "Zubbit," which Abdoul explained was roughly the equivalent of the
chorus in ancient Greek theater, shuffled majestically on stage to clarify
the cosmic dilemma.
WOE, WOE, WOE IS US, YES!
WOE TO YOU TOO!
… they chanted through the transvoice.
WORST, WORST, WORST IS YET TO COME, YES
TOMORROW WILL BE WORSE, YES,
BAD! VERY BAD! YES!
BETTER? NEVER! NO! NO!
VERY MUCH WORSE, YES!
ALWAYS MUCH WORSE, YES!
WORSE! WORSE! WORSE!
As the costumed Xoolians swayed and chanted before her, waving their fore
appendages in mysterious patterns, it occurred to Kryler that she had always
been headed for this moment. That her entire life had been a series of
slowly accumulating disasters--that in fact, disaster had been the
distinguishing characteristic of her life-long peregrinations since she had
left her molesting stepfather probably dead on her home planet of Venus
some 25 years before. And now, somehow, the Xugslith, a galactic
connoisseur of such infirmities, had sniffed her out in this gods-forsaken
cul-de-sac of a system, and with the assistance of Xlluum the Almighty, and
the wily Wong Abdoul, found her and bonded with her. And it occurred to
Kryler, oddly, that like her, the Xugslith was also driven by its own
inescapable destiny, a trajectory of misfortune they had in common. And she
found herself remembering how it had helped her escape the clipsharks, how
it had saved her from the venom of the Morgaine judge and the assault of
the thuggle muggers, how it had purred like a mischievous kitten at her
elbow. Of course there was the matter of her arm--but hell, nothing is
"Concentrate!" Hissed Abdoul at her elbow. "You need to hear this!"
FAILED! YES! FAILED YES!
WE HAD ALWAYS HOPED, YES!
BUT YOU HAVE FAILED, YES!
YES YOU HAVE, YES!
BAD, BAD, VERY BAD! BAD!
Then, the transvoice ended its chanted indictment, and Xlluum itself
stepped forward to recite a passage in Xoolian, a disturbing language that
sounded a little like a hundred cats vomiting.
"Allow me to give a more poetic translation of this next part," suggested
"Ahem …We had hoped,--we have always hoped, but you have failed as
others before have failed us as we descend into the deep dark pit of
ourselves. You are the last and least of a long line of failed ones
stretching and contracting throughout and throughin time/space, space/time.
You have displayed insufficient empathy for the downward dominoes of
destiny. You were not good enough for her!"
FOR HER! NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR HER!
… echoed the transvoice as Xlluum's accusation concluded.
The onstage cacophony suddenly ceased, and the action evolved into a kind
of stylized dumb show in which elephantine Xoolian performers pantomimed to
the failed custodian of the Xugslith just how badly she had failed her
responsibilities to the sacred artifact which had been so generously
bestowed upon her. Migods, did she really look that fat? Scene one showed
the generous gift being delivered in the Wit's End tavern, the free
elixirs, a shower of gold, the glorious contract given and signed--and then!
Repeated attempts by Kryler to escape her responsibilities, shamelessly
trying to escape the honor which she had been so kindly given. Her repeated
efforts to sell, discard or abandon the Xugslith were all enacted. Oh the
shame of it! It was, she thought, both ridiculous and oddly profound. In
its silent and accusatory solemnity, the accusatory drama reminded her of
all the dressing-downs she had received throughout her hapless existence,
from police, creditors, civil and religious authorities throughout
solsystem. Nothing new here, except an eerie power to this odd performance
that made her actually feel guilty. Where was an FTL drive when you
needed one to escape the haunted palace of your life?
But that was the only lucid portion of her narcotic retreat from the
clipshark indictment. The rest was not as blissful as she had hoped. As
lethargy and the Xoolian drugs caught up with her, the theater faded from
view and time became elastic. She fell into a series of dark and chaotic
dreams in which giant blue serpents pursued her through a sea of stars.
Then, after what seemed like another eternity, she materialized once more
in the grey coffin of her hospital room in the Shrine of the Perpetually
Unfortunate. The place was still partly in ruins, although repairs had
clearly been underway. A trace of dust from the collapsed wall still
floated in the air like an aura of doom. A surly and somewhat disheveled
Wong Abdoul gazed at her from the foot of the bed.
"No doubt, my dear, you imagine you have awakened from one nightmare into
another--but what you have experienced was not a dream--but a Zuppence!"
"An ancient Xxoolian ritual in which members of inferior species who host
the Xugslith and fail to achieve the zenith of the Xoolian zeitgeist are
brought to a full understanding of their inadequacies to serve the cause of
cosmic harmony, and illuminate the higher purposes of Xoolian being and
"How exactly have I failed?"
"In the first place, instead of meekly accepting holy martyrdom by dying or
being gradually eviscerated over a long period of noble suffering, you have
opted for a disgraceful shortcut, by entering into an unseemly partnership with the sacred artifact to promote disaster in
solsystem! Secondly, you have failed to vacate this roid and carry the
Xugslith with you into holy exile. You see--the Xxoolians always feared that
at some point, the Xugslith would escape your company and return to the
ever-concentrating circle of their kind, which it always does, but in your
case, sooner than expected. Hence their need to vigorously inform you of
the profound nature of the responsibility you have abrogated, of the depth
of your failure to retain custody of that which you contracted to receive.
"So convey my deepest apologies and get me the hell out of here!"
"Not so fast! True, your failures have been profound, but under the
circumstances, we are prepared to be generous!"
"Generous? So what's changed since we last spoke?"
"Well, the arm, for one thing."
"Huh? Kryler reached up to scratch her head with her left arm! As
her vision cleared she viewed the awesomely expensive Xoolian exosurgeon
handiwork, an almost skin colored human-looking appendage made of kind of
flexible carbon ceramic silicate, exhibiting a delicate control ability
that spoke of a superb fusion of her shoulder flesh and new cybernetic
tissues--also enormous strength!
"A masterful piece of work," declared Wong Abdoul, "a great gift for which
you should be immensely grateful!"
"GRATEFUL? I was swallowed by a sweepbeast, thrown in jail, nearly
convicted of double homicide, mugged by thuggles, hit by a meteorite--"
"--a very small meteorite--but we digress. As you are well aware, by
virtue of your financial irresponsibilities and decadent lifestyle, all
your possessions, including the Xugslith have been summarily seized by the
interplanetary division of Cosmocredit LLC, which is unfortunately owned by
a subdivision of a Xoolian holding company which owns this roid and many
others, and so, by extraordinary misfortune, the artifact has returned to
the possession of--"
"Omigods! The mighty Xlluum--!"
"--who needless to say, is not very happy with the way a distinguished local
merchant has handled this affair …"
"How sad for you!"
"For you as well, I'm afraid! Double homicide charges will soon be
reinvoked, unless, of course, you are willing to cooperate …"
Kryler flexed the fingers of her new left hand thoughtfully, admiring their
strength and smoothness of movement. Clearly this extravagant gift signaled
that Wong Abdoul and his Xxoolian masters wanted something from her that
had not yet been revealed.
"Cooperate?" she asked innocently.
"A most generous offer is available," Abdoul declared eagerly, "--which,
considering the circumstances, only a fool would--but I digress.
"Xlluum and his fellow Xoolians have been following your recent association
with the Xugslith with considerable interest, and are intrigued by the fact
that the Xugslith seemed to actually like you; preferring to carry
you to the brink of disaster and then, at the last instant, pulling back.
So it has occurred to us, me, them … those--that it might be better
for all concerned if you exercised free will and voluntarily agreed to, um
… take the box back …"
"Take it back! Why would I want do that?"
"To avoid returning to trial for double homicide, and possibly deflecting
those charges toward the default suspect, a certain Atty. Strigley, a
recent arrival on this roid who has been practicing law with forged
credentials, and may have murdered a morgaine who had discovered his
"Tempting! What else?"
"Allow me to explain. In analyzing the meteors that so cruelly injured you,
Xlluum and his associates have discovered that, by bizarre coincidence,
they contain a rare isotope not found in this star system and vital to the
operation of the FTL drive damaged when the Xoolians crashed on Mars. With
the help of clip scientists they have determined that the damaged FTL may
now be activated--at least for a few microseconds--enough to transport a
large and comfortable self-contained habitat and several relevant entities
light years away from this demesne. And it has occurred to them, that such
a journey, while being altogether too risky for beings of their
stature and prestige, might be an excellent way of removing the Xugslith
and its guardian to a distant space time interval from which it might not
"Too risky for them? What about my risk?"
"There is a position in chess …"
"Yeah, I know. Zugzwang!"
"Should you decline this opportunity to care to carry the Xugslith with you
to the stars, you would be returned to trial for double homicide, and
incarcerated in a very nasty facility at the rim of the system with the
Xugslith for a cellmate--but if you take the FTL option, you would travel
with the Xugslith in reasonable luxury for the rest of your life--very
distant of course, from this humble ecliptic."
"And just what amenities are offered on this cruise?"
"It is, in fact, a vintage cruise ship retrofitted with the reworked
Xoolian drive, featuring a courteous and deferent crew, your own security
bots, a variety of entertainments, living and canned, free restaurants with
talented chefs, a variety of bars with infinite tabs, plus a wide choice of
prepaid companions and staff."
"Other crooks and rascals Xllumm wants to get rid of?"
Abdoul shrugged eloquently.
"Does this faster-than-light prison have a library?"
Abdoul made a quick note. "The finest since the torching of Alexandria! "
Abbie thought deep and hard. A forked choice lay in front of her on the
roid swirl of the ecliptic, and given the alternative of returning to
incarceration, the LUXURY cruise option didn't sound so bad, offering a
higher standard of living than she had been enjoying lately--even given that
the Xugslith would be in tow. Indeed, the Xugslith might actually serve as
a sort of body guard as it had with the thuggles, especially given that
police, pirates, and the host of obnoxious alien authorities that likely
awaited her in the galaxy beyond, were sure to give the dreaded Xugslith
the widest of berths--and while the artifact was often capricious and cruel,
distilling the sins of the world she had come to know--it seemed to
appreciate her own talent for disaster, making the two of them, in a sense,
peas in the same deathpod, fellow connoisseurs of the worst that could
happen to anyone anywhere, slithering through time and space.
"If the amenities are not up to scratch, it's no deal!"
"My dear lady, I assure you that the ship will be everything you expect.
Why hesitate? A marvelous adventure lies before you. You shall be the queen
of this pilgrim vessel. You will visit the stars!"
"Or dissolve in a fiery shower of quarks and gluons!"
"Calm yourself on that score, my dear, The Xugslith would never destroy
"Ok, I'll bite. When do we leave?"
"Oh marvelous maiden! The contract must be signed tonight in front of
Xllumm in the Wit's End tavern. The ship departs at dawn!"
"What's the name of this scow?"
"The Last Resort …"
That night at the Wit's End tavern, Kryler, the eminent Xllumm and the wily
and obsequious Wong Abdoul got drunk to celebrate the newly signed
contract. All three eyed the Xugslith warily as it glided slowly about the
table like an overturned whiskey glass on a Ouija board, inevitably
returning to its post at Kryler's elbow. Oddly enough, for the first time
in her life, as she wrapped strong synthetic fingers around her fifth free
drink, Kryler felt optimistic, powerful.
"Are you fully attuned to your fate?" murmured Xlluum curiously through the
giant sapphire of the transvoice.
"More or less," said Kryler. Sparks gamboled briefly in the deep blue sea
of contemplation, and dolphined sadly back.
"Sometimes," said Xlluum, "Less and less is more and more."
"I'll drink to that."
Copyright 2017, Rod Clark
Bio: I edit and publish a national literary journal, ROSEBUD, which publishes speculative fiction in the mix (somewhat of a rarity!), and sponsors the MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY AWARD. I also dabble in writing speculative fiction. Not all editors can write, but I hope you will consider the attached story and provide me with some feedback.
E-mail: Rod Clark
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