Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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The Xugslith

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 sober.

"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 solemnly.

"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 door.

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 to her?

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 hours later.

"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 relish.

"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 …"

"How 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 innocence.

"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 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."

"Xlluum--?"

"--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--"

"This one?"

"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. "

"Fourth class!?"

"Third, if you absolutely insist …"

"But why--"

"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."

***

Gottagetridofit, gottagetridofit , 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 well.

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 for this?"

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 Kryler.

"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 it quickly--"

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 leaks slightly."

"Leaks--?"

"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 merchandise.

"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 unique item."

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 sourly.

"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 …"

"Humbler pr--?"

"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 Jersey--"

"OPTIONS!"

"--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 themselves:

"Thuggathuggathugga! Thuggathuggathugga!"

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 attackers.

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 enemy.

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--"

"AYYYY!"

"Really, my dear! You need to relax if you want to heal!"

"Where--?"

"In the health services wing of the Xoolian Shrine of The Perpetually Unfortunate."

"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?"

"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?"

"Quite so!"

"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--"

"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 themselves?"

"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 persuasion?"

"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 soothing lullaby.

***

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 perfect.

"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 Abdoul:

"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!"

"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 martyrdom."

"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 secret?"

"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 soon return."

"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 itself!"

"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."

THE END


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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