Words: c. 6,100
'We Can Remake You'
(all major intergalactic credit accepted)
By Greg Guerin
There was a knock on the door- the first time in a
thousand years, not counting Brian's practical joke on Usula three
hundred years ago. The sub-sonic reverberation accompanied by a sharp
electrical discharge woke everyone in the Herman Munsfeld clinic except
Brian and Herman; Herman was deeply entranced in the sleep machine- it
would take considerably more effort to rouse him- and, technically,
Brian never slept. That left Usula and Entralia.
Usula had been playfully constructing an adventurous
dream using Brian's template programs. The door-alarm jolted her awake,
and, although stunned, her organ management system kept her heart-rate
even and slowed the flush of adrenalin, allowing her to remain calm
enough to stretch before jumping up to see what was happening-
otherwise the remaining muscle in her mainly metal and plastic legs
She had no need to dress (her exterior body was
mainly inanimate), but she swung her arms into a robe and tied it
securely before heading out of the sleeping bay. Some habits could
never be broken.
Who could it be? Surely Brian wasn't so bored he'd
stoop to a repeat of the same joke. She reached the door, looked at it,
unsure whether to open it, then gave in to curiosity and pressed the
"CmFvraastFvraaakaaaDFnkaalDmmFfraalFDD," the being
on the other side said. At least, this is the approximate
representation of what the being said. The approximate translation:
"Let me in, you inferior entity, and give me a drink because I'm bloody
thirsty." Usula didn't understand. It sounded like gravel rolling down
"I beg your pardon," she said, "I'm afraid you'll
have to speak Andromedan. Our computer cannot translate Magellanic
"Let me in, you inferior entity, and give me a drink
because I'm bloody thirsty," the being's translator said in clean
Andromedan over the top of its natural voice. "It's been four thousand
years since I left civilisation and my incompetent staff only stocked
my transport with enough Tequila for two thousand. Idiots. You do have
Tequila?" He passed through the doorway, touching on both sides.
Usula took a step backwards and instructed her
organ-management to turn off her olfactory senses. She had no qualms
about alien lifeforms- she remembered the busier days of the clinic
clearly, thanks to her artificial memory banks (damn them)- this
hair-covered creature was just particularly repulsive. Its sensory
organs consisted of one large ear-flap and a raft of feelers that
probed everything around it. The thing's natural voice trumpeted from
somewhere beneath the ragged fur, the translation scratched out of a
tiny speaker clipped to its... thingy.
"Sir?" she panted.
"The brochure says 'caters for all intelligent
species'." He retrieved a crumpled piece of computer-film from a hidden
fold of his skin using one of the feelers and waved it at her.
"Excuse me," she began, pulling her hands out the
way to diffuse any suggestion she was willing to look at the brochure,
"but where did you get that?"
"On Phoebos-9. Why? This is the Herman Munsfeld Clinic, isn't it?"
"Indeed yes it is sir," she conceded, "it's just, we
haven't distributed that particular brochure for some time now and I-"
"Bah, do not subject me to excuses, I won't tolerate them. Book me in and bring my beverage will you?"
Any inflection in the language was lost in
translation and Usula had no idea what the twitching body language
really meant, but anger seemed to be the gist of it. She looked around,
squeezing one fist in the other, hoping Entralia would come to deal
with the arrival.
"Well then, perhaps you can tell me your name and why you're here, for the records."
"Kflasfadsf," came the reply from the translator,
accompanied by an equally unpronounceable sound from the beast.
Usula screwed up her face. "Perhaps we'll just call you Gus. And what was it you were here for?"
"I require a complete biochemical changeover, urgently."
"Ah, what sort of complete biochemical changeover exactly?"
"Any kind, so long as it's fast and completely alters my biological signature, but not my persona."
Usula snorted. The translator couldn't have come up
with a less appropriate word than persona. "And you're able to pay for
A grinding rumble came from the creature as the
translator calmly announced, "Of course I am, you detestable piece of
mindless flesh. How do you think I funded a full-sized transport and
staff to come half way across the galaxy?"
Usula decided the question was rhetorical. "Please
make yourself comfortable in the lounge and I'll be with you shortly,"
she said, as polite as she could manage.
The lounge was her favourite place to chill (it had
the best sofas) and now this rude, smelly thing was going to occupy it.
She had already decided to suggest they turf Gus out. They had no
obligation to treat rude customers.
She left the entrance area and wandered along for a
few steps before she had that nagging feeling that meant she'd
forgotten something. Her long term memory was picture perfect; she
could remember right back to the early days at the clinic with lucid
detail, but she often brushed her teeth three times in a row to
reassure herself she'd actually done it. No wonder the tubes of paste
always ran out so fast. Her aged brain cells had degenerated and unless
a memory made it to the databanks, it had every chance of getting lost.
Yes, something strange had definitely happened, or
was she just confusing her dreams? She saw Entralia approaching and
steadied her pace to meet him. His elongated head bobbed above his
tall, nail-thin body in anticipation of the greeting.
Usula smiled as they met. Entralia greeted her, but
lines under his eyes told her he was worried. Despite radical surgery,
he retained a basically human body, but the egg-shaped eyes, grey skin,
button-ears, and transparent abdominal wall were only ghostly reminders
of his humanity.
"What is it?" she asked.
"What is it? The door- surely you noticed."
"Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me. I knew there was something I forgot."
"That's right, I left to come and find you. We have a customer, perhaps not a welcome one. He's horrible."
"Usula," he scolded her kindly, "looks- you know you
mustn't judge by them. Anyone that comes to our door- we serve
them, no matter what lifeform. Our personal wishes- they aren't the issue."
Usula twisted her lips sourly. That was the gist of
the wretched brochure that had attracted Gus in the first place. God
knew how many more were still in circulation around the galaxy. "I
know. His name is Gus and he's in the lounge."
"What does he want?"
"I dunno, some sort of biochemical changeover. Go ask him... it."
"Let me go and sort him out. Files for this sort of thing- you go and look them up."
"Me? What do I know about it? I'm just an assistant, not a trained clinicist."
"And I am neither clinicist nor secretary but the
cleaner. As long as Herman insists on deep-sleeping and Brian has no
motor function, it's up to us to run the place. Speaking of Brian,
shall I have him remind you in, say, five minutes?"
Usula hissed out air and scratched her head
defeatedly as she walked off. "Yeah, okay then." Entralia knew her
better than she knew herself.
Something- she couldn't remember what- had reminded
Usula of her arrival at the clinic, millennia ago. She recalled the
infection that reduced her body to a sac of puss, the first sores
appearing on her legs, her mother demanding she see a doctor. The
infection developing at pace, there was a flurry of hospitals,
operations, medications that made her sicker than the infection.
Then there was the clinic. Her mother sent her there
out of desperation. Normally, she scoffed at clinics where aliens were
treated among humans, like giant interstellar veterinary surgeries. But
Earth medicine had failed to halt the alien viron, let alone
reverse the damage. It cost her family their savings, placed them in debt. She had been sent alone, no money for a second fare.
The deep-space clinic was a sanctuary, a place of
miracles. It was busier back then. Major elective transmutations were
trend, and a period of interstellar hostilities provided plenty of
dismembered patients. The surgeons mended her easily, neutralising the
viron with antidotes never heard of on Earth, hacking away decaying
flesh, replacing it with robotic synths, stabilising damaged internal
organs with micro-processors.
The recovery was painstaking, months of
rehabilitation before she was strong enough to return to Earth. By
then, she had decided to stay. She made friends, including a cleaner
named Entralia, more loving and bizarre than anyone she'd met on Earth.
She was exposed to alien lifeforms and cultures. Earth would never be
home again. Her artificial memory kept alive feelings of separation,
and she missed her family. There was no way to fix that; thanks to the
same feelings, she didn't want to let go.
Living at the clinic, accepting any work offered,
satisfied some part of her, but nothing would ever cover the holes made
in her by the ordeal. She'd never look down and see skin, never forget
the changes made to her- her incorruptible long-term memory saw to that.
Usula sat on her bed and examined her steel-carbon
alloy feet- flat, toeless, soulless. Her toes had been beautiful, not
in the sense that they were real, human toes, actually perfect, a neat
little row, the nails always manicured. She used to spend hours
attending them, or styling her hair- now replaced with a plastic cap,
fused to her skull.
She wished they'd given her an organic replacement
body. It would have been the palest of reflections of the one she had
known, a shadow of its neatly proportioned predecessor, but she could
have thought herself more than a thinking machine. Or, she wished
they'd weakened her memory so she could free her mind of regret. It was
too late to change now- her remaining cells were too fragile. They
could blur her memories, but she declined, unable to let go memories of
being whole, unhappy as they made her.
She felt a cold drop on her hand and realised she was sobbing. At least she had that much humanity in her.
"H-hmm," a voice muttered.
She sniffed and looked up, recognising Brian's voice.
"I'm sorry if this is a bad time to interrupt you, but-"
"No, that's okay. I should stop feeling sorry for myself."
"No, really. Here I am crying over my body and
everything when there are others worse off. At least I'm alive."
Out of habit, she looked at what she could see of
Brian. It was intolerably hard to engage someone in conversation
without visual communication, yet it achieved nothing with Brian. His
flesh was held in a clear tube clipped to the wall, its ends entering
holes through to adjacent rooms. He was spread throughout the clinic,
omnipresent, an eternal, patient friend.
"I mean, look at you," she went on, watching the
sideways movements of the fluid surrounding the tissue. "You're just a
bunch of nerve cells stuck to a wall, and here I am babbling."
There was a silence uncharacteristic of Brian once
engaged in conversation- except when he had been deeply offended. "Oh,
I'm so sorry, such a brute. I didn't mean-"
"Never mind Usula, I-"
"Yes," she agreed, "I guess you've developed
somewhat of a thick skin over the years..." She growled and hit herself
on the forehead with her palms.
"If I could get to the point," Brian muttered, "Entralia has asked me to send you a reminder."
"Reminder? What of? It's not time for our game of canasta yet is it?"
"He says to remind you you're supposed to be looking
for files on biochemical changeovers while he deals with the customer."
"What customer? This isn't funny Brian."
"The one that arrived just now. You let him in for God's sake Usula."
That triggered the grotesque memory of Gus. "Oh
yeah, that customer. Ah, how do I do that? Can you access it directly
"Unfortunately, no," Brian intoned, his usual
demeanour returning slowly. "The files in question are kept in physical
isolation to protect them in the event of system crash. They're kept in
the records locker."
"And where exactly is that?"
Brian had no respiratory system, but he sighed noisily. "Where it's always been, in the admin lab."
Usula reclined in her favourite mock-leather suite
across from Entralia who was devouring some papers (a habit he had
developed when first asked to clear away a back-log of customer files),
Brian listening in attentively. Entralia's skill of subtle suggestion
had helped Gus decide to wash at length (in the customer suite) and
Brian had set the vacos going full-pelt to rid the lounge of any
remnants of his smell or flaky skin.
"Comparable files- are you absolutely certain there
are none Usula?" Entralia repeated. "You didn't just forget?"
"I'm not stupid, I just have short-term memory loss. Besides, Brian kept an eye on me."
"I can vouch for that," Brian piped up, "I made sure
Usula told me what she was doing at any one instant. There's nothing."
"Then we're done for."
Usula giggled. It was typical of Entralia to react dramatically. "Why?"
"The operation- without a previous file, we have no
template to instruct the machines. We are none of us qualified to
invent new procedures."
"Too bad. Best we let him go then. It was a mistake letting him in to start with."
"It hasn't come to that yet."
"Perhaps we should ask this guy why he wants the
procedure," Usula suggested. "Wouldn't he rather have a compete
"Usula, we never ask such personal questions of our
customers," Brian lectured delicately, pretending to take her
seriously. "It's hardly a sensible idea. The problem is, it's been so
long since we had a customer. We're not set up to deal with it any
"Seems like yesterday though, doesn't it?" Entralia
said. "The last one- I remember well. Stones- we had to remove them.
They were as big as melons, heavy as lead."
"Actually, it was yesterday," said Brian. "The clock
hasn't officially turned over since the morning after that customer
left. That was also the day our chief electrician left us- left us with
a clock that was stuck."
"Is that useful?" Usula complained. "Why don't you think us out of this? You are all brain."
"Well, the answer seems obvious."
"We'll have to wake Herman."
The three of them fell silent. The situation was worse than they had thought.
Since neither would volunteer, Usula and Entralia went together to check on Gus. He wasn't doing well.
"What in hell is the hold up?" his translator
garbled. "If you were slaves, I'd have thrown you into space by now."
The bathing area was slick with sticky fluid and he
sat in the middle of the largest tub, his actual voice thankfully
drowned out below the water.
"Biochemical alterations- we don't do them every day, sir," Entralia said.
"Rot. I came here because you're reputed to do
anything. If something doesn't happen fast there'll be trouble. I'm in
Usula managed to turn a shiver of disgust into a
gentle shrug. "We're making preparations now. If you can't wait, feel
free to leave, otherwise perhaps you'd enjoy an hour or two in our
customer entertainment suite while you wait?"
"I very much doubt that. Do I look like I'm here for
idle entertainment? Just get a move on. I assume you've parked my
"My transport. I left it dangling loose out the front. Have you parked it?"
Entralia glanced at Usula and rolled his eyes, then
said, "Your own staff- surely they would have taken care of that, sir."
Gus splashed at the bath with several of his bigger
feelers and the spray misted them with a film of the fluid. "Yes, they
would have, if I hadn't thrown them all into space for forgetting to
pack enough Tequila for the entire trip."
"We'll take care of that for you, sir," Entralia assured him, not looking particularly confident.
"When is my operation scheduled?" Gus barked as a stream of bubbles glugged to the surface.
Again Usula and Entralia glanced at each other. Usula said, "We're just waking the doctor now."
"Waking? I've been here for hours."
"Perhaps it'd make you feel better knowing it's Herman Munsfeld himself who will be performing the..."
Gus ducked under the water, creating a vortex, and
didn't look like re-appearing. Usula shrugged and they took the
opportunity to exit and head for a wash and a change of clothes- the
liquid Gus had splashed was an unpleasantly remarkable simile of mucus.
"What are we going to do about Gus's ship?" Usula
asked once they were out of the washroom. "You know what happened the
last time you tried to park a customer's vehicle. They weren't
impressed with the ding. Herman had to refund their entire fee."
"Exactly, that's why you're going to do it."
"What if I forget what I'm doing?"
"That's why I'm accompanying you."
The transport lay untethered by the clinic, attached
by air-hose. It didn't look much like a ship, more a crumb of some
exotic breakfast cereal, crispy and coated with cocoa powder, one that
had been sitting for years in the dark corner of a pantry in paltry
Stifling her repulsion, Usula followed Entralia into
the main compartment. They wore gas masks on the suggestion of Brian,
who suspected Gus was not a clean liver. He was right. The ship was
littered with floating organic debris, and there were dirty smears on
"♫♫♪♫," whistled Entralia, several tones out of key. "True to me... you are..."
"Are you still singing that song? You were humming that tune the day we met."
"I know. Ah, happy times- it reminds me of them."
"How can you whistle in a place like this?"
"My mind- it keeps it distracted and therefore pure."
She shook her head as they moved on in search of the controls.
They rounded a misshapen corner and stopped. The
passage was blocked by a wall of darkness. Entralia reflexively flicked
on a pen-light and traced it over the mound of tightly-stacked black
shapes. At first, the objects seemed amorphous, like balls of
liquorice, but once her eyes adjusted, Usula noticed a consistent, if
distorted, shape, little withered protrusions, a harder looking knob at
"Animals- they're some sort of lifeform," Entralia said, a second before Usula could assert the same guess.
"They look shrivelled. Perhaps they've been dried out. I wonder what they're for."
Entralia was already pulling away. "Irrelevant. Let's find the controls.
Usula struggled to take her mind off the horrible little dead rats.
A second wash taken, Usula returned to see what was
happening. After seeing the inside of Gus's ship, she was unlikely to
forget they had a customer for some time.
Brian sensed her near one of his voice-boxes and
made his usual throat-clearing sound. "I think there's something people
need to know," he began.
"It's our friend, Gus. He's been wandering around
sectors he has no authority to enter- you'd think he owned the place-
and err, helping himself to extras."
"What do you mean, food?"
"Err, not exactly. He's been opening cabinets and
drawers- even locked ones, I don't know how- and filling his pockets
with all kinds of stuff."
"Right in front of you?"
"Well, I doubt he realised I was watching, and it's certainly not my job to caution customers."
"One more thing: he appears to be entering a new
metabolic phase. My information on his kind is limited but it seems to
be perfectly natural. Unfortunately it involves excretion of a rather
large amount of waste and he doesn't appear to have any qualms about
using the facilities..."
Brian displayed none of the expressions one usually
read, but Usula could tell he found this embarrassing and disgusting,
and he didn't even have a nose. "That does it," Usula replied. "We have
to operate straight away and get him out of here. I knew it was a bad
idea signing him in."
She rushed away and would have arrived in the medical suite panting had her altered physiology allowed it.
Herman, the only remaining doctor at the clinic, had
been in deep induced sleep for three thousand years, and his timer
wasn't yet due to wake him. But Brian had instructed the computers to
begin the emergency waking sequence. The process took hours- Herman's
cells were precious and fragile things. The three thousand peaceful
years without Herman's constant moaning had gone all too fast.
Entralia was bent over the rectangular box that held
Herman, pressing buttons on a keypad. He looked up as Usula appeared.
"Is he ready yet?" Usula asked hurriedly. "I think we'd better get this moving."
Entralia's egg eyes had a milky film over them like
they did when he was over-exhausted or stressed. "He's been ready ages.
The mechanism- I can't work out how to open the latch."
Usula pushed in beside him and fiddled with the
controls until the protective lid-field crumpled. They looked down at
Herman who was stirring and moaning.
He was a short, squat man, with a jutting chin,
cropped beard, greasy from the immersion fluid, and narrow, twitching
eyes. It was always an ordeal to wake him. He hated being awake and
made sure everyone felt as cheesed off about it as he did. Generally
speaking, it was best for all when he was left unconscious.
His eyes popped open and he sat up, his face
contorted with irritation, saying, "What on Earth is going on, am I
insane or have I just been woken up early? The clock says I still have
thousands of years left."
"Customer- we have one we need you to deal with," Entralia explained.
"Customer? Oh my dear. Was it really necessary to
wake me for that, surely you could have dealt with this alone..."
"We tried but-"
"This better be good," Herman complained, "because
I'm getting old and if I don't make it to see the supernova of
Ephtris-A, I'll be the most sour dead man in the... oh dear, who
calibrated the sequence? I've a killer headache."
Impatiently, Usula said, "He wants a complete biochemical changeover. Can you do it?"
"Usula," Herman said as though spitting out
something unpleasant, "Still here? I had a hopeful feeling you might
have gone home by now, but I see you're still clinging on to fantasies."
She sneered and repeated, "Can you do it?"
"Can I do it? Can I do it? Of course I can do it. I
can do almost anything you like. What a question. What type did he ask
for?" Herman asked, looking already more focussed as he contemplated
"He didn't. He said anything different would do. He didn't explain why."
Herman smiled cruelly. He was not happy to be awake,
but he was a brilliant medical technician and thrived on achieving the
impossible. "Give me half an hour to think about it," he said. "Dear
me, this headache better not continue, amateurs... Usula, give yourself
a blood extraction and run a chemical analysis. We'll use you as a
"Me? But I'm just a-"
"Yes yes yes," Herman muttered, waving his tiny
hands, "but I doubt any other data would have been added to the record
since the system crashed so he'll have to be happy with human
biochemistry. Get to it. Dear me, anyone'd think you were doing me a
favour." Suddenly he was up on his feet and, after a momentary wobble,
on his way to the research lab.
Herman ran immense algorithms through the computer
to develop protocols for the micro-processors that would perform the
procedure, converting Gus molecule by molecule. Brian became distant,
his integration with the computer overseeing the calculations consuming
his concentration. A short time later, Herman appeared routinely out of
the lab, muttering curses under his breath and in a rush, but clearly
ready to proceed. It felt to Usula like a return to the old days.
Entralia and Usula managed to get Gus into theatre
without receiving too much abuse or bodily fluid, and the computer read
his physiology and administered a dose of some drug to knock him out
for the duration. Thank God for small mercies.
Herman dashed between the patient and the machines
hooked up to him, the whole time muttering instructions to himself.
Usula and Entralia remained close by. They wanted to know the minute
the procedure was done so they could throw Gus out straight afterward.
They sat side by side on a benchtop on the far side of the operating
bay, dressed in the full sterile suits Herman had insisted upon.
"The last day- it's been too much. Our usual quiet life- I think I prefer it," Entralia drawled.
"I thought you missed the old days, when the place
was full of staff and clients? It was fun, I suppose, sometimes."
Entralia looked at her and shrugged. With his
artificial face it was often hard to tell when he was serious. "Not
really. Cleaning work- there was too much of it altogether. I am too
tired for a return to those days."
They smiled. "Perhaps when Gus has left we should go
on a holiday. There's that resort people used to always talk about. The
customers used to go there after an operation to relax for a while.
What was it called?"
"The Chrancuckle resort on Esclan Island, Ischwan-5?
You must be joking. Ever since Eric Bugwaddle stupidly trialed a
platter of local non-carbon-based seafood and caused that riot by
blocking the wastes system, humans have been banned. Arrive there and
you'd be dissolved for the clientele's entertainment over dinner."
Usula chuckled and held Entralia's arm. "Yeah,
home's better anyway. I bet they don't even play canasta there." Her
jaw dropped. It was the first time she could remembered calling the
Gus adjusted to the radical changeover with
surprising rapidity, thanks to Herman's genius and the interference of
a number of machines. He looked the same, only thinner and baggier
because he'd lost fluid bulk during the exchange. The flushing out of
the little micro-processors that had performed the conversion finished
and Gus's grizzlings told them he hadn't changed a bit in spirit. He
insisted on getting up and preparing to leave much sooner than Herman
advised. Usula encouraged him.
"It was quite easy," bragged Herman to nobody in
particular, "Gus is basically a carbon-based lifeform with a comparable
genetic code, and oxidative physiology. All it required was-"
"You've fixed him, in other words," interceded
Usula, keen for the Gus to be gone and the doctor to be back in deep
"Now Gus," Entralia said, hands cupped together,
head slightly lowered in a pose of submission, "the payment- if we
could sort it out then you are free to head off."
Gus grunted. "It's all in cash in my transport," his
translator reported. "I think you'll find there's more than adequate
funds. I've stowed what I can in my single pod and left the rest for
"Cash, sir?" Entralia inquired tensely.
"Yes. It says on your brochure you accept all forms of currency."
"And what currency is it you are carrying?"
"Inrarnian Halscheters," garbled the speaker with some difficulty.
"The edible currency of the Inrarnians," he belched, his natural voice becoming rather loud.
Usula gasped. "Not those horrible little dried critters in your ship?"
Gus swivelled around towards her, his feelers reaching out quiveringly. "The very ones. I'll be leaving now."
"But you can't pay with those," she protested,
"they're not money." She had hoped that this incident would at least
result in enough money for them to order in a few delicacies and new
games if a holiday was off the agenda. Now it looked like Gus was going
to rip them off.
"Insult. Of course it's money. Halscheters are a
prized delicacy, since the species was wiped out by hunting and exists
only as stockpiles of dried treats. They are extremely valuable in
The conversation was cut off abruptly by a sudden
rumbling sound, the room shaking enough for several items to fall off a
"What the heck was that?" Entralia yelled.
"H-hmm," Brian introduced himself, "This is probably
an opportune moment to inform people that we have further visitors."
"Visitors?" rasped Gus's speaker. "What kind of transport do they arrive in?"
"It's not a model the computers recognise," Brian replied calmly. Then, "It looks something like a..."
Brian's voice trailed away as a sizzling electric
sound indicated the main air-lock had been breached by force. They
stood in silence, listening. There were rattling, clicking noises-
sounding disconcertingly biological in origin- which grew closer and
larger in number.
After a minute of frozen waiting, the first of the
intruders appeared in the doorway, entering by crawling through along
the roof. The pitch-black creature looked like a spider, only its
sickeningly long, barbed legs were many-articulated and many in number,
leaving the plump, shining body from every conceivable angle as they
felt the way forward.
The thing moved with small, rapid advances of sucker
feet, longer antennae-like appendages sensing the air. By the time it
crawled down the wall to the floor, a further three had arrived and the
clicking, rattling language picked up in frequency until it became a
united ringing that hurt Usula's ears.
Soon the place was crawling with the ugly beasts and
they began to approach the occupants. Usula faced the closest to her
with intense concentration. It wasn't that she was in any way brave
enough to deal with it- she felt she might crumple to the ground at any
moment- there was simply no way she could wrench her eyes away. It
edged towards her until it was nearly in contact, its antennae invading
her immediate air-space with darting motions.
A new appendage appeared from beneath a flap on the
body, more fleshy than any of the other bits, red-pink with menacing
spines protruding from the sides. It grew as it extended towards her.
She wanted to scream and run away, but her larynx and legs, indeed her
entire body, was frozen. She suspected the weird buzz flowing through
her was the reason: the bugs were preventing her from doing just that.
The creatures were everywhere and she could hear more on the outside.
There was no escape.
The appendage thinned to a sharp tip, so close
between her eyes she couldn't focus on it. She heard herself whimpering
softly and realised she was holding her breath. A twitch started in one
of her eyes. The needle-tip touched her on the forehead and drove
itself painfully in.
She had almost resigned herself to a horrible death
when the needle suddenly withdrew. Her muscles back under control, she
looked around and saw the rest of the bugs withdrawing, filing out of
When she started breathing again, it was in
desperate gasps that even her internal processors couldn't smooth out.
She doubled over and was sick- either from fear or something the needle
In minutes, the clinic was quiet again, empty of the
intruders. Gus, Herman, Entralia and Usula stood stunned where they had
Entralia was the first to speak. "Those creatures- what were they?" he demanded.
Herman seemed calm, although he was tentatively
rubbing at the spot where he had been needled. "I'm afraid I know the
answer to that," he replied softly. "I had the misfortune of treating
one once. They were Inrarnian warriors."
"Inrarnian warri...," Usula whispered, "but Gus just said... Gus?"
Even hidden in his layers of fur, only feelers for
expression, Gus looked sheepish and shaken. "Yes, they were Inrarnian
"What did they want?" Usula wanted to know.
"Me," he replied simply.
"Then why didn't they take you?"
"They sense by smell and body chemistry only," he explained, "so they didn't recognise me."
"The procedure- it was successful," understood Entralia.
"So that's why you wanted it done. Thanks a trillion
for leading them here. What did you do to them exactly to make them
chase you?" Usula asked.
"I stole a transport-load of Halscheters from them.
They're extremely protective of them, you see. They've chased me for
four thousand years across intergalactic space."
"So they'll have taken your transport and the cash?" said Brian.
"Oh no. They came to kill me only. Inrarnians
believe Halscheters touched by other races are bedevilled and would not
go near them."
"That's a shame," Usula said, "that means we're stuck with the ugly things."
"I do apologize for any inconvenience," Gus said
humbly, although Usula suspected the translator's diplomacy device was
now partially ad-libbing. "I must now leave."
"Just a minute. Empty your... pockets. Got anything that doesn't belong to you?"
Entralia and Herman jumped at the unprecedented
boldness of accusing a customer. Gus paused for a long moment, then
sighed and began removing items from the folds of his skin. Several
minutes later, a pile of assorted items lay before him: two Herman
Munsfeld Clinic beer glasses, several towels and unwrapped bars of
soap, and about half the stationery store.
"Thank-you. Where are you going?" Usula inquired.
Wherever it was, she was crossing it off her list of possible travel
"After all this, I'm feeling rather stressed. I
think I might go to the Chrancuckle Island resort on Ischwan-5. Maybe
they can arrange counselling for cleptomania. I can't go on like this.
It's meant to be the best resort this side of the VI3 Cloud."
"It is," Entralia agreed as he motioned for Gus to
follow him to the air-lock. "However, that particular resort- I suggest
"You suggest what? How dare you?"
"It's just that if you..."
Gus wasn't listening. Entralia could barely be heard
over his grizzling rumbles as the translator sang out, "I don't take
instructions from slaves."
Entralia shrugged. "Good luck to you then- no hard feelings."
Gus silently followed Entralia out and the others
followed behind, eager to see the departure with their own eyes. A
minute later, Gus had gone and the ordeal was over, apart from the
stack of dried animal carcasses inside the crumb, which they'd have to
do something with, and the burnt-out door-mechanism.
Herman yawned and began to walk away, announcing,
"Oh dear, that was a bore. I'm going back to sleep. This time don't
wake me before time, not for anything. I'm really keen to witness this
supernova. Honestly, waking me for one trifling operation. I never..."
Entralia and Usula retired to the lounge to play
canasta, a vague feeling something nasty had occurred blurring in
Usula's thoughts. She always lost the game- her own cards were in front
of her to see but she could never remember what Entralia had picked up-
but she enjoyed it just the same. It was relaxing and, besides, a good
excuse to demand Entralia's occasional company.
"Gus- I hope he enjoys his holiday," Entralia murmured.
"You know what you said about the Ischwan-5 resort,"
Usula said, reminded of Gus, as she dealt the hand, "how do they
Entralia replied without taking his eyes from his
cards, which he was sorting as they arrived. "They have sniffers that
detect scent- blind sniffers."
"Do you think perhaps you ought to have tried harder to get the message across to Gus?"
He looked up and broke into a harsh smile. "Nah."
Usula examined her hand. She had a good run of Kings
and a few pairs- not bad. She turned the first card from the pack and
the game began. She couldn't remember how long they'd been playing and,
so long as no one reminded her, had no idea the usual uninterrupted
routine of the clinic had just been disrupted. She lived by the minute.
She had Brian and Entralia. Her distant memories told her who she was.
Another thousand years of this didn't seem too bad.