Greg Guerin
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 would cramp.

    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 security mechanism.

    "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 a hill.

    "I beg your pardon," she said, "I'm afraid you'll have to speak Andromedan. Our computer cannot translate Magellanic Cloud Languages."

    "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
 this procedure?"

    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 the
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."

    "Well I-"

    "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 for me?"

    "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
external makeover?"

    "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 more."

    "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."

    "It does?"

    "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 a
terrible rush."

    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 transport?"

    "Excuse me?"

    "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 decay.

    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 the walls.

    "♫♫♪♫," 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 either end.

    "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 the problem.

    "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 template."

    "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 clinic home.


    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 sleep.

    "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 you."

    "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.

    "Which are?"

    "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 Inrarnian society."

    The conversation was cut off abruptly by a sudden rumbling sound, the room shaking enough for several items to fall off a shelf.

    "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 the room.

    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 had injected.

    In minutes, the clinic was quiet again, empty of the intruders. Gus, Herman, Entralia and Usula stood stunned where they had been accosted.

    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 warriors alright."

    "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 destinations.

    "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 avoid-"

    "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 recognise humans?"

    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.

The End

Greg's stories have appeared a number of times on the web and he has been published in Aurealis and sold further stories to Aurealis and Borderlands (the Australian one). He lives in South Australia and  recently launched the Australian ScienceFiction Forum