Chapter two of a science fiction novel by Michael Formato.
THE DEAD FOX
“WHICH LANGUAGES do you specialize in?” the Hosth male asked from across the table. I had to reel my wandering thoughts back to the conversation at hand, as the roach I held slowly burned away. I brought it to my mouth and breathed in, letting the smoke seep from my lips. Potent.
“All of them,” I replied.
I watched him raise an eyebrow as I passed the roll back to him. I could tell, through the dim candlelight atmosphere of the avant-garde café, that he had taken an interest in me, though we had only just met and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.
The café was cradled somewhere between destitution and modernity – the walls were bricked, the tables were tall and thin, with no chairs. The floor was old hardwood, worn, and all of it was lit by candlelight, making the space perpetually dark. Apparently random imagery hung from large picture frames across each wall; fish skeletons, a book of matches, a blank canvas with the word “painting.” An ominous grey haze of smoke and ash hung over the entire space like a feeling of foreshadowing
Rakshasa had introduced me to Corbin, a Hosth, when I arrived down from First, and he immediately greeted me with a firm handshake. This was followed by a tall pint of ale, a couple of hand-rolled will-o-wisps that I hadn’t dabbled with since my time back on Terre, and a metal tin of what looked like mints but most probably weren’t. Rakshasa had downed a few before returning to the bar for more refreshments and some food.
The place was packed, loud with chatter. It was rare to find a place that didn’t pound music into your ears and actually allowed you to speak to the person standing next to you. I appreciated that. Still, Corbin and I needed to raise our voices to remain audible where we stood.
“All of them?” Corbin repeated my response, blowing smoke towards the ceiling. I chuckled.
“Most of them,” I clarified, “I also dabble in investigative linguistics, you know… the decoding of language.”
He nodded, looking down at the table and resting his chin on his closed fist. Behind his grin, the lines around his eyes and face told the story of his age. They were rare on a Hosth, whose lifespans were nearly double that of humans. Wrinkles meant he must have been well over a century old, the pigmentation of the skin fading to white with age. The color of a Hosth’s skin vary wildly, hitting anywhere from a deep purple (the most common) to a dark orange-brown depending on genetics and the region of birth. With age, Corbin’s skin had turned a pale shade of purple.
“A polyglot,” Corbin remarked, “I’m surprised.”
“Surprised about what?”
“I’m surprised the Galax didn’t pick you up at a young age and craft you into one of their own.”
He watched my grin disappear as I watched his own do the same.
He opened his mouth to speak again but closed it just as quickly, and, sensing the tension, he opted for another drag. Rakshasa returned with baskets of food in each hand.
“Make way,” she called while Corbin and I moved to clear a space big enough for the hampers.
“My brother should be arriving soon. Caught up at work, I suppose. And then we’re still missing the Scarav if he decides to show.”
“You really expect him to come?” Corbin asked, fishing into bowl of chips almost immediately.
“He seemed sincere this time round. You can only decipher so much through worded texts,” she smiled. Corbin laughed, holding a hand over his mouth as he chewed.
“Ahh, the potato,” Rakshasa said, turning her attention back to me. “Terre’s single greatest gift to the galaxies.” I laughed and couldn’t help but nod at that truth.
“So, a brother?” I asked, surprised. She nodded her head, picking up her pint.
“Yes. I have a brother,”
“As it turns out.” We shared a laugh together.
“I guess there are a lot of things you don’t know about me. Much as I don’t know much about you. Aside from what we see at work.”
She looked at me with that smirk I had become so accustomed to.
“So, I assume you two have gotten to know each other while I was gone?”
“Ah, yes. I guess you could say that,” Corbin muttered.
“Did he mention the paper?” Rakshasa asked me. Corbin shook his head with a slight chuckle.
“Corbin is a brilliant editor,” she added, taking a sip from her pint. “He never mentions the paper.”
“I own a small press. Newspaper. Nothing fancy. I… I would hardly call myself, or any of my work, brilliant.” He took a small peek behind him. “Or legal, nowadays,” he whispered, leaning in close.
“Underground,” I said as I raised my eyebrows, my interest piqued, “How exciting.”
“Yes, and given how tight nit the Galax militia have become… it sure does keep the heart pumping. Their spies are everywhere.”
I caught his drift immediately. His suspicions.
I returned a nod. “Indeed.”
“Speak of the Galax,” Rakshasa exclaimed, interrupting our little game. She signaled over someone from the crowd, a male Ohrian with much darker skin than her own, and grey horns that coiled symmetrically across the side of his head, ending just behind the ears. In addition to being nearly two feet shorter in height than his sister, about my size, his eyes seemed to sparkle in the low light, his iris’ almost chrome in color.
“Sister,” he replied, sharing a tight embrace.
“Good to be back on solid ground?”
“I had almost forgotten that in most places the ground doesn’t ping when you walk on it. Trust me, it was a frightening experience. Sorry I’m late.”
“Your timing is perfect. We were just about to send someone out for another round,” she said patting him on the shoulder sarcastically.
“Well, what a surprise… Perhaps I shouldn’t have left my perch,” he replied with a sigh. He switched his grey eyed gaze towards me and extended a hand. “Griesmann. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Lucas. A pleasure. I was just telling Madame Rakshasa that she had never mentioned a sibling.”
“She never mentioned a human, either,” he countered with a bemused grin, looking me over. I bit the inside of my cheek as he began to laugh. “A harmless jest, I assure you, and yes I quite enjoy living under the… constant, unbreakable shadow of my younger sister.” Rakshasa rolled her eyes and grinned. The size difference was hereditary to all of the Ohr species, the women on average about six to seven inches taller. Rakshasa and Griesmann were no exception.
“Anyhow, I suppose you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve been ordered to fetch more drinks, after all. You’ll be having?”
I stared into my empty pint. “Another beer.”
“Any particular preference?”
“Surprise me.” He nodded, placing the coat he had draped over his shoulder onto the table and turning in the direction of the bar. Only then was I able to spot the Galax insignia on the left breast. There wasn’t much difference between his and the one I had once worn.
“Will Hleb be joining us or?” he asked, shouting.
“He should be,” Rakshasa replied, calling back to him.
“He’s a… bit smug around people,” she said turning back to me, “Don’t take it personally. He does it to everyone.”
I didn’t doubt the truth in that. It’s just that my body didn’t seem to care whether or not Griesmann was an actual threat to me or not. I had begun to feel the anxiety mounting again.
“He works for the Galax?”
Rakshasa nodded. “He’s an Engineer. Civo-Theorem.”
I placed my hand over my heart and rubbed, feeling it begin to give off the warning signs of an unwanted episode.
“I’m going to go take a breath of air… it’s a bit hazy here,” I managed with a smile. Rakshasa and Corbin nodded in unison and I stepped out. Walking towards the exit, I tried to ignore the people and staff as I was met with the usual extended stares and double takes, followed by the customary avoidance of eye contact and muttered comments beneath breaths. Those didn’t help. By the time I reached the door I was holding back gasps, my hands on my knees. Thankfully, the anxiety that I feared may have been brewing to a point had only been a false alarm, a tiny tremor in comparison to earlier that day. But it was more than enough to elevate my heartrate tremendously.
I placed my back on the wall behind me and just stared up at the buildings, focusing on the skylines and the eco. Fourth had a Terre-like aura about it. It made me feel as if I were back on my home planet. High-rise buildings of glass and steel lining the boulevards, surrounding me on all sides. It was easy for one to lose himself down here, its vastness, masking its two-thousand meter depth. Fourth had its own ecosystem, its own weather; clouds, rain, heat. It felt alive. Like Surface, but modern. Overwhelming.
People walked down the boulevard passed me as I brooded. People exited the bar and entered. I avoided faces. A solitary motor vehicle rolled by silently, its tires rumbling across the cobblestone street. I stood there a little while until I was certain my heart had calmed down a bit before re-entering the café, more sure of myself.
I returned to a new figure standing by the table, a male Scarav, to my surprise. His hind legs (which bent backward at the knee) made him tower above almost everyone else in the café, the only non-Ohrian I had ever met to rival even Rakshasa in height.
“Here you are my friend,” Griesmann said, intercepting me as I crossed the floor. He handed me an almost pure black pint of liquid. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Is there supposed to be ash floating in this?” I asked as he held back a chuckle.
“Yes! That’s how you know it was created with passion and care,” he explained humorously. “If it makes you feel any better, the tender was using Hleb’s as an ashtray the entire time he was preparing my order.”
“Hleb? The Hleb?” I immediately turned back towards the table at the Scarav who was likewise peering at Corbin with heightened interest.
“You know his work?”
“No… but I often speak to a couple of professors back at the university who speak highly of his work. He’s all they ever talk about. Though I’m not much of a philosopher.”
Griesmann laughed. “Thankfully he’s much more… straightforward in person than he is in his writing. Where were you coming from? Outside?”
“Hm hm hm. It does get a little claustrophobic in here. Or are you one of those old fashioned Terrean’s who smoke outside?”
I chose not to reply and instead took a sip out of my pint, which turned out to be a dry stout mixed with something else I couldn’t determine.
“You work with my sister?”
I peered down into my beverage and nodded. “Yes.”
Again I nodded.
“Nice. Galax Academy?”
Just as I thought my heart had calmed itself down, I felt it speed back up again.
“I was in the academy a little while. Studied there a while… but it never really did pan out…”
He nodded. I caught his eyes staring down at my chest. “It’s your stance.”
“How you stand. Upright. Legs together. Chin up. Kind of mechanical. Or robotic. Like me. Gave it away.” He smirked. “I graduated from the Academy when I was twenty-five. It took them five years to realize I couldn’t hold a gun, let alone fire one. Another ten to realize I was smarter than the lot of them combined and I had a thing for civo-theorem. Never was able to kick the old habits though. Can’t even leave the house without making the bed first.” He patted my back and walked back towards the table, leaving me there to decipher what the hell that was about. I decided to walk back to the table myself before making any sort of scene.
The rest of the table all glanced at me upon my return.
“How was the air?” Corbin commented without even looking at me. He held a pair of reading glasses to his face and peered, bewildered, almost disgusted, at the interior of a small book.
“Hmm,” Corbin exhaled amusingly, “Haven’t heard that one before.”
Hleb began to move the fingers on his left hand swiftly, Rakshasa nodding between pauses. They both finally looked to me.
“Lucas, allow me to introduce Hleb. A writer.”
I held out my had in the Scarav custom, hand open with palm facing down, and was met with a formal return of greeting, his fingers and palm clamping down on my extended fingers. “Pleasure to me you. My colleagues are quite fond of your work.” He nodded in response, the ends of his lips curling into a small smile.
The closest thing that could be compared to the Scarav race (and I do mean the closest thing), was that of an amphibian. The wild pigmentation of his complexion was mainly black with unsystematic streaks of neon green and white traced throughout the skin, which varied in color across the multiple races. Along with the vibrant colors, like the poison dart frog most common on Terre, his skin was extremely toxic to the touch, with just the palms of his hands and soles of his hind legs safe to grasp without fear of imminent death. This was why when greeting one, it was best that they do the grasping rather than risk it yourself – not to say that the Scarav themselves don’t take precautions.
Hleb stood with almost ninety percent of his body covered in a hooded jacket and skin-tight trousers that curved to his physique. Only his hands and head uncovered.
“Ehh…” Hleb suddenly moved his fingers quite quickly, using a slight vocal cue in the form of an exhale to get Rakshasa’s attention.
The most fascinating and peculiar aspect of the specie as a whole, I had learned, was that they were completely mute; unable to speak any tongue as their evolution had rendered their vocal chords practically useless. Depending on the region and/or planet of origin, the race spoke in their own dialect of sign language that I myself was only just in the process of studying closely.
“And poet. I apologize. He just wrote that,” she interpreted, pointing at the book with her eyes. “It should be on the shelves by next week. Take a look, he hasn’t touched that one.”
Corbin handed me the hardcover as if he were glad to be getting rid of it.
“Good luck,” he warned, much to Hleb’s silent offense.
The cover was all black and was titled “Dead Fox” in the Hosth language. No ambiguity there – the first page showed a detailed image of a dead fox decomposing. It was surrounded by maggots and bugs, with its eyes already chewed out and most of its meat gone. It nearly made me spit out my drink.
“Very… intriguing,” I remarked, for lack of a better comment as I flipped through the pages and read a few poems. They were short, though to my bewilderment the photograph turned out to be the least forthright and grotesque aspect of the entire book… which was saying something. “Congratulations.”
I put the book back on table and Hleb nodded with a toothless smile, signing thank you with the fingers on his left hand, helping himself to the end of Corbin’s blunt he had held between his fingers.
“You get that close again, I’ll light you on fire.”
I couldn’t tell if it was the alcohol or the drugs but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the bluntness of the threat, only outdone by Hleb’s signed response of “The gaseous fumes that’ll emit will get you long before the burns do me in. That’ll be the end of aa’zz-ore.”
I WATCHED the hours roll by as morning wound to midday, afternoon, and twilight as the pub’s population slowly filtered out for the late morning, prompting us to do the same. I remembered making our goodbyes and going our separate ways, and before I knew it, I woke up the next night, hardly rested, with a headache there to greet me.
I skipped my office altogether that night and powered straight through to my first lecture with the vigor of a sputtering faucet. Nonetheless, when my body hit the flat bottom of my office chair I felt a wave of relief and relaxation hit me for the first time that night. Across from me, in her usual place, sat Madame Rakshasa who smiled down at her reading materials, no doubt wordlessly critiquing my morning sufferings.
We didn’t need to share any words with one another. This wasn’t the setting for conversations like that. But, as I tried my hardest to push through my own work, I couldn’t help but think of anything else – or of anyone else, frankly.
Before long I watched her stand from her seat and collect her surrounding paperwork into her bag. We shared parting nods and she moved out of sight beyond the partition towards the class she was scheduled to teach.
I found myself just about to doze off from there, through the daze of uninteresting articles and pamphlets I had tried to absorb myself in after Rakshasa had left, but I was shaken awake suddenly by my earpiece; greeted with a flood of worded messages, all sent by Rakshasa’s friend Corbin. Each was a part of one grand message that had been purposefully broken up for no reason, it seemed, other than to produce a cascading flood of information and questions that my earpiece read out to me rapidly.
The gist of them all centered around grabbing coffee, perhaps a quick bite to eat, sometime in the near future. Despite just meeting each other the night prior, it sounded bizarrely pressing. I decided against commenting on the unnecessary amount of broken up text to the acquaintance with a working printing press and agreed to meet tomorrow evening before my lectures were to begin, to which he agreed with great thanks.
The rest of my evening went by without any of the hitches that had plagued my twilight, still quite badly hungover, but on a noticeable decline as the hours passed. The headaches and the vertigo had become afterthoughts as I rummaged through rush-hour crowds back towards my office to lock up, glad the busy night had come to an end.
Once I reached home, I opened a small lamp at the corner of my bedroom and immediately laid down to rub my eyes; seeing the spiraling patterns of color swirl within my vision.
I had hoped to see Rakshasa again before I left for the morning, but had found her office door ajar but vacant, perhaps just taking the opportunity to step out for an errand of some kind. I shut her door before I left and made my way towards the lifts back to my home, immediately stripping down and letting my own exhaustion and fatigue take its course.
I was woken about four hours later by a now familiar buzz at my ear. I expected it to be a fresh stream of messages from Corbin, but found unexpectedly that it was instead Rakshasa’s message signature in the notifications. I didn’t even have enough time to open it before a voice call request averted my attention. I accepted it quickly.
“Lucas? I hope I haven’t awoken you.”
“You have… but it’s fine. Is everything alright?” I kept the worry out of my voice as I sat up on the bed, tossing blankets aside.
“Everything is fine I assure you… something has come up. Griesmann contacted me with an urgent matter that needed my attention, and now I believe I need your expertise.”
“Mine?” Perhaps the last words I had ever imagined coming from her lips.
“Can you meet us at the Wall? The southeast quadrant?”
“The Wall? Why? What’s happened?”
“I can’t explain. It’s quite complicated. Can we meet you within the hour?”
I sat there with my eyes narrowed, my mind digging for reasonable explanations but finding none.
“See you in an hour.”
“Thank you Lucas. I will be there to meet you… and I assume you are not frightened of heights?”
— by Michael Formato