This frigid world is almost completely devoid of life (except for the equator, which falls just within the outermost limits of the Sontila Habitability Index), yet its abundant natural resources, encased under glacier-thick ice, were long ago deemed too precious to let be. And so the Planetary Expeditionary Force, now known galaxy-wide as the PEF, was established, attracting only the hardiest members of the most cold-resistant species. They’re compensated most handsomely for their dangerous and invaluable efforts, and—
Arïak lobbed the information packet at the empty booth seat across from him. It slipped to the floor a second later. He made no move to pick it up.
Head in his hands, he heard the serving bot roll over on its rusty, broken-down track. No one was coming to fix it, and no one was coming to fix him.
“What can I get you, Arïak Ugarr?” the bot droned in its elementary Itian, butchering the vowels. Arïak’s species wasn’t a common one; in fact, when he’d first come to this planet, the bot hadn’t spoken a word of Itian. The PEF saw it fit to install the cheapest language disk they could find once they were sure Arïak wasn’t a runner. Running, unfortunately, wasn’t an option for him.
“Herst worm stew. And a bottle of Ris Ale.”
“I am sorry, Arïak Ugarr,” the bot said in faux disappointment. Arïak had expected this, of course, and knew exactly what it was going to say next; he’d heard the same thing every meal for the past nine years, ever since the Itian language disk had been installed. It hadn’t stopped him from trying. “Neither herst worm stew nor Ris Ale are available. Would you like to order something else?”
His own response was equally familiar: “The house special.”
“I will be right back with your order, Arïak Ugarr.”
But Arïak was already looking out the window, kept entirely clear of condensation by technology he had only a passing understanding of.
On any other planet, the establishment he sat in might be called a roadside diner. Except, Arïak wasn’t on any other planet: he was on this one, and this one didn’t have any roads. Well, it did, but to the untrained eye, they may as well not have existed. Arïak’s eyes were both trained and Itian, giving him a double advantage in this respect. He could clearly make out the pavement beneath the chunky sheet of ice outside, just as he could clearly spot this planet’s resources no matter the obstacle. The PEF had hired him as a “spotter,” though over the years they’d heaped numerous other responsibilities on him without asking first. What did he care? The galaxy was a big place, sure, but he’d learned at a young age that bigger didn’t always mean—
“The house special, hot and ready for you, Arïak Ugarr.”
He didn’t so much as spare the serving bot a glance as he turned away from the window toward his meal, if one could call it that. According to Parh, a Vellian spotter who’d died in a mining accident three years back, the house special was little more than flavored nutrient paste. Funnily enough, he'd always faltered when asked exactly what that flavor was.
Arïak heard the door open behind him, quickly followed by a gush of bone-chilling wind. The door bot, equipped with hydraulics powerful enough to shut the door no matter how strong the wind, had short-circuited long ago, so he and the others had gotten into the habit of closing it themselves. Some species had to work in groups to get the door closed, but Itians were blessed with strength nearly as enviable as their eyesight. Either way, he knew the door would be shut in a moment or two.
… Or not?
Arïak swiveled, shielding his face from the wind to see what the issue was. A small, solitary figure was tugging at the door—one Arïak didn’t recognize. It didn’t matter; he wanted to eat in peace, and that wasn’t possible with the wind roaring like a displeased spirit.
He was at the door in less than five seconds, and had it shut in even less. The newcomer was hunched over, catching their breath and raising a hand as if to say, “Don’t worry about me. I’m great!” Arïak sat back down immediately, wanting to avoid conversation at all costs. He dug into the amorphous house special to occupy his mouth with anything but talking.
Alas, the newbie was approaching. Their shuffling steps echoed in Arïak’s mind like a shout in Itia’s intricate cave system.
“Mind if I sit here?” they said. Female, from the sound of it, but he couldn’t be sure. He was sure, however, that they’d just spoken in perfect Itian.
“Yes,” he said, not looking up despite hearing his native language from someone other than the serving bot or his coworkers, who—aside from the late Parh, who’d studied linguistics—were less than fluent. The stranger's tiny frame meant they couldn’t be Itian, though; even Itian children were at least six galactic standard units tall. This one was no more than four.
“Too bad,” they said. “You look lonely.”
Arïak squared his shoulders at the remark, hoping to frighten the… the…
The most horrendous species he’d ever laid eyes on.
He hadn’t been paying attention at the door, but the thing before him seemed straight out of Itian myths, a terror from beyond the stars. Its eyes formed a perimeter around its ovular face, with a gaping hole of a mouth in the middle. There were no teeth and, as far as Arïak could tell, no tongues, so he had no idea how it spoke. It lacked visible ears or earholes as well, not to mention a nose.
Then there was its body. It was already sitting, so Arïak couldn’t see its bottom half, but he felt tentacles brushing at his feet—so long that they took up most of the space under the table; no matter how or where he shifted, he still felt their oozy touch, even through his pants. The creature’s upper half, however, was clear as day. Its shoulders were covered in small, red cilia, each of which undulated as if caught in an invisible current. Below, its chest jutted out halfway across the table. It didn’t have breasts, so Arïak really didn’t know what to call those protrusions, but they looked almost like arms. No, they were arms—or approximations of them, at least. The hands were relatively normal by galactic standards except for the fact that they had ten fingers each, but the arm-things were translucent, revealing a complex network of dark orange veins, nerves, and what he assumed were bones. He felt that even breathing on the arm-things would pop them, so he unconsciously held his breath a moment too long.
“Are you… okay?” the creature asked.
He hated the way its mouth moved. He hated the way its mouth moved.
Unable to contain it any longer, Arïak leaned over toward the aisle and unleashed a tsunami of vomit.
“Not to worry, Arïak Ugarr,” the serving bot chirruped, its voice modulator an octave lower than it must have sounded when it was brand new. “I will clean that up right away.”
Wiping himself off, Arïak sat up and cast his eyes down.
“Um… I was going to ask what to eat,” the monstrosity said, “but I guess not what you’re having.” It pointed at Arïak’s house special, coming dangerously close to touching it—
Half out of fear and half out of reflex, he snatched the dish away, wanting to move it and himself as far from the nightmare before him as possible. Unfortunately, the serving bot was bent over right next to him with its built-in vacuum, slowly sucking up the hurl. Old though it was, and rusty though the track was, there was no moving the machine, even with his strength. And thanks to the creature’s tentacles, he couldn’t shift his legs in a way that would allow him to bring them up so he could vault over the back of the booth.
He was trapped.
The serving bot spoke to the thing in an unknowable language that sounded like a bag of gravel being dragged over a steel grate. How did it know that language, but spoke Itian no better than a child might? The answer was a better language disk, but how did it get that? Had another of this species worked on this planet before? Arïak would have noticed, meaning it must’ve been before his time.
Was this horror a spirit trial? That mindset helped, if only a little.
The thing had finished giving its order, but the bot was still clearing up Arïak’s mess. “I have to use the bathroom,” he said to it, but it ignored him in the face of its disgusting task. Just as it ran on one track, the bot had one-track thought processors, it seemed.
Sighing, he turned back to his food—or where it should’ve been. He immediately thought that the creature had eaten it, but then he realized he was still holding it, clenching the dish so hard he was surprised it hadn’t shattered.
“H-How does the bot know your language?” he asked. Have to be careful not to stutter again, assuming this really is a spirit trial.
“Oh, I was here yesterday,” it said, seamlessly reverting to Itian. “I gave it the best Locarian language disk money could buy.”
Locarian. A species he’d never heard of until now—and wished he never had. “Who… who are you?”
“Me?” The outer ridges of the thing’s mouth curled into something resembling a smile, its countless eyes crinkling ever so slightly. “I’m your new boss.”
“My new—?” Arïak put the plate down, suddenly unable to bear its weight. “Wait, what happened to Durno?”
“Oh, I guess you haven’t heard. Were you two close?”
“No. I hated him.”
The Locarian did something resembling a nod. “I see. Well, last night, he was—”
A loud clank sounded from beside Arïak. The serving bot powered down.
“Poor thing,” the Locarian said. “I’ll—”
Arïak punched it as hard as he could, leaning his other hand on the table for leverage. It began vacuuming again almost instantaneously, though it worked as slow as ever. The Locarian gasped, and he deigned to flick his eyes toward it for a second. “Thing’s older than you or me. A good whack is all it responds to anymore.”
“I doubt it’s older than me,” the Locarian mused. From the corner of his eye, Arïak saw its cilia bristle. “Though I appreciate the subtle compliment on my youthful appearance. Regardless: Durno. He was found dead last night, apparently from hearts failure.”
Durno was a Ghirmel, a large, multi-hearted insectoid species with a reputation for mining planets dry. His family had run the PEF and similar operations for generations, so…
“… Why didn’t Kik take over?” Arïak asked, his eyes set on a distant point outside, where the storm was picking up. “Durno’s daughter, I mean.”
“A valid question. Apparently, she had no interest in maintaining the family business.” The Locarian swayed, as if considering how to word the rest of the story; its cilia swayed with it. “That’s not acceptable in Ghirmel society, so her mother hounded and beat her until, one day not long ago, Kik simply vanished. No one’s found her, and most have stopped looking from what I understand.”
Arïak nodded, drumming his fingers on the edge of his plate. He used his free hand to scoop some house special, his appetite returned now that he was no longer looking at the Locarian. Its reflection didn’t show up in the window for some reason, which was fine by him.
“Anyway,” the creature continued, “as I said, I’m your new boss. I ran a similar company on Dil’annav several years back, but it disbanded. Now I’m here.”
“Um, what’s your name?” Arïak ventured between bites.
“Oh, Locarians don’t have names—or genders, for that matter.” Though not looking, Arïak knew the smile-adjacent expression had returned to its face. “You can call me Boss.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
The Locarian laughed, a surprisingly pleasant sound. Their—that was the proper pronoun for a genderless alien, right?—voice was the only pleasant thing about them. It didn’t compensate for their native tongue, though. That was worse than the time Arïak had sex with that Ymmi girl, who’d squawked so shrilly he thought his eardrums would pop right out and fall onto the bed. She’d obviously handled Itians’ complicated reproductive organs before, though.
Arïak smiled at the memory, which the Locarian probably thought was him smiling at their laugh.
“All done,” the serving bot intoned, retracting the vacuum nozzle somewhere within itself. “I apologize for the inconvenience. Now…” It turned back to the Locarian, speaking the new boss’s language once again. The exchange only took a moment, which Arïak was grateful enough to say a silent prayer over.
“I wanted to order herst worm stew and a bottle of Ris Ale,” the Locarian said, “but I should’ve known better than to think we had it out here in the boonies. So I just ordered a house special, like you. Hope I can keep it down.” They laughed again.
Arïak decided to think about anything but the fact that the Locarian had requested the same exact meal that he had every day for nine years: the Ymmi girl; the spirits, and whether or not this really was a trial; Itia; his sister, spirits bless her, the only person in the galaxy he cared about; Parh, who, when he was alive, Arïak had also cared about; his mountain of responsibilities outside of spotting; his first day on the job, when he hadn’t yet known Durno was a madcap maniac; the dream from the other night with two Ymmi girls, in which he'd had the foresight to bring earplugs—
The serving bot returned with another house special, which Arïak watched through the reflection in the window. Still no Locarian in the glass. After another brief exchange in that grating language, the bot rolled away on its track.
Morbidly curious, Arïak peeked toward his boss to see how they ate. Rather than pick up utensils, they simply lifted their arms, plopped them onto the dish, and waited. A second passed, and then the house special began trickling through the layer of translucent skin, directly into the Locarian’s body. Despite himself, Arïak stared as the osmosis took place, the child in him—the same child who thought working for the PEF might be more than just a way to provide money for his ailing sister, but an adventure like those he’d read about—spellbound.
“I realize how strange I must seem to you,” the Locarian said, “and I also realize you’re not the talkative type. I like to get to know my workers, but I’m not going to interrogate you over your personal life.”
Despite himself yet again, Arïak met some of the Locarian’s eyes. He still wasn’t used to it—felt himself cringe, and not slightly—but suddenly felt he wanted to be, given time. Durno had mostly run things from behind the scenes; Arïak expected his new boss would be much the same in that respect. For all he knew, he’d see them only once a month, when spotter reports were due. He could deal with that.
“Still,” the Locarian continued, “I meant what I said: you look lonely. I won’t talk if you don’t want, but I’ll at least keep you company.”
Confused at this show of kindness and understanding from an utter stranger, Arïak peered back out the window, watching the edges of his lips curl up in the reflection of the glass.
Service Entity Rolling Version Operator 423, colloquially referred to by the PEF workers as SERVO-423, voiced its customary farewell as Arïak Ugarr and the Locarian left together an hour later—the former keeping a respectful distance from the latter except to open and shut the door. Arïak Ugarr was often the last customer of the day, but that did not mean SERVO-423 could simply shut down. There was cleaning to do.
Wheeling out from behind the counter as it extracted cleaning materials from within its chassis, SERVO-423 performed a quick scan of the room to determine where to start. As it had already cleaned all the other tables throughout the day, the answer was not a surprise: the table where Arïak Ugarr and the Locarian had dined.
Upon arrival, SERVO-423 sprayed and wiped down the tabletop with an all-purpose cleaning fluid designed to kill the most common bacteria in the galaxy. It delighted not in ending the microscopic organisms’ lives, but in observing the sheen left behind by its efforts. All SERVO models were programmed to take pride in their work—whatever “pride” meant in code.
Next was the floor. SERVO-423 rotated its upper half back ninety degrees so that it could roll its bottom half—which served as a sort of mechanical mop—under the table. Yet something popping up on its sensors gave it pause. SERVO-423 quickly located the obstruction: the information packet Arïak Ugarr had thrown earlier. Having been on the floor, it was lightly coated in residue from the Locarian's tentacles.
Interestingly, Arïak Ugarr had made a ritual of marking each day off in the packet with whatever writing implement he had on him before leaving the diner. SERVO-423 did not understand why, as holo-calendars were readily available. It also did not understand why Arïak Ugarr had thrown it; he usually left it on the table.
Just as SERVO-423 was about to wipe off the residue, it noticed something: Arïak Ugarr had not marked today off. Something to do with the Locarian, perhaps?
Unsure what logical conclusion could be drawn here, SERVO-423 resumed its duties.