Jonja.net is happy to bring you another fine piece of fiction! This time from Sci-Fi writer Ryck Neube! Published in many, MANY Sci-fi publications including several Asimov's Science Fiction.
You can check out Ryck's bibliography here
as well as more information about this talented writer.
BUG ME, PLEASE
Written by Ryck Neube
Originally printed in FUTURE ORBITS #2
edited by Tom Vander Neut
"Do you have any bugs in stock?" I asked the hundredth store.
The clerk laughed before slamming the phone.
Earlier, my husband flashed that he had found some. Some. He had probably found a couple of bugs crawling in someone's garbage. I wanted scores. I wanted to carpet my apartment with cockroaches. I wanted...
With a sigh, I returned to my work. Staring at the computer screen, I tried to make sense of its blurry words. Donning a pensive expression, as long as I smacked the keys occasionally, my peers assumed I was working. There was no chance Senator O'Brian would grace our office, thanks to a fund-raising brunch.
Fred plopped onto the edge of my work station, his thigh scooting my keyboard. "You look awful, Tanya."
"I haven't been sleeping well," I grumbled, making shooing motions he ignored.
"I have some pills that--"
"No thanks, Fred."
"You still freaked about that little spill?"
"Having industrial solvents dumped in our ventilation system isn't little." I chewed my lower lip to avoid screaming at the fool. "An apprentice plumber disconnected the wrong pipe, and people died! I did not move halfway across the galaxy to have my lungs burnt out by toxic chemicals because a company used unqualified workers to save a few bucks."
"People die on the frontier. We have to make do." Fred laughed, belittling the threat.
How else could he sleep soundly? I mused. Denial was the ultimate human defense, a way of life for the natives of this benighted polis, aided and abetted by the lies I created for politicians.
"Don't babble political slogans at me, especially ones I wrote. Go away, bother someone who isn't working."
"Just trying to be helpful," he snapped.
After he left, I spent the rest of the day gathering campaign finance figures, broken by spells of watching the violet planet below my orbital city, courtesy of the cameras of PublicBase. It seemed so tranquil down there, though Jave's atmosphere was poisonous and its weather killed hundreds every year. We were supposed to be safe up here. Supposed to be.
I walked home, instead of taking the bullet. The idea of sardining into a subway car repelled me. A squad of workers in protective envirsuits jogged down the hall, waving Geiger counters. I cringed out of their way, my chest aching at the thought of breeder reactors just two halls away. My employer had been one of the politicians who allowed substandard parts to be installed on those reactors and chemical plants. My job was to tout our leaders' genius for completing projects under budget while downplaying the risks.
Hard to believe it was only Tuesday. One Saturday night disaster and the week was shot. If only I could sleep longer than an hour at a stretch without a suffocating nightmare. DEFECTIVE SENSORS BLAMED, said the headline. Time before last, they blamed a program glitch, before that human error. My orbital city was falling apart.
"Where are our new bugs?" I shouted as soon as I entered my apartment.
"I left them in the kitchen, hon. Lester gouged us. I ought to report him to the Better Business Bureau. I should..."
I believed in data-dense communication with my husband, making the most of our limited time together. Stan's mouth preferred to gallop circles around any topic. Such differences made our marriage sparkle when I wasn't fantasizing about sharpening the butcher knife.
Tonight, I glanced at the knives.
"Where are my bugs?" I jerked a cabinet door open so hard that it came off in my hand.
Stan cleared his throat, irked I'd interrupted his monologue concerning merchant Lester. "I'm going back to Monty Hall tomorrow anyway," he said. "I'll give Lester a piece of my mind then. By the time I got through the queue today, I couldn't stop long enough to complain. It..."
I glanced at a calendar on the wall. Beneath a hologram of Mount Fuji, it flashed 17 September 1166. I banged the device until it advanced to the correct millennium. Returning to my search, I ran out of the obvious places. No doubt the roaches were near the TV. My dear hubby seldom strayed far from the tube these days.
I popped open the fridge to fetch a drink. Bingo. Stifling a moan, I removed the sack. The paper was heavy with rime. Hubby sashayed into the room to snag another beer and more kelp sticks.
"Did I do that?" Stan laughed and slapped his forehead. "Oh, I was dumping my six pack and must have stuck the bag in there, too."
The snap-tray in which the bugs resided now resembled dirty ice cubes. The label said twenty jumbo forsi, guaranteed eighty-five percent blattariae genes. Jumbo? It was the first time I'd seen the mutant cockroaches described as jumbo. I checked the receipt. Dead, but paid for. Those iced bugs cost more than I earned in a week.
"Why don't you stop in Philadelphia Hall and sell these as protein supplements?" I forced my fist to unclench before I used it.
Stan's forehead knitted as he tried to glean whether I was serious or sarcastic. A grunt announced his conclusion. "No need to get huffy. You have to learn to make do on the frontier, hon. Have you heard anything about them closing down Philly? I had to meet a prospective client there this afternoon and Security had sealed off--"
"Focus, Stan. The subject is bugs. Did Lester have more?"
"No, but there's a shipment of forsi arriving in November. We can get by until then."
I chewed my lower lip as I twisted the top off a litre of vodka. Chugging helped.
I had refused to sign another year-long marriage contract with Robby because he believed marriage was a cheap substitute for a servant. Stan, on the other hand, was perfectly domestic. He cooked, but there were occasional fires. He washed, but occasionally dissolved my lingerie. He cleaned, but occasionally changed the colour of the floor. He shopped, but occasionally KILLED MY BUGS!
Fighting the burn of the vodka, I grumbled, "What if another gas cloud escapes into the ventilators? The neighbors would warn us, wouldn't they?"
He opened his beer, head tilted to monitor the TV in the other room. "This is the frontier, hon. We don't need insects. I never cared for those crawly things."
Until today, I never understood why thirty percent of murders were spousal. I repeated, "The alarms, our neighbors, someone would warn us, right?"
Music announced the end of the commercial binge. My husband nodded and smiled and shrugged and belched before racing back to his tube. "Of course, they would, hon," he shouted from the other room.
Nobody had warned us Saturday night.
Sad to say, Stan was the most benign of the seventeen spouses with whom I had contracted over the years. As close to perfect as I had found.
"How pathetic," I grumbled while the tub filled. Grumbling was rapidly becoming my favourite means of expression. A long soak while reading Suetonius should have dissolved the funk coating me. Instead, I kept getting angry with how simple the lives of the Roman emperors had been.
Simple lives. Emperors had guards, not bugs. They never lived a few halls from reactors built by low bid contractors.
I inserted my bankcard into the control panel. The transaction filled the hot water heater on the wall. I bailed some of the cool water into the toilet reservoir, making room for scalding water.
My eyes kept darting, hoping I'd glimpse a roach waltzing across the floor. Thinking of my bugless, defenseless home caused my skin to crawl. How could anyone live like this?
Stan shambled into the bathroom. He checked the reservoir and pocketed his bankcard with a grin. His pants dropped as did he upon the toilet.
"The Senate is debating the Mars embargo."
"What if there's another spill?" I asked, cursing the tremble in my voice.
The jaded native rolled his eyes, treating me like fresh meat off a shuttle, though I'd lived on our orbital city for four years. "We'll hear about it in plenty of time. That's what all those alarms are for. That's why we have public shelters, hon."
"What about the phenol-compound spill Saturday night? If it hadn't been for our bugs--" I coughed to loosen that annoying tremble.
The memory replayed with nightmare detail. Shrieking roaches had stormed from their hiding places, frantic to escape the first whiffs of the chemical accident. Genetically altered to be hyper-sensitive to a vast array of toxins, as well as to give voice to their agony, the poor bugs were dead before I could get dressed. Stan and I were already hacking our lungs out by the time we staggered into the safety of the emergency shelter in our quad. The vaunted alarms never sounded.
Next time, I would leave Stan in the bed, snoring through the disaster. Teach him.
"Defective sensors. Defective lifestyle, more like it. Every time the government lowers our taxes, they cut more corners, but you, gentle voters, have never figured out that cut corners equal dead citizens because the speeches I write make it sound like we are creating a bargain paradise," I grumbled.
"We will be warned."
"If it hadn't been for our bugs, we might have been killed like the Lewis family. Patricia Walken is still in the hospital."
"If, if, if! Your outsider eyes see Mecklen Polis falling apart. Maybe we aren't as shiny and state of the art as your precious L-fugging-Fiver poleis. Maybe we have some problems. Who doesn't? We're pioneers! We shall surmount them all, Tanya."
"Which sir are we mounting? I can't believe I married a true believer." It felt as if my speeches were coming to life to plague me. I wrote them. Senator O'Brian spoke them. Whereupon everyone regurgitated them...at me.
"Damn straight I believe in my city. You want us to dismantle our only source of export goods? We depend on the breeder reactors and chemical plants for--"
"This isn't about industry, Stan. I'm talking about US! I want, I need a few bugs to warn us in case there's another accident. Is that too much to ask?"
"Things are never easy on the frontier, meka." He retired to his TV.
I reached over and flushed. "Frontier, ha!"
I almost cried. O'Brian's frontier speech had been the best I had ever written. I had to make do. With Stan. Without bugs. That thought pried tears from my eyes.
The opportunities of the frontier, every speech I wrote dwelled upon it. I'd immigrated from the prosperous Earth orbit halfway across the galaxy to find perfection. Instead, I had waited a year for Stan's marriage contracts to expire, since his spouses hated me and vetoed my joining their family.
"Could you be more of a loser?" I grumbled at my image in the mirror. "You waited for that TV zombie! And he is as close to perfection as you ever found."
After my bath I went to my bedroom, passing hubby in the TV room. He was a snoring lump. I slipped into bed. My eyes refused to close.
"Wait! What was that?" I snapped the light on, hoping to see a bug. Nothing.
An hour ticked by before I abandoned my quest for sleep. I didn't need to dress; I'd neglected to undress.
"How can any sane person live without bugs?" I yelled without waking my sleeping husband. "If the bugs won't come to me, I will go to them!"
He did not stir. Even dying roaches could not wake him.
Slipping into the kitchen, I prepared a couple of jam sandwiches. I shoved them into my purse and left the apartment. Feeding a vending machine a couple of $20 coins, I rented a bicycle. Pedaling soon cleared my worry-clogged, vodka-fueled brain.
Cooper Hall's forest greeted me with a reminder that the rich lived differently from me. Granted, the trees were only two meters tall, and vandals had dragged fifty of the pots into the center of the hall to create a forest that would generate chaos come the morning rush hour. In lieu of trees, my Drysen Hall sported chem-poles like overgrown candy canes to neutralize bizarre smells and subtle poisons from the nearby industrial sites.
The door hissed open before my finger lifted off the doorbell. You could depend upon Gracie Kerns to be at home in her plush Cooper Hall suite, also known as Chez Asylum among her few remaining friends. My brown eyes ached in the thousand watt lighting. It seared my hands, exposing their aging imperfections. As if my morale needed another blow.
"Hello?" I said, blinking.
A forsi, truly a jumbo, skittered across the wall. My neck muscles unknotted, my stomach unclenched. A smile celebrated my relief.
"This was how a home should feel...safe."
Bill Kerns appeared, his muscular build accentuated by greased, Olympian nudity. He mimed a kiss on my cheek.
"Is Gracie awake?" I asked.
"Does she ever sleep?"
"Are they selling those now?" I pointed at the stack of lifepacks and their naval insignias.
"My wife has become a thief. From agoraphobia to kleptomania in the space of a weekend."
"She stole them? Getting outside, that's an improvement." I inspected the packs, fighting the urge to unroll the heavy layer of plastisteel designed to transform a simple envirsuit into radiation-proof garb suitable for prolonged exposure to space. The latest in disaster fashion.
"No, she purchased them from a thief she met on a bulletin board."
"So, Gracie is merely receiving stolen goods."
"When did you get your law degree? Talk some sense to her. Gracie listens to--"
"Nobody listens to me." I turned off the shadow box. The holographic Bill vanished.
The shadow box was a hot perk for humans fortunate enough to be employed by the alien Dyb'. How did it feel? I wondered. Once you were attached, the black box soaked up your memories and attitudes. Had Bill felt the machine copying his thoughts? The hologram generated by the machine was a walking, talking snapshot from a decade ago, a great comfort to Gracie after Bill was killed.
I grabbed at a roach crossing the floor. Missed. Incredible how elusive forsi could be.
I wended through the palace, searching for Gracie. If you had to be an agoraphobic, it helped to be rich. Fell down after contorting a descending foot to prevent stepping on a bug, but I caught the vase I knocked over before it hit the floor. I checked five bedrooms before I found the one she was using.
Gracie resembled a puppet with all those wires taped to her. Most people into faux sex were satisfied with direct stimulation of the brain, but old-fashioned Gracie preferred stimming her external erogenous zones. She claimed it felt more natural. The soles of her feet? Her armpits? Nostrils? With zones like that, maybe my friend needed wires.
Her grey eyes were open and staring. No telling if she actually saw me. I waved before returning to her living room to fix myself a drink. Her screams of joy followed me.
A case of Martian brandy rested behind Gracie's bar. Old money seldom sacrificed, even on the frontier. I drained my tumbler by the time Gracie floated into the room.
My friend was a ballet gamine. Her long, plaid-dyed hair was braided; the braids held by golden triangles tipped with diamonds. Pale skin accentuated the blush where the wires had been attached. Like her holographic husband, Gracie wore her nudity with casual aplomb. She sat on the aluminium coffee table, caressing the box.
"What time is it?"
"About two in the morn," I replied. "I knew you'd be up. Sorry to interrupt your fun."
"Seven hours will suffice for the nonce."
Her thin lips vanished when she smiled. She took the tumbler of brandy I offered her. A long sigh widened her smile. "You drink like a barbarian, Tanya. Sip. Enjoy the delicate flavour. Do you still have a liver?"
I gulped, trying not to be irritated.
"Marry anyone new this week?" She flicked an eight-legged forsi off the table. It shrieked in its unmistakable, unearthly voice before scurrying beneath the orgy-sized couch.
I laughed off her dull barb. "Why the lifepacks? Bill is upset about your new career in crime."
Withdrawing a hankie from my purse, I daubed the brandy off my lips before casually setting my open purse on the floor.
"There's going to be another accident," Gracie averred with the sincerity of Cassandra, grim of visage and serious as a property settlement. "I've seen it in my dreams."
"Why two lifepacks?"
"Bill may need protecting. If one of our breeder reactors chernobyls..." She prattled endlessly about the necessity of a spacesuit for her beloved hologram.
I stared at a dozen forsi climbing the side of a bookcase toward a bowl of bug chow. More forsi circled a clump of I-didn't-want-to-know-what beneath the edge of the coffee table. So homey. Wherever I looked I glimpsed insects. She could open her own retail outlet.
Do not spook Gracie, I told myself, just ease into the request. Instead, adrenalin boiled. I blurted, "Stan killed all of my bugs. I can't sleep. I was wondering if I could--"
"NO!" she yelped. "Don't even ask. I hardly have enough. I can't leave myself vulnerable. There's going to be another accident." She hyperventilated as she spoke.
"I wasn't going to ask for bugs. Could I spend the night here?" I lied with practiced ease. Gracie's few remaining friends had learned to lie convincingly.
"You want to stay here?" Gracie sweated bullets.
"Cooper Hall couldn't be further from the industrial halls. It isn't like my Drysen Hall, sharing the same ventilation complex as the Morgon and Dill chemical plants."
"Sleep here?" She stroked her shadow box.
I tried to make eye contact, but she avoided it. "Never mind, Gracie. I can't think straight. I keep listening for my bugs. The silence terrifies me. I had to get out of there."
"Get out? Sorry you have to go so soon. Please, stay for another drink. It's so rare for me to have a guest these nights. Am I the last nocturnal on the polis?" Gracie hugged her knees so tightly her joints crackled.
Do you misunderstand people on purpose? I wanted to ask but didn't.
It was difficult to reconcile Madame Basketcase with the social doyen of Mecklen Polis' elite. I'd researched Gracie at the library after Sam, our mutual friend, introduced us. Gracie had been a cultural dynamo until the freighter SUZU plowed into our orbital city and killed her beloved. Her decline made Gracie Kerns a perfect metaphor for the decay of Mecklen Polis into the toxic waste industrial site of the stellar system.
The madwoman had totally alienated most of her old friends. However, Gracie's contacts had gotten me the job with Senator O'Brian. A billionaire friend was worth most hassles.
Billionaire? I nearly laughed at the absurdity of the anemic label. Gracie once hired a trio of billionaires as servants for a party just to strut her wealth.
I strolled to the bar, refilling our glasses. The tumblers I used were my petty revenge. Proper glassware mattered to Gracie, yet she was too polite to mention her guest's faux pas. Hospitality was important at Chez Asylum.
"Do you think I'm crazy?" she blurted as if reading my mind. She feverishly picked invisible lint off her bony legs.
"Rich folks can't be crazy. Besides, the Mental Health Board has already declared you officially eccentric. If the dreams bother you, call Doctor Barnes. He likes you a lot."
"I can't sleep without worrying about the next accident. I must be ready. I tried sleeping in my envirsuit, but it chafes so badly."
"I could stay and stand guard."
Her grey eyes slitted. "Bill doesn't approve of intruders."
"Let Bill stand sentry duty. He could yell until you woke. Shadow boxes have first-rate speakers."
"I can't remember much about the dream. What if it isn't a crash? What if it's a reactor melt-down or a poison cloud? He's dependable, but he can't smell."
I chewed my lower lip. The polis was a series of doughnut-shaped halls inside a cylindric hull. Reactors and poisons might kill pioneers like me in the upper halls, but the luxury halls at the planet-side of the city had individual recyclers and ventilators, special shielding and airlocks. The only thing that would disturb their lives of quiet consumption would be the death of their servants.
"Bill would notice your bugs dying," I said.
"I'm scared another accident might trigger some kind of trauma in Bill."
He's frigging dead, I wanted to scream. You couldn't get more traumatized than that! Instead, I smiled and said, "He would love to stand guard, to protect you."
"And I could protect him when the box is off." She grinned widely, wildly. "We are thinking about vacationing on Mars next year. We..."
As her Bill monologue progressed I settled into the plush couch. How fortunate I was to have a friend like Gracie, I thought, to make my problems seem so insignificant. We both hated our lives. The difference was, she did something about hers--she went insane.
On the frontier you learned to make do.
Somewhere down the line she finished her paean to her dead, yet present, husband and began looptaping. Gracie could continue like this for hours, repeating herself hoarse. Slowly coming to my feet, I hugged her until the word hemorrhage tapered to a stop.
"I have to go. If you need anything, call me. Better yet, call Doctor Barnes. It would make his day to be invited for a visit. You might even get lucky. There's a world of difference between wires and a warm body."
"Do you really think Bill could wake me in an emergency?"
"Trust him. He's perfect."
"The accident will occur during an early morning. It might be a passenger liner hitting the city. Be careful."
I almost laughed. Passenger liners didn't visit Jave orbit unless they were lost or crippled.
"I will be extra careful, Gracie. Thanks for the warning."
Retrieving my purse from the floor, I snapped it shut. Slowly retreating from the suite, I shook my head as if I cared about her Cassandra prophecy. Outside, the tree-clogged tranquility of Cooper Hall refreshed me as I pedaled home, the image of that de facto forest lingered in my imagination with the persistence of a lover's final touch.
Stan was sleeping quietly when I returned. I had a sneaking suspicion he only snored when I was there to be annoyed. Rushing into the kitchen, I opened my purse, pouring its contents onto the table. The jam had ruined my purse, but it had drawn forsi like flies. Didn't they share genetic material with houseflies? I counted two dozen bugs before I grew too guilty to continue.
On the frontier you had to make do.