Pitching a Bug
by Chet Gottfried
NOTHING IS MORE DANGEROUS than facing an enraged Gorgohorribilis in the enclosed confines of a space station. The huge monster had fully engorged the air bladders that formed the immense crest on his head and along his neck and back. The subsequent roar could blast anyone’s eardrums into oblivion. And do you want to talk about the long serrated talons decorating its fingers, the stuff of nightmares? Those claws could rip out my heart and tear it to shreds.
How I wished I had a weapon! Anything would do, a knife, sword, neutron blaster, or a piece of broken glass. Well, a neutron blaster would be the preferred method for subduing the beast, but such a device would do little good, not for me, not now. The authorities, what there were in this region of the galaxy, took a dim view of shooting an employer, no matter how angry or dangerous he happened to be.
“Raddel, how could you be so stupid!” Wharton roared at me. He happened to be not only a Gorgohorribilis, or Gorgo per the general staff, but also the owner of Heavenly Solar Systems, my place of employment. “Do you want to see me ruined? My shop reclaimed by my creditors?”
Gorgos are carnivores. Wharton’s breath told me what he had for dinner each day of the past week. All Gorgos, no matter how wealthy, made wretched sales reps. They couldn’t sell a steak sandwich to a starving Epod, one of the few creatures whose appetite outweighed a Gorgo’s. That explained my position as a sales rep but not why I ended up in a meaningless piece of the galaxy. Gorgos were wizards of finance, which explained why he owned the shop.
“Why don’t I throw you outside the shop?” Wharton roared. “Maybe a dose of absolute zero might do you some good, inasmuch as I would never have to put up with such idiocy. Although . . . maybe it would be better to have you arrested. A dozen years at hard labor might teach you about justice. Yes, you are a criminal! Nothing less than a cold-blooded murderer—of me, my family, and all the relations who depend on my support.”
My “crime” didn’t bother me too much one way or another. I had allowed a return, and as the senior sales rep I had to handle all returns as well as other complaints. A customer was totally unhappy with her solar system, which was nothing as described. She had paid for a number of features, which were clearly botched by our tech department, which apparently didn’t know a comet from a planet. Hey! It happens during the busy season, when everyone wants a special graduation present for the offspring. I heard that Wharton had the unfortunate techie, who was responsible for that solar system, incinerated, so some of the Gorgo’s threats were real. To date, however, the boss hadn’t incinerated any of the sales staff or dropped them off into deep space minus a suit.
On the other hand, I knew little about the Gorgo legal code. Maybe I had committed a crime—according to their standards. Keeping track of all the legal systems of all the worlds was next to impossible, so I didn’t let it worry me too much. I was a good sales rep, even if the Gorgo forgot that fact from time to time.
“I won’t kill you today if you make a suitable sale to compensate for this.” Wharton didn’t wait for a reply. He suddenly turned away, stomped into his office, and slammed the door hard enough to vibrate everything in the salesroom.
I would have preferred two weeks’ notice and no recommendation over death, but the monster paid better than most. The other sales rep present, Donovan Trewood sighed. Trewood wasn’t the victim of Wharton’s wrath, but it might well have been him. Trewood made the original sale, and whereas the techie screwed up big time, Trewood’s instructions were not the clearest in the universe. One of these days the blame will rightfully fall on Trewood’s shoulders. As far as I was concerned, Trewood was the real enemy, someone ready to steal any customer who walked into the shop. Luckily, my seniority gave me first choice, and I never refrained from throwing that in his face or whatever part of his anatomy happened to be available. Unfortunately, my status had no influence on respect, and Trewood was always attempting some sort of camaraderie.
Trewood smiled complacently at me. “Gorgo really roasted you.”
“I thought we’d need a new sales rep,” he said.
Our conversations often followed that pattern. A merry jingle interrupted us.
Man, but was I ever sick of that jingle. Day in, day out, it ran through my head. If only there were some way of turning it off or sabotaging the thing. Still, the musical spurt signaled good news: a customer had arrived at the outer airlock. A good sale today would compensate for yesterday’s disaster.
Many people asked why Heavenly Solar Systems was located in a space station orbiting an otherwise abandoned planet. The wags had it that a space station allowed limitless parking. The theoretical number of customers who could enter our shop was endless. The truth was elsewhere. We were here because of the cheap rent and zero real estate taxes. Limitless parking? Don’t make me laugh. Our shop only had two airlocks to which a mark’s ship could attach. Between those two airlocks was a third, for those who couldn’t make a direct seal with our station or who were too impatient and wanted to rush in and buy a solar system. Few people ever entered through the third, and those who did were trouble, with an impossible or ridiculous set of demands and in the end could not afford the price. We had lots of window shoppers, because few people could afford a new solar system. Yeah, it’s an unfair universe.
The overhead monitors discreetly tracking the customer revealed a lovely scene: an Ardean Maximal escorted by three humanoids. Seeing an Ardean anywhere meant money—they were the species with more cash on wing than any other sentient race. And burn it they did, with squadrons of servants about them. Of course, if a person happened to be for all intents and purposes an oversize bird with wings instead of arms, you’d need a ton of servants. Maybe the Ardeans were the deep thinkers of the galaxy, or happened to be luckier than any other species at the stock market, but let’s face it. No matter how skilled one is with that long bill of theirs, lacing those fancy sandals up the leg would be impossible.
I wondered what riches they paid their servants. Maybe I missed my calling? Maybe I should be spending time with the better races of the galaxy? On second thought, looking at the dull faces of the servants, either the pay was particularly bleak or they were beaten into submission. The mysteries of an Ardean mansion or luxury spaceship were beyond me, so I simply did what I did best, blanking my face into a mask of welcome and well met.
Trewood would have loved a shot at them, but he knew that I had first call on anyone entering the shop. It took enough cigarette burns to get that point across the idiot.
“Would sir or madam enjoy a little refreshment?” I asked.
The taller humanoid answered. “Yes.”
“A little creme de menthe?”
The humanoid nodded. “In a shallow bowl, please.”
And not too large, if I remembered correctly. It tended to be a little embarrassing when an Ardean took a bath in a dessert treat. Of course, why crme de menthe should be popular with Ardeans was beyond me. Call it another one of the galaxy’s mysteries.
I snapped my fingers, and Trewood glared at me. Fixing the drinks was his specialty, and I happened to know that snapping my fingers irritated him enormously. Served him right! He should have been the Gorgo’s target, not me.
“And what type of solar system would madam or sir prefer?”
“Something for the children.”
I glared a little at the humanoid servant. He might have made it easier on me by defining the gender of my customer. One couldn’t tell the sex of one Ardean from another without looking at its cloaca, which would be as gross an invasion of privacy as is possible. Probably against the laws of many planets too. Of course, Ardeans can speak as well as anyone, but they refused to make the effort to talk to any of the lesser races. Beneath them and all that. What was the point of immense wealth if not for such joyful habits?
“For the children . . .” I murmured. I knew exactly what to show, but for a successful sales pitch, I had to pretend to be thinking intently. Ardeans like that. Everyone who pretended to be someone liked it as well. I let Trewood return with the drink and allowed a few minutes for the Ardean to get a pleasant glow before I said anything more.
“What I propose,” I began with my best cautionary voice as if the pitch would only be made to a select few, “is a binary system.” To turn on the virtual display and to impress the Ardean and its entourage, I said crisply, “Binary display, factor 425x, inspired view, detailed, special 4001y,” and a few additional commands of increasing complexity. In truth, I only needed the first two stipulations, but no one likes to think that his or her new solar system comes out of a box. Customers prefer thinking that they’re special, and so the additional commands are hot air that do nothing except create a better atmosphere for my sales pitch.
The lights dimmed, and accompanied by suitable synthesized music, a virtual display of the binary system and planets appeared overhead. Pointing at or mentioning any feature would immediately enlarge its view.
“Each star,” I said, “has a standard complement of planets, say, four rocky and capable of supporting life, as well as three gas giants. The gas giants are so pretty and playful. While life evolves on the smaller planets, children enjoy watching the gas giants capture additional moons and comets. The primary feature is that when life does evolve and forms civilizations, there will be much war, something children enjoy. They can watch it on a small scale of planetary development until it peaks. Then comes the feature I like the best. Typically interstellar travel takes a long time to develop, given the distances involved. But with our unique binary system, by a peck at the button or a simple word command, you can bring the two stars as close together as you want. Your children will have all the thrills of a dramatic and spectacular interstellar war. And I can tell you, it doesn’t get much better than that: entertainment throughout all stages of development, relative to the planets and your children.”
I had them! I had enchanted not only the Ardean but the humanoid servants as well. Whatever I may say about the Gorgo, his shop did possess all the latest and best features of solar system construction. What was more, this was going to be a big sale. Evolution is all very fine and well, but children don’t often have the patience to wait and see it through. The enhancer kit, which had a superlatively high price tag, would allow the kids to skip all the dull stuff. I couldn’t see any Ardean settling for anything less.
A glorious contract was in sight when that horrid, ridiculous meaningless jingle broke in over the sedate music of the binary display. Someone new was coming into the shop. My immediate thought was, Let Trewood handle the mark. I was busy and couldn’t afford to be distracted, but out of the corner of my eye I saw that the customer was coming via the middle airlock, the one without a spaceship docking port. I sighed inwardly. The occasional wealthy eccentric might enter that way, or it might be the survivors of some horrendous crash or another, but we discouraged those as much as possible. I glanced at the overhead monitors and cursed. It was a bug, which would be a nuisance in the best of times. I didn’t have time for such nonsense and hoped the creature would take forever in trying to get out of its spacesuit, leaving me enough time to finish my sale to the Ardean. Nope, that wasn’t to be. The bug, which I recognized as a Megillan, once in the inner airlock, swiped off its spacesuit in record time.
“I bought a simple starter set,” Lata sobbed.
I couldn’t imagine my selling her or her being able to afford anything else. Megillans never save enough to make intelligent decisions. Really, they fritter their funds over nonsense, cosmetic surgery (they’re partial to extended antennae), and the like.
“Of course,” I murmured. “A most delightful purchase. It had nine planets and a cute little sun.”
I agreed with her. The attraction of the starter set was a brilliant colorful star. Well, not particularly brilliant, but lots of cool features, sunspots shooting out flares and similar effects. That aided evolution no end.
“I was promised—” Lata began, and I cringed inwardly. No one in the shop ever made so much as a promise of anything. Starter sets are starter sets, with various known weaknesses, but I admitted to myself, many of our statements could be construed as promises. That is the art of selling, and almost all the denizens of the galaxy are aware of the fact.
I put a friendly arm around her carapace and urged her to continue.
“You promised me a bug-filled evolution, something to entertain the kiddies. You see, I’m responsible for ten thousand of our young ones, and I expected the burden of all the work I do would be reduced somewhat while they enjoyed the educational spectacle.”
I made the mistake of
Trewood and the Ardean bunch, and I had to do a double-take. I
couldn’t believe it! The Ardean had starting preening, which
that my beautiful sale was going down the tubes. I had to finish off
the bug as quickly as possible.
“It couldn’t be that bad,” I insisted.
“It’s worse than that.”
“Let me have a look. I’m sure something could be done to balance everything. Do you have your order number available?”
Lata told me, and I had the shop computer simulate the solar system’s present condition. The simulation was far more modest than that for the Ardean, but I had the same basic commands available and focused on life at the third planet. After a few minutes, I had to admit that Lata was correct. “The situation is terrible, but it isn’t hopeless. As with other humanoid species, they’re remarkably unstable and on the brink of self-destruction.”
“What does that mean?” Lata asked.
“All we need to do is add a few more features, and the humanoids will provide their own solution to your problem. If you add to your solar system the Hybrid Thermal Exchange, which happens to be on sale this week for 20 percent off, you can accelerate the obvious self-destruction by increasing environmental temperatures on the third planet.” I checked the simulation. “They’re already on that road themselves, but let’s give them a helping hand. Mammals become crazed when too hot and do the most ridiculous things. The increased heat will bring all-out war. It will be entertaining for your kiddies, and you can watch the humanoids destroy not only themselves but also all the artifacts of their so-called civilization. Consequently, after the nuclear winter, arthropods will become the dominant species and be allowed the time to fulfill their destiny.”
“How can I ever thank you?”
Chet Gottfried presents
us with a very curious character study of a
couple of enterprising aliens in the confines
of an out-of-the-way
Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. ReAnimus Press has recently published three of his novels. His stories have appeared in “Space and Time Magazine,” “Jim Baen’s Universe,” and elsewhere. He is a frequent contributor to “Perihelion.”