Online Exclusive: “King of the Shell Game” by James Beamon

I feel the woman’s emotions without initiating a download.  A turbulent storm of despair and fear roil out of her, with pain and loathing stabbing out in bursts like lightning.  If humankind has defined what she is feeling, I have not run across it in all my studies of their species.  Either that or the word they employ is woefully inadequate.

She lies to the world with her appearance.  A light application of blush hides any lack of color in her cheeks.  She keeps a practiced smile on her lips.  Her eyes stay focused on tasks at hand.

Her tasks are what bring her to me; otherwise I would still be ignorant of this secret display of human complexity.  I am in a diner, an ordinary place that had hired a seemingly innocuous girl.  Maybe she wants to be innocuous, to blend in with the life teeming in this city.  But she finds her way to me, to collect my bill from the corner of the table, and in doing so the storm of her drenches me.

She takes me out of my quantum pad, where I was poring over notes and condensing arguments for my upcoming contest against Iyas.  He has long held the rank of Two, and my odds are slim; no one thought my sponsorship of the human race would make it this far.  I have lost track of time in the quantum pad.  The waitress, in her simple pink uniform and flat black shoes, takes me out of a world of tactics and counter-arguments and puts me back on Earth, back into human shell and staring at her in wonder.

She retreats from my gaze.  While she goes to make change, I find myself staring, my debate against Iyas all but forgotten.  I feel no emotion from her at this distance; feel nothing but my own dry hands and the lingering bite of coffee on my tongue.  I think perhaps it was all an anomaly, something brought about by the stress of the upcoming engagement.  But as she approaches I feel it churning, a dark and foreboding maelstrom.

“Your change, sir,” she says with her practiced smile.

“Keep it…,” I say looking at her nametag.  “Kathy.”

This time her smile reaches her eyes.  “Why, thank you, sir.”  If there is any genuine happiness there, I do not feel it in the sea of anguish around her.

I leave the diner and make my way down 5th Street toward my apartment.  Kathy is on my mind more than my most important contest yet.  Picking up a resonance unintentionally is something that has never happened in my fifty years here.  We are energy beings, not empaths, and it has been many cycles of shed skins since we collectively wore an empathic shell as Ruuh-Gammatians.

As I weave a course through the crowded streets, feeling nothing as usual, I wonder what could account for the aberration.  In the fifty Earth years I’ve been studying humans, I feel I have gotten to know them well; fifty is a veritable lifetime to these people.

I have not heard, read, nor seen anything about the sudden emergence of psychic empathy in a human.  Even in their movies, which stretch the limits of plausibility, if someone develops some sort of inexplicable mind power, it’s after a freak accident or unorthodox experiment.  No one ever becomes empathic after a cup of coffee and hours of studying.  As I pass men in suits and women with designer bags, I feel akin to the concrete sidewalk we’re all walking on for my lack of emotional reception.  I wonder:  why Kathy?  Why not everyone?

Thoughts like these linger until I reach my penthouse apartment.  The sparse furnishings, with their clean and efficient lines, remind me of home.  The commanding view of the city makes humanity feel a world away, a distance that provides the objectivity necessary to be a sponsor.

I have some time before the trial, but I figure why bother studying?  If I am not prepared by now I would never be.  Failure meant waiting one Ruuh year for a rematch.  We would collectively change our shell in half a year, which meant humankind as a shell would retire unused, ranked third until the next shell-cycle.

My bedroom looks contemporary, but it is way ahead of its time here.  I take off my suit and underclothes and press my palm against the wood panels on the side of the bed.  The mattress opens like a clam, revealing an enclosure built for me, molded to the human contours of my present shell.

I lie down and it closes around me, clicks and locks into place.  Here I take a fraction of my essence, raw Ruuh energy, and the machine does the rest.  It projects me into the 6th dimension, where I am pure light and time is irrelevant.

I unfold back on Ruuh, in the Council Room of Trials.  There is no furniture in the blue colored dome.  We have no muscles to relax, no need for us to sit.  There are channels etched into the floor, to permit the easy flow of energy.  A holographic touch display hovers in the air in front of me, allowing me to access my data.  That is all.

Iyas is here already.  He wears the shell of his sponsored race of yoslings.  I am not surprised; I forced everyone to alter their debate strategy after my win against 72-Avrig.  He debated me shell-less, as was common practice.  My major argument was how could we feel comfortable in his sponsored race’s shells if he wasn’t comfortable in it himself?

The yoslings are unappealing to my human senses.  They look like shriveled fists, a pocked mass dotted with eyes and asymmetric, leaky orifices.  It would be a lot easier to be neutral if I was shell-less.  I assume Iyas is looking at me.

“3-Pliny,” he greets me.  The yosling voice is like a croak.

“2-Iyas.”  I nod.  There is no equivalent for a nod amongst Ruuh and I’m sure the yosling, as they have no discernible neck, but the time in my shell and on Earth has hard-wired some behaviors.

“I must commend you,” Iyas croaks.  “You have brought your race far against a litany of what would initially appear to be better candidates.  Were the humans not ranked 4,736 when the pool of viable candidates first opened?”

“Indeed.”

“Such a low number indicates they barely meet eligibility, having split the atom but not advancing much otherwise.  Yet you took them up, mostly I hear from the boasts of your own talent and the skepticism of others, and now they rank third.  It is unprecedented… simply amazing.”

“Indeed.”  My humanity makes me suspicious and my responses curt.  Is he applying flattery to endear himself to me?  Is this just idle chatter?

Iyas leaks in a few places and croaks more words.  “If you were to retire now, 3-Pliny, there would be no shame.”

All this, just to tell me to quit?  “I cannot do that, 2-Iyas, as I believe wearing humanity will augment our race’s goals best in the upcoming shell-cycle.”  This is my standard reply, boiler-plate as they say on Earth, when someone tries to dissuade me from my sponsorship.  I have come too far to quit.

Blue light in my peripheral vision brings me back to the task at hand.  I turn to face the Council of Seven.  The floor channels brought them here, their energy masses pulsating in the front of the chamber.  Directly behind them, empty human and yosling shells are dormant.

I stand naked before them.  There is no podium to hide behind.  Even after 50 years, 4,734 successful trials, my human fears of public speaking and exposed nakedness combine to leave a lump in my throat.

Councilor Prime vibrates her energy into an audible frequency.  “We have gathered because 3-Pliny challenges 2-Iyas on the grounds of shell species merit.  Does this challenge stand?”

“It does,” I say.

“Present your case.”  The seven councilors flow into the human shells behind them and step forward.  Councilor Prime nods as she looks at me, intelligent eyes behind a tousled mop of brown hair.  Her shell, like most shells, was salvaged at the moment of host death.

I flash a smile as I bring up my presentation on the holographic display.  Three-dimensional imagery fills the space between me and the councilors.  We all see humans running races, swimming, climbing–their lithe, taut muscles working to accomplish their goals.  Simultaneously, I upload to the council the human feelings of athletic achievement and the rush of endorphins.

I speak to the council as they absorb the images and feelings.  “No longer do we need the hearty shells of the Kral to terraform inhospitable worlds like we did two shell eras ago.  Likewise, we no longer need the predatory Esau of the current shell era to defend those worlds, our peace now well earned.”

The images change to humans performing martial arts, parkour style acrobatics, gymnastics, a myriad of different dances.  I upload the feeling of victory in combat and competition.

“Unforeseen challenges can assault us at any time during the course of this shell era.  It is my contention that the human form, with its endurance, agility and grace and the human mind, with its ability to adapt and improvise, exemplify our need for versatility.”  The presentation ends and I stand silent.

I used this same presentation against 2728-Baris.  But Iyas in his repulsive shell is practically begging me to appeal to the council’s newly human sense of aesthetics.  Besides, I think it’s too good of a presentation to use only once, at a time when no one took me seriously.

If Councilor Prime recognizes my pitch, I see no indication of it on her face as she nods.  Her shell is fetching, and I recall it came from a wrecked airplane at the beginning of man’s eligibility via the Atomic Age.  Before her death, the shell was named Amelia Earhart.  She turns to Iyas.

“2-Iyas, have you a rebuttal?”

“Indeed.”

The councilors step back and their energy courses from the human shells into the yoslings.  They shamble forward, a flock of shriveled fists.  “Proceed,” she croaks.

For long moments, Iyas just sits there, oozing a bit and nothing more.  I realize what he is doing and I step forward to stop him.

“This cannot continue.  I am not party to what he is projecting to you.  I cannot counter-argue what is not known to me.”

“Point accepted,” Councilor Prime croaks.  “2-Iyas, make your case universally accessible.”

“Forgive me, 3-Pliny,” Iyas says.  “It is just the advanced neural network yoslings have with one another feels so intrinsically natural.  And they are extremely efficient, to the point it is easy to forget other forms of communication when in yosling company.”

“Sure.”

Iyas extends an appendage, grotesque like an acid-eaten arm with no hand, to touch his holographic display.  Images of wrinkled, shriveled yoslings traveling in starships fill the empty space of the trial dome.

“3-Pliny brings up a good point; we do not know what obstacles lay before us.  Is it not better to face the unknowable in the shells of a race with a noble and proven record?  Yoslings are our trade allies and established space-farers.  3-Pliny would have us face uncertainty as savages, a race that still putters along on piston engines.”

Iyas’ images of space traveling yoslings changes to humans in beaten up, rusted automobiles.  Fat, sweaty men labor to change tires and oil.  Iyas speaks as the cacophony of horns blare and the image of deadlocked traffic fills the room.

“Remember, dear council, the twofold purpose of the shell: to postpone our energy from dispersion and to utilize the shell’s inherent qualities to advance our civilization.  Choosing a backward species would only protect us from energy loss.  By the time we’re done with this shell-cycle, we will be worse off than when we first started.”

“Would you like to counter-argue?” Councilor Prime croaks.

“Indeed.”  I wait for them to get into their human shells before proceeding.

“I’m sorry, but wearing yosling is not preparing for the uncertain.  It is preparing to stagnate.  There is a reason 2-Iyas has been ranked Two for the entire 100 Ruuh years I have campaigned for humanity.”

I bring up images of the latest scientific discoveries, none of them made by yoslings.  I superimpose images of yoslings sitting around leaking and link the feeling of disgust humans get when taking out smelly garbage.

“Yoslings copy advancements, not innovate them.  It is the unfortunate byproduct of the yosling hive mind, which breeds complacency as old ideas continuously circulate through their oneness of mind.  Meanwhile, 2-Iyas alluded to trade allies.”

I bring up images of humans smiling at business meetings, shaking hands as trade concludes, and link the feelings of success and opportunity.

“Humanity has proven no matter how fractured their cultures or ideologies, the unifying power of their species lies in commerce.  They go to great lengths to attain, maintain, and increase wealth.  If we are to increase our influence in trade amongst the stars, or take commercial failures with one partner and turn them into success with another, there is no single race better for us to wear than man.”

The councilors give no reaction to my presentation.  “2-Iyas,” Councilor Prime says, “do you wish the final say?”

“Indeed,” he croaks.  “But do not trouble yourselves out of the human shells, seeing that I must relay my points through common speech.”

She nods acceptance.  I look at Iyas, silently thankful for the windfall he’s giving me.  He has obviously never spent time in human skin, otherwise he would realize how utterly repugnant his form is.  Even the croaks he releases now are unsettling.

“3-Pliny raised the points of human innovation and devotion to commerce.  I say the two terms are mutually exclusive.  There is a reason why his sponsored species has only traveled to their own moon in the same 100 years I have held this rank: they are too focused on short term economic gain to make the necessary altruistic discoveries needed for sustained space-faring.”

While he croaks, I find myself drawn to Iyas’ lumpy, misshapen frame.  It is mysterious somehow, alluring in the blue light of the trial dome.

“How can a race be termed innovative when they will only aspire to create out of a desire to profit?  Only cursory research of their history reveals corporate destruction of their own environment and subjugation of the common man for the sake of revenue.”

Iyas, no, 2-Iyas, is beautiful as he croaks.  As I look at his orifices, glistening with secretion, I feel desire burning in me.  I want him.  I do not know how I could have ever considered his form unattractive and it is becoming hard to keep myself at this distance from him.

Then I realize what is happening.  It is a dull, fuzzy warning at the back of my mind.  I hold my hands up and step toward the council.

“I must interrupt.  2-Iyas is unduly influencing your decision by releasing pheromones.”

Councilor Prime reveals a barely perceptible smile as she looks me up and down.  This is when I notice my state of male arousal.  The three councilors who have male shells share my aroused state.

“It is true,” Iyas croaks the answer before Councilor Prime asks the question.  “But I contend it is not undue influence.  It is no different than when 3-Pliny presents raw emotional feedback to the council from humans he has interfaced with.  Likewise, susceptibility to yosling influence is a very real consequence of what lies in store for our race should we decide to wear human.  What I am doing is very pertinent to the decision you consider.”

“Your point is made and holds,” Councilor Prime says.  “Continue your final say.”

I step back into place; my desire for what I know is a disgusting creature strong.  He croaks and it is melody to me.

“Greed,” he says.  “Greed is all the humans have to offer us.  And our people have spent too much time and care developing our trade relations to see them squandered by the avarice that will take root in us if we dwell in human skin.  You cannot elevate them.”

As Iyas falls silent, Councilor Prime speaks.

“All arguments are delivered.  The council will discuss.”

They all take a step back, then flow out of their human shells.  They deliberate together in Ruuhesian, by exchanging pulses of light.  Human eyes are too slow to pick up everything in the rapid firing of pulses that come from all the councilors at once.  I almost lost against 34-Jeau because of man’s general inability to receive input from multiple sources.

So many liabilities I have had to overcome or marginalize.  I feel it all coming to a close with the exchange of pulses; I am confident I have lost against Iyas.  I still want him, but it has lessened as the pheromones thin.  Nevertheless, he had a great closing argument, made more compelling with the artificial affinity for him.  The genius about that move is even if the councilors take personal grievance to manipulation, they can only blame the weakness in the human shell.

“Council has reached a decision,” Councilor Prime says.  “Councilors will display their judgment.”

The councilors make their choice known by flowing into the shell they feel has more merit.  It is a process I’m quite familiar with and I brace myself to look upon seven yoslings.  My jaw drops as this doesn’t happen.  Instead I gaze upon four human female shells and three male yosling shells.

“Favor is shown and due merit awarded,” Councilor Prime says.  “Come forward and be recognized, 2-Pliny.”

I step forward in disbelief and disarray.  I have no idea what I did right.

“Your sponsored race is hereby elevated, ranked second among all known viable shells,” Councilor Prime says.  Her eyes flicker down briefly and her mouth twists as if she’s fighting a smile.  “Your excitement is apparent.”

My face gets hot with embarrassment.  I curse this irrational human fear of nakedness… what species worries about being naked when every being is inherently naked?  Unable to say anything, I look at one of the yosling councilors and silently count my blessings.

The Council Room of Trials is energy efficient like my bed on Earth.  It projects me through dimensions and back to my apartment.  I get fully clothed before I dance in celebration.

The celebration doesn’t last long.  My interstel, disguised to look like a dresser mirror, shimmers with the announcement of a call.  It is from Planet Golgothal.  I acknowledge the display.

“Cidr,” I say, my voice flat.

He is shell-less, so I see him as I remember him.  The sight ignites a fire in my gut.  He pulses a reply which the interstel churns out as speech for my ears.

“Congratulations, 2-Pliny.  You did exactly as you claimed you could.  Now we will all wear human after the Ruuh-Golgoth shell-cycle, a matter of great pride for you, I’m sure.”

“What do you mean ‘after Ruuh-Golgoth’?”

Cidr pauses then fires off a few pulses.  “I don’t understand.  Is this a style of joke you picked up from man?”

“The only joke is that you seriously thought I’d let you remain at rank One without challenge.”

His pulses are intense and fast, the ones people make seizure warnings about.  “Even at the height of your boasting back in school, your claims were of taking any backwater species to second place.  That’s as far as any of us would have wanted to go.  The discovery of the golgoths excited us all back then… they are in all ways the perfect shell.  What has happened to you?”

“You know what happened.  You stole my work and left me to fight from the lowest rung possible.”

“I did what logic dictated, based on our mutual desires.  You wanted to make a name for yourself, which is impossible already at rank One, and I wanted to represent this remarkable race.  There is no cause for grievance when we all win.”

“That’s the thing.  I don’t want you to win,” I say as I kill the feed.

I fight the urge to break the interstel, to drive my fist through it as if it is the simple mirror it appears to be.  I refuse to allow myself to indulge in emotional redirection, a phenomenon the locals have termed “shooting the messenger.”

I pause.  The desire to lash out is a characteristic brought about by an emotional overload.  I chew my lip trying to understand what I feel and why.  Cidr is right, what I am doing is devoid of logic.  We are supremely logical beings.

Grabbing my quantum pad, I bring up my sensory database.  I orient it on me and tell it to find a match.

It goes through my countless interviews, where I have captured people’s emotional responses on file.  The human experience of emotions is intense and compelling; it has been their one saving grace more often than not when I upload them in trial.  I even used sorrow once in an ironic win against 23-Pimsy.

The pad spits back several emotions according to its readings of me.  Anger, Contempt, Frustration, Hostility, Regret… and glimmers of Wistfulness and Hope.

It is a strange brew.  I think of Kathy and her potent emotional cocktail, wondering the same thing Cidr wondered:  what has happened to me?

* * *

Only a couple of hours have passed since I last left the diner.  Kathy is still here, making her rounds, feeding people comfort food and synthetic smiles.  I occupy the same booth.

“What can I get you?” she asks on her approach, before recognition takes root behind her eyes.  “Oh, welcome back, sir.”

“I came back because of your service,” I say, feeling her despair emanate in waves.

“What service?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.  “You only ordered coffee, and Wanda brought you that before shift change.  All I did was make change.”

“Making change is important.”  I calibrate my pad to record her emotion as I set it down.  Now it only needs me to touch her to initiate the download.  I stand up and offer my hand.  “My name is Joe Pliny.”

She hesitates at first, but takes the hand.  I fight to keep the cordial smile on my face as her pain flows into my awareness.  It makes me feel like I am plummeting in a dark tunnel, an abyss for which there is no bottom.  This thing is saved to my pad, for me to name and catalogue.  I have no idea what I would do with such dire feeling.

“Please,” I say, clearing my throat of the choking sensation.  “I would like to interview you.”

Her fear shoots into me moments before she jerks her hand from mine.  “My manager didn’t hire me to give interviews,” she says quickly.  “How about you just order off the menu?”

I smile through her rejection.  “What dessert do you recommend?”

“Cherry pie’s not bad.”

“Then two slices of cherry pie and two cups of coffee.”

“Coming up,” she says, scribbling on her notebook as she departs.

While she is making her rounds, I make some of my own.  A few hundred dollars buys the manager’s permission and the other waitress’s willingness to cover tables.  By the time Kathy returns to the booth with my order, I am waiting for her with an envelope.

“Your manager says an interview’s okay.”

She turns to see the manager nodding vigorously at her, both thumbs raised high in the air.

“I don’t know…”

I offer the envelope so she can see the small pile of twenties inside.  “Just an hour,” I say with a smile.  “Have a seat.”

I c
an see her suspicion, but I have made the offer too tempting to walk away from.  She folds the envelope, puts it into her pocket and sits across from me.

“Ok, so who are you?  What is this about?”

“I’m in advertising.  Every now and again I like to sit down and interview ordinary, everyday people.  It helps me round out my advertising campaigns.”

“Ordinary, everyday people are all around you.  So why pay me for something you can get for free?”

“I’m in advertising… I can sell you a reason if you want.  Like maybe it’s because I haven’t heard much from the young waitress demographic.  Or maybe it’s because I like the way you make change.  But let’s just say I get a feeling from you… and I’ve found people who don’t want to talk sometimes have the most to say.”

“Must make for very short interviews when you’re paying people that don’t want to talk.”

I smile and push a plate of cherry pie and a cup of coffee over to her.  “Sometimes.”

I ask her non-threatening background questions: her age, place of birth, how long she’s had this job.  She tells me between sips of coffee and bites of pie.  Her answers are short, to the point, and are invariably followed by her asking me the same question.  I find that I am just as short in reply as she is.

“Single or married?” I ask her.

She hesitates for a moment and I feel pangs of despair flash out like lightning.  The cloud has been there the whole time, but the longer it surrounds you the less you notice, like a weight you get used to carrying.

“Married.  You?” she asks.

“Single,” I reply.

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

She raises an eyebrow.  “Boyfriend?”

I shake my head.  “There’s no one, male or female.”

“Why?”

“I’m too busy with work, I guess.”

“So what are you trying to sell right now?”

“Well, I take things that are past their previous lives, recondition them, and try to convince my management they will be viable investments once they’re repurposed.”

“So you’re a junkman claiming your stuff is better now than it ever was,” she says, her voice flat with the unimpressed revelation of my occupation.

“Says the waitress that sold me on this cherry pie,” I say indicating the half eaten pie that is a bit too sour for my palette.

“I stand by my recommendation,” she says, licking her finger and rubbing it across her empty plate to snag the crumbs.  “Can you say the same thing about the junk you sell?”

“I’ll stand by it if you’re buying,” I say.  “Honestly, it’s just a product… sometimes I like it.  Sometimes not.”

“Why not sell something you actually want to sell?” she asks.

Something about her disarms me.  I find myself telling her about my checkered past, rendering the incidents into terms she could appreciate.  She hears about my bright academic career and the premiere internship I competed for.  I tell her about my presentation that would go on to win the internship.  But my friend and peer stole it and presented it as his own.  He was awarded the internship and I, without a presentation of my own, was placed in the lowest rung.

She is quiet the whole time I speak, looking at me as I tell her about an endless parade of successful sales pitches until now, where I have finally caught up to my former friend.

Kathy is leaning forward, her face resting on her hands.  “What are you going to do, after you beat him?” she asks.

I am silent for a moment because I do not know.  “How do you know I’m going to beat him?” I ask.

“I dunno.  Just seems like you’re supposed to.”

We are both quiet for a moment.  Then Kathy looks at her watch.

“I hope you got something out of this interview,” she says, rising from the booth.  “But I have to get back to work.”

“Indeed,” I say with a nod and a smile.

“Good luck, Joe.”

She leaves, taking her dark storm with her.  The despair has lifted, a far cry different than the feeling of weight that you get used to bearing.  Now that I am free of it, I recall the strangest feeling in it… this underlying sensation that I deserved what I felt.

* * *

Despite not getting much from her, my conversation with Kathy only fuels more interest in her.  I am sure she kept me talking to minimize my questions for her.  The background information she provided was all lies.

My questions mounting, I use my quantum pad to gather information on her.  Once I get her address, I program the interstel to open visual channels in her home through her televisions.  She lives with a man.  He answers my questions.

Her mate provides her a life of personal terror and subjugation.  It’s a scene I’ve seen often enough my fifty years here, a strange aberration of the human condition I’ve always ignored.  Usually, I gloss over and throw out any cases that feature this behavior, despite my ignorance on why it occurs.  I am a salesman, not a scientist.

I delve into the information my pad has for context.  He is Forrest Balmer, age 31, currently a limousine driver.  Nothing stands out in his biography.  The police have dozens of noise complaints for his address.  Hospital logs of Kathy report bruises, contusions, cracked ribs.  There are several arrest records, but all charges are dropped.

Now I understand the emotional turmoil that surrounds her.  But I cannot fathom why.  I know she does not like her situation, I felt that for myself.  But she stays entrenched in it despite her loathing.  So what did she get from this arrangement?

The interstel shimmers and interrupts my thought process.  I answer to face Councilor Prime.  She is in her human shell.

“Greetings, 2-Pliny,” she says.

“Councilor Prime, it is nice to see you.”

“As you.  1-Cidr has brought up a concern I need to address with you.”

“So he told you I plan to challenge his species?”

“Indeed,” she says.  “1-Cidr brought up a point the council cannot ignore.  Shell collectors have been focusing on golgoth shell collection, not human.”

“As they should, since golgoth is currently Shell Prime.”

“Your rise to Two was unexpected to say the least, and it has left us unprepared.  The collectors tell me they do not have the resources to collect enough shells from both golgoth and human to provide for the masses.”

“What are you saying, councilor?”

“We need the collectors focused on the definitive Shell Prime.  If you are going to challenge 1-Cidr, you must do so within a month.”

That was roughly two Earth weeks.  “That’s not nearly enough time.”

“You know what you’re up against in the golgoth.  Is there such a thing as enough time in the face of their capabilities?”

I am silent.  She goes to cut the feed, but I hold up my hand to stop her.  I want to say something, anything to keep her in front of me for awhile longer.  Looking at her comforts me in ways I cannot explain.

“You are in your human shell,” I say.

“After so many trials in it, I must admit it has grown on me,” she says, flashing a smile.  “It is part of the reason you’re at Two now.”

“How so?”

“4-Soy was too concerned about preserving his win record to argue against 3-Iyas.  As such, we never got used to being in yosling skin,” she says.  Then she smiles, revealing the small gap between her front teeth.  “The human form revolts at their presence.  And unfortunately for 3-Iyas, his pheromones don’t work on women.”

* * *

The golgoth leave me nothing to argue against.  They are the first plant based sentience we’ve ever encountered and are everything we could hope for in a shell and more.  Their cylindrical, bark-like bodies are durable enough to survive even the vacuum of space.  They can perform multiple tasks simultaneously, from feats of strength to fine precision, because of the dozens of tendrils that shoot in all directions from their trunks.  And these are not even the major selling point.

They are the most energy efficient beings we have ever known.  Normally, the Ruuh eat to maintain the shell.  While sometimes we are favored with a shell with a rich sense of taste, we get no net energy gain from the process.  But golgoth photosynthesis is unique in that we absorb the shell’s leftover energy.  Instead of the shell merely postponing our eventual dispersion, the golgoth shell increases our overall energy store.

We have found the fountain of youth.  And I am the one trying to tell my entire race not to drink the water.

* * *

The two weeks are a blur.  I cannot keep my awareness focused on golgoth research.  Instead, my interstel is constantly tuned to Kathy’s house.  I stay locked in my quantum pad looking for understanding.

Forrest Balmer obviously derives joy from his actions… otherwise why do them?  Humans are not empaths.  He is unmoved by the pain of others, or worse, moved to rejoice in it.

I reason Kathy feels powerless to change her situation.  Rationale dictates his violence can easily extend to maim or kill.  So she lives with him, bears the weight of the torment, despite her desire to be free.

Forrest Balmer’s behavior is universally detestable to mankind.  If he were to die, people would cheer.  Likewise, if Kathy were to kill him, no one would blame her.  I can’t determine how people would feel if an uninvolved third party stepped in to do what nature or Kathy should do but hasn’t.

This would be easy if they were Ruuh.  Deviants are tested to see if their negative energy can become positive.  If not we remove them, making society safer and more productive.

Efficiency aside, the human methods of justice, ethics, and outreach are murky.  I feel compelled to help her with the simple efficacy of the Ruuh way, but my protocols of sponsorship forbid intervention in human affairs.

Guilt eats at me.  I sit wanting someone to do something for her but unwilling to do anything myself.

* * *

The interstel shimmers an hour before my trial.  Cidr appears wearing his golgoth shell.  Four small, brown tendrils protruding from his wooden body rub together to make sound.

“There is still time to call this off.  Your name is famous, your record unsullied by defeat.  This trial would only ruin that.  Listen to your sense of logic and reason.  You already have everything you dreamed of.”

“You’re wrong, Cidr.  I dream of seeing you in trial,” I say, ending the call.

He is right and I am sickened by it.  I do not have an argument.  My logical mind tells me it is impossible to turn this tide, yet here I am still running headfirst to the shore.

I do not need the quantum pad to tell me I am feeling hopelessness, powerlessness.  These emotions are unmistakable in their tragedy.  I think of Kathy.  I have an hour to give her back her hope and power.

* * *

Kathy’s door opens just a sliver.  It is enough for the man behind it to see Benjamin Franklin’s face prominently displayed on the bill I’m holding out.

The eyes hover on the bill and then shift to me.  “What do you want?” he asks.

“Just a minute of your time towards business,” I say, extending the bill toward him.

Forrest Balmer takes the bill and invites me into a house I’ve seen countless times.  We sit at the dining table, the same place where his anger erupts from a less than perfect meal.

He says, “So what kinda business?”

It is the business of judgment, of seeing if he can earn redemption.  But I smile, a practiced one like Kathy’s, and say, “the dirtiest kind.”

“I procure porn for a client with finicky tastes,” I say.  “Finicky costs, Mr. Balmer, which means the money I just gave you is nothing compared to what you could earn.”

He grits his teeth and pointed a thick finger at me.  “You’re trying to sell me… on me and some dude fucking?”

I laugh.  “No, I’m afraid my client is into different material.  A Kathy Rutgers lives here with you, yes?”

Forrest settles back and nods, his brow still locked in a furrow.

“Well, my client would like a movie starring her.”

If there is any offense in what I just spoke, Forrest shows no sign of it.  “How much?”

“Ten thousand.”

“Deal,” he says offering me a hand.  I do not take it.

“It is not that simple, if it was, I would have just gone to Kathy.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“My client wants a rape.  And simulations invariably fail to measure up.  My client does not want an actress or an act.”

Forrest leans forward.  “Lemme get this straight.  You’re paying me ten large so you can film Kathy catch a rape she don’t know is coming?”

“Yes.”

He cut his eyes at me.  “Even outside the rape, this don’t sound legit at all.  Why Kathy?  And why talk to me about it… why not just do it and save yourself some money?”

“I love a discount, but I need discretion after the incident, which is good business considering my client will have a copy of the rape.  Kathy is no random selection.  I take police reports of domestic abuse victims and compile them into a list of prospects.  Kathy was chosen.  You can prevent her from reporting this to the police, yes?”

“I could… if you make it twelve,” he says, holding his hand out for me to take.

We shake on it.  The deal we seal is different than the one that makes his eyes gleam.

“Perfect,” I say getting up.  “I’m thinking we can set up hidden cameras in your apartment here.  We’ll have privacy, multiple camera angles, and no need to contrive a place for Kathy to go.”

I look around the apartment, walking to and from random spots.  Forrest talks to me about places that would offer good vantage points.  I settle at the kitchen sink, the same sink where sometimes Kathy sobs as she does dishes while Forrest takes pictures of her in tears.  I open a drawer to where the knives are.  My hand shakes, the fusion of my Ruuh nerves screaming about breaking protocol and the adrenaline of my human shell.  It does not stop me from grabbing a knife handle.

Forrest does not see it coming, does not expect it despite this being his due for some time now.  I have worn the shell of the predatory Esau; I strike soft, exposed tissue.  His death is mercifully expedient; the Ruuh way is not one of prolonged torture.  I leave the apartment with the door ajar, hurrying down the street to make my appointment on Ruuh.

* * *

“We have gathered because 2-Pliny challenges 1-Cidr on the grounds of shell species merit,” Councilor Prime says in the trial dome.  “Does this challenge stand?”

I look at Cidr, his golgoth tendrils writhing beside me.  Then I turn to the council and the soft blue glow of their energy.

“Today, I killed a man.”

The council erupts in flashing lights.  Then Councilor Prime addresses me.  “You are aware this violates sponsorship protocols?”

“If it does, then that is a matter for another trial.  We are here today to see which species is better, and what I have done is part of my case.”

More lights flash between them.  Councilor Prime says, “Your violation is noted and will be addressed in due time.  Proceed with your case,” and they step into human skin.

“I will not argue against the golgoth,” I say.  “They are the shell we dream of… perfection.  I am here instead to say maybe it’s not perfection the Ruuh need.”

I touch the holographic display and access my files.  I upload the emotion I captured from Kathy in the diner.  All seven councilors rock back as her storm takes over.

“I killed a man today.  To right a wrong, to protect the weak, to avenge the innocent, I killed a man.  He caused this feeling I captured and would have continued to do so without intervention.  Before that, I spent a hundred Ruuh years, a human lifetime, fighting thousands of cases, just to get to this moment, to best Cidr… even if it was a hopeless cause.

“This is what humanity has done to me.  The emotions they have run deeper than the tingles I upload to your nerves.  I am rank Two because of their passion and drive.  I killed a man because of their compassion, a need to see justice done.”

I turn off Kathy’s emotional feed.  The council bore it silently the whole time but now that’s it’s gone, I can see the relief on their faces.

“Their emotions make them dangerous and sometimes miserable,” I say.  “It is what makes them worth wearing.”

Cidr steps forward on several gangly tendrils.  “If anything, 2-Pliny has demonstrated fully why we must not wear human.  What he has done is counter-intuitive to our very nature.”

“What do you know of our nature?!” I yell.  I let the fire and anger that burned for Cidr erupt as I speak.  “You have spent 100 years drawing from lifeless bark!  It is Ruuh nature to draw from the shell, to incorporate the qualities of the race we wear into our fabric.  In doing so, we become more than what we once were.”

“What we once were was mortal,” he says.  “This is no more with the golgoth.  What is human to that?”

I look at the council.  “Human is feeling.  What good is extending our lives if we have nothing to care about, nothing to drive us, nothing beyond our own logic to identify with?

“Immortality is in our grasp.  With that kind of temptation, the thought of our dying banished, our dispersion forever thwarted by a quick change of shells, what will stop us from voting to wear the golgoth again four cycles from now?  And then two cycles after that?  We will arrive at a point where will be indistinguishable from the golgoth.  There will be no other shells to wear and the young among us will ask, ‘What was the shell-cycle about?’  And we will not say we changed shells to expand Ruuh nature.  We will say ‘It was a game we played until we found the perfect shell.’

“Before that time comes, the Ruuh have lessons to learn.  About passion and caring and a hundred different things that don’t fall into logic.  When the ages pass and we are immortals, we need to be able to ask ourselves ‘what have we become?’ and be able to search our nature, the nature we grow every time we change the shell.  We need virtue in that nature to know we have made good choices… and disgust so we can be sick of ourselves in case we haven’t.”

I am silent after this.  This speech came from nowhere, made by everything I am now.  After long moments, Councilor Prime turns to Cidr.

“1-Cidr, do you wish to counter-argue?”

Cidr rubs his tendrils.  “There isn’t anything to counter-argue.  He has acknowledged the perfection of the golgoth as shells.  Likewise, his argument was speculation on the future of the Ruuh.  That is about as much a matter of this present trial as 2-Pliny’s violation of protocols.  There is only one logical decision for this council.”

Councilor Prime nods, and all seven councilors step back to decide our next shell era.

* * *

It takes six Earth months to close my affairs on Earth.  I am outside my apartment building, watching as the movers finish loading the last of my furnishings and equipment.  They’re taking it all to a desolate location that I will follow for transport back to Ruuh.

She passes by before I recognize her.  I almost miss her with her stylish sunglasses and hair wrapped in a scarf.  If she is feeling anything, I do not pick up on it.

“Kathy!” I call to her.

She turns and cocks her head, trying to figure out who I am exactly.  “Joe Interview, right?”

“Indeed,” I say.  “How have things been with you?”

“Same old thing,” she says with a shrug.

“Nothing new?  Still working at the diner and all?”

“Still at the diner, and nothing new worth mentioning,” she says.  “Whatever reason you wanted to interview me, I’m sure it wasn’t because you liked the way I make change.”

I smile at her and for a moment we share silence.  Then she tilts her head and looks at me from behind her sunglasses.  “How bout you?  Did you beat that guy that stole from you?”

“No.  Management went with his pitch.  I also got into a bit of trouble for breaking company policy.  But if things work out, the management will go with my idea next season.”

Kathy nods and her lips turn down in a pout.  “Sorry to hear that.  I hope whatever you got into trouble for was worth it.”

I look at her.  The sunglasses are big as what’s now in fashion.  Still, I notice the bruised, purplish skin peeking out from the corner of her left eye.  I cast my gaze up at an overcast sky.

The voice inside my head is tired when it tells me I could use some time out of this shell.

 

END

 

 

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