SYNOPSIS: An ex-couple reunites only to fight over who will double-cross who first—in space, after a heist, over alien cuisine.
* * *
Tahn examined the controls on the console panel for the one-hundredth time: Lights On, Lights Off, Open Ration, and Engage Waste Evac. That was it. His options hadn’t changed in the thirty-seven hours he’s been stuck on the damned escape pod floating through space, except that he had eaten the sole ration provided by the escape vessel. One packet of salted rasteh beans and a pouch of lokunut juice (standard coach snacks on commercial spaceflights) did not quite quench his need for sustenance—or revenge.
A pang hit one of his two stomachs, the one that was most definitely empty. As hour thirty-seven turned into thirty-eight, Tahn’s mind wandered from the bleakness of space to the various ways he was going to retaliate against the one who left him stranded. Then he envisioned roasting a geerboar back in his fancy restaurant on the Selucreh homeworld—a beautiful, juicy roast, covered in limeroot, pollyseed, and wine from the Piranda Valley. Tahn's four blue arms lifted the magnificent platter into a massive oven.
Tahn opened his eyes and realized his arms were lifting the delicious mirage into the Waste Evac portal in front of him. Delirium must be setting in, he thought. Tahn was no small Selucreh male. He weighed in at 248 kilograms and 2.3 meters tall according to his interstellar police file, the units of measurement brought to their five-planet solar system by the humans almost a solar century ago. No one remembers why or where kilograms and meters came from, Tahn just knew the geerboar he was imagining for dinner amounted to at least five kilograms. He added a generous amount of fennelhash and ginberry sauce to his lucid dream.
He sat on a metallic case, fiddling with a piece of paper with a short note written on it, dwelling angrily on the events leading here. He pounded one of his four blue hands on the small circular window in frustration. He should have known better than to do a job with her. He should have known it from the moment she showed up at his restaurant months ago.
“Long time no see, Tahn,” Nimitrea spoke, sitting on a barstool. She swirled her drink around and adjusted the straps on her slinky dress.
Tahn came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron after one of his servers alerted him a customer was unsatisfied. The server pointed to her. Tahn stopped in his tracks upon seeing his ex-wife.
“Nimi. What do you want?”
“I wanted to speak with the head chef. He’s an old friend.”
“Andrei, lock up the credit repository,” Tahn said to the server.
“But boss, it’s three hours to close,” she protested.
“I don’t care, do it, and keep a watch on your cash tips, all of you,” Tahn hollered to his staff. Tahn cautiously approached Nimitrea. He reluctantly sat down next to her at the bar.
“Hey love, I’m not here to pilfer your restaurant earnings,” she said putting a hand on his shoulder. Tahn promptly removed it.
“It wouldn’t be below you. Nimi, what are you doing here? Are you here alone?”
“Yes, of course,” she replied putting all four hands in her lap. “Tahn, I’ve got a job.”
“Oh, here we go,” Tahn muttered, unsurprised.
“A career-changing, life-altering job—”
“Sure, you do.”
“—and I need you in order to get it done. Just you and me doing one simple job.”
“It’s never simple,” Tahn countered.
“Well no, but it’s always fun. Let me just tell you about it and then you can pass, no judgement, and I’ll get out of here. And, I won’t steal one solitary credit from anyone in the building.”
Tahn frowned. “You do remember we got divorced, right?” Nimitrea shrugged her pointy shoulders.
“So? You haven’t forgiven me after all this time?”
“It wasn’t ever just one thing, Nimi, it was years of being taken advantage of.”
“Well, if you don’t want to hear about it, then I’ll just go—”
“Wait, hang on…”
Tahn told her to stay at the bar until he closed the restaurant, and she did without stealing from anyone. She was never satisfied with anything, and she certainly wasn’t to be trusted; she was always angling for the upper hand. Always. Nothing could get him to come out of retirement, especially not her. He coached himself repeatedly as he locked the front doors while simultaneously counting receipts. He had a good honest business and was finally done dealing with the authorities aside from minor probation restrictions. He wasn’t supposed to leave the planet, but other than that, Tahn felt free; free of the past, free of Nimitrea’s vice grip, and free of debts to old accomplices. Nothing could make him consider leaving it all.
Well, nothing except the mouth-watering words: “a cylindrical Jupitarite the size of my hand,” followed by the savory phrase, “in the vault of Selucreh Prime Holdings,” with the tempting addendum, “which belongs to the Reyvir Ambassador.”
A familiar, uneasy excitement crept over him.
“You’d need to speak Reyvir to get to the vault,” Nimi added.
“And you’d need a holoshield to impersonate the Ambassador.”
“And you’d need me to get out alive.”
“I know, Nimi. I can do the math. I’m retired, not senile.” Tahn sighed. Nimi was right, she needed him. He was the language expert and disguise master in all their past outfits. It’s rare that a Selucreh knows how to speak Oykon, Ekul, and Naykluv, let alone the hardly spoken Reyvir language. They are an empathic alien race that doesn’t venture far from their homeworld, which makes creating a convincing façade that much more challenging.
“I’ll split the earnings straight down the middle, honest to gods, and I’ll get your off-world restrictions erased.”
Tahn couldn’t resist the taste. The offer was too delicious. It would be like passing up choice boar cuts at the wild game market or succulent ale from the Eastern monk abbey.
“Okay. I’m in,” Tahn said, trusting not an iota of her.
He digs out his old holoshield and programs the Reyvir Ambassador’s 3D scan into it. He brushes up on Reyvir language phonation and customary greetings. He unpacks his untraceable sidearm which hasn’t been fired in a solar decade, though he doubts he’ll need to use it. Weaponry and incapacitating security guards are Nimitrea’s specialties. It has been a long time since just the two of them did a job together, probably since before they were married? He couldn’t remember. All he could remember was the roller coaster that was their marriage and the peace he’d achieved now being rid of it.
Getting in was easy. Tahn’s Reyvir disguise and accent proved more than enough to get through to the vault holding the rare Jupitarite. Nimi acted as the Ambassador’s security attaché and locked the cylindrical gemstone in a magneton-kryolite case. Then, miraculously, they walked out of the vault, zoomed up the Xport tube, and moved through the lobby with the encased bounty in hand. They stepped over the threshold onto the street where a few homeless Selucreh mined through trash cans.
They waited for an alarm. Nothing.
“See, I told you. Simple,” Nimitrea said to Tahn, still appearing as a short, yellow-skinned Ekul in long purple robes with a diadem crown.
“Stop right there!” one of the street bums flipped around, holding a standard police-issue blaster.
“It’s never simple,” Tahn retorted.
Nimitrea threw one of her di-blaster wheels which exploded into fireworks, raining blue sparks down on the camouflaged police, burning the outside of their mangy coats. In those seconds of distraction, Nimitrea unfolded a compact crossbow and shot a grappling hook high into the air toward the roof. They were ziplining upwards out of sight by the time the authorities had figured out where to aim.
On the getaway ship, the autopilot took them past hemisphere control and the atmospheric gates. The hard part of the day was over.
Tahn deactivated the holoshield, morphing back into his usual self.
“Aw, I liked your princess crown,” Nimi joked, slouching into a chair in the control room of the ship.
“Uh huh,” Tahn surveyed around. “Nice ride. Where did you boost it?”
“The Reyvir Consulate, of course. It belongs to the Ambassador. I thought we’d have a legitimate getaway, in case there were complications.”
“Who’s the buyer? The Salmetto Brothers?”
“No, Kredentula. He’s hiding out in an asteroid cluster near the fifth moon of Oykon. We’re headed there now.”
“Unusual place for an Ambassador’s ship to go,” Tahn remarked.
“Oh, we’re trading this in for my usual transport in an hour. Can’t have it gone from Selucreh too long.”
“Why don’t you just program it to fly to Reyvir?”
“Oh, yeah. I should do that!” Nimi swiveled around adjusting the autopilot. Tahn sensed his moment. He wouldn’t let sentimentality take over this time. He would beat her to the punch.
“Where are the weapons?”
“Stashed in the back, with the catch,” Nimi replied, plugging away at the controls.
“Good,” Tahn stated, pulling his sidearm on her. Nimi froze.
“Darling,” she giggled sweetly. “How do you expect to get out of here? With the jewel?”
Tahn clicked the holoshield, unveiling the magneton-kryolite case in one of his free hands. “I already have it,” he declared.
“I see.” She reached down her boot.
“Don’t,” Tahn said, aiming. Nimitrea retracted her hands, placing three behind her head and typing one on the control screen.
“You can’t beat me,” she sneered.
“Watch me,” Tahn rejoined.
An ultralaser beam flickered from the dashboard and burned through Tahn’s body, singeing the steel plate behind him. Tahn looked down, smiling at his iridescent holographic body.
“Wow, you actually tried to kill me,” the real Tahn hollered from the back of the ship as he grabbed the real case after throwing all of Nimitrea’s weaponry into the airlock. As he emphatically jettisoned all her lethal devices, she charged down the hall from the control room, screaming.
She flung a boot at Tahn’s face. He blocked it, and they exchanged a few blows—a flurry of eight blue arms. She was strong, but he was still bigger.
“Why don’t you just shoot me?!” she cried, wiping blood from her chin. Tahn paused, rolling his eyes at her theatrics. He extended a hand, helping her up.
“Nimi, I could never kill you. I mean I hate you, in ways that are mystifying even to me—but I could never kill Arden’s mother,” Tahn heaved, putting away his sidearm.
“I know,” Nimitrea nodded, sullenly. “And I knew it was the holoshield back there.”
“For conversation’s sake, let’s say I believe you.”
“So,” Nimitrea panted, “You’re just going to take the whole thing then, leave me with nothing?”
“Nah, I figure eighty-twenty is fair. Way fairer than what you planned.”
“Whatever do you mean dear?” she said, chuckling.
“Oh, I bet it just eats away at you, the fact that I beat you to the double-cross this time,” Tahn sniggered.
“You know, it does a little bit!” They laughed a little, and stared at each other with just an echo of affection.
“How is Arden? Have you seen him lately?” Nimitrea asked.
“Not since his last military rotation,” Tahn replied, “but he looked good when I saw him.” Nimitrea nodded.
“I’m gonna need you to get in the escape pod now,” they said to each other in unison. A bout of laughter followed.
“That’s good, sweetheart.” Tahn wiped his eyes, getting out his sidearm again, holding the case close to his body. “Get in the escape pod.”
Nimitrea shook her head, smiling.
“Gods-damnit Nimi, get in the pod!”
“Nope,” she said crossing two of her arms.
Snap—went Tahn’s sidearm trigger. Nimitrea jumped in surprise. Tahn pursed his lips in silent frustration.
“Figures,” he said, lowering his useless weapon.
“I thought you said you’d never kill me?” Nimitrea asked.
Tahn explained, “I guess I know you well enough to presume you’d deactivate my weapon.”
“For conversation’s sake, let’s say I believe you,” Nimi parroted. Tahn shook his head.
“And I know you don’t have anything in that boot, nice try,” he added. “Okay let’s go,” he motioned her to the escape pod. “Don’t make me push you in.”
“If you leave me the Jupitarite, I’ll drop you off wherever you want and wipe your record clean, plus the off-world restrictions, like I promised,” Nimitrea offered.
“Hmm. How about, we split the credits down the middle like we agreed? Or—” Tahn punched the lock to the escape pod beneath them and the doors slid open, “—you could give up and I’ll take the whole thing.”
Nimitrea glowered at him.
“Like hell!” she shouted, kicking the jewel case out of his arms. It fell down into the escape pod with artificial gravity. Nimitrea pushed Tahn away, making a convincing move to jump into the pod, but he caught her and flung her aside. He dove after the case, snatching it and swinging a set of arms back up into the ship to lift himself out, but not before Nimitrea engaged the doors. They closed on Tahn. He dropped the case back into the escape pod, struggling to muscle the doors open again.
“Nimi—wait! We can split it!” he shouted through the narrowing.
“I don’t think so, baby,” Nimitrea said from the control console in the hallway, “Not this time.”
The doors swooshed shut; the escape pod launched. Tahn screamed into the glass window, watching the sleek ship get smaller. When he tired of screaming, he plunked down on the floor. A red beacon blinked outside the bulkhead.
Great, now the criminal who just stole a rare gem from Selucreh Prime is a sitting fawngoose with a flare, Tahn thought.
“Maybe criminals will pick me up instead of the intergalactic police force,” he spoke aloud to himself now. “I could make a deal with criminals,” he muttered, unlocking the magneton-kryolite case. He unfolded the black velour cloth that held the cylindrical—“Wait, nooooo…”
Inside the cloth was a written note instead of the precious jewel, written in an ancient Earthen nation-state language called Italian, a dialect Nimitrea and Tahn used to joke in. The note read: Scusate—which translates into Selucreh as: “Sorry.”
* * *
Hour forty-nine. Tahn’s hallucinations drown out the sounds of an Alien Hospital ambulance docking with the escape pod. He is busy visualizing a delicious roast on a rotating spit. He has decided to get primitive and cook the ways the ancient coastal Selucreh prepared geerboar for festivals, with a sheerplum stuffed in its mouth over very hot fire. He imagines himself sitting in the place of the Chieftan, with the Jupitarite fashioned into his elder-armor. His sworn enemy, Nimitrea, has been caught stealing. She’s locked away in a cage, now forced to watch him vengefully break off a roasted leg, dangle it in front of her, and then enjoy every, single, bite.