Zack opened his eyes, and then immediately wished that he hadn’t. After gettin’ up enough courage to open them again, he was convinced that wherever he was, it sure as shit wasn’t Heaven! With that thought, and the realization of its only logical alternative, he began to shiver uncontrollably. A few quick glances about, through half closed eyes seemed to indicate that he was the sole inhabitant of a featureless milky-white room, about 12 foot wide by 12 foot deep, with a low ceiling; one wall of which, rather then being white, was a huge piece of glass. Lookin’ through it for the first time, he gasped and immediately scuttled backwards involuntarily, crablike, ‘til one of the cold walls stopped his retreat.
His groggy mind groped for some clarity, something familiar. He could remember nothin’, other’n a strange smell, ‘bout what had happened to him after he had entered the giant floating pieplate thing. That was fine. He just wished, right now, he could somehow make himself unaware of what he was seein’ through that huge pane of glass. The light that illuminated the horrors that he was viewin’ seemed to come from everywhere, as though the walls themselves were shinin’ or glowin’.
Subsequent to his cursory glance at the room he was in, his wide-eyed stare had never wavered or wandered from its fixation on what appeared, to him, to be two giant swayin’ slugs about five foot long, and two foot ‘round, made outta bright yellow hominy grits. The front parts of these . . . slugs . . . were all-over covered with whitish tendrils that alternately oozed and swayed, in constant motion; and each one had five somewhat longer and slightly thicker tendrils, or stalks, emergin’ from their front-parts, which ended in bright crimson eyes, that kinda reminded Zack of crawdad’s-eyes.
Even though the sight of these monsters made him feel like pukin’, Zack stubbornly clenched his jaw and swallowed purposefully, determined to betray no sign of weakness. He’d obviously not made it to Heaven, so when Satan appeared to claim Zack’s soul as his prize, Zack was sure-as-shit gonna be on his feet and ready, not pulin’ on the floor in his own mess.
He tried to get up off the soft-covered shelf that served as a cot and stand straight to face his fate, but his legs were too rubbery, almost as though they hadn’t been used in ages. He tried to massage some life back into them, all the while still starin’ hostilely at the apparition of the two devil-slugs confrontin’ him.
That really was what they looked like, he thought: yellow slugs with white shoots wavin’ all over ‘em. He kinda wondered why they hadn’t had their way with him when he was helpless. That thought made him feel even worse, and he shuddered, trying to imagine what could possibly be worse than what he was goin’ through right now.
“Come on you big, fat worms,” he heard his voice half-growl, half-creak; “come on an’ try and git me. I gotta coupla surprises for y’all afor I see yer boss!”
He tried again, and found that he could now stand, although he still felt real weak. “C’mon and be even more dammed than ya’ already are, ya ugly demons,” he shouted, his voice growin’ in strength with use. “E’en tho’ there’s two ‘o you, you jes’ try ’n git near me you slimesuckers, ‘n I’ll settle your hash!”
Zack had near shouted this last line whilst beckonin’ boldly for the demons to enter his cell and come get him. Just then, he, for some reason, thought of Jezebelle. “Hey now, where’s “Belle? Whar’s my horse, ya puked up polecats? Whar is she? If’n ya’ll’ve hurt her, you’ll pay, ‘cause I’ll make ya, e’en if’n it’s the last thing I ever do!”
With this imprecation uttered, he ran suddenly forward and proceeded to pound on the sheet of glass that separated him from the two demons with both fists and feet. He observed, with some satisfaction, that the devilslug’s upper parts shied back from the window in response to his headlong rush t’wards’em. “Well now,” Zack thought aloud, “ya’ll kin be sceered. That’s good ta know, real good ta know; ‘n I thank’ee.”
Meanwhile, outside the enclosure (to cover his embarrassment at having been frightened by this feral entity), Eeekaal8 communicated, in a commskinpatch aside, to Eskal2: “It’s a violent thing, isn’t it? It must either be extremely stupid, fairly brave, or some combination of the two, mustn’t it? For Zogg’sake, can’t you get that thing to work, Kraaxmall?” Upon having signed this, he extruded two psuedopodia quickly and grabbed the Universal Translator from Eskal2, as the subordinate’s nervous fumblings had served only to elicit non-intelligible blurps or bleeps from the expensive device.
Expertly pushing and prodding the grey box’s touch-sensitive knobs until something akin to an intelligible pattern began to emerge from the translator’s commsurface, Eeekaal8 extruded two tendrils and waved them sarcastically, saying: “Well. The alien doesn’t seem happy in its confinement. For which,” and at that he paused and gestured meaningfully, in high dudgeon, at his cringing subordinate, “one can hardly blame it. It is clearly sentient, if somewhat ill-behaved! I’m sure the translator is doing its best, and apart from these xenophobic comments about our appearance, what is this it is saying about a companion?”
At that he turned the translator’s visible volume down until it was a whisper, and cleared his commskinpatch. “Kraaxmall,” he began, “I have always prided myself that, under my aegis, this business has been built up in punctilious adherence to GalFed standards. Those standards are quite specific, as you should well know (for your pupae’s sake), pertinent to proper treatment of all sentient life-forms, regardless of their technological development or standing on the Galactic Stockmarket! You will find this creature’s companion and reunite them. At once !
Eskal2 was, at this point, scrolling frantically through its lading roster. “Uh, your pardon, Provenevolved One, but . . .”
“Yes, what is it? . . . Well?”
Spez now began to ooze, quite visibly, from the hapless subordinate’s florns , “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” the kraaxmall signed, perceivably cringing. “Its companion was adjudged “non-sentient bioplasm” and has already been processed into comestibles.”
At this admission, Eeekaal8 became thoroughly agitated, obviously upset. “Zoggdamn, Kraaxmall. Have you no Glé?” This whole sordid affair was attributable, evidently, to not only faulty software, but also gross incompetence on the part of his ClanKin employees. He had other, more pressing business to attend to, and he had already spent too much time in investigating this problem.
“Compensation is your problem,” he signed imperiously. “Take care of it to the creature’ satisfaction, if you value your sperm!” He tossed the translator to his twitching subordinate. Turning to go he signed: “Oh, and Kraaxmall . . .”
“For Zogg’sake, give the poor thing a relaxant or something. If it continues to behave in this violent fashion it might damage itself, and the fines for that even I don’t want to contemplate. I’ll expect a full report input to my workstation within one blem .” Without another sign, he turned and slid swiftly on his slime away.
Silently, Eskal2 cursed the retreating back of his boss. Calming down quickly, he became a bit more philosophically inclined. “Entropy be praised, I’ve still got my job.”
He turned his attention back to the beast, which stood in the center of the holding cell, its upperappendage, loaded with sensory apparatus, almost touching the ceiling. What an ugly brute it was, he thought, all static curves and angles. It was, apparently, glaring at him with an intensity that made his hide crawl. Eskal2 wondered why it didn’t fall over, balanced as it was on only two thick tentacles. What an hideous evolutionary manifestation, he was glad a full leem of polarized plassteel stood between them.
Well, he thought, a species-specific general euphoric should ameliorate its anxiety and calm it down, though compensation for its loss might prove a much trickier problem. Eskal2 had no cultural information upon which to base an attempt to ascertain what the creature would consider fair compensation for its loss. Whatever his decision, he knew it would now have to pass his boss’s personal scrutiny. A sudden thought intruded upon his cogitation: why not just ask it? It was worth a try. He hurriedly slid back to his dockside workstation and rummaged through his things, coming up with the copy of The Junior Executive’s Encyclopedia he had bought as a present for his eldest grub’s Pupation party, and a disk reader; after having directed, through his control console, a mild Glebb brand narcotic to be introduced into the anomalous beast’s cell through the air ducts. He then also programmed the release of a synthburger and a container of water through the thing’s cell’s foodslot.
Returning apace to the creature’s cell, he peered in with all five eyes curiously. The beast was wandering about the cell aimlessly, vocalizing in a fashion that Eskal2 conjectured might be considered musical, occasionally striking at the walls with one of its appendages. Perhaps he had given it too strong a dose of the euphoric. As the foodslot opened and proffered its contents, the creature turned at the sound and went over to inspect the offering. After having grabbed the comestibles within what were its evidently non-transmutable tendrils, it lowered itself to the floor with an odd collapsing motion of its limbs until it was about half its former height.
It positioned one of its sensors above the container of water and sucked air in through it. It then stuck one of its small rigid tendrils into the cup and subsequently put it into the largest hole in its upperappendage. Seemingly satisfied, the beast abruptly poured the entire contents of the container down what was evidently its gullet. Eskal2 could not help but notice its formidable array of an omnivore’s hard mastication apparatus as it did this.
The creature seemed momentarily puzzled by the synthburger. After subjecting it to some evidently intense sensory scrutiny, and becoming satisfied that it was ingestible, it followed the water down the creature’s capacious esophageal canal.
He busied himself with connecting the translator to the disk-reader. If this worked, nextblem he would borrow his youngest grub’s holoprojector. When all the connections looked good he palpated the transmit knob on the translator and began to try to explain, in simple concepts and phrases, just what was happening to the creature, how it had happened, and what he, Eskal2, was attempting to do about it. He couldn’t tell from the beast’s behavioral mannerisms whether or not it understood anything he was saying, and it had stopped vocalizing. However, the creature had stopped plodding about, and was standing stock-still, with something like intelligent apprehension shining in its skeletally-encased, non-mobile eyes.
Eskal2 turned on the disk-reader, which immediately began dictating from the Junior Executive’s Encyclopedia, through the Universal Translator. He turned two eyestalks toward the cell. The creature had folded, and sat immobile, apparently comprehending something while it stared, unfocused, into space. Only time would tell whether this ploy was working. He wrinkled his commskinpatch in the equivalent of a shrug and returned to his module, to the more pressing business at tendril, hoping for the Entropic best.