“I am a confidence operator. Right now I am losing confidence.”
by Rob Hunter
Titania and the Beewolf
Thistlewaite’s Planetary Baedeker 135th edition, emendations and errata page 1035. Entry: Chalifoux
“…a steady controlled ascent on wings of liquid fire, costly chemical propellants that had to be freighted in from off-planet, was reserved for living cargoes, paying passengers. Landfall Chalifoux with its triple-imaged takeoffs and majestic sunsets was a landfall for sex-starved pensioners and dewy-eyed honeymooners alike. Agricultural produce, dried spices and faranga nuts were blasted into orbit to be sorted out later at the leisure of a supercargo. Tourism flourished with a quick turnaround; landing and docking fees for the liners that brought the camera-happy throngs were in excess of three millions of Tasmanian proto-pounds per annum. There was usually a cruise ship in orbit along with at least one ion-drive freighter…”
There was something wrong. If not wrong, decidedly not right. At least out of place. This was disturbing. The sun slanted at a low angle through a paned glass aperture and was refracted by a dangling prism in an overstuffed gift kiosk. A beewolf wandered over. Reaching out a palp to steady himself, he fell against a rack stuffed with pre-packaged entertainments, their lurid packaging positioned to attract a traveler’s retail impulses. Some spoke with tiny voices, “Hot, hot, go here!” “Romance, love, lust!” The quiet ones drew his attention..
High above in a video mural, sunlight at a low angle bespoke dewy grass after a light frost at a change of seasons. A blue eagle stopped in mid flight and hovered—homeward bound after a night of foraging. Wood smoke trailed in an undisturbed vertical plume from a householder’s fire. The bird, curious and motionless in the recycled air, cocked its head. A straggle of legs twitched in its beak. The bird crunched its prey and the legs were still. A crested head cocked back and the great raptor swallowed largely. There was a flick of tail feathers and a dollop of birdlime spiraled downward and out of aspect. The bird disappeared and the scene shifted to rolling breakers and a tropical beach. These were strange happenings for what was otherwise insipidly programmed electronic wallpaper. Only two sets of eyes noticed this event—one set of compound insect eyes and two hazel-green human eyes concealed behind reflective goggles.
The insect—one Ralph, short for Rafiello—was clothed in the flowing yellow robes of a religious adept. He turned to the mirror of a gumball machine and preened. He had the feeling that someone was watching them. “I am a confidence operator. Right now I am losing confidence.” He spoke to his reflection.
The beewolf, seven feet tall with many spiny elbows, stepped back from the gum machine to allow his companion to enter the image. The human was clothed in a robe that hung about him like a portable beach cabana. He shuffled and twitched, causing ripples in the fabric of the robe, as though he was wrestling for custody of the garment with several smaller people who claimed simultaneous tenancy. Harry had arranged luggage in a semicircle about his feet, destination and routing tags facing in, nearest him. The names on the tags were not theirs. The pair wore the colors of Adepts of the Fourteenth Circle.
The beewolf hunted through inside pockets and came up with a coin. The gum advertised as its active ingredient an alkaloid with calming, if mildly addictive, properties. He unwrapped the individual sticks and fed them between his mandibles. An aroma of cloves billowed forth as he spoke while chewing.
“You can choose your family ex post facto with the assistance of any reputable forger but I am saddled with a friend. Friends are apportioned by an inscrutable divine lottery, zippedydoodah and appended bullshit. Hence I am responsible for that asshole.”
“You are talking to a gum machine,” Harry observed. “Hey, didn’t we have some certificates printed?”
“I forget. Let’s have some of Daddy’s Medicine to get the juices flowing,” replied the beewolf.
“Don’t forget your friends,” Harry Fenderson, homo sapiens bibiens, replied. Harry was addicted to the beewolf’s venom. Ralph, order hymenoptera, depended on Harry to supply him with ethyl alcohol, forbidden to his kind since the Cygnus II massacre. Order Hymenoptera were sorry, terribly sorry when they sobered up. Treaties were solemnized; firewater was off the menu.
Giving a quick look around, hoping he was not obvious, the beewolf flipped one antenna, allowing it to droop archly to one side, and addressed the gum machine. “Thanks, Bob, for the quality time. Was it good for you? It was good for me. Uh-oh.”
A nod, as though grooming his antennae, and the mirror-ball facets of his compound eyes reflected 360 degrees of video monitors and color-coded stripways hustling passengers with a placid mechanical efficiency. There was a flash of reflected light from a lens turned quickly away.
“Harry. The heat. Act casual.” He nudged his human companion.
Harry toppled over at the touch. “Huh. Whazza? Oh yeah, sure.” He caught his balance with arms extended, airily flapping his wrists in a butterfly pirouette. Passersby stopped to watch. He began to spin, arms still extended, his saffron robe with its iridescent strips of viridian lifted, revealing a rolled-up mechanic’s jumper and hairy legs. Harry’s feet sported socks with garters and mismatched shoes—one oxblood wingtip with peeling uppers and a rubber shower clog. The man’s eyes had the glassy look of prophecy.
There was a crystalline “ding” and the script on the monitors rolled over, changing from departures to arrivals. The knot of idly curious turned as one to the screens.
“Saved by commuter anxiety,” said the beewolf. Harry was becoming erratic. The beewolf unsheathed his sting and slipped the tip quickly into the fleshy part of an exposed calf.
“Sorry about the hygiene, old man, but we haven’t the time for a swab.” Checking his own equilibrium, he fished a flask from his body pack and tossed back a liter of alcohol. “Shame to waste perfectly good sauce on an injection.” A glistening sting retracted under the beewolf’s kilt. The human had had his fix. The beewolf caught the glint of lenses again. The bottle disappeared with a slither as the lenses approached. He absently scratched Harry’s nose with a palp, reassuring.
“My master very holy.” Faceted insect eyes looked hopefully for baksheesh.
The lenses stopped. The insect’s breath wreathed him in a juniper miasma of trade gin and cloves.
The lenses were attached to the head of an undersized human female. Large mirror-finished goggles reflected the two mendicant friars. Petite and purposeful, the woman approached them with an air of authority. Cop.
“Help two poor friars on their way. All donations are receipted and deductible.” The insect flourished a portable calculator from which dangled a beribboned notary’s seal. “We seek the forgotten quest.”
“Forgotten bullshit. Titania Ferencz, commissionaire, how do you do?” Standing on tiptoe she thrust her face into the beewolf’s. Her nose wrinkled. “Drinking that stuff it’s amazing you have enough brain cells left to wind a watch. We’ll see. Bite on this. Police.” She shook her identity papers loose from a simulated alligator wallet and waved them in Harry’s face. “Real parchment... sheepskin, see?”
The breeze overbalanced the man and he slid to the floor inside his robes. The clothes held their shape for a breathless moment, then followed him down.
There was another “ding” from the monitors. Titania looked around; they had been abandoned by the earlier circle of commuters, gone to board departing shuttles to the great liners that waited in orbit.
“I am in a charitable mood, although I’ll be damned if I know why. Let me lay it out for you: I am a commission cop, a free-lance enforcement contractor working against a predetermined scale of fines, bounties, and assessments. I need a bread-and-butter bust or it’s no lunch today and forget about tomorrow. I won’t even have a place to live. I’d run you guys in but the bounty for vagrancy wouldn’t pay our cab fare to the station house.”
The beewolf produced a second flask and offered her a drink. She refused and he gave a many-limbed shrug. The facets of his eyes rotated to her bosom where he addressed his appeal to its friendly harbor. This was a maneuver the beewolf had studied in human barrooms. “Times are hard all over, sweetheart. What would you say if I told you we have come to Chalifoux to pursue a matter of an inheritance? Harry’s old auntie...” The beewolf took a slug from the flask and slipped it back under his robe. “No, forget it. I know what you’d say.”
The beewolf’s human companion nodded dopily, staggered to attention, and stared down the front of Titania’s jumper. His eyes rolled back into his head and he fell asleep standing.
“It appears our Harry is impervious to your charms,” said the insect.
A fresh influx of new arrivals with time to kill stopped to stare, attracted by the tableau of two yellow-robed adepts being challenged by an undersized human female with hair so flaming red that it had to be real.
“You look guilty, therefore you probably are. One of the tenets of the civil code: One is what one appears to be. Here’s how it works: pickings have been slim. My boyfriend has walked out and with him his share of the mortgage. Titania, my love, I tell myself, what shall we do? Then Seven-handed Bellafagh sends me a pair of conmen working the concourse got up as panhandling religiosos. You have been chucked off a luxury liner by a hostile bursar with no respect for true believers, nicht wahr? Stop me if I’m getting ahead of you. Consider this as a pre-trial hearing, an arraignment. The pay for running in swindlers is so low as to be nonexistent but I could cause you a lot of grief and tie up your travel papers for weeks. Sit.”
The beewolf decided honest indignation was his best course. “Swindlers? Us! Picky, picky, picky. My dear woman, you are suffering from the enthusiastic hyperthyroidism endemic to small-town cops.” He pulled Harry over and arranged the folds of his robe. “We are solid citizens, holy friars pausing on a pilgrimage only to sort out some family business...” He slapped his partner on the back, sending him stumbling across the concourse. “Harry’s family.”
A path opened in the crowd and Harry spun on through, finally bouncing off the protruding belly of a burly gent whose eyes were covered by a set of visor goggles. From the absent slope of the commuter’s shoulders and his wriggling fingers he was enmeshed in the intricacies of a virtual hookup, a business call or a game simulation. The aggrieved party snapped up his visor, grunted some phrases of choice invective in a dialect of the galactic rim, and pushed Harry back at them. Harry spun on his heels, a full 180 degrees, and teetered back to Titania and the beewolf. The man nodded around, seeking approval for his gamesmanship from the onlookers. There was a smattering of applause for his deft move and he popped the visor back in place.
“Sit,” repeated the curvaceous copper.
“Here. The psychology of crowds is that if we are sitting, the show is over and they will disperse. Trust me.”
They sat on the floor in the middle of the busy concourse. The gaggle of onlookers took this as a sign nothing interesting was going to happen and wandered off.
“The local variations on interrogation procedures are slow but convincing. Detainees have been known to invent malfeasances after only three, four years of questioning.”
“Years? Four years?”
“By which time you will have heard all about your jailer’s family gatherings, bloodlines, statistics from generations of office softball games, or the local equivalent. Chalifoux has a tightly structured hierarchical society—a tight little planet. The Chalifaxers are big on family.” Titania Ferencz looked down the concourse. “They keep a low profile here in the offworld compound, but when you meet one you won’t mistake him for anybody else. They are big and furry and unbearably social. But you won’t mistake one for a teddy bear. It’s the fangs. They can talk genealogy for hours, days.”
“Or in the case of a captive audience, years.” The beewolf stroked a feathery antenna. “You are telling us that the indigenous fauna is adorable but boring.”
“Regrettably. They evolved from a primitive social creature not unlike the prairie dog back home. Earth.”
The mention of Earth brought a response from Harry. Tears welled up in his eyes and, hiking his yellow robe up to his hairy knees, he buttock-walked to Titania’s side where he threw his arms around her and sobbed. “Earth woman, I come from out of space. Hiya, hiya, simply hiya. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” Harry passed out.
“He likes you. Women don’t usually have that effect on him.”
“Cretin.” Knotting her fingers in Harry’s hair, Titania lifted his face out of her décolletage and hauled him into a sitting position. “There. Now stay put.”
Harry wavered but stayed. His eyes were still closed.
“Just look at you; you guys have got to be guilty of something. Work with me on this. Everybody has something to hide. All we have to do is find out what and I’m home free with the quota for today. Help me.”
“Let me get this straight,” said the beewolf. “You would like us to confess to some crimes so you can snarf down burgers at the Chalifoux equivalent of a three-star restaurant. An interesting scenario, even for a human. Then I suppose, from the lad Harry here and myself, the civil authorities will exact lots of vengeance, oodles of extirpation, for crimes, real or imagined, against the polity. Our lives, our unsullied honor then, are a small price to pay for an unruffled continuation of the civil peace.” The insect studied the front of his robe, searching for nonexistent lint. “A persuasive presentation. Where do we sign up for the flogging? Really!”
“Let me tell you about yourselves. I have it right here on microfiche courtesy the bursar who chucked you off his ship.” Titania made a mime of reading a scrolled indictment. “Let’s see: you have been stuck in deep space on a rust bucket passenger freighter for eight months, hitting on love-starved dowagers. Said lonely spinsters drift to the bar, get all drunk and amorous and talk religion. You flog your ersatz enlightenment on them, they swoon, you pick their pockets. Fill me in if I have left out anything of the scenario. I am prepared to cut you a deal. You will pay to me the fines and assessments I will not be collecting for running you two gonzos in. This will save you much aggravation and I’ll make my rent. Believe me, the civil authorities on Chalifoux are past masters at obfuscation and paper chases; a civil case for littering can drag on for months. You could petition for a military court, being off-worlders, but should you lose, there are only two penalties: hard labor and death. My advice is to pay the fine. To me. Admittedly, financial crimes are of such low priority they’re not even in the statute books, but while the Chalifaxers are figuring you out, you could languish in the slam for months; years are not unheard of.”
There was a distant skittering of roulette wheels. It was a modest sound, not unlike that of playing cards rubbing against bicycle spokes.
“If you figured Chalifoux for a boring backwater planet, buddy, did you ever choose right. However, I have been here six years myself and the basic distraction is provided by the local juvenile delinquents who are smart, savvy, organized, and armed to the teeth. Tah-dah!”
As the rattling got closer it became deafening. A platoon of whooping weasels astride motorized unicycles roared onto the concourse. Harry looked through half-closed eyes. Swinging large wooden ratchets that looked like party favors though much larger, the posse was bearing down on the three of them. “Bad dream. Must be D.T.s.” Harry closed his eyes.
“Ahem...” It was the beewolf. “The furry lads on the one-wheelers are a welcoming committee, I hope?”
“The entertainment committee, and you are the latest in entertainment. Layabouts—those juvenile delinquents I mentioned—stilyagi is the offworlder term. These are slack times and there are roving patrols of political bullies attached to neighborhood warlords.”
Smelling a bust, the new arrivals circled at a distance.
“Noisy, aren’t they?” said Titania. The riders were almost the height of the insect, their tufted tails braided with colored ribbons indicating clan affiliation. Startled clusters of passengers parted and dived for the walls. The stilyagi sported sloping, powerful shoulders, businesslike talons, and bared incisors. The ratchet-swinging weasels came whipping up to Titania, ignoring her associates. Titania put herself between the cyclists and her two charges. “Don’t worry; they’re here to hassle me. You are next on their list, but I am the star attraction for now. They have to satisfy the administrative norms. These lads shake down all questionables for loose change, food coupons, or, if there is any resistance, whatever they find on the bodies.”
Titania held up a heavy zirconium badge glittering with an emerald-eyed enamel dragon eating its tail, Justice Discovering Itself. Her badge had expired and her apartment was going condo, probably without her. “And now I am being harassed by kids on unipeds.”
An arm-banded thug whose tail ribbons indicated adult status brought his machine to a screeching halt at Titania’s toes. Titania flourished her defunct documents.
“That’s bullshit, babydoll; you’re expired. Should have kept up with the payments; your papers were dead yesterday. These gonzos are ours.” He preened whiskers pomaded into a moustache.
“If you can read that well, you’d know my name, and it’s not Babydoll. Blow, cretins.” She turned her back on the stilyagi. They roared away. Titania snapped her wallet closed and tossed it into her backpack. Her hologram likeness and the handsome calligraphy of her credentials set her back a month’s earnings.
“They figure if I’m not worried, maybe they’d better think things over.” The commission cop turned to catch the beewolf giving Harry a surreptitious jab and raised a silent, accusing eyebrow.
The insect, who had been pretending to be a trash barrel and, thanks to his saffron monk’s robe, succeeding, was apologetic. “Uhn, yes... Well, I figured now is the time to be alert. Harry is healthy and can sleep off the cumulative effects when things calm down.”
“In codependence, the dominating partner needs constantly to be validated. You two are certainly a twosome.”
Harry perked up, “Well, I guess we showed them, eh, pal?”
“They’ll be back,” Titania did not seem worried.
Straightening an antenna, the beewolf spoke. “Your furry platoons leave an intense first impression. My images of childhood innocence have been properly dispelled. The Departure of the Stilyagi, what a marvelous subject for a heroic mural. Just the thing to liven the place up. You may call me Ralph, Titania.”
The stilyagi came howling back.
“Well, the kids have made up their minds.” Titania rummaged in her backpack. “Oh, damn. It’s in here somewhere...” She shook it upside down and items of personal apparel went flying: what looked to the beewolf to be a sequined wet suit—formal synchronized swimming? He would have to ask her about it if they survived—candy bars, and a dog-eared paperback manual, thick, looking like a legal code.
“Ahh...” From the bottom of the bag she came up with a very old-fashioned and lethal-looking large-caliber pistol. “Hit the floor, I’m going to make some noise.” Titania thumbed the hammer back and closed her eyes. “This is only slick if it works, otherwise it’s monumentally stupid.” She let fly a thundering volley from her huge, and by now unauthorized, gun. Passengers scattered, likewise the stilyagi.
“Perhaps,” The beewolf suggested, “a like discretion would be indicated for us as well.”
“You mean get the hell out of here,” said Titania. “I agree; every commissionaire in Landfall Chalifoux will come running after those fireworks. We three are now hot as a trio and we must get Harry to stand out less in a crowd—beewolf, for you there is no hope; you will have to shuck the robes, go naked and pass for what you are—another alien on a busy commercial world.”
Alarms were going off from the gunfire, and the stilyagi were sure to join in the chase. “For a while at least, we’re all in the same boat. Or doorway,” Titania realized. They huddled together in an access walkway intended for service personnel, out of range for surveillance cameras.
“You guys will have to stay at my place for a while. This will be difficult to explain to Dwight.”
“The guy I live with. Lived with. I forgot—old habits die hard.” Titania sized up Harry. “Hmm, he’s about Dwight’s build. I threw his things out the window. We’ll check the alley at the bottom of my ventilation shaft.”
Harry spoke. He looked alert and normal except for the mismatched shoes and the rest of his getup. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Look, I know I’m probably not anyone’s idea of Mister Right, but I’m handy around the house. Is Dwight a jealous type?”
“You joined us late. Don’t worry about Dwight. He’s out, dental floss, golf clubs—everything. The lease expires New Year’s Eve and I can’t afford the immense pile of Tasmanian proto-pounds to renew it. Devil Dollars are the local adopted currency, a wheelbarrow-load for a loaf of bread.” Harry was trying to make a good impression, she thought. A condign heaven has taken pity on me and sent along another Mister Right on approval, and none too soon. She chanced a sidelong peek at Harry and suppressed a shudder.
“Let’s go.” Harry nodded off, sliding into a funk as the last shot lost its effect.
“I could fly.” The beewolf took a swig from his bottle and opened his mendicant’s robe; the juniper fumes were overpowering in the closeness of their niche. Titania waved a hand in front of her face clearing a hole in the air to breathe through.
“I’ll just bet you could.”
“No, I mean really. Look.” Letting his robe fall to the ground, the beewolf staggered forward. Through a wonder of arthropod jointing he flexed his body, rippling and creaking, stretching like a sports competitor warming up. “Ouch. Uh, been a while, you know.” He opened a span of rainbow-hued wings; they were awesome. Translucent tips touched the walls on either side of the walkway. There was an ominous creaking from his thorax and lower body parts. “Old joints. The religious life is so confining.”
The beewolf crouched for a running start and, teetering along on four unsteady legs, fell on his face.
“Maybe later. Nice wings, though.”
The beewolf preened, picking himself up. “Nice? They are magnificent. What a couple we would make, eh?” The tip of one antenna had been bent inward. He made clucking sounds and smoothed it with his long tongue. “It’s your gravity. Call a cab.”
“I’d say it’s more the gin than the gravity. And it’s not my gravity any more than it is yours. Can you really fly?”
“Of course. I suppose. We fly all the time at home. Except I’ve never been there.” The beewolf sounded as though his feelings were hurt.
Titania decided to let the matter drop. “Okay, but no cab. We are a hot property—fugitives. We’ll have to foot it.”
The beewolf picked up his robe. “Certain males of my species fly only once: a mating flight. You busy tonight, Titania?”
The robot taxi brought Titania Ferencz and her two charges to her habitation module where shrubbery had been replaced by a small garden plot. Tomato plants and a hedge of abnormally healthy sunflowers guarded the door.
“Three hundred fifty Tasmanian proto-pounds, please,” said the taxi. “When you have validated your transaction, please leave the vehicle.” She slipped a retail debit card into the taxi’s slot. Her bankcards had been impounded the week before.
“Total has been debited. Your card is empty. We have voided it for you.” The now useless card popped out of the slot. “Thank you, and have a nice day.”
There was a thump, more felt than heard. The sunflowers bobbed on their stalks and kilometers distant concentric rings of geothermal steam billowed as a cargo hoist sprang from its catapult and flew glittering toward the horizon. Heads turned to the spacedrome. This was the daily big event on Chalifoux. As the winged container skimmed a ridge of hills its motors cut in. Spiraling magentas and greens surrounded it with a scrambling palette. A postcard fantasy—a quirk of atmospherics, and the freight shuttle separated into two more images, one blue, one orange. It was this phenomenon that brought the cruise liners for their three-day layover.
“My wings are positively limp. And look at poor Harry.”
“You look at poor Harry. There’s nobody home. What are you feeding him?”
Harry raised a blue-tinged eyelid. “Couldn’t we just have cut across?”
“And get fried by a passing microfusion drive. Sure. I’ll take my chances with those stilyagi.”
Titania’s flat was on the far side of the wheel defined by the periphery of the two-mile circle that was the designated landing area for shuttlecraft from orbital vehicles.
The precinct, a plastic modular construction reaching four stories, advertised itself as perhaps residential by tiny dooryards with dispirited clumps of native shrubbery lined up to separate the entranceways. While the woman and the insect stopped, Harry went on for a few paces, bumped into a wall and opened his eyes. He squinted at the row of houses. “Huh, nice,” he said, then closed his eyes and sat down.
“Incredibly tacky, but home,” offered Titania. “Assembled in orbit, bounced in by flitter and fused together in place.”
“Your nest. I cannot help but notice pride of ownership is missing. You did not build these domiciles yourself then, my dear. I shall infer that you are not ovulating.” The beewolf’s aura of juniper had increased with their exercise. He stroked her hair with an antenna and looked disappointed as Titania pulled away. “The architecture is depressingly identical.”
“Of course it is. We are still in outworlder’s turf. We are quarantined in together. And by a cast of the celestial dice you chose Chalifoux to perpetrate whatever scam you have dreamed up. Show some pride in your hustle, please, some craftsmanship. You are too easy a bust.”
“And hoping you are the same.” The beewolf reached a tentative palp toward Titania’s bosom. It was slapped away.
“Cut the crap, you ignorant arthropod. You have been hanging out in too many cheap barrooms. I am about as appealing to you as a plate of spaghetti, admit it.”
“Spaghetti is nourishing as well as diverting. Food is love, and I have found in our travels that there is a universal appeal radiated by all...” Here his antennae vibrated and a barrage of whistlings issued from the beewolf’s thorax.
“By that, you mean me, I suppose.”
“Ah, yes. My language. Untranslatable, but the description of the ineluctable essence of all that is female.”
“Tender unit. Not a desirable, deliriously accessible cupcake, awash in loveliness.”
“Tender unit. That says it all.”
“To me it says spaghetti.” A light was flashing above the doorknob. “Oh shit. Simply shit.” Titania pressed the flat of her hand under the light. Finding her acceptable, the door beeped and hiccupped as a display of indecipherable letters crawled across its face. “Translate, goddamn it!”
The door beeped apologetically and the letters rearranged themselves. Her eyes grew wide at the address: Harold Fenderson, esq., c/o Titania Ferencz offworld arrondissement, platform fourteen, E3L 4B2.
“Allow me,” said the beewolf, retrieving the message and scissoring it open with a wickedly efficient looking set of mouthparts. There was the breathless snick of a razor slicing effortlessly through paper. Titania gasped lightly and found that she had stepped back a pace from the tall insect.
“Ahh, mandibular action. One of those moribund vestigia the body outgrows but hangs onto just in case—not unlike your human vermiform appendix. A demonstration of tangential Darwinism, I submit, delving close to poaching on phylogenetic taxonomy—not my field. I am, after all, a confidence operator. Like ‘em?”
He clacked his redundant mouthparts for her admiration.
“Goes to show there is no such thing as an evolutionary backwater. Millions of generations of beewolves have carried these snippers down the eons so that I might one day on a planetary system light years distant from the hearth of my race snip open a pilfer-proof mailer and get the goodies. I suggest a moment of silence while we ponder our DNA.”
Titania pointed to Harry. “That, I take it, is Harold Fenderson, esq.”
Harry was slumped inside his robes propped against the wall of Titania’s house behind the flattened row of sunflowers. With his yellow robe, on another world, at another time he might have been a lawn ornament, a garden gnome set out by the house proud to delight passersby and confound the neighbors.
“Our very own Harry,” the beewolf was beaming on his friend.
“Might I ask how he managed to get mail at my address?”
“Why is your idiot friend, esq., getting mail at my house?”
The beewolf’s antennae drooped. “You are not happy.”
“No, goddammit, I am not happy. How come?”
“You didn’t say not to. Your sun-dappled cottage is public knowledge. You were flashing your credentials to anyone who cared to look back at the spacedrome, so I memorized the coordinates and nipped over to a public terminal on our leisurely progression to your humble domicile and punched them in as a forwarding address.”
The paper the beewolf held was crisping at the edges, an announcement that it would soon disintegrate in unfiltered sunlight.
“The laborer is worthy of his hire, is he not? We are here because we know a secret about Chalifoux.”
“Auntie owns it,” said Harry.
The beewolf grew intimate and confiding. “Family business. We are here on family business. Harry really does have an auntie and an inheritance, you know.”
“Thus presenting you with unrestricted vistas of enrichment. And the Word came down: Go forth, be fruitful and try your hands at long division...” Titania hustled around behind the beewolf and stood on tiptoe to read the letter shriveling in his palp. “Might I ask what it is? After all, this is my house.”
“Auntie’s quarterly disbursement. And, my goodness gracious, would you look at all those zeros.” He held the top sheet of a stockholders’ report on a plane to his line of sight, just out of her reach. “And where is our little decimal point? Way down there at the end. The far end, the right end, away from all the heavy action where we shall frolic, brothers and sister.”
“One question: if you guys own the planet how come you’re panhandling on the concourse? Take your time; go ahead, entertain me. I’ve got nothing but time and it’s a long lonely walk back home.” Titania looked the beewolf up and down, “Earth, I mean. Granted that it’s a longer walk for you.”
“Sewer bonds? Really.”
“The sewer bonds bring to bear the unparalleled benefits of offworld technology. We have here a raw civilization, hidebound by rules of clan and tribe. The weasels have congregated into great cities yet they, by a religious duty, ship their poop home for burial. Viola!... hydraulics. A pneumatic solution to a societal constipation. Chalifoux is welcomed into the greater community of civilized races and your humble servants...” The robe flew open with another many-limbed gesture, “...will have expedited these modern wonders. To wit: flush toilets. The Chalifaxers will be no longer tied to their daily parcel express.”
“While you rake in the bucks.”
“The sweetest con of the millennium, but depending on an unpredictable outcome the constituents are either blown away or bankrupt before our annuity can start rolling in. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“My but we are a panoply of vice, aren’t we. No, go ahead.”
“That’s alright, I don’t smoke. I just wondered if you would mind.” The beewolf dabbed at a compound eye with the hem of his robe.
“Neat. Swell. You never turn it off do you? Insects don’t cry.”
“Only a gesture. Social bonding. It lets us know how we stand with one another. You have a big heart, Titania.”
“What bearing does this have on our present situation?”
“We have done our homework,” the beewolf said. “Bathroom habits. When they poop, answer the call of nature, a sacred obligation to Seven-Handed Bellafagh—the local Prime Mover, every pun intended—demands they do it all and at the same time. Regular fellas, what? Once a day. This bizarre notion is inscribed in the bylaws of every warring sept, clan and fiefdom. Everything comes to a crashing halt at 6 AM. And, please note, Chalifoux has only one time zone. Check your watch; check the streets—they’re empty. I can’t believe that you, a resident, are unaware of the local folkways, whilst I, a humble friar of recent planetfall, am better informed.”
“And you come in selling inflated sewage bonds, upgrade the planet, and skip with the profits. Neat. But against their religion.”
“No, it was all honest and aboveboard. We came on board late in the operation. Then we—Harry’s auntie, actually—had competition. They are a race of inventors and fascinated by gadgetry. Sophistication beat out the church. For a twenty percent cut of the take, the Mother Church declared a plenary indulgence. The catch in this scenario is that while pneumatics move the stuff, the stuff would move all at the same time, setting up a resonance that threatened the planet’s axial tilt. One of their engineers discovered this and the scare threatened Auntie’s income. Another engineer got carried away with the project, proposed orbital disposal. Marvelous idea, really. The Chalifaxers just love doing things in a group. It’s their entire evolutionary history. Millions of years as warren builders and they evolved into tight, hidebound social units: the tribe, or gens, clan, and the sept. Can’t do anything of consequence without you bring a note from your old granny.”
“I remember—there was a humorous write-up in the ‘zines. Setting up a flow of counter-resonance and propelling the effluent into orbit. A big laugh item. A set of rings about the planet. Lovers look skyward on summer nights and make a wish...”
“On yesterday’s dumplings, flying high in the sky.”
“We will have a new moon, or rings made of you-know-what. Imagine what that will do for cruise ship landings and the honeymoon tourist trade...”
“The engineer began selling his own lottery bonds. Harmonic resonance—what pipe organists call a ‘resultant.’ That’s the MacGuffin.”
“Whoa there, you’re losing me.”
“All that sludge moving in pneumatic togetherness through the pipes at the same time each day would set up a resonance that would cause the planet to tilt, wobble in its orbit. And the flying dumplings, our competitor’s scheme, only set up a differing disaster scenario.”
With a creaking of body joints, the beewolf slumped down next to Harry. “Potential theory. A fluid of uniform density under constant angular rotation is an equilibrium shape. But it keeps getting bigger while Chalifoux’ mass decreases—LaPlace transforms, Fourier integrals, vector analysis, yaddita, yaddita. Hypothesis: when, in the statistically improbable event that a significant number of people flush simultaneously, the surge will wobble the planet. Then there’s that Twiddle thingy—the unpredictable glitch inherent in Fourier figuring.”
“And blooey. Of course, of the ancient savants, Joe Fourier was far too optimistic. They never dreamed of a planet like Chalifoux or a race of creatures so hidebound in their obligations to ritual and hierarchy as these overgrown weasels.”
“Or an application quite like a planetwide sewage system whose inflated bonds you have been peddling...”
“Au contraire, my buxom commissionaire. We have been buying, betting on a sure thing.”
“Buying? With what?”
“Other people’s money. After all, I mean really...” The beewolf’s robe fell open to allow a gesture; a bottle fell to the pavement. “But, after all, the Chalifaxers live here, they wanted flush toilets, they’re stuck and welcome to it.”
“Suspicouser and suspicouser. As you said, you are too well informed for a recent arrival.”
“So I read a lot. Use your head, woman. Shoot the moons and goodbye romantic sunsets. Flying dumplings boggle the mind but denial is mighty medicine; the suckers just kept on coming. It sounded like a joke, so they chose not to believe it. The Chalifaxers really, really want these things. One of them. Something has got to be built or we will have a lot of angry shareholders after us. Alas, the competing aerial elimination scheme, through a flagrant misattention to engineering detail, also guarantees the extirpation of sentient life on the very planet that is home to aforementioned ratepayers. There will be no quarterly dividend when the home office, overbalanced by its own effluent, is blown into flinders, its profligate poopers—our quondam benefactors—included. Chalifoux either a: shifts on its axis and enters a new ice age; or, b: wobbles into an irregular orbit to spin into its sun; or, c: surrounded by orbital rings of dazzling dung, loses the tourist landings that have brought the hoped-for palliative of offworld exchange to its feudal economy.
“I have been reading up on the math: antique stuff, quite accessible if one knows where to look. Partial differentials, the Fourier series, and Newtonian law.” The beewolf tried to look self-effacing. “The formulae explain it all, but no one can understand the math. So they forge on irregardless.”
“Now you are modest. Such learning from a con artist.”
“It is learning that gives us confidence, my commissionaire. But everything becomes unpredictable. I overlook a teensy-weensy detail and disaster looms. For us and collaterally for the whole planet. You see before you one dejected arthropod. I hope we are in time to salvage a potential ruin. Could I have a look at that device of yours?”
Titania gave him a puzzled look.
“The gun. Your shootin’ iron, ma’m.” The beewolf turned the pistol over in his palps. “No. Suicide is such a noisy, messy business. We shall have to work things out.”
A squad of bailiffs wearing fatigue jumpers with the insignia of the Queen’s Own Civil Militia approached. The bailiffs marched past them and entered Titania’s building. They ignored the three on the sidewalk.
“Here they are—the dispossessors,” said Titania.
From an upstairs window came the sound of ripping curtains and a single large thump. “Hey, you guys—you are here to put me out. That sounds more like indiscriminate looting than it does moving. Could we stop to pack and fold?”
The beewolf felt he should make a gesture of some sort. “Harry, Look alive. While we skulk and loiter, the jolly Chaligonian prefecture are perpetrating nascent homelessness upon our virgin protector.”
The beewolf started a thrumming Ahumm. Titania turned and kicked him. “If that is supposed to be clearing a throat, forget about it. My virgin status aside, protecting you from the prefecture is the farthest thing from my mind. Live with it.”
“This is but a metaphor, okay? Your merest utterance is my raison d’être, my Princess. Only a point of order. After all, these are your flimsy lace costumeries the minions of the law are chucking to the winds.”
The commission cop sat dejected by the pile of her belongings. It was a considerable pile and growing as bailiffs dumped yet another installment of Titania Ferenc’s home furnishings in the street.
It was a bizarre sort of manifest destiny, Titania grumped—outward expansion, the desire for elbowroom, to breathe free in the wide-open spaces. Thus far there was too damned little space and, apparently, more elbows than elbowroom at Landfall Chalifoux. If a representative of the Pax Terrestris couldn’t make the rent in a duty-free entrepôt, who could? Titania muttered and scuffed at the pavement with a sandaled toe.
A muscular confection sauntered up. Dwight. Trouble, thought the beewolf. Big and gorgeous, wearing a furbelow with gored puffy sleeves, he was a matinee idol with a fashionable two days’ growth of beard. “Well...” He conspicuously stifled amusement at Titania’s distress, and then, noticed the puffing bailiffs and piles of belongings, became quickly serious.
“Alright, where’s my stuff? This is a big day for Interplanetary Hammerstang Scrap and Recycling.” He was haughty and hostile, reminding the beewolf of certain churchwardens back home.
“I chucked it out, loser.”
“Don’t start. You bitch! There you go; you’re starting again.”
“Last week, before the rent came due, I was unforgettable.”
“Unforgettable?” said Dwight, “You? Yes, but I’m working on it.” The large human began rummaging through the jetsam of dispossessment that filled the walkway. Mandibles agape, abdomen tucked forward under its body, a defensive posture, the beewolf moved toward Dwight.
“Hey!” Dwight backed off. “Easy with the mandibles, bug.”
“Hey, yourself.” Titania Ferencz was smiling largely.
“I mean, who are these guys?”
“My friends. Harry, Ralph—meet Dwight Phillip Souza, my late and unlamented.”
“A bug and a junkie. There goes the old neighborhood. Titania, my pet, you have been more wonderful.”
“Like I was sitting home with my hair in curlers, swilling beer, and scrolling ‘zines and sports all day, every day.”
“At least I care about my looks. I am studying the indigenous culture. You know that.”
“And you had to be ‘presentable’ mapping the territory for a scrap dealer—for six years.” Titania’s larynx was growing constricted with rage; her speech had a between-clenched-teeth quality.
“Finally, finally I get a presentation at the Tetrarch’s court and you’ve let my stuff get thrown out. Big contract... construction bid... absolutely immense and I don’t have a thing to wear. All this is so you, Titania!”
“If you would try to communicate for a change instead of yelling. And what about my things? They’re out too.”
“I’m communicating. You are the one yelling. Where are my costume changes? I need the ceremonial sword and epaulets. And the lamé tights? Silver with black piping? I mean this is important. Big.”
“To you. After your ego and your constant yelling me, me, me, the only big, important thing about you is your... your... galloping gonads.”
Dwight was paying no attention to Titania. “Can’t you take care of anything?”
“Like you took care of our joint accounts?”
“This was for us, babe. Here a salesman has got to buy access.”
“With my rent. Lubricating the bureaucrats.” Dwight Phillip Souza pushed Titania and she fell sprawled across the recumbent Harry Fenderson.
Harry sprang to his feet, a reflexive action from many barfights. Titania went flying and, both arms windmilling, Harry charged into action. A lucky right connected with Dwight’s heroic profile and he collapsed like a sack of laundry. “Hmm, sorry about that,” said Harry. Having cold-cocked Dwight, he fell back to sleep standing up.
“Beewolf, tell Harry thanks from me when he comes to.” Titania stood and dusted herself off. “Such devotion to one’s addiction, makes me proud to be a human.”
Dwight regained consciousness threatening a lawsuit and beat a retreat as a microwave Tandoori cooker and the contents of Titania’s pantry landed at their feet. Cracked canisters trickled their contents listlessly into the gutter. Two burly bailiffs shouldered past them on a return trip.
A third lingered, stopping to adjust his overalls and rebraid his tail. “Uhn, you don’t seem all torn-up about it. Us putting your worldly goods out on the street, I mean. Nothing personal, lady.”
“Well, get on with it. Don’t wear yourselves out all at once. This is an irony, work with me on this. Are you taking turns? We are taking a break then? Why don’t you just dump my stuff out the window and be done with it?”
“Against the statute, Lady. We might break something.” The inside crew returned and dumped another carryall on the street. A flight of red and black lingerie went sailing down the street and a very ancient, very large and costly decorative vase made a tragic shivering noise and presented a jagged crack.
“Ohh...” The diminutive human lost it. “Shoo, shoo, go away, damn you!” Titania’s martial arts fuse had detonated at the ‘annihilate’ setting. A swirl of red-haired tornado became a head-butting blur of well-placed feet and flying elbows.
“Children, children. Play nice.” A bulky presence filled Titania’s field of vision and, held tightly against a massive paunch, she felt herself lifted from the ground. The stolid bailiffs were rumpled but relieved. They had done their best. The bailiffs were more embarrassed than damaged and calmed by the presence of a senior officer.
“Oh. Hi, Pingold.” Titania relaxed. “Damn, but I am royally pissed-off.” She addressed the bailiffs, “Sorry about the ruckus, guys. I know you are just doing your duty. Everything went blank.”
“You have potential, my dear—a wrathful lass when put upon,” said the Inspector.
“Pingold, I am evicted for communal debt.”
A set of bureaus was dumped, scattering plastic splinters of faux Chippendale. One of the bailiffs handed Titania a clipboard. “Signature, please.”
“Oh, shit. Oh, simply shit. No money, no future, and no place to call my home.”
The beewolf threw a palp across her shoulder. “You humans swarm from your fetid worlds in search of a place where the skies are not cloudy all day and the deer and marsupials roam. Did I hear a discouraging word?” He ran down and became uncharacteristically silent. It was time for a drink.
“Beewolf? Harry? I require some time alone with the Inspector. Go inside.” It was a voice used to obedience. The pair entered Titania’s now empty premises.
“Perhaps, my dear, it would be better to go to the friendly confines of my office.” The Inspector headed for his waiting flitter.
Titania was reminded of a primitive carnivore as the detective leaned back in the metal chair and smiled a broad smile all the more disarming for the glittering length of fangs and the yellow incisors it displayed.
“Titania. You may call me what you wish if this makes you more comfortable. There is a hesitation in your voice. A matter of delicacy?”
“Frankly, I don’t know. I may be treading on your taboos.”
“Please let me be the judge of that. If how I hold a beaker of tea brings you disquiet, we have yet a universe of inappropriateness to explore. Although what you say to me, your friend, in the confines of this room may not always be advisable to utter with profligacy in the streets.”
“These two, the insect and the human, they are not the ordinary run of confidence operators. They have a story to tell about, well, the eliminatory habits of your population.”
“Ahh remember, Titania, that I have been schooled off-planet—to drink at the pool of exploitation like the children of your Red Indians—and have been exposed to the ways of you alloforms. That we save the daily gatherings of our necessaria and send them home to gladden our old moms? You are asking me this? And everyone at the same time; we make a sacred offering of offal to Seven-Handed Bellafagh. You have been told that old tale?”
“I hope this is not embarrassing.”
“Not to me. And to respond to your query, yes, but only the very orthodox still follow these antique precepts of personal hygiene. The very orthodox and the hill country primitives who, by the way, are under even stricter constraints. Here, in the cities sprung from the millennial womb of our deathless queen...” the Inspector reached a large, mottled tangerine-like fruit from a bowl at his elbow and slit its rubbery skin with a talon. Titania repressed a shudder. “We are worldly weasels, sophisticated folk. My sept-mother would be surprised to get a package with other than career clippings from her distant policeman. Fear not for soggy mailings.” A neatly sectioned piece of fruit was popped into his mouth.
Titania went on to tell Pingold the entire story of the sewer bonds, Harry’s aunt, and the harassment by the stilyagi. “Oh, and one thing more...” She recalled the happenstance of the blue eagle in the video murals just prior to meeting with the mendicant friars.
“And then, when the blue eagle flicked its tail, I thought the whole thing was a monstrous scatological send-up and forgot about it till this moment.”
“The birds in the video murals at the spacedrome.”
There was a moment of silence that stretched into minutes. Pingold leaned even farther back in his chair, swinging his tail up across his knees. Titania tried to sit still. Pingold was absentmindedly scrubbing at his teeth with the tip of his tail. Then he swung abruptly forward, the metal ferrules of his front two chair legs making a sharp snap as they collided with the floor. The smile returned, even broader and more threateningly prehistoric.
“You, my dear Titania, have told me that a bird, an eagle, a digitally manipulated animation eagle on a signboard display, did something it had never done before or since: it flicked its tail.”
“And let loose a dollop of birdlime.”
“Ah, yes, the birdlime. Eagle effluent. Then, my dear, I have your answer. Your confidence operators have been taken...” here his command of the idiom was being stretched, “...to the cleansers, as you off-worlders say. And by our very own children.” The detective’s strong, yellow fangs flashed a reflection of light from the desk lamp. There was a wet “foop!” as Pingold sucked his whiskers in and blew them out two times as if for punctuation. “The language we have in common calls for clarification: not your children personally, not mine surely, but our idle adolescents. They were giving you the gooseberry.”
“Raspberry. How do you mean?”
“Our confidence operators have been swindled in their turn. This was all a joke. And as my contribution to the unleavened jollity, I will regain for you the tenancy of your apartment. With one condition. That you take on boarders. They will help you with the rent. Trust me.”
It was molting time and the beewolf would be changing. “The full year pupal stage means total detoxification and with the metamorphosis my mind should be wiped as clean as a newborn’s. Time is running out. I must go dormant among my own kind. Or, if not, a close friend willing to make a significant commitment. So happy for you and your renewed housing arrangements, Titania.”
Titania considered violence, then recalled Pingold’s alternative—offplanet pauperhood for her. No pension, her bounties impounded by the Tetrarch’s accountants for a bureaucratic eternity. “Ahem. The sewage bonds. Fill me in on these. Auntie forgave Harry; she was the one with a twisted sense of humor. Forgave him what? Joining the Adepts?”
“Nonononono. That’s just something Harry and I did, more for the matching outfits than anything else. The rigors of a five-year novitiate... Well, we just skipped out with the toggery after the first week. Picked up some of the lingo, enough to get by.”
“For conning the unwary.”
“Whatever.” The beewolf extended his palps and made motions in the air. “‘Primo, Secundo, Tertio, the slitted pupils of Selbitan the glass-eyed.’ Like it? Right out of the arcana of the Fourteenth Circle. We were the darlings of the bluehair cruisers for a while there. The abbot, even. Why, we could have stayed in the Order. He figured Harry and me as spirit doubles. Had high hopes, our codependence was foreordained. There was a protocol in their rigmarole, the holy books. Even picked out matching canopic jars for us.”
“Funerary urns, side by side on the cellar shelf with last summer’s dill preserves. Monasteries do that—preserves of every description. After a lifetime of productive chanting, unwinding the skeins of Time and keeping the strands of Creation pulled taut, our resting place—all that good stuff. No easy task, theirs.”
“We were talking about Harry’s Auntie.”
“We were. Yes. One of those family dustups that get blown up out of all proportion. Harry’s father’s birthday and when we went looking for a card no stationer had the right age. Harry sent him an assortment of cards that totaled out—two twenties, three fives and a ten. The tenth birthday greeting had pastel balloons and an elephant juggling. Harry’s dad was not amused, a righteous citizen. Harry’s Auntie, on the other hand, laughed so hard it took a chiropractor to get her straightened up again.”
“So Auntie enjoyed the joke on her brother-in-law. Enough to bequeath her nephew a sizable chunk of the yearly planetary product of Chalifoux?”
“Enough to mention him in her will for a packet of sewer bonds. We just got lucky.”
Titania couldn’t resist a dig at the beewolf for supplying Harry with his venom. “And he was yours to command for the rest of a short and brutish natural life. Estimated at three years tops.”
“And look at him. Six years on the sting and healthy as a hog. Three squares a day plus vitamin supplements. I have gone without...” The beewolf puffed up with pride as much as an exoskeleton would allow.
“Let me get this straight,” said the commission cop. “You want to hang upside down in my closet for a year, right?”
“You are a woman of acute discernments and sensibilities.”
The beewolf drew close and confidential. Its breath was moist and smelled like patchouli laced with juniper berries. Titania found herself getting accustomed to it. Not at all unpleasant.
“It is even more complicated. I am in a family way. This is just between us girls.”
“Girls? But wait—the implausibility of interspecies hanky-panky notwithstanding, why were you constantly coming on to me?” Titania asked.
“Practice. A con is a finely tuned machine; it rots and crumbles with disuse.”
“But... Family way? You are a female? How... Who?”
“As for how, I’ll be damned if I know. In the absence of any males of my race, I must assume Harry Fenderson. My people have a monoclonal reproductive capacity. It must have gotten stressed by something in Harry’s blood. I cannot ovulate in this stage. But when I awake, I will be a queen. All ready to...” From under the mendicant’s saffron, a Concise Berlitz appeared. “...greased and ready to kick ass in your idiom.” The papilla snaked back into the robe, taking the phrase book out of sight.
There was a knock at the door. It opened and Dwight strode in carrying a potted sunflower. “No one told me we were having a meeting. Damn it all, Titania. I told you this would be big.”
“Meeting? Oh, sure, now you’re one of the gang. You have made it big at the Tetrarch’s court and you have come back to gloat. You haven’t the slightest intention of sharing, just thought I might be interested.”
“That about covers it.”
“Construction futures. Hammerstang Interplanetary spun off a subsidiary and your loving Dwight is the president and chief executive officer. Got in on the ground floor of a distressed futures selloff. And they took payment in the trillions of Tasmanian proto-pounds we had tied up in escrow as performance bond.”
“Vast holdings of impounded paper. Worth nothing. Don’t tell me—next week they are proposing a two-for-one split.”
“Hey, they—Hammerstang—did it. I’m just picking up the blue chips. Damn it, Titania—I almost own the place.”
“Hammerstang Solids Pty. Ltd.”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess. They have swapped off reclamation futures on construction scrap that does not as yet exist because said construction project has not begun for a controlling interest in the poop project.”
“Save the irony. You’re only a woman...”
“I wouldn’t understand. You are definitely correct. I wouldn’t want to comprehend even the half of it.”
“Bye, Dwight. Titania.” The beewolf peeked coyly from the closet door. He looked affectionately at Harry who slept slumped in a corner, the pot with Dwight’s sunflower clutched in his arms. “I’ll be in the closet. You will just have to detoxify Harry by yourself. Don’t go away, I’ll only be a few months or so.”
Safe in Titania’s closet, his rent guaranteed, the beewolf slipped into dormancy. He thought, Heroes are born, not made. Let them fight it out and I can hear all about it in a new metamorphosis. What a happy threesome they will make. Too bad to miss the fun. The warm glow of satisfaction at a con well executed flooded calming endorphins throughout his body. Harry would have dried out and he—she—would be a fresh arthropod. And a mother.
“Motherhood is a sanctified state, symbiotic codependence: we have a name, calloo callay. I do hope I am up to it. What is it they say—Alcoholics don’t have relationships; they take hostages?” The beewolf considered the potential of fresh generations that he carried and patted his abdomen. “Gotcha!” dreamed the beewolf as he/she drifted off.
copyright 2010, 2015 Rob Hunter
The Beewolf was first published in Kaleidotrope 8, April 2010, edited by Fred Coppersmith.