A Very Bright Light, a Flash

Timothy Mudie

Timothy Mudie was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. He now lives outside of Boston, where he is an assistant editor at a trade publishing house. His fiction is either forthcoming or has been published in The Colored Lens, Spinetingler, Space Squid, The Worcester Review, State of Horror: Massachusetts, The Fifth Di…., and several other magazines and anthologies.

A Very Bright Light, a Flash

It wasn’t my section of town. It wasn’t my usual bar. It wasn’t a bar I would be welcome at. Jerry, as I called him, picked it for just that reason.

I pulled open the door. It looked like it was made from pieces of driftwood nailed together. Maybe that’s exactly what it was. When I walked through I felt like a gunslinger walking into a saloon in one of those old movies from Earth.

The bar was noisy with hissing and bubbling. I glanced around. It was shadowy, the light coming from a few covered lanterns hung near the bar and entrance. I was the only human there. The rest were all squid. As one, their big round eyes turned towards me. A group of hard looking ones sitting at a table in the corner glared, their skin flashing red and yellow aggression. I ignored them and looked around until I spotted Jerry. He was sitting with another squid at a table in the even more dimly lit rear, his back to the wall. The only open seat would leave me with my back to the door. I slid into it anyway and nudged my case under the table with my foot.

“Hello, Julius,” he said.

“Jerry.”

“So good of you to come.”

“Hmm.” I looked at his companion, a squid I didn’t recognize. His three eyes were glazed white and a half-empty jar of salve sat in front of him on the table. Telltale wipe marks covered his tentacles. All three arms and the two thickly muscled legs. Most squid try to hide wipe marks, but this one’s were drawn up in intricate tattoos. Whirlpools and primitive depictions of sealife both animal and vegetable. It must have taken considerable time and effort. All of the squid have their center eye higher than the other two, but his was almost even. One from a far northern race. Supposedly artistic in their expression of skin display.

“Don’t worry about——” The name was just hisses and clicks, a little burbling. That’s all their language is. Hard enough to speak and damn near impossible to translate. Hence “Jerry.” Ever since humans settled here, we’ve worked at learning the language, but it’s a lot easier for them to learn ours. Besides, we’re in charge.

“Good.”

A waiter ambled up to the table. He eyed Jerry suspiciously and me even more so. “What can I get you?” he asked.

“I’ll take a bourbon. On the rocks.”

“We don’t serve bourbon here, sir,” he said, a picture of politeness and professionalism. “May I recommend the ——. It’s local and very similar.”

“Sure.” He walked away. His fused together leg-tentacles were heavily tattooed. Something tribal looking, but not nearly as intricate as Jerry’s associate. A lot more of them had been getting marked that way recently. Solidarity or something.

“Sorry to ruin your street cred,” I remarked.

Jerry brushed it off. “Don’t mention it, chap.”

“Good. I won’t.”

“So,” he said, drawing out the word, “I assume everything is in order?”

“No, the case is empty.” I added: “That’s a joke.”

“Under the table.”

I reached down and took an envelope from his outstretched tentacle. His finger-claws caught on the edge and ripped it slightly. I slid it into my pocket without taking my eyes off him.

“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” he smiled. When you’ve been around them as long as I have—my whole damn life, unfortunately—you get to understand their expressions. The skin colors and patterns take the longest to figure out.

“Likewise.”

The waiter brought me my drink. I took a sip. It tasted nothing like whiskey. Salty, a bit of a fishy aftertaste. Almost certainly from fermented seaweed.

“It’s an acquired taste.” Jerry remarked.

“Apparently.”

The whole damn planet was supposedly an acquired taste. We’d found it almost by accident, when a colony ship veered off-course. Back on Earth, a ship going off-course would lose days, maybe weeks in travel time. In inter-stellar space it meant the ship ended up in the completely wrong solar system. Some of the squids’ primitive radio waves had limped far enough to get picked up by the lost ship, which immediately swooped to the planet.

It seemed promising, at first. The squid were still basically tribal; the ones who lived on the shore knew that they were superior to the squid who lived on the floating cities and vice-versa. In fact, both human xenopologists and squid historians agreed that it was the human settlement that led to centralization. Small coastal groups banded together and formed coastal cities. Some even ventured inward, bringing back into the fold squid that had lived in the away-from-water wilderness for so long they were nearly feral. There were still the floating cities, but their inhabitants were afforded the same respect that desert nomads got on Earth once the rest of the planet was fully civilized.

I’m not one of the original settlers, of course. That was hundreds of years ago now. But I am descended from them. We’re supposed to treat the planet like home. It’s a prison. Even the settlers that come now—some even of their own accord for God-knows-what reason—are stuck.

Jerry’s companion stirred, his center eyelid fluttering. His finger-claws poked out of the fleshy tip of his left tentacle. It was the one nearest me and he began rapping them on the table. Jerry reached into a pocket on his tunic and pulled out a brush. He dabbed the brush into the jar and wiped it on his companion’s closer tentacle. The tapping stopped and the finger-claws retracted. His companion’s skin slackened as he drifted back into a stupor.

“So, Julius, I’ve been dying to ask you. What do you plan on doing with the money? If it isn’t too rude a question.”

“I’ve been asked worse,” I said. “I want to get off this planet. Enough money can get you anything.”

“If only all of your people felt the same.” He reached into a pocket and took out a tin. He pinched out some of the pulped mushrooms and stuck the wad into his mouth.

“That why you’re doing this?”

“Of course,” he chortled, his thin teeth chattering rapidly. All three eyes trained on me. His voice was steel. “You all need to get off of our planet.”

“Good luck with that.”

“But you’re banking on that, aren’t you? A war, I mean. Even with the money, they’ll never let you off the planet. You were born here. You’re a citizen.” He spat the word. Even though he tried to hold it in, his skin flashed a quick yellow. “What do you care about some planet you’ve never even seen?”

“Maybe if I get you a few more, they’ll start letting people off.” We both knew how likely that was, but I saw no need for telling about my other unsavory friends and their excellent forgery skills. I always had the desire and now I had the money. When I was off the planet, no one would ever have to know what I did.

He smiled, composed. “I certainly wish you luck with that, chap. But I must say, you don’t feel at all bad about what you’re doing to your countrymen?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“For me, at least, it is a country.”

Ironically—if I’m using the word right—that was my reasoning as well. If I had no country, I had no countrymen. Not that I would take particular pleasure in what Jerry was planning. I had thought long and hard about what I was doing. In fact, I almost agreed with him.

I finished my fishy bourbon as the waiter got to the table. “Can I get you anything else, sir?” he asked me.

“You have any liquor made from something land-based?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“No sir,” he answered. I could hear his brown back teeth chattering. He didn’t even try to hide the laughter. “We don’t serve anything like that here. But may I recommend –”

“No thanks,” I cut him off. “I’m good.”

“And you?” he asked Jerry.

“A pint of the blue, please.”

The waiter nodded and walked off.

“You really should try one,” Jerry told me. “I think you might like it. It’s quite sweet.” He smacked on the wad of mushrooms and swallowed. He’d mellowed out, though I noticed he kept one tentacle tightly wrapped around the case’s handle.

“Some other time.” I took out a pouch of tobacco and papers. “Can I smoke in here?” Some of them don’t like it.

“No.” He shrugged, an imitation of us. Before we came, they never did it. “Sorry, chap. Dries out the pores, you know.”

“I’ll survive.” I stood. “I hope you won’t mind if I leave you to your drink.”

“Not at all, chap, not at all. I hope I don’t have to see you again soon.”

I nodded. “Same here.” I didn’t extend my hand and he didn’t extend his tentacle. I walked out of the place, one deadly suitcase lighter and three million richer.

I headed to the closest dock and stepped into a water-taxi.

“Where to?” the human driver asked. The first human I had seen since I had landed in squid-town. He must have been destitute to be working this far out.

“Fishhead Quay.” No time or reason for me to go home, so I’d go there, get my forged transit papers and get off this bubble as quickly as possible.

The motor sputtered to life and we headed off. Though it looked like any combustion engine, I knew that the motor had a tiny dark matter drive inside it. The same thing that had enabled humans to get here in the first place now helped us get around. And, of course, like any good technology, it had been turned into a weapon. Bombs so powerful they could wipe out a metropolis. Bombs so small they could fit inside a suitcase.

“So… business or pleasure?” the driver smirked.

I was offended—anyone in squid-town for pleasure was the worst sort of degenerate—but I didn’t answer. Instead I looked up into the sun. It was shining down through a cloudless sky. It was white hot. I could imagine the reactions going on at its core and the power being thrown off and all of it blasting through my skin.

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