What’s a Minor Heart Attack Between Friends?
It’s never a good look to be visibly startled by your coworker’s existence. Especially when you’re the only human on a spaceship, and you’ve surprised more than one shorter alien by turning a corner too quickly. I should have known better after tripping over Mur’s tentacles that one time; blind corners are risky. Anything could come around them. And the rest of that little courier ship’s crew ran the range of appearances. None of them should have given me much of a shock at that point.
But dang, Trrili looked scary. I couldn’t help flinching every time she appeared when I wasn’t expecting it.
Picture this: I was talking to Coals, the burly little Heatseeker with deep red scales and a quiet demeanor. We were outside the office-type room where some of the crew did translation work to bring us extra money. He was telling me about a random poem that someone had broadcast through space; I was thinking about whether his full name fit on paperwork; his name is Glowing Coals (Which Create the Heat We All Love) — that’s not important, but the point is, I didn’t expect Trrili to step out of the doorway, and I jumped.
Shiny black and red, bug eyes and mandibles, taller than me, pincher arms, and far more stealth than should honestly be allowed. Seriously, Zhee was the same species, and he clicked when he walked, but Trrili was a master of stepping silently. And while Zhee was colored in gaudy purples, Trrili just looked evil.
I did not say so out loud. I know better than that. But the flinching was an instinct, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Except laugh it off and apologize, of course.
“Woah, didn’t see you there!” I laughed awkwardly. “Sorry. Has anyone ever told you that you’re very quiet?”
“Yesss,” Trrili said with a completely unnecessary hiss. “It has been said.” I was still learning Mesmer facial expressions, but I was pretty sure that her antenna angle meant amusement. She was smirking at me.
“Don’t encourage her,” said Coals, pulling my attention back down to hip height. He was short for a Heatseeker, with stocky proportions that made him look like a lizard-turned-teddy-bear when standing next to the hulking terror that was just another person, dang it, no matter how creepy.
“Encourrrrage?” Trrili purred with an unsettling crackle to her voice, crouching to loom over Coal’s shoulder.
He didn’t bat an eye, still gazing placidly up at me. “Some of us take unseemly pleasure in predatory games.”
Trrili flexed a pincher ominously, sliding back into the shadows. “Sssssome of us are good at it.”
“Like I said,” Coals told me as she disappeared. “Don’t encourage her. She’s very proud of herself.”
“Well, isn’t that Mesmers in a nutshell?” I asked, trying for a smile. “Mesmerizing and magnificent and ready for everyone to acknowledge it?”
Whatever Coals was about to say was lost as Trrili sprang out to land with half her bug legs climbing the wall, filling the corridor with black-and-red nightmares, hissing.
I jerked in place. “Ngah!”
Trrili’s hissing laughter merged with a long-suffering sigh from Coals.
“Welcome to Trrili’s favorite game,” he said. “The captain made her promise to stop scaring Paint, after one too many breakable things got dropped.”
Trrili gathered her limbs into a more civilized configuration. “Paint is too easy to startle,” she said, without a trace of a hiss. (Ha! Knew she was doing that on purpose.) “Hardly a challenge.”
I tried to pretend that I wasn’t 50% adrenaline at the moment. “How many times have you gotten smacked in the face on reflex?”
Trrili spread her arms. “My trrrrack record is exssssellent.”
I didn’t point out the inconsistent hissing. “Anybody ever try to scare you back?”
“None successsssfully,” she said with a tilt to her head that I chose to interpret as arrogant.
I shifted my weight onto one food, aiming for casual as my heart rate calmed back to nearly normal. “And are you the type to snap somebody’s head off as a startle reflex, or would you take that well?”
Another hissing laugh. “We may never know!”
“She’d just flare at you,” Coals said. When I looked down at him, he raised his arms in a loose approximation of a Mesmer threat display. “‘Oh no, a scary thing! I’d better show it I’m scarier!’”
A frightening face appeared to glare at him from up close, but he ignored it with the ease of long practice.
“Good to know,” I said. “Well, I should get going, to do the things I was going to do. Some things. Right, check the supply list! It’s been nice talking to you!”
I waved and left, nerves still singing that I could get jumped at any moment. Thankfully only goodbyes followed me to a more populated part of the ship. I had a supply list to check, and now also a careful prank to consider.
I found Zhee in the supply room.
“Question for you,” I said by way of greeting. “Well, several. Do you and Trrili come from the same planet, or are there Mesmers everywhere? I don’t actually know.”
He stopped counting soup cans or whatever and quirked one purple antenna in a fair approximation of a raised eyebrow. “Several planets and three dozen moons have been graced with Mesmer populations,” he told me. “I have no idea which population center she hatched in. Somewhere fond of malicious cackling.”
“Ah,” I said. “Yup, she does seem to like that.” Since he was still looking at me (from a reasonable height, which was nice), I continued. “Are you familiar with snakes?”
“That’s an animal from your homeworld, isn’t it?” Zhee asked. “Something with scales?”
I nodded vigorously. “Picture small a Heatseeker without arms or legs, just a long body that wriggles across the ground.” I made vague gestures. “Like a head on top of a tail.”
“Why?” was his only answer.
I shrugged. “They eat little animals that live in holes in the dirt. Being long and narrow makes it easier for them to find prey.”
“Oh, well, obviously,” Zhee said with a wave of one pincher arm. “Can’t argue with that.”
I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. “Some of them are venomous, with a bite that can kill a much bigger animal.”
Zhee rested his pinchers on the box of soup cans, and rotated his head at an uncomfortable angle. “And why are you asking if I’m familiar with them?”
I went for honesty. “I want to startle her back.”
“Ah! Well, then.” Zhee turned away from the box, his many legs tapping quietly as he gave me his full attention. “That I would like to see. What is your plan?”
“Still rough at this point,” I admitted. “But there’s a classic prank where I’m from called a snake-in-a-can…”
* * *
In the end, I went a slightly different route, and had to wait until after our next supply run. That was a long wait. Trrili made two more surprise appearances, laughing at the way I twitched both times. At least I kept in my yelps of surprise. I found myself glad that she was so big, simply because it limited the dark corners she could jump out of.
Finally my chance came. It was a casual mealtime with most of the crew coming and going from the kitchen and lounge, enjoying their favorite foodstuffs after the recent restocking. I’d made a point of getting an over-hyped box of “Earth Foods For Humans,” and sat down at a table right next to the hallway.
Paint came over to eat with me, all splotchy orange scales and a sunny disposition. I showed her some of the many things in the box, just waiting for the inevitable.
A shadow fell over the table. Paint meeped quietly, her mouth full of fish.
I turned to find shiny black mandibles spread wide, mere inches from my face.
“Oh, hi Trrili.”
She closed up her face. “You arrrre becoming no fun,” she hissed.
“Nonsense, I’m lots of fun,” I said, digging through the box. “Hey, while you’re here, I’ve been meaning to ask Zhee: can you guys actually smell ripe fruit? Since you don’t eat it?” I pulled out a bruised orange and removed a chunk of peel, holding it up for her to sniff.
“It smells like a plant,” Trrili replied. “Somewhat sharp and unpleasant.”
“Huh. I guess that’s the citric acid,” I said, setting it down and digging some more. “You’re missing out; it smells delicious to me. Oh hey, look at this!” I pulled out the stiff paper envelope I’d hidden in the box earlier.
Both of them were watching. So was Zhee from the next table over, but he was doing a good job of pretending he wasn’t.
“These are such a delicacy,” I said, flipping the envelope over but not opening it. The front held a picture of a snake. I waved at Zhee. “Hey, remember those venomous animals I was talking about? The ones with the rattle on their tails? I got some of their eggs!”
“You are welcome to them,” Zhee said.
“I think you guys would probably like these,” I said with a glance up at Trrili. “They’re really pretty; they seem like the kind of thing a Mesmer would appreciate. Here, have a look.” I handed her the envelope while I made a show of digging around some more to see what else was in the jumble of potatoes, beef jerky, and triple-bagged stinky cheese.
Trrili took the envelope, gentle with those little wrist fingers that let her manipulate things with pincher arms. I deliberately didn’t watch, instead keeping my eyes on Paint, who was opening her mouth to ask a question.
When I heard the loud rattle, I whipped my head up in time to see Trrili toss the envelope away and flare her pinchers in a hissing threat display that was every bit as dramatic as I’d imagined.
Zhee laughed the hardest I’d ever heard him.
“It’s okay,” I said, grinning to split my face as I picked up the envelope from the floor. Other people were asking questions, though Zhee’s obvious amusement kept them from getting too worried. “It’s not real.”
While Trrili hissed quietly, I upended the envelope over my hand. The contraption that fell out was the most low-tech of pranks: a bent wire, a rubber band, and a metal washer that had rattled against the paper when the envelope was opened, releasing pressure. I’d wound it up just before leaving my quarters. And it had worked beautifully.
“What is that?” Paint asked, still leaning away from the table.
“Karma,” I said, holding it up and spinning the washer, still grinning. “What do you think, Trrili? Mesmer approved?”
Trrili folded her arms tight against her body and angled her antennae into a fierce glare. She left without a word, stomping instead of moving silently.
Zhee was still chuckling. “Mesmer approved,” he declared. “That was excellent.”
“Oh good,” I said.
Paint settled gingerly back into her seat. “Where are the eggs?” she asked.
“There aren’t any,” I said, tucking the gadget away and picking up the orange again to resume peeling. “Rattlesnakes don’t even lay eggs; they have live birth.”
“Oh,” Paint said.
“But Trrili didn’t know that.” I separated a slice of orange and popped it into my mouth. “Think she’ll lay off the startling?”
“Hm. Probably not; she really likes it.”
“Then I may just have to come up with a few more surprises for her,” I said, smiling with all of my human teeth. “My people have an entire industry for things like this, and I have a childhood full of ideas.”
Further adventures in backstory for this book. More to come!