By Tracy Canfield

The false-gravity observation deck offered a spectacular view of the incandescent whorls and fronds of the Zeepardjes Nebula, but Vro Vrolik, a Solarium School of Business alumnus at heart, was more inspired by the spinning sign of the Golden Nebula Casino.

The only other human on the premises, Vro’s former classmate Nurt Çubiry, slumped against a deck-mounted viewscope. “Six months of spinning my wheels here. Zero-gravity slot tournaments. Payout tables so complex they’d make a cryptographer weep. Pheromone-drenched ad campaigns that left my office smelling like a French whorehouse. We’re the first, and only, modern casino in Boldengurd space, but I just can’t scratch up a profit.” Why can’t a Solarium grad succeed with an opportunity like this? thought Vro. It broke his heart.

Nurt’s alumnus badge was splotched with unnoticed mustard. If Solarium’s honor was to be salvaged, Vro would have to be the one to do it. And, of course, his future consulting career prospects would be limited if he couldn’t get a perfectly good casino into the black. He dabbed the mustard away with his cuff.

“Hi, boss,” drawled a voice from Vro’s wristpad. “Don’t you get offended, but can I cut in on your human groomin’ ritual?”

“Vro’s the boss here now,” said Nurt. “I’m just a guest.”

The Boldengurd who’d spoken through the translator software stood out from the crowd of tourists gawking at the nebula, thanks to the gleaming pompadour wig perched on his braincase and the rhinestones belted around his limbless body. Vro quelled his instinct to anthropomorphize the Boldengurd’s posture. The species’ supple white bodies were always roughly horizontal, and the candy-red braincase at the flared end never rose more than a few centimeters above the floor. Elvis wasn’t kowtowing. It just looked that way.

The Boldengurd clacked. “Came to tell you the time has come for me to pack up and move on,” said the translator. “Got me a new gig in the Rangifer Belt.”

“What? Wait, what? You can’t expect me to run a casino without Elvis,” said Vro.

A Universal Teapot trotted past. Elvis extended a manipulatory tendril to the Teapot’s dial and ordered up a steaming globe of some beverage suited for his physiology. “The Interstellar Guild of Elvis Tribute Artists can prob’ly send you a replacement,” he clacked

“I’d appreciate it,” said Vro.

“Takin’ care of business.” Elvis wriggled off towards the elevators.

“In a way I’m relieved the casino’s losing money,” said Nurt. “Makes it easier to walk away.”

Vro grabbed his friend’s shoulder with a fierceness that surprised them both. “Don’t say that,” he said. “You’ve put me in charge – you have to keep believing in the bottom line. Remember the Solarium fight song!”

Money demands of you the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or to keep it,” Nurt chanted.

“That’s more like it. Have some pride! What if someone from Polophylax heard you saying you’re relieved to lose money?” Polophylax Business College was Solarium’s archrival.

“Vro, Building Brand Loyalty 150 was about establishing a brand, not devoting yourself to someone else’s,” said Nurt. “Here comes my VP of Finance. Well, your VP, as of five minutes ago. Vro, meet Sirteg.” A Boldengurd with the Golden Nebula logo sprayed across its flat back bobbed a friendly tendril.

“I look forward to a remunerative working relationship,” said Sirteg. Vro still couldn’t tell Boldengurds apart if they weren’t dressed like Elvis. He configured his wristpad to tag every Boldengurd its cameras picked up.

“First priority: new Elvis,” said Vro.

“Is this a human religious matter?” said Sirteg. The translator’s intonation suggested curiosity.

“Not religion, just tradition.” Vro peered across the casino’s cheery iridescent hull, its peacock hues chosen to outshine the nebula’s. “What’s that red thing coupled to the parking garage?” Even alongside the casino neon, that ungainly bulge with the crimson lights zipping along its fuselage reached hitherto unknown pinnacles of garishness.

“Never seen it before,” said Nurt.

Vro straightened his tie. “Okay, second change we’re making? Is getting rid of that thing.”

He waved his wristpad at the nearest viewscope and paid a credit to zoom in on the crimson-lit pustule, revealing a tacky neon caduceus alternating with the words Party Bus in a variety of languages.

Boldengurd tourists squirmed over to see what the fuss was about. Black tendrils hesitantly pointed out the bus.

“That horror can’t be seen from the rest of the casino, right?” said Vro. “Sirteg, clear this place out while I take care of this.” He sprinted for the elevator, his wristpad scanner placidly tagging Boldengurd customers as he vaulted past.

Out onto the concourse he raced, past the buffet line, past the theater holos advertising Nibklung the Magnificent, past Boldengurd employees handing out comp-tracking bracelets for manipulatory tentacles. Past neglected slot machines warbling their ineffective enticements. Past the bear habitat, where the large, round Boldengurd predator’s fanged mouth and ten taloned limbs would have been intimidating if the beast hadn’t been sucking its paw. Past the Boldengurd dealers and croupiers waiting for customers to wrap themselves into the empty seats.

Vro hurled himself through the parking garage door like a jackpot coin from a slot machine’s hopper. Strapping young Boldengurd valet parkers wriggled their tendrils in confusion.

The functional gray pressformed parking garage was tarted up with glittering glowtubes and a viewing window that framed the observation deck. Too many of the expensive docking spots nearest the casino entrance were empty.

At the only airlock gate in this section where the seal light was a profitable green, a human woman in a miniskirted business suit with a blond Mohawk was shaking out a self-standing screen. Virtual Z-list celebrities from throughout the galaxy waved out at Vro. PARTY BUS – MORNING-AFTER RELIEF FOR THE STARS! trumpeted a built-in speaker. WE SCRUB YOUR INTERNAL FLUIDS CLEAN OF ALL KNOWN RECREATIONAL SUBSTANCES AND THEIR HARMFUL METABOLITES! A line of elderly Boldengurd already snaked in through the Party Bus entrance.

The woman looked Vro efficiently up and down. “Hello, good-looking. Overdo the complimentary drinks?” she said. “Fear not, the Party Bus isn’t just for Boldengurds. It’s configurable for over ninety-nine percent of the Galactic alliance’s sentient species. In humans, we can counteract hangovers, fatigue, overeating, and that sore spot you get on your ass after twelve hours of blackjack. Today’s special is a blood filtering and a whiff of citrus, jasmine, or clove-scented oxygen. I’m Jaffi Jiffert, proprietor.”

“Get out of my casino,” said Vro.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Jaffi. “The MAEH and MAEH-II interstellar treaties specifically forbid non-military space stations to refuse available docking to newly-arrived long-hop starships, as defined in section XXXIV. A minimum of thirty standard hours notice is required for eviction, which may be appealed by petition to –”

She stepped aside for a Boldengurd customer exiting the bus. “Delightful,” cooed Vro’s translator on the Boldengurd’s behalf. The alien was so old its braincase had faded to a rosy pink. “My nodes haven’t felt this full since my grandkids were hatched. And the autodoc says my fluid pressure is magnificent.”

“Tell all your friends back home to ask for the Party Bus!” said Jaffi.

Vro glanced at his wristpad. Its tagger suggested none of the eager customers were hung over, or even buzzed; they were just old Boldengurds wanting their aches and pains coddled.

A Boldengurd with a security badge hurried over. Or at least Vro assumed it was hurrying by the standards of its species. Its gentle undulations put Vro in mind of a drifting sea of milk.

“I got your call, sir. Is everyone all right?” said the security guard. “Did someone sprain a tendril?”

Vro hadn’t decided what image he wanted for the Golden Nebula, but “sleazy celebrity-trash party hotspot” and “Boldengurd retirement home” weren’t in the running. He looked over his shoulder at the casino sign and composed himself.

“I will get this Party Bus out of here,” said Vro, “if I have to weaponize the casino to do it. This is a high-class establishment.”

“I don’t care what kind of establishment it is,” said Jaffi. Elvis inched past behind her. “I care about making money.”

Vro turned back to the sign and pictured all his tension draining away, like he’d learned in Internal Management Techniques 201. A creative man, he recited, is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. Running a casino could be expected to have its little problems, like Jaffi Jiffert; but she was only a little problem.

In the distance, the observation deck exploded.

“Rand on a bender at an open bar!” Vro yelped. He ducked reflexively despite the six inches of bomb-resistant plexisteel and twelve stories of empty space between him and the white-hot wreckage spraying frictionlessly in every direction. A chunk of girder sailed smoothly into the casino sign, which exploded obligingly.

“Don’t look at me,” said Jaffi. “I never even left the garage.” She tapped her wristpad. The prices advertised on the Party Bus flexscreen doubled.

At least we’d evacuated the deck, so there shouldn’t be any injuries. Vro sighed with relief. Or lawsuits. But just in case. He touched his wristpad to Jaffi’s. “The casino will cover treatment for any injuries due to the malfunction of the observation deck.”

“I feel a little shaken,” said the Boldengurd who’d been talking about her nodes. Vro forced a smile. His wristpad queried the casino records and identified the alien as Umrelk, a repeat customer with a room in the Lagoon Tower, with demographics more than one standard deviation over the average Boldengurd lifespan. Exactly the kind of customer Vro wasn’t looking to attract.

Vro’s wristpad beeped with a message from Sirteg, his diligent new VP. Observation deck completely destroyed. No injuries.

Vro tapped out a quick reply. If anyone seems upset, give them a free pass to the buffet.

“I’ll get you out of this casino if I have to pry your fingers off the airlock seal,” Vro told Jaffi sternly. “I’ll sic Legal on your ass.”

Jaffi beamed back. “I was wondering how to raise the topic of asses. Yours isn’t bad.”

Vro stared, nonplussed, at the remains of the sign, which now read GO D NO.

“This wasn’t an accident,” he said. “Someone’s sending us a message. Looks like the third thing we do is deal with the terrorists.”

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Vro came huffing and puffing into the casino theater in time for Nibklung the Magnificent’s finale. Sirteg coiled on a floor cushion in a private box. The alien VP might have adjusted her body towards Vro when she came in. Or she might not have. Boldengurds didn’t have faces or front ends, which made them hard to read.

Vro sat on the floor, level with Sirteg. “So the casino’s losing money,” he said. He brought up his business AI, licensed by the Solarium School of Business to all new grads, and fed it the demographics data that the wristpad had recorded for every Boldengurd he’d passed. “I need some data on the Boldengurd lifecycle and cultural norms.”

Sirteg touched her own pad to his. A Universal Teapot ambled by and Vro grabbed a cup of human-compatible tea.

On the stage below, Nibklung scuttled prissily around a large glass box. The Banyakangrem magician looked, to Vro, like a footstool-sized cross between a millipede and a scorpion. The act had been carefully choreographed so the hyperactive Nibklung and his slow-moving Boldengurd assistant could both end up in place at the beginning of each trick.

“Okay, initial analysis.” A graph bloomed into view on Vro’s wristpad, bulging at the right hand edge. “Aha. Most of our customers are elderly. That’s one of the great universals, like hydrogen and natural selection – old people of every species love to work up that little thrill that the body’s stopped providing in other ways. The only Boldengurds in this theater who are under a hundred and forty local years of age are Nibklung’s beautiful assistant, and you.”

Nibklung effortlessly scaled the glass box and whipped out an icy-smooth card trick, goggling at his own cleverness, while his assistant slowly escorted a Boldengurd volunteer to the stage. Vro’s wristpad had tagged that ancient Boldengurd before – this was Umrelk, the Party Bus’s first customer. Apparently the exploding deck had unsettled her enough to require a free physical, but not enough to keep her from participating in a magic act. “Sirteg, give me a sanity check on what I’m seeing here. Boldengurds begin their lives as eggs. I’m guessing eggs don’t have any disposable income. In time they hatch into juveniles, which don’t seem to earn any money either.”

“That is in accordance with my experience,” said Sirteg.

“Then they reach adulthood, and get jobs.” Vro’s tea was salty. “That’s good, because they could be spending their cash up here. They’ll be our primary market.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Sirteg. Onstage, the assistant helped Umrelk into the glass box, and Nibklung covered it with a billowing cloth.

“Eventually Boldengurds mate to produce their own egg clutches.” Vro ordered up another cup of tea. It smelled like fried chicken. “Sounds like a good secondary market. Surely mated adults want to get away from eggs and baby Boldengurds from time to time.”

“Boldengurds with clutches are quite territorial,” said Sirteg. “They won’t want to leave them for long. But I agree that one does sometimes wish for a respite from the demands of juveniles.”

“Mating is clearly a key event in Boldengurd life.” Vro checked a revenue report. “And yet no one’s using the chapel. Isn’t there a ritual associated with choosing a mate?”

“There is,” said Sirteg. “But we mate for life. Our older customers presumably mated many years before this casino was built.”

Vro nodded. “Most of them are in the final life stage, after the kids have grown up and left the nest. Whatever you’d call it. The clutch. The – the home. That’s the market we’re seeing. We need to appeal to the younger generations.” He rubbed his chin. “Nibklung’s razzle-dazzle magic act is pretty standard. What’s the other show like? Foot-Long Ovipositors?”

“It’s very popular. There are dancers,” said Sirteg. “Their braincases are painted to fluoresce red under the lights, and the females wear tasseled extenders on their ovipositors –”

“I get the idea. Younger Boldengurds should like it just fine. Nibklung’s act, on the other hand, makes the Zeepardjes Nebula look fresh and timely. So the first thing we change –”

“First thing: we get Elvis,” said Sirteg with tendril tap on her pad.

“The next thing. This is a new thing.”

“The fourth thing,” said Sirteg.

“The fourth thing. We get a new show. A blockbuster. The kids will be lined up from here to the far side of the planet to see it. There’s gonna be music. There’s gonna be explosions. There’s gonna be bears punching bears.”

Sirteg’s body language was unreadable.

“The bears are wearing little fezzes,” said Vro. Sirteg retracted her tendrils fractionally.

“One other thing,” Vro went on.

“The fifth thing?”

“If you say so.” He tapped the wristpad. “I’m telling my Solarium AI to find a legal way to get Jaffi Jiffert off board.”

Below, Nibklung waved his pincers joyfully and whipped the curtain from the box. The elderly Boldengurd was gone; in her place sat an enormous bear, scratching ten embarrassing itches with its various paws. The audience spritzed water from their tendrils in appreciation.

“I’ve reserved these same seats for Foot-Long Ovipositors,” said Sirteg.

“I’m afraid I’m too busy to see it,” said Vro with an involuntary shudder. He hoped Sirteg was as clueless about his body language as he was about hers.

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The theater exit opened directly onto the slots with the highest jackpot and the lowest chance of paying it out. An enormous mass of green cuprosklodowskite crystals in a radiation-proof thrusteel case loomed over the banks of gaudy machines. The crystals’ unpredictable radioactive emissions provided the slots’ random-number generation, and the continually-updated jackpot total was projected holographically above them. As the crowd made their gradual exit, Vro’s translator picked up Umrelk, the superannuated Boldengurd Vro couldn’t seem to avoid, chattering with her elderly friends.

“What was it like?” said a male Boldengurd nearly as ancient as Umrelk herself. “Being turned into a bear?”

Her answer sounded hesitant. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

Vro was gratified to see so many of the departing audience members taking places at the slots. “I like the display,” he told Sirteg. The Boldengurd numbers – the only Boldengurd that Vro could read without a translator – showed a mighty seventeen-billion credit payout. “But that crystal is dull. It just sits there. And I’d rather not have a huge chunk of radioactive rock around while we’re dealing with whatever terrorists blew up my sign. We need a new theme.”

Vro’s pad continued to relate Umrelk’s conversation. “I’ve seen Foot-Long Ovipositors five times now,” she said, “and the last time, I got home and my granddaughter had laid a clutch with fourteen eggs!” Vro tightened the radius on the translator so he wouldn’t have to hear any more of that.

“Shall we get some dinner before I lose my appetite?” he said to Sirteg.

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The Boldengurd buffet tables were low to the floor, of course, and filled with dainty, odorless crystals, sculpted with impeccable artistry. Vro helped himself to a ribeye Béarnaise and creamed spinach from the human-compatible table.

“Pardon me,” his translator chirped, “but could you tell me when the observation platform will re-open? What happened, anyway?”

Vro was unsurprised to be addressed by Umrelk, who seemed to have become his elderly Boldengurd shadow.

“Planned demolition,” he said. “We’ll be installing a free-flight dance floor with variable gravity. Your grandkids will love it!”

“Oh,” said Umrelk. She inched away.

Vro set his pad to translate the latest Boldengurd entertainment news and sliced into his perfectly medium-rare synthetic steak. “What do young Boldengurds like? What do you like, Sirteg? You’re young.”

“Me? Politics, mostly,” said Sirteg. She tucked a crystal into a tiny mouth. Vro felt, by comparison, like a prehistoric monster stuffing reeking, slimy food into a vast maw.

“I mean fun stuff,” he said. “People go on vacation to get away from serious stuff.” His wristpad had collated some intriguing headlines from the planet below. “Who’s this gal everyone’s talking about – Higota? Just got a million-credit deal for endorsing some pre-mating pheromone?”

Sirteg waved a tendril. “She’s a celebrity,” she said. “Improvises narrative songs about Boldengurd life.” The wristpad displayed a synonym too tentative to vocalize: ingénue.

“Do young people like her? Post-clutch, pre-mating age people?”

“That would be her audience, yes.”

“Males want to mate with her, females want to be her?”

“Well put.”

“I think that’s another universal. Get her manager on the line, bring her up here for a big promotional event. And while you’re at it, tell Nibklung to start training those bears for their new roles.”

“You seem very certain about this show,” said Sirteg.

“After the intermission, the bears make their entrance above the audience. On bungee cords. And they punch each other.”

“I suppose I can see the appeal.”

Vro’s wristpad chirped. “Okay, one problem solved.”

“Would this be the sixth thing?”

“No, this is the – it’s one of the other things.”

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Vro found Jaffi Jiffert in the bar, sipping aquamarine liquor from a glass in the shape of the Zeepardjes Nebula. A second glass sat on the table, already empty except for a neon peacock feather flashing GOLDEN NEBULA CASINO in English and, presumably, Boldengurd.

“Get your party bus out of my parking garage, Jafferts. Jibberts. Whoever you are.” Vro thunked his wristpad against hers. In authoritative red, it scrolled out a recent addendum which superseded treaties MAEH and MAEH-II for registered commercial enterprises.

“Give my software, oh, fifteen seconds to respond,” she said brightly. “In the meantime, do you want a drink?”

Vro liked the idea of discussing their disagreements over a friendly drink, like civilized professionals, until he spotted the badge on her chest. Proud Alumna of Polophylax Business College. Solarium’s sworn rival. Her AI beeped and he tapped it for the update.

“Your Polophylax AI is making a pretty big assumption,” he said. “You’re not going to get permission –”

Nurt strolled up to the table and took a swig from the peacock-garnished drink. “Vro!” he said. “Let me introduce Jaffi Jiffert. She has all kinds of interesting ideas for the casino. I told her to talk to you. Want a drink? These King Creoles are awesome.”

“Nurt asked Sirteg to let me hook the Party Bus up to an airlock in the main concourse,” said Jaffi. “So it is, in fact, out of your parking garage. And it’s obviously legal for me to stay as long as I have the VP’s permission. I don’t even need my AI to figure that out.” Nurt grinned dopily at her.

“Nurt,” said Vro desperately, “have some Solarium pride.”

Too damn many things were bothering Vro at that moment, but the worst was the way this Polophylax grad didn’t give a Boldengurd fart about their schools’ historic and cherished rivalry.

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One Boldengurd day later, a youthful crowd was waiting for the hot (by Boldengurd standards) young star Higota to unveil the new themed slots. In a moment of inspiration, Vro had hidden the machines under a curtain inspired by the nebula’s gauzy spirals. Higota and her entourage had been in the theater dressing rooms for an hour and were expected out any minute. The casino was booked solid.

Nibklung the Magnificent had asked to tear away the curtain with what he called his “usual showbiz pizzazz.” Vro turned him down, hoping that unlike Nibklung and Elvis, the new bear act would be headache free. After a long day spent punching each other, they’d probably be happy to go back to their habitat and nap. That reminded him: he still needed a new Elvis.

Vro waved at the shrieking crowd, then messaged Sirteg discreetly: Increase on-planet publicity budget by 30%. Get ads on Higota program.

“Pardon me,” said the translator. “Would you be Vro Vrolik? The casino president?”

The spindly Yarath’s nametag identified her as Pimiaweben. She had her species’ distinctive facial bladders and wore a crisp Galactic Peacekeepers uniform. A nearby Universal Teapot moseyed over and offered her an appropriate beverage.

“Indeed I am,” said Vro. “How can I help you? There’s no, uh, unrest around here, is there?”

“Oh, I’m not a soldier. I’m an anthropologist.” She sipped whatever she was sipping. “Investigating the local cultural-capitalist ecology.”

“Ah. Is there a problem with Higota?”

“Well, there’s the problem that her music’s crap.” Pimiaweben’s facial bladders deflated. “But since she’s not the result of outsiders manipulating the local culture, I can ignore her, thank God.”

“Homegrown crap is okay, I take it. What do you think of the Party Bus?” Vro said hopefully. “The Boldengurd don’t have any substance abuse issues that I’m aware of. Could the bus be creating a drug culture? Normalizing it or something?”

Vro halfway wanted the Galactic Peacekeepers to haul Jaffi off in gelcuffs. He was extraordinarily annoyed with the half of himself that didn’t want them to.

The audience’s cheers were giving way to impatient grumbles. On Vro’s wristpad, a message popped up from Sirteg. Higota can’t make it. Meet me at the chapel after the unveiling.

Vro responded. I’ll cover for Higota. He thought a moment, and added, Please be clear that I am not at liberty to get married to anyone at present. The clarification might conceivably break Sirteg’s alien heart, but Vro had no desire to end up inadvertently united with a Boldengurd in the eyes of the law.

He tapped a command to the casino AI. Nanobots dissolved the curtain into wisps of sweet-smelling gas, revealing the new Higota-themed progressive slots. The younger Boldengurds, according to Vro’s wristpad, were cheering again. The older ones weren’t.

Good, he thought. The more the older generation hates something, the more the younger generation will love it.

His translator murmured. “I expected more when I saw the nebula on the tarp,” Umrelk was saying. “Why would anyone play those?” Vro checked her customer records. Umrelk’s room was booked for another ten Boldengurd days. He had a feeling he’d be seeing a lot of the elderly Boldengurd during her stay. Such seemed to be his fate.

As a consolation, he had the AI run a quick calculation. Even if he lost all the elderly guests while keeping the young ones, he’d end up with more customers than Nurt had ever brought in.

More and more of the Boldengurds’ sensory tendrils were pointed away from the slots. From his human height, Vro could easily see Nibklung flowing through the knee-high crowd.

The magician snipped his pincers. The elderly Boldengurds around him clacked so deafeningly they overwhelmed Vro’s translation software. Vro set it to automatically summarize the crowd’s comments – they were running about 40% Love Nibklung’s show and 35% how often they’d seen it – and render Nibklung as voice.

Nibklung pranced up to Vro, pincers spread wide. Another universal, or damn close. Life forms make themselves look larger when they feel threatened. Vro felt a little threatened himself; those pincers were coming dangerously near parts of himself that he didn’t want pinced.

“So instead of me,” said the arthropod magician, “you’re going to feature this newly-hatched little singer?”

“Higota is very popular,” said Vro. “Very, uh, pheromonal.”

“Filth,” said Nibklung, in his prissy arthropod way. The translator reported that his elderly fans were 100% in agreement.

“We don’t have to get rid of your show.” Vro tried to take a step back and thumped against a slot machine. “We’ll … we’ll move you into the lounge.”

“The lounge is always a crap gig,” said Nibklung. “I quit. I just quit.”

Vro was privately delighted. Maybe Nibklung’s elderly fans would follow him wherever he went next.

Umrelk pointed her tendrils forcefully at Vro and clacked loud enough to bring down the walls. Vro reluctantly re-enabled translation for her. “I had tickets for the next eight performances,” she said unhappily.

“There’ll be bears punching bears,” said Vro.

“We want Nibklung!” shouted Umrelk. The senior Boldengurds took up the cry until their node pressure dropped too low, or whatever it was that wore them out. Nibklung preened his epicuticle like some sort of dapper krill.

“Are you Nurt?” said Umrelk, more quietly. “Or the other one? Vro?”

“I’m Vro.”

She waved her sensory tendril up and down Vro’s body. “I’m told that this one’s hindquarters are aesthetically pleasing to his species,” she told her friends confidentially. The other seniors crowded around Vro, pointing their tendrils at his ass.

“Jaffi Jiffert told me about his hindquarters,” Umrelk said cheerfully, “when she was testing my fluid pressures after that awful explosion. She and Vro are different human genders, you know. They could procreate together! Think how cute human babies must be! Like teeny tiny gurshpequats. I wonder how humans mate?”

“I have some pictures on my wristpad,” said Nibklung.

Vro dialed up a Scotch and water from the Universal Teapot, but he just got tea.

“The bears ride little motorcycles,” he said, “and punch each other off them.” He was still far from expert on Boldengurd body language, but Umrelk seemed unimpressed.

Vro’s wristpad buzzed. Chapel? said Sirteg.

On my way, Vro responded.

“I apologize, valued Golden Nebula customers,” he said, “but I must rush off to optimize your customer experience.”

Sirteg was waiting outside the chapel, along with a Boldengurd who Vro didn’t recognize, and, annoyingly, Jaffi, who was gazing at the waterfall filled with dancing Boldengurd seaweeds.

“Isn’t it romantic?” she said, with an appreciative look at Vro. He tugged on the hem of his jacket to make sure it wasn’t riding up over his ass.

“Sirteg,” said Vro, “please tell me you didn’t call me up here to marry Jaffi Jiffert.”

“I actually called about Higota,” said Sirteg. “She’s in the chapel.”

“She got married?” said Vro hopefully.

“Oh, probably,” said Sirteg. “But that isn’t why I called.” She pointed a tendril.

Now Vro saw the gobbets of mucus spattering the chapel, and the ropy gray objects lying across the cushioned indentations the Boldengurd used as pews. Egg cases, he realized, and Higota herself was coiled up smack in the middle of them. She’d laid a clutch.

Vro started into the chapel. Higota waved the narrow end of her body and clacked like a truckful of ScandSynthetic office furniture being dumped into a box canyon, which Vro had actually heard at his previous consulting job.

“Don’t you know who I am?” shrieked his wristpad translator. “My recording company will sue you into subatomic particles!” Vro took a step back – not quite fast enough to dodge a gold-plated datapad to his forehead.

“Boldengurds are very territorial about their clutches,” said Sirteg. “May I introduce Higota’s manager?”

“I’ve made every arrangement,” said the other Boldengurd. “You won’t have to raise a tendril. A construction crew is already en route to cut the room out and ship it back planetside.”

“Wait, what?” Vro stammered.

“Don’t worry,” said the manager. “The eggs won’t be addled in the least.”

“Let’s open some negotiations vis-à-vis the use of our chapel.” Vro rubbed his forehead. “Could we at least charge fans to see Higota’s eggs?”

The manager’s tendrils patted the air. “I was hoping you’d keep this quiet. Being a mated parent isn’t consistent with her public image, after all. The pheromone company she represents would be unhappy.”

“Higota’s contract has a contingency that allows her to modify the venue in the event of health-related developments,” said Sirteg.

Vro sighed. At least he’d gotten the slot tie-in and a promotional appearance of sorts.

“On the bright side,” said the manager, “everyone knows Golden Nebula has a terrorist problem. You can just say the terrorists blew up the wedding chapel.”

“I will give your suggestion the consideration it deserves,” said Vro through gritted teeth.

“Shall I make the announcement the new sixth thing?” said Sirteg.

“Make the consideration the new sixth thing,” said Vro. “Let’s not rush to do anything that’d scare off the rest of the customers.” He made sure he was well clear of the chapel threshold and called out “Congratulations.”

Higota started slowly towards the door. Vro was halfway down the hall when a jerk on his jacket sleeve brought him to an abrupt halt.

“You don’t have to go,” said Jaffi. “Boldengurds are just territorial about the eggs, not their own personal space.”

“Is that what you study at Polophylax these days?” said Vro. “Xenobiology? When do you find time for Advanced Accounting?”

“My Party Bus customers have been telling me about their great-grandclutches,” said Jaffi. “It’s market research.”

Higota undulated out of the chapel. Her manager quickly locked the door behind her.

A crowd collected around their tiny caravan of two humans, two Boldengurds, and a Universal Teapot that had decided to tag along. Cameras flashed. Pimiaweben aimed a scanner at them as they passed, the facial bladders on her cheeks puffing occasionally.

“Higota, dear, shall we give the paparazzi one last pose before you go?” said her manager.

The singer arched herself delicately and artistically beside a slot machine emblazoned with her picture. She waved her datapad. The reels spun – and lined up three twinkling nebulae.

Ten thousand simulated bells sang out. Pheromones misted the hall. The machine’s screen flashed JACKPOT. The crowd clacked joyfully and spritzed water from their tentacles.

“Quite the celebratory mood,” said Jaffi. “I should get back to the Party Bus and prep for incoming customers.” She dialed herself up a drink from the Universal Teapot.

Seven-sided Boldengurd coins tumbled out of the slot machine – not seventeen billion credits’ worth, but enough to make the crowd boggle. Vro’s wristpad sounded a siren loud enough to carry over the general din.

UNABLE TO AUTHORIZE PAYOUT, flashed the wristpad. INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

Unmerciful Rand, thought Vro, we’re bankrupt. He groaned.

“See you later,” said Jaffi. She took a sip of tea and collapsed in a heap on the golden carpet.

“Security!” clacked Sirteg. “Get this human to the medical center!”

“No, wait!” Vro’s thoughts raced. “I’m not sure we can trust the medical center.” He checked Jaffi’s breath – it was ragged and shallow. “Whoever poisoned the Teapots had access to the casino’s security codes – they may have sabotaged the med center too. Recall all the Teapots and shut down the buffet.”

“The buffet line is all the way out to the blackjack tables,” said Sirteg.

“All the more reason.”

Jaffi lay spasming on the floor.”I believe she needs assistance,” said Sirteg.

“She’s going to get it.” He hoisted her over his shoulder. “Like she says, she should get back to the Party Bus.”

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Vro gazed out at the nebula’s ancient, blazing billows, light-years away but partly concealed behind the shattered casino sign. In the sunken heart-shaped bed, Jaffi gasped awake at last.

“Romantic spot,” she said. She tossed the portable Party Bus medical cleanse unit onto the pink satin cushions. “Imagine the alien passion that’s writhed in this very bed.”

“There’s no need to. As I understand it, Boldengurds just sleep in their beds,” said Vro. “They would actually mate in that heart-shaped mud tub, if they ever used the honeymoon suite. Which they don’t. I figured it was the best place for some uninterrupted privacy.”

“It’s very private,” said Jaffi. She patted a cushion. “Comfy, too. So where were we?”

“I ran diagnostics on the Universal Teapots,” said Vro. “They’d all been compromised – but just on the human setting. Boldengurds would have gotten normal Boldengurd beverages; Nurt and I – and you – would get poison. ”

“What about Banyakangrem?”

“Huh?”

“Like Nibklung.”

“He would have been fine.”

“Well, thank Rand for that,” said Jaffi. “I love his act.”

“Uh, okay. While your Party Bus machines scrubbed your blood, I analyzed the casino’s ledgers.”

He tapped his wristpad to hers. “The casino AIs thought our finances were fine, until they tried to pay out a jackpot and found the accounts were tapped out. I’ve turned the Solarium School of Business AI loose on the data, but it’s running in circles, confused –churning without identifying the problem, like a QuentaCorp Bloodhound following its own scent.”

“Do QuentaCorp Bloodhounds actually do that?”

“I dealt with it all the time at my last job.” Vro frowned. “I knew the casino was losing money, but the AIs should never have let that jackpot get too high to pay out. Someone was cooking the books.”

Jaffi rolled over coyly. “Do you want me,” she said, “to have the Polophylax AI take a look?”

“Only if it can cryptographically sign a non-disclosure agreement that’ll keep its report from going anywhere except my wristpad.”

“Deal.”

They tapped wristpads again. Vro scanned the automatically generated contract with a practiced eye. Wherever the phrase “to any other being, intelligence, or program” appeared, he redundantly appended “including Jaffi Jiffert.” He signed with his thumbprint and the Polophylax AI added its own mathematical equivalent.

“I should’ve known something was wrong when I saw the Elvis impersonator leaving.” Jaffi patted her squashed Mohawk into a facsimile of its former shape. “Elvises have a special sense for failing casinos. It’s like rats leaving a leaking starship. Ever notice how some people say ‘Elvi’ when there’s more than one Elvis? But if you wanted a Latin plural it should be Elvēs. Like ‘pelvis’ – it means ‘basin’ – its plural is pelvēs. That’s just the nominative –”

Vro sat bolt upright. “You’re right,” he said.

“Of course I’m right. Polophylax has a first-rate classics department.”

“No, I mean you’re right. Elvis left the building before the observation deck blew up.”

“I hate it when people work ‘Elvis has left the building’ into every conversation about the King. That, and ‘Thank you, thank you very much’.”

“I’ll take that under advisement. But here’s the thing. The casino was already near bankruptcy when the Elvis impersonator left – before the terrorist attacks. Nurt had no idea how bad things were, because the casino AIs were hiding the truth from him. And who’s responsible for the casino’s accounting?” He slapped the floor. “The VP of Finance. Sirteg. She’s been robbing the casino blind.”

He queried his wristpad’s demographics. “Sirteg’s in the theater. Let’s go down and confront her.”

“If she doesn’t just bug out now that the casino’s gone under.”

“Jaffi, she’s a Boldengurd. We have legs. We’ll get there in time.”

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Vro’s wristpad navigated them along the employees-only access tunnels, through a dressing room full of flustered Foot-Long Ovipositors dancers, and onto the theater’s antigrav stage where the bears would punch each other in free fall for the big finale.

Sirteg was sitting in the front row. She spritzed water from her tendrils.

“That spritzing means you’re happy, right?” said Vro. “Because you shouldn’t be.”

“It’s sarcastic,” said Sirteg. “Like the human slow clap.”

“We’re on to you, Sirteg,” Vro said managerially. “Making yourself rich on other people’s work. You’re nothing but a dirty looter.” He tapped a command into his wristpad.

Me?” said Sirteg. “You’re parking a space station in front of our sacred nebula.”

“Sacred nebula?” said Vro. “Wait, what?”

“You’ve turned our fertility rites into a tacky stage show, and our shamanic Boldengurd-into-bear ritual into … well, a tacky stage show. The mystical oracle crystals are just a random number generator for your slot machines. You’re exploiting our pious elders, and I am putting a stop to it right now.”

Twenty Boldengurd swung down from the overhead rigging on the bungee cords Vro had installed for the bears. They were leaking biological fluids, but since they were armed and Vro and Jaffi weren’t, they were quite intimidating.

“Meet the Religious Freedom Army. I told you I was political.” She writhed onto the stage. A terrorist peeled the Golden Casino logo from her back. “I blew up your observation tower, without harming any of our revered elders in the process. And now your own mismanagement has finished the job for me. You humans have been ruined by your own scheme. The seventh change we’re making will be getting rid of you.”

“Whatever you do,” said Vro, “please stop numbering everything.”

“I’m just a medical freelancer,” said Jaffi. “I don’t work here.”

“Oh, you’re okay,” said Sirteg.

“She is not!” said Vro.

A second voice rang out from Vro’s translator.

“Stop,” it boomed, “in the name of Galactic Peacekeepers! Refrain from using any weapons or natural biological defenses.”

A dozen Galactic Peacekeepers burst through the theater doors. Soldiers at the flanks tossed web grenades into the wings and exits, sealing off all the other escape routes, and raced up to the stage.

“Oh, thank Rand,” said Vro. “These terrorists were about to execute me.”

“You’re under arrest,” said Pimiaweben. The anthropologist’s facial bladders flared a no-nonsense blue. “For commercial exploitation of the Boldengurd religion.”

“Wait, me?” said Vro.

“If you don’t mind waiting, we were going to blow him up,” said Sirteg.

“Don’t do that,” said the nearest soldier.

“Let me check the local politico-legal ecology,” said Pimiaweben.

“Wait, what?” said Vro

Jaffi took a seat next to Sirteg. “I thought of something,” Jaffi said. “You guys poisoned the Universal Teapot’s human setting, right? So you’re the ones who nearly killed me.”

“Sorry about that,” said Sirteg. “We were trying to get Vro.”

“That’s okay, then,” said Jaffi.

“No, it is not!” said Vro.

“And you couldn’t buy better publicity for the Party Bus,” said Jaffi. “All’s well that ends well.”

Pimiaweben tossed a gel restraint that snaked out to envelop Vro’s arms. His wristpad beeped, as if in protest.

The theater doors slammed open. Umrelk ambled in at the head of a mob of geriatric tourists. Nurt dawdled along behind them.

“Bring back the crystal!” Umrelk shouted. “And Nibklung! Bring back the Boldengurd turning into a bear!”

“Rand damn you for a moocher, Nurt,” said Vro. “Why’d you go and monetize a local religion? Did you spend senior year sleeping through Galactic Regulations 540?”

“At Polophylax, that’s a freshman course,” said Jaffi.

“My granddaughter went to Polophylax,” said Umrelk. “And she just hatched fourteen young!”

“We’re throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, ma’am,” said Sirteg. “These aliens will no longer exploit your piety for crass materialist gain!”

“I know what you’re up to, Sirteg,” said Umrelk. “I’ve been following you everywhere. Well, don’t I get any say in whether I’m being exploited? This is way more fun than the old temple. I really like the way the new attendants bring you drinks instead of lecturing you. And they should have shielded that cuprosklodowskite crystal years ago.” She slithered over and snatched Vro’s wristpad off his arm. “I wonder if the legal AI has something to say about this.”

Vro hopped around to face Pimiaweben. “What they said. You heard them, they like it. Can’t you let me go?”

“Wait a minute,” said Umrelk’s voice, sounding strangely distant with the translating wristpad an unaccustomed three feet away. “You’re the human with the attractive hindquarters. The one who got rid of the crystal.”

“And he brought that tacky Higota girl here,” said another tourist.

“And he fired Nibklung!”

With a lusty mechanical groan the antigrav stage tilted. A dozen bears on miniature motorcycles roared down its slope, Nibklung perched atop the leader’s head. The bear’s fez was too large for the little magician to wear, and he swung it on his long segmented tail.

“Nibklung!” cheered the elderly tourists. “Turn us all into bears!”

“I won’t go quietly!” Nibklung shrieked. “I fight for dignity! For honor! For good, clean family entertainment!” Vro wished he could reach his wristpad and assign a less annoying voice to the tiny Banyakangrem. It wasn’t his fault Vro heard him that way.

What was his fault was the rampaging bear that was about to run Vro down.

“In the name of the Galactic Peacekeepers,” shouted Pimiaweben, “stop your bears!”

“Don’t you have to check on the local custom-value ecology?” said Vro.

The bears plowed through the crowd. Boldengurd terrorists and tourists alike twisted aside, splurting and squirting fluids in every direction. Soldiers fired shots into the air, but the bears – trained to perform beneath crowd-pleasing explosions – didn’t flinch. Pimiaweben got a close-up look at Boldengurd culture, or something, when she fell onto Umrelk and knocked Vro’s wristpad out of the elderly tourist’s manipulatory tendril.

The pad spun to a stop at Vro’s feet. With a grunt, he dropped to his knees and pressed his nose onto the pad, activating the command he’d tapped when he first entered the theater.

The stage’s antigrav hummed on, leaving the soldiers, Nibklung, the tourists, the terrorists, the bears, the motorcycles, and Jaffi Jiffert hanging in midair. One bear at the field boundary was yanked into a brief wheelie before falling clear. Its motorcycle clanged onto the footlights. The bear sat down heavily, confused, sucking its paw.

“Be quiet, everybody,” said Vro with whatever authority he could command while wrapped in a restraining gel. “Look at this.” He nodded at his pad.

“The Solarium School of Business AI couldn’t untangle the AI that was covering up the casino embezzlement,” said Vro. “That’s because the embezzler was using the exact same software. The Solarium AI can’t outsmart itself. But when I turned the Polophylax AI loose on the records, it discovered that Nurt was the thief all along. He knew that basing a casino on the Boldengurd religion would eventually bring the Galactic Peacekeepers to his door, and when it happened, he diverted all the cash into his own account. The casino was making a profit all the time. He didn’t hire me to save the casino; he hired me to take the fall for him.”

“Shit,” said Nurt. “I figured you were so irrationally loyal to Solarium that you wouldn’t try any other software until it was too late. But none of you are in any position to stop me from getting away.”

He pulled a photino pistol from his vest pocket and grabbed the nearest motorcycle’s tiny handlebars. The bear whipped its paw out of its mouth and punched him unconscious.

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The robot-controlled construction ship threaded the last cable into place, and Vro threw the theatrically oversized switch to light up the new sign. TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN NEBULA, it said. 24-HOUR BUFFET. The elderly worshippers thronging the observation deck cheered.

Pimiaweben inflated her facial bladders. “Very anthropologically interesting topophilia,” she said. “I could get a book out of this.”

“It’s a good thing you’d programmed your wristpad to recognize your noseprint, Vro,” said Jaffi. She’d put on a hot pink business catsuit for the occasion and her Mohawk was sharp enough to scratch glass. “Do they teach you that at Solarium Business School?”

“Practical Computing 201,” said Vro. “And the new dedicated Bears Punching Bears theater will open next week. Want to move the Party Bus closer to it? It’ll draw a younger, heavier-drinking crowd than the religious attractions.”

Pimiaweben chittered in a minor key. “Galactic Peacekeepers is dealing with Nurt, but I’m still concerned about this Nibklung and his motorcycle-mounted bear platoon attack,” she said. “There are laws about endangering bears.”

“Let me consult with my Boldengurd legal advisor,” said Vro. “Umrelk?”

Umrelk fluttered a tentacle in what Vro now knew was the Boldengurd equivalent of a smile. “I’m giving him a raise,” she said.

“That settles that. Jaffi, want to join me in the bar? We just hired a Czoluru Elvis impersonator who sings 50s material with one throat and 70s material with the other. The Universal Bartender has Blue-Shifted Hawaiians for half price.”

“Your treat?” she said.

“You can afford it.”

She raised a blonde eyebrow. “It’s not a deductable business expense.”

“I think you’ll find that the Sattilebba Act allows medical providers to deduct up to one thousand credits per year of refreshments.”

Jaffi patted his ass. “Now you’re talking.”

____

Copyright 2015 Tracy Canfield

CNN once called Tracy Canfield a “Klingon scholar”. Her short science fiction and fantasy has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, and various other magazines and anthology. She’s a computational linguist who lives in the Midwest. She is on Twitter as @TracyCanfield.