Love and Poverty on Distant Worlds Ch. 02byAnotherWannabe©
Author's Note 1: I apologize to any of my "fans" (if they exist) for the length of time between stories. I has been little under a year. I swear, I had a good excuse, but it was eaten by my dog.
Author's Note 2: Italicized dialogue represents the Niyannese language.
BALANCE: 12 kilocredits
One foot ahead of the other. For John, it had ceased feeling like walking. Instead, it was like he was treading tablecloth, the city pulling ever closer like a teetering tower of dishes, but always slipping out.
Niyan's gravity was meant to be lighter than Mavid's, but it didn't feel like it.
A vehicle on the road sped past him, the resulting draft blasted into John. The sun, which he had thought so bright, became oppressive. It cast his dark shadow, so he had to watch his hunched, hungry, pathetic silhouette crawl across the tarmac. John clutched at his stomach. It was well past the point of rumbling and now was just numb.
His movements felt irregular and weak, like he was stumbling forward.
Someone once told him in situations like this it was best not to think and just soldier on. John struggled to remember who it was that said that.
As he closed in, he saw just how impossibly tall Niyan's towers were. Clouds rolled out from over them, over their twin reflections on the mirror-like buildings. The needles and antennas and wires of buildings criss-crossed the horizon. A rocket flew overhead, and even though it was departing the atmosphere it almost seemed it would crash into the jumble.
The mirror landscape stood silently and impassively. The place seemed cold, he suddenly felt. There was no character to it, nothing he could know or that he knew of. What sort of place is it that there is no color, except for that steel-blue reflected in the sky? How does one make a living in that world?
He wanted to go home. But he couldn't go all the way back to Mavid, not just yet. He had to search for something familiar if he wanted to keep going.
He took in a breath, trying to take in the smell of the world. Though it was full of alien substances and sensations, it did have a trace of salt and sweat. It was that same seeping, humid smell of the canals, like the ones that permeated Mavid. That was something like home. He turned his nose to where the scent was strongest. The road that way curved down the foot of the mountain and ended in what appeared to be a small town. He could see the shining blue of the ocean and piers jutting out into it. There were no large ships, just what appeared to be the almond-shaped bellies of yachts.
It could be a fishing village, though John. It might have some work.
That was enough of a reason to change course. He began to lope hungrily towards the fishing village.
It took much trudging through long, wild grass to get step onto the streets of the small town by the ocean. He closed his eyes. He could smell baked bread, fish, the freshness of ocean air. His skin felt the comfortable burn of salt water. The town was a city by Mavidian standards but quaint for Niyan, but what shocked John was the absence of the usual bustle of a port city. Instead, the town was marked by long promenades, little boutiques and shopping areas, and populated by families leisurely moving amongst the city.
Under their wide-brimmed beach hats the Niyanese looked on John with suspicion, with glances that drilled right through him. John tried to make his way through fast, to a place where he might feel a little less alien.
He almost felt comfortable when he entered the industrial district. Though it resembled nothing on Mavid, it had something of the spirit. The canals, unlike Mavid's, were nearly as clean as the ocean itself, and not crumbling. Large cranes hoisted cargo from barges that seemed to float on massive black balloons. There were few workers, just the buzzing of machines and the grinding of mills.
Nestled within a wall of crates and containers, a group of men sat in dirty little lounge chairs outside of what seemed to be a factory. They had empty bottles littering around them, and were joking amongst themselves as though they had no work for the rest of the day.
At first, John simply watched on apprehensively. A sort of cramp seized him in the gut, and he could not tell if it was nervousness or hunger. But he approached, cleared his throat, and said out loud:
The workers turned their heads towards him. He repeated himself again, but still they didn't react.
"Job!" he said finally in Niyanese.
The Niyanese men laughed. "Job? Job?" they mocked. They jeered amongst themselves. He knew they were making jokes at his expense, but he could not understand them.
John rubbed his stomach. "Food!" he said, then mimed hammering something."Job! Food for job!"
A large worker with a scraggly beard took a plastic-wrapped candy bar from his pocket and skittered it at John's feet. John looked down at the brightly colored bar, all purples and yellows, picked it up and unwrapped it.
It was a biscuit in the shape of a dog bone.
The workers fell into hysterics. Nervously, John sniffed it. It had meaty scent that made John's mouth water. Without shame, he bit into it, finally snapping it with his teeth after some effort. The biscuit was extremely hard, but had a strong and not unpleasant flavor. This spectacle silenced the workers, who watched, with horror, John devour the second half. But John did not notice, he simply wiped his mouth with the collar of his shirt.
They had all stopped laughing. They looked on John with a sort of pitiable awe. A grown man had just eaten a dog biscuit without shame, and still, he persisted: "Job," he repeated. "Food."
The factory doors burst open. It was a white-shirted bald man, late forties, and bespectacled, he carried himself like someone in authority. He cried some things out Niyanese, to which the workers sputtered out something in response. They started gesturing towards John.
"What do you want? Don't you know this is a restricted area?" said the bald man.
John couldn't realize that the man, apparently a manager, had been speaking his language.
The manager repeated himself. "Can you understand me? Do you not know this is a restricted area?"
"You speak my language?" said John.
"I took the classics," replied the manager. "What do you want?
"I would like a job," said John.
The manager frowned. "They say you ate a dog biscuit. You must be desperate."
"I would like a job," repeated John.
"Step into my office," said the manager, who went back through the double doors. John followed.
The manager's office was essentially a single desk with a built-in holoscreen and hundreds of sheets of paper, stacked about the room, toppling from bins and file cabinets. The manager cleared off some rogue reports from his desk with a swipe of his, hand and gestured to the chair in front of his desk. John took it.
"This is a courtesy," he said, "but we aren't currently looking for menial labor. As you probably noticed, we gut our fish by machine. We have men here enough to clean and take care of the machines. So unless you have a master's degree in hydro-engineering, we have little else to talk about."
John frowned. John didn't have an education.
The manager took note of his expression shook his head. "It's sad. I'm sorry, I really am. Niyan is a cruel place for the uneducated. You should have stayed in Mavid."
John had a flash of his mother, Delilah. He saw her sitting in that apartment, on that flowery armchair, with the flames of terrorism and disorder consuming all around her.
John spoke to the manager in almost a mutter: "Those machines... how much does it cost you to butcher each fish, with those machines?"
The manager rose an eyebrow. "Four kilocredits."
John bit his lower lip. "You would only need to pay me three."
Something predatory flashed in the manager's eyes. He paused a moment, thinking and stroking his tie. "Three kilocredits, eh?" His smile curved to something sly. "I'm not sure I can do that. You see, I'd be breaking all sorts of laws by paying you that little. Minimum wage be damned. Plus, the butchering is quite complex. You'd need to get trained. I respect your offer but I must decline."
John took a glance around the office. Very little décor, constructed of cheap, expendable materials. Even the holoscreen was shoddy, he'd seen the same model on Mavid. The man could not be poor. He could only be cheap.
He was haggling him down to the rags.
"What about two and a half?" said John.
"And if I'm caught?" said the manager. "That little half-a-kilocredit is going to seem quite expensive."
John groaned. "Two kilocredits. And a quarter."
The manager lifted an eyebrow.
"Two kilocredits," said John finally.
The manager grinned. "That's too good to refuse, my Mavidian friend."
John was taken to a back room, away from the workers and the heavy gutting machines. When the manager (who introduced himself as Shigeru) opened the door, John was enveloped by an intense red light. It was a tiny room bare except for a table and a knife. Stacked like bricks were hundreds of "atun", a Niyanese fish species, tails and heads sticking out from a mortar of ice. Shigeru explained the "red light room" was a fish storage room.
"Watch closely," he said.
He took a fish from the stack (a fat one the length of John's arm) and slammed it on the table with a thud. The manager held a knife to the fish, but John grabbed his arm. "Let me try," he said.
Shigeru gave him the knife. As John held the knife toward the fish, he closed his eyes. He recalled the memory of his father kneeling at the banks of one of Mavid's many canals on a warm day. Mavidian fish were small, scrawny things compared to Niyanese monsters, but this one his father caught was special. His mustache curved with his smile while stroked the foot-and-a-half long fish. His father gestured for him to come closer.
"You better pay attention," he said, turning his head to the young John. His father's blue eyes seemed to shine with the light of Mavid's distant star. "You never know when you might have to gut a fish."
Confidently and gracefully he gutted then filleted the fish. They later fried it under starlight with olives, garlic and onions. It had been a good day.
As John recalled the gutting, his knife traveled down the belly of the fish, to where the tail began. He pressed his hand against the gills, then thrust the knife into it, pulling it through the bony cartilage. He popped off the head, pulled out the guts, then filleted it from the spine. When he open his eyes, it was just as his father had done.
The manager nodded, impressed. "You'll get faster. Congratulations, my good Mavidian, you earned yourself two kilocredits!" The manager vigorously shook John's hand, like he was attempting to dislodge it.
When he finally let go, the manager's eyes drifted tod something amongst the fish guts on the floor. He picked it up and palmed a shiny 10 kilocredit coin.
"Finders, keepers," he said, pocketing the coin.
It was painful watching the coin disappear into the manager's pocket, but John swallowed any protests.
Shigeru patted John on the back. "Well, I think you know what to do now."
He left John alone in the room.
When John emerged from the red light room, he felt he could barely remember a thing except for gutting fish. The floor was awash in fish intestine, and John's clothing was positively soaked in ichor, despite an apron. He pushed out a box of neatly stacked fish cuts with his feet, and closed the door.
He hung his apron on a hook.
He went to the manager's office and knocked on the door. No response. Outside the window was a clear night. It must have been well past closing time.
John heard the sound of high heel clattering behind him. He spun around. He saw a woman with black-hair pulled back tightly, healthy-looking with only the slightest lines hinting at age. She wore a blue suit, like a professional would wear. She looked at John curiously.
He had not seen a woman in a while. Partly out of shame for his own appearance, he quickly combed his hair with his hands. When she began approaching him, he had the strange feeling of being cornered... he stood frozen, waiting for her to say something.
She said something in Niyanese. He knew enough that she was asking who he was and why he was here.
"My Niyanese is bad," he said.
She nodded, "I speak slowly. Can you understand?"
"Yes. I am worker. Are you manager?"
"I am manager's wife. You work... overtime?"
Shigeru's wife looked John up and down. She then shook her head. "Shame," she said. "Are you hungry?"
John wasn't sure how to respond. But his appetite returned in the absence of the fishy stench, and his stomach began to growl. He nodded slowly.
"Come," she said.
He followed her out back and across the street to a small detached house, yellow light glowing from the windows. She held the door open for him. He walked into a hall that seemed to glow gold. It was in Japanese style, with faux-paper walls and glossy dark floors. Frameless pictures of the manager and his wife emanated from wall, set in backgrounds of mountains and beaches. In one of them they stood before cherry blossoms in kimonos. Before John's eyes the picture melted into an autumnscape, with the couple set between two dramatic red trees. He didn't notice any children, or any extended family. Just them.
"You do not have those, do you?" she remarked. It took him a moment to realize she was talking about the photographs embedded into the wall. He shook his head.
Her fingers tapped against the wall, and a computer terminal apparated before them. She brushed her fingers against some of the controls, and there was a click from the other room.
"You want a bath?" she asked.
She lead him past a living room into a spacious bathroom with a large corner tub already drawn and bubbling. The thought of a hot bath was exhilarating, he could almost plunge in with his clothes on.
"You need clothes cleaned?" she asked.
"Take clothes off."
John nearly took a step back. Was this what she wanted the whole time? But he saw that she had nothing animal in those eyes. And he looked at himself in the mirror, skinny, baggy ill-fitting clothes, skin stained with fish ichor and a face of sunken cheeks and bloodshot eyes. It was no picture of masculine beauty. He dropped his pants and slipped off his shirt. The sight of John's ribcage and pallid body caused her to wince.
She gathered up his clothes and shut the door.
He slipped his toes into the hot, frothy bubbles. The feeling of heat shuddered through him, it was electrifying. He plunged in. The relief was immediate, like molting a layer of itchy, decrepit skin. He scrubbed himself all over and sniffed his arm -- it smelt like lavender. He relaxed and let himself soak thoroughly.
After about ten minutes, he stepped out, slightly chill and looking for a towel. His wet foot stepped on the bathmat, which clicked, triggering a blast of hot, dry air. He held out his arms and felt the moisture evaporate from him. The drying stopped.
He cautiously peeped out the door. The aroma of cooking food was so overpowering that it almost made him faint. He looked down and found his clothes neatly folded in a pile. He slipped into them... they felt soft and warm, fresh from a dryer. He could not put them on fast enough.
He followed the scent into a dining room with a low table, only reaching John's ankles, and several pillows instead of chairs. John had never seen anything like it, and had no idea how to approach it. Shigeru's wife came in with kimono, a tray of porcelain tea ware which she set on the table. She knelt before the table, and bid John to follow. John tried to mimic her gracefulness, but ended up with legs uncomfortably folded under the table..
She poured him a cup of tea and then herself one. He picked up the tea, carefully (the cup had no handle), sniffed the hot vapor, then took it to his lips. She chuckled at his expression.
"Not like ours..." he said.
"Mavid not tea people?" she asked.
"Tea? Yes, but, I don't know how to say it..." he paused for a moment. He didn't have the words to say it in her language. "More 'bitter'."
She nodded politely. A ring came from the kitchen, for which she excused herself. A minute later she came out with two bowls of thick stew. It was red, it smelt like vegetables and some sort of animal broth.
He took a greedy sip. The hot goodness of it reached deep into his belly. He took another deep sip, enjoying how it slid down his throat. The lady was eating much more slowly, sipping only tiny spoonfuls at a time. It made John feel self-conscious.
"It is delicious." he said, putting the bowl down. "You good cook."
"Thank you," she said. "It is my hand-art."
John had never heard the word. "What is a hand-art?"
She tried to explain it, but evidently the concept was too complex for John to understand in his limited Niyannese. She explained it, what John understood as, "The thing that people do for machines", and then "Doing the machine work", which left John confused. Eventually she just shrugged.
"There is noodles, too. Save space."
John finished the bowl, drinking the meaty dregs straight from the bottom. He gave a satisfied sigh. The lady left and came back with two bowls of simple rice noodles. John attacked his portion with a fork, lifting up hearty balls of semi-transparent noodles and putting them in his mouth.
"You like them too?" she giggled.
John turned a shade of red. "Excuse me," he said, rapidly swallowing a mouth full of noodles.
She smiled politely and they ate in silence for some time. John had taken down half the bowl in big hungrily mouthfuls, despite himself. He didn't even notice the drip of noodle-water that escaped from a corner of his mouth and lingered on his chin. She, however, took her time.
She set the chopsticks atop the bowl, and asked, "It is exciting, being on a new planet?"
John (who was working through a particularly large mouthful), hadn't realized the thrust of her statement. When he looked at her, the way her eyes were downcast and the manner she gripped onto the hem of the kimono, he knew she was... anxious. He couldn't fathom why. He swallowed.
"Yes," he said finally. "But it is hard."
What she said next was very hard for John to understand, she mumbled something, buried too far beneath her breath to make sense of it. There was no point in asking her to repeat it, she clearly was saying something to herself.
John stuffed his mouth with another helping.
When they were both done, she said, "It is time for you to leave."
Before he did leave she gave him what appeared to be a bundle. "It fits you..." she said mysteriously before closing the door.
He unwrapped the package. Folded neatly was the glossy black silk of a business man's suit, for a person about John's size. When he caressed it, he felt how soft it was. He walked into his alley, laid down, and used the package as a pillow.
He did not remember that morning, even less stumbling into the fishery. But the next day he was already beneath the oppressive crimson glare the gutting room, with his knife plunged into a fish, forearms black with ichor.
He ignored his rumbling stomach and got to work, shutting his mind away to allow his hands to gut and slice. Working like this was almost like sleep, he was barely conscious of time passing, every moment dragged out to the minutes and the seconds. He did not notice the door opening.