Have you ever been to Kktkra? If you haven't, don't worry. You ain't missing a thing. A blood red sky over creepy green anthills, a day shorter than most lunchbreaks and a population of insectoids calling themselves the Kkrts. That's Krits to the likes of you and I.
Yep, I was on Kktkra, which for the sake of argument I pronounced ker-ker-teh-ker-rrrah. It's not the way kkrts say it, but then they've got no lips and eat their food sideways. Ugly little bugs too. Don't get the idea that I'm a rampant xenophobe or anything, far from it. But it's kind of hard to walk around amongst four-foot tall, four armed, bipedal, sentient beetles for long and not check your shoes for tenants every morning. It does funny things to your head, I can promise you. Their only saving grace was that although they wore their skeletons outside their bodies, their organs were all safely tucked away under that green armour. Most of all it's their mouths I can't handle. A vertical dripping maw with continuously chomping mandibles. And if you imagine that's bad, you try listening to them speaking English and hold onto your lunch.
"- very welkkkkome tttto ourrrr planetttt misssstttter xxxxavierrrr -" said the bug who greeted me at the shuttleport. It was a sound like someone gargling with syrup coated marbles. He tilted his flat-plated head, holding me with his 'hundreds and thousands' eyeballs and gesturing with the pair of arms on the left side of his thorax.
"- i ttttrrrrusssstttt you had a pleassssantttt flightttt -"
I hadn't but I lied. A was tired after the last weeks travelling, and frankly I'd have said anything for a horizontal bed and an unreconstituted scotch on some water ice. And not necessarily in that order. Hey, make it a double... (the scotch, not the bed, stupid.)
"- pleasssse tttto tttthissss way -"
I followed him. The wag who invented the 'walk this way' joke must have meant a Krit when he quipped, "if I had to walk like that, I wouldn't need the ointment." I stepped with him into the hovering taxi, and flew over the teeming green mounds of the capital city into the bright vermilion sunrise.
Their chief computer expert, a Dr Kirrik, surprised me. He was almost friendly, which for a bug is unusual. He explained to me that he'd spent a lot of time studying on Earth, at Hertfordshire Polytechnic, and so had had some of the Krit coldness brewed out of him. He drank English tea, chilled for himself although he'd arranged for a hot one for me, and told me about his planet.
"- you musssst fffforgive the kkrttttssss for their kkkkoldnessss, ffffrrrrankkkk... the hive mentttalitttty prevailssss in ussss, the way the jungle lurkkkkssss in your human blood... ttttry notttt tttto sssspeak tttto rapidly, and avoid ssssarkkkkasm, and you'll ffffind yourrrr ssssttttay a pleassssantttt one -"
"Thank you, Doctor. Yes, I've experienced the problem of not being understood if you stray too far away from fact. As a human it's hard to relate to the bu... er, Krit mind, and your relating to ours must be a similar problem. So that's why you called me in as a consultant on this Krit/Human interface program then?"
"- exacttttly... your human mind, plussss your exxxxperttttisssse in computttter sekkkkuritttty made you a nattttural for the job... now, aboutttt paymentttt... which kkkkurrenccccy would you preferrrr? we kkkkan supply any you wissssh -"
"English pounds will do fine. And I'd prefer cash, that is if you have the currency to meet it..."
Kirrik clicked to himself, something like a chuckle.
"- yessss, brrt... we have the kkkkurrenccccy -"
And that was it. I was shown to my room, complete with Krit/English dictionary, a computer terminal into the main Krit system, all the vegetables I could eat in the fridge, and a few treats like booze. The Krits don't drink, so this was a very valuable item. I was obviously more of a VIP than I thought.
So there I was relaxing in a comfy chair, drinking and typing my way uninvited through their most private systems, when the Krit soldier beetles burst through my door and arrested me for the murder of Dr Kirrik.
The cells in downtown Krit City are pretty gothic, I don't even want to think about it, but I didn't fancy trying to give those Krit soldiers the slip. My knowledge of downtown Bug City was sketchy and... well, imagine an American football player wearing green armour and carrying a compact submachine gun, and you'll understand my reluctance to upset these guys. One of them could have eaten me whole and spat out the pips, so two were very persuasive. I sat stewing in slime until my pet goons came and threw me into the chief prosecutor's office.
Don't get any ideas I was going to get a fair deal here. The Krits seem civilised on the surface, but one look at some of the other poor creatures in the cells made me realise something important. Their judicial system made Earth's medieval legal butchery look like a nature ramble.
The chief prosecutor looked up from the document crystal he was reading. They do that. They need the extra glassware to focus all their thousands of eyes in one spot. Weird. He explained how the Doc had gotten his bug head squashed; some kind person had slammed the lid of his lab freezer when he was looking in it. I told him that I'd been at home all evening and besides, me and the Doc were engaged, ask anybody. Well the Doc had warned me about sarcasm...
"- you are a ttttrouble of grrreattttnessss in -" he hissed, smacking the rod-like crystal into my ribs. Nothing broke, but it hurt like hell. He was used to roughing up people with harder skin. Trying to explain this essential difference earned me a sound hiding from his quarterback buddies behind me.
"- pleasssse don't tttto intttterrrruptttt... I will asssskkkk the qqqquessssttttionssss -"
The only questions he had for me were his balled bug hands darting into my stomach. I wasn't going to last very long taking this sort of beating. I had to get the hell out of there before something snapped. Like my neck.
My eye caught some of my personal effects on the table, and I rolled with a punch and landed on them, palming my wallet and camera. As the chief grabbed me I flipped one of my paper-thin stilettos from the corner of my wallet and popped it neatly into one of the gaps in laughing boy's armour. He shrieked like a stuck pig and the guard closest to me fired his automatic right at my head. I jerked sideways and the hail of bullets plastered bits of the prosecutor all over the walls. Under the table I pulled the false top off my camera and palmed the percussion grenade I kept hidden inside. As the guards bent down to shoot under the table, I jumped on top of it; over their backs and shouldered the door. Outside I slammed the door closed and stood aside as they shredded it with their heaters. Then I blipped the perc grenade through one of the holes and legged it up the corridor. Just before I made it outside I heard the dull thump of my captors being blown out into the street.
Back at my apartment I was just leaving to buy a black market ticket off the planet when the doorbell went. I had my plastic .45 in my hand in seconds.
"Come in." I said pointing the gun at the doorway.
A small insect walked in, a she I thought.
"- i kkkwero am... away putttt your weapon... i here tttto help you am -"
She sat down carefully in one of the chairs, looking around nervously.
"- knowing i am who is kkkkiller of docttttor kkkkirrikkkk -" she clicked.
That really took the wind out of me. There I was hightailing it out of there and all of a sudden salvation walks through my door in green armour and sticky feet.
"So what the blazing hell happened at the lab, Kwero?"
"- man kkkkame in, human man, and askkkked the dokkkkttttor aboutttt the projekkkkt he workkkking on wassss... dokkkkttttor say getttt outttt be... man dokkkkttttor's head grabs and in freezer putttts... i lookkkk away... i likkkke itttt not... cannot...-"
She stopped and wiped her eye and feeler with one of her three fingered hands.
"- dokkkkttttor dead issss... i be blamed, yessss? ran away did i... heard you arresssstttted were... wentttt tttto ssssttttattttion... you esssskkkkaped had! dokkkkttttor had your addressss given... you okkkkay?-"
I was finding this all a bit hard to digest. "Yes, fine... a bit bent up but still operational, I guess. Look, getting back to the Doc, what were you doing at the lab, Kwero?"
"- lab assssissssttttantttt am... for human monthssss... brrt... ttttwelve -"
So she'd been working a year for him. I hadn't seen her around, but then they all look alike. Sorry, bad taste joke. I shouldn't judge a bug by its cover.
"- but we hurry musssstttt... assssissssttttantttt prossssekkkkuttttor after you issss... with me kkkkome... murderer i know where issss -"
Wait a minute. After listening to one of them talk for a bit I start dozing off. Where he is? The murderer? Hey, I could not only elude the cops and hang onto my life, but I might also nail the son of slime who put me here.
I didn't really have a choice. I had to pack my things and go away before the filth burst in and tried to take my appendix out through my nose. I left my clothes and filled my pockets with my usual basic set of anti-personnel equipment. I put on my favourite long black coat to shield my humanoid body from prying eyes, and we headed off into the steaming crevices between the building mounds in search of a murderer.
Kwero led me inside a bar and sat me at a table with some fizzy fruit juice or something. She said to wait there until she called me over and then she'd point out the red hander.
The bar was basically a hole in the wall with a glass door in it. Inside it could have been almost anywhere in the galaxy, apart from the unusual amount of bugs sitting at tables and humans grovelling on the floor. Interesting turnaround, that. The Krits didn't drink, of course, but that didn't stop them eating intoxicating bark. Horrible stuff. The few humans who ate it didn't last long. It didn't kill you right off, but what was left of you after a few months of careless ingestion wasn't really what I'd call alive. But where had Kwero got to? A few seconds before she had been standing by a side door talking to a short human feller, and while I was daydreaming she'd vanished. I pushed my way through the thronging beetles. Maybe he'd jumped her, got suspicious and spotted me looking at them. Maybe he'd taken her outside and done the same favour for her that he did for Kirrik. She was probably lying out in the gutter now with a head like a broken egg. My only witness was being killed and I'd be trapped on this stinking insect planet forever! With my heart in my throat I straight armed the side door and stepped out into the street.
Before I knew where I was, Kwero had hit me hard and had me pinned against the wall. I had a sudden crystal clear feeling you get when you've jumped out of the frying pan and into a microwave. You see, this is why it pays to know your bugs. If I'd taken time to learn about such things, I would have recognised her markings as a beetle of the Amazonida species, deadly poisonous creatures specialising in murder for money.
She was very strong, as I'm sure the guy with his head dashed on the pavement just found out. She clicked her mandibles, her cold breath on my face smelling of sweet nectar and stale death, and her tail with its obvious stinger on the tip wavered over her shoulder. I waited for the sting... but there was nothing. No sudden punching followed by an icy spreading numbness. No movement at all. We stood motionless until she spoke, when she was sure we wouldn't be disturbed.
"- you will withhhh body be found... murder itttt will ssseem... Earrrrth people from our planetttt banned will be -"
Then she clapped a three-fingered hand to my throat, gripping me tightly with the other three. As she started to squeeze I could feel my lights going out.
So this was it. She was going to render me unconscious and make sure I was found with the body. After my last little episode with the cops I had a nasty feeling I'd wake up dead anyway.
She had a hold on both my wrists, pinning them to the wall, and one on my neck... where was the other one? On my chest, but nothing on my legs. With the insane strength of a man who doesn't want to die with sickly sweet bug breath in his nostrils, I curled my leg up and bought my heel down as hard as I could on the side of her knee. There was a crisp celery crack and the hand on my throat relaxed for a second. I followed up with a knee to where her thorax met her abdomen and she teetered. I pushed and I was away from the wall. She rasped with effort, trying to push herself back against me, but her purchase was lost and we fell. The one thought which shone out like a gleaming knife in my head as we hit the ground was "Where is her sting?" but in the blur of our fall I couldn't see it. As we crashed into the rubbish bins I was horrified to feel something pierce my trousers and puncture my leg. In a frenzy I grabbed the nearest thing to hand - a strip of rusty iron - and brought it down on her head. Fear ripped through me like an electric charge, and brought my hand down over and over until it ached. I was so absorbed in bashing her bug skull in that I barely noticed when she went limp.
I dropped the iron and backed away, stumbling over bottles and bark wrappers until I hit the wall. I slid down to the floor and tore open my trouser leg to look at the wound. Fresh red blood oozed from a cut under my knee. My God, I thought, I've been stung by the bitch after all. I darted my eyes around her body for the stinger... and saw it, sticking straight up. Behind her head. Then I saw the broken bottle beside her, a single shard pointing skyward. On its tip, a tiny dewdrop of crimson blood. The colour of the sky.
The parabeetles who carried me to hospital must have thought I was insane, laughing like that. It was relief, actually. I thought I was stung and I was going to croak, and it turned out I'd stuck myself on an old bottle. I was still wiping the tears from my eyes when the folks from the Human Embassy rescued me from the clutches of the quacks at the bug hospital.
Fortunately for me, the Amazonids are well known for their criminal connections, so suspicion was diverted away from me long enough for someone in higher authority than the local filth to discover the truth. You see, what I failed to understand was that Kirrik had really hired me to help with a program to crack human computers! My reputation as a hacker had spread to Kktkra, and that's what they wanted from me. Naturally, certain human companies stood to lose from the Krits being able to tap into their Earth based systems, via subspace frequencies. So one of these firms hired the Amazonida, the late and not so lamented Kwero, to see to it that not only was project chief Kirrik killed, but also that humans were banned from the planet and regarded with suspicion. Kwero cleverly figured out how to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by fitting me up for the murder of Kirrik. Anyway, I'm glad it's all sorted out.
Well the short story is they fixed me up and I was allowed to go home with a full pardon and a big wedge of quid's to keep me in disks and whisky for the next few months at least. It was mainly to shut me up, I think. After all, who needs to start a stink about human rights on a bug planet that's only a month off its peak tourist season, eh? Although why anyone would want to go there beats the hell out of me.
So everything's alright now. Okay, so I still jump on a chair when a beetle walks in the room, but I'm seeing a man about it.