Humble Advice

HUMBLE ADVICE:
Whereby the Demeanour of Martian Tigers is Made Explicitly Known to Yaz.
by Electric Keet

The uniformed blue-furred feline offered a mild smile. “Anything to declare?”

“Yeah,” Eekay responded with a self-serving pose. “One hundred twenty kilos of awesome.”

I was about to chide zim, but the customs agent already had a response. “Unlikely. According to the manifest, you have only fifteen kilograms of luggage.” Amid stifled giggles from the rest of the queued team, he continued with impeccable politeness. “Is there anything else, or shall I ask that you be made comfortable in a holding cell while we search for the remaining one hundred and five?”

The snow-leopard’s enthusiasm drained. “Nothing to declare.”

“Excellent. Welcome to Luna’s Omicron Dome. Enjoy your stay, friend Eekay.” The mooncat looked to me. “Next?”

Eekay stalked toward the baggage claim with zir travel bag. I stepped toward the lectern. “Yaz Lenslight, resident of Io, staying four days on business.” I tapped just below my left ear to activate the comm. “Authenticate.”

The display in the lectern lit up with what was probably my life story in more detail than even I remembered. The customs agent nodded in approval. “Thank you. Anything to declare?”

“No, I….” Just then, I caught a glimpse of a strangely familiar ursine figure leaving another queue. “I think I know that guy.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh! Sorry.” I chuckled. “Nothing to declare.”

The mooncat smiled. “In that case, welcome to Luna’s Omicron Dome. Enjoy your stay, friend Lenslight.”

I nodded my thanks and dashed over to the bear. As I neared, I could see the telltale scar behind his ear. “Elbey?”

He turned and looked me up and down. “’Ey, Yaz. Nice boots.”

I laughed. “Sorry, the answer’s still no. Hey, what’re you doing out here?”

“Herding cats.” He motioned to a group of five crimson tigers waiting impatiently to clear customs. “Didn’t realise your team was on the same flight.”

I shook my head. “Wait, you’re managing The Humblest? I thought—”

“Look, chief, I’d love to chat, but I gotta get some arrangements together here. Drinks later? Here.” He tapped beneath that same ear. “Swap with Yaz Lenslight.”

I did much the same. “Swap with Elbey.” A moment later, I heard a confirmation tone. “All right, I’ll blip after my people are settled in.”

“Great….” He paused, motioning to the flower over my ear. “Then you can tell me what’s up with the pansy.”

I smirked. “Hey, I—” He’d already turned to head in another direction, though.


“I’ll admit, I’m amazed.” I held up my glass to stare at Elbey through the amber. “I figured you’d go right from Allilouxia to, I don’t know, dee-dogging. Something nice and safe compared to hanging out with Martians.” He only shrugged, so I continued. “So how come I saw someone else in the observation tower for the last two races?”

“I got hung up.”

Hung up. That was his way of saying that further inquiry would likely shift my role from “long-time friend” to “accomplice”. I shot him my best dubious expression, but his remained steady.

If Falda knew what he’d meant, she didn’t show it. “How do you handle them, anyhow?” she inquired. “The tigers? I know how rowdy they can be.”

He chuffed, “So I’ve seen,” and then continued speaking directly past the withering look he got in response. “They’re not so bad, really. You just gotta be firm, but reasonable. When you get right down to it, they’re just overgrown kittens.”

I shook my head. “Not to be accusatory or anything, but your kittens keep trying to turn the ribbon into a meat grinder.”

“They’re just enthusiastic.” The bear tapped his mug heavily on the table, then leaned in and dropped his voice. “Look, Martian races are meat grinders. It’s demolition, but instead of dogfighting in skimmers, they play bumper cars on the ribbon. The reason you don’t ever see replay vids from our neck of the woods is because they’re bloody disasters like so much high-speed snuff. And that, I know you ain’t seen, snow-puff.” He nodded that last to the wolf, then washed his words back down with lager.

Falda shook her head incredulously. “Luna has pretty clear rules about that sort of thing.”

Elbey snorted. “Yeah, and the only reason the Lunarian nannies don’t clamp down on it is because it’s only the tigers chewing each other up, and they’re basically impossible to kill. For the love o’ rust, they only take about a third the time in a tank of any sane organism. Mooncats look the other way and Martian audiences get what they consider to be light entertainment. You see my team trying to grind you up? I see my team being amazingly sedate, almost like someone’s been tossing soma in their kibble.” He raised a conspiratorial brow.

I sighed heavily. “I’ve walked into insanity.”

“An’ in the sweetest boots, too.”

Almost on automatic, I smiled. “Thank you! They were suggested to me by—”

I paused when Elbey held up a hand. He was staring off to one side; I followed his gaze to see the striped shoulders of two of his racers, and just past them, a pair of blue ears. The bear began to bellow. “Tanvi, you put that waiter down right now or I swear I’ll tear your leg off, carve your femur into a clarinet, and shove it so far up your tailhole you’ll belch polkas, you hear me?”

One of the tigers waved a clear sign of disrespect back toward Elbey without turning to look. The other did as instructed, and a rather distraught mooncat scurried into the kitchen with what little composure he had left. Elbey snickered. “Like I said earlier… firm, but reasonable.”

Falda said something about putting Eekay into perspective. I was too busy trying to get more alcohol into my system to respond.

THE BAREST HINT OF TRUTH:
In Which Three Racers Muse on Events Current and Long Past.
by Electric Keet

The shuttle felt full, even on the level we’d been seated. That’s why, when I finally got the urge to wander and dragged Eekay to the observation deck, it surprised me that it was practically empty. The only other person there was one young arctic fox who was rather sharply dressed. He’d practically draped himself on the rail and was staring out into space. It was only when Eekay and I shuffled in next to him that I finally recognised him as one of the racers in Zeno’s End. “Hey,” I said. “Diamond Tea, innit?”

He turned and grinned. “That’s me. Lady Aesc, right? And Eekay, I’ve already met.” He glanced back and forth to each of us. “I didn’t know you were on this flight.”

The cat chuckled a bit. “Haven’t made ourselves known. Too busy sleepin’ off our days o’ deplorable excess on Venus.”

“And licking our wounds,” I added, which elicited a frown from Eekay. “That was a rough race back there. You did pretty good on the ribbon, though, kid.”

“Thanks! That means a lot coming from you.” Same as I’d seen countless times with Falda, his tail swung widely to broadcast genuine happiness. “You guys – Six Below, I mean – you’re great. Half of what I know, I learned from watching your races.” He looked around as though to make sure nobody could overhear. “I’ve wanted to say that for a while, but it would drive Ms. Mahatapa crazy if she heard me.”

I sniffed at his use of honorifics. “Bit controlling, is she? That’s the impression I got from her.” Half of that impression was just from watching her walk, and the other half was from what Yaz said about his first interaction with her as a fellow team manager.

Diamond shrugged a little. “Well, I don’t know about controlling, but she’s got a pretty fierce head of mean about you all. Sort of the classic Khamisi Mosi routine, all about how we must crush our opponents and such. Figuratively. I think she’s a little crazy, but you know, whatever. I’m just in it for the race, right?”

“Prolly a manager thing,” Eekay grumbled. “I mean, Yaz was peak ’til he got to be in charge.”

I shook my head. “Give me a break, cat. You’ll have to forgive zim, kid. Poor ol’ Eekay’s gone a little weedy in the penser, spot?”

“Right, right, it’s all in the cat’s head.” Zie leaned on the rail and looked out into the dark. “So, Diamond, what had yer eyes out here?”

The fox-boy pointed. “Over there. Terra’s coming up fast. You can actually just see the outline of the planet through the Wall.”

I focused on the cyan ball of energy in the distance. Maybe he could see something inside it, but all I saw was a solid glow with a silvery dot to one side. “An’ there’s Luna creeping out from behind it,” I noted.

His tail started going again. “Some people think the Wall’s kind of creepy, but I think it’s actually pretty neat when you see it in person. I read that Terra itself used to look a lot like Callisto does now.”

I shrugged. “Maybe some of it, a long time ago, but… not a chance, not nowadays. My guess is that it looks like Io given a while to fall apart. Nothing but gaudy lights and rusting architecture.” I sighed heavily. “Bell says it’s probably a dead planet by now… but he also says that the Wall was some sort of Lunar conspiracy. Seriously, who needs a plot when you’ve got the spiders and squid? I’d be tempted to seal myself in a bubble too.”

“The official story is that they were threatened with a takeover from Mars,” Diamond said. “My patrons back home say that’s all a bunch of noise and that Terrans just didn’t want anyone from outside telling them what to do, especially the mooncats. I guess it makes sense that humans would be a little sensitive about it. Still, whatever happened, I kind of wish I could see Terra for real, not just pictures….” He motioned toward the blue-green sphere. “And not just a big energy shield. Technically, it’s where we’re all from, after all.”

I snorted. “That’s like saying we’re all related to amoebas. Distantly, but it’s meaningless to look that far back.” I relaxed to gaze at the planet and moon… and that was when I realised that Eekay had been uncharacteristically quiet. Zie was still leaning against the rail and staring out toward Terra, but zir tail was quivering slightly. “Ah… cat, you solid?”

“Hunh?” Zie turned, and I thought for a moment zir eyes looked wet, but zie immediately looked back out toward Terra and spoke softly. “Yeah, top solid. Just lettin’ m’ mind wander. I sorta wonder m’self how it looks nowadays.” Zie sighed heavily. “O, goblet full to brim with bloom and faun, what grants her holder never more a sip.

Diamond’s eyes went wide. “You’re a poet?”

The snow-leopard squinted zir eyes shut. “Joaquin Faldo de Padilla, Shattered Albedo. Never read it in school?”

Not everyone’s as worldly or cultured as you, I wanted to tease, but something more important occurred to me right then. “Eekay, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sentimental like this. Quoting poetry, all misty-eyed…. What’s the deal?”

Zie didn’t respond, however. In fact, zie said practically nothing for the rest of the flight to Luna, which left Diamond and I to admire the view as we swung past the mystery that was Terra.

Disclosure

DISCLOSURE
In Which Too Much Is Explained to Bell.
by Electric Keet

As Eekay passed by, zie brushed my face with the tip of zir tail. I swatted it away. “Save the flirting for your next conquest, eh?” Zie responded only with a gesture which I’m sure was rude to some culture I didn’t know personally. Lady got a good chuckle from it.

Yaz leaned against a wall and rubbed the top of his muzzle. “All right, I won’t keep you long, promise. This hotel room’s too small for a team meeting like this, but I wanted to cover it now because our seating’s split on the shuttle to Luna. So, first: let’s talk about Luna.” It’s not like I didn’t know enough about the place, but I listened for the sake of politeness. “What can I say about it? Despite the fact that it’s perfectly terraformable, the Lunarians stick to their domes, stark little things all over the place. They’re geometric and without a lick of embellishment, sort of the opposite of Mercury. The Terraward domes are even stranger looking because a little of the glow of the Wall glints off of them. Combine that with the Lunar surface and you have a fairly surreal place.”

Falda’s tail swept the cushion she sat on. “More surreal than the Accademia Giove?

“Hard to say, but I think so,” the wolverine continued. “And it doesn’t get any less surreal inside. Everything is white and silver and colour-coded.”

I grinned. “Except for the mooncats. They’re blue….” I motioned outward toward the endless jungle just outside the hotel. “And like the rabbits here, they’re not afraid to show it.”

Eekay started with that impish tone of zirs. “Blue all the way through, too—”

“I appreciate the help from the feline contingent, but this isn’t a biology lecture,” Yaz snapped. “Now, culturally… how to put this… they’re aggressively accommodating. For all their fascination with big guns and Lunar defence, they’re the gentlest people you’ll ever meet.”

“S’truth. One o’ my best mates is a mooncat.” Eekay’s tail curled lasciviously. “She never fusses, she lets me do anythin’. Was this time we decided to give all o’ Tau Dome a show proper, an’ she wore this harness—”

Lady pounded zim repeatedly with a pillow in between shouting. “Do you… know… how… to shut up?”

“Oi!” Eekay blocked ineffectually. “Didn’t know you were into that, luv….”

Yaz pinched the bridge of his muzzle while the reindeer tried to suffocate the snow-leopard. “Please, please, please don’t kill each other yet. And for the love of Clarke, don’t act up on Luna. Save it for Mars. They love it there. Anyhow, let’s talk ribbon.”

To their credit, both of them stopped the horseplay at the mention of their favourite sport.

“Thought so. Now, the Lunar ribbon is basically a pure technical run. There’s not a single straightaway to be had, and precision and control are the focus. Tight curves, subtle curves, banked curves, and switchbacks. Goof around and Theta Silver will eat you for lunch – and no snide remarks from you, Eekay.” The wolverine pressed a finger beneath his left ear for a moment, then shook his head. “Sorry, just got a message. Something I’ve got to go do after this. Where was I?”

“Mooncat lunch,” Falda offered.

“Um… right. The ones I’m worried about are the Evmri twins. They’ve been screened for psi ability several times with negative results, but they act like they’re linked, way more than the Avawax twins ever did. Bell, Falda, I’ll want one of you to harry them if you can, keep them apart just like we did with Zeitmaschine. I have some recordings you can review to get an idea for what to expect from them.” Yaz held up a hand. “Wait a sec, revise. Ira, I want you on that.”

Zie nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

Falda quirked an ear. “Why Ira in particular?”

“Because they’re not expecting it from zim.”


As we sat outside the Venusian bistro and waited for our meals, Ira’s enthusiasm bubbled. “I was here two days ago. The food is authentic, and very flavourful. I know that you normally aren’t inclined toward vegetarian cuisine….”

I chuckled. “I’ve seen the local flora. Everything has razor-sharp spines or neurotoxins or other weirdness. The vegetables here are meaner than any meat I’ve ever had.” My eyes followed a pair of native rabbits as they walked by. “Ah, now, look at them,” I semi-whispered to my teammate. “Huzzah for worlds with no nudity taboo, eh?”

They caught my appreciative stare and seemed friendly enough, but once they got a look at Ira, their eyes widened. They didn’t bolt, though it looked for a moment like they would. Instead, they simply stepped up their pace somewhat and veered away. I shook my head and glared at Ira. “What the snot is it with you? It’s like you bring out the weird in everyone.”

All the raccoon did was shrug.

“No, I mean it,” I insisted. “That was just plain bizarre, right there, and I’ve seen it happen more than once on Io and way more than once here on Venus. Is there something maybe the rest of us should know, myself especially?”

Zir brow furrowed to create a dip in the white bars painted on zir forehead. “I simply assume that my appearance is… unusually noticeable.”

“That’s bug-bab and you know it. We roll with a former porn star, a crossdressing wolverine and a two-metre-tall cat-shaped ego with fur. You’re not the only noticeable one, and they don’t scare anyone off.”

Ira’s expression was even as a gambler’s.

“Look, do you know why I’m on this team?” Zir gaze remained steady. I kept going. “It’s not because I’m some psycho bodyracing savant. Its not because I’m the prettiest cat. It’s not because I have connections in the biz. It’s because I cannot be screwed with on the ribbon. I am unscrewwithable. I can tell when a manouevre is a feint, and I can spot the tells when people lie. Yaz lied about why he changed his mind. Why?”

Ira grimaced. “Those are two different questions.”

“What?”

“Biological sentients avoid me because I naturally exude a chemical similar to certain pheromones. Most people don’t react to it, but in a few, it generates a sense of tension and worry. You know my background; you know that I am part plant as a result of my encounter here. Venusians are particularly susceptible precisely because their senses are specialised to pick up on such plant-related chemicals. Does that answer your first question?”

Natural curiosity begged me to ask more about the science of that, but I had zim on a truth streak I was loath to break just yet. “For now. And Yaz?”

Ira’s expression hardened. “I do not know.”

“The twitch in your tail says otherwise, eh?”

Our eyes remained locked while zie spoke. “I’ll explain, but afterwards, this discussion did not happen.”

“What discussion?”

“Very good.” Zie stared into zir drink. “Yaz fears that my talent and winning record are raising suspicions among the governing officials of the Thirteen Ribbons. Even though I don’t violate a single established rule, they may decide to enact a new one based on any number of factors if they think I’m causing a problem. We have theories about why that might be, but—”

I growled, “You’re telling me that we could lose big because you’re too good, and so Yaz is trying to keep you from getting too far ahead so we’ll only lose a little.”

Zie nodded. “Now you know why I hesitated to explain. I feared that there may be an issue of ego.”

“Ego? Pfft. That’s the other cat you’re thinking of. I knew you were better than the rest of us when Basil brought you in, and I got no problem with you. You know that. I’m only miffed because nobody would just tell me what was going on!”

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