art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Key to Everything
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
My special talent was pissing people off. That wasn't the technical term for it, but that was what I was good at. You would think there wouldn't be much demand for this talent. That would be you, wrong again.
On a station like Confetti, where three different alien-to-each-other races came to celebrate their very varied holidays and religious rites, there was a lot of bumping into each other's sore spots. People in the service industries needed to be difficult to irritate. If an administrator wanted to test an employee's capacity to suck up the pain and keep on smiling, hey, enter me.
I dressed in my best I'm-not-going-to-be-here-long-enough-to-take-my-consequences tourist garb, and went to my next job.
The Rikrik were about to arrive in masses for Recombo Night. I went to the Lerva Bar, a place that specialized in Rikrik beverages, comestibles, and behavior-cushioning. Bypassing the hostess, who would have led me into the human section, I went right up to the serving platform, though Rikrik custom dictated that patrons, both human and Rikrik, be led to an exchange nest and wait for a server to approach. A server would only approach when every Rikrik in a nest raised the topmost appendage in unison or when every human in a party did the same.
The bartender didn't flinch or otherwise indicate that she had noticed my bad behavior. I asked her to make me a fruit squash, and she whipped one up and presented it with a smile.
I sipped and grimaced. "This tastes too distil," I whined. "I want the color a bluer green. The ploorberries are too ripe. Do it over."
Genera, the bartender, was human like me, and unlike me, she had a great fake smile. "So sorry, sentient," she said. She took my drink, poured it into the recycle oubliette, and started making another from scratch.
I leaned back and surveyed the bar. The walls were interlaced trilla vines spangled with glowing flowers, and the ceiling was aflutter with their mirrored leaves, flickering in a soft, constant, artificial wind. Light spots flashed and danced across the floor and walls. Small snaky fliers from Rikrik darted through the upper air. Sometimes they encountered each other, entwined, and fell writhing to the floor, swapping out sections of their bodies in the same process the sentient Rikrik practiced. The air had an acrid taint, the acid tang of too-ripe pineapple.
Just as Genera was about to add the comet spice to the second coming of my beverage, I said, "Wait. A spiktor fell in. I can't drink that."
"I assure you, sentient, we have more than adequate pest control at Lerva," she said, her voice unruffled. "We do not host spiktors here." However, she poured that drink out as well and built me another.