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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Key to Everything

Over the past thirty years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold more than 300 works of fiction to anthologies, magazines, and book publishers. Her novels have been published by Ace, Avon, Viking, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She has won a Stoker and a Nebula.

Her latest publication is Permeable Borders, a short story collection from Fairwood Press, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

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.
I could have gone for yet another sting, but the drink smelled great, and I was hungry, so I took it from her. It was so good--all the proportions of flavors perfect, a bouquet on my tongue--I could not bring myself to complain. I felt I'd already stretched my stress application enough. I even complimented her on the drink. The faint telltale lines of irritation at the corners of her eyes smoothed away.
Three Rikrik rolled into the bar. Their bodies were like uneven tubes, with accordion pleats in them, randomly bulging here and there, with parts in various colors--one was red, pink, chartreuse, and orange; another green and yellow; the third blush, lavender, and blue; all the results of previous recombos. Their tool-using limbs were highly flexible, and wrapped around them as they rolled. They burbled like Terran guinea pigs.
"Greetings, sentients, and welcome to Lerva," Genera said in passable Rikrik. "How may I serve you?"
"Do us the honor of the first slice," said the three of them in unison, only each voice was half a tone flatter than the last. The clash of harmonics drilled into my skull.
"It would be my honor," Genera said.
The Rikrik writhed and rolled into one of the nests, then raised their topmost appendages. Genera got out a shining metal box almost two meters long and laid it on the bar. She pumped current through it, then opened it and extracted a tool, the Key to Everything. Its narrow blade was a conglomerate of emerald, sapphire, and ruby.
"Are you a registered slicer?" I asked her.
"Of course."
"Have you done this before?"
"Sentient, it has been my honor to perform this duty for seven Recombo Nights now. I trained under the great slicer Bitterwind. Worry not."
I chugged the rest of my fruit squash, a disgrace when true appreciation would have me sip once every few minutes and savor each sip for some time before essaying another. "You don't want to do that."
She lifted the blade, which was almost as long as she was tall. Her smile didn't fade even then, when I challenged her in the rudest possible manner.
The Rikrik waved their appendages again, more agitated this time. "We await our first slice," one of them said, which was out of ordinary, too. They always spoke in unison, especially this close to a recombination.
"You endanger my guests, sentient," Genera said quietly to me. "They are losing synchronicity."
"I need another squash," I said.
"Sentient, I need your patience," she said. She gave me a stern look, the lines by her eyes etched deep now. She stepped around the bar and went to the nest.
"Show me you are aligned," she said to the Rikrik.
Three appendages rose and wagged. One moved a little more slowly than the other two.
"Retune, honored guests," she said.
I wandered over to where she stood in the slicer position, her feet on the mosaic of a fractured circle, watching the Rikrik, who rolled back and forth, tapping each other with their lower appendages.
"While they're doing that, could you make me another squash?" I asked. "This time, I want one with coco water in it. And stirred so the layers separate only slightly."
"Sentient, please step back. You are interrupting a sacred rite."
Three appendages rose from the nest and moved in perfect unison.
Genera lifted the blade and sliced it down into three bodies at once. She carved again, lifting sections from all three of the Rikrik with the flat of the jewel blade. She flicked the blade. The sections, still dripping the faintly blue blood of Rikrik circulatory systems, rose in the air. With a swift strike, she drove the sections down, each into a different body from the one it had begun in. Her movements were deft and assured. She toed a button that closed the top over the nest and initiated the healing mist. The Rikrik would spend a few hours in hibernation and integration and emerge later, their characters and bodies slightly altered.
Genera was a slicing genius, a pleasure to watch as she worked. Her next move flowed from the others she had finished. Later, she would claim it had been an accident, and on the playback it looked accidental as well, but nobody as skilled as she makes that kind of mistake.
"Hey, Pala," said a voice with bubbles in it.
I groaned and pressed my hand to my belly.
I was lying in the usual bed at ReVive. My usual tender, a Zeloglob named Stasha, waved her eye stalks at me. "How many eyes do you see?" she asked.
"Three?" Stasha had seven eye stalks. She could retract them at will.
"Three is correct!" Stasha's eyes danced around each other in dizzy-making spirals. "Another successful revival!" she aspirated.
"I don't feel right."
"Well, you won't. No telling whether you ever will. Look at this." Her upper arm, frilled with finger stalks, gestured toward my stomach, and one of her other arms moved forward, holding a magnifying mirror. She used an eye stalk to gauge where I was looking so she could position the mirror within my view.
My belly, which had formerly been a uniform brown, had a narrow diamond band of new colors in it: lavender, rose, and green, like a small kite just to the left of my navel. I lifted a hand and brushed it across my new and alien body part. There were no discernable seams or separations. Perfect blend, the result of skillful slicing.
I groaned again. No wonder my stomach was roiling.
"She's been arrested, but she claims innocence. She did it with the Key to Everything. We had no idea that could work across species."
"Will I--will it settle?"
"There's still activity at the wound site, heat and fleshknit. It seems to be integrating. Nobody's sure what the upshot will be. The boss has put you into retirement so we can study you. That's temporary if you recover all right. For now, you belong to me and Malmurum." All seven of her eye stalks focused on my face, hungry, I thought, to read my next expression. Stasha was obsessed with human emotional reaction to stress. She loved studying it, which made her a perfect recovery agent at ReVive. She was a poster child for schadenfreude.
I gave her the satisfaction of another groan.
The problem with being a professional irritant is that sometimes you do manage to irritate people beyond sense. They break. They fracture. You discover where they don't work by pushing them past their limits.
My job came with the best worker's compensation insurance in existence. Not many people rose to my level of inciting ire. The bosses always brought me back after one of my successful failures to accurately gauge someone's limits.
This time, though, I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to get back in the game. Ever since the incident, I've been hearing burbling voices whispering just too softly for me to make out the words. They are not quite tuned to each other. Their harmonics clash at the edge of my consciousness, and I'm having trouble focusing.
Pisses me off.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Author Comments

Elizabeth Engstrom Cratty hosts writing weekends where twelve or thirteen of us retreat to the mountains and spend a night and a day writing stories, which we read aloud to each other Saturday night. I wrote "The Key to Everything" at one of Liz's science fiction weekends. I got the title from my friend Pam Herber, who was staying at her sister Myra's bed-and-breakfast in Eugene the night before we drove to the retreat. "Myra gave me the Key to Everything," Pam said.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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