I had a hard time getting started and keeping on keeping on today. This is why I do Story A Day May: it gets me back into the habit of concentrating and doing the work when when I’d rather slack off.
Here it is, though. This story is set on Marner, in the fictional universe of SIDESHOW IN THE CENTER RING, my science fiction comedy of bad manners. Sorry it’s so long.
Tiph and the Human Dilemma
by Marian Allen
I’d been going to Milady’s Fur – the leading salon on the planet Marner – my entire professional life. When I won my contract with Premier Luxury Slaves, the first thing they did was send me to Milady’s Fur for a makeover. Vain when I went in, I must have been insufferable when I came out, every hair gleaming and soft, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes. They even polished my teeth, gilded my fingernails, and taught me how to keep the short hairs on my muzzle elegantly styled.
So, now that I was freehold, working for a well-funded non-profit, I indulged myself in an all-day treatment once a year, for old time’s sake – and, I’ll admit it, because I was still rather vain of my appearance.
The receptionist, Ahm, jumped up and circled the desk when I came in, exchanging hugs and nose-licks. “Always so good to see you, Tiph! Has it been a year already?”
“Seems like no time,” I said, “and not a moment too soon.”
Naturally, Ahm claimed I looked like I’d just stepped out of last year’s grooming. You don’t become the leading salon on the planet by telling your clientele they need you. Neither do you send the clients straight in to their appointment; you keep them waiting just long enough to show them the latest line of fur products and accessories, then send them into their treatment room before they can buy anything. You want them to think about what they’ve seen while they’re being pampered, so they come out in the mood to indulge themselves.
No, I’m not that clever: my boss-lady explained the psychology to me after I came back from my previous treatment loaded down with little pink bags.
My stylist, as always, was Krikt, who had been at Milady’s since before I was a client. She greeted me as warmly as Ahm had, but I thought she was a bit abstracted, although that might be what the humans call hindsight.
Not that she made any mistakes. She’d been at her profession long enough to do it on autopilot, but that wasn’t how Milady’s stylist did things.
I finally asked, intrusive though it was. My husband’s influence, no doubt. There’s never been such a man for involving himself in other people’s troubles, which is lucky for me, now that I think about it.
“Is something wrong?”
Krikt put down the brush she held in now-trembling fingers. “I didn’t think it showed.”
“You’re holding up well, but I’ve known you for a long time, my dear.”
She sighed deeply, as if relieved to be sharing but resigned to its being a useless exercise.
“It’s my oldest kit. He’s been running with a mixed crowd, and it’s got him … confused. There’s this human girl … ”
She didn’t need to say more. It wasn’t the sort of thing one saw on the news, but word got around. There were humans on Marner who had been born here. As long as the children were brought up in the human neighborhoods, taught to know their place, few Marneri had strong objections to them. Not to the children. But when the children were allowed to mix with young Marneri, things could get uncomfortably odd.
Apparently, this was one of those times.
Krikt said, “Her name is Sylvia.”
“She’s a pretty girl, for a human. Her nose turns up and her top teeth stick out so her face isn’t as flat as most humans’. She looks almost Marneri. Well, you know, not really, but heading in the right direction. Munnin, my kit, says she plans to get facial reconstruction when she’s grown and has a job. That, and full-body hair implants.”
“Ugh!” It made my flesh creep, just thinking about it. My fur stood on end all over.
“I know! Between Marneri shaving all their fur and wearing clothes, and humans growing fur all over and wearing false muzzles, you hardly know who’s what these days.”
She was exaggerating, but I could see what she meant. My own boss-lady was a human who was sometimes mistaken for a Marneri trying to look human, which amused my husband and me, because she was human through and through.
“Do her parents know?”
Krikt shook her head, the jeweled fur-clamps below her ears catching the light. “She said they’d have a cow. That’s a human word for ‘objection,’ apparently.”
I had never come across that one before, and stored it for future use.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Wish I could help.” Easy to say, when you know there’s no help to be had.
A week later, Krikt came very close to losing me as a Milady’s client.
The door to our corporate office opened, and a young human came in, dressed in a black-and-white fake-fur body suit, false claws glued to her nails, her crazy human head hair cut short. I hadn’t mentioned Krikt’s son or his mixed-up human friend at home or at the office, knowing my husband and our employer wouldn’t be able to resist forcing an involvement. I should have known better. Because I knew this young person was Sylvia, and I was about to leave the office for the afternoon, and nobody else knew about the problem, and she could only be here to see me.
“My name is Sylvia Landon. My dad is Arnold Landon of Landon imports?”
I nodded, hoping this was business, after all.
“Munnin Gup’s mom gave me your name. She said you’d help.”
I remembered having stated that empty sympathetic formula, and could have scratched a notch in my own ear.
Still, a kit is a kit, whether Marneri or human, and the girl looked desperately unhappy.
“I don’t know what I can do for you, dear.”
“I want to be Marneri! I want to be like you! Show me how! Please!”
I had the strongest possible cow, but she had touched my damnable vanity. And that gave me the inspiration for what I did.
“Like me? Fine. Let’s take a walk.”
She chattered nervously about her love of Marner and all things Marneri, all the Marneri she’d met through her father’s business and how kind they’d always been to her, and, inevitably, cats. Cats are companion animals the humans have back home which, apparently, they think we resemble. Sometimes I think they think we are just big, talking cats, part pet and part God. She confirmed it when told me about some of her favorite human books about us.
But there was one thing about us her books hadn’t told her; something most of the humans avoided. That’s what she was about to learn.
We came to a door set into a windowless wall. I opened it and, taking her by the slick, hairless hand, led her into the courtyard beyond.
“Welcome to the slave exchange,” I said.
The courtyard was nearly empty at this time of the afternoon, most applicants having been accepted or rejected, most purchases, returns, and status changes having been registered. Afternoons were for finishing and filing the paperwork and ‘phoning the Imperial Slavery Department.
“The what?” She might feel Marneri in her soul, but she was human enough for that one little word to stop her in her tracks.
“Slave,” I repeated. “This is the slave exchange. If you want to be like me, you need to see this.”
“You have slaves?”
“Didn’t Munnin tell you?” I knew he hadn’t. Humans think it’s because slavery is shameful and secret, but it’s because it’s ordinary and unremarkable, just another career choice, strictly regulated and no more binding than any other contract. Not really slavery in the human sense of the word, but that’s how they translated it into their languages, and I intended to press that for all it was worth.
“I was born to a family that had once been well off but had fallen on hard times. My older siblings sold themselves into domestic service.” Our slaves commanded signing fees, housing and board, and performance bonuses that could be more favorable than employment salaries, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. “My parents said I had the looks to try for luxury slave, so I auditioned for that and won a contract.”
She turned that pasty color humans turn when they’re shocked. “What did …. What did you have to do?”
“Whatever I was told.” I couldn’t be told to do anything other than stand around and look as decorative as possible, to be ostentatiously useless, to indicate that the owner of my registration papers was rich enough to afford a luxury slave. Again, I wasn’t about to tell Sylvia that.
“But not all Marneri practice slavery. Munnin’s family don’t have slaves.”
“Then at least some of Munnin’s family are slaves. Ask him.”
“We haven’t been inside yet. I want to show you the room I lived in while I waited for my contract to be picked up.”
“No. Please. I want to go home.”
“All right, then, if you say so. Just don’t let go of my hand until we’re back on the street.”
The poor little thing clutched my hand until we were halfway back to the office. By the time she let me go, the fur on my palm was soggy with her perspiration.
She spotted a human pulling what they call a rickshaw and hailed it to us.
“Thank you, Tiph. I’ll never forget this.”
“I’m glad to help,” I said, only lying a little bit. For good measure, I added, “When you’re ready for those operations Krikt tells me you want, let me know and I’ll recommend a good practitioner.”
“No thanks! I mean, thank you, but I don’t think I’ll do that after all.”
I didn’t reproach Krikt when she called me a week later to thank me.
“Munnin is still friends with that girl, but she doesn’t want to be a Marneri anymore, and she argues with him about slavery, of all things.”
“That’s humans for you,” I said. Then, hoping she would get the message, I said, “See you next year.”
MY WRITING PROMPTS TODAY: slavery, crisis intervention, Pretty Little Peanut Stylish Hair Accessories for Pets.