Having the greatest job in the universe didn’t mean that Chrystal Eagle wanted to work on her vacation. She put in for shore leave while the Elegant Slipstream received needed repairs.
Only toilet problems happened—even on the paradise planet Ceti Alpha 5!
Except this time it wasn’t her responsibility to solve the problem. Unless she wanted to make sure it got handled right. Once a starship plumber, always a starship plumber!
The one thing that Chrystal Eagle didn’t want to do on this vacation was think about work. Especially her work on the Elegant Slipstream, a superluminal passenger liner currently in orbit somewhere above the auroras dancing above her head.
Blurp. The noise came from her suite, through the open door behind her. Chrystal ignored it. She was on vacation, not on the ship.
Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, first class. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but Chrystal preferred starship plumber. That’s what she told people, humanoid and otherwise.
On the ship, she worried about Yelephant monks trying out the humanoid facilities, which for some reason fascinated them, or, the odd semi-form that looked like a blue-skinned handsome man right up until the point when he lost cohesion and ended up flushing himself. And then had the nerve to dump her for a jellyfish. Worst part about the job, the passengers.
Down here on Ceti Alpha 5 she was the passenger. She had a suite in one of the finest hotels on the planet, situated on a bluff overlooking the azure seas. On evenings like this, she could sit out on her spacious balcony, seemingly suspended in mid-air, and watch the sparkling lights of the fish in the water as they mimicked the shimmering colors of the auroras above. The pretty lights couldn’t compare with the cascading relativistic auroras of a ship’s CrunchBang drive as it re-entered normal space, but that was just physics. Down there in the azure seas, thousands of fish flashed back colors in quick response to the auroras above. They’d even evolved long eyes on stalks that rose above the water to watch the auroras. The fact that the whole display was biological made it all the more impressive.
Chrystal picked up a tall fluted glass filled with Wing Wine, a beverage fermented from the discarded wings of the Ceti Alpha 5 fairies. It was a translucent bluish color that glowed with its own dim light. Supposedly a potent aphrodisiac, not that she had found anyone to share it with. Not yet at least. The Wing Wine smelled like blueberries warmed in the sun but had an almost orangey tang to it that disguised the rumored kick. She could be drinking orange juice for all she could tell from the taste, but the guide books had warned her not to drink too much. In addition to the intoxicating effects, Wing Wine was also reported to have hallucinogenic properties.
She took another taste, letting it roll around on her tongue. It almost tasted fizzy, as if weakly carbonated. She swallowed, and the fizzy continued down her throat, then spread out along her limbs all the way to her fingers. Chrystal giggled and took another drink. Maybe that was the hallucinogenic property she had read about.
Out on the horizon, above the azure seas shining with the mirror fish, a bright light appeared and climbed rapidly up from the horizon. Shuttle launch from the look of it. Ceti Alpha 5 was a popular tourist destination.
In the suite behind her something went blurb. Then gurgled. And let out a pop.
Chrystal knocked back the rest of her drink. She made herself smile. She was on vacation, just like the passengers on the Elegant Slipstream. She picked up her cell and tapped her activation. It took two tries.
“Housekeeping,” she told it. “Get them.”
“Right away,” the cell answered smoothly.
On the horizon, the shuttle vanished behind distant clouds. The mirror fish continued mimicking the auroras flashing across the sky, and in the suite something went chug, chug.
Chrystal put the glass down on the table. She could take a look. It didn’t mean that she had to touch anything. And when housekeeping did arrive then she could direct them straight to the problem.
Blurb. Chug, chug.
She was on her feet and back in the apartment before the last chug finished. It came from the bathroom; she was sure of it. Chrystal moved across the slick shell stone, translucent tiles with rich cobalt veins running through it like the neurons of a brain. Shell stone tiles were highly prized off-world, the Elegant Slipstream even had a view V.P. suites finished in the tiles. That was one of the reasons that she had decided to vacation on Ceti Alpha 5.
She was in the spacious hallway where the walls shifted and pulsed with recorded images of the auroras when she heard the sound again. Blurb. Chug. CHUG.
Right then tones chimed behind her at the front door. She heard something like a wet towel flap against the floor. Whatever was going on in the bathroom, it wasn’t just a plumbing issue. Chrystal backed up and went to the front door.
A man in a uniform stood outside. He was eye-to-eye with her, with short gray hair and a strong jaw. Nice shoulders beneath the blue coverall.
He flashed white teeth in a brilliant smile. “Housekeeping. Is there something —”
Blurb. Chug. CHUG. More splashing. His eyes — a nice green color like fresh spring leaves — widened.
Chrystal shook her head. “I thought at first there was some gas build-up, or maybe a pressure clog, but this sounds like something else.”
He looked at her again, up and down as if trying to reconcile her words and the loose black evening gown she was wearing. “It sounds like you have some experience with plumbing problems?”
“Starship plumber, off the Elegant Slipstream.” Chrystal held out her hand. “Chrystal Eagle.”
There were more flapping noises coming from the bathroom.
“Brandon Hughes.” He took her hand. His grip was firm, dry and strong.
Chrystal reluctantly let go. “Want to take a look?”
He nodded and stepped into the room. A sled with long mechanical arms floated around the corner after him. Two clusters of glowing red eyes looked up at her.
“That’s Lowell,” Brandon said. “Don’t mind him; he doesn’t talk.”
“My kind of robot,” Chrystal said.
She started walking toward the bathroom, and Brandon walked beside her. Lowell trailed along after them. Ahead the flapping noises continued. Brandon glanced at her.
“Um, first time on Ceti Alpha 5?”
“Why? Does this happen a lot?”
He shook his head quickly. “No, I’ve been here ten years, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”
“Ten years and nothing like this?”
Brandon moved past her to the other side of the door. He took out a swipe card and poised it over the door’s panel. “No. Ready?”
Chrystal looked at Lowell. “Why not send in the robot first?”
Lowell drifted backward.
“Where’s it going?”
Brandon chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lowell. I’m not going to send you first.” He looked at Chrystal, giving her a sheepish smile. “Lowell’s a bit of a cowardly robot. I can’t send him in first.”
Chrystal shook her head. “You’re a nicer plumber than me. I’ve flushed my droids.”
Lowell let out an electronic squeak of dismay.
“On three,” Brandon said. “Three. Two. One.”
He swiped the card across the panel.
“That was on one,” Chrystal said.
Brandon shrugged and shoved the door open. A smell wafted out. A low-tide, briny sort of smell. The wet flapping increased in urgency. Brandon started in but stopped just inside the door.
Chrystal couldn’t see past him. She rose up on her toes and put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and couldn’t help but notice how firm his shoulder felt. Not overly big, but strong and well-muscled. Then she saw what was in the bathroom and felt ill.
It was like an octopi party had happened in her toilet. Dozens of long plum red tentacles ran out of her toilet and flapped limply onto the polished coral floor. That was the sound that they had heard. The skin on each tentacle was wet and glistening. There was a sort of upper ridge running down the center of each of the tentacles, lined with tiny bumps that opened and closed revealing hard yellow marble things inside. She got the impression that the yellow things were watching them. She couldn’t see what the tentacles connected to; they vanished into the toilet.
“Are those eyes?”
Brandon reached back and his hand found her waist. Chrystal was glad of the touch. “I think so. It feels like it is watching us.”
Chrystal heard a clunking sort of noise in the hallway and looked back. Lowell had bumped into the wall trying to turn around. “Your robot is leaving.”
“Uh, Chrystal. You might want to see this?”
Chrystal looked back into the bathroom. Three of the tentacles closest to them were rising up like snakes and the ends had flattened out, revealing long, narrow, teeth-lined mouths on the underside.
Chrystal stepped back, pulling Brandon with her. “Come on! Your robot has the right idea!”
Brandon didn’t move. She looked at him but his strong jaw had gone slack. He stared at the creature in a vacant, dreamy sort of way.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “It hypnotized you? That thing?”
Glancing into the room, she saw that the tentacles had risen higher in the air. Vicious sharp teeth ground together, but it was the eyes that really caught her attention. They were blinking in complex sequences like the yellow color was streaming along the tentacles in patterns —
Chrystal tore her gaze away by burying her face against Brandon’s chest. That got her attention. The man was ripped! She ran her hand up his chest, feeling great muscle definition without too much bulk. Just the way she liked it.
Only not when there was some sort of weird alien octopi about to bite them from the toilet. Chrystal shoved against Brandon’s chest with both hands. He barely even wobbled. It was like pushing on a tree.
“Oh, come on!” She glanced back at the tentacles. They were rising even higher. The pattern of yellow flashes had gotten more complex. She tore her gaze away and looked up at Brandon’s vacant face. “Sorry about this.”
She slapped him. The crack of her palm against his cheek sounded loud in the small space.
Brandon’s head rocked a bit to the side but that was it. More tentacles were rising into the air, mouth’s chewing, chewing and the yellow eye-bumps flashing their hypnotic pattern. Chrystal thought about slipping out past Brandon but she wasn’t just going to leave the guy to his fate. Not that easily.
She reached up and put her hands over his eyes. He still didn’t respond. Impulsively she kissed him. For a second his lips pressed against hers with all the responsiveness of a fish, but then his mouth moved and his lips parted. She felt his hand encircle her waist. At that moment Chrystal hooked her leg around the back of his knee, dropped her hands from Brandon’s face and shoved hard on his chest.
He toppled back, catching her on top of him. Chrystal heard a loud crack and looked back to see two of the tentacles flat out on the floor, their mouth’s chewing angrily at the coral tiles right where they’d been standing. She looked down at Brandon.
“Are you okay?”
He looked up at her, right into her eyes. It was a very intimate look. His eyes were really lovely. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that same sort of pale, fresh spring green color. Lines appeared at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.
“I’m okay. Why’d you tackle me? What’s in the bathroom?”
Chrystal put a hand on his cheek when he tried to lift his head and look past her. “Don’t look.”
She rolled off him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. There were more flapping noises from the bathroom. He tried to look but she put her hand up again on his face, stopping him. “Stop looking, okay?” He looked at her. “What do you remember?”
Brandon shrugged. “We were opening the door and you tackled me?”
Chrystal shook her head. “We opened the door, saw the thing in there and you got all mesmerized by its flashing yellow eyes.”
“It has flashing yellow eyes?”
“And a bunch of tentacles that end in some very nasty looking teeth, all coming up out of the toilet like it’s a planter or something. Any idea what that might be?”
“No. It doesn’t sound familiar.”
Down at the end of the hallway, Lowell’s eye-stalks eased around the corner. The robot warbled and floated out into the entry way. Chrystal pointed at the robot. “I’m assuming that can relay video?”
“Great. This time we’re sending it in to get some scans. We’ve got to identify this thing and find out how to get rid of it.”
Brandon grinned. “Too bad we can’t just flush it.”
“Funny guy. I like that. And not a bad kisser, either.” Chrystal walked away down the hall.
“Wait, when did we kiss?” Brandon asked, following her.
Chrystal ignored the question. When she got to the end of the hall Lowell drifted back away from her. She snapped her fingers. “Enough of that! We’ve got a job to do and you’re going to help unless you want to risk that thing eating your boss?”
Lowell’s eye-stalks drooped and it gave out a mournful tone.
“That’s what I thought.” Chrystal scooped up one of her tablets. “Give me access to your video feed.”
“Here.” Brandon took the tablet. His fingers danced across the surface, flicking commands as they came up. In a couple seconds, the tablet showed what Lowell was seeing. Brandon handed the tablet back to her.
Chrystal turned it around. Good resolution, she dragged down the robot’s command functions. A decent suite of analytical capabilities. But the view on the screen still showed her and Brandon, standing beside one another, Brandon looking over her shoulder.
“Go on then,” she told Lowell. “Just go as far as the doorway and look in. We need to get a good look at this thing without being mesmerized. And if we can analyze its respiration gasses and other biometric data, maybe we can determine where it came from.”
Lowell floated a meter closer to the hallway but stopped again. His eyes stalks swiveled back around to look at them again.
“Lowell,” Brandon said. “Go on and do what she said. We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”
Lowell moved off again at a decidedly sluggish pace. She could still hear the alien flapping against the floor. Soon enough the robot’s eye stalks peered around the corner into the bathroom.
Most of the tentacles had dropped down to the floor again as if it took too much effort to hold them up. The ends flapped against the tile, reminding her of someone tapping their feet with impatience. It must have seen Lowell peeking because one of the tentacles started rising and the pattern of yellow eyes changed. That only lasted a second or two and then the thing seemed to recognize that Lowell wasn’t going to be hypnotized. Or prove edible. Or maybe both. Whatever the case was, it went back to tapping the ends of its tentacles against the floor.
“Move in closer,” Chrystal said. “Get some decent readings and then come on out.”
Lowell drifted on into the open doorway, closer to the alien. The screen segmented, dividing into quadrants that showed various gas concentrations measured by Lowell’s sensors. Brandon pointed to the screen.
“Look at that, it’s giving off methane and carbon dioxide.”
“Like a lot of warm-blooded species,” Chrystal said.
“But look at the concentrations. That’s not Ceti Alpha 5 biology, not by a long shot.”
“So it’s not from here.”
Brandon waved his hand at the screen. “Maybe somebodies’ pet?”
“If I was on the ship I’d consider the chance that this might be a guest,” Chrystal said. “You must have a registry that includes environmental needs of your guests. We should compare these readings to your system. See if this is a match?”
On the screen, Lowell was still keeping his distance but suddenly all the tentacles shot out and wrapped around anything close by, the towel rack, cupboard handles, shower curtain rod, and hand grips for the differently abled. The remaining tentacles that didn’t have something to grab onto braced themselves against the floor. Chrystal didn’t need Lowell’s microphones to make out the sucking sound as the creature pulled and pushed, trying to free itself from the toilet.
A loud squelching noise was followed by a rush of water spilling out of the toilet. Lowell warbled in alarm and drifted back into the hallway. The alien wasn’t free, not yet, but it had gained a couple inches like a particularly difficult bowel movement.
“It’s straining to get free,” she told Brandon.
His fingers flew across the screen of his tablet, flicking aside results that didn’t match. “We don’t have the best data to go on.”
“I’d rather deal with it where it’s at now than if it gets out. Maybe we should just go ahead and call security now.”
Brandon shook his head, causing his hair to fall forward around his face. Chrystal found herself noticing again what a nice face he had, strong jawline, and she liked the way the muscle near his ear tightened as he concentrated.
He blew out his breath and tossed the tablet down on the table. “No match!”
Chrystal reached over and took his hand. Strong, rough skin, and warm. Hands that knew work, like her own, and he didn’t pull away. He knew what she did — intimately — and wasn’t repulsed by it. Always a plus in a guy.
From the bathroom came another electronic warble. On screen, she could see the alien straining again. The tentacles quivered with the effort.
She squeezed his hand. “So good news. It isn’t a guest then, right? If the biometrics don’t match it must be something else. Try the medical database. Maybe this is some sort of parasite that one of your guests evacuated into your system.”
Chrystal shrugged. “Ask me to tell you sometime about the Nosferan tapeworm that ended up in our system.”
“A tapeworm? Aren’t those pretty small…” His voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes. She loved his eyes. “I guess not.”
She smiled. “Yeah, but let’s focus on this. Parasite? Something else? I don’t know —”
Another loud squelch and more water pattered down on the floor. Lowell had backed as far into the hallway as he could and still keep his cameras trained on the bathroom. The creature had tightened its grips but was resting, no doubt gathering itself for one final push.
“This is going to take time,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of data to shift through.”
Chrystal stood up and pulled out her cell. “Keep looking, I’m going to try something else before that thing crawls out here.”
Leaving him to do his search, Chrystal walked over to the entrance to the hallway. Lowell turned one camera stalk in her direction and let out a questioning beep.
“Not yet. Stay there.”
The robot gave a hiss of static.
“Don’t take that tone with me,” she warned it. “Or I’ll shove you inside with the alien and close the door.”
On her cell, she called the service desk.
“Room service, this is May. How might I help you today?” May sounded perky, and human from her voice.
“Hi, this is Chrystal Eagle.” Chrystal gave May her room number, then went on. “I’ve got Brandon here trying to help me out but I don’t think that’s going to do it. Do you happen to have any translation devices down there?”
“Of course we do. Humanoid or non-humanoid?”
“Would you like that in a ring, collar, strap, disc or clamp?” May’s voice didn’t show any hesitation at all.
Chrystal thought for a moment. “How about a strap? That’s probably going to be the easiest to get on this thing.”
“I’ll have someone bring that right up! Thank you so much for calling!”
“Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.” Chrystal pocketed the cell and looked back at Brandon. “Any luck in the medical databases?”
He shook his head. “No, it keeps asking me for more information and then says that it can’t find a match!”
“I’ve got another idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Chrystal took a deep breath, and then looked in his green eyes and told him her plan while they waited for the translation strap to arrive.
Room service was fast. It only took a few minutes before the door chimed cheerfully. Chrystal answered it. A young Ashian male — she could tell because of the golden sheen in his chitin — held the strap in his mandibles. A translation disc embedded in his carapace flashed when he spoke.
“Here is the translation strap you requested. It should automatically configure itself to your guest’s neural activity.”
The strap itself looked like a leather belt, made from a reddish, woven material. The fastener was simple, two interlocking electro-magnetic clasps. Just what she wanted.
A loud squelching noise came from the bathroom. The Ashian’s antennae wiggled in that direction.
“Is there anything else that you require?”
“No thanks, not right now, but we’ll let you know.”
“Very good.” With a quick harmonic leg scrape, the Ashian left.
Chrystal closed the door. Brandon came over and looked at the strap and while he did his hand touched the small of her back. Chrystal liked it, but more water splashing noises from the bathroom reminded her of the current problem.
She lifted the strap. “Let’s give this one last try, if it doesn’t work then we can call security and let them sort it out.”
“If you’re right and this thing is intelligent, then this should work.”
“Let’s go find out.”
Chrystal held out her hand. Brandon took it and together they walked down the hallway to the bathroom. She was thinking about the alien, and the risk they were running by facing it and risking the chance that it would hypnotize them both, but that was only a tiny part of her mind. The rest of her attention was on the man beside her, and the feel of his hand in hers.
Lowell floated around to face them when they reached the bathroom. His eyestalks quivered. Brandon held out a hand.
“Hey, buddy, it’s okay. We’ll take care of it now. But if anything goes wrong, I want you to call security. Understand?”
Lowell gave an affirmative beep.
“Okay. Let’s do this. On three. Two. One!” Chrystal burst through the door.
“That was one!” Brandon said.
She didn’t have time to comment. The alien had nearly escaped from the toilet. Its body was long and thick, constricted down into the toilet. It must have been squeezing through for some time. The tentacles still gripped the same points but had coiled around and around each spot. The yellow eyes or bumps tried to flash, but the pattern was chaotic and disorganized.
Chrystal went for the nearest tentacle, one wrapped around the towel rack. It’d gotten toilet water all over her clean towels! Something else for room service to take care of later. She swung the strap down at the tentacle.
With the loud crack of a belt hitting a bare bottom, the strap whipped around the tentacle and the clasp snicked into place.
Chrystal immediately turned away and ran right into Brandon. She looked at his face, afraid he’d been hypnotized again, but this time he was looking at her. She smiled. “We’d better back up.”
A new voice spoke up. “Oh, just my luck! I come out in the honeymoon suite?”
Still pressed against Brandon’s chest, his face in her hair, Chrystal forced herself to talk to the alien. “What are you doing in my toilet?”
“Trying to get out.” More squelching noises. “Look, give me a hand. I’ll go on my way, and no one has to say anything about this to anyone.”
“Why were you in there to start with?” Brandon asked.
“I got myself into a jam. A mess with the local authorities. No big deal, I thought I’d flush my problems away, that’s all. Like I said. Give me a break and I’m gone.”
Chrystal laughed into Brandon’s chest. “Let’s call security now, okay?” She traced his muscles through his shirt. “And maybe after you can tell me when you get off work?”
Brandon kissed the top of her head. “I think I can manage that.”
Arms around each other, they walked out of the bathroom. “Come on, you can’t —”
Brandon pulled the door shut, cutting off the alien’s protest. Lowell gave a relieved warble.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Next Question.