Swaying on his feet — one hand on the stair railing — Arden took sutsu to regain his balance. He was suffering the usual side effect of spending time with Doerdah — inebriation. After a detached mental scolding and a wistful vow to learn how to tell the man ‘no’ (in a way that Doerdah would actually acknowledge and respect), Arden carefully descended seven flights of stairs. Before the last step he was dizzy again. He leaned on a nearby support wall and let it hold him up until the station stopped spinning.
“Iblis’ barbs,” he whispered to himself. “It was only two drinks.”
When stability returned, Arden gently pushed himself off the wall and turned down the outer avenue of the market. Built into the walls surrounding the maze of stalls and tents were a number of permanent stores that offered a higher class of goods than the transient traders could regularly supply. One such shop was run by an apothecary from Kobai — a fellow Khol’nara from the marshlands of Mwachisawa. Chiritsi, the apothecary, was a former schoolmate and shared Arden’s passion for experimental farming.
Arden entered the shop with a portentous belch that earned him a knowing look from a Darnoskian perusing the tinned herbs. He apologized and she turned her nine eyes back to the orderly shelves.
“What? Now you arrive?” called a voice from above.
“My regrets, Chiritsi.” Arden stifled another belch, looking around, shoulders hunched and cowl pulled low over his face. He dragged himself up the narrow stair to the landing where his friend waited.
“Are you ill?” The healer asked. “You look grey.”
Arden hiccuped back a greasy throat-ful of drink and acid that burned the back of his nostrils. “Drunk,” he barely croaked out, grimacing at the assault on his digestive system.
Chiritsi led him through a narrow doorway off the stairs and quickly handed him an empty bucket.
Arden spent the next twelve don stretching and retching until he feared his toes were poking from the back of his neck. When the spasms subsided, Arden tipped right until his shoulder found the floor, then he rolled onto his back. Chiritsi looked down from where he stood with a scowl of disdain.
“I’ve never known you to get drunk before. Is everything right with your Oni Modab? At home? With your sister?”
“Doerdah,” Arden replied with a rasp.
Chiritsi looked confused sutsu then made the connection. “The tripper from the ice moon of Rak,” he said. “I’ve seen him drink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him drunk though.”
“Never,” Arden confirmed as he rolled back to his stomach and tried to get his legs under him.
“Don’t get up too quickly,” Chiritsi warned. “I don’t have another bucket.” The Khol’nara stepped around Arden and took the foul bucket. The contents went into a robustly odoriferous recycling tank.
“Stay down. I have a remedy for your stomach.” Chiritsi walked out of site, then returned with a pair of tongs bracketing a writhing creature with mottled teal bands and a lot of pep. “Eat this,” the healer ordered and Arden did.
There was a satisfying crunch — not the crisp of a twiggy bolumbo but the firm snap of the densely fibrous hishdar worm . A familiar fragrance teased his senses as the larval body broke down in his mouth. The flavor was warm and the odor sweet. Once Arden swallowed, his stomach was calm and his head was cleared of the dizzy fog that had separated him from his thoughts.
“That was amazing,” Arden breathed as he stood up on steadier legs. “What did I just eat?”
“I’m thinking of calling it a Vakushtiva,” Chiritsi replied.
“A new discovery?” Arden asked perching on a riser that led to Chiritsi’s work tables.
“An outrider brought it back to me from the Bands. Pecchal — you’ve met her — she’s one of my best sources for new plants and creatures. I’ve been testing the Vakushtiva for almost a rel to make sure it’s safe. I could use your help testing it further. You have a wider array of crops.”
“Nemet’s glow! Yes. That Vakushtiva did wonders on my system; I feel cleansed. Are sobering and settling the only results of eating it?”
Chiritsi waved a Flare orb to life. “There’s much more to it. Just three of these larva (eaten at intervals) can provide enough nourishment for a full cycle — a healthy nourishment that breaks down so slowly we Khol’nara don’t have to use a radiation source to digest out the waste. They grow from egg to edible in fifteen complete cycles. If you allow them to pupate that’s ten cycles and then they spend three as adults. They die fertilizing the eggs and the whole process begins anew the next cycle. The eggs hatch from inside the parent, ingesting the remains through the egg sac —.”
“Stop please,” Arden waved a hand, his eyes and face pulled into a tight grimace. “I may need that bucket again.”
“We see this all the time in cultivation,” Chiritsi protested.
“I don’t have tolerance for it today, though. Is there a plant or crop that they prefer? Or a flower they choose over all others?”
Chiritsi tilted his head, then rolled it back in the affirmative. “A plant as rare as the moth.” The apothecary gestured toward the humming Flare orb, tapping his Flit on the torque on his head.
The orb moved to hover between them, gleaming to light with a scene of heavy jungle. The plants in view had leaves large enough to wrap a standard sized person head to heel with nothing poking out the ends. The outrider’s hand reached out to tap the edge of a giant leaf. It recoiled as though it could not bear the touch. With tentative steps the hand created a path between the shy fronds.
In a small clearing behind the dense growth, the outrider’s gasp was recorded by her Flare unit. Swarms of fist-sized, marine-colored moths could be seen darting about — dipping, soaring, twirling with a partner until their collaboration pulled them to the ground. Some were at rest on vines and trees with only an irregular pump of the wings as proof they lived; others crumpled like verdant failures strewn about the root-bound turf.
As the outrider moved deeper into the clearing, some of the more active Vakushtiva flew at the viewer, soft bodies whumping against the Flare’s transparent shield. Arden cringed when, for sutsu, the illusion of displacement worked to make him feel the gentle assault was coming at his face. The viewing angle turned at his flinch, showing the clearing to the right. In a curve of the jungle border a row of colossal, spiky plants thrust from the roots and vines to support a host of the adult, winged Vakushtiva. Arden leaned closer to the screen to bring the scene closer. On the cone-shaped fruit that peeked out from between razor-sharp leaves he could see the teal larva undulating gently as they macerated the strange pomme.
“She brought you the fruit too?” Arden asked as a formality.
“Indeed. I’ve cultivated three of those hulking things into maturity. The leaves are as sharp as they look.” Chiritsi waggled his hands; they were striped with dried salve.
Arden chirped softly and smiled. “Have you tested its reaction to other fruit?”
Chiritsi rolled his head in another affirmative. “There are two fruit I’ve had minor success feeding them on, but they barely grow to half the size, the nutrients all but disappear, and they won’t reproduce. Based on my research so far, we need that specific fruit in order to grow the energy-packed Vakushtiva.” The apothecary used his foot to nudge a no-pull crate towards Arden. “I’ve included a manual for growing the plants and setting up the ideal Vakushtiva environment. I’ll tap you the Flare vid; it’s fascinating. The small planet they explored in the Bands was covered with near-sentient interactive plants. Bast’s blessing that the fruit’s plant does not seem to have intelligence. Remember that the find is mine, by rights transferred, but I’ll share the fame with you as a research partner when we break the food industry and rebuild it with our new wonder grub.”
Arden croaked loudly, in a teasing gesture. “Keep your fame. I just want to nourish the Reach. Any warnings?”
“Avoid fermented beverages and be careful around those leaves.” Chiritsi held his scratched fingers in front of Arden’s eyes and returned the croak.
Adrift by t.s.wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.