Ken Poyner, Engaging Cattle
Publisher: Barking Moose Press
Date: October 24, 2019
Length: 166 pages
ISBN: 0578590956; 978-0578590950
The Specimen Hunter
In retrospect, Lost Hope station was a raucous galleon of light; a hyper charged wire of activity; a mass of gleeful emotions and unbounded celebration; and a star burst of mathematically noble debauchery.
Its two-slot docking bay, with the occasional unpredictable ten percent variance in artificial gravity, was an architectural novelty that usually loomed vacant; but which seemed, when it was needed, to be needed always by one too many; and so everyone waited in the docking lottery. The leveling supports moved as slowly as a drunken Therosian cephalopod, and with about as much coordination, strut to strut. If what you were landing weren’t junk, you would never trust it to the junk you were landing it on.
But six months out into deep space, with the black of the Universe outside as thick as a mohair blanket and the quiet as deep as the screams of potbellied clams, the whole docking deck suddenly seems like a rival to the Pristine Spires, an artistry of Corvan Supermen, a paean to Gaudi on speed. I would give my return-trip pay to have those solid straps around my ship, to feel the artificial gravity grab, as off key as it might be, the flat of my bowels and settle the swirl of my brain with a seriously intended true up and true down.
Even worse, it now seems every man and every woman on Lost Hope must have been a high school quarterback, or the defiantly flaxen haired captain of the cheerleading team. Each broken down hag, left having to work the comfort stations at the very rim of the Universe, now is remembered as having legs that went on forever, non-synthetic chests, real teeth with stylish pseudo fangs, and so much energy it seemed as though they were internally fired by rogue isotopes. Their personalities stank of good cheer. Whatever a customer paid was a bargain; though, at the time, you might be thinking that only scarcity and distance could make out of this rot any value, and that these reeking vendors should be glad there is a dead end of the Universe to make their wares have some reluctant, terribly relative, worth.
Six months into a trip no one has taken before, to no place no one knows, for no reason other than to find out if there is a reason to come out here at all: a place like Lost Hope becomes a vacation spot, a happily remembered way-station of mottled aromas and pleasant personalities, happily supplied with people who sometimes kill each other and always over charge and then send a happy traveler on his or her exciting way, if there is no incentive not to do so.
Understand: this is part of my frame of reference. In six months I have learned the sound of every warning alert on this ship, have counted the heartbeats between operating cycles, can predict what arm of the dust is soon to resettle itself. I have gotten over the glorious vision of myself as the intrepid explorer, the heroic vanguard of my species, the thick-chested representative of all that is right with humanity. I am cockroach rubbery from the tasteless food I have eaten. I am hard on all my edges from the air baths I take to keep free what little water I carry. I thrive on ‘adequate’ alone. It makes me what I am, and I have lost the glittery illusions of my being anything else. In this comparatively sterile environment, I am more the animal that I secretly am deep within myself than I would be anywhere else I might choose to lie in wait.
And then there is you. On this gray little world, I have seen, logged, and discarded a dozen uninteresting life forms. I have watched your native ether-eaters wave in their shallow seas. I’ve seen your skimmers bounding in the amalgamated atmosphere as though they might be happy, though I am in no state for happy. I have cruised through schools of lackluster worm needles that did not have the self-appreciation to scurry out of my way as my ship carved its thunderous ruts fatally through them. There is nothing here, it would seem, soullessly lurking about that a privateer, or a mineral hound, or a commercial exo-biologist, or even a circus barker, could use. And then I found you.
You are the first thing I have seen since Lost Hope with two legs, with verticality, with a head on what seems to be a quartet of shoulders. The ridges that ride teasingly over your eyes are not unlike eyebrows. The smooth of your blue skin seems to shimmer with tactile possibilities: tight across a body that, in the dark, might feel more human than my own overly familiar and voyage-worn outline. Even the feathering of your four tentacles, independently restless at your waist, is not unseductive: and I can at times be mesmerized with watching them whip sensuously adrift in their intertwined tethering patterns.
I know that in the movement of those delirious tentacles there is some language, that there is some way for us to speak. There is an old saying on the far-out space docks that similar needs breed similar designs. I have seen it. The entire Universe goes about its work in much the same fashion no matter what particular splash of stars is at the moment overhead. It works its common will perhaps with a different color or a different texture, with an extra covering or a different number of digits. But a good design persists. Corner to corner, the Universe promotes the same unconscious ends.
You stand knee deep in as much of your planet’s native fluid as I could rake into the containment vessel. What was your sea outside is now our lake inside. It will have to be drained before stasis is applied for the long, pleasureless trip back to Lost Hope. But, for a short while, we can see if we can delicately decipher each the other, find common purpose and ends, can make passable companions: the specimen and the captor. There is an old earth saying: if you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only guy, well, maybe......
This ship is our world now. A world I know too well. I stink of the moans and shrieks of metal with purpose but no feeling, with utility but no comfort, with days of mathematically pure intentions piled dry and unlikable in the hold. And I think I can translate the pattern of that intrigue-prone bioluminescence shivering at the edge of your forehead; like a man making small talk in a bar, I can painstakingly contrast it for meaning against the agitation in your school-girl lithe tentacles. Your elegantly deep eyes, through the containment glass, flick about the magisterial whole of me; and I think they see in my feral designs and purposes something familiar, something with ends and means that you, in some dark galactic arm’s rhythm, have a spark of warm sisterhood with. Even though contained in this alien world with me - the alien - and shielded with only a piece of your planet, you have within you still your time-spanning senses and needs, your relentless yearnings for self-replication, the pounding spin of your purposely greedy biology. As do I.
Engaging Cattle is a collection of 49 bizarre stories by Ken Poyner originally published in such places as Café Irreal, Danse Macabre, Mind Candy, Red Dirt Forum and more than a dozen other magazines. Available from Barking Moose Press and on bookselling websites everywhere, such as Amazon.
Copyright © 2019 by Ken Poyner