Dimmity Dumpling and the Scarlet Cloak
by Don Webb
The freighter Scarlet Cloak ceased vibrating as her thundering jets went on auto shutdown, leaving the ship to coast toward its jump point high above the orbit of Mars. The galaxy spangled the viewport with a glorious ribbon of stars, but Dimmity Chaperon had seen enough to get bored with it in the past several hours of constant boosting. She unbuckled her pilot’s harness and stretched luxuriantly in zero-G.
“There, eat your hearts out, spacehands. Wouldn’t you love to see that now. Hah! Double that. Time for coffee.” She was relieved to be out in space again, piloting alone with no one to overhear her conversations with herself. “Irish creme with beet sugar... Gark. That’s what the spacehands ply me with back at Marsport. Barfous. Cappucino with a slug of brandy. A real spacewoman’s pick-me-up.”
While wrestling with the coffee and liquor containers, she thought about checking her cargo. Maybe it had shifted on liftoff. Bolt things back down again before making the jump to hyperspace. But first, coffee. Priorities, after all.
Her communicator chimed.
“Damn... can’t get away from it even in outer space.” She floated over to the control panel and clicked on.
A bug-eyed monster appeared on screen. “Rigelian Customs. Identity, please, and the nature of your cargo.”
“Dimmity Chaperon with agricultural supplies for the Alpha Centauri colony. But I’m not in Rigelian space.”
“True, true...” replied the BEM, morphing smoothly into a suave-looking spacehand who might have just sauntered out of a bar in Marsport. “I’m patrolling for pirates and giving out general alerts as ships come by. I don’t think they’ll be interested in your cargo, though.”
“What’s your name?” asked Dimmity.
“Gromei Shawloo, at your service... Alpha Centauri colony, eh? Your course should take you away from any trouble. Have a nice trip.” Click.
“Darn... he’s gone,” Dimmity grumbled. “Good-looking and helpful, too. I was gonna offer him some Irish creme. Gotta love those big eyes once he’d stopped looking like a bullfrog. Oh well, back to the cargo. After coffee.”
* * *
Meanwhile, Gromei was cursing his luck and glowering at his plagiarized human star charts. “’S what I get for snoozing in astrography class. Wrong system, wrong shape... I might’ve scared that Earthling dumpling half to death... But all is not lost. She seemed pleasingly... mature... At least experienced enough not to be fazed. Aaand... she gave me a juicy tip. Corn-fed Earthlings, hm?”
Reverting to the natural form of his people of the uncharted, unexplored and as yet unknown planet of Lupus Sylvestris IV, he licked his whiskery chops at the thought of tasty Earthling-morsels awaiting him at Alpha Centauri. And he salivated especially at thoughts of the pièce de résistance in the form of one Dimmity dumpl... er... whatever her name was.
Gromei carefully located the Alpha colony and completed his course calculations. He set the jump sequence on automatic and relaxed. “Now for some shut-eyes.” He stretched luxuriantly and scratched in six different ways, careful not to damage himself with various claws and fangs. As he curled up in his ship’s comfy slumber-lair, visions of banquets danced to the tune of the anticipatory gurglings of his digestive tract.
* * *
The Scarlet Cloak’s cargo hold was a mess: containers had shifted and piled every which way. Dimmity Chaperon swore like the space sailor she was: “Those ancestrally recursive space hands! Can’t bolt down anything right!” Catching her breath, she retrieved as much equanimity as a combined caffeine and liquor fit would allow: “Well, that’s what I get for drinking them under the table, I guess: Monday-morning hangover work. But do I ever need a hand now with this stuff...”
Just then her communicator chime boingged again. “Name of a pipe-sucking houndlet! What now !?” She barreled weightlessly into the main cabin and bounced carelessly against the control panel, pushing the communicator switch.
A faintly grizzled but otherwise normal-looking human stared at her from the viewscreen. He seemed a little bemused at Dimmity’s ricocheting back and forth in her cabin but let it pass. “Hi, Serge Boisvert here. Where ya headed?”
“Alpha Centauri colony. Seeds and farming equipment. And I’m Dimmity Chaperon. How about you?”
“Same place. Logging and sawmill supplies.”
Dimmity looked at his ship on her wide-array screen. “Doggone big ship you have there, Serge... Say, have you heard of pirates in this volume of space? A Rigelian patrol just warned me about them.”
“No... can’t say I have. And what’s a Rigelian doing in this neck of the woods? Odd...”
“Beats me... But could you lend me a hand? My cargo shifted on liftoff, and I have to bolt it down again. It’s not the weight, it’s the inertia, you know,” she said, concluding with the space-hand’s truism.
“Sure. Be right over. I’ll bring the family to help.”
Between the five of them — Dimmity, Serge, his wife Aline and their son Robert and daughter Yvette — they made reasonably quick work of resetting the cargo. Over a lavish coffee concoction after a hearty meal, Aline asked, “Is your name really ‘Dimmity’? It’s quite unusual. Pardon me for asking; just curious.”
“It’s short for ‘Diminutive’,” Dimmity replied. “My parents saw me as a little red-haired girl. As you can see, they guessed wrong.”
Robert muttered an aside to Yvette: “And built like a brick... cargo hold,” he finished lamely, withering under his father’s daggering glare. Yvette stifled a snicker.
“Ah, a diminutive of ‘Diminutive’,” added Serge diplomatically. “Quite original. Nobody calls you anything but ‘Dimmity’, I imagine.”
“Not and live to tell about it,” she laughed. “But I’ve had worse compliments in Marsport,” she added in a kind aside to Robert. And then, wistfully, “Too bad I’ve never met a man who’s done better.”
Lightening the conversation, she turned to Serge: “You know, freighter families are pretty common, but you’ve got a big, new ship. Going to do some heavy hauling?”
“No, Serge replied, “this is our last run. We’re going to convert the Mizar into a cruise vessel. The tourist trade is really going to boom any time now. Maybe we’ll rename it the Club Alpha.”
“Well, best of luck to you, and thanks again for all your help.”
After the Mizar’s departure, Dimmity waited the interval required by regulations and then jumped after them, toward Alpha.
* * *
Meanwhile, Gromei Shawloo had landed at the colony. In human form he had immediately found — in fact, had practically been conscripted into — a number of well-paying jobs. In his spare time he scouted out the population, calculating how much crockery and silverware his fellows from Lupus Sylvestris IV would have to bring to the feast.
But there was only one problem. Gromei, in human form, had discovered a hitherto unknown delicacy: booze. “Wait till the guys on Lup’... hic... Sylv’ get a load of this,” he thought. Who’d a’ thunk what can be done with grain, of all things.” And, to the barkeep: “What’s the most expensive whiskey you have?”
By the time the Mizar and the Scarlet Cloak arrived, Gromei had become — almost overnight — a legend in his own time. In all the bars of Alpha, he cheerfully sampled one brand after another with his hardy pioneer working buddies, who stared wide-eyed at him and slid, one after the other, still wide-eyed, under the table.
“Awright! Look who’s here! It’s Gromei himself,” called Dimmity as she and Serge came into a bar where Gromei was finishing off yet another round and another set of drinking partners. “Lemme introduce ya to Serge. Now we’ve unloaded, he’s got big plans.”
Dimmity couldn’t help seeing Gromei’s big eyes drinking... almost sucking her in. She’d been looked at before, but not with eyes like that.
Gromei was looking at Dimmity in an entirely new way. A luscious, delicious morsel she was, yes... but to heck with the guys from Lupus Sylvestris IV: why have hamburger once when you can dine — dreaming figuratively, of course — on steak every day? While in human form; but of course.
“What’re you doing here, Gromei? Isn’t this off the beaten track for Rigelian customs patrol...”
Gromei promptly hushed her. “It’s a long story. Look, dumpl... er... Dimmity. What say you and I talk about it in private. No offense, Serge, it’s just that I owe Dimmity an explanation, and it’s rather personal.”
“Sure, Gromei,” answered Serge, amicably, scrutinizing the menu above the bar.
Dimmity, thinking luscious thoughts of her own, said, “But first let’s buy Serge here a round and hear about his plans...”
* * *
After a pleasant and somewhat wide-eyed conversation among the three of them, Dimmity invited Gromei to the Scarlet Cloak. “I have just the thing for hangovers,” she suggested.
Once inside, Gromei looked adoringly but a little sheepishly at Dimmity. “I have some confessions to make. First, I’m a shape-shifter.”
“Oh, I knew that.”
“And I don’t get hangovers.”
“Wow, lucky you!”
“And I get high, but I never seem to get exactly... wasted, like the other guys.”
That was a startler. The best Dimmity could think of was: “Wow... talk about powerful enzymes...”
“I’m really falling for you, Du... Dimmity, but if we’re going to go on like this, you should know what I’m really like.”
Dimmity gulped. “Okay... I’ll try not to be afraid.”
Gromei slowly morphed into his natural shape. Fur, fangs, claws and all.
Dimmity shrieked: “Oh, Grommie, you’re... you’re cute !
Gromm... er... Gromei goggled at her in furry bewilderment.
Dimmity reached down, picked up Gromei and nestled him in her arms. “You’re not just cute, you’re adorable !” she burbled.
If Gromei had been on his several feet, he would have been literally staggered. He settled for figuratively. “That’s the way I feel about you, dumpl... er... Dimmity. But mainly in my human form. Could we try that one again?”
“You bet!” enthused Dimmity, setting him carefully on the floor, mindful of his claws, etc.
Gromei expanded and elongated back into his human form. “Really, I’m terribly ferocious, and I wanted to have you and everybody on the planet for dinner. And that’s as dinner, you know.”
“But what changed you?” asked Dimmity.
“You. And seventy-six brands of beer and ale and bourbon and rye and... Anyway, I’m a thoroughly reformed carnivore. But can you still love me?”
“Of course, Grommie! I’ve never met anyth... anyone like you! And you know... I’m tired of hauling freight. Let’s you and I sell the Scarlet Cloak and join Serge and his family on the... Club Galaxy or whatever they’re going to call it. I’ll be the hostess and coffee-maker in chief. You can be the bartender. And you think you’re reformed now, wait’ll Serge introduces you to his wine collection. You can be the chef and bouncer, too, if you like, in your ferocious form.”
“That’s a great idea, Dump... er...”
“Oh, call me Dumpling. I love it. And I’ll call you... my Pet.”
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author