Social worker
From “Se alquila un Planeta” -- “Planet for rent”. Equipo Sirius, Spain 2002
(Translation: D. W. Koon)

        The robotaxi stopped at the entrance to the astroport. After opening the hatch, Buca pulled her legs out of the cabin. First the right, then the left. Then she straightened herself, with studied languor, faithful to her motto: sensual every moment.
        Selshaliman imitated her on the other side, envying the natural dignity of her movements. His shiny grayish chitin exoskeleton gave the Grodo the rigid aspect of medieval armor. And much majesty besides.
        A Cetian humanoid would have looked better, in any event. More beautiful, almost feline, so sensual; it was no accident that all terrestrial Earthlings imitated their style of walking.
        But a Grodo also had its advantages. She watched Selshaliman pay the taxi with a credit-appendage. Their quasimechanicals and swift movements still struck Buca as very disquieting. Like those of a mantis or a giant spider. But the image became more bearable if you considered that soon she would have the human equivalent of a credit-appendage: a subcutaneous implant, reflecting of the generous bank account that this strange being had placed at her disposal.
        They entered. Eagerly, Buca watched the last terrestrial landscape that she would see for a long time. The microworld of the astroport.
        The astroport and its environs were a beehive of traffic, as always. Recently debarked Xenoids, bright-eyed and eager and already closely hounded by the network of tour operators from the Planetary Tourist Agency. Xenoids who were abandoning the planet, exhausted and loaded down with cheap and tacky souvenirs. There were all types of these. Nonhumanoids, like the enormous Polyps of Aldebaran, who tread slowly on their single round muscular foot; or the Guzoids of Regulus, segmented, large and scaly; or the Colossaurs, solidly built and armored. And more humanoids: Cetians and Centaurians. Some slim and gorgeous; others cold, blue and distant. And there were also humans, like that group descending from an aerobus and practically running for the entrance. They seemed to be scientists, all very nervous. They were probably attending some conference and were anxiously huddling around one fairly young person who seemed to be in charge. Although he also appeared very confused: it was obvious that this was his first trip off planet. Buca envied them a little. Earth allowed her citizens to leave only on very rare occasions and under very special circumstances. Probably the Xenoid scientists, interested in having their human colleagues attend the event, had sprung for all the costs of their travel and fees.
        As far as she could tell, here and there, one or another half-breed. Like that woman with the large eyes and bluish skin. That Centaurian accompanying her might be her father. As self-important as the rest of them. The girl might be famous, because her face looked quite familiar to Buca. Perhaps a simustim star, some rich heiress... Or more likely a social worker like herself, but of the very highest category. She couldn’t think of her name. Bah, she would try to remember later. Not that it was that important.
        Selshaliman moved his antennae nervously; he would have preferred to use a teletransport cabin to the center ring rather than cross the entire port on foot. He seemed uncomfortably aware that he was the only Grodo in this zone.
        Insectoids were fanatic about security. They had their own web of teletransport cabins and private channels of communication. How utterly silly, Buca thought. But they could well afford it... Aside from the mysterious Auyar, the Grodos were the most powerful race in the galaxy.
        They were telepaths. Their vast mercantile empire was based on that fact. Maybe they couldn’t read the actual thoughts of other species, but to read the state of mind and emotion of one’s adversary was an appreciable advantage in any business negotiation.
        She watched him, suspicious. They said that they were incapable of grasping and interpreting human thoughts with the same clarity as those of their fellow creatures. Still... Selshaliman couldn’t seriously believe that she could feel love for him...
        But, just in case, she closed her mind, mouthing the first verses of one of the latest catchiest technohits. A trick she learned from her friend Yleka.
        A freelance social worker had to take good care of herself. Never lower her guard. Until the hypership took off, she couldn’t relax. There were many rumors... some social workers had confided in Xenoids who later turned out to be humans disguised with bioimplants. And the price of their gullibility had been months or years in Corporal Exchange...
        She glanced around. Even in the astroport there were those ineffable cabins on all sides. Inside, the bodies in suspended animation. Waiting for a client...
        As if reacting to her glance, one of them opened at just that instant, and its occupant staggered out. Buca tried to resist... but she stared right into his eyes, as if magnetized. She sighed, relieved that it was not him. Ever since Jowe’s detention, she couldn’t watch anyone leaving a cabin without fearing the sight of his vacant pupils.
        It was stupid, of course, but she could not free herself from the cycle of guilt...
        There were races biologically incompatible with the terrestrial biosphere, like the Auyar. In order to enjoy the touristic paradises that the planet offered up, they had created the system of Corporal Exchange.
        All the parameters of the “client” (memory, personality, IQ, motor skills) were codified digitally and then introduced into the brain of the host-human. The Xenoid received in turn the exchange body’s mobility and access to all its memories. There was just one minor detail: 40% of the time the individual whose body the extraterrestrial occupied remained conscious.
        It had to be difficult to feel oneself a marionette under someone else’s control... When the process was still in its experimental phase, being a “horse” (a term borrowed from voodoo) was voluntary and paid reasonably well. Soon, though, there weren’t enough volunteers, plus the side effects became better known to the public at large. So now, any crime would put you away for days, months, even years in Corporal Exchange. It was the modern equivalent of Russian Roulette: not all of the “cowboys” treated their “horses” equally well. Some tourists ran them into exhaustion and then simply paid the corresponding fine: it was pretty cheap... Many of our comrades went crazy after five or six weeks of such treatment. There were even rumors that Corporal Exchange contrived to rob the hosts of their sanity. One suspiciously ambiguous law restricted full civil rights to only those with perfect mental health. Any obligation to return the use of a body to its legitimate owner disappeared automatically if that owner turned schizophrenic.
        Buca thought of Jowe, so sensitive and delicate. He wouldn’t have lasted even two months. Perhaps he was already praying for death...
        Although perhaps -- and she realized that this idea was simply very improbable wishful thinking -- since he was young and charming, some well-off Xenoid might have chosen him. And right now he would be up to his elbows in some important negotiations within the hierarchies of the Planetary Tourist Agency. It would be so ironic...
        She simply begged that an Auyar had not “mounted” him. They didn’t mind paying any fine, however high, but they always insisted on destroying the bodies they had used as “horses”. Grodos seemed trusting and naive, compared to the paranoia that seemed to be an Auyar’s second nature. They were insanely jealous of their anonymity. Nobody knew what they really looked like, nor very much else about them...
        The Human and the Grodo crossed a gigantic hologram of the Grand Canyon. In front, two Aldebaranian Polyps conversed excitedly in a silent language of tentacular gestures. Buca watched them, amused: Since the fluorocarbon contamination of the 20th Century and the extraction of minerals from its canyon walls by a Procyon mining corporation, the Canyon was now only a ghost of this outdated image.
        She noticed with pride how even Selshaliman had stopped to admire the scene. One of the few points of pride that the Earthlings could still point to was how efficiently their PR machine milked the Xenoid tourist.
        Buca had lived a few months with an advertising designer, and so she recognized a few tricks of the trade. Colors imperceptible to the human eye. Infra and ultrasound. And lately even telepathic waves, for the Grodos...
        Hit them where they live. It was a sort of poetic justice that the Planetary Tourist Agency drained the Xenoids of their cash by exploiting their own special abilities.
        They neared the first barrier, surrounded by the inevitable Court of Miracles: self-employed negotiators, black-market money changers, drug sellers and freelance social workers. And standing discretely apart, awaiting offers, most elegant in their tight-fitting black leather attire, the tall pretty boys who engage in male social work... This was legally prohibited and very hotly persecuted by Planetary Security. Theoretically.
        All of them fighting among themselves and with the tourists to earn a few credits. Only a month before and in a different astroport, Buca had been a part of this show rather than a witness. But the show never changed, nor did the actors. Mr. Mutilated By War, who for a few credits will show you his radioactive stump. Miss Corporal Exchange Victim, pathetically drooling and holding her hand out for alms. Mr. Persecuted Holy Man, asking for assistance to complete his sacred pilgrimage. Miss Poor Mother With Her Grimy Daughter, lying in a corner, watching everyone through the eyes of a cornered beast. Mr. Riches To Rags, feigning dignity to sell his clever forgeries, supposed inheritance from his once well-to-do family. Mr. Seller Of Endangered Species, with his hidden cages containing almiquís, talking parrots and leopard cubs. Little Ms. Orphan Girl, who, for a hundred credits, will show you pictures of her family... and anything else you’d like to see and then will try to swindle or assault her extraterrestrial benefactor. Mr. University Student Seeking Diversion, who was not in misery (he had to have something to distinguish himself from the others) but who wouldn’t look down upon a few credits either, or a polite dinner invitation from some generous humanoid with similar carnal inclinations...
        The fauna that all the guidebooks warned one about.
        They only exist because they are tolerated, Buca remembered Jowe having said. A facade of fake candor, a risky alternative for tourists who enjoyed extreme emotions. A black market of self-employed tour operators. Their improvised products and services stood in sharp contrast to the sophisticated efficiency of the Planetary Tourist Agency... and the agents of Planetary Security watched from the shadows to ensure that none of the “self-emps” turned into any sort of real danger for the tourists.
        Among the lot of them, the independent social workers stood out. Ultrahigh fluorescent platform shoes which forced them to walk with a gait that was a cross between sinuous and wobbly, like someone on stilts. Clothes that fit like a second skin, ultra-short, semi-transparent or with provocative display lights. Fashions designed not to suggest but to lay it all out on the line. To leave the least possible amount of proffered flesh to the imagination of the client.
        Buca glanced at them, torn between amusement and disgust.
        They were her past.
        She compared them to her own image reflected in the polished metaloplastic walls. She was no longer one of them. She no longer wore their brazen uniform of pure lust.
        She wore a suit of pseudosilver which wrapped around her slim figure without clinging impertinently to her body. The fabric changed color in accordance with her personal biofield. Only her face and hands were uncovered; she had already shown enough skin for a thousand years. The elegant ladies of Tau Ceti or Alpha Centauri dressed in such suits. Her skin was almost pale enough to pass for a Centaurian...
        Maybe she should have bought that light blue skin tint. She would have pulled off the illusion, and Selshaliman wouldn’t have cared. In addition to the childish cult and the imitation of their looks and customs, the Xenoids were simply more... well, dignified.
        Seshaliman’s companionship was enough to allow her to cross the second barrier without being bothered. Only the legal social workers could freely enter that ring. The freelancers needed a Xenoid companion, if only temporary, to reach it.
        The sudden pandemonium of colors and sounds startled Buca for a second, as it always did. The intermediate ring of every terrestrial astroport was a carefully controlled zone of tolerance. For travelers in transit or tourists wishing to take advantage of the duty-free shopping. Social workers of every race, size and attire, each one more provocative. And their male counterparts, in their black plasleather uniforms. Shops of native artisans, souvenirs and all other touristy paraphernalia that you could find anywhere else on the planet, only more artificial and cheap and crammed more tightly together.
        Buca stopped in front of a hologram of New Paris.
        In front was a half-melted piece of metal which, according to the sign, had been part of the authentic Eiffel Tower. She had not been there. There were so many places on Earth where she had still never been...
        It didn’t matter that New Paris was only a metaloplastic reconstruction of the old and authentic metropolis, which had been razed by a nuclear explosion in the days following The Contact. Like every Earthling, Buca felt a great sense of pride in the Earth’s glorious past.
        Pride in Greece and Rome and the Aztecs and Incas and Genghis Khan and the Mongols and the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China and the Rajas of India and the Samurais of Japan and Timbuctu and New York.
        Earth’s present was the Grodos and the other Xenoids.
        Selshaliman also stopped in front of the hologram of New Paris. So he had never been there either? How ironic. All that it was now, the Earth owed to them... and to their money. But they still haven’t taken advantage of it.
        “Welcome to Earth, the most touristy planet of the galaxy. Hospitality is our second nature, because we are here to make you feel better than in your own home.” Laughing, Buca mouthed one of the ubiquitous slogans of the Planetary Tourist Agency.
        Then, her smile twisted into a bitter curl and she looked at Selshaliman with a barely concealed hatred.
        There was also the other past.
        That which was described in the elementary school interactive texts, one of the few things that the Planetary Tourist Agency gave away free to all residents of the planet.
        A relatively recent past. Back when we were already traveling the cosmos in primitive ships, but before we had encountered the Xenoids. When Earth had many nations and many languages, instead of a unified planet. Cattle, crops, fish and game in abundance, but also many starving. When civilization was constantly on the brink of collapse. From nuclear war, pollution, the population explosion, or all of the above.
        But it did bring about The Contact.
        The intelligences of the Universe had been watching the Humans for millenia. Without interfering. Waiting for them to mature enough to be accepted into the bosom of the great galactic family. But when the Earth’s annihilation appeared to be inevitable, the Xenoids broke their own rules and arrived to attempt to prevent it. Their immense ships descended on Paris, Rome, Tokyo, New York. Their desire to help and their resources appeared limitless...
        The leading Earthlings, jealous of their power in the face of intellects and technologies so vastly superior to themselves, regarded this selfless intervention as an invasion. Arguing that the best defense is a good offense, they dug up the hatchet of war.
        And it was a nuclear hatchet.
        The surprise attack caused several atomic explosions, like the one that obliterated Paris. But there was no nuclear war. The Xenoids defused the remaining missiles and then showed their immense power. When they employed the geophysical bomb, all of Africa disappeared under the sea. They gave a full week’s warning, but the Earth governments’ obsessive secrecy, and the incredulity of the masses contributed to this truly horrendous disaster. More than 80 million humans perished in a matter of hours. When it would have been so easy to evacuate them...
        After the horrendous accident, the extraterrestrials launched their famous Ultimatum: since the Earthlings were not capable of governing themselves intelligently and could not manage their natural resources reasonably, from this moment on they would cease to be an independent culture. They passed into the status of a Galactic Protectorate.
        In order to re-establish the damaged ecological equilibrium, the new managers of the planet dictated Draconian measures: No consumption of fossil or nuclear fuels. The great industrial and scientific centers would be disassembled. Zero population growth. There were global protests that were efficiently and bloodlessly squelched. The total planetary death toll was no more than a quarter million.
        Less than a century later, the Earth was once more the natural paradise in which man had evolved. With practically the entire nongreen surface converted into a huge museum, tourism had become the principal (and almost only) source of income for the planet and its inhabitants. A tourism controlled by the nearly all-powerful Planetary Tourist Agency, with large investments of extraterrestrial capital and deep concern for the future of homo sapiens. A bright future was opening before humankind under the benevolent tutelage of the galactic community, to which group one day in the near future it would enter as a member with full rights...
        At least, that was the official version.
        Buca knew, like everyone, that the truth was very different.
        If they had to depend on the Xenoids, humans would never be a race with equal rights.
        It was not Xenoid selflessness which had motivated The Contact. Nor their desire to save humanity which had made them intervene and rip out all displays of independent development, down to the root.
        Jowe had explained to her the true motives. He knew something about the Galactic Economy... one of the courses of study Planetary Security had banned most effectively. It was only taught in secret cells of the clandestine Pro-Liberation Earth Xenophobe Union. It wasn’t strange that they were persecuted. Nor that he had been condemned to Corporal Exchange for mere suspicion of being associated with them. Although, probably, the Yakuza had also played a role in the matter...
        Jowe had said that the entire galaxy was engaged in a cruel war. Like all wars, with offensives and counter-offensives, with diversionary tactics and tactical retreats. But a commercial war: with new technologies, markets, clients and cheap labor.
        From the beginning, mankind had been a loser in this conflict. And, as such, it was condemned to be a client and never a rival, not even a power. Earth barely produced the food, clothes and medicine to supply a quarter of its own population. And that which it produced was of such low quality that it couldn’t compete with the worst and cheapest products of the Xenoid technocracies. Earthly production had a character and destination designed almost entirely for folkloric, touristic consumption.
        For commercial convenience, they had converted the Earth into a souvenir-world, as Buca remembered Jowe having put it.
        Yes... Because, despite what the PR said, the Earth was no paradise. Survival was a constant struggle. For every lucky one like her, there were thousands more on the street. And many of them were wonderful people. Like Yleka. Like Jowe.
        Buca was almost certain that the real reason for Jowe’s detention and later sentencing was not his relation with the Xenophobe Union, but something much more petty. Until they caught him, Jowe was a freelance “protector”. And one of the good ones: he made a pile. The business of “protection” was theoretically illegal, but it could be as lucrative as social work. And as risky; pity the independent who missed one of his periodic payments to the Mafia, the Triad or the Yakuza. After only two months of protecting Buca, Jowe fell for her eyes, and had decided to lower her fee to half. But then he naively assumed he could slash all his other customers’ rates in half as well. Very dangerous. Organized crime did not want other people giving away their money. The hand of the Yakuza was just as long as that of Planetary Security... and even less forgiving on Judgment Day.
        She had a clear conscience, though. In reality, she hadn’t ratted out Jowe. He had made his own bed. The fool had believed that sex, caresses and tenderness had meant that she loved him... She owed him nothing. He only wanted to do her a favor, to ease her debts. And you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth...
        She had loved him too, but... Love your neighbor as yourself. But no more than yourself. That was another of her mottos. Still, Jowe, like few others, had known how to treat her like a human being and not just a beautiful hunk of meat, an expensive plaything with holes for satisfying one’s lust. He spoke to her intelligence, which he considered agile though poorly educated. He was tender and patient. Really... not like Daniel the Voxl champion. That classmate of hers, the smooth talker, with all of his lies and airs, who years before had stolen the trophy of her virginity...
        Now she heard about Daniel all the time on the sports news. His ascent had been dizzying; they said he was a truly exceptional player. He had been chosen captain of the Earth Voxl team, and in a few days he would defend the “honor” of the planet playing against a visiting League team. The biggest sporting event of the year, although the humans had never won. Yes, Daniel Menéndez had achieved his dream. He was in the front row. Jowe, on the other hand, was just another loser in the crowd...
        But she would never forget that last glance of his, as Planetary Security came to take him away. A mute pleading look that she would never forget. The face of the sergeant who stopped him, his features as if carved in leather. The face of a man who understands that someone has to take care of the dirty work and does not particularly enjoy being the one chosen to do it. One who has seen it all and no longer believes in anything.
        Jowe... the departure: kissing him, crying with him, embracing him... and something like a knot formed in her stomach.
        She swallowed suddenly. Yes, it had been a sign of weakness... but it was the least she could do. She never could have made it without him. Without him allowing her to save her protection money, she wouldn’t have been able to scrape together enough to buy that translucent leather dress which had showed off her healthy animal body and her fine muscles so well. And Selshaliman never would have noticed her at that party.
        To be chosen by a Grodo was one of the safest ways to leave the Earth... and the most difficult. Aside from luck, it required absolutely perfect health. Cosmetic and medical implants forbidden. Genetic and psychological illnesses forbidden. Drug consumption, even of the mildest ones, forbidden.
        Although Yleka had always scoffed at her, Buca had always remained faithful to her daily routine of exercises and detested the easy escape of artificial paradises. Chemical and electronics drugs came and went with the fashion. Always more and more expensive and always leaving behind a trail of incurable addicts. Yesterday telecrack, today neurogames, tomorrow who knows what. It was easier to replace one addiction with another than to be cured.
        Filled with pity, Buca watched several boys plugged in to their consoles. Neurogamers. Each isolated in the private universe of his direct-access cortical implant. Kids of means, she noted. From their tailor-cut clothes and because no neuron-damaged street kid could gain access to the intermediate ring of an astroport. These ones had enough credits in their accounts to bribe Planetary Security. And to pay for hours rather than minutes in their own cyberspace playground, leaving behind their own planet of no future and a bleak present.
        Their philosophy was solidly and darkly attractive: Reality is shit? Well, then, leave it. In the virtual world, time ran at its own speed. There they could travel to planets that they would never see. There they could be superheroes. Invincible Colossaurs or supersexy feline Cetians. Why risk real death fighting alongside those idiots from the Pro-Liberation Earth Xenophobe Union? In neurogaming you could die thousands of synthetic deaths and liberate the Earth a thousand times from the yoke of the Xenoids each day...
        Three legalized workers were laughing uncontrollably at nothing at all every time Buca glanced at them, and they swayed back and forth under the effects of what must have been one of their first hits of telecrack. Buca thought of Yleka. That’s how it must have started...
        Telecrack caused irreversible addiction. They said that it elevated one’s telepathic potential, permitting one to share temporary empathies and even trade isolated thoughts with other users. According to Jowe, this was a total lie. Human beings lack any sort of telepathic receptors, and nothing could change that. The only effect of telecrack was to overwhelm the neural circuits, inducing hallucinations. Case closed.
        Yleka used to score a hit before each client. She said that it “tuned” her in and helped her work better. That might be true... for the first two or three hours of the night. At the end she would always wind up crying and babbling incomprehensible nonsense about Alex “who was working on something secret and very important”. But when she regained consciousness the next day she would never want to talk about that. Something had bothered Buca from the start about her friend’s secret (she had known her all her life). She quickly came to the obvious conclusion that Alex was no more than some stupid, insignificant ex-lover. And that bit about the “secret and important work” was pure fabrication by Yleka.
        The poor thing, she must have loved him a lot if she tried to forget him by running to telecrack. Although maybe the horse-sized doses she consumed were only an attempt to distance herself from her body while she watched it subjected to every type of degrading manipulation. Being a social worker had a lot in common with being condemned to Corporal Exchange. In both cases, one was not entirely the mistress of her own body…
        Yleka slowly self-destructed. With her body deteriorated by addiction she came to the inevitable moment at which she could no longer lure clients as easily as before. At least she managed to get that Cetian, Cauldar, to accept her and had left the planet with him. Where was she now? And in what shape?
        The Cetian humanoids were the galactic race most like homo sapiens. Although much more beautiful, more sexy…and more dangerous. Males and females roamed the Earth, always looking for candidates for their slave bordellos. They paid very well. And no one made love like them… Buca had been almost about to accompany Yleka, to leave with Cauldar. But she decided to listen to the rumors.
        There were terrible tales about the caverns of Tau Ceti. About girls forced into unnatural couplings with Aldebaranian Polyps or the segmented Guzoids of Regulus, couplings which caused them death, disfigurement, or exotic, repugnant and incurable venereal diseases. And there were worse things even than the slave bordellos. There were stories of young men seduced by angelic Cetian faces and ending up shredded by organ traffickers.
        A lot of these stories had to have been pure fantasy. What sexual interest would asexual creatures like the Polyps and Guzoids have in humans?
        But, wisely, after considering that there was always some grain of truth in any rumor, Buca had let Yleka depart alone at the last moment. Even in the best case, her friend would right now be the victim of Cauldar’s whims. Every Cetian hid an implacable iron will underneath its sweet appearance.
        And what a shame: before filling it with drugs, Yleka’s body had been enviable. Perhaps Selshaliman would have taken the both of them. For a Grodo, two would be better than one…
        Almost without noticing, they had reached the interior ring of the cosmodrome, reserved only for passengers who were arriving or departing. The Grodo’s movements were becoming more relaxed. He knew this zone much better, and he felt more secure here than outside.
        Although only a human who hated his own kind would assault an Insectoid. The only time that a Grodo had been the random victim of a group of assailants, the geophysical bomb had spoken once more, and New London had disappeared, swallowed by a tidal wave. The lesson remained clear. The Grodos could walk safely anywhere on the planet they wanted.
        Furthermore, if anyone were crazy and suicidal enough to try to harm one of these Insectoids, it would be very difficult to pull it off. Selshaliman’s brilliant chitin breastplate was almost impervious to any type of projectile, and energy weapons and the technology for their fabrication were strictly forbidden on Earth. The agents of Planetary Security with their submachine guns ensured that this provision was rigidly enforced.
        Armored, with their four thin but powerful arms and corresponding legs, the Grodos were wily fighters second only to the massive Colossaurs in strength, but not by much. Furthermore, there were their stingers, with which they could inject their victims with a lethal poison.
        And with other things, as Buca now knew perfectly well…
        The internal ring of the astroport was free of cyberaddicts and social workers of all types. Only those with authorization to travel had access to this zone. From the large crysteel windows, one could see the runway with the shuttles arranged in orderly lines broken here and there by some aerodynamic but stubby suborbital patrol.
        Buca smiled, amused: despite all of Planetary Security’s boasts about “maintaining control”, the problem of illegal departures from the planet appeared to be growing more and more acute. They had had to buy so many of those ships from the Xenoids to control the fugitives that their own airports were not big enough to service them all.
        Buca had never before entered the final ring of the astroport. The simple fact that she could walk these hallways was almost a guarantee that Selshaliman would keep his word. So that soon she would climb into the shuttle and then into the hypership, leaving Earth. Forever.
        Nostalgia invaded her with an army of memories. She recalled her childhood on the small island whose name she wished to forget. He mother, happy to have finally gotten the girl she wanted, baptizing her María Elena. Her father, bearded astronaut of the Satellite Chasers patrol was only an occasional presence in the house, in between missions. She recalled her poverty-free childhood, not having to depend on Social Aid, believing that the agents of Planetary Security were there to protect her. Believing in terrestrial hospitality and the goodness of Xenoids… And her mother, who watched her and sighed, as if telling her: “play and enjoy today…there’s always enough time for suffering later.”
        And, oh, how there was.
        But no one could take away from her those years of childhood happiness.
        Then, it all fell apart. At ten she discovered the lie of the Galactic Protectorate, the cruelty of the Ultimatum, what the Xenoids really were. Her birthday present was a one-week trip to Hawaii, in style. She even went to the astroport to take the suborbital shuttle. How she had loved it! Without knowing that this was the last time that her family would be together. Her mother and father passed her crying, thinking that she couldn’t see them. Hanging on to each other the whole time, without Buca understanding why. Until later, after waiting for hours in the waiting room of the astrodome, when it was the functionaries of Social Aid that came to pick her up. And she realized that she would never see her parents again.
        Depressed by their accumulated debts, they had sold her to Corporal Exchange. For this farewell trip and for a guarantee of 15 years of room and board for their daughter. Besides canceling the sum that she would now have to pay in place of her parents and which converted her into a lifelong slave of the Planetary Tourist Agency.
        She would never forgive them.
        The hell of boarding school, among kids picked off the street and branded as delinquents almost from birth. There a happy sheltered childhood was a disadvantage. The other girls, who had grown up dodging the territorial wars of the Yakuza and Mafia, mocking the Xenoids who were looking for clean young natives, had a malice that she lacked. They were strong and aggressive like wild animals and both hated and envied her for not being one of them. For being pretty and having manners, for being tall and having large bones. They hated her and it showed. Mocking her. Humiliating her. Beating her.
        It was rough. But she adapted. She learned. She endured. So much so that when the money paid to her parents (both dead years ago, both driven crazy) by Corporal Exchange ran out, she fled the boarding school before the others figured out what to do with her. She already knew what she wanted: to flee the Earth at any cost. She had no artistic or athletic talent, nor anything more than a basic education. And she was not going to risk her life in the kamikaze gesture of an illegal escape into space.
        She knew what was the safest way to reach her goal: to become an freelance social worker and to entice a Xenoid to take her away.
        The galactic tourists seemed to fully appreciate the sweetness and cheerfulness of the humans and their ability to pretend that their relations had nothing to do with money. In her case… she had stopped being sweet and innocent long ago. She had beauty, sass, a nice figure and a desire to write her own ticket. And a grudge against the world.
        Without documents she could never become a legalized social worker. One of those that hand part of their pay over to the Planetary Tourist Agency and receive protection in return: a minimum salary, a guaranteed retirement insurance and free medical care. Nor did she want to be one of them. Her only choice was to make it her on her own or perish.
        At first it didn’t look like she would make it. Her first client, a disappointingly likeable Centaurian, insisted on full service. In his hotel. And, treated like a lady for the first time in her life, she naively went along…
        At first it was nice enough. She had a couple orgasms. But the Xenoid continued and continued… and it turned into a hurricane that lasted for hours. She yelled, kicked and scratched, trying to escape, without success; The Centaurian was much stronger than she. She yelled, crazed by pain, screaming for help… but the hotel rooms were soundproof, or maybe the residents were jaded to the screams of social workers. Nobody intervened. The endless and sadistic coupling drove her beyond reason. She was left with her organs swollen and like jelly, hurting for several days. The worst was that the bastard not only snuck out without paying but took off with her meager savings. And he never even settled his bill with the hotel.
        Another time she believed that an especially foul-smelling Colossaur had given her the incurable Purple Plague and she was on the brink of suicide…
        But she was learning the tricks of the trade. After being assaulted three times by freelance pickpockets, she contracted some underworld pros to cover her back. The protection was expensive, but it worked. She was never again mugged in a dark alley. She was never again forced to hand over her hard-won earnings at vibroknifepoint. Nor to hand herself over, afterwards, to serve as her assailants’ nightcap.
        Now she had triumphed. Now, if she wanted to, she could return to those old sick haunts where she had been almost a slave and she could hold her head up high, if only she wanted to. But she did not want to return again, ever.
        A teletransport chamber opening right in front of her face made her jump. A Grodo Insectoid left it, trailing a faceful of cold air. Apparently, it had just arrived from a city far to the north.
        She examined the empty chamber, curious. She had never seen one up close, let alone used one. They were monstrously expensive. Totally inaccessible to simple freelance social workers like the one she had been until just now.
        It was time she got used to them. All the Xenoids used them when they were in a hurry. They entered, a flash of disintegration… and then they appeared in another flash in a similar chamber thousands of kilometers away.
        Not that they were perfect. One could only use them within the same planetary body, and, even so, they sometimes produced small but regrettable mistakes. Very rarely, to tell the truth. For example, the Grodos’ private network had never had such an accident, at least none that had appeared on the holovid news.
        The Planetary Tourist Agency always compensated the family of the unfortunate dematerialized victim and gave the eternal excuse that Earthlings didn’t have enough experience managing such high-tech equipment… because the extraterrestrial technicians were reluctant to train human personnel in the operation of teleporter chambers. Maybe there was something in that. Surely the most brilliant human teletransport specialists would have already abandoned the planet at all cost. As would have any sensible person with any ability that the Xenoids could appreciate. Artists, scientists, sports stars, all fled their home world as soon as the splendor of extraterrestrial credits helped them understand where true happiness lay.
        Still, leaving the Earth didn’t keep them from droning on and on with slogans like “Liberate the Earth”, “Revenge the Human Race” or other such hollow phrases. Buca despised them. It was much easier to talk of ideals from far away, with a full stomach. And very hypocritical. She would never mock those who stayed on the Earth, she was never going to “stand in solidarity with their just fight”…
        Three distinct crashes.
        Then the well-known clatter of automatic low-caliber gunfire.
        Buca was lying on the floor before realizing what had happened. That daydreaming had given her away; nobody in the suburbs would ever survive if they continued to walk once they heard shots. A bit upset at her broken dignity, she looked up.
        The men of Planetary Security were rounding up a lone terrorist. He was jumping with incredible agility from column to column, evading them and firing a Paleolithic semiautomatic rifle. Obviously he must have had an uncommonly large dose of feline analog inside him, a nonaddictive military drug which gave the user the tremendous agility and rapid reflex time of a cat.
        The Pro-Liberation Earth Xenophobe Union folks always used it in their commando raids. The aftereffects were exhaustion and a devastating depression that left the user totally defenseless. But a new dose erased that. The cycle could be endlessly repeated until the user died, totally drained of his physical and mental reserves, but active to the end.
        Beaten by the superiority in numbers and armaments, the man who thought himself a cat fell, shot point blank by the Security agents’ fire. They kept firing at him until only unrecognizable pieces remained of his body. The feline analog also produced an enormous invulnerability to pain. More than one agent had proved in flesh and blood how a terrorist with a dozen bullets in his chest could still rip one’s bowels apart with one blow.
        While the astroport Hygiene crew collected what remained of the corpse and traffic returned to normal, Buca got up and looked in all directions, searching for Selshaliman. She feared a last-minute trick. This would have been the height of irony, to leave her abandoned like this in the middle of the astroport…
        “Identify yourself, please.” A mixture of kindness and authority, the voice of an agent of Planetary Security resonated behind her back. The still-hot shaft of his gun insistently touched her shoulder.
        Buca turned, furious: if he had damaged her dress, we would see what kind of idiot…
        “I thought that freelancers were prohibited access here,” there was mocking in the voice that emerged from under the helmet that hid the agent’s features. All pleasantry had disappeared, “Sweet dress…Pity. You can dress them up, but you can’t take them out…Come with me, sweetie. You and I are going to clear up a few items in private…And you had better be pleasant, if you don’t want me to report that you were attached to that poor imbecile…,” he pointed with his semiautomatic to the heap that his colleagues had made of the terrorist.
        “Wait, it’s a mistake, I came with…,” Buca tried to explain, trembling at once from both fear and fury. That was the current deal that Planetary Security offered her colleagues: sex for immunity. If only she knew where… But, how would he recognize her, apart from her gorgeous dress? Suddenly she felt as naked and as vulnerable as when she used to circle the other astroport dressed only in a translucent jacket and a scanty fluorescent g-string.
        “I don’t care who you came with. Come with me now, princess,” he interrupted her impatiently. And he extended his gloved hand in order to grab her arm with all brusqueness.
        Buca closed her eyes and cringed like a child awaiting a whipping from her father. Where could Selshaliman be? Was it all just a dream? She should have suspected; it was all too beautiful to be real, for it to have happened to her…
        The sound at her side, like a whip. Something fell, further along.
        The gloved hand never touched her. She opened her eyes. Selshaliman was next to her, his antennae high and light reflecting off the facets of his eyes. He had never appeared so beautiful. The Planetary Security agent, seated several meters away on the ground, rubbed his aching chest.
        “Are you okay, Buca? Did he do anything to you?” chirped the vocal synthesizer of the Insectoid. Buca shook her head, content; she was fine.
        “Believe me, we very much regret this… incident. She is perfectly fine. My man didn’t even touch her. We had no idea that she was with you…” the voice of the other one from Planetary Security, a sergeant to judge from his bars, was conciliatory. “To compensate you for the inconvenience, we would like to give you priority in boarding the shuttle…”
        “That would be best. Come, Buca,” Selshaliman replied haughtily, barely touching her. Buca supported herself on him, confident and moved. At that moment, she could have even been capable of loving him.
        He beat one of the Planetary Security agents just to protect me! The sergeant and his man were garbage to a tourist, especially to a Grodo…but what mattered was the gesture. She walked on the arm of Selshaliman, feeling herself the owner of the world.
        But she did not walk away fast enough to miss what the sergeant said as he helped his fallen colleague to his feet. Or maybe he spoke loud enough so that she wouldn’t miss it:
        “Get on your feet, stupid…it was a strong hit, but your armor absorbed it well enough. And, you know what? You deserved it, you dolt. For not paying close enough attention. That was not just any social worker…The Grodo chose her; she’ll be incubated, and so she’s worth a thousand times you or me, or hundreds like us.”
        Buca did not want to hear any more. But Selshaliman’s measured gait forced her to listen to the rest as well. The explanation from the expert sergeant to the green rookie. That which she knew from the very beginning. That which she always preferred not to think about.
        “No, it won’t be like what you think,” the sergeant had a decidedly disagreeable laugh, “The Grodos are hermaphrodites. They reproduce just once and then die. But they need to deposit their eggs in another living being. The “incubator” has to be warm-blooded and as intelligent as possible. I suppose so that she doesn’t commit suicide like any sensible wild animal experiencing a living death. So that she lives long enough that…that the eggs hatch and the larvae eat her internal organs in complete tranquility. And it appears that human beings, especially without drugs or implants, are ideal for that. When? From the look of his shell, it might still be some years off. Our friend will have everything she has ever desired until he feels the time has come to propagate the species. But I sure wouldn’t want to be in her skin then…”
        Buca could bear it no longer. Detaching herself from Selshaliman with a violent gesture, she turned around to face the sergeant.
        The man had already taken off his helmet.
        Those features, as if etched in leather…
        Buca swallowed, recognizing him.
        Those eyes sick of watching all the misery of the Universe looked at her and all she could manage was to mutter, confused, but with a calm that she never thought she could have mustered:
        “Sure. But I’m leaving, and you’re staying.”
        And she returned to her lord and master, the Grodo. Rage and powerlessness burned in her eyes. Luckily she was using waterproof makeup. Tear-proof even. And it formed a mask over her features.
        The day they took Jowe away she had no makeup. It was unlikely that that sergeant would have recognized her… but still, the most prudent thing would be to just leave.
        As soon as the opportunity arose, she would beg Selshaliman to use her influence to… punish him, somehow. She was certain that he would do it, just to please her.
        Just thinking about it brought calm back to her soul. Although perhaps they would be too rough on the man…he seemed to know a lot about the Grodos, and he had confirmed what Selshaliman had told her: until his grayish shell was no longer opaque, the time would not yet have arrived.
        Several years. And then…
        What would it be like? Selshaliman had told her something…
        The sting-ovipositor penetrating softly, painlessly through her vagina, to deposit its precious cargo in the most protected of human organs, the uterus. It could even be pleasant.
        And the eggs, so delicate that sometimes they took years to hatch…and others never would hatch. Maybe she would be lucky, as she had been so far. Or perhaps she might even, with some metabolic poison…
        She looked at Selshaliman out of the corner of her eye and began to recite the catchy refrain from that technohit. Better not to try anything. Better not to think about it. If the Grodo suspected that she had even weighed the possibility, he would drown her in acid. Or worse.
        Several years…
        And how she would enjoy herself! All her whims catered to. It was difficult to imagine Selshaliman’s wealth. In any case, it was enough to have the best clothes in the Universe, eat the most exotic dishes, travel to the most exquisite fashion spas. She could have all the lovers she wanted… she had discussed this with the Grodo: the concept of fidelity was totally lacking in a hermaphrodite. She could even treat herself to one of those pale, perverse, beautiful Cetians.
        The only thing forbidden was to have children. To preserve her delicate, precious uterus…But who wants to waste time giving birth anyway?
        She would learn to fit into the exquisite galactic society, where Selshaliman, who undoubtedly had a prominent role in the class hierarchy of his race, would introduce her, enchanted.
        Certainly, it was time to convince him to change his name, so Arabic, so horrible. He needed something more fashionable, more bold and modern, something that would impress her friends. Because he was going to buy several of them their way off planet, yes. And maybe, if he’s still alive, Jowe... She owed him that.
        Smiling, Buca crossed the final gate of the astroport and climbed to the shuttle that would lead her to the hypership in orbit.
        A Japanese name would be better…they’re all the fashion now. Four syllables, like they seem to go for. Horusaki or something like that. It was important to choose one as soon as possible.
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