Submitted for Contest #96 in response to:
Write about a character who has to rely on the hospitality of strangers.
Arrived in Hrshwth. Gate connection in approximately five minutes, the automated voice chimed.
Metz felt tremors down her spine as she stood to shuffle on the landing of the ship. Oof. Her back ached. Her neck ached. Her hands… her whole body ached from remaining in her seat the past 18 hours for the landing process. The whole seven month flight was easier than the last half-day. If Metz had been bathing in a second story tub when it finally fell through the rotted floor and shattered with her still in it, she would have been in less pain. Her teeth felt like they had receded into her skull, her lower back ached as if from impact, and pain shards of broken porcelain stabbed every joint they could find.
To say the least, Metz was offended by her human condition—at the Human condition as a whole, really. Somehow, Humans had managed to migrate lightyears from the Solar System to the Webb, they had transhuman augmentation, and even quasi-immortality technology (for the uber rich). Yet, they hadn’t managed a cure for mundane ailments like cancer, brain disease, and autoimmune disorders. Metz suffered from a genomic autoimmune disorder. In her opinion, it was high time for a change in Human priorities.
That’s why I’m on this ship, she consoled herself. In truth, Human priorities had not changed since the days when Humans were on Earth; the pursuit of wealth prevailed.
Fortunately, when Humans thought they had “discovered” the Webb Planetary System, they were introduced to their new exoplanetary Webb neighbors on planet J. Webb-112,358,132,134 d who had, in Metz’s opinion, superior prioritization: the Hehe.
The Hehe—pronounced Heh-heh without resonant sound, like the wind laughing, as the saying went—were the most intelligent species in all of the known planets. They had Caninae skulls atop even larger Avian torsos, with no visible neck between them, and no tail. Though invisible, their necks had nearly 180 degrees of impressive rotation. Their moist skin boasted an array of vibrant colors and patterns, coated with an invisible layer of velvety fuzz. From their bodies sprang four long, muscular limbs that each ended in three extensive, slender digits. Their hindlimb joints bent the opposite direction of Human knee joints, while the joints of their even lengthier upper limbs were hypermobile. Hehe were both quadrupedal and bipedal as it suited them. Behind the shoulder joints of their forelimbs, Hehe had what appeared to be undeveloped wings of light bones and cartilage, connected across the back by a thin layer of skin. When startled, this system would lift like an impressive, fanning collar. Hehe evolved as the dominant amphibian species of the hot, humid planet Rss’sh for millennia. Adult Hehe stood 2-3 meters tall when bipedal, weighed roughly 300 kilograms and were approximately 2 meters long.
Unlike Humans, Hehe cared little for space expansion, preferring intellectual exploration instead. When Humans bargained for settlement on the five other ‘uninhabited’ planets in the habitable zones of the Webb, the Hehe merely asked if they could study their new Human neighbors. Hehe medical science outpaced Human medicine—even in the far off TRAPPIST-1 System. Yet another Human conquest, Metz thought.
Hehe medicine was the reason Metz left Webbē for planet J. Webb-112,358,132,134 d, named Rss’sh by its Hehe inhabitants. Well, that, and the trade alliance between Rss’sh and the other Webb System planets.
In elementary classes, long before her illness reared its ugly head, Metz had learned about the Webb System Trade Alliance (WSTA). The planets, Webb b, Webb c, Rss’sh, Webb e, Webb f, and Webb g were glorious proof of the interspecies thriving brought about by galactic expansion. Metz had dreamed of being an astronaut, an interplanetary diplomat, or even a first wave scientist so she could explore new planets herself.
Welcome to Hrshwth. Gate Connected, the ship announced.
Now riddled with pain, inflammation, and the sustained threat of organ failure, the only new planets Metz would ever see would be the ones in her own planetary system, serving as a cog in the WSTA. But, even visiting those planets sounded debilitating now.
For middle and lower class citizens, the best option for medical treatment was to enlist as a WSTA “patient” (test subject), if they were medically stable enough for travel. Hehes were fascinated by the challenge of adapting their medical knowledge to suit other species. Humans, Hehe, and other species were frequently transported to Rss’sh from elsewhere in the Webb as part of this exchange of knowledge for medical treatment… and whatever else Humans requested. It was a much better deal for the Humans, Metz thought. But, I’ll go with whatever gets rid of this disease.
Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth.
As the bay doors opened, her breath caught in her throat. Her stomach was a tangle of extension cords jammed into the same surge protector; not from any specific stimulus of awe or wonder, but because it felt like a pivotal moment. For Metz, this was the moment when her life would finally change. She wished she could share the moment with Ogdul and Cleahn. Great Volans, Metz already missed them.
When Metz left Webbē, she had not intended to meet anyone on the ship. The flight was merely a necessary transition between her previous life and her fresh start on the eastern coast of the Hrshwth continent. It was supposed to be just seven more months of acceptable misery in a life of acceptable misery. A final chapter where Metz’s pain would drain her energy and snatch away contentment at every opportunity; the cramped room and rehydrated meals would do away with any remaining happiness.
Upon discovering that her bunkmates were enthusiastic, hyperactive fraternal twins, Metz truly doubted that she would survive the trip. But, within a week, Metz, Ogdul, and Cleahn became inseparable. There was something magical about the twins.
Ogdul, a vibrant orange and yellow Hehe, was a newly licensed engineer who’d landed an apprenticeship with an architect in western Hrshwth. Her brother, Cleahn, couldn’t let her just leave him alone on Webbē, so he taught himself a curious new branch in botany in the hopes of scoring his own job on the new planet. Whenever he told Metz this story (he did, many times) his deep purple swirls flared burgundy with barely contained excitement. The two had never been to Rss’sh before and were eager to see their ancestral planet.
Both siblings talked nonstop. It wasn’t incessant chatter. It was more musical—like lilting laughter or a babbling stream. They had a way of making any conversation simultaneously more interesting and more comforting than idle conversation had any right to be. Perhaps people learned to talk like this when they came from large families.
For seven months Metz had been absorbed in their nonsense chittering. It was the happiest Metz had been in a long time. Perhaps ever.
Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth, the voice repeated in Thsst.
Thsst was the popular language dialect across all regions of the planet Rss’sh. It was common across the Webb to speak Human languages and Thsst.
Metz’s eyes stung. She desperately wished she could share this singular, exquisite moment with her two beloved fools, but they had already said their goodbyes. Now Ogdul and Cleahn were waiting for their own entry ship at a station on the periphery of orbit. They would land on the other side of Hrshwith in a few hours. Metz would take the next part of this journey alone.
Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth. The ship sounded as excited as Metz felt.
Metz watched as the doors settled into their hatch to form a walkway. Webbalight flooded into the bay through the open door. She heard the chugging noise of the escalators connecting the various floors powering on, and the bustling of people gathering their immediate belongings. The rest would be transported to designated final destinations via the rapid delivery systems.
The heat of Rss’sh crept into the ship. The extreme humidity formed beads of condensation at the edges of the bay. Metz collected her things and lumbered toward the nearest escalator. As soon as she crossed the threshold between the ship and the gate entrance she was wading through the air rather than walking. Nonetheless, there was a spring in her step—a minute difference between the gravities of Webbē and Rss’sh. This should help my back, she thought.
Metz quickly found the WSTA processing for new arrivals. The procedure was shockingly disorganized. A herd of WSTA patients ambled around the waiting zone until their patient code was called.
Awaiting her turn, Metz’s eyes drifted to her surroundings. She had seen Hehe architecture before—on Webbē she’d visited duplicates of stoic Hrshwthian learning centers and insulated northern Hithwissee hotels. But, there was something quite literally otherworldly about standing in the halls of a genuine Hehe complex.
The room seemed more expansive, the thick, glasslike ceilings high, impressive, and flooded with webbalight. There were no doors in sight—a shared theme across Hehe designs—hallways ending, instead, in what appeared to be abrupt walls but were actually a sequence of partial walls that zigged and zagged from the left and right in a visual overlap. This provided Hehes with a continuous path of motion between rooms, whereas doors would be quite awkward for the species. Hehes possessed limited torso rotation. As such, doors that required a full-body rotation to close had never been considered. Upon meeting Humans, Hehes quickly mastered and improved handsfree doors for both Hehe and Human use across the other five planets. Hehe regions of Rss’sh, however, remained doorless for the sake of efficiency.
“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” a registry droid intoned from the checkpoint, first in Thsst, then in a Human language.
The walls and floors were seamless, shaped from large, smooth stones of many colors. Corners were rounded rather than angular. It was as though a pile of dissimilar rocks and sediment had been somehow melted together and then lovingly sanded into the present shape of the room. This was, in fact, the rough process of Hehe architecture in Hrshwth, though the process spanned a few thousand years. Hehe molded and perfected their surroundings in incredible feats of conservation.
“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” the droid repeated.
As Metz’s senses took in her incredible surroundings a feeling of nostalgia, for a time and species she had never been, washed over her. Metz plucked a long strand of dark curls from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear—a compulsive tick indicating deep thought.
“W—nt h—lp with th—t?” A voice of whispering wind asked from somewhere above her right ear.
Metz rolled her neck at a diagonal to locate the source. A Hehe of sapphire blue with swirls of every imaginable shade of green and blue was peering down at her with dark, misty eyes from a quarter meter higher.
Gesturing toward the red ring of light glowing from Metz’s left interface bracelet, the voice whispered with more gusto, “You’re in the new medical group, right? I’m an intern for Section Q. I’m supposed to help new arrivals.” Each syllable was surrounded by whooshing and h-sounds to approximate vowels and hard consonants. “I’m Whss-hh,” she said. It sounded like cold water making contact with a hot skillet.
“Whiss-huh,” Metz tried the name on her tongue. It tickled. She liked it. “Nice to meet you, Whss-hh. I’m Metz.” Metz responded in her best full-Thsst.
Whss-hh’s eyes crinkled and the lighter rings of swirling green framing her eyes moved downward along her snout, smiling.
“Welcome to Hrshwth, Metz—”
“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481.” Metz thought the droid’s volume had increased.
Whss-hh nudged Metz. “Is that you?”
Metz brought her attention back to the present. She rotated her right wrist to view the interface from the wristband. Solar winds! Metz swore. She’d forgotten to save her patient code to the banner-view.
Most people—Hehe, Human, and presumably other species with rotating forelimbs—wore metallic interface bands on each wrist. Modified bands and implants existed for transhumanist fanatics and those with disabilities or limitations. The bands were typically an inch or two thick, with a light banner-view display of notifications and time conversions rotating around the surface of each band.
Many people chose a specific color for the backlight of the bands indicating their status, position, or medical needs. Red-FF4500 indicated WSTA travel. Most red spectrum lights indicated something along the lines of health and medicine. A forward flick of the wrist would extend a 2D holographic interface along the palm of the corresponding wrist. An upward push of the wrist produced a 3D hologram, complete with light refraction cloaking for privacy, suspended a few centimeters above the skin. A similar simultaneous push of both wrists produced a hands-free, cloaked 3D hologram that remained suspended at the user’s eye-level until manually exited.
Flick. The interface screen projected along the length of Metz’s palm. Her patient code should be saved in the shortlist. Gah! Humans had too many identity number sequences to remember them all. One for travel, one for birth registry, one for patient status, one for annual accounting… The list never ended.
Ah! Got it! Metz found her patient code… If only she could remember the number sequence the registry droid had called. Memory failure was yet another symptom of Metz’s disease.
Leaning as far upward as she could, Metz whispered to Whss-hh, “uh… do you remember what number they said?” Metz thought she saw Whss-hh swallow the hint of a smirk. Great.
“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” Whss-hh said, with that infuriatingly perfect Hehe memory.
“Got it,” Metz said coolly. She shuffled forward to allow the registry droid to scan their patient code from the interface. Metz was officially a Section-Q patient.
As she turned to exit the gate, Whss-hh’s whisper found her again. “Wait! Can I get your things?”
Metz was torn. She thought about Whss-hh’s smirk when Metz couldn’t remember the patient code. She didn’t want this clearly competent stranger to think even less of her. But, she was exhausted. Besides, who cared what a stranger thought of her anyway! Metz was on this planet for a cure, not for one person’s opinion.
She lifted her bag as best she could for Whss-hh to retrieve it.
“Yes, thank you.”
She smiled to herself. Ogdul would be quite proud of her.
NAMES & VOCABULARY:
Metz: (Metz), Main character, human.
Ogdul: (OG-dül), One of the fraternal Hehe twins on the ship with Metz. An engineer and architect’s apprentice. She is orange and yellow.
Cleahn: (KLEE – on), The other twin. A botanist. He is deep purple.
Whss-hh: (WHISS – huh), Final Hehe introduced in the story. She is blue and green.
Hehe: (“Heh – heh”), Said like laughter with minimal throat activation and no vowel sounds. A reasonable fictional race of amphibians, given the type of planetary system they inhabit. Any similarities between the Hehe and other fictional races is coincidental; Similarities between the Hehe and prehistoric Earth animals is intentional. Full description in paragraph 6.
Thsst: (“Thist” [Like thistle without the le]), the dominant language of Rss’sh. It is the origin of all other Hehe language dialects. It is popular across the Webb to speak a combination of Human and Thsst languages.
Hrshwth: (HERSH – with), the largest, most centralized land-mass on Rss’sh. All Hehe originated from here. The majority of the Hehe species remains in Hrshwth because of the warm climate. Rss’sh is a warm planet, but the equator has the warmest and most consistent temperature.
Hithwissee: (HITH – wis – see), A specific scientific group of Hehes who live in climates too cold for Hehes for the sake of scientific research. They have been there for centuries now and, while they have not physically adapted, they have formed some cultural differences and nuances. Especially in architecture for climate control.
Rss’sh: (ERus – sh) [The first syllable Rss sounds like ‘er’ and ‘russ’
smooshed together], Name of the planet Webb-112,358,132,134 d in the Thsst language of the Hehe.
Webbē: (WEB – ee), Also known as Webb-112,358,132,134-e or Webb-e, Webbē is a planet in the Webb Planetary System, centered on the K-dwarf star (sun) Webba (J. Webb-112,358,132,134 a). On this planet, one day is 36 hours.
(The) Webb: the Webb Planetary System, centered on the K-dwarf
star/sun J. Webb-112,358,132,134. The habitable zone planets are: Webb-112,358,132,134 b, Webb…c, Rss’sh, Webb…e (Webbē), Webb…f, and Webb…g. Humans live on each of the habitable planets. There are other, unnamed, uninhabitable planets in the Webb System.
Webba: (WEB – uh), A K-dwarf star, also known as J. Webb-112,358,132,134 (A) a. This is the “sun” of the Webb Planetary System. It is the brightest star in the system. The “a” position of this star is used in the common name webba to differentiate between The Webb (a planetary system) and the Webb A star.
Webbalight: (WEB – uh Līt), Light from the Webba star. the Webb Planetary System equivalent of sunlight.
J. Webb: is a fictional telescope a few tech generations after the real James Webb Space Telescope.
TRAPPIST-1 System: a real planetary system around a red-dwarf star with a number of habitable zone planets (like planet Earth) in orbit.
Great Volans: An exclamation of incredulity like “Holy Cow!” or “Good God!” derived from the name of the constellation Piscis Volans, meaning “flying fish.” Upon the rediscovery of this name, Webbē meme culture co-opted it with the addition of various expletives and adjectives. Alternative versions are “Holy Volans,” “Great Flying Fish,” and “What in the Volans?”
Solar Winds: Solar winds are like feces, they serve their purpose but nobody wants to deal with them. When said as a swear, it means “ah, shit.”