From the author: A human housemaid is terrified that she will be held responsible for the death of her alien employer.
Outside the small shelter, the sand storms howled.
Bett sat on the floor, shivering despite her environment suit. Her headgear was in her lap and her small pack sat next to her; these, together with just enough currency to get her to the spaceport, were everything she owned. The next transport wasn’t due for several hours yet.
Every once in a while, she’d glance nervously at the only other occupant of the shelter, its caretaker, who squatted unmoving at his station in back of the one-room building. Like other Brelsh, he — Bett thought it was a he — looked to human eyes like a large varicolored mound of gelatin. Since he was apparently resting, he didn’t have any visible tentacles or eyestalks; if he needed to see or handle anything, he’d extrude them as needed — a process that, when she first met the Brelsh, had made Bett feel slightly ill.
Still, the Brelsh were a prosperous people and willing to hire alien help, especially as house servants and child minders. Two years ago, Bett had found herself extremely low on funds and had answered an ad for a rather status-conscious family who lived on one of the many Brelsh colony worlds. They agreed to a reasonable salary and transport costs. The work was not easy, and her employers were exacting to a fault. But she was putting by a little money, her co-worker, an older man named Leo, was a wry and friendly person, and on the whole, things weren’t bad.
Until she found her employer dead.
Bett had already had a run-in with her employer that morning. She had awakened to find a note — a small blue square of some sort of biological material with the texture of heavy cardboard — clinging to the wall next to her sleeping mat. Bett stared at it for a couple of minutes, her stomach churning slightly. The note meant only one thing. The Father/Brother was pissed at her again.
Not that it was unusual to find a note from the Father/Brother first thing in the morning. The Brelsh advertised themselves as a polite, extremely courteous species who did their best never to submit to anger or hatred, but to always act and speak carefully and with forethought. They demonstrated their courtesy by never actually confronting their staff with problems, but by leaving stiffly-worded notes that invariably questioned the recipient’s honor, morals, ethics and intelligence, ending with a polite request at the end not to discuss the matter further.
Look, she told herself, it’s not like you have a hell of a lot of choices here. Just read the damn thing and get it over with.
Bett carefully pulled the note from the wall. Her translator unit was on the floor next to her pillow, balled up in sleep mode. She stroked its bright pink head until it woke up, tweeted, and obediently opened its mouth. (The translator was a gift from a previous employer who had been informed that human females were hardwired to prefer pink and cute.)
Bett fed the note to the translator carefully, trying to keep the fragile material from getting caught in the works. The device spent a couple of moments digesting the message, and then tweeted again in a two-note descending trill that indicated the note was from the Father/Brother — which always signaled disaster. “Okay,” Bett said, and stroked the translator’s head again. It stared at her with what she liked to believe was affection, and began to speak.
Unfortunately, the message didn’t seem to be very decipherable. “Evening meal,” the translator chirped, and then, after a pause, “afterwards,” and after that, the confused humming that indicated a less-than-clear segment. (“It’s because he’s got a lousy handwriting,” Leo had joked once, but Bett couldn’t find it funny.)
The last line was a real winner. “Fix or leave.”
Bett tried to guess what the problem was. Had anything happened after dinner yesterday? She hadn’t broken anything (that she was aware of, anyway), and she had been as quiet as she could, and she had remembered to wear her hood while serving (since the Father/Brother found the shape of human ears distasteful).
“Breakfast!” It was Leo who, since he had to care for the kids, was always up a couple of hours before Bett. He put the tray carefully down next to her bed, and waited while Bett toweled her face and hands clean.
“So I see you got another note?” Leo said as Bett dipped a slice of protein in the sauce and chewed on it thoughtfully.
Bett swallowed and shrugged. “The usual,” she said. She took another bite, and explained the contents.
Leo grinned, exposing the two empty spaces where his bottom front teeth had been — he lost them last year in a cooking accident.
“Just take it easy,” Leo said. “The Father/Brother is a pain in the ass. He once told me I was using too much oxygen when I took the kids out to their podmates and that I should breathe more shallowly. Well, I went to the Sister/Mother and told her what he said. She jiggled a bit — I think she was laughing, but to tell you the truth, I’ve never been quite sure — and told me not to worry, that she’d talk to him.”
Bett swallowed. “Did she?”
“Well, I never heard anything more about the oxygen.” Leo shrugged. “You know, I’m convinced that the Sister/Mother dislikes her mate more than we do. But I’m not sure if there’s a lot she can do about it at this point.”
“Excuse me.” The translator had suddenly come to life again, but this time it was accompanied by a loud, discordant hiss — one that did not come from the little machine. The Father/Brother’s voice. Bett twisted her head around so suddenly that her neck creaked.
He was standing — or sitting, or whatever he did — right outside the doorway of their living space. He didn’t come in, of course — the humans’ quarters were kept too warm for Brelsh comfort. He just waited for them to notice him.
They stood. “Excuse me,” Leo said. “We didn’t realize that our rest time was over.” It wasn’t — they had at least another 15 minutes to go, and all three knew it.
“I was so disappointed in you that I could not wait,” said the Father/Brother, rippling slightly, never a good sign.
Bett flashed a resigned look at Leo.
“First, let me ask you, Cleaner Female, did you receive my note?”
Bett stared at him. “The note you left me this morning? Yes, I got it.”
The Father/Brother shivered a bit more. “In that note I asked you to be more careful in making the beds, and to be quiet at meals so that you would not disturb the household. It was a simple request, couched in simple language.”
Bett took a deep breath. She thought of her salary, and of the sand outside. “I’m sorry, but parts of the note…”
“Simple language that any child could understand. It is obvious that somebody who has worked in my household for so long must understand that it is disturbing for the rest of us to have to listen to noise during meal times. Therefore, you must have meant to agitate us.”
He slithered forward slightly. The translation unit was almost vibrating; the Father/Brother was obviously very agitated. Bett felt Leo’s hand touch her back gently. She took a breath.
“If I have inadvertently broken a rule…”
“It was obviously not inadvertent. You were appropriately notified. I don’t understand how somebody like you, who claims to be a sentient being, can find any excuse…” The emotionless monotone of the translator’s voice was eerie, especially when combined with the obvious agitation of the speaker. But the Father/Brother was so excited now that the shivering of his skin had become an audible accompaniment to his speech, like the distant flapping of hundreds of wings. To freedom. Through the house, above the sand, toward the two suns and past them and home…
Something pushed at her back sharply. Leo. Bett realized she had let her mind wander and hadn’t heard anything that had been said for the last few minutes. And now she was supposed to answer — something. She opted for subservient acquiescence as the safest course. It had worked before. “Yes, sir,” she said.
A sharp poke in the back and an impatient hiss. She had apparently said the wrong thing. “So you admit it,” the Father/Brother said and turned a deep violet-blue. “You admit that you purposely made a rude noise during our evening meal.”
Bett thought for a moment. “The evening meal? I…I sneezed. But I apologized.” She turned to Leo. “I apologized immediately.”
“An apology does not alter the offense.” The quivering suddenly stopped. A decision had been made. “I have no recourse but to dismiss you at once. Collect your belongings. The Sister/Mother will pay you the salary that we owe you. You will leave immediately.” He began to squelch away.
Leo stepped forward. “Excuse me,” he said firmly, “but what about your guests?”
The Father/Brother stopped. “Guests?”
Leo grinned — safely, because the Father/Brother had never gotten the hang of human expressions. “As I recall, several of your more influential pod mates are coming to bathe with you and the Sister/Mother this evening. She is very anxious that the house be prepared properly. And if the Cleaner Female is no longer here…” He let the sentence hang in the air.
“Ah.” The Father/Brother shivered a bit. “That is a consideration. Very well. You can stay until at least tomorrow. Then we will talk again.”
He paused. “As I recall, the Sister/Mother was especially anxious that the LifeForms be thoroughly clean. Please see to it.” And left.
Bett knelt and started going through her stash. Her clothing was there and her pack, folded into its small storage bag. Her environment kit was there too, and registered an 80% charge, just enough to get her to the shelter where she could get transportation to the spaceport. But after that?
Space travel was prohibitively expensive, especially when you added up the cost of oxygen, life support and the rental of a hibernation capsule. Bett had calculated that if she saved every bit of her salary, she could afford a ticket to a reasonably human-friendly planet in about three years. That meant that she was still a year short.
She had, literally, no place to go. She knew it — and the Father/Brother knew it.
“What are you going to do?” Leo asked.
Bett stood and shrugged. “Clean the house,” she said. “After all, that was what I was hired to do.”
She grabbed her cleaning kit and left the room, shivering a little as the temperature suddenly went down to the wintry levels that the Brelsh favored.
Bett usually started with the public rooms — and the LifeForms, the intricate crystalline structures that hung from its ceiling. When she had first arrived at the house, they had been the first thing she had been shown. “These must be regarded as extraordinarily valuable,” said the Sister/Mother, a rather large silver-green Brelsh, through her interpreter. “As sacred. They must be cleaned every day, but handle them with extreme care. Only use the most delicate brush, and don’t use that brush for anything else.”
So what were they? Sculptures? Religious icons? Playthings? Bett didn’t have the slightest idea — and at this point, she cared less. All she knew is that they were a bitch to clean.
One of them — the largest — had accumulated an impressive amount of sand, more than any of the others. She started with the designated brush, but the sand had somehow caked on to the surface of the sculpture — unusual in that dry climate.
Finally, determined not to be accused of shirking on what was possibly her last day on the job, Bett pulled out a cloth and carefully touched it to the surface of the object.
With a ragged squeal like metal scraping metal, the entire thing clattered to the floor and shattered into dozens of small, bright pieces.
Bett stared at the broken bits of crystal, appalled. If she had been in trouble before, now she couldn’t imagine what the consequences of this would be. What did the Brelsh do to hirelings who broke their valuable — whatevers? Arrest? Summary execution? She had no idea.
She sighed, cleaned up the broken pieces, wrapped them up and put them inside a storage cabinet. She was leaving anyway. If the Brelsh wanted to pursue Bett for breaking their artwork, there was nothing Bett could do about it.
It took her another hour or so to finish the room — there were no more unexpected problems — and she went on to the dining area.
Which is where she found the body.
In the corner, next to one of the storage units, was a half-melted orange beachball made out of gelatin with blue and purple streaks through it. It still had a bit of definition in the center, but the edges had all melted into a translucent sort of gel.
Bett looked a little closer and shivered. She had been working for the Brelsh long enough to recognize the Father/Brother. He was dead. Right after he threatened to fire her.
This was it. There was no way that Bett was going to persuade anyone that she wasn’t responsible for this last outrage. She dropped her cleaning tools, and ran to get her pack and her environment suit. It was going to be a long walk to the shelter.
Lost in her thoughts, it took Bett a moment or two to recognize Leo’s voice. She looked up.
He stood just inside the doorway of the shelter, his headpiece under his arm.
“Bett, it’s okay. Really. The Sister/Mother sent me in the family vehicle to fetch you back. Did you know the Father/Brother has suddenly died? She says that she doesn’t blame you for the breakage — that’s why you ran off, right? — and there is going to be a large number of guests coming, and she needs both of us to help out. She’s frantic.”
Bett stared stonily ahead of her. “And when am I going to be arrested?”
Leo looked puzzled. “Arrested? For what?”
“For the death of the Father/Brother.”
Leo shook his head, puzzled. “She didn’t say anything about that. After she found the body, she went looking for you, and when she couldn’t find you, I told her what the Father/Brother had said and that you had probably gone away because of the broken LifeForm. She said that she was sorry that the Father/Brother had implied that you were to be sent away, and that as far as she was concerned, the only unforgivable act that you could perform right now was to leave her with a houseful of guests, a ceremony to be performed, and nobody to help.”
He grinned. “Apparently, the only other thing she could do would be to ask one of her relatives to lend her their help, and she’d never live that down.”
Leo squatted down beside Bett and put his arm around her shoulders. “I don’t understand what happened — the Father/Brother wasn’t ill, and he wasn’t old — but I don’t think you need to worry. Just come back.” He paused and added, “It’s not like you have much of a choice. You have barely enough to get you to the spaceport; after that, what will you do, without money or a certified employer?”
Bett took a deep breath, and nodded.
The Sister/Mother was waiting for them in the front room when they got back. At least half again as large as the Father/Brother, she extruded two large, orange eyestalks from somewhere around the center of her quivering mass and stared at Bett.
“I thought the house had become unusually calm,” she said through the little blue and green translator that perched on what might have been her shoulder, if she had a discernable head. “It was quiet enough when the Father/Brother suddenly was no longer heard; when you left, the children started wondering if they’d gone deaf.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Bett stammered. Suddenly, now that she was faced with the wife of the male she had seen dead on the floor, she was terrified. “I just came in and found him. I didn’t touch him, Sister/Mother, I swear!”
“Of course you didn’t. Incidentally, now that I am head of the household, the appropriate form of address is Mother/Sister.”
She turned her eyestalks on Leo. “I have sent the children to consume their father,” she said. “I hope he won’t give them indigestion. You will assemble the appropriate medications, just in case.”
“Um…of course.” Leo said.
“Now,” said the Mother/Sister. “Let us clear up this situation so that we can proceed. There is much too much to prepare today to spend time on niceties. Cleaner Female, I assume that you destroyed the LifeForm accidentally while you were trying to remove the sand?”
Bett took a breath. “I’m sorry. It was caked with damp sand, and I tried to clean it, and…” Her voice squeaked unpleasantly, and she cleared her throat. “Yes. It was an accident.”
Suddenly, the strain of the last few hours became too much for her. Bett burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean to do it. And I didn’t kill the Father/Brother. I swear.”
“Of course you did,” said the Mother/Sister. “Excuse me, but are you dissolving? Is that why you are dripping fluid?”
Bett looked up. The Mother/Sister was shivering slightly, her eyestalks nearly two feet out of her body. “No,” Bett said, gulping a bit. “I am just, uh, distressed.”
“Why are you distressed?” asked the monotone of the translator. “Perhaps it is because you are confused. You are not Brelsh. You do not understand the situation.”
“No,” Bett said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “I don’t understand.”
“You pulled the Father/Brother’s LifeForm from its place. He lost his coherency.” The Mother/Sister dipped her eyestalks slightly, a sign of embarrassment. “Did we neglect to inform you that the LifeForms are linked to our coherency?”
“Yes, I mean, I didn’t know.” Bett suddenly felt as though a large, cold stone was sitting in her throat. “So I did murder him,” she whispered around it.
“Yes.” The Mother/Sister didn’t sound very upset, but Bett was too stunned to pay that much attention. She had killed her employer. She wasn’t only going to be kicked out in the sand to asphyxiate, she was probably going to be beheaded — or melted — or whatever the Brelsh did to their criminals.
The Mother/Sister was saying something about not meaning, or procedures, or something. She couldn’t understand. Why wasn’t the translator working? Everything seemed very hazy….
There was something at her lips, and she swallowed. She realized she was sitting rather than standing, and Leo was saying, “That’s better. How do you feel now?”
She looked up. She was still in the same room. The Mother/Sister was hovering in a corner, shimmering a slightly pale pink. “Are you again healthy?” she inquired. “Can you work?”
“Of course.” The Mother/Sister looked about as agitated as she ever got, which was actually not very. “I have several brothers who live within close traveling distance who will soon know that I am without a mate, and they will be coming soon. The place must be cleaned up, the scents freshened, and of course, the children must be hidden until the new Father/Brother is secure enough not to kill them.” She swiveled toward Leo. “You will see to it?”
“But…” Bett stared helplessly at Leo, who smiled and helped her stand.
“You didn’t mean it,” Leo whispered. “That’s why it doesn’t matter. Intention is everything in the Brelsh culture — it’s why the Father/Brother was always accusing you of doing things on purpose. You obviously didn’t mean to kill him — you were cleaning his LifeForm, and accidentally broke it. So there isn’t even a question of your being held responsible. They just clean up the mess, and find another male for the household.”
“So now you understand,” said the Mother/Sister, who had been listening unperturbed. “And you can work.”
She slurped over to the door and then paused, and swiveled her eyestalks back to the humans. “Incidentally, thank you for cleaning the Father/Brother’s LifeForm as thoroughly as I asked. It was a great help. Although of course I did not mean the accident to happen.”
She left the room. “If anyone asks…” Leo whispered.
“She didn’t mean it. And I didn’t know…”
Bett and Leo stared at each other. And then, without another word, went off to prepare for the next male Brelsh.
Read about this story's background here.
This story originally appeared in Crossed Genres.