By Rachel Carlson
Nadulus Breck stared at the bioluminescent purple Trembobulal Scipperfried Frog as it sat glowing in the dark room. The Trembobulal Scipperfried stared back. Its vocal sac swelled outward. Its lambent, amethyst eyes continued to stare glassily at the man crouched at right angles to it on the opposite side of the bulletproof, laser-deflective glass wall that made up one side of its small tank. Nadulus held his breath. The frog’s vocal sac swelled out to its maximal extension point—six inches in diameter, five inches maximal extension, thought Nadulus involuntarily. The frog’s obsidian pupils contracted to needle points. Its whole body trembled. On the other side of the glass, Nadulus trembled, too. The frog opened its mouth.
BRROG, said the frog. Its vocal sac flattened against its body. Nadulus kept holding his breath. The Trembobulal Scipperfried began squinting. Suddenly, too quick for anyone but an experienced observer to follow, the frog’s mouth opened, its external nares pinching almost together. The nictitating membrane on each of its eyes slid up. For the briefest flicker in time they obscured the lower halves of its amethyst eyes in a thin, translucent cerulean blue membrane, causing the lower halves to glow indigo, then, the moment after, they had lowered. Simultaneously a luminous blue sputum shot from the frog’s mouth, arcing forward. Shining ribbons of neon violet venom inside of the saliva glowed evilly as the liquid curved gracefully downward and hit the end wall of the tank with an inelegant splat.
The frog relaxed, its pupils dilating to their normal .5 millimeters in diameter. Nadulus, however, stayed tense and kept holding his breath. He was staring at the portion of the wall where the frog’s oral ejecta had coated the glass. Wispy tendrils of white steam began to rise off the glass around the viscous sputum. The sputum-covered area trembled, then, with a hiss, very audible in the intense silence, the splattered portion of the end wall melted, a mixture of molten glass and glowing spittle and venom dribbled down the inside and outside of the remaining glass, further melting it.
Nadulus sprang to his feet. “No! Stinking mudslup craffiting bebomble venoms! Craffiting Trembobulal Scipperfried and my mudslupping, trakkeling assistant—” he stopped short. No, I shouldn’t say that. His assistant, Ru—Ru was her first name—he forgot what her surnames were—she had entirely too many of them—had died two standard months ago. He was in hiding, here in his secret tunnel complex on Vadmanthium 4, the fifth planet from Brindlerar, the solar system’s blue sun. Majart, the planet nearest Brindlerar, had been classified as a planet only two hundred years ago by scientists, who, in Nadulus’ opinion, must have been either stupid or desperate to be famous, as Majart was an insignificant, uninhabited spheroid too close to its sun for any organisms to exist upon it. The third and second planets were well populated, and the Vadmanthium 1 heavily populated, but almost no one lived on Vadmanthium 4, which, of course, was why he had built his secret tunnel complex here. He needed to be able to travel unseen and unquestioned—when he was traveling. Which I’m not right now, Nadulus thought mournfully.
Wearily Nadulus picked up his tase cage and set it over the compromised frog tank, then flicked a switch on the underside of the metal table, sending a mild electric current through the cage and table. “That should keep you in, you craffiting spitter,” he said sullenly to the Trembobulal Scipperfried. The frog stared at him. Nadulus glared at it for several seconds, then turned his back on it and walked the few steps to the side of the room and snapped on a lamp. The lamp spread an oblong pool of harsh white light on the metal table it was resting on and dimly illuminated the basic layout of the room. It was long, narrow, and lined with metal tables on both sides, with a third row down the exact middle of the room. The tables held more glass tanks, all of them full of frogs whose black eyes reflected the light from the lamp as tiny white sparks in the shadows. A door at the near end of the room was visible in the semidarkness, though, from where Nadulus was standing at one of the side tables, it appeared only as an indistinct, dark rectangle in the white stone wall.
The light revealed Nadulus as a pale young man of average height with rather spiky brown hair and dark brown eyes. His gray coat hung open, revealing a blue shirt tucked into long black pants. Exhaustion was evident in his slumped shoulders and worn aspect as he stood for a moment, then he hooked one leg of a stool with his foot and jerked it toward him. He slumped wearily down upon it. For a moment he leant his head in his left hand, then straightened and slid his datapad closer to him. Unlocking it, he pulled up the Trembobulal Scipperfried’s file and added these words.
Entry 44 / Malkal 35 / 27:43 / Complex 9 / Vadmanthium 4
Note: Coating inside of glass with antithrox unsuccessful. Subject continues to melt tank walls. Only electrically charged cage continues to contain it.
Nadulus saved the entry, then dropped the datapad onto the metal table with a frustrated sigh. If we can’t find a way to contain this…this monstrosity, then I’m going to have to consider terminating it—
Wait, did I just think “we”? Nadulus groaned aloud and slumped over the table, staring at his datapad with bleary eyes. He hadn’t gotten much sleep in the past two months and he was exhausted. So exhausted he was starting to think of Nigel as part of his operation. Nigel was Ru’s replacement. He had known he would never be able to find another assistant like Ru, of course. Ru was intelligent, careful, organized, and loved—had loved—his work as much as he did. But Nigel…was an idiot. I would’ve gotten rid of him if I wasn’t stuck here. But I’ve got to have someone to bring in supplies, and no one would ever suspect him of being the assistant to an interstellar dealer in rare and illicit poisons. Not with his annoying way of breathing in while he talks…and his annoying habit of tripping all the time…and how he stares at the ceiling as if he were cross-eyed and didn’t want you to see it.
Nadulus collected rare poisons, generally organic ones, distilled them, and sold them on the black market, concentrated enough to kill a Broggendav. He had recently sold nine kilograms of lethal Punja toxin to a group of political dissidents on Ver, a planet in the next star system over with no questions asked. Everything would have been fine, of course, except that the disaffected morons had killed the queen who ruled over the Ver, sparking an interplanetary war in that solar system. Nadulus wouldn’t have cared, except that of course one of the assassins had gone and gotten himself caught, and, when interrogated had spilled who he’d gotten the Punja toxin from. Nadulus, had, of course, sold the Punja toxin under a fake identity and had been in disguise, but it paid to be careful. So, he was stuck in his secret tunnel complex on Vadmanthium 4, hiding out with his collection of poisonous frogs until the bounty hunters trying to follow up the leads on the Punja toxin had given up and moved on to fresher quarry.
Everything would be fine if Ru was still here. He had discovered a planet that called itself Earth in the far end of one of the arms of the galaxy and had collected a pleasing number of poisonous frogs from rainforests in the green and blue planet’s equatorial regions.He’d also done some sightseeing, as he was human-looking and could blend in, looking at their funny statues and ancient buildings that they so carefully preserved. He loved finding planets that had only just begun space travel. It was always interesting to study them before they absorbed so much technology and culture from other planets populated by intelligent beings that they became just another planet on a hyperspace route. Earth was still in the stage where it was painfully obvious that the planet was populated almost entirely by black system yokels who knew nothing about space travel. Most of them had not yet traveled farther than the fourth planet in their system, a red planet colonized only 400 of their solar years ago, which they called Mars. Nadulus had been extremely disappointed when he had first visited, because of course he had stopped at Mars first, only to discover that the wretched people had only transplanted plants and animals that weren’t harmful to them to their newly colonized planet. But then he had decided to try out Earth since it was so close and had been rewarded with his lovely Granulars, Red-backs, and Poison-Darts, along with the necessary habitat elements to be sure they maintained their toxicity. His search for little-known planets with little-known poisons was rarely so well rewarded, and he knew he hadn’t even scratched the surface of what Earth could provide him. It was always good to be able to provide rare poisons to his customers. The less well known the poison was, the harder it was to track. And there were always those beings who didn’t just want to poison their mate or employer or whomever they were poisoning but wanted to poison them with the most exotic poison available. And you just can’t get much more exotic than what Nadulus Breck has to offer, Nadulus thought happily.
Then his face fell. While he had been gallivanting about on Earth, Ru had collected the Trembobulal Scipperfried for him, per his request. He’d only heard about the TS from a contact a few days before leaving Rath, in search of new poisons, on the trip that had taken him to Earth. He’d found Ru when he’d arrived one standard month later—well, what was left of her. She’d carefully recorded everything, as was her habit, and it was from her voice journal and her datapad that he had learned the awful truth. She hadn’t known about the solvent properties in the TS’ venom. The contact had described the frog’s poison as volatile, which Nadulus had assumed meant the death it caused wasn’t exactly pretty. Ru had been supposed to check out the lead and quietly procure a pair of the frogs if possible. According to her journal, she’d procured the one, hadn’t been able to find a female, and had brought the male back as a start. The freakish beast had apparently been docile, had emitted no venom until Ru had reached Vadmanthium 4, and then, when she had started to conduct her first series of tests it had spat out its everything-dissolving mixture of sputum and venom. So far, everything, Nadulus corrected himself. I’ll find something to contain it with. I have to. It’s almost impossible to feed it inside an electrified cage. If it only it ate plants instead of insects! They keep getting zapped because they fly or crawl into it the electrified mesh while trying to escape the TS. If only the stupid frog would stop melting parts of its tank wall, they wouldn’t be able to touch the mesh, and then it would have plenty to eat. It’s going to starve to death if I don’t figure this out soon. If I don’t kill it first. It’s already cost me more than it’s worth. But if—once—I find a way to contain it, well, think of the possibilities! If I could analyze the properties, pull out whatever the stuff in the venom is that works as a solvent, make a way to keep it from melting everything…. Oh, how it will sell!
But I need Ru. I’m out of ideas. If she were here…The sudden memory of the state Ru had been in when he’d found her flashed into his mind. She’d been hit by the Trembobulal Scipperfried’s venom. It had been…nasty. Nadulus shuddered and pulled away from those memories, then jerked and sat up, looking quickly over his shoulder at the glowing purple frog, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. It was staring at him, as usual. Creepy.
It’s fantasizing about how it’s going to kill me. Plotting in its evil little frog brain.
Stop it! Get a grip. …Just…too many late nights. It’s not playing psycho games with you. It’s just a frog.
A dull clang from behind the door informed him that someone was coming down the stairs. Keeping an eye on the window in the door, Nadulus slid his hand into his coat pocket and wrapped his fingers around the butt of his phaf. The touch of the cold metal weapon against his warm skin reassured him. Mostly. He could still feel the Trembobulal Scipperfried’s eyes boring into his back.
Something clattered on the stairs, then a light snapped on and a moment later Nadulus saw the familiar figure of Nigel silhouetted against the cold, sterile light bathing the stairway through the little lozenge window in the door. Well, to be exact, he saw Nigel’s legs, and then the rest of him slowly came into view as the man stumbled down the stairs, carrying a box of supplies. He relaxed and felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to do the same. Being stuck in the same room with Nigel was still better than being stuck in a room with the TS. Alone. While it stared at him and illuminated a portion of the dark room in its nightmarish purple aureole.
Nadulus’ warm feelings toward his new assistant lasted for about fifteen seconds. When the man opened the door and stepped in, holding a box of foodstuffs in one arm and staring vaguely at the ceiling, Nadulus forgot his loneliness, fatigue, and his fear of the glowing purple frog in its tank a yard away from him as he stared at the man while the man stared upward.
Nigel was powerfully built and dumber than a rock. His golden-blond hair stuck up all over his head. But the part of his brain that managed fashion sense wasn’t too bad. He was wearing a brown leather jacket over a white shirt that hung over a pair of long dark pants. Nadulus couldn’t make out what color they were in the semidarkness. He was also still staring at the ceiling, which was what had, in an instant, vaporized Nadulus’ brief amicable feelings for the man.
Nigel drew in a loud breath through his nose. “You want I should turn on more lights, sir?” he asked in his hoarse voice.
Nadulus gritted his teeth. “No, Nigel.”
“Are you sure, sir? It’s pretty dark in here, sir. Just the one lamp and the Trembobulip—Trembop…whatever it’s called for light, sir.” The man was still staring fixedly upward.
Nadulus stared at him. “No.”
“Are you sure you’re sure, sir? It can’t be good for your eyes—”
“Shut up, Nigel. Put the box of supplies down and come over here.”
Nigel bent at the knees and put the box down, still staring at the ceiling. Now that Nadulus thought about it, he wasn’t even sure what color the man’s eyes were. He’d never gotten a good look at them because Nigel was always looking upward. The man straightened and started down the aisle between the tables toward Nadulus.
Nadulus looked away, annoyed by how the man stumbled almost every other step. If he would just look where he’s walking he wouldn’t keep tripping! Hopping off his stool, Nadulus stepped over to the Trembobulal Scipperfried’s tase cage enclosed tank and folded his arms across his chest, looking at the frog as it sat facing Nigel, watching him approach.
Nigel stumbled to a stop beside Nadulus. He was still staring at the ceiling. And he just stood there, twitching, as if his cerebellum had a nervous disorder. Maybe it does. But that’s no excuse for his stupidity. How much could his cerebellum affect his prefrontal cortex? Nadulus caught himself before he got really distracted, especially by something so obscure to him as the human brain. “Well, my latest attempt didn’t work.”
Nigel just stood there.
Nadulus stared at the Trembobulal Scipperfried. The violaceous frog stared back. Lifting his right hand, Nadulus rubbed his forehead, then ran his fingers through his spiky brown hair. I can’t believe I’m about to ask this! But he was completely out of ideas. He either had to find a way to contain the creature in a viable manner or kill it. Come to think of it, killing it was more attractive. It was expensive. It had cost him many tanks already, as well as a great many different solutions, gels, etc. that he had devised in his attempts to find something that the frog’s venom couldn’t dissolve, not to mention Ru, the best assistant he had ever had. Besides, the frog was creepy. He felt his scalp prickle as it shifted its eyes to meet his. He kept getting the feeling that it was biding its time, waiting to strike, and that it would strike sometime soon. He was the target, he was sure. Somehow, it would get him, He’d be like Ru. I don’ want to die that way. But I’m completely out of ideas.
“Sooo…Nigel…do you have any ideas?”
Nigel started. “Huh, sir?”
The man was still staring at the ceiling. Nadulus ground his teeth. “Do you. Have. Any. Ideas. As to. How. We could. Contain the. Bioluminescent purple frog. In the. Tase cage. In front of. You?”
Nigel stared upward. “Not really, sir.”
Nadulus contemplated the Trembobulal Scipperfried once more. It really was scaring him. A chill ran down his spine as it gazed at him and he felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead. That does it! I can’t take this anymore!
“Nigel, is the incinerator lit?”
“Does the metal box that we burn things in have a fire going in it?”
“Oh…uh, yes sir.”
“Good.” Nadulus turned and strode toward the door. “Roll the table after me. And remember to put the gloves on. If you touch the table without them you’ll shock yourself.”
Opening the door, Nadulus kicked the doorstop down and strode inside, slapping on the overhead light as he did so. He heard the rumble of the table as Nigel started pushing it. Nadulus turned left and strode down the hallway. Three doors down he turned into a room on his right, kicking the doorstop down for Nigel as he opened the door. He flicked the light switch and the room was bathed in white light. Nigel came trundling in behind him, paused, kicked up the doorstop, letting the door close behind him, then pushed the table further inside..
“What are we doing in here, sir?” he asked, his gaze fixed on the upper left corner of the room.
Without answering, Nadulus stepped forward and opened the incinerator. A wave of heat washed over him, making the skin on his face and hands feel tight as the heat drew moisture from his pores. “Push the table close to the incinerator. DON’T let it make contact with the incinerator, or the incinerator will carry the electric current because it’s made out of metal. Just push it close, then, when I say, flip the switch on the underside of the table to turn of the electric current. Immediately after doing so, as quickly as you can, take the tase cage off the tank and push the table up against the incinerator. Do you understand, Nigel?”
“Uh, yes sir.”
Nadulus turned and glared, but the effect was entirely lost on the man, who was now staring directly at the overhead light. “‘Uh,’ Nigel? What part of what I said did you not grasp?” With your puny, confused little mind, he added mentally.
“Uh…no. No, I got all that, sir. We’re good to go now. I’ll do what you said. Yep,” Nigel replied, still staring at the ceiling light.
Nadulus almost groaned aloud, but stopped himself and, turning back, took a half step closer to the incinerator. “Alright. Ready.”
Behind him, the Trembobulal Scipperfried turned around and faced Nigel, staring at him with its large, amethyst eyes.
Nadulus heard the rumble of the table’s wheels as Nigel carefully pushed it closer. Nadulus turned back, watching closely, ready to snap at him if he pushed the table too close, but for once Nigel didn’t trip.
Average number of steps without stumbling, two, Nadulus though absently. “Ready?”
“Yes, sir.” Nigel reached under the table and slapped the switch, then, moving with far greater speed than Nadulus had ever dreamed the slow, bumbling man to be capable, Nigel snatched the cage off the table, lifting it high enough so as to clear the glass tank. Nadulus lunged at the still solid end of the tank, arm outstretched to shove the tank into the incinerator. Glowing blue sputum and violet venom splatted against the still solid end tank wall and Nadulus snatched his hand back only just in time. Then everything happened very fast. The glass steamed, wavered, melted, and the Trembobulal Scipperfried leapt out of the tank, soared in a graceful arch through the air, and landed with a wet sounding thfwunk on Nigel’s chest. Nadulus stared at the frog in horror. It was sticking to Nigel like a tree frog.
“Nigel. Don’t. Move.” Nigel stood as still as a stone. Even if Nadulus did nearly hate the man most of the time, he didn’t want him to die from Trembobulal Scipperfried venom to the face. A disturbing image of the front of the man’s skull evaporating and his brains spilling out in a melting liquid pool while his body collapsed to the floor with the purple frog still stuck to its chest flashed into Nadulus’ brain. He shuddered and shook it off. “Don’t move, Nigel. I’ll get it off you.”
I don’t know!
Alright—alright, don’t panic. What can you do?”
“N—Nigel, I’m going to try shooting it. If I set my phaf to short range and concentrated shot, then the energy burst may not expand enough to hit you. Alright?”
Nigel was, for the first time that Nadulus had ever seen, actually looking down, staring at the large frog plastered to his shirt. “Don’t do that, sir.”
“Nigel, it’s the only thing I can think of. I can set my phaf to stun, then it won’t puncture the Trembobulal Scipperfried and the venom sac won’t burst all over you. The stun setting should be strong enough to knock it out, and then we’ll pry it off you and throw it in the incinerator. Trust me, Nigel.”
Nigel was still staring at the frog. “Don’t do it, sir. It’s better this way.” The frog opened it’s mouth. Nigel could see the blue glow of its venom-laced sputum shining softly on Nigel’s white shirt.
“No, Nigel. I’m not going to let you die this way.” Nadulus fumbled in his coat pocket for his phaf. The frog tilted its head back, almost upside down, the way some of the poisonous birds in Nadulus’ aviary on Rath could. Nadulus froze, his right hand wrapped around the cold metal butt of his phaf. The frog stared at him, then suddenly launched itself upward, incredibly high. Nadulus shrieked in terror and scrambled backward, stumbling and falling onto his back on the floor. The frog arced upward, still upside down. Blue sputum spurted from its mouth as it neared the ceiling. The venom-laced sputum shot through the light cover, melting it so quickly that much of the poison hit the lights above. The was a sudden crackling and hissing, the smell of glass and electrical wires burning, then the light went out. A glowing purple blur continued its graceful arc across the room and thshmucked onto the wall, near the ceiling, above and beside Nadulus. Nadulus opened his mouth to scream in terror but the cry stuck in his throat as a distinctive click came from beyond his feet. He turned his head, trying to keep one eye on the Trembobulal Scipperfried and failing, to find Nigel with a standard, Galactic Government .947 issue ShimmerDart trained on him.
“Nadulus Breck, you are under arrest for the illicit sale of dangerous toxins on the interstellar black market, specifically the sale of illegal Punja toxin to a group of beings you knew to be political dissidents from Ver, thereby enabling them to assassinate the queen of the Ver and cause war in the Viryathan solar system.
Nadulus stared in incredulity at Nigel…or whatever his name actually was. It seemed likely, at this point, that Nigel wasn’t his real name. All of the klutziness was gone. The vacant upward stare had disappeared. He was looking directly at Nadulus, standing, one foot forward, one foot back, poised gracefully, perfectly balanced, the ShimmerDart steady in strong, sure hands. The ruddy light from the fire in the incinerator illuminated him. His eyes were silver, reflecting the light of the fire and his short golden hair shone red-gold in the flickering light. He was smiling faintly with what looked suspiciously like triumph to Nadulus, but his eyes were stern. “Added to that is the charge of attempted murder, in cold blood, of an intelligent life form.” His voice was deep and firm, the breathy, high-pitched nasal quality that Nadulus hated so much was gone.
Nadulus stared at him in shock for several more seconds, then the man’s last accusation registered. “I’ve never tried to kill anyone!” Nadulus protested, pushing himself up on his elbows and surreptitiously pulling his phaf up far enough that he could shoot Nigel—or whatever his name was—through his coat pocket. “I just happen to sell toxins. It’s not my fault people use them to do bad things,” he said, carefully bringing the phaf to bear.
Something heavy landed on his chest with a thfwunk. Nadulus screamed in terror as he stared at the Trembobulal Scipperfried, only three inches away from his face. Its mouth was open and Nigel could see the neon violet glow of the venom swirling in the venom sac deep in its throat. The frog was glaring at him. A blurry figure knelt beside him and Nadulus felt a firm hand dig into his coat pocket, wrench his phaf from his hand, and pull it out of his pocket. Nadulus refocused his eyes in time to see Nigel looming over him, dangling a pair of cuffs over his head. Nigel grinned, his white teeth showing up surprisingly well in the frog’s wavering purple nimbus.
“Meet Prog, the All-Dissolving, Crime-Solving, and pretty much Totally Awesome Glow-in-the-Dark Frog. He is also my partner.”
Nadulus stared at Nigel, then at…Prog. What?
“Prog would like to apologize for the death of your former assistant. She started to wise up and attempted to kill Prog. He did what he had to do to defend himself. He regrets her death. We would have preferred to bring her to justice as well, but such are the casualties of war. Of course, we could have taken you in earlier, but we needed time to learn the locations of all your other…merchandise, shall we say? We thank you, you’ve been very helpful. Prog has fed me a great deal of information. You really ought to be more careful what you say around your organic property, Mr. Breck.”
Nadulus glared up at Nigel, “You craffiting, mudslupping—” then, he paused and looked up at Nigel, an earnest expression on his face. “Whatever the bounty on my head is, I’ll pay you twice as much. Triple!”
“Tsk, tsk, Mr. Breck. Language. It’s not my fault you hired me after your former assistant died. Well—that was the plan, of course, but you still made your choice. You thought no one would suspect an apparent fool like me of being the assistant to an interstellar illicit poisons dealer. But that works both ways, doesn’t it? You never suspected an apparent fool like me of being an agent. And doesn’t Prog make an excellent spy?”
Before Nadulus could formulate a suitably insulting reply, the frog hopped off of Nadulus’ chest and Nigel rolled the prone man over onto his stomach. Nadulus felt the cuffs bite into his wrists as Nigel tightened them. Nigel rolled him back over and dragged him up into a sitting position leaning against the wall.
Nadulus glared up at him. “I’ll pay you four—” he broke off as Nigel stepped back, the Trembobulal Scipperfried hopping over to sit beside him.
Nigel bowed dramatically. “We,” he said, smiling, “work, of course for the royal family of Ver. We are not bounty hunters. So you can forget that idea, Mr. Breck. I could hardly call your former assistant a casualty of war if we were bounty hunters. If we were bounty hunters it wouldn’t be our war.” He paused briefly, then continued, “You will be coming with us to Ver to stand trial. The rebellion is quelled by now, so don’t worry—you shouldn’t get shot or bombed on the way to your execution.” Nigel grinned wickedly, then reached over and slammed the incinerator door closed, leaving the room lit only by the glowing frog’s wavering light. He leant forward, grabbed Nadulus by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, then pushed him toward the door.
The Trembobulal Scipperfried leapt up, stuck to the back of Nigel’s leather jacket with a thfwunk, then leapt again and landed on the man’s shoulder. Nadulus cringed away from the glowing purple frog as it sat on the man’s shoulder nearest to him. “Keep it away from me!”
“Not likely,” Nigel replied, reaching for the door handle, one hand still on Nadulus’ arm. As he opened the door onto the hallway, Nadulus glared at the Trembobulal Scipperfried.
“I’ll get you for this!” he snarled, baring his teeth in a ferocious, rictal grin.
Prog, the All-Dissolving, Crime-Solving, and pretty much Totally Awesome Glow-in-the-Dark Frog opened his mouth and let the glow of his venom shine out, grinning back.
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