The Last Bad Ladies
Ran Tsukiyama rinsed the shad with rice vinegar, taking care to remove the salt and nothing else. With a swipe of the knife she peeled away the tough outer skin. The inner skin, gleaming like pewter, she kept intact. She could fillet kohada by touch alone, and as the knife darted in and out she closed her eyes to analyze the scent. So fresh she could taste ocean air. Replicated fish could never touch it.
She served the course simply, on a bamboo platter, with tea in a cup cast during the Bizen pottery revival of the Showa era. The cup had a rough, natural shape that would complement the flavors of the fish, while its unusual blush-warm colors echoed the spring evening outside. It was 400 years old. She showed it no more or less care than she showed every element of the presentation. Each meal Tsukiyama-sensei prepared was perfect, and each was a triumph over the one before.
The woman at the counter scrunched up her nose. “That’s it?”
Tsukiyama smiled. Introducing newcomers to the beauty and pleasure of sushi was among the rewards of the art. “That’s it. This culinary tradition emphasizes simplicity, valuing skilled preparation and fresh ingredients over—”
The woman leaned down and sniffed the shad. “Eww. It’s raw.”
“Well spotted! The goal is to reveal the essence of each—”
“Don’t see how you can call yourself a chef if you don’t even cook.”
Tsukiyama closed her eyes. She recalled her first taste of sushi as a girl, how her childish skepticism had dissolved in a mouthful of tuna and rice. “Please do me the honor of tasting it.”
“Fish smell is so gross. Is there like a fork, or?”
A new sensation crept up Tsukiyama’s spine, like the scratch of a pin in her clothes. For the first time in her century-long career, serving sushi seemed like a chore. But there was no need to take it out on the woman. She just needed guidance.
“Sushi is eaten by hand,” said Tsukiyama. “Or with chopsticks, if you prefer.”
The second woman, who up to this point had been fiddling with her communicator, made an exasperated noise. “Is our booze coming out ever?”
“Sake will be served with the next course—”
“But I’m sober now! We needs to get our drink on. Nothing else to do in this grungy rest stop you call a town.”
“Does anyone even call it a rest stop?” asked the first woman. Her friend snorted a laugh.
Tsukiyama reflected that some people preferred the busy life of the spaceport cities, which was both understandable and necessary to a balanced galactic culture. To such people her Kansai village must seem quiet, even a little dull. Her historic Kansai village, a designated Earth Heritage Site, with its shrine caverns and torii gates, its woods that grew as they had for millennia because Tsukiyama’s ancestors had declared them so beautiful they were sacred. It also had a pretty good sushi restaurant, she happened to think.
Some people might prefer a different kind of town. That was fine. It was right.
“Let me give you privacy,” she said. “I’ll be back with the next course.”
She had barely begun to clean the surf clams before they were shouting again.
They wanted ketchup.
Later—after the spilled beer, after the inappropriate invitations yelled at the cutting-board apprentice, after the angry refusals to pay even after Tsukiyama explained that she had no interest in currency and only occasionally accepted payment to make Ferengi tourists feel comfortable, after the parting platform-heeled boot through the paper door—Tsukiyama sent her staff home to rest. She cleaned up the mess alone. It would give her space to reflect and learn, to find the lesson hidden within this horrible evening with those two horrible women.
After a while, she gave up. She sat in a puddle of miso soup that would have made shoguns weep and write poetry, grabbed what was left of the sake (a daiginjo from her favorite small distillery, with a light, crisp character that would have balanced the third course had her diners not made fun of it, then done shots of it, and finally poured it down the shirt of the apprentice who brought them hot towels), and filled the Bizen cup to the brim. The sake trickled out through a brand-new crack in the side.
Tsukiyama-sensei replicated a bag of barbecue potato chips and reconsidered her life.
“Something’s up,” said Nthanda. “I mean really up this time, not like when I thought Disney World had been invaded by Dominion spies.”
“You’ve got to stop beating yourself up over that,” said Zesur. “Those big-headed animals looked hostile to me, too.”
“It’s all right for you to be confused. But as the only Terran employee of the Earth Cultural Heritage Organization, Human Division—”
“—Collation and Maintenance Department—”
“—Collation and Maintenance Department, I ought to be aware of the rituals of my homeworld’s religious sites. Those were ceremonial costumes with centuries of history, for Pete’s sake.”
Zesur shrugged, sending a wave of green muscles rippling. Like most Orion men, he was tall, well-built, and almost comically good-looking. Supposedly only the females of the species produced mind-controlling pheromones, so the ideas popping into Nthanda’s head must be her own invention. She’d never been seriously tempted, though. Zesur was already married to several people, and she didn’t need the drama.
She turned back to her workscreen. “Look at this. Another sushi chef has quit.”
“Well…Earth has plenty of chefs.”
“Not top-ranked chefs in Japanese cuisine, it doesn’t. It’s an extremely advanced craft, the first culinary art ever placed under ECHO protection. And it’s not just sushi. All around the world, protected cuisines are losing craftspeople.” Nthanda paused for dramatic effect. “For strangely similar reasons.”
Zesur pulled up the Living Cultural Treasure feed on his own workscreen. “Examples?”
“Last month, a Creole restaurant in New Orleans was forced to shut down after half the staff quit. According to the owner, they were demoralized by the behavior of a pair of repeat guests.”
“What kind of behavior?”
“Very peculiar. On top of shouting, brawling, and careless urination, they…” Nthanda squinted at the screen. “…kept removing their shirts and demanding to be paid in beads.”
“Is that a thing with humans?”
“Of course not. Professional pleasure workers would never force their services on anyone. You have to take a minor in Consensual Approach just to get the doctorate. And in the months prior to that, a string of French vineyards lost staff as well. Same story: two women, aggressively antisocial behavior.”
“Did they take off their shirts?”
“No.” Nthanda scanned the report of the only vintner who’d agreed to an ECHO exit interview. “They just kept demanding spritzer.”
“Weird. Even by human standards.” Zesur sucked on a slice of peach, his favorite Earth snack. Nthanda ranked it as one of his least forgivable crimes against her libido. “So you want to take it to Sadak?”
Both employees turned to the closed door at the end of their shared office. On it hung, spaced and balanced to the millimeter, two decorations: a tasteful Infinite Diversity medallion and a Vulcan calligraphic scroll reading NOTHING THAT IS UNIMPORTANT. Sadak’s presence in ECHO was a frequent subject of speculation among his two subordinates. He showed some intellectual interest in Earth culture, certainly more than most Vulcans; the shelves in his office were lined with antique paper books and dolls in traditional human costume. But he didn’t seem to like it. He was even less fond of being interrupted. Why he had chosen to spend almost a century in the lower tiers of an Earth cultural organization was something of a mystery.
Also, the dolls were creepy.
“You know what?” said Nthanda slowly. “Let’s put together a field report first.”
“Welcome to Copán,” said the woman who met them in the transporter room. “I’m Xiang, the head curator at the Grand Plaza. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I wish it were under better circumstances,” said Nthanda.
“Well.” Xiang’s smile lost its sparkle. “May I offer you refreshments? We’re just a small academic city, but our cafés are world-class.”
“I’d like to survey the damage first. I suspect we’ll need soothing drinks afterward.”
They passed through jungle gardens. Visitors, escorted by hologuides, gasped at the ornately carved stone temples and statuary. “Amazing,” said Zesur. “Remarkable. Neat.”
Nthanda grinned. “Isn’t it beautiful? I came here on a cataloging mission when I first started at ECHO.”
“These jaguars are among the oldest Mayan sculptures in the restored city,” a hologuide was telling a knot of students. Over his head floated the blue halo of the Photonic Freedom League. “If you’ll follow me to the opposite end of the plaza, we can observe the newest works, created by our artists in residence using the same principles as the ancient Mayan sculptors.”
“I like how hard humans work to carry on their old arts,” Zesur said. “That’s why I joined ECHO, you know. It just seemed so different.”
“Really? But surely your people keep their own traditions. Orion has a rich culture.”
“Sure. But it’s, you know, kind of a private thing for us. Except for dance.” Zesur undulated his arms in a way that made the bottom drop out of Nthanda’s crotch. “Everyone knows the old dances. But here on Earth you have unbroken traditions of cooking, music, poetry, everything.”
“Well…on Earth proper, anyway. I guess forward-thinkers tend to join Starfleet and get off the planet, leaving the traditionalists behind. In the Denevan town where I grew up, you definitely didn’t meet a lot of people learning Mayan sculpture techniques.” Nthanda laughed. “Though it seemed like everybody had relatives back on Earth who ran a tattoo parlor or played in a jazz band or something.”
“It’s a big galaxy,” said Zesur. “There’s a place for everyone.”
“Here we are,” said Xiang.
They were alone in a grove of carved pillars. The guides had shepherded the other visitors away so gently Nthanda hadn’t noticed. Now she saw why. The carved figures on the pillars, some two thousand years old, had been defaced. Angry red smears slashed the stone faces.
“Blood?” gasped Zesur. He had learned that human blood was red from holonovels and found it fascinating.
“Lipstick,” said Xiang. “Someone, for reasons beyond our understanding, has given the bas-reliefs…mustaches.”
“Long, curly mustaches,” said Nthanda, leaning in.
Nthanda snorted. Hastily, she covered her mouth. “Don’t know why I did that. There’s nothing funny about penises.”
“It’s a normal part of the anatomy,” Xiang agreed. “These ones, however, will require lengthy and difficult cleanup. The sculptures may be permanently damaged.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Nthanda. “Maybe the people who did this didn’t know it was harmful?”
“We educate all visitors on caring for the art.” Xiang frowned. “What makes you think it was more than one person?”
“We have suspects,” said Nthanda. “This happened last night?”
“I’d like to look at your transporter records for that period. I don’t suppose you keep security recordings? In case of, er, crime?” The word felt awkward in her mouth, all wrong angles.
“No, of course not. This is Earth.”
“It was a long shot.” Nthanda snapped her fingers. “What about the guides?”
“They’re AI holograms, right? Do they have playable memories?”
Xiang brightened. “We can ask.”
“Penises,” said Zesur. He giggled, then frowned in puzzlement, as if, for a moment, something had misfired in his brain.
“Of course I didn’t witness the incident,” said the guide. “What do you think I’d do if I saw guests defacing a millennia-old carving, pat them on the back and hand them a fresh tube of Blood Wine Passion?”
He was a Mark I hologram. They weren’t known for their sunny dispositions. But they had many positive qualities, Nthanda reminded herself. Keen powers of observation, for example. She sipped her tea and sighed with pleasure; Xiang had been right about the local cafés.
“What’s Blood Wine Passion?” asked Zesur.
“The lipstick. I cross-referenced the color with a cosmetics database. Evidently it’s very ‘in’ this year.”
Initiative, thought Nthanda. Another good quality. “Can you think of any time the vandals might have had a chance to act unnoticed?”
“Several. That grove is often empty when we aren’t taking a tour through.”
“Good. Now. Can you run through your memories immediately before and after those times?”
“You’ll want to look in, I suppose.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, sir.”
The hologram rolled his eyes and gestured at the café table. A hologram of the jaguar plaza appeared, lit in golden afternoon sunshine. Visitors chatted, ate churros, snapped 3-3-D images of the sculptures with their communicators—nothing out of the ordinary.
“Thanks,” said Nthanda. “Can you fast-forward?”
They watched figures come and go at triple speed. “Did you get weird questions from anyone?” said Zesur. “Anything suspicious?”
“Not really.” The hologram sniffed. “Though I always have to correct guests who think this is an extinct culture. There are three Mayan cities on Mars alone, after—”
“There,” said Nthanda.
The other two peered at the viewscreen. “Where?” said Zesur.
“Those two.” Nthanda pointed at the screen. “Those two women.”
“They don’t look out of the ordinary to me.”
“Just intoxicated,” said the hologuide. “I remember them. They were…loud.”
“But they’re just taking pictures, like everyone else.”
“No,” said Nthanda. “Not like everyone else.” Something was off. What was it?
“If you think it’s a lead,” said Zesur, “we can go back to the office and cross-reference the footage with United Earth peacekeeping files. But to go any further than that, we’ll need more than a bad feeling.”
“I know.” Nthanda gave the screen a last, hard look before turning away. “Thank you for your help, sir. I hope the damage to the art is fixable.”
“If not,” said the hologram, “I know just the eye shadow to match.
Dry sense of humor, thought Nthanda. Not sure if that was a plus or a minus.
As she stepped onto the transporter pad, Nthanda realized what was off about the two women. Everyone else in the plaza had been taking pictures of the art. They had been taking pictures of themselves.
And making the strangest duck-like faces.
“Found ’em,” said Zesur.
“In the UE files?” Nthanda rushed to his workstation. “They’re registered criminals?”
“I got done looking through that database ages ago. Earth only has about a dozen criminals, rehabilitated or otherwise. Nah, they’re on Ktari Live.”
Zesur opened a streaming ansible feed, triggering cheery music and an ID logline: KTARI LIVE: JUST LET GO! “Oh, a cortex news stream,” said Nthanda. Some people liked having updates from across the galaxy piped into their brains nonstop. Takes all kinds to make a Federation.
“Yeah, but Ktari Live is just for fun. People share cat holos, baby Tribbles, stuff like that. It’s cute.” The feed opened in holoview. “This is a little different.”
Two women lurched down a crowded street. They screamed, laughed, and periodically sprayed passersby with beer. It was without a doubt the pair from Copán. “No one’s ever seen behavior like this,” said Zesur. “Every Ktari user is logging in to get a look.”
“Where is this happening?”
“Just my luck. Another religious site.” Nthanda turned up the volume, winced, and turned it down again. “What are they yelling about?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Or better, if it’s some human thing.”
“It’s not. No, maybe it is. I have a theory…” Nthanda listened again. “No, still baffled. Yes, it’s spring, but why would anyone want to break it?”
“This is a live feed,” said Zesur. “If we go there now, we could catch them.”
“Let me go alone.”
“You sure? They could be dangerous.”
“Oh, they’re dangerous, all right. But I want to talk to them. Meanwhile, brief Sadak on everything we know so far.”
“You think it’s time to involve him?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if he can help. If I’m right, this isn’t something logic can handle.”
In the seconds before the transporter relayed her molecules across nine time zones, Nthanda made a mental list of places to look for the women. What would they want to do first? Defile a church? Harass the Swiss Guard? Find a major piece of Roman statuary and make fun of its penis? Heh…penis…
As it turned out, there was no need for a search. The women were in the Vatican City transporter station, arguing with the chief engineer.
“We booked first class,” one of them was saying. “We were supposed to get first class.”
The other waved at the crowd that had gathered around them. “How could you even expect us to teleport with these peasants?”
“What is ‘first class’?” said the engineer.
“I will fight you, peasants! I will take you all!”
“And we were offered no, repeat no cocktail service. An entire trip with no damn booze.”
“Your trip was less than a second…”
“Excuse me,” said Nthanda, stepping in. “These women and I have business.”
The engineer sighed in gratitude. “And you are…?”
“I’m from the Earth Cultural Heritage Organization.”
The women broke out in two predatory smiles. “Took you long enough,” said one.
“Let’s go drink,” said the other.
They zeroed in on the first wine bar outside the transporter station. They knocked someone else’s knapsack off a table, claimed seats, and kicked off their shoes. “Sit, sit,” said one. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Well, not you specifically,” said the other. “We didn’t think we’d have to talk to somebody with such embarrassing hair. But somebody like you.”
“Who are you?” said Nthanda.
“Dorothy and Lorelei.”
“Becky and Amelia.”
“Paris and Nicole.”
“Heather and Heather.” The woman took a swig of somebody else’s rose. “Nah, stick with the first two.”
“Only if I get to be Lorelei,” said the other.
“You always get to be Lorelei.”
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
“Hey, there’s a bag of peanuts in this knapsack,” said Dorothy. “Score.”
“First off,” said Nthanda, “I want you to know we’re not in any trouble with Earth government—”
“Yeah duh,” said Dorothy.
“We ain’t done anything illegal. Are you saying we did something illegal? Are you calling us criminals?”
“I’d break this wine bottle on the table if it didn’t have precious wine in it,” said Dorothy.
“Speaking of, can we get ice cubes for that? Hey, garçon! Ice-o cube-o!”
“Even our hilarious Mayan graffiti was totes on the up-and-up. It’s been so long since anybody pulled that crap, there’s no law on the books against it.”
“Of course not,” said Nthanda. “Why would anyone deliberately damage a work of art?”
“Because it’s there.”
“Right. I know. I really do understand.” Nthanda picked up one of the glasses of wine that had suddenly materialized. Her hand, she noticed, was shaking. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“We’re not trying. Trying is for losers.”
“You’re acting like ancient humans. From before First Contact.”
“Ancient? I believe you have mispronounced ‘awesome.’”
“My career is in Earth history. I’ve studied enough sources to have an idea what we used to be like. Impulsive. Solipsistic. Antisocial, yet strangely preoccupied with status. Greedy.”
“And drunk,” said Lorelei.
“It turns out,” said Dorothy, “alcohol helps with a lot of the other stuff.”
“What I don’t understand is, why? Why pretend to be ancient humans?”
Dorothy refilled her glass. “Oh, we’re not pretending. Not anymore. It’s like the old dead author said…”
“Eww, are you quoting a book?” Lorelei threw a peanut at her. “Nerd. Dork. Weenie.”
“‘We are what we pretend to be.’ It’s super deep.”
Nthanda rubbed her temples. “But why? To what purpose?”
“Because humanity was getting so lame.”
Dorothy made a face. “Have you even seen humanity lately?”
“What’s wrong with us?”
“Aside from the pajamas everyone’s wearing? Example. And this is just one example, bee-tee-double-you. Name a work of art from the past hundred years that’s even a tenth as good as the stuff your little organization protects.”
“Or name a new form of art,” said Lorelei. “There’s just holonovels, and they suck except the ones you can boink in.”
“Boinking technology is the one decent thing to come out of the Federation era,” Dorothy agreed.
“I think reading is the boringest thing ever, and even I’d rather read Jane Eyre than play Burleigh Manor. Or read Alice in Wonderland than play The Adventures of Flotter. Or read a Dixon Hill novel than a play Dixon Hill holo-adaptation.”
“I’d rather read about the future in Incredible Tales than live in the actual future right now. Oh-em-gee, you just reminded me we have to go replay the Flotter holobooks so I can slap him.”
“So you’re trying to return to some primitive, purer past,” said Nthanda. “That sounds like Eugenics War talk.”
“Ugh, Khan and the rest of those no-shirt try-hards?” Dorothy tossed a peanut shell on the ground. “They’re history’s buttmonkeys for a reason. We’re like the opposite of that.”
Lorelei propped a foot on the table and began trimming her toenails.
“See,” said Dorothy, “their whole dumb-butt idea was about being, like, noble savages crossed with Nietzschean ubermenchen, which, flowery philosophy stripped away, is mere self-aggrandizing ahistorical fantasy. They assumed the natural state of Man is noble.”
“Whereas in reality,” said Lorelei, “the natural state of Man is with Dorothy’s mom.”
Dorothy made a gesture Nthanda had never seen, like a reverse Vulcan prosperity salute. “The natural state of humans is us. Me and Lorelei. You think all this kumbaya malarkey is human? This selfless exploration of eternal frontiers? With the peace and the understanding and the goddamn niceness?”
Nthanda frowned. “Um. Yes?”
“You’ll see. Pretty soon, everyone’s going to see.”
“For the record, I’m on board with shirtless supermen,” said Lorelei. “Especially if they have, like, a pet name for their abs.”
“What do you mean?” said Nthanda. “What will I see?”
“You’ll see it spread.” Dorothy popped a peanut into her mouth and chewed noisily. “Like a butterfly farting in the Amazon jungle, each obnoxious act, each annoying comment, each moment of thoughtlessness sends stink waves of real, true humanity across the planet.”
There was no need to chew so hard on one lousy peanut, thought Nthanda. And those metaphors were so confused. She ought to dump her drink over Dorothy’s head, just to shut her…
Oh no. It was happening.
“Eventually our movement will spread to the rest of the galaxy. But it’s not like we’re in a big hurry. Working hard sucks butts, you know?”
“So what are you gonna do about it, government history girl?” said Lorelei. “You think you can stop us?”
“I…I have to consider this. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“Thinking,” said Lorelei, wrinkling her nose, “also sucks butts.”
“Look on the bright side. It’s the ultimate Earth culture preservation project,” said Dorothy. “Have a peanut.”
After a moment, a moment which seemed to span all 400 years of post-Contact civilization, Nthanda took it.
“According to Mr. Zesur,” said Sadak, “you left the office in an emotional state.”
“I guess so,” said Nthanda.
“He attempted to explain the situation, but ultimately said that was best left to you.”
“He’s probably right. It’s a long story, and he doesn’t know half of it.”
“Well, then? Who did you visit?”
Sadak cocked an eyebrow. “That seems highly unlikely. My mother is a physicist and has no reason to speak to you in a professional capacity, and she is currently very busy performing stretching exercises in preparation for my father’s entry into pon farr. Why are you laughing?”
“A lot of reasons,” said Nthanda, “but mostly the word ‘entry.’”
“Your responses are illogical. I suggest you take the rest of the day off. Perhaps we can have a more productive meeting tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m so over working.”
“Live long and prosper, Ms. Nthanda.”
Before she left the office, she took all the pens.
Shaenon K. Garrity is a cartoonist best known for the webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse. Her prose fiction has appeared in publications including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Drabblecast, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. She lives in Berkeley with a cat and two men of varying sizes.
Image: “Sulu” by James F. Woglom