Cup photo by Joanna Bourne

Chadool

The wrong move in a cesspool at the ass end of the universe

Earlier this month I attended the Austin, Texas Armadillocon Science Fiction and Fantasy festival. I promised readers who signed up for my newsletter a customized story featuring a character they created. The openings to their stories featured a character different from Arkady, but this is the finished product.

I based the story on a real event staged at the Con, a tea duel between fans.

Planet XF12B disgusted Arkady. Street vines snatched his ankles. The stench of garga carcasses from the slaughterhouse, carcasses shipped off world to make Garcolate, the largest selling chocolate substitute on the home world. A sun visible only three days a year, and, when it showed up, most of the surface turned to flame.

Inhabitants who refused to look him in the eye. (On the other hand, humans were rarely seen on backsystem planets)

The planet had a name, but locals pronounced it by spitting in the dirt and grinding their heels.

Arkady booked passage to this cesspool at the ass end of the universe only because he needed a change. The salary being offered an occupation of his caliber was five times the salary in the home system. With a much lower cost of living.

His neurolert chirped. He stopped to load the message, surprised XF12B provided any net support. One satellite transmitting through lead particle clouds made wireless communication difficult.

“You’re not here,” the message read.

No, he thought. I’m here. He checked his neuroclock and somone smacked into him with a force that felt like a star cruiser entering hyperdrive. The jolt flattened him. He landed next to a pair of metallic feet big enough to block the path of a feral ganga. The feet rose into two mechanical legs, the legs into a bio-spliced torso, half humanoid and half android. The head was little more than a helmet with one humanoid eye at the center of the forehead. An aroma of fuel and alcohol washed from the creature like a tsunami.

Humadroid. Human-Droid hybrid. Model BZ-7. Built for strength and endurance, not intelligence or independent thinking. Most “volunteers” for this model were broke, permanently disabled or — most often — illiterate and unable to read the contract.

The humadroid raised a metallic finger and pointed at Arkady. He shouted, “Chadool!” His voice carried across the square. His smaller humadroid companions joined the chorus: “Chadool! Chadool!”

Humadroid. Human-Droid hybrid. Model BZ-7. Built for strength and endurance, not intelligence or independent thinking. Most “volunteers” for this model were broke, permanently disabled or — most often — illiterate and unable to read the contract.

Arkady brushed his clothes with his fingers. Took his bearings and stepped toward the diner to keep his appointment. The humadroid stepped in his path and shouted, once again. “Chadool!”

Someone tapped his shoulder. A diplobot. The closest thing to a public servant on these backsystem industrial planets. Cop, clerk and courthouse judge. Replaced often because irate locals destroyed them when they didn’t like the verdict.

“You can’t leave, sir. The droid has challenged you to chadool. Once issued, no one can leave until you resolve the challenge.”

This was why Arkady hated backsystem planets. Everyone had a weird custom that resulted in dead tourists.

Someone tapped his shoulder. A diplobot. The closest thing to a public servant on these backsystem industrial planets. Cop, clerk and courthouse judge. Replaced often because irate locals destroyed them when they didn’t like the verdict.

The diplobot didn’t wait for Arkady to mull over the situation. Arkady discovered he was in the middle of his explanation. “…most accurately translated ‘tea fight’ or ‘tea duel.’ Each of you dips a cookie into the tea. The last person to bite wins. However, you may not bite unless your cookie is intact. If it breaks, or spills, you may not consume the cookie. No one may refuse a challenge.”

The crowd fell silent. Arkady figured they were negotiating their bets. “You have many of these tea duels?”

“Buzz 777y, who challenged you is 127 and 0.”

The diplobot removed two ceramic cups from his abdomen. He handed them to the duelists. “This is gargarine tea, brewed from garga urine. Capable of producing psychotic episodes if consumed in large quantities.”

Next he produced two hard brown biscuits. “Garcolate biscuits. Made from the bodies of the gargo, who once protected this planet but who we now breed in captivity for commercial profit.”

Buzz 777y growled.

The bot ignored him. “Should you interfere, or damage me in any way, you will forfeit chadool.”

Buzz 777y snatched the biscuit from the bot’s fingers and stepped back to a safe distance. The bot removed his own tea and biscuit, held the biscuit over the cup. “When I dip my biscuit, dip into the tea, hold for five seconds…” He demonstrated. “…then hold them straight up above the cup. When your opponent’s biscuit breaks, dissolves or collapses eat yours without haste.”

The bot plunged his biscut into the tea. Arkady held his biscuit into the black liquid until the digital clock floating at the corner of his eye counted to zero. He lifted his biscuit and waited for it to break. Give the humadroid his win. Arkady needed to keep his appointment.

Buzz 777y’s biscuit toppled into his cup. His single brow lifted in surprise. “Impossible,” he croaked.

“Eat the cookie.” The diplobot spoke with as much emphasis as a bot could speak.

Arkady held his biscuit into the black liquid until the digital clock floating at the corner of his eye counted to zero. He lifted his biscuit and waited for it to break. Give the humadroid his win. Arkady needed to keep his appointment.

Arkady popped it into his mouth and ground it between his teeth. He hated Garcolate. It tasted of burnt coal dust with sweetener added.

Buzz 777y clutched his throat, collapsed to his knees and fell face forward into the street. The vines swarmed across his extremities and dragged him away.

The bot collected the tea cup. “The rules also require me to dust a toxin on the cup’s surface . The antidote is inside the cookie. Chadool is a duel to the death.”

He leaned into Arkady’s ear and confided, “The authorities were tiring of his antics. Bumping into unsuspecting tourists and challenging them to chadool. So I cracked his cookie. Since his model lacks depth perception, he never noticed.”

Arkady toed the depression in the pavement where Buzz 777y’s body fell. “Big mistake. Never run a scam so many times you piss off the corrupt authorities on a dung heap planet.”

“Oh, no, sir. It was a simple accounting error. XF12B must supply the cookies whenever someone issues a challenge. And GargaCorp is XF12B. Buzz 777y’s mistake was thinking we will continue to supply free cookies for his escapades.”

He collected the droid’s fallen cup from the street. “By dispensing with him they saved three hundred dollars in cookies during his expected lifetime.” The cup disappeared into his midsection.

“Should I try the tea?”

The bot’s eyes dimmed for an instant. “The tea, sir, is for dipping. The drink itself tastes worse than the cookies.”

Arkady checked his clock. He assumed his appointment skiddadled already, which was for the best. Ten times his current salary was too little if it meant moving to this planet.

Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt.

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