Port Custodial Blues
by Vera Nazarian
There's gotta be a billion words for "shit" around the galaxy. I'm sure of that, because there are at least several hundred words for "shit" that I have personally heard spoken around here in the lavatories, restrooms, bathrooms, sitrooms, voiding closets, elimi-chambers, and other places for excreting living waste here in the lower intergalactic spaceport.
I get to clean up after them, making sure the men's rooms and the women's rooms and the uni-rooms and the multi-rooms are clean, and the facilities are fully functional and attractive to the public.
You wouldn't believe the kind of messes they make. Humans are some of the worst offenders, despite the fact that their elimination process is relatively easy. They just have their number one and number two, liquid and solid waste, and they do it relatively easily into porcelain bowls in little private locked stalls or into small discreet urinal basins. Well, compared to that, the glaziri have a three-day ceremony, and no, I am really not kidding you. They have number one and two and three — third is oil, this thick gloppy completely unscented, thank the gods, lipid waste. Since this species is unable to digest fats but requires them for some peculiar internal lubrication, the fats and oils get broken down into basic lipids internally and have to be filtered though a specialized organ — or so they tell me.
Why do I do this, you might ask? A spaceport janitor's job is an ugly thing, and some people even go as far as to say it's a cruel and unusual punishment.
Why? I am a Cleanser, is why. Teal Wade, human male, 36 standard Sapiens years. You might say I come from a religious sect that believes that cleaning up is sacred, that nothing is too base to handle. You might say it, but I won't use those exact same words — I mean we all have our limits, even Cleansers. And still I get the interrogation treatment from my Boss, who doesn't seem to believe me when I say that I do the job in earnest and pay attention to every detail.
"Did you scrub the stalls, Wade?" says Boss.
"Yeah, I scrubbed the stalls."
"Did you drain the oil?"
"Yes, I drained the goddamned oil."
"For someone religious you sure do cuss a lot."
"Hell, in my religion that kind of thing is just fine."
And so it goes.
Oh, and get this — seeing crazy stuff is one thing but you wouldn't believe the kinds of things I overhear. People give away secrets when they eliminate their bodily waste. I guess it makes it easier for them to concentrate or something, if they also grunt and use expletives as they go. It's also amusing that some of them are very private while others do it in the open. The bashkae sit in a circle around ten elimination holes in the floor and hold tentacles as they open their anuu and relieve themselves of the syrupy thick combination waste product. Bashkae have only one kind of waste. And they get rid of it once a day or even less frequently, often waiting in the wasterooms for hours until another bashkae shows up — the more of them the better — and they all go at the same time, chattering as they do.
On the other hand, the loner waasi pilots completely isolate themselves in their one-person elimi-chamber, and Lord only knows what they do in there, and how it is done. All I know is, when it's time to clean their facilities I have to formally petition their embassy, and some serious-faced waasi comes personally to unlock the elimi-chamber. He stands there and watches me as I go inside and collect the hermetically sealed containers of their waste product and refill the room with clean empty containers. When done, I hand the used waste containers to the waasi, and he marks off in his tablet pad that the room has been sanitized. Beyond that I have nothing to do there, and indeed the elimi chamber is always spotlessly sterile even when it has been used. That makes me think the waasi are bizarre in more than one sense, even though they look rather humanoid.
The other day the Boss sends out a Security Alert to Port Custodial, which is pretty much the whole janitorial and facilities staff cadre. We're supposed to be on the lookout for suspicious stuff. Actually, we're told there has been an incident in the spaceport but we're not told much else. Supposedly there was a shooting at one of the shuttle terminals, or maybe a tube transport tampering. Okay, so most of this is rumor, because Boss never gives us the detail, according to his contract — if he did, he would be exercising witness prejudice, and that would put him in a crappy, so to speak, political situation with the authorities. So all we ever get is a general warning: "Look and listen, keep records of all comings and goings, write down anything unusual, and just record and back up all transactions."
It's really easy to become paranoid, given such a directive, and believe me, I do get cranky and touchy, and I keep an extra gun and charger in the utility cart, in addition to my tool-gun-scanner multibelt.
And now, get this — rumor has it, the incident involved the smuggling of an item of InterGalactic value, and then a clandestine disposal of it in one of the elimination facilities.
So I am willing to bet a standard week's pay that this will end up being a Facilities Purge. We're all gonna have to go and scan and analyze a whole lot of alien shit, just because Boss says so.
Good thing I am a Cleanser, or I'd be howling right about now, like the rest of the janitors. Even as a Cleanser, I admit this would be a hell of a tough job.
Well, I get off shift late tonight, after sanitizing the vragaa express bowl in the main terminal and ticket area — the vragaa eliminate on the go by dumping vapor-fine orange liquid into these little cup-like containers that they immediately discard into a suction slot of the express bowl, and they never stop moving. Of course it helps that the vragaa are like giant Earth slugs. They move slowly, their bulky annelid tentacles barely lifting off the ground, as their underbodies sweep along the floor leaving a long moist streak behind them. So although cleaning the express bowls takes minutes, it takes much longer to actually clean the liquid trail sludge off the floor of the spaceport. Vragaa sludge has to be marked with "wet floor" signs every ten meters, and then you have to go back and dust it with absorbent silica powder that dries it out and the residue can be suctioned with an industrial port-vac. All in all a real hassle. But you gotta do it with a smile, since the vragaa are real sensitive folks.
As soon as I am done, I head to lock up the utility cart, plug it into the portnet for recharging and data sync, then punch out and head home along one of the tubewalks. Home's a small cubicle on the third bottom level of the spaceport, right underneath the pathway of a major transport tube artery. Imagine falling asleep to the sound of eight-ton tube shuttles whooshing on your ceiling every five minutes, while the whole cubicle shakes and wall fixtures rattle in their metal slots. Sometimes the terminal cable gets loosened and I lose portnet connection. Tried taping it to the outlet, but the tape doesn't stick very well to the wall exo-polish, so I ended up moving a storage bin to press it in tightly. The only advantage of this place is that the rent's cheap, and I get a nice Inconvenience Bonus from the tube shuttle company every ten days.
So anyway, here I am, walking along the fourth level hall, about to take a detour to Jilla's Grill and some nice Earth-style takeout. It is dark, and most of the hall-lightcones have been knocked out by some rat kids, and there's laser graffiti everywhere along the metal rib-walls, and it smells like concentrated human piss mixed in with gorti elimi-water and a bit of vragaa sludge — yeah, I would know. Somebody in Port Custodial hasn't been doing their job around here, but it's not my section, so it's none of my business. No one's out and about since it's past nineteen hundred hours, only now and then a late-working straggler like myself. I walk kind of fast, since you never know around here. It's not exactly dangerous according to spaceport Security Zoning but neither is it too safe, if you know what I mean.
The hall starts to curve and there's Jilla's Grill lit up in pink and yellow neon, and just beyond it are the elevators to the lower levels. Jilla herself is a human genetic male who's been modified about a decade ago and is now a redhead with huge mammaries and a great talent for barbecue. Through the clear plexiglass I can see a couple of patrons eating inside, and just as I am about to head straight for the door, I hear running footsteps and human male shouts interspersed with high-pitched flute whistling that passes for agitated talk with the gorti.
They come running around the corner from the direction of the elevators, a man dressed in a gray Fleet pilot uniform and a waddling gorti female. The gorti look like big cumbersome ostriches with a multitude of flute tubes coming out of their cranial protrusions, and although they waddle they are damn fast. And the only way you can tell a gorti female is sort of like those antique Earth cartoons, where the females have these extra-long feminine eyelashes that they'd bat at the male cartoon characters. So a gorti female has these extra-long tube eyelash things. Anyway, they come running straight at me, and the gorti's fluting like crazy, but her translator has been shut off, so all I get is gibberish.
"Are you Port Custodial? We need Security!" says the human pilot.
"Yeah, but off duty," I say. I eye him up and down, and he is not that much to look at, shabby Fleet man, with an older model gun in his holster. But he's young and out of breath; has an earnest face, and a fresh laser raze on the side of his cheek and neck. At the same time I notice the gorti female is also scratched, and she is oozing pale yellow stuff from her head-tubes.
"All right, what happened?" I say, reaching for the dispatch talker at my tool belt.
"We're not sure actually," he says, "but somebody shot at us up in Level 2, where the stores are. Busy area, but we didn't see who it was in the crowd. Strange thing is, no one did. A bunch of glaziri, waasi and bashkae, several humans. We were just getting in the elevators for Jilla's Grill when they got us."
"So why didn't you call Security upstairs?"
The gorti begins to flute like crazy.
"Her translator got broken when they shot," says the man. "And we were already close to the elevator, figured it'd be safer if we ran first and called later. I just happened to try to help her, so they got me too. I am Jordan Rormek, by the way, and this is Maaa Waaa Laialaa."
So I call Security, and report the incident. Turns out, someone has already called it in, but with a different story. According to an eyewitness, the gorti female shot someone first in front of an info-chip dealer, and then waddle-ran halfway down the stores strip, holding on to a tri-info-chip cluster that happened to have on it some very confidential info.
"Look, this is just total bullshit," says Jordan Rormek. "She did not fire at anyone, nor did she steal anything. That info-chip is obviously registered under her own name. We nearly got killed, okay? Do you mind telling Security to come down here, please, so that we can get all of this straightened out in person? Meanwhile, we were heading to Jilla's anyway, so let's just all go inside."
"Fine," I say. "Ladies first." And we go inside Jilla's Grill, following the gorti female. Then I call Security again, and tell them to bring a new gorti translator.
Inside the eatery, Jilla's at the back of the counter, and I see the top of her bright orange head, while her back is turned. There's a hiss against the grill and a mouthwatering smell of synth burger and steak.
We all sit down at the larger table to accommodate the rotund gorti, who is by now only making occasional whistle-noises and looks rather dejected.
The menus slide out of the holders and light up invitingly. I scan one briefly while I watch Rormek take out his nutri-pillbox. I take out my own and snap it in the nutri-holder in my place setting. The nutri works best after a synth meal, not before, so that you get your eating pleasure taken care of, the salivary glands and the stomach juices start flowing, and it's all prime inside for the digestion of the real nutri that keeps us alive. The synth just gets flushed out of the system, like the nothing that it really is. But damn, it sure tastes good and makes life, not to mention a janitor's job, easier. And Jilla's Grill does some of the best synth in the spaceport.
I punch in my order and wait. Might as well get what I'd come here for. Synthajitas with cilantro and onion sauce. But looks like it won't be to go.
Pretty soon Security arrives. Well, not all that soon, since by then we're all eating. Rormek ordered a synth burger with the works, and the gorti is having some kind of cream-colored sludge from the gorti menu. And it actually doesn't smell all that bad. My own synthajitas come sizzling in a frypan, brought over by Jilla herself.
As one Security guy takes testimony from the pilot, the second is attaching the replacement gorti translator. I watch Jilla's friendly smile and bulging cleavage as she arranges my dishes. And then moments later the gorti starts talking Standard.
"This is an outrage! I am Maaa Waaa Laialaa, and this decent human man was only trying to help when someone hit me from the back with a laser shot and damaged my translator not to mention cut my facial tubora. I hurt! Your eyewitness is a liar, obviously connected with the incident. Where is he or she, to back up this ridiculous claim? Not only did I not steal, but I lost two portions of a tri-chip worth a lot of money, and although this is registered in my own name, in actuality it is company property and belongs to the conglomerate I work for —"
"Slow down, slow down," says Security One, looking anonymous in his full-body suit and helmet — but I'm guessing he's a human male. "Maybe we'd better have you come to the station with us, and you too, pilot. Both of you need some medical attention, too, do you realize?"
Rormek shrugs, and stuffs the last piece of synth burger in his mouth, then pops two nutris and follows up with a drink. "It's just a scratch. But sure," he says. "And it's the least I can do for this poor lady. I am off duty."
"Heh," I say, chewing my synthajitas wrapped in flatbread. "Off duty. That's my line. Well, good luck to both of you, with whatever it is."
Security Two acknowledges me with a nod. This one's probably a waasi, I'm guessing, since he looks very humanoid-slender and is perfectly silent underneath the suit. No need for testimony from me; they know I'll be including the details in the nightly report for Port Custodial. Not that I even have anything to testify.
Maaa Waaa Laialaa finishes her synth sludge, then also opens a nutri-pill box and takes two into her middle tubora. The brownish pills enter her orifice with a smack, so it seems like she is sucking a lollipop there.
Then they all get up, and the gorti waddles out the door followed by Jordan Rormek and the two Security personnel. When they are gone, Jilla comes back to stand at my side. She shakes her head, saying, "Would you believe any of that? I wouldn't. I think there's more to this thing than we know."
"Yeah," I say and finish up the last of the synthajitas. Then I open my nutri pill-box and pop a couple. I wash it all down with synth beer and then I burp. Ah, that was a good meal, damn.
And then I head home.
The next day there's a portnet message from Boss to Port Custodial, and just as I thought, we're up for a Facilities Purge. I get up, put on the multibelt and uniform, and head out directly to my section. As I'm getting the cart, there's Joe Francie, all ready to head out to his section, his own cart full of waasi containers. He's got it easy, assigned to mostly waasi facilities, and for once, even being a Cleanser doesn't help my mood. On my cart I have vragaa sludge silica buckets and mops and antibacterial spray for three alien species, and boy will I be using all of this today.
"How's it going, Teal?" Joe says. "Bad day for everyone, eh?"
He's expecting me to come back with some positive Cleanser spiel but I just sigh and nod.
"Wow," goes Joe. "Must be real bad to get even you down."
"Yeah, well," I say. "I've got things on my mind. Saw some people who got shot last night. No one seriously hurt, but it is still kind of unpleasant. Sad times we live in."
"Ok, tell me all about it during lunch," Joe says, as he gets up in the driving seat of his cart and heads out to do his section.
I nod, then finish loading the rest of my supplies, and get into my own cart. Then I drive to Section DZ-12 that services Space Gates 1-12 including the big commercial intergalactic hoppers and the passenger spaceliners. Good thing I am a Cleanser, because no one else would have this section, the dirtiest, most heavily used area of the spaceport.
First up on my list are the human bathrooms at Gate 1. These are for the most part pretty decent, except for the usual litter of paper towels and tissues and other human garbage, and when some male has bad aim and misses the bowl or urinal or a female gets drops on the seat. However it is mostly synth-based waste, none of it smelling too badly. And as I spray it down with disinfectant and wipe it off and mop the floors all around, I say the Cleanser prayer of gratitude for a relatively easy job. Though now and then I get a stall which has been used by a newly arrived Earther who's had real biological food for dinner, and the waste leaves a malicious smell. That's when I get out the heavy-duty air freshener. In the meantime, since this is a Facilities Purge, I check every millimeter of the place carefully as I clean, and finally program the plumbing to redirect all waste to the central Custodial processing and analysis facility.
All in all, I am done pretty fast, and next up is Gate 2, with the bashkae wasteroom. This one is usually not too bad either. I knock politely, but unlike the human bathrooms I go in right away, since there is always a party — at least a bashkae or two or three gathered, waiting for a crowd so that they can all eliminate in a group. Sure enough, there are three of them inside. They crouch over the elimi-holes, tentacles joined tightly with their neighbors', and smile at me with their three-lipped mouths, then continue their lively conversation with each other; someone told me once that they discuss philosophy while they wait. I end up working around them, but it doesn't bother them, and it's fine with me. When done washing down the floor around the elimi-holes and their lower appendages, I program their waste redirection into the main facility.
Lunchtime comes soon enough, and I am nearly halfway done with my section, having gone up to Gate 5 and cleaned three more alien facilities and the long hallway and all the trash receptacles along the way. I meet up with Joe for a quick bite at one of the spaceport snack bars and we talk about it all.
"I really want to know what's going on," Joe says. "Supposedly it's a missing tri-info-chip. Just like the one you told me about from your incident. But get this — it's not just corporate info, but they say there's a Fleet-level military secret or two stashed away in one of them three chip modules."
"Interesting," I say, chewing my sandwich.
Joe slurps his Cosmos-Cola.
"Yeah," goes Joe. "That'd be something if you or me found this thing. Wonder if there's a reward."
"Sure there's a reward," I say. "There always is. It's like the lottery, someone's gotta win big."
Joe slurps the ice dregs of his drink and laughs. "You know, Teal, for a moment I begin to understand you Cleanser people. This kind of motivation at least makes sense. So let's go, man! Lunch's over, time to hit the garbage and look for jewels!"
With that he gets up, dialing his dispatch to say he's clocked back in, and off he goes.
I wave him off with a nod, and calmly finish my sandwich. Synthbacon on rye with lettuce and tomato hits the spot. And Joe, poor bastard's got it all wrong. Being a Cleanser I am not in a hurry to profit, so I take my usual time, then get back on the job. For the rest of the afternoon I work with calm precision and perfect attention to detail. Purification for its own sake is where I'm at.
Throughout the shift I call dispatch for news, to see how the Facilities Purge is progressing. Looks like so far they went through several tons of waste, but didn't find what they were looking for.
"Still nothing," says Mardio, today's dispatch. "But I want you to take extreme care with the glaziri facilities at Gate 8. Be sure to check every nook and cranny."
"I always do," I say.
"Well, today you're gonna check it twice," says Mardio. "Boss's orders. Looks like they might have a lead."
"The glaziri are on their third day of the Ceremony today," I mention. "It might be busy there."
"Exactly. That's when they actually go. And as soon as they do, you localize the waste in the plumbing perimeter and radio-mark it before the redirection."
"Say what? You want me to put a radiation trace on their shit?"
Mardio is laughing. "Yeah. And also their liquid and lipid waste. Radio-mark all three."
"Holy crap!" I say.
"You can say that again, Cleanser!"
And that's exactly what I end up doing. I go in the glaziri exo-chamber, past lean bird-like vaguely humanoid shapes dressed in primary colors, and I gently obtain permission to lift up and examine all their exo-bowls. The exo-bowls are lined up in three neat rows, with the nearly colorless liquid waste on the left, the rich amber oil in the middle, and the multi-colored solid on the right. Votive lightcones are burning at each end, and a female glaziri, with a slender but kind of sensual body wrapped in green silk-like fabric, stands at the end of the chamber, reciting the Liberation and Elimination Anthem.
I get a bit distracted by her but never miss the contents of a single bowl. Ignoring me, the glaziri stand at the outer perimeter, each having filled all three bowls from a central organ inside their general stomach area. Their waste smells pleasantly like deeply soggy Earth wood, slightly musky. Without disturbing the ceremony I discretely point a safety-capped micro-radiation tool at each bowl. When the glaziri empty their bowls into the three plumbing units later, it will all be marked and will be easily identifiable at Port Custodial's analysis facility.
I find nothing, of course, and leave the more high-level analysis up to Custodial.
Pretty soon I am all done with my section, which means I would normally be done for the day, but not on a Facilities Purge day. We all have to report with our carts and our equipment, and get scanned and analyzed, in case we are ourselves contaminated in some way. This is standard procedure, but I always find it a bit insulting, seeing how I am so impeccable in my work.
I drive the cart over to Port Custodial Headquarters all the way on Level 1, along curving tunnel corridors, honking politely at pedestrians and flashing the caution lights. When I get there, I see a dozen other carts, and more arriving. Joe waves to me and we all head into the dark warehouse area for self-scanning. Afterwards we'll get to see Boss.
"Found anything?" says Joe, as we roll along slowly, double file.
"Nope," I say. "You?"
Then it's my turn to be scanned, and I pull the cart onto the conveyor belt and we cruise past the industrial strength sensors at three meters a minute.
I am in the middle of a very deep relaxed yawn when the Red Alarm goes off as a viral sensor passes through me.
Goddamn it to hell. My mouth falls open in shock and then all kinds of other alarms and lights go on and off, and Security comes running and surrounds me. They point micro-scanners at me and immediately locate the object in my abdominal area. Actually it is now in my lower intestine, and will probably be passed the next time I use the bathroom.
"What the hell," I keep mumbling, as they firmly escort me to an analysis chamber, and here I get questioned while a bright light shines at me and a lie detector is attached to my pulse points.
After several questions it is apparent that I am telling the truth.
"Mr. Wade," Boss himself questions me, "you appear to have swallowed one of the missing tri-info-chip modules from the Ellron-Galactic Corporation which is currently involved in a political-military scandal that is about to hit the news on a Galactic scale. We presume innocence, but what is your explanation, please?"
I sit in the chair, unrestrained, except for the intensity of stares upon me, and the Security staff all around me, armed and trigger-ready. Jeez, talk about pressure.
"I don't know," I say weakly. I am dry-mouthed. "Shit, I really just don't know."
"How about this," says Boss. "Did you swallow any nutri-pills recently?"
I frown and scratch my forehead. "Why, sure, as usual, at every meal. Ate breakfast and lunch today. You can ask Joe Francie there, we had lunch today...."
A medic steps forward and says quietly, "Not today. The location of the chip inside your intestines indicates that the time of consumption was most likely to have been some time yesterday."
Jilla's Grill. The thought strikes me, and so I tell them how I ended up having dinner with the pilot and the gorti female.
"I can't believe it!" I say. "They must've switched my nutri pill-box! That female gorti seemed a bit suspicious to me, and the human also, and she claims to have lost her tri-info-chip. Does she work for Ellron-Galactic?"
Boss looks at me, then says. "Actually she does not. The gorti female mugging incident is unrelated to this, except for the coincidence of missing tri-info-chips in both cases. And neither does the pilot. He is an honest Fleet man, and both were thoroughly identity-checked yesterday, and came out spanking clean."
"So then," I say, "who can it be — "
And then it comes to me, at the same time as Boss says, "It's Jilla Orsweq. Did you know that Jilla's Grill got startup funding many years ago from Ellron-Galactic?"
"Well I'll be damned!" I say. "She was serving me synthajitas at the table.... I'll be damned!"
The medic grins. "Not a problem, Mr. Wade. Take this laxative, and believe me, minutes later no dam can stand against it. The bathroom is right around the corner."
And so I pass the tri-info-chip and get to watch my own crap getting carefully processed in the lab next door. They find the fake nutri-pill and, sure enough, inside is a tiny tri-info-chip module. Later that day, the second piece is discovered somewhere else on the spaceport, stashed away in a bag in one of the trash bins. But the third piece is nowhere to be found. The irradiated glaziri post-ceremonial waste is processed to no avail, and Jilla Orsweq is taken into custody, then released on bail since the proceedings can't go on until the three module pieces are connected and the full infoset can be read.
Jilla's Grill gets shut down temporarily, then re-opens for business, about which I am ashamed to admit, I am glad. Always did like Jilla, even though she pulled that number on me, thinking to hide the chip with someone like myself, who's above suspicion, since a janitor's own waste would be the last place anyone'd look. While the authorities continue searching, Port Custodial is asked to do at least three more Facilities Purges over the next ninety days. Still nothing.
Eventually, almost a Standard six-month later, they locate the chip on a shuttle heading, of all places, to the bashkae system, at which point it's out of our jurisdiction. And then it all makes sense.
The authorities had the right idea, but the wrong species. It pays to know about your galactic neighbors, even their bathroom habits. If only we'd known this all along, we'd never bothered with the glaziri and their extended ceremony.
Turns out when bashkae sit around their elimination holes and hold tentacles, it's not just for moral support. They are able to pass waste from one bashkae to another, in a naturally occurring bodily function. The bashkae home world is very arid and nearly barren, and the bashkae have evolved to conserve resources to the point of recycling their own waste in the bodies of others, to supply necessary nutrients. So that when the bashkae sit around in our spaceport wasterooms, they are capable of passing around objects indefinitely to one another, and we would never have found anything without actually scanning them one at a time, not just their waste. As a group — well, let's just say that bashkae play one hell of a game of Hot Potato. And they make great smugglers.
Well, you live and learn.
Damn, but I love this job.
Originally published in Helix #2, October 2006, edited by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans, this short story was a WSFA Small Press Award 2007 Finalist.