The humans’ offspring crawled out of the shadows between a pair of structural supports, its doughy hands and feet unprotected from the grimy corridor floor. The shadow suppressed a hiss of alarm and detoured around the tiny being as it sat up and stuffed both grubby hands into its mouth.
Humans were irrationally protective of their young. Perhaps, the shadow mused, it was because their young were so soft and helpless, and often utterly oblivious to the dangers of their surroundings. That said, for all their outraged protectiveness, humans allowed their offspring to do the most counter-intuitively dangerous things. Case in point: the creature rubbing its bare appendages on the filthy floor and stuffing them into its mouth.
A pair of thin, ratty-looking humans peered out of the shadows between the corridor supports, their eyes glittering in the dimness. The female leaned forward and scooped her offspring out of the flow of traffic as if concerned that someone might deliberately step on it; which, knowing the residents of flier port, wasn’t unlikely.
Radco nodded politely in the pair’s direction. They’d made eye contact as he detoured around their offspring, and now it would look strange if he failed to acknowledge them. He was about to continue on his way when the male addressed him.
“Excuse me, honored transportation agent. In which sector is the cheapest food is to be found?”
Radco blinked, processing the human’s speech. The words were clipped and oddly accented, the tone strangely formal. He didn’t think he’d ever been called “honored.” Words like that were reserved for officials, ship captains, and upper management, not transportation workers in grungy overalls like himself.
“I’m sorry, honored sir, I didn’t mean to disturb,” the man continued quickly. “We just arrived from orbit and are still getting our bearings.”
Radco arranged his face into what he hoped was a kindly expression. “I’m not disturbed, only surprised. We don’t get many new arrivals here, much less families. KelPort isn’t really large enough to have sectors, but the cheapest place to eat is probably the general canteen on sub-level B, just below the in-processing office.”
The humans’ faces fell. “That’s cheap here?” the woman asked.
“There’s a noodle shop on the same level that’s not badly priced, and at the end of each day-cycle they mark their leftovers down 50%. Add your newcomer discount, and you could get a meal for 67% off– ” Radco stopped himself. People sometimes commented on his strange affinity for numbers. Rattling off numbers and percentages in everyday conversation was something to be avoided.
The male nodded blankly. Perhaps he had spoken too quickly, or perhaps these humans weren’t good with numbers.
“Look,” Radco said, fingers moving over the datapad on his wrist, “I’ve been where you are. Let me help you out.” He showed them the transaction app he’d just opened.
“Eskie 2116,” the female said, giving Radco enough information to complete the credit transfer.
Both the humans’ eyes widened in shock when they saw the sum, and the shadow immediately reconsidered his actions. His living unit was cheap, and he had few expenses beyond food and the occasional drink to appear sociable. He had no dependents, no one to send credits to. True, the sum was a good chunk of his current savings. But no one had ever accused Baron Cargo of paying well.
“Thank you so much, honored transportation agent! We will remember this always!” The male’s outburst was effusive enough to warrant looks of surprise from those passing the shadowy nook, and Radco broke out in a nervous sweat.
“Thank you kindly, but it’s nothing,” he said quickly.
“It is not nothing! Your are most kind!”
“Thank you,” Radco repeated, backing away.
He remembered his first months in KelPort. Sleeping in dim nooks like this one, rummaging the bins for food. He’d frequented the noodle shop often during the final hour of the day, when all their savory broths went on sale and the last handfuls of soggy noodles could be had for an almost-reasonable price.
As he continued on his way, Radco’s mind parsed the interaction for information. He had failed to interact correctly on a number of levels. He remembered the human couple’s looks of confusion and surprise, as well as the stares and mutters of those passing by, and cringed inwardly. It certainly hadn’t been one of his better attempts at interaction.
And what about the credits he had given them? Clearly the sum had been too large, but what was the right amount? Was there one? Perhaps he shouldn’t have given in to the impulse at all; that would have been safest. Just extract himself after giving directions and move on. But for some reason the pair and their awkward overly-deferential manner had struck a chord with him.
He remembered his first years of human interaction, his attempts at simple questions that were always too forward or awkwardly deferential. The weird stares and sneers. The muttering. He remembered often going hungry, and how a few kind strangers had helped him… what had they thought he was, anyway? A stray human youth? Or had they seen through his facade and taken pity on him, a stranger in a strange land, trying desperately to fit in?
A darkened advertising display caught his reflection, its multi-angled screens distorting his features into the separate facets of his self. Here his face twisted in fury; there his lips lifted in gentle amusement. Puzzlement, curiosity, joy and sadness all stared back at him, echoing the movements of his own face. Even now he could feel the separate components stirring, pulling in different directions, struggling to escape his self-control.
He couldn’t let that happen. He’d spent years carefully crafting this mask, becoming proficient at pretending to be human. Letting it slip would ruin the illusion.
Radco glanced around nervously, but the traffic in the corridor had thinned. None of the other walkers paid him any attention. He hurried onward, hugging the corridor’s dimmest angles, a shadow among shadows.
A Shadow Among Shadows © 2020 Leland Lydecker
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short story! I plan to write more about Radco’s adventures in blending in; they’ll be posted here in the coming months. If you want to read more of my work right now, A Shadow Among Shadows is set on the same mining colony world as the Iceball Planet series. Follow the Patreon link below this post to check out that series and more!