57. Everybody is annoying once in a while. Some people just make it a lifestyle choice.
Archive for May 25th, 2009
Hey, friends. If you’re new to the website, every Monday I’ve been posting a chapter of my work-in-progress, a fantasy adventure called Lost in Silver. If this is your first time here, why not start with Chapter One: The Visitor? For those of you who’ve been following along, here’s chapter eleven!
“Taking in nourishment” turned out to mean some sort of khaki mush that almost, but not quite, reminded Linda of a glob of oatmeal. Lallura apologized, saying they were unfamiliar with the preferences of the children, so they could not tailor the proteins to an appealing configuration, but she assured her that the glob contained all of the vitamins and nutrients they would require for at least half a day. That was probably the worst thing about the stuff, Linda decided, – the knowledge that they would require another glob that afternoon.
After they ate, Lallura opened the door to the medical chamber they were residing in and, for the first time, took them out into the interior of the rest of the ship. All of the walls were made of the same clean, white metal, and many of them had electronic readouts of various sizes and colors. The halls themselves had an arch-shape to them, like half of a flattened tube, with recesses every few yards that led to another door. There were several of the slender, blue Mitimae wandering the halls, singing to one another when the need to convey information arose, all of them wearing the same blue and red robes as Lallura and the males they had already met. Their presence on the Mitimae ship had evidently been made public knowledge, as none of the people reacted to them with true surprise, but a great many of them stared or looked upon them with expressions ranging from wonder to suspicion. That was fair enough – Linda was doing her best not to let it show on her face, but she was looking upon them the same way.
The first Mitimae they saw that were not wearing robes were in the hangar bay Lallura led them to. There, milling about around a small fleet of vehicles, was a group of the aliens in white vacuum-suits. Each bore small patches on the shoulders featuring an insignia that had the same red and blue color scheme as the robes the others wore. There were two of them waiting by the smallest of the vehicles, made of the same white metal as the rest of the ship, and looking a bit like a minivan. It had six black tires, three on either side, and a windshield that wrapped around the front and several feet down the sides. The only entry into the vehicle was a sliding door on the left side, which was flanked by the two vacuum-suited Mitimae.
“Alar. Raelle.” Lallura bowed to the two, one male, one female, Linda could tell now that they were close enough to see them, and introduced each of the children. “These are the visitors who will be joining you on today’s expedition.”
Alar hummed a quick message to Lallura, and she hummed back. He nodded, but did not look pleased. “Very well. Please, enter,” he said to the children.
They climbed into the vehicle, where six chairs were lined up in rows of two. Linda sat in the left seat in the second row, next to the window. After a few moments of jockeying for position, Kevin took the seat next to her. Gene and Gail sat in the back, next to a back wall that seemed several feet short of the actual end of the vehicle. Gene looked at the blank wall, thinking. In any sort of space exploration vehicle, he was certain that room would be at a premium. There would be no wasted space. What was in that few extra feet at the end?
Alar and Raelle sat in the two chairs in the front and began operating a bank of controls. Gene caught himself being surprised at the panel of sliding rods, switches and buttons. There was no reason to think an alien craft would have a steering wheel or foot-pedals, but somehow, that was what he expected all the same.
“Where are we going, exactly?” Linda asked.
“We will patrol the area where we found you,” Alar said. “We will be looking for evidence of the cataclysm that has befallen this world. Now do be silent, younglings, we must concentrate.”
“Friendly, ain’t he?” Kevin said.
Gene tried to watch the controls as they guided the craft through the hanger. He was hoping he could learn how to pilot it from the way Alar and Raelle did the same, but their motions did not logically correspond with the movement of the vehicle – at least, not in any way he could understand. Gliding one of the rods right did not result in a right turn, nor did it necessarily result in a left turn, and he was left to conclude that the rods did not control direction at all, but served some other function. There must be some sort of rationale behind it, but it wasn’t something Gene could learn just by watching.
The two Mitimae at the controls took their high-tech sport utility vehicle and drove to into another chamber at the end of the hangar. It was much smaller – it could accommodate maybe two or three of the vans at a time, and as they drove into it a wall came down behind them and sealed them off. Within seconds, there was a humming sound as pumps cycled the air out of the room. When the humming finally stopped, the wall in front of them slid open, and they looked out at the cold vacuum and the vast, gray plains of dust.
Linda thought she had gotten a good look at it before, even for those brief seconds, but with the luxury to really look out without an immediate fear for her life, it was almost awe-inspiring. There were so many stars – she’d never known how beautiful they could be with all that air getting in the way.
Sadly, the stars were the only beautiful feature of the devastated landscape. Where there should have been grass or shrubs or sun-bleached sand, there was nothing but mounds of dead, gray ash. They were perfect mounds, undisturbed by wind, untouched by human or Mitimae hands. Linda took hope when she saw some tire tracks until she realized they must have been made by one of these vans on an earlier run.
The only feature that made the landscape of this world stand out, distinguishing it as a dead world rather than one that had never had life at all, were the trees. There were many trees, but they were all shrunken husks. The bark that had once shielded them from the elements was burnt away, leaving more oily ash, but as there were no longer any elements to shield them from it seemed a small loss. The gnarled limbs were stripped of their leaves as though by a flash-fire and every tree was bare and dead.
“Hey, what’s that over there?” Kevin asked, pointing off to their left. Linda craned her head around Alar’s chair to see what he was pointing at. At first she didn’t see anything, but then she noticed the black patch against the horizon where she saw no stars. As she looked harder, she realized the patch was actually a spot where the stars were blocked by the scorched, ruined husk of a building. It was the first sign the children had seen that this poor world had once played host to intelligent life.
“It is nothing to concern yourself with,” Alar said. “That is not in our survey zone.” He looked back down at the readout in front of him – orange lights flashing in patterns across a black screen. The kids looked harder and, sure enough, saw another Mitimae van patrolling the area near the building. They drove over another ash-mound and the edifice vanished from sight.
Evidently, there wasn’t much in their “survey zone” at all. After the first few minutes, awestruck by the stars, heartbroken by the ruins, there was very little new for the children or the Mitimae to see on their journey. No matter how tragic the implications were, after you’ve seen ten or fifteen masses of ash, new ones have less of an impact. That was why Kevin got very excited when he realized that a closely-grouped clump of trees they were approaching were not trees at all, but the remaining posts of a destroyed fence.
“Someone lived here,” he said. “Those posts are all in the straight line, it must have been a fence.”
“Perhaps,” Alar said. He navigated the van between some of the slats and, for the first time, came to a complete stop. “This area does require closer inspection. We must go onto the surface.”
“What?” Gene said. “But we’re not wearing vacuum-suits like you are! If you open the door, we’ll be killed.”
“Do not be concerned, youngling. This chamber will remain sealed. Our comrades in the back will conduct the testing.”
Alar tapped a few keys on the baffling control panel and a sliding sound came from behind the back wall of the compartment. So that’s what was in those extra feet – an airlock. Two vacuum-suited Mitimae walked out away from the van, coming into their field of vision, carrying a device that looked like a jackhammer with a laptop computer attached to the top of it, all made out of the odd Mitimae white metal. One of the aliens was guiding the end of the jackhammer along the ground as his partner studied the readout on the screen at the top. They were looking for something, Gene could tell, but what? And how? Some sort of radar or X-ray or maybe even a Geiger counter? The thought that the land they were rolling across may be pulsing with a low radioactivity made him shudder a little. Gene was smart enough to know that, no matter what Stan Lee wrote in the comics, heavy doses of real radiation were less likely to turn you green and super-strong than bald and weak.
The Mitimae seemed to find what they were looking for, and then they placed the tip of the jackhammer firmly into the ash. One of them hit a switch on the device and it started to hammer into the ground, kicking ash up into the vacuum. With no air to carry it, the ash settled quickly then was kicked right back up again. It was very strange to watch this procedure with no sound, and Gene thought of every science-fiction movie he’d ever seen full of gunfire and explosions in outer space. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to fully enjoy those movies again.
“What are they looking for?” he asked.
“Clues,” Raelle hummed. “Evidence as to what fate may have befallen this world.”
“And they think they found something underground?”
“Perhaps. They are marking the territory for greater scrutiny later.”
At about that point the jackhammer finished its silent job and the Mitimae pulled it from the ground. As they walked back to the van, Linda saw perhaps the strangest thing she’d seen since she came up out of the Evertime pool into this world. Around the edge of the hole they had drilled, some of the ash was spitting up from the ground, swirling like it was caught in a tiny gust of wind, as though there were a balloon under the ground that was leaking its precious air into the vacuum. A balloon… or a pocket of air.
“What is it, Linda?” Kevin asked. “Your face just got really white.”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s all just… horrible out here. I hate looking at all of this.” She was lying, of course, but the more she watched these Mitimae, the more she became suspicious about what they were really searching for here, and until those suspicions were answered, she’d say what she thought was best. She didn’t like to lie, but she would do it as long as she was unsure as to the consequences of the truth.
* * *
“What didn’t you tell them, Linda?” asked Gail when they were returned to their little cabin aboard the Mitimae ship. She and Linda may not have been talking to each other very much at the moment, but after so many years of being best friends, she could tell when Linda was hiding something.
“Oh, so now you want to be a team player?” Linda said.
“I’ve always been a team player.”
“You’ve got a lousy way of showing it.”
“What, by wanting to go home before one of us gets killed? I don’t know if you noticed, Linda, but I was right. If the Mitimae hadn’t seen us just when we were coming out of Evertime, we’d all be goners by now.”
“And if you hadn’t wasted your question, we wouldn’t have had to come to Mitimae in the first place!”
“Ladies, ladies,” Kevin said,” is this really the best time to have this argument? Better to wait until we jump back into the pool. Then we’ll have all the time in the world.”
“Were you hiding something, Linda?” Gene asked. He’d thought she was lying too, but not knowing her as well as Gail did, he wasn’t sure.
Linda told them about the swirling ash she saw when the Mitimae pulled their jackhammer from the ground. It had been the only stop during their entire trip to the surface, but on the way back they saw a few aliens in their vacuum-suits conducting similar surveys with jackhammers. When they got closer, they saw that the area they had been studying was near the Evertime pool. Gene immediately began to map out the path they took back to the ship so they would know how to find the pool again when they needed it.
“How could it have swirled up out of the ground?” Kevin said. “There’s no air for it to swirl in.”
“Exactly,” Linda said. “I think the Mitimae are looking for pockets of air underground and cracking them open.”
“Why would they want to do that?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it. We need to find a way out of here.”
“Easier said than done,” Kevin said. “Every time I try to come up with an escape plan, I feel like my head is going to explode.”
At the word “explode,” the Medibots hummed to life. “Explode?” one said.
“Blood thinner,” said another, opening a compartment in his chest to reveal a selection of pills.
“High pressure,” buzzed the first.
“Trephination,” said the third, as one finger retreated into his hand, replaced by what appeared to be a surgical drill-bit.
“It’s a figure of speech!” Kevin said, leaping up on one of the gurneys as though the room were full of mice instead of excessively helpful robots. The metallic trio each stopped moving, cocking their heads to one side as though they were trying to listen to something. There was a whirring sound, then their heads popped back into place and each returned to their previous position.
“Figure of speech noted,” one of them said.
“What’s with you guys?” Gail asked. “How can you take everything so literally?”
“Still processing your language,” one robot said.
“Very confusing,” said the second.
“Humans should say what they mean,” the third buzzed.
Kevin sat back down, making a mental note to look up “trephination” the next time he got his hands on a dictionary. “Sometimes it’s easier to exaggerate,” he said. Gail and Linda looked at each other when he said that, then they turned away.
One of the robots cocked his head in the “listening” pose again. There was a whirr, and he stepped forward, towards Linda.
“Leave me alone, my head is fine,” she said.
“Lallura wishes to speak to you,” he buzzed. The door to the cabin slid open and the robot stepped through, the obvious implication being that he wanted her to follow. She looked back at her friends nervously.
“Guys?” she said.
“Go on, Linda,” Kevin said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Don’t anybody answer that,” Gene said. “But I think you should go. Maybe you can find something out.”
Linda and Gail’s eyes met. Gail shrugged. “Try to be careful,” she said. With something that close to an admission of friendship between then, Linda steeled her gut and followed the robot out into the ship.
* * *
Lallura’s chamber, as it turned out, was relatively near the medical cabin the children occupied, so Linda didn’t get as good a look at the rest of the Mitimae ship as she may have hoped. Between this walk and their journey to the hangar earlier, though, she was beginning to get the impression that the ship was very, very large. Far larger, in fact, than they realized from the few glimpses they got of it while returning from the surveying mission.
The Medibot escorted her into a chamber only a few doors down the corridor. It wasn’t a very big room, but it wasn’t confining either, and Lallura seemed quite comfortable sitting there in a chair that was too slim to comfortably fit someone from Linda’s world, but which seemed a very good fit for the Mitimae. For the first time since they met, Lallura was not wearing the red and blue robes Linda had come to expect. Her costume now seemed less ceremonial, a simpler green robe with a golden trim pattern that draped her form in one large piece with a v-shaped opening for her head and neck. She was smiling.
“Hello, Linda,” she said. “Do you know why I wanted to speak with you privately?”
“Not really, no.”
“It’s obvious, don’t you think? You’re quite clearly the leader of your group. The one you call Gene seems quite competent, but your friend Kevin is far too headstrong and Gail is hardly there at all, mentally. They all look to you.”
“Maybe so,” Linda said. “But so what?”
“So, I have summoned you here to discuss your quest as one leader to another. Here. Join me.” She motioned to a chair next to her own. Linda, still cautious, climbed into it. It was slimmer than she was comfortable with, and anyone bigger than her may not be able to sit on it at all, but she made do.
“Would you like to see something magnificent, Linda?”
Lallura sang a few notes in her own language and two things happened at once, dividing Linda’s attention between the ceiling and the floor. From below, a rail appeared, growing up out of the floor and surrounding the chairs Lallura and Linda sat upon. Above them, a panel opened in the ceiling, revealing a long chute. Linda instantly recognized its purpose, and when the floor beneath them began to raise them up into the chute, her suspicions were confirmed.
Lallura maintained her uneasy smile as they were elevated higher and higher, the chute lit by fluorescent panels in the walls, throwing bright light on the white metal that seemed to make up everything that marked the Mitimae civilization. The light began to dim as they approached the top of the shaft and another panel opened up above them. The elevator slid into place, raising them into a transparent bubble that was fully exposed to the exterior of the ship. Linda and Lallura were sitting beneath the stars with only a thin layer of glass between them and the emptiness of space.
They were very high up. Linda could see a few roving vans of Mitimae in the distance, a few burnt-out husks of buildings… and the groups studying the Evertime pool as well.
“We are very interested in the pool where we found you,” Lallura said, as if she were merely reacting to Linda’s interest in it and not her own. “It’s so strange – no gas, no vapor, no liquid anywhere on the surface of this world except for that small pond. How do you suppose that came to be, Linda?”
“I don’t know,” she said, which technically wasn’t a lie. She had no idea why the Evertime pool would have escaped whatever cataclysm had destroyed the rest of this planet, and if pressured for an answer would only be forced to conclude it was some sort of magic like everything else that had happened to her lately.
Lallura did not say anything in response, but continued to focus her gaze on the shapes moving around. “It’s really very bright out there, you know.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“You do not understand me. This shield that protects us is polarized – tinted. So are the shields on our vehicles and the helmets of our vacuum-suits. With no atmosphere to diffuse the rays of the sun, it is really very bright outside. Luckily for you, the sun had set when you arrived, or else you may have been left blind after you woke up.
“Oh,” Linda said, uneasy. “Thanks again, then.”
“Are you unhappy, Linda?”
She wasn’t expecting that one. “You’ve been kind to us here,” she said, “but we don’t want to stay. We have something very important to do.”
“Where will you be going, Linda? And how do you intend to get there? We have surveyed the planet. There are no other vehicles anywhere on the surface, nor are there any in orbit around this world. How did you come to be here? How do you intend to leave?”
“Is it possible, Linda, that you and your friends came from elsewhere?”
Linda’s blood froze. The prospect of this woman, this creature she could not bring herself to trust, learning about Evertime, scared her more than anything else they had encountered. “Elsewhere?” she said, aware that repeating a question was a red flag for someone stalling until she could conjure a lie, and hoping that the Mitimae did not share that tradition with people from her own world.
“Yes, Linda. Do you think it may be possible that you came from somewhere beneath the surface?”
Linda bit back a furious denial, unsure how to answer such a direct question. Out of the corner of her eye, though, she saw another squadron of Mitimae treating the ashen ground with their computerized jackhammers. Lallura wasn’t talking about Evertime at all. She thought Linda and the others came from somewhere underground.
“I can’t imagine what would make you think that,” Linda said.
“No, I suppose you couldn’t.”
“How do you know our language?” Linda asked. She’d been interrogated long enough – she was going to turn the tables if she could.
“I told you, this world is our cradle. It is the language of our ancients.”
Sure it is, Linda thought. The language Lallura spoke was full of smooth, rolling syllables… no harsh “t”s or “f”s, no sibilant “s”s. Their mouths didn’t evolve from any race that would have crafted such a gruff language. “If you’re not going to let us go, can I go back to my friends now?”
Lallura hummed a few cool syllables and the elevator began to bring them down to her chambers. “Of course, Linda. Do not be melodramatic. You are not a prisoner here.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Linda said.
“By the way, Linda, what precisely is ‘Evertime’?”
Linda’s veins were so cold she was afraid she would hear snapping sounds as the ice broke when she tried to walk.
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said, trying to hide the quaking terror in her voice.
“Really?” Lallura said. “I’m very disappointed to hear that, Linda. Very disappointed indeed.”
* * *
“So if I chopped off my arm, you guys would, like, run in and weld it back on?” Kevin said. He had gone to lengths to explain the concept of the hypothetical question to them, and he was fairly certain they got it now. As he applied this poser to them, they buzzed to each other, seeming to confer.
“Why would you do that?” one robot asked.
“We would not weld,” said number two. “Heat would cause too much damage.”
“Sew,” said the third. “Stitches. Anesthetic. Staunch blood loss.”
“What if I ate a lit firecracker?”
“Oh good grief,” Gail said. The robots just buzzed.
“Fi-er-crack-er?” one of them ventured.
Gene, for his part, was not involved in this horizon-broadening conversation. Something was really bothering him, but he was having trouble figuring it out. He wondered if, in addition to a sleep-inducer, this room might also be equipped with some sort of intellect-suppressant. If he didn’t know Kevin so well, he may suspect his current behavior was evidence of this.
No, it was something one of the Medibots said. It was something eating into his gut, and if Kevin would stop explaining gunpowder for five seconds he might be able to figure it out…
“And it would explode into a hundred pieces! Ka-boom!” Kevin announced, miming the detonation that would turn his stomach into shrapnel. Gail wretched.
“We do not understand,” said one of the robots.
“Do humans normally ingest explosive substances?” said number two.
“Do you wish to go ‘ka-boom’?” hummed the third.
“Wait a minute,” Gene said. He sat up like a bolt. “Gail, Kevin, did either of you call us ‘humans’? Did you use that word exactly? Did Linda?”
“I don’t know, man. Not that I remember.”
“What’s this about Gene?”
It was all snapping together in his head. The robots may not have recognized his darker skin color as something normal, but they did know the difference between the Mitimae and the four from Earth. Well… their Earth. They didn’t think the others were suffering from some sickness that turned them pink, or that any of them were short, pudgy mutants. If this planet was really the “cradle” of the Mitimae race, how would they know about any difference? How would they know what to call the non-Mitimae? How did they know?
The door slid open and Linda came back in, looking frustrated. Gene nearly popped. “Linda, did you ever–”
“Be quiet, Gene,” she said. She plopped down on her gurney.
“What? Linda, you don’t understand.”
“I understand perfectly, Gene,” she said. “So shut up.” There was something in her voice – she wasn’t being angry or rude. She was pleading.
“What’s wrong, Linda?” he said.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said, pointing to her ear. She looked at Gail and shook her head, hoping she’d be able to pick up on her manual shorthand.
Gail nodded. “Oh,” she said. “Right. Shut up.”
She got it, and as she nodded, Kevin and Gene picked up on it too.
They were listening. Spying on them. The Mitimae could hear every world they said.