Escaping a Gilded CagebyNigel Debonnaire©
Growing light, coming out of the long sleep. Lobsang wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious after the crash: it must have been days. It was a twenty by thirty room he found himself in, dank and fetid with the stink of several unwashed men. A distance light source, that grudgingly illuminated.
A face noticed he was awake. An older face, creased and wrinkled, drawn and haggard with malnutrition. "Hello, hello, hello. Who do we have here? Oriental heritage, if I haven't lost my touch. Not India, not China. Vietnam? No, no, don't think so. Thailand? Not far enough north. You look like someone who hasn't had an easy life, even before we were bailed out. Tibet. Yeah, from the Himalayas."
A sip of water and Lobsang's mouth could function. "Yes, yes," he whispered, "I am from Tibet."
"Didn't know you buggers were this far out. Most of your lot stayed on Mars after the Centaurians terraformed it."
"Not all. Some traders, some adventurers, some fleeing the loss of our culture."
The face was scratched by thick, ungainly fingers. "Yeah, we've all pretty much given up over the past hundred and fifty years, ever since the Galaxy saved us from ourselves."
The newcomer looked around. "Where am I?"
"A gilded cage, buck, a gilded cage."
"I beg your pardon?"
Lobsang's eyes grew more accustomed to the light: a strange, blue glow reminiscent of the old flourescent bulbs. Looking around, he saw a large, squarish room, with a long central table surrounded by bunks like the one he lay upon three high. Despite the smell and the lighting, it was quite nice, with comfortable chairs and fine furniture. A sideboard held several interesting bottles and fruit and cheeses. Several gaunt figures lounged around, some wheezing heavily. The face gave him another sip of water and smiled, "Do you know about Gillam's Nebula?"
"Yes. A dangerous part of space; no one has penetrated it and returned."
"Well, you've penetrated it. You're on a planet in the midst of the nebula, circling one sun with a half dozen more-less seven light years away. Enough radiation ta break your equipment."
"How have you survived it?"
"Who says this is surviving?"
Larry Marsh was sitting naked on a soft plant of an almost indescribable nature. All he knew is it conformed to his buttocks like an old beanbag chair and tickled his skin; he heard it was a tricolor plant, but it appeared grey-green to him.. The sky was a grayish, milky haze with two red dots of light the size of Earth's Moon and a blue one half that size. The air temperature was around his body temp: warm and caressing with a slight breeze. He had been here five Earth years, and wasn't ready to leave.
Growing up in the Orion system, he was a stocky kid from his youth, strong but awkward. He only cared about the skills and education that would advance his wants, leaving the Terran Learning System as soon as he could. As he matured, he went into the family business: smuggling. The physical labor still required for the odd tasks and the physical confrontation standard with that class of human kept his body strong and reasonably agile, although his face testified to two broken noses he'd never had fixed properly.
Larry also had a talent for getting caught, so he drifted to the edge of human habitation where law enforcement was less rigorous than the core of the Apulnian Empire. One day, he found himself alive in Gillam's Nebula and in touch with an entirely new race.
It was apparent early on they could read his thoughts, and fortunately, he had a Vocalizer that could interpret their gesticulations and electronic thought patterns into audible speech. This race had neither ocular nor aural senses, but sensed everything through their extremely soft and sensitive limbs, which numbered in the hundreds in many different sizes.
His loins ached as he approached a sticky, salty outburst. The mass of tendrils that covered his pelvis, red, blue, yellow, green and two colors he could not describe, pulsed as the moment approached. The Vocalizer chirped and hummed: "Yes, my pet, my tasty one, give me your Nectar. There is no vintage sweeter than you. Send your fluid on my receptors, I cannot wait much longer. Now, now, now, now. I will reward you with your heart's desire."
Being a simple man with few personal ambitions, he thought he was already being rewarded with his heart's desire. Getting ridiculously rich off a contraband trade shipping the resources of the Nebula from a perfectly secret base and having a small, docile tribe of humans to terrorize were bonuses. His head jerked back and he gave the alien what he desired, screaming and thrashing as his reproductive system emptied itself. Looking down at the mass, he gently squeezed the tendrils close to the hands he buried in the alien's maze. "To think they call you Medusa," he said out loud, which the alien could not hear.
Lobsang was sitting on his bunk sipping vegetable broth. The replicator had the cognate down pretty well; as with most replicated food, there was a hollowness in the taste. Looking around the room, the other residents were sitting lazily, staring at the ceiling or at walls, a couple were having a whispered conversation holding hands.
"I thought the Empire wasn't lettin' Religious folks of any kind travel the Galaxy freely any more. Not after Pontus III." The face had identified itself as Brendan McShane, from the planet Cork out toward the fringe of the Apulnian Empire. "Those Christian missionaries stirred up so much trouble the Imperial Diet passed restrictive legislation faster than lightspeed."
"We were exempted from the new laws," Lobsang replied. "The Centaurians have admired us since First Contact and the Evacuation, so they used their influence. They also provided our ship, the Sangha Lhasa. It has been twenty Galactic years since we started our journey from Centauri VI."
"You guys're kinda like tha old Irish monks, who sailed around up Iceland. Have to say I admire ya. What happened to your ship?"
"I do not know. We were holding a position at a safe distance to Gilliam's Nebula, taking readings and contemplating the beauty of it shape, when our instruments started going off line. The ship began to lurch erratically and the Masters ordered us into the lifepods. Mine was ejected on a trajectory toward the Nebula, and I had an excellent opportunity to practice calming meditation as I approached the boundary. After I went in, my memory went grey until I awoke here a few moments ago."
Brendan scratched his face again; he looked as though he hadn't shaved for a week. "I might be able ta fill in tha blanks. But first things first: sooner or later Larry will show up. If you do what he says, you'll be fine."
"He is the leader of your community?" Lobsang inquired.
"Yeah, ya might say that. Not that he was democratically elected, of course." A dry chuckle.
"So what is the extent of your dwelling?"
"Almost what ya see here. Can't go out for long periods of time, due to the radiation."
"Yes, I was wondering about that. Life as we know it cannot exist within the Nebula due to the radiation background."
"That's what I thought 'til three years ago," Brendan mused, "Then tha universe screwed with me, so to speak."
A hatch opened and closed loudly, and a stocky man around six foot tall, with greying blond hair and wearing a green-t-shirt and shorts entered. The other inhabitants of the room drew away from the newcomer, trying to avoid eye contact. Brendan sat on his stool across from Lobsang placidly. "Hello, Larry."
"Hi, Brendan. How's life treatin' ya?"
"'Bout the same. You?"
"It's another lovely day here in paradise, right lads?" There were a few murmurs of forced assent. "This the new meat?"
"Yes, his name is Lobsang and he's from Mars."
Striding over, Larry stood in front of Lobsang, towering over him. "Well, he looks kinda scrawny and weak. Hope the Masters like him; we'll find out in a few hours." Bending over, his brown eyes bore into Lobsang's, which returned his glare placidly. "There's a few things we need to get square, first, bucko. Brendan'll give you the full history why we're here when he can. But first, I need to get straight with you who's in charge here beyond a shadow of a doubt." Swinging from his hips, he landed a savage uppercut to Lobsang's jaw with enough force to knock him backward and bounce his head off the wall.
"Ya didn't have ta do that, Larry." Brendan looked on calmly at the newcomer's inert form, draped awkwardly on the bed in a small pool of soup.
"Never hurts makin' things clear from the start," Larry intoned. "Get him cleaned up and ready for the Session at Aphelion."
"You're tha boss," Brendan murmured as Larry strode to the other side of the room and lay down on a cot. Shaking his head, Brendan began to blot up the liquid soaking the cot after rearranging the unconscious form in a more natural position.
Xnaphor entered the Session room gracefully, spinning around on his tendrils and landing upright. His was a different race, germinating on a rare Earthlike planet in the midst of Gillam's Nebula. On this world, animal life was non-existent, and the sentient race evolved from botanical material. Their bodies were masses of small tendrils, joined by gradually thicker and thicker limbs to a thick central core. Asymmetrical in design, the few humans that encountered them found them exceedingly ugly, and could hardly bear to look at them.
Tshmiliak was already in the Salon of the Fliescher, and touched a greeting with the newcomer. Their conversation was not audible or visual: they communicated via a complicated dance of tendrils that made contact in different places and sequences.
"Good to feel, you Xnaphor," Tshmiliak began, "it seems like Glaretime past when we were here."
"A new tradition, a delightful tradition the Fliescher have provided us."
"I hear there is a new one this time."
"Yes, and he feels different from the others. Hlari says he has never had a mate."
"No mate! How does he live so? It is not possible for the Fliescher, is it?"
"Eventually a small number do. His Nectar may have never been tapped."
"And since you are my Clmepter, you may have the pleasure of the sensation."
A frantic rustle of branches, like a bush blown by a hurricane force wind, shared excitement at the boundary of comprehensibility. "What can I say? I am in your debt. Xnaphor, you must pollenate my Btet and Gimmel; I owe you the next brood of spawnlings."
"Think nothing of it," came an indifferent rustling. "I am honored to please you so. There is even more."
"We shall be the only ones here today. All six will be our delight, to savor as we please."
Tshmiliak went suddenly still and somber. "But, dear Clmepter, do we not have duties yet this Glaretime?"
Xhanphor rustled gravely. "All is taken care of. Everything that needs doing is done."
A relaxation and tentatively excitement came over Tshmiliak. A few moments later, the being mused: "It does not seem right."
"Does not seem right? How so?"
"These poor creatures have lost their home. They have been exiles for a hundred fifty of their years, living by the kindness of beings they never knew existed before. It does not seem right to use them so."
Xnaphor's tendrils twitched haughtily. "They knew what they were doing to their home, they did it anyway, and are lucky to survive. Why would any sentient race poison their own world without a means of leaving it?"
"No. Cannot be. How ridiculous."
"Yes, it is. All so their society could continue as long as possible without change. The ones in charge had to keep control and prosper, even while their world was poisoned beyond repair. They were relentless, blind, self centered."
Tshmiliak shuddered delicately. "Greed cannot ruin a sentient race like that. Surely you have heard a story that is partly true, and this race is not this vile."
"This is what they did, and they have not changed, even after they were rescued from their desert world. They give Hlari anything he wants in exchange for useless lumps of humus that are common on our planet, in exchange we receive an endless supply of technology and knowledge we never knew before, and an endless variety of dainty nectars to savor when we will. This race is not sentient enough to respect; we give them a comfortable existence as well as great joy."
"Oh, yes. When the Nectar pods explode, a sensation goes through the Fleischer unparalleled in his universe. It is something they share with their other halves, and how they pollenate."
An unbelieving rustle. "Pollenation? A delight? What nonsense!"
"Exactly. Clearly not a sentient species. They are beneath us; we do them a favor by letting them live here."
A large table was wheeled into room. It was hexagonal, and six men lay naked upon it. They were visible from the waist down; a restraining board blocked the view of their faces as well as holding them down with an irresistible force. "Feel the new one," Xnaphor tickled.
Tshmiliak's tendrils tentatively explored the brown limbs in front of him. "Softer than the rest, saltier, so unusual in chemistry. I can hardly wait to get my receptors around the triple spigot."
"Enjoy, my Clmepter," Xnaphor stroked.
"Wake up, Lob. It's gonna happen."
The Tibetan awoke on a strange bed with a start. It was hard, and a large board held him down at the waist. He was naked, and could not see the lower half of his body.
"What is this, Brendan?"
"This is the reason we're here," he replied. "We're the main liqueur at the Medusa's Happy Hour."
Shaking his head, Lobsang tried to focus his concentration. It felt like a bunch of soft grass fronds were stroking his inner thighs, working their way upward. "I do not understand," he said.
"It's tha reason they keep us alive. The sentient creatures here're descended from plants, and take all their nourishment in liquid form. Oh, my god, it's driving my balls crazy. When we shoot our wad, the sperm makes the Medusas crazy drunk."
The grass fronds were circling Lobsang's crotch, encouraging him to respond. He focused his concentration, and continued: "How often do you serve them?"
Brendan's head whipped back and forth a couple of times. "Two, three times a week. Ah, ah, ah, he's got his torgo root up my ass. They like a good load, and they like tha spacing. Must be somethin' about the bouquet or somethin' that turns them on more. They don't like us to wash, either. The sweat is a flavor they like, too. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, argh!"
The whorl of the grass fronds was growing more insistent on Lobsang's skin, but his disciplined body refused to give in to the sensations. "So we live in a wine cellar as the vintages?"
It took several moments before Brendan could reply since he was panting heavily. When he recovered his breath, the man next to him began to moan and shudder. "You seem to think this is a bad thing, Lobsang," Brendan said wryly. "We get all the head we want and a cushy life. Oh my, this one is in a hurry. What's wrong with that?"
"It is unjust. It is abuse. It its slavery."
"I am aghast, my Clmepter," Tshlimiak wailed plaintively.
Xnaphor's tendrils dripped with his second round of Nectar. Weaving slightly, he turned to his companion. "I do not understand. Is not the new Fliescher pleasing?"
"This Fliescher refuses to give up its nectar. I have wrapped my tendrils around its triple spigot, thrust my root up its dark lair, and all I get is hints of essences. It is so savory I pursued it longer than I have with any other Fliescher, but this is too much. My tendrils are wasted, I droop with sadness."
"Very well, my dearest Clmepter, you may have the other three Fliescher. They are proven rich and tasty, and yield easily. I give my rights to you."
There was a rustling and ritual touching. Xnaphor saw his companion satisfy himself with the next man before moving away to find Hlari.
Several hours later, the men were sitting around a long table eating. There was little conversation, and occasionally the downcast eyes would flit over to the newcomer. Lobsang was the only one not eating replicated steak and potatoes; he nibbled some replicated vegetables.
"What'sa matter with him? Too good for steak?" came a voice from the end of the table.
"Let'im alone, he's different," Brendan replied, "there's many different kinda of bein's in tha Universe."
"Wait'll Larry finds out. He'll beat some sense in'im."
After the meal, the other men drifted over to their bunks to lie down. Lobsang sat on his in the Lotus position, and Brendan came over to talk with him. "I dunna understand Lob. How could ya resist?"
"I am a Buddhist Monk, a follower of the Vajrayana Path. Through years of meditation, I can discipline my body's response to many things: pain, pleasure, deprivation. To release my seed would be a loss of Karma."
"Karma? I heard o' that," a voice came from across the room, "you lost all that when ya got here."
"Shut up, Charlie," Brendan barked. "So you can control your body's response to stimuli? Wow, I'd love to be able ta do that."
"It is possible for anyone, but I fear this is a bad place to begin. How did you come to be in this place?"
Brendan scratched his face. "We're all stranded, castaways on tha shore of tha Universe. My ship lost its guidance system an' I flew in all the way here before settin' down hard. Lotsa folks show up here."
"They disappear. Larry makes them go away. Dunna know where or why."
The Tibetan toyed with a simulated carrot. "Replicated food is less than ideal. It can only draw on the nutrients in local matter, and if some are lacking, then malnutrition sets in."
"Yeah, that's right. These guys are weak, gettin' weaker by tha day, you will too. We get shielded from radiation that'd fry us in a week, and starve in six months. What a life."
"A life that deteriorates slowly enough so motivation to leave is suppressed."
"There's no way out, Lob. No way."
"Why are you and Larry still here?"
"Larry gets supplements, shares them with me. By tha way, when he gits back, you're gonna have to detach yourself from a lot of pain. He's gonna be mad ya didn't cum for the Medusa. You're probably the prime dish today, and ya didn't deliver."
"Fear not, I can take care of myself with Larry or anyone."
The silver night flowed on. Xnaphor and Rleia sat in their porgor bath and drew nourishment through their many receptors, long tendrils that trailed through the fluid, intertwining and caressing. A strange song teased the edges of their sound-senses: Calibant the Gimmel was questing far afield for prigna seeds, but their partner's progress was marred by a strange melody.
"Did you take the Fliescher's Nectar again today?" Rleia asked.
"No, of course not," Xnaphor replied irritably. "Only a fool would do that."
"Your tendrils are gummy, and slick with it," Rleia retorted. "It lingers long and never goes away entirely ."
"So? What if I did?"
Rleia wound several limbs around Xnaphor's so the Alpeh could not get away. "I marvel at how it has changed you, Xnaphor. You have trouble focusing on your work, and in the Glare time you are muddled until you have a chance to visit the ryuky bin."
"I do not have to stay here and feel this message."
"You will feel this and more. It's bad enough that two third of the alpehs of our planet are lost in this habit. Every eight Glare times, you gather at the ryuky bins at Aphelion- time and feast until your receptors spasm, making you useless until the next Glare dawning. Btets from all over the planet tickle my cilla with complaints that the spawnlings are weak and uselessly mutated." A harsh, angular melody crossed their sound senses again, a little closer: wild, uncomprehending, lost. "The nectar is so sticky, it clogs my receptors and makes my nervous gills thrum with anxiety to feel it. The Gimmels are the most wounded. Their songs are no longer sweet; they fly at random and refuse to take the pollens to replenish the Swarm."