Not Alone Ch. 05byLingerieRobot©
The creatures could almost be mistaken for squid, were it not for the scrabbling claws that hung out of their gelatinous body where tentacles would be, as well as their evident comfort on dry land. Kayleigh watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as they scrambled across the floor, making little scritch-scratch sounds, and balanced plates of food on their head. Of course, most of the clientele of the restaurant were the same species, sitting comfortably at the low tables that the humans had to kneel at. For the fifth time that day Kayleigh was sure she was in a dream.
"What did you say these creatures were called again?" she said.
Mona took a sip of some blue liquid that had been served in square cups (or maybe they were bowls). "Kowlai. At least that's the closest human phonetic approximation. They're like us, you know -- their planet isn't part of the League yet, but they got scooped up for seeing too much. Lovely species -- they make beautiful music, you should really hear it. And just wait until you taste the tinita. It's fabulous."
Kayleigh nodded weakly. Mona had been taking them on the grand tour, showing them all the sights of their tower, which apparently hosted any number of diasporic species. They had passed through a warehouse floor that resembled a department store in every way but the Muzak, and a floor that was nothing but wide-open field for sports and recreation. It was hard to even think of them as floors, given how closely they mimicked the outdoors. When they had stepped off on the kowlai floor it had seemed equally external, but with a massive lake in the centre of it, and two small but fierce red suns hanging in the sky, casting a crimson pallor across everything.
Tom lifted the cup-bowl to his lips and took a deep sip of the blue liquid. He nodded and gave Kayleigh the thumbs-up she didn't know she had been waiting for. She took a sip of it herself. It had a bit of the feel of tea, but it also tasted a bit like a meaty soup. It was a strange, thick concoction, but she found herself drinking it again.
Their waiter (and it felt weird to apply such a normal, everyday term to the kowlai) scrambled over to their table, a full tray of food cushioned safely by his bulbous head. Mona lifted the three identical plates off the tray and put one in front of each of them. Kayleigh couldn't help but stare at the glint of Mona's robotic arm, but the meal soon captured her attention. The gray meat sat in a deep blue sauce with flecks of some mysterious red substance in it. It didn't look that appetizing, but it did smell nice.
"I guess we know where they've been keeping the blue food," said Tom.
With more than a bit of trepidation Kayleigh took the (fairly normal) eating utensils and sawed herself off a bit of the tinita meat. It oozed black bile as she tore away a section of the fleshy membrane.
"Go on," said Mona. "Try it."
Kayleigh put it into her mouth and it was, of course, amazing. She let the strange juices pool on her tongue, enjoying their play of sweetness and salt, and devoured the gooey meat.
"Wait, what did you say this was again?" she said.
"Tinita," Mona said. "A big fish native to Kowlai that they've managed to capture and grow here. These are actually its intestines -- but that's the best part, you know."
Kayleigh shrugged, deciding to roll with the strangeness this time. Hey, if alien fish intestines tasted this good, she would eat them. Tom seemed to have come to the same conclusion, and was ripping apart his tinita.
Mona smiled. "See, this is what I've been saying. So many people see coming here as a loss or a trauma, but I like to think of it as an opportunity to experience new things. It's a big universe out there, and there's so much to try." Tom nodded eagerly.
"The question is," said Kayleigh. "How do we get out there to see it? Right now we seem to be cooped up in this huge building."
"No reason to think of yourself as 'cooped up'" said Mona. "Honestly, I don't even think about going outside anymore -- or I suppose it's that I think of our courtyard as being 'outside', even though technically it's inside, but they do a good job at making you forget it. If that makes any sense. Honestly, even if you go on vacation to another planet, you'll still probably be indoors most of the time. The universe wasn't made for humans to gallivant around all of it, you know. Lots of weird gases and chemicals that we gotta avoid."
"Weird chemicals can be fun sometimes," Tom said, in between scoops of the fragrant tinita juice.
There had been a question sitting on Kayleigh's chest for the whole dinner and she decided to finally come out with it. "So Mona. When I was on Earth I was a graduate student. Now, I know that my knowledge is going to seem very provincial or outdated or just plain wrong over here. I guess my question is... how do I sign up to learn what I was missing? I mean, do you even have schools over here?"
Mona laughed. "We have schools over here. Two buildings down is the New University -- they have classes for all sorts of diasporic species. You can also get vids from the Central Academy on any topic you can think of, from toddler-level education up to stuff that only geniuses can start to understand. Of course, language is also an issue. There aren't really degrees or anything like that -- people just take the classes that they want."
Kayleigh wrinkled her nose. She had hoped that maybe she could settle into her old routine here, a routine that she never realized she had been so attached to, but clearly it would be impossible to obtain that same status here. Oh well. New opportunities, new knowledge. Wasn't that what science was about? She tried to force herself to stay open-minded.
"Of course," said Mona. "We're going to have to get some information from you guys too. Just a standard debriefing -- tell the authorities what you know about your world, what's changed since the last update on Earth, what wasn't covered by previous adaptees. Who knows, maybe they'll decide Earth has developed to a point where they can be admitted into the League of Worlds."
"Isn't this League or whatever it is monitoring Earth?" said Kayleigh. "I mean, that's how we got picked up."
"Our activities around there have been minimal for a couple decacycles," said Mona. "And in any case, we weren't there to gather information on your culture -- we were there to make sure that nothing interfered with a crucial stage in your species's development. Truth be told, most of the researchers have lost interest in Earth recently. It's just another self-destructive backwater planet now. I mean, no offense or anything." Mona covered her mouth, as if she had said too much, yet again.
Kayleigh wondered what had made Mona think of this alien society -- the League of Worlds -- as "we", and think of her own species as some distant unrelated race. But maybe with all her cybernetic enhancements Mona wasn't that human anymore.
"Well," said Tom, scraping up the last parts of his tinita. "That was delicious. We have to come by this place with Richard sometime."
Mona frowned at the mention of their companion. "I wish he could have joined us on this expedition. I wonder what he could be busy with, so soon after arriving."
Wing had claimed that the street-level environment was ideal for human habitation, but to Richard it looked a lot like a slum. A shantytown of shops and stalls ran through the streets, curling around the monolithic buildings that stretched up further than the eye could see. Creatures of all races yelled, stomped, waved tentacles and let loose rancid burps in order to hawk their disreputable-looking wares. Shady characters darted in and out of narrow corners, and at one point a billow of purplish smoke made his eyes sting to the point where he worried he might go blind.
Up ahead, Quinn was weaving through the crowd with a grace that betrayed his flabby body. Richard tried to follow him, but jostled and bumped into three different aliens with every step. "Sorry," he apologized to a hissing lizard-creature. If Quinn didn't stand out so much, both for his clammy gray skin and being one of the few humans in sight, Richard might worry about losing him.
He sighed and muttered under his breath. "Why did I agree to come out here?"
Of course, he knew the reason: his idyllic, quasi-suburban home in the artificial village they called Madrid had already become stifling and dull. It was like a hotel room, oppressive in its bland comfort. He had immersed himself in the XP device and its virtual world for a couple days, but it was hard to know where to start there. With the dramas and comedies, some of which the viewer was a mere audience for, others which put the viewer in the centre of the action and had the world react to their actions? With education, the thousands of lectures and courses in hundreds of disciplines, many of which were completely unknown to him? With the simple nature simulations that let him wander the wilds of an alien planet unimpeded? With the copious pornography, in which every species, gender, act, and relationship was represented? Or maybe the simulators of food and drink, which surpassed any dining experience Richard had had on Earth (as well as the bland, government-produced meals he had found his strange cubic refrigerator stocked with?) It was the kind of wealth of riches that left one paralyzed. He needed to go out, experience real life, and that was what Quinn promised.
Quinn waved to him from further up in the crowd, his pinched face twisted in impatience. "Come on! Just shove your way through!"
Richard lead with his shoulder and managed to cleave through the throng a bit, but one he ran into a big alien whose skin looked like it was made of rock he decided that politeness might be the way to go. He did eventually make his way to Quinn, who had stopped in the middle of the block and was tapping his feet in a very irritating manner.
"First rule of the undercity," said Quinn. "When you're walking, you gotta be an asshole."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Richard. "Are we here?"
Quinn gestured down a set of steps running off the street to what looked like any subterranean, hole-in-the-wall bar you might find on Earth. A pang of nostalgia hit Richard. "Big Jill's Watering Hole" was written on the door in English, a number of other human languages, and some strange (probably alien) alphabets that Richard didn't know.
Inside the bar the lighting was low and the mood lower. Two despondent-looking human men were playing pool over by one corner, while a small group of shady characters was gathered in a booth in another corner. A tank of a woman -- Big Jill, presumably -- sat behind the bar, drying a glass while she idly looked out onto the patrons. Two aliens with heavily ridged heads and four sets of arms were talking in low tones at the bar.
"Welcome to my home away from home," said Quinn. "It ain't much, I know, but--"
"It's perfect," Richard said.
Quinn took him to the group in the corner, who greeted him like an old friend. "Hi, all," said Quinn. "This is Richard. He just got beamed down next to me. Don't worry, he's a good guy, y'know." The rest of the table let out a collective grumble that might have been a greeting.
A skinny, greasy kid brushed his hair out of his eyes and spoke. "So Quinn, have you heard the latest?"
"About the mining rig on Apellis-5?" Quinn snorted. "I always knew those things were a disaster waiting to happen. And now half of a moon's up in flames."
"Unsound design," muttered a heavily-bearded men at the other end of the table.
"Wait, what is this?" said Richard.
A woman with spiky blue hair snorted. "Of course, why would anyone care about what's going on in the world? It doesn't matter what the League is doing light-years away. It doesn't matter what's going on two floors down. We can just sit in our cocoons and bask in all the banal little pleasures they see fit to dispense to us."
Richard was vaguely offended, and not sure what he had done to be the target of the woman's vitriol. "Sorry, I just got here. So, you don't like the League?"
"No," said the woman. "I don't like the League. I don't like a nice benevolent daddy-figure deciding everything for me. I don't like technology that removes us from reality, or buildings that remove us from nature. Most of all, I don't like having not seen my family for thirty years because they still think Earth is too goddamn primitive and barbaric."
"Don't mind Shelley," said Quinn. "She's... opinionated. Obnoxious, even." He turned to the woman in question. "Take it easy on the savvie here, okay?"
Shelley gave Quinn the middle finger. "Blow it out your asshole, Quinn."
Richard took a closer look at Shelley. Her punky, spiked-blue hair was complemented by a ragged outfit full of holes and patches. If she weren't clearly older than him, she would have fit in at any defeaningly-loud concert of teenage rebellion. Her body had the hints of middle-aged flab, but for the most part when he looked at her he just saw a nice figure and a personality he couldn't help but be drawn to.
"The fuck are you staring at?" said Shelley.
"Oh, nothing," said Richard. "It's just... it's good to meet new people."
Shelley shrugged and sipped her beer. "Fucking weirdo," she said, none too quietly.
Tom had been absorbed in the XP machine all day. Kayleigh had taken a look at it, but re-educating herself seemed like such an immense undertaking that she was afraid to get started. On the other hand, Tom had dove right into it, and was becoming something of an addict. It was a little irritating, if she was being honest.
She sat for a little while on the couch, looking at Tom's blank expression. He looked a bit like a monk, sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring serenely at nothing. He also looked like he had all those times she had come home to find him vegetating in front of some decades-old Star Trek episode, having spent another unambitious day on the couch.
Kayleigh thought about disturbing him, but ultimately decided to leave him to his bliss. She went out the front door and sat on the stoop. The houses of Madrid ringed an emerald-green lawn, every blade of grass evenly and meticulously cut. On the other side of the lawn a family was playing, a small red ball being tossed between father and son, enacting the oldest rituals on this far-off planet. It was disgustingly picturesque.
She went next door and knocked. It only took a moment for Caroline to open the door, beaming and giggly. "Hiya, Kayleigh. How's it going?"
"It's going... okay." Kayleigh wished she could have Caroline's energy and seemingly bottomless cheer. "I was just a little sick of hanging around that house. You doing anything interesting?"
"Oh, I never do anything interesting," said Caroline. "But you can come inside anyway."
Caroline and Esh's house had the exact same layout as Kayleigh's, but the walls were plastered with decorations. Kayleigh stopped and fixated on a watercolour painting of an older woman with long, elegant silver hair and, next to it, a harsh mask encrusted with yellow jewels.
"This is Esh's and my art," said Caroline. "I do the painting -- that's my mother, back on Earth. The mask is Esh's -- apparently that's a major art form back on his home world. He says it's a portrait of me. I don't see it, myself, but I guess the lack of a beak should give it away."
They moved into the living room. Kayleigh sat down on a comfortable divan that sank beneath her weight. "You want some wine?" said Caroline.
"You have wine here?" said Kayleigh. It was the best news she had heard in weeks.
"Well, not actual wine, if you want to get technical," said Caroline. "Rafael from the other side of the floor makes it. Apparently there's a plant on some planet named Orexis that is really close to the Earth grape. Close enough for government work, as my dad always said." Caroline produced an unmarked bottle of sparkling white liquid from a cabinet in the corner. It looked like wine and, as Kayleigh quickly discovered, it sure tasted like wine.
"So what's Tom up to right now?" said Caroline as she took her first sip.
"Oh, no doubt he's immersed in some interesting VR thing," said Kayleigh.
"And you couldn't drag him away?"
Kayleigh hesitated. She feared that airing out her complaints would just make her seem petty. "I dunno, I shouldn't bitch..."
"Hey, bitch away," said Caroline, raising her glass into the air in a weird kind of toast. "I wanna hear the dirt. Do people still say that on Earth? The dirt?"
Maybe it was the wine, but Kayleigh was shocked to fall so easily into conversation with Caroline. They talked about stupid gossip and shared fond memories of teenage slumber parties. Caroline tried to explain art to Kayleigh, which was somewhat more successful than when Kayleigh tried to explain science to Caroline. Another glass down, Caroline confided in the terror she had felt when she first came here, and how much Esh had helped her come to terms with the new world. Kayleigh put a comforting arm around her shoulder. And then they moved onto lighter topics, remembering cheesy movies from old Earth. For a fleeting moment, Kayleigh let herself forget where she was and everything that had happened, and fell into a more comfortable rhythm.
The door pushed open and Caroline sprang to her feet. "Esh!" The bird-alien soberly calmly walked into the hallway and looked at the two women. Kayleigh tried to read the emotion in his beady black eyes, but found it impossible. Caroline threw her arms around Esh.
"Me and Kayleigh were just getting caught up," said Caroline. Esh said something in his rhythmic language. Caroline giggled. "Yeah, we were bad. Hey, the wine doesn't do anything for you anyways." Esh responded, prompting more giggling. "Here, come sit down with us."
Kayleigh wasn't sure if Esh even could sit down, but he did a close enough approximation by squatting town on his three legs (or maybe they were talons) until his butt touched the ground. He did look sort of ridiculous when he did it, though. Kayleigh was suddenly aware of his sheer bulk, his physical presence so close to hers. She could see the spots on his otherwise pristine white feathers, and smell his strangely citrus-y odour. Caroline sat down beside her, much closer than before, shoulder to shoulder, her warm stomach pressing uncomfortably against Kayleigh's side.
"Hey," Kayleigh said. "You know, I'm sorry if I acted like a bitch the last time you saw me. I was just you know... upset." She couldn't help breaking out in laughter. Why was she laughing?
Esh said something, and Caroline translated by whispering breathily into Kayleigh's ear. "Esh says it's alright. He's heard much worse." Kayleigh wasn't sure why Caroline was whispering now, but it felt just fine.
"So, um, how was your day at work?" said Kayleigh.
"He wasn't at work. He was out flying," said Caroline. "Lousy polluted air out there, so it's not good for it... well, at least that's what Esh says. But he needs to stretch his wings, you know? Well, I guess you don't know, but you know the feeling, or at least I do. And besides which, it always gets him in the mood." More of her infectious giggling.
Kayleigh swallowed. She noticed for the first time a firmness poking out of Esh's bundle of red sashes, making a small tent. "I can get out of here if you guys want."
Caroline rubbed her cheek against Kayleigh's. "Staaaay." Maybe it was just the wine, but Kayleigh had a hard time finding a reason not to.
As Kayleigh drained the last ounces from her glass Caroline pressed herself against her alien boyfriend, rubbing her hand in big circles across his right flank. She leaned in and kissed the spot underneath his wing, provoking a throaty cry that Kayleigh was pretty sure with pleasure. Kayleigh realized that her mouth was dry and that she absolutely couldn't look away.