tagSci-Fi & FantasyNot Alone Ch. 04

Not Alone Ch. 04


Jian-2 was a planet a lot like Earth, except with the continents and the oceans scrambled and rearranged. To Richard, it looked a bit too much like Earth. It took something away from his home planet to imagine that it was not all that uncommon, that they could find similar planets all across the galaxy. Quite frankly, he had been hoping for something more exciting.

They all stood by Wing's "window", an artificial but (hopefully, at least) truthful representation of what the world outside looked like. Wing coasted silently towards the planet. Tom stood in awe of the sight, and even Kayleigh looked a little impressed through her detachment. What Richard noticed was all the things that weren't there. There were no jumps in gravity, no change in motion as they entered Jian-2's orbit, and most importantly the lack of anything artificial-looking in the planet's atmosphere.

"No satellites," he said out loud. Nobody responded.

Wing entered the atmosphere like it was nothing but another chunk of empty space. They were immersed in greyness, but there was none of the rocking and panicked rumbling that Richard had been expecting. It was almost like some quaint 19th-century fantasist's idea of what a journey to another planet would be like.

And then they were out of the atmosphere and into the clouds, white cotton-balls that seemed to spiral out vertically as Wing sliced through them at the same calm gait. Richard forgot his scientific mind and joined the other two in standing agog at the window The continent was growing beneath them, unfurling itself to reveal mountains and valleys and tiny twinkling cities that were growing at a tremendous pace. As they approached closer Richard could see that there were six cities, all seemingly of equal size, standing in a kind of ring in the continent's most fertile spot. From their distance, what seemed to be a circle of light connected all six. And then they were diving in even closer, and in a split second the city beneath them was human size, and they were looking out on a seemingly endless plain of skyscrapers poking out from an unseen ground like spikes on a hedgehog's back.

Richard tried to catch his breath. Kayleigh turned to him and grinned. "Don't go in much for urban sprawl, do they?"

Wing's voice, back to being male and authoritative, decided to chime in. "We make the most efficient use of our land possible, so as to leave the most space for agriculture and natural environments."

Kayleigh raised her hands in surrender. "Yes, yes, you've developed an utopia. We get it."

"Once you've lived in our society, I will take your judgements of it entirely seriously," said Wing without a hint of sarcasm. "Now, if you'll just stick close together for a moment, I'm going to shrink a bit so we can fit on your roof."

Kayleigh linked arms with Tom. Richard edged closer to her, feeling weirdly guilty for following instructions.

Wing drew in suddenly and all at once. Their rooms and all the space they had accustomed to were folded up into their ship's steely walls quicker than the eye could process, and for a moment Richard was afraid that they might all be crushed. But Wing stopped short of their bodies, and instead left them in a stark bedroom-shaped shit. He then glided softly down to land on one of the grey tower roofs.

"I'd say wait until the plane comes to a complete stop," said Richard. "But I think we're at a complete stop already."

"How can you tell jokes right now?" said Tom. "And especially bad ones?"

"We all have our own ways of working off nerves."

And then Wing did something Richard had half convinced himself it would never do. It let them out.

The air smelt different. It was strange that that was the first thing he'd notice, but it was. It was purer, like deep country air, but also there was a strange tinge to its scent that he couldn't quite place. The second thing that struck Richard was the quiet. There was a faint rumbling far beneath them, but other than that it sounded like they were alone in the skyscraper city. He began to get the impression of this as a hermeneutic, sealed-off world, with the buildings just massive mausoleums beneath them.

"Where is everybody?" said Kayleigh.

They had only had their backs turned for a second, but during that time Wing had become his officious human male persona. "You must remember, we are very high up. People mostly stay inside, but there is a street environment down below, as humans prefer." Those two words -- "street environment" -- sounded strange and sterile on Wing's newly-fashioned tongue. "Of course, one can receive all amenities without ever stepping foot outside."

"Why would you set up a world like that?" said Kayleigh, Her tone wasn't angry -- more wistful, with a little curiosity in there.

"Mainly out of convenience," said Wing. "But honestly, I don't understand this obsession humans have with setting."

Richard had nothing to say to that -- here, in this bizarre array of silver stretching out to the horizon, setting seemed like the most important thing imaginable.

"Now," said Wing. "Please stand on this centre tile and I will show you to your quarters.

Wing indicated a metallic four-by-four spot on the roof, only faintly visible. The abductees crowded in uneasily. They were forced into close proximity, squeezing against each other, although this was not too great an imposition on their privacy. After all, Richard figured, he had fucked two of the three others -- what was wrong with a little group hug?

"Down," Wing gravely intoned. And then the floor dropped out from under them.

Richard realized quickly that this was it: this was when he was going to die. They were plummeting down a dark shaft, wind whipping past them, floor falling just a bit quicker than they were so that they seemed to be perpetually hovering above it. He clung to Kayleigh's hand and prayed that it was swift and not especially painful. And then, they stopped, a little startled but no worse for wear.

"Richard?" said Tom. "Was that you screaming?"

"You were all screaming," said Wing. "No need to be afraid -- the technology is perfectly safe. Welcome to floor 343 -- Madrid, as its inhabitants have dubbed it." A doorway had opened in the left side of the chasm, letting a bright light in to reveal the area as a roofless but nevertheless pretty standard elevator.

What was distinctly not standard was the area around it. They were under an impossible sunny blue sky. Whether the light was natural or artificial, it shone down on a quaint cobblestone square, a kind of old-world nostalgia piece. The steps all lead up into identical villas, which stood on a circular perimeter, all facing inwards. The exception to this was a ground-level bakery which glowed warmly from the inside. The only thing stopping this from being a little self-contained universe was two sets of spiral staircases, one on each side of the elevator, which stretched up into the sky and down into the earth below. It looked decidedly bigger on the inside than it had on the outside. Of course, it was hard to consider this "inside" at all.

Tom gazed up at the ceiling-sky with faint amazement. Kayleigh was silent as well, but it was more of a suspicious quiet as she dissected the indoor block with her eyes.

"Not bad," said Richard, hoping he sounded nonchalant. "Does it go dark at night?"

"Of course," said Wing. "Our goal is to make the transition as painless as possible."

"The past couple of weeks hasn't really been painless," said Kayleigh.

Wing's facial expression was his usual mask of blandness, but beneath it Richard somehow detected that he was perhaps a bit tired of apologizing. "Your... helper should be here shortly. In fact, I believe she is running late."


"The precise term I am thinking of stems from the Veranti language -- it means something akin to 'person who allows you to live'. I am not aware of any English equivalent."

Richard rolled the phrase over in his mind . "Person who allows you to live" was probably meant to sound kindly and parental, but it also sounded a bit like a kidnapper, or some warlord extending mercy to his fallen foe.

In the windows of the weird little villas he could see faces peeking out, cautious but curious. There were a couple children, and a couple things that were definitely not human. Before Richard could look much closer at it he was distracted by the sound of metallic footsteps echoing up from the below.

A human blur burst out from the stairs in the ground. Richard saw a flash of short black hair as what was eventually recognizable as a petite woman ran up to them. "Sorry sorry sorry! I am having the worst day -- my alarm didn't go off, and there was a jam in the tunnels, and then my key card didn't work until I reconfigged it and you just have no idea how sorry I am..."

Now that she was only talking a mile a minute and not moving that fast Richard noticed some distinctly strange things about the newcomer. For one thing, her right eye was red while her left one was blue, something that would have seemed pretty mundane if not for the small blue text he saw in the red eye. She was definitely human, but her movements seemed strange, almost too smooth and too fluid. Oh, and her right arm was carved out of glistening chrome.

Everyone was a little stunned by the girl's appearance as well as her personality. Tom was the first to compose himself. "It's okay. We just got here too. And, uh, by 'here' I mean the planet. God, that feels weird to say."

"You'll get used to it," said the girl. "Of course, I wouldn't know, really -- I'm third-generation. Oh! I haven't introduced myself. Stupid, stupid. My name's Mona. M-O-N-A. But you could probably figure that out. I don't think you guys are dumb or anything. God, what's Earth like these days?"

"It's doing pretty good," said Tom. "Well, it might all flood in a couple decades, but right now things are cool."

"Cool! Anyways, I'm the ambassador of this floor -- people call me the Mayor of Madrid. It's, like, a joke. I'm not really in charge, I just like volunteering for stuff. Like welcoming you here!" Mona's babble just seemed to get faster and faster, until it took a conscious act of translation to understand her.

Richard finally spoke. "Why Madrid, if I could ask?"

"Most of the really cool city names were taken. Like, Rome is floor 3 here, from way back in the early days. But Madrid's cool too! Running of the bulls and all that. That's Madrid, right? I know it's Spain. Somebody already took Barcelona, which is weird because I would have thought that Madrid would go first. Maybe that's where they run the bulls. Baarcelona, I mean. It sucks for the new floors that have to pick really obscure cities. Or there are lots that go with something completely different for a name, but the abstract ones ran out way quicker anyway. You guys are lucky we had a few vacancies. There was a couple that left to go make a quad over in another tower, and Steven joined the Diplomatic Force and got assigned to Battas-12, which is pretty unlucky, but like I said, good for you."

Richard was still trying to process all of that, and maybe add to his very hazy understanding of this alien world, when Tom, possibly having already given up on all of that, spoke. "Can you show us around?"

"Oh! Yes. Of course. That's what I'm here for. Listen to me babbling."

It wasn't much of a guided tour. Their new homes were all quaint small houses with mostly conventional furnishings other than a couple strange metallic appliances that Mona, in her mile-a-minute monologue, never thought to define. Tom and Kayleigh had inherited the homes of the couple, who had built a connecting passageway. The bakery looked like it had been transplanted directly from the 1950s, and operated more as an anachronism than anything else. Kayleigh regarded Mona with an ever-increasing look of bile.

"It's a very nice-looking cage," she muttered under her breath once. Tom and Mona were too far up ahead to hear it.

Richard picked up the pace until he caught up with the more cheerful pair. "So. Are we going to get jobs? Money?"

"You'll be provided for," said Mona. "But most people here apply for assignment of some form or another. It gets you some extra spending credits. But I wouldn't worry about that. Just try to adjust for now. Here, you want a donut?"

Richard frowned. He had never been the kind of guy who could sit around doing nothing for very long. For him, working -- contributing to some larger project -- was adjusting. But he said nothing and ate the donut, which looked and tasted a bit strange, but was still delectable. He wondered if any of these advanced alien races had cracked the secret of making junk food that was good for you. Probably not.

Mona had continued blathering about something or other after Richard had long tuned her out. She looked up at Richard with her seemingly permanent perky smile. "So, any questions?"

"Too many," he said. But he didn't think he was going to get any answers.


The first thing Tom did when he and Kayleigh were left alone was try out the couch in his new place. He had spent entirely too much of his college years crashing on uncomfortable, scratchy friends' couches and as such was extremely pleased to discover that this one was soft as a dream. This was technological advancement, he supposed -- the little things being a little nicer.

Kayleigh was leaning up against one of the walls, as if testing its stability. She looked grumpy, which was at least an upgrade from the generally empty stare she had had for most of the trip. Tom patted the seat next to him and she shuffled over to him.

"Don't tell me you like this place," she said.

"Well, it's not paradise, but it does seem very nicely run." He took her dangling hand in his. "Look, we'll figure out how to get back to Earth. Maybe we can be special ambassadors or whatever. But for now, we have each other, and that's enough."

"You sound like some cheesy rock singer."

"I think it was Bon Jovi. But he was a wise man."

"They. It was a band."

"Wasn't that also the main guy's name? Bon Jovi? His lawyer calls him Mr. Jovi?"

Kayleigh giggled. Tom kissed her hand, and then she was falling on top of him, giggling warmly into the side of his neck. There bodies still fit together well. Kayleigh straddled him, kissing his ear.

A knock at the door interrupted whatever was going to happen. Kayleigh sprung up and dusted herself off. "I, uh, should probably get that."

At the door was a cheerful redhead who looked to be in her late 20s, carrying a fruit basket, as well as some sort of giant bird-man. Tom practically did a spit-take. The woman thrust the basket forward. "Hi! I'm Caroline. Your new neighbour. I saw you guys moving in and..."

"Thanks," said Kayleigh, taking the basket from Caroline without looking at it. Her eyes were fixed entirely on the bird-man. "And this is..."

The alien (because that was obviously what he was -- although really, so were all of the humans here) responded with a single word that seemed to go on and on. It was perhaps less of a word and more of a shifting sound, or a song. "This is Esh Ku Tan Avana, but you can just call him Esh. He's a dendra." She said something to Esh in a similar sing-song moaning, presumably his language. "Oh, I should probably explain -- Dendra vocal cords can't really deal with English words, or really any human language. All that stopping and starting, you see. For what it's worth, I can only do a loose impression of their speech too. Esh has managed to stop laughing at it, but when his mother comes over..."

"I guess some things really are universal," said Tom. He wasn't sure what the relationship was between these two, but it was obviously closer than one would think from looking at them.

Caroline just blinked at that. "Yeah, and some things aren't. But don't worry. He can understand everything we're saying.

"Do you want to come in?" said Kayleigh, doing the best impression of a smile she had been able to do for a couple weeks. Tom seemed to lose a big weight when he saw that smile, one that he hadn't even been aware he had been carrying around.

"Sure. I saw you moving in and, well, I just wanted to say hello... I know it can be very overwhelming at first." Caroline and Esh took a seat in the living room. Tom hoped Esh wouldn't leave feathers everywhere.

Now that he could get a closer look at the alien he saw that "bird-man" was a bit of a simplification. Esh stood seven feet tall and stooped to enter the house. Pillow-white feathers covered the backside of his wings and extended down his back and to the crown of his head, while his underbelly was decorated with scraggly yellow fur. He had generally humanoid features, save for the curved, sinister-looking beak. He balanced on three sets of arms, or perhaps talons, with hardscrabble black skin. He moved awkwardly on these limbs, but made no motion to sit down.

"I'd normally get you a drink or a snack or something," said Kayleigh. "But I think the cupboard is bare." Esh shrugged, a gesture that looked entirely inappropriate on him. The alien drew up his middle limb and rested the black hand/claw on Caroline's knee. It at least looked opposable. "So, um, do you two both live in this neighbourhood? Floor? City?" It occurred to Tom that he would have to entirely change his routines of small talk.

"Well of course," said Caroline. "You see, Esh is my -- well, that's another thing in his language that I have trouble translating, but I would say 'lover' is the closest equivalent."

Tom blanched. His mind naturally leapt to the specifics of that arrangement, but even then he couldn't fathom it. He involuntarily glanced at the alien's crotch, hidden beneath a network of white and red sashes that served as clothes. Was that even possible? Biologically? And moreover, who would want to have sex with something that looked like that?

But he bit his tongue before he said anything. He didn't want to sound like a bigot -- or worse, some scandalized country boy just off the farm. He was surethis was normal around here. Hell, the whole galaxy was probably a vast intermingling of species much stranger than Esh, who at least resembled a strange combination of Earth animals. Was that what attracted Caroline to him?

In any case, Kayleigh seemed to be having as much deciding on an appropriate reaction. Caroline looked back and forth between them, her eyes seeming to settle on the silence that was a palpable, physical presence there. "It's okay. I get a lot of that. Gape all you want." She displayed herself with an exaggerated flourish. It was a little self-congratulatory, as if she had been trying to shock them.

"That's great for you," said Tom, deciding that the distinct feeling of grossed-outness he was going through was simply irrational. "Kayleigh and I are lovers as well." The word "lovers" was strange on his lips, old-fashioned and yet explicit at the same time. "Maybe we can have a double date sometimes."

Caroline smiled. "Cool. It's great that you guys got picked up together."

"How is that great?" said Kayleigh, her bitterness rising back up to the surface all at once.

Caroline held up her hands. "Well, I just mean that it's better than you being apart. I mean, if Tom here was abducted alone, you might never know what happened to him. You might think he ran off on you or he was dead or something."

Kayleigh cast Tom a look that said, in the least insulting way possible, that she might have preferred that alternative. And it had certainly crossed Tom's mind that his life would have been very different if he hadn't felt like doing something nice for his girl that particular night. But he was here, and his mind burned with curiosity not satisfied by the cryptic way everyone here around here seemed to talk. (Although perhaps what he saw as crypticness was just them taking the world around them as a given not worth discussing.)

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