Saturday, April 20, 2013

Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Part 4

When I regained consciousness, three people stood around me, with guns pointed at me. The red box still sat on the ground, as did I. Apparently the effect was something of a paralyzing hypnosis, for as long as the red box flashed I was incapable of voluntary movement. The men standing over me wore plain grey uniforms with some foreign badge on the right shoulder. Their guns were large, silver, and something told me they were not loaded with bullets.
            “What is going on here?” A woman wearing a better-looking version of the grey uniform approached us. One of the men faced her and saluted.
            “Captain Gayle, sir! Sentry bot detected this unauthorized life form and issued a Stowaway Alert! We were just following protocol, sir!”
            The captain bent down and peered at me. “She looks human,” she pronounced, “stand her up.”
            The two men on either side lowered their guns and each grasped my elbows and raised me to my feet. Captain Gayle glanced over my jersey top, jeans, and sneakers, all covered in the muck of my last adventure (having been swiped in slime, spread with dust, and submerged in water). Her face twisted into a sneer.
            “Bring her to the Medical Bay. I want her decontaminated, examined, immunized—and get her some proper clothing,” she ordered. “I will send Cher to collect her and bring her to the Commander. Dismissed!”
            The men led me away, and I could hear the security-bot puttering away after me. We entered an elevator and the two men swiped keycards over the scanner at the entrance, one of them swiping twice, I assume to account for the third person who would be in the elevator. We descended a few floors, and exited in a narrow, white hallway. Every so often, I could hear an explosion, feel its vibrations through the floor, but I had no idea what it all meant, or where I actually was. Was this a space station or simply a futuristic bunker? Oh, why had I convinced myself to do this? I could only hope that, should the situation grow too dire, the typewriter (if all this was really happening, and it really had come to life and shown me the door that started it all) would act as promised and remove me from the situation.
            Now the men led me through a door into an even narrower hallway, where briefly we had to walk single-file until it opened up into a large room, much like a small doctor’s office.
            A grey-haired man in a white frock smiled and approached the men.
            “What have we here?” he asked pleasantly, extending a hand toward me. I could only move my eyes; if I could move my body, I would have jumped in fright. The man had three eyes, and six fingers on both hands! One eye fixed on one of the men, a second on me, and the third glanced at the glowing red box behind me.
            “Stowaway of unknown origin,” one of the guards stated. “Captain Gayle requests that she be decontaminated, immunized, and examined.”
            The doctor nodded. His third eye swiveled from the box to the guard. “Is that really necessary?” he asked with a frown.
            The guard nodded briskly. “Stowaway must remain connected to the security-bot unless completely restrained or unless released by the Commander.”
            The third eye rolled back in his head, “Oh, very well.” He waved a nurse forward. I was relieved to see that this woman appeared normal as she led me into a small closet and handed me a white, sterile gown. I slipped my arms into it, and the fabric immediately closed around behind me. I felt a tingling sensation all over my body. Something within the fabric of the gown was slowly working into my skin and spreading all over it. A bell rang, and a digital screen read, “DECONTAMINATION COMPLETE.” The nurse dropped my clothes into an incinerator. The shoes she sealed in a transparent box and sent down a chute to some other area. We exited the closet just as another explosion rocked the doctor’s lab. He gripped a nearby handle till the floor righted itself.
            “Those beetle-nosed Barabbians!” he cursed. “Why can’t they leave us alone?”
            He smiled and accepted my hand from the nurse. “Jee-too,” he instructed her, “set the protocols on the security-bot to mute.”
            “Yes, sir.” I felt the numbness leave my body—all except my tongue. That remained useless in my mouth.
            The doctor led me to a white chair with many silver restraint cuffs around it, and once I sat in it, he fastened the bars around my neck, forehead, chest, wrists, elbows, waist, knees, and ankles. He then proceeded to scan, prod, poke, inject, and inspect every inch of me. None of it was comfortable, but only a few were slightly painful at all. He measured my limbs and my digits, he recorded body mass and bone density, he carefully scanned my tongue, blasting my mouth with a brilliant light that left a numb, burning sensation for several minutes afterwards. He pulled hairs from my head and examined those thoroughly. Once all this was done, he allowed me to sit up, restored the paralyzing protocols on the red box, sent me once more with the nurse to receive a plain grey uniform like the others (only without the insignia), and as soon as I emerged, feeling like someone completely other than myself, a nurse escorted me out of the medical bay and into the custody of a tall, graceful woman with bright-yellow hair and large violet eyes. She wore a blue shift in the same style as the uniforms everyone else wore, the first spot of color I’d seen yet.
            “Cher,” the nurse Jee-too (actually, her designation was “G2”, but it was a while before I realized that) greeted the woman, “Escort the human girl to the bridge and notify Commander Gerald.”
            “Commander Gerald has been notified,” Cher replied, “Please follow me.” She turned and began walking back toward the elevators. I followed her, mostly because I had no other choice. Just before the doors closed, I could see another door open, and a group of guards escorted a bloody body on a gurney into the medical bay. A second one began to follow just before the doors closed completely and Cher and I rode upwards.
            The elevator had a window in the back. Out of it, at regular intervals, I was able to glimpse the world outside. It was completely dark, nothing but stars…ships…lasers…and explosions. Great! Not only had I landed in outer space, but I was on a space station in the midst of a battle. I wondered what sort of forces were the enemies; I was lucky to end up on the ship with the humans, for certain! What would I have done if the adventure had landed me in the midst of some alien species? I wouldn’t have gotten such gentle treatment, probably.
            Cher escorted me (or rather, my security-bot; I still remained under its influence) into the bridge of the ship. Several officers stood before strange monitors, which were a mix of digital and holographic displays. I saw one officer with three arms controlling an entire board at once. A woman with a large headset was speaking a strange language into a tube of some sort.
            The Commander, seated at the desk in the front, turned as Cher approached.
            “Ah,” he said, peering at me with keen blue eyes, “this is the stowaway you informed me about, Cher?”
            Yes, sir,” Cher replied in that same strange, hollow voice.
            Commander Gerald pressed a button on his console, and immediately we were enclosed within silvery walls.
            “Disengage security bot,” he commanded, and the red box darkened as movement returned to my body. “Now,” he continued, “Where did you come from and how did you arrive on this ship?”
            There was no straight way to deliver the truth, so I decided I would try to encourage the idea that I had stowed away somehow.
            “I snuck aboard your ship at the last port,” I explained. “I hid behind some crates in the docking bay until the coast was clear, then when I tried to sneak further onto the ship, the security-bot apprehended me.”
            The commander stared at me for a long time; I wondered how far my story was going to fly. “The last port…” he mused, “You are from Neogratia, then?”
            I nodded, “Yes, sir.”
            “I pride myself in having a secure ship. The only time when you would have been able to sneak on without detection is during the changing of the guard; I assume you waited until then to make your move?”
            I was surprised at his convincing manner; he had so thoroughly believed my story that he was unwittingly supplying me with additional details! “Yes, I did,” I answered, “I waited until the first guard left, and slipped in before the relief shift arrived.”
            Commander Gerald leaned back in his chair, smiling in admiration. He leaned forward and stared me straight in the eye. “You’re lying,” he said.
            “Pardon?” How on earth did he know?
            The commander grinned at me, like a cat with a trapped mouse. “You’re lying, and I know… because everything I’ve just submitted to you for verification is a load of nardall-droppings.”
            I was so shocked and embarrassed that I said nothing as my whole face burned.
            Commander Gerald turned to Cher. “Bring up the security footage in the hall where the stowaway was found.”
            Cher turned to the console next to her and entered a pass-code on the screen. Video footage of the catwalk I had landed on appeared.
            “Archived footage,” Gerald directed, “At five minutes before the security-bot apprehended the stowaway.”
            Cher obediently brought up the footage. There were several security-bots patrolling the area. The walkway stood empty. Then—a blink, and there I was, clutching the bar for dear life, wearing my old mucked-up clothes.
            Gerald turned to me with a severe expression. “Explain this, if you wouldn’t mind!” Before I could answer (not like I was going to come up with something reasonable in that short a time!), he demanded of me, “Civilian use of teleportation is illegal according to the High Command, of course; how did you come to use it?”
            I hung my head as if in shame, but inwardly, I was relieved. Teleportation existed! I could do something with that, certainly. “It wasn’t mine,” I admitted.
            “I gathered; either you stole it from a diplomat’s ship or you obtained it on the black market. Your clothes—“
            “Were borrowed from my mistress, a diplomatic emissary from the planet Garramon.”
            “Confound it!” Gerald burst out, “You are lying again! I am the Supreme Commander of the Galactic forces of The High Council at Phantessa, I know all the planets, and yours, stranger, is not among them!”
            “Of course not!” I shot back, “The Barabbians destroyed it! We were the last survivors, trying to reach this station, and we were set upon by their ships. Surely you saw the explosion just before this time?” I pointed to the time stamp from the moment I appeared.
            Gerald was recalling that time. I figured that, if he did not remember at least one explosion during that time, I could maintain that it happened on the other side of the ship. Finally, he nodded, accepting this. “All right, but that still does not explain—“
            “It was my mistress,” I said, anxious to get my story out before I forgot certain key details. “She gave me a strange device and told me to press the button, to escape. I did so, and ended up where you found me. My name is Laura, and I am the last of the Garramonians.”
            Gerald shook his head as an alarm beeped on his console. He was too preoccupied with war against the said Barabbians to be bothered with my drama.
            “Very well,” he sighed, lowering the partitions. “Cher, give her a berth and explain our situation to her, since obviously she is only aware of her own personal predicaments,” he almost glared at me, “and cares nothing for the position she’s thrust us into.”
            Cher maintained a blank expression and replied, “Yes, sir.” She turned to me. “Please follow me, Laura.”
            Before departing down a narrow tunnel to the Crews Quarters, Cher led me to a small, dark room with a screen on one side. It almost looked like a theater, but I didn’t see any projector. I soon discovered why, as Cher herself stood at the back of the room and projected the screen from her eyes. It hadn’t really occurred to me (beyond her bland demeanor) that she would not be human, but an android. She played for me a quick video outlining the current state of the galaxy, with Phantessa serving as the ruling planet, and the Barabbians a band of rebel aliens—fierce-looking things, with red scaly skin and long claws—sought to forcibly wrest power by attacking the other planets. They had been fighting for some time, the Phantessan forces able to repel the Barabbians, but they had not yet managed to completely eradicate them.
            After the film, Cher proceeded down one particularly spectacular tunnel encased in a transparent window of sorts, yet not without protection, as evidenced by the spidery network of electric tendrils wavering over its perimeter.
            We entered the bay of berths, and Cher passed by several doors before stopping in front of one. She gave me a key card similar to the ones I’d seen the officers using.
            “This is your room key,” she explained, “It must remain on your person at all times.” She demonstrated how to swipe it over the scanner at the entrance, which automatically opened the door. I accepted the key and stuck it in the pocket of my uniform. I entered the room, but beyond a cabinet of extra linens, a bed, a window, a table, a small chair, and a narrow bathroom with a shower, toilet, sink, and mirror, there was nothing interesting at all. I approached the door of my room, and it slid open automatically. I stepped out into the hall to see what else I could discover. There was a digital map displayed on the wall, with a flashing light to designate “YOU ARE HERE.” Further down the hall, I saw rooms labeled the Recreation Hall and the Mess Hall. I decided that there would be more people to talk to in that direction.
            I had not gone twenty paces before I heard that familiar whine, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I knew if I could turn around, I would see a security-bot right behind me, glowing red and freezing me where I stood. I could not understand it; had I not been accepted on the ship like a normal person? Was I not wearing proper clothes, did I not hold a keycard in my pocket that granted me access to all areas of the ship?
            “Disable protocols,” a voice commanded behind me, and I could move again. I turned to thank my hero.
            Behind me, grinning, stood a man in that same grey uniform, though the insignia was much plainer than the ones I had seen, for example on Captain Gayle’s or Commander Gerald’s uniform. He had sandy-colored hair and bright hazel eyes. He extended a hand.
            “Private Marks,” he introduced himself, “and you are?”
            “Laura,” I replied, shaking his hand, “I am Laura of—“
            “Never mind, you’re on the ship now,” Marks waved a hand dismissively. “We’re all from somewhere else here; at the rate the Barabbians are at it, a lot of us might not have homeworlds when this is done.”
            “Thank you for saving me from that security-bot,” I said as the small box in question scuttled past us. “I don’t know why I keep getting caught in that thing!”
            Marks grinned and reached into my pocket. He pulled out the keycard. “This is why. Security-bots are trained to sense anyone who doesn’t have a keycard showing outside the uniform, like this.” He held the keycard against my sleeve, and it automatically attached itself. “It goes on, it comes off, but you’ve got to put it on the outside. The pockets are for things that you want to keep out of sight. The security systems on this ship can’t sense through clothing.” He winked at my furious blush. “Are you hungry? Have you eaten yet?”
            The truth was, I could not remember the last time I had eaten. It felt like weeks ago. “Yes, I am very hungry,” I said.
            Marks took my hand, “Come with me; I was just en route to the mess hall myself.”

            We received our trays of food at the mess hall counter, served by amiable droids. Marks was very kind to explain what everything was, and how it tasted; he seemed to accept that I must be from a planet that never had these things. Furthermore, he was very curious to find out what we ate on my planet; he’d never imagined fruit like ours; the one thing that blew his mind when I described it was grain.
            “You mean to tell me that food on your world grows on stalks?”
            I nodded, “Yes.”
            “And the little tufts at the top, you eat them?”
            I had to bite back laughter at his incredulity, “Of course. The remainder, we feed to our animals.”
            He seemed to be fine with that one, but he pursued the idea of grain a bit further, “How does it taste?”
            I glanced over my tray; all fresh fruits and vegetables, nearly no starches at all. The closest thing on my plate to the taste of grain was probably a starchy root Marks told me was called nebbin. I held it up.
            “It’s kind of like this, only more dry, and not as sweet.”
            Marks grimaced, “How on earth can such a thing be in any way appetizing?”
            I sighed, “We grind it up, mix it with water and sugar—“
            “Pardon; sugar?”
            I glanced at the condiment section of the cafeteria counter. “Granulated sucrose,” I explained it as near as I could to something he would recognize.
            Marks nodded, “Ah, I see. So you mix it with other things to make it palatable?”
            I nodded, “Yes. Mix it up and bake it, and it becomes a dish we call bread.
            “Fascinating!” Marks dug into his meal, his mind spinning with the newfangled notion of bread.           
“So, Marks,” I continued, changing the subject, “What do you do on this ship? Are you a soldier?”
            Marks shook his head, “No, I’m only a private; privates don’t fight. I’m the station’s handyman, a man-of-all-work, if you will. If something breaks, someone calls me and I fix it; if something needs doing, someone calls me and I do it; if someone needs something, they call me and I get it for them.”
            I found this young man very fascinating. Most of the people had eaten and left the hall, but we remained, among cleaning droids and empty tables.
            “Do you think you might have to fight eventually?”
            “Goodness, I hope not, actually,” he admitted with a laugh, “though there have been many casualties.”
            The largest explosion I’d experienced yet rocked the ship, and an ear-piercing alarm forestalled any further conversation. Marks took one glance at the flashing red lights and gasped, “Lockdown!"