Friday, June 22, 2018

Kosi Lionhair: 20. Marti

“No. Don’t.” Marti interrupted whatever Owen was about to say. “It’s my turn first. Age before beauty.”

I laughed. Discarded a few things I might’ve said. First with what? I love a noir mystery. Age, what’s that when it’s at home? I made do with, “Really?”

The others were frozen in various attitudes of disbelief.

Marti stepped over to me until we were face to face. “Old, I see you deciding.”

I corrected her. “Old is what you wish you could see me deciding. But I’m not that transparent. You think that if you can trick me, the rest will fall over like nine pins?” The rest had to be jolted out of their stupor.

Jack smiled. So did Bene. Which could be nervous tics in both of them. Owen frowned.

“Facial wrinkles and grooves can be due to sun damage and your grey hair colour due to hair dye,” I said. 

Marti snapped shut her mouth and made a straight thin line with it.

“I didn’t notice you being particularly old when we were still at Para Seven,” Jack said. He was being polite, a proper Fetcher. “A corporal in the green-clads, I thought. Even the green-clads have an upper age-limit.”

“Yet by the time we lined up to be loaded, I noticed you limping,” Bene said. “When you knew we knew you to be a spy. I’m pretty sure you saw that little exchange between Owen and the kids? I wondered about your Work Association. Why they are allowing people to work while not fit?”

How did Bene get to be an EMBer? Surely not by throwing red herrings around? I wondered if she was a Fetcher in her young life.

“Don’t make me laugh, Bene,” Pallas said. “This woman is not a government green-clad, not a government spy, and not with the crew. What’s left, I hear you say? I’d say she’s pretending to be a volunteer of some kind.”

Oh. That’s how Bene got to be an EMBer. She was a catalyser. Pallas looked like she was the goddess of thunder, which in my humble opinion is quite a good impersonation for a Greek goddess.

Marti watched everyone as closely as I did. “Not pretending,” she said. “I really did volunteer. As soon as I heard another ship was to be sent. I want to be data-waved. You must have heard Joddy’s story?”

“The Joddy who returned with the EMBers from the Second Chance debacle?” Bene said.

“That didn’t happen,” Owen said. “It’s a fine fairy story allowed to spread to take attention from what really happened.”

“Beg to differ,” Marti said. “My father’s father’s best friend …”

Owen rolled his eyes. “What I said. A myth.”

Marti over-rode him. “… was in the shanty-woman’s troupe. When Joddy came back, he grew younger instead of older, is how my grandfather tells it. I want that. What I know about EMBers, they are never gathered-in accidentally. So I tacked myself onto the crowd too...”

“You think we’re stupid?” I just about burst that she negated that we saw her being a green-clad corporal.

She hissed. “Tss.” Then ignored Jack and me. “I want to be data-waved, go to Lotor and come back. Same as Joddy. Grow younger instead of older. I will be expecting EMBers to bring me back the way the EMBers in his time brought Joddy back!”

She didn’t say which EMBers were to bring her back though I could probably count the number of EMBers in space at this moment on three fingers.

Marti smiled tremulously.

What a put-on. She obviously thought our EMBers stupid enough to be taken in by her emotional blackmail? She just tried to sell them a story because that’s all it amounted to? No one could set that up purposely without a lot of help from…?

Bene maybe thought along the same lines. “I wouldn’t mind that,” she said. “Who did you volunteer with?”

“That’d be telling,” Marti said.

What did you volunteer to do?” Jack said.

Good question. Even Pallas nodded.

Marti giggled, apparently giving up the emotional blackmail thing as a bad idea. Talk about a will o wisp? She said, “The party employing me thinks I’ll do X as per the contract when I’m intending to do X + 1.”

“You’re under contract?” Owen said.

“Of course. But by the time we get back to Earth, there will be nothing PP can do about it and you EMBers will be enriched beyond compare.” Now she smiled roguishly.

Owen frowned.

“With bargaining chips in the form of knowledge that might lead to promotions and so on? A win-win situation, surely?” Marti said, now including Bene and Pallas in her regard.

What did we know more than a minute ago? She just told us that PP aka Procyon Products has her contract. But not why she thinks the EMBers are here. And they haven’t said yet. Pallas and Owen.

I watched her wandering toward the semi-circular bank of workstations, and begin to wake the desks. A captain’s chair hulked in the open end.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Kosi Lionhair: 19. The Datawaver

I startled awake.

Body next to me did not startle with me though it was warm. I shuddered experimentally. So did she. I recalled that her name was Marti and that Owen called her a spy.

I opened my eyes, expecting black-dark. My eyes adjusted. A purple glowed right next to me?

The spy’s facemask had patches of tiny luminescent, lavender fungi growing in and under the eye hollow nearest to me, and in the corner of the groove masquerading as a mouth. Not a good look. I shuddered away from her.

When I had a tiny gap between us, I had time to concentrate on a sound I’d been hearing that seemed to be coming nearer. A whisper, like a soft hissing. Might it be someone dreaming aloud? Sleepwalking? I stared over the spy into the cylindrical space in the middle of the … the … silo. That was it, SILO 23.

The central space was filled with a lavender ambience. Meaning there were more places where the fungus grew? Movement. Something rose over the foot-end of the bunk. I closed my eyes again, slowly, to tiny cracks, because eyeballs glisten in the semi-dark. The hissing came with the thing.

A pair of eyes rose higher and higher. They blinked without let-up. My feet were beside the spy’s knees, with nowhere else to put them unless I drew up my knees. Way too late for that. The eyes, in what I now saw were greenish leathery sockets, busily looked everywhere, always blinking.

The eyes grew from the toe-part of a dark boot-shaped thing. It swayed toward Marti’s knees and my feet. Hovered there while the eyes looked us over.

The thing rose higher above the bunk. It had tiny wings that moved faster than a hummingbird’s either side of the heel, level with about where a human ankle would fit into the boot.

I didn’t stop my staring from behind my eyelids, looking it over. Like it was made of mouldy old leather with purple fungi growing in its wear-creases. A flying boot? Really?

The terrible gaze flicked over my features. Be still. Stay silent. Don’t move. Don’t breathe. My hair earned me a couple of side-to-side passes. The thing hissed. A pair of reptilian membranes slid slowly across moss green pupils from the inner corners of the eyes. I couldn’t see a mouth or breathing holes anywhere.

Just before I exploded—that’s what I felt like—it swayed forward. Four long white appendages, like threads, hung from where shoelaces normally looped. I forced myself to not to press into the corner, away from those whispering, paper-dry tentacles as they passed over the spy’s mask. The mushroom caps by the corner of her mouth expanded and unfolded.

Marti relaxed against me as if she’d been tensely asleep, maybe dreaming a nightmare, and now slid into unconsciousness. The boot continued its progress over us as slowly as a snail. Its back was shaped like an upside-down boot-ankle.

As it passed over me, I saw a warty toad-skinned something writhing within the shadowed interior. Do not shudder! The boot rose, to allow it to pass over the next bunk in the spiral?

Remembering that I was a couple beds lower down from Jack and the others, I gathered my feet under me—mustn’t touch the spy mustn’t touch the spy—and threw myself over onto the walkway. Thud.

The steel catwalk vibrated up and down its length while I rolled almost to the edge. Could the boot hear? Had it heard me? I stared down into the hollow core of the silo.
Everywhere down where the boot had already been was a purple glow, beaded with hotspots such as the spy.

Hurry. Hurry. I crouch-ran past the thing swaying thoughtfully over the person in the next bunk up. Where’s Jack? There. His blue bandanna. The boot seemed to pick up speed. Had it felt the wind of my passage?

Jack was still with Owen. Both hopefully only slept. I pulled them off the bunk. Thump. Thud. Jack on top. “Wha ...?”

I clamped both my hands over Owen’s mouth, crying my fear tears on him. “Be quiet. There’s a thing. Trailing tentacles.”

Jack gripped my wrists. Whispered. “Let him up, he’s awake.”

“We’ve got to get the others before the boot gets to them.” I tried to whisper too. “Trailing poison.” I shook like a bunch of vibrating guitar strings.

“The damned data-waver,” Owen said. “You kids get Bene. I’ll get Pallas.”

With two of us we easily rolled Bene from her bunk. Jack clamped his hand over her mouth the second she would’ve cried out. “The data-waver,” he hissed in her ear.

She made the white-cockatoo sign for OK.

The others crawled to join us. Then the spy also. She’d shed her mushroomy mask.

“So you do this regularly?” I asked.

 “I’m undercover,” she said. “Just like you. Only I have a place with the crew.”

I didn’t say anything about Jack’s, mine and Bene’s lack of undercoveredness. 

“Who do you work for?” Owen said. “Other than the freight company?”

Marti laughed. “That’d be telling, wouldn’t it? We should get out of the way of the data-waver. It seems unhappy as it is.”

We all looked at where the boot swayed over the bunk where Bene had been. Its wraithy white tentacles tip-touched the folds and ridges of Bene’s shape in the thin mattress. Now I shuddered. It made like it recorded Bene’s absence.

The boot sped to the next bed. Jack pushed me. “Go already.” He followed me into the airlock between the hold and the command centre.

The data-waver hesitated over Pallas’s missing shape. The tone of its hissing changed. SSSS-ssss!! It swayed toward us.

“It knows something isn’t right. Lie down. Hide your faces,” Marti said.

Why was she helping us survive the data-waver?

The boot hovered over the catwalk near the airlock door, seeming to hesitate about coming in. I peered from under my arm. It swayed to and fro, to and fro. Oh. I see what it was doing. Swaying, the tentacles swung out. They weren’t long enough to reach us.

But what if it came lower and into the airlock? After the longest time, the data-waver swayed toward the central space and twirled down with its tentacles swaying outward like streamers on a merry-go-round.

Marti rose and pressed a keypad by the door we came in, and which then irised shut.

Jack did the same on a keypad adjacent to the further door. “Just like an elevator, really,” he said. That door slid open.  

 “Bene, Kosi, come on,” Pallas said. We stumbled through. Hope flared in me when I saw computer input desks which seemed to promise kinds of possibilities.

Marti closed the door by a keypad this side, seeming to fumble over the input. Why? She didn’t the first time.

Pallas pulled me into the five-hug of the EMBers and Jack and me. I suppose we’d gained a kind of safety. Felt churlish thinking it.

But … Marti, not in the hug, wandered around the command centre. She laughed. “First time ever I’m relaxed in here. The captain is a virago, you know?”

As if that was going to relax me about her. I frowned at Owen. “So what is the story? Why are we here?”

Friday, June 8, 2018

Kosi Lionhair: 18. Silo Twenty-Three

 The women who carried Lydia into the silo came out.

“They were inside for two minutes thirty-four seconds,” Owen said. “It means that they start loading from the bottom.”

“So if we filter back, we’ll end up being loaded last?” Pallas said.

Good idea, Pallas. I had already told Jack we’d make for the top of the silo. No words of course, too many people listening in. It would definitely be better having the EMBers doing it too because then Jack’s and my moves would be less noticeable.

“How will that work, a silo climbing up the elevator cable?” Jack said. “It looks too big. It’ll be wrenched around and crack, or when we get into the thin air it’ll explode …”

One of a bunch of people tacking themselves onto the end of the column heard Jack and laughed. “Don’t worry, young fella. These silos are made for the job.”

“And you’d know?” Jack said. He walked backwards.

The newcomers shuffled behind Airport Security, ignored by them, carrying bags and satchels. “Well, we are the crew. Some of us specialise in silo work. Some of us operate the climber.” The speaker indicated various people as she explained.

One of the climber’s personnel took up the story. “Freight climbers are built with a bunch of large protrusions…” he made a fist to illustrate. “…that fit into corresponding slots in a silo. Once there is lift-off, the climber rises a dozen feet to lock in the fists. The slots are gated and off we go.”

“Opposite to the buggies,” I said.

“I suppose it’s easier to load the freight down at ground level,” Jack said.

“You’re not wrong, and a whole lot cheaper. And,” the woman glanced surreptitiously toward the adults with us, “It allows the … to get on with … the people to …”

One of the others talked right over the top of her, and loud, and with warning glances. “Making the trip up that much more do-able. Economical.” They dropped into a murmur and continued among themselves.

Of course I missed everything important. It allows the something to get on with something the people to something? Cheap is economical. Doing what? Hen, I wish you were here. I nearly let myself whimper. All I could do was listen hard and be prepared for action. I elbowed Jack. “What did you hear?”

He shrugged.

Owen gave out only scepticism. “They hope to keep a silo full of captives biddable? And they have got the silo piggy-backing the climber? They’ll bed us all down.” He narrowed his eyes. “I bet they …”

 “You’re not wrong, EMBer,” interrupted a nearby green-clad with her hands tied in front. “Sedation it will be.” She had an extreme case of wrinkles, in other words she was old, proud and unaugmented. Or poor. She had had one stripe, a dark place on her uniform where it had been ripped off. The corporal. Now ex. I was right about her stupidity.

“They don’t want anyone rampaging,” the ex-corporal said. “The damned data-waver is enough to stampede even the steadiest of crowds and that is what this crowd is not.”

Pallas swallowed. “It is?” she said faintly.

Didn’t sound good to me, the bit where I could hardly hear Pallas because she was so worried and or scared. “So what’s a data-waver and what’s scary about it?” I said. 

“Pallas is an EMBer,” Jack said. “They don’t get scared.”

Owen cleared his throat to get Pallas’s attention.

I had to agree with Lydia. Pallas and Owen knew something the rest of us didn’t. “How come no one has come screaming and fighting from the silo yet? If there’s a really bad thing happening in there?” I said.

“I bet everybody is so tired due to two sleepless nights they’re all falling onto the bunks and asleep in three seconds,” Owen said.

“What, because I’m the youngest person here I have to be soothed?” I said.

Owen glared at me. When he had my attention he glanced here and there. At Pallas. At Bene. Even at Jack. And at a fidgety crewmember. Like he said I’m soothing everyone else through you. Like, yeah, putting me off? But I nodded.

So barely I thought he wouldn’t notice. But he turned off the heat. Looked elsewhere.

Okay, Kosi Lionhair. It wasn’t like Owen soothed me. It looked to me that he smoothed a way to whatever had to happen. I thrust my fingers up through my hair to fluff it out. Woe betide him, if the EMBers didn’t tell Jack and me what was what. When it was safe. 

The helpful green-clad prisoner said, “You want to know why I filtered back?”

Nobody offered up a want-to-know. I took my cue from Owen.

The prisoner-person laughed. “I asked myself why a bunch of EMBers would get the same treatment as the rank-and-file?” She shook her head in seeming amazement. “It must be, I came to the conclusion, that these EMBers are undercover?” She waited. “And I’m Marti?”

None of us volunteered our names or responded to anything else.

“Move along, woman,” said a security guard.

Marti moved along but was not to be silenced. “So I said to myself … something is going on other than getting this intake to Lotor. They’re never heard of or seen again, right? Can’t see EMBers signing up for that. Can you, dearie?” She addressed herself to Bene. “Your partner is in the hold, what do you feel about that now?”

Bene, I snuck a glance, looked forbidding. Like, don’t mess with me, old woman.

Marti laughed. “I figured that I’d stick with you lot, if you don’t mind, to be sure I get back. With my goodies?” She stopped and we still shuffled forward.

Hissing, Bene closed the gap in our rank. She pushed Marti onward. 

“That was a compliment,” Marti said. “You EMBers are very good at what you do.”

Owen scratched his eyebrow nearest the woman. From behind his hand, he mouthed silent letters toward Jack and me. S, P, Y.

Really? I was supposed to believe that? Well duh. It just confirmed that Pallas and Owen were also here for a reason other than getting caught up in a Life Lottery intake being sent to Lotor. What about Jack and me? We were still only collateral damage? Or perhaps they’d been going to hand us over to Bene and Lydia to …?

Just in time I stopped myself shrugging. No idea. And there was the additional mystery of Marti. Was she sent along the minute her captain clapped eyes on the EMBers in the intake? I tried to think back but there was too much happening.

Now we quarter-turned into a single file and Marti was quicker on her feet than anyone else. Our rank transformed into Pallas, Owen, Jack, me, Bene and Marti. We shuffled into the silo through the single door, the crew at the end. 

We filed straight onto a central platform. I had to attend to where I put my feet. A horizontal bar appeared at waist level. The platform started to rise and there was the bar to hold onto. Just like the buggies, again. The crew were let off in couples and threes at intervals. I didn’t see where they went. The spy stayed with us.

Around the walls medi-crews in white were busy on stepped walkways adjacent to rows of stretcher-like bunks fastened in a spiralling pattern to the silo’s inner wall. People in white lay on the bunks. The whole intake was already bedded down?

There were dozens of medi-crews, and they always stood in such a way that they hid what they were doing. I craned my head around to count the spirals. Twelve.

The platform stopped. We’d reached the top of its track. Of the half circle of bunks in front of us, three were occupied with people making themselves comfortable. People were undressing and putting on white sleep-suits. Only three vacant bunks remained.

“This is where we’ll miss Lydia,” Pallas said. “Jack, you’re with Owen. Kosi, you’re with me. Bene …” She shrugged. “You’re with … er …”

“No no no,” said a medical attendant. “The girl will have to bunk a couple of tiers down with Ms Marti Fenland. Weight distribution is a serious art.”

“Weight distribution is that finely tuned?” I said, walking down the spiral with her and the spy.

“It’s actually a mass-to-length ratio we’re working with.”

Scientific gobbledygook. I put it out of my mind. We’d stopped and the spy lay down on the outer two-thirds of the bunk, claiming her place.

“You two together equal an average middle-height,” the medical attendant said. “Here’s your sleep-suit.” She handed me a paper overall. She keyed some data into her pager. “Put your outdoor clothes in the locker beneath the bed.”

The coverall’s flimsy consistency and lack of waste vents were a worry. And where were the toilets, for that matter?

Beyond the last bunk, an irising door was set in a wall that overarched the bunks in the last half-loop of the spiral. I swept my arm up and down the wall beside me. It seemed vertical. That wall definitely arched.

“The Command Module will be through that door,” my bunkmate said. “Don’t get caught in the open if you want to live.”

She’d changed while I looked around. Lay there like she wasn’t going to move. “Hurry up,” she said. “I don’t want you to be noticed. Drawing attention to us and seen as trouble. Probably they’ll give us both a double dose of whatever is coming. Better be half-conscious than dead, I always say.”

I stepped into the coverall with my clothes still on and pulled it up over me. Arms into the sleeves. Closed the front with a zipper. The only space in the bunk was in the upper quadrant near the wall. I wasn’t that small. I climbed over Ms Marti and wriggled until she gave me more space.

“Close your eyes,” she said. “Pretend you’ve already had the go-to-sleeper. Maybe they’ll pass us by.”

“Close my eyes? No way!”

She kinked her neck, stared at me until I closed my eyes.

Peered through my lashes, of course. My head was higher along the bunk than hers and so I had a good line of sight. She pursed her lips and sucked her cheeks like she generated spit, palmed her mouth and then swallowed.

A dry capsule, I’ll bet. Then, quick as a magician, she whipped out a thick blank mask and smoothed it over her face. She contoured the spongy fabric into her eye hollows, around her nose and into her half-open mouth. She settled.

I counted. When nothing happened for three hundred and sixty beats, a wave of tiredness washed over me.