Preamble: This the eleventh chapter of a serialized science-fiction novellette concerning failures of fidelity in the transmission of culture. (Previously: Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, and Chapter 3, and Chapter 4, and Chapter 5, and Chapter 6, and Chapter 7, and Chapter 8, and Chapter 9, and Chapter 10)
by Cheeseburger Brown
PART II, Chapter 11.
She squatted in the garden, inspecting the leaves of the sprouting produce while babby slept on her back, swaddled like a hurt finger. The old douche bag cocked her head as the texture of the insect and bird noises around her changed, announcing an arrival from the west.
Babby fussed. She pinched it and hissed, "Shut shut!"
Babby shut it. Both of them looked west, first with their eyes and then with their heads. The douche straightened. Pebbles skittered down the slope prefiguring the visitor's arrival. A moment later a hooded figure was revealed between the rocks.
"Yo," called out the douche. "Yo yo yo. Who go, bitch?"
The hooded figure dropped her hood. That was me. I was showing my face to her so she would know I was a douche. Then I let my cloak fall open so she could see babby in babby's sling and know I was also a douche bag. Inerrant and functional.
But I could still sense her dissatisfaction. More than that I could identify so strongly when I saw the tiny and quiet expressions flicker over her face -- which was also my face -- I felt as if I could feel her emotions with my own heart. If I closed my eyes I almost believed I would see my approach from her eyes. I, too, could notice how alien the interloper was. There was something not quite normal about the interloper. The interloper who was me.
"Ima Jolly, douche of the north. All respects."
She squinted at me suspiciously but replied in kind. "Ima Bubbles, douche of the twin ridges. Some welcomes, noble douche. You has babby formed? By cause, you sex-oven is way fruity."
"Amen," I agreed. "And you has babby formed, too? Verily fruity is your own oven, sister."
"Amen," she nodded, then shifted her weight and watched me.
After a moment I pushed it ahead. "May we kiss?"
Slowly she shook her head. "You talk is all busted. You hair is weird. I worry you spoiled. I worry you rotten, hard. I tink you it-douche what mayors call for culling, what lies with enemies, what slinks with anti-founderites and all perdition and shit."
"It's weird for douches not to even kiss at all. How can we member each nother?"
"Stand where you stand. No toxins must ruin my garden stuff. I tink-well alls I needs tink of you. How's it I risk anti-founderite cooties touching babby? How's it autocorrect at all even?"
I hung my head in acknowledgement of her logic as well as her seniority. By her sun-marked skin I knew she had at least nine years on me, maybe more. There was no question which douche would order and which would obey.
Bubbles allowed me inside her yard. She told me to strip off my clothes and then she threw buckets of specially purified water over babby and myself until she detected no more outlander smell, then we kneeled in a muddy corner of purifying pig mud while she stood on the other side of the fence and asked me questions about outlander plans for war.
"They don't even has one arrow. They don't even has one spear. Verily, believe. Read my face, sister. Tink my tunk, douche."
Bubbles nodded. "Lo, I mayhaps has to torture you a bit so we're causally, causally certain."
I nodded back. "Okay."
Both of us cried before it was over. It was hard not to feel each other's pain. It became challenging to separate what she did to me, and what she did to herself in order to cause sympathetic effects in me. For a long time afterwards we slept, waking only to feed our babbies, lying on the cool stone floor of Bubbles' slaughterhouse. Pigs on hooks swayed slightly in the air, metal fixtures squeaking.
At twilight we washed and dressed our wounds. We had a kiss, to exchange novelties and remember the varied tastes. Within an hour she was experimenting with simple expressions in Marsgo and so was her babby. She closed her eyes to see my memories of the outlanders and asked after each one's details. Their names were garbled when she spoke them, and I wondered if this was how I sounded when I'd first arrived among them. It was hard to say for sure, because so many of my memories had been updated. The transition times were especially grey and dilute, a confusion resulting from my standing on a bridge between two very different language islands at the time of encoding.
As my tongue-space was reordered so too was my memory-space. Distant thoughts in the daily talk started to sound alien to my mind's ear. Even Classical English had changed for me, and therefore changed me.
"You talk is all busted," Bubbles had said, even when I spoke with my most proper and on-high voice. I could not talk as I once had. Nor could I think as I once had. Bubbles said, "You bloods boil with anti-founderite malarkey."
What could I do but hang my head? I mumbled, "We take the filth upon us for the good of the inerrant, sister."
"Amen," she said but it was perfunctory. "That is why I allows youse in my house."
Negotiations were long but by morning we had reached an accord. If it would expedite the anti-founderite departure from the world, Bubbles would indeed buy us a day to scavenge from the caves. She would stall the mayoralty with elaborate soothseeing rituals. "All day?" I prompted.
"Prolly no. But half a day. The morning I fill with forecasts, and in the afternoon they will burn me."
"No!" I cried. "You can't go tits up for just us. You are a noble and senior douche and you babby still is way small. The peeps need youse. The peeps need youse hard."
She nodded and offered a tired, wan smile. "Ima twenty plus seven. My die is soon. This babby how's it going to has survive without me, no matter what or whatever. I keeped her only cause of habits. My daughters is all olded. My daughters is already leaved, and already has they places elsewhere in the mayoralty. In the west, in the east…" She paused. "And in the north. You dig?"
I looked up sharply. "Is…is you my douche bag?"
"I smell so," she said. "Welcome home, babby."
That made us cry all over again. We hugged and tasted one another's tears.
"We gots to book," she reminded me. "The day spends itself way quick. Even now the mayors assemble their big-fat armies. Can't you smell the dusts on the wind?"
"What can we do?"
"I go out and meets them. I buy youse what hours I can. I will confound their shit."
"What if you has n'autocorrect? What if it's me and mine who should best die? If the anti-founderites will have a douchery, shouldn't the seeding happen by you cause you are senior and not me, who has seen less? We should best trade places with each nother."
"I twenty plus seven years olded," she reminded me. "Every day is a pain trial. I has enough, yo. I wish peace. Be the seed, Jolly. Be all fruitful. Maybe even the damned need douche helps now."
We looked at each other for a long moment.
Softly I said, "Amen and roll out, my douche bag."
"Amen, my sister-babby-friend."
The cave beneath the lip of the westward ridge was enormous, and it housed a jagged slurry of straight boxes and bent boxes and tiny odd bits and twists and scraps -- all of it unfathomably hard metal or plastic, each individual geometry complex and purposeful but utterly alien. What the outlanders identified as ovens or musical instruments or household utensils looked nothing like their descriptions; how could an oven be smaller than baby, and have no exhaust port? How could a musical instrument be smaller than my thumb? Why would a household utensil fail to operate in the absence of electric motivation?
The outlanders took only the tiniest pieces from each battered artifact. Mr. Codeburg held up a sliver of winking whitish metal. "See?" he asked me. "Very special metal. It's trivalent, with extra positivity. That makes it valuable. Do you know what ‘valuable' means?"
"If I didn't know what ‘valuable' means ‘trivalent' probably wouldn't do much for me, either."
He marked the white metal with a circle of glowing paint and walked on, calling over his shoulder, "…What does ‘trivalent' do for you, can I ask?"
"It makes me think of balls."
He turned and looked at me. "Balls?"
"Balls within balls, joined to other balls. You call the joinings ‘little lumps.'"
"That's what I said."
Mr. Codeburg shook his head and gave me a funny half-smile. "I've got to stop talking to you like you're a kid."
I nodded. So did babby.
Mr. Codeburg shuffled on, sweeping his sensing device over the litter. He was heading up the effort because he had camera eyes that could see through things, and Potassium Americana was making sure none of the cables got tangled up. I slogged through the piles with them while Gao, Upsell and Chaudry followed us, picking up the items Codeburg tagged with glowing paint, and busting them open to find the good bits.
The efforts echoed tinnily through the cavern.
Codeburg stopped and cocked his head. Soundlessly his mouth and throat made the shapes of, "Roger that, Captain," and then he said aloud to all of us, "Twelve minutes to enemy contact. Let's hustle."
The rummaging sounds resumed with new rhythm. Codeburg's apparatus beeped. He painted a bright orange dot on the side of a metal box, then walked on. Potassium gave me a little wink as he dragged the apparatus along, teasing the cables off an edge by yanking on a loop of slack.
Beep! Spray. Trundle. Pause. Beep!
"Gadolinium," reported Codeburg with a satisfied grunt. "Gorgeous."
Upsell prised the prize free with her tools, the metal case squawking as it bent. Gao packed it on the skiff floating at their heels. Lam called up from the bottom of the heap: "Status? It's nine minutes to contact."
"Hold your horses, Mu, hold your horses," said Codeburg as he took a last look sweep with his instrument. "There's gold in them there hills."
Babby squirmed irritably in her sling. I looked up. Quietly: "Mr. Codeburg sir, it really is time to hastefully book."
He nodded. "Okay, okay. Po: suck up the cables and fold down. Michael! Noble! Run the skiff to the shuttle. We're bailing."
At the mouth of the shadowed tunnel leading to our exit point we were met by a battered metal skeleton with chipped red epaulettes. "Sirs," it croaked, "a serious animal control situation has developed ahead-d-d."
Chaudry explained to us the robots had reported vermin upon opening up the cave, but that they had made a rapid retreat in advance of the robot incursion. Mr. Codeburg grunted, "Jolly?"
I consulted what I'd learned from Bubbles. "Probably rats," I told them.
"Rats? Rats are real?" cried Potassium. "I thought they were just the fairy tale version of mice."
Mr. Codeburg shook his head. "No such luck. I've seen one stuffed and simulated, at the Royal Museum. Wicked little cat-mouse things."
Upsell shrugged. "That sounds kind of cute, actually."
Mr. Codeburg just shook his head again.
Gao: "Three minutes to enemy."
Upsell: "Are we afraid of mice? How many mouse-things are we talking about here?"
"Make no mistake," I told her. "Rats are vicious. They are the natural predator of people. Cunning and pitiless."
Chaudry: "But they're small? We'll just have to run."
"They cooperate," I said. "Running won't be enough."
Gao: "Two minutes thirty seconds. Captain on the comm. Agitated."
"Defecation," swore Mr. Codeburg. And then, "How many jules are left in that palette?"
We rode the palette like a magic carpet. It whinnied and sighed beneath our collective weight, each of us perched uncomfortably on top of the buckets of loot and boxes of tools and spools of cable. We were flanked by two robots walking slowly by steadily.
We rounded the corner into the antechamber at the cave's end. Fading orange sunlight splashed in over the furthest rocks, but the rest of the chamber was in gloom.
My eyes adjusted quickly. I was first to notice how the gloom squirmed.
The chamber came alive with the echoing sound of overlapping shrieks, like gulls at the seashore over the body of a beached shark. It was an unnerving, terrifying sound and I smelled the changes in the perspiration of the people around me. The little hairs on their bodies were standing on end.
"What the hell is that noise?"
"Forget the noise! Drive the palette!"
"Shuttle party has engaged the enemy. Captain reports active combat."
"Drive! Drive! Drive!"
The cargo palette whined, bobbing dangerously as it felt its way over the uneven cave floor. Its headlamps picked twin soft circles of writhing fur and pink tails slithering past one another, occasionally catching the glint of a mad black eye.
"Arm yourselves," I said.
Upsell: "What? We're hovering more than a meter over them."
"They cooperate," I said again.
The motivation engines within the legs of our flanking robots complained audibly as the robots fought to put one foot in front of the other. Their heads dipped out of sight beneath the edge of the palette and reappeared again when they found new balance. The palette began to rock more violently as it proceeding over a moving surface. The repulsion field struck meat and pushed against it, so our progress was marked with the crackling sound of small bones breaking beneath us and the wailing of the creatures before they burst.
The robot on the left looked down, then up at us as rats come scurrying up his body, clambering over his face and then sprinting onto the palette. Gao swung around and struck at them with her baton. Chaudry swung a heavy bucket in hissing arcs, knocking the black little bodies shrieking into the gloom.
A rat crawled out of the carapace of the right-hand robot and jumped directly at me.
I struck out at it but missed. The creature landed on my front and clung to my clothing with its claws. As it reared back to sink its long yellow teeth into my neck two tiny fists clamped around its writhing body and counter-twisted smartly. The neck snapped. I scooped its slack corpse off me and looked down with a smile. "Thanks, babby."
Golden sunlight struck my eyes. We had cleared the mouth of the cave. The robots stumbled behind us, rats writhing both inside and outside their metal carapaces. A long shadow flashed over us all as the shuttle swung around overhead, cargo door yawning open.
"Allez-oop!" called the captain. He flinched as a stone-tipped spear glanced off the hull beside his head. "Quickly now!"
A rain of arrows poured over us. Upsell was pierced through her thigh as she tried to climb aboard the hovering cargo ramp, toppling backward to drop onto the rocks below. "Michael!" cried Potassium, scrambling down after her. Upsell grimaced as he helped her to stand.
The shuttle bumped down and the palette drove aboard. Codeburg used a fallen arrow to chase the last few rats out of our stuff while Lam did the same with the robots. "Get those robots in here!" roared Captain Gateway.
"But I think there's still a rat inside this one!" yelled Lam.
"I don't care!"
Lam shoved the robot onto the ramp and inside the hold, everyone else scattering away from it. "There is a malfunction in my torso," reported the robot. With wide eyes Lam jammed a long wand at the robot, and when it touched the robot there were sparks and a sudden weirdness in the air. The robot jerked and jumped like it was dancing before crumpling to the deck, limp. There arose from its skeletal body the distinct smell of roasted flesh.
"I think we got it," said Lam, sniffing the air with disdain.
"I know what I want for dinner," I said, suddenly hungry. Babby nodded.
The shuttle lurched. We strapped into our seats, Upsell with her pierced leg stretched out in front of her while Potassium leaned out to keep pressure on the wound. Pilot Domer's voice sounded over the speakers: "We're going to have to pull a few Gs. Hold tight folks."
The engines keened. We were pressed sideways. Babby cried. A rat tumbled out from the cargo palette then was mashed against a bulkhead when the metal canister it had been hiding behind broke free and followed it. Codeburg turned green and covered his mouth with his hand.
The shuttle levelled. The captain unstrapped from his seat up front and ducked his head to look at us in the hold. "How's the haul, Yoram?" he asked Codeburg. "Did we win?"
Codeburg burped, then nodded wearily. "We won."
"Michael, how's your leg?"
"It'll heal," she said, offering up a bold attempt at a smile.
Captain Gateway nodded. "Good. Now let's get our rocket finished and get the hell out of here."