This is a chapter from my forthcoming book, Sadness is Conductive

Exposition 3

Jobai – Frontier Planet

‘Hope the rain holds.’ Karen looks up out of the window of her log cabin. ‘Got to get those beans ready for the winter.’ She wipes her hands on a dish towel and hangs it to dry on the rail next to the sink.

The cabin is well appointed but simple. The roof is high; high enough to allow an open bedroom on a landing for half the floor space, and the rest divided into a living area and a kitchen diner large enough to fit twelve in comfortably. The walls are just the logs chinked thoroughly and some pipes and wires bringing amenities in. There is a large water tower topped by a vertical windmill blending in outside among the trees, and Karen is looking out on an intensely farmed and kept vegetable garden and a few fruit trees.

Behind her a little drone is vacuuming the floor industriously, thrumming around and lifting pieces of furniture occasionally. Karen turns. ‘You got enough power for that?’ The drone turns and switches off the mechanism for a moment.

‘You always ask me that. I basked only the other day. This isn’t that strenuous.’ Karen shakes her head.

‘That sofa is heavy.’ And it is framed in some dense local wood, it is covered and stuffed with a pleasant flowery pattern to within an inch of bursting. Karen herself is dressed in cotton gathered blouse with a loose neckline and a long skirt. Hung on the door to the outside is a straw hat.

‘It’s not that heavy. I’m good for a couple of weeks, it was a sunny day.’ The drone resumes its task, clearing and cleaning. Karen takes the hat and ventures outside in the rain. She takes a little clip off the hat and slips it to her ear. It immediately chimes.

‘Karen, when you get this can you call me? It’s John. Something, ahhh, happened.’ There is a click as the message shuts off. She tries to call him, but his messaging service comes on. She tries again. The same. Feeling very mildly frustrated, she returns to the cabin.

‘Felix?’ The drone stops vacuuming again and turns to face her. ‘Did John call you?’

‘No, not for days.’ Karen bites her bottom lip a little, in thought for a moment. ‘Would you like me to try communicating with him?’

‘Ah, well, are there any drones or Avatars near him?’

‘Let me check.’ There is the slightest of pauses. ‘There are two, Avatar Ingrid, but she appears to be offline. And Drone Exib, and his communications have been marked as interdicted.’

‘Um, what now?’

‘Interdicted; Forbidden.’

‘I know that it means, what do you mean that Exib is interdicted?’

‘His communications are marked as off limits.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know.’

Karen paces around a bit. ‘That’s weird, why would a drone be interdicted?’

‘Perhaps he malfunctioned.’

‘I think we should go see John.’

____

They leave the cabin and wander round to the small garage Karen has concealed below ground nearby. She presses a little button on her keyring and the structure rises up, taking the vegetation with it. The doors slide neatly into the sides and her vehicle is revealed. It had six exposed wheels, clearly over-engineered for the environment, and loose canvas sides wrapped around a thick frame. The roof is sturdy and the whole thing is muddy from the last trip. She looks at the drone.

‘Joyriding much?’ The little drone has the grace to look embarrassed by the expedient of looking away slightly and Karen boards while the drone settles into a slot in the back. The systems seem simple and mechanical, and for the most part they are, there is even a little fuel burning engine in the front, but this is ignored by the drone who starts the single display screen and fusion engine in the back of the buggy. Karen has strapped into the five-point harness while this has been happening, and as she signals a thumbs up the drone launches the vehicle out of the bay hard, pushing Karen’s head back into the foam of the headrest. The thing bounces and bucks over the landscape, narrowly missing a large stag as the buggy staggers out on the primitive road, really just a vague sign of two ruts going from somewhere to somewhere. Karen grabs hold of the steering wheel just to have something to hang on to. She is gritting her teeth somewhat.

‘Are you having a good time back there?’ Her voice is muted somewhat because she is not opening her mouth for fear of losing teeth. ‘I said are you having a good time back there!’ The drone is too busy to answer for a second, but pipes up.

‘What?’

‘Slow down you maniac! This isn’t one of your bloody nature trips!’ The buggy slows down to a speed at which vegetation is no longer a blur. ‘Why do you do that every, single, time?’

‘There’s no excitement on this planet.’

‘That’s no excuse! Give me the damn wheel!’

‘As you wish.’ And the steering wheel goes hard in her hands as the compensation applied by the little drone is removed.

Karen likes the rare occasions she has to drive, mostly she gets around by horse and cart, and that takes time, staying with friends as she goes. On those occasions she leaves Felix to look after the gardens, he being fully proficient.

Now though she is in possession of the vehicle, and what she will do in her little cart in a day will only take an hour in the buggy. She flips up a couple of switches, and the display on the screen switches to a split screen of vegetation, animals, speed and diagnosis. She ignores this last, but flips another switch and the live animals display is cast up onto the windscreen.

Satisfied that she is not going to hit anything she presses the accelerator pedal to the floor and the buggy leaps forward, if anything faster than the acceleration that Felix gave it, and the buggy is covering ground at nearly a hundred miles an hour. At this speed even with the heads up display she sees a horse almost too late and diverts off the trail barely fifty yards behind the horse and cart, launching the craft into the air. She is shouting ‘Felix! Felix!’ before the top of the arc approaches, and the car lifts its wheels and pushes a ram-jet out of the bottom , flat and rectangular, which lights up as the little vehicle carries on through the air, now doubling its speed. The air whips past around a bubble that Felix extends from its fields, and the car settle into a few minutes of flight. Karen can’t resist a ‘Wahooo!’ as she whips past all the obstacles that usually has to drive around, and she is clearly disappointed when she sights John’s homestead a mile ahead. Felix flashes a caution on the screen though, and takes over interpretation of Karen’s input gestures.

‘Look,’ he says in her ear, ‘just ahead.’ She goes still and scans the area.

‘I’m not seeing it.’ Felix manipulates the field around the buggy to highlight the area to her eyes. ‘Got it.’ She is looking at a little creature, no more than four feet long, furry, variegated, but with six legs. It clearly uses the front pair for hands or feet, and scurries along the ground at what seems an unlikely speed. Felix takes a close-up picture and displays it on the console before the, noticing the buggy in the air, disappears into vegetation as it were never there. Karen is not impressed by the picture; the thing has large cat-like eyes, and two rows of razor sharp teeth, as if someone has drawn a caricature of the Cheshire Cat. It has a very knowing look, and its large ears make it look creepy and endearing at the same time.

‘What is it?’ She asks, at least partially rhetorically.

‘I don’t know.’ Felix answers after a moment. There is a moment of silence as she makes gestures to land and Felix manipulates the buggy in response. ‘I don’t know if I should drop the field.’

‘Why? It’s gone.’

‘I don’t know that actually.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I couldn’t detect a heat signature, or any kind of electromagnetic activity.’

‘That would mean it’s a virtual thing.’ Felix has risen up out its slot and moved to the other front seat, something it almost never does. Karen looks at it expectantly.

‘It doesn’t look virtual from the look I did get. And look at the vegetation.’ She does, and sees that there are definite signs of an animal running through the carefully planted vegetables and flowers. She reaches slowly into the back of the buggy and brings out a backpack.

‘I think I should wear this.’ ‘This’ is a hard pack with some silver nodules on the outside, and switches on the straps. She puts it on, and nods to Felix who switches off the buggy’s fields. The thing glows for a second and then quiets down, only little glow from the nodules giving the functionality away. The slip out of the buggy and walk slowly towards John’s cabin. As they walk they see other signs that the creature is real, deep scores in the earth where it has gained purchase with its claws. Bite marks on plants and, most telling of all, claw marks, deep claw marks on the wood of the cabin. Karen puts her finger in one score, right up to the knuckle. ‘Yeah,’ she says slowly. ‘I think we need some tech round here.’ They move around the corner to the main door. It is scored through and through, but she can see that it is braced on the inside. She knocks, not very hopefully. The top of the door collapses inwards in a cloud of wood dust, and she can see her protective field vibrate it off.

‘What the hell is this Felix?’ She’s barely whispering; the drone picks up her worry and talks to her in her ear again.

‘I think it has some sort of fast acting cellulose decomposer in its claws. It might eat wood.’

‘Are you shitting me?’

‘Nope, not even a little bit.’ Felix twists and turns about. ‘And I can’t tell you if it’s coming or not. Not unless I’m looking right at it.’ It twists and turns again. ‘I don’t like it. We’d be safer in the air.’

‘Yeah.’ Says Karen, ‘but we wouldn’t find out what’s happened to John.’

‘Yeah.’ Says Felix, ‘Yeah, we wouldn’t.’ They push aside the remains of the door and reinforcement.

‘Felix, is this lot going to fall on us?’ A quick light scans around the room.

‘No, it’s mostly sound for now. I think the chemical has run out. I can’t get any for analysis anyway.’ Karen nods and carried on in, testing the floor with her foot.

‘John’s got a cold store under here somewhere.’ She says, probing with her foot. ‘He said it was a bolt-hole if the weather went bad. ‘It’s just around here somewhe-aahhh!’ She has pushed the carpet up with her foot and found a trap door with a ring, she pulls it up. There is a moment while she looks at it. It’s full of earth. ‘That’s not right.’ Felix leans over, a purely cosmetic gesture, and examines the earth.

‘About six feet down there is a foot thickness of ‘crete, and then a hollow. John’s down there. I think he’s injured, but everything looks weird. He’s alive though, not going anywhere. Stable.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘Yes, he’s breathing shallowly but regularly and his pulse is thready but strong. He’s not conscious I think.’

‘Alright. Let’s look around up here.’ She closes the trapdoor and places the carpet over it. Felix looks at her askingly, and she whispers, ‘Let’s not give anything away.’ They move to the other part of the room, obscured by a partition, and find the remains of the avatar.

Ingrid is slashed across the main part of her body, and the fluids that give her systems maintenance and life are splashed out over the kitchen area, a combination of milky and bloody substance that immediately nauseates Karen. She rushes to the sink and is immediately and noisily sick, as it turns out over Ingrid’s head, which does not help matters. She has to run outside, and is sick until she is retching. Felix holds her hair back with a field.

‘How about if I clean things up and you wait here?’ It asks solicitously. ‘I can quiz what remains of her systems.’ Karen nods dumbly, trying not to think about it. She is sat on the ground with a bottle of water from her back pack. ‘I’ll be back soon, don’t move.’ And with this it bustles off.

The silence is eerie. A few minutes pass, and then Karen is feeling the loneliness. ‘Felix.’ She whispers. ‘Felix!’ There is no reply, and she realises that she can hear a faint hiss from the comms unit attached to her ear.

The hair on the back of her neck rises up, and she sits up straight as the small of her back tells her that something is watching her. She turns ever so slowly, and not twenty yards away there is sat one of the six legged cats, washing a paw and combing the fur dry by pulling it through its razor sharp teeth. She turns around the other way, a bead of sweat running down her temple, and sees another, two pairs of hips wiggling in a fearful parody of a kitten about to pounce. She realises that she is completely vulnerable on the ground, and she grips her water bottle tightly. ‘Felix. Now would be a good time.’ She says barely moving her lips. ‘I’m not in a good situation here.’ A faint hiss again. The wiggling has stopped and the thing is looking right at her. It pounces.

Quick as a flash, she brings the water bottle around and holds it directly in front of her as its mouth attempts to clamp down on her hand. Instead the top of the bottle jabs the roof of its mouth and the teeth just miss her hand as the surrounding field strains to protect her. The field flashes and gives out as the thing claws at her, and she falls over backwards. She manages to stick her feet up between the second and third pair of legs and she hears a yowl as she hits something delicate, obviously meant to be well protected. The screech does something unpleasant to the other cat as well and it joins in screeching as though it has been struck; falling over from the pounce it has also been preparing.

The first cat is still struggling on top of Karen, and she kicks it again in the same place receiving a sharp gash in her leg for the trouble, but the thing rolls off and crawls a little away from her using the front legs alone as the other two pairs are gathered around what Karen now thinks are its gonads. She can see the huge gash in her leg, and even bone, but this tells her that no vital blood vessels have been cut by some miracle and she shouts out ‘Sword!’ as she flips upright. There is a noise from the cabin, and then she sees that she has been tangling with the smaller of the species, and, by any conventional judgement, they’re the female of the species. She barely remembers to catch the sword the backpack has punted out as she inspects the specimen.

It is fully 6 feet tall at the shoulder, and carrying the remains of Felix in its mouth almost casually. Karen can see that Felix is taking a sort of passive remedial action, little flashes of his field give it away, but that its main structures are bitten into and damaged deeply. It whispers into her ear. ‘Distraction coming.’ At this the creature holding it rears right up and she can see the massive external gonads hanging between the second and third pair of legs. The other two are still crawling on the floor and licking their wounds, but some other ‘females,’ she decides, have come to watch. He shakes Felix loose from his massive teeth and almost spits it out before turning his attention to Karen again.

Turning head on, she can see the things eyes go from vertical slits, to round, to horizontal, before working their way back again. She wonders, holding her sword high, what could possibly predate such an animal. She becomes aware of a sound, a whine in the air, and then a boom like a distant sound of thunder. She realises as it goes past that it is the buggy, driven remotely by Felix, given its full potential to drive through the air at slightly above the speed of sound. The massive cat seems unintimidated by the sound, and turning its head seems almost as though it is following. And then, much to Karen’s disbelief it reaches up, maybe twenty feet and shears the car with its claws as it goes past. Karen is so aghast at this that she almost forgets to swing the sword as the thing is pulled off balance, the car long gone as her sword comes down, cutting one of the middle legs and the giant gonads from the body. The thing turns and turns spinning end over end, blood and entrails a spray over the other cats and Karen. Eventually the mortally wounded cat explodes over the gardens and the cabin with a scream in the ultra-sonic sending the other cats running far away from the scene of their leader’s demise. As the explosion ends the sonic boom passes, deafening Karen and ripping up plants and equipment, and for a while, she passes from the world, no matter the dangers.

Coming around is a time consuming and confusing business. She sees John, but then there seems to be a considerable gap of time, and John is there again, but not in his cabin. She can’t identify where, and she’s told to sleep again, into which state she falls gratefully.

When she wakes again, the room she is in is dim, and she can open her eyes fully. She is aware of a hissing sound, and she realises that she can hear again. She slides the cover off the bed, and is a tiny bit relieved to see that she has both of her legs. There is a considerable scar on one of them. A man knocks at the door.

‘May I come in?’ She nods. ‘I’ve bought you some food.’ He places a tray down on the table hovering over the end of the bed. ‘It’s a little bland, you haven’t had solids for a while.’

‘How,’ she has to pause and cough, and take a sip from the glass of water by her bed. ‘How long have I been out?’

‘Couple of months.’ She raises her eyebrows in surprise.

‘Really!’ She takes a few moments to adjust, busying herself with covers and clothing. ‘It was necessary I guess.’ She looks closely at the man. ‘You’re an avatar.’

‘I am.’

‘So where am I?’

‘You’re aboard The Sadness is Conductive, my name is Bill.’

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