Under the vultures moon, p.7

Under the Vultures Moon, page 7

 

Under the Vultures Moon
 


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  “Not alien,” said Not-Wyatt. “Oops! Apologies, Jed. I just happened to catch that little thought without trying. We are not the aliens, Jed. We are the indigenous people here.”

  “Y’all died.”

  “This comes as news to me,” grinned the not-boy with a smile that was too much like Wyatt’s. “And, I must say, something of a shock. No, Jed; evidently you have been misled. The surface-dwellers are all gone, I grant you. Massacred for the most part - your kind are most efficient when it comes to genocide - although some of us managed to flee underground and be taken in by our ancestors.”

  “I cain’t say I’m delighted,” Jed wheezed. Breathing was almost impossible.

  “Oh, Jed; I am sorry,” the not-boy’s brow creased and his lips pouted in mock concern. “How inhospitable of me!”

  He swept both hands in an elegant gesture. Instantly, the air cooled and the oppression was gone. Jed gulped in breaths like a thirsty man at the end of a drought. And now he had the opposite problem: he began to feel light-headed and giddy.

  “Steady there, Jed. Pace yourself. But you see, your stay here can be pleasant or otherwise.”

  “I ain’t staying,” Jed spat. The blue light throbbed and a stab of pain ran through Jed. Fair enough, he conceded. Wouldn’t want nobody spitting in my home neither.

  “I’d advise you not to make any rash decisions,” not-Wyatt pouted.

  “The decision’s mine to make, then?”

  Not-Wyatt smirked. “We shall see.”

  The cylindrical corridor gave out onto a quadrangle surrounded by structures built of panels of shimmering material. The shapes undulated, forever changing their configuration. Houses of jelly, Jed thought and caught the not-boy smirking again.

  Get out of my head! Jed ‘shoved’. It gratified him to see the not-boy flinch.

  “Apologies, apologies. You are unlike others I have encountered, Jed. I shall do my utmost to respect your privacy.”

  “Cheers,” said Jed.

  “Around us, we have the main structures of our civilisation. You have noticed they are mutable, plastic. We adapt - and that is why we have survived even the incursion of you off-worlders - to suit the present need. Thus our school becomes a food store, and our arsenal a library. Everything changes at a thought, and if enough of us think the same thing, the new role sticks. Until such a time as the consensus alters. It is a true democracy, Jed. The very fabric, the very matter of our home is determined by what we, the people, want. We have no leaders, Jed - can you imagine such a thing? Rule by the people in its purest form.”

  Jed sucked his teeth. It was a step up from spitting.

  “I reckon those with the strongest will get their way,” he said. “Ain’t much different after all.”

  Not-Wyatt laughed. “There may be something in what you say - you are quite astute. But you will find we are all, give and take, like-minded here. Dissension is a very rare occurrence.”

  “You drive them out. You don’t allow for difference of thinking.”

  Not-Wyatt’s smirk returned but his eyes looked unamused. He changed tack. “Here,” he indicated a structure, “ - is our infirmary. We can patch you up, Jed. Better than that: we can make you good as new. How does that sound?”

  “Sounds good,” Jed admitted, “but tricksy. What’s the cost?”

  “There is no cost, no catch, no trick. We want our guest to feel his best. What do you say, Jed? We can give you your eye back. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Jed? And if there’s anything else you want treating? I notice you have scars...”

  Jed bristled. The not-boy could see through his clothes! But the thought of having his full sight restored was tempting in the extreme. Ever since that old coot shot him, Jed’s aim had been off, his depth of field ruined by the reduction to monocular vision.

  They walked towards an opening of light. The blue haze hovered above, Jed noticed.

  The infirmary was clean and cool and bright, as one might expect. The air was fresh and crisp. Not-Wyatt invited Jed to take a seat. Immediately, one appeared, formed from the nearest wall. “By your leave, let’s have a look of you.”

  Jed nodded.

  A white light scanned him. Not-Wyatt lay his palm on a wall and nodded.

  “Either this thing needs recalibration or there are several individuals sitting where you sit.”

  “I have had some transplants,” Jed admitted.

  “Botch jobs and butchery! Oh, Jed, if only you’d come to us earlier. You could be scar-free. You could be whole again. Your own eyes, Jed! Your own hands!”

  Jed tensed. His hands - he now considered them as his - clenched into fists. “How could that be?”

  “Our technology is millennia ahead of yours. Oh, yes, I admit, when your folks first arrived here, we were impressed with some of your inventions. The means by which you survived space travel, for example - that was revolutionary. Other things you developed we were not so happy with.”

  Jed knew he was talking about the chameleotes, the genetically manipulated invisible wolves against which the natives had been powerless. How many of Not-Wyatt’s people had been torn to shreds by those ravenous beasts? And why was this to all extents and purposes superior race unable to combat these critters, the Pioneers’ most effective weapon?

  “How does it work?”

  “Regrowth is stimulated at the cellular level. If the entire limb or organ is gone, the scanner reads your memory of yourself when you were whole. It is all painless, Jed. And takes virtually no time at all. Oh, let me make a gift of this to you! I promise there is no catch. Let me give you back your eye. If you don’t like it, we can take it away again and you’ll be back the way you are now and no worse off. What do you say?”

  Jed’s lip curled. To have his eye back would be...

  “Wonderful!” Not-Wyatt applauded.

  “Wait!” said Jed. “I never agreed. I was only thinking -”

  “Sit still, Jed. The procedure has already begun.”

  The white light surrounded Jed’s head. He felt nothing - perhaps a tingle although he could have imagined that.

  “Take off that eye patch,” Not-Wyatt grinned.

  Jed reached up and untied the makeshift covering. Light poured in so intense Jed flinched. Wyatt invited him to stand. The wall opposite shimmered and became a looking glass. Jed peered at his reflection.

  “They’re - the same!”

  “Well, to be more accurate: one’s a left eye and the other’s a right,” laughed Not-Wyatt. “How does it feel?”

  “...Normal...”

  “What did I tell you? Oh, I’m so happy for you, Jed.”

  “Thank you... I guess...” Jed couldn’t look away. His eyes were those he’d had when he was a younger man, a greenhorn about to get into his first gunfight. The colours matched: a rich, turquoise blue - but there was more to it than that. The eyes were fresh and shining with optimism and hope. “No, I mean it. Thank you very much, sir. This is truly a marvel.”

  “And now you’re better equipped for the rest of the tour.” Not-Wyatt led him towards the exit. “Unless you’d rather rest?”

  Jed glanced around the infirmary with its bright but blank walls. He wanted to use his restore sight, feast his new eyes on something worth seeing. He shrugged, affecting nonchalance. “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a look around...”

  “Capital!” Not-Wyatt was pleased. “What would you like to see, Jed? You are our guest. Where, apart from home, would you like to go?”

  Jed’s mouth twisted as he thought. “You mentioned a library?”

  “I did indeed. Here.” Not-Wyatt gestured towards the nearest structure, which rippled and became sheer. An opening yawned at ground level. Reading Jed’s uncertain expression, Not-Wyatt laughed. He slapped the sides of the new doorway. “It
s perfectly solid. You won’t be gobbled up, I assure you.”

  To demonstrate, the not-boy stepped over the threshold. “See?”

  The blue light formed the sphere again and hummed at Jed’s shoulder. So much for being the guest, Jed thought.

  With no viable alternative as far as he could see, Jed followed the not-boy inside and found himself in a vast expanse of shining screens of a range of sizes. They were all blank at the moment. There was no one else present.

  “Not big on reading, your folks?” Jed asked.

  Not-Wyatt ignored the question. “It’s very simple to use. And we have an extensive range of materials for you to consult. You simply think of what you want to see and place your hand anywhere at all and up it comes. I’ve lost hours in this place. Spent my childhood devouring all I could find...” He had to shake himself from a nostalgic reverie. He turned to Jed. “What will it be?”

  Jed scratched the stubble on his chin, enjoying the rasping sound as something familiar and dependable.

  “Say,” he blushed. “You got anything on saloon girls? I do enjoy a - uh, song and a dance.” He rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.

  Not-Wyatt grinned. “I’m certain we have. Anything you want to see at all. Here, call up a seat - a bed - whatever you like. Just tell the wall what you want. Make yourself comfortable.”

  Jed placed his palm on the screen. It yielded under his touch. “Show girls,” he said. The screen solidified and filled with moving images. Pianola music blared out as the line of women on screen lifted their skirts and kicked their legs high. Jed nodded his approval. He backed away from the screen to get a better view. A bench emerged from the wall behind him and touched the back of his knees. Jed sat, his eye gorging on the scene, which was becoming ever-more salacious.

  Not-Wyatt said Jed could stay and watch his fill; he had to go somewhere but would be back soon.

  “Yeah, yeah,” Jed waved his strange host away without taking his eyes from the screen.

  His host left. As soon as the wall closed behind him, Jed jumped up and touched another screen. With the show girls stripping off and bending over in the background, Jed whispered “History” to the wall. He whizzed through footage and images as fast as he could, absorbing the information rapidly, drinking it in with his new eyes.

  He deactivated the second screen and returned to the bench. When the wall opened to readmit Not-Wyatt Jed appeared enrapt in what the girls were doing to each other with a range of vegetables. Not-Wyatt glanced at the screen and rolled his eyes. There were some ways of the alien invaders he would never understand.

  “How’s the eyesight?”

  Jed looked past the not-boy’s shoulders, intent on the action. “Fine. Just fine...”

  “I’m pleased to hear it. I’m afraid I must tear you away from this, ah, entertainment, Jed.”

  “It was just getting to the good part.” With the petulance of a disgruntled schoolboy, Jed got to his feet and reluctantly deactivated the screen.

  “You can come back later,” Not-Wyatt said. “If you feel you must.”

  He ushered Jed through the opening and they were back in the quadrangle. Jed asked what was next on the itinerary.

  “Are you hungry, Jed? We can get some food, if you like.”

  “Do you know, I reckon I could eat a mangy mule!”

  Not-Wyatt frowned. “That is just a colourful expression, isn’t it, Jed?”

  Jed laughed. “My belly’s rumbling so much I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

  Not-Wyatt smiled. “I’m pleased to see you in better spirits. Through here.”

  They entered another building and again Jed was struck by the absence of any other beings.

  “Where is everyone?” he asked, as casually as he could.

  “Oh, around,” said Not-Wyatt, striving for the same tone. “Now, what’s your favourite food, Jed? Anything you like, you can have - with one proviso: you must have tried it before. The equipment -”

  “- works on memory; I get it.”

  “You have a sharp mind; I must remember that. Now, place your order. What will it be?”

  “Beans,” said Jed. “I would like a hot bowl of beans.”

  “Really?” Not-Wyatt pulled a face. “Oh, well, it’s your choice. Place your hands here and tell the wall what you want.”

  Jed did as he was bid. “Beans,” he said, “and plenty of ’em.”

  The wall glowed red. Then turned the colour of beans. Jed experienced the sensation of chewing, of feeling the beans in his mouth, tasting them, swallowing... But there were no beans. He felt himself filling up. His stomach bloated and his belt felt tight. But the not-beans kept coming. Jed began to choke. His cheeks bulged and his new eyes widened.

  “Oops,” said Not-Wyatt, moving Jed from the wall. “I should have told you, when you’ve had your fill to take your hands off.”

  Jed gasped and coughed.

  “A drink of water?” Not-Wyatt offered.

  “Please!” Jed gagged and held out his hand for the glass. Not-Wyatt rolled his eyes.

  “You and that sharp mind of yours,” he muttered. He took Jed’s hand and placed it on the wall, which changed from bean-colour to the clear, colourlessness of pure water. Jed felt the sensation of drinking, of glugging, of gulping. He stepped back and, involuntarily, wiped his hand across his lips.

  “But there was no water...”

  “There was, Jed. You are no longer thirsty. Your belly is full of beans. You have just experienced them in a way that was unfamiliar to you. You will grow accustomed in no time.”

  Jed looked at the rippling wall. So inviting; you could almost dive in.

  “You seem to think I’m going to stick around,” he said. His boy-shaped host smiled but his eyes were cold and bore into Jed’s.

  “Oh, you’ll ‘stick around’ as you so charmingly put it. If you want to see your precious Horse again, you will.”

  Chapter Twelve

  Bargain!

  Jed launched himself at his little host with a view to throttling information out of him. But he found he couldn’t get near him. An invisible force field pushed Jed back. His shoulder hit the shimmering wall - the sensation of wetness soaked through his shirt but when he moved away, the fabric was dry. The blue light appeared as the sphere and hovered menacingly over Jed until Not-Wyatt waved it away.

  “I think this shape has outworn its usefulness,” he said. “Now that I have your full attention, Jed.”

  “I don’t care if you dress yourself up as the sugar plum fairy. What have you done with my Horse?”

  Not-Wyatt didn’t respond. His legs and torso elongated, and the clothes along with them. Jed saw that they weren’t clothes; they were part of the being itself. The being’s arms sprouted like tree branches in a hurry. Its chest broadened and its head changed shape: the jaw became squarer, the forehead higher, the hair faded out of existence.

  Jed’s mouth fell open. The being rippled like one of the walls. The skin tones whitened and then turned to ice. Or glass.

  “Farkin!” Jed gasped to see the face of his old enemy. “Farkin Plisp!”

  The colourless face contorted in smile, like a disturbance on a puddle.

  “Not quite, Jed. The name’s Farkin, all right. Farkin Shish.”

  “What? You two brothers or something?”

  Farkin Shish waved a hand, like a dismissive ice sculpture. A faint blue light glowed in the centre of his head. Not his brain exactly, Jed knew, but the location of his mind and what humans call their heart when they mean their emotional impulses and not the muscle that pumps blood around their bodies.

  “Those kind of relationship descriptors mean nothing to us. We are Farkin. He was Plisp; I am Shish.”

  “You look so much like him. Folks must get you confused all
the time.”

  “Not so much,” said Shish. “I don’t get out much.”

  Jed sneered. “That’s not what I heard. You been terrorising whole towns, taking their babies.”

  Shish interrupted, scandalised. “One baby! One damned baby! That was all I wanted. And I let his parents keep him for ten years. Humans are always blowing things out of proportion.”

  The blue light in his head flared red until his anger subsided.

  “Why did you want him? And then, why did you give him back for ten years?”

  “The time wasn’t right.” Shish was sulking. “And then when the time came, those people welshed on the deal. They ran away - can you believe that?”

  “Sure can. The time for what?” Jed was keen to keep Shish on topic. Eyes like glass marbles regarded him, unblinking. The light in his head turned yellow.

  “My, you are a nosey one, Jed. You’re my guest here and all you do is subject me to question after question after question.”

  “Just trying to figure this all out. And what the hell it’s got to do with me and my Horse.”

  “You killed my - what did you call him? - brother. We’ll call him that if it gives you some inkling of how close we were, how important he was to me.”

  “I ain’t going to apologise.” Jed spat. The blue sphere rushed at Jed like a dog on the attack but Shish subdued it with a gesture. The sphere retreated and dissolved into mist but it remained hovering, giving Jed the impression of being watched.

  “Quite so, Jed. My brother had gone bad. You did your world and mine a service. I should thank you, I suppose. Instead I am going to ask for your help.”

  Jed was already shaking his head. There was no way he would help this - this glass head - with anything.

  “Don’t be so negative, Jed; you don’t even know what I’m proposing.”

  “I ain’t interested.”

  “Not interested in getting your Horse back? I find that impossible to believe.”

 
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