Wednesday, February 17, 2010

4th installment

In the cool sharp light of coherence, the doors looked like the back exit to some downtown restaurant. Decker could almost see the sperm whale faces of dumpsters flanking the opening, the ancient, shadowy fire escapes clinging to old brick. He tried to shake the notion from his mind; he didn't want to think of how long it had been since he'd had those hot dogs. “Well, the doors are still here,” he unconsciously put his hand on Degren's shoulder and gave it a squeeze, jerked his arm back reflexively when Degren covered Decker's hand with his own, and reached for the now-apparent red glowing doorbell button. “I, um, hey, might as well get this deal going, huh?”
“Yeah, you...right. Sorry, I...”
“No, never mind, no, um, it's nothing. You thought, well, we know what you thought.”
Mercifully, the doors opened almost immediately, and the giant turtle, still glowing like a disco light show, stood centered in a smooth, well-lit white corridor. “Gentlemen! Regained our senses, have we? Questions writhing like worms in a worm farm in our slightly foggy minds? Step this way, please. Oh, and you may call me Tut.”
Decker, feeling a little shameful and aggravated, burst forth, “So what the hell's-”
“Tut tut; I say, sir!” Tut glared back at Decker over his huge, semi-opaque glasses. “All in due time, no need to randomize everyone's cogitation with your negatively charged mental chaos waves!” He continued in a more conciliatory tone, “Fear not, good fellow. Here at the Nexus we are well-equipped to process your complaints, and perhaps even to help you ameliorate your present, er, difficulties.”
Decker was feeling a nearly-uncontrollable desire to sidle up to Degren and slip his arm around the big man's waist. There were vague memories oozing into his consciousness that didn't trigger any of his own recollections; images of Degren and other soft-furred people, but mostly of Degren. He experienced sensations and situations that made him want to shudder in ecstasy and loathing at the same time. He forced them down into the depths of his psyche. “Well, we'd better hurry, Tut, my 'good fellow'. I'm just not feeling myself right now. Less and less so, in fact.”
In short, quick steps, his flipper feet smacking, his turtle claws clicking and echoing on the smooth granite floor, Tut led them down a maze of smooth, slightly arcing hallways. The first doors they passed (they were few and far between) were of the same stainless metal as those opening on the river. As they went further along the halls, stainless gave way to bright tropical pastels, and doors broke the smooth monotony with more frequency. The walls, too, took on airy shades. Now the occasional window revealed auditoriums, equipment rooms, offices, cafeterias, living quarters, and other undefinable spaces.
Decker strode up next to the psychedelic turtle and wondered out loud, “Where is everyone? This is like an underground city! There should be people in all these spaces.”
Tut seemed to struggle internally before replying, “Ah, I suppose there's no harm in informing you now. It's been so many years....” His glasses seemed to get darker and more opaque as he spoke. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Ra Sol Research Facility, established in the eighty fifth millennium after discovery, or just about the time your Egyptians, Decker, built their first pyramid.” Tut shot the two men a challenging glare, as though expecting them to voice disbelief, When neither man responded, he continued, “We've been monitoring your species, you see, since you got the damnable idea to tie stones to sticks and use them as weapons. This was our state-of-the-art facility, built in anticipation of the complex machines you'd soon design. We knew we had to go deep underground, or you'd discover us before we felt you were ready.”
"Wait a minute," Decker said. "I this facility was built in anticipation of high technology developments on my world, why is it in Degren's?"
"The, um, barrier, if you will, between your 'worlds', is less substantial than you might imagine. Having our monitoring station in an alternate reality, one where developments are less technological and more, er, philosophical, as it were, offers us better odds of going undetected, while having an excellent perspective on you via our, um, dimension-spanning instruments. I'm sorry I can't make this more clear to you, but if I tried you would just think me obtuse and condescending. Regardless, we have reached our destination." He threw open a lilac-stained, zebra-grained wooden door with a flourish. "Good sirs, this is where we keep what you might think of as our 'oracle'. Let's get you some answers and get you on your way!"
"Just a minute, Tut," Degren said, "Decker's question was about the notable lack of other sentient beings. Where are all the people who should be here?"
"Oh yes, dear me. Terribly sorry." Tut rubbed a scaly knuckle along the top of one eye, visibly discomfited. "My mind tends to wander away from that question. A bit painful, as it were. Now, where were we?"
Seeing that this line of questioning was going nowhere, and spotting his furrier-by-the-hour reflection in the silvered glass of what appeared to be a two-way mirror in the wall in front of them, Decker decided to forgo an answer. "Okay then. Where's this 'oracle' you promised, Tut? This looks more like some kind of interrogation room."
Indeed, the space was barely large enough for the four chairs and table that furnished it. The walls were bare and painted a drab dove gray; the ceiling disappeared into the gloom behind a single bare bulb below a reflective hood. The only other object in the room was what appeared to be a thin blue laptop computer situated at one end of the table. Tut parked himself in front of it and lifted the lid. Degren and Decker took chairs opposite the computer.
"That's your oracle?" Decker sneered in disbelief. "No, wait. You're going to key something with that little notepad, and we'll be transported to some funky Greek cave, right? There will be a giant painted eye on a stone above a geyser or something, right? Then we'll hear the deep, booming voice of some forgotten demigod, mouthing platitudes in a very convincing way and telling us to pay no attention to the turtle behind the laptop, right? What the hell's really going on here?"
"And we thought it was time to really start monitoring these savages," Tut muttered to himself, keying the laptop with a dexterity belied by his paddle-like appendages. "Fear not, friend Decker, you will have your 'oracle'. This little keypad and screen are connected wirelessly to more computing power than all the crude thinking devices of your entire civilization. Now fellows, please gather your equilibrium. Shall we phrase our concerns in the form of questions?"
"C'mon, Tut!" Decker was at the end of his patience. His knee kept brushing against Degren's under the table, sending little lightning bolts of distraction up along the inside of his thighs. Degren kept looking at him hopefully and then apologetically. "You already know our situation. Get us some answers!"
"I'm ashamed to tell you that this is one area where our 'oracle' will thoroughly meet your expectations," Tut replied sternly. "It is up to you to formulate your queries. I can accept no liability for the results you receive; therefore you must take full responsibility for the clarity and purpose of your inquiries, and thus for the quality of the network's response. Take a minute if you must. Take all afternoon, in fact! I am in no rush." Tut's aura of hauteur grew perceptibly as he finished his speech.
"Yeah, but we are," Decker fired back. "Okay, let's, how many questions do we get?"
"One less if you ask that. I am authorized to forgive one aberrant question per inquirer. Decker, will you use this question?"
"Shit and shit! Degren, what do you think? Is it worth wasting a question to know how many more we can ask?"
Degren shrugged. "What if each gets only one? I think not."
"Right. Okay." He turned to the turtle. "Degren and I are going to discuss this a bit. We're going to be asking each other questions, but not you. We will address you by name when we wish to pose our questions."
"Very well."
Degren; how's this? 'What is the exact and complete course of action Degren and I must take to best ensure that I return to my original body on my original planet, and Degren is reunited with his, er, friend Furge?'"
"Furge is my mate."
"Um, right. With that change, does that seem to sum up what we want to know?"
"I can't think of anything to add."
"Right. Tut: What is the exact and complete course of action Degren and I must take to best ensure that I return to my original body on my original planet, and Degren is reunited with his mate Furge?"
Tut keyed in the question. "It'll just take a minute to process. While we wait, I must ask a favor of you." Even through the hockey puck lenses, they could detect a furtive cast to his gaze. "My own, um, mate has been irrepressibly, er, requesting of me that she get to go visit her mother. I believe you will most likely be passing quite near her home. Would you allow her to accompany you that far, if that is indeed the case?"
Degren grimaced wryly. "You aren't going to give us our answer until we agree, are you, Mister Tut?"
"Er, well, I'd really prefer...."
"I'm trying to reunite with my mate, and it seems he wants to be parted with his. Poetic, eh?" Degren turned to Tut. "What's she like?"
"Oh, um, she's loaded with..personality, yes. Very entertaining if you can find the right mood. Ah, she'll certainly fill those awkward silences, yes. Um, truly a fine girl, certainly. You-"
"Hell's crapper, fine!" Decker was squirming in his chair like a schoolboy just before recess. "We'll take her, Tut, if it's on our way!"
"Oh, excellent! I-er,um, I mean you won't regret it. Probably. Maybe. Thank you!" He looked as though he wanted to throw his flippers around both men. Composing himself as the laptop spit out a wide ribbon of pale blue paper, he said, "Well then. Here's the oracles instructions." He tore off the half-yard of paper, quickly scanning the inscription then handing it to Decker.
"What the hell is this?" Decker stared at the orderly rows of odd characters that proceeded diagonally across the long, narrow page. "I can't read this goddam Sanskrit or whatever it is! What are you trying to put over on us, Tut?"
"Tut tut tut," the bespectacled amphibian stuttered nervously, "Ah, oh, yes, I don't read Carkozinguan. Not a problem, g-good fellows! I can translate this for you quite expeditiously. Your written language is of Arabic lineage, no? Alpha-phonetic, twenty six characters? Clumsy but effective, yes? Not more than an hour or two, I assure you."
"An hour or two?" Decker's face reddened and his voice rose in both pitch and volume. "I'm turning into a queer furball as we speak! I don't know where the hell I am, I'm lonely and afraid, and I'm fighting back the urge to strip off my clothes and go put my tongue in Degren's ear! WE NEED TO GET GOING!"
"Yes, well, er, you fellows must be quite famished by now, eh? Everyone is monstrously famished after drinking from the river, and you'd had quite a trek of it before that. I'll get Aida to fix you a bit of a snack while you wait." With that, Tut slipped out the door with deceptive alacrity, taking the laptop with him.
Decker leaped to his feet, banging his knees on the table edge, then lunged for the door. The handle held firm; the door was rock steady in its jamb. "Shit piss bloody asscrack! The sneaky bugger's locked us in!" He tried to dig his fingernails in along the edge of the door, to no avail, then he began hammering away at the adamant portal with his fists. "Let us the fuck out, you leather-necked stewpot!"
Degren put his hand on Decker's trembling shoulder. "Decker. There's no point wasting our energy. Tut will be back. He'll keep his bargain. Calm down. He said he'd get us some food. We can't go far if we don't get some sustenance."
Somewhere in the wall above the door, a hidden speaker echoed Degren's words. "Decker. I'll be back. I will keep my bargain. Just calm down!" After a brief pause, the speaker issued forth again, "I'll open the door if you promise to restrain those violent primitive urges, gentlemen. Degren, I'm counting on you to keep, to keep Decker calm."
Degren glanced over at the red-faced, quivering Decker, bald query plain on his face.
"Yessssss...... I'll be a good little savage!"
"I will try to keep him calm."
"Very well; the door is now open."
Decker suddenly had a flash. "So, how many more questions do we get?"
"Yours are used up, Decker," Tut's reproduced voice replied, "Degren has one question on account."
"I'll keep that reserved in case we can't follow through on the oracle's directions to Decker," Degren said.
"Good plan," Decker commented.
"That is allowable," the speaker replied. "Now go left out the door, and we will be in the fifth door on your right."
They were soon at a bright purple set of French doors. There were powder blue curtains on the inside, foiling Decker's attempt to see in. Degren knocked softly and a six foot tall, pale golden duck with an abalone-sheen pillbox hat raked over one eyebrow greeted them. She spoke out of one side of her beak to Tut, who was notably out of sight. "Dearest, the two, um, gentlemen you told me to expect are here." She addressed the pair. "That is, you are Degren and Decker, are you not? Yes, you are as my dear husband described. I would offer my hand, as I believe is your custom, but well... anyway, he has informed me that you will be requiring lunch. Please come in. I shall endeavor to see to your needs." She turned once again to speak to Tut. "Dear, what do these, er, what did you call them..hominids, I think... eat?"
She led them into a luxurious apartment, elegantly but busily done out in deep fabric colors and rich woods and metals. Brocades and tapestries lined the walls. They wended their way between lustrous bookcases, intricate standing lamps, and artistically carved side tables bedecked heavily with all varieties of precious artifacts. It was as though the place had been decorated by a pack rat with exquisite taste. The two men followed nervously; they were quite relieved to be seated at a large parquetry dining table on patina-ed copper flamingo legs. The chairs matched the table legs; their backs were two flamingos touching bills at the head, while the cushioned seats were done in an ostrich fan motif.
She brought them drinks and aperitifs which, though strange, seemed quite delicious to both of the hungry men. “Our larder is somewhat depleted, I'm afraid,” she offered, a little over-loud and with a petulant edge that was obviously addressed to her absent mate. “We'll be reduced to standard emergency rations if supplies don't arrive soon!” Her manners toward Decker and Degren were perfect, though Decker caught the barest breeze of condescension in her tone. Mixed with that, however, there was an eagerness to her mien; she was glad to have company, no matter their species or social station. Once dinner was on the table, she sat with the men and engaged them in light conversation.
“Tut, dear,” she broke off and addressed the silence of the hallway, “as much as I am enjoying the company of these delightful individuals, I feel I mustn't be selfish of their attentions. Will you kindly honor their presence with your company?”
“Just a few more minutes, Aida my love,” came the muffled reply. “I have obligations to fulfill for these same gentlemen which must be completed posthaste.”
“I'd advise you to hurry, dear. The...gentlemen ...seem quite ravenous, and even should they deign to allow you a portion, it will soon be quite cold.”
“Yes, yes, heart of my heart, I will hasten to your side!”
Tut handed the men two neatly hand-scribed sheets of paper, then mumbled apologies and set to picking at the remnants of the meal while they read. Decker noted that Degren's page was written in some sort of caricature-based symbology, with stick figure animals and men in various poses making up most of the script. There was the occasional representation of what looked like geographic legends; simplified rivers, seas, mountains and the like. On his own page was neatly block-printed English. He found himself disoriented at times by the script; some part of his mind could not understand it at all. At those moments, he would glance over at the pictographs on Degren's page and find they made perfect sense.
“Follow the river down to the third tributary,” Decker read aloud, “and ascend the stream into an old silver mine. Tut, will the silver mine be on my world or Degren's?”
“Neither. At no time should you assume to deviate from these instructions, Decker. There are many realities in close proximity to yours, especially in the area of the Great River. Your chances of finding your way home and regaining your old form on your own are nearly incalculably low, so please refrain from entertaining any such assumptions or ideas.”
“How far down the river is this 'third tributary?”
“I can only tell you that it is beyond what I have explored. I have seen, er...” Tut paused to calculate. “....perhaps ninety of your kilometers down the river. In that space, there was but one tributary.”
“Ninety kilometers! SHIT!” Decker saw Aida cringe a bit as he hurled the earthy expletive; he determined to try for a more courteous tone. “An d we have no idea how much further it is to the third tributary! Tut, how the- er, how in the world are we supposed to cover that much ground? I'm betting that boardwalk doesn't go real far down the shore!”
“You would be wagering correctly. To my understanding, the river remains placid and relatively deep for quite a distance. WE have a modest launch that you may employ to cover the distance to your tributary.”
“Tut, dearest, would you rob me of one of my few joys?” Aida's voice was full of consternation. “Why, many's the time that an afternoon sojourn on the river was all that stood between me and...well, I hardly dare illustrate!”
“Aida my dear, but listen a moment. You'll be pleased to know that you will be accompanying them on their journey, at least as far as Cradsell 4.”
“Dear, you mustn't tease me so. Cradsell 4 is where I was raised, where my mother resides! You know how I've longed to visit the old estate!”
“So you shall, my sweet. It is only a modest detour for these gentlemen to escort you to your very ancestral gates.”
“How modest?” Degren glanced from Decker to Tut. “It seems we are approaching a tipping point for my...traveling companion here, and as much as I'd like to be reunited with my dearest Furge, I'd rather it wasn't at Decker's expense.”
“No more than an hour or two's stroll, I should think,” Tut said as he assessed Decker's reaction.
“If it gets us on the way, I agree,” was Decker's reply.
They went over the rest of the directions quickly; they would find an old rusty key on a barrel of explosive in the mine that adjoined the tributary's cavern, return to the river and retrace their steps to the first tributary, and ascend to the surface. They would then find themselves emerging through the bottom of an earthquake-wrecked swimming pool at a deserted beach-side hotel in yet another reality. This was Cradsell 4. They would accompany Aida to her ancestral home, then return to the hotel and dive the coral reefs off the coast near the hotel to locate a shipwreck wherein there lay a trunk that their key would fit, inside of which would be their means of resuming their original realities.
“What will be in that trunk?”
“Decker, the Nexus gave no further information. I assume you will know what to do with what you find. Shall we make preparations for your departure? My dear,” he turned to the wildly exhilarated duck, “May I suggest that you bring only the most minimal accoutrement. It may be a rigorous climb, and I would cringe at the notion that we were adding to our friends' burden on their difficult journey.”
“Yes, yes, love, only a few of the barest essentials. An hour, then?”
Decker groaned, and Tut cast a warning glare over his heavy lenses. “Fifteen minutes, dear, no more.”

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