Contact: Book 1: Chapter 4
Higginbottom turned up in the exact spot where her horrible experience had begun. She guessed she had been gone for a day and a half.
Her first priority was to find MacDrakin. Besides explaining why she didn’t show up, he was the only one in Skensfirth she could talk to about what had happened to her. She couldn’t talk to the other locals. Few of them had ever been outside the immediate area. They were stubbornly close-minded and reluctant to accept new ideas or conditions. She knew many of them wouldn’t even listen to her story.
Perhaps MacDrakin would understand what all this was about. Maybe he could explain what was going on.
She hoped she could express her fear for Skensfirth. The smelly creatures were certainly up to no good and only she and Alix were aware of their presence. With a start, she realized that, except for the kidnapping, nothing really had happened. The two women sat around talking. Eventually, they were taken out of the room one at a time. The squid with the silver medallion spoke to her — much to Higginbottom’s amazement — and told her to come with him. He escorted her down a long curved corridor, and Higginbottom realized that she was in a ship of some sort. In another room, a second creature — this one with a bronze medallion — pushed her onto a corner and the disappearing act started again.
She was dismayed at how advanced the squids were. Every where on the ship she saw machines and flashing numbers and desks filled with buttons and small lights. She couldn’t tell if her trip to the ship and back was the result of technology or magic.
She walked around the outskirts of Skensfirth to avoid meeting anyone. She didn’t want to explain her disappearance to them. At least, not right now. She forced herself not to cry from her frustration. It wouldn’t do if someone saw the constable with tears running down her face. Outside of town, she climbed the road leading up the mountain.
# # #
MacDrakin, covered in muck, sluiced a pile of dirt when he saw Higginbottom walking up the road. He suffered a spell of nervousness because he now knew she was a female. He was also confused by conflicting emotions. One part of him was mad because she hadn’t shown up to go scouting with him. Another part was happy that she had come to see him.
He dropped the sluice gate. While he waited for her he tried to wipe some of the dirt from his arms and face.
She reached him, threw herself into his arms and sobbed. Shocked, he patted her back hoping he didn’t get her too dirty.
“MacDrakin! You’ll never guess what happened to me.” She pulled back and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Her eyes were rimmed with red. “I was kidnapped by some gruesome creatures. They look like giant squids. I think they’re going to do something bad. Maybe attack Gundarland.”
“Kidnapped?” MacDrakin wondered how he was supposed to handle an upset female. All his limited experiences with females seemed useless in this situation. “Really?”
She stepped into his arms again. “They’re so powerful. We could never prevent them from doing whatever they wanted to do. They’re going to do something terrible. I just know it.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “They’re hideous. And they stink. They smell like rotten fish. They kidnapped two of us. I think they were listening to us talk so they could learn our language. That’s why I think they plan to do something nasty.”
She told him about her companion, Alix. “What a feisty half-pint. So different from the folks in Skensfirth. It must be because she’s from a big city. She never stopped carping about the violation of her privileges as a citizen of Dun Hythe. It was like living in Dun Hythe entitled her to rights that didn’t apply to folks living in Skensfirth.”
MacDrakin only half-listened to Higginbottom talk about Alix. He didn’t know what to think. Higginbottom was serious, that much was apparent from her agitation, but he had never heard of squid-like creatures. He didn’t think she had imagined it. What if she was correct and the creatures threatened Gundarland or even Skensfirth? If the creatures invaded the town, Higginbottom could be caught in the middle of a dangerous situation.
Several thoughts burst into his mind and fought for attention. Could this be the beginning of an adventure like his ancestor had? Was he about to become the second hero in the family? Did Higginbottom hug him because she was glad to see him or because she was frightened? The answer to the last question seemed more important than the first two.
# # #
Shtap, ready to begin negotiating, slithered his way through the narrow passageways of the Black Carrion Flower toward the gymnasium.
He had learned the art of deceptive negotiating at the tentacles of his parents, both high-ranking members of the diplomatic corps. Many of their double-crosses were considered classics and students studied them in negotiating classes. To zaftans, pulling off a well-designed betrayal was a sign of superior intelligence and worthy of a mention on one’s resume. Successful treachery was celebrated with media attention along with praise from superiors. Promotions often followed. Someday, Shtap hoped to demonstrate to his parents that he was a worthy son by triggering an unspeakably loathsome betrayal of a native population.
Shtap wondered what kind of reception he would receive from the captain. When in a mellow mood, zaftans were merely hostile. Of late, Yunta had been the queen of bitches, even by the truculent standards of the zaftans.
He pushed open the door and saw Yunta working out on a treadmill with four tentacles while lifting weights with two others and using a communicator with the remaining two. These simultaneous activities were possible because of the multiple processors the zaftans possessed. “Greetings, Captain. I hope you are well.”
“Shtap.” Yenta acknowledged his presence by shutting down the communicator.
“The two language assistants were very helpful. Besides teaching the language computer enough words to allow me to negotiate, they also disclosed much valuable information about the politics and the culture, such as it is.” The language computer had downloaded a data base into Shtap’s medallion which would operate as a simultaneous translator.
“Excellent. When will you begin?”
“As soon as you give me leave to transport to the surface. I’ve identified the building where the political leader lives, thanks to the natives. I assume his office will be on the top floor. That is where I’ll land.”
“Very well. Have Drek send you on your way.” She flapped a tentacle at him. “You can’t be sure the natives will be friendly so have Drek cloak you in a ward for protection in case you are attacked. Remember, we must be quick. We don’t have much time.”
Shtap slapped the sides of his head with two tentacles splattering slime in all directions. The gesture was the traditional sign of obedience and respect. He slipped out of the gym and headed for his cabin to prepare for his journey. He had high hopes for the coming negotiations. Perhaps this planet was where he would gain fame as a consummate deceiver.
# # #
Drek sat erect on the couch in the transportation chamber and stared at the displays on the console in front of him. One monitor showed a view of the biggest city. He pointed a tentacle at a large building. “Is that where you want to go?”
“Yes,” Shtap replied.
“That should not be too hard.” Drek concentrated on the monitor, looking for possible obstacles. “I hope the natives gave you the right information. It will be embarrassing, and perhaps dangerous, if you show up in the wrong place.”
“Yunta wants you to cloak me with a ward.”
“A wise precaution.” Drek operated switches and pushed buttons. “I will do the ward and then send you on your way.”
All zaftans had eight processing units. Seven of them were subordinate to the main processor in their head. Before a zaftan could perform complicated maneuvers such as quick slithering or rising from a couch, the main processor established links with one or two other processors. Once the maneuver was accomplished, the links were broken. A few zaftans had the capability of linking two or three processors on a continuous basis. These were the scientists, philosophers and the insane. A very small number could establish simultaneous linkages between all eight and keep them established as long as necessary. These rare individuals became shamans. With the eight processors linked, the zaftan became a living and powerful parallel computer. The configuration was so robust, it could warp reality around the shaman who then manipulated the unreal space surrounding him to obtain unreal capabilities or to generate fantastic effects. Different linkage combinations yielded different results. Being surrounded by unreal space became an ordeal after a while and extended exposure could lead to bizarre mental states.
Drek had used one linkage configuration to send the natives back to the planet’s surface. He now focused his main processor and established a different linkage. He waited a few seconds for the unreal space to establish itself, then he forced a portion of unreal space to wrap around Shtap, thus providing a protective ward that would last for two hours. Next, he set up the linkage he had used with the natives, closed his eyes and concentrated on seeing Shtap in the large building on the planet’s surface. He felt a reduction in pressure as unreal space escaped from his immediate surroundings. He opened his eyes, and, as expected, confirmed he was alone. He checked the display and noted that all went well with the transfer.
Now he could relax and await until Shtap signaled he wanted to return.
# # #
Alix Cyr had returned to the street corner where she had disappeared. Looking around, she didn’t see anyone she knew. Of course, in mid-afternoon most people in this section of Dun Hythe would be at work in one of the many factories. She waited a while, hoping for someone to talk to, but no one showed up.
She left the corner and walked down a muddy, garbage-strewn street. The old, dilapidated buildings were packed so close even the rats had trouble squeezing between them. The five- and six-story buildings blocked the sun from reaching parts of the street. Constantly in shade, strange things grew in these areas, especially in the slimy pools of stagnant rain water.
She was weary and hungry from her ordeal. The only food she had during her time with the kidnappers was the picnic food the nice constable had. She sat down at an outdoor table at a cafe and ordered coffee and cheese. She worked up a mental list of things to do. First, she would check on her apartment. No one should be home in her one-room flat on the fifth floor of a tenement. Her husband should be at work and her two children in school. Perhaps, one of them left a note for her. After that, she would go to the factory and apologize for missing work. With luck she wouldn’t be sacked. Third, she would look in at the office of the Furniture Workers of Dun Hythe Labor Movement. She was the Treasurer of the union and her chores must have piled up in her absence. Finally, she would go to a police station and file a report on her kidnapping. No smelly, squid-like beings were going to kidnap her and not pay the price.
A female neighbor spotted her. “Alix? We missed you. Where were you? And what’s his name? Who would have thought that you would run off for a few days with a male? You’ve always been so respectable.” The neighbor giggled and look expectantly at Alix. “Come on. I want to hear every delicious detail.”
“I wasn’t having an affair. I was kidnapped.”
“Oh, that’s even better. Tell me. Everyone has affairs and, after a while, hearing about them gets boring.”
Alix told her about the abduction.
“That’s ridiculous, Alix. If you had an affair, just say so. Never mind telling folks this cock-and-bull story.”
Alix chewed her lip. What if the police thought the same way?