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The Veraxian ship was somehow even more bizarre to Ian than the previous one, and also a good deal more mean. What struck Ian first (quite literally) was the fact that the hallways were lined with rows of unhealthy-looking spikes. Why this was, Ian could not possibly imagine. It just seemed like a pointlessly mean thing to do.
The barcalounger hovered before him, leading him into the ship. It turned a corner and directed Ian into a small cell. “Get in.”
Seeing as how the cell didn’t look much more uncomfortable than the hallways, Ian obliged, squeezing past his captor and snagging his shirt in the process.
The cell door slammed solidly closed, and Ian for some reason felt reassured that the Twiller had managed to follow him in. It looked at him questioningly.
“What is it you want?” Ian asked, feeling as if he already knew the answer.
“Yes, yes, I know. Twill. That is what you were going to say, right?”
The Twiller lowered its large eyes to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Ian apologized, feeling like quite the cad. “I know it’s not your fault. But since we seem to be stuck together, we should find some way to communicate.”
The Twiller seemed to nod, doing so by hovering its entire body up and down.
“Very good, then. How about one ‘twill’ for yes and two for no?”
“Is that a yes?”
Ian considered this for a moment. “Are you saying yes?”
“I need to ask some better questions, don’t I?”
Ian sighed. “Okay. Are we trapped together in a cell?”
“Twill. Yes, good. Now, are we going to be able to escape anytime soon?”
“No. Very good.” Ian thought for a moment. “No, that’s actually not very good at all, now is it? In fact, I might go so far as to say that it is in fact the exact opposite of good. I might even go so far as to say that it is distinctly bad.”
“Right.” Ian slumped down on the ground, wincing as he did so. The ground was rough and uneven, and, seeing as how it was inside an alien spaceship and not some naturally occurring structure, Ian could only assume that this was quite intentional.
“I don’t think I quite like our new captors any more than I did our old ones,” Ian mused, looking around the tiny cell and its painfully-spiked walls. He wondered what sorts of horrible things they planned to do to his person. He wondered if they had any cucumber sandwiches, and if they might perhaps give him one. Looking around his cell, he guessed no on both counts.
Ian felt a sudden disorientation as the Veraxian ship surged to incredible speed. Though he did not know it at the time, he was going considerably faster than the speed of light. In fact, the speed of light seems downright pokey once one has traveled in a Veraxian starship. Within a few minutes, the ship had stopped, and the door to Ian’s cage opened.
“Follow me,” intoned the barcalounger, hovering in the open doorway. “Time to meet your maker.”
Dusting himself off, Ian saw his bizarre traveling companion strolling leisurely through the forest they had not crashed in. Ian looked to the Twiller, who shrugged uselessly. Unsure of what else to do, Ian followed Cheez through the foliage. “Where are we going?” he asked.
Cheez ignored the question. “You know, I think I’ve been here before.”
Ian sighed. “Where, exactly, is ‘here’?”
The alien continued walking. “It’s right through here somewhere.” Just then, the two travelers emerged from the forest, stepping from the ground onto a slab of concrete.
What stretched before Ian boggled his feeble mind. Towering buildings rose before him as far as the eye could see, their tops disappearing into a gray, smoggy haze. Thousands of people milled about the sidewalks, and aircars were jammed bumper-to-bumper, taking up every cubic inch of free space from ground level until they disappeared up into the smog banks. None of them appeared to be moving, although every few seconds the shriek of a horn assailed Ian’s ears. Over the din, Ian thought he heard the Twiller cough.
Before him was a large sign, which read:
WELCOME TO EL LEIGH
The Biggest Damn City in the Galaxy
For an uncertain moment, Ian wondered why the sign would possibly be in English, or in fact why he had been able to understand the myriad aliens he had met on his travels. He quickly resolved not to think about the matter again, and you really should do the same.
Cheez continued into the morass of milling aliens, walking aimlessly as he stared at his surroundings. Ian struggled to keep up, a high-pitched voice in the back of his head urging him not to lose his alien guide, who was – just barely – better than nothing. Ian knew he did not want to be lost, alone, in a city like El Leigh.
Within only a few moments, however, lost was precisely what he was. There was no sign of Cheez, no sign, in fact, of the forest he had emerged from minutes earlier. His visibility was reduced to a few feet by a mass of people and the omnipresent haze, which he could feel settling thickly in his lungs. He let himself be carried away by the moving mass of aliens, and gave up looking for Cheez in a few minutes. Ian could not help but think that it was a rather crappy and ignominious way to get written out of a story.
Ian struggled out of the flow of people and into the street, where things were moving much more slowly, if at all. Rows of aircars were stacked from the paved ground up into the gloom. The aircars, all of which were running, were only inches from each other. In some cases, they actually touched the cars ahead of or behind them. Ian ambled over to a driver whose window was down.
“Hello,” Ian began. He was rewarded by a long blast of the
“Let’s move it, here!” the alien inside shouted. “I don’t have all year.”
Ian tried again. “Excuse me, sir. How long have you been stuck in this mess?”
The alien swiveled one of its heads to face Ian, while the other continued shouting obscenities at other drivers. “Oh, about a year and a half.” Ian’s mouth dropped open. “Well,” the driver explained, “I haven’t exactly been stuck in this exact spot that long.”
Ian was relieved. “About six months ago,” the driver continued, “the car in front of me inched up and hit the guy in front of him. So I was able to move two, maybe three inches.” Both heads swiveled to look at the car in front of him. “Those guys have been going at it since then.”
Sure enough, the drivers of the two cars in front of the alien were vociferously exchanging unpleasantries with each other.
“But,” Ian stammered, “how could you be stuck here for over a year?”
The alien shrugged all four of its shoulders. “Well, the traffic was always pretty bad, and then I guess one day there was just one car too many on the road.” He sighed. “That’s what they say on the radio, anyway. That last car was like the last jigsaw puzzle piece, or like filling in the empty square on one of those games where you rearrange the tiles.” The alien turned both heads to regard Ian. “Do you have those games on your planet?”
“I… I think so,” Ian stammered, and ran, screaming, from the street as fast as he could.
The Twiller let out a low, keening twill, and Ian followed the direction of its gaze. The landscape was pretty, here in Bez Erkeley, with mountains to one side and a great bay to the other. There was a colossal bridge that spawned the bay, leading off into the gloom. On and above this bridge, the aircars appeared to be as immobile as those in El Leigh. Ian distantly wondered why the aircars didn’t simply cross the bay at some other point, but he surmised that they had to pass through the stack of tollbooths that rose interminably from the bridge’s surface up into the thick layer of clouds above.
“Sign my petition?” shrieked a nearby alien, startling Ian and sending the Twiller zooming behind his shoulder for protection. The alien stood in front of a long table covered in posters and bumper stickers that read “Vote YES on Prop 17.”* “Will you sign?” the alien asked again.
“Uh,” Ian stammered, “what’s it for?” He wondered how much influence his signature would have in a realm where he was not a citizen, did not vote, and had not lived for more than an hour.
“We’re trying to pressure the university to refuse to allow some blockhead – this Dr. Furbar – from giving a speech denouncing Proposition 17. I mean, what kind of Nazi bastard could possibly be against Prop 17?” The alien gave Ian an incredulous look, which was completely lost on Ian, who was staring at the creature’s dozens of nostrils.
Ian braced himself, feeling helpless to escape or avoid the alien’s tirade. He sighed. “And what’s Prop 17?”
“You don’t know?” (Another wasted look of incredulity.) “Prop 17 guarantees and expands on one of our most fundamental rights – the right to free speech! Without it, democracy as we know it will crumble, our most basic freedoms will perish, our intellects will stagnate…” The alien paused in its diatribe.”You do have free speech on whatever backwater planet you’re from, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Ian, insulted.
“Good – then you’ll sign the petition?” The alien waved an electronic clipboard in Ian’s face.
Ian reached for the clipboard, but drew back in a moment of clarity. “Wait a second – what is this petition for again? Supporting Prop 17?”
“Well, yeah,” said the alien. “Not directly, of course, but we’re aiming to prevent Dr. Furbar from spreading his lies and propaganda attacking and denouncing Prop 17.”
“So … you’re actually trying to prevent him from speaking … ?”
The alien gave Ian a condescending look. “How can we protect the freedoms and liberties we hold most dear – the freedom to hold and express a viewpoint different from what THEY want you to believe – if we have government puppet propagandists like Furbar out repressing freedom of thought by spouting his silly nonsense to brainwash free-thinking people? Is that what you want?” The alien’s glare on Ian grew cold. “Do you want to live in a world where everyone thinks exactly the same way? Where people fear expressing their own opinions and their own voices in support of Prop 17? Is that what you want, man?”
“I … I just want to go home.”
“Fine!” shrieked the alien. “Bury your head in the sand! You’re one of THEM, I see. You’re against us! Against free speech! Against equality! You support the rich and powerful, the machine trying to repress us and keep us down. You’re just a puppet, rattling off the same propaganda you all do!”
“Good luck with your petition,” said Ian, trying to disengage and back slowly away.
“Hey – hey!” called the alien. “What about your friend?” It looked to the Twiller. “Will he sign?”
The Twiller sped away ahead of Ian, and Ian hurried to keep up.
* I just picked the number 17 out of thin air. Don’t go looking it up.
Ian wandered dejectedly around the spaceport. He walked from the ticket counter to where customers deposited their bags, several terminals away. He walked another few terminals, up an escalator, around a koi pond, and down a long outdoor walkway until he reached the security gate. He watched for a while as aliens of diverse sizes and shapes maneuvered through some sort of high-tech X-ray imaging systems, luggage was scanned by 3-D holographic imagers, and security workers somehow compared ID cards to their various owners. One group of travelers resembled the Fohrwurt Ian had met at Yore Maker’s Circus of the Bizzarre. They were spiny, scaly, scary creatures, with great rows of spikes atop their heads and rippling down their backs, enormous claws that looked like they could rip a shuttle in half, and teeth that simultaneously terrified Ian and made him wonder how they could possibly brush them without destroying the toothbrush. Another alien in line was massively built, with shoulders like boulders and a body that looked literally carved of granite. It carried a large, heavy suitcase with a casual strength that was easily that of ten or twenty men. Another pair of insectoid creatures dripped what was clearly some potent form of venom from their mandibles, although, in their defense, they took care not to drip on any of the other passengers.
Ian watched all these and more aliens get shepherded through the security checkpoint with a minimum of fuss and bother. The whole procedure was, in fact, vastly more efficient than Ian had seen at any airport back on Earth, even though there were dozens of different species represented, which would have made pat-downs a bit awkward. But the whole thing moved very smoothly, that is, until a series of alarms went off and a clear plastic barrier of some kind rose from the ground and trapped a tall, thin alien inside. Four armed guards appeared from somewhere and leveled glowing laser rifles at the trapped traveler. The confused alien rose its arms, which appeared to be three-foot-long, slender serrated blades. The security worker scanning the luggage on the conveyor belt grabbed the alien’s suitcase and removed an item with great care. He held it up to display to the armed guards, who nodded and lowered the plastic cylinder to take the alien into custody.
Ian peered at the offending item held aloft by the security worker. It was about two inches long and dull grey in color. While it was shaped slightly different than those Ian had seen on Earth, it was clearly a nail clipper.
After the commotion died down, the line began moving again at its formerly rapid pace. About the most exciting thing that happened after that was that the group of scaled aliens had to duck down to avoid the five-foot spikes on their heads from scraping the top of the scanning machine.
Ian simply shrugged to the Twiller and walked on.