The Four Queens
By Karla Fetrow
Authors Note: These are the tales of Luke Maverick, who accidentally fell into an alternate reality by following a dream. Although this is the first chapter of his many adventures, “Ambiosis”, presented earlier this month is the prologue and foundation for the stories.
Something was poking him in the ribs. At first the words were unintelligible, but the annoying jabs somehow over-rode the throbbing in his head, adding a little more clarity with each punch. “What are you?”
Not “who are you”, or “what is your name”. Luke Maverick opened his eyes cautiously, then blinked them closed again. He could just as well have asked the speaker in front of him, what was it. It was vaguely human, vaguely female. It was no more than four feet tall, with a waist line closely resembling a frog’s, with several dropping chins to match. It poked him again. “What are you, advocate or felon?”
He tried sitting up, just to get away from the damnable stick. A blinding stab of pain, like shrieking lightening threatened to explode just behind his ears, then rippled. The ripple continued throughout his whole body than subsided. He breathed in deeply, and another, gentler ripple began at his forehead and shifted down into his fingertips and toes. Luke analyzed his reaction. The ripples commenced each time he breathed in. It must be a chemical, he thought, or gas in the air, giving him hallucinations. If he didn’t die by the toad woman’s molestations, he would certainly die of asphyxiation. “What do you..” he began, but his question was cut short. Several fellow frog people leaped to her service when she waved her stick, and surrounded him.
Leap wasn’t the exact word. Their arms were somewhat longer than the short, stout legs, and they used their knuckles to swing themselves forward, so they hopped rather than leaped. Although he would have preferred that they didn’t, they planted their long-fingered hands along the pressure points in his neck, wrists and legs, then hummed. The sensation was as strange as breathing the chemical laden air. The tips of their fingers seemed to merge with the first layers of skin and tingled like an herbal remedy placed on a rash.
“Primitive digestive system,” announced one.
“Delayed adaptation processing,” said another.
“Only seventeen percent usage of primary storage units,” informed a somewhat elderly looking and deep based toad.
“You are a felon!” Barked the insufferable frog woman, and brought her stick down sharply across his shoulders. “Why didn’t you renew your license?”
“That’s what they all say. Ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.” She whacked him again. “Why couldn’t they have sent me an advocate this time? Dyonedes receives them regularly. She doesn’t even lift her little finger in effort, yet they rush to her side. Felons. All I gets is felons.” Using her stick to stand upright, and waddled up to him. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just renew your license when it was time?”
She stared into his eyes and he found himself staring back. He had expected little frog eyes, eyes with slits and a bale color, but instead they were markedly human. Their color was glossy, emerald green, and the pupils slightly dilated. It was uncanny to see such a pair of remarkable eyes in this grotesque, stretched face, its color turning from red, to purple, to a very pale flesh tone, then back through its neon color cycle again.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to renew it.”
The stick crashed down on him again. “Felon! Wouldn’t it have been better to just renew your license?”
“Yes,” he said hastily. “Yes, I suppose it would.”
“I suppose it would,” she mimicked. “Do you know what I hate about felons?” She swung her gaze to her henchmen, as though she believed they would answer her, but they were all involved in examining their fingertips for any possible stray particles that might have transferred from his skin to theirs during their contact. She sighed. “Felons create jobs. We aren’t specifically job-like. We’d rather maraud.”
“Maraud?” He asked weakly.
“Yes, maraud!” Her stick rained several vigorous blows across his back, then added one more to his already suffering head. “You’ll have to admit, marauding is far more entertaining than working a job.” He clasped his hands to his throbbing temples and groaned. His distress apparently didn’t concern her in the least. She paced around him and for a moment he was afraid she was looking for a spot to rain new blows, but she left his body parts in peace. Meeting his eyes again, she settled back with her multiple chins resting on one end of her stick, and gazed at him mournfully. “This is why we need an advocate. Marauding has lost a great deal of popularity among the status quo. They send us felons! Felons require dietitians, orientation experts, counselors, parameter translators. I don’t suppose…” She raised one eyebrow speculatively, and brought her face uncomfortably close to his. “You could learn marauding advocacy?”
“I never considered marauding.”
“Then you’re useless!” She gave him a good thump to his buttocks. “Walk,” she ordered.
He staggered slowly to his feet. Just as he was standing upright, she thumped him again and he stumbled to his knees. “Walk,” she insisted.
So he walked in the best manner he could. As soon as his head raised substantially above theirs, she knocked him down again, so that in a very short while, he walked hunched down, using his palms for balance in a semi-crawl.
He didn’t have much of a chance to take in the scenery, only the soil that remained fixed just a few feet from his vision. The soil in itself, was remarkable. It was very loose, very sweet smelling, and seemed to be alive with scurrying, visible bacteria. The color of the soil shifted and changed much like the flesh tones of his tormentor; from a ruddy, deep red, to shimmering yellow, to long, wavering patches of green. At one of the green patches, she kicked him by swinging up from her stick and planting both feet into his back. “Eat,” she commanded.
Luke looked down at the squirming rivulets. He was hungry, but munching on a patch of green, moving soil seemed a little unappetizing. One of the assistants whispered in her ear, and she looked at him with astonishment. “Really? That’s disgusting. We’ll have to take it to isolation cell 23590. That’s the fourth under-developed felon we’ve received this relativity cycle. There must be something wrong with the space loop.” She pushed him along, her jabs at his back as rhythmic as a drum beat, her mood growing more foul by the minute, if minutes were to be counted in this strange location. “This is another job felons make for us. We must construct habitats for them! Habitats.” She fumed. “What is the meaning of this invasion?”
The elderly assistant shrugged. “There seems to be some unhappiness among the multitudes.”
“What do we care about masses? I thought that field of expertise was left to the mathematicians.”
“The executive Zork, Dhabi Isstruii has determined a substantial statistical increase in disorderly conduct during transgression hearings. He felt the training of a few felons might improve communications with the primary objectives.”
“Masses. Primaries. What does that have to do with us?” She gave Luke one last boot, then gestured that he was to enter a compound that appeared far more solid than the loosely floating sensual and visual display he’d been given so far. There were several structures in a variety of shapes; small domes of mud, concrete or sticks, steeply pitched A-frames, a pleasant cottage with garden, even a house that floated on a pond, connected by a crude bridge. There were no walls, no guards, just an abrupt spot where the landscape changed from its shifting patterns to scuffed, mottled with rocks and grass, thankfully solid, dirt.
Shamelessly, Luke dug his fingers into the inert ground, and laid his head against the cool grass. He breathed shallowly, waiting for the next blow that never came. Instead, the frog lady stayed just beyond the confines of his solid earth setting and looked at it disagreeably. “This will be suitable during your internship. You’ll find shelter, the proper nutrients for replenishing your energy, and ahem…” she formed the words distastefully, “a waste disposal unit.”
With that, she and her entourage turned on their knuckles and hopped away.
Luke couldn’t find the will power to lift himself from the ground right away. He wondered if this was how men who had sailed long months at sea felt when they first set down on land again. You wanted to hug it. You wanted to give thanks to it for its firm, unmoving consistency.
“Wadda infob?” The voice was high pitched and mechanical. It squealed between short bursts of static. “Gummie amomo.” The owner of the unpleasant voice squatted beside Luke. He unbuckled a sheath from his waist and pulled out what looked very much like a remote control unit for a television. “Awkward, very awkward,” he said after a minute in a normal voice. “Your species hasn’t perfected voice translators yet. You’ll have to rely on those who have the technology.”
“What do you mean?” Asked Luke faintly. The man squatting beside him certainly looked humanoid if not human. He was somewhat taller than Luke and more slender. His forehead was extremely high with tufts of hair standing straight up on either side. With a closer glance, he realized that buried within those tufts were two small, rounded ears. The rest of his hair was about six inches long, traveled down the sides of his head and neck and tapered into a short mane at the back, between his shoulder blades. Instead of finger nails, he had tiny, moon edged claws that retracted when he had finished his calculations on his instrument. Other than that, he really didn’t look much different.
“You aren’t allowed to have any higher technology than what your world has developed. Don’t worry, though. There are several who have translators. Some arrived with the technology already built into their ear canals. They,” he nodded at the disappearing captives, “don’t need it, though.”
“What is this place?”
“The detention center. What are you in for?”
Luke sighed with exasperation and sat up. The ripple effect had stopped. He let the pure oxygen flow into his lungs before speaking. “I didn’t renew my license.”
The man’s eyebrows traveled upwards an amazing degree. “That was rather careless of you.”
“I didn’t know anything about it. I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
“All first time felons say that. It doesn’t work. If you didn’t know it had to be renewed, why did you get a license in the first place?”
“I didn’t! At least, I don’t think I did. Everything I thought I remembered is all muddled now.”
“That type of thinking will only put you into rehabilitation. Now, if you go there, they can keep you as long as they like. You don’t want to go there. Just agree you are guilty and you’d like to see a counselor. That way, they’ll leave you alone. The counselors really hate to take time, you know.”
“Yes. They’d rather maraud.”
“Precisely,” agreed his new friend. “My name is Oliephuses, by the way, but you can call me Ollie. I’m staying at the garden house. It has room for one more tenant. You don’t want to join the hut people. They are backwards and ill mannered. I’m not even sure how they found the slip stream.”
The garden house sounded fine. Luke didn’t feel like he was in any kind of condition to be choosy, anyway. His head still throbbed. His back felt the lumps of bruises in every joint, in every muscle. His legs had grown quite tired of crawling and were happy to be strolling upright. The hut people did not look all that appealing. They were extremely hairy for one, which clashed with his aesthetic tastes on degree of acceptable body hair, seemed more interested in building shapes and patterns with rocks than in any other activity, and used very physical means of communicating; gesturing at each other wildly, pushing, tapping, sometimes erasing the pattern that one had created to fill in with one of their own, yet curiously; never really coming to blows although they always seemed to be arguing.
The garden house was well named. Flourishing shrubbery surrounded it. There was a neatly fenced in vegetable garden to one side, flowers planted near the entrance and in hanging baskets on the broad, sheltered porch, and more pots and baskets of plants scattered throughout the rooms inside. He was unfamiliar with most of the thriving greenery, although some of the plants seemed to be very close relatives to ones he remembered. One large bush looked almost exactly like bamboo, although the leaves had a deep purple hue to the veins of its leaves and in the stems. An inside plant looked like a giant stock of celery, but with berry sized fruits nestling among its leaves.
On the inside, the house was completely utilitarian. There were no decorations, no extra dimensions of comfort other than a plain sofa, some plush looking chairs, a table and large counter space in the kitchen, a variety of desks in what only could be called a common room and what appeared to be a work table for all kinds of curious inventions. There were two other occupants. One was a woman with rust colored flesh tones, a bald head, extremely long ear lobes and a very long, sinewy neck. On each ear lobe were three curved metal bars, arranged in a row, each one directly under the other. When they made their introductions, she fiddled with the bars a moment, then smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Luke Maverick,” she said in a voice that was clear but not loud and end with a slight musical chime. “My name is Mirdeesh.” The musical chime became more prominent with the pronunciation of her name.
“Her translator,” said Ollie as though impressed with her built in technology. Although Luke found other things about her that were impressive; mainly an upper torso that supported her powerful neck well, and a pair of shapely legs that traveled liberally from a short tunic, he decided that he too, should be impressed with her translator.
The final occupant did not appear very impressive at all. He was a slightly built man, barely over five feet tall, who had absolutely no distinguishing features to separate him from human. However, when he moved, there seemed to be no joints to his body, only fluid movement. His snake-like hands slid into his pocket and he pulled out two disks with the porous quality of coral. He struck the disks together and a tiny puff of smoke came out, which he inhaled deeply before speaking. “Now I can hear you,” he said through lips that hardly moved. “Shedha speaks mind and mind responds. Luke Maverick is hungry.”
This was very true. Luke Maverick felt ravenous, as though he hadn’t eaten in days. How long has it been, really, he wondered to himself, and tried to remember his last meal. The past wouldn’t resurrect itself, only the memories of what should have been but apparently was no longer, his reality. He tried to keep from shuddering as Shedha’s elastic body moved about the kitchen, finally producing a square loaf of dark bread, some unidentifiable fruits and what appeared to be a pink cheese. Luke bit into the bread experimentally. The flavor was like a cross between rye and wheat, although somewhat sweeter. The cheese did not taste like cheese at all. Although it had the texture of cheese, it tasted more like a custard. Both foods gratified his hunger pains, but he eyed the fruit dubiously. “Luke Maverick has fear,” said Sedha.
“Your fear is ungrounded,” chimed Mirdeesh. “The Bronesch may not like having jobs, but they are very careful about building habitats for felons. We are all compatible species. What we can eat, so can you.”
“Why did the Bronesch bring us here?”
“They didn’t bring us. We brought ourselves.”
“You came here voluntarily?”
“No!” He said emphatically. “I was tricked. I was following a woman who said she had something to show me.”
“Ah,” said Ollie, “you followed her, but she didn’t force you to come? She didn’t threaten your life or try to bribe you?”
“No, no. I thought it was a dream; and I was curious is all to see how it would end.”
“And where is this woman now?”
“I – I got rid of her.” He felt suddenly very uncomfortable. The others lapsed into silence as well and Sedha puffed at his disks.
“Remarkable!” Said Ollie finally. “I never thought of doing that.”
“I broke into three sub-space channels before they gave me my first felon,” said Mirdeesh with awe. “How do you get rid of someone?”
“Well, you just do. You beat them over the head with something, run away or push them over an edge,” he finished faintly.
“That gets rid of them? Aren’t they still there?”
“Maybe their molecules are, but they aren’t alive anymore.”
“Define alive,” asked Sedha. His eyes had become mere slits and his head was thrown back as though in a trance.
“You’re alive. I’m alive. We’re talking to each other. We get hungry or tired. But when you’re dead, you’re an inanimate object, like this table.”
“You’ve been dead before?” Asked Ollie eagerly. “You know this for a fact?”
“Once you’re dead, you can’t come back and tell everyone about it. It’s all over.”
Ollie sighed and tapped his claws on the table. “I’d like to believe you but if you haven’t been dead before, it makes things a little difficult. Can you make yourself dead so we can find out for sure?”
“No, I’m not going to make myself dead. If I stabbed one of you in the heart, what would happen?”
“We would suffer greatly from pain and blood loss.”
“Yes. And once you lost all your blood and your heart stopped, you would be dead.”
“And then what?”
“That’s it. There is no more what.”
Ollie scratched his head. “Should we try it to see if it happens?”
“It won’t happen,” said Mirdeesh confidently. “The Bronesch will just restore our habitat and we will have suffered for nothing.”
“This is true,” nodded Sedha. “So you see, your argument is pointless. The Bronesch might not care if we make ourselves dead but they have to obey the Zork.”
“You mean if I die, the Bronesch will bring me back?”
“Worse,” said Ollie. “They’ll put you in rehabilitation.”
“You don’t want to go to rehabilitation,” said Mirdeesh. “They can hold you as long as they like. Sedha has been there and look at him now. He’s addicted to mind links.”
“What was he like before?”
“More like you. He didn’t have his own translator and said many things that sounded strange. He spent a lot of time working on a flight modulator,” Ollie nodded toward the work table. “But once he came out, all he wanted to do was grow plants and listen to minds. He changed.”
“Yes,” agreed Mirdeesh. “He was a splendid felon once. He used to break,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “gravity laws.”
“He could fly?”
She brought her fingers to her lips and puckered her lips against them, reminding Luke of the human gesture for keeping a secret. “It isn’t talked about. Nobody knows how he did it because he didn’t use an artificial apparatus. They wiped out that memory.”
“Have you ever tried to leave here?”
“Leave? Where would we go?”
“You know. Go back to your home worlds. Go back to who you were before.”
“You want to go back to amniotic fluids?” Laughed Ollie. “Why would you want to do that?”
“No,” murmured Sedha. “There are no home worlds, Luke Maverick. We are all being.”
The words drifted into his head gently, as though they were thoughts of his own, and he brushed them aside as easily. “There are no guards. What happens if you go beyond the parameters of this compound?”
“Then you are no longer a felon.”
Luke puzzled over the conversation much later, when he was shown his room and allowed his private time. The room was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the house. It had a bed with a light weight blanket, a dresser filled with essential clothing that fit him quite well, a corner door that lid into a small private bathroom, and a small stand containing grooming tools. There was absolutely no difference between it and a twentieth century home on Earth.
Earth. Odd, how quickly it was beginning to recede into the background of his thoughts, almost as if it was a fantasy world he’d once played in. He went to the single window that overlooked the garden and beyond to the shimmering landscape that bordered their habitat. In the distance, an enormous, but very pale yellow sun was going down and another was coming up; this one very small and ruddy. While dark shadows crept over their garden domain, the sky beyond drifted between ochre and brick red. Their captors had even allowed them the consideration of night, only they weren’t true prisoners. They could leave any time. They could explore this strange world that apparently had not one thing in common with the one he’d left.
He laid on the bed experimentally and closed his eyes. Sedha’s words came back to him. There are no home worlds. Just being. Maybe Earth wasn’t real. Maybe none of this was real, just a trick of the imagination. I’m real, he argued with himself. I get hungry. It hurts when someone beats on me with a stick. I was sexually aroused by a well stacked alien. I feel tired and want to sleep. I’m alive. That makes me real. As he drifted off, he thought he heard a familiar voice. Don’t leave me.