The Four Queens
By Karla Fetrow
Editor’s note: In the previous chapter, Luke Maverick is introduced to the principles of marauding and given a memory device to assist his advocacy of the Bornesch philosophy. He must now learn how to maraud or return to the correctional facilities.
“It’s not an invasion process,” assured Mirdeesh for the tenth time. “The only thoughts that will be recorded are the ones that pertain to the principles of marauding. This is so the justice department can determine your defense.”
“How do I defend something I’m not sure I believe in?”
“Of course you do or you wouldn’t be here.” She was silent a minute. They had used precious time needed to access the system of highways and arrive at the first town in safety with the interruption of the Bornesch and their queen. Once Queen Clovia had solicited their loyalty, she had left them to their devices for survival. “Look at the food in your cling frame. Is it yours? Did you grow it? Did you prepare it? You took it from the compound, a place that provided you with everything you needed without you giving anything back in return. You took it. You are a marauder.”
“It’s not like I had a choice.”
“There you go again about choices. You had a choice. You could have left any time. You could have eaten only what you grew. You could have chosen to live with the hut people if you wanted to. Your choice now is to eat the food you took without asking instead of acquiring another way to fill your nutritional needs. Would you like to eat the greenery from the ground, like the Bornesch?”
Luke looked at the “greenery” Mirdeesh indicated. It didn’t exactly look like plant life. It seemed more like one of the variations in the ground color that continued to ripple slightly in loosely dancing molecules despite the adjustments Mirdeesh’s instrument had done to make their own physical dimensions compatible with the environment. Not even by summoning all the willpower in the world could he bring himself to try it. “How edible is it?”
“Very, if you’re a Bornesch,” she answered casually. “But you are not.”
“So my choice is, eat something I can’t digest, eat what I’ve taken from the compound or starve.”
“If you go hungry, you will weaken and Queen Espiedia will be able to take you,” said Ollie. “So I don’t think that’s a very wise choice. Or, we could return to the compound,” he added wistfully.
“I’m not returning to the compound,” said Luke Maverick firmly. “If we must maraud in order to stay free, then so be it. You two seem rather familiar with this planet. Have you been to the towns?”
“No,” admitted Mirdeesh. “My journeyman chose to stay in the wilderness, which meant he was marauding outside jurisdiction. The Bornesch came for him and sent him to rehabilitation, then brought me back to the compound.”
“I’ve been as far as one of the towns,” said Ollie. “They are wonderful to see. But when I was taken to the justice department, and my defense of marauding was examined, I was still pronounced a felon. Somehow, I failed in my advocacy.”
“What did you give away for free?” Asked Luke.
“It was a very odd object. I found it just before the town gates. A box of some sort. I was looking at it, turning it over and over, when I saw what I took to be some of the citizens watching me. They were affluently dressed, and I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing and my cling frame, yet they seemed envious. When I tried to speak to them, they pushed me roughly out of the way. When I started to put the box away, they growled and attempted to take it from me. A crowd gathered around. Fearing bodily harm, I gave it to them. Unfortunately, among the crowd were a few Bornesch. Seeing what I had done, they immediately arrested me and took me to the justice department where I was found guilty of being a felon and sent back to the compound. ”
“Was it a box with no true corners and little drawers that would not slide open?”
“Yes, it was.”
“I’ve seen a box like that,” said Luke excitedly. “I’ve seen one, so long ago I can’t remember where, but it stays in my head. A very strange box with multiple sides set at odd angles. It had a number of small drawers, but no matter what I tried to do, they wouldn’t come open.”
They were all silent a moment. “We’d better clean up,” said Mirdeesh decisively. “If we are to reach town before the rising of the red sun. There’s no use in continuing to think about what we might have done or should have done when we still have so much ahead of us that we must do. I don’t wish to be a felon any longer either,” she added solemnly.
The highway, Luke discovered, though spongy, still had a more solid consistency than bare ground. As they walked along it, an occasional vehicle sped by, unlike any he’d ever seen before. The crafts were oval in shape, contained the same shifting colors as their terrain and hovered just a little above the road, their tiny wheels appearing more ornamental or as a means of stabilizing the carriage when it wasn’t in motion. Luke thought to hail one, but they all whizzed by without hesitation as though they didn’t even see the pilgrims trudging along their road. In fact, he had no idea whether or not there was anyone inside them as he saw the way of looking in or seeing out. He grew nervous. The pale sun was lowering in the sky and they were still far from the neutrality of the city gates. “We’ll have to look for shelter,” said Ollie. “Espiedia will be out soon.”
Luke pointed to what looked like an abandoned house set back a short distance from the road. It was one of several they’d seen as they approached closer to the town, although the rest had appeared to be occupied. They had all been in good repair, had neatly kept yards, sometimes with fencing, and a vehicles or two out front. This one was in its deteriorating stages. Shrubs had grown along its sides, parts of the molding, which resembled adobe, was crumbling and the roof had partially collapsed. It appeared, as had the others, to be windowless. “If others can live outside the towns without fearing Espiedia, so can we. There must be something about these houses that keeps her away.”
“But the roof is caved in. She might be able to get through.”
“It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”
“Maybe those who live outside the towns are all Bernesch,” suggested Ollie. “Maybe there’s nothing magical about your house at all.”
“Then she might ignore the abandoned houses and only look for those who didn’t make it into town before Roseyamir’s rising.”
Luke’s companions shrugged and nodded in agreement. They had come too far to turn around and were quickly running out of options. They turned off the road and followed the faint path to the house.
Up close, they could see that the house was composed of a mixture comprised of the soil and a light, spongy, but durable mortar, much like what had been used to create the highway. There was no door. Only by passing their hands along the walls were they able to discover several small indents that, when pressed against with their finger tips opened a sliding panel. They stepped into their new sanctuary and the panel slid quietly closed behind them.
It was remarkably clean for something that had been left unattended. In the corner where the roof had collapsed, dust and debris danced around in its unsettled state, but the rest of the house looked quite stable. There were no squared corners, only divisions that rounded around and spilled into each other. It had been stripped of furniture, although there were cabinets and counter tops. Although the house had appeared windowless, once inside, they could see out quite well. It had only been that no one could see in. It occurred to Luke that this one way glass; the only word in his vocabulary that fit although the texture didn’t feel like glass at all, but more like a pillow; was what was used for the vehicles they’d seen. He experimented with the soft material, feeling as though if he pushed hard enough, he could push his hand right through, although after a moment, the sensation became so unpleasantly warm, sticky and absorbent, he decided it was better not to persist. As he brought his hand back, it tingled, and for a moment seemed to jump around in loose molecules.
Ollie and Mirdeesh were already preparing for sleep. Ollie had taken the gadget he had used when they first set out on their journey and scanned the circular room around them. “This house has automated environmental settings that adjust to its occupants. We’ll have to seal off the room with the hole in the roof so Queen Espiedia can’t tell the difference. She will notice an environmental setting for humanoids.”
“How will we do that?” Worried Luke. The pale sun was dangerously low and the sky taking on an ominous, ruddy light.
“We’ll dismantle these cabinets and use them to cover the hole. I brought a laser tool with me.”
Luke watched as Ollie cut away at the cabinets, feeling a little disturbed. It seemed like vandalism, even though the house was abandoned. It was too clean, too carefully crafted, too aesthetically appealing. Still, the pale sun was sinking, and he felt no desire to meet Queen Espiedia and her troops. He worked frantically at piling up the debris and shoring it with the bits of cabinets, climbing on top of Ollie’s shoulders to put the last pieces into place over the roof. When they were finished, the house no longer had a single cabinet or counter top in place, but the hole had been patched. Stepping back from their handiwork, Ollie took out his laser again and the patchwork of broken cabinets and debris slowly melted than hardened into a seamless wall and ceiling. Sighing with relief, Luke glanced out their one-way window. The red sun had come up.
This sleep period he laid on his pallet far more wakeful than he had been the first time. The unobstructed view of the open highway left him feeling more vulnerable than he had felt in their wilderness hide-out and the red sun seemed hideous as it cast its ruddy glow, changing the colorful landscape into shades of flickering red and black shadows. In the distance, he could see the twinkling lights of the town, and his heart yearned for this place he’d never seen but that represented a certain amount of safety. The vehicles that had continued busily along their way throughout the waning of the pale sun no longer stalked the highway.
The road, however, wasn’t completely deserted. Some of the same small animals he’d seen in the wilderness trotted, darted, or ambled along the side of the road, occasionally idling, occasionally feeding. He couldn’t make out any features, only dark shapes that moved, changed and sometimes blended with the landscape. There were flights of birds as well. From their flashes, he demised there were several different varieties, some no larger than canaries, others as large as eagles. Regardless of their size or shape, none of them seemed interested in devouring each other, preferring whatever nutrients the microbic soil offered them.
Somehow, he knew Queen Espiedia’s troops were there before he saw them. There seemed to be a darkening of cloud cover as they descended, a ghastly pall that shifted and flickered. Unnatural shadows in an unearthly landscape, intent on a nameless evil. They gathered close by the turn off to their hideout and appeared to hesitate. Luke’s heart pounded rapidly and he struggled to quiet his breathing. Could they smell fear? Mirdeesh chimed softly from her pallet, “don’t look at them. They will feel you.”
He pulled his eyes away, the dread thumping in his chest. The red moon spilled its crimson colors and the dark army crawled across the land. He focused on Mirdeesh. She lay on her side, her eyes still pools in the semi-darkness. He chanted to himself, “we can see out but they can’t see in,” over and over. After an agonizing wait of what he was sure was several eternities, he lifted his faze cautiously to the window. They were gone. He watched until his lids grew heavy and sleep overcame him, but Espiedia did not return.
He was beginning to appreciate pale Ohmeya. With its rising, it brought moisture to the air that Ollie called rain although it wasn’t much heavier than dew or a mist. This moisture was very pleasant to the skin and felt energizing. By the time they reached the city gates, it had ended, and the landscape sparkled in its new bath, while the sky gleamed a very light yellow, with touches of soft blue clouds.
There were a few citizens at the gates, but their heads and faces were covered in silky garments, intricately decorated with sewn in designs and fringe. They showed no interest in the trio, nor spoken when Ollie addressed them. With no box to attract envy, they passed through without being detained.
The city was as wonderful to look at as Ollie had described. The buildings were topped with high domes and arches. The streets curved around these circular structures, crossing over one another on higher and higher levels, creating a spiraling maze. The same vehicles he had seen on the road hovered on these layered streets or spun around corners and out of sight, but other than a few Bornesch who were lounging on a curb, they saw no other pedestrians. The buildings, like the homes they had seen on their journey, contained no identifiable windows or doors. Ollie walked up to one of the Burnesch. “Greetings, fellow marauders. Can you tell me where we can find food and lodging?”
The Burnesch looked at each other as though trying to decide whether or not to answer them, then one gave a short, barking laugh. “Find it where you will. Don’t bother to ask. Use your eyes.”
Their eyes didn’t help them much in finding their way among the seamless buildings with no signs declaring the individual establishments, no store front windows or apparent means of entering. As they walked, they slid their hands along the walls, searching for indents. Although they found some, the doors would not always open under the pressure of their finger tips. The ones that did, revealed a series of hallways also continuing along their spiraling path with a few more citizens, all dressed in their colorful, flowing robes and face masking, decorative head gear. “Why do they cover themselves this way?” Asked Luke.
Ollie scanned them. “They breathe in methane and carbon dioxide, but breathe out oxygen.”
Ollie consulted his instrument again. “Evidence of calcium and phosphate based interior structure. Skin composition containing high amounts of chlorophyl, with concentrated neural activity related to higher brain functions . They are sentient. The oxygen levels are higher in the city where the citizens gather in large numbers, than in the countryside, which has a naturally high methane base. Their clothing helps them screen out oxygen particles.”
Luke laughed. “They should be welcoming us with open arms then.”
“Perhaps they do,” chimed Mirdeesh. “We just haven’t found the welcoming committee, yet.”
They decided not to enter this corridor of offices. They continued sliding their fingers along the wall, looking for indents until the door opened up to another series of cylindrical rooms. Once inside, they began a cautious exploration until they encountered one of the robed citizens. “Donor verification, please.” The voice had a grinding, mechanical sound.
“We are marauders, not donors,” responded Ollie quickly.
The citizen inhaled deeply in front of each one. He stopped in front of Luke Maverick, sniffing a second time. “You smell fresh. All new donors are now being hosted on level three. Level one is filled to capacity.”
“It is our pleasure to maraud,” said Ollie, trying to push past the citizen.
The citizen made a clicking sound and a half dozen more robed figures appeared. They didn’t exactly push, but their momentum kept the trio back-stepping until they were exiting into the street. “Two levels up,” insisted the first citizen. “You will find techniques compatible with your marauding skills. This level is full.”
They looked up into the labyrinth of streets until their eyes located the area he indicated. As they adjusted their vision to the flitting images, they realized that a great many of the vehicles were stopping at one of the doors, which slid open and closed on a constant basis.
“How will we get up there?” wondered Mirdeesh. “No markers. No directions. We’ll get lost along the way.”
“No, we won’t,” said Luke determinedly. “We’ll steal one of the vehicles.”
They looked up and down the street until they found an abandoned vehicle. “I must say,” said Ollie as his hand found the indent and his claws scratched along the surface until they found the tumblers for a lock. Springing it, he waved them inside a door. “This marauding business is becoming a bit appealing. It’s very…” He looked at the unfamiliar control panel and began testing some of the buttons, “resourceful.”
The seats conformed comfortably to their bodies as soon as they sat down, but the air reeked of methane. It took both the equipment of Mirdeesh and Ollie to separate the atmosphere controls from the rest of the engineering, but soon they were breathing pure oxygen. Luke looked anxiously out the window. “You’d better hurry. There’s someone coming in this direction.”
“Got it,” said Ollie with satisfaction. A purring noise filled the vehicle, and a slight jolt as it rocked awkwardly in the air, then stabilized. A map of the area they were looking at displayed over the top of the control panel. Ollie’s finger traced from their original point to their desired location. The vehicle responded willingly, hovering by a door that slid open after a few electronic beeps. Luke Maverick and his companions were inside.
They hadn’t known what to expect; perhaps another series of cubicles or a group of offices giving them instructions; certainly not a large, open market. The market was filled with every species of humanoid he had encountered, a great many Bornesch, the plant-like, robed citizens and a few other classifications of sentient beings he had not yet identified. He had never seen so much variety of goods and offers in one place. He was familiar with some of the items because of his time in the compound. A few more varieties caught his eye as being extremely earth-like, even to the presence of cell phones and televisions. There was much, however, he could not comprehend, from food stuffs to technology. Mirdeesh and Ollie didn’t seem concerned. Becoming apt students of the marauding principles, they hovered around the tables that looked like they had something useful to offer, and confiscated a few goods. Luke’s strangeness kept the vendor’s eyes occupied, and they never even noticed when Mirdeesh and Ollie walked away while they vainly tried to communicate with this new species.
Their attention was drawn to the center of the market, which looked like an arena with a center stage. On the stage, was a group of oxygen breathing humanoids. Crowded at the bottom were a number of robed citizens. A mediator announced that twenty five new donors were requesting recipients and explained their terms of tenure. When he saw the three approach, he shouted excitedly, “do we have new donors?”
“We are looking for food and lodging, but we donate nothing for free,” answered Ollie.
“Nothing is for free. What we offer is an exchange. You would be provided with a room of your own, as long as you stayed close to your recipient.”
“We can pay our own way.”
“What we offer is a life of ease.”
“Things have been easy enough,” intervened Luke crossly. “We are looking for lives of adventure and challenges.”
“If it’s adventure you want, I’m a willing recipient,” cried someone from the crowd. Luke shook his head at the citizen who was waving a veiled limb into the air. “I don’t want to be followed around by a plant,” he whispered viciously to the others.
He pushed his way past the arena, his nose following the scent of enticing smelling foods in the market stalls beyond. He had only gone a short ways when the citizen overtook him. “Wait. I’ve been waiting for the chance to travel for more seasons than I care to count. I will be a wonderful recipient. You choose the route and I will follow. I can pay. I can provide you with many services. Take me with you. It’s unorthodox, but I’ve always craved this opportunity. Very few Chianthus have adventured, but their tales are written into our melodies. We are the melody makers,” he added proudly.
The three conferred. “I’m partial to music,” admitted Mirdeesh.
“He could be a valuable asset as an interpreter among the citizens,” pointed out Ollie.
“It remains within the first two principles of marauding,” reminded Mirdeesh. “Change and additional resources.”
“We will see if he pays for our meal. Than we’ll know if he’s sincere.” Returning to the citizen, Luke told him, “we’re hungry. Is there a cafeteria that serves food for our species?”
“The market serves everyone. Come right this way. I’ve been trained in nutritional needs for non-indigenous species. We all have been who have desired a donor.”
The citizen led them beyond the small, drab, domed stalls and on to a spacious pavilion with glistening tables and thickly padded chairs out in front, and an open archway leading in. The interior was amazingly home-like, despite the mixed alien crowd. A bar curved around a bartender, who mixed and juggled drinks with ease. Booths were spaced out in the back, leaning against windows that displayed a false view of rolling green parks, trees, ponds and people picnicking. In the middle, were scattered tables. They chose a booth toward the back, and while Luke Maverick gazed out on an earth that wasn’t quite Earth, the citizen ordered their food.
It was a feast. Dish after dish was brought to their table; stuffed mushrooms, sauteed vegetables, a grain that tasted like a cross between rice and barley, cheese boiling in a hot cup that they could dip their dark, heavy bread in, dishes swimming in sauces, sweet confections and an astonishingly good wine. He hadn’t expected to eat so well, nor to drink so deeply. My good man,” he asked after his third drink. “Assuming you are man, or a woman. Do you have a name?”
“My name is Narlislem,” said the citizen. “I think…” The mechanical voice clicked as it groped for words. “Your gender separation does not apply.”
“You’re neither man nor woman?”
“I am educator. Many seasons ago all educators traveled, gathering knowledge. Now, not so many. We teach what has always been taught and bring to our students nothing new. We are lacking.”
“Why did they quit traveling?”
The mechanical voice growled. “It was the choice of the donors. They were happy to live in nice homes and always chose for recipients, those who made the best offers. The things they have wanted! Huge basins of water to bathe in, artificial sunlight, toys to play with; incredible toys! Games and viewing machines, robots and music boxes. They became very expensive to keep and there was no money for traveling. I trust…” His voice turned into a question, “traveling with three such resourceful donors would not be so very expensive?”
“Pay for this meal, and we’ll consider the terms of our future employment,” laughed Luke. He raised his glass and his companions cheered. The room twinkled in cheery orbit. He was warm; warmer than he’d ever been, basking in the admiration of his new-found friends. “To change!” He said. They toasted. “To new resources!” They dashed their glasses together again.
Throughout their celebration, a small, fluffy animal hovered close to Luke’s feet. It sniffed the floor repeatedly and sometimes looked up at him expectantly, but he ignored it. It was bad enough he was being accompanied by a talking plant. Somehow, the idea of a blue fuzz ball that resembled an electrified dog, tagging along was a little more than he wanted to contemplate. As they got up to leave, he nudged the creature cautiously out of his way.
It was not so easily discouraged. It followed him as they picked their way past the crowded tables, continuing to look up hopefully. The waiter, who had been cordial all evening, detained him with a hand on his arm. “You forget to feed your pheeft,” he said mildly.
Luke shook his head. “It’s not my dog. I don’t know where he came from.”
The waiter was insistent. “You didn’t feed your pheeft. How can you fill your belly to excess and let your animal go hungry?”
“Because it’s not mine.” Luke shrugged off the detaining hand and brushed past.
The citizen whispered to him anxiously, “You didn’t feed your pheeft?”
“It’s not mine! Did I come in with a dog? No, I did not. And I’m not leaving with a dog.”
The waiter had become angry. He shouted loudly, “Stop the insurgent! He didn’t feed his phfeet.”
The restaurant patrons, who had been so cordial; even friendly; earlier, began to murmur among themselves and rise up out of their seats. “I think,” clacked Narlislem, “we’d better run.”
They ran. Alarm bells were ringing and lights flashing around the entrance door as they ran through it, with a crowd of angry patrons close on their heels. Their pathway began to fill with the curious and the indignant as shouts of “he didn’t feed his pheeft” echoed behind them. Luke’s head spun. The wine ricocheted through his brain cells, and the market, which had appeared so normal after his long internment, seemed suddenly filled with ghouls and demons. He reeled into a table and stumbled, sending the displayed contents spilling to the ground. Mirdeesh put a hand firmly under his arm pit, and pulled him up. “Just run,” she hissed. “Now is not the time to maraud.”
It was just a little easier to run with Mirdeesh pulling him by the arm. There was incredible strength under her fingers and her long legs pounded swiftly and surely, dragging him along as effortlessly as though he was a rag doll. They passed the arena where the mediator was still extolling the virtues of donor/ recipient relationships. “Slaves!” He called at the top of his voice. “You’re all slaves! Pampered house pets used for decoration. That’s all you are!”
Mirdeesh silenced him hurriedly. “You’re going to bring the Burnesch.”
“Damn the Burnesch,” answered Luke loudly. “Damn them all.” On second thought, it wasn’t a good idea to attract the Burnesch. Somehow, he regained control over his wobbling legs and scrambled on his own momentum to keep up with the team.
“We’ll have to enter the Roseyamir district,” clattered Narlislem feverishly. “Follow me.”
“Roseyamir!” The troops looked at each other in alarm.
“Don’t worry. It isn’t dangerous during Ohmeya’s rising. We just need to hide long enough for me to call a cab.”
They followed him while Luke thought to himself, why the devil do we trust this plant person? He could be carrying us straight into Espedia’s arms. Yet, he followed, not so much out of faith, but because there was an angry mob behind them.
Twisting among the stalls, which became stranger and stranger in the things they offered, they ducked into a dark den. Beyond them a red light glowed and the citizen pulled back. “This is far enough,” he announced. They crouched in their hiding place, while Narlislem fumbled in his robes. “The coordinates are set. We just have to wait for the sensors to find us.”
“How long will that take?”
“As long as it takes it to arrive. You’d better feed your pheeft.”
Luke looked below where his knees folded, pressed to his chest at the small animal waiting by his boots. It had managed to follow him through the chaos it had generated and was still looking up at him expectantly. “It’s not my pheeft,” he said weakly.
“Of course it is. It’s chosen you and now you are responsible for it. Feed it.”
Sighing, he removed his cling frame and rummaged around in it until he’d found a small loaf of the precious, nourishing bread. He broke it in half and gave the animal the smaller piece. It did seem hungry. It gobbled the piece so fast, he guiltily fed it the rest of the loaf. Burping with contentment, the animal curled into a ball, resting its head in Luke Maverick’s lap. “There, you see,” clacked Narlislem pointedly. “The pheeft is yours.”
There was no time to argue the matter. In the scattered blond light of the market place, feet still trampled hurriedly by their den hide-out, looking for them. On the other side, their transport arrived in the ruddy Roseyamir section. They hurried through the short tunnel, and dashed across the short stretch of unholy ground to reach their vehicle. Even as they piled inside, Luke could feel the cold drafts of a dark and ominous company slipping, spinning and crowding in around them. The citizen’s expert, enveloped upper limbs slid over the control panel, lifting the craft, just as the most incredible and nauseating sound cascaded around them, then lessened as the cab swooped higher. Luke Maverick retched and blanked out.
When he came to, the cab was still in motion, zipping among the myriad of streets and buildings stacked one on top of another. “What was that?” He moaned.
“The warrior’s call,” answered Narlislem. “One breath longer and they would have overcome us all.”