The Four Queens
By Karla Fetrow
Luke Maverick has narrowly escaped an angry crowd that has witnessed him neglecting his pheeft; a very serious offense. Only the aid of Narlislem helps them escape, a citizen who wants to join this small band of marauders. Narrowly missing being captured by Queen Espiedia’s warriors, they must now place all their trust in Narlislem.
What had seemed a town when they first studied it from the shimmering hills, was technically a city. Instead of spreading very far outward, the inhabitants had built up, connecting the buildings with walkways, bridges and wide pavilions. It was like looking at a city in layers, an archeological dig that had never settled into dust and ruin. Each layer had its rounded tops set in between and a little higher than the last one. He saw then why lights had twinkled in a city that had no windows. Weak Ohmeya was not able to shine through the long shadows cast by the intricate construction, and artificial lighting shone on every corner that had been darkened by an overpass or another domed building. As they neared the top, the city appeared as a round pyramid, somewhat resembling the seed pods of a sunflower, with the curving roadways, its petals.
The cab hovered into a complex just three levels from the top. Here, the natural horizon could be seen clearly, and Ohmeya was beginning to set. “The University grounds”, explained Narlislem. “We’ll be safe here for awhile.”
The University grounds were a marvel in technical engineering. Each section of its clover four leaf pattern contained a wide garden area and different environmental settings. Each garden was complete with pathways, art and architecture which Luke assumed was representative of the particular species that inhabited each environment.
Curving and bending along the flower petal shaped road, the craft entered a portion of the pod with a garden very much like the one that had surrounded their house in the compound. “I’ve always been fascinated by the humanoid species,” Narlislem chattered excitedly. “I’ve earned the donor needs specialty degree from the welfare council, even a recommendation to the quad-lateral court. But I’ve only dealt with stationary subjects. I’ve never had a chance before to study up close the random rebellious gene. You are remarkable specimen. I trust you’ll find your own accommodations to your liking, but excuse me if mine are a little less to your taste.”
The cab paused next to one of the faceless compartments and Narlislem tapped out a code on the control panel. A door slid open and the vehicle glided smoothly into the waiting carport. They descended, still feeling wobbly from their near mishap, the pheeft tagging closely to Luke’s errant path. “Adjustment protocols”, mumbled Ollie.
“No adjustments will help you,” said Narlislem. “The warrior’s call is a neural inhibitor, causing temporary paralysis of all brain functions when applied at close range. We were fortunate that we ascended in time to prevent a full onslaught. Nausea, disorientation and a feeling of general weakness are the short term effects of minimal exposure. It will wear off.”
The first thing they noticed as Narlislem opened the door to their inner chambers was the distinct smell of methane. “My atomizer,” he apologized, noticing the trio of noses wrinkled unfavorably. “I know it’s offensive to you, but I find the aroma flavorful.”
The room itself didn’t do a lot to improve Luke’s equilibrium. Between the windows, which looked out over the garden, were framed images Narlislem said were paintings, although they were three-dimensional and animated. One was a land scape, exactly like the one they had been through, with the ground’s rippling colors and an overhead, pale sun. Another appeared as a pattern of leaves that shifted from light to dark under a breeze, and with the same little birds Luke had observed earlier nestled and flitting between the slender branches. There was one with dots of color floating along what looked like a musical scale, sometimes exploding with noiseless fireworks. “Our audio records,” explained Narlislem. “They can only be translated through music.”
“Is that a family portrait?” Asked Luke, nodding at the leaf picture.
“We only have thirty-two genome in common with ileral signolasis; root dependent non-vertebrae. I am less related to spineless plants than you are to the pheeft.” If scorn could be instilled into a mechanical voice, it was there. “I do however,” he said, “enjoy contemplating their primitive composition. There is much to be said about simplicity. The root bound, the stationary, have no need or desire to do anything but flourish. But what happens when something flourishes too much?” He answered for them. “It creates an imbalance, an imperfection, a flaw. Our society has become flawed; afraid of the red sun and Queen Espiedias’s warriors, afraid to seek out the new and different. Afraid to explore. We build on top of each other, huddling close together, growing bigger and bigger, but we don’t journey into the unknown. If we don’t take the initiative to extend our boundaries, to become innovative, we might as well be plants.”
There was no furniture except a very large, covered pot that sat in the middle of the circular room. The rolled edges and curved form made it look much like a pot used to house small trees grown inside, like lemon trees or bamboo, Luke reflected, then pushed the image away reluctantly. This plant had just talked to them and rescued them from an unknown fate. At the very least, he could refrain from thinking irreverently about it.
The pheeft was less concerned about reverence. It circled the pot and nudged it, a loud purring sound escaping its throat. “I think your pheeft would like to make a donation,” clacked Narlislem. “We have a special area for this, designed for your comfort.”
He showed them a set of indents that opened a bathroom with a toilet perched on a box-like structure. “You may deposit your donations from the by-products of your meal here. Our compost initiative will automatically sort the different chemicals for desired Ph balance. You have no need to do anything except touch this button when you are finished. All donations are greatly appreciated.”
He said this casually, as though not at all aware of the slightly repulsed look his new team members gave each other as they began to understand what he meant by donations. The pheeft wasn’t at all repulsed. It sniffed at a pad that was apparently placed for pheeft like functions, a wide but shallow bowl, with a generous layer of the indigenous dirt from the planet, dancing around with microscopic enthusiasm on top. The pheeft sniffed around inside the bowl, dug a hole and deposited its donation. As it jumped out, the surface flushed like loose sand quickly filling a new sink hole and settled again to a sparkling, undisturbed surface.
Narlislem continued on, unperturbed by the group’s discomfort. “ Please note the shower settings. They can be monitored to any combination or elimination of oxygen, hydrogen, methane, sulphur, ammonia, or chlorine molecules, depending on individual tastes.”
“What about plain water?” Asked Luke.
Ollie stepped forward and conferred with the citizen. Using one of his own instruments, he coordinated the dials, then paused. “Mist or liquid?” He asked.
“Liquid and lots of it.” The experience of entering Narlislem’s room was like stepping into a poorly kept stable. He felt saturated with the smell and looked forward to a long bath. The mist like showers at their communal home in the compound had been cleansing enough, but not wholly satisfying. He intended to make the most of his marauding days.
“Luke Maverick’s physical attributes show an astonishing appetite for water,” explained Ollie to Narlislem. “I suspect his species is closely related to the Bornesch, possibly a deviant from the original blueprint.”
“Interesting,” responded Narlislem. “The Bornesch have long maintained there is a missing link within the four phase evolutionary base design. A remarkable circumstance to be sure and a wonderful opportunity to study this primitive archeological find. Are there any more examples of this deviant?”
“Not that we are aware of,” said Ollie. “This is the first water rich vertebrae that includes a rampant rebellious gene to have arrived during my stay in the compound. He could be an anomaly.”
“I’m not a frog man,” groused Luke.
“No more than I am a plant,” responded Narlislem triumphantly. He opened another door. “Here are your quarters. I hope you will find them comfortable in the extreme.”
Luke wasn’t opposed to comfort, but the collection of rooms, set up like a bee hive around a central unit; the living area; seemed downright lavish. A thick carpet covered the area that his feet sunk into like freshly cut grass, a huge davenport faced a window that pictured a holographic scene of some sort of jungle with strange, predatory animals and a number of unidentifiable reptiles. “You can change the channel if you like,” invited Narlislem, “but many of them are not readable to your visual perception. They will look scrambled. We use these rooms to educate initiates on the origin and necessary environment of donors.”
There was a bar with a number of decanters containing delicate, sparkling liquids. There was a large aquarium filled with tropical looking fish, although, like everything else, none he could specifically identify. There was exercise equipment and a tall instrument that looked like a cross between a harp and a keyboard.
Their environment included a virtual game playing system that Mirdeesh seemed quite familiar with. Inviting Luke Maverick to sit with her, she stimulated an apparent anti-gravity game. He had the distinct sensation of floating, and as he flailed around, trying to maintain his equilibrium, a series of colored bubbles traveled in his wake. “Don’t fight it,” advised Mirdeesh. “Don’t try to move quickly. Allow yourself to float.” She floated like a fish in water. He held still and slowly the air around him settled until he felt like he was being rocked. Cautiously, he lifted his head and his body swooped upward. He held out his arm, and the air bounced gently around him. “I think this is the closest sensation to flying an Acodian could ever experience,” she said, swimming by him.
“An Acodian?” He trashed around a bit trying for a more serious position than an outstretched buzzard.
“You mean your people. You don’t remember them much anymore, do you?”
“I remember some things.” She rocked to a sitting position and stared soberly at him. “It’s so far away and vague, I’m not sure how much was real, and how much was just a fantasy.”
“Do you remember how you got here?”
“Not exactly. I remember my field was aeronautics. I remember using machines, instruments, cables, not much more. Is it important, Luke Maverick, to bring back the details of the time we spent in the womb?”
“It’s important to remember who we are and where we came from.”
“Even if everything has changed? If we’ve changed? What is there about your past that you need to hold on to it so tightly?”
“I had an identity. I had control over my life.” He waved his arms helplessly, the movement sending him into a half flip, a flurry of popsicle colored bubbles trailing behind him. He righted himself with an effort. “What do we have here? Frog people, talking plants that keep humans as decoration and fuzzy blue dogs that choose their owners. It’s chaos.” The force of his words blew him backward again.
Mirdeesh turned off the controls and they sat facing each other on a solid bench. “The chaos is in your mind. Everything else is quite orderly. Let it go. There’s nothing to hold onto.”
His fingers pressed into the bench. Despite the synthetic material used to simulate solid metal, he was still able to feel the yield of loose molecules under pressure. “This planet has a slightly lower gravitational field than the ones we are from,” he said slowly. “We are more heavy bodied, our molecules are packed more solidly together. This is why we need atmosphere adjustments. We don’t belong on this world, Mirdeesh.”
“We belong wherever we happen to be. Did you choose the world you miss so much or were you just put there?”
“I was born there. That makes a difference.”
“No, it doesn’t. What if you had been born, in flight on a Continental carrier bound for the Diagma star cluster? Or in a mining camp on one of the miserable twelve moons of Jeneva? Are you obligated to remain where you were born?”
“I was abducted.”
She shook her head, her chiming laugh sounding like the chords of a xylophone. “I think we have already established that you were not. You came of your own accord, Luke Maverick, and only your accord will send you somewhere else.”
She stepped out of their holographic game station and stretched. “I see that Ollie and Narlislem have been keeping each other good company. Ollie is familiar with the lu-rapture and can actually play it quite well. Maybe Narlislem is encouraging him to perform.”
The good citizen was doing precisely that. Coaxing Ollie into taking a seat behind the keyboard of the musical instrument, he hovered, making adjustments on the strings of the harp that flared in back and circled the outside of the electronic controls. “I trust your play time was adequate?” He asked as cordially as he could with a mechanical voice. “We were just about to have a concert.”
“Narlislem has agreed to sing,” said Ollie excitedly. “Not only will we be marauders but traveling musicians. We could become famous, the desired of the queens’ court. There could be no higher honor.”
“Except the four dictations,” amended Narlislem.
Luke laughed at Ollie’s enthusiasm. “First we’d better hear you. For all we know at the moment, it could be as painful an experience as the warrior call.”
The two aspiring musicians glanced at each other. “Well,” Ollie answered determinedly. “There’s only one way to find out.” Narlislem removed something from under the veil covering his face and hid it inside his robes. He nodded to indicate he was ready.
The harp began with a weeping sound like the long sound of a spent wind after an afternoon of destruction. A quartet of violins moved in, their notes cascading and sprinkling over each other. In the background, Luke could hear the distinct tones of a cello, and then it seemed every stringed instrument he had been familiar with, as well as a few he was not, had joined together in a woven symphony of sound.
Just when he thought it could not get more beautiful, he heard the sweet, piercing music of a flute. Reaching for higher and higher notes, it swept over the top of the combined orchestra, carrying away the melody. Faster and faster, the notes on the violins tumbled, while the harp sang out in solitary yearning. In a series of anguished high notes that trailed away, paused, then lingered one last time in a note so sweet and pure, Luke felt an emotional response that began in his gut and cemented in his brain. He felt suddenly as weightless internally as he had externally in the game center. He felt emptied, with nothing to hold on to except the most exquisite music he had ever heard in his life. His ears clung greedily to the last note, savoring the final, dying echo.
While Narlislem was singing, a very remarkable thing happened. His limbs began spreading out by his sides, the long robes billowing around them. As his flute like voice pitched higher and higher, he began to float a little off the floor. By the end of the musical composition, there seemed to be very little to him except some long robes and veils billowing in the vibrations from his music. Once his song had finished, he floated gently downward, and rearranged the robes around his now more definitive body.
“Do you see,” said Narlislem, after returning his mechanical mouth piece inside his clothing. “You would not be able to understand what I’m saying without my voice aid. We don’t have a similar larynx.”
“Your voice is very compelling,” said Mirdeesh. “As is your playing, musician Ollie,” she added. “It was a pleasure listening to you.”
“And you, Luke Maverick,” asked Ollie eagerly. “What did you think?”
“I think you will become the desired of the queen’s court.”
“Did you hear that, my good friend? We can’t fail. We are on the highway to fame. A toast! I’ve been eying those shiny, little bottles. What shall it be? What do you recommend?”
“I recommend the cherel. The tall green bottle to your right. I understand both the taste and the flavor are very appetizing to your particular body chemistry. However, I’m afraid you’d find my own preferences disagreeable. I’ll leave you to your pleasure. I need replenishment and, embarrassing as it is to say, I find it very difficult to withstand the smell of the environmental preferences of donors for very long.”
“How do you like that?” Asked Luke as Narlislem took his leave. “He says we smell bad.”
“Not us. The room,” amended Ollie. “It’s too much oxygen for him. He likes what we breathe out, our burps and… other things.”
“Our donations,” finished Luke.
“Yes, our donations. Apparently they are converted into one hundred percent organic soil, which is considered quite a gourmet meal.”
“It’s efficient,” interrupted Mirdeesh. “Especially for travelers.”
Ollie had brought over the green bottle and three champagne glasses. “Do you think,” he asked as he poured, “Our new friend will receive a second-hand inebriation?”
“All the alcohol is probably filtered out,” said Mirdeesh.
“More the pity for him.” He tasted the sparkling, green liquid. “Ah! Excellent. It reminds me of the lush fields of Ilensore. Have you ever been there? No? It’s one of those places you know deep inside exists because you yearn for it. You can almost see it if you think about it look enough; emerald hills, flowering trees, the magnificent metradas grazing peacefully.
“Would you like to see Ilensore again?” Asked Luke.
Ollie was quiet a moment. “One never stops yearning for Ilensore. You yearn for it too. I can feel it.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I don’t remember. I was looking at it. I was embracing it and I felt so much joy; but then, it was gone.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.” He looked at his glass and shrugged. “Maybe we will find it again. To Ilensore!” He said, raising his drink than downing it quickly.
“To marauders!” Cheered Luke, following his example.
“And musicians,” added Mirdeesh.
Luke woke stretched out on the davenport. Curled up in the slight v where he had bent his legs, was the pheeft. It lifted its head when he moved, and Luke was just able to discern two very round black eyes staring at him intently from the flop of fuzzy curls around its face. Groaning, he thought about sitting up, then quickly laid back again when a sheering lightening bolt of pain ripped through his neural pathways and his stomach did a flip flop. The room spun dizzily around him, and while he waited for it to re-stabilize, he tried to recall the events that had taken place before his last sleep mode. Funny, he mused, how he no longer tried to mark things in hours or days. Even his sleep time erased the concept. While he slept, nothing changed in the world he visited, the world he had once thought was his. People moved in and out of his dreams, saying the same things they had always said, their activities as predictable as clockwork.
Clockwork. There was no clockwork here. You ate when you were hungry. You slept when you were tired. What was past slipped quickly into forgetfulness with only the moment lingering. It had to be real though, or he wouldn’t feel either condition. And you could feel pain. Another wave of nausea hit him and he groaned again. The pheeft made a sound in its throat, somewhat like a prolonged gurgle and edged closer to his stomach. “No,” he pleaded, pushing the animal away. “I don’t think I could take that right now.”
His voice wakened Ollie and Mirdeesh, who had not made it to individual rooms either. They struggled into a sitting position from their own plush lounges and held their heads, groaning. “Remedial vitamin intake urgent,” mumbled Ollie. “Anti-toxin agents…” he groaned again. “Are somewhere in my cling frame.”
They were still trying to decide who had enough strength to retrieve Ollie’s cling frame, when Narlislem bustled in. “We can’t stay here!” He clacked rapidly. “It’s all over the news. You’ve been charged with animal neglect, Luke Maverick. They don’t know your name,” he added, his voice clipping over the words. “Only that you were seen with two other donors, series type AE100113 and series BH0021101m complex quotient 3. Very coveted series, both of them, I might add, very high on the demand list. Apparently, Luke Maverick, you have been de-classified because they have not been able to determine your specifics. This will delay them, as well as the alibi verification of all donor exchange clients within series modules.”
“We’ve never contracted with a recipient,” Ollie and Mirdeesh said, almost simultaneously.
Narlislem hung his head. “There is another factor. A witness stepped forward and confessed a citizen had been involved. They will look for my bio/chemical signature. I can scramble them until the red sun’s rising. We must be gone before then.”
“That means I can still take a shower,” said Luke Maverick, stumbling to his feet. The room swayed dangerously to one side. Ollie quickly steadied him and handed him a capsule. “This will help you,” he urged. “It restores your natural body chemistry.”
Luke nodded. He was ready to try anything at this point. The capsule went down like chalk, but he immediately began to feel better, although still sticky and sweaty. He headed determinedly toward the bathroom. “Oh,” said Narlislem, gliding along beside him. “Could I watch?”
Luke stopped in his tracks. “What are you? A voyeur?”
“No, not at all. I was just wondering how you breathe in so much water? Do you form gills? Do you turn into a … what did you call the Bornesch? A frog person.”
“I don’t have gills, I don’t turn into a frog, and no, you can’t watch,” said Luke crossly. “Does that answer all your questions?”
“A few. There are more I could ask.”
“No.” Alone with his shower at last, he slammed the door and sighed with relief.