“Mister Bob” by Dan Campbell
“It all began with the chicken in the end of the road,” she said.
“Pardon?” I gestured. “Could you say that again?”
Miss Sanderson reached out and tapped the translation device on the table, then picked it up and fiddled with its settings. She was the ugliest female of her species I’d ever seen — obscenely symmetrical features, pale hair and complexion, long limbs — and yet forever twirling a finger in her hair like she was trying to proposition me. Disgusting!
I picked up a fourth cigarette with my theta appendage, lit one end with the lighter still held by kappa, and pulled a drag through the closest nostril. All four fags lit up, and I savored the burn and prickle as the smoke absorbed into my underskin.
Remembering my manners, I held up another cigarette, offering it to my client, but she shook her head, not deigning to wave a hand in refusal. I shrugged, lit the cigarette and popped it into a fifth nostril. This was going to be a trying appointment, I could tell already.
She set the translator down and sat back, then said, “It all began with the chicken at the end of the road.”
I blinked — all eight eyes. She didn’t grasp the insult underlying my confusion, but dug in her bag and brought out a picture. She set it in front of me, then sat back, doing that damn twirl again.
I loomed over the picture, adjusting four of my eyes with two appendages and did my best to interpret what I saw. These “threee-deee” holographic images give me no end of trouble. Binary species have no idea how easy they have it — nor, I suppose, what they’re missing, but that’s beside the point. As I manipulated my focus on it, though, I could make out the parallel rails and perpendicular cross-ties of railway track. The rails ran from the left across a desert landscape at night, lit by an unseen moon. Dark mountains filled the background, providing a contrast with the pale desert crossed by the railroad. The rails ended at right-center of the picture, just in front of…
“Ma’am,” I gestured, adding the honorific cephalic bob without thinking. She looked away at that, shutting her eyes and covering her mouth with one hand. I controlled myself this time, and started over. “Ma’am, with all due respect, do you expect me to take this seriously?” I pointed to the picture. “This looks like a ‘Net hoax.”
In truth, I was glad of the cigarette smoke, and craving a sixth. Bipeds never seem to have developed a sense of smell, but I was terrified and exuding it from every pore.
“Oh, it’s real all right, Mister Bob. Haven’t you ever heard of Eden?” she said.
“Eden? As in, ‘Garden of…’?”
“No, the world Eden — ”
I quivered all over. I couldn’t help myself. It really was from another world! Maybe… And then I deflated after she swallowed visibly and continued.
“The planet Eden, I mean, in the Fomalhaut system.”
I kept forgetting these vertebrate bipeds had recently mastered quantum gates — useless, as far as I was concerned, but a hell of a breakthrough for a species that had spent most of its history trapped on one planet.
“So,” I gestured, pointing a trembling appendage at the picture, “is this ‘chicken’ native to Eden?”
‘Chicken,’ indeed! ‘Terror bird,’ more like, if I’d had the choice of words. If the railroad tracks were normal size, the bird was huge, and with that wickedly sharp beak… Miss Sanderson and her associates may have dubbed it a ‘chicken’ because of the comb and wattle on the head, but it reminded me most of the wading birds that stalked the nursery pools when I was a marshling.
“No! That’s the problem,” Sanderson said. “Nothing is supposed to live on Eden, not even bacteria. Gaia Corporation can’t go through with the Project if those things keep popping up.”
“Why come to me, then, Ma’am? I don’t see much mystery here. Why not just remove it and start terraforming?”
“‘Cause that’s only the first one. There’ve been two more.” She reached into her bag, pulling out more photos. They showed the same kind of scene: barren landscape, night time, railroad, terror bird at the end of the tracks.
“Okay. It still sounds like you need a xenobiologist.”
“Tried that already. They don’t know what it is or how it got there. That’s where you come in.”
“How did it get there?”
“You tell me!” She held up a hand and started ticking off fingers as she spoke. “No tracks. No way it can fly. No sign of a struggle. No quantum signature. No way it could have got there.” She laid her hands back in her lap. “And no sign of life. Dead as a doughnut.”
I reached over and adjusted one of the translator’s dials, then mashed the Replay button. It gestured: “-ign of life. Dead as a doorknob.” I still didn’t understand the idiom, but decided it wasn’t worth asking about just then.
“So,” I gestured. “You want me to find out how the ‘chickens’ are getting there and where they’re coming from?”
“Has one of these been left undisturbed?”
“A fourth one showed up last night. We can send you straight there — that is, if you’ll take the investigation?”
“How many other investigators have you tried?”
“Only two,” she said, looking away from me and twirling her finger in her hair. From that gesture, I was sure she was lying, though I couldn’t tell if that meant ‘none’ or ‘ten.’ I suspected ‘none.’ I kept a steady stream of work coming in by having cheap rates. With the Eden Project on the verge of final implementation, Gaia Corp. was probably strapped for cash.
“I’ll take it. When can you port me over?” I failed to repress a resigned flatulence from my pores.
She wrinkled her nose in a gesture I didn’t comprehend and said, “Right now. Mister Lenkiewicz will meet you on the other side.” She paused and coughed several times. “Just… just give this to the reception desk at the Gaia Corporation office.” She laid a chit on the table and left in a hurry.
I hate sand — dry sand, that is. It clogs up my mucus like you wouldn’t believe. Slipping through the gate, I instantly regretted taking this case.
But then I took my first breath on the planet. Nostalgia roiled through me as I inhaled a sulfuric aroma wafting in and out of the dry, flat air of Eden. It smelled like home, exactly like home. Not even Kawah Ijen came this close. Overcome, I allowed myself a few moments shuddering sadness, trying to ignore the grit biting into my foot. Then scent faded away. I wished I was back in the fens, where the sand was always wet.
Something poked me. I recoiled from it and opened my eyes. Mister Lenkiewicz, wearing a forcefield lung to process Eden’s atmosphere, jumped back and pointed to a translator on the ground in front of me. He half-bowed in that nervous way his kind have of showing apology.
” — o sorry,” he was saying. “It’s just over this way. If you’ll follow me, please.”
“Certainly,” I gestured. Picking up the translator, he led the way to a set of railroad tracks not far from the gate. Swelling myself against the discomfort of the grit, I followed.
The track ran straight across a flat plain, illuminated by a low, yellowish moon. On the opposite horizon, the first tentacles of dawn were waving. Reaching the tracks, we went along parallel to them. Ahead, I could see the bulk of the terror bird. But my eyes were drawn above it, to a blue-white star that outshone the others in the sky. In spite of ingrained years of disappointment, I began to hope.
Lenkiewicz stopped a few meters away from the bird and set the translator down. I only noticed this with one eye, as I was much more intent on the star and the railroad. I extruded myself out over the rails, looking down the way we had come while also gazing over the bird’s head at the star. The alignment could be just right, I was thinking when I saw Lenkiewicz had been telling me something.
” — which is why we think it may have been a dual suicidal jingle combat,” he finished.
I looked at him, holding all of my eyes open in what I hoped would be understood as an uncomprehending blank stare. Lenkiewicz squirmed and stepped back. At least he didn’t run screaming. The translators of the last century are a godsend, faulty though they are.
“Pardon?” I gestured. “Could you repeat that?”
He stooped and pressed the Replay button, then adjusted a few dials when it said, “The wounds reminded Henson of fencing. They’re in the right places — if one were a large bird — for scoring points in a fencing match, which is why we think it may have been a dual suicidal jingle combat.”
Standing up, he said, speaking with care, “Sorry, that should have been ‘a duel — judicial single combat’ there at the end. Like they have on Deneb’s Stump: honor, satisfaction, saving face, that sort of thing.”
“Sword-wielding terror birds?”
“You mean the bird was wielding a weapon?”
“Yes — er, I mean, the bird was the weapon. Look at its beak!”
I had been trying not to. The beak was remarkably long and tapered — to the point that it resembled a proboscis. Terror squirmed against hope within me. The bird was almost certainly one of the stalkers I remembered from my infant years: they could get at you no matter how deep a crevice you shrank into.
Repressing the terror and hope both, I took out my haptolfactory recorder and slid around the bird, logging my observations. Subject is avian in appearance, estimated to be three meters tall, with vestigial wings and powerful legs. Head features a long, proboscis-like beak, prominent wattles and a comb. Neck is not proportionate to length of legs. Subject is aligned approximately north-south, facing south down railroad tracks. Subject’s position — I turned off the recorder and extruded my eyes to a position directly above the carcass — Subject’s position is at the epicenter of at least three — no, five—celestial alignments, including the prominent blue pole star in the northern sky. Alignments are spaced evenly around Subject, approximately seventy-two degrees apart from each other. Client’s assertion that Subject shows no sign of having walked or flown to present location is verified. Subject is dead and presents five wounds: in the body, feet, and — I lifted one wing for a closer inspection — wings.
Extending appendages into each wound, as well as the mouth and anus, I continued my observations, noting its last meal, blood type, mitochondrial decay, trace molecules in the lungs, and other important details. As my mantle brushed the bird’s feathers, nostalgia overcame me once more. The sulphuric flavor I had associated with Eden’s atmosphere was intense, concentrated in the filaments of feather. I could have given myself over to day-dreaming about the brown marshes of my youth, the exquisitely bitter flavor of grubs dug out of the shallows.
Lenkiewicz, however, snapped me out of the reverie just as I began salivating. He stumbled several steps away from me and fell to his knees. Concerned, I withdrew my appendages from the bird, meaning to go to him. He fell forward onto his hands and expelled a long stream of fluid from his mouth. Fortunately, I recognized this as a sign of illness for his species and kept my distance rather than leaning forward to sample the aroma.
After a few minutes, he glanced back my way and pushed himself to his feet.
“Are you all right?” I gestured.
He grimaced and turned to one side, holding a hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he said a moment later. “Weak stomach. Must have been something I ate.” He offered a wan smile — another way of showing apology. “Please, carry on. I’ll just wait over here.”
I turned back to the terror bird and re-examined its wounds. Subject’s wounds are minor, though deep. Client’s theory of a duel between two such birds is supported by the length and width of the wounds, which correspond to the size and shape of the beak. However, no single wound is lethal, nor has there been sufficient blood loss to account for Subject’s death. Based on chemical analysis of the lungs and arterial blood, asphyxiation appears to be the cause of death — most likely, upon arrival on Eden. I turned off the recorder and withdrew into myself, pondering the circumstances.
Death upon arrival. Body found at end of railroad…
I gestured to Lenkiewicz, “Why does the railroad end here?”
“We’re building all five simultaneously, from south to north. Once finished, the rails will deliver the seed chemicals to start the terraforming. This is just where Team Four stopped work yesterday.”
“Thank you,” I gestured and continued cogitating. Death upon arrival. Body found at end of railroad. Tracks aligned with pole star. Location of death sited at intersection of five equidistant stellar alignments. Ritually wounded… Could the stalkers have found some means to breach the membranes between worlds — and to pass through? Could they have discovered what my kin tried and failed to do after we arrived in this world, so many cycles ago?
I struggled to keep the tremor of excitement from showing in my gestures. There were too many unknowns to allow myself hope — yet. “I believe I have the answer.”
“You do!” Lenkiewicz said. “Excelle — I mean: So soon?”
“Not quite. A test is in order to confirm my hypothesis.” I glanced at the sky above, noting fading stars. “What time is sundown here, in TST?”
“About 22:30, I believe.”
“Can you arrange gates to take us to each of the railroad construction sites this evening? I need to check the celestial alignments of each location.”
“Celestial…?” he began, then shook his head. “Yes, certainly. I’ll book time with the quantum generator.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you at sundown, then.”
“Here.” I handed Lenkiewicz a data chit while we waited at the end of the fifth line. “If I’m right, this will explain everything.”
“Won’t you be providing a full report after the investigation?”
“That is my report — if I’m right. I’m giving it to you now as I hope not to be here after midnight.”
“Wait and see, wait and see, Mister Lenkiewicz.” I was so excited I could have squelched. Home! Home, after so long! I knew I should have withheld judgment until all the evidence was available, but in my three hearts, I was already convinced.
Lenkiewicz took out a reader and inserted the chit. We had visited the first three rail lines, where I found similar stellar alignments as at the fourth. The alignments also existed here, at the end of the fifth line, where today’s track laying ceased: a conduit of iron fixed upon the pole star and ending at just the spot designated by the other four stars.
Partway through reading my report, Lenkiewicz asked, “What is this?”
“Pages from the Liber Filis Monasticarum Infinituus. They describe a ritual to escape death and live eternally in a heaven of one’s own choosing.”
“Oh, it’s complete poppycock. I should know: my grandfather made up most of the tome. But that ritual should be effective, given just the right conditions. It’s all in my report.”
I watched the stars, impatient for the moment of perfect alignment. Unable to restrain myself, I let a giggle of joy roll around my mantle. Lenkiewicz stepped away from me and looked more closely at the report. To think that it would all come together on another planet! If only I had considered the possibility before!
“Reconstruct the rail lines?” Lenkiewicz said. “But that would — ”
“It’s coming!” I writhed with anticipation and slid closer to the end of the tracks, leaning towards the auroral shimmer emerging before us. Slivers of rainbow wriggled out from the light. I smelled autumn on the air, tasted the ripeness of the algal birthing pools. Home. Home!
The rainbow shards peeled back, opening to reveal the slit of the portal, the bright-white pupil of eternity, the membrane between the worlds. Like mucus separating into strands, the light of the portal striated as the edges pulled apart, widened the opening. A wind rushed from the portal and increased in intensity.
The smell became unbearable. Sulfur suffused my nostrils, coated the taste buds on my skin. I reached out, savoring the flavors. I slid forward into the gap. Too soon.
A shadow blocked the light. Pain sheared through my ventral mantle. I recoiled, remembered to shrink to one side. The terror bird stepped through. I shuddered and excreted in fear, just like a juvenile. The bird was a stalker.
I had forgotten Lenkiewicz. Oozing with pain, I saw the avian nightmare fixate on the man. It cocked its head to one side. Blood dripped from marks on each leg and on the wing I could see. The bird lunged.
Lenkiewicz jumped to one side, tripped and fell. The bird raised its head for a second strike, feathers ruffling in the wind blown out from the portal.
I oscillated, stretched between my longing for home and my duty to my client. With three eyes, I could see the portal reach its final, yawning depth. My first sight of home since my youth began to expand from the center. Through my other five eyes, I saw Lenkiewicz scramble to get up and run, then fall over himself in terror.
The bird stabbed downward. Its beak missed Lenkiewicz’s torso, skewered the thigh of his right leg.
I whipped my torso forward and latched onto the bird with several appendages. Some only tore out feathers, but enough grasped hold of a leg to pull the bird off balance. It stumbled, then kicked. I released it, shrinking back.
The bird stared at me. Transfixed by the sight of its beak, I froze.
Feathers shaking in the wind, the bird stepped towards me and raised its head. The motion spurred me to act. As the bird’s head shot down, I rolled back on myself, losing sight of my adversary but feeling the shock of its strike through the ground. Upright again, I reached to one side while preparing to roll the opposite way. The bird moved to follow my feint, but intuited my intent just as I committed to the roll. The bird reared back to strike, but not before the wind calmed.
I had forgotten how the other birds had died. The one before me lurched and gagged as it took its first full breath of Eden’s air. As one, the bird and I turned to the portal. Already, it was fading, evaporating into mirage haze. The bird staggered towards it, passed through, and collapsed on the sand as the last light from another world, from my home, vanished.
“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” said Miss Sanderson, as she stood to go. “What did you mean when you told Mister Lenkiewicz that you hoped not to be there after midnight?”
“I’d rather not talk about it, Miss Sanderson,” I gestured, lighting yet another cigarette. “Is Project Eden back on track?”
She shrugged, letting her question go. “You were exactly right, though I still don’t understand where the chickens came from. Engineering ripped up the last mile of each railroad and re-built them, just like you said: two degrees off the north-south axis. Not a problem since then. The trains should be rolling in another couple weeks.” She set a credit chit on the table. “Here’s the rest of your payment, as promised. Gaia Corporation thanks you for your excellent service.”
“You’re welcome, Miss Sanderson. It was a pleasure to be of assistance. Please call again should the need arise.”
She stood and walked out, leaving me to sulk while I waited for the next client to seek my services. I dragged on the cigarettes and absorbed a little more of the whiskey tonic my secretary had brought me before showing Miss Sanderson in. I swelled and sighed, jetting smoke out into the room. Had it been possible, I would have begged Gaia Corp. to build a sixth railroad, or to try re-doing one of the other five. But the fifth had been the last chance: it would be another millennia before Eden was in the right alignment.
A knock announced the next client far sooner than I had expected. He poked his head around the door, started, and said, “Mister Blo — , uh, Mister Bob?”
I nictated in annoyance at the unconscious insult. Sooner or later, it seems, every client makes that mistake. It did nothing to improve my mood, already well past the thirteen-cigarette mark.
“Yes?” I gestured. My new client popped back behind the door, then peered slowly ’round again.
“You, uh… You specialize in solving the unsolvable? Seeing the unseen? Knowing the unknown?” I recognized my client as an immature member of Miss Sanderson’s species. He had the speckled complexion and impaired eyesight of that stage in their life cycle.
“Yes,” I gestured. “That’s what’s engraved on the door, isn’t it?”
“S — s — sorry, Mister B- Mister Bob. I just wanted to be s — I mean, you — ”
” — aren’t what you expected,” I finished for him. “It’s all right; most folks feel that way the first time. Please, have a seat? What can I do for you today?” This gesture of hospitality, minus my usual offer of a cigarette, seemed to put him at ease.
He sat. “It’s about my mom, er, my mother’s, ah…” He trailed off, then swallowed. “Cat.”
“Yes?” I gestured.
The boy fidgeted: interweaving the fingers of his hands, pulling them apart, scratching his nose, shoving his hands between his knees, and so forth. It was fascinating. I’d never seen one of his ilk be so expressive. Too bad I had no idea what he was communicating with the gestures.
“She… She’s gone missing — the cat, I mean, not my mother.”
“When did this happen?”
“Three, uh, three weeks ago, la- last Tuesday.”
“Was she at home before she went missing?”
Both hands gripped on another. “My mo- my mother? Oh, no! No! She was on holiday.”
“I thought we were talking about the cat?”
“Oh, right! So- sorry, Mister B-” He gulped again. “Sorry.”
“Or is it your mother that’s missing?”
“Yes — I mean, no. That is…” He trailed off. He cracked his knuckles. One hand rubbed his face. “My mother is the cat.”
When he didn’t continue, I tried prompting him. “You have a cat for a mother?”
“No! Of course no — ! That is, she turned into a cat.”
“Ah! Please continue.”
“We were visiting Stonehenge.”
“As part of a tour?”
“Uh, no. We…” He scratched his nose. “Actually, we snuck in, at night.”
“At night? When?”
“Midnight on the winter solstice — like I said, three weeks ago.”
I couldn’t resist leaning forward. “Did you happen to see any strange lights? Rainbow colors?” In my excitement, I dropped five of the cigarettes.
His eyes widened. “Oh! Ah… Yeah, actually. Like the Northern Lights. I was just getting to that.”
“I’ll take the investigation,” I gestured. “Just let me get a few more details…”
|Dan Campbell’s work has appeared in Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, Niteblade, Fantastique Unfettered, Mythic Delirium, Bête Noire, Something Wicked, and Daily Science Fiction. He edits poetry for Bull Spec magazine in Durham, NC, and ruminates on LJ at art-ungulate.livejournal.com.|