By Hannah Christensen
Lights began to wink off high in the city’s heart, though they buzzed and flickered constantly below. One light, oranger than most, blinked twice as it spiraled down before winking out as well. It let out more light at ground level, but only as friction sparks while shrieking down a building and into an alley.
Someone from a neighboring laundromat looked out the window at the noise, but did not see anything. She did not take the time to step outside and investigate; the washer was done, and she wanted her clothes dry before the laundromat closed.
She would have had to look hard for the pile of gently smoking residue wedged under a jumble of trash cans. The winter wind quickly pulled the smoke away.
Anewac huddled in a corner of his wakand. He knew soon all the heat would escape; the rent in the side of his wakand was too large to repair. He had to find a new source, and soon. Scans had shown that this planet had life sustaining warmth on the large part of its surface when under direct illumination, but the warmth was thinner here even in the light. In the morning warmth he would climb up and set the distress signal, but he had to survive until the morning first.
Rekat had warned that if activated in this atmosphere, the travel suit would combust. Anewac wondered if the explosion would be small enough to be worth the quick burst of warmth. He knew, though, that a single puff of warmth would not keep him noticeably longer than what was left in the wakand unless he could find a better place of warmth. Flattening his filliscord, he pulled in all the heat he could and lunged for the opening.
Frigid fumes of air blasted his cilyi. He could feel his outer layer immediately begin to compress. The surfaces around seemed fairly conductive, but all heat seemed leeched out. If only he could stumble on a heat pocket nearby.
A wintery gust tumbled him against a wall. No wonder he could find no heat with such acidly cold air. Anewac could feel his filliscord loosening with the shock. He pulled in tighter, wrapping the last bit of warmth to himself. He must at least get out of this deadly air.
Stumbling along the wall, he reached for a conductive lump to anchor and block him while he felt around for a lifegiving pocket of warmth.
Surely with a planet as full of life as the scans showed this one, he could find something. The probes even claimed a high percentage of life as generating their own heat. Imagine that—self sustaining heat! They wouldn’t even need the air. Though perhaps the bioheat was backup for cold spells like this, and they normally got their life heat from the atmosphere.
There must be a source nearby; he could still move, though his cilyi were still too numb to tell him what direction the source was in.
Anewac circled under his conductive post to feel for the source. The end of the post puffed air at him. He startled back, afraid of another deadly breeze. No, this was no toxic air—this air was richly concentrated with warmth. Anewac hugged the post close. This was the source of heat.
Swiveling directly under the opening, he relaxed in the gusts of warmth. All his layers slowly expanded, soaking in the warmth.
The air was pleasantly oxygenated, tingling his cilyi. He leaned them into the opening itself, safe from any deadly gusts.
Now that the immediate danger was addressed, Anewac could consider any other dangers that might be around him. Noises abounded, but they seemed to be environmental, more wind and landscape oriented, not animal. He relaxed, slowly expanding, and had almost decided to stretch out over the end of this tube and take a nap when the air stopped.
All the area seemed to freeze for a moment. Anewac squeezed himself together and realized that the whole area had not actually been sucked frigid in an instant; one air current had simply stopped, and with it, a noise. The tube he was on retained warmth, so he was not in immediate danger, but it would soon begin to cool. The most logical thing to do would be to follow it up to its source and see if he could find what gave it heat. Anewac leaned in, swung a little to get further in, and dropped.
The tube’s surface had enough texture to ripple up easily. It ended, though, in a grating.
Anewac leaned into the grating. Warmth still vibrated on the other side. He pulled himself flat, but the holes were too slender to even try to fit. Cilyi wiggled every which way, looking for a solution.
The holes in the grating were too slender, but where the tube met this wall was a thin crack. Maybe if he could get through, he could find another way to the heat source.
The crack was too slender for his whole body, but he flattened enough cilyi out to find a promising lump. Prying and twisting and poking proved it to be a thread-screw bolt. It gripped very tightly, and for a while Anewac feared he would not be able to open it without a tool, but it finally loosened.
The bolt fell out. The crack loosened. Anewac felt around to see if there were any more bolts.
His searching cilyi discovered three more thread-screw bolts. He worked a second loose, and could squeeze down to passing size without undue problems.
The area he entered was not as flat as the crack, but it did not allow him to relax into roundness. He had to grapple his way up.
The passage soon took a ninety degree turn. The inner surface was awkwardly smooth. He could no longer sense much warmth radiating strongly from the surfaces around him, but his filliscord seemed comfortably full of heat. Pushing out into an open space, he was pleased to note the bitter cold air was nowhere to be felt—then snatched at his surface as he realized that he had pushed out at the edge of a precipice.
Smooth surface smugly repelled his attempts to grab on. Something hard and round slammed into him, the impact giving him a miniature spasm. Lying still to make sure all his niets were untangled, he felt the lifegiving swell of heat.
Right in front of him stood a large, round cave. He leaned forward into its vibrating heat. The ridge under him creaked forward a little.
He leaned again. The ridge was still. This would take a leap. Coiling carefully on this uneven ridge, Anewac looked for the best angle, and loosed.
The landing was loud, but Anewac barely heard. Instead he reveled in the smooth, dimpled, almost piping-hot surface around him. There, above, was the inside surface of the grate that had blocked his way earlier. Here was a smooth-edged ridge to one side; there was another higher up, and a third, all evenly spaced. He sighed and let himself sprawl, content relaxing into sleepiness.
The same exploring spirit that had brought him cruising close in his wakand began to prickle him again. Carefully, he measured the distance to the ground, hooking onto a rubber ring to stretch down. It was a safe distance, though it would be difficult to get back in. Still, the room seemed plenty saturated with warmth for survival.
One line of boxes marched down this side of the room. Another line marched down the other. Boxes must be the favorite shape of this world’s inhabitants. They built their buildings like that on the outside, too.
All the boxes seemed made out of white metal. Each had a large opening in front and little grooves at the side. Anewac tried to explore a groove, but could not reach far inside.
The ground was cold and hard, covered with a pattern of squares. Every once in a while, though, he found an artifact. Once it was a long, narrow cloth bag with a turn half-way down. Another time it was a metallic disc.
One end of the room had windows, but Anewac did not feel inclined to investigate. He could feel the heat getting thinner over there. Instead he headed for the opposite side of the room, where yet another box stood. Standing next to it was tall, hinged contraption.
The contraption proved rickety. He was glad no one came when it fell. The noise certainly would have brought him to see what happened. After hiding a few minutes, he decided to scale the other box.
The task proved difficult, but possible. This box was different from the others. It did not rest directly on the ground, and stood taller. Its slot was much larger, and the opening in front was much smaller. He tried reaching into this slot.
The slot grabbed hold of him and pulled. He could feel machinery grinding inside, and clung to outside of the box. Why hadn’t he tried one of the artifacts first? It would chew him up and spit him out as mush!
The box groaned for a moment, then spit him back out. He slid down in relief. As soon as he mastered his vibrations, he pulled himself back up. Where he really felt like right now was that hot, comfortable cylinder with the dimples, but this box would not master him. He would just use more caution this time.
Anewac used the cloth sack this time to explore the opening in front. Not much would fit into the little round hole. It wasn’t thin enough to even try with the slot, so he tried the disc up there. The disc clanked around. There was no grinding machinery. Instead, the disc fell out the hole in front, ringing in the bowl built below. Cautiously, Anewac reached into the hole himself. The machine did not engage, though he could feel different levers and plates.
Several timid tugs met with no response. Growing bolder, he pulled hard on one plate. It gave way.
He started back, but not before something fell on him. Jerking back, Anewac almost fell off of the tall box, but caught himself in time to see what came out of the hole.
It was another disc, the same size as the disc he had picked up earlier. What were these for? Did the inhabitants on this planet eat metal? He tasted it, but it did not seem edible—not to Maoripi, in any case.
He slid down, thinking.
The touch of the cold ground squares made him shrink. Now would be a good time to return to the warmth.
In the dimpled cave, Anewac realized the warmth was weakening. For a few moments he huddled. How long would the warmth last? Would he stiffen in the night? If only he knew more about the workings of his surroundings.
Anewac forced himself to hump back over to the opening. He had to find a way to close this cave up, or the heat might all escape.
The rounded ridge swayed at his touch. He might be able to swing it close enough to close up the cave. He climbed up to investigate better.
On closer inspection, the ridge had hinges, and should close entirely without a problem. It was almost as if it was made to be a door. He lingered, staring at the groove. What was this connected with? He put one of his discs in to see where it fell out. It clinked and rattled, but he could not see where it landed. He tried the other, but without better results.
Anewac hesitated more. He should just close himself up in the cave, and quickly, but this might be the only time he had to experiment with this odd cave. Just a little longer wouldn’t hurt.
He dropped down and headed toward the tall box like a deployed gravity anchor. Wiggling free as many discs as he could carry, he rippled his way back to his cave. Only able to carry three up at a time, he left a tidy little pile of metal on the cold squares below.
Rattle, rattle, clink.
Rattle, rattle, clink.
Rattle, rattle, clink.
Still no sign of where they were going.
Rattle, rattle, clink.
Suddenly some lights began to blink on the front of the box. Anewac touched them hopefully. They were cold. Disappointed, he pulled away. Perhaps it was only an amusement box. Grabbing onto the ledge-door, he reentered the cave and pulled it shut behind him.
It did not want to stay shut, but creak open.
Anewac pulled again, sharper.
With a clang the door gripped its place. The cave roared to life.
Oxygen blasted through Anewac, puffing him up to his limit and tingling his niets. The entire cave spun: up, down, and around again. Heat shimmered stronger and stronger until thoughts floated away. All he knew was the scintillating feel of the cave in motion.
Anewac had no way of knowing how long the ride lasted. He wasn’t even sure how long it was before he noticed it had ended. Dizzily, he bumbled around looking for the door. Even when he found it, it did not want to open. Anewac threw himself at it, turning in the air like a gear.
The door shivered, but did not open. Anewac felt no dismay. Rippling over to the far side of the cave, he hurled himself again. It was almost a disappointment when the door opened on the third try.
Lying half in, half out of the cave, dizzy and tingling, Anewac knew was drunk.
“Way too much oxygen,” he cheerily admitted. He eyed the boxes on the other side of the room. “I wonder what those do?”
Anewac had played with all the settings on the boxes and even found a snack machine (All their theories on the nutrition of the dwellers would have be to modified. Though perhaps that aromatic powder was more of a sweet than an actual food.) before a native came back to the building. He hid himself in the tube he had entered through until outside got warm enough to survive. He didn’t have to wait long after setting up the distress signal. Rekat must have been watching for it.
“No more investigating!” she scolded. “I refuse to authorize so much as a squip trip for you!”
They worked fast to collect all the rubble of the wrecked wakand. Shielding worked better in flight.
As they started to lift, Anewac stopped Rekat. “Hover over there for just a bit. I need a picture before we leave.”
“Hover? In this population?” Despite her grumbling, Rekat drifted across the street and paused. “You have to the count of eight,” she warned.
Anewac was already activating the camera. He zoomed in for a picture of the front of the buildings, featuring windows and a large sign. As he pushed the take button, something inside caught he sight. Zooming in yet again, he quivered with excitement.
“Time’s up!” Rekat shoved their vessel into movement, deactivating the camera. But Anewac’s excitement did not dim. He had gotten a glimpse of the folding rectangle in action.
Sixty Years Later
“I still can’t believe our luck,” said Bob. He reached up and paused before taking off his helmet.
“I wouldn’t say luck. We were appointed, not chosen by lot.”
“But…who would have expected us to be invited by such weird fluffball aliens…I mean, not just us in general, but US, us two…and with a translator and everything…” Bob fingered the fasteners to his helmet while his companion patiently listened. “Sanders, do you really think it’s safe?”
“One way to find out.” Sanders snapped his helmet open and took a deep breath. He gave Bob a thumbs up.
Bob fumbled his own helmet open.
One of the fuzzballs rippled up and started fluttering and fluting into a cylinder. A buzzing voice droned in English.
“We wish you to feel welcome. Come enjoy a place modeled after a business from your own planet.” The alien offered them some white powder. Sanders accepted some in his still gloved hands.
“What is it?” Bob asked. “You don’t think after all this welcoming, now they’re trying to, you know—”
“I would say shut your mouth,” Sanders answered in an undertone. “But it looks like we’re supposed to eat it.” He jerked his head faintly toward the gestures their host was making. “So chow down first, and then shut it.” He sniffed at his. “Smells like soap.”
Bob gagged. “It tastes like soap!”
“Shut it.” Sanders tossed his handful in and dutifully chewed. Only a few bubbles escaped his expressionless mouth before swallowed and nodded at the host looking on with anxiety.
“This food is of a type we found on your planet. Is the replica unsuccessful?” asked the alien.
“Not…a flavor I’ve had before,” Bob rasped out.
Sanders popped in another pinch of powder to reassure their host. He seemed to flutter a little less, and led them out of the docking room and onto the street.
“Feels like summer,” said Bob, looking around. Most of the buildings seemed to be woven and conglomerations of tubes and domes. It took him a little to recognize the signs splashed about on buildings and archways as words. The writing looked like long, undulating fingerprints. The landscape was decorated in irregular colored blocks of something he couldn’t tell whether it was rock or plants.
They turned a corner and came to a full stop.
The building in front of them was square, bearing a large, rectangular sign in English above tinted windows.
“’Good Clean Slot Machine,’” read Bob. He grinned at Sanders. “Now that does sound interesting.”
The alien was even offering them some coins to use.
“I suppose a few minutes to get comfortable on a new planet wouldn’t hurt anything,” said Bob.
Sanders grunted and opened the door.
A wash of warm air rushed out to greet them. Fluffball aliens were everywhere. Lines wound around to square boxes. No pictures or levers decorated the boxes; after depositing their coins, an alien would climb in and shut the door, and the machine would roar to life. One line led to what resembled a rack where the alien climbing up would be pressed flat with a hissing iron board until it curled around the edges.
The humans blinked a few times, their feet rooted.
Their guide was gesturing them to the biggest boxes in the facility.
“Well,” said Sanders. “I hope you feel like a bath.”
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