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Shen Sample - Chapter 4

(Yeah, I know, on Twitter I said it would be Chapter 3. But 4 is better. First time visitors - a short biography follows this post, as well as Chapters 1 and 2)

David woke. The room was brighter than the other times he'd looked, up there where the room actually was. He checked his watch and sighed. Udorans, apparently, were used to sleeping below floor level, in trenches roughly the shape and depth of coffins. As tired as he was last night, any bed seemed good. Brahm said a lot of things about rest sessions and lighting, through which he nodded politely. Then he lay down, thinking it wouldn't matter.

But it did. Today was going to feel like running on fumes. He brought his hands to his face for inspection. Relief – the fingers were back to normal size, and when he set them on the floor to sit up, he felt no pain. So he climbed out of his trench to have a better look round.

Brahm called it the commander’s quarters--had to be joking. The sleeping section was hardly bigger than the bed, with a bench along one wall where his clothes and raincoat lay. He wore ship’s standard nightwear: a grey, featureless shift. He wandered into a middle section furnished for meetings and then to the last room. He remembered this one; it had something like a desk. And a chair, a chair unlike the other stark furniture, because it had padding and a high backrest. He sat in it. He had considered sitting in it, every time insomnia found him staring at the ceiling. But he thought it might remind him of his new office chair that was—who knows—maybe light years away.

Screens on the wall behind the desk cheeped and pipped and spewed text. Well, he figured it must be words. How big was a single character? He couldn't tell. And what if it wasn't letters, but more like hieroglyphics? Or the thingy...what was that other sort of writing?

He fidgeted against the backrest and found he could get it to recline. Whose wedding was it, where he got stuck with a relative of the groom, taught at Bristol, who went on and on about some ancient language where the symbols stood for whole syllables? Udoric could be like that. Not that he'd really followed the conversation, and he certainly wouldn't have asked a question in case it kept the old git talking.

It was Lucy's neice. David closed his eyes. Lucy's neice. They had a church wedding, which he thought was daft when people weren't actually religious. Though admittedly it was a pretty church. Pretty church in a pretty village. Very pretty bridesmaids. What was she called? Kyla? Kara? She didn’t like her dress because the the neckline cut her tattoo in half. Turned out it was a mermaid.

He woke with a start. He didn't think he'd dozed off, but there his watch told him, as soon as he focussed, that he'd been out for two hours. He covered his ears with hands to muffle the noise that had brought him round. And then he put them down. He stood out of the chair. Noise? But it was there, overhead. Clanks like jackboots on sheet metal, marching—yes, and a great roaring in the background.

He listened longer, just to be sure. That's when he made out voices. They sounded more like barks or croaks but they definitely came from throats. Then a single, explosive crash left his ears tingling. He pushed the chair away. He made the exit walls open with a touch, as he'd been shown, and went back to the Control Room. The noise was even louder here. But Brahm stood facing the monitors, and seemed unperturbed.

"Where are they?" David asked.
The alien turned. "They?"
David pointed to the ceiling.
"The others you said we didn't have."
Brahm looked up and back at him, eyes confused.

"On the next level," he pointed more vigorously, "you know, upstairs. I knew I was right. I knew you weren't alone."

The single brow, hovering, crashed to an angry point between Udoran eyes. Not a hint of guilt in the expression. “I give up,” he said. “I don’t know what you want.”

"Visible evidence."

Brahm considered this. "Yes," he said stiffly, "I understand. Visible evidence." He walked past David and reopened the exit to the corridor. “Come,” he said. And he set off, covering floor with swift, piston strides. David ran to keep up.

“Look,” he said, lagging, “there's no need to get upset.” But Brahm did not slow his pace. And the other thing, worrying perhaps, was that they were headed away from the noise. The further they went, the more the sound dispersed and thinned in the empty space. The other end of the corridor was perfectly silent. The Udoran touched the wall and it revealed a compartment like the one David remembered, only larger. The interior was covered in diagrams.

"Is this the ship?" David asked.

"Yes," Brahm replied. He touched the illustration, and the compartment sealed them inside. Then there was sideways motion.

“I apologise,” David tried. And he gauged his companion's eyebrow, whether its tiny movements meant good or bad. Maybe he stared too hard, because the alien turned his head away, and sighed.

“Is this all to do with...,” Brahm began, then paused. The compartment accelerated, died back before David felt it turn and and thrust in another direction. “What was that strange word you used?”

“Tandoori?”

“Believe.” Brahm recalled, just as the enclosure slowed again, stopped, then rose. David felt queasy. He managed to say, “Believe?”

“I've been trying to understand. How does it differ from trust?”

In a better state of mind and body, he might have answered that. As it was, the compartment halted one final time and David needed deep, slow breaths just to keep his head clear. Then the entrance wall vanished, and their discussion completely left his mind. Spread out before him was a white surface, about the size of a helipad, free floating over a terrestrial landscape. Brahm stepped onto it confidently, crossed and stood with his feet dangerously close to the outer edge. He turned.

"Are you coming?" he asked.

David ventured as far as the centre, where the white floor had a single black spot.

"We are at the highest point on the craft," Brahm continued, as he walked along the rim. “This is the Observation Room."

"Room?" David asked. And he noticed the stillness of air. Defying his fear and leftover nausea, he joined Brahm at the limits of the circle and tried to stretch a hand out into the scenery. He couldn't.

"Right," he said.

"Can you see?" Brahm asked, pointing ahead.

Seeing was difficult. It was night in this place. Early light was a line along some sharp, distant cliffs. He made out the vertical thread of a waterfall that began there. It fed a turbulent river, that cut a deep gorge straight to them and passed underneath. Forest covered the banks on both sides, and David thought he saw fires burning.

"See what?" he asked finally.
Brahm waved his hand at a place far upstream. "The front of the ship.”
David squinted into the gloom. "I can't see."
"You can see where the hold has displaced the water."

His eye traced the river as far as it could. “No, nothing. Maybe if it got lighter..."

Brahm made a peculiar noise in his throat and turned away. David watched as he walked back to the centre of the room and placed his foot on the black spot.

"I assumed a creature asking for visible evidence would have better eyesight,” the alien said. "I’ll refocus the lens."

All colours of sky, land and water blurred. The scene, like a sheet spread on a glass bubble, was hoisted over his head, zoomed him forward. Disoriented, he staggered, and his nose bumped the invisible barrier.

"Look now,” Brahm said.

David peered over the hand that nursed his injury. There was plenty to see. On either bank of the river traffic swarmed. People...hard to know what else to call them. They stood on two legs but were ungainly movers. They had little clothing and a lot of body hair, in various textures and colours. Faces looked intelligent, yet fierce, and more than the usual number of cleft palates.

"Huh,” David said, as Brahm returned to stand beside him. “So, do we know where we are?” The Udoran shook his head and for once, David didn't question.

“I was here earlier,” Brahm confessed, “watching. I think they are punishing...but then I don't know. They have been violent.”

“They look a bit primitive. Less evolved.” Without looking, he could tell the Udoran was silent because he didn't understand. “Evolution? Didn't Udorans evolve?”

“Udorans...survived.”

“Eh?” But suddenly a new group of creatures emerged from the trees. They marched in formations of three, straight to the riverbank. Magically, when they reached the edge their feet left the ground and they didn’t fall. They strode high over the furious rapids with nothing to keep them them there, and crossed to the other side. “What are they doing?”

"They are walking on the ship," Brahm replied.
"I don't see anything."
"That's because camouflage is active," he explained, "but look down."
In the middle of the river, the broiling water was displaced by a cylinder of dryness.
"The hold?" David guessed.
"The hold," Brahm confirmed. "Will all this be sufficient visible evidence?"

David rubbed his nose and pressed his fingers into his eyeballs. "Yeah, fine," he said. But when he had finished kneading his face he saw Brahm was studying him.

"Did you sleep?" the Udoran asked.
"Not well, actually."

There was another, incredible blast like the one he heard in his quarters. Smoke billowed up from the trees. Creatures began to run across the river in both directions; some kept formation but most did not. Shaved naked ones dragged sledges piled with bodies and parts of bodies.

“Bloody hell. What are we doing here?”
“I don’t know,” answered Brahm.

“And how long--,” but he put up his hands, “—don’t answer. I was thinking aloud. And I’m too tired to think.”

"We’ll go back,” the Udoran said, “and you can rest.”

Their return trip seemed to take longer. David put himself in a corner of the compartment to endure the shunt and thrust. As they came out into the long corridor three clear tones sounded, echoing off the white walls. Brahm's eyebrow flew up, and he started to run.

"What's the hurry?" David grumbled, standing where he'd been abandoned. Brahm was half way to the Control Room.

"Something came in the hold!" he shouted.

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January 2015

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