Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friday Fiction for November 13, 2009

This week’s Friday Fiction is another excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project, “Empty Threats.” This one gives a good glimpse at the main character, Peri, and his first experience with the titular Empties on Alsafi.

Special props to those who recognize the origins of the other two Rover Vessel names in this chapter without having to look them up. Now, to get this posted to Pod Tales and get back to work on “Empty Threats.”

Chapter 3

Rover Hall

Afternoon had faded into early evening when Peri walked back out onto the street, a full stomach and a contented feeling adding a bit of bounce to his step as he resumed his journey. The district he walked through was older, but well taken care of, with businesses and offices promoting their services via high-tech advertising. Some of the buildings offered living space on the upper floors, and many of these welcomed commuters home through their doors.

Just one of the residential buildings alone could easily house more people than the entire village of T’Cha where he’d grown up, though he chuckled at the way fate could twist things. For all the wealth of the entire city of Eldorado, and all the technology of Alsafi, the most pivotal event in the Archipelago’s colonial expansion had taken place in a small, quiet village on Qi’le.

The road curved, roughly following the perimeter of the Hub. More of the store fronts and offices were vacant, and the buildings less cared for than in the previous neighborhood. Idle people watched him walk by, some with the complacent curiosity, and others with appraising interest. The latter he challenged with direct eye contact, wearing a mask of fearless confidence that hopefully would deter attempts to victimize him. All technology aside, people were people, and an image of strength was as effective on the streets of Eldorado as it was in the corrupt districts of the Temple City on Qi’le. If he could look like a high risk target with low potential gain, then no one would bother him.

The Rover Hall was set back on a side street, close enough to the Hub tarmac that, had it not been for the fence, it would actually be a short walk to the waiting vessels. The building was arguably the most run-down in the area, and had it not been for another rover snoozing in a chair on the porch, he might have thought the Hall had moved to a new location.

The natural stone steps leading to the door were cracked and crumbling, and the masonry walls showed the fissures of uncounted thermal extremes. Whatever local entity was responsible for the building had obviously not invested much in its external upkeep, and as he put his hand on the old manual door, he hoped the interior might have at least warranted some maintenance attention.

The door hinges let out an almost comical creak as he pushed his way into the foyer. Low energy, high efficiency lighting shown from faded sconces onto the walls and floor, and the door banged shut behind him. Like the exterior of the building, the interior begged for a serious refurbishment, though what he could see looked as though it were kept as clean as humanly possible. It needed repair, but it wasn’t dirty.

A small office on the far side of the foyer stood open, and he poked his head through the doorway. The ancient desk was tidy, and music played at a low volume from somewhere inside it. If there were a Hall Attendant on duty, though, was not apparent.

The dormitory area, just off to the right of the office, was smaller than he expected, with only eight beds divided between two opposing walls. Pillows rested on two of the beds, indicating which were already spoken for, and he selected one of the vacant cots with a polite margin from the other two. A fresh pillow from the storage cabinet by the locker served as his ‘taken’ notice for the bed, and he placed his luggage in the compartment beneath it.

A middle-aged woman emerged from the comfort facilities at the far end of the dormitory, followed by a remote laden with dirty bath linens.

“Excuse me,” Peri said, when she was close enough to him for polite conversation. “Are you the Hall Host? I need to check in.”

She smiled mechanically. “I’m the local host, but you should have been checked-in automatically as you entered the building. The system should have detected your transponder, confirmed your status as a Rover, and noted your use of the Hall Services.”

“I don’t have a transponder to detect.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Every child born in the Archipelago is given a transponder within forty-eight hours of their birth. It’s the law.”

“My home world is not part of the Archipelago, and we prefer to not have transponders implanted in our bodies.”

She gave him another look. “Yeah, now that you mention it, you do have the Eridani look. Fine; I’ll just manually enter you into the terminal. What’s your vessel?”

“I am Stardreamer.”

“Welcome to Rover Hall Eldorado, Stardreamer. Everyone that comes through here just calls me Em, and it’s just me taking care of this place. You’ll find clean towels and other bath supplies in the cabinets to the right when you enter the CF. Right now, we only have two working shower stalls and one functional bathtub, so if by any chance we fill up the beds, I might have to ask you to limit your bathing time. We have an arrangement with Contract Consorts to provide padding, and they can usually accommodate whatever preferences you might have in that regard.”

“I’m fine; I’d just like to take a shower and relax for the evening.”

She shrugged. “The right kind of padding can help you relax, but suit yourself. If you change your mind, just let me know and I’ll put through the request. It usually only takes them a few minutes to get someone here, and they’ll stay anywhere from just long enough to take care of business, to being a constant companion for your entire visit.”

“Thank you, but really, I’m fine with sleeping alone.”

“Okay. If you find a problem or need anything, just call out my name and the system will alert me, wherever I am. Right now, I need to send this remote on down to the laundry, and go take care of trying again to get someone in here to fix the broken plumbing in the CF.” She sighed. “As much trouble as it’s been lately to get any help in here, you’d think our credits weren’t as good as anyone else’s.” She continued to grumble as she walked away.

He waited until she had entered her office, and then stripped down to his underwear. The dirty clothing went into a bin at the foot of the bed, where a remote would collect it sometime that evening, wash it, and return it by morning. The clean clothes were arranged on the bed for after his shower, save for the clean underwear he would don in the CF before walking through the dorm. While many Rovers had no issue with nudity in the Halls, he still preferred to maintain some modesty.

Modesty, though, was a rather futile effort considering the open toilet stalls and the lack of either doors or curtains across the showers. Draping the towel and his clean underwear over a bar outside the shower, he finished undressing and prompted the water flow with the verbal command. With one hand in the spray, he adjusted the temperature. “Warmer,” he said, and waited for the results. “Warmer,” once again, and he stepped into the shower.

While the initial rinse washed away only the superficial layer of accumulated salts from dried sweat, oils, and expired skin cells, it still felt like a dramatic improvement. He started scrubbing, beginning with his face and head, and working down towards his feet.

“You ain’t hoggin’ all the hot water over there, are you?”

Peri rinsed his face, and wiped his eyes. A stocky, older man with more gray hair on his back than on his head was adjusting the water in the other shower. “The water is heated on demand at each fixture,” Peri said. “I can’t hog it all.”

The older man glanced back over his shoulder with an amused look. “That was meant to be a joke,” he said. “I ain’t never seen a Rover Hall so primitive as to have a central water heating system.”

“Oh,” Peri said. “My apologies. I’m not quite as good at detecting humorous inflections in English.”

“Huh,” the man said, stepping into the shower. He began soaping up his bald scalp. “So what language would you catch jokes in?”

He turned to rinse the lather from his back. “Humor has its own melodic elements in Qi’le.”

“So, you’re Eridani, then?”

“We prefer to be referred to as Qi’le.”

“Son, if you ain’t noticed, I have a hard enough time pronouncin’ English good enough for the proper folks. There ain’t no way I’m gonna manage to sing no Eridani words even half good enough for you to know what I’m sayin’. I’d rather chance insultin’ you by callin’ you the common Terran word, than risk callin’ you something worse ‘cause I so butchered the Eridani word that I accidentally said somethin’ really bad.”

“I suppose that’s reasonable.”

“Now, you, on the other hand, speak English mighty good for an Eridani.”

“There are a number of Terrans in my family, so I was raised around both languages. Since I was raised on Qi’le, though, it is what I am most familiar with.”

“I ain’t seen you in here before. You just arrive on Alsafi?”

“I made my descent earlier today.”

“I been here a couple of weeks, after comin’ in with a whole load of SusAn chambers. You can call me Sleipnir.”

“Stardreamer,” Peri said. “I brought in several containers of ferl fruit, and one of the medical salve.”

“Huh, yeah – stuff they can’t really produce locally. Alsafi likes to boast that they’re one of the only colony worlds to reach true self-reliance. There ain’t a lot of goods bein’ shipped in anymore, and not a lot bein’ shipped out. I’m on hold for an emigration charter that’s filling up with folks that want to go somewhere else, so I’ll haul containerized SusAn chambers back to Earthrise just as soon as they’re ready, but the other Rover here ain’t found any outbound manifests to pay his way elsewhere.”

“I can afford to absorb a deadhead run, but I’d rather not if I can avoid it.”

“That’s just it – Kuahairo can’t afford that much unpaid time to go somewhere that might have better manifest prospects. There’s still a lien on the Kuahairo that’s coming due.”

He turned off the shower and grabbed the towel. “If the Stardreamer wasn’t paid for, I’d likely have the same problem.”

“The Sleipnir is almost paid off. I’ve had her so long that the payments ain’t that big a deal no more. I’ve reached the point that I can pick and choose the manifests I wanna take, instead of feelin’ like I gotta take any I can get, just to cover costs.”

He dropped the towel on the floor and stepped onto it before pulling on his clean underwear. “I tend to be selective about my manifests, too, though this one was more of a favor to old family friends. They own the ferl groves, and wanted the fruit shipment to come directly here, rather than routing through another system.”

Sleipnir chuckled. “You gettin’ dressed here in the CF?”

“Just enough to cover. I prefer not running around naked anyway, and the Hall Host seemed a bit too preoccupied with setting me up with some local padding.”

“Ah, don’t let that bother you none. She don’t mean nothin’ by it, and that’s just how it is for an Empty. She was programmed to take care of the Hall and us Rovers, so they left out any kinda social conventions that might make that awkward for her. You could ask her to arrange for the most twisted thing you can imagine, and so long as it don’t mean someone gettin’ hurt, she won’t think anything wrong about it.”

“Uh, ‘that’s how it is for an Empty’? What do you mean?”

“You ain’t never been to Alsafi before?”

“This is my first manifest here.”

“Alsafi’s the only place in the Archipelago where they grow people for sale. They call ‘em ‘Empties’ ‘cause their minds are like empty data storage units. An Empty is kinda like a little kid, knowin’ just enough to take care of themself and express needs, until someone puts in an order for one, and then they get their brain programmed with whatever the buyer wants the Empty to know. Em’s one of ‘em. She was bought to be the Rover Hall Host, and that’s what they programmed her for. This Hall is her whole world, and if anyone tried to take her away from this, she’d honestly not know what to do with herself. She’d as likely die without this place, ‘cause she couldn’t handle the change.”

“That’s – obscene.”

“That’s Alsafi, son. You want to stay out of trouble while you’re here, then listen good. Folks here are different from other worlds in the Archipelago. This world ain’t run by the Corporations so much anymore as by a new system of royalty. They got the best technology anywhere, and they all think it means they’re better’n anyone else. They got social classes here, and there’s two classes called ‘Elite’. An Elite decides they don’t like you, and they can make your life miserable without much effort. The Elites like their Empties, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders like us tellin’ ‘em what’s wrong with that. The Archipelago Constitution is second-fiddle here to the Alsafi laws, and the only thing they look down on more’n an outsider is a Rover outsider.”

“But, what about the rights guaranteed by the Colonial Council?”

“We’re a long ways from Earthrise an’ the Colonial Council, son. We got rights here just so long as we don’t give them no reason to take ‘em away.” Sleipnir finished his shower and shut the water off. “The Elite are happy pretendin’ we don’t exist, so as long as you keep your mouth shut and don’t force ‘em to see us, we’re better off. Leastways, we got it better than the Empties.” The serious expression made him look much older than before. “We can leave if we want.”

To be continued...


Yvonne Blake said...

Sorry I didn't have Mr. Linky ready on my blog. It's there now.


Yvonne Blake said...

You've created a whole different world.

Thanks, Hoomi.