The Otherness Factor (Sic Transit Terra Book 2)
by Arlene F. Marks
Copyright © 2016 by Arlene F. Marks
Okay, first things first. To whoever finds this voice log: the ship and everything aboard her belongs to me. If the Thryggians claim otherwise, just check with Earth Data Management. You’ll learn that sprint cruiser alpha delta five nine one one seven is the property of Abner Dyson Dedrick, citizen of Earth, Americas. That’s me.
By the way, be advised that I’m carrying a passenger at this time, rescued from the aforementioned Thryggians. The girl is Human, I think — well, humanoid, anyway — and looks to be about sixteen years old. I’ll add her name later on, when she stops sniveling in the corner and tells me what it is.
You’re safe now, dammit! A little gratitude might be in order here.
I’m recording this because I want the Thryggians to get what they deserve, whether I’m alive to see it or not. The bastards disappeared two of my friends, Ian McCormack and Paul Travanti. They tried to murder the girl as well, and they probably would have killed me if I hadn’t escaped when I did. And there was something else going on there, I don’t know exactly what, but it sure as hell ought to be investigated.
For the record, and again regardless of what the Thryggians might claim, let me state that the girl is innocent of any crime. All she did was point me in the direction of that lab. I was the one who—
I’d better explain.
It all began on my twenty-first birthday, when Ian and Paul and I were celebrating at Dante’s Hotspot in Atlantica. Everybody knows Dante’s — red strobes sweeping the room, naked girls with little horns on their foreheads hanging off the balcony, waving pitchforks…? The three of us were well-toxed when Paul brought up the idea of flying to Thrygg to get me a special birthday present. He’d heard that the Thryggians had discovered a way to extend the Human lifespan almost indefinitely. It seemed like a grand thing to do on one’s birthday, like wishing for more wishes from the genie in the bottle. Even toxed, we were aware of the Council’s ban on travel to Thrygg, so we filed a bogus flight plan to get departure clearance. Ian knew how to set the navcomputer to avoid being detected by the critical beacons en route. The three of us partied all the way there.
I want to be absolutely clear on this point: we were toxed, but we weren’t alzhammered, so there’s nothing wrong with my memory. There were three of us on this field trip. We flew to Thrygg together, we entered the medical facility together, and we sobered up together. The next day, Ian and Paul watched me being taken into the treatment room for the longevity procedure. I waved to them as the door slid shut between us. When I woke up from the treatment, they were gone. The sprint craft was still at its tie-down beside the landing apron, but my friends had vanished, and nobody I spoke to could recall even seeing them.
That was just the beginning of the nightmare.
The Thryggian doctors insisted on keeping me for observation following my treatment. Ten days. It seemed reasonable enough. Only, ten days stretched to fourteen, and then twenty. Each time I was assured that I could go home the following day, a new symptom would pop up, or I would have a reaction to something, and my departure would have to be pushed back again. Eventually, I figured out that I was being held prisoner. I barged into the office of Doctor Arristo and demanded to know why.
Arristo took one look at me and flattened himself against the wall farthest from the door. His fear was understandable. I’m a full two meters tall and mass over a hundred kilos, and at that moment I would have welcomed an excuse to hurt him.
In case you’ve never actually seen a Thryggian, imagine a being about a meter and a third tall, with grayish skin and the head of a snapping turtle. Now give this creature the body proportions of a Human infant — oversized head, short arms and legs, prominent belly — and the neck and shoulders of a wrestler. Make him smell faintly like fresh-baked bread. Round the skull and cover the cranial surface with a dense network of blood vessels that blue the skin and make it throb perceptibly, more so whenever he’s excited.
Arristo’s scalp was beating out a quick samba rhythm. “But— But you are not a prisoner here, Mister Dedrick,” he chirped. “Are you locked inside your room? Are you shackled? If you are feeling anxious, perhaps a mild sedative, yes?” This last sounded like a plea.
“No! Am I free to go?”
“If you feel you must. Leaving prematurely, you would have to sign a waiver, of course, protecting us from any legal action if your treatment should prove fatal.”
He’d come down from the wall. I took a menacing step toward him and sent him scurrying to the other side of his desk, beyond my arm’s reach. “Why should it prove fatal?” I demanded.
“It is an experimental procedure, with possible dangerous side effects. You knew that when you arrived. You signed the form, agreeing to participate in the experiment and to let us monitor your condition until it stabilized.”
I didn’t remember signing any form, and told him so.
“Oh,” he replied brightly, “of course you do not remember. You were — what is that quaint phrase?—‘toxed to the rafters’.”
That was Paul’s expression. Or maybe not. But I’d never heard anyone else describe a beer-and-Manica ride that way. My gut began twisting itself into a knot. Arristo had met at least one of my ‘hallucinated’ friends and was now manipulating like crazy to keep me from leaving the planet. Suppressing the urge to kill the turtle-faced bastard, I stomped out of his office.
I went directly to my little green cell of a room and glared at the light screen on the wall. It was showing yet another documentary about the wildlife native to Thrygg. The damn thing had no control switches. Except during sleep periods when the sound was muted, it was constantly on and constantly loud, and all those fangs and claws and screams of dying prey had been driving me bonzo since the day I arrived. Well, I might not be able to eliminate the Thryggian irritant from my life, but I sure as hell could do something about that screen.
I remembered seeing a flat-screen video once about a prisoner who used a thin metal slat from his bedspring to confound the electronic lock on his cell. There wasn’t a spring under my mattress, but there was a sturdy metal tray under my midday meal. I jammed the corner of the tray under the frame around the light screen and pried it loose all the way around. Then I began experimentally pushing the tray into the narrow space between the screen and the wall. On my fifth try, I hit something and felt it give way. I rammed it again, hard, and heard a crack followed by a sharp hissing and the ozone smell of a spark. Sound and picture died together, along with much of the light in the room. There was still some sunlight overflowing from the hallway, and it let me see what I was doing as I carefully removed the tray — its beveled edge was only slightly scorched — and pushed the frame back into place.
It’s always daytime on the inhabited side of Thrygg, so all the hallways and public areas are skylit, while sleeping chambers, storage closets and so on are enclosed and therefore dark. There are no windows in the walls of Thryggian buildings. If you need light in an enclosed space, you either give it a door that opens into sunlight or install some kind of artificial illumination — like the light screen that I had just killed.
Belatedly, I realized what I had done. The patient zone of the facility was regularly patrolled by pairs of uniformed Thryggian guards wearing sidearms. They never blocked the hall or even questioned anyone trying to pass them, but they were there, and they were watchful. Each door in the facility had a slot cut into it maybe seven centimeters high and nearly the width of the door, set at Thryggian eye-level. As they passed each room, the guards could scan its interior at a glance. The darkened screen would make it difficult for them to do that; so, the next patrol would lose no time reporting it to maintenance. Arristo wasn’t stupid. Knowing how I felt about being kept in his facility, he would have me put under close surveillance in case I tried to sabotage something else. He might even decide that the best way to control me was to drug me senseless and lock me in my room. Before that happened, I had to find Ian and Paul — assuming they were still alive — and come up with a plan to get us all the hell out of there.
I needed to take a walk. There were a couple of patient cubicles four corridors over that I hadn’t yet checked out, and the exercise would clear my mind. I stuck my face out the door to make sure there were no guards around, then headed double-time for the perimeter hallway of the facility. By now I knew the fastest route to just about anywhere in the building.
After the treatment, as soon as I could stand upright, I’d begun taking long strolls around the inside of the complex. It was laid out perfectly for the purpose, like a large wagon wheel. The central reception area was circular, illuminated by a huge skylight. This hub had corridors radiating off it like the spokes of the wheel, ending at a circular hallway that defined the circumference of the building. Corridors through the patient and treatment zones opened into the outer ring as well as the hub. But there were other hallways, evidently passing through restricted areas, that showed only a locked door to anyone walking around the perimeter.
At first it was the walk that was important. When Thryggians guarding the inner-ring entrances to the laboratory zone politely but firmly refused me entry, I made a mental note and then filed it away. Sometimes a guard challenged me, and I explained, truthfully, that I had to exercise every day to maintain the calcium level in my bones. The first few times, Arristo insisted that I be accompanied by an orderly in case I passed out from the exertion. When it became clear that I wasn’t the fainting type, my attendants drifted off, all having better things to do. That left me unguarded, free to begin visiting and questioning the other patients. Somebody had to have seen Ian and Paul, even if only for a moment.
That day, I was on the clock and on a mission. I stopped five rooms down the corridor to show another Human — I’d met him earlier; I think his name was Grant — how to kill the screen using his food tray, and I asked him to spread the word to the other patients.
Diversionary tactics. Confuse the enemy, buy some time.
Grant wasn’t the only zombie I’d found, by the way, staring dull-eyed and under the influence at the images floating across that damned screen. There had to be a hundred patients in the facility, apparently not one with the strength or the will to fight his way out of the toxic stupor. So, no surprise, none of them had seen Ian and Paul, or had any idea what might have happened to them.
Over time, we’d talked about other things too, comparing our reasons for being there and treatments undergone, as patients in a hospital are wont to do. And this is where it gets even more suspicious. Every last one I spoke to, all thirty or so of us Humans and many of the aliens, had come to Thrygg for the longevity procedure — but no two of us had received exactly the same treatment. I was the only one who’d been surgically opened. Grant had been given a series of injections. Others had been smeared with ointments, had inhaled mists, had ingested capsules of various colors. We were part of an experiment, all right.
I realized that it had probably never been the Thryggians’ intention to prolong anyone’s lifespan. I also doubted, aloud, whether they ever intended to let us leave the complex.
When they heard this, the other patients all chorused their agreement. Then they decided that I should be their leader. It was pathetic — the sheep choosing a shepherd. I hadn’t done anything that they couldn’t have done for themselves, and I hadn’t reached any conclusions that they couldn’t have — no, shouldn’t have reached on their own. If they were offplanet, then they had been certified Eligible, and that implied a certain level of intelligence, dammit! I told them I wasn’t there to save them. All I wanted to do was find my friends and get clear of Thrygg. But they wouldn’t hear of it. They bleated at me to call meetings, draw up plans for a mass escape. They simply wouldn’t let up. So, my first escape was from them. How dare they make me responsible for their freedom when I could feel the clock ticking away the seconds on my own?!
Oh, crap, she’s unconscious again. Just as long as she isn’t bleeding. Okay, good.
The girl knows more about the Thryggians than she wants to talk about yet. As soon as she does, I’ll add her voice to this log.
Now, where was I? Oh, right…
The day after I killed the screen, it still hadn’t been repaired. Good old Grant. Screens were probably gasping their last all over the place, while turtle-faces ran diagnostic after useless diagnostic on their transmission ’ware. Anyway, I was sitting in the lounge, thinking dark thoughts and, quite appropriately, staring at a plant that must have come from the dark side of the planet, since it was called a nightbloom. It was deep purple and had no leaves, of course, but about a dozen tendrils ran from the sides of its thick, woody stalk down to the loamy soil in its container. The name implied a blossom of some kind, and I had taken to visiting the lounge a couple of times a day to see whether a flower had appeared.
That day was the first time I saw the girl. Well, to be accurate, she saw me first. I was just sitting there, trying to figure out a way to get into the restricted zone without alerting any guards, when suddenly I felt these eyes on me. I glanced up and there she was, in a pale green tunic and leggings, bent the way I’d been bent for the first week or so after surgery, and pressing a hand to her side. Backlit in the doorway, she was beautiful, in a fragile, otherworldly way that made my breath catch in my throat. A cloud of blond hair, delicate, perfectly proportioned features—she was like a doll. In another time and place, I would have tried to play with her. I still may, if she can manage to stay conscious long enough.
To be honest, I thought about it even then, but her eyes stopped me. They were pale blue and huge with suffering, and they were trained accusingly on my face. It was no wonder I’d felt them on me before. Looking into them now sent a shiver across my back. And then she dropped her hand from her side, and I saw the red spot on her tunic that meant she was bleeding through a bandage and had no business being on her feet.
“You should be in bed,” I told her.
She clamped her lips together and shook her head. “I needed to find you,” she said. Her voice was low-pitched and taut with pain. Each word was a struggle to pronounce.
Now I was intrigued.
“The masters have plans for you. For me.” Gritting her teeth, she managed a smile. “And I for them.”
Revenge. I understood immediately. We had a lot in common, this girl and I. But it bothered me to hear her refer to the turtle-faces as ‘masters’, as if she were some kind of slave.
I watched her hobble slowly to the only other chair in the room and sink down onto it with a gasp. When she could speak again, she continued in that same strained voice, “They cut you, took tissues. Me too. Our lives are joined.”
“They did more than that,” I told her. “They made my friends disappear. May have killed them.”
She shook her head even more decisively than before. “They are not your friends.”
She was in a lot of pain, for which she clearly had not been medicated. I could feel anger swelling inside me. Even a slave deserved more compassion than that.
And what the hell did she mean, saying that Ian and Paul weren’t my friends?
Wincing, the girl heaved herself out of the chair. The red spot had grown larger. When I reached out to steady her, her fingers wrapped around my wrist like narrow steel bands. She took a step toward the door and I followed, dragged along by the astonishing power of her grip.
She didn’t say another word after that. Speaking took too much of her strength, and she was obviously determined to lead me somewhere important. Marveling at whatever force was driving her to keep putting one foot ahead of the other, I let her pull me down the corridor to the outer ring, and then along that curving hallway for a while.
At one of the locked doors in the perimeter corridor, she stopped, and I thought, Okay, this is it, she’s finally going to pass out. I braced myself to catch her when she fell, nearly tumbling over myself when she didn’t. Instead, she reached out and pressed her right palm against one of the tiles in the doorframe. It backlit and chirped something at her in Thryggian. And, to my utter amazement, she chirped back, evidently giving it the correct password, because the door unlocked with a brief rumbling sound and slid aside for her.
Whatever her relationship was with the turtle-faces, she’d been at the facility long enough to learn the Thryggian language, and the password to unlock a restricted zone door. I made a mental note to take her with me, if and when I ever got out of that place.
Obviously, since I’m recording this log and she’s aboard ship, I have, and I did.
The entrance was unguarded from the inside, and the sentries at the hub end of the corridor weren’t watching for intruders behind them. She signaled me to be silent as we made our way to one of the laboratory doors and went through the same palm-print-and-password exercise to open it. Abruptly then, the girl’s condition caught up with her. Her fingers slid off my wrist. Leaning weakly against the wall, she pointed inside the lab and repeated in a fading voice, “Your tissues. Experiments.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in there. First of all, it wasn’t skylit. Where wall met ceiling, a band of artificial illumination ran like a ribbon around the entire perimeter of the room. In this soft bluish-white light I could see metal tables supporting a series of complicated glass constructs. Each network of clear tubing ended halfway up a transparent, fluid-filled container. I counted more than a dozen of them, each holding — each holding—
They were artificial wombs.
The ‘tissues’ the turtle-faces had stolen from me had to be sperm cells.
Days later, my chest feels tight just thinking about it. At the time, however, rage began pouring into me as if someone had opened a spigot. That’s the only way I can describe it.
I’ve had a lot of experience with anger — one of the side-effects of being the youngest member of a dynasty, I suppose. Many people envied me, and told me so. ‘Born with a silver spoon in my mouth.’ Well, let me tell you, saliva tarnishes silver, and the taste of that spoon gets pretty foul after a while. Are you listening, Uncle Dennis?
From the day I was born, people have been telling me what I was going to be and how I was going to get there. No one has ever asked me what I want, and no one has ever heard me when I talk about it, least of all dear Uncle Dennis, whose only concern of the moment seems to be preserving his reputation. He hates having his name dragged through the tabs, and of course, that’s something else I’ve had plenty of experience with. The point is, all my life I’ve been living off handouts: from my mother, from Uncle Dennis, from people wanting to kiss up to The Great Man. I never got a thing that way that meant a damn to me, but nothing that mattered seemed to be coming from anywhere else — so I settled. Don’t be shocked. I’m an Eligible. It was the lesser of two evils. (The shrink that he blackmailed me into seeing put a catchy name to what was screwing me up, but even she had to acknowledge that as long as I was trapped in The Great Man’s gravity well, there could be no lasting cure.)
Anyway, in all the universe, the only thing I really felt I owned and controlled was my physical body. I decided what went into it, and I decided where to put what came out of it. And, in particular, I was the one who decided how and when and with whom to share my sperm.
Every second that I stood there staring at the obscene crèche they’d set up, my outrage grew. Fury just flooded into me. It filled me almost to bursting, then exploded into a red-hot mist inside my skull, obliterating every other feeling. No more thoughts of fooling Arristo, finding my friends, plotting an escape. No more thoughts, period. All I wanted to do was barrel into that lab and smash every bit of glass in the room. As I was bunching my muscles to do it, I was hit from behind, hard enough to knock me off balance but not hard enough to bring me down. I whirled and found myself facing half a dozen Thryggian guards, all waving weapons and chirping at me like a nestful of homicidal chicks.
Clearly, someone had called in a security alert. The two guards at the inner end of the corridor probably hadn’t been unaware of us at all — they’d simply been waiting for reinforcements.
Time was up.
I waded into them. What else could I do? I began grabbing their weapons and throwing them away. Two of them discharged sizzling blue bolts of energy, one over my shoulder as I curled my fingers around the business end of the thing and yanked, the other over the heads of the Thryggians as it smashed end-on against the wall. The guards surged around me, reaching in vain for my neck and shoulders before locking their stubby arms around my waist, my thighs, trying to bring me down with their combined weight. Fortunately, my arms were free, and they had big beefy fists at the ends of them. I bruised my knuckles against turtle-faces over and over. As each guard chirped defeat and released his grip, another one grappled himself onto me. More guards came running. At one point there were an even dozen of them, most on me and the rest surrounding me, watching for an opportunity to join the fray. I realized they were spelling one another. Unable to bring me down, they had decided to wear me down. And they’d kept me out in the corridor, where I couldn’t do any real damage to their ‘experiments’ — their test tube babies, created from my stolen sperm.
I felt a fresh wave of fury break over me, and then something truly bizarre happened, something that had never happened to me before. My mind became detached from my body, and my body kept on going, as if on automatic pilot. I could see and hear through it, but I was powerless to influence what it was doing. And what it was doing was finishing the fight.
My hands were breaking Thryggian arms and legs and cracking Thryggian skulls. They were hurling bodies up, down, and sideways, effortlessly but with lethal force. The Thryggians left smears of blue-green blood when they landed. Other guards came running. My hands reached one of them as he was pulling a communication device off his belt and snapped his neck before he could chirp anything into it. The air was thick with the smoke and smell of spent energy bolts. Scant minutes later, the hallway was littered with motionless Thryggian guards leaking alarming amounts of blood.
Unopposed, my body strode into the laboratory and resumed breaking things. It didn’t leave a single piece of glass intact. It found the contents of every ‘womb’ and ground the life out of it with a booted heel. It overturned every piece of furniture in the room. I heard more glass shatter as a series of cabinets hit the floor.
Behind that sound I heard another, a commotion of raised voices and things breaking elsewhere in the complex. Of course! The other patients had been talking mass escape. Perhaps they had counted the number of guards running toward the laboratory zone and decided to take advantage of the diversion. And perhaps I could now take advantage of this further diversion and, in the confusion, find an exit, race over to the landing apron, and lift off in my ship…?
My body must have heard me. I winced mentally when it reached for the girl, by now lying unconscious on the hallway floor. But all it did was sling her over its shoulder and stride away in the direction of the reception area.
All hell was breaking loose, all over the patient treatment zone. Without the guards to protect them and quell the riot, the turtle-face doctors were taking quite a beating. It looked good on them. My body waved to the Thryggian clerk cowering behind the reception desk in the central hub. Then it — we — walked out the front door of the facility, unchallenged.
There was nobody guarding the tie-down area, either. By the time we reached the sprint craft, my mind was back in my body again; and it was a damn good thing, because the Thryggians had disabled my ship.
They’d probably done it as a precaution, in case I called their bluff and tried to leave. “Oh, Mister Dedrick, your ship is broken, such a shame. You can stay here while our mechanics repair it.” And so on, and so on.
Fortunately, Human technology has built-in redundancy. It took me about five minutes to initialize the bypass circuits and fire up the thrusters. By then there were other escaped patients out there, starting their own ships without any difficulty at all. Interesting. Arristo had apparently expected me to make a break for it but not anyone else. Not even after the screens had started dying.
I guess there is something to be said for the element of surprise.
We’ve now been in space for three days. The girl has been awake and aware for just over half that time, but not all at once. Those turtle-faces really did a job on her, so I’m going to have to give her a chance to heal before interrogating her about her ‘masters’. I’m still trying to figure out what they did with Ian and Paul, as well as what the hell they did to me.
I know they did something. There’s no way I should have won a battle against a dozen Thryggian guards. Even weirder, my chest and back are splashed with fresh energy burns, all hurting like hell right now. Just one of those bolts should have seized up internal organs and knocked me out, but I hardly remember taking them. There’s much more to this than stolen sperm cells. I don’t know yet what it is, but I’m willing to bet that the girl can enlighten me on it.
For the record, please be advised that while I made a bloody mess of the entire corridor, I only demolished one laboratory. It contained no sentient life, just a lot of tissue samples, illegally obtained. They were my property, and I had the right to destroy them, and I did.
And that’s what really happened on Thrygg, no matter what the Thryggians may claim. They’ll probably accuse me of mass murder; and I’ve no doubt there are Humans on Earth who would agree with them, even though the turtle-faces did throw the first punch. Uncle Dennis has clout, but this may be bigger than even he can smooth over. So, I’m going to look for a small planet or moon that can support life, where we can go to ground until the heat dies down and it’s safe to return home.
I’m hoping to deliver the preceding information in person, preferably as testimony at the Thryggians’ trial, but in case something happens to both me and the girl and you find the sprint ship abandoned, please take this voice log to Supreme Adjudicator Dennis Forrand. He’ll figure out something official to do with it. He always does.
Books in the Sic Transit Terra Universe:
- The Genius Asylum (Book 1)
- The Otherness Factor (Book 2)