by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
“I feel wonderful,” Frank said. “Lady, has anyone ever told you you’re fantastic?”
Hildy, lying at his side, smiled and propped herself on one elbow, draping a smooth thigh over him. “You’re not so bad yourself, lover,” she said, gently running a sculpted fingernail across his bare chest. “So, what do you say? Am I your partner now or what?”
He made no immediate reply, not sure how to answer. Despite their intimacy, he still didn’t trust her. Still, when he thought about her prowess as a lover, maybe trust wasn’t all that important. He could drown in that sweetness.
“We still have to find Dippy,” he said, “or the best you can hope for is fifty percent of nada.”
Her eyes registered no disappointment at this non-answer. She simply turned and began to dress herself. “Then what are we waiting for?”
Their search resumed, the transport slowly moving north as they scoured the ground below for the Tellurean. But, apart from the passing traffic along the secondaries and the occasional pedestrian, there was no sign of Dippy, only the harsh wasteland drifting slowly beneath them.
Some hours later, Frank plopped back into his seat and let out a groan of frustration. “Where can that squidfaced bastard be hiding?” he said.
Hildy ignored him and ran through the Ouroboros traffic manifests, looking for Ouroboros transports leaving New York. Her heart froze at what she found: Lohman had already left the city and was headed straight for Albuquerque.
“Frank!” she said, “it’s Lohman. He’s on his way.”
At this news, Frank sat bolt upright. “What, here?” he said.
Hildy shook her head. “Albuquerque. He’ll touch down within the hour. Once he reaches the hospital and asks around, he’ll be on our trail. Les jeux sont faits, for real.”
Frank could feel despair trying to overtake him. Hildy sensed as much, and gave him a reassuring kiss.
“Okay, I gotta think,” Frank said. “No, I gotta think like a Tellurean. All right, so if I were a no-account outworlder, out for a walk in another man’s clothes, what would I be thinking? And what would I do about it?”
He took a deep look into Hildy’s eyes. They were lusciously inviting, with a hint of a gold ring around the irises. “Excuse me a moment, babe.”
Moving to the far side of the car, he sat in a meditative posture, his hands resting palm-up upon his knees, his back straight but relaxed, his eyes closed. He took in a deep breath, much deeper than he would have thought possible, and slowly exhaled. His breathing became shallow. Then he spoke, barely audibly, the words leaving him like the warmth radiating from a fire:
“The Scribes have truly said, ‘No man wanders lost; he wanders unaware of the Observer. For his foolishness, he seeks what he avoids, and avoids what he seeks. Look ye not with your eyes, and a path shall unto you be revealed’.”
Frank slowly opened his eyes, sniffing the air suspiciously. “I smell... pie,” he said. “Hildy, do you smell pie?”
She stared at him, confused. “Frank?”
“No, really, Hildy. I smell pie. Apple pie, I think. Cinnamon. And...” Once more, he sniffed the air.
“Jalapeños. Yep. Apple pie with cinnamon and jalapeños. The place reeks of it. You don’t smell it?”
Hildy didn’t dare reply. Perhaps Frank’s concussion was worse than the doctors had suggested.
“Now that I think of it,” Frank said, “I could go for a slice of pie. Apples and jalapeños? Interesting combination. Sounds tasty, don’t you think?”
“Uh...” Hildy said.
“Check the registry. Look for a café that specializes in pie, something nearby, say, within a radius of ten klicks.”
Addled by his behavior, Hildy did as he asked.
“Sure enough,” she said. “There’s an eatery called Pie-Acular, seven kilometers due north.”
“Then take us there, beautiful,” he said. “I’ll buy you a slice.”
She ordered the automaton out of survey mode and gave it the coordinates for the pie shop. The transport jumped forward at full speed. A minute later, they had landed and were walking through the door.
The café was old, without hoverplates, and moored to the ground on a concrete foundation. An IFF falling anywhere within a hundred kilometers of the place would squash it flat. Frank wondered how it had survived for so long. A hand-painted sign in the window read: “Today’s Special: New Mexico Apple Pie.” At the door, Hildy paused.
“Odd,” she said. “New Mexico, not D14.”
“Must be an old recipe,” Frank said. He opened the door for Hildy. “After you, Doll,” he said.
Inside, they spotted Dippy right away — sitting alone in a corner booth, a forlorn look upon his face. Instead of the usual repast of water and raisins, however, Dippy had ordered a hearty slice of the New Mexico Apple, a tall wedge filled with apple wedges and diced jalapeño bits, the crust flaky and golden, lovingly painted with an egg wash — from real eggs! — just before baking. It looked and smelled magnificent. Frank’s mouth began to water.
Dippy, in contrast, scooping huge forkfuls of pie into his mouth, looked to be on the verge of tears — if Tellureans cried.
Frank and Hildy had hardly entered the diner before Dippy spied them approaching. Instantly, he dropped his fork and let out a wail to raise the dead. Everyone in the shop froze, gazing at him in abject concern. Hildy clasped both hands over her mouth to keep from shrieking. Frank very nearly soiled his tunic.
Leaping from his seat, Dippy threw himself onto the floor, where he landed with a squish at Frank’s feet.
“O great, offended benefactor Frank!” he cried. “I am the forsaken, not worthy of begging your forgiveness. In the tradition of Merkkat-dipmthoq-o-mam[pop][click][pop][pop]siq-ha-dam-reskej-ka the Wise, I prostrate myself and beg you to squash my head with your righteous foot. Visit your grace upon your most unworthy servant and end my miserable life!”
Frank could only stare at him in deep shock, fully perplexed at Dippy’s histrionics. “Dip...? Get up!”
Dippy refused. He tilted the crown of his head towards Frank’s foot. Spreading his arms wide and flattening himself against the floor, he waited on Frank to dispatch him.
“Dammit, Dippy!” Frank said. “I am not squashing your head! Forget it! Get up! Quit making a scene!”
He and Hildy moved to either side of the distressed outworlder and lifted him to his feet. Like a spoiled child, Dippy resisted, fighting to thrust himself again to the floor. With the shocked customers now enjoying the odd spectacle, Hildy and Frank finally managed to return him to his seat.
In great embarrassment at Dippy’s odd behavior, they quickly ordered two slices of the special and took the bench across from Dippy. For a few moments, they ate in silence. Hildy was none too impressed with the pie, but Frank took one bite and was hooked. He shoveled bite after bite into his mouth, forgetting that he was supposed to be in a hurry.
Dippy, meanwhile, resumed his repast, eating slowly and dejectedly. He made a disgusting, slurping noise, like a clogged garbage disposal purging itself of its load.
“Dippy,” Frank said as he finished his pie. “Why’d you run off? And why did you steal my clothes? And... by the way, since when do you eat pie?”
Dippy, easing the grip on his fork and twirling it from one thumb to the other, lowered his head in immense shame. “Speak not to me, o offended one,” he said. “I am unworthy of answering you. Despicable and worthless am I, and forfeit is my life. Oh, that my tongue should crumble to ashes should I ever again recite the sacred prayers to Razhdha-ka or sing the glories of the great Tellurae, in whose mighty company I am henceforth unwelcome. Oh, insignificant, I, the less than worthless. The reviled, the forsaken, the... the... Aw, FUCK IT, MAN!” He dropped his fork and plopped his face into his hands.
Leaning against Frank’s shoulder, Hildy gazed up at him. He could see the question in her eyes, but he had no answer for her.
Reaching across the table, he laid a hand on Dippy’s squishy forearm.
“Dippy?” he said. “Hey, Dippy? Pal? I’m sorry, I just — I don’t understand. You haven’t offended me.”
The Tellurean, too ashamed to lift his head, replied, “Oh, but I have, o great benefactor Frank. Thee have I offended most sorely grievously. ‘Tis my shame to bear. Better thou shouldst end my life than to suffer me to dwell in shame therein.”
Hildy shared a meaningful glance with Frank. “We should go.”
She quickly paid the check and hurried to assist Frank in dragging Dippy to the transport. They lifted off, setting a course for D17.
Frank’s mind buzzed with questions, the greatest of which was not about Dippy’s weirder-than-usual behavior, but about his own. It was in considering this question that he realized he had begun to feel a strange connection with Dippy.
Then the answer became clear: Dippy’s f-bomb. Somehow, he and Dippy had come to share a kind of symbiosis, a swapping of certain mannerisms or personality traits. The signs were already abundant: that “Thank you most humbly” nonsense he had used on Hildy; his ability to recall the Tellur u-san Razhdha-men and to recite the Scribes, and the almost psychic way he had managed to find Dippy. He remembered how real the smell of pie had been during his meditation, as if it were right there in the car with them. That first sight of Dippy eating pie had been almost too much to take.
Then Frank remembered his priorities. “All right, Dip, I want my clothes back. And I mean right now!”
Dippy, still sniveling, wiped his nose. The results were appalling. Anyone who thinks human snot is disgusting has never met a Tellurean. They produce it in buckets. “Dear God in Heaven!” Hildy said, rooting through the transport’s emergency supplies and tossing a box of tissues at the outworlder.
As Dippy dabbed tissue after tissue under his broad bump of a nose, he managed to speak. “Alas, o offended one, I cannot comply.”
“What?” Frank cried. “Dippy, I’m not kidding. Give me back my duds!”
“Forgive me, my friend and benefactor. It is forbidden.”
Immediately incensed, Frank reached over to throttle the alien, but as he considered the growing pile of tissues soaked in Tellurean mucus at Dippy’s feet, he backed down. “Dippy, you’re seriously starting to piss me off.”
“I have no doubt, o Frank. But it is most expressly forbidden among my people. It is a reminder of my shame and my offense to you, o magnificent one. It is the tradition of the Blackened Heart of Dtmqkld-se Raam. I must wear these clothes until I die.”
“Make sense, damn you!”
“I have offended you and displeased Razhdha-ka. It is the Unforgivable Offense, and though I can now never be forgiven, I must follow the Way of the Blackened Heart, or suffer the worst of all possible fates. The Scribes of the Three Lost Cities demand my penance.”
“And what did you do that was so terrible?”
Dippy lowered his face, speaking in little more than a whisper. “I... The crash. I... I saved your life,” he said. “Forgive me.”
Hildy and Frank traded looks — she, of piqued curiosity; Frank, of pained annoyance. Only after several false starts was he able to speak again.
“What the...?” he said. “You sav... And just what’s so goddamned horrible about THAT?”
Dippy lifted his head, his eyes glowering. Even his unblinking third eye showed a deep and fearsome rage. “Human, do you understand nothing I have told you of divine beneficence?” he snapped. “Do not blaspheme the infinite wisdom of Razhdha-ka!” He balled his six fingers into a fist.
Frank, recalling the Tellurean’s incredible strength and dexterity, recoiled instinctively.
Dippy’s mouth twisted into a scowl, but then he managed to let go of his rage. Overwhelmed with an acute sense of shame, he once again dropped his head. “Forgive me, o Frank. You should be angry with me, not I with you. Perhaps my distress will help you understand the magnitude of my misdeed.”
“Not really,” Frank said. “Where I come from, saving a life is considered the noblest of deeds. If you saved mine, I should be thanking you.”
“It is not so, o beneficent one. You will recall, prior to the mishap in which our conveyance was destroyed, I was singing the Tellur u-san Razhdha-men.”
“It is one of the most ancient of our songs, and the most revered among my people. It is an accession to the divine will, an admission that only Razhdha-ka is truly wise. Thus it is the duty of every Tellurean, no matter his Tellur or his station in life, to accept the will of Razhdha-ka without question.”
“And so?” Frank said.
“In the Tellur u-san Razhdha-men, the phrase u-san is inchoative, meaning ‘now accept the holy will, be it blessing or damnation.’ But I failed. Instead, I usurped the divine authority and decided your fate myself. Ohhh! Wretched am I, and forsaken!”
“Well, on Earth we have a saying: ‘Excuse me for living’!” Frank replied sardonically. “Guess that applies here.”
“But my action is not excusable, o merciful human benefactor! Even now you fail to understand. If it was the divine will for you to die, whatever sins and transgressions you commit in the future will be visited upon me, for I have now and forevermore permitted them!”
“Dippy, I’m officially sick of your nonsense!” Frank snarled. “I don’t give a royal crap about your religion, and there’s no time for arguing about it. Now, let me have my clothes!”
“I cannot, o Frank! I cannot!”
Hildy quickly interposed herself between them. “Frank,” she said. “Surely getting your clothing back is not what’s important at the moment. What matters is the data file.”
“Are you kidding?” Frank said, yanking on his tunic. “It’s goddamned humiliating, wearing this thing!”
“The file, Frank,” she said gently. “Humor your friend—”
“He’s not my friend!”
“And let him keep your clothes. All you really need from him is the data. I’ll buy you an outfit once we get to D17.”
“Fine.” Reaching into the tunic, Frank withdrew the green thermoplastic plate with Dippy’s work visa.
“Trade you,” he said to the outworlder. “There’s a small data file in the belt lining. It’s not clothing-related, so you can tell Dtmqkld-se Raam to go fuck himself without bringing down Razhdha-ka’s wrath upon us all.”
Dippy reluctantly took the green plate from Frank, tucking it into the shirt’s breast pocket. He undid the belt buckle, thumbing open the seam as instructed and placing the file in Frank’s eager hands. When he finished, he once again lowered his head in shame.
Frank was elated. Clasping the file tightly in his hand, he pulled Hildy close and gave her a passionate kiss. She happily returned it, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling herself tightly against him.
“We’re rich, babe,” he said tenderly.
She kissed him again, cooing softly as he lovingly fondled her backside.
“Driver,” she said, “set us down.” The transport decelerated, lowering itself until coming to a gentle stop at the foot of an embankment, upon a long-abandoned stretch of road.
“Hildy,” Frank asked, “what’s going on?”
Immediately his spine stiffened and every muscle in his body jerked taut as a searing jolt of electricity raged through him, so severe he nearly bit off his tongue. With caring hands, Hildy eased him to the floor, as Dippy rather phlegmatically stared at them.
Hildy tucked the device away — a palm-mounted taser she had carefully pressed against his neck — and helped herself to the data file in Frank’s hand. It took her a moment to pry his fingers apart.
“Sorry about this, Frank, darling. Truly. But we both know you don’t have a prayer of reaching Nutrisynth with Dr. Lohman hot on your trail. My chances are better. Perhaps I can get the data sold while he’s still preoccupied with you.”
Without hesitation, she opened the door and dragged Frank outside.
“I do care about you, Frank,” she said. “That’s why we stopped, you know. I couldn’t simply toss you out mid-flight. God help me, I couldn’t do it. Of course, Richard will most likely kill you himself. But your blood won’t be on my hands.”
Kneeling beside him, she gave him a loving peck on the forehead. “Goodbye, Frank, darling. Or Nick, whatever.”
Motioning for Dippy to join his human benefactor, she smiled as he exited without protest. Reboarding the transport, she closed the door and set off.
Some minutes later, straining to sit upright, Frank found his voice. “Well, crap,” he wheezed.
Perhaps trust was more important than he first thought.
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll