The child woke them, holding two cups.
“Great… gloop for breakfast,” Prescot yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Does it ever get dark here?” he asked, taking the cup and smiling his thanks.
“Apparently not,” she replied as she took the vaguely warm cup from the boy and thanked him. He smiled and nodded but left without saying a word.
Kathy studied her cup in silence. The dream had seemed absolutely real and the anger was still trying to break through. She sighed and Prescot smiled at her, tapping her toe playfully with his foot. The brief touch brought her back to reality. The feeling left her, replaced by a general contentment which was far more palatable and yet somehow embracing it made her feel weak, that she had failed a test of some kind.
“Hey? I would say ‘Earth to Kathy,’ but…”
“Sorry… bad dream,” she explained, but before Prescot could probe further, added, “Hmm, that’s weird; this bench feels warm.”
“You’re right…” he replied, gulping the last few mouthfuls.
Prescot turned the bench on its side again. There was nothing remarkable about it but he could not shake the feeling that he was missing something. He touched the floor and felt the warmth spreading through his fingers.
“Weird… you know I’m running out of words to describe weirdness. How about a scale of 1 to 10? This would be, oh, a 5 on my weirdness scale. This is mud hut land? Where’s the heat coming from?”
“Geothermal maybe?” Kathy mused, finishing her meal. “This tastes a lot better than yesterday, almost like strawberries.”
“That only gets a weird of 1!” Prescot replied.
She watched him exploring the bench once more, thoughtfully. Their surroundings were of more interest to him that the people were. That was hardly surprising. Prescot was only interested in them as far as their potential as a threat to him. Still, Kathy felt it was her responsibility to remind him that there were alternatives.
“You know, we are the first humans that have been here. We have to act… appropriately. We’ve gone from explorers to ambassadors for our entire race overnight,” she said, looking at the beaker.
He was running his hand along the floor, tracing the warmth and his reply was mumbled. Prescot began to scrape away the soil with his hand and then with the beaker. He looked thoughtfully at the beaker, turning it around slowly. It was made of the same material as the bench, brownish and unassuming. He had thought it was wood at first. He tapped the beaker against the bench, listening to the sound it made. Kathy watched him, amused, shaking her head as if in pity.
“Out of interest, what did yours taste of?”
Prescot put the bench back down and continued to look thoughtfully at the cup, “Gloop… same as yesterday… Probably very nutritious…,” He sighed, doubting it really was. “I’m sorry that my lack of alien PC offends. I’m only concerned with getting us out of here alive and home in one piece. If there’s any useful technology here, we need to find it. I’m not an ambassador. Besides, look at our history. What do you think is going to happen if we do get home and worse, people can come back? Make all the notes you can because when that happens, these people are finished.”
“They’re hardly a threat!” Kathy protested.
“Neither were the Native Americans at first,” he said. Then, “There’s a whole ecosystem here to exploit and that’s all the good ol’ folks back home will be interested in.”
“Assuming there is any way back,” she said quietly.
“There must be,” Prescot replied. “Even if I have to walk. I am not eating this stuff for the rest of my life!”
Kathy laughed and then noticed that the child was back. He was carrying two bright green tunics. He gave one to each of them and left again. Kathy began to take off her flight suit. She felt the fabric against her skin. It was soft and light and had a silk-like feel.
“This is nice. You hardly know you’re wearing it. It’s warm too…”
She pulled off her flight trousers, pushing them into the bag, then her boots, before deciding to put her boots back on.
Prescot reluctantly did the same. The tunic was thin and would offer very little protection. Then again, he thought, Jon’s suit had been of no use to him. After a brief uncharacteristic moment of indecision, he rolled down the top of the flight suit, tying it at his waist then pulled the tunic over the top. Kathy looked him up and down and shook her head.
“What?” he asked innocently. “For all you know, I could be starting a whole new trend.”
The boy returned and the man was with him. They could leave the hut. The fact that Kathy knew this was making her uneasy in a way she could not describe. Prescot immediately made for the boundary of the village but stopped at the tree line. Kathy followed him, calling him back. When he did not answer her, she ran over to him. He was sweating profusely, every muscle contorted with the strain of trying to take another step.
He cursed and stepped back towards Kathy, hissing between clenched teeth, “We can’t leave.”
“I know... but I get the impression it’s for our own safety. Look at them; they are not threatened at all by us. They are just getting on with life… Prescot please, do come away. I don’t think it’s safe this far out. They-”
“Don’t you want to know why?” he asked, incredulous at her acceptance. “We’ve lost Stella and Jon and I don’t care about it. Nothing. I’m a prisoner and everything is rosy! No! It’s off. This whole place… is… off…”
He tried to push forward again but to no avail.
“Goddammit!”He punched the air repeatedly.
Kathy took his arm but he pulled away from her angrily. He was reluctant to accept help in the best of circumstances but this was pushing him to his limit.
“Please, Paul, those things come here, I… er… I think, but it’s okay nearer the huts and I usually know…”
She had used his first name and he relaxed a little.
The child was beside them again. He watched Prescot trying to cross over with a bemused expression but did not reply to any of the questions the man fired at him. Kathy looked beyond the village as he continued to attempt to communicate with the boy. She could not shake the uneasy feeling when she looked out past the compound.
“Paul, he doesn’t understand you,” she said, at last, smiling at his gestures and exaggerated expressions.
“Alright… you try,” Paul replied, folding his arms across his chest. “You are supposed to be good at this!”
Kathy frowned at him before turning back to the boy. It was a challenge she had to rise to but nothing of the language was familiar. Kathy found that did not matter. The impression she was given from the child was as clear to her as if he had spoken it aloud. Kathy doubted Prescot would understand that.
She studied the child thoughtfully.
“He wants us to come away from the edge and follow him,” she said after a few moment’s thought.
“How did you figure that out?” Prescot asked.
“Because he’s just looked over there and now he’s leaving… looking back at us… doing this… come on…” she gestured at the boy had, following after the boy.
Prescot muttered under his breath as he walked after her. Kathy ignored him. Her mind was preoccupied with the realisation that she knew exactly what the child wanted and expected of her. The language escaped her but the intent was clear. Not that his body language gave her many clues. The child generally used very little gesture and still, she knew what he wanted. Any he did use were, she felt, for Prescot’s benefit. The uneasiness she felt every time she looked out at the jungle surrounding their small camp was the same uneasiness the child felt.
They followed the child to a larger hut. It was also empty but partitioned. Behind each thin screen was a stone bowl filled with water. The hole in the ground was self-explanatory and the child left her for a while.
“Paul… look at this!” Kathy exclaimed from the other side of the screen.
Prescot looked round the partition gingerly. Kathy was holding the bowl of water and she indicated to him to watch the hole in the ground. Carefully she poured the water down the hole. Prescot watched as the water seemed to vanish when it hit an almost invisible barrier. The droplets evaporated before they hit the ground beneath the hole.
“It’s not solid…” Kathy said, kneeling down beside the hole. “Then there’s this…”
She replaced the empty bowl on the table and they watched as it slowly refilled. The water seemed to ooze from the bowl itself until it was full to the brim.
“Okay… weird of 6…”
“At least. How is it doing that? There’s no tap… the bowl is just a bowl… It looks like granite but it’s light… like plastic,” she shrugged, tapping the bowl.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Maybe it’s hollow.”
She shrugged and he returned to his own section. Prescot dried his hands on the rough towel beside the bowl and went back outside.
He walked around the back of the hut. It was at the farthest boundary to the camp but he wondered if out of sight he may be able to get through. The sensation was less intense here. He was about to step forward when he became aware of the child at his side. He was certain the child had not been there a moment ago.
“Why can’t I leave?’ he asked, his voice more controlled than he felt.
The child cocked his head to one side listening intently but gave no indication that he was able to understand.
“Am I a prisoner?”
The child expression remained open but he did not reply.
“Fine!” he spat, walking back towards their hut.
Preparations were almost complete and they were allowed to watch from a short distance. He counted 20 villagers, all appearing to be the same age and as far as Prescot could tell all men and all dressed in the same grey/green tunics. Most had the usual beads of similar green stones and their hair braided into three plaits. Some had grey stones one or two tied into the braid at regular intervals. The pattern was different for each one. Their leader, who had stones of the same iridescent pebble as well as the green ones, was not in the crowd. Prescot looked for him amongst them. He was easy to identify; only he and the boy had a pouch around their necks, the contents of which were still a mystery. He was equally mystified as to what they were waiting for. He sighed and folded his arms, smiling in a bemused way to Kathy.
“Any idea what this is for?” he asked
She shrugged, as baffled as he was.
They stood round the stone dais waiting. Then, their leader emerged from a nearby hut. He was wearing a long red robe. His hair had been re-braided into one long plait with a single red bead in the middle of it. Prescot paid no attention to this. His eye was drawn to the strap slung over one shoulder, hanging from which was a large knife. He climbed onto the platform and waited, head bowed.
“It looks ceremonial. All this preparation… Maybe it’s just part of their traditional dress?”
The sound of bells and chanting filtered up from the forest, gradually drawing nearer. All of the villagers turned towards the noise, waiting, standing perfectly still. The child ran past him to the edge of the clearing and Prescot watched as two girls climbed up the bank. They were slender and paler than the boy. Their long green robes trailed the ground as they walked and the gentle tinkling of their steps was magnified in the silence. The boy looked down as they passed by, his earlier enthusiasm kept in check. He stood as still as the others, waiting whilst two more girls climbed up beside them. At last, Prescot saw the woman who had followed them.
She was wearing a long robe of pale green, her face covered with a green gossamer veil. It was difficult to see her features clearly through the veil but he could just make out her oval face and high cheekbones. As she walked, Prescot caught a flash of an ankle chain strung with tiny bells. Her steps were slow and purposefully as she made her way towards the dais, her escorts fanning out to each corner as she climbed the steps onto the platform. The child stood nearby but she climbed the steps alone.
“I really don’t like this…” Prescot whispered to Kathy.
Prescot moved a little closer and Kathy followed him. One of the younger villagers stepped forward and began to sing. Prescot listened to the high lilting tune as Kathy stood beside him. The others joined in as if on cue. No one appeared to be leading the group but they sang in perfect harmony as if they had rehearsed and Kathy found herself feeling the emotion of the song. She was at once elated and then overcome with sadness. Images flooded into her mind of places she had never visited. She saw remote mountains and crowded streets alive and bustling. She could feel the quiet purpose of the crowds and was instantly reassured by it.
The crowds vanished into mist and all at once, she was alone feeling the utter despair of it.
Prescot turned to her and noticed she was crying.
She waved him into silence, wiping her eyes quickly and trying to regain her composure. Prescot expected some explanation but she hardly understood it herself. The boy stood a little way from the group watching. Kathy’s gaze was drawn to him and she was almost relieved to find he was as upset as she was. Prescot shook his head, puzzled. He had to admit they could carry a tune well but he was unable to relate to them in the way Kathy obviously did. He was completely unaffected and so she turned away from him, concentrating on the boy.
They stopped singing abruptly. Kathy blinked and caught her breath, feeling almost foolish. She was left with an impression like an echo of a feeling which gradually faded, leaving her baffled as to why she had reacted as she did.
The woman on the dais addressed the crowd briefly and then slowly lay down. Her attendants climbed the steps then and arranged her hair and clothing, placing the large purple blooms around her head and feet. They began to chant as they walked around the dais and the villagers echoed their chorus.
He waited in silence as their voices filled the air. The chanting continued apace and she could
feel the rhythm of it coursing through her. It was not fear Kathy sensed but anticipation and something else. She found the boy, who seemed to be analysing the scene as if his life depended upon it. Prescot was worried, naturally.
She looked down at her feet and saw the dark smoke curling over her boots and winding its way up her legs. It was not heat which touched her skin but coldness and it seemed to suck all the joy from her, growing darker as it did so.
Abruptly the chanting stopped and Kathy felt the warmth return to her body.
Had she imagined the smoke and if so why?
In her confusion, she hardly noticed Prescot. He was leaping the stone steps and then she saw that the man had positioned himself beside the woman, his knife paused to strike.
In one fluid movement, Prescot grabbed the man’s wrist, pushing the knife against his throat. He pulled him away; the man offered no resistance.
The woman sat up and the veil fell from her face. Her wide violet eyes were framed with gold and Prescot almost dropped the knife then. He had to. He tried to resist, beads of sweat falling from his forehead and all the while she fixed him with a stare.
She whispered urgently, “What do you think you are doing, Felehan?”
“Wh… what?” Prescot was thrown. Her English was perfect if a little over-pronounced. “Er… Saving you?”
“From whom, exactly? You are the only danger here! The moon is almost aligned…” she said as she raised her eyes to the skies and waved a delicate hand towards him, indicating that he should leave, before laying down again with a flourish of her arms. “Do not get in the way.”
Prescot let their leader go, pushing him away. He examined the knife. Their leader took it from him gently with the familiar bemused expression and then pushed it into his own hand. Kathy winced, but nothing happened. He pulled his hand away unscathed and showed Prescot his uninjured palm.
“Oh… er… sorry…” he mumbled. “I’ll just go back… over there. Right.”
The child tugged Prescot’s hand, clearly embarrassed by his behaviour. Prescot did not need to connect to him to understand that he needed to follow the child and they both took their place amongst the villagers.
He walked back over to Kathy hurriedly and she jabbed him in the ribs.
“Weird scale of 7” she whispered.
The sacrifice continued with much chanting and celebration. Prescot thought the screams were a little overdone but he was no critic. The child led them back to their hut. They were not to leave it. He was almost relieved.
“Any ideas of what is going on?” Prescot asked, more to break the awkward silence than because he wanted an answer.
“No… clearly the technology doesn’t match the surroundings. That knife was what, a... projection of some kind? Then there’s the Huts… I know what you mean. This whole place just looks too… perfect,” she agreed.
“I bet Jon would have known. All his conspiracy theories… Either way, it gets a weird Scale rating of 7,” Prescot decided.
“Oh, I think we’re going to have to recalibrate the weird scale,” she smiled.
Prescot nodded and said,” She spoke to me. She spoke English fluently.”
“Really? I heard… never mind. I don’t think we can talk to her anyway. Not now. I mean I… I don’t think it’s allowed. Look… The way the others are acting around her.”
Prescot watched the woman from the door. Her escorts were guarding her carefully and none of the villagers walked near her or spoke to her. The men skirted around the group, heads bowed. She was no longer wearing the veil and he watched her talking quietly to one of the girls, who laughed. The girl pirouetted and she smiled her approval. The woman’s manner seemed friendly and open, like the child’s and Prescot decided to try.
Prescot waved in her direction and beckoned her to come over. She glared at him and turned away, her manner at once guarded and cold.
“I guess she’s not in the mood to talk, then,” Prescot said with a shrug. “I suppose we wait.”
The girls walked past their hut and she followed them. The mood was far less serious than before and the woman tapped one of them on the shoulder playfully. The girl turned, smiling and caught Kathy’s eye as she did so. Something in the girl’s smile reminded her of the way she felt when the boy smiled at her. It was instantly reassuring and comforting. It was difficult not to watch them and they moved with such grace, the girls dancing steps leading the way. Every footstep was purposeful and Kathy’s gaze followed them until they went into a nearby hut.
It was sometime later when she called them out of the hut. The villagers were preparing to leave and were busy packing away belongings. Her escorts stood a little way off, watching her carefully.
She stared at Kathy for a long time, then said in hushed tones, “You can follow us to the City and then re-join your people.” She seemed about to say something else but turned away instead.
“Wait, there are some things we need to know,” Prescot said; he could not think of what else to say. There were so many questions.
He tried to walk towards her as she turned, but her escorts closed around her. Kathy felt that it would be better to keep quiet and pulled Prescot back.
“What he means is, thank you for allowing us to participate,” Kathy interrupted, elbowing him when he tried to stop her again. “Re-join your people?” she whispered, “OUR people… Let’s keep it that way.”
Prescot nodded and it was then that their leader stood beside him. He found himself apologising for interrupting but he waved him to silence. He pulled open the drawstring pouch he wore. Reaching inside, he lifted out a small amount of dirt and rubbed it on Prescot’s shoulder, muttering something as he did.
Then he turned away and they followed the villagers as they left.
“Er, thank you… I think,” said Prescot, bemused.