Opening Cosmos Logbook.
Cosmos Logbook ready.
Messaging room open.
Duth_Olec: All right, it’s up.
Wally_Plotch: Can you see me?
Duth_Olec: No, but I can read you. Yes, that joke’s older than I am. In fact, saying a joke’s older than I am is older than I am, too. Anyway, if ever you are in need or must inquire of something, do not hesitate to ask, for I shall be reading all that you say.
Wally_Plotch: Okay, Duth, I kind of need something now.
Duth_Olec: That’s all you ever do is whine, whine, whine! Can’t you solve something yourself for once?
Wally_Plotch: What? But I just started. I haven’t even asked for anything yet.
Duth_Olec: Fine, what is it?
Wally_Plotch: Well, I can’t really see anything. The video feed window on the computer screen is blank.
Duth_Olec: Today we’re telling the story of Blind Blake, who is some guy that I looked up on Wikipedia.
Duth_Olec: Okay, okay, okay. Gimme a minute to get the video feed set up.
Wally_Plotch: That’s not the right setting! I nearly fell out of my seat from that loud noise.
Duth_Olec: Sorry, that was the Godzilla Network. You’d be surprised at what weird broadcasting channels you can find floating out here in space.
Wally_Plotch: By the way, what are those words in the asterisks?
Duth_Olec: Oh, that’s the sound-to-word program that adds sounds it picks up to the chat for the hearing impaired. Which, for our purposes, is anyone else reading this.
Wally_Plotch: It keeps picking up our typing, though.
Duth_Olec: Yeah, let me turn down the sensitivity.
Wally_Plotch: I think that did it.
Duth_Olec: Okay, I got the right video feed up.
Wally_Plotch: Oh, hey. It’s space.
Duth_Olec: Space! Gaze with awe upon its infinite majesty. From the inky black depths swirl myriads and myriads and myriads of shiny, twinkly stars like motor oil filled with struggling fireflies.
Wally_Plotch: Yeah, cool.
Duth_Olec: Gaze with awe, I say!
Wally_Plotch: I regularly saw such majesty in the skies where I lived.
Duth_Olec: All your life in one place at some lame desk job, and you don’t even awe.
Wally_Plotch: I had a very good view of the sky through a wide skylight.
Duth_Olec: And now anyone there could get a good view of the sky since the window shattered and the rest of the place collapsed. Whatever. We have to get going. The Cloudy Cuckoo Cosmos!
Wally_Plotch: The Cloudy Cuckoo Cosmos?
Duth_Olec: A cosmos so real, so very different from our own, and yet so, so similar.
Wally_Plotch: “Our” own?
Duth_Olec: Fine, fine. My own. For it is I, Duth Olec, the presenter of this tale.
Wally_Plotch: I know who you are.
Duth_Olec: Yes, but we’re gonna have readers someday. Once we’ve documented all this, we’ll send it out for people and cleeple and steeple to read. We need to introduce ourselves.
Wally_Plotch: Oh, okay. Well, I’m Wally Plotch. I’m not completely certain how I got here, but I’m your narrator here to record everything.
Duth_Olec: Yes, he is our stenographer.
Wally_Plotch: Well, I used to be the court stenographer for the Cosmos Court, but that place is a little defunct now.
Duth_Olec: And how do you mean you’re not sure how you got here? I brought you here. Just a little sleight of cloud rescued you from the crumbling of your previous employer.
Wally_Plotch: Rather literal, on that.
Duth_Olec: All right, now, let’s zoom in on the location of our documentary.
*sounds of hard wheels rolling on hard floor* *ticking and clattering and humming*
Duth_Olec: For a trip this far, we’ve really got to charge up this old thing. Okay, here we go.
Wally_Plotch: Whoa, that was quick. We shot through space so fast that everything blurred by.
Duth_Olec: We shot through space at the speed of light, got places to go, gotta follow my cloudbow.
Wally_Plotch: I think I got a little motion sickness from that. I’m still not completely used to real space-time.
Duth_Olec: That stuff hardly applies in this vessel, anyway.
Wally_Plotch: So what are those three planets?
Duth_Olec: Do you not recognize the three most important planets in the universe except for maybe that one planet and those other few way over there somewhere? Yes, in a universe without Earth, another planet (or three) had to become Center of the Universe.
Wally_Plotch: Earth was the center of your universe?
Duth_Olec: It’s a joke, Wally. Earth was actually incredibly unimportant on a galactic scale. Actually, to be fair, these planets, Mintop, Zhop, and Derantu, are also fairly insignificant.
Wally_Plotch: But for the purposes of this tale?
Duth_Olec: But for the purposes of this tale they would remain so.
Duth_Olec: It’s a play on words. Yes, for the purposes of our story, the planet Mintop is Center of the Universe. Let’s zoom in on it. You might experience a slight motion blur.
Wally_Plotch: Wow, it’s so pretty.
Duth_Olec: Finally, we’re getting some awe up in here.
Wally_Plotch: It’s like a big, pink marble.
Duth_Olec: It is absolutely nothing like a marble! It’s more like a giant, round rock that was turned into a dump and then there was a huge flood. And who do you think caused that flood? But those dang space gulls flew away before they could get drowned.
Wally_Plotch: I think you’re getting off-track.
Duth_Olec: Oh, right. So, Mintop, for our purposes, is Center of the Universe. Filled with lots of species. Many different types of people- I mean cleeple. Every clerpson is different. No two species are the same. And the most important species on Mintop…
Duth_Olec: …is not the focus of our story! Instead we focus on what could be described as the least important species on Mintop, slubes. I’m sending you a picture. It’s up to you, Wally. Narrate to our readers what a slube looks like!
Wally_Plotch: What? Oh, right!
Wally_Plotch: The slube, a yellowish sort of species, mostly because its skin is yellow. Its long body goes straight from its neck to the ground where it widens into a round tail that lays on the ground. It kind of looks like a bent tube sock with thin, floppy noodles for arms. It has a round, toothless snout, and sitting atop its round head are two round eyes, bigger and whiter than eggs, as well as mushier, with a layer of smooth, yellow skin covering the backs.
Duth_Olec: And that’s the slube. Enough introductions! Wally, put on your headphones. Turn on the thought streamer. Get your fingers ready, because it’s time… to… write!
Duth_Olec: I can’t! My finger is slowly moving to the “start the story” button.
Wally_Plotch: But you never explained this thought streamer thing to me.
Duth_Olec: Oh, that’s a minor detail. Basically you’ll be listening in on the thoughts of our point of view character, whomever I’m following at the time.
Wally_Plotch: I see, it’s how I’ll be able to write what a character’s thinking. It’s rather amazing. I just want to thank you again for this opportunity to get out of that drab old place and become a storyteller.
Duth_Olec: All right, get to writing. Oh, wait, one more thing: stay true to events. If they ever read this down there, we want to make sure we stay faithful to this reality.
Wally_Plotch: Got it. Ready to go.
Duth_Olec: Oh, wait, one more thing again.
Duth_Olec: Just in case you forgot what novel this was.
Wally_Plotch: Slubes it is. Let’s write!
An orange light cut through the darkness like the first rays of sunrise. Shields squeezed tighter to block out the painful light. A warm sensation fell over the shields. Gradually they opened to let in fuzzy images of a pale red wall with a bright blue circle in the center.
A slube. His thoughts reminded him, I’m a slube. This helpful reminder reached the slube’s brain as slowly as something that moved very slowly. A proper simile hadn’t reached his brain yet; he hadn’t yet even remembered his name.
Numer, that’s it. My name is Numer, I am a slube, and I am very slow at waking up in the morning.
Something about that thought didn’t sound right, but Numer had other things to consider. Where was he? A big, red wall stood in front of him. The blue sky outside was visible through a hole in the wall, so he was inside somewhere. He looked at his bed sheets. He felt the soft, itchy bed made of—hang on, what was it called?—grass, yes, against his back. At the other side of the room, a closet door stood open, showing blue cloth hanging inside.
That’s right, I’m in my bedroom.
Numer rubbed his round snout. It was soft and toothless, but he could hardly open it from the gooey muck that accumulated in his mouth overnight. He needed a drink of water, but for that he would have to get up. The sleepy slube sat up in bed like a trapdoor rising open, and he fell forward. The upper half of his body lay on his lower half so his head rested on his tail.
After dozing off a few times, Numer pulled himself up to look through the window above the bed. The thin hands at the ends of his slender arms rubbed the two squishy eggs that were his eyes. They were almost as big as eggs, roosting atop his head. He looked out into the bright blue morning sky and remembered what it was that hadn’t sounded right about his earlier thought regarding morning: It wasn’t morning. The sun shone high in the middle of the sky and straight through his window.
Now he remembered: My window faces east so the sunlight won’t hit me through it until the afternoon.
That information was a lot to remember so early. Was it early? He’d say early, since his day was just beginning. Numer sat on his bed and looked out the window towards the orchard farms east of his house. Thick trunks of dark gold rose skyward, disappearing into tufts of green leaves with rainbows clusters of fruit among them. Information trickled back into Numer’s awakening consciousness as it did every day when he awoke, as if his brain needed to build back up to full speed.
He was twenty-three years old, a young adult slube. He lived in Nottle on the island Hackney. Nottle was a town inhabited solely by slubes. The volcano far past the orchard was called Mount Chiphus. The planet was known as Mintop. He did not live on New York Avenue.
That reminded Numer of his weird dreams. They were all a bunch of nonsense, usually.
Sure, the one about him being on the giant chessboard made some sense, although he’d never played chess in his life. He wasn’t the one playing chess, anyway. He was a pawn in the dream, and he was almost taken out by an opposing knight when the queen arrived and stopped its advance. After this she guarded him as he traveled to the other side of the board to become another queen.
He really hoped that the becoming a queen part was just a coincidence with the game’s labels. He knew he was male. He hoped his subconscious didn’t have a second opinion. He could at least accept subconscious fears about being a nobody and how he would handle becoming somebody. He had conscious fears about that anyway.
Most of his life he had lived in a bigger city where several different species resided. A few years ago he moved to Nottle, a small, quiet town. It was more a village than a town, really. No, he had told his parents, he was moving there to prove he could live out on his own, not because it was so small, quiet, and undemanding. His parents thought he was lazy, but he would show them. He would show himself, too. He wasn’t lazy.
Now then, nervous? He was definitely nervous. Cowardly? He was afraid to say. Uncertain? Certainly. Yellow? Indeed, both in skin and disposition.
So Numer had come to Nottle. It was such a small community that nothing ever happened. He could show that he wasn’t lazy and keep his nervousness from getting in the way.
Numer looked at the bright afternoon sky as a lone cloud drifted by. He supposed his nervousness still held him back in some ways. He usually slept in to avoid the bustle of the day’s beginning. Numer preferred the day to have already been started, for its mood to be established. Then he could follow the work of the early-risers. He wasn’t much of a leader.
That was obviously why he woke up late. Numer nodded his squishy head in agreement with the answer he gave himself; the same answer he gave himself every morning were he awake, but he never was, so instead it was every afternoon.
Behind Numer’s house stood the fruit orchard that separated Nottle from the rest of Hackney. He looked at a cherry tree and smiled, thinking of her. There was a very good reason he had stayed at Nottle, and his heart swirled at the mere suggestion of her name.
He had fallen in love with Cherry: a beautiful, strong, intelligent, sociable, bold—well she was pretty much everything Numer wasn’t aside from a slube. His nervousness got in his way there, too. Every time he tried to talk to Cherry, his brain froze and his mouth felt mushy.
In short, she was wonderful, he was lame, and he had no idea how he could get her to notice him.
That probably explained why, in his dream, the queen appeared as Cherry. And just as he about reached the other side of the board to be made her equal, he was attacked and removed from the board. Even in his dreams he was a lame loser.
And every time he had a similar dream, the king piece beat him. Why a king piece? Maybe he just didn’t know any other chess pieces. Wasn’t there a square one? And a round one?
Numer shook his head. Okay, so that dream made sense. Sort of. He didn’t understand the other one at all. A giant thimble wearing a top hat demanding money from him and chasing him around a square board on which stood red buildings the size of his head? He’d never even heard of a board game like that.
The sleepy slube yawned. He’d sat on his bed long enough. It was time to get up and head out. He pushed his bed sheets off his tail and wogged over to his closet, the undulation of his tail pushing him forward.
Numer put on one of his two blue skeshes, the loose slube clothing with sleeves that reached from below the neck to just above the tail. He flexed his tail, rubbing it against the soft, grassy carpeting. He always imagined Hackney’s grass felt how a fluffy cloud would. It made a good material for carpets, and the farmers who gathered it and the weavers who made it into carpets were truly talented. They didn’t worry over their work.
Numer wogged to room’s exit, halting to push aside the two slube-sized leaves covering it. The slubes who picked the leaves from trees and the slubes who designed them into hanging covers were also talented. They didn’t fret over failure and avoid their work.
He touched the wall made of rough, dried clay as he passed through the exit. All the slubes who worked on making that house were talented. Every one of them did it for no monetary reward; it was all for the community. They were very community-minded and not at all afraid.
Numer’s old city used small pieces of metal for money, but Nottle never adopted that system. Slubes took what they needed and shared what they had, be it time, talent, or supplies. If anyone took more than they needed they were ostracized.
But what could Numer do? Hardly anything. He didn’t have any particular talent. He didn’t grow food. He had plenty of time when not asleep, so he helped gather fruit at the orchard and he helped others with small jobs carrying this or that or moving one thing or another. He certainly wouldn’t impress Cherry with such paltry achievements.
Still, it was all he could do. He could think of no other alternative, and it wasn’t like something would just fall into his lap. Numer passed through the bare front room of his house and wogged to his front door. It was time to face the day and greet his fellow Nottle residents.
Duth_Olec: There you have it, the hero of our story.
Wally_Plotch: He doesn’t seem like much of a hero.
Duth_Olec: Yet. True heroes never do start like heroes, do they?
Wally_Plotch: What about strong, brave warriors fighting off armies of evil?
Duth_Olec: Those guys are never the focus. Except in movies, and those are usually an exaggerated version of events. Like, really figgin exaggerated. We’re dealing in reality here. We handle nothing but the truth. Also, in movies, you’re only allowed five minutes of conversation and reflection, with the rest dedicated to action. And speaking of action, here’s none!
Wally_Plotch: “Here’s none”? That sounded kind of awkward.
Numer stared at the town of Nottle outside his door. He couldn’t believe his eyes. There was something very wrong. Nottle appeared completely deserted.
From where he stood in front of his house, Numer could see most of the village. Ahead and to his left stood the storehouses, a group of six buildings where the community kept food and clay and other supplies. To his right stood a row of houses along the north edge of the village. Everything else in Nottle was flat, open, grassy land. He could lie down on the ground on one end of town and still see to the other end. Behind him to the east stood the orchard, beyond which lay the rest of the island. In all other directions, the vast pale magenta ocean surrounded Nottle as far as could be seen.
Today Numer could see all of Nottle as usual. He could not, however, see a single slube.
Numer pictured all the times he’d gone outside before. Every day it was the same. He saw many busy slubes going to and from the storehouses, chatting with one another, small slube children playing and sleeging about chasing each other. Slubes just weren’t prone to staying shut up indoors.
Perhaps something terrible had happened. Maybe everyone in town had been kidnapped. What if a monster had killed and eaten everyone? Numer shuddered at the thought of a monster roaming Nottle’s silent fields, and he felt loneliness creep up his stomach. Or even worse, the slubes of Nottle had decided they didn’t like Numer anymore so they all packed up and left without telling him.
Numer rubbed his head. No, there had to be a more logical (and, he hoped, less frightening) explanation. None of the ground looked scraped like he’d expect from the rampage of a vicious monster. Nothing appeared damaged. Everything was as serene as could be, as if someone had built a full-size model of Nottle realistic to every detail. Then they put Numer inside it because they didn’t like him anymore.
In fact, Nottle looked frozen in time. Numer heard nary a sound. No wind blew; the ocean lay still and flat. He couldn’t hear a sound. Only one cloud hung in the sky, and it too appeared still. Throughout Nottle the grass was flattened as if something had rolled over it, not cut or battered it, but there was no sign of what might have done so. It was all too still, and Numer felt as empty as the town.
As he looked at the town, Numer heard a groan and felt his insides shake with hunger. He rubbed his belly. Maybe that creeping loneliness was just hunger. Numer wished he’d remembered to grab something last night to eat in the morning.
As Numer wogged to the storehouses he heard a rustling. His heart jumped, and he spun around. The rustling stopped; it was just his tail rubbing against the grass. Numer felt a chill as if a ghost passed through him. The empty silence unnerved him. Shaking from head to tail, the lonely slube crept to the storehouses, keeping as quiet as an empty house. If there really was a monster, he wanted to sleeg away before being noticed.
Numer passed by the first storehouse. It, too, was devoid of any slubes. He passed to the next and found between them several upturned baskets, the fruits and supplies scattered. Someone had been there.
Then no one had been there.
Numer picked up a shepa—a hard, round, red fruit native to Hackney—from off the ground. Slubes were allowed to take what they needed, so Numer knew he was fine to take it. There were more shepas inside, and whoever had dropped it could get more. He shook the fruit and pulled off the stem, leaving a hole in the end. Through it he drank the fruit’s pulpy, crisp juice in one gulp. It felt like someone jammed a fruit into his neck, if jamming a fruit into someone’s neck could be considered quenching both a thirst and hunger.
Numer gasped after his long drink. He felt refreshed now. He stooped and examined the baskets and fruits. It all appeared to have simply tumbled to the ground, as if the slubes holding them had been zapped out of existence.
Numer stared at the crumpled shepa skin in his hand. Someone could have been holding that… and then the next instant they stopped existing.
The shepa dropped to the ground. Stopped existing. Numer’s mind finally processed the realization: Everyone was gone. Numer jumped up. No, there had to be somebody left!
Numer pulled open the door to the nearest storehouse and sleeged through the rows of baskets containing leaves and grass. He had to find somebody. Anybody! He would even be okay with finding a monster. Just something that would prove he wasn’t all alone there.
Not a living slube—not a living anybody—was to be found in any of the six storehouses. Numer sleeged to his neighbor’s house and looked through the window; he saw no one inside. Silence soaked the houses. He was alone. Was he alone?
Numer heard himself breathe through the silence. He heard his tail rub against the ground. He stopped. Was that him? Was that someone else? Was someone there? The silence suffocated him. He couldn’t take it anymore.
“No one’s around!” he shouted. “Where is everybody?” The silence shattered like glass but immediately put itself back together. Then it tinkled like glass lightly falling apart:
“Why, over here!”
“Huh? What?” Numer spun about for the source of the new voice. He saw a lone slube near the center of town and sleeged over to him. “Oh, hello there.” His puzzled voice had a note of relief in it that surprised him.
“How do you do? My name is Professor Zeth,” the strange slube said, shaking Numer’s hand with both of his. He wore a teal, buttoned-up skesh. Thick glasses were perched on his head, the lenses so foggy Numer couldn’t even see his eyes. There were creases in the slube’s face that showed this slube was a few years older than Numer (unless skin creases just came with the professor territory).
This professor didn’t seem like a bold slube who would be out in an empty town, say like an officer detective. Even so, he seemed exactly like the type of slube who would investigate such a peculiar occurrence: one so interested in things that, well, how could he keep away?
Numer looked around for anyone he recognized. “Hi. I’m Numer.” The town was empty save him and a slube he’d never met before. The situation unnerved and confused Numer more than usual. The thought of sleeging away crossed his mind, but this professor didn’t seem dangerous. With no one he knew at hand, he resigned to would speak with the only slube around. “Where is everyone?”
“In hiding, I suppose. That was quite a big shock to the town. But you must be quite the brave fellow, venturing out in the aftermath, right?” Professor Zeth asked, still shaking Numer’s hand.
“Shock? Aftermath? Brave? Me?” Numer took a deep breath.
“Yes! See here?” Zeth spread his hands out, indicating a crater near where they stood. It appeared slightly wider than a slube, and lacked the thick grasses of Nottle. In the crater was a layer of loose soil, as if the grass had been pulled out and the soil shaken loose.
Numer stared at it. He felt the professor expected him to make some observation, but Numer couldn’t guess at the crater’s significance.
“This is where the crystal was,” Zeth said.
Numer scratched his head. “Oh, that weird crystal thing in the middle of town?” Numer had seen it. It was hard not to notice—as tall as a slube and deep black, standing out against the green grass and blue sky. He never paid it any attention, though. It had been in Nottle longer than anyone knew, and no one knew where it came from. Numer only now realized that, along with no other slubes, he hadn’t seen the crystal. There he stood at the center of town, and the crystal was missing from its appointed location.
“If you like,” Zeth said, “I think I can explain some things if you come with me.” He turned around and headed northwest.
Numer could have turned away and gone home. He could have looked for someone else. He’d never met Zeth. How did he know he wasn’t dangerous? Because Zeth had an attitude that suggested he’d put himself in danger before working out how to harm someone else. Numer shrugged and followed. It looked like the only way he would find some answers.
Duth_Olec: Hey. Hey, hey! Hey, Wally!
Wally_Plotch: What? What is it?
Duth_Olec: Do you think Zeth is a mad scientist?
Wally_Plotch: I don’t know. He seems kind of silly. I don’t know about mad. Numer doesn’t seem too worried about him, and I’d think he would be worried about anyone.
Duth_Olec: He’ll totally be a mad scientist. He’s gonna turn Numer into a potato.
Wally_Plotch: Don’t you already know what happens in this story?
Duth_Olec: Oh, right. That kind of ruins the joke. Oh well, I have plenty more jokes ready to be ruined. Now for something completely different!
Wally_Plotch: What? We’re back in space. What’s going on here?
High above the planet Mintop orbited a cluster of dark gray spheres. The largest sphere sat at the center, twice the size of the smallest. Thick corridor tubes connected the spheres. From the sphere closest to Mintop, a luminous particle beam reached to the planet below.
Inside the space station worked the cepholopodic spleech. They had tall heads with a layer of flappy skin over the back like a helmet, two elongated eyes in the front. Their torsos were puny in comparison, and they spoke through a row of small holes around the base of the neck. Most spleeches sat on stools in front of computers bigger than them, typing on keyboards with their four thin tentacles.
“Pickup confirmed,” a spleech reported through the control room’s intercom. “We’ve gotten hold of the crystal. Bringing it up now.”
“Keep it steady. This far from the surface, the slightest disruption could break the contact.” One figure in the room paced behind the spleeches on stools, towering over them at five times their height. He was their ruler, commander of the space station, famed as a squishy subjugator throughout the galaxy: The Conqueror.
The Conqueror looked like the spleeches, in some ways, being a gray cephalopod, but with much longer tentacles and a bulbous head set with two glaring eyes shaped like water droplets. A glass case covered the skinless back half of his head and protected his brain. The immense mass of matter was the size of several spleeches and pulsed with thoughts of invasion.
The Conqueror pulled himself forward with his tentacles, watching his spleech at work. On the planet below they’d located a crystal containing a high amount of energy. Such an artifact would aid greatly in the coming invasion of Mintop. The Conqueror smiled internally at how ingenious he was. He would invade a planet using its own resources.
The first step of an invasion always required the most focus. Succeed at the start and one can be carried through by that confidence. There was much excitement at the start, but it needed to be tempered. Becoming overeager can lead to loss of focus.
The Conqueror pulled himself over to a spleech whose head lay on the table in front of its monitor. Then there were those without focus and immune to excitement.
The Conqueror smacked the sleeping spleech off its stool with his tentacle, sending it crashing into the wall. For a moment, all the typing in the room ceased—only for a moment—before it resumed even faster than before.
The Conqueror clasped his tentacles together and looked at the sleepy spleech with wide eyes. “And how are you doing today, peon?” he asked, raising the pitch of his voice. The smacked spleech slipped off the wall and fell to the floor in a tangled heap. “Feeling a little fatigued, are you?” The Conqueror asked.
The spleech’s head popped up. “Oh, no sir, not at all.” Its tentacles scrunched up. “No, I was only resting my eyes, the glare from-” The Conqueror snatched the spleech and held it at eye-level, squeezing its small body and thin neck with a tentacle.
“Then why don’t we send you somewhere you can rest your eyes for a while?” The Conqueror threw the spleech down in front of two spleech guards armed with laser pistols.
“Throw it into a prison cell,” The Conqueror said. “I will decide if it remains onboard or spends eternity asleep in empty space later.”
“No! No, wait!” The spleech’s tentacles scrabbled at the floor as the guards dragged it away. “No, I’m awake now! I won’t fall asleep now, I promise!”
“Yes, now you’re wide awake,” The Conqueror said, “now that you’re the center of attention.”
He turned back to the rest of the spleeches. Increasingly they had grown lethargic. They became bland. Slow. Tired. They never asked for breaks, but The Conqueror saw it in their eyes and movements. They were becoming languid.
“Too long, perhaps,” he said to the spleeches. “Too long since our planet became my planet. Thousands of years have passed since I conquered it. Perhaps you’ve become comfortable in our arrangement; you are mine, but you may feel that I offer you special treatment, for we had the same starting point and appear the same. Always remember that I am above you spleeches. Always remember that I can fling you into the sun like so much space waste.”
During this address, every spleech continued to work. Each one stared at its computer monitor. A few of them turned slightly towards The Conqueror’s direction, but they quickly turned back to their work. The threat of alleviating the solitary portion of the other spleech’s confinement was too great.
The Conqueror resumed his examination of the spleeches’ work. On one monitor, readouts for the tractor beam pulling the crystal to the space station showed it operating at full power. Another monitor approximated the crystal’s size—somewhat smaller than The Conqueror. Their initial energy estimates were high for something of that size.
“Executive!” The Conqueror shouted. “Get over here.”
A spleech holding an oval tablet computer scrambled over its own tentacles to The Conqueror. “Yes, sir?”
“Give me good news,” The Conqueror said.
“Everything is operating smoothly.” The executive spleech looked at the tablet. “We’re getting new data about the crystal. It is unlike anything—that is, I’ve never seen-” The Conqueror snatched the tablet and looked at the data. His eyes widened. Their initial energy estimates were low.
They had never encountered anything like this. The power readings for this crystal were higher than any machine or source of power they had, yet their data for the planet showed it was only three-quarters to being a type-I civilization. The Conqueror’s mind sparked with the possibilities. He calculated the power output of the crystal as threefold the planet’s energy consumption.
Clearly the planet was not using the crystal. It certainly wasn’t using it right, at any rate. Something like that could power an entire civilization for centuries.
Or it could power centuries of planetary invasions.
“What have the calculations shown?” The Conqueror asked. “How much of the fleet could be powered with this?”
“The entire fleet, five times over,” the executive spleech said.
The Conqueror’s eyes lifted in excitement. If they just picked up that lone crystal and returned to the fleet, the full invasion would be completed with the power of that crystal alone.
“The first step is almost complete, and soon this planet will be mine. Then I will have the grasp in this sector needed to conquer the rest. These worlds won’t know what hit them until it’s too late, and then they will know full well what hit them. The force of The Conqueror!”
“Hail The Conqueror!” the spleeches shouted.
Duth_Olec: Antagonist Alert!
Wally_Plotch: “The Conqueror”, huh? That’s it? Just “The Conqueror”?
Duth_Olec: Yep. Obviously he lives for invasions. He’s so into it he made that his moniker. If he had some other job he’d probably be named The Chef, or The Dignitary, or The Signless.
Wally_Plotch: I don’t think “signless” is a job title.
Duth_Olec: Just let me have my stupid internet references, okay? Anyway, let’s zap away to another scene!
Wally_Plotch: What’s this? Just an empty room? No, an almost empty room…
Seven spleeches sat in a gray, metal room with no door. All around were metal plates secured with screws that stuck outward through the dirty walls—they were in the wall cavity between rooms on The Conqueror’s scouting ship. They huddled around a glowing ball, the room’s only light source, and a radio receiver through which played the words of The Conqueror.
The spleech scrunching itself smallest, Flinn, flinched at the smack of The Conqueror hitting a spleech. Flinn closed its eyes and wrapped its tentacles around itself. It didn’t want to be there. It didn’t want to be doing this. It had to be done, but why did Flinn agree to come?
They had gathered to rebel against The Conqueror and stop his invasion before it started. He had conquered their planet millennia ago and since then ruled the spleech and used them in a never-ending quest to conquer the cosmos, which he had turned into a vigorous profession. They were finally going to put a stop to him. Flinn just had no idea how.
Even through the radio receiver The Conqueror’s voice made Flinn shrink back: “How much of the fleet could be powered with this?”
“The entire fleet, five times over,” they heard a spleech reply.
Flinn opened its eyes. “Did you hear that?” it shouted. “Enough energy to power the fleet five times!” Flinn flailed its tentacles and yelled, “That’s it! We’re done! Ptooey! There’s no way we can stop him now!”
The spleech Vado slapped Finn. “Shut up!” Vado yelled.
Flinn fell over and rubbed its face, tears dripping down its eyes. Flinn thought of Vado as the angry one.
“This is no time to give up.” Vado pounded the floor with a tentacle.
“I dunno,” said Ceran, one of Flinn’s siblings. It propped its head up with a tentacle. “Flinn’s got a point. Conq’ gets that crystal, there’s no limit to what he can do.”
The gathered spleeches muttered; they had limited options.
“Hey, guys, I have an idea,” Joe said.
“What is this idea you have?” asked Ardway, a head taller than the others.
“We go back in time and tell ourselves to actually come up with an idea before we head out.”
Vado glared at Joe. “Don’t make me slap you.”
“All of you, shaddup!” Mickelos jumped to the center of the group. It looked at them with one eye, its other covered by a patch. Mickelos pointed at each one with its artificial mechanical tentacle. “Listen,” the old spleech said, “we joined together because we knew that The Conqueror had to be stopped one way or another. That crystal is an unstoppable power. We need to make sure that he doesn’t get it.”
“But how do we do that?” Flinn asked.
Mickelos slapped its tentacle on the floor. “We’ll have to sabotage his operations.”
“But how do we do that?” Flinn asked.
“Are you going to contribute anything useful to this mission?” Vado asked, glaring at Flinn.
“Excuse me, everyone.” Probo, Flinn’s other sibling, adjusted its glasses. “I do have a plan.”
Duth_Olec: Hey, Wally.
Wally_Plotch: Are we going to do this between every scene?
Duth_Olec: No, I just wanted to let you know that we weren’t going to do this between every scene.
The Conqueror sat in a white chair with an oversized headrest to accommodate his oversized head. He sat alone in a room studying a hologram of Mintop as big as himself. He flicked the globe with a tentacle so it spun and then tapped it to hold it still. He pointed to a set of islands.
“The islands where we found that crystal are fairly separated from the more populous continents,” The Conqueror said in a stern, quick voice. “If we attack the islands first, we can set up a base and then obliterate the continental forces.”
“A quick foothold gain on the planet. Excellent plan, sir,” came a voice through a speaker mounted on the wall, below which a screen displayed a list of names. The Conqueror’s fleet commanders communicated via radio satellite. Each waited back on the planet Tallanihiti with his fleet, ready to launch upon his return from scouting.
“Will the continental areas not notice the fleet arriving?” another commander asked.
“You are overestimating the advancement of this planet,” The Conqueror said. “From what we have gathered, they won’t even realize what’s happening until our attack on them has begun. We’ll already be on the planet and can take control of most of the seaways. However, sea and air traffic do suggest the north island has significant contact with the expansive continental areas, so we should begin on the south island where we found the crystal and then charge into the north. The more populated lands won’t have time to react before we’re established and tearing apart their defenses.” The commanders murmured general agreement.
“Are you certain the seaways can be taken control of quickly enough to cripple the planet’s forces?” asked yet another commander.
“Do you doubt me?” The Conqueror heard the commander’s sharp intake of air. He allowed a silence to fester and give them all time to consider his position over them. “Certainly you remember the stories of how I swept through the seas of Shisteruse? Naturally you had admirable air power, but it was-” The communication system beeped, and a light flashed on the screen. “Excuse me.” The Conqueror pressed a button and switched to a local call.
“Conqueror! Sir, sir, Conqueror!” It was Executive Spleech in Charge of Keeping Things Orderly, although its tone suggested failure at that job. “Trouble! Help!”
“What is it? Speak in complete sentences, you panicked excuse for an organizer.”
“Get to the tractor beam control room! Er, sir, yes, sir!” Executive Spleech said in a babble. “We’re under attack down here. Spleeches with guns. Rebels. Trying to stop the tractor beam.”
An unfortunate development, The Conqueror thought. His voice calm, he said, “Keep them away from those controls. I will be down momentarily.”
The Conqueror excused himself from his meeting and left the room. He leapt down the hallways, using his front tentacles like pivots, towards the sphere with the tractor beam controls. He didn’t need that crystal, but he wanted it. With it he could do so much more. He could outlast any society in a war of attrition. Power weaponry so strong that entire worlds would be reduced to rubble. If he got that crystal now, he could test its power against Mintop, and then he would have full knowledge of how to use it best against the neighboring planets Derantu and Zhop.
That crystal’s power could be used to bring the universe into a new crystal age. A much better age, for it would be his: The Conqueror’s crystal age. The sooner he used it to conquer the cosmos, the sooner he could use it to power worlds. His worlds.
The Conqueror charged down the hallway, pulling with his front tentacles and pushing with the rear. He bounded into the air at a speed far surpassing that which one might expect for someone so top-heavy.
So it seemed some spleeches had decided they didn’t like him anymore. What are those pathetic wimps going to do? It had been too long since he took over their planet. It was time to remind those spleeches what he did to dissenters.
The Conqueror found loyal spleeches crowded around the door to the tractor beam control room. They pushed against the door, jabbed the security keypad, and talked over each other. “Out of the way, meeklings!” The Conqueror yelled. The spleeches shouted and jumped aside as The Conqueror slid to a stop in front of the door. “What is the situation?”
The spleeches shouted over one another like a bunch of squealing idiots. The Conqueror ordered them silent and pointed at one spleech, inviting it to answer.
The spleech stammered, its skin turning pale. “The door’s jammed. We tried putting in the code to open it, but it won’t budge.”
They were organized rebels, then. Spleeches who thought they could outsmart him. Either they’d jammed the door’s lock or they had the lockdown codes. The Conqueror pulled himself to the side of the doorway and flipped open a panel below the door’s keypad. Under the panel was a hole just big enough to fit his tentacle. This was the emergency override scanner. Only The Conqueror could activate it.
“When this door opens, all of you rush in.” The Conqueror pushed his tentacle, longer than any spleech’s, into the scanner until a white light shone above the door. The door slid into the wall with a slam. With a collection of screams, the crowd of spleech charged in. The sounds of laser fire flowed out from in the room along with voices:
“Gaddfern it! They got the door open. Thought Probo said it couldn’t be opened from outside.”
“Don’t stop! Beat them back! I’ll get us through this blockade.”
Blasts boomed around the room, followed by the irate shout of someone ready to end a stalemate now. The Conqueror heard a screech, and numerous spleeches flew out of the room like explosion debris.
“Hey, buds, we got enough firepower left to shut this thing down now?” asked a spleech still inside the room.
“Probably not. We failed! Hooray!”
“Shaddup, you stupid-”
The Conqueror grabbed the doorway and flung himself into the room at the four spleeches still standing. The rebels were puny compared to him, and he crushed them to the floor beneath his superior bulk.
With one tentacle wrapped around each, The Conqueror lifted the four rebels to eye level. “Tentacle soldiers,” The Conqueror said. “Cannon fodder to take the brunt of the attacks, followed then by true might. You never stood a chance.”
“Let go of me, ya lousy Conq’,” the rebel Ceran shouted, squirming in The Conqueror’s grasp. “I’ll smack my tentacle so hard on your stinking brain that you’ll get a new wrinkle.”
The Conqueror squeezed Ceran to shut it up. “I really must keep a more accurate stock of weaponry.” On the floor lay four laser pistols and a laser minicannon the size of a spleech head. They had, he imagined, meant to blow up the tractor beam machinery.
The Conqueror looked at the loyal spleech sprawled around the room. “Get up! Get moving! Make sure the tractor beam is still at full operation.”
“You will not win this,” the rebel spleech Ardway said, still defiant, though its voice sounded flat and detached.
“I already have, you sludge,” The Conqueror said. “Did you really think you could rebel against The Great Conqueror?”
“I thought you were just The Conqueror,” Joe said, acting as impertinent as a stand-up comedian—the sort that The Conqueror often had executed.
“Great or not, you have made a fatal mistake.” Every previous attempt to rebel against him had failed, and the resulting public torture led to stronger control of the planet that saw it. But for spleeches to rebel? Those subjugated before the rest, who no longer had any memories or clear stories of a time before?
“So you’re not actually great?” asked Joe.
And now this thing was mocking him? The Conqueror’s brain pulsed with rage, and he tightened his grasp and threatened, “I would watch what you say, for there is nothing stopping me from squeezing the life out of you.” Though The Conqueror suspected that more rebels hid on the station and would need to interrogate these to find them, one less captive would not matter.
The Conqueror felt movement in one of his tentacles. He turned to see the rebel Mickelos shoot a device out of its mechanical tentacle. The device hit the console that controlled the tractor beam and exploded. Parts of the tractor beam control panel blew through the room and the machine’s remains fell silent.
“No!” shouted The Conqueror. His forehead wrinkled with fury.
The spleeches hurried to the computers and typed rapidly on the keyboards. “We’re losing visual on the crystal, sir!” one shouted.
“Power signals decreasing,” said another.
“Crystal gem entering Mintop atmosphere. Stresses increasing.” The spleeches repeatedly checked the console.
“Sir, it appears the crystal is breaking apart in the atmosphere.”
“What?” The Conqueror watched as dots appeared on a screen showing a map of Mintop. Each dot marked where a crystal shard was projected to land. “This rather multiplies the problem, then,” he growled.
“Sorry, Conqueror,” said Joe, “but your crystal is in another cas-” The tentacle that was wrapped around the rebel’s puny body tightened and cut it off.
The Conqueror ordered in several spleech guards armed with laser pistols. “Lock these rebels up. Interrogate them. Find out who else dares to go against the might of The Conqueror.” He wanted to interrogate them himself, but he had a crystal to reclaim. Turning to the spleeches at the computers, he said, “Find those shards. This isn’t over. I will have that crystal.”
Numer and Zeth arrived at the western edge of Nottle where it met the sea. Just a stone’s throw from shore, a grass-covered bump protruded from the water. Actually, it was more like a stone’s drop. If Numer leaned out over the narrow channel he could grab a fistful of grass. The whole mound couldn’t have been bigger than his bedroom.
Zeth reached across the water and grabbed the small knoll. With a quick pull he removed what appeared to be a grass carpet. Beneath it was a glass window framed by gray metal.
“What’s this?” Numer asked.
“The entrance to my lab,” Zeth said, opening the window.
“Your lab? Here in Nottle?” Numer tossed his hands up. “Why have I never heard of it? Actually, why have I never heard of you?”
“Yes, well,” Zeth said, tapping his hands together, “I am rather busy and don’t come out into the town often.”
“Is that why your lab is in this tiny bump split from the rest of the town?” Numer asked.
“No, it was the only place in my budget,” Zeth said.
“Budget?” Numer asked. “But we don’t have to pay for things in Nottle. Why do you have a budget?”
“Perhaps not things,” Zeth said, “but property, well, that’s a slightly different matter. Come on.” He slid through the window-door, and waved to Numer for him to follow.
Numer climbed in after Zeth. The lab was empty but cramped. It would only hold about five slubes if they were crammed in. The floor and ceiling were a rough, cold metal, and the walls were brown rock or maybe just plain dirt. In each corner, a metal pole reached from the floor to ceiling.
Numer frowned. “This is your lab?” It was tiny! It was empty! How could it be a lab?
“No, this is the elevator.”
Zeth pressed a wall panel, and Numer’s stomach launched into his head. The floor dropped so quickly that he felt weightless for a moment. Then it stopped, and he nearly smacked into the floor.
Numer stumbled and gripped the wall to steady himself. “Don’t do that!”
“Sorry,” Zeth said. “Sometimes the lift drops especially fast. Might be something loose in there.”
They were inside a cave not much bigger than Numer’s house. It was dry and warm. A bare bulb hung from the domed ceiling by a long, frazzled wire. The curved walls were of light brown rock in an irregular oval shape, though only a few areas looked rough and craggy. Numer wondered if it had been artificially carved.
The mesh gate in front of the elevator opened, and they entered the real lab. It was rather a mess. Wires, rods, and metal objects as long as Numer’s arm and as wide as his head were strewn about. Blue paper lay over several identical tables, each sheet covered with drawings of machines and columns of notes that looked illegible, though Numer figured it could have just been science symbols. Most of the machine drawings seemed unfinished.
Liquids had spilled on the floor, tables, and even walls; Numer thought every color of the rainbow was there and a few that he wasn’t sure were in the rainbow. The place smelled like someone had set fire to an outhouse and planted a garden over the remains which was buried in an avalanche followed by a tidal wave that swept it away and…
There were just a lot of smells—rancid trash, burning, rotton fruit, moist soil, musty stone, salty ocean smells. Numer could hardly identify their points of origin, if they even had any. He wondered if the lab was ventilated. Zeth must breathe that air all day, though, and he looked fine.
“Sorry about the mess,” Zeth said. “I’ve been busy, as I said.”
Numer inched his way into the lab, taking care not to slide his tail over any wires or liquids or sharp metal. He was amazed at the technology hidden right below his town—satellite dishes, monitors, gizmos that Numer couldn’t begin to explain.
Numer shook his head—he was there for a reason. “So, that crystal? Where is it? What happened out there? What’s going on?”
“In order: yes, I’m not sure, I believe a theft, and the last question is a bit harder to answer.” Zeth wogged to a table on which sat a metal cube the size of Numer’s head; a satellite dish protruded from its back. A screen on the cube showed a series of lines. “One of the reasons I have set up my lab here is that I have been studying the crystal, trying to unlock its secrets.”
“Secrets?” Numer asked.
Zeth held up his palm. “Please hold all questions until the end. Now, at approximately eleven today I stopped getting readings from the crystal.” He waved a yellow hand smudged black towards the cube. “At first I thought this scanning unit was malfunctioning.” Zeth stopped and stared as Numer muttered to himself.
“Eleven, eleven…” Numer threw his hands up. “It’s been so long since I’ve used a regular system of time that I’ve forgotten when that is.”
Although the nearby city used a 24-hour clock, Nottle never bothered itself with such things, so Numer had adjusted to telling time by the sun. It wasn’t like he needed to know an exact time around there. Long ago he had wondered how Mintop knew to make exactly one spin every twenty-four hours, but he wasn’t a kid anymore and now knew the time of day was based on the planet’s rotation, not the other way around.
“Well,” Zeth said, “it would have been soon before the sun was at its high point in the sky. Anyway, stopped readings, thought malfunction… ah, yes. I realized there were still readings coming from the crystal, but fainter, as if it had moved away from the planet.” Zeth pointed up. “The crystal had been pulled up into the sky.”
“By what?” Numer had seen images of big machines with a tall sort of tower that could pull objects into the air, but he had not seen anything outside that could lift a crystal into the sky.
“I don’t know. When I went outside, it was already gone.”
So much for figuring out where it went. Numer did have a question he figured Zeth could answer, though. “You said you were trying to unlock its secrets. What does that mean?”
Professor Zeth unrolled a chart on the table that showed a line graph steadily going down. “This crystal has immense amounts of energy stored in it. Over time, that energy has actually increased.”
“Then why is the chart line going down?” Numer asked. Even he knew that up meant more.
Zeth stared at the chart. “Well, you see—” He stared at it further. He flipped it around so the line pointed up. “By now, I calculate that it has enough energy to power an entire planet, although utilizing such energy would require much more study. That’s something I, and others, would like to see happen, but work on it is slow—we don’t want the word spreading too much.”
“Why not? Wouldn’t more cleeple studying it be good?”
“Perhaps, but on the other hand, it could be dangerous,” Zeth said. “Such power, still untested, and if it fell into the wrong hands…”
“I guess that makes sense. Where did it come from, anyway?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. History isn’t exactly my specialty.”
“It’s there to ward off evil, at least according to legend,” said a voice behind them.
Numer instantly recognized that voice. He and Zeth turned around and in unison shouted her name: “Cherry!” In front of the elevator stood a slube Numer’s age wearing a red skesh and holding a satchel woven from grass.
Numer’s throat went dry. Cherry? Here? This was the closest he’d ever been to her, in the most confined space, and with the fewest slubes present. He wasn’t prepared for this. His insides felt as if they’d sunk into his tail. Standing in an empty town was easier than a room with the love of his life. What could he say? Nothing that would make him look good or even conscious.
Zeth asked, “What are you doing here?”
“The same thing you are, Zeth,” Cherry said. She wogged over to them and removed a book from her satchel. Numer watched her—she had smooth, yellow skin, sparkling eyes, and her shapely tail—no, don’t look at the tail. That would be awkward. Make eye contact. His eyes felt heavy as stones and his gaze stopped at her mouth. Her round, smooth mouth; she stood so close that he could feel her breath on his skin.
Wait, no; that was from an air duct. The lab was ventilated.
Cherry grabbed another book from her satchel, but she stopped and jerked her head up at Numer. The nervous slube gave her a wobbly smile and managed a weak wave.
“Who’re you?” she asked.
Numer bowed his head. All the times he’d passed her while doing an errand or standing at the edge of the crowd during town meetings, and she’d never even noticed him.
“His name is Numer,” Zeth said. “He was the only one outside after the incident.”
“Really?” Cherry asked. “Wow. Everyone else fled to the underground shelter when that big pillar of light hit. ‘We’re being invaded!’ they screamed. ‘It’s the end of the world!’ Everyone’s a mess.”
The underground shelter! So that’s where everyone had gone. Every house in Nottle had a tunnel that led to a shelter built below the town long ago out of fear that the nearby volcano would one day erupt. It never did, and now no one could remember a time when everyone had retreated to the shelter. Numer generally forgot it existed.
“What pillar of light?” Zeth asked.
“It had shot down from the sky and hit the middle of town,” Cherry said. “It was sucking things into it, and I’m betting it hit right where the crystal was.”
Zeth lifted his hands over his head. “And pulled it up into the sky. That must be what happened to the crystal.”
“Well,” Cherry said, looking at Numer, “I’m glad we three at least went out to discover what’s going on.”
Numer smiled but knew any praise for him would be unwarranted. He would have scurried off to hide too had he not been sleeping in, as usual. Still, it gave him the courage to open his mouth to ask a question.
Unfortunately, it didn’t give him enough courage to actually say anything, leaving him stuck with his mouth open and no words.
Cherry stared at Numer. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Wh—” It was all Numer could squeak out. He looked at Zeth and then quickly yelled, “Excuse us for a moment.” Numer pulled Zeth aside. He couldn’t bring himself to directly speak with Cherry. He asked Zeth to ask the question.
“Why can’t you?” Zeth asked.
“Don’t ask that, ask my question,” Numer whispered.
“Okay,” Zeth said. “What do you mean by warding off evil?”
“No, don’t ask me, ask Cherry,” Numer said.
“Oh, right.” They turned around, and Zeth asked Cherry the question.
“Right,” Cherry said, looking from Zeth to Numer, one eyelid cocked open wider than the other. She paged through one of her books. Images of browned parchments, discolored paintings, and faded maps flipped by. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Gelago City researching history, trying to find where we come from.”
“I come from Interpolis up north,” Zeth said.
“You know what I mean,” Cherry said. “Where slubes come from. Every species native to these islands can trace their roots to Hackney, Interp, or a smaller nearby island except slubes. I’ve found references to an island that slubes supposedly migrated from, but its location is unknown.” She shook her head. “This is off-topic, sorry.
“The earliest texts to make reference to the crystal also discuss a great disaster befalling the islands.” Cherry flipped to a page showing a painting of the crystal shining light onto a mountain of fire. “Legend spoke of the crystal being brought to end the disasters and ward off evil spirits.”
Zeth crossed his arms. “Sounds like a lot of ancient superstitions to me.”
“I’m not saying it’s true,” Cherry said. “These ancient texts are always filled with weeds of misinformation and confusion, but you can find an occasional flower of truth tucked between.”
“Wow, you’re really”—Numer stopped himself before he said pretty—“poetic!”
“Those texts are full of old beliefs, but there’s nothing mystical about the crystal,” Zeth said. “It just stores a large amount of energy inside.”
“And all that energy, focused in one spot, would have no effect on the environment around it?” Cherry asked, one eyelid cocked wider.
Zeth tapped his hand on the table. “Well, it doesn’t even matter why it was there in the first place. It’s not like we can get it back at this-”
A loud smash outside echoed into the lab cavern. The three slubes jerked their heads up.
They rode up the elevator and at the top found the window-door smashed through and in pieces. Zeth picked up a piece of metal. “My poor door. I’m going to have to build a new one.”
“We have more important things to worry about than a busted door,” Cherry said.
“What is this?” Numer asked. Among the door’s pieces lay a jagged gem about the length of his arm. Numer picked it up, taking care to not touch the sharper edges. The gem was black, but when he looked closer a rainbow of colors sparkled within.
“It looks familiar,” Zeth said. Numer handed it to him for examination.
“I think it’s a piece of the crystal,” Cherry said.
“A piece of the crystal!” Zeth shouted halfway through Cherry’s statement. They looked into the sky. It shimmered with plummeting debris closing in on the planet’s surface.
“It’s falling in pieces,” Cherry said.
“No need to be dismayed,” Zeth said. “Pieces or not, they are returning to Mintop.”
Numer stared at the sky. “But it’s falling in pieces. Look at them, so far away in the sky.”
“Perhaps we could go and retrieve them,” Zeth said, peering skyward.
“Are you serious?” Numer asked. “They could land miles away. How could we ever-”
A fragment the size of Numer’s eye dropped right on top of his head. Pain shot through him as he fell to the ground.
“Here,” Cherry said, her voice soft like the towel wrapped around the bag of ice she handed Numer. They’d returned to Zeth’s lab so Zeth could examine the crystal fragments. He sat on a padded, wheeled chair, having donned a sort of visor over his glasses. The device had lenses that he turned to zoom in on the sparkling shards, which sat on a table.
Numer put the ice bag on top of his eye and inspected his wobbly reflection in a piece of equipment. The skin around his eye was dark and yellow-green like the color of dying grass. With his good eyelid lowered he said, “So was the evil the crystal warded off black eyes?”
Cherry gave him a smile. “C’mon, it’s not that bad.” Numer smiled back. She was so nice, even to a nobody like him.
“Well, at least slube eyes heal quickly,” Numer said.
“That’s the spirit,” Zeth said. “We’ve got fatty tissue and muscles there out the wazoogi, and don’t ask me what ‘wazoogi’ means because I don’t know, I just heard it somewhere.”
“So about the shards?” Cherry asked, turning to him.
“Oh, right. Well, they’re definitely parts of the crystal,” Zeth said. He removed the visor. “Same type of energy reading, although weaker. There’s only a fraction of the whole thing here.” He brought one closer to examine it again and knocked it into the other. The two pieces glowed for an instant and then merged into one as if never broken apart. “Why, they stick together. That’s convenient.”
“That crystal’s really weird,” Numer said.
“Must be why they sent me,” Zeth said, smiling. A moment later he grew solemn. “Now then, this is important. Wherever this crystal came from, whatever its purpose was, something is going on, and this crystal may be at the center of it. It’s a powerful object, and somebody may have tried to take it for themselves.”
“Who would try to do that?” Cherry asked.
Numer scratched his head. “Maybe they just needed something to ward off evil with.” His voice shook with worry at the thought that the intention was to open the gate for evil to come.
“They could have just asked,” Zeth said. “Taking something without permission—that’s a sign of evil.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Say, is that my towel on your head?”
Cherry glared at him. “Zeth, are you trying to make a joke?”
Zeth looked down and pushed his hands together. “Well, I was only trying to break the tension…”
Tension. Numer felt the tension. Uncertain tension, nervous uncertainty, tense nervousness. Most of it seemed to be inside him. It had been bad enough when he woke up and the town was empty. Now he had an ugly black eye and they were talking about evil. Yet they seemed so calm about it. Disaster could be upon them, and Zeth was making jokes. Numer felt like his body was in a twist, inside and out.
“However,” Zeth said, “someone should rebuild the crystal, even if it’s just to investigate what’s going on.” He looked at Numer and Cherry. “We’re the only ones who know about this.”
Numer held up his palms. “Wait, wait, really?” The ice pack began to slip, and he held it up with one hand. “You’re a lone slube who came here by himself and knew about the crystal beforehand? If we’re the only ones who know, how did you find out about the crystal?”
“Okay, so, my old university professors know of the crystal, but I’ve been unable to contact them,” Zeth said.
Numer looked at Cherry. She stared at Zeth as if reading his thoughts.
“All right, I didn’t contact them,” Zeth said. He threw his hands up. “I didn’t want them to worry.”
Zeth fidgeted as Cherry continued to stare at him. “Okay, all right,” Zeth said, “I didn’t want them to know my slip-up. I haven’t really—the point is, no one else is going to rebuild the crystal, and I’m confident that we could do it as a team. Are you willing to help?”
“Absolutely,” Cherry said excitedly and as if Zeth had never dodged the subject of his university peers. They both turned to Numer.
Really, Numer didn’t want to get involved. He mumbled, “I don’t know. I mean, I have this eye, and…”
“You know they heal quickly,” Zeth said. He rubbed his chin for a moment and then pushed his chair to a set of drawers. “Although, how about this: if you help us, I’ll give you a gift.” Zeth rummaged through a drawer as wide as three slubes, removing tools and placing them on a table. There were tools pointy and flat, wide and thin, straight and as jagged as the scrap metal scattered around his lab.
“Hold on.” Zeth slid off his chair and opened a trunk. He tossed out bits and pieces of metal in all shapes and sizes. He looked up and around the lab, rubbing his chin. “Where did I put…? Oh, yes.” Zeth grabbed the leg of a table and yanked it off. The table toppled over, spilling all the tools he’d placed on it to the floor. “Oh dear! Who put all those tools on that table?”
Numer opened his mouth to tell Zeth that he had done it but just shook his head. It wasn’t worth it.
Zeth held up the table leg. “Ta-da! I call it the Mallet Blaster.”
Upon a closer look, Numer saw the leg was actually a mallet. “It’s a wooden mallet,” Numer said. How was that a gift? He took it with his free hand and felt the handle. It only looked like wood. The whole thing was metal.
“It’s not just a mallet,” Zeth said. “Aim the flat part of the head at the wall and press the button on the handle.”
Numer found the button and, aiming for the wall, pressed it. A particle beam shot out of the back of the mallet head and into an open closet. Numer dropped the mallet, spun, and fell over. Cherry jumped back. Zeth mumbled to himself and tapped his hands together. Singed boxes in the closet fell out and spilled open; paper, tools, and equipment scattered to the floor.
Numer felt his heart thump. His arm, outstretched before him, trembled as though holding a heavy weight. He looked at the dropped mallet, but his vision blurred.
“Okay, I guess I need to label front and back,” Zeth said, waving his hand up and down dismissively.
“What do you think we would face that I would need something like this?” Numer asked. Though as he asked that, he was more scared by the fact he had been holding a weapon than when he would need it.
“I don’t know,” Zeth said, “but you must think there’s something if you don’t want to come. You’re not just lazy, right?”
“Of course not,” Numer said. He was offended by the idea, no matter how many people voiced it. He was afraid, not lazy.
“Are you sure you don’t want to help?” Cherry asked.
Numer thought it over. He wasn’t brave. He hadn’t agreed to this. It was all a mistake because he woke up late. But he shouldn’t show fear or laziness in front of Cherry. This was his chance to be near her. He had never gotten to spend this much time with her before. She was always surrounded by slubes looking for advice or friends wanting to chat, and he was always too afraid to approach her. This was his chance to prove himself to Cherry, his parents, and himself—he could actually do something important.
He looked from Cherry to Zeth. He wasn’t certain of Zeth’s sanity, but he could be with Cherry. That was worth it. “All right,” Numer said. “I’m in.”
“All right,” Zeth said, clapping his hands together. “That’s bravery: doing something you don’t want to but know you should.”
“Okay, yeah, whatever,” Numer said. He wanted to avoid a big motivational speech. “Can I ask how we’re actually going to get to the rest of the pieces?”
“I can take care of that,” Zeth said. “I just need to finish a project of mine.”
Cherry pulled out another book. “I’d like to do a bit more research. Numer, you could look around town to see if there are any more shards around. The way they were falling, more could have landed nearby.”
Numer sighed as if he would deflate. “Okay.” He wanted to spend time with Cherry, but he guessed that would come. Better now to prove he wasn’t lazy or afraid, even if he was the latter. He ran errands for cleeple all the time, so it wasn’t much different from that.
“Oh, and don’t forget the Mallet Blaster,” Zeth said. “It could come in handy, or at least come in mallety.”
Numer picked up the end of the Mallet Blaster’s handle as if the head had teeth and would turn on him. He held it down at his side, afraid of accidentally firing it. With his other hand he still held the bag of ice on his eye as he crossed to the elevator. Inside he thumbed the up button on the controller pole, and the gate closed. He watched his new companions as it lifted him out of the lab.
“Oh, by the way, Cherry,” Zeth said, “does your father know you’re here?”
“What? Oh, yes, of course he does,” Cherry said. “Yes, why wouldn’t he?”
Numer watched Zeth stare at Cherry from behind his foggy glasses until the elevator lifted him out of sight. Over the clanking hum of the elevator he heard Zeth say, “Okey-dokey, just checking!”
Outside Zeth’s lab, Nottle remained as silent and empty as ever. This still creeped Numer out, but at least now he knew everyone was safely hiding right below him.
Numer circled each home and crisscrossed the rows of trees in the orchard, dragging the mallet behind him. He saw no glint of crystal on the ground or up in the trees. He returned to the front of his house and sat down on the back of his tail. He could see the entire main area of Nottle from there, and it didn’t look like any other fragments had fallen in town. Too bad; the more that fell in town, the fewer they would have to find outside of it.
He rose onto his tail’s underside and looked up at the sky, where but one cloud still hung in the dome of blue. Was he really about to go on a journey? It was hard to imagine any of it really happening. He felt like were he to return to Zeth’s lab he would find nothing there—find that he imagined the whole thing. Well, except for his black eye. Unless he was imagining an ache in his head. Along with the ice pack and towel, although the ice had began to melt and lose its cool. He pulled it off and lightly poked around his eye. He closed his good eye and checked his vision with the swollen one, panning across Nottle.
A glint out of the corner of his bad eye caught Numer’s attention. He turned to an old tree next to his house where a fragment of the crystal no bigger than a shepa sat between two branches. He wogged to the tree and looked up. The thick leaves blocked his view, but a gentle breeze stirred the branches and revealed in the dark a sparkle. If there was a shard, Cherry really was back at Zeth’s lab waiting for him to find something.
How could he get to it?
Perhaps he could climb up. Numer placed the bag of melted ice on the ground and wrapped his noodly arms around the tree. He scrunched his body upward. After a few tries, he had gained no height. He let go and tumbled to the grass.
Okay, he needed a better idea. He clearly could not climb the tree, but maybe he could get up it another way. He looked back at the Mallet Blaster, left in front of his house. Perhaps he could pound it onto the ground and use the force to throw himself into the branches.
Numer grabbed the mallet and backed up to the center of Nottle. He sleeged at the tree as fast as his tail could push him, and he pounded the Mallet Blaster onto the ground. The mallet sank into the soft soil and lost its force. Numer didn’t get lift; he got dirt. He flopped onto the ground face-first not a tail’s length away from where he slammed down the mallet head. Numer pushed himself up and brushed off the dirt and grass. Maybe he should just go back to bed. He wasn’t cut out for this.
No, he refused to give up. No, he should just go home. No, if he gave up, he would disappoint Cherry. But if he couldn’t get the fragment, she would still be disappointed.
That settled it. He would get that shard, even if he couldn’t.
The shard sat high up, sitting among the waxy green leaves. It was mocking him, wasn’t it? Well, if he couldn’t get up to the fragment, maybe he could get it to come down. Perhaps he could shoot the fragment out of the tree, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to fire that weapon again.
What other choice had he? Numer backed up several tail lengths and held up the mallet with the end of the head pointed up at the tree, his arm shaking. He hoped he didn’t hold it backwards again. With a deep breath he fired the mallet. A particle beam burst from the weapon and hit the tree; leaves and a branch dropped to the ground. He’d missed the shard, but he could see it now. If he kept shooting, he would knock down the shard eventually. Numer fired at the tree a few more times until he heard a squawk. Yellow feathers scattered among the green leaves. Numer dropped the mallet, his arm frozen in place. He’d hit something!
Numer hurried over to the tree. A yellow bird, no bigger than his eye, lay beside the trunk. He’d hit a living creature. He’d hurt something! He’d killed an innocent, little bird! Numer’s heart sank as he stared at the lifeless little body.
One wing stirred, brushing against the grass. It wasn’t lifeless. With another squawk, the fuzzy bird jumped up and flew away as erratically as in a high wind. Numer watched it until he was sure it wouldn’t drop back to the ground.
He picked up the mallet and stared at it. It was dangerous and useless. He lowered his arm. Or maybe he was useless. No, no, he shouldn’t think like that. Numer shook his head. He had to find some way to get that shard.
Numer hopped up below the tree and swung his arms up. If he could just grab the lowest branch, he might be able to climb up further. After a few near-grabs, Numer grasped the branch with one thin appendage. Success! He grabbed it with his other arm and pulled himself up until he lay on the branch, hugging it so he wouldn’t fall.
The bark was too smooth. He spun over and slipped below the branch to its underside. His noodly arms couldn’t hold his weight, and they slipped from the smooth branch. He fell back to the ground with a tail-curling thud.
Numer groaned; he just wasn’t cut out for this. He picked up the mallet and, still lying on the ground, loosely smacked it against the tree a few times in desperation. He didn’t expect anything to happen, but what else could he do?
The crystal fell out and hit his good eye.
Numer took the lift back down into Zeth’s lab. Once inside he held up the shard. “I found one.” Cherry’s eyes widened with what Numer decided to pretend was admiration.
Zeth, now wearing a white lab coat stained and splotched with an assortment of dark colors, lifted the tarp that covered him and a round object bigger than Numer’s bed. “Ah, fantast- ooh.” Numer now had two black eyes. “Well, at least you’re symmetrical now.”
Numer glared at Zeth as best he could with two swollen orbs. The professor gave him a little wave and retreated under the tarp.
Cherry took the shard and put it with the larger chunk. Like before, it melded together as if never broken.
“Based on my research,” Cherry said, “whenever the crystal was removed from the town, a disaster followed: a bad harvest, a tidal wave, an attack of bandits. Maybe all that energy is limiting the environment in some way, and it all rushes back when its power is gone. Any thoughts, professor?”
“Couldn’t say,” Zeth said. “I studied the crystal, not its environmental effects. Maybe that would have been a good idea.”
“I think this time the disaster came first,” Numer said. He placed a new bag of ice over both his eyes.
“Or was the cause of it,” Cherry said.
“So we should put the crystal back in the center of town?” Numer asked.
“No, no!” Zeth said. “If someone took it away, they’ll try to do it again. We should keep it with us.”
“At full size it’s as big as a slube,” Cherry said. “How are we going to carry it around?”
“How are we even going to get the rest of the crystal?” Numer asked. “It’d take us half a day just to wog to the nearest city.”
“Then we won’t go by tail,” Zeth said. He pushed the wheeled platform he lay on out from under one edge of the tarp. “Introducing the finished… ‘Professor Zeth’s Vehicular Device for Getting Places’!” With a flourish he waved his arms and tugged away the tarp to reveal a spherical metal machine with wheels. A glass case like half a bubble acted as the roof over a central cavity.
“Sorry, what?” Numer asked. “I didn’t follow that.”
“I wouldn’t want to,” Cherry said. “What kind of a name is that?”
Zeth frowned. “What, you don’t like it?” He pulled out a paper from his lab coat pocket. “Well, I have plenty of other good name ideas. How about The Wheeled Podamajig?”
Cherry crossed her arms. “No.”
“Spinny Dasher Thing?”
“You can do better than that,” Cherry said. “Anyone can do better than that.”
Cherry shook her head. “You’re really reaching now.”
Numer looked over Zeth’s arm at his list. Each name he’d given was written there, as well as others that had been scratched out, including one that appeared to be a paragraph long. At the bottom, “transpide” had been scribbled in. “What about that one?”
“Transpide?” Zeth asked.
“Yeah, I like it,” Numer said.
“That’s not too bad,” Cherry said. “It’s kinda catchy.”
“Then I’ll name it the Transpide,” Zeth said. “I knew I’d scribbled that name on there for a reason.”
“But it looks like different handwriting than the rest of the names,” Numer said.
Zeth cleared his throat and curled the paper into a tube. “Yes, well, my shoddy handwriting aside, the Transpide now has a name.”
“Is it supposed to have three wheels?” Cherry asked.
Zeth opened his mouth to speak but then looked at the Transpide. He hopped to the nearest closet and pulled out a wheel, spun it onto the axle, and cranked a few bolts onto it. He held up his arms and said, “Complete!” He pointed to the lid that covered the flat back. “The Transpide’s engine is of my own design; it’s advanced, powerful, and gets amazing fuel mileage.”
“And it’s not going to explode or something?” Numer asked.
“Absolutely not,” Zeth said. “I’ve been testing and working on this for years. It’s all ready to go.”
“Then let’s go rebuild that crystal!” Cherry said, throwing her fist into the air.
Numer nodded. Right. And me with two black eyes and a nervous disposition. I’ll obviously be a great help.
Zeth pressed a button on a remote, and the metal wall behind the Transpide slid aside to reveal a tunnel. Numer hadn’t even considered they would be unable to fit the Transpide on the elevator and out the window-door above. Good thing Zeth apparently had.
Zeth pressed a button on the Transpide’s front door—which appeared to be the only door—and its glass bubble-roof slid into the machine’s hull. He climbed into the padded front seat and thrust his thumb at the back bench. “Hop in!”
“How do we get in?” Numer asked, peering over the Transpide’s side. The back bench looked like a metal plate affixed to the hull. He wasn’t sure it would hold a slube, let alone two.
“I guess you hop in,” Zeth said.
Cherry hopped over the Transpide’s side and onto the bench seat. Numer pulled himself over the side and reached for the bench. Cherry grabbed his hands and pulled him in. He stared at her as he hung over the seat, so helpful, so pretty, her hands strong but smooth. With a splitting splat, Numer fell into the Transpide, his face smacking against the bench.
He stood up and rubbed his mouth. If he kept this up his whole face would be a bruised wad of green flesh. He sat down on the bench seat. The front of it jabbed the back of his tail, but he didn’t notice much, as his attention was on who sat right beside him. He twiddled his thumbs and looked out the Transpide but continually glanced nervously at Cherry.
Zeth turned the ignition key, and the engine rumbled softly. “It’s quiet, too,” he said. “Some of the vehicles in the big city up north, they make so much noise the owners are fined for disturbing the peace!”
Numer leaned forward and looked at the control panel. It was covered with enough blinking buttons and levers for him to know he shouldn’t touch them. Zeth placed his hand on a ball in the panel and laid his tail against a pad below. Two straps crossed the front of his body. “What’s that on you?” Numer asked.
“Oh, the safety straps?” Zeth asked. “They’re to make sure I stay in the seat.”
“Why don’t we have them back here?” Numer asked.
“Oh. Well,” Zeth slowly said, “because the back seat is the safest place in the vehicle.”
Numer looked at Cherry, who tossed up her hands. “I’m sure he knows what he’s doing,” she said.
“I wish you’d tell your father that,” Zeth said.
“Her father?” Numer asked. Did Zeth know Cherry’s father?
“No time to talk,” Zeth said. “We have crystals to find. Did anybody grab the ones we’ve found?”
“Yes,” Cherry said as though he were an idiot for asking. She waved the fragment in his direction.
“Then let’s go!” Zeth pushed a button to shut the Transpide’s glass bubble roof, and pressing against the tail pedal he drove into the tunnel. He steered left and right and up and down until Numer wasn’t sure they would even emerge in Nottle. Finally, another door ahead slid open into sunlight. Ahead and up—they drove at such a steep angle Numer felt he was lying on his back.
The Transpide shot out of the tunnel and seemed to hang in the air before bouncing down onto the ground. Numer felt himself go airborne and clung to the bench to keep from tumbling to the floor.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Zeth said.
“Are you sure there aren’t those strap things back here?” Numer asked, breathing heavily as he righted himself on the bench.
“I’ll add them right after I finish installing the rear-view mirrors,” Zeth said. “Now, off we go!”
Zeth steered the Transpide across the flat land of Nottle. A few slubes had crept out of their homes by now, but as the Transpide sped by they scurried back inside and probably down to the underground shelter to report a metal monster outside.
Numer considered suggesting they stop to tell the other residents everything was fine, but he decided otherwise. He had an awful feeling that everything was not fine.
Although that awful feeling could have just been from the hard, flat bench he sat on.
Wally_Plotch: Are they going to die in the Transpide?
Duth_Olec: What makes you say that?
Wally_Plotch: It just seems kind of dangerous.
Duth_Olec: What do you think this is, a morbid seatbelt safety promo? Granted, we don’t have any seatbelts either, but we aren’t going to crash, never, no way, I’m a good pilot. Anyway, they’re gonna be fine. (They’re not gonna be fine!)
Wally_Plotch: What I’m getting from you is “don’t ask about their future before it happens”.
Duth_Olec: Can you ask about the future as it happens? Won’t it become the present then? Come on, Wally, you’re our narrator. Get your meaning clear.
Wally_Plotch: Right, I mean, ask about later events before they happen. Except that’s pretty much the same thing. How about I just get back to narrating?
Past the orchard outside Nottle stretched fertile, open fields fuzzy with green grass. In some spots the grass grew as tall as a slube. In others the grass was mashed down from use as a path, and it was down one of these that Professor Zeth drove the Transpide.
There wasn’t much in Hackney Fields taller than the grass. A few trees grew here and there between flat fields and low hills. Clusters of tall bushes grew near the paths. Over them loomed Mount Chiphus, the tall volcano visible even at the east edge of east Hackney, the furthest point on the island from it.
Cherry craned her neck towards the gray, jagged slopes of the volcano as they passed it. “Do you think any shards fell into Mount Chiphus?”
“I would hope not,” Zeth said, looking back at them. “It would be rather difficult to retrieve any that were-”
“Stop!” Numer shouted as the Transpide veered off the path and towards a brick fence.
Zeth turned back to the controls and smacked the floor pad with his tail. The Transpide grumbled to a halt, throwing dirt and grass into the air. Numer and Cherry lurched forward, slamming into the back of Zeth’s seat. Numer’s bag of melted ice burst, spraying water everywhere. Numer rubbed his aching face. Yes, he definitely wanted Zeth to have installed safety straps back there.
“Did you ever learn to drive?” Cherry shouted, pulling herself up off the floor.
“Well, what’s a fence doing out here?” Zeth asked.
Cherry sighed. “It’s a farm. There’s always fences around farms. You know, so cleeple won’t drive through and ruin the farmland?”
Numer stood in the back of the Transpide and peered through the bubble to survey the farm. A pond made up a large portion of it, and in the water floated big white fish with black spots. These were carpples, and a single one had enough bulk to knock over the Transpide if it got rowdy, which carpples never did. Encircling the pond grew tall grass which the carpples munched.
The rest of the farm was reserved for crops, though most of it appeared to be unplanted or just sprouting. Although the farm looked clean and orderly, the fence around it was chipped and crumbled with cracks that seemed to spell out “GO AWAY.” To the left of the pond stood a house that looked no better than the wall. It appeared as if the bricks would collapse inward upon themselves any day. A sign next to the front door read “GO AWAY.”
It all came back to Numer like an embarrassing memory. His eyes widened as he remembered camping in Hackney Fields with other kids and the horrible campfire stories they told. “This is Old Farmer Monsul’s place,” he said.
“What Whatter Monsul?” Zeth asked.
“Old Farmer Monsul,” Numer said. “He lives out here alone. Doesn’t let anyone on his property. If we had crashed into his fence…” He didn’t even want to think about what the old farmer would have done to them.
“Look!” Cherry said, pointing to the pond. On its shore sat a big fragment of the crystal glittering through the tall grass swaying in the breeze. Even at that distance it seemed as big as a slube’s head. A carpple poked it with its fat lips before returning to munching on the grass beside it.
“Let’s go get it,” Zeth said, opening the Transpide’s glass dome. “We don’t want one of those carpples to eat it.”
The odors of green growing things and pungent moss wafted across the Transpide and reminded Numer further of the campfire stories. The smell of stagnant carpple pond water only added to the distressing memories. He threw his arms up. “We can’t go in there! Old Farmer Monsul will kill us.”
“Of course he won’t,” Cherry said, jumping out of the Transpide.
“But he might hit us with a rake or throw a bucket of water on us or make us solve a riddle,” Numer said.
“I think you’re a bit confused about farm tools,” Zeth said. “You see, a riddle is a tool used to-”
Cherry hopped over the fence. Numer climbed out after her while Zeth continued to yammer about sieves and separation of soil.
Within seconds of Cherry’s tail touching the farm ground Numer heard a shrill cry: “Who’s there in mah properteh?” A stooped old slube farmer with sunken eyes shaded by a straw hat wogged his way across the yard. He wore an old, unbuttoned vest and held up a long tool with a curved, triangular head. “I’ll tell ya, I’ve got me a weeder here, and IIII’m not afraid to use it!”
“Put that down before you stab your eye out,” Cherry said to him, arms crossed.
“Listen here, little missy! I ain’t gonna take nothing from no one on my own land.” For all his big talk, he was at least a tail shorter than her.
“No, no, no, no!” Numer shouted, sleeging over between the two. “If you’re going to hurt her, you have to go through”—the world tilted as Cherry pushed Numer to the side—“me?”
“Do you know who I am?” Cherry asked, elbows cocked out as she glared at the old farmer. “I’m Cherry. Merag Caleco’s daughter.”
“You what? Merag Caleco’s daughter?” Monsul slid back a little.
Although officially the leader of Nottle, the merag’s power extended through all of west Hackney. Besides organizing life in Nottle, the merag also held rights to allocation of land. He could annex Monsul’s farm into an official part of Nottle, not that he had ever done anything to suggest such a plan, but he could certainly retaliate against Monsul were the old farmer to harm Cherry. In fact, together with the merag of east Hackney, Caleco held the highest authority on the island.
“That’s right,” Cherry said, “and all we’re here for is the crystal that’s landed here on your farm.”
Numer took advantage of Cherry’s stand against Monsul to sleeg over to the pond. “This,” Numer said, picking up the crystal. The carpple that had poked it sniffed Numer and made a sound like the ocean throwing up.
“That’s all we want,” Cherry said and smiled. “You can go back to being a crotchety, old farmer now.” She turned to go out the way they’d come, Numer on her tail.
As Numer wogged past Monsul, the old farmer snatched the fragment in a quick move for a dried-up old farmer. His creased face cracked into what was either a grin or a scowl and was a ghoul either way. “You cheeky little slubelings better listen. Everything on this piece of land is mine. I’ve lived on this farm all my life, and ain’t nobody gonna boss me around on my own land. You need to learn you some respect for your elders and for property.”
“But-” Numer said.
“I ain’t gonna take this shiny rock,” Monsul said, “but you ought to learn some manners. Just ask, don’t march onto someone’s property and threaten them.”
“You were going to hit us with a weeder,” Cherry said.
Monsul shook the tool at her. “And I will, too, if ya don’t finish your business and skedaddle off mah property right now!”
Numer stumbled and fell onto his back at the threat. Monsul stared at Numer and sighed, lowering the weeder. “Really, squirt? You’re gonna lose your nerve over a drooping farmer far past his prime? I reckon there’s far scarier folk out there.”
Numer muttered a few false starts before he asked, “May we please have that crystal shard, sir?”
Monsul tossed the fragment on the flat end of his weeder and held it out to Numer. “Here you go, squirt.” Numer carefully stood up and gingerly took the crystal. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“I guess not,” Numer said.
Monsul shouted and thrust the weeder at Numer, causing him to jump back. The farmer let out a wheezing, crotchety laugh. “Jumpy, aren’t you? All right, you got your gem, now get outta here and leave me be.”
Numer sleeged off the farm. Cherry wogged after, shaking her head. “We would have let you be if you had just ignored us,” she said to herself.
“And don’t make me part of your adventure again!” Monsul yelled after them.
“That was kind of weird,” Zeth said.
“Can we just go before he yells at us again?” Numer asked.
“A-going we will go!” Zeth said. He reversed the Transpide, backed away from the fence, and resumed the drive through west Hackney.
Numer sighed. Would they encounter other cleeple with fragments they wouldn’t want to give up? Like Monsul said, there could be scarier cleeple out there. He didn’t want more confrontation. Still, Cherry could talk to cleeple, get them to understand. But if she did everything, what was he doing there?
As they crossed the bridge over the river separating west and east Hackney, Cherry said, “Hey, Zeth, could you open up the Transpide’s roof?”
“Sure, but why?” Zeth asked.
“I want to feel the wind.”
Zeth hit the button to slide the roof open, and Cherry leaned out.
Numer watched as she let out a long whoop. Her skesh rippled in the wind, and her flawless skin, well, that rippled, too, but she still looked perfectly pretty.
Numer looked out his side of the Transpide. He thought about leaning out like Cherry, but what if the wind blew too strong? What if the wind blew him out? What if his skesh flew off? What if his eyes flew off?
Numer shut his black eyes. He was being silly. He had come along to impress Cherry, not hide himself. If he was going to show Cherry he could be helpful, he had to put aside his worries. Drawing a deep breath, Numer leaned out into the wind like Cherry. It blew him back, but he pushed against it, feeling it rush against his face. He shut his eyes and trembled. It was wonderful! He felt like jumping; he felt like laughing. It was an amazing feeling unlike anything he’d felt before. Perhaps all his fears were keeping him from such wonderful experiences.
Zeth steered the Transpide onto a stone road. Tall, woody shrubs grew alongside the road, and as they passed a shrub growing lopsided, Numer’s skesh got caught on a branch. With a snap and a whoosh he was yanked out of the Transpide and dropped to the ground.
“Oh! Numer!” Cherry called after him. “Zeth, stop! Numer fell out!” Zeth mashed the brakes.
Lying on the ground, Numer said, “On the bright side, at least I can’t get more black eyes than I already have…”
He couldn’t climb a tree, he showed only fear against Old Farmer Monsul, and now he got beaten up by a bush. Why did he come along?
Cherry wogged up to Numer and helped him stand, brushing leaves off him. “Are you okay?”
Numer looked at Cherry. She was why he came. He brushed the dirt off himself. “Yes, yeah, I’m fine. Everything’s good.” He made a few tail-pushes, but the bush snagged his tail, and he fell over again. He popped back up. “Still fine! Everything’s okay with me. Let’s just keep going.”
“Huh,” Cherry said. “Going where, exactly?”
That was a question that had not occurred to Numer. “I don’t know. Hey, Zeth, where are we going, anyway?”
“Ah, well, we’re off to Gelago City,” Zeth said.
“Oh.” A little flutter of remorse and panic surged through Numer.
“Good idea,” Cherry said. “Maybe some cleeple there saw where shards fell.”
Numer hadn’t been in his home city for several years. He hadn’t seen his parents since then. He didn’t think he could face them with two black eyes. They’d ask him all sorts of questions and want him to return home. They’d think he couldn’t live on his own so far away. He certainly didn’t want Cherry to see that.
He wasn’t ready to prove himself yet.
If Nottle seemed a quaint village, Gelago City was a large town. Unlike Nottle’s open, grassy land, smooth stone streets crisscrossed Gelago City lined by buildings full of apartments and businesses. Some areas had quiet neighborhoods of small houses along bush-lined streets.
Numer watched as they sped past cleeple. There were slubes, just like him, but three other species also populated the city.
There were the smarmels, about the height of a slube but with skin that appeared rough and tan except in the back, where they had a dark hump that appeared hard and extra rough like overlapping plates of scorched stone. Smarmels on the street rotated their heads on their short necks to follow the Transpide, watching it with their watchless eyes. Numer had heard that smarmel’s eyes remained ever-closed, and that they supposedly could sense their surroundings without the use of sight. Of course, it was smarmels who said that. It always made Numer uneasy when talking with one. He’d heard, though, that should a smarmel open its eyes, it would go insane, or that open eyes were a sign of insanity—no one ever seemed very clear on the cause and effect of it.
The third species of Gelago City were called stroos, birds slightly taller than slubes and often with plump bodies covered in brown feathers. Atop their heads sprouted a plume of longer, fuzzier feathers. Their beaks were as long as their heads and their necks twice as long as that.
The Transpide passed by a stroo holding a newspaper with his wings. Stroo wings ended in thin fingers for grasping the way slubes had noodly fingers and smarmels had stout fingers. Stroo fingers were unique and quite unlike the wild birds in the fields and forests. Many stroos out on the street sat on benches, their long, orange legs and thick, clawed feet stretched out over the sidewalk. Their feet were strong, but their legs not so much.
At the bottom of the species list and size chart at a third of a slube’s height were the crawbers, thick-shelled and thick-headed, if they could be said to have heads. A red exoskeleton defined their bodies, which to Numer just meant they had a soft skin inside their hard skin. Their beady, black eyes and pointy cave of a mouth appeared as part of their torso with no distinct head. When it came to their body shape, the phrase “tiny mountain” came to mind.
Numer spotted a pair of crawbers on the side of the street. One clicked its claws in a rhythm and the other danced to the tune on its six pointed feet. Occasionally a passerby tossed a coin into a nearby bucket. Numer would have, too, if he had any coins—he’d never seen a crawber be graceful. Crawbers’ backs bristled with spikes, but they were as peaceful and simple as could be. When they went about whatever business a crawber would have they skipped down the street, greeting others no matter how many ignored them. Crawbers occasionally tripped over themselves, but they got right back up and continued on.
The Transpide drove down the city’s stone streets. It was the biggest thing going, with most other vehicles bicycles or, for slubes, scooters they propelled by pushing with their tails. Occasionally they encountered a cart that held a few cleeple; these were towed by teams of two or three crawbers.
The Transpide was the only self-powered vehicle, and more than a few cleeple pointed at it and chattered with one another. Numer wasn’t sure if he should duck out of view or not; he knew a fair number of people in the city. Someone might recognize him, even with two black eyes.
Zeth drove on without so much a pause. He seemed to have a goal in mind, though maybe not. As they turned down a street, Numer’s past presented itself before his eyes. He knew exactly where they were. That bakery was where he’d gotten the birthday pie that burnt his mouth. That furniture store was where he’d fallen off a chair and scraped his tail.
Ouch. Memories were painful. Still, everything was as Numer remembered it. That shop over there. That one building. That… fire hydrant? Okay, he didn’t remember it that well.
“Maybe I’ve been gone longer than I thought,” Numer said. “I thought I’d remember where everything was.”
“You’ve been here?” Zeth asked.
“I was born here,” Numer said. “It was just a few years ago that I moved to Nottle. But lots of things look different now.”
“Places change,” Zeth said. “I’m sure if I returned home now I’d find things to be different, as well.”
“Nottle, on the other hand,” Cherry said, “is the one place that is always the same.”
“I kind of like that,” Numer said.
“Then one day you realize you’re losing the best years of your life,” Cherry added, her eyes downcast as she tapped the side of the Transpide’s glass bubble.
Numer wasn’t sure if he’d had any best years of his life. They were mostly all the same. He looked down at his tail still smudged with grass. If he didn’t consider the years that stay the same as the best, how could he say he liked things as such?
“This is going nowhere,” Cherry said. “We’ll never find any crystals just driving around. Stop here.”
Zeth stopped the Transpide and popped open the bubble. Cherry exited, crossing the street to a nearby wooden building, above which hung a sign that announced the building was a school for martial arts. Numer followed and stuck his head through the doorway after her, with Zeth close behind.
“Hello, everyone,” Cherry said, her arms out wide as she strode into the small dojo.
The main front room was spacious but still no bigger than Numer’s bedroom. On the floor sat a smarmel with his legs crossed in front of him, a child slube shorter than Numer, and two crawbers, although the crawbers’ short stature made it hard to tell if they were sitting or standing. All of them wore white robes save the crawbers, who wore nothing.
“It’s Miss Cherry,” said one of the crawbers. The other saluted her with his claw. The first smacked the second with her claw. “That’s the military that salutes cleeple, not martial arts.”
“Ah, Miss Cherry.” A thin, wrinkled smarmel in a white robe tied with a belt entered from a back room, leaning on a walking stick, his armored back hunched slightly.
“Master Smartel!” Cherry said, and she bowed.
Master Smartel smiled. His eyes had a look of kindness in them. Well, his eyelids did, anyway, though they could have just been wrinkled.
“You need not bow to me,” he said in a measured voice. “We are equals in skill, after all, since you bested me in combat. For what reason have we the honor of seeing you on this day?”
“Yeah, I thought you graduated,” said the slube student.
Cherry smiled at them. It looked to Numer like she almost had a little green blush. Was she embarrassed?
“I did,” Cherry said. “My friends and I are here on an important mission.” Numer and Zeth wogged forward to stand beside her as Cherry explained their quest for the shattered crystal.
“I may know something,” the smarmel student said. “I have heard talk that Merag Chuck found a crystalline object lodged in a crater near his house.”
“When did he find it?” Cherry asked.
“They say it was just in the last hour,” the student answered.
“Did it look like this?” Zeth asked. He lifted up the crystal in his arms with some difficulty, as the four restored pieces were slightly bigger than a slube’s head.
“I’m afraid I have not seen it,” the smarmel said.
“We’ll look into it,” Cherry said. “Thank you.”
“Good luck, my friends,” Master Smartel said. “I hope your quest is a successful one.”
“Thank you,” Cherry said and bowed goodbye.
As they returned to the Transpide, Numer stopped short and looked at his friends. “I didn’t know this was a quest.”
Zeth held up a fist. “We quest for the crystal chalice.”
“What?” Numer asked.
“Sorry,” Zeth said. He started the Transpide’s motor. “That’s an inside joke among my old college associates.”
Zeth drove the Transpide up the highest hill in the city to the home of Merag Chuck. “I hope the merag will be willing to give us the fragment,” Numer said. “I don’t want a repeat of Old Farmer Monsul.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Cherry said.
Numer wondered how she could be so sure.
Duth_Olec: It’s because she’s confident, Numer! Maybe you could learn from her example!
Wally_Plotch: I can just imagine you right now, eating popcorn and watching this and shouting at it like you’re watching a movie.
Duth_Olec: I’m going to throw popcorn at you, Wally.
Duth_Olec: There, I just threw a piece. There, I just got butter and cheese all over the monitor. Okay, now it’s all over the keyboard. You know what? Just keep narrating; I’ve gotta clean this up.
Wally_Plotch: I’ll get right on it.
The merag’s home had a clean coat of white paint, and the walls bulged out, as if a stone sphere had been half-buried in the ground and a wooden roof placed on top. Although the roof had a balcony thrusting from it, the house stood only one story tall, though it was slightly broader than most houses in the city. Numer had never noticed the contrast between the merag homes for Nottle and Gelago City. In Nottle, Merag Caleco’s house stood more than twice the size of other houses, but here Merag Chuck lived in a house just like anyone else’s. The city’s merag had a smaller house than the village’s!
Cherry knocked on the front door. It slowly creaked open as if saying “watch your step,” most likely because it was only a door and could not ascertain whether or not a clerpson had feet. That was the job of the doormat.
The house was dark inside. Numer could see only a short distance into a small foyer with a tile floor and a few umbrellas adorning the wall. No one was visible inside. “Hello?” Cherry asked. She received no response.
“Perhaps he is not home at the moment,” Zeth said.
Numer peered through the doorway. “Then who opened the door?”
As if in answer a battle cry burst from within the house—although it might have been the cry of someone crashing into a wall—and an angry creature with a pointy chin lunged out of the dimness at Numer. He jumped back and stumbled into Cherry, who pushed him forward again.
“Calm down, it’s just the merag,” Cherry said, as if this was the customary way to meet a city’s highest official.
The pointy “creature” was actually an outstretched, clawed foot. A stroo stood at the doorway, his wings spread wide. He was a little short, a little fat, and wore a bowler hat; a thin necktie dangled around his neck.
“Hey! Whoa! Don’t come any closer, son!” the stroo yelled, mostly at Numer. “I know at least twelve different styles of fighting, some of which are illegal in the state of Terrozona.”
They were starting off on the wrong tail. Someone had to calmly explain to the merag they weren’t there to fight.
Zeth waved his arms and shouted, “Wait, stop, time out, put your foot down.” Waving his arms wasn’t very calm.
Cherry strode up to the merag as if his foot wasn’t out and ready to fight. “Chuck, get out of that stupid stance. If it came to a fight, you know I could knock you out.”
After a moment, Merag Chuck lowered his wings and foot. “Oh, howdy, Cherry. Didn’t recognize ya at first. How long’s it been?”
“A while, but I’m not here to catch up.” She half-turned to her acquaintances. “This is Professor Zeth, and this is Numer.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” said Chuck, tipping his bowler hat with his long wing fingers. “Just a bit nervous right now. Folks all over the city been saying they saw this huge pillar of light coming down in the west island.”
“We know; we were there,” Cherry said. “It hit Nottle.”
“It did?” Chuck jumped up and fluttered his wings, disheveling his bowler hat in the process. “Everyone okay over there?”
“Yes, I don’t think anyone was hurt,” Cherry said, “but that crystal in the center of town was shattered up high in the sky. The pieces were scattered all over.”
“We heard you found a crystal. Is that correct?” Zeth asked.
“Yeah, I did,” Chuck said. “Come on in, and I’ll go find it.”
The slubes entered Chuck’s home, tails sliding over the rough carpeting. It appeared to be of a sturdier material than Nottle’s grass flooring, but it certainly wasn’t made for comfort. They followed Chuck further into the house. A few stuffed armchairs (clearly made for comfort) were scattered in the main room. A single lamp stood in the corner, and a dusty bookcase held books about the city and Mintop in general. Numer figured Chuck used them to study world affairs.
The three chairs faced a thick wooden table set against the wall, upon which sat a story box (also known as a television set in the far-off lands that made it), its casing thick as a house wall and its screen no bigger than Numer’s head. Numer was impressed by the story box; most cleeple he had known in Gelago City did not have one. Merag Caleco, Cherry’s father, didn’t have one either. Of course, Chuck was the merag of a city—he would obviously have one.
Everything else Numer saw, though, looked as basic as his parents’ house—maybe even less so, he thought, rubbing his tail on the rough, scratchy carpet.
“I didn’t know Cherry knew Merag Chuck,” Numer whispered to Zeth.
“Say, that’s right,” Zeth said. He turned to Cherry. “I know your father is friends with Merag Chuck, but I didn’t know you knew him as well.”
“Yeah, I’ve met him before when he and my dad visited,” Cherry said. “I told you we wouldn’t have to worry.”
Chuck returned with a fragment of the crystal no bigger than a slube’s hand. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Zeth said. He held out his hand, but Chuck pulled back.
“Not so fast. How do I know you’re not in disguise or something?”
“Seriously? You think we’re disguised?” Cherry asked.
“It’s a possibility,” Chuck said. “You knew about the pillar.”
“We were there,” Cherry said.
“You knew I had this here gem.”
“We heard it from the townsfolk,” Cherry responded.
“You knew that I knew Cherry.”
“That’s because I am Cherry!” she yelled.
Chuck looked her up and down. “Aw, all right, I suppose you’re the real deal.” Chuck handed the crystal to Zeth. “No one could fake you, after all.”
Cherry pointed at him. “And don’t you forget it.”
“Guess I haven’t been too hospitable this morning,” Chuck said, scratching his head. “Say, feel like staying for lunch?”
“Yes!” Numer said without a second thought. With all the sudden events going on, he hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He’d only had a single shepa all day.
Chuck laughed. “All right, let’s see what I can whip up for ya. And how about I get you an ice pack for those eyes?”
“Thanks,” Numer said.
Chuck removed from his icebox a skuff, a long, thin, cloudy blue fruit, and chopped it up. He also removed an endle, a blue fruit made of spiky berries that shined like glass, and pulled the berries apart with his long fingers. These fruits he mixed with the juice of several shepas he emptied into a bowl. In the meantime, Numer, Cherry, and Zeth waited at the dining table, sized for no more than five or six cleeple.
“You know,” Zeth said, “your home is quite a bit more, well, quaint than Caleco’s.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s always how I’ve been,” Chuck said. “I never was one for a big, fancy lifestyle. Cal was, though.”
“Dad used to tell me it seemed strange that you and he became merags where you did—that it made more sense the other way around—but that he thinks the way it turned out is actually better for the two towns.” Cherry passed around the napkins and spoons Chuck handed her.
“Yeah, that just may be the case,” Chuck said. “A lot of this city runs on its own. I just gotta organize the folks what do the main government work and keep up a friendly attitude.”
“Dad really has a lot to keep track of,” Cherry said. “Nottle may be small, but he has to take inventory for all the supplies, meet with outside leaders to trade—and let me tell you, some of them are just plain rude—and organize all the buildings and the land.”
“He really got me with that last one,” Zeth said. “He’d only let me build my lab in a cave under the water.”
“Knowing all that, it makes sense that a merag’s term is for life,” Cherry said. “It would be chaos to change the leader every few years when everything is riding on that one clerpson.”
“Say, speaking of Cal,” Chuck said, “I’m surprised he didn’t tell me you was coming.”
“He’s, you know, busy, trying to keep everyone in Nottle calm,” Cherry said.
Little of the conversation registered in Numer’s head. Instead he’d located the controller to the main-room story box and was tapping its buttons, the story box turned so Numer could see its screen through the kitchen doorway. He had never been able to watch one before. Now he had a chance, and it wouldn’t power on.
“Merag Chuck?” Numer said. “Your television isn’t working, I think.”
“Really? Gonna have to take a look at that, but for now, soup.” Chuck brought four bowls of cold shepa soup to the table and sat to share lunch with his guests.
Wally_Plotch: Hey, Duth? How about a lunch break? Seems like a good time for it.
Duth_Olec: That’s not very professional! Leave in the middle of a scene for a lunch break!
Wally_Plotch: But didn’t you tell me before you didn’t care about professionalism?
Duth_Olec: Oh yeeeeah. Sure, come on in here. I’ll get some food. No, wait, don’t move, I’ll bring you some. No, wait, I’ll send our robot maid to bring you something!
ALFALFA: I am not a maid. I am a specialized repair service professional performing maintenance on The Cloud.
Duth_Olec: Gah! I forgot you had chat access. Sorry, Wally, it looks like this Automation Low-Functioning As a Largely-Friendly Acquaintance won’t be bringing you any food. I mean, maintenance is important, I guess. Since all our stuff is on the cloud.
Wally_Plotch: Why am I placed so far away from you, anyway? Couldn’t I be in the same room?
Duth_Olec: No, I don’t want to have to rearrange things. It’s too much work.
Wally_Plotch: Too much work? All you have to do is press a few buttons, don’t you?
Duth_Olec: No, it’s a few thousand buttons, and they’re old and rusty and sticky, and I’d have to jam them in, and I don’t want to, and you’re not allowed in the captain’s room. Only I’m allowed in the captain’s room.
ALFALFA: And I.
Duth_Olec: You don’t count, you’re a robit. Robot. If I let you in here you’d probably start talking to me and verbal communication sucks. You’d have all sorts of questions. Questions I don’t want to answer, like, “Why don’t you comb your hair?”
Wally_Plotch: I probably couldn’t see you well enough to ask that. You keep it pretty dark in here.
Duth_Olec: Oh, that’s just your area that’s dark. Lights take up energy this junk heap probably has but I don’t care. Anyway, we lunch later. In the span of this conversation, our soup-slurping slubes finished their meal!
Wally_Plotch: Wait, really? That was quick.
Duth_Olec: Well, it helped that my arm was leaning on the time speed button. You didn’t notice everything going at about 200 times the normal speed? Get to work!
Wally_Plotch: All right. I hope I get a lunch break soon, though. That shepa soup looked tasty.
Duth_Olec: It absolutely tastes like caramelized soil.
With their meal complete, Numer, Cherry, and Zeth headed out the door. “See ya, Chuck,” Cherry said.
“Thanks for the meal,” Zeth added.
“Not a problem,” Chuck said. “You can come by anytime. Well, not anytime. I’d appreciate it if ya didn’t come around the middle of the night, of course.”
Numer laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think I’d like that either.”
“And give my regards to Cal, would ya? I haven’t visited him in a while.”
“I’ll do that,” Cherry said.
The slubes returned to the Transpide and found the dashboard beeping. “Someone tried to call my phone,” Zeth said.
“The Transpide has a phone?” Numer asked.
“My lab does,” Zeth said, “but the Transpide is set to receive those calls as well.” Zeth pressed a button on the dashboard, and a very distraught voice shouted from the little speaker:
“Professor Zeth! This is Merag Caleco. Get over here immediately! Cherry’s gone missing, and with this recent crisis, I can only imagine something horrible has happened. So get out of your cave and get over here!”
Numer and Zeth stared at Cherry in silence. She looked down at the ground away from them.
Zeth pursed his mouth. “ ‘Of course he does,’ you said.” That was the first time Numer heard Zeth with a stern voice. It didn’t really work for him.
As for Cherry, Numer knew her father was protective, but he hadn’t expected her to lie about his not knowing where she was.
Cherry looked up at them. “I didn’t think it would matter! I didn’t think he’d freak out and…” She bowed her head. “Who am I kidding? Of course I knew he would. He’s always worrying about me, and if I told him what I was doing I know he would never allow me to go.”
Numer could just imagine Merag Caleco at home, worrying away over Cherry’s absence, exactly as he himself would. Maybe Numer’s parents were the same way, though. Now that he thought about it, he wouldn’t want his parents discovering what he was doing either.
Cherry sighed. “I know why he does this, but…”
“Because he”—Numer’s throat tightened with emotion at the mere thought of the word, but he choked out—“loves you?”
Cherry nodded, though she went on as if she hadn’t heard Numer. “Because of the accident. And because of mom. He doesn’t want to lose me, but he’s so overprotective.”
“Well, I think it’s time to tell him how you feel,” Zeth said, starting up the Transpide. “Save the world or save your father’s sanity?”
“Do either of those really apply to this situation?” Cherry asked. “And would they necessarily be at odds?”
Zeth opened his mouth, but rather than answer he just shrugged and drove them out of Gelago City.
On the ride back to Nottle, which Numer felt took much longer than the ride from Nottle, Numer felt like the past and future were bearing down on them. He worried for Cherry and what her authoritative father would say, but his mind was filled with thoughts about what Cherry had said. She had mentioned an accident and her mother. Numer had wondered where her mother was when he first came to Nottle, but no one said much about it. The one thing he understood from the villagers was that Caleco’s wife had left their lives when Cherry was young. The family hadn’t been the same since.
Numer looked at Cherry. She twiddled her hands in her lap and tapped the glass and stared down at the passing grass. There was a tense melancholy about her he’d never seen before and maybe even—was it possible?—a nervousness. He never imagined he would see her like that, though now that he thought about it, he’d never known her to leave Nottle, either. If the threat of Merag Caleco unnerved Old Farmer Monaco, Numer could only imagine what having him for a father was like.
Still, the question of what had happened poked Numer’s brain. “Cherry?”
She continued to stare out the glass bubble.
“Cherry?” Numer asked again.
Cherry turned to Numer with a jerk. “Sorry. I was just thinking.” She looked down.
Numer had never seen Cherry so quiet and distracted. She was always quick with a clever response.
“Cherry,” Numer said, choosing each word carefully and more than once choosing a different word as he spoke, “would you want to talk about it? You mentioned an accident and your mother.”
Cherry shut her eyes and sighed.
“My mother. She was very active.” Cherry rubbed her head and leaned it back against the metal plating behind the seat. “Her name was Sorbam. She climbed trees. She sleeged in marathons. She swam in the ocean, explored caves, and went on adventures. My dad admired her immensely her for it, even if he could hardly handle all the active adventures she enjoyed. Still, he followed along many times, and they fell in love.
“Eventually my dad became the merag. While he started his duties as leader, my mother continued to stay active outside a lot, though my dad couldn’t join her anymore. Soon after my dad became merag, they had me.”
“Your father was still active in a few ways, I suppose,” Zeth said as if he were just contributing to small talk.
Cherry slammed her tail into Zeth’s seat, shoving him into the dashboard. Numer pulled his tail onto the bench and shrank back. The Transpide swerved and slowed to a stop.
“I’m trying to tell an emotional story, you schmuckle!” Cherry yelled.
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” Zeth said, pulling himself back onto his seat. “Sometimes I just blurt out stupid things like that. It’s like a curse, if such things existed.” He steered the Transpide back onto the path and resumed driving.
Numer had never seen Cherry’s temper before. He slowly dropped his tail back to the Transpide’s floor and resituated himself on the bench, careful not to get too close to Cherry lest she lash out at him, too.
Cherry groaned and ran a hand across her mouth. “Anyway,” she said, “I took after my mom. I was just a little girl, and I was out there jumping, climbing, swimming—I loved it. My dad didn’t join us, but he enjoyed seeing us so happy.
“Then one day”—she sighed—“It was the littlest thing, you know? We’d climbed up a tree together. The branch snapped, and we fell. I just got some bruises and broken kotli.”
Just some broken kotli? This was the strong, springy stuff that gave their bodies support and held it together. Most other creatures had bones, but slubes had the more flexible kotli throughout their bodies. How could she dismiss broken kotli?
“My mom fell on her head,” Cherry said. “She went into a coma, and she never woke up.”
Okay, that would make broken kotli seem minor.
“My dad and Chuck brought in all the top doctors from Gelago City,” Cherry said. Her voice wavered. “They even got a doctor from Interpolis, but there was nothing they could do. A few weeks later she was—she was…”
Numer stared at Cherry. Tears fell from her eyes as she cast her gaze towards the floor. She never let the people of Nottle see her sadness. She was the one who kept everyone cheerful.
Cherry shut her eyes and drew in a long breath, and immediately the tears stopped. She looked at Numer and in her normal, level voice said, “The point is, after that my dad became hard and somber. He wouldn’t let me climb trees or go swimming in the sea anymore. He hardly let me leave Nottle, at least not without his supervision. Learning martial arts was the only adventuresome thing he’s let me do since. But I never lost the yearning for freedom and adventure mom had. He loved her for that. I know he wouldn’t want it stifled it in her, and he won’t stifle it in me.”
Cherry leaned forward next to Zeth’s front seat. “Drive, Zeth! Get us back to Nottle. It’s time for my dad to see what he’s been doing to us all these years.”
Numer smiled. Cherry was back to normal. Even after what she’d been through she remained energetic and brave.
He would fight for her. She always did her best, and he would do his.