White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim


Lequila waded through the mess yelling, 'Let's get out of here!' She stood with Huan close to Bryan who hosed them down again and, tearing off their masks but not waiting to remove their suits, they waddled toward the corridor that curved out of sight at the side of the hall.

Bryan picked up the remaining gear and the container with the bot bits in it, but did not move. 'You can't miss an opportunity to witness the maternal behaviour of a slorm. For their protection it swallows her young whole. Her babies are immune to digestion and can be excreted later...though it's too bad for anything else that gets in the way of a ten tonne vacuum cleaner.'

Huan reached the end of the corridor first. Her hands were full so she thumped her helmet against the elevator entrance panel. 'Come on, come on, open up.'

The air shook with a ragged vibration that grew into a steady beat, then a deep roar which transposed abruptly into a high-pitched sucking noise. Little pops and burps accompanied the ingestion of the material that had spilt out of the vat when the bots had been released. A hiss of air indicated that the spillway around the vat was clean.

Bryan caught up with the others. 'There, it's quiet now. She's done what the mancers designed her for...what she wanted to do.'

'I don't think she's going back into the pipes yet,' said Huan. 'Open up why don't you?' She dropped the gear she had been carrying and banged on the entrance panel with both fists. To no effect.

Lequila hopped up and down, pointing back the way they had come.

A translucent proboscis, about four metres long, undulated along the corridor towards them. Its tip swept the floor, walls and ceiling. Its own length away from them it paused, as if sensing something ahead. Then it retracted into the enormous slug body from which it had protruded.

Quivering with effort, the mother slorm drew itself into a ball, a boulder, then launched herself toward them. It squelched to a stop two metres away, then heaved closer still, filling the corridor, sealing them in. The air was compressed by its bulk.

Lequila and Huan yawned to relieve the pressure on their ears. They stared at the wall of flesh before them. It was almost transparent for the first metre in, after which a network of blood vessels partially obscured the insides within which they could faintly see the baby slorm swimming round, playing with the newly acquired contents of its mother's gut.

'Not so cute,' whispered Bryan. 'Go away kitty, kitty.'

A red indentation appeared on the slorm's surface. It popped out in a reverse shape a muscular mushroom that darted toward Bryan, extending behind itself a hose to connect it with its body. It slipped over Bryan like a snail, covering him with slime. It paused.

They all waited.

Snicker. Suck.

Bryan's glistening skin was snapped away from him. He screamed. The slorm had been too fast. Blood welled beneath the new skin of diamond that was already hardening on his body.

Lequila gasped. The thing was investigating her. She lifted her arms to loosen the rubber suit where it was fixed about the neck.

Huan did the same. Just in time. Their suits were sucked from them. And their stretchies.

The slorm quickly tidied up the other gear they had scattered around them. It paused again, then flexed its mushroom sucker and smote the entrance panel.

The door slid open.

The two naked females and the bleeding glit hobbled through. The door shut behind them.

They were in an elevator cab.

'Just doing its job,' gibbered Huan. 'Got to keep the place clean.'

Lequila put an arm around her and looked at Bryan who was huddled in the corner of the cab, averting his eyes from them. 'Big as it is, the slorm must be a bot, too. It didn't have to think too long before deciding to protect human life.'

'I'm glad I'm recognised as human, then,' Bryan whimpered. 'What do we do now?'

Lequila squatted beside him. 'Listen glit, Bryan. I know you find it embarrassing being in here with two girls who have no clothes on. But I think you're hurt, or at least very sore. Why don't you come back with us to the academy and we'll get a medic to look you over?'

'Only a mancer could give immediate relief. But my new skin will soon control the haemorrhaging. Then all I'll need will be a rest and recharge.' Bryan gave Lequila a sideways glance. 'But you two can't walk around like that. How are you going to get to the academy without being seen?'

'Easy,' said Huan. 'We'll create a diversion. Which level are we on now?'


'One of 24 opportunities to have fun and forget the horrors of the morning before we get home. Come with us, glit. I bet Lequila hasn't finished with you yet.' Huan addressed the elevator's control panel. 'GOTO 17. ENSURE PRIVACY ENROUTE.'

'Level 17 links to a restricted cell, ma'am,' the panel purred in reply. 'Are you sure you wish to alight there?'

'CONFIRM. CONFIRM,' said Huan. She turned to the others. 'This is going to be fun.'

'Thank you, ma'am, but a coded entry is required for access to level 17. You have 20 seconds before the invalidation procedure commences.'

'Think quick, glit,' said Huan, 'or we'll miss out.'

Bryan held his head between his hands and rocked back and forth for a moment.

He beckoned to Huan. 'I'll whisper in your ear, then you repeat it to the panel. Here it comes. ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A MARTIAN NAMED VALENTINE MICHAEL SMITH.'

Something like a door opened before them and they stumbled forward.

'Where are we now?' asked Lequila. She felt around for Bryan's hand.

'It's dark in here,' said Huan. She grabbed the other hand. It was still slippery with blood.

Bryan tried to tug his limp hands from their grasp but they held tight as he explained, 'This level doesn't extend horizontally through the city like the other levels. It's just a little zone of nothingness which hyperlinks to other cells.'

'Cells?' Huan said. 'What other cells?'

'I'm surprised the Flame Academy has kept you so ignorant,' said Bryan. 'Look. Do I have to explain this now?'

'Just the basics,' said Lequila.

'I know most residents think their own little world is the be all and end all of the Torus. They believe the mancers' fairytales about what the world's like. And where it's going...'

'Well, we know this big doughnut we live in is cruising on some sort of intragalactic mission.' Lequila sniffed. 'But why should we expect to know exactly what the mission is? That's classified information.'

'Of course a glit doesn't know everything,' Bryan continued. He was getting used to the physical contact of the girls' hands and it cheered him, despite his exhaustion. 'And I don't think the situation demands that I overload you with information. But...but later, when we've got time, I'll explain to you about our world. It's not really a hollow doughnut--a torus--it's a sort of super doughnut, with many sleeves or cells in it, the same size as the ones you're used to.'

'You mean as big as the city and the pastures and the outlands combined?' said Huan.

'Yes. In each cell you can go 10 clicks in any direction before you end up back where you started.'

'And how many cells are there?' said Lequila.

'As many as necessary.'

'Necessary for what?' said Huan.

'Listen. We shouldn't spend too long in this hyperlink zone,' said Bryan. 'It may be needed by other people. We wouldn't want to keep them waiting.' He pulled away from Huan and stumbled forward.

In a dozen paces, they were feeling their way through tall grass. Bryan said, 'Let's pause for a moment to check that the air is breathable and that gravity is within the normal range.

'I think it's designed for humans,' said Huan. 'The temperature's OK. But it's still dark.'

'If we're going to create a diversion,' said Lequila, 'then we'd better get moving.'

The grass was fine with heads full of minute seeds that drifted down upon them like smoke as they pushed beneath. It was damp underfoot but easy to find the way in the dark. The grass grew in clumps with narrow cushioned ways winding between. Their feet pressed an aroma from the moss that reminded Lequila of the herbal juices her father squeezed onto her breakfast when she was a little girl.

Soon Lequila lost sense of direction. She could hear Bryan and Huan padding ahead of her. As a glit, Bryan's brain wafer would have automatically recorded every distance he had moved and every turn he had taken since his englitation at the age of ten. It was a matter of a moment for him to calculate his position anywhere. If you were with a friendly glit you would never be lost. Although you might be far from home.

'How much further?' Lequila called.

Huan stopped and waited till she could hear that the three of them were together.

'Further till what?' Lequila said. 'The fun? The diversion?'

'Patience,' said Huan, and continued walking. 'You carry Bryan,' she called back over her shoulder. 'That will give you something to do.'

After about half an hour the grass thinned and the ground rose gradually for a few hundred metres before levelling onto a plain feebly lit by a pock-marked moon that was sliding up over the horizon. Scattered over the surface of the plain were innumerable pools and tarns glinting among rocky outcrops that stood like gloomy gods waiting to greet the moon.

Bryan slid down from Lequila's shoulder. His artificial skin felt as hard as it looked.

'Pseudo!' he said. 'This isn't in my plan of the Torus.'

'But how? We're not in the Cube now,' said Huan.

Lequila said, 'This is a restricted sector, remember? Perhaps you are not meant to know about this cell--if that's what it is.'

'But a glit knows everything about the Torus,' said Bryan. 'If I don't know about it then it can't exist...unless it's pseudo. We are in the Cube. You tricked me! I must have fallen asleep on your shoulders and you and Huan have put the three of us in the Cube. Or perhaps I'm just here by myself and neither of you is real.'

'Bryan! You know that you can't be taken into the Cube against your will. Face up to it, smartypants. You've brought us into this cell thing. And here's something that you just didn't know about before.'

Huan stepped between them and took them both by the hand. 'All right. There's a solution to this. It's new.'

'New?' said Bryan. 'How new?'

'When was the last time you updated your wafer?'

'I update every ten days. On the dot. But this couldn't be that new.'

'What if they used cube technology to make it?'

'Make all those little black lakes and all those rocks in a few days? In the Cube it's only pseudo for a few metres at a time. The rest is just well-coordinated fantasy.'

Lequila said, 'Well, we know we're not in the Cube so what we can see must be pseudo.'

'There's one way to find out,' said Huan. 'Let's go.'

Bryan was holding his head and rocking again. 'I'm sorry, ladies, I've just realised something. Once upon a time...'

Huan crouched beside him. 'Yeah, it does sound like a fairy tale, doesn't it?'

'No. Entry codes. This week they're all first lines from novels written on Earth in the twentieth century.'

'And last week they were names of twenty first century soft drinks. Easy for a glit, impossible for a nat.'

'Yes,' said Bryan, 'and a nat wouldn't know the titles of the books, well not all of them...'

'Don't keep us waiting.'

'Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith. It's from a novel by Robert Heinlein called Stranger in a Strange Land.'

'So this is what Mars used to be like?' said Lequila. 'Wow.'

Bryan was getting excited. As he stood his skin reflected hundreds of tiny moons. ' the book Valentine Michael Smith was a human who was born and raised on Mars, by Martians, and then brought to Earth. Earth was the strange land. But he did very well there, with what he learnt on Mars.'

'So this is what Earth is like?'

'It's more complicated than that. Lequila. Where are the strangers in our world?'

'In the other cells, I suppose.'

'So if they came through to our cell, a world of normal gravity and normal atmosphere, then it would seem strange to them.'

'But what do you know about life in other cells?'

'Even a glit doesn't know much about that. So give me a lift, Ms Muscles. It's time to find out for ourselves.'


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