White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim


The pond was deep and dark with weeds. Streams of fine bubbles fizzed among the black flowers that decorated its surface. Their perfume floated over the pond and rose to where Lequila and Bryan sat high on a rock, basking in the light of the moon which had moved into the distance and was now shining warm and yellow. Its pock-marks had gone. It had turned into a featureless disc too bright to look at for long.

'I'm hungry,' said Lequila.

'And I'm under-powered,' said Bryan, 'but there's nothing we can do about either problem here.' Bryan was sitting with his back to Lequila. The morning light had brought back his embarrassment at her nakedness. He took a furtive glimpse at Huan, who was kneeling at the edge of the pond, peering into its depths. She was so much smaller than Lequila. Somehow her nakedness wasn't so imposing, her yellow skin so blatantly nude. Her rounded back looked almost attractive as she knelt neatly by the pond.

She called out to them. 'And I'm thirsty. This water smells all right.'

Bryan clambered off the rock and staggered to the pond. He sat a few metres away from Huan. For someone who had forgotten the touch of his own skin it was threatening sometimes to be close to a nat's skin. It looked so soft, vulnerable.

Looking out over the pond he said, 'We lost our testing kit to the slorm. It's too risky to drink this without analysis.'

'I've rubbed the water under my arm. To no effect. I've tasted it. It's sweet.'

'Well, just a little sip then. You don't know what kind of micro-organisms live in this whatever-it-is. Alien soup. Alien urine.'

'Don't be disgusting, glit.' Huan put her head down to the water and sipped, then drank deeply. 'It's beautiful,' she gasped between draughts. 'Try it, Bryan. If you were a nat you'd trust your instincts more.'

'I'm trusting mine,' yelled Lequila. She dropped from the rock and with two bounds reached the edge of the pond and dived in. She sank deep and then glided to the other side where she floated back to the surface and turned to face them, giggling. The stalk of a black flower was gripped between her teeth. As she trod water she tossed the flower in the air and caught it again in her mouth, munching the dark petals down to the stalk. She spat out the stalk and swam back across the pond to the others, go out...and belched.

'Delicious. Want to try some, Bryan?'

'I'm under-powered and I'm too far from home to rely on natural energy, even if I could have something to eat. If you poison yourself, Lequila, then I can't escape from this place. Huan wouldn't be strong enough to carry me. Be sensible...please?'

'But don't you see, Bryan?' said Lequila. 'We're the strangers in the strange land, just like in the book. We can thrive here, with our superior powers, in a place designed specially for us.'

'I'll believe that when I find a power point to plug into.'

'You're depressed because you're hungry. What's it taste like?' asked Huan.

'Hard to say. Lychees? Banana fish? Try some and see.'

When Lequila and Huan had eaten their fill of black flowers they lay on the sand and slept.

Pose of the porpoise, thought Bryan. He shrugged and went exploring.

His small steps took him north. The walk cheered him up and his depression lifted as he observed his surroundings. Toward noon he came to a river formed by the overflow of a great number of pools. The river originated in a depression that he judged to have the same altitude as the grassland they had originally entered. It was clear and slid away to the west between dark, smooth banks.

To gain as much energy as he could from the radiation that poured down from the midday sky Bryan lay face down on the hot rock and spread his arms and legs wide. Pose of the lizard, he thought. But it will keep me going a bit longer. He calculated that the source of the light was more diffuse than it normally was in the Sleeve.

Bryan opened one eye and gazed into the noon day brilliance. It was staggering to think that this might be all new, pseudo, only made in the last few days. Piles of dolerite boulders, dark, gleaming, unweathered! Limpid pools reflected the silver radiance from above. And something else was strange, too.

The whole place was completely silent. No insect murmured. The air was too still. Was it pseudo, too, not real air, not necessarily obeying the normal dictates of expansion with heat, not ascending as its pressure decreased, shuffling over the boulders without microscopic susurrations? Impossible.

Bryan sat up and clapped his hands. A clean sound with no echo. He was relieved to hear it. The slorm's cleaning him hadn't made him deaf. It was only the strange world he had stumbled into that knew no sound of its own.

He got up and walked down to the river.

It, too, was silent. The water glided over boulders and between its rocky walls with no sound at all.

Yet when he bent down and scooped his hand in the water the reassuring sound of scattering droplets splashed against his ear drums. He remembered the normal sound made when Lequila had dived into the pool earlier that morning. She and Huan were making so much noise themselves it was no wonder they had not noticed the silence. But if he and the girls could make noise, why not the rocks?

He sat down on a rock that overhung the river and watched. The surface was flat and smooth. It was hard to tell at what speed it was travelling because it had no colour and no detritus sweeping along in it. But it must have been flowing faster than walking pace because little whirlpools squiggled on its surface. They whipped along in an oily progress.

Bryan picked up a pebble and threw it into the water. It made no sound, no familiar shunk as it cut into the surface of the river. He selected another and dropped it, observing carefully its entry into the water.

When he realised what was happening Bryan went cold in the midday heat. He had to concentrate hard, with all the amplified powers of observation and analysis that a glit could command. A few centimetres before the pebble touched the water it subtly changed shape. A minute ripple flowed through pebble and it rotated slightly to present to the surface of the water its sharpest point which in slow motion replay, so it seemed, grew sharper still and upon penetration slid through the river's meniscus without a sound.

Bryan looked around him. If the merest pebble on the bank of the river were alive... The rock on which he was sitting seemed not so maternal now. With crystal clarity he saw the tiny undulations around its base where the river rolled past. It was creating a frictionless ripple to prevent the slightest noise.

Bryan remembered now. His feet had made no sound this morning as he wandered away from his friends. And the walk had been so comfortable. No wonder. The rocks had been pre-adapting to his every footfall. He looked about him. The landscape was not as he remembered it.

From the wafer in his brain he recalled what he had seen on his walk. A snapshot hypertour, ten thousand images flashed in sequence before his eyes; a thousand odours tested, and breezes felt as they played upon his diamond skin. Every orientation of his body and his limbs registered against the electromagnetic background of the Sleeve. By applying a glit's familiar algorithm to all this he knew within a second where he was, how far from home, what scene he should see now before his eyes.

He was wrong.

He calculated again. He should have been much tireder. By now, even with the benefit of the radiation bath he had enjoyed before, he should have been on his last legs. But he felt good.

And safe enough to slap his hand against a rock.

Only a quick imprint in its dark surface and again, no sound. It must have adjusted instantly to the impact at a microscopic level. Here he was, lost in a community of rock that had just arrived from another cell, probably a high-G cell. And the whole lot of them had undergone some petrine vow of silence.

Or were they just very sensitive to sound?

How fast could they adapt themselves?

Was it just their surfaces and extremities that changed? Living rock?

Then two girls stood before him. Breasts and smiles and abdomens and thighs. Laughter. Living flesh.

'Where have you been hiding, Bryan?'

Lequila grabbed him and kissed him hard on his hard hot lips. 'We've been asleep all morning. When we woke we thought you'd gone but here you are just behind a rock...' Her voice petered out.

'Behind a rock that wasn't here this morning,' said Huan. 'What's been going on?'

Each of the girls took one of Bryan's hands and stood still, staring uneasily through the flickering film that covered his eyes.

Bryan squeezed their hands hard.

'I'm worried,' he said. 'Here I am with maximum strength again, fully recharged, yet I don't know what's happening or where we are. I've just been wandering along. I thought I was following my intuition, just for once.' He continued to squeeze their hands.

Huan cried, 'Ouch, Bryan. We can see you're anxious but you don't have to hurt.'

Bryan released them, squatted, put his hands to his head and started to rock back and forth.

'I've got to think.'

'We've got to get out of here,' said Lequila. 'It's very pleasant at first, but I'm not sure that these rocks can be trusted to stand still for long.' She danced up and down on the spot. 'I feel full of agitated energy. We've got to get going and not let the grass grow under our feet.'

'Well, shit,' said Huan. 'Look at that!'

All around them, between the cracks where the boulders tumbled over each other in silent confusion, green shoots of grass were peeping out. Tender spears prickling up under their feet.

'Mumma, I wanna go home,' said Lequila. 'But how?'

The grass was dense. It grew so fast they could feel it lifting them. The whole terrain was turning into a green platform slowly elevating them above the river.

Then round the bend a craft slid through the grey water, straight toward where they had been standing a minute before. The boat was a rounded, white ceramic cylinder rimmed by a steel deck and covered with circular portholes a metre across. There were soldiers inside it. Armed to the teeth.

The boat pulled in alongside a stone quay that grew before their eyes. Marta emerged from the boat, ran across its shiny deck and jumped onto the quay. She squinted up at the green cliff that trembled in front of her.'Come down quickly,' she shouted. 'There's not much time.'

'It's a trick,' said Huan. 'How do we know that's the real Marta, and not just something whipped up by this pseudo stuff to get us inside that thing?'

'What do you think, Bryan?, said Lequila.

'I don't think we have any choice.'

'Well, look after us buddy. We're going to need your help.'

They slid down the grass cliff and into Marta's arms.

Lequila stepped back from Marta's hug. 'It looks like you, Marta, but how can we be sure?'

'Confused, are we?' she shouted. 'Well, there's no time for questions now. You'll just have to trust that this is the real me--and that there's not much time to get you out of here, now that we've found you. My friends aboard are getting anxious.'

'Anxious for what?' Lequila could see faces looking through portholes.

Lust stuck to their faces like lint on hot clothes.


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