Authors: Allen Steele
I was still gazing at those panels when Rain tapped my shoulder. Turning around, I saw another panel, this one showing a
. Although heshe looked a little like Jas, I noticed that hisher face had a different skin pattern and a slightly larger fin. Heshe opened hisher mouth and addressed us in a series of hisses and clicks.
A pause, then the
vanished, to be replaced by something that looked like a hermit crab, only lacking a shell and with smaller claws. It chirped for a few seconds, stopped and waited for a moment, then disappeared. The next creature was a tall, skinny biped, with backward-jointed legs, arms that nearly reached the floor, and a head that vaguely resembled that of a horse; when it spoke, it gurgled like someone with a mouthful of water trying to tell a dirty joke. Another pause, then it went away, and then we saw something that could have been the Abominable Snowman were it not for enormous bug eyes and a tongue that slipped obscenely in and out of its furry mouth.
“I thinkâ¦” Rain studied the panel, her anxiety replaced by fascination. “Maybe this is some sort of reception area.”
“You might be right, but I haven't the foggiest what we're supposed toâ¦”
The panel suddenly went dark. A moment passed, then a human who looked a little like Ted, except with a shaved head and plucked eyebrows, appeared on it.
“Greetings, and welcome to the House of the Talus,”
he said, speaking Anglo in a voice that didn't belong to our captain.
“You have been identified as human. Please continue to visitor processing.”
A tinkling sound like wind chimes, then I felt a warm draft at the back of my neck. Looking around, I saw that the second door had slid open.
“Bad manners or not,” Rain said quietly, “I really think we should have waited.”
“Too late now. We're committed.” Besides, I was curious. Rain glared at me, but followed me into the next room.
It was almost identical to the first, except that the ceiling was covered with translucent panels. Low, benchlike tables were scattered around; cabinets were recessed within the reflective glass walls. The air was considerably warmer as well; about seventy degrees, comfortable without being too humid.
The door closed as soon as we were inside, and once again the not-quite-Ted appeared on a wall panel.
“This is the decontamination facility,”
“To begin this procedure, please remove all your clothes.”
The etiquette of decontaminationâ¦
a visit to the libraryâ¦
Fah, otherwise known as Hahaâ¦
Ash gets strange(r).
Rain's scream was still reverberating from the walls when a
Heshe appeared so suddenly, my first thought was that heshe was some sort of extraterrestrial djinn, fresh from the lamp and ready to grant me three wishes (the first of which would've been to be anyplace but here). It took a moment for me to realize that heshe was a hologram, albeit so lifelike that I could've sworn heshe was solid. Heshe regarded us with reptilian solemnity, hisher fin raised to full height from the back of hisher head.
heshe said, hisher voice nearly the same as Jas's,
“but what does the expression âhell, no' mean?”
I forced a cough to keep from cracking up. “Itâ¦uh, means that she'sâ¦ahâ¦”
“It means there's no way I'm getting naked.” Rain's face was livid. “Not here, not now, and especially not with”âshe pointed at meâ“him.”
left eye twitched toward her.
“Decontamination is required for all races visiting
. I assure you that it is painless and noninvasive, and will only take a few minutes to perform. However, it is necessary for one to be bare of all accoutrements in order for the procedure to be completely effective.”
Rain opened her mouth to protest, but I cut her off. “I understand that, sure. But in our culture, nudity is consideredâ¦um, taboo.” The
head cocked slightly at this unfamiliar word. “Socially unacceptable,” I added. “Particularly between sexesâ¦genders, that is.”
“Meaning, I'm not about toâ¦” Rain glared at me, and shook her head. “No. Out of the question.”
was quiet for a moment. I had the sense that heshe was listening to someone else whom we couldn't see.
“It is strange for a dioecious species to be so reluctant about revealing their bodies,”
heshe said at last, hisher eyes twitching back and forth between us.
“How is it possible for you to mate without exposing your reproductive organs?”
It was my turn to become red-faced. “We'reâ¦um, not mates. Just friends, that's all.”
fin lowered, and hisher head moved back and forth upon hisher long neck.
“I now comprehend. However, the rules of the Talus remain. You may not pass this point without undergoing decontamination, and this procedure cannot begin until you have removed all your clothing.”
I was about to respond when I heard a click in my right ear. Ted's voice came through my headset.
“Jules, do you copy? Is there a problem over there?”
I prodded my mike. “Roger that, Captainâ¦and, yeah, we've got a holdup.”
waited patiently while I briefly explained the situation; Rain tapped into the comlink, but didn't say anything until I finished. When I was done, there was a short pause, then Ted came back online.
“Look, I understand this is uncomfortable for both of you, but Jas says that if you don't undergo decontamination, none of us will be allowed on board. No two ways about it. Sorry.”
Rain's mouth fell open. “Skipper, I can'tâ¦”
“Rain, stop being such a prude. The rest of us are in the next room. If you don't want to be alone with Jules, you can wait until we join you, and then we can all get naked together. Or you can trust Mr. Truffaut to be a gentleman and keep his back to you. Either way, though, you're just going toâ¦”
“Okay, all right. I get the point. Over and out.” Rain clicked off, then turned to give me a cold stare. “I swear to God, if you so much asâ¦”
“Don't worry.” I'd already turned away from her, setting my helmet down on the nearest bench. “I won't so much as peek. I promise.”
Rain hesitated, then I heard her place her own helmet on the other bench. A few moments later, there was the soft sound of a zipper sliding open. From the corner of my eye, I saw that the
had already vanished; apparently heshe realized that our primitive notions of privacy extended to himher as well.
A man of my word, I kept my promise to Rain. Not that it made much difference. The wall panels were just reflective enough that, even though I looked straight ahead, I was still able to see what was going on behind my back. I tried to distract myself by glancing down at my feet, but nonetheless it was hard to ignore the fact that a lovely young woman was peeling out of her undergarment just a few feet away.
And Rain was beautiful. No question about it. As much as I tried to ignore her reflection, she had a body that I could easily fantasize curling up against. I bit my lower lip and tried to think about baseballâ¦but when I looked up again, I saw that her gaze was fastened on the wall in front of her, and that she was studying my reflection as well.
Our eyes indirectly met for a moment, and for a second I thought I was a dead man. Yet my execution was delayed by the
voice, coming from some invisible source:
“Please close your eyes and extend your arms.”
I did as I was told, raising my arms straight out from my sides. A low hum surrounded us; although my eyelids were closed, I could tell that the ceiling was gradually becoming brighter. For the next several minutes, we were bathed in ultraviolet radiation, followed by a hot, dry wind that whisked away dandruff and dead skin cells.
The humming ceased, the ceiling darkened, and the air became still once more. But just as I was about to open my eyes, I heard a whispered
from somewhere behind me. An instant later, a white-hot needle jabbed me in the ass.
Rain yelped at the same moment I did, and I looked around to see her grabbing at her derriere. “What the hell wasâ¦?”
said, still unseen to us.
“Those were darts containing mild antibiotics. They are harmless to you and will soon dissolve, but they help ensure that you're not carrying any microorganisms harmful to our kind.”
“Great.” She massaged her buttock where the dart had penetrated her skin. “I thought you said this would be painless and noninvasive.”
“Heshe lied,” I muttered. Made sense, though; if heshe had told us what was coming, we might have refused. And it was only a little sting, after all; the pain was already going away, leaving behind little more than a tiny bruise.
“Yeah, wellâ¦heshe's not the only one.” She glared at me. “You said you wouldn't peek.”
“How did you know I did?”
“Becauseâ¦” Her voice trailed off and she blushed, then quickly wrapped her arms across her chest and turned away from me. “So now what? Do we put on our suits again?”
“That will not be necessary. Temporary garments are available to you.”
spoke, a wall panel slid open, revealing a small closet.
“Please put them on. They conform to your dimensions and will keep you comfortable until your own clothes can be brought over from your ship.”
Hanging within the closet were several long shirtlike robes resembling dashikis, each embroidered with intricate patterns much like those on Jas's robes. I removed two, tossed one over to Rain, then pulled on the other. At the bottom of the closet were several socklike boots that could be put on either foot; I slipped on two of them and gave a pair to Rain. Once we were dressed and I had stored our suits in the closet, the
“You may now proceed to your guest quarters. Transportation is waiting to take you there.”
The door on the other side of the room opened. Rain and I gave each other uncertain looks, and I gazed at the ceiling. “Just a second. I need to check with my people.” The
said nothing as I walked over to the bench where I'd left my headset. “Captain, are you there?”
“We're here. What's taking so long?”
“Just finished decontamination. You're gonna love it.” Rain rolled her eyes, and I went on. “Look, the
want us to go somewhereâ¦to our quarters, or so they tell us. That means we're probably going to be separated, at least for a while. Should weâ¦?”
“I'm sure you'll be all right. We'll meet up with you there.”
“Roger that.” I clicked off, then slipped the headset around my neck. Rain was waiting for a response; I gave her a nod and she shrugged, then we padded across the room toward the open door.
On the other side lay another tunnel, this one much shorter, ending at a sealed hatch only a dozen feet away. Resting upon a recessed track was a long, pill-shaped vehicle, its transparent canopy open at one end to expose six couchlike seats arranged in tandem. Obviously a tram of some sort. When I climbed into the front seat, with Rain taking the one directly behind me, the couches changed shape to conform to our bodies, with padded bars folding across us. The canopy slid shut; a prolonged wheeze as the compartment was depressurized, then the hatch spiraled open, and we shot down the tunnelâ¦
And out into space.
Or so it seemed, for it appeared as if there was nothing on the other side of the canopy except cold, unglimmering stars.
Grabbing at the safety bar, I gasped in horror. For a moment, I thought we'd been jettisoned into the vacuumâ¦then the cab passed through a ring, and I realized that the tram was a pneumatic tube running along the side of a thick cable.
We'd left the saucer where the
was docked, and were being hurled through the
. On either side of us, stretching out as far as we could see, floated a seemingly endless array of spheres, cylinders, discs, and wheels, all connected to one another by an intricate network of cables upon which other trams sprinted back and forth. Lights like a million votive candles gleamed from countless windows while, far above us, spacecraft of every conceivable shape and size moved in stately promenade.
“Ohâ¦” That was all Rain could say; I didn't have to look back to know that she was awestruck. I seconded the motion, adding another
for good measure. The
was more than a habitat; it was a vast city of space, stunning in its beauty, humbling in its complexity.
We didn't get much of a chance to admire the view, though, because a few seconds later the cab took an abrupt left turn at a Y-shaped intersection and hurtled toward a large sphere. Just as it seemed that collision was unavoidable, a circular hatch opened at its equator; the safety bars held us within our couches as the cab decelerated and then entered the sphere.
We found ourselves in another station much like the one in the saucer. The cab glided to a halt with little more than a slight bump; another long wheeze, and the canopy slid open. I waited until my couch released me from its grasp, then stood up on legs that felt as if they'd become rubber. Rain was just as unsteady; her hand shook when I took it to help her out of the cab.
“That was fun,” I said. “Let's do it again.”
“Sure. Anytime.” She let go of my hand, then looked around. “All right, so where are we now?”
As if in response, a door behind us peeled open; beyond it lay a short corridor, its hexagonal walls lined with burnished copper panels. “Umâ¦we're here,” I replied. “Wherever that is.”
The door shut behind us as soon as we entered the passageway. Too late to turn back now, and nowhere to go but forward. So we slowly walked toward the door at the other end. It split down the middle as soon as we approached it, andâ¦
“Holyâ¦!” Rain whispered.
She was getting pretty good at taking the words right out of my mouth. All I could do was stare.
A library, much like one might find in a nineteenth-century manor somewhere in England. Beneath a vaulted ceiling from which crystal chandeliers were suspended, we saw mahogany-paneled walls lined with brass-caged bookcases, their shelves filled with leather-bound volumes. Antique armchairs and sofas stood here and there upon a thick Persian carpet, with brass reading lamps resting on oak tables and lithographs of country scenes framed upon the walls. A spiral staircase led to an upper gallery, and a mellow fire crackled gently within a marble hearth at the far end of the room.
It was comfortable, and luxurious, and lovely, and totally unexpected. My first thought was that this place was nothing more than a clever illusion, perhaps another hologram. Yet the carpet was soft beneath my feet, and when I laid my hand upon the back of an armchair, I felt supple brown leather. No, it was reallyâ¦real.