Chapter 3, 51: I’m Not Special
Charlotte glared at Tellus. Her horse had been able to talk for, like, thirty seconds now, and he was already as annoying a boy as she’d ever met. She willed a message down the invisible link that joined her hazel eyes with the big stallion’s dark brown: “Don’t you dare embarrass me.”
Brian Ferguson opened his eyes. A moment later, when he realised where he was, he really opened them. His arms and legs began to wave, frantically, seeking for something to hold onto. Which, Charlotte thought, you could understand, him hanging in mid-air like that. She vaulted onto Telus’s back, as the stallion obligingly moved under the floating boy. When she was close enough, Charlotte reached out and grabbed Brian by the wide, cowboy belt on his jeans and the front of his faded khaki T-shirt, and drew him in.
Brian’s hands gripped around Charlotte’s wrist. He was strong, she noticed. As strong as Bruce. Unlike Bruce, thought, there were no thin wisps of hair on the back of his forearms. Bruce had those, some almost too light to have a colour, others black, and even a few red. Brian’s skin was smooth and pink and clean, like a baby’s.
“I’ve got you,” Charlotte said, doing her best to be reassuring. It couldn’t be easy to come to floating in mid-air. Didn’t people feel like they were falling in zero-gravity? Not that what was happening to Brian was necessarily zero-gee.
Actually, Charlotte thought, as she jumped lightly to the ground, dragging a flailing Brian above her, shouldn’t he have just fallen to the ground when Sovereign disappeared. Did this mean that Sovereign was still around. Her back prickled, and the feel of the Pearl Harmony Sword against her hip was a reassurance. Less reassuring were the muttered caws coming from Ginger.
Something was wrong.
Rose appeared next to Charlotte, and reached up to put her hand on Brian. Charlotte felt an unaccountable twinge of jealousy. “Relax, Brian,” Rose said. “Charlotte, can you spin Brian around so I can reach his back?”
Charlotte did so.
“Careful, now,” Rose said. “There’s a gadget holding you up, Brian. I’m going to take it off, and Charlotte is going to catch you and put you on the ground. You just relax and let it go.”
Rose reached out and pulled something, almost invisibly small from Brian’s back. Ignoring her advice, Brian stiffened and began flailing again as he dropped abruptly towards the deck, but Charlotte was ready. His full weight fell into her cradling arms, and she held him there for a moment, marvelling at the tall, thin, rangy shape in her arms, so unlike the bulky muscles of the other two boys she had held like this, neither of whom really counted, being her brother, Chris, and Bruce, who was practically another brother.
Then she swept her lower arm down, letting Brian’s feet drop to the floor so that he could stand on his own. Rose, standing edge on between them, held out her left hand. In it were two golden pills, the size and shape of a Tylenol capsule.
“Yeah, that’s the good stuff. Mandaarians make the best.” With her right hand, Rose gestured towards her feet. Charlotte looked down. Rose was floating an inch above the black rubber mat of the deck. Then she closed her left hand, fingering the capsules, and she dropped abruptly back to the ground.
“Good stuff?” Brian asked, using words for the first time. “This is scary.”
“But you’re down now,” Charlotte answered. “Safe.”
“Not that,” Brian said. “This.” He gestured. His hand wave was almost lazy, like it took more effort than he had to make his point. It took in the control room, with its black floor with gold detailing, the high walls with inset glass consoles in the midst of brushed-pink metal fittings and keyboards on slideout mountings, weirdly curved in a way that suggested that the designers had cared way too much about operator comfort, at the canopy bed that took up the middle third of the space in the circular chamber, and the deep, railing-surrounded pit in the middle from which the grey fog-that-was-not-fog came pouring out. Finally, his gesture swept around to the one live screen, the largest one of all.
It was still showing its interplay of changing patterns, blocked out in grids and rotating shapes in more pastel colours than Charlotte had even realised existed. But the blackness at the bottom of the screen was spreading. Brian reached up and pushed his long, thin fingers through his straight, yet still standing blond hair. “It’s wrong. I hear it.”
“Hear what?” Rose asked.
“The ship, obvs,” Charlotte said. “Chosen one, blah blah, fly the ship. Right?”
“Not everything happens the way it happens in stories,” Rose pointed out.
You got that right, Charlotte thought, and her heart broke for her friend, who still didn’t know about the booy who’d been wooing her all this time.
“In this case, though,” Brian said, and his voice trailed off. “Come on!” He led the way down towards the spiral ladder-staircase that emerged from the pit. Charlotte’s skin crawled at the prospect of going back into the grey after her last experience, but she followed.
Wisps of grey gathered around her wrist as she put her hand to the loop at the top of the staircase. When she put her foot on the second rung from the top and turned to face back out of the pit as she descended, it was as though the grey was sucking on her ankles, pulling her into itself.
Above her, Tellus stared, mournfully down. Ginger was perched on his head, talons fastidiously curled around the leather strap of his harness. “I hope you know what you’re doing, little Two-Legs,” Tellus said. “I’ll miss you.”
She glared back at the horse. “I thought you said that your job was to protect me.”
“I’m supposed to try. You’re the mistress here. I trust you know what you’re fucking doing.”
“Language,” Charlotte mouthed, as she stepped down, and her head ducked into the grey, and the world changed to the weird, between-the-bubbles-of-reality world of hyperspace.
It was a world that managed to be enough like theirs to have a little lounge with chairs facing more consoles. Most of the chairs, with their cracked, dust-oozing teal upholstery, were empty. The central one wasn’t. It held a tall person of indeterminate sex, head almost buried in a massive golden headgear that did not conceal the gouts of blood that had oozed blood from nose and ear not very many minutes ago. The body lolled in a very disturbing way against the seat belt that they really should install on more spaceship bridges, you would think, watching Star Trek.
Rose and Charlotte rushed to the body. While Rose held the head stable, Charlotte struggled for a moment with the unfamiliar straps and closures of the belt before drawing the Pearl Harmony Sword and delicately cutting the body free.
Together, the girls lowered the body to the ground. Removing the headgear without disturbing the neck was harder, but at last, it came free in Charlotte’s hands. She swiveled to put it on the seat, and then back to the victim.
Rose was checking for breathing, so Charlotte moved around the body to the CPR position, putting her hands down to find the edge of the chest concavity for maximum efficiency. Could you even do CPR in hyperspace? Were they actually breathing, or was the grey just getting in them and replacing the air, which was really creepy, when she thought about it.
Before Charlotte could start, Rose said, “Never mind, he’s cold. Been dead for hours.”
“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked.
“I come from a dark, postapocalyptic future where CPR practice dummies are Uncanny Valley realistic.” Rose pointed out. “Memo to self. Try not to piss off massively psionic alien masterminds.”
“Umm, too late?” Charlotte suggested. “Between us and the last group, we’ve watched that dude get burned, like, twice now.”
At that point, the girls were distracted by movement above them..
Charlotte looked up. Brian had come up behind them and had lowered the headset onto his head. “No!” Charlotte began to shout, and Rose blurred into motion, but even her speed wasn’t time enough.
Brian’s eyes rolled, and he screamed. Then he flopped back down into the chair and his hands began to twitch and tweak while his body bounced around the double pivots of hip and shoulder and his teeth chattered.
“Should we…put a spoon in his mouth or something,” Charlotte asked.
“They say you shouldn’t,” Rose answered. “They just break teeth.”
“And if he does swallow his tongue?”
“They’re not as helpful about that. Except that we shouldn’t put our hands in his mouth if we happen to like the number of fingers we have currently.”
“Spoon it is,” Charlotte said. She looked around, helplessly, at the dusty floor and cracked chairs with their surrounds of keyboards and overly-ergonomic trackballs. There was no sign of a spoon. Duh. Maybe under the chairs, poked away for the kitchen staff to pick up later? “Think maybe they had meal service up here?”
“I don’t think the messes on this ship have been active in fifty thousand years. So, no.”
The little console in front of them flickered to life. It showed the same pattern of patterns in the top two thirds and darkness in the bottom as the main console. Brian’s back arched, and he made a ghastly, choking, spitting sound. Charlotte looked at him. What else would do for a spoon?
But instead of choking, Brian sent an arc of spittle soaring through the air towards the console. Ooh, gross, Charlotte thought. Even before the spit hit the console, Brian was breathing normally again.
If you could breathe normally in the grey, Charlotte thought, again.
Where the bubbly, awful spit struck, the black on the console began to recede, almost as though it were washing it away.
Brian screamed. Charlotte and Rose looked over at him. Now that he had their attention, he talked. “The road is fifty thousand years!”
“Uhm, excuse me?” Rose asked.
“We’re starting Grade Nine week after next,” Charlotte pointed out. “Is this going to take longer than that?”
“Fifty thousand years they have waited, fifty thousand years we must journey!”
“It’s so awesome that you’re going to give us a ride to the rendezvous,” Charlotte said, “But it’s like, a school month, and we can’t go without our permission. Maybe your giant craftworld spacehulk can call my aunt and uncle and Rose’s host parents and talk details?”
“Guests will be disembarked!” Brian announced. Then he curled up in a more prehensile shape than even a skinny, tall teen can usually manage, so that his chest was almost touching the top of the headgear.
“I don’t want to go!” His tone changed. “The autopilot is just a machine! I can do it! I want to!” And then he started crying.
And then, just like that, Rose, Charlotte and Tellus were standing on the mountain meadow above the deep chamber where the Drindrish starship had flown in place for half a hundred thousand years. Curled up beside them, Brian was crying with a rhythmic, whooping, mental emptiness in his voice. Eve still lay, inert.
Below them on the slope of green, in the morning cold of the high mountain, was their welcoming party: Bruce, Dora, Agents Smith and Hernandez, Ken, and, Charlotte saw with dismay, the talk and bulky figure of the Dark Ninja, costume stripped away to show that it was muscular burliness that his enveloping tunic had been hiding, and instantly changing every misconception Charlotte had ever had about the face exposed behind the mask, that of Michael Snow, the special needs student in her Cousin Amy’s year.
Every physical misconception, that is. Michael’s face was as slack and empty of intelligence as ever. And as his eyes crossed Rose’s, it was Rose’s turn to cry, horribly, desperately, as every dream she ever had seemed to shatter in front of her.
Oh, boy, Charlotte thought. What an end to a perfect vacation. My BFF is wrecked, and it looks like she was never going to have the opportunity to ask Brian if he was really Scout all along.