Writing in Public, Story 4 (Novella), Chapter 7
CHAPTER 7 (Updated)
Hope wanted to go see the rock from space right away after breakfast, but Mel insisted she stay and rest.
“First day is always bad,” Mel said. “Best to take it easy.”
Hope stretched out on her drop bed, thinking she would never go to sleep with bright daylight outside. And then she woke up, and the sun had gotten lower in the sky.
The sound of cards being shuffled made her roll over. Brooks was sitting on his bed, laying out cards for solitaire. “I woke up about half an hour ago. I feel like I went two rounds with a heavy-weight boxer and lost.”
Hope wished she felt that good.
“Mrs. Graul brought crackers,” Brooks said. “I think they’re locally made.”
“She’s Ms. Hagen,” she said.
“Shut up, you two,” muttered Jian’s voice from the drop bed way in the back.
Hope worked herself upright. She eyed the plate of crackers. Brooks had parked a plastic supply box like a nightstand near her bed. The crackers were irregularly shaped—rustic, all those chefy shows would have called them. She bit into one. Harder than Earth’s commercially made crackers. Nutty. Lot of salt. Probably why Mel had given it to her.
She had nearly finished off all the crackers by the time Mel returned.
“You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long,” Hope said.
“It’s only been a few hours,” Mel said. “The days are much shorter. Dr. Sanger is going take us to the meteorite.”
Despite how Hope felt, she was looking forward to seeing a meteorite. She and Dr. Sanger took the front seat of an old-style jeep, and Mel, Jian, and Brooks jammed into the backseat. It hardly looked big enough for the three of them. Brooks had his knees up to his chest.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked, thinking she wouldn’t like being squished.
“Story of the military,” Brooks said gamely. “Make your buddy smile.”
Dr. Sanger was younger than Hope expected, closer to her age. For some reason, she’d had a picture in her head of a white-haired man in his sixties. Sanger had a mop of brown hair with silver streaks coming in. Loose-fitting white button down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, khaki cargo pants with bulging pockets.
Mel passed around bottles of water to the GALCOM visitors, as well as bags of the crackers. “Make sure you drink plenty of water. Your body is working harder in the heavy gravity so you’re going to sweat more.”
Hope grimaced. “At the rate I’m going, I’ll be peeing every five minutes.” But she nibbled on crackers and washed them down with the water.
Sanger turned the key in the ignition. The jeep coughed twice, then started. Despite the sand being so fat, it was bumpy ride that jarred all of Hope’s aching joints.
The diesel exhaust gave Hope a headache. “Why the jeep? Wouldn’t an air car be faster?”
“It’s the sand,” Sanger said. “Gets into everything, even anything that’s supposed to be sealed. The jeep might be old-fashioned, but it was made to drive around in environments like this.”
“We’ll be passing by the alien town on the way,” Mel said.
“Will they come out and try to…taste us?” Jian said.
“They might,” Mel said. “If you’re not comfortable, just cross your arms in front of you like Wonder Woman. It means no.”
“They won’t be offended?” Jian asked.
Mel shook her head.
“Then we’ll pass on the tasting for now,” Jian said.
They drove past that strange rock Hope had seen from the air. It stuck up out of the ground like a spear at an angle. The texture reminded her of the stucco houses that were popular all over Lower California.
“You really see ghosts?” Sanger asked, quite tentative.
“Runs in my family,” Hope said.
“You make a lot of money doing that?”
Hope snorted. “As a GALCOM subject matter expert, yes. Before, I was more broke then dirt.”
No one had wanted her around. They feared that she would summon ghosts on them, or try to gouge the desperate, or even that she was a witch. The fear was the worst, because people often covered the fear with anger, and angry people could be dangerous.
Mel leaned forward. “How does it work? The ghosts I mean?”
Brooks laughed. “They appear and start talking to her. Sometimes you can feel them.”
“If they want to be felt,” Hope added. “Felix—Captain Lopez is like that. If Colonel Graul does something Felix disapproves of, he makes the bug bots crazy.”
“Captain Lopez? Who’s that?”
“The first skipper of the Kangjun,” Brooks said. “He was killed in the line of duty.”
“He hangs around to make sure everyone cares for the ship proper,” Hope asked.
Sanger shook his head. “I can’t believe we’re having a conversation about ghosts.”
“You can believe in ghosts or not. Doesn’t matter to me. I know what I see.”
The mud-brick town came up first. Dr. Sanger slowed down so the new travelers could check it out. Town probably wasn’t the right word. Village, maybe. The aliens were out doing whatever alien business they had. Two tended a roaring fire with a large pot hanging over it. A third stopped at the pot and dropped something in.
Mel leaned over Hope’s shoulder. “It’s a community soup. Everyone drops something in.”
“They better,” Hope muttered. But no one raced out with spears or guns.
The aliens were covered with a nubby skin that reminded of lizards. They wore a plain, undyed tunic that came down to their feet. Foot coverings looked like leather. Their head was flat triangle shape with three eyes, reminding her of the ghostly eyes she had seen last night. They had a pair of short, sturdy arms, with flattened hands like a shovel, and thin tentacles ending in three strands that might have been fingers.
These tentacles reached out to touch another alien, laying there for a moment, then darting back like a tongue. One pair of aliens were evidently excited, their tentacles darting back and forth. Another one kept trying to touch a second, but kept getting his taste buds smacked.
“How do you tell male and female?” Hope asked.
“They have three genders,” Mel said.
Hope tried to picture how that worked when it came to babies. Maybe that was too much information.
One of the aliens waved at the jeep. He and two others walked over. The one who had waved wore a heavy chain with a white crystal. The other two wore long necklaces woven out of dried out needles from plants. They smelled like snakes.
White Crystal bowed his head in greeting. His tentacle reached out to touch Sanger on the shoulder, and then Mel in the same place.
White Crystal turned to the GALCOM three, cocking his head questioningly. Jian gestured at Hope and Brooks and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
The aliens nodded and withdrew. Hope sighed, relieved to be back to ghost business.
The meteorite was definitely not a ghost. Hope saw it long before the jeep arrived, a black rock sticking up out of the sand like a thumb.
Sanger stopped the jeep about ten feet from the meteorite and turned off the ignition. Silence immediately fell, starting Hope.
“Holy cow,” Brooks said.
This close, it was incredible. It was four feet high. The surface was all shiny and covered with puckers like someone had pressed a thumb into wet clay. That was from the journey down from space and all the heat. There might have been a crater around it when it landed, but the sand had already filled in the space.
“What did it sound like when it crashed?” Hope asked.
“We thought something blew up,” Sanger said.
“Can I touch it?”
“Probably not a good idea, Miss Hope. It’s been baking in the sun all day. Be pretty hot.”
“See any ghosts?” Jian asked.
“Nope. But maybe there’s ghost stuff on the rock.”
Sanger’s eyebrows tried to crawl into his hair. “Ghost stuff?”
“Sometimes ghosts leave a residue. Of sorts.”
She rotated in the seat, letting her feet dangle. She slid forward, then dropped down. And pitched forward, smacking her cheek into the hot sand.
Sanger bounced out of the jeep, bounding around to Hope. He grabbed her under the arms, trying to pick her up.
She smacked at his arms. “Stop that. I’m not a two year old.”
He let her go and stepped back, confused.
“Offer her your hand,” Brooks said.
Sanger helped her to her feet. Her legs were already shaking, so she leaned against the jeep. The side panels were hot!
She lurched forward, nearly losing her balance again, sand kicking up around her feet because it was too hard to pick them up. Brooks trudged forward to join her.
She circled around the rock, her hand outstretched close enough that she should be able to tell if there was any residue. Brooks caught her arm as she lost her balance, keeping her from falling into the meteorite.
But there was no ghost residue. She wished she knew if that meant there was no ghost or it had all been burned off coming through the atmosphere. The problem with being an expert is everyone expected her to know everything. She wished she did.