A Proximite and a Human

Standard
Digital drawing. At middle, a human man sitting on the ground, facing forward, turned slightly to right of frame, wearing jacket, pants, and boots. His left leg is draw up and his hand rests on his knee. His right leg is extended but partially bent. A bandage is wrapped around his right thigh. His right palm is pressed to the ground beside him, supporting his weight. His face is looking down. Two characters hover beside him at the level of his head. At left, a sphere. Near the bottom of the sphere are two recesses with domed tops and flat bottoms. Within the recesses are smaller spheres, giving the effect of eyes. Next to one eye, from a circular recess, a jointed appendage made of rods and nodes extends down. Liquid leaks from two of the recesses. At right, a face divided into three parts with one eye, one nose, and a mouth on each part. Each part is elongated. Eyebrows appear both above and below each eye. Straight wrinkles appear at the forehead and on each nose.

“We’ve chosen you because you’re just a couple of ordinary transport technicians,” the unfamiliar transport chief said.  “And for one other reason.  Proximites and humans are both relatively fragile species—no offense—when it comes to space travel.  But here on solid earth…well, you’re still fragile, but you have certain qualities that come in handy should there be any problems with this particular prisoner.”

Javier felt a lurch in his fragile human gut.  “Should we expect any problems, sir?” 

“And can you tell us how our ‘certain qualities’ would help us address those problems?” his partner added. 

Javier had only just met his shift partner, a proximite named Twill.  They had only had time to exchange a few pleasantries before the unfamiliar transport chief walked up to them with their own boss drifting behind like a shadow.  They—being ordinary transport technicians—were only assigned to transport non-violent law offenders.

The transport chief smiled.  “You have nothing to worry about.”

He explained further.

They would transporting a somewhat high-profile prisoner.  A heavily guarded decoy transport would leave at about the same time from a different, more secluded bay, to draw the attention of those who might try to kidnap or kill the prisoner. 

Javier and Twill would be in no danger from either the prisoner or anyone who might try to get to him.  They would be monitored during their whole three-hour drive, and at any sign of danger, no less than four highly trained teams of elite guards would descend on their location to take control of any situation, and get them to safety.  They were both given the opportunity to decline.  They were both offered three times their year’s salary for that one job. 

Both accepted.  They were given some brief instructions, mostly to just stay their course, and not stop until their three-hour drive was over, and they were within the gates of Central Lunar Prison Six.

“The prisoner will already be loaded and secured before we even call you out to the vehicle,” the transport chief said.  “And he won’t be unloaded until you’re off the premises.  So the biggest danger to you should be…traffic.” 

He chuckled, patted them both on the back, suggested they use the restroom and get whatever snacks they needed now, and dismissed them.

Javier and Twill decided that they would remain serious while their prisoner was in their possession.  After dropping him off, they would consider letting themselves relax.

***

Twill laughed, and then her laughter petered out, and just when Javier thought she was stopping, she burst out laughing again.  So he laughed with her.  He glanced out of the closed window at the desert plains whipping by.  His partner was driving.  She had enough eyes to keep on the road.

When their laughter finally faded, Twill sighed and shook her head, and simply said, “Really?”

Javier chuckled and glanced over at her.  “Yes.”

“Psychic powers?”

“Third eye means extrasensory perception.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

Twill shook her tripartite head.  Proximites were trilaterally symmetrical, which meant that they had three legs, three arms, three digits on each hand, and on their faces, three noses, and three eyes.  Javier had seen several proximites since starting at the company some six rotations ago, but he’d never been partnered with one.  He’d never before had a chance to try and impress with his language skills.  Common proximite was one of the five languages he’d learned before starting.  Their native stars were neighbors after all, even if they were far away from both stars.  But he’d only thus far gotten the chance to use one language, the universal language that everyone on the moon spoke.

He had a lot of questions, but everything he knew about proximites came from books and shows.  He couldn’t be sure what a real proximite might be offended by or amused by.

“You are…male gender, yes?” Twill asked.

“Yes.”  He sensed a follow-up question coming, but she was silent for a moment.

“I confess,” she said.  “I have a lot of questions, but I don’t want to ask anything that might offend.  We just met and…”

“It’s a long drive.”

“Yes.”

“Well, how about this time, we stick to safe topics, like…like food.”

He heard a sharp intake of breath from his partner, and when he glanced over, he saw a flutter of green pass through her light orange complexion.  She reached for the radio dial and found a station playing some familiar tunes.

“Okay,” Javier said, “I just stepped in it.”  He pointed to the radio.  “How about the topic of music?”

“That works for me.”  Twill exhaled a slow breath.  “You know, the music of Earth is very popular.”

“With proximites?”

“With me.”  She turned slightly toward him and winked her right eye.

***

Over the next hour, Twill and Javier cycled through periods of silence and periods of harmless banter.  They would approach and then shy away from taboo subjects, including the one they both wanted to talk about, their prisoner.  But they kept in mind that they were being listened to by that transport chief and his team.

Though they had no access to the prisoner compartment, no way to talk to or look at the prisoner, they’d been warned not to attempt contact with the prisoner. 

Twill had asked what they should do if their vehicle broke down.  They were told to follow the protocols they’d been trained to follow, and reminded that there were hard copies of their manual in the front passenger compartment.  Their personal communication devices had been confiscated, to be returned at the end of their shift. 

Two hours into their drive, Javier noticed that a cluster of vehicles was closing in from behind.  His posture tensed a bit, as it had every time they had encountered any other vehicles on the mostly empty road. 

“Twill,” he said.

Two of Twill’s hands were on the steering wheel.  She slightly adjusted the mirrors with her third.  “I see them,” she said.  “Steady on.”

She maintained her speed and position. 

The vehicles closed the distance and a few swerved around and in front of them.  From their higher vantage, Javier glanced inside the vehicles, whose occupants seemed young.  They looked like travelers, probably using the moon as a stop on some discount transport service. 

He heard Twill curse, just before one of the passing vehicles swerved too close and sideswiped them.  A scrape and a jostle.  Nothing too serious. 

Twill mumbled something about not letting her own children drive like “reckless rats on a raft,” which must have had some further and deeper, and maybe harsher meaning, based on the flutter of green color that passed across her cheeks.

Javier heard a scream from the vehicle that had scraped by them.  Two more passed without incident.  One of the passengers in them looked up and caught Javier’s eye, and seemed to shrug in apology.

The vehicles sped up and moved off, worried perhaps that Twill and Javier would try stop them to report the accident. 

Javier noticed that Twill had slowed them down just a little, to try and get even more distance between them and the reckless youths.

With less than a standard hour left in their ride, Javier decided to remain in a state of readiness.  He reached over to turn off the music station that had been playing at low volume. 

He heard a click and a fiery hiss.

***

The transport exploded.

Javier knew that before he knew where he was.  He couldn’t hear anything.  He must have been hurt, badly hurt, if the transport exploded.  And it had.

He remembered the bright yellow-orange flash.

But when he sat up, he felt alright, just shaken.  He found himself lying in dry yellow grass some distance from the transport, which had flipped over on its side.  The front faced him, window cracked, but not shattered.  The side facing up looked like it had been torn open with claws.

He checked himself and seemed to be unhurt, so he rose to his feet.

“Twill!” he called. 

He could hardly hear his own voice.  By instinct, he brought his hands to his ears and was shocked to find something lodged in them.  He pulled out two pieces of silvery-blue metal.  They looked like ear pieces, for communications or protection, but he hadn’t been wearing any.  He slipped the pieces in his pocket as he spotted Twill.

She was standing behind the damaged transport.  She waved to him.  He noted the fuel puddling on the road as he came around to the back.

One of the back doors was open.  Spilling out of it was a giant mass of writhing black tendrils.  Pools of a silvery blue metal were splattered on the ground below.

“Are you hurt?” Twill asked.

“No. You?”

“No.  I don’t know how, but I’m grateful.”  She pointed to the mass of tendrils.  “Keep a lookout while I see if we have a working communicator in the cab.”

Javier stared.  “What is that?”

“I think it’s our prisoner,” Twill said.

“He’s inside all of that?”

“Or maybe he is all of that.”

Twill moved away to try and get inside the cabin.

A fog held Javier’s mind in place and resisted his efforts to think.  But he fought past it to recall the protocols for a prisoner out of containment.  They were supposed to encourage the prisoner to move back into containment, and then contact a higher authority to make a report and receive further instructions.  If that wasn’t safe to do, they were to move to a safe distance, and then contact a higher authority to make a report and receive further instructions.

“We’ve been in an accident,” Javier said, to the mass of tendrils that looked like no species he had yet encountered.  “Are you hurt?”

There came no response.  He called out to Twill to grab an emergency kit too.  She called back an affirmative.  And he warned about the fuel leak.  Nothing was currently on fire. 

“My partner is getting what we need from the vehicle,” Javier explained to what he presumed was his prisoner, “then we should move to a safe distance.”

Javier tried to open the door that was still closed, thinking the prisoner might need more room to push himself out.  But the door was stuck.  He glanced around to look for any tool that might help him to pry it open.  He saw a few of the silver-blue metallic puddles contract and turn into solid shards.  The metal shards jumped at each other and stuck together.  Javier gasped. 

He heard Twill speaking and some of what she was saying.  She must have found a functioning communicator.  She was reporting their current situation to someone. 

She came back around, holding an emergency kit and the communicator.  “They told us to sit tight.  They’re already on their way.”

“I thought they said they would swoop right in if something happened.”

A strange, whispering moan came from the writing mass of tendrils.

“Was that a vocalization?” Twill asked. 

Javier shook his head.  “I don’t know.”  They both took a few steps away.

“Did they give any instructions about what to do with the prisoner?”

Twill shook her head.  “They asked if he’d said anything.  I told them he hadn’t and that he just looked like a black tangle of worms.  They just said to stay away from him.”

“Did you tell them about the leak?”

“I did.”

“They don’t want us to get him out of there?  In case the transport catches on fire?” 

They started discussing how they could start moving their prisoner out of the transport vehicle when they heard engines on the road ahead.

“It’s about time,” Javier said. 

But Twill was peering in the direction of the approaching vehicles.  Her third eye might not have been psychic, but her proximite vision was, in general, more farseeing than his.

“We’re in trouble, Javier,” she said.  “Those are not our reinforcements.”

Javier put a hand over his eyes and narrowed them, but couldn’t see whatever she was seeing.  “Are you sure?”

“If they are, we’re still in trouble.  It’s all those vehicles we saw earlier.  The one that grazed us.  I’m betting that wasn’t an accident.  They planted a bomb.”

“Maybe we can talk—”

Javier was cut off by the sight and then sound of a plasma burst heading right toward them.

They ran toward the back. 

“Get inside!” Twill yelled to the prisoner.  “We’re taking fire.”

The mass of tendrils didn’t seem to respond. 

Javier and Twill pulled out their weapons, pistols neither of them had fired outside of the practice range.

The plasma burst hit the front of the transport vehicle and splattered out.  They weren’t in range yet for it to do much harm. 

The transport vehicle was their only protection.  But even if they could climb in past the mass of tendrils, whoever was approaching had already proven they could breach the transport’s walls. 

Twill and Javier stood side by side behind the transport vehicle as it shook from another plasma blast.  This one pushed the vehicle backward a few inches.  Javier heard the sizzle of the plasma seeping through the cracks in the windshield.  Their pistols were only concussive.  And even at the highest setting, they could not harm anyone who was sitting inside of a vehicle.

“What do we do, Twill?  What can we do?”

“We can pray and hope that we are both very, very lucky.”

The transport vehicle was rocked by another plasma blast.  Twill and Javier were pushed forward when the vehicle slid back.  Javier felt the heat of that one.  And the cold.  His mind, overwhelmed, seemed empty.

Darkness descended upon them.

***

This time Javier saw and remembered it all happening.  The mass of black tendrils swelling and surging out of the vehicle, surrounding and swallowing him and Twill.  Javier inhaled and held his breath until he couldn’t.  When he gasped in another breath, he found he could breathe easily.  He couldn’t see anything in the absolute black, but he could hear.

He heard plasma bursts coming closer.  He heard the sounds of metal twisting, and crashes and thuds, and shouting and screaming.  

Then suddenly, it all went quiet.

The darkness around him collapsed. 

Like water hovering in zero gravity just dropping as gravity was restored, the darkness splashed down and spilled over the ground.

Javier was still standing.  So was Twill.  Only a few feet away, right where she had been.  They could have reached out to each other.

Around them lay the twisted shards of the vehicles in that caravan of false travelers. 

And bodies.

Javier and Twill each approached a body that lay still on the ground.  They were different species, different peoples, but Javier knew how to check for signs of life for some.  He knelt and lay his hand on the belly of one of their assailants.  He felt the little sparks of electricity that indicated life.

“This one is alive,” Twill said of the one she checked.

“Mine too.”

They checked a few others.  All alive.  And all unconscious. 

“Our prisoner did this,” Twill said.

But based on the black wetness that lay splashed on the road, their prisoner was no more.

Under that blackness, Javier still spotted a few puddles of that silver-blue metal.  A few of them began to contract and solidify.  Before he could call out to Twill to watch out, one of them jumped toward him.  It ripped through his pocket and sliced his thigh.  He heard a ringing thud of metal hitting metal, and only then remembered those metal pieces he’d put in his pocket.

“Javier!”  Twill rushed to his side.  She still had the emergency kit.  While Javier kept watch for any more metal shards, she did a rough scan of his leg, applied the antiseptic and field stitches, and wrapped a bandage around it.  They couldn’t stay where they were. 

One and only one of the vehicles was undamaged. 

“Do you believe in coincidences, partner?” Javier asked, as they both approached the vehicle.

“Sometimes…”

Twill tried the driver’s side door, and it opened. 

Javier opened the back passenger door just as their communicator chirped, and the transport chief asked Twill to report their status.

But neither Twill nor Javier answered.

They were both gaping at the back seat of the vehicle.  Their prisoner lay there.  A small mass of black tendrils was contracting back into his body, a silvery blue sphere about the size of a human head. 

“Good gods,” Twill whispered.  She recognized him.

So did Javier.  He was just as breathless when he said their prisoner’s name out loud.

“Lodestar.”

***

Twill shoved the communicator and the emergency kit at Javier. 

“I’m sorry, partner,” she said.  “You tell them the whole truth and you’ll be fine.  You’ll be safe.”

Javier took the communicator and threw it into the black goo at their feet.  He took the emergency kit and walked around to the back passenger side.  He opened the door.

“You’ll have to drive,” he said.  “My leg.”

He climbed in.

***

Twill had taken a moment to place emergency warning strips across the road on either side.  Anyone who ignored them risked being struck by the metal shards.  But the shards were obviously magnetic, which meant that they must have been part of the containment chamber that had been holding the Lodestar.  If they drove him far enough away, those shards would melt back into puddles and they should be harmless.  If the stories were true, that silver-blue stuff was a metal alloy that only responded to the unique magnetic forces of the Lodestar.

They had turned off the main road after a few miles.  Javier watched over the Lodestar, whose smooth surface had formed two recesses that looked like eyes.  Liquid leaked from those eyes, silver-blue sometimes, and sometimes black.

They hadn’t spoken for the better part of an hour.  The whole time, they had expected to be caught, despite discarding everything they thought might be used to track them.  But soon it settled in, the reason they hadn’t been found.  The Lodestar, despite his seemingly dire state, had raised some kind of field around them.  They were invisible to any known means of detection.  But he couldn’t keep it up forever.

“Twill, what about our families?”  Javier asked in the quiet of the cabin.

“They’ll be fine, as long as they disavow us.”

Javier had not known his partner for long, but he didn’t think she believed what she’d just said.  Neither did he.  But maybe the Lodestar would help.  Maybe he would help them the way they were helping him.  He had already saved their lives at the expense of his own.  They were chosen to transport him because of their particular biology.  Putting together what he’d learned and what he’d observed, Javier understand that now.  They were fragile enough to trigger the Lodestar’s protective instinct, and leave him vulnerable to an attack that he would have otherwise been able to escape.  He could have made himself invisible.  But without their help, he couldn’t have gotten away from all the forces that were surely now converging on their transport vehicle.

Javier saw a drop stream down the side of Twill’s face.  He blinked away his own tears.

“Proximites cry?” he asked, trying to make his voice sound light, teasing.  “So do humans.”

Twill’s tripartite mouth curved up in a smile, another familiar gesture. “Our stars are neighbors, after all,” she said.  “We have a lot in common.”

“More than I thought.”  Javier let his tears fall.

He quickly wiped them away and continued keeping a look out.

The Lodestar said nothing to them, no blinking lights, or vocalizations, or movement.  But after another hour of driving, another recess opened on the surface of the sphere, and a jointed arm extended out toward the front windshield.  More jointed sections kept appearing, thin rods of silver-blue metal connected by nodes.  They extended over half the windshield in a specific configuration.

“Is that a chemical structure?” Javier wondered.

Twill leaned forward and looked up at the sky.  “Or a constellation.”

Javier smiled and shook his head.  “Of course.”

He was called the Lodestar after all.  Of course he would use the stars to guide them.

Still, the Lodestar said or did nothing more, but Twill and Javier scanned the skies until they found the constellation.

Twill drove toward it.

She didn’t stop until the Lodestar retracted the apparatus of rods and nodes that he’d use to indicate the constellation.

They were in the middle of a field. 

Javier and Twill assumed that they were now waiting for a ship.  Or maybe for the Lodestar’s next request.

“I have an idea,” Javier said. “We’ll tell them I took you hostage.  That I was an agent of the Lodestar the whole time.”

Twill sighed and looked back at him.  “That’s very noble, but are you forgetting protocol?”

Javier frowned at the resistance his tired mind put up to the task of remembering.

“The truth detector tests,” Twill said.

Suddenly, the Lodestar rose up from the seat and hovered by Javier’s shoulder. 

For the first time since they met him, he spoke. 

“Forget me?” he said in a soft robotic voice.

“We won’t forget you,” Javier said.

A recess appeared in the sphere, and an apparatus like the structure of rods and nodes emerged and reached toward Javier’s temple. 

The Lodestar spoke again.  “Forget.”

Javier realized that he had misunderstood.  “Are you saying you can make us forget you?”

“Lock our memories,” Twill said, catching on, “so we can pass those truth detector tests.”

“By forgetting, we can protect you,” Javier said, addressing the Lodestar.

“And he could protect us.”

Twill now spoke to the Lodestar.  “I’m very precious about my mind,” she said.  “You’re asking us to put a lot of trust in you.”

“He could do it to me,” Javier offered.  “And you could go with him.  Get your family to safety before someone comes for them.”

“Dangerous,” the Lodestar said.

Twill glanced between Javier and the Lodestar.  “It’s also dangerous to forget the evidence we saw today, of how expendable we are to the powers that be.”

Javier shifted his leg and winced.  “I don’t think we’ll forget that regardless.”

Twill nodded.  “I’ve come this far.  I’ll go one step farther.”

“We won’t get a chance to tell you again,” Javier said to the Lodestar.  He glanced at Twill.

They both spoke at once.  “Thank you.”

~***~

“We were knocked out?” Javier asked, squinting at the lights of the emergency vehicles.

“How?” Twill added, sitting next to him, groaning and grasping her head.

They were in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, and Javier had no idea how they had gotten there.  But their transport chief had just told them that their prisoner had turned the tables and taken them prisoner.  He’d attacked the response team, destroying their vehicles, and incapacitating them. He’d stolen one their vehicles, and taken Twill and Javier as hostages.

“Consider yourselves lucky that you weren’t important enough for him to keep—if you’ll pardon my assessment,” the transport chief said.  “Important to him, that is.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell us now, sir,” Javier asked, “who this guy was?”

The chief patted him on the shoulder, but didn’t answer. 

***

A few days later, after medical exams, interviews, and truth detector tests, Javier and Twill were called into their boss’s office.  They were both eager to get back to work.

“The transport wasn’t completed,” he said, “so you won’t be getting the payment you were promised for the job.  However, you also won’t be penalized for the prisoner’s escape, since you obviously had nothing to do with it.  You acted in good faith and according to your training.  But you will be getting a little bit of a bonus.”

“Hazard pay?” Javier suggested.

“That’s right.  You can call it that.”  Their boss sighed and glanced at Twill.  “I’m afraid your request was denied.”

Against her wishes, their boss later informed Javier that Twill had strongly urged the company executives to award an additional bonus to Javier, to cover the expenses for his injury. 

***

After a week of seeing each other every day, Twill and Javier had grown familiar enough to request a shift together, in the hopes that it would be a boring one this time.

They started their boring shift with a boring breakfast of coffee and toast at a place Javier liked, after getting Twill past her reluctance to speak about food.  They’d set the screen at their table to the general news broadcast.  It shifted from a notification about a dust storm and the usual “all is well on the moon” to interplanetary news.  They started with a sensational story about the divisive revolutionary known only as the Lodestar.  He had made an appearance a few systems away to give a speech to a small group of supporters outside of a factory.  Authorities had tried to close in, but he somehow escaped.

Javier risked broaching another taboo subject with his shift partner.

“I hope they never catch him.”  He felt his face growing hot as he waited for a reply.

Twill took a sip and set her cup down.  “We all have our flaws, but I admire him as well.  Enough to be afraid for him.” 

The heat on Javier’s face receded.  “I’d like to think I’d help him if I ever got the chance.  But truth be told, I’m too chicken to even dare showing up at a speech.  And people bring their little kids to those.”

“What can two ordinary transport technicians ever do anyway, against all the powers that bear down on that poor soul?”

Javier raised a brow.  “We could give him a ride somewhere.”

Twill narrowed her eyes, and added, “To somewhere he actually wants to go.”

The two new colleagues smiled at each other, and raised their coffees as they mouthed the words, “To the Lodestar.”


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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