By Jason Gibbs
Seriously, what in the name of anything which can be named were they thinking when they sent me here? Look at this place, it’s… it’s despicable.
“Are you alright? You seemed to zone out for a moment or two there.”
“Um, yeah fine. Where’s that waiter, I’m ready to order.”
She looked at me, and two frown lines appeared above her eyes. Her beautiful brown eyes.
“We just finished… and I’ve paid. Again.”
“Ah, yes, sorry, just joking, and I’ll pay tonight.”
I look around, and realise it is night, and the frown is spreading.
“I mean tomorrow.”
“Yes Anton.” She shakes her head, her hair, like long black snakes, almost alive. She is beautiful, and yet… not.
“Sorry Sula, it’s been one of those, um, diurnal cycles.”
“It’s a day Anton, and it’s not funny, your way, you’re… I don’t know what it is.”
She stands suddenly. Pushing back her chair with a sound which makes me flinch. Hate it.
I get up, slower, and making sure to lift my chair. No pain there.
“Let’s walk, and perhaps I can buy you…”
I reach a hand out, and she twirls away, her short white dress swirling up a little, showing her long dark brown legs to their best advantage. And no knickers. I knew I liked her for a reason.
She catches my stare, winks and pauses long enough for me to catch her hand and we walk out into the hot Cairo night.
When we met, we were two strangers, foreigners, lumped together. The locals view us all the same, no matter our different racial backgrounds. So, we were forced together, and forced in a way to behave as the locals assumed we would. Not that I didn’t enjoy it.
“Anton? Anton! Are you alright?”
An intake of breath.
“No, it’s Rita.”
That’s right. Sula’s gone. Cholera?
“Sorry Rita, I…”
She looked closely at me.
“No, I know, it’s the shock. The car hitting you, and yet, you are fine. But…”
Oh, the car. Yes. I must stay in this time.
“It just tapped me, it was the angle.”
She frowns. Her lashes are so long. Dark, covering her eyes. Blue, not like Sula’s. But then Rita is very different from Sula.
Why am I here, in this purgatory?
“Ah… maybe I will have a drink.”
“There it is.”
I look down, and she’s right, some dark brown liquid is sitting in front of me. I take a sip. Scotch, single malt, Highland by the taste of it. This place has a few advantages. Women. Whisky. I can’t think of a third.
“Look Anton, I’ve been meaning to say, and after that… I mean with the car. Maybe it’s not the right time.”
“Lea, how wonderful to see you here. How have you been?”
Her beautiful face glows with a smile. Brown eyes, so dark they’re black, twinkling. I used to love making her smile.
“I’m well. I…”
She’s remembered. How we met after Rita left me, and the brief burst of fire and then… she was a doctor, she knew I should have died.
“I’m glad to see it. Look Lea, I have to go…”
“No Anton, please. I’ve thought about you a lot. I want to talk to you. I want to try and understand.”
I should run away. I’ve run away before. I’ve done other things too. But this time, I can’t. It’s too much, I’m so tired. Tired of this place.
“We can talk, but you won’t understand.”
I get a twitch. Damn, not now, not when…
“Anton. Report.” It was second control. She was always prying.
“Now is not a good time Control. Can we twitch later?”
“No need. I just wanted to tell you that your latest request to return has been denied. You must complete your mission. Out.”
“But.” She was gone.
I looked up at her.
“Lea, why are you staring down at me?”
“You just collapsed. Hitting the corner of the table, and then lying there, mumbling. Look, let me check your head.”
“Um no, it’s fine, really…”
“If you’re sure… though given the fire. Yes.”
Damn, the fire. Right, what do I do now?
“Do you have any alcohol?” I ask as I pull myself up.
“Anton, this is a coffee shop, no alcohol.”
“Oh. I don’t think I can tell you without a proper drink.”
“Fine, we’ll go to my place. Yours will be a mess, and probably crawling with… well anything. I have some scotch. I blame you for introducing me to it.”
She takes my hand and leads me out. It’s different from before, it feels like I’m an errant child being led home by a brood-parent.
“Here, something a bit peaty, I think you’ll like it. Now tell me.”
“Yes.. Ree… I mean Lea.”
She frowns, but says nothing, and looks at me, her eyes hard.
“Right, yes. So, um, the fire.”
“Which should have killed you. Yes?”
“Yes, but this, corpus? Corpse?”
“It’s not a corpse until you are dead Anton.”
“This body, it is, designed, yes designed to be robust, to protect me. From everything.”
“Fire, flood and plague?”
“All the biblical scourges.”
“Who designed it? A government? A corporation?”
I laugh, choking on my whisky. After a brief cough I take another slug, swirl it round my mouth and swallow the sweet burn.
“Sorry Lea, no, not them. I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”
My look of surprise makes her laugh.
“Once you’ve ruled out the impossible… and I looked you over when you were out, you are not something that would be easy to make.”
It’s out. My secret is out. Maybe second control will take another request. Wait, no. If my secret is out I have to stay, and they’ll start the life timer.
“Lea, look, it’s supposed to be a secret, and if my controllers find out… I’ll die here. On this miserable excuse for a…”
I look at her frown, and change tack, “Lovely planet I mean, great place, lovely people. Nice whisky.”
“Why are you here? Are you going to invade? Steal our resources? Turn me into a fifty foot giant?”
I knew I liked her for a reason, calm and still making jokes.
“Well, technically I’m here to ‘survey the local civilisation and report’, but honestly, it’s punishment for… well best not to say.”
“Was a girl involved? Or your species’ equivalent?”
“Um, yes, more or less.”
“Ha, not a surprise. You didn’t answer my question.”
“No offence, but there is literally nothing of value on this planet. Once you get a space industry you’ll realise how poor the planet really is, but anyway, all I’m really here to do is try and prevent you lot from killing yourselves off. Not because you’re special, there are thousands of similar planets and sentients, but because we’re sentimental that way. Possibly several millennia of wiping out any other species we encountered, it’s amazing what trillions of deaths will do to a species’ guilt complex when it finally arrives.”
“How is it going?”
“Oh, well, I haven’t really tried, I mean, why bother? If you lot want to kill yourselves, go ahead. I just want to get home.”
“And when can you go home?”
“Only when I produce evidence you’re all stable and not likely to explode at any moment.”
Or… now that is interesting.
“Or what Anton? Anton? What is that gleam in your eye?”
“Lea, I have to go, sorry. I’ll probably not see you again.”
The plague ripped through the population without mercy. Billions died. Civilisation collapsed, and the few who were immune to the bioweapon died in the ensuing chaos as a result of starvation or other prosaic killers.
Second control passed on his report. The response was swift, “Well Anton, you failed. But you can come home.”