All The Universe Has To Hold (Part III)

Previously on All The Universe Has To Hold… Part I and Part II

His thoughts were interrupted when the crate was lifted off the ground and he bounced from wall to wall as he was carried… somewhere. The footsteps of his carriers made a wet slapping noise against the ground.

The hazy green darkness of the outdoors gave way to bleached ivory lighting as they entered a building. The corridor stretched on far further than Connor felt the entrance to a log cabin should. There was a rattling as his carriers seemed to be heading down some steps, the lighting changed flavour again, and with a thud he was placed down once more.

“We will speak to our grandchildren of your beneficence and generosity in these matters,” Wentworth said. “Soon, we shall begin the grand and fortuitous act of establishing terms of trade, but before we commence, may I be so impetuous as to beg you to satisfy my curiosity in one matter?”

“Um, sure,” Connor said.

“Why would other-worldly beings, with such tools and logics far beyond our own meagre science, wish to purchase whale oil of all things?”

Connor shrugged, a gesture that was meaningless within the confines of his spacesuit, a large box, and the cultural context of the planet he was standing on.

“Oh you know what engineers are like. No matter how complex the tech, whatever the problem they’ll try to solve it with either lubricant or duct tape,” Connor said.

According to Rajita, the Fermi’s engineer, there was a longstanding rumour that whale oil had been used in the space shuttle. NASA had said that the rumour was false- but they’d had to check.

“Pray tell, what is this ‘Duct tape’?” Wentworth asked.

“Oh mate,” Connor said, grinning inside his helmet. “I think we’re going to be able to find a trade that makes you very happy.”

Before Wentworth could reply, there was a sound of more wet slapping footsteps. Muffled chewing, sucking, choking noises were exchanged, too quietly for the translator algorithm to pick up, and then Wentworth said, “We will never be able to fully express just how overflowing with gratitude and good feeling we are that you offered us your patience and understanding in these matters. And yet, I must once more beg of you your great indulgence, as another matter has arisen that insists upon my immediate ministries.”

“Um, sure…” Connor said as the shadows surrounding him slip-slapped away.

Connor checked his phone.

“Hey, Sam, you reading me?” he asked.

There was no response. So, definitely underground then. Connor had many feelings about this. Trepidation. Anxiety. Impatience. A sense of being enormously impressed that the translator algorithm stored so much of this world’s vocabulary on his phone. Still, as a rule Connor was one of the Fermi’s less adventurous crewmembers, and even for him this situation ranked no more than a four on his personal peril-o-meter.

Then he heard it.

Connor had met creatures whose laughter sounded like a horse whinnying, or who laughed by rattling their mandibles together. He’d encountered cultures who did jazz hands instead of smiling, or whose natural phosphorescence would pulse a more vivid array of colours if they were pleased. The denizens of the universe have a nearly infinite number of ways of expressing joy.

But terror was always instantly recognisable.

The underground chambers echoed with a frighteningly human-sounding scream.

Connor unhooked the latch of his box and stepped out. Later, Gordon, the Fermi’s resident tech billionaire and de facto Captain, would ask Connor why he would do something so obviously stupid. All he could do was avert her gaze and say quietly, “I thought someone might need help.”

Connor’s box had been carried into a room with white stone walls and a smooth but unevenly cobbled floor, lit by yet another oil lamp. There were no guards, no cameras, nobody watching Connor at all. Even the door had been left open. He unhooked the oil lamp from the wall- it offered a softer, less alarming brightness than the glare of his helmet light- and stepped out into the hallway. The same white walls and smooth cobblestone floors.

The spacesuit kept Connor toasty warm, but his phone’s readouts showed that if anything it was colder down here than it had been in the stormy winds outside. He made his way along the passage, towards the screams. He passed a room filled with stacks of roped together bone planks. In another were cubes of wet black meat arranged in rows, each of them the size of an armchair. They glistened in the lantern light.

The next room contained more meat cubes, but these were wrapped in layers of brown paper and string, some moisture still soaking through into dark patches on its surface.

Casting the lantern around the corridor, it struck Connor he had only the faintest of guesses what direction would lead him back to the surface.

To Be Concluded…

In the mean time, the further adventures of the Fermi’s crew can be found at Scarlet Ferret and Amazon.