Monday, September 21, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter IX

Day Seven

At the back of my apartment was a small network of pipes and wires, hastily yet competently assembled by the ones who brought me to this place. They were interstellar scientists, "naturalists," you might almost call them, experts in whatever they called the abduction of sleeping Earthlings. They knew enough about enough to know how things work, to perceive what it took to keep a human's home running well, to keep its occupant "comfortable." And the proof was not to be ignored, for I had suffered no electrical outages; my water flowed just as it was supposed to, and it was heated to just the right temperature, by whatever crazy alien gas they employed.

And judging by the lack of horrifying issues with my toilet, I presumed that one of those pipes also carried my sewage away. I wasn't especially interested in finding out which one.

Standing there, hearing the low whir of what sounded like a generator, I had to marvel at the efficiency of the work, and the commitment of the workers, who clearly didn't do it out of kindness. And I felt reasonably sure that if they were going to install the washing machine today, as Dayus promised, then they would install it there.

The sun couldn't burn me, but I wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, because I hadn't in a while and because I could, and at high noon such hats are perfectly reasonable things to wear. The pipes made a muffled rushing sound, and I whistled in approval. Keep on rushin', I thought, resuming my circuit of the building.

On the other side, the tower was still there, just as always, a mere fifteen or twenty yards from the front porch. It was familiar now, but it still seemed to resist becoming mundane, as the trees and even the funky fake sky had long since done. The tower - the elevator - the tower was the key. It could never be mundane. It was the end, the opposite, the absolute antithesis of mundane, the pearly ride to outer space, and the center of my latest plan.

I stopped walking outside my bedroom window and saw a spider web, and in a moment I recognized its significance. Here I'd been moaning about being alone, being cut off from all of God's creatures, when all along I'd been accompanied by at least one tiny, hideously eight-legged representative of the animal kingdom. And come to think of it, who knew how many other creepy-crawlers had hitched the same sort of ride! Just imagine what was living in my walls!

Imagine indeed, I thought, shuddering at the notion. If I ever saw one, I might have to call Dayus for a quick extermination job.

For as long as I'd lived in that apartment, the bedroom window had been stuck shut, impossible to open from the inside; and since it was on the second floor, it was impossible to access from the outside. I had never thought about it very much, because it was only ever a problem on hot, sticky, summer afternoons. But now there was no problem. Silently apologizing to my landlord, I grabbed the mesh screen and tore it off with a jerk, then leaned it gently against the wall.

I found the owner of the cobweb huddled in the corner of the windowsill, a small, grey, nondescript spider of the utterly harmless variety. I wondered if he had enough food, and fearing a massive infestation, I quietly hoped that he didn't. But he looked healthy, as arachnids go, so I assumed he was doing alright.

"Little guy," I said, "I'm naming you 'Toto.' I do not care to explain why." With that I returned to the task at hand, tugging on the sliding glass pane. I pulled as hard as I could but it wouldn't budge, until I braced myself against the perpendicular wall, and it slid aside. "This'll make things easier," I said.

I spent the next hour and a half just on the other side of the window, reading comic books and eating tortilla chips in my computer chair, biding my time. It didn't matter when Dayus showed up next, but as soon as he did, I intended to force the issue of my captivity, and seize a little respect. I only needed the tower to come down.

And then, down it came. I could never be sure just how tall it was, but I knew the process took a few minutes, so I didn't bother looking up right away. As a matter off act, I had just enough time to finish an old Spider-man issue as the rim of the platform, and its occupants, came into view. I put the comic down and assessed the situation.

There were three of them; Dayus and two others, probably the ones from the beginning. With them was a small, cubic machine, about the size of an old television set. One of the assistants pushed the box on some sort of futuristic dolly. The three continued conversing for a short time after the platform touched ground, but I couldn't hear them. Just as well, I thought, it doesn't really matter what they have to say now.

The two assistants took the machine toward the back, while Dayus himself proceeded to the front door. This wasn't optimal; I had hoped he would install the machine personally. However, it didn't make a difference. I cleared the desk beneath the window of clutter, climbed on top, and waited.

I heard him knock from the other room, but I didn't answer, knowing he was perfectly capable of letting himself in. I waited, hoping the other two would not be too quick in putting the new contraption together. Peering outside, I saw that the spider web was blocking the upper space of the open window; I reached out with my hand, and broke it. "Sorry, Toto," I whispered, "I'd rather not get this in my face."

Dayus rang the doorbell. The doorbell, for God's sake; when did he learn manners? I rolled my eyes, and then at last I heard him open the door. Tense, I waited to hear it close again, and then I sprang - out the window, down to the grass, and then running, as fast as I could manage, to the platform.

If I could just stand on it, I thought, I could make him take me up. I could force the issue; if they tried to make me move, I could defend myself with my pocket knife. But I had to reach the platform, to do it before they could stop me, or there would be no advantage. I had to run, I had to dive, so I leapt, and I dove - and bashed my shoulder against the force field, which of course had been there all along.

I failed. For a minute I lay on the grass clutching the point of impact, but it seemed that not even the security measures were designed to be harmful. As far as I could tell, the damage barely counted as a bruise. Dayus was soon there, looking down at me as though expecting an explanation. I was angry and frustrated, and for a moment my thoughts turned toward the knife, to make my stand there, but I knew that would be a mistake. The situation could be salvaged with the right attitude.

I stood up, rubbing the sore spot gently, and put on my best wry smirk: "Well, it was worth a shot."

He smiled back. "You really must stop underestimating me, Jonah."

"I won't in the future." I implied the threat, but I half-hoped he wouldn't understand it; further attempts would be easier if he expected less. Of course, further attempts would require further plans, and those had yet to be made.

We went back inside. "My assistants are installing the machine you requested now."

"Oh, that's good. I thought that's what that box was."

"You need only place your clothing inside. The computer will then provide further voice instructions."

"Peachy," I said, as I opened the cupboard where the tea was kept. "Want a drink?"

That afternoon I taught Dr. Dayus the game of chess. I kept an old board on my bookshelf, one that I'd received from my father years earlier. It hadn't gotten much use recently, but I kept it around for just such an emergency as they say. I desperately wanted him to forget the escape attempt, and concentrate on something else, something pertaining to Earth's culture; that's why he was there, right?

Dayus picked up the game quickly, though he made the typical beginner's mistakes. He needlessly sacrificed his pawns, exposing his more powerful pieces and putting them in untenable positions. It was funny, because with his dignified robe and enormous, gnarled head, I could easily imagine him as a legendary grandmaster. For that reason alone, I derived a great deal of satisfaction from beating him, unfair as it was.

I taught him the history of chess, about its origins in India and Persia; how its modern rules and terminology took form in the west, and how it came to symbolize a certain kind of intellectual sophistication. I called it "the Game of Kings," though I was fairly sure that title belonged to polo. But I didn't know polo and we didn't have horses, so chess would have to suffice.

Halfway through our tenth game, I mentioned what I'd seen in the window. "There's a spider on the outside of this building. I guess you guys picked up more than you expected too when you...grabbed me." He said nothing, and I realized that he might not understand the term. "A spider is a tiny animal that makes silk webs, and preys on other tiny creatures."

"I see," he said, guarding his King with a Knight. "Is that a problem for you?"

"No, no. Actually, it was nice to see something from home out there. I named it 'Toto.'"


"Oh, no reason."

"I see." The game was not going well for him. That was to be expected, but I imagined that he, as a scientist, lacked the "military" mindset needed to play aggressively and effectively. Even if I was wrong, at least I could enjoy my advantage for a while longer.

"There are probably other small creatures from Earth in the vicinity," he continued. "Some may even have found their way into the forest."

"Well that would be interesting," I replied. "Maybe you'll have some unintended colonies out there."

"Our usual procedure is to sterilize the chamber with radiation when our experiments are concluded."

"Oh," I said. "Well, that may not be enough. Earth bugs can be pretty tough."

"How 'tough?'"

"They say a cockroach can survive an atomic blast."

"I regard this information with some skepticism."

"Well, I don't know if it's true or not. But all the same, it might be worth your time to study them, too. You know, when you're done with me."

"Yes, perhaps." The lack of interest was palpable.

"Preferably before you blast them with radiation," I added, finishing the game with a rather elegant checkmate. I don't know if he saw it coming or not, but he sure as hell couldn't stop it.

"I think I shall be leaving now," he said, rising from the table. "In the meantime, let me know if these 'spiders' become a problem."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," I said, though I now half expected to find tarantulas under the floorboards. What a planet!

As the elevator bore Dayus away, I flopped on the couch, reflecting on my failure. "I guess I'll go do laundry now."

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