This is chapter 15 on my novel, Foreign. I post a new chapter each Friday at noon. To catch up on previous chapters, you can check out the archives, by clicking here. Spread the word about the story and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog to make sure you get each new chapter delivered right to your inbox. Enjoy!
Through the open doors of the Tielmetran Mass Transit, they could already hear loud music and commotion. A myriad of smells swirled through the door as they neared it. A familiar grease smell wafted through the vents in Mark’s suit and reminded him of some of his favorite hole-in-the-wall joints in Eugene.
“Something smells amazingly fried,” Mark commented.
“Yeah. You’re right.” Justin said. “It reminds me of Papa’s.”
“Dude! It does! Man, what I’d give for some barbecue right now! Let’s hurry and find a place to change our look so we can eat soon.”
Walking out of the routing station, past the first wave of eager venders, Mark started to think about his home again. Justin’s comment about Papa’s made him wonder if he’d ever be home to enjoy the comforts of his previous life. Would he ever see his family again? His friends? How long had they been missing? Was time passing the same here as it was back home or had it been years just in the journey to this place? Would Tammy have noticed that he was gone yet?
Heidi! I can’t believe I forgot about her! I wonder if Justin knows. Should I tell him about what I saw? It might make him lose it. But I can’t keep it from him! Maybe he already knows?
Mark decided to keep Heidi’s fate to himself for the moment.
Outside the routing station, they found themselves at one end of a giant loop on an open platform. The loop had cars driving around it on the ground as well as flying vehicles following the loop pattern above it in the air. Around the loop there seemed to be different sections that represented different types of commerce. They appeared to go both above and beneath the loop for thousands of feet. If they were standing at the six o’clock position of the loop, the cosmetic and clothing area was at eight o’clock.
“Do you think we should walk or take a cab?” Mark asked.
“I’m not sure. It looks pretty far. It’d be a hike, but the less interaction we have, the better off we’ll be. Maybe we should just walk. It can’t be more than a twenty to thirty minute trip.”
The sheer volume and variety of people was hard to take in. Some were walking in large groups, making a ton of noise while others were casually meandering along the loop with a significant other. There were hundreds of cars driving on the loop, honking and screeching tires while even more vehicles flew overhead. The rush of lights and sounds was almost too much to take. With everything vying for their attention, they found it to be desensitizing. They could look in any direction and see graphic images of anything imaginable for thousands of feet. There was no natural light down this far and yet it felt just as bright as day.
Between the routing station and the cosmetics sector was what appeared to be the sex sector. Even just continuing on their path in the loop, Mark could smell many sweet alluring aromas. They were smells he had never smelled before and they gave him a sense of deep relaxation. It was inexplicable, almost like a warm, sweet vanilla, but it had more spice to it, somehow managing to make him excited and relaxed at the same time. The smell was potent, yet unobtrusive. Whatever it was, it was exuding from the store fronts they passed, and it was all over the people who worked in that area.
Mark was totally flabbergasted by the nature of the videos, sounds, and holograms that were being freely offered without having to enter any of the stores. He wondered what more they could possibly offer inside. His curiosity mixed with the intense smell almost lured him into some of the buildings, but his sense of decency encouraged him to continue toward the cosmetic stores. While walking, Mark wondered how there could be such rampant sex in a culture that strictly prohibited reproduction. Surely there would be pregnancies all over the place.
Having resisted the temptation to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, Mark and Justin made their way into the cosmetics and clothing section. By this time, their breathing was a little faster, as the walk had proven to be a workout. As they neared the main plaza of the fashion sector the appearances of people became increasingly eccentric and varied. They found themselves standing in an outdoor courtyard of sorts, surrounded by maybe ten building entrances. Each building was filled with stores that went for at least a few thousand feet up and down. As they gazed at the immensity of the fashion buildings they noticed multiple entryways lining each of the ten buildings. About every 500 feet, there was another set of entry platforms. The number of people coming just to buy clothing and alter their appearances was staggering, and this was just one tiny portion of the entire city.
Standing in the middle of the plaza, they were at the feet of two large impressionist sculptures of a man and a woman. Holographic images of different clothes, hair, makeup, piercings, and body art continuously cycled on their bodies. The building directly behind the statues had a large, bold sign that said “Confident Male” on the front of it.
“Looks like the place we want to check out.” Mark stated.
“Sure. Let’s go for it.” Justin followed.
Clarifying, Mark said, “Now, we are just going to alter our physical appearance on our faces so we don’t look ridiculous outside of these suits, right?”
“Yep,” Justin agreed. “As long as I can dye my hair blue.”
“Fine by me. Let’s just try not to piss off too many people by not leaving a tip. So if we can find somebody to do all the work, then we’ll only make one person mad.”
They entered the building and found an interactive display that said they were on the 447th floor of “Confident Male,” one of the 96 floors dedicated to undergarments.
“Dang. That’s a lot of boxers,” Mark noted. He asked the display where the nearest hair salon was located. It was on the 482nd floor.
“Geez. I hope we don’t have to take the stairs…” Justin griped. The database told them that there were lifts located at the center of each floor.
They made their way through the underwear floor to the middle where people stood in a circular area, some disappearing and others appearing all with a white flash. On their way, they passed more types of underwear than they could have ever imagined. Some of the most memorable kinds they saw included water-cooled briefs and deodorizing jock straps.
There was an attendant by the circular lift who asked people which floor they wanted to go to. Mark told her their destination and they stepped onto the platform. After three seconds, they were squeezed into that familiar white flash and then found themselves standing on a similar lift thirty-five floors higher.
Stepping off, Mark asked Corti, “How can I just take off the helmet of my suit? And is it easy to put back on by myself?”
“Of course. Just ask and I’ll release the helmet. All you need to do to replace it is just bring it into contact with the neck portion of the Tielsuit and I will reseal them together. Just beware that without your helmet on, you will not have 87% of the major functions of the Tielsuit. I will still be active, but you won’t have direct control over my functions and you will not have active translating capabilities or any of the heads up display functions.”
“But people will still be able to understand me, right?” Mark was getting uneasy realizing that he wouldn’t have a clue what was around him without the helmet.
“Yes, as long as they are wearing a unicom, which they should be, because it’s illegal to be in public without one,” Corti replied.
“So will somebody report me if they realize I can’t understand them once my helmet is off?”
“It’s possible,” Corti said. “It just depends on the person.”
Mark had a bad feeling about this whole endeavor.
All around Justin and Mark were people sitting in chairs, having work done on their bodies. This was no ordinary hair salon. Some people were getting body art, others were having hair colored, while still others were having more invasive cosmetic surgery. All of it was in the open, yet another reminder of how little these people cared about modesty.
The room was a large circle, with aisles extending out from the central lift like spokes. Each aisle had people standing in a line with a guide directing people to open stylists. Mark told Justin that it would probably be best to keep their helmets on as long as possible and to request to be next to each other, even if it meant waiting longer for two adjacent stylists to become available.
Their line moved quickly enough. Of the eight people in front of them, one simply dyed her hair color and changed her eye color. The next person wanted a large tattoo of what must have been an ex lover’s face removed from his back. The next lady wanted breast implants while the man afterwards did too. Each stylist had the same set of tools at their station and no request was too complex or difficult. But as they got closer to the front of the line, Mark started to wonder if these procedures would hurt at all. Most people didn’t sound as if they were in pain, but they also didn’t appear to particularly enjoy the process. Each procedure lasted about ten minutes if Mark had to guess. The complexity of the request didn’t seem to make a difference.
The guide pointed Mark to the stylist near the outer wall of the room. She had a perfectly crafted face, almost like a digital composite of hundreds of models. Her hair was long and straight, striped like a zebra. Her flawless face looked to be about twenty-five, but she couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds.
“Take of your helmet, hunk.” She said a in an alto voice that sounded entirely too low for her body size.
Mark stared at her in amazement.
“What do you want to do today? We don’t have all day, you know.”
At her question, Mark realized that he had no clue what he wanted her to do. He had been thinking about so many other things, that what he would get done never occurred to him. Surely he wouldn’t do anything garish like what Justin planned. He decided to restore his normal look.
Taking off his helmet, he said, “I’d like some dark blond eyelashes, some bushy blonde eyebrows, and sandy blonde hair that’s kinda long and shaggy.”
“Zi xul,” she said as he set his helmet on the ground and sat in the chair. She gasped as she saw his bare head. “Qit ete ot ceb talnu?”
Mark’s palms started to clam up. This situation could get really awkward really fast if she kept talking to him. Sitting in the chair, he shrugged his shoulders as she began working on his scalp.
“Ek bon. Can ek das talnu?” she changed subjects in a pleasant tone.
Again Mark just shrugged his shoulders and he frowned.
Just shut up and do my hair, stupid girl! I don’t want to talk!
The stylist made a disgruntled sound as she punched in some information on a touch screen that was affixed to her left wrist. In her right hand she held a device that was the size and shape of an enormous pen. Almost like she was drawing hair on his scalp, wherever she ran the pen on his head, hair sprouted up. Mark felt a light itching sensation but nothing more intense than that. The hair grew to a few inches and slowed to a stop. In less than thirty seconds she had his whole head sparsely covered. She continued to go over his head, filling in the gaps, giving the hair more volume. The color was a little lighter than his natural color, but it would do. Once she felt like he had enough hair on his head, she ran the pen through his hair, putting some natural waves in the hair, giving it a more disheveled look.
After a few minutes she had Mark’s hair looking like it had never been gone. She moved on to his eyebrows, using the pen to draw hair on his brow. He could feel the same itch here, too. Before long, she just had to work on his eyelashes.
She requested, “Apuk oken talnu.”
What the crap is she saying?
After no response, she tapped his shoulder. He turned to look at her and she pantomimed closing her eyes and Mark finally understood. She wanted him to close his eyes. He complied.
She ran the pen along his eyelids and with the itching feeling he had grown accustomed to, hair grew back. He opened his eyes and ran his hands through his hair. It felt perfectly natural. He was impressed. She had done a great job at making him look less like a freak.
The stylist looked at him and drew her pointer finger and thumb across her lips. Mark interpreted that to mean that she wouldn’t tell anybody he couldn’t understand her. At least, that’s what he hoped she meant. So he leaned forward, grabbed his helmet, and placed it back on his suit.
She patiently waited for him to get situated with the helmet and then said, “The standard tip for those services runs at forty tix. Will you be transferring funds through your ziggat account tonight?”
“Um. I don’t think you’re gonna like this, but I uh, I don’t have any money to pay tonight.”
“No,” she said, sure he was kidding. “You think I did that bad of a job? I know I’m still a little new, but I know I wrote in about 125 thousand hairs. Did it hurt? I haven’t hurt somebody in eighty-four jobs. This is gonna kill my streak and then Vero will hear about it. Pollux!”
“No. It’s not that. You did great work!” Mark said, trying to make her feel better.
“Then what was it? Why can’t you pay?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t have any money to pay you.”
“Wait, so you came here, and received my services, fully aware that you couldn’t pay me?” her voice slightly raised.
“Uh, yeah?” he said tentatively.
“You pitscum! Get out of here. Pollux me! Get out of here you filthy piece of pitscum trash. I don’t ever want to see you again!” She tried to kick him off the chair, but her ninety-pound frame was no match for him, especially as he was wearing his Tielsuit. Other people in the room were looking at them, trying to figure out why there was such a commotion.
About the same time, Mark heard a scuffle erupt next to him as Justin’s stylist found out the same unfortunate truth Mark’s had just learned. His stylist was screaming obscenities at him. Some of the words were translatable, but others just came through in their original language.
They hurried to the lift so they could leave the scene before too many people asked questions about what was going on. They asked the lift attendant to take them back to the 447th floor. In the few seconds they waited for the lift they could see an increasing amount of people murmuring about what they had done. Apparently, people are not very rude in Confident Male very often.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Justin observed as they returned to the main floor of Confident Male. “If that’s all that will happen, then I want to do a whole bunch of shopping.”
“Are you kidding? All it takes is for people to start talking about us and there’d be those guys in suits after us in no time. They probably still are looking for us. All it takes is just one mistake and we’re screwed. I want to get out here alive, don’t you?”
“Crap, dude. Yes, I want to go home alive, but think of how rich we’d be if we brought some of this stuff back! Think about it. An alien piece of technology! It would be proof that we actually went here so that people don’t think we’re crazy when we tell them about what happened to us.”
“We won’t get to tell anybody about what happened if we’re not careful. We need to find a way out of this place and shopping for random crap isn’t the way to do that. You said yourself that we need to find the bottom of this place if we want any chance to escape. So let’s get some food and leave.”
“Why do you always have to be so right and so lame?” Justin whined.
In the cosmetics plaza they found another directory that listed where everything was. It showed the main restaurant area to be directly opposite from them, across the whole loop.
Justin said, “Well that sucks. I ain’t walking that. It’s like a good three miles if we walk straight through the loop, more like five or six if we actually follow the loop.”
“What else can we do?” Mark asked.
“We can take one of those cab things.”
“Yeah, but don’t those cost money or require tips? either way, we can’t give the driver anything. And then we’ll be stuck in a car with a pissed off driver. That doesn’t sound like a good idea at all.”
“So you’re fine with walking like five miles? Do you realize how long that would take? Especially because then we’d have to walk back to the main routing station after that? We’re talking like three hours of walking. By the time we eat and do all the walking it will be like the middle of the night. We’ll be exhausted.” Justin did not want to compromise about this.
“Fine, we’ll take a taxi thing. But you’re doing all the talking.” Mark gave in. “How do we even find one?”
“Relax. I can talk. We’ll be fine. I have no idea how to find one. Let’s see what other people do.”
They walked to the edge of the fashion plaza and stood near the loop as people passed them on their way in and out. There were cars parking, driving up from the loop, and also many landing from all directions. A couple exited a midrange looking vehicle ten feet away from Mark and Justin. Before the door of the vehicle closed all the way, Justin was right up at the aircraft, with his hand in the door, asking the driver if he could take two people to the restaurant district. The driver said his customary fare was ten tix per mile. Justin told him that would be fine. Mark hoped the driver would also be fine with zero tix per mile because that was all he would get. After agreeing to the price, Justin climbed into the vehicle and motioned for Mark to come along too.
Sitting in the middle bench seat of what felt like a flying minivan without wings, the large side door closed from above. The transport gently lifted off the ground and floated toward the other side of the loop. As they put more distance between the vehicle and the platform, Mark had an increasing sense of foreboding. If they made this driver angry right now, they’d be completely at his mercy. There’d be nowhere to go. They’d be trapped in mid air, inside his flying minivan. Mark just had to hope that he wouldn’t ask for his money until they landed at their destination.
The vehicle gained speed as they entered the hectic traffic pattern. They were surrounded by other flying cars. There were lanes above and beneath them as well as to either side. Mark wondered how the driver would know if a car were under him or not. Changing lanes up and down seemed a lot more difficult than left or right yet the driver navigated through the traffic with confidence and ease.
As he got into a cruising speed in a lane without many drivers changing into or out of it, he became more social.
“So, uh, what sector do you guys serve in?”
Even though Justin wouldn’t be able to see it through the helmet, Mark glared at him.
Justin nonchalantly responded, “The Imperial Plaza.”
“Nice. So you guys must be pretty good, eh?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“I’ll say! It’s what, only the top 2% in the force who work up there?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Justin confirmed.
“Do you guys work in the same building or division, at least?”
“We…we both work in the Imperial Hall of Records.”
Mark was getting more uneasy by the second. He was convinced that this guy would ask Justin a question that he couldn’t answer, and his lies would become totally obvious. But so far it hadn’t happened. Justin was holding his own.
“Get out! My uncle has served in the IHR for the last fourteen years!” The driver exclaimed.
“Oh… That’s cool.” Justin faltered a bit.
“Yeah. I’m sure you guys know him. After all, there are only six Tielguards assigned up there.”
We’re screwed! I knew this was a bad idea.
“His name is Zoelle. This is wild! I can’t believe I actually just randomly ran into you guys like this. What are the odds?” he asked.
“Pretty slim, I’d have to guess.” Justin answered as he exchanged a nervous glance with Mark.
“What did you guys say your names were? I’m sure Zo’s told me about you guys before.”
“He probably hasn’t,” Mark interjected. “We’re pretty new there actually.
“That’s odd. He’s never mentioned any new additions to the team.”
“How often do you talk to your uncle Zoelle?”
“Probably once a month or so. We usually meet up for drinks down at the Midbar Tap. I still didn’t catch your names.”
“Oh yeah, sorry. I’m…uh, Zazil and this is Zeist,” Justin recalled the names of the two guards they had assaulted earlier.
The driver turned back at them. “Funny. I’ve never heard him talk about a Zaz or a Zeist.”
“As I said,” Justin’s voice was firm. “We’re new to the team.”
“Even still, I’m going to call Zo because he’ll want to know that he’s got new partners.”
Mark stepped in again, “That’s not necessary. He’ll get to know us soon enough. Besides, I think he could be working right now.”
Instantly the driver turned his head around. “Alright. Cut the Poll. If you pitdwelling bastards don’t tell me who really are I’m going to call the Tielguard and have them sort this out.”
Justin spoke up, “No no no no no. It’s cool. Just relax. You’re right. We don’t work in the IHR.”
Still staring at them, the driver said, “You bet your ass you don’t. In fact, I think I will call the Tielguard right now. I don’t like where this is going.”
He turned back around, reaching his hand for a control panel on the dashboard. Although he didn’t see it, both Mark and Justin saw the rear of the slowing car in front of them crash into the front of their vehicle. All three bodies lurched forward as metal ground against metal, and the front windshield shattered. The driver’s head slammed against the control stick since he had been leaning forward at the moment of impact.
With the stick lodged into the driver’s left eye socket, the weight of his head forced the stick forward, propelling the aircraft into a dive.
For chapter 16, click here.