Response Ability

by johannespunkt

for Existential Elevator of the Mercer Box; happy birthday

~

“No, you can’t open that door,” a man told her. He wedged himself between her and the door and slammed the thing shut with a smile. He was missing some teeth and his white hair seemed prehensile. The door was right there behind him. His pupils were of different size.

“You cannot be serious.” The smell of booze rose up from everywhere: the room was large and decorated in red and white. Large banners hung as though thrown in from high windows, where also birds could enter. The place was mostly stone. “When you said ‘welcome party’ I imagined at least one Alien would show up.” Her attempt at pushing him aside met with no success.

“You have to remind yourself: you are the Alien here.” The man grinned. “Enjoy the party. Natives will show up later, when you’re ready for them – in the meantime, you can party like one.” His hair curled up.

She compared their outfits. Herself, she wore the full ceremonial dress of welcome – long ribbons and a dark cope, a silhouette pattern of the mythical beast, small but functional shoes with iron soles. She could feel the weight of her iron earrings on each lobe, and her shoulderblades still itched. This man wore – exclusively – a toga.

She slumped back into a chair that wasn’t there a moment ago. The man relaxed his posture a bit. His pupils synchronized. “It is always pleasant to receive fresh meat,” he said. “What is your name?”

His hair unfolded from the curls and floated outward languidly to where a fly was buzzing. Macro-animals like that had only been theoretical to the woman up till that point, and she stared transfixed at the creature until the white hair snapped shut and trapped the insect.

“Er, Quan Merora,” she said.

“A pleasure to meet you, Erquanmera,” said the man and bowed. His hair parted in the middle to show a surgical scar running along the man’s black scalp. He straightened himself up again. “I am the left, and my name is Demnar Juthuth. I will make sure someone gets you a drink now.”

And he walked away.

Quan took in the room again. Whilst doing so, she got up and sat down again, getting a chair with wheels on it this time. She started toeing herself toward the door in an absent-minded sort of way.

The room was large, and drunk. She had read all about boozeflies but it was quite a different thing to see them inebriate themselves on the atmosphere like this. There were many togas, and to make the place feel more like home – exactly the right amount of chairs. From on high, the banners fell that welcomed her to New Earth.

The most well-dressed woman in the room came toward her. She wore a true ceremonial dress, correct colours and all, though had slung it over her shoulder and tied it around her midriff like a toga.

”Enjoying the ceremonial 30-day party?” the woman asked. She stretched out a foot and pushed Quan’s rolling chair away from the door. This lost her her own balance though, and she overcompensated gracelessly and fell down next to Quan. A chaiselongue materialised just in time to make it seem almost intentional, and no drink was spilled. Quan frowned.

“No, not really. It’s like everybody’s treating me like I’m a child – including you.”

“That’s just because we’re so incredibly older than you. Now, I’m Left Tysicca Monmaroggue and I’m here to raise your spirits, by which I mean blood alcohol level, and answer any questions you might have. Here, have a bunch of booze to make you feel better.” The woman gave her the largest of the two cups she held: an opaque container with a dozen holes around the neck.

Quan held it up to the light and examined it. It was impossible to see its insides. “What is this?”

“Traditional puzzle jug. Makes getting drunk an intellectual challenge. You pour the beverage in here – and then you have to figure out which holes to block to get the booze out of the mouth.”

Quan indulged the old woman and spilled some alcohol over herself. Very calmly she cleaned herself up and put the puzzle jug away.

“I was not sent here to play college drinking games, Left –” (addressed like this the woman cringed and looked away) – “and there’s not a single New Earthling in this room.”

“They’re scheduled to arrive later in the party.”

Quan narrowed her eyes.

She remembered standing at the train station, thinking there were only four waits left, after having conquered surely over ten thousand. The Floor underneath her signalled people to move away from one place. Repeating concentric circles like dropping a stone into a pond meant ‘move away from here’, the inverse of that meant the opposite. The Floor was essentially the god of her planet; storing every action and thought in realtime, reconstructing people in case they go gridless. It was omnipotent and omnipresent and omnibenevolent. When people disappeared, it would always know exactly where they went and it would always take care of them.

Quan had moved according to the concentric circles and the crowd density evened out. She was going to set foot on another planet, and then the train came and she only had three waits left to go.

She had mastered every challenge – every language and dialect, she could write poetry in some; every culturally significant piece of art; every New Earth specific quirk of law – and she had the impression that she was going to step out of the freezedream (awake but unmoving, such were the rules; hence: hallucinogens) and be greeted by the finest of Aliens.

“And instead I get drunken Poodlians telling me there is one more wait.” She exhaled and inhaled again. “Do you know how that makes me feel?”

Left Tysicca stared at space for a while before speaking. “Oh,” she said, snapping out of something. “Yes. It makes you feel frustrated, perhaps even fooled, and for some reason this does not make you want to drink.”

“It’s not about the drink, Left.” (Another cringe.) “…Tysicca. I spent eleven years studying the culture, to become an ambassador for Poodle 2. Eleven years and when I get here all I get is distractions and another wait.”

“Didn’t study enough to know about the traditional puzzle jug of moderate intoxication,” said Left Tysicca and smiled.

“Don’t be cheeky. I’m serious.”

“I know you are. But there are some thing about the New Earth culture that need to be delicately introduced. That is all. And if you’re drunk you will cope with them better. We’ve done this before. It’s been proven. With, like, brain science.”

“Try me. Just say it as simply as you can.”

“No, we can’t just tell you because it’s too deep for direct, curt words.” She picked up the puzzle jug and looked at the holes; put her fingers over five of them and tilted the jug back, draining it. “Like, say you lived in a vegan society. No animal products whatsoever. And someone showed you a slaughterhosue where they, like … slaughter pigs.”

“Yes. This was part of my training, you might remember.”

“We have to introduce the topic slowly with loaded questions and socratic methods, is all.”

“Questions like what?”

“Questions like, well – you know how old people sometimes just disappear? Isn’t that weird?”

“You mean how people don’t just stay in one place? This is kindergarten stuff, Tysicca. Wanderlust is woven into our genes, it’s why we could escape Earth Prime, and now here we are.”

“Right. Do you remember how awful the slaughterhouse things made you feel?”

Quan nodded once.

“This is a hundred times worse.”

Left Tysicca patted her on the head and got up and left. The chaiselongue became air again.

~

She saw Demnar Juthuth the left again, the second day. Someone had given him a second toga and he used it as a hat. “How do you think you came here, even?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, you came here in a rocket, right? The rocket doesn’t have a Floor.”

“No, but I can’t harm myself when in the rocket, as I’m frozen and dreaming during the travel.”

“Yeah, yeah, but imagine … landing errors?”

Quan stared askance at him.

“Eh, I guess that question was too soon anyway. It was worth a try. Gotta make sure we acclimatize you correctly and everything.” He sucked his front teeth and walked away.

~

She was forbidden another drinking vessel. She stood by a machine machine and filled the puzzle jug with roastbean juice until some of the holes in the sides started leaking. She plugged those with balls of cottonlike stuffing and sat down in a nearby armchair. She waited while the party raged on; until everyone else was incapacitated in one way or another.

Her head still buzzed like a hornet’s nest. The door was in front of her and she could just open it. Some moonlight appeared in a slit and grew into a proper rhomboid and the door creaked minimally. She was just moments away from being out there, ambassing, when the door slammed shut in her face. Only the sudden rush of air pushed her back and saved her from a bloody nose.

A man with black hair and nineteen stitches along the middle of his skull – like Demnar Juthuth – stood above her. Draped in a cowl he was not much more than a head and his height. Quan involuntarily squeezed the strong armrests of the chair she’d fallen back into; it was made of thin, curved rods, smooth at times but rough and knobbly at the ends and joints. Their shade went from beige to white. She got the distinct feeling that it was something that had been taken apart and then put back together in a different way.

“What do you think you’re doing, Proto-Ambassador Quan Merora of Poodle 2?” The man spoke old Russian at her, another language she’d picked up at ambassador school. Her home planet, Poodle 2, was unique in its name, unlike the New Earth she was currently being interrogated on. She forgot whether it was the 17th or 71st. She sweated quite a lot, too.

“Just my job, sir.”

“Your superiors and elders have told you to stay inside, have they not?”

“I’m not going to party for 30 days with people who are all Poodlians just to learn the culture here. I maintain that the best way to learn is immersion. Sir.”

A harrumph. “This door will be fitted with a lock and only I shall carry the key. You shall follow the orders. Until the others wake up, you’re not moving from that chair.”

Small beige things like caterpillars, in groups of four or five, wrapped around her wrists and ankles and she spent the rest of the night trying to get loose or dematerialise the chair. The chair restrained her more the more she fought, and eventually she stopped moving with calcium in her mouth.

~

Left Tysicca woke up first. Ambassadors get drunk with difficulty and suffer hangovers with grace. “Not sure who I am anymore,” Tysicca said, “I need a mirror.”

There were still creatures buzzing around inside Quan’s head. She threw her head this way and that and tried to scream through the gag.

“Alright, alright, you baby,” Tysicca moaned, wading through dropped togas. She tut-tutted and read the instructions left by the cowlman. “Stop panicking, I said I’d help you.”

Quan quieted down, growling.

When she got to the end of the note, Tysicca snapped her fingers to disappear Quan’s throne.

“You’re not supposed to try to go out that door,” she said as she helped the Proto-Ambassador up to her feet again. A small mattress had appeared to soften the fall but Quan’s tailbone still hurt.

“Just trying to do my goddamned job.”

Tysicca stared again at the note of instructions while talking to her. “You know, there is a way to introduce you to the New Earth culture earlier. It’s not perfectly safe but it introduces you to them much faster than the 30-day party, in the end. The party might take longer, you know, given your level of cooperatio–”

“The end?”

Tysicca put her hand over her face. “Yeah, we’ll get to that.”

“No, I mean, what does that mean? Just give me the translation.”

Tysicca kept talking in New Earthish. “Do you want the treatment or not?”

~

This chair felt a lot more solid than she was used to. There were tiny spindlepins touching her face and she was told to stay still, to relax, to breathe like somewhere else.

“We’re just doing the scanning now,” the doctor said, “we have to wait a few days for the actual operation to take place. Filling out paperwork and so; getting approvals.”

“Could you please tell me what the operation entails? I have never heard of having to undergo surgery just to cope with some social mores.”

“Oh, it’s not just that. It’s to prevent a …” He hesitated. “Meltdown.”

“I’ve prepped all my life for this. Just explain.” Quan leant forward like she’d learnt in Controlling Situations 203 and flinched back immediately when the spindlepins scratched holes in her cheek.

“There, there, ambassador,” the doctor said. “I will explain the surgery.” He put a hand on her head and aimed a laser to it. “You may have noticed that all the ambassadors tell you if they’re the Left or Right version of themselves?”

“I understood that was the title of a senior ambassador.”

“No no. Nothing like that. We’ve split their brains. What they’ve got is one side of the brain accustomed to the new Earth culture, and another one – a shielded one – native to the more innocent – in some ways – Poodlian culture. Two versions of the same person, if you will.”

She started to move again but he pushed her down into the chair. The laser fired and it felt like nothing.

“It’s easy to switch back and forth. Left ones only speak to Left ones, Right ones only speak to Right ones. All is done with one of these things.” He picked up a sheet of blue metal from his desk. There were some holes in it. “The Sheets. I developed these – I’m an expert in Poodlian neurosurgery.” He sighed. “And we had far too many meltdowns, expended far too many humans on this.”

Quan now had scratches all over her face but at least she was out of that room.

~

“I am not letting that crazy surgeon put a sheet of metal inside my head.”

“Well, then, you’re waiting the remaining 27 days to be let out into the world. I’m speaking as Right Tysicca here – it’s for the best. I’ve seen what happens to newbies who rush the acclimatization process.”

“I’m not like them! They told me when I graduated that I was the most qualified ambassador yet. You’ve seen the papers; you know I’m right.”

“All the more reason to wait and not let that precious brain of yours get fuckfried to bits, no?”

Quan made for the door.

“You don’t want to do that, Quan.”

She banged and rattled and screamed until her knuckles bled and her throat was sore but the door stayed shut.

“You have to understand, these people don’t have a Floor.”

“I know that; I was taught that in fucking first year.”

“No, you don’t understand. Out there, they have no Floor.”

“I don’t know what they use for equivalency but it can’t be that bad. You’re all making mountains out of molehills.”

Left Tysicca frowned. “No, you really don’t get it. Come on, get wasted with me, alright?”

~

It was dark. On a bet, a drunk ambassador had given Quan a pocket knife. She busied herself carving little people out of the plastic cups everybody else used.

She held the first one of them above the ground and dropped it. A tiny cushion appeared, she picked it up before it turned to air as the plastic figure fell off. She tore it apart and dropped all the stuffing and cloth, disappointed. They melted into the “floor”.

She tried again, with a figure a bit larger, a bit bustier than the last one. This one she dropped from a higher point, with its head pointing downward. The seatment produced was destroyed and reabsorbed, once again.

She tried a third time. She cut this figure out with more care, arranging it into an already sitting position by using the naturally angled bits of the cup. The attempt at making tiny eyes and a smile for the figure failed and it had to live with a broken head.

She pushed her own chair away and sat down on the floor cross-legged. She put the little white plastic figure with its feet touching the floor and let it go. A chenille stem, very basic chair appeared. “Score,” Quan whispered.

~

She fashioned a lockpick out of that chair.

~

Demnar Juthuth was the first one to wake up. He felt his hair crawl over to shield his eyes from the sunlight coming in at a weird angle and he started awake, running out of the embassy, adjusting his toga as he ran. He found the proto-ambassador rather quickly.

Quan sat in a square of police tape surrounded by confused police officers. They said they didn’t want to move her in case of diplomatic immunities kicking in. Demnar Juthuth pushed them away and knelt beside the woman. Tears lined her face.

In front of her was a man with most of his brains on his outside. His Sheet was broken, in two. He was dressed in all black and there was no way the driver of the car could have seen him in the middle of the night. Tyre tracks ran from his one arm to his forehead. “Why is he broken?” Quan asked.

They had to operate to save her.

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