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Karat Cake

by Terry L. Mirll

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Karat Cake: synopsis

Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.

Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.

part 1

The jagged gash in Frank Williamson’s right forearm was already showing signs of sepsis. Under his breath, he cursed himself for not taking greater pains to prevent infection, but there had been no time. Still, he knew he had already made a crucial mistake. Sloppiness would only get himself killed. If he started off this badly, he dreaded how it would finish.

As he drove, he dabbed the last of his antibacterial ointment into the wound, then wrapped the makeshift bandage around his forearm once again. It hurt, throbbing like a sunabitch.

The scooter, a rental from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, hovered at a pathetic ten centimeters. Roadworthy, perhaps, but only in the most generous sense of the word. Still, the roads to the western sectors were relatively smooth, so he could drive at max and retain full clearance.

But with the goons from Ouroboros Corporation gunning for him, he decided to stick to the secondary thoroughfares and stay off the Centaxisways. That meant taking the longer route, but it was the only way of keeping the Grunts off his tail, who even now were most surely on the prowl for him.

The very thought was unsettling. The road, he told himself unconvincingly, focus on the road. You’re leaving your troubles far behind.

He could have rented one of the pricier models, something faster and more reliable, but with anonymity his only ally for the moment, he had opted instead for the cheapest — and thus the most common — transport available. No frills whatsoever. A bench seat for two but topless, not even thermal deflectors to shield him from the blistering sun. He dug around in his pack and broke out his sunshades, along with his old pith helmet, as he set out to District 17, destination Nutrisynth.

Squinting even with his shades tuned to their most opaque setting, he wondered why the DMV never allocated funds for PM these days. The scooter had a malfunctioning Gibbs regulator between powerlink and drive train, so a lousy hundred and fifty kph was all he could do. The engine popped and sissed like an egg frying upon a rock.

Eggs, he thought. How long has it been?

Worse yet, he found he had to stop every fifty to a hundred kilometers to bring the energy reserves back to specs. It was slow going, a waste of time when he had no time to waste. He had already driven the better part of thirty-six hours with no sleep, and there was still a long way to go.

Just as he reached the outer rim of the Atlanta impact crater, he spotted a hitchhiker walking along the stall lane. It was a perfect opportunity. He stopped to offer him a ride.

He preferred to ride alone, but he also realized that the Grunts from Ouroboros likely had orders to look for a lone driver. Fortunately, there was one immutable truth concerning Grunts: they were dumber than a sack of hammers. A driver plus one would simply never register in their pea-brained heads.

And besides — and this took him a moment to admit to himself — he could use the company. The frequent stops plus getting passed on both sides by vehicles he should have left choking on ions got the better of him. The hiker could help him pass the time, maybe even help with the driving so he could sleep.

Still, there was one drawback: he would have preferred picking up a human. No such luck.

The alien, hearing the scooter approach, turned, flashing a holographic magnification of his hand in a graceless and much-too-literal attempt at thumbing a ride. The driver winced: bright blue skin, six fingers, tandem thumbs. A Tellurean, obviously, from one of the laborer castes.

Even as he slowed, reluctantly opening the passenger door and nodding at the outworlder, the little voice that had spoken so convincingly of picking up a driving partner suddenly turned sour, grumbling a low warning that the smart thing to do was to keep on driving. He chalked the feeling up to his usual disdain for Tellureans. Odd, smelly creatures, annoying as a dripping faucet in the dead of night.

“Oh, I thank you, human, from the very depths of my ho’ndiss,” the alien said congenially as he climbed unsteadily into the passenger cubicle. “I shall sing a tiklaa in your honor.”

“Don’t trouble yourself. Really,” the driver said, and meant it. Tellureans were widely known as the worst singers in the galaxy. They could make rocks cover their ears.

“Oh, but I must,” the Tellurean replied. “His Great Beneficence Razhdha-ka will never forgive me for slighting you.”

So, he closed his eyes — but for the unblinking third one in the middle of his sky-blue forehead — and raised his hands, palms extended to the north.

This was not the magnetic north, mind you, where a compass points, but to true north. Tellureans could always find true north, no matter what planet they inhabited. How remained a complete mystery. Not even the Tellureans could explain it.

At any rate, Tellureans believed true north to be more or less the direction of Razhdha-ka’s heavenly troika of transcendence — or whatever the hell superdimensional conveyance his high-mightiness purportedly puttered around in. As the hitchhiker opened his mouth wide to sing, the driver plopped a hand firmly upon the alien’s shoulder. It felt squishy.

“Far be it from me to get on Razhdha-ka’s bad side,” he said, “but aren’t you forgetting something?”

For a half tic the Tellurean looked confused. Then his eyes, all three, flashed in understanding. “Forgive me, human,” he said as he reached deep into his robe and extracted a green thermoplastic plate. Tapping it gently against the reader at the scooter’s center dashboard, it leaped from his hand, suspending itself in space a centimeter from the console.

There was a static crackle, and then a voice buzzed, female. A grainy holographic image effervesced into the open space above the dash. “DMV” she said unenthusiastically. “State the nature of your com.”

The driver placed both hands on the wheel, wrapping his fingers tightly around the cracked, Lucite grips. He took in a deep breath. Here goes nothing.

“This is Citizen 49-A-726JP, first name Franklin, last name Williamson, en route from D1 to D17,” he said. “Travel Authorization 44-78-2158-07-31, aboard DMV-SC1701-C, offering transport of xenomorph, Tellurean. Sending data file now.”

“Hold for authentication,” the woman said, disappearing off-camera. A long pause, too long, with only a few hushed words here and there to indicate the data transfer hadn’t been disconnected. He listened carefully, just able to make out two, maybe three DMV wonks in low-key debate with each other. He froze, his heart tingling with adrenaline. So soon?

No, he decided. Not possible. He had rented the scooter easily enough, the ID configuration going through with no hiccups whatsoever. He looked at the Tellurean. Maybe there was something fishy about the alien’s data file. A forgery, perhaps. Lots of those lately, after Central Command’s decision to increase the restrictions against outworlders.

But then he distinctly heard someone say “doughnut,” and heaved a sigh of relief. Yeah, the glory of working for the DMV.

After a moment, the woman returned. “Passenger cleared for transport. Do not discuss religion, baked goods, or sports, otherwise have a nice day.”

“I thank you most sincerely,” the Tellurean replied, yanking his card from the dash and returning it to the folds of his robe, which bore a glittery, quasi-paisley pattern thoroughly unpleasant to human eyes.

“Whatever,” said the DMV rep.

As Frank tilted the superconductor forward and pulled back onto the fare, the Tellurean turned towards him, smiling a goofy, toothless smile, his face like a squid posing for its prom picture.

He could feel the Tellurean’s eyes locked on him, but gave no response. He could hardly blame the alien for staring — there was little to see along the secondaries. Just the impact crater in the distance, some hundred kilometers in diameter, and the blackened, scorched rings from the blast waves that had destroyed the surrounding countryside. Not a tree in sight, only a little grass here and there, and certainly not any crops, just kilometer after kilometer of dry, baked earth, untouched and useless under the scorching sun. Aftermath of IFFs.

“And now, my most kind benefactor, for that tiklaa I promised you,” the Tellurean said. Inwardly, Frank moaned.

Resuming his previous posture, the Tellurean began to sing, emitting a nasal wheeze like an oboe played underwater. Frank winced at the annoying resonance that seemed to latch onto the rear of his medulla oblongata and gnaw its way into his cerebellum. He began to count the ways he hated Tellureans — why, for Pete’s sake, had he offered him a ride?

Ka razhdha, ka tiklaa-dj,” the alien sang in atonal reverence. “O yami g yami-wat’, g yami human benefactor, o tikloi da tiklum.”

This went on a good ten minutes. Frank fought the urge to scream.

Miraculously, though, he held his tongue. No sense in kicking up a fuss. When a Tellurean felt obliged to sing a tiklaa, there was just no stopping him. He was going to sing Frank’s praises even if it caused them to veer off-fare and plow right into a ditch.

Which, rather obligingly, they did.

The instant they left the fare, the hoverglide interface went off-line, and the scooter tapped bottom, kicking up a cloud of dust and wild grass. Momentarily blinded, Frank fought with the wheel, in a sudden cold sweat at the thought of overturning. His life flashed before his eyes, a concatenated series of failures and worthless undertakings. The scooter bounced off the ditch’s lee side and skidded another half dozen meters along the hard, unforgiving earth.

When Frank and the Tellurean finally came to a halt, they sat in silence as the dust settled. Then, right on cue, the Tellurean decided to get on Frank’s nerves again. “Goodness me!” he said. “We praise you, o Razhdha-ka, for sparing us from harm!”

“Call me ungrateful,” Frank said, wiping the dust from his eyes, “but I’d be more thankful to Razhdha-ka if he’d taken the trouble to keep us on the fare instead of allowing us to plow nose-first into a ditch!”

“It is not for us mere mortals to question the wisdom of Razhdha-ka, o Franklin, Son of William,” the Tellurean replied. “The Scribes of the Three Lost Cities tell us that purpose is the very foundation of the universe. Even the most trivial of events have an underlying significance. We must trust in Razhdha-ka, for his wisdom is infinite, praise him.”

Frank felt a trickle of blood upon his wrist and realized his bandage had come loose, allowing the gash in his arm to open up again. He muttered a curse as he wrapped the bandage once more around his arm. “Spare me the Sunday School lesson,” he said. “The lady at the DMV told us not to discuss religion.”

The Tellurean smiled as warmly as that flimsy excuse for a mouth would allow. “Forgive me, human benefactor, o Franklin, Son of—”

“Frank will do.”

“Then, forgive me, o Frank. My intent was not to discuss religion but to apprise you of a universal truth. In a purpose-filled universe, there is purpose in everything. It does not matter if we are unable to discern it. The Scribes assure us: even the deepest tragedy is a part of the divine good.”

Frank felt dizzy, his forearm throbbing in hot waves of pain, but he had at least managed to stop the bleeding. “Oh yeah?” he said. “So, tell me, o — Say, what’s your name, anyway?”

“I have failed to inform you? Forgive me once more, o Frank. Most humbly, I offer you my appellation. It is:
Dipphatmensatur[pop]ranjkopalivracksyhu’hu’men[pop][click]jurneeprohnohosticla-ka, Fifteenth Tellur, Clan of—”

Frank stopped him. “Sorry I asked,” he said. “I’ll never be able to remember all that. How about I just call you ‘Dippy,’ okay?”

The alien wobbled his head, rocking it from side to side, the Tellurean way of nodding in assent.

“Dippy shall I be to you, then, o glorious benefactor Frank,” he said, his voice tingling with a hint of pride. “To bless me with an earthname you have done me great honor, and I shall strive to be worthy of it. I shall compose a new tiklaa—”

“Sing one note, and I’ll bash your freaking skull in!” Frank said. He climbed out and began to look for damage. The front rim was banged all to hell, and the hover plate was torn loose on one corner, but all in all the scooter was still roadworthy, provided he could just get it back to the fare and power up the hoverglide again.

“Okay, Mr. Blessed-as-Dippy,” he said. “Why don’t you haul out of there and help me move this hunk of junk?”

As he climbed stiffly from the driver’s cubicle, he realized that at some point after skidding off-fare he had lost his pith helmet. He searched the ground for it, paying no mind to Dippy climbing out of the scooter.

Finding his helmet behind a small tuft of brown, dry grass, he turned, where he froze in disbelief. Dippy was carrying the scooter in his bare hands. He hauled it to the stall lane, handling it like a box of kittens.

Frank let out a low whistle. He had heard that Tellureans were strong for their size, especially among the laborer castes, but this was the first time he had ever seen it for himself. He was loath to admit, it was impressive.

Not that he would ever express his admiration to the Tellurean. Just one word of compliment, and the alien would start composing more tiklaas to beat the band. Then the only thing left for Frank would be to kill himself.

“All right,” Frank said. “Let’s see if we can get back on the fare.”

They climbed aboard the scooter. Crossing his fingers, Frank tapped the ignition interface, but as he slipped the superconductor forward, the car lurched about half a meter before dropping to a dead halt.

“Oh hell!” Frank muttered.

“What do you suppose is wrong, o Frank?” Dippy said.

“Goddamn magnet quench, that’s what’s wrong, o Dippy,” Frank said. “We’re now riding in a DMV-issued paperweight.”

“Paperweight?” the Tellurean echoed.

Too steamed to explain, Frank climbed out, opening the rear bonnet, where he found a tool kit, standard issue.

To his surprise, Dippy had already opened up the front access panel, waiting patiently as Frank approached and reaching out to take the kit from him. With swift, confident movements, he set out repairing the engine. With two opposable thumbs on each hand, he displayed a degree of dexterity that Frank found bewildering.

But when Dippy took another tool into his free hand and began to work with the two simultaneously on separate areas of the engine, Frank found himself genuinely dumbfounded at the alien that had previously climbed so unsteadily into the passenger seat, now working so quickly and effectively. The Tellurean might have suddenly channeled the spirit of a Level III hovercraft technician.

“The damage appears none too severe,” Dippy said. “There are a number of linkages that have come loose, bless me, but the few components that are beyond repair can be easily bypassed. Further, once I tighten the loose connections, perhaps we shall enhance the vehicle’s performance. If we are successful, we shall praise Razhdha-ka.”

“Uh-huh,” Frank said. “And if the repair doesn’t take?”

“We shall still praise him. Then, we shall beg forgiveness for failing him. After that, we praise him again.”

“This religion of yours seems to require an awful lot of praising.”

“An awful lot is never enough, in the face of such divine beneficence, goodness me.”

He worked another few minutes, then smiled and closed the panel. “I believe we are roadworthy again, o benefactor Frank,” he said.

Frank remained skeptical, but as they climbed aboard he hit the ignition screen once more, and the engine roared to life. The scooter rose a good half meter. With clearance like that, they could double, maybe even triple their previous speed. The energy reserves shot up, nice and level, with no negative deltas.

Frank slipped the superconductor forward, and in thirty seconds they were passing traffic on both sides. For the first time in days, Frank began to feel at ease. He whipped a pipette from his pocket and lit up a smoke.

He decided to re-examine his feelings about Tellureans.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll

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