Well, okay, it’s a ludicrous number of references compared to my usual fiction, which tends to be either fantasy or set in the Greek heroic period; in both cases, my ability to reference modern culture is between limited and impossible. I’d had references at various places earlier in this year’s NaNo novel, but never to this extreme before. The character introductions from the Missing Letter Monday excerpt and yesterday’s excerpt will be needed to understand who the characters are. Oh, and you need to know that Frank, the pilot, was just returned to them, but due to the odd effects of the air on this island, because he couldn’t be healed in the first week, it will take years for his wounds to heal. (I know, that makes no sense out of context. But it does make at least semi-sense once it’s fully explained. Not that the characters have learned that explanation yet. They may not even learn the explanation before November ends; it’s the 19th today, and they’re nowhere near learning it.) The “stack” in Caesar’s hands is a stack of items that Mel brought when she was accompanying the return of Frank, but there was a bit of a quarrel and she left without explaining what they were. They’re flat, thin, rectangular objects about the size of the front cover of a book from the Loeb Classical Library. (But less colorful. I didn’t specify their colors, but they’re either white, black or gray. Something very dull. No green or red here.)
Oh…Aiko hasn’t come up in the other excerpts, has she? She’s the AI in the computer that runs pretty much everything on the island. (Hence her name “Artificial Intelligence Child”, using the kanji “ko” for “child” while also giving her a genuine Japanese name. It works so neatly that I must have actually encountered it somewhere else and forgotten about it: no way I could come up with something that slick on my own.) She’s only discussed in this excerpt, but I’ll go ahead and quote the description when Ashley first encounters her (while his shoulder still hasn’t healed up yet):
Forcing himself to his feet, Ashley decided he was going to inspect that picture. It was definitely odd somehow. Lurching from one piece of furniture to the next, Ashley made his way over to the wall, leaning his good shoulder against it for support. By the time he got there, the image had changed to a view of the island, this time from directly above, giving a good view of the sealed caldera of the volcano in the center.
“What the **** is going on with this picture?!” he demanded. The frame was nothing special, just a thin, flimsy-looking black frame, without any kind of ornamentation.
“It’s on screen-saver, of course,” a girl’s voice replied, seeming to come from the picture itself. It sounded like the one that Mel had been talking to earlier.
“What the…!!” Ashley tried to step away from the wall, and ended up on the floor.
The girl’s voice laughed at him, and the image of the island faded away to show a girl of about eight years, in a plaid dress with frilly lace around the edges. The girl had very European facial features, pale skin and blue eyes, but long, lustrous, straight black hair, the type that Ashley associated with Asians. From the lacy ribbon in her hair down to her black-and-white striped socks and her platform Mary Janes, there was something about her that just felt off. She was standing against a pure white background — so pure white that Ashley couldn’t tell where the floor ended and the walls started.
“Who are you?” Ashley asked.
“I’m Aiko, of course,” the girl answered, her head tilting to one side. Above her head appeared the letters ‘AI’ followed by a Chinese or Japanese letter. “Who are you? And why are you on the floor?”
“I’m Ashley, and I’m down here ‘cause you scared the **** out of me.”
“You shouldn’t swear like that,” Aiko reprimanded him. “It’s rude.”
Aiko is totally voiced by a Vocaloid, btw. Probably MAYU. (Which tells you a lot, if you happen to be familiar with Vocaloid, but next to nothing otherwise.) Thought I should mention that because it means her speech feels a little awkward and unnatural, but the men hearing it don’t know why, and can’t quite even put their finger on what’s wrong with it. (I think that’s not mentioned until Paddy comes to hear her, or the similarly Vocaloid-voiced menu when he calls the kitchen to order dinner. Uh, not that it would literally be Vocaloid in the far future. Just something like Vocaloid. (I guess that makes them UTAU, lol.) But so I hear Vocaloid speech when I’m writing the dialog of the artificial characters. The menu, btw, got KAITO’s voice. Lucky menu!))
As in the previous excerpts, I haven’t edited this apart from self-censoring the hard swearing, and maybe correcting a few words with squiggly lines under them in the composition window. (Though sometimes words have squiggly lines because they’re dialect, or at least just conversational, and sometimes they’re proper nouns from books I haven’t read so I’m not sure what the right spelling is. *ahem* I’m a bit ashamed of that…)
Warning: this is a pretty long excerpt, and the good stuff is towards the end. But…well, actually, I like all of it. (For once, I was actually forced to — gasp! — describe things! Not that I’m very good at it…) Oh, we’re in Paddy’s head this time, so it always says “Ashe” instead of “Ashley.”
“Hey, you guys are still here!” Ricki’s voice broke into their conversation unexpectedly. Under the circumstances, Paddy welcomed any interruption, even hers. He just hoped that she would finally take the hint and stop flirting with Ashe. “I thought you guys would go exploring right away once the quarantine was up!” As she approached them, Paddy noticed that her outfit looked even trashier than usual, in the literal sense: it looked like she had fished it out of a dumpster. Her flouncy, knee-length denim skirt was covered with a layer of ripped up lace, and her shirt had a faded and flaking iron-on design that was so damaged as to be utterly incomprehensible. The outfit was accented with enormous plastic bracelets, and a large ribbon in her hair that didn’t match a single other part of the ensemble. Either Ricki was the only color blind woman Paddy had ever heard of, or she came from an era with excessively bad taste. Or perhaps both.
“We were gonna, but…” Timmy started, then looked at Caesar, biting his lip.
“Is something wrong?” Ricki asked, looking up at Caesar with concern.
Caesar quickly explained about Frank’s situation. “I don’t want to leave him alone, in case anything goes wrong,” he finally concluded, with a deep sigh.
“Oh, you’re so sweet!” Ricki exclaimed, with a giddy smile. Yes, good. Fix on Caesar. He actually wants your attention. “Anyway, you can just leave him with one of those, and he can contact you, without you having to wait around in case anything happens.” She pointed to the stack in Caesar’s hands.
“You mean these things can act as walkie-talkies?” Caesar asked.
“More like car phones, you know?” Ricki looked at him for a moment, then laughed. “Yeah, I guess those weren’t around in 1970, huh? They were pretty new when I got here, even. But didn’t Mel explain about how to use these?”
“Mel left in a bit of a hurry,” Paddy told her.
“Fled like a coward with a secret to hide, more like,” Ashe grumbled.
Ricki sighed, and took one of the devices from Caesar. “Mel told me she was going to bring you guys these ‘cause you were asking her for books.”
“Those are books?” Paddy exclaimed.
“No, these are…um…I don’t know what they’re rightly called, actually,” Ricki laughed nervously. “They’re kind of based on an early twenty-first century device called a ‘smart phone,’ whatever they thought that was supposed to mean. You’d think something called ‘smart’ would at least have an AI or something. Anyway, the bigger one of these that Mel has, that’s a lot more powerful. This one’s actually not capable of very much. But you can read books on it, and use it to talk to each other. Well, you can talk to others of these, or to the screens in the bungalows. But you can’t talk to Aiko; she won’t appear on one of these, ‘cause they’re so weak.”
“Why are they based on something from the twenty-first century?” Ashe asked, taking one of them from Caesar. “Why not something even later? For that matter, what year is it now?”
“Beats me,” Ricki sighed. “Aiko will never answer that question, and Mel doesn’t know. I’m not sure Aiko even knows. Like, I think it’s been so long since the war that they stopped counting the years. I think these things were created for us newcomers from the past, because they’re simple to use, and don’t take too much explaining. Some of the stuff in the volcano facility is really crazy sci-fi stuff. Like I couldn’t even imagine what they did, much less how to use ‘em.”
“Well, we’d better see to it that Frank knows how to use his, so he can call Caesar if he needs medical attention,” Paddy suggested.
Ricki agreed, and they all trailed back inside the bungalow, picked up the not-book that had been left on the table, went into the bedroom, and Ricki introduced herself to Frank — who looked pleased to see a girl, so he must have been in the field quite a while, too — then she sat down on the bedside and gave them all a lesson in how to use the devices.
“It’s really simple, actually. There’s a lock button on the side here, to keep you from accidentally turning it on in your pocket. Oh, but if someone’s trying to reach you, it’ll still ring even if you’ve got it locked. The twenty-first century kind could be turned off, or so I’m told, but these can’t, ‘cause their power source is, like, self-renewing or something. I don’t know, but I’ve totally never had to charge mine. Anyway, so if you’ve got it unlocked, then you just touch the screen to activate it, same as the TV screens. But there’s only the three icons, see? There’s the talk icon to use it like a phone, and the kitchen icon to order food no matter where you are — but that’s not always good, ‘cause you hafta know where you are, and if you don’t know the name of the sector you’re in, they might not be able to deliver it to you — and then this book icon will let you read any of the books and magazines and newspapers and stuff that have survived.”
“How many books have survived?” Caesar asked, looking at his book-phone.
Ricki shrugged. “Like with everything else, it seems like totally random. But when you press it, it’ll let you search by title, author and keyword.”
“Key word?” Paddy repeated.
“Yeah, like, for example, if you know the book you wanna read involves a shapeshifter, you can tell it ‘shapeshifter’ and it’ll run its search based on that. Oh! And of course you can search by date, too. That’s important, with so much stuff for it to sift through.”
Paddy accepted his own book-phone from Caesar, activated it, and pressed the book button. It brought up a menu, with options that read “Politics,” “Popular Culture,” “Art,” “Science,” and “All.” He stared at the menu for a moment, then turned the screen towards Ricki. “What’s this about?” he asked.
Ricki peered at it, then gasped. “You mean Mel didn’t tell you about that? God, what’s wrong with her? Is she going senile already?”
Ashe took hold of Paddy’s hand and turned it so he could see what was written on the screen. “So what is it?” he asked.
“Oh, Dr. Tanaka cleared you to learn about the ‘70s. So that’s a full account of everything that happened in the 1970s. Uh, everything they still know about, anyway. They’ve got full histories like that for every decade of known history. Though the further you get from your own time, the slower they are to clear you to learn about it. I’m still not cleared past the 2030s.” Ricki shrugged. “So right now, you can read about what happened in the ‘70s, and a few days from now, you can start watching movies and TV from the ‘70s.” She laughed. “Short version is that the ‘70s sucked. But towards the end the movies started getting good. Some of the TV was pretty cool, I guess. I still kinda like Wonder Woman. I used to want to grow up to be like her.”
“Unless there’s something else you needed to tell us about these devices, let’s move outside so Frank can get his rest,” Caesar said. Since he was talking to Ricki, his voice was gentle, despite the way he normally barked orders at people where medical situations were concerned. “You make sure you contact me right away if you need anything,” he added, looking at Frank.
“I will,” the pilot assured him, setting his book-phone on the table beside the bed.
Then they all — once again — paraded back outside the bungalow. Ricki smiled at them all too cheerfully. “So, do you guys want to see the rest of the island?” she asked. “I mean, I can’t show you, like, everything, but I can show you most of the inhabitation zones.”
“Sounds great to me!” Timmy exclaimed. “Is there someplace we can go huntin’, so we can eat meat again safely?”
“No, there really aren’t any animals on the island but zoo specimens,” Ricki told him. “You’d get in horrible trouble if you killed any.”
“But there are lots of birds in the trees,” Paddy pointed out. “They can’t all be the last of their species, escaped from the zoo’s aviary.”
“Well, they shut down the zoo part a long time ago,” Ricki reminded him, “so the animals have been totally breeding since then. But there still probably aren’t any off the island, y’know?”
“That’s all well and good,” Ashe interrupted, “but I want to know if there are sharks around here.”
“Huh? Sharks?” Ricki repeated, staring at him in confusion. “I don’t get it?”
Ashe sighed deeply. “Is it safe to swim in the ocean around here?” he clarified, in a tense voice that told Paddy that he was on the edge of losing his temper already.
“Oh! No, it’s totally not safe in the least!” Ricki assured him. “I don’t know if there’s sharks, but there’s…well, there’s bad stuff. But don’t worry about that: several of the other compounds have outdoor pools, and one of the buildings near the volcano has an indoor pool. So you can go swimming there.”
“Good enough for me,” Ashe said, nodding. “I want to see those.”
“Yeah, you said you were on the swim team, huh?” Ricki asked, beaming at him. Not again!
“I think all of us would appreciate a full tour,” Caesar said, trying to step bodily between Ricki and Ashe.
“Great!” Ricki exclaimed. “Oh…I guess we better invite your grumpy sergeant, too, huh?”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to know we’re finally being let out of here, even if he won’t consent to join the tour,” Paddy chuckled.
“I’ll go fetch him out!” Timmy volunteered. He quickly ran off towards Sergeant-Major Fleischer’s bungalow. Paddy was glad that they weren’t all going over there, yet another pointless parade, but he wasn’t entirely sure that Timmy was the right man for the job…
“He’s just full of energy, isn’t he?” Ricki laughed.
“That’s the polite way of putting it,” Caesar replied.
“It’s cute, but a bit pathetic, like a lost little puppy running after the master that just abandoned it,” Ricki said, with a somber smile.
“That’s a disturbing comparison,” Paddy told her.
Ricki just shrugged.
Ashe was looking at the screen of his own book-phone with trepidation for several minutes before he spoke. “I wonder if I even want to read any of this summary,” he mused aloud.
“There’s some pretty big stuff in the ‘70s,” Ricki told him. “Stuff that comes up a lot in movies and all. Like about Nixon, and…um…disco. Disco comes up a lot.”
“I can see how Nixon would be important, being President and all, but who or what is disco?” Paddy asked. All he could think of that sounded even similar was ‘discotheque’ and he didn’t think that was quite whas she was talking about.
“Disco’s a kind of music. It was all the rage in the late ‘70s. But it crashed and burned in the ‘80s,” Ricki explained. “Once it stopped being hot, it mostly only got pulled out for jokes about the Village People. Oh, that’s the name of a band, one that was like totally gay.”
“So they became the butt of jokes?” Ashe asked, sounding annoyed.
“Well, yeah,” Ricki replied, pursing her lips in irritation. “I mean, you shoulda seen those guys! They were always singing about macho men, and dressing up in these cheesy macho costumes, and it was just so ‘70s that it hurts to look at it.”
Paddy frowned. “I think I missed something. What…what exactly…I don’t quite understand…”
“You kinda had to be there, I guess,” Ricki sighed. “But when you’re cleared to actually watch stuff from the ‘70s, you should totally watch some of their music videos. Then you’ll see what I’m talking about. Heck, just looking at pictures of the band and hearing a few of their songs will tell you all you need to know.”
“I still don’t see what about that is supposed to be funny,” Ashe insisted.
“Well, that’s ‘cause you haven’t seen ‘em yet!” Ricki exclaimed. “Besides, it’s…well, what with AIDS and all, the ‘80s were pretty repressed sexually. Nothing like the ‘60s, like you guys came from. Is it true that people would just hop in the sack with four or five other people all the time?”
Everyone stared at her for several minutes in silence. “Maybe I was going to the wrong parties,” Caesar mused.
“I don’t know anyone who did that, either,” Paddy agreed.
“I know someone who did that once, but…he was a freak,” Ashe announced.
“Who?” Paddy asked, shocked. He was quite sure he knew everyone that Ashe knew, and he’d never heard such a story!
Ashe looked at him uncomfortably, then looked away for a moment. “Um…it was Byron,” he said slowly. “Or so he claimed.”
Paddy’s brow furrowed, and he fought the urge to ask just when Byron would have told Ashe such a story. As far as he knew, Ashe had never even had any contact with Byron before they got in that big fight. Though Ashe never had explained what he had been doing in an alley downtown with Byron, but Paddy had always assumed they had just run into each other by coincidence. Maybe they had, and in the ensuing conversation, Byron had claimed to have bedded Ashe’s sister in some kind of creepy orgy? But she was ten years older than they were, married, and already had a kid by then…
Timmy returned with the sergeant-major before Paddy could decide if it was worth the risk of asking Ashe for more information. Caesar handed Fleischer his book-phone, and Ricki started to explain how to use it, but Fleischer interrupted her before she could.
“I only came out here to see the rest of this island, not to hear you jabber, girl,” he snarled. “So march. Double-time!”
Ricki stared at him with one raised eyebrow, then turned to Caesar. “Is he always like that?”
“Don’t ask me; I’ve only known him since we crashed here.”
“Yeah, he’s always like that,” Ashe laughed.
“There’s no reason for us to still be standing here,” Fleischer growled.
“Ugh, all right, all right, let’s go,” Ricki moaned, then turned and started walking towards the gate in the fence. “If I’d known he was going to be this obnoxious, I wouldn’t have invited him,” she added, in a low voice. Paddy had to fight not to laugh.
As they were walking, Ashe was taking up the rear, walking abnormally slowly. Worried, Paddy slowed back to walk beside him. “You okay?” Paddy asked quietly.
“Yeah…” Ashe didn’t sound okay.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” About that he sounded quite certain.
“Okay. But if you ever want to talk about it — about anything! — you just say so. I’m always here for you,” Paddy assured him.
“Thanks, man.” Ashe smiled at him, but there was something weak, almost frightened about the expression; a slight trembling at the corners of the lips, a mistiness to the eyes…
They arrived at their destination before Paddy could think of any way to inquire as to what was upsetting Ashe so much without upsetting him further.
“Here we are!” Ricki chirped, turning back to look at the group. “Whaddaya think?” She gestured at the vehicle behind her as she spoke. To Paddy, it looked more like a speed boat than anything else; it was pointed at the front and wider at the back, with seats for about eight people, and it had no sign of wheels.
“Are we goin’ boatin’?” Timmy asked, sounding every bit as confused as Paddy was.
Ricki giggled. “No, it has a mild hover power, but it can’t go on water. Just like a hover board!” she added, with riotous laughter.
“What the **** are you talking about now?” Ashe asked.
“Don’t swear at a girl!” Timmy shouted at him.
“So what you’re saying, I assume, is that even though it looks like we should be able to use this to leave the island, we can’t,” Caesar said, ignoring Ashe and Timmy.
“Yup, that’s it exactly!” Ricki told him. “It’s fun for exploring, though. C’mon, everyone pile in!” So saying, she hopped over the edge of the land-boat and took a seat behind the steering wheel.
Somewhat reluctantly — at least on Paddy’s part — they all climbed into the various seats. Caesar quickly grabbed the seat beside Ricki, leaving a dejected Timmy to sit behind her, sharing a row of seats with Sergeant-Major Fleischer. Ashe took one of the seats in the very back, leaving an empty row of seats between himself and the others. Uncertainly, Paddy took the other seat beside Ashe, so he wouldn’t be alone.
“All right, here we go!” Ricki exclaimed, then started the land-boat. Slowly, it rose off the ground, in a puff of air and displaced soil. “Everyone hang on!” Moments after speaking, Ricki turned the wheel, and the nose of the land-boat followed the wheel, then began to lurch forward at a surprising speed, particularly for something that was not, in fact, touching the ground. “So I was thinking we’d start with the zoo, and work our way back here,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Any objections?”
“A zoo does not sound strategically important,” Fleischer commented.
“So no objections,” Caesar laughed. “The zoo sounds fine, right, guys?”
“Sure. I like animals,” Timmy assured them, despite his frequently stated desire to shoot them.
“As long as it’s not those bungalows, anything is good,” Paddy chuckled.
“It should be interesting if there are more weird things like the Calydonian Boar there,” Ashe laughed. “Or maybe that was the Erymanthian Boar.”
“I’ve never heard of that one,” Timmy said, turning to look at Ashe. “What is it?”
“It was one of the twelve tasks of Hercules,” Fleischer told him.
“His name was Heracles,” Ashe growled.
“Oh, god, not again!” Paddy shouted. “Ashe, for pity’s sake, what does it matter if he uses the Roman name instead of the Greek one?!”
“It matters because it’s wrong!” As usual, Ashe was intractable. Why was he so hung up on Ancient Greece, anyway? To Paddy, that was the biggest of all possible mysteries about Ashe. At least he hadn’t given any lectures on the minutiae of the Iliad in the last couple of months…
“Okay, that is quite enough arguing about a lot of dead white men!” Ricki shouted over her shoulder. “I’m going to turn on some music now so you can all shut up and listen instead.”
“There’s no way we’re all going to share the same musical tastes,” Caesar commented, casting a glance at Timmy and Fleischer.
“Yeah, I’m sure not,” Ricki agreed with a laugh. “That’s why I’m going to introduce you all to something new. She turned a knob on the dashboard of the land-boat, and music with a heavy, fast beat began to play. “Pause!” The music stopped at her vocal command. “I want you to play the surviving music of the Village People,” she told the boat. There was silence for a moment, then a chorus of male voices began singing so loudly and emphatically that it caused most of them to jump slightly. Ricki laughed though. “Of course it’d start with this one,” she giggled. “I read a comic strip once that described this song as being about where to go to meet young homosexuals.”
With that kind of introduction, Paddy was almost afraid to listen to the lyrics, but they were so loud — and so clearly enunciated — that he could hardly prevent himself from doing so. But as the song played, he quickly learned that the place in question was the YMCA, which seemed more than a little odd. The longer the song went on, the more the others were turning to look at Ashe.
Fleischer was the first one to laugh. “Well, Mr. I-was-Olympic-swimmer-material, I guess now we know how you met all your boyfriends,” he chortled.
“Yeah, laugh it up, lardball,” Ashe growled, quite unfairly. Fleischer only had a bit of a paunch. “I never saw anything like that going on at the Y.”
“But you actually went there?” Timmy asked. Paddy doubted he even knew what a YMCA was.
“Of course I did! Where else was I going to swim in winter?” Ashe replied. He was starting to sound defensive. Not a good sign…
“It was probably a New York thing,” Ricki interjected. A little late for her to play peacemaker now! “Or maybe that was only in the ‘70s, not the ‘60s.”
“Or maybe pretty boy here is just lying to us,” Fleischer laughed.
“Oh, you mean I’m not as ugly as I am stupid?” Ashe retorted, guffawing.
“All right, let’s lay off the whole subject,” Caesar sighed, “before it gets ugly.”
“Too late for that,” Ashe muttered.
“See, this kind of thing is why I kept urging us to quit the swim team,” Paddy said.
“But I like swimming,” Ashe objected, in a tone that was endearingly close to a whine. “And the coach said I could have — ”
“I know that, but you were better at track,” Paddy pointed out. “You were already breaking records, or at least matching them. Besides, the way the swim coach always looked at you really creeped everyone out.”
“Huh? I don’t remember anything about the way he looked at me.” Ashe looked genuinely confused.
“That was the reason everyone kept encouraging you not to accept the coach’s offer of private training for the Olympics,” Paddy explained. “We were all afraid he might rape you.”
Surprisingly, Ashe laughed at that. “No way that would have happened!” he assured Paddy. Did he mean he would have beat up a teacher the way he beat up Byron? That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, either…
“I’m sure he was just looking without meaning anything by it,” Ricki offered, despite knowing nothing about the man. “I’m sure you look even better in a swimsuit than in clothes,”she added, turning to look at Ashe.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” Caesar shouted.
Ricki returned her attention to her driving, just in time to swerve and avoid hitting a tree. Laughing nervously, she turned off the music. “Okay, it’s been too long since I drove with other people around, obviously,” she admitted. “So nobody else talk until we get where we’re going.”
After she had nearly killed them, Paddy for one was definitely not in a hurry to speak again and risk distracting her enough to actually get them killed. Driving along in silence was better, anyway; it let him notice the sounds of the island. The land-boat made almost no noise, and the rushing of the wind was a low constant sound, not strong enough to overshadow local sounds.
The further they got from the bungalows, the more birds there were twittering in the trees, warbling songs that Paddy had never heard before. The ones in the trees nearest to the land-boat’s path were startled into flight as it went past, launching from the treetops with a rush of wings, but the others continued their songs; they evidently had forgotten any fear of humans.
As they drove along, Paddy turned his attention towards the volcano. It was on his side of the land-boat, and they were driving along in a wide circle around its base. Sometimes he would see the faint ghosts of buildings, half-hidden by trees, as they sped past, but for the most part there was scant evidence of human habitation. The trees remained the same eclectic mix as on the rest of the island, and the scent of tropical flowers occasionally breezed past his nostrils.
After some time, Paddy began to see animals in the forest. Not just the birds in the trees, but larger ones down on the ground. Herbivores grazing in small clearings would look up from the grass and watch the land-boat go past, showing no fear. How long had they lived on this island, isolated from men and predators if a deer or gazelle didn’t run off in terror at the sight of such a large thing passing so near to it?
Eventually, they turned away from the volcano, and soon fetched up in what was clearly an overgrown parking lot. The pavement looked to be poured concrete, rather than asphalt, and it was filled with cracks, through which weeds, mimosa shoots, and a myriad of flowers were growing. Near where Ricki stopped the land-boat was a brick gateway with a wrought iron arch on which was suspended the word “ZOO” in rusted iron letters, though the “Z” had half-fallen off, and was dangling precariously.
“Isn’t that great?” Ricki asked, pointing at the arch. “It’s like something out of Lady and the Tramp or something. Um, or it must have been before it started falling down,” she added, with a nervous laugh.
“Just what happened here?” Ashe asked, as he got out of the land-boat. “Why is everything abandoned? What the hell kind of war was it?”
“War?” Ricki repeated, her eyes wide. “How…?”
“The menu voice told me about it,” Paddy informed her, “the first time I tried to order food. But it’s not exactly chatty. And when we’ve asked Mel or Aiko, we haven’t gotten any answers, except that Mel said the war was over for centuries before she got here.”
Ricki nodded, then slowly climbed out of the land-boat. “Like I said, I’m still only cleared to the 2030s, so I have no real knowledge of the war, either. I get the feeling something must have happened in the 2040s that they don’t want to tell me about.”
“Like the war?” Timmy suggested, hopping down beside her.
“No, not that,” Ricki said, shaking her head. “’Cause, you know, it’s like…this place was a resort for at least twenty years before it was abandoned by everyone except Dr. Tanaka. And this place didn’t exist yet in the 2030s.” She bit her lip for a moment. “I don’t know if the island was abandoned because of the war, or if it was something else. Sometimes I think it was definitely the war, and sometimes I think it was already long abandoned when the war came along.”
“They must have had a good reason if they wanted to leave a tropical paradise,” Caesar said, frowning. “Maybe there was an epidemic, and everyone had to leave because of the slowed healing times here.”
“Yeah, I think that’s probably what happened,” Ricki agreed. “And that’s why Aiko is so, like, uptight about germs.”
“If there was an epidemic, wouldn’t all the animals be dead, too?” Timmy asked.
“Diseases don’t work that way, Johnson!” Fleischer snapped. “Animals can’t catch the same diseases people do!”
“I dunno about that,” Ricki told him. “They say AIDS started out as a monkey disease.”
“Just what is AIDS?” Paddy asked. “You’ve mentioned it before.”
“Um…it stands for…Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome…I think,” she recited slowly. “It’s a sexually transmitted disease, a really nasty one. It started out as a gay thing, but it moved over to straight people pretty quick. ‘Cause it’s also transferred by blood, so it got spread through the, like, druggie community, regardless of sexual orientation. It got really bad by the early twenty-first century, according to the history files. In my time, it was kind of viewed as exclusively gay, even though it wasn’t really.”
“Please tell me you’re not saying that someone ****ed a monkey,” Ashe said, his eyes narrowing.
“Eew, gross!” Ricki shrieked. “No, it was like these guys in Africa who, like, shot monkeys and ate them and I guess they didn’t cook them enough, or got the raw blood in their mouths by accident or something. Of course, eating a monkey is almost as gross as having sex with one, but…”
“Can we stop talking about this before it gets any more disturbing?” Caesar asked.
“Sure, no problem!” Ricki exclaimed cheerfully. “It was getting pretty heavy, huh? That’s no good! We’re supposed to be here to have fun!”
“We are here for strategic information, not fun,” Fleischer said, his voice dripping disdain.
“You’re a real buzzkill, Sarge,” Ricki told him.
“Don’t call me that,” the sergeant-major replied sternly.
If Ricki heard him, she didn’t acknowledge it. She just started traipsing into the zoo, leaving everyone to follow after her.
The interior of the zoo was much less even in its unkempt nature than its parking lot. There were still weeds and flowers growing up through cracks in the pavement, but some of the enclosure walls were almost pristine, while others were falling in decay. “Why are some of them kept up, and not others?” Ashe asked.
“Oh, the robots have been taking care of the animals, and so they keep the occupied cages well serviced,” Ricki explained. “These others were the safe animals that were allowed to roam free.”
“Why let them out?” Timmy asked, peering down into one of the abandoned enclosures. “Why not just let the robots tend to ‘em all?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be very fair to the poor animals!” Ricki exclaimed. “They’re much happier wandering the island foraging for themselves, I’m sure. The robots keep an eye on them, I’m told, and help out if they get sick or hurt.”
Paddy walked up to the nearest well-tended wall, and peered down into the enclosure below. A reclining lion looked lazily back up at him. The enclosure was quite deep — ten or twelve feet — and the area the lion had to wander around in seemed to extend beneath the surface Paddy was walking on, an uncomfortable thought, given the crumbling concrete.
“So, where are the weird animals kept?” Ashe asked, looking down at the lion as well. “This is just a normal lion.”
“Weird ones?” Ricki repeated.
“Yeah, like that giant boar,” Ashe clarified, looking at her. “There’s no way that thing was a normal, natural animal.”
“Oh, the science experiments,” Ricki chuckled. “Yeah, they’re this way. C’mon.”
She led them past a number of empty enclosures, as well as occupied ones filled mostly with bears, big cats and one particularly grumpy-looking rhinoceros, until they came to a very different section of the zoo. Instead of areas depressed into the ground, this area had nothing but tall fences. Beyond one of the fences, the giant boar was eating grass placidly.
“These animals were all products of, like, experiments Dr. Tanaka’s late research assistant conducted,” Ricki told them. “I’m not sure why, of course. Or even when. I think it was actually after the island was abandoned, but I can’t be sure. I don’t know when or how his assistant died, for that matter,” she added, with a sigh. “Mel says the assistant was already dead when she got here, and neither Dr. Tanaka nor Aiko will tell us a thing, as usual. Not that I’ve actually met Dr. Tanaka, of course! But Mel has.”
“Are any of these experiments useful as weapons?” Fleischer asked, looking at the boar with the same measuring gaze he usually used on new recruits.
“Um. God, I hope not!”
“Any of them more interesting than this thing?” Ashe asked, pointing at the boar.
Ricki nodded, grinning. “Some of them are really wild! C’mere!” She started running past the other sections of fence. As he joined the others in running after her, Paddy kept an eye on the other side of the fence, but he didn’t see anything alive over there other than the boar.
They finally stopped running at a section of fence marked off with extra warning signs, yellow boards with text written in a language Paddy had never seen before. In the center of the signs, above and below the lines of foreign text, was a symbol that he was pretty sure indicated that these fences were electrified.
“Stay back from the fence,” Ricki told Timmy as he approached it. “Getting too close is totally a good way to die.”
“Why? Is the thing on the other side going to get me?” Timmy asked, turning to look at the girl again.
Seemingly in response to Timmy’s voice, a growling started from the other side of the fence. Timmy backed away immediately, until he was partially hidden behind Sergeant-Major Fleischer. For a moment, everything was still on the other side of the fence. Then the foliage began to rustle. Paddy peered at the rustling leaves, wondering what was hidden behind them.
That was when the thing jumped at the fence from an entirely different place in the enclosure. Whatever it was, it was roughly human in size and shape, but covered with tiger-striped fur, with a whipping tail, and a face that was more like that of an ape than a man. As soon as the claws on its vaguely human-like hands connected with the fence, there was a burst of sparks, and the beast was flung backwards. It let out a howl, and disappeared back behind the bushes.
“What the **** was that?!” Ashe shouted.
“Nightmare fuel, if you ask me,” Caesar said, shaking his head. Then he laughed. “Weren’t you the one who made the Island of Dr. Moreau crack earlier?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that accurate.”
“What-what was it?” Timmy asked.
“Beats me,” Ricki admitted. “I mean, I guess that guy like combined a tiger and a chimp, maybe? It looks like they got put in the same teleportation device, like in The Fly.” She shuddered. “Whatever it is, it’s stupid as heck. Always attacking the fence whenever there’s anyone out here, and always forgetting the fence is electrified.”
“On the other hand, if it can stand that much electricity hitting it, it’s probably a lot stronger than either a tiger or a chimp,” Paddy pointed out. “We should probably get away from here before it comes back,” he added. “Or it’ll just keep attacking the fence, right?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Ricki agreed, and started walking again.
“That thing would make an excellent weapon if one could only control it,” Fleischer mused.
“Ugh, don’t even think about it!” Ricki exclaimed. “I don’t want to know what that thing would do to a human being if it got its claws on one.”
“That is the purpose of a weapon,” Fleischer pointed out.
“Look around you!” Ashe snarled. “There’s no one here to attack!”
“Then who are those guard robots patrolling for?” Fleischer countered.
“Well…that’s….uh…” Ashe tried to answer.
“They must be leftovers from the war, surely,” Paddy supplied. “If there’s no one left on earth but us, then…” He didn’t want to finish that thought.
“Um…” Ricki started to interrupt, then cleared her throat. “There’s definitely…well…I don’t know, really.” She shook her head. “I know people disappear sometimes. But I don’t know if they’re taken away by something that comes here from the outside, or if they’re taken away by robots working for Dr. Tanaka, or maybe some sinister power living underneath the island and secretly controlling all of us…”
“Morlocks?” Paddy said, trying not to laugh. “Okay, can we all lay off the H.G. Wells novels, please? I don’t think they’re helping.”
Ricki laughed uncomfortably. “It’s just, you know, from everything Mel has told me about Dr. Tanaka, it’s hard to imagine him being the one organizing disappearances and solyent green-style stuff, but…”
Paddy decided he was going to have to look up “soylent green” and find out what the heck it was. It seemed to mean something to Ricki, but it sounded like nonsense to him.
They walked on in silence for a few minutes, until they reached the end of the path. It dead-ended at a much larger enclosure, large not only in its width, but also in height, being at least twice as tall, if not three times taller, than the others. Also, instead of a sturdy wire fence, it had thick iron bars in a wire-fence pattern.
“Do I even want to know what’s in this one?” Caesar asked.
Ricki giggled. “This is the best one of all. I have no idea how he made it, but the thing in here is a real live — ”
Before Ricki could finish her thought, something massive dove down from somewhere at the heights of the enclosure, and streaked towards them. It pulled up just before it hit the bars, turning its body so it could wrap its talons around the bars, letting out a frustrated screech as it beat its wings. The thing had a long, thin beak — no, it wasn’t a true beak, it looked more like a crocodile’s jaw, only more narrow — and its head extended back like a kingfisher’s. The enormous wings that beat at the bars were at least four or five times bigger than the body, and covered with mottled brown plumage, as was the body.
Everyone had jumped when the thing arrived — even Ricki — but she was beaming at them as she turned away from the monstrous bird. “Y’know what that is?” she asked.
“A roc?” Caesar suggested.
“One of the Stymphalian birds?” Ashe suggested, even more ridiculously.
Ricki shook her head. “Nope! That, my friends, is a real, live dinosaur!”
“But it’s got feathers!” Paddy objected. Everyone knew that dinosaurs were lizards, except for archaeopterix, and that didn’t look much like an archaeopterix to him. Now that she’d brought the subject of dinosaurs up, though, it did sort of look like a feathered version of a pteranodon…
Ricki shrugged. “Yeah, that’s weird, huh? Well, you know he had to throw the whole thing together like Frankenstein’s monster, so…I guess he used too much bird? It’s sorta colored like a hawk or something, so he probably like threw hawk, pelican and crocodile DNA in a blender, poured the mixture into a flying dino mold, and ended up with this thing.”
“I don’t think that’s how genetic modification works,” Caesar said gently.
The girl laughed. “Yeah, probably not,” she admitted. “But it’s not like there’s any way they’d get a really real dinosaur here. It’s probably just cloned, like in that movie.”
“What movie?” Paddy asked.
“Oh, it’s something from the ‘90s,” Ricki told him. “It’s actually pretty fun, despite how many people get eaten by giant lizards. But…well, it takes place on an isolated tropical island, and…this is an isolated tropical island…and, um, after a while…I didn’t really feel too comfortable watching it anymore…”
Caesar walked up close beside her and slid his arm around her shoulders. “You don’t have to worry now. We’re here; nothing’s going to happen to you with us around to protect you.”
“Yeah!” Timmy chirped in agreement. “You should move into the empty bungalow so we can look after you better!”
Ricki frowned at him. “I’m not a child who needs to be babysat,” she snarled. “I’ve been here almost alone for a long time now!”
Without waiting for anyone to respond, she pulled out of Caesar’s grip and started stomping away. Once she was out of earshot, Caesar shoved Timmy in the chest, hard. “Keep your damned country mouth shut from now on!” he hissed.
“Let’s just go after her before that thing finds a way through those iron bars,” Ashe sighed. “I’m not really interested in becoming dinosaur food.”
“That thing is definitely not a dinosaur,” Paddy asserted.
“Whatever it is, it definitely wants to eat us, and I don’t want to end up in its belly! Okay?”
Paddy nodded. “Yeah, you’re right about that,” he agreed.
They all hurried after Ricki, but the mood had been soured. It wasn’t surprising that Caesar was mad at Timmy — he was almost always mad at Timmy — but Ashe had snapped at Paddy, and that…Paddy couldn’t remember the last time that had happened! Next time he was alone, he was going to have to check his diary and see when it was, but he wasn’t sure there would even be any examples in the diary; the last time was probably back in middle school.
Yep. Pretty long. But…yeah. Pretty long. (Oh, and despite Ricki’s assumptions, that is a real, live, genuine dinosaur. Got to the far future in the same way the rest of them did.)
BTW, I am having so much fun with Ricki’s wardrobe. I had no idea how much I enjoyed over-the-top ’80s fashion…
Oh, there was a classic Freudian typo in here. On the line
“So they became the butt of jokes?” Ashe asked, sounding annoyed.
At first I accidentally wrote “Ass” instead of “Ashe”, though I noticed before I finished the sentence and thus I quickly corrected it.
Um, speaking of that…were there music videos in the ’70s? I was only five when they ended, so I don’t exactly remember…
Oh, and I didn’t put Soylent Green in Italics with capital letters because Paddy doesn’t realize it’s a movie. (Technically, I do realize there was a book first, but I gather that the book was extremely different, to the point of not even including the famed cannibalism aspect. Having neither read it nor watched it, I have no idea. But Ricki’s probably never seen it, either; she’s going on popular culture references, same as I am.)