I’m back! So are Billa and Victor, and snark, and tea, and alcohol. (Coffee for me, of course, because Panera.)
Read this (if you haven’t already) and then you can segue right into the continuation of that scene, below.
Roughly 1500 words following. As always, bolded words are placeholders for words that sound better, or will once I think of them.
Thanks guys. Enjoy. 😀
Billa had to admit, Toms didn’t bleed like regular people.
Oh, they bled — at least he knew Victor did bleed and ridiculously often. But the blood was greasy, blackish, thin. Damp cloth thrown in kitchen sink (Billa tried not to handle too much) looked like it had scrubbed motor oil off fingers.
Billa had of course heard the joke that Toms were machine inside. Stupid joke and nobody really believed it (though maybe nobody really disbelieved either, and no Tom ever admitted to understand the question), because in either case it was obvious that Toms could feel pain. Maybe more pain than most: always flinching at bright light and sharp whistles, spraining ankles every other week tripping over nothing on a flat floor.
So if they were machines, Billa thought, an engineer somewhere out there should lose his job. Hardly a Tom could hold on to one; Victor had three owners in two years and the worst skid-loading time on record. Billa handed rinsed cloth back to Victor.
Victor didn’t flinch much, to his credit. Even when straightening own broken nose with awful crunch between both hands.
Billa made two mugs of tea.
“Under normal circumstance,” Victor said slowly, eyes shut, his accent grinding off the edges of his words so much that Billa struggled to understand, “for this, I owe you some work … in garage, on your bike, or … I don’t know, what do you want?”
Billa stepped over him (had one leg stretched across full length of kitchen floor, resting the sprained ankle) and waited, holding out a mug.
“Forget it,” he said. “Look at you. You got nothing I want right now. And frankly I could do without more favors from you, in public at least. Just — lay low tomorrow. Alright? Go to Green Street, don’t go to Green Street, I don’t care; just don’t tell me about it, and don’t do anything stupid. Wait for everything to blow over.”
Victor opened his eyes (saw mug, took it finally). “What do you mean, blow over?”
“I mean this incident might go its way and leave you standing — if you let it.”
“At least you got a better chance if you don’t go make situation worse.”
Victor found this funny.
“What is wrong with you? You like getting knocked down by guys half your height?” Billa asked. “What did you do, anyway? Don’t say ‘nothing’.”
“Nothing,” Victor said (of course). He took infuriatingly long sip of tea before continuing. “Nothing but listen to the radio. Be in the room while news was on — working, like I was supposed to, same as every day. Turn on the lights, Gramm turns on the news, work. But maybe today I pay too much attention. They keep sending me out on stupid errands so I can’t hear, so maybe I stand by the door too long, which is disobeying, so they have reason to lash, which is what they want, and everything goes from there. For listening to the radio! What do they think I am going to do?”
“Smash up expensive equipment, maybe,” Billa offered.
“Funny. I mean about the space object. I am miles away from where they said it fell. What do they think I am going to do about it?”
“You tell me.”
Victor spread his hands, looked offended.
“Don’t play dumb,” Billa laughed.
“Nothing,” Victor protested. “I don’t even know what it is. Sure, I know where it came from — where it probably came from, I mean — so does everybody.”
“So?” Billa said carefully. “Even if you’re right, and I’m not saying you are … don’t get your hopes up.”
“Oh, no. My hopes are never up. I am a model ___[indentured/slave-class person].”
“You’re a smartass.”
Victor stared into the middle distance. “Look, I know it’s blown up. I heard so much at least. So what is the harm if I know what it was? What it looked like? What it was doing?”
“I said, don’t get your hopes up,” Billa repeated. “Wasn’t a ship, had no pilot nor even seats for one. No weapons, no wings, no rockets. Didn’t do shit but get blown up before anybody got hurt. Just what they said on the radio.” He paused. “Right?”
“You asking me now?” Victor said.
“Okay, so you’re telling me, a machine falls down from space and does absolutely nothing. Two big jets fly over here for no reason and explode it because why not, and everybody panics all day just for fun.”
Billa rolled his eyes, unimpressed. “So? Heard the saying, once bitten twice shy?”
“So you’re telling me, if I went up on the ridge now and looked around I would just see … nothing? Ash?” Victor asked.
“You’re not going up there.”
“I said ‘if’.”
“Yes. You’d see a fence and border tape around a whole lot of nothing, yeah. That’s the simple truth, for god’s sake[Need more culturally-plausible exclamation. Not sure Getteans have a deistic tradition to be referencing this way.]. They’re not secretly keeping an intact robot up there to play with; they’re not that stupid. When I left two hours ago the whole area was already swept clean. There’s been a team out there since noon collecting all the debris to lock away. It’s all over.”
Their eyes met.
“Oh, come on,” Billa said. “I’m talking about inch-long shreds of bent metal, for god’s sake.”
He wasn’t. He was certain Victor knew this. He watched the Tom carefully. Victor shrugged, and looked vacantly back down into his mug.
“No,” Billa said loudly.
“What’s the point,” Billa demanded. “You want a souvenir? That badly?”
“You think I’m lying to you. I’m not.”
“Whatever is clanging around in your empty head, it’s not worth it.”
“I said, okay.”
“Shit!” Billa said again. He pulled Victor’s mug out of his hands in a desperate bid for eye contact (received none).
“Look,” he said. “I am not going to try to put this politely: look at you. You barely made it out of Green Street alive, by look of things.”
Victor’s empty gaze was back, forcefully so; Billa could almost see his words ricocheting off it. But kept speaking anyway, gesticulating with a half-empty mug in each hand.
“They’ve got a fence up already, and set up camp too, which means dogs — and guns, I don’t need to specify. If you tried to sneak in they’d put you down, wouldn’t think twice. And how do you imagine you’d make it up there in the first place? You? On foot? It’s more than ten miles, uphill. You definitely couldn’t make it there and back before nightfall, even with two working ankles. You’d be stranded over night. Experienced hikers raised on the flat can’t manage an overnight without gear. The beasts would get you two miles in, and save the dogs the trouble.”
“Are any of them your family’s?” Victor asked with attempted nonchalance.
“Any of what?”
“What does that have to do with — no,” Billa lied, vehemently.
Billa sank down on his sofa. He glared at the dregs of tea in his mug — tea had done nothing for his fatigue. Clock showed much-too-late-for-bullshit. Surely every other person in town was asleep by now; some would be getting up (sensibly well-rested) in less than an hour.
His second mug of tea was spiked with bourbon[or some kind of made-up alien cactus spirits, I don’t know]. After a moment’s consideration, Billa offered the flask to Victor too.
“Don’t actually know what alcohol will do to a Tom,” he said, shrugging. “If if kills you, I’ll just broom you out the back and you’ll be someone else’s problem.”
Victor did not seem worried. He raised an eyebrow at the taste, shrugged, and took another drink.
The bat scratched against the kitchen door.
“I haven’t been back to Star Basin in maybe nine years,” Victor said.
“Eight, genius,” Billa said, leaning back on sofa, eyes closed. “Couldn’t be more than eight.”
“I lose count.”
“You should stop admitting you can’t count,” Billa advised.
“I do my best. There is barely any weather here,” Victor said. “The same all year, so how can I tell? No summer. Just cold and colder.”
“Hmm. You got better weather in space?”
Victor scoffed. “Space! Yes, in fact. Sure.”
“Victor,” Billa said slowly, “You know, it’s not that I don’t know you’re bullshitting me. It’s that I just don’t care.”
“You do have shit weather. Not seen rain in nine years.”
“What the hell is r— not nine, eight!”
“I know. Just making sure you are still awake.”
“Yes. And it’s your fault.” Billa set empty mug down on shelf behind head (third try), and finally opened eyes. Kicked legs, hauled himself up. Stepped over Victor again and trudged toward bedroom.
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I have to go to sleep,” he said.
“Sofa is all yours. Blankets underneath.”
“Thank you,” Victor said.
Billa leaned head against door frame.
“Listen,” he said (when looked down, saw Victor was actually looking back up, flickering dog-eyes looking convincingly earnest); “don’t do anything stupid.”
“Okay,” Victor said. “I won’t.”
Billa nodded, shut the door.
And it took almost a full hour of staring (definitely not caring) at the dark ceiling (not his problem), but just before Billa fell asleep he managed to believe, for just a couple of dream-dashed bourbon-scented seconds, that Victor was telling the truth.