Dr. John Smith and his young guests dined beneath the stars. Not that they were were eating outdoors. Even if it weren’t twenty-five below celsius; even if it weren’t only half past ten in the morning, Ross Island wouldn’t know true night again for another six months.
The Physician’s clear glass dinner table hung high above a world of seas. Only one true continent marred it: a bowl of dense forests and marshlands that looked up at the children like the eye of a cyclops. The rest of the planet was fringed with archipelagos—veins of white sand and trees that stretched in all directions over the horizon. Two sunsets broke over each hemisphere, colliding at the equator like waves in the ocean.
“So, what do you think of the planetarium?” the Physician asked from behind his empty, sparkling clean plate. He hadn’t eaten anything all meal, for which the children were mostly thankful. A fat broach shaped like the offspring of a cockroach and a fish was pinned over his breast. It muted his song completely, which Allison greatly appreciated, even if it made the Physician seem like even more of a walking corpse.
“It’s great!” Billy chirped, cheeks bulging with what the Physician had insisted upon calling “chicken nuggets”, but which in reality mostly resembled furry mammalian crickets.
Arnold glanced down nervously at the sea far below. Their seats were floating, legless bar stools. As far as his inner ear was concerned, there might as well not have been a floor at all.
“…If I fall off my chair, will I die?”
The Physician emitted a burst of canned laughter.
“Only if you teleport the floor away.”
That didn’t help.
The table was laden with dozens of different dishes, and not one did the children recognize, Allison included. Tiny explosions encased in glass cubes. Blue and red slugs that rutted together in a bowl, sweating a purple sludge that was apparently meant to be rubbed on your teeth. Canisters of an oddly viscous, neon gas: when Billy cracked one open, it settled around his skin like a pulsing glove for a few seconds before evaporating again. Despite it never going near his tongue, the boy had described it as tasting of cheese and citrus. There was also soda water.
“Do try the crystal-cakes, kids,” the Physician suggested, pointing to a platter of what looked like cupcakes embedded with shards of broken pottery. “Got the recipe from a planet called Zyrgon1. Amazing food, trousers that would take your eye out. Had to substitute some of the ingredients, though. Probably for the best, the original recipe made base stock humans sort of… glow drunk.”
The children did not eat the cakes.
The Physician’s torso twisted and bent, bones and ligaments cracking until he was looking down at the planet. “That’s my home down there, you know.”
“Huh,” said Mabel, trying to keep her eyes focused down instead of up towards the infinite waste of strange stars. They made her feel small, tinier than the finest grain of sand on the ocean floor. “I didn’t think it’d be blue for some reason.”
“Oh, the atmospheres aren’t too dissimilar,” said the Physician. “You’d die of nitrogen poisoning and about a dozen allergic reactions if you visited, but plenty of that oxygen stuff you humans like so much.”
“What’s it called?” Arnold asked.
Arnold laughed. “Aww, don’t…” The boy quickly checked if his mother was in the room. “…Fuck with us.”
“I had no intention of—” The Physician remembered that word had non-literal uses. “Oh. I’m quite serious.”
“You’re trying to tell us your planet just happens to be called Earth?” asked Mabel.
“He’s saying the name means earth,” Allison explained. “It’s actually—” The girl made a sound like she was gargling galladium.
Still bent sideways at the waist, the Physician golf clapped. “Very nice, Allie. I couldn’t have done better myself with only one throat2. She is right, though, pretty much every planet with people on it had a name that means ‘earth’ or ‘ground’ or if the species is really creative: ‘here’. There’s a reason most translators don’t bother with the world-names, it makes conversation terribly confusing.”
“There’s not many lights down there,” remarked Allison. “Do you not have cities?”
“Very few that are visible from the surface, certainly,” the Physician said. “My people moved into the seas, oh… when did your last ice age end?3
Around then. Still have the odd contrarians scrabbling in the sun, but the real action back home is in the water.”
The Physician made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, the finger curling inward like a snail in its shell. The table swooped down into “Earth’s atmosphere”, Arnold clinging white-knuckled to the table’s edge the whole time.
The view settled a hundred feet above the continent’s west coast. A city lay in quiet ruin below the table. It looked somehow misplaced. The terrain was thick, steaming jungle, but the architecture had clearly been designed for somewhere much dryer. Low, thick walled domes of soiled sandstone, half sunken in decades and centuries of mud. Lofty sunshades were impaled by tree-branches and withered by time.
“The continent wasn’t always so wet,” the Physician explained. “Then the climate shifted, and the morphological revolution started, and I guess we went a bit nuts about the whole water thing. Outside forces and all that.”
“Outside forces?” asked Allison.
“A passing goddess. We have all sorts of names for her, but the comparative religion people call her the Rainbringer. Four of my fathers were very devout. Took me to every offering.
“Not quite sure how she managed it, of course. The dominant theory is that she diverted a comet into our gravity well, burned it into liquid water. Some of the more religious ones tended to think she just wished it into being, of course. Religious types like that sort of thing.”
David felt funny hearing that. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just hearing Lawrence’s friend (or whatever) take the idea of a goddess for granted. Maybe it was what he was. What his mother and grandfather had been.
The boy decided to change the subject, to keep the thought from rattling in his skull. “So, you don’t just work for the Aussie freak-finders?”
Arnold thought the word “Aussie” sounded odd coming from David’s mouth. And not just because of the mutant French accent. He kind of liked it.
Arnold scowled. “So you’re a traitor.”
The Physician grinned, or maybe just bared his teeth at the children. “And how would that be, Arnold? I’m the least Australian person on this entire planet, and that includes Herbert Lawrence. I wasn’t born in Australia, I’m not a citizen, and I’ve certainly never applied for any visa.” The Physician finally realigned his body, cracking and grinding like a stick trapped in a garage door. He swept his arms up at the counterfeit sky as they soared back into space. “I don’t even live there most of the time.”
“Ross Island is Australian land,” Allison interjected.
The Physician sharply swung his head from side to side, his face still and false as a laughing clown game at a carnival. “I don’t see any other Australians around, do I?” The Physician looked back to Arnold. “Besides, Arnold. Arn. Are you really telling me you’re a loyal little Aussie? After what they did to you? To all your friends?”
“Aren’t all these countries annoyed you’re working for everyone?” Billy asked, saving Arnold from having to figure out what he actually felt.
Another burst of suspiciously static laughter. “I don’t tell them, boy.”
Mabel stared at the Physician in disbelief. “But—but spies! Haunt said the big countries spy on each other all the time!”
“That they do, Mabel,” the Physician answered. He leaned forward across the table, his neck stretching out like a rusted slinky. When his head was over the hors d’oeuvres, he grinned around at his guests. “The trick is to not give everyone the same swag. The paranoiacs in charge assume everyone else has some secret weapon anyway, so they never put it together.”
What little faith Mabel had in the powers that be evaporated. They couldn’t even be evil effectively.
The Physician continued: “Think about rock-paper-scissors for a second. Every move beats and is beaten by one of the others. You add enough players, and you can keep the game going forever! Or until everyone starves to death, I suppose. I gave the Americans the power-trackers, the Russians my educator-machines, and your lot got the null-chambers. ”
“Null-chambers?” Billy repeated quizzically.
The Physician clarified, “The Quiet Room.” His head swiveled around at Arnold and Allison. “What? You think Lawrence had the only one? Trust me, kids, there are far worse places for your kind than the asylums. Be glad they didn’t send you to Maralinga, or Circle’s End.”
Mabel dropped her fork. It rattled against the empty void at her feet, fixed in orbit like a new satellite. “What?”
The Physician turned his gaze on the girl. “Didn’t Lawrence tell you? The DDHA set up camp there years back. Mostly trying trying to figure out what killed everyone, but they have a few side projects going. I drop in a fair bit.” He winked grandly. “Don’t worry, sweetie, haven’t told a soul…”
Mabel fumed in her seat, cheeks flushed, her fists shaking at her sides. “Bloody grave-robbers.”
The Physician either ignored his guest’s anger, or it simply didn’t register. He retracted his head back onto his shoulders. Then he made a noise like a truck revving at the bottom of a cold, dark lake.
It took Allison a moment to realize the Physician was laughing. Truly, honestly laughing.
His voice when he spoke was perfectly even and clear, even as the laughter kept on playing like a backing track in a song. “Sometimes I wonder how I get away with this. If you people would just get together and share your notes…”
The strange laughter grew louder, less rhythmic. The Physician’s body was jerking spasmodically in his seat. “But that’s the rub, isn’t it? You human beings divy yourselves up into so many tribes.” He looked wildly about the table, like he was voicing the frankest, clearest absurdity.
All he got from the children was blank stares.
“Listen here, kids, ‘tribe’ just means ‘people I care about’ and ‘people I don’t.’ And the first one is always so small.” His head cocked towards Allison’s like a crow’s. “Tell me, Allie, what can you do with a tribe nobody cares about?”
“I’ll tell you. Whatever you want. And they’re some. I mean, you can get into one just by not having enough money! Or taking up the wrong trade! You children want to know how many sons and daughters Jessica Mallery has?”
Arnold didn’t know how to respond to that non-sequitur, so he just said, “Sure?”
“Five hundred and sixty-two. You’ve met a couple today.”
Billy blinked, his tail swaying slowly. “That’s a lotta kids…”
“You think you’re surprised, William, try asking Jessica! I swear, people in your country don’t care if you have a prostitute’s ovary on toast…”
Billy looked at Allison. “What’s a pros-ti-tute?”
“Tell ya later,” she muttered out the corner of her mouth, eyes fixed dead on the Physician.
“And it’s even sillier when it comes to that ‘race’ idea of yours. You weird little apes are the most inbred, uniform species I’ve ever encountered. I think most of you must’ve died a while back or something, or else I have no idea.” He drew a line with his finger between David and Allison. “There’s so many people out there who thinks the big, defining difference between you two is your skin.”
Allison squirmed. She didn’t like being reminded at the moment that David and her were different, now.
The Physician pointed from her to Arnold. “Or take you two. The rest of you kids wouldn’t say Allie and Arn were very different looking, right? Basically speaking.”
A few nods and mumbled “sures.”
“Well, because Mrs Kinsey happened to be Romani, there’s a lot of respected, influential people out there who think her daughter is less of a person than Arnold. And that’s he’s less of a person than Mabel because he’s Irish and she’s English.”
Allison blinked. “Mum’s a Gypsy?”
“I noticed it when I was looking at your blood,” the Physician explained absently. “Not surprised you don’t know. Your mother probably hasn’t admitted it for years. She’s from Europe, isn’t she?”
Allison nodded slowly.
“Definitely not, then, if she knows what’s good for her.”
A wave of revulsion swelled in Allison. For a moment, she hated her own flesh, her own mother. But it didn’t feel like her own loathing. It was someone else’s contempt…
The Physician’s laughter returned in force, echoing against the unseen walls of the planetarium. He looked like he was in danger of falling from his seat and tumbling down into the seas of his homeworld.
“It’s a great planet, kids!” The Physician’s lips weren’t moving at all now. His voice rose from somewhere inside him like the gurgle of stomach acid. “A whole world of steaming, changeable meat that nobody wants! That won’t cry out when you pounce, because it knows no one will listen! A world that cares more for its petty little apathies and hates than its own happiness! It’s like an open bar, kids! A herd of cows pushing and shoving each other towards my abattoir!”
The children were staring at the Physician. Billy was crying softly.
There was an awkward pause.
The doctor’s mouth started moving again with a crack. “I say this with affection, of course.”
“…And what if we tell people,” Mabel blurted. “What if we tell everyone what you’re up to? What you really think of us.”
If the Physician took that as a threat, it didn’t show. “They wouldn’t believe you, Mabel. You’re not part of their tribe.”
The Physician abruptly stood up from the table, treading starlight towards the edge of infinity.
“Come on kids,” he said. “There’s something I’ve wanted to show off for a long time.”
1. Humanish world located in the western spiral, known for its inhabitants’ eclectic range of powers, love of gambling, and their nearly monthly government coups. ↩
2. It is worth noting that John Smith’s native tongue is meant to be spoken while submerged in saltwater. ↩
3. Around 9300 BCE. ↩
4. A contemporary nickname for the British Ministry of Paranormality, which oversaw superhuman affairs within the United Kingdom. Named for the infamous Early Modern crown court. ↩
5. The experimental design bureau tasked with organizing and training superhumans in the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 2005. Sometimes called “the Red Orchestra” in the First World intelligence community. ↩