The Quiet PlacePeter David
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Six Months Earlier
'Starfleet: Year One' Preview: Chapter Four
SIX MONTHS EARLIER …
“THE DREAMS CAME AGAIN, MOTHER.”
Malia had been clearing the dinner dishes from the table in the simple, quite unadorned home she shared with her daughter. She stood over the sink about to dump the evening’s dishes into it. Over by the table, her daughter, Riella, was slowly wiping the surface of the table with a cloth. She was doing so in a rather distracted fashion, and Malia knew better than to speak to her daughter when she was in that sort of mood. The girl had moods, Malia was quite aware of that. Often-times she appeared quite distracted, as if her mind were elsewhere, or even elsewhen. It gave Malia a bit of a hopeless feeling, frustrated that she was unable to help her daughter. She tried to tell herself that this too would pass. But she had the depressing sensation that, in fact, she was fooling herself.
It was the dreams that Malia feared more than anything. It had been a while since Riella had spoken of them. Malia had hoped that meant that they no longer haunted Riella. She knew, though, that it might just mean Riella had stopped telling her about the dreams because she knew how much they upset her mother. Naturally that just added to Malia’s overall sense of helplessness. The notion that her daughter should be acting in a way that was intended to spare her mother grief… it was too much.
Then Malia chided herself silently. Here she was giving herself all manner of mental angst over her feelings of inadequacy when the only one she should be concerned about was Riella. Riella, who had a delicate beauty to her, like a carefully crafted doll, so fragile that even a harsh word seemed capable of shattering her. Riella was just old enough that the last fleeting fragments of her childhood innocence were still clinging to her, while the features, movements, and figure of the woman that she had only recently become were fresh and pristine. She wore her young womanhood around herself like a cloak of spring newness.
Riella had finished cleaning the table and had not said anything further, apparently waiting for her mother to step in and fill the gap. She obliged her, prompting gently, “The dreams? Are you sure?”
“I think I know my own dreams, Mother.” There was no impatience in her voice, nor anger. It was as if she were simply resigned to a state of being that was anathema to her but about which she was helpless to do anything.
“I did not mean to imply you didn’t, my dear. It’s just, that, well. . ”
Then her voice trailed off, for Malia had the distinct impression that Riella wasn’t listening to her. Instead, Riella was gliding across the room with that remarkably graceful step she had, so light and airless that it seemed as if she were floating rather than walking like a mere mortal. She stopped at the window, looking out to the far horizon. The sun on Montos set early this time of year, and although it was not quite down, the twin moons were already visible in the gradually darkening sky.
“I’m going out, Mother.”
This pronouncement was quite surprising to Malia. “Out?”
“Are you sure?”
This time Riella half turned to face her. Her thin lips were upturned in a small smile. “You keep asking me if I am sure of things, Mother. You don’t seem to trust me overmuch tonight.”
Malia’s cheeks flushed against her very pale skin, and the antennae on her brow twitched ever so slightly, as they were wont to do whenever she became a bit agitated. “It’s not a matter of trust, Riella. It is simply that, well… I trust you, but—”
“But it is the rest of Montos that you do not trust?” She shook her head. “Mother, that does not sound like a terribly appealing life you’ve created for me, now does it? Montos is supposed to be my home. How can I be afraid to walk the streets of my own home?”
“You should not be afraid. That’s my job,” Malia added ruefully. Then she grew serious.
“Mother… I almost never go out. I’m starting to feel trapped by these four walls, as if I’m a prisoner. Am I a prisoner, Mother?”
“No. Not at all; of course not. I would never stop you from …” Her hands fluttered about aimlessly for a moment, and then she said simply, “No. But I just don’t want you to become agitated.”
“I’m willing to take that risk,” said Riella. “It can’t be worse than the dreams.”
“I’ll go with you, then.”
“I’d rather be by myself.”
“I would rather … be … by myself,” she said, and there was unexpected firmness in her voice. As disconcerting to her as the dreams were, clearly there was still a strength to her that she could draw upon as needed. Then, paying nominal deference to her mother, she added, “If that is acceptable to you, of course.”
“Of course it is. However, you have to take your medication first.”
“Mother,” sighed Riella, “must I continue to take that tonic? I’m hardly a child.”
Her mother wasn’t listening, however, and Riella certainly knew better than to argue with her when she was like this. She got the bottled tonic from the cabinet and said, “I know you’re not a child, but that’s not the point. You’ve been taking my special body-building tonic every day since the day you were born, and I’m going to make sure you take it until the day you die … and for several weeks thereafter.” She had poured a dosage of the liquid into a spoon and extended it to Riella. “Open and hold,” she said firmly.
“Mother. . ”
“Open and hold. I have spoken.” Although there was amusement in her voice, there was also the clear tone of someone who expected to see things done her way.
Riella, knowing that there was no point in going around about it, held her nose as she customarily did since the smell was so disagreeable to her. Her mother poured the contents down her throat, and she clamped her mouth tightly to make sure it stayed down. Once Riella had swallowed it, she looked at her mother as if to say, “Happy now?” In response to the unspoken inquiry, Malia made a sweeping gesture to the door, indicating that Riella could leave as she desired.
For a moment she wanted to walk to her daughter, who had been speaking to her as if addressing her from one of the far-off moons, so distant she seemed. Walk over to her, hold her tightly, tell her everything that she was feeling, explain how much she wanted to help her and how completely inadequate to the task she felt. But then the moment passed, and Riella turned and walked out the door, leaving Malia alone with her frustrations and the conviction that she was simply not up to the task of raising Riella and helping her cope with her dreams.
She hoped she wouldn’t have to kill her.
* * *
Riella was aware of the gazes that followed her. Certainly her appearances in town were infrequent enough that her mere presence was enough to attract attention. Plus her visual appearance was distinctive enough, with the unusual duskiness of her skin differentiating her at a glance from the uniformly pale Montosians. Then there was the exoticness of the fact that she had no hair, instead she sporte
d a pate that was smooth and gleaming as a water-caressed pebble. Indeed, it had drawn so many stares that she had taken to wearing a short brunette wig. She had picked it up just as she was leaving her mother’s house …
Her mother’s house.
She heard the wording in her head and couldn’t help but be struck by the distance of it. Her mother’s house. Not home, and certainly not her home. Even though she lived there, even though her mother cared for her as best she could… still, there was something about it that made her feel separate and apart. She didn’t live there; she dwelt there. She had no idea why she felt that way. There was nothing that her mother had ever done to make her feel the least bit off-put or unwanted. A kind and good woman, who worried about her perhaps even more than she needed and would probably rather plunge a knife into her own heart than risk doing any harm to her beloved daughter. Her mother worshiped her, she knew that.
And yet.. . there was … something . , . just something, niggling away at her.
She brushed the stray thought away. It was nothing. She was allowing the dreams to push her imagination to newer and greater fever pitches and fanciful flights, and they were beginning to affect how she viewed her own mother, her own home. What a sad state she was coming to. She felt very much the ingrate.
She heard her name being mentioned. People are prone to that; they can generally pick their names out of a buzz of crowd noise. When one is a celebrity, one learns to control one’s reactions as one’s whispered name spreads through a throng of people. It is, after all, impolitic for one’s head to whip around in response. It undercuts the coolness that comes with celebrity. Riella was not tremendously experienced in the ways of the world, but she certainly had enough self-possession not to look around upon hearing her name being bandied about. Indeed, it would have served no purpose, for she knew without looking who was discussing her.
It was the boys. It was always the boys.
Sometimes she would glance out the window of her small house (Home! Home, damn it!) and she would see the boys walking past. They would point in the direction of her window, and whisper or laugh or whatever, and she would hear the words “scary” or “nervous” or “creepy” mixed in with her name being mentioned. Admittedly, the words “beautiful” or “exotic” floated into the mix as well, and that brought her some comfort. However, she desired to be known for something other than her looks or her reputation for being odd. Unfortunately, she couldn’t quite make up her mind just what she wanted that notoriety to stem from.
She walked down the one main street that ran the length of her small community, and she caught their reflection in the display window of one store. They were following her. She sensed that they weren’t stalking her; they were just provoked by curiosity and were trying to saunter along while looking as if they weren’t paying the least bit of attention to her. She wanted to be flattered by it, or amused. Instead, she just felt nothing, as if they didn’t matter to her.
She was beginning to wonder what in the world did matter to her.
She stopped and turned to face them. There were four of them, clustered together, and they had been in the midst of whispering to each other when they froze in their tracks upon being “seen.” She knew the tallest of them; his name was Jeet. His face and body were a puzzle-style array of pieces that might, given time, arrange themselves into a semblance of handsomeness. As it was, he simply looked gawky. “May I help you with something, Jeet?”
Jeet looked uncomfortably at the others. “No,” he said after a brief hesitation. “We were just … walking.”
“You weren’t walking after me, were you?”
This prompted an array of furiously shaking heads. Riella found it mildly amusing. “You’re quite sure, now?” she further prompted, and the shaking was now replaced by rapid head bobbing.
She studied them a moment more. No one moved, as if they were in some sort of face-off or duel. Finally she said, “All right, then. Enjoy the evening.”
“You too, Riella,” said Jeet, and then the boys quickly beat a retreat.
She regretted that they did so. Truthfully, she wouldn’t have minded if one of them, or even all of them, had stayed with her. But at the same time that she found herself desirous of company, she wanted solitude as well. She didn’t pretend to understand it. She really wondered if it was possible for her to understand anything anymore.
The dreams flittered around her consciousness.
She continued to walk, and soon there was nothing along the road except Riella herself, the simple structures of the small town left far behind. The sun had set completely, but the moons provided enough reflected light to guide her …
… to where?
Ahead of her was a ridge of rocks, where mosslike vegetation was growing so thickly that it provided a spongy surface upon which one could sit quite comfortably. She came to this place every so often, just to get away, to sit and contemplate whatever was going on in her life (such as it was). She came there seeking answers, or absolution, or … something. Answers to questions that she couldn’t frame, answers that she probably wouldn’t understand even if they were presented to her.
“Why am I like this?” she asked no one in particular. “Why can’t I rest? This doesn’t happen to other people. Why is it happening to me?” The answers, unfortunately, were no more forthcoming at that point than they ever had been.
The moons rose higher in the air, and she lay back on the rocks. The smell of the moss was quite pleasant, making her nose tingle. She interlaced her fingers, rested her head on her hands, and stared up at the moons. She fancied that they were a pair of luminous eyes gazing down at her, set in a gigantic face that was as black as night, causing it to blend in and be indistinguishable from the sky.
What if she could talk to that face? If she could ask it any question, what would she ask? Probably why. Not any specific why. Just why. She would be satisfied with any answer she would get.
She felt her eyelids growing heavy, and she fought with all her might against it. She knew that it was absurd; she couldn’t stay awake forever. Gods knew that she had tried. She had been awakened by the dreams in the middle of the previous night and hadn’t fallen back to sleep since. Maybe she’d never have to sleep again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe a miracle had been visited upon her and she would never again have the dreams inflicted upon her. All she had to do was never indulge in slumber, ever again.
Even as that pleasant scenario occurred to her, her eyes closed almost of their own accord, and a haze of black filled her mind.
And the call came to her…
… and there were voices whispering to her, and crying to her, and shapeless forms moving about gracefully; at first they didn’t seem to notice her. But then they did, and they angled toward her and surrounded her, and they began to scream, louder and louder, and yet the louder they screamed, the quieter they were. How was it possible? How could one scream and make no noise whatsoever?
She threw her arms up defensively, trying to ward them off, and then they were upon her and through her, insinuating themselves into her and she tried to run, but there was nowhere for her to go. She cried out, shouting for help, and they slid effortlessly into her mouth, and they were everywhere, invading her, demeaning her…
And they called, Riella! Riella! Come to us, stay with us, help us, need us, love us as we love you, and there was laughter and sobbing, all tangling together. She had no idea what to do or where to go, and there was no escape, and they were calling her name again. …
And there was a man, a man with red skin, and he was stalking towards her with a grim and frightening visage, and she heard a name but couldn’t quite make it out—Zorn, or something like that, and it was still frightening to her, and he was reaching towards her…
From far in the distance, she heard her name once more, but it sounded different somehow. And she felt warmth as well … warmth, she realized, that was the sun on her face. She came to comprehend
this when she awoke, blinking against the brightness of it and then shielding her face, squinting so hard that tears welled in the corners of her eyes. In her confusion and disorientation, she wondered how in the world the sun could have come out in the middle of the night. “Riella, where are you?” came the confused, almost desperate voice again, which she now recognized as her mother’s. It was at that point that Riella realized, belatedly, that there was no sinister condition or situation involving the sun’s normal time of rising. The stupid thing was right where it was supposed to be—in the morning sky. She was the one who was out of place.
Through her slitted eyes, she spotted her mother just over a ridge, looking around with what was clearly growing concern. Riella tried to sit up. Her spine was sore and creaky from having reclined all night on the moss-covered rocks. Spongy as the surfaces might have been and as comfortable as her impromptu bed had initially appeared, spending an entire night reclining on them had resulted in one rather hellacious backache. She forced herself to a semi-upright position and called out to her mother. The morning air was sharp in her throat and lungs, and what emerged from her mouth was little more than a croak, but it was enough to catch her mother’s attention.
“Riella!” Malia cried out and ran straight to her daughter, throwing her arms around her and hugging her so ferociously that Riella heard a crack in her spine. The noise alarmed her until she moved slightly and discovered that her back felt better. Her mother had inadvertently helped her out. “I was so worried!” Malia continued.
“There was nothing to worry about, Mother. I was just fine.”
“You didn’t come home! The entire night—”
“Yes. I know that. I fell asleep here.”
“Why? Is something wrong with your bed at home? Or did someone hurt you? Drag you out here, or—”
“Mother …” Riella couldn’t help but feel some degree of amusement at her mother’s flustered attitude. In a way, it was rather charming. She put a finger to her mother’s lips to still the torrent of words. “Mother … could we just, perhaps, go home? Please?”