Verse 17: SUPPER'S READY
"We could use some help here!" Gloria announced as she opened the front door. She carried several plastic bags and Lex held a large white cardboard carton.
"Lex!" Hannah got up from the couch and ran over to lighten her sister’s load. She gave the Minstrel a reproving look. "Where were you? Gloria was worried sick."
Nate saved his game and joined them. His eyes went immediately to the box in Lex's arms. "Lobster?! Is it someone's birthday?"
Gloria handed him the remaining bags. "Please rinse these off for me. Hannah, I'm putting you on corn-shucking duty. Lex, you can set that down."
Nate took the bags into the kitchen and inventoried the contents. "Steamers! Mussels! Shrimp!" He pulled out a bunch of wet, green strands. "Seaweed?"
"I thought we'd treat Lex to a genuine traditional New England lobster bake," Gloria said. "As a reward for doing such a great job last night."
Hannah found the corn, and took a brown paper bag from under the sink. She began to remove the husks and silk. "Lex, you didn't answer my question. Where were you last night?"
"Zoot invited me to her lodgings," he replied.
"You slept with Zoot?" Nate and Hannah exclaimed in unison. Nate sounded impressed, Hannah shocked. Gloria turned bright crimson.
"Eventually," Lex reported, wondering why everyone seemed so obsessed with his sleeping arrangements. "Then she made pancakes."
"They don't need the gruesome details!" Gloria stepped in. "Hannah, when you're finished, Lex has something to discuss with you." She noticed the drapes were open and hurried to close them.
"You need not do that," he said, taking her arm. "I already know the sea lies out there; it can no longer shock me."
Nate stuck his head out of the kitchen, holding a lobster. "Did I miss something?"
"Lex is phobic," Hannah told him. "Childhood trauma involving the ocean."
"Really?" Nate looked at Lex. "Was it monster-related?"
"That's really none of our business, kids," Gloria interjected, but Lex shook his head.
"I do not mind telling them," he said. "But now is not the time. I will tell the tale over dinner. I promise." He addressed the last to Nate.
While her brother and sister attended to the cooking, Hannah and Lex huddled together on the couch. Warlock peeked out from under a cushion and immediately attacked Lex's sleeve. Lex picked up the ferret, stroking the soft grey fur as he explained how the portal had reopened and his hunch that its return was linked to the daily cycle on his homeworld. "Can you predict when the portal is likely to come again, assuming my theory holds true?"
"Of course!" she enthused. "You know, this portal sounds very much like an Einstein-Rosen Bridge with a predictable recurrence interval! It's a relativistic phenomenon popularly known as a wormhole. If we can plot enough points on a timeline, we should be able to predict the next event, assuming that it follows a regular pattern. When did you first arrive?"
The last part was the first thing she said that he understood, yet he could not answer. "Gloria?" he called. "When did we first meet?"
"A little after two in the morning yesterday," she answered from the kitchen. "Say 2:05, 2:10, somewhere around then."
"And when did the second opening take place?" Hannah asked.
Gloria gave that some thought. "Just around 5:00 this afternoon. "
Hannah did the math in her head. "That's approximately 39 hours, give or take. That means the next event should be sometime close to 8:00 a.m. Saturday, again assuming that thing is on a reliable timetable. It would be very helpful if I knew how long a day lasts on your planet though."
"Twenty-one hours," Lex replied. "No... Twenty-five in the decimal system you use."
"Ah, but how long is your hour?"
'One hundred minutes," he replied and, anticipating the follow-up, added, "One hundred seconds to the minute."
"Lex," Hannah cried, "you're missing the point! I have no basis for comparison. As far as I know, your second and ours might be two different lengths."
"What word do you say to time a second?" Nate asked as he passed them carrying a glass bowl filled with seaweed. "We use Mississippi!"
"Ignore him," Hannah counseled.
"How's it going?" Gloria asked, passing by. She carried a measuring cup filled with water, and a large cookie sheet under her arm.
"We are making progress," Lex reported.
Warlock clawed his way up to Lex's shoulder, walked around his neck to the other side, and stared at Gloria's back. He jumped to the couch, yawned, stretched, and walked across Lex's lap and onto a small adjacent table. He sniffed at a small sealed plastic container of fruit chunks.
"Can I ask a question?" Nate called. "Why do you wanna go back? What do they have that we don't?"
"Magic, for one thing," Gloria pointed out.
"He brought magic with him!" Nate countered. "Lex, wouldn't you rather stay where you're the only one who can do real magic? Back there you're nothing special."
"Enough!" Gloria scolded. She opened the lid of the barbecue, and set the cookie sheet on the grill. She poured the water into the shallow pan, and signaled to her brother. "Seaweed." Nate held the bowl out, looking dejected.
Warlock nosed the container off the table, then looked to Lex for a reaction. "Give him one," said Hannah. Lex retrieve the tub, opened it and gave the ferret a small chunk of dried reddish fruit. Warlock sniffed at it, took his prize, and jumped off the table, choosing to enjoy his snack in private.
"Your brother seems displeased," Lex observed to Hannah.
"He has issues," she dismissed Nate's problems tersely. "Back to time comparison. You know, if you had a timepiece that would make this much easier."
Lex rolled up his sleeve, uncovering his spellengine. "This has a chronotaph setting." He pressed the band and a viewall appeared in midair.
"Holy shit!" Hannah gasped.
"Language!" Gloria chided as she and Nate came inside to find out what had caused the outburst. Gloria and Hannah both stared at the floating screen with fascination. Nate seemed determined to ignore Lex and, after giving it a quick glance, stomped off in the direction of the kitchen.
Hannah soon ascertained that one Novagrovian minute equaled approximately 0.93 Earth minutes, or 56 Earth seconds, taking into account any possible margin of error in her apparatus. That information at hand, the rest of the calculation was – as Hannah had previously declared – simplicity. As Gloria arranged the dinner ingredients on the cookie sheet, Hannah announced that she had reached a solution.
"If we take it as given that Lex arrived here between 2:05 and 2:10 a.m. EDT Wednesday, and the second occurred at 5:00 p.m. today–"
"Skip the recap," Nate growled.
"The limited empirical data available would seem to bear out Lex's hypothesis that this quantum event follows his planet's rotational cycle, which is approximately 38.8 earth hours long. If – and this is a big if – it remains consistent, the third opening should occur between 7:50 and 7:55 in the morning on Saturday, August 2nd."
"Too bad," Nate said cheerfully. "You can't go. You're supposed to sing at Gilda's Saturday night."
Lex nodded. "That is true."
"I think this qualifies as an extenuating circumstance." Gloria observed as she went back outside, rearranged the shellfish and covered it with a second layer of seaweed before closing the lid.
"We probably should still show up a half an hour early to be on the safe side," Hannah told her sister when she came back inside, wiping her hands on a paper towel.
"There's no 'we,'" Gloria said. "I don't want you around when that thing returns. It could be dangerous. "
"But this is a once in a lifetime chance to see an actual transdimensional bridge!" Hannah protested.
"Your sister is correct," Lex interrupted. "I am not even certain that Gloria should be there, but Nate and you definitely should not be present."
"I didn't want to go anyway," Nate spoke from where he had resumed his game.
"Nate, go see if the water for the corn is boiling," Gloria ordered. Nate ignored her. "I'll confiscate that PlayStation if you don't stop moping," she warned.
Nate threw his controller to the floor and stormed off towards the kitchen. "It's not boiling yet," he yelled.
"Then wait until it does," Gloria called back sharply. "Hannah, please set the table."
Once she'd departed, Gloria bent to rescue a book that Warlock seemed intent on devouring, then sat next to Lex on the couch. She leaned towards Lex and lowered her voice. "Nate has some problems with abandonment. I think he's mad at you because he really likes you and wants you to stay. He'll get over it. Just give him a little time."
"I shall give him all the time he needs," Lex promised.
Once they were all seated for dinner, Gloria poured white wine for herself and Lex, and Sierra Mist for the youngsters. Given his lobster, Nate's mood improved immediately and he attacked the crustacean with gusto. Everything was delicious and compliments flowed to the chef. Lex demonstrated his appreciation by the sheer volume of his consumption. Used to five meals a day, he had eaten comparatively little since his arrival, and found that his appetite knew no bounds. Hannah, on the other hand, took the smallest lobster and half an ear of corn.
"You sure you wanna go back to Novagrove, Lex?" Nate persisted. "They got lobster there?"
"Some twice as large as this table," he answered. "They are quite hard to catch and are considered a great delicacy. But these are quite excellent."
Undeterred, Nate continued. "Forget the lobsters then… with your magical abilities, you could be a real life superhero here. Save people from floods and tornadoes, fight crime, that sort of stuff."
Hannah snorted. "Like there's any serious crime to speak of in Mystic."
"I am no hero," Lex protested. "I only sing about them."
"Rats." Nate sighed and checked his lobster for bits of undiscovered meat. "Anyway, you couldn't be much of a superhero around here if you're afraid of the water. Can you even swim?"
"Very well," Lex assured him. "In lakes, ponds, rivers... just not in the sea. Which, I suppose, segues neatly into the story I promised you. Nate, you were correct. This is a story about a monster. When I was a boy, before I left home to become a Minstrel, I spent all my free time sailing. My father allowed me to use a small skiff, big enough for two at most, and I would take it out on the Shining Sea every sunny day. One day, I was sailing with a friend along when the boat was attacked by a liparus. Do you have those?"
"Doesn't sound familiar," Hannah answered. "What does it look like?"
"A huge black kite, with a tail like a whip."
"Sounds like a sting ray," Hannah mused. "But they're very gentle creatures, and not that big."
"Lipari are quite savage and can grow larger than sharks. You have sharks?" They all nodded. "This one took us by surprise. We tried to frighten it off by slapping at it with boathooks, but it kept circling. Finally, it struck the boat with its tail and broke through the hull. We started taking on water, and the boat began to sink. We tried again to chase it off, but it kept smashing into us until finally the skiff broke apart. My companion was taken by the liparus, who disappeared beneath the waves." He finished the rest of his wine. "I was spared, obviously. I hung onto a piece of flotsam, waiting for the liparus, or something worse, to come for me. Night fell with no rescue. One full day elapsed before my brother Stannak found me, and since that day I have never voluntarily returned to the sea." He smiled crookedly. "Not much of a hero, eh?"
Gloria put her hand over his and said nothing for a time. Eventually she asked, "How old were you when this happened?"
"Seventeen," he replied.
"That's not young," Nate observed. "I'll be fifteen in December."
Hannah looked at Lex, as if there was something weighing on her mind. Finally she could hold her tongue no longer. "Lex, how old are you now?"
"Quite young actually," he said as he picked up a clam. "As Nate would say, I shall be 56 in two months."
Hannah blanched. "Oh my," Gloria murmured. Lex heard the pain in her voice and looked at her with concern. She shook her head. "Never mind. It's nothing."
Lex began to feel uncomfortable. He had clearly blundered into a sensitive area.
"Our dad was 56 when he died," Nate explained. He studied Lex for several seconds. "You don't look that old."
"That's 56 Novagrove years, right?" Hannah asked, her voice trembling slightly.
Lex nodded. "Of course."
"How… How many days in one of those years?
Lex put down an empty clamshell. "One thousand days. In truth, it is slightly less than that, so every fiftieth year a day is removed from the calendar to make things come out even."
"We do the same here, except we add a day almost every fourth year," Gloria commented.
Hannah played with a lobster claw, lost in thought. "But with the data you gave me…" She paused, then left the table, returning with her laptop. After pressing a few keys she sat back, gazing at the screen.
"What is it?" Gloria asked.
When Hannah spoke this time it was with something akin to awe. "Your boyfriend here is 246 years old."
"He's not my– what did you say?"
"When he was born, Connecticut was still under British rule," Hannah expanded. "He's older than this country.”
Nate's jaw dropped. "Holy shit!"
"Language," Gloria scolded automatically, then, "Are you sure, Han?"
Hannah gave her big sister an "Oh please!" look.
"Sorry," Gloria apologized. "Don't know what I could possibly have been thinking." She turned to Lex, at a loss for words.
"How old are you, Gloria?" he asked.
"I just turned 25," she admitted quietly.
"That's just over five years old in your terms," Hannah contributed helpfully.
"I don't get it," Nate joined in. "You don't look older than Gloria. You dye your hair?"
"Is 246 considered ancient on Earth?" Lex asked.
Nate snorted. "On Earth, 246 is considered worm food."
Hannah closed her laptop. "Lex, on Earth if you live to be even 100 it's a big deal. You get your name read on the Today show, and if you're famous you're all over the news. No one lives to be 246."
"Methuselah lived longer than that," Nate observed.
"I hardly consider the Bible a reliable source on the subject of longevity," Hannah retorted. "Gloria, you're strangely silent. Ferret got your tongue?"
"Two hundred and forty six years old." Gloria spoke each word as tasting them and trying to identify their ingredients. "Is that considered old by your standards? I mean, are you unusual for your people?"
"Hardly!" Lex laughed at the very idea. "We do not reach full adulthood until our fifties. My people, the race known as Imperial Weren or just Imperials, generally live at least 3,000 years… barring accident or illness or violence."
"That's over 13,000 Earth years," Hannah converted.
"Thank you, Hannah!" Gloria snapped. "You're not the only one who can multiply in your head!" She took a deep breath. "Sorry. I… I'm just having some trouble here. Every time I think I understand you, Lex, I learn something new that throws my whole life out of alignment."
"Do you live so long because of magic?" Nate asked.
"I’d imagine so," Lex replied, "but mostly it is a matter of breeding. Elves live even longer and there is a great deal of Alfaen blood in the Imperial line. My society is millions of years old and we have been getting older as a race as our culture gets older."
"Genetic engineering?" Gloria guessed.
Lex pursed his lips and said coldly, "Just good breeding."
"You've conquered disease then?" Gloria asked, choosing a less controversial tack.
"Conquered is too strong a word," he replied. "Let us say 'tamed' instead. A few races are more prone to disease than others, but it is usually nothing the Healers cannot treat."
"Wish we could say the same," Gloria sighed.
Lex continued. "On the other hand, we suffer occasional plagues, infestations of parasites, mutagenic or Deamonic viruses that kill millions before the Healers or Vitamancers find a cure; but as far as I know that has not happened in over a century. At least not on Kal itself."
Gloria winced. "What are Vitamancers?" Nate asked.
"Wizards of Life magic," Lex explained.
"Here we call them specialists," Gloria chuckled.
"Who pays for all this?" Hannah inquired. "Health insurance?"
"I do not recognize that term," he replied. "I myself have never been ill, but on the few occasions I have needed a Healer's care, my Guild handled the cost. But I am monopolizing the conversation. Hannah, how was your day?"
"You're kidding!" Nate moaned, but Lex remained adamant and divulged no more information regarding his world for the remainder of the meal. After dinner, Gloria assigned him the job of disposing of the repast's remains, giving him a white plastic bag. Nate and Lex put all the shells and cobs in the bag and despite Warlock's assistance, everything was soon secure. Nate took Lex out the front door, and showed him two large covered receptacles in a smaller building adjacent to the house. Once the trash had been placed in one of those, Nate directed Lex to carry the two containers to a spot beside the street. "Tomorrow," he informed Lex, "is Garbage Day."
"I thought tomorrow was Fry Day."
"It's both." Nate took a ball from a shelf and tossed it to Lex. "Wanna shoot some hoops?"
Lex accepted the invitation, which turned out to be a game called Horse where he and Nate took turns throwing a ball through a ring affixed to the outbuilding. Lex quickly got the hang of it, but Nate still beat him by two letters. Despite Lex's height advantage, Nate had more practice and was used to the strangely light gravity.
"Rematch?" Lex suggested.
"Nah," said Nate. "We should go in. It's almost time for The Race."
Lex wondered how effectively they could run through the house, but soon learned that The Race was a spectator event only. All four gathered around the television set. Lex and Gloria took the couch while Hannah sat on the floor between them, so she could continue to use her computer on the "coffee table." (The idea that coffee was so prevalent here that they even named furniture after it had almost floored Lex.)
"Is this a movie?" Lex asked as the program began.
"No," said Nate, sprawled in a leather chair, with his legs over one armrest. "It's a reality show. These are real people. They race around the world, visiting different countries, and along the way they have to complete certain tasks the producers dream up. It's pretty self-explanatory."
Nate was correct. The premise he understood easily enough, although Gloria had to explain that the commercials were not part of the game but merely intended to sell people products and services. Over the course of the next hour, Lex watched these supposedly real people visit a temple and then take an aircraft to a city called Seoul South Korea, although the name was pronounced as "soul". Hannah explained about the two Koreas not getting along because of political differences. While there, one person from each team had to strip off most of their clothes and jump into a hole in the ice and swim to a second hole to exit. Nate expressed disappointment that only men accepted that challenged and Gloria threw a pillow at him.
After the ice swim, the teams returned to Seoul. The city was obviously much bigger than Mystic, as well as more crowded, grimy, and shiny. Lex commented on these differences, and admitted he had, until that point, thought Mystic was typical of Earth communities. Hannah informed him this was far from the case.
"Seoul has over eight million inhabitants," she said. "It's one of the most populous cities on the planet."
"How big is Yorvadan?" Gloria asked.
"Much smaller," he replied. "It is a town of only three million. But the city Allyn, where I was born, has perhaps a quarter of a billion humans from dozens of races; elves, dwarves, weren, orku, ogres, the list goes on and on."
"A quarter billion!" she gasped. "With a B?"
"Are there any cities bigger than that?" Hannah asked.
"Pandugat and Stoynarist each have more than a billion. I have, however, visited neither."
"I can't imagine that," Gloria commented. "All those people in one place. With you being a wandering Minstrel, somehow I pictured rolling hills and quaint villages, not teeming metropolises that put New York to shame."
"We have both," Lex told them. "As well as farms, and communes, and nomadic tribes. I think the population of the Central Imperius is perhaps three hundred billion, but it’s mostly concentrated in densely populated areas surrounded by vast tracks of farmland or wilderness. Now that is just on Kal mind you. I am not including the other Inner or Outer worlds, nor any of what I imagine is a pretty large number of colony worlds."
"Colony worlds?" Hannah asked. "You have space travel?"
"Space travel and magic!" Nate griped. "That is so not fair."
"Have you ever been in space?" Hannah asked wistfully.
"Once," he replied, "but only as far as the Thanes, the Forest Moon. I entertained a private party on a week-long cruise."
"I hate you," Hannah moaned, although she clearly did not mean it.
The show ended and Gloria switched off the set. Nate asked about dessert and Gloria expressed disbelief that he could still be hungry after a dinner that size.
While Nate went into the kitchen for ice cream, Hannah turned to Lex. "Have you ever considered counseling to help you overcome your fear of the ocean?" He shook his head. "When you get back, maybe you should. Nate did. He used to be paranoid about bees."
"Hey!" Nate protested as he entered with a large dish of chocolate chip. "I was eight!"
"You are not the first to suggest that," Lex confessed. "I suppose I should, but have not been able to find the time."
"I see," Gloria said, touching his sleeve. "In two hundred some-odd years, you haven't found a couple of spare hours to talk to someone about something that has been bothering you for all that time. You must have a truly hectic work schedule."
Lex found himself feeling very foolish. There was a crinkling sound, as a small plastic bag rolled by. Warlock stuck his head out of it, and peered up at Lex. Even the ferret seemed reproachful. He ducked back inside and continued his progress across the room.
Gloria took Lex by the arm and pulled him to his feet. "Are you brave enough to face your fear just a teensy bit?"
"What have you in mind?" Lex asked warily.
"Come out on the deck with us," she suggested. "It's already pretty dark so you wouldn't see much of the ocean. The yard isn't that big, but we're on a bluff. Maybe if you try small steps, we could even go down to the shoreline. There's stairs down to the beach and the jetty where our boat's tied up. You wouldn't have to go any further than you're comfortable with."
"I am quite comfortable here," Lex said, trying to pull his arm out of her surprisingly firm grip.
Hannah also stood and took his other arm. "We'd be right here with you, Lex. Nothing bad will happen."
"If you start having another attack, we can get you inside in seconds," Gloria cooed. "Come on. You've fought real monsters. Can't you fight imagined ones?"
Lex scoured his mind for a comeback but came up empty. He allowed himself to be dragged towards the sliding glass doors. If he had one weakness besides open water, he knew, it was a tendency to do whatever attractive women asked him to. Such, he conceded was his nature. And before he knew it, he was on the deck.
He could see the dark, foreboding expanse of water in the near distance through the trees, and hear the waves lapping on some unseen shore. He shrank back, feeling for a wall to edge along, but Gloria gripped his arm even tighter to prevent backsliding. The sound of Nate's laughter behind him did not help matters. He broke into a cold sweat and began to hyperventilate. Gloria stopped and took his chin in her hand. His breathing slowed as he stared into her soft, green eyes. "We'll only go as far as the edge of the deck, Lex."
"But there's no railing!"
"We're a foot above the ground. You hold onto me when we get there. Once you're at ease, maybe – just maybe – we'll consider taking the steps down to the ground. Who knows? If you're up to it, we could even go to the fence, or take the stairway down to the beach. But only if you think you can handle it, okay? Do you trust me?"
He nodded and tried to swallow. Hannah tugged and he followed, Gloria at his side. With halting steps, he crossed the deck until he reached the edge, just next to a copse of trees. The ocean seemed measurably closer there, and he clamped his hand on Gloria's arm.
"See?" Gloria soothed. "That wasn't so bad, was it? I told you, Lex, there's absolutely nothing to be frightened of here."
At that exact moment, Hannah let out a piercing scream. "Look out!"
Without releasing his grip on Gloria's arm, Lex turned his head the direction Hannah was pointing, right into the path of a swinging branch. It hit him squarely in the face, knocked him off his feet and over a chaise lounge. He landed flat on his back, seeing more stars than there were in all the heavens.
"ELF DIE!" the Forest Troll howled, as it took a step up onto the deck, then fell upon the Minstrel.