If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 08 - 11…
Ahead of him, Bert saw the woman and her twelve children melt into clouds of powder and the tunnel inhale them. It was the weirdest sensation Bert had ever experienced. The front edge of his bulk crumbled into dust and vanished into the tunnel as if dragged along by a tornado. Instinctively, he held his head back, watching, but in the same instant his vision blurred and a wall of soft foam in his back drove him forward. There was a sharp sting of pain as if blunt needles stabbed every nerve in his body. Before he had time to cry out, his flesh and bones gained substance again, as if he'd just woken from a nightmare and realised all was right with the world.
Except he wasn't lying in bed, but wobbling on his feet on the top of a green hill.
Below the hilltop, a village of flimsy huts and cabins nestled beside a rushing river. In every direction, Bert noted forests and fields of bamboo. A warm breeze, laden with the scent of tobacco, chafed the bamboo's feathery leaves, wavering between rest and motion.
"What's that?" asked Bert, pointing to a distant hill higher than the others. A black tower dominated its summit. It looked alien and out of place.
"Can you see the Citadel from here?"
Both the woman's eyes focused in that direction. "No, it is too far away."
"And what's that?" Bert pointed to another construction of grey stone on a ridge on the village's other side."
"That is the abbey where the terror-stricken monks live."
Bert noticed his palms sweated and wiped them on his T-shirt. “Where the heck are we?”
The woman’s two eyes swivelled in all directions, as if uneasy. “I think we’re safe for the moment.”
“Yeah, that’s good, but where are we?”
“I must take you to the Elder’s house. He’ll explain everything.” Without further word, the woman bent to pick up a doodad similar to the one they'd left behind and set off down the hill, heading for the village on her dumpy little legs.
Bert tagged along beside her, taking advantage of the sluggish pace to absorb his new surroundings. Temple bells chimed through the mystic, potent sunlight; frogs croaked in muddy ditches; dwarf-sized women came from the fields, with a song on their thin red lips and wicker baskets laden with bamboo tips on their heads.
They glared at Bert as if he were a monster, taking a wide berth or darting into their hovels.
The villagers had built most of their huts from thick bamboo canes. There were no vehicles and only hard-packed dirt paths. It reminded him of pictures he’d seen of undiscovered tribes in South America’s rain forests, except here it looked as though they’d cleared most of the forest to cultivate fields of bamboo.
A handful of stone-built constructions, twice as large as the huts, were sprinkled haphazardly throughout the village. They headed for one of these.
Bert ducked inside and wiped his feet on a mat made of fibres. Doors and windows were simple open gaps with cloth hanging across the doors. Bamboo shutters in the windows did little to keep the sun out. After the sweltering heat outdoors, the cool cave-like room made Bert shove his hands in his pockets.
A little prune of a man sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. When he caught sight of Bert, squeezing through the door and standing with his head and shoulders bent beneath the low ceiling, he leapt effortlessly to his feet and backed into a corner.
Apart from his widespread eyes, the Elder had squished his facial features into a tight knot, making him look like an amazed chipmunk. “What are you?” he asked.
“Me name’s Bert. Pleased to meet you.” He held his hand out and the little man cringed even further into the corner. “I ain’t going to hurt you.” Tired of bending his head, Bert flopped to the floor and leant back on his arms.
The alien woman stepped from behind Bert’s back. When the Elder saw her, his expression flitted between relief, joy, confusion, and anger. “Troublemaker. What have you done?”
“I bring you a Bert. He witnessed the tunnel, so I kidnapped him.”
“Is a Bert safe?”
“The Berts are violent meat-eaters, but I believe this one is peaceful.”
“Why do you keep saying we’re meat eaters,” said Bert. “Some of us are vegans. They only eat leaves and seeds and stuff.”
“I say you are meat eaters,” said the woman, “because your eyes are close together and focused to judge distance. All hunters of meat share that trait. Our eyes move independently of each other. A common trait of all hunted animals, forever on the watch for the hunters.”
“Vegans must be the superior species on your planet,” said the Elder. “Do Vegans have the wide-spread eyes of the hunted?”
Bert shook his head. “No, but they fart a lot.”
“Go then!” said the Elder, his finger jabbing at the woman. “Leave the doodad here. I will talk with this Bert and reprimand you later.”
The woman bowed and hurried away.
“Sit!” said the Elder.
“I am sitting,” said Bert.
The Elder’s eyes swivelled this way and that as if wondering how he could squeeze around Bert if he needed to escape. Bert felt sorry for the timid little wise man and offered his friendliest smile.
“You are confused?”
Bert wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question. “I don’t know where I am if that’s what you mean.”
“You are on a planet called Ewepiter, in a village called Lambdon.”
Careful to keep the smirk on his face, Bert shook his head. “Never heard of them.”
A slow grin softened the Elder’s panic, and his posture slumped. “Are you hungry, Bertling, thirsty?”
“I’m starving and me throat’s parched.”
The Elder lifted the lid of a large saucepan that balanced on a flat metal box. “I’ll make some porridge for you.” He scooped a handful of dry bamboo tips from a sack and tossed them into the pan. Then he added another handful, turned to glance at Bert, and added two more. After filling water and a handful of white powder Bert assumed was salt, he put the lid back on and tapped the side of the metal box with a finger. “Two minutes,” he said.
All the while, the Elder kept one eye on Bert, the other on the pan. “There’s water in the barrel by your right elbow,” he said.
A ladle hung on the barrel with cups of various sizes stacked neatly on a low table by its side. Bert chose the largest and gulped four cupfuls before his tongue came unstuck from the roof of his mouth. The metal box peeped, and when the Elder lifted the saucepan lid, steam belched out.
“Blimey, mate, how did you cook that?” Bert scratched his bald head. He didn’t see any flames beneath the pan or electric wires anywhere.
“It is part of the remnants of our technology, like the translator you wear on your T-shirt, and this cooker, and those doodads. Only a few of us retain the wisdom of how these contrivances work. I am not one, so I cannot explain.”
“Got any cream and sugar?” asked Bert as the Elder nudged a bowl of porridge in his direction and edged away again.
Bert blew on his spoon and, careful not to burn his tongue, took a nibble. He shuddered and gagged. The porridge was the most disgusting he’d tasted in his life: earthy, woody, like mild water chestnuts but with a bitter tang. “Blimey, mate, you’ve got to be joking. Ain’t you got nothing else?”
“What do you mean, no? Is this all you eat?”
“No wonder you’re all so small. Sorry, but I can’t eat this.”
Terror filled the Elder’s face. “You’re just like the Guardians. You crave meat. You prefer to eat us.”
“No,” said Bert, and hurriedly spooned porridge into his gob. “Look, I’m eating this yummy stuff.” He found it almost impossible to swallow and spat globs of the creamy sludge as he spoke, but he kept spooning it in. “Mmm! lovely.”
In this post: Bert discovers there's no way out…
Bert stopped eating again and set the bowl by his side. It pained him to see the little man so frightened. “Look, I ain’t going to eat you. Not any of you. It’s true I eat meat where I come from, but they’re only farm animals.”
“To the Guardians, we are only farm animals.”
There it was again, a reference to the Guardians. “What do you mean? Who are these Guardians?”
A new wave of terror made the Elder shake. “The evilest monsters in the universe. They are also from another planet, and they have an open tunnel like the one you came through. They farm us and eat us.”
“Can’t you close the tunnel?”
“We could, easily, but they guard the doodad.”
“On a tower they erected on a hill near to here.”
Bert nodded. “The Citadel I could see when I got here?”
Bert showed a palm up to stop the Elder from piling on more misery. “Look, as soon as I’ve finished this delicious porridge I’ll pop back to me own planet and leave you in peace.”
“You can never leave.”
It took a moment for Bert’s brain to register what the Elder had said. Even then, he thought he must have heard wrong. “Never leave? Why?”
“Because the Guardians know we have opened another tunnel and they are looking for it. If they find it, they will invade your planet.”
A sharp, disgusted snort broke from Bert. “Our people aren’t passive like you lot. If those Guardians come to our world, we’d clobber them good and proper.”
“Perhaps, but their weapon technology is awesome. They have a hand-held ray gun that destroys anything it touches. One sweep would wipe out this entire village.”
Bert raised his eyebrows and gave a glassy stare. “Listen, mate, I can’t live here. I’ll starve to death.”
“My friend,” said the Elder, “I am deeply sorry and will punish the woman who kidnapped you.” He offered a deep sigh and troubled expression. “The day the Guardians discover you they will kill you, but isn’t that better than they follow you back to your planet and kill or enslave your entire population of Berts and Vegans?”
To be continued…
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