25: By the Shores of the Red
The kids shaded their eyes as they shot out into a small clearing. Metal tents lay scattered around on the trampled dirt, and a heavily scarred, bony Gorlock was throwing logs on the bonfire in the center. Beyond the clearing, an expanse of red water lapped against the rocky shore. Its wiggly surface-reflections shimmered over the axe that the Gorlock wore strapped to his back.
“Who goes there?” he called, straightening.
Lee shouted back. “General Garr-Nor, it is me, Leeee-RAAH-doh, second squad commander. And if I may say, you are looking exceptionally fierce today, sir.”
General Nor squinted up at the saddle. “Oh, Lee. I did not recognize you. Say, what are those weird-looking things up there with you? Can we eat them?”
“Not this time, sir. They are visitors.”
General Nor’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“Don’t feel bad,” said Sheen. “You wouldn’t like us anyway. Carl is way too fattening!”
Another Gorlock, a hulking, buxom female, emerged from one of the metal tents. She was dressed in plates of scaled armor that lay awkwardly over her ample frame. An animal fur of some kind dangled from her shoulders like a feather boa.
“What did you say about fat?” she asked, tapping one foot.
Future Libby’s eyes grew wide. “O-oh, no, you see, he just meant that…”
“…Because I have never heard such a sweet compliment! I am so flattered! Thank you little…uh…what is that thing, Lee? I just love it!”
“It is a side dish,” grumbled General Nor, “but Lee says we can’t eat it.”
“It is so cute! I want it for a pet! Lee, can I have it?”
Lee shook his head. “Certainly not, Bilka. I cannot give it to you. It is not mine.”
She shrugged. “Oh, well, that is not a problem. I will steal it later. In the meantime, can I interest you in some food? I have Kragor beans boiling in the tent, and there is a succulent Grorrgnog roasting over the fire…”
The kids recoiled. “Nooo!!”
“That sounds excellent!” said Lee. “We will eat while we are waiting for the council to begin.”
Lee dismounted and helped his guests climb down from the saddle. Carl tumbled off and fell in a heap, and Sheen did a flying leap into a fern bush. He sat up, a fern sticking out of the back of his shirt.
“This place is wicked! Hey Libs, check this!” He stuck two ferns to the front of his head like a pair of giant antenna. “Now I look just like Mothra X from Ultralord episode 229! Oh no! The flame! Not the flame! It’s drawing me in! Ahhh!!” Sheen staggered toward the bonfire in the center of the clearing, swerving and grabbing at his fern antennae in mock agony. “Ah! Cursed feelers! Why do you betray me? Nyooo!”
Bilka clapped her hands together. “Oh my, what an entertaining creature! I must have one!” She caught Sheen by the wrist and dragged him toward one of the metal tents. “Come, you can help me prepare the Kragor beans!”
He tried to resist, but she snatched him up and squeezed him in a crushing hug. His eyes bulged as she tousled his hair and rocked back and forth in glee.
Sheen mouthed the word to Libby. “Help…”
“Have fun!” she laughed, wiggling her fingers at him.
Bilka and a miserable looking Sheen disappeared into the tent, and Nor glumly led the rest of the group to the bonfire. A ring of mossy stones encircled the fire pit; Nor took a seat on one of them, and the rest of the group followed his example.
Carl squirmed. “It's weird, but my seat is kind of hard…”
“Duh!” said Cindy. “It’s a rock!”
Future Libby attempted to sit down in a ladylike manner, but fell clean over when two small Gorlock children dashed past her. Both were girls, but they differed greatly in appearance. One wore black leather under a tight metal waistband and silver suspenders. She wielded a thorny stick and ululated wildly as she chased the other little girl, who was wearing a dress made of lilac colored fur. The girl in lilac was covered in nicks and scrapes, and a cut beneath her left eye oozed a stream of blood.
The girl in purple threw up her arms to ward off the blows. “Ai! Stop it Nakki! You are hurting me!”
“Ppppfffttt! Pathetic, thin-wristed nothing! Fight back Wenna, or I will hit you harder!”
Nakki chased Wenna around the circle of stones, swinging her thorny club and yelling all the while. The visitors stared incredulously, but Lee and General Nor seemed oblivious to the commotion.
“Aiiiiii! MOTHER!!” cried Wenna. “Nakki will not stop hitting me! She is hurting me! Stop! Stop!”
Bilka emerged from the tent, carrying a steaming cauldron whose contents sloshed around with each swaying step.
“How many times have I told you Wenna? This type of behavior is pathetic. When Nakki hits you, fight back! If someone hits you with a stick, find a bigger one! This is the Gorlock way of life. If you cannot accept that, then you will not survive.”
Bilka waddled back inside the tent, and Nakki sneered at her sister.
“Failure!” she said, sticking out her tongue. “Pathetic! You will be slain in battle!”
Nakki raised her hand to strike her sister again, and Wenna braced herself for the blow. Future Libby caught Nakki’s wrist.
“That’s enough! I’m not gonna sit around and watch a little kid get beat up!”
Both of the Gorlock girls looked up at the human woman, whose face was contorted into a surprisingly angry scowl. “Nakki, or whatever your name is, you don’t have any right to hit your sister, you hear me? This kind of fightin’ is what gets everyone into trouble. I don’t wanna see it again. Got it?” She glared fiercely at Nakki, who returned the favor. She turned to the other girl, and her expression softened. “Now, Wenna, is that your name?”
“Y-Yes…” she sniffled.
Future Libby patted her lap. “Come sit, Wenna. You don’t deserve to be beat up. Kay?”
Wenna obeyed, and Nakki laughed scornfully. “What sort of thing are you? You like weak children?”
“Actin' nice is not the same thing as bein' weak,” said Future Libby firmly.
“Bleh! Loser! Maybe I should hit you too!”
“I wouldn’t do that, Nakki,” said Lee. “This woman is a friend of Aurora and April.”
Nakki fell silent for a moment, then grinned nastily before dashing off into the forest.
“Phew,” whistled Cindy, “and I thought human kids had problems.”
Future Libby smiled down at the tiny Gorlock sitting on her lap. “You OK, sweetie?”
Wenna gazed up at Future Libby and nodded slowly. She had big, shining eyes and long lashes. “I’m…I’m sorry to be rude, but is that true? Do you know Aurora and April?”
“Sure do. Aurora an’ I were best friends when we were your age.”
“Wow. Aurora and April are so strong and brave. I wish I could be like them. But I am not like my sister. I will never be good enough to be a soldier.”
Future Libby tousled her hair. “That’s OK! Everyone’s good at different things. We don’t all have to be a certain way to be important.”
Wenna stared into the fire. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“Well, now you do,” said Future Libby, trying to sound cheerful. “Hey look, you hungry? I think your Mom is done cookin’.”
Bilka exited the tent laden with bizarre food, and Sheen staggered out behind her, wobbling from side to side as he attempted to carry a heavy pot. As soon as he laid eyes on Wenna perched atop Libby’s lap, he let go of the cauldron, and it dropped like a stone. Orange, chunky material sprayed out all over everything, including Bilka.
“What gives? How come she gets to sit on Libbylicious’s lap?! That is so unfair!”
“Ugh!” cried Bilka. “You call that unfair? Now I am covered in the melli-melli. Lee, I have changed my mind. This creature is more trouble than it is worth. I will not be stealing him any time soon. Oh! The melli-melli is all over the ground too!”
She stooped over, and to everyone’s astonishment, began scooping the mush back into the cauldron. Twigs, stones, and clumps of dirt found their way into the mix along with the melli-melli.
The visitors recoiled for a second time. “Euuugghh, oh yuck!”
Bilka hoisted the pot and waddled over to them. She set it down, then lumbered back into the tent, oblivious to their revulsion. When she came back, she carried two wooden bowls filled with what appeared to be ordinary baked beans. Bilka set them down by the fire, and the kids eyed the contents suspiciously.
“Are those…Kragor beans?” asked Jimmy.
“Why yes!” said Bilka. “Do you like them? I will ladle some into a…aiii! Wenna, I have forgotten! Will you fetch us some plates?”
Wenna hopped down from Future Libby’s lap and dashed off. Libby cautiously pointed at the wooden bowls.
“So lemme get this straight…these are actual beans, right? As in…the plant? Cause I don’t wanna wake up tomorrow and find out I ate some freaky pile o’ sloth guts or somethin’.”
“Oh yes, they are beans from the ground. They’re not very strong tasting, but that is why we have the melli-melli here!” Bilka kicked the cauldron with her foot, sending globs of the stuff running down the sides. She huffed impatiently. “Wenna! What are you doing? Hurry up with those plates!”
The tiny Gorlock returned carrying a stack of leaves, each carefully folded into the shape of a bowl. Wenna handed the makeshift tableware to General Nor, who took one and passed the rest down the line. Jimmy stared down at his quizzically, examining its network of watertight creases.
“You eat out of folded leaves?”
“Of course,” answered Lee. “As a mobile society, disposable dinnerware is a necessity.”
Jimmy turned the bowl over in his hands. “Huh. Interesting…”
“Well?” prompted Bilka. “Are you going to eat?”
Jimmy rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess…after all, as guests to a foreign…erm…place, it’s only polite to at least try the food. Hey Lee, can I…”
He was cut off when Nor and Lee dove for the larger bowl of Kragor beans. They shoved handfuls of the stuff into their leaf bowls, and then, snarling at each other, raced to scoop piles of melli-melli onto it.
Cindy scowled. “Eww! Ever heard of table manners?”
Nor bared his teeth in response.
“I can see where April gets her charming eating habits from,” said Libby, wrinkling her nose.
“What are you waiting for?” said Bilka. “Take the Kragor beans, or you will not get any!”
Future Libby took the remaining bowl and, after giving it a nervous sniff, suddenly brightened. “Mmm! Smells tasty!”
She poured a small portion into her leaf, then passed it on. The kids did the same.
“Well?” ventured Jimmy.
“OK,” said Libby, “on the count of three, we’ll all take a bite. One…two…three!”
Various chewing noises and sounds of delight ensued.
“Mm-Mm-Mmmm!” approved Carl. “They’re even better than Plutonian Gut Chunks!”
“I'm just glad we're not munching on mud and sticks,” said Cindy.
The melli-melli let out a distinctly unappetizing gurgle, and a chunk of orange mush sailed out. It hit Sheen square on the stomach, then slid down his torso, leaving a trail of thick slime in its wake.
“Wow, what are the odds? Check it out, babes! I’ve got melli-melli jelly on my belly!”
They all groaned. “Sheen!”
Jimmy rubbed his head. “Are the quips really necessary?”
“What? I'm bored!”
“Um, I'm bored, but you don’t see me acting like a total whack-job,” shot back Cindy.
Jimmy snickered in response. “Ha…haha…”
Cindy threw him a vicious stare, but then snapped to attention at the sound of a loud drum somewhere in the distance.
Lee perked up. “That is the drum signaling the commencement of the Gorlock Council. We must leave at once!”
“Ah, Lee!” protested General Nor. “You really wish to go listen to a bunch of young know-nothings and foreigners discuss a war that isn’t even on our soil? You should stay with me, and listen to my stories of the glory days during the Civil War!”
Lee darkened. “April is NOT a know-nothing. Besides, I must bring our guests to the meeting.”
Nor didn’t bother to dignify him with a response, so Lee got up and gestured for the others to follow. Before leaving, he let out a loud burp.
“Thank you for the meal, Bilka,” he said, patting his stomach. “It was filling.”
“Glad to see you liked it!”
She turned to the kids and waited. They stood around awkwardly, not sure of what to do.
“Why is she looking at us like that?” whispered Carl.
Jimmy snapped his fingers. “She’s waiting for us to burp! Remember how April said it was an insult in Gorlock culture if you don’t burp after a meal? Quick, everyone, expel gas from your digestive tract!”
A chorus of rather disgusting-sounding belches followed, considerably enhanced by Carl’s earth-rumbling burp at the end.
He covered his mouth daintily. “‘Scuse me.”
“Ah! Very good!” smiled Bilka. “Well, goodbye alien guests. May you be always victorious!”
Waving goodbye to their Gorlock hosts, Lee and the humans took their leave of the encampment and headed out toward the grassy plain leading to the capitol building.
Libby looked out at the expanse. “You gotta be kiddin’ me…you want us to walk that whole way? Jimmy, can’t we ride on Goddard or something’, like we did on Mars?”
“Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m worried about Goddard’s battery. The tinted Gorlock atmosphere cuts out the type of UV rays that he normally uses to recharge. He’s been running on limited power for a couple of hours now.”
To confirm, Goddard hung his head and whimpered.
Cindy crossed her arms. “Looks like we’re getting a workout.”
-> Chapter 26
by Toni (AKA f-virus-d). You are such a sweetheart, thanks a ton for
all the gift art!