DaVic wondered what he should do.
Had the klaxon been an alarm? Were the Obnitorians under attack? And if yes, by whom? Could it be that RaBlu’s goons — he was sure that it was RaBlu who had him tailed — had found him somehow?
Salix had ordered him to stay here. But he hadn’t become Sir Lanka’s most successful — “And only,” his inner voice interjected — PI by sitting around. “Hah, you do that a lot anyway,” jeered his inner voice.
He ignored the jeering. If it was RaBlu’s thugs, it was better that he didn’t sit around waiting for them to find him.
DaVic dragged himself out of the bed … Bed? He paused and looked down at what he’d been lying in. It looked more like a large soil tank than a bed. He just hadn’t noticed amidst all that had been going on. What were they trying to do to him — plant him?
He pushed that thought aside. He had no time for thoughts of soil beds right now. He had to find out what was going on.
The klaxon stopped abruptly. The silence was blessed. His eardrums were free of the assault of noise. But he still had no idea why the klaxon had sounded or why it stopped so abruptly.
The steam made it difficult to see where the entrances might be. There might have been fifteen different doorways leading out of the place for all he knew, but he could see nary a one since the muggy steam seemed to clog up everything, including his eyes.
Perhaps following Salix was the best course of action? He must have been heading towards a door, right? DaVice inched forward through the warm seething mist in the direction that he’d seen Salix take. After what seemed like way too much time — was the steam making him lose his direction, he wondered — he arrived at a door.
Thankfully, the door was not locked — it swished open as he approached it. DaVic walked through, not sure of what to expect. All he saw was a long empty corridor, thankfully devoid of any steam at all. Ah, that was much better!
He hurried along the corridor. There were several doors on either side along the way, but his gut told him that Salix probably was headed towards whatever was at the end of the corridor. So he kept walking.
There wasn’t much to see. The building, or at least the corridor, appeared to be constructed of the same prefab plastic that had become popular since the arrival of the aliens. It was featureless, grey-beige stuff that was just boring enough to put anyone to sleep were they to stare at it for too long.
The occasional door he passed by had numbers on them but nothing else to indicate their purpose. He imagined various plant-like beings — did all the Obnitorians look like Salix, or did they have different features like humans did, he wondered — engaged in all sorts of debauchery. Maybe they had huge swimming pools that the Obnitorians caroused in loudly and merrily?
“What are you, some bard of olden times?” his inner voice sneered at him. DaVic ignored it and continued plodding down the passage.
Eventually he came to the end of the corridor, but instead of a door, he found an elevator. Well rather, he did find a door, but it was the door of an elevator.
He tapped the button to open the door, walked in, and noticed that the control panel did not indicate any floor numbers. It simply had a single button. He vaguely recalled Salix telling him something about the Obnitorians preferring to stay underground. So they must be underground now!
“Ooh, you are a proper detective, aren’t you?” mocked his inner voice. DaVic was used to his inner voice’s abuse and didn’t even give it a second thought. He simply tapped the button saying, “Up it is!”
He half expected guards to grab him as soon as he came out of the elevator. But instead, there was just a well-lit short hallway when he stepped out of the elevator.
There was yet another door at the end of the hallway. This one was not an automatic door though — you had to operate it manually.
He pushed the door open a crack and peeped in.
Whatever he had been expecting — “Plants running around naked?” his inner voice prompted. Did they actually wear clothes, DaVic idly wondered — what he saw wasn’t it.
It looked like an ordinary shop you found on any street in Sir Lanka. Sure, some of the shops in the city could be rather weird. For example, they sold jack. Not jack-all. Or even jacks for lifting heavy objects, but jackfruit — a fruit that required so much work to eat that you ended up wondering if all that trouble was worth jack-all?
This shop seemed a little different. For one, he could not see any goods for sale. It was clean, neat, and very antiseptic looking. The walls were shiny white, and the counters so clean that he bet you could eat off them — not that they’d let you, he guessed.
There was an old woman on the far side of the counter. She had grey-streaked hair that was sternly covered with a black scarf. She might have been crying recently since her eyes were red. She was dressed in a dusty black dress and she appeared to be talking tersely with the person behind the counter.
It was the person behind the counter who was the biggest surprise of all to DaVic. He had expected Salix to be there. Instead, it was a meek and tiny little man. He seemed to be dressed like a store clerk, or at least in what approximated to store clerk attire in DaVic’s mind, and he seemed to be listening earnestly to what the woman was saying.
Where was Salix, he wondered. Was this shop where the Obnitorians did their dealings with people? If so, what had happened to Salix? Did he instruct the clerk at the counter from behind the scenes? Maybe he was in one of the rooms in the passage downstairs, DaVic speculated.
But then, what had the klaxon been about? Was the building not under attack afterall?
So many questions without answers. He had to find Salix, DaVic decided. The question was whether he should go in and ask the clerk now or wait till the woman left.
While he debated with himself, the woman had concluded her discussions with the clerk. She appeared to be making a payment — at least, DaVic figured that’s what she was doing since she had fished out a POD from her pocket and was tapping on the screen. The clerk was waiting politely, but with that ineffable air of smugness that clerks all over have after having made a successful sale.
The woman concluded her payment, which was acknowledged by the clerk, said something further, nodded, and left. Now the clerk was all alone in the shop. DaVic was just about to head into the shop when he realized that the clerk was in fact walking towards the door that he was peering through.
He hastily backed away from the door but wasn’t quick enough to make it to the elevator. The door opened fully and the clerk came through.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, but in Salix’s voice.
DaVic stared at him, his mouth half open.
“Wha … how … I mean … How are you human?”
The clerk paused, looked down at himself, and then seemed to touch something in his jacket and then in the blink of an eye, the clerk disappeared and in his place stood Salix.
“Sorry, I had forgotten about the PRDF,” he said, as if that was explanation enough.
“PRDF?” repeated DaVic.
“Personal Reality Distortion Field. Maybe those aren’t as common over here? Comes in handy when you have to deal with a race that is perturbed by your appearance.”
“Nope, haven’t heard of one of those before. You mean it’s a gadget that makes you look human?”
“Human, or any other race. You can select from a variety of races …”
“Oh?” said DaVic, his mind already racing at the possibilities. “Can it make me look like someone else? I mean a different human, not an alien?”
“Ah, so then I can use this device — what did you call it, PRDF? — to roam freely around the city if, for example, people were looking for me?”
“You could, but only if you wanted to stay hidden for like two minutes.”
“The PRDF draws a lot of power — it needs to generate a holographic field around you, monitor your movements and mirror them, and do a thousand other adjustments. That consumes a huge amount of power. And the batteries on the PRDF last only like two minutes.”
“So how come you were using that out there? I bet at least some of your customers take longer than two minutes!” said DaVic, looking at Salix skeptically.
“Oh, the shop floor has a wireless charging plate built in. You can maintain the illusion in there all day long if necessary. As long as the power doesn’t go out, of course.”
“But you don’t have a way to carry a charger with you?” asked DaVic hopefully.
“Well, you can carry a charger, but how are you going to power it?” asked Salix, almost as if explaining things to a child.
“Hmm …. Carry more batteries?” hazarded DaVic.
“You are going to go round and round on that one, I’m afraid,” said Salix sounding suspiciously like he was holding back a snicker. “The fact is that if you were walking around the city, you’d need really big batteries to power this thing. It’s not practical.”
DaVic’s mind, ever the flitting butterfly, had moved on to other matters by then though.
“What about the klaxon earlier? Was that warning of an attack?”
“No. It was just a signal that a customer was in the shop.”
Huh. DaVic had not considered that. Loud noises usually meant alarms to him. Maybe the Obnitorians thought differently?
“What do you do in that shop of yours?” he asked.
“As I told you, we conduct trade with humans for resources.”
“That old lady didn’t look like a miner to me. What kind of resources was she selling you?”
Salix seemed to hesitate for the briefest of moments.
“Have you heard of the Shake and Rake?”
“Isn’t that the new funeral business which came up a few months back? They apparently freeze your body, break it down into components, and then use the components in gardening or something …”
DaVic trailed off as realization hit him sideways like an out of control train.
“Hold on … Don’t tell me that your shop is the Shake and Rake?”
Salix seemed to ponder this for longer than it should have taken to respond. “Do you want me to tell your or not?” he asked finally.
“So you are the Shake and Rake?”
“So what do you guys do? You take dead bodies and eat them?” squeaked DaVic, looking at Salix in horror.
“Don’t be silly,” replied Salix. “We don’t eat humans. We do exactly what we promise — we dip the bodies in a liquid nitrogen bath, and then we vibrate the body till it breaks down into powder. We separate out the metals and other useful elements for later use and we use what’s left as nutrients for growing food.”
“So you don’t eat anything?”
“Well, we eat the food grown from the process I described.”
“So what are the resources that you mentioned that you send back to your planet?”
“We send back some of the metals and other elements we extract. While they might be trace elements in the human body, when you have a lot of bodies, it does add up.”
“Huh. I hadn’t thought of that …”
DaVic had been considering his own situation as they talked. His biggest concern at the moment was staying hidden since he had no idea who was after him. “Or, why” added his inner voice.
If he could evade detection by whoever was after him and get to BoBo’s by evening, he could probably get some answers as to what was going on. The PRDF had given him an idea as to how he could do this.
“Could I borrow your PRDF for a day?” he asked Salix.
“And why would I lend you a valuable piece of equipment? You are a perfect stranger to me,” replied the other.
“Hello, my name is DaVic. Pleased to meet you, Salix. There, now we are not strangers at all,” he paused a beat and then continued, “There’s also the matter of you guys kidnapping me…”
“We did not kidnap you.”
“Yes, but would the Cheese see it that way? You know how they are. They might take a look at your business and decide that they want a cut of it …”
Salix seemed to hesitate. Not that DaVic could tell for sure, but at least, the Obnitorian did not say anything and remained quiet as if thinking.
“And consider what might happen if the people here learnt that a bunch of aliens were taking human bodies,” continued DaVic, trying to be persuasive.
“Plus, I’ll throw in my services for you at a steep discount,” he added as a clincher.
“Your services? What do you do?”
“I’m a private investigator. I know all the ins and outs of the city and I could be very, very useful to you.”
“You didn’t know about us,” pointed out Salix.
“But now that I do, imagine how useful I could be. Any time you have any trouble with the Cheese, for example, I could be your guy. I could talk to them and smooth things over. You wouldn’t even have to go out…”
“Hmm … that does sound useful,” Salix paused. “Plus, we might have a situation where we could use your help.”