Meredith hopped into the back of the Landrover. Bunter chipped in with a prompt to put on the seat belt: clunk click every trip [smiley face]. There was also a social cue:
“This is so kind of you – thank you.”
“Oh, no trouble, bach, we’re heading that way anyway.” This from the driver. A sub-routine of the AI – one that hadn’t achieved sentience and independence – tagged this individual as male. A warning flag appeared: the driver was adolescent, albeit coming to the end of this development age, and hence prone to naturally occurring chemical fluctuations that could cause risk-taking.
“I’m Owain, by the way, and this is my sister Esther.” Meredith could see Owain using some kind of primitive mirror to look into the back of the car. The boy had his attention on the road, but he couldn’t help being intrigued by his passenger’s outfit.
“We’re going to pick up my sister. She went to a party there.” The sub-routine labelled the person in the passenger seat as an adolescent girl, but just coming into this stage. “Why are you heading there?”
“Oh, I’m just doing some walking around here. I camped up on the mountain last night and when I came down this morning I realised that I’d gone a bit off course. There’s no where to get anything to eat in Llangynidr, and Crickhowell looked to be the closest place to sit down and have a bit of a think. Is there anywhere you’d recommend?”
“Hm. Well, I quite like Number 18 –
“Oh, you would! Trying to be trendy!”
“You be quiet, or I’ll not give you a lift again!” The boy’s words sounded serious , but Meredith was beginning to get a feel for tone, and accompanying facial expressions and realised this was not the case. “I suppose you’d recommend Bookish!”
“Nothing wrong with having a read at the same time as getting a drink – you should try it sometime.”
“That’s always so busy – lots of families with little ones.”
“How about that new one – down by the art centre. I know it’s a bit out of the town, but it would put us in the right place for picking up Nerys.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.” Meredith tried to decide if it would be better to part company sooner, and avoid the complication of an extended contact, or to stick with the encounter and gather further information.
“Oh, no trouble. We’ve got a little bit of shopping to do, but that’ll keep. Be nice to check out the new place.”
They drove through the town centre, passing a mix of shops that seemed like they’d been there forever, or that they’d popped up yesterday. It was still quite early really, but the town was definitely waking up, and starting to get busy. On through the town centre and out the other side. The road took on a more residential feel, and after only a minute or two they came upon a stone building that looked old, but not ancient. It was a large, single story building, with gabled rooves. It was set back slightly from the road and had its own small car park. Bunter informed Meredith that it was an old school, approximately 150 Earth cycles old.
No one noticed as a CCTV camera followed the small group across from the Landrover to the front door.
They entered the building: to the left was the gallery and a sign pointed to studios and the café to the right. Owain opened the door and led the way into a short corridor. Here there was one door at the far end and a couple of doors on the left. The door into the café was open and they walked straight in. The space was light and airy: the walls were painted white and pictures for sale hung on three of the four walls. The high ceiling had a couple of skylights that let in lots of natural light. Sturdy tables made of a light-coloured wood and of various sizes were scattered around in no particular pattern, grouped with chairs in twos and fours. Subtly, Meredith tried to steer them to one of the larger tables which was as much in the shadow as it was possible to be – at least it wasn’t in the direct light coming from above.
A cheery soul was behind the counter and welcomed them in; she was alone, and the party were clearly her first three customers of the day.
“What can I get you my dears?”
Owain started the proceedings by ordering a large latte and a large slice of bara brith, complete with butter and marmalde.
“Oh! You are greedy Owain,” Esther exclaimed, “you’ve only just had breakfast!”
“Breakfast was hours ago, and I’ve been working on the car for Nerys. Unlike you, I spend more time doing things than with my nose in a book.”
Esther gave him a nudge in the ribs with the boney of elbow of gangly 12 year old. She went for a fruit tea and piece of short bread.
“It looks so good, I don’t know what to go for,” said Meredith, gazing at the counter and trying to work out what everything was. Bunter immediately popped up with several suggestions, including one for a drink with a big pile of sculpted white stuff, topped off by a scattering of multicoloured strands and a small red sphere. Meredith muted the programme.
“I’ll think I’ll just have a filter coffee, please, and a piece of the toffee blondie.” Meredith saw that Owain was pulling out his wallet. There was no need for the cue here: “No, please let me get this, as a thank you for the lift.”
There was gentle back and forth as Owain accepted, with grace, but not too easily.
“I’ll bring everything over to you, cywion” said the lady behind the counter, the term of endearment clearly an automatic reflex.
They sat down at the table and started talking about life in the valleys and rebuilding the car and so on. Neither Owain nor Esther noticed that Meredith was adept at steering the conversation away from anything to do with their purpose here. The drinks and cakes were brought over with a “there you my dears” and “have you got everything you need?” and “just shout if you need anything”. They tucked in: Meredith had never tasted anything like this before and was wondering about the feasibility of getting some coffee plants to take back home. And a cook book…
“So where are you heading next then, bach?” Owain asked.
“I’d quite like to see Llyn-y-Fan Fach, but I don’t know if I’ve got enough time.”
“Hm. Well, it’s about an hour’s drive from here, I guess, depending which way you go, but I don’t think that you could walk it in a day. I’d be tempted to get the bus from here to Brecon, stay in the youth hostel or something and then walk up to the lake from there. Are you planning to camp there?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it. I’d like to do some…sketching there.”
“Have you got a map? I’ll show you the roads.”
It was at this point that Meredith started to feel uncomfortable. The AI hadn’t flagged there being a problem with any of the food and drink, but it was not settling lightly on what a medical person would describe as Meredith’s stomach. Things were taking a decided turn for the worse, and rapidly. Meredith was just about to excuse himself when a group of men burst through the door. They did not look friendly. They threaded their way through the tables raising pistols to point at the three at the table. Owain’s chair scraped back; Esther looked on with open mouth. By chance the lady behind the counter had stepped out to a back room, so it was just Meredith and friends surrounded by half a dozen gunsels.
“Just stay where you are sonny, and no ones gonna get hurt.” It was not a local accent. He pointed at Meredith “You’re coming with us. Now.”
Meredith stood. The term ‘technicolour yawn’ was unfamiliar to Owain and Esther; it was a phrase that was more familiar to their grandparents. But if they had known it, it would have been perfect for the current situation as rainbow coloured liquid burst from Meredith’s mouth and sprayed over the gunmen. Unknown to Meredith, the coffee contained trace amounts of dimethyl disulphide and butanediamine, and it was these that had reacted unexpectedly with the alien’s digestive system. Even AIs make mistakes. Still, every cloud has a silver lining: the spectacular outcome of this natural chemistry was the perfect distraction. Fighting to overcome the effects of losing everything consumed in the last 24 hours, Meredith jumped and simultaneously changed shape, shedding clothes in the process. Initially the shape became a long thin cylinder, but as the tip of the cylinder touched the ceiling, Meredith’s body contracted into a sphere: from here it was a question of playing the angles. At this point the gunmen were still concerned over the vomit that had landed on them, and were discovering that the liquid was starting to eat holes in clothes. Incipient panic boiled over as they tried to react to the sudden movement through the fog that fear of chemical burns and disgust of wearing someone else’s stomach contents had created in their minds. Before they could start stringing coherent thoughts together, the men were bowled over by what appeared to be an oversized basketball. Somehow the alien managed to miss all of the works of art and all of the other furniture, bouncing off wall, ceiling, and heavies, to create a highly localised zone of carnage.
The sphere rolled to a stop by the small pile of clothes that had crumpled to the floor during the unconventional disrobing; Meredith put the clothes back on as he had the first time, shaping the body to suit the clothes from the inside.
Adjusting the glasses, hat, and scarf, there was a realisation that the boy and girl were staring at him. With the men on the floor beginning to groan, Meredith said “Thank you for your help this morning, I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry if I’ve got you into any trouble. I’d better get going, and I think you should find some where to lie low too.”
© David Jesson, 2019
During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.
The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning. All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story. Every month there is a poll on some feature or another. Now we need to work out whether Meredith is going to get some assistance from Owain and Esther, or whether it’s time to part company.
Option 1: Head for the hills!
Option 2: Head for somewhere busy!
Option 3: Part company – Meredith should get a bus out of town or something.
Option 4: Plan B (Please comment on what you think Plan B is!).
I‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for one week, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time. Feel free to expand on the options in the comments! I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you think this is heading!
See you next month!