Chapter 17: Under Pressure
The ship was not quite what Keith had expected. Judging by the exterior, he expected it to be something out of a sci-fi movie: overly futuristic, with LED light strips and complex button panels on every wall. But that wasn't what he was seeing.
He and the others walked into a wide corridor, which seemed much longer than the ship should logically be. A faint, herbal smell filled his nose. Was it... sage? And there was a sweet and delicate undertone, too. Lavender?
The walls were covered in purple daisy wallpaper, but it was hard to see under all the photographs and decorations. There were the typical "Live, Laugh, Love" signs, as well as photos of the squad. Was it... really a squad, though? In all of the photos, he only ever saw three people. There were two or three photos that had been turned around, and there were awkward empty spaces where photos obviously should have been.
Keith looked around. He had known these people for less than 10 minutes, but he had a hunch as to who decorated the place. Sylvie was walking in front of all of them, her steps light and bouncy. Rei followed closely, and Flaw followed behind everyone.
They came to a door with kitchen utensil stickers. Sylvie opened it, and the whole corridor exploded with the smell of sage and lavender.
The kitchen was—unsurprisingly—purple. Its layout reminded Keith of a college dorm kitchen, although it was bigger than the one he had had. The room was much taller and much wider than it really needed to be, but it was the perfect size for everyone else. It made him feel tiny.
There was incense burning on an accent table—this was the source of the herbal scent. Keith didn’t know what Sylvie had done to make it so strong.
“Stay right here,” she said, “I’m going to go start the ship.”
A few minutes later, she was back. A low, mechanical hum filled Keith’s ears.
Immediately, she got to work. She opened up a cabinet and got out a strange device. It was most likely a kettle of some sort, but there was really no telling; it was sleek and geometric and shaped like a handbag. She poured in some water, clicked a button, and set it on the counter. It immediately started to make electronic noises. It was kind of mesmerizing, in a sense, to watch her do this; it was like those ‘oddly satisfying’ videos Keith sometimes watched.
She looked back and realized that everyone was still standing. “Please, sit down,” she implored, shortly returning back to her task. Keith hadn’t realized he was standing. As she pulled a box out of a cabinet, her wolf tail wagged from side to side.
There was an island in the middle of the kitchen, with lilac barstool chairs. On the side of the island, though, was a weird-looking bench. The bench was narrow and cushioned and curved upwards at the front. Its presence made more sense once Flax settled into it. He laid on it, leaning forward with the curve of the chair. Keith had always wondered how creatures like him used chairs.
Keith sat near the door. Molly jumped off of his head and sat in the seat next to him. Her head barely peeked over the island. He surveyed the room. Flax and Rei’s translator necklaces complimented the purple-ness of the kitchen,
Speaking of which…
Rei sat across from him. She was positioned in a way that made it look like she was… watching him. He could not see the entirety of her face, but he could tell that she was squinting in his direction.
Keith didn’t know what he had done wrong. Had he broken some unspoken social code? Had he accidentally done something offensive? Was she just overly protective of her friends? Or was it something else—something deeper—something much more personal?
He looked away from her, trying to hide his shudder.
After a few minutes of silence, it was broken by the screech of the kettle. Sylvie filled two tea cups (which were already equipped with tea bags) and handed them to Keith and Molly. She also placed a plate of cookies on the table. They looked premade; they were tan in color with jam in the middle.
He picked up the cup and looked in. The tea was faintly blue in color. The aroma was simply indescribable—it wasn’t herbal, but it wasn’t artificial either; it wasn’t bitter, but it wasn’t sweet; it simply was.
He took a sip. The taste was completely new to him; it wasn’t like anything he had ever tasted before. As he swallowed, his eyelids began to droop—not so much so that he would completely fall asleep, but just enough so that the world was a little hazy.
He didn’t really want a cookie, but he took one just to be nice. The jam was orange and tasted like peach. He ended up taking another.
Meanwhile, Molly drank the tea in big gulps. Once she had drunk it all, she let out a burp and jumped out of her seat. “Thank you, Miss Sylvie!” She said. Clearly, the tea’s calming properties did not affect her.
She then tried to stuff too many cookies in her mouth. When Keith scolded her, she simply made her mouth bigger and swallowed all of them at once. Everyone seemed amused (even Rei, who was obviously trying to hide it), except for Keith. He just sighed and shook his head.
There was an awkward silence all across the room, as nobody was quite sure how to carry on the conversation.
“So,” Keith said, “who exactly do you guys work for?” He hoped that this wasn’t ‘common knowledge.’ He hoped that he didn’t sound rude or demanding.
He hoped he hadn’t accidentally outed himself as an Earthling.
Sylvie sat down. She opened her mouth, but then Rei began to speak. “We are a non-profit organization, and our mission is to protect the natural state and order of the universe. We catch criminals, regulate inter-dimensional travel, resolve crises, and much more.” Rei seemed very knowledgeable on the subject. It also seemed like she would talk about it for hours if nobody stopped her.
Flax continued where she left off. “Our division specifically helps folks through disasters and accidents. But, of course, we’ve never had something this big happen…” he trailed off, looking to the ground.
Keith was still kind of confused; he didn’t really understand how the ‘universe’ or ‘dimensions’ even worked! He must have shown this through his face, because Sylvie reached out and touched his hand. He jumped back a little.
“Hey,” she said, “I know everything is probably super scary right now, but we’re gonna get you back home. I promise.” She smiled. Keith tried to smile too, but it was hard to hide his anxiety—it looked more like an awkward grimace.
“Now, what dimension are you from? We can get you there by…” she thought about it for a second. “…tomorrow.”
Keith stared up at her, his face somehow paler than it already was. He glanced at Flax for a second, pleading for him to come up with something.
Flax cleared his throat. “Actually, Sylvie, I think he lost his memory.”
Sylvie turned to Flax, one of her ears pointed upwards.
Flax paused, trying to think of what else to say. “Yes, I saw him fall out of a portal. It seemed like he hit his head pretty hard.” Keith nodded slowly, for extra affirmation.
For a minute, he felt Avery’s presence. Their arrival was signaled with a chill up his spine and a faint, unintelligible whisper in the back of his mind. Keith didn’t know how to explain it, but it felt like Avery was… displeased. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel their disapproving stare on the back of his head.
Well, what else do you want me to do? He mentally said to them. He… wasn’t actually sure if they could read his thoughts in the waking world, but it was worth a shot anyway.
Sylvie’s eyes widened as she gasped. Her ears both pointed down. She paused for a minute, before finally speaking. “Oh… I see… Rei, there’s got to be something we can do, right?”
Rei tilted her head down, considering. “Well, we could… bring him to the memory lab at the headquarters. Even if they’re still working out the kinks, it should work well for that one specific memory.”
Keith gulped. Whatever a “memory lab” was, it didn’t sound fun. He could just imagine himself strapped to a chair, wires hooked up to his brain, sending electrical signals through his neurons to extract his memories. And the fact that it was still “working out the kinks” made it so much worse. He shuddered just thinking about it.
Sylvie nodded in agreement. “That sounds good. I’ll contact them later today.”
She turned to Keith and Molly. “It looks like you’re going to be staying with us for the night. Not to worry, though; we should have plenty of room for you!” She took Keith’s hand (without asking… again) and took him out into the hall. Molly followed close behind.
As they walked, Keith paid close attention to the doors. They all had different decorations: paint gradients, stickers, beaded curtains, you name it.
Sylvie led them through the complex labyrinth of the hallway, and brought them to two white doors. They were a little strange, considering all the other decorated doors they had seen. One of them had dark spots on it. He looked a little closer, and found that they were remnants of stickers. There were also flecks of gold paint; it looked as if the door had been painted over with white, and it looked like it had been done recently.
“I’ll be making some supper later… you’re not allergic to anything, are you?”
Keith shrugged. “Just pineapples.”
She nodded. It was obvious that she didn’t know what a pineapple was. Or maybe she was just thinking to herself, ‘What kind of weirdo is allergic to pineapples?’
“Alright, I won’t bother you two anymore,” Sylvie said as she walked away. She gave a tiny goodbye wave.
Molly frantically tried to jump onto the door handle. Keith stifled a laugh and opened it for her. Immediately, she was in awe of the room and how big it was. He peeked in; it looked like an upscale hotel room. It looked like it had always been blank and grey, like a guest room that's never had a guest until now.
He slowly turned the handle of his own door. Once it was open, he didn’t go in immediately; he spent a while just staring, taking in all the details.
It was about the size of his actual bedroom, but with a different layout. The bed was against the left wall, with a desk directly next to it. There was an alcove to the right, which had an empty closet.
One thing was clear: this used to be someone else’s bedroom.
The floor was covered in black-and-gold carpet. The walls were painted white, but just like the door, it was obvious that Sylvie and her crew were trying to cover something up; Keith could see the faint outline of graffiti. There were noticeable thumbtack holes in the walls, which suggested that this place was once covered in posters.
The bed had golden blankets and black pillows. Keith walked inside, carefully closing the door. Once he was sure that nobody was near, he flopped onto the bed and let out the biggest sigh ever. It had been a long, long day.
The rest of the day was like a blur to him.
Sylvie had made dinner, as promised. It was some kind of mushroom dish, seasoned with an herb that tasted similar to garlic. The mushrooms were… purple. At first, Keith was a little wary; you could never be too trustworthy of oddly-colored mushrooms. But he wanted to be respectful, so he bit into one. It was actually very delicious; it had a very savory taste that left him wanting more. He hadn’t died (…yet), so he trusted that Sylvie wasn’t out to harm him with poisonous dishes.
In fact, out of the three of them, she seemed the least likely to be an Earthling-hater. From the conversations Keith had witnessed at the dinner table, he gleaned that Sylvie was a very jovial and easygoing person. She had treated Keith like a ‘part of the pack’ (her words, not his). He couldn’t imagine someone like her being bigoted towards anyone.
He could not say the same for Rei. She was facing him the entire time, and had never spoken directly to him. She sat in between Flax and Sylvie, as if she was going to protect them from something—or someone.
What did she think he was going to do?
And, more importantly, how did she seem to know his secret?
Now, Keith lay in bed. He had been staring up at the ceiling for a while. He hadn’t expected an overnight stay. He only expected to drop Flax off and return to a relatively normal life. He hadn’t brought any pajamas, but he had an undershirt beneath his button-up (the pants were not quite comfortable enough to sleep in, but they would have to do for now). The low hum of the ship turned into a more noticeable roar; it must be speeding up. How could anyone sleep through this?
He hadn’t called anyone to feed Lucy tomorrow. He hadn’t called anyone, period; his family and friends had no idea where he was, or what had happened to him. He had always stayed in close contact with them, so how did they feel when he suddenly disappeared off the planet? When he left their calls unanswered and their texts unread? Oh, they were probably worried sick!
His eyes were wide open as his mind raced. It felt like every decision he made, every lie he told, was just digging his grave deeper and deeper.
But there was no win in this situation: if he kept lying, he would probably never see his family again; he would be placed in some foreign dimension that was far, far away, and he’d be forced to start a new life.
But if he told the truth, who knows what could happen? He could be spat upon, or screamed at, or harmed—or possibly even killed, if they were really that anti-Earthling.
He just wanted things to be normal again. He never wanted any of this. He rolled over, about to cry.
His eyes shot open as he heard someone hopping in his direction.
It seemed like he wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. Molly’s doe-like eyes seemed to glow in the dark. “Keith? I can’t sleep…” she said.
Keith sat up. He picked her up, setting her next to him. “Oh. Why not?”
Her lip trembled. She looked down, not sure how to express her feelings at first. She sniffled “Everything’s so scary!” She finally cried. “It’s all so new, and… it’s all so big, and… I don’t like the noise! It’s scaring me!”
Her eyes were wet with tears. She seemed unfocused on Keith; it looked like she was looking far beyond him—far beyond anything, in fact. It almost looked like she was having some sort of… flashback from the mechanical noises.
Keith thought about the factory, all those big machines and tubes. He thought about her being abandoned, how she must have been alone for so long…
He brought himself back to focus and put on his best parent voice. “Oh, that’s not good. Do you… want a hug? Would that make you feel better?”
Molly nodded slowly and outstretched her arms. Keith brought her to his chest and hugged her gently. There were still tears in her eyes; he wiped them away. “Shh, shh, it’s okay”, he assured her. “I’m right here; you’re safe, alright? You don’t need to be scared.”
Molly gradually calmed down. Her eyelids slowly drooped, until she fell asleep in Keith’s arms. Quietly, he walked into Molly’s room and tucked her into her bed.
As he went back to his own room, though, he heard the shuffling of feet and the sounds of voices down the hall. He leaned a little closer, but as soon as he did, he saw a patch of light move down the hall.
The light stopped in front of him, and when he received a chill up his spine, he realized it was Avery. He had never seen them in the physical world before. They were a vague little sphere that stood out among the darkness.
The patch of light shook back and forth; they were shaking their head. It felt less like disapproval and more like a warning.
No, they said, speaking into his mind, don’t. Their voice was a lot weaker than in his dream.
Keith considered listening to them. He really did. From the context clues, he figured that they had eavesdropped before him. They had already heard what was being said, and it would do Keith more harm than good if he listened in. They were trying to be the angel on his shoulder.
But the devil on his other shoulder—his curiosity—was far more enticing. He wanted—no, he needed to know what was going on.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” he whispered, shaking his head. He felt Avery’s scorn as they disappeared.
He snuck down the hall. Initially, he was tiptoeing in that goofy way that a cartoon character would—with his back arched and his arms to his chest. Once he realized that he was doing this, he stopped himself, and started to tiptoe like a normal person.
Keith followed the voices down the hall until they became loud and clear. He came to a purple door decorated with stars, moon phases, and unusual symbols that looked like spiritual in nature; this was Sylvie’s room.
He heard a voice. He tried not to gasp when he realized it was Rei.
“Sylvie?” She said. “We need to talk.”
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Next: Chapter 18