“If we can recreate this ‘Coke’ from materials to be had in our own world, we will do as much for the happiness of the speaking peoples as if we replicate a steam engine or internal combustion engine.”
This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe.
Travel Agency: Scouts
Part 4 of 6
This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in the same setting as his story “The Travel Agency” and its three sequels. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.
The original stories and this one need not be read in any particular order.
A commenter on a previous chapter remarked that it was hard to keep the scouts' names straight. I'll try to fix that in a future edition. For now, here's a list:
- Keisha / Tariq -- former spymaster, retired after his legs were amputated.
- Stephanie / ul-Kalsim -- Tariq' successor as spymaster, the head of this expedition.
- Lauren / the Subtle One / Sumalm -- a wizard in the sultan's service, less powerful than the Grey One / Ms. G. but still formidable
- Rae Nan / Tvalenn -- a camel-centaur and spy
- Natalie / ul-Balimmu -- an ifrit, friendlier to humans than most ifrits; a friend of the Subtle One
They returned to the minivan, after Melanie admonished the others not to go out until she returned unless it was an emergency, and Melanie drove them back to the downtown district where the buildings were so incredibly tall. It was dark, and they saw above and around them a stunning array of lights from the windows of the buildings, and from illuminated signs declaring the names of shops and restaurants and vaunting the virtues of various merchants' wares. They parked in another of the large buildings full of cars, and walked to a place with particularly garish colored lights in front.
“This place is plenty far enough from the campus that you probably won’t meet anyone who knows your faces,” Melanie said. “I’ve been here a few times, with visitors from your world and with my boyfriend. The drinks are good and the music’s better.”
“I don’t think I’ll drink anything tonight,” Keisha said, with a shudder. “I don’t remember much about last night, but I remember being surprised at how strong your wine is...”
“That wasn’t wine you were drinking,” Melanie said, shaking her head as they got in the back of a queue of people. “I tried to explain, but you didn’t seem to get it. I don’t think you’ve got distilled liquor in your world, do you? Nothing stronger than wine or beer?”
“Some wines are stronger than others, but we have nothing stronger than the best wine.” She thought of the pixie-wine waiting in their saddlebags back home.
“Well, we have a way of taking wine and, um, getting rid of everything except the part that makes you drunk. And then we mix it with a little of something else for flavor, only we usually don’t drink so much of it as you drank with dinner last night...”
The queue moved forward slowly, and finally they were admitted into the “club.” That word had so many meanings that Keisha wasn’t sure what kind of establishment they were going to, until they arrived. Loud music assaulted her ears, strange but exhilarating, played by a group of women not much older than they with strange instruments not entirely unlike lutes or zithers, but connected by wires to boxes on the stage in front of them.
They went to the bar and Melanie ordered glasses of something called “Coke” for each of them. “You don’t have this in your world either, but it won’t make you drunk. It doesn’t have any alcohol in it, just caffeine — the same stuff that’s in tea, but a little stronger — and sugar.”
They drank their Cokes, which were tasty enough but stung the mouth in a curious way with their thousands of tiny bubbles, and listened to the music. It was incomprehensible at first, but the longer Keisha listened to it the better she liked it.
“Wanna dance?” Melanie shouted over the music, when they had nearly finished off their Cokes.
“Sure,” Keisha said, after a moment’s hesitation. She wasn’t sure how to dance the dances of this strange world, or about dancing in a woman’s body; but she did want a chance to really try out what her new legs could do. Natalie agreed enthusiastically, and they moved from the bar into the milling mass of people crowded in front of the musicians.
Keisha needn’t have worried about not knowing the dances of this world. It seemed that no two people were doing the same dance; most of them were moving in time to the music, but not in the same way as any other person. She watched what Melanie did, and imitated her at first, but after getting over some brief self-consciousness as she felt her breasts wobble on her chest, she found herself moving in time to the music with only the most abstract awareness of the people around her. Melanie and Natalie and strangers of both sexes brushed against her frequently, but rarely bumped hard enough to hurt. When the music finally stopped, there was a roaring cheer from the dancers, and Keisha realized after a few moments that she was cheering as well.
“Aren’t they great?” Melanie said in her ear.
“Yeah,” Keisha said. “I’ve never heard music like that, in all the countries I’ve traveled to.”
But it was only now that she’d stopped moving that she realized how exhausted she was. She returned to the stools by the bar and watched Melanie and Natalie dance through the next couple of songs.
After a while the band started playing a slower, quieter song. The man and woman sitting next to Keisha got up and started dancing, a more coordinated, cooperative dance than anything she had seen here yet, with two of their arms extended and hands clasped, her other arm on his shoulder, his other arm on her hip. Keisha smiled to see them; young lovers were so charming... A man, several inches taller than her and with skin just as dark, scooted over from where he’d been sitting onto the seat next to her that the other woman had vacated.
“You here with anyone?” he asked.
“With two friends,” she answered, not fooled for a moment about his intentions. “They’re dancing; I stopped to rest for a few minutes.” For a moment she worried that he might know the real Keisha. But he hadn’t addressed her by name, and as he went on, her fear was alleviated.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
It was plain enough he wanted to seduce her, and even aside from the other Keisha’s request, she didn’t want to sleep with him. But it could do no harm to let him buy her a drink, if it was like the Coke she had drunk earlier; her head was as clear now as it had been before she drunk it, if not clearer. And it would make her her host’s money go further... “Sure,” she said. “A Coke. Or... something else like it, with ‘caffeine’ but no ‘alcohol’.”
“A Jolt for the beautiful sister here,” he said to the tavern wench. Then, to Keisha, “You new in town?”
“Where’re you from? I was born in Harrisonville, a little bitty place, but I’ve lived here for eight years.”
She hesitated, cursing her imprudence in admitting she wasn’t local. She couldn’t tell him where she was really from, and she didn’t know enough about this world to claim she was from some other city or country in it. She was saved from having to answer at once as the tavern servant brought her a glass of something that looked almost exactly like Coke; it tasted stronger and sweeter, but still nothing like wine.
“Someplace where we don’t have music like this,” she said, gesturing to the stage. “Aren’t they great?”, she added, echoing Melanie.
“Sure,” he said. “You wanna dance?”
“I’m still a little tired from dancing earlier,” she said cautiously, though part of her was curious about what it would feel like to have her hand on his shoulder and his on her hip... while another part firmly warned her of where that could lead. She had borrowed this body in virgin condition, and it would be dishonorable to return it in any other.
“Suit yourself... What kind of music do you listen to when you’re at home?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that; her world’s musical instruments might be as strange to him as the ones the band on stage were playing were to her. Just then Melanie returned from the dance floor, and kissed her lightly. “Miss me?” she asked.
Keisha was mildly surprised by the informality of this — in her country, only close friends greeted one another with a kiss. But she didn’t read anything sexual into it. The man beside her, however, said: “That kind of friend, huh? I see. Well, see you around.” He got up and wandered off into the crowd.
“I didn’t interrupt anything good, did I?” Melanie asked, sitting on the stool he’d vacated.
“No,” Keisha said. “It was... interesting, at first, to experience how women are treated by men in this world. But he was asking too many questions I didn’t know how to answer.”
“I’m glad I interrupted, then... I hope you don’t mind, but the girls asked me to chaperon you in their bodies. To keep them safe, just like Barsiq is keeping your bodies safe from whatever mischief the girls might get up to in them.”
“I don’t mind, really,” Keisha assured her. “I have no intention of dishonoring my host’s body, and his attentions really were becoming unwelcome.” Except for the Jolt, which she was still sipping and savoring.
“You guys are a lot more fun than Stephanie and the others,” Melanie said, watching Natalie dance. “Especially that Natalie; she’s a wild one!”
“She is an ifrit,” Keisha said. “A good and kind person as ifrits go, a friend to humans and camel-centaurs unlike many of her kind. But still an ifrit. Wild, as you say.”
“You were dancing pretty wild there too,” Melanie said with approval.
“The use of these legs is very welcome,” Keisha said. “I lost my own some years ago.”
“Oh...! What happened?”
“A ghoul. It bit me on one leg, and scratched the other with its claws — fortunately I escaped any direct injury to my trunk, or I would have died. Ul-Kalsim — the one you know as Stephanie — killed it, and cut off my legs above the knees to save me from the ghoul’s rot. I nearly bled to death, and was too weak to lift my arms for many days afterward, but my life was saved.”
“Damn,” Melanie said quietly. “I’m sorry... Then that means that Keisha in your body is paraplegic?”
“I’m afraid so, although my arms are far stronger than they were before my accident — I can lift myself onto a wheeled box or a camel’s back, and even walk on my hands for some distance. I wish I could make it up to her, though; this body is such a wonderful gift.” She turned back toward Natalie. “I am afraid Natalie does not feel the same. She has taken on human shapes before, but she has never been truly human, and I fear that she may be in denial about the limitations of her new body.”
“Oh,” Melanie said. “Maybe... Maybe we’d better go. I don’t want her dropping dead with exhaustion.”
They went out to the dance floor, and Natalie, after only a little persuasion, agreed to return to the apartment. She fell asleep almost instantly once they were in the minivan. Melanie and Keisha spoke quietly so as not to wake her.
“Your Stephanie, ul-Kalsim — she reminds me so much of the real Stephanie. ‘No dancing, thank you, we’re here to learn. No dinosaurs, please, we’ve got to learn how cars work.’ I remember how I used to have to drag her away from her homework to go dancing or go see a movie — she enjoyed it once she got into it, but at first she’d feel guilty that she wasn’t studying.”
“Stephanie — ul-Kalsim, I mean — is our leader. She feels responsible for us, and for...” She was going to say “the success of our mission,” but decided against it. Melanie had already figured out a lot, though.
“So your group is really here to do research on our world, then? Not just sightseeing like most of the other visitors we get. You want to build your own railroads and cars and things?”
“Perhaps. It may be that there is some reason they won’t work in our world, just as your world doesn’t have enough magic to work most of the spells mages can do in ours... but from what I’ve seen at your museum, I don’t see why they shouldn’t work.”
“I hope they do.”
“So... you’ve known Stephanie for some time?”
“We’ve known each other since grade school, but we kind of drifted apart when she went to college and I didn’t. Then I started working for Ms. G., a couple of years ago — the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And last Christmas — that’s a holiday we have in the winter — I saw Stephanie again, and we got caught up, and I told her about what I’d been doing. And she got several of her college friends together to do Spring Break in your world, and here we are.” She sighed. “I wish I could have gone with them, but I used up all my vacation in February, being a mermaid in one of your world’s oceans.”
They returned to the apartment, and gently woke Natalie. She stumbled sleepily up to the door, which Keisha opened with a key from her purse, and they went inside.
“Good night,” Melanie said. “See you tomorrow, about the same time?”
“Sure. Good night.”
Natalie laid down on the couch in her clothes. Keisha pulled her shoes off, loosened the fastenings of her trousers, and covered her with a quilt. She went to the bathroom and emptied the residue of the Coke and Jolt from her bladder, then went into her host’s bedroom. Stephanie was asleep, wearing the “pajamas” she’d worn last night. Keisha undressed in the dim light from the street-lamps out the window, then dug through the drawers and closets looking for pajamas like Stephanie’s. She didn’t find any, and settled for a loose, soft gown.
She laid awake, thinking and fidgeting, for a long while before she finally fell asleep.
Keisha was, not surprisingly, the second to last person to wake up the next morning. She found Stephanie and Lauren eating bread and cheese in the kitchen, while Natalie was still asleep on the sofa; a whoosh of water from the bathroom suggested that Rae Nan was showering.
“We could eat something a little better,” Keisha suggested, “if you two had paid attention when Melanie was demonstrating how to use the stove and microwave.”
“You’re right, we should have,” Stephanie said. “But we were so tired... I don’t know how you and Natalie could keep going after that.”
“It is not to our credit or your fault, I think. Probably our hosts kept their bodies in better shape than those whose bodies you wear.”
“What did you do?”
“We drank strange drinks — do not fear! They were what Melanie calls ‘non-alcoholic’, things that invigorate like strong tea, rather than rendering one drunk. One called Coke, and another called Jolt. And we listened to strange and wonderful music, and danced strange dances.”
Stephanie looked disapproving. “You should have remembered the mission,” she said. “We are here to learn about this world, remember.”
“I know far more about its music than I did,” Keisha retorted, “and its drinks. If we can recreate this ‘Coke’ from materials to be had in our own world, we will do as much for the happiness of the speaking peoples as if we replicate a steam engine or internal combustion engine.”
“Perhaps,” Lauren said soothingly. “Let us investigate each of these avenues in turn. Or perhaps simultaneously; we do not all need to work together on the steam-engine today. Perhaps we could spread out and see, between us, the whole museum — then compare notes and decide which exhibits to study further.”
“That may be good,” Stephanie said. “But I don’t want anyone going off on their own. Stay in groups of at least two.”
Keisha cooked some bacon (which she had tasted in her travels in the north, though none of the others had) to go with her bread and cheese. Rae Nan came out of the bathroom, and Lauren followed her.
Finally Natalie sat up, blinking, threw off the quilt, and followed her nose to the kitchen. She silently helped herself to bacon, bread, and cheese, and ate most of it before she woke up enough to thank Keisha for cooking it.
“Did you enjoy being human, last night?”
“I enjoyed dancing enough to forget I was human, for a time,” Natalie said with a faint smile. “You seemed to enjoy it, too.”
“I did indeed; having legs again, if only for a few days, is an indescribable happiness.”
“Who was the man I saw you speaking with?”
Stephanie looked alert at that.
“Some man who found my body attractive... I politely brushed him off, with help from Melanie.”
“I saw him at the museum, too.”
“What?” Stephanie said suddenly. “Tell me more about him, both of you!”
“He has dark skin like Keisha or Lauren, and he’s perhaps three inches taller than Keisha,” Natalie said. “He didn’t say anything to me at the museum, although I saw him two or three times, in different rooms and halls. Last night I saw him approach Keisha and speak with her, then leave when Melanie returned and spoke to them.”
“Hmm. What did he say to you, exactly?” Stephanie asked Keisha.
“He... he asked me if I was new to the city, and where I was from. I gave him a vague answer, changing the subject to the music we were listening to. He asked if I wanted to dance, and I said no... I think that is all.”
“You told him you were from somewhere else?”
“Yes, but not where.”
“Hmm. Tell me at once if you see him again. It may have been coincidence that he visited the museum and the same tavern as you, in the same day; but this is a vast city — I estimate that it has at least twice, perhaps three times as many people as the sultan’s capital. Odds are he followed you somehow.”
“I fear you are right... I did not recognize him. I did not see him at the museum, or perhaps did not notice him because I was studying the car engine or steam engine displays. But if I see him again I will certainly know him.”
When Melanie arrived, they had all showered except for Natalie, who was just going into the bathroom as their guide arrived. They returned to the museum and, as Lauren had suggested, broke into groups of two to spread out and see everything at least briefly before meeting up for lunch. Keisha accompanied Lauren, and they spent most of the morning looking at the dinosaur skeletons, reading the placards describing them, and watching a fascinating “film”, a moving series of images, depicting what they had looked like when they were alive. Stephanie and Melanie, and Rae Nan and Natalie, spent most of their time in the halls displaying and explaining various machines.
While they ate lunch, Stephanie was displeased to hear how Lauren and Keisha had spent their time.
“If these dinosaurs have been dead for millions of years, as you say, of what importance are they? We need to understand this world as it is now.”
“Its history is important to understanding its present, just as in our own world. One who knows no history will not understand why the elves hate the dwarves, or why the pixies of the desert brew wine while those of the northern forests do not...”
“Never mind,” Stephanie said impatiently. “This afternoon I want you to look at a machine called a ‘printing press’ with me. I think it may be the sort of thing we can build at home, like the steam engine.”
“Probably easier,” Melanie said. “We invented printing presses around five hundred years ago, and steam engines only two hundred years ago.”
“You see how important history is,” Lauren returned quietly. She had learned that the restaurant they were visiting served the ‘Coke’ which Keisha had extolled, and was trying it out, to her great delight.
“Did you understand how the humans learned of these dinosaurs, and when they lived?” Natalie asked. “We ifrits pass down stories of times before humans or camel-centaurs appeared, but if there was anyone who lived in our world before the ifrits, we do not know. I read the placards by the dinosaur skeletons yesterday, but did not understand most of what they said.”
“I don’t fully understand it either,” Lauren said after a long swig of Coke. “They have some alchemy by which they can determine the age of those petrified skeletons they dig out of the ground. Something about the different natures of the rocks that surround them... But beyond that I must confess myself mystified.”
“Do you want to spend the whole rest of your stay in the science museum?” Melanie asked. “There are other educational things we could do, if you’d rather. The history museum, like I said, or the walking tour of the historic district, where the oldest houses in the city are.”
“A walking tour sounds interesting,” Keisha said. Walking around the museum wasn’t giving her legs enough play to suit her.
“Perhaps you could bring some of us to the Science and Technology Museum tomorrow morning,” Stephanie said, “and take others to the history museum or the historic district before returning for us. But if we are to be so separated, I want three of us in each group.”
“I’ll go with Keisha and Melanie,” Natalie said. Lauren looked as though she wanted to go as well, but didn’t argue.
Stephanie, Lauren and Keisha spent the rest of that afternoon studying the workings of the printing press. Natalie kept watch to see if the man she had seen the day before would return; he did not. Melanie and Rae Nan spent some time looking at the dinosaur skeletons, then at stuffed exemplars of other, living animal species — many of which Rae Nan didn’t recognize, but wasn’t sure if they might live in some distant region of her world. Melanie said she had seen a few of them in her visits to their world, mainly in the north.
They ate supper at the apartment again, and again, Keisha and Natalie were keen to go out to a club and dance. “Try to get back earlier tonight,” Stephanie said. “Sleeping late this morning, you delayed our departure for the museum.”
“We’ll be good,” Keisha promised.
Melanie took them to a different club, in another part of the city. It was more spacious, and the dance floor was less crowded, at least at first — as the evening progressed, more people arrived and it became more crowded. Keisha turned down several men who asked her to dance with them; Natalie didn’t turn down the men who asked her, but (cautioned by Melanie) she didn’t dance more than once with any of them.
After a couple of hours and a couple of drinks, Keisha needed to go to the restroom, and did so, without interrupting Melanie or Natalie to tell them where she was going. She had washed her hands and was just leaving the restroom when she ran into a woman who looked vaguely familiar. As she apologized, she realized where she’d seen her: at the museum. She’d been in the room with the printing press exhibit... Keisha had a bad feeling about this, but before she could think of what to do, the woman put a hand on her neck. There was a brief sting, and she felt woozy. The woman supported her to keep her from falling, and walked her down the hall away from the bar and dance floor, through a door marked “Employees Only.” Keisha couldn’t remember, later, what happened after that.
I'll probably post part five in about a week.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. An earlier version of this story was serialized on the morpheuscabinet and tg_fiction mailing lists in January 2013.
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