In the light of day, this ramshackle city was a garden of Eden, melding the structures of human existence with the ordered chaos of nature. I stared through my window, mouth agape, watching as the evaporating shreds of mist revealed more greenery, more wonder. Carrie’s words from the night before came back to me: Cuba has less oil than us. Was this what our cities would look like if we too ran out of oil?
I brushed out my hair, mind skittering away from speculation. As distracting as the urban garden was, it couldn’t erase my fears about today. I didn’t really think we were going to be meeting aliens, or people from another dimension, as Jonathon had posited; I suspected his humour was straight-faced and dry. I was, however, concerned about what we would be confronted with. Would I be up to the task? My heart thundered within my chest and I had serious doubts about my ability to leave the room with it still firmly wedged inside my body. I had ridiculous visions of it vibrating its way up my throat, out my mouth and tap dancing across the room, and choked down the laugh I knew would be hysterical.
A bang on the door made me scream—my heart tripped over itself and the boom reverberated in my ears. I got up and opened it, plastering a fake smile on my face. It was Jonathon and he frowned as he beckoned me to come. He seemed to frown at me a lot, and I’m sure that wasn’t just my paranoia. I gathered up my coat and bag and hurried after him; not wanting to be late but wishing a hole would open up in the earth, swallow me and prevent me from going on this field trip.
I gravitated towards Carrie and she smiled in welcome. I hoped she wouldn’t get sick of me, but the blonde American woman seemed to have endless reserves of patience. Her gentle Southern accent soothed my jumpy nerves and I resolved to stay near her as much as I could today. I stood quietly and listened as the veteran journalists discussed the possibilities, until we were herded out of the front doors and onto a waiting bus. From behind me I heard a stage whisper.
“Looks like they wanted to impress us today.” Paul, of course. I was thankful of the bus, as I didn’t want to walk to our destination. Leaning up against the window, I gazed again at the greenery that surrounded everything I could see.
It suddenly hit me. The plants were food plants, vegetables and fruit trees, growing side by side with buildings and roads and streetlights. This wasn’t suburbia, where I might expect such a thing: this was the heart of the city. Although I shuddered at the thought of how desperate they must have been to tear up the concrete to grow food, I was also warmed by the convergence of urban life with farming. For one thing, it was incredibly pretty, and transformed the crumbling city into a thing of beauty. A garland of flowers for a brick wall transforms utility into aesthetics, and I have always been a sucker for pretty things. Wrapped in my own musings, I ignored the hum of chatter around me and watched the scenery change.
After a few miles we reached the boundaries of the city and headed into the countryside. The land must have been incredibly productive; there were no wasted spaces that I could see. Tall palms stretched toward the sky, and flowering jacarandas splashed lilac shadows over the countryside. I’m not enough of a farm girl to identify all of the edible plants I saw, but as the verge flashed past I was sure I saw tomato, squash and corn, and children played happily as their parents harvested. Cuba was an unknown quantity, and we hadn’t been greeted with open arms but I was beginning to like this place.
After a few hours of travel over bumpy dirt roads I began to notice a distinct military flavour. We passed through a couple of checkpoints, and the soldiers with their intimidating guns put fear into me. The other journalists seemed fairly nonchalant and again I cursed my inexperience. At the third checkpoint we passed through a chain fence, topped with brutal-looking barbed wire, and arrived at our destination.
We were told to get out, and stretching our weary muscles we did as they asked, only too glad to be up and moving. Shuffling behind an unknown man I peered through the windows, noting the vast camouflage tents within the perimeter. My heart beat faster as I contemplated what might be in them. Perhaps they were refugees from a brutal regime, and we were here to let the world know of some atrocity. Stop it, I told myself.
Standing in the dirt among the exuberant greenery of Cuba, sweating in the humidity and feeling totally alone, a seal amongst the great white sharks, I stared blankly at the little man who was addressing us. His words made little sense to me.
“We have brought you here, because we cannot hide it from the world any longer. What you will see in these tents will shock you, and we need you to report what you see and hear, unbiased. The word of the Cubans will not be enough for the powerful of other countries.” He says this last bitterly. “We have had a week to study our visitors, and we will brief you on what we know—I recommend you keep an open mind.”
I looked up the line of journalists. They all looked so competent. We all filed after the little man, as he lead us into a small tent. He lifted a small object off a table and turned to us. “We’ve had the best linguists working with our friends for a few weeks now. As far as we can determine, this,” he held the object up, “seems to be the crux of the story.” I looked at it closely; it seemed to be nothing but a small rock. Someone coughed loudly. The little man continued.
“Three weeks ago our systems went haywire. A massive energy spike concentrated in this region sent shockwaves through our country. We thought we were under attack but it soon became apparent that something much stranger was going on.” A few journalists nodded and I remembered my hurried meeting with the Defence minister and assorted cronies. An increase in activity in Cuba, they’d said, energy readings that perhaps suggested weapons of mass destruction. I leaned forward.
“We found a disorderly mass of people, no invading force, but how could refugees end up so far inland? And, well…they aren’t human.”
Someone sniggered. The little man—Dr. Fernandez, I remembered triumphantly—smiled. “I understand this sounds like science fiction, so suspend your disbelief for a moment while I tell you an interesting story.
Our friends are not human, and we first thought the energy spike was perhaps the landing of their spacecraft, as ridiculous as that sounds. They are not, however, aliens. It seems they are of the Earth…but not the Earth that we know.” A stifled whoop came from my left and I glanced to see Jonathan Meyers looking smug, and I recalled his theory. Dr. Fernandez glared at Meyers. “From the little we can understand at this point, they have a fairly good grasp of the layout and topology of Cuba, though the Cuba they describe is different. They came from a different Earth… through a hole they created in the fabric of their universe.” Again he held up the rock. “It seems this is a remnant of a meteor that hit their Earth millions of years ago, and possesses the unique property, through an unknown element, to allow a focus of energies to change reality.” There was a stir at this, and several people eyed the rock with a new interest. “It seems the people focused their energy on creating an escape valve that spewed them out here, in an alternate Cuba.”
Mutters all around me. I shifted from foot to foot, nervous of all this crazy talk. “Doc, this is an entertaining story, but where’s the proof?” Paul again. Fernandez smiled again.
“But of course, patience. You will meet our friends in good time. Few more points. The people seem peaceful and were adamant there were no more refugees; they are all that is left. What they were fleeing we cannot yet understand. They seem emphatic that the rock can only be used in great need and by a consensus of people. The risks of changing reality are very great. One final word. The people you are about to meet are humanoid, but they are not human. From tests it seems their ancestors were more like rodents. We think their Earth was colder than ours so they have retained more body hair. Well, ah… perhaps you should just meet them. But please be respectful and refrain from impolite behaviour.” He glared around the tent and we all shuffled like schoolchildren. I eased my way over to Carrie and she squeezed my hand and grinned at me.
We went back into the glare, and then ducked into the main tent. There were desks and people everywhere, and I felt overwhelmed by the noise, heat and sights. Fenandez stopped outside a partition and said something softly, and then turned to us.
“Two at a time,” he instructed. I stood with Carrie, scared, not knowing if this was an elaborate hoax. The pairs went in, and they came out, ashen-faced. Paul and Jonathon looked positively giddy when they came out and then it was our turn. We rounded the partition and I saw them.
There was a human in her white coat sitting next to a field hospital-style bed. The woman’s flame-red hair was the same as my own, I noted absently. I was more interested in the figure upon the bed. Humanoid yes, but the differences were striking. I assumed they walked upright as the shape of the body was similar, with arms and legs in a human configuration, but the body was covered with a downy fur, silvery grey, and the hands possessed fingers that were more tapered, with nails that were more like claws. The face was striking, not a rat face like I was expecting, more catlike, though the eyes were round and dark. The mouth was shaped like ours, though pointed teeth within, and the ears twitched at every sound. I could feel myself gaping and snapped my mouth shut. It looked at me, then, eyes fathomless, and I tried to melt into the floor.
The red-haired woman frowned at me. She opened her mouth to speak but the creature stilled her with a hand on her arm. It beckoned to me and, apprehensive, I crept forward. It reached out that strange hand and touched my hair, and said something to the other woman. She frowned again and tilted her head to the side, thinking. “What did it say?” I whispered, scared of making more noise.
“I’m not sure, but I think red hair is significant to them, somehow. And IT is a SHE, and her name is Takta.” She gazed at me, sizing me up. “You seem young.” I blushed. The creature—Takta—dropped the strands of hair and with a last look at me the human woman told us we could go. I practically ran, mortified, but Carrie grabbed my arm and slowed me down.
Meyers and Paul were waiting for us. Jonathon’s eyes were glowing. “I was right!” he breathed. I looked at Paul, then at Carrie.
“Do you believe it?” Carrie asked. Paul shrugged and Meyers grinned like a little boy.
“Keep an open mind, my dear,” he admonished. I sagged, exhausted, and wished I was anywhere but here. Cuba was beautiful, this experience was amazing—but what I wouldn’t give to be surrounded by friends at the moment. I felt terribly alone.
Prompt: “Lonely in Paradise”.
Ok I admit I struggled! The other follow-ons I’ve done have been unplanned, and I’ve had a bolt of inspiration that has inspired the follow-on. This, being a premeditated continuation presented some difficulties. The first was that I had no idea how to start it. Usually the beginning jumps into my head and I go from there, but this time I was blank. It was also really difficult fleshing out the things I had hinted at last week… am I living up to the potential? I don’t really think I did, and that’s frustrating but I just have to remind myself it’s all learning! I should be finishing this story next week… I hope!