“The Qual” by Neil Burlington

Braydahs Ship, by Romeo Esparrago
[Illustration: “Braydahs Ship” © 2006 by Romeo Esparrago.]

“Look, if you’ll just inspect the implant in the back molar on the left side of my mouth, you’ll know I’m telling you the truth.”

Dr. Karrow looked at the disheveled man in ragged clothing who was sitting in the dental chair. They were now behind the partitions and the door, and the hearing of others. Dr. Karrow let out a sigh. He gazed at the little tin-foil hat that the dark-skinned man had fashioned and capped his thinning strands of black hair with. The hat was torn on one side. Karrow silently wondered at the impulse he felt to listen to this disoriented and babbling man, instead of simply calling the authorities to deal with him. But there was something… a quality of sheer earnestness in the man’s eyes and in his voice that compelled Karrow to listen. Dr. Nathan Karrow had rarely witnessed such earnest conviction, however delusional it might prove to be.

He smiled, patiently. “Now, please tell me your name.”

The homeless man held out a stress-thinned hand with gnarled fingers. His watery dark eyes went wide — searching for some sign of understanding.

“Eno. Eno Ecnahc.” He flashed a brief and nervous smile.

“Well. That’s an unusual name, isn’t it? Is it perhaps South American?”

Eno frowned and shook his head. “No. It isn’t.”

“And is this molar the only reason you’re here?”

“Yes. Dr. Karrow. Yes. The molar is the key. For you see, they are coming. The Qual. The Qualdrads. The Mother-Ship. They are coming, to steal your sun!”

The doctor’s bushy white eyebrows lifted. “My son? Now why would they do that? In fact, it’s quite impossible. He’s on the other side of the country, at school.”

Eno gripped Dr. Karrow’s sleeve. “No. No, no. Not your biological offspring. Your sun, in space. What you call Sol.” He pointed up, and the stink coming from his jean jacket was very unpleasant, especially in such close quarters.

The doctor’s brow rose a bit higher. “Is that so?” He placed a hand on Eno’s wrist, gently touching him and lifting Eno’s hand from his sleeve. Eno had been raving when he’d entered the office. Just raving. He’d claimed that he needed a dentist. He said that he needed help and that all of the other dentists he’d seen refused to help him. They had dismissed him; even had him taken away by force, by security. In Dr. Karrow’s opinion, at least one of the things Eno had said was correct.

Dr. Karrow ventured a further inquiry out of simple curiosity: “And just how would ‘The Qual’ do that?” He still wasn’t really sure what to do with the man, but talking him into a more focused state of mind seemed a good first step.

“A mega-wormhole. Gigantic,” Eno quickly responded. “Larger than anything anyone here has ever imagined. I am a Qual, and have taken a form I believed to be… acceptable, here. A human form; yet I have experienced many — judgments, from other humans, even so. I must continue. The Qual are coming. We are advanced beyond your comprehension. We occupy an artificial structure of immense magnitude. You would call it a ‘Dyson sphere’. Within this structure is a star to power all of our needs. This structure is technologically hidden from your perception. The star within that structure is dying.

“We need a replacement,” he continued. “Yours is the nearest unprotected star. The technology of Earth is too primitive to protect it from us. This is not so in some other, similar solar systems. The races there are more advanced and can defend against such action. The Qual are going to steal Sol. I am a ‘rebel’ against the majority of the Qual — and what they believe. My implant will signal to the other rebels hidden within the belly of the Mother-Ship. The ship will use an ‘energy-lock’ to drag your sun behind it, through the wormhole. The Mother-Ship will get it started, using massive amounts of energy — much of it taken from the dying sun within the Dyson sphere. Your star will travel by inertia behind the Mother-Ship. This is the process. One dying sun’s energy is converted and amplified by technology to move another, newer sun. You see? My fellow rebels, are in stasis — a kind of very prolonged sleep. The signal from the implant will awaken them. I was sent ahead by probe, in secret. You see? Now is the time to act! There is an inversion weapon stored with the rebels that they will use. The will use the mass of the sun — Sol — to crush the Mother-Ship and collapse the wormhole. Yes. The rebels do not believe what the other Qual are doing is right.

“I am a rebel. There is another way to power our home, but it is political and difficult to win public support for. It is more expensive.” Eno’s voice filled with a sudden sadness beyond his earnestness, and he continued: “The Qual do not care for — you must forgive me for saying so — lesser species. They are arrogant, and cold, and terribly powerful. Act now. You will be saved. It will take fifty years to construct another Mother-Ship. It is that massive. In that time negotiations and reasons to leave Sol where it is — to go another way — may win out. But you must act now. Access the molar. I can’t do it myself. Most of my tools were stolen from me on the streets. I understand… many things, Dr. Karrow. I still do not understand how humans can treat one another in such ways. I have been beaten, mistreated, and excluded by humans… though I appear as one of them. Yet I have observed the same actions taken against me, taken against others. And so I have no malice for human beings, as a whole. It is a terribly primitive place, Dr. Karrow, this Earth. But it deserves, time… to grow. Human beings deserve time, to change.”

Dr. Karrow listened impassively, but he was not unimpressed with the level of detail this fantasy involved. On further consideration, he realized it was likely the product of many months or even years of delusion and rumination.

“I’m here to help you, and I will,” the doctor said. “But let’s slowly try to work our way beyond fantasy. It’s a good thing to dream, truly. But to believe is another thing.” The dentist’s voice was calm and even, and only just slightly hinting of condescension. He seemed essentially and to all appearances to be a good and intelligent man. For Eno, that wasn’t making it any easier. It was in fact making it excruciating. Here was a man with all the sense and reason and the tools needed to make the manipulations, but he wasn’t seeing it. He didn’t understand.

“Stop,” Eno said. “Stop talking. Do the work, and we can discuss it later. Please?” Eno found his own hand again gripping Dr. Karrow’s forearm, and squeezing it. Karrow frowned and placed his left hand atop Eno’s hand.

“I would like you to remove that hand.” He spoke with the same even calm, but a little darker, deeper. “Please?”

Eno nodded. He took the hand away and placed it somewhat awkwardly at his side. “Of course. Right. Could you just start? We don’t have much time. You don’t have much time.”

Dr. Karrow allowed a slow and weary sigh to escape.

“Listen, Eno. We have to be a little more reasonable about this if we’re really going to communicate. All right? I believe — and this is only my belief, mind you — that we have more than enough time to get to know each other.” Dr. Karrow added more emphasis than he might have, given Eno’s second arm-grip. “And we have all the time in the world to get to the cause of what’s really happening here.”

Eno nodded. “OK. But — and this is only my belief — all the time in the world at this point amounts to a little less than eleven and a half minutes.” He tapped on his left wrist while holding the doctor’s eyes with a steady gaze.

Dr. Karrow nodded. “Well. We have a frame of reference then. That at least is a start.”

Eno shook his head, more energetically. He sat up. He gripped Dr. Karrow’s arm, a third time. Harder. “You’re not listening. You” — he pointed a yellowed and split fingernail at Karrow — “need to listen. You’re the only one who can do anything about this. No one else on this entire planet has the ability you have right now to prevent this most terrible catastrophe. No one else has this chance to save your little homeworld. I’ve sacrificed my whole life — hundreds of years — to give you this one chance. Just trust me, please? Listen. Take a leap of faith in me. I am a total stranger to you, yes. But trust in my conviction that I have your best interests at heart. I do. You can lose nothing by doing as I ask. Will you? I beg you. Now?”

Karrow frowned: deeper and with irritation. “Stop doing that.” He yanked his arm back. “You’re unbalanced, Eno.” He held a hand up and gestured in the empty air. “You’re imagining something. I don’t know why. I’ve tried to be reasonable. I have listened. But you’re not making my kind of sense. You’re talking a different language that’s leaving me helpless to help you. Do you see? And,” he hesitated, but continued honestly, “you’re distressing me. You are starting to act in a volatile manner. And I think I have had” — he turned and started walking toward the door — “just about enough of this.”

Eno watched him. He could think of nothing more to say, or to ask. He had said it all. His plea had seemingly fallen on deaf ears. What other language was he speaking? Did not Karrow possess any expansiveness, any depth of the possible? This was futility and capriciousness, all in one man. A man who seemed so grounded in his small reality, that he couldn’t even venture a single inspection. Eno felt his blood run faster, and his pulse rise in fear.

“All right,” Dr. Karrow suddenly said, turning, where he had paused at the door. His hand was still on the doorknob. “All right. I’ll look.” He took slow and deliberate steps to the dental chair, keeping eye contact with Eno. He reached the chair and sat down on his examination stool. “I’m sorry to be so detached. I don’t mean to be so inconsiderate. I’m not, you know. It’s just that’s how life becomes when….”

“Yes?” Eno asked, encouraged and attempting patience.

Dr. Karrow’s tone grew wistful as he sorted through his instruments. He adjusted the light. “When the people around you are so wrapped up in their own lives, living so fast — you get that way too. You don’t mean to. But it creeps in. After a while you don’t even notice it. And sometimes you don’t notice them either. It takes a lot of the flavor out of being alive.” His voice softened and he held up a sharp-ended tool — a pick. He motioned for Eno to open his mouth. “Do you understand?”

Eno nodded and opened his mouth. In the dark, at the back of his mouth, and looking like any other molar, the implant waited for Karrow to sense the little hitch that could be gripped by the pick. A little hitch that, with a due amount of force applied, would drag up and out and expose a tiny red button on the removed piece. A tiny button that would activate an extraordinarily powerful transponder secreted on his person. Eno felt his pulse slow. There was still time. They could still perform the procedure. There was enough —

Dr. Karrow hesitated, then stopped. He held his pick in mid-air. He looked down to where Eno’s thin and lightly scarred arms crossed over his narrow waist. There he saw a Mickey Mouse watch. He hadn’t noticed it before. The watch was on Eno’s left wrist, and Eno had gripped Karrow’s arm with his right hand. Mickey’s hands were held in counterpoise. The glass of the face-plate was cracked.

“That’s a nice little watch. We’ll see if we can’t get that mended for you.”

Eno’s eyes went wide. “What?” He quickly raised his left arm and stared at his own wrist.

Karrow motioned to the Mickey watch. “The glass, it’s got a crack in it. The hands. They aren’t moving. When we were… introduced, you were making such wild gesticulations, Eno. That’s no way to protect the things you value. Perhaps you struck your watch on the nurse’s desk in the waiting room. You see Eno, when we calm down and organize ourselves, the details come into focus. Drawing things too large and giving over too much energy and time to fantasy can distract us from the serious business of dealing with reality. Haven’t you found we’ve communicated so much better using rational and quiet tones?”

Dr. Karrow raised his instruments and put them into Eno’s mouth. “I really should have you rinse and spit in a moment,” he said absently.

Eno’s eyes were still wide — pools trembling with doubt, confusion, and fear. His left arm now lay limply at his side. He was mumbling something around the pick and around Karrow’s searching fingers.

Karrow ignored it, and kept probing. He withdrew his fingers and frowned. “There does seem to be some sort of deformation on the furthest left molar.”

Eno was no longer paying attention. The watch was again raised to his line of sight and he was whispering, so softly. “No, no, no. Oh, no,” almost whimpering at the last.

Dr. Karrow looked down and raised an eyebrow. “What’s that, Eno? What’s the matter now?”

And as Eno turned, craning his head back to look out the window, the whole of the sky —

— went black *

About the Author: Neil Burlington lives in Barrie, ON, Canada. His favorite SF authors include Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, and Neal Stephenson. His first young reader book, “Mitch Kingly & The Weekend Monsters” is available via Amazon.com. Neil’s first SF novel “META” is under consideration at Edge SF & Fantasy in Calgary. His agent, Janet Kay and Associates, is looking for a publisher for his first romance novel, “Lover’s Island” (about a reality-based television show shot on a tropical island and the struggle for integrity and compassion for the contestants while competing for ratings). His favorite pop-culture activities include movie trivia (favorite movie is “Scream”) and music (favorite albums are “Chess” and “Crime of the Century”).
Story (c) 2006 Neil Burlington neilhome@csolve.net

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago runs on solar power.
Illustration (c) 2006 Romeo Esparrago  

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