He never did. Everything proceeded as if he actually meant to facilitate my escape to the surface. I couldn’t believe it, even as the ungainly patchwork craft took off. I felt it shudder beneath my feet on our way out of the cliffside workshop, and glimpsed a brief worried expression on Tlalo’s face.
No backseat driving, though. Not a word of it. I imagine in his position I’d be terrified that someone with zero experience piloting any sort of aircraft, let alone a flying saucer, now held my life in their hands. Even my own mother used to grip the armrest with white knuckles, clenching her teeth any time I drove her someplace.
I felt a pang of guilt at the amount of unqualified trust Tlalo was putting in me, before realizing that was exactly how he must’ve intended me to feel. I couldn’t tell for sure whether I was seeing through his act, or being unreasonably cynical…but after what I saw back in that chamber, I was no longer inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The craft shuddered again. When I asked why, fearing that I’d done something wrong or was damaging it, he assured me it had simply adjusted course on its own to avoid grazing a stalactite. It did comfort me somewhat to know the ship’s software wouldn’t let me wreck it, but probably not more than it comforted him.
With some direction from Tlalo, I was able to locate and fly us through an opening in the cavern ceiling that he claimed was the beginning of a circuitous route to the surface. “Every new trainee helps frustrate the efforts of our enemies to find our hideout by re-arranging the tunnels somewhat. It doubles as a lesson in using the staff to burrow through rock and other dense materials.”
There was a subtle mournful inflection. No doubt meant to induce guilt, as I’d not yet gotten that far in my training. I nevertheless offered to re-arrange the tunnels on our way out. Tlalo advised against it, as he was liable to then become lost on the way back.
External lights activated as we silently made our way through the winding tunnel. Unexpectedly smooth, but then it was neither naturally occurring nor excavated by any human method. It looked as if it had simply been “subtracted” from solid rock.
Any minute, I thought. Any minute he’ll begin his spiel about how war is hell. About how what I saw was “necessary”, and par for the course when defending the very existence of your people. I glanced over at him but he only stood there, patient and resolute.
Why? Surely this was just an extended bluff to restore my trust in him. But even as the saucer at last emerged from a cave in the side of a mountain, soaring into the starry night sky, he didn’t start in about “collateral damage”. Nothing about the “duties of a leader” or anything along those lines.
He gave every appearance, start to finish, of actually being every bit the magnanimous leader he wanted me to believe he was. Which aroused in me the nagging fear that perhaps that was the truth all along, and my suspicions were misplaced. How could I distinguish between the two, when in either scenario he’d have done and said the exact same things he already has?
Perhaps he was manipulating me after all, but still had fundamentally righteous goals? I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve done the right thing not because of who I am, but because of who I want to be. Believing that if I go through the motions for long enough, it will eventually become real…the old me will pass away and be replaced with the ideal me I’m trying to build through those actions.
Could it be the same for Tlalo, Drena and the others? They reinvented themselves after the occupation. Their untreated scars were visible proof of that. Abandoning the old values, the old hierarchy with themselves sitting in golden thrones atop all other living things…glimpsing the ugliness of that worldview reflected in the precision engineered faces of the enemy.
I set the saucer down gently in a clearing surrounded by trees. Without my phone I couldn’t be sure, but judging by the topography and distant lights of the city, it was no more than twenty miles or so from there to Stonehouse U.
The hatch folded down with a pneumatic hiss, admitting a chilling breeze. Light spilled out across the grass in the shape of the opening. I kept the exterior lights turned off for fear we’d be spotted from the nearby road, though the trees between the road and clearing were pretty densely packed.
I left Tlalo looking forlorn, light from the open hatch partly illuminating his sculpted physique. I felt pangs of guilt, but turned and fled. I had to know for sure if he’d allow it. The cold night air verged on painful due to the toga-like garment doing basically nothing to insulate me.
I tried for a few minutes to wave down cars. When at last one of them stopped, I hesitated to get in. I’m ashamed to say it’s because the driver was a Middle Eastern man. “Are you in trouble miss? Should I call the police?” I assured him that wasn’t necessary and concocted a fib about a sorority hazing ritual out in the woods.
“My friends just disappeared, I guess to frighten me. Probably that’s part of the ritual.” He rolled his eyes and chuckled. “It’s no big deal for me” he confessed, “I drive for Uber part time. It’s not like I haven’t heard weirder stories. Nice toga though.”
Despite my conviction that I’d been prejudiced to hesitate earlier, he did wind up placing his hand on my leg during the drive. On my knee at first, then when I didn’t complain, sliding it up to my thigh. It only took a terse cough to put a stop to it though.
“Arm rest used to be there, force of habit” he said. “What music do you like?” I didn’t answer, not wanting to give any further encouragement. “I hope classical is fine.” We arrived in the Stonehouse U parking lot without further incident. He offered to drive me the rest of the way to the dorms but of course I declined.
“Well, my name is Aziz. Maybe you’ll get me as a driver? I take a lot of fares around this area, it’s a small world you know.” I just did a half hearted little wave and headed for a nearby group of students discussing something or other at the bus stop.
I breathed a sigh of relief simply to be someplace better lit than the parking lot, and with several other girls around. “You just come from a party or something?” one of them asked. I nodded and smiled, adding that it was a sorority thing. She unexpectedly asked which one.
Thinking on my feet, I claimed I wasn’t allowed to say. On my way to the dorms I reflected on the events of the drive over. His trespass had been so completely contrary to my expectations. But then, I suppose only because I’ve gone to great lengths to cultivate expectations diametrically opposed to those of white racists.
A fluke, I guess. Strange things happen sometimes, no reason to tell anybody as it would only reinforce that ugly narrative, adding fuel to a fire I was determined to help extinguish. Melanie did a double take when she opened the door to find me standing there.
“WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN!? Cops came by to talk to me! There was an organized search for you in the surrounding woods, do you even know-” I cut her off there, barging in and flopping down on the couch.
I knew too well what must’ve happened in my absence, but had no energy right then to handle her nearly hysterical reaction to my reappearance. “Your mom and dad came by to pack up all your stuff and put it in storage. They probably think you’re fuckin’ dead. Do you realize that?”
My voice muffled by a face full of couch, I did my best to placate her immediate concerns. “I’ll call my parents. Don’t tell anybody I’m here, let me handle it.” She slowed her roll as I hoped she would, then knelt next to me. “What happened to you?”
It was a question I wasn’t prepared to fully answer before getting some coffee in me. The only thing open nearby was a Denny’s. When I told her that Neil was in some sort of cult, she revealed that popular opinion around Campus was that he’d abducted me and had me tied up in a sex dungeon or something.
Not that far from the truth, actually. Her eyes grew progressively wider as I told her about the stairs beneath the Feuerbach monument. About the shower room, the black robes, and the ceremony with the drums and horns.
Stay Tuned for Part 24!