The contents of the cup in front of him did look like coffee, which was something. As he sipped it there was a bitter taste that hit the back of Arun’s throat, although it had a lemon-like sting. It wasn’t unpleasant, but neither was it as good as the worst coffee he’d had on Earth. Arun put his free hand to his neck and rubbed it.
He looked around Josie’s office, trying to find something that looked something like alcohol. His eyes were getting heavy, and tiredness was starting to make them ache. He was hoping that he’d be offered something to take the edge off. If the humans on The Whale could grow vegetables and fruit, they surely would be able to distil some of it.
He was in a small room that overlooked the whole town of Geppetto, the white buildings arranged down the single street. People, all dressed in similar clothes of similar colours, ambled from building to building, chatting and waving at each other as they went.
Arun, however, couldn’t take his eyes off the roof of the chamber above him. The dark red shade of The Whale’s flash was offset with the light given off by the veins running across it. Part of his mind wanted to rationalise it with something that he experienced back on Earth. But each time he tried, he came up with nothing.
Further out of the town Arun could see tennis courts, football pitches and basketball nets. They all stood empty for the moment, apart from a boy trying his skills from the three-point line. Beyond that, fields of crops stretched to the edge of the chamber, where the roof reached down to the ground. He knew that the building he was in was built into the opposite wall.
He realised that if Geppetto had been on Earth, a lot of people would see it as idyllic. It was the type of parish that his peers wanted to retire in.
He heard the door open but didn’t turn around. Josie walked over and stood next to him at the window.
“It’s impressive, isn’t it?” she said.
“I can’t find the right words,” Arun replied, “but I don’t think impressive is one of them.”
“Come on,” she said, placing her hand on his shoulder, “sit.”
He did what he was asked, finding a comfortable place on a sofa in the corner of the room.
“How is he doing?” Arun asked. After his prayer, The Spaniard had been lifted and carried away by a couple of others and taken back to his room. Arun had watched them place him carefully in his bed, then remove anything from the room that was sharp or could be fashioned into a noose. Josie reassured him that the reaction was not new and that they had ways of making people come to terms with their new situation.
“Still asleep,” Winter sat down at a desk, pulled several pieces of paper toward her, scribbled something on them and pushed them away. She found a small round piece of ivory and used it as a paperweight. “Do you need to get some rest?”
“So – what was that?”
“Was what?” Arun asked.
“How you calmed him down.”
“That’s the power of prayer,” Arun said.
“You prayed for him to sleep?”
Arun smiled, despite his mood. “Something like that.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Where are you from,” Arun asked, “originally?”
“Where is that?”
“You didn’t have churches in North Carolina?”
It was Winter’s turn to smile. “That’s one thing we did have.”
“You never saw someone calmed by prayer.”
“Not like that.”
“Call it a skill of mine.”
“Good skill to have.”
Arun stood and walked to the cabinets that covered one side of the room. These were murkier than the rest of the furniture, the material not as strong as the ivory. He ran his finger along the top of the cabinet, looking as if he was checking for dust, but instead trying to see if he could get a glimpse inside.
“Why did you ask me if I was human?” he asked.
Winter opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a bottle full of a dark brown liquid. “Would you like a drink?”
Arun stopped himself from jumping toward her and pulling the bottle from her hand. He nodded.
She poured a small shot of whatever was in the bottle into a couple of glasses and slid one over the table toward him. Arun snapped it up and held it to his lips.
“Be careful,” Winter said, watching his reaction carefully, “it’s strong.”
Arun took a sip of the liquid. There was a definite strawberry flavour to it, but it was thick, like a milkshake. For a moment he wondered about what it might be made of but soon pushed the thought out of his mind as he downed it. The familiar alcohol burn hit the back of his throat, and immediately his stomach and mind settled. The ache in his head faded into the background and he closed his eyes.
“What do you think?” Winter asked.
“Not bad,” he said, “not a scotch whiskey, but not bad.”
“The farmers make it in a chamber a distance from town,” Josie said, “we had to keep it away from the main town after some… incidents.”
“Moderation is key,” Arun said, staring at the bottle.
The Prime pulled the bottle off the table and placed it back in her desk. It was a game, Arun realised. All of this was her trying to size him up, test him. He’d come up against this before – politics. It was a skill he wasn’t particularly good at playing.
“What’s your story, Arun?” she asked. He recognised the look. It was one he was used to, a mixture of pity and disgust. She’d clocked his problem. “I’ve met men of God who can’t take their eyes off a bottle of drink before, but not one who can pray a man into submission.”
“Do I need a story?” he asked, “I miss my sister, that’s all.”
“What was your parish?”
“I was more of a… problem solver.” It was a euphemism he’d used with his parents when they asked him the same question.
Winter chuckled. “My predecessor had problem solvers, in his time running Geppetto. They all ended up dead. And the damage they caused is only just being fixed now.
“Maybe a different type of problem to the ones I dealt with.”
Arun sighed and sat back down on the sofa. He held his glass up. It was a routine, this story, it was something he’d been asked hundreds of times, and the reaction was always the same. He would see Josie Winter not believe him, then question him, then reject him.
She opened the drawer and poured him another shot of the liquid.
“What’s this called, anyway?” he asked.
“Not the type of vodka I’m used to,” he said and necked it. The burn was back, the confidence returning. He would turn this situation to his advantage, gain the trust of Winter and all the other humans in this godless place and get them to help him return home. Then he would be able to get back to Judith, destroy the creature controlling her, and make everything alright again. This was a blip, wherever that blip was. For all he knew, it was some kind of weird dream, and right at the moment, he was lying in a hospital bed in a coma.
The Whale vodka filled his stomach and warmed him. It made him feel invincible.
Winter was watching.
“We needed a name, and no one could come up with anything better,” Winter asked.
“Vodka it is,” Arun said, tilting the glass toward her. She ignored the request for a top-up and the bottle stayed still on the table in front of her.
“Are you going to tell me?” she asked.
Arun looked into the glass. There was nothing left, so he reached over and snatched the bottle off the table and poured himself another.
“Why did you ask me if I was human?” he asked.
“When you arrived – when the three of you arrived – something else did.”
“Something,” Winter said, “Something not human.”
He dropped his chin to his chest. The confidence the drink had given him was wiped out in a second.
The chamber was massive. There were people everywhere.
He sighed and told his story.