The Yellow Line

I haven’t been doing much lately, blog-wise, so I thought I’d dig up something from the past and let folks chew on it. I knew even as I wrote this a while back that it was doomed to never be completed, but it does have a couple of good lines in there. It’s a nice setup, but to be honest I have only the faintest idea what I would do with it if I were to continue it. Also it has profanity. I thought about toning the language down for this audience, but in the end Mr. Michaels lacks some of the social graces, and that’s just part of who he is. In many ways he’s really not very nice.

The Yellow Line

They looked almost human, staring at me through the glass, eyes wide with innocent wonder. To be honest, it kind of pissed me off. I’ve never liked zoos, and this one least of all. I stepped forward, crossing the Yellow Line, and, even though I knew it was against the rules, I reached up and tapped the glass of the enclosure. They retreated, their eyes round, ready to flee but with nowhere to go. I snorted with contempt.

“Step behind the yellow line,” a security guard snapped. “Do not tap the glass. Harassment is a violation—”

“—of zoo regulations,” I finished for him. I’d heard the speech before. I stepped back, behind the line, proving I was no braver than the pathetic cowering things on the other side of the glass. There was one of them, though, that was looking at me funny. I couldn’t tell them apart, not really, but I thought maybe this one was a female. I stared right at her, then, “Raaablablabla!” I screamed, waving my arms wildly and shaking my head violently. Gets them every time. By the time I got my eyeballs straightened out she was long gone.

A security guard appeared at my elbow. “Sir, please come this way.” Behind me there was a faint buzz, indicating that the door into the bowels of the zoo was open to me. I had no choice, in the end. As I stepped through into the underzoo the security guy fell in next to me. His head came up to my shoulder, but he was armed and I wasn’t and that’s how it always was. He’s more afraid of you than you are of him, I reminded myself. According to the nature documentaries I watched as a kid, this is the case even with Grizzly Bears. I must be pretty damn scary.

The hall was narrow, the walls just gray enough to make the whole place depressing. We passed through a heavy steel door into a wider corridor, just as institutional, with more doors on either side. They could make this view of the zoo another exhibit, and people could watch the petty bureaucrats scurry about in their natural habitat. Everyone gave me plenty of space, however; most of them had seen me in those hallways before. One good thing about a bad reputation.

Another turn and I found myself standing in front of the zoo administrator’s door. We waited, the guard and I, and soon the door swung open. I stepped into the cramped office, the security guard waited outside.

It was a small office, cluttered with the accumulation of references, trinkets, and technology that fills the offices of academics everywhere. On the walls were charts showing the anatomies of exotic beasts alternating with images from the locations where those beasts used to live. His eyes strayed often to the vid screen on his desk, monitoring the stream of information and correspondence, all the things he would prefer to be dealing with at the moment.

I sat awkwardly on the stool facing his desk as Axel shook his head sadly. “I thought we had an understanding, Mr. Michaels.”

“We do have an understanding. You’re going to tell me not to cross the line, and I will anyway.”

“Please. This is a zoo. A place of study, a place of learning. It is our goal to provide the best possible conditions for our patrons to encounter other species, creatures they would not have a chance to understand otherwise. To promote understanding, it is important that both the exhibits and the guests have a comfortable and relaxed environment.”

“If I’m so damn disruptive, throw me out. I’ll find my own way home.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

“The fuck you can’t.”

“Mr. Michaels. You are very important to us here at the zoo, but I’m afraid that reasoning with you has been unsuccessful. I am putting you on notice. If you cross the Yellow Line again, you will be punished. If you touch the glass, the punishment will be more severe.”

“Fuck you,” I said. “Fuck you and all your fucking patrons. Now you’ve pissed me off.”

“Mr. Michaels, please. Think about it for a while in your private quarters. There is no reason to be belligerent.”

I forced myself to be calm. Nothing could come of this argument that would do me any good. “All right,” I said.

“I knew you would behave rationally in the end.”

I resisted the urge to kill him.

Back through the tunnels, following the well-worn path. Back to my private quarters. Solitary confinement. “Next time you’re out stealing shit from Earth, get a library,” I said to my unseen watchers. It was not the first time I had made the demand.

I paced and stewed in my little apartment, but finally managed to be calm. I needed to get out of there, but I had no idea what waited outside the zoo. I could speak a little of the local lingo, but there was no way I would be able to fool anyone.

I’d burn that bridge when I came to it, I decided. No way to plan for the complete unknown. The first challenge was to get the hell out of there.

Some time during the night a plan came to me. I smiled in the darkness. One way or another I would soon be free.

Two days later I was put back on public display. I sat, trying to control my breathing, trying not to let my watchers see my increasing agitation. Were there security measures I didn’t know about? Probably.

I watched the forms of the so-called civilized universe file past my living room window, pausing to gawk at me, a steady parade of wide eyes darting from me to the informative signs posted for visitors to learn about the intelligence indigenous to Sol III. Apparently we are considered bellicose and mildly irrational.

When I stood the milling crowd outside went still. I thought I recognized a couple of them, but it was difficult to tell. I chose one of the familiar-looking ones and ran straight at it. At the yellow line I leapt.

The window didn’t break, but my head did.

I regained consciousness in the infirmary, still inside the zoo, still alive. I had failed. I lay strapped to a bed adjusted to my size, in a small room with bare walls. My nose was assaulted by a thousand odors I could not place, the chemical byproducts of a hundred different metabolisms. No doubt my own odor was just as disturbing to the other residents, but I hadn’t asked to be there. My head was bandaged and hurt like hell.

Apparently someone was monitoring my condition because it wasn’t long before a parade of three of my captors came into the room, filling it up. I pulled at the straps but they held me tight. The one I recognized as the zoo vet was the first to speak. “You are fortunate, sir, that our medical technology is advanced so far beyond your own.”

“I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘fortunate’,” I said.

The zoo administrator, the one I called Axel, was the second in the parade. “Mr. Michaels, you are very valuable to us. Your self-destrictive behavior harms us all.”

“That’s the point, asshole,” I said.

“Several of our guests were quite traumatized. Three are still bein
g treated. One almost died.”

“Two almost died,” I said.

“Two? Oh, yes, you mean yourself.”

“One of the two was here voluntarily.”

There was a time when my head jailer would have pressed me, trying to find an explanation for my actions that fit with his definition of rational. Then he would have pointed out that my actions were not rational, with the expectation that I would instantly see reason and stop. Perhaps he had decided that repeating the same discussion was also not rational. “Well. I’d like you to meet Grr’nth Mt’dhe, a very important person.”

I didn’t bother to comment. The last of my guests spoke. “Good sir,” he said, “I’ve come to appeal to you. We need your help.”

“Screw you,” I said.

“Mr. Michaels, please. This is more important than either of us. It is a time to put aside old grudges and fight together for our very survival. Our civilization is under attack, pressed by great hoardes of… barbarians, you might call them. We need someone to lead us, someone who understands these primitive violent impulses.”

I raised my head as far as I could and looked at the alien. “You’re shitting me.”

The other made a wheezing noise and began to blink rapidly, an expression I’d only recently learned was some sort of laughter. “Of course I’m… shitting you.” The others began to laugh as well. “It was a joke,” Important Guy said, in case he misinterpreted my colloquialism.

I put my head back down on the mattress and looked at the gray cieling. “Not bad. I’ll try to spare your life when I break out of here. Wear a white carnation so I can tell it’s you.” It was my turn to laugh in the ensuing shocked silence. “I’m joking,” I said.

The others laughed as well, more from relief than from humor, I expect. Axel became thoughtful. “Wait, were you joking about the killing or the not-killing?”

“So why are you here?” I asked Important Guy.

Grr’nth looked a little uneasy. “The guests who were traumatized,” he said. “It would help them to see that you are all right.”

“I’m not all right.”

The vet spoke. “I can assure you that the damage to your brain has been fully repaired.”

Grr’nth said, “I’m sure you’ll agree that the incident reflects poorly on all of us. You are one of the most popular exhibits at our facility, and your actions are often discussed in public forums. Your latest demonstration has put all of us in a delicate position.”

“As delicate as being strapped to a table while your captors stand over you?”

“Some of those who were there that day wish to speak with you. It would be best for all of us if you could reassure them of your well-being. Things might get unpleasant otherwise. Especially for you.”

“Worse than what I’ve already tried to do to myself?”

“Yes. Quite a lot worse. It is quite possible that the survival of your species depends on repairing public opinion about your kind.”

I didn’t have to ask. He wasn’t shitting me.

2 thoughts on “The Yellow Line

  1. Somehow, this feels close to complete the way it is. With just a little more working of Mr. Michaels’ character as the story progresses, the story could end with his decision to help (or not help) save the human race.

  2. It could end there with, as you say, more character development and perhaps some character progress. In my head I occasionally play with the relationship between the zoo guests and Mr. Michaels; the putting-humanity-at-risk angle was sort of an afterthought to drive the following interactions.

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