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Pay Here to Exit

Karliana Sakas holds a Ph.D in Spanish literature. She divides her time between teaching Spanish; researching historical topics in the Hispanic world; and writing science fiction. She is happy to have her story, "Pay Here to Exit," published in Daily Science Fiction, and is currently finishing a book-length project. Read more at: karlianasakaswriter.blogspot.com.

We were trapped in the lobby of the building, confronted with some obstinate robots. I tried every language I knew, but they just stood there and refused to explain themselves. The only communication they offered was a sign: pay here to exit.
Pay with what and where? Would we be vaporized if we could not pay?
I started sweating, partly because I hate being vaporized, and partly because the atmosphere in the city of Philadelphia, 2021 A.D. was humid, almost unbearably so. We were in the city at least a century before it went underwater, but even so, I could have done with a scuba suit on that Saturday afternoon in August.
With our mission completed, it was time to find our portal and return home. Our instructions were clear enough: enter the automobile that hid a portal device, turn it on and set the ancient GPS system on a course for our home galaxy. I'd studied photos of automobiles, so I had a good idea of the general sort of object I was seeking. We had a little primitive homing device that would beep when we got close to the correct automobile. All we needed to do now was get out of this lobby and up to the floors where all the cars were parked. But how?
Our usual mission costumer was out sick, so we'd had to rummage on our own through the 19th-21st century clothing closet. I have short hair and am fairly tall, so I chose male clothing, denim pants and a leather jacket and wireframe eyeglasses. My partner chose a shapeless dress that covered her head and almost all her face except for her eyes. Better to hide the tentacles, I thought, although people still looked askance at the outfit for some reason. Not many people dressed that way on the street, so I suppose we stood out a bit. Always something to avoid when traveling in time periods and galaxies that are not your own.
Three humans entered the lobby where we were standing. Two adults and one very small human who could not perambulate without the assistance of the larger humans. A family.
"Ugh," one said.
"It says 'pay here'," the larger human said to the other, pointing to the recalcitrant robots.
"It's too hot," the other human said. "We can just go up--" she gestured at the silver doors--"and pay on our way out."
The three humans hustled over to the silver door.
"If you concentrate really hard, you can make the elevator show up," the couple told the small human between them. The child closed his eyes and squinted. Then, the silver doors opened with a soft ping.
"Mind control," my partner murmured. "Fascinating. I didn't think humans were that advanced."
We made our way over the silver doors quickly. The family seemed rather take-charge. Maybe they would lead us to our portal. We scurried onto the elevator right after them, just as the doors were closing.
The humans looked a bit alarmed. In my travels, I've noticed that they often seem uncomfortable in small spaces, dark spaces, and small, dark spaces containing other beings they do not know. I thought I'd set them at ease, and spoke to them with the Old English I'd studied in school.
"Finally!" I said. "I had no idea how we were going to get up there."
"Yeah, uh, what floor?" the human asked, his hand hovering over a panel of buttons.
"Whatever floor you're going to!" I responded. The humans looked a bit worried. My partner kicked me. Subtly, but it still hurt.
"Ouch! Er, I'm lost!" I said.
"Aren't we all?" said the larger human, with a loud sigh.
"Do you know where my automobile is located?" I asked the child human. After all, it had been the child who had summoned the elevator with his mind. Surely he could help us find the portal.
"Uhh...," said the larger human, even though I was not speaking to him.
"Four," the child said. "Four four."
"Four," my partner said. "We want floor four."
The elevator stopped. I was going to get out, but my partner reached out a hand to stop me.
"Is this our floor?" I asked anyway.
"It's the third," the female human said crisply. "It's our floor. Yours is next."
"Good luck finding your car!" the other human said, exiting the elevator with the child human holding his hand. The child stood and looked back at us, his feet rooted to the ground.
"Squid," he said. "Squid. Squid squid squid."
His parents tugged at his hands and toward the car as the doors closed.
"Observant child," my partner said, retracting a tentacle from the panel of buttons.
And indeed, our portal automobile was parked right there, in the forty-fourth space on the Floor Four of the parking garage.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 9th, 2022
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