by Judith Glazier
“Now there’s a rich one, by god.”
From the cubbyhole he called an ofﬁce, all Pol could see through smeary shop windows was crumbling sidewalk and passing legs. But that was enough. The lady’s smoke-gray cloak did not quite conceal the layers of creamy lace ﬂouncing beneath it, nor the pointed yellow boots stepping carefully around piles of rubbish.
Pol tapped a key. The street in front swept across his monitor, one of six views offered by surveillance cameras hidden on his property. It replaced a boring newscast about a space shield to be launched jointly by India and China: yet another layer of protection from the famous Carterite Menace. “Huh,” Pol snorted. “Waste of tax money.”
Much more interesting to watch the lady in gray.
“Wonder what brings someone like her—alone—to this part of town?” Half a block beyond his entrance, the woman reversed her direction. “Well, well. Maybe I’ll ﬁnd out.”
He minimized the surveillance view and rose, extracting long legs swathed in black silk from behind his desk. A quick pull on a lever beneath the desktop allowed a dollop of oil to ooze onto his palm. This Pol worked through his shoulder-length hair, slicking it back from his forehead. His reﬂection grinned from a small mirror mounted inside the cubby’s frame. “Great heavens but I like today’s fashions!” He smoothed his mustache with the last bit of oil on his ﬁngertips.
When the yellow boots reached his threshold, Pol used a palm remote to release the electronic door lock. The cloaked woman—hooded too, he now saw—entered and descended three of the four interior steps but held the door open. “Is this…” she began, glancing at a slip of paper, “the Galactic Message Shop?”
“Indeed, miss.” No rings on her left hand. “Pol Riyot at your service.” He smiled broadly while unobtrusively pressing the remote hidden in his left hand to deepen the grime on his windows. His customers usually preferred privacy. Edging a step closer, he caught a glimpse beneath the hood of eyes tight with—what—indecision? Something about the woman seemed familiar. He waited.
She let the door swing closed. “I, uh, I need to send a message. A very private one.”
Pol nodded. There were just two reasons people came to him to send and receive messages: he didn’t pry and he didn’t leak. Those with nothing to hide went to Mega-Message on Main. Cheaper and far more convenient. But that voice. He’d heard it before. If she kept talking, he’d pin it down.
Suddenly she yanked back the hood, revealing billowing blonde tresses around a lovely young face. “This is stupid. Why else would I be here? I’ve heard of you, Mister Riyot, and I think I can trust you. I’m Zerubella Arustinian.”
Stars above! No wonder she seemed familiar. How many vids had he seen of her, this daughter of Protruse Arustinian, patriarch of the powerful Arustinian banking conglomerate? Years ago, clips of Zerubella as a child jumping show horses filled the airwaves. Now grown, images abounded of her marching in a “Save the Animals” demonstration or arriving at a glittering Twelve Families ball.
“Please, call me Pol,” he replied, pulling his attention back to business.
She descended the ﬁnal step into his shop. “Okay, Mister, um, Pol, can I send a message to someone without anyone in the universe knowing about it? Other than him, I mean?”
She’s even more beautiful in person than in the pictures, he mused. “Of course. Where might this person be?” Probably in space. She wouldn’t need his help ﬁnding someone on Earth.
“I don’t know. He left ﬁve years ago. Is that a problem?”
“No. If he’s out there, we’ll ﬁnd him. I can hit any receiver in the universe, Miss Arustinian. Civilian and military.” A man gone ﬁve years could well be a soldier. And “out there” sounded far better than “alive.”
“And no one in my family will know? They have ears everywhere.”
Time to wind up the sales pitch. “My messages stay conﬁdential. I code and scramble them tight enough to make the devil scream. All I need is sufficient information only the target would know, to drive the decoding.” He didn’t add that some clients were themselves top brass in the Army and Air Force, who at times preferred his services to the ultra-secret military channels. “Still, this all costs money.”
“Money is not an issue. How quickly can my message reach this person?”
No, even his heftiest fees would mean nothing to her. More gold must pour through the Arustinian bank in a day than through all the gambling dens and brothels down here in scruffy Portside in a year. “Your message can leave here within minutes, Miss. But how soon it reaches its target depends on how far out he’s located.”
“Then we better start recording immediately, hadn’t we?”
“Yes, ma’am. Right this way to the recording booth. Give me a moment to calibrate your hologram settings, then you can practice for, shall we say, ﬁve minutes?”
The left corner of her lip lifted ruefully. “I’ve been practicing this speech for years. Let’s get moving.”
He led her to the booth, where she removed her cape to reveal an exquisite, shimmering pale yellow and cream dress, cut low to highlight the round tops of her breasts. An exotic blue elephant, exactly the color of her eyes, hung from a gold chain around her neck. Using a hand mirror left in the booth for just this purpose, she vamped her dress, breasts, hair, and face for maximum impact, as if she was alone in her boudoir.
Pol grinned in appreciation and turned on his equipment. When she ﬁnally settled into the overstuffed armchair, he adjusted the settings for the glow from her outﬁt and dripping curls.
By the planets, he thought, just look at her. Should he suggest the wide couch certain clients liked to lounge on during their recordings? Sometimes in the nude? No, he decided, this one was giving her admirer—for lover it must be—the precise look she wanted. Shame, since he would have dropped the sizable fee he added for those recordings for just a glimpse of her in the buff.
Well, maybe she’d want a shoulder to cry on afterward. This thought triggered his next statement. “Pardon me, Miss, but if this is to reach a, shall we say, personal friend, perhaps you’ll want me to switch on the Emotion Enhancer. New equipment, costs a bit more. Packs a wallop in every word. It might please you.”
“Do it,” she said ﬂatly, clearly ready for him to leave her alone.
He shut her in the solid booth: soundproof, electrically shielded, no windows. All equipment stayed inside, leaving no electronic portals that could be hacked. He took his reputation for privacy seriously, since his livelihood depended on it. When ﬁnished recording, he let the customers review and re-record as much as they wanted. Then Pol personally scrambled the messages, sent them out on appropriate channels, and destroyed the originals. No trace remained in his shop, and he never saw the holograms himself.
Still, he knew their content.
How? Shiny surfaces all over the booth reﬂected into tiny mirrors around the room. These opened and closed at random every few seconds, gone before a client could be sure he’d seen anything. The mirrors funneled views to a ﬁnal vibrating mirror on Pol’s desk in the cubbyhole. There, using goggles with the opposite frequency, he could view a collage of changing angles. No sound, of course, but he’d become skillful at lip reading. Got a good half of the words when people spoke clearly.
Generally, Pol had a sense of the content within a sentence or two: worth hearing or not. Since he never allowed himself to use his hijacked information for proﬁt, he often found the messages dull. Some he watched anyway. Certainly the sexy nude ones. Often the pretty women, even clothed. But many, such as his bet-placing regulars, he ignored. Not a glamorous life, but being an honest galactic bookie paid handsomely.
This Zerubella Arustinian, though, fascinated him. Her lover’s been gone ﬁve years, he reminded himself. Maybe she’s lonely, wants a man who knows how to be discrete. His lucky day. He turned the Emotion Enhancer on 1, its lowest setting, then hung on every word he could make out.
“Durak, darling… you are well. I’m… such a long time. I thought… news about me when…”
Not much of a love letter, thought Pol. Too hesitant. The tone doesn’t match the packaging. Does she want the man or not? He whispered, “Let’s ﬁnd out,” and nudged the Enhancer up to 2.
“…missed you. When we kissed… and you smiled… But we’re young and… never promised anything… I’ve dated other men… and someone as handsome… you’d have offers that… only human…”
No, no, no! Pol shook his head impatiently. If you want the guy back, sweetheart, you’ve got to lay it on thicker than that. Hook him, don’t give him an out. What’s up, just mutual lust or something more? Well, she needs my assistance, that’s for sure. He shoved the Emotion Enhancer to 3, its highest level.
“Durak, my love… missed your… oh, how I’ve suffered… knew only your kisses, my body… excitement like I’d never… barely wait, three years ago… Off World, we… melted at your touch… through the night…”
Pol smiled, aroused at her words. That was more like it, the minx. Maybe the man left home ﬁve years ago, but she’s been trysting with him since then at secluded resorts, keeping their names out of the gossip zines. As she reminisced, he thoroughly enjoyed the sight of her running her ﬁngertips up her inner arms, across her breasts, and along one cheekbone. As if anyone would need reminders of nights with this lady, he sighed.
He was jolted from his reverie when she delivered her next statement directly into the holocam. “But Durak, you… two years! Not a word! …the hell are you?” She sank back into the chair. “I love you… my life. But… can’t wait forever…”
The plot thickens, chuckled Pol. I do believe the lady will deliver an ultimatum. If lover-boy wants to keep this incredibly rich and beautiful piece of ass, he’d better get his own ass home lickety-split. He paid close attention.
“…other men, until now… haven’t meant a… love-stricken old maid… Compared to… you know they haven’t… the heat our passion can… so hot when you… my love, nothing at all! My heart… yours.” Here she slowed her speech to where even Pol could understand most of it. “But my family expects me to wed. And…”
A faint buzzer sounded. “Damn it,” growled Pol. Whoever that was could rot on the doorstep. He wasn’t about to miss the rest of Zerubella’s message.
“…lot of Velmer… Yes, your cousin. He’s, Vel and I, we’ve… time together. Nothing like you and me… could never, Durak… but he loves me… think you need to know.”
Here it comes. Pol almost bounced in anticipation. What had she cooked up with this Velmer?
“…to Vel. He’s become insistent… set a date. And to announce the… He’s an honest, decent man… know he cares for me and… Oh, not as handsome as… singe my lips like your kisses… families still want to join through marriage… Vel would do as well as you. But I… and said I needed a few days… need to talk to you, Durak! I need…”
Pol thought he knew exactly what this woman needed, though he doubted Velmer would provide it. And just who was this Velmer anyway? Him and Durak, cousins who wanted Zerubella Arustinian in marriage for, what, ﬁnancial reasons? Which of the Twelve Families was making a play to unite with the wealthy Arustinians?
“…married to Vel… never be together again, Durak… faithful to the man I wed… old fashioned, but to me… forever. And it’s just around the corner! …Vel says three months… time to plan the biggest, splashiest…”
She leaned into the camera. Pol wondered if the Emotion Enhancer had been necessary after all. “Do you still love me, Durak? …not a word in two years… you ever coming home? Are you even alive? …I don’t have much time… love you, Durak, I always… can wait only two weeks for your reply… must make plans for the… In three months, I’ll be Velmer’s wife!” She stared intently into the holocam another thirty seconds, a smile that could mean anything playing on her lips.
Bewitched by the drama in his mirror, Pol hardly registered that Zerubella had left the recording booth. He whipped off the goggles and tipped the mirror down on his desktop barely a second before the shimmering dress entered his cubbyhole.
“Well. Well.” He tried to keep his voice from squeaking. “Done already?”
“Yes. What did you think of it?” Her golden curls danced a hand’s breadth from his face.
He almost answered. Almost spoke. Twenty years’ reputation nearly down the drain, dear god. Just in time, he bit hard on the tip of his tongue. “Uh!” he gasped. “Didn’t see it. Never watch the recordings. Professional ethics!” He ran one hand, then the other, through his oily hair.
Pol couldn’t tell if her face showed amusement or disappointment. “Ah. Too bad. I had hoped to get your opinion.”
His opinion as a director, or just as another infatuated man? No matter, he ﬁnally realized. “You’re welcome to review it yourself. Most clients do.”
“No. Whatever’s there is there. Send it out.”
He drew the necessary coding information from her and asked about channels.
“For heaven’s sake, send it on every channel in the universe! What, do you think I’m trying to save money at a time like this?” She extracted a wad of notes from a jeweled handbag. “Here!” She leaned very close and spilled the money across his desk. “Send it now!”
He reached for her, but just as quickly she slid from his grasp, ﬂinging her cape around her shoulders.
“Wait!” He all but vaulted his desk to reach her side. “You’re not safe walking alone in Portside. Let me escort you home.”
She ﬂicked him away with one hand. “I won’t have any problems.”
When he tried to touch her shoulder, his arm recoiled in pain before his conscious mind knew he’d been hurt. Perhaps she was safe at that. The damn cape would repel anything she didn’t want near her. Pol quietly opened the door and bowed. “As you wish. I will let you know if—when—I get a response.” No reason to ask whether she expected one. He cradled his stinging hand as she swept past.
Returning to the booth, Pol reviewed the beginning of the recording to be sure it had recorded properly, intending, as usual, to shut it off after a few seconds. But prompted by his feelings for Zerubella—love would not be too strong a word, he suddenly realized—instead he edited out the hesitant start and added a Forced Reply. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he was willing to do anything he could to bring these lovers back together. After a few more minutes of coding, he shipped the secured message out on every channel, to every address in the universe. If this man Durak was out there, he’d get it, sooner or later.
Then, for the ﬁrst time in his career, Pol slipped the holodisk into his pocket. For the life of him, he couldn’t destroy it.
He spent the rest of the afternoon staring absently at the news on his monitor. More nations calling up their reserves, more attempts to break the silence of the Carterite Menace from space. Assuming there was a menace. Even their name was a mystery, “Carter” being merely the ﬁrst astronomer to glimpse their ships, many years ago, drifting well beyond the solar system. As the armada drew closer, politicians and generals all over Earth pontificated, calling for action. If the Sino-Indian shield didn’t work, they insisted, we must blast the invaders to smithereens. More arms, more reserves…
Pol snapped off the picture, irritated by the same old arguments. Just because the Carterites wouldn’t—perhaps couldn’t?—speak, did that mean they were evil? Might we not be about to annihilate a race that could save mankind from its own stupidity? To date, the only thing Pol was sure the Carterites had done was enrich the Twelve Families beyond belief and swamp Portside with soldiers, gamblers, and whores. A situation Pol Riyot could thrive in.
That evening, he took the holodisk home to his luxurious apartment above the shop. Enjoying a glass of vintage wine, he watched Zerubella’s recording twice before going to bed.
* * * * *
The next week and again the following week, Zerubella Arustinian stopped by to inquire about a reply. She left disappointed. The third week, as the vids announced her wedding date with great fanfare, Zerubella ﬂashed what Pol imagined to be the biggest diamond in the world on her left hand. Gone was the blue elephant pendant.
After that, Zerubella Arustinian and Velmer Hyllkul were constantly in the news. At times they even drowned out the generals and politicians screaming ever more shrilly about the Carterites, whose ships by then had passed Pluto. From all appearances, Zerubella was enjoying every second of her notoriety.
Frequently at night, Pol watched Zerubella’s recording, amazed at its power to arouse him. Late one evening, breaking all of his professional rules, he pulled one holostill from it, an exquisite shot of a golden girl pleading with an absent lover. When he sent it anonymously to her home, the gossip media went into a frenzy. Could it be from a jilted lover?
They never found out, even though Zerubella displayed the picture at the wedding reception, among several holostills depicting her young life. Rumor had it that the Arustinians and Hyllkuls had invited over twenty thousand guests to this party of a lifetime. “I’ve always dreamed of a gorgeous wedding like this,” Zerubella gushed to one of the zines, “and to be the wife of a man like Velmer Hyllkul!”
* * * * *
An abrupt change of orders brought Captain Durak Hyllkul to Leda, Jupiter’s ninth moon. He’d been exploring the stars for, he had to think, four or ﬁve years now. Sure, he’d run Earthside when he got the occasional leave, or better yet to an Off World resort. Earth seemed so damn crowded and hectic after the solitude of space. And though he patched in frequently for his updates and orders, months might pass before he could receive the fat, data-hog holomessages from his family and friends.
He had the perfect job.
Durak cared little for titles, referring to himself only as “a Ranger.” He was happy to leave the inﬁghting, the sharpened claws, and the constant struggle for the next rung to others. Give him space to explore. What more could he want?
His current orders specified approaching Jupiter from Sunside, circling the big planet, and jumping to Leda from directly beneath it. Though mystified, Durak obeyed to the letter.
Leda’s base barely justified the designation. One sorry landing ﬁeld, two small domes housing meager personnel quarters, and a hanger. All of it temporary.
Eric Dunster-Smith, the base commander, briefed Durak moments after he landed. The Carterites were on the back side of Jupiter, apparently stalled in disarray. Earth needed the best intelligence it could get, and Hyllkul had made a name for himself in sorting out seemingly meaningless data from space.
“The boys back home must be grasping at straws,” said Dunster-Smith. “Or they wouldn’t be asking us for direction. It’s my guess we’ll blast the Carterites clean out of space if they ever move from behind Jupiter.”
“Seems likely. No need to wait for a clear shot from Earth, though. From Mars, we’ll get ’em about nine degrees earlier.”
They chewed over likely military strategy a little longer, and then the commander left to report in to Earth. Durak took the opportunity to grab a meal and ﬂip through his holomessages. An unusual one caught his eye. It was clearly coded, but in a way that seemed very personal to Durak Hyllkul. He puzzled out the layers and reversed the scrambling.
The picture of Zerubella Arustinian stunned him. He hadn’t seen her in years. Figured she’d married someone else long ago. Hadn’t even thought of her in… Well, that wasn’t true, of course. He dreamed of her every few nights. But during the days—
“Durak, my love, oh how I’ve missed you.”
He reeled at her words, at the sight of her golden shimmering hair and dress, and at those brilliant eyes that matched the blue elephant he’d given her, lying, dear god, between her exquisite breasts. The hologram clutched unbearably at his mind and heart, forcing an old love out of hibernation. He gasped with hunger for Zerubella and tried to embrace the image, which blinked out as he neared it. He backed away again.
The recording played on. Marry Velmer! The thought pierced his numbed brain. Never! She must be his and his alone from this day forward.
The message had barely ended, the lady’s silent stare still fading, when Durak felt compelled to punch in a reply. He considered neither military protocol nor security. He thought of nothing beyond his need to possess Zerubella Arustinian. The hologram’s formatting invited—no, demanded—a passionate answer.
Durak Hyllkul threw barely coherent chunks of speech at the base’s holocam. “Zeru, Zeru, I love you! You’ve got to—You can’t—Zerubella, wait for me! I love you more than my life! I’ll come—On Earth we’ll—I’ll resign…”
On he pleaded, promising this, that, anything to make her wait for him. He’d give up his commission. Rejoin the Twelve Families. They’d wed, a huge glorious ceremony if she wanted, and he’d never leave her again. He stammered out intimate details of his dreams of her.
Unconsciously repeating her phrase, “just around the corner,” he said he could be home in a few days. Days! Good lord, what day was it? Three months had passed, but surely she had not already wed Velmer. No, it wasn’t possible! Their love was like nothing else in the universe.
Finally Durak stopped, pressed “Send,” and collapsed back in his chair. Nearly a minute passed before his heart stopped pounding. How could he have ignored Zerubella all this time? Why, he might as well have thrust her into Vel’s arms!
Dunster-Smith stuck his head in. “Time to work, Hyllkul. The Carterite ships—Great stars, man, what’s the problem?”
Durak tried to twist his mind back to the small issue of war. “I’ve just heard… Never mind. Let’s go.”
Monitors showed each planet of the solar system, and one focused on the Carterite vessels, which shuffled constantly, without apparent pattern. “It’s as if they’re trying to confuse us,” muttered Dunster-Smith.
“Got much ﬁre power here on Leda?” asked Hyllkul abruptly. “They’re nearly in range for our Mars attack. Let’s take a shot or two, set up a diversion to occupy ’em til it happens.”
Damn, he loved working in space. What a shame he’d have to give it up to go back to Earth. To Zerubella. He groaned, imagining his future. Teeming crowds jockeying for power and money. A palace for a home. The long dinners, Zerubella’s latest fashions, his own stylish suits.
“I’m a fool,” he said, despair in his heart.
“Sorry. Nothing.” Durak Hyllkul clasped his head with both hands. What was he thinking? He could never go back to that life. It was why he had gone to space in the ﬁrst place. “A fool.”
The commander stared at him.
“Look, can you give me just one minute?” Maybe he could call back his reply. What spell had he been under while recording it? Yes, he loved her, but to be honest, he and Zerubella wouldn’t make it past their ﬁrst anniversary if they actually lived together. Let her think he was gone from her life. Let her marry Vel. His cousin could give her the life she wanted.
Before he could rise, a movement in the Carterite ships caught Durak’s eye. A single vessel, sphere shaped and twice the size of the others, raced away from the pack, heading beyond Jupiter’s belly.
“Shit!” Durak yelled, suddenly understanding. “Hit the bastards now, if you can!”
But he knew it was too late. The big ship halted in position. Both men could only watch the monitors as ﬂaming power surges ﬂowed from each Carterite ship to the sphere, joined, focused, and beamed directly at Earth.
The small blue planet glowed brieﬂy, then turned brown.
The sphere rotated slightly, and the next surge fried Mars. Steadily, as if out for a day of galactic target practice, the Carterites blasted each planet, then began picking off the bases, obviously following a detailed list.
“Our turn soon. Only a matter of time,” said Dunster-Smith.
“But we’re the lucky ones, Eric. Anyone still out in space will die slowly as their supplies run out. May never know what happened.”
As a single Carterite ship aimed at their tiny base, Durak had one last thought. Now that it was irrelevant, he was glad he had sent his reply and sorry Zerubella would never hear it.
* * * * *
Krexipux slid into the Earth wing of the museum, his bottom pad stretching and contracting to propel him across the slick floor. The silver Museum Director symbol glittered on his chest. A phalanx of military ofﬁcers trailed after him, their chests glowing with colorful decorations for rank and brilliance in battle.
The Earth Exhibit was by far the best documented of all the life forms the Iktorgors had obliterated, and it amused the director to show it personally. The collection contained two captured ships, a whole space base, and innumerable artifacts, all installed at great expense after the museum carefully exterminated the pestilent life aboard.
Krexipux lectured, his combined oral/psychic voice booming through the large hall. “Listen, you can even hear the puny sounds they made!”
He gestured to Lysiff, whose tiny beige symbol beﬁtted his low status at the museum. The empty space station’s hologram equipment had continued to receive messages for weeks after all the senders were dead. There were a lot to choose from. Lysiff switched on a message. Having only rudimentary forelimbs made manipulating the human machines terribly difficult, but he managed. Iktorgorian machines were civilized, of course, responding to mental commands.
The absurd recordings evoked raucous laughter.
“Humans were stupid!” Krexipux roared. “They thought we could not read their feeble minds. They thought their idiotic strategies were superior to ours. Everyone is better off now that we have destroyed them! Our destiny is to rid the universe of such vermin!”
The next hologram radiated and Durak Hyllkul’s voice rang out. After a few seconds, Krexipux interrupted. “This is one of the last messages sent. It is from an elite soldier. And what does he have to say as death bears down on him?” Krexipux mimicked the squeals and hisses with remarkable accuracy. “‘I’m just around the corner! I love you! I cannot live without you!’ Fools! Humans placed stupid sentiment above war. They deserved to die.”
The ofﬁcers enjoyed the ridiculous sounds, and especially the squeaky imitation coming out of Krexipux’s enormous head. Then they followed the director to the next exhibit.
As usual, Lysiff let the recording play. When sure his visitors were gone, he switched on another holoplayer. Zerubella’s image sprang to life and recited her entire message. Since it had been broadcast to every human address in the universe, the Iktorgorians had found it waiting at the remote base they spared from destruction. A museum staffer with time on his hands realized the two recordings made a pair.
Lysiff pushed the holograms close enough to touch, then listened in fascination as the voices started again, this time alternating sentences. The discovery of what these two messages would do when in contact remained his own secret miracle.
Third time through, Zerubella and Durak spoke in phrases, sometimes mere words, swooping around each other, creating an aria of the dead.
“Our time together.”
“I love you as my life…”
“As handsome as you.”
“Oh, my love, my dearest.”
On and on they sang. Lysiff could not explain the phenomenon. It seemed to him that their emotion, this love of theirs, had somehow crept into the recordings themselves. When the images touched, they completed each other.
Lysiff did not know what love was. The concept was foreign; there was no Iktorgorian word for it. But each day, as he listened to Durak and Zerubella, he thought he was learning. Now, after many years, though he knew it was crazy, he yearned to experience love for himself. Just one time, just to understand what those foolish humans had once had.