The Tetris Run

by Sonya Craig

 

Don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Space debris punches a hole in your fuel tank, you make an emergency landing on an alien’s brutal-ass ice planet, and he shows up on the day you’d almost given up, half frozen and starved and he nurses you back to health. Then he disappears for days. And then randomly reappears at odd intervals.

His technological capabilities seem to far exceed your own yet he is unable to help you brainstorm a fix for your compromised vessel. He seems to want nothing from you in return for his generous help. Nothing that is except to listen to you talk. He seems to want that very much. And yes, it’s a little freaky having a giant, black demonic-looking creature sit across from you and hang on your every word. But his charity has kept you alive so you guess you could indulge him this small quirk.

According to the marks I’d scratched into the curved bulkhead above my bed, I’d been stuck in this glacial hell for one hundred and forty-three days. Forty-two days since he had stepped from the blowing chemical ice storm outside and into my frost-covered cabin. A vision from a nightmare: a deformed, half-reptilian, half-insectoid monstrosity with red eyes that burned with an otherworldly intensity. As I lay there dying on Day 101, my thoughts had been all for my daughter and that archaic movie that had been her favorite: 101 Dalmatians. Was it some sick twist of coincidence that I would die on this day?

My mind wandered. All those cute puppies. She had wanted to save every single one of them, but especially Lucky. “He’s Lucky ’cuz he almost died but then he didn’t,” she would say every single time she watched it. “He didn’t die and now he’s like the toughest of them all.”

Two summers ago, she had experienced a miraculous recovery from a coma brought on by a tumor inside her head. A tumor that the doctors and scientists couldn’t operate on, couldn’t tell me if it was benign or malignant or if it would ever go away or if it would kill her tomorrow. A grapefruit-sized invader that stripped my baby of her innocence and dumped a permanent load of worry over the rest of her life. And mine. A tumor very much like the one that had taken my older brother from me when I was ten.

After her release from the hospital, she had fixated on Lucky. We had watched that movie so many times since then that I could recite every line and nail each and every inflection.

I spent the next two years watching her every move, her every change in expression, her eating habits, her sleep patterns, her everything, on constant guard for any sign that the malignancy was making its lethal run. I reached the breaking point, mentally, emotionally, everythingly. I simply COULD NOT TAKE IT ANYMORE. If you’ve never lived this kind of on the constant edge of losing everything dear to you, then you cannot understand. The stress and the anxiety had worn me to a thin fragile shell. My mind darkened to a chronic, muddled mess, my hands shook, and my world teetered, ready to fracture at the slightest hint of possible doom. That was when I chose to take the Tetris Freight Run—the well-paying, notoriously dangerous, ship-busting Tetris Run with its almost always lethally dense meteor belt. The run that was almost guaranteed to end my pain forever.

This was the guilt-laden memory running through my head when he walked into my world and I swear to god I thought Satan had finally come for me. I had little doubt that I was destined for hell after the life I’d lived, especially after my chicken-shit decision to use the Tetris Run to escape my pathetic existence. A decision that was in effect abandoning my daughter. But when he stepped through that door, the devil incarnate and oh so real, my already chilled blood froze solid. He loomed over me, hellish eyes burning through the blastwave of jagged ice shards, Lucifer, ready and eager to watch me pay for all my sins. I admit to wishing I had lived my life differently. I wished I had lived stronger. I wished to god I’d never taken the Tetris Run.

Now, weeks later, my monstrous alien savior was seated on the opposite side of the portable furnace he had generously provided me, his bulk hunched to fit inside the cabin, his gnarly hands warming themselves over the heat. He listened to my latest story as he always did, his massive head cocked to the side much like a curious dog, red eyes watching my lips move.

I paused my tale. “You do realize that you staring at me like that doesn’t help your Creepy Factor, right? Can’t you at least stare into the fire once in a while?”

He clicked out some ugly sounds that translated through his comm device a second later. “Not fire. Exothermic reaction. Technology beyond your understanding.”

I held up my gloved hand and did a talk-talk-talk puppet gesture. “Yeah, yeah. You know what I meant and you don’t have to keep pointing out your technological superiority, you know? Unless maybe you’re trying to compensate for something. Is this your species’ version of a big-ass truck with oversized tires?”

Click, click. “Truck?”

“You’re never going to get sarcasm are you? Nevermind. Where was I?”

“Mooovie.”

“Right. So my kid, she loves this movie about these dogs and she loves this one little guy way more because he…” My voice caught in my throat and to my horror, tears suddenly filled my eyes. I swiped at them, my face heating under his perusal. “Fuck. Fuck it all.”

The alien leaned his bulk toward me, his crimson eyes studying my face. Mimicking my motions, he ran his hands across his own eyes and then held them in front of his face, as if the answer to this new and uncharacteristic action on my part would be written on his palms. After a moment, he returned his gaze to me.

Click, click. “Explain meaning.”

I waved away his request. “You think too much you know that? Back to my epic tale of 101 doggies and one mean old lady and her icky infatuation with fur coats.”

Click, click. “No. Has meaning. Explain.”

“What? It means exactly nothing alright? Do you want to hear the rest of the story or what? It’s what you come here for, right? The stories?” His eyes, god. Why did he have to stare so intently? I’ve never had another being look at me like that before. I felt soul naked under that gruesome red-eyed stare.

Click. “Explain.”

His looming posture and the altered tone of his voice made it clear that this wasn’t a request but a demand. For whatever alien reason, this was important to him.

My head spun with the abrupt change in our status. He was my alien ally, helping me manage this external crisis until I could either repair my ship or make contact with a passing Terran vessel that could rescue me. He was conversation and supplies and a break from this bleak solitude. That’s what he was to me. What he was not—was anyone who was allowed into my heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. He was an alien that in later years I would remember with a distant fondness. I wasn’t prepared for anything more than that.

“It’s nothing.”

Click. “Not nothing. Explain. Now.”

“It’s a dog okay? A cute dog that she got all sentimental about. That’s it.”

His red eyes narrowed. He repeated my hand-swiping-tears motion and then reached across the space separating us. His huge, bony fingers hovered before me, framing my face. “Explain you. You explain you.”

There it was. He wanted to know why I had teared up. Well, that wasn’t gonna happen. Not in this space-time continuum. I shrugged. “Just something in my eye. That’s all.”

His expression changed. His razor-sharp teeth clicked, his brow furrowed, and his eyes practically glowed with some internal fire. A month ago, when he had stepped from the fogged tundra and into my crash site, he had scared the living hell out of me. He was by far the ugliest, most intimidating and grotesque creature I had ever encountered in all of my travels. Not that a lot of species exist in the universe, at least as far as Terran exploration has encountered. I’ve seen all the ones known, all four of them, and trust me when I say this guy made the others look as pathetic as amoeba in a petri dish. The look on his hideous face at this moment would have sent even the strongest among us into permanent hiding.

Click, click. “You talk. But you not say anything.”

“I don’t know what to say, alright?” A lie. Another avoidance.

“Explain you or I leave and do not return.”

My jaw dropped. “What? You’re saying you’ll just leave and not come back?”

He gave me a single nod and then sat in expectant silence. I had no doubt he meant what he said though. He would leave me here to starve and die if I didn’t answer his question because that’s the kind of inexplicable stuff aliens do. I rubbed my temples. I so did not want to do this whole communicating my feelings thing.

The idea was completely foreign to me. It was the reason I was a freight hauler. I travel for months in blissful solitude, never needing to interact with anyone. It was why my marriage ended. It was why I had no close friends. Supposedly, I’m “distant” and “unapproachable” and a million other phrases that essentially mean “You’re right. Stay the hell out of my stuff and we’ll be just fine.” Apparently, that attitude doesn’t work for others.

It is, however, who I am and that’s that.

But now I was stuck. I had been given an ultimatum.

So, I told him about my daughter’s brain tumor and how it held me captive, constantly afraid to my core for her, wearing me down until I had nothing left. He wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more. He wanted me to explain all of me. Why hadn’t I told others about my fear, why hadn’t I sought out consolation, help, support?

So I did my best to briefly explain the reasons for my stupid emotional repression: my brother’s death and how it ruined my family, my suddenly distant father, my depressed mother. Me, all alone with my loss. My friends, unable to deal with anything more serious than the latest video game, all pulling away from me.

I was alone in my house and alone in the world. Cast out, I grew accustomed to being a loner. I excelled academically and failed socially. Out of the various professions available to me, I chose the grueling training of flight school where weakness was considered a guaranteed fail. And I excelled, graduating near the top of my class. I had turned my self-sufficiency into a positive. Mostly positive. My husband left and then my child became ill, her ongoing heath crisis threatening to shatter me if I gave in to the fear. And still he wanted more. More depth. More soul baring.

“Why are you doing this?” I yelled at him. “Do you earn your fucking wings if I bare my soul or something?”

Click, click. “You talk now or I leave.”

“Fine! But fuck you every step of the way. Fuck you and the ugly egg you probably hatched from. Fuck you and whatever alien version of a horse you rode in on. And also, and also… I hate you!”

He was unmoved by my tantrum. He waited. And as I haltingly began my tale, he listened. He listened through the whole, ugly story. At some point, I broke down and started crying. Tears hot on my cold cheeks, tears I hadn’t felt for years, tears that melted my protective armor. Not just crying. Hell, let’s be honest. I sobbed, I wailed, and I shook. My shell cracked and splintered into a thousand shards of shed pain.

Fuck. Just fuck it all.

But to my surprise, I did not crumble into nothingness. The world did not shun me and I did not become an instantaneous failure at life.

I had cried. I had told my story. I had let someone in. And nothing bad had happened.

To my utter shock, the alien appeared at my doorstep the next day with a crowd of his friends. They repaired my vessel, replaced my fuel stores and sent me on my merry way back to my home and my life and most especially to my precious daughter. Like I said, don’t ever think you can understand an alien because the truth is, you can’t.

Standing awkwardly before him, I said my eloquent goodbyes. Eloquent for me anyways. “You’re the weirdest fucker I’ve ever met in my whole life, you know that right? But I do hope you get your stupid wings. And uh, thanks, you know, for everything.” 

*****

I watched the small, weird alien fly off in her primitive spaceship. To my friends I said, “This one took three times longer than any of the others. This one was far more stubborn than any of the rest of the freighters that end up here.”

“You did well,” my friends said. “These Tetris Run freighters travelling through time and space all alone, they are endlessly fascinating.”

“And endlessly broken. I’m not sure I will ever understand these aliens.”

“That’s because they do not even understand themselves.”

“I suppose that’s where we come in. Somehow, fate has aligned us in this odd relationship with them. I wonder how they all survived before the Tetris Run opened? By the way, does anyone know what a wings is because I think I just earned one.” 

 

Little Green Men in Black

Little Green Men in Black

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

As he walked across Peachtree Street in the Lenox district of Atlanta, en route to his job as a security guard in Phipps Plaza, Atlanta’s ritziest mall, Malcolm Allaby sipped a cup of coffee that he had purchased in the little cafe that sat across the street from the mall.

Malcolm was distracted by what had happened the night before. He had gone to one of Atlanta’s more upscale restaurants, Davio’s in the mall, where he was supposed to meet Jennifer, a petite knock-out who managed the Phipps Plaza Anne Fontaine store, a high-end fashion boutique. But Jennifer never showed. What’s more, it was the first anniversary of Malcolm’s divorce. On top of that, Davio’s was a restaurant he and his wife had always talked about checking out “some day,” but never did. And even worse, who showed up on the arm of a hunky date? None other than Malcolm’s ex, Teresa.

And Teresa was looking good, too. Malcolm had to admit that Teresa, who had always seemed kind of thick around the waist when they were married, now gave Jennifer a run for her money. Of course, that was an easy race with Jennifer a no-show. Teresa could walk to the finish line.

She wore a little black dress and black heels. At five-five she was able to show off just enough leg to be sexy without looking like a hooker. She looked like a million bucks. Seeing her made Malcolm wish fervently that Jennifer would show up looking like at least two million. But by the time Teresa arrived at the restaurant Malcolm had been sitting there for an hour nursing a plate of room-temperature calamari and a beer. The odds were against Jennifer making a spectacular entrance and redeeming him.

Teresa spotted Malcolm before he had a chance to duck out. She smiled, waved, whispered something to her date, and, to make matters infinitely worse, came over to Malcolm’s table.

“Hey you,” she said, which was classic Teresa when she saw someone whose name she couldn’t recall.

“Hi,” Malcolm said, which was classic Malcolm whenever he ran into someone at a restaurant.

“In the back of my mind I wondered if I might run into you here,” Teresa said.

“Ah,” was all Malcolm could muster for a response.

“Are you with someone?” Teresa asked, purposefully eyeing the untouched second glass of water at Malcolm’s table.

“I was,” he lied. “She left a few minutes ago.”

“And you’re still here?” Teresa asked, her expression made it apparent that she didn’t buy it. He’d never been able to lie to her.

“Obviously,” Malcolm said, intentionally attempting to be sarcastic, which he was usually not very good at doing. He did, however, have a habit of sometimes being unintentionally, and successfully, sarcastic.

“So how are you?” Teresa asked, giving Malcolm an almost imperceptibly narrow window of opportunity to be sincere with her.

“Never better,” he said, being decidedly insincere.

He was hoping Teresa would get that he did not want to talk to her. She got it.

“It was nice to see you,” she said, forcing a smile.

Malcolm did not smile back. He said nothing. Seeing her was the opposite of nice. He’d been trying to get over the fact that she had left him, and not even for another guy. For no one. That had hurt, a lot.

He thought about it during the drive home, thought about it some more as he watched the news at eleven, and thought about it as he lay in bed alone, and as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke thinking about it. He showered, ate breakfast, drove to the cafe, had his coffee, and read a copy of Entertainment Weekly and thought about it the whole time. So as he crossed the street, he was distracted thinking about Teresa out on a date on the first anniversary of their divorce, at the restaurant they had always talked about going to, but never did.

He didn’t see a rip form in the fabric of space-time just ahead of him. He didn’t see two long, thick, green tentacles reach out towards him. They grabbed Malcolm and yanked him through before he knew what was happening. He found himself being held aloft by the tentacles in a brightly lit room. A beautiful, young woman smiled up at him. An older, black man peered grimly at him. And something that looked like a cross between a giant spider and an octopus held him in its tentacles. Malcolm opened his mouth to scream, but before he could he felt a sharp pain in his chest, and blacked out.

* * * * *

Actually, he died. But he was revived. When he opened his eyes he saw the multi-tentacled creature again, and promptly died again. He was revived again, opened his eyes again, saw the creature again, and this time only passed out.

The next time he opened his eyes he saw the beautiful, young woman smiling at him.

“Hello, Malcolm,” she said. “I am Adra.”

“Where am I?” Malcolm asked. He had no memory of the creature, just a persistent dread in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite figure out.

“You are in the Recovery Room,” Adra told him.

“How long have I been here?”

“Eight hours.”

A sickening feeling passed over him as he suddenly realized he was probably late for work. Or worse.

“Is something wrong?” Adra asked.

“I need to call my boss,” Malcolm told Adra. “I’ll get fired.”

Adra shook her head.

“You never showed up for work again,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have something much more important to do,” Adra said. “Much more important.”

“Like what?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity.”

Malcolm blinked, not quite getting it.

“Excuse me?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity,” Adra repeated.

“Is this a joke?” Malcolm asked. “Is this, like, a new reality show or something?” He looked around for miniature cameras or Howie Mandel.

“It is not a joke,” Adra said. “It is not a reality show. It is reality.”

“So I’m supposed to save the world,” Malcolm said, attempting sarcasm.

“Not the world,” Adra corrected. “The world will still be here. You are to save humanity.”

“Humanity,” Malcolm repeated for clarification.

Adra nodded, smiling. In fact, she had been smiling the whole time and it was starting to freak Malcolm out a little. Just a little, though, because she really did have a very nice smile.

“And what will I be saving humanity from?” he asked.

“You are to save humanity from itself.”

“I already joined Greenpeace,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Adra shook her head.

“And I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

“Humanity will become extinct within the next seventy-two hours if you fail,” came a male voice from behind Adra. The wall behind her shimmered and through it stepped the older black man whom Malcolm had seen before.

“If I fail what?” Malcolm asked. He did not believe the fate of humanity rested on his shoulders. Who was Malcolm Allaby? Just a security guard at a mall. What could he possibly have to do with the fate of humanity?

“All your questions will be answered soon enough,” the man said. “Well, perhaps not all of them, but most of them.”

“Who are you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am Corbin.”

“Not your name,” Malcolm said. “Who are you with? What group? What are you going to do with me?”

“We are merely a collection of humans and nonhumans who wish to save humanity from destroying itself… again.”

That was a lot for Malcolm to absorb in one sentence. First, he wanted to know what Corbin meant by “nonhumans.” Second, he wanted to know just what Corbin meant by “again.”

“Humanity has destroyed itself before,” Corbin continued without Malcolm’s prompting. “Three times now. Each time we have let it happen without doing anything to stop it because we believed it was the right thing to do, despite our misgivings. But now… we cannot let it happen again.”

Seeing the confusion in Malcolm’s expression, Adra stepped forward.

“Allow me to explain,” she said to Corbin, who nodded.

“Please do,” Malcolm said.

“Planet Earth is actually Museum Earth,” she said. “And human civilization is actually a controlled reenactment of events that first transpired over one hundred thousand years ago.” Her smile did not falter or fade one bit.

“A reenactment,” Malcolm repeated. “You mean like Civil War reenactments?”

“Something like that,” Corbin said.

“Museum Earth was created to illustrate to the Galactic Community how a seemingly advanced civilization can destroy itself if it cannot transcend such institutions as the nation-state and organized religion, and overcome such problems as racial and gender inequality.”

“What about the environment?” Malcolm asked.

“Any truly advanced civilization recognizes the obvious benefit of balancing the integrity of a world’s environment with the needs of progress.”

“That’s what I thought,” Malcolm said smugly. His ex had laughed at him for joining Greenpeace, calling it a lost cause.

“Museum Earth tells a cautionary tale, which every advanced civilization knows. There is not a citizen of the galaxy who doesn’t know the tale of Humanity.”

“So…” Malcolm was hesitant to ask, but he wanted to know. Even if these people were simply bonkers or part of some Doomsday cult, he still wanted to know. “What happened?”

“An airborne super-virus developed by the United States military-industrial complex,” Corbin said grimly.

“It was accidentally released,” Adra added.

“Accidentally?” Malcolm asked. “It wasn’t terrorists or anything like that?”

Adra shook her head.

“The lesson Museum Earth teaches all peoples is that the development of such weapons begets their use, without fail, whether intentionally or not.”

Malcolm absorbed this, and nodded thoughtfully.

“But some of us feel that humanity should be given a chance to continue, this time,” Adra said.

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Malcolm asked. “I have nothing to do with the military-industrial complex.” Although, he remembered, the security agency he worked for also supplied contractors to the military for prisoner interrogation and convoy escort services in various so-called “hot spots.” So, in a way, he worked for the military-industrial complex. However, unless this super-virus was somehow accidentally released in the Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, he didn’t know how he could stop it.

“You are among those individuals whose lives intersect with what is known as an Omega Moment, which is a point in time when events are sent in the direction of humanity’s self-destruction. There are many Omega Moments. If any one of these is disrupted, humanity could be saved.”

“And what is my Omega Moment?” he asked, deciding to play along.

Adra and Corbin exchanged a look.

“It could be anything,” Corbin said. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as bringing your ex-wife flowers.”

“Bringing my ex-wife flowers will save humanity?” Malcolm asked.

“Merely an example,” Corbin replied, waving it off.

“The truth is, we do not know,” Adra said. “That is for Jik to explain.”

“Jack?” Malcolm asked.

Jik,” Adra repeated, saying it with more enunciation so Malcolm would get it.

“We will go to visit him now,” Corbin said.

* * * * *

They helped Malcolm, who was still feeling a little unsteady, get out of bed and get dressed.

“Stay close to us,” Corbin told him. “And whatever you do, do not look the little green men in black in the eye.”

“Little green men in black?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes. Avoid eye contact with them, no matter what.”

“Riiight,” Malcolm replied, not meaning to be sarcastic but successfully conveying a bitingly sarcastic tone that made Adra momentarily frown with her eyes (her smile remained intact).

The wall shimmered, which Malcolm had to admit was an incredibly cool effect, and they stepped through it and onto a walkway as wide as a street. Going this way and that were creatures that walked slithered, fluttered, crawled, danced, spun, slid, glided, and rolled. Some were reminiscent of snakes, some spiders, others birds, but most were impossible to find an Earthly analogy for, at least not one that Malcolm could dredge up. He put his hand to his heart. Adra looked at him, showing concern.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Malcolm couldn’t reply. He could barely breathe.

“Maybe it is too soon,” Corbin said.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Adra said. “He is still conscious. That’s good.”

“I’m okay,” Malcolm said, forcing himself to breathe. Whatever had threatened to immobilize him, he shook it off.

“Then we should go. Look.” Corbin tilted his head to the left. Adra and Malcolm looked.

A squad of six little green men in black were marching towards them in lockstep with one another. They were definitely green, the dark green of an old lime, and they wore identical black suits. They looked like stocky children, or more appropriately like midgets, or dwarfs. Malcolm couldn’t remember which one, midgets or dwarfs, had limbs in proportion to their height.

Corbin reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walnut-sized, silver ball.

“When I throw this,” he said, “run the other way.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Adra asked him.

“We have no choice. If they catch us…”

Whatever he left unspoken had the desired effect on Adra. She grabbed Malcolm by his right arm.

“Ready?” Corbin asked.

Adra nodded.

Corbin waited a couple seconds more, until the little green men in black were close enough for Malcolm to see their eyes, which were silver slits.

Malcolm made the mistake of looking into one of those pairs of silver slits. He saw nothing but unrelenting resolve to hunt him down and—

Corbin threw the silver ball. The little green men in black immediately scattered and drew weapons, little wands that looked anything but dangerous.

Even as the silver ball arched through the air, one of those wands emitted a blast of lightning that exploded into the wall behind them, knocking them down.

The silver ball exploded into a rapidly expanding silver mist that overcame the little green men in black, instantly turning them into silver statues.

“Let’s go!” Corbin yelled, scrambling to his feet.

Malcolm still couldn’t move. Adra and Corbin each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him to his feet.

“You must try to keep up,” Adra told him. They started down the wide hallway, which had become eerily clear of anything that slithered, crawled, spun, fluttered, et cetera.

Malcolm did his best to keep up, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The eyes of the little green men in black haunted him, though. He knew he’d been paralyzed with fear.

“The String,” Corbin said. “Up ahead.”

The three of them walked alone down the hallway. Malcolm wondered if he’d imagined all the different creatures from earlier. But as they walked he saw movement out of the corner of his left eye, and turned just in time to see a tentacle slide through a shimmering wall. A renewed feeling of dread came over him.

“Can I go home now?” he asked.

“Soon,” Adra said. She and Corbin still had Malcolm by either arm, and they maneuvered him to the right, through the shimmering wall, and down a ramp.

“First we have to disappear,” Corbin said.

“Where?” Adra asked.

“Random selection,” Corbin told her. “Just grab the first one and go. We’ll connect with Jik later.”

They now stood on a platform across which hummed large tubes that looked to be made of pure light. The tubes were different colors, and crisscrossed like hamster tunnels with no apparent rhyme or reason. Within the tubes, which were transparent, Malcolm saw different colored bubbles darting to and fro. They walked up to a blue tube and Adra placed her hand on it. Moments later a bubble shot towards them and stopped where her hand rested.

“Like this,” she told Malcolm, and simply stepped into the tube and the bubble, as if passing through a liquid membrane that immediately sealed up behind her. Corbin shoved Malcolm towards the tube.

Malcolm did as Adra had done. He found himself facing Adra in a gelatinous seat that fitted perfectly to his form and held him snugly. Corbin didn’t follow.

“It is better if we go separately,” he said. “We’ll meet at Jik’s.” Malcolm marveled that he could hear him perfectly through the wall of the tube and the bubble.

Adra nodded. She placed her hand in the middle of the bubble.

“End of the line,” she told it.

The bubble suddenly sped away, leaving Corbin behind. Malcolm did not feel the motion, though. For all he knew, it was Corbin who had sped away.

The bubble conveyed them smoothly along through the blue tube, beyond which Malcolm could see nothing once they left the platform.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Adra asked. “Would you like me to find out?”

Malcolm nodded.

Adra lifted her right hand, and poked her index finger into the space between them, in the center of the bubble. The space shimmered, and then a holographic projection of the Earth appeared. Only a greenish hue outlined the continents, or the oceans, depending on how one looked at it.

“This is Museum Earth,” Adra said. “And this is the Observatory.” A filigree of interconnecting lines—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white—overlaid the image of the Earth. A pulsating dot moved rapidly along one of the blue lines towards the center of the Earth.

“Is that us?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes.”

“We’re moving through the Earth?”

“Not really,” she said. “We’re moving through the Observatory, which is in a different universe than the Museum, but very close.”

Malcolm shook his head.

“I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Think of the universe we are in now as less than one billionth of a millimeter to the left of the universe we live in. It is so close that events in either universe can affect things in the other. They are conjoined.”

“Like Siamese twins?” Malcolm asked.

Adra frowned for a second, as if not getting the reference, then smiled and nodded.

“What did you do just then?” he asked her.

“What did I do?”

“Yes. You didn’t seem to know what I meant, and then you did. How?”

“My computer explained it to me,” Adra said, tapping her head.

“You have a computer in your head?”

She nodded.

Outside of the bubble, pitch black had taken on an orange hue, Malcolm noticed.

“We are passing by the Earth’s core,” Adra explained.

“Is it safe?” Malcolm asked nervously.

Adra nodded.

“We cannot go directly through it. We are going around it, although we are very close. The energy given off by the core seeps into this universe. The Observatory taps into it for power.”

The orange tint was getting brighter by the second. He was actually feeling warmer. Or was that his imagination? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip.

Adra wasn’t sweating at all, but her features looked like they were starting to droop. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. Adra still looked like her features were drooping, even more so now.

“What’s happening to you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry,” she said, “but it is difficult for me to hold this form in extreme warmth.”

Not worry? This woman with a face and body like a supermodel was literally melting before his very eyes.

His expression must have made it quite obvious that he was on the verge of totally freaking out.

“It is fine,” Adra said, her voice slurring. “I am a shape-shifter. Extreme warmth causes me to lose control of my shape-shifting abilities.”

Outside the bubble the darkness had given way to a flickering red, orange, and yellow glow. It seemed as if they were passing through the heart of Hell, and Adra was turning into some sort of misshapen demon. Malcolm’s heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest. Sweat poured from his face and arms.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Malcolm asked.

“The cooling system does seem to be having some difficulty,” Adra said. “Not everything works perfectly, even with our technology. But don’t worry, it won’t be long.”

Until what? he thought.

Malcolm closed his eyes. The heat was sweltering. He felt like he was being smothered alive.

“Not long,” Adra repeated, although Malcolm could barely understand her now. He didn’t want to open his eyes and look at her. He was afraid of what he might see, so he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.

After a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer, the heat had subsided. He still didn’t dare open his eyes, though.

“Are you asleep?” Adra asked, as if from far away.

He opened his eyes. She smiled at him. She looked amazing again, like a supermodel only more so.

“No,” he said.

“Did you think we would not make it through?” she asked.

“I had my doubts,” he replied.

“It is an unpleasant route to take when the cooling system malfunctions,” Adra told him, “but it is really not dangerous.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Malcolm said, trying to sound sarcastic but sounding sincere instead.

“Does that mean you trust me?” she asked.

He didn’t know how to answer that. On the one hand, everything she had told him seemed ludicrous and ridiculous. On the other hand, he had seen things that made him wonder. Was it all real?

“I hope you will trust me,” Adra said.

“I trust you,” Malcolm told her, not sure if he really did, but realizing he didn’t have much choice at the moment. They were still in a bubble cruising through the Earth’s innards, even if they weren’t technically inside the Earth itself but a billionth of a millimeter to the left of their universe.

“I hope you really do trust me,” she responded. “Because if you do not, humanity is… phhhht!” And then she snapped her fingers.

Phhhht, Malcolm thought.

* * * * *

They arrived at a platform just inside the Earth’s crust below Hong Kong, according to the holographic map floating in the center of the bubble. The platform was deserted. As soon as Malcolm and Adra stepped out of the bubble it whisked silently away.
Adra placed her hand on a yellowish tube.

“It will be a few minutes before a bubble arrives,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-way platform.”

Malcolm looked around him. The platform was huge, though not quite as large as the one from which they’d just fled the little green men in black. “How can something as massive as this so-called Observatory exist without being detected by anyone on Earth?” he asked Adra.

“Sometimes things are detected by humans,” she said. “When that happens… it is dealt with.”

“Dealt with how?”

“Humans who see a nonhuman for the first time usually suffer a trauma as a result,” Adra explained.

“What sort of trauma?” Malcolm asked.

“They die.”

Memories surged to the fore of Malcolm’s brain.

“Is that what happened to me?” he asked.

Adra nodded.

“So how…?”

“We knew it would happen,” she said. “We were prepared to revive you immediately, before you suffered any brain damage. Both times.”

“I died twice?”

Adra nodded.

“But now…?”

“You have been acclimated to the sight of nonhumans,” Adra said. “More or less.”

“I guess that’s good,” Malcolm said, sounding sarcastic without intending to.

“It is very good,” Adra added, not detecting the unintended sarcasm.

“But if I had died for good?”

“We would have had to start over with someone else.”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at that.

“Someone else?”

Adra nodded.

“Why didn’t you just start with someone else to begin with?”

“Because you were the safest bet.”

“Why was I the safest bet?” Malcolm asked.

“Because you’re dead.”

Malcolm felt as if his blood suddenly froze.

“Is this the afterlife?” he asked.

Adra laughed, and shook her head.

“You are not really dead,” she told him. “We saved you. You were about to be hit by a truck and killed instantly. We opened a space-time hole right before it happened, and pulled you out of the universe. The truck crashed and the driver was killed.”

Malcolm didn’t remember any truck.

“How does being dead make me the safest bet?” he asked.

“The Observatory stops monitoring you once you are dead. If you go back to Earth you won’t be noticed right away. This gives us an advantage, for a little while.”

“But those little green guys saw me,” he said.

“It wasn’t you they were after,” Adra said. “It was Corbin and myself. We are considered fugitives because they know we are attempting to prevent an Omega Moment.”

“And preventing an Omega Moment will save the human race?” Malcolm asked.

“Not necessarily. Each Omega Moment is different,” Adra explained. “There has been much research into the effects of the Omega Moments. The one associated with you has a very large Element of Uncertainty. All Omega Moments have Elements of Uncertainty, but some are very small, while others are so large that they make the Omega Moment practically, but not completely, irrelevant. The Omega Moment associated with you—your personal Omega Moment, if you like—had an Element of Uncertainty well above the Threshold of Probability.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means that even if your Omega Moment didn’t occur, there was still a very high probability that humanity will still destroy itself.”

“How high?”

“Ninety-eight percent,” Adra said.

“Ninety-eight percent?” Malcolm asked. “Why bother?”

“Jik developed a theory that saving you would create a second Omega Moment for you, which is more of a Reverse Omega Moment. And it did, according to his rough calculations. It created a Reverse Omega Moment with a miniscule Element of Uncertainty.”

“Which means…?”

“If we prevent this Reverse Omega Moment, humanity will die. If the Reverse Omega Moment occurs, the Threshold of Probability that humanity will be saved is ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent.”

Malcolm scratched his head. All Adra’s talk of Omega Moments, Reverse Omega Moments, Elements of Uncertainly, Thresholds of Probability… it gave him a throbbing headache just above his left eye. It was all too complicated.

A bubble silently whisked into the platform inside a yellowish tube.

“So what do I have to do?” he asked. He wanted a specific goal to focus on. That would help. Adra climbed into the bubble, and he followed.

“That’s why we must go to Jik,” Adra said, as they took their seats. “To find out. Don’t worry, we won’t go anywhere near the Earth’s core this time.”

“Where are we going?” Malcolm asked.

“Orbit.”

* * * * *

As the bubble shot through the Earth’s crust and then into the sky, Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder how the bubble transit system worked. How was it able to go from the Earth’s core and into space? He pondered the question and then asked Adra.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“How can you not know?” Malcolm asked.

“Can you describe to me how an airplane flies?” she asked back.

Malcolm thought about it, then shook his head.

“This technology is everywhere,” Adra told him. “On every world that is part of the Galactic Community. Ever since my childhood.”

“It’s just so… amazing,” Malcolm said.

Adra shrugged.

“I have never really given it much thought.”

She gazed outside as they ascended into orbit. At that moment, yet again, she looked amazingly beautiful. Malcolm had to remind himself that she wasn’t even human.

“You’re a shape-shifter, then?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you have a normal shape that you use when you’re not… shifting?”

She nodded again.

“Can I see?”

Adra shook her head.

“That is only for family,” she told him.

“Why did you pick the shape you have now? Malcolm asked.

“Jik instructed me to do so. He determined that this shape would be appealing to you, and you would respond more positively to it than another shape.”

“Is it someone’s… do you look like someone…?”

“I am mimicking a human being who is alive, yes,” Adra said.

“How do you…?”

“There must be an exchange of genetic material,” Adra explained. “The other must not be aware of what is happening, or must consent to the process.”

“What does the process entail?”

“I believe you would call it… sex,” Adra replied.

Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say about that. He did wonder how that would work, if seeing an alien was basically fatal to a human being.

“So if you and I… then you could look like…?”

“If you and I had sex, then I would be able to mimic you down to your genetic code, temporarily.”

Malcolm absorbed this, then wanted to change the subject.

“Why did you come to Earth?” he asked.

“I have always had a morbid fascination with civilizations that destroy themselves. Yours was the first one that had been transformed into a living museum. Your entire civilization, your history, your science, your arts, your wars… it was all re-created so the Galactic Community could figure out how to prevent emerging advanced technological civilizations from destroying themselves.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, there are those who believe that civilizations ought to be left alone until they achieve interstellar travel capabilities on their own. The theory is that any civilization that achieves interstellar travel has passed the threshold of self-destruction. Humanity was different, through.”

“How so?”

“You had already achieved interstellar travel, and then you destroyed yourselves.”

“But… you said we have seventy-two hours left. I haven’t heard anything about any kind of starship being launched.”

“It wasn’t in this version of your civilization,” Adra told him. “It was only in the original. There was no Omega Moment associated with the launch of the starship, so that element of your civilization was omitted.”

“Omitted?” Malcolm asked. “Who decided what to omit?”

“The Board of Directors,” she said. “And primarily the Chairman of the Board.”

“And who is that?”

Adra smiled.

“Corbin has been the Chairman since the beginning. Museum Earth was his idea.”

Malcolm blinked.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “How old is he?”

“I do not know,” Adra replied. “Age is relative. He has been alive for over one hundred thousand Earth years, at least.”

“He doesn’t look a day over forty!”

“Individuals within the Galactic Community have access to the best life-extension technology,” Adra explained.

“If everyone on Earth is supposed to die, how did Corbin survive the first time?” Malcolm asked.

“During the original time of humanity’s civilization on Earth, a ship was launched into space with Corbin and other humans on board. It was intercepted by a Galactic Community probe that was investigating that quadrant of the galaxy after having detected evidence of human civilization. By then, however, it was too late. Humanity had wiped itself out. Those on the ship were the only survivors.”

“How many are there?”

“Originally there were two hundred,” Adra said. “Now, he is the last one.”

Malcolm blinked, stunned.

“What happened to them?” he asked.

“They died.”

“What about all that great life-extension technology?”

Adra shrugged. Malcolm wondered if that was a normal, natural gesture for her, or if she had learned it. She was, after all, an alien.

Their bubble was well beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, yet Malcolm did not feel weightlessness, which he thought was odd. He asked Adra about that.

“The universe we are in does not recognize the laws of gravity,” she said. “There are no stars in this universe. Only shadows of stars.”

The bubble pulled into a platform with invisible walls. Beyond, like a gigantic blue and white and green and brown wall mural, slowly rotating, was Earth. Malcolm stepped from the bubble and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at his home.

“It is a beautiful world,” Adra said.

“Yes, I think so.”

The platform was deserted, just like the one within the Earth’s crust.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“This platform is not used very often,” Adra said.

“How far can one go in the bubbles?” he asked. “Is that how you travel from star to star?”

Adra laughed.

“No, it would take far too long. We use lightships that travel in superluminal space throughout the galaxy.”

“Superluminal space? Is that like another universe?”

Adra shook her head.

“It is an aspect of our universe, a dimension that exists on the other side of the lightspeed barrier.”

Malcolm nodded. It seemed to make sense, although he didn’t quite understand it.

A bubble suddenly slid into the platform, in a greenish tube. A moment later, a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus climbed from within. Malcolm felt himself become faint, unsteady.

“It is Jik,” Adra announced.

To steady himself, Malcolm reached out, touched her shoulder. He quickly moved his hand, however, worried that she might have lied about what it took to mimic someone.

“You probably will not die this time,” Adra said.

“It is almost time,” said Jik, in a voice that sounded exceedingly pleasant and calming. Malcolm immediately felt better.

“Where is Corbin?” Adra asked.

“He has not yet arrived,” Jik said.

“Shall we begin?” she asked.

Jik paused a moment.

“Yes, let us begin.”

Adra’s smiled vanished, and her expression now seemed less friendly.

“Begin what?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry I have not been completely honest with you,” Adra told him. She pulled a wand from somewhere, Malcolm wasn’t sure where, and pointed it at him.

“What are you doing?” Jik asked her. His tentacles moved towards Adra. She turned the wand on him, and a bolt of lightning sprang forth and right through his center. Jik collapsed to the platform floor, immobile, his charred center smoking.

At that moment, dozens of bubbles, of every color, zoomed into the platform, stopped, and from within issued forth dozens of little green men in black, all holding weapons. They surrounded Malcolm and Adra. Moments later a silver opaque bubble slid into the platform, and Corbin emerged from within. He strode through the ranks of little green men in black until he stood before Adra.

“You are hereby charged with attempting to disrupt the mission of the Museum,” he said to her.

“Not me,” Adra said. “You.”

Corbin shook his head.

“I knew there were those who would attempt to prevent humanity from destroying itself, therefore I pretended to be one of them in order to attract others to me.”

“That is precisely what I was doing,” Adra said ever so calmly.

Corbin shook his head sadly.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it’s that you aliens can’t lie worth beans.”

“Beans?” Malcolm asked, frowning.

Corbin looked at him.

“It’s an expression,” he explained. “It’s one of the reasons I can’t believe the civilization on Museum Earth is worth saving. What’s the expression you use? Hill of peanuts? In your version of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says ‘our problems aren’t worth a hill of peanuts.’ I can’t accept that. Humanity was real the first time around, but we screwed it up. Now it’s an artificial creation, a tool the Galactic Community needs to prevent other civilizations from screwing up the same way.”

“But that is exactly what I believe,” Adra said. “I was going to sabotage your attempt to save humanity.”

“You were?” Malcolm asked.

She nodded.

“You must understand,” she said. “The lesson of humanity has prevented many other civilizations from developing weapons of global destruction. Museum Earth has proven that a civilization that goes down that path will destroy itself. It has happened with other civilizations, as well. Many believe the entire galaxy could succumb if such civilizations are saved and permitted to expand beyond their home worlds.”

“I would like to believe that you did not intend to save humanity, Adra,” Corbin said. “I really would. But I can’t take that chance.”

He nodded to the little green men in black, two of whom produced wands, which they aimed at Adra.

“You are making a mistake,” Adra said.

“Perhaps,” Corbin said.

Adra dropped her wand, and the little green men in black took her to a yellow tube and aboard a bubble, which quickly whisked her away.

“What will you do to her?” Malcolm asked.

“She will be put into suspended animation for ten thousand years.”

“And what about me?”

“You will be returned to Earth.”

“Aren’t you worried that I’ll do something different now, and mess things up? Humanity might not destroy itself.”

Corbin shook his head.

“You do not know what, or what not, to do. The chances that you will do anything to save humanity are well beyond the Threshold of Probability.”

“I see.”

“Or, you may remain here in the Observatory with us,” Corbin said. “We could use another human on our team.”

Malcolm didn’t even need to think about it.

“Thanks, but I’d rather die with everyone else,” he replied.

Corbin smiled and nodded.

One of the little green men in black held up what looked like a remote control device, and pressed a button. A window opened before Malcolm, a portal in the fabric of space-time, opening to Peachtree Street between the cafe and the mall. He stepped through.

* * * * *

At home there was a message from work that if he didn’t call in by the next day he’d be fired. Since it was now well past the next day, he assumed he needed to look for a new job. But then he realized that humanity had a deadline for extinction that was rapidly approaching, so why bother?

There was also a message from Teresa, saying she had something that belonged to him and wanted to give it back. She wanted him to meet her that morning at her office.

He wanted to see her, but at the same time he didn’t want to. He still both loved and hated her. Loved her for who she was: the woman he had married. And hated her for who she had become: the woman who had left him.

Ultimately, curiosity and fatalism won out. What did she have of his that she wanted to give back? And why not go see her if she, and he, and everyone else was going to be dead soon? He got dressed and headed out. Since her office wasn’t too far away, he decided to walk, which would also give him time to prepare himself emotionally to see her again.

As he walked, he couldn’t help but think that what had happened had all been a dream. But he knew it had been real. He tried to think, what could he do to save the human race? Nothing came to mind.

He crossed a street with a gas station on one corner that had a flower shop inside it. He remembered something that Corbin had said about the simple of act of giving a woman flowers having the power to change everything. Malcolm stopped. Teresa loved flowers, and he had never given her any. He had always thought of flowers as a waste of money, really. Money meant nothing to him, now. He went into the flower shop.

The woman behind the counter turned around, and Malcolm’s felt his heart nearly stop.

It was Adra.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I thought you were gone,” he told her.

“Excuse me, but do I know you?” she asked.

“Adra, it’s me, Malcolm.”

“My name isn’t Adra,” the woman said. “It’s Heather.”

Malcolm frowned. Then he realized something.

“Did you have a strange experience recently?” he asked her. “Where you found yourself walking down the street and then suddenly you woke up in a room, and you were surrounded by these… creatures?”

Heather’s face went pale, and she nodded.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Same thing happened to me,” he said.

“Did you also find yourself making love to yourself?” she asked.

Malcolm blinked. So Adra had not lied.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Too bad. It was amazing.”

“I’m on my way to see someone now,” Malcolm told her. “I want to bring her flowers.”

“Is she someone special to you?”

Malcolm nodded.

“Behind you,” Heather said.

Malcolm turned around and saw a bouquet of red and white roses.

“She’ll like those,” Heather told him.

“I’ll take them.”

He left the flower shop with more of a spring in his step. It was amazing how buying flowers for someone made him feel so much better. If nothing else, he could now say that he had brought his wife flowers, even if she was no longer his wife.

As he walked, he saw the air shimmer before him. It took a moment for him to remember what that meant. But as a portal opened up in the space-time continuum, there were no tentacles lashing out to grab him.

What he saw, instead, were six little green men in black. He remembered Adra’s warning, and averted his gaze immediately. Malcolm sidestepped the portal and ran across the street, forcing cars to skid to a halt as he bolted past.

On the other side of the street he paused to look back. Six little green men in black were coming after him. They were fast, too. But so was Malcolm, whose longer legs propelled him ahead of them. Three broke off and went down a side street. Mentally picturing where Teresa’s office was and where he was at that moment, he realized they were going to cut him off at the pass, so to speak.

Maybe seeing Teresa again was the Reverse Omega Moment, and that’s what they were trying to prevent. And he had wasted time by stopping to get flowers. Damn! He could imagine it: I’m sorry, I could have saved the human race from extinction, but I had to stop and buy flowers for my ex-wife.

He wasn’t going to give up, though, not when he was so close.

He rounded a corner and saw the bank ahead. At that moment, three of the little green men in black rounded the other corner, and now stood between Malcolm and the bank. They lined up, blocking his way. One of them pulled out a wand. Malcolm didn’t slow down.

Malcolm, running at full speed, got close enough before the wand could be aimed, leaped into the air and sailed over the little green men in black. He went up the steps of Teresa’s office building, two at a time. Without pausing to look back, he pulled one of the large double-doors open and went inside.

“Malcolm,” Teresa said. Her office was immediately off to the left of the lobby. She sat behind her desk with her door open. He walked over to her as she watched with a stunned expression.

“Here,” was all he could say. Out of breath. He held the roses out to her.

“What are these for?” she asked.

“They’re for you,” he replied.

Teresa closed her eyes for a second, then opened them.

“Why did you bring me roses?” she asked. Her voice sounded stern. He could tell right away that Teresa was not pleased.

“I thought…”

“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t think.”

“You like flowers,” he said.

“I love flowers,” she responded. “And you never brought me flowers the whole time we were married. And now…” She shook her head, then continued. “Malcolm, seeing you the other night, I thought maybe it would be nice to, I don’t know, re-connect with you… on a different level. As a friend, I guess. But, obviously, you’re not ready for that.”

She sighed heavily.

“Anyway, here,” she said as she opened the drawer of her desk. She pulled out a ring. Malcolm recognized it immediately. It was Teresa’s wedding ring.

“I don’t want that,” he told her.

“Take it,” she said. “Maybe you can sell it. I know you need the money.”

Malcolm remembered that he didn’t have a job anymore. He took the ring from her.

“Bye, Malcolm.”

He turned to go.

“Please take these with you, too,” Teresa said, holding the roses up to him.

He took them.

Outside, Corbin stood at the bottom of the steps, and behind him stood the six little green men in black.

“You did it,” he told Malcolm.

“Did what?”

“You saved humanity.”

“I did? How?”

“The flowers,” Corbin said. “Had you not brought flowers to Teresa, she would have taken pity on you. She would have given in to giving you one more chance. And that would have done nothing to prevent humanity’s demise. But now she’ll put more effort into her new relationship, which will disrupt the Omega Moment of her lover.”

“I thought you wanted to stop anyone from saving humanity.”

Corbin shook his head.

“A ruse. I knew Adra was trying to stop me. But they didn’t know I knew. So I used my resources as Chairman to make it look like I was stopping her. I had no choice, I had to fool the little green men in black, too.”

“Yeah, what about them?” Malcolm asked.

“Now that humanity is saved, their job is over.” He turned around to look at the little green men in black. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, now.”

“We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant,” said one.

With that, they opened a portal in the space-time continuum and went through, one at a time. The last one turned to Malcolm, and gave him a thumbs-up.

“It’s been real,” he said with a wink. The portal started to close around his arm, which he yanked back through at the last second.

“What about you?” Malcolm asked Corbin.

“Oh, I think I’ll stick around, grow old, and see what happens.” He turned and started walking down the sidewalk. But there was something nagging at the back of Malcolm’s mind, and he called out Corbin’s name. The very, very old man who looked less than forty years old turned and regarded Malcolm patiently.

“There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Malcolm said. “You told me that I would’ve been hit by a truck if you hadn’t saved me. How could I have had an Omega Moment, or a Reverse Omega Moment, if I was dead?”

Corbin smiled.

“Ah, yes… you see, your Omega Moment was actually what we call a probabilistic Omega Moment. Basically, had you lived, your Omega Moment would likely have happened, and therefore your Reverse Omega Moment was also determined.”

“Oh, okay, thanks,” Malcom, said, smiling and nodding and not really getting it at all. Without another word, Corbin turned and walked away.

Malcolm decided to go home. When he passed the flower shop, he paused, went back inside.

“Changed your mind?” Heather asked.

“Yes,” he replied. Then, “These are for you, Heather.” He handed her the roses.

 

Ripple

by Rami Ungar

 

Colin remembered when they had first met, a year and a half ago. At that point the Boonat had been on Earth for nearly six months, but only recently had they been allowed to leave their ships. Their ships had appeared in the skies over Boston one day, gray metal ships shaped like rainbows or elbow macaroni hovering in the air. Over every radio wavelength and in perfect English, they had proclaimed themselves as the Boonat, a race of nomads from the far reaches of the galaxy who traveled from system to system looking for intelligent life so as to learn about other creatures in the universe.

“We are not your enemies,” the Boonat had said. “Our mission is the exchange of ideas, of seeing other beings and other cultures and helping each other mutually benefit from what we have to offer and from what you can offer us. We are a peaceful race, and will not harm you unless you harm us first. Come, let us go forth into the future and begin what can only be a new era of progress and prosperity.”

Despite the Boonat’s declaration of peace, the United Nations—the United States particularly—had asked that the Boonat stay aboard their ships until the UN could decide on how to deal with these strange beings that had suddenly appeared in the sky over the Massachusets Bay. After numerous meetings in the UN, and several televised discussions between the UN and the Boonat, both in the UN building and the main Boonat ship, the Boonat were finally able to set foot on Earth, on the understanding that they could do whatever they pleased as long as no human was harmed and no human harmed them.

Colin had met Ynarl not too long after the Boonat had been given permission to come to Earth, in the Boston Public Garden. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, with families playing by the lake, couples strolling hand in hand on the pathways, old men playing chess or Chinese checkers at stone tables. A freshman at Boston University, Colin had gone to see the flowers that were grown in the garden. He had always loved flowers, ever since his grandfather had allowed him to help out in his garden when Colin was seven.

When Colin arrived at the park, what caught his attention was not the beautiful array of flowers, but one of the people admiring them. The other people in the park were giving this person a wide berth and giving her fearful glances. Curious, he got closer, only realizing when he could make out the girl’s features that she was a Boonat.

Colin had seen pictures of the Boonat in the newspapers and online, humanoid creatures with blue-green skin below the collar bone and on their fingers, snow-white skin that extended down their arms from the shoulders and head, red or brown eyes and dark green hair worn long and loose. This was the first time Colin had seen one in person, though, and he was transfixed. The Boonat was wearing a beige dress with short sleeves and a knee-length skirt and was bent over a bougainvillea shrub, studying the flowers with a dreamy expression on her face.

Colin watched her as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and then he found himself walking over to her, desiring to talk with her. There was no particular reason as to why Colin wanted to talk with her, just that he enjoyed the company of weird people. Ever since high school in Idaho, where one had to be Christian and all-American to get by, Colin had preferred to befriend and hang out with those on the fringe—the goth, the ventriloquist, the girl who made her own clothes and would probably work for Lady Gaga one day. It wasn’t any conscious choice, it was just something he did and it was what compelled Colin to go near the Boonat that everyone else in the park was avoiding.

When Colin was standing right next to her, he realized he didn’t know what to say; what did you talk about with an alien? He racked his brain for something to say and finally came up with, “I didn’t know the Boonat had such a good grasp of human fashion.”

The Boonat girl looked up, a surprised expression on her face. For a second Colin wondered if he had said something stupid, but then the girl laughed, a sweet sound that reminded him of birdsong. “I wanted to blend in, as you humans say,” said the Boonat girl. “Boonat do not regularly wear clothes except in extreme environments, but humans tend to become nervous when confronted with full nudity. With your fellow humans avoiding me though, I thought I might have committed some sort of faux pas.”

“Nah, that’s not the reason,” said Colin, glad to see how friendly the Boonat girl was being. “I think they’re just afraid of talking to a Boonat. Really, I think you look great in that dress.” The Boonat girl smiled then, a perfectly beautiful smile.

Colin spent the rest of the day with the Boonat girl, whose name sounded something like Ynarl, going around the park and explaining the different flowers and statues to her. He wasn’t sure if Ynarl was listening, but Colin thought the smile on her face meant that she at least enjoyed seeing the park’s attractions. Later they went and got dinner together at a burger place, where Ynarl told him some of the aspects of Boonat life, including why they were nomads searching for knowledge.

“The histories of the Boonat say that long ago, the Boonat were visited on the home planet by beings from a faraway world,” Ynarl said. “It is similar to how the Boonat are now visiting your planet. The Boonat and this faraway people, they exchanged technologies, knowledge, and cultures and then the faraway people left. When a natural disaster forced the Boonat to flee our home planet, the Boonat leaders decided to search the universe for the faraway people we had encountered so long ago.”

“Did the Boonat ever find the faraway people?” Colin asked.

Ynarl shook her head. “There is not much information left of the faraway people. Much of it was lost in the disaster that forced us from our planet. That is why we go from planet to planet, exchanging information with those who can grasp what we offer them. We hope that someday, we may find the people who had visited us in the first place and thank them for the technology they had given us.”

“I hope you find them someday,” said Colin, taking a sip of his root beer. “Just don’t leave too soon to go find them, okay? We just started getting to know each other.” Ynarl laughed, reminding Colin of just how sweet her laugh was.

Ynarl and Colin continued to meet each other, in and around Boston and even on the Boonat’s main ship, a week before official tours of the strange ship were scheduled to commence. Ynarl came to some of Colin’s classes as a guest, and even to a few parties, though they stopped going to the parties when Ynarl discovered that alcohol had adverse effects on her species’ digestive system. Colin’s friends liked Ynarl once they got past the fact she was a Boonat, and Ynarl’s friends liked Colin as soon as they met him. They went to a lot of parks and even went on a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, mostly because Ynarl preferred nature to the city, and mostly because Colin preferred Ynarl’s company to anyone from school.

At one point Ynarl and Colin were even featured in an article in People magazine on Boonat-human relationships, showcasing what good friends they were. The article and press attention embarrassed both of them, but they allowed the press coverage because they thought it might help people warm up to the Boonat, though the way things had been going, it had seemed like humans would finally come to accept the Boonat and the age of progress and harmony the extraterrestrial visitors had predicted would truly come about.

And then Olberston messed up. A so-called expert on extraterrestrials from the History Channel, Henry Olberston had been appointed by the United States to be a liaison for the Boonat. During the first few months on the job, Olberston had worked hard to help the Boonat transition into Earth society, going so far as to lobby that Boonat and human children should go to school together.

However, in late December of that year, a report came out on Politico, in which a former aide to Olberston said that Olberston had links to Native Collective, a radical right-wing group that was against the Boonat being allowed to interact with humans and called for the Boonat to be exterminated. Olberston replied that the report was false and that the aide was angry over being fired for stealing money from his office. The furor died down and was forgotten a week after the report came out.

A month later though, a video appeared on the internet that showed someone who looked like Olberston having sex with two female Boonat. This video came out almost three days following a report from the FBI that some underground prostitution rings were incorporating Boonat into their illicit trade. Although the video’s quality was too grainy to positively identify Olberston, and Olberston and his wife insisted that Olberston had not had sex with any of the Boonat, the uproar lasted longer than that of the Native Collective story. The video accrued more than two million views on YouTube and other websites within two days, was debated about on several radio and television shows, and was lampooned in a memorable Saturday Night Live skit.

Not too long after that Olberston was audited by the IRS for inconsistencies in his tax returns. It later exploded into a media frenzy when a money trail back to Native Collective and a well-known prostitution ring involving Boonat women was discovered. Olberston denied the charges, saying they’d been created by his wife—from whom he was now separated—and claimed that she’d received the information to set up the money trails from “enemies who wish to discredit my name and the work I’m trying to do,” in his own words.

While the investigation was still going on into Olberston’s finances, the Boonat were trying to help facilitate peace talks between the United States and China. Their reason for doing so was that they believed that the tensions between the two nations would cause the Boonat to have to choose a side in the ongoing conflict and the Boonat wanted to stave that off before it happened. Olberston was invited to the peace talks to help make sure things between the Boonat and the two superpower nations ran smoothly. To prove how serious they were of creating peace, the entire Boonat high council volunteered to preside over the meeting.

Colin and Ynarl had been watching the peace talks together on a public computer in Boston University’s library. The video, streaming live on CSPAN’s website, showed first Chinese officials filing into a large, circular room, followed by American diplomats, Olberston among them, and then finally the Boonat high council. The meeting began with an outline of each party’s needs and grievances, followed by the Boonat high council’s opinion on what could be done about the situation.

Suddenly, midway through the high council’s solution to the United States’ economic problems, Olberston stood up and climbed onto the table. The whole room—and from their computers, the whole world—watched as Olberston took off his jacket, ripped his shirt open, and revealed a bomb strapped to his chest. There was a commotion, several security guards ran into the room with their guns waving, the diplomats scattered in fear, and then the feed was cut, leaving the whole world, including Ynarl and Colin, wondering what had happened after the feed had been cut.

It wasn’t too long after that the world received its answer: Olberston had succeeded in detonating his bomb. All those within a hundred-foot radius perished along with him. No explanation existed for why he decided to blow himself up along with the delegates or what Olberston had hoped to gain from killing them all. All the world got was one screaming headline: OLBERSTON BOMBS PEACE DELEGATES.

The uproar that followed was horrific: China accused the United States and the Boonat of conspiring against them, while the United States said that Olberston had been acting alone on his own motives. All the Boonat worldwide were recalled to their ships, including Ynarl, and a message was released from the Boonat main ship:

“In all the planets we have visited, we have never been deceived as we have on Earth, nor have we ever encountered such barbarity! We can only assume, based on the information we have gathered on Earth culture, that the humans’ intentions towards the Boonat have been all along to destroy and enslave us before we can do to the same to them. It is against the Boonat way of life to use violence of any sort. However, as you have shown the Boonat hostility and have humiliated us with your lies and schemes, we will respond in kind.”

Nobody was certain what information the Boonat were citing—whether it was the questioning from the U.N. when the Boonat had first appeared on Earth or the thousands of science-fiction novels and movies about aliens—but that didn’t seem to matter. China declared war on the United States, the United States retaliated against China, the Boonat attacked indiscriminately, and the nations of the world returned fire. In the span of a few short days, the whole planet was engulfed in war.

A year later the fighting was still raging, during which time Colin had been drafted into the army, forced to fight against the Chinese and the Boonat, had gone AWOL, and had found an isolated hippie commune in North Dakota where he could hide and wait for the day the war would end or humanity would be annihilated, Colin was never sure which would happen first or which one he hoped for more.

And then one day, while Colin was out looking for herbs to add to that night’s meal at the commune, a small Boonat scout ship appeared in the sky and scooped him up, grabbing his jacket with mechanical arms and throwing him in the cargo hold. Colin had been frightened senseless, until the hatch to the main deck opened and Ynarl stood before him, wearing the same beige dress she had worn when they first met.

Colin’s spirit lifted immediately upon seeing Ynarl. Shouting her name, Colin jumped out of the cargo hold and pulled her into a deep hug. Ynarl hugged him back, and then led him to the deck window. Looking out the window, Colin could see all of the Earth spread before him. “Look at it, Colin. It is just like you always wanted to see,” Ynarl said, gesturing at the swirl of green, white and blue. “You told me you always wanted to see Earth from space.”

Yeah, but that still begs the question, Colin thought. “Why did you bring me here, Ynarl? Please, tell me the truth.”

Ynarl just shook her head. “The truth,” she said. “Who can tell what the truth is and what is deception these days?”

“Please, don’t get philosophical on me,” said Colin. “Really Ynarl, what are you doing? I’m glad to see you, don’t get me wrong, but if someone finds out you picked me up—”

“No one is going to find out,” said Ynarl firmly. “I have a plan in mind. I have enough fuel on this ship to achieve speeds sufficient enough to let us reach the nearest life-sustaining planet within a month.”

Colin stared disbelievingly at Ynarl. “The nearest life-sustaining planet?” he repeated. “What for?”

“The Boonat have a tradition,” Ynarl explained. “Before we leave a planet to look for a new one, we allow those of us who have become attached to a planet to live there and start a new population. I know of a planet, the inhabitants of which call it Shunmi, in the Sagittarius loop of the galaxy. The planet cannot only sustain Boonat and Shunmiites, but Earthlings as well. If we can go there and explain everything to the local population, I am sure we can—”

“But what about you?” Colin interrupted, struggling to take all this information in. “It’s a great plan and all, but what about you, Ynarl? Are you really okay leaving everything you know just to save some human? And what about Earth? Can we really abandon everyone and everything just because we want to save our friendship?”

Ynarl shook her head. “I have been thinking lately,” she said. “And the conclusion I have reached is this: for some time now I have been disgusted with my people. Yes, I am disgusted with my own people. They have lost their warmth and kindness; all that is left is their hate and anger. I do not want to be with them, when all they can think of is the so-called treacherous humans and all I can think of is the one human who was kind to me.

“And as for the Earth,” said Ynarl, looking out the window. “I could not stand it, to tell you the truth. I hated it and the dirty air, the congested cities, the war and the pollution. The only things that I enjoyed about it were the places that were pure nature… and you, Colin.” Ynarl looked at Colin and Colin felt himself blushing.

“So really, it is all up to you,” said Ynarl. “Say the word and I will drop you back off in North Dakota. I will fly away and we will never see each other again. But if you want to… if you want to, all I’d have to do is press a few buttons and then we would not be able to see Earth by the end of the day. We could make a home on a new planet, where the people are friendly and are far removed from the conflict of Earth. It is your choice.” Ynarl looked at Colin expectantly, waiting for his answer.

Colin avoided Ynarl’s gaze and looked out the window. Below him was the Earth, Colin’s Earth, the only world he had ever known. Colin put his hand on the glass, tracing his fingers along the edge of the globe as if caressing it. Yes, he wanted to be with Ynarl. She was the best friend he had ever had. But this was Earth they were talking about. Could he really leave it?

And then the answer seemed strangely clear to him. Colin let his arm fall to his side, turned back to Ynarl, and took a deep breath. “Let’s leave,” he said. “Go to this planet of yours.”

Ynarl nodded her head and went to a control console in the middle of the deck. She sat down, pressed a few buttons on a touch-screen computer, and the ship roared to life. Within moments the Earth was getting smaller and smaller, the details becoming vague and melting together. Ynarl joined Colin back at the deck window and watched with him as the planet receded in the distance. Colin took Ynarl’s hand and squeezed it.

Colin had nothing left on the planet. His family was probably dead, any friends he had were very anti-Boonat, and the people at the commune came and went with no one noticing or caring. Really, all he was leaving behind was a bunch of heartbreak.

Still, leaving Earth behind was difficult; after all, Colin had lived there for twenty years of his life. As if reading his thoughts, Ynarl said, “Don’t worry, we are together. We can do anything when we are together.” Colin nodded his head in agreement and watched as Mars came into view.

 

Just Around the Corner

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.

“What?”

“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.

“My love…”

“Without you…”

“Body.”

“Lips.”

“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.

 

General Order No. 1

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

The commander looked over the new recruit with some amazement. He was a squat little guy with orange hair and three eyes. He’d seen this type before in the vids and knew they were a large part of southern society. Mostly farmers and basic laborers, they’d recently won the right to better themselves. The commander didn’t care. He wasn’t a fan of the caste system himself. He was born to the military life and often dreamed of being just a simple merchant; he looked at the recruit with wonder, this was the first southerner he’d ever seen up close.

“New to the Martian Defense Fleet?” he asked.

“Yes, sir!” the recruit replied with the typical southern Martian treble.

The commander nodded with approval. Most new recruits, northern or otherwise, gave a less than enthusiastic reply. For them it was mandatory to spend two standard years in the service.

“So, are you ready to become a space hero?”

“I am ready to serve the Martian Empire!”

“Then tell me General Order Number One!”

The recruit opened his mouth and then closed it.

The commander smiled and nodded. “They don’t teach that.”

“They don’t, sir?”

“No, it is something you only learn out here in space.”

The recruit nodded and looked at the commander for the answer.

Grinning, the commander said, “General Order Number One is, ‘When in doubt, kill all humans.’ If you follow that out here you cannot go wrong.”

“Are we at war with them?”

“No, but remember: We may be green but we aren’t Earth friendly.”

 

Ode to Humanity

Ode to Humanity

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

“You’re crazy,” said Jenna, my sister. “Don’t do it.”

“What else can I do? I don’t feel like I have a choice in the matter,” I replied.

“They give everyone a choice,” Jenna pointed out. “You just have to make the right one is all.”

They, meaning the aliens, didn’t make it quite as simple as that. As far as anyone could tell their idea of “right” versus “wrong” was completely arbitrary.

“I’m sorry,” I told Jenna. “I’ve made up my mind.”

She sighed. “Mom always said you were the stubbornest person ever born.”

“Let’s hope she was right.”

I thought of something that might ease her mind, if just a little.

“Remember the puppies?” I asked.

Jenna frowned, then smiled.

“You remember,” I said.

“Yes, I remember.” She sighed. “But this is different.”

“Not to me, it isn’t,” I said. “At the time, there was nothing more important to me than those puppies. Nothing. So…”

* * * * *

Everywhere I go I’m followed by a huge, impenetrable, invulnerable alien spaceship that hovers over me. I’m used to it now. It’s been so long now that it sometimes seems as if people have forgotten the terror the alien craft imbued in people wherever it appeared, all around the globe. Having your own personal pet alien spaceship makes life interesting. Everyone knows who I am now, but I’ve gotten used to that, too. For a while people avoided me, not that it would have necessarily protected them. But now, even though it is a curiosity, people just accept it and get on with their lives, and allow me to get on with mine.

* * * * *

Ten years ago, on a bright and clear, but cold, morning the aliens zapped the Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One moment he was there, and the next… zap! He disappeared in a flash. Needless to say, this struck fear into the hearts of civic leaders everywhere, and here’s why:

No one could touch the aliens. Nothing worked against their ships, not bombs, not bullets, not lasers, not sonic beams, not kamikaze attacks, not prayer, not nuclear missiles, not eternal optimism, not brass balled guts-n-glory tough guy attitude, not chanting, not late night talk show humor… nothing. The aliens could go anywhere and do whatever they wanted, to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Humanity as a whole was being treated like a dog by an abusive owner, one minute being rewarded and treated kindly, the next being kicked hard in the ribs for no reason whatsoever. It was exceedingly stressful. Prescriptions for anxiety and depression shot through the roof.

* * * * *

So that’s the setting for this recounting of one moment during the darkest of dark ages in our history. We all saw how some survived and others didn’t, apparently by pure, random chance.

* * * * *

The aliens gave each of us a choice, but not always the same choice. Senator Lackley (D-Montana) had to choose between himself and a puppy. He chose himself and nothing happened to either him or the puppy. Following that example, Chattanooga’s Mayor Jackson, asked to choose between himself and an old man, chose himself and we know what happened to him. Then it was that African warlord’s turn to decide between himself and one of his wives. Of course he chose the wife and the aliens obliterated her and him.

It happened all over the world and no one could stop it; no one could do anything about it. Everyone agreed we were being tested, but no one could figure out what the test meant. World leaders pleaded live on the air, on the radio and television from mountain tops and the marble steps of official buildings, asking them why. They got no response, and the testing didn’t stop.

A CEO of an oil company was told to choose between his wife and his twin sister. He agonized over it for days before replying with a bullet to his own brain. The alien zapped the twin sister, but allowed the wife to live. The message was clear: killing yourself was not a way out.

That one got me thinking, though.

* * * * *

Somehow, I knew they’d get to me. Don’t ask me why. I just knew. It was a feeling that built and built inside me until one day I stepped out of my office and saw the ship hovering overhead. My first thought was, why me? They’d done it to tribal chiefs with less than three hundred followers as well as religious leaders with millions. But me, I was just the CEO of a small start-up with five employees, zero sales, and a high burn rate.

* * * * *

“It’s not just you,” Jenna said. “It’s me, too.”

I nodded.

“I know that, but think about it… if I say, ‘zap me’ they’re just as likely to zap you or even someone else. There’s no rhyme or reason to it at all, you know that.”

Now she nodded. She remembered Colombia’s President, who chose himself to die (this was right after the South African President did the same, and the aliens zapped South Africa’s Prime Minister instead; some theorized it was because he happened to be standing next to the President at that moment). In Colombia, the aliens zapped all the children under the age of five. Colombia descended into chaos, the President was lynched, and very little news has come out of that country since.

“I know, I just… I’m just scared is all.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You don’t seem scared,” she said.

“Well, I am. I’m terrified. I mean, I think I have it figured out, but I could be wrong. There are a lot of people out there who are a lot smarter than me who haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Yeah, but… do you think… can you really do it?”

I scratched my chin, narrowed my eyes and grinned, all a put-on to make her laugh, ease her mind.

“If anyone can do this, I can.” I knew my own mind well enough to believe that.

* * * * *

See, the aliens, apparently, could read minds. That was the scary part. Some people thought that explained why they did what they did, why they zapped who they zapped. Maybe the President of Colombia secretly hated small children and the aliens simply tapped into his true feelings.

But I had that covered.

* * * * *

“It’s time,” I told Jenna. She looked tired. Neither one of us had slept a wink, but she had been worrying herself sick all night.

“Just in case,” she said, “I wanted to tell you… I’ve always been proud to have you as my brother.”

“I know,” I said. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better big sis.”

“If this doesn’t work, I’m still proud of you for at least trying.”

We hugged, and went out to stand before the lights and cameras of the media, beneath the silent, hovering alien craft.

* * * * *

Two days later, nothing had changed. The media still huddled outside, the alien ship still hovered overhead, and my sister and I were still alive.

“I think it’s working,” Jenna said, smiling nervously as she pushed aside the curtains to peer up at the spaceship. She let the curtains fall and looked at me, concerned. “You think you can really do it?”

“You know me as well as anyone,” I said. “What do you think?”

Her nervous smile turned into a grin as she remembered an incident from our childhood.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“The puppies,” she replied.

I had to smile. I had been given a choice between two puppies, a lab mix and a husky. I didn’t want to choose because I was afraid of what might happen to the one I didn’t pick. So I simply refused to choose. I didn’t beg for both, my father had expressly forbidden that.

Finally, someone else adopted them, and they both wound up in a happy home together just a few blocks from our house. I used to ride my bike over and play with them before we moved away.

“I wonder,” Jenna said, looking out the window, up at the alien ship again.

“What about?”

“I wonder if they’ll ever go away; and if they don’t… will we ever get used to them?”

 

Ode To Humankind

by Denny E. Marshall

Inspired by “Ode to Humanity

 

The invaders can read our mind.
It is the end of humankind.
We are pets, the entire race.
Aliens now control the place.

Told make a choice and do not lie.
Pick from family, one to die.
Weapons target from ships in space
Aliens now control the place.

The brother struggles to decide.
Fate of sister he cannot hide.
Wish they would pack and leave no trace.
Aliens now control the place.

 

Alien Abduction

Alien Abduction

Illustration by Matt McIrvin

by Lucy Arnold

 

This is why I believe in aliens:

The possibility of being sucked into the sky
to be probed
Is part of what makes life meaningful
Because if human beings are interesting enough
that some aliens need to probe them,
If human beings are that complicated
and require that kind of study

Then people obviously
aren’t as simple as I suspect
They aren’t as easy to figure out
(i.e. evil, greedy, close-minded, violent, miserable)
as I think.

That’s what I hope
and that’s why I’m willing to sit around and wait,
Hoping that I’ll be abducted by aliens,
a scenario that would be

Bad for me,
Good for mankind.

 

By the Light of a Dying Sun

by Michael Caswell

 

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

Derek Quesnal toggled the exterior camera and watched Mercury clarify on the screen. He sighed, envying the screen. His life was losing focus. His dream of deep space exploration faded with each passing year—scientists had yet to lick the problem of faster-than-light travel—and all he had to go back to was an empty room and a forced desk job.

The screen revealed a surface pockmarked with thousands of craters, cliffs, and hills that would have given mountain climbers a worthy challenge if the gravity hadn’t been so low. The quiet, tortuous landscape, devoid of any atmosphere or life, had remained unchanged for billions of years; which made Derek all the more puzzled as to why, three days earlier, an energy source had emanated from the planet’s surface.

Derek released the toggle and leaned back in his chair to give his cramped legs some room. His straightened his faded red coveralls—last worn by his father who had pioneered space travel among the gas giants over fifty years ago—and ran a hand through his short white hair. Who was he kidding? He was a derelict, and heading in the wrong direction.

Derek studied the indicators on the console. He keyed the computer for voice mode. “Tych, picking anything up on sensors?” Derek’s voice betrayed a slight lisp from an injury he’d received in his youth while playing in one of the derelict commjets—he’d rolled down a ramp with his mouth open into an antenna wire.

“Negative,” the flat, male voice responded. “Infrared, radio, gravity, and spectra-analysis read normal.”

“Could the energy source have been a solar flare?”

“Negative. The source of a solar flare is the Sun. This particular energy source clearly originated on the surface of Mercury, and at present there is no coefficient that would link the two.”

“Speculating with you, Tych, is useless.” He reached to key off voice mode.

“Derek?” Tych said quickly.

His hand paused above the keyboard. “What?”

“I am receiving a transmission packet from Central Command on the Moon.”

Derek closed his eyes and rubbed the pain off of his temples. “Let it spin off into space.” He smiled at his play on words. Central Command must have discovered the tests and issued his dry-dock orders.

“This is a priority message and you must–”

Derek cut him off. He darkened the keyboard monitor to avoid reading the rest of it. He laughed suddenly. Trip-Tych was going to be mad when he didn’t return with their new Tych-IV computer. He glanced about his zero gravity compartment and considered the many ways he might go out: he could let the ship burn up in the Sun, or he might simply let the ship drift off into space until his air ran out, or he could rig some kind of detonation and go out quickly. He smiled as he pictured the look on his Catholic mother’s face when she received the news.

The printer sounded off. Derek swiveled around to read the printout. He smiled and shut the printer off before the message was complete.

“Nice try, Tych.”

A yellow indicator light flashed next to the screen listing the planet’s statistics.

“Tych, enough of these foolish…” his voice trailed off when he noticed the screen. He keyed voice mode. “Go.”

“I am picking up large traces of hydrogen from the surface immediately below the ship… now it is gone,” Tych said.

Derek toggled the viewer downward. “Circle back and get us directly over the point of highest concentration.” All he could see was a series of huge craters. Heck, he might have to take the ship down into one of them. “I want a visual on the amount of hydrogen detected.”

One of the many monitors that littered the console filled with dark red colors shaped into a chart. “Spectra-analysis,” Tych clarified.

The screen wavered in Derek’s eyes and he had to shake his head to re-focus on the chart. “This has nothing to do with the Sun,” he said, squeezing his stomach to relieve the queasiness he felt.

“Derek, I have ascertained the contents of that priority message and its message is unequivocal: you are suffering from vertigo. We have been ordered to return.”

Derek wondered if he could reason with this computer that had been programmed to react and respond with certain human abilities. “Tych,” he said, “I know we have to go back; but aren’t you the least bit curious about this energy source?”

“Derek, I agree that this needs to be investigated by us,” Tych responded. “I just wanted to make it clear that after we discover the source of this energy we will return promptly. I am now positioned over the crater which is the source of the hydrogen. I am also getting a reading on the infrared and radiation indicators.”

Derek was intrigued enough by this mystery to delay his other plans. “Care to speculate as to what might be down there?” he asked.

“It is something that has some element of hydrogen, gives off heat, and is highly radioactive.”

Derek tried to gaze through the veil of darkness that covered the crater. “Sounds like a miniature sun,” he said.

“It could also be a malfunctioning hydrogen bomb.”

Derek’s brow furrowed. “How big is it?”

“Two meters in diameter,” Tych replied.

“How deep is the crater?” Derek asked, trying to decide whether or not to enter; the crater was certainly wide enough.

“Two kilometers at its deepest point.”

“Can we–”

“It is moving,” Tych cut in.

Derek cocked his head. “Which way?”

“Upwards at the rate of eleven kph.”

“Tych,” Derek put his hands together in prayer-like fashion, “I believe it’s safe to assume this isn’t man-made.”

“It could be a natural phenomenon hitherto unknown to man. Derek… are you feeling well?”

Derek bent over the console as pain unexpectedly raced through his head; it felt like rough hands massaging his skull. “Tych,” he gasped, “this isn’t from the vertigo.”

“Can you describe the pain?” Tych asked.

The pain increased and Derek moaned; the keys on his keyboard blurred and he lost focus of the rest of the console. He closed his eyes and let out a forced sigh. Suddenly he had visions of a much larger sun darting about his mind. It was a dying sun that he saw; a red giant. A small, scarred planet that Derek somehow knew had once been green and fertile circled this dying sun, a white halo illuminating its poisoned skies and overheated landscape. No wonder, Derek thought fleetingly, that early man had worshiped the Sun as a source of Godhead. The small planet looked like the once favored son in the shadow of its proud father.

Everything faded to black and consciousness faded away.

* * * * *

Derek awoke to a cutting headache that throbbed with every heartbeat. He was startled to realize that he was happy to still be alive. He surveyed the ruins of the vessel. A faint red glow illuminated the main compartment and revealed that the ship now rested on its side. He barely made out his chair—bolted down on what was now the wall—twisted sideways with seatbelts hanging from the back. The scattered remains of a keyboard littered the area near his head; which explained the headache. The console remained fairly intact; a few of the indicator lights still flashed an occasional red or yellow. All four monitors were either cracked or shattered. An open cabinet rested against his legs; its contents, which consisted mainly of dehydrated food and computer accessories, were scattered about the compartment.

Derek rolled onto his side, breaking a red emergency light, and assessed his own personal damage. Besides the headache, which had grown worse, his chest hurt with every intake of breath—probably a few broken ribs. His left wrist ached dully; he felt a large bump on the underside: definite fracture. He carefully flexed his legs and felt no pain. A large bump protruded from the top of his head; caked blood attested to the severity of the blow he’d received from the keyboard.

He tried to collect his thoughts. What had caused him to pass out? And where had those visions come from? Somehow the approaching energy source must have overloaded the system and triggered a shutdown. Backup, however, should have kept the ship in orbit around Mercury for at least seventy-two hours. Had he been out that long?

“Tych?” No answer. Well, he thought, he no longer needed to decide how he was going to die.

Time passed slowly as Derek settled into his “coffin”. The first thing he did was reset the safety switch and run a system check via a laptop that had survived the crash. The main console was inoperative, with the exception of life support, stabilizers, and climate control—although climate control was running at only twenty-two percent. He estimated that he had about thirty-six days before the temperature dropped to zero. He touched the cold walls and laughed. In less than two months, Mercury would fully expose him to the powerful rays of the Sun. He would last less than a day. The distress signal had been automatically sent upon shutdown, but Derek knew that was useless. There was no way a rescue ship could reach Mercury in anything less than three months. He was a dead man.

He eyed the only emergency light still working; it sputtered and gave off little illumination. He reached for a food packet. Why try? He barely acknowledged the taste as memories filled his mind.

“What do you see now?” the woman asked angrily as she and her son stared down at the black, polished headstone whose epitaph read: Faster Than Light. The woman squeezed the little boy’s hand and shook her head.

The young boy grimaced at the pain his mother inflicted, but he turned away to stifle a sob. “I see…” he couldn’t continue; the description eluded him. How could he tell his mom that his head filled with visions of far away planets that held creatures of all shapes? Or that one day he hoped to follow in his dad’s footsteps, this time succeeding at FTL drive, and be the one that ventured into deep space to discover alien life. He couldn’t think of a way to tell his mom that he didn’t want to go back to Earth; that he wanted to remain here, on the Moon, to study and explore the universe.

“I see more than just empty space,” he said, his voice crackling with pride. He shed more tears as he once again read the epitaph.

“Just like your father,” she said, bending down to face him. “But your father is dead… and so is space.”

Derek sighed and let the empty food packet fall to the floor. She never understood. He wasn’t surprised. The last time he had talked to her was twelve years ago when he’d passed pilot’s school. The more he explained how happy he was the angrier she got. He never really understood her either.

Time passed. It grew colder much quicker than Derek had anticipated. He tried to get the computer to run power through the door to his sleeping compartment so he could get a blanket, but the connection to the seal had shorted out and the door refused to be opened manually. He knew that a heating unit had to be located on the ship somewhere, but without the schematics—which had to be with the unit—he was powerless to repair it. He didn’t want to make the attempt anyway; he still couldn’t decide whether he wanted to freeze to death or be cooked to death; freezing sounded less painful.

His headaches also produced several unwanted side-effects: nausea, dizziness, blurred vision—which might be from the vertigo—and blackouts that occurred frequently. He sorely needed medical attention and was happy he hadn’t the means to ask for it. At least he would go out like his father: killed in space.

He passed out.

He awoke to the blurred sight of a small white light hovering just above the cabinet. When he focused on it the light expanded and developed into a shape. The form was indistinct at first, the light expanding more than shaping. But when the light reached past the chair it became more defined. The light split at three feet into two long sections which remained connected to an upper half that had also split into three sections. It was a human shape. Derek wondered, and worried, about his sanity. He didn’t know hallucinations were so vivid.

A tall male stood before him. His white face, with its many wrinkles and even whiter blotches, held a frosty countenance that shed no warmth. He had narrow black eyes and a goatee that hung down over a fuzzy blue vest which was held shut by black buttons. The hallucination had no roundness at all; a cardboard figure that somehow was able to stand.

Derek knew who the identity of this person he now envisioned. He faced a fable, a child’s story, the manifestation of cold.

“Jack Frost,” Derek whispered.

Jack smiled eerily and bowed deeply, then, as Derek’s headache increased, imploded and disappeared.

Darkness.

Derek’s eyes narrowed and his mind raced over the implications of what he had just witnessed. Visions, headaches, and hallucinations all added up to more than just a cracked skull.

“Derek?” a fractured and weak voice sputtered out of a speaker near the ruined console.

“Tych, is that you?”

“Derek,” the voice continued, “I have repaired and rerouted some of the communication lines, but for how long I don’t know.” Tych actually sounded concerned. “The temperature is now at forty-three degrees and dropping, and I can’t reach most of the ship. I am sorry.”

“That’s okay, Tych, I wasn’t going back anyway.” Derek laughed. He was sure that Tych was exuding more warmth at this time than his mother ever would.

“I can record anything you wish to say,” Tych said with seeming delicacy. “Do you have any desire to leave behind any final words?”

“Yeah, tell my mother—no, forget it,” he said. What good would it accomplish? “Tych can you override the doors?”

“No… try your laptop.”

Derek, for the thirtieth time, typed in the override code.

ACCESS DENIED.

He typed an expletive and pushed the laptop away.

“Derek, the com-link has been damaged,” Tych said. “Statistically this is a remote chance, but you might affect repairs in hopes of a ship being nearby.”

Derek laughed. “Most ships are heading out towards Jupiter and beyond now, Tych.”

The next question surprised Derek.

“Do you wish to set off a detonation that would destroy this ship and terminate your life with no suffering?”

Now that was a good idea. “Can you do that?” he asked with some trepidation.

“It might be possible to overload some units near the drive and stabilizer engine which might set off a chain reaction that would cause a small explosion. Coupled with that ‘malfunctioning hydrogen bomb’ outside, this might be enough to end your life quickly.”

“Maybe we can wait a few more days before we try it,” Derek said.

“Why?” Tych asked.

Why indeed? “I guess the desire to live is a strong emotion to overcome,” Derek said. Tych was right: there was no reason to wait. “Let’s do it.”

“Derek, why are you moaning?”

Derek’s head was besieged by a barrage of pain that caused a sob to escape his lips. He felt his consciousness fading away—but he did not black out.

The pain suddenly stopped, but he was unable to move or talk. Wow, he thought, he must have some serious brain damage.

“Derek, unless you tell me otherwise, I am initiating the sequence to destroy this ship.”

But Derek had stopped listening to him. He once again saw a small planet circling a dying sun. But this time he felt uneasy. The sun was about to consume the planet and Derek was going to die. But salvation had come! He witnessed an advanced civilization on this planet with the ability to manipulate energy and cheat death. Thousands of the planet’s occupants shed the planet like a butterfly its cocoon and were dragged into the core of the sun where most were torn into a million bits of energy and scattered throughout the universe. One, however, was not ripped apart!

Derek was overwhelmed by sadness. All of his people were dead. He was the only surviving member of his race; an artificial race created by masters long since dead. It was time for him to die.

The feeling slowly faded and Derek regained control of his thoughts and bodily functions.

Alien life! And it had been under Earth’s nose for centuries. He let out a whoop that echoed about the compartment. The energy source outside the ship housed a sentient mind of the lone surviving member of its race. Derek sobered a bit, however, when he realized how profoundly sad the alien was. It had been drawn into the sun, down to the core, and then hurled, intact, into space. How long must it have traveled before it settled on Mercury, waiting for other survivors to come? Derek guessed from the alien’s thoughts that it must have been a thousand years.

The entity had waited long enough. It was ready to die.

Derek marveled at its ability to exchange thoughts. He wanted to learn more. “Tych, don’t blow the ship.”

“It is too late, Derek,” Tych responded with little emotion. “I estimate twelve minutes before the explosions start.”

“Shit!” Derek roared. He screamed in frustration. Why now, at the end of his life did he have to discover alien life? This was all so… unfair. “Tych, I have discovered that the energy source is an alien entity housed in energy,” Derek said. “It can actually manipulate energy,” he said with wonder.

“This is fascinating,” Tych said. “I hope you are not suffering from a mental breakdown.”

“I’m not,” Derek said.

“I will encode a message of your discovery onto the data banks of the black box in hopes that whoever reads it can act on it. It is interesting, if it is true, to note that such a creature that could control and manipulate energy would, well, have few boundaries.”

Boundaries, Derek thought, something about boundaries. He was missing something. But what? The alien had the ability to live forever; all it needed was a constant source of power, and suns provided plenty of that.

“Derek, talk to me,” Tych said, “I can’t read your mind.”

“That’s it!” Derek shouted.

He was mistaken when he thought that the alien was able to send thoughts and images into his mind. The alien actually entered his mind. That explained the pain and, at first, clumsy attempts at communication. It was searching for a way to communicate. It must use pictures instead of words. Dad would’ve loved this, he thought.

The alien was back. Derek’s head was filled with the previous vision of that dying sun. But it was quickly replaced by the most intelligent, strong, and bravest person he had ever known: his father. But the father he looked at came from his childhood; it was too flawless to be real. It didn’t matter.

“Dad?” Derek cried out.

His father beckoned with a wave of his hand. The alien was using Derek’s memories to get across what it wanted; and Derek knew what it wanted. He sensed the utter loneliness and despair the entity emanated. Like Derek, it also wanted to die. It was proposing a trade—a trade of shells. Why not, Derek thought. It would be a while before he grew bored and restless.

With a shock he realized the transfer had already happened. He now occupied the energy shell. Sight was useless. He could detect other energy sources and, with some manipulation, was able to stretch his shell in any direction he pleased, but only a short distance.

He was alone. Had he totally assumed, or consumed, the alien’s mind? No. He sensed the alien housed in his old body; excited and confused at the new sensations. So be it, Derek thought.

He was about to depart when he detected a third presence. Tych. He decided to leave a final message in the data stream that made up the message on the black box. He then left.

He shifted away from the ship and felt a massive surge of energy sweep over him. It felt good; too good. It was the Sun. Time to leave, he thought.

He sped toward the Sun, hard pressed to hold his senses and shell integrity the closer he got. He shot through the atmosphere and down into the surface, reaching the core in seconds. Here he paused for but a moment, then exploded outward faster than he had entered. What kind of technology created such a form that could withstand the immense pressure of a sun—actually feed off it—and use it as a springboard to the stars? Incredible, he thought.

He broke away from the Sun and headed out into the universe. Eight minutes later he passed Earth, and the message he had left behind quickly came to him.

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

 

The First Year of Apocalypse

by Douglas McKinstry

The four months he’d gone without a bowel movement was no record. He’d looked it up in MedStat. A guy in Little China went six months before dying. When Nick downloaded the VirtScan, the guy’s intestines looked like a logjam at the mouth of the muddy Mississippi, before she’d been diverted to the Southwest sector. Nick was determined to get regular again.

“I’d like to do a Virtual,” his doctor said, slowly removing the holoscope. “It’s more accurate. Safer too.” He smiled, standing up.

“What’s the success rate?” Nick asked, hitching his pants, stealing a glance at two nurses repacking the holoscope. Nick wondered if they were human.

“At this stage about sixty percent,” said the doctor, apologetically. He was a new-issue medroid shipped from Antarctica before the thaw. Nick wanted to like him, despite all he’d heard. New issues were programmed to stammer, clear their throats, even blush, though they looked less human than older models. It was the bold trend in robotics: compassion, not complexion. The doctor’s skin was a malleable porcelain stuff the color of the bygone smiley face. Now that he was here, Nick wished he had come much sooner.

“And without the Virtual?” Nick wondered aloud.

“Twenty-two percent,” said the doctor. “Sorry—make that twenty-one,” he said, blinking, accessing updated banks.

“How much time do I have if—what if I do nothing?”

“Your heart and liver will fail,” said the medroid, wincing a little, his hands clasped idly, professionally, in front. “In two or three weeks.”

Nick sat dazed, thinking thoughts inapropos of the occasion: had he overtipped the home security technician, were the Juggernauts on ZoomView tonight. When his head cleared he remembered, all too vividly, the most important matter—his beautiful wife.

“Why me?” Nick said, more to himself than the doctor. “Why must I be an irregular?” He shook his head slowly, bitterly.

“The rays affect people differently. We believe it’s something to do with personality types.”

“Are there side effects, if the Virtual works?”

“A tickling in the pit of the stomach.”

“For how long?”

“Probably until you die,” said the doctor, his grimace a mirror image of Nick’s.

* * * * *

“Screw alien rays,” Nick said, looking up when he got outside. Everybody did it on reflex. People hadn’t stopped studying the sky since the wee hours of the new year, when police and partiers alike saw the heavens and the earth ignited by cloudbeams that hadn’t flashed or flickered once in two hundred days.

Nick compulsively counted the rays. He counted them once a day at least. Word was anywhere you stood on the planet there were seven, milky like the full moon, but discrete shafts intersecting at varying altitudes and visually traceable to seven white cumulus masses hovering at greater and still varying heights. Beams and billows alike were permeable—mere air and vapor—to all manner of air traffic: private, commercial, military.

“Six and fucking seven,” Nick said, indifferent to fellow pedestrians. Pilots and passengers talked of an etheric sheen, the same auras visible from every sidewalk down below. Government tests found nothing strange about the vapors but overabundant ions; meteorologists made nothing of that, charting no greater storm activity than normal. Still, Global Preparedness had determined the clouds and their rays to be threats. Everybody admitted they were pretty, but only little children liked them anymore. No earthling past primary school, Nick included, thought them friendly.

“Screw aliens too,” Nick said, looking down, striding purposefully back to his office on Sycamore, almost colliding with an amulet vendor parked as unobtrusively as possible on the sidewalk separating the insurance shops and the frenzied motorway.

“How’s your future, old man?” asked the vendor, grinning, perched high on a stool. He held a thin gold chain in one hand, a turquoise heart hung fetchingly over the back of the other. The vendor was twice Nick’s age, but jovial and rose-complected.

“I’m not old,” Nick said, a foot from the elder man’s face, moving away as suddenly as he’d stopped, glimpsing the man’s eyes in passing. “Crow’s feet,” Nick muttered, dodging an insurance barker advertising out front. “Hope to have my own some day.”

Nick tracked the faint luminescence of the insurance man to the nearest cloud, reportedly three miles high. He stopped to watch a jumbo jet skirt a tumescent tuft of the billow, sinking her long upper body in the underbelly of the stationary mass.

The jet reminded Nick of Jennifer’s conference two days hence. He decided to go home for a few minutes. At the outdoor market he bought some fresh bulk for himself—a yellow apple from Northern Calimerica—and two bunches of petunias for Jennifer. He walked diagonally through Shaquille O’Neal Park, munching as he went, past the time-battered statue of the late great American athlete and President, to Poplar Avenue, to the midsized condo Nick shared with the only woman he’d ever loved.

It was ten after twelve. She would be in aromatherapy with Mrs. Waxworth till twelve fifteen. For ten minutes afterwards, Mrs. Waxworth would ask Jennifer metaphysical questions about the olfactory realm.

“How does honeysuckle know herself?” was one Nick remembered.

“In deep meditation,” his wife had answered.

Nick placed the petunias in a red-stemmed vase at the center of the kitchen table. He finished his apple while leafing through Life Smells, one of two dozen subscriptions fanned across the table for Jennifer’s clients to peruse. He heard Jennifer close the front door behind Mrs. Waxworth. He leaned forward in his chair. His stomach was killing him.

* * * * *

“That droid is full of sh—” said his wife, sniffing the petunias, catching herself too late.

“Yeah,” Nick said, “like me.”

“You know what I mean.” Her fingers unconsciously stroked the thinning forest of chestnut hair on her head. Nick had noticed the problem about the time his own malady had set in. He’d mentioned it once, then never again. She was losing her hair all right, whether she admitted it or not. Hair loss itself wasn’t fatal, exactly. Nick would have swapped with her in a virtpulse but that he didn’t wish his affliction on anyone, especially the one he loved.

“These new issues don’t miss anything,” Nick said. “They haven’t called one wrong yet.”

“How do we know that?” His wife sat beside him, imploring him with blue eyes big as seagrapes.

“They’re different from the old droids. They were designed specifically—”

“I know—to treat the effects of the rays. I think that’s a lie.”

“Why?” Nick said, trying not to smile. “Because they smell funny?”

“They didn’t help me any. And they won’t help you either.” She burst into tears, then buried her face against his chest. Nick encircled her with his arms, stroking the back of her head. He peered soberly at her scalp, barely hidden under a sparse chestnut canopy.

* * * * *

Lovemaking was the only thing that hadn’t suffered. Jennifer seemed to enjoy the intimacy more than ever, and it was the only time Nick could lose the pain in his belly, even if for only a few moments.

He stood naked in a dim-lit mirror beside the bedroom closet. In front of him—behind him, actually—Jennifer lay sleeping in their bed. Nick flexed his arms and shoulders, curling his fists he-man style, feeling most of the brawny force he’d felt ten years earlier at his physical peak, fresh out of the Academy. The bowel problem hadn’t killed his workouts either, but they were getting harder. He still did five hundred push-ups a day, with increasing pain. The sit-ups had dropped by half.

Hands on hips, at full height, chest expanded, he still cut a formidable shape despite the loss of fifteen pounds. He glanced over his right shoulder at Jennifer. One thing he knew for sure was he would go down fighting. Fighting, after all, was his nature. If it wasn’t what his wife loved most about him, it was damn sure the thing that had first caught her eye. He smiled, remembering it.

He dropped to his hands and toes and commenced a set of one hundred push-ups, academy-style: back rigidly straight, chest faintly kissing the rug, arms slowly unbending, elbows locking at every full extension. And down again. The exquisitely calculated fire and fury of ligament and muscle pushed inexorably, luxuriously, to volcanic perturbation. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. A little perspiration.

He grinned at the Chinese weave, vertiginously rising and receding, and saw Jennifer McEvoy in all-white server’s duds behind the carb bar at the academy mess. Furtive, downcast eyes. All duty, that one. Work and study, study and work. Despite later protests, he was sure she’d never noticed him. Until the day—a Thursday, in May—she’d walked the mess floor behind the carb car, stooping low for leverage, her toned derriere more than some cadets could resist. Two had been especially helpless, and Nick had checked their impulses with a curt warning, then something more. Eighty-eight. Eighty-nine. He chuckled, dipping his nose in a pondlet of sweat. He’d never visited those boys at the infirmary; he was forty-eight hours in his own bed with Ms. McEvoy, who’d deigned to look at him, finally, on a Thursday, and deigned to marry him, Thursday next, in the chapel behind the mess. She had loved the fight in him. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. And the smell of his sweat. One hundred.

* * * * *

The inscription on the statue in O’Neal Park had been the lifelong credo of the giant statesman, the first chief executive to have played in the Western Conference of the long defunct National Basketball Association. It read: “Just Do It”—borrowed, Nick knew, from a commercial entity also long defunct. Nick had never tried basketball or politics, but he liked the message. It described his own approach to living, years before he’d seen it set in stone.

He would do it, of course, for his wife. What he would do afterwards would depend.

“How do I whiff a robot?” he had asked.

“Like this,” she’d said, crinkling her nose and snorting air four inches from his chest. “And it’s not a robot.”

“What do I look—er, smell for?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed, exasperated. “It’s like a very mellow cheese in blackberries and ammonia. I can’t explain.”

He stroked her cheek with the second joint of his index finger. “And if I smell all that—what then?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sniffling. “Just don’t let him do that procedure.”

He hadn’t been the smartest at the Academy, just the toughest. Jennifer had helped him with Physics and Chinese. She knew about things he didn’t. She’d been right about the Siberian annex and right about the bees. He knew that. He’d heard the rumors about Antarctica and the medroids, but he’d rejected them. He still didn’t believe them, despite his wife’s misgivings. But he loved his wife and respected her. Often, lately, he pitied her. At any rate he didn’t want to leave her any sooner than necessary. A decision was impending. He thought about it all the way up the airtube to the top of Alpha Tower.

* * * * *

“Do you see the red dot?”

“No,” Nick said, trying to sniff his doctor while eyeing perfectly black space. He’d had a holoscopy read once before: a knee he’d blown out in skiball. Reads made him nervous. Claustrophobic.

“Let me adjust the eyepiece,” said the doctor, gently pressing the viewer closer to Nick’s corneas. A faint musty odor, from the hands, but nothing particularly cheesy, Nick thought.

“Now do you see it?”

“Yes,” he said, heart racing.

“Okay. Here goes.”

He stood in a tunnel lit faintly, inflamed perhaps, on its perforated ceiling. Around him he discerned a myriad of pitch black shapes silhouetted against others of lighter hue.

“Follow the red dot,” said the medroid.

“Okay,” Nick said, his mouth dry and hot.

“Do you see it?”

“Yes.” Nick tried to swallow, but couldn’t. He smelled sulfur, but no cheese.

“Do you see it still?”

“Yes.”

“Good. That’s where we’ll blast.”

* * * * *

Nick sat in the same sanitized room as the day before, his legs dangling off the examination table. Beside wall cabinets hung a thin oak slab with white block lettering. “YOU’RE ONLY HUMAN,” Nick read aloud. If he had to he would get the doctor in a headlock and fasten his nose to the neck, face, scalp, whatever it took. If he had to.

He waited ten minutes, breathing deeply and working his fingers into a succession of fleeting fists. The doctor knocked lightly, then entered with a thick folder wedged in an armpit. He stood against the rim of a sink, taking the folder in hand without opening it. He was three feet from Nick, smiling tenderly, his yellow face shiny as a new lemon.

“I’d like to do the Virtual,” he said in low musical tones. “It’s your best chance.”

Nick smelled ammonia, or thought he did. He leaned forward, sliding off the table to his feet.

“Who made you?” he asked, stepping nose to nose with the medroid and crinkling his own for a series of reconnoitering inhalations.

The medroid’s gray eyes blinked once, slowly, the lids pastel yellow like faded cloth.

“Mr. Lomax, you’re not supposed to stand this close to me. Would you step backward, please?”

Somewhere on the doctor’s breath Nick caught the evanescent essences of blackberry and overripe cheese. They vanished before he could examine them, so he did all he knew to do, swiftly hooking his left arm around the doctor’s neck and tightly securing the big block head beneath its black wire top.

“Who made you?” Nick asked, hunkered over the imprisoned head, sniffing it. The doctor did not resist.

“I was manufactured in Antarctica,” the doctor said pleasantly, as if upright and casually engaged.

“This is your last chance,” Nick said, aware of the direst pain yet in his lower abdomen but trying to forget it. Holding the prisoner fast between biceps and forearm, he put his right hand to the back of the doctor’s bristled coiffure and dug his fingers in deep.

“I don’t advise this course of action, Mr. Lomax. Destroying a new issue will cost you a pretty penny.” Nick wondered later if he might have preferred open hostility—anything but a reproach, and a sympathetic one at that.

“I don’t give a damn about money.” He pulled at the stubborn mass of wire and gelatinous underfiber that smelled unmistakably of the ammoniac foods his wife had named. Still no physical resistance was offered.

“Consider the futility of destroying me,” his doctor said at last, with the same musical solicitude as ever. “Will doing so determine my ultimate origin, if that’s your concern?”

Nick knew the doctor had a point, but he was too pissed to stop. To make matters worse, when he’d torn the doctor’s cranium entirely away and gazed within at a labyrinth of unmarked circuitry, he felt such a blow to his gut as never before, not even in military games. He toppled the rest of the way to the floor, unconscious, his right hand still clutching the scalp of his attending physician and his diseased stomach coming to rest atop the doctor’s inanimate remains.

* * * * *

“Are you—?” he said, stunned a little, sitting up on the same exam table as before. In another moment he saw the eyes were brown and the face a shade darker too.

“I’m his replacement,” said the medroid, smiling, leaning where the first one had leaned.

“Sorry about—what’s-his-face,” Nick said, swiveling toward the new physician. His belly ached a little, but nothing like before.

“Well,” said the doctor, his red lips knitting in sympathy, “there are plenty more of him available. But there’s a policeman waiting outside. I’m afraid he’ll be giving you a citation at least.”

“Maybe I’ll have the Virtual after all,” Nick said, dropping his head, watching his hands make and unmake fists. He felt his gut tightening again, and he was wondering what he would say to his wife, and what she would say to him. “Maybe I’ll call tomorrow,” he said, glancing up.

“That’s a good idea,” the medroid said, grinning so warmly Nick stifled an urge to check his circuitry too.

* * * * *

The next morning Nick got the Virtual. It was painless. Afterwards he patted the medroid gently on the back. He was beginning to like smiley faces.

That night he did number two for the first time in one hundred twenty-six days. Not a medical record, and he was glad it wasn’t. Now he would have to do something about his wife’s vanishing hair.

Before making love to her, he slipped the turquoise heart around Jennifer’s neck.

“What’s going on, Nick?” she asked, smiling. “Are you getting religion?”

He looped the second amulet over his own head and lay down beside his wife.

“I have new faith in medicine,” he said, squeezing tight against her. “That’s a start, isn’t it?”