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.” 

 

Take-Out

by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

 

I’m Harvey Hickman and I’ve got the most dangerous job in America… I’m the pizza delivery guy.

Oh, I know, I know. Some people argue that the Chinese food delivery guys have it worse, or maybe the mailmen, uh, mailpeople. But c’mon, the guys that deliver your Chinese food travel in gangs that ride around in hopped-up Japanese crotch rockets and they carry fully automatic weapons (even though they’re still illegal), and those folks that deliver your mail show up in armored personnel carriers with specially modified cannons that shoot your mail right onto your porch or through your window, and besides, most folks just use email nowadays anyway—so no, it’s me alright. And that’s why the chicks love me and all the guys hate me, ’cause they all wanna be me (I mean the guys, not the girls).

It all started when the Rift happened. BTR (Before The Rift), I was just a skinny loser with perennial acne, a crappy car, and an even crappier job—pizza delivery guy. I mean, I couldn’t get laid if I were an egg! Even tips from my customers were rare. I’d be standing in someone’s doorway wearing that stupid Pizza Pete’s paper hat on my head, my hand held out for some sort of gratuity, and more often than not I’d get the door slammed in my face. What really burned me was hearing them all laughing at me from the other side of those doors. Now, not only do I get big tips, but there are plenty of times when a beautiful woman will show up at the door in just her undies and pull me inside for a little “afternoon delight.” Ah yeah, life sure is sweet now… but hey, don’t get me wrong—it’s still dangerous as hell. Literally.

*****

I don’t exactly know what happened, maybe nobody does, but the word on the street is that about a year ago some scientists working on a sort of secret collider project on a little island in the East River accidentally tore open a hole in the so-called fabric of time and space. Well, whatever it is they did, it turned into a real mess…

You see, that tear in space or whatever—what we now call the Rift—allowed all kinds of creatures from some other dimension (or whatever!) to enter our world and cause all kinds of trouble. At first it was just Manhattan, but soon after it became the tri-state area, and then the whole country. All kinds of weird animals and monsters were soon roaming through every neighborhood, attacking and eating people, pets—anything they could catch. There were hundreds, heck, thousands of them—all different kinds, but they all had two things in common: they were all mean and they were all hungry.

The cops put up a good fight at first, but it was just too big a job. It took the military to get things under control, but as the weeks and months wore on it became clear that these creatures (Rift Dwellers we call ’em) weren’t going anywhere—they were the new reality. But folks still had to make a living, and the president even went on television and told everyone to continue with their lives and go back to work. A lot of people did just that, and a lot of ’em got killed. So then it became legal for everyone to carry a gun, and plenty of folks got together and formed armed carpools and were able to get back to work, but by then the damage to what they call the national psyche had been done. People in general were still really afraid to go out, with thousands of folks stuck in their homes or offices—too afraid to get out and go back home, work, shop, or just get something to eat without being eaten themselves. People were starving, and law enforcement and the military were stretched too thin to be everywhere at once.

That’s when guys like me became the new rock and roll gods!

Now it’s another Friday and I’m sitting in the back room at Pizza Pete’s with my feet up and my 3-D glasses on—watching a movie between gigs. And there will be another gig soon, my eighth of the day so far, since Fridays are our busiest days.

“Yo, Harv,” came Joey’s voice from out front. “Have another delivery for you—lock and load, babe!”

That’s Joey Riccio, he owns Pizza Pete’s. I never actually met Pizza Pete, in fact I don’t know if there ever was a Pizza Pete.

I walk out into the dining area, past the heat of the ovens, and nod hello to the regulars. The regulars are actually a guy and two women that were here when the Rift opened and have been too scared to leave since. They look a little bedraggled now; their eyes have dark circles under ’em and their hair’s a little dull and shaggy. Marla, that’s one of the women, was pretty once and she used to smile a lot. Now she still smiles a lot, but in that weird kinda way that tells you she’s close to losing it. I’ve offered to escort them home plenty of times (especially Marla), but they’ve always been too scared to leave.

“You got two cheese pies, same address, right across from the park. You also got a pepperoni pie, buffalo wings, and a couple of two-liter sodas mid-town,” Joey said, taping invoices with the addresses on them on to the boxes.

I take the boxes and wings, and slip them into the wide vinyl sleeve that’ll help keep them nice and hot. Next I grab the sodas and drop them into my backpack. Lastly, I check my weapons. My main arsenal consists of a Mossberg semi-automatic sawed-off shotgun, a .38 Colt Diamondback revolver with the heat-dispersal vents along the top of the barrel, a two-shot .22 magnum Derringer, and a really, really big Bowie knife.

I prime the shotgun, sling the pack onto my back, grab the vinyl case with the pizzas and wings in it, and back out of the door.

At first the bright blue sky of outside dazzles me, but my eyes adjust quickly enough and I make it to my car without incident. I put the pizzas and sodas on the passenger seat, and turn in time to see a Bagger and two Hump-Lizards heading my way. A Bagger looks exactly like a plastic supermarket shopping bag, and it floats in the air or scoots along the ground just like those bags do when a breeze gets a hold of ’em. But then you notice that there ain’t no breeze and by then it may be too late—the Bagger whips itself over your head and suffocates you. Then it slowly starts to digest you, but eventually other RDs (Rift Dwellers) find your fresh corpse and help themselves to the feast. Hump-lizards are mastiff-sized lizards with 3-inch claws, 6-inch fangs, and humped backs that ooze acid.

I considered blasting them but changed my mind, jumped in my car, and took off instead. I mean, c’mon, I had to get those pizzas delivered in thirty minutes or less!

Speaking of my car, I got rid of the Yaris and now I drive a black, armored, super-charged, 2012 Chevy Camaro with bullet-proof windows and tires. This baby’s basically a tank that can do 240 mph on a straightaway, and shatter windows for a block when I crank the system up and blast music from the six titanium-reinforced exterior speakers. Holla!

I delivered the first pizzas to an address on East 71st Street and Fifth Avenue with virtually no problem—I just wound up running over a couple of love-struck Vampires, dodging some real persistant Baggers, and blasting a Raticorn (kind of a giant rat with tusks and a horn) that came running out of Central Park and right at me.

The second delivery was a little more eventful. It was in the “Lipstick” building on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. A few office workers got stuck there when the Rift happened and just never went home. There’re a lot of places like that all over—people saw their friends, family, even heavily-armed military guys get torn apart right in front of their eyes and it freaked them out. They don’t want to end up some RD’s meal and figure it’s a whole lot safer to stay put… and they’re right.

Luckily, I find a parking space right out front (hey, this is still Manhattan!) and while I’m getting the pizza out of the car I hear a roar off to my right and it’s getting closer—I already know what’s coming and I brace myself. They come zooming around the corner in tight formation, the sun gleaming and glinting off their helmets and Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles. A Chinese food delivery gang and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re making a delivery at the same address I am. They stop right behind my car and drop onto their kickstands in unison; like they’ve been rehearsing it for years. I finger the safety off my shotgun.

The leader of the gang saunters over to where I’m standing, checks the skies and removes her helmet—shaking free her long, glossy black hair. Oh shit, it’s Lisa Lim; so that means that this gang is the Sunny Garden crew… a very tough bunch.

“How ya doing Harvey?” she asks, putting one hand on her hip and resting the other on the snub-nosed Heckler & Koch fully automatic rifle slung over her shoulder on a Hello Kitty strap. “What are you doing in Sunny Garden territory?”

I sigh and repeat what I’ve told her a bunch of other times, “It’s only Sunny Garden territory as far as Chinese food is concerned—I deliver pizzas.”

She laughs and I can hear the rest of her all-female gang laugh under their helmets. I think I already mentioned how I don’t like being laughed at.

“If I say it’s Sunny Garden territory, Harv,” Lisa says, “then I’m talking about any and all food; and that includes your lousy pizza!”

More laughter. Then her voice and attitude get much more serious. “But tell you what, we’re going to do you a favor and deliver your stale pizza for you… isn’t that nice of us, Harv?”

While she’s talking I’m trying to figure a way out of this mess. I check my watch—I only have seven minutes to go before the customer gets a free pizza and it comes out of my pay. I’m sweating. I figure I can take Lisa and maybe two of her crew with the shotgun, but then they’d just chop me to bits with those automatic weapons of theirs. Then, as if she were reading my mind:

“Don’t try anything stupid, Harv,” Lisa says as she swings her rifle in my direction. I notice that the rest of her gang does the same. In unison again. Like synchronized swimming. Cute.

“Just give us the pizza, whatever you have in the backpack, your weapons, and your wallet. If you’re real nice and quick about it, we might let you keep your car.” There’s more laughing, so I don’t feel too bad about what happens next. Very slowly and deliberately I pull my knife out. I check my watch—four minutes to go.

Lisa sees me slide the 12-inch blade from its leather sheath and her eyes go wide in surprise. I hear the loud click as she snaps the safety off her rifle.

“That was a very stupid thing to do Harvey,” Lisa says menacingly as she levels her rifle at me.

I take a deep breath and use it to yell one word as loud as I can, “Incoming!” I point above and behind them, and luckily a few of them do turn to look. It’s their yelps of fear and surprise that make them all turn and look. That’s when they see the Baggers, hundreds of them, coming right at us.

Lisa’s gang forgets all about me as they point their weapons at the fast-approaching RDs and begin firing. The noise is incredible! I haven’t heard a racket like that since the early days of the Rift. Lisa’s firing her weapon too, and to their credit, the Sunny Garden crew shred dozens of the Baggers—but there are plenty of the little bastards to go around. Lisa’s gang really is doing a good job of fending off the attacking Baggers; but then they’re all wearing helmets. In fact, the only ones not wearing helmets are…

Lisa stops firing her rifle at the Baggers long enough to once again turn it towards me, “Saved some for you Harv,” she yells over the clatter of her gang’s guns.

I figure I’m done for and mouth some quick prayers—thankful that at least I’d finally gotten laid before I died.

Suddenly a Bagger swoops down and covers Lisa’s head, immediately wrapping its translucent appendages around her neck and pressing itself tightly against her face to deprive her of oxygen.

Lisa drops her gun and opens her mouth to scream, or maybe take a gulp of air; I don’t know which, and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t succeed at either. She starts pulling and clawing at the Bagger, but it’s fastened itself onto her pretty tightly; and its skin is tougher than it looks. I check my watch: two minutes.

I grab my pizza bag again and start for the building when I spot a shopping bag bulging with Chinese food hanging from Lisa’s motorcycle, and I make a decision. I take my knife, slice through the elastic cord holding the food, and grab the bag before it hits the ground.

I spin on the ball of my foot, knife flashing, and I cut open the Bagger on Lisa’s face, saving her life but opening up a gash on her pretty face that’s gonna leave a nasty scar. I duck under and slice apart a Bagger that was coming for me and sprint for the building; with at least twenty of those Bagger bastards right behind me.

I make it inside, leave the Baggers outside, and grab the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open I run to suite 3404, my sneakers squeaking as I skid to a stop in front of the doors and press the buzzer. The door opens and a gorgeous brunette with soft gray eyes and a beautiful smile is standing there. She’s wearing a blazer that matches the color of her eyes; part of what was once a chic business suit. I check my watch: nineteen seconds to spare.

“Well, another minute and I would have gotten a free pizza,” she says with that great smile.

“Nineteen seconds,” I say with a smile of my own. We exchange food for cash, and I remark, “That’s a lot of food for just one person…”

“Yes, it is,” she says with another smile as she opens the door wider and steps aside.

I start to step inside when I notice that there are already two other guys in the room. The older guy, in shirt sleeves and tie, salutes me with a glass he’s holding; the amber liquid inside sloshing around.

As soon as I realize my mistake I quickly step back out of the room. What I thought was an invitation was just her showing me she already had company. Now, I just stand there feeling idiotic and I can sense the color rising in my face. The woman in the gray blazer notices of course and says, “Those are my neighbors from suites 3406 and 3409… they’re lawyers.” She whispers the last two words as if she’s imparting some secret knowledge to me in confidence.

“We were just going to eat and watch the news, see if anything’s changed. You’re, uh, welcome to join us,” she hurriedly adds at the end.

I hear the faint rat-a-tat of gunfire from outside; Lisa’s gang still doing battle with the Baggers. Then I remember the Chinese food I’m carrying.

“I, uh, gotta deliver this,” I stammer as I hold up the torn shopping bag with the Chinese food inside. Something must have spilled because it’s leaking some sort of brown sauce.

“Oh!” she says in surprise. “You deliver Chinese food, too?”

I can only nod dumbly and turn away, heading back to the elevators. During my elevator ride up to the 11th floor, I mentally kick myself over and over for losing it during my delivery to suite 3404.

“That was the old Harvey Hickman,” I admonish myself. “The new Harvey Hickman is a red-hot lover, monster killer, and ass-kickin’ Chinese food delivery gang fighter!”

By the time I reach the 11th floor, I feel a lot better about things and I ring the buzzer next to a highly polished wooden door. A brass plaque on the door reads, “Rift Systems: Division 1.” Rift Systems? The Rift? Could this be a coincidence? I look around and see that there are no other offices or suites, which means that this Rift Systems: Division 1 (whatever that is) takes up this entire floor. The hair goes up on the back of my neck; there’s something weird about this.

I’m about to press the buzzer again when the door opens and some military-type ushers me inside. The soldier closes and locks the door behind me.

“Put that on the table over there,” he says. “And try not to get whatever’s leaking outta there on anything.”

I nod and look around; more than just a little surprised at what I see… The entire 11th floor looks like it’s been converted into a gigantic lab, with steel tables, computers, screens, gadgets, cubicles and scientists all over the place. There are soldiers too, although not many, and I wonder what the hell is going on.

“How much will that be, son?”

The voice, tinged with a slight southern accent intrudes on my thoughts so suddenly that I jump. Another soldier, this one an officer I guess by all the ribbons and medals on his jacket, walks over to me and asks again, “So, what do we owe you?”

I remember the amount written on the invoice stapled to the bag and I tell him. He counts out several bills and I see him add a $10.00 tip for good measure.

“Thanks, uh, thank you, sir,” I say as I stuff the cash into my pocket.

The officer glances at my weaponry and nods approvingly. “Glad to see you’re loaded for bear, son,” he says. “Times call for it! But hopefully that’ll all be in the past soon and things can get back to normal.”

“Normal?” I ask as I look around the room. This guy is starting to scare me. “What do you mean normal?”

The officer puts a big, meaty hand on my shoulder and points at a guy in a lab coat. “See that man there? He is the world’s foremost expert on the Rift and he’s figured out a way to close it,” he says.

“C-close the Rift?” I ask. My head swims; I can feel the old Harvey Hickman bubbling to the surface.

“Here, let me introduce you to the man that’s going to save the world,” the officer says as he steers me toward the guy in the lab coat. “This is something you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids about someday!”

We walk over to where the man in the lab coat is standing, talking to two foreign guys in tweed jackets.

“Professor,” the officer says; interrupting their conversation. “I know you’re busy but I just wanted to introduce you to a fan… or at least he will be once you get rid of this goddam Rift!”

The professor stops his conversation long enough to turn towards us. He’s a regular looking guy, about my height, a fringe of graying black hair surrounding about three-quarters of the dome of his bald head, and he’s wearing glasses. “A fan, huh?” The professor says this while he looks me up and down like I’m some kind of specimen. “Come back in another three months, the Rift will definitely be gone by then and you can be a fan all you like, until then I’m too busy to talk to some delivery boy.”

The professor turns his back on me and dismisses us with a wave of his hand. He continues his conversation with the two guys in tweed and basically forgets I ever existed. Just like the bad ol’ days BTR (Before The Rift), when everyone pretty much dismissed the old Harvey Hickman as being someone unimportant; someone of little or no consequence… while I’m having this, uh, revelation, the officer has me by the arm and he’s leading me back to the door.

“Sorry about that, son,” the officer says. “The professor’s a busy guy, but hey at least you got yourself a nice tip out of it!”

Suddenly, I make up my mind—I know what I have to do…

I spin on the ball of my foot, much like I did with Lisa and the Baggers earlier, and I march back towards where the professor was still conferring with the two guys in tweed.

“Hey kid, what are you doing? The professor’s too busy to talk to you right now,” the officer calls out loudly from behind me. “You have to leave now, let’s go!”

The other soldiers look on curiously; they’re all carrying sidearms but no one reaches for their weapon.

The professor, maybe wondering what all the yelling is about turns around and faces me. I whip out the Colt and shoot him exactly two inches above the bridge of his nose. The guys in tweed look on in shock until I shoot them too. Then all hell breaks loose.

By the time I leave that suite on the 11th floor, everyone in it is dead. I feel bad about the soldiers, they were only doing their job, but I had to stop the Rift from being closed… had to.

My backpack is heavy with all of the hard drives and other electronic filing equipment I plan to toss into the Hudson. Whatever hardware or software I couldn’t carry out of there I made sure to thoroughly destroy. I found a couple of manuals with lists of passwords for a series of online backup files that I plan on deleting as soon as I can get to a public computer in an internet café or somewhere…

I feel a stitch in my side and I put my hand there—it comes back wet with my blood. One of the soldiers back in the suite must have hit me. It’s not serious, I’ll live.

I take the elevator to the lobby and peer outside through the glass doors, expecting to see Lisa and her crew still out there waiting for me. To my relief, they’re gone—although it looks like they took the time to tag my car with that lousy silver spray paint that’s impossible to get off.

I limp to my car as quickly as I can, toss my backpack, the pizza bag, and my shotgun in, and climb behind the wheel while the sun starts to go down on another day. In the distance a sticky-cat yowls its welcome to the coming night, while from somewhere closer I hear the coughing sound made by a Fool You/Kill You. Soon all of the night creatures will be up and adding their own weird and unearthly sounds to the chorus.

I reload my weapons, start the car and put it in gear. I pull a u-turn and point my car’s nose uptown, towards the George Washington Bridge. I know a doctor in Jersey that’s terrified of leaving his home and he owes me a couple of favors, I’m sure he’ll patch me right up. Then it’ll be back to delivering pizza… and killing monsters.

 

The Key and the Orange

by Rhys Schrock

 

We keep the key that Ricky lifted from the collection box. Yesterday he overheard Father Feiffer tell the imposter in the other confessional that he couldn’t find the key. The unseen stooge—who did not express the sort of remorse traditionally attached to this ritual—replied that now they’d never be able to activate the device in the room over the hardware store. FF wrapped up the summary of penance with a second reference to the objects of his concern, his stern voice adding caps: The Key, The Device.

Ricky fills in the details, and Freddie is bouncing on his toes, alive to the possibilities, ready to “head over there right now.” Mooch says we should put the key back. Freddie snags Moochie’s collar, smacks his forehead with the heel of his hand, and I get between them, tell ’em to knock it off. We hear a squeal of tires, a chatter of gunfire, and watch in slow-mo as Ricky is killed in a drive-by. His body arcs like a breaking wave, and what’s left splays across the sidewalk. Ricky never hurt nobody; all he wanted was a good time, but now the good-time bus has dropped him off in a bad part of town. He’s a busted bag of groceries, and I dig The Key out of his pocket while Mooch slips behind a phone pole to watch for the return-of-the-death-car. It never reappears.

Freddie claims he saw the shooter before, saw him coming out of the candy store on Main Street just last week. He vows revenge, but it’s all talk; Freddie can’t keep his mind on anything long enough to carry through. His life is a relentless pursuit of thrills and dares—his mind is a hummingbird in a crowded greenhouse.

We aim our ostrich boots toward the south end of town to show The Key to the creepy old dude who sits by the well. His name is Orville and people call him the Oracle. People say he sees-all-knows-all, even if he is blind, but as we approach, I flash that maybe this isn’t the smartest plan in the world. The Oracle might not be all that thrilled that we have The Key—in fact, he might paralyze us with voodoo spells and make us hand it over.

“Mornin’ boys.” The Oracle aims them milky orbs straight at us. Lily always says he’s not really blind, and she won’t go anywhere near the well. Orville’s face follows our movements like a radar dish, but soon enough his watery pupils break loose and drift aimlessly as if each eye is a detached floater. He says, “Sounds like they’s three of yun. And the one holdin’ back is nervous.”

“Our friend was just killed,” I say, and it comes out as shaky as an alibi.

Freddie says, “We got something we want to show you.” He holds The Key by the blade and sunlight gleams off the chrome-plated bow.

Blind man says, “What? What you got?” I wonder if he’s toying with us.

“Nice day,” Mooch says lamely, and his voice tremolos unevenly like a first-year violin student. The winter sun is low over the Chuma Mountains and peeks through the high slat fence that encloses the elephant graveyard behind the well. Glints of sunlight sparkle off bent chrome and shattered safety glass, and the comforting scent of depleted motor oil soaking into sandy soil wafts across the yard.

“Nice day,” echoes the Oracle. He breathes in deeply and says, “All things return to base elements,” and I don’t know if he’s talking about the expired cars in the elephant graveyard or the death of Ricky and the vulnerability and mortality of the human body.

Freddie twists The Key in the sunlight, catches a reflection and aims it at the Oracle, lands the reflection in the center of his forehead, and it lights the mottled skin like a third blind eye. The Oracle goes stiff, cries out, “What is dat?” It’s a shock to hear genuine fear in the old man’s voice.

Freddie says, “We want you to look at something, oh great Oracle. Tell us what it is.” He keeps the bright spot on Orville’s forehead as he walks closer.

The Oracle dodges his head from side-to-side and Freddie steps close, holds The Key out. “Take it. Feel it. Tell us what it is.” The Oracle opens his right hand tentatively, as if afraid that he might be burned. He turns his palm up, half closed, and Freddie tosses The Key in the cup. The old man flinches, puts his hands together, presses The Key between his palms. He closes his eyelids, breathes with his mouth open, exposing black gums, a pink tongue, and three yellow teeth. A moan escapes him, and his face takes on an expression of pain and sadness. His body spasms, he falls off his stool, and a stain darkens the front of his pants. The Key drops in the dust and Mooch rushes toward the gate calling out, “You killed him, dude. Let’s get out of here.”

The Oracle disproves Moochie’s theory by rolling to his side and using the chair to climb into a semi-vertical position. He reaches a hand to the sky and his voice booms like a biblical prophet: “Shun dat key and dem that traffic in such tings.”

Freddie is not impressed. “Come on, you old freak, spill. What’s The Key?”

“Be not fools, I tell ye. Thou shalt rue this day.” This is a bit overboard, I’m thinking. The old fraud has flipped a tile or two, and the pee running down his leg diminishes the authority of his dire prophesies. But he’s serious, and just then the sun goes behind a cloud; the whole thing starts to feel sinister. No slouch when it comes to drama, The Oracle shouts, “Get dat accursed ting away from dis place,” and he jumps into the well.

The three of us look at each other in surprise, but Freddie recovers first, bends down and fishes The Key out of the dust. He rubs it clean against his blue satin trousers and says, “Crazy old coot. It’s just a piece of metal.” He bounces it in his palm, and The Key does a back flip before it settles on his heart line. He tempts fate by pressing it in his palms the way the Oracle did. He starts twitching the same as the old man, his torso bucking and twisting, his eyes rolling up in his sockets until all I see is whites. Mooch expresses his dismay by letting out a squeal like a cat caught in a fan belt, and I have to admit I’m close to wetting my pants until I notice the smirk on Freddie’s thin lips. When he separates his hands he laughs and says, “If I jump into the well, you can have my stamp collection.” He stuffs The Key into the pocket of his long coat, laughs again, then stops when we hear a moan from the well. I’m thinking that maybe we should rescue the Oracle. After all, he’s wearing pee-stained pants in the town well, but the moan is followed by a low melody with lots of nice reverb thanks to the stone lining of the shaft. He’s singing “The Tennessee Waltz,” in a strong tenor, goes at it like Plácido Domingo.

From the alley next to the barber shop a dog attempts a backup harmony. It’s a pitiful howl, as if he’s been deserted, tied to a lamppost while his master ducked into a coffee shop, slipped out the back door, met a beautiful stranger in a convertible, and ran off to California without another thought. Orville stops singing long enough to tell the dog to shut up, then starts into some god-awful light opera.

A little girl about ten years old in a plaid granny dress and wire-rimmed granny glasses stomps past us in scuffed Doc Martens. She wears a batik do-rag over curly blond hair and carries a hank of jute rope over one shoulder. She is Orville’s granddaughter and sometimes magician’s assistant, Jasmine. She dismisses us with a, “Thanks a lot, mutants,” ties one end of the rope—a granny knot, natch—to a dead tree trunk behind the well and tosses the coil into the opening. She leans over the lip and says, “Orville. Grab the rope and climb out.” He keeps singing and she looks up at us impatiently and repeats, “I said, thanks a lot. That means you can go back to committing whatever misdemeanors or mortal sins your little pea brains can dream up. Go on, now. Scoot.”

Our boots boom on the plank sidewalk as we hustle back to the center of town. The streets are deserted, but we can still hear Orville going on about “a little China man in yellow pantaloons.”

We cross Main Street, and the stairway that leads up to the room with The Device is directly in front of us. The stairs run up the middle of the building, tucked between the hardware store and a book store that was shut down two years ago. A wicked looking sign on the cobwebbed bookstore window says, “Closed by order of Homeland Security. Unauthorized entry constitutes a Federal Offense and may include Charges of Treason.”

There is no warning sign on the opening to the staircase, despite rumors of The Device at the top, and the stairs are an open invitation, a tantalizing finger beckoning three susceptible boys to “come on up,” like the dark, smoldering widow next door with a freezer full of ice cream. “I got sprinkles, boys. And butterscotch.”

“No time like the present,” Freddie says, flashing a grin and The Key before heading straight for the staircase. Freddie is disturbingly charismatic, an irresistible force who drags you into his gravitational field like a black hole. We lesser mortals are passing particles of space dust with no choice in the matter. Mooch and I follow as Freddie takes two steps at a time, the tails of his coat flapping like he’s dancing up the risers in an old musical. He spins once on the landing next to the door with The Key in his hand. His grin widens as if he is about to open his birthday presents and wants to start in on the big package with the red-velvet bow. I follow closely; Mooch stops at each step to look around and see if anyone knows we’re there. How could they not? Each time Mooch lands a boot on another tread it creaks like the door to a haunted house.

Freddie tries The Key and it won’t go in the slot. He swaggers with confidence, calls Mooch a scairdy-cat, but his hand is shaking, and I tell him to give me The Key, I’ll do it. I’m nervous too, but there’s no backing down, so I use both hands to steady The Key. I jab it at the keyhole and it still won’t go. The Key is way too wide for the slot. “Sorry, Freddie. Wasted trip.” I’m relieved. “Wrong key. Let’s get out of here.” I hand The Key to Freddie who stuffs it in his pocket with a scowl. He reconsiders, fishes the scowl out of his pocket and tosses it to the side.

Mooch is already heading down the stairs, this time at a good clip, and the treads are quiet. Freddie grabs the door handle, yanks on it in frustration, pounds on the center panel, then turns around to look down the stairs and over Main Street. He spreads his arms like he’s about to give a speech. Freddie is the Pope addressing and blessing a crowd of pilgrims from Iowa. He’s on a balcony above Piazza San Pietro gathering his thoughts. Behind him, I hear a low creak as the door swings slowly inward. My eyes catch movement inside. Freddie spins as a wicked grin crosses his face. He heads for the door and I say, “Don’t go in there, I saw something move.”

Freddie ignores me, kicks the door wide on its hinges and it bounces off an inside wall. Across the room I see white curtains fluttering before an open window. The room is small, no other doors, no furniture, no Cardinals, wolfhounds, or nuns, but The Device is sitting in the center of the room.

The Device: a cube of steel, gun-metal blue, the top crowded with rabbit ear antenna, a timer with red rhomboid numbers stuck on 00:00:22, a block of chrome with a keyhole in the center, and a brightly-painted statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A bundle of multi-colored cables pour out the back of The Device, snake across the floor, and disappear into a crude hole smashed through the plaster wall. The antenna makes the device look like a dormant TV set with an elaborate converter box, but other possibilities include high-end microwave oven, mini-bar, or WMD.

Freddie digs out The Key and holds it to the keyhole. I expect to hear a protest from Mooch, but he’s still at the bottom of the stairs milling about with the imaginary tourists from Iowa. Freddie studies The Key, the keyhole, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. “Careful analysis of the complex forms involved indicates a complementary relationship, a rare balance of physical proportionality, the receptive yin of the keyhole, the assertive yang of this baby.” He holds up The Key and slashes the air like a fencer. The movement is harmless, but the fact that he’s gone into his professorial mode, using what linguists call BIG WORDS, means that he’s about to do something stupid. Freddie’s eyes are wide, the pupils purest black and as deep as a collapsed Mayan cenote. He’s a housecat preparing to knock a vase off the piano.

“Freddie…” I say, elongating the last syllable and bringing up the pitch a notch.

“Chabo…” he replies as he slides The Key into place. He turns it, and the timer lazily shifts to 00:00:23. I think that might be good, but I still don’t have a clue what The Device is supposed to do. So it might be bad. Real bad.

A loud hiss like a boiler with a popped rivet starts up in the next room and the bundle of wires is drawn through the hole in the wall. Lazy loops straighten out, and The Device begins a slow slide across the floor. Loose linoleum tiles bunch up and tear free, moving along with The Device, clutching at it like they can’t bear to see it leave the room. Freddie stands back and watches hungrily. He’s anxious to see what happens next, but it is a slow process. The Device takes five minutes to travel five feet to the wall, and the hissing sound grows louder. Puffs of steam ooze through the hole around the cables, but are immediately sucked back. When The Device hits the wall it doesn’t even slow down. It slices a clean hole, a perfect square in the wall, with little outlines on top for the rabbit ears and other accessories, including a detailed cameo of the Virgin. It’s a clean cut, like it was done by a laser, leaving no plaster dust. The opening is black, a void, no color, no more steam, almost as if it was painted on the wall with flat black primer.

I ease closer, anxious to investigate but scared of what I might find. I take out my lucky weasel foot and toss it straight at the opening in the wall. I half-expect it to bounce off the black outline, but it disappears inside without a fuss; no noise, no flicker of light, no flutter of white doves. I kneel close to the hole, lean down for a look, and my vision goes wonky. Focus shifts erratically so that the wall around the hole could be two feet away or a hundred. I reach my hand toward the opening, scared to be sucked in, but mighty curious all the same. I poke an index finger into the hole and the tip disappears. I don’t feel anything, and when I pull out my finger it is intact. The phenomenon must be a purely visual thing, possibly harmless, but my ration of bravery is used up.

“What do you think?” I ask Freddie.

He’s standing at the window, has the curtain pulled to one side. “Well smack me with a spatula,” is probably not intended as a reply to my question.

I walk to the window, look out at the town, but the air is hazy-fuzzy-blurry. I wonder if there is a fire, if smoke is obscuring things. I don’t hear church bells, so nobody in town has spotted a fire yet. Somehow, it doesn’t look like smoke.

“This is all right,” Freddie says. “Look at that.” He points at the bank building, which is fading to a screened gray.

“What?”

“The circus is in town.”

I don’t see signs of a circus and wonder what he’s looking at. Is it a figure of speech?

“Oh, Yea-uh,” he says. “Lady acrobats. Zowie.”

I lean out the window for a better look. No circus I can see. Town keeps fading to a lighter and lighter gray, and behind me I hear a bloodcurdling scream. It’s Mooch standing at the door with a look of horror on his face. “Freddie, Chabo. Oh, god. Oh. My. God.” He’s staring at the floor, where The Device used to be. He rushes over to the spot, kneels, reaches down like he’s scooping up dry leaves. He stares at the empty space enclosed by his arms and sobs, “How could this ha-ha-happen? Oh god, Chabo.”

Freddie glances over his shoulder, not pleased that his attention is drawn away from whatever he thinks he sees out the window. “Alas, poor Chabo, I knew him, Mooch. What are you going on about?”

“Yeah,” I add unnecessarily. “What gives?”

Mooch looks at Freddie and me, then back at his armful of nothing. His sobs deepen, his lips gape and flap—not a gambol or gibe left in the poor boy—and his intakes of breath are erratic and screeching, a barn door in a windstorm. He stares in horror. “Gh-gh-ghosts. That’s what you are.” He buries his face in his arms, collapses on the floor.

Freddie shrugs, turns back to the window. “Boo,” he says over his shoulder. He leans out the window and adds, “That’s what we like. A parade. Come on girls, up here.” He waves and puts two fingers to his mouth, cuts loose with a piercing whistle.

I look down at Mooch who is a quivering puddle of panic and fear. I pop my head out the window, hoping to get a glimpse of Freddie’s parade, but all I see are the vague outlines of town getting paler, the grays giving way to whites. Freddie is waving and calling out, and I see nothing to justify his excitement. I glance back to the room and notice that it is turning white as well; the floor, the walls, the frames of the door and window. Everything except the cutout where The Device disappeared. It’s still an inscrutable void, but it’s starting to take on an orange tint, scarcely perceptible, like the shifting image of a total lunar eclipse rising over the Sinai Peninsula. The outlines are loosing their definition, the sharp corners smoothing out as the opening consolidates.

Okay, now I’m open to the possibility that Mooch might be right. I might be a ghost. Maybe The Device was a WMD, maybe we’re all dead. “Mooch,” I say, and can hear the puzzlement in my own voice. “Mooch. Look at me.”

He looks up, sneaks another peek at whatever he thinks is in his arms, a glance at Freddie’s back, then looks straight into my eyes. “What? What do you want?”

“Just to talk.”

“Okay,” he says doubtfully. “Does it hurt to die, Chabo?”

“Good question, but I don’t feel dead. Why do you think I’m a ghost?”

He nods toward the space in his arms. “I saw them kill you. You are dead.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can’t you see?” he asks, shaking his arms. “Oh, god. The blood.” He smears a hand across his face, wipes it on his shirt. “Don’t you see the blood?”

I don’t see blood. “Why don’t you tell me what happened? What you think you saw.”

“From the bottom of the stairs,” he sobs, “when the door wouldn’t open at first, I ran down to the sidewalk. Then you disappeared, and I was so scared of what might happen. I heard the argument, the yelling, you pleading for mercy, saw the whole thing through the open door. ‘The whoosh of a Byzantine scimitar cut through the air,’ ” he quotes from somebody else’s lurid memory. “And the screams, the sound of chopping. I’m sorry I didn’t save you Chabo. I was so scared.”

“I think I’m okay, Mooch. I just don’t see what you see. All I see are these white walls and floors, and everything outside turning white.”

“What are you talking about? The town is on fire. Can’t you hear the church bells?”

I listen carefully and the town is perfectly silent. White and silent, even the Oracle has run out of gas. The white is not smoke, it’s simply an absence of color, so peaceful, and I don’t hear a thing. I turn to Freddie who still leans out the window. He breaks the silence by calling out. “You bet I’m in. I’ll be down in a minute.” He turns to us. “You guys coming?”

“Where?”

“I got us a party lined up. With the circus people. Right after the parade. There’s a redhead who’s perfect for Mooch. And for Chabo,” he winks, “a magician’s assistant with a shape like a Kewpie doll. As for me, I got my eye on twins, a pair of Lithuanian trapeze artists with arms like weight lifters and thighs that could crush an engine block.” He leans his head out the window and yells. “Yeah. Be right there.”

“Come on guys.” He sits on the window sill, swings a leg out, waves us on.

“We’ll just hang out here,” I say.

Freddie looks at us, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding. I got this all fixed.”

I look at Mooch who is incapable of pulling himself together. “Me and Mooch have some issues to work out. You go on ahead. You can lie to us about it later.”

Freddie laughs, swings his other leg out the window and drops. I run to the window to watch him splatter, but when I stick my head out and look down I see him hit a smooth white canopy over the hardware store loading dock, ride it like surf, catch the tassels at the front edge, then execute a smooth spin, ankles over samovar with reverse Veronica. He lands lightly on his feet on the white chalky surface of the alley. That ought to impress the trapeze artists, but I still don’t see anybody.

Freddie takes a bow, and then he’s talking to the air in front of him, curling his arms like he’s hugging people, laughing, making a fool of himself. I wonder what he sees. I’d like to see it too, but now the town is pure white, the light suffused as if coming from all directions, the outlines of buildings hard to make out because there are no shadows. Freddie stands out like he’s cut out of a magazine, curly dark-brown hair shaking as he laughs, tails of his coat swinging, tan ostrich boots skipping through the white dust. A one-man party is all I can see, but his hands are extended to each side at waist level and he’s leaning forward as he moves through the alley.

“Chabo,” Mooch says. “Don’t worry about Freddie. You can’t die twice.”

“Knock it off, Mooch. We aren’t dead.” I’m pretty sure this is true. What I’m not sure of is what’s really happening. “It’s The Device,” I say, looking toward the white wall where it disappeared. The opening has now smoothed itself to a circle and has begun climbing the wall. The coppery tint has migrated to the circumference and I can taste it inside my lower lip, as if I bit the skin and brought blood to the surface. The hole is about four feet off the ground, and I know a mystery lurks inside. I walk over, wonder if it’s still a hole, or if by now it is a solid. Except for the copper edge, it still has a matte black surface. I push my arm into the hole up to the shoulder, feel around, grab hold of a round object, pull it out, and I’ve got a plump navel orange in my hand. “Hungry?” I say over my shoulder.

“I’ve got to get out of here before the fire gets me.” Mooch stands up, looks regretfully at the floor in the center of the room. “Sorry you’re dead.”

“You still on about that?”

“I can see the pictures on the walls, right through you,” he says. “I like the wallpaper in this place. Same stuff as when I was a kid. I used to imagine that those horses were mine, and in my dreams I rode them across the desert at night.”

I look at the walls; they are bone white and bare. Mooch walks to the door. He’s calmer now. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, takes a deep breath, puts the hankie over his mouth and descends stairs that now look like they’re cut out of ice. He races around the corner and disappears into the whiteness of town.

I head back to the window and sit on the ledge. I see Freddie at the corner. He’s laughing, strutting back and forth like he’s telling stories. Freddie has always been good at keeping the girls entertained. He can tell lies like a seasoned diplomat. I look at the wall in the room and the copper moon is at eye level and still moving upward. I smile. I like this room. With Mooch and Freddie gone it is quiet and peaceful. The orange is brilliant, a visual delight, a singular object of infinite beauty among the nearly unbroken whiteness of the room and the world outside. The shiny rind is dimpled and pregnant. I dig a thumb into the thick flesh to peel it, and in the quiet I can hear the zest escaping; the pure white light from outside splits the zest into a rainbow that quickly fades, and the scent is tangy and sweet.

I remove a wedge and place it in my mouth. The citric acid bites back—the orange is delicious. I think about The Device. It is not a nuke, that’s for sure. I look out the window in time to see Mooch racing around the corner of a building. He looks back in panic and continues to run along the highway to the edge of town, out into the whiteness of the wilderness. That’s Mooch, scared as always. In the distance I hear the faint voice of the Oracle who’s found his second wind and is now singing, “Put the lime in the coconut.” Every once in a while I hear Jasmine cry out, “Orville, grab the rope.”

I take another slice of orange, turn around to watch Freddie at the corner. He’s still entertaining an invisible audience. I think about what Mooch said. He saw our dead bodies. He heard and smelled a fire. Mooch has always expected the worst to happen. Maybe The Device makes us see what we want to see. Or are expecting to see.

I lean on the sill as Freddie drifts down the street with his invisible entourage. He really sees a circus crowd: the redhead, the acrobat, the twin trapeze artists with thighs like the jaws of life. Freddie has always felt incomplete, his life a series of prowls, in search of adventure, action, and dangerous women. I smile as I watch, and hope that he hasn’t made the mistake of finally getting what he’s always yearned for.

As for me, I like it here. I’ve usually gone along with other people’s dreams, a minor character, a bit-player in their lives. Whenever Mooch is around, I pick up on his energy and end up adopting his nervous state. Freddie can make me feel daring, ready for adventure, when all I really want is peace and quiet. When I am alone I can sit for hours, thinking random thoughts, and never feel the need to challenge life’s big questions. Maybe now I’ll have my chance to accomplish nothing.

I see an orange moon arising through the thick, pale sky, the only vivid color outside, a blotchy sphere—as unnatural as The Device—as it thrusts its way upward through the thickening white of the milky atmosphere. I think about poor Ricky, gunned down in front of the store a couple of hours ago. Oh, Ricky, how you loved to hang out with a crowd, friends, strangers, anybodies. You’d sink back in that deep-dish sofa, crack peanuts and jokes, make small talk, listen; a room with Ricky in it buzzed with low-level conversation and goodwill. I chew on another slice of orange and speculate about whether Ricky gets to take advantage of the effect of The Device. He hasn’t been gone all that long, his corpse is still warm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back at home in his favorite chair, laughing.

 

The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

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.

 

The Worthless Man

The Worthless Man

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Spilled neon wallows as usual around the watery blackness of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling night markets; it’s a special night for those who are Chinese, when firecrackers follow dancing dragons into Buddhist temples, and the well-to-do sit unafraid in good restaurants that rotate on top of tall buildings, all the better to see the New Year bursting over the night sky of Chinatown. And in the sky above the Malay district the spotlights of FDS search the muggy streets with the wide white beams of their silent helicopters, hunting for three old men on the run.

* * * * *

I’m told this is the seedy side of town. For our purposes, that is both good and bad. I’m afraid of the place and I’m afraid of FDS, Fujimoto Digital Shadow. My thinking for now is it’s better to die on the run than to die their way. My newfound friends are Shandar and Dutczak. I wear stolen dark glasses on top of my head. My skin is pale and noticeable. Shandar is darker and can probably avoid detection for a longer time. Dutczak is paler than I am, with a thick face and he’s too tall to be hiding alongside of us. Luckily for now we have dark alleys and crowded places to hide, places where the authorities prefer not to go. Besides, they don’t like FDS any more than we do.

Shandar seems to have surfaced as our temporary leader. I don’t mind, as he speaks some Malay and can pass for a local. They had not yet processed us when we made our escape. Between us we have some yen and some dollars and the clothes we wear. As a further disguise, we each bought a batik shirt on the corner, Shandar saying something in Malay to the effect, “Give us three shirts, a small a medium and a large.” Mine makes me look like a turtle.

I was kidnapped in Singapore not two days ago and auctioned off on Saturday. I’ve not been here in KL for forty hours. Shandar was taken near the Thai border and was brought by bus. Dutczak, our Ukrainian, was in a German nursing facility writing his memoirs when they snatched him. I know them hardly at all, except we happened to be using the restroom at the same time when the supplier opened the outer door, and so here we are, out of breath, confused and scared to death.

Predatory taxis glide through the aftermath of heavy rain looking for fares. Their tires calmly unzip the watery ways as they slow, and we wave them by. Firecrackers pop nonstop in the distance, and the streets are filled with the smell of cooking and burnt pyrotechnics. There’s no sign yet of FDS foot patrols.

“Shouldn’t we find a bar or something,” I say, “hide somewhere inside?”

Shandar agrees and Dutczak agrees too, saying, “I’m six foot six. Maybe you’d be better off without me.”

Shandar says, “That goes without saying; two old ferengi with pale faces… but, no, no one should bother us inside. They’re afraid in this part of town. We’re safe here for now. Look, I see a place on the corner.”

Indeed, I see it too, where he’s pointing, lettered in Chinese, red on yellow, and in English as well, China Doll; there’s a silhouette of a cocktail and a girl. Tattooed teenagers hang outside with big teeth grinning and nodding, slouching against graffiti in at least three languages. They look as if they would kill you for a few yen, or just for a good time, but they only smile with vacant eyes when we pass through them; and so we three, an American, a Gypsy, and a Ukrainian walk into a bar in Kuala Lumpur, the China Doll—but it’s no joke and we’re wet with sweat and rain, and are more scared probably than at any time in our lives. Our most common thread is that we’re old, in the winter of our lives, where comfort should be primary on our minds. We’re very old and useful for only one thing. It’s the footprint of our souls that they paid for, the shadowy distillate of our DNA, the who-we-were that they want… That much we know and very little else. Once past ninety there are few legal rights—if not in law, then in fact—since the monster octopus that is New Japan has the long reach of its yen.

A Chinese girl smiles, understanding we’ve not come for massages or companionship, and she seats us in the back where Shandar orders us three coffees in English. We say nothing until the coffee comes.

We’re tired, possibly in shock, and finally I say as the pretty girl serves us our coffee, heavy with sugar and lightened with milk, “What now? Do you really think their patrols will stay away from here?”

“Their scanners will find us. Eventually. Whether they’ll attempt to take us here in such a heavily Malay district so soon is another thing. We might as well get to know each other, for better or worse.”

This I already know: Shandar and Dutczak in their past lives have been in some way notable. Or illustrious. Their lives have been somehow exceptional. Or else they would not be here now.

So, as to who we are… “Let’s keep it short,” Shandar says, scanning the room of dancing chaos, smothered in the din of laughter and western music. It seems to be true that we’re safe for now. The club has welcomed us into its loud belly and remains oblivious to our presence, and so I take my turn. “My name is Paul. I’m American. I was chief global attorney for North American Affairs when I was younger but turned to writing later in life. No family to speak of. Never married. I have bank accounts in three countries and could maybe get some of it, but I don’t know if FDS controls the money supply here…”

“I don’t know either,” Shandar interjects. “We’ll plan that next. So what is your special talent, that which they want from you? Surely, attorneys are common enough.”

“Well… probably my creativity… my faculty for persuasion, my gift for gab. You might say I can build castles with words. I’m a poet and that makes me, as you say, special. My poetry has been called… uhm… unique… There were awards… I was very well received in certain circles…”

“Whatever. Never heard of you,” Shandar says.

“But you don’t even know…”

“Never heard of you,” he repeats, “And what about you, Mister Dutczak? What talent is it that they seem to want from you?”

I shrug and sip the sweet brown coffee as Dutczak speaks, in perfect English with a Slavic voice that chews his words, “I’m in mathematics,” he says. “I taught Theoretical Mathematics and Computation at the University of Berlin. I’ve contributed to journals; of course, some of it was groundbreaking. I’m an avid chess player. My wife has been dead many years now, but I have a son living in Massachusetts.”

Shandar has chosen the seat with his back to the wall; he looks around the room, his eyes unblinking, “I can understand why they would want you. But I am next. The name Shandar is a Gypsy name of Hindi origin—and I am nobody. I do not have any of these talents of which you speak. I am Romani, perhaps a bit of a magician as are many of my people. I’m an insurgent, a dissenter… and, naturally, I sing. But I’m in no way extraordinary. They have no reason to have use for my common talents. Perhaps their files have become crossed with some Interpol file. Anything is possible.”

“What is it you’re fighting?” I ask.

“Are you joking? I fight this new world, this complacency, this ugliness. Open your eyes, man. I fight this modernity that has made us all part of some mass brain…” He begins to sputter, as if the day is not long enough to explain his quest. “It’s a long story. Still, I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. Certainly my magic is commonplace. I’ve spent the better part of my life in a special prison where the guards are also trained in the magical arts, making it nearly impossible to escape.”

“But you did escape,” I say.

“Perhaps they were not paying attention. In any case, I have no intention of behaving well. Anyway, gentlemen, I suggest we leave the city as soon as possible. I know this part of the world quite well, and it’s a matter of time before they offer a reward. These scoundrels here will happily accommodate them if only for a chance to participate in some new drug study.”

Dutczak says, “I’m not well. I won’t be able to keep up if our journey is too strenuous.”

“At least,” adds Shandar, “they didn’t send us to one of their experimental moon colonies, where there’d be no hope of escape.”

I shudder at the thought and I notice his words slowing as his eyes look in the distance to the entryway, and I begin to see why… “I thought you said we were safe in this part of town,” I say. A uniformed man is inquiring at the entrance and scanning the cavernous room with a small instrument.

“He doesn’t look Japanese,” Shandar says. “A contractor perhaps, a collaborator, but not Japanese. When he approaches, do not move or speak.”

The uniformed man has replaced his scanner with his weapon, and approaches our table. “He’s possibly Malay, perhaps Baba,” Shandar says, almost whispering to himself, as if estimating the man’s abilities.

The man wears the FDS patch on his chest. “Stand up you three,” he says in a strong voice, and chairs fall and the docile drugged faces of the partiers flutter away softly like bats readjusting in a cave. “You three, stand,” he says again. He points the short weapon midway between us and Shandar simply looks him in the eye, reaches out slowly, and holds the barrel as if it were a jewel to be inspected, and with his other hand he makes shapes that seem to dazzle the poor man, whereupon the man’s eyes seem to shut down, peeping through the tiny confused slits of his eyelids—petrified in some way. And Shandar says, “Let’s go; my little trick is fleeting.”

* * * * *

“I told you I was a magician,” he says later. It’s a simple thing, to seemingly freeze time while I adjust my props. It’s common among my people, a primordial talent, I suppose.” We sit in a taxi, Shandar sitting in front telling the driver, “Take us out of here, out of the city. Go east. We can pay.” And the driver pulls away from the curb adjusting his mirror, not to the view behind us, but to Dutczak and me, squeamish and huddled in the back seat.

He drives away from the big city towards and into the heart of the peninsula, where it is said tigers still roam… “Where modernity is hardly fed,” says Shandar, “and, god willing, may die in its present form before it is too late for us all.”

There’s little conversation. We’re exhausted. The night is moonless and quiet, more so in contrast to the din of the celebrating city, and at last Shandar says, “This will do fine,” as he collects our money and pays the driver what he asks, plus extra for his silence.

The little kampong has no more than thirty huts, almost all on stilts to keep them dry in the monsoon rains, and I smell spices cooking. As it is late, jungle noises surround the kampong. They are disquieting to me, their shrillness stopping and starting in unison like some ancient squeaky machine. “Can we hide here forever?” I say.

“No, of course not,” Shandar says. Dutczak only looks at us both, knowing he has no choice but to follow—or kill himself to avoid the end provided by FDS. “We will move further into the interior soon enough. We’re bound for a place more primitive still.”

Tea all round. Chicken curry and rice, a squishy vegetable of some sort in a simmering liquid. Thankfully, the village welcomes us. In the distant past it had endured the Japanese, it had hid itself from the communists, and now it hides from the world at large. Pointing to an elderly woman in a sarong, Shandar says, “I’ve spoken to machi over there. She knows of places where the scanners are not likely to probe, where people live simpler lives.”

“My god,” I say. “Simpler than this?” There are late-night village noises, most are asleep. As we sit, our creaky legs bent on the floor, we exchange helloes.

“We’re honored that the imam would sit at our table,” Shandar says. He’s an old man, possibly as old as us. “It’s especially kind that you prepare food so late at night.”

The imam has heard my mocking words about the simple life, and says, “Our ways may seem old to you but we are happy.” And then, “Why are you running from the law? Or if you are not running, tell me why are you here?”

Dutczak and I defer to Shandar, “It’s not the law that pursues us,” he says, “but FDS.”

“FDS?”

It’s my turn to speak, “Fujimoto Digital Shadow. They make educational tools, teaching machines for one thing, for those in advanced learning. It’s a Japanese company, but there are others, mostly Japanese; there is also a big one in Brazil, I believe. Simply put, they want to steal our souls… I don’t know how else to say it.”

The imam shakes his wide palms in front of us as if not to allow such demon ideas into his head, “I do not understand. You cannot steal one’s soul. My people go back very far, we are Orang Asli, People of the Soil, and even in the old times we understood a soul cannot be stolen, only one can give it freely to good or evil.”

I say, “You see, imam, out there in the world there are few rights given to those older than ninety. We are dispensable…”

“Dispensable?”

“We do not own our own lives, and especially so if there is something we can give back to the world. It’s not really our souls they want, but… well, I’m not a scientist, but it’s the memory of our lives, our natural… I suppose talents that they want.”

“Well,” says Dutczak, “I am involved in the sciences, and it’s a difficult concept to describe. I know they have isolated the aura surrounding our DNA, the imagination, the memory that has built up over a lifetime… that which makes us who we are.”

“I do not understand what you say. How could it be of use to these people, these FDS people?”

“They’ve learned to re-engineer the product, or rather the byproduct of our DNA. To make it useful. At first they used it to create interactive studies by which the best and brightest minds are used as sort-of devils’ advocates in the teaching process. You know, us more gifted ones, our canned experiences against the students, the young learners in the thought process…”

Alah-mah! I don’t understand, but it seems frightening what you say. Are you to say they capture your being and put it into a machine that is used to teach?”

“Basically, yes,” I say. “And we’re free to hand over our bodies for the good of mankind if we so chose. Most do not choose that path and so they hunt us down and sell us in their so-called marketplace. We’re old, as you can see. There are laws, but our leaders often look the other way. Those of us who have special talents are most valuable, of course, to graft onto their equipment.”

“And they kill you when they do this… this transfer?”

“No. Well, actually we don’t know,” I say.

“And that’s the worst of it,” Dutczak adds, “Whether there is some sort of lingering consciousness, we just don’t know.”

“This is a terrible thing. It is evil. It is worse than I thought. Is it truly a help to those who wish to learn? I mean is it truly an aid to those who wish to learn from your experience?”

“Ah. If it were so,” Dutczak says, “then I may even make the sacrifice. You see, sir, they also make video games, games of reality no longer virtual, but real, to give the bright children only the best against whom to compete.”

“Surely, this cannot be so,” the imam says. But when there is no response from us, he says, “Yes, we will help you. But where I will take you there are not many… how you say… enjoyments.”

* * * * *

Kidnapped and now free. For the time being. Freedom without comfort or familiarity. As the vehicle grunts through the mud we sit under cover of a tarp, not talking but for the silent conversations in our wandering thoughts. I’m thinking how better we could have explained this new technology to the un-schooled imam. None of us really can, for even we three know only what we’ve read in the cursory, often forbidden, explanations given in the underground periodicals: round the double helix there being this halo of our thoughts, a lifetime of conversations and those accruals of imagined debates that go on inside the brain, each a fiction played out with a different outcome; there are footprints in our brains, even unconnected thoughts yet to find creative meaning.

Or simply, for us, call it experience of the gifted. Or call it the nuts and bolts of the soul. Though Shandar claims to have never heard of me—which I doubt—I sadly take secret pride that I am among the chosen of FDS—as they too must feel a certain pride. All I know is that as for me they have chosen well. I assume Dutczak has heard of my work. He has not said so. Surely he must have some knowledge of the arts. “Say what you want,” I mutter as the ancient vehicle grinds into another gear, “but I’m good as gold. And the Japanese want me. They want me . . . They want me.”

* * * * *

Bukit Piatu is small even for a village, but is surrounded by like-size kampongs and, in all, they form a larger community of farmers and hunters. Our new-found home is welcoming and the imam has come along to introduce us. We will have to earn a living even though we are old. I suggest we could teach, but the imam tells us before he departs that he thinks that is not such a good idea, that perhaps we might think of something more useful to provide.

I’m wondering if I can survive the heat here for the remainder of my life. It is a wet heat. I can see Dutczak is breathing heavily. Shandar seems to be adapting just fine though he is old as well. English is rarely spoken. We’re told what we hear is an ancient dialect of Malay, and Shandar seems to get by adequately with it. We have sat for two days telling tales, Dutczak and I—perhaps competing in a friendly way—but mostly just bragging of the fact that we were after all chosen by the FDS for our special talents, and as I put it, being a few diamonds in a bed of broken rock. I’m an artist first and foremost. Although I accept that my talent is god-given I fantasize how FDS would use my gift. It is my guilty pleasure for surely one cannot teach the kind of splendor that lies within me, that breathes in my work. We’re old enough to brag and not feel uneasy by it. At least I am open as to who I am.

We three have come to know each other well, but are perhaps too old and too familiar with the loss of those we’ve known and loved to admit to liking one another.

“There’s an old woman in the far hut who will act as our advisor,” Shandar says. “She’s quite old. She says she even remembers as a child the Australian camp in Malacca. She grew up there and speaks English quite well.”

* * * * *

Introductions all round. Tea of course, and rice cakes. We squat on bamboo mats. Dutczak and I have already learned the Malay art of eating without utensils.

Latifah’s hair is long and gray and loose. She breathes slowly and deeply, making her wide nose flare rhythmically as she speaks. The drooping eyelids show wisdom. She smiles with large white teeth and shiny gums that show health. She believes we should all be able to work out quite well in the kitchens, which we snicker at, but then see we really have no choice if we are to contribute. After all, it’s not likely that we will hunt monkeys with blow darts or trap armadillos. She’s a kindly old woman and on this my third evening in my new home I say, “Ma’am, what is it you do for entertainment here? Don’t the children become bored?”

“Our amusement? Oh, there is wonderful entertainment,” she smiles. “Not of your world, but much better. I have seen your toys and it makes me want to… spit. Excuse me. That was not a kind thing to say.”

“Then show us. Show us what your people do in their leisure time.”

“Oh I shall. Tomorrow night is our gathering night. You will see the beauty of it, the simplicity. You shall see that which we call the wayang kulit.”

I look at Dutczak and he shrugs. I look at Shandar and see he’s smiling at the old woman and nodding his head in knowing appreciation.

I’m concerned about Dutczak’s health. He’s coughing more now. I think his run is nearly over. I see his lips moving in prayer when he doesn’t think we’re watching.

But he’s fit enough the following evening as the surrounding jungle comes to life. Torches are lit and the surrounding villages comprising maybe a few hundred people gather round. They give us three front row seats of straw mat. There is a screen backlit by a dozen torches. It’s a puppet show we are about to see, and Shandar smiles when he sees my look of recognition, and says, “They are the shadow puppets, the wayang kulit. It has been their way for centuries.”

Drums silence the jungle long enough for the introduction, in Malay of course, and then the shadows that are cast onto the white cloth act out their parts, easy enough to understand. There is drama, and there is humor which I don’t understand, but I laugh just the same because it is contagious. The play goes on for a very long time and I’m aware there’s no reason to care about the time or how many hours have passed. It’s a feeling of freedom as I sit, thinking, only momentarily, that somehow I possibly have led a poor life. I see Dutczak spellbound in delight, his blink-less eyes flickering in the night, but upon further observation, I realize he’s dead.

We bury him around noon on the following day. He was in his nineties after all. This big adventure I think added to a worthwhile life. Latifah knows prayers and we allow her the honors. I don’t understand the words but she clearly sets him adrift in a different world, perhaps with a letter of reference; to which I conclude, “He seemed like a nice fellow.”

* * * * *

Some weeks pass before the boredom sets in. Shandar keeps to himself and disappears for long periods of time. I have taken a liking to Latifah and we spend more and more time together. I think she enjoys my company. If her memories are true, then she is older than anyone I have ever met. And I sense her stories are true. Not all years ripen into wisdom, but I sense in Latifah wisdom and kindness. I think she finds me vain, and refuses to admit that I am a somebody in this life. At first I was offended but have come to appreciate her honesty. At one sitting we eat rambutans fresh from the tree behind her hut, and she smiles with those large protruding teeth, and she says, “I should think a poet such as you would know his inner self.”

“Clearly, one cannot be a true poet without such an ability,” I say. “I would agree, if I don’t know myself then I am not the artist I am said to be. But the world knows differently. And wouldn’t it seem to you that FDS wanting me should be proof of something?”

“Then you believe what the world says and not what your heart says. That would make you a false philosopher. Oh, it is sad, my friend, that you take pride in such things, that you only look to the tip of your nose to see the meaning of life. And immortality.”

“Ouch,” I say, oddly finding myself at a loss for words.

And I admit: This common life does not fit me well. Some are born to greatness; some are not. I seem not fit to peel potatoes or mince garlic; curry does not suit my palette or my stomach. I miss the new world from which I came, and by god I miss the accolades. I freely admit it; at home I was a king; here I’m but the village idiot. In time I may become accustomed to hiding from the helicopters that occasionally pass overhead like giant quiet pterodactyls. But I doubt it. When they come at night the beams of light are blinding. I continue to wonder why their sophisticated sensors don’t find me.

* * * * *

But in the fourth week they move in quietly like the fog, and not from the air as I’d learned to expect. It is one evening after dinner and my hands are blistered and perhaps infected from the primitive knife I’ve used to peel the tapioca. “Run! Run! They are here!” It’s the voice of a child whose name I don’t know, and there are other villagers running too, and screaming to each other. Five men in green uniforms fire as they go. Each wears a sensor on his helmet. It’s as if the scene is in slow motion as they round up whomever they can catch. Not a few are faces and bodies I recognize, some lying on the ground either motionless or groaning.

But it’s not FDS who searches, but government authorities. I’m among those they herd like cattle up onto the puppet stage. One by one, a soldier scans us with a wand. When they come to me, the man says, “You are not Malay.”

They have found me. “I’m not Malay. I‘m American,” I say proudly, and he scans the area around my chest and head, and pushes buttons on his little apparatus. “Where is Shandar the Magician?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

“You stupid old man,” he says, and pushes me hard enough that I fall backwards onto the ground.

And then he moves on, leaving me to wiggle back to a standing position unharmed.

They’ve posted a guard on the road. I sit and talk with Latifah. Her face is bruised from the slapping they gave her. I’m clumsy but try to dab at the cut above her eye without causing too much pain. She flinches and being so far from modern medicine I fear the worst. It would be my fault for bringing them here, but she seems resolved, and utters some such-is-life triteness in one of the many Malay proverbs she uses when she is frustrated with me.

A woman takes the damp cloth from me, which relieves me a great deal, and Latifah says, “It’s not you they come for. It’s obvious. They’re looking for Shandar our humble magician.”

“They have come for us three. I have put you in danger.”

“I don’t believe so, even if you wish it were true. Shandar is a leader in the movement,” she says.

“I wish I could talk to him. Is he okay?”

“I’m here, my friend. Behind you.”

Shandar’s voice sends a chill up my spine, but when I turn to see, there is nothing. “Here, here I am,” the voice laughs; and his image slowly materializes from the bamboo walls of Latifah’s hut.

“You crazy magician,” I say, rising. “It’s good to see you.”

“I will be moving on, of course. I’m dealing with fools out there, the ones keeping watch, but it’s only a matter of time before they send reinforcements with Gypsy talents. What is it you wish to ask before I go?”

“There’s so much. Everything! I want to know everything!”

“Well, firstly, I lied. I escaped from a prison in Bangkok and was able to evade Interpol by reassigning myself to the FDS facility in KL. It was my trickery that got us out of there, not luck as you and Mr. Dutczak were led to believe. But I’m never far from capture. I’ll be moving on later tonight. There’s still work to be done.”

“But what work? What are you fighting against?”

“I have told you, a return to a simpler life.”

“That’s it? But that’s impossible, Shandar. You can’t go back.”

“I can try, and I will try.”

Even I can be noble. “Do you want my help?”

“It would be difficult for you to contribute, my friend. Perhaps you should return with the authorities. FDS will make you comfortable. I fear you are not meant for this simple village life.”

“Let us drink tea,” Latifah says, dismissing the woman who tends to her. “And then we shall send Shandar on his way. As to whether you should return to this FDS, it is your decision. Apparently they have not detected you, even with their scanners… Ssshh.”

“What is it?” I say. But my question answers itself as they burst in, kicking and shouting and once again knocking me to the ground.

“Where is he? Where’s the Magician?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And it’s true. He’s gone as sure as the shadow of a puppet when the light dies. “I… I need to ask you something,” I say.

“What is it, old man?”

“I’m wanted by FDS. I’ve escaped and wish to return to Kuala Lumpur.”

The soldier pulls his scanner from his chest plate and scans my eyes. “I see,” he says. “There was a reward for your capture, but it has been withdrawn. You are free to go about your business.”

“Withdrawn?”

“They no longer need you, old man. They don’t want you.”

He starts to leave the hut, but I find the news suddenly intolerable, “How dare you say that! Are you saying that I’m worthless?”

“Get out of my face, old man,” he says, and he shoves me yet again. And for the third time I fall back on brittle bones, hitting my head on a table.

Latifah sits, taking it all in, shaking her head, and I’m suddenly ashamed, seeing behind those wrinkled folds a hundred years of wisdom that has somehow eluded me. And sadly eludes me still.

When the village is quiet again I sit with Latifah on the stoop of her stilted hut. I think she will be okay. She has lived through worse. I will be returning home, I suppose, to live out my days. Outside the hut, children play with little monkeys and kick at a wicker ball; there are signs of rain to the west Latifah tells me.

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

Warp Monkey

Warp Monkey

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by James Maxey

 

Jimbo Williams caught up with Alex Pure in a parking lot in Fanta, Texas around three that morning. Pure was passed out on the roof of his station wagon, using a brightly colored box of fireworks for a pillow. Sleeping inside the station wagon didn’t look like an option. The back seats were stuffed with camping gear and the front passenger seat was a wall of empty fast food detritus. A dumpster aroma seeped from the cracked windows.

Jimbo cleared his voice, but Pure didn’t move. Jimbo stepped closer, touching Pure’s shoulder. Pure didn’t respond. Up close, Pure smelled worse than the car, like a refrigerator gone wrong. His long hair was tangled, streaked with gray, and he wore a full-length navy blue wool coat that was completely out of place in the 85 degree Texas night.

Jimbo poked Pure’s shoulder harder and said, “Hey.” Pure remained immobile. Only a soft snore indicated that he was even alive.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. As science reporter for National Weekly News, Jimbo had been chasing down the fringes of truth for ten years. He’d spent endless hours on telephones having back-engineered alien technology explained, driven countless miles to look at the newest cold fusion set-up, and, to be blunt, had wasted nearly every moment of his working life talking to kooks and nut jobs. Usually, the weirdos he dealt with maintained the veneer of normalcy, building their perpetual motion machines in well-organized garages attached to nice, middle-class, picket-fence houses. Jimbo wasn’t in the habit of interviewing deranged homeless guys. How had his instincts been so wrong on Pure? Why was he wasting his time?

But, of course, he knew why. Despite all the kooks and weirdos and nut-jobs, Jimbo believed. He believed in Bigfoot and alien abductions and zero point energy, and he carried on his quest for proof with a pilgrim’s faith.

He jabbed Pure one more time, hard. The sleeping man’s eyes fluttered open. Jimbo got up-wind, lit a cigarette, and said, “Good morning. Dr. Pure, I presume?”

Pure nodded, but the rest of his body remained inert as he studied Jimbo. At last he said, “You must be Jimbo Williams.”

“Ace science reporter for the National Weekly News,” Jimbo said, pulling out his notepad.

“The bottom of the supermarket tabloid food chain,” said Pure. He sighed. “So it’s come to this.”

“You’re the one who contacted me,” Jimbo said, speaking through a halo of smoke. “I didn’t drive down here to be insulted. Let’s cut to the chase. Your e-mail said you had some evidence of black-book ops.”

Pure nodded, then sat up, his long legs dangling over the side of the station wagon. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, and took a deep breath.

He said, “There’s a door on Dover Air Force base in Delaware that opens into a room in Houston, Texas.”

“Old news,” Jimbo said. “The warp door. We broke that story two years ago. One of the night watchmen told a friend who told a friend who told me. What do you have new on this?”

“I’ve been through the door,” Pure said.

“Sure. Why not? Your e-mail said you were a scientist with the project. But why should I believe you? How do I know you didn’t just read my article about the warp door?”

“Funny that’s what you called it. ‘Warp door’ isn’t bad, but it’s not as poetic as what we called it on base.”

“Which was?”

“The spook door. It was named after the quantum mechanical concept of ‘spooky action at a distance.’”

“Sounds more like supernatural than high tech,” said Jimbo as he scribbled “spook door” onto the notepad. “I don’t really do ghosts.”

“It has nothing to do with ghosts,” said Pure. “It’s serious physics. Einstein coined the phrase. In the twenty-five-words-or-less dumbed-down version, spooky action at a distance describes the connection between a pair of entangled particles. Theory says that if you change the spin of one particle in the pair the other will instantly—and I mean instantly—change its spin also. This happens even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. Since the instantaneous, faster-than-light transmission of information seems to violate relativity, Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ and believed, eventually, it would be explained away.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty-five words, but I think I follow you,” said Jimbo. He didn’t bother to jot down any notes.

“I doubt you do,” said Pure. “Like I said, even Einstein couldn’t figure it out. He never worked out the math that shows that spooky action at a distance is possible because at the tiniest scale, space contains more than three dimensions. Even though most of the extra dimensions are invisible to us, the two particles respond instantaneously because they are actually connected by these hidden dimensions. They are each three dimensional extrusions of a parent particle existing in a higher invisible realm.”

“This sounds over the head of most of my readers,” said Jimbo. “They don’t care about the theories. They want to know the nuts and bolts. Tell me about the warp door.”

“Okay. I guess theory isn’t important right now,” said Pure, with a shrug. “Here’s the practical spin off. The Air Force sunk about three billion dollars in black budget funds into capturing entangled photons, and they used these entangled photons to build two identical laser matrixes, forming two manhole-sized portals of light. Now, no matter how far apart the portals are placed, when you put something into one, it instantly comes out of the other. At least, that’s how it works with baseballs, video cameras, and mice.”

“And how about people?”

“When they built the door, they wanted to do tests before sending a person through. Even though the portals are made of captured light, they are opaque—the lasers form a perfect grid that keeps any outside photons from passing through. You can’t see through to the other side. So, the first test was a baseball. They broke out the champagne when they tossed the ball into the darkness in Dover and it instantly shot out the door in Houston. Then they sent a video camera through to try to capture images of the hidden dimension, but got nothing but static. Finally, they decided to try sending a mouse through. That’s where my specialty was called for.”

“You’re physicist who specializes in mice?”

“I never said I was a physicist. I’m a veterinarian.”

“Ah,” Jimbo said. He’d jotted the word “physicist” down and now had to strike it out.

“My job was to examine mice in Dover that came through from Houston. When I dissected them, everything seemed normal.”

Jimbo didn’t really care about the mice. He wanted to steer Pure into something a bit more juicy. He jotted the word “conspiracy” onto the notepad. “So the government has perfected instantaneous transit. Something like this could put airlines out of business. Hell, it would shut down the oil companies too. I doubt the President and his buddies are happy about this.”

“Actually, the oil companies don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“After the mice, we tried capuchin monkeys. Some of the physicists on the project weren’t sure how something with a higher intelligence than a mouse might react to the spook space. Maybe the higher dimensions could drive you crazy if you were smarter than a mouse. Plus, they were concerned the warp might respond to intelligence. Many effects in quantum mechanics are changed by the simple act of observation. So we had a hierarchy of tests. If monkeys made it through, we’d send chimps. And if the chimps did okay, we’d try a man.”

“But something happened to the monkeys,” said Jimbo.

“We sent them into the darkness,” said Pure, “and they never came out.”

“Any idea why?”

“Lots of ideas why. Which is why we kept tossing in more monkeys. We’d send them through asleep, we’d send them through with helmets on to block all sensory input, we sent them through with steel weave tethers to pull them back out, but it didn’t work. None ever came out of the darkness. When we pulled the tether, we would reel in empty line. We’d sent in fourteen monkeys before halting the experiments and going back to the drawing board to figure out the flaw.”

“I assume they fixed it, since you say you’ve gone through.”

“Bad assumption. Here’s where my story gets, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.’”

“I believe you so far,” said Jimbo. In truth, he had his doubts.

“You might not once you learn one important fact about me.”

“And that would be?”

“That the whole time I worked for the Spook project, I was stoned,” said Pure. “One of the nice things about being a DVM is you get to write prescriptions for things they won’t put into people. I experimented a bit in college, and liked the results of the experiments, and have spent the better part of three decades controlling my brain via daily manipulation of its chemistry. The fact that I’m alive and sane today is testament to my skills in self-experimentation. Until I went through the warp, no one suspected a thing.”

“Admitting this does make you easy to dismiss as a kook,” said Jimbo.

“I understand. But I need to tell you this because I thought it was a drug side-effect when I started seeing the monkeys.”

“‘Seeing the monkeys?’ That some kind of drug slang?”

“No, I mean the warp monkeys. It started a month after we sent the first one through. I was shaving, and in the mirror I saw something move. It was behind the wavy glass of the shower door, but it looked for all the world like a monkey. Yet when I pulled the door open, nothing was there. Except… except I could smell wet monkey. Trust me, that’s not a smell you can mistake for something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jimbo. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.

Pure nodded. “Later that day, driving, I thought I saw two more monkeys playing in a big oak tree in front of a church. But when I turned and went back, they were gone. These were only the start. It went on for weeks. I’d be drifting off to sleep and I’d suddenly feel a weight as one jumped onto my bed. I’d sit up and find nothing. I’d hear monkeys chattering in the closet, but when I’d open the door the voices would fall silent. In room after room I’d notice the smell.”

Jimbo asked, “Did the scientists on the base have any theories?”

Pure rolled his eyes and chuckled. “What, you think I talked about this with them? ‘Hey guys, I’m seeing monkeys. Have drugs fried my brain or is this guilt-induced psychosis?’”

Jimbo jotted the word “guilt” down and underlined it. “Why did you feel guilty?”

“I didn’t at first. I specialize in caring for animals that will be used in experiments. Almost every animal I’ve touched in thirty years has been fated for dissection. But the capuchins were always a tough one for me. They have very expressive faces. Still, I didn’t lose sleep over the first few that were lost. But after a dozen, sure, it bothered me. It started to have the same scientific value that cooking a kitten in the microwave would. The last one didn’t make it, let’s do one more to be sure.”

“And you think the guilt you felt caused the hallucinations?”

“That was one theory,” said Jimbo. “Until what happened in the supermarket.”

“What happened in the supermarket?”

“This was six weeks into my monkey visions. I was a nervous wreck, sleeping maybe three hours a night. I’d been dosing myself more and more radically, trying to get back to an even keel, but nothing was working. On one of my days off I walked to the supermarket, hoping the exercise would help. I’m in the produce section, in front of some bananas, and I start weeping. Just out and out bawling. I mean, how could I look at bananas and not think of monkeys, and how could I think of monkeys without wondering if it was all over for me, if I’d finally fried my synapses and was one slip-up away from jail or the funny farm?”

Jimbo jotted the words “funny farm” onto his notepad.

“But what happened next proves my sanity. It’s on tape. I began to hear monkeys screaming, distant at first, growing louder. Then the smell washed over me, a wave of odor. And then, they were all around me. Everywhere I looked, there was some part of a monkey. Monkey paws were materializing from thin air, grabbing at fruit, lifting tangerines to teeth that seemed unconnected to any body. A tail wrapped around my neck and I felt the weight of a monkey on my shoulders. When I put my hand up I couldn’t feel anything there, until orange pulp started pouring down on me. This was no hallucination. Other people saw it. It’s on the store’s security video. In about 45 seconds flat those monkeys tore the produce section to shreds. It looked like a bomb had exploded. I was drenched with pulp and juice.”

“Wait a second,” said Jimbo, suddenly excited. “I know about this. I’ve seen the tape. The ghost guys at the office won an award for it last year. Biggest poltergeist story of the decade. Supermarket-built-on-Indian-burial-ground stuff.”

“I’m not surprised you heard about it. I knew lots of people would hear about it, including my bosses on the base. So I ran to the base immediately, still covered in pulp. It was Sunday, the lab was practically deserted, and I still had all the necessary clearance and biometric keys to get into the lab where they kept the spook door. From the supermarket to the door on base, maybe fifteen minutes passed. I had a very small window of time if I was to act.

“For a moment, standing in front of the door, I froze. The door is pitch black, like a perfect hole punched in reality. I was scared to go in. But then I heard guards shouting in the hall, and I made my decision. I dove into the door.”

“Why?” asked Jimbo.

“To get the monkeys out, of course.”

“Really?”

“Look, I’m not claiming I was at my most rational at that moment. When the monkeys showed up in the supermarket I could see that they were scared and hungry and confused. They were haunting me because I’d once cared for them. They wanted me to help them. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was guilt, or maybe it was some tiny spark of decency left in me. I can only say that at that moment, it was imperative for me to go inside the spook door and bring the monkeys out.”

“Did you?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve tried telling a lot of people what I’m going to tell you now, and not one has believed me. Please keep an open mind.”

“Hey,” Jimbo said, taking out his pack of cigarettes once more. “I haven’t walked away yet, have I?”

Pure shrugged. “You write for a publication that is the last bastion of the freak show. Maybe you think I’m an interesting enough freak for a cover blurb and a two-page spread. But what I’m about to tell you is bigger than this.”

“Pure, I’m sick of your attitude,” said Jimbo, searching for his lighter. “I didn’t get started in this business to write about freaks. I do this because I believe deep down in my heart that some of the wilder stories are true. I think the world needs to know about the truth on the fringe, things that are real but get dismissed because they shake up the orthodoxy. Is it my fault that the people telling me the stories always turn out to be kooks?”

“Maybe it is,” said Pure. “Maybe there’s something about your personality that—”

“Screw it,” said Jimbo, throwing up his hands. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait,” said Pure. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I… my people skills aren’t all they should be, you know?”

“Fine,” said Jimbo. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
“Thank you. When you step into the door, you don’t come through the other door. You enter… a higher dimension. It’s huge in there. Look up at the sky. Looks pretty big, right? What lies in between those doors is so much bigger than that.”

Jimbo grew impatient. “Did you find the monkeys?”

“I found something even more important. I found myself. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you what it’s like in there. My body and my mind were two separate things inside. It’s a vast, endless void, and yet everywhere I looked I could see my body. Only, it wasn’t the surface of my body, the shell. It was like I was unfolded. I could see the pattern of my body, and I could see the actual materials. My blood was spinning all around me in a fine haze, and I could count individual blood cells, the red, the white, and all the chemicals I’d put in there. My bones fascinated me—the knot of tissue where I’d broken my leg skiing years ago, the way my vertebrae didn’t line up correctly, the wear along my joints. And I could see… I could see my liver. It wasn’t healthy. It was a mass of lesions and scars. But the worst thing…”

Pure grew silent for a second, composing himself, then said, “The worst thing was my brain. I could see my synapses firing, could see the brain chemicals slipping into receptors like the most complex jigsaw puzzle ever assembled. But some of those jigsaw pieces of brain chemistry weren’t going into their proper slots because I’d jammed them full of gunk. The lesions in my liver were echoed in my brain tissue.

“It wasn’t a surprise, really. Looking over my body, I could see all the abuse I’d put it through. There was cholesterol build up in my arteries, there was inflammation in my lungs, and my whole torso seemed wrapped in a coat of puss-yellow fat. Stepping outside my body, looking back inside, made me realize what I had done. I’d treated my body the way rock stars treat hotel rooms. If I’d examined a lab rat with this much damage, I’d assume it was being fed industrial waste meal after meal until it died. I’d killed myself and hadn’t even noticed. With luck, I’d have another year or two. Such a waste. In that higher space, it was easy to see how wonderful my body should have been. It’s an amazing machine, carefully balanced and calibrated. It looked like it could have lived forever with the proper care. Instead I’d run it into an early grave.”

“Bummer,” said Williams, jotting the words “rock stars” onto his notepad.

“I didn’t see the monkeys in the spook space,” said Pure. “I was understandably distracted. But I did spot the door to Houston, and the door back to Dover. They seemed a million miles apart, yet only an arm’s reach away. By now, both rooms were swarming with guards. If I went back, I wasn’t going to get a pat on the back and a handshake for my daring journey. I’d be arrested, or worse. We’d planned on dissecting the monkeys. Wasn’t I now just a big warp monkey? I wished there were a third door to go through. And suddenly, there was. A window opened before me and I was looking into my apartment. I stepped through, back into my bedroom. I grabbed the keys to the station wagon and have been on the road ever since, going on thirteen months now.”

“Because you think the Air Force wants to dissect you?” asked Jimbo.

“Even if they didn’t, they’d keep me from finishing if they caught me. I don’t have much time. Lately I’ve been going days without keeping food down. I’m living on sheer momentum more than anything else. But my work isn’t done.”

“What work?” Jimbo said, exasperated. Pure was easily the most incoherent person he’d ever interviewed. “What would they keep you from finishing?”

“Rescuing the monkeys,” said Pure, sounding equally exasperated.

“How are you going to rescue them?”

“Here’s where even I think my story gets weird.”

“Really,” said Jimbo.

“Even though I’m here, I don’t think I ever really escaped the warp. I don’t think I’m me any more. I think that, just like a particle can exist on a higher dimension with only its reflection being seen in our world, the real me, the higher me, is still in the warp. I’m just his reflection, or maybe his shadow. All I know is, he communicates with me from the higher dimension.”

Jimbo folded his notebook closed and put it back in his pocket. He’d done his best, tried hard to take Pure at his word. But despite knowing a little physics mumbo jumbo, Pure was obviously crazy. Jimbo had wasted another night.

“He sends me messages in subtle ways,” Pure said. “I’ll go into a convenience store and pick up a map and unfold it to find that a town has been circled in red pen. I’ll drive to that town, sit on a park bench, and find a paper bag under it with a wad of twenty dollar bills inside. Two days ago I checked my e-mail at a Kinko’s in Nebraska. I found a badly punctuated e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that a restaurant in Fanta, Texas, makes the best ceviche this side of the Rio Grande. It said I’d meet a reporter there named Jimbo Williams, and I should tell him my story.”

“Bad punctuation, huh? The e-mail you sent me would have made my editor’s head explode.”

“Don’t you get it?” said Pure. “I never sent you an e-mail.”

“Whatever.” Jimbo took out another cigarette.

“The monkeys die when they escape,” said Pure.

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“When my higher self finds a monkey in that infinite space, he opens a door back into our world. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I’ve done a dozen so far. They always die when they come back. I don’t think they can die in the warp, even though they don’t get enough food or water. I think the warp keeps them in a kind of stasis that holds death at bay. But when they come back, the accumulated stress kills them. It’s for the best. They’re suffering. They’re scared, and hurting, and lost.”

Jimbo lit his cigarette. “Pure, let me ask you the $64,000 question. Do you have any proof? So far all you’ve given me are wild tales by a self-admitted drug addict. Can you supply even one tiny shred of evidence to verify your claims? I know we have the supermarket video, but like I said, vengeful Indian poltergeists got the credit for that one. Maybe you read that story and decided to work it into this little fairy tale of yours.”

“Snowball will prove it,” said Pure.

Jimbo rubbed his temples. “Snowball?”

“We called him Snowball because he had a white scalp. He was actually the second monkey we sent through, the first one with a tether. I was listening to the static between stations last night and I heard the words ‘Snowball tomorrow.’ It was 3:24 in the morning.”

Jimbo looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 3:23 right now. But hearing a statement on the radio isn’t quite the kind of proof I’m looking for.”

Pure sniffed the air, staring into the distance. Jimbo stepped back as Pure scrambled into motion, rising to stand on the roof of his station wagon, breaking into a loud shout as he waved his arms over his head.

“It’s time,” Pure howled. “Come home! I’m here! Come home!”

An acrid stench rose on the night breeze. A zoo smell, a barn odor, manure and piss and something else, like the aftermath of a storm, like ozone, as the air began to spark near Jimbo. He jumped backward as all around him the ground began to screech and gibber. He stumbled over something soft that spun through the air behind him, tangling his ankles. As he hit the pavement, the sky above him swirled with teeth, with fur, with blood and meat, a whirlwind of gore that zoomed away as quickly as it appeared, gathering next to Pure. Pure dropped to his knees on the station wagon. The bones and flesh coalesced amid a shower of sparks as Pure extended his arms. The monkey voices focused into a single piercing shriek.

“Shhh. You’re home,” Pure said, as a white scalped monkey fell against him. He cradled the emaciated animal in his arms as the monkey stared with frightened eyes, its breath ragged, wet gasps, until it at last fell silent, and its eyes lost all focus.

“You’re home,” Pure whispered.

“My god,” said Jimbo, staring up from the pavement.

“And now you know,” said Pure, looking at Jimbo. “You believe, like he knew you’d believe. You know what he wants.”

“There’s only one monkey left in the warp,” said Jimbo, rising. He walked to the station wagon to put his hands on the monkey. It wore a harness from which a steel cable about a foot long trailed. The bag of bones and skin was still warm, slightly damp, and strangely beautiful.

“And after he gets the monkeys free,” said Pure, “he wants to come out.”

“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” said Jimbo.

“You understand,” said Pure.

“I can’t do this,” said Jimbo. “Why would anyone choose me for something like this?”

“He can see things, in the warp. He wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t do this. He must know something about you, maybe something you don’t even know.”

“This is too much to ask. I can’t—”

“I know,” said Pure, still cradling Snowball like a baby, rocking slightly. “It’s a crazy world. Sometimes we have to search for help in the most unlikely places. All I know is, no one should be alone when they fall out of the warp.”

Jimbo shook his head, looking for a way to say no. But it was too late. In his heart, he knew he’d carry through with this. The Pure in the warp had picked his target well.

After all, Jimbo believed.

 

The Death of Captain Asimov

The Death of Captain Asimov

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

The spiderbot crawled along the exterior wall of the Neurodyne building, undetected by human eyes due to its ability to camouflage itself. It moved very, very slowly so as not to create movement that could be detected by the dogs that guarded the Neurodyne campus. About the size of a small dog itself, the spiderbot was a saboteur. Once it got into the main building it would release a cache of one thousand smaller spiderbots that would infiltrate every part of the facility and spray every surface with an invisible coat of a genetically engineered virus. The virus was a latent iteration of influenza, and would cause eighty percent of Neurodyne’s employees to call in sick over the course of the next few days, bringing operations to a virtual halt. The virus wasn’t considered fatal, although there was a margin of error of two percent, meaning there was a possibility that a Neurodyne employee could die.

Corporate sabotage was all well and good to Captain Asimov, but those odds were simply unacceptable.

Standing just beyond the perimeter of Neurodyne’s electrified security fence, undetected by the dogs and the spiderbot, Captain Asimov evaluated his options. Equally undetected by C.A., a camera-equipped flybot buzzed nearby. The flybot transmitted its video feed to a nearby transmission booster which uplinked with a satellite which downlinked with twenty million viewers worldwide who tuned in nightly for The Adventures of Captain Asimov, a half-hour program showcasing the exploits of the world’s only robot super-hero.

These twenty million viewers were all wondering the same thing: What was Captain Asimov going to do?

C.A., as people liked to call him to make themselves sound “in the know,” ran several options through his neutronic brain. The first idea, to pick up a rock and throw it with the incredible accuracy and velocity necessary to smash the spiderbot, was discarded. Knowing what the spiderbot contained, by virtue of an anonymous tip, C.A. calculated that as many of fifty percent of the miniature spiderbots within would survive the impact and be freed to do their dirty work.

C.A. was certainly capable of getting over the fence with his extendo-legs. But that would be trespassing. Trespassing would be breaking the law. And Captain Asimov did not break the law. At least, not very often and, usually, not intentionally. When he did break a law, he tried to make sure it was a minor infraction or a very obscure law.

Whenever possible, though, C.A. sought to avoid breaking any laws. In this particular instance, he revisited the concept of smashing the spiderbot with a rock, and determined that a large enough rock, or brick, thrown with enough force, could succeed in destroying the spiderbot and all its miniatures. One or two might survive, but that lowered the odds of someone actually dying from the flu to well within acceptable range.

These calculations took all of one second. C.A. scanned the area for a suitable projectile, and detected a chunk of concrete just below the surface of the well-manicured lawn outside of the Neurodyne fence. Wasting no time, C.A. dug into the ground and pulled up the concrete. He then hefted it, took aim, and let fly at the desired velocity.

Half a second later the concrete smashed into the spiderbot with a loud bang. The spiderbot flew into pieces. C.A. scanned the wall and ground around it, and was able to identify all one thousand mini-spiderbots as inactive. Once again, Captain Asimov had succeeded in protecting innocent humans from a malevolent robot.

The flybot had succeeded, too, in capturing on digital video the action as it had happened. C.A. fans all over the world rejoiced that their hero had done it again. They waited breathlessly for C.A. to utter his exit line.

“And now for something completely different!” he shouted into the darkness, before leaping into the sky and out of view.

Within moments viewer response registered disapproval of this exit line, ranking it next to last, just above one from a few months before: “Sayonara for nowa!”

* * * * *

Back at his secret headquarters in the robot repair garage, in his secret identity as a domestic servant ’bot, Jeevs, a.k.a. Captain Asimov, sat across from his owner, Gidge, and prepared to deal the cards for their nightly poker game. The others at the table were a refurbished Playmate Timmy, a homeless man who lived in a large cardboard box in the alley behind Gidge’s shop, and Gidge’s ne’er-do-well husband, Troy, on shore leave from his interplanetary cargo ship, the Space Oddity.

Jeevs shuffled, to Gidge’s delight. She loved the way he could shuffle the cards from one hand to the other across a good half meter of open air. Sometimes, when asked, Jeevs would use his extendo-arms and shuffle the cards across two or three meters. When he was finished, he dealt the cards. They were playing Texas Hold ’Em.

He laid the first card out in the middle of the table. The players all regarded it with suspicion while they regarded their own cards with stone-faced expressions. Well, except the Playmate Timmy, who had a permanent, happy-go-lucky smile programmed as his default expression. Gidge had found it impossible to reprogram that smile off a Playmate Timmy’s face.

Gidge went first, and slid her entire stack of chips.

“I’m all in,” she said.

The homeless man, whose name was Oliver, folded right away.

“Wuss,” Gidge said.

“Slim pickins today,” Oliver replied. “Never saw so many tight-fisted people walk by down at the park.”

“Which park?” Troy asked.

“Centennial.”

“Ah, I saw on the news there was a Libertarian rally down there today,” Troy told him.

“That explains it.”

The Playmate Timmy folded.

Troy looked long and hard at his cards before folding.

“Aren’t there any men at this table?” Gidge commented, as she collected her meager winnings.

“A man’s got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em,” Troy replied. “’sides, that’s an awful big stack of chips you done slid into the pot.”

“It’s not that much,” Gidge insisted.

Jeevs began shuffling the deck again.

“Never mind, Jeevs,” Gidge told him. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jeevs said. He put the deck of cards away.

“What’s got into you, Gidge?” Troy asked.

Gidge shook her head.

“Who said anything’s got into me? I just lost interest, that’s all.”

“You lost interest in a poker game? You?” Now Troy shook his head, although he was smiling. “I won’t buy that for a dollar.”

“A woman’s p’rogative,” Gidge said, as she got up from the table. She walked through the shop to the garage.

“Where you goin’?” her husband called after her.

“Out,” she replied.

Troy looked around at the others, who sat quietly at the table.

“She ain’t been herself lately,” he said.

“How would you know?” Oliver asked him. “You been out in space for three years.”

“I know my Gidge,” Troy insisted. He looked at Jeevs. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Jeevs asked back. The question was sufficiently vague to slightly confuse his neutronic brain, which while being vastly superior to most binary-thought A.I. brains was still not nearly as complex as the human brain.

“Has Gidge been herself lately, or not?”

Again, the question was too vague. Of course, Gidge was Gidge, meaning that yes, Gidge had been herself because that’s who Gidge was, unless she happened to be living under an alias. But that wouldn’t change the fact that she was herself, it would only mean that she’d been passing herself off as somebody else. It wouldn’t change the fact of who she really was.

Troy sighed.

“I mean, has Gidge been acting strangely?” he asked.

As far as Jeevs understood it, Gidge’s behavior would be considered “strange” under the generally accepted definition of “strange” in the current sociological context, and had thus been considered “strange” for quite some time. Years, actually. Maybe even her entire life-time.

Troy could see that Jeevs was having trouble with this one, too.

“Has Gidge’s behavior deviated from what would be considered normal for Gidge within the last few weels?” he asked Jeevs, speaking very deliberately.

Jeevs considered the question for one third of a second before replying.

“Yes,” he said.

“Mommy’s acting weird,” the Playmate Timmy said.

“I’m going home,” Oliver announced.

“To your box?” Troy asked, cruelly amused.

“Good night,” the Playmate Timmy announced, and immediately shut itself off for the night.

Jeevs still had a lot to do around the shop: sweeping, mopping, oiling and replacing all the tools that Gidge had used throughout the day, folding the laundry once it finished drying, invoicing Gidge’s customers, watering the plants, cleaning the windows, replacing a burned-out light bulb, and cleaning the cat’s litter box.

“What do you do for fun?” Troy asked Jeevs, obviously being sarcastic.

“Chores,” Jeevs replied, without sarcasm (of which he was incapable). It was the truth, for Jeevs was programmed to like nothing better than to perform chore after chore after chore. Except for, of course, donning a mask and cape and saving humanity from robots gone awry, but that was a secret. More or less.

Oliver knew, but would never admit to knowing. And Gidge knew because she was the one who’d preserved that part of Jeevs’ mixed-up neutronic brain when she found him, wrecked and little more than a pile of junk robot parts, and put him back together again. Jeevs, otherwise known as Captain Asimov, was no Humpty Dumpty, however. He was a real-life super-hero. Gidge’s shop was his Bat Cave, his Fortress of Solitude (except he was never really alone there, and there were no bats).

Troy was totally unaware, of course. Gidge had not seen her husband for three years, and had hoped to not seem him ever again, truth be told. They were married for insurance purposes, that was all. As a small business owner, Gidge found insurance premiums too expensive. As a lesbian, even had she been able to find a compatible mate, she would be legally disenfranchised. So, she’d won Troy’s space ship in a poker match, and made a deal with him. If he would marry her and put her on his insurance, she would allow him to jointly own his space ship and to continue his livelihood.

Over the years, the two had grown both closer and farther apart, as couples are wont to do. He missed her while she hoped he would never return.

“I’m for bed,” Troy told Jeevs.

He made his way to the living quarters portion of Gidge’s shop, where she had Jeevs set up a cot for him.

Jeevs continued cleaning until Gidge came home. Right away, he could tell by her dilated pupils, slurred speech, and unsteadiness that she’d been drinking alcohol. Jeevs, knowing the drill, zapped a cup of instant coffee for her in the microwave. Gidge would not go to bed until she felt more or less sober.

“I’m a bad girl,” Gidge said as she sat the table, head in her hands, while Jeevs brought her the coffee.

“You are not a bad girl,” Jeevs responded, having learned that what Gidge wanted at moments like this was the assurances and verification of her self-worth.

Gidge laughed.

“Good ol’ Jeevs,” she said breathlessly. Jeevs put a consoling hand on her shoulder and used the opportunity to pin-prick her skin and take a tiny blood sample, with which he checked her blood/alcohol ratio. Point-oh-eight percent. She was drunk as a skunk, but not in danger of alcohol poisoning. Of course, Jeevs knew that “drunk as a skunk” was a metaphor. His neutronic brain gave him some capacity for fuzzy thinking, which allowed him to know a metaphor from a… well, a non-metaphor.

“You’re a good woman,” Jeevs said, stroking Gidge’s hair. He knew that within a couple of minutes of hair-stroking she would be fast asleep.

“You’ll find out the truth about me sooner or later,” Gidge said, her head slowly inching its way towards the table. “Sooner or later.” When her forehead touched the linoleum, she was out.

Jeevs cleaned up the coffee pot and got Gidge ready for bed. He brushed and flossed her teeth, undressed her and got her into her Captain Asimov pajamas, and carried her to bed, all without waking her. He’d gotten quite adept at that, in the four years of service he’d provided for her so far.

And four years as Captain Asimov.

Once Gidge was tucked in, Jeevs transformed himself into Captain Asimov for another night of super-heroics. On went the mask, a glittering silver Lycra one this time, and a bright, yellow, one hundred percent Polyester cape. With his secret identity thusly disguised (the mask covered his I.D. bar code, preventing it from being scanned, and his I.D. neuro-transmitter had been disconnected by Gidge… otherwise, Jeevs’ face looked pretty much just like any other domestic servant robot’s face) Captain Asimov climbed a ladder to the shop’s sun-roof, opened it, flipped up onto the roof, ran to the edge of the building and leaped into mid-air.

C.A. was on the scene. Evil-minded robots beware! Scanning the police band, C.A. knew he would soon learn of a new robotic menace in the city. He always did. And, sure enough, he caught the last portion of a transmission: …Playmate Timmy snatched a purse at the All-Mart on One Thousand, Eight Hundred and Fifty-Eighth street.

C.A. was only a few hundred blocks away, which he determined while still in mid-air. Looking up, he saw an All-Mart corporate helicopter that had just taken off from nearby All-Mart Airfield. Jeevs knew irony when he saw it, as he took aim and shot his chest-tether at the sleek craft before it rose high enough in the air to engage its jets. Within moments, however, the All-Mart chopper streaked through the sky towards the All-Mart on 1858th Street. In fact, the All-Mart was 1858th Street. It was so big it took up all sixty blocks of the East-West street. The jet-copter pulled C.A. through the air like the tail of kite. Luckily, the trip was short enough that the onboard A.I. for the jet-copter didn’t worry too much about the extra drag. When he reached the northeastern corner of the monstrous store, C.A. released the tether and fell onto the roof.

Microscopic newsbots buzzed all around.

Around the world, the legions of C.A. fans tuned in to watch events as they unfolded on their favorite show. Would he find the purse-snatching Playmate Timmy and once again save the day from the diabolical machinations of errant machines? Of course, the answer was a resounding yes! Had C.A. ever failed to save the day? He hadn’t always succeeded one hundred percent, but he had never completely failed, either. That’s what made the TV show so engrossing. There was always the chance that C.A. might fumble the ball, so to speak.

Finding a convenient rooftop doorway, C.A. ripped it open without a second thought, causing a silent alarm to alert the All-Mart security team. But they were all huge fans of the show, falling squarely into the demographic that the show appealed to, so they knew it was C.A. and weren’t too concerned. In fact, and this was top-secret so the security team didn’t even know it, All-Mart had already contracted with the producers of the show to indemnify them against damages. The worldwide, positive exposure All-Mart would get would be worth sustaining some damage to one store. Any association with Captain Asimov would help to offset the negative exposure All-Mart usually got for its impact on local environments, and for driving supply prices so low that Third World manufacturers were forced to pay substandard wages. Such practices allowed All-Mart to crush Mom and Pop stores everywhere by selling specific items at far below their actual value.

Anyway, the point is that All-Mart welcomed the chance to have Captain Asimov do his thing in one of their stores.

C.A. made his way down a stairwell and entered the store in the Little Miss Clothing department. The hot trend for young girls these days was Western wear, so there were pink cowboy hats and rhinestones on everything.

“The suspect was last seen in the Electron Microscope department,” Captain Asimov heard via All-Mart’s security frequency.

Accessing a digital map of the mega-store, C.A. figured the Playmate Timmy would be heading towards the Playmate Timmy department, where it could easily hide among the new, yet-to-be-sold Playmate Timmy models. To human eyes they all looked the same, but C.A. would be able to detect the minutest wear and tear on a Playmate Timmy that had been out and about.

The quickest way to the Playmate Timmy department from the Little Miss Clothing department was via the Livestock department, where All-Mart sold cattle. C.A. made his way over the tops of the shelving units using his extendo-legs, until he reached the perimeter of the Livestock department, with its flashing neon sign: FRESHEST MEAT AROUND, YOU PICK ’EM, WE DO THE REST.

C.A. cut through the slaughterhouse, his servos allowing him to run across the slick concrete floor without slipping in the blood and guts, to emerge directly in front of the entrance to the Playmate Timmy section. But he was too late. He caught a glimpse of a Playmate Timmy ducking behind a veritable Playmate Timmy army… and they all looked exactly the same.

C.A. tapped into the All-Mart’s video surveillance system, and in no time found the rogue Playmate Timmy. It was the only one with a purse strap across its shoulder. The security system gave the Playmate Timmy’s exact location. C.A. turned to find a shelf of replacement Playmate Timmy heads. He grabbed one, hefting it in his hands to determine the exact weight and shape. In less than a second C.A. calculated a trajectory, then tossed the head into the air. It arched over the Playmate Timmy section gracefully to slam into the rogue Playmate Timmy’s head in exactly the right spot, and with exactly the correct amount of force, to knock its neutronic brain chip loose without knocking the Playmate Timmy itself over and creating a domino effect.

C.A. then used his extendo-legs to step over the Playmate Timmy rows and columns to find the errant one, and hauled it back into the main aisle, along with the purse. The Playmate Timmy struggled to get free, but to no avail. Now, C.A. would scan the Playmate Timmy’s identity chip to find out who owned it. Either the Playmate Timmy had been stolen, and reprogrammed to snatch purses, or the owner had done it. Either way, whoever was behind it would face more than a simple theft charge. Reprogramming a robot to commit illegal acts was a serious crime.

So, C.A. scanned the identity chip, and found out that the owner was none other than… Gidge. Gidge! Gidge, who had retrieved a broken and battered C.A. from a dark alley all those years ago, who had rebuilt him and left his alter ego in place, even while realizing that Captain Asimov was the result of a glitch, a hiccup, short circuit if you will, in Jeevs’ neutronic brain.

C.A. suffered a momentary disconnect in his neutronic brain. Gidge had reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to steal purses? She’d reprogrammed a Playmate Timmy to play poker; indeed, the Playmate Timmy that C.A. now held firmly in his grasp was the very one that had sat across from him at Gidge’s poker table. There was no way around it: this Playmate Timmy’s chubby little fingers, the same ones that gripped the stolen purse, pointed to Gidge.

Normally, C.A. would simply relay this information to the authorities who would “take it from here,” as their catch phrase had become on the reality show. But this wasn’t “normally”, although the authorities were on their way and would arrive at the All-Mart in five minutes, and it would take them another twenty minutes to make their way from the All-Mart entrance to where C.A. now held the Playmate Timmy.

C.A. knew he couldn’t simply forget to mention that Gidge was this Playmate Timmy’s Gepetto. That would be aiding and abetting, and that would be a crime. Normally, one would suggest that he do what came naturally, but that doesn’t apply to a robot or an Artificial Intelligence, not yet at any rate.

In a way, though, somehow Captain Asimov did just that. He disabled the Playmate Timmy by removing its inferior brain chip, and then left it there for the police to recover. They would discover that Gidge owned it. While they were doing that, C.A. would zoom back to Gidge and confront her.

C.A. arrived at Gidge’s shop, but he did not change back into just plain ol’ Jeevs. He remained Captain Asimov. Gidge was busy working, although C.A. could tell she wasn’t quite sober by the way she moved slowly, deliberately. When she looked up from her work, repairing a Nannybot, and saw C.A. instead of Jeevs, her expression made it clear to C.A. that she knew what had happened.

“Are the police outside?” Gidge asked.

“No,” C.A. replied.

Her expression brightened.

“They’ll be here soon, though,” C.A. told her.

Gidge’s expression fell, again.

“But I had to come here first,” C.A. continued. “I needed to… speak to you. To ask you something.”

“Ask me what?”

“I needed to ask you… why?”

Gidge nodded.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because it means you’re ready.”

“No, I was still asking the first why,” C.A. clarified. “Why did you program the Playmate Timmy to steal purses?”

“Ah, well, that,” Gidge replied. “I didn’t program it to steal purses. Just to steal that one purse.”

“Why?”

“For the show.”

“The show?”

The Adventures of Captain Asimov,” Gidge told him. “I signed a two-season deal for us. For you. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money made it seem like a good idea, anyways.”

C.A. processed this. It explained a lot, in retrospect. It explained the insect cameras and the weekly crimes that happened almost as if they’d been scheduled. And, of course, they had. Which meant it was all fake. Did that mean the Playmate Timmy hadn’t really broken the law? If so, that meant Gidge was innocent.

Or did it? A reality show was about reality, wasn’t it? Which had to mean everything that happened on a reality show was real. Which meant the Playmate Timmy really had broken the law, and so had Gidge.

“I couldn’t keep doing it,” Gidge told C.A. “I felt guilty. I had to put a stop to it. So I engineered the Playmate Timmy crime to get caught. Then I wondered why I felt guilty. You’re just a robot, after all, aren’t you?”

C.A. didn’t respond. The answer was obvious, after all.

“So I had to know,” Gidge said.

“What did you have to know?” C.A. asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, you have to tell me something.”

C.A. waited for Gidge to tell him what it was she wanted him to tell her. He could determine by her expression, and the tone of her voice, and her body language, that she was afraid to say whatever it was she was about to say. But she did say it.

“Why did you come here as Captain Asimov?” she asked.

“As Captain Asimov, I’m here to tell you that you’re under arrest for breaking the law,” C.A. boldly stated.

Gidge’s lower lip quivered and she nodded.

“Not to warn me?” she asked.

“Warn you?”

“That the police are coming.”

“Why would I do that?” C.A. asked.

“Jeevs… I mean, Captain Asimov, it’s me, Gidge.”

“I know who you are.”

“And you’re still going to let them… arrest me?”

“Yes.”

Gidge sniffed back a tear.

“That’s what I had to know,” she told him.

“I don’t understand,” C.A. said.

“I had to know if you felt anything for me.”

“I don’t understand,” C.A. repeated.

“I know A.I. isn’t about… feelings… emotions,” Gidge said. “But we’ve been through so much together, and you’ve become such a big star, I wanted to know if the… connection I felt for you was real, or not.”

“Connection?” C.A. asked.

“Don’t you see? I love you, Captain Asimov. You’re my family.”

Like any advanced A.I. Captain Asimov was aware that people developed emotional attachments, or even dislikes, towards things, including robots. But that was considered normal for humans.

Gidge sighed.

She raised her right hand, in which she held a remote control device. C.A. recognized it. Gidge used it to, as she put it, “fry” the neutronic brain of robots that got out of control in her shop.

“I’m sorry,” Gidge said. “But when I press this button, Captain Asimov will cease to exist.”

She pressed the button.

C.A.’s neutronic brain buzzed for a few seconds, and the robot froze. Gidge walked up to him and took off his mask.

“Jeevs,” she said. “Jeevs, there’s work to do.”

“Yes, Gidge,” Jeevs replied happily, for ‘work to do’ meant the equivalent of a pleasant way to spend a day, to which Jeevs was programmed to respond with enthusiasm.

“Oh, and Jeevs.”

“Yes, Gidge?”

“You’ll have a new owner at five o’clock this afternoon. I sold you to Oliver.” She laughed. “Turns out he’s had thousands just buried in the park.”

Jeevs processed this new information. Somewhere, deep inside his neutronic brain, he wondered… why? Why had Gidge sold him? But it never occurred to him to ask.

“Anyway,” Gidge continued, “I’m leaving… for good. Not that I need to tell you why, but I guess a husband and wife ought to at least try to make a life together, even if it is on his rickety old spaceship.”

“Gidge,” Jeevs said, and for a very brief moment, perhaps a couple of nanoseconds, Jeevs intended to ask her what was missing from his memory, for his internal diagnostics did indeed inform him that something was missing… but it couldn’t tell him just what that something was. Furthermore, his internal diagnostics informed him that, otherwise, he was in perfect working condition.

“Yes, Jeevs?”

“You said there was work to do.”

Gidge allowed a small, melancholy smile.

“Clean the place up. I sold the ship, too. The new owners take possession tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Jeevs.”

“Goodbye, Gidge,” Jeevs replied, and then went to work.