The Boy and The Wizard

Once long ago in a far-away land, a wizard came to live on a mountaintop. In a single night, he conjured a fabulous palace and, to conceal his great age and ugliness, he made himself to look like a handsome young prince.

From the beginning, some people in the village below the mountain saw the dark wizard’s twisted smile and malevolent eyes behind the Princely charm. But most villagers welcomed the Prince. Their sons wanted to become knights. Their daughters dreamed of becoming princesses.

But when they sent their happy children to visit the Prince’s palace, the children all returned in fear. It was as if the Prince had stolen all the love and joy from their lives.

So instead of sending children, the villagers sent offerings: sacks of gold and silver from whatever they could sell, food from their gardens, fresh game, fine horses, and the best of their crafts. For years they worked in his vineyards, plowed his fields, prepared his food, did whatever the wizard requested.

Then one day, the wizard demanded that all the young daughters and sons be sent to him. The villagers overcame their fear and angrily stormed the mountain.

To their great surprise, the Prince, the palace and guards, walls, weapons, and sinister beasts withered before them, rising and blowing away like the morning mist. Where once the palace stood, they found only a low altar and a small box of black wood carved with magical symbols. They found no sign of the gold or gifts they’d given.

Slide1The villagers destroyed the altar and took the box, not daring to open it. For it was said the long-dead wizard lived only in his illusion, bound to the dry, taut-skinned skeleton folded within the box.

They appointed a watchman to keep the box. Years passed. The wizard was lost in legend and the box misplaced.

 

Many years later, a poor woman and her son came to live in a run-down cottage at the foot of the mountain. The boy’s father, a woodcutter, had died years earlier and left them penniless. The woman worked, sewing and mending clothes for the village and caring for her son. The boy tended their small garden and patched the roof of their cottage. Times were hard, food ran short, and the woman grew too sick to keep up with her mending.

The boy was clever and ambitious but feared to leave his sick mother alone. One day, he went to the garden and found only two radishes and a turnip. Not wanting to see his mother cry, he went in search of food.

 

A stream flowed from the mountain and ran past their village down into a dark wood. Villagers took water from the stream but never fished or lingered, for it was said to have an ancient curse. Those who tarried along its banks heard voices in the splashing water, and several said they’d seen a handsome Prince bathing.

But the stream was also known to have many fish, and boy and his mother had not eaten a full meal for many days. The boy took a pole, and worms and grubs he’d dug from the garden, and went to the stream. No sooner had he sat on the bank than he heard a call.

“Greetings.” The pleasant male voice flowed from an eddy swirling behind a smooth stone. “You look tired, my son. Perhaps a drink might refresh you, and a bath cool your feet.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said the boy, looking warily for anyone lurking along the bank. “But I must hurry along after I’ve taken a few fish, if that is permitted.” While they spoke, the boy pulled up one good-sized trout after another.

“You are welcome, my son. I am generous and have many fish to share.” A splash curled back into the flow. “But if you must go so soon, let me give you something to go with your fish.”

The grass beside the boy grew tall and weaved a basket. Round stones became loaves of warm brown bread, red apples and tomatoes, and pebbles turned into scallions.

The boy put the four fish he’d caught along with the bread and vegetables into the basket and quickly headed home. As he walked away, the stream crashed its banks. “Come tomorrow,” it said. “You’ll see I have much more for you.”

By the time the boy reached home, the sun had gone down and the cottage was dark. He put the fish in a bucket of water, set the basket of food on the table, and fetched wood for the stove. His mother had gone to bed early, so he decided to wait to surprise her with a meal.

The following morning the boy found his four fish ready to clean and cook, but the basket had become a mat of dead grass piled with stones. The boy prepared the fish for breakfast and decided not to tell his mother about his strange encounter. That afternoon he went back.

The stream called warmly as he approached, “How did you and your mother enjoy the food?” The boy cast his fishing rod and instantly felt a fish on his line. When he removed it, he felt another then another, as fast as he could cast.

“Those were fine gifts,” the boy answered, “and my mother thanks you.”

As they spoke, a young girl walked to the stream with two jugs slung on a pole across her shoulders. The boy watched as she filled the jugs but did not speak. She was the mayor’s beautiful daughter, a delight to the eyes in her blue, white polka-dotted dress and with a smile that outshone sunshine. As she left, she glanced at the boy, and he saw a shy beam of her smile.

“She can be yours, my son,” gurgled the stream. “You deserve her. I can make her come to you and anything else you want. See the glitter in my banks?”

A gold coin shone in the silt and beside it another. Scooping his hand, the boy came up with several coins, gold and silver, bearing images from a kingdom long ago. Forgetting his fear, he followed the coin path down toward the water and filled his pockets.

The boy heard a splash further out and, looking up, saw the mayor’s daughter wadding in the stream. She held her polka dot dress high, keeping it from the rushing water and revealing her long-tapered legs. The boy noticed the water flowing past her legs had no wake or eddy, and her steps made no splash.

He stumbled back onto the bank, collected his fish, and ran for home.

“Come again tomorrow,” called the stream with a gurgled laugh. “I have much more to give you.”

When he got home, he showed the coins to his mother. She turned them over in her hands. Then she told him the legend of the treasure that had never been found, and how a wizard used illusions and false promises to lure his young victims. She forbade him ever to go back.

Next morning, he slipped out early before dawn. He found the stream surging violently when he arrived. “Are you angry, Sir?” he asked. “Perhaps I should not have come.”

“Not at all, my dear boy,” said the stream, its waters becoming suddenly still.

“With your approval then, I’ve come to fish once more.”

“Please do take some of my fish. I am feeling much better now that you have come. I want to give you riches and favors beyond anything you can imagine. Want more gold … see here on my bank.” The boy again filled his pockets, but this time was careful not to enter the water.

“Your gifts are very fine, Sir,” the boy said, willing calm into his voice. “But what more could I wish from your generosity?”

The stream quickened but remained unruffled. “To the one I choose I can give wealth and power, glory and fame. You will live in a palace. All men will envy you, and every girl you see will wish to be in your company. But I cannot do these things here in this place in this form. I must first be restored to my real self.”

The boy cocked his head, eyes wide. “Alas, I am a only a simple country boy with no great powers.”

“Do not worry,” my son. “If you release me, I will give you everything and all power. You can remake the world as you wish. But first you must release me.” As it spoke, a wave swept across the bank revealing the corner of a small black box carved with symbols. The box was covered with silt and water-stained, but when boy lifted it from the bank, it glowed as if newly lacquered and polished.

“Take the box home and open it,” the stream said sternly. “Then I will keep my promise, and you will live happily forever after.”

The boy nodded, tucked the box under his arm, and headed home.

As he neared the cottage, he heard his mother singing and smelled stew boiling on the stove.

Inside he found the mayor’s beautiful daughter standing on a small stool, her arm raised as his mother fit her in a new dress. The girl smiled and lowered her eyes. His heart melted. He touched the girl’s arm, and she touched him back and giggled.

“Keep still,” said his mother through teeth clamped tightly on straight pins.

The boy looked at the black box in his hands then at the boiling stew pot on the roaring wood stove.

Two frail, boney hands reached out, grabbing at his wrists. The boy quickly slid the box into the mouth of the stove. As he pushed the box back with a poker, the boy saw an ancient face scream silently, and watched tongues of fire hungrily claim it.

He turned back to the room, fearful of what he might not see, and sighed with relief. His mother, the mayor’s beautiful daughter, the gold, and the fish he caught remained in sight. They were real.

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Second Chance

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the skyyy,” Kip sang, rocking his shoulders, “… where ahhm gonna go when I diiie.” He never liked the recording until his son sent it to celebrate his second chance—Kip’s sentence being commuted from twenty-five years in prison to five years collecting trash in space.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” He sang, scratched two fingers on the four-day stubble under his chin, and gazed at the wraparound display. Stars stood bright and unblinking in the black. A sliver of moon glowed like a white magnolia petal floating on a midnight pond. He called up the vector lines for incoming space debris. Nothing close to his position was larger than a pinky nail clipping.

Hearing his echo in the hollow operations chamber, Kip laughed then shouted, “… gonna go to the place that’s the best … well that sure as hell ain’t here.” He’d learned his lesson. That’s what he told his son. Next time he’d do different.

He’d volunteered for this, been tested, and done well. Smart was never his problem—least not technical smart. He’d done well in the training, too, not like he was competing against real astronauts. Only convicts got these jobs.

But technically, Kip was an astronaut. He hoped his new skills might translate to something better when he got out. Four more years, he winced. The moniker they gave him, ‘space junkie’, described how he felt—not much improvement over his juvenile sentence ten years ago, six-months collecting bottles, cans, and diapers tossed out on route 41 heading north out of Chicago.

It was all politics. He was getting rehab and a second chance. News feeds never mentioned the state getting money for sending him up, or the fact that no insurance for convicts meant he was cheaper than a machine or a real astronaut.

But running a space station was big responsibility, even if it was a glorified trash compactor. His orbit was the highest of any space junkie, three thousand miles above geosynchronous—which meant out of the money. Pulling in a dead geosynchronous satellite could net him a cool hundred grand plus an insurance bonus. Ease his return to civilian life. All he’d collected out here was busted parts and pieces: access panels, nozzles, machine screws, paint chips, maybe a sheet of silicon off a solar panel. Last year’s big find.

3033a

A quick review of the monitors showed everything in order. His three electro-magnetically formed, nano-fiber trawling nets bellied out like sails on a square-rigged ship. The nitinol talon he’d use if the nets ever snagged anything bigger than a baseball was charged and tucked in its pod.

“Oh, Commander,” the ever-sweet auto-service used the address he’d programmed, “one of your favorite fans wants to contact you.” It was probably Jolene. Kip expected her call. He thought he’d never want to hear from the bitch again, but the chirpy auto-service voice was wearing on him. He paused the music.

“Hey there, baby,” he said. Jolene’s face popped up: blue eye shadow over squinty eyes, ruby-painted lips, and chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. The new crop of lines on her face told him she’d jacked her drug dose.

“Hello yourself, Kipper,” she said, smiling mischief. Kip knew what was coming. “Did you like those sweet goodies I sent in your last supply run?”

“Wasn’t sure how sweet they was. Those Eroti-pop groans yours?”

“Every lick’s a reminder of what you’re missin’ back home.”

“So who’d you fuck makin’ the Eroti-pop recordings?”

“So many I forgot. Once you cleared out, they was linin’ up.” She scowled then flipped her hand and smiled. “Nah, jus’ kiddin’, nobody special. Dickey Ray, he come round last week and brung my regular stuff. Then he stuck round for his usual payment.”

Kip slow tapped the console dash with his fist but kept a tight smile over his clenched teeth. It was Dickey Ray got him here in the first place—him sniffin’ round Jolene and gettin’ into her panties.

Most men knew to keep away from Kip and what was his. He walked around with a hunched swagger and a hard look, a tight-wound spring, set to strike whatever touched him: a hand, a word, any slighting glance or gesture. But Dickey Ray wanted a slice. Kip remembered the morning he got home early from work. Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Sneaking in quiet-like, he heard Jolene in the back, groaning to the steady squeak of bedsprings. That sent him for the ball bat.

In the monitor image Jolene jutted and pooched her lips like she was blowing a trumpet. “Oooo, baby. What’d you expect I’d be crossin’ my legs and keep on missin’ you? I got my needs. Dickey Ray got his. He givin’ me discounts on all my stuff.”

“Thanks for the Eroti-pops.” Kip punched disconnect. His tattoo caught his attention, a blue and red cobra sliding down his arm to a fanged face on his hand. Jolene said it looked like a sock puppet.

“FUCK.” Kip hammered the console. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. How’d I ever let that nasty bitch get to me?” He shook his head like a shiver.

“Oh, Commander,” the auto-service crooned, “something in our net requires your attention … No, it’s gone now. Sorry to disturb you.”

Happy for the distraction, Kip opened the stats window. One of the trawl net tethers reported uneven stress, but the problem had apparently self-corrected. He magnified that area of the net and rechecked the tethers.

The sensors registered no discrepancies and nothing in the net, but there was a meter-wide hole in its center, clean and round as if cut by a laser. What could have made such a hole, and why wasn’t it registering? Kip slacked the tethers on the left side of the net, and the hole slid left. It hadn’t grown or stretched, and the previously holed area appeared healed.

If nothing was in the net, it was a substantial nothing. What … an alien spacecraft? … more likely a secret defense satellite. What had he screwed up now … or found that he shouldn’t? He rechecked the vector scans and history logs. Nothing. Maybe it was a lost satellite. Maybe he’d get a bounty for finding it.

That did it. He couldn’t let it slip away. He considered using the talon gripper, but it was too clumsy, so he collapsed the trawl net and recalled it to the trash-sorting bay.

When Kip entered the bay, he did a double take. The hole appeared to extend through the net and out into space, right through the pressure hull. In the opening he saw a field of stars, yet pressure and atmosphere in the bay remained normal.

On examining the hole from many angles, it appeared to be a sphere. Wherever Kip stood, the opening behind it looked directly into space, and previous holes in the net and hull vanished.

Perhaps it was a window? Kip leaned to peer through it, and it grabbed him.

 

The bay and space station disappeared along with the field of stars and all light. Floating in black with no sensation, Kip touched himself to make sure he still existed. His body parts remained in the right places, but he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. If there was any air, it was not moving and had no discernible temperature.

“Hey,” he shouted, but couldn’t be sure he’d made any sound.

Hair stood on his neck, back, and arms, and the sensation rolled across him like an electro-static wind. Violet appeared, shifted down the spectrum to red, then back half way until it blended to normal visible light. The background remained black. A floor formed under his feet.

“You are a human.” The low monotone voice came from a three-stilted bell jar. Kip wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question.

A second bell jar stilt-walked to join the first and said, “It is a human.”

“I’ve never seen one,” said the first. “What’s it doing on my watch?”

“Must have stumbled into a bubble.” A glow in the bell jar shifted to Kip. “Did you find a bubble?”

“What sort of bubble?” Kip asked.

“Left over from the great blending—a bubble that never became time-space,” said the second bell jar, obviously senior. “Some still float in the human universe. You are from Earth, right?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “I guess your bubble thing got caught in my net.”

The bell jars consulted then transformed in an eye-blink to tall, beautiful humans with flowing hair and complexions of glowing gold.

Wide-eyed, Kip whispered, “You’re angels. I reckon I must be dead.”

“We have been called angels.” The senior’s voice was now melodic and warm. “But you are neither dead nor alive. The great blending of time and space that allowed you and your universe to exist never happened here. This place, our forms and yours are temporary concepts to enable this communication.”

As Kip struggled for words, the first angel answered his unasked question. “Of course, you must return to time and space. Order must be restored.”

Kip felt relief but also saw his dreams of big money vanish. “Kin I keep that bubble? I got salvage rights.”

“It was an anomaly that has been corrected, said the senior angel. “Restoring it to you may cause another disturbance. We’ll send you back to exactly when and where you were before you found the bubble.”

Kip tried another approach. “I’m a might put out by this whole sich’ation. I figger it’s you two what done it, so it’s you two what needs to do some fixin’.”

The two angels looked at one another confused. “What would you require to bring you peace?” asked the senior angel.

“Would it perturb your great cosmic order if I was to go back to some other previous time…say back on Earth a couple years earlier?” Kip said. “There’s somethin’ I need to set right.”

“Free will is built into the human universe,” the senior angel said. “What you do or undo will alter your future, but it will not disturb the greater order.” Kip nodded and indicated the exact place and time he wanted to return.

 

Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Kip walked in quiet like before. The sound of bedsprings and Jolene moaning got his anger up. He remembered her taunting and clenched his fists. Like he told his boy, he’d learned his lesson. This was his second chance and he wasn’t going to screw it up. He slid the ball bat from the corner. This time he’d put his back into it.

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

tianshan-mountains

I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.

Name’s Cole…Morty Cole

“Gotta go,” the girl said, taking a last draw on her half-smoked Pall Mall. She snubbed it out in the molded glass ashtray and hopped out of bed.

Morty marveled at how her upturned nipples jiggled tiny circles when she gestured. She was pretty and cute, he thought, the way a small animal is cute. Her slender ass swayed as she walked to the bathroom. He hoped she’d leave the door open, but she closed and locked it. The shower faucet squeaked, water flowed, and the toilet flushed. Maybe she thought she could find another customer before morning.

The hotel Régale was hosting a cyber technology seminar, and he’d met the girl in the cocktail lounge. She said she was a nursing student and needed money. Name was Laini. Morty didn’t believe her or that she’d be interested in him, a pock-faced, middle-aged man.

He rolled out of bed and pulled on his boxers, noting how his roll of flab hid the elastic. He touched the entertainment panel on the side table. The opening sequence to Trevor Hart Secret Agent burst across the wall display. A big-breasted blond swooned into Trevor Hart’s open arms. Then came a scream, a car crash, an explosion, and a rapid exchange of gunfire. Morty slid down the volume bar.

He clapped a pack of Pall Malls on his hand until a cigarette emerged. Lighting one, he took a long suck and exhaled then checked his watch. Almost midnight. Huh, little nursy-girl made good time.

With one eye on the bathroom door, Morty pulled his sample case from the closet shelf. He pressed the latches and lifted the lid. Inside were quantum processors and optical chips arrayed in tailored slots of black foam. Secure in slot 3Z-7102, the slot normally reserved for standard processors, was the quantum ‘Zuigau’ chip passed to him that afternoon in a discarded Gyro Palace sandwich wrapper.

The exchange in the park had gone almost as planned, except Dr. Ho hadn’t noticed the young man on the park bench pretending to play a video game. The man wore a red Manchester United football jersey. When the doctor tossed his sandwich wrap into the waste bin Morty was pushing, ‘Manchester’ leaped to his feet.

Morty swung the dustpan up, pressed the lever lifting the cover cap, and sent a toxin-laced needle into Manchester’s chest. The man stumbled, grabbed the back of the park bench, and sat for the last time. The needle dissolved quickly. Its pollutant-emulating toxins would be dismissed as confirmation of environmental warnings. No further investigation would be required.

Morty heard the water stop and the shower door slide. He pinched both interior edges of the sample case and lifted the chip display. Below lay the lethal dustpan, a hairpiece and mustache, and fragments of a plastic nose.

“Sir,” the young woman called from the steaming doorway while covering her chest.

“Yes, Laini,” Morty said, securing his case and thinking how strange it was that some women became modest after selling their bodies.

“I can stay the night if you’d like…for a little extra.” She glanced up at the projection. Agent Trevor Hart was one-handing his roadster on a winding road pursued by a convoy of rocket and machinegun-firing spies. “Oh, I just love it when he says,” she deepened her voice, “‘Hart, Trevor Hart,’ and levels those smoldering eyes.”

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Morty wanted company. He always felt lonely and guilt-ridden after wet work. But the girl’s eyes remained glued to the projected action scene, her real interest, he suspected. “That would be wonderful, Laini, but no, I’ll just grab a drink downstairs then turn in.”

She shrugged and came out wrapped in a towel. On the edge of the bed she slipped on her stockings and kept her eyes on the projection—Trevor Hart rewarding himself in the arms of a chesty Italian countess.

Sighing, the girl rested her chin on her pulled-up knees. “A secret agent. It would be great to meet a man like that.” She glanced sideways at Morty.

He nodded.

 

That evening, the Régale lounge bartender asked whom to charge the drinks to. Morty looked straight at him. “The name’s Cole…Morty Cole.” The bartender shrugged and put a vodka martini on his tab.

Fill in the Blank

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things …”  – Through the Looking-Glass

 

Booths on one bare wall of the windowless waiting room were flanked by glass cases on two walls and opposite a single metal door centered on the far wall.

A new human strode boldly from one of the booths toward the exit. It wore red tights and a canary-yellow, breast-peaked T-shirt, and had spiky blue hair, pouty lips, and impossibly blue, saucer eyes. A second human wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie, and beige canvas trousers, walked out more slowly, her face buried in a schematic design for a fusion rocket motor.

“Next, L-F-O-O-Z, you’re next,” a handsome young walrus called from one of the assignment booths. A doughy blob in one of the glass cases looked around. None of the other blobs moved. It looked down at the label on its case. “Yes, you, Lfooz. Please come along. Don’t worry. Your name will change when you get assigned.”

The blob slid over the case wall onto the vinyl tile floor then oozed toward the assignment booth. The walrus official walk-paddled to the other side of a low counter and motioned for Lfooz to slide up. The nested stack of trays on the counter looked like one used to display jeweled earrings for purchase or to distribute communion cups.

“You understand why you’re here? Why this is important?” the walrus official asked, wiggling his close-cropped whiskers. Lfooz wrung itself like a wet towel. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. Do you know what you want to be in life?” Lfooz gave a slow twist.

“These,” the walrus said, setting a display tray in front of Lfooz, “are life choices.” The tray held capsules of all colors. “The one you pick determines your attributes: interests, character, intelligence, sense of humor, skills, and your setting—race, sex, nationality, family background. Some like to call it ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ Once you make your decision, you’ll proceed to birthing, forget your experience here, and live out your life. At life’s end, you’ll transfer to Ever-Endeavor (see explication in “Time Cube”) to harvest the fruits or wretchedness you’ve sown. Shall I show you some of your choices?” The walrus waved a flat flipper over the display trays.

Lfooz pointed a pseudopod. “What me? A walrus? Yah, some choices you only get once in life. I was being cocky—thought if I did something stupid they’d give me a do over.” Lfooz motioned to the door on the bare wall where the women had exited a moment before.

“Those two?” Lfooz’s dough body rose and fell. “You get to drive your life choice out of the showroom, but they’ll still have to go through birth, childhood, and adolescence. Sorry, that’s life.”

He pointed to a red capsule. “This one’s very athletic and doesn’t think too much. It comes in male and female versions, or a mix of both. Fans cheer and mates throw themselves at you. You make a lot of money, cover yourself with tattoos, abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol then die young in a bar fight. Comes with a full guarantee.” When he got no reaction, the walrus pointed to the blue capsule.

“This little baby is brilliant and also comes in male and female makes. It’s an inventor, a creator, makes a boatload of money designing stuff, but doesn’t have much time to spend it or to find mates. It lives a long quiet life with cars and cats for companions. Also guaranteed.” Lfooz rolled two doughy arms together, and the walrus moved on.

“The green capsule provides everything you need: food, housing, medical care, clothes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You spend your days outside, looking at flowers and pigeons, and collecting money from passersby. It’s nondescript, most people won’t care what your sex is and neither will you. Guaranteed.”

The walrus went through the entire stack of trays and choices, and got no reaction. Then he asked, “See anything that interests you?”

Lfooz’s boneless mass rose and fell twice. It extended a dough finger to specific attributes for several capsules: the first, second, fifth, eighteenth, thirty-seventh.

“I see,” said the walrus, “you want a balance, to be a stable, healthy, wise, hard-working, dependable, and friendly person who divides time for family, profession, and other interests.” Lfooz rose and fell slowly.

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“Of course.” The walrus pulled a small cloisonné box from a rear shelf. Within its gold interior was a single white capsule. “This one can provide everything you hope for.”

Lfooz scanned the attributes list, each line followed with a single word “optional,” and pointed to the blank on the last line.

“No, it carries no guarantees.” When Lfooz looked puzzled, the walrus explained. “My mistake, it does have one guarantee. However you arrive in life, whatever your situation, your fate will be determined by decisions you make and the courage you have to see them through. This life starts where it starts and has neither ceiling nor floor.”

Lfooz took the white capsule and walked upright from the booth, determined to take the best of whatever life offered. No guarantees.

Protocol Requires We Not Offend

The salon at La Rochelle was set for high tea. Light streamed in through the greenhouse windows and double doors that opened to the garden. Despite all the occupied tables, the atmosphere remained subdued. Couples conversed, ice clinked in glasses, and birdsong drifted in from the garden. The exception was a petulant robot, a two-year-old child-bot in a highchair, tended by a pair of slim young men.

Gabriella rolled her eyes. “Why bother?” she thought and checked her timer. The image of a blazing Big Ben popped into her mental display. She dismissed it. Roger was habitually tardy. She’d known that for thirty years, but he was her best source of gossip for her weekly “Insider” column.

A French-styled waiter robot rolled up on its uni-ball and served her second cup of Lacadamont tea. Gabriella dusted a pinch of cinnamon over it without tasting and stirred it with a miniature spoon. La Rochelle never got the flavor just right, but she knew her tastes were more refined than most. Gabriella also thought the robot waiter’s pencil-thin black mustache made its lipless mouth appear too severe.

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Ah, there was Roger. She spied him craning his neck over the Columbine-weaved, white lattice partition, and waved. His eyebrows rose as his mouth parted and his hand waved back. Roger looked himself: heavily rouged with ancient Egyptian, kohl-line eyes; glossy, cherry red lipstick; and raven-black hair gathered in a flowing topknot. He wore a full-length, black, satin-lapelled coat and clasped it tightly about himself, exposing only his bare calves and short-heeled, black booties.

“Wonderful to see you Gabriella … you look lovely … one week feels like forever.” They kissed past each other’s cheeks. “Is that Lacadamont … smells delish … oh, Garçons’il vous plait, can you bring me some of this … merci.”

“I warn you, Roger, La Rochelle does a decent Lacadamont, but you’ll have to add cinnamon.” She pointed to the spice bowl. “So, tell me, Roger dear, what is the latest news. I see you’re brimming.” She noticed he hadn’t removed his satin-lapelled coat. “First tell me, are you wearing something special?”

Roger looked sheepish. “I couldn’t find anything to fit, not after my surgery.”

“Surgery? Whatever for? You have such a fine svelte figure.”

“Well, you do know I’m trans-species. Since I meet with all incoming aliens, I want them to know I’m available for their attention.” When Gabriella looked confused, he discreetly opened then closed his coat.

“Is that what I think it is?” She blushed then elevated her tone. “How very fashionable. Of course, being avant-garde means taking a risk. Still alien genitalia are rather outré.”

“Oh, Gabriella. You are my best friend. I just knew you’d approve. Anyway,” he waved his hand, “I felt so inspired, I decided to make the change for each new species: first the Goorm, then the Boija, now the Chiri.

“A Goorm trader told me that aliens had misread the Fermi Paradox, taking it for a ‘Keep Out’ sign. Now that that’s cleared up, more aliens will be coming. So I signed up for my surgeon’s monthly plan.”

Gabriella said, “I heard more Chiri were coming. They’re replacing their scouting team with a regular full embassy. Weren’t you going to be on the reception committee?”

Oh my.” Roger pressed a splayed-fingered hand to his chest. “Oh my starsYes, I was there.” He smacked his lips. “And I was sooo embarrassed.”

The French uni-ball waiter rolled up with menus. Gabriella set them aside, asked for Lacadamont refills, and gave Roger the don’t-hold-anything-back hand curl gesture.

“Well,” Roger continued, “you remember how everyone talked about the Chiri being so modern and open minded? Sure their Scout Leader was a male, but all the executives, all the flight crew, all the scientists and engineers were females, all twenty-six of them … and many were pregnant.” Gabriella nodded and accepted the Lacadamont for both of them.

“Well … the big day came last week. The Chiri ambassador’s limousine landed on the green at Tivoli. We rolled out the red carpet, very proper, very formal. Of course, our Sublime Director was there with the Grand Scientists and the Chief of the Senate. The Chiri Scouts were all lined up in uniform with their Scout Leader out front.” Roger paused, shuddering. Gabriella nodded for him to continue. He took a long breath.

“Well … the new Ambassador ran out … well … naked … down the ramp, full speed and … well he … he dropkicked the Scout Leader with both hooves. Then he proceeded to kick the Scout Leader to death.”

Oh my Lord,” Gabriella protested. “Didn’t the other Chiri stop him? How about the security detail? What did the Director do?”

“Nobody did anything. We all just stood and watched. There’s nothing in the protocol manual.” Roger paused to sip his Lacadamont then waved for Gabriella to slide over the cinnamon. “When the new Ambassador had finished kicking the Scout Leader, the other Chiri turned their backs to him.”

“Shunning him,” Gabriella said with a knowing nod.

One might think, but no. The Ambassador sniffed them all then kicked the pregnant ones, ending their pregnancy. Then he mounted and impregnated all the Chiri Scouts, all twenty-six of them.”

“Oh poor Roger. Whatever did you do?”

“What could I do? … I applauded. The Chiri Scouts applauded. Protocol requires we not offend our guests. I just wish my Goorm friend had told me that kicking was their standard change-of-command procedure. Anyway, you can see why I’m going to be wearing this,” he pulled on his coat lapel, “at least until my tailor finishes my new wardrobe. I don’t want to be confused with a Chiri. If I smell like a male, I’m afraid I’ll be kicked to death. Of course, I don’t want to be a Chiri female either. They didn’t even get kissed.”

“Poor dear Roger, how awful for you,” Gabriella sighed then handed him a menu. “Shall we order now? I think I’ll start with the vichyssoise then go with a Caesar.”

“Oh, that does sound lovely.”

Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

MoonoverWater

Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.