Time Cube

“This is a wonderful garden,” Khima said, scanning the snowcapped mountains across the valley. “What do you call it?”

“Wyoming,” said the other man from his open-air desk on the riverbank. “My father had a place here.”

Dark complexioned Khima had short black hair and wore a cream-colored robe and a low, cylindrical, green cap. The man to whom he spoke was lighter complexioned. He had short white hair and wore a lightning-white tunic. Both men looked about thirty, athletic, and in excellent health.

8560252739_e00f04bdf4_h-700x467“Wy – O – Ming,” Khima murmured, savoring the sound. His eyes followed the water splashing happily over the rocks and the line of pine trees climbing the mountain slope. Grazing mule deer raised their heads at the sound of an eagle screeching then buried them back in the tall grass.

“Have you chosen your garden?” asked the lighter man.

“An island in the Sudd wetlands, the place my father used to take me fishing.”

The lighter man gestured left and a wooden armchair appeared. “Please have a seat. I’ve been looking over your time cube.”

“It’s rather slim,” Khima said, sitting. “I was only six when I died.”

“Time cubes have no required size, and most of them aren’t proper cubes,” the man said, holding Khima’s wafer-thin cube between his fingers. “This has all the events in your life, all the decisions, all the hopes, all the disappointments.” He set the cube in a box with other cubes at the side of his desk. “What do you remember?”

“Besides fishing, my fondest memories are trading in the bazaar with my mother and taking classes at the mission.” Khima’s smile faded to a frown. “My worst was dying. Not death itself, that came quickly, but leaving my family.” The lighter man waved for him to continue.

“My mother and I were visiting her sister outside Mangalla. My father didn’t go with us. He had to stay home and protect the cattle from Murle bandits. That day the Murle raided Mangalla. I was killed fetching water from the well.”

The lighter man nodded. “Welcome to Ever-endeavor and welcome to Time Cube Management.” He pulled the box of cubes over in front of Khima. “We start by training new employees with time cubes from their own life.”

“These are all mine?” Khima asked, looking over the various cubes.

“What was and what might have been,” the man said. “The very thinnest ones were possibilities that never happened because you survived childbirth and recovered from pneumonia. The thicker ones pick up with possible futures if that stray bullet had not struck you.”

He pointed to the tallest time cube. “In this one you live to old age, become an airline pilot, and raise a large family in a prosperous Juba community. As an apprentice manager, you are authorized to visit any point on any time cube, past, present, or future—yours and those you are managing.”

“But nothing will change?” Khima said.

“We can influence choices but not their consequences. There are no guarantees. Even well intended and informed choices may end badly. But knowing what a time cube holds helps us advise those we manage.”

Khima pointed to a dozen brightly colored cubes in a separate section of the box. “Are these mine, too?”

“No, those come from others on your behalf—mostly hopes and dreams.”

Khima turned a fluorescent green cube in his hand. “A dream?” he asked.

The man smiled. “That one is a prayer. When you told your father you wished one day to become a pilot, he prayed it would happen. If you had lived, that prayer may have helped us to guide you. All of these,” he waved his hand over the bright cubes, “exist now only as beautiful lost memories.”

Khima stroked the colorful time cubes with his open hand. “Surely all dreams are not lost. You’ve had successes?”

“Oh, many. And requests come from all over,” said the man in the lightning-white tunic. “Jacob Marley, a man who was already here in Ever-endeavor, asked to go back to warn his old business partner. We gave him permission and sent along three managers with time cubes from his partner’s past, present, and future. That turned out very well.

The light man raised a finger. “Another time, an apprentice manager like yourself became upset that a good man in his charge had lost his way and was contemplating suicide. He gave George Bailey access to time cubes for possible pasts and presents. George came to appreciate that his life had meaning and did just fine after that.

The light man shrugged. “But most of our advice goes unheeded. Everyone who arrives at Ever-endeavor, which everyone must, confronts the choices they made in life and the consequences—for themselves and for others. All the joy and all the pain are here in the time cubes, without deceptions, without masks, no matter how much people hid behind them in life.”

Khima winced. “That could be hell.”

“That is hell. Hell is the pain one inflicted on oneself and on others,” said the light man. “The living can always correct their path, but once here, if they’ve never confronted their shadows, the pain merges permanently to become part of their time cube.”

“Time Cube Managers have a tough job,” Khima said.

“If you find it easier, you can work from your garden and transfer the time cubes there. Where would you like to begin: politicians, businessmen, schoolteachers, priests, drug dealers? You see we have many opportunities.” The man in electric-white pointed, and rows of filing cabinets appeared in columns and lines extending out to the Wyoming horizon.

What is Mok?

“Mok” concludes this series set on Callisto. Previous related stories are: And To All A Good NightCallisto ConfidentialWho’s Out There?; and Dating on Callisto.

“Mok?” Carly asked.

“Mok is an accelerant produced by the adult svitan,” Dakkar said. “It enables them to survive in Callisto’s ocean and to capture prey. The ‘krill’ you caught in the command center’s water filters are the juvenile, free-swimming form of svitan.” Carly flashed a quizzical smile.

“Let me describe it another way. Think of mok as the ultimate stimulant … or perhaps it’s easier to demonstrate.” He pulled a blistered card from an inside jacket pocket. “These are ten-second doses.” He pointed to one of the clear blisters. Can you spare ten seconds out of your life?”

Carly nodded, thinking her answer was obvious. Dakkar tore two sealed blisters from the card and handed one to Carly. “Keep that safe,” he said. She noted how his eyes followed her hand slipping the sealed blister into the top of her dress.

He pressed an aspirin-like tablet from the second blister and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. “This contains a highly-diluted ten-second dose of mok.” He handed the tablet to Carly, motioned for her to swallow it then lifted his teacup and saucer with his free hand.

After two seconds he said, “Prevent this accident.” He dropped the cup of hot tea.

Carly jumped back and felt suddenly light—the heavy burden of Earth’s unaccustomed gravity had vanished. The dropped cup and saucer stood with tea lapping well above the rim, fixed immobile in space. Everything about her, Dakkar across the table, a bird in flight, the leaves rustling in the wind, stood still and silent. Prevent the accident, she remembered, then slid the saucer under the cup and gathered up all the tea.

Two seconds later Dakkar’s pensive frozen face transformed to a smile. “You just experienced ten seconds in one ten-thousandth of a second.”

“It was like frozen time,” Carly said, checking that everything was moving normally. “Wow. I felt detached from reality. I don’t know if I should be elated or frightened.”

“Both are reasonable responses,” Dakkar said. “Mok could be a boon to doctors or rescue teams in emergencies. Imagine a crisis where everyone had time to walk away—”

“Or a one-person hit squad taking out an army.”

“Exactly,” Dakkar said. “But mok has some serious limitations. It accelerates the user but not the appliance. Physical and chemical reactions outside the body aren’t accelerated, vehicles, bullets, and sound move at the same speed. Even undigested food can’t be processed to keep up with the body’s accelerated demand. That’s how the svitan kill their victims, by hyper-accelerating them until their systems collapse.”

“So I couldn’t overdose and live sixty years in a fraction of a second.”

“It might feel like that, but you’d be in a coma. A pure dose from the svitan’s tentacles would crush your systems instantly.”

“However did you discover mok?”

“The Goorm alerted us and made a business proposition. They also helped us with the Callisto harvesting station. They claim to be the greatest traders in the galaxy. When they detected my team experimenting with the Myseko gate, they made contact. Apparently, interstellar regulations prohibit outsiders from harvesting from systems with sentient beings.” Dakkar smiled. “We must have qualified.”

“What are the Goorm like?” Carly asked, consoling herself that her speculations about space aliens and nineteenth century gentlemen weren’t totally in error … there were aliens, and Dakkar was certainly a gentleman.

“We’ve only met them virtually. The Goorm’s nearest trade base is two hundred light years away. They’re a marine species and look like big crabs. All we’ve talked about is business. They want to expand operations in this system.”

Carly lifted her teacup and carefully guided it back onto the saucer. Her hand shook. “This gravity is wearing me down,” she said with a sigh. “I have enjoyed our time together very much and have so many more questions, but I’m afraid I’ll have to call it an evening. Might we continue this another time?”

“Perhaps next week if you are free?”

Carly chuckled and looked up. “Oh, let me see, I’ll have to check my social calendar.”

s-3ae4743a93bf2992e322ff3ed4d7b747f89b3f8bThey laughed and said their farewells. Dakkar apologized for enjoying her company too much to notice how she was tiring. He and Rachit helped her to the dressing room where she changed to her moon suit in Callisto’s lighter gravity. The cabriolet bench reversed its path and soon returned Carly to the command center where she found her dog simulant Heathcliff waiting with wagging tail.

The next morning she felt as stiff as if she’d chopped down a forest. She swore to redouble her exercise routine and get back on her Cal-Pro meds.

Her report to GSA Hargate was the standard yawn: no problems, maintenance checks normal. She complained about food and boredom because that was what she always did. She made no mention of Roger Dakkar, the Goorm, mok, the Myseko gate, or the Callisto cabriolet. Hargate responded with their standard closure, which Carly suspected was a recording. “We’ll look into the problem. Have a good day, Ms. Shellion.”

Two days later, Carly was completing her tasks and anticipating hearing from Dakkar. Suddenly Heathcliff exploded into a dance of barking jumps. The airlock hissed, the lock released, and three GSA security officers stormed in.

A large man with two silver bars on his shoulder stepped into her face. “Ms. Shellion, I have a report that you’ve consorted with the international criminal Roger Dakkar,” he shouted as if she was in another room. “He also goes by the names Raja Dakkar and Regor Rakkad, and at Ohio State University he was registered as a Nigel Westphal.”

Carly shook her head and kept her voice level. “Captain… ahh Jerk-off,” his nametag read Chertov, “I assure you I’ve not been entertaining international criminals on Callisto. I was hoping to open a casino, but GSA’s been late filling the supply requisition.” She scratched her eyebrow with a closed fist and stole a glance at the officers ransacking the room.

“Don’t get cute, Shellion. We have the evidence,” Chertov said. Carly gave an impatient show-me sigh. “The helmet on your moon suit and that rover,” he pointed to Heathcliff at her feet, “they have sensor transmitters.”

Why you little spy you, Carly thought, noting the glassy glimmer in the simulant’s eyes. Heathcliff never saw Dakkar, and I left my helmet in the dressing room when I went to dinner … so Chertov can’t have much evidence.

“We raided Dakkar’s lab and found these,” Chertov said, reading the display on his palm. “It’s the same conveyance you were riding—”

Carly pulled his hand around to look. It was Dakkar’s cabriolet. “That’s the vehicle the Goorm sent for me,” she said. “But I don’t know how Decker, you say, got the plans.”

“His name’s Dakkar,” Chertov shouted. “And who the hell are the Goorm?”

“The space aliens I met with. The ones who built that,” she pointed to the blueprints, “the ones who built the monitoring station beyond the crater wall.” Carly thought her made-up story sounded better than Chertov’s.

“You met space aliens? Excuse me.” He looked at his palm, held it to his ear, and turned away. “Impossible. No. No. Impossible. Our sensors would have picked up something. So what did you find? Nothing. That’s impossible. Okay, but don’t tell the general until I check the orbiting monitors.”

While Chertov talked, Carly eyed his GSA patch; it was velcroed over another insignia. His boots and moon suit were military issue. He said he didn’t want the general told? GSA didn’t have any generals.

Chertov folded his hand, blew out through his pursed lips, and stared down at the floor.

“They’ve gone haven’t they?” Carly feigned a sigh and a disappointed shrug. Without more evidence her contrived story just might hold up. “It was my fault,” she said. “I should have notified GSA as soon as the Goorm contacted me. But I wanted the credit. We had another meeting scheduled next week.” She kept her voice deadpan. “Now that’s screwed up. The Goorm know our history … were skittish about meeting us … wanted me to be their liaison.” She threw up her hands. “Hell, there it all goes. What’s left at their monitoring station?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ice looks like it’s never been disturbed. Isn’t even discolored.” Chertov sat and pressed his forehead into his open hands.

“Want a drink?” Carly asked. He nodded. Then she said, “You guys got here fast. Where’s your unit stationed?” His head snapped up, and his eyes locked with Carly’s. He’d been busted.

“Our Ranger base is orbiting Ganymede. We’ve got too much invested up here to let someone like Dakkar take it.”

“This Dakkar again?” She said and shook her head. “Why would an international criminal come here? What’s in it for him, and where would he get the resources?” Carly asked, as she pulled out a bottle of gin and reached past the cut crystal glasses for plastic cups.

“He’s perfected the Mys—” Chertov stopped then started again. “I just do my job, Ms. Shellion.”

Myseko gate, Carly thought and smiled. She felt a brush on her sleeve and a touch on her hand. Turning it up, she found a folded paper … as if someone too fast to be detected had passed her a note.

She dropped four ice cubes into a plastic cup with four ounces of gin, handed it to Chertov, and excused herself to use the bathroom.

The note was in sepia ink on formal stationary:

Dear Carly,

I’m sorry we have to postpone our dinner. I will contact you when you get back to Earth. Rest assured Rachit will have the martinis and oysters chilled when you arrive.

Your servant,

‘D’

Dating on Callisto

Previous stories in this series: And To All A Good Night ; Callisto Confidential ;  Who’s Out There?

The invitation said the cabriolet would wait five minutes. Carly jumped into her moon suit. She said, “Stay,” to Heathcliff then dashed into the airlock and stopped. Just inside the pressure door stood a metal-frame wood-slatted bench.

She sealed the inner airlock door, depressurized the chamber, and sat on the bench. It backed immediately out through the airlock without the door opening. A near invisible bubble surrounded her and the bench, and separated from the wall of the Command Center bunker. The floating bench stabilized and rotated 180 degrees as the bubble glided away mere inches above the moon’s surface. Oxygen, air pressure, and temperature were benign Earth standard.

Callisto JupiterCarly willed calm, but her senses screamed on panic alert. Leaning back against the bench, she tried to enjoy the ride. The bubble made straight for the object she and Heathcliff had discovered, cresting and descending the ragged crater rim rather than taking the level path. Carly wondered as she scanned Jupiter in the open black sky; how might this look without her helmet?

Ahead Carly saw the smooth chalky protrusion of the metal blister on Callisto’s granular white surface. The bubble kissed the wall of the blister and pushed forward as the wall opened slowly like a waking eyelid. Her bench slid into a hall of closed doors. The wall sealed, and the bubble vanished.

Oxygen, air pressure, and temperature measured acceptable. Carly removed her helmet. Foot stamping told her the gravity remained one eighth that of Earth.

She counted thirty-six closed wooden doors, each with a place name. Most were familiar to her, but Kailash, Aksai Chin, Ladakh, and Tregrosse were not. Only the Virginia door was unlocked and open, deliberately she discovered, finding a hand-written note inviting her to select a dress. Hmm, the dressing room mentioned in the invitation.

All the dresses were fashionable, colorful, and her correct size with shoes to match. Carly laughed. She had no makeup or any way to fix her hair. Cheek pinching and finger combing would have to do. She selected a red satin dress with small black flowers, a scooped neck, and three-quarter sleeves, and low black heels.

A six-panel door with a brass handle opened into a vaulted, sun-lit room. High-stacked windows overlooked a tree-lined valley. She took a breath, held the brass rails on both sides, and stepped out.

She felt the weight increase instantly and locked her arms on the bars like a paraplegic re-learning to walk. Her body swayed, searching for a center of balance.

“Welcome, Miss Shellion,” an accented voice said. She looked up at a dark complexioned man in a white turban, short blue vest, and loose red pants tucked into high boots.

“Please,” he said and extended his arm.

“I just need a moment,” she said, taking his arm and trying a few steps.

“Raja Dakkar waits for you on the terrace.”

“Roger Dakkar?”

“Yes, shall I bring your martini?”

“That would be lovely.” She shifted her hold from the man’s arm to the doorframe and the rail leading out to the terrace.

A tall formally dressed gentleman rushed to her side and helped her to a low seat along the terrace wall.

“Thank you,” Carly said, her legs shivering. The man’s face was dark, his hair raven and brushed back into a mane. He was lean, athletic, and angularly handsome. His obsidian eyes glistened reassuring confidence.

“Mr. Dakkar?”

“Yes, Miss Shellion. It was so good of you to accept my invitation.”

Carly stroked the edge of her chin and found herself lost for words. Still shaking, she took in the Earth-like mountain valley around her, the gentle breeze, and the scent of a forest in summer. The turbaned man brought a tray of martinis, raw oysters, and biscuits. She lifted her glass to Dakkar, he lifted his, and they sipped.

Perfect taste, perfect chill. She looked across the stone terrace wall, up to the tree-lined horizon then down to the valley floor. Every detail perfect.

“I suppose proper etiquette requires we begin with polite banter,” Carly said, finding her voice, “but at the risk of being curt, how can this be? This space inside Jupiter’s moon, your wall-traversing cabriolet moon-walker, this gravity, these fine amenities,” she raised her glass, “thank you very much, this virtual scenery? Are you human? In what century are we?”

Dakkar’s somber expression dissolved into charming smile lines. “I’m quite human, and we’re still working on time travel.” He took a savoring pull on his martini. “I’m afraid that to understand all you’ve seen might require a great deal of unlearning. Physics and philosophy are heavy dinner topics. Might we wait until later, after another drink?” He touched the rim of his martini glass, and the turbaned servant replaced it with a fresh one. Carly waved that hers was fine.

“My name is Roger Dakkar. I am an entrepreneur. I’m here because I have major business concerns on Callisto.”

“Did I hear your servant refer to you as Raja?”

“Rachit worked on my family’s estate in India,” Dakkar said, sliding an oyster from a chilled shell onto a cracker which he handed to Carly. “Do try this. I confess I checked your food preferences before sending you the invitation.”

“You know my food preferences, too?” Carly scowled and ran her hand along the line of her chin. “I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here.”

“I know this was sudden, but I thought explanations would be easier after your visit. Go ahead. Ask me what you will.”

“What is this place? How can it be so … so Earth-like?”

“Because this is Earth.” Dakkar waited for her next question.

“I see,” Carly said and pointed both index fingers. “So you don’t have a time machine, but you do have a teleporter.”

“Not a teleporter, but yes, our Myseko gate operates like a teleporter.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Viktor Myseko is on my discovery team. We discover what is already created. We believe that if one looks for it, the path of discovery is clear. All math and science link to it. Edison and Einstein both talked about following existing paths. Needing to see oneself, one’s institution, or one’s government as the ultimate creator is a great stumbling block.” Dakkar opened his hands and gazed upward. “What you see here is low hanging fruit generously provided. Reach out, and the products present themselves.” He looked into Carly’s wide expression. “Shall we eat?”

Rachit cleared the martinis and oysters and brought the first course of young greens, pecans, sheep’s milk cheese, and tomatoes. Crayfish chowder and seared foie gras followed then the main course of braised Strauss duck.

Carly found out that Roger Dakkar was twenty-nine. His father was Indian and his mother an American from Cincinnati. He had dropped out of Ohio State University and founded a successful software company. He became fabulously wealthy and run afoul of the US government when he refused to reveal his coding techniques. Labeled dangerous and greedy, he escaped the country before his assets could be seized and was joined by a host of similar outcasts.

“Who is John Galt?” Carly teased.

Dakkar laughed. “I believe Ayn Rand had my grandfather in mind when she wrote Atlas Shrugged. They were more than friends for years.”

The dessert was Cherries Jubilee served over vanilla bean ice cream with splinters of dark chocolate on the side.

“Could I—” Carly started to ask for tea as a cup was set beside her and a pot of tea poured. She studied it, lifted it to her nose, and shook her head. “White Bai Hao Yinzhen tea. Mr. Dakkar, you do amaze me.”

“Thank you, Miss Shellion. That was my intent.” He gave a head bow.

“You said your business brought you to Callisto. What business might that be?” Carly asked and took a bite of her ice cream and cherries.

“I hold the interstellar charter to harvest Mok on Callisto,” Dakkar said.

The next story in the Callisto series is: What is Mok?

Who’s Out There?

The immediate predecessor to “Who’s Out There?” – Callisto Confidential

A previous related Callisto story – And To All A Good Night

Carly examined the two martini glasses closely. They were radiant crystal, beautifully cut, and perfectly matched. Under magnification she found no identifying trademarks.

There were also no labels on the gin or vermouth bottles and no markings even on their concave bases. The stoppers expanded when inserted into a bottle’s neck and contracted when torqued for removal. Pulling all the bottles from the packing case, she found at the bottom a small jar of cocktail olives and a white paper envelope.

Carly slid her finger under the envelope’s paper seal. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she said, as she read the invitation.

Dear Miss Carly Shellion,

You are cordially invited to dine with Mister Roger Barca Dakkar at his estate tomorrow evening at seven o’clock p.m. GMT. A cabriolet is being sent to collect you at quarter to seven. It will wait five minutes.

Your servant,

‘D’

P.S. When you leave the dressing room you will want to hold the brass rails with both hands.

The letter was written on formal stationery in sepia fountain pen ink. Hmm, Carly thought, the estate of Roger Barca Dakkar—Esquire, no doubt. She laughed and shouted into the air, “Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are …” Then she whispered, “At least according to Lewis Carroll.”

Carly scooped her stainless Global Space Agency tumbler into the ice maker, added three parts gin to one thimble vermouth, stirred, strained the contents into one of the martini glasses, and added two olives. She pulled her faux leather and aluminum frame chair close under the light, and reread the invitation with the contemplative advantage of gin.

From the angular stylized hand and composition, she might guess the author came from the 19th century. She glanced at the book-marked page of Pride and Prejudice still displayed beside her bunk. Mad indeed.

Carly filed her usual morning report, according to routine. “Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for Callisto Command Center, GSA Jupiter mission. Nothing new to report. Everything is running at optimal.

“The moon rover you sent, which I’m sure you guessed I’m calling Heathcliff, worked perfectly—both as a sensor platform and as a canine companion. Thanks again for that. He’s charging now. I’ll be taking him out on my rounds later.

“That’s all for now. Carly Shellion is signing off.”

She was already having second thoughts about not mentioning her “alien” contact and invitation. What was a cabriolet? A single-axel one-horse carriage, as any romance reader knows … but what was it on Callisto? Why was there a dressing room? And why should she mind the brass railings?

She glanced off the page at Heathcliff sitting expectantly at her feet. Immediately, the dog-simulant moon rover burst into a spinning dance of wags, jumps, and lunges toward the airlock. “Okay boy, time for our walk.”

640-jupiter-from-callisto

Carly ran through the pre-walk safety procedure then stepped out onto Callisto’s surface. The temperature was steady at -142 °C. Non-twinkling rhinestone stars studded the black velvet sky, and Jupiter’s disk shone like an orange tennis-ball above the gray-white ridgeline. Far off on the opposite horizon, the Earth-star and diminished sun felt less significant.

Carly completed her rounds without incident. Although it was almost six hours until dinner, she chose to return to the command center rather than extend her walk. The questions that had haunted her last night provoked disturbing answers.

What did she know? There was another presence on Callisto, and it was probably not from GSA. Could the government have another space program? If so, it was better funded—a well-stocked bar, provisions for unscheduled guests, and who knew what else?

The invitation was a romantic anachronism, handwritten in ancient ink on real stationery. She had no idea these things were still made in this century.

Unable to come up with any logical scenarios, Carly decided she needed to prepare for the illogical extremes.

Aliens were monitoring Earth, probably from a distance of two to three hundred light years. That would explain why they were out of date. Before making contact, they’d studied our language and culture. To avoid misunderstandings, they’d try to mirror Earth social amenities, thus the gifts of glassware and beverages. For first contact, they’d select an isolated person, probably a scientist. They’d watched while we built the Callisto Command Center and built one nearby. And … and they needed handrails, why? It is unlikely that their planet has Callisto’s gravity, one eighth that of Earth. So they installed artificial gravity on this station and are warning me to be prepared. I hope it’s not much greater than Earth’s.

Shaky logic, very shaky, Carly thought, bouncing her fingers together repeatedly on opposite hands. But it connected all the data points.hansom

Considering the opposite extreme, I’m about to meet a nineteenth century gentleman wearing a frock coat and a top hat whose horse and buggy transports him across time and space … or maybe I’ll meet Alice’s Mad Hatter himself.

Heathcliff sprang to his feet and ran barking to the airlock. It was quarter to seven. Her carriage had arrived.

The next story in the Callisto series is: Dating on Callisto

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 2

Continuation from: Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

“My children will not feed for some time.” The lilting voice had become a piercing screech and was now behind him. “So I will store you, and you may contemplate your death a few days longer.”

Ju-lun swung his sword in the new direction, but again it bit only empty air. Strong silk thread snagged his arm and pulled it straight. He struggled but a powerful grip snapped and pinned both of his arms to his waist. Sharp feet poked, spun and wrapped him. This is how my life ends, he thought as each fold swept over him. The soft caress of silk touched his face as the first binding slid across his cheek.

jumping-spider
Lady Zhi’ Zhu at home

“Your silk is very fine, Lady Zhī’ Zhū, the finest I’ve felt.” His voice sounded detached and business-like, as if another was speaking.

“Thank you, noble warrior,” she said, continuing to wrap, “I am a master in silk, but a swordsman such as yourself is not worthy to judge.”

“But I am not a warrior. Like you, I am a master in silk. My mastery is in the dying and painting of silk. I see by this purest whiteness that your wondrous skills do not extend to that art.”

Zhī’ Zhū stopped spinning. “A master in silk dying? How can I believe you?”

“Free my hand and you will see that it is marked by my trade.” He felt the binding on one hand loosen and something like sharp forceps twist it out. A sudden light revealed a hideous head of black spines peering at his hand.

“Last week, my father and I worked with saffron and the purple we extract from a marine snail.”

“You have other colors?”

“Many,” Ju-lun wiggled his fingers, “besides these, we have reds, blues, gold and green, and others we design to customers’ tastes. I specialize in patterns and designs. You will find no greater silk dyers in the Kingdom of Wu, perhaps not in all China.” He noted her interest and timed his pitch. “You, Lady Zhī’ Zhū are the greatest weaver of silk. If you give me the fine threads I now have about me, I will bring you one water buffalo in exchange, or three goats if you prefer. And perhaps, if you are pleased you would accept a contract for future deliveries and my family’s humble services coloring your glorious silk. We desire freedom from the cut-throat dealings of the silkworm merchants. You and your family could settle into a comfortable trade with us as your partners.”

The next morning, Ju-lun stood again before Lord Liu in the throne room of the palace. “Great Lord, I have engaged with Zhī’ Zhū as you ordered. She will trouble the Kingdom of Wu no longer.” Bai giggled and covered her face with her fan.

costumes-ancient-costume-chinese-clothing-ancient-clothing-fairies-dress-classical-dance-costumes-princess-royal1
Lady Zhi’Zhu visiting Ju-Lun at court.

“Is this true, High Counselor?” Lord Liu demanded.

“It is, Great Lord,” Yi Kuo said and bowed low. “By means of—“

“Clever bargain finds target missed by keenest sword,” Ju-lun interrupted. “I shall make myself worthy to be your son-in-law, Lord Liu.”

And so it was that High Lord Liu invited Ju-lun and his parents into his household. Ju-lun and Liu Bai married and had many children. The Kingdom of Wu became the center of China’s silk trade for the next three hundred years. Lord Liu reveled in his family’s good fortune. He never questioned Ju-lun about his bargain or the annual visits of a strange dark woman with long raven hair and great beauty.

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

The silk-lined entrance to Zhī’ Zhū’s lair began as wide as the gate to Lord Liu’s palace and funneled quickly down the jagged passage into her cave. Ju-lun touched the fine lacey silk. It glistened purest white, like frost in the moonlight, and stuck to his hand, strong and taut as a bowstring. A night breeze rustled the Ginko and Katsura leaves and shifted the soft gray and blue moon shadows in the forest.

Ju-lun pulled the Lord’s straight sword from his shoulder harness and cut away the silk. The sword felt unfamiliar in his purple- and saffron-stained hand.

Ten paces in, the tunnel sloped down and narrowed. The hot, charnel stench from below swept away sweet memories of magnolia blossoms in Liu Bai’s beautiful hair. Ju-lun hesitated. He knew he had nowhere else to go.

High Counselor Yi Kuo had found him sitting alone in the garden with Princess Liu Bai. Ju-lun was an unworthy commoner, a silk-dyer’s son marked by his trade. The Lord’s swift justice demanded a walk to the public square to kneel before the axman. But instead Yi Kuo had smiled and led Ju-lun before Lord Liu.

The High Lord too was pleasant. “Ju-lun,” he said, “I see you are a warrior come to claim my daughter Liu Bai for wife. Very well, you shall have your chance.” Ju-lun felt naked before the great lord and feared he would soil his homespun trousers.

Beside her father, Bai looked small and innocent, her face streaked with tears. When Ju-lun glanced at her, she lowered her head.

Counselor Yi Kuo grinned broadly and led Ju-lun from the room. He bade servants to bathe the commoner then gave him the red embroidered tunic and finely crafted sword of a great warrior.

“But I am unworthy, Master Yi,” Ju-lun said. The High Counselor bowed low, his hands clasped at his waist. The gold tassel on his conical cap swung off his shoulder to dangle over his chest. Yi Kuo brushed it back when he stood.chinese-ancient-clothing-costume-terra-cotta-warriors-clothes-costume-armor-costume_640x640

“No, Ju-lun.” Yi Kuo said. “You are most worthy. Your visitation with the Princess means you have accepted Lord Liu’s offer.” When Ju-lun looked confused, Yi Kuo continued. “It is posted at the palace gate and in the marketplace.”

“I do not read,” Ju-lun confessed. “Like my father and his father, I am a humble dye maker and painter of silks, most poor-quality. Our trade takes us to the silk houses, not to the marketplace.”

Yi Kuo nodded. “Lord Liu offers his daughter to anyone who engages Zhī’ Zhū and removes our problem. Of course, if that was not your intent, we can keep your appointment with the axman in the public square.”

Ju-lun shuddered. He knew of Zhī’ Zhū from his mother’s bedtime stories. She would be hungry after her long slumber. “Am I the first to make this journey, Master Yi?”

“Impetuous youth seeking wisdom very late,” Yi Kuo said. “Six have gone before you. All were brave, trained in the art of combat, and all were from great houses. By joining them in eternity, you honor your family. Your name will be remembered in the village, and Zhī’ Zhū will spare us until another full moon. So your death will be a most honorable sacrifice.”

As Ju-lun’s eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave, he detected the blue glow of tiny luminous spiders crawling in the cave’s silk-lined walls. Ju-lun swallowed and continued downward. He tapped his sword high and low ahead of him like a blind man with a cane. Roots and stones met his short steps. He stumbled and touched the wall. A dozen sharp punctures stung his hand. Jerking it back, he peeled away the silk and spiders.

“You are early, young warrior,” a feminine voice beckoned. He felt the hair on his body stand through the sweat that poured down his back and neck. “Lord Liu must be eager to fill our contract.”

Rows of candles flared to reveal a high-vaulted cavern. Silk hangings draped the room like waterfalls of white. A tall, slender woman with long raven hair and great beauty reclined languorously across a contoured bed of stones. Her wide shining eyes and full red lips invited his approach. Ju-lun shook off the attraction and raised his sword.

“I would make your torment short,” the lilting voice said, “but as you can see, I’ve just eaten.” Zhī’ Zhū curled back her lips to reveal rows of triangular white teeth laced with ribbons of torn red flesh. Her mouth sprouted scythe-like fangs at the corners and grew wider. Her eyes expanded beyond their lids and migrated onto her forehead, which sprouted blisters of smaller black eyes. Her powdered white face melted to polished black. Slender legs split to pointed black spindles and split again angling out from her body.

Ju-lun lurched and staggered. The candles hissed and extinguished, plunging the room in darkness. He heard scraping and the rapid taps of needle-sharp feet on stone. Desperately, he swept the dark with his sword. — To be continued next week.

Upgrade

Jinni’s round rosy cheeks glowed with surprise. “You don’t know? School’s where kids go to play games, meet other kids, and paint pictures.” She poured sand from a pink plastic cup into a yellow dump truck half her size. “And sometimes we get to win prizes and eat birthday cake. My mommy says big girls go to school.” She brushed sand off her daisy-embroidered pullover and bright green suspender-pants.

“My mommy says I don’t have to go to school,” MRKI said from the corner of the sandbox. “I can stay home with her and get upgrades.”

“But what about games, you won’t get to play any games?” Jinni sounded distressed. “And if you don’t go I’ll have to go alone.”

“If you want you can still come over to visit me,” MRKI said and tilted her head. “But I’ll be a boy.”

“A boy? Ooo, yucky.” Jinni sounded confused. “Boys are terrible. My mommy says so. And you’re a girl. That’s better.” She pushed back her curls and got sand in her blond hair.

“I can be whatever I want,” MRKI said, smugly. “But next time I get an upgrade maybe I’ll be a girl again.” MRKI nodded smiling until Jinni nodded and smiled back.

“It might be okay to be a boy then,” Jinni said, “but just for a little while. And if I don’t talk to you while you’re a boy, you can tell me about it when you’re a girl again.”

“Okay,” MRKI said, and they both laughed.

“And I’ll be smarter too,” MRKI said. “Not because I’m a boy, but because my mommy is getting me the 5 Upgrade. So I’ll know fractions and logger … logarithms and French and … ahh, ahh, Heidegger. Anyway I’ll be really smart, so you still might not want to talk to me.”

“High digger?” Jinni frowned. MRKI nodded. Jinni returned to spooning sand into her pink cup. “I still get to play games.”

“I don’t have to play games,” MRKI said. “My upgrade remembers me playing games so I don’t have to. And I don’t have to go to the playground … and see mean kids … and get dirty … and I get to wear pretty dresses all the time cause I’m not getting dirty.”

“Dresses? If you’re a boy, you can’t wear dresses. Boy’s don’t wear dresses.” Jinni smirked.

“Yes they do, my mommy says boys can wear dresses, too.”

Jinni stuck out her tongue and walked home.

 

The next morning Jinni’s mother set a blue bowl on a yellow flower-patterned mat for Jinni’s breakfast, arranged a napkin and teaspoon beside it, and poured orange juice into a ceramic cup with a field mouse face on the side and handles like mouse ears.

“Jinni, come down,” she called. “Hurry up, we have to leave for school soon.”

“I don’t want to go to school,” Jinni said, walking in sullen. She climbed onto her seat and took the teaspoon in her round fist.

“What’s wrong, honey. I thought you wanted to go to school and play games with the other kids.”

“No – I – don’t. I want to wear pretty dresses and remember stuff, like, like French and loggers and high diggers.” She frowned up at her mother. “And I want to be a boy.”

Her mother sat back confused. “If you want mommy to get you a computer implant, I can do that. There’s a long wait for gender reassignment, but I can put you on the list. Is that what you want?”

“NO,” Jinni said, pouting. “I want to get upgrades and be just like my best friend, just like MRKI.”

“But Jinni, MRKI’s not alive. MRKI’s a robot.”