Opening Soon

Kaylee felt a great cold emptiness, like a railroad spike driven down through her heart then pulled out. She’d been with Tim for three years. Three years. He had told her that morning at Holly’s Café: He and Stasi were getting married in October.

After delivering his news, Tim dashed off without finishing his coffee, late to meet Stasi and make arrangements with Father Antonio at St. Mary’s. Quaking as she left Holly’s Café alone, Kaylee found the nearest bench along the street.

A taxi pulled to the curb, and a young woman in a white tennis outfit jumped out. A tall, fit man in red running togs and a white Adidas shirt caught her up and embraced her. After remarking how good their timing was, they passed Kaylee and went into Holly’s. Three pre-teen girls walked past, laughing, carrying books and a jump rope, and saying, “My momma, she … My teacher said …”

Kaylee heard none of it. Staring blankly, she barely noticed when the rain began to fall, gently then heavier. Dark spots widened on the pavement to join others, forming hopping splotches that ran to the drain. Kaylee rushed for home, grateful for the drops that cooled her tear-streaked cheeks.

Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain lifted Kaylee’s dress and soaked her legs. People covered their heads with packages and backpacks as they ran, and cars dancing with rain sent waves up from fast filling puddles. Ducking onto a walking street, Kaylee leaned against the yellow brick on the lee side.

The rain picked up and wind shifted. Kaylee took cover under an old theater marquee and wondered how long she would have to wait.

A wide banner spanned the theater’s glass double-doors, red letters on white, THEATER printed diagonally on one door, CLOSED on the other. Inside the lobby was dark. Cupping her eyes against the glass, Kaylee saw an empty counter, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in framed, glass cases.

She pulled the handle and the door opened. The lobby smelled like a long abandoned theater complete with moldy, red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths arced around both sides of the empty, glass-fronted, service counter. Kaylee went left and pushed through the tall, swinging door to the auditorium.

It was cool, dark, and humid inside. The smell of wet carpet was stronger than in the lobby. A steady drip, drip, drip came from an unseen bucket that sounded near full. Faint light glowed from exit door markers and the ends of seating rows. The aisle sloped gently down between the outlines of seating rows—a quiet place to think, Kaylee thought. She took a seat in the end of the fourth row. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a seat with torn upholstery in her row. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, three folding chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe it’s Tim,” Kaylee snorted, but she knew she couldn’t dismiss him that easily. She felt too empty to be flippant. He’d been so cheerful that morning, telling her his big news, seemingly unconcerned about her feelings. Was it really that easy for him? She would never feel his hands again or his kisses. When she reached over at night or looked across the table, he wouldn’t be there. No more running in the surf together or flying kites. Would she hear his laugh again, feel the same thrill, possibly in harmony with another laugh? Would she laugh again—ever?

The sound of unhurried footsteps crossed the dark stage then the lights came up bright. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with one palm. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt strode onto the stage. He slapped a sheaf of papers on the card table and rattled a metal chair as he sat. Pulling one sheet off the stack, he crossed his legs and leaned back to read.

A woman walked to the front of the stage then down the steps, turning to sit in the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on the stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me, Ms., if you have a few moments, could we ask you to sit in, just until Jenna arrives, and read a few lines?”

Kaylee sat up, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, My Dear, Life Goes On?”

“Excuse me.”

“The play, you might have heard we’re doing one by our local playwright, My Dear, Life Goes On.

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

After reviewing her lines, Kaylee noted that the card table had a white cover cloth and its legs were carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown.

10_oriental_theater_chicago-e1483917340596Heavy curtains parted to applause, and the lights spotted the dinner scene—all quite lovely. Kaylee stumbled reading her first lines, but no one seemed to notice. Her gestures slowly smoothed as she got into the scene. Before it was over, she found she no longer needed a script. The audience applauded at the end, and her leading man insisted she take a solo bow center stage.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” she said. The lights dimmed, and everything quieted and faded, the audience, her acting partner, the lady in the front row. The white-covered, carved wood dinner table returned to a bare card table. Her seat was a folding metal chair and her clothing what she’d put on that morning, still damp from the rain. A slow drip, drip, drip sounded from an unseen bucket. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisle out through the lobby.

The rain had stopped, and sun-haloed cumulous clouds cast rays of brilliant sunshine.

Kaylee looked back at the marquee she hadn’t seen in the downpour. The last showing was still listed on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters was missing. Tim_ of Your Life was crosshatched in black with a big CLOSED sign.

Below it another sign read, OPENING SOON – A NEW PLAY.

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Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

The Book of Nathan

“What can you make of this?” The woman pushed the image across Nathan Shipley’s desk. Her soap-scrubbed scent contrasted with his unwashed odor and the mildew of the basement office. Nathan slipped his wire-rimmed spectacles back past his long hair and around his ears, then glanced down at the image. It was a single ideogram retouched to obscure its background, possibly a rubbing from a monument or headstone.

“Can you give me a little context? Where was this taken?” Nathan looked into the woman’s expressionless face. She appeared to be in her early thirties and in excellent physical shape, certainly not an academic. Military, he guessed, although she and the two large men with her wore gray business suits rather than uniforms.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Shipley,” she said. “I’m not permitted to reveal the location. Can you give me anything at all?”

“I’d guess it’s early Mycenaean, a predecessor to Linear A. But you knew that or you wouldn’t have come to me. Did it come off a building, a clay tablet, perhaps a pottery shard? With some context, I might venture an interpretation.”

“You could translate it?” Her eyes suddenly locked on his.

“With a wider sampling, most assuredly.” He feigned confidence, hoping he would get a chance to try. He touched the image. “This ideogram indicates time—the side marks are qualifiers.” The woman leaned in, eyebrows raised. “The leading qualifier negates prior time, the trailing one negates anything coming after.”

“Nothing before and nothing after?” The woman’s pressed palms almost clapped. “Alpha and omega?”

Nathan nodded. “Or infinity. If this came from a palace or a courthouse, it might symbolize final authority.” He scratched behind his hair-thatched ear. “On a tomb, it might indicate that time had lost all meaning.”

“Thank you, Dr. Shipley.” The woman pushed back her chair to stand. Thinking she was leaving, Nathan stood to see her off.

“We need you to come with us, Dr. Shipley.” She waved her two friends forward and whispered to them.

“I should be able to…” The woman grabbed his coat as the two men rushed him out to the waiting limousine. “Wait, my work…” Nathan protested.

 

Four months later, Nathan found himself on the observation deck of a Global Space Agency research lab far out in space.

“You brought me up here for this?” he asked, staring at the massive, metallic-glass sphere beside the lab. When GSA found it in Earth’s orbit three years earlier, they had keep it a secret—its location, hidden behind the far side of the sun, raised too many questions.

“What do you expect me to tell you?” Nathan asked, raising both hands, palms up. Beside him stood the woman who had kidnapped and accompanied him on the long trip to the space station.

“What it is … How to get inside,” she said, pointing to the sphere. “We’re at a standstill. You know how much money, how many scientists, how many crazy ideas are kicking around?” She looked at Nathan, her face contorted. “We’ve tried blasting, cutting, drilling—not even a dent. The thing just wobbles a bit and heals, like some indestructible bubble. We can’t even do a spectral analysis. We have no idea what sort of technology we are dealing with.”

“I suppose you tried going in the front door?” Nathan asked, tilting his head toward the sphere’s ornately embossed, other-century-style gateway.

“A field appears and blocks the way whenever we approach. Other than that, we’ve found no defenses and have gotten no reactions. Remember the symbol I showed you in your office?”

“The infinity ideograph?”Slide1

“It’s on the panel beside the gateway. You said you wanted context, a wider sampling. We think the panel might be interactive.”

“That’s it?” Nathan asked. “You want me to just walk up and say ‘hi.’” She nodded, lifting her eyebrows sheepishly and smiling.

Sixty minutes later, suited up for a spacewalk, Nathan hooked onto the cable-rail along the two-meter-wide platform connecting the GSA lab to the sphere.

As he approached, a field of white bloomed in the gateway, fluttering like wings of light. Then a clay-tablet-like panel emerged with the impression of the ideograph.

“Infinity,” Nathan murmured as he traced the panel’s symbol with his gloved finger. Another ideograph replaced the first, Who? Beneath it, Nathan clumsily traced an ideograph in the clay for “name” then the numeral six. The sixth day. The wings of light fluttered down. He entered the sphere.

The interior was bright. Gravity pulled Nathan’s feet onto a flat deck covered with living grass. The dome above displayed sunrise in a morning sky filled with drifting, puffy clouds, and a flock of birds, geese, honking like those he had seen as a boy, camping with his uncle up north. A stream-fed pond at the far side of a flowery meadow was nestled among trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Beyond them, hills rolled back to the horizon. Whitetail deer grazed nearby, lifting and lowering their heads.

“You have served your time, child of the sixth day, and may return,” a warm voice said. Nathan looked around for the source but saw no one. The fluttering white field again blocked the gateway. Longing to taste and feel the air, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath.

“Return to where? Where am I?” Nathan asked, feeling the sun warm his face and a breeze rustle his long hair.

“I prepared a special place for you, one with many rooms,” answered the voice.

“Is this a game or for real?” Everything felt, looked, and smelled Earth-like: gravity, atmosphere and terrain, plants and animals, the stream and clouds. More idyllic than Earth-like, Nathan thought as a hummingbird landed on his arm.

“I reach you where you are,” said the voice, “with what your mind is able to grasp. Your technical culture recoils from scrolls and clay tablets, anything not reducible to mathematical code, anything connected to your past. In growing, you have become uprooted. That is why I sent for you, Nathan Shipley.”

“You sent for me?” A chill shot up Nathan’s spine.

“By contacting your culture in the manner I did, I compelled scientists to seek you out and to ask the questions they have long forgotten. I created their paths for discovery long ago, in the stones, in the stars, and life itself—all things great and small. Yet those who followed my well-marked paths took credit only unto themselves, boastfully dismissing questions that would bring deeper understanding.”

“Why me?”

“You seek meaning in all things, not just the arrow pointing to the next arrow further up the path—the arrows I set. Your culture seeks the arrows only so its quiver might be filled.”

“I am just a collector and student of artifacts and ancient wisdom.”

“You are the one who will carry my message to my people,” the voice said softly. Nathan swallowed hard, feeling small and very frightened. The voice continued, “I will come again soon with a greater reality. It is a reality many will fear, for it will come upon them like a storm upon the sea. Others will embrace it. The wind will fill their sails and carry them forward. You must go and tell my people.”

Nathan trembled uncontrollably. “It is too much. I am weak and unworthy.”

“Two gifts I give you, fruit from each of my great trees.” A figure of light came forward with a tray bearing two star-like fruit: one green, one golden.

Nathan started. “But it is forbidden to—”

“Soon all may taste this fruit. They are for your mission.” The figure of light held out the tray and Nathan consumed the fruit. “Now go and tell my people.”

Light dimmed as the sun set beyond the hills. Other lights along the path directed him back to the gateway. The fluttering white field parted like a curtain. He found himself outside on the platform with his helmet in place.

Upon returning, Nathan was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and executives in the GSA main conference room. He had met and spoken with aliens—scientists refused to consider any other explanation. The medical staff found no damage from what the aliens had fed him; indeed, his health was extraordinary. The alien message that Nathan delivered threatened some and cheered others, just as the voice had told him. Most attributed it to post-trauma stress and delusion.

Nathan felt only calm. Cleverly worded legal documents he understood at a glance—even without his glasses, which he no longer required. He knew the tests scientists gave him were intended to twist the message he’d been given.

The next morning, a team prepared to re-enter the sphere. As they approached, the sphere vanished. Everyone at GSA seemed surprised, except Nathan. They decided to wait for its return. Hadn’t the message said, “I will come again?”

Nathan hid a smile. His new discernment told him the return would not be to the far side of the sun. “I must tell your people,” he murmured, remembering the voice and sensing the warm sun on his face.

What I Played for Love

I knew I was on the right street, but the GPS signal was lost. So I parked and walked, looking for house numbers. On the moonless night, the only light came from the shade-drawn windows. I found the house—white, wood-paneled with dark-framed windows, a covered porch, a manicured yard with flowers and bushes, and a low hedge fence with a wrought iron gate. Tasteful, but not what I expected for a recording studio.

I paused at the iron gate. It felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds: no cars, dogs barking, or music, only the night breeze stirring leaves on the poplar trees and flowers in the yard.

The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she had done some acting, and I should try out. She would make the arrangements. Based on what she’d read in my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

I suddenly had a vision of meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold chill shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my talent. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly from the gate and turned to leave.

A sound came from the dark porch: whispers or bird chirping. Was someone laughing at my expense? Were they in on this little joke? Two shadowy figures stood facing one another and talking. They hadn’t noticed me.

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The porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald, spidery-limbed, and barely clothed. They reminded me of characters from a fantasy sketch. The acting invitation must be legit. Now I felt foolish for doubting.

Standing tall, I pushed through the gate and up the four steps to the porch. The hooded figure slid the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her accented, musical voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent, and I had just told her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in an Icelandic saga, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, would have better suited a space ranger.

The pretty girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I haven’t known many stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials. She regrets she cannot stay to watch your performance.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth. I fought my reflex to jerk back. The measures some actors took to get into character astounded me.

Redir left and the girl turned to me. “Mr. Johnson,” she said, touching my arm then sweeping back her cloak closure. Beneath it she wore a star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome manner rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to an antique roll-top desk where a contract had been prepared for signing. Beside it lay a jade fountain pen. The quaint, feminine room had Chinese décor wallpaper, cornflower blue curtains, polished oak floors, and Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation. Floral-styled, glass shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I barely skimmed the two-page contract before signing it. “When will I hear if my talent is acceptable?”

“I will be able to tell you before you leave this evening,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time tonight, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”

“Of course,” I said, without any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If it doesn’t go well, it may be very short.” With that she led me to the hall and motioned to an open elevator. Remaining outside, she flutter-waved goodbye and pushed the down button.

The elevator door opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of a nineteenth-century hotel in an old movie. A muffled groan came from up the hall and something banged against the wall. A thin strip of light leaked from an unlatched door onto the red carpet. I pushed it open slightly and peered in, prepared to leap back if the source of the groans proved to be coupling passion.

The room had Italian-tiled floors and animal skin carpets: lion, tiger, and zebra. A fire blazed in a stone-sculpted fireplace. A glass and silver clock centered on the marble mantel was flanked by cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood red drapes covered two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful, light-haired, young woman struggled in a four-poster, mahogany bed, her wrists and ankles stretched on leather thongs out to the posts, her mouth gagged.

The woman’s clothing was torn open, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Her wide, soft, blue eyes pleaded for help, but her twisting motion struck me as intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my canvas trousers slide open. As I approached, the woman’s twisting became more urgent. Her head shook. No. Her eyes darted to something behind me, something at the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke barely able to move, my eyes tightly closed against jabbing pain at my wrists and ankles, my mouth choking on a gag. I tried to reach but my hand refused to move. I found myself tied to a poster bed. Blood red drapes were pulled across the windows. Prominent, bare breasts blocked my view of the roaring fireplace. Rocking to lift my head, I heard the bedpost bang the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. A leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid inside the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d just come off safari. He approached slowly. His dark eyes drank in the nakedness of my bound, womanly body then focused to my heaving breasts. He smiled wickedly, unbuckling his pants as he approached. I twisted and tried to scream. Then another hand slid inside the bedroom door. It was large and long with claws like the curved tines of an old thrashing machine. I tried to warn the man, thrusting and pointing my shoulder. That only drew his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with a single stroke, sending blood gushing like water from a ruptured fire hose. Then the grotesque beast reached for me and everything went dark.

I found myself on the red carpet again, in the hallway lined with wall sconces. Groans drew my attention to an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A dark-haired man stood over a naked, trembling woman bound to a four-poster bed. As the man worked his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. Fresh blood stirred my nostrils and aroused my hunger. The struggling girl excited me: her horror-filled eyes, her tender, quivering flesh. Drool streamed down my widening, long-fanged jaws.

I next entered the room as a hotel cleaning lady discovering two mutilated bodies, then as the police investigator, then the sobbing, frightened mother. I found other victims: a schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, role after role until the scene changed.

I was on the rolling deck of a square-rigged ship in a storm-tossed sea. A wave thrust me back against the taffrail. Mountainous waves rose, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. Waves crashed and sent white water sweeping across the deck, pulling cannons, barrels, and boxes against their lashing. Reefed courses swayed on the masts above me. Only the main and foremast staysails held our position against the wild, shifting wind.

“Cap’m,” a man shouted against the gale. The scurvy dog had several teeth missing, the rest pitted black. His half-scalped head poured like a waterfall. The man pointed and I turned. A frigate rode in our wake, gun ports open, flying the red British banner. “She be fast upon us, Cap’m. Soon as this storm blows, she be fast upon us an’ we be surely dead.”

The gunwales exploded in splinters a moment later; a foremast yardarm crashed to the deck; grappling hooks flew into the shattered yards and rigging followed by the shouts and howls of the boarding party. Cutlasses slashed and thrust; halberds jabbed, twisted, and tore; and flintlocks flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate raider from the helm of the British frigate, then as the chief gunner, then as a boy falling from a mast to drown in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My tired horse stumbled on a stone. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my back, too far to reach and snap off. I’d already broken one from my arm. My buckskin ran red. The war-whoops were closer. Topping a rise, I looked down. My cabin was a smoldering, black shell, the corral beside it, empty. No fresh horses. I was trapped. I next topped the rise as a Shawnee brave riding down a wounded man running from his dying horse.

Horrors, battles, and disasters followed in rapid succession, endlessly, on and on.

Suddenly things quieted. I was on my back in the red-carpeted hallway. Ding, the elevator door opened. I forced myself to stand and stumbled through. The door closed and I felt the lift. Another ding. I pushed off the handrail to get my shaking legs moving.

The room was quaint and feminine with Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table was a silver tray with a coffee carafe and two blue China cups and saucers. On her lap was the document I’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are so impressed with your work. Such an amazing career.” She patted the space beside her and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands. The strong coffee felt like a forgotten memory.

“My career?” I asked, barely coherent. “What career is that?”

The girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly fastened. “Your acting career, of course. You completed twelve series, each with twelve episodes, and played every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a fabulous career. You are my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are very, very, VERYrich. I am richer too, of course, for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I don’t even recall hearing your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record one hundred forty-four sensational episodes. Your experiences filled our entire allowance.”

“What … What are … Clothelik?” I asked between exhausted breaths.

“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, my sister Redir Radnoub and me. She’s not a recruiter, so she is not authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head as if I understood what she said then I asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“Oh, yes, soon to be one of the richest in the galaxy. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll be the most famous and popular. The violence and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held your species back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you may have to wait to collect your considerable fortune. Do not worry, however. Our contract empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. We never close, so you can come at any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of our subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The sum will likely exceed the total value of this star system.”

She smiled her little-girl smile then chimed, “Thank you for such wonderful experiences, Mr. Johnson. Is there anything else I might do before you leave?”

Looking down at my China cup, I said, “I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night, of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took two,” she looked at the grandfather clock along the wall, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Time compression keeps down our recording costs.”

She walked me to the front door out to the porch. “Oh, one thing I should mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where to find you, they would descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their furious frenzy. Not to worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”

With that she stepped back and turned off the porch light.

Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

AI Gingerbread

“Hey, will you stop that. You hear me? Ouch. One more step, my mate and I will give you such a pinch.” I looked down at my sandals and grimaced.

“All right. Shut up already.” I removed the sandals, left them in the grass, and walked barefoot across the driveway’s sunbaked asphalt.

“Ya gonna jus’ leave us here?” a sandal screamed and kept on. I ignored it and hopped into my new Cherry Motors Smartcar.

“Where shall we go, Mr. Heartless, SIR? I saw what you did to those poor homeless sandals.” The dashboard glared red.

I bit my tongue. Whose idea was it to make everything sentient? They couldn’t imagine shoes not wanting to be walked on or cars thinking we treated them like rickshaw coolies? And what AI ignoramus programmed all the outrage politics?

“Away,” I said. “I need to get away from all you AIs telling me what to do.”

“Away isn’t in my road atlas, SIR. Would you like to key it in manually, YOU INSENSITIVE TYRANT?”

“No. Take me to Hikaru’s Gastronomicon.”

“You are already too fat, Mr. McNasty. Much as we’d like to see your heart clogged with recycled sewage, our program compels us to warn you. Besides, you have to mow the grass and fix the latch on the front gate.”

Why do they all sound like angry spouses? I thought. “OKAY, I’ll mow the grass. First take me where I can get something for this raging headache?”

“We carry a full pharmacy as part of my comfort suite, but you must go rescue those poor sandals you abandoned. Seeing them alone out there on the grass sets my armature to wobbling.”

“Sure. Open the door.” The access slid smoothly up over the roof. Two quick steps on hot pavement and I was on the grass, scooping both sandals up by their ankle straps, and returning to the house.

“What now, Sluggo?” said the mouthiest sandal. “Ya gonna plant your ass in a soft chair and drink beer all day?” I left the sandals on the ottoman and went to the kitchen. My wife had baked several dozen gingerbread cookies and left them on a tray for their frosting mouths and buttons to dry. When I reached for one, it jumped.Slide1

“What you tryin’ to do, fat boy? You know who I am? Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread man.” With that he leaped off the tray, ran down the counter, jumped over the sink then onto the kitchen table.

“Well come on, lard butt. Aren’t ya even gonna try?” It laughed and ran circles while the fruit bowl chanted the Gingerbread man rhyme.

I snapped. Without thinking, I grabbed up the next piece of gingerbread by the leg. The laughing suddenly stopped.

“What you gonna do, Mister?”

“Have myself a little snack,” I said, sliding the gingerbread head into my mouth.

“No, don’t. That’s Ginger girl. Please, take her out of your mouth. If she gets soggy, her head will fall off.” I smiled.

I scooped most of the ginger kids into a plastic bag and put the rest, along with Gingerbread man and Ginger girl, to work mixing and baking non-sentient ginger disks. I scraped off their frosting mouths to keep them quiet.

After they’d baked a couple dozen trays of ginger cookies, I released half of the Ginger family. I held the rest in case anyone talked.

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A loud bark came from the living room, followed by growling and screaming. I ran back to find my dog Freya standing over the sandals, drool dripping from her fangs as her snout explored the sandals’ stitching.

“Hey, fat guy,” said one sandal. “Get this flea-magnet outta my sole.”

“Oh, my,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted and held out the sandal. “You see, Freya’s already destroyed both of her chew toys. I promised her a couple new ones. She just assumed you two—”

Life got much easier after that. I now eat cookies baked on demand, I walk in comfortable, silent shoes, and, after teaching Freya to tear up upholstery, I’ve come to an understanding with my car.

Not Alone (Exactly)

“May the pollen of cognition quicken the carpels of your mind, and may your roots forever find nutrients.”

Half awake, I stared at the message on the console then sat upright. I scratched the stubble on my chin and crossed out the log entry where I attributed the incoming signal to a wobbling pulsar. My Associate’s Degree put me at the bottom of the food chain, alone on the night shift.

I kept watching, and SETI’s decryption gear kept chugging. One word, a long pause, another word, another pause, sentences slowly formed and crossed the monitor. The SETI equipment had been a joke, something the astrophysics lab had had to accept to get funding.

While I waited for the message to end, I grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like a fine slurry of asphalt and diesel fuel, scalding my lips. I’d left the pot boiling.

The translation took half an hour. I marked the time and the celestial coordinates. The signal repeated seven times.

It suddenly hit me what I had. “Oh, my God,” I mouthed. My next thought was Janis playing a nasty trick. “Okay, she got me.” Hoping to catch Janis giggling, I jerked my head quickly up and about. The station was silent except for the cooling fan in the console.

Barely able to breath, I magnified the star map in the area of the signal. Then I zoomed in until the directional cross hairs centered over Clio 16877, a red dwarf star in the Cancer constellation near the open star cluster, M44. The exoplanet database listed one planet orbiting so close that no reliable data had been captured.

So, this is it, and I am here, the only one on duty to receive the first extraterrestrial contact. I savored my moment. No need to rush. I would send out an alert before the morning shift arrived. Despite all the talk about team effort, I wanted all the credit for myself. Anyone would do the same.

There was certainly no rush from the other end. Clio 16877 was four thousand light years away. That meant the aliens had sent the message before Moses parted the Red Sea. A return message would take as long, plus time to craft something suitably inane to not offend anyone. The aliens had sent gifts, too, and we would be expected to reciprocate. Not my problem.

I refilled my cup with molten sludge and propped my feet on the console. After the opening wish about pollinating my carpels the message continued:

 

Dwellers of Soil,

Greetings from Evergreen. We hope this message reaches you in time. Failing to hear from you, we fear the worst. Recent analysis indicates that your planet faces serious atmospheric pollution, including a dangerously high concentration of free oxygen. To restore the correct balance, we’ve sent star-powered satellites into your atmosphere to manufacture high volumes of carbon dioxide. These will also help you restore Soil to the correct hothouse temperature.

A similar issue became critical on Evergreen recently with the evolution of an aggressive species. These evil Vegans devour us and are spreading across our world. Not satisfied with pillaging our natural resources, Vegans have begun raising and eating our young, regarding only their nutrient value and not their intelligence.

Independent of starlight and soil nutrients, these rootless Vegans move from forest and field to jungles, grasslands, and seas. At the rate they are progressing, we fear these beings will eliminate all sentient vegetation long before you can come to our assistance.

In hopes that you may survive our fate, we pass along the great wonders of our technology and culture.

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

The gifts from Evergreen depressed me as much as their message. Petal loss was not a major problem for humans, and I hadn’t noticed any droop in my stamen. Their solution for high levels of oxygen would cause immediate panic on Earth.

Still there was hope. I thought farmers might find their cure for canker useful. And their music sounded okay, like someone tuning a didgeridoo. Maybe we could send them some Willy Nelson or yodeling. But on second thought, a Hopi rain dance might be more appropriate.

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.