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’

Callisto Confidential

“Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for the GSA Jupiter mission, Callisto Command Center. I know the solar storm took down your comms last month, so I’ll just read the list of what happened.” She affected her best cheerful expression.

“I replaced Jamaal as C3 station monitor. He left on the return module two weeks ago. He looked fine. The GSA handyman showed up last week and got the food synthesizer working. Jamaal put that repair order in fifteen months ago.

“Tell Jamaal I appreciate his recipe for Callisto krill cakes and his technique for scraping them off the water filters. He got pretty desperate without the food synthesizer. Last night I fed krill into it. Krill steaks taste better than the ones made from protein paste. Only thing missing was a good martini. If you guys really want to cheer me up, add gin and vermouth to the next supply run.

“Best news. Before the handyman left, he put together the moon rover you wanted me to test. I ran the diagnostics and got it up and running this morning. As you can see, everything on “Rover” checks out. Carly swiveled back to give the sensor a clear view. “Heathcliff, can you say something for the Hargate team?”

“Rrrruh, rrrruh.” The sensor tilted to find the source of the barking—a large black Labrador retriever sitting with a toothy grin. Carly jumped down to hug the simulated animal.

“Thank you so much for modeling the rover after my dog.” She looked up into the sensor. “You even programmed in the commands I taught him. I’ll test the sensors when we do the rounds outside.”

She smiled, signed out, and leaned back in her chair. No human visitors were scheduled to arrive for two years. No supply ship for nine months. She stroked rover Heathcliff’s ears.

Jamaal had warned her about the solitude and said GSA’s only interest was in making a profit. He was sure if anything interesting happened, GSA would send one of their boys to take credit. One time he got so lonely that he almost made something up just to get a visitor. Carly was pretty certain his complaining was responsible for her getting Heathcliff.

“Let’s go boy.” The simulant responded with instant wiggling and tail wagging at the prospect of going outside for a walk. It raced her to the moon-suit locker, crossing and re-crossing the room’s threshold several times. Carly suited up helmet to boots, checked the oxygen, pressed in a charged capacitor, added another to her side pouch, and climbed the stairs to the airlock.

She checked the suit’s seals, oxygen flow, and temperature before venturing out. Heathcliff, undaunted by the minus 142 degree centigrade temperature, dashed past her and began sniffing chemical samples.

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Approaching Callisto with Ganymede and Jupiter in the background

Callisto’s rock and ice surface was broken with sharp-ridged craters never smoothed by erosion. Hanging on the horizon to Carly’s right, Jupiter’s orange striped disk looked twice the size of Earth’s moon. To her left, the sun was a distant searchlight, and Earth a pinpoint.

From the command center, Carly rounded past the antenna farm, the water pump and electrolysis plant, the oxygen and hydrogen storage facilities, the additive manufacturing plant, the garage and motor pool, and finally the fusion power reactor. Heathcliff loped along, sniffing and — God bless the engineers’ sense of humor — lifting a leg to every vertical surface.

Everything was in order. GSA’s automated systems picked up any leaking, pressure drops, disconnections, or system failures, but the operations manual insisted on daily inspections. Carly didn’t mind. Even in gravity one eighth that of Earth, she wanted the exercise. More than that she needed to look at a horizon further off than C3’s eight-meter diameter.

Glancing back, she decided she wasn’t ready to go in. “Shall we walk a little further?” she asked. Heathcliff’s tail wagging accelerated. “Good boy.” She leaned down and stroked the simulant’s neck with her wide gloved hands. This would be her first excursion. Jamaal said beyond what he’d seen in the original survey records, he had no idea what was out there. He preferred virtual entertainment close to his home base.

So with Heathcliff at her side, Carly headed for the nearest rise. The walk was not strenuous; she had learned the low-gravity glide-walk, and Cal-Pro meds kept her strength up. But she didn’t want to risk tearing anything on the sharp outcroppings.

Heathcliff zigzagged ahead of her, sniffing and lifting. After a kilometer, she arced right, planning to follow the crater ridge and keep arcing until she got back. Jupiter was her reference.

Heathcliff suddenly became rigid, pointing with his muzzle. “What is it boy?” Carly stroked the simulant’s neck. “Hrrruu, hrrruu, hrrruu,” it growled and looked back to her. “Go ahead, boy. Show me what you found.”

She waved the simulant ahead, and he took off, his nose-sensor pressed down. Carly followed him around the base of one crater into a valley it created with another. She found him sitting beside a dome barely higher than himself.

The dome’s smoothness contrasted with the sharp ridges of the terrain, but its white tone blended perfectly. Carly’s first impression was that they’d stumbled upon a pressure dome. That seemed unlikely in light of Callisto’s lack of geologic activity, but the consequences of something like that bursting could be instant ice encasement. She walked around its base, twelve by seven meters, an ellipse. It appeared to widen below the surface.

“Leroy,” she called the engineering tractor by the designator Jamaal had given it, “would you bring me the radar surveillance module.”

“Yo, my man, be right witch’a.” Carly laughed. She’d forgotten Jamaal had programmed Leroy to sound like an old high school buddy.

Leroy arrived three minutes later. Ice-penetrating radar showed an ellipsoid fifty-eight by at least thirty-three meters buried mostly under the ice. Its hull—for that’s what Carly decided it was—was an iron-carbon-beryllium alloy of metallic glass.

Could such a thing have come from Earth? If it was man-made, it was more advanced than anything she had ever seen. But she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d check it out before she sounded any sort of alien alert. Jamaal’s words came to her, Find anything interesting … GSA’s gonna send up one of their chosen boys to take credit.

What was she to do? This was certainly interesting. She shrugged and inadvertently swept a glove across the ellipsoid’s smooth surface. An electrical shock ran up her arm. She pulled back. She touched the object again. It was vibrating. She stepped several paces back. Nothing more happened.

“Leroy,” she turned to the tractor, “lift back to camp?”

“Right on, baby. You an’ that bad boy jus’ get on up.”

Three hours later, Carly still hadn’t found any report about a Callisto-bound or stranded space module, escape pod, planet monitor, sensor package—

Suddenly, Heathcliff barked, ran to the airlock, and started jumping. Back home when her Lab did that, she knew a stranger was at the door. She regretted not insisting the handyman put cameras around the perimeter.

She dressed quickly and raced through the airlocks. There on the stoop she found an environmentally sealed container, about a meter on each side and half-a-meter high. Against her better judgment, she brought it into the Callisto Command Center control room.

She stared at it, afraid to open it, afraid not to. Curiosity overcame fear. Inside she found six large and two smaller bottles of clear liquids, all without markings. Tucked beside the bottles were two stemmed glasses with funneled bowls. She unscrewed a large bottle, dipped a finger, and tasted it. Gin … her last request to the Hargate engineers.

GSA’ll send someone to take credit. “Not on my watch,” she said aloud. She laughed and hoisted the two martini glasses. “Looks like someone around here wants to be invited over.”

The next story in the Callisto series is Who’s Out There?

Aliens Among Us

Have you seen recent TV shows, movies, or magazine articles about animal intelligence? What you think about this probably depends on your point of view. Hardline Humanists might begrudge any intelligence—human or animal—that fails their hubristic standards. Perhaps they see themselves as separate from nature, beings apart, “noble in reason … infinite in faculty!” (Hamlet Act II, Scene 2) If dogs were as hubristic as humans, there would be ‘Dogists’. They’d see Hamlet as frivolous and look down their snouts at our poor scent tracking ability.

I’m not a Humanist. My God-created universe is filled with creatures with talents and missions different from mine—all animals, not just the cuddly, wide-eyed, furry ones or the ones that sing pretty songs. My wife, Carole, has caught me talking to worms, spiders, and snakes, and I confess to attempting conversations with many others. I don’t expect them to understand or talk back, but one never knows. Maybe animals understand us better than we understand ourselves.

st-francis-blessing-of-the-animals
St. Francis blessing the animals.

THE SQUIRREL: It was a hot afternoon in July. While uncoiling the hose to water our parched garden, I saw something move in the boxwood beside the house. I backed into the yard, and the creature, a small squirrel, stumbled out after me. I’d heard warnings about rabid animals behaving strangely, but I had another thought.

I kicked over a Frisbee, toed it toward the squirrel, and filled it with water. The squirrel buried its face in the plastic pool. After drinking, it watched me water the garden then hopped beside me to the front door.

“Want to go in?” It nosed closer to the door, so I let it in. I went to my reading chair while the squirrel checked out the place.

When it returned to the center of the room, I said, “Well, come here,” and tapped my leg.” It jumped into my lap. I didn’t think it was someone’s pet; it was too young, half the size of a grown squirrel, and had probably lost its mother before learning to fear humans.

The squirrel lived free in and near my back yard for the next two years, stopped by often for lunch, and raised at least two broods of squirrels in that time.

I noticed her protruding belly and rows of prominent teats for her first pregnancy, so I wasn’t surprised when she disappeared for a couple weeks.

Outside one afternoon, I heard her chittering to me from our cherry tree. On a low branch beside her sat two small squirrels.

I waved for her and she came. When her little ones followed, she stopped them, escorted them back to the branch and ‘told’ them to stay, I don’t know how, but they stayed still and were quiet. I offered some peanuts, and she took them back to share with her pups. The next couple weeks, she returned with them several times, but she never let them approach me. When the pups finally left, my squirrel and I went back to our regular routine. I thought she showed good parenting teaching her young not to trust humans or depend on handouts.

THE ELEPHANT: Early in my professional training, I had classes on Connecticut Avenue, across the street from the entrance to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. I brought my own food for lunch and strolled through the park. My route took me past the elephant compound, and I’d fill my jacket pocket with peanuts. One elephant always waited for me and raised her trunk when she saw me coming. I’d wave back and shake her trunk when I got to the compound. She soon discovered which pocket I kept peanuts in and reached for them soon after our initial greetings. That continued for two months until I graduated and went out of town.

Ten years later, I was back for a seminar in the same building where I’d done my initial training. For lunch I took a walk in the park. When I got to the elephants, they were all at the far side of the compound, perhaps a hundred yards away. Second- or third-grade children crowded the wall pointing across. One of the escorting teachers explained that they’d visit elephants on another day.

“One of these elephants is my friend,” I said, not sure why I butted in. “I’ll call her over.” The teacher bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

I waved and got a trunk wave back from the elephant I recognized by the dark splotch on her side. She turned from the herd and trotted across the compound by herself, waving as she came. I shook her trunk then introduced her to each of the children who did the same. Amenities taken care of, the elephant locked onto my gaze and, without further ado, reached into my jacket pocket for peanuts. I’d brought an entire bag, so her trunk made several trips. When we said goodbye, she watched me all the way out of the park. Elephants never forget.

THE BEES: Early spring was beautiful in our backyard in Alexandria. A large cherry tree hung over the deck and over our dining table. When the tree bloomed its pink blossoms rivaled anything in D.C.’s cherry blossom festival. We shared this beautiful tree with our neighbors, thousands of them—bumblebees buzzing so loud we had to raise our voices.

During our first year together, Carole asked if we’d be safe eating outdoors with all the bees. I answered, yes, that bees have their missions and we have ours. That said, the bees didn’t like intruders and often checked on us while we ate, hovering in for close looks.

One afternoon, I came home with bags of groceries in both arms. A sentinel bee hovered above the landing below our front door. Seeing my approach, it rushed up to hover a foot in front of my face. It centered on my eyes, aligned with the bridge of my nose, and shifted to maintain that position if I moved. I’d gone through enough security checkpoints to know when I was being scanned. A couple seconds later, the bee shifted laterally to let me pass then returned to its original position. The rest of the week, I got waved through without delay.

 

These Earth-bound aliens have a basis to communicate with humans—we have parallel missions. Space aliens may not. Perhaps they’ll communicate through electrical impulses or scent trails. If they send us mathematical formulae to test our intelligence, might we mistake them for cilantro?