Pardon Me!

They reopened Jacamar Prison just for Mickey Gallop. That meant old-style isolation, a six-by-eight-foot concrete closet, no windows, a bolted steal door with a food slot, no visitors, no links to the outside, and twenty-minutes-a-day fresh air in a dog-run that had been an elevator shaft.

After the media row and his harrowing trial for kidnapping, Mickey felt lucky he hadn’t gotten the death penalty. He knew Lisa Tooley was a famous benefactress, though never seen in public, but he had no idea how reliant people had become on her. Most of the evidence that could have helped Mickey’s case was barred, a violation of Lisa’s privacy, and treated like sacred writ. One might believe he had driven spikes into a holy saint.

solitary-confinementThat was the problem—Mickey Gallop knew Lisa Tooley was no saint. He also knew that if they discovered the full extent of his crime, his hundred-and-forty-year sentence would have been longer.

His pardon came as a surprise—in just thirty days.

 

By his own reckoning, Mickey Gallop was not a bad man, merely a hapless one who balanced his deficits with opportunistic sneak-thievery. Whatever he found unattended was his: a laptop, a bicycle in a rack, a coat on a hook, a shopping bag left on a bench. These were his small daily blessings. The unattended refrigerator truck looked like too big of a blessing. Mickey would have questioned it himself if it hadn’t been so easy.

It was midday on Friday, and weekend traffic was heavy. Mickey was walking on Telegraph Road when he saw the bumper-to-bumper snarl just before the exit at Woodward . It was ninety-six degrees. The sun beat down relentless in a cloudless sky. Drivers got out to strut their frustration and cool their backsides. A red-haired babe stood on the seat of her red Mercedes convertible. Her sweat-clung blouse revealed her fine figure and disregard for undergarments. She raised her arms high over her head to catch the breeze. More drivers stepped from their cars.

Traffic was clearing on the inner lane. When Mickey saw the driver of the reefer leave the truck with the door open and motor running, he didn’t need an invitation.

Mickey steered the truck left into the open lane and accelerated, leaving the red Mercedes gawkers far behind. He thought he had gotten away clean but later realized too many cameras on the red-haired babe had caught him fleeing the scene. He left Telegraph and took 45 north out of town. Twenty-eight miles later, he pulled into his cousin Gaston’s workshop garage.

Mickey had no trouble getting into the back of the truck, but the refrigerated cargo was useless—a brain. As part of rehab he’d watched a forensic surgeon take one out of the head of some dead, homeless guy. To Mickey human brains weren’t much different from pig brains.

He thought it would be a bad idea to try to sell the brain back to the police or to a medical school. He might be able to hock the pumps, gauges, water tank, and computer hardware. The reefer unit on the truck might be worth something.

He disconnected all the tubes and wires, threw the brain into the dumpster in the alley, and hauled the technical equipment to the workbench. Most of it looked new and high end, which meant it could probably be traced. Mickey began stripping and filing off any tags or plates that would show the stuff was stolen.

The hot news on TV was the Lisa Tooley kidnapping. Mickey watched and listened while he worked but never made the connection. Her foundation wanted her back and was offering big bucks as a ransom or reward, no questions asked. Again, Mickey missed it.

When they showed the refrigerated truck leaving the scene on Telegraph Road, he paid closer attention. Lisa Tooley was not in good health the reporter said, and she required immediate specialized care. There was a catch: If any information were leaked on Tooley’s condition, no reward would be given.

Mickey ran to the dumpster and found the trash scattered. Two dogs faced one another growling. Lisa Tooley’s brain, a broken syringe, and a crushed diet soda can laid between them. Mickey shouted and threw a broken pickle jar. The Schnauzer ran. The Spitz-Poodle clawed its way over a chain-link fence.

Mickey brushed watermelon seeds and coffee grounds off the brain then tried to hook it back up to the equipment. He restarted the refrigeration unit, pumps, and monitors—got zero on the gauges and a flat line. No reward for numero uno, he thought.

Near panic, he looked for some release. His girlfriend Inez was no longer young and no one’s idea of a catch, but Mickey knew not to tell her that. Robots are sensitive. He’d gotten her second hand, and she wasn’t top-of-the-line, but she was a real Dollbaby 2727. Inez had scratches and dents and had lost some hair, but she said and did all the right things in all the right ways. Mickey loved her—in his own way. He’d spent a lot of time training her, too, so Inez knew exactly when to submit and cooperate or pout, scold, and push back, whatever it took to get him excited.

In the throes of ecstasy, Mickey got an idea. He’d hate parting with Inez, but that reefer truck was all over the news. Someone must have seen him drive it into the garage.

After instructing Inez to respond only to the name Lisa Tooley, he kissed her one last time and guided her into a corner of the garage. He removed Inez’s operating and memory chips then connected them to the computer and to wires from Lisa Tooley’s brain. His installation was clumsy guesswork, but it only had to work for a short time—long enough for him to get the money and skip town.

Who would have thought the executive directors of the Lisa Tooley Foundation were all a bunch of lying crooks? Once they had their genius benefactor back, they threw the book at Mickey Gallop. Then they buried him and his big secret … revelation of which, Mickey figured out during the trial, would have brought down the stock market and caused a world depression.

But thirty days is a long time for a Dollbaby 2727 to go without her ‘daddy’, and Mickey had neglected to reset Inez’s timer.

 

The warden, the governor, a boatload of high muckety-mucks met Mickey with their hats in their hands. So sorry … Of course, the reward … travesty of justice … fine man like yourself. Lisa Tooley said she needed her Mickey baby—and a lot of other things the foundation execs weren’t comfortable repeating. Would Mickey meet with her, tell her what she needed to hear? Of course, he shrugged.

Mickey decided to let it roll and play this for all it was worth. They needed him to show up every thirty days to “take care of Lisa.” How Inez pulled it off, he had no idea.

 

Other stories about Dollbaby 2727: Artificial Love and Dollbaby 2727

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Opening Soon

Kaylee felt a great cold emptiness after their breakup, 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 moldy, old theater complete with worn red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths leading to the auditorium arced around both sides of the service counter. Kaylee pushed through one of the doors and entered.

The auditorium was cool, dark, and dank, with a steady sound of dripping water. In the faint light from exit door markers and the ends of the rows, Kaylee saw the aisle sloping down in front of her and the outlines of seats—a quiet place to think. She took a seat in the fourth row, three seats in. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a broken 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. Then everyone slowly faded. 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. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisles 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 clearly 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.

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.

pl

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.

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’

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.