Better Pets

“I’m six years old today, Daddy.”

“Happy birthday, Button. After lunch we’re having a birthday party for you. All your friends are coming, and they might even bring you some presents.” Dave smiled, nodding wide-eyed.

“I remember once you told me when I was six years old I could have a puppy?” Dorothy said, rocking as she stood.

“I remember saying that if Mommy agreed you might have a puppy.” Dave chose his next words carefully. “You know there aren’t any real puppies or kitties anymore. All gone. Now we have robots. Easier to care for and better for the environment.”

“I know that.” Little Dorothy’s body wobbled as her head bobbed. “My teacher told me that at school. She said old robots need homes. When they wear out, people put them into new furry bodies and teach them to play with children, wag their tails, and lick my face, and love me, and sleep in my bed, and keep me company when I’m sad, and—”

“Yes, I think the new doggies can do all those things, even purr if you want them to. People program them for all the things you want them to do.”

Dorothy scrunched her mouth to one side and dropped her eyes. “Mommy didn’t want me to have a puppy. But I told her you promised, and she said it was okay.”

Dave put on his best frown to look upset. “Okay, Button. But when you go to the shelter, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you picking out a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”

Dorothy giggled. “That’s silly, Daddy. Why would I get a vacuum or hair dryer?”

Dave lifted his daughter onto his knee. “Of course, you wouldn’t do that on purpose, but you might make a mistake. Robots never die and some are very old. Long ago people made them to do just one thing, like clean floors, or wash dishes, or play games like chess. That made some people angry. They said robots should all be created equal. After that, all robots got the same brain even when they only did one thing.”

laura-dewilde-E8Nz33JqT60-unsplash

When Dorothy rubbed her hands in worry, Dave raised his tone and lifted his arms. “Of course, it might be nice to have a doggie that cleaned instead of messed on the floors.”

Dorothy laughed, gave her father a neck hug, then looked up into his face. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know you wanted to go to the shelter. I wanted to have my puppy here with me for my birthday party.”

“That’s okay, Button. I’m sure if Mommy went with you, everything will be wonderful.”

“Oh, it will. My doggie will have black and white fur with floppy ears, and …” She paused. “Daddy, remember when you said I could have a giraffe?”

When Aliens Tried to Help

“What ya doin’ now?” Justin asked.

“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.

Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”

“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.

Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”

“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”

“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”

Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”

“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.

“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.

 

The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”

Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.

Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”

Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.

Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.

When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.

“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”

“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.

“I’m sorry for that, too.”

“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”

“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.

“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”

“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.

“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”

“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.

david-clode-a0F4kX9nLBU-unsplash

On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.

Invaders from Space, Part 2

In last week’s blog post: At the clan council fire, bird-like warriors discussed how to deal with the invaders from space. Leal suggested that they might be trying to communicate.

 

It had been five hundred years since Galactic Phoenix left Earth for a distant star system. Peter Odanoff hadn’t uploaded until just before the landing, but standing on the deck of the lander and viewing the deep orange sunrise made him nostalgic for home.

Wispy clouds on the western horizon indicated a summer storm building. The undulating string of winged creatures flying just ahead of the storm could have been a flock of migrating geese. He imagined his actual eyes squinting and the warmth of sunshine on his face. He swept an open-fingered hand over his head then jerked it back. He’d forgotten. No hair. Only contoured metal and the memory of hair.

After surveying the landing site, they’d spent the first day cutting and splitting cane stalks to build the deck. Its ramp was the only way to access the lander other than the telescoping ladder, which was difficult for Julia’s and Jeninne’s engineering chassis and for their dog Chloe.

Julia Rabkin the physical scientist had selected the landing site, a bare, level spot beside a gorge with access to potable water. The mountain-ridged horizon meant possible mineral resources. Jeninne Sobek the life scientist had started a research and vegetable garden. Our robot chassis required no organic food or medicine, but if things went well, soon there would be children, real children.

Peter was the pilot and chief technician. Though he missed Earth, he had no regrets. Interstellar travel had fascinated him from his youth. He knew his real self had lived a normal human life and been dead for centuries. How many children and grandchildren did he have now? Maybe they’d sent pictures along with software updates. He’d check when the day’s work was done.

The Russian engineers had done an amazing job, but Russians are known for their no-frills practicality. They put optical and aural sensors in his head, and thermal, tactile, and chemical sensors in his hands—so Peter’s hands could smell. He held one up to the morning light. To keep him sane, they’d reproduced his old physiognomy wherever possible. He flattered himself that he was strikingly handsome and was pleased the humanoid chassis reflected that image with a few cosmetic touchups.

Suddenly self-conscious, he pulled his hand down. The last thing he wanted to do was stir resentment. Until they manufactured other humanoid chassis, Julia and Jeninne were stuck with the engineering frames the Russians had given them—more practicality.

“Amazing sight.” Jeninne’s voice came from the agro-planter below the deck.

eclipsing-binaries-e1467453985567

“Yes,” Peter said and pointed. “If not for that second light, the illusion would be perfect.” Beside the sun was its yellow dwarf companion star.

Peter leaned over the rail as Jeninne’s gimbaled sensor whirled to look up. “Did Julia leave? I asked her to wait.”

“She took the geo-rover up the ridge.” Jeninne extended a pruning hook to the horizon. “She said that area tested radioactive. We don’t have feed materials, and the fabricator needs heavy metals.”

“I’d planned for us to scout that area together, but I know she’s been anxious. Any predators about?”

“There’s a man-sized moa-velociraptor-thing stalking the compound. I’ve only seen one, but there could be others. So far it’s kept to the forest. I’m more concerned about that pack of six-legged predators. Two dozen were sniffing the perimeter last night and pooping. They stayed out of the light. Each must weigh about fifty kilos. Julia calls them devil-dogs. They’ve got some vicious fangs and claws. If they go after her on the ridge, she has the laser stun gun, but it only gets three shots to a charge. Until we know what they’re after, I don’t want Chloe running loose.”

Hearing her name, Chloe barked. She was the only live member of the crew. The Yellow Labrador Retriever would soon be the mother of their first children. The nano-implants had already corrected Chloe’s cryo-damage and reset her gestation time.

Jeninne’s lenses swiveled back to Peter on the deck. “Need help with Chloe?”

“No, but would you unhook her tether?”

Peter called, “Chloe, come.” The big, yellow dog bounded up the ramp and, without slowing, made a hard left into the lander’s open bay.

“I don’t imagine Julia’s rover will attract any devil-dogs,” Peter said, “not for food anyway, but they might defend their territory.”

“I’ll try not to worry,” Jeninne said, rotating on her ball-base and rolling to the garden. “I’m testing the seeds we brought from Earth along with some local tubers and seed cases, also a few fern fruits and fungi for possible medicinal applications.”

The base station lab resembled a twenty-first-century, camper trailer kitchen. Peter lifted Chloe onto the white, MechMed counter. He stroked her ears, checked her pulse and breathing, then inserted the anesthesia needle.

He took a rack with four embryo tubes from the incubator, placed one tube in the MechMed, and hit scan. The timer bar glowed soft blue, ninety seconds, eighty-nine, eighty-eight.

Peter pressed the queuing button beside the comm switches above the examination counter. His preferences flashed by—Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Sibelius—as they had every morning for the past seven days. He liked starting the workday with the final movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “The Choral” in D Minor, Op. 125.

A bell chimed once and the panel beside the timer bar flashed CLEAR in soft blue. Peter removed and examined the tube, restored it to the rack, and placed a second tube in the scanner. He hummed then whistled along with the music. This time, after ninety seconds, the bell chimed three times rapidly. The panel flashed ERROR 0.07% alternating with CORRECT? Peter touched the panel. A fraction of a second later a single bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. Quantum deterioration could be expected after so long a time, even near absolute zero. He removed the second tube, switched it, and placed a third into the MechMed.

When the “Ode to Joy” began, Peter sang along, Freude, schöner Götterfunken. He had sung in the chorus at Swarthmore and felt a familiar thrill rising. Suddenly, from the open hatchway behind him, he heard the sound of a melodious flute accompanying him.

“Wonderful, Jeninne, how are you doing that?” A bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. As he removed the third tube, Peter continued singing.

The flute accompanied the melody flawlessly.

“Magnificent,” Peter said, turning to the hatchway. “How do—”

A six-foot, bird-like creature blocked his exit. The creature rocked on its powerful haunches, its black tongue vibrating in its hooked beak like a silver flute. At the end of the musical phrase, the creature lowered and widened its horn-ridged, purple eyes, and centered its beak on Peter’s chest.

He stumbled back against the counter almost dropping the embryo tube. Without thinking, words tumbled from his mouth.

“That … that … that was pretty good … you just do the classics?”

The creature folded its scale-like feathers and opened its beak. “All I hear,” it said in a chime-like voice. “Come for know.”

Peter pulled erect. “You speak English?”

Leal dipped his beak. “Music better.”

Invaders from Space, Part 1

“Ski’i,” Leal cawed to the clan council as he entered the cane forest clearing. Curls of sparks and flame twisted high into the clear night sky above the council fire. Seven warriors returned, “Ski’i,” and dipped their beaks. Firelight flickered off their ridged brows and beaks and set shadows dancing against the forest gloom.

The clan elder swept a wing to the spot beside him. Leal fluttered and folded his wings then rocked down upon the bare ground. It was the place of honor he had earned for driving the Jab-Ron clan from their land.

Leal leaned toward the fire to relieve the night chill. The scent of burning cane and spicy Chen Doe root stirred his nostrils. The incense bound all warriors to speak only the truth in council.

No females came to the fire this night for it was brooding season, and many warriors bore the scars and torn feathers from having been driven from their nests. One of the clan elder’s wings hung limp. The warrior beyond him reflected shining bald spots in the firelight. Leal displayed the short feathers and stubble on his right wing proudly, for his mate was strong and fierce. Ree had also given him a deep gash with her beak that left a blood crescent dried on his breast.

slide1

“Ski’i,” called another joining the circle.

“Ski’i,” returned Leal and the others, dipping their beaks. The newcomer Tarii extended his neck and pulled upright before sitting. A young buck porod squirmed in his beak, kicking and scratching with its six, sharp-clawed legs. Tarii tossed and caught the porod by its neck then gave a quick shake. He set the fresh kill before the clan elder then backed to the opposite side of the circle.

Impressive show, Leal thought. Porod are savage fighters, and this was a strong, young buck. Too bad the fledged females weren’t here to see the display: Tarii might have had his pick.

Unlike the mated warriors, Tarii’s feathers were full, combed, and unbloodied. Leal knew that next season they would not be. Last year Tarii had challenged him for the right to mate with Ree. It had been no contest, and there was no bad blood between them. Adolescent warriors were expected to strut and challenge, and Ree was as beautiful and intelligent as she was formidable.

“Brooding season goes well?” The elder counted only bobbing beaks. “Game plentiful … water flows … mates and young ones?” More bobs. “Good, then to our main concern. There has been another incursion in our realm.”

Tarii and two others pointed and bobbed three times, indicating three valleys to the southwest.

“Your sector again, Leal. Have the Jab-Ron returned?”

“Not Jab-Ron, of that I am certain. I saw their disk fall from the stars and settle on the cascade overlook as gentle as a twirling Chen Doe blossom. I also watched them set up camp.” All beaks turned toward Leal.

“How many?” the elder asked.

“Four, and they are all quite different from one another—each specialized for a different task. Some have interchangeable claws, limbs, and mouthparts. But none resembles the Jab-Ron or any of our species.” Leal said. A cane log cracked and collapsed, sending a spray of sparks arcing up from the fire. The scream of a lallow pierced the night air then ended abruptly, no doubt a night-stalking aglak had caught its dinner.

“One of the intruders stands on two legs as we do and is nearly our size. It has neither wings nor beak, and its body is made of metal. Two other creatures are also made of metal but have boxy bodies. One has six articulated legs like the web-spinning hindergoss, and spends its time roaming our hills. The other has rolling feet and claws that dig in the dirt. The only intruder of flesh is less than half our size. It has four legs and is covered with downy, tan fur like an adult porod. This one spotted me and alerted the others. It bared its fangs but did not pursue when I backed away.

“Weapons?” asked the elder.

“Only one. The roaming, hindergoss creature carries a weapon that shoots burning light. Other than that, they and their camp appear defenseless.”

“Have any porod packs attacked them?” asked the elder.

“No, but they’ve marked the camp with dung piles and scented a path for a night attack. Tracks indicate that several packs are working together. I believe they’ve held back for fear of the intruder’s sound shield.”

Sound shield?” The elder rocked and stretched its long neck and head toward Leal. “A defensive weapon? Have you seen it in operation?”

“If it is a weapon, it causes no harm to us,” Leal said. “I find myself curiously drawn to it, and that may be its true purpose—an attempt to communicate. The sound shield has structure, and I’m certain it carries coded information. I am able to replicate some of the sounds and believe I may soon be able to understand them.”

“Very interesting. Continue your investigation, Leal, and report back at the next council.”

Conclusion next week.

Good Neighbors

“Will I be issued a human chassis?” Djix pulsed.

“Your configuration will be humanoid, but clearly mark you as alien. For this mission to succeed, humans must see you as an alien. Otherwise, they will dismiss you as a hoax.”

“Alien? Isn’t this alien enough?” Djix exuded and waved a scale-lined appendage in the ammonia brine.

“Too alien,” Kalig pulsed. “Psyops was very clear on this. To get humans to cooperate, they must see us as advanced versions of themselves. In addition to studying humans, our abduction and probing missions have prepared them to accept this design.”

Kalig extended a pseudopod, inflating the end to form a bulb with two prominent blisters mounted atop a stick-limbed torso. “These blister sensors respond to electromagnetic radiation in the 450-800 terahertz range.”

“Humans will accept that?” Djix creased and pulled in like a folding accordion.

“Our research indicates very positive reactions from our captives. An older couple we examined even invited our scientists down for a Texas-style barbeque.”

“Barbeque?”

Searching for a sensitive way to put it, Kalig eventually rattled, “Humans consume organic materials.” When Djix’s folds tightened, Kalig added the rest. “Their bodies are composed of loosely adhering bags of dihydrogen monoxide solutions.”

Djix pursed a scaly dimple. “I know, I know, I have to go. You’re going to tell me I was specially selected … the only one you trust to handle this sensitive mission … my special skills—”

“I won’t twist your hooley,” Kalig interrupted. “You are expendable: the only one we could spare.” Djix’s receptors narrowed. “Despite their primitiveness, humans are extremely dangerous,” Kalig continued. “If you are to survive, you must appear not only intelligent but also frail and childlike. Humans must respect you but not fear you, especially since your message will not be welcome.”

Seeing Djix study the alien chassis, Kalig paused a beat. “After some discussion, we decided it best not to give you any reproductive organs—”

“Reproductive organs? They don’t let the robots … I mean they still … with their bodies … together—”

“Human lore abounds with stories of gods, aliens, and mythical beasts seducing, impregnating, or abducting their women. We don’t want to play into that narrative.”

Djix’s scales shuddered then contracted in resignation. “Okay. Brief me on my mission.”

Green Bank Telescope

“You know the electromagnetic interference, the jamming that’s blocked our communication and given everyone such a core-ache.”

“The deviant pulsar emissions?”

“That’s from humans trying to make contact. They’re the ones stinking up the galaxy, spraying their e-mag pollution, trashing every frequency, begging us to come and give their life meaning. They call it their search for extraterrestrials, and they feel very smug about it.”

“Absurd,” Djix pulsed.

“Nevertheless, you’ve been selected to contact them.” Kalig paused to let Djix recalibrate. “Tell them we’ve put up with their neediness and caterwauling long enough. No one wants to contact or encourage them, and no one wants them in the galactic neighborhood. We tried to ignore them, but they just go on and on and on. The community finally got together and drew straws. We drew the short straw.”

“You mean, I drew the short straw,” Djix pulsed.

“Tell them we’re not going to solve their problems. We will not make them get along with each other or tell them how to cure cancer. If we solve their problems, they won’t get off their hind-joint sockets. The answers to all their problems are in front of them. They just need to purge their organic memory bins, stop conjuring fabulous fears, and stop worrying about who gets credit or has more of something.”

Djix oscillated so hard it almost rocked over. “I miss the ones before them, the dinosaurs.”

“A worthy species. Alas, asteroids do happen. You know, Djix, before dying out, the last thing the dinosaurs did was to restore the planet to its original condition. They dropped all their trash and technical devices into volcanoes and leveled every city. They wanted the species that came after them to have a fresh start. I’m glad they aren’t around to see this crazy bunch.”

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.

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.