Dollbaby 2727

I shook my head and slapped my latest contract down on the desk. It reminded me of the story of scientists working with lawyers because lawyers did jobs lab rats refused to do. That made no sense today—not in a world where all the lawyers were robots—but it made sense about P.I.s.

I chuckled and stared at the backward letters painted on the frosted office door: “Julia Jackson, Private Investigator, i.a.”

“Ms. Jackson?” It was AD-2Z, the high-pitched singsong voice of my suite’s robot receptionist. The Super still hadn’t toned it down.

I leaned on the desk’s blue-blinking corner. “Yes, AD. What is it?”

“You have a visitor.”

Yuck, that voice. “There’s nothing on my schedule. If it’s a solicitor or the police, tell them I’m busy.”

“I think she’s a new client.”

A walk-in client? “All right. Give me a couple seconds then send her in.” I slipped the contract into the top desk drawer, straightened my rumpled blouse, and tucked it into the waist of my black skirt. A shadow darkened the glass door. I heard a quiet knock. “Come in.” I checked quickly to see if anything incriminating or unprofessional was sitting out.

She was right out of central casting: all legs, boobs, and long red acrylic hair—and everything hanging out. That’s the way they made ‘em these days.

“Ms. Jackson—”

“Please call me Julie, and you would be?”

“I’m Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727, but since we’re both girls, you can call me Dolly. Other than my man, I don’t like men calling me Dolly.”

worlds-first-talking-sex-doll-lets-you-programme-her-personality-00_00_00_20-still001“Both girls, yes,” I said. I had guessed from her conformation that she wanted to be considered female, but in these alt-gendered times it was best to make certain. “Please have a seat, Dolly. How can I be of service?”

“Thank you, Julie.” She sat, batted her saucer-wide blue eyes, and tilted her head. “My man doesn’t appreciate me.”

I almost said, “You mean your owner?” but that was another loaded word. “Is he mistreating you or denying support? May I?” I held my hand over the note recorder.

“No, don’t,” Dollbaby almost shrieked. “I don’t want any records.”

I pulled back my hand. “You’re upset. I understand. How exactly has—”

“Willard, my man’s name is Jonathan Willard.”

“Please Dolly, tell me about Mr. Willard.”

“This chassis is finely tuned,” she crooned, “and my program has certain needs.” Her long-nailed fingers traced her contour lovingly.

Her needs, I almost smirked. The thought of sex toys having unfulfilled needs offended my finely tuned chassis. How could a biological woman compete with her pneumatic figure, unlimited limb flexibility, and eagerness to indulge any male fantasy? My last personal had gotten no response: “Biological female seeks biological male seeking biological female, object obvious, all ages, fixer-uppers welcome.”

Dollbaby threw back a shock of red hair and hiked her short skirt up from her impossibly long, sculpted legs. I checked myself from saying anything snarky.

“Dolly, what exactly has Mr. Willard done or not done?” I asked, getting us back to the business at hand.

“He calls me his little toaster,” she said, tipping her chin down.

“That could be taken as endearing.” I suppressed a laugh. “Do you make toast for him?”

“Of course I do. I do anything for my man. But as soon as he butters his toast, he stands me in the closet.” She pouted her lips.

“I see,” I said and folded my hands. “But what I don’t see, Dolly, is why Mr. Willard would have bought … ah, enticed you to join him when all he wanted was toasted bread.”

“It wasn’t his decision.” Dollbaby’s eyes dropped. “His son acquired me illegally. I needed a home, and the court gave Mr. Willard custody (follow the case in Artificial Love). In time I thought he would come to want me.”

“So you want Mr. Willard to want you?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Uh-huh,” Dollbaby said with a shy nod.

I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure this is a job for a private investigator.”

“The sign on the door, after your name and profession, don’t the letters ‘i.a.’ stand for inter alia? Doesn’t that mean you take other jobs?”

“Yes. You want me to compel Mr. Willard to want your services?”

“Maybe just lean on him a little. He needs to step up to his responsibilities.” She paused. “Excuse me, I think I made a mistake coming here—”

“No,” I interrupted, “you didn’t make a mistake. Now I understand why you didn’t want this recorded.” Dolly tilted her head, nodded, and puckered her full lips.

“Shall we hug on it, girl to girl,” I said and opened my arms. She stepped in close. I slipped my arm under hers, up behind her shoulder to her neck. There I felt the bristle edge of a latch. I caressed it open and pulled the personality profile. Instantly, Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 switched to maintenance mode. I guided it to the corner of my office.

Back at my desk, I took out the contract I was considering rejecting and pressed the desk panel.

“Yes, Ms. Jackson,” came the response. Ooo, I hate that bird-song voice.

“AD, remember the client who came in on Tuesday, Jonathan Willard? Tell him I completed the contract earlier than expected. He can pick up his merchandise here in my office and a rebate for my expenses. They were less than I’d estimated. Oh, and AD, would you ask Mr. Willard if he’s free for dinner next week?”

Time Cube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time cubes have no required size,” the man said, holding Khima’s wafer-thin cube between his fingers. “This has all the events in your life, all the decisions, all the hopes, all the disappointments.” He set the cube in a box with other cubes at the side of his desk. “What do you remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But nothing will change?” Khima said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khima winced. “That could be hell.”

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

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

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

What is Mok?

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

“Mok?” Carly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“However did you discover mok?”

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps next week if you are free?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The note was in sepia ink on formal stationary:

Dear Carly,

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

Your servant,

‘D’

Dating on Callisto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” he said and extended his arm.

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

“Raja Dakkar waits for you on the terrace.”

“Roger Dakkar?”

“Yes, shall I bring your martini?”

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

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

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

“Mr. Dakkar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you get it?”

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

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

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

“Who is John Galt?” Carly teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Out There?

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Miss Carly Shellion,

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

Your servant,

‘D’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

640-jupiter-from-callisto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And To All A Good Night

Jamaal’s projection popped up in the middle of his family’s media room. He wore a Global Space Agency tank top with the GSA logo stretched across his left pectoral. Though his wide brown eyes looked tired and his gaunt cheeks spouted scruffy corkscrew hairs, he was all smiles. The wall behind him bore the words, ‘Callisto Command Center, C3’, arched over a picture of Jupiter and a confusion of dials, gauges, monitors, and switches.

“Hi Mom and Dad, and Merry Christmas.” His eyes sparkled as he revealed what they both knew already. “Yup, I did it. Your runaway son is alive and well, and is spending his Christmas alone on Callisto. ALONE. Whew, and lonely.” He cocked his head and let his tongue loll from his open mouth. “I still have three Christmases to go before I can come back.” He scratched the hairs on his chin. “Sorry, I won’t be graduating this year like I told you. I only took enough classes at Stanford to qualify for the Jupiter mission. You wanted an engineer. Instead you got a glorified service station attendant.” He shook his head and shrugged.

callisto
Callisto – Home for four years.

“Been here a week, so I’m still settling in. This far out, the sun’s just a really bright star. Jupiter looks about twice the size of the moon, and it stays in the same place, just above the horizon. Gravity is one-eighth of Earth’s, but that feels heavy after two years in zero G traveling here. I should’ve taken the Cal-Pro meds like the doc said … I wouldn’t have lost so much muscle.

“I know December is cold in Saginaw, but if you get Kryn to set up my old telescope, she can show you, Coraleen, Raymond, and the grandkids where I am. Once you find Jupiter, Callisto is the fourth moon, the third out to the right if you look tonight.

“It’s cold up here too, minus 140 degrees centigrade. And I will have a white Christmas—Callisto is covered in an ice crust.” Jamaal turned in his seat and pointed to a robot tilted back into a recharge station.

“That’s Leroy. He’s my only buddy. Does most of the work outside. You remember Leroy from Elon Musk High School. I pasted his prom picture on the robot’s dashboard and loaded Leroy’s voice into the robot’s synthesizer. Did I say I was lonely?” He scratched his chin again and bit his lower lip.

“I haven’t had any visitors yet, but GSA assures me business will pick up. They have a lot of plans for C3. They want to make this a space dock, repair yard, and refueling station for outbound space missions. The electrolysis plant makes and stores hydrogen for nuclear engines. We’ll make our own repair parts from what we can salvage from space. Up top it looks like a junkyard: old boosters, landing modules, habitats, that sorta stuff. They drop everything here. We even have the entire spacecraft from the last failed deep space mission. Lotsa cool stuff onboard.” He smiled and nodded wide-eyed.

“The additive manufacturing plant will make the replacement parts—some call it a 3-D printer. I’ve played with it some. Tried to use the junk outside for feedstock. That got me into some trouble.” He raised and shook both index fingers.

“Dad, remember when I got that cortical implant so I could run the VR Dragon Lord Empire? You hit the ceiling and said I was wasting my college money.” Jamaal squinted, pursing his lips. “Well, I have to confess. It caused some problems back home, and up here it’s started talking to the C3 main computer.” Jamaal looked down at his lap then back up.

“I was rehearsing a little Christmas show I wanted to do for you and … ahh, the computer tried to help. The security recording just about captures it.” The scene switched to the side of Jamaal’s head nestled into a pillow.

“Ow! Ow! What the f – – -.” In the recording, Jamaal batted at his face and forehead hurling two purple spheres across the room to the far bulkhead.

“Hey, why’d you do that,” the tennis-ball-sized spheres responded together in high matched voices.

“What are you?” Jamaal said, gaping and sitting up in his bunk. “And what are you doing here?”

“You requisitioned sugar plum fairies,” the nearest purple sphere said, blinking its anime eyes.

“Sugar – plum – fairies?” Jamaal squinched up his face.

“Well, sugarplums that dance,” the sphere said. It rocked upright, checked its spindly limbs for damage then pulled up a virtual checklist. “You know, ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’ Your cyber link failed to specify design parameters for sugarplums. With the Christmas deadline so close, the best we came up with was ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ from The Nutcracker.” Both sugarplums gestured mechanical palms upward. “We didn’t think you wanted actual ballerinas on your head.”

“Hmm,” Jamaal said, arching his eyebrows, “ballerinas on my—oh, oh no, certainly not. But I didn’t order sugarplums either, not dancing or otherwise.” He reached up and pulled a conical hat off his head. “What is this?”

“‘And I in my cap’, one sleeping cap, check,” the plum said, raising a spindly metallic finger. “Well, the order went in … and it came from you, Jamaal Washington,” both sugarplums chimed together.

A terrible racket suddenly came from above. Jamaal scanned the ceiling and ran out to check the command center. The sugarplums followed.

“… a clatter heard on the roof, check,” one plum said. Then came a sharp staccato rhythm. “… the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” The plum pivoted toward the hydrothermal heat exchanger bedecked with sweat socks. “Stockings hung by the chimney—or suitable appliance—with care, check.”

“Now what is that sound?” Jamaal said looking confused and exhausted.

“You don’t have a chimney for Santa to come down. The only outside access is through the refuse chute.” Both plums smiled.

Jamaal ran to the bathroom. A red worm slithered out from the toilet, then another worm, then a white one, a black one, several more red ones. They kept coming. As Jamaal watched, the worms collected on the floor, braided together and transformed into a black base of two pillars topped by red then white then more red. The figure kept building and transforming, red fringed with white. It took a human appearance, a short heavyset elderly gentleman with shining eyes and a full beard as white as the snow. Several red worms collect at the top to form a hat. The last black ones formed the stump of a pipe that hooked into the figure’s mouth. Check, said the plums together.

“Hey, now,” Jamaal protested, “I didn’t authorize—” The figure shook its finger and raised it to its mouth for quiet, then it walked directly to the sock-bedizened hydrothermal exchanger. “Excuse me. Can you explain—“

“Jamaal, Jamaal,” the plums interrupted, “your specifications were clear on this. Santa is not enabled for direct verbal communications. ‘He spoke not a word but went straight to his work.’ ‘Not a word’, you said.” Check, said the other plum.

Jamaal clenched his jaw and fists, and watched as the Santa figure stuffed wrapped gifts into his soiled socks. The jolly figure turned to Jamaal, laughed until its belly shook like jelly, and winked. Then it strolled to the bathroom and disassembled into mechanical worms that leaped into the waste disposal and vanished. The two sugarplums jumped in after Santa.

And the scene returned to Jamaal laughing from the desk console in front of the Callisto Command Center. “That’s all I have time for now. The console says there’s an incoming transmission, so I have to sign out.” As Jamaal waved and his image faded, the incoming message came from the C3 speakers.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” Check!

Once People Danced

“Ther number 38?” the Director called, looking up from hir lavender soft-bot.

“Yes.” said 38, feeling hir stomach tighten.

The Director’s windowless chamber was pastel blue with vases of soft yellow and green tinsels set fashionably on corner sconces. Hir desk was rounded at the corners and padded to eliminate sharp angles and hard surfaces.

“And ‘J’ is your little brl?”

”Yes,” said 38, rolling hir lips in.

“We’ve received several complaints.” The Director’s eyes locked with 38’s. “There’s been an incident. Before we talk, may I show you?”

“Please, Director. I want everyone to feel safe.” 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed smoothly to the virtual display platform.

The Director explained. “Touch-pass is a game for teaching cooperation and social skills without stirring aggression or competition.” 38 nodded and turned to the display.

A first grade classroom appeared with eight little brls sitting in a soft-bot circle. 38 identified hir little brl, J. An instructor pseudopod reached toward the circle and revealed a foam ball the color and size of a grapefruit. The first little brl took the offered ball. Everyone in the circle hand-patted to celebrate hir success. The first brl then handed the ball to the second and again everyone soft patted, and so with the third. Then the scene paused. J was next in line. 38 felt hir heart pound.

“Watch how J plays,” the Director said, and the play resumed. The ball was handed to J and everyone patted. But when J went to hand the ball to the next brl, the reach was further. J leaned and stretched. The scene froze again.

“The correct response,” the Director said, “was to ask for assistance and not to risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” The scene continued.

Shocked at the sight of J stretching, the next little brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reacted by stepping one foot from hir soft-bot, stopping the rolling ball, and placing it in the little brl’s lap. All the little brls screamed and covered their eyes. The virtual instructor stopped the game.

“Yesterday I met with a ther who said hir brl had screamed all night. When I showed hir the scene you just watched, hir fainted. This morning hir reported nightmares of brls falling, heads bumping, and noses bleeding. Hir’s now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”

“I had no idea my J was so independent,” 38 whispered, tears welling in hir eyes.

“And so aggressive,” the Director added. “Walking is a reckless act that endangers everyone. Fetching the fallen ball demeaned all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything that everyone cannot do safely. Your brl reacted without thought, without consideration. Everyone in J’s class and many thers are being treated for stress. Several insist that both you and J be punished.”

“Perhaps another sensitivity session,” 38 said hopefully and accepted a tissue.

“When we issued J to you three weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You’re still young. Perhaps you don’t know how far our civilization has come.” 38 shook hir head. “As I suspected. Let me take you back.”

The classroom faded and 38 found hirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. The humans were in strange tight-fitting costumes and stood precariously on legs without soft-bot protection.

“Oh my,” 38 said, averting hir eyes.

No, you must watch. This is from the time before civilization.”

“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”

“In the 21st century, humans still walked on legs. They ate food they plucked from the dirt, had two sexes, and used their fun parts to procreate. Keep looking,” the Director shouted as 38 tried to cover hir eyes.

“I, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” 38 whimpered. “Why are they so oddly shaped?”

“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how humans looked. The differences helped them to identify one another and to attract mates. They called themselves women or men, depending on their genders. Thers were divided into mo-thers and fa-thers. Brls were girls or boys.

“Here we see a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the 21st century, virtual and robot dancers were just coming into fashion, and many people still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “You can tell the female-gendered from the male by their blue tulle skirts. Now watch.”

As the dancers leaped, glided, and pirouetted, often brushing and touching one another, 38 winced and ducked. “What if someone falls or breaks a leg?”

“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise they were expected to continue, to endure the pain.”

“But why?”

“We have no rational explanation. Even after virtual reality became common, some humans persisted in doing things with their bodies. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere. Some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”

“Worked?” 38 sat up. The scene faded and 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot glided hir back to the Director’s desk.

“Yes, worked, worked like machines.” 38 shuddered. Hir soft-bot gave hir a warm squeeze. “Now do you understand?”

“I understand,” 38 said, lowering hir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to pick up my little brl?”

“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us. We must be constantly on our guard.” The Director caught 38’s expectant gaze. “Out of sensitivity to the thers and brls, we had J euthanized. Hir attempt to walk and dominate marked hir as a dangerous throwback.” 38 began to cry.

“Don’t worry. Clearly your brl was defective, and you were not programmed to handle that sort of problem. As soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”

38 forced a smile through hir tears.

* * *

This is a nerf-world story that projects an outcome from overprotection from all things real and imagined. Do or have you had any such visions or concerns?