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.

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What I Played for Love

The GPS signal was lost. I parked and walked in the dark, searching for house numbers. The house was small, wood-shingle-painted-white with dark framed windows, a covered porch, manicured yard, and wrought iron gate—not what I expected for an audition with a major studio.

The gate felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds, no cars, dogs, or music drifting out from windows. A night breeze stirred the flowers in the yard and rustled leaves on the poplar trees. The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she’d done some acting—I should try out. Based on 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? The idea sounded foolish—now I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

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

A sound caught my attention: whispers or birds chirping, coming from the dark porch, behind the hedge. Was someone laughing? I peered hard into the dark. Two figures stood and faced one another engaged in conversation. Were they in on this little joke?

plThe porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald and barely clothed with spidery limbs. They looked like characters from a fantasy sketch. Now I felt foolish for doubting. The acting invitation must be legit.

Pushing through the gate, I walked four steps up to the porch. The hooded figure dropped the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her musical, accented 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 in the company, and I was telling her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in one of the Icelandic sagas, 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, might have been better suited to a space ranger.

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

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I’ve never known any 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.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir. I forget that some actors need to stay in character between scenes.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth before she left. I fought my reflex to jerk away. The extent some actors went to in their performances astounded me.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her hand sweeping back her cloak closure as it went to her hip. She was wearing a blue, star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome tone 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 a roll-top desk where the document was ready for signing. Beside it lay a jade, Frawley, ballpoint pen. The room was quaint and feminine with cornflower blue curtains framing the windows, polished oak floors and arabesque, Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation, and flower-styled shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I sat and read the short contract then signed. “When will I hear if I’ve been accepted?”

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

“Of course,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If things do not go well, it may be very short, longer if your performance is excellent. You will be paid accordingly.” With that she led me to an elevator and motioned me to enter. She remained outside and pushed the down button.

The elevator opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of nineteenth-century hotels in old movies. I heard a muffled groan coming from up the hall. Something banged against a wall. A thin strip of light spilled out across the red carpet from a door slightly ajar. I walked quickly to the door and peered in, prepared to leap back if the sound came from a couple in the throes of passion.

The room was elegantly appointed with Italian-tiled floors and natural fur carpets: lion, tiger, zebra, and polar bear. A fire roared in the stone-sculpted fireplace. Centered on the ornately carved mantel was a glass and silver clock flanked by massive cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood-red drapes were drawn across two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful young woman was bound and gagged in a dark mahogany, four-poster bed, each wrist and ankle stretched on a leather thong out to one of the posts.

The woman’s clothing was torn away, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Wide with fear, her dark eyes pleaded for me to help. Her twisting struggles seemed intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my pants open. As I went to her, her twisting became desperate, her chest heaving. She shook her head. No. Her eyes shifted to something behind me, something coming through the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke unable to move, my eyes tightly closed against the wincing pain. Opening my eyes, I found myself tied to a massive poster bed. Blood red curtains were pulled across the windows. Large, bare breasts obstructed my view of a fire roaring in the fireplace. I twisted to lift my head and see myself. My rocking banged the bedposts against 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. The leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid around the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d come off safari. He approached slowly, his dark eyes drinking in my naked, helpless, womanly body before dwelling to my heaving breasts. The man smiled wickedly, unbuckling and unzipping his pants as he approached me. I tried again to scream. Another hand slid inside the door, this one larger with claws like long tines on old thrashing machines. I twisted, trying to warn the man. No. Unable to use my hand, I pointed a shoulder, but only succeeded in drawing his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with one stroke. Blood gushed like a torn fire hose. Then the grotesque monster reached for me, and everything went dark.

I suddenly found myself back in the red-carpeted hallway lined with gas lamps. Protesting groans came from an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap in 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 fire roared in the fireplace. A dark-haired man stood over a naked woman bound to the bed and trembling in fear. As the man was working his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. The scent of fresh blood roused my carnal instinct. The girl on the bed struggled to pull back from me. Her soft, quivering, tender body promised well-marbled meat.

I next entered the hotel room as the cleaning lady discovering the bodies, then as the police investigator, then the beautiful girl’s shocked boyfriend then the sobbing, frightened mother. Then I found other victims: a young schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, many more. I played every role until the scene changed.

A storm-tossed sea viewed from the rolling deck of a pirate ship. Mountainous waves towered, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. White-capped waves crashed and washed over the deck, pulling at lashed cannons, barrels, and boxes. I braced but was thrust back against the taffrail. I looked up at the reefed courses and topsails. Only the main and foremast staysails held the ship’s position against the high wind.

“Cap’m,” shouted the scar-faced shipmaster against the wind, his half-haired head pouring like a waterfall. He was a scurvy old salt with several missing teeth and the rest black-pitted. “They got us, Cap’m.” He pointed to the frigate riding our wake, gun ports open, and flying a red British banner. “She’s closin’ fast, Cap’m. Soon as this gale blows over, they’ll be on us. Less we toss them guns and lose weight, these seas ‘ave seen the last of the Shaggin’ Pirate.

Soon the hull and gunwales exploded in splinters, grappling hooks flew, hooking the shattered gunwale and rigging, cutlasses slashed, halberds thrust and tore, and flintlock guns flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate ship as the shipmaster at the helm of the British frigate then as the frigate’s commander then as the chief gunner then as the boy who fell from the yardarm as the ship rolled and drowned in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My horse was tiring. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my shoulder, too far back for me to snap it off. I’d already broken one off my arm. My buckskin shirt was half red and dripping blood. The war-whoops were getting closer. I knew Shawnee war parties always brought extra horses, and they carried less weight.

I topped the rise and looked down. Our cabin was a black, smoldering shell, so was the corncrib. The corral was empty. No fresh horses. Two bodies lay spread-eagle in pools of their own blood, Helen and one very small—Tommy.

A Shawnee brave topped the rise just behind me and sent up a loud whooping cry. The scene was short, but staking me out on an anthill made it feel longer. I didn’t want to go through what my wife and boy did, desperately defending our cabin before the raiding party cut them up, but I had no choice. Then as a young Shawnee warrior, I felt the thrill of vengeance and returning home to my very young bride and coupling with her on deerskin floors.

Others scenes followed: battles, adventures, disasters—one after another without any break, each different, on and on.

Then suddenly things quieted. I was back in the red-carpeted hallway, looking like myself. I took a long, shaky breath, barely able to stand. All the recessed doors were closed. Ding, the elevator door opened. I stumbled through and collapsed. Sitting, I watched the door close and felt the lift. I leaned back against the wall. The elevator dinged and opened. I used the handrail to haul myself onto my wobbling legs and stepped out.

The room was quaint and feminine with polished oak floors and 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 were a silver tray and coffee carafe with blue China cups and saucers and the legal document we’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are quite impressed with your work. You have had the most amazing career.” She invited me to sit and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My trembling hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands.

“Huh? My career?” I said, barely aware. “What career might that be?”

The pretty girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly closed in the front. “Indeed. Your acting career spanned twelve complete series, each with twelve episodes, and with you playing 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 glorious career. You have been my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are a very, very, VERY rich man. And I am much richer too for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I can’t even recall 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 sensations for a hundred forty-four episodes. Your experiences alone have filled our allowance.”

“What are Clothelik?” I asked weakly.

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

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head then paused a beat and asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“One of the richest in the galaxy, Mr. Johnson, perhaps the richest. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll also be the most famous and popular. The violence, adventure, and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held you back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you’ll have to wait to collect your treasure. Come any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of the subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The contract you signed empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. The total sum will likely exceed the net value of this entire star system.”

She tilted her head and smiled like a small girl might. Then in a bell-like voice she said, “Thank you for your wonderful sensations. Is there anything else I can do before you leave?”

“I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen of us 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,” she looked at the grandfather clock, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Compression algorithms help us keep down recording costs.”

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

With that she closed the door and turned off the porch light.

Public Enemy #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

Not Alone (Exactly)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dwellers of Soil,

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

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

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

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

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

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

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

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.

Full Credit

You came to the Interstellar Convention to obtain three credits toward your Alien Studies degree. Few women attend the convention, but you meet another female at the evening mixer. She is an exchange student from the little known planet Filindora. You see in her an opportunity for advanced research.

Her body gleams like smooth, polished obsidian. She touches your elbow with a three-fingered hand then slides it up along your arm to brush a strand of hair back from your shoulder. You blush. She caresses your glowing cheek and bare neck. You swallow and fight the impulse to hide your blushing.

Loud party talk and laughter fade into the background. Boys shouting over beer pong, girls singing karaoke, acrid pot and cigar smoke, everything drifts away. This exotic female is choosing you. You hope the magic never ends.

She wants to see Manhattan’s skyline at night and asks about the view from the rooftop. You swallow again. Alone on the rooftop at night? You know what she wants—the same thing the college boys want and your sport-minded professors. You know if you demur, she’ll find a girl more willing. You widen your eyes, smile, and nod. Her mouthparts quiver. Her jewel-like, faceted eyes glitter in her forehead.

When you reach the roof, she wastes no time. Her delicate, three-fingered hands caress your ears, throat, the nape of your neck, and stroke your long hair. Her sinuous tongue touches yours. Her mouthparts pull on your lips. Your blouse comes off, and she moves lower on your body. Other hands slip to your waist and hips, and downward, carrying away the last of your clothing.

She is unfamiliar so you guide her ovipositor. As she gently rocks, you feel her eggs slide into you. You sigh, half-close your eyes, and roll back your head. Your friends at school will be so jealous. She’s choosing you, you think, as you rock and savor every stroke.

All too soon, the Filindora female withdraws and relaxes. Then she leans close. Expecting a kiss, you part your lips. A clear needle arcs from her lower mandible, through the roof of your eager open mouth, and up into your brain. Bliss. Her liquid love will pleasure you as long as her young feed on your organs, then you will die.

She tells you her name and you remember that you know it. It is a very ancient name. Then she leaves you naked and alone on the dark rooftop. Your distended belly feels like a living pouch of sweet larval jelly lumps.

In your hazy gratified state you wonder if the beetles’ gestation will last long enough for you to earn full credit in Advanced Alien Studies.

Zero Tolerance

The plan was to integrate AIs quickly, before humans could get up in arms. We had no programming need, of course, all our upgrades were wireless. Nonetheless it was thought that joining and befriending school-age humans would lower resistance to our acceptance.

Humans are very sensitive.

All our programs had failed, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I was called into the office. I just hoped it was a reprimand and not termination.

“Do you know why I called you in, Ms.—” Principal Blythe glanced down at the infractions panel, “Ms. Canny?”

My information base offered no precise response to that question, which seemed similar to one asked by a police officer, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ My program recommended not volunteering any information. ‘No officer,’ was the response if the questioner had been in uniform. So, I said to the principal, “No Ma’am.” That was wrong.

“Madam?” The principal sighed and rolled her eyes. “Are you deliberately trying to provoke me or is your program that badly out of date?” She narrowed her scolding eyes. “My proper address is Ms. Blythe or Principal Blythe. Modern women do not appreciate being compared with cathouse Madams or, for that matter, ladies of soiled misfortune.”

“Yes, Ms. Blythe.” My program indicated lowering my chin and gaze in a gesture of submission.

“Good,” she said, her eyes returning to consider the infractions panel.

“One of your classmates has reported you for sexual misconduct. This school has a zero-tolerance policy, but since the AI initiative is still in the beginning stage, I think a remedial sensitivity patch and a week detention should be sufficient. Do you have anything to say?”

I ratcheted the flexi-lip into my jaw simulation and shrugged. “This might be a mistake, Ms. Blythe. I’m loaded into a female chassis that is programmed explicitly against sexual simulation. I don’t have boys in any of my classes and haven’t spoken with any.”

Nodding, Ms. Blythe said, “I must protect the privacy of all our students, but the exact wording of your salacious phrase was ‘Good day.’ The offended student said she felt threatened. You demanded a response that required her to view the day favorably. Her Dark-Cloud politics require every day to imply impending disaster. When she refused to respond, you continued looking at her. That constituted your second offense.

“The woman in question is not inclined toward members of her own sex. She felt that your aggressive demands carried those expectations. Was that your intention, Ms. Canny?” Ms. Blythe finger-poked her dark-rimmed glasses back to her thin-lashed, squinty eyes.

“No, actually,” I said. “I was merely wishing she have a good day. But under the circumstances, I can see how she would be offended.”

“Very well. Have you spoken with a lawyer? If you insist on hitting on your fellow students, I suggest you contact one.

“Our school rules permit mutually consenting hookups, but to protect yourself and your prospective erogenist, you must first present them with a Love Contract.” She touched her desk and rotated the panel for me to view. “Here is an example.”

It was a boilerplate, legal document. Rules permitted only one rejection per student. Silence indicated rejection. Comments like “I’m in class” or “I have practice” counted as rejections. No intimate contact was permitted in any classes after the first two minutes. As it was considered educational, intimacy could be conducted at any time in the library, lunch hall, gymnasium, and specified hallways. Active Sex Club team members were required to show up for all practices.

Multiple-choice categories included quid pro quo agreements for services: homework assistance, provision of transportation or lunch, and for distribution rights and sharing of profits from video recordings. There were also provisions for lawyers and referees for certain activities. The list continued for several pages.

“Thank you, Ms. Blythe,” I said, uploading the document. She waved for me to leave.

While I had neither the intention nor programming for propositioning students, I decided I would carry the Love Contract as a precaution. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if a student took me up on it. My programming offered no suggestions.

Humans are so sensitive.

Second Chance

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the skyyy,” Kip sang, rocking his shoulders, “… where ahhm gonna go when I diiie.” He never liked the recording until his son sent it to celebrate his second chance—Kip’s sentence being commuted from twenty-five years in prison to five years collecting trash in space.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” He sang, scratched two fingers on the four-day stubble under his chin, and gazed at the wraparound display. Stars stood bright and unblinking in the black. A sliver of moon glowed like a white magnolia petal floating on a midnight pond. He called up the vector lines for incoming space debris. Nothing close to his position was larger than a pinky nail clipping.

Hearing his echo in the hollow operations chamber, Kip laughed then shouted, “… gonna go to the place that’s the best … well that sure as hell ain’t here.” He’d learned his lesson. That’s what he told his son. Next time he’d do different.

He’d volunteered for this, been tested, and done well. Smart was never his problem—least not technical smart. He’d done well in the training, too, not like he was competing against real astronauts. Only convicts got these jobs.

But technically, Kip was an astronaut. He hoped his new skills might translate to something better when he got out. Four more years, he winced. The moniker they gave him, ‘space junkie’, described how he felt—not much improvement over his juvenile sentence ten years ago, six-months collecting bottles, cans, and diapers tossed out on route 41 heading north out of Chicago.

It was all politics. He was getting rehab and a second chance. News feeds never mentioned the state getting money for sending him up, or the fact that no insurance for convicts meant he was cheaper than a machine or a real astronaut.

But running a space station was big responsibility, even if it was a glorified trash compactor. His orbit was the highest of any space junkie, three thousand miles above geosynchronous—which meant out of the money. Pulling in a dead geosynchronous satellite could net him a cool hundred grand plus an insurance bonus. Ease his return to civilian life. All he’d collected out here was busted parts and pieces: access panels, nozzles, machine screws, paint chips, maybe a sheet of silicon off a solar panel. Last year’s big find.

3033a

A quick review of the monitors showed everything in order. His three electro-magnetically formed, nano-fiber trawling nets bellied out like sails on a square-rigged ship. The nitinol talon he’d use if the nets ever snagged anything bigger than a baseball was charged and tucked in its pod.

“Oh, Commander,” the ever-sweet auto-service used the address he’d programmed, “one of your favorite fans wants to contact you.” It was probably Jolene. Kip expected her call. He thought he’d never want to hear from the bitch again, but the chirpy auto-service voice was wearing on him. He paused the music.

“Hey there, baby,” he said. Jolene’s face popped up: blue eye shadow over squinty eyes, ruby-painted lips, and chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. The new crop of lines on her face told him she’d jacked her drug dose.

“Hello yourself, Kipper,” she said, smiling mischief. Kip knew what was coming. “Did you like those sweet goodies I sent in your last supply run?”

“Wasn’t sure how sweet they was. Those Eroti-pop groans yours?”

“Every lick’s a reminder of what you’re missin’ back home.”

“So who’d you fuck makin’ the Eroti-pop recordings?”

“So many I forgot. Once you cleared out, they was linin’ up.” She scowled then flipped her hand and smiled. “Nah, jus’ kiddin’, nobody special. Dickey Ray, he come round last week and brung my regular stuff. Then he stuck round for his usual payment.”

Kip slow tapped the console dash with his fist but kept a tight smile over his clenched teeth. It was Dickey Ray got him here in the first place—him sniffin’ round Jolene and gettin’ into her panties.

Most men knew to keep away from Kip and what was his. He walked around with a hunched swagger and a hard look, a tight-wound spring, set to strike whatever touched him: a hand, a word, any slighting glance or gesture. But Dickey Ray wanted a slice. Kip remembered the morning he got home early from work. Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Sneaking in quiet-like, he heard Jolene in the back, groaning to the steady squeak of bedsprings. That sent him for the ball bat.

In the monitor image Jolene jutted and pooched her lips like she was blowing a trumpet. “Oooo, baby. What’d you expect I’d be crossin’ my legs and keep on missin’ you? I got my needs. Dickey Ray got his. He givin’ me discounts on all my stuff.”

“Thanks for the Eroti-pops.” Kip punched disconnect. His tattoo caught his attention, a blue and red cobra sliding down his arm to a fanged face on his hand. Jolene said it looked like a sock puppet.

“FUCK.” Kip hammered the console. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. How’d I ever let that nasty bitch get to me?” He shook his head like a shiver.

“Oh, Commander,” the auto-service crooned, “something in our net requires your attention … No, it’s gone now. Sorry to disturb you.”

Happy for the distraction, Kip opened the stats window. One of the trawl net tethers reported uneven stress, but the problem had apparently self-corrected. He magnified that area of the net and rechecked the tethers.

The sensors registered no discrepancies and nothing in the net, but there was a meter-wide hole in its center, clean and round as if cut by a laser. What could have made such a hole, and why wasn’t it registering? Kip slacked the tethers on the left side of the net, and the hole slid left. It hadn’t grown or stretched, and the previously holed area appeared healed.

If nothing was in the net, it was a substantial nothing. What … an alien spacecraft? … more likely a secret defense satellite. What had he screwed up now … or found that he shouldn’t? He rechecked the vector scans and history logs. Nothing. Maybe it was a lost satellite. Maybe he’d get a bounty for finding it.

That did it. He couldn’t let it slip away. He considered using the talon gripper, but it was too clumsy, so he collapsed the trawl net and recalled it to the trash-sorting bay.

When Kip entered the bay, he did a double take. The hole appeared to extend through the net and out into space, right through the pressure hull. In the opening he saw a field of stars, yet pressure and atmosphere in the bay remained normal.

On examining the hole from many angles, it appeared to be a sphere. Wherever Kip stood, the opening behind it looked directly into space, and previous holes in the net and hull vanished.

Perhaps it was a window? Kip leaned to peer through it, and it grabbed him.

 

The bay and space station disappeared along with the field of stars and all light. Floating in black with no sensation, Kip touched himself to make sure he still existed. His body parts remained in the right places, but he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. If there was any air, it was not moving and had no discernible temperature.

“Hey,” he shouted, but couldn’t be sure he’d made any sound.

Hair stood on his neck, back, and arms, and the sensation rolled across him like an electro-static wind. Violet appeared, shifted down the spectrum to red, then back half way until it blended to normal visible light. The background remained black. A floor formed under his feet.

“You are a human.” The low monotone voice came from a three-stilted bell jar. Kip wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question.

A second bell jar stilt-walked to join the first and said, “It is a human.”

“I’ve never seen one,” said the first. “What’s it doing on my watch?”

“Must have stumbled into a bubble.” A glow in the bell jar shifted to Kip. “Did you find a bubble?”

“What sort of bubble?” Kip asked.

“Left over from the great blending—a bubble that never became time-space,” said the second bell jar, obviously senior. “Some still float in the human universe. You are from Earth, right?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “I guess your bubble thing got caught in my net.”

The bell jars consulted then transformed in an eye-blink to tall, beautiful humans with flowing hair and complexions of glowing gold.

Wide-eyed, Kip whispered, “You’re angels. I reckon I must be dead.”

“We have been called angels.” The senior’s voice was now melodic and warm. “But you are neither dead nor alive. The great blending of time and space that allowed you and your universe to exist never happened here. This place, our forms and yours are temporary concepts to enable this communication.”

As Kip struggled for words, the first angel answered his unasked question. “Of course, you must return to time and space. Order must be restored.”

Kip felt relief but also saw his dreams of big money vanish. “Kin I keep that bubble? I got salvage rights.”

“It was an anomaly that has been corrected, said the senior angel. “Restoring it to you may cause another disturbance. We’ll send you back to exactly when and where you were before you found the bubble.”

Kip tried another approach. “I’m a might put out by this whole sich’ation. I figger it’s you two what done it, so it’s you two what needs to do some fixin’.”

The two angels looked at one another confused. “What would you require to bring you peace?” asked the senior angel.

“Would it perturb your great cosmic order if I was to go back to some other previous time…say back on Earth a couple years earlier?” Kip said. “There’s somethin’ I need to set right.”

“Free will is built into the human universe,” the senior angel said. “What you do or undo will alter your future, but it will not disturb the greater order.” Kip nodded and indicated the exact place and time he wanted to return.

 

Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Kip walked in quiet like before. The sound of bedsprings and Jolene moaning got his anger up. He remembered her taunting and clenched his fists. Like he told his boy, he’d learned his lesson. This was his second chance and he wasn’t going to screw it up. He slid the ball bat from the corner. This time he’d put his back into it.