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.

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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.

Looalee

The Looalee cleaned out the deer’s body then the hunter’s. It swept up the spinal cord and into the brain, collecting phosphorus, potassium, salts, and other nutrients in the rich fatty tissue.

It had learned from previous encounters that human brains also contained information that might be useful. The hunter knew the way to the other ocean, the one the Looalee had never visited, at least not since the great continent split. But first it wanted to visit the ocean called Lake Michigan, which the hunter knew contained fresh water. How could that be?

It left the hunter and poured back into the stream, flowing with the current into a larger stream then a river. In two days, it came to a canal and a lock. When the lock opened, the Looalee followed a ship through.

The full moon and lights along the sides of the lock reflected the silver blue sheen the Looalee imparted to the water’s surface. Workman pointed and ran along the walls, shouting to the ship’s crew, mistaking the Looalee for an oil leak. Diving beneath the ship’s hull, it kept low until the final lock was cleared then flowed into the wide lake.

The fresh water had pulled precious salts from its liquid body. It needed to feed sooner than it had planned.

MoonoverWater

Bright lights and manicured trees lined a walkway along the shore. The moon was still high and sunrise a couple hours away. A car swept along the parkway, headlights ablaze. The Looalee could catch one but knew that would bring humans with flashing lights. So it combed the edge of the lake searching for someone alone. Another car’s headlights illuminated a park bench and a very small, dark woman slumped forward clutching the top of a large cloth handbag in her lap.

It rose up from the lake, flowed across the concrete walkway, and slid through the dewy grass. The woman didn’t move, but the Looalee sensed she was watching it.

It flowed onto her scuffed, torn shoes, and in through the open toes. Callouses on the old woman’s feet collapsed and blocked her pores, so the Looalee moved up her leg to enter her body. The salts in her thin decomposed spine had broken down and dissolved slowly.

“My name it Ruby,” the woman said in a frail cracking voice. “It took you a long time to get here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You know who I am?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Certainly. I’m not dead yet. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You’re Death.”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, since you waited so long, you might wait one day longer.”

“Why would one day matter?”

“Today is my birthday. I’m ninety years old. My granddaughter’s coming over with her little boy. He’s two months old—my first great grandchild. I’m a great grandmother. Who would have thought it?” When no response came, Ruby asked, “Perhaps Death might visit me tomorrow?”

The Looalee knew, whatever it did, Ruby would not live long enough to leave the park, probably not this bench. Her neurons were shutting down, her blood slowing, and her heart was beating away its last few moments.

It pushed potassium and phosphorus back into Ruby’s system, widened the capillaries to her heart and brain, and restored failed synapses. It felt her heart’s rhythm steady under the reduced strain.

“Where will I find you tomorrow?” the Looalee asked Ruby’s brain.

“Oh, I’ll be right here. I always greet the morning by feeding the birds. They expect me. I couldn’t disappoint them.”

“Very well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Death. You are very kind.”

The Looalee knew Ruby would be there as she promised. She had that kind of character. But by morning, it would be far away heading to the Pacific.

First it had to feed—and fast. It flowed back down into the lake then out toward the bridge where a small boat was moored. Inside the boat, two young people were busily misbehaving, too busy to notice.

 

This is the fifth of my Looalee stories and the first I’ve posted. It comes in the middle of the series. The others are set on both coasts. I hadn’t planned to write a transition story then changed my mind. It is a primordial being tossed up by a seismic episode. It came ashore at the Looalee marina in South Carolina. First labeled a deranged serial killer then a monster, it was given the name The Looalee for the headline.

Declared Sane?

The board declared me sane … or at least not insane. Anyway, I’m back on the streets. I remain confused—the GPS chip in my brain is still broken. Without a functioning Global Positioning System anyone’s position might be valid. So I have to listen to them.

It’s hard to get response timing right: when to nod, smile, clap, laugh, frown, scowl, wince, shout … join in chants. As long as I follow the crowd, I don’t make too many mistakes.

My partner Kay helps a lot. Her GPS chip is locked tight. Last time I chipped up, she covered for me. We were out with another couple. I saw the logo of a dark man riding a rodeo horse and suggested, “Let’s stop by Buckin’ Bronut’s for coffee.” Kay’s friends gasped.

“You drink Buckin’ coffee? They get their beans from San Cuspidor … none of their executives are pangender … they require employees to show up and work … uniforms are non-organic cotton … ironed by non-union employees using starch from a country that had slaves a thousand years ago.”

I was busted, but before I could offer, “Don’t oppressed aboriginal Neolithic victims need jobs, too?” Kay bailed me out. “Good one. He’s testing us, again.” She giggled and pointed at me. They laughed, and I following their lead and kept laughing until my heart settled back.

Sometimes I just want to sit quietly and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Without a mind chip, it’s hard to remember that cold days are always too hot and hot days always too cold, and a beautiful spring day is a sign of impending disaster.

I almost got caught the other night. “You see that?” Kay shouted, pointing out the window. A flying saucer had landed, and space aliens were milling about the back yard collecting samples. This is something sane people aren’t supposed to see.

ufo-saucer“See what?” I said, sighting along her arm with my eyebrows raised. At first she looked shocked then her smile returned. “Nothing, I don’t see anything either.”

Before leaving the window, I checked again to make sure the aliens weren’t coming toward the house. Having seen the saucer, I couldn’t unsee the evidence. So the next day I raked and shoveled to cover up what never happened.

Sanity has gotten easier. “Isn’t that a beautiful sunrise,” Kay said this morning, looking west. “Yes, it is, I said, glancing east at the sun peeking above the treeline, then turning west to smile and stand beside her.

I’ve decided not to get my chip replaced. Insanity makes me more aware of my own individual thoughts. And I actually enjoy hearing the positions of others without a GPS filter.

From now on I’ll just have to listen carefully so I know which way the sun is rising.

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

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

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

“Wyoming,” said the lighter man, sitting at an open-air desk on the bank of the river. “My father had a place here.”

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“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. Mule deer grazing in the meadow 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 to his 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, and many aren’t actually cubes,” the man said. He raised 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 others then turned to Khima and asked, “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 Khima 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 our 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 training new employees with time cubes from their own life.”

“Are these all mine?” Khima asked, seeing the various cubes.

“What was, what was not, 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 a very tall 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 informed choices may end badly. But knowing what a time cube holds helps us to 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 an airline 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 cubes with his open hand. “Surely all dreams are not lost. You have had some successes?”

“Oh, many. We get requests all the time,” said the man in the lightning-white tunic. “Jacob Marley—a man who was already with us 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.

“Another time,” he raised a finger, “Clarence, an apprentice manager like yourself, was upset when a good man in his charge was contemplating suicide. Clarence gave George Bailey access to time cubes for possible pasts and presents. That enabled George to appreciate his contributions and affirmed that his life had meaning.”

The light man shrugged. “Alas, 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—without deceptions and without masks, no matter how much they hid behind them in life.”

Khima winced. “That would be like hell.”

“That is hell. The pain one inflicts on oneself and others is recorded here.” The light man gestured to the box of cubes. “The living can always correct their path, but once here, if they’ve never confronted their shadows, the pain merges permanently with their final time cube.”

Khima shook his head. “Time Cube Managers have a tough job.”

“If you find it easier, you can work from your garden. I’ll transfer the time cubes there.” The man in electric-white pointed and rows of filing cabinets appeared stretching out to the Wyoming sunset. “We have many opportunities: politicians, businessmen, schoolteachers, priests, drug dealers. Where would you like to start?”

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.

The next story in the Callisto series is: What is Mok?