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.

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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.

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’

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.

The next story in the Callisto series is: Dating on Callisto

The Starflower

Many readers of Strange Things Done are also writers of speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and/or horror—and are writing or have written novels. My posted stories, what I call bagatelles, are offhand pieces that I use to clear my thoughts while working on my own novel, The Starflower. I’ve only mentioned this in my profile, but it has been my primary writing effort.

Before final revision, I’m taking Ursula K. Le Guin’s advice to authors and giving Starflower a three-month rest. That said, I meet an agent next month and need a pitch … something one might see on a dust jacket.

Let me know what you think … too much, too little? I’m interested in all thoughts particularly from those with this sort of experience. Encouragement is also appreciated. Thanks, Keith

A possible dust jacket intro:

Twelve years into the Aldrakin War, on the eve of what will be the last battle, Gayle Zimmon, the commander of Five Squadron stands on the bridge of the Star Cruiser Lasalle in orbit around the engineered planet Bai-Yota. Disillusioned by the war and at odds with her commander, Star Lord Abramyan, Zim has almost lost hope for the future. Her combat team is all she has, and for their sake, she continues to wear the cold mask of command.

An allied squadron arrives with her old friend, the Tak-Yaki mantid named Tock, and together they win an improbable victory that ends the war. Zim’s dreams resurface. But when she is recalled to the capital planet Corydon, she finds it in turmoil. Creatives, genetically enhanced humans, are taking over the major planets, and Unders, those not worthy of enhancement, are being cleared.

Though an Under herself, Zim wants no part in this. Her war is over and she wants a real life. But the resistance has taken her military call sign, the Starflower, as its symbol, and the insurgents expect her to lead them. Abramyan and the sinister Star Council cannot risk her intrusion in the takeover, particularly in its last critical phase.

As the story develops, Zim returns to combat, faces assassins, reconnects with her lost love, discovers an alien prophecy, gets marooned, forms a compact with a pan-dimensional entity, and encounters aliens, soul-traders, artificial sentients, pirates, and robots.

The Starflower is a space opera on the scale and tradition of Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Like those foundational epics, it creates a universe of alien cultures, technologies, and characters to live on in sequels and spin offs.

Decision on Bunco-I

“Scotty, prepare the transporter for Mr. Spock and me to beam down to the surface.”

“I dinna think that’soo a good idea, Captain … nae wi’ the Klingon battle fleet bearin’ down.”

“I must agree, Captain, our business can wait.”

“I have an important meeting with the Bunco ambassador, one that cannot be postponed.” Kirk checked his profile on the hologram projector and tightened his girdle. “Need I remind you, Mr. Spock, that the Bunco ambassador serves Altairan brandy.”

11182_1Spock raised an eyebrow. “In that case, Captain, it is imperative that I accompany you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Spock, for once we agree.”

“This is madness, Kirk,” Doctor McCoy joined the discussion, “Bunco is a pleasure planet. The ambassador is an exotic dancer.”

Kirk tilted his head at his image and pinched his cheeks. “I must go where no man has gone before.”

“I must point out, Captain, that the ambassador has had many partners.”

“But no human partners, Mr. Spock,” Kirk shook his finger, “I would be the first human.” He shrugged rolling his hands out.

“Damn it, Kirk,” said McCoy, “what is it with you anyway? Your diplomatic missions have exhausted our stores of anti-exotics. Last time I had to quarantine you for eight days.”

“Bones, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the few.”

“It is logical,” Spock said, hefting his cupped hands, “the ambassador’s attributes are indeed quite extraordinary.”

Kirk gave his chief engineer a sour look. “Scotty, to take care of Bones’s issues, could you set the transporter to delete whatever we pick up?”

“Aye, I can strip the pesties oot, but I kin nae guarantee it woon’t delete your membrum virile.”

“That won’t do. I still have two years to spread galactic tranquility.” He widened his eyes at Scotty. “Two to beam down, NOW.”

Kirk and Spock stepped onto lighted disks on the low transporter platform. Scotty set the coordinates and hit ‘transport’. Sparkling light cylinders formed around the two officers, and their images faded. Turning away, Scotty dragged a finger across the console scrambling the designator.

“Mr. Scott,” McCoy gasped, “half of their bodies will be scattered in space.” He found himself staring at a wide-grinning Scotsman.

“Kin yee nae be a happy man? From noo on we’ll hae nae problems.”

McCoy returned Scotty’s smile and flashed a Vulcan split-finger salute. “Live long and prosper, Mr. Scott.”

 

Stardate 952117, Captain’s Log USS Enterprise, Chief Engineer Scott commanding.

We lost Captain James T. Kirk and First Science Officer Spock due to a magnetic anomaly during their transport to Bunco-I. We held a memorial service immediately afterward. So bereaved was the crew, they required buckets of Romulan Ale to drown their grief.

With the Klingon battle fleet approaching, we delayed our departure to Rura Pente only long enough to beam aboard a few dozen Bunco-I entertainers. These we plan to trade with Rura Pente’s rich dilithium miners.

Aliens Among Us

Have you seen recent TV shows, movies, or magazine articles about animal intelligence? What you think about this probably depends on your point of view. Hardline Humanists might begrudge any intelligence—human or animal—that fails their hubristic standards. Perhaps they see themselves as separate from nature, beings apart, “noble in reason … infinite in faculty!” (Hamlet Act II, Scene 2) If dogs were as hubristic as humans, there would be ‘Dogists’. They’d see Hamlet as frivolous and look down their snouts at our poor scent tracking ability.

I’m not a Humanist. My God-created universe is filled with creatures with talents and missions different from mine—all animals, not just the cuddly, wide-eyed, furry ones or the ones that sing pretty songs. My wife, Carole, has caught me talking to worms, spiders, and snakes, and I confess to attempting conversations with many others. I don’t expect them to understand or talk back, but one never knows. Maybe animals understand us better than we understand ourselves.

st-francis-blessing-of-the-animals
St. Francis blessing the animals.

THE SQUIRREL: It was a hot afternoon in July. While uncoiling the hose to water our parched garden, I saw something move in the boxwood beside the house. I backed into the yard, and the creature, a small squirrel, stumbled out after me. I’d heard warnings about rabid animals behaving strangely, but I had another thought.

I kicked over a Frisbee, toed it toward the squirrel, and filled it with water. The squirrel buried its face in the plastic pool. After drinking, it watched me water the garden then hopped beside me to the front door.

“Want to go in?” It nosed closer to the door, so I let it in. I went to my reading chair while the squirrel checked out the place.

When it returned to the center of the room, I said, “Well, come here,” and tapped my leg.” It jumped into my lap. I didn’t think it was someone’s pet; it was too young, half the size of a grown squirrel, and had probably lost its mother before learning to fear humans.

The squirrel lived free in and near my back yard for the next two years, stopped by often for lunch, and raised at least two broods of squirrels in that time.

I noticed her protruding belly and rows of prominent teats for her first pregnancy, so I wasn’t surprised when she disappeared for a couple weeks.

Outside one afternoon, I heard her chittering to me from our cherry tree. On a low branch beside her sat two small squirrels.

I waved for her and she came. When her little ones followed, she stopped them, escorted them back to the branch and ‘told’ them to stay, I don’t know how, but they stayed still and were quiet. I offered some peanuts, and she took them back to share with her pups. The next couple weeks, she returned with them several times, but she never let them approach me. When the pups finally left, my squirrel and I went back to our regular routine. I thought she showed good parenting teaching her young not to trust humans or depend on handouts.

THE ELEPHANT: Early in my professional training, I had classes on Connecticut Avenue, across the street from the entrance to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. I brought my own food for lunch and strolled through the park. My route took me past the elephant compound, and I’d fill my jacket pocket with peanuts. One elephant always waited for me and raised her trunk when she saw me coming. I’d wave back and shake her trunk when I got to the compound. She soon discovered which pocket I kept peanuts in and reached for them soon after our initial greetings. That continued for two months until I graduated and went out of town.

Ten years later, I was back for a seminar in the same building where I’d done my initial training. For lunch I took a walk in the park. When I got to the elephants, they were all at the far side of the compound, perhaps a hundred yards away. Second- or third-grade children crowded the wall pointing across. One of the escorting teachers explained that they’d visit elephants on another day.

“One of these elephants is my friend,” I said, not sure why I butted in. “I’ll call her over.” The teacher bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

I waved and got a trunk wave back from the elephant I recognized by the dark splotch on her side. She turned from the herd and trotted across the compound by herself, waving as she came. I shook her trunk then introduced her to each of the children who did the same. Amenities taken care of, the elephant locked onto my gaze and, without further ado, reached into my jacket pocket for peanuts. I’d brought an entire bag, so her trunk made several trips. When we said goodbye, she watched me all the way out of the park. Elephants never forget.

THE BEES: Early spring was beautiful in our backyard in Alexandria. A large cherry tree hung over the deck and over our dining table. When the tree bloomed its pink blossoms rivaled anything in D.C.’s cherry blossom festival. We shared this beautiful tree with our neighbors, thousands of them—bumblebees buzzing so loud we had to raise our voices.

During our first year together, Carole asked if we’d be safe eating outdoors with all the bees. I answered, yes, that bees have their missions and we have ours. That said, the bees didn’t like intruders and often checked on us while we ate, hovering in for close looks.

One afternoon, I came home with bags of groceries in both arms. A sentinel bee hovered above the landing below our front door. Seeing my approach, it rushed up to hover a foot in front of my face. It centered on my eyes, aligned with the bridge of my nose, and shifted to maintain that position if I moved. I’d gone through enough security checkpoints to know when I was being scanned. A couple seconds later, the bee shifted laterally to let me pass then returned to its original position. The rest of the week, I got waved through without delay.

 

These Earth-bound aliens have a basis to communicate with humans—we have parallel missions. Space aliens may not. Perhaps they’ll communicate through electrical impulses or scent trails. If they send us mathematical formulae to test our intelligence, might we mistake them for cilantro?