Good Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barbeque?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Bank Telescope

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

“The deviant pulsar emissions?”

“That’s from humans trying to make contact. They’ve been spraying that e-mag pollution all across the galaxy, trashing every frequency. Begging us to help them, to come and give their life meaning. They call it their search for extraterrestrials, and they feel very smug about it.”

“Absurd,” Djix pulsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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The True Story of Big Ed’s Car Wash

FOX NEWS, Jodie Winsome: “Here we are, on the Mall in Washington D.C. on Independence Day. It is a perfect day, too, sunny and clear, with a slight breeze, and only eighty-five degrees. Hey Thomas? Where are you Thomas?“

Thomas Greyling looked up into the camera and smiled then shouted over the raucous crowd. “I’m beside the Reflecting Pool, Jodie, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Picnickers showed up early with coolers and blankets; some camped out last night to save the best spots. Spaces are filling fast. We all know—this is the place to watch fireworks.”

Jodie: “I hear music warming up. The rock group, Crowd Control, is supposed to be here and country singer, Molly Doorham.”

Thomas: “They’re setting up between here and the Capitol. Fans are milling, children playing, parents shouting. Everyone’s really excited. I think they’re calling for half a million on the Mall and another million in surrounding areas, along GW Parkway and in West Potomac Park.”

 

“Sweetie, you hear the size of that crowd?” I shouted pointing to the portable TV propped on the orange crate. Carole and I watched the festivities from lawn chairs in the parking lot of Big Ed’s Car Wash. “And those millions of fans have cameras, and there’s full media coverage. We might never have to pay for another TV ad.”

Carole stood and started pacing, clipboard in hand. Dru rocked nervously from his seat on the curb. Carole pointed to her checklist. “The media team should be here setting up. It’s almost noon. Ahh, finally … Here they come. Dru, get ready.”

 

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “Was that a sonic boom? That’s the loudest—Those Air Force or Navy jets?” He pointed. “No, wait. Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD … LOOK.”

Cameras swung to the air above the Capitol building, to a white light that bleached the blue from the cloudless sky. The sound rose in pitch to a deafening scream then dropped low and began a slow pulse, rmmm, rmmm, rmmm. Eyes shot up. Guitars swung on their slings. Hot dogs, footballs, Frisbees and plastic beverage bottles bounced on the turf.

shining-flying-saucer-ufoIt was right out of Day the Earth Stood Still, and I loved it. A brilliant disk dropped from the white glow to descend on the Capitol. Gliding slowly down the front steps, it followed the Mall, straight and low, then headed down the center of the crowd-lined Reflecting Pool. Cameras large and small fixed on the disk. Eyes glued to what everyone hoped—or feared.

We watched the entire scene from Big Ed’s, and I swear my eyes teared. It was better than I’d expected. “Sooo good. Carole, that sound clip is excellent.” I shot my right hand into the air and called, “Dru!” He jumped from the curb and slapped it high. We laughed and danced pointing at the precariously perched television.

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “What are we seeing? I can’t believe it. The saucer, it’s—it’s over the memorial, the uh, Lincoln Memorial. Now it’s crossing the Potomac, ahh … the Pentagon, it’s heading toward the Pentagon.”

Jodie Winsome: “Sally? What are you seeing at the Pentagon?”

Sally Campbell: “Jodie? … Yes, sorry. No one here is moving or talking. What does it mean?”

“Can you tell us what’s happening, Sally?”

“The saucer, I-I don’t know what else to call it, it hovered over the Pentagon—a hundred feet up. Stayed ten maybe fifteen seconds. Now it’s over the south parking lot and moving south toward 395. It seems to be following the highway. I’m going with the mobile unit. We’ll try to keep it in sight—leaving the parking lot right now. Now it’s left of the freeway, turning east toward Van Dorn.”

I shifted my lawn chair to face our camera crew. They were glued to the TV set. “Hey, guys, let’s get going. When … I mean, if that thing comes this way, we … ahh, we might get lucky. Hey, Ms., Ms. … Kerry Kline,” I read the announcer’s name from her contract. “It’s coming this way. It’d be a good time to get ready!”

Channel Five’s mobile camera unit tracked the saucer cruising past Landmark Mall and the Duke Street exit, still following Van Dorn. Just before reaching the stoplight at Edsall Road, the saucer dropped almost to eye-level and slid left. Crossing the grassy median, it entered Big Ed’s parking lot and aligned with the central bay.

Dru stepped nonchalantly to the front of the car wash and gestured for a low and slow approach. He looked like a flight line director guiding a plane to land on an aircraft carrier.

“You fellows catching this, right?” Twisting around, I saw my two cameramen glued to their cameras, faces glistening, hands shaking.

The saucer engaged the tractor ramp and slipped into the car wash. Eighty-three seconds later, it passed out through the service bay, glowing noticeably brighter thanks to Dru’s instruction. The dramatic pulse sound, subdued during the wash, grew deafening as the saucer rose eighteen feet. It rocked in the summer breeze then shot straight up and out of sight. Our camera crew, aglow with sweat, followed its flight.

When the camera view returned to the parking lot and Kerry Kline, she broke from the script with an impromptu, “So another satisfied customer came a long way for a great car wash, a Big Ed’s Car Wash.” She ended with a wink at the camera. Her spontaneity would cost her $60,000 in legal fees.

I hugged Carole. “I guess we kinda upstaged the band and fireworks.” She beamed a smile and buried her face in my chest. I felt like a hero and had visions of all our debts flitting off like butterflies. Dru celebrated our marketing coup by pogoing in place. Fortunately, our announcer and camera crew were too stunned to notice our joyous celebration.

Kerry Kline dropped to her knees, hands pressed to her face. “Yes! Yes! Thank you. My big break.” She then stood, smoothed her dress, patted her hair, and checked her makeup.

Our cameramen replayed the sequence, then again, then again. “There, see, we got it! Oh, look at that!”

Crowds streamed in from the apartments across Van Dorn and the Giant Food parking lot across Edsall. A convoy of trucks, emergency vehicles, police and military, campers, and cars filled with screaming tourists skidded down Van Dorn, ignoring the lanes. Some cut the curb and bounced into our lot. Vehicles and pedestrians converged from all sides.

“What? Who? How? Did you?” Microphones swung and thrust into everyone’s faces. Reporters, police, and onlookers blocked the crossroad, backing traffic as far as we could see. It continued until early the next morning.

CNN LATE NIGHT, Barbara Bleakly: “First Contact?” She shook her head and exaggerated a swallow. “Feared by doomsayers, prophesied by religious cults, discussed by scientists. Has it really happened? At an obscure car wash in Northern Virginia?” She narrowed her sculpted eyebrows and glared at the camera. “Questions remain but, strange as it seems, the first aliens may have come to Earth – for a car wash?” Her tone rose sharply on her last line.

 

Dru had shown up on our doorstep six months earlier—an interstellar traveler in need of star-side assistance. To deter suspicion, he had taken the persona of a destitute youth from Appalachia. To pay for materials to repair his starship, he proposed building a car wash—his field of expertise. Carole and I needed to make the arrangements, pay upfront costs, and provide cover for the repair process. Once Dru was on his way, we could keep the business. Until he explained the wash process, I was dubious—the cost would consume our entire retirement fund and exhaust all our credit.

‘Washing’ to interstellar standards was done with atomic-level precision. Extraneous materials such as dirt and rust were removed and reprocessed then used to replace materials lost: paint, plastic, metal, wear to valves, pistons, belts, gaskets, tires, everything. Cars came out shiny and showroom new. When we tested the process on our old Honda Accord, the gas mileage improved thirty percent over what it was new.

pexels-photo-210179

Suddenly everyone wanted a forty-dollar car wash at Big Ed’s—the price we needed to charge to cover costs and to repair Dru’s starship. Cars lined up. Days ran into nights ran into days. Reporters refused to believe our tale of wide-eyed innocence and made life difficult.

“Ms. Ed—?”

“It’s Carole, please, Big Ed is just the name of the car wash.”

“Carole then, why do you think the aliens chose to visit Big Ed’s Car Wash?”

“Good advertising?” she deadpanned. “We spent a lot on TV ads.”

“Ed, how do you feel about the aliens choosing to visit your establishment?”

“Name’s Keith. I don’t know. We sure can use the business, but they left without paying. I figure they owe us forty dollars.”

“I understand you and your wife were completely unaware—but when did you first find out about the alien visit? Have you been visited before? No? How many times? What do they look like? How advanced are they?”

And so it went. They grilled our announcer and camera crew. Poor Kerry Kline told the truth and believed we had too. Thanks to her improvised pitch, she drew the severest interrogation.

Ironically, Dru—the only human-pronounceable syllable in his name—got the least attention and almost no questions. His Appalachian guise and I-just-workin’-at-the-car-wash routine became our little joke. His vacant smile and slow drawl put the reporters to sleep.

Despite the media harassment and insistence on an investigation, the money kept flowing. Soon we had enough for materials for starship repairs. We shut the car wash down for the weekend to give Dru the time and privacy to fabricate the components. Then late that Sunday night, we hugged, wished each other well, and tearfully parted company. Dru said he’d stop by when he was in this system and would put in a good word for us. I didn’t ask with whom. Everyone was happy. I thought our problems were over.

 

After Labor Day, Channel Nine ran an exposé on Big Ed’s Car Wash using mic’d up actors posing as customers.

“Ed, my car’s beautiful. Runs great. All the dings and paint cleaned up. Do I owe you extra for the radio? Why’d you fix my wife’s cell phone? She wanted an updated one. I should get a deduction.”

“Stanley Steamer parts? Those were rare eighty years ago. I keep a machinist on call. But what’d you do with the originals? They’re antiques. I want ’em back.”

“Those pots in the trunk were headed to Good Will. Look how they shine. And the clothes stitched, cleaned, pressed and re-dyed. They’re out of fashion, but now my husband won’t let me get anything new.

WASHINGTON POST, Page A-1: “Saucer Washer, Big Ed, Sued for Illegal Repairs. Local Congressman Jim Mertano to investigate parts counterfeiting, patent infringement, smuggling, and possible labor violations—” The Post article failed to mention Mertano’s ties to the mechanic’s union.

Minus the money we gave Dru, we were again deep in debt. We hired attorney Marsha Elliot of Elliot and Elliot to protect our assets. I assured her nothing untoward was going on: checking serial numbers would show that all the parts were repaired originals, not replacements.

ABC NEWS, Karen Storm: “Questions continue over Big Ed’s Miracle Car Wash. What kind of miracle do we have here? I asked EPA investigator Charles Hale. Mr. Hale?”

“Karen, Big Ed’s has yet to file with the EPA on their processes. We’ve taken air and water samples. Until the report comes back from our lab, we need to evacuate those apartments,” he gestured, “there across Van Dorn Street.”

NATIONAL ENQUIRER: “Muscular Dystrophy Cured? Mother testifies, ‘We left Butch in the car, accidentally, of course. I was afraid he’d be dead. We were planning to sue, but look at him! He’s all cured.’” Before-and-after pictures showed a sickly child then a tearful mother hugging a handsome youth in perfect condition. “’It’s a real miracle, God bless you, Big Ed!’”

FOX AM NEWS, Roger Durban: “Crowds have been gathering at Big Ed’s since midnight. Everyone is carrying either a candle or a pitchfork. Chief John Adams is here from the Alexandria Police Department to keep order. Chief?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Roger. Fear, anger, hope. It’s scary, and it’s getting out of hand. I called Franconia Station for backup.”

“Thanks, Chief Adams … Oh, what is this?” Sirens and shouting drowned out Durban’s broadcast. Half a dozen helicopters WHOP, WHOP, WHOPPED over the scene. Spotlights swept the parking lot. Rappelling lines dropped followed by troops in SWAT gear. A column of black security vans, bounded across the grass, passing backed up traffic. Police directed the crowd to clear the path.

Roger Durban waved for the camera to scan the scene: a sea of placards and hopefuls, “The Truth is Out There,” “Only Jesus Saves,” “Stop Global Warming.” Adults milled about in costumes: Star Fleet uniforms, Vulcan ears, Hobbit feet, vampire fangs, longhaired proselytizers. Mothers hugged emaciated children. Young and old slumped on crutches and in wheelchairs. Police took Carole and me into custody while hazmat-attired workers streamed past us to dismantle the car wash.

When we got home that evening, we found crowds gathered to pray or protest. A couple windows were broken on the house. Police drove the people away, but they kept returning at all hours.

Government lawsuits began a few days later. When Big Ed’s ‘washing’ technology wouldn’t work at a secure government facility, officials claimed we’d sabotaged it. Another suit claimed the entire episode was an elaborate hoax and all our customers paid shills. A few of them even took money from news networks to confess. After that our attorney stopped answering our phone calls.

 

Late that October, when we were getting up to walk the dog, a knock came at the door. It was 4:45 A.M. I swallowed hard and looked at Carole. Knock, knock, knock, it came again.

She turned on the porch light and reached to open the door. I held up my hand. “No, let me this time.” The cool, pre-dawn breeze floated in over a smallish Indian woman standing in our doorway. She wore a plum and red sari with one panel draped over her arm.

“My pardon, Mr. Keith?” The woman looked up with large dark-highlighted eyes. “I am Lishktrkdnlyschandra. I hope my appearance is appropriate to this planet.” Lifting folded hands before her lowered face, she bowed politely. “Our dear friend, you call him Dru, he spoke well of you. He is sorry he cannot come. He said you might be in need of our assistance. We cannot let you suffer on our behalf. Sanctuary lists you, your kind wife also, and your home as refuge for travelers.”

It took me a moment to register the woman’s message. “Excuse me one second.” I raised a finger and called back into the house. “Carole, we have a visitor.” Returning to the young woman, I said, “Please come in. May I call you Chandra?”

What I Played for Love

I knew I was on the right street, but the GPS signal was lost. So I parked and walked, looking for house numbers. On the moonless night, the only light came from the shade-drawn windows. I found the house—white, wood-paneled with dark-framed windows, a covered porch, a manicured yard with flowers and bushes, and a low hedge fence with a wrought iron gate. Tasteful, but not what I expected for a recording studio.

I paused at the iron gate. It felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds: no cars, dogs barking, or music, only the night breeze stirring leaves on the poplar trees and flowers in the yard.

The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she had done some acting, and I should try out. She would make the arrangements. Based on what she’d read in my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

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

A sound came from the dark porch: whispers or bird chirping. Was someone laughing at my expense? Were they in on this little joke? Two shadowy figures stood facing one another and talking. They hadn’t noticed me.

pl

The porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald, spidery-limbed, and barely clothed. They reminded me of characters from a fantasy sketch. The acting invitation must be legit. Now I felt foolish for doubting.

Standing tall, I pushed through the gate and up the four steps to the porch. The hooded figure slid the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her accented, musical voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent, and I had just told her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in an Icelandic saga, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, would have better suited a space ranger.

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

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I haven’t known many stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials. She regrets she cannot stay to watch your performance.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth. I fought my reflex to jerk back. The measures some actors took to get into character astounded me.

Redir left and the girl turned to me. “Mr. Johnson,” she said, touching my arm then sweeping back her cloak closure. Beneath it she wore a star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome manner rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to an antique roll-top desk where a contract had been prepared for signing. Beside it lay a jade fountain pen. The quaint, feminine room had Chinese décor wallpaper, cornflower blue curtains, polished oak floors, and Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation. Floral-styled, glass shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I barely skimmed the two-page contract before signing it. “When will I hear if my talent is acceptable?”

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

“Of course,” I said, without any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If it doesn’t go well, it may be very short.” With that she led me to the hall and motioned to an open elevator. Remaining outside, she flutter-waved goodbye and pushed the down button.

The elevator door opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of a nineteenth-century hotel in an old movie. A muffled groan came from up the hall and something banged against the wall. A thin strip of light leaked from an unlatched door onto the red carpet. I pushed it open slightly and peered in, prepared to leap back if the source of the groans proved to be coupling passion.

The room had Italian-tiled floors and animal skin carpets: lion, tiger, and zebra. A fire blazed in a stone-sculpted fireplace. A glass and silver clock centered on the marble mantel was flanked by cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood red drapes covered two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful, light-haired, young woman struggled in a four-poster, mahogany bed, her wrists and ankles stretched on leather thongs out to the posts, her mouth gagged.

The woman’s clothing was torn open, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Her wide, soft, blue eyes pleaded for help, but her twisting motion struck me as intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my canvas trousers slide open. As I approached, the woman’s twisting became more urgent. Her head shook. No. Her eyes darted to something behind me, something at the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke barely able to move, my eyes tightly closed against jabbing pain at my wrists and ankles, my mouth choking on a gag. I tried to reach but my hand refused to move. I found myself tied to a poster bed. Blood red drapes were pulled across the windows. Prominent, bare breasts blocked my view of the roaring fireplace. Rocking to lift my head, I heard the bedpost bang the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. A leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid inside the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d just come off safari. He approached slowly. His dark eyes drank in the nakedness of my bound, womanly body then focused to my heaving breasts. He smiled wickedly, unbuckling his pants as he approached. I twisted and tried to scream. Then another hand slid inside the bedroom door. It was large and long with claws like the curved tines of an old thrashing machine. I tried to warn the man, thrusting and pointing my shoulder. That only drew his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with a single stroke, sending blood gushing like water from a ruptured fire hose. Then the grotesque beast reached for me and everything went dark.

I found myself on the red carpet again, in the hallway lined with wall sconces. Groans drew my attention to an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A dark-haired man stood over a naked, trembling woman bound to a four-poster bed. As the man worked his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. Fresh blood stirred my nostrils and aroused my hunger. The struggling girl excited me: her horror-filled eyes, her tender, quivering flesh. Drool streamed down my widening, long-fanged jaws.

I next entered the room as a hotel cleaning lady discovering two mutilated bodies, then as the police investigator, then the sobbing, frightened mother. I found other victims: a schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, role after role until the scene changed.

I was on the rolling deck of a square-rigged ship in a storm-tossed sea. A wave thrust me back against the taffrail. Mountainous waves rose, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. Waves crashed and sent white water sweeping across the deck, pulling cannons, barrels, and boxes against their lashing. Reefed courses swayed on the masts above me. Only the main and foremast staysails held our position against the wild, shifting wind.

“Cap’m,” a man shouted against the gale. The scurvy dog had several teeth missing, the rest pitted black. His half-scalped head poured like a waterfall. The man pointed and I turned. A frigate rode in our wake, gun ports open, flying the red British banner. “She be fast upon us, Cap’m. Soon as this storm blows, she be fast upon us an’ we be surely dead.”

The gunwales exploded in splinters a moment later; a foremast yardarm crashed to the deck; grappling hooks flew into the shattered yards and rigging followed by the shouts and howls of the boarding party. Cutlasses slashed and thrust; halberds jabbed, twisted, and tore; and flintlocks flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate raider from the helm of the British frigate, then as the chief gunner, then as a boy falling from a mast to drown in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My tired horse stumbled on a stone. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my back, too far to reach and snap off. I’d already broken one from my arm. My buckskin ran red. The war-whoops were closer. Topping a rise, I looked down. My cabin was a smoldering, black shell, the corral beside it, empty. No fresh horses. I was trapped. I next topped the rise as a Shawnee brave riding down a wounded man running from his dying horse.

Horrors, battles, and disasters followed in rapid succession, endlessly, on and on.

Suddenly things quieted. I was on my back in the red-carpeted hallway. Ding, the elevator door opened. I forced myself to stand and stumbled through. The door closed and I felt the lift. Another ding. I pushed off the handrail to get my shaking legs moving.

The room was quaint and feminine with Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table was a silver tray with a coffee carafe and two blue China cups and saucers. On her lap was the document I’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are so impressed with your work. Such an amazing career.” She patted the space beside her and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands. The strong coffee felt like a forgotten memory.

“My career?” I asked, barely coherent. “What career is that?”

The girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly fastened. “Your acting career, of course. You completed twelve series, each with twelve episodes, and played every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a fabulous career. You are my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are very, very, VERYrich. I am richer too, of course, for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I don’t even recall hearing your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record one hundred forty-four sensational episodes. Your experiences filled our entire allowance.”

“What … What are … Clothelik?” I asked between exhausted breaths.

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

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head as if I understood what she said then I asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“Oh, yes, soon to be one of the richest in the galaxy. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll be the most famous and popular. The violence and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held your species back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you may have to wait to collect your considerable fortune. Do not worry, however. Our contract empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. We never close, so you can come at any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of our subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The sum will likely exceed the total value of this star system.”

She smiled her little-girl smile then chimed, “Thank you for such wonderful experiences, Mr. Johnson. Is there anything else I might do before you leave?”

Looking down at my China cup, I said, “I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night, of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took two,” she looked at the grandfather clock along the wall, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Time compression keeps down our recording costs.”

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

With that she stepped back and turned off the porch light.

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.