“Marta, is that you? You’re as beautiful as you were when we first met fifty years ago.
“Yes, Alex, this is me here at Xeaven Sent.” She tossed her head and brushed a tress of raven hair behind the shoulder of her red sundress.
“You look so healthy…so, so alive.” He scratched the paunch over his wide belt.
“Yes, and I always will. That’s because you loved me enough to buy me the Xeaven Sent premium package. That allowed me to select my age for eternity. And because you also signed up for the special, I was able to pick a new skill. I can play the piano, now, something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s all because of you, Alex, your love for me, and the wonderful people here at Xeaven Sent.”
“Don’t thank me, Marta. I never gave it a second thought. For a reasonable down payment and low monthly fees, I’ll be able to care for you forever. You’ll never die and never grow old.” Alex shook his head. “But how will I ever keep up with you?”
“Don’t you remember, Alex? Since you took the double-bonus option—for only a small increase in your monthly fee—you’ll be able to join me whenever you wish. You can call on the friendly euthanologists here at the Xeaven Sent any time. There’s no need to wait, and you don’t have to go through that messy business of dying.”
“Oh Marta, that sounds wonderful. I can hardly wait.”
“Yes, and if you apply before the end of the year, you’ll qualify for the Xeaven Sent world tour. I’m already signed up.”
The view receded to reveal Marta in front of an arched doorway. Smiling, she gestured Alex to follow and stepped through the door. “Paris,” she called and, as the mist cleared, pointed to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe beyond. “Come soon, Alex, and we can share wine, cheese, a baguette, and a stroll along the Champs-Élysées. I always told you we should come here. Now, we can, thanks to Xeaven Sent.”
The scene shifted to a dark, handsome man in a white shirt, red-and-blue-striped tie, and flashing a wide, toothy smile.
“Wanna live forever? Here at Xeaven Sent that’s not a trick question.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger. “We pride ourselves on offering the best afterlife services on the market, state-of-the-art, with benefits and options to suit every taste and wallet—as Marta just said, including eliminating the formality of actually having to die.”
He stepped from his desk into a garden of mulched flowerbeds, manicured lawns, and broadleaf trees. “Everything you love in life you can have here in Xeaven Sent. Yes, you can take it with you. Work, certainly, if you insist, and better. You can instantly attend meetings anywhere on Earth, even two or three at a time. Or—” He stepped toward a slender, cornsilk-haired beauty and passionately embraced her. “Xeaven Sent is not only about business meetings.”
He winked as the scene ended.
# # #
“And cut.” The director swiveled to the actors seated behind him. “Fabulous. Love it. You can all pick up your checks at the front desk.”
He looked to the fat, bald man in the t-shirt who played Alex and pointed. “I wanna keep you on contract. We can always use a common everyman type.” He then turned to the fashion model who played Marta.
“You were beautiful, just beautiful, sweetheart. I wanna use you in my next major film. Of course, we must wait till this commercial is off the air a couple months. You available for dinner tonight and drinks? I wanna introduce you to our sponsor.”
“Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for the GSA Jupiter mission, Callisto Command Center. I know the solar storm took down your comms last month, so I’ll just read the list of what happened.” She affected her best cheerful expression.
“I replaced Jamaal as C3 station monitor. He left on the return module two weeks ago. He looked fine. The GSA handyman showed up last week and got the food synthesizer working. Jamaal put that repair order in fifteen months ago.
“Tell Jamaal I appreciate his recipe for Callisto krill cakes and his technique for scraping them off the water filters. He got pretty desperate without the food synthesizer. Last night I fed krill into it. Krill steaks taste better than the ones made from protein paste. Only thing missing was a good martini. If you guys really want to cheer me up, add gin and vermouth to the next supply run.
“Best news. Before the handyman left, he put together the moon rover you wanted me to test. I ran the diagnostics and got it up and running this morning. As you can see, everything on “Rover” checks out. Carly swiveled back to give the sensor a clear view. “Heathcliff, can you say something for the Hargate team?”
“Rrrruh, rrrruh.” The sensor tilted to find the source of the barking—a large black Labrador retriever sitting with a toothy grin. Carly jumped down to hug the simulated animal.
“Thank you so much for modeling the rover after my dog.” She looked up into the sensor. “You even programmed in the commands I taught him. I’ll test the sensors when we do the rounds outside.”
She smiled, signed out, and leaned back in her chair. No human visitors were scheduled to arrive for two years. No supply ship for nine months. She stroked rover Heathcliff’s ears.
Jamaal had warned her about the solitude and said GSA’s only interest was in making a profit. He was sure if anything interesting happened, GSA would send one of their boys to take credit. One time he got so lonely that he almost made something up just to get a visitor. Carly was pretty certain his complaining was responsible for her getting Heathcliff.
“Let’s go boy.” The simulant responded with instant wiggling and tail wagging at the prospect of going outside for a walk. It raced her to the moon-suit locker, crossing and re-crossing the room’s threshold several times. Carly suited up helmet to boots, checked the oxygen, pressed in a charged capacitor, added another to her side pouch, and climbed the stairs to the airlock.
She checked the suit’s seals, oxygen flow, and temperature before venturing out. Heathcliff, undaunted by the minus 142 degree centigrade temperature, dashed past her and began sniffing chemical samples.
Callisto’s rock and ice surface was broken with sharp-ridged craters never smoothed by erosion. Hanging on the horizon to Carly’s right, Jupiter’s orange striped disk looked twice the size of Earth’s moon. To her left, the sun was a distant searchlight, and Earth a pinpoint.
From the command center, Carly rounded past the antenna farm, the water pump and electrolysis plant, the oxygen and hydrogen storage facilities, the additive manufacturing plant, the garage and motor pool, and finally the fusion power reactor. Heathcliff loped along, sniffing and — God bless the engineers’ sense of humor — lifting a leg to every vertical surface.
Everything was in order. GSA’s automated systems picked up any leaking, pressure drops, disconnections, or system failures, but the operations manual insisted on daily inspections. Carly didn’t mind. Even in gravity one eighth that of Earth, she wanted the exercise. More than that she needed to look at a horizon further off than C3’s eight-meter diameter.
Glancing back, she decided she wasn’t ready to go in. “Shall we walk a little further?” she asked. Heathcliff’s tail wagging accelerated. “Good boy.” She leaned down and stroked the simulant’s neck with her wide gloved hands. This would be her first excursion. Jamaal said beyond what he’d seen in the original survey records, he had no idea what was out there. He preferred virtual entertainment close to his home base.
So with Heathcliff at her side, Carly headed for the nearest rise. The walk was not strenuous; she had learned the low-gravity glide-walk, and Cal-Pro meds kept her strength up. But she didn’t want to risk tearing anything on the sharp outcroppings.
Heathcliff zigzagged ahead of her, sniffing and lifting. After a kilometer, she arced right, planning to follow the crater ridge and keep arcing until she got back. Jupiter was her reference.
Heathcliff suddenly became rigid, pointing with his muzzle. “What is it boy?” Carly stroked the simulant’s neck. “Hrrruu, hrrruu, hrrruu,” it growled and looked back to her. “Go ahead, boy. Show me what you found.”
She waved the simulant ahead, and he took off, his nose-sensor pressed down. Carly followed him around the base of one crater into a valley it created with another. She found him sitting beside a dome barely higher than himself.
The dome’s smoothness contrasted with the sharp ridges of the terrain, but its white tone blended perfectly. Carly’s first impression was that they’d stumbled upon a pressure dome. That seemed unlikely in light of Callisto’s lack of geologic activity, but the consequences of something like that bursting could be instant ice encasement. She walked around its base, twelve by seven meters, an ellipse. It appeared to widen below the surface.
“Leroy,” she called the engineering tractor by the designator Jamaal had given it, “would you bring me the radar surveillance module.”
“Yo, my man, be right witch’a.” Carly laughed. She’d forgotten Jamaal had programmed Leroy to sound like an old high school buddy.
Leroy arrived three minutes later. Ice-penetrating radar showed an ellipsoid fifty-eight by at least thirty-three meters buried mostly under the ice. Its hull—for that’s what Carly decided it was—was an iron-carbon-beryllium alloy of metallic glass.
Could such a thing have come from Earth? If it was man-made, it was more advanced than anything she had ever seen. But she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d check it out before she sounded any sort of alien alert. Jamaal’s words came to her, Find anything interesting … GSA’s gonna send up one of their chosen boys to take credit.
What was she to do? This was certainly interesting. She shrugged and inadvertently swept a glove across the ellipsoid’s smooth surface. An electrical shock ran up her arm. She pulled back. She touched the object again. It was vibrating. She stepped several paces back. Nothing more happened.
“Leroy,” she turned to the tractor, “lift back to camp?”
“Right on, baby. You an’ that bad boy jus’ get on up.”
Three hours later, Carly still hadn’t found any report about a Callisto-bound or stranded space module, escape pod, planet monitor, sensor package—
Suddenly, Heathcliff barked, ran to the airlock, and started jumping. Back home when her Lab did that, she knew a stranger was at the door. She regretted not insisting the handyman put cameras around the perimeter.
She dressed quickly and raced through the airlocks. There on the stoop she found an environmentally sealed container, about a meter on each side and half-a-meter high. Against her better judgment, she brought it into the Callisto Command Center control room.
She stared at it, afraid to open it, afraid not to. Curiosity overcame fear. Inside she found six large and two smaller bottles of clear liquids, all without markings. Tucked beside the bottles were two stemmed glasses with funneled bowls. She unscrewed a large bottle, dipped a finger, and tasted it. Gin … her last request to the Hargate engineers.
GSA’ll send someone to take credit. “Not on my watch,” she said aloud. She laughed and hoisted the two martini glasses. “Looks like someone around here wants to be invited over.”
My writing group’s favorite social activity has become Pint & Prompt. We science fiction and fantasy types meet at a local watering hole after work for a light meal and a beverage … not necessarily a pint but that ‘s my preference. After a bit of socializing, catching up on one another’s news, we select a prompt from a hat … all submissions are accepted.
The clock is set for five, seven or ten minutes. I’m always amazed at how many self-described unimaginative people generate interesting pieces. To those who have never tried or might be afraid to try this, I’d ask, “How did you learn to walk, swim, or ride a bike?”
Last week’s prompt was: “She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.” Ten minutes, GO!
“Take him down,” she said raising her eyebrows at the strapping blond fellow behind me.
“But I’m a, a, a sage,” I cried, dragging back on my chains.
“What’s a sage?” she laughed without looking back.
“A sage can tell you what’s going to happen. Help you with your plans.”
“Like a fortune teller? I have one of those already,” she said and asked the blond fellow to turn around.
“No, hmm, like your son’s running away.” She paused, raised a hand, and my chain slackened. I’d seen a youth’s breastplate and short sword discarded on the floor behind the dais. So I guessed.
“You know my son?”
“I do. A fine lad with great potential—but he needs the guiding hand of a sage.”
“Describe him to me.”
I looked at her and took a deep breath. “Handsome, raven hair, long-limbed, strong and impetuous. He’s rash and arrogant. He often angers you and his friends. He told me he embarrassed you in court and—”
“Stop. Bring him back.” She motioned to the gaoler then eyed me more closely. “Sage, your appearance is most unappealing, but your words ring true.”
“Thank you, your Highness.”
“You will instruct my son in the ways of manhood and good character. Is this within your ability?”
“Yes, oh yes, your Highness. It is what I do best.” I took my first even breath.