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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth.  –  George Santayana

It seemed to Sarah that Conclaves were getting closer and closer together, but she knew that was just an illusion of age; as one grows older it’s inevitable that the years seem to fly by more and more quickly.  All she had to do to remind herself that they were still as far apart as they had always been was to remember contemporary events:  when the last conclave was held the humans were plunging headlong into the madness of their First World War, and the time before that they were congratulating themselves on having got rid of that would-be Caesar from Corsica, unaware that he was about to stage a comeback.  And the time before that…Sarah sighed as she realized that she couldn’t remember.  Though the Elders had far longer lives than the humans they so closely resembled, their brains were no better; a humanoid brain can only hold so much information, and Elders above eight hundred or so began to find that older memories which hadn’t been accessed in a while were often quietly and unceremoniously dumped in order to make room for newer ones.  Of course, that only applied to healthy brains; the very old often went the opposite way, losing the ability to form new memories entirely and existing only in a twilight rooted in the experiences of centuries past.

Still, she wasn’t that old yet, and might never get there; medicines developed by human doctors worked just as well on their Elder cousins, and they were making great strides in the treatment of senile dementia.  By the next Conclave they’d probably have it licked. And Sarah was aging well; a human making a quick appraisal might’ve taken her for 40, and one who took the time to look at her hands and count her grey hairs would’ve called her a young-looking fifty.  Either one would have laughed at someone who told them she had been born at least one human generation before William the Conqueror.  Of course, not all of them aged so well; Aaron, for example, was almost four hundred years younger than she was, yet looked older than she did.  That was because his paternal grandmother had been human; his father aged more quickly still, and had passed away several Conclaves ago.  But what the halfbloods lacked in longevity, they made up for in virility; Aaron had at least seven siblings that Sarah knew of, and had himself sired three besides her daughter Deborah.  By contrast, her own brother Jacob had but one son to his credit, and she had never heard of any pure Elder, male or female, with more than three (and even that many was such a rarity it was occasion for the largest kind of celebration outside of the Conclaves).

Virility wasn’t the only reason halfbloods had no trouble finding partners, though; there was also that incredible human passion that no pureblood could match.  Sarah had often thought that perhaps all humanoids had only one measure of passion, which had to last the Elders for over a millennium but could be spent by humans in mere decades.  When Aaron had first seen her upon arriving at the meeting-place this morning, it was as though they had only parted as lovers three years ago rather than nearly three hundred; she had not been kissed so thoroughly since before his human kin had harnessed the power of steam, and though she knew his insistence that she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever known was a sweet lie intended to get her back into bed, it was more than convincing enough to win her consent.Mercury 7  Enoch had moved out to go over to America after becoming fascinated with their Space Program, and Deborah had been encouraging her to take a new lover for a few years now; wouldn’t she be confused if her father moved back in again, at least for a little while?  Sarah knew that was unlikely, though; Aaron seemed to be making the most of his remaining years, and rarely lived with his women any more.

She decided that after the Conclave, she’d go to visit her own father, whom she hadn’t seen since Deborah’s coming of age; he had never really liked Conclaves, and after the last one had declared them a “waste of time”, resolving never to go to one again.  It appeared he was as good as his word, because he would surely have sought her out if he was at this one.  But Sarah knew the real reason he wasn’t there:  he was a genealogist, and recognized better than most how their people were dwindling.  Every Conclave had smaller attendance than the one before, and every time the attendees were older.  While the ranks of the Younger Race burgeoned, the Elders couldn’t even replace themselves, and increasing numbers of halfbloods were choosing to live among and mate with humans, their bloodlines lost to the Elders forever.  In time, they would cease to exist as a separate race entirely, and they would be remembered only in human legends.  Though most of the Elders never thought about it, their wisest had understood and discussed it since soon after their short-lived kin had begun to build cities.  Since humans could never hope to see the future themselves, they strove all the harder to create things which would outlast them.  Since they could not live long enough to grow tired of life, they never lost their zeal for living.  And since they reproduced and came of age so much more quickly than their longer-lived kin, they had changed the face of the Earth more in the ten Elder generations since they had invented writing than the Elders had managed in all the eons before.  As in so many legends, the younger sibling had received a blessing that had allowed him to usurp the birthright of the elder; no power of Sarah’s people could possibly compare to the humans’ precious gift of mortality.

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Last month’s tale was inspired by the pulp magazines, but this one was inspired by one of their successors:  comic books, specifically the horror comics of the 1970s that I grew up reading.  Those familiar with them will probably see the influence, but I hope even those who don’t will enjoy the tale.  Happy Halloween, dear reader.

“Daniel, unless you agree to see me more regularly, I honestly don’t know how I’m going to help you.  You not only refuse to come in every week, but to make regularly-scheduled appointments at all; I’m sure you realize that as long as you insist on only coming in when someone else has cancelled, our visits are going to be irregular and infrequent.”  The man she was addressing responded by getting up and walking to the window for the seventh time since the beginning of the session.  “And would you please sit down?”

He complied, then looked around for his bottle of water and began to get up to fetch it; Dr. Nolan pre-empted the move by reaching for it herself, then leaning forward to give it to him.  He drained the last of the water, sucking on the bottle for several seconds after it was dry as if to draw more water from the plastic, then replaced the cap and looked around for a wastebasket; the psychologist took the bottle from him so he wouldn’t have the excuse to get up again.  “I’m sorry, Doctor, but it has to be that way because of the nightmares.”

“You mentioned them last time, but didn’t elaborate; do they have anything to do with your inability to stick with a therapist for more than half a dozen visits?”

He nodded nervously, then leaned forward so his elbows rested on his knees and hung his head forward.  “And with my inability to hold down a job, and with my refusal to set regular appointments,” he said to the floor.  “And it’s why I don’t live near my family and have no friends.”

“But surely your family hasn’t abandoned you; our visits are billed to your father’s insurance.”

He continued to avoid eye contact, but responded, “No, it’s not like that; my family loves me and I have plenty of friends who really want me to come home again.  I know you probably don’t believe this, but until these awful dreams started I never had any mental problems in my life.”

“I believe that you believe it, Daniel, but recurring nightmares so disturbing they drive a person away from his family and friends don’t spring out of nowhere.  They come from some pre-existing issue that you’ve been unable or unwilling to acknowledge.”

“I’ll be damned if I know what that might be,” he said, straightening up suddenly in the chair.  “I can’t remember any kind of childhood trauma, always did well in school, got along fine with everybody, graduated not all that far from the top of my class.  The first person I had the dream about was my mother.”

“Go on.”

“I was living in an apartment, but you know how in dreams you’re sometimes still living with your parents.  Well, anyway, I don’t even remember what I was doing in the dream, but my mother was in another room talking to me about something; it was just a regular conversation, nothing I can even recall.  But when she came into the room, she had no face!

“What do you mean, no face?”

“I mean exactly that, no fucking face!  I mean the front of her head was totally smooth, no eyes or nose or mouth.  And she just stood there with her head turned toward me as though she was looking at me, only she had no eyes.  And I woke up screaming.”

She resisted the urge to ask him to sit down again; if pacing helped him unburden himself, so be it.  “So you kept having this nightmare about your mother?”

“Not just about her.  My dad, my little brother, my girlfriend, all of my friends, my boss…everybody I knew.  Every damned night I had them.  Every one was different; I would be doing some mundane thing, then without warning the other person in the dream would come into the room or turn around or whatever and have no face.  And then I wake up.”

“It never goes any further?”

“No, that’s it, I always wake up as soon as I see that horrible faceless head.”

“So why did you leave your home?”

“A few months after the nightmares started, my little brother went off to college.  Then when he came home for a visit, I had the nightmare about him that very night.  Thinking about it later, though, I realized that I hadn’t dreamed of him even once while he was gone.  I quit my job and went to work somewhere else…and my old boss immediately stopped appearing in the nightmares.  It wasn’t long after that I moved away.”

“Did it help?”

Faceless Girl by Varjo66 (2005)“It worked perfectly.  I only have the nightmare about people I know well, and even then if I see them often.  As long as I spend my days with strangers, my nights are peaceful.  But if I get to know anyone too well, the nightmare comes back starring that person, except without a face.”

“So every time you get to know a therapist well…”

“…he or she starts appearing in the nightmare, and I have to stop going.  Same thing with jobs; as soon as faceless versions of my boss or coworkers start haunting me, I quit.  My neighbors probably think I’m a terrorist or something because I totally avoid talking to them, for fear of being forced to move.  I’m hoping that if I see you sporadically, it will at least take longer for me to start having the dream about you.”

“Well, at least I know what we’re up against now.  Please try to make another appointment as soon as you feel comfortable, and we’ll see if we can’t figure out the real reason you’re so afraid to get close to anyone.”

“Do you think that’s what it is, Doctor Nolan?”

“I think it’s very likely.  Until then, try to keep your mind occupied, and try to at least call your family and friends if you can do that without setting off the nightmares.”

After leaving her office, Daniel felt extremely agitated; talking about the problem had only served to churn up the terror in his mind, and despite the doctor’s advice he didn’t feel it wise to call home too often.  A long walk in the park did nothing to clear his mind, nor did dinner and a movie, and he didn’t like to go home between dinner and midnight because a couple of his neighbors often sat out on the steps talking on fine nights like this one.  So he decided to seek some company from one of the girls who frequented the stroll about ten blocks from his place; the only one in sight when he arrived was a slender, 30-ish woman named Lisa he’d been with a few times before.  It occurred to him that even seeing the same hooker too many times was probably not safe, but if he started dreaming about any of them he’d just have to start going to massage parlors instead.

Lisa recognized him, and the deal was quickly made; he followed her to her room, and the two of them got undressed at the same time.  He was still quite nervous from the afternoon’s session, though, so he tried to focus on what she was doing so he’d get excited and forget about all that, at least for a little while.  He watched as she kicked off her shoes, shimmied out of her dress, removed her underwear, and took off her face.

Only this time he didn’t wake up.

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(This is the second of two parts; if you missed yesterday’s installment, go back and read it first!)

Hole in the Moon by Chesley BonestellAfter several agonizing minutes, Doc came on the line; I was relieved that his speech was unslurred.  “What can I do for you, my dear?”

“Doc, honey, what can you tell me about the slugs?”

“You mean the limaxomorphs?  We don’t know much about them yet; they spend most of their time submerged in the lakes, and don’t do much of interest when they’re basking.  We’ve never even found remains to examine, but long-distance scans seem to indicate a very simple bodily structure, much lower on the evolutionary scale than the earthly gastropods they resemble.”

“Could they be intelligent?”

“Mercy, no, dear girl; they don’t seem to have anything like a brain that we can detect, though again we would need to dissect one to be sure.  Still, we’ve never observed any behavior that would seem to indicate intelligence.”

“How about coordinated group activity?”

“That’s not really a sign of intelligence per se; ant and bee colonies have very sophisticated group behavior, but they’re not intelligent as we understand the term.”

“So, abducting women wouldn’t qualify?”

“Well, it depends; group hunting behaviors are not…wait, are you saying this isn’t a theoretical question?”

“Not as such, no.”

“They actually abducted you?  When?  How?  Where are you now?  What are they doing?”

“I’d call it dancing.”  While I had been talking, the slugs had seemed to become increasingly…well, excited, and sort of throbbed while swaying forward and backward.  And just as the Doc started to ask those rapid-fire questions, they had begun to slowly slide sideways in a circle around me, not getting any closer.  The ones who were not in direct proximity to me were still swaying and throbbing, as if to music I couldn’t hear.  And the weirdest part of the whole performance?  I wasn’t scared at all.

Dancing?”

“I took a lot of lessons as a girl, Doc; dancing would be the word I’d use.  Artistic expression through rhythmic movement.”

“That still doesn’t mean they’re intelligent; birds do mating dances, for example.”

“I don’t think they want to mate with me, Doc; I think they’re trying to communicate.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Call it a hunch.  I’m going to ring off now; I want to see how they react to that.  But don’t worry, I’ll call as soon as something changes, and I’ll answer if anyone calls me.”

When I broke the connection, they abruptly stopped moving; they did not resume when I started talking to myself out loud, but did when I called the club again.

“Tell Doc they’re sensitive to radio waves,” I told Frances, then “I’ll call when I learn anything else.”

The slugs were still again for quite some time, and I began to get a bit thirsty.  I hadn’t intended to be gone so long, so I hadn’t filled my water bottle; fortunately the air recirculator had recently been serviced, so I wouldn’t suffocate unless I stayed here for several days.  After a while I got up to stretch my legs; there was no reaction at all from my strange hosts.  It was as though the only thing that excited them was electromagnetic energy.

That stray thought gave me an idea, so I activated my built-in torch and played the light over the slugs in the front row.  The effect was almost immediate; they started to sway again for a few moments, then gorgeous ripples of color began to play over them as though someone were putting on a laser show.  The colors changed, brightened and dimmed and moved in waves from slug to slug, not stopping for an instant when crossing between individuals, as though they were all part of a greater whole…Say, what if they were?

“Frances, put Doc on again…Doc, could all the slugs be one creature?”

“You mean like a bee colony, many creatures bound together in a swarm?”

“Sort of, only more so; what if the slugs aren’t actually individuals at all, but simply cells connected together by telepathy or radio waves or something?”  I explained how they had reacted to my light, and as I spoke they began to do their dance again while the colors ebbed and flowed among them in intricate patterns, like unearthly flowers blossoming and dying on shifting dunes, or like silent fireworks merged with rolling waves.  It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life.

“I think you may be onto something, my dear!  If each limaxomorph is merely part of the greater whole…oh, my!”

“What?” I asked after a few moments of silence.

“They – or if we’re right, it – may assume that we’re connected to each other just as they are.  Perhaps your abduction was, to it, nothing more than a tap on collective humanity’s shoulder?”

“And the reason they – it – gets excited when I’m talking on the phone is that it believes I’m communicating to the rest of you like its cells communicate!  Yes, that must be it!  Doc, I’m going to try a few things here, so don’t get worried if I’m quiet for a while.”

“Understood.”

I rang off, and though I expected it I couldn’t help being disappointed when the color waves and dancing abruptly stopped.  So I turned on the light again, and was rewarded with the colors; I called a friend I knew wasn’t home, and the dance continued until her answering machine got tired of my talking nonsense and hung up on me.  Then I stood up again, and started moving toward the entrance; the slugs didn’t budge.  Clearly, I wasn’t going to get out of here until it was satisfied that we had understood whatever it was trying to say.

Sometime after midnight I fell asleep, but I didn’t sleep well; I was haunted by nightmares of an immense, formless something peeling off my clothes and trying to get into my skull via my ears.  Doc called once and Frances twice, and though the slug-collective responded as usual to the calls, it didn’t do anything else.

If you’ve never slept in a spacesuit, I have some advice for you:  Don’t.  They’re not made for it, and you’ll ache all over and be grumpy all the next day.  So I was in absolutely no mood to deal with the first phone call of the morning, Marshal McBusybody himself.

“What is going on, Miss Trevor?  I called your office and they said you were out.”

“You expected the owner of a nightclub to be awake at 0900?”

“Not really, but I heard that you left in a huff last night, never came back, and that Dr. Robinson spent the entire evening in your office.”

“So you’re spying on me, too?  I don’t think that’s playing strictly by the rules, Marshal.”

“You still haven’t answered my question; what exactly is going on?”

blonde in retro spacesuit“Ask your spies,” I said, and hung up.  Frances would get an earful from me later for letting him bully her into giving out my personal phone code.  I had rather hoped that an angry conversation would cause a different reaction in the slugs, but no such luck; they reacted exactly the same way as before, and stopped when the call did.  I tried explaining to them/it that I was hungry, exhausted, cramped and dying for a cigarette, and that I really despised having to take care of personal business in a spacesuit, but it was no use; I wasn’t even sure they could hear me.

The morning dragged on, and though I tried everything from semaphore with my suit light to my best Ginger Rogers impression (or the closest to it I could get in space boots), the only reactions I got were the same ones I had before.  Then at 11:37 I heard the amplified voice of my new adversary calling down from above, and the slugs didn’t seem to like him any more than I did.

“MISS TREVOR, THIS IS MARSHAL McBAIN.  ARE YOU DOWN THERE?”

“Of course I’m down here, you imbecile!  You obviously used a robohound to track me to this hole in the ground, so where did you think I’d be?  In Detroit?”

“ARE YOU IN ANY IMMEDIATE DANGER?”

“If I were in immediate danger, I’d have been dead hours ago!  Any more stupid questions?”

“WE’RE GOING TO LOWER YOU A LINE.”

“You do that.  Is Doc with you?”

“I’m here, dear girl!” he shouted down.  “This is amazing; we had no idea there were this many of them in the area!”

“Yeah, well try to keep Captain Gungho there from killing ‘em all until I get upstairs,” I said as I adjusted the sling around my torso; “I think I know what they want.”

Later in his office, I tried to drive my theory into the marshal’s thick skull.  “Look, it’s not that complicated.  If Doc and I are right, the slugs are one big creature.  Not just in that lake, but all over Titan; your men found slime trails leading out in every direction from that cave.  One single creature, spread out over a whole world.”

“So?”

“So how do you think you’d feel if you were the only intelligent creature on a whole planet, with nobody else to talk to?  And what if another creature came along that was so different from anything you knew, that you at first thought it wasn’t intelligent, but then you realized it might be?  Wouldn’t you try to talk to it?”

“I suppose I would.”

“Well of course you would, Marshal!  And let’s say it ignored your first few attempts…”

“What attempts?”

“Who knows?  It could’ve been sending out all kinds of signals we didn’t recognize as communication, right Doc?”

“Indubitably.”

“Like he said.  So wouldn’t you eventually get frustrated and go to even greater lengths to attract the stranger’s attention?  Try to talk to her?  To impress her with your charm and personality?”

“You think the slugs were flirting with you?” he asked incredulously, and with undisguised disgust.

“Not with me, Marshal, with us.  It’s one big organism, more than the sum of its parts, so naturally it thinks humanity is as well.  Heck, maybe it’s even right, in a way.  But you seem to think loneliness is all about sex; it’s not, you know.  Not for slugs, and not for humans, either.”

He looked at me for a long time before speaking.  “Perhaps I misjudged you, Miss Trevor.  You may be more of an asset to this colony than I had at first imagined.”

“We all do that sometimes, Marshal; until last night, we thought the slugs were just mindless bottom-feeders.  It takes a big person to admit he misjudged somebody or something.”

For the first time since I’d met him, I saw a slight smile crack his face.  “Well, I hope we still see a lot of each other.”

I blew smoke in his direction and smiled back. “Count on it.”

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The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday of the pulps, cheaply-produced magazines crammed with new fiction in almost every genre imaginable.  They were the forerunners of comic books and, in a way, of television and video games in that they provided affordable entertainment and tried to reach every possible niche market.  Like their modern successors, they were often condemned by critics as lowbrow, but had a certain undeniable charm; many of the best stories are still read and anthologized today.  This story was based on a dream I had on my first night in New Orleans at the end of my recent tour; perhaps it was inspired by a poster of sci-fi pulp covers Denise had on the wall of the guest room.  Though modern science has rendered its setting highly dubious, I ask that you approach it as readers approached those old tales from nearly a century ago:  as an imaginative tale of adventure on a fantastic world.

Saturn as Seen from Titan by Chesley Bonestell (1952)Every time I looked up at that spectacular view of Saturn, I congratulated myself on having had the good sense to invest in topside property.  Though it had meant a heavy mortgage, the expenditure of every penny I’d made my first year on Titan, and the calling-in of every favor I had accumulated, it was totally worth it; nearly every visitor to the colony preferred my club to the ones down in the red-light district, as did every local with any poetry in his soul.  Sure, it meant I had to charge more for drinks and house fees, and to maintain a more discreet atmosphere than the anything-goes places in the backstreets.  But you know what?  I never liked working in that kind of place, and I’ll be damned if my name was going to be attached to one.  I could never have afforded the rent or the bribes to own a place this classy on Earth, but here it was still wide open for a gal with a little bit of business savvy and a lot of what Mama Nature gave her.

That’s not to say that I didn’t breathe a little sigh of relief every time I sat down with my books and saw loads more black ink than red.  While it’s true that there are few things more dependable than gents’ desire for booze and female company when they’re months away from population centers with a more even distribution of the sexes, it’s also true that hospitality is always a precarious business and a proprietor always needs to be aware of developments that might queer the whole deal faster than sunset on Ceres.  And on the particular night of which I’m about to tell you, one such development walked through my door and none-too-politely requested my company.  Well, demanded is maybe a better word.

Said development was about 190 centimeters tall, wore a badge and a blaster and looked a helluva lot like Fred McMurray; I mean the young Double Indemnity Fred McMurray, not the old Disney-comedy one.  Which is kind of a funny coincidence, because I’ve often been told I look a lot like the young Barbara Stanwyck.  By the time I excused myself from mingling and reached the office, he was looking through my file cabinet.

“Didn’t your mama ever tell you it’s not polite to riffle through a lady’s drawers without her permission?” I asked from the doorway, projecting a nonchalance I did not feel.

“You’re required to keep these available for inspection on demand; I’m demanding.”

I shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  You’ll find they’re all in order; I pay my lawyer and my CPA to make sure they are.  In fact, I could’ve delivered ‘em to your office and saved you the trouble of coming all the way across town.”

“I wanted to look the place over for myself.  You know this sort of business isn’t supposed to be operating on the surface; you appear to have been grandfathered in somehow, but I want you to know that I’ll be watching, and if this place becomes a nuisance…”

I was sitting at the desk by this point.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance too, Marshal,” I said, blowing smoke in his direction before stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray.  “I get the feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

“Count on it,” he said, slamming the door on his way out.  I will not record what I said the moment he was gone, because I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m unladylike.

Though I learned long ago to keep control of my temper when dealing with men, I was boiling inside and knew it would be a mistake to go back to the floor right then.  So I left things in the capable hands of my assistant Frances, put on my thermal suit and decided to go for a walk along the lakeshore.  Now, if you’ve never been to Titan (and let’s face it, that’s probably a safe assumption), I should probably explain that the lakes, rivers, swamps and seas here aren’t made of water but of a liquid hydrocarbon mixture; it would probably smell like tar or gasoline, but since you need a helmet to go outside I can’t be sure.  If you absolutely have to know, ask a chemist.  Anyhow, the native life seems to like it all right; the shallows of the lake swarm with bugs during the day, and even at night you can hear lots of things moving around in the water.  Oil.  Benzene?  Oh, you know what I mean.

McMurray & StanwyckI was plenty mad when I left the dome, and by the time I had cooled off I had walked about three kilometers beyond the end of the well-travelled path.  Not that I was worried, mind you; humans are by far the largest animals on Titan.  The second-largest is a kind of giant slug massing about 30 kilos, and I suddenly realized I had walked right into the middle of a much larger aggregation of them than I’d ever seen or heard of.  They like to lie in the mud sunning themselves during the day, in groups of maybe a few dozen at a time, but it was rare to see ‘em at night.  Yet here I was, surrounded by hundreds of the slimy things; though they are usually very shy and always flee the approach of humans by sliding into the lake, these weren’t moving at all and I bet Doc Robinson would’ve given a month’s pay to trade places with me right now because what had made me stop and wake up to my surroundings was nearly putting my foot in one.

Doc could’ve saved his money, though, because I’d have gladly traded places with him for free.  Yeah, they were harmless…but this was a much larger grouping than anybody had ever seen in one place, and at night to boot; it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and I decided that even the company of the new marshal would be preferable right now.  But as I turned back, I realized that there was no place to go; the slugs had slithered onto the path behind me, and I couldn’t move from the spot where I was standing without stepping on one.  I don’t scare easy, but let me plop you down alone on another planet, surrounded entirely by shapeless aliens, and let’s see if you do any better than I did.  I was totally terrified, and I guess I must’ve had my oxygen valve turned a bit too low for the combination of exertion and excitement because when they started closing in and actually crawling up my legs I passed out.  Aw, who am I trying to kid?  Like the heroine of a Victorian melodrama, I fainted.

By the time I opened my eyes again, my radiophone’s readout said 23:14; I had only been out for maybe half an hour, but my surroundings were completely different and I shuddered when I realized the slugs must’ve dragged me here.  I wasn’t sure where “here” was, exactly, but it looked like a cave and the rocks were wet with slime.  The entrance was above, so there was plenty enough Saturn-light for me to see that the group which had captured me was only a small fraction of the number here; there must have been thousands.  Though I was still petrified they hadn’t actually harmed me (except for the nice new grey hairs I had probably sprouted), and in fact were giving me a wide berth; the only bad thing was the unshakeable feeling that they were looking at me (despite the fact that they lack any visible sensory apparatus at all).  After about ten minutes of calming myself, I decided to risk the radiophone; Frances answered.

“Hiya doll.  Keeping things together over there?”

“Janet?  Where in blazes are you?  You’ve been gone for over two hours!”

“No time to explain now.  Is Doc Robinson still there, and sober?”

“Yes and mostly.  You want me to get him on the phone?”

“Please.”  The slugs hadn’t moved; could they hear, or detect radio waves, or both?  If so, they didn’t seem overly concerned.

(What do the slugs want with Janet?  And even if she escapes them, how will she deal with the new marshal?  Be here tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!)

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Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry.  –  Aristotle

Maeve resisted the urge to hurl the abacus against the far wall of the library.  It might have given her a little momentary satisfaction, but it would do nothing to remedy the situation and would, in fact, make it slightly worse because she would then have to buy another abacus.  She had carefully checked her figures three times, and found no errors; for the first time since she had become a courtesan, her expenditures for the month had exceeded her income.  And given that she had been cutting back on those expenditures for over a year now, that was a very bad development indeed.

She hastened to her looking-glass and closely examined her face in it.  She was still a very beautiful woman, but the encroaching signs of age were unmistakable and even the expensive cosmetics she purchased from a talented alchemist could only delay the inevitable.  Sooner or later she would begin to display the grey hair and wrinkles she had evaded for decades, and then her income would dry up along with her body.  Maeve sighed deeply; she was not an especially wise woman nor a frugal one, and though she had known for half her life that this day would eventually come, she had failed to make even the most rudimentary investments for her retirement.  And while most women could count on children and grandchildren to support them in their dotage, Maeve had traded away her ability to have them many years ago, in a bargain that seemed sensible at the time.  Her only hope was the Potion of Youth that the alchemist said he could make for her, but its price was so high she dared not spend the money unless she was absolutely certain it would buy her many years of good income again.

No, she was in a fine stew indeed, and thinking her way out of things had never been her strong point.  So she instead retired to her private shrine to Venus and began to pray for either divine inspiration or (preferably) a new and generous patron who would consider her maturity a plus rather than a minus.  When she was finished with her prayers, she found her maid Elise waiting for her in the anteroom with a rather odd look on her face.  “Ma’am, you have a visitor downstairs.”

“How wonderful!  Perhaps the goddess has answered my prayer already!”

Elise’s mien grew even stranger, but Maeve did not notice; she was already halfway down the stairs in less time than it takes to tell, and her maid appeared in no rush to keep up with her.  Reaching the door to her parlor, she took a moment to check her hair and teeth in another glass, then swept gracefully into the room in a way calculated to impress any but the dullest of clients.  It is a testament to her years of experience that she did not gasp out loud when she saw who was waiting for her in the room, but no mortal could have kept at least a momentary reaction from being reflected in her visage.  Because seated on the couch, drinking her tea and eating her cakes, was someone she at first took to be a very small boy until she realized that he had a beard.

He immediately stood up and bowed deeply; even though he was standing on the couch, his head was yet below the level of her bosom when he returned to an upright position.  “Allow me to introduce myself, dear lady; I am Ulwin O’Meglyn.”

The room grew quiet for a moment; Maeve was completely at a loss for words.  And even when she found her tongue at last, what came forth would not have won marks for elocution.  “Unless I very much miss my guess, good sir, you are a leprechaun.”

“I am not!” he said with controlled indignation.  “I am a brownie.  Leprechauns are about six inches taller and generally dress in tasteless green outfits, though I must admit they make some very fine shoes.”

Maeve was beginning to wonder what she could possibly have done to offend her goddess enough to deserve this joke being played upon her.  “Good Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin, please.”

“Ulwin.  I apologize for my reaction, but, ah, I expected a different kind of visitor.  If you are seeking a position here, I would be happy to have you under the traditional arrangement.”

The little man looked at her with a rather annoyed expression.  “Madam, it is clear that you are rather ill-informed about developments in the relations between our races over the past several generations.  While it is true that in the past most of my people worked as servants in human households and refused to take formal payment, that has long since ceased to be the rule; I am the owner of an agency which places brownies in service in the very best households in the kingdom.  And as you can see, I have done quite well for myself.”

Now that he mentioned it, Maeve noticed that his clothes were impeccably tailored and his hat, boots and walking-stick new and of the finest craftsmanship.  “Pardon my ignorance, Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin.”

“Ulwin.  I’m not especially interested in hiring additional paid servants at this time, but if I change my mind…”

“Dear lady, at the risk of being indelicate…I am not here to offer the services of those I represent, but to hire your services.”

Maeve could not help but laugh, though she had no desire to offend the polite little gentleman.  “You must forgive me, sir, but…well, it seems the difference in our statures might make that sort of activity rather difficult.”

“You disappoint me, madam.  Surely you do not think me a schoolboy who considers mere coupling to be the be-all and end-all of the time a man spends with a woman?”

For the first time, she realized he was absolutely earnest; exactly three seconds later, she began to consider his proposition.  She cautiously sat down beside him; he was still shorter than her despite the fact that he was standing on the seat.  “You’re serious?”

“Utterly.”

“But, don’t I seem…well, rather huge and grotesque in your eyes?”

“I would not be here if I felt that way.”

“I suppose not.  But why…I mean, how…that is…”

“I hardly thought I would have had to explain the strange mysteries of humanoid desire to an expert in the field.”

teacupMaeve knew he was right; there was no predicting what strange permutations would arouse the ardor of one man or another, and in her many years of experience she had found that no less true of dwarves, elves or other near-human people.  And it was obvious he had a great deal of money; perhaps Venus had heard her prayer after all.  “Your suggestions intrigue me, Ulwin,” she purred in her most charming manner; “Let me pour you some more tea and we’ll discuss it further.”

His smile let her know that she had already dispelled whatever bad feelings her clumsy and unprofessional reactions had engendered, and as they chatted she envisioned a profitable association with him and perhaps other little men who might share his tastes.  Nor was that the limit of the possibilities his visit had opened her mind to; one of her regular gentlemen had told her that only two days’ ride into the mountains, there was a village of friendly giants.

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Weave again for sweet Eurydice life’s pattern that was taken from the loom too quick.  –  Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X

After more than eighteen hours of struggle, during which half a dozen different solutions had been developed and tried, Tanya finally had to accept the fact that the mission for which they had trained so long was a failure.  Their orbit was decaying; already the heat resulting from atmospheric friction was too much for the climate control to handle, and her clothes were plastered to her body with sweat.  Richard was pale when he should have been flushed, and she knew that he, too, grasped the full import of the situation:  they were going to die when the ship broke up, and there was absolutely nothing either they or Mission Control back on Earth could do about it.

“Orpheus One to Mission Control,” he said calmly into the mike.  “Request permission to initiate protocol six-seven-four.”  She did not let her face betray her sinking feelings; though she well understood that the self-destruct mechanism would be far less awful than waiting as many as twelve or fourteen more hours for the inevitable end, this was being televised to the whole world and she was unsure how the authorities were explaining it to the viewers.  “Repeat, protocol Six.  Seven.  Four.”

Venus“Request for protocol six-seven-four received and understood.  Stand by, Orpheus One; will advise shortly.”  Then, more quietly on the private channel:  “Hang in there, Rich, we’ll get an answer for you ASAP.”  Richard smiled bravely at her and squeezed her hand.  The two of them had been selected for compatibility; they both believed passionately in the project and had trained together for two years even before embarking on the months-long voyage to Venus in the cramped quarters of the seeding ship.  It would have been a miracle if they hadn’t fallen in love.  But there was no time to talk about it now when there were still dozens of tasks to perform; even if they were doomed, the telemetry and their reports would make Orpheus Two’s descent into Hell much less likely to fail.

The response from Earth came back with surprising speed; obviously Mission Control concurred with their assessment of the situation.  “Orpheus One, you are cleared for protocol six-seven-four once the commanding and biology officer’s reports are filed.”  And on the private channel: “I’m sorry, Rich, Tanya.  Whenever you’re ready.”

Though they had hoped it would never be necessary, they had drilled this a dozen times.  Tanya had already filed her final report; since the engineering problem had developed before they even started to seed the clouds, there was very little to report.  She checked the valves that would release the anesthesia gas into the cockpit, then opened them once Rich gave the all-clear; as soon as the computer registered that they were completely unconscious, the self-destruct device would automatically engage and the shattered fragments of Orpheus One and her two human occupants would soon come to rest on the surface of the hostile world they hoped to one day make fit for human habitation.

“I love you,” he whispered, embracing her for the last time.

“Oh, I love you so!” she answered through tears, as she slipped into sleep.

***************************************************************

The next thing Tanya was aware of was that it was very cold and much too bright; she thought she must only feel cold because it had been so hot before, but that begged the question of why she should feel anything at all when she was dead.  Eventually her drugged brain concluded that she must not be dead, however impossible that seemed; she started to make out fragments of conversation that seemed to be about her, and then understood that someone – a doctor or nurse? – was telling her that she was safe.  She ventured a complaint about the light, but it was ignored until she had repeated it several times; she then asked for a blanket and that was granted much more quickly.  Then it was a dizzying and unpleasant trip by gurney to a quieter, darker room, strong arms lifting her into a soft bed, and oblivion again.

The next time she woke her mind was instantly alert and full of questions; the attending nurse claimed not to know anything, and called for help when Tanya responded to her advice to lie calm with a string of profanity and demands to talk to someone who “Does know something goddammit!”  That succeeded in getting a hospital administrator there, and he assured her that he didn’t know much more than she did, that he was under orders not to discuss the little he did know, and that a VIP would be there to explain things to her in a few hours.  She used the time to eat, to take her first proper shower in months and to ascertain that wherever she was, it was definitely on Earth (judging by air and gravity) but had no windows.  After an interminable amount of time an orderly brought her one of her own uniforms (freshly laundered) and bade her dress, and then she waited still longer.

Finally, she was ushered into a briefing room, and the VIP turned out to be no less than the Undersecretary of Space Exploration himself.  He had visited the project many times during the training period, and Tanya felt she knew him well enough to be blunt with him; after he greeted her and shook her hand, she responded with “No offense, Mr. Secretary, but what the hell is going on here?”

He sighed and steepled his fingers.  “Tanya, I know you may find this hard to accept at first, but your mission didn’t fail; it succeeded.”

“How so?  The hull design turned out to be unable to withstand the conditions in the upper Venusian atmosphere, and its integrity was compromised before we could even begin the seeding run.”

“Didn’t you find that at all suspicious?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we’ve studied Venus for decades; we’re almost as familiar with its atmospheric conditions as we are with Earth’s.  We’ve sent dozens of unmanned probes there; don’t you think we should know how to build a ship that would stand up to it by now?”

“I’m not an engineer,” Tanya retorted, but she inwardly felt very foolish; of course they could.

“The ship didn’t break up, Tanya; it did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to simulate a doomed terraforming mission.”

“Simulate?” she asked weakly.  “But there was a real ship.  We saw it several times a week for two years.”

“A real mockup.  When you entered the cockpit module, the crane transferred you into the simulator instead of the dummy ship.”

“But why?  What was the point?  I mean obviously you wanted to put on some big survival drama for television, and you didn’t tell us…was Richard in on this?” she asked angrily.

“Richard was as much in the dark as you were.  We wanted your reactions to be authentic.”

“WHY?” she exploded.  “For the love of God, what was it all for?  It must have cost billions!”

He sighed more deeply this time, and seemed to let his practiced poise drop a little.  “Tanya, there are twelve billion people on the planet now; thanks to advances of the past century hunger is a thing of the past, and the number of people in dire poverty is so low it’s barely worth mentioning.  Automation handles all of the jobs that are too dangerous for humans, and we’ve banned all dangerous sports and unhealthy activities; the average person now lives to be one hundred and eight, and spends most of his non-working hours immersed in unproductive fantasy.  Depression is epidemic, and our whole society is drowning in ennui; the population needs a great adventure they can experience vicariously, something they can believe in.  Because when people have nothing to look forward to, they have no reason to go on living.”

“Richard and I often wondered why the government was sending humans on a dangerous mission a robot ship could’ve handled just as well.”

“Now you know.  The point of the mission wasn’t to terraform Venus, which won’t be technically feasible for decades yet despite those bogus figures you were taught; the point was to get the world excited about a huge adventure, to give them heroes to root for and love and cry over and mourn for.  Tomorrow I’m going to a ceremony to unveil plans for a giant memorial for you and Richard.”

“But we’re still alive!”

“A technicality.  We couldn’t allow two such talented scientists to be lost, especially with all the training the state has invested in you; you’ll be given new faces and new identities, and retrained for other work.”

“So we don’t even get to enjoy being heroes,” Tanya said bitterly.

“This isn’t about you.”

“Obviously not.”

“Look, Tanya, I understand you’re upset; the rug’s just been yanked out from under you and everything you thought you knew has been turned upside-down.  I’ve authorized a 50% salary increase plus a very generous bonus package, and I’ve had all your baggage moved from the training center to a secure residence facility near here; soon you’ll be discharged from the hospital and moved there, and you can take as much time off as you need.  We won’t start your retraining until you’re ready, OK?”

“Yeah, great.  Thanks.”

When Tanya was left alone in her new quarters hours later, she proceeded to nervously dig through her bags, hoping to find something which had been among her toiletries at the training center.  At last, she found it; the housekeeper had apparently received no instructions other than to collect all of her things, because if anyone had given it some thought this bottle would almost certainly have been confiscated.  She carefully counted out the pills, allowing four extra to provide a margin for error; she had always had almost textbook reactions to medicine, so she was certain it would be enough.  For the first time since they had embarked on their fake voyage, there was no telemetry taped to her body; by the time anyone checked on her tomorrow, she would already be cold.  As she swallowed the pills in small handfuls with a glass of filtered water, she reflected that the secretary was right about one thing:  she had believed in Project Orpheus with all her heart, and was fervently dedicated to the goal of opening another world up to human colonization.  But that had all been ripped away from her in the last 24 hours, along with her name, her identity, the man she loved and her entire life history.  She had nothing left, except whatever the state decided to magnanimously dole out to her; given the way she had been used without her consent, she had absolutely no faith that her new life would be anything worth looking forward to.  And when people have nothing to look forward to…

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If you’ve just started reading my blog since last summer, you may be unfamiliar with Aella the Amazon; if so, this story will make little sense to you unless you first read “A Decent Boldness“, “A Haughty Spirit” and “Glorious Gifts“, in that order.

Wise to resolve, and patient to perform.  –  Homer, Odyssey (IV, 372)

To My Dearest Friend Phaedra, May Tethys Protect and Enrich Thee:

I pray this letter finds thee well, and that thou wilt forgive my poor grammar and worse penmanship.  I have written it in Tarshi because it is of the utmost importance that its contents are kept a secret between us, and I know that no one in my country and few in thine can read it.  My people already believe me to have become somewhat erratic due to my years spent in Man’s World, and I fear if they knew what I was planning I might not escape as easily as I did that unpleasantness about the spring festival six years ago.

youth with cattleThou wilt remember that I conceived by the wealthy Scythian who gifted me with the beautiful kine, and bore a healthy son; thou wilt also remember that by the ancient pact between their people and ours, sons go to live with their fathers while we keep the daughters.  Most of my people see a son as no more than bad luck, a necessary but unfortunate side effect of the lottery which might also produce a daughter.  But somehow I could not be quite so unconcerned; even in the three months between his birth and the Spring Festival I had become very attached to him, and though I spoke it not aloud I gave him a secret name in my heart, Asterios.  I suppose my Aunt Laomache is right, and I have been contaminated by outlandish ideas; I’ve known so many good men, both in Tartessos and during the months I spent at thy mother’s in Knossos, that I can no longer think of them merely as a necessary evil (no matter how bad most of them may be).  Furthermore, his father Niall and I have mated every year since at the festival, and he always makes me a present of more kine; I thus see my son (whom his father named Hemek) every spring, and again on the occasions when our clans have met for trading after harvest, and every day (or so I fancy) in the faces of the two daughters I have borne since, who strongly resemble their brother.

So though it is not considered proper among my people to care about the fates of sons, the heart cannot be commanded by mortal woman.  I know not why I feel such a powerful concern for his health and happiness, but feel it I do, and I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong to deny him the advantages his sisters will have.  The Scythians are great warriors and horsemen, but they are not civilized like we Amazons; they spend most of the year roaming the steppes, living in tents and grazing their herds hither and yon.  They have no writing and little in the way of art, and even their music and poetry are crude.  So though my son is already strong and skilled for his five years, I want more for him than to be a mere herdsman.  If wandering be the way of his father’s people, so be it, but let him wander among the cities of the West rather than the endless seas of grass in the East.  Let him go forth and learn about all the wonders of the world as I have, and come home a wealthy, important and learned man, perhaps one able to bring culture to his noble but naïve race.

I have spoken to Niall about this, and we are in agreement; he is very impressed with the knowledge I gained in my travels, and he would like his son to have similar learning.  If it meet with thy approval, we will send Hemek to thee two springs hence with the same captain who bears this letter; in the years I have known him I have found him to be an honorable man, and I believe I can trust him to deliver the boy safely into thy keeping in Knossos.  I also know thou hast important kin who can secure the necessary seals and papers to doubly insure that he not be abused or sold into slavery before he reaches thy house.  I charge thee to love him as thou lovest me, and to rear and educate him alongside thine own son; once I receive confirmation of his safe passage I will also pay the same captain to carry thee a sum of gold sufficient to pay whatever sum his teachers demand, and a like sum every year until his education should be complete.

Though I am a loyal Amazon and love my family and my mother country, I am no longer the pigheaded provincial I was when we met so long ago; I have learned that there are many ways for men and women to relate to one another, and have grown wise enough to understand that our ways are not necessarily the best.  Legend says our first queen established our laws so that we would never be dominated by men, and while I saw the kind of society she wished to avoid in several of the places we visited, in Crete I saw men and women living together as equals.  Perhaps thy people are morally superior to all others, yet I know them to be just as mortal; I therefore assume this to be the result of superior teaching and wiser laws.  That is the other reason I wish my son to be educated there; perhaps he can bring that wisdom back to his father’s people, and his mother’s people can in turn learn from them.  I do not believe that even a son of mine can create a new Golden Age singlehandedly, nor that such a thing is even possible.  But if change is to happen it has to start somewhere, and who better to start it than one of Amazon blood?

With Sincere Love and Gratitude, Thine Own True Friend Always

Aella sealed letter

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