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.
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.
I 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!)