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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

This is the last part of the loose trilogy which started with “Serpentine” in December and continued with “Left Behind” last month.  As I explained in the latter preface, they are not connected by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  Some of those motifs are closer to the surface in this offering, while others are hidden much more deeply; one of those is the erotic undertone, which most of you probably wouldn’t even have noticed had I not said something.  If the meaning of the title is unfamiliar, you may wish to consult the first paragraph of “Veneralia“; it may also help you to locate that erotic undertone I mentioned. 

Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory
February 12th, 1895

For almost thirty-five years you have been wonderfully patient with me, dear sister; you have respected my wish not to talk about the events of that fateful trip of my youth in which my first husband met his maker.  For all that time I have allowed both you and the authorities to believe that hostile Indians were to blame, and that the nervous shock was so great I was unable to discuss the details.  Now, I don’t give a damn if the law continues to abide in ignorance about it, but a decent respect for my own kin and for the kindness you showed me after my return, going far beyond what I had any right to expect from you, demands that I take this opportunity to break my silence at last and tell you the truth about what happened, why it happened and why I have never said anything about it.  I leave it to your discretion as to how much (if any) you wish to share with Richard and Janice; perhaps it would be better for you to invent something instead.  You always were the imaginative one; I could never come up with tales like you could, which is why I never even tried to make up some fib to cover up the truth.  I ask you to remember that when reading this; I tell it exactly as it happened, and you well know that I could never have dreamed anything like this up.  As to my children…well, Richard is a good, simple man like his father was, and would certainly conclude that his mother was mad and had run off into the hinterlands in some kind of fit.  But Janice is my daughter for sure, and may eventually need to know (as you will see).

CihuacoatlI don’t recall the exact date when we left Shreveport, but it was sometime in the spring of 1860; I want to say April, but it’s so warm down in Louisiana it may have actually been earlier.  We sailed up the Red River until we reached the western part of what was then called the Indian Territory, and is now known as Oklahoma; after we disembarked we were taken by a guide back into the hills.  As you may recall, George was in search of evidence to support his theories about the spread of myth-motifs, and he had received reports that the Indians who had inhabited this area prior to the mass relocations of the thirties had worshipped a goddess similar to the Aztec Cihuacoatl (that means “Snake Woman”).  For two years he had sent letters back and forth to academics, naturalists, explorers, military officers, government officials and anyone else he thought might have some information on the area, and by the autumn of ’59 he had enough to convince his dean to grant him a sabbatical for field research.  The amount of money Miskatonic granted him, however, was not enough to both pay for the trip and hire an assistant; he therefore hit upon the practical solution of marrying a Mount Holyoke graduate who had planned to become a missionary to the Indians anyway, and not bothering to tell her that his mission to the Southwest was to study the heathens rather than converting them.  Don’t think too badly of him, dear sister; though it is true he married a young and naïve girl to gain an unpaid servant and secretary, it is equally true that I married a middle-aged professor to gain financial support and social status.  Does that shock you?  It shouldn’t; after all, in those days even pursuing an education was a rather unconventional choice for a woman.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the time we spent following fruitless leads, interviewing old Indians with the help of translators, investigating sites that were said to have been sacred to now-extinct tribes, and otherwise chasing wild geese.  George grew increasingly desperate (and increasingly irritable) as summer turned to autumn without our having discovered even enough to base an article on.  He began to follow ever-weaker clues to ever-more-distant destinations, and as the money ran low he eschewed the use of guides entirely; it is therefore unsurprising that late in October we found ourselves quite lost in a desolate region that showed no signs of recent habitation by either white men or red, taking shelter from a torrential downpour in a low cave which we had discovered only that very morning.  After we had been there several hours and eaten the last of the provisions we had brought from the nearest trading post several days earlier, George began to fret terribly; had there been room enough I’m sure he would have paced, but in the circumstances he lacked even that meager outlet for his nervous energy.  But as he became ever more agitated, I became correspondingly calmer; somehow I knew we would be all right, because we were being watched over by an angel.  Finally I told George as much, and…well, I can’t repeat the things he shouted at me.  Stung by his mistreatment I retreated more deeply into the cave, where I discovered a heretofore-unnoticed bend that, after a short tunnel that had to be traversed on hands and knees, opened up into a large, high-ceilinged cavern dimly illuminated through some fissure above by what little daylight there was.  And in that space I saw the unmistakable signs of intelligent habitation.

Returning to the front I called my husband, and though he at first ignored my entreaties his curiosity eventually got the better of him.  When he entered the room he visibly brightened a little, then became more excited about the artifacts I had found, which he said resembled none he had seen yet that year.  He also remarked that everything seemed extremely worn, as though it had been used regularly for a very, very long time.  And while he investigated further, handling object after object, I became aware of the distinct feeling of being watched.  George did not seem to notice, and dismissed my impressions until we both heard the soft scraping sound of something heavy being dragged across the bare stone floor.  We then whirled together, and were confronted with the occupant of this hidden abode.

She was a being who had seemingly come forth out of the realm of legend; from the waist up she was a beautiful, ageless woman with a huge mane of thick, somewhat stiff hair, but below the waist she was a gigantic serpent whose skin bore a complex pattern.  I’m sure you think this apparition must have been utterly horrifying, but I assure you she was quite the opposite; in fact, she was absolutely the most magnificent creature I have ever seen, and I felt as safe in her presence as I would have in our mother’s arms.  Do not be afraid, she seemed to say to me, though her mouth never moved; my kind are friends and benefactors to humanity, and have long watched over you.  I know that you and your mate are lost, and I will draw you a map so that you may find your way back to human places tomorrow morning.

But as I listened, I slowly became aware of another sound, that of George’s raised voice.  And I suddenly realized he was pointing a shotgun at our hostess; he probably would have already fired had I not been so close to her.  “For God’s sake, Tillie, step back!” he shouted; “This monster has mesmerized you, like a snake fascinates a bird!”

“What nonsense, George!” I said matter-of-factly; “Don’t you know who this is?  It’s the very goddess you have been looking for all these months!  This is Cihuacoatl, the Snake Woman, and she and her kind have watched over humanity since we were driven out of Eden!”

“Listen to yourself!” he screamed in near-terror; “Is this any way for a seminary graduate to talk?  It’s a devil who has bewitched your mind!”

“A devil?”  I asked, confused.  “She is as beautiful as an angel!”

“Why do you keep calling this monster ‘she’?  Tillie, please come away before it strikes!”

But it was too late.  George had turned his attention to me, and away from the Lady; I have never seen any living thing move so quickly.  In an instant she was upon him; the gun was hurled against the far wall, and in only a few more seconds he was surrounded by her coils.  He struggled for a while, then grew still, and as he expired in her embrace she wept  –  not soft crocodile tears, but great racking sobs of true anguish.  By contrast, I merely stood mutely and watched him die, nor did I feel any but the smallest twinge when she released his lifeless form to collapse on the floor.  I am truly sorry, my daughter.

“I don’t understand why he reacted so; it was as though he couldn’t see or hear you as I do.”

nagainaHe couldn’t.  Her exquisite shoulders slumped, and she sighed audibly.  It has ever been so.  Though we have guided and protected your race since before you had the power of speech, a certain fraction of your people are deaf to the means by which we communicate…and they invariably react to the sight of us with terror.  We talked long into the night, as though the corpse of my husband was not lying in the next room; she explained that hers was an ancient race from a day when the Earth was warmer and wetter; they were extremely long-lived but neither numerous nor fertile, and had long ago adopted humanity as their heirs.  They appeared in the myths of many countries as the nagas of India, the dragons of China, the feathered serpent of Mexico, and other benevolent creatures; but because of those who were blind to their beauty they also inspired legends of fearsome creatures like the lamia of European legend and the serpent of Genesis.  Perhaps you may agree that she was a demon, and that she made me one by association; perhaps you feel as though she could have stopped George without killing him.  But you have neither seen her nor heard her voice, and George was ready and able to murder an ancient, benevolent creature, perhaps the last of her kind, for no reason other than his own animal fear; had she released him, he would have organized a monster hunt within hours.

The next day I followed her directions and returned to the trading post alone; my serenity and lack of concern were interpreted as symptoms of shock, and the traders were so ready to believe that George had been killed by hostile Comanches that I didn’t even have to make up a lie.  I was still quiet and contemplative when I returned to Massachusetts, and everyone (including you) made the same assumption as the traders had.  Eventually I remarried and had children, so everyone assumed I had “recovered”.  But I was never the same; for all these years and across half a continent I have never been out of contact with My Lady, and many a time I have sat in my house in the still of night, hearing her whisper to me across many hundreds of miles.  She has given me advice, comfort and solace as needed, and because of her I have never felt alone.  But now my husband is dead and my children are grown, and I am no longer needed here; and the Great Mother is old and in sore need of my company and assistance, though she will yet survive me by centuries.  So I must go to her, to faithfully serve her as she has served our whole race.  And know this, dear sister:  though you and others may think me mad, I have never been saner or happier.

With All My Love,
I Remain Very Truly Yours,

Tillie

.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt).

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After writing December’s story “Serpentine”, I conceived of the notion of making it the first of a loose trilogy, connected not by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs.  This is the second in that trilogy, and you’ll have a month to ponder which other aspect I plan to explore last.

Jacob Ellis was a nervous young man.  That is, he was habitually nervous; he had trouble sitting still for long unless he occupied his hands with something, and it was often difficult for him to focus on the task before him unless he was very, very interested in it.  It wasn’t that he was stupid; quite the opposite in fact.  His mind was so agile, so filled with curiosity, that he found it difficult to keep it from wandering to things that were more worthy of consideration than the dull matters of clerking.  But since it had been determined long ago that he would follow his father into the legal profession, that was what he had done, despite the fact that he would probably have been more suited to a trade involving more motion and less focus on dry-as-dust wills, deeds, contracts and all the other mundane matters of a family law practice.

But today, he was also situationally nervous, because his father had entrusted him with his first important client:  the estate of Magnolia Machen, the wealthiest woman in the county.  Mr. Machen had been killed in the War, and since many a lost fortune and devastated farm had been left behind in General Sherman’s wake, it had not been difficult for his widow to purchase a grand old house (in need of some repair) and most of the other valuable land in the area, and to build up a considerable income from it.red tape  And since Mrs. Machen was a woman of reclusive and frugal ways, that income had enabled her to invest in the stock market and to acquire other, more valuable properties stretching from coast to coast.

She was so reclusive, in fact, that Jake had not even been aware that she had a daughter until his father told him that he was to meet her at the house today.  And that meeting was the cause of yet a third layer of nervousness:  Miss Machen was stunningly beautiful, with mounds of lustrous hair, dark, piercing eyes and a sinuous grace that more befit a dancer than a debutante.  Being in her presence filled him with powerful feelings he could not clearly define and was not at all comfortable with, and he felt himself perspiring under his seersucker to a degree he felt was profuse, even considering the June heat.  Could she really be almost forty years old?  She didn’t look a day over twenty-two, but if she were that young she’d have been born more than ten years after the late Mr. Machen’s demise.  Best not to think too hard about it.  “You’ll have to forgive me, Miss, but up until today I wasn’t even aware that you existed; I had assumed the estate would go to more distant relatives.”

If she noticed his clumsy handling of the statement, she was far too well-mannered to show it.  “I haven’t lived here since before you were born.  You see, my mother was a singularly cold-blooded woman, and didn’t really want to be burdened with a child.  So I was shipped off at a very young age to be educated in Europe, and have lived with various relatives in various parts of three continents since then.  I have only seen my mother a handful of times since childhood, and the only reason I was here when she died was that she wrote me a letter summoning me here a few weeks ago, once her doctor told her that she only had a little while yet to live.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Jake, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.  He was a bit surprised that Doc Thompson’s prognosis had been so accurate; he had been largely retired for twenty years, and the only people who still consulted him were those more concerned with his legendary discretion than with his very average level of skill.  Thompson probably knew about the dirty laundry and closet skeletons of most of the best families in the region, and would take that knowledge to the grave in a very few years.  It had been a very profitable specialization for him; people said there was no secret, however dark, that a sufficient sum could not persuade him to keep.

Miss Machen shrugged.  “Hardly a loss, Mr. Ellis; as I just told you, she and I weren’t very close.  The only reason her death affects me more than the death of a business associate is that it stands to be extremely profitable for me.”

Even after hearing about their estrangement, Miss Machen’s coldness in regard to her mother shocked him. I reckon the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he thought; I won’t be surprised to hear she sends her daughter away, too.  But out loud he said, “Well, um, yes…that is, ah, er, you’re her sole beneficiary.”

“I’m well aware of the contents of the will, Mr. Ellis; my mother did not like surprises, and was therefore not one to inflict them on others.”  Her voice was soft as silk, but her gaze sank into his being like…he preferred not to think about it.  “In fact, if it’s all the same to you we can dispense with the customary formalities; I’d rather just sign what I have to sign and then be on my way.  I’ve a train to New Orleans to catch in only a few hours.”

“Of course; my father has been your mother’s attorney since the early seventies, so it’s the least I can do to, ah, expedite things for you.  There are just, um, a few questions…”

“Oh?”  The brief syllable dripped impatience.

“Um, yes, well, just one really important one, and a minor one.  First, I see we have a copy of the death certificate, but there’s absolutely nothing anywhere about funeral arrangements.”

“My mother didn’t believe in such frivolities, nor do I.  Her remains were cremated.”

“C-c-c-cremated?”

“You find that frightening?” The trace of a smile flickered across the lovely lips, but only for an instant.

“N-no, not exactly, it’s just, um, I’ve never seen that done before.”

cremation urn“There are no local crematories, Mr. Ellis; my mother’s doctor took it to the nearest one.  It’s all in these papers here, and the ashes are in that urn.”  She gestured to a rather plain metal container placed unceremoniously among other boxes on the parlor table.  “Now what was the other matter?”

“Oh, um, it’s just these, um, Arizona ranch holdings; I don’t have all the information I need to deal with them from here, and I’d rather not have to bill you for a trip all the way out there.”

“I believe a telegram to my attorney in Denver would clear that up,” she said, rising from her seat; “I’ll just tell him to respond directly to you.”

Since Miss Machen had pointed it out, Jake had been unable to keep his mind off of the urn; he had never seen the ashes of a human body before, and was consumed with curiosity about what they would be like.  Were they fine, or coarse?  Were the teeth and bones wholly reduced, or were there still shards?  He just had to see, and Miss Machen would be on the telephone with the telegraph office for at least a few minutes.  What would be the harm?  After all, neither the old lady nor her daughter seemed very sentimental about the remains, and neither of them was in a position to see him peeking anyhow.  He turned to the container and lifted the lid, but was startled and confused when he found not ashes, but something white and papery.  He quickly glanced down the hall to be sure his hostess was not yet returning, then reached into the jar and pulled out the contents.  As a boy he had once seen the cast-off skin of a snake, thin and translucent but still retaining the shape of the animal which had left it behind when it became too old and worn to be of use any longer; that’s what the thing in the urn reminded him of, though it was much larger.  And though it had been crumpled and broken in the process of compressing it into the undersized container, it was still quite obvious that the creature which had shed this decrepit husk was possessed of a human shape.

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Every December, I present a different kind of story; they’re usually light, and some contain puzzles.  This one certainly isn’t light, but it’s…well, you’ll see.  It also contains a number of in-jokes and veiled references, and partakes of the ancient holiday custom of reversal:  it treats as serious a topic I spend considerable time ridiculing.  This really isn’t as odd as it may at first appear; one of the defining characteristics of myths and legends is that they are interesting (which is why people tell and retell them).  A dull myth would soon fade, and the human mind has a congenital preference for fascinating nonsense over dull fact…which, of course, explains the persistence of urban legends and moral panics no matter how often and thoroughly their elements are debunked.  And as generations of science fiction and fantasy writers have discovered, this makes stuff like Atlantis, ancient astronauts, the hollow Earth, etc wonderful subjects for stories, even if the author doesn’t actually believe a word of them.  Keep that in mind when you read this tale, which is intentionally ambiguous:  is what appears to be going on herein what is actually going on?  Does our protagonist have a highly overactive imagination?    Or is her antagonist just enjoying a cruel joke at her expense?

buildingThe doorman glowered at her as though he were the personification of the grim building itself, which had been the tallest one in town for over 30 years but was now humbled by the titans which had recently grown up around it.  Jane imagined it must be indignant at this development, and that its frowning façade was silently telling her, “Go away, you have no business here.”  But if she was going to make it as a reporter, she could let neither unfriendly employees nor gloomy old buildings stop her…and besides, her coat was really much too thin for this weather, and it had begun to snow; she went up to the door and tried to ignore the unpleasant expression on its keeper’s face.

Once within, she walked directly to the desk and announced that she was there to see Miss Morelli.  “Do you have an appointment?” asked the attendant, in a tone of voice that seemed to add “I know you don’t.”

“No, but please tell her Miss Louis from the Archdiocese is here to ask for her support in providing Christmas dinners for the poor.”  It was a terrible lie, but Margo Morelli was known to be even more generous with Catholic charities than her late father had been; Jane hoped it would be enough.

The attendant sighed, “You don’t have to talk to Miss Morelli herself about that; just see her personal assistant, Miss Angelo.  Go on up to the eleventh floor,” he said, gesturing toward the elevator with the phone receiver, “and I’ll let her know you’re on the way.”

“God bless you!” said Jane, feeling even more ashamed about her deception.  “Still,” she thought, “a girl has to eat, and jobs are scarce these days.  I’ll just have to go to confession this weekend.”  She involuntarily started at the ornate décor of the elevator doors, which seemed somehow menacing to her.  But she only paused for a moment; it was too late to turn back now, and there was only one more obstacle between her and the interview she wanted.  As she expected, the public elevator did not even go to the twelfth floor, so even if she had somehow been able to bribe the operator he could not have granted her request.  Correction:  she actually was going to the twelfth floor, though the number said eleven; the building was numbered in the European style, so that the first floor was the one above ground level.  But the Italians consider thirteen a lucky number, don’t they?  So it made sense that the boss’s office should be on that floor even if the number said twelve.

Miss Angelo turned out to be a tiny lady in late middle age with the hawk-like demeanor of a strict nun, and Jane felt her heart sink; there was no way she could even lie convincingly to this woman, much less prevail upon her to shirk her duty and let Jane through.  So there was only one choice:  the naked truth.  “Miss Angelo, I feel terribly about having to tell a fib to get in here, but I’m desperate to talk to Miss Morelli.  You see, I haven’t got a job or any family in town, and my rent is long overdue, but I’m a good writer so I just know I can get a job as a reporter if I can get a scoop.  Ever since Miss Morelli’s father passed on she’s been unwilling to talk to any reporters, but I thought maybe because she and I are both women trying to make it in businesses dominated by men, that she’d have pity on me.”  Jane’s tears were real; she was desperate, and lacked even the money to wire her family out West for help.

Miss Angelo regarded her with a penetrating but not-unkind gaze for agonizingly-long moments, then directed her back into the waiting room with, “I’ll see what I can do.”  Jane’s heart was pounding, but the fact that she hadn’t been instantly thrown out on her ear gave her some hope; she obediently returned to the anteroom and tried to calm herself.  It was no use; she got more and more nervous, and when Miss Angelo suddenly appeared in the doorway Jane almost screamed.  “Miss Morelli will see you.  Come this way, and mind your manners.”

She led Jane down a hall to what seemed the back of the building, where they entered an elevator that did indeed go all the way to twelve.  But when the doors opened on the floor above, Jane was taken aback by what met her eyes.  She had expected a well-lit outer office with a secretary who would usher her into the inner sanctum, but instead she found herself in a sort of vestibule opening to a large, luxuriously-appointed space only dimly lit by lamps, as one might illuminate a bedroom.  She heard the doors close behind her, and Miss Angelo was gone; Jane was apparently all alone.  Nervously, she crept forward into the vast office; the huge mahogany desk was topped with some kind of green, patterned stone, the walls behind the desk were lined with books, and the tall windows showed her that the snow flurry had become a storm.  Though it was only mid-afternoon the gloom outside did little to alleviate the shadow within; most of the light was coming from another room to her right, and she gasped as she realized that there was a woman standing in that doorway watching her.  She was breathtakingly beautiful, and the light streaming past her seemed to envelop her in a kind of aura which intensified the effect.  But at the same time Jane was terrified, not just by her reputation but by something less definable.

whiskey“Good afternoon, Miss Louis; I’m Margo Morelli.  May I get you a drink?”

“A…a drink?” she asked stupidly.  Jane’s parents were teetotalers, and even after leaving home she had been too timid to risk breaking the law, even if anyone had invited her to a party (which nobody had anyway).

The older woman smiled warmly.  “Yes.  It’s even legal again now, you know.”

“Um…yes,” stammered Jane.  “Actually, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

“Oh?” she asked, then “What will you have?”

“Uh, whatever you’re having is fine.”  Jane couldn’t tell Bourbon from Bordeaux or brandy from beer, so it hardly mattered.  She accepted the much-too-large drink, and took a sip; its taste was strange and unpleasant to her, and she couldn’t hide the face she made when she swallowed it.  Her hostess pretended not to notice, and seated herself on the other side of the desk.

“So what can I do for you?”

“Well,” Jane said, “with the passage of the 21st Amendment last week, Prohibition is over; that means it’s legal to sell liquor again, which means your organization won’t be making any money from, ah, irregular imports any more…”

“Well put, and exactly correct.”  If Miss Morelli was annoyed with the topic, she didn’t show it.

“…so even though you have plenty of other business interests, both…ummm…regular and irregular, you stand to lose a lot of income.  You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who will take that lying down.”

“Again, exactly correct.”  Still no sign of anger, but she wasn’t helping either; Jane’s vision had now fully adjusted to the dim lighting, and she could clearly see those deep black eyes fixed upon her in a way she did not like at all.  She took another long sip, and despite the awful taste she had to admit it did seem to calm her nerves somewhat.

“So…what do you plan to do about it?”

Miss Morelli leaned back slightly in her chair and laughed, a genuine laugh in which Jane nonetheless thought she detected considerable menace.  “You are a charmingly naïve little bird, do you realize that?  It’s why I agreed to see you.  That, and the fact that both Miss Angelo and the downstairs attendant told me you were quite fetching.  They were not wrong.”

Jane felt herself blush furiously, and hoped the light was too dim for it to show.  She took a gulp.  “I…that is…um…”

“Listen, little bird.  Surely you didn’t think I’d be fool enough to go on the record answering such a ridiculous question?  Until someone invents a recording device small enough to fit in a purse, nothing I tell you would be admissible in federal court; however, my father taught me never to stir up hornets’ nests without reason.  It’s why our family has run this city since you were in pigtails.  Had you been a professional reporter instead of a little girl playing at it, you’d never have been let through the front door.”

Jane was so totally mortified she couldn’t speak, but the lovely contralto continued.  “Still, it amuses me to humor you, so I’ll answer your question.  Yes, I’m already planning to expand another of my ‘irregular’ businesses, as you so charmingly put it.  Would you like me to tell you which one?”  Perhaps it was because of the bird metaphor, but she now had the distinct mental image of her hostess as a beautiful serpent, holding her fascinated as it moved in for the kill.  Her head was gently spinning from the unfamiliar effect of the liquor, and she felt unable to speak, let alone flee.  “Have you ever heard of white slavery?”

“Oh, no,” Jane said weakly.  “You wouldn’t!”

“Does anyone know where you are right now?”

As if she had no control over it, her own mouth betrayed her.  “No.”  Her equally-traitorous body refused to move as the other woman slid across the green stone desktop and began to stroke her hair, and to her total horror something deep inside her responded to the caress.  Finally, she was able to regain enough self-control to drain the tumbler and ask, “What if I refused to go quietly?  Would you pull a gun on me, or call one of your thugs to manhandle me?”

“Nothing so crude, I assure you.”  The voice was gentle now, almost reassuring, as she took the empty glass from Jane’s trembling fingers.

“What, then?” the girl asked, fighting a wave of drowsiness that was slowly engulfing her.

“I’d simply drug your drink.”

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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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