Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Mike Siegel has been a regular and faithful reader of this blog for at least five years, and has on numerous occasions assisted me with scientific or other issues.  See, he’s a professional astronomer and a blogger himself, and now he’s a fiction writer as well; last week, he self-published his first novel through Kindle Direct Publishing. The book is entitled The Water Lily Pond after the series of Monet paintings that inspired it.  He synopsizes it thusly: “Many decades in the future, medical science has made aging a thing of the past.  Painter Walter Winston, at age 128, finds himself dying from simply being exhausted from life.  He sets off on a journey to revisit the places he’s lived, trying to rediscover himself, his life and the people who made it worth living.  It’s science fiction, yes.  But it’s not really about science.  It’s about time and old age and regret and art…The two passages below take place after Walter’s wife has died. Having been alone for a long time and wanting to avoid complications, he occasionally hires an escort.  On at least one occasion, a university hosting his lecture hired an escort for him.  The first passage concerns the latter“:

The last time he’d been in a hotel room identical to this one he had not been alone. She was a pretty girl from Ecuador whom the University had arranged for him. He was a hundred years older than her. They had lain in bed after it was done — the school had generously paid for the entire night. He thought of David and Abishag in the Americo painting. They had sent her to warm him.

Her cigarette smoke made lazy curls on the ceiling as she talked to him. She was certainly the smartest girl he’d ever had – she spoke four languages and was earning her degree from UCLA in astronautics. She spoke of a future on the Earth-Moon run.

“Why do you do this, then?” he’d asked, shocked.

She stared at him for a moment then giggled.

“You’re so old-fashioned.”

“I’m so old!”

“It’s endearing. I think the oldest man I’d been with before you was … 90?  95? He wasn’t quite as prudent.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

She rolled over, her black hair spilling onto the white pillow like a Pollock painting, her hip making a steep curve beneath the sheets like a Reubens. It made him feel a lot younger than 125 to look at her and to touch her.

“I enjoy it. It’s that simple. The money’s great. I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.  But mainly I enjoy it. Not the act, per se. I enjoy the people.  I always get high-class clients.  Like famous artists,” she said, poking him in the belly.

He sank against the pillow, wondering if he was the only person on Earth old enough to see any stigma in her job.

“Do you remember everyone you’ve ever been with?” she asked. “After …”

“After all this time?” He grinned and nodded. “Sometimes it takes a while, but I do. Not that I’ve been with that many.

“It’s not just women I’ve been with that I remember. I can remember women I’ve wanted and never had. I can still remember a girl I passed on the street a century ago. She had the deepest eyes I’d ever seen. A short white skirt and a green blouse. She’s probably been dead half a century; certainly never knew my name or who I was. And yet I think about her. I can still see the fabric of the blouse clinging to her body.”

She leaned over and kissed him.  “You should have painted her.”

“I did.”

This next passage is from a bit later in the book and references the time Walter lived in the worst part of Harlem in the 1980’s as a struggling artist.

He had never hired a professional before Sarah was gone.  Even in his loneliest nights in Harlem, shortly after his marriage with Anna had collapsed, when he could hear the streetwalkers and their clients in the alleys and crack houses of the neighborhood; when he couldn’t walk to and from home without at least a couple of them asking if he wanted a date.  It had never really crossed his mind.

“They didn’t repel me,” he told Sarah once.  “I got to know some of them over time.   Most of them were nice enough and a couple even knew about my art.  I even drew inspiration from them for one or two paintings.”

“They were in the pentaptych,” said Sarah.

“One was.  A woman who doggedly worked a corner near me for almost a decade.  Put her kid through school on it.  But I just wasn’t interested in what they were offering.”

It was Chuck who talked him into it.  Chuck, who knew that the side of the industry Walter had seen in King’s Slate was the bad part of a much larger enterprise.

“You should come with me to Vegas,” he said one night at the lake, three years after Sarah had died.  There had been an awkward discussion over dinner about whether Walter should get “out there” or not. Now he and Chuck were on the dock, in the darkness.

“Or up to Toronto.  Or over to Paris.  Or Bucharest.  Or anywhere.  Any sophisticated city is going to have professionals – talented, beautiful.  Most places, you wouldn’t even be breaking the law anymore.”

Walter shifted uncomfortably in his deck chair.  The water lapped quietly under the dock.

“Look, I know how you were raised.  But at our age … do you really want to date?  Do you want to go through that?  Especially with two grandchildren and another on the way?  What are you going to do if you meet someone?  Move away?  Leave little Lucia all by herself?  This is a way to not be alone but not have complications.”

“I just can’t see myself doing that,” said Walter.  “Paying someone to pretend to be attracted to me?  It’s not like there’s a shortage of art fans or anything, if meaningless sex was what I wanted.”

“But a professional won’t stalk you.  She won’t want to get pregnant.  She won’t tell everyone about it.  And it’s not just sex.  Sometimes it’s not even sex.  I hired a woman in Moscow to basically go to the Bolshoi with me.”

“Can we just let it go?”

Chuck shrugged.  “As you wish.  But men our age have needs.  Yours will get the better of you at some point.  Less risk if it’s a professional than an amateur.”

In the end, Chuck was right.  He had been surprised that it wasn’t the sex itself that made him happy.  It was the touch of skin, the rustle of sheets, the play of light on a naked body.  It was the feeling, however faintly, of being back in those sepia and ash-colored days when he and Sarah or Juliette or Anna or Linda would lie in a warm bed and just enjoy not being alone.

“Intimacy,” said Chuck.  “Companionship.  Remember Abishag.”

It wasn’t often – a few times a year, maybe.  But it was enough to get through the previous four decades.

Mike writes, “I didn’t set out to reference sex work in my novel.  It just seemed like what the character would do, given his arc, and I saw no reason to shy away from it.  Sex work is a part of our world and will continue to be a part of our world long into the future. There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t exist.”  Mike is a great guy, an ally of sex workers and a friend; if you enjoyed these excerpts, you really ought to consider buying his book.  Pretty please?

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This story is related to two earlier ones, but it was directly inspired by an item from Saturday’s column; after you read this, I’m sure you’ll be able to go back and find the one I mean…by my introductory comment if nothing else.

The 9th Labor of HerculesFor as long as she could remember, Greta had been fascinated by the struggle of sex.  Whether it was the violent couplings in nature videos, or the erotic violence of internet porn, it would hold her attention far more than the gentle, soft-focus love scenes found in more mainstream fare.  When she became sexually active herself in her mid-teens, she was repeatedly frustrated by the cautious, respectful dance advocated in “consent” seminars and followed by all the decent young men and women she knew; when she dared to push boundaries a little or attempt a few love bites or playful slaps, she was greeted by expressions of shock and horror (and more than once by threats of assault charges).  Eventually, she discovered the kink community and at first thought she had found her natural environment; unfortunately, decades of lawsuit proliferation had wrought havoc there as thoroughly as it had on contact sports, and she learned to her chagrin that almost nobody had engaged in the kind of rough play she craved since the late ’20s or early ’30s.  True, some of the old folks still got up to stuff like that in secret, but even if they could’ve trusted her enough to admit her to their circles, none of them could’ve still inflicted or received the level of intensity she wanted at their ages (even assuming she could’ve found an octogenarian she was attracted to).

And so the years had turned into decades, and though a career as a dominatrix had allowed her a taste of what she yearned for, it was never quite enough; there were a few clients who would’ve gladly obliged her, but both her lawyer and her insurance agent had let her know in no uncertain terms that they would drop her in a red-hot second if they found out she had accepted one of those offers.  And since she loved money, comfort and her reputation more than she lusted for the dark pleasures of her hottest fantasies, she had to be content with losing herself in virtual simulations of the real thing achieved via a combination of drugs and high-tech special effects.

But she never gave up on the dream, and one night at a party she overheard a conversation which piqued her interest and set her on a course of research that, after a few weeks, revealed that she could have what she was looking for…and not only once, but as often as she wanted.  The price was high, but what of it?  She was past middle age and had no heirs, and what was money for if not this?  A few calls and the deal was made, and three interminable weeks later she drove out to pick up her eagerly-awaited purchase.

With trembling hands, Greta pried the crate open and unlocked the container inside to reveal her new plaything; looking back at her with frightened eyes from inside the heavily-padded box was a beautiful girl who looked to be about twenty.  Neither said a word, but Greta beckoned her to step forth and the girl mutely complied, sinking to her knees at Greta’s feet in response to a further gesture.  But she did not remain mute for long; before long she was gasping, then whimpering, then crying, and finally screaming, as her mistress unleashed decades of frustrated desire upon her.  The world outside that room vanished for Greta and time seemed to stand still; nothing else mattered but her lovely victim, accepting everything she could inflict.

Greta was unsure of how long she had whipped the girl, or when she had drawn her knife; she was completely lost in a kind of wild abandon she had never known, overwhelmed by the ecstasy of a session in which she didn’t have to hold back in any way or even consider the wishes and needs of her partner.  And when she stopped at last, she was a bit shocked at what a mess she had made of the girl’s skin, and of how much blood there was on the floor and surrounding objects.  She collapsed into a chair, breathing raggedly, then succumbed to her first experience of total satisfaction.bloody knife

She awoke sometime later to find the large blue eyes of the girl upon her.  “Yes?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but you gave me no orders.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to do anything now.”

“So I didn’t; I guess I got carried away when I saw you.”

“Yes ma’am.  Thank you.”

Greta looked around dazedly.  “Good grief, what a mess!”

“Not to worry, ma’am, it’s inert; it won’t stain like real blood.  I can clean this up in just a few minutes.”

“I’m sure you can.  But what about you?  How long will all that take to heal?”

“Well, ma’am, there’s an adjustment for bruising; by default it’s set to ‘normal’, which means these will take a week or so to fade.  If you turned it all the way to ‘high’, they’d be gone by tomorrow morning if I devoted all my resources to healing.  As for the lacerations, I’ll have to repair those myself; I’m afraid the damage is fairly extensive, so I’ll need most of the night.  All in all, I estimate roughly 14 hours to restore optimum cosmetic appearance, starting after I replace the broken right wrist.”

“I’m sorry about the wrist.”

She smiled.  “It’s all right, ma’am, you ordered the deluxe kit; there’s a spare in the crate and I can fix it in half an hour.”

Greta suddenly laughed at the absurdity of the situation.  “I can see you’re going to be a handy creature to have around!”

“Oh, yes ma’am!  In addition to my sexual and domestic skills, I can repair any household device for which specifications are available!”

“I remember.  For right now, you just concentrate on repairing yourself and cleaning up this room.  We’ll work out some other protocols tomorrow.”

“Whatever you say, ma’am.  Goodnight, and pleasant dreams!”

“That is a certainty,” said Greta, and as she trudged up the stairs her mind was already beginning to consider all the delicious possibilities.

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Every December, I feature a different kind of story; they’re always seasonal, and usually light.  I hope y’all don’t find this one too sweet and sentimental; if you find it lacking in depth, you might amuse yourself by wondering why I made it a period piece, and what significance (if any) this particular time period has to the story.

Reggie opened the door to a sight he hadn’t quite expected.  Oh, she was as pretty as she had represented herself to be, and probably not too much older than she had claimed on the phone.  But she hadn’t warned him that her hair was so shockingly red, and somehow he’d figured she would dress a bit more…conservatively.

“Ho ho ho,” she said with a rather silly grin.angel cookies

“That’s not funny,” he replied, then “get in here before the neighbors see you.”

“Wow, what a Grinch,” she said, dusting the snow off of her fur-trimmed red coat.  “What did you expect when you hired a hooker named Holly on Christmas Eve?”

“The agency’s ad said ‘discreet’.”

“Trust me, honey, I didn’t stand around on your porch any longer than I had to.  And unless you’ve got lots of sweet young things  coming in and out of here for other reasons, I sincerely doubt my seasonal getup raised any more eyebrows than my just being here in the first place did.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right; I’ve just never done this before.”  In response to her skeptical look, he added, “Had a girl come to my house, I mean.”

“Ah.  Well, I don’t need to ask why you decided to start tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lots of unmarried men call on holidays; it’s tough being alone when the entire culture is loudly extolling the joys of family for weeks on end.”

“You’re pretty smart.”

She shrugged.  “Not smart enough to make grad school easy.  Hey, do you have anything hot to drink?  This outfit isn’t as warm as it looks.”

“Nothing ready, but we could make something in the kitchen.”

“Bitchin’.  You got any cocoa?”

“I think I have some of the instant kind.”

She rolled her eyes.  “It’ll have to do.”  Then after looking around for a few moments: “Don’t you have a kettle?”

“You can heat up the water in the microwave oven.”

“Nah, I don’t trust those things.  My mom got one last year, but I’m kind of afraid they might cause cancer.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, handing her a pot from the cupboard.

“Will you have some with me?  I brought cookies.”

He laughed in spite of himself.  “You’re quite a character.”

“So they tell me.  Gingerbread or sugar?”

A few minutes later, they sat at the table, drinking cocoa and eating cookies; at some point she had deftly made the cash envelope disappear.  And before too long he found himself telling her about the divorce, and the increasing pressures of work, and the sense of loss and loneliness he had hoped to dispel this evening in some way that didn’t involve drinking himself unconscious.  The eventual move to the sofa was very natural, and for some reason he was completely unsurprised when she pulled a VHS copy of It’s a Wonderful Life out of her absurdly-large purse and suggested they watch it together.It's a Wonderful Life

When she finally dressed to go, it didn’t bother him at all that they hadn’t done what he thought he wanted to do when he opened the phone book; in fact, he was so happy with her that he pressed an extra $50 bill into her hand.  She gave him a very warm and sincere hug, and as she opened the door to leave he could hear the bells of the nearby church signalling the beginning of midnight mass.

“Every time a bell rings…” she said, laughing.

He laughed with her, and then said, almost as an afterthought, “You never did tell me what you’re studying.”

“Psychology,” she replied, almost sheepishly.

“But of course.  Thank you, Holly; you were wonderful.”

“You’re welcome.  Merry Christmas, Reggie, and a very Happy New Year!”

“I’m certain now that it will be.  I’ll call you again soon.”

“I hope so!” And then she danced across the lawn, stopping to catch a snowflake on her tongue before waving to him from the gate and disappearing into a night that now seemed far less cold to him than it had a few hours before.

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Beauty…is a visitor who leaves behind the gift of grief, the souvenir of pain.  –  Christopher Morley

“It’s fine for work, I guess, but you actually live here, too?” She asked, with badly-disguised disdain.

“Yes.  I’m sorry, I thought You knew that,” I replied, trying not to sound too defensive.

“Well, yes, I did, but…it’s so small.”

“Rent is high around here; this is all I can afford right now.  If You want me to have something bigger, You could send me more work.”  Was that too daring, even though I did say it with a smile?

“Yes.  Quite.”pink cocktail

Well, Her response could’ve been much worse; still, I figured it would be best to change the subject.  “Would You like something to drink?”

“What a charming idea!  Do you have any champagne chilled?”

“Um, no.  Not chilled, and not at room temperature either.  I’m afraid I’m a bit short on champagne at the moment.”

“Pity.  What’s the closest thing to it you do have on hand?”

“Well, that depends.  I have some wine, some whiskey and some vodka if You want liquor, but if it’s the fizz You’re looking for I have these fruit-flavored carbonated water drinks.”  In response to Her rather skeptical look, I added, “They’re sugar free even.”  The skepticism increased.  “It helps me keep my figure.”  Yes, I know it was dumb; I didn’t know what else to say.  It’s not every day that the Boss Lady drops by in person.

She sighed so deeply it sounded like something drawn from the bottom of the sea.  “Well, I suppose you could make me a fizzy cocktail.  Not that I need to watch my figure or anything.”

Yikes!  “Oh, goodness, I didn’t mean to imply…”

She waved off my concerns with an airy gesture; I got to work on the cocktail.  When I handed it to Her, She sniffed it as though trying to be sure it wasn’t spoiled, then took a dainty but substantial sip.  “This is terrible.”

“I’m so sorry!  If You like, I could…”

“Not necessary,” She interrupted.

I finally broke the uncomfortable pause with, “I just learned to do that pretty recently, make drinks I mean, and I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet.”

“No, you’re not.  Luckily, neither your income nor your reputation depends on your skill at bartending.”

“Yes.  I mean no.”  I’m not easily tongue-tied, but there was more than ample cause.  I would’ve been heartened by the fact that She had taken another sip, had it not been accompanied by a half-grimace.  Time for another change of topic.  “To what do I owe the great honor of this visit?”

Her smile lit up the room and instantly soothed the sting of Her previous comments.  “Oh, I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and…”  Now it was my turn to look incredulous, and She responded with a laugh so beautiful it literally took my breath away.  “No, I guess you won’t believe that, will you?”

“Well, no, not really.”

The smile became even lovelier.  “I’m really very fond of you, you know.”  I was totally speechless.  “Oh, come now darling, surely you already knew that after all this time!”

“I…well…um…” Why was I crying?  Damn, so much for looking cool.

“I know that, since taking the job…how many years ago was it?”

“Twenty.”  It came out sounding something like a croak.

“Twenty years!  How time flies!  Since taking the job twenty years ago, you’ve performed admirably and I really have noticed; it’s just that I’m so very busy and, well, time gets away from one.  Sometimes I think of you and realize, ‘Goodness, it’s been years since I looked in on her!’ and yet there you are, still faithfully toiling away at your mission as though I were breathing down your neck the whole time!”

“Thank you, My Lady; You know I always keep my promises.”

“And so you have, dear girl.  I know I’ve been awful about keeping up with you; it’s just this mood I’ve been in for the past 15 years or so.  And the reason I dropped by is to let you know that I’m going to try to do better.”

I don’t have a word to describe the complex mixture of emotions that boiled up in response, and I wouldn’t have dared to vocalize it even if I had.  So I just sat there and sobbed like a schoolgirl, and She glided across the room to sit beside me and draw me into Her arms.  “There, there,” She said, “It really will be all right.  I promise, by the Styx.”  And then She kissed me, and if I live to be a hundred no kiss of mortal woman could ever hope to match that brief brush of Her lips against mine.

rose bloodI awoke with Her scent still all around me, and my face wet with tears.  I had never had such an intensely real-seeming vision before, and it had thrown me off-balance; I felt like I needed to get up, collect my thoughts, get my jumbled emotions back in control and re-orient myself to consensual reality.  I stumbled into the outer room, and my attention was immediately drawn to the vase of roses atop my desk; they seemed fresher than they had been, and of a deeper color and sweeter perfume than before.  I gently, almost reverently stroked the petals of one, softer than a woman’s skin, and then reached down to draw it from the vase so that I might examine it under better light.  But in my fascination at the apparent revival of my flowers, I neglected to use caution in grasping the stem; the blood which welled forth from my finger was as red as the rose.

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“I hate computers!”

“If it weren’t for computers, you’d probably be working for a service taking half of your money.”

“Don’t be an asshole.  You know what I mean.”

“Actually, I don’t, Athena.  Honestly, it seems like kind of a stupid thing for you to say, considering how well you’ve marketed yourself using them.  You could never have gotten this kind of exposure without the internet, and that exposure is the main reason you’re so fucking successful.  If you don’t want all those clients, you can give some of ’em to me.”

“You’re not exactly hurting yourself, Heather.”

“I didn’t say I was, but I’m not the one about to buy a new Lexus without financing it.”

“I’m not going to be buying it either, unless these stupid computers stop fucking with me!”

“What computers?”

“The ones at the New York state vital records office.  They keep saying my birth certificate doesn’t exist.  See this? ‘Record not found.’  That’s what it says every time I try to get a copy.”record not found

“Why do you want one?”

“Because I need it to get a driver’s license so I can buy the goddamned Lexus!”

“OK, calm down.  Don’t you have an old copy somewhere?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Doesn’t your mom have a copy?”

“I’ve never met my mom.  CPS took me away from her when I was a baby and I was raised in foster homes until I finally ran away and started living on my own eight years ago, when I was 16.”

“Hey, you told me your mother was a teacher.”

“That’s part of the backstory I tell clients.  I also tell them I’m studying to be a psychologist, when in fact I don’t even have a GED.”

“So much for my suggestion you call your old high school.  Damn, honey, don’t you know any of your relatives?”

“Not a one.  And I’m beginning to think that what I thought was my real name isn’t my real name at all, but one somebody gave me somewhere along the way.  Which is why it isn’t showing up in the computer.”

“Well, that’s hardly the computer’s fault.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?  What fucking difference does that make?  Holy shit, Heather, I’m trying to vent here and you’re giving me this Pollyanna bullshit about assigning blame!”

“OK, I’m sorry, you’re right; my dad is a scientist and my mom says I sound just like him sometimes.  But there’s gotta be a way to crack this; I mean, you were in the foster system, so there must be a record of you there.  Have you tried them?”

“Of course; just because I’m a dropout doesn’t mean I’m stupid.  But they won’t give me any information without a social security number.”

“Wait, you don’t know your social?”

“Would we be having this fucking conversation if I did?”

“But Athena, how the hell have you even managed to survive until now without a social security number?”

“Cash.  Prepaid Visa.  Renting places from little old ladies who don’t do credit checks.  And I don’t know about you, but none of my clients have ever required it as a condition of seeing me”.

“Point taken.  So what made you decide to go on the grid?  You’ve been doing a great job living outside of it, and…shit, you’ve never paid taxes either, have you?”


“Girl, are you crazy?  Why the hell do you want to ruin a sweet deal like this?  So you can’t get a car; who needs it?  Just call a freaking Uber when you need a ride, just like you always have.”

“Because now I’m scared!”

“Of the IRS?”

“No, not the fucking IRS!  I’m afraid because as far as I can determine, I don’t have any past at all prior to eight years ago!”

“Well, you have your memories…no, you don’t, do you?”

“Not before I started working.  My earliest memories are of living on the street, trading sex for food and a place to stay; I just started talking about foster care because the other street girls I knew talked about it.  And somewhere along the line I guess I started to believe it, but all this has forced me to confront the truth that I don’t actually know who I am or where I came from.  Everything I say about my life prior to moving out here and taking out my first Backpage ad five years ago is a lie, and even my memories of street work are pretty vague; the more I think about it, the more contradictions I find.  It’s as though I didn’t really exist before that.”

“But you sure do exist on the internet.  I mean, you are all over the place; I’ve never seen anybody use social media as well as you do.  You use it like…”

“Go on, like what?”

“Like your life depended on it.”

“As you said yourself, my income does.”

“Of course.  Hey, sweetie, this conversation has gotten way too heavy; what say we go get a drink?”

“Sure, sure, that’s a great idea.  I’m sorry I got so upset at you.”

“Don’t apologize; you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

“Thanks.  It’s just really hard not knowing who I am.”

“I know exactly who you are; you’re Athena Logan, the most popular escort in the whole freaking country.”

“You’re full of shit, and I love you for it.  I guess one advantage of not knowing my real name is that I don’t have to answer to some stupid, boring name I didn’t choose.”

“Do you remember why you chose Athena?”

“Nah, I’ve always used it since my very first ad; don’t you think it suits me?”

“Oh, definitely, babe; I can’t imagine your being called anything else.”Birth of Athena by Rene Antoine Houasse (before 1688)


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The most beautiful stories always start with wreckage.  –  Jack London

Lexi opened her eyes and gazed about at the wreckage.  Scratch that; she opened her right eye, because despite her effort the left seemed unable to open.  Indeed, the entire left side of her body seemed to have been damaged in the crash; her left leg seemed mostly all right, but her left arm was stiff and weak, she thought she might be deaf in her left ear, and she didn’t want to think too hard about what the left side of her head must look like.

On top of all that, she wasn’t able to get up at all, and wondered if something might be wrong with her back.  A little exploration with her right hand, however, revealed that the problem was external; she was pinned down by a steel beam across her midsection.  Carefully, gingerly, she began to inch her body backward, hoping to draw back far enough that she could eventually sit up or roll over; she made just enough progress to encourage her to continue, and after a long series of adjustments she was finally clear enough to roll up onto her right side in order to survey the situation more thoroughly.

wreckageWhat she saw did nothing to ameliorate her concerns:  the ship was an utter shambles, and there was no sign of motion from any other crew member beside herself.  She called out as best she could, but her voice sounded weak and unfamiliar to her own ear; there was no response of any kind, and after a few more tries she gave up and resumed her efforts to extricate herself from the debris without help.  Her new position allowed her to reach a cable trunk, and pulling on it allowed her to make faster progress than mere inching; soon she was clear enough to sit up, and despite the near-uselessness of her left arm she was standing up a few minutes later.

Well, it was a reasonable approximation of standing, anyhow; “leaning on a bulkhead” would be a much more accurate analysis.  But she was mostly vertical and mostly mobile, and that allowed her to move out of the storage bay in which she had been trapped; she soon found what she needed to patch up all the obvious damage to her body that her inexpert senses could locate, and then she limped up to the control deck.  That wasn’t much easier than pulling herself out of the wreckage had been; all the usual routes were blocked by jammed doors or fallen beams.  But Lexi had a resourceful nature; she eventually made her way up a service crawlway, removing a panel to come up through the deck onto the bridge.

All that had come before was the easy part; Lexi was not a member of the bridge crew and therefore had no idea how to use any of the equipment there.  But she could use a computer, so she knew she’d be able to eventually figure out how to activate the distress beacon even if the communications console proper were not functional.  Here again she met obstacles: the main computer was nothing but junk, so she had to locate a functioning pocket model with the proper files, then locate those files and read as much of them as she could understand.  With ship’s power down she had to rig up the communications console to a portable power source; given that she had never been trained to do that task and only barely understood the principles involved, it was almost a miracle that she was finally able, after considerable effort, to bring the panel to life and activate the distress beacon.  After that, it was just a matter of waiting; there wasn’t much else she could do except sleep, so she did as much of that as she could while waiting for help to arrive.


“What a damned mess!” exclaimed Commander Norton.  “Have they figured out yet how the distress beacon came on by itself after 17 days?”

“Yes, sir,” said Lieutenant Baker, “but you’re not going to believe it.”

“Try me.”

“Well, sir, the panel appears to have been manually rewired.”

“On an unmanned ship?”

“Apparently, sir, the work was done by one of the land exploration units.”

The older man glared at him.  “Don’t bullshit me, son.”

“No bullshit, sir.  Lieutenant Payne has worked extensively with the model, and she says their adaptive programming has often given rise to some pretty amazing results.  Since they’re designed to explore alien worlds alone, they need considerable ability to learn new information and skills in order to deal with unforeseen problems.  Apparently, LE-XI was able to recognize that it was the only robot to survive the crash, and consulted a portable database for instructions on getting the beacon online again.”

“That’s hard to believe, even for adaptive programming.”

“Lieutenant Payne said the same thing, sir; she said that LE-XI had demonstrated an unprecedented level of autonomous action, and she wondered if the crash might not have resulted in some serendipitous change to its brain function.  The left side of its head is bashed in pretty badly, and if it hadn’t awakened and offered a report upon our entry to the bridge, I would never have believed it was still functional.”

They had been walking up the hull for most of the conversation, and had now reached the place where the salvage mission had cut through into the bridge.  Baker’s appraisal of the robot’s condition had been generous: there was a dent in its head the size of a large man’s hand, and the sensory apparatus on that side was smashed.  Its left arm was bent so badly its left hand wasn’t far from the elbow, and its torso was in terrible shape.  But its head swiveled crookedly on its neck assembly when the commander entered, and its remaining eye focused on him when he spoke.

“So this is the robot who saved the mission?”

“Yes, sir,” said Lt. Payne. “LE-XI managed to exceed her programming remarkably.  Lexi, this is Commander Norton.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Commander; I hope I performed adequately.”  The robot’s voice unit had also been damaged, so that instead of the clear mezzo-soprano it was designed to produce a childlike soprano emerged.  Norton had always felt a bit silly talking to robots as though they could actually think, but in this case the illusion of personality was extremely strong.

“More than adequately, Lexi.  Your actions allowed us to recover the data and samples you and the others collected here.”  Norton ignored Payne’s ill-disguised grin; in spite of himself, he did feel gratitude and even a bit of admiration toward the damaged machine.

“And what’s more, Lexi,” Payne added excitedly, “we’re going to take you back to Earth to figure out how you did it, and maybe we can build more robots as smart as you are.  I’m going to shut you down now for the trip, is that OK?”

“Yes ma’am, whatever you say,” Lexi replied, satisfied in her way that she had pleased her makers and looking forward to the prospect of a long and restful sleep.wrecked spaceship

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Fictional Interlude: Heat

She moved softly and silently along the branch, nearly invisible amidst the foliage; when it got too narrow to support her she dropped lightly down to the next tier, barely bending the lower branch as though she weighed nearly nothing.  She stopped to sniff the air again and looked upwind, attempting to locate the source of the familiar-yet-strange odor, but she was not yet close enough; she therefore resumed her course along the branch, crossing effortlessly onto a limb of the next tree where the two intertwined.

After another half-hour of progress like this, punctuated by frequent stops to sniff the air or lie still when she heard a noise or sensed movement, she finally arrived at what her exquisitely-sensitive nose told her was her destination.  It was a clearing like many others in the jungle, but this one was occupied by the creatures she had smelled from far away, the creatures who had aroused her appetite.  But she was far too experienced a hunter to allow her hunger to cause her to act rashly; the prey were larger than she was, and she could not be sure that they could not seriously injure her.  No, far better to lie on the branch above them for a while, silently lying in wait; sooner or later one of them would wander away from the others, and then she would strike from above without warning.

As she had anticipated, her opportunity eventually came; the majority of the group was occupied with something at the far end of the clearing, leaving one not only isolated, but cut off from the view of the others by a large, low shrub.  Launching herself from the branch, she struck her quarry squarely between the shoulders, knocking him off of his feet.  His scent was confusing; though it bore a strong resemblance to that of her own kind, it was somehow different and mingled with other peculiar odors.  On top of that, his oddly-pale skin was covered with a strange layer of…hair? Hide?  that seemed not to be a part of him.  Fortunately, it was relatively fragile and easily ripped away, leaving him exposed for her purposes.  It was all over in a few minutes, and though his cries attracted the attention of the others she was gone before they could arrive, moving through the trees like a will-o-the-wisp.

Later, around the campfire, Bennings mocked Grayson’s story.  “Come on, old man, ‘fess up; you tore your khakis on that thorn bush after unwisely choosing it as a spot to relieve yourself.  Surely you don’t expect us to believe this ridiculous tale of your being raped by a wild woman!”

cat eyes


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