Alien Books Below!
Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!
The following book is "alien related".
I am posting 50% (the first half) here.
My books were on sale years ago, but honestly, it just became too much trouble to keep up with it all. I pulled all books from all markets. Amazon (Scamazon) was the worst to deal with and I honestly believe they simply cheated me. I see numerous lawsuits being plotted, filed, or actively engaged in for exactly that claim, against Scamazon, by other unfortunate
A few lifetimes ago I had a literary agent in NYC named Richard Curtis. Richard wrote a book titled, "How to be Your Own Literary Agent". --Great book exposing the disgusting, sticky, slimy, reeking, feces-slathered underbelly of the world's book publishing industry. I felt Scamazon was right there leading the charge into Hell even decades after Richard bravely published his book. In the publishing industry I experienced almost everything Richard warned readers about, but in the late century, publishers became even nastier, sneakier, and more dishonest. I learned and I bailed. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. And parasites. Inside and out.
If your need for a quiet, honorable, stress-free and logical life is great, then avoid ANYTHING that puts you in the clutches of master scammers (publishers of all kinds). Just say no. Do like Tolkien did -- write for your family and friends and no one else.
If, on the other hand, your need for glitzy public adoration and fame and money (Hollyweird, anyone?) is the driving force of your psyche, then by all means, you should dive deep into the business of formally publishing and selling your thoughts. You'll learn so, so much -- more than you want to.
I believe Jeff Bezos is a crook and a thief. Period. And although he may be the worst offender, I know of NO book publisher, whether in the realm of tangible products (printed materials) or ebooks, that I'd allow in my home for biscuits and tea. Eff 'em all.
Writing a book is only a very small part of the process of selling a book. I refused to do public appearances; I refused to promote on so-called "social media". I refuse to have a Farcicalbook (Facebook) account. I am a loner and a recluse. I don't WANT to be famous. I don't even want to be known except to the silly, hammy mutts in my village in SE Asia (who bite everyone but me) and the kids. Long live the kids.
Yes, there is money in writing, but it's far and vastly outweighed by the BS and the little pieces of your soul and moral code you'll have to sacrifice which are required to keep the flow going and I simply won't do it. I'm not rich, but I have "enough" money to last me through this lifetime. My needs and wants aren't extravagant. My needs and wants for quiet and peace and solitude and a reasonable, honest, honorable, logical lifestyle greatly outweigh my needs for money. I once lived in a dirt-floor cabin in northern Canada that was 450 miles (no misprint) from the nearest dirt road. That wasn't far enough and people still came to annoy me. I've had great sums of money from numerous endeavors throughout my life. As a commercial diver I made, on some jobs, $2600 per hour (again no misprint) in the 1970's. I loved the work. The money was little more than a headache and a grand, irritating distraction. I learned that I was always to one degree or another less happy, proportionate to the amount of money I had.
Here are the two books, shown as the first 50% of each one. I don't know what I'll ever do with them. Probably nothing. It's an absolute and guaranteed fact that if I post the whole books, miscreants (thieves) by the hundreds will simply steal the text and put their own names on it. It has happened far too many times before. Hell, they'll do that anyway, and I'll find them and sue them as I have in the past, but they won't do that in as great a numbers if they only have half the book. I don't need nor want the headaches. My books were always very well received with the lowest review ever posted being four stars. That is worth far more to me than any paycheck.
Enjoy these snippets if you can. Maybe someday I'll post the second halves of them. Or maybe I won't. I don't want the attention at all. I like to entertain people. But I am sick to bloody effing death of being stolen from, copied and scammed. That's the Millennial Way nowadays and Homey say no mo'..
The book below is a purely fictional alien-type novel. There is actually a sequel to it, but I don't have the interest at present to put it out there in any way.
Decent book about a regular guy...learning to fly
May 10, 2018
I enjoyed this book. Although the method of space travel was different, even far-fetched, from any other scifi book I've read before, I was intrigued by it. Not really a fast-paced action thriller but just a good story that flowed nicely. Basically only 3 main characters in the book and that's the way I like it. Not hard to keep up with. After all, wouldn't everyone like to have their own personal little space ship? And use it to salvage what's left of life on your planet?
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I am not a criminal. Not really. I believe in the rule of law – without it, we’d have nonsense.
Ok, so we have nonsense anyway.
Maybe I’m a little bit of a criminal. But I’m not a bad criminal.
I don’t kill kittens, or people, or hurt children, or rob banks. I only think about the banks.
But I build space ships. And they’re illegal. Not illegal to own, but illegal to use.
And it doesn’t really bother me that it’s illegal. It’s not immoral. And that’s my criterion.
I said I’m not a bad criminal and I’m not.
Sometimes jay-walking is perfectly ok. But it’s against the law. I figure folks are smart enough, usually, to know when it’s safe to jay-walk and when it’s not, and, mostly, those who get hit deserve it. It’s natural selection. We don’t need a frikkin’ law. And we don’t need a law to tell us when we can leave our planet and when we can’t. If the government had its way we’d never leave. Why? Because they can’t spare the tax dollars? Because the government would miss us?
I first got the idea to build a space ship when I was perusing those tiny ads in the back of Science Monthly. You’ve seen them. Build an airplane, helicopter – breed tiny monkeys for fun and profit. Learn to meet girls anywhere you go. Publish your book TODAY. How to make a Godzillian in Real Estate in 47 Easy (Difficult) Steps and by the way, you’ll need a Hell of a lot of luck.
I know you can build a little helicopter because I’ve done that. It flew. It crashed. But not because the design was faulty; because I was an appallingly bad pilot. There was included a “how to fly” book. I skimmed it. –Should have read it more thoroughly. Skimming is for book reports that you only need a “C” in.
I only told a few trusted friends about my plans to build the space ship. I paid for the plans, which came with an electronic box. The brain. And I started on the framework for the hull. The brain is the hardest part. They say no one can build that part of it – that’s why the damned kit was so expensive. Six months wages for me. I owned a restaurant. Well, seven of them. I wasn’t starving. But six months of net revenues! Extracting the money from the bank was a hard pull; like buying magic beans. Well, in fact, I was buying magic beans. 99% of the brain is screaming NO! NO! NO! YOU FOOL! But the romantic 1% was whispering, “This shall be the coolest thing any man has ever done in the history of the planet and you know it. Go forth my son, and make the withdrawal; it will only hurt for a moment.” Of course that only bought the plans and the box and the raw material. Then came the really hard part – waiting – and that took six months. Had anyone else ever built one of these things? I didn’t know at the time. No one could really talk about it if they had.
My friends didn’t say much about my plan to leave the planet. It’s because they thought I’m a little slow in the head. I’m not, but I can seem that way to some. Ok, most. Ok, all. I had an accident. I hit my head. Shit happens. I’d built a race car from a kit. Ok, I know what you’re thinking already. Eff the kit stuff. But I’m pretty sure the race car was fine. It didn’t have an engine; it was only a coaster. But in a turn one of the brakes locked up and sent me into a spin, and it rolled, and I cracked my head.
What can I say? I have a theory about the malfunction, that it was childish sabotage by a rival, but without a lab to study the wreckage it’s just speculation. The bump on the head disconnected my brain from my mouth. I can still think just fine, and over the years – I did this when I was seven – some speech returned, but not enough to suit some picky types who think I should have sounded just like them. I can think just fine, as I’ve already said – I’m not stupid and I don’t repeat myself without knowing it -- but the pipeline between the thinking and the saying was made … small. It took a while for stuff to go through the pipe (a swizzle stick, really), and come out audibly. That was ok if I chose my words carefully, and only said the things that are the most important in making my point. Like an outline. Like a brief, incredibly succinct outline. Like a sketch. Ok, like a stick figure. You don’t need to spend two months painting a bunch of beautiful colors to know something represents a bird. Just a few pencil lines and an arrow with the phrase IMAGINE BEAUTIFUL COLORS HERE will communicate that. In some ways that’s more creative than a full-on painting on canvas, like a book can be more interesting than a movie. Allow the brain to fill in the blanks. Sometimes the viewer’s brains are far more creative than the creator’s brains. If I tried to blurt out a whole story it came out crap. But if I spoke only the highlights, and if I did it carefully, people could hardly tell there was a disconnect. Writing is no problem because, after all, how would you ever know how long it took me to write this paragraph? A minute? A week? A year? And why would you care? What does it matter in any case?
I lived in a cheap rooftop apartment and it had a garage downstairs that was mostly full of the landlord’s junk, but I got permission to use a portion of it for my project. He thought I was building a one-man sailboat. He’s an idiot. I kept it covered with a scrap of filthy translucent plastic tarp and it all seemed so utterly uninteresting that the old coot never bothered to look under it. He wouldn’t have seen much at that stage. Even when it was finished he still probably thought it was a one man sailboat. God speed, ya greedy old knob.
I never had a girlfriend and my parents both passed away when I was a bit too young to be out on my own – hence the poor planning and execution of the helicopter thing. My Dad would have spotted the inattention to flight characteristics and practice, and saved me a lot of trouble.
I never had a girlfriend because of, I think, the speech impediment thing. I’m told I’m a good looking guy, but no girl wanted to be embarrassed to be with me. Tape over my mouth, I’d have been ok. It’s like the jokes crude guys tell about putting bags over the heads of less than attractive girls. I didn’t need a bag – I needed duct tape. Same same. Where there’s a problem there’s often a solution. I hoped to have a girlfriend someday. But that hope was dim. Some say it’s better to learn to be alone. That would be fine if God hadn’t implanted in us the need to have a co-pilot in life. I really needed someone to talk to. My cat never spoke an understandable sentence. Maybe on Zeta Reticule cats and people can talk. And a cat wouldn’t know nor care if my speech patterns were a little suspect. Or maybe he would. See, this is the kind of thinking that makes my head hurt and my heart lose hope.
My name is Atticus. No, I won’t even comment or apologize or explain. Sense of humor on my parent’s part? Maybe they were drunk. It’s not so bad if I shorten it. At. It’s easier for me to say, and people don’t like any more syllables than are absolutely necessary anyway. At. Clean. Easy. My last name is much worse. I won’t go there because there’s no need. If my name was Bob, I’d have to supply a last name. Bob who? Because there’s a billion of them. But At? People don’t probe further. They just say ok because they’re secretly happy to not be bothered remembering more data. I think three quarters of my school teachers never knew my last name. They couldn’t have because it’s impossible to pronounce and no one ever asked me to.
I was only 20 when I started the space ship. I like to think I’m smart, but we all do. Of course there are the embarrassing race car and helicopter incidents to quantify my intelligence. Doesn’t look good for me, if you think about it rationally. I add in my defense only that my unpowered little car attained a documented 231 miles per hour. That’s nearly twice terminal velocity had it been dropped through the clouds. Without any means of propulsion, how did I do that? I ain’t sayin’. Because I want you to think I’m smart.
The space ship kit came with a few rods of some unidentified material. Looked like gray plastic to me. Like you might use to erect a camp tent. Honestly the ship isn’t much bigger than that. If it had wheels it would look like a cool futuristic car. And it came with several boxes of magic beans.
To build the hull you snapped together the circuitry, and laid out the gray plastic rod things like a rough and dirty skeleton. They formed a bubble shape. Then, interfacing the board through a port to any cheap computer, you chose your design. The options were many but the final craft could never exceed a certain size. That’s because so much money only gets you so much product.
I chose a kind of two seater design, two bucket seats side by side in the front. In back of the seats was a larger area, like a minivan. I wanted to be able to carry some junk – clothes, camping gear, survival stuff, and I wanted a toilet. I know that sounds odd, but toilets are important. I can eat cold sandwiches made from meat by-products from a can and freeze-dried bread for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy, but I like a comfortable place to sit. I figured camp trailers could have toilets and tiny sinks, so my space ship could too. And it was a design option. Who in God’s name would choose the refrigerator or the washing machine in place of the toilet? Priorities.
Once you have your design picked out, you pour the raw material into a series of trays fitted around the base of the craft. The magic beans look like plastic glue pellets but the instruction manual refers to them as “molecular seeds”. Who am I to argue?
You spread them out more or less evenly, and plug the board into a power source, and then you just go away. For about six months.
You can come back and check things out if you want but there’s no point. If something failed in the “growing” of your ship the whole thing was toast. If even the smallest detail has run amok your only option is to unplug it and throw it in the trash, and start over. The manufacturer has a partial money-back guarantee for such contingencies, but they said failure rates were “astronomically small”.
I couldn’t help it; I lifted the tarp and checked mine every single day. Like waiting for water to boil. The first thing that happens is that the tiny heaters in the trays bring the whole mess up to a certain temperature. Then, it starts to grow, like sourdough. You can watch it begin, just like watching tomatoes form on the vine. It’s a slow process. You need patience.
Within eight weeks you can see what direction the thing is headed in at least. Within four months it has a good basic shape completed. In five and a half to six months or so you see a flashing green light on the board and that means it’s done. Cooked. Growed. Ripened. Matured. Ready to fly.
Not really. It still needs another month and a half of programming. That’s when you drag it out into the open, let the air get at it, and let it see the sky. Getting it out of the landlord’s garage in the middle of the night wasn’t easy, and getting it onto the roof-balcony of my apartment took all my friends and some ropes and pulleys rented from downtown. I tarped it over again and told the landlord I was constructing a greenhouse out there. Moron. He bought it hook and line.
It takes some sort of images of the sky then, night and day, and calculates all kinds of things that most writings suggest don’t really need to be learned. Like celestial navigation had to be learned from scratch in the old sailing days – now we have computers and while it’s always nice to know how to find your way if the batteries go dead, chances are they won’t. No one learns celestial navigation anymore; they use a GPS. Or three. And I doubt any consumer learned the ludicrous math required to truly understand the navigation of this kit-ship either. I didn’t. It might be utterly unknowable by only one person.
Once your ship has learned the skies, you’re good to go. At least you’re good to go right around your neighborhood – just stay in the solar system. Once you spend a little time in clear space, your circuitry will learn heaps more about your entire galaxy, and then you’re good to go there too. Once you’ve traveled outside your galaxy, your ship learns even more about places farther away, and if you’re absurdly, stupidly intrepid, you can just keep going and going. At least that’s the advertising hype. I would have been happy visiting some lowly moon. Any moon would suffice. I think moons are quiet and I like quiet.
It’s not a living DNA that grows your ship. And it’s not nanobots. That tech never did work out. It’s a non-biological material that simply follows directions, molecule by molecule. No rivets. No welds. No seams. Molecularly perfect and strong beyond my ability to comprehend. Your bones will crack long before the hull does.
It draws power from any light source and uses almost none. And it isn’t “propelled” from point A to point B like a rocket. That wouldn’t work at all, and those G forces – forget it. As I understand it, the board reaches out to materials in the vicinity of your ship – a hundred miles, say -- and uses that material as a structure to replicate itself – and you – onto. -Because, of course, the vacuum of space is actually full of dust and junk and matter. And it stores light and manifests that into a solid thing – namely your new ship – because, as we all know, light has mass and mass is just energy. By doing that it can move about a hundred yards. Meters. Whatever. Unfortunately it can’t move any less distance than that, so close-quarter maneuvering is tricky at best.
But how can you cross galaxies by only moving a hundred yards? Your ship will move a hundred yards maybe a few trillion times per microsecond, or as slow as one jump every five or ten seconds. Your speed is limited by the clock speed of your motherboard, and the amount of dust and debris in your area, and by the amount of light your ship has gathered and stored. That’s why the circuitry that comes in the kit is so special. Word is the government doesn’t even know how the boards are designed, but I’m betting they do. As I said – and I’m not stupid – I never repeat myself without knowing it – you don’t even “move” from point A to point B. You merely recreate yourself a bunch of times until you are recreated where you want to end up. The math is brilliant.
When the on-board computer signaled it was done collecting data, it entered into a series of data-checking routines. Every molecule in the hull (and the toilet) had to be checked and rechecked because if only a few molecules were damaged or out of whack, the replication process could magnify a tiny error into a catastrophic one. Bad news for you.
The final checks and verifications took another three months. My landlord asked how the garden was coming. I bought some veggies at the market and gave him a sack full and told him fine. Imbecile.
As the end of the check cycles neared, I began to feel some excitement. I also found it more and more difficult to focus on burning pizzas. A few accidentally came out alright. That scared me.
I started sitting in the driver’s seat a lot. You could take almost anything with you on your trips, as long as the computer had been allowed time to scan and record every molecule in them. I found that I was adding more and more things. The added weight wasn’t a big concern, because you’re not pushing around a mass anyway, but I was running out of room. I also discovered that freeze-dried foods were really, really expensive and seldom tasty.
Before every departure the computer needed to scan you too – every molecule – but it already had a basic database of you from the initial scan, and future scans, just prior to blasting off, only looked for changes since the last scan. It took about 15 seconds, depending on how many molecules in your body. A cat might be good to go in 4 seconds. Me, a little longer than 15 seconds. Less if I could cut out the chocolate.
I listened to rock and roll and practiced with my camera, imagining that I was photographing the backside of some alien moon – the photos soon to be sold to some high paying magazine. Of course I could never represent the images as the real backside of some alien moon. I could only label them, “This is what it MIGHT look like if mankind could ever go there.” Everyone would know the pictures were real, but they couldn’t prove it. Read: the government couldn’t prove it. Maybe.
The day came when there was nothing left to check except actual flight. Should we say “flight”? Everyone does. Because, after all, we do fly through the air and through the space and hopefully not through the side of a mountain. While we are, for one trillionth of a second or whatever, being manifest at ten miles altitude, we are, in fact, flying. If the electronics fail then we drop – but even that is “flying”, until we contact the ground. A rocket flies, and if the engine quits, it falls (flies downward), and when it impacts the ground it ceases to fly. Without the thrust of the rocket engine a rocket cannot fly. But it’s still called flying until it stops flying. When a rocket reaches an orbit in space and the engine runs out of propellant but the rocket doesn’t fall because it’s being held out there by the centrifugal force of the planet’s gravity, should that be called flying? It’s orbiting. But is it also flying? Or is flying limited to movement through an atmosphere? If that’s the case, where do we draw the line? Because many celestial bodies have little to no “atmosphere”. At what point do we say we’re no longer “flying” through an “atmosphere”? When the atmosphere is thick? When it’s thin? When we’re only passing by a few million molecules a second? When we’re passing by one molecule of atmosphere per second? It seems that any time an object, be it a rocket, or my little craft, or a baseball, or a rock heading for a picture window, is not connected to the ground and is moving under its own power or inertia, it’s bloody flying. So that’s my terminology from here on out. I could say “moving” … but that just sounds stupid. Or I could call it “replicating really really fast”, which is exactly what it is, but that’s too many words. Sometimes I worry stuff right to death but I like it.
And speaking of flying into the side of a mountain, what would happen? The “How to Fly” manual says that the electronics can handle a tiny … bit of alien matter in its calculations. Alien matter, in this reference, means anything that hasn’t been scanned and accepted by the system. I am not alien matter inside my ship. Nor is my cat. As my ship moves in increments of about a hundred yards (or meters, whatever), it will always encounter new matter in the form of dust or atmospheric pollution – how about rain? The board can handle that stuff and filter it out. But if too much matter is encountered, the system can overload and shut down. Supposedly there are warnings before that happens, like there are warning cues in a helicopter when you push it to travel too fast and you begin to bump the realm of retreating blade stall. The bird will begin to get squishy and drop to one side, like an airplane wing stalling. You can recover it then by simply slowing down, but if you don’t, and the blades that are moving backwards reach stall speed, you pretty much just flip over upside down and die. I was really worried about that for far too long. The space ship manual says that if you ignore the warning lights and tones of the on-board computer and keep on flying into too much alien “stuff”, you might feel “harmonious vibrations” in your craft, but quickly after that some amount of alien debris will get incorporated into the very material of your craft, and you too, and that won’t be pretty but it will be the end. I have a nightmare about flying into a flock of big geese and the electronics can’t handle all that alien matter, and some number of those geese get “incorporated” into my person. Then everything shuts down and it all falls to the ground. Then the gawkers come and they find this guy, me, in the steaming wreckage, with goose wings appearing to grow out of his head and goose feet appearing to have replaced his penis – the nightmare goes far beyond things like that but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say the dream is intense, but hopefully not foretelling.
There’s not a hard and fast rule regarding how much alien matter a small craft can compensate for. It’s based somewhat on the frequency of replications, the type of matter, the speed of your CPU, etc. But one thing is certain: If you fly into the side of a mountain due to some computer miscalculation (stranger things have happened), you ain’t comin’ out the other side. Some mining operation will dig into you twenty or a million years later and maybe wonder WTF. You’ll be as embedded in the dirt as any mineral ore is embedded in the dirt and just as difficult to remove. How would they bury your remains? For God’s sake, why would they bother?
My little ship featured a test circuit that would move the ship upwards into clear air about 500 meters, then immediately back to the takeoff point. The board employed a scanner – think of it as radar – that looked out in the direction of the intended course, for objects – like birds, planes, swarms of locusts, paragliders, kites, bullets, RC drones – lots of potential buggars out there. The scanner in my ship didn’t look left or right or in a cone-shaped area because the trip would take literally millionths of a second and there probably, probably, wouldn’t be anything flying into your path in that short of a time. An upgraded model of my ship featured a scanner that did look at your course as a cone shaped area, and so could see if something might fly into your path, and it would then choose a slightly altered course for you or abort the jump. I was beginning to think a lot about the wisdom of saving a few bucks and not getting that upgrade. When you buy a traditional aircraft, do you get the reciprocating gasoline engine, or the turbine? One will work more or less just as well as the other – until it doesn’t.
I untarped my ship – which, despite my disgust for those who name their cars, was beginning to seem to me just a bit friendly – and after doing a quick visual search for any offending flying objects, I pushed the button that would initiate a 15 second countdown. I then closed the big bubble canopy and stepped back. A safe distance of two feet was plenty; there was no propeller nor rocket fire. The beeper counted down then stopped. And not a damned thing happened. But of course what would you see? The craft only blinked out for a trillionth of a second, and the human eye can’t notice that. Then it appeared a few hundred meters up for a trillionth of a second, and the human eye can’t notice that. Then it reappeared in its original spot and the program terminated. Pretty anticlimactic.
But the log on the screen read: Distance Traveled: 1000.21 meters.
Wow. I had built a working spaceship. Actually, I’d only grown one – something any slow-witted five year old could do.
I checked inside the cockpit to be sure there weren’t any goose feathers wafting around nor little piles of locust wings. There weren’t. And the readout showed no errors anyway. Whatever alien debris the craft had encountered along its course – certainly a fly or two and some bacteria and organic dust -- had been handled by the computer. Joy for that. Then I just went to bed because the whole thing had been hella stressful and I was a stress-wimp.
Tomorrow was a big day. DAY TWO: Spot, the cat.
He was excited too; I could feel it in his purr as he snuggled up to me in under the covers.
But next morning Spot was cranky. I don’t know why. He bit me for no apparent reason, almost hard enough to break the skin. Spot was a smart little carpet shark, but no way could he really have known he was going into space in two hours’ time?
I carried him out to the roof balcony and realized I had forgotten to tarp over the ship the night before. Only the top of the bubble would have been visible from the street, but maybe that was enough to attract attention.
I opened up the canopy and put Spot down on the seat. He looked nervous and peered around into every nook and cranny and smelled the synthesized material of the seat. Then he looked at me, right into my eyes, as he often did. He was a tuxedo cat, and vocal as heck, and he made an inquisitive half-meow, as if to ask, “Is this where I die, Master?”
I put a jar full of bugs on the seat next to him, picked him up and took him out, then keyed the computer to do another 500 meter test, and closed the hatch. I’m sorry, and I apologize to Buddha, but I’m not particularly fond of bugs and I’m not so pained when they die. I don’t burn them under magnifying glasses or anything, but if they have to die in the name of science, so be it. They’d be contributing far more that way than if they died a natural death of old age alongside the road in the weeds.
I stepped back and put Spot down, then immediately picked him up again so he wouldn’t jump onto the ship at some inopportune instant, and we watched as the timer counted down, then switched to read, “Distance Traveled: 1000.21 meters.”
I opened the hatch and inspected the bugs. Just fine. Lively as ever. I figured they’d done their duty and I let them go.
Then I climbed in myself. I left the hatch open because I wanted to see what Spot would do. After only a short hesitation he jumped in beside me. I said, “Let’s Rock.” Spot said … something – probably, “Just how stupid do you think I am?” And I keyed in the code to start the countdown.
It came and went, and the screen read, “Distance Traveled: 1000.2022 meters”.
I was a spaceman. Well, not really; we’d only gone up as high as a kite.
A thought struck me though. Let’s say I keyed in the code and the 15 second countdown started, and at 2 seconds before launch, Spot, or anything else, jumped up onto the ship. The ship then launched without him of course, but in the time it was gone, Spot would have dropped just a little due to plain old gravity. He wouldn’t have dropped far in a trillionth of a second, but he would have dropped a little. A few microns worth? I was never good at math and I didn’t really care about the exact number. It was enough to know that some amount of drop would have occurred.
So what would happen to Spot when the ship rematerialized? Would the skin on the bottoms of the pads on his feet be just instantly sliced off? Ok, let’s assume that. He gets sore feet for a week or two until they heal. But what then happens to the organic material that was shaved off his feet? I supposed that if there was not too much material, the ship would deal with it and … what … just discard it somehow? Vaporize it? Or would it somehow get re-engineered and incorporated into the material the ship was made of? This is exactly why scientists should be building this stuff, and not idiot punks named At. Oh! So that is why the government outlawed this technology! Because it could and would be used by morons! Smart government.
I opened the canopy and Spot jumped lightly out and sauntered off to see if there was any remaining trail of the bugs. I sat back awhile and tried to take it all in. I was ready to go … somewhere. Into space? Where should I go first? Before I built the thing I had all kinds of lists of places to go. Suddenly that was all out the window. Where did I really want to go first? Like when you win the lottery, you know you’re gonna buy a fast car and a mansion and a boat in that order. But I bet you buy other crap first when it really happens.
I wanted to go see Rebecca’s house. Becka lived across town. I had the hots for her. She didn’t know I existed, or if she did, I was only a name in a joke about slow-witted imbeciles. I wasn’t in love with Becka, but I had this idea we’d hit it off and “click” if we were ever thrown together by some bizarre happenstance. Fat chance of that. She’d run. I knew that. But fantasies are fun as long as you recognize them as fantasies. I thought a fitting first flight would be just a jump of a couple of miles. I’d look at her house. Maybe snap a picture of it. There was a flat grassy area in her backyard. I would pop in. Snap a shutter. And pop out in, what? One to two seconds. Ok. Done deal. Let’s do this.
I entered the coordinates by simply marking a spot on a map. I set the duration between landing and taking off again at 3 seconds. Plenty of time. I took a deep breath. Got my phone camera ready, and engaged the countdown. It wasn’t a straight line of sight from my place to Becka’s, so the capsule would choose its own course to avoid obstacles – maybe straight up for 50 meters, then this way for 1500 meters, then maybe that way for 2600 hundred meters, then down to the grass. I wouldn’t be aware of any course changes. I would just feel a tiny disassociation, maybe, and then be looking at Becka’s back door.
The countdown reached zero and before I even had time to think about it I was looking straight at Becka, in a bikini, looking straight at me. She’d been headed for the pool. I saw her eyes go wide and her mouth opened preparatory to a giant scream, then I realized I’d dropped my phone and when I looked up again I was looking at Spot, looking at me from the wooden railing around my rooftop.
Well eff a duck. That didn’t go well at all. Only one thing I was fairly sure of: Becka had recognized me.
I felt a surge of panic at that, but then calmed down. Even if she had recognized me, she’d never be 1000% sure, and even if she was that sure, what was she going to do with that data? Tell her mom? Not likely. Maybe she did scream, and maybe someone came running, and maybe they asked her what the Hell, and she answered … what, exactly? I saw a spaceship and it was piloted by that weird kid At, and now it’s gone? I figured she was smarter than that. She’d be told she had suffered a minor, transient, cerebral event, and to get out of the sun. End of that story. Too bad I’d missed the photo-op.
Now I was tired because, as I’ve said, and I’m not stupid and I don’t repeat myself without knowing it, I’m a stress-wuss. I really can’t take anything at all. I grabbed Spot and we went to have a nap.
I woke up early evening with a deep and profound sense of excitement and anticipation and also a feeling of foreboding and doom. This thing could kill me. Sure, the helicopter and the race car could have too, but this thing… This was a whole ‘nother realm of deep shit if something went wrong. A cracked solder on the motherboard? That had brought airliners down and they were unarguably better designed with redundant systems than my ridiculous little pod. This thing could kill me. I repeated it under my breath several times to try to make it sink in.
I knew some number of the kits had been sold. There was chatter in the ether. But no one was talking openly about it because it was of course illegal – at least to operate. Who knew if anyone had really gone anywhere cool? Who knew if they all died before returning? Actually, that probably would have made the news, so, in this case, maybe no news was good news. I expected this little hobby to explode soon. Then we could look at thousands of flights or tens of thousands, versus fatalities or “just missing” incidents. Then we could begin to get a finger on the pulse of the safety of this thing. But as far as I knew for sure, I was the only one – me and Spot – the only ones who had actually flown the thing. We’d lived. But lots of people do stupid things and live. Until they don’t.
We (Spot went most places with me if he was allowed, meowing and talking continuously) found ourselves meandering up onto the roof to just sort of gaze at the contraption. I liked to sit in it so we did. I wished it had cool controls like a stick and a throttle, maybe rudder pedals, but there was just that tiny computer and a screen not much bigger than a cell phone. Seemed anticlimactic. But who cared, if it worked, and it did.
I wanted to go up really high and look down. The manual said you could do that. You just programmed in the coordinates of a place – like “really up high”, and then programmed for a series of the shortest hops possible – about 100 meters each. If you programmed in, say, a million trillion hops of 100 meters, then 100 meters, then 100 meters, a million trillion times, this way and that way and around, then another million trillion hops right back on the reciprocal course, you could pretend you were sort of hovering up there for a short span. The CPU could be slowed to the point where you began to feel a high frequency vibration, which represented individual hops. In that way you could get more air time in more or less the same place. You could just tell it to go really really high and shut off, too. But then you fell like a rock, or at least began tumbling, because this Cheap Charlie rig had no thrusters and was not in the least aerodynamic. It was just a stone. Actually it wasn’t very heavy – more like a ping-pong ball.
Should we go? Why not?
With Spots help – beady little eyes glued to the screen – I punched in the numbers and hit START. 15 seconds later we were at 150,000 feet looking at the blackness of space above and the curvature of the earth below. Wow. Then my eyes were assaulted by the dull glow of streetlights that had just come on and were casting an annoying glow over my rooftop deck. Holy shit. Now that was bloody exciting. Spot looked slightly disoriented. I hoped he didn’t barf. But by God, that was bloody exciting.
I went for a drive after that, down to get burgers, then on to Becka’s house. Lights were on. No movement in the windows. I didn’t stop. I wondered how she had explained the incident in her backyard to herself. How could you? Brain fart. That was the only way to stop being pestered by the thought of it. Self-healing aneurysm. Maybe a few molecules of LSD got slipped into your food and that’s how the trip was manifest – 3 seconds of Looney Tunes. Poor Becka. I had a daydream that had us married 25 years, and one day I just blurted out what I had done and that she had really seen me on her back lawn. I wondered how that would go. I’d get smacked for sure.
I slept well that night – I’d had a true adventure and lived and hadn’t killed my cat or anything – life was good. I had to pull long shifts for the next four days and the ship sat idle. When I finally did get up there on the roof I noticed that a few things seemed to have been moved. I wasn’t positive. But I was fairly sure. Someone had been up there. There was only one other way to get up on the roof and that required the landlord’s key. Must have been him, snoopy little son of a bitch. I’m sorry but I’ve not had good luck with landlords. They’re too often incompetent, or dishonest, or greedy, or sneaky, or creepy, or rude, condescending, arrogant, greedy, greedy, greedy – I’m not stupid and I never repeat myself without knowing it – or all of the above. I’d interviewed a lot of them in my life and had come to the point of rejecting most of their applications to get my money. My landlord had once asked me to keep him advised if I noticed any ladies in the building whose husbands or boyfriends left them because he wanted to “get some moves on that action”. And he had once given a sterling reference, in writing, to an attractive lady who was dying of cancer and moving to a cheaper building because her chemotherapy was breaking her bank account. He wrote that glowing reference with great hopes of the favor being reciprocated, but then, when he discovered she had terminal cancer and probably wouldn’t go to bed with him on account of being too sick, or too smart, he kept her deposit and even though she sued him, she didn’t live long enough for it to come to court. This guy had slipped through the cracks but I was beginning to see him for the insult-to-ferrets that he was.
For the first time I began to think seriously about a truly epic destination. A moon somewhere? A planet in our solar system? A near moon sounded best. I had a thing about moons. I didn’t like to get too far from home. –Like people who aren’t scared of water that’s ten feet deep, but are terrified to swim in the open ocean where it’s 10,000 feet deep. You can drown in one just as well as the other. Some airplane pilots like to stay low, feeling like there’s safety down there. For airplanes, there’s not. Altitude is your friend. It’s money in the bank. Not so true of helicopters. It’s good to have “some” altitude in a helicopter in case things go phooey. Speed is more important. But many helicopter pilots felt as though they wanted to be fairly close to the ground in case of engine failure, so there wasn’t time to either be scared, or think too much. If you crapped an engine and had to auto-rotate in, you’d already practiced it, so just let the training take over. If you were at 8,000 feet when it happened there was too much time to over-evaluate and maybe screw something up. But in a bizarre plastic clamshell that wasn’t even aerodynamic, the difference between a failure at 50 feet or orbiting the moon was the same: DED. Dead. No matter what you did.
That morning I let Spot sleep in. I doubted he had any interest in moons. I climbed in and sat down and arranged my cheesy-snacks between the seats. For what? I might get hungry on the ten minute trip?
I keyed in a voyage to a nearby moon, five planets out from the sun, and engaged. Less than 16 seconds later I was there, 5000 meters above the surface. I’d programmed the board to make a series of hops back and forth so I would have time to look and snap photos, and during that time the ship maintained the orientation I’d set. It couldn’t create gravity though, and my stupidly placed cheesy-snacks floated up and drifted back toward the toilet somewhere. I snatched at them and broke the bag open, so now they were like tiny alien worms twisting through the air and bouncing everywhere. I figured what the heck and I shut down the computer. The craft started to slowly yaw, then pitch, so I was looking exactly down at the surface. Then I realized the surface was coming closer. Then I realized I was dropping like a stone. I wasn’t in orbit – I was a stone. I hit one key: HOME, then another: OVERRIDE COUNTDOWN, and before I could blink I was on the roof deck of my apartment back home. And looking directly at my landlord’s saggy-pants ass.
I hit another key: DUPLICATE TRIP, and then another: OVERRIDE COUNTDOWN, and before I could blink I was over the moon again, but not falling because the jumps were still processing. I keyed in a new coordinate that would simply move me upward of the moon about 500 miles (ok, ok, 804.672 kilometers – I tend to slip back and forth between measurement systems – just be thankful I’m not referring to fathoms and atmospheres) and engaged that and before I could blink the view of the moon had zoomed out by that amount. I hadn’t programmed any jumps beyond that so the computer shut down and waited for further instructions and the ship just lazily rolled in awkward, unnatural ways until I was pretty sure I could propel myself back home if only I could point the vomit in the right direction. Maybe motion sickness pills would have helped.
I couldn’t go home – not with the foolish old bastard skulking around on my balcony. Becka’s house? No, she hadn’t had time to fully recover from my first visit. How about a nice deserted beach? Yep. That would do. And 20 seconds later I was there.
I opened the canopy and walked around barefoot for a while. Not a soul in sight. This was my planet, right? No screaming kids, fat drunks, fat ladies bulging grotesquely out of too-small bikinis; no dogs; no crocs. Wow. I’d save these coordinates.
I swabbed the bulk of the vomit out of the cockpit with seawater and didn’t relish the trip home with the smell until I remembered it would be milliseconds long. I could hold my breath for the 15 second countdown. The countdown could be skipped but you risked a lot. No forward scan; no rescan for foreign materials inside the craft. My vomit didn’t need to be re-scanned because it had already been scanned before it left my stomach. If you never opened the canopy you were fairly safe in skipping the countdown, but…
I stretched out on the beach awhile. I was sure the landlord would be gone in an hour. I was sure he hadn’t seen me. Landlords are usually nosy – even to the point of being criminally nosy. It seems that the moment they become landlords they feel they’ve been given superhuman powers. Eff ‘em. I liked them less and less.
When I woke up it was dark. I had a night shift to pull. I climbed in the craft that was becoming a bit more familiar, and punched the HOME button. After 15 seconds I was home and no landlord in sight. I made it to work with three minutes to spare.
A thought was nagging in my brain. What if I had returned to my rooftop and landed squarely on top of my idiot landlord? I read Chapter 11 in the “How to Fly” book.
Chapter 11 states that the computer looks ahead at your entire course when the 15 second countdown begins. But if the countdown has been skipped, it still looks ahead a few replications. In theory, it would have spotted the landlord and stopped, then gone into a pattern of 100 meters back along its original course, then 100 meters forward again, and back again, and forward again, over and over and over until either the objectionable object was gone, or the pilot interceded with a new command. Unfortunately it said this emergency routine might not be 100% reliable, “given certain conditions”. I knew I should have upgraded.
I received a letter from the government aviation agency regarding my helicopter crash. The investigation had been long, long, years long. Now it was concluded and the report was contained therein. The official conclusion ruled out pilot error. Wow! Thank you! It stated that a malfunctioning collective head was to blame. It had dropped all collective pitch and flattened the blades just before landing. I’d always thought it was power settling, due to too much pitch input by me. It’s not all that difficult to come in a little hot and grab a bunch of collective pitch and accidentally stall the blades, especially on an underpowered piece of crap like I had built, in which case you just sort of founder to the ground, maybe quickly. If you have a lot of altitude you can nearly always just bank or dive out of the messy air you’ve created, but close to the ground you’re generally screwed. When you feel the squishy buffeting and see the ground coming up at you too quickly the first reaction is to pull more collective. But that just makes it worse. It’s a fairly common problem for newbies and still a less common problem for old salts. I thought I was just another stupid newbie. Well, actually I was just another stupid newbie, but not on that particular occasion. There would be no reprimand. Big sigh. But no insurance settlement either because I’d never bought any. Big sigh.
That morning I saw someone standing out in front of my building. The frikken landlord. I looked out the window, waved. After a few seconds he half-heartedly waved back, then shifted his gaze back to the rooftop where he just might be able to see the top of the bubble of my craft. Ok, this was enough. I kept staring at him until he left. Then it was time for action.
I went “topsides” and paired the remote that came with the craft, to the craft, and I sent it far away, to a lonely, uninhabited place, where it would never, ever be spotted. Then I brought it back to be sure I could. Then I sent it there again. Done deal.
Work consumed me for most of a week but I eventually ran into Stink-Bomb (the landlord) and as if on cue he asked me how the greenhouse was going, suspicion showing clearly in those squinty ferret eyes. I told him I took it all apart. He couldn’t tell me he’d seen the pod, since that would reveal that he’d been trespassing in my personal, rented space, but he clearly wanted to tell me he’d seen it and ask me about it. Fortunately I had a story all planned and I let it fly. I told him I’d always had an interest in theme gardens. I wanted to make a small pond with a bunch of lush jungle vegetation in a greenhouse, and inside it create some kind of small boat, where I could go and sit and contemplate the meaning of life. He seemed interested in this, so I forged ahead, telling him that I had a lot of creative thoughts about airplane themes and race car themes – but I had made a stab at the race car thing and it didn’t work out because, as it turned out, I was a shitty artist and fabricator and I didn’t have the money to pursue anything really cool. I saw his tiny rabbit brain chewing on that, trying to decide if there was even an ounce of credibility in my tale. Finally, I think he decided there probably wasn’t, but there could be, and he wasn’t 100% sure I was bullshitting him, so there was nothing he could do at the moment to pursue it. I swear I saw the thought register in his mind: He decided to just keep coming back when I wasn’t home to see what he could see. I figured, ‘Knock yourself out, ya old coot, ‘cause “it” don’t live here no mo’.” He shuffled away, which is about the best thing any landlord can do – shuffle away. Where the Hell do these people come from, anyway? Were they born miserable shits? Or do they only become that way when they get their first property and realize they suddenly have power over others? Probably they’re born craving power, so they’re naturally drawn to real estate rentals, and once they get one, their true personality flowers forth.
I was trying more and more to find any mention of these crafts on the Internet. There was almost none. I figured a bunch of fools would have bought them and were even at that moment busily growing them in garages all across the land, or flying them around like I was. They couldn’t talk about it openly in public, but they could hint and use code words for God’s sake. But there was just absolutely nothing of real substance. I decided I wanted to know more about available upgrades, prices, possible package offerings, so I went back to the original Science Monthly publication and thumbed through all the tiny ads in the back. Not a hint of my machine or anything like it. I checked other likely suspects (magazines) for ads – zip. They were all just gone. Just gone. Not a ghost of a hint of a similar ad. Crap! I then called the company directly. Disconnected phone. Shit! It was looking like warranty work might be unavailable! Shit!
Later that day Spot and I took a trip to our local moon. BOR-ING. I’d never had an interest in going there because you could see the stupid thing just by looking out the window through the bottom of a soft drink bottle. We landed. Looked. Spot wanted to go outside. Sorry Spot. He seemed amused by the lack of gravity. He tried to hop from his seat into my lap but slammed into the top of the canopy. Fool. I zipped around to the other side. Same same. Ok. Been there. Done that. It’s a thing you must do because, well, because you must. Like you must climb at least one small mountain in your life – a small one is fine -- and you must go somewhere far in a sailboat once in your life, and you must make love in the snow once or twice in your life. Once it’s done you can check it off and move forward.
When I came back I had the machine do a thorough self-check. Took hours. Checked out fine. Then I sent it “into the corn” where no one would ever find it. Then I went back into the Pizza Shed and pulled a far-too-long shift. Then I slept a whole day. Then I had three days off. Ok, I thought, let’s rock and roll.
I asked Spot if he had “Crazy Balls” today, meaning, was he up to some really epic high adventure? He said, Prrooooww? I never knew what that meant, which meant I could interpret it to mean anything I wanted. Learn English ya little spud, or people will just do what they want with ya. I carried him up to the roof and recalled my craft. Split second, there she was. Like she had never left. We climbed in and went to a nearby moon and set down. I wanted to listen to some music and peruse some charts and find a truly interesting destination. After twenty minutes of that I remembered why I’d paid for the toilet option. I was a very, very smart man.
I’d neglected to install a litter box for Spot. I figured if he showed signs of needing to go maybe I could pick him up backwards and hold his ass over the toilet and sort of squeeze. I gave it a 10% chance of working. But when the moment came and I tried it, I knew it could never, ever work, so he went on the floor and I cleaned it up and suffered with the stench. Spot ran to the back of the ship and lifted his upper lips. Yep. It was that bad. Poison gas even to its creator.
I figured one more jump inside my own solar system. After that the sky was the limit. I keyed in the data for the last planet out and made the jump. I thought maybe I could feel the distance on that one. Like instead of taking a millisecond, it took a hundredth of a second, but I wasn’t sure. The scene was surreal. Dark and rocky and icy – but not ice like we know it. It was snot-looking ice. Goobers. Not white and not a color I had ever seen before. Some kind of frozen gas? The sun was just a bright star. Spot seemed concerned. My craft was heated but I had the impression the equipment was straining. I wasn’t going to bolt back to safety this time so we sat for an hour, trying to figure out why we’d ever wanted to go there. I say we. Spot didn’t care one whit because Spot was a cat. Good to remember that.
Feeling the cold through the hull I wanted to see the sun. No way could my craft even get close. Even the ultra-quick jumps would fry us. The ship was shielded but not from anything like that. Not from the mother lode of all radiation. I couldn’t figure out any way we could get any closer than just having it appear somewhat larger through the canopy. So we did that. Spot floated up off the seat and began scrambling, meowing, and his eyes were big and black and glossy. I pulled him to me, got scratched good, and made a note to arrange a small piece of netting over the seat that I could stuff him under next time. Then we returned to a different spot on the rocky last planet. It looked just as spooky as the first place. I was thinking, man, what a place to bring a date. So much better than a scary movie. I’d ordered the fully reclining seats. Only then was I curious if they fully reclined. They did. Wow. Did I get my money’s worth or what.
Ok, so, I was beginning to realize that I could hop from planet to planet in or out of my solar system forever. I could see rocks, sand, gasses, ice, oceans of … something, and deserts, mountains, chasms, atmospheres of hurricane-force winds, airless worlds, liquid worlds, and I would see all that stuff in time. But in a crevice in the back of my brain a thought was becoming larger than it had ever been. Life. Was there life out there? I’d studied the reports for years – it seemed like there probably was. But was there really? That was the question. Rocks and ice – ok for geologists. I was more of a sociologist. A few planetary governments had come right out and said it publicly: YES. Extraterrestrials were visiting our planet. It was fact, they said. But most governments denied it. It wasn’t a case where the truth was somewhere in the middle. It was a yes or no. Was there or wasn’t there? I wasn’t an astronomer so I had no short list of planets likely to harbor life. I didn’t have a clue where to begin. But it was beginning to dawn on me that that was the real quest here. Yes, yes, rocks, ice, sand, okay, yes, I get it. All important. But life. There is no point of existence if life isn’t in the mix. A sterile universe? Oh, cool. But it wasn’t sterile; we already knew that. At least there was us. I knew in my heart there must be others. It was inevitable. But did I really want to meet them? Now that I seemingly had the means to find them, was I sure I had what it took to do so? Spot did. Spot had True Grit. But of course Spot was a damned cat.
I got the idea to put a bobble-head doll on the dash of my space ship. If nothing else I had a sense of style. A bobble-head cat seemed fitting. A vicious looking model, with blood dripping from huge teeth, a snarl on its face, claws extended to rip the guts out of any alien that took liberties. Then I wondered if that was the right image to be projecting to prospective new friends. Maybe something softer, like a pink pastel lamb. Then I thought, no, if an alien was truly evolved, he’d have a sense of humor, and if he planned on eating us, a figurehead like that couldn’t hurt. Win-win. I walked to the store.
There was a wide variety of knick-knacks. Some really stupid stuff. Lots of cats. Cats purring, cats lounging, cats smiling, cats snuggling, cats sleeping, pooping, running, jumping. I was about to give up when I spotted a stalking panther. That was the one. A little fingernail polish would do for the bloody teeth, and since Spot was a tuxedo a little white was in order. I bought it and headed out the door and ran smack into Becka. Becka Rowland. Go figure. We didn’t quite almost run into each other but we were more or less on opposing courses. I stopped first, then when she noticed that someone in front of her had stopped, she stopped, and I saw the surprise on her face. Her thoughts went exactly back to that three second image she’d been struggling with of me in her back yard. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Then she looked slightly perturbed because her mouth wasn’t obeying her brain. I helped her out and said Hey Becka. That got her off the hook. Hey At. Whatcha doin’? Oh, I just bought this, uh – and I held up the snarling panther bobble-head thing. Oh. What for? I wanted to say FOR MY SPACE SHIP. YOU KNOW. TO SCARE ALIENS AWAY. I liked to shock. But I just told her it was a gift (for my cat), and out of nowhere I blurted out, “Ya wanna have dinner sometime?” That was eleven light years beyond my comfort level. I wondered in an instant if traveling in space altered one’s brain. Before I could fully work through that thought she said, “Sure. How about tonight?”
I gulped. Stammered. Mumbled ok. What time? She had to ask me what I said again because it was just squeaking out. Take a guy who can’t talk properly anyway and then make him into a girl-wimp in six seconds then ask him to say something crucially important, like what time – and you get, well, me. But I got it communicated somehow and said eight o’clock. She said no … and I got it then. This had just been a game. But then she finished her sentence: “No, I can’t at eight. Have to work tomorrow. Six o’clock.” It wasn’t a question.
Ah, so she wanted to make it an early dinner and there wouldn’t be sex after dinner. Well ok. I was tired anyway. I slapped myself for even trying to make a joke to myself in such poor taste and said, “Right. Six it is. I’ll pick you up at home.” I said it slowly and clumsily as I always said everything. She said ok or some shit, but as I walked by her, her eyes weren’t unkind, and she smiled properly and all of that, but she was trying to penetrate my skull and see inside my brain. Disconcerting, really.
I ran home and showered. Amazing how life can turn on a dime. Just spittingly astounding. A micro meteor through the top of the skull would be amazing. This encounter was no less. Wait. What was her motivation here? Oh, shit-fire-Hell, then I got it. This wasn’t about me or us or anything else wholesome and fun. It was about her wanting to probe my cranium to look for clues about her ghostly/ghastly encounter with me weeks earlier. Ok. Now I was up to speed. I’d pick her up, be a bit aloof, like I barely had time for this, and we’d eat at a not expensive place, and I’d be ready when the mind-probing began. Ok. Got it. Thank you.
I picked up Becka in my raggedy multi-colored old pickup, Wheezer. Three on the column. A straight six and I swear you could put a pencil between the rings and the cylinder walls. That was a class ride. Brakes that pulled to the right. Cross-eyed headlights that looked like they were candle-powered. Yes, I was a catch.
Becka hopped right in like she belonged there next to me on the bench seat. Was she sitting closer than she had to? By God, I thought she was. Only an inch but an inch might be a mile.
We drove on to a neighborhood diner type place and parked in the weedy gravel and sauntered inside. I opened the door for her but made it look like I did so only because happenstance had placed me at the door first. I almost let go of it too quickly which would have slammed her in the shoulder and probably knocked her down. Class all the way, baby!
We took a table mixed in amongst all the old neighborhood codgers and dodgers. Good citizens, mostly retired; they’d be heading off to Bingo later. I got a few nods – nodded back. Cool customer. Becka was just plain pretty. No way around it. Didn’t matter what the angle or what the lighting or what she wore. The beauty beamed outwards like a glow. Delicate and strong.
We ordered mundane stuff which was really damned good, and talked about this or that, what I’d been up to, what she’d been up to. I almost asked her if she’d been swimming a lot. Eff! That would have nixed everything. I wasn’t supposed to know she had a pool in her backyard. That would have been dumb as a dirt clod. Curiously she seemed to relax and stopped trying to bore into my brain. And curiously she never once brought up the incident in her backyard. Poor thing; she must have finally concluded that she was insane. I almost chuckled. That would have been crude. Too many inappropriate things swirling around in my damaged brain. Only a matter of time before something bad slipped out.
“Do you believe in aliens?”
That caused her mind to freeze. Ok, so, well, end of a perfect evening. She’d say no, of course not, and find a way to get a ride home. But she said, “Yes, I know they’re out there. What do you think?
I said I wasn’t sure. That seemed safe enough. From there I could go either way.
We discussed it very pleasantly. She was well read and smart. No one’s sucker. She finally sighed and said she’d give almost anything to finally, finally know the truth. I said me too. I expected a long, meaningful look, but she just said ok, let’s go. So we did.
I dropped her at home. No kiss, but she took my hand for a few seconds and looked into my eyes and said she hoped we could do that again. I said yes, yes we can and we will. She said when? I said pick a day and call me. She smiled and said yes, yes she would. Then she slipped out of the grease-mobile leaving only a scent of perfume contrasting the stink of burned oil passing by the piston rings and out the valve cover breather. Lovely girl. If I could have her, I’d never want for another thing in my life. Not my cat. Not a spaceship. Becka would be enough. I felt that truly, throughout my being. At that moment, it was the white light of reality.
I rattled and wheezed on home and was way too wired to go to sleep. I called in my craft and hopped in and without any hesitation punched in the coordinates for 200,000 feet straight up. 15 seconds, there I was. I let the computer go idle so the ship almost immediately began to pitch down and roll, but my stomach was doing ok. I would begin falling quickly soon, but there was time to just take in the lighted magic below me. I’d forgotten my camera but had my cell phone and snapped a few shots. Stunning.
I’d thought I was over the vertigo but the mix of pitch and roll was bringing it back. How the Hell did real astronauts do this shit? Mega doses of seasick meds? I punched in for the fourth planet out from the sun, altitude 150,000 feet, and then I was there. The surface was in daylight. My canopy automatically dimmed. I’d programmed ten minutes of short jumps, so my orientation didn’t change. Just like sitting on top of a pole, miles and miles high, like a great bird in a cozy nest. I stared at the black edge of night just coming up on this world’s horizon. Thought I spotted a glimmer of light, almost like a strobe, but this was a local world, studied and restudied to friggin’ death by countless professionals and school kids for generations. No life down there.
I hit the home button and popped the canopy and something slammed into my shoulder. Sharp pain – from claws – radiated through my neck. Shit! Spot had just jumped right on in. Maybe he missed me. I took him out and sent the ship into the corn and went down to bed. What, oh what, shall we do tomorrow? Huh Spot?
I remember getting a good night’s sleep. I dreamed about having a vastly superior ship. Maybe three hundred meters long. Could do anything. Could go anywhere. Had a kitchen. Two toilets. Shower. Tennis court. A dream is a dream. And it started me thinking about the suck-egg company that had gone bankrupt and left me without a warranty or a path to upgrades. They were gone. But what did it look like where they’d been?
Bright and early me and cat woke up and feasted on turkey pizza and went to the roof and called in the ship. Spot jumped in like he was the second in command, which he was, and I punched in the location of the old factory that had manufactured my little pod – or at least had made the stuff from which I made my little pod. In an instant we were there, clear across the continent. I’d chosen a spot a little ways away so I could surveil the site. Low knoll. Binoculars in hand. It was desert country. Windblown browns, dry, brittle old sage, thirsty cactus. Already there was dust on the outside of the canopy. It made me thirsty too, just to look out. And there was an ancient hangar sitting on an abandon airstrip. Probably ex-military. Or maybe some old flyboy’s dream after the war, and maybe he’d stayed in business for decades there, raised a family, retired, died off. Or maybe he’d gone bust in the first year, another grand dream washed away by the reality of harsh economics. Then the space ship company had come along and did whatever they did for however long they did it. I was a few hundred yards from the building and was thinking about walking to it. But then I was thinking about snakes. I punched in the new coordinates, just 30 feet from the door of the hangar. It wasn’t a multiple of 100 meters, so the ship chose a spot 100 meters from where it was then and also 100 meters from the destination and jumped like a snake to where I wanted it to go. Milliseconds or less. Yet I’d never done that near the surface. Somehow my eyes, my senses, picked up the violent change. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It passed in a few seconds and I popped the hatch and closed it quickly before the monster could escape – Spot. I figured the odds of him finding a bad snake were close to 100%.
The hangar was almost abandon: a rabbit rabbited out through an opening in the corrugated tin. There was an old computer monitor on a broken desk, covered in dust. And some parts that looked like the fenders off old cars, over in one corner. In the back appeared to be two regular offices. I tried the door on one. Locked. Easy enough to break in if I decided that was appropriate. Second office was open. Inside were actual computers. Not as dusty as the screen out in the main hangar. Four of them, still plugged in but not turned on. I debated whether to try one. I was technically trespassing, though I had a pocket full of excuses should anyone come asking.
CAN I HELP YOU WITH SOMETHING?
We know it’s going to happen in any movie. We know exactly when. It happens in real life too – which is why they portray it in so many movies. I jumped and turned. No gun pointed at me. That was nice for me. I tried to control my voice, “I was just poking around and saw this old building. Sorry if I’m trespassing.” I made a half-step like I’d be happy to just skedaddle right on out.
“I saw your X311 out there on the hill. You should be more careful.”
Oh. So… He’d seen my craft, and he knew what it was. Interesting.
Over the next while the withered old guy explained that he’d been an employee of the firm when the military came and shut them down. Not law enforcement; military. Army drab vehicles, automatic weapons. About twenty guys. Couple of women. They never said a word, just put everyone at gunpoint and herded them into the vehicles; then they loaded up the equipment and trundled off into the desert. That’s the last he saw of anyone.
I asked where he’d been at the time.
About a hundred meters away.
Where? It was pretty flat outside. I hadn’t noticed any place to hide.
He raised his eyebrows and looked up into the clear blue sky through a hole in the tin roof.
“I was on the X553. It’s a little, uh, advanced from yours.”
He motioned for me to follow and we walked outside. He nodded for me to look up again, and I did, and I heard a barely audible click from his hand – a tiny remote. The sky darkened, and a shadow fell, and I was seeing the underside of a ship about 80 meters long and 50 meters wide. I actually fell down and started to cover my head with my arms.
He smiled in a fatherly way that I found rather endearing. “Sir, would you like to go aboard?” And his smirk was mischievous. This man was old of body but young of spirit. I didn’t have to answer yes; he knew. His hand clicked and instantly the ship was on the ground thirty feet from us. Not the slightest displacement of air because it had, of course, only rearranged matter to occupy that space.
A door whined open and we walked inside. Lights automatically came on and illuminated a long hallway, broad and airy. Beautiful white polished walls, like marble. I gently knocked my knuckles against it as we walked just to test its composition. Solid as a rock. “Marble,” he said. “I was always partial to it.”
We finally emerged into a spacious sunken room, 100 by 70 feet, the lower area being littered with a variety of sofas and couches and recliners and regular chairs. Several tables in the middle. He said he had never found a really comfortable place to sit so he collected them. And no one table could cover all contingencies, so he had many. Glancing around the ship I said I had no idea the technology had gone this far; I thought my little turd was the pinnacle of engineering. He said it wasn’t common knowledge.
We talked for several hours until my cell phone rang. Damn roaming. It rang right inside his ship which surprised me a little. I’d figured it was shielded. Maybe no need. The caller was Becka – said she was ready for our next dinner date. Talking to her seemed so incongruous with the moment. Unbeknownst to me Ted had jumped us back up to an altitude of about 200 feet and we were invisible again. We were invisible because his ship could make tiny jumps continuously in place or nearly, and we weren’t aware of it. No high-speed camera on the planet could catch the ship. If he stayed relatively in the same area, maybe a special camera could catch a dark blur, but cameras that fast were few and far between, and you’d have to know right where the ship was in order to catch anything. I set a date with Becka and resumed maybe the conservation of my life, with Ted.
I asked how many ships like mine were out scouting around the galaxy. He said three had been sold. Three?! Yes, the company had been shut down days after the ad came out. I was customer number one. I asked him if he knew the other two buyers. He said no, but I thought I detected a hint of subterfuge. That was fine. Professional confidentiality and all of that.
I asked if it was possible to still install upgrades in my ship. He smiled and said yes, we’ll see about that. I took that as encouragement. I’d take all the tech I could get.
I started to ask about the capabilities of his ship, the X553, but it was made clear to me that beyond knowing it was BIG, I was unlikely to learn much more, so I shut up. I wouldn’t reveal intimate secrets about my girlfriend, either, assuming I had one, and I sort of got the idea that this ship was more valuable to Ted than any girlfriend.
We saw the world and politics and romance and just about everything else in life the same ways. It’s nice when you find that in another entity because it validates all the billions of mental calculations you’ve gone through to arrive at the life-view that you have. When someone else feels the same way it tends, tends … to give credibility to your life view. Of course it could be that you’re both just crazy and like attracts like. Whole political parties were crazy and they grouped together like flies on turds. And they were often demonstrably wrong. Look at socialism. Yet millions still embraced it out of ignorance and the inability or refusal to learn the lessons millions already had. Maybe I and Ted were both just dumb. How would we know for sure? Survival is nature’s ultimate test of survival. If a species survives, it’s right, according to nature. Period. People try to replace the laws of nature with the laws of morality, reasoning that it might sometimes be better to not survive and be morally correct. That’s a job for the philosophers. I liked the notion of survival, but not at any cost. I could never be a snake, for instance. If that’s winning, I want to lose. I don’t want physical life that much.
We walked together down the long hall and out into the sage and I offered him my hand to shake goodbye. Instead of taking it he offered me a scrap of paper with a position written on it. Ten minutes, he said. I said ok and walked to my ship. When I looked back his was gone. I climbed aboard my puddle-jumper and keyed in the coordinates and waited 15 seconds, then looked outside and nothing had changed. Oops – yes it had. The hangar was gone, and looking to my right I saw Ted’s ship sitting on the sand. I disembarked and walked over and he was just coming out. He said this’ll just take a minute. Maybe three. I said ok, then waited for something to happen, but nothing did. Ted made small talk. I played along. After a couple of minutes the remote in his hand chirped; he glanced at it. “Ok,” he said. “That’ll do it.” I asked, “Do what?” He replied, “Now your ship has every upgrade its tiny brain can use. Only way to get more is to swap out the board. Call this a firmware update. You’re welcome.” I said thanks, genuinely, because it didn’t even matter what he’d given me, he’d given me something, and that’s more than I had five minutes earlier.
“I’ll be seeing you soon. Go have dinner with Becka.” And with that he just turned and walked back into his ship. Then the ship winked out, even before the door had closed.
I climbed back into mine, now paranoid about government snipers crawling through the sage.
I powered up the board and was dazzled by a whole new interface on the screen. All the old options were there, but maybe thirty new ones too. I scanned the list. That had been one Hell of an upgrade. Maybe options I didn’t even understand, and they weren’t described in the How to Fly manual. Then I spotted the onboard help files.
Let’s see. Invisibility. Yep. There it was. If the feature was anything like Ted’s, it meant I didn’t have to send the ship into the corn every night; I could just let it hover 50 feet above my rooftop. But was there a point to that? Maybe. And a subcategory of that function was that in order to hover I didn’t have to make billions of ridiculous jumps of 100 meters each, back and forth, up and down, just to stay in a vicinity. I still had to move, but in “Local” mode I could chose the distance of the jumps. It was like changing gears on a car, from a high, miles-covering gear, to a low, crawling pace. That meant at relatively low altitudes, like down to, maybe 200 feet, I could hover and not get that weird, blurry vertigo thing that was a byproduct of jumping back and forth hundreds of meters. I’d test it out very soon.
The upgrade also gave me better shielding and better control of the interior environment, hot and cold. It also corrected a glitch in the toilet which had on one occasion accidentally opened itself to the vacuum of space while someone was sitting on it. How many people had this happened to? There were only three of us! There were only three ships! And this had apparently happened at least once! Son of a bitch! Spot would be mortified.
I zipped home, got out on the rooftop and sent the ship into the corn. I’d experiment with invisibility mode later. Right then I wanted to meet Becka.
I picked her up in Wheezer, my truck, and we went to a slightly better restaurant – more befitting a real date. It was she who was initiating the contact and I just couldn’t figure out why, given that many considered me somewhat mentally retarded. Maybe I was ok looking, but that didn’t offset being stupid. Even if she’d figured out I wasn’t stupid, why would any girl want to get pinned down with some guy who made her look foolish every time he ordered coffee?
We talked and laughed and ate. Once she touched my hand. Thrilling. She still didn’t bring up the incident in her backyard. Never even alluded to it. I began to think it was truly a non-issue. We seemed to click very well. Tongue-in-groove. Tiny serious thoughts began to tickle the back of my brain. Becka? Really? Becka? That would be more than any man had a right to hope for.
I took her home. She was amused by Wheezer, not put off by it. She had no clue it was a classic among classics, only one of two in existence, worth a quarter as much as her home. I walked her to the door, wondering all the while if I should try for a kiss. In the end I decided to see if she showed any signs of wanting a kiss. I just didn’t have any experience with this stuff. I’d read books. But it’s not the same as real life. In the end I didn’t pick up any clues so I only touched her hand and said good night. She said good night. That was that. She didn’t say let’s do this again. Ok. I got it. I slumped my shoulders and walked back to my truck. I hadn’t heard her door open or close – was afraid to look back, so I opened the driver’s door. Then I heard her yell across the yard, “Tomorrow night. Please.” I beamed. “Yes Ma’am.”
Wheezer wouldn’t start. I cranked until the battery wore down. I figured ok, I could walk from here. Only a couple of miles. I was about to open the door when I was startled by a knock at the driver’s side window. Becka was there, motioning for me to steer. She ran to the back of the truck and put her shoulder into it. Truck didn’t budge. I opened my door and with one hand still on the wheel and feet on the ground I put my shoulder into it too, and the old pig slowly began to roll. At about 3 mph I hopped in. I didn’t want to jolt Becka when I engaged the clutch so I chose second gear. Wheezer’s engine turned a couple of times and fired off. I jumped in and braked gently and Becka ran up to the open driver’s door, grabbed my face and gave me a kiss on the lips, then, laughing, she ran away. Wheezer didn’t need an engine to get me home.
I slept well with Spot. Most cats aren’t that snuggly in the nighttime, especially if they get too hot. But Spot stayed pressed to me all night. I wondered what issues that might cause with a girlfriend. I concluded that with a good girlfriend it was a non-issue. Becka had shown me she was a good girlfriend. At least that’s to say she had done one small thing to show me she had more than a quarter inch of character. Maybe her Dad had brought her up to be helpful and to not be afraid of a little dirt. Fathers did their daughters a tremendous service when they did that. Too bad it was so rare.
In the morning I felt like going somewhere. Anywhere. I was thrilled with the new upgrades and curious as to what all I’d been given. Talk about birthday morning. Up on the roof I called the ship from the corn. I offered to let Spot do it, but that pesky problem of not having opposing thumbs made it difficult to hold the remote and we gave up pretty early-on.
And BOINK – there she was. Just sitting there. I don’t make friends with inanimate objects, but this thing was really very damned cool and what’s more important, reliable. Hard to find that in a friend. Or a mate. I’d watched others, and learned.
I opened the canopy and was getting ready to plop down on the seat when I noticed something white. A scrap of paper. Paper? I unfolded it. Coordinates. Huh? Huh? Huh? I actually shook my head. This wasn’t computing. Someone had gotten into my pod. That meant someone knew where it was. But even if they stumbled across it, they couldn’t have gotten inside. Not without smashing the canopy with a wrecking crane. And leave a note? Huh? With coordinates? Who would leave me coordinates? Ted.
I sat for another minute trying to see if there were any leaks in this vessel of logic. Maybe the government was tricking and trapping me…? But if they wanted my pod, they’d just come in with tanks or whatever. Or they’d arrest me and force me to reveal the whereabouts of it. Had to be Ted. Right? I punched in the coordinates of a spot behind a small hill about 200 meters from Ted’s spot. Satellite imagery showed the area clearly and the ship would automatically find the ground. I hit engage. 15 sec--- Oops. 3 seconds. Upgrade!
I arrived and glanced around and found myself staring at Ted’s lopsided grin right on the other side of my canopy. What a creepy son of a bitch. I popped the top. I was actually a little angry and I started to say something mildly caustic then caught myself. Looking at Ted he knew I had been about to say something mildly caustic and that amused him. Who the Hell was this guy?
I got out and started to show him the paper scrap but what in God’s name would be the point of that? I asked him what was up. He said, “Coffee?” He had just a hint of a southern drawl so I said, “Shore.” That was my caustic retort and he logged it for what it was. Ding.
Ted said he wanted to show me something. “Hop in,” and he motioned to his majestic ship, now just arriving thirty feet from mine. I was out of my element here – effing mind reader. So I told Spot to STAY and closed my canopy and followed Ted into his. Then he stopped abruptly and motioned for me to go on back out, and once outside he motioned that we should hop in mine instead. Spot welcomed him warmly – traitor – and Ted leaned over and punched in a long series of codes on my screen. Stars streaked by because the eye saw the light each time we materialized for an instant. No matter where we were or how far we traveled, light was still there, present and ready to fall upon our retinas. After 90 minutes I asked him where we were going. He said my mind couldn’t process the distance so why ask? Spot settled comfortably into Ted’s lap. We passed BS, snacked. Not milliseconds this time – 221 minutes.
Then we stopped. There was sunlight, a white sky, and barren nothingness except some mountains off in the distance. And there was wind. An atmosphere! Ted told me to pop the canopy. I refused. Before I could stop him he did it. I started to object but realized I was choking on foul smelling something. I gagged, sucked for air. I was feeling sick and light headed but after several minutes we were all still alive. The gravity was light – maybe two thirds of my baseline. The smell was metallic, like a molten metal, maybe lead. Temperature was quite warm. After five minutes I was thinking I would eventually vomit. Ted looked green in the gills. Good for him. If he could suck it up so could I. We sat there another five minutes in a silent test of testosterone. YOU die first. No, YOU die first. Spot was curiously doing better than either of us human types. Finally Ted closed the hatch and the pod immediately replaced the stink-air with clean stuff. Instantly I was breathing easier. Ted punched the HOME button and I had to go pee.
The return trip was the same. Spot slept. Ted closed his eyes as though we were on a long car trip.
I asked, “What was the point of that?”
“Did you die?”
I thought for a few seconds, “Well, there was at least ‘some’ oxygen.”
Ahhhh… My horizons just expanded by about a million times.
After 221 minutes we went into Ted’s ship and had coffee. Now I had a mentor.
Ted highlighted a few of the upgrades I received, but many more remained mysterious. He told me to fish around and try stuff out. Carefully. I heard a quiet beep from a console somewhere. An alarm? He said he had things to do and booted me out. Before I’d reached my pod his ship had vanished. But the realization of what we’d just done descended upon my consciousness. We’d gone far. Jaw-droppingly far. Don’t even know how far, far. Beyond ludicrous, far. Far beyond my ability to appreciate; he’d been right about that. I realized that now I was no longer scared to take longer jaunts. But the real revelation was that there was oxygen somewhere else in the universe. An oxygen atmosphere. Not exactly a sweet-smeller, that place, but I had lived there for ten minutes. I couldn’t say I now knew there was other life in the universe, but my mind had sure as Hell been expanded, and that’s exactly what Ted had meant to do. I could almost see him smiling to himself. This was just a quick lesson. I had the feeling there’d be much more to come.
The restaurants were doing something odd – they were almost running themselves. That usually means something very, very bad is about to happen. Like three will burn down in the same week. But I took advantage of it anyway and spent as much time as I could with Becka for a few weeks. We ate out, went for drives, picnics, jaunts with her Mom, excursions with her siblings, to car races and swap meets and moonlight walks, and then we went to bed. Together. She said it was the greatest thing she’d ever experienced. I wondered who was paying her to say that. But finally, I had a real girlfriend. A girl who, as far as I could tell, genuinely liked me. Maybe love could come someday. We were pretty-well on the same wavelength (she was younger and she was a girl). But she liked campfires and barbecues and dogs – cats not so much but neither had I when I was younger. They’re an acquired taste, arrogant little shit-balls that they are. Our talk gradually became more serious; it seemed we had very similar goals: Quiet home, a kid or two, a little travel (I’d have to break her in slowly on that one); modest, attainable goals to be sure. We both liked to read similar books. She loved pizza. How much better does it get? I was thinking maybe … maybe … against all odds … maybe.
A close friend showed up in town and needed a place to stay so of course he bunked with me. I wasn’t doing any flying because I was with Becka every day, so we just hung out. Once Becka came over while Paul was there and we chatted – the usual. Becka left that day and I had errands to run. Paul stayed in my apartment alone. I came back a few hours later and Paul was gone. When it got late I began to be slightly concerned; he didn’t know anyone and his car was sketchy at best. I started calling my friends to see if anyone had seen him. Nope. Nope. Nope. Too quickly they all said nope. It tickled at the back of my mind. Finally I went to meet a few of my closest buds and I pinned them down mercilessly: Where was Paul? And they answered mercilessly: With Becka. They’d sneaked off to the beach together.
They showed up in the morning exhausted and sheepish. I confronted Paul. No denials. I told him to leave town or die and I meant it. I even gave him some cash so I wouldn’t kill him with my bare hands and spend the rest of my life in prison. Avoiding that was worth the gas money. He took it and started driving. I knew if I ever saw him again I would actually and literally kill him and he knew it too, but no one ever saw him again. In later years I learned that many friends thought I had done just that and buried him in a swamp outside of town. Ah, the swamp. Good idea. Good thing I hadn’t thought of it at the time. I’d been thinking more along the lines of how many propane torches from the hardware store would it take to get the body to a point where I could flush it down the toilet. But the swamp … now that was poetic.
Becka’s number flashed on my phone a few times over the next month but I didn’t answer. I was teetering on the edge of a decision, and also on the edge of sanity. God I loved her. And exactly 51 percent of me wanted to patch it up and forget it and live happily ever after, and exactly 51 percent of me wanted to tell her to eff off and die, and that was my dilemma – an inner conflict of galactic proportions. I was a man with zero prospects in romance, yet it had happened and I had swallowed it hook, line and sinker, and it had ripped my guts out like the irresistible lure that it was. My heart and brain switched back and forth about three hundred times per minute. Take her. Leave her. Love her. Hate her. Three hundred times per minute for weeks until the engine that drove that torture just exploded. Once that happened, I realized that to even remotely entertain the notion of taking back a person who took disrespect to that level was like skipping off onto a path that lead only downward into the dark because I would never again enjoy a molecule of self-respect. Couples say they can and do get through something like that, but once I X’ed her out of existence and put her in the “Dead to Me” box, only then could I think and see clearly and I knew beyond all doubt it was the right decision. Had I taken her back I’d have spent my entire life wondering if it was the right decision and I’d have lived wallowing, and foundering, in that self-doubt and probably self-loathing. It took a good bit of strength to exile her memory, then out of memory, but once I did, I was rewarded with new strength a thousand-fold and it felt good. How odd that a person’s entire life, his or her entire existence, can turn on such a tawdry little dime. I had my self-respect back. I had my strength back. I had my mind back. I had my heart back, to do with what I pleased, to keep safe, or to give away – I had the bloody choice, and that in and of itself was Heaven. I went happily back to work and started plotting new adventures in my weird little pod. All I needed in my life was Spot.
I watched and listened and learned that Becka was just another “guy collector”. If he could be collected, then he should be collected; I think that was her philosophy. God help the man who ever decided to stick, because it would be one Hell of a messed up ride.
Ted arranged a number of meetings and tutored me in my pod’s operation, and in a lot of basic stuff that I should have known before I ever closed the canopy the first time. He was razor sharp – he was the kind of sharp that makes you realize you’re puny reptilian brain couldn’t even recognize how smart he was. And he was wise – at least wise about “stuff” in terms of space travel and nuts and bolts things. But his life was a torturous wreck of broken friendships. He expected nothing less than absolute perfection in any relationship and if you couldn’t produce or provide that you could too easily get tossed into the “Dead to Him” box. That’s where 85 percent of his friends lived, some of them very worthwhile people, and some pukes too. I once made the statement to him: The root of all disappointment lies in unrealistic expectation. Ted had no retort. Ever. He seemed to absorb it but it didn’t fit with his notion of how he wanted things to be so it got tossed into the slush piled labeled, “To be considered later. Maybe. Or not.” But I think it made him wonder if there was a tad more depth to me than he’d previously surmised from my painfully slow execution of human speech.
Ted was constantly urging me to get out there and explore. It was like it was his agenda but he wanted me to live it out. I presumed he was exploring plenty on his own. He was unemployed yet seemed to have some kind of income that kept him particularly well stocked. What was he looking for out there? Life, same as me? Maybe he had some clues, though he wouldn’t divulge them. I had no bloody clues whatsoever. Our astronomers were constantly finding new planets but they were far too far away to determine if they could even remotely harbor bacteria, let alone anything more interesting. Or dangerous. I lamented this to him one day and he looked exasperated, like he did with me fairly often. “At, our astronomers can only look from here. But you can go there and look from an entirely fresh vantage point.”
“But I don’t have a telescope.” I knew it was stupid even as I said it. Ted just threw up his hands and sighed and turned on a ball game. There we sat, fifty miles above our moon, watching the game and munching chips. If my Mom only knew.
Back in my apartment that night I kept puzzling Ted’s attitude and my idiotic sentence, “I don’t have a telescope”. But why was it idiotic? I really didn’t have a telescope. Unless…
I raced to the roof and called in the ship from the night and hopped inside and pulled up the menu from the upgrade. Scrolling, scrolling, submenu after submenu.
Search and Scan:
Ah shit. I was as dumb as a board.
I embarked on a mission then. –To find life. God knew there was no intelligent life on my own planet. I hoped to find some somewhere else. Early next morning I lined up my restaurant crews and sent them in organized and appropriate directions, taking care of the restaurants and the chain as a whole in my absence. I did this knowing full well that the instant I turned around to leave, each and every one of them would veer off the rails and start doing shit they were explicitly told not to do. That’s business. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone but I wanted to leave it open-ended. Hell, I might find a planet full of two hundred meter long slithering hairy things and they’d pop my ship like popping an aspirin and the restaurant crews would always wonder what in Hell ever happened to me. I put Spot in good hands, nearly emptied my local mini-mart of snacks and drinks and toilet tissue and hit the road. That is to say I called the ship from the corn – no mysterious messages on the seat this time – and I programmed in a series of jumps that put me a few kilometers above every planet in my local system for about three minutes each. Then I hit engage.
On the first jump I went into the SCAN menu, submenu: LIFE, and chose scan. There weren’t a lot of options or parameters. –Made for dumb guys, I guessed. But within 4 seconds a big green text lighted up and flashed: POSITIVE. Oh my effing Hell – already! Already! This was too easy! I pulled up the details page and started reading. Wow. Quite a large number of critters down there. Oxygen. Water. Trace minerals. Breathable atmosphere. My mind was racing, but also starting to hurt, because in the back of it, it was figuring this out. I scrolled up and checked my position. Ok. Good thing Spot wasn’t there to witness THAT witlessness. The first jump in my queue was my own planet. Space faring genius. Yep.
I chose next in queue. Nothing. Next in queue. Nothing. I got about seven planets out and while it registered NO LIFE, it also reported an anomaly. I tried to drill down through the menus to get the scoop but it was just a bunch of machine code. I’d have to ask Ted.
On I went through all the planets in the system with no luck. I’d expected that. We pretty-well knew what was or wasn’t in our own system. Time to start the real exploration. But where to begin? Maybe at that planet Ted had taken me to? But that was a whopping 221 minutes away. I wanted to look closer to home, so I programmed in a dozen stops. I wasn’t exactly sure how far my scanners could reach out. I was sure the range was at least orbital. But could I scan an entire solar system at once? Obviously not because once I was one planet out from my own, no life was detected. And I wasn’t sure exactly how much life would be required to trigger a positive hit. One virus? One bacteria? A billion dinosaurs? Just some percolating primordial soup? Who knew? Ted knew. I didn’t know because I hate hate hated to read manuals.
I progressed out through a dozen known planets out of the thousands we’d discovered by archaic means (telescopes). Not a single hit. Lastly I slogged through space to Ted’s stink-world and scanned again. Nada. Cripes.
I remembered there had been a few oddball hits on our own radio telescopes. Signals that came in that were unidentifiable. I went to those few areas, though no specific planets were known. I scanned for planets, found a thousand and ten in one isolated area of about 300 stars, and lamented that this was going to be maybe just too damned tedious without either much better instrumentation or much better clues. I did sample about twenty worlds in that one corner of that galaxy – big deal. Beyond my scanners were billions more. Flip a coin? Pin the tail on the donkey on a star-chart? ESP? Pray? The odds were trillions of times better in any casino. Thoroughly disheartened I just headed for home.
Seven minutes later I decided to recheck that one planet in our own system that had registered the anomaly. Close orbit, I scanned again. Now no life and no anomaly. But this rock had four moons. I checked each and on the second lump of concentrated dust the error popped up again. Ok, so now I had to read a book. That took 30 minutes, and I wasn’t really any closer to figuring it out. That proved conclusively that book learning was vastly overrated. On this scan, however, the computer pinpointed a small area on the surface that seemed to be responsible for the error – a little city-sized spot that was unreadable by the life-signs scanner. I programmed in a position about a kilometer from the outer edge of the area and chose a hover at 500 feet and engaged the jump.
From 500 feet I could see that there was a vast area of something … Then the sirens wailed and the ship auto-jumped to a position back into high orbit. Holy cow shit. What was that? Then I saw the flashing lights on the display: Radiation warning.
Huh? How could there by only one tiny radioactive area on a moon’s surface? Only that moon, and only that microscopic area. I pulled up the video taken by the onboard camera, saw the same thing I’d seen with the naked eyes, and began to zoom. Soon I could perceive a geometry to the scene. Then I clearly saw square shapes. Boxes. Containers. They had been dumped there willy-nilly. Nothing damaged, broken or crushed. Just piled high. Billions and billions of containers, maybe 60 meters by 20 by 20 meters each. It struck me then: Maybe radioactive waste? How I wished I had a little probe to send down for more analysis, but my instinct was that this was a dump.
I tried to puzzle it through. Did it come from my own world? Was the government dumping its radioactive refuse out there? As far as I knew nothing of ours had ever been out there except, maybe, to have snapped a few blurry photos as a makeshift satellite passed by. Our government was doing dicey stuff to be sure, but I was almost positive we had no capabilities like that. No way.
I drifted for a while and snacked, wishing Spot could see this. I knew he didn’t care, but it would have been comforting to smell his all-too familiar cat-farts as he slept. Sometimes he’d pass one, and a few seconds later his little eyes would pop open, and he’s scramble up and bolt for the far end of the room as though he’d awaken in a crocodile’s mouth. Then from the corner he’d scowl at the area of his bed as though someone had done it to him. What an utter asshole.
Then the damned damned radiation alert went off again. That scared me. No way the levels from that dump could be dangerously high as far out as I was. Or could they? What did I know? I was going to let the ship do an auto-jump again and take me away from danger when I caught the glint of something in space. Maybe it was a mile away – maybe 10,000 miles away. But it was a glint. Something metallic was out there. I instantly overrode the computer so it wouldn’t do anything at all, and I watched. After a few seconds there it was again. This time it was larger; long and cylindrical with a box-like appendage on one end. A second later it was “really bigger” and I realized it was headed nearly on a collision course, but not quite. The ship would alert me if it was going to hit us –er, me. You know, me and the ship. Together.
Presently it streaked below me, between me and the moon, and arced downward until it was heading exactly for the dumpsite. I engaged a recording routine which would track all courses and movements of the thing. Sure enough it dropped down to the dump, then streaked back up on a reciprocal course, minus the big box. It was a ship just dumping more garbage. As it passed back out into space there was no radiation alert – the radiation was in the containers. I wondered if the ship was manned by something or just an automatic device.
I allowed the computer a few minutes to chart its present course and extrapolate its future course, then I programmed a series of jumps that would keep me about 5,000 kilometers behind the ship, and I engaged. After a few minutes I realized the thing was painfully slow. The computer projected its course as a planet two hundred and sixty three lights years from my position. It would take the craft ahead of me a month to reach it. I programmed that destination and hit engage and within only a few seconds I was hanging motionless two hundred miles above the surface of a large planet bristling with light reflections. I scanned for LIFE. Solid green. Wow. I had arrived. This was the real deal.
Then it struck me that perhaps a civilization that advanced would have amazing defensive capabilities. Maybe, like in the movies, they were calling me at that exact moment on some frequency on a device I didn’t even know about and couldn’t imagine nor comprehend and if I didn’t respond with a code I’d be unceremoniously zapped into oblivion like a mosquito in a bug light. I jumped 500,000 kilometers away. If I wasn’t even allowed that close, then, well, I wasn’t. They couldn’t expect every alien to know their customs.
I drifted then, spatial orientation turned off. I turned it off a lot because I wanted to learn to really “be” in space. The vomiting had to stop sometime, right?
I tried to make some sense of what I already knew but realized I couldn’t extrapolate without more data. Just then the radiation warning went off again. Holy cat crap. Again? Sensors showed the trail of another ship moving away from the planet. If I could see it, they could sure as Hell see me. I plotted its course; it was headed right back to that same moon. I zoomed optically; the same or similar ship with a similar big box affixed to the front of it. So this was a regular run – Hell, an almost non-stop run. What were they sending so far away? Maybe it was radioactive waste. Maybe something else. Whatever it was, why so far?
I decided to go bold. I engaged a jump down to within 100,000 feet of the surface then instantly back to where I was. I wouldn’t even be aware of the jump, but I wanted to see if they were, and I wanted my meager instrumentation to try to collect at least a smidgen of data from the planet. When the trip down and back was complete I looked for any collected data – none. Not surprising. My sensors were wimpy and simply hadn’t had time to measure anything in less than a microsecond. I decided to just drift again to see if anything came out to meet me – like a deadly laser. Or a friendly welcoming party. Probably not the latter. After an hour, and nothing, I decided to go back in for a full second. I engaged, and completed the trip and checked for data. Aha!
The planet was estimated at 1.6 times the diameter of my own, meaning a gravity of roughly that, give or take, depending on the composition of the celestial body. Gravity is predicated on mass, not size. Atmosphere was unbreathable but there was oxygen and nitrogen that could be extracted from it and used to supplement my supply if my re-breather ever had trouble. Temperatures seemed tolerable even at the poles. It had a filthy soup of an ocean that was barely salty and was quite small – just one slash down through one area of the land mass, maybe 15,000 kilometers long from north to south, and 8,000 kilometers wide. Mountain ranges rimmed it. Maybe an ancient impact gash? No volcanic activity noted – the rock was long dead. Way too much radiation from the sun.
I had also captured some super hi-rez video and now it was time for the fun part, reviewing that. What, oh what, might I see…
My optics were ok for cheap stuff. But they were straining, and part of the surface was obscured by some kind of cloudy mists. I had targeted what appeared to be an area near the center of industry or at least the most geometric patterns. I only had one second of video but a lot can happen in one second. I saw thousands of what appeared to be vehicles until I realized they were running above the ground by maybe ten meters. Ok, flying vehicles because they looked like trucks. There were some number of small objects that were moving, but not quickly. Maybe I was seeing the tops of beings. Nope – scanners said not living. Robots? The general scene was one of industrialization. Smokes and mists poured from various structures. I saw canals that were flowing with liquids. Sea water? Did it rain there? Carefully channeled rivers? Rivers of molten lead or aluminum? They were geometrically placed and routed. I could see various colors of something flowing into these canals – industrial wastes? They swirled and dissipated, and mixed with new colors farther along. I began to get the idea the place was decidedly unhealthy. I moused around within the frame of the video and ran it back and forth through its one second so I could see what was moving and what was stationary. I saw no trees, no obvious vegetation. No roads. No tracks. The “vehicles” seemed to go where they wanted, over the tops of the buildings. Did they rise up and go over the roofs? Or were the buildings just really low? My view was pretty narrow so I couldn’t see the sides of anything. Next time I’d shoot from a 45 degree angle.
I watched the video backwards and forward again and again – maybe most of an hour, scouring that one second of data for every shred of understanding I could get, which wasn’t much. The big thing was: There was life! Somewhere mixed in that nasty matrix of stuff lurked real life. I needed to go back in, stay longer, shoot new video, take new readings. I closed the video and leaned back to stretch and saw it then: Not three feet from my canopy hovered a tiny space craft, maybe 20 inches in diameter, 14 inches thick. A big black lens-looking thing occupied 70% of its center with only a few small protuberances nears its edges. The eye-thing gave me the impression it was looking at me, which it probably was. I slapped HOME on my screen and some seconds later was back on my rooftop. I needed to spend some time in familiar surroundings and think this through. I sent the ship into the corn.
Spot was always good at knowing when I’d had a hard day; he’d jump into my lap and settle down and ask for petting. I was always happy to oblige. I could feel my biometrics calming in the first ten seconds. Faithful pet. Well, as faithful as a cat. -Which was sometimes about as faithful as a roll of cotton candy. I hated cats, didn’t I? Yes, I did.
I really didn’t want to think about “space” or aliens or my ship for a while. One might think I’d have been invigorated and energized to get back out there and explore, explore, explore. I still had the explorer bug ok, but sometimes even famed adventurer Adam Kronly needed a rest. I needed time to assimilate the certainty that real life existed “out there”. Ok, I hadn’t actually seen it, but I had seen the proceeds of it in spades. There was heavy-duty stuff going on, on other worlds. I thought I was ready for it, and on some intellectual level I was, but the actual reality of it still takes some getting used to. Real life. Other creatures. And not just sitting, shivering on some lonely rock waiting for us to come and find them and save them and teach them our ways and invite them to come and live on our world where it was safe – no, these things, whatever was living on that big planet, were quite busy with agendas of their own. I had an inkling that they knew we existed. With that level of technology it would be pretty hard to miss us when they were dumping nasty crap on a tiny moon circling a planet only a few rings out from our own. Surely they knew about us. Or maybe their garbage trucks were totally automated and didn’t even have sensors? Unlikely. Everything had sensors. Even Spot wanted sensors (to watch for invading tom cats in the hood).
I hung out with friends, ran the stores, burned many, many pizzas and ate my share or more. Ode to sausage.
I needed to talk to Ted but I realized I had no way to contact him. Only he could contact me. Had I asked him for an email address? I could go hang around the old manufacturer’s hangar out in the desert – see if Ted showed up. Seemed unlikely he would. Scheduling. But what the Hell. I hadn’t finished going through those desks in the back and I wondered why they’d been left by the military.
Next morning Spot saddled up and we headed out to the hangar. I landed about fifty meters away, looked around, got out, then sent the ship into orbit. I left the canopy open because the pod was full of cookie crumbs and bread crusts and cheesy puffs. Then I worried about the computer being exposed to various things and I called it back – nice and clean inside now – and closed the canopy and sent it back. If only I could do that with my apartment. Spot wanted to see the hangar so we shuffled through the dust and crumpled papers and into the one office that was unlocked.
Desks and computers were still there. Even if the computers had appeared to be totally innocuous, any military would have taken them for forensic evaluation. Who knew what data lived on the drives from three formats ago. Cool to find stuff folks thought they’d deleted. Pics of the grandkids, pics of the dog, pics of them – oops.
I turned on the monitor of the biggest and cleanest one, then gingerly pressed the power button on the computer. Dead. Plugged it in. Why was there still power here? It cold-booted in about 2 seconds. 2 seconds? From “off”? That was a spiffy computer. A couple of final stray files loaded, then a little word processor popped up, then filled itself with a bit of text. It read:
“At! Nice to see you! I know you’ve been busy. Let’s talk. Coordinates already on your pod. Five minutes. Be there or be square. Ted.”
Nice to “see” me? He could see me now?
We called the ship back and un-slept the display. Yep. A bunch of numbers. I hit engage. Then I was about ten thousand feet up, just above some cumulus clouds. I tried to see the ground better and was startled to see that my little pod was sitting directly on top of something quite large. Just then I heard a rap rap rap from under the floor of my pod and me and Spot both jumped. Huh?
Spot was right on it, clawing frantically at the floor. MOUSE INTRUDER! I knew he’d protect me. I thought it with a smile.
I noticed some little clasps – eight of them in a ring around something that might have been a hatch. An escape hatch? I’d thought it was an inspection panel for some kind of machinery I wasn’t ready to know about. The “How to Fly” book hadn’t even mentioned it. I unsnapped them all and the hatch slowly lifted up. There was Ted, hand outstretched with a cup in it. “Coffee? It’s hazelnut.” Well that was my fav. How had he known?
We all sat in silence in my comfortable reclining seats and drank our tasty beverages, then Ted invited me into his craft. I wondered what a passing airliner would think if it saw us up there above the clouds.
Spot came along and we settled into Ted’s gargantuan living room type thing – sofas everywhere. I thought I saw new ones since I’d been there last. He asked about Becka. I said, “Gone.” He nodded as if he’d expected it. He said, “Young.” I said, “Mmmm.” End of the story.
Ted asked what I’d been up to lately. I shrugged and he nodded. I asked him for a way to contact him. He ignored the request. Just flat ignored it like I hadn’t even spoken. I saw that as rude, but a lot of people do it. I had this weird idea that if you were spoken to, a response was mandatory. You could answer the question, or you could say you weren’t going to answer the question, or you could say you needed to think about it awhile, or you weren’t sure, or at the very, very least you could grunt acknowledgment at having heard the effing question. Hell, a fart was better than silence. But I knew that a lot of stuff that bothered me didn’t bother anyone else in the world. Noisy neighbors was one. I was quiet as a mouse. Other people could be too, if they chose to.
Ted said, “What did you think of it?”
I was tempted to just say nothing – see how he liked it. But I’m not wired that way.
Think of what?
Ted’s eyes narrowed slightly. “The robot world.”
Oi, shit! What didn’t this guy know?
“Well, it was strange; I’ll sure as Hell say that.” The more I thought about the place, the more creepy it seemed. Kind of dark, cloudy, misty, shadowy. It looked like it smelled very bad. I was having a hard time imagining that the life forms were kind. “Have you seen them?” I asked.
“I don’t think you’ll like them.”
“I have a few upgrades for your brain.” That’s what he called my flight computer. It truly did not seem to be even a derivative of any normal computer. “I can take out a few frilly things and add some real meat to it.” I said ok. Thanks. He clicked the remote that was nearly always in his hand. Looked at it. Said, “There you go.” I said, “Ok. Thanks. Very much. I appreciate everything.”
“You don’t yet,” he said, barely smiling. “But you will.”
“Want to go for a ride?”
I said, “Shore.”
I figured he’d get up and we’d go to the bridge or something, but he just clicked that remote and one whole wall the size of a bus turned into a viewing screen. Then he held up the remote slightly and clicked it once for effect. In a moment the screen was covered with brown bubbles that indicated the liquid was very thick; then fewer bubbles, then brown liquid that got darker and darker. Within a couple of feet it was black goop. We were sinking into an ocean of something. We went down a long time – maybe two hours. Just slowly falling through the gook. Finally we dropped out of the murk and into crystal clean something. The blackness was above us, like a fluffy cloud cover illuminated in our floodlights. Then we softly lurched to a stop. Ah, so Ted’s ship had thrusters. Neat. More exterior lights came on and illuminated a billowing cloud of bottom sediment, but it moved in slow motion, like we were in a thick syrup. The viscosity of the liquid wasn’t registering with me. Sometimes when the brain can’t figure something out it just ignores it. That’s dangerous. I wondered if we’d see any fish. We were deep as Hell – not usually a lot of fish down there beyond the light. But then there was. It looked like a bear but bigger. Just a dull gray. Flippers for arms and legs. This was no creature from our own ocean and I said so. “This is EM11,” he said. “Couple hundred light years from home.”
Holy shit. This guy was never a dull moment.
Soon we began to move slowly across the bottom, like a crab. Then we stopped at a precipice. I stared intently at the screen. When the silt settled I saw amazing things. There was a grid work covering the bottom with each opening being maybe a hundred feet by a hundred. The square holes went down into blackness. On the far side of this field of grid work were regular-looking buildings. Like apartment buildings. Rectangular. With windows and … yes … curtains in the windows! Dim lights. And … beings… There were beings that appeared to be living, moving around inside what might have been cubicles. We were so deep – a square building was doomed to collapse, by my notion of physics. Flat walls can’t handle nearly the pressures that bubble-structures can. Why didn’t they build bubbles instead? Because they didn’t have to. Their construction materials and techniques were so advanced from ours that pressures apparently weren’t even a concern. I wondered why in the Hell they’d chosen to build down there – and maybe even live down there.
Ted’s remote chirped. “Been detected,” he said. I said oh.
Immediately we pulled away from the bottom and within another two hours the water began to lighten, then we were in the air, then we were streaking through stars, then we were back at the desert hangar.
“They can detect both of us,” Ted said.
I said ok. Thank you. I said thank you because I was always grateful for information.
Our communications were tedious.
I asked him to tell me what he knew about them and he replied that he didn’t want to spoil all my fun. “They can kill your pod like a gnat,” he said. “But they probably won’t. They have bigger fish to fry.”
“I need to be going now. Sorry to cut this short. We need to have longer conversations soon.”
I climbed back up through the hatch with Spot, closed it, and jumped home. Now I had a headache.
I wanted to go back to EM11, but honestly I was a little scared. And I had a clue on some other planets that might harbor life. I went alone, and hit about a dozen of them. On two I registered life, like bacteria and moss. Nothing with lungs or gills. Or wings. Or feet. So I jumped back out to an area that was surrounded by an inordinate number of planets that seemed like likely suspects. I went weightless and tumbled slowly. I swear, the inertia of a fart can send you slowly pitching.
I was studying some data on the planets when something caught my eye. ZEEEEEEUUUUUWWW – something zipped silently by. But I like to imagine it sounded like ZEEEEEEUUUUUWWW in an atmosphere. It honestly looked like a small battleship, couple hundred meters long, bristling with antennas and pipes and any and all manner of devices and protuberances – even lights – and it was covered with that stuff on every square meter. There was no discernible top or bottom. The curious thing was that it was slowly pitching, rolling and yawing. It was tumbling through space at extreme velocity. Was it out of control? My instinct was that it wasn’t. I realize space offers little friction, so nothing need be aerodynamic or pretty … and tumbling, well, there’s not much reason not to. Except that if you tumble fast enough you’ll experience areas of gravity out away from the center. It’s not actually gravity, it’s just centrifugal force, but the body, or the equipment, doesn’t know any different. Long before I thought that thought the thing was gone from sight and from my sensors.
Anyway. Two places with life. Well, well, the skeptics were sure as Hell wrong. Ain’t no such thing as aliens, indeed.
I decided I wanted to experience actual space travel just once. I mean the actual movement from one point to another, not just materializing there from recycled matter. I wanted to pretend I was in a real space ship. But how? Every time the computer concluded a jump the ship just stopped. Gravity from a celestial body could then pick it up and start it actually moving, but that was a slow process. I wanted to be hurled in a direction and then just travel along for a while and experience it. Of course there wasn’t a damn thing to experience out there, at any speed I could ever attain. Even at near light speed, the constellations would pass by slowly. The normal mode of travel for my ship was more like turning a light off in one room and instantly turning a light on in another room. There was no velocity. I could go to a low orbit around a big planet, but I would simply fall straight down. Cool for a few minutes but not what I had in mind.
I realized that every time I jumped to any celestial body, that body was moving, and the ship was doing the calculations to match its speed through the cosmos. So … then … what if I jumped to the surface of a streaking comet? The computer would orient me with the comet as a baseline. Ok, then, well, it would be cool to ride a comet, and I would someday, but how about … we (me and the ship) rode a meteor? Would that work? It seemed plausible and by then I was feeling just a hint of invincibility, which is always a mistake. I wondered if I could scan and locate one.
Nope. No luck. So I jumped a light year. Scanned. Nope. Jumped another light year. Scanned. Nope. It took eleven jumps to find one within scanning distance. I was able to lock the computer onto it and it said green to go. Seriously? The ship could actually do this? Why not? I’m a bit impulsive so I hit engage. The star field instantly changed ever so slightly, so I knew I’d moved, and presumably I was now somehow locked onto a meteor. Maybe it was the size of a buffalo. Didn’t matter for my purposes. All I’d done is match its velocity. I had “landed” on it. By now it was probably a meter away from my hull and slowly moving further away. It would be cool to actually see it. I peered around. No luck. But then I remembered the ship’s cameras. I looked at the footage. Still couldn’t see a thing.
I sat quietly then, and tried to watch for movement. I knew I was moving like a laser beam – well not quite. But damned fast. And I wanted to “feel” it. But try as I would, I never saw anything in my field of view change position. I figured next time I’d find an area of a bunch of planets not too far off. Maybe that would give me the apparent relative movement I was looking for.
I was just hitchhiking along like that for a while, trying to figure out what to do next, when the scanners picked up a whole slew of objects crossing my path at wildly differing speeds. I thought I was flying into a field of debris and would probably soon be dead if I kept going. But the telephoto showed they were manufactured objects. Holy shit – there were thousands of them. Their courses were more or less opposed to each other, which meant they were coming from and going to some general area of space, but many were coming through the mix at various angles. It looked like collisions were imminent, but space is vast and ships are small and maybe they even had collision avoidance capabilities. They were all actually moving from point A’s to point B’s, like near light-speed bullets, which meant their technology was shitty compared to mine. And I wondered how many things were flitting around marveling at how shitty my technology was compared to theirs. We’d always been conditioned to think that we’d never get anywhere interesting with rocket type propulsion systems, or any other type of propulsion systems, because everything that was cool to visit was just too far away. Well, it WAS too far away – from us. But we lived in the boondocks and there were areas of the cosmos that were pretty urban, planet-wise, so maybe propulsion from one point to another could work for some races in these areas.
I programmed the brain to jump to a specific coordinate, which meant that I hopped off the course of the particle and just stopped relative movement. I didn’t want to be close to what appeared to be a massive region, a tenth the size of our solar system, comprised of so many moving ships that it looked like a three dimensional freeway. I glanced at the computer that was scrolling numbers as it attempted to count the objects in the area where I’d directed it to scan. The numbers just kept rolling, hundreds of thousands, continuing, a million, two million – I realized I was breathing heavily. Was this the mother lode of life in the Universe? No. This was a tiny corner, just a relative handful of half a million planets. This was a quiet country lane compared to what must be out there somewhere.
I plotted a few of their courses; they were all coming from and going to different places in the same region. Most appeared not to be even going to any planet or even a system that I was aware of or could scan – which meant there were more destinations than my computer could see. So there was life with a capital effing F in the Universe after all. The stunning insignificance of my own world struck me then and for some reason I can’t identify, it made me feel a full half minute of abject terror. We were profoundly meaningless and I was scared. I felt so small that I feared, in this transient phobia, that I might simply disappear.
I had to go to the toilet. It could be done in zero gravity – the How to Fly book covered it under “Optional Accessories”. But I was honestly scared to do it. I scanned for a world with a pressurized atmosphere, found one, jumped to it, bolted for the hong nam and sat. I was there a while.
I returned to work to find that a major rival pizza chain was invading my territory. I had seven stores; the big boys had 7000 stores. I did a bunch of quick calculations over the next day or two and realized that there was no way I could compete. That’s what happened in that current business world – the big ate the small. The only hope the small had was to remain low profile long enough to get big. But that hadn’t happened. I was simply unlucky. I’d come up on their radar then; they crunched the numbers, saw that I was doing fine, and they wanted what I had. Should there be a law? Yes and no. A law preventing competition … well … that would be great for a few, but it would deny the very pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for the many. And it would suck for the customer, because the protected few would provide shittier and shittier products and services because, well, people, retailers, tended to be takers and seldom truly fair-minded. Sooner or later the customer base would become so disgusted with being scammed and ripped off that they wouldn’t buy anything anymore. Some areas of my planet were already like that. Competition was necessary. It was hated, loathed, reviled, feared, brutal, but it was necessary. The modern world was virtually no different from the natural world. Dog eat dog. Law of the jungle. Call it what you would. It was difficult to see how it could ever be any other way, regardless of how far a society evolved and advanced. As long as real estate and food was finite, there could be no moral decency except temporarily, in small pockets.
The Big Boy chain called me in for a meeting. I knew just about every word that was to be spoken. Would you like to sell? No. Well, you must realize that if you don’t sell, you’ll be, uh, “reduced”, financially. In your business.
And I had rehearsed my response. Polite but with significant meaning. Was there a polite way to say, “Go fuck yourself”?
I showed for the meeting – three suits against me; me in jeans and a t-shirt. They went through their spiel. It took about 30 minutes to work up to me being “absorbed”. That was their word. Not reduced. Absorbed. They told me to go ahead and take some time to think it all through. I said, politely, slowly, awkwardly, “Go fuck yourself.” They laughed. I left.
I queued up the pod and me and Spot went for a ride. We scanned about 120 worlds before we found what we were looking for: Gold. Some planets have it only in traces, like my own. Some have it thick enough to shovel up. So we did. Or rather I did. Spot watched. The planet had a crappy atmosphere; Ted had taken me there in the beginning. On a hunch I’d gone back. There were a million worlds he could have taken me to that had horrible atmospheres if that’s all he was trying to convey to me, so why had he chosen that one? Because it had a horrible atmosphere, and he felt I could learn something from that, and in fact it had indeed lighted a fire in my brain. Well a spark. But he had chosen that rock because he knew someday I’d need a source of income. The place was lousy with gold. --Virtually covered in it in some pockets. I couldn’t figure out how that had come to be, geologically, but that it had was enough. We landed, and I hopped out, and scooped up three bowls of it, each about the size of a cereal bowl. Even that was heavy as Hell. I brought them on board, battened down, and off we jumped.
I wanted to be sure I had the real thing and that my terrestrial buyers would cash it out. The first one got snippety about it – “Where did you get all this? Did you have a mining claim? Can you show me some documentation?” I tried a couple of lame explanations but I knew they were weak, so I simply walked out. Luckily I hadn’t left any trail this suspicious old shitgibbon could follow.
I next went and sold only a few ounces – said it was left to me by my recently departed grandmother. Given the small amount, that went over pretty well. So I did it again and again around the area. Finally I had enough to buy a sizable chunk of land in a Third World country, near some existing gold deposits, and I was then able to route unlimited pounds of gold through normal channels. Payoffs to local officials kept prying eyes away. In this way I amassed just under a billion bucks in less than a month.
When I went home, the pizza construction crews were just beginning to break ground all through my business area. The assholes had purposely chosen locations as close as they could get to mine. I smiled. On a few occasions I spotted the corporate weenies at various new constructions, inspecting, patting each other on the backs. A few times I stopped and approached them and told them what fine facilities they were building, and that I knew, I knew they were destined for something really, really big. I just had a feeling. They laughed and laughed. I was such a jovial schmuck. Sometimes they looked at me curiously, as if to say, “You are really one dumb son of a bitch, kid, but you got balls.” When I saw that look I just smiled and acted subservient and meek.
I waited until all facilities had been constructed and the grand openings were in full swing. They had announced prices that were about 20% under mine, as their kick-off to kick me off – kick me off the block. King of the mountain. It’s a childish game, but people insist on playing it, and so be it. There will always be one left on top.
I let them have their day for about a week. Crowds thronged to their stores. My business reduced by 85%. During that time I was busily trying to hire new staff and was having a difficult time of it because they were busily trying to hire new staff. Then I realized – I only needed their staff! So I approached them and offered them all double what they were making, with free medical and four months paid vacation, five hour shifts, and three days off per week. All but about three signed on within 72 hours. I figured those three were mentally handicapped.
I received a phone call from the president of “shit pizzas R us”. He laughed, and said he hoped I enjoyed my little window of the spotlight. I said yes, yes, in fact I was very much enjoying it. He retorted, “Ok kid, let’s see what you’ve got. Let’s see how long you can play this game.” I replied, “Let’s.” And hung up.
Within days they were busing in new employees. They were untrained and rude and screwing up 8 out of 10 pizzas, but I knew they’d eventually begin getting it right again. Then I’d have to go steal all those employees away too. I was too busy for that, so I just changed my prices. All pizzas, a penny. Drinks were free if you bought a pizza. You must consume everything inside the store – no food could leave the premises. Done deal. And within four days I had every single customer in the region except those who wanted take-out, and I priced take-out orders slightly below the competition. I was magnanimous; I could leave a few crumbs. It helped that I also made the best product.
I got another call from the big boss then. This time it was fairly incoherent with lots of cursing and screaming. I said have a nice day and disconnected and blocked further calls. I know they were having emergency meetings, trying to figure out how long I might be able to keep that up. They were now determined to win the game. But I’d already won the game, and I forgot about them and turned to far more interesting things. I did drive by a few of their stores six months later. Deserted and dark with FOR LEASE signs painted on torn and faded banners. For fun I paid people to call those numbers and offered one dollar per month to lease.
And for a while we had suffered through an inordinate amount of customer complaints from “planted” fake customers and dubious inquiries from government agencies. But a new money back guarantee if you couldn’t finish your pizza stopped the customer complaints, and eventually the government probes went away – there was simply nothing to see.
When I was sure the turkeys were dead and gone I returned business to the regular prices and took away some – not all – of the employee perks, leaving wages as-is at double. I liked to have happy employees. Life is too short to hate your work. But work you must. Work you should, because work is dignity.
Occasionally I went back to the stink-world and scooped up a few buckets of gold, and processed them through my mining claim, and put the proceeds in the bank after paying taxes so exorbitant that it required me to bring back one extra bucket every year. Oh dern.
Some you win, some you lose. Had I beaten them fair and square? No. But I had beaten them. For all they knew my business was my life and they were determined to simply snuff out that tiny flame. We could have shared, but those types are never content to share. All’s fair in love and war. I wondered if those dweebs would think twice about taking over another district and running the original vendors to ruination. Probably not. They were what they were. Morality and decency, human compassion, not part of their makeup. They were simply carnivores, and sometimes carnivores were consumed by bigger carnivores. It was just reality. If I ever saw them railroading another small and decent chain, would I ax them again? Perhaps. Probably, however, I wouldn’t have to. I think a simple phone call would suffice:
“Hi! This is At. I noticed you were building stores in such and such area. Exactly what are your intentions there?”
“Oh, well, hello At. You know, we’re just putting in a couple of stores. No real competition for the existing chain there. Don’t worry.”
“Ah, well, okay then. No one worries about fair competition, you know. But the sledge hammer of annihilation is, you know, frowned upon.”
“Oh, well, At, you know you never have to worry about that. We always aim to play fairly. You know that!”
“Why yes, yes I do, and I appreciate your sense of morality. I really do. Be seein’ ya. Bye for now.”
I am nothing if not a very nice guy.
I was thinking about EM11 again. EM11? Why not EM1? Why 11? Who named it? I wanted to talk to Ted but the old sucker was nowhere to be found. I figured it was time for another look at EM11. My mind was clear. I was ready to engage.
I went back to the dump moon first. It seemed as though the pile of containers had grown but who knew. Who cared? Enough was enough. After a certain number what did a few more matter? I waited around awhile but didn’t scan any new ships delivering containers. Maybe they were on holiday. Maybe they were delivering around the back side where my sensors couldn’t see. I jumped to a point far above EM11 and enabled orientation and sat there a while. I wanted to see if the big-eye probe came back and what it would do. Ted hadn’t given me any warning about instant evaporation so I felt slightly emboldened.
After two hours nothing showed up so I went down to a few hundred feet above the surface. Now I could see everything with the naked eye. I was registering high radiation but the pod was handling it. I could see the robots working here and there and everywhere. Thousands of them. It was again a bit misty with swirling vapors, so I assumed there were millions or billions of bots doing various things in other places around the globe. And factories making … what? I sampled the smoke coming from one and the radiation was off the charts. That place was as dirty as it gets. Some terrestrial insects are nearly immune to radiation; I wondered if any life form could survive this. Maybe that explained why there appeared to be no biological critters around the surface. Did they all live under the sea? What did that accomplish for them? When I’d seen vague shapes moving around in the lighted areas of the undersea buildings, they appeared to be moving through an air, or at least a gaseous environment – not a liquid. So they weren’t fish. I went down and sat on the surface of the sea – dead calm. Flat as a pool table. And I sampled a few drops remotely. The lead and copper contents were so high it was a veritable soup. That explained why it was dead calm – it was almost a pudding. But why the crystal clear liquid near the bottom? I finally realized that the clear liquid near the bottom was so dense, the black crap was floating on top of it. Then it clicked. The bio-forms were living down at the bottom of this muck because the radiation couldn’t penetrate the clear liquid. The bottom strata was their shield! Was that a naturally occurring condition? Or did they start out on the surface but had so polluted their world that they had been forced to retreat to the depths, virtual prisoners of their own making?
I wanted to know much more about these beings. I needed to. At the very least I wanted to view at them at close range and see what they looked like. I couldn’t find any trace of any living thing on the surface. My little pod could go where Ted had taken me, down to the depths. But then what? I guessed I could just take the pod up to the windows of their buildings and look inside. Seemed creepy but I had no other ideas.
I was a bit dubious about replicating under the surface of this nasty slurry. My radiation shields were holding but with no great margin. I programmed in a position one foot under the surface. Engaged. That worked. I didn’t see any negative effects. I programed for five meters down. Engaged. No negative effects. So I took the literal plunge and went to the bottom. My pod had been down there before but under the wing of Ted’s magnificent craft.
Once near the “buildings” I watched for a while through the ship’s cameras. I could see the shapes moving through the windows but couldn’t really make them out. There was only one thing left: I set the ship to a distance of 6 inches from a big window. If they looked out, they’d be looking straight through my canopy. Maybe they had ray guns; who knew? Everybody had ray guns, even on my world – well, sort of ray guns. They could kill things, for sure.
As I stared intently through their window I did clearly see shadows moving about. I saw items that were probably furniture, but shaped and fashioned in odd ways. There were computer-like screens everywhere, but they appeared to be no more substantial than sheets of cellophane – hung here and there, tossed here and there, all showing different images, some moving, some static. The insides of the room were covered with pipes and tubes, hoses, levers, valves, dials, gauges. It was all particularly work-like. I wondered if I was looking at a factory.
Then a face popped up inches from the inside of the window and looked straight at me. It was the face of a quite handsome little boy of about 3 years.
I’d been tense with anticipation and some genuine fear of what I might see. This was so anticlimactic that it was climactic. I yelped and jerked. He was dressed in a stylish yellow shirt – it looked like cotton! Brown hair. Blue eyes. Smooth pale skin. He put his hands up on the inside of the window and stared intently at me, right into my eyes. I just stared back. What else was there to do? After ten seconds another figure appeared and gently picked the boy up and started to turn away. Then something caught her eye: Me. I could see an attractive woman’s mouth open in a scream and she nearly dropped the boy. By then I was busy punching in a new coordinate, but just before I winked out I saw a man run into the room, and the mom pointed to me, and he just started to turn his gaze to the window and then I was looking at a star field in a region of space I didn’t recognize. I’d chosen some numbers at random. Lucky I hadn’t sent myself to the center of a sun.
Then I realized what a wimp I was. I was trying to make contact with alien life, so what did I do when I made contact with alien life? I ran away.
I immediately went back and settled to the bottom a hundred meters from the same windows. I took radiation readings: none. Maybe my theory was correct.
I could see the windows clearly, at first vacant, but now, again, the human looking faces. They were looking for me. Then they spotted me. I wanted to see if there’d be a flurry of activity. Nope. They stayed glued to the inside of the window. I moved to within two meters. They kept looking. For long minutes we studied each other. Occasionally they talked. I could imagine what they might be saying. Surely they knew about life from other worlds so they weren’t shocked by my existence. Then it struck me: Maybe they didn’t know I was an “alien”! I looked just like them! Aha! They probably thought I was some kind of maintenance craft. Holy cat crap. This was a revelation! I waved. They waved back. Well kiss my ___. I caused my pod to do a slow stationary roll. The kid mimicked it by trying to turn his head upside down. His parents laughed. I waved bye bye, like I had to go get back to work now. The mom held up the kid’s wrist and waved it bye bye, then they turned away and disappeared. I’m not stupid and I never repeat myself without knowing it, but holy frikken cat crap. That was quite cool.
I moved around the underwater complex then and peered into many windows. Sometimes I got reactions, sometimes not. Everyone looked, but not everyone cared. I’d once lived in a high rise in a city. Occasionally you’d see the window washers come sliding down the ropes outside your windows on the thirty second floor. Mostly they went about their business, but you know they scanned your apartment briefly for “interesting” activities. I had a medium sized telescope then, and I saw amazing, amazing blurry stuff in other high rises. I can’t imagine what those guys saw up close. Sometimes the apartment tenants acknowledged their presence; sometimes not. Maybe they’d open a window and BS for a minute; maybe they’d just give a flick of the wrist to say hello; maybe they’d never look up from their book or TV.
Between the buildings were large complexes of machinery – lots of piping and valves, and computer consoles sealed behind transparent panels. That made me think that maybe there were some number of maintenance workers out there doing things on a regular basis. All that machinery probably had to do with the complexities of living down there. If they spotted me, they’d certainly recognize that I wasn’t part of their workforce and come to investigate. Maybe they would shoot me with a ray gun. I figured that was my destiny: Sooner or later someone or something, somewhere, would shoot me with a ray gun. It pretty-much had to happen.
I found that the under-liquid habitats housed uncounted millions and were spread out over thousands of miles. The entire single sea must be little else but a place where the biological units could survive. Maybe there were none at all on the surface. The entire race lived down there. It all seemed to fit into place.
But what the Hell was going on, on the surface? What were they so busy doing and building and processing? I spent the next few hours zipping here and there all around the world, watching intently, scanning, sampling. There was only one common denominator around the entire world: Radiation. It was almost as if they were mining the raw ores, refining it, and exporting it to that little moon in my own system, and maybe lots of other places too. I could find no evidence that they were doing anything else at all. But to what bloody end? Radiation for what? To sell to whom? Or what? I finally had amassed so much information and was engaged in so much raw and only semi-educated speculation that I couldn’t absorb any more. I went home.
The pod stopped a few miles above my rooftop. Then I realized it had tried to land but couldn’t because something was there in its parking place, so it had auto-jumped back some distance. I wanted to see what was there, so I jumped down to 300 feet above my apartment and looked through the optics. Sitting on my rooftop was another ship identical to mine. Ship number 2. As I watched it winked out. Just gone. I hung out for another ten minutes to see if it would come back. It didn’t. I landed and sent my ship into the corn. I’m not stupid and I don’t repeat myself without knowing it, but holy cat crap. That was bizarre and wholly unsettling. Had it been Ted?
It was time for a serious talk with Ted. I jumped to the old hangar. From 50 yards away I could see the doors were open so I jumped again, right inside. Then I popped the hatch and went into the room that held the mysterious computers. The one I’d booted was now off and I booted it again. The OS was nothing I’d ever seen so I fished around, trying to read a drive directory, looking for text files, anything. After half a minute a video spontaneously came up. It showed scene after scene after scene of alien worlds, alien beings, alien critters... And there was Ted, in almost every scene, interacting in some way or another with them. All depicted peaceful scenes except the last, which was a ground-level view of EM11 as seen from Ted’s ship’s cameras. A humanoid was outfitted in a heavy suit of some type and was running down a long lane toward his ship, with what appeared to be lasers whizzing all around it and various types of robots either in pursuit or trying to head it off. Fortunately it seemed they weren’t built for chasing things and the figure outdistanced them without a great deal of trouble. The scene ended when it entered Ted’s ship. For an instant the face inside the helmet was clearly recognizable: Ted. Then the view winked to deep space. That was all I could find on the computer and I didn’t even know where that file was stored.
I went to the other room. Still locked. I put my shoulder to it. The hollow-core door broke inward. That room was empty. I went back to the first room and tried to boot the other computers with no success. Then I settled in to my own little pod and set out to consume as many cheesy-puffs and green soda as possible. I could wait a long time for some answers.
And so it seemed, could Ted. I knew my presence in the hangar had been relayed to him by whatever security systems he had in place but there was no sign of him. I slept fitfully in my fully reclining semi-bucket seats. When one became uncomfortable I switched to the other. Didn’t really help. The desert sun had set and the hangar grew black. I swear I heard snakes slithering across the dry concrete. My head was full of possible images of possible aliens and most weren’t pretty. Wished I had a ray-gun.
Sometime just after sunrise I heard boot steps. It was either some snake hunter out early, or Ted. “Good morning, sunshine,” said Ted. “Kicked out of your flat, eh?”
“Hello Ted. I really need to talk to you.”
“Ok, no time like the present.” He chirped.
“I’ve been to EM11 and I’ve seen the, uh, people.”
“Never judge a book by its cover.”
“I don’t. I’m suspicious of baby bunnies for God’s sake.”
“So what’s the deal with them? The look perfectly normal, except for their living conditions. And what’s up with that?”
I was hopeful I had finally hit him at the right time with the right questions. He nodded, said ok, and began:
“I didn’t find EM11 by accident. A source gave me a tip and hinted that I should check it out. We were in full design mode at that time, for the little pods like yours. Mine already existed and the government knew about it; I was sloppy about cloaking in the early days. They’d tried to steal it quite a few times, but as you may have surmised it’s rather advanced and their teams only hurt themselves.” He almost chuckled. “As far as I know it’s completely impenetrable unless it has invited you.”
“’It’ invites people?”
“You haven’t really gotten the tour yet. Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“Is it actually intelligent? Even I don’t know. I only know it’s a delight in every way. It was given to me by, uh, someone who doesn’t live here.”
“In this system.”
Ah, this was getting better by the microsecond.
“I was at home, working on the plans for pods like yours, trying to figure out how to manufacture them, uh, here, when I had … an experience… I’d seen proof of ‘aliens’ when I was a high school student so I wasn’t terrified when one showed up at my home. She actually knocked on my front door. I answered. There was this lovely young girl. She looked about 16 but I don’t know how her people age. Maybe she was 100. Very polite. That was ten years ago. I asked if I could help her. She said no, she would help me. I said ok. She came in. We talked. She spoke flawlessly but there was an odd quality to her voice – a kind of melodic resonance. Her words seemed like they were projected from a carrier wave, a kind of hum that was quite beautiful in and of itself. She could perhaps pass as a local, but most people would regard her oddly if she spoke. And after convincing me she wasn’t from around here, she led me out of my house and down a path into a little patch of forest, to a ship, which she proclaimed was mine forever as long as I didn’t perpetrate evil with it. There was a bit more to it than that but that’s the jist.”
It was incredible but I was following fine so far, assuming it wasn’t just bullshit. Well, the ship wasn’t bullshit, so I had to remind myself to start accepting the impossible more readily. If the elephant is in the refrigerator it’s just wasting time to say it’s not.
“I didn’t build my ship,” he continued. “It was just a gift. “I was working on the design of a similar concept. That work was … detected. By the aliens. They felt my work was important in the greater scheme of things and they wanted to help me along. So they gave me my ship. I couldn’t copy anything from my own ship – that tech was locked deeply away. Impenetrable by puny minds like mine. But the ship facilitated me in working on the ‘recreational pods’ like yours. Unfortunately all that activity caught the attention of the bureaucracy. That was my mistake, not anyone else’s.”
I laughed. Recreational pods like mine. Mine was a technological wonder that I hadn’t expected to see come out of my own race for thousands of years. Recreational my ass. I asked about the kidnapping of his staff – the entire company of people involved in making pods like mine.
“Oh, well, yes, they were technically kidnapped. But they weren’t hurt nor imprisoned. The government merely drafted them. They’re right now doing the exact same work building the exact same devices, but not for sale. They’re just working for the government. My original intent was that this technology should never, ever be the property of any one strata of society. It should be available to everyone. Of course all young governments have different ideas. It may be a long time before this technology is open to the masses again. You were one of the lucky three. Er, now two. Have you used your toilet yet?” Ted grinned broadly – nasty sense of humor. I didn’t reply.
But I wanted to know more about EM11:
“The EMs. Yes. I can tell you a lot.”
I asked for the full story as he knew it.
“I was directed to go see the EMs. That was the first place I visited once I proved to myself the ship worked and wouldn’t kill me. I peeped in, lurked around, learned what I could, and finally made contact. Just as you’ve done.”
I raised my eyebrows. Ted smiled. “Yes, we can track everything you do. With your ship. We see what you see. We know where you’ve been. All your data is instantly transmitted to us.”
“Eons ago the EMs were like any other fledgling humanoid society, struggling to understand life, the universe, asking if anything existed ‘beyond’ both cosmically and spiritually. But they had or they developed an edginess. Maybe it was learned; maybe it was part of their inherent faulty genetic code; that’s still being debated. Most societies have a greed in them. Most societies outgrow it. In the EMs, it only developed and became stronger. And stronger. Because of it they became, well, just plain nasty. They warred incessantly. The various factions just couldn’t get along because they didn’t want to get along. I’ve seen the recordings from ancient times. Truly ghastly behavior. Sound like any other world you can think of?”
“But the EMs seemed to be incapable of learning. At least most societies who go through that phase feel badly about their stupidity and they want to change it and become ‘better’. But in the case of the EMs, that part of the sociological equation was missing. They were perfectly happy being violent, dishonest assholes.
They were technologically smart enough, and that makes it a wonder they didn’t wipe themselves out. Actually, they almost did, but not through bombs or wars. They caused it and allowed it to sneak up on them in such an insidious fashion that even today they’re barely aware of how dysfunctional they’ve become.
The EMs wanted riches and power. If they had the equivalent of a million dollars, they wanted a billion. If they had a billion they wanted a billion trillion. If one EM had enough money to cover their planet with a layer 500 meters thick, they wanted enough to cover it to the edge of space and beyond. There was simply no filter on their greed. It’s a point of a stunning amount of study and research across a million worlds. The EMs aren’t the only race to turn out that way, but they’re in the top three or five. Most of the races who went that direction died off. But the EMs are still kicking down there under that toxic slurp and no one really knows why.”
“And what is that ‘toxic slurp’?”
“The EMs were all about industry. They manufactured everything under the sun, especially after they mastered automation and robotics. Then their world and interplanetary economy really took off, and they were damned good at semi-intelligent robotics. They had developed a number of genuine artificial intelligence models but they always imploded; you might say they went insane. Every single one of them did.
They realized that while robots could do a lot, they couldn’t do everything. The ‘biological units’ still had to think. That bugged them but there was no way around it, so they pushed the robots to more and more intelligence, as much as they could program into them, just short of them short circuiting. In the end, short circuiting would have been preferable to what they have now.”
“And what do they have now?”
“They have a nearly complete take-over by the bots. The robots were capable of learning, but never capable of creating. They had no original thoughts of their own. The robots were programmed and taught to produce, and boy did they produce. And they were taught, and they learned, to avoid or destroy or purge or push away anything that impeded production. Eventually they came to see the biological EMs as impediments to production. Occasionally the EMs made design decisions and choices that the robots saw as mathematically detrimental to production. So they either killed outright, or pushed away, those offending units – the humanoids. The real EMs.”
“And what do they produce?”
“In the beginning they produced things needed and wanted by the EMs. But the EMs slowly died off and didn’t need so much anymore. The bots were still programmed to produce and produce and produce. Production had been so core to their reason to exist that the EMs couldn’t slow it down nor shut it off, especially since they were being increasingly isolated. No one is totally sure what the EMs are producing. Every time we get close to seeing or knowing, we get zapped. We get warned away once, because that requires the least amount of energy output. If we come back, we’re evaporated. We don’t even know what technology killed us.”
“Was I warned away when that little probe came and scanned me?”
“No, that was just an observation. You weren’t trying to do or see anything you weren’t supposed to do or see. If you get warned, you’ll know it.
Over time, thousands of their years, the EMs were either slaughtered, or they voluntarily moved away from the machines as far as they could. In the end, if this is the end-game, they retreated to the bottom of that slurry. It was once all completely clear. But the toxic wastes of unchecked production were dumped into it, and now there’s only a small layer of it near the bottom. The rest, rising all the way to the surface, is just worthless poison.
The clear liquid is an effective radiation barrier and that’s the only reason the EMs still persist as a race at all. The rest of the planet is too hot for even a cockroach. The liquid also serves as a building block for their artificial food source – think tofu, at least in concept. As long as the EMs were out of sight of the bots, the bots didn’t care about them, and the survivors, a couple of million, are left alone. They have a society of sorts down there, though life is hard. They’re mostly confined to their cubicles. They scrounge the refuse of the bots to find enough equipment to keep their systems running. They can travel around to other centers of population, either through a grid work of subway type devices far under the bottom sediment – those grates you saw are maintenance accesses to that machinery. And they also have some number of rudimentary pods not unlike yours in looks, but they have no capabilities except to muck around between complexes, like submarines.”
I asked, “So you think the EMs are a write-off as a species? No redeeming value there?”
“In my opinion – Hell, in the opinion of any race that has ever studied them, yes. No redeeming value there.” He said it with finality.
“They waved at me.”
Ted looked genuinely surprised. “Yes?”
Maybe it was a question; I wasn’t sure. “You see all of my recordings?”
“I didn’t see that. Maybe that was their version of ‘the bird’.”
I didn’t think so, but this was all so far over my head. Who knew anything for sure?
I asked about the containers of radiation.
“We’re not 100% sure about them. Lots of theories. We’re watching it closely. So far there’s no overt threat. But we’re asking the same questions you are. The amounts of radioactive material are far in excess of anything any world could produce as a waste product. This stuff is intentionally manufactured. But why is it dumped off-world? And why on an insignificant moon in a Podunk little planetary system? We just don’t know. Did the EMs put the bots up to this? Or is this some aberrant behavior by the bots, the reason for which they don’t even know? Just a programming glitch? Or have the EM11 bots broken the barrier to original, creative thought, and they are planning something of their own design? Some conscious plot cooked up in their little tin AI brains? Something good or something evil? No one has ever seen anything positive come out of EM11.”
I had a lot to think about. I wished I had a video of this conversation.
“Would you like a tape of this exchange?”
Creepy, creepy son of a bitch.
“You said you were given proof of aliens when you were a kid. What happened? What did you see?”
“My parents told me.”
“They just told you? That aliens were real?”
“They showed me.”
“Yes, ok. They showed you what?”
“They took me home. To their world. To our world.”
That rocked me. I looked at Ted intently.
“They were immigrants to your planet. They came here just before I was born. Just like someone might be interested in living with another culture in another country, my parents wanted to live here. They had a little craft that was a rudimentary example of the one you use now. We traveled around various galaxies exactly as your parents took you around your continent in a mini-van. Exactly the same.”
I wanted to ask about his home world but my brain was spinning. Too much input. I had no reason to doubt a single word of it. Intellectually I could process it, as one can process the information one reads in a textbook. But you don’t really accept it in your heart and soul until you’ve had time to think it through and view it from various angles, question it, and maybe verify it to the extent that’s possible through personal observations and experiences. I was actually hoping this conversation ended soon. Maybe I’d be ready for another one tomorrow, but right now the buffers in my noggin were full and I needed time and a little distance to try to figure out what my new baselines of reality were. This was heavy-duty stuff. Had I heard any of this before I ever had my pod, or before I’d seen EM11 with my own eyes, I would have dismissed it as utter bullshit. Learning must be coupled with experience or it had little value. I’d always wondered why public schools were so adamant about “field trips”. Now I knew.
We talked more about the various capabilities of my ship. It seemed Ted never fed me more information than I needed to know at any given time, probably reasoning that any excess would just run out the overflow tubes and be forgotten. At that point it became like pouring water on a granite rock, hoping some would soak in. I wished my brain/rock was sandstone.
Ted said not to worry about EM11. It was being monitored by more civilizations than I could count. If anything was ever figured out, Ted would pass it along. But we both knew I’d worry, because I could see he was worried.
I asked him about the pod like mine that had shown up on my rooftop. He said only, “Yes, I am aware of that.”
“Can you elaborate?”
I knew better than to press. –Like trying to get a mule to jump off a cliff. Ain’t gonna happen. A horse will do it with enough pestering and provocation. Mules are far too smart.
We had tea and snacks. It was dusk. Ted asked about Spot. Why would he ask about Spot? “Take care of him, please.” He said quietly without looking at me. I said ok.
I boarded my craft and jumped to my roof – except I was high above my roof again. I zoomed in – sure enough, that effing pod was there again! On my rooftop! What the Hell? Seriously what the Hell? I manually jumped down to a point ten feet from it, but when I got there it was gone. Could it sense me coming and bug out. If it was playing a game, why not play it? If it was looking for something on my deck or in my apartment, it certainly had had time to find it. If it was just trying to piss me off, it had succeeded.
I landed, sent the ship into the corn, and went to bed.
A few hours later, while it was still dark outside, there was a knock at my door. I answered it groggily, thinking some employee had some emergency and I hadn’t answered the phone. It was a young girl – looked to be about 19. Lovely and tall. Sandy hair. She said, “At. May I speak with you?” It was as though she was speaking through some kind of tone generator. Beautiful. It sounded synthesized. I knew exactly who it was.
I stupidly said, “My name is Atticus.” I don’t know why I said it. I don’t often say dumb things, but sometimes I can’t help it. I usually only say smart things slowly.
“Yes, I know.” She smiled. Of course her smile was brilliant because I loved her. Not real love. But the potential was there. A spark was as good as a flame sometimes.
“My name is _____.”
It came out as a tone, a beautiful melodic tone. I couldn’t translate it into consonants and vowels. I had to ask her to repeat it and that made me feel even dumber.
“My name is Oin.” As nearly as I could interpret the sound it was pronounced like coin, without the C. It was almost an electronic tone. “May I come in?”
We sat on the sofa and she explained that she knew Ted had mentioned her to me. I nodded like a trained horse. Better I spoke as little as possible so she wouldn’t think I was as stupid as I sounded.
She asked how I was getting along with my pod. I said fine. Fine? I AM FINE. HOW ARE YOU. I LIKE YOU. DO YOU LIKE ME?
Hopefully the stupidity of my choice of words and my awkward manner wasn’t translating to her alien culture. It was my experience that people of different cultures usually or always had difficulty “reading” people of other cultures. I, for instance, could know if someone of my own culture was an unmitigated turd in about 20 seconds, while someone from a very foreign culture might take weeks, or months, or years to come to that same conclusion about the same person. I was hoping I was hiding behind these cultural barriers.
Oin said, “I hope you can relax, At.”
Ok, so much for her being blinded by the cultural barriers. I wondered if she was a freakin’ mind reader, like I sometimes thought Ted to be.
She turned and looked me directly in the eyes then, and smiled.
Did I already look at her breasts? Oh shit. I hoped not. This girl – being – didn’t miss a trick. Stupid guys always look at breasts. No, that’s not accurate. ALL guys look at breasts. Stupid guys get caught. Did girls look at guys’ crotches? I seriously doubted it.
I did relax then, somewhat, and we settled into a fairly easy conversation. I concentrated too much on the mesmerizing qualities of her voice though, and had to sort of snap myself back into the here and now quite a few times. I honestly just wanted to lie down on some soft place and half close my eyes and listen to her talk. She could say anything. Just talk. She could talk about parasitic infections in the digestive tracts of pigs. I didn’t care. Just don’t stop talking.
We did cover some ground. She asked about my perceptions of things and places I’d experienced while bopping around in my little plastic conveyance. It seemed she already knew every single thing I’d done and place I’d gone. What she was lacking was knowledge of my feelings about the experiences. In my slow-spoken manner I detailed everything. She never seemed to tire of hearing about my feelings. I took that as her being just a nice, polite girl, so I shut up.
“Have I offended you, At?”
“No, of course not. Why would you think that?”
“Because you stopped talking.”
“I thought you might be bored.”
“Speak. Please.” And she leaned in close enough for me to smell her hair.
So I blabbered my brains out. And she took every word to heart.
About daylight she asked if she could rest in my apartment. I motioned to the couch. She instantly said thank you and prepared to lie down. I went to bed in my room. But sleep wouldn’t come, I figured, for weeks. I had an alien female on my couch. I remember thinking, I could die now. No problem.
Late in the morning I got up and noted Spot curled up warmly to Oin. Traitor. I made bacon and eggs, toast, coffee. I asked if she’d slept ok. She gave me an odd look. Ah, so she hadn’t completely mastered the language or culture. I offered her food. She took out a small packet. Unwrapped it. The wrapper dissolved in her hand. Two bites wiped out the little biscuit thing inside. Ok. That was that. No bacon. Got it.
She asked what my plans were for the day. I said I’d had plans to go take care of some things in my restaurants. She asked if she could see them, so we set off in Wheezer. She seemed amazed at my contraption of wheels but never said a word. We spent the day fixing problems in the stores and she was right there, closely observing every move. In the afternoon I asked if she was hungry. She said no. I ate a pizza. She ate a biscuit. In the evening she asked if she could rest on my couch. I caught it then. She’d asked if she could rest, not sleep. A slip of the tongue? Odd choice of words? Cultural differences are so much fun to explore. I just hoped a giant snake didn’t spring from her stomach and bite my head off. That would be an interesting cultural difference.
We talked all through the evening; she explained about her parents and how she had come to be here, and to meet Ted. When Ted began fiddling with the technology that could create the pods like mine, it had been detected by a number of worlds. It was beyond most societies so most societies never knew it existed. But some … watched for it as a sign of evolution among various civilizations. They’d been curious when such tech was found on a very backwards planet, and they weren’t surprised to discover that Ted wasn’t from our ‘hood. But they’d been intrigued by Ted and his mission and decided to give him some tools, namely his ship, to see what he did with it.
All worlds eventually reached a point where they were forced to finally accept the reality of other societies “out there”. No one “forced” them to except reality. Reality (truth) will always always light up the darkness, like bubbles rising toward the surface of a liquid, but it’s not uncommon for it to take a very, very long time. Sometimes it seemed appropriate to other civilizations to step in and speed things up by helping a race move beyond a logjam, toward continued discovery and enlightenment. Sometimes, when it was clear that a given race would never, ever, move past a blockage, it might be deemed best to tweak their DNA just … a smidge .. and get them rolling again. I asked Oin bluntly if any other race had ever tweaked the DNA of my own people. She coquettishly put her index finger to her chin and smiled slightly and looked upward and said, “Hmmm.” Like she wasn’t sure. But she was sure. So … she’d figured out that little tidbit of our culture. Girls were girls the Universe over. And that gave me a headache.
The next day Oin asked me to take her for a ride. Not in Wheezer. In my pod. I said Shore. Spot was drawn to her so I let him come. He was ignoring me like I was yesterday’s fish. “You’re small,” I thought. “Tiny even. I could wring your skinny neck like a baby shitgibbon.” Spot looked at me then with loving eyes. Could he read my mind too? I was developing a complex. I was honestly afraid to go to the bathroom.
I realized it was time to go get some gold. Lots of upgrades I wanted to make to the restaurants. It’s fun to be in business. It’s more fun if you make money. But just the doing of the thing is fun too. We jumped. I popped the canopy and got out and started scraping up the dirty loose dust and rock encrusted nuggets. Oin regarded me oddly. I asked, “What?” She knew what I was doing – I needed money. She gently put her hand on mine and turned the bucket upside down, then got back in the pod. I looked at her quizzically. She motioned for me to get in. I threw the buckets in the back and sat down. She leaned over into my lap – it seemed a little farther than she needed to, until her breast rested on my knee – and punched in a series of coordinates. Six minutes later we were on some world that was gouged with gargantuan valleys and mountains and sheer rock cliffs. We got out and she led the way twenty meters away, to the base of a rock wall. There was a crack near the bottom and out from it had spilled thousands of pounds of … what? Diamonds? Yep. Assuming they were real. I ran my hands through the loose scrabble. What the Hell? What the Hell? I scooped two buckets and loaded them in the pod, got in, saved the location to “favorites”, and we went to see the jewelers.
I repeated the same routine I’d executed with the gold, selling a few ounces – said I’d found them in my dead grandmother’s basement. Was I the beneficiary? Yes, yes. Could I prove it? Yes, yes. Then we went to a country rich in diamonds, bought a claim, and routed our rocks through that channel. No, the diamonds weren’t the same type or grade as those found in the same area – in fact they didn’t match any other gems on my planet, but some bribes could be a wonderful tool, and by the time anyone started seriously asking, maybe in a decade or two, I’d just switch names and claims.
After that we went to go see the “space highway”. We sat out there for an hour. Oin was completely unimpressed. I zoomed the optics in so the various ships could be seen more or less clearly. She identified a few but confessed 99.9999% were alien to her. I asked how dangerous it would be to try to interact with any of them. Sometimes the language was a bit of a barrier but she seemed to be of the notion that it was a reasonably safe Universe. By the time any race was advanced enough to get out and roam the cosmos, they were often, often, and only often – not always -- evolved enough to not go around zapping or nuking everybody they came in contact with. That was not, she emphasized, a hard and fast rule. Only “often”. I don’t know that that was particularly comforting at the time.
I asked if she wanted to visit EM11. She looked down and shook her head. Then she said it was time for me to broaden my horizons. She motioned to the console. Did I mind? No, I didn’t.
We started out visiting worlds that were primitive – barely had ground transportation. We could stay optically invisible and observe. She was a great teacher and enlightened me about the fairly universal habits of civilizations everywhere. Yes, each world was different and had different challenges. But every world had gravity, and that was something that every being had to learn to deal with. That was a bridge between all cultures. We started, too, with bipedal entities. I suppose that was to keep from shocking me. Bipedals are everywhere. It’s a biological design that is tried and true. Species start out as something odd but then evolved to a bipedal form because it just plain worked in the variety of circumstances. And many species caught on, in an evolutionary sense, to the benefits of being bipedal pretty early on. Obviously it was unworkable on a liquid planet, or a gaseous world. But most planets were more or less “normal” – rocks and water, dust, some kind of atmosphere. And always, always, gravity.
Gradually we moved on to “other” results of evolution. Lots of worlds had flying critters, and some of them were highly intelligent. Some were bipedal and had wings. Some, like a particular serpent world, also had wings. It’s easy to imagine how that race burbled to the top of the food chain.
Oin was clearly bringing me “up to speed” with regard to the reality around us all. Sometimes I got the impression she had been dispatched to complete this mission. Sometimes I got the impression that’s all this was to her – a job. A task. We were creatures from other worlds, after all. And I couldn’t speak correctly. I knew she saw me as intelligent. But let’s face it; even alien girls don’t want faulty goods. No one does.
We were people-watching on a fairly “normal” world one day. They were advanced and setting the pod down right in a park-like area was of no concern to any of the inhabitants. They barely glanced at us as they strolled along. We’d been there about half an hour by our measure of time, when four beings walked straight up to the pod where we sat with the canopy open, and smiled at Oin, then at me, and they seemed to greet each other in some kind of knowing fashion. Then Oin got out and motioned me to follow. We walked a short distance and climbed into their craft. Oin reassured me all along. They engaged some type of drive and we rose up a few hundred meters, then streaked off at such low altitude and speed that everything but the horizon was a blur to me. I did feel a slight G force but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
We landed presently on a grassy area – not maintained but patchy, like it might have once been a park green but was disused and unmaintained and much trod-upon. There were tree-like growths out around the perimeter. Very tall. And a few shrubs scattered around the inside of the area. There were rough structures, small and low, peppered here and there, and a few handfuls of inhabitants walking around. I was reminded of an old time swap-meet on my home world. This one was in disrepair. Near the center of the place was a ramshackle lean-to kind of thing, maybe three meters by four meters deep and a little over two meters high, smaller than most other structures. Inside was something that looked like a bird cage or a rabbit hutch. It had a big front door that was open and was large enough to house any critter about the size of a turkey. It was a bit dark and difficult to see what was inside, so one of the beings gently nudged me forward. I took a few steps and came up to a hideous creature. It was the size of a large chicken, and roughly in that same shape. But for lack of any better description it appeared to have been turned inside out. Organs and guts were fully exposed to the air. I instantly surmised it had been subjected to some insane experiment, maybe a crude attempt at teleportation, because it appeared to have only seconds to live. It was standing on two feet and it stepped forward a foot, out onto a little wooden perch, as if it was going to greet me in some fashion. I recoiled back and turned to look back at my hosts. They were gently smiling, and one of them again motioned for me to go forward and somehow engage this creature. I turned back to it but didn’t approach. I just stood in mild shock, wondering why they wanted me to see this ugliness. Certainly it was capable of viciousness in its few last gasps of life. Its inside-out organs glistened with wet … blood? I was speechless. It was positively revolting. I wondered why those organs didn’t fall away from the body to get dragged around in the dust as it walked.
After the initial few minutes of shock I found myself wondering why it hadn’t yet collapsed off the perch into the dirt at my feet. Nothing could live long, looking like that. It stood steadily and watched me, though, looking directly into my eyes with a palpable intelligence. I found that I was feeling a bit of pity for it. It was the most hideous thing I had ever seen.
After some minutes it still hadn’t made any hostile moves toward me and I began to relax. A couple of times I glanced back at my hosts; they always gently urged me forward. For what? For bloody what? To get bitten on the hand? Or beaked? I couldn’t even figure out what that mouth was. The thing then cocked its head and turned slowly so I could see all of it. No part was better than what I’d already seen. I kept seeing places that surely should have had feathers or hair but there was nothing.
Something … some feeling was coming through to me. Telepathically? I knew telepathy was a real thing because I’d experienced it in my regular life on numerous occasions. It was weak, to be sure, and utterly unpredictable, and therefor pretty useless, but it was verifiably and documentably real. Was this disgusting chicken-thing trying to communicate? I held eye contact for a moment or two then, trying to regard it more seriously than I had up to then. Yes, I was receiving impressions from it. No clear thoughts, no words, no messages, but certainly feelings. I began to feel a curiosity about it. I wondered again if it was even in some small way dangerous. Even a peck from an infected beak could be serious on an alien planet. I doubted if regular antibiotics would serve as anything but food for the bugs out here on the rim of this galaxy.
I relaxed more and I found that the more I relaxed, the more in tune with this thing I felt. Soon the thoughts were flowing fairly freely and I was astounded to realize that it was worried about me. Worried about me. It was worried that I was experiencing discomfort at being close to it. Of course that was a reasonably disarming experience. I found myself naturally wondering if it was okay. Was it sick? Did it hurt? Who had done this to it? Did it need help? Could I help it? I even half subconsciously wondered if it would be better off being euthanized. The immediate impression projected right back at me was a cheerful giggle. It thought that was funny!
Clearly I wasn’t interpreting this whole experience well. What was I missing here? When you don’t know something, you can sometimes figure it out by hard, organized thinking. But when you had zero data to input into the equation, the better approach was sometimes to stop thinking, and open your mind. That’s what I attempted to do. I was under a bit of stress, being in a strange place and with beings whose intentions I knew nothing about. I was only trusting Oin. So relaxing and being open minded were more difficult than they might have been on my own rooftop balcony. But I did try and I did achieve results, and the emotions and thoughts from that little creature came flooding in. I knew what I was feeling was real because I don’t believe you can receive lies telepathically. Little by little I began to perceive the true essence of this small being.
It was loving. And it wasn’t mutilated, deformed or injured in any way. It was as it was made to be by nature. All creatures of its type looked exactly the same. Its character was as sweet as honey, as caring as my mother, and as wise as a kindly king. After a few moments I realized that I had unconsciously moved close to it, almost touching. It moved to close the gap and I put my hands on it. I honestly don’t know if it was sticky or wet or dry or icky. By then I was so consumed by love for this creature and by the feeling of being wrapped in its love that nothing else mattered. I didn’t care one whit what it was on the outside; only the inside mattered, and the inside projected a pure graciousness and caring like nothing I had ever read about in storybooks.
I stayed a long time in that rough shed, and we communicated after a fashion. I asked what it needed, what it wanted. What could I do to help it? Was it happy living in that dirty little construction? It giggled again and said it had chosen the design and built it alone, out of all the abodes it could have had on this planet. This is where it was happiest. It had friends and lovers – the same thing, really. And it had countless others of its kind. It had enjoyed a long, healthy life that would continue for hundreds of my years. This was one of its happiest moments, it said. I asked why. It replied because it had accomplished the opening of a mind in this one small way, and that was its very purpose in life. I cried. I held it. I talked to it. I kissed it. I never wanted to be away from it again. I stood like that a long time, maybe half an hour. I absorbed all the love the thing wanted to project to me and I did my best to return it tenfold. I loved it unconditionally.
(Ended here at the halfway mark of the book)