His (Beloved) Revolutionary Sweetheart
by Arthur Byron Cover, author of Autumn Angels
The assassin strides through a residential neighborhood of mixed sentients. The condition of the houses varies – some are well maintained, while others appear to have rotted from the inside. They tend to be close together and tall, with railed porches and never less than six gables, front, back, or side.
The place isn’t exactly quiet; syrupy music emanates from a window – the music is sanctioned but the assassin could swear the resident inside is wearing headphones, and can easily be listening to something else entirely. Children laugh and a male can be easily heard from an open kitchen window – seems his toast is inappropriately puffed; there is much derision from the rest of the family.
The residents are mostly humanoid, their pigmentation usually dark brown or green. His goose yellow skin stands out slightly, but it’s still common enough in the neighborhood as to not be unusual.
Up ahead, kids play street hockey, while adolescents slack atop a retaining wall. A couple of winged inflator kids bounce across the street, oblivious to traffic. Their mother, with her greater lift, crosses in two efficient bounces and corrals them.
The assassin ignores the police vehicle passing by on patrol. The driver, a reptilian, holds the hot dog he’s eating in his tail.
He arrives at the target’s home, a multi-gabled abode with an unadorned yard and a transparent fence. Early in his career he’d attempted to climb a fence not unlike this one. His efforts attracted the notice of the neighborhood watch and he was nearly lynched.
He finds it ironic that a being whose recklessness had ignited so many fuses would reside in such a humble dwelling, in a typical neighborhood on an average world, smack in the middle of a less important grouping on the edge of the civilized worlds.
In times past, the target had purportedly lived underground, but in truth he’d lived publicly and large. Amours warranted top coverage in the ether. His personal intrigues were scrutinized. His out of control children had been scandals.
The assassin was of the opinion the target deserved to live in a monastery, where he’d pour gas on his conscience and light it up after every meal.
But he wasn’t here to judge. Merely to execute. He has no idea he has already been spotted – by his target no less, from the midway gable.
The target’s name is Edward Everett Laszlo, and for nearly a century he has been either a savior or a toxic influence, depending on who you talked to.
Ed has survived numerous assassin attempts, a dozen accidental overdoses, showers of firebombs, and more STDs than can be obtained during a thousand orgies. He has vacationed in warzones, slummed with degenerates, and, in the opinion of some, deliberately provoked the doubt and resistance that are at the heart of the wave of insurrections currently sweeping the empire.
Ed’s life has been long and fruitful, but right now he’s fracking tired. Exhausted. His mind is going, while his body feels like it’s already got up and went. He views the presence of this latest intrusion on his continued life with resignation. Maybe the time has come to get his ticket punched – let history have its say.
Even so, his favorite soaps start new episodes next week. They just might be enough to live for.
The assassin walks through the gate with the intention of starting with whoever answers. Suddenly the front door slams open with a thunderclap, and through the egress zooms a stooped, emasculated figure, so old he looks mummified. Laszlo. His arms are thrown open as if he was greeting an old friend, but unfortunately so is his bathrobe.
The assassin is not the only one to notice. A few yards down a little girl shrieks. She has blonde pigtails and blue skin. She holds her raggedly doll by the neck, shakes it in Edward’s general direction, and denounces him in terms so profane the assassin fears his ears will burn.
Edward is unperturbed. “Nita, how many times has your mother told you not to play in Timmy’s yard? Go home!”
Nita sticks out a forked tongue. She turns but just before leaving, wiggles her pinky at them.
Damn it!” Edward is horrified and contritely ties his robe. “Sorry, babe, it won’t happen again, I promise you!”
The kid laughs.
Edward takes the assassin by the elbow with inappropriate familiarity and whispers conspiratorially, “The girl has problems. I’ve recommended counseling, but her parents seem to think it’s not necessary. But trust me, that girl’s destined to have her face showcased in the crime section. Who knows? She might be a future customer.
Can I offer you a cup of coffee? I know what you’re here for – a determinedly set jaw doesn’t work with your features, by the way – and I can’t stop you. But why the rush? I got nothing but time and it’s nearing rush hour. I’ve learned from bitter personal experience the species don’t mix well on crowded streetcars. Besides, you’ve got an aura blacker than a cosmic radio source. The empaths are going to look on you like a bonfire in reverse.”
Ed guides the reluctant gentleman through the front door. “So you might as well sit back and relax a spell, till traffic’s not so crowded. Furthermore, you might want to consider how much more pleasant it is chatting with someone than sitting around alone.”
The foyer extends several yards through the center of the house. Sitting and entertainment rooms lay on either side. Plastic plants abound. So do 3Ds – montages of Edward at various stages of his life: Ed receiving an honorary knighthood from a rebel queen; Ed on stage at a massive intra-species festival concert (attendance: half a million); Ed smoking a joint in a war zone (dead bodies lying everywhere); Ed surrounded by a bevy of naked babes, at least three of whom have tails (in a hot tub filled with a suspicious looking liquid).
Let’s talk in the kitchen, which is where the coffee is anyway,” says Ed. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to try anything. I couldn’t whup you in a rigged fight and the last mollusk I saw still moved faster than me. Nor, alas, am I permitted weaponry, be it activated verbally or sonically. The Home Owner’s Association won’t permit it. They actually send people around to inspect the premises for unauthorized weaponry, like we lived in the middle of a civilized cluster, can you believe it?”
Once in the kitchen, Ed, ever the dutiful host, pulls out a chair for his guest. “If you sit here, you’ll always have a good view of what I’m doing. I apologize for the silent ambience. I used to listen to music all the time, but I must have hit a fuddy-duddy stage, because all the modern stuff strikes me as derivative, in a bad way, and all the old stuff has become like time markers. Doesn’t matter. I always have these tunes bubbling up in my head anyway – hot lava in the brain! Know what I mean? Didn’t think so.
Hmm. Come to think of it, that’s tragic. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if you’re a leader or a grunt, a zealot or a drone, you never really discover yourself until you’ve immersed yourself body and soul in a first-rate piece of music. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve discovered myself in plenty of the most pleasurable second-rate ways imaginable, but music is still the best. For one thing, it helps you keep in touch with your emotions without ever having to actually to use them, which right there is something I think would appeal to you.
So sit back. Relax. Take a load off and return with me to those thrilling days of yesteryear.”
The assassin gazes out the window. It’s becoming dark. He sighs and switches on the outdoor lights.
To get me out of the house, my parents signed me for a stint in the Galactic Museum Exploratory Fleet. As I’m sure you learned in homeschooling, early empires are mysterious edifices upon which all sorts of spurious reasoning has been erected to naught but a highly debatable effect. Very little is known about them.
We do know their times were combative. Alliances shifted, betrayal was routine, and blood feuds trumped the long view. The focus of warfare ebbed and flowed across the galaxy, as did its methods. At least five sentient species were wiped out, five we know of. Planets were decimated, terraformed, and decimated again. Entire civilizations were lost. Worlds disappeared. Whole tributaries of history dried up.
You’d think folks would be intensely interested in what happened before, and once upon a time, the evidence tells me, that was the case. Once the emperor had armies of archeologists tramping around the galaxy like jack-booted scholars, offending the sacred grounds of every indigenous society they came across, claiming their actions were justified because intellectual inquiry was paramount.
Once tramping around the galaxy was a lucrative gig, with considerable benefits, but when I signed up, the profession was in a state of decline. The emperor’d grown bored with the eons preceding Unification.
Once the GME Fleet had been the sleekest, most up to date armada in the galaxy, but those days too were no more. The Granite Lady, my first and only station, hadn’t been first rate since eternal peace was declared the first time. Granny’s propulsion units were pooped, her combustion chambers were cracked, and her programmed navigational skills noodling at best. She wasn’t able to sustain much of a lifestyle either, in fact, she kinda sucked at it: the hydroponics was held together by paper clips and toothpicks, and previous crews had been able to do nothing about the air, which always smelled vaguely of kitty pee.
You know, when a ship reaches a certain age, her appearance summons the illusion of personality. Creaks and groans mimic commentary. Inexplicable breakdowns and course alterations manifest themselves as deliberate. The play of light in corridors resembles mood. Let’s put it this way: if Granny had been a person, we’d thought her old, senile, and grumpy – yet prone to a certain puckish sense of humor, like when the hot water suddenly wasn’t recycled while you’re taking a shower, or there was a healthy dose of jasmine in your coffee, especially right after you’ve said something disparaging either about her or someone you think she favors at the moment. It helped if you talked to her as if she was a pet.
The Skipper was affable enough, not too lax, not too hard-nosed. Even at my age I thought it unusual he was in command of a ship though; hell, unusual he was even permitted on one, especially for the duration of a long voyage. He hailed from Myki, homeworld of an endo-skeletoned gastropod body politic. One of his kind has been included in the emperor’s body since Unification.
It was unusual for one of his people to serve in space because their natural odor can best be described a rotten egg. The poor guy couldn’t help it – oozing noxious fumes was a natural bodily function. But when he forgot his shots or went off his diet – oy! The stench!
All things considered though, I preferred the Skipper’s stench to dealing with the copilot’s personality. 3E was a crustacean of the bipedal variety and therefore naturally prejudiced against humanoids – despite all the social indoctrination programs I assume he’d endured over the years. He disliked me from early on, when I pointed out his caffeine habit was more about getting high than staying alert. It was obvious to all he was a lush, but he denied it vehemently even as he slurred his words.
The other male was Paddy, a cluster being from a heavy planet near the pseudo belt. He looked like a clutch of rocks stitched together with wire. His face was a living mudslide. Parts of his body were naked, parts were painted, parts were painted to look like they were naked. I tried never to pay much attention because of the two females sharing the voyage, one invariably provoked a rather visible reaction in the old rockhead every time she got into pheromone range.
Not that I could blame him. Peaseblossom was the ultimate woman: sexy, brave, and slightly dense. Well, that was my idea of the ultimate woman at the time, that and having a sex that raged like a vacuum cleaner.
She was canary yellow, like you, had hourglass eyes, and a tiny little mouth that widened into the most delightful smile. Her clothing size waxed fiercely depending on her hormonal shifts, but whenever it was, she was luscious.
They say her people have public hair like red leaf lettuce, but alas, I could tell from the nanosecond we met, I’d never have a chance to find out. Except maybe by accident. She and Paddy hooked up almost immediately and used Granny as their personal caper room. There wasn’t a lot of routine between landings, and they used their free time creativity. You could hear their creativity rattling through the air vents, smacking the walls, shaking the ladders, stuffing the hatches. Paddy got stuck a couple of times. They left handprints on the windows, outlines of their bodies in the flour they spilled in the kitchen, and icky dust balls in their wake – truly déclassé.
I hated Paddy for it. Looking back, I can see how he was narcissistic, a bully, an airhead, but weirdly devoted to young Pease. Perhaps I was jealous of him simply because he was capable of devotion; I wasn’t.
The other female was Shady. Shady Simpson. The first time she looked at me, she glowered. Indeed, glowering seemed her only expression whenever she looked at me. Shady was pale red, her ears were finned instead of lobed, and she had straight black hair that always looked like she’d stuck her finger in a socket. Her preferred fashion statement was baggy pants suits equipped with huge pockets for the numerous tools and pocket computers she carried around. Her preferred tone was impassive. Nothing seemed to interest her but her work, and even with that she mostly kept to herself. It was all right with me.
Also, lest I forget, Garrick. By the time I joined the crew, he was neither male nor female, but 100% cyborg. He claimed the only organic parts left were his face and digestive system, but I could have sworn I saw him put on about fifteen pounds during our time together. He spent most of his time in the lounge, eating stuff. Which he converted into pure energy, incidentally. He always said one of the great advantages to being a cyborg was never worrying about eating too many beans. He loved beans, which was too bad, because regardless of what he said, he did have an exhaust.
Our journey was uneventful. We’d go to a planet that once upon a time had been the cradle of a mighty and virile civilization, and it was so desolate, there were no signs of it ever having been an outpost, much less a center of enlightenment.
Even when we did find something – a tomb or mass grave – it had been plundered, excavated, and probably decimated, so long ago it was probably by exponents of civilizations whose ruins we’d trounced about elsewhere. We found tiny things occasionally – fragments of cups, a hand tool here and there, even a fried computer chip.
Once Paddy dug up a piece of petrified crap and literally danced a jig because it meant animal life had once existed there. Our expedition was a handbook in low expectations. What can I say? I’d traveled a gazillion light-years and criss-crossed the galaxy a hundred times, yet I was going nowhere.
I spent the evening before we were to make landfall in the shuttle standing knee-deep in hydroponic sludge that smelled of alcoholic vomit and dead mollusks. I’d been trying to plug a leak for a futile five hours when I discovered a rip in my suit; as a result sludge was leaking into my boots. And as a further result, my toenails were fizzing.
I was bounding out of the vat when suddenly, but oh so predictably, Pease’s laughter echoed throughout the vicinity, and the entire platform shook, throwing me off balance. I nearly fell back in.
Paddy turned a corner and barreled straight down the corridor, which I have to tell you in my own defense was barely wide enough to accommodate one, much less the two of us.
So there was no way I was moving.
Paddy, meanwhile, tried to follow Pease’s progress by the knocks and bumps issuing froth from the crawlways at various intervals. Usually they were followed by shrieks and cursing, the echoes of which made pinpointing exact locations difficult.
The point is, Paddy was looking everywhere but in front of his big, flat feet.
He slammed into me with the finesse of a wrecking ball and my worst fears came true when he fell smack on top of me and my face was uncomfortably close to his crotch – which was rock hard. I struggled in vain to get out from under.
You’re no fun,” came Pease’s disembodied voice. “You fell right over!”
Paddy’s efforts to stand nearly rearranged my face. He shook his fist to the vents and raged, “You bitch! I’ll find you and when I do – “
Whatcha going to do, daddy?” she replied, somewhere overhead, as giddy as a cloud of laughing gas.
I’m gonna – I’m gonna – “ Paddy muttered as he tottered off, trying in vain to keep his vitals covered. “I’m gonna – I’m gonna – marry you!”
Gonna give me a family too?” she taunted.
I’m gonna damn well try!” he shouted as he disappeared around the next corner.
I lay on my back and gazed up at the hidden paths my dream girl had taken; suddenly the view was blocked by that deep well of indifference, Shady Simpson. She loomed above me like a colossus striding two continents. The foreshortening was frightening. Her legs merged into a torso rendered shapeless by stuffed pockets. Only part of her head was visible.
Need a hand?” she asked. From the tone in her voice she might as well have called me a jackass.
I couldn’t help grimacing even as I was grateful (slightly) for the assistance.
She stepped back as quickly as possible. “What’s wrong with your feet?”
I told her.
Well, you better get it looked at before the bones start showing.”
And with that she turned and walked away. I noticed her rear pockets were devoid of implements; untold millions of years of animal evolution dictated I check out her derriere – it inspired wild, ribald fantasies that shocked me to the core.
I shook my head. Naw, I swore. Never going to happen.
Later, feet reasonably intact, I arrived at my cabin tired and depressed. I hurt like hell. I couldn’t wait to get off this rust bucket, though my prospects looked no brighter than a series of dead end jobs.
I felt trapped in my own body, caged like a suckling in a hovel reeking of laundry and bad dreams. To cheer up I fixed a gallon of dehydrated wheat ice cream, added mango and chili powder in the manner of my people, then sit on my bunk and watched the ether. I promptly neglected to eat a single bite. I’ll spare you the description of what it looked like after the ice cream melted.
I riffled through Granny’s vast cinema library. Every choice was equally mundane. Even the marginally interesting possibilities promised nothing more than four hours of repetitive boredom. I knew far too well that nobody you cared about was going to die in the hospital comedies. Everybody you cared about in the war slapstick was going to die, except for the hero, and by the end I was usually hoping he’d die too. As for the historicals, invariably there was a character who died heroically, sacrificing his life in the name of the emperor. Usually portrayed by the actor who received second billing.
I’d closed my eyes and was about to pick something at random when without warning, an impact from beyond hammered my cabin so hard, I practically fell out of my chair.
Paddy. Falling down. Again.
I looked outside to see two huge plantar aspects sticking up from the middle of the corridor. His feet seemed huge from my perspective. I was very disappointed. I’d preferred he’d fallen on his pecker. That was one mess I wouldn’t have minded sweeping up.
Pease’s laughter reverberated through the corridor. I looked about, hoping, no, praying for a glimpse. Talk about your Madonna/whore complex. The things I detested most about her were the very things that fascinated me.
Something snapped and I asserted myself, rarely a good idea, I’m afraid, but I did it anyway, and asked Paddy if he needed a foot. “Here, this should help.” I grabbed both his feet and dragged him to the nearest ladder.
Curse you, Laszlo! I’m not taking this lying down!”
Yes you are!” I exclaimed, taking it faster over the remaining few bumps.
Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! You’re a dead humanoid for this, Laszlo!”
Now, now, big guy, I’m just helping out. Here, you can use the rungs of the ladder to help you stand, and I’ll give you a hand if you need it. Promise!”
I turned to offer my services and promptly slapped Peaseblossom on the breast.
Ouch!” she said, grabbing the errant hand at the web between its thumb and index finger and squeezing just hard enough to make her point.
Ouch! I’m sorry! It was truly an accident, I swear! I was just trying to help!”
Watch. Where. You. Are. Go. Ing.” Only then did she release me. “Now, be a dear and go back to your room, please.”
That’s what I was going to do anyway,” I said defiantly.
He hurt my feelings, baby,” Paddy said.
Lover!” She cradled him, kissed his hands and face, and with a glance down there, inquired as to the condition of his vitals.
I can’t feel a thing! Maybe with the right stimulation – !”
That was my cue to skedaddle. Just before I opened my door, I noticed Shady standing in her doorway. She’d witnessed the entire incident.
Bear in mind I only knew it was Shady because it was Shady’s doorway she was standing in. For the first time during the expedition, I saw her with her hair down, in casual wear. No pockets full of tools, no baggy clothing, just a pair of see-through panties and a tight T-shirt with four arrows apiece pointing at where her nipples would have been if the T-shirt had been a good fit. About those nipples – they were dark cherry red and for me became a hypnotic focus of embarrassing proportions.
Something on your mind?” I asked.
Without a word, she slammed the door behind her with enough ferocity to stun a sauropod.
What do I do?” I asked as the latch turned. No one cared to answer.
The next morning I saw Garrick in the lounge and inquired if there was anything to know about our next pit stop.
Only that once it was the home of a mighty civilization,” he said portentously.
So you’re saying we don’t know jack, right?”
Garrick dialed a smile. “Today what was once an opulent garden of life is naught but a barren rock devoid of life and fossil. You have my permission to regard the landscape as the foreshadowing of the futility ultimately awaiting all mortal endeavors.”
So we’re not going to find anything here either, right?”
We’ll be lucky to find a one-celled fossil, much less a functioning mold or bacteria.”
I’ll see if there’s room in the hold.”
Should be plenty.” Garrick assumed a lotus position an inch above the sofa, ignited an electron stogie, and pretended to blow smoke rings. Lately he’d taken to wearing a purple saran. He was the closest thing I had to a friend on the ship, which is saying he was the only one who pretended to be civil to me half the time. I believe he was programmed that way.
Shady crossed the room on her way to the coffee machine. Before her morning caffeine, her movements were as mechanical as Garrick’s. Her clothing was as shapeless as ever, yet did nothing to help me shake the memory of what she looked like beneath it.
She did not so much as glance in our direction.
She punched up a cup of joe with the intensity one normally brings to a firing range.
She likes you,” whispered Garrick.
She hates me,” I mouthed, not daring to speak the words aloud for fear they might be true.
Garrick slapped me on the knee. “She just makes you nervous, that’s all. She’d make me nervous too, if I still had my man parts.”
What are you all talking about?” Shady asked suspiciously. Belatedly I noticed the fins at her temples had twisted in our direction.
Garrick cleared his throat, sounding like a jar of nails breaking on the floor. “The usual existential gloom.”
Preliminary analysis indicates at least two urban centers on this planet were once cosmic bull’s-eyes,” she offered, though whether she intended to brighten our spirits or not was unclear. “And that was before the people went extinct and their sun bloated.”
Who says they’re extinct?” Jon asked. “It’s possible one of us has them for ancestors.”
From these humble beginnings,” said Garrick, rapping himself on the head. He took his knucklebones and a rubber ball from a compartment in his torso and tossed them on the table. Each knucklebone had a tiny six-limbed humanoid crucified to its knobs. He bounced the ball, scooped up the knucklebones, dropped them, and then hit repeat about sixteen times in the next ten seconds.
I asked if it was possible an understanding of the fate to befall mighty empires of the past could guide us to a less catastrophic finish, or if all that was malarkey invented by a bunch of folks looking to fund pet projects.
Garrick shook his head. “I fail to see what that has with our current situation. Don’t get me wrong, our visit might be of more use than most. Some of the terrain is honey-combed with catacombs and labyrinths, probably begun as bomb shelters. It’s likely we’ll glean an insight or two into the physiques or mass psychology of the species.”
Sounds promising,” said Shady sourly.
With a start I noticed she’d winked at me. Before I could react, though, 3E shouted from the mess breakfast was served. Sea eggs and whiskey sauerkraut. His favorite. From afar emanated Paddy’s impersonation of a gastropod barfing. I sighed. By then the routine was getting old.
That deterred neither Shady nor Garrick. They disappeared into the mess without so much as a glance back.
I want to know the point of being a proud member of the freest society in history, if the purpose of that freedom is to exist and nothing else? Why are we here? And are we really free, or do we just think we are?”
As usual, no one was listening.
Or is all that just a distinction without a difference?”
Congratulations, Garrick,” said Paddy smugly. “Wrong again.”
I apologize,” he replied, too awestruck to care.
Not that I blamed him. We shared his sentiments wholeheartedly. I would add the words gob smacked and flabbergasted to my own reaction.
For we were standing in the shadow of the largest intact artifact anyone’d found in centuries. It was a statue of a female humanoid head. She wore a crown spiked at regular intervals. Presumably the spikes had once been pointed. The lady’s species was indeterminate. Her facial structure was clearly an idealized abstraction.
Looks like there was a viewing room in there,” said Paddy, swinging from a spike.
Stop that!” shouted 3E. “That’s an order!”
Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” said Paddy sarcastically. He complied immediately, but so indifferently, his attitude amounted to insubordination.
3E had every right to say something, but he didn’t, as we all knew he wouldn’t. The last time he’d gotten in Paddy’s face, the big lug picked him up by the tail and dangled him over a malfunctioning hydroponic of boiling water.
He’s right, for a change,” Pease said, patting her boy friend on the back consolingly.
I feel funny asking this,” said the Skipper, “but is there more?”
We checked the data on our wrist gizmos. Usually when we did that, we came up with nothing. Not this time. This time we came up with a lot.
This doesn’t make any sense,” said Garrick with a wheeze.
There must be something wrong,” said 3E. “I’m getting indications we’re standing over a vast underground labyrinth of hovels and tunnels.”
Oh fuddy-duddy! I’m getting the same readings,” said Pease. “My gizmo’s on the fritz too.”
Highly unlikely!” snapped Shady, her vehemence taking us by surprise. “My gizmo’s getting the same readings as yours, which would make three going on the fritz at the same time.”
She’s right,” said Garrick. “The Back-Up Redundancy Back-Ups should prevent that.”
Hey, Pease, I’m getting heat signatures,” said Paddy.
Sure it’s not just me?” Pease asked with a parietal wink.
These systems appear self-contained,” said Shady. “Wonder what they could be?”
I noticed her tone’d suddenly become quite condescending, as if she was pointing out the obvious to a field trip. The others, however, were too jubilant to care.
Lava! Bacteria! Cast iron pot bellied stoves! Were just a few of the suggestions before the Skipper silenced everyone, first with flatulence; second, with the observation the answer wasn’t nearly as important as the fact we’d found a question that needed answering in the first place, an accomplishment few serving in the GME today had achieved.
As for the answer, even a lowly geological anomaly would be remarkable discovery, especially considering how the surface was only rock.
Meanwhile, the larger question – what to do next – triggered in the Skipper a severe case of brain lock.
I’m really interested in this lady,” said Shady. “How is it she’s so unspoiled by the ravages of eternity?”
I know! I know!” exclaimed Garrick. “This babe is festooned with temporal virtuality radiation. I bet she was suspended in a perpetual capsule that somehow got caught up in a time/space continuance. Her capsule must have been sent hurling billions of years into the future before it landed here. Eventually the power ran out and she had nothing left to do but wait to be found.”
Odd that we be the ones to find it, is it not?” said 3E.
Oh you are so negative!” the Skipper exclaimed. “Can’t you just enjoy the fruits of chance, especially when they just land on your head like this?”
I’m strictly a carnivore,” said 3E stubbornly. “And that’s not the point! Think of the odds against us making a fine of any sort! It gives one pause, or it should.”
All right, I’ve paused,” said the Skipper.
And then – then – I’m not even humanoid and I think she’s really hot. Anybody else think so?”
Good point,” said the Skipper thoughtfully. “Think her girls have survived too?”
Why would you care?” Pease demanded to know.
It does seem like quite a coincidence,” said Paddy.
I don’t believe in coincidence,” Pease replied cheerfully.
Perhaps it’s fate,” said the Skipper portentously.
Fate is merely synchronicity viewed in retrospect,” said Garrick impatiently. “I think this lady will keep for a while, sir. Got any orders for us, at last? What should we do next?”
Why don’t you folks go underground,” Shady suggested, “and Ed and I’ll radar around with atom thin precision. That way we’ll explore a greater area more quickly and we’ll know more about the statue for sure.”
That’s a great idea, sir!” Paddy exclaimed. He slammed a fist into a palm large enough to sit in – a gesture more directed at 3E than anyone else.
I concur, Skipper,” said 3E. “A most excellent suggestion.”
You mean for certain, Simpson,” said the Skipper. “But it is a great idea, for sure.”
Thank you, sir,” said Shady happily.
What was she doing? The last thing I wanted was to be separated from the main group. (My instinct was they’d be credit hogs.) It was all I do not to rip off her faceplate.
Shady turned so the others couldn’t see and ssshhed me. She appeared to be suppressing a great deal of excitement. The realization something was up terrified me.
Once the others were out of sight, Shady ceased pretending to work and sat on tip of the lady’s nose. I asked if she ever did have an interest in finding out if there was more statue to find.
Not really, no,” she said. She crossed her legs and shook herself like a water-logged feline. Together we gazed at a bright orange sun and distant dust storms.
In retrospect the sight was beautiful but at the moment I believed my future was more accurately symbolized by the ring shadow, which stretched across the terrain like a shroud.
I sighed. The metaphorical cages I’d imagined myself in earlier were about to become all too sunny in comparison with the actual ones Shady and I would soon be occupying.
Ed, we need a shovel,” she said, putting her arms behind her and stretching luxuriously against the bridge of the nose. “Would you be so kind as to fetch us one from the shuttle?”
Just like that. As if I was her butler. Upon my return, she pointed out there were two kinds of beings in this universe: those with a plan, and those who dug. She was the kind who had a plan. She indicated a spot near a half-buried nostril.
At one point, the sand gave way beneath me; the nostril became unstuffed. Shady unceremoniously pushed me out of the way and knelt to dig with her hands. I considered warning her she might tear her gloves, be inundated with ultraviolet radiation, and die, but felt too shanghaied to broach the subject. Instead, I asked what she thought the others might find in the catacombs.
She turned and popped a bubble of the gum she’d somehow gotten into her mouth. She chewed like a gun moll in a church pew. “Nothing, probably.”
That cage got smaller. “You sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
There’s a reason for that.”
I got the feeling I would have to plead guilty just to rate a cell with oxygen.
You don’t really think that string of incidents that led to us being here alone is a total coincidence, do you?” she asked with a laugh. “Well, okay, some of it was. The fact that this baby’s here and we’re the first beings to visit this world since she landed from her big jump – that’s coincidence, the capricious whim of chance. After Garrick seemed so positive we’d find our usual nada here, I doubled checked, and saw what he missed. Last night, I programmed a slight shift in Granny’s course that would make missing the statue head difficult if not impossible to miss from above.”
And knowing our captain – “
Exactly.” She stuck her head back down the hole. “And you saw me manipulate the poor chap. He has many fine qualities, but a BS filter when it comes to greed ain’t one of them.”
Her derriere pointed to the sky like a beacon. She nearly caught me looking as she turned to tell me she’d planted viruses in the crew’s wrist-ware. “They already think right is left and down is up. They’ll be trapped in that maze for hours. Giving us plenty of time.”
To do what?”
She’d plunged back in. “To find something a lot more important than a silly old statue. And stop looking at my ass!”
What if we don’t find it? And I wasn’t!”
If we don’t find it, it’ll just prove the age old aphorism that show business is tough. And don’t give me that! You look at my ass all the time!”
Alas, she had reduced me to the point where no reply was best. My spirits were only marginally improved when, moments later, she exclaimed she’d found it! She backed out the hole cradling a titanium box.
That’s it?” I asked. “A box?”
Yes, inadvertently left in the viewing area by a panic-stricken tourist and then trapped in the same perpetual capsule that brought our lady friend here. At least, that’s my latest thesis. Look, there’s a latch! Wonder what’s inside?”
You mean you have no idea? What’s if it’s just a petrified amphibian?”
Oh, it’s definitely computer circuitry; the scans were good enough to show me that. Whether or not the circuitry is fried is another matter, but either way we’ve already altered the official rendition of history. The emperor’s minions would have us all believe the pre-empire civilizations lacked the technology for digital resources. Which of course is impossible, otherwise they would have lacked the capacity for space travel. Wanna open this together?” Her thumbs twitched above the latch.
With great trepidation I put my hands over hers and together we raised the lid. Its joints squeaked.
Inside was another box, approximately five inches high and three long. Without regard for protocol or any fragility on the part of the object itself, Shady picked it up and examined it. It was half an inch wide and had a control wheel centered on the bottom half.
Wow, this is neat,” Shady said, shaking it. “A computer from the same epoch as our lady-friend here! Wonder what sort of data’s in here?”
Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s still be invaluable.”
Why, Ed, I do believe you’re getting the idea!”
Okay, just how do you propose we keep this treasure hidden from the others?”
Listen, young pup, and learn.” She switched on her communications and informed the Skipper Granny had just signaled to her the planet soon would be hit by enough solar winds to fry every circuit in this and every other dimension. She feigned special concern for Garrick.
The Skipper made more noise than a hailstorm. Shady played him like a finely-tuned instrument, convincing him he and the others should go deep, deep underground, as deep as possible, while she and I took the shuttle back to Granny and skedaddled out of the solar system for the duration. We’d return as soon as the danger passed.
You know we’re going to spend the rest of eternity banished to an event horizon for this,” I said.
You first. Come on. We must bustle!”
Wait!” I’d spotted something on the ground. She’d unknowingly dragged out another object with the titanium box.
Careful,” Shady admonished.
I brushed the sand from the object; it was a plastic pouch with a grayish-black dust inside.
Shady gasped. “That’s a label. Look. It has a bar code on it!”
Don’t you care that it has writing on it?” I asked, incredulously. “Actual letters? Nobody’s ever found anything like that before.”
Yeah, but who cares? We still don’t know what it says, and we won’t, not until we get Granny’s lingual programs working on it. I do, however, know what a bar code is. Talk about a universal language.”
Well, we didn’t actually get a clue to the meaning of the words for a little while, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away by telling you what the linguists figured out later:
DEHYDRATED PSILOCYBIN: Just Add Water.
Beat me, daddy – eight to the bar!”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
It’s a musical reference. Don’t you know anything about music?”
Not really, no. I just listen to it.”
She looked at me like she’d found me behind the refrigerator. This was it, the big moment, the moment that would determine if we were total winners or absolute bums. We’d surmised the device stored 400,000 digital audio files, but their content remained a mystery. For all we knew, they’d sound like an industrial disaster, or worse, be completely silent, totally wiped out.
The latter seemed unlikely, as there were few signs of corrosion or oxidation inside; the circuitry was primitive but obviously capable. Both of us believed that unless something was dreadfully wrong, we would be the first beings to hear those sounds in uncounted millennia – a daunting prospect.
I have no idea how long we sat together, side by side like brother and sister, in the lounge with that device sitting on the table, staring back at us with cool monolithic intellect.
This better be worth it,” I said.
She pulled back. “Worth what?” she accused.
We’ve committed mutiny! We’ve marooned our former mates in a sabotaged shuttle on a desolate world, with only a year’s worth of supplies, six if you take Paddy’s consumption habits into consideration.”
Your point being – ?”
All on the promise – no, more like the hope the data stored therein will be of sufficient value that from the moment we turn ourselves in, we’ll have the best lawyers money can buy.”
Edward, the artifact’s age alone assures us of a small fortune on the black market.”
I suppose you’re going to tell me you know some pirates.”
As a matter of fact, I do.”
What if it’s frontier gibberish?”
The linguists will have a field day.”
What’s if it’s ambience that could come from anywhere – a bubbling brook, an ocean wave, the wind, all in endlessly repeating loops?”
There’ll still be clues. You can analyze anything to death these days. Wrote a paper on it once. Quite a good one too.”
Okay, what if it’s just flatulence? I read most of an article once that postulated the chances of deducing something interesting about a given culture is severely diminished when all you have to go on is what their flatulence sounded like. Turns out it’s sounded much the same throughout the eons.”
You told me. Just push. Here. And here.”
I pressed the control wheel in the places indicated.
You can let go now.”
The most frustrating female I’d ever met. Torn between accusing her of being bossy or admitting she was right, I pretended it’d been my idea all along.
We got a little space between ourselves and waited an entire minute, failing to relax, while waiting for something to happen with the monolithic device lying between a half-finished cup of coffee and an instant biscuit.
Is the antennae screwed in right?” she asked.
Never had any complaints yet.”
Any occasion for complaint – within living memory?”
Not recently, no.”
I was spared the pain of further elucidation by the unexpected intervention of the monitor glowing with life, revealing a single image, that of a metallic apple.
To say we were stunned is an understatement. Deep down, I’d expected failure; nothing in life had prepared me for anything different.
Shady, conversely, was a study in entitled satisfaction. She looked like she’d swallowed the canary, the worm, all the ice cream, and a full course meal.
Closer examination revealed the apple to be deftly minimalistic. This sort of fruit was known throughout empire folk myth as a symbol for lost innocence, be it in the realms of knowledge, sexual adventure, or virtual fighting prowess, and in that tradition a bite was missing.
After a few moments, during which the machine hummed faintly, the logo faded and the picture split in half. On the left, markings clearly formed words in a language we failed to recognize; and on the right – a creeping sideshow spotlighting pictures, drawings, lettering – presumably relating to the contents therein.
First it seemed like nonsense, witless, prosaic, and arrogant toward its audience, but then it occurred to me the majority of this artwork might be commercial in nature, in which case I could toss the arrogance assumption right out the window. This art was part of the package, and not necessarily part of the contents.
The last thing I could expect was consideration toward my peculiar outlook and tastes. The prospect was both exhilarating and terrifying. There are some strange musical tastes about, even in the homogenized empire – the sniveling love wail of the crooners from the border cultures can neuter an ungulate at fifty yards – but then something clicked and I made sense out of something at last:
A heavenly dark-skinned humanoid (a distinct tribe, according to current scholarship), surrounded by celestial beings, reaches from the heavens down to the cool white dude on the ground, wearing naught but a pair of shades and an embarrassingly tiny leaf over his naughty bits. Clearly the artist intended to symbolize the passing down of knowledge – in the form of inspiration, power and control, or macho prowess – from one generation to the next, an undeniable declaration of the patriarchal prerogative, something the official version of history claimed did not exist until the emperor imposed it upon society in general.
And now, without a shred of personal initiative, we possessed irrefutable proof the emperor was as full of gas as any other politician or despot. Today, people tell me I’m the one full of gas, because what the illustration is really meant to convey merely thematic insights in the material at hand, a notion I find fundamentally simplistic and that completely undervalues the invention to which long-deceased folk were capable.
Other pieces of art included an extreme close-up of a male, who has already gone stark raving bonkers, skin scorched red and blue, his mouth open so wide you can see the uvula, trying to rotate his eyeballs a good 360, hoping for a glimpse of how close his pursuer might be; it’s not really clear he has one, a pursuer I mean, but then one never knows.
An elongated yellow fruit, of the most mundane variety, stands alone against a white backdrop, strangely arresting, oddly enigmatic. What would happen, one imagines, if someone rushed at you armed only with this piece of fruit? Would you die?
Or is the fruit an insult in the artist’s culture, a dirty joke, or perhaps the insignia of a flag honoring a noble cause? Beings still argue over that today.
Clothing was often unusual: a battered felt derby, its brim laden with ice cubes; a white lady’s suit equipped with solid white glasses you couldn’t see through, but easily taken off just the same; paisley, lots of paisley. Aging bald males in tuxes held forth wands like wizards or circus ringmasters, depending on their attitude, while luscious babes in gowns lounged on keyboards or seized their wind instruments like weapons. They were just like the other females – if smoldering sexuality was the ultimate form of intelligence, these specimens weren’t afraid to tackle the big questions.
Elsewhere, males stood about and looked serious or moody. Usually they were young and supposed to be attractive, but not always. The nicest thing you could say about the species was that it was plain, doggedly, relentlessly, horrifically plain.
Hmmm, he’s nice,” said Shady of a male with slick dyed hair and a red lightning bolt painted over a foundation of white make-up.
Nice mask. He needs it,” I said snidely. “They always have to disguise their natural look. They lack an appreciation of the natural look.”
Shady looked at me as if I had just auditioned for the part of village idiot.
A flock of gaily clothed humanoids rose from a red and yellow atomic cloud as she said, “I’m bored. We need to find out what the hell’s on this thing.”
Of what? Failing? It’s a little late now.”
It’s not my fault! You dragged me into this!”
Oh, it’s my fault now?” Most indignantly, she grabbed the device and spun the controls with her thumb.
Within nanoseconds the lounge was filled with ferocious music. Today we call it a standard guitar-bass-keyboard-percussion configuration, but right then I called it music unlike any I’d ever heard: every note, every cadence was another step along a propulsive journey down a river of the dead. The vocalist snarled defiance and rage at the uncaring universe that had reduced him to his current piteous state. I didn’t understand a word he said but I didn’t have to. His ideas were conveyed artlessly but with liberating directness.
I’ve since learned music is controlled sound and its purpose is to transport you to another world. During that selection I was taken to a macrocosm the size of the dimension next door and stuck in a club where everybody danced to this bittersweet music. The instrumental break embraced me in a glorious torrent of shadow and sound, rushing me toward a jubilant oblivion. Darkness or light awaited me – I didn’t care which.
The recapitulation struck me like a revelation. The pain would never stop. The alienation would persist. The possibility of experiencing another romantic bliss so intense it would border on an endurance contest was flat out impossible. But the capacity to survive would continue. The ability to belittle and forget would grow strong. The insolence was eternal.
Like I said, I had no idea what the words meant. I’ve since sorta learned, to the extent anyone has, but at the time he could have been singing a love parable to the emperor’s buttocks and I wouldn’t have given a fig. Somewhere along the way Shady and I had locked eyes and we couldn’t stop grinning. Within that five ounce box we’d found a treasure that could buy the freedom of a genocidal maniac.
Vootie! I thought. Vootie! I was that happy, that irredeemably, irresponsibly, straight out giddy with optimism. For the first time in my life I’d escaped the humdrum culture fostered by the Ministry; I’d experienced the illusion of a genuine statement, delivered without filters by beings free of the obligation to appease the forces of galactic homogenization. The effect was exhilarating, even as the reality of impending change terrified me beyond the capacity for rational thought.
Before I knew what happened, the lounge was immersed in the next selection. A large acoustic ensemble, plucking or bowing strings. A restrained steady beat. No less pain or nostalgia than the first song, but no anger or insolence whatsoever, just a melancholy longing for times passed, oceans of blue and pink waves on a beige beach, beneath the constellations of the civilized worlds. Two males sang in close harmony with a vigorous tenderness; never had I encountered the notion one could be grateful for having experienced loss, but for the next two minutes these humanoids made me believe it.
Shady shifted near me. Our thighs touched. Her natural odor made me most uncomfortable, yet pleasantly so. I was lost in the structures of her irises – they shifted like the raging storm clouds of a gas giant, all blue and orange and brown – yet communicated a certain stillness and tranquility.
Do you feel it?” she asked.
The music. Yes! Absolutely!”
No! I mean, do you feel anything? You drank your water!”
Your point being – ?”
Patience, then,” she said, settling back, her smile both mysterious and omnipotent, which let me tell you, aroused some contradictory feelings.
And to think, I almost trusted her. It then occurred me to me she’d made a point of drinking from the identical source.
A considerable amount too. Fortunately she didn’t impress me as the suicidal type – why take all these risks if the only reward you expected was the ineffable – so I figured whatever she’d done to us, she expected us to live to tell the tale.
Suddenly the sonic dynamics transformed, the instruments quickened, the chords had a bright, festive air. For some reason the music triggered a childhood memory of the odor of grilled fowl. It was ripe and permeated the lounge.
My toe started tapping before the vocalist came in, extolling his audience to fornicate, medicate, or syncopate – I wasn’t sure which, but his words had the desired effect on the chorus and someone playing a vicious tambourine.
Holy Hannah,” Shady said. “It’s a pagan sacrifice. Can’t you feel it? The terror? The blood?”
I think I have a somewhat more sanguine interpretation. What did you do to us?”
I put some of that powder in our water,” she confessed. “I wanted to see what it would do. Anything happening yet?”
She slid beside me and said she’d read somewhere our species’ sex organs were compatible.
That’s good, because there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
I don’t want you to tell me.” Before I knew it she had spit out her gum and was on top of me, unfastening my trousers with tentacle-like dexterity. “Show me!”
I asked her to be gentle.
Maybe next time,” she said, tearing off my shirt.
That’s it, that’s how it began – the inquisitions, the revolt, the police actions. Today the stand-offs have hardened into treaties, but all are tenuous, with all sides waiting for them to be broken.
I don’t know how you can say Shady and I were somehow responsible for all that, including the animal torture and immolations, but some people not only say it, they believe it, and are willing to act accordingly. For many, it’s only a matter of moving a few decimal places.
I suppose you could be a fanatic, here to act out some delusional agenda, but I’d rather believe you’re more rational than that. I just wanted you to hear things from the perspective of an innocent bozo who never meant to do anything more than share and make a good living at the same time.
You’re not the first gentleman of your profession I’ve met. I’ve chatted my way into continued existence at least twice before. It’s my ideal – a non-violent, effective defense, which obviously I’m using even as I speak. You already know you have a choice between two distinct paths: a) you can do what you came to do, mainly because at this stage of the game I can’t stop you, or b) you can refrain from killing me and say you did. Then with the aid of my connections, I will blow up the house, use the frozen cloned corpse of myself I keep on hand for just such occasions to fool the experts, and disappear to another reasonably comfortable abode. I prefer B.
Regardless of what you decide, I don’t like for guests to leave empty-handed, so I’d be honored if you’d accept a gift. One’s right here, in this drawer. I keep one around in case I feel so moved to bestow upon some deserving recipient a duplicate of the box we found – the complete, the only playlist comprised solely of found material.
Don’t misunderstand – some of the sound alike is simply amazing, but nothing comes close to the original – none of which, I wager, you’ve heard before.
This is your chance to see for yourself what the shouting’s about. I recommend you start with the three files Shady and I heard by chance:
An imploration of a goddess of disaster titled “Walk On By” in the Stranglers folder.
A warrior’s lament that he has lost his love to the end of time in the Chad & Jeremy folder “Distant Shores”.
And a pagan sacrifice during a rite of spring found in “Revival” by the Allman Brothers Band.
After that, you’re on your own.
Copyright Arthur Byron Cover
href=”http://www.arthurbyroncover.com/” target=”_blank”>Arthur Byron Cover
attended the Clarion Writer’s SF Workshop in New Orleans in 1971, and made his first professional short-story sale to Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions.
Cover’s short stories have appeared in Infinity Five, Alternities, The Alien Condition, Weird Heroes #6, The Year’s Best Horror #4 and #5, Wild Cards #5: Down & Dirty, and Pulphouse. He’s also written several comic books — most notably two issues of Daredevil (one of them with Ellison), and Space Clusters, a graphic novel from DC Comicsillustrated by Alex Niño — plus several animation scripts, and reviews and articles for such august publications as The New York Review of Science Fiction.
Cover’s first novel, Autumn Angels, was the second of Harlan Ellison’s Discovery Series of new authors for Pyramid Books, and was nominated for a Nebula Award. The novel has been described as “a stylistic cross-breed of Ellison and Vonnegut, and as such both predates and bests Douglas Adams in creating a comic, literary fantasy.”
A new edition of Cover’s Autumn Angels is now available as an ebook from Digital Parchment Services.
Bonus content: Mr. Cover is currently sharing an interview he did with Philip K. Dick for Vertex magazine in 1974 on his blog.