Plus 4 Sci Fi Shorties —
Return of the Ancient Ghosts
Love Poison #9
Death of the Old Gnarled Tree
Scars on My Funny Bone
How I Ended Up With Two Wives
This short story is taken from the novel Bleeding Edge, which takes place in the 23rd century. Many people from Earth have been lured to a primitive hunting world, where they are used as prey animals in hunts put on by the dreaded Kaark. Some escape . . .
Chapter 1. Lucky’s Story
Hey, I’m Lucky. Can’t you tell? Marooned on this godforsaken world with not a cold beer in sight. Boots and jeans completely worn out. How the hell did I end up here?
A little history. When I was a kid, I gobbled up that long ago writer Jack London, all his tales of adventure. I’d sit in the classroom looking out the window and imagine just getting up, walking down to the waterfront, and climbing aboard some ancient schooner. A pirate ship. Off to explore vast unknown lands and bring back chests brimming with treasure.
When I grew up—in body anyway—I was always looking for treasure. Looking for a shortcut to Easy Street. I traveled all over the world. I had a few good hits, but never enough to kick back and say, now I’ve got it all. And attract all the beautiful women. Hah!
When the aliens showed up spouting stories of beautiful worlds, I was right there at the front of the line, volunteering to go. Never return to Earth? So what! I was off to find the Emerald City. I lied and told them I was an archeologist.
And ended up here. People are calling this world the Edge of Nowhere. And the world I was on just before this was called Junk City. Does this give you a clue?
When I was on Junk City, I heard rumors of a hoard of buried treasure on this world, so here I came to seek it. Even though it was referred to as Hunting World 12. Yep, I jumped from the frying pan into the abattoir.
Yeah, I’ve had some good luck. For one thing, my two lovely wives, Oz and Free. Now some guys might think having two wives would be bad luck. And some of you refined folks back on Earth may be scandalized knowing I’ve got two women. But one thing you’ve got to know about this world is that a lot more women survived than men. So there’s a big shortage of men.
I keep some perspective on this. They both have me as husband, also. They have to put up with me.
I confess, I choke up whenever I think about how fortunate I am to have Oz and Free as my best friends, partners and lovers. I truly am Lucky. We’ve helped each other survive. I’d be way long dead without them at my back.
So you ask, how did I come to get two wives? And how did my other big treasure hunt go? Well, that’s a whole nother story or two.
Hint – One man’s fool’s gold is another man’s gold.
Chapter 2. How Did I Get Two Wives?
I traded for ‘em. That’s the truth, more or less. Traded with Corlaniola—Corlea for short–the shrimpy little Tarchi guy. He’s about two thirds my height, face like a cross between a monkey and a rat. Rat Monkey, I called him, but not to his face.
Corlea plays both sides. His people are stuck here on Hunting World 12—aka Edge of Nowhere—and are sometimes tracked down by the cursed Hunters for sport. But he also helps the Kaark who run the hunts. He ferries supplies from Junk City to this world. I think the Kaark hold his people hostage to get him to do stuff for them. So he’s involved in the evil hunting of the Earth people who have been dragged here. For this I can never forgive him.
He’s always looking for a deal, an edge, an angle. He’s a sharp trader, and loves taking advantage. He’s a treasure hunter. Yeah, like me.
So naturally we got to know each other when I was on Junk City. I can’t say we were friends, but we were drawn to each other. We play the same games.
I let slip that I knew where a big treasure was hidden on 12. I’d cut him in on it if he’d help me retrieve it. I had no way to get any treasure off that world by myself, and he had access to the supply ships to and from Junk City. But it was going to cost him, and we hadn’t set the terms yet.
Anyway, he dropped me off on 12—or Edge World as it was later called—on the Eastern Plain, and I hoofed it on in to Mothertown. (I didn’t want him to know where Mothertown was located exactly.) Took me two days moving fast on foot. I’d previously been shown where the treasure was buried, but hadn’t actually seen it. The ladies who live there hadn’t really seen it either, but they knew it was there. And that it was protected by ghosts. And it was taboo for them to go there. Since I didn’t believe in ghosts or taboos, I was able to sneak up there later and take a look-see.
Heh heh heh. Ahh, it wasn’t what I expected. No gold and diamonds and rubies. Alas, not that kind of treasure. But I wasn’t about to tell that to Corlea until I could get the best trade from him nailed down.
He and I had arranged a way to meet up again back in the Eastern Plain, in a way that the Hunters were unlikely to notice. I’m trying to make a long story short, so I won’t go into all the details. But we did manage to rendezvous. He had a trade to offer me. And it sure wasn’t what I expected either.
I saw a power cart on the horizon and hid in a gully. No idea if it was Corlea or a bunch of hunters. As it approached, I saw it was him, but there were a couple of others in the cart also. Who? I scrambled up over the edge so he could see me.
“My friend,” he greeted me as he drove up, “I am pleased to find you alive, in health, and good spirits.”
I nodded assent. “Who are your companions?” I asked. Two beings, wrapped in ragged robes, looked like they might be Earth people.
“My friend, I have a deal for you. A worthy trade.”
When he was excited, he spoke Fedi in these long rambling sentences I could hardly follow. “I obtained these two females of your world and I needed to get them off Junk City but here I am and I thought you might be interested in having them since I know you like to save your world kin.” He pulled back the head scarf of one of them, revealing a young woman. Not bad looking beneath the grime and fear.
“Well, I would like for them to be saved but I am not going to be much of a savior.”
“I thought you might like to buy them from me.”
“Buy them?” I gave him a roaring frown. “You know I cannot own people of my own race.”
“A trade then.”
“I’m not in the market for anybody that I have to take care of. I’m having trouble taking care of myself.”
“I’d like to find an agreeable bargain that we could come to.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be.”
“If it’s not you, I will have to trade them to somebody else. I can’t take care of them.”
I figured that meant they would end up with the Kaark Hunt Runners. I didn’t think Corlea would do that but I never knew with him. So I said, “What kind of deal do you have in mind?”
“I would be glad to give you these two females, but what do you have for me in return?”
“Nothing at all. In fact, if you wanted to hire me to take these women, you would have to give me enough rations to feed them while we are on the road.”
“You are going to the settlement where all the females live. You could probably offload them when you get there.”
“That’s several days walk, and besides I have nothing to offer you in return.”
“Perhaps you do. There’s something I would like and I think it might be a fair trade for these two fine females.”
“What might that be?”
“I need shelter and I understand that they have shelter but they are not likely to acquiesce to somebody of my world asking them to take me in. So I would like you to arrange for me to be able to stay there on the belief that there’s safety in numbers and particularly we know that there’s a tough winter coming up and having a shelter will help us survive. Also then I still want a share of that treasure we’re going to find.”
“Oh yes, the treasure.” I was beginning to suspect that I wasn’t going to get a big price for my non-existent treasure. “Regarding the shelter at the settlement, it’s not mine to promise. But I would see what I could do for you in any case. I wouldn’t have to take these females for that to happen.”
“I appreciate that my friend, however, I would really like you to take them and I will be glad to give you rations for them. And some weapons also. The reason I need to offload them is because I am going to be searching for some kin of my own who are lost, reported to be in the woods to the south of here and I would very much like a place to bring them for safety, so it’s not just for me.”
I looked at this forlorn guy. The big deal maker down on his luck. What poor fortune hunters he and I are. “All right, Corlea, it’s done. Look, between the hunters and the winters, we’re all likely to be dead before long. Even so, we must do what we can. But I need better weapons than these. If I can’t defend myself, I’ll get killed, and then I won’t be able to help you get shelter.”
“I am sorry, my friend, these daggers are all I have to offer.” He handed them to me. Then he reached into his pack. “Here is one small power hand gun, fully charged.”
I nodded thanks. Corlea and I had been speaking in Fedi, which these women apparently didn’t understand. They just sat there as we negotiated their fates. As he uncovered them and motioned them off the cart, I was surprised to see their hands were tied. He cut the cord connecting their hands and pushed them gently toward me.
“I rely on you, my friend, to explain our actions to them. I must be going.” He threw packages on the ground, hopefully rations, and drove off, leaving me standing there with two unknown Earth women. I must admit, I was tempted to just leave them standing there and take off. This had been a total bust.
I sighed and looked at them. Dirty and terrified. “Do you ladies speak English? Do you have names?”
“I speak English,” the taller one said. The other one looked piercingly at me but said nothing.
“Well, me and that other guy just traded, and I ended up with you two.”
She looked at me with fear, then overtaken by hot anger. “You cannot own us, you son of a bitch!”
“Look honey, we’re not on Earth any more . . .”
“Don’t call me honey!”
“As I said, we are a long ways from Earth. I suggest that you just come along with me and maybe we will survive a little longer.”
“I’m not sure that surviving is even worthwhile.”
“Suit yourself on that, but I’m headed that direction” I said, pointing east, “and I’m taking the food and weapons with me.”
“How much did you pay for us?” she asked.
I had to suppress my smart-ass desire to say ‘Pay for you? He paid me to take you off his hands,’ but I didn’t say that. “Did you see any money change hands? Hey what’s the matter with her? Cat got her tongue?” The shorter one just stood there glowering at me.
“She only speaks French. I speak a little French so I can communicate with her.”
“Well, in this world, you better learn to speak Fedi.”
“I’m trying. Are you going to sell us to the Hunters?”
“No no, I wouldn’t do that. What’s your name?”
“Uh . . ..”
“Forgot your name, eh? So, where you from?”
“Australia. Adelaide. I’m not using my real name here. I need a new name.
“All right, an Ozzie, I’m calling you Oz. How about her? Frenchy?”
They both just scowled at me.
“What we’re trying to do is survive,” I said. “If we are attacked, what we have to do is fight. Can you translate for her? Okay, you ever use any weapons? I’ve got some nice daggers here. Can you ask her?”
“She’s a singer.”
“Good, we’ll sing ‘em to death. Now we could well be attacked and when we are, either we get killed, or we get taken prisoner and then killed later, or we prevail and stay out on our own, we stay free.”
Frenchy said, “Stay free!”
“Good, she does know a little English. All right Frenchy, your name is now Free.”
“And sir, what is your name?”
“Oh, I’m Lucky. Can’t you tell? Lucky Buck.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from all over. I grew up in Montana, but lived mostly in California. Before coming to these two gawdawful worlds.”
We rigged up a way to carry the rations and headed out at a steady pace. I noticed they had decent boots—probably better than mine. The first day we were either silent or we squabbled. I preferred silence. We walked eastward across the plain, keeping our shadows in front of us. We made sure we kept watered up at every stream.
At night we found a thicket of underbrush we could crawl into. We had to hide not only from the damned hunters, but also from local beasties that were not averse to eating the likes of us. Our rations were thin, and I didn’t know how many days it would take us to get to Mothertown. So we needed to hunt. I saw a jackhopper. If we stood still, the stupid thing kept edging closer to us. When it got just about close enough for me to pick it off with the pistol, a flying predator (not sure these things are birds or what) swooped down and snatched the hopper. So we lost our meal.
The second day when we paused, I gave them lessons in defending themselves using the daggers from Corlea. That was smart, because on the third day out our luck came to an end. I saw another power wagon moving our way. Bigger than Corlea’s.
“We got to skedaddle,” I yelled. “Get down in that gully, so they don’t see us.” But too late. The wagon turned and headed our way.
“All right ladies, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve been showing you how to use the daggers.” I handed them each a slim, efficient blade. “Now you’re going to get a chance. Keep ‘em hidden, hold them under your robe in your hand, ready to use. You want to act helpless and out of it so they won’t immediately attack you. When they get close enough, like when you can smell their stinking breath, take your daggers out and stab ‘em upward in the gut, like this. Uhhhnngg! Then twist. Grab their weapons. It might work, because they don’t really want to kill us right away. They want to play with us first, like a cat with a mouse.
“This is the only chance we have, and we have a very small chance of surviving. Let’s see what we can do. Here they come. Get ready. If we don’t make it, it’s been nice knowing you.”
Chapter 3. Sing ‘Em to Death
The power wagon driven by the hunters roared up at high speed, weaving back and forth, raising a cloud of dust. We ran for cover. I stepped behind a tree. Oz and Free tried to get behind a boulder, but it didn’t offer much concealment. The wagon skidded to a sideways stop, throwing up gravel and dust. Four hunters leapt out, growling and hissing, waving weapons. Was I going to let a display like this frighten me? You bet. I was scared shitless!
Two of the hunters called bulbheads ran towards the women, each brandishing something that looked like a cattle prod. They hissed and shrieked and ran back and forth, trying to intimidate the women into running. Oz and Free hunkered down and didn’t run, but backed up to each other. Kept their hands under their robes, hopefully clutching the daggers.
The other two hunters were short and stocky, with faces like a cross between a lizard and monkey. One stayed by the wagon, with its long gun in hand. The other howled and roared and rushed at me swinging a broad scimitar. It took a mighty cut at my head, and I barely ducked out of the way. The scimitar’s blade embedded in the tree, and the hunter was distracted trying to yank it loose.
Suddenly Free burst out singing Ode to Joy at the top of her voice. Everybody—even me—stopped dead in their tracks for a second. As she sang, she took off her robe and threw it over the prod of the hunter. Her singing distracted the two bulbheads just long enough for Oz to grab the prod of one with her left hand and drive her dagger into its midsection. It fell uttering a metallic-sounding gurgle.
I fired my pistol directly into the face of lizard man as I saw Oz feint away from the remaining bulbhead. Free stepped up behind it and stabbed it in the side, then Oz stabbed it in the groin. It collapsed with a groan.
I rushed at the wagon as the last hunter fumbled with the long gun. Just as it raised the gun to fire, I shot it in the chest. I turned in time to see Oz slitting the throats of the two downed hunters. I did the same with the two I had shot.
Wow, these two ladies dressed in rags were efficient, cold-blooded warriors! I’d better stay on their good side.
The battle was quick and very bloody.
Only the driver was left. A little guy, shorter than Corlea, jumped off the wagon and ran a short distance away from me, then crouched down on the ground and put his hands over his face. He was about the size of a chimpanzee, large head, round body, long spindly legs and arms. I ran after him, ready to shoot. He was on the ground on hands and knees. He turned his face toward me and said in clear Fedi, “I deserve to die. Before you kill me, may I say my goodbyes to my family back on my home world?”
“Sure, but make it fast,” I said, pointing my pistol at the back of his head.
He spoke to them, looking around him, as if his family was circled around. “I miss you and I love you. I apologize for the bad choices I have made. When I die, they will take care of you.” Then he looked at me, awaiting death.
“Perhaps you don’t really want to die,” I said. “Suppose I would spare you. What would you offer me in exchange for your life?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could see his inner wheels turning. “I will tell you everything I know about these evil butchers. It may help you. For example, the hunters disabled the trackers on the wagon, because they were not supposed to be hunting this far east.” He looked at me pleadingly. “You may keep me alive as long as you think I am useful. My life belongs to you. I am Aodl of Kend.”
“All right, get up. I won’t kill you yet,” I said, just as Oz and Free came running over, carrying all the weapons of the hunters. I prodded Aodl and we headed back to the wagon.
“Son of a bitch, we’re alive!” I whooped. “And we’re not walking any more.” I patted the power wagon. “This little guy says we won’t be tracked. These hunters turned off the tracker in the wagon.” I did introductions all around.
“Sang them to death!” announced Free in English, giggling at my earlier mockery of her skill.
I had to smile. “The mark of a warrior is the ability to use whatever weapon you have.”
We stripped off the hunters’ uniforms and equipment, then dragged their bodies into a deep ravine. The big flying beasts would come and finish them off, leaving no trace. The women could get into the bulbhead uniforms, and I urged them to do so, as disgusting as they seemed with knife cuts and bloodstains and the stink of killers. Better than the rags they’d been wearing. Then we hopped aboard the wagon and continued east, with Aodl giving me a driving lesson on the fly.
“You are such an aggravating, arrogant son of a bitch! I despise you, but thank you for keeping us alive.” From Oz, that was a real compliment.
“I didn’t keep you alive, we all kept us alive. We’re a team. You two are warriors. Hopefully someday you’ll come to see my better side.” I gave her a big shit-eating grin.
We drove till after dark, then dug into the provisions of the hunters. Not tasty, but filling. A bit like eating uncooked oatmeal. Oz and Free removed the bulbhead uniforms and washed them as best they could in a stream, and laid them over bushes to dry. We slept beneath the wagon, taking turns keeping watch. There were times in my life when sleeping in the open with two attractive, unclothed women would have aroused strong desires. But it was not this night. Besides, Oz slept with a cattle prod by her right hand.
In the morning I decided I’d have to trust them with the weapons, so we did some target practice getting used to the guns. The little guy, Aodl, gave us some excellent tips on using them.
After we’d been through battle together and survived, the conversation among us opened up a bit. As we rolled across the eastern plain in the relative luxury of the power wagon, we had the time to get to know each other.
Who were these two women? I’ll let them tell their own stories, but here’s a preview. Oz was a women’s self-defense instructor in Adelaide, and fancied herself as an archeologist. She divorced her CPA husband to volunteer for this space odyssey. Free was a musician in Paris and ran away from home because her parents didn’t support her musical aspirations. Both ended up on Junk City rather than 12, and that’s an interesting story in itself. Plus why they then had to come to 12.
Oz is tall, auburn hair, light freckles, grey eyes. Raises her eyebrow while thinking. Free is shorter, blondish, blue eyes. Purses her lips while thinking. Both have volatile tempers, as you may have noticed. They looked like their hair had been cut by a hedge trimmer, and they had been dressed in rags. Yet another story.
Aodl had his story also. I was surprised to learn he was from the same world as Corlea—called Kend. In fact he knew Corlea. Didn’t like him. Apparently there are three races of people on Kend. None liked the others, and they had all been intimidated by the Kaark into helping the Hunters. The third type of Kendi were big gorilla-sized guys called Domanati who were the foot soldiers and enforcers for the Kaark. I had seen them but didn’t realize they were from Kend. What amazed me most was that Aodl was the lead pilot for the Kaark command ship that oversaw the hunt on this world. He was totally willing to switch sides and betray their secrets, because he hated them, he’d be assumed to be dead, and if he returned they’d kill him anyway.
Chapter 4. Mothertown
As we continued east, the terrain got hillier, more trees. We came up a ridge and spotted ahead somebody watching us. “Oh shit, more of these guys?” I said. “We better stay out in the open till we figure out who they are. Hunters won’t be expecting the likes of us in a power wagon. Keep your guns out of sight, but ready.”
I soon saw they were humans. We had arrived at Mothertown’s territory. I shouted at them in English. A phalanx of them stood their ground with arrows pointed at us. Their bows looked home made but effective. I held my hands out and yelled at them, “We come in peace.” Famous last words, right?
One person approached and asked us to explain ourselves, and how we happened to be travelling in one of the hunters’ wagons. I suggested that Oz speak with her—woman to woman. Afterward she returned to her group for a powwow.
Finally they invited us into their compound. I drove carefully down a long hill that had no trace of road. It opened into a narrow valley with a cluster of small, block-like structures that looked prehistoric. They must have been left over from some ancient civilization, because these folks sure didn’t build them.
Maybe three dozen women stood around in small groups, holding handmade tools. They were dressed in tattered clothes, but colorful. Everything—the cubical structures, boulders, tree trunks, their faces—had been daubed with bright pigments that they must have made from local plants and such. Quite a span of ages, but living like this does tend to age you.
“Please join us for a simple meal,” said one whose name, she said, was Whiplash. This was indeed welcome. Their banquet table was crafted from salvaged sheet metal. Dishes were flat pieces of board, polished smooth. For utensils, they used sticks like chopsticks or sporks. We shared our rations from Corlea and the Hunters into the mix. It was apparent that Aodl would not be wanted at this table, so I took him a plate of food back to the wagon and apologized to him that he had to eat alone this one time.
We all brought each other up to date on what was happening. Nobody had any good news. It seemed that our existence was in a holding pattern. Then we’d die.
I had been here just a year earlier and I was surprised how few women I recognized. “Winters take a heavy toll on us,” Whiplash told me. “But new people, all escapees, keep arriving here.”
The Grandmother—the old woman who ruled this compound—was an imposing figure. Like a Mother Superior. After we had eaten, she rose to speak. “Mr. Lucky, we are grateful for the assistance you gave us last year. You are welcome to leave the two women companions with us. But as you know, our rules say, no men. And no aliens.”
“We are all aliens here,” I protested. But she was immovable on this.
I signaled to Oz and Free, “Let’s go over here and talk.” We sat on a nearby log. “You are welcome to stay here. I know you have a certain antagonism toward me. You don’t want to be bossed around. You keep saying I have no claim on you. And I have resisted conceding that. Just out of pure cussedness, I admit. So now, you are welcome to stay here with these women, and that proves I have no claim on you.”
“What are you going to do?” Oz asked me.
“Haven’t decided. But that doesn’t matter to you. I’m looking for treasure.”
Oz pulled Free aside and they talked for some time, gesticulating wildly. They then edged back toward me, and Oz said, “As much of a son of a bitch as you are, we would rather stay with you, under your protection, than join with these women.” I just burst out laughing and so did Oz. So did Free, even though she wasn’t sure what was said.
I turned to Free and said, “Your companion here has said you would prefer to stay with me rather than with these women. I would like to check if that’s true.” Oz interpreted. Free nodded her head emphatically that she would prefer staying with Oz and me.
“All right! The team stays together.” I held out my right hand, and each of them put their hand on mine. I turned back to the group around the table. “Grandmother, Oz and Free have opted to stay with me. We will find our own shelter.”
She looked at us like we had just chosen to commit suicide. Maybe we had.
After a bit more conversation, I asked, “I have a question for you, Grandmother. What is the extent of your village?”
“Only that which we use. These structures behind us, and the gardens below.” She waved at the handful of painted structures.
“I understand. Then we will establish our own compound in structures up the hill,” I said, pointing. She wasn’t happy about this, but I didn’t ask her permission, I just announced it.
“Oh, and by the way, I will invite in some others I know who need winter shelter and safety in numbers. But we will stake out our settlement up the hill, and not interfere with you any more than you want. On the other hand, we will be glad to cooperate with Mothertown in all things.”
Grandmother was a tough cookie, but she let herself be out-negotiated on this matter. She had one final demand. “You must get rid of that vehicle. It will draw them to us and they will kill us.”
I shook my head firmly. “All the tracking mechanisms have been disabled. We will keep it hidden. It is much too valuable a tool for us to abandon it. It is full of materials that we need, not only weapons, but also medical supplies, cooking supplies, cloth, uniforms, bedding, and hand tools. And power for lighting and weapons. We will get very good use of it.”
So that is how Oz and Free and I got together. I guess as soon as I got off my high horse and admitted that they could do what they wanted to do, they were happy to stay with me. And I was happy to have them. If they had decided to stay in Mothertown, I would have been very sad. It took quite awhile after that for romance to develop, but we were a team. As different as we are, something clicked with us. A singer, a self-defense expert, and a shiftless fortune hunter. Who knew?
One thing: It never occurred to any of us that I would choose one and not the other. We were a threesome from the git-go.
We selected the best cube half way up the hillside for our domicile—one with an intact door. We three moved into the upper level and Aodl stayed below. In the adjoining cube, we broke a hole large enough for the power wagon, so it had a garage.
How did Aodl do, alone beneath us? His part comes soon. Stick around.
When Corlea arrived with his kindred, I would be able to fulfill my side of the bargain. Then I could show him this so-called hidden treasure. And we could have a good laugh.
I already had my treasure.
Below are four diverse shorties. They are loosely sci fi, in that they feature aliens and space travel. The last one has alien abductions.
Return of the Ancient Ghosts
The morning news gave us a deep sense of foreboding, even though others were ecstatic.
It’s not every day—or every lifetime—that a mysterious ghost vessel appears in the heavens above our world. But it just happened here, and I want to record how things are now, because I fear they will soon change forever.
When the news came, my mate and I were relaxing on the deck of our hilltop aerie, looking out across the purple valleys and hills, just drinking in the beauty and peace. Our young had departed for their day’s activities, so we were enjoying the quiet and each other’s company.
That’s when I heard the chime from the comm unit. Instant fear. What could that mean except some problem with our eldest male offspring, who is somewhat rambunctious. I was up out of my lounge in a moment.
This chime also alerts us for civil emergencies, but these never happen. Our world is so tranquil and peaceful that we haven’t had such an alert for as long as I could remember.
Then the holo came on, and the image of our mayor popped into existence as if she were standing there inside our main chamber.
“My friends and neighbors,” she began with her customary smile, “I have exciting news.” Her chin fingers waggled, proving her excitement.
“Just half a turn ago, several huge space-leaping vessels, frightfully impressive, showed up in far-orbit around our world, and asked to have their odyssey declared completed. Our devices had trouble identifying the language they used, it was so old, but we finally did so.
“They asked permission to land and address our council. We sent a probe up to their vessel in orbit to investigate them and see if it would be prudent to allow them to land and come in contact with us. After checking for alien micro-organisms, and taking other suitable precautions, we invited a small delegation to visit our city.”
She looked around to see how this announcement was received. “They wish to tell their story, and we want to hear it. This is scheduled for mid-day on the morrow in the town square.”
The next day, people crowded into town from leagues away, having heard the rumor of this tale. They overflowed the square and jammed the side streets. My mate and I, disdaining crowds and tumult, watched via holo. Our young, of course, were there in the thick of the throng.
The crowd’s excitement was palpable. Through the holo, we were so close, I imagined we could smell the dust and sweat. Our people were inordinately stirred. Why?
After lifetimes of strife and angst, with first one group then another dominating, our world had settled down. We have an easygoing life, good relations with one another, plenty of life’s goods. This is what we had known all our lives.
I considered this a blessing; some saw it as stifling boredom, and yearned for some kind of excitement, perhaps even another war. “If only some other world would attack us. We could fight for the Motherworld, and die glorious deaths in it defense, rather than this unending featureless life.” But that was not my viewpoint, not at all. Nor my mate’s. We loved our lives as they were.
We were surprised to see that the emissaries were not living beings like us, but blocky mechanical devices. Our guards helped them mount the platform we use for holiday pageants and political debates.
One of the robotic devices stepped forward to speak. He was a squat, dark, metallic thing, only vaguely oki-like. But his voice was rich and cultured and mellifluous, yet sad and wistful—if a machine can be such. Since his voice was deep, I thought of him as male. The mechanical man, or device, or robot, told us he is called Quat. I had to listen carefully as he told his story in a low voice.
“Our orbiting vessels are the remnants of a long-ago expedition that departed from this world,” he intoned.
What we didn’t know, or had lost in the mists of a forgotten worldtime, was that our humble world had once been a powerful center of galactic empire, with many worlds under our control. It had been a major space-jump nexus with outposts halfway to the Little Brother galaxy.
Ours had been an ancient civilization, so old it strains the credulity of a myth weaver. At the peak of its galaxy-spanning might, it sent out numerous expeditions in all directions to explore and open up galaxies in the local group and beyond. Using galaxy-jumping technologies we would deem impossible, they skipped to the Big Brother, the Little Brother, the Neighbor, the Interloper, the Three Virgins, and other galaxies that bore only our numbers.
“Huge vessels they were,” Quat went on, “crewed by scientists and engineers and adventurers and diplomats, but inhabited now by only we few sad devices. Robots, mostly modeled to look like our oki masters. But all the oki, the original crew members, are so long dead that even their remains are gone. But before dying, the last oki told us robots to go home with their story. And now, at last, we have returned.
“We were wildly successful. We found worlds of aching beauty and dismal ugliness. We encountered oki-worlds and non-oki. We had to fight off some aggressive races. We discretely observed the primitive ones that should not be disrupted by interstellar visitors. But with friendly oki worldraces that had already traveled in space, we sat and shared tales.
“Whenever we arrived in a planetary system and contacted local oki races, we invariably caused a stir. None had ever before encountered such distant visitors. And once they saw that we had no hostile intent, their natural curiosity opened up. We would tell each other many things about our worlds and travels and dreams. We heard fabulous stories, some probably true, of the panorama of oki life in all times, all distance, all directions. Our knowledge wells filled up.
“At each world, we catalogued and sampled and recorded and set up high-orbiting jump sites. And then we moved on. On to another world, another civity, another cluster, another galaxy.
“After a long while, it seemed we had heard all the stories. But then something new: At one world, we learned that another equally ambitious expedition had passed that way, coming from a different direction. Rivals? It was easy enough to track them by following the trail of their jump beacons.
“One final jump and suddenly we were face-to-face above the same planet. A mutually tense initial encounter soon dissolved into joy at finding kindred spirits beneath strange exteriors. We spent a long time there on that world, sharing and comparing and exchanging. Before departing, we even exchanged some crew members.
“Our missionaries continued their quest, but gradually a malaise set in, growing deadly. The Universe was all too vast, and in spite of its incredible variety, after a time it was all so familiar. And SO infinite! Exploring it was like examining every grain of sand on a beach.
“If it’s all basically the same, why leave home? The weight of this realization slowly crushed our brave oki leaders. Not quickly, but it ate away at them over stretches of time. Heroes vigorous for lifetimes began falling to accidents, to lassitude. Much too late we turned for home, knowing full well ‘home’ no longer existed.
“After an eon of victory heaped upon success crowned with glory, we were defeated. Not by an enemy, nor by disease, nor superior technology, but by vastness.
“The remaining vessels turned for home, retracing our path of jump sites across the galaxies, until we arrived here, back at the planet of our origin, manned only by we handful of never-dying, ever-functioning machines.
“We devices seek an oki master to declare our mission completed.”
Mr. Quat spoke for the sad devices arrayed behind him. Though devoid of emotion, he was imbued with the sadness of their former masters.
Our mayor climbed up onto the platform, looked into the holocam, and replied, “We are grateful to hear the story of your exciting exploits. We believe you have done the right thing, and have returned to the right world, to seek this permission. I am quite sure we will grant this, as soon as I can confer with my council.”
It may have been my imagination, but the assembled robots seemed to slump slightly in relief from having this burden lifted.
Quat responded, “Once you grant the completion of our mission, we will turn over to you all our findings, preserved in our data wells.”
At this, a murmur of growing excitement arose from the crowd, as the realization of what this could mean began to sink in.
That evening our family clustered around the holo in our main chamber. Outside, the stars appeared in the sky in a thick tapestry. They seemed closer than they ever had before.
On the holo, the mayor appeared once again. “We have granted the galactic emissaries’ request. Their mission is complete. They have released their findings to us.”
Our world’s foremost galactologic scholar was standing beside her. Her chin fingers vibrated with suppressed energy. “All the information they stored away over eons–the data, the jump codes–have survived, and even now are downloading into our data wells.” She extended her hand, revealing a palm-sized translucent green stone. “It’s a crystal that contains jump codes to strategically-placed worlds throughout the nearby galaxies.”
The mayor again spoke in a voice deep with excitement, “This can extend the reach of our vessels to realms never even imagined. Great things will become of us!”
The next morning’s holo brought together the mayor, the galactologist, and a circle of well-dressed dignitaries nodding and smiling in agreement to everything she said.
We could see a new gleam in the eye of the commentators. The holo zoomed in on throngs dancing in the streets. People were still celebrating from last night.
Already, I hear, franchises are being bid on. Our tranquil and civilized community will soon become a boomtown.
Ah, the lure of forbidden knowledge. Better left hidden. I felt we were like one of the primitive world races that our explorers had carefully avoided intruding upon, for fear of disrupting them. I wish they had treated us the same. Even though we are their descendants.
I turned to my partner, my chin fingers twisted with sadness, and said, “What will become of us now?” She stroked my chin fingers and replied, “Let’s stay and drink in our peace as long as we can.”
Our young had joined the revelers in town.
A large cwar, flying in a lazy circle above the next hill, was suddenly attacked by a sharp-taloned brakk, and knocked out of the sky to become a meal.
Love Poison #9
Out on the limb she crouched. Broad bare limb high above the forest floor. Clinging with her claws. A gentle breeze, ruffling her feathers wrapped around her like a cloak, making her invisible against the dark brown bark. Except for her eyes, two large round yellow jewels, slitted pupils. Watching for the approach of her prey.
Here he comes. Tall, he must duck beneath limbs. Wide, he pushes aside small trees, breaking them heedlessly. Trudging noisily through the brush, no stealth, making the racket of one fearless of predators.
Except she was one. As he passed beneath she could smell his reek. Bits of smell of everything he had walked through and broken, or hunted down and eaten.
She leapt. Spread her wings, her feathered fingers, and soared, plummeted soundlessly toward him from behind. He oblivious. Whump! Sank her talons into his head and immediately whipped her barbed tail around and stung him in the fat hump on the back of his neck. Then leapt free to the ground. Now let the poison find its way through his fat neck!
“Uuwwrrghhhh!” Roaring, he turned on her, grabbing for her. Very fast for a huge lumbering beast. Hope the poison does its work quickly!
But not quickly enough. He lunges for her. Even though she pirouettes away, he backhands her, sends her flying. Some broken feathers.
She almost runs up the tree trunk, aided by her flapping wings. He grabs a wingtip, pulling loose two lead feathers. Shooting pain! She’s above him, taunting him, gauging her next move. He jumps, and as fast as she feints away, even so he wraps one huge hand around her middle, squeezing the breath from her, pulling her down.
Poison, do your work! With his other hand, he grabs her tail, preventing her from stinging him again.
Right now, holding her with two hands, he could just pull her apart, limb from limb. But instead, he wobbles, tilts, and falls. The poison finally! But falls on top of her. Her breath is utterly squeezed from her body. She, so tiny, scarcely noticed beneath his hugeness, smothered by his bulk.
But her tail is partly free. She curls it up to sting him again on the flank, but can’t reach. Trying to gasp a breath, she sinks her talons into his tender chest. Up he roars, tearing free her talons, flinging her upward. On damaged wings, she veers around, landing on his back. She digs in her talons again, just between his shoulder blades.
“Now run, my steed, lest I sting you again. And again. Till you are naught but my meat!” Rearing up, he tears through the forest, partly upright, partly on all fours. She, clinging on by embedded talons drawing blood. He, crashing through brush and small trees like an errant boulder. Down the hill he tumbles, almost rolling onto her, and plunges into the broad creek. Bubbles and escaping breath for one quiet moment.
Up the opposite bank he clambers—onto a grassy swale. Shallow panting; he’s weakening! “Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunn, hunn, unn . . .”
He’s on his back, looking upward. Sky, green boughs. Then fierce yellow eyes! Yellow eyes, pupils wide, looking directly into his, her talons grasping his ears. His vision is not quite right, like looking through a pink haze. The haze of the poison. He grabs her with his left hand around her midbody. He could crush her, he knows. But this particular time, he chooses not to, and just holds her to his chest. They lie there panting, regarding each other for a long moment.
Then she wriggles free, scootching down his chest to his groin. His resistance is bated. Digging into his matted fur, she finds his gonads. Pressing back the fur, she regards them, flicks her tongue, lowers her opened mouth. Fangs grasp his jewels, razor sharp they are! On the most tender of all spots.
Just a gentle nip with her fangs. Just a touch of pressure, hardly enough to draw blood even, but a stab of pain that would wake the dead!
AAAAAWWWHHHRrhrhrrh! OOOOOHOHOohhhh! Ahrhrhhr!
Then she draws back, while he trembles and twitches and groans. A huge mass of helpless male beast. She could rip him to shreds, she knows, but this particular time, she chooses not to, and instead lies against his side.
After a time, he rouses. Shuffles, slides down the bank to the creek, tears off a large fely leaf, folds it into a cone, dips it into the cool water.
Up he crawls, cradling the cone of water, offers it to her. She takes it and sips.
She stands, he sits, they gaze eye to eye. “You are my favorite beast,” she coos. “You my best poison,” he murmurs. He gently turns her around, begins grooming her feathers, sighing apologetically about the broken and missing ones.
“Hungry,” he mutters.
“Let’s hunt something down,” she responds. He stands, she leaps onto his back, spreads her wings. Thrugalug and Flimmerwither bound off into the woods.
Death of the Old Gnarled Tree
I hunger for truth, and I have hiked the Eleven Worlds to find it. What’s the chance I’d find it on this one?
I was an alien stranger here. I was the only passenger dropped off by the creaky planet hopper on this strange, out-of-the way world circling a somber reddish star. The local oki* were squat and ugly. They talked funny and treated me rudely. Thus, I walked their roads alone.
As I walked through their villages, they gave me scant notice, despite—or perhaps because of—my strange appearance to them. I’m tall, gangly, and pale, compared to their short, compact, swarthy mien. Their guttural talk would grow guarded; they would busy themselves looking elsewhere. Small ones would stare and point at me until quickly shushed by an elder.
The local foodstuffs were quite good, if I took care to select them and prepare them myself, using my travelling pack of condiments. Spending ancient local coins, I purchased a small amount of food each day from whatever vendor I happened to pass, communicating with gestures and grunts.
I quickly gave up asking directions. The map I had found—though very old—was still quite accurate, showing that little had changed for ages. Besides, it mattered little where I went. My journey was largely an inner one. On this trip, I was just coming to realize this, after spending half a lifetime hiking many worlds.
There was a larger lesson here for me to learn, I felt sure. I should stay here and ponder it, see if I could make it my own. But no; impatient, I figured I would soon push on. There were many more worlds to search.
That night, I was glad I sheltered in an inn, even though my bed was naught but smelly straw.
The morning brought a fresh, raw day, so after I broke bread, I packed up and strode swiftly down the road.
As I walked up the lonely road, a storm blew in, with rain and strong wind, plus lightning and thunder. I was soon soaked. I bent my head down, trying to make headway into the gale until I could again find shelter. I cursed this planet and swore I would depart as soon as possible.
Then something happened that gave me pause. I heard a loud crack and looked up in time to see an ancient gnarled tree, mostly dead, get blown over by the windstorm. At first I growled, “Just another impediment,” and trudged on past. But as I glanced up, the tree’s long-forgotten secret was revealed. Cradled and interpenetrated by its roots was the skeleton of a rather large animal. To me, a stranger passing by, a sojourner from a far world, it at first seemed a bizarre juxtaposition. But a moment of still contemplation brought revelation. The rain and wind were forgotten.
This beast had been loved. Loved enough so that someone had taken the trouble to dig a hole large enough to bury it upon its passing, and then plant and nurture a tree to mark the memory. The tree had been loved as well. Such a fruit tree wouldn’t grow naturally in this cool clime, so it had been lovingly tended and nurtured. It had probably returned the care with bountiful fruit, judging from the ring of younger saplings surrounding it in silent homage.
What had happened to those who loved and tended the beast and the tree? Obviously they were long gone. But the tree, even in its final act of dying, gave testament to their love and caring.
I was moved to tears as I thought this through. Then I offered a blessing. “May the memory of these loving, caring beings long be cherished by those who come after them.”
In silence, I broke off a tip of the tree branch and removed the last tailbone of the beast; regarded them for a moment, then tucked them into my soft leather pouch. Such things are to be remembered.
Because I was wet and cold, I returned to the same inn for a second night. The next day, I went back out to the fallen tree with a shovel, dug up a sapling, and took it back to the village garden to replant. I dug a hole. But before filling it in, I told the story, including my own part in it, recording it on a word crystal. I retrieved the small incised pewter box I had purchased on an earlier world. I placed the twig, the piece of bone, and the crystal within the box, and screwed on the lid. I wrapped it in red silk, and placed it in the bottom of the hole. The silk would soon disappear, I knew, but the pewter box would preserve its contents for a very long time. On top of this I planted the erect young sapling, and filled in the hole with water and rich soil
“May my actions here today help preserve knowledge of the shared spirit of Oki far into the future. May those who might discover this in distant times be heartened by our shared impulses reaching across the ages. It is only this connection that sets us apart from the cold uncaring chaos of the universe.”
I gave the sign of connection and briefly bowed my head in reverence.
Three of the villagers I earlier characterized as squat and ugly had stopped to watch what I was doing, and overheard my benediction. They also bowed and gave the sign of connection. I bowed to them in return, and the oldest promised to tend the young tree. He thanked me in the Common Tongue. “I well remember that tree, and have oft enjoyed its shade.” They invited me in for mid-day repast, and we spent a good long time telling one another tales from our lives.
This of course was the lesson I had scoured the known planets to discover: beneath our ugly exteriors and strange habits, we are connected.
That evening they put me up on the upper floor of the inn, in a bed with silk sheets. But before that, we shared heaping bowls of stew, mugs of fruity grog, and many tall tales while sitting on benches around the roaring fire pit.
Late in the evening, musicians appeared playing horns and flutes and stringed instruments. People got up and danced around the fire. They pulled me up to join in. These people were not ugly; they were joyous and happy and smiling. I lost my reserve and gave in to the music, dancing in circles with several young ladies. I slept extremely well that night.
If, as the ancients say, home is where the heart is, then if you let your heart expand to encompass all, you are at home wherever you may be.
Before I left in the morning, a village artisan twisted some silver wire into an image of the two clasped hands of the sign of connection, and gave it to me on a fine chain. I was astounded at its intricate beauty, and the speed at which she had created it.
She signed for me to bend down to her height; then she placed the chain over my head and cupped my hands in hers in connection. I wear it around my neck to this day.
I realized then that my search was over. Yet I keep traveling the worlds, just for the pleasure of the journey, and the joy of connection.
* “Oki” is my term for a being from any intelligent, technology-using worldrace from any planet, but mostly from the water-oxygen worlds. It can be either a singular or collective noun, like “deer.”
Scars on My Funny Bone
It only hurts when I laugh. So I don’t laugh much any more. Heh heh, ouch! See what I mean?
I used to be a stand up comic. I specialized in poking fun at people who claimed they’d seen flying saucers or had been abducted by aliens and hauled off into space. Guaranteed to get huge laughs, and I always joined in the laughter.
Then one night I was abducted by strange beings in a flying saucer. Not little green men, but giant green Amazon women with four arms—a cross between Shiva and Xena. They told me they wanted to conduct experiments on human beings to see if we could be improved. Because we sure needed to become better. They asked how I wanted to be upgraded. Longer life? Healthier? Taller? More hair?
I told them I wanted to be the funniest person on Earth. That stumped them. “I think you have to operate on my funny bone,” I suggested. This was a new request to them, but they conferred, then said they’d do it. They wanted to show how advanced they were, and didn’t want to look bad.
They botched it. Their attempt at operating on my funny bone left me terribly scarred. They tried to correct their blunder by transplanting a section of my humerus. But that just made the situation worse.
They set me back down on Earth with profuse apologies. But the damage was done. With this deep internal scarring to my funny bone, I just couldn’t crack a joke. I couldn’t even toss out a one-liner.
I tried. Lord knows I tried. I stood up there in front of the audience and cranked out my best stuff. But whenever I laughed, I cried. I moaned, ouch! The audience just looked at me, like, what’s wrong with this guy?
You fall off a horse, you climb back on. I kept trying. But they were laughing at me, not with me. I was crying inside.
Inner scarring is the worst. Nobody can tell. If I had, say, scars from third degree burns, they could remark, oh he’s being so brave, pushing ahead despite his horrible scars. But they just thought I was nuts, and felt sorry for me. You can’t make anybody laugh who feels sorry for you.
I’d have to get out of comedy and find another line of work. What are the least funny jobs, where I’d never need to laugh? IRS auditor? TSA inspector? No, those folks must run into hilarious lies all the time. They are immersed in the human comedy.
Maybe I could go into politics. Nothing funny about a politician.
So, it was my last night on the comedy circuit. I decided to level with the audience and tell them exactly what had happened to me. “I was abducted by giant green women,” I confessed sadly. They roared with laughter! They thought it was one big spoof. I got a standing ovation. I hung my head in shame, because I dared not laugh along with them. And nobody believed me.
Except one guy. He came up afterwards and grabbed my arm right below my humerus. (Ouch!) “I’ve got to talk with you,” he said in a hushed voice. “This has happened to me, too. Please listen to my story.” I took him backstage where it was quiet.
“I was also kidnapped by these huge green women and taken up into space. ‘How can we make you better?’ they asked. ‘Honesty. Make me an honest politician,’ I said. They operated on my fibula, so I could never again fib. Then they sent me back to Earth.
“I ran for office, but campaigning was hard,” he went on. “At every whistle stop and every debate, I could only tell the truth. Surprisingly, this irritated most people. They didn’t want to hear the truth. They wanted a politician who would tell them he could make the world the way they wanted it to be. That’s what the other candidates did. I showed them how unrealistic those things were. I was defeated in a landslide.”
“That’s terrible,” I said, even though I wanted to laugh out loud. “What did you do?”
“I summoned the flying saucer again, using this magic signal ring.” He showed it to me. “Didn’t they give you one also?”
“Oh yeah, I have one of those. I didn’t know what it was for, though.”
“I asked them to enhance my fibula, so I could tell people what they wanted to hear.”
I scoffed at him. But that night I stood atop the hill and held my signal ring high above my head. Before long, whoosh, the flying saucer came down out of the sky and scooped me up.
“Please, please,” I begged the giant green women. “You’ve got to make my funny bone work again. I don’t have to be the funniest. Maybe that was too much to ask. But if I could just get a few chortles and giggles, I’ll be happy.”
They examined me. “All right, but we don’t know if this scarring can be repaired. Perhaps another transplant from your humerus to help your damaged funny bone.” Soon it was done.
“Don’t expect miracles,” they said as I was leaving. “We cannot pretend to understand the humor of the human race. But don’t the funniest comedians speak from their pain? Use your scarring as material. If it hurts a bit, just laugh through your tears.”
This sounded like dopey advice, like they were making something up because they couldn’t do anything for me.
I ran into my politician friend again. He was ecstatic. “I’m back on the campaign trail. I’m telling people just what they want to hear, and I’m at the top of the polls. Guess what? I’m running for President!”
Nowthat was funny. I laughed till I thought my sides would split.
That evening I went down to the improv. I got up on stage and told the story of the honest politician. The crowd roared! I laughed right along with them. Ha ha ha ha! Ouch! Ha ha ha. Whoo-hee!