Excerpt: Alien Day by Rick Wilber - Tor/Forge Blog

Excerpt: Alien Day by Rick Wilber

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Set on a near-future Earth and on the alien homeworld of S’hudon, Rick Wilber’s Alien Day explores murderous sibling rivalries, old-school mercantile colonialism, ambition, greed, and the saving strength that can emerge from reluctant heroes called to do the right thing despite the odds.

Will Peter Holman rescue his sister Kait, or will she be the one to rescue him? Will Chloe Cary revive her acting career with the help of the princeling Treble, or will the insurgents take both their lives? Will Whistle or Twoclicks wind up in charge of Earth, and how will the Mother, who runs all of S’hudon, choose between them? And the most important question of all: who are the Old Ones that left all that technology behind for the S’hudonni . . . and what if they come back?

“His Intricate and ingenious storytelling will pull you in, and then the humanity and vulnerability of his characters will break your heart.” —Alan Smale, Sidewise award-winning author of the Clash of Eagles trilogy

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Alien Day by Rick Wilber, on sale 06/01/2021. 


Pacing Is Everything

My breaststroke was steady and purposeful, though I certainly didn’t feel that way myself as I swam slowly toward the ship that stood upright ahead of me in the moonlit water of the Gulf of Mexico. This had seemed like a great idea just a few days ago, when Heather and Twoclicks offered it to me, and the adrenaline rush from that last scare at the beach had propelled me past any hesitation. I was going, and that was that. I’d hugged my brother and my girlfriend and my sister’s wife back there on the warm midnight sand of Rum Point, and then I’d boldly gone where no one had gone before—and you know how that line goes.

Now, naked and struggling in the water, I was rethinking the whole thing. Sure, brave Peter Holman heads to the stars sounded great, taking me right back to the sci-fi books I read as a kid, both old school and new. Have sweep system, will travel. S’hudon my destination. Twoclicks and friends as an imperative species, trying to impose some ancillary justice. Me? Part of that? Incredible, wonderful, count me in.

But it had all happened so fast that I realized—swimming along, stroke, stroke, stroke—that there were a lot of questions that I hadn’t even thought to ask. Food, shelter, clothing . . . sure, the S’hudonni could handle that. But this strange passage held nothing but dangerous unknowns and only a slight chance that I might do something right. Like survive, and find my sister, and get us both back to Earth. And, oh yeah, there was that whole global war thing, coming our way because two princes from a distant world were squabbling over who was in charge of Earth, and I would be on their home planet, documenting it as they settled their differences. See, what could go wrong?

Swimming along to my left was one of those two princes, Twoclicks himself, moving along at my pace just to humor me. The S’hudonni are semiaquatic and swimming is effortless for them. I wished it were the same for me as I plowed slowly along.

Twoclicks swore he was here on Earth to lift us up to membership in their empire, if we just did the right things at the right times. He could be very persuasive, with both carrots and sticks. He offered endless energy for a power-starved Earth, and medical devices that could cure what ails you and extend life, and trade and tourism with a half dozen other worlds. The amazement of that!

But he also could snap those thin fingers on his frail arms and send his screamships in to fry a military base or level a city, if that’s the sort of mood he was in. Just a week ago I’d seen the first of those happen, and didn’t want to see the second. There was no arguing with S’hudon.

So it was ironic that Twoclicks reveled in being of good humor. Mr. Charming, that was Twoclicks. He thought himself a man of good cheer, generous and understanding, and he had a hard time understanding why all these simple Earthies didn’t agree with him.

A wave crest caught me and I choked and gasped for a second with my mouth full of salt water. Twoclicks giggled at me and said, “Ho, friend Peter!,” with that lisp he used as an affectation, a trick to make him seem friendlier to skeptical Earthies. “Iss not to drink the water! Sswim through it!”

Very funny. I didn’t try to respond. Instead, I finished clearing my throat and got back to business: stroke, stroke, stroke, steady on into the slight rise and fall of the Gulf swells. At the top of each one, I could see into the distance ahead, and that ship. It didn’t look any closer. The current, I supposed, was working against me, pushing me gently down the coast as I tried to head out to sea. It looked like it would be a long night of swimming. I stopped for a few seconds, floating there in the buoyant salt water.

“You’re doing fine, Peter,” my other companion said to me, and I looked to my right to see her there, well ahead of me, encouraging me forward. Heather, who’d had been in her S’hudonni form back at the beach when they’d met me and I’d waded in, joining her and the porpoisy Twoclicks. Now she looked human, athletic and strong, but male, with a face I vaguely remembered. Maybe the bodyguard back in Ireland, when it all fell apart? Why had she changed? I didn’t know.

“Sure,” I agreed. “I’m doing fine.”

I dug back into it, thinking about how not so long ago I’d made love to this creature, often. In fact, I’d been in love with her, him, it. And that love had seemed so real and true to me that I’d fallen for her in spite of everything that shouted no. There’d been some pain and sorrow that came from that as various realities caught up with me.

Time went by, and the more I knew, the less I loved, and so it was that, ultimately, it had been someone else, an Earthie, that I’d said I love you to on the beach that lay a half hour’s swim behind me. Chloe Cary—yes, that Chloe Cary—hadn’t responded with more than a slight smile, so I suspect I was wrong about that relationship, too. Story of my life.

I lost sight of Heather as I sank into a trough between waves. When I pushed forward over the next crest, there she was, floating effortlessly with Twoclicks, the two of them a good ten or fifteen meters ahead, looking back together at me, smiling. I smiled, and gave them a slight wave, and then got back to work.

It all seemed preposterous, how I’d come to this. I’d had an ordinary childhood, growing up in a Florida beach town, snorkeling and kayaking and throwing footballs on the beach with my little brother and sister. Dad was a doctor, Mom was a teacher. I went to the local Jesuit high school and played the usual sports and got the usual grades and then went to the usual college to play Division II basketball. I was pretty good at that and got an offer to try out for a second division pro team in Europe and—what do you know?—I made the team, the Dublin Rovers.

Five years I played there, a shooting guard and occasionally at point, hitting my threes and driving the lane and enjoying the hell out of it, just a young man lost in the game, really. I wasn’t good enough to play a division higher, nor bad enough to not be useful to the Rovers. I was happy in Dublin and happy in Europe and didn’t give the future too much thought, until that career ended with damage to my left knee and suddenly I had to think of something to do for the rest of my life.

I spent my savings to pay for the tech to turn my English degree and my sports background into some modest success as the latest thing, a freelance sweeper, interviewing celebrities and living an active life while my audience sensed every bit of sight, sounds, smells, touch, taste—all of it. For the price of a receiving system and the willingness to encounter my native ads, you could be inside me, looking out, as I hung out with that famous singer backstage, or played catch with that all-star catcher, or hit a few back and forth with that new tennis star, or had a cup of coffee with that Hollywood A-lister.

It paid the bills, though the tech was new and there was a lot of competition for a small, if growing, audience.

And then our friends from S’hudon arrived, and my little corner of the media sphere was of interest to Twoclicks, and that’s all it takes these days. He and Heather liked what they saw of me and, snap, I had a new job. Just like that, though nothing in my résumé shouted interstellar ambassador. Within a year, I went from driving the lane and dishing it out to my teammates to heading for the home world of mighty S’hudon. Such is fate.

It was dizzying, how it had all happened, but there it was, further proof, for me, that you just never know how it will all turn out and that’s why you play the game, and why what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse, and why when the going gets tough the tough get going. To coin a few phrases.

I kept swimming, looking every now and then at the ship, when I was at the top of a swell, checking to see if it seemed closer. It did, maybe, a little. Or not.

The ship rose above a spidery network of interlacing stilts that held up the main body, bulbous and smooth, porcelain in its sheen, the size of twenty-story building. Eventually I’d get there, with nothing on me or with me except my internals—useless without their external hardware—the helpmate I’d been with forever, myBob. My upgraded internal sweep system had been installed just weeks ago in Palo Alto by the best neurologists money could buy. Heather and Twoclicks promised me that the hardware was waiting for me on the ship, and I believed them. Mostly.

So I’d be reporting back to the billions on Earth as Twoclicks’s wondrous ship took me to fabulous S’hudon, the pulsing power at the heart of the new empire we would all be part of one day soon. Me, Peter Holman, ex-jock turned celebrity journo and now Earth’s first emissary to the stars.

So that’s how it works sometimes, friends. One minute your knee is ruined and your hoops career is over, the next minute you swim, swim, swim toward that distant ship, and from there to the distant planet that lies at the center of everything.

And then you get to the ship, and you climb a ladder with the help of your alien pals, the one a clumsy porpoise-shaped thing with a goofy smile and an odd sense of humor and the power to destroy Earth, should that strike him as a good idea; the other a handsome guy who is sometimes a plain Jane and sometimes a beautiful temptress and sometimes a creature that looks a lot like a bull shark. And you’ve made love with that thing, and now you’re climbing up, rung by rung, and then you’re aboard and you’re ready for everything, absolutely everything, to change.

Part One

Life on Earth

Dying isn’t hard. It happens all the time. I should know.

—Peter Holman, Notes from Holmanville (S’hudon City and New York: Trebnet Press, 2035)

Chapter One: First Editions

Chloe Cary was adjusting her sweep receiver and waiting for connectivity as she sat with her legs curled beneath her on the comfortable old recliner that occupied a corner of her bedroom. Out the picture window to her right was the Pacific Ocean and above it the dim predawn light of another perfect California day.

Chloe was tired. It had been a long and loving and very private night before Terri left for home at three a.m., going down the back steps to the beach and the short path to the bat-garage, as Chloe called it. The paparazzi hadn’t caught on to that back way out yet.

Then, at five, myBetty had dinged Chloe awake. It was Peter, about to broadcast his live sweepcast from the S’hudonni ship! All over the planet, smarties were dinging and sweepsets were blinking and home AIs were announcing that Peter Holman was aboard the luxury yacht of First Envoy Twoclicks and headed toward the S’hudonni home world! His first sweepcast would be airing in five minutes!

Chloe had been there when Peter snuck away from Earth without anyone knowing except a precious few, and he’d been gone now for eight long days without a word. Chloe had been starting to think she wasn’t going to hear from him again.

Now, suddenly, here it was. Peter! Live from outer space!

The headset went on over the ears like a pair of headphones, and then you slid the lenses down over the eyes and that brought the smell and taste tabs into place automatically. Clip on the finger pads and then say “Connect.” Chloe didn’t wear the unit often, so it took a minute or two, but now, with the unit on, she whispered the magic word, and after a few seconds of flickering gray, she joined him.

She’d already missed the famous introduction where Peter opened with “Hello, Earth. I’m on my way to S’hudon and you’re coming with me.” But just after that, here she was, inside Peter’s head as he walked along the narrow corridors of the S’hudonni ship, following the backside of a waddling S’hudonni.

As he walked, Peter was talking about how he was “sending this live, friends, but I’m told we’re already halfway to Jupiter, traveling at a steady one g, and so there’s about a twenty-minute lag between when I send and when you receive.”

Chloe could smell a strange mix of pine trees and a damp, metallic tang, and she could hear a high, distant whine in the background and a slight susurrus of circulating air. She could taste the coffee Peter must have had right before the sweepcast. They were taking good care of him, then, if he had coffee.

Peter reached up to run his fingers through his hair, and Chloe felt the strands between her fingers. A little more than a week ago she’d come awake in Peter’s bedroom at the beach house in Florida and had done just that same thing herself, running her fingers through his hair, feeling the salt and grains of sand from the nighttime swim they’d taken before going to bed on his last night on Earth. They’d showered off outside after the swim but had been in too much of a hurry to do a very good job of it. The good-bye sex that followed was pretty damn nice, and Peter’s helpmate, myBob, had recorded it all and edited it down for the day it could be sweepcast. That day would be this one, Chloe thought. It would be a great follow-up to whatever he had going on at the moment.

The enjoyment of that last night wasn’t feigned. The guy was a real sweetheart, your basic heart of gold, in fact. There were reasons to like him, for sure, beyond all the fame and attendant fortune.

Peter was talking as he walked the narrow corridor: “I’m following a S’hudonni that I call Sergeant Preston. I named her after that movie from a couple of years ago . . . Did you know that was a reboot from an old television show from the 1950s—Sergeant Preston of the Yukon—where that Canadian Mountie rescued her dog from an avalanche with the help of a whole First Nations village? I watched it on the plane from Dublin to JFK and, heck, I wound up really liking it. Great scenery, anyway.

“So why name this S’hudonni after her? Well, when I first got into my rooms on board this ship, the place was so cold I could see my breath and there was frost on the walls. I’m a Florida boy, you know, so that was insane cold. But a few minutes later this S’hudonni showed up to say she’d been assigned to help me, and when I complained about the cold she whistled and clicked to the room’s AI and things got warmer fast. So that’s her: my own Mountie from S’hudon, rescuing me from a frozen death.”

Peter was a little out of breath. “My quarters on this ship have been made to look like my bedroom back home in Florida. I don’t know why or how that was done, but the bed seems the same, the wood flooring seems the same, the dresser, the mirror, the big window that looks out to the Gulf of Mexico . . . That’s an image, of course, but maybe it’s live? I can’t tell. Even my bookcases and my collection of old signed first editions are here, most of the from my years in Dublin: Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, Walter M. Miller, Ursula Le Guin, Joe Haldeman, John Banville and Benjamin Black, Maeve Binchy, Kate O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Molly McCloskey, and a hundred more. They’re all here.

“And these spacious quarters have been added onto the ship, I think, like a kind of blister attached to the hull. Why? How? When? I have no idea.”

He stopped for a second to take a breath. “Man, Sergeant Preston is really moving fast for a S’hudonni, so I’m hustling to keep up. We’re on our way to dinner with Twoclicks, in his quarters. I suspect that will be interesting, so stay tuned.”

He looked around, andso Chloe and hundreds of millions of others were looking, too, as he glanced up the ceiling that was far above his head, seven meters or more, with dim light coming directly from the metal somehow, with a watery kind of soft glow. Then he looked left and right and the corridor was narrow enough to be claustrophobic, dim gray and more dim gray and more of it still, stretching off in front of him, with nothing but that waddling Sergeant Preston ahead of him, hurrying along.

For a few seconds Peter looked down to his feet. The hero on his way to the alien home planet was wearing his regular black running shoes with scuffed toes. Chloe laughed to see that. Something close to a billion or more people were tuned in live to this or would see it later, and she was probably the only one who knew those running shoes were his favorites when he was home. He’d worn them for a run with her on the morning of his last day on Earth, jogging along the narrow pavement of the single road that ran the length of the little barrier island that held his home and a few dozen others.

The island was a narrow two kilometers long, so they’d gotten to the end of it, looked out over the mouth of Tampa Bay, then come back along the hard sand of the beach, down near the waterline, sprinting at the end and turning it into a race. She’d won, but he always had that bad knee as an excuse, so she hadn’t poked too much fun at him for the loss.

He loved those shoes, so the S’hudonni must have gone into his house and picked them up, along with everything else, from bed to books. That didn’t seem possible, given what had happened there, but he certainly hadn’t moved any of it himself. Chloe had been with him the whole morning, from lovemaking to running to a final walkthrough of the old family home as he’d said good-bye. Then they’d all gone out to the beach and watched as he’d stripped, T-shirt and shorts and underwear and flip-flops all casually tossed to the sand before he’d waded out, stark naked, for the long swim to that distant ship, where his future—and Earth’s, too—waited for him.

* * *

Sergeant Preston, the waddling S’hudonni, turned a corner, and there was a stairway, a steep one that led up into the darkness. “Well, that’s interesting,” Peter was saying as he watched Sergeant Preston begin to climb. She was surprisingly nimble, given her body shape, those thin arms grabbing the railing and the short legs bending at the knee to go up.

Peter looked up to see the narrow steps leading to an opening that Sergeant Preston had already reached. Chloe could feel the cold metal of the railing and the moisture on it, and she caught that strange smell of pine as Peter followed. He reached the opening and stepped into another corridor, walked down that for fifty or sixty meters, and then did another climb on more metal steps, talking all the while, going on about how the ship had lifted off so effortlessly that Peter almost missed it.

“There was that flat screen on one side of my quarters,” he was saying, “and I happened to glance at it as I walked by and, wow, we were already a thousand feet up and rising steadily. I didn’t have any of my sweep equipment on yet, so I couldn’t record the liftoff. But I can tell you it was amazing. I could see my own house in the distance, and some people who’d been there to see me off.”

Chloe smiled at how he sidestepped the whole reality of who’d been at the beach house and what had actually happened. Chloe had been there as Peter’s brother, Tom, the murderous bastard, literally burned down the house. Peter must have seen that in the distance, but he didn’t want to share that or what it meant, so she’d keep quiet about it, too.

He was going on: “There was no extra g-force on me, just my normal weight, so I could stand there and watch for nearly an hour as we rose through a cloud deck, and then another, and then kept rising, so that I could see the curvature of the Earth and then the darkness of space and, below, an Earth growing smaller as we moved away.”

Peter kept climbing, following the good sergeant, twice more up stairs and down long corridors, all the while talking. “I’ve been on this ship for, what, a week now?” he said, huffing and puffing a bit as he climbed the second set of steps. “It’s hard to keep track of time here. The light inside the ship never changes, and Sergeant Preston shows up at all sorts of odd times to take care of my needs, from bringing me food—pretty decent Earth food, so I suspect it’s actual food from home, frozen and then heated up here to present it to me—to taking away my dirty clothes and returning them later cleaned and folded. I’ve been trying to self-regulate, staying awake for sixteen hours and sleeping for eight. But you’d be surprised how hard that is to do.”

He reached the top step, turned right to walk through the strangely narrow but tall hatchway, and then looked right and left to see where Sergeant Preston was. He grunted when he saw her, well down the corridor to his left. He took a deep breath, said, “OK, then,” and started walking.

“You can tell I’m out of shape. I’ve been on a few excursions with Sergeant Preston to see various parts of the ship and to meet the crew—and wait until I tell you about the crew!—and that’s about the only exercise I’ve had. I’m going to start doing calisthenics in my room or something. Heck, that might help me get some sleep.”

He was walking along at a good clip now, breathing hard, trying to catch up with Sergeant Preston, who was waiting for him at the next hatch. But he added, in a comment that Chloe knew would keep Earth buzzing for weeks, “So, OK, the crew. I should tell you about them. They’re not S’hudonni! That surprised the hell out of me. They’re cute little creatures, about a meter tall, with a kind of scaly light blue skin, and facial features that look sort of like lizards. But they walk upright on two legs and have arms and hands with six fingers on each hand and an opposable thumb. Their faces are yellow, and they have yellow dewlaps that flare out to the sides like flower petals from their throat area when they’re excited about something. They almost look like walking and talking daffodils, funny as that sounds. And they’re smart! They’re the ones that run this ship. When I met them, they were busy standing at workstations, a dozen of them or more. There was a lot of chatter going on, quiet hoots mostly, between them, and then indecipherable murmurs and a lot of head nods and flares of those dewlaps.

“One of them, dressed in the same kind of one-piece uniform the others had, but with a lot of stripes and ornaments on it, came over to me to introduce herself as the chief. She—I think it was a female, but who knows—hooted and flared those dewlaps at me, and then when that didn’t work, she spoke Spanish! And then what I think was Mandarin. And then English! We were starting a nice chat about who they were, when some of her crew got excited about something, skin flaps flaring all over the place and the hoots getting louder, and she begged off to solve the problem, saying we’d meet again soon and she’d show me around. Then Sergeant Preston came over and dragged me away.”

Chloe smiled. This was all tantalizing to Earth’s scientists, she was sure. And as if in response to that thought, myBetty dinged with a high-priority message from Abigail Parnell at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Peter’s friend who had now become friends with Chloe, too.

Chloe lifted the lenses and glanced at the Call me! from Abby. “Tell her I’ll call as soon as this is over,” she said to myBetty, and slid the lenses back down into place.

And there she was, inside Peter again, as he slowly made his way up one more steep staircase with those moist railings and then stepped from the top of that, through one more hatch, and emerged into a room where everything had changed.

Paneled walls, wood flooring, recessed lighting at a reasonable height just above them. No dripping moisture. Chloe and the many millions more with sweep receivers could feel the wonder of this as Peter stepped into the room, looked to his left and then his right, took a few steps over to the side, and ran his hand along the paneled walls.

“Red cedar,” his myBob told him, “from Michigan.”

“Very nice,” Peter said. And then he leaned down to touch the flooring. “myBob?”

“Brazilian cherry,” myBob said.

“Twoclicks sure loves his Earthie things,” Peter said, and then he looked up to the ceiling, three meters up maybe, not nearly so high as elsewhere, and shook his head to marvel at the long strips of wood that covered that.

He didn’t have to ask myBob, who said, “Teak.”

Chloe was impressed, but wondered why this spaceship looked like some fancy art gallery in Big Sur.

She got her answer when a door opened at the far side of the room and Sergeant Preston stood there, holding the door open for Peter to walk through, into a long, narrow room that went on for a good fifty meters. Paintings and displays lined both sides, with a few installations hanging from the ceiling. Sergeant Preston shut the door behind her and waddled briskly past Peter to head down the far side of the room to a large double door. Wood, of course, with brass hardware. There she stopped and turned around, arms akimbo, waiting for Peter to get over the awe of the art on display and to come join her.

But Peter was in no hurry. He walked over to stare at the first display, a glass case attached to the paneled wall at eye level, about six inches deep, with a small gold artifact in it. A straight pin with a Celtic cross at the top, encrusted with jewels and intricate swirls and patterns.

“That’s the Tara brooch, everyone,” he said. “Anyone who’s been to Ireland has probably seen it. Is this a reproduction? I guess so. I saw the original in the antiquities museum in Dublin, back when I played for the Rovers. It’s Celtic, I think; an early Christian-era piece of jewelry.” Peter hesitated for a second, then added, “myBob tells me it’s from the seventh or eighth century, found in the nineteenth century north of Dublin. Very, very famous.

“I wonder . . .” he said, and he walked along to the next piece, a page of manuscript, large swirls of hand-inked text, in Latin, with a green and red serpent that sat atop the right corner of the page and coiled and swirled its way down the side of the page.

“Yes,” he said. “Incredible. It must be a facsimile.”

Chloe and a billion others could hear myBob say, “The Book of Kells. Eighth century or a little earlier. Very impressive illuminated manuscript.”

“I know,” said Peter, shaking his head and walking over to the wall. A small painting there showed a stylized dog. “Picasso,” Peter whispered to himself and the billion on Earth. “I’ve seen that one, too, in Barcelona. A kind of practice painting he did while studying Velazquez’s Las Meninas. He painted a couple of dozen things from that painting.”

He hesitated, so myBob added, “Picasso did fifty-eight paintings as part of his study of Las Meninas. You saw them in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, in the Catalan Republic.”

There were other items that Chloe recognized as Peter looked at them and myBob filled him in with the details—a life-size clay soldier from China’s Terracotta Army, a small three-thousand-year-old jade giraffe that she knew was from that recent find near Rawalpindi, a mummy from Peru’s Norte Chico site, and more—much more. And this, she thought, was just the material that could be shown off in one corridor.

Peter was looking at the mummy when something farther down caught his eye and he walked right to it, laughing. Ten paces down the corridor, toward the entrance door, a baseball bat hung vertically on the wall, secured by a small brace at the top that held the handle, letting the barrel of the bat hang down. Peter reached out to touch the bat, and Chloe and the millions of others could feel the smooth wood.

“Look at this,” he said. “It’s signed by Ted Williams, a very famous baseball player, for those of you who aren’t fans. I was there when the curator gave that bat to Twoclicks. We’d attended a game—the Cards and the Red Sox at rickety old Fenway—and Twoclicks had enjoyed himself there, drinking beer and eating hot dogs and making jokes. Afterward, the owner of the Red Sox gave him this bat. It’s amazing to see it here again.”

Chloe, comfortable in her Malibu home with the Pacific out the window and funny and sweet Terri still lying on the bed, chuckled at Peter and sports. There he was, millions of kilometers away out in space, on the greatest adventure any human had ever been on, and still he was talking sports. A lunkhead, that’s what he was. A charming lunkhead. Walk right by all the museum pieces from all over the world and then stop to praise the baseball bat.

The charming lunkhead went on down the hallway. There were inscribed stone markers, small Roman statuettes on pedestals, and the largest piece, a statue that stood by itself, a headless walking man, muscular, striding along.

Finally, at the end of the hallways, next to the door where a very patient Sergeant Preston waited, a huge wooden propeller was upright on the floor. Four large blades came from a central hub, so that the propeller was a good three meters or more in diameter.

“I know this one, too,” Peter said, narrating for the sweep as he walked up to it. “I saw it for the first time just a couple of weeks ago, in the West of Ireland. Can that be right? Just a couple of weeks? It seems more like a lifetime. I was with Twoclicks and Heather and a whole caravan of Irish military as we stopped at a pub in a small village in County Clare and bought this from the pub owner. It’s one of the propellers from the Vickers Vimy biplane that Alcock and Brown—a couple of British pilots who’d fought in World War I—flew across the Atlantic in 1919, long before Lindbergh made his solo flight. Twoclicks knew about it, and wanted it, so he got it, and now here it is.”

He reached out to touch the lacquered wood of the propeller, ran his finger along the curvature of the blade. Chloe could feel the smooth lacquer as his finger moved down and back.

“I helped lift this huge thing into the back of an armored vehicle, a big one,” he said. “Heather Newsome, Twoclicks’ aide, was there helping, and some Irish guards. God, the thing was heavy.”

He stopped for a second, thinking through what to say. “Things were really tense. Twoclicks was trying to make sure no one got hurt, but I know how it looked to you all: the S’hudonni—the two princes, Twoclicks and Whistle—fighting among themselves, and Earth, all of us, caught in the middle.”

He patted the blade, then reached up with both hands to rub his face and take a deep breath. Chloe could feel all that, his facial skin, his fingertips, his lips, the slight tangy odor of lacquer on wood. “I’d chosen my side,” Peter said, “and I think I did the right thing. But damn, what an awful day that was.”

Chloe knew Peter was thinking now of his sister, Kait, and how she’d died that day, her body rigged with explosives, meant to kill Peter and Heather and set off a war that Whistle would win. But, she thought, he couldn’t talk about that. Earthies didn’t know the real story, the whole story, and Peter couldn’t tell them, not yet.

“There were people shooting at us from the hill that overlooked the pub. It was crazy, chaotic. Bullets flying around, people shooting back at that sniper on the top of the hill, and there we were, trying to get this down from the ceiling in the pub where it’d been for more than a hundred years and somehow muscle it through the pub, out the door, across the open space where mud and dirt was gouged by bullets.”

He sighed, shook his head slightly, reached up to touch the propeller blade one more time. Then he shook himself, stood up straighter, and walked toward the wide double-doored entrance ahead of him. Sergeant Preston turned to press a spot on the doors as Peter walked toward her, and then she and Peter stood there as the doors swung in and open and there was Twoclicks, prince of S’hudon, holding out his arms for a hug and shouting, “Friend Peter! Hello! Iss so good to ssee you one more time!”

Twoclicks was dressed for dinner in an Earthie tux. Chloe thought he must have worn it to several state dinners during his European tour, since he looked comfortable wearing it. It was pretty damn funny to see, squat Twoclicks with those small legs and fragile arms, all dressed to the nines. Chloe supposed it looked charming to the many millions who looked through Peter’s eyes at the comically askew bow tie and the white shirt with blousy sleeves covering those thin arms and, even funnier, the black slacks that had to start at that wide, wide waist and then narrow down in a hurry to fit over the short, stubby legs.

Chloe’s thought was that she was looking at a caricature who didn’t realize he was one. Or perhaps he did. Perhaps this was all part of his con job? The funny, cute creature from a distant world? Chloe didn’t quite buy it.

She well knew that Peter seemed to actually like Twoclicks, but Chloe couldn’t fathom why. Work with him, become famous, see the universe, save the world? Sure, to all of that. But actually like him? No, thanks.

No matter. Behind Twoclicks stood another S’hudonni, taller and thinner. Chloe knew as soon as she saw her through Peter’s eyes that it was Heather, though Chloe had only once seen Heather in S’hudonni form, and she’d been in the water then, cruising slowly back and forth, waiting for Peter to enter the warm Gulf and head toward her ship. Still, there was something about the way she stood, straighter and taller, no bowlegs like the rest of the S’hudonni, a little more shoulder, a bit of a neck, and those eyes—those very serious eyes. She wore a tux, too, and looked much better in it.

Yes, it was Heather, the strangest alien of them all. She was a kind of machine, Peter said, and one with her own agenda. Peter wasn’t sure just what that agenda was, but she had the tools to get it done, of that he was convinced. For starters, she could change shapes, be what she needed to be, do what she needed to do. Here, in the ship, she apparently needed to be a smiling S’hudonni, and Twoclicks’s tuxedo-clad strong right hand.

There were hugs all around, Twoclicks reaching out to put his arms around Peter first, and then Heather doing the same before they all turned to walk through the small foyer. Heather was in front and Twoclicks was next, holding Peter’s hand and pulling him along, as they all walked toward another door. Heather opened it and stepped aside to let Twoclicks and Peter go through first.

Into a pocket palace. Peter said nothing and simply looked all around, but Chloe, seeing it through his eyes and hearing it through his ears as an unattended piano over in the corner played a delicate song she was sure she knew—“‘Interlude,’ by Ashley Wolmer, written for the coronation of King William,” she heard myBetty whisper in her ear—was stunned. The opulence was incredible. This had to be a copy of a room from some palace—Versailles?

“The room is a one-quarter-size replica of the Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace,” said myBetty, thinking the same thing and looking it up for her. “Amazingly well done.” And Chloe agreed. Amazing detail: the piano, the banquet table centered in the room, the portraits on the walls.

Finally, Peter said, “Wow,” and walked into the middle of the room to stand next to the banquet table and do a full turn. He’d heard from his myBob the same information that Chloe had from myBetty, so he said, for his audience’s sake, “It’s just like the Picture Gallery in Buckingham Palace. Really stunning.”

“Great friend, Peter,” said Twoclicks, standing just inside the door, “we liked that room when we ssaw it in London, and sso had it copied here. Iss perfect, right?”

Peter turned to face him. “It’s really something, Twoclicks. I’ll have to say that.”

Chloe smiled, hearing that. A facsimile of a room from Buckingham Palace, on a spaceship filled with aliens who were heading home, an uncountable distance away? Yes, it was really something.

And here Chloe sat. She lifted up the lens of the receiving set for a few moments to look around and remind herself that she sat in the lounge chair in her bedroom in Malibu, the souvenirs from her youth and her career—the Annie Oakley doll and the prop six-shooter, the posters, the autographed napkin from Meryl Streep, the sports trophies and medals, the People’s Choice runner-up statuette, and more—on top of the dresser.

Her legs were folded underneath her, her girlfriend still asleep on the bed over there, the Pacific out her window, and that predawn sky over it as the stars slowly disappeared and the ocean rollers sweeping in slowly emerged. Perfect surf, she thought, and briefly considered grabbing her board and her wet suit once this was done—a perk of life in Malibu.

And then she tugged the lens back into place and the rest of the gear snapped into place, too. Aliens! That was just crazy, wasn’t it? A couple of months ago, Chloe wouldn’t have believed any of this. It would all have been make-believe, CGI and blue and green screens and digital artistry making the aliens look as real as the waves down there. And now, here she was, inside Peter’s head and hands and heart as he walked over to Twoclicks, short and stubby, with that constant grin on his porpoise-like face, which Chloe still doubted was quite as free of irony, free of duplicity, as Peter seemed to think.

Which made him all the more frightening, if she thought about it much.

But back to Peter. He was asking about the art, some of it gifts from King William. “Gifts?” Peter asked, and “Yess, giftss, sso wonderful!” the jovial Twoclicks was saying, and yes, gifts, Heather was agreeing from behind him, and gifts, Chloe was thinking, were just what King William needed to make sure that S’hudon had something to repay. That was how it worked, that was the S’hudonni way, as far as she was concerned. She hadn’t seen too much of them, really, but what she’d seen she could sum up with her own answer, which was basically, Don’t do me any favors. Truth was, she didn’t much like them, even jovial Twoclicks, who could be murderous when he wasn’t trying to be funny.

There were hoots outside the closed double doors to the room. Peter heard them and turned to look at who might be coming in, but the doors were still shut.

Then there were more of those hoots, and the patter of a lot of feet outside in the corridor, and then a pounding at the door.

Peter turned to watch as Heather walked through the foyer to the door and opened it. Sergeant Preston, who’d been outside the door, came through, whistling and clicking a warning. Right behind her was a host of golden daffodils—the crew from belowdecks—tumbling through, falling over themselves in their hurry to get inside, dewlaps flaring in bright yellow. One of them, the first one through, rolled and then scrambled upright to find her footing and ran toward Twoclicks. Half of the others scrambled to their feet and followed, too.

“I think that’s the chief I met,” said Peter, watching it all.

“Yes, it is, with all those stripes on that uniform,” said myBob, as the chief started whistling and clicking furiously at Twoclicks in what sounded like S’hudonni.

“What the hell is going on?” asked Peter, as more hoots came from the front of the room. A whole other group of the crew was there, hooting and waving their arms and clumsily clicking and whistling.

“We’re under attack,” said myBob.

“No shit,” said Peter, as he looked toward that big, beautiful window into the nothing at the far end of the room and noticed a large oblong shape coming into view, torn from its attachment to the main ship, tumbling slowly, bleeding furniture and books, a lot of books.

“Your quarters,” said myBob. “Torn away from the hull and heading toward us.”

Chloe, sitting in comfort in Malibu, was completely immersed in the scene, but she noticed that Terri was up and had switched on the wall screen to watch it all in HD. Chloe held out her hand and Terri walked over, took the offered hand, then sat on the arm of the chair to watch the flat screen as Chloe stayed with the sweep.

“Fucking hell,” said Terri. And Chloe, transfixed, agreed.

The torn blister that had been Peter’s quarters tumbled toward them, and then there were deep rumblings from below, and screeching and tearing noises, and a loud, distant, explosion andthenthe lights flickered, flickered again, and went out. The ship had lost power.

Chloe saw through Peter’s eyes and heard through Peter’s ears and tasted fear through Peter, too, as they all were suddenly weightless and the blister met the ship just to one side of that wide window, and the billion on Earth watched, or felt, the blister—implacable forms of something metallic against equally implacable forms of something else metallic—tear through the wall and the air begin to rush out the gaps in that hull as the room filled with debris. The window, thank god, held, or the opening would have been twice as wide. The doors were open and the museum room’s artwork, adrift, followed the wind as Picasso and van Gogh and the Splendid Splinter and a huge walking man and Alcock and Brown’s propeller and much more began sliding toward the tear that led to the void.

The tear was growing, the wind rushing harder. All of this, all of them, were flying out toward the nothing in the dark, and Peter was hanging on to Twoclicks as they floated through the room, as pedestals rose from the walls and ancient urns slowly rolled and swept on toward the far room.

The lights flickered back on, but only dimly, and Chloe was looking through Peter’s eyes as Heather floated ahead of them, her thin arms flailing to find purchase, something to hang on to to keep from flying off into the void as she traveled the length of that room, with those daffodils, petals and dewlaps wide in panic and fear, floating alongside her. Beyond them was Sergeant Preston, tumbling slowly end over end, strangely serene. All of this slow tumbling as they headed to oblivion.

The banquet table, a huge rectangle of solid oak hewn from a forest in Maine, had risen free and now slowly turned in the wind as it led the way toward a hole, now the size of a door, rectangular with torn edges all around. The window next to the hole was trembling as everything flowed through that hole, crowding into it, packed so tightly that the flow slowed until, twice while Peter looked at it, with a sudden whoomph, the material—the plates and furniture and chairs and artwork—cleared the hole and escaped into the void.

There was no way to know what Peter was thinking, but his actions said he was trying to save them all as they neared the floor. Chloe watched, and the billion watched, as Peter let go of Twoclicks and shoved hard toward the large table, reached it, pushed off the walls, and then, with the table in front of him, headed toward that doorway into space, trying to get there ahead of Heather, ahead of Twoclicks, ahead of Sergeant Preston and all those friendly daffodils.

And he did get there, guiding the table, top first, as it reached the hole and imperfectly covered it, angled so that most of the hole was blocked. Enough. The rush of wind slowed. Heather arrived behind him with a pedestal that, aimed top first, covered the remainder of the gap. The wind ended instantly, but still they all floated there. Saved. Alive.

And then the trembling window next to the patched hole was hit by more debris. The oak bookcase from Peter’s quarters, Chloe thought, with books in orbit around it. The books hit first—Doyle and Binchy and Fowler and Yeats and all the rest, slamming into the window, which shivered under the stress, and then the case, sturdy and heavy old oak, which slammed with a deep thud. The window vibrated with a high screeching and tearing noise, and then it gave way at last with a whoomph and a loud crack and the shattering of the glass material, and all was lost. The wind briefly howled as they all went tumbling out. The banquet table, Twoclicks, Heather, one daffodil after another, Sergeant Preston heading into the deep cold. And Peter, watching all of them so Chloe and a billion Earthies could see it happen, held up that baseball bat and tried in vain to jab it against the side of the hole as out he went, looking back for a second or two, reaching back to grab the hands of two of the daffodils and hang on to them, trying to save them, before a final whoomph sent them all sailing out, Peter holding hands with those two daffodils. And then the sweep went dark and it was over.

* * *

For a few seconds, Chloe stayed connected, waiting for the sweep to return, waiting for it all to have been some terrible joke that was being played by that bastard Twoclicks. But it didn’t return, and it stayed dark, as her unit began beeping that the connection was gone.

Jesus Christ. She yanked off the unit, careless with the tongue and finger pads, oblivious to the sharp moment of pain as the tongue pad was ripped out of her mouth. My god, she’d just watched Peter Holman die. She’d been inside his head as it happened. She’d felt that terrible wind pulling him to this death. She’d heard the screams of the daffodils as they’d been swept to their deaths. She’d seen the flailing arms of Twoclicks and the strange expressionless face of Sergeant Preston. She’d felt the wood of that bat—that stupid bat!—in her hands. And then darkness.

She was holding the sweep unit in her right hand, she realized. She stood up from the lounger, held the unit in front of her, and looked at it. The hateful thing. Awful thing. She shook it, banged it against the dresser next to the lounger, banged it again, then threw it across the room to clatter against the far wall. She’d never wear that damn thing again.

And then she cried out, yelling, screaming, “No!,” and she burst into tears.

Copyright © Rick Wilber 2021

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