His name was Jonathon Sescon. He was a tall, charming ski instructor from Colorado. Blakely first met him in San Francisco at the Bay-to-Breakers footrace. The race had been held annually for eight hundred years, and was something of a global institution. People from all over the world were in it, and after watching her older sister run it several times, Blakely had trained for a year and entered.
She hadn’t expected to win. There were professional athletes that had been running the race for seventy or eighty years. There was a group of Jinxians in it, too, and nobody on Earth could outrun a Jinxian. Their homeworld of Jinx had much stronger surface gravity than Earth, and colonists raised there were unfailingly short and muscular, like waist-high super-bodybuilders. But that didn’t bother Blakely since she was only running for fun.
Part of the way into the race a lean, tan, handsome runner came up from behind and ran alongside her. He introduced himself as Jon Sescon, and exchanged small talk with her as much as their pace would allow. Blakely didn’t remember what they had talked about, but he was friendly and had a good sense of humor.
After the race they recuperated together on a patch of grass. She learned he was a ski instructor from Colorado. They talked some more, but Blakely didn’t give him her phone number.
A month later Blakely visited Meteor Crater, in Arizona. Space had always interested her, though she had never been off the Earth. Someone from one of the colony worlds would have derisively called her a “flatlander“ -- a person who had never ventured above the global urban network of idyllic Earth. But viewing the three-mile-wide meteor crater near Flagstaff, knowing it had been made by a small meteor that struck the earth fifty thousand years ago, filled her with fascination.
She was standing on the rim of the crater when suddenly Jon was beside her. This time they spent hours talking in the visitor’s center. He was a good listener and well-read. They discussed Greek tragedies and Wunderland comedies. By the end of it, they had solved all the world’s problems, and most of the pressing interstellar issues. Blakely felt alive around him. This time she gave him her phone number.
For three months they went out regularly. He knew a great deal about space, and had lived at the colony on Wunderland twenty years ago. She was fascinated to hear about his time there. He took her to upper-class resturants and hotels in the European Union and promised to take her to the Lunar Hilton on the moon.
One night, staying in the thriving and colorful metropolis of Lubjiana, Slovenia, they made spontaneous love. It lasted most of the night, and he was incredibly gentle and sensitive to her needs. It was then that she decided to move in with him. His happiness showed clearly as he agreed.
Her parents didn’t like him. That Thanksgiving was strangely tense. Her mother tried to talk her out of living with him, but Blakely dismissed it as a mother’s natural concern. She should’ve known something was wrong when her sister didn’t like him. Mara was always setting her up with guys.
Jon’s apartment at Alpine Arcology was spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows that brought the Rockies into the living room. And the entertainment wall had full-sensory holovision! Above all, Blakely was a holovision addict.
The first few weeks sped by in an erotic-romantic haze. He left only to go to work and came home immediately after work. It wasn’t until he tried to teach her to ski that she saw him angry. When she didn’t pick it up as fast as he wanted, he got huffy and started swearing. Finally he blew up at her. He apologized later for yelling at her. She forgave him.
She learned he had an extensive circle of long-time friends. He insisted she join them for drinks, which she quickly realized meant multiple pitchers of beer at a loud, stuffy, crowded bar. All of them, including Jon, got loud and obnoxious and hooted at passing girls. She watched as his friends tried unsuccessfully to pick up slutty girls, but it seemed none of them were interested in spending their time with a table of unshaven belching beer guzzlers. Blakely put up with it because these were Jon’s friends.
When Jon realized she wasn’t drinking much, he got mad again. Blakely had never been a big drinker. For some reason this enraged him. He said she was a downer and told her to go home. She stalked out of the bar, and distinctly heard the word “bitch“ as she left.
That night she watched holovision and managed to lose herself in a docudrama about Napoleon before falling asleep. Jon didn’t come home until the sun rose, and then he was too drunk to slid his ID card into the lock on the door. He banged on the door until she let him in. She helped him into bed and went back to the entertainment wall only to fall asleep again.
That evening the apologies were profuse and apparently genuine. For every day she stayed mad at him, a dozen roses appeared next to her holovision chair. Finally she relented and forgave him again. The next month and a half were serene, with romantic breakfasts in bed and walks through the mall level of the arcology. It was back to a dream come true.
Until he hit her.
He suggested another skiing trip -- with a promise to be more patient -- to try to get her off the bunny slopes. But there was a miniseries on holovision about the kzin invasion of Wunderland that Blakely had been watching for the last six days. She had always been fascinated by that period in history: long before hyperdrive, when it took spacecraft decades to cross the interstellar gulf between worlds, when space was a larger and more dangerous place. Blakely had been glued to the entertainment wall for the first six parts, and wasn’t going to miss the last two. She didn’t even like skiing.
Jon didn’t understand. Again he exploded, saying she watched holo all the time and couldn’t she bear to leave it long enough to going skiing with him?
He stormed out of the apartment and was gone for three days. She assumed he went skiing without her.
When he came back, he came back drunk. He said he had spent the time with a former girlfriend and told Blakely that if she kept bringing him down she would lose him. Blakely yelled at him, saying he wasn’t the man she thought he was, that the polite and cultured man she’d first met would never dump her for a former girlfriend over an argument about a skiing trip.
He told her to shut up. When she didn’t, he pulled her up out of the chair by her collar and back-handed her on the cheek, strong enough to send her stumbling across the room.
Even before she drew herself up against the kitchen counter, she knew it was over. Before he had a chance to hit her again or offer some bullshit apology, she ran from the apartment.
Her first thought was to flick back home to California and go to her mother’s house. In the mid-twenty-ninth century, Earth was covered with a network of inexpensive teleportation booths, popularly known as “transfer booths“. Anyone with a credit-exchange card -- and anybody who was anybody had one -- could step into any public-access transfer booth, swipe the card through the reader, and type in someone’s phone number. The booth would teliport you to the booth nearest that person’s address. Very important people had roving numbers, so people with appropriate security clearance could teleport directly to that person’s general location.
But Blakely didn’t have her exchange card. It was back in the apartment, and she sure as hell wasn’t going back to get it. She was stuck in Alpine, without even the money to pay for a phone call, let alone a transfer booth. All she had was her blouse, jeans, and sandals she’d had on. She wandered through the arcology, staying away from her usual hangouts at the mall in case Jon came after her.
She had been sitting on a park bench for hours when the alien approached her. When it came up to her, she was too exhausted from hours of crying to do more than stare.
There was plenty to stare at.
To Blakely it looked like some strange animal. She had never even seen an alien except on holovision, and even then she’d never seen one like this. It was like a white-furred deer, waist-high at the shoulder, with only three legs: one in back and two in front. This deer also had two long muscular necks sprouting from it shoulders, like two tentacles belonging to a giant squid, each with a small flat head at the end. Each head had one big eye and a wide mouth with loose, rubbery lips.
It trotted up to her on its three hooved feet without a sound and without leaving hoofprints in the freshly-watered grass. It looked at her with its necks arched wide apart, eyes blinking curiously.
Blakely looked back, and wondered if it wanted a handout. “I don’t have any food,“ she said.
“Then would you like to go to a resturant?“ it asked. “I’ve heard that Kruschev’s is good.“
Blakely sat up straighter. “No way.“ A genetically engineered deer that talked?
“If you prefer a table with a view, the Carnelian Room is excellent. Their antipastas are the talk of the town.“
Blakely was dumbfounded. The creature spoke with one of its mouths in a deep rich baritone, the sensuous compelling voice of a male holovision superstar. “Umm, no,“ she said.
“Jinxian food is also a regional favorite. Perhaps -- “
She put her hands out in front of her. “No, no, that’s not what I meant.“
The flat head that was doing to talking pulled back a little. “Oh? What then, if I may ask?“
“I meant I didn’t have any food for you.“
The two heads arced to look each other in the eye. The creature held that pose for a moment, then one head returned to Blakely while the other casually looked around the park. “Where you expecting me, Miss Babcock?“ it asked with a good-natured laugh.
How could this creature sound so completely human? Blakely shook her head. “No. How could I? I don’t even know what -- I mean who, you are.“
“Goodness, where are my manners? Please allow me to introduce myself: my name is Pholus, and I represent the puppeteer migration.“
Blakely caught the eye of the other head, and it came in closer, as if to join the conversation. Blakely said, “Let me guess, we’re not talking about Sesame Street, are we?“ Though those two heads made perfectly good, and perfectly funny, puppets.
“I don’t believe so, Miss Babcock, though I am not familiar with the street location you are referring to. I am presently staying at the Top Gold Hotel, in Pasadena.“
That almost made her laugh. Almost. “Puppeteer migration. Okay.“
“You do not know of us, do you?“
“No, I don’t. But you seem to know me. How do you know my name?“
“We have been looking specifically for you. We have a proposition for you.“ One head veered in close and eyed the bruise on her cheek that Jon had left. “Judging by your current domestic circumstances, I believe it’s a proposition you will find inviting. May we retire someplace quiet to discuss it?“ Pholus took a step away from the bench.
Blakely shrugged. She got up, feeling heavy and tired inside. She hadn’t eaten all evening. “I’ll take you up on that dinner, too, if you’re buying.“
Dinner would be interesting.
Blakely had been to the Carnelian Room a few times before -- twice with her parents and once with Jon. The place was posh. It even had a displacement booth in the lobby that had a private number for long-time patrons.
Pholus was evidently such a patron, because it was into that booth that they materialized. Blakely had been wondering, since Pholus was an intelligent being, how did it get by without hands? But in the transfer booth she saw its loose and flexible lips had small, textured protruberances which could extend and act like fingers. It deftly touched the membrane keypad in the booth, and they flicked into the Carnelian Room’s private booth.
Traveling by teleportation wasn’t new to Blakely, but riding with a three-legged talking deer that used its mouths for hands was new indeed.
Pholus didn’t have a reservation, but the maitre’d didn’t hesitate in leading them to a window-side table. The view was of metropolitan San Francisco from fifty-two stories up. It was still afternoon here; large and small spacecraft cruised past on their way to and from the spaceport, and Blakely could just barely see people strolling the greenbelt of the Bay Bridge. Sailboats and other pleasure craft filled the Bay.
The softly-lit dining room was completely silent as they sat down. Blakely wondered what Pholus would sit on, since it wouldn’t fit in a regular chair. The maitre’d went to a classical ottoman against the wall that certainly wasn’t less than a century old and got one of its equally-classical tasseled pillows. He put it on the floor. Pholus folded its hind leg and sat down on it.
As Pholus perused its menu and Blakely looked around at the awed faces, she heard whispers: “Look at that!“ “What is it? An alien?“ “It’s a puppeteer... “
“Seems like you’re a celebrity around here,“ Blakely said.
“It would appear so, wouldn’t it?“ Pholus replied. “Most of these good people have never seen one of my kind before, nor remember our presence in known space, unless they are students of history or are more than two hundred years old.“
One never knew how old anyone was. Blakely’s mother looked only as old as Blakely herself. Almost everyone in the world had regular boosterspice treatments, a medical intervention that retarded aging. Few people looked over thirty, regardless of their true age. “I’ve never seen a puppeteer before, either. Who are you guys?“
When the waiter came, Pholus ordered a vegan appetizer and Blakely ordered a sampler tray. They would order dinner when the waiter returned.
Pholus said, “We used to be a major economic force in known space, Miss Babcock. Have you heard of the General Products hull?“
“Of course.“ The most expensive spacecraft anywhere in known space were built into General Products hulls, the most reliable hull there was. Blakely had seen them at spaceports and on holo.
“We owned General Products.“
“No kidding?“ Blakely said over her menu. Everything looked good. “I thought they were out of business. Everyone’s always saying how rare General Products hulls are because they’re not made anymore.“
“True, Miss Babcock, quite true. General Products folded when we learned of the Core Explosion -- “
“The what explosion?“
“You’ve led a somewhat insular life, have you not?“
She was about to argue, but she knew it was true. Her preferred lifestyle included only an entertainment wall and a vibrator. Mara called her a loner, and her mother called her shy. Either way, Blakely Babcock wasn’t one to go out on the town. “I guess so.“
“As a constant surveyor of the world media,“ Pholus said gently, “I would have thought you would know of the Core Explosion.“
She shook her head.
“Fair enough. Two hundred years ago it was discovered that the center of the galaxy is undergoing a series of supernovae. The core stars are exploding. The chain reaction has already spread through most of the core. In about twenty thousand years the first of the radiation wavefronts produced by these supernovae will reach known space and sterilize all the worlds humans and puppeteers know about. Except for one.“
Their appetizers arrived. Pholus ordered a vegan dinner salad and Blakely an antipasto. The waiter, who didn’t seem at all amazed by the puppeteer, took their orders and departed.
“Does the staff here know you?“ Blakely asked.
“In a manner of speaking. I believe the proprietor was once a General Products customer.“
Blakely dropped a napkin into her lap and picked up a shrimp from the sampler. “Which one?“
“Which world? Which world is safe from all this radiation?“
Pholus used one mouth to expertly open a slender bottle of salad dressing and spoke with the other. “We will get to that, Miss Babcock. Suffice it for now to say that we are not waiting for the radiation wavefront to get here before leaving. We folded General Products, much to the misfortune of our shareholders, and began our migration out of the galaxy.“
Blakely chewed and swallowed. She decided to try a crab leg next. “Jumping the gun a little, aren’t you? By about twenty thousand years?“
“Something you ought to understand about my kind is that we value our survival too much to take unwarranted chances. Unlike humans, we do not treat life recklessly. As an example, skiing involves the high-rank probability of soft tissue injury, fractures to skeletal elements, and even death.“
“I won’t argue with you there.“
“No known sentient species has ever dealt with a threat as vast and unstoppable as the Core Explosion. We feel twenty thousand years is barely enough time for our civilization to leave the galaxy.“
Blakely shrugged. Strangely enough, she was becoming used to talking to Pholus. His voice was hypnotic. Visions of leading holo males danced in her head. “Okay, but I’m not going to worry about it. Twenty thousand years is a long time.“
“I realize that it is a long time to humans, though I do not understand your species’ reluctance to save itself. But be that as it may, we had to sever all economic and political ties with known space in order to set our migration in motion. Now that we are under way, we have the luxury of some small dealings with humans again. Thus I can come to you with our proposal.“
“Which is?“ Blakely had no idea if she could trust the puppeteer, and she had no desire to become involved in some weird alien enterprise. But she wasn’t going to jeopardize a free dinner by saying no right away, either.
“Put as simply as possible, we would like to employ you as an explorer. We want you to explore the world that is immune to the Core Explosion.“
Blakely stopped chewing. She’d assumed they wanted her to be in a commercial or wear T shirts that said “General Products“. She swallowed. “Come again?“
“We would like to employ you to explore the world that is safe from the Core Explosion.“ He looked at her with both big eyes.
“You’ve got a funny sense of humor.“
“I am not joking.“
“If you know so much about me already, then you should know I’m not a space explorer. I’ve never even been in a spaceship.“
“Not entirely accurate. You have a pilot’s license.“
“That was fifteen years ago, and the whole course was training in simulators. And I just did that because my sister didn’t think I could.“
“I have examined the programming for those simulators and have found a high enough degree of realism to be convinced that you will be a good pilot with an actual spacecraft.“
Dinner came. Pholus switched heads and spoke from the mouth that had been eating. “Most importantly of all, we are confident that you will explore the world with our mindset. You will see it as we would. We can trust your impressions.“
“And why is that?“
“Because, Miss Babcock, you think like a puppeteer.“
“Pardon me, but I fail to see how you and I have anything in common.“
“It would not be obvious to an observer under present conditions. However, I have records of your practices -- “
“Okay, that’s enough. Have you pried into my personal life? What do you do, trace my spending? Track my displacement booth use? Watch me by satellite? I know those satellites are used to watch us, you know -- “
The puppeteer laughed, a gentle chuckle like that of a close friend. “Miss Babcock, you needn’t worry about your privacy. Yes, I have traced your use of Earth’s displacement-booth network, but only to generate statistics relating to how often and under what circumstances you leave the safety of your home. I’ve monitored your holovision habits to create trends showing what you watch and how often. And no, we do not watch you by satellite.“
“Sounds like you’ve invaded my privacy to me! You suck.“
Pholus bore that in stride. “What we have done is no more than what your own corporations have done. You are aware how close their scrutiny is, are you not? Every entertainment wall and holovision set scans the global network for the shows you like, the transfer booths report their usage to central offices so exchange cards can be charged, to measure traffic load and frequency of use, and to assess the need for new booths. The places you do business with naturally track your spending habits, and store inventories are routinely adjusted to fit customer’s desires.“
“That’s not the point!“ Blakely said. “All that stuff happens so they can serve us better. You did it for no good reason.“
“I did it for the best of reasons. I am trying to save my species. Additionally, you ought to know that all it took was small sums of money to bribe the right people to get them to give me the necessary access and decryption codes.“
“Bribery’s against the law, you know.“
“Of course I have violated your planet’s laws. To that I plead guilty. But so have you, Miss Babcock.“
“No way. I’m a good citizen. I pay my taxes.“
“Are you presently carrying identification?“
Blakely stopped. Her ID card was also back at the apartment. “No.“
“You have also broken the law.“
“Listen, that was because I had to save myself! I didn’t have time to get all my things together.“
“We puppeteers also have to save ourselves.“
Blakely sighed. It was hard to stay mad at Pholus. His flat heads with their dangling lips were too funny-looking. Besides, would an alien with criminal intentions take her out to dinner? “All right, all right. You swear you haven’t, like, watched me get undressed or anything?“
Pholus’ heads looked at each other again. “Are you suggesting pro-creational intentions on my part?“ Again the warm chuckle. “I prefer members of my own species.“
Blakely thought about it. Though she couldn’t begin to read the puppeteer’s expression, it seemed he was on the level. Besides, if Pholus could do all that, there wasn’t anything she could do to stop him from doing her real harm. He could have erased her identity or generated false account balances so she went to debtor’s prison.
“Okay then,“ she said. “You did all this because... ?“
“I needed to prove to my fellows that you think as close to a puppeteer as a human can.“
“So I can explore this mystery world as you would.“
“Why go through all this trouble? Why not go yourself?“
“The risk is unacceptable. We know too little of this world. We have already sent an expedition of other non-puppeteers, and they came back minus one crewmember and with a severely damaged ship. But we need to understand this place, to see if it is a danger or a haven for our species.“
“So its dangerous. If you won’t go, what makes you think I will?“
“Reason number one: you are not a puppeteer, you are a human. Though you are like us, you are not us; you will still accept dangers that we cannot.
“Reason number two: your current domestic situation leads me to believe you will want to go somewhere far away.“
“What do you know about my domestic situation?“
“I have researched your significant other, Jonathon Sescon. I have studied his past behavior in order to extrapolate future behavior. By the subdermal hemorrhage on your buccal flank -- “
“What? Speak Interworld for God’s sake.“
“My apologies, Miss Babcock. By the bruise on your cheek, I gather I was correct is concluding he is physically abusive to females in a domestic environment.“
“Thanks. You could’ve told me.“
“If I approached you prematurely, you would not have acted naturally. I would not have known that my conclusions concerning you were correct, and neither would my fellows.“
They ate in silence for a while. Murmurs continued around them. Blakely finished her antipasto and had a sprizter. She watched Pholus eat, noting he didn’t need silverware because the protruberances on his flexible lips served that function quite well. Apparently he didn’t like olives; he plucked them out of the salad as he ate and put them in a neat pile on a napkin. The resturant’s manager came by the table to extend his personal greetings to Pholus and his guest. However, once he saw the little pile of olives, he excused himself and stepped away. He called the waiter to him and gave him a ten-minute verbal thrashing on meeting the customer’s needs appropriately and promised to fire him if it ever happened again.
Must be hard to be a waiter waiting on aliens, Blakely thought.
Finished with dinner, Pholus bid farewell to the manager, and asked him to go easy on the waiter. The manager bid them both a good evening. They went into the lobby and a couple with a baby flicked into the transfer booth. As they waited for the couple to free up the booth, Pholus said, “In reference to your domestic situation, I can expedite Jonathon’s entry into the criminal justice system.“
Blakely had been admiring a touch-sculpture. She spun around. “What? You mean you can have him arrested?“
“Yes. He has past criminal acts on record in Lubjiana, the Philipines, and Arkansas. Two counts of aggravated assault and one attempted rape. If you agree to make a video statement concerning his actions this evening, I will make those prior acts available immediately to the Colorado National Police Department. Also, I have acquaintances in the District Attorney’s Office and in the judiciary. I’ll make certain he’s charged with felony assault, I’ll see to it that he stands before the right judge with the right -- and only marginally competent -- defense attorney. He will receive the maximum penalty allowed by your law. Sixty years in confinement plus permanent loss of the privelege to receive boosterspice treatments.“
That was as good as a death sentence! Once Jon’s latest treatment wore off, he would begin to age. After sixty years in prison, he’d be an old man.
Blakely smiled. “That’s harsh.“
“Do you believe it’s undeserved?“
“Well... yes, I mean no. All except the boosterspice part. I don’t want to kill him, I just want him to leave me alone.“
“If he continues to remain young, he’ll be strong enough to do violence to other females.“
“What the hell, go for it. It’s his own damn fault.“
“Very well. Do you have a place to stay tonight, Miss Babcock?“
“Not really, no.“
“Then I will get you a room at the Top Gold Hotel. From there you can call your family.“
The couple and their baby vacated the booth. They stared as Pholus and Blakely entered. “Can I ask you something?“ Blakely asked.
“Certainly,“ said Pholus.
“What is it, specifically about me, that makes you think I think like a puppeteer?“
Pholus touched the keypad. He must have had an exchange chip implanted under his skin, because he didn’t swipe an exchange card through the reader. Not that he had a place to keep it on. The puppeteer wore nothing.
“It’s simple, Miss Babcock. You are a lazy ass.“
They flicked out.