TCL #34 – Winter 2020

Recon

“They’re intelligent.” Josh Thompson leaned forward, both hands on the console. His legs were trembling. This changed the scope of the mission entirely. In four decades of interstellar travel, humans had only discovered two alien species that were considered potentially intelligent.

Sergeant Aboud raised one of her precisely sculpted eyebrows. “Are you sure? This one doesn’t look too bright to me.” She was watching a security camera feed from the storeroom, where one of the aliens had gotten itself trapped during the attack. It slashed furiously at the wall with its talons, leaving long scratches in the aluminum but making little progress in piercing the material. It could have conceivably scraped open a hole if it concentrated its efforts in one spot, but instead it bounded back and forth from one wall to another in what appeared to be blind panic. Josh could see why the now-deceased crew of the planetary research station had nicknamed the hairless, dog-sized aliens “hoppers.” They hopped like kangaroos. Josh hadn’t been watching a live feed, however. He was playing video of the attack itself. The aliens had used stolen key cards to move through the facility. In the feed from the motor pool camera, two of the creatures clearly observed one of the mechanics use his key card to flee. Then they’d retrieved the other mechanic’s card from her dead body and used it to open the door. The first mechanic hadn’t even made it to the end of the hall. “They’re using tools, and not in a primitive way,” Josh said. “They even blocked open the airlock. Why would they do that if they weren’t trying to make the interior atmosphere hospitable?”

“Maybe they just didn’t want to get trapped in a box.”

“Look at their tactical coordination. They split into teams to herd and isolate individual scientists.”

Aboud shrugged. “Some pack predators on Earth do that.”

“Not like this. The aliens are communicating, coordinating. I’m not sure how. I don’t hear any vocalizations on the video.”

“Maybe ultrasonic or subsonic. I’ll run an analysis. But I still don’t think they’re intelligent, Doc.” Aboud had a habit of calling anyone from the science division “doc.” Most of them did have doctorates, of course, but it still annoyed Josh. He was certain she meant it to be condescending.

Josh returned his attention to the playback just in time to see three of the aliens eviscerate one of the scientists–Doctor Xu, if he remembered the briefing notes correctly. Josh shut his eyes. He was feeling queasy, and it wouldn’t do his rep any good to puke in front of Aboud.

“We’ll know more when we observe them in their natural environment,” Aboud said. “According to the station biologist’s notes, their colony is four klicks southwest of here.”

Of course, the station biologist had also said the hoppers were docile.

Once they’d finished their analysis of the video, Josh followed Aboud down the main hallway where Sylvia Richards, their medical doctor, was bundling one of the dead scientist’s bodies into a black bag with the help of Scott “Perky” Perkins, one of Aboud’s security officers. Purging and restoring the station atmosphere had considerably reduced the stench of rot that greeted them upon arrival, but it was still bad enough here to make Josh’s stomach roil again. Sylvia, however, was whistling something cheerful. It was an odd thing to be doing considering the task at hand, but her quirkiness and constant optimism were a big part of why Josh liked her so much. That and her dimples.

“We’re going to recon the alien colony,” Aboud said.

“Give me a minute to get my gear,” Sylvia replied.

“No, you keep working, Dr. Richards. But prioritize an autopsy of the dead alien, the one the chef managed to kill. I want to know what I’m dealing with. Perky, stay and assist her. And make sure nothing gets into the station before we return.”

“On it, Sarge,” Perky replied.

“Take a close look at the brain structure,” Josh suggested. “I think there’s a chance this is an intelligent species.”

Sylvia’s eyes widened and she drew in a sharp breath, indicating she understood the magnitude of that possibility.

“They’re not intelligent,” Aboud snapped. “Thompson is just having dreams of glory.”

Josh felt heat rising in his neck and cheeks. He turned toward Aboud so Sylvia wouldn’t see him blush. Aboud stepped close and said, “Your job here is to help me understand the aliens’ behavior so what happened to the crew of this station doesn’t happen to us. Don’t get distracted.” She spun away before he could respond.

Josh glanced back at Sylvia. She gave a little shrug accompanied by the crooked smile that made him slightly dizzy. “Um… stay safe,” he said.

“Um, I’m not the one going into the field.” She winked at him. Josh tried to smile, but feared it came off more as a wince. Despite all his training in behavior, he still hadn’t learned how to avoid saying stupid things when talking to pretty women.

“Thompson!” Aboud shouted, halfway down the hall already. “Let’s go. Only four hours until sunset.”

They met up with security officers Lopez and Lopes, or “Z” and “S” as they were called to prevent confusion. Josh didn’t know why they didn’t just go by their first names–Al and Miguel–but it seemed there was nothing soldiers liked better than nicknames.

They went on foot as there was only a single two-man buggy at the station, but the trek was easy. Trappist-1d’s atmospheric pressure, composition, and temperature were similar enough to Earth’s that only oxygen masks were required. A human could even survive several hours without one, though there would be long-term health consequences to that. Gravity was noticeably less than on Earth, which made all their gear feel light. The surface of the planet was about 60% ocean, and of the single, large landmass, 90% was flat plains. Trappist-1d had ceased being geologically active millennia ago.

Almost the entire surface of the plains was covered in a blanket of three-foot-high yellow grass with wheat-like heads and clusters of small, black berries at the base of the stubby leaves that protruded from the stems. It was easy to move through, though the grass left a dusting of yellow particles on their jump suits–pollen, most likely, though Josh had been trained not to assume alien life functioned the same way as life on Earth.

The walk might even have been pleasant if Josh wasn’t so acutely aware that the hoppers were short enough to hide beneath the undulating surface of the grass. After what happened to the station crew, Josh felt a sharp jolt of adrenalin every time the breeze riffled the stalks nearby.

They Also Feed

The Feeder King often hunched by the shadowed mouth of his cave, listening to the rush of the waterfall as he waited for pilgrims to visit him. He’d see them coming from miles off. They would emerge from the shadow between the mountains before laboring up the twisted pathway, hugging shawls, cloaks and scarves to their necks and shoulders even as they sweated with the effort of the climb. It wasn’t easy to bring new lies to the Feeder. But they brought their lies all the same.

“I gave up my farm to help my sister’s boy.”

Lie.

“The village watch makes sure nothing befalls us.”

Lie.

“I love my old woman more than all the gold in heaven.”

Lie.

“We all worship you, Feeder King.”

Almost a lie.

One of the Feeder’s acolytes once asked him plainly, “Why lies, Feeder King? There must be some more tasteful way to sate you, if you take my meaning.”

“Would you rather that I taxed you on your food instead?” the Feeder asked. “Your gold? Your women? Your handiwork? I could live off those things too, like you scrawny men do.”

The acolyte recoiled ever so slightly. “I’m only curious. I don’t presume to tell you what’s best.”

“Of course you presume. All people do, in their own ways,” the Feeder replied, smirking at the acolyte’s discomfort as he leaned his oily body closer. “I’ve tried feeding off other things before.”

He’d consumed grain and meat when he was young, light, water and fire after that, then music for a time. He’d even tried truth when he was feeling desperate. The thing was, truth didn’t change anything. It simply was. But lies? Lies tipped the balance. They transformed people. Lies made things. Infused new life where there wasn’t anything before.

“I think I’ll stick to lies for now,” the Feeder said and dismissed his acolyte with a wave of a deformed hand.

The Fog Queen

The girl walked into my office. Yeah, I know that’s a boring first line. I’m supposed to wax poetic about her calves or whatever, but that just wouldn’t be true, even though I sometimes swing that way. This girl all but stomped into my office with her angry face and her frumpy clothes.

“Mr. Sidney Bergamot?” she asked.

I’d called her up through the building’s intercom. From that brief conversation, I knew her name was Greta Wong and that she was a referral from her friend Mary Lee. Mary Lee was the daughter of a higher-up in the Eighth Street Tong, and as such, had paid me good money to help her out a while back. This girl, however, in her faded plaid dress and scuffed-up shoes, was clearly no tong princess, and I immediately wondered how she was going to pay. Not that I should be too snooty—Oakland’s now chock-full of sleek new tiled skyscrapers accented with sunbursts and zig-zags and God knows what else, but I’m stuck in this draft-plagued dust factory.

“Miss Wong, please take a seat.”

She flopped into the chair in front of my desk, then reached into a battered knapsack and pulled something out. She placed this object on my desk: tortoiseshell glasses that had seen better days—a man’s glasses, by the look of them.

“As I said downstairs, I have an urgent request,” she said. “A missing person’s case.”

I sighed internally. A man who’d run out on his lady friend: just the case every detective wants. Unless she was pregnant, there was nothing to tell her but to let him go.

“Who’s missing?” I asked gamely.

“Ciaran McKay. He goes by Kay.”

“An Irish boy. Why not? It’s the 20th Century.”

She didn’t laugh.

“Age?” I asked.

“Nineteen, same as me.”

“What are the circumstances of his disappearance?”

“He was ambushed on Piedmont Avenue two days ago, out by the cemetery. A man tackled him, knocking off his glasses, then pulled him into a green car.”

Ok, maybe this was more than a boyfriend who had skedaddled.

“What was he doing out by the cemetery?”

“He was hired to sing at a funeral.”

“He’s a singer?”

“Yes, a bass-baritone. He’s exceptional. I’m a composer.”

“I see. And you were with him?”

“No, I was at my job. I work the box office at the Grand Lake Theatre, and sometimes play the Wurlitzer.”

“Who saw him get taken in the car then?”

If it was a friend of his, we were right back at skedaddled. Instead, the girl gestured to the tortoiseshell glasses.

“When he didn’t come home, I took the street car out there and found these. They’re haunted by the sea turtle whose shell was used to make them. She told me.”

Unconventional, but I’d seen stranger things. Still, I’m not a sucker.

“Is this turtle ghost willing to be interviewed?”

“She only talks to me and Kay.”

Of course.

“Okay, so you go out to Mountain View Cemetery and find his glasses. Did you talk to anyone else out there? Anyone at the chapel?”

“Yesterday I canvassed that neighborhood for hours. Everyone brushed me off except a groundskeeper at the cemetery. He told me there hadn’t been a funeral that evening.”

“Who hired him for the job?”

“A woman. She came into the grocery where he works.”

“You know her name? Or what she looked like?”

“Kay said her name was Mrs. Jones, but I’d guess that’s an alias.”

“Good guess. What about enemies? Either of you got any enemies?”

She shook her head.

“Is there someone you owe money?”

She shook her head again.

“Does the kid have rich parents who don’t want him with a Chinese girl? Or do yours not want a white boy around their daughter?”

Another shake of the head. “He’s an orphan. We both are. Neither of us have anything.”

“You’re not…in the family way, are you?”

Greta’s face reddened. “The cops asked the same thing before they laughed me off. No. And we haven’t had any arguments, either.”

I held back a sigh. “Look, you’re not giving me a lot to go on here.”

“You found Hana Yamamoto.”

Hana Yamamoto was the girlfriend of Mary Lee, the Eighth Street Tong daughter who’d referred Greta. When Hana went missing, Mary had reached out to me instead of using the tong’s vast resources because the relationship was, of course, a secret. The daughter of one of Chinatown’s most prominent families romancing a lady, and a Japanese one at that? She would have been disowned.

Hana’s folks weren’t any more understanding, and when they figured out what their daughter was up to, they had her smuggled out of Oakland in the dead of night. I found her in the Central Valley, got her to San Jose, and helped the star-crossed lovers set up a secret correspondence. They planned to run to Paris in a year or so.

“I did find Hana Yamamoto, but I had a bit more to go on there. Girl in a relationship her family would disapprove of disappears? Of course it was her family. And what do you know, she ends up at her uncle’s farm in Fresno. So far you’ve given me a green car and no witnesses besides a ghost turtle.”

Some potential clients would have started the waterworks, but Greta just stared me down.

“You’re the detective. Finding the clues is supposed to be your job.”

“Sure, but it will take some work, and you’re clearly no daughter of a wealthy tong family.”

Her attention faltered and I realized she was looking past me. “You have a cat?”

I sighed. I didn’t need to look to know what I’d find behind me, but I swiveled my chair anyway. There on the windowsill, smirking at me, was a black and white cat with striking blue eyes. The bastard had snuck in.

“I don’t,” I said, turning back to Greta. “He just shows up sometimes. Let’s not get distracted. How are you paying for this?”

“I don’t have much, but please—”

“Can’t Mary Lee give you some money?”

“She gave me two dollars.”

“Two dollars?”

“She sends almost all her allowance to her girlfriend now. You have to find Kay. You’d be doing the world a favor. His voice…there’s nothing like it. He’s going to be an opera star someday. In my operas. And he’s the kindest—”

Judging by her startled reaction, the cat chose that moment to jump off the windowsill and turn into a slim, dapperly dressed young man with slicked back black hair and sinister-yet-breathtaking blue eyes. This was Alexander Cobalt, villain-for-hire of the San Francisco Bay.

I had met Alexander “Coby” Cobalt when he showed up in my apartment two years earlier to threaten me. He’d been hired by a wealthy industrialist whose wife had hired me to get evidence of his affairs. I’ll be honest: he got the drop on me, being able to silently sneak in through a barely cracked open window as a cat. But when he lunged at me in human form, the true distraction was that this criminal Adonis was throwing himself at me, albeit with decidedly unromantic intent.

“Look, kid,” I said once he had me pinned to the floor with a knife to my throat, “if you’re going to kill me, let’s at least have some fun first. I might even teach you some things. You’ll know I don’t have a weapon on me, ‘cause I’ll be naked.”

Those deep blue eyes expressed no disgust at the suggestion, but rather alarm that I had him figured out, so I continued.

“Come on, when are you going to get another opportunity like this?”

Now, I’m about twenty years older than Coby, and closer to fifty than forty, but I’m not awful to look at, I’m a pretty smooth talker, and I won’t be shy in saying I have the skills to back my talk up. To conclude: the wealthy industrialist’s wife ended up with the fortune, and Coby started stopping by whenever he felt like it, sneaking in as a cat.

In human form, Coby leaned against my desk like he owned it. “Keep the two bucks,” he told Greta Wong, who had recovered from her momentary shock—after all, changelings were rare, but hardly unknown. “I’ll cover the cost.” Then he turned toward me. “Take the case. I’ve heard this girl play the Wurlitzer at the Grand Lake; she’s a real pro. And I’ve heard the Irish kid sing arias all over Oakland. This girl’s usually going around with a hat, getting pennies from the crowd, but he should be at La Scala.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Greta.

Coby stuck out his hand. “Alexander Cobalt, patron of the arts.”

“Greta Wong, composer and Ciaran McKay’s manager.”

“Now, look, I haven’t agreed to take the case yet,” I interjected.

Coby smiled at me in that smug, suggestive way that drives me crazy. “I’ll make it up to you later.”

Greta put two and two together and looked me in the eye. “After all, it is the 20th Century.”