Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Mail Order Brides by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

The Planet Uthane, never forget that place. All women. The last man died over a hundred years ago. They have him on display in a glass tank of preserving fluid. You should see it. Something went bad in their water or air; they haven’t figured out what yet, kills the Y chromosome. If they hadn’t found a way to clone artificial sperm they’d probably gone the way of the dodo.

Kind of a strange place to visit. Beautiful buildings, statues, gardens. The women for the most part real lookers, kind of dark eyed, dark haired Mediterranean. But the general atmosphere of the place, you feel a tenseness, like everyone walks around on a hair trigger, obsessed with being calm and super polite to one and all.

I hear the planet was one of Earth’s first colonies on the Outer Rim, way back before they invented timephase space travel. A place too far out for anyone to give a damn about until they discovered a load of laserite crystals near Tantrus, their main city. Enough to energize every fusion converter on Earth for a hundred years.

Interworld Mining Corporation hired my jumpship away from a regular supply run to Dropoff for the trip to Uthane. Even before we eased from orbit we had to sit down with the head sales honcho, Ms. Calori and listen to a lecture on the importance for the Homeworld ecomomy on concluding a trade agreement with the Uthanians. In other words, no checking out the booties, peckers in pants, no wisecracks about the acres of foxy wedges. Don’t know why they didn’t hire an all-female jumpship operation but I think there was a big rush to get a deal inked before any other planets in the League showed up to get their mitts on the crystals.

I’ll have to say the Uthanians really rolled out the red carpet when we touched down outside Tantrus. They insisted not only on Ms. Calori’s saleslady team as honored guests at the palace but yours truly, Jack Radnor, my crew, Ralph, Big Mike and Stinky Ed. There were trumpets blaring while Ms. Calori and Paladara, the Queen Regent in ceremonial robes exchanged gifts. Stinky Ed started to whisper a joke about hoping they each liked their new vibrators when one of the salesladies stifled him with a look that could burn retinas.

After a grand tour of the palace we sat down in the main hall and endured a bunch of toasts and speeches in Uthanian which caused a diplomatic stink later on when they found out only Ms. Calori spoke Uthanian. When me and my crew were led off to our quarters things started getting kind of uncomfortable. Crowds of female Uthanians lined the walkway, staring, pushing each other aside for a better view of the male freaks. It became so unruly they had to honk up a squad of real amazons to escort us to our digs. Even then a couple of the amazons hung around, smiling and acting chummy, pinching our butts before we could push them out and slam the door.

A little while later a pair of maids, one cute and the other looking like the constipation queen of Tantrus arrived to hand out platters of food and what tasted like watery fruit juice. This was the first thing I noticed about Uthane I didn’t like. No booze. Either the original colonists were teetotalers or they just forgot how to make the good stuff, I don’t know. Which is probably a good thing in this neck of the astral woods. If I had to do without a well-filled female bodysuit containing indoor plumbing and a high voice I’d probably be tanked every night.

I had just taken a bite of some weird-looking fruit when I felt as if I had mashed out my front teeth. I let out a yell causing Ralph, Big Mike and Stinky Ed to drop forks and spoons while I pulled a folded paper from my back molars. Inside the paper was a laserite crystal the size of a pea, worth about five hundred creds on the open market. They all did a major double take and immediately started hacking open every item of food on their platters.

“There is more of those to be had, Outworlder Radnor,” read the note. “Uglitha awaits outside.”

Looking at the crystal I did some serious and carefully thought out reasoning about what course I should follow. About two seconds worth. Of course, my three roommates were less than happy about my decision, probably influenced that the offer hadn’t been extended to them. I pulled on my dress flight jacket and nodded somberly as they whined about me wandering off alone in an alien city, keeping your dong in your drawers, how the wrath of Interworld Mining would fall on them should I get caught with my pants down.

Uglitha, who I recognized as one of our food servers did indeed await outside the door. The name was a good fit. I’ve seen less wrinkles and a sunnier disposition on a wartpig with terminal indigestion.

“You follow Uglitha, Outworlder. Come now,” she said, tapping my arm with a skinny claw, pointing down the corridor to an arched passage framed by a star-filled sky.


“So you are a male. Frankly, I do not see what the attraction could possibly be.” She had introduced herself as Sinaren, having a lush, inviting body but the predatory eyes of a hawk.

“Well, I was invited to see you before I had a chance to freshen up,” I explained, sampling a glass of the disgusting fruit juice they all seemed to drink here. She sure had expensive tastes in her hangout. Plush carpets, meters of speerwood and marble, Uglitha lurking by sateen drapes.

“In truth, I prefer my female consort. You have too much bulk in the arms and chest. And the growth on your face-“

“Beard stubble. Like I said, I didn’t have time to shave and slip into my tuxedo.”

She took a sip of her drink and studied me like some kind of interesting but pungent science experiment. “You did acquire the laserite crystal I enclosed with the note Uglitha secreted in your food?”

“Yeah, very nice. It’ll help pay for some of the dental work I’m gonna need. Listen lady, I’ve had kind of a long day and if the sales team from Interworld comes to an agreement with Paladara tomorrow I’ve got a nine hour trip through timephase back to the barn.” I was getting a little tired of her cat and mouse game and this fruit juice swill I was pretending to drink reminded me of the case of aged moonshine we had picked up on our layover on Dropoff.

She drummed her fingers on the table as if gathering her thoughts. “I manage the custodial and food service for the Tantran palace. Which means I am a businessperson. And the first tenant of business is supply and demand.”

“You’re talking about laserite crystals, right?”

“I have access to them, but no. Are you familiar with the colony on Dropoff?”

“Sure, the Homeworld Guild started up a bunch of agricultural stations there. We dropped them off some supplies on the way to Uthane.”

“I have been in contact via warpspace with a number of the farm workers. It would appear there is a surplus of males on Dropoff and we have come to a mutual agreement.”

I wasn’t sure if I was hearing her right. “You mean you’re running a dating service out of Uthane involving mail order brides?”

“How crudely you put it, Outworlder. We are dealing with supply and demand: we have a surplus, they have a shortage.”

She pulled out a fat pouch, dangling it in her fingers. “I have an initial five applicants ready to board your vessel.”

“I think there may be a few details of immigration, quarantine procedures-“

“I hold three thousand creds worth of crystals in my hand. I will instruct my executive assistant, Uglitha, to deliver them to you just prior to liftoff.” She raised an eyebrow. “I do not believe we need to trouble ourselves with petty bureaucratic details best left to petty bureaucrats at a later date. Do we?”

I stared at the pouch, a few details of my financial status coming to mind. The overdue insurance payment on my jumpship, damages due to the bar fight on Satellite, support payments to a number of ex-wives and similar trifles.

“I think my crew could find a nook someplace to tuck them away.”

“What a pleasure it is doing business with you, Outworlder Radnor.” She shook my hand with the grip of a dockloader. “And now, Uglitha will be happy to escort you back to your quarters.”

I eyed the grim figure by the draperies. “She’d be happy, huh? This I’d like to see.”

Uglitha scowled.


“Twenty five women! She was supposed to send only five!” I shouted at the lovely Uglitha. The crew’s dining room was packed wall to wall with Uthane femininity, luggage at their feet. Big Mike fidgeted nervously by the airlock, Stinky Ed hovering and drooling by the younger ones.

“Five at first. But kitchen friends hear, want to come also,” she retorted. “This big ship, you find room.”

“Oh yeah? I guess I can pressure tape a couple to the external drive stabilizers.” I looked away from Uglitha’s warm and sunny face and did a double take. A tall girl standing in front looked somehow familiar. Lots of expensive jewelry. Proud and haughty bearing. I was just mulling over what kind of potscrubbers Sinaren was hiring these days when it hit me. “Holy shit!”

Stinky Ed paused in his salivating appraisal of one of our new shipmates. “What’s up, boss?”

“That’s her! Paladara’s consort, Tristine!”

“Holy shit,” echoed Big Mike.

I confronted Uglitha. “Okay, Smiley. What in hell is going on?” She jammed knuckles on her hips and glared back at me.

“Tristine catch Paladara with other woman, have big fight,” she explained. “Hear about Sinaren’s plan from other maids, want to come. She go to Dropoff with other womans.”

“Oh no, she’s not. Time out, end of game!”

“You make agreement with Sinaren!”

There is an old Earth saying about when you think things can’t possibly get worse-they do. The airlock door to the dining room slid open and Ralph stumbled inside.

“She’s on her way down, boss!” he gasped. “Ms. Calori wants a word with you!”

At this point if I was wearing a sword I probably would have fallen on it. I grabbed Big Mike and Ralph, pushing them out into the hall. “Stinky! Close the airlock and try to keep those wedges quiet,” I ordered. A moment later Ms. Calori came striding up, the expression on her face somber. Not a good sign.

“Morning, Ms. Calori,” I greeted her. “How are things going with the Uthanians?”

“Not very well, I’m afraid. Can we talk?”

“Sure, but Stinky Ed is, um, waxing the floors in the crew’s quarters. Pretty slippery right about now.”

“Well... this won’t take long.” She glanced at Big Mike and Ralph. She was too shrewd a salesperson not to notice something off-key. “Another jumpship from the Guild landed last night. My sources tell me they’re going to make a better contract offer to Paladara.”

“Sorry to hear this. What happens now?”

“We have another ceremonial meeting today with the Uthanians. They’re very big on ceremonies, you might have noticed.”

“Yes Ma’am. We’ll wash behind our ears, put on our spiffiest duds and be on our best behavior.”

She pondered a drop of sweat running down Ralph’s chin but gave me a faint smile. “On that note, I’d like to compliment you and your crew on your exemplary behavior on Uthane, especially Mr. Valdez.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Stinky has been the soul of propriety.”

Big Mike had to cover his mouth to stifle a guffaw and his elbow bumped the airlock button. The door swished open.

Twenty four female Uthanian faces were framed in the doorway, the twenty fifth enthusiastically kissy-facing Stinky Ed, his hands cupping her buttocks.

There was a long moment of pained silence while Ms. Calori took this all in, her complexion changing from red to an interesting shade of puce. The she recognized Tristine and I thought her jaw was going to hit the deck. She slowly turned to me.

“Mr. Radnor, you have five minutes,” she grated out. “Five minutes to get those women off this ship as discreetly as possible. After the meeting with Paladara and the Uthanians today we are going to have a long talk.” And she stormed off up the corridor.

It took a lot longer than five minutes to escort our guests from the ship with all the arguing, shrill protests in machinegun Uthanian and an ongoing litany of threats from Uglitha. As the last one departed the ramp dragging her luggage I crooked a finger at Uglitha.

“What! You change mind now?” she demanded.

“Nope, I just need to chat with you a bit.”

“Chat! Time is money, Outworlder. I have to organize food and drink staff for Calori and Paladara meeting.”

“That’s what I need to chat with you about.”


 The meeting with the Uthanians later in the day started off on a different note than the previous one. We were welcomed with icy correctness and escorted to our places in the Grand Hall, Ms. Calori and her sales team to the big circular table, me and my crew packed off to the nosebleed section. A squad of amazons from the palace guard took up a position behind us, ostentatiously fondling the butts of their pulse guns. I had a good hunch word had somehow gotten around about the early morning fiasco on the jumpship. Paladara, Tristine and a fussy little interpreter filed in next and seated themselves in the ornamental chairs, followed by a flock of Sinaren’s serving girls setting out goblets and carafes of drink.

Paladara rose, nodded to Ms. Calori and started in about what a pleasure it was to see the first representatives from the Homeworlds, how at some future date they might consider doing

business with Interworld Mining and so on in Uthanian, dutifully passed along by the interpreter with an apologetic smile. She then proposed a toast, the goblets were raised and quaffed.

I watched Paladara as she drank, coughed and peered into her goblet. Ms. Calori stood up next, made her speech and proposed her own toast. Tristine, Calori’s sales staff were next to get up and flap their lips, propose a toast, the goblets being refilled by Sinaren’s crew.

Gradually the group relaxed, smiled at each other and began cracking jokes. Tristine held apart from this unexpected cordiality, glaring at Paladara over her goblet. Abrupty, she stood up and began screaming at her in Uthanian, pounding the table with her fist. Then she burst into tears.

Paladara looked at her for a moment, rushed up and embraced her. For awhile they cried on each other’s shoulders, babbling away. At the other end of the table Ms. Calori got unsteadily to her feet, grabbed her goblet and proposed a toast to them both. In what was either farce or high comedy Paladara tore herself from Tristine, rushed up and embraced Ms. Calori, and through the interpreter scampering in her wake declared on due reconsideration the contract for laserite crystals on Uthane should go to Interworld Mining. She smiled around at all, her hand discreetly sliding over Ms. Calori’s rump, a gesture which ether Tristine didn’t see or chose to ignore.

“Boss, could you tell me what the hell is going on?” Big Mike whispered.

“I had a case of the moonshine we picked up on Dropoff sent over to Sinaren to use in place of their fruit juice shit.”

Ralph, leaning closer to eavesdrop whistled silently. “Boss, you’re a genius!”

“In a small way,” I was forced to admit modestly, noting with relief the amazon palace guard behind us had stopped fondling their pulse guns and were eyeing us with bland approval.

A flock of Sinaren’s hostesses appeared and began passing out platters of food. Having had a painful lesson in the culinary ingredients of Uthanian food I pried open what looked like a snot sandwhich to find- you guessed it- a note wrapped around another laserite crystal.

“There are yet more of these to be had, Outworlder Radnor,” it read. “Uglitha awaits outside.”

I ordered Big Mike and Ralph to keep an eye on Stinky Ed who had zeroed in on one of the amazons and was swapping saliva in an alcove. As I crept out a rear entrance I looked back to see Paladara, Tristine, Ms. Calori and the whole bunch with their arms about each other’s shoulders, Ms. Calori teaching them to sing and old Earth song. It sounded a lot like “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”


“Moonshine. What an interesting name for a beverage.” Sinaren studied the earthenware jug in her hands. “Did you say it contains something you call alcohol?”

“About 200 proof.” I was back at the table in her digs, eyeing the pouch of Laserite crystals before her, Uglitha lurking in her usual place by the draperies. “Listen, if you’ve called me back here to talk about your mail order bride scheme I’ll have to point out everyone on Uthane must have heard of it by now.”

“Yes, such a pity. Such a potentially profitable enterprise.” She reluctantly put the jug back on the table. “No, I was considering what I have heard about the effects of drinking this moonshine and I surmise a potential demand. What is its provenance?”

“Excuse me?”

“Where did you obtain this beverage?”

“Two of the farmers on Dropoff are old buddies of mine. They have a couple of stills going, putting out some really smooth stuff.”

Sinaren’s hawk eyes bored into mine. It didn’t take much of a genius to figure what was on her mind. “How many jugs would you like the first shipment?” I asked.

She pushed the bag of crystals toward me and held out her hand. “Once more, a pleasure doing business with you, Outworlder Radnor.”

I endured another crushing dockloader handshake. “Of course, there’s still the issue of the farmers on Dropoff looking for their brides.” I nodded toward Uglitha. “You think she might want to make the trip into the waiting arms of true love?”

Sulking by the draperies Uglitha scowled.

The End

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stephen King - Main - Neil Gaiman Interviews Stephen King

Stephen King - Main - Neil Gaiman Interviews Stephen King:

Like the link says -- an interview of King, by Gaiman.  King is a consistent stylist.  He has his ups and downs with story ideas, but you can always count on good writing.  And even my feelings about his rare klunker -- I should certainly just shut the hell up, because his catalog of good and great tales would fill a very, very large steamer trunk (of doom).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Room of Masks" by Chris Castle

He is above her, his eyes searching for any sign of expression. Her fingers tear into his back, drawing blood, skin accumulating under each nail. Each pant reverberates and echoes. Again, he looks for her eyes and only finds mist. In the dark room, their bodies are white enough to almost glow; ghosts who draw breath. As it reaches a conclusion he gasps but the sound is muffled and unreal. He presses harder and the tips of the gasmasks brush together. The friction of the rubber material colliding brings it all to an end.
For a second, the two lay next to each other, one synthetic breath following another. He looks to the ceiling and waits for the mist before the eyes to dissipate and clear. It feels, in those few moments, as if the room is another world; a swamp, a place shrouded in mystery and unknowable. A place, he realises, where they could feel safe. The fog clears and the single light-bulb comes into focus. The world returns and the idea of it make the heart sigh. He climbs off the bed, the body suddenly heavy and sluggish and stumbles to the bathroom. At the doorway, he glances back, only to see her still staring at the ceiling, the mist still in her mask, her dream-world not yet broken. The pang of envy he feels makes him grip the steel frame; the hatred that follows, watching her still so at peace, makes him turn away to the sink.
The procedure they’ve agreed on is a single candle. It is lit and he goes about his business. He carefully un-straps the mask, looking away from the mirror at all times. When it is free, he sets it in the small dish by the side of the sink. With eyes closed, he brushes teeth and follows this by stepping into the shower, lids not opening until the water sprays onto the naked face.
In the near darkness, he goes about these necessary duties, concentrating on the structure of each task in order to offset the panic he feels without the protection of the mask. The face itself feels not so much at risk as weightless. The ears feel glaringly exposed to every small sound in the room; her sighing, toes on the steel floor, even the friction of the body parts in motion. The eyes remained half-lidded in order to sustain the darkness but even they feel widened, at threat from any spark of light. The most unnerving, though, is the mouth. Even gritted tight, he is aware of every molecule of dust and dirt slipping freely through the clamped jaws and filtering down into the bodily system. Though he is momentarily free of the weight of the mask, the filth that enters makes him feel both bloated and clotted.
Finished, he slips the mask back on and tightens the straps, pulling them tighter than ever before. There is no question of it hurting the scalp, or drawing a gasp of pain from the mouth; the extra pressure is a welcome gift against the skull. In a flash, all the unregulated sounds of the room are removed from the senses. In its place, the controlled breathing, the filtered sounds, the faintly waxy quality of image returns. As he steps out of the small enclosed space, the candlelight trembles but does not extinguish. The woman rises, strips the sheet and walks straight past him. He sits on the edge of the bed, making sure no part of her face is visible to him as he hears the straps loosening in-between her fingers.
He looks around basement enclosure; nothing is on the walls, nothing adorns the ceiling save the bulb. On the floor there is no clutter or detritus but only the cool, clean surface of the floor. Even the bed where he sits is simply a mattress and nothing more, shorn of its single, thin sheet. There are no pillows or blankets. Somewhere, wired into the wall, is a temperature gauge that maintains the room at a level that is neither warm nor cool. It is a self styled Room of Nothing, save for themselves.
It is his favourite place in the world.
He slips back down onto the mattress and looks back up at the ceiling. Somewhere, seemingly far away, the woman goes about her duties. It is the place they come together and pull each other apart. Afterwards they remove all traces, the skin build up under the nails and the blood from each other’s lips. All of it is erased by candlelight in that small space, until nothing remains but the scars on the skin. If not for those blemishes, it would be as if it had never happened at all.
The sound of the straps brings him back and the woman pads back into the room, the water still drying on her skin. She waits until the body is almost dried and then lies on one side of the bed. A thin, invisible line divides them. She adopts a familiar pose, hands knitted together just below her chest, while his arms lay straight, each finishing just below the hips. Their breathing gathers speed and pace, until the noise almost fills the room with its volume. The panting swells until it is ragged and uneven. It is the sound of animals gone unchecked. The delirium engulfs the man; inside the body, he is aware of the heart setting to rupture. The briefest of flickers from the other side of the bed, tells him the woman is experiencing the same sense of total, furious panicking. He swallows hard and braces himself.
“It’s time,” he says, the voice metallic through the filters of the mask. It is a distorted, raging voice that is disturbed and one he recognises entirely as his own.
“But…” the woman’s voice pleads. A hand comes across the bed and a single nail almost brushes against the hairs of his wrist. He flinches.
“It’s over,” he says, trying to keep any trace of need or want out of the throat. He knows there will be a time when he will be the one to beg and he wonders if the woman will be strong enough to control the situation. Without waiting for another response, he rises. As he pads to the far door, her footsteps follow.
At the heavy door, he reaches for the steel handle and grips it. The woman takes his free hand and he squeezes it just as tight. It is always a moment of truly feeling alive and he savours it. In the next, he opens the door and draws her up to the stairs and the darkness. The door closes automatically, the system codes enabled. As the led lights disappear with the snap of the lock, he begins to lead her up the stairs, counting each one off inside the dark.
At the second door, she rests her head against his shoulder. The cool rubber surface of the mask chafes against his skin but it is a sensation he has always enjoyed. Aware that time is running out, he does not dwell on sentiment this time and instead, forcefully pushes the door open. The light bursts in and fills their masks until they are blind. As always, they stagger and then recover and before they can turn and run, the second door closes behind them.
The two of them walk through the living room and over to the staircase. The curtains are drawn, but the pre-dawn light is still strong. The dust of the TV screen is evident and the magazines on the table have somehow become spread out and messy. As they reach the stairwell, the postman’s letters slip through the letterbox, making them both jump. As they walk upstairs, a neighbour’s dog barks once.
In the bedroom, he pulls the suitcase from underneath the bed and sets it down. He opens it and begins to prise the mask from his skin. The suffocating heat of the room hits him as soon as his face is freed and he fights the urge to sneeze. He looks over to his wife and sees her hair has matted with the force of the straps. She tightened them like me, he thinks with a pang of sadness. She hands it over with a weak smile and then walks to the bathroom to straighten her hair. He holds the masks in each hand and looks at them, before carefully setting them back in the case. Outside, the first car engine ignites and begins its journey to work.
He straightens the tie as they approach the door and she flicks off a white speck from the jacket. As he steps outside into the sunlight, the two of them do not kiss. Instead, she waves from the door as he walks down the driveway to the car. As he adjusts the seat and turns the ignition, she waves once more and then disappears behind the door. The man looks up into the mirror and adjusts it. The glass is still foggy with early morning heat and for a moment, offers him a moment of memory: the true vision he felt behind the safety of the mask. He wipes it away with his thumb, smudging it. The memory lingers, though and he drifts into the muddle of the daily commute with a smile.