Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Fifty Shades of Grays

Fifty Shades of Grays

Terrorist.

That’s what they call me, but I am something worse: both successful traitor and failed saboteur.

I want to die, for all of this to be over.

For my last request, I asked to have paper and pen to write my last will and testament. They won’t let me have it, forcing me to use the mindsynch. Damned Traveler tech. Maybe they’re scared I’ll ram the pen up my nose, scribble on my brain, and cheat the hangman.

We make do with what we have.

I, Carver Kofax, being of sound mind and body, do leave all my worldly possessions to my wife, Rhonda. I owe her that. More than that. More than I, or anyone, can pay.

It was all my fault, you know. Well . . . not all, but too damned much. No one else who was there from the beginning seems to have either the capacity or inclination to speak of it.

This is the way the world ends . . . not with a whimper, but a bang.

• • • •

It was the best day of my life, and the worst. And for the same reasons, when it comes right down to it.

It was a Tuesday in May of 2025. I was seated in Century City’s Dai Shogun restaurant, one of L.A.’s best, chewing a hellishly good Hot Night roll. Dai Shogun’s tuna was spiced to perfection, the shrimp tempura seared crisp, the sashimi salad to die for, the karaoke tolerable.

“What do you think this is all about?” Rhonda Washington was our agency’s brightest young artist. She was referring to our assignment, a carefully worded challenge to “make ugly sexy” without much more to go on. Bonuses had been offered in lieu of information.

And the tastiest bonus was the chance to lure Stein and Baker’s dreadlocked princess down from her eighth floor tower to work with mere mortals like me.

“No business while I’m eating,” I said, squinting fiercely, until she laughed. “But ask me about ‘bridges’ later.”

“I’ll do that.” A moment of quiet followed, during which she seemed to be sizing me up.

“I didn’t know you liked sushi,” I said. Rhonda downed a thick, luscious disk of tekka maki, nibbling at the seaweed wrap before biting. I’d lusted after her for fourteen months, but this was the first time we’d lunched together. Big accounts change lots of things. This one would change everything, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

Her grin sparkled with mischief. “There are a lot of things about me you don’t know. Tekka maki least among them.”

“And most?”

Odd how I’d never noticed that feral gleam in her eye. She fiddled with her bracelet, sterling silver with little links at her pulse point. I remember thinking that they looked a bit like police handcuffs. “That would be telling.”

She smiled at me, and popped the rest of the sushi roll between her lips.

First time I’d ever envied a blob of fish and rice.

“Tell me something about you I don’t know,” she said.

I chuckled. “I have a sushi story.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Well . . . before I came to work here, the partners took me to lunch. Sushi restaurant.”

“This one?”

“No . . . one of the ones with a floating boat cycling around, bringing plates of sushi to customers seated in an oval around the chef’s island. Anyway, I’m having a great time, and trying to impress them, and I notice a guy sitting a few seats away watching the chef make him a hand roll. Delicious looking roll, with lots of sauces and chopped spices. I asked, ‘What is that?’ and the guy said, ‘It’s a fifteen-spice tuna roll.’

“My mouth watered. I said, ‘Make me one of those.’ The chef agreed, and they started up. I noticed after a few moments that the bar had gotten quiet. Everyone was looking at me. Giggling. Whispering. Laughing. Especially my future employers.

“I started to have a very odd feeling. Even the guy making my food was grinning. ‘Excuse me,’ I finally said. ‘What exactly is a fifteen-spice tuna roll?’

“He grinned like a shark. ‘One spice tuna roll . . . very hot tuna roll,’ he said. ‘Two spice tuna roll . . . twice as hot.’”

“Oh my God,” Rhonda giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “What did you do?”

“My bosses were watching. The damned thing napalmed my throat. I don’t want to be indelicate, but for the next two days I used asbestos toilet paper.”

Hers was a rich, throaty laugh, the kind you enjoy triggering in a woman with legs and skin like Rhonda’s. “But hey,” she said, wiping away tears. “You got the job, right?”

“Yeah. I got the job.”

She smiled. Elfin this time, genuinely amused and interested. “Maybe the lesson is that you really like hot things. Or that you like really hot things. Something like that.”

“Or that I really, really don’t know when to walk away.”

“That could be too,” she said, with new appraisal. She’d expected me to return her suggestive volley, and instead I’d said something at least marginally thoughtful.

“Could be,” she said. “We’ll see about that.”

• • • •

Fifty minutes later we were back at Stein and Baker, and decided to use her office. It was crowded with her line drawings and watercolors. A mini-exhibition. Lady had serious chops and an outsider sensibility, like Norman Rockwell crossed with a Harlem street artist. They oozed creative intensity, and it was difficult to keep my mind on “making ugly sexy.” Artful vagueness ensued when I probed my boss, The Widow Stein, for details. (Yeah, that was what we called her behind her back. Winston Stein, the agency’s founder, had wrapped himself around a Douglas fir on a Black Diamond ski run. His wife had picked up the pieces and doubled the business in five years. She was a piranha dressed like a goldfish.)

I perched on Rhonda’s office couch, feet up, comslate on my thighs. Typing thoughts.

Marketing and sales are two different things, often misunderstood by the public. Marketing is finding prospects, people whose needs or desires might lead them to wanting your product or service. Hook a basic human need into your product, something like sex, power, or survival, and you have a winner.

Sales, on the other hand, is convincing the potential customer that your particular brand is what they want. And all advertising and sales is a funnel designed to catch customers by the short hairs, by their need to be liked, or healthy, or wealthy, or married. To convince them that your car or ice cream or sneaker is just the ticket. When you understand people and you understand selling and marketing, it’s just a matter of connecting the right aspect of the product to the right psychological weakness in your prospect.

Still too complicated? I’ll put it the way Winston Stein once put it:

Marketing is finding women who like sex or would like to find out if they do. Sales is convincing them that they want to go home with YOU, right NOW.

Rhonda’s easel faced away from me, so that I could see her intense expression (good) but not what she was drawing (bad). I liked looking at her. She seemed to catch the thought and looked over. “So . . . since you’re no longer eating, what do you think this is all about?”

“I’m just going to guess.”

“Please do.”

“Selling someone to the American public, I’d guess. Or something cross-cultural.”

“An individual? A couple?”

“Don’t know. Some entertainment. Singers or dancers perhaps. A cultural exchange dance troupe from a country with very ugly citizens. We need their coconuts or something, but have to sell them to the public.”

“Hmm. What does that have to do with bridges?” Rhonda asked.

I folded my fingers together and tried to look professorial. “So . . . we typically emphasize whatever about a model or subject a typical customer might find attractive. Their proportions, colors, music, movement . . . if they are healthy, then their bodies will be proportional and symmetrical. That appeals to the eye. We can work with that, even distort it digitally, create an aesthetic ‘bridge.’”

“A ‘bridge?’” she squinted at me.

“Sure,” I said. “A term I learned in Commercial Aesthetics at UCLA. A blend of two different cultural or racial standards, much the same way that light-skinned black performers like Halle Berry helped de-inhibit negative responses to African facial characteristics. Whites considered them beautiful, so they could slowly accept and relish darker faces. You start with Lena Horne and end up with Lupita Nyong’o.”

Rhonda’s smile lit up the night. “I’m starting to see why they chose you. I think this is about a movie, a big co-venture with China or India.”

Yeah. But why did they choose us?

I’d considered that, and wasn’t totally happy with my answers. “I . . . was responsible for advertising campaigns selling Nigerian Naija music to Taiwanese audiences. That was tough, for a time. We used a variety of tactics.” The memory wasn’t pleasant, a suborbital jaunt followed by exhausted presentations to people who disguised contempt behind polite smiles and bows. I’d swallowed my bile and brought their money home. It had been my first big win out of business school, and the bonus paid the mortgage my parents back in Augusta had taken out to buy my way into the game.

Winston Stein had once joked,“Carver Kofax eats pain and shits money.” Hah hah hah. That was me, all right. I’m the guy who would eat wasabi like green tea ice cream if it got me the job.

• • • •

Three twenty-hour workdays later I was trashed, but managed to stagger into the thirty-fourth floor office when summoned. Except for raccoon eyes, Rhonda looked as delectable as ever.

Our drawings and ad lines were splashed around the office, taped to windows looking out on Century City and the endless traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard. “Make the ugly sexy,” they’d said. So . . . we used a combination of plug-ugly dogs and monkeys, cartoons of hideous characters from classic and popular vid shows and web strips, choices from a dozen different cultures, all arranged in a way that pointed out their charming personalities, encouraged us to see their “inner beauty” or even suggested that ugly was “charmingly different.” Offend no one, because we’d yet to learn who was holding the debit card.

The agency’s fearless leader Adrian Stein was there, in all her pant-suited glory. A rare honor, indeed. “So, Carver. Rhonda.” She smiled. “I wanted you to know that this morning we were offered the preliminary contract.” Cheers and high-fives all around. “You will fly to Washington tomorrow, and there you will go to the last step of the competition.”

“Do you know what . . .?” Rhonda began.

Stein raised her hand. “No. Not the slightest. Now get packed, and remember that you are representing us.”

So we flew, Rhonda and I. Delta served lobster and Dom Perignon in first class, and it felt like the beginning of a new life. We were picked up at the airport by a Rolls Royce drone limo, and taken directly to the Watergate hotel, on Virginia Avenue along the Potomac at the edge of Georgetown. I’d never been to the Watergate, and something about the history made me nervous. The lobby was filled with executive types in bespoke Armani and Kitan. The air crackled with competition. They weren’t all Americans, either. Europeans . . . South Americans. Some Asians, maybe Koreans or Japanese. This was getting more interesting by the minute.

This was, I decided, the strangest “co-operative film venture” I’d ever seen. And the men and women guarding the doors and sign-in table were . . . well, if I had to say, more military than civvy. Not flamboyant at all, dressed in suits rather than uniforms, but something about them said these people have guns. They ushered us into a crowded meeting room, and then the lights went down. The man who took the dais looked like Gandhi in a Brooks Brothers suit.

“I am Dr. Ahmed,” he said in barely accented Ivy League English. “Good morning. Thank you, all of you, for attending. Please call me Jalil, and for the sake of this discussion, I represent a consortium with . . . a unique property. Let us say a science fiction book that we believe has the ability to become this generation’s Star Wars.” He smiled. He was lying. I knew it and probably half the others did as well. “The problem is that if we accurately depict the creature in the story, we believe people will find it unattractive. So . . . what we need is for each of you to give your best bet on making this image . . . appealing.”

Why was he lying? And about what? The screen lit up, and the image resembled something you’d see under a microscope. The sort of dysenteric pond-squiggler that gives me heebie-jeebies. A furred amoeba. Did they call that hair cilia? There was no scale for size reference, so it could have been a pipsqueak or Godzilla. Floaty things suspended in its sack looked disturbingly like cat eyes, other curly do-dads that looked like translucent intestines floating in a bag of gray Jell-O.

“We would like to see your drawings tomorrow,” Jalil said. “Twenty-four hours from now.”

Something tickled the back of my scalp. “Ah . . . how attractive are you trying to make them?”

“Mr. . . .” he consulted a list. Seating chart. “Carver. You may interpret that any way you wish.”

There were other questions, but Rhonda and I looked at each other, barely able to restrain our mirth.

Within an hour we were back in our linked hotel rooms. While we had our own supplies, more had been delivered. Expensive graphic software, camel hair brushes and a lightning-fast, top of the line Mac.

We barely noticed. We stared at each other and then at the protozoan portrait, and then collapsed into hysterical laughter. So that was it. Some crazy billionaire wanted to get into the movie business, and were promoting some SF movie based on a plug-ugly demon from a tribal backwater. Or something. I’ve seen these things before, and it never works out.

And the obvious insulting implication was that I’d been chosen for this assignment because I’d made Nigerians attractive to Chinese, and apparently that was now seen as more miraculous than turning vampires into vegans.

Compared to that, aliens would be easy, right? I mean, right?

We got really, really drunk, and the ideas that emerged from that brainstorming session probably reflected the fact that the sexual tension between us was starting to skyrocket. We drank, and laughed, and vaped, and laughed some more, and around two in the morning we tore off our clothes and did something about that tension.

We, um, “did something” about it two more times that night. Let’s just say that I discovered that Rhonda’s bracelets proudly proclaimed her inclinations and that, perhaps in anticipation of exactly what had happened between us, she had packed a portable fun kit with her: cuffs, blindfolds, and things which I’d blush to mention, but fit snugly. We’ll leave it at that.

It was all lava and steam, and for the first time in my life I understood what people meant when they said they’d been “turned out.” When we were too restless to sleep, Rhonda and I dabbled a bit more with the art, but it got explicit this time. We swore we’d get rid of that stuff, but I have to admit that two of those drawings making their way into the courier packet might have been our way of saying “screw you” to the whole thing.

Then we “did something” about it again. I would have thought we’d both be too raw to do more than cuddle, but her invention and limberness knew no rational bounds, and our coupling was even better this time. She liked me to take control. Total, deep, confident control. To my surprise, I found that the more I took command, the more that, behind the gag and blindfold, her every move and muffled cry said that she was actually controlling me.

Eventually preliminaries ended and she shed the apparatus and welcomed me into her body fully, joyously, and with an enthusiasm that made me feel like I’d earned my way into an anaconda breeding ball.

And afterward, we held each other, and let our pulses slow down. My eyes focused, and the first thing I saw was the easel on which images reminiscent of Lovecraftian pornography winked back at me.

“We . . . might get into trouble for that,” she giggled, breathing warm into the notch between my shoulder and neck. Her dreads were scented of coconut oil.

“We’re saving Ms. Stein a nightmare, believe me.”

“I guess we should pack,” she said, and rolled away from me.

The phone rang. Rhonda picked it up. “Hello?”

Her eyes got bigger than an orphan in a Margaret Keane painting, accompanied by one of those “is this a joke?” expressions. She hung up.

“What is it?” I asked.

“We’re supposed to be downstairs in fifteen minutes.” Her expression was strained. Shocked, like someone who has bitten into a live cricket.

Ouch. “They’re that mad?”

Her eyes were huge. “No. Ah . . . we got the job.” Her face lit with urchin glee, and we giggled, then guffawed, and fell into each other’s arms. We almost didn’t make it downstairs in time, if you know what I mean.

• • • •

I’d thought our meeting would be in some Watergate conference room, but instead a drone limo shuttled us to the Pentagon.

As we were passed through the gate, Rhonda leaned over. “Since when did porn become a security issue?”

I didn’t know. Couldn’t answer that question. I felt like Neo when Morpheus told him to hop down the rabbit hole.

We were escorted to a small conference room, and I have to admit that by this time I was well beyond curious. Had no goddamn idea what was happening. Then Jalil walked in, his placid mask suspended. What lurked in its place worried me, some combination of emotions I couldn’t label.

“You have signed non-disclosure agreements. If you go any further, you will sign more. And there will be considerable penalties for not abiding by the terms of those agreements.”

I read the fine print. And other than asking for my firstborn male child, I couldn’t imagine what greater security they could have required. All I could figure was that this was involved in some kind of Psyop program, designed to . . .

Oh hell, I didn’t know.

We signed. Then The President herself emerged, and my lungs froze. Yes, we were in Washington. Yes, I thought that I was above such things as idol worship or being impressed by power. But here she was, in the flesh, and the charisma with which Sophia Gonzalez had won two presidential elections was now bottled in a confined space, just a few meters away, and it was devastating. By the time I remembered to breathe, she and Jalil had finished conferring.

“Thank you,” Madame President said with that disarming southern accent. “You understand that what is said in this room remains in this room. In fact, if you agree to this commission, you will be out of touch with your company, friends, and family for the next ninety days.”

The wall lit up with images of gelatinous objects with glowing lights suspended within, like floating Portuguese man o’wars filled with Chinese lanterns.

“Fifteen months ago,” she said, “we made contact with what we call the Travelers. We are uncertain of their origins. Some who have studied the communications believe the answer is the Horsehead Nebula. Others some other dimension of being.”

An image. Unmistakably, a photo of the furry protozoan. “Is this a joke?” I heard myself ask.

“No joke,” she said. “A ‘Traveler.’ They came here to meet us, and we want you to help ease the way.”

Rhonda was grinning . . . then frowned when she realized we weren’t laughing. “Holy shit. You aren’t kidding? Like ‘phone home’?”

I’d read as many UFO loony tune tracts as anyone. Stein and Baker had promoted “Saucer Flakes,” a breakfast cereal with little ovals (they levitate in the bowl!) so I knew about the pale-skinned almond-eyed space people said to mutilate cattle and anal probe Redneck trailer trash from Montana to Mississippi.

“Roswell ‘Grays’?” Rhonda asked. “Zeta Reticulans? Real aliens?”

“Yes. They arrived outside lunar orbit and made contact through encoded diplomatic channels. Our most secure and shielded communications were child’s play to the Travelers. It was an unprecedented emergency, as you can imagine. But they said that they came in friendship, and would not even come down or announce themselves to the general public until we gave permission.”

“Really?” Rhonda asked. “The Grays came umpteen trillion miles and then just . . . hung out? They didn’t demand? Or even plead?”

The President considered. “No. What they did do was bargain.”

“What kind of bargain?”

“They said that they have gifts. Technologies they can offer.”

Whoa, there, cowboy. And welcomed little fishies in with gently smiling . . . “What kind of technologies?”

“Communications. Transportation. Energy. Biologicals. How would you like to live a hundred and twenty years without illness?”

Boom. That’s what I’m talking about. “You’re shitting me.”

“No. Not at all. We’ve tested samples of their tech, and its real.”

“And what do they want in return?”

The President broke eye contact. “They want to be our . . . friends.”

She cleared her throat.

The President began speaking more rapidly, with greater confidence. This part had been rehearsed. “I’ve had many meetings with our best xenobiologists, and they tell me that a species capable of reaching our world would have a limited number of motivations to do so. Colonization, of course, but they’ve not asked for land.”

“You know, like . . . our resources?” I asked.

“Water? Energy? Easier to get outside a gravity well. The general opinion is that an alien species would come for reasons similar to those human beings used, if one removes the profit motive.”

“Tourism?” Rhonda laughed.

“Yes,” the President said, mouth held in a carefully neutral expression. “Sheer exploration.”

“Seeing the sights? Eating the food?”

An unpleasant thought. “Hunting?”

She smiled. “This isn’t a horror movie. They’re not looking for pelts. The Travelers want . . . friends.”

A pause. An unspoken possibility hung in the air.

“Wait a minute,” Rhonda said. “You’re talking about sex?”

The President’s expression never changed, but she gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“The Grays came a trillion miles for . . . sex tourism?”

“Not to put too fine a line on it, but . . . yes.”

“Wait just a minute,” Rhonda said. “Those ads we made up. Those cartoons. You didn’t hire us in spite of what we did. You hired us because of it.”

I wanted to laugh, but the sound was stuck in my throat. “You have to be kidding me. This whole thing is . . .”

Without further preamble, Madame President raised her hand for quiet. “They, um . . . studied our culture, and 1950s television broadcasts reached them first. Ladies and gentlemen . . . I’d like to introduce you to Elvis. “

“Of course you would,” I muttered.

The lights went down. And something sort of . . . flowed in from the wings. It wore a kind of white sequined Vegas stage suit. An amoeba in polyester. The hair stood up on my forearms, and the air sort of sizzled, as if he carried a thunderstorm’s-worth of static charge.

“You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” I heard myself mutter. Just a hunk a hunk of burnin’—

In a very Stephen Hawking-esque synthesized voice, Elvis said: “Greetings, my friends. I believe that ‘kidding’ implies a kind of deception or prevarication. My people do not lie. It is not in our nature.” He paused. “I am very grateful . . . that you have agreed to help us. We have come much [meaningless squawk]. To be with you. We seek to know you.”

“In the Biblical sense,” Rhonda muttered. She raised her hand. “Ah . . . Elvis? May I ask a question?”

“Yes, please.”

“On Earth, sex is most important for . . . reproduction. You aren’t saying you want to breed with us?”

In his flat, cold voice, Elvis replied: “That would not be possible. But sex is not merely reproduction. It is pleasure. And bonding. And healing. And expression of love. These things exist among all peoples we seek to know. We wish to share this bounty of . . . the heart. And have gifts to offer in return.”

Out of the side of my mouth, I whispered: “Most times, flowers are enough.”

“Will you help us?” Elvis asked.

“Umm . . .” the speaker was an Asian guy dressed in belt and suspenders over a long sleeve denim shirt. Tufts of white framed a very bald pate. I thought I recognized him. “What . . . ah . . . do you see as the largest barrier?”

“It is that your people will think us ugly, Professor Watanabe.” The Watanabe? The man who had authored my Commercial Aesthetics text? Elvis’s cat eyes blinked. His color shifted, became a bit pinkish. Emotions?

I drummed my fingers on the desk. This was . . . beyond surreal. “You understand that . . . well, you aren’t even ‘ugly.’ Ugly would be . . . well,” I felt trapped. Everyone was looking at me, and I just blurted it out. “Ugly would be a step up.”

The room held its collective breath. The President squinted at me, awaiting disaster. But to my surprise, Elvis’ color did not shift. “We can change. Will you help us?”

A hologram of a bank account screen appeared on the screen before me.

The President spoke. “A very select group of companies have already bid on Traveler technologies. The number you see in front of you is the amount they are willing to pay to acquire your services.”

I whistled. Damn. Stein and Baker had just won the lottery.

“Will you help us?”

Despite the computerized voice, the call was plaintive. I . . . felt it. Deeply. A cosmic loneliness, a sense of feeling lost in the spaces between the stars, only rarely finding other creatures with whom to contemplate existence . . .

I shook my head, as if emerging from an opium den. Something was either very right about this, or very wrong indeed.

All that money, though . . .

“Say yes,” the President said.

I glanced at Rhonda. She gave the slightest of nods. “Yes,” I replied.

• • • •

And that was how it began. Via Secret Service helicopter, we were lifted to a repurposed private college in upstate New York, where . . . well, I don’t know what everyone else was working on, but it was abuzz with dignitaries, scientists, military people, media people . . . a beehive, and we were just workers. We had one year to prepare the public.

Rhonda and I grew very close during these months. We laughed, and cried, and even considered quitting. But the Travelers were good to their word. They made no effort to land, or interfere with us, or do anything except keep to their promises. They rarely even visited what we called the Facility; when they did I never was able to tell one from the other. They changed costumes and cultural jewelry as if trying on various ways of being human, with one exception: Elvis was always Elvis, and slimed around the Facility like a gigantic slug in rhinestones. Damned if his organelles didn’t have a sleepy look, and the facial protoplasm seemed to have a sneering lip.

Nobody else could see that. Maybe it was just me.

Every denizen of the Facility was committed to making a home for our guests, or to evaluating the impact of their arrival. The staff generated endless scenarios about what would happen to our culture, religion, governments . . . the psychological and spiritual and economic impact, and how we might best manage the stress. It was massive.

Every room and team seemed to be doing something different. I probably understood one percent of it all. Some were, I knew, testing and applying odd technologies. Too many moving parts for me to remember, but they included unlimited-wear contact lenses with built-in microscopes, telescopes, and multi-spectrum scanners. Shoes that sent the energy from walking back up your body in the strangest ways, simultaneously massaging and exercising every muscle with every step. Instantaneous communication via space-time ripples, as the Travelers communicated with others of their kind across the universe. Much more.

Occasionally an actual Traveler toured the Facility. Perhaps taking part in experiments, maybe just supervising. I never knew, and tried to avoid them: Their sweet-sickly scent made me want to puke, and about them there seemed always to be a prickling of static discharge, enough to make your hair twitch.

But I can tell you that the Travelers delivered on every single promise. Our hunger to begin the next phase knew no bounds. There was just one little hurdle . . .

• • • •

One day we were called down to a laboratory on the lower levels. Professor Watanabe welcomed Rhonda, myself, and a military officer who seemed to find the whole thing distasteful. “Carver. Rhonda. General Lucas. Thank you for coming down.”

“I . . . well, we need to know what we have to work with,” Rhonda said.

The Professor scratched his shock of Einstein-white hair. “Well, we have a couple of different levels. Needless to say, there are human beings who will have sex with almost anything. No . . . let’s cancel the ‘almost.’ For enough money, some people will couple with anything possessing an orifice or protrusion.”

“Porn stars?” I asked. “Prostitutes?”

He nodded. “Yes, and they have been the first recruits to the cause.”

General Lucas frowned. “You mean it’s already happened?”

A faint smile. “Would you like to see vid?”

“No!” I sputtered, realizing that Rhonda had simultaneously said: “Yes!”

Watanabe flicked a switch, and an image appeared on the screen. A sparsely furnished room, with heavy floor matting. A muscular white male entered, nude but for a black Zorro mask. He was fully and rather impressively engorged.

“He’s a porn star, but insisted that his face be covered.”

Rhonda craned her head sideways. “I think I recognize him. Is that Maximum?”

Even I’d heard that name. Maybe you have too: “Maximum Thrust,” “Maximum Overdrive,” and “Maximum’s Minimum,” and so forth. He was notorious for his endless appetite and ability to perform under any and all circumstances. Considering his reputation, I wondered who’d paid whom.

“And now, there’s our visitor . . .”

A hidden panel in the ceiling slid open. On slender wires, something resembling a blow-up sex doll descended toward the floor. Its arms and legs were cut short, and out bulged a mass of tissue as gelatinous as half-melted Jell-O.

“We’ve used other volunteers, augmenting with a Traveler-tweaked phosphodiesterase inhibitor. I think we have our first T-pharmaceutical. One dose seems to last . . . well, it hasn’t stopped working yet. We just don’t know. It might be permanent. I don’t mean erect constantly, I mean tumescence on demand. Whenever. Maximum didn’t need it.”

Rhonda uttered the most sincere “damn” I’d ever heard.

Once the union began, the outer shell seemed to dissolve. It looked as if it was devouring our volunteer. His splayed limbs, glistening perspiration and the trembling of lower-back muscles implied a kind of slack-jawed overwhelm that was very much at odds with his cool, controlled porno personae.

“Good lord,” I said.

Rhonda leaned forward. “So . . . they prefer males?”

“Oh, no, they like females as well.”

She emitted a short, rather chipper sigh.

The image was clipped short, followed by another. A woman, this one unmasked. A brown-skinned woman, Indonesian perhaps, cadaverously thin, and pock-marked as a golf ball. The Traveler crawled all over her. Her faux passion became real, and she bucked like a flag in a windstorm.

Rhonda’s eyes went wide. Watanabe switched it off. “So we have begun to fulfill the minimal contract. So some of their tech is filtering in already. And we might need it.”

“Why?”

“Because the next step is to prepare humanity for their arrival. We have begun subliminal and implanted imagery.”

A series of slides appeared: brief flashes of aliens implanted in crowd scenes. Fuzzy-wuzzies faces implanted in comedies, Coca-Cola commercials backed with snatches of what sounded like whale mating calls played backwards.

“What is that?”

“Their cultural music. We’re trying everything.”

“Carver and I have been working day and night to create the campaigns,” Rhonda said. “The biggest idea was to create one of Dr. Watanabe’s ‘aesthetic bridges.’ Images that are blends of human and Visitor, that help desensitize us to the sensory shock.”

“And is that working?” the general asked.

“The problem,” Watanabe said, “is what the cybersemiotics people refer to as the ‘uncanny valley.’ That if something looks nothing like us, we might have a positive or negative reaction. But as it gets closer to us, there is a point of greater and greater attraction . . . and then we flinch.”

“Why is that?”

He shrugged. “Could be a mechanism for detection of mutations. Birth defects. We don’t know. There is speculation that this is behind some forms of racism, or even why Cro-Magnons exterminated the Neanderthals.”

“Close,” Rhonda whispered, “but no cigar.”

“But there’s another set of responses. We fear the ‘other’ but are also exogamous. So there is something to play with, and always has been.”

“Do we have any sense of success?” Rhonda asked.

“Combinations of the subliminals, the sound, and manipulation of language and imagery in television and film—it’s like buying product placement, really—has reduced the revulsion rate by seventeen percent. And I think that might be our tipping point.”

• • • •

The announcement was timed to go over every channel, all over the world, at the same time. The first images of what Rhonda always called “The Grays” were fuzzy and slightly doctored. And despite all our preparations, they still triggered an ocean of nausea and fear.

Like crystal cathedrals floating in a sea of clouds, the alien ships hovered above New York, L.A., Tokyo, Lagos, Johannesburg, London, Beijing, Moscow and fifty other major cities. Panic and riots ensued, but contrary to wide expectations, the Travelers didn’t land, let alone destroy or conquer. They just . . . hovered. We were told the situation, and what the visitors offered. State by state, the citizens were allowed to vote on whether the Visitors could touch ground.

Demonstrations. Signs abounded. “Hell no!” or their equivalents in a dozen languages.

Most places, that sentiment was almost universal. But a few . . . California for instance, said yes. And so, at last, aliens were among us. And again, they delivered on their promises, enabling those states to enjoy the bounty. The technology was tightly controlled, and only allowed into the areas that welcomed the Travelers. That was clever. We were both in control . . . and totally on the hook. Because everyone knew someone wasting away from some nasty ailment. Someone who was healed . . . or employed in one of the new industries that sprang up and became Google overnight. Within two years, there wasn’t a country on Earth that denied them. Traveler tech created a hundred billionaires and a thousand multi-millionaires in the first year.

You rarely saw Travelers on the street. When you did, it was in those odd suits and usually in a limo of some kind, usually piloted by a live human being. They appeared on documentaries and news shows, and then entertainment as well. Television, billboards, films . . . break-dancing amoebas, torch song-warbling slime molds. Slowly we began to see these concoctions more often, associated with puppies and smiling children . . . and sexy men and women.

The Travelers wanted to see that humans were accepting them.

They masked their pheromones, poured themselves into better and better fabrications, and even managed to appear in a series of Indian films. I thought I recognized Elvis doing a very creditable Bollywood Bhangra dance. Hard to say.

All paramecia look alike to me.

• • • •

Among hundreds of others, Rhonda and I were released from our contracts—now that it was out in the open, everyone clamored to work with Them. And the Traveler technology was integrated into our entertainment with steadily increasing frequency and effect. Movies were immersive and hyper-real, more so than any 3D, hologram, Showscan, or anything that had ever existed previously. Somehow we reacted more to those images than the real thing. Amazing. Humanity was heading for a renaissance. I have to admit that I felt a little guilty. The Travelers had come a trillion miles looking for love, and didn’t seem to understand the concept of prostitution. Before I left the facility, I had a final meeting with Elvis. He was squished into his exoskeleton, the pinkish indestructible Traveler-cloth “human” suit beneath his white sequined jumpsuit. I no longer felt the urge to vomit when I was around him. He’d changed his smell and appearance, and that sizzling sensation I got in his presence had died to a mere itch.

“Hello, Carver,” he said. “Good to see you.”

“And you.”

“I think,” he said, “That we’ve accomplished something wonderful together. Thank you.”

He handed me a card. “What’s this?

“A token of my appreciation. One million of your dollars.”

There it was. Another six zeroes. It was true that a rising tide lifted all boats, that a certain amount of inflation had accompanied Traveler wealth, but Rhonda and I had been paid so well, we’d raced ahead of that curve. In that moment, I realized I never had to work again for the rest of my life. “Thank you!”

Elvis’ face mask smiled. “Thankyouverymuch.” His namesake’s Vegas drawl. “Cheap at the price, old son.”

• • • •

Six weeks after we left the Facility, I asked Rhonda to marry me, and a month later, she agreed. Our honeymoon was a revelation, as if our prior sex life had been a mere appetizer, and she’d given me the keys to the kitchen. If she had lived a hundred lives as a leather-clad courtesan, that might have explained the days and nights that followed, as she opened one door after another for me, allowed me to glimpse what was within until it felt like she was running an electrified tongue over my body’s every exposed nerve. Then with a mischievous giggle she would close that door, give me just enough time to recover and then lead me staggering and wide-eyed to the next.

In retrospect, it was predictable that Rhonda would be the one to bring the fetish sites to my attention. Three months after we were married, she danced into my home office, touched my lips with hers and giggled. “Have I got something to show you!”

She led me to her office, where she worked so hard and late at night. Her computer was mostly used for graphics, but like the rest of us, she surfed the net to rest her brain in between creative spurts.

“I don’t want to tell you how I found this site . . .”

“I think I can guess. Feeling a little frisky, were you?”

She turned the screen around, and for a moment my eyes didn’t focus. Then I saw a very pale woman, gelatinously obese with very short, bristly dark hair, sporting animated tattoos that mimicked organelles. They shivered and danced, while three men stood around her performing what I believe what Japanese aficionados would refer to as a bukkake ritual. If you don’t know what that is, look it up.

On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t. Ignorance is bliss.

“Is she trying to look like a Traveler?”

“Wild, huh?”

The sound was much too good for speakers their size. I didn’t recognize the brand. “New speakers?”

“Nice, aren’t they?” The speakers were flat as glass panes, but the sound was as good as a ten thousand-dollar pair of Naim Ovators. T-tech. Traveler music wafted in the background, and with the new speakers, my ears absorbed odd, previously undetected undertones.

“Wow,” I said “That’s really strange. It’s a new world. That other stuff . . . wow.”

She suddenly pulled in on herself, shrank a little, seemed tentative and a little shy. “Does it turn you on?” Her forefinger fluttered along my forearm.

“Shit. No. You?”

She shrugged, her finger ceasing its dance. “Maybe . . .”

“Well, we should take advantage of that . . .”

“I’m busy right now,” Rhonda said, removing my hands. “. . . but save some of that heat for me tonight, okay?”

But . . . she worked until midnight, and when she did come to bed, she rolled over and went to sleep. That’s marriage, I guess.

• • • •

More and more often, Rhonda seemed to be in a funk. I think we saw each other less frequently, pretty much devolving to roommates. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. It was that some critical spark was just . . . gone. She was doing more Traveler work, and the “bridging” was subtler. The T’s had gifted us with a printing process that conveyed a dimensional and multi-sensory aspect. Strange. You would look at a picture, and detect a scent. If you weren’t looking directly at it, you detected no smell. I have no idea how they did that, or how it worked, but it did.

Rhonda’s office was filled with more and more of these Traveler materials. She seemed increasingly dreamy and far away. And then one summer day in 2036 Rhonda left the house, and stayed out late.

Very late.

And when Rhonda returned in the early morning, she seemed . . . dazed. Like someone thoroughly stoned, with a secretive smile that was too damned easy to interpret. She curled up on the couch with a dreamy expression and wouldn’t talk to me. When I tried, she turned her face to the back of the couch and pretended to sleep. Finally, that night I brought her a tray of chicken wings, and set it down next to her. She smelled it. Turned, smiled faintly, but didn’t speak, other than offer a very soft:

“Thank you.”

At that moment, I was certain. “You did it, didn’t you?”

She looked at me, hands shaking. Didn’t answer.

“What was it like?” I asked.

She paused. Then her face softened, as I’d only seen in our deepest, most intimate moments. “I can’t describe it,” she said with an almost feverish intensity.

“Try,” I said. And in that moment I saw something from her I’d never seen before, and never would again: a desperate desire for me to understand her, as if in understanding we would bond more deeply. But something about what she said reminded me less of someone inviting you to a party, and more like someone skydiving without a parachute, terrified of dying alone. “Think of the worst kiss you’ve ever had. Then . . . the best sex. Can you do that?”

I couldn’t help but smile at how she trembled to say those words. “Okay. Then what?”

“The gap between them is like . . . what the Gray was like.” She gripped my hands, nails digging into my flesh. “Come with me. Let’s share this. Let’s . . .” I guess that disgust is something I don’t hide well. She saw it, and drew away, the momentary vulnerability evaporated. Just like that. Gone.

Her lips twisted with sudden, bitter force. “You’re a coward.”

We slept in the same bed for a while after that, but . . . well, you know. And then she moved into the guest room, and never returned to our room. There would have been no point. We had no guests, and she wasn’t coming back to me.

• • • •

Ten years passed, one aching, disorienting day at a time. I had no need for earning money, but embraced busywork of many kinds, perhaps to distract myself from the unhappy fact that Rhonda and I had become mere roommates. Our sex life had dwindled to memories.

The world seemed to flow around me, like a stream dividing itself around a rock. I watched the fashions and culture slowly admit more and more Traveler imagery and influence, but little of it really seemed to break through my emotional cocooning. I had endless toys, and work, and that had to be enough.

Despite promises made in our empty bed I felt a certain nasty urge expanding inside me. Every time I heard Traveler music, that compulsion grew. When I watched movies with very special guest stars, something deep in my gut twitched. Like a tumor growing day by day right before your eyes, there is no single moment you can point to when you say, “Ah hah! It’s cancer!” It sneaks up on you.

The scope of change was too large, the implications beyond sanity. And then one day, as Rhonda had known, the hunger sharpened from a whisper to a scream. I called an aircab and vaped in the back seat until my head spun. It dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and I walked randomly. Yeah, right. Pretended that I didn’t know where I was going, finally ending up at one of the storefront enterprises they called a “friendship club.” Paid my considerable fee, and entered. I’d had to get very, very stoned, loaded enough that some part of me knew I would have plausible deniability.

In an office paneled with stars and nebulae stenciled with obscene constellations, I met with a thin man who asked a battery of questions. I guess I answered them properly because I was taken to a shower room, where I was told to bathe. The water wasn’t mere H2O, it had a taste to it, a smell that faded, as if my nose had been numbed. And they led me to a dimmed room.

I wished I’d vaped a little more.

The room’s only furniture was a black couch. And the door behind me was the only door, so I expected it to open, and for something else to enter. I felt myself dizzying as if the scented droplets evaporating on my flesh were seeping into my bloodstream. I needed to sit down. Lay down.

And the moment I did, the “couch” engulfed me.

Followed immediately by a wave of panic. God! It wasn’t a couch, it was the Traveler version of some kind of sex toy, some B&D playground, their version of leather and chains and whips and gag-balls. No! I . . .

And then I felt myself . . . embraced in every orifice. Welcomed. Hungered for. It was not love. Not sex. It was . . . the form for which all of those are shadows. The sound, and all the others merely echoes.

• • • •

When I awakened, I was alone in the room. The “couch” seemed just a couch again, although investigation revealed that it to be an exoskeleton, a costume, into which a Traveler had stuffed itself. I left the lust-chamber, walked out past the receptionist’s glassy smile. A half-dozen other adventurers hunched dazedly in the foyer, shuddering like men who had stepped out of a sauna into freezing cold. We sat around, half-dressed, unable to speak . . . and sharing a knowledge.

When I vacated the premises, the street outside shimmered with pools of cottony light radiating from no source I could determine. I swore I wouldn’t, but I turned around and returned to the friendship center and asked when I could go again. Months, they said. There was apparently a very long waiting list. I was told I could pay six figures to be placed at the head of that line. I’m sure Rhonda had. God help me, I considered. But . . . I just couldn’t.

• • • •

Strange how separate threads twist together into a braid strong enough to hang you. How easy it is to rationalize. How proud I was of my tolerance for pain. And fear. Everything was going so well, I told myself. Life was just wonderful. I’d never been wealthy, and money is its own opiate. Perhaps the most powerful. You live in a kind of tunnel, insulated from most concerns. My health remained perfect, as They had promised. I was the same, but thirty years in the social effects were now more noticeable.

Boys and girls seemed to care little for differentiating themselves by dresses and pants, or long and short hair, or makeup . . . as if that aching boy-girl tension no longer mattered quite so much. Or at all. I remember a morning on a London street, when I witnessed a wan couple pushing a perambulator down along the Thames. Our eyes met, and they smiled at me. Hopeful smiles. I smiled back. And as I always had, I reflexively peered into the baby carriage.

The infant was perhaps three months old, and gazing out at the world with the kind of glazed uncertainty that seems standard on babies that age. When it looked at me, it started to cry. I’d always found that sound to trigger the urge to comfort. Instead . . . its ululation was just irritating. It’s smooth pale flesh seemed . . . grublike, and its bald head reminded me of my father, when he was dying of cancer in an Atlanta hospice. I recoiled, and the baby cried more loudly, and the parents pulled back into their shells and hurried away.

It was the only baby I’d seen for a week. The last one I saw for a month.

I saw fewer children on the streets, more shuttered and boarded-up schools. Humanity was so happy, so drunk on our new longer lives and endless nifty T-Tech that we just ignored what was happening around us.

As for me . . . I never had so much as a sniffle, and maintained beautiful muscle tone without doing so much as a push-up . . . but certain hungers seem to have quieted. Women passing on the street were often strikingly beautiful, but in a “healthy animal” way, not a matter of artifice or attraction. It was almost as if I was noticing their loveliness the way I might think a painting was lovely. Or a one-man sky-strider “walking” between clouds. Beautiful. Distant. Irrelevant to anything but a cool aesthetic appreciation.

Then one spring day in 2054, I was having Zavo at a local Starbucks. Oh, right. I’ve not told you about that. Zavo is the commercial name for a T-tech drink. I think they bioengineered it to not only sensitize your brain to norepinephrine, like caffeine does, but provide co-factors that allowed your little gray cells to manufacture that juice with scary efficiency. How you can make something that lasts all day, has no jitters, and lets you sleep is beyond me. But it does.

Good dreams, too. Vivid. Intense.

When I drank it, I dreamed of the space between the stars.

A ratty looking little Asian guy dropped onto the seat across from me. He stared at me, not moving, not speaking. Not blinking. “Do I know you . . .?” I finally asked.

“It hasn’t been that long,” he replied. “You haven’t forgotten so much . . .?”

I skawed laughter. “Professor Watanabe! Man, it’s been a long time.” Hadn’t seen him since our days at the Facility. He hadn’t worn well. The Professor was well dressed, but he looked tense, like Atlas trying to be casual while holding the world on his shoulders. “You’re doing well. We’re all doing well.”

“Travelers,” he said.

A bubble car sailed by, a paramecium in the back seat, a superfluous human pretending to pilot a drone. Fashion statement. Professor Watanabe held my eyes with a smile, and slid over a silver thumb drive.

“What’s this?” I asked. It looked antique, probably only holding a few terabytes.

“Something you need to look at. Tonight.”

“What is it?”

“Just read it. The core document will take a few minutes. You could spend a year going through the supporting data. All you could want.”

“But what . . .?”

“Open it. Remember my name, and open it.”

Then, smile frozen on his face, Watanabe left the table. I turned the drive over and over again in a shaking hand.

What the hell?

• • • •

As I said, the drive was decades old. Not T-Tech, not even current technology. That should have been a clue. I dragged out an ancient laptop. Instructions scribbled on the side of the drive warned me to disable Wi-Fi before booting, and I did. It utilized an old fashioned USB connection. I actually had to visit a vintage computer shop to find a proper connection, making lame excuses to the salesman to explain why I wanted a device that had been obsolete for at least thirty years. When I returned home with my acquisition, it took me an hour to figure out how to patch the computer to the drive. When I finally succeeded, a password prompt appeared.

Password? The professor didn’t give me—

Then I recalled his odd request: “Remember my name.”

Was that it? I typed “Watanabe” in, and to my pleasant surprise, his face materialized.

“Greetings, Mr. Kofax,” he said. As in the coffee shop, Watanabe’s face was pale and drawn. Leeched of color and life. The problem was not his physical health, I was sure. The Travelers had made sure of that. It was something else. Something worse. “You must be wondering about why the cloak and dagger. Well, you aren’t going to wonder for very long. I’m going to make this short, but I cannot make it sweet.” He wiped his hand across his forehead, smearing a slick of perspiration. “I wish I could. The short version is: We made a mistake, Carver. You and I. We were the heroes, remember? We figured it out. Well, I should have stuck with teaching, and you should have stuck to flogging soap.”

“Why?” I muttered.

“Why? Because we’ve done our job too well. Something is going wrong. Human beings aren’t having much sex anymore. Not with each other, at least. The mistake was thinking that when the Travelers told us they could not lie, they were offering every implication of their actions. They were honest, but not . . . forthcoming.”

“What are you talking about?” I muttered. For the second time, it was as if he heard me, or had anticipated my thoughts.

“What I mean is that we figured everything was safe, because we evaluated how Traveler tech affected us. Their music, for instance. Played through our equipment, we found nothing to worry about. But then we began to upgrade our systems, using their tech, and frankly we failed to continue testing as carefully as we should. Traveler tech increased the bandwidth. They’ve given us biological, optical, computational, and auditory technology, and we paid too much attention to how powerful it was, and not enough to how it all interlocked. How, once assembled, it would have emergent properties.”

“Meaning what?”

This was some kind of video AI program. Even coming over an obsolete thumb drive, somehow it was still responding to me. Try as the Professor had to avoid it, Traveler tech’s tendrils were everywhere. “Meaning that we gave them access to our hardware and software . . . and wetware, Carver. And they are reprogramming us.”

“How? To do what?”

“Birthrates are dropping. It’s happening faster and faster. Twenty percent reduction throughout the world, and no one panicked, because no one is complaining. We’ve gone numb somehow. We’re just . . . not servicing each other.”

It . . . was true. Rhonda and I hadn’t had sex in over a decade, and I hadn’t really considered the implications. And kids? We’d never talked . . .

No, that’s not true. Once upon a time, we’d talked about having babies. We both came from large families, both loved our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews . . . how unlikely was it that neither of us would hanker for kids?

“Carver, you need to look at the data. This isn’t accidental, and it isn’t local. This is greatest catastrophe in the history of our species. An extinction level event.”

He said more, but it was much the same, except for a request that I meet with him, secretively, in a week’s time.

A week. Time to research, to sift through the mountain of data on that drive. Time to think, and decide.

So . . . I looked. I slept perhaps three hours a night, barely eating or drinking, drunk with terror.

The data was incontrovertible.

For reasons no one understood, the Traveler effect was growing. Human beings were becoming more attracted to the aliens than we were to each other. Once you opened your eyes, the whole thing was obvious. I guess it was just that they were so . . . far beyond ugly that the idea they were some kind of competitive threat was absurd. You just couldn’t take the notion seriously. But something had functioned like cosmic beer goggles.

And another terrible thing: My brain said to scream what I’d learned from the rooftops, to find some way to stop this, to crush them all. But another part of me (and I know how sick this sounds) felt protective of the Travelers. More so than I did of actual human children. Just as the data suggested. Show me a picture of one of the gelatinous oozing masses, and I felt like I had a lapful of warm kittens. Look at a picture of a bubbly brown-skinned baby, and all I could see was Louis Armstrong dipped in thirty-weight.

I blinked, and shook my head, and considered.

I couldn’t talk to Rhonda. Dared not. Our bank account suggested she had paid almost a quarter-million dollars to be part of an exclusive “friendship” club, getting serviced once a week. On what world could I trust her?

Certainly not this one.

The phone rang.

“So have you read through everything?” Dr. Watanabe asked.

“Yes,” I said. “What are we going to do?”

• • • •

I had been welcomed into a circle of rebels, all men and women Watanabe trusted. We met secretly in the professor’s home, and discussed our quandary. Did we publicize and risk losing our window of opportunity? Careful overtures to seats of power had been rebuffed. We decided upon action.

There was a central media node in central Dallas where alien music and images were inserted in television, vids, and neural feeds. You’ve probably read the reports, or saw the trial, one of several triggered by similar actions around the globe. Ours was merely the first. I won’t drag you through the overly familiar details, but here are the most critical:

The node was the repository of a vast river of information constantly streamed over multiple channels, probably including those ripples in space-time, the secrets we had coveted enough to ignore the risks of unknown technology. Watanabe reasoned that if we could destroy it, perhaps people would awaken from the trance we had helped induce.

As you know if you watch the news, we were successful getting in, planting our devices. The bomb exploded, killing Professor Watanabe, a woman named Courtney Pickett, and two watchmen. But . . . the brain, the core of the facility itself, survived.

The police swooped in, loyal to their Traveler masters. There was no place to hide. We never had a chance to get away. The police had us before we could reach our nests or hidey-holes. It was almost as if they had known in advance, as if they wanted a terrorist act to use as an example. As if . . .

Rhonda.

She had hacked my computer. Rhonda, my loving wife. Wearing makeup that made her skin shimmer with translucence, revealing the succulent meat beneath.

My wife. My love. My betrayer.

The trial was short and sensational. My lawyers were the best that Traveler money could buy. I got the death penalty. Rhonda testified against me, her face a fish tank of gliding paramecium. The human judge wore silvery Traveler makeup, so that the inside of her head looked like a jar of winking cat’s eyes.

I was screwed.

When Rhonda left the courthouse on that last day, she never looked back.

That’s really all there is to say. They’re coming now. I thought I’d have more time. Everyone does.

• • • •

Two guards and a sad-faced minister in dark pants and shirt escorted Carver Kofax from his cell. He had been afraid for so long that he now felt only emptiness, as if the extreme emotion had hollowed him out.

“Are you ready, my son?” the priest asked. “Our father, who art in heaven, vanguard of our Traveling friends and saviors. . .”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Carver muttered.

The death chamber was steel walls and a steel seat with clamps for his legs and arms. “Any last words?” the executioner asked after the shackles were snapped into place. On his neck, a Traveler tattoo crawled and beckoned lasciviously. Kofax swallowed back a sour taste. All the fear that had been hiding somewhere in the back of his head exploded to life, and he bucked against his restraints.

“This isn’t right,” Carver screamed. “You’re making a mistake. We’re all making a mistake—”

The executioner had left the chamber, sealed the door behind him. Vents at the floor level began to hiss, and greenish wisps of gas puffed out, pooled around his feet, and began to rise. He coughed, vomited, made one final convulsive push against the shackles, and then collapsed.

His vision slid to black.

And then . . . nothing.

• • • •

I can’t believe I’m writing this. It shouldn’t be possible, but then, so many things have changed in what used to be “our” world.

Sparkles of light. I blinked. And opened my eyes.

White walls, humming machines of unknown design. But the humans standing over the bed, an East Indian and a coarse, chunky-looking pale blond woman, both wore medicinal white. “Where am I?” My throat felt dry and raw. It hurt even to whisper. Was this hell? Wasn’t I dead?

“Wrong question,” the doctor said. His skin and subcutaneous fat were translucent, his organs sparkling in his meat bag. Some kind of light-bending makeup, no doubt.

“What’s the right question?”

“When are you?”

That made no sense, but I played along. “All right. When am I?”

“It is 2105. You’ve been gone for fifty years.”

My mind went blank. “What the hell . . .? I . . . I . . .”

“I know. You thought you were dead. But you can thank the Travelers for that. They don’t kill, even when you transgress against them. They just . . . put you aside for a time.”

• • • •

After I checked out of the hospital, I discovered that my bank account had been gaining interest for half a century, and now contained more than I could ever spend. There were also fewer people to help me spend it. The decrease in population was noticeable. The streets were almost empty, as if everyone were indoors watching a parade. The few human beings I saw scuttled along the concrete like lonely crabs, ancients in young bodies, morbidly afraid of their good health, of the vibrancy that would turn into sudden death without warning. That was what the Travelers promised, yes? Perfect health until death.

And of course, they didn’t lie.

I saw no children at all.

Quietly, without any fuss, the Travelers were taking over the world. Not a shot fired.

• • • •

Rhonda still lived in our penthouse. When she appeared on the vid screen she was . . . strange. She had aged another fifty years, but other than tight, shiny skin and eyes drowned in fear and fatigue, on first look she hadn’t changed much. The second and third looks told a different story. It was difficult to put my finger on precisely what was disturbing. Was it makeup? Surgery? Not sure. But it was almost as if she was some alien creature pretending humanity, as if there was nothing left of Rhonda at all.

“Carver?” she said, and in that moment her shock and surprise gave human animation to the mask of gelid flesh surrounding those mad eyes. “But . . . you’re dead!”

Damn. Had no one told her? I explained what had happened to me. At first she was in shock, but in time, guilt and relief mingled on her face. “You . . . you’re so ugly.” She cried for a moment, then wiped the tears away. I was hideous to her. Because I looked human. But so did she, at least on the surface. So some part of her had fought to remain human, even as another part had grown increasingly repulsed by that very thing.

Suddenly, the impact of what had happened really hit me. My knees buckled, and the world spun and darkened before I regained my balance. “I . . . oh, God. What did you do?”

“I . . . I’m old, Carver, but I still want to be touched. I’m too human for most people now. I should have had more operations, more implants, but I just couldn’t.” Her face twisted with self-loathing and something else, the barest touch of hope. “Has it been a long time for you? We could . . . I have virtual lenses I could wear. It would make you look . . . we could . . .”

“Fifteen spice tuna roll,” I said.

“What?” her mouth hung slack, and beneath the mask of youth, I saw an old, old woman.

“Sometimes,” I said, “you just have to know when to quit.”

I hung up.

I had the money and time to travel, and did. It didn’t matter what I said or did, not any longer. I wasn’t censored or inhibited in any way. Things had progressed too far. Whatever the Travelers had done to humanity had taken hold. What few young people stumbled through the cities seemed pale, genderless ghosts floating through a concrete graveyard. Earth’s cities were clean but sparsely occupied, and in the country, one could drive for miles and never glimpse a human face.

I did see human couples from time to time. One or two a month. It was good to know that whatever the Travelers had done was not 100% effective. Just . . . 99.9%.

I found myself laughing for no apparent reason. A lot.

I think I was afraid that if I ever stopped, I’d kill myself.

• • • •

On leaving the hospital, I’d been given a plastic bag containing my possessions, along with a key to a storage locker where Rhonda had sent the majority of my possessions. One day after returning from one of my lonely trips, I wandered to the fenced facility and spent a few hours digging through the detritus of a remarkable, accursed life. Here was a bit of my childhood . . . there a photograph from our Barbados honeymoon. There a set of notes from some college assignment I could no longer remember. And bundles of old clothes. I rifled the pockets of a coat, and out fell a business card.

I bent, picked it up, and read it. Twice. And then, almost as if my lips were moving by themselves, I spoke the number and a circuit opened. The conversation was short, but enthusiastic. Within seconds a car hovered down from the sky and its door slid open.

The ride took about twelve minutes, and covered the distance from Los Angeles to a two-story white mansion in Whitehaven on the outskirts of Memphis. The airdrone deposited me on the lawn. I rang the doorbell, finger shaking.

Elvis answered the front door. He was as recognizable as ever, an amoeba in a rhinestone suit.

“Howdy there, Carver. How’s it shakin’?” His translation equipment had not only improved, but had mastered the local drawl.

“I, uh . . . I guess I’m a little surprised . . .” So he, or It (or they. What the hell did I really know?), had purchased The King’s cottage. Hardly surprising. Travelers could pretty much have anything they wanted.

“That ah like this form? You thought ah was kidding?”

“No,” I said. I felt like my bones were made of sand. “I guess I didn’t.”

“We don’t lie.”

“No, you don’t.” There was something so ridiculous, so cosmically absurd about the gelatinous form in the white sequins, gliding on a mucous trail through a pop-culture mausoleum, that the occasion was almost solemn. “You fit here,” I said. “I guess you learned from us, too.”

“It goes both ways,” Elvis said. “A little.”

Videos of Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, a garage filled with vintage cars and halls swathed in platinum records. Elvis talked non-stop, as if he had memorized a billion factoids about a singer dead for more than a century, someone whose hip-shaking melodies must have traveled a trillion miles before reaching whatever the Travelers used instead of ears. The tour ended in a den dominated by an empty fireplace pointing out this or that artifact, including a certificate signed by Richard Nixon and the head of the DEA, presented to Elvis Aaron Presley on December 21, 1970 authorizing him as a “Federal Agent at Large,” whatever the hell that meant.

I shook myself out of my trance. “How many times have you done this?” I said in the smallest voice I had ever heard emerge from my throat.

“Toured people through Graceland?”

“No.” I gestured vaguely. “This. What you did to us.”

“What you did to yourselves. Oh, no one really knows. You call us Travelers, but we’re really more like traders. Sex isn’t universal. But there’s always something people want. Your media images showed you to be both attracted and repelled by sex, and by strangeness, and that gave us our opportunity.”

I plopped down on the couch, finally feeling the weight of my frozen years. At least I thought it was a couch. It didn’t molest me, anyway. “So it’s . . . just over for us? For the human race?”

“Not totally,” Elvis said, and somehow a twitch of his protoplasm resembled a sneering lip. “The crèches will keep pumping you guys out. Humans are fun. Entertaining. I mean . . . we don’t hate you or anything. So please, live out the rest of a long, long life. What wonders you will see! You’re walking history, you know. And . . . we owe it all to you.” The creature turned, the organelles floating within the transparent sack very much like a swarm of anxious eyes. They even narrowed in something I interpreted as regret, or concern. “You’re angry. I can tell. I understand,” he said. “And I’m sorry.”

Elvis paused. “Say: I know,” he brightened. “Want to fuck?”

I stared in disbelief, sputtering and trying to . . . trying to. . .

“Oh,” I finally sighed. “What the hell.”

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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes by Jim C. Hines

Steven Barnes is a best selling, award-winning screenwriter and novelist from Los Angeles. He has written over 20 novels, and worked on shows such as The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1, and Baywatch. His true love is teaching balance and enhancing human performance in all forms: emotional, professional, and physical. He is a life coach, Circular Strength Training coach, and certified hypnotist, as well as a trained yoga instructor, Tai Chi instructor, and fourth-degree black belt.