By Miriah Hetherington
A potted arrangement of anemones recoiled from Polbo’s wake of odorous irritation as he jetted through the passageway. His meeting with the Grand Curator of the Inter-species Museum of Music was a disaster. Despite working long hours and skipping conjugal visits with his spousal cluster, the exhibit wasn’t ready. Polbo’s superior demanded
he include at least one Earth piece in the exhibit, or the project
would be transferred to another set of ambitious tentacles; Hakarl’s.
When the Grand Curator announced an exhibition featuring musical art
from every planet and culture in civilized space, Polbo begged to be
awarded the creative lead position, arguing that he was far more
qualified than his scheming, devious rival. Hakarl must have alerted
their superior to the one missing art piece from Earth. Now, because of his failure to procure even one suitable artifact from that strange planet
of gas-breathers, his reputation as a music aficionado as well as his
future bid for the Grand Curator position, was at risk.
Polbo burst through the undulating fronds marking the entrance to his
workspace. He breathed deeply, calmed by the flow of oxygenated liquid
across his gill filaments. Ordinarily, he would not pollute the
hallway with such a banal cloud of emotion, but an entire moon cycle
had passed since his last conjugal release.
Regaining his composure, Polbo noticed a package delivered during his
absence. His associate on Earth sent him dozens of strange objects
purported to produce music, each accompanied by an audio crystal.
Recording technology adjusted for density differences between the
gaseous medium of the native environment, and standard one-atmosphere aqueous. So far not even one Earth artifact came close to fulfilling his minimum expectation for musical art.
Polbo approached the container with a plume of nervous trepidation. He
ran two tentacles over the package seals, and gushed relief.
Fortunately someone in reception broke the seals and opened it
already. He would never forget the time he opened a sealed package
from Earth, and the unpleasant consequence of releasing a cubic meter
of earth-air into his office. The stench of barbaric emotions and
alien pheromones lingered for days.
He opened the package, lifted the object into the open, and tasted
every centimeter with his suckers. He was surprised by the earth
artifact’s beauty; the feel and proportion vaguely familiar. The body
of the alleged musical instrument was a bag, like a large mantle
cavity. Attached to the bag were five appendages, similar to arms, but
stiff and hollow. Three arms boasted decorative ridges. The fourth was
slim, and without adornment; he guessed this was an inhalant siphon,
used to fill the mantle cavity. Holes were drilled into the last
appendage, along its length.
Polbo dropped the crystal into a player. Beautiful vibrations rippled
through his office, a siren call to rival even the most enrapturing
music from any planet in civilized space. Whilst the intoxicating
music played, he rechecked the empty package and found an information tablet that explained how the music was formed. Polbo stroked the fascinating Earth object and imagined how earth air pushing past sliced stems at the base of each exhale tube could create sound waves to produce the sensual melody.
According to the tablet this wondrous specimen of musical art was not,
as he expected, universally beloved on its native planet. To his
surprise the report clearly stated humans, the primary sentient
life-form on Earth, either liked it or hated it. Overcome with
curiosity, he pressed his exhale orifice to the earth-object’s inhale
siphon, and carefully filled the cavity with a gentle stream.
The plant fronds curtaining the entrance to his workspace surged
toward him, as though blown by a surface-side wave. Hakarl’s annoyance and surprise billowed in front her. “What is that?” she demanded.
“This magnificent earth artifact is the last piece of the musical art
exhibit.” Polbo indulged in a haze of triumphant smugness toward his
rival. His project was finally complete. All he needed to do now was
report to the Grand Curator. He would leave early and spend the entire
evening entwined in undulating blissful union at home. The exhibit
would be a fabulous success, the pinnacle of his career. His
reputation and job were secure, in spite of her plotting.
Hakarl floated in a cloud of frustration that soon dissipated to be
replaced by a flagrant wave of admiration. She drifted toward him
demurely, and ran one of her tentacles over the Earth object as two
more stroked his limbs’ sensitive underside. The nimble suckers at the
tip of each tentacle caressed to within centimeters of his tender
flesh. Polbo’s sudden cloud of surprise momentarily masked the subtle
but powerful fragrance of Hakarl’s pheromones.
She pressed herself against him, continuing to caress with two
tentacles whilst she wrapped two more around the Earth artifact. His
dual hearts beat faster, and for a few moments he forgot to draw
liquid across his gills. Hakarl squeezed the object’s mantle cavity,
causing a stream of current to rush from the artifact’s appendages and
brush exquisitely against his over-sensitive glands.
Hakarl exuded satisfaction. “Why Polbo. I would never have guessed
your love of music was so…. physical.”
Polbo recovered from his initial shock at Hakarl’s unexpected advance.
He nearly dropped the Earth object in his eagerness to wrap his
tentacles around her. She evaded his awkward grasp and jetted out of
his office leaving behind a wake of amusement.
Polbo inhaled Hakarl’s parting scent and struggled to regain his
composure. Clearly that nubile bundle of enticing pheromones was
unable to resist his masculine charm. He considered inviting her to
join his spousal cluster. The art exhibit’s success would grant him
greater status and influence, and he could afford to be magnanimous.
Polbo imagined Hakarl’s voluptuous body entangled in carnal embrace
with himself and his spouses. He caressed the earthen musical
instrument, remembering Hakarl’s touch. Tentacles trembling, he
brought the artifact’s inhale siphon to his exhale orifice again, and
filled it with a rush of water. Enraptured by the surrounding music,
he held each of the five appendages with a tentacle, and aimed them at
his aroused flesh. Hearts racing, he squeezed the mantle cavity
sending multiple streams of excruciatingly delicious currents over his
Polbo shuddered with release. Every muscle in his body contracted,
accompanied by a reverberating crunch. The embarrassing tang of his
spent seed floated around him, along with the hideously mangled pieces
of the marvelous musical instrument.
Chagrin and defeat enveloped Polbo’s workspace. Hakarl would ruin his
reputation after all.
Golden Years in the Paleozoic
by Ken Liu
Welcome, welcome! I hope the _Hylonomus_ eggs at breakfast were satisfactory? From that little lizard, we’ll get both the chicken and the egg in 300 million years. Guess we solved that old mystery, eh? The flavor is excellent — a bit like a turtle egg, I’m told — and they have very little cholesterol.
So, thank you for coming to our little presentation. People sometimes get leery — <wink> — thinking we’ll pressure you to commit. Not at all! Even though this meeting is required for your free three-day vacation, it doesn’t have to be a chore. We just want to show you some facts about life here in Avalon Communities. Facts give you options, and options are always good, right?
Speaking of options, be sure to try the _Carbonita_ shrimp salad with fern and horsetail at lunch. You can’t get more organic than that — fertilizers and pesticides are still two eras away. There’s lots of vitamin E, and we can never have too much fiber, no matter our age.
Well, there it is. Age. Might as well come out and say it. Your kids have been out of the house for a few years; you’ve had a good run in the stock market; the jobs are still fulfilling, but you know your career arcs are winding up. The Big R is looming on the horizon.
Where should you retire? Traditional destinations like Florida and Costa Rica are still popular, but do you really want to share the roads with twenty million other retirees? (Not to mention the risk of another housing bubble.) Some tout the benefits of a low-gravity retirement on the Moon or Mars — it’s supposed to be easier to move around and more forgiving on arthritic joints — but do you want to spend your golden years under a glass dome breathing recycled air?
What you really want, no, _deserve_, is Eden.
The fact is, folks, the Earth of our time is too polluted and crowded, and no amount of filtering and scrubbing will ever clean it up.
But the Carboniferous Period, 350 million years before civilization, is the _perfect_ time to retire. Here, there’s no smog, no noise, no congestion, no traffic, no chemicals in the air and water. At night you can see a hundred times more stars than in the streets of LA and New York. Except for a few thousand other retirees just like yourselves in Avalon homes, you have the whole pristine planet — free from the teeming billions of our age.
Some day, after the continents have drifted into their familiar places, the view outside that window will be called Massachusetts. But right now it’s just a beautiful beach next to the Paleotethys Ocean, a sort of Paleozoic Mediterranean. The climate is tropical and the waves are gentle, great for sailing. You’ll love snorkeling and fishing too: such fantastic corals, ammonites, and armored fishes lost to time.
Not into the water? No problem. We have miles of hiking and riding trails into the misty Paleozoic jungle behind us. One day, these dense coastal swamp forests will turn into the world’s supply of coal, but right now they are your garden to stroll through. Would you believe that these huge trees are related to the insignificant horsetail and club moss? And the ferns, so many ferns, each with a fragrance as unique as a flower — that really surprised the botanists when they first came here. The amphibians and reptiles slithering and skittering through the jungle are friendly and curious, and will come to you if you bring them some dried fish pellets. Visiting grandchildren love to pet them.
Oh, no, we have no scary dinosaurs. They won’t show up for another hundred millions years!
Ah, I know that look. You’re still unconvinced. _Sure_, you think, _this is a nice place to vacation. But why stay?_
Have you noticed anything different about the air here? How does it feel to _breathe_?
You feel it, don’t you? The air tastes _better_. You feel more energetic, more awake. You haven’t felt this good since you were twenty.
Here’s the real secret. The air here in the Carboniferous contains 75% more oxygen than the air of our time. When we get older, we lose alveoli and capillaries in our lungs. Our chests become less flexible and capacious. Less oxygen diffuses into our blood from the air sacs in the lungs. As we age, we slowly suffocate.
This hyperoxic air is the Fountain of Youth. It allows us to breathe again freely, to enjoy exertion and activity that we thought were long behind us. You’ll live longer and get to do it independently too. Look at me. I hike, I fish, I run the welcome center. Would you believe that I’m a hundred and one?
Interested in touring some model units? Good! Before we go out, we’ll have to put some bug spray on you. It’s extra strength. Might sting a little.
Well, the truth is, we do have a bit of a problem here with insects and other arthropods. These critters don’t pump oxygen through the blood like we do. Instead, oxygen must diffuse passively into their bodies through little holes and narrow tubes. So if they get too big, they’ll literally suffocate. But with more oxygen in the air during the Carboniferous, they can grow much bigger. The dragonflies here are about a meter across, and the millipedes more than six feet long. They usually don’t bite unless provoked, but the sight is a bit shocking until you get used to them.
Hello? Hello? Oh dear. Nurse! Another couple’s fainted.
A WEEKEND WITH AN OWL GOD
by Frank Key
If you have ever spent a weekend with an owl god, you will know that it can be a character-building experience. I have vivid memories of the time Chalchiuhtecolotl, the night owl god of the Aztecs, made itself at home in my flat for three trying days. I live in a glitzy and gleaming block, of futuristic design, impossibly stark, with lots of exciting remote control hubs, but the fact is it is small, even pokey, and it doesn’t help that I have crammed into it the contents of my ma’s laboratory and my pa’s garden shed, together with much of the furniture thrown out when the local vet refurbished his waiting room and a jumble of junk from a hellhole.
That Friday evening I was crumpled on a settee, eating lemon meringue pie and reading Pebblehead’s bestselling paperback Brute Beauty And Valour And Act, Oh, Air, Pride, Plume, Here Buckle! when the front door sensor vibrated, the hub hummed, and the plasma display flashed insistently. I had a visitor, though no one was expected. Thinking it might be a goon coming to serve me with an Asbo, I depressed the locking knob on the entry pod, put down my pie plate, and tiptoed my way through some of ma’s alembics to the door. Peering through the tintin slat, I saw a hunched and somewhat shabby figure dressed like a bus conductor, if you can remember bus conductors.
He- I thought it was a he – was not holding anything that might be an Asbo, so, being an affable sort, I opened the door.
He – or rather, it – almost knocked me over as it somehow soared past me and came to rest next to the settee. Before either of us spoke, it plucked my plate off the floor and scoffed what was left of the lemon meringue pie. Then it said:
_Good evening. I am an Aztec god. My name is Chalchiuhtecolotl and I am an owl god. Of the night._
_You look like a bus conductor,_ I replied, _And a shabby one at that._
Then it screeched at me. It was the loudest and longest screech I have ever had the misfortune to hear. My ears did not stop ringing until Sunday lunchtime, by which time the owl god had completely taken over my life. Within the confines of my fab but tiny flat, it swooped, it pecked at things, it shifted shape, it did some strange rewiring manipulations to my stereo system, it fluttered and preened, it fixed me for hours with a cold inhuman stare, it sprouted tufts and feathers, it would not let me read my Pebblehead paperback, it hawked up gobbets of semi-digested pie, it smashed all ma’s lab equipment to smithereens, then ate the smithereens, it shifted shape again, it summoned some of its Aztec god pals and held a rowdy Saturday night party, it kept me awake by looming menacingly just out of sight, it filled the bath with wounded mice and stoats and weasels, it made me sit through a four-hour documentary about Spandau Ballet, its metabolism speeded up to the point where everything in the flat was shaking, it phoned up my friends and told them I had moved to Dawlish, it somehow managed to drag a live swan into the bathroom and savaged it with its talons, it screeched and screeched, drowning out the Shipping Forecast, it burned its bright incandescent fury into my soul, and on Monday morning it shape-shifted again, just as it was pulverising my bread bin, and turned back into what looked like a shabby bus conductor.
_I am leaving you now,_ it said, and it sounded almost regretful.
I watched it leave, and slumped on what was left of the settee. I took a nap, and then I went to see the priest to explain to him that I was renouncing the Roman Catholic faith, forever. He tried to lure me into the confessional box, but I threatened to tear his beating heart out of his chest and make an offering of it to That Mighty Orb, the Sun.
That shut him up. I sashayed off through the glittering streets, past Pang Hill Orphanage and across Sawdust Bridge, towards glory.
Episode Art: Forrest WarnerRead by: Mat Weller, Geoff Welchmann