Tim Longwell


P.S.Y. OPERA, 05:45 UT


A STRANGER APPROACHED the young performer as she bowed from the stage to her gaudy alien audience in the dimmed bar. The spotlight projector stopped tracing her movements. Her dance-song was over.

“SiaTla?” he inquired hoarsely, his silhouette too burly to belong to a man of the cloth, though he was hooded in black. She recognized the glowing ZahOar symbols along his cloak’s rim. The public’s voices faded off, everything froze in the nick of time like in a fairy tale. “SiaTla from planet NalSek in the Cassiopeia Constellation?”

Almost a girl, the cute orange alien drew back in hesitation. Why is he calling it by its human name? she wondered. Why not Gria T’Lanu?

“Are you the ZahOar priestess, named SiaTla?” the man insisted a bit militantly, sounding more like a bounty hunter than a paid assassin.

“Who asks?” she dared to say, her semitransparent temples perspiring like a glass of cold water. Apparently, her alien features had betrayed her. He’ll think I’m perspiring from the dance, she thought in the back of her mind. Relax, girl! And she brushed off her sweat theatrically.

“I feel you have refined your MahnLik skills,” the man continued, approaching slowly, walking in between the frozen-in-time public, like when a starship navigates around a singularity paradox of a neutron star. “Have you misused them lately, my child?”

SiaTla blinked in fear, her vertically slit cat-like green pupils sparkling on the concert lights. Abruptly, the vision disappeared from her mind’s eye, just as fast as it came. The stifling bar was still packed. The customers were clapping. No one even noticed she was disoriented. Her dance-song was over. She was already bowing just as in her vision.

Her mind’s eye didn’t stop there. It immediately drew her attention to a certain table, pointing at the reason for this unexpected revelation: four hairy aliens, arguing feverishly as thugs do. They tailored some rotten story that would later be all over the news—uncaught again!

“I tell you,” whispered their leader, ready to smack his skinny partner across the table, “he’d cost us a thousand credits!” Inspecting the surroundings with a conspiratorial glimpse, he made sure no one was eavesdropping. He then hissed sneakily, “Don’t do anything stupid, Kurlak, or you’ll bust us all! You aren’t here to make deals, but to drive us!”

“Nuzlah,” the other replied, “this Gerhard is just a poor earthling—”

Shush, you idiot!” the leader snarled at him. “No names, I said!”

“Are you dumb?” the third asked. “The earthling isn’t to pay the ransom. His stupid captain is. They’re a dying race. They need every man.”

Disregarding her tipsy public, begging for an extra song, SiaTla quickly gathered her senses. She knew her priestly gift too well to ignore it. Bowing to the noisy customers, who thought she was teasing them for more applause, she dashed to her dressing room, forgetting the bonus.

They’ve kidnapped Gerhard? her mind shrieked as she rushed in, shutting the door with her back. Are they crazy? Just because he’s the commander onboard The Malibu freighter, it doesn’t mean his captain has got any goods to buy him off! They’re poor, for crying out loud!

Changing quickly into a nondescript jumpsuit, SiaTla began making plans. Her mind’s eye helped her again. In fragments, she saw how two other thugs dragged her beloved from an abandoned factory, bringing him to the bar through the backdoor. Is the exchange to take place here? she wondered. Why here? There are no humans from his ship in this bar. Or … are they planning to intimidate her to pay the ransom? These lowlife xenophobic warmongers! Are they out of their minds?

“Now or never,” the singer spurred herself, walking not by sight but by what her faithful inner being was showing her at the brink between realities and temporal probabilities. She knew that the future was not yet set firmly; she knew it could take any stream on the river of timelines. That was why it was so unpredictable, so undecided in her visions. The only way to see it clearly would be to look back from the future. But she was not a time-traveling priestess. She wasn’t even a nun from her people’s convents anymore! Almost bumping on the three thugs on their way to the restrooms, she rushed into the ladies’ section and locked herself in one of the stalls. Now, girl, she lashed herself like a racing animal. Now or never! You and Gerhard had a future before these cons came!

In the men’s room behind the separation wall, as the criminals relieved themselves, burping and grunting at one another, SiaTla forced her heart to do the unthinkable: the very act her vision had foretold on the stage that she was about to do. Go ahead, misuse your gift, she told herself inwardly, knowing that her people will judge her for that. They will send bounty hunters, find her, trial her, shun her forever! But Gerhard is worth it! she decided. He too would sacrifice himself for me!

No one noticed what she did next. None of the ruthless kidnappers could even suspect such a thing. As the accomplices brought in the kidnapped human officer—drugged to appear drunk to a casual witness—a young man’s soul left his wretched body, swapping places with the unknown victim of a yet-unfinished crime.

A moment later, Gerhard opened his eyes, dropping a blade from his hand. His head spinning, he realized he was about to … cut his wrists? He looked around. He was in a dumpster. Was he really about to commit suicide on this wretched planet—right after he had arrived to meet Sia, the love of his life? No, no! Hell, a thousand times no! I came to take her away from this dirty place; to marry her, to have babies, to have a life with her! Not to die in a rotten pile of trash!

“Gerrr…” he heard someone whispering his name in an alien way. “Gerrr, where are you?” Showing his head out the stinking dumpster, garbage all over his filthy rags, he spotted the athletic body of his love, searching for him in the bar’s dark and filthy back street.

“Sia?” he barely recognized her in that old jumpsuit. “What’s going on? What am I doing here, love? Was I … drunk? Me? When?”

For the first time, SiaTla looked at the face of her “swapped” husband. The body of that homeless suicidal, which she had picked to house Gerhard’s soul, wasn’t ugly. It was the only available host around, since the poor young man was about to waste himself. She wasn’t sure what the kidnappers would do to Gerhard’s original flesh, but she had a vague idea. They would probably kill him, getting no ransom from the captain of The Malibu. The young man was just about to die anyway…

Looking at the face she had never loved, her violet mouth gaped and she purred both in pain and happiness … for saving the life of her beloved. Is that a crime? she thought. Is it wrong to have a second chance?



P.S.Y. OPERA, 05:58 UT


“Skipper,” the comlink went off abruptly in the dark cabin, “they’re hailing us from the mining colony on the secure channel. Sounds urgent.”

The man in the bunk was so asleep that he didn’t even recall hearing the computer chime before the message came. Now it chimed again.

“Captain, you’re requested on the bridge, sir,” insisted the pilot. The lack of response persuaded him to take action. “Sully, please get your sorry butt up and join me in the cockpit, on the double!”

“Okay, okay,” murmured the private space yacht’s owner, “I’m up.” Kicking off the blanket he was wrapped in, like a silkworm, he added, “Gimme a sec to pee and rinse out my bad breath, would you?”

The dream was still vivid in his mind, if he could call that a “dream” at all. It was rather a remote viewing of his mother’s life. He knew their secret escape story from childhood, but without so many details. It had hurt him to lose them both so young. At least he had their yacht and the stars to wander about, walking in his Mom’s footsteps as a performer. As a half-breed humanoid with exotic features and supernatural abilities, he was putting up quite a magic show out there, with music and all.

In a minute, dressed up in his Dad’s board uniform, washed and perfumed, Captain Sullivan SiaTla Gerhards—named so in honor of his heroic parents—pressed the intercom’s button at the doorway. “Tell ‘em I’m on my way, Bert. And let your cute wife have my tea hot-n-steamin’ with three sugar cubes on tray, or I’ll be a very angry Captain today.”

His old childhood friend didn’t chuckle to the tease. “No time for jokes, pal. They’re saying they’ll speak only to you. Come quickly.”

As soon as Sully entered the bridge, The Opera shook for no obvious reason. “Are we out of fuel?” He gawked at his pilot. “Again? No way.”

Usually, Bert Bridges was funny, even in the face of deadly danger. But not this time. “I guess so,” he grunted. His finger on the comlink switch, he gave Sully the dummy face of an innocent puppy. “That’s because by now we were supposed to have some goods to exchange for fuel. Don’t get me started about that fat bar owner again, who…”

He didn’t finish. They all knew how that story had ended. Same old!

Sully nodded. “Okay, patch me through now. Don’t keep them old miners waiting till death do us part. Our fuel is only fifty clicks away.”

As the visual appeared, he made out the colony overseer’s features.

“Sorry we had to wake you, Sully,” the shaggy old man apologized, every piece of his hair and beard with its own opinion, even after he showered and diligently combed. A classic cartoon character, but with warm eyes. “I know we’ve originally contracted you to do a two-night show in exchange for fuel and provisions, but…” Murphy’s shoulders slumped. “There’s only one way of putting it, brother: space pirates.”

The two men on the other side of the screen glanced at one other, disbelieving their own ears. “Space pirates?” they sang out in unison.

“Unfortunately,” Murphy went on quieter, his nose almost touching the dusty screen, “them buggers decided to hijack our thorium storage on asteroid A11, which is where your load is. Dang it!” he spat out angrily.

“But-but…” Bert stuttered in dismay, “how did they penetrate your robotic defense system? You installed it the last time we were here.”

Murphy harrumphed, his throat gone dry. “Beats me, guys.” Making a sour face, he said, “My advice, stay out of this, or it’ll get bloody.”

“Any hostages?” inquired the captain.

“No, but you might be the ideal candidates. The Opera isn’t a battleship, after all. I know you’ve got two anti-meteor cannons on stem and stern, but that’s a joke, comparing to their formerly military cruiser. She has a cloaking device; we can’t even locate her exact position. For all I know, she could be lurking right at your face, ready to blast you off.”

Bert interjected impatiently: “You’ve notified the Mining Consortium yet? Have they dispatched your private space guards already?”

To their surprise, the overseer stopped them with a finger on his mouth, imitating that he was picking his nose. “No, of course not. Are we crazy? We seek a quiet solution, or them guardians will be all over us for months. It ain’t no nice workin’ with corporate muzzles under your nose. Guys, no need to be concerned with how we do things here. Just cruise around and come back in two weeks. Go visit the new Teklak Resort on Dagra Prime. I hear they pay well.” He sort of winked, rubbing his eye from a sudden eyelash irritation, and wrapped it up, “I’m sorry, guys. See you in two weeks.” And he cut off the communication link.

“What the—!” Bert jumped from the pilot’s seat, controlling his billowing anger. “They know we’ve got no fuel. ‘Go to Teklak Resort’ my blazes and thunders! With what? Human methane from Dagra beans?”

“Wait.” Sully grabbed his shoulders and shook him slightly. “Remember when we beat Murph on a game of sticks three months ago?”


“Did you notice how his accent changed when he tried bluffing us?”

Bert’s eyes followed his captain’s finger as it pointed at the comlink screen. “He’s bluffin’? You mean, there’re no pirates down there?”

Sully gave him a funny look. “No, there are pirates, but he’s not telling us the whole truth, buddy. I wish I could read his mind, but you know it only works with me on short distances; ten-fifteen meters max.”

“So all this winking and hush-hush was just beans blazes? Huh?”

His wife showed up in the cockpit’s doorway. “Breakfast’s ready, boys.” Since they didn’t react, looking at her as if she’d eaten their last cookie, her throat squeaked out, “What? Did I say something wrong?”

Both men delivered the news in one accord: “There’re pirates there!”

A minute later, they explained everything to her in the galley, sipping from their hot tea of boiled walnuts and nibbling from the dry biscuits of their last provisions. She was their cook, board engineer, grease monkey, but also their impresario and treasurer, as they called her with those ancient human titles from the long-forgotten Earth and its once great civilization of space explorers.

That being so, Zenda Kris Bridges began devising a strategy plan.



ASEROID A01, HQ, 06:15 UT


“Don’t do this to me!” Murphy Elliott hissed at the screen through clenched teeth. His alien assistant and bodyguard Balkak Orux walked in without knocking. Grinning with his humanoid-rhino face, the muscle-packed Leylagan thumbed behind his back to the communications room across the dimmed corridor. “Tha Upera caming our way, Boss,” he chattered with his unforgettable English. “What we do now?”

Murph slapped his stained wooden table with a whole palm, lifting mining dust in the air like an adobe cloud of smoke. “These damn Troubadours! Idiots with idiots! I told them to stay away!”

This way or another, it was already too late. About five minutes later, the bonze-glittering Private Space Yacht Opera—once a fine piece of flying real estate property, now scarred with oxidized patchwork and dirty diagonal portholes—descended onto the emergency launch pad. Right in front of the Astereopolis IV mining colony’s HQ barracks.

Shouting into his mobile communicator, Murphy approached them with a furious look: “How the devil did you know that our defense powershields were polarized to let you through? You could’ve burned up in that canopy! Are you crazy? Didn’t I tell you to stay away from—?”

“Oh, come on now, Mr. Elliott,” he heard the voice of the woman that descended on the ship’s ramp; the female that every miner in a thousand clicks radius was twice in love with, up to their dusty ears. “Don’t underestimate my ingenuity, honey,” she spoke seductively. Dressed in her glinting red tights, she wore those high-heel boots, her tall neck wrapped in a feathery scarf. Her blond hair waved behind her like the national flag of a new galactic empire. “You know me better than that.”

“Yes,” her harebrained husband spoke behind her, emerging from the settled down yacht. He was the troupe’s clown, and only the miner’s kids loved him, for he was doltishly hilarious. “See that fork at your feet?”

Murph and his alien bodyguard recognized the utensil in the dust.

“We threw that to check out if your shield is on,” Bert laughed out. “So we thought we were invited, my dear sir.”

A moment later, the miners rushed out from everywhere to meet the Troubadours, as if nothing had happened. Apparently, they knew zilch of space pirates and ore hijacking. The Opera burst with a music lightshow, and the welcome carnival began. The last to come out was Captain Sullivan, the beloved singer and magician of all miners’ wives and daughters. Donned in a white suit covered with thumbtacks, in honor of some age-long dead Earth musician named Elvis Parsley or something, he was to entertain the local females with love songs and cryptic mind reading.

Waving to the gartering crowd, who greeted them with ovations and wild whistles, Sully approached the overseer, who now seemed to play along, a ridiculous smile across his stupefied face.

“Murph, old friend,” said the captain, casting an arm around the dusty man, “nice bluff. Just keep on smiling, and let’s talk inside, OK?”

After shaking a few hands that pierced through the fenced launch pad, the performers entered the murky HQ barracks. They were supposed to be lodged and rested before tonight’s show in the adorned mess hall.

“Are you out of your minds?” Murphy beset them on the spot, as the door closed behind them. “I told you not to—”

“Yes, you did,” affirmed Sully. “But now’s time for the truth, pal.”

“The truth is, I deal with these pirates privately and quietly,” the old man snarled through rotten teeth. His mouth a whole encyclopedia of dental problems known in the galaxy. He explained, “I do it myself, to avoid bloodbath or worse! If a piece of hair falls from their heads, their other buddies up there will launch a full-scale barrage on us. They’ll blow us to pieces—women and children alike. Got it now, wise butts?”

“And none of your colonists know that?” asked Zenda. “You just pay these thugs to leave you alone? Somehow … under the desk? Bribing?”

“What about your bookkeepers?” insisted Bert. “They never suspect a thing? Never notice that thorium fuel is vanishing hanky-panky?”

Sully paused him with a gesture. “Thorium and what else? Credits? I don’t bet they’re here for your rusty cans of beans and coverall rags.”

Murph dropped in his wooden chair, burying his face in one palm. “Balkak, see outside that no one snoops,” he ordered his sturdy bodyguard. Once the alien left, he whispered, “We’ve discovered a streak of platinum, or two. Not much, but they’d somehow heard about it, and…”

Zenda nodded with understanding. “And you never told the Mining Consortium about it. Right. You kept it a secret … until now, that is.”

The old miner grunted unhappily. “All my life, I’ve been wasting my lungs and teeth in these godforsaken hell-holes, while our benevolent bosses are stuffing their pockets. You know the high unemployment rate in this sector. You know how much those alien sharks hate us, humans. They hire only muscle-packs like Balkak or three-meter giants from Trajil and Paqiroo. They want animal workers, not gentle people or intellectuals.” He sobbed, wiping his face, ashamed to be seen in such mellow condition. “Okay.” He stood up. “What now? What’s your wise plan?”





“Who the hell are you?” the pirate yelled at the odd-looking man, emerging from the uninvited escape shuttle. “Hands up! No weapons on you?”

“I’m unarmed,” said Bert, his face camouflaged with a firmly glued beard and sooth, to resemble a space pirate. He wore an eye patch, under which a suitable gray contact lens would tell anyone that his eye was truly blinded in a bad skirmish with the authorities. There was also a nice makeup scar across his cut eyebrow down to the cheekbone, which not even a surgeon would recognize as fake. “Take me to your chief,” he ordered with a deep voice. “I’ve got an offer for him.”

The hooded pirate sniffed the self-invited guest like a dog. “Is that booze?” His eyes twinkled with a happy glare. He immediately reported over the wristcom to his people, “Chief, we’ve got a booze smuggler!”

Bert grabbed the human’s arm and roared into his device, “Not just a smuggler, but Captain Cook, better known as Pegleg!” And he tramped with his heel onto the metallic floor of the nuclear storage facility’s bay, to assure the guard that this was a real prosthesis, indeed.

The other snapped and stepped back in transparent fear, targeting the unarmed legend with the blaster in his shaky hands. Pegleg’s infamous glory was that of a brutal space pirate, combing worlds where human Whiskey was illegal, for it caused a bad-drug effect on some aliens. They were turning rampant and disobedient to authority, as murderous as Pegleg himself. Or so the rumors were, spread throughout alien newswire.

Soon, the man in charge rushed into the launch bay, surrounded with a dozen low-life thugs, armed to the teeth with any kind of weapons.

Bert gasped inwardly, hiding his surprise on the spot. “Murph?” his lips betrayed him. “Ha-ha-ha…!” he laughed theatrically, gathering his chaotic thoughts. “Since when did you resolve to piracy, old friend?”

But as the pirate’s leader stepped into the light, Bert swallowed his tongue. The man against him was Murph, no doubt, yet at least ten years younger. Is that his brother? he thought. Can’t be his son … or is he?

Now the unknown counterpart laughed, but his laughter was genuine. “Captain Cook, huh?” he burst again, barely holding his lungs. “The one from Australia or from New Britannia on Mars? Ho-ho-ho-ho…!”

The pirates around looked at their chief, eyes bouncing between the two competitors, though they had no idea where these worlds were. None of them had ever heard of Mars or Brutania—whatever that meant!

“I’ve come to cut you a deal,” said Bert, still acting. “No need of rivalry and competition in this sector. The miners love my stock, so…”

“Name’s Michael,” the leader replied friendly, producing a gloved palm for a handshake, a symbol no alien could understand. “Let’s talk in private, shall we? I’m sure we can come to a fair agreement.”

Once inside the pirates’ temporary camp of operation, after everything was explained to the famous actor, Bert shot a burning question:

“I don’t understand. So there’s no platinum streak, no ore hijacking, no pirates, no cloaked warship in space—just smuggling illegal workers into the mines? But-but…” he stuttered, “why the whole charade? And how come you’re so young if you’re twins with Murph?”

Michael chuckled, acknowledging the long and messy question. “Radioactive thorium would do that to a human face, brother. Murph is a wreck, if you ask me. But hey, it’s a job that puts food on the table. Frankly, it helps humanity to survive. No food—no love. No love—no babies. We’re a dying race, I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“Yeah, my wife and I can’t have children from radiated food.” The actor rubbed his fake beard, for its glue was itching him. “One never knows what one eats out there in the galaxy. But why posing as pirates? Aren’t there easier ways into the Consortium’s labor system?”

Michael smirked. “Not everyone’s got a talent to act, or be a good clown that no alien wants to shoot for bad jokes. On the planets, terraformed by our ancestors, we’re still welcome, but we’re not just a million or two. After Earth had been destroyed, billions of our drifters were scattered all over the arm of our galaxy. How good’s your Earth history?”

Bert shook his head, realizing that the smart fella had unmasked him. “Poor home schooling, sorry. I was born in space just like my folks.”

“Have you heard that our great forefathers had created most of those aliens out there?” Michael touched his forehead. “With something called, ‘bio engineer ring.’ I think it’s one word: bioengineering.” He shook his head. “Anyway, if you ask the humans that we smuggle around, helping them find jobs in any possible world, they’ve no idea what Mars is. Tell me, when was the last time you’ve been back to Soul system, to see the remains of our Earth? Never? Wait,” he stopped the actor. “Don’t tell me. No fuel, right? It’s a damn long flight to our sun. It’ll take you what, about twenty, thirty generations to go back, right? Who’s got that much fuel? But once,” he spoke with the fervor and excitement of a legendary explorer, “humanity used to have what they call ‘mother ships,’ faster than lightning bolts. They used to jump through space and time…” His excitement withered away. “While now, now we jump through circus hoops, entertaining humanoid creatures, who once were our own…”

“Slaves?” Bert pulled the word out of his mouth. “Tell me, I wanna know. I’ve never seen a book in my life, no visual records, nothing. Did we create them to be our workers? And now the roles are reversed?”

Michael wobbled his head in uncertainty. “Sort of. They were human bodies, altered to withstand otherworldly climate, to colonize space and further human civilization beyond our star system. Our ancestors used to freeze their dying, especially those with incurable diseases. In hope that future generations will learn how to heal them or beat death and prolong their life. Like the Tholians who live 500 years. No overpopulation there; they’ve terraformed all six planets and eleven moons of their system.”

A blond young man with gemlike blue eyes served them aromatic hot tea and dry eels, unless those were unknown salted alien worms.

“Don’t stop,” insisted Bert. “I feel like I’ve never known our race.”

Michael sighed with a melancholic smile. “So did I, until we found some records in an asteroid wreck, not far from here. Garbled visuals, collected from many ships and what they used to call ‘films.’ I’ll show it to you someday. But first we must organize our people, make some sort of wireless schooling system, and spread that knowledge before too late. Teach our kids read and write. As far as our history goes, enough to say, our grandpas had defrosted those bodies a hundred years later, and altered them into humanoids, giving those poor guys a second chance in life. Mixed with animal Dee-En-Ey, which I believe’s an abbreviation.”

“DNA?” Bert frowned. “So those ‘made aliens’ rebelled against us?”

“Some have rebelled violently, becoming sick, or turning into something else, what we call ‘humanoid’.” Michael sipped from the tea. “Others, fought for independence, hiding from their children that they’re part human, because we were viewed as tyrants, slave masters. Disgusting.”

“So,” Bert tried to summarize, “all aliens are human creation, huh?”

Michael shrugged dumbly, opening his arms. “We don’t know. Can we know? Life’s a mystery. But here’s a riddle for you: How come all the planets, on which there’s life, have air that humans can breathe?”

“And our fast ships?” Bert’s brows knitted in anger. “Destroyed?”

“Not a trace from them, brother. Gone with the Earth. History.”

In a moment of awkward silence, the actor’s wristcom went off. He pressed a button and responded, “It’s me. What’s up?”

You what’s up, Captain Cook?” his wife prodded impatiently.

“Everything’s fine. You’ll see just now.” Putting down his hand, he spoke to Michael, “When did you say the corporate officer’s arriving to interview the new workers?” He pressed his wristcom to display time.

“Less than three hours,” the reply was. “Ten o’clock. Once a year.”

“Now then…” Bert smiled crookedly, “we’re supposed to have a big show tonight, and we’re a bit tired.” He yawned. “Haven’t slept much.”

“I understand,” said Michael. “Just hide somewhere, in case it gets bloody. Try staying out of harm’s way, and all would be as planned.”

“Oh, you misunderstood me.” Bert smiled again. “Our show has just been moved over to ten o’clock this morning. I call that … destiny.”

What?” Michael and the other humans in the room, posing as pirates, exchanged flummoxed glances. “What do you mean?”


ASEROID A11, 09:45 UT


“Is everyone told to have their work permit badge hanging around their neck?” the corporate officer asked the overseer. Both looking out the window, they watched the space transporters deliver clouds of workers already. “I have no time to waste,” he coughed, swallowing his phlegm.

Every year Mr. Grak Blixc, a citizen of the Nutca Empire, asked the same question. And every year Murphy gave him the same answer:

“Yes, honorable Mr. Blixc, everyone’s informed of the Mining Consortium’s official rules. Everyone to the last job candidate, sir.”

Even so, each year, at 9:46, the corporate officer would grunt an OK, and say with the hidden tone of one hating his job, “Very well. We take only the strongest men and endurable women. No pregnant, no children.” He would then lift his lizard-green index finger with a claw toward the dusty ceiling, and say, “I have nothing against if they breed here and raise healthy offspring in the knowledge of our mining. Once accepted, they can colonize our asteroid field, even plant their food. Understood?”

“Understood,” Murphy Elliott would answer, urging with a gesture his alien assistant Balkak to echo the word as good as he possibly could:

“Under-stood,” the rhino-like bodyguard would say, no pun intended whatsoever. Not even for a split second in the existence of the galaxy.

Fourteen minutes later, the corporate officer would sit at the gate beneath the fog-glass shade and review the candidates from the neighboring worlds. Accepting only the first fifty, he would send the rest to seek luck elsewhere. Spending no more than ten seconds on each, he would ask:

“Name, gender, age, race?”

“Ruzl Mnar,” the individual answered, “male, 36, humanoid.”

Mr. Blixc pointed his hand scanner at the man’s badge, inspecting him from head to toes. As the data appeared on his electronic pad, he checked the name and pronounced the verdict: “Accepted. Next.”

“Blia HaSker, female 96, Gullian Monarchy.”

Mr. Blixc knew that some aliens were blessed with longevity, so he smiled, yet his good mood fled off his face as soon as he looked at her. She—if that was a she—had a turtle’s face. “Accepted,” he said. “Next.”

“Itru Smat Yw Lendar, male, 46, Trajil Colony.”

The corporate officer regarded the giant. Strong as a rock. Healthy.

Standing behind the fence, the long-employed workers observed the procedure, some looking for people of their own kind, others seeking cute spouses among the newcomers, or just being curious. A young human teen, holding the bars with his small fists, whispered to his mother:

“Ma, is he blind?”

The woman, goggles on her forehead, gagged her son’s mouth, lowering her face to his ear. “Not a word, love.” She caressed his dark hair.

He puckered his face at her. “Ma, tell me?” And he whispered even quieter, “I won’t tell nobody. Don’t treat me like a child. I’m thirteen.”

Next to him, an old man, the age of his grandfather, petted his dusty curls. As the boy turned his head around so see who that was, the miner knelt at his side. “You know the Troubadours that’d arrived earlier?”

“Who doesn’t,” the swarthy teen conspired. Then he grasped it, his face lighting up. “No way? That singer’s making magic on him?”

This time, the old worker placed his palm on the boy’s mouth. “You know what they’ll do to us, humans, if they hear you say that, right?”

The boy nodded a few times. “Uh-huh.”

“So, not a bleep, Jordan. Not even in your sleep, okay?” As the teen nodded several more times, swearing silently to all gods in the galaxy, human and alien alike, the gray-haired man revealed, “By the time they find out, the performers will be loooong gone, and you might have a new Dad. I see lots of strong, handsome men on the line. All they need is food and shower, and a good wife with a brave boy like you to take care of.”

Holding her tears, his mother put on her goggles and bit her lip. But then she added, “And some nice human songs of love and happiness from the ends of the galaxy—” Her voice cut off, wavering.

The boy hugged her. He knew she was crying. The old man hugged her as well. He winked at her as she smiled to him, and repeated, “Yeah, some fabled NalSek minstrels, the likes only Captain Sullivan can sing.” And he told himself, “atta boy! Atta my good boy!”