Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Future Does Not Have to Be Dystopic (Why I Wrote a Sci-Fi Comedy)

We aspire; we imagine; we attempt     (photo: Stephanie Barnhizer)

Just wriggle your nose
My journey to science fiction began like that of many people my age—as a child watching the original Star Trek episodes during the heady years of 1966 – 1969. During those years I also watched Batman, Betwitched, the Monkees, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All sorts of odd ideas about magic and heroism and technology and the world of imagination rattled around in my young mind. I didn’t understand until much later that I was seeing parody and cultural critique and a parable of the Cold War. I didn’t even know there was a Cold War, though I was vaguely aware of the hot one—Vietnam. I didn’t know there was a Civil Rights movement, although in 1968 I was aware people were upset when a King got killed.  I just absorbed the pop culture presented to me, trying to make sense of the world as best I could. Though I taught myself to read at age four, it wasn’t until early 1969 that I tackled a real chapter book (Wizard of Oz!) and entered the kingdom of literature. Up until then television and my family were my prime sources of information.

60's good guys
I knew Bewitched was pretend but thought maybe I might run across magic someday just the same. (At this point I still believed in Santa Claus.) I knew that Batman was silly but it was lively and the goofy villains reassuringly never got the upper hand. I knew that The Monkees were real somehow (I had one of their records) but even at six I knew their show was far too nonsensical to have much relation to reality. I knew when Mr. Rogers’ trolley went into his King Friday puppet world it was pretend but also that the puppet world was much more interesting than the time he spent singing while taking on and off his real sweater. 

And then there was Star Trek, a show I watched with my parents. I knew it was pretend because many of the things they could do were akin to magic (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) But I also understood that Star Trek was more than pretend, because it was about the future, and even though it wasn’t true now, it might be true in the time to come. And so Star Trek created an odd idea category in my developing mind, one that danced back and forth across the imaginary/real boundary.

You have a better phone than Kirk.
And some tech from Star Trek has already turned out to be real. Uhura’s earpiece receiver and computer tablet, flat screen TVs and video chats, flip-open phones/communicators, computer voice recognition and universal translators. Before a new technology can be created, first it must be imagined. And sometimes just the imagining ignites the desire to turn an idea into reality. Science fiction can be powerful stuff.

Happy future
But the best part of creating science fiction goes far beyond imagining cool gadgets and tech. Because of its strange dance across the line of possible future truth, science fiction is a powerful way to examine and critique the human experience. Often this is done through dystopic future-casting, some examples being 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Childhood’s End, Ender's Game, The Handmaid’s Tale, the Firefly series (TV), the Hunger Games trilogy and The Children of Men. All show a frightening vision of possible trends in human culture. It’s not the advances in science that are so grim in these narratives, it’s what humans do with them. Most of these books/movies/TV shows have little in the way of humor, not surprising when the realities they depict are so bleak. (Yes, Firefly fans, that show has its humorous moments, but you have to admit the Reavers are some of the worst bit of nastiness ever created.) Beware, watch out! the generators of these dystopias say. Their cautionary tales are meant to disturb us, prod us into action to prevent our descent into these various self-created hells.

Of course there are exceptions to the humorlessness of sci-fi dystopia. A mordantly funny, wildly dystopic sci-fi book I admire is The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. (He also wrote Solaris, the film of which had no inkling of humor whatsoever, but since Lem himself said none of the film versions made an attempt to capture the essence of his novel, maybe someday I’ll be brave and try it out.)

The granddaddy of all modern science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series had perhaps a dystopic cast to it, but it wasn’t essentially pessimistic. Yes, the grand human empire falls apart, but due to smart men (as far as I can remember it is almost entirely men who take action) the ensuing dark ages lasts only a thousand years instead of thirty thousand. As sci-fi dystopia goes, this is a unicorn and rainbows outcome.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is dystopian in its way (after all the Earth is destroyed by the Vorgons pretty much immediately) but Douglass Adams finds even wiping out humans a comical event, and both the universe and life go on in an entertaining fashion.

My formative years, however, were filled not with sci-fi dystopias, but with cartoonish superheroes, happy witch families, pothead pop stars, and deep Star Trek optimism. The original Star Trek (and also most ensuing versions) was a combination adventure story and exploration of human morality. Anti-war and pro-racial diversity, the show promulgated that humans in the future could unite, live in peace, and explore the universe with mostly altruism and integrity. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, wanted to illuminate humanity’s potential if war and violence on Earth could be put behind it.

Cancelled? You've got to be kidding.
After three seasons the show was cancelled for low ratings. The last episode ran six weeks before humans first walked on the moon. Over the years the initial series has received just criticism for not entirely escaping racism, imperialism and sexism, although, to be fair, it managed a great deal less of it than most shows of its day. During the 70s Star Trek was syndicated, shown as reruns, and gained a much larger audience than it had originally.  It was seen by secondary TV stations as effective counter-programming against the Big Three stations 6 o'clock news. It developed a cult following, the first Trekkie convention was held in 1972, and the rest is history.

My last book, Beaufort 1849, was a cautionary tale, but one couched in historical rather than science fiction. It depicts a society, the antebellum South, that needed to change its slave-based economy and energy source to a wage-based economy fueled, ironically (in my view), by coal. (Water-powered mills would also have been an option.) This transition would’ve meant some loss of power and wealth by the Southern elite. Instead of changing, this elite doubled down on their way of life and lost everything. To me there are direct parallels to our own society (we need to transition to a sustainable economy fueled by sustainable power sources), but I suppose any resemblance is easy enough to ignore. Many believe that the antebellum South was evil and racist, we today are not evil and racist, and so we have nothing to learn from their choices, etc. Ah well. Personally I'm not sure that enslaving millions of people is any more evil than killing off billions through disease and famine, which is on deck to happen quite soon, but history will be the judge of that.

With Universal Time, I was interested not in warning but, like Roddenberry, in imagining what is possible for the future of humanity. What could be achieved if a race of human-like sentient beings put war, over-population, and environmental devastation behind them, and then, over a million years of conscious evolution, created a society that joyously and harmoniously met the needs of all its members? Such beings would still have problems, of course, as the Tivoleans in my book do. (After all, without problems there are no stories.) But in the end they solve their problems on their own terms, according to their principles of non-violence.

I wrote the book at a time when the topics pressing on my mind were health, education and the US invasion of Iraq. Now that we’ve seemingly become inured to endless war and I’m more panicked about energy issues and the environment, I probably would’ve written it differently today, but I’m still happy with the sense of optimism and expansive possibilities the novel presents, and its affectionate rather than mordant humor. After all, imagining that something can exist is the first step to making it possible.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Biking the Bay Bridge

Ever since the new east span of the Bay Bridge opened I’ve wanted to try out the feature it didn't possess in its previous incarnation—a bicycle/pedestrian path cantilevered into space. So yesterday my husband and I made the trek on BART from San Francisco to Oakland and biked the Bay Bridge trail. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly to the experience, but overall it was worth doing.

Now I must say that I find using BART for bikes trips to be a pain because I hate carrying my bike down multiple sets of stairs, and unfortunately, the elevators on BART tend to be slow, smelly and located in inconvenient places. Bizarrely, cyclists are not allowed to use BART escalators. (Why, why, why? I am far more of a menace to society lugging my bike up and down stairs than I am keeping it propped next to me on an escalator.)

We managed to haul our bikes down to a BART platform in the Mission nonetheless and boarded a train quite packed with passengers for a Sunday morning. After pouring over Google maps, we decided to get off at the West Oakland BART station because it’s the station closest to the Bay Bridge Trail. Another plus is that all BART trains stop there, reducing wait time for trains. 

Was this a mistake? Well, first off, even though West Oakland is the closest BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail, and the Bay Bridge Trail is one of the nicest public amenities/possible tourist attractions in the area, there was absolutely no signage on how to get to the trail. We took the Nelson Mandela Parkway, which was decent enough, with a reasonable bike lane and not all that much traffic. However, when we turned onto West Grand Ave, we found ourselves pretty much on a freaking freeway. Cars whizzed by at 50 mph on their way to actual freeway on ramps, and there were no bike lanes or any other bicyclists in sight. The only saving graces were a wide shoulder to ride on (filled with a certain amount of debris) and the fact that though traffic was fast, it was sparse. (The road was perhaps three times wider than it needed to be. Plenty of room for bike lanes!) I would say it was one of the nastiest miles of biking riding that I've put myself through. And it was the route Google Maps recommended. (There are not many streets that get you across the train tracks running through this area.)

Landscaping with flowers!
Eventually we found the parking lot on Maritime Street where one branch of the Bay Bridge Trail begins. The lot was full of cars with bike racks. Evidently driving your bike to the bike trail was far more popular (sensible, safer) than biking your bike to the bike trail. Once we got on the trail, however, our biking experience brightened considerably.

The first mile or so is flat and parallels the freeway through a kind of industrial wasteland, but the path itself is lovely, wide, and shiny new with pleasant landscaping and a separate section for pedestrians (which they sometimes use.) After the first mile there is an area with half a dozen portapotties, hand-washing stations and warnings that there are no more facilities for 2.4 miles. (Tip: bring your own water bottle and snacks.) We pressed on. As we left land and started on the bridge, the uphill climb began. The grade wasn't difficult—only 2%--but we were also riding into a headwind. Still it was enjoyable. I saw a little kid on a tiny bike struggling up this long grade, but anyone on a bike with at least three gears was fine. After a mile or so, the grade got easier—1 %—not something I could detect with my eye, but I sure felt the difference on my bike. 
Nice wide path

Once we were actually on the bridge, the noise of the cars reverberating over the bridge structure was quite loud. Perhaps not as loud as the Golden Gate Bridge (which, oh my gosh, is LOUD), but my husband and I had to raise our voices considerably in order to talk to each other.

The hazy south
The bike/ped path is on the south side of the bridge which is unfortunate. It means you can’t see the views off to the north, neither of San Francisco, nor of any of the islands. And it was fairly hazy (smoggy?) to the south so we couldn’t see much in that direction except some freighters waiting to be unloaded at the Oakland port. On the way back we could see downtown Oakland and the east bay hills, so it’s not as if the path offers no views at all.
The single tower

There were quite a few people on the path, probably an equal number of pedestrians and cyclists, though not so many as to make negotiating the path in any way difficult. (Not even a fraction of the bike/ped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.)  Again the path is wide, and in a few places there are bulb outs with benches so people can rest or safely take photos without being in anyone’s way.

There was a nice breeze during our ride, so even though we were only ten feet from the car traffic, the air quality wasn’t bad.  Still, we were only ten feet from car traffic the entire time we were on the bridge, not an exactly a relaxing experience. Off the bridge, the trail felt much further from traffic impact.

Me at the end of the road
We biked uphill 2.4 miles until we could go no further, a spot about a hundred yards from Yerba Buena Island. Crews are still deconstructing the old bridge, and a chunk of the old bridge blocks where the bike/ped path would go if it were to make it all the way to the island.  When the bridge is completely torn down, perhaps the path will go all the way? (We can hope!) As it stands, this path goes nowhere and provides no utility as transportation, only recreation. But many people were happy enough to make use of it nonetheless.

One benefit of riding the trail that I did not expect was being able to see the east span tower up close. In a car, I always pass by too quickly to get a good look. This time I could appreciate its design details (it has more than I thought) as well as admire the geometry created by its sweeping white cables against the blue sky.

Riding back we had 2.4 miles of coasting down hill! No peddling necessary. In fact, during the stretch with a 2% grade I had to brake occasionally to keep my bike under the 15mph speed limit.

The way to Emeryville
Since we’d not been enamored with our chosen route on the way there, on the way back we followed a spur of the trail that took us to the Bay Street shopping area of Emeryville. From there we got ourselves on 40th street which took us to the MacArthur BART station. This put us three stops further out on BART (lengthening the BART ride home), but by and large 40th Street has bicycle infrastructure the whole way that made for pleasanter, less scary biking. (However, I can’t say I understand the sharrows painted on a continuous green stripe in the middle of the car lane? As a bicyclist I really prefer to have my own dedicated, unmistakable space.) Though we had one hill at the beginning to get over a rail track crossing, in general the route was pancake flat compared to my San Francisco neighborhood. (From my point of view, flat=easy biking.)

After a certain point on 40th Street there was signage to the MacArthur BART station which made me happy. There was also decent signage on the Bay Bridge Trail, although it mentioned 40th Street and not BART. The busy MacArthur BART station has elevators that are not smelly, not abysmally slow and are large enough to hold bikes. Thumbs up there.

Coming down
I think it’s not unreasonable to expect a non-terrifying bike route from the West Oakland BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a decent biking experience—half the route on Mandela Parkway is already fine, and there’s plenty (plenty!) of room on West Grand Ave to put in a protected bike lane. Get out some paint, glue down a few dozen soft hit posts, and West Oakland could become a  popular jumping off point for people wanting to experience the Bay Bridge under their own power. (Look at the number of bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the Golden Gate Bridge!)

As we passed through West Oakland, I noticed around me a neighborhood that has enormous potential. If I had ten million dollars (which, sadly, I don’t) I would snatch up as much property within a mile of the West Oakland BART station as I could and develop walkable, transit-oriented development with ground floor retail. A few thousand units of housing in this sunny location that is a mere 7 minutes by BART from downtown San Francisco would take a great deal of pressure off San Francisco real estate. And, unlike Treasure Island, West Oakland probably won't be under water in twenty years. I can’t see how this area will remain a run down, post-industrial wasteland much longer.

Over all I'd say biking the east span of the Bay Bridge is a worthwhile and interesting experience. Perhaps not as spectacular as the Golden Gate Bridge, but pleasurable in its own way. Maybe someday the path will extend across the western span as well. I look forward to biking from San Francisco to Oakland when I'm seventy!

The old and the new

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Universal Time Earth Debut!

A divorced single mom's life gets complicated when an intergalactic conflict mediator moves in upstairs. But when the Universe knocks . . .


Find Universal Time on line or ask for it at your favorite bookstore. Read the first chapter:

Chapter One

The Tamaranth

     It wasn’t as if Cait didn’t have premonitions of what was to come. She did. In a mirror once, she caught sight of a strange blue glow in the room behind her. The year before that she had a series of vivid dreams about a gleaming crown. Perhaps these portents were useful; perhaps they helped Cait adapt to the singular circumstances in which she later found herself. Perhaps they were even the events of the future themselves, trying to reach back, trying to prepare her.
     Such things should be impossible, but if the universe is composed of space, time, energy and matter, perhaps all four are interchangeable, malleable to some extent. Not by humans, at least not any time soon, but the universe has larger forces than us at its disposal. We are, after all, just specially wrapped bits of the universe among other differently wrapped bits, and we float and bob in a vast sea of possibilities. If you had nothing better to do—no form or function, no history or future—you might create matter and energy and space and time, too, and set them in a dance, and see what happens.

     “Megan, please get your shoes on right now or we’ll miss the bus.”
     Cait had repeated this request every school day the last two years, at first calmly and then invariably growing more frantic. The bus was sometimes a minute or two (or ten) late, but they couldn’t count on it, as Megan was well aware. She was nine now, and even though she knew exactly how much her delays frustrated her mother, she just couldn’t seem to get those shoes on her feet. Today one of Megan’s shoes was half on and the other mysteriously missing. While Cait checked under couch cushions and behind doors for a size 2 red sneaker, her younger daughter, Samantha, practiced the piano with small, careful fingers.
     Papa Hayden’s dead and gone, but his memory lingers on . . . It was a tune Cait had learned as a child herself, but the lyrics were hazy now. And anyway, it didn’t matter because she’d just caught a glimpse of red canvas in the wastebasket. No time to question how it got there. She tossed the shoe to Megan, grabbed the leather bag that served as her briefcase, and they were out the door.
     They made the bus with fifteen seconds to spare, lunches and backpacks flying as Cait and the girls raced down the sidewalk to the stop. At least this year Samantha had started kindergarten so no extra stop-off was needed at the preschool. Cait deposited Samantha in her classroom with a kiss—her quiet, obedient, watch-everything child. Samantha took her mother’s light-skinned hand in her own milk chocolate one for a hesitant second. Then she dutifully dropped it and went to join the circle of children surrounding the teacher, allowing Cait a graceful exit.
     Megan had already run off as if she had no need of her mother. Cait made the trek to the fourth grade classroom just the same and kissed good-bye her busy, energetic, uncooperative daughter who turned dramatically at the last moment and clutched Cait as if they were parting for months rather than hours. After giving her a squeeze, Cait disengaged Megan’s arms, gave her another kiss on the forehead and left. Outside the door, she glanced back through the window and caught a look of decided disapproval that the teacher, Mrs. Hennessey, directed towards Megan and her antics.
     Cait made her way out the building with a sinking feeling that there was trouble ahead in the not too distant future. Though she loved her daughter dearly, and as tender and patient as she tried to be, there were still times Cait found Megan difficult and annoying. Short-tempered Mrs. Hennessey had no reason to love Megan, and plenty of reason to find her a thorn in her side. Cait knew beyond a doubt that the divorce was responsible, that Megan was still reacting to the dissolution of her family two years ago. And Cait felt deeply guilty, even though it’d been Eric who’d left, Eric who had cast their children into this emotional shipwreck while other children sailed merrily along on their intact family cruise. And there was nothing Cait could do about it except worry and request a special conference with Mrs. Hennessey sometime soon. Cait was good at worrying, and no doubt would’ve done so all the way to the bus stop (and during the bus ride as well) if other events hadn’t intervened.
     As her quick steps took her down the block, she brushed her hair back behind one ear. Red as flame but less brash than tomato, her shoulder-length hair just the last year had started to show a few strands of gray in its fiery midst. Though there’d been times in her life when the color had overshadowed her personality and captured all the attention anyone gave her, over the years she’d developed a balance with it, and it’d ceased to be the first thing people noticed about her. Scattered freckles on her face had long ago turned into fair, even skin; and her eyes, which had once seemed dull and indeterminate in color to her, were now a clear, pale violet. To her credit, the few lines that’d begun to crinkle around her eyes were largely due to smiles rather than frowns, probably because her smiles were never insincere. Anxiety, however, had also left its mark. It was responsible for the small furrow in her brow and the lines that were beginning to deepen between her nose and mouth.
     Since her divorce, a man or two had been interested in those warm smiles that always reached her eyes, and might have pursued something further if she just hadn’t looked at her watch so regularly or spoken of her children so often. She glanced at her watch now. A five minute walk, a five minute wait if she was lucky, twenty-five minutes on the bus, and she would be at work fifteen minutes before her first meeting. No need to deal with her email right away; she’d already checked it that morning, not to mention emptied the dishwasher and sorted the laundry, all before the girls woke up. Not bad for a Monday morning, Cait thought with satisfaction as she strode along in the clear, vivid sunlight that often graced San Francisco in October. The western half of the city might be blanketed with fog but in this neighborhood, sheltered by Twin Peaks, the sun’s rays warmed her upturned face. Underneath her feet someone had long ago mixed silica into wet concrete, and the finished product now sparkled cheerfully in the morning light. Her steps grew buoyant as an expanding sense of optimism engulfed her. Yes, the tangles of her life would gradually unsnarl; yes, she could raise her girls into happy, confident young women; yes, she could manage it all while keeping the wolf well away from the door. It was all she asked from life, and surely if she worked hard, life would not disappoint her.
     Several yards ahead on the wide city sidewalk stood a man who startled Cait from her reverie. His hair was a graying brown, and he wore a tweed suit with a waistcoat, an old-fashioned wing collar, and a loosely knotted tie. The ensemble gave him a nineteenth-century, Victorian air. He was a striking figure, maybe because of his size; no, maybe it was the clothes, Cait wasn’t sure. He scrutinized her coldly, as if sizing her up and not impressed by the result. With a twinge of discomfort Cait angled away in order to give him wide berth as she passed. The man headed towards her, still staring. Cait continued warily forward, hoping he wasn’t really looking at her, that maybe he was trying to decipher the street cleaning sign behind her. Yes, no doubt anxiety about a parking ticket accounted for his scowl. He was in his late forties, she guessed, and looked upper middle class like most of the men of the neighborhood. Though his clothes might be a bit strange, for San Francisco he was well within the range of ordinary.
     He stopped a yard away from her and said something Cait couldn’t make out. Was he speaking another language? Perhaps he was a tourist.
     “Excuse me?” she said.
     He repeated the phrase, which sounded like the word “by” repeated six or seven times in choppy, emphatic succession.
     “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Shaking her head with an apologetic smile, she started past him, anxious to get to her bus stop.
     “This is ridiculous,” he spat out in a refined British accent. “All right, play this game if you wish, just give me the Tamaranth.”
     Cait’s eyes opened wide. The man was strange, perhaps mentally unbalanced. You got that from time to time in the city. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. Excuse me.” Tightening her grip on her shoulder bag, she began to walk away, but with a quickness that startled her, he reached out and grabbed her arm. As his hand made contact a sharp electric shock zapped through her all the way to the ground.
     “Don’t you realize Jupeernis set you up? Whatever he’s promised, he can’t help you now. Give me the Tamaranth, and we’ll call it a day. You can go back to Sartesia, and Tivolea will let the matter drop without further incident. We realize you have only limited comprehension of the enormity of the crime in which you’ve participated.”
     Anger seemed to pulsate from his grip. Cait shrank back as far as she could while she hastily assessed the situation. It was a residential neighborhood, well populated. No one was close by, but there was a man walking his dog at the far end of the block. Other people were also no doubt home. If she screamed they would surely hear her. Though the hold on her arm felt like an iron clamp, the fury he radiated was much worse. She began to feel afraid.
     “Well?” he said. “You have one UTU to make up your mind.”
     “UTU?” she asked.
     His mouth tightened with disdain. “Don’t play the fool. You know what a Universal Time Unit is.”
     Cait tried to size him up. He didn’t have the glazed look many disoriented street people had; in fact, he seemed terribly focused. He must be crazy, Cait thought. Psychotic. Dangerous.
     “You have the wrong person,” she told him as calmly as she could. “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
     He gave an impatient snort. “You think I’d be wasting my time here if I weren’t sure? Stop these games. You can give me the Tamaranth and walk away freely, or you can face the Ollegai, which, I assure you, will not be a pleasant experience. I am losing my patience. You have .28 UTUs left.”
    “Let go of my arm, or I’ll scream,” Cait warned, trying to put determination in her voice.
     His reply was to spit out the word “by” eight or nine more times as rapidly as machine gun fire. She watched him acutely, still waiting for him to make a move.   
     “You are obstinate and deceitful, not good qualities in a Sartesian,” he said darkly. Was it Cait’s imagination, or was he beginning to glow? She blinked and wondered if adrenaline was distorting her senses. He seemed to grow in stature, his stare hypnotic as he loomed over her. In his grasp her arm vibrated like a buzzer.
     “Have you forgotten what Sartesia owes Tivolea?” he roared. “The Tamaranth is sacred. Jupeernis stole it. The game is up; you are found. Give it to me.”
     Cait blanched at the intensity of the demand. Should she offer him her purse, her wallet? Would anything appease him? The man and dog down the block had disappeared. Once, long ago, she’d taken a self-defense class, and she remembered enough now to wait for him to make a move. If she yielded then, she could use his momentum to break away. But he was waiting, too. She could feel it.
     “That’s it,” he snapped and started to pull her along the sidewalk. Cait yielded. As she’d hoped, he lurched slightly, but it was too momentary. She wasn’t able to pull her arm free. “Don’t try your slippery Sartesian gymnastics with me,” he said through gritted teeth. As she drew in her breath to scream, he pushed her sharply to the right. Suddenly she found herself in a room with no windows or doors.
     She didn’t think he could’ve pulled her into one of the houses that lined the sidewalk, but he must have. She couldn’t remember hearing a door shut, and when she scanned the wall in the direction she thought she’d come from she could see nothing but smooth, irregular swirls that gleamed like iridescent mother-of-pearl. The floor at her feet was polished black stone. The room had the pungent, crisp smell of a pine forest, but a quick glance told her there were no plants in sight. In fact, except for the two of them, the space was entirely empty.
     The man in front of her was positively glowing, the radiance beginning to take the form of blue and gold flames outlining his body. And his skin—his skin had, quite impossibly, turned a light cobalt blue. He was evaluating her with distaste, but she found she felt better, physically at least, now that he wasn’t touching her. He sang a few notes, and a tune seemed to play back to him.
     “So you’ve embedded it in your lower jawbone,” he said to her. “Clever, but not clever enough. Open up.” She looked at him in wonder. “Open your mouth,” he repeated, the blue and gold flames licking the air around him as he glared intensely.
     Her jaw began to drop involuntarily. Then she clamped it shut. “No.” She realized she was shaking.
     He looked ready to explode, or, at the very least, that he thought strangling her would be a pleasant activity. “That does it. I’ve been patient, I’ve offered you clemency, but you’re determined to cast your lot with Jupeernis. So now you can reap the consequences, yours and his.” He turned away to study a piece of abstract art on the wall that maybe was some sort of video display because the patterns on it were constantly morphing into new ones. Every once in a while he touched a section that would respond by bursting into new patterns and colors. For a stretch of thirty seconds he sang a tune while background music played, the combined effect oddly reminiscent of Mozart.
     He’s out of his mind, Cait thought. An insane Englishman had kidnapped her from the streets of San Francisco. How did he make his skin look blue? She had to get out of there. She started to call out, as loudly as she could, repeated pleas of, “help, help, please help.” Her abductor made no move to stop her, just gave her a look that indicated his opinion of her had sunk even lower, if that were possible. Then he turned away as if she were unworthy of his attention.
     After a few minutes of yelling, pounding on the wall, and hearing absolutely nothing—no sounds of cars, dogs, or sirens, much less murmurs of concerned voices promising aid—Cait stopped. The room must be entirely soundproofed. Then, incredibly, a hole appeared in the wall in front of her, a hole that, as she watched, grew into a kind of mouth with thick lips. Mick Jagger lips, she decided as she stared with bemused fascination. Suddenly, the mouth started to speak. “Help, help, please help,” it yelped in a coy, mocking way. Shaken, Cait stepped back and glanced fearfully at the blue-skinned man. He didn’t look at her, just crossly sang a few notes. When she turned back to the wall, the mouth was gone.
     While the man’s attention was on the art, Cait dug with trembling hands through her bag for her phone. She turned it on, ready to dial 911 before he had a chance to take it away, but the phone indicated no service available. She searched again for anything she could use as a weapon, but how far could she get with a comb, keys, and a pack of crumpled tissues? She was so frustrated she could cry. Instead, she took a calming breath and began to explore for a camouflaged door. There must be one somewhere on that wall.
     She was feeling with careful fingertips for crevices, notches, hidden buttons, when, with a great slurping noise, her hand was sucked into the wall up to her wrist. She shrieked. Behind her, the man sang an exasperated note. Instantly her hand was out and the wall was once again smooth as before.
     Music sounded; in response the man sang a soaring phrase that sounded like the opening of a Verdi opera. He then said “by” several times as tersely as he had on the street. She glanced at him cautiously, knowing she needed to track every change, every nuance that might portend action. He repeated the “by’s.” When she made no response, he shrugged. “Have it your way. You can sit if you wish. It’ll be another thirteen UTUs before we’re there.” Cait looked over and saw a chintz armchair appear out of nowhere. It was followed in rapid succession by a clinical looking couch, a bed of nails, a stool, and an upside down tricycle. With a frown, the blue man sang three notes, a brief waltz played back, and then a modern-looking chair appeared.
     She looked at it doubtfully.
     “Go ahead,” he said. “It’s safe enough. I’m sorry Pluxx is behaving badly. We don’t often get visitors, and he can’t help showing off.”
     “I’m afraid we haven’t been as hospitable as we ought to have been,” a cool, disembodied voice said. “Please do be seated. Would you like some water or a soda break?”
     “I believe the term is ‘soda pop,’ ” the man corrected.
     “Ah, yes, soda pop,” the voice said, emphasizing the last p. “Can we offer you a soda pop?”
     “No—” Cait faltered. “No, thank you.”
     The blue man must have an accomplice. It didn’t matter; she had to focus on getting out of there. Again she listened for outside noise, taking care to avoid contact with the wall. When a mouth appeared once more and sang mournfully, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” she sank to the floor and put her hand to her forehead. She looked up to find the man (who was still incredibly blue) studying her, but not quite as harshly this time, more as if he had misgivings.
     “What’s your name?” she asked tremulously. His blue and gold flames had calmed to just a glow, but they still unnerved her.
     “My name?” He gave her a sour glance. “In phonemic-constructed languages I go by the name of Atraxis. The other voice that was speaking to you belongs to Pluxx. Didn’t Jupeernis tell you I’d be the one to come after the Tamaranth? He must’ve known.”
     “Atraxis—” Her voice wavered. She tried again. “Atraxis, maybe I can help you. If we go out to the street, we can both look for this Tamaranth. I’ll help you find it. We’ll look for it together.”
    He eyed her dourly. “It’s too late for any pretense of cooperation. We’ve arrived. Come.” He gestured towards one of the walls.
     She stared back with terror. “Where are we going?”
     He closed his eyes as if his patience had been tried past endurance. “To pay a visit to the Ollegai, the ultimate governing body of Tivolea. Surely even Sartesians know about the Ollegai. We will go via Dr. Cigellius, and if you don’t hand it over, I warn you, it will be extracted whether you like it or not.”
     Cait paled. “Please let me go. I have children. Please.”
     “You should’ve thought about that before you collaborated with Jupeernis. Come.”
     “Nice knowing you,” the disembodied voice said pleasantly.
     “Pluxx, that’s not helpful,” Atraxis replied.
     Cait stood paralyzed. With a blue hand Atraxis took her arm, causing a jolt through her body like the first time he’d grabbed her. There was no time to react, however, since he was propelling her straight into the wall. Instinctively she raised an arm to prepare for the impact. Then they were outside in a blinding light.
     She turned to look at the solid mass they had passed through, but she had to squint so much she could hardly see a thing. They were now moving with remarkable speed, Atraxis dragging her with determination, though not as furiously as before. He was more annoyed now than anything else, anxious to be finished, perhaps feeling a trifle guilty. Cait wondered how she knew that, but she didn’t have time to think about it. With one hand shading her eyes, she was vaguely aware of forms and shapes they were speeding by. An orange tree, a green rock, and that—that looked like a winged cat (or was it a small goat?) flying through the air. She wondered if she’d been drugged and was now hallucinating. Or perhaps she was dreaming. Yes, perhaps this was all just a nightmare, and soon she would wake up and start her day, for real this time. After all this couldn’t be reality, this blue dirt under her feet, these great pale green and pink structures that soared high overhead. They might be clouds or trees or even buildings, if only she could open her eyes properly and see. The air was strange, thin and cool with the tang of cedar. Through the slits between her eyelashes, she caught a glimpse of a deer-like creature with two antlered heads grazing on lavender grass. It raised its heads to look at them, but Atraxis paid it no attention, just pushed on with implacable momentum.
     Not too far ahead, Cait made out a mercurial, silver-green river that lacked anything resembling a bridge. Atraxis headed straight for it, dragging her along. At the water’s edge she cried out and pulled back, but he tugged her sharply, and all at once they were walking, or in her case, stumbling, over the flowing watercourse as easily as if there was steel beneath their feet. When they reached the other side, Cait wasn’t able to do more than gasp in relief because instantly they were climbing, straight up and through the air, the relentless grip on her arm prodding her along.
     I am completely hallucinating, Cait thought. Maybe she’d inhaled some kind of LSD gas, and now she was walking somewhere near the girls’ school and just making it all look like this in her mind. After all, San Francisco had some dramatic hills. Maybe the river they’d just crossed was actually an asphalt street.
     When they arrived at the midsection of a pale pink translucent structure, Atraxis yanked her through another wall, and the next instant Cait was able to see normally again. She blinked as she took in the new scene. In a room bathed in pale blue light, Atraxis was blowing a long stream of air from his mouth as if imitating a rush of wind. When he was done, he looked towards the far end of the room expectantly. Cait looked, too, and saw something the size of a beanbag chair rise and float towards them. Rubbery and plant-like, it appeared comprised of bumpy spikes growing in fingered clusters. It reminded Cait vaguely of—of a giant pickleweed, she thought with surprise, only magenta and afloat in thin air. Atraxis made more blowing-north-wind noises. It answered back in kind. I wonder if this is a normal person, Cait thought, and I’m just hallucinating him or her into this shape. It’s amazing what the brain can do. As the pickleweed-thing floated closer with a kind of silver wand in one of its violet-pink branches, it said, “By, by, by” in the same choppy manner Atraxis had earlier. I don’t like this, Cait thought, backing up.
     Atraxis grabbed her by the wrist, sending a jolt through her. “Speak the human dialect. She refuses to speak Sartesian.”
     “But I have so few words. It’s not a well-documented language. It must be a primitive planet.”
     “Indeed. It’s hardly our concern. Continue with the procedure.”
     “My dear,” said the rubbery shrub, “would you please open your mouth?”
      Cait shrank as far from the creature as Atraxis would let her.
     “She’s anxious,” said the shrub. “I can’t operate when she’s so anxious. Let me give her a small, relaxing . . .” One of the branches held out a petite blue vial and poured its contents out on Cait’s forearm, just above where Atraxis was holding onto her. Cerulean droplets danced for a moment on her skin’s surface. Then, like tiny synchronous swimmers, they dove inward and disappeared, Cait watching in astonishment before fainting dead away.

     Atraxis caught her before she hit the floor. He looked up at his old friend, Cigellius, with annoyance. “Couldn’t you have just pulled the Tamaranth out and been done with it?”
     “Dear, dear,” Cigellius tutted. “That shouldn’t have done that. I’m sure I have the dosage right for a Sartesian of her body mass. Put her on the examination table.” Atraxis laid the limp woman on the indicated shelf that began to glow as Cigellius fiddled with its control panel. “Well, there’s the problem. She’s not Sartesian. She’s human.”
     Atraxis nearly jumped. “Are you sure?” Joining Cigellius at the monitor, he sang out a note and was answered by another.
     “What does Glo-orvis say?” Cigellius asked.
     “Human,” Atraxis grudgingly admitted.
     “I told you,” Cigellius said.
    Atraxis took a step back and closed his eyes. In matters such as this, he seldom made mistakes, and now he’d made a fairly large and obvious one. Pluxx could’ve easily verified her DNA signature, but he’d been so sure, he’d simply neglected to ask. (And of course Pluxx hadn’t volunteered the information. He would have to speak to Pluxx about that.) “But she has the Tamaranth. Look, you can see it right there on the scanner. What was Jupeernis thinking? I’m surprised Trajallax’s energy composite hasn’t burned right through her bone cells.” A human touching the Tamaranth. A human on Tivolea. The precedent it set was colossal. Jupeernis was probably laughing hysterically right now in some dank corner of the universe at this trick he’d pulled. If Trajallax’s molecules weren’t scattered across six separate galaxies, he’d probably bellow his famous war cry at the indignity, even after two million isethoths. Atraxis sighed. “Well, she’s unconscious. Might as well take it out now.”
     Cigellius was busy pouring a number of mixtures over Cait’s body to counter the substance he’d inadvertently poisoned her with a few UTUs before. When he’d gotten her metabolism nicely balanced, he programmed the operating table to continue her unconscious state while he performed the procedure. Tivoleans didn’t have doctors, they didn’t believe in external medicine, but as they didn’t share their knowledge with foreign species, they permitted him, a universal species specialist, to practice on various aliens they might have visiting their planet. Though Cigellius knew they considered his operating table to be barbaric, he couldn’t help it: it was the medicine he knew.
     Cigellius delicately opened Cait’s mouth with two branches, lifted up her tongue with another, and used a small laser to cut into Cait’s gum. With another tool and a different branch, he extracted a golden object the size of a pea from a bump adhering to the interior of Cait’s mandible. He was well aware of the significance of the object, as the news of its theft had recently made the rounds on Tivolea. With a flourish he placed the golden pea in Atraxis’s palm.
      Immediately Atraxis tossed it in the air where the pea spun and expanded until it became a radiant golden crown studded with an explosion of jewels. The Tamaranth, Cigellius said to himself in awe. Ancient of ancients, representing powers almost untold throughout the universe, the diadem was radiant with light. That this last relic of Trajallax emitted a force there was no doubt. It called out to be worn proudly by an august Tivolean head. Cigellius knew that he, a lowly twelfth-level being, was honored to even glimpse it. He was glad to see that Atraxis finally looked satisfied as he closed the circlet of gold and jewels back up and the Tamaranth disappeared from view.
     Cigellius set to work healing his patient, first the fissure in her jawbone, then the cut in her gum. Seven UTUs later he turned to Atraxis. “What are you going to do with her?”
     Atraxis frowned. “I’ve already requested an interrogation with the Ollegai. I’ll have to take her.”
     “Oh dear, is that fair? After all, she could’ve had no understanding of the implications of her actions, even if she performed them knowingly and willingly. And the Ollegai—it’s such an ordeal for a foreigner.” Cigellius looked at his patient sadly. “She may not survive.” There’d been no interrogations of foreigners by the Ollegai during Cigellius’s tenure on Tivolea, but there were stories, some grown to the proportion of legend, of previous reckonings. They weren’t encounters people generally volunteered for.
     Atraxis gave the unconscious woman an annoyed glance. “The pure of heart are not affected. It’s only the guilty that need fear.”
     “But you don’t know how pure her heart is. She’s only a human. My scanner says she’s borne two children. Perhaps she’s still raising them. Have pity.”
     Atraxis looked quite irritated now. “What can I do? She had the Tamaranth; I’ve brought her to Tivolea. They’re expecting her.”
     Cigellius gave a long sigh. As a mere twelfth level being, he knew it was a great honor to work on Tivolea. It was a civilization advanced in more ways than he could comprehend, but at times there was a coldness to them he didn’t like or understand. He was especially disappointed now in Atraxis because he’d never felt that coldness from him. Atraxis wasn’t another lofty star in the firmament; Atraxis had compassion. Atraxis had suffered at the hands of his people.
     Atraxis glared deeply at Cigellius. He didn’t like making mistakes, and he liked atoning for them even less. Being reminded by Cigellius that he should was Atosmian silt in the wound. How could he have missed that she was human? Just because he’d been led to believe by a usually rock solid source that a Sartesian possessed the Tamaranth was no reason not to double-check when once he found said Sartesian. It was so simple, why hadn’t he done it? And now she probably would die, and she probably did have children. But perhaps the Ollegai would be merciful and take into account the wrong Jupeernis had done her. Besides, he couldn’t just return her to her planet. They wouldn’t let her leave without an assessment. There were only two kinds of interviews between the Ollegai and an alien: one was painful, and one was not. But even though the guiltless were rarely brought before them for judgment, surely the Ollegai were capable of recognizing innocence when they saw it? Then again, perhaps she was guiltier than he knew. Would she die for it? Because of his mistake? How Atraxis hated these misgivings. There’d been a time when he’d have trusted the Ollegai to sort out the matter without hesitation. That time was past.
     Many in the universe might think a human life a small matter to a Tivolean, a mere mouse, say, scurrying about the grand laboratory of existence. But it wasn’t true. Tivolean predilection for non-interference was broad and deep, but when incontestably faced with action involving other species, all of them, not just Atraxis, gave the matter scrupulous consideration. Atraxis frowned as he pondered the fifty-six main probability functions involved in the meeting of this human and the Ollegai.
    “All right, all right,” he said, “she doesn’t have to go through an interrogation. I’ll introduce her as a candidate for the Sevateem instead.”
    “But—but—she’s a human,” Cigellius sputtered. “It’s unthinkable.”
    “Well, she won’t pass, will she? They’ll decide she’s one of my eccentricities and send her on her way. After that, you can give her an amnesiac, I’ll do a time tuck or two, and she’ll be home with a small sequence gap in her memory. Fair enough?”
   “But what if she were to pass? Of course, the risk is infinitesimally small, but still, something might go wrong.”
     Atraxis just shrugged. “The Ollegai may think I’m mocking them, but other than that, I don’t believe there’ll be much trouble.”
Cigellius wriggled his branches with worry. Perhaps he’d gone overboard trying to induce guilt in Atraxis, but, nevertheless, Cigellius was glad to see Atraxis had some kind of heart. Cigellius might be an outsider and unable to speak the language, but he could still pick up on the gossip and undercurrents of Tivolean life. He knew this particular Tivolean standing before him was the shining hope of the house of Mannarad, whose father was on the Council, and who someday would be appointed to it, too. Atraxis’s mediation work on the diplomatic detail was bringing him recognition, and his bitterness over the Xettan woman was fading into distant memory, although, it is true, Tivolean memories didn’t tend to fade. Cigellius hoped this little incident with the human wouldn’t get Atraxis into too much trouble. He was rooting for Atraxis, even if Atraxis still had no desire to root for himself.