Today’s post is a collaboration with author Lynn Katzenmeyer. Lynn writes in a wide range of fantasy genres, has been a terrific critique partner, and someone that I’m proud to call friend. In celebration of her releasing book two of her paranormal romance series, Mark of the Void, we’ve done a story together: for part one, see her blog here.
Pheinien grumbled as the miles ticked past. This was not how road trips were supposed to be. Where were the stretch limos with intoxicated celebrities? The convertibles with topless females? This sea of faded orange cones and Caltrans trucks was dull, dull, dull. There should have been tumbleweeds rolling past. Were tumbleweeds even real, or just another Terran fabrication?
His extra-dimensional vacation, a graduation gift from his parents, was supposed to be an exotic adventure. A more immersive experience than a holo-adventure. Earth had a reputation for strange customs, and Southern California was the place to be on the planet. A place where humans engaged in their wild parties. Consumed primitive mind-altering substances, engaged in hedonistic sex-rituals in vats of bubbling water known as hot tubs. Yet reality was so far removed from the countless documentaries and informational video broadcasts he’d seen when researching “primitive cultures” for his senior class project. The documentary series entitled “Real Housewives of Long Beach,” seemed the most inaccurate of the bunch. Yet Terrans had no official contact with any of the civilized galactic societies, so there was no reason for subterfuge in their broadcasts.
Pheinien punched the round knob on the dashboard for this vehicle’s audio entertainment system. Listening to Terran music usually brightened his mood.
He had assumed the identity of a healthy adult male Terran in the prime of his sexuality. According to the documentaries, humans at a biological age of 25-30 either wore bizarre clothing and attended a place called “high school,” or wore slightly less bizarre clothing and attended a place called “college.” Both of these institutions occasionally required something called homework, so he had wisely selected a swapper that was already done with them. Curiously enough, the one time he visited a high school, the inhabitants seemed far younger and less attractive than the educational films suggested.
The concept of a workplace had proven similarly misrepresented. He should have only needed to show up, drink coffee, and attend happy hours with attractive coworkers. Yet that was not how it worked.
Where had he gone wrong? His swapper had been listed as having all requisite attributes, all needed items. He had a ground vehicle, a wide selection of period-appropriate attire. All the correct types of electronic gadgets to indicate status.
An hour to go. There was a dimension broker listed in the city of Bakersfield: there he could get answers.
Agent Justin Kirk adjusted the dials of the Dimensional, Ethereal Abnormalities Detector, aka the DEAD. The device remained stubbornly silent. He turned his attention to the other new gadget, the Biological Indicator Non-Global Osteolocator better known as BINGO.
He sighed and glanced at his partner and wife, Penelope. “Still nothing.”
If Agent Williams had been around they wouldn’t have had to resort to these stupid, unreliable gadgets: they’d just send Williams out in beast form and he’d track them down like the bloodhound he was.
Penelope twisted the rear-view mirror, squinting at her visage. Just a tick, really. With over a hundred years practice blending into human society her illusions were flawless. “Still tracking our non-human life signatures?”
“Yup. Stakeouts are so boring. Just when I think this case couldn’t get any worse, it does.”
“Oh, come now, dear. Staking out a strip club? This should be fun for you. Remember how much fun you had with the leannán sídhe, this is just the human version.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me, it’s embarrassing. And this is worse than that because we aren’t actually going in the club.”
The DEAD flared to life followed immediately by the chirping of the BINGO.
“That’s it,” said Justin. “A dimensional portal has been activated and something–make that two somethings–came through.”
“Patience dear. This doesn’t quite follow the reported pattern. Let’s wait for non-human life form number two to return to his car.”
“My patience is at an end. Let’s have a little fun with our visitor.”
No refunds, full price for the return jump, and the expense of a falsified death? These dimension brokers are the worst.
Pheinien grumbled, thrust a hand inside his jeans pocket to fish for the worn key fob, hardly noticing the statuesque woman waiting next to his vehicle.
Still, he’d have to seriously consider it: this world was not at all as advertised.
“Hello, handsome. Could we have a few words with you.”
He gazed up. And up. Now this was a human female like he’d seen in his favorite documentary, Real Housewives of Hollywood Gone Wild 4.
“What’s your name, hun,” said the woman. She would have been taller than him even in flats, but in stilettos stood a head higher than the human form Pheinien assumed. Her flaxen hair flowed down her shoulders like a Tieztian sulfurfall. The dress she wore wasn’t accurate to the era–that much he recognized from the documentary, “Leave it to Beaver.”
“Your real name,” said the woman.
“What to you mean? Darin is my real name.”
The woman shot a cursory glance around the empty parking lot, raised an eyebrow, and a swirl of dust and green sparkles enveloped Pheinien, leaving a green-skinned alien with a pair of sheepishly drooping antennae as the effect dissipated.
“Ah, that looks more like it, now unless you want to end up like the Kierlies after the New Mexico crash, you better start telling truths, now,” said Justin, who had dropped his own disguise, and now looked like an ordinary, mildly hung-over, skinny human man.
Pheinien held up a hand to flip the man off, a gesture he’d picked up from many fellow motorists on his trip, but his once human appearing hands were back to normal. “Hey! My Terran skin isn’t supposed to come off like that! I was told it was undetectable.”
“It didn’t come off. I just made you think it did. Now, let’s cut the act. Humans don’t take kindly to outer dimensional kidnappers.”
Pheinien set his now green fists defiantly on his hips, a gesture even less intimidating than what Justin usually managed. “I didn’t kidnap anyone! I’m the victim here. I was promised–”
Justin glanced at Penelope, who returned an eye-roll and a sigh. If they could get this guy to turn, at least it speed up this tedious assignment. “Fine, fine. You wanna cooperate? Maybe we can cut you a deal with my superiors. Now who are you?”
“I’m Pheinien, originally from JX-107, and I’d like to get back there. I haven’t had a proper ultrasonic bath in weeks.” Pheinien spat derisively. “I could almost tolerate these silly water showers, if attractive human females walked in on me, like they always do in the documentaries.”
“I’m Justin, this is my partner, P.”
“Pea? Like the soup?”
Penelope opened the car’s door, swung a pair of impossibly long legs out and stood. She stalked over to him like a marlox beast hunting a cralian.
“P like the person with the power to imprison you. The sprite who can pinch your puny-”
“P, darling, I think he gets the point,” said Justin, turning his attention back to Pheinien, “Tell me about the portal, the dimension broker, and the human you replaced. If you help us, we might be able to get you back to JX-107.”
“There’s not much to it,” he said, glancing first at his palms, then the backs of his hands. “Can you cut it out with this illusion? I’m seeing an illusion of my real self on top of this human skin, on top of my real self. It’s making my brain ache.”
Pheinien’s unimpressive green alien visage wavered with a nod from Justin, replaced a moment later by an equally unimpressive human visage.
“So. I was told it was all legal. We’re allowed to visit primitive worlds like this one as long as we agree to follow the rules and don’t attract unnecessary attention to ourselves. We pay off our double with trinkets or whatnot, they leave, we take their place.”
“And where do the doubles get sent?” asked Justin.
“I dunno, who cares? We buy off a native, they go to another world–which is something that the primitives here would never get to experience otherwise–we get a fun adventure trip.”
Justin shook his head. “Let’s go inside and have a little chat with our neighborhood dimension broker.
A thin man stood up from the lime-green vinyl booth at the back corner of the club, glanced at Pheinien, then at Penelope, and finally at Justin. “Made up your mind already? That was quick. And who are your charming companions?”
“I’m Penelope, this is Justin. And we are here with the Syndicate.”
The man nicked at the trio. “I’m Stan. Afraid I don’t recognize that organization. And while your interest flatters us, at the moment we’re not seeking marketing assistance. Our product is in early access at the moment.”
“An unregistered dimensional portal, and you talk about it like a trendy computer game?”
“Ooooh. That Syndicate,” said Stan, face and posture stiffening. “However, you are mistaken. We are not unregistered. See for yourselves.”
Justin perused the datapad, grumbled, and replied. “Looks like it was misfiled.”
He handed the pad to Penelope, who skimmed the registration. “Your presence on this world is tolerated, however, according to records, you are conducting ‘discreet cultural observations.’”
“That is correct. We arrange non-invasive passage so that enthusiasts of xeno-anthropology may view and experience primitive cultures first hand.”
“Yet according to our records almost a hundred mundane humans, er, Terrans, have mysteriously disappeared, replaced by your so-called xeno-anthropologists. That doesn’t sound non-invasive to me.”
“All individuals are carefully screened to ensure their substitution with a cultural observer will not impact society here as a whole. And the process is voluntary. They are duly informed of terms and conditions. There’s even a contract in their native language.”
“Can I see one of these contracts?” said Penelope.
The broker tapped his pad, which spit out a six-foot sheet of paper. “It’s a proper verafiber sheet. Tamperproof to the current legal standard.”
Penelope ran her fingers over it, searching for traces of glamour or tech interference, and finding none, she passed the contract to her husband. He had a higher tolerance for human legalese. And tedium.
“Looks like the general terms and conditions are laid out. Lists the risks, the UFII rating, cultural contamination warnings. Hang on, what’s this?” Justin pointed to the margin of the contract.
“Sometimes there’ll be a minor contract amendment. But the double signs off on any amendments before the dimensional jump. It’s all perfectly legal.”
“Three amendments, two initials here.”
“A minor and coincidental error, I’m sure,” said Stan.
“Of course we could go through all your records to see if there are any other ‘minor errors,’” said Penelope.
Justin grumbled. “A hundred of them? The only thing worse than a stakeout is an audit.”
“Noooobody wants an audit here,” said Stan, motioning for them to sit. “Tell you what, I’ll arrange for a satisfaction survey for our clients, and the brokers on your planet will be assigned a remedial compliance course to ensure future transitions are conducted to a satisfactory standard.”
Pheinien glared at him. “What about me?”
“Annnd, I’ll send Pheinien here home, and I won’t even charge to falsify his demise.”
“Or you could locate the individual he swapped with, and bring him back to restore balance,” said Justin.
Stan exhaled sharply. “Uuugh. You know how much trouble it is to track down a double on another world?”
Stan stared at Justin a moment long, finally grumbling and swiping through a tablet. “Let’s see. Pheinien’s excursion was brokered through… Charles-Lee. Ooof.”
“A colleague of yours?”
“We all adhere to the consortium’s rules. And I hate to speak ill of a coworker, but Charles-Lee has a reputation for bending the rules a bit.”
“So you think Pheinien’s double will be difficult to find?”
Stan gazed at Penelope, sighed, and went back to his search. “So. His double was sent to… Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Arvia?”
“Hahaha. My double was sent to Arvia?” said Pheinien. “Tough luck for him. Let’s get on with faking my death then.”
“What? What’s Arvia?” said Justin. “Is that a problem?”
“Only about the most dangerous world on record,” said Stan. “UFII rating of 50%.”
“The harpies are supposed to be particularly nasty,” said Penelope.
Justin shot her a glare. “You shouldn’t be so contemptuous about my mother, dear.”
“Arvian harpies. Fifty or sixty feet tall and slurp up humans like spaghetti.”
Stan glanced up at the pair, then back at his datapad. “I can’t imagine a Terran volunteering to go to that place. But maybe this Darin fellow is ex-special forces, with top-end gear, looking for an extreme challenge… Hmm… lemme pull up his information…”
Justin only grumbled and stared at Penelope.
Stan grimaced. “Oooh. Sorry, he’s dead.”
“What?” said Justin. “You have a record of this? Is there a body, or…”
Stan slid an image of the missing human across the table, “Just look at this Darin fellow.”
Penelope picked up the datapad and snorted a laugh. “Yup, the closest this guy’s ever been to special forces is a Halloween costume.” She passed it to Justin, who couldn’t suppress a dramatic facepalm.
“Can’t save ’em all. We’ll update the database.”
“You keep a database of all Terrans?” said Pheinien.
“No, just those of interest,” said Justin. “It’s funny. Probably the only bit of fame in this Darin fellow’s life. Winds up in the middle of a portal scam, dies on an alien world ten minutes after he gets there, and will now live forever in our records.”