One in a Million: Chapter 13

Nel ulan Joridwin — pronounced so that the syllables starting with soft consonants were stretched and those starting with hard consonants were clipped — caught Caleb’s eye during a briefing at the beginning of a shift. It was only a few days after they had left the Jovian system on the way to the frozen Neptune-like planet that Earth astronomers thought of as Planet X beyond the Oort Cloud. Nel was a member of the same maintenance class as Caleb, mostly acting as custodians for the smarter, more efficient microngineers.

She — he thought of her as she and Nel did not correct him — was slim and tall, almost willowy. Her species was not mammalian so she did not have breasts, but her slender waist and wide hips gave her a feminine allure. Her skin was porcelain white on the front of her body and navy blue on the backside, fading smoothly between so her ribs, inner thighs and armpits were the color of a summer sky. She did not wear clothing besides a harness to hang tools on and a pair of sandals with slight heels. Her face was angular and long, vaguely equine, with large oval pools of black for eyes and two rows of nostrils running from her mouth to her forehead. She noticed him noticing her and was intrigued by his — to her eyes — alien features.

The fucked in a maintenance crawl space during their lunch break. Caleb was pleased to discover that the universe had deigned to keep sex organs in roughly the same place for all humanoid body plans. Nel was pleased to discover that male human anatomy, like her species, included both a penetrator and receiver in close proximity.

Caleb bit his lip in surprise but not pain or revulsion. Nel’s phallus was about the size of an adult human index finger and that wasn’t the first time he had felt that during coitus. Their sex was awkward but enthusiastic, driven by curiosity as much as lust. There were false starts and uncertain postures but ultimately they both found satisfaction.

As they cleaned up, Nel said, “You should introduce me to that, what did you call her, girlfriend of yours.” She nuzzled his neck with her snout like face and squeezed past him and out of the crawl space.

“I will definitely do that,” he said and pulled up his pants.

Chapter 12

Chapter 14

One in a Million: Chapter 12

“That is definitely something,” said Faith to Caleb, squeezing his hand. He looked down at their intertwined fingers but judged it was best not to pull away.

They were standing in one of the observation halls. It was a grand room with tables and chairs that morphed to accommodate any body plan. Food and drink dispensers were close at hand. The dome of the ceiling was an image of open space most of the time and usually the hall was a relaxing place to take a meal. Not today.

The dome was dominated by the swirling face of Jupiter. Less prominent but still easily seen was Europa with its blue-white face crossed with dark cracks. There were flashes on Europa’s surface and tiny torches moving from it to a dark spot between Jupiter and its moon. The dark spot was the ship on which Caleb stood watching the display. The torches were chunks of ice on the order of the size of the Sears Tower being pushed from Europa to the ship.

“This is what we sold,” said Caleb matter of factly.

Faith looked at him. “Sold?”

“Yes. This is why they came here. They bought Europa’s ice with all the technology they are giving us at home. It’s funny. It isn’t even ours.”

Faith considered him. “No,” she said finally. “That doesn’t make any sense. There’s more ice out where the comets are than there is in a thousand Europas. They did not need to even come this far, let alone all the way to Earth and then buy our permission to mine it.”

“Besides,” said a voice behind them, “they already paid the Europans.” It was Obligolkulat, holding a few drinks in some tentacles and a few small bowls and plates in others.

Faith did an admirable job of masking her deep unease.

“Europans?” asked Caleb without flinching.

Between bites and sips, the cephalopod said, “Yeah. Big jellyfish things. Millions of year old civilization under the ice, powered by tidal energy. Smart but slow if you know what I mean.”

“And they joined the Hegemony?” asked Faith

“Nah. They declined. Millions of years and no sky. They weren’t about to go spacing, you know? But they gave the Hegemony permission to mine some ice.”

Caleb looked perturbed. “So why did they negotiate with us, too?”

“Who knows?” said Obligolkulat as he finished his last morsel. “The Hegemony has weird rules about sentients. My people are one of seventeen in my solar system and the Hegemony had to make a separate agreement with each one. It’s their thing.” He turned his attention briefly to the display above then said, “Gotta get back to shift. You coming?”

Caleb nodded. He started to leave but Faith pulled him back to give him a quick kiss. “Are you coming by later?” she asked.

He kissed her back and nodded, then followed Obligolkulat out of the hall.

Chapter 11

Chapter 13

One in a Million: Chapter 11

Obligolkulat was a terrestrial cephalopod with sixteen limbs of various lengths with different sorts of claws, suckers and sensory organs. His head was a bulbous mass of eyes and orifices and when he spoke it sounded like a concert of flutes working together to approximate human speech. He came from a world with relatively low gravity, so he used a frame — a robot pair of legs, more or less — to move around most of the time. Caleb was assigned to shadow Obligolkulat as part of his training and orientation. The first few days Max remained nearby at all times but slowly the robot allowed the two to work without interference.

“The conduits are texture coded,” said Obligolkulat while working in a crawl space. He sounded winded. He had left the frame in the hallway to allow himself to squeeze into the cramped area. “Not everyone on the ship sees visible light wavelengths the same way, but everyone has tactile sensors of some sort.”

“Cool,” said Caleb sincerely. He reached out and touched the conduits one by one. There was not much visible difference between them but when he rolled the thin cables between his fingers he could tell the difference. Some were smooth like liquid silicon and others felt like sandpaper. One scratched like fine hairs and another felt sticky like drying glue.

Obligolkulat blinked a dozen or so eyes and seemed to be trying to process the idiom but then gave up. “An ingenious solution,” he said and then undulated his way back out into the hallway. As he stretched long tentacles out and pulled himself into his frame, he said,”Most of the basic maintenance is done by microngineers, but the Chief likes us to double check.”

“So we’re busy,” said Caleb coming out of the maintenance shaft and closing the panel.

The alien made a bubbling fluting sound and then said, “Yes. To be honest, these ships don’t require as many crew as are present, but what else are you going to do with 28 trillion sentient beings?”

It was Caleb’s turn to blink. “That’s… a lot.”

“Right? Let’s go get a drink. We’re close enough to the end of our shift.” Obligolkulat started down the hall, his robotic legs whining quietly as he walked.

“You speak English really well, including slang,” said Caleb.

“Well–”

“But you don’t, do you? You’re not speaking English?”

“Nope,” said the alien as he led Caleb down the hall. “One of those shots you got before you left Earth was a micongineer cocktail. Some of them built an autotranslator in your brain.”

“Cool,” said Caleb.

Chapter 10

Chapter 12

One in a Million: Chapter 10

Her name was Faith Konneh. She was an economist from Monrovia, Liberia, possessing three masters degrees from elite universities on three different continents. She had been serving her first term in the House of Representatives when the Hegemony arrived and she was selected. She wrestled with the prospect for a few days but ultimately her pastor convinced her to follow her heart and bring back knowledge and experience that would make her a better leader for the people of Liberia. She loved sunny days in the park and greasy American chilidogs. Telling her how pretty she was made her both blush and smile. She came powerfully if you pinched both nipples while tracing the alphabet with your tongue over her clitoris.

Caleb learned all of this in the three days following the first orientation. He and Faith had been assigned to the same Integration Group — based on something akin to IQ scores, according to his Max (she had not bothered to name hers so he called it Maxine) — and he had approached her sometime during a lecture about how the artificial gravity, inertial dampeners and faster than light drives all worked on the same basic principle.

Quarters were small but comfortable. They lay next to each other in Faith’s bed, breathing contentedly. “Do you think they heard us?” Faith asked. Her accent recalled both stereotypical English and stereotypical African, becoming something unique and delicious when blended.

“The aliens?” asked Caleb absently in his post coital fugue.

“Max and Maxine,” she said.

“It’s likely,” he said flatly. “But the aliens too, I think. All of our rooms are probably bugged.”

She reflexively pulled the sheet up to cover her bare chest. “Eww.”

Caleb shrugged. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. I am sure they are studying us as much as we are studying them. More.”

“And that doesn’t worry you?” she asked, relaxing her hold on the sheet and turning onto her side to face him.

“No,” he said. “We’re pretty basic, after all. What humans want and need isn’t that difficult to understand.”

“That’s pretty cynical,” Faith said as she moved closer to him.

“Yup,” he said and kissed her.

Chapter 9

Chapter 11

One in a Million: Chapter 9

The orientation took place in a chamber that reminded Caleb of an amphitheater style college classroom. Tiered steps descended to a dais in a semicircle. Behind the dais was a curved wall which was a screen half again as high as the topmost tier. Projected on the screen was the speaker at the dais, an alien Caleb judged of the high budget television show variety: essentially humanoid, even human-like, with unusual coloration, skin texture and additional (probably) sensory organs. It — he had no sense of its gender, if it had one — talked with its hands, which possessed six digits including two opposable ones.

Caleb was standing in a middle tier next to Max. He guessed a few hundred other people filled the tiers, each one with their own Max. While the people ranged broadly in body style and ethnicity, the speaker was addressing them in English. Caleb guessed there were other orientations happening simultaneously in different languages.

“–joined the Spiral Hegemony.” the speaker was saying. “It is our custom to invite emissaries of new member species on to our vessels as a beginning step of full integration into galactic civilization.” While the speaker’s English was perfect, unlike Max it spoke with an accent Caleb could not accurately describe, as well as a sharp glottal stop instead of a hard “t” sound.

In his peripheral vision, Caleb noticed a pair of hands wringing nervously. Deep black skin. Bright white manicured nails. Slender fingers. He stole a glance and saw a thin black woman on the tier above and behind him. She saw him look and smiled weakly. He considered her momentarily. She was pretty, a few years younger than himself, dressed in a conservative pantsuit. No wedding or engagement ring. Conservative makeup. One very subtle stud in her left eyebrow. She smiled again, more nervously this time, and he remembered himself, smiled in return, and turned back to the screen.

The alien was discussing work assignments and how they, the humans, would be apprenticed to aliens based on their skills and desires. “None shall be forced to work, of course, as you are guests, but it is our experience that newcomers find the workings of the vessel and its systems quite engaging.”

After the presentation ended and they began to file out of the chamber, Caleb asked Max, “Who’s that?” motioning to the black woman as she walked ahead with her own Max.

Chapter 8

Chapter 10

One in a Million: Chapter 8

The city fell away beneath Caleb’s feet. The floor of the transport had either turned transparent or become a screen when it began to lift off. With no sense of thrust from the vehicle, the image made Caleb a little nauseated even though he was not afraid of heights.

He was alone except for Max in a cabin about the size of a walk-in closet. There was a chair that looked like it could recline all the way to a lying down position and a cabinet that looked like Apple had designed a vending machine within reach of the chair. Other than the small plate on the wall where they had entered — there was no indication of an actual door — the room was empty. His luggage had not been brought to the room as was presumably stowed elsewhere on the transport.

“Where are the others?” asked Caleb. “Are they on this, um, elevator?”

Max said, “Others?”

“There are over ten million people in the New York City area, so there should be ten of us.” The city was just a concrete colored smear on the green, brown and blue background of the Earth now and Caleb was feeling suddenly uncomfortable. He moved to sit in the recliner. “I can’t be the only one.”

“You are not the only one,” said Max. “You are the last one. The others are already on the ship.”

Caleb stretched and the recliner responded by settling into a less erect configuration. “I’m a replacement, aren’t I?” asked Caleb. “Someone else got to the spaceship, saw the slime monsters and noped out, right?”

It seemed to take Max a long time to parse the question but finally the robot said, “Yes.” After a beat, Max asked, “Do your fellow humans find your perceptive abilities as irritating as I do?”

“Yes,” said Caleb and closed his eyes against the image of the receding Earth.

Chapter 7

Chapter 9

One in a Million: Chapter 7

The insectile alien robot called itself a string of unpronounceable phonemes, so Caleb decided to call it Max. Max did not seem disturbed by this. Max’s job appeared to be acting as personal assistant, liaison and camp counselor to Caleb through processing and orientation.

“The Spiral Hegemony has selected you as one of approximately seven thousand humans to join the compliment of one of its starships. As a new space traveler–”

“Why?” interrupted Caleb. They sat waiting in the defacto Hegemony embassy in New York near the United Nations building.

“The lottery was entirely random, I assure you. Your selection was completely by chance. Had you maintained your original position that you did not wish to–”

“No, why is the Hegemony taking one in a million people into space at all? We can’t have much to offer a starship crew, and anything they could learn from us could better be learned on Earth.”

“Oh,” said Max. The robot paused for a moment, head tilted as if in thought, then said, “Other than raw material to sustain life and provide fuel, such as the water ice of Europa for which the Hegemony is trading with Earth, the Hegemony needs very little. Its expansion is based purely on the collection of knowledge.”

“Right,” said Caleb. He did not see any other ‘new space travelers’ waiting. The office appeared staffed by robots remarkably similar to Max, along with a few stranger beings. They were all bipedal and generally humanolid in shape. “Where are all the weird aliens?” he asked.

Max did the head tilt thing again, then answered, “Most less advanced species respond with more curiosity and less violence when presented with more familiar forms.”

Caleb laughed. “You figured we would freak out and started firing nukes if a bunch of slime monsters landed.”

“Yes,” replied Max.

“So, is that body new?”

“Yes.”

“What did you look like before? Body plan I mean?”

“Well, I am not in a position–”

At that moment a door opened and a voice called for Max and Caleb. Caleb thought he detected something like relief in Max’s posture as they stood and walked toward the office.

Chapter 6

Chapter 8

One in a Million: Chapter 6

Caleb read the document a third time, then leafed through it and examined it as if he could find some hint in the paper or fastener that would reveal it to be a hoax. The alien — alien robot, technically — stood patiently in his small apartment waiting for him to finally say, “No fucking way.”

“Your shock registers as delight, and we are glad,” said the alien robot in the kind of light, airy, accentless tone that made Caleb think the aliens had learned English by watching cable news.

“I meant no. As in, I am refusing,” said Caleb.

The robot cocked it’s head in an intentionally overly dramatic expression of surprise, confusion and dismay. It was generally humanoid in shape but with an insectile motif in its segmented thorax and the shape of its limbs. It’s carapace appeared to be dull white plastic. “I am sorry for the miscommunication,” it said. “We are still parsing the English human language. Please repeat.”

“Fuck off and get out,” said Caleb. He repeated himself a few times of repeating and tossed the document into the hall before the robot left.

Later he and Allie were recovering from brief but intense mutual masturbation on her couch and he said, “I am not going into space.”

“Okay,” she said.

“It is a ridiculous idea. Between the time dilation and the genetic modification, anything that defined me would be unmoored.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Allie as she pulled on her shirt and pulled up her pants. “It’s going to be all celebrities and Nobel Prize winners anyway.”

He looked at her. He was still sitting pantsless on the couch. “No. I was selected. They came to my apartment today.”

Allie laughed, then she didn’t. She sat back down next to him and turned his face to meet hers, peering deep into his eyes. “Tell me you are joking.”

“I don’t joke–”

“I fucking know you don’t joke!” she roared. “Are you kidding me with this Aspergers, self indulgent idiot bullshit?”

“What? I don’t–”

“You don’t say ‘no’ to this, Caleb.” She looked like she was ready to cry and he could not parse why. “They are only asking one in every million people on Earth! You are fucking going.”

Chapter 5

Chapter 7

One in a Million: Chapter 5

Ali placed the tile but did not lift his finger from it. He examined Caleb’s face, lifted the tile, placed it again, waited and finally lifted his finger. Caleb’s expression did not change as he placed a worker on it and placed another tile next to it.

“Dammit,” said Ali.

“You made the same mistake last time,” said Caleb.

“Did I?” asked Ali. He pulled a tile from the stack, looked at it, sighed, shrugged and placed it without much thought.

“Much better,” said Caleb, but placed one of his owner worker pieces and another tile anyway.

“How can you tell?” Ali said then tossed his stack of unplayable tiles on the table. “I concede. You are the master of Flatland.”

“Good. I was getting bored,” said Caleb.

Ali started putting the game away. He pursed his lips against his irritated retort, then said, “The aliens are doing something new. There’s a press conference or something on tonight.” Caleb did not respond. “Maybe it’s about the new medicine?”

Caleb grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and brought one to Ali. “I doubt it. It has been released in Europe already.”

“Well, it’s something big enough to preempt the Series. They’re probably going to turn the UN into a one world government or something.”

“I don’t think they care about our politics at all. It’s not like we make troops of chimpanzees get along.”

Ali frowned. “Do you really think that’s how they see us?”

“If we’re lucky. If we aren’t they see us like herds of cattle, or an infestation of termites.”

They sat drinking in silence for a long time.

Chapter 4

Chapter 6

One in a Million: Chapter 4

Caleb moved quickly, securing the cables together with zip ties every few feet and separating out cables as necessary. They were not marked, he simply knew which ones were which. It started as a thick rope of dozens and ended up with a single plug at the end. Along the way each of the workstations was tethered to the network.

“You’re not going to write down which cable goes where?” asked the fat, balding middle manager that hovered entirely too close to Caleb as he worked. “What if I need to do something with them?”

“You won’t,” said Caleb.

“Sure, you say that, but what if you messed it up.”

Caleb clipped the tail off the last zip tie and stood. “I did not,” he said. “And if I did how would it help you for me to write it down? It would still be wrong.”

The man gaped for a moment then said, “Hey, I was just saying. This is my office. I might have to fix–”

“You won’t. You couldn’t anyway. You aren’t smart enough.”

The man’s face flushed. “Wait a second. You can’t talk to me like that. You’re just a contractor.”

Caleb sighed. He knew what he was supposed to do in these situations: apologize, get the work order signed and leave as quickly as possible.

“Yes,” he said, ignoring his own internal advice. “I am a contractor. That means I do not work for you, which is good, because I am not sure I could take eight excruciating hours of your useless micromanaging and inane yammering every day. You are obviously talentless and very probably the cousin, brother in law or nephew of someone far more important than you, otherwise you would be failing at managing a MacDonald’s.” He held the work order out to the exasperated man.

Purple jowls trembling with incredulity, the man signed the work order while muttering something about Caleb’s future on the unemployment line.

Chapter 3

Chapter 5