Pure science fiction fun mixed with sense-of-wonder!
Not terribly far in the future, a highly sophisticated alien species, the Tsf, have set up trading posts on Earth. Naturally, humans want to please them in hopes that the Tsf will share their ultra-advanced technology. And an opportunity arises to do just that.
The Tsf have rescued three aliens of different, unfamiliar species on three damaged spaceships. But something psychological appears to be seriously wrong with all three.
When their specialists fail to help these space-shipwrecked beings, the Tsf turn to humans for help.
Dr. Alanso J. Morganson, well-respected psychiatrist, is drafted to propose a treatment plan. He knows the task is impossible but humanity is counting on him. To avoid drowning, "Dr. Alien" had best grab a buoy or grow tall enough to find solid land under his feet.
Each Dr. Alien tale builds on the last, culminating with a unique vista on a truly cosmic scale, as well as possibilities for astonishing developments to come.
"Fans of old school SFF will enjoy these clever and entertaining adventures."– Publishers Weekly
Funny thing about emotions. While they can be blended ten thousand ways, the basic ingredients are so very limited. Example? Fear. In my case, I'm terrified of performing a fairly ordinary human activity: public speaking. And here I was, about to step into a situation outside all human experience, yet I felt exactly the kind of sick fluttering in my stomach I get every time I'm pressured into addressing my fellow psychiatrists at an APA convention.
Of course the door in front of me, the inner portal, opened in the direction I least expected, sliding straight downward into a previously hidden slot in the floor. How much more intimidating, I asked myself, can this get? Then I realized that in this setting, the top wasn't necessarily the top.
I'd been warned the thermostat here would be set lower than I'd find comfortable—at least my hosts-to-be had conveyed that much—so I wasn't surprised to find the airlock chilly after it had pressurized and I'd stripped down to my hooded smartsuit; but as that inner door descended, whoa! A shock of coldness slapped my face, numbed my cheeks, made my eyes water, and stuffed my nostrils with tiny icicles. No problem. My smartsuit reacted and buried wires radiated warmth. I patted my chest pocket to make sure the photo of my wife and son hadn't overpowered the valence zipper and fallen out, gave my vacuum gear tucked into the airlock's safety netting a longing glance, picked up my case, then cautiously stepped into the alien space station.
Still light as fluff, I tiptoed over the blue "neutral" band acting as a kind of foyer and pushed through a filmy decontamination membrane. I took one step out onto dark, rubbery matting and thud. The large case I'd been toting by its carrying strap was snatched from my hand and hit the floor, hard. I nearly joined it. Normal gravity would've been a shock after eight hours of mostly the micro kind and suddenly I weighed half again my weight on Earth, a nice trick since the station wasn't spinning. The Tsf had been specific for once about the weight increase to expect, but honestly, I hadn't believed synthetic gravity would feel so genuine. And despite a crash course in Tsf Trader culture, I hadn't imagined Trader headquarters in our solar system would smell like burnt vanilla beans or be as noisy as a plague of cicadas.
My ignorance wasn't NASA's fault. These aliens hadn't revealed much about this station. And until now, no woman, man, bug, animal, or plant from Earth had ever been invited here into the Parent Ship, although it had been right in our backyard, orbiting the moon for the last three years.
But I sighed with relief because no one greeted me. Among Traders, any welcome visitor was supposed to stroll into a Tsf dwelling as if they owned it. Should one of them have been waiting by the entrance, even holding out a Hawaiian lei, it would've meant I wasn't wanted, conceivably a fatal condition for a human dealing with this species. Unless said human had, say, a loaded bazooka. Some enterprising thieves had learned that the hardest way in a Tsf outlet on Earth.
My case, unscathed, automatically unfolded into a multipurpose acceleration couch, slower than when I'd seen it demoed at the Kennedy Space Center. It began following me like a faithful basset when I ignored the implied invitation and staggered forward.
The room before me was an extremely long and rectangular box, rather tunnel-like and mostly ivory colored, with blue and russet equipment or perhaps furniture laid along the floor in tidy linear patterns, everything fastened in place with bolts that could've supported the Golden Gate Bridge. I glanced up. The high ceiling held more equipment in similar patterns and with identical bolts. Interesting, I'd never thought of gravity control as a means to squeeze more use out of a room. Wall panels glowed, casting a bright, faintly pinkish illumination. I hoped my upgraded DM, its icon curled around my right ring finger, was functioning properly and recording every detail; I'd studied pictures of several Earth-side Trading Posts, and they'd looked nothing like this. But then, they'd been set up for human esthetics.
I counted a dozen Tsf fifty yards ahead and was grateful to have a moment to adjust to their appearance before having to interact. They were more grotesque in the flesh than in photographs, which is saying something.
None were taller than me, most several inches shorter, but each took up more floor space due to having ten outer legs plus three central, somewhat hidden ones directly supporting the "gondola" containing their circulatory pump, cranium, and digestive mechanisms. They resembled neither spiders nor octopi. The jointless outer limbs were thin but muscular and descended in a smooth arc. Halfway down each one, a thick bundle of cilia wriggled, reminding me of those fiberoptic threads used for hokey Christmas trees. According to our science gurus, sensory organs tipped the medium-sized hairs while the longest ones were used as hands and fingers. The shortest and most numerous ones, only an inch or so long, made clicking sounds as they changed position, the Tsf way of speaking. I was the only person in the room wearing clothes.
So far everything was going by the book, line by paragraph. Sure enough, I could breathe the air, handle the gravity, and keep my lunch down. My only real problem, aside from anxiety enough for two cowards and the dissociative numbing to be expected in such a surreal situation, was that my mission still made no sense to me. I told myself that more experienced human heads than mine knew what they were doing.
It wasn't until I'd lumbered halfway to my alien hosts that my confidence in the experts nosedived. They'd told me, with a certainty only possible for people who planned to remain safe at home, that the Tsf would ignore my presence until I initiated conversation, but now most of the medium-length hairs in the room pointed straight at me. And the clicking chatter sped up, evidently, every Tsf talking at once—foolish me, I'd thought they were loud before. Sounded like a thousand car mechanics ratcheting away. Next time, I promised myself, earplugs. Better yet, no next time.
My case-couch nudged the back of my knees, but I still didn't take the hint. I certainly felt the extra eighty-six pounds I carried right now, but I keep myself very fit, I have to, so I didn't need the support ... yet. I stopped anyway. My hosts were turning back and forth in place, a dozen slow-motion ballerinas, while their sensory cilia kept themselves aimed at me with the steadiness of telescope clock-drives. My anxiety blasted off without so much as a countdown while my buck-fifty weight made me feel horribly weak. For the first time in my life, I had a visceral sense of what it might be like to be morbidly obese. Which was humbling since I'd treated obese people and had pretended to understand them. But there's nothing like terror to deflect mere humiliation, and what scared the shame out of me was two Tsf suddenly barreling my way in high-gravity-defying leaps.
They slowed to a halt, standing distant enough so that I didn't quite panic and make a futile break for the airlock, but close enough to me to learn that they smelled like curry, which implied the burnt-vanilla odor wasn't coming off them. Each was distinct enough in shape and coloration for me to easily tell them apart, but all their fingers, their longest cilia, were lavender, so if my information was correct, they were both males at the moment. The smaller alien held a Tsf interpreter: a device shaped like a doughnut with bicycle spokes. The larger Tsf clicked away, and the machine provided a running translation in a version of English that meandered from obsolete to bizarre, with frequent side trips to stuffy and obscure. Plenty of slang; most of it antique. Traders, I guessed, had done the cliché thing and had been monitoring our radio and TV transmissions. For at least a century.
"Regrets and apologies," the largest one chattered. "Our bad. We never intended such staring rudeness. Here's lies the skinny: each of us, unknown to each other, was so hot to see it happen. As true as I am called Deal-of-ten-lifetimes, which you know I am, and my comrade is known as Best-offer, which you'll bet he is, we all hang our gondolas in shame."
Hot to see what happen? And while Deal's words were disarming, the tenor voice the translator used for him sounded cold, almost sullen; I tried not to read anything into it. Still, as far as my fundamental expectations went, I was back on semi-solid ground. Deal's oblique introductions fit what I'd been told was the Tsf sense of propriety. The idea was that we were already familiars, making a straightforward exchange of names inappropriate.
Of course, NASA had already told them my name, but I was supposed to not-introduce myself anyway. I usually go by "Al" or "Doc" but had been told to use the official moniker for this first greeting. "As certain as my name is Doctor Alanso J. Morganson, I noticed no rudeness whatsoever." I hoped their culture had no taboos against the paler sort of lie. "Um, if I may ask, what were you hoping to see?"
"You may indeed ask. Anything and always. Curiosity, as Traders say, brushes wisdom." Again, the words were friendly, if eccentric, but the tone came across otherwise. Deal, in a gesture lost on me, lifted a leg and lightly swept its tip across my forehead. Considering Tsf abilities, he could've poked a hole through my skull just as easily. "We believed you'd be altering your size to make yourself more comfy in this gravity field."
"Isn't a human of your profession referred to as a 'shrink'?"
"Ah. We seem to have a slight misunderstanding. What's supposed to shrink, if I do my job right, is my patient's emotional problems." Didn't seem wise to tell these walking craniums that the term was short for "headshrinker."
"Go figure. Our bad, again."
I lowered my voice. "Is my patient somewhere in this room?"
That got a reaction; Deal shuddered all over. "Awkward," he said. "We Traders maintain stable emotional orbits and suffer no mental flaws."
"Sorry, I thought—wait! You mean my patient isn't a Trader?"
"Most assuredly correct. In fact, if you will forgive me for expressing it so harshly in your terms: no way, Jose."
That "Jose" threw me. Why would they use my middle name?
"Doctor, I wonder if our interpreting machine is functioning with full propriety." I was wondering that myself. "It seemed you referred to your patients in the singular."
Uh-oh. "I've got more than one?"
"It is a unique happenstance, but we have recently collected a triad of beings, no two alike, and all unfamiliar to Traders. We cannot comprehend their behaviors nor have yet ascertained their planets of origin."
Three aliens utterly alien to these aliens. Oh. My. God. I'd never remembered to ask what NASA had asked in trade for my services but hadn't much cared since I wouldn't be earning it. But now it dawned on me with that classic sinking feeling that if I screwed up here by doing some actual harm, my failure could jeopardize Tsf-human relations. And with three total unknowns, how could I even guess what might cause harm?
I tried to sound calm. "Please tell me more."
"We have little to relate. We rescued two of your patients from damaged starcraft, the third was a chucknoland found on a world similar to your Mars."
"I'm sorry. What's a ... chucknoland?"
Deal hesitated. "Our translator has failed? Let me elaborate. I refer to a being forced to abandon their vessel who attempts to thrive beyond civilization."
I snapped my fingers and every Trader in the room clicked loudly. Had I made a faux pas? Or were they were all just saying, "Bless you"?
"Sorry about the snap, didn't mean anything by it. And I don't know how the translator came up with chucknoland, but I think you mean a castaway."
"Then we have attained a bitchin' mutual understanding. Now, I must sound a klaxon. Shortly, within six of your minutes if we comprehend your temporal and counting systems, and we do, we must make all Trader occupants of this station four and three-fifths times heavier for five and two-thirteenths minutes."
That news upset me and not because of the picky fractions. The Tsf had informed Earth about the periodic gravity boosts but wouldn't say how much or for how long. My handlers had guessed light and short. They'd had no idea why the aliens weren't more forthcoming.
"Dig this," Deal continued, "our muscles would soon atrophy and our skeletal fibers de-mineralize in this wimpy gravity without frequent relief."
"Why not stay heavy all the time?"
"If only. That would be prohibitively energy expensive since each added dollop of gravity requires exponentially more power." His translator coated the statement with condescension. "May I show you to your stateroom where we can send you real-time images of your patients while you remain immune from increased weight? Or would you prefer to see them directly? Or ... you might care to leave our Parent Ship and forget everything the Master Traders have employed you to do."
"I'm getting the impression you don't think I'm up for it." If so, Deal and I were in perfect agreement.
"I think you are wasting your time and mine. The finest Tsf minds are focused on these problems; what could a human possibly add? But my thoughts are weightless since I'm not in charge. So, of the three options I offered, and I do recommend the final choice, what's your cup of tea?"
So much for the famous Trader politeness, but the question was good. And so was another: could I handle the upcoming change? I'd trained on a scaled-up centrifuge, a carnival ride designed by sadists as I'd described it to my wife, working up to three minutes at 7G, which jacked my 172 pounds to about 1,200, double what my NASA coaches claimed would be "worst case" conditions. I was the only mental-care professional on their short list who could handle anything approaching that—ironic considering my condition—so I got hired. By hired I mean drafted.
But since the gravity here was already too strong for my comfort, the coming increase would leave me nearly as heavy as during my training and for almost twice as long. Even with a smartsuit-cum-G-suit, inflating as needed to keep blood from pooling away from my brain, the experience sounded ghastly. Also, I'd "grayed-out" more than once during my carnival rides, temporarily becoming colorblind. What if color provided important clues concerning my patients?
What was I thinking? My patients? Was I really moronic enough to continue with this farce? I'd had no idea how I was supposed to provide therapy to Traders, and we knew a little about Traders. This would be a shot in the dark, blindfolded. Anyone with the intelligence of a squirrel or less would've chosen Deal's third option, pled incompetence, and bowed out fast.
I just couldn't bring myself to do it, not yet. Deal's contempt had invoked what my wife calls my "stubborn edges." Foolish, I know, but sometimes I'm a fool. Still, I didn't have to be stupid and squished. I opened my mouth to accept the stateroom invitation and then had two nasty thoughts. What if one or more of the mystery aliens was in some sort of crisis and lack of proximity hid important cues? Also, it might be useful to learn how well I could operate under the extreme condition.
"I'll visit your guests in person. Could you let me know a minute or so before you turn on the heavy?"
"You bet your bippy. If you desire to experience failure, please follow me."
Strange. Deal's hostility went against everything I'd heard about Traders. Also, what was a "bippy" and why would I want to bet it?