“You’re not gonna believe this, Joao,” astronaut Coral Reeves said with a chuckle, looking at a document on her desk.
Joao Santos, NASA Chief Astronaut, looked up from his data tablet. “Believe what?”
“You’re being charged with xenoslaughter in the First Court of Trans Lunar Crime.”
“I’m being charged with what?”
“Xenoslaughter. We just received this document in the mail. It’s from the Galactic Court Chief Prosecutor for the District of Sol.”
“What kind of stupid joke is this?”
“My guess is Bob Gibson. He’s still pissed about your being picked Chief Astronaut. instead of him. But this is actually pretty funny.”
“That proves it’s not from Trooper,” Santos said, turning back to his tablet. “From what I can tell, he has about as much sense of humor as a ferret.”
“No, listen to this. ‘You are hereby subpoenaed to appear before the Third Solar Court on the far side of the Moon on or before October 31, 2135. To respond to this subpoena, you must report to the orbital elevator in Paraguay no later than 5:00 PM that day. A representative of the lunar court will meet you in Paraguay. Failure to comply with the subpoena will result in confiscation of all property in the solar system owned by the respondent. This specifically includes the quarter acre owned by the respondent in Valles Marineris on Mars.”
“What? Let me see that.” Joao extended an imperious sphand.
Coral passed the document to Joao, eyebrows raised. “What caught your attention?”
“What orbital elevator? This is just a joke.”
“What’s this about property on Mars?”
“My son bought it on the Internet for my birthday. It’s harmless. If that’s all Gibson’s got, it’s pretty pathetic.”
“How’d he find out about your Martian vacation home? I didn’t even know.”
“You don’t know everything about me, Coral.” He caressed her hand gently.
“Hmph!” She withdrew her hand. “Maybe I know too much.” She turned and marched off, stiff and upright.
Joao stayed late in the Astronaut Office. He hated Halloween, always let Maria take care of the greedy neighborhood kids. Stupid American custom. He had plenty of work with the upcoming Moon launch. The Chinese lander on the back side of the Moon had stopped transmitting and the President wanted to know why. It was the perfect opportunity to showcase the Orion and its capabilities. The Chinese had declined the President’s offer for a Chinese taikonaut to go on the trip. Probably to save face, although he couldn’t deny the possibility they were doing their own launch.
By nine the kids should have retreated home to gorge on chocolate. He closed the office, set the lighting for nighttime, and left the building. The crisp October air, the smell of fallen leaves, the light of the Moon overhead gave him a burst of energy as he walked to his Tesla roadster.
As he reached for the door handle, he heard someone clearing their throat behind him.
“Captain Santos?” the voice was soft, hesitant. He started to turn around.
“Don’t turn around.” The voice had taken on a firmer, more authoritative tone. “Are you Captain Joao Santos?”
Santos completed his turn. He wasn’t about to let a stranger give him orders.
That was a mistake. Whatever was pointing a taser at him, human it wasn’t. The shadow of a tree under which his car stood made his impression indistinct. But no human could be that tall and that thin. Plus, the voice was coming from the taser, not the holder.
“That was unfortunate,” the taser said. “I take it you are Captain Santos?”
Joao relaxed into a defensive stance. Let this … thing try something. He hadn’t been to jiu-jitsu practice for a week, he could use the exercise.
“I am. Who … or what wants to know?”
“Thank goodness,” the taser said. ” I hate doing memory wipes.”
“I shouldn’t have had to come here at all,” the taser whined. “Why didn’t you respond to the subpoena?”
This was ridiculous. “Trooper, however you made that thing you’re using to try to scare me, it won’t work. It can’t possibly do anything to me. Come out here like a man.”
“But I’m not a man,” the taser said, its tone terse and its syllables clipped. “And I’m behind schedule. We need to be at the court within the next three hours or my bounty drops significantly.”
Joao burst out laughing. “Trooper, I’ve got to hand it to you. You’re totally in character. Really, an alien bounty hunter?”
He froze in mid laugh. Whatever the thing held, it wasn’t a taser. Spidery strings shot out from it and entangled him, his muscles didn’t obey his commands and he was wrapped up tightly before he could move.
“Got him, grab us,” the not-taser said, apparently to someone else. Joao’s lights went out.
When the web released him, Joao wasn’t aware of any time having passed. The strands of the web simply vanished in a puff of smoke and he found himself standing in a cylindrical room the size of a basketball court. Its walls seemed to be made of luminescent plastic. The motion he had intended before he was entangled left him in a defensive posture awaiting attack. Except in front of him was a nightmare array of aliens worthy of the spaceport bar at Mos Eisley. Tall and short, thin and bulky, symmetric and … not. Every color he could imagine, although most tended to muted shades. He also felt much lighter than usual. So, not on Earth. Presumably the Moon, since he felt no sense of disorientation from Coriolis Force as he moved.
“First Court of Trans Lunar Crime will come to order,” something said. The voice spoke English, but the fricative consonants sounded like nails on a chalkboard. “Defendant Joao Santos, Chief Astronaut of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, United States of America, Earth, Sagittarius sector. You are accused of xenoslaughter. How do you plead?”
“What kind of court is this?” Joao demanded. “I don’t recognize your jurisdiction over Earth.” His nostrils flared, his eyes were fiery. He’d practiced this in front of a mirror often enough to know exactly what he looked like. It was his signature expression for terrifying supplicants.
The court erupted in a cacophony of sounds reminiscent of a medieval torture chamber or an industrial plant in need of lubrication.
“Ha, ha, ha,” said the loudspeaker.
“Order!” The loudspeaker demanded. Joao could hear the murmuring of other languages as the hellish auditory chaos subsided.
Something stood and approached him. It was close enough to human that Joao, desperate for familiarity, could ignore the extra eyes and limbs.
“I am your defender before the court. You may call me Jessica,” she/he/it said. Thank the gods her voice came from her mouth, which was as close to human as he was likely to see here.,
“Jessica,” he said, in what came out calmer than he felt, “what’s going on here? What in the universe is xenoslaughter?”
“It’s what you have been convicted of. When your probe, I think you called it Apollo 11, landed on Mare Tranquilitatis, it smashed an isquat beneath its landing pads and killed it.”
“What? An Isquark?”
“An isquat. It’s a lifeform native to the Moon. The isquat was a member of the first xenospecies of your Solar System, as you call it. And, since it was one of the last surviving members of its species, your victim was a member of an endangered species. It’s pretty bad. We need to talk about mitigation.”
Joao recovered his roar. “How can you even think I would cooperate in this charade?”
“Your cooperation isn’t really necessary. I’m just trying to help you.”
“Help me? This is ridiculous!”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. You’ve been convicted of a crime. You are the chief astronaut, head of the office responsible for this crime. Under galactic law you are responsible.”
“I wasn’t even born when Apollo 11 landed.”
“Responsibility rests with the senior officer of the culpable party. The galactic legal code does not recognize time as a factor in guilt.”
“I want to speak to someone else.”
“If you must. There is a free legal assistance option. You may not be pleased with your choice.”
The sort-of human turned and went away. She/he/it was replaced by a short, squat green thing with five arms arranged symmetrically around its trunk. It had an eye over each arm but only one mouth, midway between two arms. Repulsive!
“Come with me,” the new thing said. It led the way out of the room into a corridor flanked with barred doors. Most of the rooms were empty.
The green tree, barrel, whatever, led him into a room with a barred door. The room contained a flat sleeping platform, a hard-back chair, and a door into what he hoped was a bathroom.
“That was a smart choice,” the thing said in a throaty baritone voice. It sounded just like his old boss, the former chief astronaut.
“Huh? Did you say something?”
The pattern of wrinkles on the trunk surrounding the mouth tightened and the voice emitted a chuckle. A smile, maybe?
“I did. That fnarny advocate was trying to get you to give in.”
“Give in to what?”
“That snerd wants you to trade your rights to the Martian property for your freedom. This whole proceeding is bogus.”
“Forget I said that. It’s not polite.”
“Wait, my Martian property?”
“You, my friend, own the mouth of one of the most readily accessible tunnels to subsurface Martian water. The judge wants it.”
“Really? My son got the deed off some obscure Internet site. It was a joke.”
“Not a joke at all,” the thing rumbled. “The property is quite valuable. The agency selling the Martian plots was owned and operated by Siclans. Theychad no authorization from Galactic Central Property, but that case will take centuries to make its way through the court. You Earth people think you have bureaucracy.” The noise it emitted, something like a snuffle combined with a grunt, might have been laughter. “You’re amateurs.”
“Are you telling me this is just garden variety corruption?”
“Never mind. Common corruption?”
“You got it.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“That depends. What can you do for me?”
For Pete’s sake. If this was the way aliens operated, maybe the space program wasn’t such a good idea.
“I have no idea,” Joao said. “What could I possibly have that you would want?”
“You don’t know what you have on Earth. If I can get to the surface and disappear, they’ll never find me. They can’t legally go after me there.”
“They didn’t seem to have much trouble grabbing me off the surface.”
“That’s your ticket out of here. That fnarny bounty hunter was on Earth illegally.”
“Is that why he threatened me with a memory wipe?”
“Memory wipe!? You just hit the jackpot, sapient. If anyone gets wind of the idea he threatened you with a memory wipe, the judge, the advocate and the bounty hunter will end up in the smeel mines of Jordur.”
“Which probably means,” Joao said, sagging onto the chair, “they’ll wipe my memory as soon as I mention it.”
“Not here they won’t. The wiper would set off alarms all over the Moon.”
This had to be a nightmare. Last Halloween he’d swiped some of Angela’s candy, the kind she wouldn’t miss. Too much candy. That nightmare had been filled with spiders and bats. This time he’d definitely gotten some candy laced with LSD. He wouldn’t put it past Coral to bring some to the office as a joke.
“Well?” The green barrel was tapping its, foot, or root, or something. Whatever the appendage was, the impatience was palpable. It smelled bad.
“Listen, sapient,” it said. Its mouth definitely did weird things with consonants. “Tonight is the only night this will work.”
“Whatever you deranged creatures call it, it’s the only night of the year I can move around freely on Earth without being noticed. Are you with me?”
“If you’ll get me out of here,” Joao said, “I’ll get you Australia. Well, maybe an island off its coast.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. Asylum is all I need. I can live in the Sonoran Desert pretending to be a cactus whenever a human comes around.”
Joao laughed. “You would be the strangest cactus in the desert.”
“So you’re an expert on cactus? You know every kind there is?”
“Then don’t kvetch. It’s my idea.”
Joao waggled his eyebrows. “If you say so. How do we get out of here?”
The green barrel sidled out the door, Joao following close behind.
“Bailiff!” It shouted. It actually also made a disgusting squishing, sucking sound, but the mouth shouted the English word.
The thing that responded was strange even by the standards of this nightmare. It looked like a wall, four feet wide, seven feet tall, with more legs than Joao could count. Its surface was rough, like oak tree bark, but it looked wet and pliable. It has a row of what he assumed were eyes along the top of the wall, all looking down at him.
“Skurge, what are you playing at tonight?” Its voice sounded like two cats fighting, but the English came out of a pendant hanging on its front.
“I need a ticket to take this sapient back to the scene of its capture. The snerd who brought him left some evidence behind. As the accused’s counsel, I need to review it.”
“Why don’t I just transport the evidence here?” the wall asked.
The barrel emitted a series of pops and clicks that weren’t translated.
“Well, if that’s the case, I guess you’ll have to go down. Here’s a ticket. Just hang onto it until I get the judge’s approval.”
“Sure,” the barrel said.
The minute the wall turned its back and marched away on its army of feet, the barrel took the ticket and walked up to Joao.
“Hold onto me,” the barrel said.
Joan saw what might have been a handhold extrude itself from the side of the barrel. He grabbed it.
The barrel tore the ticket in half.
Joao found himself standing next to his Tesla.
“… do that?”
The barrel had changed color, it now looked like a short oak stump.
“That’s how the ticket works. We’re back. Now, listen, I’m going to apply for asylum at the border between Mexico and Arizona. All I need from you is for you to be a character witness at my asylum hearing.”
“What if I just don’t turn up?”
“Two words. Bounty hunter. If I don’t transmit my report to the judge, they’ll be all over your case. Jailbreak forfeits your entire world to the galactic overlord.”
“What? You can’t do that. Can you ?”
“Relax, I’ll send it. Just show up at the hearing. It’ll be a year before they get clearance from galactic central to arrest you for jailbreak. Bureaucracy.” With that last word, spoken with a huff, the barrel tore the ticket in half again and faded from view.
Joan drove home, or rather his Tesla did, without stopping anywhere. He needed to talk to Jorge.
When he pulled into the garage, the porch lights on the houses on his street were all dark. A few children roamed the streets, but the evening festivities were presumably over.
“Maria,” Joao called as he entered the house. “Where’s Jorge?”
Maria met him at the door, fire on her eye.
“Joao, you promised you’d be here for Halloween this year. Angela was disappointed. She wanted you to take her trick or treating.”
“This is the weirdest Halloween I’ve ever had,” he said. “I need to talk to Jorge.”
“He’s probably in his room. We’ll talk about this later.”
Joao breezed past Maria, down the hall to Jorge’s bedroom. He entered without knocking.
Jorge dropped his game system, his face flushing.
“I still have time left to use my electronics,” he stammered.
“Never mind that,” Joao said. “Do you remember that bit of Martian real estate you gave me for my birthday?”
Jorge’s face fell. “Sorry, Dad, I thought you’d like it. I know it was thirty dollars but…”
“Can we get any more?”
Jorge‘s mouth was still open as if to speak, his eyes wide, but no sound emerged.
“Uh…, I guess, Dad. The one I got you was the cheapest one they had. Most of them were a lot more.” His face twisted into a quizzical expression. “Why do you want more?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Joao said. “Let’s find that web site.”
Prime Property Overlooking Valles Marineris!
Thaumasia Planum Special – $10 per acre.
Minimum Purchase 10 acres.
“That one,” Joao said, pointing at the screen of Jorge’s laptop. “Where was the piece you bought me?”
Jorge looked at the map, expanded it for a better view.
“Right here,” he said, pointing to a spot just east of the Nectar Mountains. “It’s there, right below the one they’re advertising. But, Dad, the minimum is a hundred dollars.”
“Let’s go for a hundred acres,” João said. “Go ahead, set it up.”
Jorge shook his head. “It’s your money.”
Jorge tapped a few keys, then looked up.
“Now we have to pay.”
“Just one more plot. That one there.” Joao pointed to a square about a kilometer east of his own property in the valley.
Jorge put his hands on the keyboard.
“Wait,” Joao said. “This one is a gift. We can do that, can’t we?”
“Duh. That’s how I got you the first chunk.”
“Great. Buy it for Bill Gibson, Chief Astronaut, NASA. I’ve got his email address.”
“I thought you were the Chief Astronaut.”
“Just do it.”
Jorge tapped a few more keystrokes, hit RETURN.
“Dad, you need to put your credit card in.”
Joao shifted their laptop to where he could get to the keyboard and inserted his numbers. He took a breath, then hit the PAY button.
“Man,” Jorge said. “Mom’s gonna kill you.”
The next day Joao went in at the usual time. Bob Gibson was waiting in his outer office.
“Joao, I’ve got some crew rosters for your approval.” Gibson’s face looked like he’d just eaten a lemon.
“Not my problem anymore, Bob,” Joao said. “I’m retiring. It’s all yours.”
Gibson’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“You heard me, Bob,” Joao said. “This job’s too dangerous.”
As Joao went into his office for the last time, he noticed Bob’s face break into a grin.
NASA Chief Astronaut Gibson Disappears
Car Abandoned in NASA Parking Lot
–Wall Street Chronicle–
Former Chief Astronaut Joao Santos
Signs Deal with Space Industries LLC
First Project: Water Mines on Mars
The green tree trunk never reappeared, although biologists reported sightings of a new kind of cactus near Tucson, Arizona. No one ever found the actual cactus.