Photo remix by Alexander Lionel
Bowl of Souls
by K. Eisert
Through the one-way mirror, Senator Heidi Montoya studied the man clad in an orange jumpsuit and shackled to a chair. A guard lifted the black bag from his head. The man’s affect was flat. Was he drugged? With disheveled hair and scraggly beard, he resembled more the homeless men who hung around the Capitol building than the purported leader of a terrorist organization.
Across the table from her, Director Charrington plucked peanut M&Ms out of candy bowl and popped them into his mouth. She glanced down at the folder. It read, “TOP SECRET.” It should have said, “STEAL THIS FIRST.” She sliced open the file folder with a manicured nail and read the summary.
Reading further, her jaw set. Not because of the man’s misdeeds but the level of detail in the report. It strained credulity. She’d served on the Intelligence committee for a couple of years now. This wasn’t her first rodeo. Charrington was a fool to think it was.
“This is bull.” She flicked the folder across the table to Charrington. “Even a defector preparing for months couldn’t provide a report this nuanced.”
Charrington smiled. “I knew you’d doubt the report. That’s why I’ve arranged for a demonstration.”
A tech entered carrying a tray covered by a green surgical cloth.
Heidi’s skin crawled. A torture device? Studies showed torture never worked.
As if answering her question, Charrington said, “It’s a brain scanner.”
“Ha! The latest model fMRI will barely fit in this room.”
The tech lifted the cloth and set the machine on the table. From one end projected a mini-parabolic dish that attached to a plastic-covered cylinder with an embedded touch screen on top. Beneath the unit extended three offset metallic semi-circles, their shape similar to trigger guards on a handgun. Except the triggers ran along the outside curve of the guards as if they needed to be pushed not pulled.
“With this we can take snapshots of the brain, exposing what it knows, thinks, feels.”
Her patience exhausted she said, “Like hell. You’d need a quantum computer.”
The Director waved his hand. “Allow me to show you.”
The tech slipped wooden dowels into the first two guards and his thumb in the third. Pointing the dish directly at her, he pressed the dowels and his thumb forward into the guards.
She slapped the device away and jumped up. “Don’t you point that thing at me!”
The dowels shot in two different directions. The technician fumbled his grip. The device skittered across the table and fell over the edge.
“Senator Montoya! Please!” said the Director. “We only want to demonstrate the device.”
Hands on hips, head held high, she asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
The director jabbed a finger toward the terrorist. “It’s completely safe. Look for yourself. That man was not harmed.” The Director slapped his hand on the file. “With this we can dismantle the entire organization down to the last little wannabe with a firecracker.”
Heidi’s body language did not waver.
The director said, “I apologize. It was only to convince you that the device works. We’d have deleted the files immediately.”
When is a file ever really deleted?
The tech cleared his throat. “We have an error message. She might’ve broken it.” He pulled out a phone and speed-dialed.
Pointing to the folder Heidi said, “I’ll need to verify all this.”
“Naturally.” To the tech he said, “Well? What does he say? Did she break it?”
“Gorjam says no. It’s a low battery warning. He needs to recharge it. He says he’ll need access to his…” the tech paused. “His stuff.”
Charrington apologized again, but Heidi kept her eye on the tech. He crouched to grab a dowel at her feet. A second rush of adrenaline surged through her. She leaned over him. “And if you ever point that thing at me again, I swear to God, I’ll shove it so far up your ass you’ll need a tonsillectomy to retrieve it.”
He jumped back. “I won’t tolerate a hostile work environment. I’ll report you.”
Heidi grabbed him by his collar and dragged him to the one-way mirror. “You see that man?” He nodded. “Do you want to be his roommate?”
She released him. Nonplussed, the Director scooped the last of the M&Ms from the candy bowl, dropping them one-by-one into his mouth.
Heidi grabbed the file and stormed out. Standing in the elevator, her hands shook. The implications of the machine blossomed like a corpse flower, the stench of death wafting outward. Humanity did not possess a functional quantum computer nor, as the trigger guards implied, three backward facing fingers to activate the device.
The rumors she’d dismissed as preposterous were true. The NSA had themselves a real, live extraterrestrial. And his name was Gorjam.
Senator Montoya threw the remote against the wall monitor right into the digital face of the traitor Senator Neiman.
Kyle, her Chief-of-Staff, swore for her. “That SOB! The Saudis got to him. We’ll be chained to the oil teat for another twenty years!”
He continued to rage, but Heidi’s eyes narrowed and she walked up to the screen and studied her colleague closely. His eyes were strangely blank as he explained why he’d reversed his stance on the alternative energy bill. His tie was askew and the shirt under his jacket wrinkled. Neiman, a vain man, usually wore his clothes so sharply his trouser crease could slice paper.
Exhausted from his outburst, Kyle leaned against the credenza. “First Hilson gets arrested for graft, the Speaker goes pro-gun, and now Neiman? What the hell? Is it just me or has everyone sold their soul to the devil?”
Hilson and Neiman were members of her Intelligence committee. Charrington would have briefed both of them. “Call Neiman’s scheduler. I want to know when he last visited the NSA.”
The rumors of an extraterrestrial had originated out of the Speaker’s office. Only that morning she’d run into the Speaker. He’d seemed uncharacteristically tired. Her third cup of coffee began to claw its way up her esophagus.
Many of her colleagues had the moral fiber of beef broth, but none had previously exhibited a desire to commit political suicide like Neiman who’d been elected on a pro-green ticket. What if Gorjam’s device took more than just a snapshot of one’s thoughts?
She called Kyle back in. “Forget Neiman’s schedule. I want Director Charrington’s.”
That evening, as she paced in her pajamas, she took a tally. Eight. Eight high-ranking officials had visited Director Charrington: two on the appropriations committee, two from her Intelligence committee, a four-star Air Force general, the head of the FBI, the Speaker of the House, and finally the VP himself. All were acting out of character according to their staff.
She glanced at the bed. Normally at this hour, her husband would be stretched out snoring, but he’d returned home to feed her reelection machine. God, she could use a hug.
Heidi traced a finger over the edge of her smart phone. Dare she call? Director Charrington would undoubtedly be listening in.
The phone buzzed. Startled Heidi answered it without checking caller ID. Instead of her husband, it was a woman whose voice sounded identical to the default operator’s — your call cannot be completed as dialed — except she introduced herself as Mrs. Gorjam.
The U-Store-It was located in a suburb. Not a bad part of town. Not a good one either. The sodium lights cast a sickly pall. Heidi unbuckled her belt and leaned over the edge of the front seat to read her driver the code. He punched it in and the gate opened.
“Building 4, the entrance to the right.”
As she exited the SUV, he asked whether he should go with her.
“No. But if you hear screaming, run like hell.”
She entered the building. At every corner in the maze of units, she had to twist the timer so the lights would come on. She stopped in front of 4-120. She set her phone to record, took a deep breath, and pushed open the metal door.
Cubicle walls set up near the entrance formed a screen for the first twelve feet. The mini-hallway ended with a beat-up vinyl chair and a line of red tape across the floor. A camera pointed directly at the entrance. As expected the room beyond lay in darkness. The trussed roof arched high above her head like a hangar. Probably designed to store RVs and sailboats out of season.
In the chair was a recently delivered Amazon box. The corners were scuffed, and it felt like books when she moved it to the floor next to the chair. Per instructions, she sat and dialed the number. It rang on the far side of the space. Someone picked up.
The operator voice said, “Thank you, Senator Montoya. I do appreciate you coming to see me. It’s hard for me to get around on land.”
A rustle and a series of slaps resounded against the concrete floor beyond the cubicle wall. A vision of a gigantic walrus or elephant seal came to mind. She sniffed. Only the mustiness of the storage depot. No salt. No rotten fish.
“Am I speaking with Mrs. Gorjam? The wife of Dr. Gorjam?”
A sound like water being sucked up into a pool filter reverberated. The voice over the phone guffawed.
“Gorjam is neither a doctor nor even well-educated. He may call himself an intelligence merchant, but he’s just a hacker with mediocre skills. And now he can add thief to his curriculum vitae.” The voice took on a longing quality. “But such a pretty thief. So handsome he makes my jaws ache.”
Taking note of the plural, Heidi said, “Please tell me all you know about the machine.”
“It’s a medical device. Doctors use it at the moment of death. They take a capture of all the knowledge of the patient, remove their essence, and transfer both into a new cloned body. The new body has all the memories, knowledge, and essence of the original.”
Assuming essence meant soul… Heidi scooted to the edge of her seat. “How does the machine work?”
“I wouldn’t know. But there’s a downloadable manual. Would you like a translator program?”
Heidi repressed her urge to fist pump the air. “Please.”
An email with two attachments appeared on her screen. She clicked download.
“Ours was an illicit love,” said Mrs. Gorjam. “He and I aren’t from the same social class. Mom warned me, but he’s just so gorgeous. Besides, I never figured he’d cut and run just as ovulation was about to start.”
Heidi adjusted her glasses to hide her expression from the camera, a habit she’d learned on the campaign trail. “Perhaps he’s not ready to raise children.”
“You misunderstand. He won’t be around for the kids. After we mate, I’ll eat him.”
Heidi blinked hard. “I see how that might be a turn-off.”
Concerned Mrs. Gorjam asked, “Does this change the deal? I understand your species doesn’t eat the male.”
Without hesitation she said, “Nope. None of my business.” Heidi installed the translator program. A possible virus seemed the least of her troubles. “However, he’s in a secure facility. I won’t be able to get him out if he doesn’t want to go.” As if she could get him out anyway.
“Don’t worry. Just tell him I’m in town.” Mrs. Gorjam sang the end of her sentence. “He’ll run, and I’ll catch him.”
The translator program opened and Heidi dragged the second file into it. She selected English from a list hundreds of options long. Earth really wasn’t alone. At all.
Heidi asked, “If you do catch…up to him. Will you be staying here to give birth?”
“No offense, Senator Montoya, but this planet’s a piss hole. I wouldn’t raise my children here.”
Heidi said, “None taken.” The translation program continued to grind away.
Mrs. Gorjam said, “I’d like to change the subject. That box at your feet, did you bring that with you?”
“It was here when I arrived.” She looked at the label. “It’s addressed to Mrs. V. Gorjam.”
Her voice twittered. “Oh my books! They must’ve arrived while I was out catching dinner. I’ve been waiting for these.”
An enormous bulk pounded and slid beyond the flimsy cubicle wall. Heidi curled her toes in her shoes. A lemon yellow tendril snaked from around the corner. It clutched a box cutter. “Would you be so kind? I keep knocking over this silly partition.”
Careful to avoid coming into contact with Mrs. Gorjam’s appendage, Heidi accepted the box cutter. She opened the carton and removed the packing pillows. Her eyebrow arched, Heidi pulled out paperbacks by Roberts, Steel, Deveraux, Sparks, and Garwood.
Mrs. Gorjam said, “I just love your literature. The books get a little soggy, but they are so much fun to read.”
Heidi turned to pass the books to the tendril, but she recoiled. Instead of one yellow tendril, there were thirty or forty. They weren’t just yellow, but blue too, and all waved at her like a greedy sea anemone.
Afraid they might come with stingers, Heidi gingerly handed over the books. Mrs. Gorjam squealed with delight, as the tendrils sucked back behind the screen with their prizes.
Having regained her composure Heidi asked, “Have you thought of a Kindle?”
“I tried one, but they aren’t waterproof.”
Her feet hurting, Heidi sat down. The file was almost finished. Mrs. Gorjam flipped pages on the other side of the cubicle wall.
“Your literature is a bit facile, but it really does make excellent poolside reading.”
Heidi could only imagine. “If you want something a bit more challenging you might try the Brontë sisters or Jane Austen.”
“Thank you! I’ll be sure to look them up.”
The translator program dinged. The manual’s translation was excellent, much better than the instructions that came with her DIY furniture. She had no further questions, and she thanked Mrs. Gorjam for her help.
“Before you go, take this.” Another tendril snaked from around the corner. It held a small vial. “It is my personal perfume.”
The ampoule contained two drops of a clear liquid.
“Introduce this into his system. He will become paralyzed, and you can extract any information you need. I suggest torture. He has a low threshold for pain.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“No. Not at all. He is a bastard you know.”
Heidi fingered the vial in her pocket. Kyle paled as he reviewed the recording of her encounter with Mrs. Gorjam.
If push came to shove, she didn’t know whether she could torture Gorjam. Did that mean her soul/conscience hadn’t been stolen? She’d probably batted the device away in time to prevent a full download. But what if instead of her soul being extracted, it was corrupted? Were souls like computer programs? Besides, a damaged soul might be a prerequisite to do what she had to do. And what the hell was a soul anyway? Her morality? Her desires? She still dreamt of chocolate covered donuts. Her Catholic upbringing did not prepare her for these kinds of questions.
Kyle came to the end of the recording. He pressed both hands to his heart and rocked back and forth. His eyes shone. He squared his shoulders. “I always knew I was destined to save the world.”
Heidi pinched her lips together to keep from laughing.
In all seriousness, Kyle whispered, “I have a contact in the CIA.”
Three hours later, the door buzzer sounded. Kyle’s studio apartment didn’t have a separate bedroom. Heidi stuffed herself into a closet. She couldn’t see so she concentrated on the sounds. The friend plopped on the couch and it creaked. He unzipped a bag.
“Everything you need is on this hard-drive. I’ve already checked and the backdoor’s open.” He unzipped another pocket. “Here’s her ID card.” The metal clip on the ID jangled.
“And the dart gun?” asked Kyle.
“You should receive it by FedEx no later than 10 AM tomorrow.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Not my problem.”
Kyle fumbled with cables, probably checking the hard drive. She wanted him to hurry as a hanger poked her in the boob. In the confined space, Heidi’s fears piled upon her. What was she thinking? They’d get caught, and if she hadn’t lost her soul already, they’d take it. This wasn’t some election she’d lose. This is what made her – well – her. She was too fat and too bossy and probably too cranky, but she had no regrets. Once at a Washington party a reporter had asked, “If you could go back in time, Senator Montoya, what would you do over?” She’d evaded the question because her answer sounded too politic, too trite. “Not a damn thing. I like the way things turned out.”
As Kyle clicked away, his friend asked, “You’re taking a real risk. Is the Tasmanian She-Devil worth it?”
Kyle paused. Had reality finally hit him? Would he back out? He said matter-of-factly, “Yes, she is. If something does go wrong, she won’t throw me under the bus.”
His friend said, “In Washington, that’s something.”
After a few minutes of silence, Kyle said, “Are you sure there’re no guards?”
“Your person of interest roams freely anywhere from sublevel 3 to sublevel 5.”
“So I use this login and password to access the security camera feeds.”
“Right. But only access it from within the building or you’ll tip off security.”
Kyle’s laptop snapped shut. “It all checks out. We’re cool.”
His friend heaved himself to his feet. “To infinity!”
Kyle responded, “And beyond!” They high-fived each other.
After the all clear, Heidi let herself out of the closet. “Childhood friends?”
He blushed. She’d never noticed before, but Kyle had a lot of freckles. He was Woody all grown up. She’d have to buy him a cowboy hat, if they survived.
As they reviewed the plan, Heidi couldn’t stop grinning. Nope, she wouldn’t throw Kyle under the bus, and she was proud of that. Neither politics nor Gorjam’s machine had taken that from her. She cracked her knuckles. “We can do this.”
Heidi stood over Gorjam’s body. Kyle was right. The dart gun had produced only a loud click. No one would be reporting gunfire in the basement of NSA headquarters.
As the seconds flashed by on her phone, she plucked the dart from between the scales on the alien’s back and slid it into the case. How great would it be if her body produced such a lovely serum? Several partisan congressmen simply begged for a rhino-dart in the left haunch.
Kyle’s voice came in over the earpiece. “Senator Montoya, please hurry. We have only seven minutes left.”
Bracing herself, she rolled Gorjam over. He was heavy, well muscled, bipedal. He didn’t have a head so much as a face that extended directly out of his chest. The four multi-faceted bug eyes that normally waved about on stalks had retracted. The wormlike fingers that surrounded the mouth flinched and twitched. That was creepy enough, but what was worse was the body temperature. Scaly things should be cool to the touch. Gorjam’s body felt as hot as the 120-degree water she used to activate yeast.
“Gorjam, can you hear me?”
She waited for the color change in the chromatophores that ran along his abdomen to acknowledge her. Nada. More precious seconds whizzed by.
Not knowing if he had a nut sack or where he kept it, she kicked him in the mouth. His stomach changed color. The SOB had been faking it.
A bile green swirled across his entire body. Black shapes formed across his middle, racing like an announcement board. She activated the translation program. He would not cooperate, and he impugned her parentage.
Heidi rifled through Gorjam’s effects. In a lunch sack she found the head of a small monkey, still fresh. In the second bag she found a small box made of human skin. The tattoo read, “Mother.” Inside the box lay a glass vial of beach sand.
“Sentimental are we? Where’s the device?”
He refused to answer.
“Tell me or I will leave you — paralyzed — to your wife.” Heidi held up her phone. “Right now, she doesn’t know where you are, but….” She let the thought sink in. “One call and she’ll be right over. Charrington doesn’t have the firepower to keep her out.”
Gorjam farted the scent of a brand new car. He wanted to make a deal. “The device is in the safe in the lab next to the technician’s office.”
“Combination?” He told her. “Where are the souls?”
“Souls? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me! I’ll break off one of your mouth fingers and feed it to you!” She repressed her gag reflex. “The souls! The machine makes a copy of a person’s brain and extracts their essence.”
Distain waltzed across his abdomen. “The residue? Is that what you’re whining over?”
“Where are they?”
“In a candy bowl on the technician’s desk. That’s where I’ve been dumping them. He wouldn’t let me throw them out.”
She turned on her heel. Gorjam’s entire body flashed red, his version of a shout.
“What?” She smelled a strong odor of musk.
“My wife, have you seen her? How’s she look?”
Heidi raised an eyebrow. “Dude, don’t let this Mrs. Gorjam juice addle your brain. She’s going to eat you.”
His mouth worms twitched. “Right.” The room filled with the scent of pepperoni pizza and beer. “Thanks.”
Heidi hurried down the hall to the tech’s office. Her heart thumped in her ears. The whole escapade had been relatively easy so far. Maybe her luck would hold. As promised, on the tech’s desk, sat a candy dish filled with a mix of gray and brown rounded stones. But no one would confuse them with the terrestrial variety. Even through her gloves, the energy pulsed like ants crawling up her arm. Bracing herself, she swept the bowl and its contents into her bag.
She dashed up the hall to the lab door. She swiped the card. Nothing. She held her breath and swiped again. Still nothing. Did she need a higher level of security? Was she found out?
Oh. She held the card upside down.
Once inside she flipped on the fluorescents. Typical lab space with gizmos on benches, a messy desk covered in paper and a dust-covered CRT monitor with cables dangling. She yanked open cabinet doors. Halfway around the right side of the room she found the safe.
As she spun the dial to clear it, Kyle piped in, “Charrington just exited the elevator, and he’s heading your way.”
Heidi shut the cabinet door and searched for a place to hide. She spied the desk. As the lab door opened, she pulled the chair in behind her.
With his phone to his ear, the Director entered. He placed a case on the lab bench. “I’ve found another one of his trinkets on eBay. It was pretty cheap. But he runs through monkeys like they’re popcorn. We’ll need to transfer more funds.”
He opened the case and pulled out the device. Heidi pressed her hands over her mouth.
“I’m so glad we moved his ship. Recharging this sucker was such a hassle when we had to drive to Virginia.” His phone beeped. “Could you hang on a sec? I’ve got an alarm sounding.” He thumbed his screen. “Damn it! Gorjam’s making a run for his ship. Get your ass back here now!”
Charrington bolted for the door with the device still in his hand.
Heidi reached out. No! The door clanged behind him.
Both of Heidi’s knees popped as she crawled out and stood up. “Kyle, find me a way out.”
As she reached for the door, the lock clicked. She pressed the bar, but the door did not budge. The fluorescents cut out and the emergency lights came up. A voice boomed over the loudspeakers.
“The facility is under lockdown. Shelter in place until otherwise instructed by a uniformed officer.”
Heidi pounded on the door. The message looped.
Ten seconds later Kyle said, “Uh oh,” and their connection cut off. Twenty minutes after that, just as Heidi managed to pull out the last hinge pin on the door, shouting came from the hallway followed by clomping boots.
She tossed the hinge pins, hid the stones, and backed as far away from the door as she could. Not wanting to get shot, she dropped to the floor with her hands on her head. Someone swiped a card and butted the door. Without hinges, the door fell in and slammed against the ground, sending dirt up her nose.
Someone stumbled over the door. “What the hell?”
A gloved hand yanked her up by the hair. Three soldiers shoved high caliber automatic weapon barrels in her face. Another uniformed soldier held a picture in a Ziploc bag against her cheek. The soldier who held her by the hair yelled, “We have identified Senator Montoya.”
Another reported, “No joy on stones. Repeat. No joy.”
The soldier instructed Heidi to kneel, her hands on her head. “Senator Montoya, do you know the location of a bowl of….” He adjusted his earpiece as if not believing what he heard. “Ah… a bowl of souls?”
Heidi raised an eyebrow but did not respond. The soldier shouted over his shoulder, “Call Rover.”
One of the gun-toters withdrew to allow another soldier carrying a tablet to approach. He crouched in front of her and flipped it toward her. The President of the United States appeared on the screen. The soldier pointed to his cheek and made a wiping motion. Heidi licked a finger and removed a grease mark on her cheek left from her deconstruction of the door. She knelt straighter.
“Senator Montoya. I authorize you to answer this soldier’s questions.”
Heidi stared into the tiny hole that was the camera. “Before I do that, Madam President, when was the last time you visited the NSA?”
The President laughed. “I haven’t been there since I left my position as Senator. Excellent question, though. I sent the VP.”
“Good choice,” Heidi sat back on her heels. “So these people aren’t here to stop me?”
“No. They’re there to help.”
“How long have you known?”
“Five days. We were contacted by Mrs. Gorjam.”
The corner of Heidi’s mouth curled up. “So you sent her to me.”
“Yes, and you did so well on the whole,” the President wiggled her eyebrows up and down, “double-oh-seven thing, we decided to support you.”
Yep, that would explain Heidi’s luck and Kyle’s all-powerful CIA contact, praesidens ex machina.
She asked, “But what of the Gorjams?”
The President leaned slightly to her left as if listening to a report. “Both vessels are outrunning our fighters. They should be leaving Earth’s atmosphere momentarily.” She leaned to her right. “The device has been secured.”
Heidi sighed and sat back on her butt, her knees having given out.
The President asked, “Do you know how to restore the souls?”
Heidi shrugged. “In theory.”
“Excellent! The victims are being brought to you now. You may begin when ready.”
The President signed off. Heidi needed help getting to her feet. She’d have preferred the President order someone else to do it. What if she screwed it up? At least she had the manual. She’d have to find a printer.
Heidi joined the soldier code-named Rover in the observation room. The soulless slumped in chairs in the holding room. Oddly listless, they did not engage in conversation or react when a guard dragged the terrorist in and shackled him to a chair. Their spark was gone. Heidi patted the device. But not lost.
Wow. Half the government sat in that room. Too bad she wasn’t the terrorist, she’d finally be able to achieve regime change. “Shall we get started?”
“Still waiting for one more,” said Rover.
As if on cue, a soldier entered the holding room with the Director. Charrington sat in the tenth chair, worry lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth.
Pointing with her thumb she asked, “What’s the deal?”
Rover repeated what he got from his earpiece. “The Director was found with the device in his hands, standing over an unconscious guard in the empty hangar. During interrogation, Director Charrington suggested he might be a tenth victim as he could not explain how he got into the hangar or how the guard came to be unconscious.”
Heidi didn’t buy that story. There were only nine stones in the bowl. But maybe one was his. After all, whose knowledge would be more lucrative than that of the Director of the NSA? Perhaps Gorjam was worthy of his wife’s attentions.
Rover turned his chair so his helmet cam faced her. “Please proceed.”
She slid open the plastic cylinder on the device, and dropped the first stone into the depression. It was slightly oval with a caramel-colored stripe. Her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten since the day before. The souls resembled Godiva truffles.
From the information flowing across the device’s screen, this soul matched the data files identified as Neiman’s. Using her palm, she snapped in the cylinder like a clip of bullets into a handgun.
To Rover she said, “Neiman, fetch.” He rolled his eyes. Like he’d never heard that one before.
A soldier escorted the senator. Using the dowels and her thumb, she pushed the triggers. Neiman’s expression changed from apathy to curiosity to horror. “What have I done?”
A man wearing a Navy uniform entered and introduced himself as a counselor. He accompanied the cringing senator out of the room. Heidi took a moment to compose herself. What would it feel like to lose and regain one’s soul?
The next eight victims’ reactions varied. Some cried, some turned beet red, some sat stoically. Perhaps assessing the damage done to their careers. Counselors paraded in and led them away. In her hand, the souls were grumpy, or ambitious, or lonely, or sad, one was even spicy, but none felt inherently evil. Not even the terrorist’s. When she rolled his soul in her hand and squeezed tight, it only emanated despair. If souls existed, maybe so did redemption.
The confused terrorist was afforded no counselor.
The soldier escorted Charrington in last. There were no more souls in the bowl, but she pointed the device at him to see if she could verify any of his story. She laughed out loud.
Rover asked her to explain.
“Data type mismatch.”
“The President wishes to know what that means.”
Heidi turned to Charrington. “Tell us Mr. Gorjam, what does it feel like to be human?”
Gorjam-Charrington scowled. “Actually, I’m pretty pissed.”
Both eyebrows arched Heidi asked, “How so?”
“I’m angry the device’s charge held out so long. With my ship gone, I figured it would take you heathens years to develop a way to recharge it. By then Charrington would be retired and the question would never come up.”
“Damn monkeys and their puny little souls.”
“That’s for sure.”
Rover asked, “How much charge remains?”
Heidi checked the screen. “It’s showing the low battery warning. Maybe one more.” Her phone buzzed with a message. She ignored it.
Gorjam-Charrington shrugged. He leaned back in his seat, the tension gone from his body. He’d been busted before.
Heidi asked, “So how’d you get Charrington to trade with you?”
“It was his idea. When I told him about you, he knew the jig was up.”
“Did you forget to tell him about Mrs. Gorjam?”
“He knows. That was the deal we cut. I provided technical expertise, and he provided a place to hide and all the monkey brains I could eat. Just like I have all his memories in his body, he has all my memories in my body. We have no secrets, he and I.”
Heidi asked, “But then why did you agree to it? You know what we do to criminals.”
“Charrington has dirt on everyone. He knew he’d be able to negotiate. And because he knows it, I do too.”
Heidi nodded. “So although he might be able save his hide, his career would be over. He’d be marginalized.”
“Exactly. His thinking is if he can’t take over the world, then he might as well take over the galaxy.”
“Not if Mrs. G gets to him first.”
Gorjam-Charrington grinned like an actor in a toothpaste commercial. His money was on the little woman.
He added, “Me, I’m a simple man, a lazy man. If I had ambition, I’d have gotten a job. This is perfect. I dole out some intel — just enough to keep me in a lifestyle I enjoy — and I get to go home and have sex every, single night.” He leaned forward his manacled hands on his knees. “I mean seriously.” He looked at Rover. “Do you know how lucky you are that you get to live after sex and do it again and again? This is Nirvana.”
Heidi’s phone buzzed again. Nothing should get through the NSA firewall. Wait. The message had come through Violette’s program. She clicked it open.
Gorjam-Charrington thrust out his wrists as if he expected to be unshackled. “So, Madam President, should we discuss my terms in front of this senator?”
The message was short. “Luv, luv, LUV Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. OMG on Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester. Will have to get to Austen later. Gotta fly. Left a transponder on the moon. Text me when you get a chance. XOXO -Violette.”
To Gorjam-Charrington Heidi said, “I told you. Violette and I are like this.” She held up two crossed fingers. “I’ll tell her what you did.”
His left eye flinched. “They’re out of the system by now. You can’t tell her.”
“Wrong. She left a transponder on the moon.” Heidi waggled a finger over her phone. “One text and she’ll be back in a flash.”
Gorjam-Charrington’s chin jutted slightly. Heidi knew it impossible, but she swore the room filled with a new car scent. He asked, “What are your terms?”
She flipped through the pile of printouts from the manual until she got to the list of languages to which the screen could be set. “We’ll start with this.” She pushed it across the table. “You will describe the species that correspond with each language. You will tell us who they are, where they are, and what level of threat they pose to humans.”
He sighed and picked up the paper. “This is going to take some time.”
Heidi thumbed her handheld.
He perked up. “What are you doing?”
“Well, first I’m going to order a cowboy hat from Amazon and then text Violette. I’m sending her a list of great romance novels of the nineteenth century. Should I mention you?”
He signaled for a pen and flipped over the paper. “The Sheesh are gasbags who are poisoned by oxygen so they have a threat level of zero. Now the Baranka, they are pretty aggressive…”
Via Violette’s alien VPN, Heidi checked her messages. She got one from Kyle. “Did we save the world?”
She typed, “For today.”