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Mouse Suits

Written by Stephen Eley



We all know that Earth is a treasure. Like a rare diamond or a work of art, it deserves to be shown off. Millions of our neighbors visit us every year, and Distributed Leisure Intergalactic wants to be sure they see only the best Earth has to offer.

We're looking for today's brightest and friendliest humans to join our Earth Park teams as Cultural Guides. It's a tough job. Different roles, different bodies, and long hours are just a few of your challenges. But you'll get to meet some of the most interesting people in the galaxy—and you'll show them that Earth isn't just home to mankind, it's home to funkind!

—DLI Recruiting Pamphlet, "Earth Needs Women—and Men!"

* * *

I hate the bus. I hate the noise. The smell. The fresh guest bodies bouncing around. I understand why they make us come in this way—someone's got to babysit, and the job starts the second the shuttle door opens—but it's a little unfair. The guests all get a few days of orientation before they start their roles. Mice don't even get time for gravity adjustment.

I watch the cows and rolling pastures repeat outside. It cycles every eight minutes or so. No one else notices, of course; they're all too happy and excited. I look up, and I accidentally catch the eye of a large black man in the aisle. He literally picks up a chattering little woman next to him, and puts her down in front of him. Not hard in one-sixth gravity. She smiles and waves.

"Hello, friend," the black man says, and thuds down next to me. "This seat is empty. I claim it for my comfort."

He's sitting and facing me adversarially, eating up most of my personal space. It's unnerving; but then, my personal space was already confused. I'm taller than I usually am, and haven't gotten used to it yet. I force a smile and slip into guest-speak. "Please do. I will introduce myself. I'm Melvin Seebanks. I'm an executive for a major company. How do you do?"

The man's eyes light up. Introductions are the first thing everyone learns, and they all love 'em. "I am doing well. You honor—I mean, thank you for asking. I am Reginald Dowell, but I require you to call me Reggie. This other is the wife who is married to me. She is Mary. Greet Melvin Seebanks, Mary."

Mary waves at me again, harder, and assaults me with conversation. "It's sooo nice to meet you, Mr. Seebanks! Did you say you executed? I think that's lovely. The weather is also lovely, don't you think Mr. Seebanks? I wonder if they let it rain in New York Park."

"They must," I offer. "There's grass in some places, and grass requires rain."

"Oh yes, and there's beaches! Beaches need water too. Do you think they mine the water, or do they ship it from"—Reggie shoots her a glare—"Oh! Sorry, Reggiedoll, I forgot we weren't supposed to ask. What religion are you, Mr. Seebanks? We're Republicans. Do you think Reagan is going to win the duel?"

"He always does," I say. Mary laughs, a hyenalike bark. If I have to endure these people for the next two hours . . .

A voice behind me says, "Excuse me?" I look back. She's a brunette, mid-thirties, in a simple blue blouse and slacks. And glasses. Nobody wears glasses, even in the retro parks. "I'm sorry, I'm looking for a Gemini. My psychic told me I should always sit next to a Gemini when I travel." She winks. She's bailing me out. "I'm a Gemini!" I cry out, before anyone else can respond. "How did you know? We should sit together and compare, uh . . ."

"Our biorhythms!" the woman says, and grins. To Reggie she says, "I'm sorry, sir, but do you mind? It's very important for my aura."

"I will leave. I see others with my skin color and shall greet them as symbolic brothers," Reggie says.

I say, "Good idea. By the way, I'm a Republican too. If you're ever in the offices of Mega Industries, be sure to stop by and see me."

"I will come. I will challenge you to golf. Farewell, Melvin Seebanks." He lifts Mary again and carries her forward. She waves a fast goodbye at me as they sail down the aisle.

The brunette slides into the seat beside me. "Cygnans?"

"That's my guess." Cygnans only have one sex, but they mate in dominant/submissive pairs. They're universally obnoxious tourists. For a moment I have a mental picture of what Reggie and Mary must really look like. I look at my rescuer again to get it out of my mind.

I hold out my hand. "Thanks for saving my sanity. Today I'm Melvin Seebanks, corporate dummy. Tom Gaines, for short. Please call me Tom."

She takes my hand with a firm grip. "I'm Connie Marsand. They have me down as a record producer."

"Done that before?"

"Once," she says. "Have you ever listened to a tourist rock band?"

"Oh God." She nods. By now I'm dead certain about her, so I say, "Connie's nice. Is that your name here or back—?" I gesture upwards with my thumb.

"Yes," she says, a little too shortly. I look out the window, blushing. Stupid of me.

It's unusual to have two mice coming in on the same transit, but I guess it has to happen occasionally. Strictly speaking, Cultural Guides aren't supposed to talk out-of-character at all, except for simulation planning or emergencies. If Connie's a straight shooter she can report me just for giving her my real name. If she were a guest I'd be in even more trouble; but that seems out of the question. She's way too normal.

Of course, she did start it with the Cygnans comment, so she can't be too hard-core. She's shirking her duty too, chatting with me instead of the guests. She must hate the bus as much as I do.

I turn back to her. "Listen, I'm grateful for your help. But I just can't lie to you any longer. You see, I'm really a Libra. And my horoscope today said—"

"Watch out for strange women in lunar transit tunnels?" She smiles and taps the PDA in her shirt pocket, and leans a bit closer. I can smell her shampoo. It's got floral highlights in it.

I almost kiss her then and there. I'd be fired immediately, of course; apprehended at the end of the transit and sent back to Earth on the first cargo liner. But it would almost be worth it.

"Actually it said, 'You will meet many people today. Speak only to the annoying ones.' It hurts me, Miss Marsand, that you don't qualify."

"Connie," she says. "And you're Melvin, Tom."

Does she sound disappointed? "Right. But listen, I'm here for a month. If you'd like to do lunch sometime . . ."

She smiles again. It's a good smile, bright and just a little crooked. It's a human smile. "My people will call your people."

"Shoot me now," I moan. We shake hands, and I wander back a few rows to talk with fake people about fake weather.

* * *

Tuesday the 17th

* Fire Rages Across Bronx; Rebuilding May Take Days (A1) * Record High Predicted for Wall Street (B1) * Giant Ape 'Unlikely,' Says Leading Scientist (A7) * "Cats" Features Humans in Animal Suits (E2) * 47 Minutes of Rain in Late Afternoon (A8)

* * *

We wanted a lot from them. But we had nothing to trade. Nothing on Earth was remotely interesting to the galaxy. Nothing was unique, except for our frenetic, emotional, two-steps-up-from-monkey-tribes culture. So we did what every newly-discovered backwater does: we became a tourist trap.

Nobody can afford to leave Earth, but we get a lot of traffic coming our way, and they've brought a lot of improvements. Because of that, though, Earth's no longer what it used to be. Today's humans aren't the ones in the movies, the sitcoms, the old magazines—our native art. That's what the aliens came to see. Lucky for them, they've dealt with this before, and they had a solution that's already worked on a few hundred other worlds. They created the Earth Parks.

New York Park is a popular one. It simulates twentieth-century New York as well as a Disneyland ride simulates the Caribbean, compressing about fifty years of culture into a few square miles. Aliens from everywhere pay a lot of money to be body-sculpted and spend a few weeks' vacation as primitives so dumb, they've only just discovered semiconductors. The brightest of the dumb primitives get recruited as tour guides. They give us a crash course in half a dozen historical periods and interspecies relations. They sculpt us too, because real-looking humans would stand out among all the ideal bodies. We call our temporary bodies mouse suits.

Our job isn't to educate. Our job is just to keep the game going, and to demonstrate how to be human when the guests get lost and frustrated. It's a hard job, because this isn't a very human place. It's humanity from the outside, condensed into a pamphlet. I don't know much about that sort of humanity. Reggie the Cygnan paid to be here, and gets to do what he wants; I'm getting paid, and have to do what they tell me. That's the only real difference between us.

* * *

Cultural Artifacts Voucher

Profile H6492-Seebanks-4 will be issued the following historical artifacts for educational and demonstration purposes:

* One MXL-10DP programmable business phone. Voicemail and simulated call recipients included. Personal and extralunar calls prohibited. * One Swingline 444 desk stapler. Staples provided upon written request. Not to be used for personal stapling or self-defense. * Five sheets genuine wood pulp paper. For simulated note-taking only. Personal use, damage, or stapling will be prosecuted.

* * *

Two days, and the boredom is getting to me. I do try—I manage Mega Industries as much as I can get away with. I start conversations at the water cooler. I pop into employees' cubicles and critique their solitaire games. Yesterday I sent a memo to announce a new memo format. But that doesn't fill much of my day. Mega Industries doesn't produce or sell anything—we couldn't if we tried. Half my staff are bots, here to make New York look populated and with conversational skills slightly above cabbage, and the rest are paying guests. My mandate is not to annoy them while they spend their workdays having desk chair races and interoffice affairs.

I reassemble the stapler I took apart, then I sigh and flip open my PDA. That's one nice thing about New York Park: simple communication. My last gig was Neolithic Park. My status updates came from reading magnetically charged entrails.

No new messages from the Cheese today. I scan the news headlines, looking for inspiration or amusement. Or, just maybe, an excuse to call Connie Marsand without bending the rules.

I find it on Screen Five. Elvis is giving a show at Madison Square Garden. No, wait: a whole band of Elvii. It sounds hideous. The clients who can afford celebrity identities tend to be the richest, stupidest members of the richest, stupidest civilizations. Each Elvis has on a Coca-Cola jacket and pants—this week's fashion—and the logo catches my eye. Didn't the Culture Guidebook say something about corporate sponsorships?


I spend a few minutes skimming notes on my PDA, then I hit the intercom button on my phone. After two days, it's still the only button I know how to use. "Miss Twint? Come into my office please."

Sally Twint enters twenty seconds later. She always enters in exactly twenty seconds. She's a weird one: most secretary guests buy impossibly curvaceous bodies, but Sally's practically a stick, with a hairdo as big as the rest of her head. She looks like a giant Q-tip. She's got the odd, formal overtalking of the Eridani and other insect species, but I like her. For one thing, she keeps finding things for me to do.

"Mister Seebanks!" she spurts. "I was to page you momentarily: the Accounts Receivable team has completed this week's quarterly report, and desperately desires a review meeting with you. And them. Sir."

"Good. Thank you, Miss Twint. That sounds like desperate fun. Um, I was thinking . . ."

"You were, sir?"

That throws me. If she were human, I might have suspected sarcasm. "Yes, Miss Twint. It's occurred to me that we might, ah, reenergize our mission-centric paradigms if we"—I look at my PDA—"broaden our core synergies. Do you follow me?"

"That . . . means . . . that you want me to take a memo, sir?" She's looking at me like I'm the alien. I guess I don't blame her, but I'm feeling inspired.

"No. I mean we need to diversify. What's our market share in the entertainment sector?"

"I'll . . . have to check the handbook . . ." She flips open her own PDA. She's got the sort that looks exactly like a handwritten notepad.

I slap my desk, and she drops the pad, startled. "Exactly! We don't even know! So I was thinking—I mean, it's entered my cognizance—that we have a prime opportunity to consolidate our presence in that market. Set up an immediate meeting, Miss Twint!"

"Immediately, sir." She bends to pick up the pad, and every hair on her head stays fixed. It's uncanny. "Ah . . . a meeting with who, sir?"

"With the record companies, of course. Whichever ones are in town. We'll have advertising! Cross-promotional initatives! We'll have synergy!"

"That sounds . . . exciting, Mister Seebanks. I'll get right on it. Immediately. Thank you, sir." She backs out of the office, looking a bit dazed.

I settle back in my chair and prop my feet on the desk. I could have asked Sally to track down Connie Marsand by name, but that might look suspicious to the Cheese. Instead I'll network my way to her. It's all in-character, all legitimate, and it'll keep my busy. Hell, it might even be good for Mega Industries to actually do something.

I bask in my pride for a few moments, then hit the intercom button again. "One more thing, Miss Twint. Have a dictionary sent in as soon as possible." I ought to know what 'synergy' means before I use it again.

* * *

MUSIC: Native art made of sounds organized in patterns. Human nervous systems react positively to some patterned sounds, and negatively to other patterns. In previous historical periods these patterns were known as "music" and "noise," respectively. By the early twentieth century, cultural assimilation had rendered these definitions largely obsolete. Any sounds created by any physical process can be called music, so long as they serve no purpose other than art. Music is fundamental to human culture and economics, with tribes forming around prominent sound-creators and adopting their sigils as ornament. See also: rock group, T-shirt, illegal drugs.

—The Visitor's Guide to New York Park

* * *

Horror. Pain. Also some nausea. If I'd stopped for half a moment to consider that my idea necessarily involved listening to local music, I'd have locked the door on Miss Twint and spent the month playing with my stapler. But I just had to outsmart myself.

Turns out half the population of New York are rock stars—the other half are on Broadway—and each one of them has a "record producer" assigned. There are no record companies, just producers, and they each produce a single keepsake CD for the guest to take home to Upsilon Andromeda or wherever. (I assume they get a CD player, too, but nobody seems to know the details.)

Most of the producers are bots, I think, although the richer or more significant guests seem to get human Cultural Guides. I can tell by the look they give me when I tell them Mega Industries is looking for spokesmusicians, superstars to spread its message, a new sound for a new era. By the end of the week I'm numb. The Pickle Jars, the Houses, and the Amazing Integers are sincere but terrible. Flying Cat Bus, Paramecium, the Bathrooms, and Tons of Nuns are insincere and terrible. Chocolate Taco hasn't gotten around to picking up a guitar yet; the Good Band misrepresents itself; Masturbation for Hire is actually decent, except for their name and their lyrics. Pablo Picasso With a Machine Gun is . . . well, Pablo Picasso with a machine gun. He's got a dangerous look in his eye when I explain to his producer that we're looking for a softer, more upbeat sound than sustained gunfire.

I don't give a damn about Mega Industries, but even so I can't bring myself to affiliate it with any of these musical troglodytes. More to the point, none of them are represented by Connie Marsand. Miss Twint's a trooper through it all: making calls, setting up catering, and even sitting through several of the auditions. She's warmed up to me a bit, offering nervous but elaborate opinions, and a couple of times I've caught her staring at me. I think I've begun to earn her respect. Hard to do, if she's an Eridani like I think she is.

My luck swings as Friday wraps up, just as I'm wondering why I haven't gotten any weekend plans from the Cheese. I say goodbye to Giant Shrimp Special and their producer, and I'm starting to take apart the makeshift sound stage in the company lounge, when Miss Twint says, "You have one more appointment, sir, of which I am hastily informed. A Miss Marsand and her client, whom she represents. She requested the meeting, sir. I would not have scheduled—"

"Send her in!" My hands are blackened from whatever it is on sound cables that always blackens hands, so I wipe them on my expensive suit. Connie's already walking in, more primly dressed than she was on the bus, still wearing those glasses. "Miss Marsand! A pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure's mine, Mister Seebanks. I understand you've been frightening defenseless synergies." She's followed by four Asian youths wearing aluminum foil. Two are boys and two are girls, I can tell that by body shape, but otherwise they're identical. The boys have electric guitars. One of the girls has an electric cello, and the other . . .

"Is that an electric trombone?" For a moment I even forget about Connie. The Asian kids are staring at me with no expression. This is what an alien invasion would look like.

"I'd like to introduce my clients," Connie says. "The Fruits. I can say with some confidence that their music is like nothing you've ever heard."

The kids plug in immediately, and run a sound check without a word. Miss Twint excuses herself. She's done for the day, or maybe she's scared off by the Fruits. Then they start playing, and Connie's very right. This sounds like music by people who invented music with no outside help, and then asked around to see if they'd gotten it right.

The two guitars do nothing but scales; but they're five-note scales, and when one's going up, the other's going down, and they shift keys on each other in a way that almost, but not quite, sounds like it means something. The cello doesn't play discrete notes, but simply slides up and down in a smooth wave, sometimes varying the frequency. The trombone's actually playing a melody, slow and liquid, with the odd reverb that you can only get, I discover, from an electric trombone.

"Something about it sounds almost familiar," I tell Connie. "I can't quite put my finger on it."

"It should all sound familiar. It's John Philip Sousa's 'Liberty Bell March.'"

There's no response to that. The Fruits finish up, and for half a minute I can only sit there. Finally Connie says, "Melvin? . . . Tom?"

"That was very . . . Very. You kids say you're the Fruits?" They stare. "No, ah, connotations there, huh?" Even Connie stares at that, playing innocent.

"All right, welcome to the team. You Fruits are the new face of Mega Industries. Let's all say hooray!" They don't hooray. They unplug their instruments and move silently to the door.

Connie says, "I hope you didn't sign them on my account."

"Actually, I didn't. I listened to thirty groups this week and yours is one of the only ones that knows how to play. What they just played, I'm not sure, but they knew how."

Connie smiles. "You're luckier than you know: you just met a Tauboo hive mind. They don't get out much. The rest of the galaxy considers them a bit weird."

The rest of the galaxy gets a few notches more credit than I'd given it previously. "So, if we're going to be business partners, Miss Marsand . . ."

"Then we'll have to partner up?" she says. Her eyes gleam behind her glasses. "Work through the weekend?"

"Strategize. Harmonize." This is going beautifully. It's still technically forbidden, but we're working the system.

"If you say 'synergize . . .'"

I don't get to say it, because my PDA beeps at me with a waiting message. Connie sighs as I flip it open.

Of course it's from the Cheese.

Client E-29-4735 has filed a Special Interaction Request with Profile H6492-Seebanks-4.
Requested interaction profile: 2C -Sustained

Romantic Encounter. Client will meet with Profile immediately for S.I.R. proposal. If accepted, bonuses will be paid on positive client feedback.

To reject S.I.R., contact Cultural Supervisor—

Shit. So much for weekend plans. Of course they never send these things until the very last minute—

The door opens, and Sally Twint enters. She's looking a bit more nervous than usual. My stomach drops. "I hope I'm not interrupting, sir. The reports, sir, on your . . . cross-promotional initiative . . . will have to be filed. Thus the reports must be written . . . The board has been asking, sir . . ."

"You want me to work with you on this. Over the weekend." Miss Twint acts surprised. I barely keep from wincing. As a "sustained romantic encounter" proposal, I've heard a lot better.

I look at the two women. I've seen pictures of the Eridani. They look like spiky stick bugs with twelve legs. Their mating ritual involves breaking off and eating parts of their lovers, which regenerate slowly over the course of a year or so.

As soon as I think of that, I can't look at Sally Twint. But I'll have to—the Cheese has made a request.

Connie puts her hand on my arm. "Weren't we going to strategize?"

It takes me a while to find the words. "I want to, Miss Marsand. I want to strategize with you very much. But . . . not this weekend. I'm sorry. It's the job."

She stares hard into me, but finally she nods.

It's the job.

* * *

"The average golfer does not play golf. He attacks it."

—Jack Burke (human golfer)

* * *

Reggie shows up to duel on Tuesday. He's wearing a yellow shirt and plaid pants, and he's shouldering his golf bag like a bazooka. "We will golf now," he says.

I raise an eyebrow. "What if I have a prior engagement?"

"You do not. Your secretary surrendered your schedule to me." Sure enough, Sally's lurking in the doorway, looking to see if there's going to be bloodshed. I weigh golfing with Reggie against staying in the office with her.

I smile. "Miss Twint, this man is a very important business partner, and I am going to play golf with him. Hold all of my calls."

"Calls, sir?" She's understandably confused; I haven't gotten any calls. Not even the one I want.

We take the subway out to Fair Oaks, the Moon's largest course. It's only six holes, but they're built to original scale, and the greens can resculpt themselves to give the experience of eighteen different holes. The balls are heavier to compensate for the gravity. Reggie must be a very rich guest, because he's able to get a teetime almost immediately.

We play the first few holes in near silence, because Reggie insists on concentrating. He plays with undisguised ferocity, driving so hard that at one point he strikes the ceiling and knocks a few pixels out of the partly cloudy sky. He's surprisingly good, however, for all his glaring at the ball. He drives straight every single time, whether or not the fairway is straight, and he putts with precision. He's not great, but he's much better than I am.

Finally on the ninth hole he says, "Golf is a stupid game. Only humans could work so indirectly at leisure."

"With your skill, you've clearly played before," I say. Always best to flatter a Cygnan. "If it's stupid, why do you persist?"

"All strive to excel at the necessary. It is a greater honor to excel at the stupid."

I think about that, and I slice. As we're walking toward the aluminum trees I ask, "How's your wife? Mary, right?"

"She is very skilled," Reggie says. "To specialize reproductive organs and to use them for pleasure has advantages I had not considered—"

"No, no, I mean, how's she doing?" Reggie looks confused, which in a Cygnan is the same as looking dangerous. "Is she enjoying herself in New York?"

"She tells me that she is. When I am not with her, she roams the streets with a pack of females, buying garments. She wears these garments and displays herself to me, and we play the music of the prophet Sinatra. My reproductive organs begin to—"

"That's good," I say quickly. "Sounds like you two really know what it's about." I find my ball just inside the woods, and hit it out. I could swear the fairway rises up a little to keep it from going off the other side.

"To be courteous, I must now pretend interest in your own sexual exploits," Reggie says. "You will tell me of your women or men."

I look at him. He's staring at the green as if daring it to fight. What the hell, he's someone to talk to. "Actually, that's a bit of a problem right now. You see, there is a woman I like very much. And I'm certain she likes me."

"It is strange to call this a problem."

"The problem is, we aren't supposed to be together. It's . . . forbidden by our rules."

"Why," Reggie says. It's the first question I've heard him ask, and he says it like a declaration.

What can I tell him? That we're both humans, both Cultural Guides, and it could get us fired? Telling him could get me fired. "You could say it's because we're too much like each other."

"Ah! You are brother and sister."

"No! Anyway, we can't. And then there's another woman I'm supposed to sleep with. My job expects it of me. But I can't bring myself to do it."

"I was not aware Mega Industries requires reproduction of its employees," Reggie says. Now he's looking at me, and I'm wondering if he suspects.

"It doesn't. This is, let's say, a higher duty. I could say no, but it would reflect poorly on my, ah, honor. And I may not get another position like the one I have."

"You are called upon to give and receive pleasure for your honor! This should not be difficult!"

I shake my head. "But it is difficult! Sex is a sacred thing for my people. We're supposed to do it when we want to, not when we're told to. And with Sally I just can't want to."

"You must control your wants," Reggie offers. "I can't. We met up a lot this weekend, and I tried to be interested, but I keep thinking about what she is when she isn't in New York, and . . . Well, I just can't focus on what she is here."

"You must play through," Reggie says.

"Huh? What kind of advice is that?"

"It is an instruction. We have been standing by your ball for some time. Play, before those behind us invade."

I make it to the green somehow, and Reggie surprises me again. "Do not say can't," he says. "It makes you weak."


"Do what you must to live. Then do what you must to remember you are alive. Those who can't are the dead and the useless."

I make the hole in two more strokes. "That makes sense," I finally say. "So does golf make you know you're alive?"

"No. Golf is stupid. But I have done what I must. Today I am on vacation, and have time for stupid things."

Reggie shoots par on the next three holes. My score puts me somewhere between dead and useless, but I feel pretty good. I have time to excel at the stupid.

* * *


I, [full name], do solemnly swear:

* That I will uphold, protect, and honor the comfort, safety, and enjoyment of all guests of Distributed Leisure Intergalactic (henceforth to be known as DLI);

* That my conduct will at all times represent DLI, DLI's employees, [name of park], Earth, and the human race in a positive and honorable light;

* That I will accommodate all reasonable requests of all guests of DLI;

* That my work as Cultural Guide will leave all guests with positive memories of DLI, DLI's employees, and when possible, Earth.

So help me [name of deity / "DLI" if none].

* * *

Sometimes the job is easy. You sit in an office, or a castle, or a teepee, and wait for guests to wander by who have no idea what to do next. You show 'em, then you go back to fiddling with the stapler for two weeks. Life is good.

Sometimes you have orders to go out on the streets, spot guests who think they know what to do, and give them a better idea. It usually works; most guests don't want to be seen doing the wrong thing. It takes a little creativity at times, but I don't mind that. That's when we earn our huge paychecks.

Then there are the guests who know exactly what they want to do. They're the scary ones. Sometimes they want to do it to you. The Cheese watches—well, not everything, but a lot of things. When it sees a guest wanting something more than he/she/it is getting, some lucky CG somewhere gets a Special Interaction Request and hints of a substantial bonus. We're allowed to say no. It's a free moon, more or less; the most DLI can do is send us home. Back to eighty percent unemployment and the lines at the public food synthesizers. No loss to DLI: for every active Cultural Guide there's ten thousand in line waiting to get trained. It's one of the few decent jobs left on Earth, because it gets you off of Earth.

Nobody says no.

I call Connie and arrange lunch on Thursday. We meet at a Four Seasons. There's one every couple of blocks, so I suggest the one closest to her office. She brings the Fruits' demo tape and some paperwork. She's as cold as the salad.

I listen to the demo tape, hoping it'll break the ice. This sample appears to be Beethoven's Fifth with the same alien acid treatment. Now that I know what to listen for, I can sort of hear the patterns in it. It's bizarre, it's chaotic, but it's sort of compelling.

"They're really not bad," I say. "With the right music to play from they could almost start to make sense."

"I agree. If you have any suggestions, Mr. Seebanks . . ."

"Look, Connie . . ."

"Mr. Seebanks." She looks at me blankly. Like she's a bot—or like I am.

I shake my head. "Look, I didn't mean to blow you off last weekend. I wanted to—er, to strategize with you, but these damn priorities keep getting in the way."

"Your job with Mega Industries? Don't tell me—"

"No! You know what I'm talking about." She keeps a poker face. Good for her, I suppose. "I'm supposed to be with Sally Twint."

"I see. She's your 'priority'?"

"Yeah. And it looks like I can't even get that right. When I said no to you—I know I could have handled that better. I was afraid of making things complicated. But I've thought about it, and I think I was dumb. I didn't need to say no. I could have said yes! Yes to you, and yes to Sally!"

She looks at me long and hard. "And that makes everybody happy, does it?"

"I hope so. I mean Sally's got to be taken care of. I hope you get that. But meanwhile, what we're doing, it's inside the system, right? It all works. It's good—isn't it?"

She looks at me long and hard. "I thought so. I thought I knew the system too. I was sure I was doing it right. But if I'm only going makes things complicated for you—well, I hope your Miss Twint is as simple as you want her to be. Goodbye, Tom."

She gets up just as the waiter bot approaches with the entrees. I stand too, calling her name, and she hurls a lobster at me. I don't know what a real lobster looks like, but the vatcultured lunar lobsters are huge, and this one strikes me in the chest and hangs by its claws around my neck. The rest of the patrons see this, and think it's a great idea. The Four Seasons degenerates instantly into a food fight, and as I'm dodging crème brûlées I lose Connie out the door.

* * *

"So the humans think sex is wrong? I agree with them, of course it's wrong. It makes more humans."

—Bursting Flower of White Light (Pleiadean comedian)

* * *

I march back into the office and loom over Sally Twint's desk. "Miss Twint. We need an urgent, very personal conference." I'm doing my best not to think, just act. I can get Connie back later; first I have to do my duty. Very Cygnan of me, really.

Sally puts on a good show of surprise. Perhaps she really is surprised, after my hesitation all week. "But -but Mister Seebanks! We have those . . . things . . ."

"I know we do. My office, Miss Twi—No. The broom closet."

I head down the hall at double pace, and the guests at the water cooler turn silent and stare when they see me open the door to the closet. The water cooler's right next to the broom closet, of course—there's no point to clandestine sex unless it generates a lot of gossip.

Miss Twint follows a few paces behind me, blushing furiously. The cooler gang toasts her with their paper cups, and she starts to stammer at them. I never do find out what she intended to say. I take her by the elbow and pull her gently into the closet. "Come, Miss Twint, we need to find those brooms . . ."

I shut the door, and a light comes on automatically. I haven't been in here before—this closet is huge. The walls are lined with steel shelves and fake office supplies, but most of the floor is empty. I learn why when Sally flips over one of the shelving units. It's a pull down bed.

She smiles weakly. "Are we here to talk about my . . . performance, Mister Seebanks?"

I'm supposed to keep the role going, but I doubt I can hold that sort of banter for long. I kiss her instead. For an insectlike creature, her kiss isn't half bad. There's no passion in it, but she's receptive and surprisingly gentle.

She pulls me down to the bed by my tie, and I have her blouse off in seconds. Then we're all over each other, and the fun starts to build. I nearly lose it for a moment when I picture her as an Eridani, ripping off one of my arms and eating it between moans of pleasure. But I push that image away, and I think of Connie instead. Connie's glasses. Miss Twint might look good in glasses . . .

We're both naked now, except that I'm still wearing the tie over my bare chest. And mountainous hair aside, Miss Twint unclothed looks much less like a librarian.

She runs her hand across my chest. "Are you sure this is your desire, sir? If the Board were to discover this, your head would be on a platter . . ."

Ugh. There's the insect image again. I start to lose it. When I look at her, all I see is chitin, huge luminous eyes . . .

Her hand pauses for a moment. "What's wrong? Are you afraid, sir?" I can't answer. She says, "May I show you something I have learned at my home? On—I mean, in Kansas? We take our teeth, and—"

That does it. I stiffen in my embrace, mostly to keep her from taking her teeth anywhere. "Miss Twint, I have to tell you. I'm a Cultural Guide, and while I'm here to do whatever you—"

"You're what?"

"A Cultural Guide. A mouse. I'm an employee of DLI, assigned—"

She pushes me down. She's on her feet a moment later, standing straight above me. "You asshole! Have you been trying to get us both fired?"

My brain tries desperately to start up again. "What?"

"I could have sworn," she says. "Your speech habits, your stupid ideas—I was sure you were a guest."

"So . . . You're human?" Not my best moment.

"Yes, moron. I'm still having trouble believing you are."

And then it's all clear. She was talking like a guest because I was talking like a guest. She was nervous about the whole music business and everything else I'd done, not because she didn't know what to do, but because she was convinced I was an insane alien. That they'd put us so close together was unusual, but not unheard of. Particularly in an environment with a lot of confused guests in tight quarters—like an office building.

She's putting her skirt back on now. I'm still lying there, stunned. "But I got a Special Interaction Request. That's why I kept so close to you . . ."

"Then you'd better figure out who it was, because it sure as hell wasn't me." She pauses in midshoe, considers, then says again, "Asshole."

Addled as I am, it takes me ten more seconds to put the rest of it together. Then I'm up and out the door.

Twenty paces and fifty stares later, I stop and turn around. I go back into the broom closet. Miss Twint is dressed and holding my clothes out for me.

"Thanks, Sally. I guess I owe you . . ."

"Kiera. I'm taking my coffee break. I'll be back on Friday. Asshole." She leaves the closet with her chin high, and I hear some applause as the door swings shut behind her.

* * *

"May you live to be a hundred, and may the last voice you hear be mine."

—Frank Sinatra

* * *

The phone at my desk has stopped working. This doesn't bother me as much as it should. I take the stairs down to the lobby. The receptionist at the front desk is trying to flag me down; she's yelling something about me and Security. I brandish my stapler at her and yell "Bang!" and she drops to the floor. I'm out the door.

I flip open my PDA to look up Connie's number while I'm walking. Instead there's an e-mail from the Cheese telling me I've been fired for noncompliance. I'm to report immediately to the bus terminal, delinquency will have me arrested for trespassing, blah blah. I throw the thing away.

A couple of passersby on the street have turned in unison to follow me. Bots, making sure I keep moving in the right direction. I stop at the first pay phone, smile at the black bot with the boombox, and say, "You got change? Need to call a cab."

The bot pauses for a moment, then hands me a quarter. They're programmed to obey, not to point out that there are taxis passing us every five seconds. I drop the quarter into the phone and turn my back on the bots. I call for directory assistance, and they connect me to Fair Oaks. The golf course pages Reginald Dowell at the fifth hole.

"Reggie!" I say quickly. "I remembered why I'm alive, but I don't have much time. I need your help. It's a matter of love and honor. And maybe violence."

"Perform none of them until I arrive!" Quickly I tell him what I need. The bots have figured out that I'm not calling a cab, and they move in as the call disconnects.

I spin around and wave the stapler. "I'll use this! I swear!" The bots back off a second, unsure what I'm about to use, and I take off running.

About two-thirds of the pedestrians on the street turn to face me. There's one mystery solved: I'd always wondered how much of a city crowd was really bots. I dodge between a couple of them, and knock one over. "May I assist you to the bus station?" he asks from the ground. The rest are still making polite grabs at me. They're really not built for combat.

After a block there's as many coming toward me as there are behind me. I dash into the street and look for the most erratic driver I can find. He's driving a taxi, of course. I flag him down, and he skids to a stop. "Where to?"

"It's Tuesday," I tell him. "Time to switch cabs. Take mine."

"Okay!" He gets out, and I get in. He starts looking for my own car in happy befuddlement, and I'm gone.

When the Cheese notices you, the city gets organized. Within moments there are police lights on either side of me and behind me. The car chase is a classic movie car chase. I only have to make it three blocks, but I circle around a few times to give Reggie time to arrive. A few more cars join in the chase just for fun. I finish it in a spectacular crash in front of the Times Square subway station, and crowds cheer. I squeeze out from behind the airbag and run on top of the wrecked cars to the station. Reggie's there, his golfbag over his shoulder. He draws a pitching wedge and smashes it into the chest of a female bot in a cocktail gown in one smooth movement. Then he hands me a CD and a 9-iron.

"That was fast!" I say. "I thought you'd have to go home first."

"The sounds of the prophet are with me always," he says. "One never knows when they will be needed."

Side by side, we fight our way through the mob. Reggie's got a serene joy on his face as he swings and thrusts. Others join in, as I expected, and soon there's a full-fledged riot. I can only hope nobody gets hurt—having a body regrown is a terrible waste of an afternoon.

We turn left at 46th Street, and battle another hundred feet to the Big Apple Studios building. Reggie punches me in the chest by way of honorable farewell. Technically, I could have driven us both here and gotten out in front of the building. But then my symbolic brother wouldn't have had any fun.

"Thanks for the CD. Are you going to be all right?" I ask him. "You could get in a lot of trouble."

"Trouble? Impossible! I am rich!" He smiles and takes my iron from me, and hurls it at the head of a police officer. "This was the best day I have had as a human. I will go now, and enjoy an impressive amount of sex. May your days be many, Melvin Seebanks, and never boring."

"Tom Gaines! And the same to you." He nods, turns his back to me, and fights his way back to the subway station. I head into the studio building.

The women at the desk inside look frightened by the noise outside, so they're probably both mice. "The Fruits," I tell them. "Bizarre, Asian, shiny."

"5F," one of them says. I run for the open stairway behind them.

All five stories of the building look like a basement. Some of the soundproof booths have their doors open, and as I pass the halls I hear the cosmic background noise of bad rock music, a static that I imagine will persist to the end of the universe.

5F's door is closed. I open it, and the throbbing alien scales of the Fruits are almost soothing to me now. Connie's dutifully running the board, headphones on, glasses propped up over the earpieces. I lock the door behind me, pop the CD into a tray on the board, and hit a couple of buttons. The Fruits stop playing, and the cozier brass of Tommy Dorsey fills the room, then a slow rendition of "Fools Rush In."

Connie listens for the three minutes, then stops the disc. "So is that your apology? I'm supposed to take you back now and fall for you because you played—who was that, anyway?"

"The prophet. Frank Sinatra. And no, it's for the Fruits. They needed a better sound, right? I'm guessing you really are a record producer, looking to combine a couple of different species' music and sell it as something new. Am I right?"

"Close. The real producers never leave Vega; I'm more like a manager. My training's in sociology. But yes, that's what I'm here to do."

"Well, if you're going to rip us off, for God's sake don't rip off Sousa. At least make it something that'll help desperate young aliens get laid. Can they sing?"

"Can you sing?" she asks the Fruits.

"We can sing," they say in perfect four-part harmony. They sound like a talking pipe organ.

Connie thinks a moment, then plays the next track. It's "Fly Me to the Moon." I wish I'd known that. I'd have played it first.

"You thought I was a mouse, didn't you," she says.

"Of course. That's why I didn't think we could—you know—strategize. Also, I'm an idiot."

I pause a moment, to give her a chance to argue. She doesn't. Somebody bangs on the door.

"I needed to come and apologize. I should have figured out the S.I.R. was yours, and I didn't. The terrible thing is I'd have loved it. Even if you're Vegan, you're the best woman I've run into in a long time." More banging, harder. I imagine the hall filling with well-dressed bots. "I've got to go now. I demolished half of New York to get here, and I think the Cheese is going to take it out of my paycheck. I just had to say—well, you know."

She hits an intercom button and yells something I can't understand. I assume it's Vegan. It's a smooth language, very tonal, but it sounds like only yelling is possible in it. The banging abruptly stops.

"I don't know," she says. She takes the glasses off. "Say it."

I look at her eyes. Behind us the Tauboo hive mind starts working up the melody from "Fly Me to the Moon." The trombone's playing it straight for once, and the guitars are running their scales in an orderly fashion. They actually sound a little better when they're being alien. "In other words . . ."

What does a Vegan even look like? I have no idea. I tell her, "I love you."

She smiles, stands, kisses me. "Did you really demolish a city for me?"

"Half of one. I'm pretty fired."

"Then you need a vacation. Have you ever been to Epsilon Eridani?"

No human's ever been anywhere, but I think she already knows that. "You'd take me with you?"

"Sure. You'll write songs, they'll play, I'll manage, we can get bookings in a few weeks. You'd have to get used to different bodies, but you do that anyway, right? Eridani's closest, and the adjustment's easiest."

Wherever we'd be, she wouldn't be Connie Marsand, with the glasses and the brown hair. But she'd still be her. And I'd be me. I ask, "You really think I'd look good as an insect?"

"You'd look scrumptious."

The Fruits watch us kiss, studying us with those identical eyes. I wave at them with one hand, and the band plays on.

* * *

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