United States of America
Dick Nelson glanced over his shoulder at the door to his small office. He’d found a red memory stick out in the car lot earlier and was desperate to see the contents. He slipped the small device from his pocket—and it looked normal. His breathing rate increased as he plugged the stick into the drive; avoiding hesitation.
At first the screen boasted the shimmering default screensaver, ‘National Aeronautics Space Administration – United States of America’, but then it went black. As Dick watched there was a hint of bluish-purple here and there on the screen. Again he half-turned to check the door.
For months there had been talk of moving the administrative headquarters to Houston where it would be housed as part of the Space Centre, and then a decision had been made to simply amend the layout of the most security sensitive departments, including ‘Observation and Communications’.
“Why couldn’t that bitch Taylor let us have locks?” Dick murmured, as he turned back towards his desk. The vague patches of deep and dark colours remained like a transparent overlay on a black base, and then the analyst’s eyes opened wide.
Gradually the display developed a random selection of tiny sparkling white and bluish-white dots. The dots were glowing at different rates, as if each had a pulse or was a light-emitting diode. It took several seconds before Dick realised what he was watching.
It was a section of the solar system, but for a communications analyst with a degree in astronomy, it was like reading the front page of a newspaper. What made it more incredible was the sensation of a live feed.
“Oh my God,” Dick whispered in disbelief. He looked at the memory stick he’d inserted. It was glowing, and changing to all the colours of a rainbow, in a regular pulse.
‘Would you like to communicate with me?’ appeared on the screen in white, overlaid on the live, star-spangled background.
“Yes.” Dick responded without thought.
In response, the question on the screen dimmed and brightened. The fading words were pulsing in the same slow frequency that the USB memory stick was glowing.
“Of course.” Dick realised his error. He typed YES, and pressed the return key.
‘Attach a communication device’ appeared on the screen.
“This is a communication device.” Dick’s breathing was so loud and rapid, he had to sit up and control himself. He was about to type in the phrase he’d just spoken, when he saw the words on the screen dimming and brightening, just as they’d done before.
‘You may choose to use voice transmitter’
One minute later, Dick was wearing his headset, his eyes fixed on the screen. The words disappeared. There was a faint buzz in the headphones, and then he heard a digitised voice. It was asexual, neither male nor female, but the sound flowed—like a voice.
‘You may speak in your language, and I will respond. Do you understand?’
“Yes … yes.”
‘I sense confusion in your mind. You wish to hear a particular tone or type of sound. Concentrate your mind for a moment of your time. Consider the sound you would prefer.’
Dick immediately imagined the sound of Estelle, a delectable Latin American singer from the popular music charts.
‘Is this pleasing to your senses?’ The question reached Dick’s ears as if spoken by Estelle.
“Oh, yes.” Dimples appeared on his reddening cheeks. “That is perfect.”
‘Is there an image you would enjoy as we communicate?’
“Yes—” Before he could say more, Dick’s imagined view was already on the screen. The live feed of the stars remained as a backdrop, but dancing slowly and seductively in full, glorious, colour was Estelle. Unlike any TV appearance, Dick imagined her naked. He shook his head and blinked several times.
“My name is Dick—who are you?”
‘I have no title you would recognise. I will abbreviate your desire and call myself Este.’
“Este,” Dick murmured into the tiny microphone in front of his lips. “I like that.”
‘I know. Now, I sense concern on your mind. Complete the action you are contemplating and return. I require your attention.’
Dick continued to stare at his personal vision of Estelle naked. For a moment he couldn’t remember what he’d been concerned about, but he removed the headphones and looked around the new, tiny office. When he saw the pamphlet-size handbook nearby he remembered. He lifted the pamphlet, folded it, and rammed it under the door. A few seconds later he was sitting in front of his monitor wearing his headphones.
Estelle had disappeared, but immediately Dick stared at the screen, she appeared once again, naked, gyrating and making suggestive movements with her lips and tongue. He wondered if it was his imagination, because her breasts looked larger, and her legs longer, and more shapely—but of course, he was directing and producing the image.
‘You would like to be at one with the image—would you not?’
“Yes. Yes, I would very much like to be at one with the image.”
‘Place a sensor against your desire.’
“Sensor?” Dick murmured. His brow furrowed and eyes squinted. He gazed at his hands and gradually moved his right hand forward, the forefinger extended. There was a sense of embarrassment as he gently placed his fingertip against the olive-skinned body of his favourite woman in the world—and he felt the warmth, the softness of her body.
Dick was unaware of how loud he swallowed. He extended his other fingers and the image enlarged so that the parts of Estelle he wanted to caress were larger, as if brought closer to him. Dick felt himself getting warm in more than just his face as he explored the beautiful twenty-something on the screen.
‘Prepare yourself for intimate contact, and then place your sensors on the surface.’
“Prepare myself?” Realisation hit him. Dick’s face became warmer and his pulse quickened. He glanced over his shoulder at the pamphlet stuck under the door, which had no lock. He looked at the naked vision on the screen and started to unbutton his shirt.
By the time he was removing his underwear and socks, Dick’s face was beaming and his pulse was racing, but he was lost in the moment. The technician didn’t spend any time looking at his out of condition, fifty-four-year-old physique. He was focussed entirely on the body slinking around on the screen, doing as he wanted it to do.
‘Remove your voice transmitter and place your sensors on the image. Stop! What is a Stella Taylor?’
“She’s my supervisor; my controller.” Dick felt awkward, standing naked, talking about a woman he found physically attractive, but didn’t like for any other reason. “We have no locks on the doors of our new cubicle-sized offices. It’s her idea, so that she can check up on us.”
‘Touch the screen, Dick. If you are truly prepared, remove all links with your existence and caress your desire.’
In Dick’s newly deranged outlook, his mind chose to focus on the words, caress, and desire. He stood in front of the computer monitor, removed his watch, and pressed both hands against the screen, caressing the warm sensuous body usually captive in his imagination.
Two seconds later, Dick’s office was unoccupied, except for equipment, furniture, and the man’s clothes.
Edwin Smart lived up to his name, but only in terms of his appearance. A handsome, African-American of six-foot, carrying a toned physique of 200 lbs, Eddie was an imposing figure. He was obedient to a fault, and had been an excellent soldier for ten years. When he got the opportunity to take a job on security at NASA’s restructured offices he was delighted. It would be a well-paid job for life, and no more combat roles.
Every day he stripped and cleaned his sidearm after shift, and every month he went to target practice, to keep his hand in—just in case.
Unlike the communications technicians and their pretty, but demanding over-bearing supervisor, Eddie performed his job to the best of his ability but had no enemies at any level while at work. He was standing close to the door of the Communication Department Virus Analysis office when he heard the steady click of heels.
“Officer Smart,” Stella Taylor said, when she turned into the corridor and approached.
“Good morning ma’am.” Edwin stood a little more erect, his hands sliding from his hips to fall by his sides.
Stella Taylor was hot.
“I’d like you to help me open one of the new offices.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that ma’am. It would entail leaving my post.”
“It’s only two doors along the corridor, man.” The curvaceous blonde supervisor pulled herself up to her full height and pushed out her considerable chest. She met the security man’s steady gaze. “Come on, Edwin, sometimes a big strong man is just what I need.”
Edwin had witnessed her charming other men, so he enjoyed the moment. Big brown eyes moved without a movement of the head. Eddie’s gaze roved over the woman’s striking features, and then down the length of her body to her feet. She would be fun to explore.
There was a faint smirk before he spoke. “In other circumstances ma’am I’d be delighted to be of service to you, but right now I’m on duty on this door.”
“Damn it,” Stella said. “There’s a keypad too, so nobody will get access.”
“While I’m doing my job ma’am, nobody will get access to the keypad, or the manager’s office.” He nodded to the badge on her lapel, and then at a thin line on the corridor floor five metres away. “The only reason you got to step over that white line is because you’re wearing your electronic security badge.”
Edwin was left to breathe in the fragrance drifting in the corridor when Stella spun on her heel and departed. The big security man placed his hands on his hips once again, and raised an eyebrow as he focused on the two perfect mounds profiled in the woman’s skirt.
When the sound of the heels disappeared around the corner again, the frequency of the clicking on the floor became more rapid.
“Dick Nelson,” Stella said. “You have five seconds to open this door, and then we’re going to be discussing your future here.” When there was no response, the supervisor glanced up and down the otherwise empty corridor, and then tried her shoulder against the door, but felt her feet slip. She was sure there was some give. A booklet was jammed under the door.
A few seconds later, Stella stood in the empty office, her sling-backs dangling from her right hand. She placed her shoes onto a nearby cabinet and looked around. She kicked the pamphlet away from the half-open door. As it closed slowly, her eye was caught by the pile of clothing she had pushed away with the door when gaining entry.
The scene reminded her of a story she’d heard as a child, about three lighthouse men who disappeared and left the emergency structure blinking on through the night, unmanned.
“Okay, Dick.” She approached the monitor. “We both know you like to be your own boss, but anybody on my team who leaves their post pays the price.”
She sat down and stared at the monitor. It was indistinct, but there was a human figure moving at the base of the screen. Stella noticed the headset on the desk but pushed it aside.
“Oh my—” Stella gasped as she focussed on Dick Nelson. The screen was mainly blank and dark, but in the centre, Dick stood naked, waving at the screen. His lips were moving. As Stella stared wide-eyed, she placed the earphones over her head and the image of her technician became larger. It felt natural to reach toward the screen.
‘Stella, don’t touch the device.’ Dick’s voice was loud in the earphones.
“Don’t touch which device?” Stella asked, and looked around, her fingertips stroking the analyst’s image. At thirty-five, Stella was younger than most of her team, but she was recognised for her superior knowledge of the field in which the department were involved. She was a true star-gazer, and held a firm belief in life on distant planets. Stella did not believe however, that all extra-terrestrial contact was good.
Simultaneously, Stella’s fingertips warmed against the screen, and the red memory stick started to pulsate and change colour. The monitor flashed, and then instead of the voice from the man on the screen there was a melodic feminine voice in the earphones.
‘You are the Stella Taylor?’
“Yes.” Stella glanced over her shoulder, suspicious of some skulduggery by her department. She played along. “To whom am I speaking?”
‘I am Este.’ There was a pause. ‘You will see I have also taken the Dick, but he is not my target. You can take me to my target, Stella.’
“Sorry, Dick,” Stella whispered, realising she knew the proposed target. She took her hand from the screen. Every science-fiction book she had ever read, and a few movie scenes flashed through Stella’s mind. She ripped the headset from her head and dropped it on the desk.
The supervisor’s breathing was rapid as she stood and reached around to tug at the unofficial memory device which was attached to the machine. It pulsated, but wouldn’t budge. She gripped and pulled harder.
Stella looked around and then on a whim unpinned her metal security badge and wedged the corner of it between the memory stick and the port. The stick glowed and changed colour as Stella jostled the device around, and then it came free. In haste she stood up and headed out of the tiny office.
“We’ll see what our anti-virus programmes make of you, Este.” Stella opened her hand and looked at the small device. She closed her fist tight and strode along the corridor, but as she did so, there was a burning sensation in her palm and she felt nauseous. For a moment, Stella hesitated, standing alone in the corridor. Nobody witnessed her body changing colour several times before settling back to its normal appearance.
Edwin was standing outside the department manager’s office, standing at ease with his hands behind his back, staring straight along the narrow corridor. He had spent three years in Recon Platoon and was referred to as the human radar. Edwin could hear the shift in the air currents before a pin hit the floor.
When the supervisor marched around the corner into the corridor she halted and stared hard at the black hunk a few metres away.
He had his sidearm drawn and in a two-handed grip. Immediately the blonde had turned the corner, Edwin had dropped to one knee and raised his weapon into the aim.
“Stay right there, ma’am.” Edwin’s tone was as steady as his pistol.
“I’m going in there and you are not going to stop me.”
“Why aren’t you wearing shoes, ma’am?”
The woman glanced down, and then her head rose up slowly until her multi-coloured eyes met those of the human obstacle. “I don’t need shoes.”
“That may be true, ma’am, but you definitely won’t need shoes if you cross that white line without your badge. One more step and I will shoot.”
The woman didn’t cast a glance down to where the electronic badge should have been pinned.
The first alarm triggered was in Edwin’s head.
He was handsome, and physically fit, but not high on common sense. He did however take his responsibilities seriously. If the visitor didn’t stick to the rules, Edwin would.
As the blonde stepped forward across the white line a two-tone alarm sounded. The visitor’s right hand rose quickly, palm open and fingers fanned out. Her open hand glowed and pulsed with a blinding white light—directed at Edwin.
The two rapid shots made a deafening noise in the confined space, but such a thing was put into perspective when Stella Taylor disappeared. There was a light clunking sound and the security man moved only his eyes to check it out. On the spot where the woman had vanished, a small colourful item lay on the polished floor.
As usual when armed, Edwin pointed his weapon where his gaze fell. At first he stared, but was certain he could hear voices. They were muffled. The supervisor’s sultry voice was one, but he’d just seen her disappear. In the background was the voice of that irritating technician who constantly talked about Estelle, the pop singer.
Red lights flashed at the corridor junction, and the siren continued to sound. The noise covered the sound of the footsteps of several men thumping along the adjoining corridor. The small device began to glow in a variety of colours and Edwin could hear the voices grow louder.
Edwin fired a single accurate shot, which disintegrated the memory stick. When the reinforcements arrived, all that remained was a scratch on the floor.
Edwin was still aiming at the polished surface when his colleagues opened fire.
Taken from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories