Peter Holman is a freelance sweeper. The year 2030 sees a new era in social media with sweepcasting, a multisensory interface that can convey every thought, touch, smell, sight, and sound, immersing the audience in another person’s experience. By fate, chance, or some darker design, Peter is perfectly positioned to be the one human to document the arrival of the aliens, the S’hudonni.
The S’hudonni offer advanced science in exchange for various trade goods from Earth. But nothing is as simple as it seems. Peter finds himself falling for, Heather Newsome a scientist chosen by the S’hudonni to act as their liaison. Engaged to his brilliant marine biologist brother, Tom, Heather is not what she seems. But Peter has bigger problems. While he and his brother fight over long-standing family troubles, another issue looms: a secret war among the aliens, who are neither as benevolent nor as unified as they first seemed.
Peter slowly learns secrets he was never meant to know, about the S’hudonni, and about his own family. Realizing that he has been used, he can only try to turn his situation around, to save what he can of his life and of the future of Earth.
The fate of two civilizations depends on one troubled family in Rick Wilber’s science-fiction adventure Alien Morning—available November 8th from Tor Books.
Sweep it Up
The story begins with my seeming to make love to Chloe Cary, she working to revive her career, me looking to get mine started. The faux sex was good, and afterward we lay in bed, both on our backs, staring at the ceiling, wondering what we could do next to keep it entertaining. I thought it had all gone very well. It was, myBob promised, very editable.
Chloe was a nice young lady; too nice and too young at twenty- three, really, for the likes of me, an athlete worn out at thirty-two. She’d had a starring role two years before in a Comedy Box sitcom that had disappeared after eight episodes and now she was in the running for a recurring role in the very popular The Family Madderz sitcom. She needed it—she needed to get things back on the rails before she got too old at, say, twenty- four. She was on a media tour that included sweep interviews, so we’d met at Habana Café to eat and chat over bistec de pollo while I swept to my audience every tasty bite and every stirring look at those famous wet lips of hers as we sipped on mojitos and took our time with the meal. Sweeping was very new then and the audience was small, but the idea of it seemed good to me and I’d risked pretty much everything on its future. Chloe was a lucky break for me, the kind of audience-builder I needed.
The idea was that we’d have a faux relationship and help both our careers. Some dinner and alcohol, a walk on the beach, more drinks on my back deck with that splendid view of the Gulf of Mexico’s setting sun, the green flash if we were lucky; and all the while those initial little touches—her hand brushing mine, my fingertips on the small of her back as she came through the door, her reaching over to put her hand on my arm as we talked about how the sun seemed to flatten at the base so it looked like an old bowler hat, albeit an orange one, or a classically styled UFO right before it disappeared.
And then that look, her eyes into mine, those lips opening as I leaned in toward her—toward them—and we finally kissed and it was as warm and wonderful and wet as it was scripted. Our standing there on the beach suited sweeping perfectly, with my sensory wash adding to the visuals and sound.
The numbers were good. myBob, my helpmate, had whispered them to me as we went through the motions. Eight thousand at dinner, nine thousand for the walk on the beach, over ten thousand for the sunset and those touches, and then up to twelve thousand for the edited lovemaking, give or take. There weren’t more than five hundred thousand receivers in the country at that point (489,324, in fact, said the ever-exact myBob), so these were phenomenal numbers, thank you, Chloe.
And so now we lay there, enjoying the damp glow of the aftereffects. Her numbers, no doubt, were ten times higher, but all she offered was old-media sight and sound. I offered touch, and taste, and smell, and, as soon as I could afford the surgery, the full limbic, scalable, turn it up to eleven. We had to remember to talk about that, Chloe and I, so her audience would come back to me when the upgrade went in.
I blinked with my eye to end the feed, knowing myBob would handle the fade-out and the stay-tuned-for-more, and then I yawned, shook my head in pleased amazement while I unclicked the contacts and pulled the bowl amp out of my ear, and looked over at Chloe. She was beautiful, no question: the straight black hair and those famous bangs, those breasts, the lips, smiling now as she listened to the fade-out in her own feed and said, “That was great, Peter, thank you. myBetty tells me your numbers were like super?”
Chloe had a disconcerting way of ending her sentences with a question mark, whether they deserved it or not.
“The numbers were great, Chloe, thanks,” I said.
She sat up, holding on to the sheet to cover her breasts, and smiled at me. “I put a lot into that? I was like nervous about it? It’s like weird, isn’t it?”
“The sensory side, you mean?” Now I was doing it. Good grief. “You get used to it. You learn to make it part of the show.”
“You know that’s a first for me? Sweeping, I mean?”
I blinked. “And no one told me? Your agent didn’t tell mine?”
Her smile was killer. She put her legs over the side of the bed and stood up, silhouetted by the thin light of the moon through the sliding glass door that led out to the deck.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Kind of a virgin thing going on, right? First time? Probably just like made it better, right?”
“Sure,” I said, “better.”
It was clear that she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But the lovemaking had been really good, and the conversation was fine when we were live, so she could act even if she couldn’t hold an actual conversation. And, truth was, I liked her. Nice young lady. Heart of gold and all that. I bet she loved puppies.
She reached down to touch my lips and grinned. “I did enjoy that, Peter? It wasn’t all acting, you know?”
“Me, too,” I said.
She turned to look out toward the Gulf and that sliver of moon. “Why don’t you put the bowl amp back in and click it live and we’ll go for a romantic like walk on that beach of yours?”
“Great idea,” I had to admit, thinking how the audience would love the romance.
“myBob,” I said to my helpmate, “send a ping to the subscribers and let them know we’ll be live in five minutes for a walk on the beach, all right?”
“Done,” said myBob, and I put the bowl amp back into the right ear and clicked it in while Chloe slipped into shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops and then I did the same and we headed out for a walk on the beach.
My house sits behind a protective row of sand dunes that the state of Florida keeps replacing as the beach erodes and the water keeps rising. In twenty years, they say, high tide will wash right over our little barrier island and the last of the million-dollar stilt homes will be torn down as the island—or what’s left of it—becomes a state park. I’ll miss the place—it’s my childhood home.
Beyond the dunes is the open Gulf, usually placid, but increasingly violent as the years go by, and once, when I was very young, horrific in its anger. To get through the dunes you stroll along a long, winding wooden boardwalk designed to keep you from doing harm to the sea oats that anchor the dunes. You can see the green blinks of the spyeyes atop poles anchored in the dune. Step off the boardwalk and you’ll get a two-hundred-dollar Dunes Violation notice blinking in your Inbox.
myBob said “Live in five seconds” as we reached the three steps at the start of the boardwalk. The steps are worn and uneven, and Chloe stumbled in the dark. I grabbed her hand to help her and then didn’t let go as we walked along the boardwalk toward the water. The moon offered enough light to make it easy to navigate once our eyes adjusted, but Chloe hung on to my hand as she chattered on about the offers she was supposedly considering: a hospital drama where she was a surgeon, a family sitcom set in Paris, a feature film set on a Martian colony. I didn’t know if any of those offers were real but, of course, I was amazed and pleased for her officially, which meant squeezing her hand and stopping along the way to give her another kiss.
She kept talking as we reached the end of the boardwalk and stepped down onto the dry sand of the upper beach. Then we walked down toward the water. What plans did I have? Would I go back into sportscasting or stick with sweepcasts? Didn’t know, I said. And was there any chance I’d make a comeback in basketball with the new league starting up? She’d heard I’d been offered a player- coach job with the Columbus Comets. Maybe I would be the live-sweep coach and player? Would I consider that? Maybe, I said. And on and on.
She knew her lines, for sure, and hit about every bullet point we’d mentioned in the contract, so that was fine. And then she got personal. Did I have any brothers or sisters? Yes, one of each, both of them younger. No, we weren’t close these days. And my parents? Both were dead. I didn’t go into how they died. My father, I told her, had been a nice enough guy but busy and distant. My mother was the one who’d really raised three rowdy beach kids and kept us in school.
Father’d had his secrets, but I didn’t tell Chloe any of those.
The moon was behind us and the slight shore-break of the Gulf was in front. Magic stuff, and I took full advantage of it, taking in a deep breath of the salty air and noticing purposefully the feel of the sand beneath my feet, so fine and compact that it squeaked as I walked, a sound not all that different from basketball shoes on a parquet floor.
I stopped and watched as Chloe walked down toward the water, stepped out of her flip-flops and into the shore-break to stand there in the warm, shallow water. The sweep caught it all: the sand, the sea glinting in the moonlight, the rustle of the shore-break over the sand, the feeling of the sand beneath my feet, the smell of the salt water, and the faint tang of Chloe’s perfume or skin lotion, something faintly citrus.
“Should I go for a swim?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, “it stays shallow until you get way out there. Just don’t go out past the second sandbar.” I laughed. “That’s what our mother always told us, have fun but don’t go out too far.”
“Great!” she said, and turned around to face me, then started stripping off her T-shirt and shorts as I blinked twice to enhance for low light.
I watched her, knowing it was all more for the sake of the sweep than for me; but that was fine—the ratings would go through the roof with that body, that face. She finished the strip and then turned to wade into the inky water, up to those calves, then to the waist, then walking over the first sandbar and into the deeper water. And then she was swimming, heading out past the marker buoys and that second sandbar. I zoomed to keep track of her in the midnight blue of the Gulf, hoping this wouldn’t turn into a shark sweep as she got out into the deeper water and then turned to face me and shout, “Come on out!”
But I didn’t, couldn’t, with my bowl amp in; a little salt water on the amp or corrosion on the contacts and I’d be out at least two hundred grand to replace them and I no longer had that kind of money. So I waved back and shouted no thanks and then walked along the beach, keeping pace with her as she swam parallel to the shore. She could really swim, little dolphin Chloe, and that made for a pretty good sweep, too, even in low light.
A few hundred meters down the beach, near the next boardwalk, she started splashing, yelled something, and I was about to yank out the bowl amp and go out to help her, corrosion be damned. A sand shark? Jellyfish? Sea turtle? There were a lot of possibilities out there past that second sandbar.
But then she calmed down, waved, and started swimming in, hard, for the beach. I waded out calf-deep to meet her as she got in to where it was shallow enough to stand up.
“Oh, my god!” She was shivering as she came to me and I hugged her and brought her back onto the beach. We didn’t have towels and I’d stupidly left her T-shirt and shorts back up where she’d waded in.
“Something was out there, Peter.” No ending in questions now, no dropping in the “like” every third word. This was for the record and great drama and Chloe knew it.
“Wow,” I said, playing to the moment. “What’d you see?”
I took off my T-shirt and started wiping her dry with it. She shivered. Great stuff. “I didn’t get a good look, but it was something big. And smooth. It ran along my right leg and then when I stopped and yelled it went by so close I could feel the water move. It was huge. I mean, really huge.”
Was she doing all this for the sweep? Maybe. But if she was, she was a much better actor than I’d thought.
She slipped my T-shirt on and then came into my arms. I hugged her hard. “You didn’t actually see anything. No fins?”
She shook her head. “Something six or seven meters long, I think.”
I smiled. There wasn’t much that big in these waters, at least nothing that big that wouldn’t have taken a nice bite out of Chloe as it passed by. Still, “I bet it was a porpoise, Chloe; there are a lot of them around here. They won’t hurt you. Probably just wanted to play.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Oh, Peter,” she said, and put her head on my shoulder. Her hair smelled wonderfully of salt and water. Her face, still wet from her swim, was damp and cool against my chest.
I wondered if it had been a porpoise. I hadn’t heard of that kind of behavior from one of our beach porpoises, but it made a kind of sense to me. We had a lot them along these shores and they were used to swimmers and sometimes came right up to check people out. Maybe it was a porpoise. That made more sense than its being a shark, since she was standing here, alive, with all four limbs in place. Had it been a bull shark, for instance, that wouldn’t be the case. We had a lot of those, too, along these beaches. I’d had a run-in with one myself, back in the day.
Chloe’s shivers were gone. She pulled her head back from my shoulder. Looked at me, eye to eye, smiled, then leaned up to kiss me. “Let’s go get my things and get back to your house, OK?”
“Sure. We’ll get you into the shower and rinsed off and then you can stay the night or I’ll have myBob call for your car. Whatever you like.”
She stepped back, took a deep breath, threw her arms out wide, and put her face up to look at the stars and the moon. There were storms in the distance, out in the Gulf; you could see the distant lightning but couldn’t hear the thunder. Most of the sky, though, was cloudless. “It’s beautiful here, Peter.”
“It is that,” I said, and looked up myself, thinking if she stayed I could haul out the telescope and show her Saturn’s rings.
And there, nearly directly overhead, something was moving. A satellite, maybe. No, two of them. No, five. More.
A group of satellites, moving across the sky in a slowly changing pattern? It made no damn sense at all. UFOs? There’d been a big scare the year before in Brazil, but, you know, get real.
I pointed at them and Chloe looked to see them. “What are they?” she wanted to know.
“No idea,” I said, but I was sure sweeping them, full zoom, seeing it happen. They looked to me like the space stations. Both of those went overhead often enough and I had myBob tell me when the situation was right for me to see one or the other, bright in the night sky as they reflected the light of the sun, always zooming along until they fell into shadow and faded away.
These looked the same, but some of them were moving in random patterns while others sailed sedately along in a straight line. There were slight flares of light here and there among the lights. I counted ten of them just when the first of them faded into darkness as it moved into the Earth’s shadow and then the rest and that was that. Inter esting while it lasted, just a couple of minutes all told. There, and then gone.
“Did we get all that, myBob?” I asked my helpmate, and “We did,” he said back, and asked, “I haven’t posted it yet. Should I now?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why the hell not?”
And he did that, and so that’s how one’s life changes: with a “Why the hell not?”
Excerpted from Alien Morning © Rick Wilber, 2016