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The E. S. P. Worm
By Piers Anthony, Robert E. Margroff
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Anthony and Robert E. Margroff
All rights reserved.
I had been smashing planets for half an hour, and my best shot of the day was coming up. I leaned over the sun and took careful aim at Venus, ready to carom it off Mars and score on three planetoids simultaneously.
A brown strand crossed my vision: my annoying, unmanageable hair. I brushed it back impatiently and resumed my stance. I held my breath, began my motion—
BUUUZZZAAAKK! went the communiset. My arm jerked. The cometcue angled away, colliding with a nebula, then a vacuum seal, then the Jupiter sphere and on back into a sunspot where of course it was out of play. Jupiter's moon Ganymede spun out of orbit, up, down, sideways, bufferwards and finally into the "half-gravity" trap.
I eyed the carnage and swore. I banged the comm switch on. "You misbegotten apefaced baggiebusting idiot!" I shouted at my untimely caller. "This is a private line—"
I paused about then. The face in the screen was that of the President of the World.
"Emergency," he snapped. "Get over here immediately, Harold." He seemed preoccupied. Maybe he hadn't heard me.
"Sure, Freddy," I mumbled, somewhat daunted. Sometimes his actions were irritatingly peremptory, but he was the chief officer of Earth. He was also my only cousin. Indeed, I owed my present sinecure to him. This was not nepotism so much as convenience—but I never dwelt on that unduly.
"Move!" he yelled. "It's high time you earned your paycheck."
The term "paycheck" was archaic if not obsolete in our credit-balance economy, but I decided not to stand on technicalities. I moved.
I rode the corridor belt past pictures and other strategically placed reminders of past administrations. What could Freddy want with me in such a hurry? True, my door bore the legend MINISTER OF INNER-GALACTIC WORLD AFFAIRS, but that was meaningless. Unless something special had come up. Maybe I should have watched the news this morning....
I glided around a bend, admiring my perfect poise as my belt intersected the belt from a cross-hall—and converged with a starchy baggie-dress. The metallic hoops and bustles of the thing bounced me back like a planetoid from the buffer.
"Why don't you watch where you're—" I began, but had to pause again. The head above the baggie was blonde and so adorably feminine that I regretted never having seen it before. And here I was on the way to the Office, unable to dally!
"Minister Prodkins," she said, her voice like the caress of a clean summer breeze. She held out a gloved hand. "I'm Dr. Dilsmore."
"Just what I've always wanted," I said, squeezing the proffered digit with unseemly intimacy while I wondered who she was and how she knew me. That baggie might conceal a figure with all the sex appeal of a sprouting potato, for all I could see, but somehow I had the impression of buxom youth.
"The extraterrestrialogist," she said, as though that clarified anything.
"That's, uh, very interesting," I mumbled, wishing the baggie would pass before a strong light. The President's sanctum loomed before us, and I knew I had to cut this short. "If you'd like to leave your comm number—" As though a dish like this would give her number to a nothing like me! I stood hardly taller than she, and sported neither muscle nor brain. Apart from my ability at Solar Pool, I was talentless—particularly when it came to women. But I had to try.
"Of course, since we'll be working together," she agreed to my amazement. "But we'd better not keep the President waiting."
Working together! For a tantalizing moment tomcats and billygoats pranced through my romance-starved mind. But that was ridiculous.
Then we were past the guards and lined up like truants before the prune-faced secretary. "You may go right in, Minister Prodkins," she said sourly. "You, Dr. Dilsmore, take a seat—if such a thing is possible in that contraption."
For the first time and probably the last time I felt a flicker of camaraderie with Pruneface. She antedated the baggie-dress, and was not afraid to show her contempt of the style. No lesser person than the President's secretary could afford such an opinion, however; certainly I couldn't. Not openly.
But the blonde had to be someone important, to be known by sight here. In fact—
I had no time to ponder further, for President Frederik Bascum was within his lair. "Sit down, Harold. It's time I had a talk with you."
I sat. This wasn't like the President and it wasn't like the stern, stodgy, but politically brilliant older cousin I'd known. I studied the gray hairs in his elegant mustache, the ice-crevasse lines in his face. I had to admit he was an impressive figure.
"Harold," he said, steepling his hands in that practiced way of his, "it may surprise you to learn that you are about to take an active part in government. Oh, it will be suitably small for you to handle, but don't underrate its importance."
"Naturally not," I murmured, more mystified than ever. Freddy had not spoken to me like this before. In fact, he had seemed happy to keep me entirely out of sight and without responsibility.
"As you know if you have been watching the news analysts, Earth has now made contact with a race that we assume is inner-galactic. You have therefore become an important man."
I looked at him, considering the incredible thing he had uttered. Either he had finally succumbed to the strain of the Office, or I had missed something in the news. Or both. "I suppose you're right, Mr. President."
"Of course I'm right! And knowing your proclivities as I do, I'm sure you're entirely confused right now. You probably spent the morning practicing Solar Pool and dreaming about anachronistic distaff apparel, and never bothered to keep up with world events."
I did not dignify such a crass insinuation with a reply. He had me dead to rights.
"Very well," he said tiredly, "I'll tell you what you need to know. I suppose you can't help being an albatross. It's my penalty for succumbing to a simplistic solution—installing a deadbeat relative in a pseudo-ministry."
He seemed to have summed up that part of it very succinctly. Freddy was a realist.
"An alien creature was recently captured in Florida," he said. "A juvenile. A child, in fact. But high-ranking. Possibly a runaway prince. Comes from a world that sounds to us like Jamborango; has a name that sounds like Qumax. He's wanted back home, and he won't get home if he gets loose and our xenophobic populace spots him. The alien ship—"
"You mean we've made contact with an alien civilization?"
He looked pained. "Please pay attention, Harold. Why do you think I've summoned you?"
There was that. Why would he summon the Minister of In-ner-Galactic World Affairs, if not to handle an Inner-Galactic Affair?
That reminded me of the blonde in the outer office. If she were part of that Affair ...
"The alien ship," Freddy resumed determinedly, "we have been in contact with is not really a police craft. That's a cover story we adopted for sundry and sufficient reasons. A ship will land to reclaim this problem child, but it won't be a cruiser. Actually it's more of a cargo ship that Qumax's parent casually ordered off from some adjacent trade line."
"Is this a nonhuman alien?" I inquired, intrigued.
The President pressed a button that elevated a solid-projector to his desk top. A three-dimensional still came on.
"Ulp!" I said, or words to that effect.
Imagine the biggest, ugliest cabbage worm since the dawn of cabbage worms on Earth. Add a bulging cranium and two black shiny antennae. Add two eyes glinting with the lights of intelligence—dark eyes, though, like pits into eternity. Move down on the sausage-shaped body, skipping over the greasy folds like freshly turned furrows, all the way back to where the shoulders extend into twin flesh lumps attached to clusters of brachiating greenish-gray tentacles. That, plus a long taper back to a blunt and solid-looking wrinkly tail, was Qumax.
"You can see now why I summoned you," Freddy said, shutting off the projector.
"Yes ..." I began, and found my inspiration exhausted. I was not much for speechmaking at great moments. My mock position had abruptly become real, and I had a job to do that literally affected the world. Contact with a civilized, galactic, alien species! Why, this could revolutionize our society!
"We'll have a trebvee actor make some of your critical public appearances," he was saying, "and a battery of experts will prepare your statements. We may not be able to protect you entirely from the press, but Dr. Dilsmore will run interference for you and avert complete disaster."
I had known my cousin didn't think much of me, but the implications hurt. He was so sure I'd bungle it that he was making me a complete figurehead. And he was saying it right to my face, as though my thoughts and feelings had no relevance at all. There were unwritten volumes of contempt in his attitude—whole libraries of underestimation.
I sat there, nerving myself to prove how wrong he had been about Harold Prodkins, former black sheep. I had no intention of being a—
The President activated his comm. "Send in Dr. Dilsmore, please."
Oops! I didn't want her present while I braced Freddy. "Mr. President—" I began.
"Later, Harold. This is important."
That did it. I marshaled my intellectual forces as the blonde entered. Her name, it developed, was Nancy.
"Dr. Dilsmore," Freddy said briskly, "I think it would be best if you gave the Minister an account of your first encounter with the alien Qumax. We don't want Harold to appear ignorant if the press gets at him." There was a slight stress on the word "appear."
"Eh, before you do that, Doctor," I said, "I wonder if you can give me the gist of the seventy-eighth amendment to the World Constitution?"
She looked surprised, but her aplomb did not suffer. "The seventy-eighth? Isn't that the one that puts you in complete charge of all dealings with inner-galactics?"
The President was irritated at the interruption. "A formality. The congress never supposed—"
"It puts the man holding my office in charge," I clarified. "And that man, once appointed by the President, holds office for a similar term and can be removed only by death or impeachment or unsolicited resignation. Do you remember, Doctor, what kind of dealings I'm empowered to handle?"
She looked attractively perplexed. "Why—all kinds. Everything having to do with inner-galactics. Trade treaties, alliances, whatever. You can act without congress and without the President."
"This is ridiculous," Freddy exclaimed. "That amendment was ratified in extreme haste by an outgoing congress who thought, erroneously, that Earth had received a signal from outer space. The press of other business prevented the office from being abolished after the signal's fraudulence was clarified. After that, congressional inertia—"
"But the statute does remain on the books, doesn't it, Mr. President," I said. "And so I have extraordinary powers because that bygone congress, rightly or wrongly, feared that there would not be time for the conventional system, in its glacial haste, to deal effectively with aliens if they appeared suddenly. As it seems they have. So—"
Freddy's face had taken on an asbestos hue. I had surprised him, and he did not much appreciate the experience. "And now, Doctor," I continued blithely, turning back to the female extraterrestrialogist, "suppose you give me that account the President so kindly suggested. Just so the Minister of Inner-Galactic World Affairs won't appear ignorant."
"Nearly three days ago," she said without hesitation, "I was taken to a section of Florida swamp where the alien and several persons of low degree had been rendered unconscious by a quantity of Jupegas. Apparently Qumax had been endeavoring to use these people to help him find his way home. That part isn't clear yet."
"Hmmm, yes," I said, stroking my beardless chin. "And exactly what was your impression of this—(I thought of the horrible solid photograph and suppressed a shudder)—child, Doctor?"
"My impression was that Qumax is a child. When he woke up surrounded by the might of our planet, he—he cried. He let loose big tears just as a human child might. I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Any woman would."
"Well, that's understandable, I suppose," I said uncomfortably. Sorry for that? I'd as soon step on it! "How does this tie in with the alien ship?"
"Qumax knew our language. When he contacted his—well, the translation seems to be Swarm Tyrant, or perhaps Harem Sheik—I think he was genuinely frightened. This Swarm Tyrant's image was a bit hazy, coming as it did from goodness knows how far. Maybe the set wasn't working properly. I admit the creature did terrify me, at least, and I'm not a child."
It occurred to me that before the baggie style came into fashion, women had not needed to say whether they were children. Visible anatomy had made their status plain.
"But when the child—when Qumax—learned that the Tyrant was angry at Earth, not him, his manner changed completely. He demanded VIP treatment: his own trebvee set, gadgets from his spacecraft, special food not mentioned by the Tyrant ... in fact, he's had everything his own way except that he's caged."
"I suppose that's Lucifernia—the maximum security prison?"
"Protective custody," Freddy said quickly.
"And this Swarm Sheik went overboard?"
"He certainly didn't apologize for our inconvenience! He gave us to understand that he wanted—demanded!—us to take good care of his-his larva—and he hinted that he would be most displeased if he found anything out of order. A serious infraction on our part might lead him to snuff out our sun, he said ... and I don't think he was bluffing. Qumax put me in mind of an undisciplined brat, and that Tyrant was just plain insufferable."
"Then he will have to apologize," I said. "He will have to apologize handsomely to Earth—and maybe we'll demand more than mere words!"
The President of the World lost his bedraggled composure. He made a sound evidently preliminary to a categorical denial. In fact, he choked.
"Mr. Minister," said Dr. Nancy Dilsmore excitedly, her hair flouncing with the vigor of her nodding. "Mr. Minister, I agree completely!"
* * *
At twelve noon the longtime leftover election signs along the automated highway presented an uninspiring view. DO YOU WANT YOUR DAUGHTER TO BE A HARLOT? screamed one, showing the noble face of the now World President—Freddy—in his stern Moses-with-Commandments profile. HELP ELECT THE DECENT PEOPLE'S CHOICE pleaded a second. HELP STAMP OUT PORNOGRAPHIC DRESS urged a third. A fourth proclaimed FREDERIK MICHAEL BASCUM FOR WORLD PRESIDENT, and had a portrait of Freddy smiling approvingly at a bag in a baggie dress. I found it sickening. But those slogans had swept Freddy to victory in four continents. Whether he had led the world into the apex of New Victorianism or merely ridden NV into power, both man and attitude were now disgustingly entrenched.
The good-looking Ph.D. (from the top of her head to the bottom of her—head) was sad evidence of that. Her baggie bulged outward as she sat, like the folds of a broken accordion, providing her torso with all the lithe luster of a pregnant marsupial frog recently trodden on. She probably slept in that bag, so that at no hour of the day or night would any hint of any untoward (i.e., feminine) anatomy be manifest. I longed for a return of the fashions of the past century, when bosoms had been only nominally covered, and shapes had been shaped. Today, even in the best libraries, certain pages of the history texts had been blacked out. Those old-time fashions had been deemed indecent, you see. Some expensive boot-leggers carried unexpurgated copies, but possession was a ticket to rehabilitation at places like Lucifernia. Alas, I had been born too late, and probably never would see a live female torso. Even household pets wore fluffy clothing these days, and babies were diapered in darkness.
Lucifernia loomed on the horizon like a bad-tempered thundercloud, grim warning to lascivious thinkers like me. "It's even worse inside," Nancy Dilsmore said, mistaking my expression. "That poor innocent little alien, shut away deep underground."
"I thought it was a spoiled brat."
Excerpted from The E. S. P. Worm by Piers Anthony, Robert E. Margroff. Copyright © 2002 Anthony and Robert E. Margroff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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