By Chet Gottfried
MATT SELECTED A FEW DOLLARS to leave on the table for a tip when one of his bills buzzed:
“Hi! I’m a friendly alien visiting your wonderful planet.”
Startled, Matt dropped the bill. He stared at it a few seconds and then casually surveyed the noisy hotel lounge, which had the typical Las Vegas crowd. Men and women in all stages of dress and undress drifted in and out for meals, drinks, and the slots. No one was looking his way, with the possible exception of a redhead in a black, low-cut dress. She didn’t seem the type to play a practical joke. Matt felt under the table. Was there a concealed speaker? He found nothing and picked up the dollar to examine it closely.
“I’m touring in a form unlikely to draw attention and using my telepathic circuit, so we can talk privately.”
Matt drummed the table. Although vacationing in Vegas, he lived in New York, where a fellow learns to take everything in stride—including alien visitations.
“You can read my mind?”
“No, that’s against our principles, sir. I only respond to direct thoughts ... usually.”
Las Vegas attracts all kinds. Sort of figures an alien would go there first.
“Absolutely right, sir.”
“Stop the sirs. I’m Matt.”
“Thanks, Matt. I’m crackle from crackle. Oh dear, my translator cannot produce English words for my name and home.”
“So what should I call you? Maybe George? Or Bill?”
“George will be fine. Please don’t put me in your wallet. My sensor array bypasses the fake leather, but I want to see Las Vegas properly. Could you roll me up and put me in your shirt pocket so that the eye on the pyramid faces front? That’s my camera lens. My family and friends love seeing travel photos.”
Matt arranged the dollar as George had requested and stood up. He left the lounge and went past tall palm trees and a swimming pool.
“Where are we going, Matt? Which sights of this magnificent city will we visit?”
“It’s after midnight. I’m going to bed.”
“Wait a minute, please! Look at the skyline! Look at all those purple and green lights. I must photograph them.”
Matt stopped and put his hands in his pockets. Was he going out of his mind, developing an imaginary friend? Or should he try the slots again? If his luck changed, George was real; if it didn’t, he’d take another Valium and book a shrink appointment.
He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see the redhead from the bar.
“Enjoying the view?” she asked.
Matt looked down her dress.
The redhead pressed his arm harder.
“Come with me. I’m having a party.”
He could smell alcohol on her breath, but the aroma wasn’t heavy, nor was she slurring any words.
“Oh boy!” George said, “A party! Let’s go!”
“Well?” she asked.
The redhead hummed a tune while they walked past a wrought-iron gate, through the parking lot, into the next building, and entered an elevator.
“I’m uploading pictures. I’m receiving wows all over Spacebook.”
Outside room 322, the redhead slipped her card into the lock, and the door clicked open. “After you.”
Walking in, Matt saw signs of a party but one that had faded hours ago. Scattered around the room were empty and half-filled glasses, peanut shells, pieces of cheese, and cake crumbs.
“We’re a little late.”
“The party is only beginning,” she said.
He turned around. She had slipped off her dress, and her bra and panties featured the Stars and Stripes in brilliant colors.
“I never thought I’d make it with Miss America.”
* * *
Daylight through the window roused Matt. Flat on his back and naked in bed, he rolled onto his side—and saw the redhead was not only awake but sitting in a chair and pointing a gun at him.
“Get dressed,” she said.
“Was it that bad?”
“It was great!” George said. “I got thirty thousand new friends and won the Video of the Day award.”
He hurriedly put on his clothes and wondered how it could go so wrong. Was she a hooker? Should he have paid in advance? Was she really going to shoot him? And how did George have a view of the bed? Matt remembered dropping his shirt on the floor, but someone placed it on a hanger, with the eye of the pyramid staring at him.
Matt wished his hands would stop shaking.
“What do you want? Money?”
The redhead laughed. “I knew you would come to that. Here, take it.”
She tossed Matt a wad of dollars but kept the gun pointed toward him.
“Five thousand. Your advance.”
Matt caught the money. He thought, this isn’t real.
“Yes it is. The hundred dollar bills are genuine.”
What’s going on?
“She thinks you’re the infamous assassin known as the Lamb. Whenever you say, Baa, you kill someone.”
You’re reading her mind? I thought you didn’t do that.
“Give me a break. We had only first met, but now you better be careful. She’s terrified that you’ll kill her next, since the Lamb eliminates anyone who doesn’t follow his peculiar rules before an accepting an assignment.”
Matt felt the blood drain from his face and spoke inadvertently: “What assignment?”
She gave him a key card, a green token, and a photo. “Go to room 315. Everything is ready.”
“And the gun?”
“The gun?” She seemed puzzled but reversed the weapon and handed it to him. “I didn’t think you’d want one. That’s why you specified the setup, including your weird contact demands: dollar bill in your pocket, talking to yourself, waiting by the poolside, and the pickup.” She glared at him. “If the Company didn’t need you for this job, I’d shoot you myself.”
Matt took the gun and dropped it into a pocket.
“Now leave,” she snarled. “I have to take a long shower to get rid of you.”
Outside the front door, he turned and asked, “What’s your name?”
She slammed the door in his face.
“Are you going to shoot someone?”
Matt took out the gun, wiped it on his pants, and dropped the weapon into a waste bin set into the corridor wall.
“I’m no killer, and I don’t know anything about guns. Let’s get out of Vegas.”
“Aren’t you curious about room 315? Let’s examine the photo Miss America gave you.”
Matt looked at the photo and shuddered. The guy wasn’t someone he’d want to meet. A description was on the back.
“He’s Bruno Cole, five foot ten and a hundred eighty pounds. That makes him bigger than me. And he has a sallow complexion.”
“What does swallow mean?”
“Sallow. He’s pale. Or looks sick.”
Matt walked to room 315 and stopped.
But why did he stop? He should be running in the opposite direction. Did George do something to him? George? The alien, for once, had nothing to say, which confirmed Matt’s suspicions. What to do?
He put his head against the door and held his breath.
“Why are you depriving yourself of oxygen?”
“I’m trying to hear whether anyone is inside. If it’s empty, I might risk it.”
“Is that all? My sensors detect no life forms, apart from a spider.”
Matt carded the door, which opened to a small room. “This must be the foyer to a suite.”
“Perhaps there’s an inner door? No harm in checking.”
Matt went in and a light came on while the door closed behind him. The room shook.
He turned in every direction and didn’t see any buttons to press.
“We’re trapped inside a private elevator. But it doesn’t take this long to go down three flights. We must be going to a sublevel.” The elevator continued downward. “Or a sub-sublevel.”
“You should have kept the gun.”
Matt thought, well, here’s another nice mess.
The elevator stopped with a stomach-churning lurch, and a short woman swung the door open. She had a pug nose, curly blonde hair, and an electronic clipboard.
“I’m Claire Appletree, production assistant, and welcome to the most popular illegal web TV show this side of the Mississippi: Blast. Give me your ticket.”
Matt wondered if she meant the token.
He fished in a pocket, found the green token, and gave it to her.
She popped it into a slot and studied the readout. “Well, Mr. Carver, you completed the forms, signed the indemnity waivers, and that’s that. I’ll run you through makeup, and then you’re on.”
Matt shook his head. “That’s not my name.”
Claire herded him to makeup. “No one expects you to use your real one.”
He thought, what’s Blast?
“You should watch more TV. It would make you a more rounded person.”
Matt couldn’t believe an alien disguised as a dollar bill was lecturing him on the advantages of television.
“Blast is a game show played with a real bomb set to go off.”
How do I get out of here?
“Not to worry. I know how to play. We’ll win a lot of money.”
After the makeup people dusted his face and trimmed his hair, Matt stumbled into the corridor, where Claire Appletree was waiting.
“Why do you have a dollar bill sticking out of your shirt?” she asked.
“It’s my lucky piece.”
Claire guided him to a pair of heavy steel doors. The lightbulb over them was green, she pushed the doors open, and they walked into the chaos of a TV studio.
Under bright spotlights, two dozen techs in orange-and-black coveralls were rushing in and out of a glass-enclosed dome. They were connecting colored cables, checking meters, carrying messages, and mopping blood off the floor. Inside the dome, at the four compass points, were four tables along the edge of a blacktopped ring a hundred feet in diameter. Two people sat at each table, with the exception of the south table, where a young woman waited by herself and watched the newcomers.
Claire led him to the south table, which had two built-in joysticks and many buttons.
The young woman stood up. “Hi! I’m Daphne.” She had long, straight black hair and wore jeans and a T-shirt.
They shook hands and sat next to each other.
Matt looked from Claire to Daphne. “I haven’t played recently. Could one of you bring me up to speed?”
Daphne’s mouth dropped open, but Claire took it in stride. “It’s all about a bomb wanting to go boom.” Claire pointed at the device, which hung from a wire in the center of the dome. “Stop it from exploding, and you win $100,000. Opposite the bomb is a Galileo thermometer, the tall glass column containing five spheres. When the game begins, the room temperature rises, we watch you sweat, and the balls inside the thermometer drop to the bottom, one at a time. The topmost ball blocks a light beam. When that falls, the beam triggers the bomb, and you’ve five seconds to reach one of the blast walls behind you, which appear at random, so there’s no running ahead of time. If you’re caught in the explosion, you receive free medical care for a year if you survive. Any prosthetic devices you require have ten-year warranties. If you die, we pay for your funeral. That is, a cremation of whatever we can identify.”
Daphne threw up her hands. “I had to play in the minors before they let me appear on the show. Why don’t you throw him out?”
Claire patted Daphne’s shoulder. “Relax, hon. We had a special invite for Mr. Carver.”
“Stop asking questions,” George warned. “I’ll tell you how to play.”
“It’s all coming back to me.” Matt smiled and then thought, I hope you know what you’re doing.
“Trust me. I’m an alien. The east and west sides want the bomb to explode, and they’re automatically protected. You and the north side win by disarming the bomb, either by cutting the correct wire or by building a plastic brick tower to block the light beam. You play the game through the gladiators, miniature go-carts that have arms for snipping or building. The gladiators are color-coded: Yours are green. The north table has blue gladiators, and your opposition has yellow and red. The joystick and buttons control the gladiator. See? Simple.”
“You’ve five minutes to practice,” Claire said. “That’s how long Larry’s monologue takes. He’s your MC and a thousand laughs but all nerves and a sour stomach. Any further questions?”
Matt shook his head.
“Good,” Claire said. “See the red light on top of the dome? When it turns green, do your best. It turns purple if you disarm the bomb. If it starts flashing yellow and you hear a siren, run for all you’re worth.”
She left them, and the remaining techs fled behind her.
Claire’s very competent, Matt thought.
“She thinks you’re an idiot, and if she had her way, Claire wouldn’t allow you within a million miles of the show. She curses her job and the day she was born because of people like you.”
“Glad to help.”
He tentatively moved the joystick back and forth, and the shoe-box-size gladiator jerked across the floor.
“I’m going to die!” Daphne banged her head on the table.
Matt maneuvered his machine around the ring. After a tight turn, his gladiator hit a cable and flipped onto its back. Daphne reached across his half of the table and pressed a button. The gladiator righted itself.
I’ll never learn this in time, he thought.
“If you accept Form BEM2020, the emergency powers petition, I can operate your arms and thus the gladiator.”
Anything’s better than me trying to run the thing.
“Relax. I can’t control your muscles if you resist.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Matt shrugged. “I met a redhead.”
“That’s not an answer. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a picture framer. And you?”
Daphne sat up straight and tied her hair into a ponytail. “Bank teller on the foreign exchange desk. I want the hundred grand prize money to start my own business.”
“I’ve figured out the wires. Cutting the orange one wins automatically.”
“Right,” Matt said. “We can do this.”
She looked at him suspiciously, and he showed her his wad of hundred dollar bills.
“I won it earlier today. I’m on a roll.”
“Maybe, but we better put together a strategy if we want to survive, let alone win. The first plan has one of us building a tower to block the beam while the other provides protection. The second strategy is that we smash the opposing gladiators and then build the tower together. It’s risky because we may not have much time left.”
“Let’s smash.” Matt looked at the northern table. “I wonder whether our partners will follow suit?” He waved to them, and one waved back.
“Uh-oh,” George said, “Does not the one who waved look familiar? Is that what’s meant by a swallow face?”
“Sallow,” Matt corrected.
“Excuse me?” Daphne asked.
“The guy over there is familiar.”
“That’s Bruno Cole, an experienced player. He takes more chances than I would.”
The overhead red light began flashing, and a booming voice said, “Welcome to Blast! Our contestants today are Daphne Russell from Salt Lake City, Utah.” Daphne stood up, shouted, waved both arms over her head, blew kisses, and sat down.
One by one, on being introduced, each contestant stood up, waved, smiled, or bowed.
Daphne revved her gladiator.
“Be ready on my signal. You distract the guys on your left. Then I’ll bash. Not that I’m taking any masculine prerogatives from you. I’ve more experience ramming than you.”
“I’ll cut the wire.”
Not yet, Matt thought. If we do it too soon, everyone would think it was a fix.
The words “ready” and “play” ripped the air, the overhead light turned green, and gladiators whizzed around the blacktop.
Matt watched his hands move independently of himself as George directed the gladiator toward the two west machines. Letting one yellow gladiator slip by him, George tried a few tentative bumps on the remaining yellow. His opponent seemed content to have a butting contest. Then Daphne’s machine rammed and rolled the yellow gladiator over. Daphne used the snipping arm to cut the yellow’s axles.
“Let’s give it to the second guy,” she yelled.
The bottommost ball in the thermometer drifted downward.
The other yellow gladiator maneuvered cautiously, letting George and Daphne chase it around the dome.
“Stay and fight, damn you!” Daphne yelled at the west player.
The third ball sank down the thermometer. Matt wondered how he missed the second sphere.
“I’m counting,” George said. “We’ll snip the purple wire after the fourth ball falls.”
Purple wire? What happened to the orange?
“Oops, sorry! I meant the orange wire. Big danger if we cut the wrong one.”
The almighty dollar isn’t infallible, he thought.
“Be fair. I’ve a lot of Spacebook postings to answer.”
“Bruno and his partner are using our tactics,” Daphne said. “They’ve knocked out both red gladiators. Can you keep the yellow guy busy? It will take three of us to build a tower in time.”
“I’m on it!”
Daphne nodded approvingly. “That Bruno is good. He’s stacking while his partner fetches bricks.”
The tower continued to grow while the fourth sphere drifted down the thermometer.
“We’ve enough bricks.” Daphne whacked the table with her free hand. “Looking good—as long as you keep that yellow away.”
“I’m going to cut the orange wire now!”
What if you’re wrong, Matt thought. He concentrated on regaining use of his hands and succeeded in blocking George.
“No! no! no!”
Matt’s machine spun out of control, bumping into the yellow gladiator and sending it to the edge of the dome.
“My accelerator is jammed!” Matt cried. His gladiator hit a brick, whirled into the air, and crashed into the thermometer, knocking it over.
Daphne hauled him to his feet and forced him to run with her.
The overhead light flashed and an alarm rang.
They reached a wall just before the explosion shook the entire dome, deafening him and tearing their clothing to shreds. In addition to cuts and bruises, they each had interesting tattoos in uncommonly seen places. Luckily, his pocket with George remained intact.
Daphne grabbed Matt’s arm and spoke rapidly to him, but he couldn’t hear her, only a loud ringing.
“She says that no one else knew you were such a goof, but she psyched herself for the worst, which happened. Daphne saved your life, Matt.”
Daphne pointed to his feet, where Bruno Cole’s bloody head had rolled. Matt shuddered.
She grabbed his shoulders, pulled Matt close, kissed him, and screamed into his ear: “We survived! That’s better than sex!”
In turn, he shouted into her ear: “Let’s find out.”
“She’ll come to her senses after realizing that because of the explosion she receives $10,000, not the $100,000 she hoped for.”
The rescue workers arrived and helped them out of the dome.
After the postgame interview, Daphne and Matt rode the elevator together to the second floor. They both wore bathrobes decorated with the Blast logo. Matt’s hearing returned, although it continued to ring.
George babbled about his Spacebook rating, and Matt apologized for not winning the hundred grand.
Miss America met them when they exited the elevator.
“You did it. I almost hoped you wouldn’t. But you did. Thank you.”
Daphne looked at Matt who ignored her unspoken question.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“I okayed the five hundred thousand transfer to your Swiss account.” She turned and walked away.
“Do you have a Swiss account?” George asked.
Matt called after her, “Hey! Which account?”
The redhead gave him the finger over her shoulder and disappeared around a corner.
“Did she say five hundred thousand?” Daphne asked. “What kind of pictures do you frame?”
Matt laughed. “Some pay better than others, but I don’t know the account number.”
“I can help you if you’re willing to help me.”
“Anything,” he said.
Daphne plucked George out of Matt’s pocket and slipped it into a vending machine.
“You don’t know how thirsty those bomb blasts make me.”
“That was my lucky dollar ...”
Daphne tore the cap off a bottle of spring water and took a long drink.
“You don’t need a lucky dollar, partner. You have me.” She took his hand and looked into his eyes.
Matt no longer heard George. The alien was gone. All he had left to show for his encounter was a quarter which had dropped into the change receptacle. “Luck comes in all shapes and sizes.” He picked up the coin.
“Very true,” the quarter buzzed.
Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. He writes fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories and novels. His wildlife photography is popular too. Chet’s previous story for “Perihelion” was “Boccaccio in Outer Space” in the 12-JUN-2013 update.