The December Special Guest Writer is Piers Anthony
Please feel free to visit Piers HERE
Mike paused in his sweaty labor. What was that glistening in the gravel? It didn't look like a typical stone. For one thing it wasn't round or lumpy like the rest of the limerock; it was more like a delicate thin vase. He set aside his spade for the moment and picked it up. It was beautiful, a slender iridescent cone about five inches long and half an inch at the open end. It was a wonder it hadn't been broken to pieces in the gravel. He was relieved that it was intact; just touching it made him feel as if he had made a friend.
He put it in his pickup truck and resumed spading the gravel, trying to fill in the dips. He had bought a ton, which he thought was a lot, especially when spading it by himself, but it was clear he would need at least another truck-full. He finally wrapped it up for the day, then drove over it to his home. Sure enough, the surface remained bumpy, if less so than before. He was soaking in sweat, and tired, but it was a job well done, or at least half done.
He showered, changed, and made supper by putting frozen lasagna in the microwave oven for yea many minutes. That was about the extent of his cooking ability. He hadn't bothered to really learn cooking, as he secretly hoped that by some mischance he could one day find a good woman to share his life and to take care of such details. Foolish notion!
He gazed at the shell as he ate. He couldn't get over how pretty it was, from out of the midst of the completely ordinary gravel, like a jewel in a mine. How had it come there? He wanted to know more about it. He knew already that he wanted to keep it forever. Somehow it seemed to give his dull life meaning, weird as this truth was to recognize.
He tried to research it on the internet, but he had no idea of the name of it, and the word “shell” merely produced an impossibly broad welter of shells that didn't come close. He finally turned in for the night, frustrated, the shell close beside his bed. At least it provided some interest for an otherwise uninteresting private existence. Interest? He was fascinated with it, feeling a muted excitement when it was close.
It still bugged him in the morning, so he wrapped it in a handkerchief, pocketed it, and went to get some competent advice at the local community college.
“A shell? You want the paleontology department,” the front desk receptionist told him. “I'll buzz her.”
Soon a woman with tightly bound brown hair, conservative clothing, and a figure like that of the TV weather girl appeared. She gave him a routine smile. How he wished he could rate a real smile from such a creature! “I understand you have a shell to identify? Perhaps I can help you; it's my specialty.”
“Uh, yes,” Mike said, dazzled by her aspect. “I found it in gravel I was spreading on my drive.”
“Oh, of course. Limestone is formed from the shells of ancient creatures, and some small ones remain intact. We find many cowries.”
“I'm not sure about this one. It's not a cowrie. It's—it's lovely.”
“In limestone gravel?” she asked skeptically. “May I see it?”
He dug it out of his pocket and unwrapped it. He set it on the corner of the desk.
She stared, seeming almost mesmerized. “Oh, my,” she breathed.
“It's unusual?” he asked.
“It looks like a variety of Baculite, but it's not. I've never seen one quite like this before.”
“Bake light?” he asked.
She smiled tolerantly. “An uncoiled ammonite. But this one is tightly coiled, yet elongated. And it's iridescent.”
“You're leaving me behind.”
She wrenched her eyes from the shell and looked at him. “I'm sorry. I was carried away. The ammonites were a phenomenon of the Paleozoic through the Mesozoic eras, circa four hundred million to one hundred million years ago. They went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period, along with the dinosaurs.”
“So this shell is a hundred million years old?”
“It could be. But it's not the kind of thing you'd normally find in limestone gravel. Especially not in this superb condition.”
“I assure you—”
“Oh, I'm not questioning your veracity. I'm simply awed by the fossil.”
“Uh, thanks, I guess.” He was his usual largely incoherent self in the presence of a woman he wished he could impress.
“Is it for sale?”
Mike already knew he never wanted to part with it. “No. Is it valuable?”
“It might be invaluable. I would need to verify it. May I borrow it?”
That put him on the spot. He was afraid that if he let the shell get out of his hands he might never see it again. “I don't want to insult you, miss—”
“Yes, about the shell. It—”
She put her hand on his, on the desk. That electrified him. “I was giving you my name. Michelle, Shell for short.”
“Oh. Sorry. I'm Mike, short for Michael.”
She laughed. “We have the same name. Michaela, Michelle, the feminine of Michael. It means 'In the image—'”
“'Of God,'” he finished. “I am familiar with the name.”
“Of course you are, Mike. But this is a diversion. I was asking whether I could borrow your fossil, to look it up and verify its exact identity.”
“Oh. Yes. And I was trying to say that, well, the shell is valuable to me personally, and I—I don't know you well enough to—to trust you with it. I have this maybe paranoid fear of losing it.”
“I understand. I really do. There's something about it, apart from its novelty and possible interest to science. I find myself wanting to get closer to it.”
“Yeah. That's it. I live alone, and sometimes I get lonely. But that stopped when I found this—this ammonite. I can't explain it.”
“Nor do you need to, Mike. I feel the same gravitic pull, and I think not because I too live alone. I do not want to let this fossil get away from me.”
Damn! “Then I think we've got a problem.”
“Not necessarily. How well would you need to know me to trust me with your shell?”
“Well, I don't want to be facetious, but if you were my—my girlfriend, then maybe I'd consider it.” Why had he said that? “But of course you're not interested in—”
“It's a date.”
Mike immediately backed off. “I didn't mean—”
She met his gaze. “What did you mean, Mike?”
This was going all wrong, as he should have known it would. “I'm sorry. I never was good with girls. Things always mess up. I say the wrong thing. I apologize. Take the fossil.” He re-wrapped it and presented it to her, inwardly flinching at the prospective loss of it.
But she demurred, declining to accept it. “We made a deal, I think. Are you free now?”
“I'd like to see your drive, where you found the fossil. Then we can go where you prefer. A date.”
What could he do? “Uh, okay.” Then he suffered an afterthought. “Don't you have a class to teach, or something?”
“It's my day off. I was in the classroom grading papers, a tedious chore. I would much rather be out in the field. It can wait a few hours. I'm free.”
Mike realized that it was the sight of the shell that had really turned her on, not himself. But if that was what it took to win her company for a little while, he was amenable. It didn't hurt that she was turned on by the same fossil he was; they did have that much in common.
They left the desk and the bemused reception girl, who seemed to have faded out while they were talking. Shell joined him in his truck, seeming to have no concern trusting herself to a stranger, and he drove home, marveling at her presence. No attractive woman had ever taken even nominal interest in him. When would the bubble burst? When he turned the shell over to her?
To break up his own doubt, he tried to make small talk. “You seem quite fit, Shell.”
“My hobby is walking, exploring for new shells. That keeps me in shape.” She glanced at him. “You seem fit too, Mike.”
“Making computer games is a sedentary occupation, and too much of that is unhealthy, so I try to be active between times. That's why I maintain my own drive, for one thing.”
“If you would like to walk with me some day, looking for shells, there are regions where I would prefer company.” A delicate way of saying that she recognized the hazards of a beautiful woman going about alone.
“It's a date,” he agreed, smiling.
He stopped beyond the drive, and they walked to the newly graveled section. Shell squatted to sift through it with her hand, and he tried without success not to peek at her exposed thigh as her short business skirt rode up.
“I thought there was an outside chance that there might be other fossils,” she explained. “But this is completely ordinary gravel. It must have been salted.”
“Some spent mines attract tourists by setting a few gems in the refuse. It's called salting. But what you found isn't a gem, and an ordinary person wouldn't be interested in it. Still, I doubt it occurred naturally in this gravel. The question is, who put it there, and why?”
“I sure don't know.”
She stood, rubbing the sand off her hands. “I know I said a date, and I will honor it. But this has really gotten to me. Would you mind if we returned first to the college and checked with their general science lab? I have a nagging suspicion.”
Mike was glad just to be with her on any terms. “I'm curious too. Let's do it.”
On the way there they talked, while she studied the shell in her hands. “May I inquire about your background?” Shell asked. “A girl likes to know.”
“You already know why I'm single at age thirty-two. I've always been interested in games and animation, and am something of a nerd. I worked for an online game company, and once I knew the ropes, I went free-lance, hoping for the big strike. Income is uncertain, but at least I get credit for what I come up with, and I'm my own boss. That makes up for a lot. I bought an old house and am slowly fixing it up, but it's lonely. Then yesterday the shell. If someone put it there, I can't think why they'd leave it for me. But it's on my wavelength.”
“Mine too,” she agreed. “I will have to verify this, but I am suspecting it's artificial.”
“You mean it's a fake? Damn!”
“Not exactly. There's something about its balance and quality. It could be a replica of an original shell. There could be a number hidden in otherwise unremarkable gravel. Planted there for folk like you or me to find.”
“That's the question of the hour.” She shrugged. “Now a bit about me. I am thirty, originally a bright child, always more interested in the distant past than in the present. I tracked my career early, and had no time for social life. Once I got my doctorate in Paleontology, and a comfortable teaching job, I looked around and realized that all the good men around me were taken. Those that remained were interested in only one thing, which I can take or leave. Perhaps I suffer from a similar syndrome as you do, lack of social comfort. It does get lonely.”
“You're a higher class person than I rate. My formal education ended with high school.”
Mike hesitated, then plowed ahead. “Maybe I'm goofing it up, as usual. But are you saying that a smart beautiful woman like you might see something in an ordinary guy like me?”
“I am hinting that, yes.”
“Why?” he asked again.
“I could say that I find myself ready to have a family, if I should find the right man. That having a high degree doesn't necessarily make a man a good person. I have met quite a number of stuffy academic doctors. It's character that counts, with me.”
He had to smile. “But 'could' is merely supposition. Do you have a more direct answer?”
“I do. It is because you went for your dream, as I went for mine, and sacrificed what you had to in order to achieve it. We have that in common, apart from the coincidence of our name.”
“I'm having trouble believing that, much as I want to. I mean, the dream, yes, but both of us going for it doesn't guarantee compatibility.”
“Then believe this: when I saw that shell fossil, and touched it, I knew I had to have it, legitimately. If that means taking you along with it, I may be ready to do it.”
He glanced at her. “You want it that much?”
“Yes. I can't say this is sensible, but the shell is unusual in the extreme, and apart from that there's something about it.” She made a moue. “Its very touch generates a certain satisfaction.”
She smiled. “That could certainly explain my fascination for it, and yours.”
“But what kind of person? Ones who are gullible enough to bite on that hook? It could be fool's gold.”
“Or ones who are sensible enough to welcome the new order?”
“Not that we believe that for a moment.”
Mike saw something. He pulled the truck to the curb. “I'll be only a moment,” he said and he opened the door and jumped out.
He crossed the lawn to a man who was trying unsuccessfully to heave a bulky roof assembly onto a new doghouse. “Let me give you a hand,” he said, and took hold of the other end. Together they heaved it up and on.
“Thanks!” the man said, surprised. “Do I know you?”
“No, I just spied you as I drove by. Saw what needed doing. You'd do the same for me, I'm sure.” He walked back to the truck, leaving the man standing there.
“We spoke of character,” Shell said.
“It was nothing.”
They pulled into the college parking lot. Shell led him to the laboratory section, where she knew the personnel. “Hal, can you take a scraping from this fossil and tell us what it's made of?”
The lab man smiled. “Anything for you, Shell.” He took a small knife and tried to scrape off a flake. Then looked surprised. “This isn't organic. It's impervious.”
“Let's have a look at it.” He put the small end under a high power microscope and adjusted the magnification. “Wow! I'd have to get it to a professional lab to be sure, but this doesn't look like anything either natural or man-made. It's like diamond, only different. Where did you get it?”
“I found it in gravel,” Mike said.
Hal stared at him. “Humor?”
“No,” Shell said.
Hal laughed. “Then it must have fallen off an alien space ship.”
“Thank you,” Shell said seriously. “That's what we wanted to know.”
They returned to his truck. “Let's get our minds off the mystery of the fossil for the moment,” she suggested. “Your place or mine?”
“Mine's a mess.”
He laughed. “You're serious about the date!”
“Surprise,” she agreed.
“You do realize you're the woman of my dreams?”
“I will try to measure up.”
“I mean if you finish the date the way I hope, I'll be hopelessly in love with you. You'll break my foolish heart.”
She shook her head. “That is not my intention.”
To finish the date, or to break his heart? He hesitated, then said it. “I'll give you the shell.”
“No. That would break your heart. I touched it; I know the compulsion. When near it I feel complete, as I am sure you do. Mike, this is not the way I normally am. But in the presence of that mysterious artifact, togetherness is what we need. We can both have it.”
He stopped arguing and drove on home while she continued to toy with the shell, stroking it lovingly.
At his house they contemplated the shell again. “I'm afraid to take it to a more competent lab,” Shell said. “We'd never get it back.”
“Never,” he agreed.
“I think we need to solve its riddle ourselves. Let's assume it's an alien shell that exists on another planet. How did it get here? Why was it sent?”
“I can guess at the 'how,'” he said. “There could have been a—a mother ship sent out to spy planets that might be suitable for mining, trade relations, or colonization. But it would be a long-range mission with hundreds or thousands of planets along the route. They couldn't slow down and dally for each one; that could take millennia. So they could have maintained velocity, which might be near light speed, and fired multiple artifacts scatter-shot at passing planets, to be hauled in by their gravity. Maybe a hundred scored on Earth, but most landed in oceans or deserts or frozen wastes and haven't been found. But some did land on land in the temperate zone. This may be the first one that got found and recognized, maybe after centuries.”
“Or weeks,” she agreed. “You are making sense. But what about the 'why'?”
“They want contact with other life, maybe. So the shell is meant be found by one or more sapient creatures,” he said. “Also feeling creatures; it radiates emotion. We have found it and recognized it, to an extent. We are under its spell, mesmerized, not in our normal state. But that can't be the end of it. It would be pointless to expend all that effort to send it as a mere toy to dazzle the natives.”
“There must be something we are expected to do with it. To—to activate it. But what?”
She held it up to the light. “The way it's twisted, like a lovely work of art. I almost want to try to untwist it, crazy as that seems.”
“Untwist it,” he agreed. “I feel a similar urge. Maybe it emits a mental directive, that can be received only by sensitive sapient minds, which is why we're so attracted to it. Yet if it is hard as diamond, we couldn't possibly do it.”
“Unless that's part of its magic. Let's try it, if only to disabuse our foolishness.”
“Okay,” he said.
She held the narrow end, and he held the broad end. They slowly twisted. There was no give.
Mike concentrated. “Alien shell—respond!” he said
The thing smoothly unwound. They were both so surprised that they dropped it. It fell to the table, flashed brightly, and melted into goo. The goo evaporated as they stared, leaving no sign.
“Oh, my,” she said. “Now at last I think I understand. We just set off a signal.”
“A signal that sapient and feeling life is here,” he agreed. “If my wild conjecture is true.”
“Not necessarily so wild,” she said soberly. “How else to explain what happened?”
“Now the aliens know where we are. They'll be coming for us.”
“And for our world,” she agreed.
“And we can't do anything about it,” he said. “Just like one of my games.”
“Have we won or have we lost?”
“I wish I knew.”
“All we can do now is complete our date,” she said. “Are you going to kiss me?”
“But if I do that—”
“It will formally launch our relationship. Let's do it.”
“And hope for the best,” he agreed. What did he have to lose? He was already falling in love with her.
“It might be centuries before they get here,” she said.
“Or days, depending on their technology and proximity.”
“Let's hurry,” she said, taking his hand.
Piers Anthony was born in Oxford, England, in AwGhost 1934. He spent time with relatives and a nanny while his parents went to do relief work in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. They were helping to feed the children rendered hungry by the devastation of the war. When that ended, Piers and his sister joined them in Spain. He came to America at the age of six.
He received a BA in writing at Goddard College in Vermont, where he met his wife. He has had more than 145 books published, with more in the pipeline, such as the Isis fantasy series.
You can learn more about Piers Anthony HERE