Star-Crossed, by Ken Goldman
(I) WEDDING DAY : THE GROOM
The digital calendar on the control panel told Captain Martin Quince that it was 007.23 hours on June 20th, 2043. At least that was the date back on Earth.
He veered the nose of the Traveler shuttlecraft into alignment with Diaphaenesia 2, hovering above the fourteenth planet of the Andromeda Cluster. Waiting for the threads of his landing vectors to steady he glanced to his left where the Earth lolled in the black ink of space, reaching for his glasses to see the light refracted from the distant planet because his vision was not what it used to be. Not much about Martin Quince was.
From this distance even a man pushing fifty could feel pretty damned cocky because that speck of light seemed so ridiculously tiny, insignificant enough to rub out with his thumb like a kid might squash a bug on a window. Inside the small cabin of the Traveler shuttle several million miles from home Quince felt a sense of power over every man and woman down there on that sorry excuse for a planet. Maybe he even pitied them.
“Men and women, women and men,” he whispered to the cosmos. “Now, what’s wrong with this picture, ladies and gentlemen?” The captain studied his thumb as he pressed it against the thick plexiglass of the side window. Blotting out the Earth was almost like making it disappear. Maybe if he applied a little bit of pressure, just a little …
Beneath Martin’s thumb was every female of his species, every beautiful woman he had known : the perky cheerleader (and future congresswoman) who practically bit off the tongue of the sixteen year old future NASA space fleet captain when he had gone for her tonsils in front of her gym locker; the prom queen who called herself Cherry, who made him pay for the formal chiffon gown Martin had ripped while snatching at her ass in the back seat of her father’s Turbo the night of his senior prom; the ‘older woman’ (of twenty-four!) who, during his first space mission, initiated him into manhood during a zero gravity blow job. The faces were blurs now, but he remembered they had been beautiful.
These were good memories, and yet painful to recall because each nubile young woman no longer really existed anywhere except in Martin’s memories. Time had seen to that.
And, of course, there was Barbara.
The captain’s wife was no different from the rest of them, not when he really thought about it, and maybe his uneasy life with her had not been entirely her fault. After all, wasn’t every woman cursed with the same fatal flaw caused by the one irrefutable law that governed that entire pathetic planet, a law often defied but never broken?
On earth, down was the only way to go. Smooth flesh wrinkled and withered. Gravity and time were thieves, and together they conspired to rob anything that was encased in human flesh of its beauty and dignity. Although his own body was not entirely immune to this vandalism, Martin Quince felt especially infuriated to see its effects on the women. Infuriated, and a little sad.
Gravity. The word was so damned appropriate, Quince thought. Any pocket dictionary defined it as something heavy and very serious. Who could argue that logic? Gravity was about as serious as you could get. When a woman got heavy enough to play tether ball with her tits, that was pretty serious. When a woman got old, that was really serious. Getting heavy and old, now that was the real law of Gravity.
Lifting his thumb from the window Martin shouted to the planet of his birth, “Hey, down there! Your poets are wrong! A thing of beauty is not a joy forever. When it comes to your women, my friends, the warranty soon expires!”
Especially the warranty on one woman! a familiar voice inside him scolded in a woman’s tongue. Martin’s smile twisted itself into a snarl.
“And for you, the wife of my bosom, a quotation from Yeats! ‘I carry the sun in a golden cup, the moon in a silver bag, and a stiff cock that reaches out to the cosmos!’” he shouted, wanting to blot out the earth forever and wanting even more to silence that damned woman inside his head. “All I need do is give old mother earth one good smear with this thumb and squoosh… ”
But Quince resisted the temptation. His actions did not befit a man about to take a new wife, even if that man had not rid himself of the wife he had back on that tiny dust speck. The matter did not upset him, because in space there were many laws that did not apply. Gravity was only one of them.
“Barbara… ” Quince spoke to the empty cab, testing his ability to utter her name. The captain’s lips distorted sourly as if he had just bitten into a nail.
Space allowed much time to think, and Quince’s thoughts sent an ice floe up his spine despite the temperature-controlled suit he wore. The woman appeared inside his mind’s eye as vividly as if he had taken a memory capsule to conjure her. He pictured Barbara standing before the bedroom mirror shapeless and ugly in her faded terrycloth robe, the deep crevices of flesh that cracked her face making her seem even older and uglier in the yellow lamp light. She must have read his letter weeks ago, and he envisioned her shredding it into confetti along with the stacks of photos they had taken together during the earlier days of their twenty-five years of marriage, maybe even setting fire to the lot of them.
And why not? Hadn’t everything else between them turned to ashes?
All right, so maybe some women aged less gracefully than others, that still was no excuse. Barbara had aged downright clumsily, almost as if growing older were a willful act of defiance of him. Her refusal to bear his children eventually became an inability. There was no law on Earth that said a man who was still vital had to spend his life sleeping with a barren hag. Nowhere in the shriveled prune that had become his wife’s face could Quince find a trace of the lovely girl he had married, and he saw no reason to continue trying.
The ancient Greeks had an expression Quince remembered from college. Deus ex machina, the “God-Machine.” It meant that when mortal man’s circumstances got so fucked up that he was incapable of solving the dilemma himself, the gods would suddenly intervene to clean up the mess he had made. For Quince the gods had intervened two winters earlier while he watched the Dallas cheerleaders doing their bumps and grinds during Super Bowl LXXV. The holographic image of the girls high kicking in his living room suddenly metamorphosed into the most bizarre cheer he had ever seen.
“Mar-tin! Mar-tin! Maaaaaaaaaaaaar-tin ! Leave her! Leave her! Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve her !” they sang, and he knew he had hoisted one beer too many. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen suddenly stepped out of line and walked over to the contour-chair in which he sat. “I’m Lena,” she told him, and Quince felt as if he were suddenly inside one of those commercials to come on up to the Moons of Tyros 3 for some gravity-free volleyball. She whispered to him about a tiny planet in the Andromeda Cluster where the women made those kicking cheerleaders look like old ladies with walkers, a planet that amazingly was along the exact course of his flight schedule that same month.
Awakening from a deep sleep, this had been the closest Martin Quince had come to a religious experience. Who was he to argue with the gods? During his first visit to Diaphaenesia 2 he met Lena.
No doubt about it. This was deus ex machina big-time, with an emphasis on the “ex.” During his second visit he proposed.
His letter to Barbara had been succinct and to the point, almost business-like in its directness. Martin did not lie about where he was going. Earth’s laws meant virtually nothing in any of the star systems, so he didn’t bother to cover his tracks. She could keep the house, the car, the dog, everyfuckingthing, because he would not be coming back.
He even told her about Lena, and he enjoyed doing it.
Inside the same envelope he left Barbara the keys to the Porsche and keys to four safety deposit boxes, several insurance policies she could cash, everything in his bank accounts, and a reminder to feed the tropical fish in his aquarium. Of course, after finishing his letter the woman had probably poured every one of the fish down the garbage disposal. Or maybe she had been really creative and Martin’s fish were now floating around somewhere inside the Porsche’s gas tank.
Quince pushed the images from his mind. Better to concentrate on where he was going rather than on what he was leaving behind.
Fortunately, tossing out those memories proved not as difficult as he anticipated. He had heard rumors that the men who selected females from among the incredible women of Diaphaenesia 2 had found it impossible to concentrate much on anything else. To his knowledge none had chosen to return to Earth. As he neared the planet he remembered why.
Quince pictured the young and flawless beauty who awaited her bridegroom’s arrival below, unable to restrain the grin that spread across his face. He knew he was one lucky bastard. Because of the planet’s lesser gravitational pull and its inhabitants’ unique metabolism, Diaphaenesian women aged slowly, and this was a law of nature Martin could easily live with. Lena was so magnificent that a man his age could hurt himself just looking at her.
Of course, there was a good reason why Diaphaenesian women craved even the least attractive of earth men. Perhaps it had something to do with the balance of nature. The men of Di-2 were so damned ugly Quince wondered how anyone reproduced there at all before space crews from Earth had discovered the place. Short, fat, and bald men from Martin’s home planet were like Greek gods compared to the elderly, gaunt and sickly males with whom the women shared the fourteenth planet of Andromeda. Lena’s acceptance of the Captain’s proposal had been a foregone conclusion, and the young woman responded as if Martin’s space craft had just arrived from Olympus.
Quince leaned back in the Traveler’s captain’s chair and smiled as the red-crusted mountains of Diaphaenesia 2 appeared on the left side of the cab. He tapped new commands into the shuttle’s guidance computer, tap-tap-tapping the wedding march that played inside his head while marveling at his ability to give himself a bone-on in deep space.
The intercom squealed to life and Quince hit the switch.
“You’re cleared for landing at Star Base, Pad 12, Captain Quince.” Martin recognized Hector Ramone’s voice, a starship mechanical engineer even older than himself who had chosen Di-2 as his new home. The man had left an aging wife and three kids back on Earth for a smashingly gorgeous female who called herself Shell.
“Thanks, Ramone. I’m punching in those landing coordinates even as we speak.”
“Captain … ?”
“She’s a lovely girl, Captain. Congratulations.”
“From God’s lips to my ears, my friend. Thanks again.” He snapped off the intercom and looked down at Di-2. “She’s U.S. prime centerfold material, my friend,” he added.
Captain Martin Quince could not remember when he had known such complete happiness. Unwrapping his anti-gravity boots and slipping a Breath Saver into his mouth, he let the lozenge dissolve on his tongue while he settled back into the soft cushion of his seat to await his landing.
(2) WEDDING DAY : THE BRIDE
Lena readied herself for the mate who had been promised her, although the grooming ritual seemed ridiculous. All this absurdity concerning the rearrangement of her hair, the facial painting, and the totally impractical bridal gown made no sense when it really did not matter how she looked. She knew that in the earthman’s eyes she would be beautiful even if she were dressed in rags and had Thoraxian serpents crawling in her scalp.
Nevertheless, some precautions were necessary, just in case.
She studied her image in the large dressing mirror, one among many curious articles the first visitors from Earth had left years ago as a gift to the Diaphaenesian women, as if any Diaphaenesian would have use for such a deplorable object. But she knew that slab of glass demonstrated how the earth males regarded their women. They seemed to insist that Earth females treat this reflective glass as if it were a god parceling out either the greatest approval or the most stinging condemnation. Lena considered the women of that distant planet as pitiful as its men.
Still, the space captain from Earth could give her what she needed, and Lena had good reasons for allowing him to select her for his mate.
The girl’s mother entered the bridal chamber and stood behind her daughter, both women gazing into the tall mirror.
“You look lovely,” the woman said to Lena’s reflection as she stroked the young bride’s cheek. Like the flesh of all Diaphaenesians the girl’s skin felt as coarse as a lizard’s with an ample assortment of festering boils because of the planet’s blistering suns. Reflected in the mirror the rodent-like images of mother and daughter stared into the dark craters of each other’s eyes and smiled toothless grins.
“Lovely to you, perhaps, but to an earthman? I don’t think so, Mother,” Lena said turning from her reflected counterpart.
“That is not what your Captain Quince will see, Lena. You know very well that the image your bridegroom sees is whatever he wants to see. That has always been our special gift.”
“ … to know what these males desire and to provide it for them in their minds,” the daughter added as if quoting from a text. “Well, I feel little flattery to be judged the fairest star when only one is shining in the sky.”
The mother smiled at her daughter’s wisdom. “Feel flattery in knowing that your people favor this marriage. Do you really care how this male judges you once he has given you a child? But for now this ruse is necessary. These are self-absorbed creatures, Lena, and whenever your bridegroom looks at you what he really sees is himself. His brain will create the idealization of the woman he believes he deserves. So you must be that beautiful woman to him when he holds you in his arms and carries you to his bed.”
The daughter returned her mother’s smile, leaking green pus through her lips. “He will require more than my beauty, Mother, especially in his bed. I have learned much about these males in my preparation.”
The woman stroked the thin wisps of hair that grew on her daughter’s head. “It is easier to know this species in general than it is to know one of its members in particular, child. I have not raised a fool. You will learn that the best qualification of a Diaphaenesian seductress is to exercise a good memory. Learn what your bridegroom wants and provide it for him.”
She moved closer to her daughter to whisper the rest. “And, of course, pretend to enjoy it.”
“ … so he, in turn, will provide me with what I want,” Lena added, like a school girl reciting her lesson. “Perhaps we are not so different from the earth females after all.”
“Except that we outlive them by several hundred years” the older woman reminded her, and kissed the large vein in her forehead. “Such a pity your captain cannot see the beauty within.”
“The day will come when he has no choice,” Lena said.
Together the mother and her child laughed, and the two she-creatures reflected in the looking glass laughed with them.
(3) WEDDING DAY : THE WIFE
Barbara Quince had marked off June 20th on the wall calendar with a simple ‘X.’ It seemed appropriate that her husband’s wedding day fell on the first day of summer since Martin had for years acted like someone perpetually trapped in winter. For that matter, so had she.
The woman held a small looking-glass in which she had daily noted the pathetic changes in her appearance, although she could have easily observed the expressions on her husband’s face to note those changes. The lines and wrinkles no longer really mattered. She had completed her end of the bargain.
Barbara placed the small mirror on an end table and took a seat on the divan. She was ready.
Within minutes the large monitor of the Hitachi Holograph 2000 snapped to life as if there were a blinding power surge, and the monitor filled with a light so dazzling it seemed that Jesus himself might step forth. Instead a three-dimensional image stood before Barbara, a small reptilian female ridiculously wrapped in silk and lace. The repulsive creature seemed like an absurd cartoon parody of nature gone mad.
“Mrs. Barbara Quince?“ the holograph of her husband’s new bride asked in the middle of the family room with a voice that sounded as if she were speaking underwater. Barbara almost broke out laughing at the thought that this had been Martin’s choice for his new wife.
“You’ve found her. I’ve been waiting for your communication, Lena. So you married him?”
“Yes. You have fulfilled your part of the agreement, and we shall fulfill ours.”
And suddenly in the midst of her attempt at a serious response Barbara laughed herself sick at the sight of the grotesque female dressed in white, her lizard-like body ridiculed by the bridal gown she wore. “I’m sorry, Lena. It’s just that–they made you wear that? My God, don’t the people of your planet have any definition for humiliation?”
The young bride struggled to restrain herself. “Your husband finds me attractive. In fact he thinks of me as the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.” But Lena recognized the hollow ring of insincerity in her voice and the lunacy of her words. She took a full minute to recover before she spoke again, attempting a semblance of decorum.
“Diaphaenesian males are dying. Something in their metabolism simply is not strong enough. Your human males are capable of -”
“–Yes,” answered Barbara. “Your mother told me about it when your people contacted me that my husband had been selected. I received quite a shock last year when my Hitachi spewed that woman forth into my living room, looking like — well, like you look. But I lived up to my end of the bargain. I’ve delivered Martin to you.”
Barbara knew that was not entirely true. Her part had been only to allow Lena to plant the idea in Martin’s head of traveling to the Andromeda Cluster. The girl had aimed a barrage of telepathic suggestions at him during the cheerleader’s portion of the Super Bowl, and Barbara had to cover her mouth from doubling over with laughter as she watched her husband’s eyes flicker with programming he would have a difficult time locating in his T.V. Guide. The Diaphaenesians’ strategy had been as uncomplicated as downloading new software into an ancient computer.
“Where is Martin now?” Barbara asked.
“Waiting for me … in bed. Tomorrow he wants to take me to one of our moons where he promises to make love to me until I can no longer walk.” Barbara noted the distinct appearance of smugness in Lena’s voice. “I believe tonight we will make a child.”
And that, of course, had been the she-thing’s selling point over a year earlier. The women of Di-2 had quite an interesting – although not very functional – evolutionary history, one that would have shocked the pants off old Charles Darwin. But to Barbara it certainly balanced nature’s scales nicely.
Diaphaenesian women could impregnate their mates.
Barbara imagined that seeing their men fat with child was not a pretty sight, but she had heard that seeing them afterward was much worse. Delivering a newborn Diaphaenesian had been enough to kill most of their males, and if it didn’t, they hobbled pathetically about as sickly old men for the rest of their days.
She hoped it had the same effect on human males.
“I must be going now,” Lena said. “It would be improper to keep Martin waiting too long on our wedding night.” She paused for a moment as if searching for the correct words. “May I call you Barbara?” she asked.
“Then, thank you, Barbara,” the ugly little female creature said. The holograph image of Lena faded, then disappeared. The Hitachi’s monitor flickered off and on for a moment, throwing quick flashes of shadow and light on the smile that smeared the face of Mrs. Barbara Quince.
For over an hour the woman sat quietly on the divan, waiting for the knock at the door. When it came she rose calmly to her feet and went to answer it.
In the vestibule stood the most incredibly handsome man she had ever seen. He did not resemble Martin in the least.
“Barbara? Mrs. Barbara Quince?” he asked.
“Hello, sailor,” she said, and smiled with complete satisfaction as she opened the door for him.
Ken Goldman, former Philadelphia teacher of English and Film Studies, is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. He has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the Jersey shore. His stories have appeared in over 765 independent press publications in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia with over thirty due for publication in 2015. Since 1993 Ken’s tales have received seven honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. He has written five books : three anthologies of short stories, You Had Me At ARRGH!! (Sam’s Dot Publishers), Donny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (A/A Productions) and Star-Crossed (Vampires 2); and a novella, Desiree (Damnation Books). His first novel, Of A Feather (Horrific Tales Publishing) was released in January 2014.
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Tags: divorce, Ken Goldman, relationships, science fiction, weddings