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Exo-Skeleton Town
a novelette by Jeffrey Ford

An hour ago I came out of Spid's Smoke House and saw Clark Gable scoring a couple balls of dung off an Aphid twice his size. It was broad moonlight, and Gable should have known better, but I could see by the state of his getup and the deflation of his hair wave that he was strung out on loneliness. I might have warned him, but what the hell, he'd end up taking me down with him. Instead I stepped back into the shadows of the alleyway and waited for the Beetle Squad to show up. I watched Gable flash his rakish smile, but frankly Scarlet, that Aphid didn't give a damn. When he gave up on the ancient film charm and flashed the cash instead, the bug handed over two nice little globes, sweating the freasence in droplets of bright silver. Love was in the air.

Then they descended, iridescent in the dim light of the streetlamps, circling in like a flock of Earth geese landing on a pond. The Beetles were always hot for action and they had a directive that allowed them to kill first and ask questions later. The Aphid they just kicked the crap out of until it looked like a yellow pancake with green syrup, but Gable was another story. Because he was human, they shot him once with a stinger gun, and when the needle pierced his exo-flesh, the real him blew out the hole with an indelicate frrrappp and turned to juice on the street. The dung balls were retrieved, Gable's outer skin was swiped, the bluebottles swooped in for a feeding, and twenty minutes later there was nothing left but half a mustache and a crystal coin good for three tokes at Spid's. I crossed the street, picked up the crystal and went back into my home away from home away from home.

This is Exo-Skeleton Town, the dung-rolling capitol of the universe, where the sun never shines and bug folk barter their excremental wealth for Earth movies almost two centuries old. There's a slogan in Exo-town concerning its commerce -- "Sell it or smell it," the locals say. The air pressure is intense, and everything moves in slow motion.

When the first earthlings landed here two decades earlier, they wore big, bulky exo-suits to withstand the force. It was a revelation when they met the bugs and by using the universal translator discovered that these well-dressed insects had smarts. I call them Beetles and Aphids, etc., but they aren't really. These terms are just to give you an idea of what they look like. They come in a span of sizes, some of them much larger than men. They're kind of a crude, no-frills race, but they know what they want, and what they want is more and more movies from Earth's twentieth century.

In trying to teach them about our culture, one of the members of the original Earth crew, who was an ancient movie buff, showed them Casablanca. What appealed to bugs about that pointless tale of piano playing, fez wearing, woman crying, I can't begin to tell you. But the minute the flick was over and the lights went on the mayor of Exo-Skeleton Town, a big crippled flealike specimen who goes by the name of Stootladdle, offered to trade something of immeasurable worth for it and the machine it played on.

Trying to work détente, the crew's captain readily agreed. Stootladdle called to his underlings to bring the freasence and they did. It came in a beeswax box. The mayor then whipped the lid off the box with three of his four hands and revealed five sweating bug turds the size of healthy meatballs. The captain had to adjust the helmet of his exo-suit to get a closer look, not believing at first what he was seeing. "Sure," he said in the name of diplomacy, and he forced his navigator, the film buff, to hand over the Casablanca cartridge and viewer. The navigator, wanting to do the right thing, also gave the mayor copies of Ben Hur and Citizen Kane. When the captain asked Stootladdle, through the translator, why he liked the movie, the big flea mentioned Peter Lorre's eyes. The earthlings laughed but the mayor remained silent. When the captain inquired as to what they were supposed to do with the freasence, the answer came in a clipped buzz, "Eat it." And so began one of the first intergalactic trading partnerships.

I know it sounds like we humans got the messy end of the stick on this deal, but when the ship returned to Earth and scientists tested the freasence, it proved to be an incredibly powerful aphrodisiac. A couple of grains of one of those spherical loads in a glass of wine and the recipient would be hot to go and totally devoted for half a day. The first test subjects reported incredible abilities in the love act. Those original five globes disappeared faster than cream puffs from a glutton's pantry, and none of it even made it out of the laboratory. So another spaceship was sent, carrying Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Double Indemnity, and Gone with the Wind. Ten balls of dung came back at warp speed, and the screwing started in earnest.

Two decades of this trade went on, and by then we had bartered copies of every movie we could find. Private corporations started making black and white, vintage original films by digitally resurrecting the characters of the old films, feeding them into a quantum computer, and putting them in new situations. The bugs got suspicious with the first couple of batches of these, especially one entitled We Dream with Bogart, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Carmen Miranda and Veronica Lake. It was about a love pentagon during the Nazi occupation of Brooklyn. In the end Welles explodes, Trevor Howard poisons Bogart and then is shot by Carmen Miranda, who runs off with Veronica Lake. The problem with the film was that it was too damn good. It didn't have what the ancients called that "B" quality.

To offset this problem the specialists came up with a batch of real stinkers, starring the likes of Mickey Rooney, Broderick Crawford, and Jane Withers. One in particular, Lick the Devil, was credited with having saved the precious dung trade. I've seen it and it's terrible. Crawford plays an Irish Catholic priest, Withers is the ghost of the Virgin Mary, and Rooney plays a slapstick Chinese waiter in the racist fashion of the old days with a rubber band around his eyes. I've always said I'd like to shake the hand of the insidious mother who made that one.

Anyway, as the ships kept coming, trading their bogus movies, technical advances were made on Earth in the exo-gear that humans would have to wear on the bug planet. The geniuses at the Quigley Corporation came up with a two-molecule-thick suit that hugged the body like a second skin. Everything that one needed was shrunk down to nano-size and made part of the suit. It breathed for you, saw for you, heard with a built-in translator for you, ate for you. The only task that was necessary was emptying the exhaust twice a day through a three-inch-long circular spigot in the crotch area. The device you emptied the spigot into was a vacuum, so that when the pipe opened for its instant, the crushing weight of the atmosphere couldn't splat you. This new alloy the designers used was so flexible and strong it easily withstood the pressure.

The first of these exo-skins, as they were called, gave Earth traders back their human form, so that they now had false faces and eyes and smiles and skin color and hair. The exo-skins were made to resemble the people that they encased like so much sausage. Then some ad exec got the idea that they should make these suits in the guise of the actors of the old movies. Bogart was the prototype of these new star skins. When he showed up on the bug planet, they rolled out the brown carpet. Stootladdle was beside himself, calling for a holiday. The dung rollers came in from the luminous veldt that surrounds the town and there was a three-day party.

As time went on, the exo-skins improved, more authentic with greater detail. They made a Rita Hayworth that was so fine, I'd have humped it if Stootladdle was wearing it. Entrepreneurs started investing capital in an exo-skin and a ticket to the bug planet. They'd bring a couple of movies with them, score a few turds and head back home to cut the crap up into a fortune. At first, one trip was enough to set up an enterprising businessperson for the rest of his life. Back on Earth, the freasence was so sought after that you could only buy it with bars of gold bullion. For the wealthy it was the death of romantic love, but the poor still had to score with good looks and outlandish promises.

The bugs rationed how much freasence could be sold in a year, and on Earth the World Corporation did the same, because the rich didn't want the poor screwing out of their class. In Exo-Skeleton Town, if you were caught trafficking without a license, like poor Gable, you were disposed of with little ceremony by the Beetle Squad. Anyone could come to the bug world and try to get a license, but they had to go through Stootladdle and he operated solely out of whim. If you had an exo-skin resembling a star he admired, you had a good chance, but sometimes even that didn't guarantee anything.

So a lot of people made the space flight, which took a year each way even at three times the speed of light, and got stranded on the bug world with no way to raise the money to finance the return trip. If you brought a hot movie, something the bugs were into, you could make enough money to survive by showing it to individual bugs at a time for a few bug bucks, which were actually mayflies that when dried and folded resembled old Earth dollars. Twenty mayflies could be exchanged for a crystal chip.

Some unlucky bastards brought movies they were positive would get them some action on the freasence market. I can see them on their trip here as the stars stretched out like strands of spaghetti during the warp drive, thinking, "Oh, baby, I've got a Paul Muni here that's gonna make those cold-blooded vermin do a jig, or Myrna Loy has got to be worth at least a turd and a half." But when they got here, they found the fickle tastes of the population had changed and that of all people, it was Basil Rathbone and Joan Blondell who were making the antennae twitch that year. So they were stranded with an old movie not even a mosquito would watch and no means of support. The bugs didn't care if these interlopers starved to death. I remember seeing Buster Keaton sitting in a dark corner at Spid's for a week and half. Finally, one day a Mantis figured out the silent comic had died and took him away for his private collection.

I got into it probably at the worst time, but I was young and so determined to get rich quick, I didn't heed any of the warnings. I didn't have a lot to spend on my skin, so instead of trying to get a top-shelf actor suit, I figured it would be wise to go for someone who was only on the verge of super stardom but who showed up in a lot of the old movies. The company I bought from showed me a nice Keenan Wynn, but after becoming a student of the old films in preparation for my journey, I knew Wynn was strictly television movies and light heavies in the full-fledged flicks he had done. Then they showed me a Don Knotts, and I told them to go fuck themselves. I was about to leave when they brought out a beauty of a Joseph Cotten. I knew better than the people who made the suit how cool Cotten was. Shadow of a Doubt, Citizen Kane, The Third Man. I plunked down my money and before I knew it, I was walking home with a bag full of suave and vulnerable everyman.

I would have rather sat on the bowl backwards for a year than take that space flight. It seemed endless, but I spent my time reading books about ancient movies and dreaming what I would do with all my gold after I scored my load. My ace in the hole was that I had a great movie to trade. This was a real one too. It had been handed down over generations on my father's side. To tell the truth, I stole it from him the day I left for the spaceport. It was a little low budget job called Night of the Living Dead. My old man would dust it off for holidays and we'd watch it. Who knew what the hell was going on in the film? It was in black and white, but supposedly, from what I had read, it was a cult classic in its time. I remember once, as a kid of about ten, my old man leaned over to me where I lay on the floor one Christmas watching it with the rest of the relatives. He said to me, "You know what the deeper implications are here?" pointing to the monitor. I shook my head. "The director is trying to say that the dead will eat you." My old man was as profound as a stone. All I saw was a bunch of stiffs marching around. For years I thought it was a parade. If I were to see that movie today, it would probably still get me in the holiday spirit. Anyway, it wasn't as early as I would have liked, but I thought the whole anti-Hollywood, independent movie scene, a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, might be ready to explode on the bug planet.

I still remember the day when we landed at the little spaceport next to Exo-Skeleton Town, and I looked out the window at a village of one-story concrete bunkers in the dark lit by streetlights. It was like a nightmare. Putting on the Cotten was the only thing that saved me from crying. Climbing into those skins is a painful experience at first. There's a moment when you have to die and then be revived by the suit's biosystem. The one thing nobody told me about was how it itches when you first get in. I thought it would drive me wild. Then another guy who had been to the bug planet before stepped into a smart little Nick Adams getup and warned me, "Whatever you do, don't think about the itching. It can seriously drive you insane." I was in agony when I stepped through the airlock and into the slow, heavy world of insects.

It cost me a fortune but I managed to arrange a meeting with Stootladdle only a few days after my arrival. He was a sight to behold. Hairy, too many arms. His eyes were round as saucers and a thousand mirrors each. I became momentarily dizzy trying to watch each and every me he was seeing all at once. The voice that came through the translator was high and thin and full of annoyance.

"Joseph Cotten," he said. "I've seen you in a few things."

"Shadow of a Doubt?" I asked.

"Never heard of it," said the flea.

Now, as I gaze through the pale orange haze into the mirror behind Spid's smoke bar, I realize all that was a long time ago. Five, ten years may have passed since I came to the bug planet. The smoke has a way of paralyzing time, blotting out its illusion of progress, so that yesterday might as well be today and vice versa. Whatever this stuff is that Spid burns to make the smoke, it looks like big handfuls of antennae. The mind spins with a logic as sure as a spider web. Real memories intrude now and then as do self-admonitions for a wasted life, but the smoke's other feature is that it lets you not give a shit about anything but taking in more smoke.

The smoke has turned my brain to cotton, so that now I am cotton(en) inside and out. Yes, the Cotten went rotten a long time ago. So now I give old Spid, that affable arachnid, the crystal chip Gable dropped, and he says, "The usual, Joe?" I nod and bare my exhaust pipe. He fits the tube to my opening and I set the vacuum on intake by touching my left pinky finger to my right earlobe. The nano-machinery does its thing and sucks a bolus toke of the orange mist. With the smoke, you never exhale.

It wasn't long after I arrived that I got hooked on the smoke and ended up selling my movie for a ridiculously low price in order to get high one night. An elegantly thin cricket gave me ten crystal chips for it, and I spent the next three days dozing and smoking at Spid's. When my credit ran out, and a few hours passed, I came to and began to panic. That was how I became Stootladdle's flunky.

"How do you feel about living?" he asked me when the Beetle Squad brought me to his office. I had been caught on the street trying to score a turd without the proper papers. Even in my orange haze, I was surprised they hadn't plugged me.

"Tomorrow is another day," I said to him.

"I'm going to slap you around and you're going to like it," he said. Then he did, all those arms working me over at once. The blows were like a stinging swarm of locust and the nano-technology, true to its guarantee, registered every one. When I was thoroughly dazed, he gave a little jump in the air and kicked me right in the nuts, or where they would have been if the suit makers had bothered to render them. I fell forward and he caught me with his mandibles by the neck.

"I've got a spot for you in my private collection right between Omar Sharif and Annette Funicello," he said.

I promised I'd do anything he wanted if he let me live. He loosened his grip and I stood, rubbing my throat. He laughed loud and long, the sound of teeth scraping concrete, and he put two of his arms around me.

"Now, Joseph," he said, "I have a little job for you to do."

"Anything," I said.

Stootladdle waved away the Beetle Squad, and I was left alone with him in his office. He sat down at his desk and triple motioned for me to take the chair across from him.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

I looked into his eyes and saw myself nodding ad infinitum.

"Yes," he said. "Very well. Have you ever heard of a film called The Rain Does Things Like That?"

"Will it go badly for me if I haven't?" I asked.

He laughed. "It will go badly for you no matter what," he said.

"No," I admitted.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I saw this movie once, years and years ago, very early on in our trade relationship with your planet."

"How is it?" I asked.

"It's the butterfly's dust," he said.

"If it's that good, how come I never heard of it?" I asked.

"The actors were unknown, but I tell you there is a young woman in it named Gloriette Moss, who is nothing less than startling. It's a love story. Poignant," said Stootladdle, scratching his hairy stomach.

"I'll have to catch it some time," I said.

"No, Joseph," he said, "you're going to catch it now. The only copy of the film on the planet resides out in the luminous veldt with the widow of Ambassador Lancaster. His widow, who still lives out there on the estate, is none other than Gloriette Moss. I've tried to buy the movie from her for my collection, but she refuses to sell. It was her husband's favorite film because she starred in it. Sentimental value, as you earthlings say. I want that movie."

"Why don't you just send out the Beetle Squad and take it?" I asked.

"Too delicate a situation," he said. "She has ties to Earth's military. How would it look if we started roughing up an ex-ambassador's wife? It could interrupt our thriving trade."

"If you send me back to Earth, I'll tell them to make her give you the film," I said.

"Ready for another beating, I see," he said. "No, I want you to go out there and get it for me. I don't care how you get it short of stealing it, but I want it. You can not harm her. She must willingly give it to you and then you will give it to me and I will let you live."

"How am I going to do that?" I asked.

"Your charm, Joseph. Remember how you were in The Third Man, bumbling yet sincere, but altogether charming?" he said.

I nodded.

"Succeed or suffer a slow, painful death."

"I think I hear zither music," I said.

Stootladdle put his slackey (like an ancient rickshaw conveyance) and driver, an ill-tempered termite, at my disposal for the trip out of town. Once beyond the dim glow of the streetlights of Exo-town, things got really dark. Our only guide was the ragged moon all jumbled and bashed. The driver kept complaining about the pests, miniscule mammals with gossamer wings, bats the size of Earth mosquitos, that traveled in clouds and stung viciously. He at least had a few extra appendages at his disposal with which to keep them away. I was frightened of him, frightened of the dark and my grim future, but the thing that scared me more than anything was the thought of going without the smoke for more than a day. The mayor had assured me that Gloriette Moss was a smoke fiend herself and had her own setup, keeping a huge supply on hand of whatever that stuff is that one burns to make it. I prayed he wasn't playing with me on this score. He said that the reason she never went back to Earth was because she was hooked.

After a jostling, potholed, nightmare of a journey, we came in sight of the luminous veldt -- an immense pasture of long wind-blown grass that glowed against the dark with the resilient yellow-green of cat's eyes. The light from it eased my fear and its slow ocean movement was very relaxing. In the face of its beauty, I almost forgot my predicament. The driver turned onto a path that cut through the grass, and we traveled for another mile or so with me in a kind of stupor.

"Out, earthworm," he said, and I came suddenly to my senses.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"This is it," he said. "Get out."

"Where is the Lancaster estate?" I asked.

"Look," he said, and pointed out with three of his arms that we were at a crossroad of paths. The grass was high over our heads.

"Take that path. Up there a way, you'll see an Earth house. I can't take you any farther. If the lady sees me, she'll know you have come because of Stootladdle."

"Thanks," I said as I got down from the slackey.

"May maggots infest your nostrils," he said. Then he turned the hitch around and was gone.

There I was, Cotten, three light-years from Earth, on a bug planet of perpetual night. The stars were brilliant above me, but I did not look up for fear of the loneliness and recrimination I might feel at seeing the sun, a blinking dot in the distance. I thought of my parents, thinking of me, wondering what had become of me, and I saw my old man, shaking his head and saying, "That jerk-off took my movie."

The Lancaster house was a creaky old retro affair from the part of Earth's history when they used wood to build dwellings. I'd seen pictures of these things before. The style, as I had read in one of my many film books, was Victorian. These baroque shelters with lacelike woodwork and myriad rooms were always popping up in the flicks from the thirties and forties. Pointed rocket-ship-looking turrets on either side of a big three-story box with a railed platform that went all the way around it. As I made my way toward the steps that led to a door, I quickly, out of desperation, mind-wrote the script for the next scene.

I knocked once, twice, three times, and waited, hoping the lady of the house was home. There was no way I would ever make it to Exo-town on my own. Eventually the door pulled back and a young woman appeared behind an inner screen door.

"Can I help you?" she asked, almost in a whisper.

"I'm lost," I said. "I wandered away from town, hoping to see the luminous veldt, and although I've found it, I don't think I can return. Something has been chasing me through the tall grass. I'm scared and tired." Having said this, I had a feeling my words had come out too stiffly to be believed.

She opened the screen door and looked at me. "Joseph Cotten?" she said.

I nodded and looked as forlornly as possible.

"You poor man," she said, and motioned for me to enter.

As I crossed the threshold, it became clear to me that old Joe was on the job. If it had been only me, she most likely would have locked the door and called the Beetle Squad, but since it was Cotten, the consummate professional of ingratiating Third Man haplessness, she immediately felt my pain.

Inside the bowels of the old Victorian, standing on an elaborately designed rug, amidst the spiraled wooden furniture, in the face of an ancient stand-up clock, I took in the beauty of Gloriette Moss. Stootladdle knew his film, because here was obvious star quality in the supernova range -- an exotic hybrid of the young Audrey Hepburn and the older Hayley Mills. She was this and more than this, with a midlength blonde wave, a face so fresh and innocent, a smile that was straight grace until the corners curled into mischief. She wore a simple, cobalt-blue dress and no shoes. She was Jean Seberg with hair, Grace Kelly minus the affectation.

"I rarely have visitors now that my husband has passed away," she said, her hands clasped behind her back.

"Sorry to trouble you," I said. "I don't know what I was thinking, coming out here into the wilderness on my own."

"It's no trouble, really," she said. "I rather enjoy the idea of company."

"Well, just let me get my bearings and I'll be off," I said, and though I spoke this plainly, I could feel Cotten creating a look of half-hidden dejection.

"Nonsense," she said. "You've come all this way to see the veldt. You can't go back to town by yourself, you're lucky you made it here alive. There are things in the grass, you know. Things that would just as soon eat you."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I had come all the way from Earth to scout locations for a film about the bug planet. I'm thinking of reviving the art of cinema back on the home world, and I thought what better place to make a movie than the only place in the universe where movies are still appreciated for their art and not how much freasence they will bring."

"That's wonderful," she said, her face brightening more than ever. "Stay here with me for a while and I will show you the veldt. This house has so many empty rooms."

"Are you sure I won't be putting you out?" I asked.

"Please," she said. "I'll have my man show you upstairs and get you situated."

I began to speak, but she said, "I'll hear nothing to the contrary," and that ancient, elegant phrase, issuing from that smooth face made me weak.

"Vespatian," she called out, and a moment later a pale green grasshopper as tall as me, dressed in a black short-coat and trousers, appeared at the entrance to a hallway leading left.

"We have a visitor," she said. "Mr. Cotten will be staying for a time. See him to the large room on the third floor, the one with the view of the veldt."

"As you wish, madame," said the bug with the obsequious air of a David Niven. "This way, sir."

As I was delivered to the door of an upstairs room, Vespatian informed me that dinner would be at eight. I thanked him and he gave a pained sigh before deftly spinning and walking away.

The minute I was in my room, I became the Cotten of Shadow of a Doubt. I laid down on the bed, a view of the glowing waves of grass out beyond the floor-to-ceiling window making it feel as though I were on a ship sailing a sea of light, and began to scheme.

At dinner, we ate charbroiled centipede steaks and sipped at fermented roach mucous from fine crystal Earth goblets. I'd always thought if I had the money, I'd bring pizza to the bug planet, but that is something else again.

"Now, Joseph," said Gloriette. "I know you from your films, but I bet you have never heard of me before."

"But I have," I said, taking a chance of revealing too much. "I've never seen it, but anyone interested in film knows of The Rain Does Things Like That. After meeting you, I can now see why it is such a cult classic."

She laughed like a girl and then as suddenly a look of sorrow came over her. "My husband, the great Burt Lancaster, loved that movie," she said. "That is all that is important to me about it."

"Yes," I said. "I was sorry to hear about the ambassador when I arrived from Earth."

"He was a great man," she said, and the nano-technology produced delicate tears true to her obvious feelings.

We ate then in silence. I dared not speak and interrupt the memories clearly she was reliving. She sat motionless for some time, a piece of centipede on her fork, staring down at the table.

When I finished, I quietly got up and left the dining room. I went to bed and tried to sleep, but now that my situation was fixed and the nervous tension generated from an uncertain fate had worn off, my desire for the smoke began to scratch at my brain. I was so strung out I thought I smelled it wafting about my room. It became impossible to lay still any longer, and I got up and paced. There came a death scream of some prey from out on the veldt, punctuating the ambient drone of crickets. I let myself out of the room and quietly snuck downstairs.

I crept through the darkened house from room to room, wondering at all of the twentieth-century gewgaws that lined the shelves. The ambassador, it was evident, was a real fan of ancient Earth. Then, I truly did smell the smoke, and at the same time saw a light coming from a room at the end of a long hallway on the first floor. As I approached, I heard soft music -- Ella Fitzgerald, I believe. At the entrance, I looked in and saw Gloriette sitting on a couch. Before her on a low table were a huge bottle of the concoction we had at dinner, a full glass, and a smoke pot, smoldering away, the orange mist hovering about the room. The long tube from the pot draped down and then up beneath her dress, between her open legs.

At that moment, she turned and saw me. Her half-opened eyes registered no alarm or embarrassment. She smiled, now much older than before, a smile devoid of mirth.

"Smoke?" she asked.

"If I may," I said twitching inside my exo-suit.

She patted the couch cushion next to her, and I went over and sat down.

Reaching beneath her dress, she unhooked the tube that led to the pot. The woosh sound of her spigot closing followed. She handed me the tube, and I pulled down my zipper, maneuvered myself into position and hooked up.

My God, what a relief. I still remember it even through the haze of all the intervening years of smoke. When I had finished, we sat in the orange cloud, listening to the heavenly music.

"Who are you, Joseph?" she asked in a whisper.

I knew what she meant, but it was too dangerous to speak of such things. On the bug planet, the charade of the exo-suits had not quite been figured out. Stootladdle and his minions really thought we were the stars we appeared to be. They were so enchanted by our personas, they had not bothered to apply the necessary logic to the situation. It was like the secret of Santa Claus, and I didn't want to be the one to blow it.

"A friend," I said, amazed at myself for having the wherewithal not to prattle under the influence of the smoke.

"Do you miss Earth?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "I miss the sunlight."

"I could go back any time I wished," she said. "But there is nothing for me there. When the ambassador died, in a way, so did I."

"A good man," I said.

"A very good man," she said. "He loved his work. No one could wrap Stootladdle around their finger like my husband. The freasence market owes him such a debt. And not only his work, he was so good to me too. We always talked and joked, and twice a year, using his own wealth, we would go to town and, I hope you don't mind me mentioning it, visit the box."

"The box?" I asked.

"Stootladdle has a pressurized chamber you can get into and remove your exo-skin. It costs a great deal to use, but my husband thought nothing of the expense."

"But didn't that give the secret away?" I asked.

"No, Joseph," she said and laughed. "They think when we enter it, we are merely molting. They think of it in bug terms. A place for us to shed our outer skins and mate." She blushed and her giggling overtook her for a time.

"Imagine what their concept of humanity must be," I said, and laughed.

"A man from Earth invented the box and paid to have it brought here. It was popular for a time among the expatriates because he did not charge so much, but when Stootladdle saw that there was wealth to be made from it, he had the inventor meet with an accident and confiscated the box. Now he charges exorbitant rates for little more than an Earth half-hour."

"He is a bastard," I said.

"I shouldn't be telling you this, but I don't care now. In the box, we knew each other as the people that we truly are." Here, she set herself up for another toke, and after that the conversation died. The old phonograph finished the black platter and the music became a scratch, scratch, scratch that in its insistence blended with the crickets outside. I dozed and when I awoke, Gloriette was gone. I stumbled upstairs to bed.

The next day, which of course was always night, Vespatian brought the truck around. Gloriette and I sat on the open platform in the back on lounge chairs bolted to the metal deck. We had a pitcher of drinks and a picnic lunch.

"Into the veldt, Vespatian," she ordered.

"As you wish, madame," said the grasshopper from the cab.

She showed me the sights of that illuminated flatland, and I could tell she felt a vicarious wonder through my own astonishment at its beauty. In the afternoon, we came upon a dung ranch. Out in the tall grass, behemoth insects, called Zanderguls, elephant-sized water bugs, moved slowly through the veldt. Gloriette explained that these lumbering giants ate the grass, which was set aglow by tiny microbe-sized insects that carried their own luminescence. As the huge beasts dined, they excreted, in near equal proportion, globules of the freasence. A chemical reaction of the microbes mixing with the digestive juices of the Zanderguls gave freasence its special love qualities for earthlings. Behind each organic aphrodisiac machine followed a flea, one of Stootladdle's brethren, with a cart in which they would place the lumpen riches of the bug planet.

Just being out there near so much freasence turned my thoughts to sex. Gloriette, I noticed also had a certain flush about her, and I detected the presence of her nipples from beneath her demure pink party dress. When she saw me noticing, she called out to Vespatian, "That's enough for today."

The dutiful insect started the truck and took us back by way of a river path. Its waters were blacker than the night, but in its depths pinpoints of light darted about.

"There is Earth," said Gloriette, pointing out into space at a star that was smaller than one of the river mites.

"So it is," I said, but did not look.

That night, after dinner, after Vespatian had retired, Gloriette and I sat in the parlor staring through the orange fog at The Rain Does Things Like That. Earlier, when we had come in from the porch, an antique projector and a portable screen had already been set up. After a few good tokes, she turned off the lights and flipped the switch on the movie machine.

To be honest, the film was awful, the plot was what was known as a tearjerker, but Gloriette Moss was so radiant even in black and white, so honest, that the other lousy actors, the poor cinematography, the creaking scenario, didn't matter. It was about a young woman who, because she had been abused by her first husband, had become an alcoholic. We see her stumble out of a bar in the middle of a rainstorm and make her way along a city block. She is drenched when a young man approaches her with an umbrella and asks if she would like to share it with him. As it turns out, he too has a drinking problem. To make it short, they fall in love. Then they decide to help each other overcome their respective addictions. There is much overacting in relation to delirium tremors consisting of, among other things, swarms of insects, but finally love prevails. After the couple has succeeded, we see them married, living in an apartment building, modest but cozy. Life is wonderful, and then it starts to rain. The young husband tells her he is going across the street for a pack of cigarettes. From the window she watches him leave the building. As he crosses the street a car, driven by none other than the perpetually annoying Red Buttons, careens around the corner. The brakes are slammed, the car skids, and Gloriette's lover is killed. In the last scene of the movie, she is back at the bar. The bartender says that he hasn't seen her in some time and that she looks awful. She sips her drink, takes a puff of her cigarette and says, "The rain does things like that."

When the movie ended and the tail of the film slapped the projector with each spin of the spool, Gloriette turned to me and said, "You know, I have almost come to believe that this is an actual memory and that I am watching the real me when I was younger."

I told her she was fabulous in it, but she waved her hand in a manner that told me to leave the room. At the doorway, I turned back and told her she was beautiful. I don't think she even heard me, so intent was she rethreading the film as if intending to watch it again.

The days passed and I forgot completely about my assignment from Stootladdle. I had unwisely fallen in love with my mark. At every turn I had expected her to see through me, but each and every flaw in my design was masked and made charming by Cotten, so that I began to become aware, through the long hours we spent together, that she also had feelings for me. It was as if I were in a movie, some grade-B flick that, with its exotic backdrop of the veldt and the alchemy of its stars, transcended the need to aspire to "A" status and would live in the hearts of its viewers.

Or so I dreamed, until one day I passed Vespatian in the hall. He grabbed me by the arm, squeezing hard, and whispered, "Stootladdle sends a message. You have two days to deliver the film or on the third, if you do not, you will be hanging slack with Omar Sharif."

Suddenly the house lights went up, as they used to say, and again I was buried up to my neck in nightmare. I entertained the idea of coming clean with Gloriette and telling her of my predicament. Out of the kindness of her heart, she might turn the movie over to Stootladdle to save me, but at the same time she would know I had betrayed her. I did not want to lose her, but I did not want to die either. Even Cotten, expert thespian that he was, couldn't disguise my quandary. After dinner the night that Vespatian had delivered the dreaded message, Gloriette asked what was troubling me.

"Nothing," I told her, but later, after we had taken the smoke, she asked again. The drug weakened me and my growing fear forced me to rely on her mercy. I was sitting next to her on the couch. I reached over and took her hand in mine. She sat up and leaned toward me. "I have a confession to make," I said.

"Yes?" she said, looking into my eyes.

I did not know how to begin and sat long minutes simply staring at her beautiful face. From out across the veldt came the sound of thunder, and then an instant later the rain began to fall, tapping lightly at the parlor window.

I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came forth. She took this as a sign and moved her face close to mine, touching her lips against my own. We were kissing, passionately. She wrapped her arms around me and drew me closer. My hand moved along the thin material of her dress, from her thigh to her ribs to her breasts. She made no protest for she was as hot as I was. We fondled and kissed for an unheard of length of time, more true to the manner of the twentieth century than our own. When I could stand it no longer, I reached beneath her dress. My hand sailed along the smooth inner skin of her thigh, and when I was about to explode with excitement, my fingers came to rest on the cold steel of her exhaust spigot. I literally groaned.

The suit makers, in all of their art and cunning, had left out that which may be the most important aspect of human anatomy. Think of the irony, a suit made to enhance a commerce dealing ultimately in sex, but having no sex itself. At the same moment I groped her steel pipe, she was doing the same to mine. We released each other and sat there in a state of total frustration.

"The box," she said. "Tomorrow we will go to town, to the box."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"We have to," she said.

"But can you afford it? I haven't the money," I said, still slightly trembling.

"No, I can't afford it either, but there is something that Stootladdle wants that I can trade for a half-hour in the chamber," she said.

Then it struck me, just like in Gloriette's movie, love would prevail. She was going to trade the film for me, and I would live and not be found out by her. Frank Capra himself couldn't have conceived of anything more felicitous.

Vespatian woke me from a warm, bright dream of summer by the sea. "Mrs. Lancaster is waiting for you in the truck," he said. I hurriedly got dressed and went downstairs.

As I climbed into my chair, I saw that Gloriette was holding the movie tin in her hand. She tapped it nervously against her knee.

"Good morning, Joseph," she said. "I hope you are well rested."

"I'm ready," I said with a lightness in my heart I had not felt since landing on the bug planet.

She wore a yellow dress and a golden bee pendant on a thin cable around her neck. Her hair was done in braids, and she shone more vibrantly than the veldt itself.

"Exo-Skeleton Town," she called to Vespatian.

"As is your pleasure, madame," said the grasshopper, and we were off.

We rode in silence through the dark. Somewhere, after we had left the veldt far behind and I couldn't see two feet in front of me, I felt her hand touch mine and we intertwined our fingers. All went well until we reached the outskirts of Exo-town, and there, beneath a streetlamp, we witnessed a despondent Judy Garland, in blue gingham, put a stinger gun to her head and pull the trigger. Her exo-skin must have been poorly made because, instead of her leaking out, it blew apart like a bursting balloon, spewing blood and guts of her true self across the passenger door of our truck.

Gloriette covered her eyes with her hand. "I wish I hadn't seen that," she said. "This is surely Hell."

"It's alright," I told her. "She's better off."

The bluebottles immediately appeared and began devouring the remains.

"Drive faster, Vespatian," she called.

The grasshopper hit the gas pedal and we were driving down the main street of Exo-Skeleton Town no more than three minutes later.

Stootladdle was beside himself with cordiality when he finally understood the deal that Gloriette was putting before him.

"An old movie and not well known," he said, taking the film tin from her. "But, in deference to your late husband, and because you are so delightful, I will take this token in exchange for a half-hour in the box for you and your friend."

"When you see me in the scene at the end of the film, where I am in the bar," she said to him. "Always remember that at that moment, as I am saying my final line, my left high heel is flattening a roach beneath my bar stool."

"It will thrill me to the very thorax," said the mayor.

"The box," she said.

"Yes, follow me," said the flea. As we left his office, he turned to me and whispered, "Cotten, you damn rascal."

The box was in an otherwise abandoned building down the street from the mayor's office. He unlocked the door with the end of a long thick hair that jutted from his cheek. We stepped into the deep shadows behind him. There before us, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the darkness, was a large black box, ten by ten by ten. Stootladdle moved to the front of it and appeared to be pressing some buttons. There was a sound of old gears turning slowly, and a panel slid back revealing bright light, as if from my dream of summer.

"Remember," said the flea, "you must wait until the gong sounds inside before you can molt your outer skin. Also, when the gong sounds for the second time, you must replace your skin within five minutes or you will die when the door opens again. All this was told to me by the dear Earth man who invented it."

"Joseph?" asked Gloriette.

"Let's go," I said.

"This is surely paradise," said Stootladdle as he swept out his arms to usher us into the box of light.

I could hear the door slowly closing behind us but could see nothing, my eyes temporarily blinded. It was warm, though, and there were sound affects -- a stream running, birds singing, a tinkling wind chime, and the rustling of leaves.

Just as my vision cleared, I heard the gong sound.

"Isn't it perfectly lovely," said Gloriette.

"The most beautiful place I've ever been," I said. I looked around and there was nothing inside, just the floor and walls padded with deep foam rubber covered in crimson silk.

"Come, Joseph, make me forget about the veldt," she said.

I put my arms around her. She gently pushed me away. "Let's molt," she said with a nervous laugh.

Four successive taps at the center of the forehead made the exo-skin peel down like the sectioned hide of an orange. We reached out and tapped each other.

Imagine wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes, shoes far too tight. Imagine walking for months in them with no relief. And then imagine finally taking them off, and you will know one hundredth the relief of shedding an exo-skin. This sensation itself verged on orgasm. Cotten fell away and lay rumpled around my ankles. I kicked him into a corner of the box. When I looked back at Gloriette, she had her back to me. I was pleased to see her real hair was a perfect color match for that of the actress. Stepping up behind her, I put my hands on her shoulders.

"Scratch my back," she said, and I did.

"That feels so good," she said, with a sigh.

Then she turned and I took a step away from her. My eyes went wide as did hers. I noticed a sudden hollow feeling in my chest. She wasn't beautiful anymore, and she wasn't homely by any means, but she was different. That difference thoroughly chilled me even in the warm light of the box. What was more, I saw from the look in her eyes the reflection of her own grave disappointment. All of my pent-up desire vanished, leaving me limp inside and out. I saw her bottom lip begin to tremble and the sight of this brought tears to my eyes.

"I'm not Gloriette Moss," she said.

"I know," I told her and stepped forward to put my arms around her once again.

For fifteen minutes of our precious time in paradise, we stood holding each other in silence, not as lovers but as frightened, lost children. The notion of sex was as distant from that box as we were from the true sun. Like a desperate confession, she began frantically to whisper into my ear her life story. Born on Earth as Melissa Bower to a military man and his wife, she married very young to a career diplomat, who forced her to accompany him to the bug planet. In choosing her exo-skin, he would not allow her to become anyone of any recognition. She had wanted Jane Mansfield, but instead was allowed only Gloriette Moss. His main desire was to achieve great wealth for himself. The ambassador, it turns out, was as abusive a species of vermin as Stootladdle. It was she who did Lancaster in with a hatpin to the eye. "I used something so very thin, so there would be no evidence and he would suffer longer as he turned to jelly," she said. "The smoke was my only friend."

Her honesty made me feel as naked within as without. I told her the truth about how I had come to her house and why. As I explained, I heard her give a brief groan and then felt her slump in my arms as if she were now no more than an empty exo-skin. When I finished, I eased her onto the floor and lay beside her. She did not cry, but stared vacantly into the corner of the box.

"We have each other now," I told her. "We can help each other beat the smoke, and if we sell all the things in your house, we can return to Earth. We might even come to love each other." I kissed her on the cheek, but she did not respond.

I talked and projected and promised, rubbed her arm and ran my open palm the length of her hair. Then the gong sounded, waking me suddenly from the dream of the future I was spinning.

I immediately began fitting my suit back on. "It will be fine," I said right before I momentarily died and was revived. When I was again Cotten, I looked down and to my horror, she hadn't moved.

"Come on, hurry!" I yelled. "There are only minutes left."

She lay motionless, staring. I tried to slip her suit onto her -- an impossible task unless the wearer is standing -- but she was curled in a fetal position. Those few minutes were an eternity, and when I thought they should have long been over, I lifted her and held her to me.

"Why?" I asked. "Why?"

She slowly turned her face to me. "You know why," she said.

Then the door slid open, and she turned to rain in my arms.

© Jeffrey Ford 2001, 2002.

This story first appeared in Black Gate #1, Spring 2001, and is reprinted in Jeff's collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon, June 2002).

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