Dead Letter Office by Tom Howard

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Dead Letter Office by Tom Howard
Illustration by Sue Babcock

When Pete tried to move, he couldn’t because he was standing on one of his tentacles. He fought panic in the unexpected darkness, reminding himself that—according to the brochures—the Alien Exchange Service routinely and safely swapped bodies between sentient life forms throughout the universe. He should be in a scarlet-skinned, bipedal mammalian on Cygnus III. No tentacles.

Maybe karma had caught up with him. It was ironic his elaborate escape plan resulted in him being trapped in the dark. He’d have laughed if he could figure out how to do it with his unfamiliar diaphragm.

Back on Earth he’d been careful to hide the mutilated bodies of his victims and cover his tracks andsmart enough to realize the time had come to cut his losses and get out. Only by pure luck had he managed to get off Earth at all. As a small-time, self-employed repair-man, he could never have afforded a body swap through the Alien Exchange Service. An unbelievable opportunity had presented itself when a young man had come in to rent one of Pete’s storage lockers. The government employee had received an immediate off-world assignment to tranquil Cygnus III, a world of creatures as peaceful as sheep. Pete had subdued the customer and taken his appointment and paperwork. He only regretted not having enough time to enjoy the usual blood-letting.

He propelled himself forward on unfamiliar tentacles. His single eye adjusted to the dark. He stood in a small cave. Unexpectedly, a shambling mound of vegetation approached him but stopped a foot away. It shook its vine-like tentacles and whimpered, “Uncle Jonus?”

Pete paused, sensing a young woman with the telepathic booster he’d received as part of his transport briefing. The aliens had done little else, barely running a basic health check and verifying “his” bank funds before transmitting him. To them, all humans probably looked alike.

“No,” he thought, trying not to broadcast his excitement at meeting someone so helpless. “I’m sorry, but I’m not from this planet.”

“Where’s my uncle?” she wailed, rustling tendrils that completely covered the conical-shaped creature. “He said he’d be right beside me when I woke up and I’d be able to fly! But it’s dark and I can’t find him anywhere!”

“Wait,” he thought. “You aren’t from here? You’re from Earth, too?”

“Yes,” she said. “My name is Angelina Starr and I’ve never done this before. My uncle owns three planets and a moon!”

“Hello, Miss Starr,” he said, hoping he radiated calm and assurance. “My name is Pete and I’m from Earth too. We just got off at the wrong stop. Your uncle is probably on his way right now.” Along with the police when they discover what’s in my basement, he added, hoping the young woman couldn’t hear his inner thoughts. When she didn’t react, he relaxed.

“Let’s see what’s outside,” he suggested. He ambled, with smoother undulations, in the direction of increased brightness. They seemed to be in a long tunnel. Angelina followed him, broadcasting an occasional telepathic sniffle.

“Shouldn’t we stay in the cave?” she asked. “They may look for us here.”

“We won’t go far,” he told her. “Maybe someone outside can help us.”

They stood at the mouth of the cave and looked down a sloping stone escarpment spotted with stone towers shaped by erosion. At the bottom of the slope, a gray sea stretched on forever, as calm as a puddle. The surroundings appeared colorless and silent. For the first time Pete realized his new body could only see in black and white and couldn’t hear at all. The sea abutted a sloping shelf of black stone on which they stood and a feeble but constant breeze caused what little wave action he saw. The sea seemed strangely inviting.

Suddenly, two more ambulatory mounds raced into the cave. They knocked Pete aside and Angelina retreated to get out of their way.

“Move!” the one in front roared, elongating and shaking its tendrils angrily. “They’re trying to kill us!”

Behind them, small leather kites swooped and darted, carrying pieces of the newcomers away in their sharp claws.

“What are they?” Pete asked as he backed into the darkness.

“I don’t know,” said the loud creature, his telepathic blasts ringing in Pete’s head. “They attacked us when we went outside.” He moved closer. “Who are you and why did you bring us here?”

Peter raised his frontal fronds. “My name is Pete Newman and I’m… with the Terran Diplomatic Corps. This young woman, Angelina Starr, is looking for her Uncle Jonas. Who are you?”

“Charles Schwinn,” answered the man, his telepathic voice softening in their heads. “So you’re like us?” He seemed to deflate as he talked. Behind him, the smaller mound drew closer. “This is Mrs. Mastronelli. She’s from Earth, too.”

“Wow,” said Angelina, seeming to forget her terror from moments before. “How many of us are here?”

“The two of us and the two of you,” said Mrs. Mastronelli. She turned in a circle. “I think I’m hurt.”

“I don’t see any fluids,” said Pete, “although I don’t know if we even have blood in these bodies. Does it hurt?”

“Not now,” she replied. “Only when they were pulling off parts of me. We had to go out, the sea called to us. We didn’t even see those flying things until we got outside.”

“Where are we?” asked Pete. “I’m going to Cygnus III. I think Angelina is headed to one of the low-gravity worlds. How about you, Charlie?”

“That’s Mr. Schwinn,” the man boomed. “President of Apex-Hurst-Reoz2 Engineering on my way to deal with some construction problems on Alpha Rex. When we get back, I’m going to sue the Alien Exchange Service, Earth’s government, and you, Mr. Newman.”

“Me?” Pete responded. “I didn’t have anything to do with this!”

“You’re part of the government, aren’t you?” asked Mastronelli. “I’m a lawyer, and I’ll be glad to help Mr. Schwinn with his lawsuit. I’m Mrs. Mastronelli, but you can call me Berky.”

“Berky?” repeated Angelina with a mental giggle. “That’s a funny name.”

“Originally from Berkeley, California,” she explained. “Much more client-friendly than my birth name of Strawberry Rainbow Smith-Pickering.”

Angelina laughed again. “Do you know where we are?”

“No,” said the lawyer. “One minute I’m on Earth headed for a relaxing vacation, the next I’m in a cave filled with strangers. Somebody really screwed up. This place doesn’t look like the Pelvinian vacation brochures I saw. I paid a lot of money to get a body transfer on short notice. Someone is going to pay.”

Pete couldn’t resist. He moved closer to the mouth of the cave. “The urge to reach the sea is strong.”

“We tried to resist it,” said Mr. Schwinn, “but it’s overpowering.”

“Then we just have to wait here as long as we can,” said Pete, remembering he was supposed to be someone else, “and I’m an underpaid clerk in the diplomatic corps so suing me would be a big waste of time.” He turned to the attorney. “Haven’t I heard of you before? Something about swindling half the old people in New Switzerland out of their life savings?”

“Alleged,” Berky said with a huff. “They’ll never prove anything.”

“Especially if you’re on Pelvinia,” said Pete.

“Watch out!” exclaimed Mr. Schwinn. They all moved as fast as their unfamiliar appendages could take them deeper into the cave. A leathery creature flopped on the ground at the mouth of the cave for a minute, its small head made up mostly of teeth. It clawed its way out of the cave, popped into the air, and fluttered off.

“What are they?” asked Angelina. “Why are they keeping us here?”

“I don’t know,” said Pete. “Do we have anything we can use as weapons?”

“Not even a pebble,” answered Mr. Schwinn. “Our arms are ropelike but not very strong. I tried to grab one of the things and it tore off my…appendage.”

Pete tried to nod and realized he had no neck. “Maybe we were brought here by a malfunctioning transmitting station.”

“I came from the New Beijing station on Mars,” said Mr. Schwinn. “It’s the center I use all the time.”

“Chicago,” Berky volunteered.

“Manila,” said Angelina, sounding like she intended to cry again.

“And I came from the station in New York City,” said Pete. “So it’s not a broken machine unless they’ve all gone haywire.”

“An assassination plot?” suggested Mr. Schwinn, moving back toward the entrance. Pete silently hoped a flock of the little monsters would appear and tear him apart. The bossy engineer annoyed him.

“Maybe someone paid the Alien Exchange to send one of us here on purpose,” the big man continued. “We’ve all got enemies.”

“Not me!” insisted Angelina.

A line of faces surfaced in Pete’s memory—most distorted by agony—but he pushed them away. Anyone with a grudge against him was dead and buried.

Mr. Schwinn and Berky were conspicuously silent.

“Why send all of us here if they just want one of us out of the picture?” Pete asked. “Maybe it’s not where we came from but where we’re going to that’s the problem.”

“Not possible,” said Berky. “The network is supposed to be foolproof. It’s been in operation in our solar system since the beginning of the twenty-second century and no one has ever been delayed, much less gone missing.”

“How do you know that?” asked Schwinn. “Do you work for the Alien Exchange?”

“No,” she replied. “I work…worked for a brokerage firm until someone embezzled their funds. Does this look anything like Pelvinia Prime to you?”

“I’ve never been there,” Mr. Schwinn admitted, “but I’d never request a body transfer to a place like this.”

“Nor to what’s left of Alpha Rex,” said Berky.

“What do you mean?” Schwinn demanded.

“One of the last no-travel bulletins I saw said Alpha Rex has been classified as highly toxic due to recent illegal and dangerous construction there.”

“So we have a corrupt lawyer and a man who destroys ecosystems,” Pete said. “I thought the Alien Exchange consisted of professionals, not the ethics police. Why would they care where you go?”

“The Exchange is made up of profiteers,” said Schwinn. “Out to make a buck the quickest way they can. They find a backward planet, offer it a chance to see the universe, and charge the inhabitants an arm and a leg to swap with native bodies on the other side of the galaxy.”

“But they didn’t destroy Alpha Rex,” said Pete. “You did.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Angelina. “You’re a very bad man. I’m going to tell Uncle Jonus.”

Schwinn growled. “Cut the innocent act, sweetheart. I know who you are and who you work for. I had to pay off your uncle for some vids of your girls entertaining two of my executives. How many blackmailers named Angelina Starr can there be?”

Angelina didn’t contradict him, so Pete changed the subject before someone asked him about his own past. “If it’s not deliberate tampering or an equipment malfunction, how did we get here?”

Berky looked out to sea. “Maybe the locals wanted to see if we’re friendly.”

“Oh!” said Angelina. “I saw a film like that once. One of the captured guys turned out to be an alien posing as a human to see what they could find out about the others. He had a really big—”

“One of the classics,” said Schwinn, sarcastically. “How did it end?”

“They ate the humans.”

Berky radiated mirth. “So we’re someone’s snack? Quite a group. What dirty little secret are you hiding, Mr. Newman?” She moved to stand uncomfortably close to Pete.

Damn. He stilled his rustling tendrils. “Nothing, Strawberry Rainbow, absolutely nothing. I’m thirsty, and who knows how long it’ll take our rescuers to find us. Anyone care to join me for a dip?”

“You’re going to end up lying in pieces all over the beach,” warned Mr. Schwinn.

“Not if we all make a run for it at the same time,” said Pete. “Some of us will make it. After all, how many of those things can there be?”

“We saw a couple dozen,” said Berky. “There were more than enough to make us turn back.”

“It’s not that far,” said Pete. “Surely they can’t eat us all.”

“Tell that to the dry husks on the beach,” argued Mr. Schwinn. “I’m going to stay right here until help comes.”

“You really think they’re looking for us?” asked Berky. “What if we’re stranded?”

“Maybe the Alien Exchange Service is just a way for aliens to order groceries!” Angelina exclaimed.

Pete didn’t like the way the lawyer stayed next to him. “Right now we’re safe,” he said. And no cops are asking me questions as they carry body bags up from the basement. “But who knows how long that will last?”

“I think you’re dirty, Mr. Newman,” said Berky. “I’ll find out what you’re hiding. I always do. But now I’m tired. I wonder if we sleep.”

“Angelina!” shouted Pete. “Where are you going?”

Mr. Schwinn stepped in front of her as she tried to leave the cave and she bumped into him. “Uncle Jonus?” she asked, half-asleep.

“We may not have a choice whether we go out or not,” said Pete. “Sooner or later, we’re supposed to migrate to the ocean.”

“Okay, I’ll go first,” said Mr. Schwinn. “We’ll put Pete here at the rear and the ladies between us. Got it?”

Everyone said, “Yes,” and shifted themselves accordingly.

“When we get to the water,” said Mr. Schwinn, “one of us can duck in to see if we’re jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”

The kites were waiting for them. They acted as if they’d done this before. The group moved down the dark embankment as fast as their tentacles allowed. Scores of black, diamond-shaped creatures swooped down on them, tearing out leafy tendrils and flying away to eat them.

“Ow!” complained Pete. “Try to cover each other.” He saw kites worrying Berky and whipped his tentacles at them. The creatures fell away but quickly returned, their small teeth tearing at them.

As suddenly as the attackers appeared, they left, flying back to the stone columns.

“What happened?” asked Angelina, looking back at the tunnel.

“It’s the water,” guessed Pete. “As soon as we entered the surf, they stopped chasing us. Why?”

“We have to find out why the sea is calling us,” said Mr. Schwinn, standing with the others in the shallow water. “I’ll go in and check.”

“No,” said Angelina. “I can’t bear it a minute longer. I’ll go.”

Before anyone could stop her, the young woman disappeared beneath the gentle swells.

“How long should we wait for her?” asked Berky, but the girl resurfaced immediately.

“What is it?” asked Pete, watching Angelina trudge through the shallows. She moved as if the sea had drained her. She looked at them, her fronds limp and wet. “We’re never getting out of here,” she said.

“Of course we will,” insisted Berky. “We have to. As soon as they figure out they’ve messed up, they’ll come get us.”

“Just think,” said Schwinn. “We’re all going to be famous when we do get rescued. We’re the first group ever stranded by the Alien Exchange Service.”

The lawyer’s fronds perked up. “It’d be the biggest lawsuit in history!”

Angelina’s tendrils rose and fell in exasperation. “No!” she shouted. “You don’t understand. No one’s coming for us. This isn’t an accident. This is where bad people go!”

“What do you mean?” asked Pete. “The aliens are the ethics police?”

She pointed at the water. “I don’t know. Under the water, there are thousands of us. Not moving, not talking. Just swaying back and forth in the water.”

“Maybe they’re the local inhabitants,” suggested Berky.

“No!” Angelina shouted again. “Can’t you feel it? The sea is calling to us. Pretty soon we’ll be like them—mindless and stuck on the bottom of the ocean.”

“Don’t be stupid!” roared Mr. Schwinn.

“You mean this is hell?” interrupted the lady lawyer. “I thought it would be warmer.”

“You said it yourself,” said Pete. “We’re all running away from something. This world may be where the dregs of the universe end up.”

“Another idiot heard from,” the big man said. “The universe doesn’t care about small change like us. And who exchanged places with our human bodies we left behind? Angels?”

“I don’t know,” said Pete, angry at the overbearing man. “Can you think of a better explanation?”

“Not yet,” Mr. Schwinn admitted, “but I’ll find one if it’s the last thing I do. Madame Berky, would you like to join me in a walk down the beach? We’ll stay in the surf.”

“Sure,” she said.

“What about us?” Angelina asked Pete as Schwinn and Berky waddled away.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“Should we go into the water?” Angelina asked.

Pete looked down the beach at their departing comrades—one who insulted him, one who suspected he was not who he seemed to be. If he was to spend an eternity rooted to the bottom of the ocean, he might as well go out with a bang. He flexed one of his tendrils, gauging how strong it was.

“You go ahead,” he told her. “I’m going to see what trouble I can get into.”


Author Bio: Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer from Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his children for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their perspiration.