Lieutenant Charles Clifton was reclined in a hospital bed when he regained consciousness. Surrounding him was a blue-clad psychological trauma team of medical specialists. He recognized the uniforms.
"He's coming out of it," Nurse Martin Saavedra noted.
"Finally," Doctor Terilyn Thorson concurred. "Start the recording."
"How do you feel, Lieutenant?"
Clifton wiped the sand from his eyes and tried to sit up.
"Relax," Thorson held him down with her wrinkled left hand. "You've been asleep for nearly three days. Better take it easy. Can you speak?"
"Uh-huh," he gestured. "Where am I?"
"Metro Central," she replied. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was with Sassy ... "
"Sassy is the Onthorian's nickname," Doctor Robert Prescott whispered.
" ... on a beautiful planet with three small suns," Clifton continued. "We were hand-feeding a troop of wormots in a streamside glade."
"What are wormots?" Thorson asked.
"They are kind of like fuzzy little lizards."
Thorson glanced briefly at Prescott and shook her head. "That was just a fantasy Sassy implanted in your mind, Lieutenant. Think now, what happened before that?"
"Well, I'm not sure. It's difficult to recollect. I was probably at the precinct station. Yes, I remember now. It was Monday because that's my shift as Duty Officer."
"Very good," Thorson encouraged him. "Start at the beginning of that day. Nurse, are you getting all this?"
"Yes, Doctor. AV, biometrics, psychometrics, and physiometrics are recording."
"Let's see," Clifton paused. "When I arrived at the desk at 8 am, Sergeant Morton turned over a couple of open cases to me. Two individuals, both identified as ISD security men, were found wandering the streets aimlessly in a euphoric daze. One was limping from a leg wound that had been bandaged with a TGM, or tissue growth mat."
"That's the Interstellar Delegation, Doctor," Prescott added.
"Please continue, Lieutenant," Thorson instructed.
"We treated them with cannabozine, which is standard procedure in such cases, and commenced to interview them. But, their testimonies didn't make any sense. They seemed to be hallucinating, although the drug tests we administered proved negative."
"What did you do then?"
"We contacted ISD, per protocol. The men were picked up shortly thereafter. At that point, they were outside police jurisdiction. However, we received a report later on about a woman soliciting ISD personnel near their headquarters."
"What time was that?"
"10:20, I believe. I subsequently issued an order to bring her in for questioning. Officers Babcock and Rutherford delivered the suspect around 11 am."
"That was the Onthorian, Sassafrina Gelano?"
"She prefers the name Sassy."
"Of course Lieutenant, go on."
"We questioned her. There were five of us: detectives Weston and Yang, Deputy Chief David Cortez, criminologist Regina Hammaker, and myself."
"Is it normal for such high-ranking law enforcement people to interview suspected prostitutes?"
"No," Clifton admitted. "But when the ISD is involved, the situation isn't normal."
"Understood, tell us about the interview."
"Sassy was uncooperative at first. She was vague about what she was doing outside the ISD complex, and about knowing any of its personnel. When we pressured her, she insisted that Onthorians can't communicate well without direct interpersonal contact. So, we played along. One by one, we allowed Sassy to physically touch us as she told her stories."
"Stories, as in plural?" posed Thorson.
"That's right. She gave each of us an account of five separate but related events."
"Before we discuss them individually, what was your general impression of Sassy?"
"I was awestruck," Clifton confessed. "I've never seen a creature so stunning in appearance. The symmetry of her features, canary-yellow eyes and long swept-back hair, soft pewter-hued skin, sveltely erect posture, and the grace of her movements, were quite captivating indeed."
Thorson gave Prescott an expression of concern before responding. "We're already aware of what Onthorians look like, Lieutenant. I want to know ... "
"Excuse me, Doctor," Clifton interjected. "I'd really like to at least sit up now, and I sure could use a cup of coffee or something."
"Alright, we'll take a short break."
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the medical specialists returned and reattached the monitoring equipment.
"Ready, Nurse?" Thorson motioned.
"Yes, Doctor," Saavedra acknowledged.
"Okay Lieutenant, we left off at the point when Sassy began telling her stories. Please recount them in chronological order."
"Sure. Mark Weston was the first subject. He's a skilled, no-nonsense detective with twenty years police experience. Sassy sat down facing him and positioned her palms under his. Within seconds, he slipped into a trancelike state and became verbally unresponsive. Then, she started speaking as if Weston had been with her at the ISD complex. The rest of us thought she was using some kind of hypnosis or telepathy."
"It's called neuro-synchronicity," Doctor Prescott advised.
"If you say so," Clifton mused. "In any event, I was concerned and voiced an objection; but Hammaker convinced me it wasn't dangerous."
"What did she say?" Thorson pursued.
"It was a surreal story. Sassy and Weston were walking down Commerce Street on their way to the Triton Café when two brutish-looking men with ISD badges approached them from the complex's entrance gate. The men demanded to see Sassy's passport visa, which she willingly produced. The older man suddenly grabbed Sassy by the arm and ordered her to come with him. She resisted. Weston tried to intervene, but was knocked to the ground by the younger man. As the ISD men hurried Sassy away towards the gate, Weston arose and withdrew his sidearm. He identified himself as a police officer and commanded the men to halt. They did not. Weston fired one plasma blast which felled the younger man with a terrible wound to his right thigh. Sassy broke free of the older man who then ran into the complex. Writhing in pain, the younger man yelled obscenities and warned Sassy that they were going to get her. When more ISD men arrived, Weston ushered Sassy from the scene with great haste. The story concluded with an unexpected romantic interlude later at Weston's residence. I don't think it's necessary for me to illustrate the naughty details of that, is it?"
"Certainly not," Prescott exclaimed.
"My goodness, what a tale!" assistant Elaine Yowling chirped.
"Did you discuss this with Detective Weston afterwards?" Thorson asked.
"Yes, we did," Clifton answered. "The five of us met privately in an adjacent office. It took a while for his head to clear, but Weston confirmed our suspicion that the story was fictitious. However, he did say it was a very pleasurable experience."
"That's enough, Elaine," Thorson advised her. "Lieutenant, why was the interview continued along this path if you all thought Sassy was making it up?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was just curiosity. Cortez and Hammaker were in charge. Perhaps you should ask them."
"This isn't a police investigation, Lieutenant. We're here to evaluate your psychological condition."
"I feel fine."
"We will be the judge of that, sir. Now, let's move on to the next story."
* * *
"Jasmine Yang was next. She is a highly intelligent and thorough detective with an exemplary 12-year record of achievement. As before, Sassy used her hands to establish physical contact. The story began with Sassy entertaining some locals in Commerce Plaza, two blocks from the ISD complex, with anecdotes about her early life on Onthoria. It was a lighthearted affair where good cheer was as plentiful as the stiff beverages being served. At the height of the party, the same two ISD men from Weston's story showed up. They mingled among the crowd asking rude questions about Sassy. This didn't sit well with the revelers who took exception to the presence of the humorless, formally-attired interlopers. It wasn't long before an initial scuffle turned into a full-blown melee. The police were alerted who immediately dispatched a riot squad to the scene followed by incident investigator Detective Yang. Several people were treated onsite for various cuts and abrasions, and one was sent to the hospital with a broken arm. The two ISD men suffered minor contusions, but were otherwise unhurt. They had been escorted to a secluded area when Yang arrived to question them. Contrary to the other eyewitnesses, the ISD men claimed the crowd attacked after they had chastised Sassy for soliciting them for sex."
"Did Sassy say she spoke with Yang?"
"Yes, Doctor Thorson. Sassy said she told Yang she did not proposition the ISD men in any way; and, in fact, had no conversations with them at all. Her story also asserted that she informed Yang the two ISD men had been watching her for several days. When Yang asked why she was frequenting the area, Sassy said she lives and works in that neighborhood."
"What happened to the ISD men?"
"Sassy explained that Yang released them and no charges whatsoever were filed."
"She didn't say. But I would've done the same if I was in Yang's shoes."
"You would have swept this incident under the rug, Lieutenant?" Thorson asked rhetorically and with noticeable disgust.
"In the real world, Doctor, no one messes with the ISD. You should know that."
"No, I'm afraid I don't. What could they possibly do to you?"
"What could they do?" Clifton repeated angrily. "You've got to be joking! I'm not stupid enough to get into that discussion! Let's move on, Doctor."
"All right, what did Detective Yang have to say about this story afterwards?"
"Well, surprisingly, she confirmed everything about this event except for the involvement of Sassy and the two ISD men. She said they weren't included in her official report because they were not there."
"That is surprising. Did you actually read her report?"
"Yes. We broke for lunch and I looked it up myself. The document was posted on the same day as the incident -- August 14th -- and it pretty well matched what I just described to you. However, I found something else that was rather troubling."
"What was that?"
"Three days later, on August 17th, a weapon discharge entry was recorded in the armaments log for Detective Weston. That was the date Sassy said he shot the younger ISD man in the leg."
"How interesting," Thorson remarked. "Speaking of lunch, are you hungry?"
"Good, we'll fix you up. Disconnect him, Nurse. We'll resume in one hour."
* * *
Just before returning to complete Clifton's evaluation, the medical team met outside his room in the hallway.
"What's your opinion so far, Doctor Prescott?" Thorson inquired.
"My preliminary diagnosis is idiopathic hypersomnia possibly resulting from neuro-synchronic interaction with the Onthorian, Sassafrina Gelano."
"Agreed," Thorson assented. "That accounts for the lieutenant's initial delirium and transient global amnesia, but not for the near-perfect lucidity of his subsequent recollections."
"I concur," Prescott rejoined. "Could his prolonged state of unconsciousness have allowed for such intricately coherent dreams?"
"My training and experience tells me the opposite would be true. This case sure is baffling. But, we won't learn any more out here. Let's get back in there, folks."
* * *
Clifton had only eaten half of his hot turkey sandwich and pickled beet salad. The server was taking away his meal tray when the medical team returned. Through the room's single window, the partially clouded sky took on a magenta hue streaked with green -- an odd mix considering it was midday. Off in the distance, a large military hovercraft skirted over the city's obelisk-like towers.
"Are you ready to continue, Lieutenant?" Thorson posed.
"Go ahead, Nurse. We've covered Weston's and Yang's stories. Which one did Sassy relate next?"
"Deputy Chief Cortez was next. He seemed rather apprehensive about the ordeal, and initially refused to allow Sassy to touch him. Hammaker took him aside and apparently convinced him to acquiesce, but I couldn't overhear their conversation."
"Please go on, Lieutenant."
"Yes, well, Sassy proceeded to tell an inflammatorily contentious tale that raised everyone's eyebrows. She said that Cortez, the older ISD man, and two other unidentified men, came to her apartment on the evening of August 18th. They demanded to know whether she had told anyone else about her relationship with Weston or about the plaza incident. She refused, and insisted that was none of their business. Cortez then held her arms behind her back while the ISD man struck her several times in the face with his open hand. The ISD man screamed vulgarities at her and threatened to revoke her visa if she didn't cooperate. Sassy told us she couldn't return to Onthoria because she'd be incarcerated. I asked her why. She informed us she had been convicted on a gross misconduct charge stemming from 'repeated and inappropriate psycho-interactions with official persons.' Her plea bargain stipulated that she could avoid imprisonment only by agreeing to a self-imposed exile for a period of no less than 10 Onthorian years, which is roughly equivalent to 19 terrestrial years."
"She gave in then," Thorson prompted him.
"Not exactly, Doctor. Sassy did name two of her coworkers, but that was hardly any secret. She said the entire office staff at the Earth Orbit Management Bureau was aware of her involvement in the fracas at Commerce Plaza -- grapevine gossip, you understand. According to Sassy, the only one who knew about the romance with Weston was her close friend Angela Caruthers whose name she did not divulge."
"Did that satisfy the ISD man?"
"No. Sassy said he slapped her again and called her a 'lying little alien bitch.' Before leaving, he warned that the treaty would afford no protection if any ties between her, the police, and the ISD, was ever made public."
"The Erasmus Treaty of 2492 was signed three centuries ago by Earth and Onthoria after initial radio contact was established between the two worlds. One of its clauses mandates that the deaths of all alien nationals are to be investigated by both applicable domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies. This was done to foster mutual trust, as well as provide a level of security for visitors. Police are more aware of the treaty than others because it directly affects how we do our job."
"Was Sassy implying that the ISD man had threatened her life?"
"That's the way I took it, Doctor."
"What happened next?"
"We adjourned to hear what Cortez had to say about her story. He recovered consciously more slowly than even Weston. When he did, his mood was sour and unprofessional. He adamantly denied ever being in Sassy's apartment, and described the accusation as a blatant attempt to distract us away from her criminal activities. When we tried to calm him down, he ranted about putting Sassy in solitary confinement and finding her confidant Angela Caruthers. It required another half an hour of reassurance before we could resume the interview with Sassy."
"Did his defensive reaction lead you to believe there might be some truth in Sassy's stories?" Thorson posited.
"Not at that point, but I did realize a tangled can of worms had been opened."
* * *
"I presume you allowed Sassy to continue on to the criminologist?"
"Yes, Doctor, Regina Hammaker was the penultimate story in our interview. However, it did not go as the others. After physical contact was established, it was Hammaker who verbalized the story instead of Sassy."
"Of her own free will?" probed Thorson.
"Yes, as Hammaker confirmed afterwards. But when she was telling the story, the rest of us weren't so sure."
"Please continue, Lieutenant."
"Hammaker said she was contacted by the Onthorian High Council last fall to study the nature, circumstances, and outcomes, of all documented crimes involving ethnic Onthorians on Earth and surrounding settlements. As an independent criminologist, such a contract was both legal and professionally ethical for her to perform, although it was highly unusual. She completed the report on June 6th of this year, and it immediately qualified her as an expert authority on Onthorian criminal behavior. For this reason, she said she was hired by the Metro Police to interview Sassafrina Gelano."
"Did she reveal the results of the report?"
"Yes. It was a somewhat lengthy and technical dissertation, but I can summarize it thusly. The per-capita rate of non-violent crimes committed by Onthorians was comparable to native Homo sapiens and other extraterrestrial peoples. However, their numbers for violent criminal acts were significantly lower especially when contrasted to that of humans. Furthermore, Onthorians had the highest instance -- by far -- of being victims of violence. Hammaker said this figure was so anomalous that it warranted special consideration. As she delved into the underlying data, she discovered it fit into two distinct categories. The first was a broad array of hate crimes motivated by bigotry and xenophobia. The perpetrators were almost exclusively human beings. The second category was strikingly narrow in scope. These were politically motivated acts which included burglary, assault, battery, first degree murder and assassination, carried out by Cruptican nationals and a few human associates."
"If I'm not mistaken," Thorson pondered, "Cruptica fought a war of aggression against Onthoria some time ago."
"Two centuries ago by our measurement of time," Clifton added, "and they lost. Hammaker explained that an extremist faction within Cruptican society is obsessed with destroying Onthorian culture. They have terrorist cells scattered throughout this region of the galaxy, and she suspects there's one on Earth now responsible for these crimes."
"Did Hammaker say who the Cruptican's criminal allies were?"
"No. She told us the individual identities of those humans had been expunged from the public records."
"Expunged? Who has the authority to do that?"
"I believe that power rests solely with the Central Committee's Office of Data Base Administration."
"Isn't Dimitri Ikanov the current DBADMIN?"
"Yes, Doctor. I've met him -- an outwardly unpleasant fellow, in my opinion. In police circles, he is derisively referred to as 'Dee-Bad-Man' for his unresponsiveness to law enforcement inquiries. He was also the subject of a departmental probe some years back that was quashed before completion by the police chief and the city manager."
"Why was he being investigated?"
"His name turned up in a vigilante-style murder case where construction worker James Falkirk was killed apparently in retribution for beating up a visiting Cruptican dignitary."
"How was Ikanov implicated?"
"The primary suspect, who his arresting officers believed was an ISD agent, revealed under interrogation that Ikanov ordered him to execute Mr. Falkirk."
"Is that a credible accusation, Lieutenant?"
"Who knows? Like I said, the probe was quashed. To this day, the murder of James Falkirk remains unsolved."
* * *
Terilyn Thorson stepped away for a moment to review the transcripts that had been recorded so far. Charles Clifton's vividly detailed recollections were incongruous with his initial psychological condition. Perfectly coherent cognitive behavior should not be evident immediately after a coma. It takes time for the usual disorientation to subside and for normal mental responses to resume. This case just didn't add up. She returned to his bedside unsure how to finish the evaluation.
"Lieutenant, you've been very helpful. Thanks for being so patient with us. I think we can wrap this up after a few more questions. Okay?"
"No problem, Doctor."
"Excellent. Before getting to the last story, what were your thoughts about Sassafrina Gelano after hearing from the criminologist?"
"Well, the information Hammaker related tied together what I had already known separately about each of the parties mentioned. I could see Sassy was no high-priced call-girl, and she certainly wasn't a street hooker. So, I discounted the prostitution charges against her as either circumstantially erroneous or deliberately libelous. Although I couldn't be certain there was any criminal conspiracy involving the ISD, I did consider it as a distinct possibility."
"Let me ask you a hypothetical question," Thorson offered. "What action would you have taken at that time to resolve her disposition assuming you had the authority?"
"I would've released Sassy after advising her to avoid the ISD complex and its personnel by whatever means necessary. Also, I probably would have asked her to stay in contact with me or another police official as a gesture of reassurance."
"I see. You would have closed the case then?"
"Would you say that you developed some affection for Sassy during the interview?"
"Err ... ah ... why is that important?"
"Oh, it's not Lieutenant. But, I'd like you to answer the question anyway."
"Perhaps," he admitted. "I suppose so. She seemed so vulnerable."
As he mulled over his feelings, Clifton heard the sounds of laughter far off in the distance as if it was coming from outside the room and from every corner.
"Who's that? Who's laughing?"
"No one's laughing," Thorson comforted him. "We don't hear a thing, do we?"
"I don't hear anything," Doctor Preston said.
"Nope, neither do I," Nurse Saavedra concurred.
"I'm sure I heard someone laughing ... someone familiar."
"You're just imagining it," Thorson responded. "I've been expecting some complications from your blackout. Maybe we should call it a day and let you rest."
"No!" Clifton retorted. "I'm fine. Let's finish this."
"As you wish, Lieutenant; tell us Sassy's last story -- the one involving you."
"The one involving me ... "
"Yes! Didn't Sassy touch you to convey a story as she did with the others?"
"Yes, she did. I'm having trouble remembering, though. I think it might have explained the reason why the two ISD men were found wandering around in a daze. But, I've forgotten the rest."
"How could you forget? You remembered the preceding stories very clearly."
"I'm sorry, Doctor. I don't know why I can't recall it. Something's wrong."
The laughter Clifton sensed returned once again, but was so much louder now that it drowned out all the other sounds in the room. It was a tenaciously impish cackle with a pleasurably feminine tone. The voice was indeed familiar to him. He had heard it many, many thousands of times before. At last, he recognized it.
The hospital room suddenly spun into a kaleidoscopic vortex. First the walls, then the medical team, and finally his bed and body, spaghettified into ever-narrowing ribbons of light until everything within Clifton's vision turned black. Little by little, soft diffuse images began reassembling as his perspiring brow dripped steadily onto bare shoulders. A breath of warm wind lifted his long tufts of hair as new sights came into focus. Clifton looked at his arms. He saw they were not human, but the three-clawed forelimbs of an Onthorian. At his talon-like feet, several down-covered white wormots stared at him with anticipation. A blue-green meadow surrounded them, and the gentle waters of an icy stream trickled in the background. High above, an orange dwarf and two smaller red stars dominated the violet sky. He felt the caress of someone behind him loosen their embrace. Clifton turned around to see it was Sassy.
"There," she said lovingly. "How was it?"
"Damn it, Sassy! I told you not to do that! I'm not a plaything for your amusement! I'm your husband!"
"Yes you are," she replied with a giggle. "A husband who has grown so respectable in life that he's forgotten the simple joy of being carefree. Isn't that why we came here today, to take a much-needed holiday?"
"Sure, but I don't appreciate experiencing your fantasies without my permission."
"Oh really, Charlie?" she smirked as a full-plumed male wormot nipped at his toe. "Didn't you fondly call me your Daydream Girl when we first started dating? You seemed to enjoy my stories back then."
High Council Chairman Charles Clifton, whose parents named him after the first Earth ambassador to Onthoria, could only respond with a wry smile. He stroked her face in appreciation and tossed a jubbefruit at the eager wormot.
"Didn't you like my fairy-tale?" she asked. "You've always been fascinated with Earth, haven't you?"
"Yeah, it was intriguing, all right. But you didn't finish the story."
"Oh!" she gushed joyfully. "I can fix that Charlie, I can definitely fix that!"
* * *
This story is the author's tribute to Ray Bradbury, who showed us how to step outside our usual perceptions and experience the infinite wonder that is everywhere to be found.