Esmeralda’s Interstellar Hot Tub Café
Robert Walton

I walked into Esmeralda’s kitchen and found Esmeralda herself stirring the day’s chilé with an oar any galley slave would have been proud to pull. Her olfactory slits widened and she took a deep sniff. “Herman,” she roared.
Herman—tall, middle-aged, dark-skinned, with lines on his face deep enough to be called arroyos—peeked around the end of the grill. “You called, boss?”
“Where did you get these limp-dick jalapeños?”
“Why? Something wrong?”
“They’re not Charlie’s!”
“He was out. He said he’d have some next week, so I got them from Wal-Mart.”
“Damn. Wal-Mart sells weak-ass stuff. Got to use another dozen, maybe two, or,” her eyes brightened, “my ghost peppers are ripe.”
Herman cleared his throat. “Boss, you recall that customer a few days ago, the one who had a medical emergency?”
“It’s called cardiac arrest, Herman.”
“Yeah, well, he said he had his attack after he took a big bite of your chilé.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
“No, I just thought it might be cool to back off on the jalapeños for a week or two.”
“Hey, we got him up and running before the med-tech even showed up.”
“I know.”
“And I spent all that money on the de-fib bot. It was good to see it actually work.”
“Still what? We’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
I decided to interject myself into this conversation before it spiraled into new territory. “Excuse me, Esmeralda?”
Esmeralda’s wine barrel of a body whirled, though one of her three orangutan-like arms still gripped the dripping chile’ oar. “McCabe! What did I do to deserve a visit from you today?”
I smiled at her. “Nice to see you, too, Esmeralda.”
Fangs gleamed in the shadow of her purple upper lip. “Don’t you smile at me, you miserable copper!”
“Now, now—your permits come due soon. Be nice.”
Esmeralda’s breath hissed in and out of her narrow nostrils, never a good sign. “I just brought my new partner in for a cup of coffee before we head into the Cubicles.” I indicated the young woman standing beside me with my left hand. “Officer Barton, this is Esmeralda. Esmeralda—Officer Barton.”
Officer Barton extended her hand and her lovely smile dimpled peach-blush cheeks. “Glad to meet you, Esmeralda.”
Esmeralda ignored Barton’s hand. “What’s your first name, honey?”
Barton lowered her hand. “Adele.”
“Well, Adele – just so we get off on the right foot—I don’t shake hands with cops. Herman, get them some coffee.”
Herman poured two cups and set them on a polished aluminum counter. Esmeralda went back to stirring the chilé. “Try the crab cakes. Herman might not screw them up today.”
“Where’d you get the crab?”
“None of your business.”
“It’s not under the table stuff like last month’s, is it?”
Esmeralda released the oar and it stood straight up in the chilé pot. She put all three hands on what passed for her hips. “That “stuff” came from Adak, the best cold water planet in the galaxy. You got any complaints?”
“It tasted a little off to me.”
Esmeralda’s face flushed past crimson to bilious maroon. “Out!”
Adele tugged my sleeve. “Perhaps we should move on?”
“Sure.” I turned and we walked into the dining room.
Esmeralda followed us. “Get out of my place now!” The room was full and all eyes leaped up at the sound of her foghorn voice, first to her scowling face and then to our retreating backs.
As the door hissed shut behind us, Adele glanced at me sidelong. “That might have gone better.”
I didn’t reply. The street was clear, so I turned right and strolled up the block.
“Sir, the transport tube is the other way.”
“Yeah. I’ve got to go in the candy shop for a minute first.”
“For candy?”
“You’ll see.”
An old-fashioned bell jingled us into the shop’s interior. Max, the ancient proprietor, lifted a bushy eyebrow to me in greeting.
“Got some fresh gummy jellies, Max?”
“Certainly. The usual?”
Max loaded up a bag with lime jellies and handed it to me. “Two credits, sir.”
I handed him a ten-unit single use credit chip. “Keep the change.”
“Thank-you, sir.” He nodded to me.
I nodded in return, stepped past him to the back of the shop and opened the rear door. Adele followed me into an enclosed yard stacked with bins, drums and boxes. Esmeralda stood at its far side tapping her foot.
“Took your time.”
“Sorry. I didn’t want our little act to go to waste.”
“I’ve got supper to prep. What do you want?”
“Are we safe to talk?
Esmeralda shrugged. “I keep some nuclear waste back here. It fuzzes up mini-drones quite nicely.”
Adele looked uneasily at some rusty drums to her left.
“You’ve encountered the mind worm?”
“Not personally.”
“I didn’t mean that, Es.”
Esmeralda’s shoulders slumped. She looked at Adele and then back to me. “Yeah, yeah—I’ve lost friends—recently.”
“You know it’s burning through the Cubicles. Our screens have kept it out of the station so far, but it’s only a matter of time before it gets through. A place? A number? A name? Have you heard anything?”
“Lots—but nothing that’s worth one of those puny jalapeños. Everybody’s scared, McCabe, everybody.”
“They should be. The worm does three things: causes intense neck and facial pain, blows up brain cells like fire going through a fireworks plant and replicates itself. The pain is a signal flag. When you start hurting, you know what comes next. The neural destruction results in terminal dementia. It’s got to be a virus.”
Esmeralda sighed. “Yeah, if you feel the pain, you’ve got two days to buy the vax or it’s drool city.”
“It doesn’t hurt, either, that the vax gives you a decent high, adding in old fashioned addiction to the threat of certain, horrible death.”
Adele spoke up, “Somebody had the vax ready. You’ve got to buy it and you have to keep taking it, so there’s a permanent market. There must be a network for distribution, collection of payments, money-laundering—but we haven’t found a thing.”
Esmeralda looked at her. “If anybody talks, they die. It’s as simple as that.”
Silence fell between us like a flat stone. I glanced at Adele and then at Esmeralda. “Well, thanks for your time, Es. I’ll let you know if we make progress. Please send a message to the e-dead-drop if you come up with something that could help.”
Esmeralda nodded and turned toward her restaurant’s back door. Adele and I went back through the candy shop. Outside the store, I offered her the open bag of jellies.
“No, thank-you, sir.”
“You’re ignoring the first rule of police work, Adele.”
“A good officer must acquire bad eating habits. It improves one’s thinking.”
“Yes, sir.”
She still didn’t extend her hand to the proffered bag, so I took a green jelly and popped it into my mouth.

Some minutes later, I looked out of our cruiser’s rear window. The Childers-MacCauley transfer hub shone in all its silver, blue and white splendor. Called Chili-Mac by all spacers, its two silver globes, both ten kilometers in diameter, rotated around a seven kilometer long shared axis—a fragile-seeming tube only a hundred meters across. Four snowy white concentric rings containing starship docks, warehouse pods, processing bays and repair facilities surrounded the gleaming dumbbell. Best of all—in my not so humble opinion—was the glowing aquamarine transfer arch from the cometary-ice processing plants to the Hub’s axis. Water—both for reaction mass and atmosphere—was the station’s lifeblood. Farther out, I knew, great clusters of giant water balloons shielded Chili-Mac from bursts of radiation and served as life insurance in case of ultimate accidents. This vista inspired thoughts of human greatness; genius, courage, perseverance, shared purpose and a dozen other positive qualities that were needed to create Chili-Mac and make it an ongoing endeavor.
I glanced through the front window at a spider’s nightmare of tubes, pods, girders, cables, derelict spaceships, and less reputable structural members—the Cubicles. Who would have imagined that there could be a slum in space? I smiled cynically. Who couldn’t have known that it would certainly happen?
“Officer McCabe?”
“Please, just McCabe.”
Adele took a deep breath. “McCabe, why are we taking the cruiser? We could have taken internal transport from Esmeralda’s and stayed under pressure.”
“If we’d done that, everyone in the Cubicles would have known where we were going.
“Won’t they be tracking us now?”
“Ah—I don’t understand.”
“Many somebodies are tracking us now, but they won’t be soon.” I addressed the cruiser’s AI. “We about ready, Hector?”
“Yes, please strap in.”
I winked at Adele. “You heard the man.” I tightened my harness.
Adele hurriedly adjusted hers. “Your source knows we’re coming?”
“Yeah. Hector will drop us at the back door of the rendezvous and continue on.”
“Full suit and helmet?”
“Just the temporary pressure mask will do. We’ll be inside quickly.”
I felt pressure on my spine as attitude jets kicked in and slowed us, turned us. The window lined up on the Cubicles’ main traffic artery. We eased toward it, nudging behind a shuttle bus, two taxis and what looked like a garbage scow. Just as we reached the passage, the jets kicked us to the right and our main engine whined up to full acceleration. We surged toward a tiny opening between a wrecked ship and an ancient habitat. A whirl of threatening edges and shadows filled the window. I lost track of course changes after that.
“Ten seconds to drop, Officer McCabe.”
“It would be best if you exited quickly.”

Dozens of dingy bulk shipping containers lined either side of Lanky Lane, a smudged strip of flex-glass enclosed by opaque plastic tubing. Each was thirty meters in length and five meters in diameter. Each housed a romping business: bar, dive, flop, pawn, or pleasure parlor for less reputable pursuits. Odors, fumes, raucous music and flashing lights erupted from all.
Adele peered at the saggy ceiling. “This place holds air?”
“And we’re here again, why?”
“Information. If Esmeralda doesn’t know anything, only one other person might.”
I led Adele up a passage between containers that could almost be called an alley and stopped in front of a pile of refuse.
The pile of refuse spoke. “Make my day!”
Adele reached for her weapon. I held up my hand. “Easy, Officer Barton, it’s just Boone.”
She lowered her hand. “Boone, sir?”
“One of the Cubicles’ best known denizens. At some point he was a highly educated being. This is one of his bedrooms.”
“Be wary of all enterprises that require new clothes”
Legless and armless, Boone was one of the unfortunate few for whom modern medicine’s bio prosthetics would not work. His torso, supported by a harness, rested on a surface effect magnetic sled. A tentacle composed of stainless steel rings ending in a menacing pincer gripped a grimy hat and proffered it to us.
“That’s Woody Allen?”
“No, Thoreau.”
I began to bend down but straightened immediately when I caught a whiff of Boone’s blue-cheesy body odor. Obviously, he had yet to make his monthly visit to a public sanitation booth. I surveyed the contents of his battered hat, mostly single use credit chips of small denominations. However, a verifax device protruding from a tattered shirt pocket could be used to process larger donations. I dropped a unit chip in the hat. “What’s the good word, Boone?”
“Give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven!”
“Mattthew -19:21.”
“Got me again.” I dropped another chip in his hat. In spite of the pungent atmosphere, I leaned close to Boone’s left ear. “What’s the word on the brain worm?”
Boone blinked and sniffled.
He hawked and spat to his right, almost missing his tattered blanket. “Who knows whether the gods will add tomorrow to the present hour?
“No chip until you answer my question.”
“I did.”
I thought about that. Boone mumbled and sank further into his pile of rags. I realized that was all he had to tell me. Even the beggar was afraid. “Thanks, Boone.” I dropped a five-unit chip in his hat.
His eyes opened wide among the rags. “God bless us every one!”
“Ha, ha—Tiny Tim.” His tentacle plucked a pink blossom from a bag next to him and extended it to Adele. “A posy for the lady?”
Adele took it. “Thank-you, Mr. Boone.” She dropped a credit chip in his hat.
I nodded to him. “See you around, Boone.”

Adele glanced at me. “So what did we find out?”
“I don’t think we have much time to get on top of this.”
“What now?”
“The lab.”
“Which lab?”
“The only one. I keep forgetting that you’re new here.”
“It’s on Chili-Mac?”
“Anything that needs to be tested doesn’t belong on the station.” I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t keep anthrax in the cheese drawer, do you?”
“No, but . . . .”
“But nothing – space is a great physical barrier to all toxics and micro-organisms. We use it. This main lab has lots of divisions, but everything remotely dangerous is here, ten klicks from all inhabited structures.”
Some minutes later, our cruiser eased up to a city-sized white globe and then nosed into a docking bay marked by flashing green strobe lights.
“Thanks, Hector.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
We exited the cruiser and entered a pressurized tube that resembled a giant intestine. Two sonic baths, irradiation and a disinfectant mist later, we entered the lab proper.
As we walked down a bright corridor, Adele asked, “Who is our contact here?”
“She’s the coroner?”
“And the best forensic tech in space.”
“Friend of yours.”
“Sort of. She collects records – you know, vinyl.”
“Never mind. I’ll show you one later, but—trust me—they’re heavy. I make sure her orders come duty-free.”
“That’s legal?”
“It’s helpful.”
We stepped into a drop tube and drifted toward the center of the globe, passing fifteen labeled floors and several unnamed levels.
We stepped out of the tube into a narrow corridor. It was well lit and spotlessly clean, but it had a feeling of disuse. I strode toward a door at its far end. Adele trailed after me.
“Gonzalez works down here all the time?”
“She doesn’t mind.” I opened the door and went through. A small woman with dark hair sat on a stool on the far side of a cluttered room. She was hunched over the view screen of an electron microscope.
She didn’t look up. “McCabe. I suspect I know what brings you here.”
“I’m looking at it. Come here.”
We stepped close to the scope and looked over Gonzalez’s shoulders. What looked like a monstrous galaxy filled with glowing stars filled the screen. “That’s a virus?”
“You could call it that.” Gonzalez sighed.
Adele murmured, “What do you mean?”
Gonzalez looked up at her. “Who are you?”
“Assistant Coroner Gonzalez, this is Officer Barton.” I made a slight bow in her direction.
Adele smiled. “Glad to meet you.”
Gonzalez shrugged.
I got back to business. “Yeah, what do you mean?”
“This is what I found inside a protective cyst. It’s the most complex organic molecule I’ve ever seen—multiple strings of what might be DNA and structures for which I have no names.”
“Where did it come from?”
“Someone designed it.”
“It’s artificial?”
“Yes. Replication is somehow limited, too – a timed mutation? – so that the virus will spread at a targeted rate, likely to only a few dozen other people by direct transmission before it mutates to something that is safe. It’s designed to cause a panic, not a mass extinction.”
“Who made it?”
“Good question. We humans are the best in the known universe at microbiology. This is decades beyond us.”
“How so?”
“It releases a horde of micro worms that devour people’s brains, but it also predisposes the victims for a specific palliative. We can’t do that.”
“You’re sure?”
“Absolutely. There appears to be a turnoff switch on each worm, a switch that is designed to be tripped by the vax. The med stops them instantly.”
“No, the worms turn back on again if the medicine doesn’t keep coming.
“Very. But the proteins in the cyst wall seem vulnerable.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. It looks possible to turn them into glue and seal the worms in before they get loose. They’ll cannibalize their own molecule then.”
“A preventative vaccine? Something we could make?”
“Maybe. I’ll get back to you.”
Gonzalez was done talking. We left.

Walking along the main corridor to the docking bay, Adele stumbled. I gripped her left arm, steadied her. She raised her head slowly, looked at me. Her eyes were wide and too bright. “McCabe, my neck hurts.”

Chili-Mac’s main medical facility has a quarantine wing, a satellite globe connected to the main station only by cables. We were met on the far side of its airlock by hazmat suited med-techs. Adled slumped gratefully onto a gurney and was floated toward an examining room. I followed behind, noting that rooms to either side—intended for a patient each—held three or four occupied beds.
A masked and smart-plastic sheathed nurse stepped in front of me. “Sir, please step into the decon room to your left.”
“I’m going with her.”
“That’s not allowed.”
“I’m a cop. It’s allowed.” I stepped around him and entered the exam room. Sensors fluttered around Adele like butterflies—red, blue, orange and green. They settled on her throat, her temple and wrist. Data flowed; half a dozen monitors glowed with numbers and lines. A doctor studied them.
Surprised, she turned. “Well, what?”
“Is it the worm.”
“You’re her parent?”
“I’m Officer Barton’s boss.”
“I see.” She nodded. “It’s the worm. I’ll administer the vax as soon as we get her IV going.”
“Who’s your dealer, doc?”
“No, don’t tell me. Just give her the shot.”
The doctor studied me for a moment. “It’s curious you mentioned that. We received a large shipment of the drug a few days ago.”
“From whom?”
“An anonymous donor.”
“You used it?”
“Are using it—it tested out pure, much better than what’s being sold on the street, less addictive.”
“You’re kidding.”
“I don’t kid, Officer . . . .”
“McCabe. You said it’s less addictive?”
“Possibly not at all. The street drug has heroin clone additives. The shipment we received has none.”
“It’s a mystery, but mysteries are your job, Officer McCabe.”

A chime sounded in my ear as I exited the quarantine globe. Only priority callers could reach me on this line and I could guess who it was: my boss. “McCabe here.”
“I doubt that anyone else would respond to a message sent to the implant in your ear, Officer McCabe.”
“No, sir.” I learned early on that encouraging Enforcement Commissioner McCabe to put me in my place right off the bat made our communications smoother. Everyone has heard of good cop, bad cop. Less well known is smart cop, dumb cop. Dumb cop puts Bernard in a good mood.
“I’ve initiated a raid on the Cubicles to round up purveyors of the mind worm. It’s underway now.”
I thought about this. “We’ve found no specific targets, sir.”
“The usual suspects will do.”
“Such raids have yielded little actionable information in the past, sir.”
“McCabe, the appearance of doing something is often more conducive to public safety than actually doing something.”
“I’m not sure I understand you, sir.”
“You wouldn’t. Just get over to the Cubicles transfer facility and interrogate the perps.”

A tech in a hazmat suit awaited me at the entrance of the transfer facility. He was holding a transparent safe-bag as if it were full of pissed-off cobras. “What’s that?”
“Material we confiscated from one of the detainees. It’s soaked with mind-worm virus.”
My God – Bernard’s raid struck gold. I’d have to give the fool some credit. “Let’s see.”
He shoved the bag at me.
“Not too close! I’m a touch far-sighted.”
He pulled the bag back. I peered through the clear plastic. It was full of red blossoms.
“How’s it going, Boone?”
“Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose; sometimes you get rained out.”
“Yogi Berra?”
“No, Satchel Paige.”
“Same side of the same coin, Boone.” I paused to signal a serious change of topic. “Did you know that you were passing out the mind-worm on your flowers?
He mumbled something to himself.
“Boone, this could mean twenty to life for you.”
“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
“Oscar Wilde?”
“No, Sartre.”
“Well, you’re going to put it to the test unless you help us out.”
Boone thought about this. Then he looked at me, his eyes as clear as mountain water. “Greeks.”
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
He nodded. “Virgil.”
My private line beeped.
“McCabe here.”
“What’s up?”
“Three things – your pal with the cubicles cafe . . . .”
“Esmeralda, she gave us blood to test when this thing began, along with all the non-human oxygen breathers.”
“Turns out her race is stuffed full of antibodies built like terminators.”
“That figures.”
This virus doesn’t stand a chance with her.”
“She’s immune?”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Interesting – what else?”
“What I said about a possible cure will work out. We can come up with something that will seal the cyst shut, but it will take some time.”
“How long?”
“Two weeks to get the med engineered. A week to run simulations and another to produce it.”
“You said there were three things.”
“My grapevine told me that a cargo of medicine—supposedly both a preventative and a cure—is already on the way from Earth.”
“That’s fast.”
“Could be. Andromeda Pharmaceuticals is legit, but I’m doubtful about the shipper.”
“Onassis Spaceways—a guy named Neville Sokratis is the CEO. He has offices in the upper cubicles.”
“So he works both sides of the street.”
“You’re the cop. You tell me.”
“I will, Angie. I will.”
“One more thing . . . .”
“There’s something strange about this Sokratis guy.”
“He and his company turned up here a year ago. There’s no history on him. As far as I can tell, he appeared out of thin air. Watch yourself.”
Thanks.” I looked at Boone. “Greeks it is, Boone, Greeks with gifts.”

“Officer McCabe?” The tall, burly, dark-haired man extended a large hand.
I took it. “Mr. Sokratis.” His stern, craggy face offered no hint of uneasiness about being interviewed by a police inspector.
He glanced at his surroundings. “We might have conversed more comfortably in my offices.”
“Possibly, but I wanted to offer you . . . .” I gestured toward four brutes spaced strategically around the room. “and your associates tea. Esmeralda serves the best.”
“We do not need refreshment.”
“Mind if I partake?”
“Of course not.”
I waved to Esmeralda. She brought over a tray with tea things on it, held the tray steady with one hand, placed a cup in front of me with hand number two and poured with her third hand. A waft of jasmine-ginger-orange steam rose past my nose.
“You’re welcome.” She inclined her head, or at least tilted it as much as person with a neck like a rhinoceros may, and turned toward the kitchen.
I sipped tea and looked again at Sokratis. There was something familiar about his face. “Mr Sokratis, what do you do?”
“I’m just a shipper, Officer McCabe, a purveyor of solutions. Presented with a medical emergency, I helped solve it and profited thereby.”
The guy’s voice was deep and full of gravel. It plucked at long disused strings on my memory’s guitar, but no recognizable tune sounded.
I placed my cup carefully on the table. “I think you created the medical emergency, though I’m not sure that profit was your primary motive.”
“You have proof of this?”
I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a baggie of maroon rose petals, thoroughly irradiated and sterilized rose petals. I dropped it on the table between us. “I do.”
“Flowers and other information which I shall soon convey to you and your attorney. You are under arrest, Mr. Sokratis.”
Sokratis smiled and spread his hands wide. “I do not choose to be taken into custody at this time.”
It hit me. “Zorba! You look like Zorba the Greek—Anthony Quinn!”
Zorba-Sokratis motioned to the nearest of his brutes.
The man weighed well north of three hundred pounds and there was nothing subtle about his menace. He took a step toward my undefended back. One of Esmeralda’s iron frying pans crossed the room at a respectable fraction of the speed of sound, cracked into his right temple and dropped him like a stone.
I flicked my right wrist. A vibra-stunner—pencil slim and warm from being concealed in the sleeve of my jacket—dropped into my hand.
Still smiling, Zorba-Sokratis pushed away from the table and stood. Brutes two, three and four produced weapons—a cudgel, a molecular blade and a pellet-popper respectively.
Esmeralda burst from the kitchen wielding her biggest frying pan and a chef’s knife. Her third hand was curled around a tin of pepper. Brute Two was too slow. Esmeralda broke his cudgel hand with her pan and then flattened his face with the backstroke. Brute three slashed at her while she was engaged, cut through her best knife and scored a jagged line across her chest.
Looking at the bladeless handle of her knife, Esmeralda roared, spittle flying like meteorites. Mad before, she now swelled with true rage.
Brute Three took a step back. Esmeralda plucked up one of her riot-resistant chairs and flung it at the man. He dodged the missile and swiped low with his blade. Esmeralda raised the tin of pepper, popped its lid with a flip of her thumb and flung its contents into Brute 3’s eyes. He screamed and flailed with his knife, hoping to keep her at bay. She flipped the pan from her left hand, over her middle hand to her right hand, caught it and swung with one motion. Cast iron crunched jaw, moved it sideways – broken for sure – and Brute 3’s eyes rolled up in his head.
Brute Four leveled his weapon at Esmeralda. A pellet-popper shoots mini-grenades and is intended to be used in ships and space habitats. The grenades explode if they get within a meter of a solid barrier or when they’ve gone five meters. Esmeralda was four meters distant from Brute Four. Three or four grenades would do her no good.
I fired at Brute Four with my stunner. The barely visible beam hit his shield, exploded it in a fountain of blue sparks and went right into his chest. He froze like a popsicle on Pluto. Thank God for police strength weapons. I turned the stunner toward Zorba-Sokratis.
“Okay, Zorba – dance.”
Before I could fire, Zorba-Sokratis-Anthony dissolved into a cloud of purple drops. The cloud swirled like a tornado. Various bio-hazard alarms about my person beeped, buzzed and shrieked.
Esmeralda squealed, “Duck, McCabe!”
The purple tornado’s wide end reared above me, swooped down and covered me with purple goo.

A week later Adele and I took a stroll through the Cubicles.
“Are you feeling up to this, Adele?”
“Sure. The pure vax keeps me symptom free and relatively un-addicted. Gonzalez told me the cure is a ten days away, too.”
“Back to duty?”
“Next week.” She looked sideways at me as we passed Boone’s normal spot, now vacant as a Christmas tree lot in July. “What’s going to happen to Boone?”
“Nothing much.”
“What about the deaths? The felonies?”
“He was under duress. I’m thinking five years with two off for good behavior—and maybe another off if they get tired of his quotations.”
“Aren’t the max prisons run by A-Is?”
“Sure, but electronic brains have their limits too.”
“Tell me again what finally happened at the cafe.”
I grinned. “Not what I expected.”
“You must have guessed something. You went in with haz-mat protection.”
“Yeah, and I’m damned lucky the sonic shield went up fast and held. As I mentioned before, old Zorba-Sokratis-Anthony was a protoplasm bag holding a soup of intelligent virus.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“Surprised me, too.”
“What was the deal with that?”
“The whole Zorba thing – who is Zorba?”
“Zorba was a character in a classic 20th Century video. You ought to take it in. I’m guessing that the virus was looking on our web for somebody to model its protoplasm mask on—lots of pixels in a vid like that and it did say he was a Greek, though the actor was really a Mexican.”
Adele pursed her lips. “So the virus that got me was a scam?”
“A tool, rather, and a bit too perfect. Gonzalez smelled a rat right away. The whole mind worm/vax scheme was too much trouble for the amount of money the pushers could take in. It looked plausible only when we were all panicked.”
“The real threat?”
“The real threat was that shipment of off-planet vaccine. We’d have given everybody in Chili-Mac the preventative shot.”
“And everyone would have been taken over by an intelligent virus?”
“Yeah, and the known universe was next.”
“So what happened to the purple goo that jumped you?”
I shrugged. “It’s in custody.”
“Yeah. Esmeralda’s from a different neighborhood in the galaxy and she’s no dummy. Seeing the goo made her recall something similar she’d heard about. She dropped the riot bag over her cafe and trapped us all. Luckily, she’s immune to the stuff and my shield and filters held until cavalry arrived.”
“Did they kill it?”
“Hell, no! Taken all together, the goo is an intelligent entity.”
“You mean it will go on trial?”
“Sure, a trial followed by several centuries in a prison satellite a long way from anywhere—if I had my choice.”
Adele stopped. “There’s another choice?”
I sighed. “I suspect somebody somewhere is drooling over the prospect of weaponizing the goo.”
“You’re kidding.”
“I’m not—and I can guess what Boone would say.”
“If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.”
“Ben Franklin?”
“Francis Bacon.”
Adele shook her head. “We’re here and I need a drink.”
I nodded. We entered Esmeralda’s cafe and ordered drinks. Drinks in hand, we surveyed our fellow patrons.
“McCabe, I’m curious about one more thing.”
“About the virus?”
“No, about this place. Where’s the hot tub?”
I pointed toward the ceiling above. “Up there.”
“Can customers use it?”
“It’s for Esmeralda and her invited guests only.”
“Then why is it included in the Café’s name?”
“Have you been in it?”
“No, but I have a standing invitation.” I sipped Tullamore Dew. “I can get you in, too, if you want.”
Adele thought about this. “So why haven’t you gone?”
I pointed with my pinky. “See that dude at the bar?”
“The one who looks like the Yeti’s bigger, meaner brother?”
“The same. And the entity next to him?”
Adele blinked and looked closer. The creature was most like an octopus stuck on top of a donkey. Purple and green mottled tentacles, three gripping drinks, wove hypnotically in the air. One was draped affectionately across yeti-bro’s hairy shoulder. “Let me guess—they’re invited hot tub guests too?”
“Right. Care to join them?”
Adele watched a tentacle tip tickle yeti-bro’s ear. “Nope.”
I sipped again. “Esmeralda likes you. She might ask you up all by herself.”
Adele took a swallow of beer. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. If she does, don’t give her a flat ‘no’.”
“Got it.”
Esmeralda approached their table. “Want some chilé?”


Robert Walton is a retired teacher, a lifelong mountaineer and rock climber with many ascents in the Sierras and Pinnacles National Monument, his home crags. His writing about climbing has appeared in the Sierra Club’s Ascent. His novel Dawn Drums won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction, first place in the 2014 Arizona Authors competition and first place in the historical fiction category of the 2017 Readers Choice Awards. Most recently, his short story “Uriah” was published in Assisi, a literary journal associated with St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

Please visit his website for more information about him:

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I should mention that Moonlight Mesa Associates, the publisher of Dawn Drums, has cut the Kindle edition’s price in half. If you are interested, please visit this Amazon link: