Harry stared at the Princess Ackaetia. “You are a space alien?
by Rob Hunter
“As I said—a bird of ill omen,” said Princess Ackaetia.
The woman at the far end of the kaleidoscope had not been there last week, of this Simon was sure. She was naked or near enough, thinly dressed in a diaphanous veil that left little to the imagination.
“Holy shit!” Simon Alexander breathed on the lens and gave it a wipe with his sleeve.
“I see that I have your attention...” said the woman, “...finally.”
With a furtive glance to see if there was anyone watching, Simon took a closer look.
“You are carrying a beer and a bag of Cheetos.” The woman wriggled suggestively as she strode toward the kaleidoscope’s eye-piece, shedding blue veils one by one. “I’d like a beer, too. But you will have to get me out of this thing first, I think.”
“You are the Virgin Mary,” said Simon, who watched TV shows on unexplained phenomena.
“Perhaps. I might also be a bird of ill omen, a carrion crow. Or a butterfly. Whatever. I am celebrated for my hijinks and practical jokes, howsomever. Appearances can be deceiving. Only last week I appeared covering the entire leeward face of a mountain in Brazil,” she said. “Thousands came to see the miracle. Many died, trampled in the rush. Compare to this the incongruity of a grown man hiding out behind the garage with a kaleidoscope and a six-pack.”
The kaleidoscope was Simon’s secret—after forty-three years of marriage his only secret. Its twisted barber pole spirals of colored metal foil pasted with stars and crescent moons reflected Mylar purples that shone like the sunglasses of a state trooper. Simon kept the kaleidoscope hidden under the eaves at the back of the garage. He had been temporarily banished from the house while Bonnie spread quilt patterns over all available surfaces. Beer and Cheetos were forbidden inside the house.
“Is this contraption yours?” said the woman. She was surrounded by a pale blue aura. “Good luck for you that I showed up in a portable apparatus.”
“Then you are not the Virgin Mary.” Cellophane crinkled as Simon reached into the bag which he had retrieved from under the front seat of the family sedan. Dinner was hours away.
“You were expecting someone else?”
“Ah, no. I was expecting some colored glass beads.” Simon wished that he had bothered to shave that morning. “It’s a Boy Scout project from sixty years back. Katahdin Council, Willipaq, Maine.” Simon shook the kaleidoscope. “Troop 136.”
“Easy with the shaking. These Boy Scouts you speak of, they are a cloistered order? Lay brothers? And you are eating in front of me.”
“Sorry.” Simon popped an orange-colored salt-slathered cheese-flavored Cheeto into his mouth. “I was hungry.”
“And thirsty too, I’ll warrant. I am the Princess Ackaetia Uroonous. You shall be my chosen champion. Name please?” She jiggled.
“Simon. Simon Alexander. Princess, princess, ahh...”
“Uroonous. Princess Ackaetia Uroonous. Practice saying this. And I know all about you. I have watched you from the other end of the kaleidoscope. I call you Big Eye. Does my name not roll on the palate like a scented oil?”
“It is a first-rate name, alright.” The princess was naked and lovely and that she might have a mellifluous name was not of paramount concern. “I did think you were the Virgin Mary for a minute there.”
“Hardly. But in one or two negligible planetary systems I am revered as a goddess.” The scope virgin struck a demure pose, eyes averted in modesty. “Hence I require champions who are trustworthy, reverent and brave. These Boy Scouts you speak of—they are warrior monks? With the single-minded devotion of a religious community?”
“Well... a scout is cheerful, trustworthy, obedient, clean, brave and reverent. I was an assistant scoutmaster thirty years running. And loyal. I ran a tight ship—no booze, no dope. We encouraged abstinence before marriage. Hey, the kids were only twelve years old.”
“As you are my chosen champion, I shall accept your assessment. For the time being. We shall have to get me back where I belong, and that is that.” Simon took a deep breath and held it as blue veils rippled and slithered to the, well, floor. The apparition arched her back to better display her breasts. “We’ll have to get together and urinate sometime,” she said.
“I am not yet fluent with your idiom,” said the Princess Ackaetia. “I spoke wrongly? I had hoped to be alluring. You may breathe now.”
Simon chugalugged his remaining beer. “Take it from me—you are definitely alluring.” He adjusted the focus.
“And don’t fidget. It is unbecoming.” The Princess Ackaetia was beginning to fade. Simon gave the kaleidoscope a shake and banged it against the wall.
“Ouch!” said the Princess Ackaetia.
“Uh, sorry,” said Simon. “Are you by any chance from another dimension?” In addition to his television habit Simon was an avid reader of science fiction.
“Alas, I was fleeing ravishment or abduction and did not watch where I was going. And now I am wedged in an oubliette at the bottom of my garden. I had slipped away to meditate. Prince Philo Gulesi is hounding me for my maidenhead and I must trust to the kindness of strangers.”
“Oubliette? Prince... Philo Gulesi?”
Princess Ackaetia sighed. “A hole in the ground, at the other end of your kaleidoscope. And a very not nice person, to answer your questions in the order presented. Pull me through. There is a lot of me and I am considered odiferous by some species. You will want to do this out-of-doors. And I suggest a pair of rubber gloves.” Overhead a questing crow gave a squawk as it miscalculated its bearings and flew headlong into a power pole. “As I said—a bird of ill omen,” said Princess Ackaetia.
Simon returned with a dust mask and the large yellow Playtex gloves Bonnie kept under the kitchen sink. He had stuffed the mask with a handkerchief soaked in aftershave lotion. “Ready.”
“Unscrew the eyepiece, reach in and pull. Careful now. Incidentally, you smell terrible.”
“It’s Aqua Velva.” Simon’s arm extended into the tube farther than the kaleidoscope’s lengthwise measurement would have led him to believe. Instead of the curvilinear woman he was expecting, Simon felt a large, viscous, throbbing mass between his fingers. “Ah, I think I’ve got you.”
“You have. But not there. Here. I am ticklish and that is a very personal place. And do not squeeze. Just pull. Got it?” said the Princess Ackaetia. “Pull!”
Simon pulled. The reek of unfriendly compost assailed his nostrils. He was glad for the hanky. After much struggling, the scope virgin popped out.
“You are a giant slug.”
“The lineaments of beauty are debatable,” said the slug. “I may have misrepresented myself so as to be pleasing in your sight, Big Eye.” The giant slug undulated, slurped and sloshed. “A small deception. What you see is what you get.” She executed a haughty turn like a fashion mannequin at the end of a runway.
“Bonnie is absolutely not going to believe this.” Simon cupped his hands and called, “Bonnie! There’s someone here I would like you to meet.”
A well kept sixty-something woman came to the screen door. “Yes, darling?” She was all smiles; a heart-rending odor of muffins and pot roast with gravy followed close behind her.
“Your wife is very understanding to let you out alone with a princess of the blood,” said the scope virgin. “Is she a jealous type?”
“Don’t go there,” Simon whispered. “Could you possibly come in the house with me and show her I’m not sliding into senile dementia?”
“I am afraid I would leave a slime trail,” said the slug.
“Simon, always bringing things home.” Simon’s wife searched warily, scanning the back yard for a probable source for her husband’s enthusiasm. “Well, what have we today?” Bonnie’s eyes froze on the Princess Ackaetia. “Oh, a great big slug, how very interesting. And how very disgusting. Now we will have to put out bait before we’re overrun. Our lettuce will be ruined. Put a peach basket over it.” Bonnie executed a quick swivel to stomp back into the house. “At your age, too. Dinner is on hold.”
As Simon pondered pot roast denied, the hand which held the kaleidoscope hung dejectedly at his side. A midge or a gnat buzzed from the tube. It performed a series of aerial acrobatics as if getting its bearings, then flew in ever smaller circles about his head. A beam of polarized light flashed between the insect and the tip of Simon Alexander’s nose. “Ow!” Simon grasped his nose and hopped about in agony. The insect then dived at the scope virgin. The bug was angry.
“Big Eye! Should he fire again I am undone,” cried the Princess Ackaetia.
Simon, through his pain, paused to stare at the insect—hovering, prepared to strike—and the slug. “I beg your pardon?”
“Swat him. If he cannot have me, he has sworn to kill me lest a more acceptable suitor find favor in my eyes.”
“Huh! How about that.” Simon raised his arm and swung the kaleidoscope. There was a “ding” as of a BB hitting a can. “Gotcha.” Mylar mirrors and glass beads went flying. The kaleidoscope was demolished.
“Shattered into pieces! My poor, dear oubliette. Now I shall never, ever get back home again. By-the-bye, you have also just destroyed Prince Philo Gulesi’ s battle cruiser.”
“Sorry. I thought it was a bug.”
“Prince Philo’s ship was government property; the over-taxed underclasses will be grumpy. And you have wrecked my gateway in the process. But where are my manners?” said the scope virgin. “You have saved my life. Thank you.”
“Your suitor? But he, Prince Philo, is—was—so small. How do you, ahh...”
“The females of my kind are considerably larger than the males. Or they smaller—whatever. This is an economy of scale.”
Simon checked the ground for kaleidoscope parts.
“Even if you picked up everything you could find there’d still be something missing,” said Princess Ackaetia. “This is a universal law; you’d have a bag of parts is all. And even if you could get them all back together again the refraction indices would be all wrong.”
“The Boy Scouts built it; we can fix it. It may take a while. It has been sixty years.”
“Meanwhile, I am here. And Prince Philo Gulesi is nowhere. This has created an imbalance that will cascade through the fabric of space-time.”
“Simon!” Simon’s wife opened the screen door a crack.
“You are talking to it.”
“But...” The screen door snicked shut.
“Very observant, your wife. We may safely ignore her,” said the scope virgin offhandedly.
Simon turned to follow his wife into the house.
“Ever-amplified, this space-time anomaly will pack all the destructive power of Prince Philo’s demolished cruiser, plus the mass of a displaced princess of the House of Uroonous, multiplied to the 27th power. We shall have some serious mischief.” The regal petulance disappeared from the Princess’ tone. “I don’t mean to be any trouble—thanks for my deliverance and all—but there is great peril ahead.”
“Thank you for filling me in,” said Simon. “Could we talk about this later? Bonnie has a pot roast going for tonight.”
“No, now. We shall have to manufacture so many kaleidoscopes that one of them will have to have the correct dimensional refraction. This will require volunteers. They must be the same who made the original kaleidoscope. We shall have to whistle up these Boy Scouts of yours and negotiate a fix.”
“But they will be old, scattered...”
“You did it once; you can do it again. Prince Philo’s regent is not going to wait on your Bonnie’s pot roast. There will be a war of succession in addition to our space-time anomaly. Billions of lives will be extirpated. Shake a leg.”
“We’ll have to get you covered up. Not everyone would understand...”
“This �peach basket’of your wife’s sounds appropriate.”
“Come on in the house. We’ll have to use the kitchen phone. The linoleum? Your slime trail? I hope I’m not hurting your feelings, but Bonnie’s new carpet...”
“I am a princess of the blood. We are held to a higher degree of accountability. Linoleum will be fine,” said the Princess Ackaetia.
“Harry Pease should be in.” Simon was warming to the challenge. “He can do a telephone tree to get Troop 136 out of retirement. Careful on the welcome mat. Astroturf,” cautioned Simon.
In the street a car door slammed, an engine revved. Bonnie had left a note pinned to a peach basket on the kitchen table:
I’ll be at Alma’ s. Those damned aloha shirts of yours were one thing. I will not be a laughing stock at the checkout line of the Red and White again. Call me when you come to your senses. The pot roast is turned off. Indefinitely.
Wearing his aloha shirt outside of the house was a minor rebellion that Bonnie had never forgiven. By Simon’s lights, most folks who bought them on vacation never summoned up the raw courage required to wear them in Willipaq, Maine. Simon picked up the phone. “Harry and I used to be close. We went all the way to Eagle Scout side by side.”
Harry picked up on the third ring, just as the answering machine cut in. “...not home right now. Wait for the...” CLICK. “I’m here, godammit. Simon? I know it’s you, I got caller ID,” said Harry.
“Harry? Remember when you said I had space aliens living in my teapot?”
“That was 1982. Besides, I meant it as a compliment to your powers of imagination. Have you been nursing a grudge all these years?”
“Nonononono. I got one. A space alien, not a grudge. Her name is Princess Ackaetia Uroonous and we need your help.” Simon related the morning’s doings.
“So Bonnie’s left you. If I was twenty years younger... Oh, what the hell, come on over. And bring the Princess.” Harry hung up.
“He says yes,” said Simon.
“Thank you,” said the Princess Ackaetia. “This will mean a reprieve for uncounted billions. And now, how’s about that beer?”
Harry Pease rose painfully. “Door’s open. Come on in.” He walked with two canes, his knees ravaged by arthritis, shattered by sports injuries, and at the moment between surgeries. Simon entered carrying the peach basket with the Princess Ackaetia inside. A cloud of flying insects swarmed in behind them and headed straight at Harry’s head.
“Shit!” said Harry. “Holy shit. I thought it was too late in the season.” He reached for the spray can of bug killer he kept at the ready near the door. The insect cloud dropped like a rock. All but for two. Spouting tiny streams of electric fire they made for a spot right between Harry’s eyes. “Yikes!” Harry dropped the bug spray and swung one cane in a roundhouse right. There was a tiny “ding” and a mid-air flash of the kind courting fireflies give. “What the hell was that all about?”
“You have just faced down a direct assault by the remnants of Prince Philo Gulesi’s fleet and prevailed. You must come from hardy stock,” said the peach basket.
“Well, it still stings,” said Harry Pease, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I don’t recall you being a ventriloquist, Simon. Alright, suppose you have got a space alien in your peach basket. Lemme have a peek at her.”
“You asked for it.” Simon lifted the peach basket.
“A princess of the blood doesn’t get out much. I amuse myself as I may,” said Princess Ackaetia. An oversized garden slug peered coyly up at Harry Pease.
“She was a pin-up girl when I met her,” said Simon.
“Fleeing ravishment or abduction by an unrelenting suitor,” said the Princess. “You appear to have more legs than Simon. Are you certain that this is not Barsoom? One time when my kitten ran off he returned chewing a very entertaining manuscript. About your world? I have to know how it ends. You have a copy.” This was a statement not a question.
“That would be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Captain John Carter series,” Simon said. “Carter of Mars? I have it but it is hard to get at. Bonnie put all my paperbacks away in the attic.”
“As long as you have it; that is enough. I shall grant you an indulgence.”
“Kitten...” Simon breathed easier. That the Princess Ackaetia would have a kitten leveled the playing field between them, the human and the quasi-divine.
“I am trying to use terms with which you will be familiar. A lizard, actually. Rather large and ill-tempered and with a fondness for fresh meat. He ate one of my tutors. I once asked that tutor why is the kaleidoscope and was this particular kaleidoscope a threat.”
“What were your late tutor’s feelings on kaleidoscopes?”
“Much as his feelings on elopement and the bridal consummation. He said I must squinch my eyes together and pray hard.”
Harry paled and sat down abruptly. “Ahh... I beg your pardon, Princess. You said an unrelenting suitor. Prince Philo... who?”
“Gulesi. Philo Gulesi. I have not always been inside a peach basket, you know. I remember once I showed up in the air space of a thermopane picture window,” said Princess Ackaetia. “Like mist, you know, in Bayonne, New Jersey. The faithful mobbed the house. I leaked. No mist, no miraculous apparition. You have shown sufficient deference. You’ll do.”
“Ahh... I’ll do what?” said Harry Pease.
“Stop a civil war, save the known universe. For this we will require the assistance of the original Boy Scouts who built the kaleidoscope,” said the scope virgin.
Harry stared at the Princess Ackaetia. “You are a space alien? Really?”
“I may be an alien here. At home I am queen-apparent.”
“OK, OK,” said Harry Pease. “Enough already. I’m a believer. Simon, I figured you only needed a drink with a buddy. Because of Bonnie and all? I didn’t dream I’d be meeting a bona fide princess who lives in a peach basket and looks like live bait. Simon,” said Harry, “...how old are we?”
“Uh, seventy-two. So?”
“So we’d better get cracking; there are only a couple of us left. Most of Troop 136 are dead or moved to Florida. I can probably scare up some warm bodies, though.” He peered closely at the Princess Ackaetia. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, your highness. What can the Boy Scouts of America do for you?”
“Recreate my oubliette,” said the Princess Ackaetia. “Or your kaleidoscope—it depends on one’s point of view, does it not? It is in all our own best interests. Though vast, infinity is a biography of finite numbers: sooner or later the displacement will arrive back where it started, and then Ka-Boom. Good-bye everything. You want me to write this out for you? For any doubters?”
“You don’t have hands,” Simon observed.
“You will write. I will dictate,” said the Princess.
“Some folks won’t believe anything until they see it in print,” said Harry.
“This is it,” announced Simon to Princess Ackaetia with the pride of a swashbuckler showing off his Caribbean redoubt. A solitary traffic light swung in the early evening dark directing three cars at the intersection. The Seniors Center—aside from the traffic light the only light downtown—projected a ferny terracotta ambience. A vigorous eighty-something woman with short-cropped gray hair bustled about inside, setting candles on empty café tables.
The sign said Open. Simon and the princess waited, motor running, angle-parked at the curb to see who would show up. At the far end of one line of fluorescent fixtures a plastic pail hung from a leaking sprinkler valve near the ceiling. Beneath it, suffused with an orange Edward Hopper glow, Harry Pease played single-handed Scrabble. Over the next half-hour five gregarious, chatty old-timers straggled in.
“Now,” said Simon, going around to open the passenger’s side door. “Showtime. I hope Harry prepped them to meet you.”
As Simon entered carrying the Princess Ackaetia and her peach basket, the reunited Scouts flashed them the three-fingered salute. On the walls hung salvaged Norman Rockwell posters celebrating the scouting life.
Simon shook the peach basket. “You okay in there?”
“I will be when you stop shaking this damned thing.” There were now seven in all inside the Seniors Center, Princess Ackaetia’s recruits: six men and a woman, a one-time den mother who departed to the kitchen to spread tuna salad on finger rolls. Simon carefully placed the Princess on one of the café tables.
A bell on a spring jingled at the front door to announce a late arrival. “Sorry about that—don’t trust the airlines.” Fleming Ward, called Phlegm in school, had driven all the way from Florida. His eyes fell on the discarded peach basket. “Hiya, Simon. Fresh peaches? What’ s this?” He reached out to give the Princess Ackaetia a tentative poke.
“How intimate. Quel sauvage,” giggled the Princess.
“That’s French,” observed Harry.
“Reasonably perceptive, Harry Pease.” The Princess Ackaetia jiggled in thoughtful reverie. “A grotto. A little French girl. She taught me. French, that is. I taught her the rest. She was so sweet.”
“A little French girl in a grotto.” Fleming known as Phlegm crossed himself. “Saint Bernadette...”
“I appeared as a mist,” said the Princess. “You might want to check yourself for stigmata. Like nail holes in your palms?”
Phlegm Ward checked his palms. “Nope.” He blanched and gagged; the Princess had left a slime trail on his hands.
“Oh, how delightful.” The Princess chortled and rocked, the table teetered. “I have never, ever been to Lourdes; that was just one of my little jokes.”
“Yuck,” said Phlegm. He wiped himself off on his shirt front.
Spouses and wondering adult children packed bag lunches, filled thermos bottles and car-pooled their loved ones to the kaleidoscope factory. The spouses and children were not invited in. The Princess Ackaetia held court perched atop a red leatherette barstool as the Seniors Center became a hive of activity. From as far afield as Boston and Toronto bolts of reflective Mylar film, shipping tubes and cartons of plastic lenses arrived by FedEx.
“How many is that so far, Harry?” asked the Princess.
“Over a thousand, your highness. Twelve hundred thirty-eight exactly.”
“Statistically sufficient. Pick one and take a peek.” Harry lifted a kaleidoscope from the nearest folding banquet table. “Wow! I mean, holy shit.” Naked and enticing, the scope virgin was back in the tube.
“Precisely. Yes, I am, am I not?” said Princess Ackaetia from her barstool. “Beautiful in whichever aspect, that is.” Harry handed off the kaleidoscope to Simon. Simon took a look. First into the kaleidoscope, then at the Princess. “But you’re there and here.”
“As I was when first we met, Simon Alexander...” the naked lady in the tube gave her behind a wiggle.
From the barstool the peach basket Princess continued, “...and you should find a telltale circle of charcoal around your eye. It will wash off in a day or so. Another of my little jokes. A memento for when I am gone. If you will all lend a hand, it is time to begin testing the apparatuses.”
Phlegm Ward came from the kitchen wiping his hands on a wad of paper towels. “OK, I’ll play. A big slug says it is a princess. And you guys buy it, all of it.” There was a shocked silence followed by shuffling and distancing but Phlegm stood his ground. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, just what the hell do we get out of all this, anyway?”
“That is rude,” said the Princess. “Your desires are neither here nor there.”
Simon handed over Princess Ackaetia’s dictation. “Phlegm, read this. She wrote it out for you.”
Phlegm approached the paper warily like a cat stalking in high, dry grass. He studied it closely from all sides, turned it over, hoping to find enlightenment or at least a coupon on the back. “Sounds like something I’d do drunk. Ka-Boom, huh? Total obliteration—and smack dab in the middle of the NBA playoffs most likely.” He turned to the Princess on her red leatherette barstool. “But you still haven’t answered my question. What do we get out of this?”
“Simon gets pot roast and gravy. I believe his wife has been holding dinner.”
“And the rest of us?”
“You deserve something nice. With little evidence that the fabric of space-time would be irreparably rent, and this only on my say-so, few would have had the courage to take up my cause.”
“So? What do we get?” Phlegm’s tone was accusing, uncalled for, in Simon’s opinion.
“You get a peek whenever your little hearts desire,” said Princess Ackaetia. “Time hangs heavy when one is trapped inside a kaleidoscope.”
“Once a scout always a scout. I just wanted a little recognition—you know, like a merit badge. Let’s get to it. Everyone agree?” said Phlegm. “Sorry I got here late.”
“Tardiness is a prerogative of royalty and I shall view this as a compliment to my exalted status. Your persistent hand-washing, however, smacks of l�se-majesté . Apology accepted.”
A few hundred kaleidoscopes in and they found it. “This is the one,” said the scope virgin.
“How do you know?” asked Harry.
“Q.E.D. I’m not in it. Yet.”
“We’ve done it? Saved the known universe, then?” asked Simon.
“I hope you have found it to be a not overly strenuous undertaking.”
“But that’s it? It’s over?”
“It is. Now, help stuff me into this thing. Any volunteers?” To a man, Phlegm Ward included, Troop 136 Katahdin Council, Willipaq, Maine stepped forward. Passing the Princess Ackaetia back through the trans-dimensional rift was more like greased pig wrestling than assisting a distressed damsel aboard a passing palfrey. Finally her dorsal hump slipped past the aperture.
“Whew!” said the Princess. “Bye now.”
Simon shook his kaleidoscope. Broken glass rattled. “She’s gone.” He looked again. At the far end of the tube a naked glorious woman parted a curtain painted with fluffy Tiepolo clouds against a sky bluer than blue. She turned to wave.
Harry Pease grabbed an armload of kaleidoscopes and peered through each in turn. “Hey, the naked lady is still in the tube. All the tubes.” He set the kaleidoscopes down and went to check in the mirror. They had left a series of large concentric black rings around his eye.
Harry and Simon returned to their separate houses and their separate wives and hearths. Simon resolved never to tell Bonnie about this. A trans-dimensional refugee saved from an intolerable marriage would make a good enough story, he reasoned; Bonnie was an incurable romantic. Like wearing aloha shirts outside the house and rubbernecking high school girls—who had begun looking good again after he turned seventy—a naked woman in each and every of one thousand two-hundred and thirty-eight Boy Scout kaleidoscopes was a thing best not spoken of.
Happy for their private silences and carrying the empty peach basket, Harry and Simon drove home alone, together. Troop 136 would wear their black circles with the pride of a full sash of merit badges. And Simon would blame his increasingly slippery memory on the direct hit from Prince Philo Gulesi’s neutron cannon.
copyright 2007, 2015 Rob Hunter
Scope Virgin was first published in The Written Word Online Magazine November/December 2007.