“Ah yes, the age-old story of the rebellious kid with a heart of gold who steals some mad scientist’s project, which happens to be some mutated creature that seems menacing at first, but gets cuter and cuter over time as we get to know him. Come on, Rogers, don’t you have anything original?”
“No, but no one has anything original, sir.”
The producer raised his brow and sighed. “Why did you bring this to me?”
“Because, for one thing, it’s real.”
Martin Plotz glanced down at the photographs that Trudy had placed on his desk. He took a magnifying lens to one of them and bent over it. He frowned and glanced up at Trudy with the expression that she expected him to have on his face, annoyed but certain disbelief.
“Yes, the story comes from a reputable news outlet.” Trudy flipped through her notebook.
“Let me guess, the Curious Cryptid Weekly?”
Trudy chuckled. “Of course not, sir. It’s the Supernatural Inquirer. Making inquiries into all things natural…and beyond.”
Plotz raised a brow.
Trudy widened her eyes. “No?”
She sighed. “I’ll keep looking.”
“Don’t you have any…I don’t know, exotic myths and folk tales from where you come from?”
He sighed. Trudy knew what he was getting at, and he knew that she knew. He cleared his throat. “What about those two scripts you brought me last week? That one about the talking rat and the other one about the girl with the plant juice in her skin?”
“The mouse genetically modified with human genes who developed rudimentary speech and the photosynthetic skin graft patient?”
“Those, yeah? What about those?”
“You rejected them.”
“Well, tell them I changed my mind.”
“It’s too late, sir. Those scripts have already been taken.” Trudy knew that her boss would be changing his mind. She had tried to keep their options open, but she had nothing solid to offer to directors and writers of those projects. No contracts. No advance. Not even a verbal agreement.
She could see the sheen of sweat that was starting to form on Plotz’s brow.
She quirked an eyebrow. “How about the one where an alien poses as an associate producer just so she can learn about how humanity works by studying their most intriguing art form?”
“What, movies?” Plotz said without missing a beat. He harrumphed. “An art form?”
“You’re just in it for the big bucks, eh sir?”
She suspected that he knew. She still wasn’t sure why he didn’t just out-and-out ask her. But he didn’t. She had already obtained the permissions to tell him, but she wasn’t sure she would, especially if he didn’t ask. And she had a feeling that he wasn’t going to ask.
Trudy came to Earth in the year 2007, and she spent her first decade on the planet learning the basics, the types of things that could only be learned by doing immersive groundwork. There were so many nuances to a people that were much easier to learn with immersive groundwork than even with direct observation. They couldn’t have done that even if they wanted to. Earth was off limits for remote surveillance by rare unanimous vote regarding the Petite Spiral Galaxy, the galaxy that the humans referred to as the Milky Way.
There were so many exciting things to study and discover and learn about in that glamorous galaxy. And then there was Earth. One of the most gorgeous planets she had ever visited in her three Earth centuries of life. Filled with the greatest and most varied abundance of species she had ever seen on any planet.
If only the humans knew how spoiled they were.
At least that’s what she used to think before she started encountering some of the species that humanity classified as pests. To be sure, it was vital to protect certain species from extinction. But surely the Earth could do without things like parasitic worms.
Humanity’s culture was impressive for a people who had no idea that they weren’t alone in the universe. Their myths were vibrant…and sharply insightful at times. Their science and technology were a strange combination of awkward and elegant.
Their philosophies and religions taken altogether were both dark and noble. They told the tale of a people who had the potential to be one of their galaxy’s most magnanimous and brilliant peoples, and also the potential to destroy themselves and possibly even their planet, leaving an empty space in a solar system that would soon be forgotten were they to disappear before they joined the greater cosmic collective.
Trudy had thought about being an ambassador, long ago, when she was young and still trying to decide what path the first half of her life should take. But she’d never been good at dealing with all different kinds of people. She dreamed of having a job with a core group of people, seeing them every day, having in-jokes. She had never really wondered if other people had things like in-jokes, and was delighted to find a people who most definitely did, humans—a species floating adrift for the time being in the outer reaches of a most intriguing galaxy. Humans, ignorant for the time being of any other civilizations but their own. Humans, reaching out into space for a hand to clasp, and finding none…for the time being.
She liked them.
Even after ten Earth rotations of study, time that some of her friends said was wasted on such a simple-to-understand people, Trudy was finding that they could surprise her. Of course she was. She was actually there with them. And it was a pattern oft repeated. Visitors arrive at a planet as ambassadors or on holiday, away from all the intergalactic bustle, on a “simple” planet where the level of technology hasn’t advanced beyond electricity-based machines. How very charming. But the charm wears off, especially if one wanders away from designated areas. One will see the true flaws and horrors of the world then. And this will be especially true when it comes to any native intelligent life there might be on such a planet. But stay even longer, and one will see true wonders as well.
Humans were no exception to this rule of expecting the unexpected.
And Trudy had stayed on Earth long enough to discover its true wonders, the natural and the native. And the created. The imagined.
She had stayed long enough to discover the movies.
Trudy started at Plotz Hole Studios, because she had, in her time on Earth, become a bit of a movie buff, especially when it came to genre fare. Her obsessions went in phases. She had a film noir phase. A horror phase in the early days. A brief fascination with romantic comedies. And then, her favorite—no matter how badly her friends teased her about being a cliche—science fiction, specifically space science fiction.
She loved all of the popular and well-regarded movies and series, like many. But she also reveled in some old, forgotten pulp stuff, like that short-lived series about a misfit crew flying with a decorated captain on missions to explore the galaxy, and save the occasional attractive alien or two. It was nowhere near as good as its more successful predecessors and contemporaries, but Trudy counted herself among the cult fans. It might have had something to do with the episode where an alien that looked a lot like an ex-lover was the villain, and was outsmarted and defeated in the most satisfying way by the heroes.
It was that show that led her to Plotz Hole Studios. And to Martin Plotz, the man who directed the series, before he hung up his director’s hat to become a studio executive and producer.
When Trudy was hired, Plotz already had his long-standing agreement in place. The agreement of patronage that allowed Plotz Hole Studios to stay afloat.
Martin Plotz started the small studio that made budget movies by new and first-time directors, mostly young. But he quickly ran out of money and would have had to shutter the studio, if it wasn’t for a phenomenal piece of luck. The studio had made a movie that caught by the eye of a reclusive billionaire. (Trudy watched the movie and found nothing particularly spectacular or profound about it. She chalked it up to being a “human thing”—she didn’t always understand human things.) The reclusive billionaire—whose name only Martin knew—bought the studio to keep it going, but he set one condition. He would give the studio just enough money to keep going if and only if they produced at least one movie every year that blew his mind—regardless of whether or not it was successful at the box office, or even released to theaters at all.
Enter Trudy, who some years back applied for associate producer without any useful qualifications, and got the job because she asked Martin Plotz’s secretary if she could stay in the office that night and read all the submitted scripts. She chose three to pitch to the producer. He loved—or claimed to love—all three, and then asked her to choose one, since their budget for that year did not allow them to make all three.
She chose, and it was apparently, the right one, the one the producer would have chosen himself. He liked the test method and asked all other applicants to do the same thing Trudy did. None of the rest impressed him, and he hired her.
The billionaire’s taste in movies? Bizarre science fiction.
Plotz knew from experience that bizarre didn’t mean “fever dream” or “drug trippy.” The billionaire despised any movies where things happened in people’s dreams (for the most part). He wanted the world of the movie—however topsy-turvy it might be in relation to the real world—to make inherent and internal sense.
There were some who didn’t believe the billionaire was real. They thought it was Plotz himself who was bankrolling the studio, using money he’d either inherited suddenly from a rich relative (he had some on his mother’s side), or using money he himself had socked away and maybe invested from past directorial successes.
When Trudy first saw the back catalog of movies that this billionaire liked, she began to wonder if—even suspect that—the billionaire might himself be an alien.
She tried the indirect route of trying to find out, by contacting friends and family back home and having them look into various ambassadors, envoys, emigrants, and approved vendors who were currently residing on Earth. Then she tried to get Plotz to introduce her to the billionaire, hoping he might let her if she chose enough winning scripts. But it was one of the few times Plotz became genuinely angry with her, and he told her to never again ask him if she might meet the billionaire in person.
And yet, Plotz would answer any question she asked about the billionaire’s taste in movies. And if he was in a good mood, he would speak of his impressions of the man the few times he met him.
“Do you watch the movies with him?” Trudy asked once.
“As far as I know, he does a private viewing of all final cuts.”
“Does he re-watch or is he a one-and-done?”
“I have no idea, and don’t ever use that term again. I find it vulgar.”
Plotz sighed. That time, Trudy did not know what he meant. And he seemed to realize that when he saw her expression. His frown softened.
“What is his favorite so far?”
“Look, even if you met, you’re not going to bond with him over movies. You’re not going to impress him even with your sharp skills at picking just the right scripts for him. And even if you were the type to bat eyelashes at people you weren’t genuinely interested in, that wouldn’t work either. There’s maybe only one way you would intrigue the man, and I have a feeling that way is out of the question.”
They dropped the subject then as Trudy sensed they were encroaching on the topic that they never discussed directly, the large white elephant in the room, her true background.
Trudy learned enough to know which of the many scripts their small but respected studio received would appeal to the billionaire. When the clock on his yearly donation to the studios reset, she was always ready with a proposal. It was the others that were difficult. The other movies they would make during the year. The ones that had to satisfy Plotz.
Trudy was waiting for Plotz the next morning. He came in swigging a mug of coffee that his assistant quickly replaced with one that he had brewed. Plotz took a sip of the replaced coffee and his morning frown melted. Trudy waited for him to settle down in his office, exchanging knowing looks with his assistant, Noah, before she marched in with her stack of scripts.
She put her hand on the top of the stack. “When I tell you about the first one, you won’t need me to go any further. But I will, for thoroughness sake.”
Plotz smirked. “I appreciate that, Miss Rogers. Continue.”
Trudy pitched the script that she’d read the night before. The premise was not original. No premise was, as she had said before. But the writer had well-developed characters, motivations that made sense, plot action that didn’t seem to have any obvious holes. It was polished too. The other two scripts she had were a bit rough, like they’d gone through more than a few drafts, but still needed a few more to sand things down a bit.
After she was finished, she sat back and gave a single nod to punctuate her pitch. Plotz leaned back in his chair, his elbows propped on the desk, his fingers intertwined. He peered down at the script.
“Come on, Martin,” someone said, from behind Trudy. “You know that’s the one. She’s found you another winner.”
Trudy turned slightly as the newcomer entered the room.
But Plotz sat up at once. He glanced out the door.
“He stepped out,” the newcomer said.
And Trudy turned all the way around to glance through the door to Plotz’s office. Noah wasn’t at his desk.
Plotz stood up and shook the man’s hand. Trudy likewise rose and waited for their guest to offer his hand. He did and Trudy shook it, finding his handshake to be firm and warm.
“Trudy, this is our esteemed benefactor,” Plotz said. And that was all he said.
“Gertrude Rogers, but everyone calls me Trudy.” She gazed at his face and smiled.
“I know who you are, Trudy. I’ve been as impressed as Martin at your talent for seeing talent, and for knowing—with almost spooky keenness—the specific tastes of your colleagues.”
“I mean I could say ‘superiors,’ but are we…Martin?” He turned to Plotz.
“Certainly not, sir. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
The newcomer—the reclusive-no-more billionaire—turned to Trudy. “He’s sore with me. I can tell. I was adamant that he shouldn’t tell you anything about me. He’s been worried for you that I might ruin your career or something if you tried to dig too deep and actually found something out that I didn’t want you to know. And now I’ve upturned all of that, because of something that I’ve found out.”
Plotz stepped around his desk to come closer to them. “Sir…”
Their benefactor, the studio owner, reached into the breast pocket of his rather modest navy suit, pulled out a card, and offered it to Trudy.
“I’d like to invite you to dinner at my home tonight. Casual attire. Bring Martin with you as a chaperone if you’d like. Though, be forewarned, I want to discuss something with you alone.”
Trudy plucked the card from his fingers.
“If you have any favorite dishes,” he continued, “there’s a number on the card that will reach my chef. Let her know what you’d like. A driver will come to pick you up at your place, unless you end up refusing the invitation, in which case, again, call the number. The number is only good for tonight. As is the invitation.”
He bowed his head to her. “I hope to see you soon.”
And with that, he swept out of Plotz’s office. A few minutes later, Noah reappeared. He saw the frazzled looks on their faces.
“What just happened?” he asked.
Trudy and Plotz arrived at the manor of the reclusive billionaire. It was modest, much like the man’s suit had been.
“Must be part of how he holds onto to his money,” Trudy commented as they were led through a foyer into a receiving room. “He barely spends any.”
“Oh, he spends plenty,” Plotz said. “Just not on the stuff people imagine rich folks spend their money on.”
“So he doesn’t have a dozen of these mansions scattered around the world?”
They were offered an aperitif from a small bar in the receiving room, but both drank only sparkling water. Trudy was nervous. Plotz must have been too. He hadn’t drunk all that much, but they weren’t waiting long before he had to go use the restroom. Trudy wasn’t expecting the private conversation with their benefactor until after dinner, so she insisted that Plotz look after his bladder while she looked after herself for a few moments.
“Good evening, Miss Rogers,” a familiar voice said from a familiar position, behind Trudy.
She turned to find their host strolling toward her from across the room—the side of the room that had no visible entrance. She wondered if he’d snuck in through a secret door in a bookcase or something.
“How kind of you to dress up,” he said. “You look lovely.”
Trudy had put on her work meeting “power” skirt and a shimmering purple-blue top she’d bought for a wedding a few months back. She thanked him with a nod, but was too disoriented to return the compliment or make a quip. But Plotz would be along shortly, to bridge the awkwardness. And she would have time to brace herself for the private discussion part of the evening.
“I watched the movie that inspired you to save the studio,” Trudy said, trying to be banterly. “But I’m afraid, I don’t get it. I couldn’t see what it was about the movie that appealed to you.”
“That’s because I’m the only one who still has a copy of the original, unedited version. The director’s cut, if you will.”
“How did that happen?”
“We’re not sure. Original footage and files got lost when the studio’s ownership was being transferred to me. The version I have is not in the proper format to be released in theaters. And there aren’t enough fans to warrant funding other avenues.”
Trudy didn’t care enough about the mediocre film to wonder if he was being forthright or cagey. “I don’t suppose you’d let me see what you’re talking about,” she said, daring to dare him.
“Sure. I’ll send you home with a copy. I’m curious to know what you think.”
Trudy folded her hands in front of herself and nodded politely.
“I know you have questions for me,” he said, strolling closer, but stopping and taking a perch on the arm of a chair.
A curious shimmer in the full-length mirror across the room distracted Trudy for a moment. She glanced at it and at the portrait next to it of a woman with a resemblance to her host, an ancestor, no doubt.
“I have questions for you too,” he said. “I have varying levels of access to the knowledge and information that is currently available in our world. And I learned that you have procured permission to tell one person about who you really are.”
Trudy said nothing. She glanced at the door to the room, wondering what was taking Plotz so long. Did he fall in?
“I figured that you were planning on telling Martin. He seemed to have an inkling that you were on the verge of a personal revelation. So I asked him if he might be willing to surrender his spot, as it were, to me.”
Trudy stiffened, but tried to keep her expression calm.
“As you might imagine, he refused. Even when I threatened to rescind my patronage—which I wouldn’t do, by the way.” He held out his hand. He must have seen Trudy’s expression darken. “Before you came along, there were a few years when the studio didn’t put out a single movie that appealed to me. But I cheated at my own bargain, and continued to grant it my patronage.”
Trudy furrowed her brow. “Why?”
“You’ve been working there long enough now, haven’t now? Working with Martin, long enough? There’s something about it. I need the studio. So do you, I suspect.”
“It is my livelihood.”
“He did say that he wouldn’t object to letting me take his place if you were willing to speak to me.”
Trudy narrowed her eyes but said nothing.
Her host said nothing.
And the door to the room did not open. Trudy had a feeling that it would not open until her host was done conversing with her.
“Plotz once told me that you’re not from around here,” he said.
Trudy assumed a polite smile. “Really? Where did he say I was from?”
“He didn’t hazard a guess?”
“How did you enter this room?” she asked him.
And he surprised her by beaming and leaping up from his chair. “Do you suspect something about me, as I do about you?”
“You’re different…from other people.” She peered at him.
He peered back at her. “Are we not going to say the ‘a’-word?”
Trudy raised her brows. “Adultery?”
Her host took a step back. He took what looked to be a gasping breath and Trudy thought she must have actually upset him. But then he spoke. He said the word.
Trudy had to tread carefully then. If she said too much to her host, she could never say anything to her boss. Plotz, who never asked, who pretended to know some things about her, and actually knew the most important things about her. About her, not her heritage, not her origins. Because he loved the movies with as much passion as she did.
“In the mirror of this reality,” her host said, “I see the reflection of another.” He tilted his head back toward that mirror on the opposite wall, the one whose shimmer had distracted Trudy. “And in the mirror of that other reality, I see the reflection of this one.”
He said nothing more, but studied Trudy’s expression as she peered at the mirror. Was he saying that he had stepped out of the mirror? Then it was the hidden door. But what was all the riddling he was doing about realities?
Trudy couldn’t think of anything complex, so she proposed the most obvious observation. “You’re from another reality.”
Her host grinned, shrugged, and pursed his lips. “And that’s about it. Now let’s talk about you.”
“Are you hiding your name because of a parallel you in this reality?”
“Funny you should mention doppelgangers.”
Trudy was having trouble keeping her overactive brow from giving away her feelings. She began to suspect that her host already knew everything about her and was just toying with her, with her and with Plotz, taking away her chance to tell the man who was her Earth-dad and her work-dad, who she really was. So be it.
Let him toy with her. She would give him what she wanted.
“On one condition,” she said.
He nodded knowingly. “You want to know my name.”
Trudy paused. “It’s your name, sir. You can keep it if you choose. My condition is that Martin be given every resource within your means and your reach to make the movie that you and I know he wants to make, his life’s work, his masterpiece. He believes it’s the end of his road. Frankly, I think he just needs to get it out of his system so he can start making the really good stuff.”
Her host hesitated. “Are you certain that’s the condition you want to name?”
“Are you resistant to him making the movie? I know he’s asked you before.”
“I love that script, but…I want Martin to guide people to the truth. I don’t want him to just show it to them.”
“What truth would that be?”
He beamed again, and he was either very good at deception, or the expression of unbridled hope on his face was sincere. His eyes glittered with unshed tears. “The triumph of solidarity in the face of catastrophe.”
It was a fancy way of putting the simple plot of the story. All the people in the galactic collective of the Milky Way band together to stop the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center from destabilizing and blasting out, sucking them all into the eternal oblivion of its belly. And that included “aliens” (though in the story, no one living within the Milky Way was considered an alien). And it included people from the millions of alternate realities that were linked through the black hole’s gravity well.
Martin Plotz hadn’t acquired the script. He’d written it himself.
“You know, in Martin’s story,” Trudy said. “I wouldn’t be considered an alien.”
Her host’s eyes widened. He shook his head and blinked. “It was my boyhood dream. And here you are.” He laughed. “It probably won’t surprise you to hear that you don’t look anything like what I would have expected.”
Trudy, still on her guard, nodded politely. “You expected a more…exotic organic form.”
“I expected something less human, yes.”
“Human. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Because I like the human form. It’s cute.”
He laughed again. “I’ve met a lot of interesting folks. I’ve never met an alien before.”
“I’ve never met a human from another reality before.”
“Are there many of you on Earth?” he asked. No doubt he knew the answer, but no doubt he had never heard it from an alien before.
“There are. And you?”
“And you can just return to the other reality?”
“The doorways are always open.” He gestured to the mirror. “For those who know how to find them and see them. I’m sure you can see it and follow its path to my true home.”
“We do not go where we are not invited.”
He frowned in confusion. “Do you mean invited by someone who has the authority to speak for the world?”
Trudy bowed her head as an answer.
“We don’t have aliens in our reality. Not as far as I know. May I ask what you really look like, in your native form? Is that rude? Pardon me, if it is.”
Trudy took a breath and crossed her arms. “This is my native form.”
“But you weren’t born with this form.”
“No, but I’ve seen human babies. You weren’t born with that form either.” She gave him a quick once over, regretting it at once when she noted the discomfort on his face.
She sighed. “There is someone with this same form somewhere on Earth. I liked how she looked. So you were right about my being someone’s doppelganger.”
He took a breath to ask another question, but before he could, she raised a hand. “First, do we have a deal, about Martin’s movie?”
It seemed longer, but when Trudy checked her watch later, she noted that she had only been in the room alone with their host for about fifteen or twenty minutes. He had been the one to end the conversation, noting that she must be hungry, and he wouldn’t keep his guests waiting any longer. He let her watch him climb into the mirror. She did indeed see the other reality. It was a room quite different from the one in which she stood. It looked like the bedroom of a modest apartment. There was a gray hoodie hung from a hook on a closet, and a small black dog came running toward the mirror, to greet the man who stepped through it.
As soon as he was all the way through, the mirror seemed to frost over, and clear up. And then all she saw was her own reflection.
Plotz came barging into the room then, and judging from his behavior and lack of panic, she gathered that for him, only a few moments had passed. She didn’t have a chance to tell him what had happened before a servant came to fetch them for dinner.
At dinner, their host was as polite with Trudy and as familiar with Plotz as he had been earlier that day. He gave no indication to Plotz that he had already had his conversation with Trudy. Plotz was startled when their host bid them adieu after dessert, and walked them out himself.
Trudy asked the driver to drop them both off at the studio. It was still early in the evening. She wanted to tell Plotz as much as she could about her conversation with their patron. Then she wanted to go get a burger. The actual food at dinner had not been as satisfying as she’d hoped. People must not have big appetites in the reality where their host came from.
In Plotz’s office, over a cup of microwaved tea, she told him about the reality-bending room. Per the limits of the permissions she was granted in revealing herself, and the agreement she had made with their host, she couldn’t go into much detail. She didn’t tell Plotz their host was from another reality. And she certainly didn’t directly tell him that she was an alien. But she did enjoy the pleasure of seeing his face when she revealed that she had procured the resources for him to make his ultimate movie.
“Don’t tell me you sold your soul to that billionaire just to get me the chance, kid,” Plotz said. His expression had gone from elated to anguished so quickly, Trudy had to blink.
“Oh no, sir. Not my soul. Just my story.”
“Well, that’s just fine. We’re in the business of selling stories.”
“That we are.” Trudy’s stomach growled. She put a hand to it and frowned.
Plotz rose from his chair. “I’ll second that motion. Come on, Rogers. I’ll take you and that discerning stomach of yours to a diner where they make a meatloaf that should taste a lot like that stuff your people call ‘bruqakt.’”
Trudy’s eye widened. She blinked again and gazed at him, her mouth agape.
Plotz smiled and winked at her, then waved her toward the door.
Trudy rose. She laughed as she threw her arm around her surprised boss. And she laughed all the way to the diner.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.