01: School Tales
The two denizens of the back seat wrestled with impatient expectations. It was a long evening, and the drive home seemed endless to Otis and his sister, Geraldine. They’d spent the evening at a cocktail party thrown by their father’s co-workers. Not knowing any of the kids, the entire experience was strained. The children who knew each other teased and flirted, ignoring Otis and Ger, as she preferred to be called. The trip home didn’t improve anyone’s mood.
Otis stared out the window at the inky darkness surrounding them. There were few lights in this area of the country, and the few available were overwhelmed by the van’s headlights.
Ger nibbled on her fingernails, a nervous habit which drove Otis and their mother, Kelly, up the wall. Ger’s evening was worse than Otis’. While he’d been ignored, at least there were kids his age. She’d been stuck babysitting the five and under kids, while struggling for inclusion by the older children, who wanted nothing to do with her. Noting she’d bitten her nails to the quick, she sat on her hands. “When do we get home?”
Their father, Liam Cruz, sighed, glancing back in the rear view mirror. “We’re almost home. You’ve driven this road hundreds of times. You should recognize it by now. ”
The party was his idea. He knew the kids had few friends and thought this get together would allow them to build friendships. Yet, they seemed more distant and his coworkers weren’t pleased either.
“We’re near the Applebee’s,” Otis answered, staring out the window.
“Oh,” she conceded, frowning though no one could observe it. “It’s dark and I can’t see from back here.” Their response exemplified one of her biggest issues with her family. She’d been a late addition. Her friend Alice’s brother, Stephen, insisted she was an accident, so she fought to appear older than she was. The age difference between her and Otis left her with no one she could spend time with at home. Like her brother, she’d learned to play quietly by herself to avoid further ostracism.
“Don’t worry,” her father replied, glancing back, “we’ll be home soon.”
“Of course, you could always walk,” Otis mumbled under his breath.
Ger bristled. As much as she disliked being seen as the youngest, she hated the negative attention her older brother attracted. “Oh please. Stop yakking to yourself. People already think you’re schitzo.”
Otis’ head snapped around to glare at her. Ger’s hot button was the accident of her birth, but Otis’ was this singular habit.
Their mother spun around. “Ger, behave! You know your brother isn’t sick. He just has an unusual way of entertaining himself.”
She stuck out her lip, crossing her arms. “I don’t care what you call it, when someone asks himself a question and answers, he’s nuts.”
“That’s not fair,” Liam said, glancing back in the rearview mirror. “We’ve explained this before. Schizophrenia develops later in life, in the late teens or early twenties. Your brother’s done this since he was young. He’s not ill, he’s … quirky.”
Kelly twisted around, restrained by her seatbelt. “Besides, he hardly does it anymore. You can’t criticize someone for something they’ve changed. It’s like someone criticizing you for being little. You’re too old for that critique.”
“I don’t care,” Ger insisted, returning her brother’s stare. “The only people who hold discussions with themselves are crazy homeless people sleeping on park benches.”
Otis surrendered his war of wills to his sister, glancing down before turning to stare out the window. “I only do it ‘cause there’s no one else to talk to.” He was too self-conscious about his odd behavior to withstand anyone else’s condemnation of it. He knew how strange it was. It was why he avoided people. All it took was a single slip-up, and he’d become a laughing stock and lose the few friends he had.
Kelly turned, raising her voice. “Ger, I’m telling you for the last time—” Her voice halted as she threw her arm in across of her husband’s chest in a futile attempt to restrain him. “LIAM, look out!”
Otis glanced up in time to observe a tall, hunched-over figure lurch in front of the car. Liam slammed on the brakes, yanking the wheels to one side as the car slid. The brakes squealed and the Suburban struck something, producing a disconcerting thump accompanied by the sound of broken glass and tearing fiberglass. Liam grasped the wheel as the car ran off the road onto the rough uneven shoulder.
“What was that?” Kelly asked, glancing back.
“Did we hit someone?” Otis pressed, hoping for some gruesome excitement to share at school.
“I hope not.” His father got the vehicle under control, bringing it to a stop. “More likely a deer or small bear.”
“Deer aren’t that tall!” Kelly dug through her purse. “I’ll call 911.”
“Don’t. If it’s nothing, we’ll look stupid and annoy the local cops. Let me check what it was first.” Liam unbuckled his seatbelt, putting on his flashers and getting out of the car. “Stay in the car.”
He ran down the road, trying to determine what he’d struck, but was stymied by the dark night. A sudden light illuminated the roadway. Glancing back, he saw Kelly grinned triumphantly, holding her phone up.
“Thanks. Can you see anything?”
“No. I don’t hear anything either. You’d think something that big would cry out when it was hit.”
Another light lit the far side of the country road. Turning, they saw Otis shining the keychain flashlight. Liam bit back his reprimand, figuring it was too late to shelter him. He was also glad for the assistance, noting Ger’s quiet stare from inside the Suburban. “Kelly, you check the right side, Otis, you take the far side. I’ll search for debris in the center.” As an engineer in charge of a large department exploring local oil reserves, Liam was used to taking command.
Otis waved something over his head. “I found broken glass!”
“I located the skid marks.” Liam knelt in the middle of the road, running his hand over the surface as ineffectually as his wife’s restraining hand. “It’s got to be around here.”
“I can’t make out a thing,” Kelly complained, surveying the scrub brush, dry dirt and cacti with her phone.
“We definitely hit something, though maybe only a large sagebrush or tire.”
“That wasn’t any sagebrush.” Kelly examined the surrounding terrain for any sign of an injured animal. “And how would a tire roll in front of us?”
“Well, it was something, it wouldn’t just disappear.”
They searched for several more minutes before Liam pulled out his phone. “I’ll call the police. They’ll tell us what we should do.”
“911. What’s your emergency?” the male voice answered.
“This is Liam Cruz of Dry Gulch. We hit something on Old Sumner road, just short of Abner Lane.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“We weren’t, though we have no clue what we struck. The front end of our car is banged up, but we can still drive. What should we do?”
“If there’s no sign of anything, there’s not much you can do. It’ll be a while before we can get someone out there. You weren’t drinking, were you?”
“No, I was at a cocktail party, but didn’t drink because I was driving.”
“In that case we’ll examine the area. You can take your family home and have your car checked. We’ll contact you later for a statement. It was probably nothing. These things happen. What’s your number?”
Liam gave their home phone and address, as Otis continued searching. Only he wasn’t rummaging for a body, he was examining the side of the road for distinguishing marks he could find later. As the only excitement they’d had recently, he wasn’t about to let a gruesome discovery go unexplored. He needed something to tell his friends.
Otis slipped down the stair in his stocking feet, carrying his tennis shoes. The sight of his father stopped him cold.
Liam smiled but cocked his head, surprised to see his son. “What are you doing up?”
“Uh, nuthin’.” Otis had hoped to escape the house unnoticed. While early for him, considering it was summer vacation, it wasn’t for his father, who had to drive to work.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you up this early. What’s got you so excited?”
Otis bit his lip, thinking fast. “I wanted to get to Jayden’s. The accident is the first real excitement I’ve had to talk about all summer. I want to see him while I still remember the details.”
Liam grinned, remembering his early adventures. While his teenage years were a touch wilder than his son’s, he was happy Otis was satisfied with such pedestrian thrills. “Well, don’t be out too long. The police will be by soon, and they’ll want your and Ger’s observations.”
“OK,” Otis said, seeing his opening and out the door before his father changed his mind.
“Wait, have you had…?” Liam pressed, leaning out the door before realizing it was a lost cause. His son was already off on his newest adventure, entering the wooded glade by the house even as Liam spoke.
“Ah, here’s the site,” Otis announced to himself, climbing off his bike and dropping it on the dirt beside Old Sumner road. He tended to talk to himself when alone, partially the result of being raised far from any close friends. The sound of his own voice reassured him. He frequently held conversations with himself. However, it was something he knew to keep to himself, aside from his sister, who tormented him about it.
He retrieved the belt he marked the site with the night before, threading it back through his belt loops so he wouldn’t have to carry it home. Having done that, he reviewed the area. “Not much evidence of a boogie-man,” he observed. He wandered into the road, kicking a piece of headlight. Seeing a dark stain on the asphalt, he rushed to investigate, kneeling in the center of one lane, poking it with his finger. “That’s an odd color for blood. Fresh blood is crimson, oxidized blood is black, but this is a haphazard splash of dark bluish green.” He ran his open hand over it, checking if it had an oily feel. “Actually, it’s darker,” he corrected himself. “Like the result of a small chemical spill. Maybe it’s from a leak in the van after the accident?” He shook his head. “Nah, that’s unlikely, it’s the wrong color. Oil and transmission fluids are different shades of black. Brake fluid is pink. This isn’t the same.” “So what do you think it is?” Otis scratched his head, evaluating his own analysis. “I’ve got no clue. I’ve never seen anything that shade before.”
He walked along the roadway, glancing at the orange cliffs in the distance and the wide open desert between them. “Think the police investigated yet?” “I doubt it. If they had, there’d be police tape, or at least tire tracks by the side of the road. There’s no sign of either.” He stopped, reviewing the scene once again for anything he may have overlooked. “You’re right. What was I thinking? Chances are, a lone vehicle accident off in the country wouldn’t merit much priority. With just a few cops monitoring this area, they’d be unlikely to get to it yet.” “Fascinating detail, Otis, but getting back on topic, what now?”
Spinning in a slow circle, he took in the surroundings. “If I was a fugitive, running for my life, which way would I go?” “That’s easy. Anyone injured wouldn’t live long exposed to the sun and without water. What’s more, a fugitive would want someplace to hide. Since there aren’t any circling buzzards, we can assume he found shelter.” Otis glanced back the way he’d come before turning back. “Yeah, and they wouldn’t head into town, where someone might spot them and investigate. That only leaves one option.” “Right, heading into the desert, he wouldn’t survive. There’s only one place where someone could hide, and the local sheriff wouldn’t examine it either.”
He crossed to the edge of the street and nudged the prairie grass with his boot. “Man, this is so cool. Just imagine, a fugitive fleeing the scene of an accident, taking his life in his hands to avoid recapture.” “Yeah, yeah, you’re wasting time. We know the only location. Stop screwing around and let’s book it. It’s a hike there and we don’t know how long it will take to investigate once we reach the site.” Nodding that he was correct, Otis fetched his bicycle, mounted up, and rode off across the dusty plain heading for a specific mountain peak in the distance.
Otis wiped his brow, studying the trail before him. “Man, this is hot!” “What’d you expect, genius? You’re in the middle of the desert and the sun’s blazing. The temperature will only increase from here.” “Shut up and hand me the canteen.”
He’d developed the habit of talking to himself years ago. With no one else to talk to, it was like having an imaginary friend. Like someone who teased and didn’t take his shit, a sign of trust he didn’t have with anyone else. Ger didn’t tease, she berated and held events over his head. If she could see him now, he’d never hear the end of it. He glanced over his shoulder, but seeing no one behind him, resumed speaking with himself.
He rattled the canteen, listening to the sound of the water inside. “Just take a sip. It’s got to last all day.” “Look who you’re telling. We’ve both walked this route multiple times. We’ve never gotten lost or into trouble doing it.” “Besides Mom laying into us for risking our lives, you mean,” he answered himself with a laugh.
He stopped to nudge another section of scant grass aside. “See, we’re on the right track. There’s more of that stuff, whatever it is.” “Brilliant observation! We’ve already seen several of these spread along our path. Some soaked into the sand, some splashed across the shrubbery.” Ignoring the teasing, he knelt and rubbed the substance between his fingers. The stains in the dirt were mixed with grit, providing a rough surface. Those on the plants still retained some moisture, but didn’t provide any more clues.
“The colors fast. It stains the fingers. It’s oily too. Too bad the ground’s too hard to leave footprints.” He wiped his hand in the sand, the coarse material scraping it from his fingers. “Still, it doesn’t tell us any more than the last one did. Quit wasting time and make hay. Man, you’re always dawdling. You’re too damn lazy for your own good!” Heeding his own advice, Otis strode off, replacing the cap on his canteen. “Shut up. You’re just as bad.”
He paused a short distance away, nudging the loose dirt with his toe. “There may not be any footprints, but what the hell is this?” He scratched his neck, examining it. “I don’t know. This is the third time we’ve seen it. The first couple times, I thought it was nothing. But if we’ve seen it along this trail, it’s got to be significant.” “It looks like the inside of a chicken pen, like twenty chickens were scratching for feed in a one foot oval.” “Well, there ain’t no chicks ‘round here, cause I don’t smell any fried chicken.” “Still, what could it be?” “I don’t know, maybe our fugitive is smuggling poultry.” Otis rolled his eyes at his own joke before continuing. “The point is, we’ll never know until we get there and find out.”
Shrugging, he set off again, leaving the odd tracks behind. “I agree, it’s unlikely we’d encounter one mystery at the exact same time we’re investigating another. They must be related.” “Frankly, I think we need to be wary. We’re facing something unknown. Whatever it is, it may be dangerous.” “Hot damn, I sure hope so. Think of the tales we can tell!”
“I’ll tell you, these other animals weren’t quite as cautious.” He kicked a dead mouse out of his path, its carcass already dried hard. “That’s what you get for taking the heat of the desert for granted. Dad taught us well. We know enough to come prepared.” “Good thing we brought the extra water. The person we’re tracking might need it.” “Don’t forget, there’s a stream. Even if we didn’t bring enough, we could refill there.” “Still, it’s barely a trickle. If we need to clean up, it’ll take more than what a little hole in the rock can produce.” “Point taken. Now you see why I pal around with you. Every now and then, you offer some reasonable advice. Not often, but occasionally.”
Soon, a single orange cliff rose before Otis. Sheltering his eyes from the glare, he studied one particular spot. “Don’t see anything unusual.” “That’s the wonderful thing about this hideout. It’s invisible from a distance, and without entering, no one knows about it.” “Hell, even the locals who explored it as kids couldn’t find it. Most forget about it as their adult worries override their memories of the place. Without remembering the exact location, it would be hard to find since it’s similar to the other cliffs in the region.” “So how does this particular outlaw know where to head?” he asked himself. “Unless he’s an escaped fugitive from the area, he wouldn’t know about it. If he didn’t, there’s no way to locate it before he died of exposure.” Otis shrugged, kicking a tumbleweed out of the way, watching it bounce across the uneven terrain. “Well, it’s a good thing we spend so much time there. It’s a terrific escape from the family. Especially Ger. She can’t tag along where she can’t go. It’s the only place we can be alone and talk without attracting attention.” “It’s even better that we haven’t had our final growth spurt yet. Otherwise, we’d never fit. We have, at best, another year until we can’t visit it anymore. Then we’ll forget about it like everyone else.”
“You know, those stains aren’t as frequent as they were.” “Yeah, but there’re numerous enough to know we’re on the right track, and that our fugitive hasn’t wandered off. Keep your eyes peeled, pardner.” “I will, but you’d best quit yammerin’, or else you’ll give us both away!”
Approaching the cliff face, Otis viewed the obscure cave entrance, just a fissure in the side of the mountain. A full-sized man would never fit, but Otis was small enough to squeeze through. But the clues he’d observed left him dubious. Whatever led him here was wounded, which meant it was likely dangerous. What’s more, it might attract other animals which presented another danger. Propping his bike against an outcropping so it wouldn’t be noticed, he approached the opening. He lay on his stomach, then rolled and slid along his side inside the stone fissure.
He grunted with the effort, the rock pressing against him on both sides, the sharp edges scraping his flesh through his clothes. He’d known enough to wear study clothing so they wouldn’t tear. He’d done this many times, but each time it was a bit tighter than he remembered. He squirmed around the twisting passage, which took time. He also did it in complete darkness, worsened by the glare from behind him casting shadows over what little he could see. The fissure—while narrow—was high, so he had no problems breathing. As the small crevice opened up into a larger cavern, he collected himself, sitting and dusting himself off before standing. He always carried a small penlight just for this purpose. Creeping forward, he scanned the ground ahead of him for clues of someone hiding within the cave. The silence inside was pronounced. There weren’t any more stains, but his light showed more of the same tracks, making him more cautious. Something was decidedly odd about his ‘fugitive’. Either it was St. Francis reincarnated, or it presented a threat he didn’t understand. Edging around another corner, he detected the glow of diffused light. Shutting off his penlight, he noted the glow changed frequently, meaning whatever held the light was active and shifting. Moving closer, he could make out sounds, but they were nothing he recognized. Instead it sounded like a hissing series of clicks, like several snakes trying to swallow children’s clickers. Taking a deep but silent breath, Otis edged around the corner, his heart stopping as he did.
Before him, standing before a rack of strange equipment, stood something utterly alien. It was tall, so big he didn’t know how they could have missed it the previous night. It was segmented into multiple overlapping chambers, much like a beetle. It also had antenna on its forehead—if head was the correct word, and it waved several tiny ‘hands’ around as it clicked.
Restraining the desire to gasp, Otis retreated, backing out before he was discovered. Once out of the adjacent room, he scurried back out, wiggling as fast as he’d go. Clear of the fissure, he stood.
“Damn. That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” “That’s what happened to the curious cat,” he reminded himself. “It got et’ by aliens.” “Sorry, but the cat was brought back again by curiosity,” he corrected himself, glancing back. “Are you suggesting we go back? Are you nuts? There’s no telling what it might do to us. A better course would be to run home and call the dang police.”
Otis considered that, unmoving. “That’s exactly what happened when we were visited by aliens years ago. The government scrambled to capture and imprison them, and now we’re constrained from ever reaching the stars. But one man took it on himself to help them out. Not only weren’t they dangerous, but he’s now a star traveler, representing humanity to unknown worlds.” He glanced around, trying to see any signs of artifacts. “Clearly, it’s intelligent. If it was bloodthirsty, it could have picked someone at random without sneaking around. No, a better explanation is that it’s here to observe us.” “This isn’t like the others,” he reminded himself. “Maybe, but we don’t know if those were the only ones on that one ship. There’s also a good chance the nearest ship available for the return trip would be from another species. But that doesn’t make them dangerous. With all its equipment, they’ve got to be observing us. That implies curiosity and a desire to see how we react to each other, rather than what we taste like.” He hesitated for a moment, before turning back. “I’m going in. Someone has to present a brave front, just like we did before. If I call in the government, we’ll have a repeat of the disaster from last time we had visitors.”
“You’re nuts!” he said, though he didn’t try to dissuade himself.
He moved slower while returning, being doubly cautious. He spent the time considering everything he’d observed, as limited as it was. This time, when he stepped into the large room, he stood his ground, despite his heart beating like a Congo drum. The creature was still busy, still facing the wall of instruments, its arms handling multiple objects at the same time. Without daring to breathe, Otis watched as it worked, clearly concentrating so intently it hadn’t noticed him. It seemed distracted, making its odd distinctive chatter. Then, waving an arm theatrically, it turned and saw him, its chitterings halting abruptly.
Seeing this … alien insect … head on, there was little doubt it was no earthly creature. He’d studied enough bugs and read enough zoology in school to realize no human had ever witnessed this … thing before. Its back seemed to be made of overlapping shells which slid over the others. The material seemed soft, probably how it slipped into Otis’s hideout despite its large size. Its front was different, a smooth pink-ridged belly. It had multiple short arms along each side, at least a dozen, possibly more, each with three long fingers. At shoulder level, it had two longer arms, almost human length, and one of these was touching the side of its head. Its face, if it could be called such, had four large bug eyes, resembling a fly’s, only much larger. Below these, were a series of holes it probably breathed through, about six of them, and two separate mouths. The strangest thing was its hair, which protruded about two inches from its exposed skin. Finally Otis noted its feet, which had multiple long toes ending in claws, the source of the odd tracks in the desert.
Otis and the creature stared at each other, unmoving. After a couple seconds, it lowered the hands—the longer ones—it had been motioning with. Otis, wanting to show he was friendly, held out his canteen. The creature rotated its head, rolling its face around at a fifteen degree angle, and considered the offering. When it didn’t move to take the canteen, he slowly stepped forward. It recoiled so Otis stopped. He unscrewed the lid, showed it to him, and screwed it back on before tossing it at his feet. This time it watched him rather than the canteen.
It was then Otis noticed the stain on its front at about Otis’ midriff. It was where it … he’d been hit by their van. Otis held one finger up and backed up. When the creature rotated its head again, he took off, rushing back outside.
“Man, that’s one weird creature!” Otis stood, again dusting himself off at the entrance to the underground lair. “No shit, Sherlock. Though you were right. It was more shocked by us than we were of it. It didn’t attack, and it’s definitely curious.” “I told you curiosity brought it, and us, back.”
“Man, we should have taken a video of it!” “The hell with that! Remember how cautious that Josh fellow was? He was constantly afraid of being tracked. No, if we recorded anything, it would implicate us. We’d be the ones imprisoned, rather than demonstrating how helpful and compassionate we are. We’re … taking a major risk, but considering we’re talking about the future of humanity, I think it’s worth trying. If I disappear, the police will search the entire area and uncover it. But if it isn’t dangerous, we stand a better chance of influencing it.” Otis considered it before shrugging. “You make a good point, but I’m still scared shitless.” He set off, heading for his bike. “Get over it, we’ve got work to do.”
Otis grabbed his bicycle and reached into the basket for the package he’d brought. “Are you sure about this? I mean, we surprised it. Are you sure it won’t attack us once it’s considered its options?” He growled in response, glancing back. “Be real. It didn’t assault us when we cornered it in its lair, and it was communicating with someone.” “So what’s it doing here?” he asked himself as he took the case and walked back. “Probably studying humans to see whether we’re a physical threat, a competitor or if we’ve learned anything from our last encounter.” “I’m guessing we didn’t.” “Duh! That’s obvious, which is why we don’t whisper a word about this to anyone.” Otis nodded, standing upright. “You’re right, as usual. This is our chance to have an impact on humanity, establishing trade relations with another world. Talk about things to brag about at school.” “Yeah, like you’d ever tell someone about it. Hell, you can’t discuss it with anyone beside me. At least this … thing, won’t tell everyone you talk to yourself.”
He stopped before continuing. “It doesn’t matter. This is our chance to make a difference, to be something greater than a high-school freshman. If we can change humanity, they’ll make movies about us. This odd habit of talking to myself will be a fascinating character trait, rather than a source of embarrassment.” “If you say so,” he answered himself as he lay on his side in the dirt again. “Remember that when he’s chewing on our brains.”
“A fat lot you know. It’s an alien, not a zombie. Now shut up, we don’t want it to think all humans mumble to themselves like a schizophrenic.” With that, he crawled into the tunnel, concentrating on negotiating the difficult passage rather than distracting himself.
Returning, he found the creature chittering again, but this time Otis didn’t hesitate. He walked directly into the cavern, taking the time to study the equipment the creature had. He couldn’t figure out any of it, but assumed some was to communicate with home, or whoever it had nearby. He didn’t think it likely someone would journey hundreds of light years by themselves.
It took the creature a few seconds, but it rotated its head, quieting and turning around. It studied him, so Otis stepped forward, holding the cardboard box in front of him. “Medicine,” he explained, before realizing it couldn’t understand him. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he opened the box and approached the creature. It watched, but didn’t react.
“Hydrogen peroxide,” he said, approaching and holding the open bottle over its wound. The creature stared at the bottle, but didn’t respond, so he poured a fair amount over the injury. When it produced a white froth, the creature cried out, backing away, its arms aflutter. But when Otis didn’t move, it determined it wasn’t hurt and examined its wound, touching the bubbling foam. Lifting the finger on its longer arm to its nose, it checked for a bad smell, without visually sniffing. When it found none, Otis approached again.
He proffered a paper package. “Bandage.” He extracted a small tube, unfastening both. He knelt and pulled the sides of its injury in, crazy gluing the laceration. He then attached the bandage to the wound, smoothing the adhesive to the creature’s flesh. Standing again, he reached back into the package, opened a small bottle and shook out two small pills. He considered the eight-foot tall alien, and took out another two. Glancing around, he walked to his canteen, still lying on the ground where he’d thrown it. He lifted and opened it and approached again. He held the canteen out, waiting. The creature rotated its head and ventured a small hand. Otis poured the water on its hand, and swallowed another mouthful, swirling it around in his mouth before visibly swallowing. He then offered the pills and the canteen to the alien.
“Aspirin,” he explained, and waited. After a few moments, the creature took the canteen and the pills and examined them. It duplicated his actions, popping them in its mouth before taking a drink of water. He barred its teeth and made a gargling sound and swallowed. Otis hoped the pills wouldn’t produce a negative reaction.
“Yeah, I get it. You prefer your own home-brewed water. Guess ours is missing all the essential heavy metals.” The creature rotated its head but said nothing.
They stood and silently watched each other. Finally Otis reached into his box and pulled out the sandwich he’d brought for lunch and offered it to his suitemate. “Food.”
Again, it studied the strange substance. When Otis kept offering the sandwich, it took it from him and examined it. It took a slice of bread, holding it in the air and turning it around. Sniffing it, it barked before tossing it away. It then removed the lettuce and tomato and did the same, examining and smelling each before flinging them on the ground. Finally, it lifted the luncheon meat and examined it. After sniffing, it rolled its head and put a small amount on its tongue. Satisfied, it scarfed the rest of the roast beef down.
“Guess you were hungry,” Otis commented. “I take it you’re a carnivore, not omnivorous like us. Tomorrow I’ll bring some steak.” When the alien rotated its head thirty degrees in the opposite direction, he tried again.
He extended his arm to the side. “Arm” he announced, pointing at it. He pointed at his hand. “Hand.” He proceeded to name each part of his body, including his shirt, pants and boots, before waving to include all three and declaring “clothes”.
The alien studied him without a sound, then turned and shuffled to its racks of equipment and picked up a few specific things. Turning, it approached Otis. It neared and lifted its longer arm to his neck. Not wanting to startle it, Otis didn’t move. If it trusted him not to poison it, the least he could do was to return the favor. When something pricked his flesh, he held still. It was only when it removed the device that he realized it had injected him with something, and began to worry what it might be. However, he resisted asking himself.
The creature shuffled around him, the small appendages on its feet carrying it quite efficiently. It reached up to his ear and examined it.
“Ear,” Otis offered. It carefully touched his earlobe, then jabbed the back of his ear. Again, Otis resisted jerking back and waited until if finished.
When it stepped back, it lifted another small device and poked it a couple of times. An image of a sphere appeared in front of them, floating in thin air. Grasping the concept, he defined it as a “Sphere”. They cycled through a number of basic shapes where Otis recited the English word while the Alien offered its own pronunciation. They spent about five minutes going through items, and Otis had about given up on ever figuring out what they were. It might have an excellent memory, but he couldn’t remember a single sound it made, not sure how to duplicate them.
The creature started again as the sphere appeared again. Otis groaned to himself, preparing to run through the entire list again, when the creature said, in perfect English, “Sphere”.
Otis’s mouth dropped open, and he cocked his head much less than fifteen degrees, and repeated what the creature said. It flashed its teeth, which he noticed for the first time were incredibly sharp, and advanced to the next object. Each one was accompanied by the English pronunciation, with no flaw or mispronunciation. It took him a second, but he figured out the creature wasn’t speaking his language. Instead, it spoke in its native tongue. Somehow Otis was hearing the English words in his head. He paid attention when it stated the next object, a polygon. He heard a series of whistles and clicks, but his mind shouted “Polygon!” He shook his head and continued, concentrating on both, now having the freedom to concentrate on the native sound of each word.
It took some time, but the creature dropped the little device it carried and faced him.
“It language translate head.”
Otis shook his head, raising an eyebrow. The creature lifted the gadget again and punched some more buttons. It took five tries, but finally it got out “I inject something to puts words in your brain.” It tapped him on the side of his skull to emphasize the point. Otis considered that.
“Neurocomputers.” He’d read about the topic at school during science, so he was aware of the concept. Scientists were attempting to create tiny computers composed of single cells, which could perform incredible calculations in record time. They stored data in DNA strands. It was supposed to revolutionize computer processing, but so far, they’d been unable to master it. The creature grinned, flashing its teeth again, and repeated the word.
Apparently, the neurocomputers injected into his blood had traveled to his brain, where it was somehow translating his thoughts.
“Correct. Send word to ear,” the creature explained, touching its own. “Sound from sound-computer.”
“Microphone,” Otis offered.
“Yes, microphone. Microphone send sound to ear,” it said, again indicating its own ear.
“Transmits,” he said, before reconsidering the lack of context, but the creature wasn’t fazed. “Right. Transmit from your microphone to mine.”
Otis wondered where it picked up certain words, as he hadn’t said them. He assumed the things in his bloodstream supplied it, but wasn’t ready to consider what that entailed. He had enough to think about at the moment. Otis shook his head, grinning at the effectiveness of a complicated technology which worked perfectly despite the vast differences between the two species.
They continued talking, picking up nuances each time, either supplying words which fit or having their earpieces supply new shared terminology. Those sentences were clear, regardless of their clumsily pronunciations. Otis paid careful attention to the sound of each word, despite hearing the plain English in his own ears. ‘Ear’, he corrected himself. It just sounded like it was coming from both.
After several hours, Otis thought his legs would burn off from the continued strain on his muscles. He raised his hand and checked his watch. Without thinking, he spoke to himself.
“Damn, my parents are going to be pissed, and it’ll take more than an hour to reach home.”
The creature rotated its head, making an indecipherable clicking sound. Otis held his hands up, which the neurocomputers seemed to translate correctly. “Be back tomorrow,” he said. When the creature rotated its head again, Otis pointed towards the roof of the cavern. He traced the movement of the sun, hoping he got the proper east-to-west movement correct.
“Tomorrow,” it replied. Nodding, Otis backed away until he reached the entrance, and then dashed through the rest of the underground labyrinth. He hoped his new friend understood why he was fleeing, but he’d see in the morning when he returned. If he was allowed to leave the house, he thought.
“That was one strange encounter,” Otis told himself as he pushed himself off the dirt and leapt up. “You’re not kidding,” he replied as he ran to his bike.
“We’re way behind schedule. It’ll be dark by the time I return, and I’ve missed dinner. Mom and Dad are going to be pissed!”
“That’s what you get for playing twenty-questions with a buggy ET,” he answered. He laughed at the joke, climbed on his bike, and hurriedly peddled away, aiming for the sunlit desert beyond the cliff’s shadow stretched out before him.