Otis eased the front door open, glancing about while lifting it to prevent the old hinges from squeaking. Noting nothing out of the ordinary, he stepping inside and nestled the door closed.
“Mom, Dad, Otis is home!” he spun around, seeing his sister grinning at him from a chair in the corner.
He stood straight, squaring his shoulders and swallowing, as both parents entered the room.
“Otis,” Liam said in a calm, quiet voice, “you’ve got some explaining to do.”
His mother, Kelly, peered over Liam’s shoulder. “Where have you been? We were worried sick about you? You missed dinner, didn’t call or leave a note. You could have been lying dead in a ditch and we’d never—”
Liam raised his hand, silencing her. “Well?”
Otis swallowed again, steadied himself and spoke in a low voice. “I was at Ja—”
“Oh, please,” his mother interrupted. “Don’t tell us you were at Jayden’s. Who do you think the first people we called were? He says he never saw you today and had no clue where you were.”
Otis swallowed as his father stared at him. “Um … As I was saying, I was … I spent the day at the police station.”
“The police station?” his mother asked. “Why woul—?”
“I was curious about the accident and rode my bike there.” Otis hesitated a second, but decided he was in so deep it was worth taking a calculated risk. “They hadn’t investigated yet, so he drove me there. He had me walk him through the entire scene. It took us a long time to find the right spot, though. After we finished, he took me back and had me write a statement.” Otis held his hands out, facing out in either direction. “After that, he told me about the police and asked if I was interested in becoming an officer.”
There was silence as everyone studied him until Kelly broke the quiet. “And you said?”
“I said I was more interested in the analytic end of police work.”
Liam chuckled. “Jacob must have loved hearing that.”
Otis cracked a smile. “Well, he laughed, but he showed me all kinds of things. Including the holding cells where they lock people up. I was there for a long time before he asked when I was supposed to be home. Panicked, realizing I was late, I made my apologies. As I rushed out the door, he asked if he should call home for me.”
When Otis didn’t continue Kelly cocked her head. “And?”
“I told him, no. I didn’t want to get him in trouble for keeping me so late. I told him … not calling was my responsibility, not his. I’ll deal with the repercussions.”
Liam studied his reactions while Otis stood ramrod straight. “So why are you telling us this now instead of allowing him to?”
“You asked me where I was. You taught me to always tell the truth. That’s what I’m doing.”
Silence descended again as everyone considered this. Otis began twitching.
“So what’s my punishment?”
“For not calling and worrying you. I said I’m responsible. I’m willing to accept my penalty.”
Liam glanced at his wife. “Uh … I’ll tell you what, help me clean out the garage this weekend. Your mom’s been after me to do it, and I could use the assistance.”
“That’s enough,” his father insisted, his voice firming up. “Now get cleaned up.”
As his father backed up, Otis stepped forward, dropping his voice. “Dad, if you could, don’t mention this to Chief Thompson?” Liam raised his eyebrow, scowling at his son. “I don’t want him to feel embarrassed for not chasing me home sooner. He looked guilty as I climbed on my bike. As I said, the fault is mine, I’d hate to make him feel worse. If he asks, just tell him that I fessed up.”
His father cocked his head, studying Otis before nodding. “Sure. I can do that.” Kelly shifted over, hugging her husband.
As Otis moved towards the stairs, his mother motioned to the kitchen. “We tried to keep your dinner warm, so it’s probably hard as a rock by now. You’re welcome to it, if you’re hungry.”
“Mmm. Thanks,” Otis mumbled, trying to constrain his triumphant grin.
Otis finished scrubbing his hands. He hesitated, then splashed water over his face, enjoying the shocking cold. That was the first time he’d openly lied to his parents while looking them in their eyes. Otis knew his father would freak if he found out, but then, everyone would if they learned about what he’d discovered.
Drying his hands, he opened the door to encounter Ger, leaning against the wall, grinning at him.
“So what were you up to?” she asked, keeping her voice low so their parents wouldn’t overhear.
He glared at her, but realized she wouldn’t respond to a simple look. He shrugged, closing the door behind him. “I told you. You heard exactly what happened.”
“Oh, puh-lease! I know you better than that. The day you volunteer to talk, I know something’s up. Where were you all day? What are you hiding?”
Otis stepped around her, brushing her with his elbow. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I was at the police station all day.”
“You realize I’ll find out. I always do. You’re an open book to me. You can lie to Mom and Dad, but I understand you better than anyone else.” She cocked her head. “But that last bit—where you convinced Dad not to talk to Chief Thompson—was genius. You’re learning, but you’re not there yet.”
Otis, as usual, didn’t bother to respond as he headed to the kitchen.
Jonathon Taylor entered the West Wing Situation Room. Everyone sat up, turning to face him. He took his seat in the center of the table, taking his time, not speaking. The other members of the Security Council squirmed. They were familiar with emergency sessions and being rushed to the White House in the middle of the night. But they’d never had their electronic devices removed, nor had the entire Situation Room been stripped of electronics. Normally, these rooms buzzed with the latest in technology as intelligence officers received reports from sources all over the world. Now, it felt like they’d been transplanted back to the nineteenth century. They were wondering what justified such caution.
President Taylor glanced around the table and cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, we’ve been … visited from the stars, again.”
The others in the room stared before the room erupted in discussion. Expecting this, Jonathon raised his hand, silencing everyone. “Yes, I know. We’ve expected this. What’s more, there’s nothing we can do to stop them while they’ve got full access to their technology. However, I’ve got a plan to … frustrate their attempts to isolate us here on Earth.”
That ended the frittering. They listened to his every nuance. “I want every nuclear weapon, every guided missile we have remaining prepped for a deep space location to be determined later. I also want all the available astronomy telescopes searching the skies for alien ships. Keep in mind they have a spectacular anti-surveillance systems, so search for things not seen, rather than glowing balls of flame. If stars disappear, it may be a sign of a passing ship.
“These … aliens will be installing a weapon designed to shoot down and disable any vessel leaving the Earth’s surface. They can easily disable our best technology. However, even the best systems can be overwhelmed. Once we locate where this satellite is located, we’ll take action. If we can’t find it, we’ll launch several empty vessels and observe where they are shot down from. I have no doubt they’ll utilize redundant systems. When we’re sure they’ve left the solar system, we’ll initiate a massive attack. Each missile will be delayed by seconds, taking a separate trajectory. Their satellite will be so overwhelmed shooting down multiple missiles; it can’t possibly disable every one.
“All we need is a single missile reaching the satellite, but we’ll need to hit the target simultaneously. If one nuclear weapon explodes near it, it should incapacitate and destroy them. To prevent an electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, from damaging the Earth’s electrical systems, we’ll have to shut down the entire grid. If we can’t access the electrical systems of certain countries, they’ll likely lose much of their technology and communications. By powering down the systems in the developed world, we should minimize the effects. I’m certain these systems are far enough away they won’t cause too much damage. Since we can’t eliminate the secondhand effects, we should begin shielding military gear. If we do, we’ll get our large urban areas functioning rapidly.”
The Secretary of Defense held his hand up. “Mr. President, surely we’re talking about substantial negative effects from such a massive EMP blast.”
Jonathon held both hands palms up. “Not really. I’m assuming the majority of the weapons will be inactivated and fall harmlessly to the earth. If there are a minimum of active weapons, triggered at a considerable distance with shielding protecting significant systems, I believe we’ll be covered.”
“That’s based on a whole host of assumptions. Do you have any evidence supporting your … conjecture?”
“I’m talking about human liberty. Our ability to lead the world and advance science, and you’re questioning whether I can line up a series of liberal professors to parrot a siren call? Sometimes, in the face of adversity, we have to take risks. These threats are not as broad as it first appears, but it’s still a threat. I believe they’re worth it for what we stand to win.”
“If I may, Sir,” interrupted Vice President, Walter Baker. “It’s a question of proportionality. We’re discussing crippling the world economy and the networks keeping hospitals, dams and sanitation systems intact. All to gain what: the ability to launch another couple missions to Mars? You’re debating paying a massive bill in human capital, to achieve an unattainable objective, and we haven’t even discussed how the aliens might respond!”
The President responded with a cold stare, his brow furrowing and eyes squinting. Silence descended in the room, and the Chiefs of Staff eased back. After several seconds, Jonathon Taylor spoke. “It’s thinking like that which continually threatens human survival. Did Franklin Roosevelt decide to follow the safe course laid out by Neville Chamberlain? Did Stalin conclude it was too cold to defend their Western Front? Did the Protestant leaders in Europe figure it was easier remaining Catholic, or meekly ceding authority to the established order for the same of continuity? Clearly, those in power decided it was simpler taking the easy route and not upset the apple cart under Hitler. Tell me, how has history recorded those decisions now? Are they pictured as wise council, or as criminals for not standing up against clear oppressors?”
Walter sat back, shaken by the vehement attack by the leader of the free world. He blinked rapidly, loosening his collar before sinking into his chair. “No, I guess they didn’t,” he mumbled.
“You can bet your sweet ass they didn’t! Freedom requires bravery. Taking the safe course to preserve the stock market helps no one. Now, let’s talk specifics.” With that, Present Taylor laid out the rest of his plan, while the others in attendance kept their mouths shut.
Having learned his lesson, Otis waited upstairs until his father left for work before creeping downstairs. His mother spent mornings doing laundry and preparing for the day before waking Otis and Ger. He rushed to pack the variety of things he’d planned, tossing them into his backpack. He wrote a quick note for his mother, telling her he was investigating the crash site again, and left. He was so intent on peddling away, he never noticed Ger watching him ride towards the desert.
“Man, that’s the first time you’ve lied to your parents.” He was relieved to speak to himself again, out in the open where no one would overhear him. “I know, but technically, I didn’t lie about aliens. I … alleviated their concerns.” “Spoken like a true smartass,” Otis replied to himself, smiling at his own response. “But you’re right, lying was essential. If I hadn’t lied, they’d have alerted the authorities.” “Yeah, I remember those old stories about Josh, the guy forced to flee the planet. Every government agent across the globe was gunning for him.” “I don’t imagine they’d be overly kind to anyone assisting the aliens again, and they’d be more likely to silence them than look the other way. Once bitten, you don’t ignore snakes. The next time you blast it with a shotgun from a safe distance without getting close enough for it to strike.” “Josh and his crew only survived because they ran faster than the government agents,” Otis recollected, peddling steadily along the lonely road. “Our best defense is for our friend to remain undetected.” “So … you could say we’re saving everyone from their own better interests.” He chuckled. “Yeah, I might, if you didn’t keep interrupting me.”
“What about Ger? Think she’ll tell the folks we’re hiding something?” Otis shrugged. “Nah. She realizes they wouldn’t respond. We fight all the time. Unless she has something specific, rather than vague suspicions, she has nothing to offer.” “But she is suspicious,” Otis reminded himself. “Yeah, so we’ll have to watch ourselves and not accidentally say anything stupid, or where she might hear us.” “Not easy when you keep yakking so much!”
“Careful crossing Old Sumner road,” he advised, glancing both ways. “There’s nothing beyond but desert. If anyone sees you heading there, you’ll arouse suspicions.” “Getting paranoid?” “You bet we are. We’d be stupid if we weren’t at this point.” “Don’t worry, there’s no traffic and no dust on the horizon, meaning there’re no cars approaching. It won’t take long to cross. By the time someone comes along, they won’t be able to tell we’re on a bike. One silhouette looks like any other.” “Unless it has eighteen arms and hairy antenna,” he reminded himself. “Yeah, that they’d notice, no matter how old he is,” he laughed. “By the way, the plural is antennae.” “Damn, I should have known that. Oh wait, I did!” Otis’s laughter echoed over the empty desert, tickling humor from even the silent tumbleweeds.
“I hate asking stupid questions, but what do you think our friend is doing here?”
Otis considered it for a few moments. “Clearly, he’s learning about us. That’s why he’s so interested in our language.” “Yeah, that much is obvious, but for good or ill?” “As I said, you’re getting paranoid. If he wanted to eat us, we’d be digested by now.” “But you saw his teeth. He’s a carnivore with no interest in fruit, vegetables or carbohydrates.” “So at least he’s unlikely to get drunk on the local beer and lose control.” “Did I mention you’re a smart ass?” “Only around you. When I’m around others, I’m as quiet as a peep.” “As I mentioned, a smartass.”
Ignoring his own interruption, Otis returned to his main issue. “So you’re assuming he’s harmless because he hasn’t eaten our brains yet. Maybe he doesn’t think we’re ripe enough, or we’re too skinny to waste his time on?” Otis shook his head, despite no one being able to see it. “No, he was starving. He ate those sandwich meats like he was desperate. And that … paste he eats. I’d rather eat sand than that crap!” “Possibly, but if you were stuck in outer space for years, it wouldn’t require much room.” “Right, and if you aren’t sure how safe the local flora and fauna is …” “Exactly, he’s cautious, but he wants to learn. Face it, it’s a fact-finding mission. He’s determining whether we’re dangerous. Something Josh proved the last time!” “So you’re suggesting it’s safer for everyone to keep this under our hats?” “Precisely. If he sees we’re not a threat and unlikely to compete with them, they will take their information and leave.” “I hope so, for everyone’s sake.” “Still paranoid?” “You bet, and you are too, even if you won’t admit it. Still, your idea is the best we’ve got. It makes the most sense.”
“We’re here. You ready for this again?” “I’m as prepared as ever. Let’s settle the bike and we’re set.” “You didn’t answer the question. You’re representing the entire human race and have no plans. If our friend is collecting information, if you screw up and leave him with the wrong impression, it might hurt all humanity.”
Otis let his bicycle go, sighing and running his hand through his hair. “If he learns how violent we are, that’s mankind’s fault. If he determines we’re a menace, we may need to be … controlled. Josh warned us we’d be cut off from the rest of the universe, but we didn’t pay attention. We’re still electing creeps, corruption remains rampant, the powerful grab more power and no one seems to care. So either this guy decides we’re better off on our own, or he’ll arrange it so we can’t inflict our sociopathy on anyone else.” “Them’s fancy words, but you’re trying to fill a ten-gallon hat with a size two head.” “As you said, I want to present the best of our world. If it’s too little, that’s out of my hands. But if I tell anyone, they’ll see us at our worst, and all bets are off. I’m hoping I can demonstrate mankind’s basic … humanity.” Otis lay on his side and started squirming into the crevice. “If you say so, but excuse me if I stay home on the day they call us to task.”
Standing again inside the cavern, he headed for their previous meeting place. In order not to surprise the creature, he made noise by rubbing a stick along the stone wall. As he entered the chamber, the alien was awaiting him, its antenna flickering.
“Hello,” he called, holding his hand up, palm forward. Removing his backpack, he took out a package. “I have something for you.” Dropping his pack, he opened the container and handed it to the alien, who rotated his head, examining it.
It poked the leftover meatloaf, sniffing it. It lifted out the two chicken legs, holding them at an angle, inspecting them. Finding them satisfactory, it bit one leg, slicing through the fragile bone without pause. It chewed a few times before attacking the rest, devouring it. He then picked out the package of luncheon meats, struggling with the container.
“Pardon me,” Otis said, stepping forward and taking it from him. The creature didn’t react, having adjusted to him. It turned its head in the opposite direction as Otis peeled back the transparent lid and handed it back.
Sniffing it again, it upended the contents into its mouth and swallowed it after only chewing a few times. Finally it returned to the meat loaf. Crinkling its face, it gingerly lifted the cold, soggy mass, sticking its tongue out and tasting it. Apparently satisfied, though not enthusiastic, it ate the entire thing, hardly chewing.
That accomplished, Otis tapped his side, looking at the creature. It purred a vibrating response, so he stepped forward and peeled off the adhesive bandage he’d applied the day before. Removing and bundling it in his hand, he examined the wound, which appeared to be healed. Not a scar, red mark or even new skin appearing in its place. Standing back, he nodded. “Good job. I admire your medical techniques. Clearly it’s superior to my modest hydrogen peroxide.” The creature rotated its head but didn’t stop to debate the issue. Motioning Otis forward, it picked up a wand, waving it over his body. As a transparent image of his body appeared beside them, Otis named the various organs as the creature indicated them.
Pointing at the wand, Otis asked “Name?” It gave a short chirping reply, but his brain provided no translation. Otis shrugged, waving to indicate the free-standing image of his internal organs, repeating the question. The response was longer, but his brain translated “sonar”. Otis shook his head, asking him to repeat it, but his interpretation stood. He assumed it was simply an advancement on Earth’s current sonar technology and breathed a little easier he wasn’t being exposed to some exotic radiation.
Once they finished naming organs, Otis held his hand out, palm up. Guessing his intent, the creature handed the device to him and Otis ran it over its body. The image of Otis’s insides disappeared and one of the alien’s appeared instead. Otis pointed out each organ he noticed and got numerous responses. In a few cases, he asked questions about its function, but most often, there was no translation available. Curious, Otis held his palms together over the stomach of the image and pulled them apart, looking up. The alien immediately got the concept. Without making any motions, the image zoomed in, revealing the internal cells of the creature’s stomach. Otis marveled at the distinct nature, but realized he was way out of his comfort zone, realizing he’d never understand or even remember enough detail to research it later. Shrugging, he began to step back before reconsidering. Stepping forward again, he spread his hands against the display and pushed them together, the image shrinking immediately. He then reached up, expanding the inside of the alien’s skull. The resulting figure was staggering in the complexity of cells, and Otis could see the electrical activity as it flickered on and off throughout its brain. This is no damn sonar image, he assured himself. He studied this latest figure longer than the others, but eventually stepped back, signaling he was done and it disappeared from sight.
Otis reached into his bag again, and pulled out the prior day’s newspaper. It was an archaic publication his father insisted on reading each morning. Otis handed it to his host. The creature studied it and tapped a headline repeatedly. Taking it back, he held it up so they could both see and moving his finger as he did, pronounced the words. When the creature nodded, a habit it picked up from him, Otis continued, reading the rest of the headlines and some of the stories. He had no clue how much was being accurately translated, but he was sure it was picking up much more than a random stranger would—which would be nothing.
Finishing most of the page, the creature unfolded the paper to its full size and waved a hand over it as an oversized image was displayed before them. The alien pointed at a story’s photo. “What is this?” it asked. Otis answered and they identified each of the various images. The alien often increasing the image sizes to ask about items in the background. Finished, the creature waved dismissively and the duplicate newspaper vanished.
Otis cocked his head, studying the creature again. “We need a decent name for you. I’ll never be able to pronounce yours. How about I call you Curious George?” As he said it, the full name of the alien repeated in his mind. He still couldn’t get it right, but knew his statement had been properly translated. He and George proceeded to view various photos, both from George’s collection and from those on Otis’s phone. Otis didn’t worry about the device. He’d powered it off before leaving. When he turned it on inside the cavern, there was no cell service, as he expected. As such, he was sure it couldn’t be tracked as long as he turned it off before he left.
The two worked on their shared communications for much of the day. George seemed exceptionally driven, pushing his younger human companion, but they both learned a tremendous amount. Glancing at his watch—which Otis had instructed George on—he begged off continuing. “If I don’t return, they’ll come looking.”
That got the aliens attention, and he relented, though Otis had learned enough to note from the nervous antenna twitch that George was disappointed. It was like he was under a deadline to accomplish as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Otis shook his head at the thought. It didn’t make any logical sense.
On his way out of the cavern, grappling in the dark, Otis shifted the wrong way and scraped his arm. It was a result of his being exhausted. When he crawled from the entrance, he had a stream of blood running down his arm mixed with sand and grit from the cave’s interior.
“Damn, that’s all I need. If I walk in the door, covered in blood, my parents will freak.” He glanced around, considering his limited collection of goods. “What if I rip my sleeves off and wrap that around my arm?” he wondered. “No good,” he announced. “If I do, they’ll ask why I took such drastic action when I could simply have asked for assistance.” “You’re right, Mom and Dad don’t realize how much time I spend in the desert. If they did, they wouldn’t let me out of the house, which would curtail my communications with George.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the cliff face. “I could ask George for the bandages and cream I gave him yesterday. After all, he doesn’t seem to be using it. At least the hydrogen peroxide would keep the cut clean until I can take care of it.” In response to his proposal, Otis glanced at the receding sunlight and shook his head. “No, you’re running late already. There isn’t enough time. Our parents will be all over us as it is. Our only hope is to get home just as dinner is served. If everyone is distracted, I can slip into the bathroom, clean up and throw on a new shirt.”
Otis shrugged as he got a running start on his bicycle, throwing his leg over and hopping on, peddling hard to make up for lost time. “You’re right, of course. The wound itself isn’t serious. It’s only bleeding because I scrapped so much skin. By the time I reach home, my entire arm will be drenched in blood.” “How about if you hold it up?” he suggested to himself before reconsidering it. “No, the terrain is too uneven. If I don’t steer with two hands, I’ll end up face down in the red clay. That’s more noticeable than a scrape. Guys injure themselves. Mom might be upset, but dad will understand.”
As he rode away, he glanced back over his shoulder again. “Man, did you see George attack the chicken? Consider the damage he’d do if he bit your arm!” Otis nodded. “I did. The bones didn’t even slow him down. The only thing I can guess is he’s got a digestive system like a cow’s. He’s got tremendous power in his jaws to crush the material into small chunks, but he swallows it whole to be broken up in his stomach later.” “That’s our friend, George,” Otis smiled to himself. “The seven foot bug-eyed cow. You can invite him to dinner, but don’t make the mistake of reaching for the ham or he’ll take your arm off in a single bite.”
“Can you imagine what they must have been like in the wild, before they became refined over the centuries? They could devour a small creature like a squirrel in minutes.”
“With those teeth, he could consume a turtle in minutes, shell and all!”
Otis stopped talking when he noticed an odd sensation. He couldn’t feel the wind against his arm. It should be covered in blood, running down his arm and sticking to his shirt. Holding it up, he saw the scrape was already closed. Curious and almost toppling over, he pulled to a stop to examine it.
“This is odd,” he said, looking it over. He grabbed his bottle of water and poured it over his arm. “There should be a lot more blood. What’s more, even though it’s stopped bleeding, there’s no scab over the cut.” He used the water to scrub the injury, trying to see what was under the dried blood.
“It’s … pink. Like after a long bath after I’ve scrubbed my skin raw.” “Or rather, like new flesh,” he corrected himself. “But skin takes days to form.” He pinched the cut, pulling at it with his fingers. “For a fresh injury, it’s like my regular skin. Normally, if I pulled on a wound it would reopen and start bleeding again. But it resists when I rub it.” “Well for heavens’ sake, stop messing with it. You should be satisfied you won’t walk into the house a bloody mess. Quit looking a gift horse in the mouth and count your bloody blessings.” “You mean my non-bloody blessing,” he responded as he began cycling once again.