Human by Choice
Travis S. Taylor and Darrell Bain
The vagaries of chance could have gone for another billion years before such an occurrence happened again, indeed if it ever did. The Cresperian species were cautious in thought, and deliberate in handling the huge exploration ship. They were almost always alert to even the slightest changes in the timeless unreality encapsulating their ship while traversing untold distances at many times the speed of light. Had a rare, almost unheard-of controversy not been taking place that captured the perceptive senses of the two senior navigators at the time, all would have been well. Unfortunately, a long, tenacious debate among differing groups of explorers became extremely interesting at just the wrong moment. Both navigators were using their perception to follow it, amused at how even merging perceptions of the pro and con and status quo contingents could still come to no agreement.
A tiny spark of contained plasma leaped a gap from one instrument to another, warning of an approaching reality region in the path of the present dimensionless, timeless containment enclosing the ship, a reality where none should have been possible. It was such a rare phenomenon that for long, uncaptured seconds the navigators let it go unnoticed while they followed the debate in another part of the ship. By the time they realized how derelict they had been in their duty, it was too late. They knew such an event was theoretically possible but not in their wildest waking dreams had they ever thought to encounter one.
The ship shuddered as the navigators frantically caused it to reach out with tentacles of the space-time harnessed in its bowels, trying to deflect the piece of reality and sideslip into a dimension where they might possibly save the ship. It was too late. Reality tore at the fabric of controlled nothingness and began ripping it apart, exposing the body of matter necessary for life itself.
A silent scream of alarm penetrated the perception of every being aboard, warning of imminent disaster. Another, greater convulsion shook the ship as the navigators made a valiant effort to change their direction toward the only possible salvation, whatever planet might be near enough to support life, for they already knew the ship was beyond saving. Their very lives were forfeit as they remained in place while the rest of the crew scrambled for emergency escape pods. Some made it to the dubious safety of the lifeboats before the last rumbling spasm tore through the ship, breaking it into pieces against the sudden barrier of reality. Most couldn't find a lifeboat in time and the navigators didn't even make an attempt, holding true to their profession as they sacrificed their lives in a desperate attempt to save some of the others.
A dozen small craft of the hundreds that emerged from the wreckage were still intact and escaped the explosions, collisions and punctures that doomed the other lifeboats. Two of this dozen failed to reach the green and blue and brown globe of the planet where they might possibly survive, and at least one more broke up upon entering the atmosphere. Some of them were scattered across the star system, due to the uncertain nature of the unreality drives. The hibernation systems might function for a while, keeping the crews alive, but it was unlikely that another ship would pass that way before the systems finally failed. It would be unlikely that those craft stranded orbiting the yellow star or crashing into the more harsh planets of the system would survive. Very unlikely.
Of those which reached the earth, some contained only one passenger and none held more than three. Even then, one more ran into a problem which might have killed its inhabitant had it not been for where it came to rest, just before its pilot slipped into a non-perceptive state from the hard impact of landing. A crucial component damaged during the breakup of the mother ship failed while the boat was still fifty feet in the air. The small lifeboat careened through the canopy of the tall slender green vegetation of the planet with thunderous claps of sound. Systems within the craft continued to fail as the extreme impact forces of reality relentlessly pounded on it until it slammed into the surface. The occupant was more than dazed by the impact, and the reality-unreality generators still tore at each other and at the very fabric of spacetime on the outside of the lifeboat. Finally, the reality generator failed, causing a collapsing rift into unreality. The ship slowly began to disintegrate into the nothingness of the void.
What the hell was that? I looked up from my book, out the window and across the pine thicket in the direction of the loud thud and then reached over to the end table, gripping my glass of iced tea carefully. The condensation on the glass drooled down, forming a pool in a perfect ring at the base of the cup. I took a couple swigs of the cool drink, careful not to let it drip on the page, before setting my book down and rising from my chair. Might as well go see, I thought. I winced from the old battle wounds as I stood up. Anyone watching would think I was an old man instead of in my thirties.
My first notion was that a rather large limb must have fallen off one of the tall pines in the thicket surrounding the small home, up in the mountains of northern Arkansas, I had bought a few weeks earlier. Some of the trees were huge and the older ones often had dead limbs on them thicker than my thigh, and sticking out like some ghastly appendage. They dropped every now and then and caused quite a ruckus when they did. I'd made a point to keep my things out from under the trees that had them, but sometimes the wind would toss them into the most inopportune directions.
"The book wasn't that captivating, anyway," I half-heartedly hmmphed, and frowned. Come to think of it, the noise had sounded peculiar. I hoped it hadn't hit the Hummer. Or worse, the hybrid car. It was flimsier.
I went to the door and opened it, then peered through the screen where a nice breeze chilled the light sheen of sweat on my face. Time to close the doors and windows and turn on the air conditioning, but first I wanted to see what had fallen. I frowned when nothing appeared out of the ordinary from where I stood. I opened the screen door and stepped outside. I walked a few feet forward and then noticed several limbs that had been thrown asunder from high up in the pine tree canopy. There was a gouge through it that tracked at a slight angle downward to the ground. Then, I saw it.
A shimmering light blue egg-shaped apparition a dozen feet long lay before me in a short furrow a couple feet deep in the pine straw covered earth just beyond the old Hummer. The egg glimmered faintly with a red glow near its point and I could feel heat washing over my face as the glow quickly faded. For a moment I stood frozen, with only my mind moving, but it was racing like a jet on afterburner. The thing resembled nothing I'd ever seen. At first I thought it must be an errant weather balloon, then I reexamined the upturned earth where it hit. No balloon was that heavy or that hard! Was it some kind of amateur built aircraft? But that didn't match any of my preconceptions, either. All I could come up with was that the light blue color suggested it must be one of those government drones so prevalent now, perhaps an experimental type.
"You must've been booking to have heated up like that," I said to nobody in particular. "I didn't know we had hypersonic drones." But even as I formed that thought, the thing began dissolving right before my eyes the way Styrofoam does when you pour acetone on it, or more like ice melting when doused with hot water.
I thought it was just becoming transparent at first, perhaps part of a stealthy design, until I looked closer and saw that the material was disintegrating into smaller and smaller fragments until they were tiny enough to be blown away by the breeze. I watched the course of a portion of them and saw even those bits fade into nothingness, as if the material was breaking into even smaller bits, down to its constituent molecules and atoms.
"So much for the drone hypothesis," I mumbled to myself, scratching my head as the shell continued to fade and the interior was revealed, looking like nothing so much as the pilot's compartment of an aircraft. And then "Holy shit!"
There was someone inside, wrapped in a translucent cocoon that crumbled into nothingness even as I stood there like a dummy, trying to make sense of what was happening. That lasted only the few seconds it took for the last tiny bits of the cocoon to blow away on the breeze. What I saw then finally impelled me into action, for the being inside the still-disintegrating shell of its craft resembled nothing human. Well, it was vaguely humanoid, if four upper appendages and an upper portion that was more like a rounded pyramid attached to the body than a head and neck were taken into account.
I don't remember feeling any fear. I was still too stunned to feel much of anything other than an overwhelming sense of unreality, like an extraordinarily vivid dream. My first really coherent thought was concern for the being once I saw it was in trouble. Its two lower appendages disappeared into a crumbled tangle of unfamiliar, varicolored material, where that end of the egg shell shape had impacted the earth. The being trembled, then twitched, as if attempting to free itself. Anyone with a lick of sense could see that the thing was hurt and needed help. I stepped forward, then climbed over two featureless suitcase-sized bundles that had remained after the shell disappeared. As I passed the upper portion of the being I glanced down and took in the wide, bifurcated mouth set in a lumpy sort of face with two very large round green eyes. A thin vertical line bisected each of them. Even as I looked, a nictitating kind of membrane slowly descended over the eyes. Was it dying? I had no way of telling. I continued on to where I could get a closer look at where its feet were caught in a tangle of thick fibers and crushed portions of the shell. I bent down, but for some reason hesitated. The shell had completely vanished all the way to the end and now the wreckage was beginning to crumble and blow away, including where the fibers disappeared into the bowels of the morass. I decided to wait until it was all gone, then I should be able to either lift or drag the being into the house and see what I could do for it there.
I jerked upright as a cry issued from the alien. That's right, alien, I told myself. What the hell else could it have been? It would have been plain enough in any language that it was making a sound of distress, and a second later I saw why. The thick fibers holding the lower part of its feet, or what served as feet, were dissolving and taking them with it in the process! A portion of one leg was already partially gone. I could see that the other would follow it in seconds if I didn't do something. I backed up, then reached down and grabbed two of its upper appendages and jerked forcefully once, twice, then gave a harder pull. It came free of the wreckage. I drug the creature farther away, then watched as the last of what had obviously been a spacecraft of some kind finished disintegrating and its particles wafted away like clouds of dust. All that remained were the two rectangular bundles, looking almost like luggage except for being featureless. I ignored them and stooped to get a better grip on the being, sliding my hands in under the two upper appendages and lifting. It was surprisingly light for its size, bigger than me, but slippery. At first I thought it had skin like a reptile but then saw it was more of a pelt, an exceedingly fine one, so sleek it felt almost like satin. I wondered vaguely why the thing wasn't bleeding from its injured legs. If it was built anything like us it should have been spurting blood, or whatever it used for blood, all over the place.
Wonder about it later, I told myself, and then "Aren't you a freaky looking sucker?" I grinned crazily at the alien and realigned my handhold.
"Ersquaaack." The thing made a squawking sound, but who the hell knew if it was grunting at me, in pain, or just generally spitting some alien curse about getting itself into a pickle of a predicament.
"Right, whatever you say pal. Just don't eat me or give me some form of alien pox that I can't get rid of. And this don't mean we're dating." It's amazing some of the stupid things a person will say in a situation never encountered before. And I'm certainly no exception.
Once I found that I could probably lift the creature into my arms, I did so, grunting a bit and ignoring the pain it caused in my bum hip. I carried it back to the house. One of its arms folded against my chest in the process, as if it were either boneless or broken. It dangled almost limp, like a wet spaghetti noodle.
My first attempt at getting inside ended with a breeze slamming the screen door against one of the alien's damaged legs. I guessed they were legs. The thing eeked with a shrill noise that was most likely its way of calling me a dumbass.
I had to stop and prop the screen door open to maneuver my way inside. I took the creature over to the big couch and deposited it as gently as possible. Seeing it there gave me a better perspective on its size. My length fit the couch easily when I grabbed a quick nap on it, but I had to cant the alien's lower legs, what was left of them, off to the side. The membrane still covered its eyes and it still squawked in low tones every now and then. I doubted if it was trying to talk; the noises it was making were probably involuntary, since its eyes were still closed. I scanned the length of its body more closely now that it was out of danger. Or was it?
"Think I should call 911?" I asked it and shrugged. "I doubt they'd believe me if I did."
One end of a leg was still missing and a small portion of the other. Yet it was making a semblance of breathing, its middle portion moving in on each side then back out, an inch or so at a time.
"Hmm, looks like you breathe our air."
It wore no clothing that I could see, though its four arms and waist were adorned with what looked to be metallic bands, the one about the waist wider than the others. They were a darker green than the pale lime color of its pelt, but like the bundles still outside, featureless. The damned things could've been anything from an alien doomsday explosive to a ray-gun to a Zippo cigarette lighter. There was just no way of knowing what the little featureless boxes were.
Suddenly I felt a presence behind me, perhaps a movement of air that alerted my senses. I turned and saw both the rectangular blocks I had left outside floating toward me--or rather toward the alien; I was just in the way. I stepped hurriedly aside, while making a mental note that I had to find out how that was done!
"Is that superpowers or tech?" I asked and continued to observe closely.
One of the cases passed me and came to rest precariously on the end of the couch beside the alien's injured lower legs while the other settled gently to the floor. I slid the coffee table in under the overhanging part of the one on the couch just in case. Survival packs? Medical apparatus? I had no way of knowing and was fearful of prying into what I didn't understand. I waited to see what would happen next, while a million questions raced through my mind, none of them particularly original. For someone who gobbles up science fiction novels like rednecks going after free beer, you'd think I would've done something more than stand there like a statue, or at least thought of doing or saying something useful, but I didn't. I had done my part by pulling the thing from its dissolving ship. A moment later the pack on the couch divided along an invisible seam. The top half flipped back and separated, leaving two smaller, but still featureless rectangular cartons. From the one nearest the alien, a bulge appeared at one end. It grew into a tentacle that in turn grew a cluster of smaller tentacles at its terminal end. The part growing from the box stretched like taffy even as the little snake-like ends of it began exploring the body of the alien.
It was fascinating to watch. Some of the terminal tentacles divided again and again, becoming smaller and smaller in the process until I could no longer see them, but I suspected they had become microscopic in size and were delving into the very body of the motionless creature. Before long, the exploratory tentacle appeared to be satisfied with all but the missing portion of the alien's legs. It bifurcated and each part settled over a limb, with the smaller parts of it making a mesh over where its legs had been caught in the wreckage and inadvertently dissolved along with the rest of its craft. I thought the tentacle from the box must be starting a healing process. In time, I was proven correct, for the feet were slowly reconstituted, growing back into six slim toes forward and two larger ones at what would be the heel in a human. Those folded back under as if designed for that position while at rest, sort of like the arm had folded against my chest while carrying it in.
A tingling in my feet brought me back to reality. I glanced at my watch and was startled to see that almost an hour had passed since I heard the noise of the spacecraft hitting the earth outside the house. After hauling its passenger inside, I had been standing all that time as if mesmerized, and in a sense I suppose I was. I had bought the house out in the country, barely in range of even the local electric co-op, in order to get away by myself for a while. Then to have something like this interrupt my solitude--well, it was more than ironic; it was the height of absurdity, and I guess that's how I reacted.
After the death of Lyle, my twin brother, I lost my wife Gwen, the only woman I've ever truly loved. I found that I was having all kinds of problems adjusting to life without her. My intent had been to take a year's sabbatical from research and writing and live alone, where I could drag my soul out in the open and examine it. There was just all sorts of touch feel shit that I felt I needed to figure out or wad up into a tight ball and bury it away, never to think of it again. I wanted to find out whether a life without Gwen and my brother was even worthwhile. Gwen's death had come while I was still grieving over the loss of Lyle. We had been close, as only identical twins can really appreciate, and his illness had been hard to take. He died slowly, in great pain, from some kind of incurable tropical disease he caught on a trip to Africa. He suffered and cried for six long weeks while it ravaged his body, and I cried with him. Toward the end, he begged me to help him end it and I did, with Gwen's support and without consulting anyone else.
After losing the only two people in the world I loved deeply and without reservations to an uncaring universe, I had to get away, from everybody. Everybody. I wanted to think deeply on this and other matters, like where humanity was going with its burgeoning, ever-expanding technology that was growing at almost logarithmic rates but still couldn't stop a microbial onslaught to my womb-mate. I was questioning life and hating life and even wondering whether all of humanity even had much of a future. And if it did, was it one that I cared to be part of? The conflicts of the world were almost more than I could even consider at that point in my life. My mental and emotional state was a total wreck. I was, plainly put, a mess.
But in order to avoid thinking about the picture that really mattered then, namely me, I avoided it by thinking and worrying about more global issues enveloping humanity. What could I do about it, anyway, and did I care to, if I could? It appeared to me that the conflict between fundamentalist and secular Islamic practices was going to be decided in the fundamentalists' favor. I could see that coming as plainly as any good historian, even if our leaders seemed blind to the fact. And in opposition, hard-core Christianity was seeing a revival to brighten the hearts of any suspenders-snapping Baptist preacher or Pentecostal dogmatist. Even the Catholics, and Hindus with their pantheon of Gods, were falling prey to evangelical moralizing.
The isolation I'd sought had barely begun, less than two months ago, but I thought I might be coming to terms with my present life sooner than I'd imagined, although it was by no means certain yet. It was Gwen's loss that was so brutal to my sense of well-being and happiness. I'm not much of a socializer and certainly had never thought anyone as lovely and intelligent as she would ever look my way, but she did--and my real life started then, as if I had been only partially existing before meeting her. She made me happier than I ever thought possible. Just being in her presence was a continuing delight. I don't know to this day how I ever got through that awful night when a police officer showed up at the door and told me Gwen was dead, the victim of a drunk driver. I saw the world through a haze of grief and unutterable loneliness after that until I finally exiled myself to the country, hoping I could somehow use the isolation to get my life back on track. And now this.
I thought about a drink but decided to keep my mind clear and set some coffee to brew. While it was dripping, I began pacing the confines of the big living room, loosening up my cramped leg muscles and aching hip and feet and trying to decide what I should do. With every circuit around the room that went past the bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the room, behind the two easy chairs and back again, I glanced at the alien still lying quietly on the couch. Apparently the healing process was nearly complete. The leg with the least damage was already back to normal and the amputated leg had grown back. The stump where long flexible toes with what looked like sheathed claws should be was beginning to sprout buds front and back.
I poured coffee and sat down in one of the easy chairs where I could watch my uninvited guest and sipped the hot brew, trying to decide what to do. Should I call the authorities and report it? That's what most people would think of doing, I knew, but I also knew what would happen should I make that call. The alien and its two boxy possessions would be spirited away by either the military or some security arm of the government and never heard from again. In fact, as I considered my options, I decided there was a good chance I would be taken away as well, and stuck in some out-of-the-way place the rest of my life. Some of the agencies might even think it safer to simply have me eliminated and be done with it. The terrorist mania was causing congress to pass outlandish laws governing homeland security and the Supreme Court wasn't objecting very strenuously. But suppose the wounded craft had been tracked to earth? I thought about that possibility for a moment, then decided it hadn't been; otherwise, helicopters and patrol cars and men in black suits would probably already be swarming around, taking control and enjoining me to silence at the least, and wiping me from the face of the earth at worst. No, I wasn't going to call anyone, especially as the alien's equipment appeared to be taking adequate care of it. Once it awakened, if it wanted to apply the age-old cliché "Take me to your leader," then I'd help it do so, but only after warning it of the probable consequences--assuming we were eventually able to communicate with each other, of course.
On the other hand, it was possible the descending craft had been detected and even now the government was cordoning off the area before moving in. The thought bothered me. I voiced the big screen on the wall into action. It was already set to a news channel. I watched for a few moments, especially the scrolling text along the bottom of the screen but nothing untoward appeared to have happened. Just to be sure, I went to a news search and tried several different combinations of wording to see if a meteor or crash of an aircraft or anything at all resembling what actually had happened was being reported. I found a couple of suspicious sources but after going back for some in-depth reporting found that they were all innocuous happenings, easily explained. Then I got smart and changed channels to one I liked to peruse in idle moments, Strange Events. And there I did find two items. First was a report of some sort of unexplained astronomical event that was 'being studied'. The other item told of an area in Scotland that had been cordoned off and where a news blackout had been put into effect. I got a satellite view but the area was covered with clouds and neither infrared nor other wavelengths told me anything new, except that what looked to be a large tent had been erected near the center of the excluded area.
I found a couple of other places where some incident had triggered the Strange Events monitor but I couldn't find out much more than I had from the first one. And right then it hit me, and damn my stupid mind for not thinking of it earlier. Maybe I should have had a stiff drink right off and got some of my brighter neurons to functioning. My God! Have more than one of these spacecraft come down? Were we being invaded and had the vessel that landed in my yard simply malfunctioned? No, that didn't make sense. An invasion wouldn't start this way, not the kind we'd been envisioning in literature and movies ever since H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was published, well over a hundred years ago. But if there was more than one hell, I just didn't know. Better to wait until I had more data before getting into wild speculation. Gwen used to tell me I had thought patterns resembling a drunk physicist when I got going good.
I got up again and resumed pacing, unbearably anxious for the rejuvenation process the alien was undergoing to be finished. Absent-mindedly, I began straightening the room here and there, then sat down to go through yesterday evening's mail. I had left it lying on the kitchen table where I usually sorted it before taking anything important into the room I was beginning to turn into an office. Halfway through the stack of mostly junk, I found my own face staring back at me from the cover of a trade journal. It looked as if the picture had been touched up a bit. I had more gray in my dark brown hair than that and the scar above my right eyebrow had been smoothed over. The end result made me look almost handsome except that I was a little thinner now than when the photo had been taken, making my high cheekbones inherited from a Cherokee ancestor visible. Beneath the photo was a caption: Kyle Leverson, Making Science Intelligible.
I had one of those odd professions that pays well but that hardly anyone knows anything about, or has even heard of in most cases. I've been freelancing for years, taking science articles and rewording them into intelligible English. You'd be surprised at the number of high grade geniuses in the science fields who can hardly tell a verb from a vampire and need people like me to rewrite their papers for them. That means I have to do a lot of research, keeping up with the latest in studies in such diverse fields as amoebic diseases and how atmospheres form on other planets and so forth, but I've always been a science bug anyway, so that was no hardship. That doesn't mean I'm an expert in any of the professions like zoology or molecular biology or genetics or particle physics and the like--just that I know enough about them, or can find out enough, to transcribe the authors' gibberish into something readable by their peers. I also was well known (in professional circles) as a pretty fair science writer for the masses: everything from Sunday supplement type articles to more serious ones in national magazines and on the internet. With my disability income from the army, the result of gunshot wounds to the shoulder and hip, and what I earned freelancing, plus the payoff from the insurance company of the drunken driver that killed Gwen, I was very well off economically. I still got the pension even though the old wounds didn't bother me too much now, so long as I was very careful and assiduous with my non-impact exercise programs. The only thing I had regrets about is that I could no longer practice karate. It was just too much for the mess the bullets made of my shoulder and hip.
I had just finished another circuit and was pouring a second cup of coffee when I heard a noise over the newscast I had left on. I turned around and the alien creature's eyes were no longer covered by that membrane; their bisected orbs were clearly turned in my direction. An old soldier's instinct washed over me for a fleeting second, an impulse making me want to run for my pistol.
What do you do in a situation that no human has ever experienced before? I sure as hell didn't know, but while I stood there like a dunce, the alien moved its upper trunk and switched its gaze toward the big screen on the wall. There was no possible way to gauge its reaction. All I could do was try to picture how a human from another epoch might act in a similar situation, say like a Cro-Magnon with a time traveler dropped in front of its cave, and even then the circumstances could only be remotely compared. They would at least have their humanity in common, while we were two wildly different species. I might have been nothing more than technologically advanced kibble to this thing.
Luckily for me, the alien took charge. It levered itself upright and leaned against the cushioned backrest of the couch. Its gaze left the screen and traversed the room in a slow arc, as if studying each object in the room--including me, for that's where its eyes rested after the circuit around the room. Only momentarily though, for then it pointed one of its fingers--it had six on each hand, along with two opposable thumbs--and the box sitting on the floor opened just as it had done earlier, prior to the healing of the amputated foot. The gun idea was still twitching at the back of my mind as an inch-thick fiber uncoiled from the depths of the box. The fiber was topped by a small globe no more than a couple of inches in diameter. Evidently it was some kind of interpretive device, for the alien began speaking to it and it answered, but in a gabble that made no sense at all to me.
This went on for several moments while I brought my fresh coffee over to the easy chair and set it on the side table. I started to sit down but then wondered if my alien guest might be hungry or thirsty. I went over to the refrigerator and poured a glass of cold water. Very slowly, so as not to alarm it, I crossed the room and held out the glass.
There was no hesitation on its part. It took the glass and raised it to the lipless, bifurcated mouth. A tongue as pink as my own lapped at the water at first, then somehow formed a tube and suctioned the rest of it up. It held out the glass to me, a clear signal that it wanted more. I set the glass on the coffee table and fetched the water pitcher. I demonstrated how to pour, probably an unnecessary gesture. I watched as it drank almost the whole pitcher of water. After that it placed its mouth over the globe at the end of the upright fiber that had risen from the box. It made swallowing motions, leading me to think it was probably taking in some nourishment, or possibly medicine. When it seemed to be satisfied, I decided to get busy.
"Kyle," I said, touching my chest like Tarzan as I uttered my name.
It repeated my action and said, "Cresperian," speaking slowly. If it had said, "Take me to your leader" instead, I would have headed for the nearest funny farm and checked myself in faster than a cat having sex. At that point a piece of useless knowledge popped into my head about tomcats. I was lost on the thought that a tomcat has barbs on its penis and ejaculates in less than ten seconds. Then I cringed, thinking about the sight of a poor pussycat being mounted. I've got more useless facts like that running around in my mind than are in Wikipedia. Gwen used to show me off at parties, having people ask me odd questions, the odder the better. Sometimes stress causes nonsense like that to just pop to the front of my brain. Perhaps I developed it early on as some sort of coping mechanism to make up for being shy.
"Kyle." The alien snapped me out of my wandering trivial pursuit by pointing in my direction and repeating my name.
I didn't intend to try putting over the fact that humans usually went by two, and sometimes three names, but even so I confused it. By the time I realized it was speaking of species while I had given my individual name, it took several minutes and finally showing it a picture of a crowd before it got the idea. After that the session went easier, even though I learned later that they had no permanent names of their own, but changed their designation as they changed professions or specialties. Nevertheless, we began making rapid progress, I by talking and demonstrating, and it by what turned out to be an eidetic memory and use of its boxed assistant that seemed to have as many functions as the contents of a woman's handbag, maybe more.
Time passed and eventually I played out, while it appeared content to continue the language and culture lessons indefinitely. It was midnight by then. We hadn't gotten around to discussing sleep but I was really feeling the need. Finally I hit on a bright idea. I had already managed to explain the idea of what a computer was, so I showed it the basics on my spare (not being willing to risk a neophyte with the main one). It caught on quickly, and we had already gone over the association between words and the text in books. I left it with a dictionary, a connection to one of the simpler encyclopedias on the net and a general science site to play with, and Google, and then I pointed out the bathroom in case it had needs along those lines. I lay down on the couch, instead of my bed, to sleep. I wanted be nearby in case it needed me.
For the time being I was calling it Jerry, for no particular reason other than it sounded like the first couple of syllables of what it gave as its designation when we decided it needed a name in English, and it seemed satisfied with the shortened form. After I'd sleepily watched Jerry for a while, I thought he could navigate by himself (herself? We hadn't gotten into that yet, but I decided on him for the time being) and closed my eyes at last. Just as I was dozing off I heard a cat "raoow" out behind the shed, causing me to dream of an alien tomcat mounting a poor little kitty.
I was so short on sleep that at first I had trouble remembering what was going on, then I blinked and it all came rushing back into my mind, just as it did every time I woke up. An alien! I had an alien in my home, an intelligent, reasoning creature from the stars, a phenomenon we humans had been dreaming of for the better part of a century! And, it hadn't as of yet made the slightest motions toward eating me alive. That part I was happiest about.
"Good morning, Jerry," I said.
"Good morning, Kyle. Your sleepness was noisy at times but not disturbing. I thank you for the generosity of your computer and of your home."
I do snore occasionally, especially when I'm tired, so I guess that's what he was referring to. His language had improved considerably overnight, enough so that we could converse easily. There were plenty of misunderstandings, circumlocutions and cultural differences that occasionally took a long time to overcome, but I won't try to reproduce any of that. Apparently he (I went on referring to it as he for a day or two until we got that straightened out) had no need of sleep, at least not in the sense we did.
"Thank you. Are you tired? Do you need to rest?"
"No, I have no need to sleep at the present time."
"Uh huh." Right then, I had no idea of the implications that simple statement held for the future. I simply assumed he needed less sleep than we did and would rest when he felt the need.
"How about some food? Are you hungry? Do you think you can eat what we do?"
"Yes, when I begin to need food, I believe it will be compatible with my body."
Again, I had no inkling of what his statement really meant, but if it didn't need food, I did, as well as a shower and some coffee to get me going. I started the coffee brewing, then said, "Excuse me. I need to shower and brush my teeth, and then we'll talk some more while I make breakfast."
"I will be content until you return."
The formal way he spoke soon disappeared as he picked up the nuances of slang, along with my southern accent, and began working deeper into the incredible versatility of the rich English language.
He turned back to the computer as I left the room. It was one of the fastest showers and morning ablutions of my life, for I could hardly contain myself until I could get back and talk some more with him. Whatever else I had expected of an alien, I never thought I'd meet one who learned so rapidly or was so agreeable with whatever I happened to suggest.
Not wanting to waste time cooking, I pulled down a box of sweetened Cheerios for breakfast. While I spooned them into my mouth we talked, with me sometimes having to finish a bite before answering.
Once my bowl was empty, I poured coffee for myself, and then offered some to Jerry.
"Not at the present, thank you, but I believe by tomorrow or perhaps the next day I'll be able to partake," he told me.
And again I missed the implications, but of course there was no possible way for me to understand what he meant. Once the coffee quieted my caffeine addiction and got my mind into gear, I decided to bring up the subject of sex, taking a chance that I might be broaching some taboo of his species.
"Jerry, I've been referring to you as 'he', implying not only that you're male but that your species has two sexes like ours. Am I correct or way off base?"
"Off base?" He hesitated before continuing. Just as I opened my mouth to explain, he said "Yes, I understand now. A sports analogy. Your communication mode is extremely versatile for being so limited."
"We have what you would call a perceptive sense. It allows us to discern many more nuances of meaning than speech alone."
"You mean you're telepathic? You can read minds?" Great blazing balls of fire! What must he be thinking of me if he knew everything that had gone through my mind since he fell to earth in my yard? If I were the alien I'd probably be the one wanting a shootin' iron!
"No, just that we 'see' with more than our eyes, even down to the small molecular level or even to the atomic. When communicating with a companion, speech is only part of the message. In time I will be able to explain in more detail."
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Okay," I said and gladly left it at that, now that I was assured he wasn't reading my thoughts. Aliens using my computer and drinking my water was one thing, but if they got into my mind that was an entirely different matter. What if the thing had seen my crazy dream about the alien tomcat raping that kitty? Humanity might be looked at as really freaking weird, were that to happen. Fortunately for humankind, Jerry wasn't telepathic, as far as I understood it. "But back to your sex. Are you male or female?"
He seemed to muse for a moment before answering, making me wonder for a moment if I had touched on a taboo subject. I was just thinking of how to phrase my apology when he put my fears to rest. "In our culture we have two genders, just as you do, but we're not limited as you are. In the course of our lives, we may have one sexual identity, then change to another, just as we change specialties of interest from time to time, and eventually two of us may propagate through what you would think of as a third sex, perhaps. One who bears the young."
"Hmm." That must be a nice arrangement, I thought to myself. One sex just to have the babies while the other two have all the fun. Of course, I had no idea of their sexual practices at the time, or even if they had sex in the fashion we did. For certain I could detect nothing at Jerry's crotch that looked anything like genitalia. Anyway, his sexual organs didn't necessarily have to be placed like ours. His outward appearance was sort of like a cartoon animal--sexless. And who knew what he had hiding under that pelt?
He must have taken my little utterance as a signal to continue with the subject, for then he said, "I've already instituted the necessary biomolecular and genetic revisions of my structure to become female. However, if that is unsatisfactory to you, I can reverse the process with little problem at this stage."
I was curious, I'll admit. Besides, men are always thinking about sex. "Why did you decide to start the change now, on a strange planet and in what must be an even stranger environment for you? Or is it something that happens automatically?"
"Oh, no, Kyle. Long ago we progressed to a stage of biotechnology where the changes may be done at will. Of course we don't usually switch back and forth very often. Our lifespans are extremely long compared to yours, so there's no necessity for hurry in most matters."
"Of course not," I said, and immediately hoped he hadn't picked up on the sarcasm. Damn it, he could have gone all day without saying that. The fact that we had to die was one of my pet peeves. At the very least, I thought our lifetimes were far too short. I hated the thought of death, the negation of my ego, and being non-religious, I had no anticipation of an afterlife. And while I'm still relatively young, I can remember how bitterly resentful my Dad had been as his life neared its end, not only because he knew he was going to die, but also at all the aches and pains that old age entails. And he didn't believe in an afterlife either. Frankly, I doubt that most people really, deep down, believe in a heaven, or they wouldn't struggle so to keep on living, even in pain and misery and conditions where death should seem welcome if they really thought there was something nice waiting afterward. And just look at how we misbehave. Would we really act the way we do if we thought our chances of going to heaven were based on our actions while alive? Hell no, we wouldn't.
I shook my head to get the random thoughts out of my mind. "So I take it you're male now. Will you look the same after you change to a female or will the differences be apparent, like our sexual characteristics?"
If an alien with a face like a cross between a cat and an owl could look troubled, Jerry did. I apologized, thinking I shouldn't have raised the issue so soon. "I'm sorry, Jerry. I think I must have troubled or embarrassed you. I didn't intend to." Damn my big mouth. Why can't I ever learn to keep it shut?
"It isn't that, Kyle. You've mistaken my meaning, most likely from my incomplete comprehension of your language and culture. I'm becoming a female because I thought that would please you, since you're alone--that is, you have no companion present. Wife? Partner?"
"I was married," I told him. "My wife died in an accident several months ago. If you're becoming a female simply to please me well, I don't see what difference it would make. I'm sure I could continue to relate to you in your present form just as well as whatever you look like as a female."
A long moment of silence ensued and again I thought I had said something wrong.
"I see that I still have failed to make myself understood. I apologize for that. What my transition means is that when it is complete I will look like a human female. In fact, in all respects I will be able to function as a human female, retaining only my perceptive sense and my knowledge."
"Jerry, how can you do such a thing? Unless you've been studying us more thoroughly than you've admitted, I don't see how you can possibly do it."
He, or I guess I should say she, answered, since I began thinking of the alien as female from that point on. At any rate I changed the wording of its name to Jeri in my mind and thought of her like that from then on. She responded to my question with wording she had used before in somewhat the same context, but it had passed me by then, just as all the indirect references to the coming change had failed to penetrate. Some days I'm dense, I'll admit it.
"My perceptive sense goes down to the molecular level, Kyle, and even beyond if necessary, as I've mentioned to you. I've already done a thorough analysis of your gene structure. As I'm sure you know, all the aspects of both male and female are contained in the chromosomes of every cell of your body, particularly as you possess both the X and Y chromosomes. Had you been female, I would have been unable to successfully change or perhaps even gone off on a false highway. Road? Path?"
"Path. You mean you've been able to look inside my body without me even knowing it?"
"Not look, as you interpret the term, Kyle. Perceive is the only English word I can use to describe what I did. As I've said before, our perceptive sense goes down to the molecular level." She stopped for a moment, then continued. "Was I wrong to look inside your body without your permission?"
"No harm done, but if you truly get to where you look like a female and can pass for human, it wouldn't do to go around looking through people's clothes, for instance. If you ever forget, for God's sake don't mention it! We like our privacy and the nudity taboos are rather strong in our culture."
"Yes, I've gathered that, but what you suggested I could do would never be detectable. Even so, as human, I shall practice the same mores as you do, so far as possible."
"Hmm. Maybe this is the time to ask if any more of you are on earth." I think I kind of held my breath until she answered. It turned out that my suspicions were correct.
"I believe so, although I can't say how many. As our ship broke up, hundreds of lifeboats escaped, but very few survived. I perceived several before distance became a factor. Perhaps as few as two or three of us made it to earth but certainly no more than two dozen, in somewhat less than a dozen boats."
I should have figured it out without her help by then, but I hadn't. I had been picturing the spaceship she arrived in as an interstellar craft that had crashed because of a mechanical failure, but in retrospect it was a sillier assumption than thinking you can drink boilermakers all night without consequences the next morning. Considering its size and the way it disintegrated upon touching earth in order to free its occupant should have enabled me to figure out that it was a survival craft of some kind, but I guess my brain had been overloaded right from the beginning. Anyway, knowing the truth brought up another question.
"Did you manage to send a distress signal? Will another ship be coming to rescue you?"
"No. I fear I shall never return to my home planet."
"Never? Why not?"
"Several reasons. First, this galaxy is huge, as you well know. While many planets bear life, we've found only three or four others so far in hundreds of years of exploration that have intelligent species and all of those but humans are subtechnical."
I'm glad she included us among the intelligences. Some days I have my doubts about just how smart humans are despite being able to invent such things as fast food and pantyhose. But maybe she was overlooking something.
"How about if one of your navigators survived, wouldn't they know how to get back? Or is that all pre-programmed?"
"No, that's one of the few things that weren't completely automatic, but I know for certain that our pathfinders all perished when our starship failed, so even if it were possible to build another ship here, which it isn't, it's doubtful that I or any of my fellows who escaped could find the way back."
"You don't know how a spaceship, a starship I should say, works?"
"Only generally. You know in a broad sense how a nuclear reactor works, but could you design and build one using the technical aid of south sea islanders?"
"Uh, no." I got the point. We were barbarians compared to them, but personally, I think she could have thought of a gentler way of putting it. "Won't another ship ever come this way again?"
"Perhaps, but again using an analogy, in the course of your life will you ever travel to London, to a particular street and house number you've never heard of, much less seen?"
"No, I guess not. So you're stuck here. Is that why you're planning on assuming human shape?"
"I see no other recourse. Judging from what little I know yet of your culture, it's impossible for me to go out in public in my present appearance. Fortunately, in our own culture, assuming other body shapes, including the mental processes, is commonplace. I myself have taken the shape of, and lived for a short time as, one of our nearest cousins in the animal world. It's no inconvenience for me to become like a human. In fact, again judging from what little I know, it should be an extraordinary experience, since I will assume the characteristics of a human female. But before that happens, I'm going to have to impose on you for some assistance with the change. May I?"
"Certainly. I'll do whatever I can to help you. We sure as hell don't want the military or one of the security agencies to get their hands on you." That made me pause for thought. "You said you can perceive others of your kind. Do you have any idea at all of where the others might be?"
"I was so busy trying to keep my boat operational that I only remember flashes of a few trajectories. I know of one that probably came to rest hundreds of miles east of here and I believe another ship probably landed in the United Kingdom, although I can't be certain. Other than those, I have no idea, since even though we were all on the same general trajectory, some of the survivors lagged behind me and some were ahead, like the two I mentioned, but there must have been a lot of divergence. They could have come down most anywhere, although the lifeboats would have guided toward land masses."
"I see." And I had to wonder if anyone else was in the same predicament as me--offering aid to that old bugbear of humans: a bug-eyed monster. BEM in science fiction parlance. We had gotten off track. "You said you needed my help. What is it you want me to do for you?"
"In order to assure a successful transition, I'd like you to convey me to the vicinity of the nearest young female that you know of. Could you do that?"
"Sure," I said, thinking momentarily of Gwen. As if this alien could ever match her! I didn't say that, though. No sense in getting her aggravated at me. "In fact, I need to go shopping in a day or two, anyway, and the little store where I buy groceries and gas has a young lady working there in the afternoons and evenings. I could cover you with a blanket in the back seat and you can do what's necessary while I'm inside. How would that be?" You know, I didn't feel a bit of guilt over Jeri preparing to look inside Bridgett. Heck, I wouldn't have minded a peek myself, at least beneath her clothes. I had a sneaking suspicion she didn't wear panties all the time, but I could be wrong. Just my evil self doing the speculation.
"Yes, that would work very well. Actually, I only need to get within a couple of hundred feet to zero in, I think is the term, on the anatomy I'm interested in. In case you're wondering, I want to observe the uterus and ovaries and the other sexual differences, and look more closely at the X chromosome as it is expressed in a female."
"No problem. Hey, what kind of woman will you look like when you're finished?"
The bifurcated mouth opened wider in what I think was an attempt at a smile. "I can look like any of the ones I've seen while watching the newscast, but I'd rather you do the choosing."
Dr. Taylor has worked on various programs for the Department of Defense and NASA for the past sixteen years. He's currently working on several advanced propulsion concepts, very large space telescopes, space-based beamed energy systems, and next generation space launch concepts.
In his copious spare time, Doc Travis is also a black belt martial artist, a private pilot, a SCUBA diver, races mountain bikes, competed in triathlons, and has been the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of several hard rock bands. He currently lives with his wife Karen, daughter Kalista Jade, two dogs Stevie and Wesker, and his cat Kuro, in north Alabama.
Author web site.
Darrell Bain is the author of more than three dozen books, in many genres, running the gamut from humor to mystery and science fiction to humorous non-fiction. For the last several years he has concentrated on humor and science fiction, both short fiction, and suspense thrillers.
Darrell served thirteen years in the military as a medic and his two years in Vietnam formed the basis for his first published novel, Medics Wild. Darrell has been writing off and on all his life but really got serious about it only after the advent of computers. He purchased his first one in 1989 and has been writing furiously ever since.
While Darrell was working as a lab manager at a hospital in Texas, he met his wife Betty. He trapped her under a mistletoe sprig and they were married a year later. Darrell and Betty owned and operated a Christmas tree farm in East Texas for many years. It became the subject and backdrop for some of his humorous stories and books.
Author web site.
Published by permission of the author.