Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pleased to Beat You

Here's a science fiction story, one of the eight short stories in The Claw and the Eye:

Obviously, he was just another sign of Jade's over-active imagination. She looked again to clear the bizarre image from her mind, and there he was, standing on the orange leaves behind the house. It would have been odd enough for a stranger to walk into her backyard from the forest at all. But this stranger looked like he should have been walking into a sci-fi convention. His entire head was covered in a hairless, ridged and scaly mask. He wore a futuristic-looking slate-gray jumpsuit with an intricate design of shiny gold-colored circles embossed on the front. Heavy gray boots came up to his knees. "My vehicle is disabled," he said. "I require help." He had a deep voice.
"Where is your vehicle?" Jade asked, stalling for time.
"About 500 meters north-northeast of here." He sounded congested.

500 meters north-northeast. There were no roads in that location--only a rough jeep track. Then either he was confused, or he was lying to hide something. "I'd be happy to call someone for you," she told him, and went into the house. She would lock the door and call 911, and they'd probably take him to the hospital.

But before she could finish closing the door, he grabbed it and followed her inside. He was tall--at least six-six.

With an effort, she looked up at the scaly mask. It fit him well--it must have been glued on and touched up with makeup. "Wait for me outside, please."

"No," he said, and closed the door.

“Really,” she insisted, her pulse throbbing in her ears, “you need to wait outside.” She tried to open the door again, but he held it closed. She kicked the little throw-rug out of the way, got a solid stance on the pine floorboards, grabbed the doorknob with both hands, leaned back and pulled hard. But of course she was no match for the much bigger intruder, and he stood there looking almost bored, holding the door shut easily with one hand.

Telling herself not to panic, she methodically put the mail down on the table, took off her coat and fed the fire in the woodstove. She replaced the stove-lid, hung the lid-lifter on its nail beside the bellows and whisk broom on the side of the stair-stringer and started for the telephone.

But when she had the phone almost within her reach, he grabbed her arm, stopping her. His touch felt like leather--and no wonder. He wore gloves to match the gray-brown 'alien' skin of his mask.

The fingers of the gloves ended in claws, but either they weren't sharp or he had been careful not to scratch her with them. "I will not allow you to contact your government," he said matter-of-factly. He must have had a bad cold: he sounded all plugged up.

"Let me go!" Jade protested, trying not to sound scared.

To her surprise, he did release her, and she made a dive for the phone.

It was useless. He grabbed her arm again and held her back.

"Okay," she breathed, hoping she hadn't angered him. "No phone calls." She paused, swallowed, took a deep breath, and said, "But then, I don't know how I can help you."

"I require heat," he replied evenly. "You will stay by the stairs." Still holding her arm, he pulled her back around the table to the place where she’d just hung the lid-lifter. She thought he might frisk her to make sure she didn’t have a cell phone on her, but he didn’t. Maybe he knew there was no cell signal there, or maybe he just didn’t think of it. He stood between the stove and the table, blocking her way to the phone, and took off his outer piece of clothing. It was a stiff piece, worn in front like the protective gear of a baseball catcher. He pulled his arms out of his jumpsuit and tied the sleeves around his waist. The long-sleeved jersey or unionsuit he wore underneath covered him completely, from 'alien' mask to 'alien' gloves.

"What should I call you?" Jade asked.

"Zukk," he answered, "My name is Zukk." It rhymed with 'duke.' But he was so congested that it sounded like, "By dabe is Zukk."

"Zukk," she repeated. "Okay. Why the alien costume?"

Zukk--or whatever his name really was--didn't answer right away. He removed a small object from his left hip and spoke into it: "Costube." Some sounds came from the object. Then he replaced it and turned to Jade. "Are you asking why I wear this clothing?"
Jade resisted the temptation to roll her eyes at this attempt at acting. "Yeah, why the alien suit? You going to a con?"

"No," he answered. "I wear the uniform of a Chuzekk Zidd." (It rhymed with 'seed.') "What should I call you?"

"Oh sorry," she answered. "I'm Jade. Nice to meet you." She offered her hand reluctantly, and he shook it.

“Jade,” he repeated.

"I should check the fire again," said Jade. It was probably too early to check the fire, but she was nervous and needed to keep moving.

He nodded and made room for her. She looked at the fire and tasted the soup that simmered on top. After adding a little black pepper and allspice, there was nothing more to do than move it to the edge of the stove to keep warm.

"Is it ready?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Jade. "It's done." She didn't want to offer him any. He wasn't a guest, after all.

He lifted the cover without a potholder and smelled the soup. "I will eat with you," he said.

His arrogance annoyed her, but she thought it would be petty to argue. "Soup mugs are on the beam," she said, pointing past him.

He grabbed two, and she got out spoons and a ladle and dill weed. He ladled soup into the mugs and ate his. She stirred dill into hers and waited. It was too hot. Besides, she was too nervous to eat.

She should try to get him to talk. It would be good to know if he was a fugitive and the alien-act was a way of concealing his identity, or if he was just crazy. Either way, he could turn dangerous.

"So where you from?" she asked.

"Chuzz," he answered.

"Choose what?"

"Chuzz is the name of my planet. You have not discovered it yet."

Jade shrugged. "I hope this soup helps your cold."

"The heat from your fire is recharging my thermal garment," he answered, sounding as congested as ever in spite of the steaming soup. "We are cold-blooded. We cannot create our own heat as you do. So we wear special garments for this purpose. After my vehicle was disabled, I did not have time to finish repairs before recharging."

"So you came to my house to recharge your garment?" Jade asked. Whatever else this guy was, he was intelligent. And was there something more to his speech, too? A hint of an accent, maybe? It was hard to say for sure, with all that congestion.

"Yes," he said.

Compassion finally got the better of her. "You should take something for that cold. A decongestant.

Let me see what I have."

He followed her to the bathroom, soup in hand. "I do dot require a decodgestat," he objected. "I ab dot codgested."

"You can't even say the word 'congested,'" she countered, "because you're too congested."

"There are some sounds of your language which we cannot make," he explained. "It is a physiological difference, not an illness."

"O-kay," she replied. He was really testing her patience. "Are you sure you don't want to take one of these anyway? It'll help you feel better."

She poured out one pill and held it out to him, in the bottle cap.

He ignored it. "You should eat. You require fuel to create heat. You will come with me to my vehicle."

She put the pill away. "That's okay, you go ahead. I'll stay here."

"No. I will not allow you to contact your government."

They went back to the kitchen and he handed her her soup.

She took a bite, then said, "Why not? Why won't you let me contact the government? They can help you."

"They would consider me a threat, capture me, probably kill me. They would attempt to reverse-engineer my Personal Device, my thermal garment and my vehicle. When we contact your government, we will do so with a show of force sufficient to prove such actions unwise."

"I see." His logic may have been unrelated to reality, but it certainly seemed consistent.

He was getting back into his sleeves, so she put her coat on. The bright orange safety vest, a necessity during hunting season, was already on it. She grabbed some gloves, a hat and scarf, a flashlight and the Spanish novel she'd been reading before she'd gone out for the mail.

He put his front-piece back on, picked up the soup-pot by its bail handle and took her arm again.

She closed the stove-drafts, and he pulled her out of the house.

"What is that thing for?" she asked as they walked north into the forest. She indicated with her hand the stiff thing he wore on the front of his body.

"It is armor. It was originally for battle, but since its protection is useful for many activities, we wear them most of the day."

"And the design on the front? The gold circles?"

"They indicate my rank and command: Zidd, Foreign Relations."

A brilliant red maple that still had most of its leaves caught Jade’s eye. She let her head turn to enjoy the view. He had her firmly by the arm, so she didn’t really need to look where she was going. She didn’t know whether he would let her fall if she tripped, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was being dragged into the forest by some weirdo. For all she knew, he could be a serial killer on the run. She was glad her daughter was in school. What she needed to do was find a way to convince her captor to go back, at least as far as the house, and hopefully as far as the road. At least then, there was a possibility someone would see them. “Do you know what’s wrong with your vehicle?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said, and nothing more. He let go of her arm.

“Would you mind telling me?” she prodded.

“No,” he said. Still nothing more.

“So, um…are you going to tell me?” she asked, after a pause.

“If you want me to tell you, then I will.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “Please tell me what’s wrong with your vehicle,” she recited.

“The primary seal of the cooling fluid container for the second combustion chamber contained cellulose and fructose.”

Jade suppressed a laugh. Spaceship parts made of cellulose and fructose, what a fantasy! “Is it supposed to?” she asked.

“I do not understand,” her abductor replied, serious as ever. He walked very close to her: even if he was one of those guys whose size made them slow runners, he could still grab her if she tried to make a run for it. She kept up her pace.

“Is—that thing—supposed to be made of cellulose and fructose?” she asked, managing somehow to keep a straight face.

He shook his head “Cellulose and fructose are combustible,” he explained patiently. “They burned and the seal changed shape and caused a leak. The factory workers failed to install the secondary seal.”

Jade didn’t pay a lot of attention to the explanation. “Don’t you need to bring some tools?” she asked. “We have lots of tools at my house. I keep a basic set in my car, and then there are more in the shed. Shouldn’t we grab some?”

“Yes,” he replied, but he didn’t sound very interested.
It had worked. Jade stopped and began to turn back. “What tools do you need, exactly?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

He grabbed her arm and forced her forward, back in the direction they had been going—northeast, uphill, away from the road. The only hope of getting help out there would be if they happened to meet a hunter.

“But you said you need to get tools from my place,” she objected, looking up at him. She opened her eyes as wide as she could. Maybe he’d feel sorry for her, and reconsider.

“No,” he replied. “I said yes I do not need tools from your house. I need a tachzutt combiner and there is one in my vehicle.”

A new thought suddenly occurred to Jade: if 'Zukk' was delusional--really believed his own story--then would he become violent when he discovered there was no spaceship? She walked for a minute, thinking, silent except for the rustling sound her feet made in the leaves. Then she said,

"Does your vehicle have a self-destruct function?"

"I will not answer," was the 'alien's' response.

"Okay, that's fair. But if it does--and it's in need of repair--then the self-destruct could theoretically go off accidentally, right?"

"I don't know."

"And if that happened we could get to the spot where you left your spaceship--I mean your vehicle--and find nothing."

But when they got to the spot, it was Jade who was surprised. Standing among the wispy black-and-white-and-yellow birches and the thick green hemlocks was something that looked vaguely like a rocket--or like one of the space shuttles, only much smaller. It was white and shaped somewhat like a cone, and had some round black parts on the bottom that she took to be exhaust ports.

Just for an instant, she was tempted to wonder if Zukk really was from outer space. How else could she explain his vehicle, here in such a place? But then, a real alien ship wouldn't look like anything she had ever seen or even imagined.
"How did this get here?" she said aloud.

"I was recording this region when propulsion failed, forcing me to land. I will finish repairs. You will stay beside me."

"You were recording this region. You mean mapping it?"

"Yes." He took the device from his hip and punched in a code, and an opening appeared in the side of the vehicle. Jade noticed that he typed with his claws and not his fingers. He continued,

"Mapping and recording sounds, images, temperature, pressure, material composition and other things."

"You're a spy." She hadn't meant to say it aloud.

"Yes," They were inside the vehicle now. Zukk was typing with his claws and consulting various readouts. None of the places where he typed looked like keypads, and none of the places where the readouts showed looked like readout screens. Everything looked like structural elements--walls or posts, for example--until pictures and diagrams appeared on them.

And then she saw the writing in the readouts and forgot everything else. The characters were angular like printed Hebrew, but had a little of the brushstroke quality of Chinese. The language appeared to be either alphabetic or syllabary. If she could just hear some of it...

"What does that say?" she asked, pointing to a short piece of text above her head.

"26-pod propulsion failure,” he replied. “You will go outdoors with me." Then he took her arm and half-dragged her back out into the familiar world and away from the strange language that begged to be decoded. He had a tool in his other hand, and began using it. It appeared to be some sort of welding torch or laser.

He kept working for hours, and she couldn't convince him to let her back inside. He didn't want to talk, either, and she grew bored and cold. She ate some soup--also cold--and tried to run away but Zukk was too fast for her. She finished the chapter in the Spanish novel.

She wished she’d thought to bring her computer. She should be working right now, after all, and her next task was those four boring documents, two Spanish, one French and one Italian, that were waiting on her hard drive to be turned into English. She didn’t think for a moment that any of her clients would understand if she told them, “Your documents aren’t ready yet because I was kidnapped by a harmless man claiming to be an alien.” She may as well tell them a dog ate it, or a dinosaur.
The novel was much more interesting than those dry documents. It was also much more risky. Nobody was paying her to translate the novel, or not exactly, anyway. She was going to get a percentage, after expenses, assuming enough copies were sold to even cover the expenses.

But as excited as she was about translating the novel, even that was just another translation job. What she really wanted was to tackle a new language and analyze it. She had a feeling, and it wouldn’t go away. It was a feeling like there was something there, buried in the languages—not just in the romance languages she worked with every day. Not even in the Latin and sprinkling of Greek that was always present in all of them. The hints were there, but she wasn’t going to find the answer from just those hints. She wanted to immerse herself, for starters, in Russian, in Norwegian and Swedish, in old and new Turkish, in ancient and modern Hebrew. She didn’t need to actually learn the languages, she just needed to analyze them. Look for patterns. What patterns, she couldn’t tell. She only knew there was something.

But she was being silly. It was ridiculous to think that she, Jade Massilon, could find something the world’s expert linguists hadn’t found. She had only a GED with a couple of college courses tacked on. And she read a lot, for whatever that was worth.

And anyway it didn’t matter. She didn’t have time to chase language-ghosts; she had a living to make. She wished she’d at least thought to bring a paper and pencil. She could start working on translating the novel, that way. At least she’d be doing something, and she could get her mind off the tantalizing readouts locked inside this vehicle. She looked at Zukk working on it and wondered if it was ever going to fly. She wondered if he could really be an alien. She wondered if there was any way to know for sure.

Then suddenly he was done. He stood up and spoke a command, and the engine--or whatever it was--started with a babbling hum. Then the hum stopped and the vehicle disappeared.

"Cloaked," Jade heard herself say.

Zukk spoke another command and the vehicle reappeared, silent this time. He turned to her and offered his hand. This time, she shook it willingly. "I will leave now: you are free," he said. "I believe that since you have seen me, my government will expedite the Earth project. I expect ships from Chuzz to arrive soon." He let go of her hand and started toward his vehicle, then stopped and turned. “Our meeting was due to an error, but I am glad of it. You have a greeting.” He paused a moment to think, then said with his congested sound, “Pleased to beat you, Jade.”

Then he stepped into his vehicle and the opening closed behind him. The vehicle made its babbling hum for a few seconds, then went silent and disappeared.

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