01: Washed Ashore in a Strange Land
“So what are your plans for the afternoon?” Melissa Evens asked as her kids ate lunch at their well-worn kitchen table. It had been another long morning of chores on the family ranch. Their day started just after dawn performing the daily chores, but the afternoons were for the extra jobs required to keep the ranch in good working order. “With these clouds moving in, we’re going to get some heavy rains. You’d better get started working the fence line. You won’t be able to dig post holes once the ground gets wet.”
Melissa didn’t look like the typical rancher. Despite her calloused hands, the 40-year-old mother was trim, blonde and attractive. She’d helped her husband maintain the ranch, but balanced her time between ranch work and maintaining her looks for her husband, which he appreciated. Once he died of a sudden onset heart attack, she’d continued the daily beauty treatments and yoga exercises for her own sake. She also didn’t date. With just her and her kids running the ranch, she had no intention of letting some two-bit hustler take it over because he managed to woo her.
“Geez, Mom,” Josh whined, waving his forkful of food as he spoke, “I can’t get much accomplished before we’ll have to stop again. I was hoping to handle that when we can do the whole thing at one time.”
Josh, short for Joshua, was a sophomore at Northern Arizona University and wasn’t used to working quite so hard when not on the ranch. Although the school liked to stick the newer kids with the early classes, he typically woke at 7:30 AM for an 8:00 class, instead of starting work at 5:00 AM here at home.
Melinda sighed, putting her hands down on the table. “Joshua, it has to be done, and it’s better to do it when you can rather than waiting for the perfect opportunity. Which, may I remind you, never comes,” Melissa lectured her son for what felt like the thousandth time. He’d never learned to apply himself and was always looking for some excuse to shirk his duty. His sisters, on the other hand, hardly ever complained about the work, despite volunteering for much more onerous tasks than she ever required of Josh. “For having been raised on a ranch, you’ve never quite grasped the concept that work doesn’t wait for you. There are tasks to finish and you do them when they need doing, not when you feel like it,” she finished with a barely concealed scowl.
“The problem is Josh doesn’t think the farm is good enough for him,” Josh’s 17-year-old younger sister, Janet, responded with a sneer. Both she and her older sister, Francis, had heard this routine before. Josh was habitually unmotivated. He had to be forced to do the tasks he knew had to be completed every day, as if they simply weren’t necessary. Because she worked hard and applied herself, it frustrated Janet. She knew what she wanted and was willing to do what was necessary to get there. “Not only does he dislike working for and contributing to the family, but he’s always had a superiority complex. He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” she accused.
Despite having the looks to skate by on her beauty, Janet dedicated herself to getting ahead in school. She apprenticed with a local vet and had already made plans to study veterinary medicine when she attended college. Like her mother, she was relatively short, thin and gorgeous, but she hid her beauty behind a no-nonsense pair of glasses and plain clothes. She dressed up only on special occasions, not wanting to be distracted by her high school classmates constantly hitting on her. Although she flirted with a few guys at school and had dated sporadically, she planned to do most of her dating during college when there was more likelihood of finding someone willing to put up with a veterinarian rancher.
The accusation that Josh had an insufferable attitude cut him deep to the bone. While he prided himself on his intellect and his unusual friends, he’d always had troubles getting along with most people for just that reason. In this region everyone affects an ‘aw, shucks’ attitude, even though many of the people he knew were actually quite bright. But instead of taking pride in their intelligence they played it down with false modesty as if ashamed of their ideas. It rankled Josh, and fed into his discomfort with his life here.
“It’s not that it isn’t good enough for me,” Josh responded, dropping his fork in frustration at being picked on by his mother and sisters once again. “It’s just that ranching isn’t what I see for myself.” He swept his long sun bleached hair out of his eyes and paused to collect himself before continuing. “I can’t picture dedicating my life to working the same dusty plot of land for the rest of my days. I’d like to accomplish something, and I just don’t see myself achieving much here. I mean, there isn’t even anyone else here. They’ve all had enough sense to move away a long time ago.”
“Ha! It’s not like you’ll accomplish anything anywhere else,” Francis responded. As the eldest, she’d always taken on all the ranch’s heavy jobs, trying to impress her hard-working parents while taking care of her younger siblings. Naturally, she felt the same about her brother’s lackadaisical attitude as her mother. “You spend all your time getting high at school and running around with your friends. You’re barely passing. If you really wanted to accomplish something, you’d apply yourself. You haven’t even picked a major yet!”
“It isn’t unusual for students to be undecided about what they want to study,” Josh responded defensively. They’d fought over this same issue many times before. Both his sisters already had their lives planned out. Janet was studying to be a vet while still in high school so she could help out on the ranch while also bringing in extra income from nearby farms. Francis, always a bit of a tom-boy, wanted to branch out, so she dove headfirst into the male oriented world of electrical engineering. She hoped to apply the knowledge by installing a solar farm and wind generators to power the ranch, making it more self-sufficient. Everything they planned centered around helping the family’s ranch. They couldn’t comprehend that it just held no interest for Josh.
“Yes, but most students who waffle about what to ‘do with their lives’ end up doing nothing,” his mother responded. “The vast majority of kids today end up achieving little, which is where I’m afraid you’re heading. It’s one thing to complain, but you’re not even making any plans.”
Josh sighed theatrically, tired of defending himself. “I’m sorry, but I just haven’t found what motivates me yet. I’ll find it eventually, but I’ll tell you what; it isn’t working on a dead-end ranch out in the middle of nowhere. I want to achieve something that’ll make a difference, something more important than simply eking out a living just getting by.”
“Listen, young man,” his mother answered sharply, jabbing his brawny chest with her finger, “your father and I took over this ranch from your grandparents, and it’s been good to us. It feeds people, it’s provided for you and your sisters, and it is good honest hard work, which is something you need to learn.”
“Mom, I know all about hard work,” Josh replied, taking on a quieter, less argumentative tone. “You’ve drilled it into me my entire life. This ranch was your and Dad’s dream. You chose this life, and I’m glad it means so much to you. But I never chose it for myself. I’m still looking for what I want to do, and as much as it upsets you, I don’t think spending the rest of my life stuck here in the middle of nowhere is going to get me anywhere.”
“Your sisters don’t have a problem with it,” Melissa reminded her son. “And they haven’t let it limit them either. They’ve branched out, discovering things that challenge them which also benefit the family. You talk a mean tale about ‘finding yourself’, but until you do, you need to do your part. This family depends on you. Since your father died we’ve had to struggle to keep this place going, and frankly, your continual whining doesn’t keep the place operating on a daily basis.”
“Look, I’m not afraid of hard work,” Josh repeated, his voice once more rising in pitch. He was tired of being blamed for not being happy with his life, and if his family wanted to make a fight of it, then he’d take them on. Still, he struggled to keep his voice calm and his tone reasonable. “I’ve put in plenty of work around here. But if this isn’t how I see my life unfolding, you can’t expect me to be satisfied with it. This is your dream—a dream which killed Dad, I might add. When I find what I want to do I’ll work hard to achieve it, but so far I just haven’t discovered it.
“Yeah, right, as if you’ve ever done anything but complain,” Janet commented as she stood up, washing her plate and silverware. She normally tried to stay out of these family arguments about Josh, but she was tired of listening to him bitch about what the rest of the family worked so hard for.
“All right, this discussion is getting us nowhere,” Melissa declared, standing up and putting an end to the family squabbling. They’d been over this ground before, and she knew they weren’t going to settle it now. “How about you just get out there and start work on the fence while you still can, and maybe you can contemplate what you really want to do with your life while you’re actually accomplishing something?”
Josh swallowed his remaining complaints with the last of his juice. He knew the women in his family, and they were just as bull-headed as the cattle they raised. They were so focused on the family business they couldn’t see or understand anything else.
Josh put his stuff away and headed for the door, his sisters falling in behind him. Working the fence line is something that requires several hands, and while they relied on Josh to do the heavy work of digging the post holes and manhandling the posts into position, they all worked equally as hard at it.
Melissa regarded her kids as they headed out the door. For all his complaining, Josh was right. When it came to it, he got his work done, but he just wasn’t satisfied with the work itself. His sisters had worked to make the family business their own by figuring out how to adapt their dreams to their situation, but she knew Josh would never be happy doing what the others found so important. She just hoped he’d find something important enough to motivate him to succeed.
Letting the screen door slam behind him, Josh took a deep breath of the dry Arizona country air, allowing his tensions to drain from him. His family made him crazy, but he’d learned long ago to let conflicts go so he could do the needed work properly.
As much as he complained, there was a lot to like about this region of the country. The family ranch stretched over two thousand acres of scrubland at the base of the mountains. Entirely too dusty and dry to raise crops, it worked for raising cattle, as long as they got the occasional rain to keep the dirt from blowing away. Growing up, most of Josh’s friends were from the nearby Navajo reservation in the mountains overlooking the ranch. Many Native Americans used the local schools and came here for the few jobs available in the region, while remaining close to their homeland. Josh and his family had learned a healthy respect for the environment and life in general from them. Life, like nature itself, was something you couldn’t own. You were only given a piece of it to watch over during your lifetime, and you did your best to preserve it for those who follow you, because otherwise it would be gone in no time.
That had always formed the basis of Josh’s philosophy. Having adopted it as his own life mantra years ago, it was a view which frequently got him into trouble. Living in a solid Republican state, he liked their idea of limited government because he’d clearly seen what happens when government is left to its own devices. It always overreached, taking whatever it wanted leaving only what the wealthy and powerful could fight to protect; meanwhile the poor and voiceless were simply swept aside. However, that perspective also proved difficult, even in this conservative enclave, especially given Josh’s ‘in your face’ attitude.
Josh found the Republican style of government overreach just as onerous. Whereas the Democrats tended to create bureaucracies, at least they professed a desire to help people. The Republicans, though, interfered not just in what people could do with their own businesses, but into their lives and their bedrooms. They sought to dictate who people could love, what they could do and which morality they were obligated to follow, even when they didn’t believe in it themselves. Frankly, Josh didn’t like either perspective. They both wanted unlimited power to expand, and he felt it necessary to fight that on both fronts, even if he was largely powerless to do so.
As a result he become known as a bit of a troublemaker. Though he listened to the more conservative news stations everyone in the region relied on, he frequently argued with people over what they said. He also wasn’t afraid to stage his own protests, showing his displeasure over whichever form of government intervention was currently constraining the people he knew. He realized his attitude would be difficult to maintain if he moved to a more populous metropolitan environment. It was already proving so at his college, but he knew he couldn’t remain here on the ranch like his siblings planned. No, despite the freedom he enjoyed, ranching was too constraining for him. He wanted more out of life.
He appreciated his solitude, spending his time reading or fantasizing about better things, but life here was lonely. Their nearest neighbors, the McCrearys—whose daughter just happened to be his ex-girlfriend—lived several miles away. Now, in addition to the difficulty of getting together on a regular basis, he felt awkward doing so, leaving him feeling that much more isolated.
Letting those concerns go, Josh scanned the fencing dividing the property line. They had a lot of distance to cover and he wanted to determine how much time they had. If it was going to rain, he wanted to be closer to home. But if it held off, he’d prefer to deal with the fences further out.
While scanning the horizon, he heard an odd whistling sound—surprisingly loud—farther to the west, close to the base of the mountains the ranch abutted. Turning towards the disturbance, Josh wondered what would cause such a foreign sound in such a peaceful setting when his eyes located the source amidst the flat dusty terrain: a rising dust storm.
Shading his eyes, he tried to study it, but all he could see was a mass of spinning brown dust. Then he saw something darker slowly descending into the swirling cloud. He assumed that was what kicked up the dust.
“What was that?” Melissa asked, stepping out of the house and approaching him from behind.
“We don’t know,” Janet responded, adjusting her glasses as she pointed off to the side. “It seemed to have come from over there.”
“No, it’s there, out near the cliffs,” Josh corrected her, pointing in the correct direction. His eyesight was good, but he assumed they just hadn’t noticed it yet. “Something seems to be over there, and if there’s something that large here, it just might be serious.”
“A dust devil?” Fran asked, confused about what he was describing.
“No, it’s too wide and it doesn’t extend up very far,” he explained. “Besides, I saw something generating the dust cloud. It looked more like a helicopter trying to land, but we’d have heard a helicopter approaching.”
“I can’t see anything other than the dust now,” his mother commented.
“I saw it earlier, but I couldn’t tell just what it was,” Josh told her. “It was too far off, so I might have been imagining it, but….”
“Well, if you think someone is in trouble, then you’d best get out there and check,” Melissa told him. “You investigate while I stay here and get the first aid kit prepared, just in case.”
Josh was already heading towards the back to get his pickup when Janet called. “I’m coming with you, just let me get Chestnut. After all, if it’s nothing, which it probably is, I can use her to work the fence line.” Josh stopped to consider, then shook his head.
“No, we’d better use the pickup. It’ll get there faster. It’ll take too long to wrangle the horses. If necessary I’ll bring you back, but I want to make sure it’s not something major first.”
“Well hold on then,” Fran said. “As long as you’re heading out, I’m coming along. It’s probably nothing and there’s no use all of us wasting our time. If nothing else, I can start setting the fence line while you’re busy ferrying Janet back and forth.”
Janet rewarded her sister by sticking her tongue out at her, but otherwise let the comment pass. She was more curious about what was occurring as it wasn’t often surprises like this happened out here in the middle of nowhere.
The drive out took some time, during which they worried what they’d discover. Once they arrived, it was difficult for them to make anything out, as most of the dust had settled. Josh located a small ridge of recently displaced soil. Climbing out of the pickup, Josh and his sisters approached a small depression rimmed by the just created ridge. Cresting it, they observed a large bullet shaped black object. Its top was open, slid back along its length, revealing a dark interior. A lone cow, just as curious as they, was nosing one end of it.
“What is it?” Francis asked, peering around her brother, who took the lead.
“I don’t know,” Josh answered, looking it over. “The best I can guess is a military aircraft of some sort, possibly a drone of some kind. It’s pretty sophisticated and very professional, but it has no markings of any kind.”
“Yeah, and there aren’t any military installations anywhere near here,” Fran reminded him.
Janet, seeing something, reached out and touched Josh’s arm, alerting him. Looking again, Josh noticed someone inside the capsule. His sisters followed him a few steps behind as he approached the strange little craft for a better look. Nudging the cow aside, Josh peered in. Inside sat one of the strangest creatures he’d ever seen. Its skin was mixed copper and red, covered with strange markings. It wore some sort of clothing which appeared to be damp, apparently from sweat. It was leaning back, as if exhausted and unable to move on its own. It was also wheezing for breath, making a high-pitched almost indecipherable whine.
Janet and Fran gasped, stopping to gawk, but Josh didn’t pause. All he saw was someone in distress, and without thinking he moved to help. Josh knelt, reaching over the side attempting to lift the strange creature from the small craft, but found it incredibly heavy. Motioning Fran forward and explaining his plans, they both struggled, lifting the ship’s occupant out of the craft. Man, was it ever heavy! Josh had no idea how to reference it, as it didn’t look either male or female. He knew the convention was to always refer to someone of indeterminate sexuality as ‘he’, but he felt reluctant referring to something this alien as ‘him’.
Once out in the light, Josh and his sisters could observe more of the creature. It was indeed sweating heavily, rivulets tracing through the brown dust coating its skin. It had no hair of any kind, only colorful featherlike ‘fur’ decorating its skin. No ‘little green man’ as so often portrayed in the movies, it was oddly shaped, kind of from the bottom up. It was bigger lower to the ground and got thinner the taller he/she/it rose. It had four legs, situated not like normal human’s paired legs, but one on each side of its body. They were thick with joints that moved in a crablike fashion, extending away from its body. It also had four arms, though smaller than its legs, each appendage ending in four thin claw-like fingers. It looked like it could scuttle in any direction, like a crab. It breathed in heavy gasps and was shivering. Josh’s confusion about its gender was settled, as it seemingly bore four smallish breasts.
Setting her on the ground, Josh considered what to do next. Fran backed up, looking skittish, while Janet stepped forward to observe her closer up. She tried speaking, but they couldn’t understand as it sounded more like the barking of a seal than anything else. Seeing as they couldn’t understand her, she stopped trying to resist, letting them decide what to do on their own.
“Jeez, Josh, what the hell did we stumble onto?” Janet asked, her voice trembling.
“I have no idea,” Josh responded, sounding surprisingly calm, “but she looks incredibly sick. We’ve got to get her to the house, in bed and under covers.”
“Are you crazy?” Fran asked. “We don’t know what it is, what it might do, or whether it’s dangerous or not.”
“Well, clearly she’s intelligent. She’s dressed in some kind of uniform, in an advanced ship and was trying to communicate with us.”
“Uh, if it’s sick, should we even be touching it?” asked Janet, the aspiring vet and the only one with any medical training. Meanwhile the cow, who Josh recognized as Bessie 3, edge forward and sniffed at the alien.
“Please, Bessie, give her some space. Not everyone wants a wet nose jabbing them in the face,” Josh complained, shoving the large animal aside. However, it wasn’t quite so easy. With an animal that big, he had to edge it in one direction and wait for it to get around to moving on its own. But it did give them time to consider the situation.
“Well, since she’s not human, I’d assume whatever she’s suffering from won’t affect us,” Josh said, taking in the sickened creature before them, “but no, we really shouldn’t. We’ve all got gloves and long sleeves, so we should be OK. Just be sure to strip your clothes, clean them separately and sterilize everything with Purell and hopefully we’ll be fine.”
“Hopefully?” Fran asked skeptically.
“I’m not so sure, but if you say so,” Janet responded, sounding doubtful but not as disturbed as Fran.
“If she can infect us, it’s already too late,” Josh concluded, “but we can’t leave her here. She needs help. Come on, Fran, help me lift her into the back of the truck.”
“The hell with that,” Fran responded. “She’s too heavy for us to lift her that high. We’ll need Janet to help too, and even then it’s going to be tough. She’s one heavy alien.”
“Hey, she’s not heavy, she’s my sister species,” Josh joked, unable to resist.
“That’s terrible,” Janet said, slapping him on the shoulder. “How can you joke at a time like this?”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Anyway, come on,” he continued, urging his sisters forward. “The longer she’s out here, the worse she’ll be. She needs to be inside, under shelter.”
Fran was correct, for the strange creature’s diminutive size, she shouldn’t have been nearly as heavy as she was. It stood—if it was capable of standing—only about four and a half feet, and aside from the heavy legs, wasn’t very wide either. Josh idly wondered whether she wore lead underwear beneath its clothing.
The girls joined him—Fran hesitantly while Janet seemed more curious. After Janet backed the truck up, they struggled to lift her onto the back of the truck. Struggling to lift her—and almost losing their hold several times—when they got her onto the truck, the entire truck bed sank noticeably as the springs had difficulty keeping the frame off the ground.
Janet, her vet instincts taking over, climbed in after her and held her, trying to keep her warm. Josh climbed behind the wheel while Fran took the passenger seat. Josh pulled away, trying to drive slowly enough to avoid jostling her, while not wasting too much time getting her to safety. Bessie idly watched them depart and then wandered away, her curiosity satisfied. Fran opened the small interconnecting window, asking Janet how the sick alien was faring.
“She’s not doing well,” she replied. “She’s shivering and isn’t aware of what’s going on.” That inspired Josh to drive faster, despite how badly it tossed the two in the back around. Janet could have easily steadied herself by holding the railings, but instead braced herself with her legs so she could steady the alien.
The return trip seemed to take forever but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Once they skidded to a halt in front of the house Josh called out for his mother, while Francis helped Janet maneuver the … thing, to the edge of the truck bed.
“What the hell?” Melissa exclaimed when she came outside and saw what they had in the back of their truck.
“We found her crash landed in the field,” Josh explained as if this happened all the time. “She’s clearly sick, sweating like a pig and shivering. We’ve got to get her into a bed and try to lower her temperature.”
“Uh, are you sure that’s wise?” she asked. Her two daughters stopped, turning to debate the issue, but Josh was having none of it.
“Absolutely! She’s sick, homeless, far from home and has no one to stand up for her. We can’t just turn her away. If we don’t help her, she’ll die where she lies. If you don’t want to take care of her, then I will. So tell me now whether you’re going to help or not, but don’t waste time quibbling over it. If you aren’t comfortable treating her, then just get out of the way.”
Taken by surprise, Melissa stepped back at Josh’s vehemence. She’d never known him to be terribly committed about anything and she’d wondered whether he’d ever take anything seriously. She was shocked by his response.
“No, you’re right,” she agreed, nodding after a moment’s delay. “I’ll help. But I needed to know you were sure of what you’re committing yourselves to.”
Seeing the discussion was settled and not wanting to argue about abandoning someone in need with their brother, Janet and Francis returned to helping the strange … woman from the truck.
“We should keep her in the house,” Josh added as he helped. “If anyone comes looking for her, they’d need a search warrant to enter the house, whereas they could simply walk into any of the outbuildings.”
“That’s where I was planning to put her, assuming it is female,” Melissa told him. “I figured I’d put her in my room, while I take the couch in the den.”
“She’s incredibly heavy, so you’ll need to remove the bedsprings so they aren’t damaged,” Josh explained. “Now, I know it’s terrible to issue instructions then run off, leaving all the work, but I want to bury her ship. I’m sure the government is going to search for it if they have any clue she’s here. If they do a flyby, I have no idea whether it will show up inside a garage, so I’ll bury it to be sure.”
“Are you really sure…?” Melissa started to ask before stopping to consider it. As obsessed as Josh was about the government, he had a point. The government would clearly be interested if they knew of this, and would likely stop at nothing to get their hands on her.
“I’m sure. We’re all risking our lives by doing this, so no one mention this to anyone. No gossip, no innuendo, nothing gets said,” he insisted.
“Don’t worry,” Janet told him. “No one would believe me anyway, and if I send them a photo they’d assume it was photoshopped.”
“Good, I’ll be back as soon as I’m done, but I have to finish while I still have cloud cover. Being caught burying something would probably be just as incriminating as having a strange space vessel in the backyard.”
“Wait, we’ll need help carrying her,” Fran objected.
“We can manage,” their mother insisted. “Janet, grab the handcart, we can do it with that. I think I’ve got an old stretcher we can use to get her onto it. We should be able to manage with those.”
“All right, I’m off. Take care and be careful about exposing yourselves. We don’t know how contagious what she’s suffering from is,” Josh said as he ran for the shed to grab the tractor he’d need to both transport and bury the craft. He knew if the ship was anywhere near as heavy as the creature, he’d have a lot of trouble managing it with a tractor.
“So, how’s she doing?” Josh asked, reentering the house while wiping the dirt caked on his damp skin off his brow.
“She wants to see you,” Melissa told her son.
That stopped him in his tracks. “She doesn’t speak a word we can understand and she’s a species we’ve never encountered from a planet we don’t even know exists. How the hell do you know—”
“I know,” Janet answered from their mother’s bedroom. “I’ve been around animals all my life and I’m studying to be a vet. I don’t need someone who speaks English to know what someone wants.” Janet walked into the kitchen where Josh and Melissa were.
“She’s been waiting for you, continually watching the door and fidgeting nervously. She’s won’t rest until she sees you, and she won’t improve until she does. You need to get this over with.”
Josh nodded. He had no clue what this alien wanted. After all, she didn’t know him from Adam, and he certainly didn’t represent anything to her. But still, his curiosity was piqued.
Stepping into the other room with both Janet and his mother following, he saw the … whatever, looking up at him. Fran was standing near her as she lay on the bed.
“We’ve been cooling her with damp cloths,” Fran explained. “We’re afraid to try using aspirin. It’s probably safe, since she’s so heavy, but we don’t want to run the risk. We also don’t know her base temperature, so we don’t know how much of a fever she has. Mainly, we’re just trying to keep her hydrated to flush anything we can out of her system.”
Again, Josh nodded, though no one else paid any attention to Fran. All eyes were on Josh and this alien.
Josh approached and glanced down. She struggled to sit up and Fran rushed to assist. Standing this close, Josh was better able to observe her, seeing her now not as an oddity but as an individual. Her eyes were unlike any he’d ever seen, including those in his Intro to Biology classes. He recognized the red color rimming them, the hacking cough and the damp sweat, clearly marking just how ill it … she was.
Where most human women minimized their body hair, her skin was decorated with a translucent feathery display, each hair-thin feather showing an intricate colorful pattern. Josh assumed her people judged each other based on those patterns, much as humans judged women’s attractiveness based on how symmetrical their features were. The feathering got taller on the top of her elongated egg-shaped head, but it was slicked back now. He noted gaps where she’d lost many of her feathers. She wore a thin form-fitting bluish metallic costume beyond his wildest imaginings. He figured it was a uniform as it had markings of various kinds on the chest and the end of its sleeves, though they could simply be decorative.
“Why’s she still wearing her clothes?” he asked, never taking his eyes off her.
“We didn’t know how to remove them,” Janet answered from behind, “and she wouldn’t let us, even if we knew how.”
The strange creature pointed to his arm and made motions indicating rolling his sleeve up. That was the first time Josh was really sure she was intelligent. The ship she’d arrived in was a strong sign, but it wasn’t direct evidence, and her guttural barking was hardly impressive. But seeing her trying to express herself in a cogent manner assured him she was indeed quite rational.
When Josh rolled his sleeve up as she’d indicated, she started fiddling with her arm. He hadn’t noticed it before, given how shocking her appearance was, but she wore something metallic on her arm. She pressed a couple of things and it sprang free. Again motioning Josh forward, she grasped his arm, pulling him closer and reached up to his face. As Josh warily watched the nimble claws dance around his face, she reached around and jabbed his ear.
“Ow!” he cried, pulling back, but the creature was still surprisingly strong for being so incapacitated. While Josh was distracted, she pulled his arm closer and placed the device against it. As soon as it touched his flesh, it jumped out of her hands, wrapping around the contours of his arm and fastened itself to it.
“Ouch!” he exclaimed again, jumping back as the thing bit into his arm. Yanking his arm free, he shook it, trying to wrest the strange device loose, but it held firm. Realizing the initial shock was over, he stopped to examine it carefully.
It was constructed with the same dull colored metallic finish as her ship, but the coloring and odd texture made it seemingly blend into his skin. It wasn’t immediately apparent he was wearing anything, despite the wide variance between their skin colors. The surface had a variety of odd prominently colored markings, none of which made any sense to him. They made him think they were some indication of rank or something otherwise significant. Curious, he turned to the creature, looking for an explanation she clearly couldn’t supply.
Still struggling to remain alert, she reached out and her claw like fingers danced over the surface of the device. She took her time, clearly showing him what she was doing as her fingers nimbly touched several of the symbols. He made sure to memorize the sequence; since he was sure she wanted him to remember. When she finished, nothing happened, but she turned and looked at him. Thinking it was a test of his memory, he repeated the same sequence. When he hit the final key, it lit up with various lights which seemed to glow from within.
Josh examined it as the others peered at it from the side, trying to observe it as well. The numerous lights seemed to have a certain pattern. There was a central green light with scattered yellow lights surrounding it. Confused, he looked at the … alien once again. She made an odd facial expression, which he assumed was some kind of a smile, and tapped each light, then pointed in turn at Janet, Francis, and finally his mother. Then she pointed at the central green light and poked Josh in the chest. He jumped a little, unintentionally, but the meaning, though cryptic, was clear. The green dot represented him, whereas the yellow lights represented the … female creature’s companions, and the spaces between them must represent their respective position to where he now stood. Looking closer, he could see gradations in the background color. He wasn’t sure what it represented, whether elevation or surface elements in the surrounding terrain, but he was sure they represented something.
She looked him in the eyes and then pointed into the distance. Again, the meaning seemed clear, but he wondered whether he was simply reading into the action what he wanted to believe, but he felt clear what it meant. She wanted him to rescue her crewmates, just as he had her.
He nodded, but she cocked her head to the side, apparently unsure what that meant. He tried a couple of hand motions and tried bowing. Finally he pointed at the lights on his arm, and walked off in the direction of the closest light. Turning back, he saw it satisfied her, and she seemed to collapse, this communication having exhausted her.
Fran rushed to grab her before she collapsed, while Janet hurried to her side.
“I’ve got to go,” Josh told his family. “I’ll leave you to take care of her. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone in the door where they can see her.”
“Wait, you’re leaving?” his mother asked, surprised that Josh, who’d been so vehement about taking care of her, was taking off again.
“She apparently wants me to rescue her companions,” he explained, turning to address Melissa. “I’m guessing they’re in the same shape she’s in. I’ve got to find and help them.”
“Is that a good idea?” his mother reiterated.
“Mom, there are … people like her lying sick out there, with no one to help them but me.”
“Maybe so, but anyone who observes you will report it, and as much as you carry on about the federal government, anyone you encounter is going to call for reinforcements. It’ll only be a matter of time before the military you’re so paranoid about is after you.”
“I’m well aware of the risk, but I can’t leave them to die alone in a strange land.”
“Then you need to be aware that if you’re discovered helping them, you’re not just sacrificing yourself, you’re sacrificing all of us, and all of these … beings as well,” Fran pointed out.
“Yeah, I’ll need to figure out how to protect everyone. But my best bet is to find them before anyone knows something is up. The longer I delay, the more trouble I’ll have.”
“All right, I can see I can’t convince you otherwise, but just know that this could very well end up with them all in custody, and all of us in serious trouble,” his mother warned.
“So you’re willing to stay and help, despite the same risks?” Josh asked, glancing from his mother to his sisters to gauge their responses.
“Yes,” Melissa sighed. “We’re as bad as you are. I can’t very well leave her alone. It’s probably a fool’s errand which will end badly, but I can’t turn my back on someone in need.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” Josh said, giving her a quick kiss. “Now I’d better run if I hope to rescue them before everyone knows what’s happening.” With that he spun and ran out of the house.
“Peter?” Josh asked when his friend answered the phone. “I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“A favor?” Peter replied skeptically. “Let me guess, another protest? What is it this time? A sit-in at the Army recruiting station? A protest at City Hall over Internet taxes? Man, you give us Arizonans a bad name with your paranoia.”
“No, it’s not another protest. This is much more important and more personal. It’s also more involved.”
“So what is it then?” Josh’s long-term friend asked, intrigued but still cautious.
“Well…, I can’t tell you now. This needs to be face to face. Meet me in town. I need to find and help someone, and I think I need some people to run interference for me.”
“Interference? You’re expecting trouble ‘helping someone’? Now this sounds interesting. Who is she and how big is her boyfriend?” Peter laughed.
“It’s not…,” Josh tried to explain before giving up and trying again. “I’ll explain in detail when I see you. Let’s just say it’s important and we need to move fast. Figure this will take several days and probably keep us out all night. You’ll have to call Fred and Cynthia for me. Since you live near town, you’ll need to pick up some surgical gloves and face-masks, and tell Fred to bring his scanner. We’ll need to monitor the police and rescue bands.”
“Man, what the hell do are you planning? Aren’t you happy annoying people with your forced intellectual crap? Jeez, I hope you’re not going to try something extreme to get attention for your silly causes!”
“No, I’m not looking to cause trouble, but it’s complicated and is going to take time to explain. Anyway, I need to go. Just do this for me. I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
“I’m skeptical, but you’ve got me fascinated. I’m curious to hear the details. All right, I’ll make the arrangements. When and where should we meet?”
“I’m on the way now and I’m heading south, so how about we meet at the McDonald’s at Clovis. Just don’t take too long, as I’m likely to take off if you don’t show up on time.”
“All right, but if this is another of your crazy-assed conspiracy theories…,” Peter warned, not bothering to finish his implied threat.
Josh took a second to consider what he was getting himself, his family and his friends involved in. This was a major risk for each and every one of them. Whatever the authorities might do about the aliens, they wouldn’t take kindly to the kinds of subterfuge Josh was planning. Chances are, any one of the many things he had planned would get all of them locked up at Guantanamo where no one, not even any civil rights attorneys, would ever hear of them. Peter was right, Josh had pulled some pretty lame-assed stunts in the past, all centered around his paranoia about the Federal government’s overreach into people’s personal lives. But if there ever was a time to be concerned about such things, now was the time, so maybe his paranoia would pay off for once.
Dialing the next number on his list, one he hadn’t dialed in quite a long time, he waited for an answer.
“Hello? This is the McCreary residence, Becky speaking.” Becky was always formal on the telephone, but with her father, she had good reason to be.
“Hey, Becky, this is—”
“I know who this is and you’ve got some nerve calling me,” she answered sharply. “What is this, some attempt to change my mind? Did you concoct some clever plea sitting by yourself late at—”
“Ah, Becky, actually I was calling your father. Is Col. McCreary there?”
The phone was silent for several moments as Becky tried to figure out what this meant.
“Yeah, it’s important, so if I could speak to him it would—”
“You want to speak to my dad?” she asked, clearly perplexed by the idea. Josh had never been comfortable around her father, not that she could blame him, but the transition clearly confused her.
“That’s what I said. Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes and that we need to speak privately, your father and I, that is. And tell him it’s important, something he can’t tell anyone else.”
“Look, if this is some attempt to—”
“It’s not, Becky,” Josh stressed, not wanting to waste all his time convincing her he wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on her by pissing her father off. That would be stupider than trying to convince Becky they should try getting back together. After all, she’d cheated on him, and he had no desire to hurt that badly again if he could avoid it. “This is strictly between your father and me and has nothing to do with you,” Josh assured her, picturing her expression. She’d clearly be furrowing her brows, staring at the phone as if it had suddenly appeared in her hand and she couldn’t imagine how it had gotten there.
The phone was silent for several moments before she finally responded. “OK, I’ll tell him you’re on the way, but I won’t be here, and whatever you tell him had better not involve me!”
“Just tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he told her before hanging up, not bothering to say goodbye. He knew she’d interpret it to mean something he didn’t intend. He had no idea what he’d say when he arrived, but Becky’s intransigence was almost guaranteed to make an already awkward situation even more difficult.