Xander looked out from the pilot’s seat of his craft, and saw the blue orb of Earth glowing in the darkness of space. It was a good view, and from this perspective he could make out the coast of California against the Pacific Ocean, and his eyes followed the coastline north until it reached Alaska and was obscured by swirling white clouds. His two long fingers cradled a bottle of beer against his thumb, and he brought it to his lips to drink.
“You’re drifting to port,” his companion, Zeek, told him.
Xander looked at his co-pilot through a haze of cigarette smoke, and nodded. He used his left hand (the one not holding the beer) to correct the ship’s course and become level with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Xander had been skimming the stratosphere as he made his way around the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds swirl and looking for thunderstorms to watch. The pattern of the ship's movements made a graceful figure eight between the earth and the moon, using the planet’s gravity to pull it around the Earth's northern hemisphere before the ship’s momentum flung it like a slingshot towards the moon. He circled around the dark side of the moon, piloting the craft back towards the Earth to begin the cycle again.
Zeek looked at the radar screen, and thought about how the ship’s graceful circuit was like the minuet of an Andromedan star dancer, gliding through the vacuum of space as smoothly as a dancer’s feet against a polished floor. He began to trace the craft’s path using the cigarette he held in his right hand to orbit his left fist. His blank black eyes reflected the glowing tip of his cigarette, and he took another drag after a few more moments of tracing the ship’s pattern.
The radio switched from Perry Como to Frank Sinatra, and Xander increased the volume. Zeek was humming the melody and Xander tapped the drum beat out on the ship’s control panel. The music attracted them to the planet first, reaching them on their radio as they navigated the asteroid belt one night looking for a good place to hide out from the Galactic Bureau of Investigation. The GBI had pursued them past Alpha Centuri trying to catch up with the craft, an exploration saucer used by the inhabitants of the Milky Way’s Gamma Quadrant. It was a fast craft, powered by a hydrogen fusion reactor encased in the ships core. The ship itself was shaped like a round disc that orbited a central command center. The command center was slightly raised with window screens that looked out 360 degrees from the ship. As the outer disc spun around the craft, the console of the command center faced the direction the ship travelled in. The two were connected by powerful magnets that kept the parts together without them ever actually coming into contact.
The plan to hide in Earth’s solar system had worked well. The millions of asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter could hide their ship easily, and despite the GBI’s best efforts to find them, Zeek’s improvised cloaking device made detection by conventional means next to impossible. They remained in the belt for about a week, but instead of travelling to a nearby star system to sell the stolen craft, they remained near Earth. The siren call of jazz and other popular music anchored them to the blue planet, the radio waves of earth’s music stations reaching the craft mere seconds after they left their source. Zeek had even found a way to change the primitive television waves coming up from the planet into images that were projected on the large communication screen usually used to communicate to other ships and starports. Instead, it showed Joe DiMaggio batting for the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Other times, it showed a family sitting around a table sharing a meal. Strange, disembodied laughter punctuated the conversation, and Zeek and Xander eventually realized this indicated the punchlines of jokes to indicate when the audience was meant to laugh.
Xander hummed along with Sinatra's crooning as he drained the rest of his beer. He went back to a small refrigerator the two had scavenged from an abandoned apartment in El Paso, Texas, pulling the handle on the box until it opened and cool steam leaked out into the ship’s cabin. A bottle opener was attached to the side of the fridge, and Xander popped the cap off into a pile of red caps that littered the floor. He turned to walk towards the view screen just as an enormous object collided with the ship’s massive window screen. A thin crack appeared and spread ten feet across the location of impact.
“Zeek, give me a status report,” Xander instructed.
“Aye, Captain. Minor damage to the view window, but she should hold up on re-entry. Scanning other systems.”
“Why didn’t the object show up on the radar screen?”
“Too small, sir. It was a tiny asteroid our sensors were unable to detect.
“Damn our luck.”
“Hmm. Run a diagnostic scan. Let's make sure she's not too damaged.”
A few moments later, the ship listed hard to starboard, and Xander stumbled drunkenly to a railing. As he fought back a wave of nausea, an alarm sounded and the cabin turned red with the glow of the emergency lights.
“Status!” Xander demanded.
“Major damage to the hydrogen core, Captain! The damage was too deep to detect during the initial scan.”
“Initiate emergency landing procedures. Head to coordinates 6-15-22. It’s the site of a recent nuclear weapons experiment. Perhaps we can confiscate some leftover plutonium, and use it to fuel our trip away from this solar system. It’s going to be a rough, landing Zeek. I’ll try to hold her together as best I can.”
* * * * *
Andrew McGilicutty peered out of his window after hearing a booming thud outside of his modest home. In the distance, he saw a pillar of smoke rising out of the ground near a corral on the far side of his ranch. Andrew wrapped a towel around the handle of a cast iron skillet he was using to fry a couple of eggs, and moved it from the stove. He took his heavy coat off the back of a chair it was resting on, pulled the brim of a worn baseball cap over his brow, picked up a rifle and went outside to investigate.
The red, baked soil of the ranch crunched under his feet as he walked toward a pillar of smoke risingfrom the east. The sun had just begun peaking out over the horizon and Andrew pulled the brim of his cap down to keep the light from blinding his eyes. He walked past a cattle pen, and noticed the bulls and cows were nervous, pacing around the fence and looking up at him with questioning eyes. Andrew shifted the rifle in his hands, gripping the butt and the barrel nervously. As he approached the source of the smoke, he walked up the lip of a giant crater that had formed. The loose sand of its rim collapsed under the weight of his boots as he marched past it and looked down into a hazy pit.
A strange, shimmering metal monstrosity lay in its center, broken and burning. Andrew slowly descended into the large crater, walking sideways down its rim, the displaced soil rolling down in tiny cascades. As he approached the burning wreckage, he felt heat from the fiery wreckage on his face. Peering into what looked like massive metal plates that had been shed from a central frame, Andrew noticed an oozing black puddle. He used the barrel of his gun to pry one of the plates up from where it had landed, and recoiled at the site of a ong, gray arm with what looked like a three fingered hand at the end of it.
Andrew quickly backed up, nearly tripping over a bit of debris strewn behind him. The hand started moving, and pushed up against the metal plate that was on top of it. Andrew picked up the sheet of metal, planting his feet and pushing it off whatever was trapped by it. Underneath, a strange gray being with thin arms and legs, about six feet long looked up at him. Its other hand was clutching a large bruise on its side, and with pleading black eyes inside a oval shaped smooth face asked for “A little help, please?”
Andrew put his gun on the ground, then bent down and lifted the strange being up from the ground. He placed his right arm around its waist, and put one of its arms around his shoulders. Andrew pulled the being up the rim of the crater as it walked alongside him. Once they had reached the top of the crater, the being pointed back to the wreckage and rasped, “My friend…” Andrew placed him gently against the outer rim of the crater and walked back down to the wreckage.
He pulled up the large, metal plates one by one. Strange instruments that looked like gleaming buttons and radio dials were attached to some of the metal plates, deeper inside whatever it was that Andrew had found. He found a hand and arm clutching what looked like a lever. Pulling a strange metal instrument up from the floor, he found an unconscious being underneath, nearly identical in appearance. Andrew was used to working with wounded men during the war, and pulled him out of the craft without thinking. He threw the alien’s body over his shoulders as he would a sack of potatoes, and climbed back out of the pit.
“Thank you,” the first figure said in a strange accent Andrew couldn’t place. “My name is Xander. This is my accomplice, Zeek.”
“Andrew McGillicutty, much obliged,” he said as he outstretched his hand.
Xander recognized the Earth custom from a few movies and put his hand out in an awkward greeting. He gripped Andrew’s large hand in his spindly gray fingers and raised them up and down. Xander noticed that their two bodies were about the same temperature. When he reflected on the implications of this discovery, he realized his chances for survival here were good. Andrew’s biology, more or less, mirrored his own, albeit in a crude, primitive way.
He turned toward Zeek, and placed his hand upon his friend’s stomach. A bright light emanated from Xander’s fingers, and Zeek’s stomach also brightened. Slowly, his skin became transparent, and Xander could see the inner workings of his body. He chanted a verse from a song on his home world to help him concentrate, as Andrew looked on puzzled.
Their language was foreign to Andrew, and completely unfamiliar. At least they’re not Ruskies, he thought to himself. When they came out of the wreck, Andrew thought they must be disfigured, burned beyond recognition or perhaps wearing some kind of skin tight suit that masked their appearance. From what he saw from them now, he slowly began to suspect that these people weren’t even human. What to call them then? ‘People’ implied humanity, but these clearly weren’t humans. Yet Xander’s actions showed more humanity than some humans showed in a lifetime.
Hours wiled away listening to radio programs and reading pulp novels had given Andrew an education in the extra-terrestrial. These people looked like the inhabitants from a strange world encountered by Buck Rogers or battled by Superman in a kid’s comic book. How could this be real then? For this to be real, Andrew thought, then he himself must be a character in a pulp novel or a radio story, but that must not be true. He could feel the gun in his palms, squeeze it tightly, feel the warmth of the rising sun on his brow, and know he wasn’t dreaming.
“Aliens…” Andrew uttered astonishingly.
“We are all aliens to someone, Andrew. To us, you are the alien, and this strange world is inhabited with all kinds of freakish creatures compared to our own mundane world.”
“I never knew your kind could be so philosophical,” Andrew responded.
“There’s much you don’t know about us, just as there’s much we don’t know about you. Unfortunately, the cultural exchange between us will have to wait. Zeek is dying, I’m afraid. Perhaps if you have some veterinarian tools I can try to save him, but his chances aren’t good.”
“Come with me.”
* * * * *
Andrew held a kerosene lantern in a room he used to house his veterinary equipment. Usually, it was used as a place in the barn for cows to give birth to calves. Every once in a while, he used it to set a broken leg or to keep a sick animal away from all the others. He’d never used it as an operating room, though that’s what Xander was doing now.
Zeek lay on the table unconscious. Xander had cut him open with an instrument he had salvaged from the wreck, and was using the veterinarian supplies in Andrew’s barn in an effort to keep the procedure as sterile as possible. Andrew marveled at what Xander called a “lazer scapel,” a device that emitted a bright beam of light that cut through flesh. “The last time I used this,” Xander remarked, “I was trying to recover a gambling debt from an Andalusian freighter pilot.”
Andrew’s eyes widened in horror. From what he could tell of Xander, the alien had a sick sense of humor. He seemed to be good friends with Zeek, but treated him like a business partner as much as a friend, and acted in part like he was protecting his investment by trying to save him. After about an hour of cutting, stitching, sponging blood, and even more stitching, Zeeks’ wound was closed. Andrew admired Xander’s skill. He obviously knew a great deal about medicine, enough to confidently perform a complicated procedure. His poise was incredible too. The alien didn’t show any signs of stress, or if he did, Andrew didn’t know how to detect them.
“I don’t think there’s much chance of a recovery,” Xander sighed. “One of his ribs pierced a lung, and I was able to stitch the wound so it will heal. It’s unfortunate he’s already lost so much blood, because I don’t have the equipment for a transfusion.”
“You did the best you could,” Andrew said, placing the kerosene lamp back on its shelf and turning out the flame. Enough light from the sun pierced through the rafters so the two of them could see their way out of the barn. Rays of light shone through clouds of dust, and as Xander walked through them his smooth gray skin reflected a shiny veneer. The alien walked purposefully, confidently, and somehow without fear. Andrew suspected this hadn’t been the first time he had found himself on a strange, possibly hostile planet.
Xander felt a strange sense of calmness. No matter Zeek’s outcome, a sense of finality crept over him. He was on a strange, uncharted planet in the outer rim of what was known here as the Milky Way galaxy. If he did manage to make a distress call powerful enough to reach the civilized worlds, it would bring the GBI upon him, and he would spend the rest of his life in prison for his crimes or be executed. On this world, he was a freak, could not pass as a human, and would have to live in isolation or hidden on Andrew’s property. Andrew, at least, seemed to be a man of high moral integrity. He suspected the man wouldn’t turn him in to the local authorities, and even though he lived in isolation, perhaps he’d let Xander stay and help with whatever this land’s purpose was.
From what Xander could determine, this place was used to raise strange horned, four-legged beasts that were clearly unintelligent. There were also rows of plants that grew in a predictable pattern, and Xander recognized this as a primitive kind of agriculture. Whether the horned beasts were raised for labor, food, or both it was obvious they were Andrew’s most important possessions. He fretted about the “cattle” as he called them, and told Xander their arrival “spooked” them.
The pair walked back into Andrew’s small ranch house. Andrew threw his half cooked eggs out, and placed a half a dozen back into the frying pan after scrambling them in a bowl. Xander sat on one of Andrew’s chairs, his feet planted on the floor.
“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” Xander asked, eyeing a small transistor radio resting on a shelf in the kitchen.
“No, go right ahead,” Andrew responded.
Xander turned the radio on and scanned the airwaves for a good station. Eventually, he settled on a jazz station and the music played softly in the background, loud enough to hear but quiet enough to let the two carry on a conversation.
“I must thank you for your hospitality, Andrew. I regret to inform you our arrival here has put you into some level of danger.”
“What do you mean? I don’t need no trouble. I got enough trouble as it is, keeping up with this ranch.”
“There’s no reason to be alarmed. The GBI, excuse me, the “Galactic Bureau of Investigation” might have detected our crash. If they did, they will send agents here to arrest me. Now that you’ve helped us, they may consider you an accomplice, aiding and abetting a known criminal.”
“Horse puckey,” Andrew spat. “I didn’t know you were a criminal when you landed, though I had my suspicions before you told me. I guess I’m stuck now. Either way, I won’t leave the ranch without a fight.”
“You could be incinerated,” Xander replied. “Though resistance is most likely the best course of action if they do try to take you. I’d hate to think of what would happen if you were studied and dissected.”
“Heh,” Andrew said. He thought about a story he heard on the news recently, about the medical experiments the Nazis performed during the war. Nothing could be worse than what those Jews must have gone through, but Andrew didn’t want to take his chances with any aliens either.
“Tell me, Xander,” Andrew said as he worked the eggs with his spatula, “what kind of criminal are you?”
“An unlucky one,” Xander replied.
Andrew began to chuckle; Xander found it contagious, and began laughing too. It is incredible how similar our two species are, Xander thought.
“I was an orphan on my world. My foster parents neglected me, so I ran away as soon as I could. For protection, I joined a street gang. We sold drugs, prostitutes, fought with other gangs, and inevitably died or were arrested. I tired of this chaotic life of violence after a few years, so Zeek and I left the city of our birth, and went into business for ourselves. We started small, breaking into homes, stealing valuables, and then gradually set our sights higher. We hijacked freighters, sold them along with their contents, and eventually stole that exploratory craft that just crashed into your planet.”
“With that ship, we could evade almost any local law enforcement, and became more daring. Unfortunately, after a few years of success, Zeek had to kill a GBI agent to make an escape. We fled to the outer rim of this galaxy, the GBI pursued us, but we were able to escape with the help of a cloaking device Zeek constructed. For the last few weeks, we’d been orbiting your planet and its moon, listening to radio, picking up its transmissions, and learning about your culture.”
“How could you understand any of it? How come you can speak English?”
“My species has a very advanced verbal capacity. With just a few limited resources, we are able to begin to understand the meanings behind words from inflections in speech, actions, pictures, and words. It happens without us even trying, so after our equipment picked up your transmissions, we knew most of your language in a few days. In fact, we know a few different Earth languages to some extent, but began to use English because we’re so fascinated by American culture. The music, the sex, the politics, the blustering arrogance of this nation…”
“You sound like some kind of commie, calling America ‘arrogant’. We aren’t full of ourselves. America is top dog. After dubya dubya two, we were the only country in the world with the Bomb. Now it’s us against the Ruskies, but I’m done fightin’. That’s why I built this little ranch, to get away from everybody.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Andrew. Perhaps ‘arrogant’ was the wrong word to use. Nevertheless, your country does like to throw its weight around, but that’s the same as every powerful nation. My own world is just one among millions. To join the Galactic Federation, a world must forsake wars except in cases of self-defense. Aggressive planets are overwhelmed and destroyed by all others. Our weapons are so terrible, war means death for billions. We gave up fighting long ago.”
“Hmph,” Andrew said. Even though Xander’s statements sounded boastful, he had to admit it made him jealous to imagine a planet where no one puts up with war.
With the pop of his toaster, Andrew turned off his stove’s burner. He placed a meal of scrambled eggs, toast, jam, coffee, and orange juice in front of Xander, and served the same to himself.
“I’m starvin’” Andrew said.
Xander looked at the food and his utensils. He picked a fork, gripped it with his two long fingers and thumb, and began eating. The food was delicious, warm, and full of life. For weeks, Xander and Zeek survived on space rations, food that kept indefinitely, but was bland even though it was very nutritious. Earth food, at least the food Andrew cooked, was full of flavors, fresh, and simple.
“My compliments to the chef,” Xander said with a smile.
Andrew grinned. He hadn’t heard a compliment, or even had a conversation in months. The pair ate quickly, silently. Xander kept looking out the window nervously, but he couldn’t see anybody or anything outside. Andrew sensed Xander’s anxiety, but understood he had reason to be nervous.
Once they finished eating, Xander helped clean up the kitchen. He worried about Zeek, and felt bad that his friend might die because they lingered too long near Earth. As he toweled the dishes dry, Andrew whistled a tune next to him that Xander recognized from the radio. Once their work was done, the pair went to the barn to check on Zeek.
Andrew pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from his pocket, one he made from a cluster of tobacco plants that grew on the farm. He offered one to Xander who examined it. Andrew struck a match on a pair of jeans and lit his own, offering the match to Xander who puffed on it until it lit.
“Mmm…crude, but delicious,” Xander said.
“Thank you,” Andrew replied. “They got cigarettes where you come from?”
“Yes, we do. Actually, our scientists have created a plant that contains nicotine, but releases no other toxins when it is burned.”
“It’s a strange galaxy,” Andrew remarked, echoing Buck Rogers.
The pair reached the barn, trailing smoke as they entered. Zeek lay on the table. Xander approached, and placed his hand on Zeek’s head. Zeek’s eyes opened, and he looked at Xander.
“You…” Zeek said.
“Shh…” Xander quieted him.
“You…I thought you would be dead before me. I always…tried to…play it safe.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be remembered. I’ll build a monument for you on this obscure rock we’ve found. It will say ‘Here lies Zeek, outlaw, genius.’”
Zeek smiled, but didn’t reply. Andrew saw this many times. As soon as a dying man became comfortable, he gave up the ghost and there was nothing left. Xander must have known this, because he placed his fingers on Zeek’s forehead, said what sounded like a prayer in his native language, and turned to Andrew.
“Thank you, Andrew. If it’s okay with you, I’ll need your help burying the wreck. The craft is beyond repair, but I don’t want anyone on this world finding it.”
“I’ll help you,” Andrew said. He felt happy. For the first time since the end of the war, he’d felt companionship, brotherhood, even if it was with a freaky space alien and not another human being. Xander felt much the same way. Aside from Zeek, Andrew was one of the few beings he felt true kinship with.
A loud knock sounded on the barn door. The pair looked at each other in horror. Andrew knew there weren’t any other people living nearby. How could anybody else even know how to get here?
“They’ve come for me,” Xander said with dread in his voice, “the GBI. I don’t know how they’ve tracked me, but now they’re here.”
“Just calm down,” Andrew replied. “Let me see who it is.”
Andrew opened the door slowly to look outside. As soon as the door was partly open, someone kicked it the rest of the way and five men in army uniforms came in, followed by a man in a dark suit. The soldiers grappled with Xander on the floor and bound his wrists together. Andrew looked up bewildered at the scene taking place in the barn. The man in the dark suit examined Zeek’s corpse, and motioned a soldier to him. He whispered something in the soldier’s ear, and the soldier nodded, picking up the alien and taking him outside.
The soldiers dragged Xander out of the barn, his head sagging between his shoulders. Before he left, he looked up at Andrew, smiled and winked. Andrew smiled back, confused. Once the soldiers left with the two aliens, the man in the dark suit approached.
“Mr. McGilicutty, what a pleasure it is to meet you. My name is Agent Pearcy, CIA.” Pearcy flipped open a badge and then put it back just as Andrew leaned closer to examine it. “Come outside with us.”
Agent Pearcy took Andrew outside and they walked back toward the scene of the crash site. The soldiers were loading the aliens into an Army truck that Andrew couldn’t see inside. Pearcy quickened his pace so that Andrew had to speed up to keep up with him.
“Mr. McGilicutty, the US Army will remove the wreckage from your ranch, and level the crater that was left behind. You were the victim of a bizarre Soviet hoax, meant to create paranoia and fear among the American people. These ‘aliens’ are Soviet spies, disfigured to look like people from outer space. The wreckage you saw was from an experimental Soviet craft designed to look like a flying saucer. These spies are now in our custody, but you must promise me never to speak a word of this incident to anybody.”
Andrew listened in awe as Agent Pearcy spun a web of deception so obvious that Andrew could not help but bite his tongue to keep from laughing.
“Have I made myself clear, Mr. McGilicutty?”
“If I see so much as a speck of this incident in the newspapers, we will come back for you. You are now in possession of top secret military information, and if you describe what you’ve seen this morning to anybody, you will be tried for treason and hung.”
“I understand, sir.”
“You look like a good man, Mr. McGilicutty. For your service to your country today, Uncle Sam has a gift for you. This is a check from the U.S. Treasury worth $5,000. You can invest this into your ranch, or put it under your mattress, it makes no difference to me. I’m in the business of secrets, and those are more valuable than gold.”
Agent Pearcy left without saying another word. He hopped into the Army truck that pulled up alongside them and it sped off, leaving a cloud of red dust in its wake. Andrew shook his head, turned around, and walked toward the cattle pen to feed his livestock. The sun was overhead, and the bulls became cranky without their breakfast.