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by Nora M. Mulligan
I was really nervous when I brought Tom to my garage. I mean, I don't let just anyone see this alien artifact thingy that I have hidden out there. You never know what some people might do if they see something that's not from earth, you know? It's not like I told the government or the local television stations anything about the artifact, either, but I told Tom because, well, because he seemed like the kind of guy who could help me.
He stood just inside the door, looking at the gigantic thing with the knobs bigger than my head and the strange colors that came and went across its silvery surface. He folded his arms and tilted his head a little, and I just knew that he was figuring out how it worked.
"It didn't do anything when I brought it in," I said. "Didn't blow up or shoot poison gas or death rays or anything like that. I think you could touch it, if you wanted."
I could see that he wanted to. His fingers twitched, just a little, like he was itching to fiddle with it. Around the Alien Encounters Support Group, everybody knew Tom was the one who could build or fix anything. Look at the truck he drove, for Pete's sake! Nobody who wasn't an ace mechanic could keep that piece of junk running.
"Very interesting," said Tom, and he began walking around the dome, running his fingertips over the surface, tweaking this, moving that, seeing how this bit fit into that bit. He knelt on the floor and peered under the thing, and then he climbed on top of the stepladder to look over the top. He didn't say much while he was looking at it, either.
"I've got all kinds of tools, if you need them. It doesn't seem to do anything. I think it must have gotten broken or something. I thought maybe you could figure out what it does and make it work again."
I tried to make it sound innocent, like I just had scientific curiosity, not ike I was planning to sell this baby to the highest bidder. But I'm no dummy, and I knew in my bones that this thing was probably some high tech alien bomb or death ray, and if I could just get it working, I'd be a rich man for the rest of my life.
He turned and looked at me. "There's nothing I can do, Phil," he said calmly.
"What do you mean, there's nothing you can do? It's broken, right? You can fix it. You told me you fixed that spaceship for your aliens. You can do alien stuff. I know you can. What's the matter, you want a piece of the action or something?"
He tilted his head and looked at me again, like I was the one who needed fixing. .
"Frankly, Phil, I think it might be a weapon of some kind. I can't be sure, but that's what it appears to be. And if it is a weapon, then it wouldn't be right for me to help you to get it working."
Great. Just great. He had to go moral on me when there was this kind of money at stake.
It's not a weapon," I insisted. "It's just this alien device. I just want to get it working, that's all, just see what it does." And make a profit. I mean, a man's got to live, right?
"I'm sorry, Phil. I just can't fix it for you." He turned and walked past me, opening the garage door and heading for that bomb of a truck.
I followed him, of course. "If it's about money, I'm willing to pay, whatever you want. A percentage, even." Not too high a percentage, of course, but I was willing to give him a cut if that's what it took. "Tell me what you want."
"Nothing," he said. "I just don't want to fix what could be an alien weapon."
I grabbed his shirtsleeve. "I told you this is top secret, right? And you said you wouldn't tell anyone else, right? You're not going to go back on your word, right?"
"Of course not," he said, looking at me like he wanted to reach into my brain and make a couple of little adjustments, make me run the right way. I tell you, I wanted to smack him, and I would have done it except that I hadn't quite given up on getting him to fix my device.
About a week after that, I was sitting in one of those folding chairs at the Alien Encounters Support Group, trying to decide whether I should even bother going to any more of those stupid meetings. The only reason I'd joined this group in the first place was because I'd discovered that device, and I wanted to find someone who could tell me what it was and how to make it work again. I'd found the right guy, all right, but he was blowing me off. So what was the point?
"As you know," Tom said, looking around the room, "I've been looking for the aliens who dumped me. I have reason to believe that they're still around. During that brief encounter I had, I could tell that their engine needed some serious work, and even though I obviously wasn't skilled enough to fix it myself, they would still need to have someone help them repair the machinery."
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," said Abigail Lawrence, smiling in her sappy way. "You did the best you could."
Tom shook his head sadly. "I just feel so bad that it wasn't good enough. I might have been able to do something helpful if they'd just given me more time. I was beginning to see how the circuits might have worked.
"Anyway," said Tom, looking down at the floor, "one of my friends at the Silver Falls Globe told me about this incident at a garage over there. Apparently there were these three creatures, about four feet tall, with very large heads, pale gray skin, and talking in a funny way, who showed up at the garage last week and tried to talk to the manager of the garage."
"That sounds like your aliens," said Abigail.
"That's what I thought. And they went to a garage, which is sensible if they were looking for someone who's good at fixing things, especially engines. As I said, they're very smart."
"So what happened to them?" asked Catherine Beals, stifling a yawn.
"The mechanics threw them out. They thought it was some kind of publicity stunt. I went out to the garage, and talked to the mechanics. I'm convinced that they did encounter my aliens, but unfortunately, they don't remember what happened after they kicked the aliens out of the garage."
"That sounds discouraging," said Abigail.
"Well, it means that they're somewhere in the vicinity," said Tom, "and that means that I'm looking in the right place. Sooner or later, I'm bound to find them."
"You might be making a mistake," said Arlen Watson earnestly. "You might be better off not finding them, not even looking for them. How do you know that they're not looking for you, huh?"
"I'm sure," said Tom, smiling sadly, "that if they were looking for me, they would have found me already. It's been three weeks since they returned me from their ship."
Arlen shook his head. "It might have taken them that long to realize that they made a mistake in letting you live."
"They're not like that," said Tom. "You didn't see their ship. It was magnificent! The machines they had! The technology is just millions of years beyond us. No beings with technology that wonderful could possibly be as horrible as you're describing them."
"Oh, yeah?" asked Arlen. He looked around the room. "What I'm hearing is that Tom's aliens let him go, and now they've realized that he knows too much about them and their machinery. Maybe they're afraid you're going to use that technology here, and that's forbidden."
"I would never do that," said Tom. No, of course not, I thought. Obviously those aliens stole the wrong person. Show me some of that high tech stuff, and I'm telling you, I'd be at the patent office the next day, ready to make some serious money off it.
"They don't know that," said Arlen patiently. "For all you know, they could be coming after you to wipe your brain, or to kill you altogether."
"They're not," said Tom firmly. "I don't know how I know, but I know it. And I feel an obligation to help them. Even if I can't fix their engines myself, I feel bad that I left the job unfinished. I should get them to someone who could fix their engines, and make sure they find someone who can do a better job than I could."
"You've been spending a lot of time doing that," said Abigail.
"It's very important to me," said Tom, looking around the room with determination. "I would do anything to find those guys again."
The discussion went on for a while longer, but I didn't pay attention. He'd do anything to find those aliens of his? What if I found the aliens and told him that he couldn't see them until he fixed my device for me? He'd do it then, wouldn't he? Of course he would, the sap.
I would have to put my other business aside and find those aliens of his. I knew people who knew people. I would put out the word and see if I couldn't nail these guys before Tom did. Then we could do some serious negotiating, I thought, and I could feel myself smiling at the idea.
At the end of the meeting, I grabbed Tom and, as casually as I could, I pumped him for details about his aliens. He seemed so pleased that I was going to keep an eye out for them that he drew me a detailed picture of the guys. I looked at it. Yeah, I didn't think I would have any trouble recognizing these guys when I saw them. There weren't too many gray skinned, four feet tall, hairless bipeds with huge heads and purple eyes roaming around this part of the world.
I dropped everything and headed for Silver Falls, and I talked to all my contacts there, and kept my eyes and ears open for the next four days, and I've got to tell you, it was pretty discouraging. Someone heard this weird noise that sounded "like nothing on earth", and I thought that had to be the aliens, only when I got to where the noise was coming from, it turned out to be some kids making a new rock band. Then there was this explosion, smoke everywhere, terrible smells, the whole nine yards, and I thought that looked possible, except that it was just an explosion in the chemistry lab at the middle school, some kids who thought they were mad scientists.
I talked to everybody who claimed to have seen an alien in the last month, and I tell you, they were worse than the bozos in the Alien Encounters Support Group. They couldn't even get their stories straight, and it was obvious that they'd been reading those supermarket tabloids for their information. What a waste of time!
If I didn't have that alien device in my garage, I swear, I'd have given up after four days, and that would have been too bad, because it was on the fifth day that I found them.
I was hanging around the Silver Falls Tavern, talking to this guy I know, when I happened to look out the window, and saw these incredible lights. It looked like fireworks without the noise, if you know what I mean: patterns of red and yellow and green, and some other colors I didn't know the names of. The lights were so bright, and so impressive, that I had to check them out, even though the guys in the bar agreed that they were some kind of publicity stunt for the new mall that was supposed to be opening on the outskirts of town.
I drove out to where the lights were coming from, the parking lot of an abandoned manufacturing plant, and then I saw them.
There were five of the guys, sitting around a machine that looked like someone had taken all the little fluorescent tubes in the world and twisted them together, spinning wires around the outside and connecting them to some kind of noisy little motor. They themselves were silver, kind of short, with great big heads twice the size of human heads), and purple eyes, and I knew as soon as I saw them that I'd hit pay dirt.
Even though I'm in the Alien Encounters Support Group, I'd never actually seen an alien before, and my first feeling was total surprise. I guess I'd never really believed that any of those bozos could have been telling the truth.
I got out of my van, carrying my little bag of tools with me, and I walked slowly and quietly over to where they were. I brought some chloroform, a couple of stun guns, some fishing nets, the really big kind, and some tranquilizer darts, just in case.
I got to within maybe three feet of them when one of them turned around and saw me. It jumped up and down like a little kid, making high-pitched noises to the others, and then suddenly they all abandoned their machine and lunged for me. That was the first time I was scared, frankly. I scrambled for the catch to the bag, but they were on top of me before I could get anything out.
They were all jumping up and down, squealing and gesturing at my van. It was weird, but I almost thought they were trying to speak English, only really, really fast. Perhaps they were so intelligent, like Tom said, that they couldn't slow themselves down enough to think or talk at our level.
Thinking that maybe they would be able to understand me (they'd been able to understand Tom, according to his story), I said, "I'm a friend of Tom's. I came here looking for you."
They all started whooping, and repeating "Tom", really high and really fast.
I opened the side door of my van, and they all threw themselves through the door at the same time, tripping each other, shoving each other this way and that, like a bunch of preschool kids trying to get to the ice cream truck. I closed the door behind them and locked it, and then grabbed their little machine and tossed it in the van with them. I started the van, and the aliens began bounding all over the inside, throwing themselves at the doors, at the windows, at each other.
The sooner I got out of there and back to my house, the better, I thought, and so I took off. I was driving away from the abandoned building when I recognized Tom's truck driving very fast in the opposite direction. He must have seen those lights, too, and figured out that they were from his aliens. Well, well, I thought, very pleased with myself, I made it just in time, and now Tom would have to work with me if he wanted to see his aliens again.
It's good I had something to be happy about, because those little monsters were swarming all over my van, breaking the CD player, wrecking the door handles (I still don't know how they did that), jamming the windows and making all the warning lights on my dashboard turn on and off randomly. They had no concept of sitting in the seats, or on the floor, or even of staying still at all, and I thought they were going to cause a crash before I got them back to my place. The only reason we didn't, I'm convinced, is because I was driving incredibly carefully, and by the time I got home, I was ready for a good stiff drink.
The aliens swarmed inside my house, heading straight for my television and VCR/DVD player. They started taking it apart. I thought, okay, maybe they're going to upgrade it with their alien technologies, but when sparks shot out of the screen and the VCR started smoking, I tried to pry the aliens away. Not in time, though. I'd never seen a VCR explode before, and I was lucky not to get hit by the flying plastic pieces.
I called Tom as soon as I thought he would be home.
"Hi, Phil," said Tom, sounding a little tired, "what can I do for you?"
"I've got your aliens," I said. I could hear them upstairs in the bathroom, and I didn't want to think about what they might do up there. "If you want to see them, you'll come over here and fix my device."
He didn't say anything for a couple of seconds. I heard a flushing sound, and then something like water burbling up in the pipes. It didn't sound good.
"Didn't you hear me?" I asked. I should have taken the cordless phone, I thought. The noises from the bathroom got louder.
"Phil," he asked, slowly and seriously, "are you trying to blackmail me?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to do. I've got your aliens. I found them when they were making those light signals or whatever they were doing, and I brought them to my house, and I'm going to call the police and have the cops pick them up if you don't come over here immediately to fix my device."
All right, so it was a stupid threat. Anyone who knows me knows the cops are the last people I'd call if I was in trouble. Water rushed out of the bathroom, pouring down the hall toward the stairs.
"How do I know you've got them?" he asked after another pause that was way too long.
"Listen," I said, and I held the phone out. I called his name upstairs, and all the little monsters started shouting it themselves, their voices so high and fast that it made my ears hurt to hear them.
He gasped. "All right," he said. "I believe you. I'll be right over."
"The sooner the better," I said. I hung up the phone and raced up the stairs to try and save my plumbing from the aliens. The toilet was in pieces, and the faucets over the sink were twisted and shooting water all over. The aliens were babbling to each other as if they were having a good time, and I swear, if they weren't so valuable, I would have swatted the bunch of them with the nearest large blunt object.
It's a ten-minute drive from where Tom lives to my place, but I tell you, it felt like ten hours before I heard his car in the driveway. The aliens found their way into my room, where they took my computer apart in a matter of seconds and then tried to put it back together backwards, or upside down, or somehow that the computer was not meant to be put together. I yelled at them, and they scattered like a bunch of pigeons, rushing downstairs to the kitchen. I've never moved that fast down the stairs in my life. When I got to the kitchen, the fridge was making a loud clattering noise and the room was full of smoke. I was trying to straighten that mess out when the doorbell rang.
I slammed the kitchen door shut behind me, praying that they wouldn't find some way of taking the doorknob apart, and I opened the front door to see Tom, a bit disheveled, standing on the front step. "Are they here?" he asked.
"Don't worry about that," I said with a lot more confidence than I felt. "The question is, what are you going to do about my device?"
"Isn't there some way we could compromise?" he asked. "I'm really concerned about the aliens, and I want to make sure they get the kind of help they need, but I'm not sure that I could fix your device, even if I tried."
I heard a crashing sound coming from the kitchen, and, too late, I remembered the door to the basement, which didn't latch all the way. I wouldn't put it past those horrible little creatures to find their way into the garage from the basement, and then what would they do if they found my device? At that moment, I came this close to telling Tom to come and get them, whether or not he would help me with my device. But I took a deep breath, thought about the money I stood to make, and stayed strong.
"Those are my terms," I said firmly. "You'll see the aliens when you come to the garage and work on my device."
"All right," he said, "I suppose I should take a look."
I didn't dare lead him through the house. I didn't want to see what the aliens had done to my basement, and I still hoped that maybe they weren't in the garage yet. Tom and I went around the outside to the garage door, and I took a deep breath before opening it.
It was the most horrible thing I've ever witnessed. There was my alien device, in pieces, looking so full of potential, and there were those miserable aliens, swarming over it, throwing bits and pieces up in the air, tearing at bits that I thought were supposed to stay together, and shoving other pieces into places where it didn't look like anything was supposed to go. I had a sudden vision of what they'd done to my computer, and I screamed.
Tom grabbed my arm, preventing me from lunging at them and strangling the first one I came across. "Don't worry," he said, his voice hushed and reverent. "They're going to fix it for you."
"I don't want them to fix it," I cried. "I want you to do it!"
"It's probably a technology that they're familiar with," he said, nodding. "Maybe it comes from their culture."
I watched for a couple more seconds, while one of the aliens took a long thin piece of something that looked like plastic and stuck it in its mouth. The plastic thing immediately turned bright purple and the alien shot up into the air as if the thing had given it a shock.
"Uh, these guys are supposed to be super intelligent?" I asked Tom.
He was watching them carefully. "I wouldn't have thought that the pieces went together quite that way," he said thoughtfully, as if he hadn't heard me.
He strolled over to where the aliens were taking the thing apart, and as soon as they saw him, they all swarmed all over him, and I really wanted to kill them then, because they were going to distract him from what he was supposed to be doing. They all made sounds like a cross between a policeman's whistle, a bad set of brakes, and a tuba being played by someone who didn't know what he was doing. I covered my ears, but Tom nodded and gestured at them.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"They told me they've been looking for me. It was a mistake that I got kicked out of their ship, some kind of malfunction in their equipment. They want me back, to fix their ship."
"You can understand that?" I asked, even more surprised. I knew he was weird; I didn't know how weird.
"Yeah," he said, as if it was something simple. "I guess I must have gotten tuned to them when I was in their ship."
"You're going to fix this before you go anywhere," I said firmly, shutting the garage door behind us.
He looked at the pile of pieces of my device, and he smiled. "Yeah, of course. They were going about it the wrong way, but I think I can see what they were trying to do, and I have no problem making it work now."
I guess they were helping him, or trying to help him, but to me it looked like they were messing up everything he did as soon as he did it. Tom never seemed to mind when they took things apart or stuck things in the wrong places or climbed on his shoulders when he was adjusting something. Me, I would have smacked them from here to next week, aliens or no aliens, but I wasn't going to interfere as long as Tom was working on my device.
Left alone, Tom probably would have put the whole thing together in half an hour, but with them helping him, he was working on the device for an hour and a half before he finally stood back and folded his arms. "It's finished," he said.
I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to do. It looked like part television, part truck motor, part blender, part computer insides, and part something out of this world. I thought he was pulling my leg.
"Do a demonstration," I said. "Show me how it works."
"Sure," he said. He ran his hand over the part that looked like computer guts, and suddenly the whole garage was filled with moving lights. I jumped out of the way at first, sure that there was some poison or something that was going to come out of the lights, but in a couple of seconds I saw that the lights were turning into an image. It looked like those pictures you see in science magazines, of Mars or Jupiter or one of the other planets, but there were these swirling colors and the thing seemed to be moving and coming in and out of focus.
"What does it do?" I asked, still kind of suspicious.
"This is what it does," he replied, smiling. The aliens were hopping up and down beside him. I wondered if they were going to break something else. "It's an image generator. You can create different images if you brush against this switch here," he said, gesturing.
"It's not a weapon?"
He shook his head. "It's like one of those globes with the snow, only it's the alien version."
All those millions I was going to make, selling this weapon to the highest bidder, floated in front of my eyes, and then vanished. I thought I was going to throw up.
"Well," said Tom, "we've got to go now." He took out a little ball with pointy things sticking out of it, and he pressed a couple of the pointy things in some kind of sequence. "This is what they use to summon their landing craft. They'd put the batteries in backwards, so they couldn't make it work before. But it was simple enough to fix it."
I heard a high-pitched, whining noise as I opened the garage door. I sure wasn't going to keep those creatures in my residence a second longer than I had to. "You're going to go with them to their ship?" I asked.
"Sure. They need my help. And their technology, their engines -- it's just amazing. I'd be crazy not to go back there and poke around in that stuff some more."
"But these guys, your aliens, they're -- well, I know you think they're super intelligent, but I've been watching them, and -- " I didn't quite know how to tell him that if these guys were human beings, I'd consider them to be morons.
He clapped me on the shoulder. "I know," he said, "but I'll leave lots of notes and instructions, so they'll be able to run the engines after I'm gone. Ah, there it is now. I remember that."
A purple and silver thing that looked like a giant football hovered just over Tom's car in the street outside my house. A long tube unfolded itself from somewhere in the football's interior, and all the aliens whooped and made even more annoying noises as they rushed over to the tube.
"Thanks for your help," said Tom, shaking my hand. "I'm not sure I would have been able to find them if you hadn't found them for me. And I'm glad that your alien device turned out so well. I have to go now. Don't worry about my truck. I'll be back in a couple of days to reclaim it."
He turned and followed the aliens into the tube. The ship sucked it back in, closing the hole through which the tube had passed. I watched, speechless, as the ship hovered a few seconds and then shot up through the sky.
I turned back to the garage. Image generator, huh? I thought. All right, so it wasn't a weapon. That didn't mean I couldn't find some use for it. I thought of my buddy Wilson, who knew people in the art business. I bet if I showed this to him, we could come up with some way to make some money on this thing. I turned to walk back to the house, trying to remember Wilson's phone number. Suddenly I saw a bright flash in the sky, about where the aliens' ship would probably have been.
I waited, looking up, but I didn't see anything else. Had it exploded? Did those idiot aliens manage to destroy their landing craft before they even got to the ship, or was it supposed to do that?
I had no clue, but I figured that if Tom didn't show up in a week or so, I would try to figure out how much I could get for his truck. I headed into the house.