Without which, this book would never end.
At hyperdrive speeds, the stars passed by like telephone poles along a highway. Joe looked out the window, amazed. He knew this meant they were traveling at magnificent speeds, yet it reminded him of his trip out with Homer. “Oh crap!” he muttered. “Homer!”
Homer and Joe’s parents met with the forest rangers and local authorities in the ranger’s office. Maps filled the tables as local volunteers divided the area into sections. They organized search parties and checked equipment. Photos of Joe were passed out to everyone involved in the search.
Every day that passed without rescue was another day closer to death in the wilderness. He’d been missing for a week, and the rangers weren’t too optimistic.
“He’s going to die, isn’t he?” Joe’s mother sobbed into her husband’s shoulder.
Eighteen hours later
“So, where would you like me to drop you off?” Alfia asked.
“Don’t you have to fix time or something?”
“Why? Is it broken?” Alfia giggled.
Joe continued meekly, “Don’t you need to make it appear as if I’ve never left to protect the secrecy of your existence?”
“Our existence is no secret. If your technology were advanced enough, you’d be bombarded with as much useless information and bad television programming as you inflict on us. And if it weren’t for CBS, we’d never have heard of Earth.”
“Oh.” Joe paused then slowly questioned, “Well then, don’t you have to drop me off in a secluded area so as not to be detected?”
“Oh please! I can drop you off in your own backyard and not be detected. Your race has got a long way to go.”
“Well, if we’re so helpless, why doesn’t some superior race take us over?” Joe asked.
“Because you don’t have anything anybody wants. If you did, they’d be here.”
“Obviously, you’ve never had chocolate,” Joe countered. “Well then, I suppose the best place to return to would be the place I left from.”
“Okay, where’s that?”
“In the United States.”
“Which blob of dirt is that?”
“Um…” Joe looked down at the Earth. “It’s on the dark side right now.”
“Okay.” Alfia adjusted course. The Esprit maneuvered toward the dark side of the Earth. As the sun vanished behind the arc of the planet, its ominous red aura blinked out. Joe and Alfia descended into a sea of darkness on a crystal-clear night.
“You sure have a lot of junk orbiting your planet,” Alfia said as they ducked under the international space station.
Joe turned quickly to see it. “Cool,” he exclaimed under his breath.
As the lights from cities and towns grew brighter and brighter, Alfia activated a camouflage screen that rendered the Esprit invisible.
“Gee, I wonder if I can find it in the dark?” Joe thought out loud. “Okay, we need to head toward that mountain range over there.” He pointed to the left. “See that large cluster of lights? That’s probably Denver.”
“Is that where you live?”
“No, I live more over there,” Joe pointed to the Midwest, “where it’s dimmer.” He wondered if he had just insulted himself. “But I’m not too far away from that cluster of lights, which is Chicago. At least there’s a full moon tonight. It’ll make it easier to see landmarks.”
“Or we could just switch the viewport to night mode.” Alfia flipped a switch, and the windshield changed to appear as if it were bright daylight outside.
“Nice! So, have you been to Earth before?”
“Oh no. This is out of the way of anything; it’s one of my longest returns. Hyperspace: not only convenient in science fiction, but exceptionally convenient in real life.”
“So, I’ve heard.”
“By conventional means, this would have taken a couple weeks. You must have some pull in high places.”
“No, not really.” Joe thought for a second. “I was just in the wrong place at the right time. I have yet to decide if this has been a good experience.”
“Really?” Alfia exclaimed. “You got to travel halfway across the galaxy. You defeated a gorgon; hob-knobbed with the rich, the famous and the powerful; managed to create an intergalactic incident; prevented an assassination attempt; and created peace between archrivals. And the most remarkable thing of all, you managed to keep my mother out all night, on a work night, mind you. For someone who claims to be ordinary, you sure had an extraordinary week.”
“Yeah, it’s going to be tough to beat this spring break next year,” he mused.
Joe and Alfia came upon the lights of Denver. The ship glided down effortlessly to less than five hundred feet off the ground, skimming across the treetops.
“Are you sure no one’s going to see us?”
“The ship is invisible.”
“Oh well, there you go. Just follow this road up into the mountains.”
Alfia followed the twisting road. The few vehicles she passed noticed only a strange breeze blowing by them. They came to an area where the terrain leveled out.
“And there’s the park entrance. If you could find a spot near the ranger’s station, that building” — he pointed — “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Lots of trees around here.”
“You get that with a forest,” Joe explained.
Alfia descended into a clearing, setting the ship down ever so gently.
Joe turned to her and said, “You are a much better pilot than Fred or Frank.”
“It was nice meeting you, Joe. I know my mother will never stop talking about it. You’ve made her into some sort of celebrity.”
“Thank you, Alfia.” Joe reached out to shake her hand. “I do appreciate all you’ve done for me. Say thanks to Fred and Frank and Marsha again for me. And please have a safe trip home.”
Joe opened the hatch and stepped out. He had forgotten that it was dark, so he paused to let his eyes adjust. He felt a slight breeze as the Esprit flew over him, and he waved to Alfia. He walked toward the park ranger’s station, carrying the bag of clothes and other souvenirs he had acquired on Ladascus.
Along the way, he reflected on the past week. Being back home made it all feel like a dream, but then he pulled out the newspaper article and looked at the picture in the dim light of the campground. He still couldn’t read the words, but it reminded him that he still had the interpreting device on his ear. Gently caressing it Joe smiled and thought, I’ll never take this off.
Joe walked into the ranger’s station and the room filled with great joy.
We’re not done yet.
Check this out:
Back on Ladascus
Evinrude walked down a very busy uptown street, full of many average people walking to their average jobs, trying to maintain their average lives. Two small figures, trying to look average, followed discreetly behind. Although they were a bit shorter than most of the people, they did blend in nicely with the crowd.
Evinrude walked into the lobby of a swank hotel and meandered up to the desk.
His two pursuers stalled just outside the door, one tying his shoe, the other making a phone call.
“It’s going down alright. We need backup,” Frank pleaded on the phone with Ambassador Calloway.
“I can’t authorize back up,” Calloway said. “Your evidence is only circumstantial. We can’t interfere with the internal struggles of the Quesonte government.”
“That’s never stopped us before.” Frank’s voice grew louder as his composure slipped.
“If a coup is going down, then it needs to happen.”
“You’re insane! That will destabilize the entire galaxy!” Frank’s anger surged at Calloway’s bureaucratic position.
Evinrude got the information he needed at the front desk and slowly headed down the corridor to his right.
Frank noticed Evinrude’s movement and rudely hung up on Calloway. Frantic at losing sight of him, Frank and Fred quickened their pace and practically ran around the corner.
Evinrude was gone. They slowly and stealthily traversed the large hall, trying to thoroughly search each doorway for Evinrude, but also not arouse suspicion from other patrons. At the end of the corridor they stopped. They had lost him.
Frank and Fred felt a presence behind them and slowly turned their heads.
“Hello.” Evinrude’s friendly manner caught them by surprise, and so he chided them further, “Don’t stop now, you’ve almost got me.”
“But…aren’t you? Oh, macideneb.” Frank punched the wall and walked around in a circle ranting. Fred’s jaw hung open.
“You let me out of your sight, Frank.” Evinrude tsked. “Rookie mistake.”
Frank pointed at Fred. “He’s the rookie.”
“I told you it was stupid to follow him,” Fred said, shaking off his stupor. “He knows us. How could we ever get away with following him?”
Evinrude chuckled “Oh, no no no, my dear friends, you’re my guests. Come with me.” He put his arms around their diminutive shoulders and led them down the hall. “It’s just at the end of corridor.”
“Aren’t you attending a secret meeting of Quesonte’s most powerful government officials?” Fred asked, bewildered.
“Yes, well, maybe. It’s not what you think it is,” Evinrude whispered as he stopped in front of a door and freed them from his embrace. “Act surprised.” He opened the door, and they walked into a dark room. The lights clicked on.
“Surprise!” A large group of professional-looking men and women yelled to Evinrude.
“What the…a surprise party? You guys…really.” Evinrude faked surprise to the group, then whispered to Fred and Frank, “It’s my retirement party. But don’t tell them I knew all along.”
“And the information we’ve been chasing for a week?” Frank looked at Evinrude in disbelief.
“The guest list,” Evinrude said. Old
friends and colleagues gathered around to congratulate him, shaking his hand, and making quite a fuss over him. The crowd of well-wishers pushed Fred and Frank to the side.
On the walls of the banquet room hung old war photos — pictures of former comrades on battlefields — blown up into posters. Some of the faces were covered with tape to protect the identities of current agents. Those that weren’t were either dead or not agents at all.
There were pictures of Evinrude standing in an imposing stance next to his ship, the Boulougante Bullet. With his helmet and goggles and a white scarf blowing in the wind, he appeared very Baron Manfred von Richthofen-like.
Many of the pictures of captured enemies had names or lines from documents blacked out. And most of the posters were stamped top secret.
Signs wishing Evinrude Happy Retirement! also hung on the walls. Along the far wall, a large cake and non-alcoholic refreshments sat on a table, but no one seemed interested in them. Against another wall, everyone gathered around a bar.
“Doesn’t this seem odd?” Fred said to Frank.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been in this situation before. Just go with it.” Frank stopped dead in front of one of the pictures on the wall.
Evinrude noticed Frank staring at the picture and explained, “That’s the Arturo Express.”
“I remember the Arturo Express.” Frank shook his head. “I don’t remember you there?”
“We only spoke briefly that day.” Evinrude pointed at the picture. “There I am. And I believe that’s you.”
“You are a master of disguise.”
“No. That’s just me thirty years younger.” Evinrude introduced Frank and Fred to his colleagues. “May I introduce Frank Surovell and Fred Jackson? Frank is the Soufte agent responsible for exposing the Arturo Express incident.”
They all cooed like schoolgirls. “Very glad to meet you, sir,” an agent said, as several others shook his hand. Another said, “Excellent work, sir,” and a third added, “It’s work like that that gives our profession a good name.”
“Good work, Dash and Desi,” the police chief congratulated them. “It only took you a week, and you’ve recovered the diamonds and arrested the culprit.”
“Six days actually, sir,” Dash conceded. “But we failed to capture the instrument with which he perpetrated the crime.”
“Speak Ladascan, won’t you?” The chief had no patience for Dash’s long-winded explanations.
“We didn’t catch the thief. We only caught the person who hired the thief.” Dash recalled the events of the past week and his worthy adversary. With a slightly appreciative smile, he remarked, “To me, she’ll always be the woman.”
Desi reflected back on the case. “I wish we could’ve figured out how she got on the roof.”
“Disappointing, I agree, but don’t be dismayed,” Dash consoled him. “Neither did the authors.”
At the ranger’s station on Earth
“What’s in the bag?” Joe’s mother asked. “And what is this strange clothing?”
“Souvenirs,” Joe said. “I was abducted by aliens and spent a week on an alien planet. They took me shopping. I wasn’t coming back empty-handed.” To himself and Homer, his explanation sounded rational. But everyone else in the room looked at him as if he was delusional.
Homer turned to Joe. “They looked at me the same way when I told them.”
“Riiiiight.” his mother was worried about their mental states.
“No, really.” He pulled out the newspaper to show everyone. “I’ve got a newspaper article with my picture. I defeated a gorgon.”
“So, you’re trying to tell me that a civilization advanced enough to travel across the galaxy still prints their news on…paper?” his father cross-examined him.
“Well…Yeah…I don’t know,” Joe fumbled. “I didn’t question it. I was just there.”
“Come on, Joe, ’fess up, you got lost.” His father prodded him for a believable truth.
“You’re right. I did. I got picked up by a group of nerds on their way back from a sci-fi convention, and they loaned me some clothes. I was just too embarrassed to tell you. But next year, we’ll be spending spring break within the confines of civilization.”
Homer verified, “By civilization, you mean fast food, cell phone service, girls, and plumbing?”
What the anneheg…?
Are you still reading this?
Close the book.