The Esprit had a second row of seats with a small space behind them for storage and access to other mechanical areas of the ship. A wall behind the second row shimmered and disappeared. Joe looked out into the cabin. He was behind the seats and could not see the other occupants. He didn’t recognize any of the sounds or smells except for the strange dialect he had heard hours earlier.
Frank was busy examining the data Mortimer had given them about their new assignment on the ship’s console, while Fred was making a scheduled system check of the flight controls.
“This…is…impressive,” Frank flipped back and forth ever more quickly through the file pages. “It appears that most of Quesontes agents, the ones we are aware of at least, are abandoning their posts and traveling to the capital city of Ngorongoro on Ladascus.” Excitement in his voice grew as he read on. “Some even came out of deep, deep cover. The analysts are mystified. It is an unprecedented move, completely unorthodox!” Frank thought for a moment. “It would be amazing to learn who we didn’t know about.”
Fred asked, “Is anyone in Quesonte aware of the movement?”
“You would think, but there’s nothing indicating that they do.” Frank became quiet for an awkwardly long moment and in a quiet, sober tone remarked, “The information we are to retrieve could be a game-changer for us.”
“Are we the only agents on this assignment?”
“I hope not. Ambassador Callaway’s staff will brief us when we arrive.”
Joe was terrified. He was about to approach alien beings in their own domain. Apparently, a domain that was a little small for Joe’s stature. Would they eat him, kill him, or just throw him out into space? Although usually an optimistic fellow, Joe could not imagine any positive scenarios. He watched over their shoulders, wondering how he should announce himself.
Frank, noticing a strange reflection on the console’s glassy surface, cautiously pointed out, “Em da sutluv tse lenap mutnemurstni, Derf” (Fred, the instrument panel is looking at me.)
“Douq erecaf tse diuq…?” (What is doing what…?) Fred trailed off.
Their heads turned around slowly, almost a full 180 degrees on their sinewy necks, as their bodies stayed motionless.
“Hi,” Joe greeted reluctantly with a nervous wave.
They both screamed like girls and fell back against the controls. Realizing what they had just done, they regained their composure quickly. Frank turned to Fred, “Step allun sibov ixid oge, Derf!” (Fred, I told you no pets!)
“Mue sitsixudda non oge,” (I didn’t bring him.) Fred immediately becomes defensive.
“Tilutsba odom suila cih mauq acilpxe mut?!” (Then explain how else he got here?!) Frank demanded.
Joe stayed quiet as the two bickered. He thought, Not again! The odd glances they gave him had him worried. “Oh crap! They’re debating on how to eat me.” He unintentionally vocalized his worst fear as he drew back from them.
Frank reached into a compartment, pulled out something that looked like an empty conical tube, and talked into it. “Don’t panic! We’re vegetarians,” he said, not wanting to startle the alien.
To Joe, his voice sounded like an other-worldly version of English with an Italian accent. He was relieved. “Oh, thank God we can communicate.”
Frank pulled a small, flat, crescent-shaped piece of metal from the same compartment and handed it to Joe, informing him, “It’s a translating device. Just place it over and behind your ear like this.” Fred showed Joe the translating device on the side of his own head. When Joe followed Frank’s instructions the piece of metal conformed snuggly to his skull and seemed to adhere to his head.
“There, now I won’t have to use this thing anymore.” Frank returned the translating tube to its compartment. “That small device will allow you to understand any language in the universe, even if it’s never encountered the language before. It will instantly decipher and translate it. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have one. It’s practically a necessity with all the intergalactic trading and commerce that goes on.”
“Cool!” Joe exclaimed, “How does it work?”
“Anneheg if I know,” Frank responded, shaking his head.
“What’s it called?” Joe asked.
“A translator,” Fred stated casually as he was starting to enjoy talking to Joe.
“But that’s not important right now.” Frank was a little perturbed that an alien was in his ship. His voice was short and sharp with Joe. “How did you get in here?”
“I’m not sure. I was running to get my camera…” Joe struggled to recall events that seemed even more unreal now that he was having a conversation with aliens, in a spaceship, in deep space. “A hot, turbulent wind lifted me into the air. I was floating above the forest, the campsite and Homer looking out of the tent, your ship. It was surreal like an out-of-body experience. And then your spaceship started getting closer and closer, like I was falling. Next thing I know, I’m in a strange room with weird noises and a hot, glowing object.
“The engine,” Frank added.
“I guess,” Joe continued, “I had a splitting headache, too. I must’ve blacked out at some point. So I struggled to find my way out of the engine compartment without getting burnt. Now I know what a freeway cat feels like.”
“Can we call you freeway?” Fred interjected.
“You can, but I’ll answer to Joe a lot better.”
“We left your planet 18 hours ago. There is a hatch between these two compartments,” Frank noted.
“What is this, good alien, bad alien?” Joe started to get a little defensive.
“You’re the alien.” Frank reminded Joe.
Joe returned, “Well, if you consider this whole shimmering wall vanishing thing is completely beyond my comprehension, you should be impressed I figured it out.” Joe realized he was now arguing. “I must still be dreaming?”
“No, it’s real,” Fred told him. “If you look out the front viewport, you’ll see Ladascus coming into view.”
Joe stared at the blue-green disk floating in the nothingness of space. He could faintly make out features on its surface, but it, too seemed unreal. “It’s pretty and all, but I’m not sure I’m convinced it’s not a dream. Where is…Ladascus?”
They both chuckled at Joe’s pronunciation of Ladascus with his Earthling accent. Fred said, “It’s located in the Perseus Transit. Follow the Orion Spur about twelve and a half kilo-lightyears. Go past the Gum Nebula about four hundred parsecs, and boom, your star system. If you get to the Gould Belt you’ve gone five hundred parsecs too far.”
“Oh.” Joe felt a little despondent, as an avid amateur astronomer who prided himself on his celestial knowledge, he only recognized one reference. “I take it you guys are from Ladascus then?”
“No,” Fred explained. “Ladascus is a demilitarized zone left over from the war.”
“Disturbance,” Frank corrected.
“Oh, pardon me. The politicians like to call it ‘the Disturbance’.” The quotation marks Fred made with his long fingers just exaggerated it even more.
Frank added, “At least they didn’t call it a police action.”
The planet Ladascus was in an unusual situation. It was the third planet from the star, but originally it had been the fourth. Between Ladascus and planet two, where a third planet used to be, there was an asteroid belt. So Ladascus became number three. Planet number five had also been destroyed, creating yet another asteroid belt beyond Ladascus. The asteroid belts contained many of the rare minerals and ores that highly advanced civilizations wanted. Unfortunately for Ladascus, their rocketry was still limited to localized space and orbital satellites. They were not a highly advanced civilization and didn’t know about the precious materials just beyond their reach.
Which was fine for the Souftes and the Quesontes; they preferred being superior. Their only problem was that neither one wanted to be inferior to the other, which caused a lot of tension between the two.
Another source of conflict was that they were both running out of natural resources to feed their societies’ growing demands. They started exploring outside their own systems to find more resources, and they happened upon the two asteroid belts surrounding Ladascus at the same time. The Quesontes and the Souftes each decided they needed these resources for themselves. Forty-two years ago, they both began mining the asteroid belts, not giving the Ladascans a second thought. That was the day the skies grew dark over Ladascus; when the menacing machines crowded out the sun.
Ladascus circled the star Medif. The Quesonte Empire was on one side of the Medifar system, and the Soufte Empire was straight across on the other. To avoid war, the politicians, wise and noble beings that they were, signed a treaty in which they split the asteroid belts between them. The Souftes got the half closest to their system, and the Quesontes got the half closest to their system. They simply drew a line through a chart of the Medifar system, dividing it in half. This gave equal portions to each empire and created an immovable boundary that was easy to navigate, monitor and maintain. And neither nation was allowed to cross what became known as the Ladascan Line of Demarcation, commonly referred to as the LLD.
Hurray for diplomacy!
The politicians were quite proud of this amazing piece of legislation. And they bestowed upon each other adulation, acclamation, appreciation, admiration, veneration, congratulations, commendations, felicitations, laudations and many other -ations they made up to boast of their prowess. This lasted for the first half of the first orbit of the Medifar system.
Apparently, the politicians knew nothing about astrophysics and planetary movement. They had not considered the fact that the asteroid belt revolved around Medif and constantly crossed the LLD.
As the asteroid field rotated, the Soufte portion would move into Quesonte space, and vice versa. For half of the Medifar orbit, each side found itself within mining distance of asteroids that neither sovereign was allowed to touch. At the same time, the asteroids they each had free rein over were in the area controlled by their adversary, where they were not allowed to travel. This made mining the asteroid belt more difficult. They could each only mine their own property during the half-orbit that it was accessible.
So, half a year later, the politicians were quite embarrassed by their grotesque oversight, and lambasted each other with accusations, denunciations, incriminations, imputation, implications, insinuations, inculpation, disapprobation, castigation and many other -ations they made up to implicate their honorable opponents for their flagrant ineptitude.
This applied to the planet of Ladascus as well. For half a year it was in Soufte space and occupied by Soufte personnel, and for the other half it was in Quesonte space and occupied by Quesonte personnel. Twice a year there was a massive move into and out of Ladascus by both sides. The Ladascans began hiring themselves out as movers and became quite good at it. They also built a large number of storage facilities to accommodate each side’s stuff while the other side occupied. Ladascan logistics became known as the greatest in the universe.
For the first few years both sides just lived with this situation. Until one enterprising young businessman from Quesonte and one enterprising young businessman from Soufte had the same idea at the same time. Instead of waiting and losing money while their historic enemy’s designated asteroids rotated through their side of the LLD, both Soufte and Quesonte secretly mined the conveniently close asteroids. The businessmen still made money, and who would ever notice. Their shareholders were happy and bestowed upon the businessmen bonuses, securities, properties, luxuries, endowments, riches, currency, wealth, and capital. Businessmen don’t give a rat’s sunisa about -ations, they want cash!
This went on nicely, until half a year later, the Quesonte and Soufte governments noticed, which severely and equally angered both Quesonte and Soufte. The proverbial compost impacted the rotary oscillator and politicians on each side had the same idea at the same time: “The anneheg with diplomacy, we’re taking it all!”
Thus, the Disturbance began!
The fighting went on for 22 years, with the poor planet of Ladascus caught in the middle. The war was primarily waged in the Medifar system, never really crossing into either foe’s space. So, it was kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” war. Until one day, the resources in the asteroid belt ran out. Therefore, the Soufte and Quesonte interest in Ladascus also ran out. Neither the Soufte nor the Quesonte could pull out first, for that would surely signify a victory for the other. But the war was becoming too expensive to continue, so they drew up the Maxwell Treaty.
And thus, the Disturbance ended!
Peace ruled! Again.
The Maxwell Treaty simply stated that neither the Quesonte nor the Soufte militia could enter the demilitarized zone, which spanned the entire Medifar system. Furthermore, no Quesonte ship, military, commercial, or private, would be allowed into Soufte space and vice versa.
The treaty laid out the conditions for trade between the two sovereignties. Though they may be bitter enemies, they still traded with each other. Even during the height of the war there was a fair amount of trade going on, just with a bit more difficulty. Money: the most powerful weapon in the universe! Any trade between them was to be conducted through Ladascus. Goods from Quesonte would be unloaded from Quesonte ships then reloaded onto Soufte ships, and goods from Soufte ships would be reloaded on to Quesonte ships. And Ladascan logistics rose out of the ashes of war to be…
The greatest in the universe againnnn!
To ensure that the Souftes and Quesontes remained superior, Ladascus was not allowed interplanetary ships — private, commercial, or military. They were, however, allowed a small local militia within the confines of their own atmosphere to provide protection and policing from local crime organizations.
Since so much commerce transpired on Ladascus, a large population of Quesontes and Souftes resided there, and each government maintained a presence on the planet. Trade gave Ladascus a major economic boom. (If peace ever broke out between the two ill-fated enemies, Ladascus would fall into economic ruin. And don’t think they don’t know this.)
And now we find ourselves at the 42nd anniversary of the first invasion, after three years of stealing resources, 22 years of “Disturbance,” and 17 years of a cold peace.
“We, unfortunately, have an important deadline to meet and can’t justify turning around to return you home,” Frank told Joe.
“I can understand your situation.” Joe responded politely even though he hadn’t really thought about it, or anything, at all. All he knew was he was totally out of his element. He hated relying on others, especially strangers. (Although, he would be the first to lend a helping hand to a total stranger himself.) He felt helpless. If he were on Earth and left abandoned in the middle of a forest he could easily manage, but this was totally alien to him.
“Now a couple of things are going to happen,” Frank continued to explain. “When we get to Ladascus, as per protocol, we will drop you off with an agent trained in handling these situations.”
“This happens often enough you have a protocol for it?” Joe was somewhat surprised but no more at ease.
Fred chimed in, “Sure, every planet has an immigration policy. You would be an undocumented alien. But we can get you a special visitor’s visa through our embassy. It’s just a matter of filling out the right forms.”
“The hard part is getting someone to transport you to your home world,” Frank added. “Military transports could get you close, but actually going to Earth is a totally different story. Though I’m sure we can figure something out.”
“Oh.” Joe didn’t know what to say. He had never been an illegal alien before, let alone an extraterrestrial, in a strange land, among strange beings who interacted strangely. But yet, his two accidental abductors seemed to be rather cordial. “Well, it might be nice to see new places and meet new people.”
“We will take you to an agent who will eventually get you back to Earth. It may not be tomorrow, but it will be relatively soon,” Frank finished.
“It’s not like I have any pressing engagements. I happen to be on spring break right now.” Joe fumbled, guilt and embarrassment welling within him for creating such a bother. “I do apologize for causing so much trouble.”
“By the way, introductions are in order. My name is Fred Jackson, and this is Frank Surovell.” Fred gestured between the two of them. “You can call us Fred and Frank.”
“Hello, I’m Joe. Joe Ritz. So…. Do you make it to Earth often?”
“No, first time.” Fred told him.
“So, you didn’t know we existed?”
“Are you kidding? Everyone knows about Earth!” Fred exclaimed. He was enjoying a fresh conversation for once. “We have millions of entertainment channels, and some bright young entrepreneur decided to put Earth’s programming on one of them. For some strange reason, your science fiction soap operas are addicting.”
“So, if you’re receiving Earth’s signals, your planet isn’t very far away,” Joe said.
“Actually, it is extremely far away, but distance, as we have discovered, is relative.” Frank too, was beginning to enjoy the conversation. After many long trips, conversation with Fred had run out, and a lot of their time was spent in silence. “You see, there are communities all over the universe — natives, transplants, outposts, even explorers, all spread out. An outpost near your planet picks up the signal. Then it’s put on the Cosmic Broadcasting Structure, or CBS for short, which broadcasts instantaneously to any part of the universe without time displacement. So, no matter how far or near you may be, you see it at the same time.”
“Coincidentally, the same guy who invented the translator invented CBS, too,” Fred quieted his voice to a whisper, like it was a big deal, “He owns his own planet.”
Frank didn’t particularly like being interrupted and gave Fred a squinted glare, “The technology was invented back when communicating just in your own star system meant you’d have to wait hours for a reply. Very tedious and impractical, to say the least.”
“Say no more.” Joe held up his hand to halt a lengthy explanation of a theory he understood. “I’m familiar with the idea.”
“Are you a physicist?”
“No, just an ordinary Earthling. Going to college and getting deep in debt.” Joe had to rearrange his long legs in an effort to find a comfortable position in the cramped backseat. The ship was not designed for someone of his stature, which was a good foot and a half taller than his alien counterparts. He had enough headroom, but legroom was lacking. This is like stuffing a basketball player into a Fiat.
Fred continued his questions. “You said you were on spring break, is that a special holiday on Earth?”
“It’s a university holiday. Usually, I would have picked up a few hours at the shop, especially now that it’s spring, but a hike along the Continental Divide was just too tempting.”
“What kind of shop do you work in?”
“I’ve been working my way through college as a bicycle repairman. What do you guys do?”
“We’re dignitaries for the Soufte government,” Frank was quick to interject, to prevent Fred from divulging too much information.
“Do you guys have an outpost on Earth?” Joe asked.
“No.” Frank chuckled. “Earth doesn’t have anything anyone wants, except television and 9-volt batteries. We’re already getting the television for free, and the 9-volt batteries are illegal. Other than that, there are no unique minerals or resources that aren’t available anywhere else. You don’t have any technology that can threaten us. You don’t even rank as a civilization yet, so no one’s made contact ‘politically.’ You’re also small and rather out of the way. We do have an outpost out this way, but it’s standard practice in order to maintain a presence throughout the galaxy.”
Being called “small and out of the way,” made Joe feel a little insignificant, although the remark about the batteries piqued his curiosity. “Nine-volt batteries?”
Frank said, “Nine-volt batteries are an illegal narcotic that androids find fiendishly addictive.”
Fred interrupted with, “We are here!”
Joe and Frank looked. Ladascus filled the entire viewport.
The planet seemed very real now to Joe, its details vivid and rich. Stray flashes of fire came over the top of the Esprit, indicating that they had entered the atmosphere. “That was fast.” Joe was dumbfounded.
“Hyperspace, not just convenient for science fiction writers,” Frank said with an air of sarcasm.
The Esprit glided peacefully and majestically against the blue Ladascan sky. Inside, Frank and Fred fought the controls again, as smoke seeped into the compartment from the engine access panel Joe had crawled through earlier. The once-quiet ship with its gentle hum started to shriek like grinding metal. The engine whined like an alley cat. With a sudden bang and jolt, the ship started to tumble and twist, leaving a curling trail of black smoke behind it.
“What the anneheg happened this time?” Frank yelled.
“Main guidance system failure.”
“Overrides?” Frank asked.
“Don’t start that again!” Fred yelled back as he opened the overrides access panel.
Joe pressed his hands and feet against the walls of the cabin — an advantage of his disproportionate size — bracing himself, as he watched the ground speed toward them. Fred managed to level out just above it and tore across the landscape, the grass and trees swaying in their wake.
Suddenly the nose of the Esprit dove into an embankment, flipping it end over end. It rolled along the ground like a Frisbee, finally coming to rest against the side of a tree. The three passengers lay atop the starboard side door in a clump, Joe, the heaviest, on top. All three gasped heavily in the smoke-filled cockpit, as Frank released the latch to the gull-wing door. It flung open, they tumbled down, and a plume of smoke rushed up.
Joe coughed and gasped. “Is this standard landing procedure?”
Frank glared at Fred. “Really!”
“Not my fault!”
The three stood looking at the craft leaning up against the tree, small trails of smoke seeping out the door.
Fred took his phone out of his pocket and took a picture. “No one is going to believe this,” he muttered to himself. He noticed Frank’s eyes hardening and his forehead wrinkles tightening under the cerebral pressures building within. “Insurance purposes.”
“I need a drink!” Frank stated menacingly. “I’ll call in to the embassy. About how far do you think we are from town?”
“About an hour or two.”
Frank spoke into his phone, “Hey Tricia, Frank Surovell. We’ve had an accident. Could you send someone out to pick us up? And…we’ll need a tow truck.” He punched in some numbers. “I’m sending you the coordinates now.” Frank glared at Fred. “Oh great, Ambassador Calloway wants to talk to us.” Fred’s eyes and chest sank at the same time.
“I’m going to make good use of those bushes over there. That landing put a lot of pressure on my bladder,” Joe told his companions, but they were both too engrossed in the phone conversation to realize he had spoken.
Joe found himself a nicely secluded bush. He appreciated the relief, but unfortunately, the Uluru in the bush did not. The Uluru growled and waved its long, green, hairy arms out of the top of the bush. Joe quickly stopped what he was doing (with the right motivation, anything is possible.) He secured himself as he slowly backed away, but rustling came from the bushes behind him, and Joe froze. He cautiously looked around, trying to move as little as possible. The rustling grew louder, and a few more arms popped up over the tops of bushes.
Joe turned and bolted toward Fred and Frank. Suddenly, another low growl sounded, and a multitude of arms were in front of him, the bodies they were attached to hidden by the dense bushes. He stopped instantly, completely surrounded.
Ohhhhh shit! “Fred! Frank!” Joe’s voice cracked. The arms moved in closer, and the growl grew to a roar. “FRED! FRANK!” Joe yelled.
The Esprit was making a few of its own loud noises, so Fred and Frank didn’t notice the commotion behind them.
Suddenly the arms lurched at him. Joe jumped back and ran away from Fred and Frank, thinking he could circle back. He heard the crackling of twigs behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, not slowing his pace. A swarm of green, hairy arms pursued him. The arms were attached to stout, two-foot-tall bodies covered with brown and green fur. If it weren’t for the large, glassy eyes, they would have appeared headless.
Joe failed to watch his step. He tripped over a log, stumbling a few feet, but didn’t fall. As he regained his balance, he looked up. Branch! Ducking under the low branch, he stepped in a hole, tripped, and rolled down a small hill. He got up quickly and started running again.
The Ulurues were giving him a run for his money; however, fortunately for Joe, they were long on arms but extremely short on legs. He looked over his shoulder again. Mistake! He hit another branch that turned him around, and promptly stumbled over some roots. He fell backward down an embankment and landed flat on his back. The breath knocked out of him, all he could do was lie there and watch as a wave of green, hairy arms rose over the top of the hill. He was struggling to sit up when the ground suddenly gave way under him. The deep hole he’d fallen into twisted right and turned left and then finally headed straight down. He managed to use every expletive in the known universe along the way. He landed with a thud and lay unconscious in total darkness, under an alien planet.
The crashed saucer hissed and groaned as Frank struggled to hear. He broke away from the conversation, covered the microphone on his phone and whispered to Fred, “Ambassador Calloway is losing it.” He spoke into the phone, “Yes sir. I’m still here, Fred too. We will report in immediately.” He hung up.
“Did you tell him about Joe?”
“Did you hear me mention Joe?
“No,” Fred offered sheepishly,
“Exactly!” Frank exhaled loudly, his patience running out. “I’m not stupid enough to bring Joe into it.” He stopped, and they stared at each other for a second. They both moved their eyes, but not their heads, from side to side to see if Joe was near. Simultaneously, they said, “Where is Joe?”
“Joe?” they both called out. Both of their little hearts sank as they began a frantic search of the entire area.
By the time the car from the embassy arrived, they had called in local law enforcement, who brought in a local search and rescue team, who called in members of the local reserves who happened to be in the area policing litter, which drew the attention of many local residents who listened to their police scanners for entertainment. It escalated into a full-scale search. Their only lead was a hole in the ground, but a group of Ulurues were praying around it. Since Ulurues were protected by Ladascan law, they couldn’t be physically moved unless they were in harm’s way.
“We’ve searched for hours, Fred,” Frank pointed out.
“Ambassador Calloway is in a very bad mood today,” the embassy driver added. “It would be foolish to keep him waiting.”
“I know, I know. I just feel responsible for the poor guy,” Fred said.
“We should’ve turned around and taken him back,”
“Who’d have thought we’d lose him?” The two got into the car. They looked out each side of the vehicle as it drove off, trying to catch a glimpse of the wayward Earthling. “He should be easy to find. He’s an Earthling. He’ll stand out in these parts. And besides, if the Ulurues ever get a hold of him they’ll treat him like a king.”
“You’re right,” Frank said. “Ulurues worship everything taller than them.”
By this time the tow truck that Tricia, the embassy secretary, had arranged also arrived. The driver got out of his cab, stood for a moment surveying the wreckage, and took a picture.
Homer’s Log Day One
Joe left last night and hasn’t returned. He isn’t the kind of person who would leave someone alone in the forest, especially a first-time camper like me. I’m worried he may be hurt. I looked for him as best I could, but nothing. I’m getting more than a bit worried now. Maybe that unrealistic dream I had about a UFO abducting him wasn’t a dream after all? I will stay at camp for the rest of the day trying to find him, but tomorrow I’ll make for the ranger station to get help. I wonder which way it is.
I’m going to die, aren’t I?