Answer in Triplicate, Please
A short story of a First Encounter of the Craziest Kind
Commander Mike Alexander peered into the Captain’s cabin with a bit of trepidation. Capt Onyango was dictating another revision of his “Greetings” speech while trying to sew silver material onto home-made epaulets. Never mind their jumpsuits weren’t designed for them. Ignore the fact that he’d had to cut up one of their spare spacesuits for the material. Look past the braid, hand-woven and looking vaguely reminiscent of “boondoggle” projects from summer camp. He needed a display of rank befitting his high station and the historic importance of this mission. As he continued to sew, he continued his dictation:
“I, Captain David Machupa Onyango have, on this glorious day, one signal in the development of the human race, the honor of greeting you in the name of the peoples of the Federated Nations of Earth! I alone...”
Lt. Commander Lin Tsao joined Commander Alexander at the doorway. She listened for a minute and then whispered in the Commander’s ear:
“I have to tell him. The sooner we address this, the better chance we have of slowing it down if nothing else.”
“You haven’t been listening as long as I have,” Alexander replied, “I think he’s too far gone already.”
Tsao just shrugged and knocked loudly on the Captain’s door. He looked up, scowling at being interrupted, and stuck himself with the needle he was using.
“Did you have to break my train of thought?” the Captain grated, “This speech will be one for the ages, and my current uniform simply will *not* do.
“Captain, I have the results of our physicals.”
“So,” he grunted as he rose, “Did everyone get through The Sleep without problem?”
“Everyone is healthy enough, Sir. But two people developed neurosis while they were under. It’s not unexpected, unfortunately. There’s always a risk with Sleep.”
“A risk?” Onyango echoed, as he stuck himself again with the needle. “Who was affected?”
“Lieutenant Crosby. He has a case of xenophobia.”
The Captain was startled. “Just great! The one person trained specifically for alien contact has xenophobia. I thought he was selected for his flexibility and expertise in dealing with other cultures?”
Tsao bit her lip. “Earth cultures, yes.” Evidently his concerns about meeting a completely alien culture were magnified while under Sleep. He should get better, the data says the effects can be variable and it only appears to be minor in his case.”
“And the other person affected?” Onyango asked.
He actually stopped sewing for a moment. “Don’t be ridiculous, I feel fine! I have no fear about this contact at all. I know it will be tremendously important, worthy of praise, medals, and statues!”
Tsao did a credible imitation of shuffling her feet despite zero gravity and looked around the cabin as if the walls could help answer. She glanced back at the Commander, who simply shrugged.
“You aren’t xenophobic, Captain. You’re displaying signs of serious megalomania.”
“Nonsense!” He declared. “I am above such petty problems.”
“I hate this place!” Mithran shouted for the third time that hour and for the three millionth time since his conscription began. He snatched the next thick folder from his never-emptying “IN” basket and slammed it on to the desk in front of him.
“More boring trivia,” he mumbled to his input screen, “but it doesn’t bother you, does it? Nooooo, you just suck it all up: facts and figures, books and images, mountains of useless data on third-rate worlds that no one will ever use.”
As he fed the folder’s contents into the desk’s optical reader, he reflected on his fate. The fact that the Center levied help from every planet in the Concordance didn’t make him feel any better. He grimaced, remembering the lecture he got on the first day of his five year commitment: “You’re writing the History of the Concordance!” they told him grand tones.
History? He was a bloody file clerk stuck in a mind-numbing chore that threatened his very sanity. It was long known the galaxy was well populated; indeed the Concordance actively sought out emerging races. But who knew there were so many planets and peoples that were simply ignored, beyond the data-entry exercise he was currently stuck with? All the data the Concordance collected were kept for some future use. It took an army, and Mithran was one of its unwilling privates.
As he finished the folder in front of him, a flunky ran in and dumped even more files on the desk. He looked at the abstract on the top folder and heaved a sigh. Even more junk on the same primitive culture he’d been scanning into the system for the last six months. He leaned his chair back on its legs and started reading:
Planet: Earth/Terra (indigenous designation, no Concordance name on file)
Population: 6 Billion (as of last survey – survey frequency irregular)
Technological Status: Development skewed, parts of the planet have primitive space flight, other parts barely qualify as having technology
Culture: Unique in that no homogeneous culture exits. Planet populated by different (and competing) ethnic, religious, and political groups. Also unique, as this has not destroyed it. Only known planet to have reached this level of development under those conditions
He snorted at the more detailed breakdown
of a planet he couldn’t find on a star chart if he wanted to. But it broke the monotony.
There were only four. Not enough to be considered an invasion, or alarm potential friends; but enough to watch each other’s backs in case of potential enemies. Three men and one woman, carefully selected from among the six-hundred million or so remaining people who comprised the Federated Nations of Earth.
The Federated Nations of Earth was the result of about ten minutes of World War III and another forty years of civil wars in most of the remaining nations. Mankind finally caught on that the planet wasn’t big enough for any of them. After a brief period of startlingly honest introspection, the FNE’s leaders realized if they didn’t find something out in the universe on which to focus the human race’s attention, energy, and desire; they’d get around to finishing off the planet sooner rather than later.
Thus it was that the good ship FNE Castaway was hurled out in to the interstellar depths. The wars had given the more advanced countries the usual technological jolt; which, once the dust settled, allowed them to solve several problems that had prevented interstellar travel until then. These four people, selected as much by luck as by objective criteria, lay in the near-death of “The Sleep” as their ship hurtled toward what was believed to be the first alien culture actually detected by Earth scientists. After stumbling across a star system that was embarrassingly close, monitoring stations discovered that a planet in that system was the hub of huge amounts of communications traffic. That led to the assumption that this particular planet must be the seat of some alien government or empire. This was the Castaway’s goal.
Mithran had finally waded through most of the Concordance Science Council’s report on Earth. It was a silly planet, with the uncommonly nasty habit of waging a serious war every half-century or so. The Concordance had last dispatched ships approximately 150 years ago when certain tribes on Earth discovered atomic energy and seemed to be developing the basics of space travel. All three missions had ended poorly, with the Earthlings chasing off the ships, and the planet teetering on the brink of massive, global paranoia. Sixty years after the last Concordance ship fled its poor reception, Earth still feared invasion from “men from outer space,” or “bug-eyed monsters” in a less charitable characterization. Mithran laughed uproariously at much of the planets visual entertainment that had been created on that theme alone.
He chuckled again and tried out a few words of the “English” language he’d been picking up over the months. There were literally a hundred others to be sure, but it was one of the more common ones. It was a clunky language, imprecise and not at all melodic to the ear. But these Earthers did have some of the best swear words in the galaxy. He was busy reciting some aloud, in time with the translation program, when his door swung open suddenly. Jemya, the department head and his direct supervisor, stomped into the room with a disgusted look on his face.
“Slacking off again, Technician?” he accused in a disapproving tone.
“My apologies, Honored Sir. I was but taking a short rest, as well as endeavoring to appreciate the primitive culture I have the honor of tracking.” Mithran knew he had to placate this man, or he would wind up gathering data for reports instead of entering them.
“Short? “SHORT?!” My hourly status-check shows your station to have been inactive for longer than the approved rest period. Again. For the fifth time today. And I don’t know how often this week. You are still 30% behind in your entry quota, and slipping. You WILL make it up! I will have no slackers in my sections! Your co-workers do not seem to have any trouble making quota and reflecting well upon my section!”
“That’s because they’re slue-brains with IQs smaller than the optical reader slot.” Mithran mumbled in disgust.
Jemya missed the soto voce insult and launched into a tirade about the importance of their jobs. He paced the small room, gesturing wildly and knocking stacks of yet-to-be-entered reports to the floor. Mithran heard this lecture at least a couple of times a week, and followed along like a five year-old imitating its father. Being well into his soliloquy, Jemya was oblivious to the mockery. Jemya loved his job at the center, having risen to the distinguished position of Under-Chairman in Charge of the Office to Assist the Under-Secretary of Off-Planet Affairs, Minor Worlds Division. His was a noble calling! His family had served the Center for six generations and the Concordance was richer for it! Mithran idly wondered if he should put the battered reports back in order or if anyone would notice if he fed them in randomly. At last Jemya began to wind down, and Mithran assumed what he hoped was a properly chastised look.
“It will not happen again, Honored Sir.”
“Humph…you say as much every time. I doubt it, as I seem to be constantly counseling you. But see that it does not! I am reaching the end of my patience with you!”
Jemya then stamped out, slamming the door behind him. Mithran followed the closing door with a marvelously rude Earth gesture. He turned back to his optical reader and viciously jammed a stack of reports into its maw; immediately clogging the machine. He was distracted from the blinking “Error/Service” light by a low rumble outside his window. He glanced up to see a small spaceship landing in the local park…on chemical rockets no less!
“Some idiot’s going to jail.” He turned back to his reports.
The landing was not going as smoothly as Onyango would have liked. As they broke orbit to land, they began receiving transmissions from the alien planet. Most of them voice communications, but the Castaway’s computer system hadn’t been able to translate anything yet. Somewhat more alarmingly, another alien transmission tried to override control of the ship’s computer. Crosby, suspecting a trap, though at this point he was watching his crew mates with suspicion in his eyes, took that computer off-line and began to land the ship manually.
The rest of the crew was busy with their duties and hadn’t noticed Crosby’s actions. Tsao was running atmospheric samples and checking for unfriendly organics; though she wondered how they’d recognize whether or not any alien organism was dangerous. Alexander was splitting his attention between trying to get a translation on the alien communications and watching engine and flight telemetry. Onyango was busy with the sixteenth revision of his speech and was upset that the bumpy ride was interfering with his writing. He’d given up dictating and decided he should write it out, long-hand, so there was something tangible to bequeath the library they would name in his honor. As the ship broke through the clouds, a sprawling city came in to view. Onyango looked up from his notes.
“How fascinating. They look almost as advanced as we are.”
Crosby pointed to the forward view screen.
“I’m trying for that patch of open ground. I don’t see anywhere else to land. Just like these creatures to disguise their landing ports so we can’t assess their military capabilities.”
Alexander looked up from his displays, glanced over Crosby’s shoulder and pointed toward what was obviously a landing field of considerable size, with a number of alien craft already parked on it. A single landing pad alone boasted enough for a score of ships the size of the Castaway. He nudged Crosby:
“Uhm, that looks like a parking apron to me…”
“That,” Crosby grated out, “is a trap. Designed to lure us into complacency.”
“Bill, the landing area you’re trying for looks an awful lot like a park.” The Commander tried one final time.
Crosby looked at him disapprovingly and continued the ship’s descent. The Captain had ignored this entire by-play, and was attempting to pin home-made, metal astronaut wings over his embroidered ones. The crew was out part of the steel casing on their microwave, it having been sacrificed to add more shine to the Captain’s uniform.
“That first lunar astronaut…what was his name…Armstrong; he just said a phrase and they still remember him.” Onyango muttered to himself. “This speech will never be forgotten!” He started penning a longer version.
The ship finally landed, blowing over an alien structure remarkably similar to a jungle gym, and leaving sizable divots where its legs touched down. Tsao pronounced the air tolerable (while ducking the question of whether or not the entire crew would catch the alien equivalent of the flu) and they readied themselves to meet a new race. Onyango picked up a comm link for the ship’s universal translator, which he hoped had enough data to actually translate between English and the alien tongue they’d already encountered. It was a product of Earth’s finest minds. Everyone strapped on various pieces of analytical equipment along with one handgun each, just in case. (The exception being Crosby, who managed to conceal a number of weapons on his person; not realizing that he had hidden them so well, he couldn’t get to any of them quickly.)
They climbed down the ladder and looked at the first alien faces ever seen by human eyes. A large crowd had gathered to see who was stupid enough to land in a city park. Onyango searched the crowd, looking for the welcoming committee he was positive would be here to meet him. He was somewhat disappointed, both by the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone there to officially greet them, as well as the fact that the aliens didn’t really look, well…all that alien. There were variations of pigmentation and body proportion, as well as minor external features that were never spawned on Mother Earth, but the majority of them could pass for human with no greater change than their clothes.
A couple of kids had crept around behind the crew and were touching the ship’s landing gear. As Crosby shouted at them and moved forward menacingly, an official looking alien with a dark blue baldric adorned with a large sunburst stepped out of the crowd. As the crowd showed him deference, Onyango assumed this was one of the planet’s senior leaders. He walked forward to meet the alien, stopping about fifteen feet away. Holding the universal translator in front him, the Captain spoke his carefully crafted words; convinced they would be remembered for posterity:
“I, Captain David Machupa Onyango, bring you the glorious greetings of the Federated Nations of Earth, in the hopes that our two peoples, forming a more perfect union, might find liberty and justice for all!”
There was an expectant silence as the lights on the translator blinked rapidly (and somewhat randomly it appeared) in reflection of its labors. Suddenly, a computer voice filled the air:
“Neegrunged kikirt hammammer skrort giffna!
Both alien and Earthman looked thoroughly nonplussed. The official responded, his language sounding, to human ears, more music than speech. Both men then looked at the translator expectantly, as the lights blinked even faster. After a somewhat longer delay, the translator declared defeat and played the first 10 bars of the Spring Movement of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The Captain, determined not to let this historic moment pass in silence, pressed on with his speech:
“We have braved the deepest reaches of space, with myself as our valiant leader, and with our most advanced technologies, to bring our two peoples together in peace and harmony, for the benefit…”
He was interrupted, as the translator program, obviously catching on, translated his words faster:
“Wugga, wugga, wugga, shefoigal ziquesta blogarg grifkark!”
Looking exasperated, the alien spoke at length, pointing alternately to Onyango, the crew, and the Castaway. When the translator finally finished doing its damage, all that issued forth from it was a discordant cross between Bach and Black Sabbath. The Captain was about to try again, when a shout interrupted the proceedings. Both turned to see Crosby chasing away a group of older aliens who had been spray painting symbols on the legs of their spacecraft. Crosby looked as if he was trying to disrobe, until it became apparent he had suddenly freed one of his too-well-concealed weapons. He took a menacing step toward the alien taggers with one of the ship’s rescue-flare guns clutched in his hand
All hell broke loose.
The crowd screamed and ran in a startlingly Earthly fashion. The alien official took two quick steps back, and pulled a device from the back of his belt as he dropped into a crouch. It had a half-melted look to it and covered the official’s hand and part of his wrist. The front featured a rectangular section, the end of which had several holes. Was it a weapon? An alien radio? A portable video set that the official might be using to send pictures back to the planetary council? Tsao leaned over and whispered in Alexander’s ear:
“What a strange device. I wonder what principle it works on?”
Crosby chose then to turn on the alien dignitary, still waving the flare gun around. The crew jumped at the loud bang that issued from the alien’s device and stared in fear at the furrow dug in the ground near Crosby’s right heel.
“.45 caliber, case-less, I’d say.” Alexander whispered back.
Before anyone could move another step, a dozen similarly dressed aliens crowded around the Castaway’s crew, pointing their guns at them. Even Crosby had the sense not to resist as they disarmed, searched, and cuffed the crew, and then tossed them ignominiously into the back of what had to be an alien paddy wagon. Captain Onyango’s last, plaintive words were lost in the evening air:
Jemya was livid.
He caught Mithran goofing off again, and not three hours after the last lecture. It seems Mithran had moved on to scanning periodicals from the dreary little planet he was assigned to monitor. Jemya thought the written material from primitive societies to be uniformly boring. Obviously his charge had a different opinion, as he had walked in on Mithran while he was appreciating (at length) Miss June, 1987. From the large pile of similar periodicals littering the floor, it was obvious that Mithran had worked his way through more than a decade’s worth of that particular magazine; and he took note that there were large stacks of similar magazines piled next to the chair. Once Jemya recovered his composure and his voice, he squeaked out an order for Mithran to be in his office, in one hour, and ON TIME, dammit! He then stomped out even more loudly than usual.
Jemya had already decided that further appeals to Technician Mithran’s sense of duty to the Concordance, and his attendant data-entry responsibilities, would be pointless. He would, instead reduce his errant charge three pay grades and transfer him in the data collection branch for about six months or so. Data Entry was preparing to go into the field again, and absolutely no one (even Jemya) wanted to set foot on the new planet they intended to survey. Jemya sighed to himself and started straightening his desk in preparation for the coming confrontation. He never cared for the worker levy the Concordance used to bolster the Center’s manpower needs. You almost never got decent help.
The door to his office opened and he tensed, ready to pounce on his wayward charge. His righteous rage turned to annoyed bewilderment as a squad of police herded in four people who were dressed in odd clothes and clamoring in a tongue he’d never heard before. He looked on with great displeasure as the senior officer dumped a pile of unknown equipment in the center of his immaculately maintained desk.
“And what, may I ask, are you doing in my office, with these people? Who are these indigents you have in tow?”
“Your pardon, Honored Sir,” the sergeant-in-charge bowed low, “You see, these people landed a rather primitive spacecraft in the park and…”
“Then why aren’t they in jail for breaking traffic laws, creating a public nuisance or whatever it is you charge people with who do stupid things?” snapped Jemya.
“Well, uhm…you see, Honored Sir, we tried arresting them. We got as far as Central Booking, but couldn’t identify them. Their ship doesn’t fit any classification in the Concordance registry, and their finger and retinal prints aren’t on record. We checked their DNA structure and, well, these people aren’t from any planet in our particular data base. So, the Station Officer suggested we bring them here as you’re the ones who keep up with all the third-rate worlds out there. I mean, you are in charge of off-planet problems aren’t you?”
“I most certainly am not!” Jemya snapped. “I am in charge of Off-Planet Affairs, Minor Worlds Division. Off-Planet Problems is in on the other side of the city in the Executor’s Building, 15th floor, G corridor, room 2781.”
“We don’t have time to drag them back across the city, Honored Sir.” The sergeant snapped back. “My lieutenant says they’re your problem.”
“I don’t want them!” Jemya roared. “Take them to Immigration then!”
“Immigration doesn’t know what to do either.” The sergeant replied sheepishly.
The crew of the Castaway watched as the two aliens sank deeper into a heated argument. Finally, after several minutes, Onyango reached out with his cuffed hands and snatched the translator from Jemya’s desk. He pointed it at the arguing aliens and shouted:
“BUT, WE CAME IN PEACE!”
The translator gave off a noise vaguely similar to a tractor-trailer jack-knifing on wet pavement. With that, the police sergeant snatched the device from Onyango’s hand, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it, shouting: “Get your money back!” He returned to yelling at Jemya, while making the occasional rude gesture toward Onyango and his crew. Unnoticed, the door to the office opened. Another voice cut through the yelling:
“What the hell? Earthmen!”
All talk stopped. Mithran stood in the door, taking in the whole scene with a very confused look. What stopped everyone in their tracks was that he’d spoken in English. Tsao looked at him with a glimmer of hope.
“Do you speak English?” she asked, almost dreading the answer.
“No much,” Mithran replied, “but can set up translate our computer.”
He informed Jemya that he recognized these beings from the information he’d been loading for these many months past, and explained to the police sergeant that he could help these people. The police took off the handcuffs, and even helped hunt up chairs for the crew of Earthmen. Then they rapidly took their leave, happy to drop the problem in someone else’s lap. It took Mithran almost an hour to get an adequate translation going, despite the volumes of information he’d personally loaded in the Concordance’s databases. As soon as Onyango realized he could finally be understood, he dug out his notes, cleared his throat, and launched into his carefully crafted speech:
“I, Captain David Machupa Onyango, bring you the glorious greetings of the Federated Nations of Earth, in the hopes that our two peoples…”
“Stop right there, please.” Jemya interrupted. “Your name again, for our records?”
The Captain gave it another try: “I, Captain David Machupa Onyango, bring you…”
“Ahem, Captain. Do I take it from the nature of this title that you are in charge of these people?” Jemya asked, frustrating Onyango’s attempts to finish his soliloquy.
“Yes, I am the ship’s captain and commander of this mission. The Federated Nations of Earth…” Onyango replied, trying one more time.
“Are not listed anywhere in the Concordance data bases as a recognized planetary government.” Jemya interjected. “I have some questions that must be answered before we can go any further. Now, for the record please: Are you members of the Concordance of Planets?” Jemya asked as he started jotting notes in a large book.
“No, we’re space travelers, coming to meet you for the first time…” Onyango was losing his patience.
“Then, are you an ally, currently under Concordance protection, a political satellite, or annexed territory? You haven’t been contacted by a trade ship of the Seven Guilds have you? That will present quite a problem if you have, quite a problem.” Jemya waited, pen poised.
“NO!” Onyango shouted. He took a breath and continued in a calmer voice: “We came from Earth to…”
“Please, please, let me catch up. That’s “No” to sections 1a and 1b. The Seven Guilds have not contacted you without invitation, so that’s a “No” to section 4.” Do you have any current, or completed, business contracts for goods or services offered and approved for off-planet societies by the Concordance Chamber of Interstellar Commerce?”
“No, no, no!” Onyango screamed, “We…”
“DIE, VOID-SUCKING ALIEN SCUM!” Crosby shrieked, his xenophobia having been driven into overdrive by the events of the day, and he leapt at Jemya. Before he could move a foot, Alexander pinned Crosby’s arms behind his back and Tsao put him to sleep with a quick back-fist. This entire episode went unnoticed by Jemya, who, continuing to question Captain Onyango as to whether or not Earth had even heard of the Concordance, reached into his desk and started pulling out thick folders of paperwork. Mithran simply watched with a shocked expression.
“I’m sorry,” Jemya continued, “You must fill out the “Emerging Races” request form, form number 3347/972-815ER. All emerging races who wish recognition from the Concordance must complete five copies apiece for each of the seven major councils, plus one copy for your records, as well as a suspense copy. These forms must be signed by the political leader of your planet in order to be valid.”
Onyango looked back, overwhelmed. “But, we don’t have a single, political leader. You see, we are planet of individual nations, working together in a…”
Jemya opened a new drawer. “Oh, one of “those” planets, I’m surprised you figured out space travel. Well then, you only have to fill out two copies of 3347/972-815ER, and provide it to only three of the seven major councils; but you must append 3347/972/801ER-C to each of the copies. This form must have the signatures of the political leaders of your major polities in order to be valid. Here’s the instruction book outlining the criteria the Concordance uses for deciding what a “major polity” is on a primitive world.” A half-inch thick manual thumped down on top of the pile.
Tsao had the feeling of being in a silly movie. “I wonder what the “ER-C” stands for?” she mused aloud.
“Emerging Races – Confused.” Mithran provided.
Onyango looked in horror at the growing stack of paperwork and manuals.
“But, we just want to meet your leaders and talk about our trip.” He said plaintively.
Jemya ignored him, opening another drawer in his desk and pulling out even more forms and publications.
“You will also have to file form 772-546/35M to petition for relief of any liability for defacing public property and creating a nuisance, resulting from you landing your spacecraft in a city park. Form 2959515G, “Justification for the Violation of Concordance Traffic Regulations” must be filled out in triplicate to prevent any criminal prosecution for your unorthodox and illegal landing. May I suggest you use appendix “E” for your situation. You will, of course, have to read and know all Concordance traffic laws.” A four-inch thick tome thumped down next to the pile of paperwork growing in front of the Captain. Alexander picked up the book of traffic laws out of curiosity and started thumbing through it, including the visual aids for signs and forms. Jemya had moved to a file cabinet by his desk muttering:
“Let’s see, in-processing sheets, in-processing sheets…”
Tsao looked at Mithran and pleaded: “Can you help us?”
Mithran just shrugged. “Sorry, I’m only data entry.”
Jemya returned to his desk with more folders and started handing them to each of the CASTAWAY’s members.
“By the way,” Jemya said,” “the language you are currently speaking is not on file with the Concordance, therefore you cannot use it to complete your forms. If you wish to use your mother tongue, you must petition the Central Council for consideration with Form 61, “Request for Recognition of a Foreign Language.” I think I have some…no, these are obsolete.” His head disappeared in to another drawer.
Feeling completely overwhelmed, Captain Onyango looked at Mithran and asked:
“Can you at least tell us where we’ve landed?”
Mithran answered: “Sure. The Galactic Center for Concordance Records and Filing.”
Tsao started to laugh insanely.
“You mean,” the Captain ground out from between clenched teeth, “we slept for over three years, and traveled hundreds of trillions of miles, in order to contact the first intelligent alien life we’ve ever found; and all we’ve done is land in a giant civil-service office?”
Mithran shrugged. “That’s about it, Captain.”
“LET’S GO!” Onyango ordered. He stood up and headed for the door. Tsao and Alexander followed, dragging the still-unconscious Crosby between them. Jemya never noticed a thing; being engrossed in his search for a current Form 61.
“But…what about contacting our races, our peoples?” Mithran asked.
“THE HELL WITH IT!” Onyango roared. Jemya finally looked up as the door slammed behind the departing crew. He looked over at Mithran and threw up his hands.
“I hate dealing with minor worlds.”
Contemplate being stranded in a foreign city, illiterate and unable to speak an intelligible word. Consider the fear of being a five-year old, lost at the World’s Fair. Imagine being a simple tribesman from the Amazon suddenly transported to downtown Manhattan with only your drinking gourd and bow. Such is the stuff of nightmares; and it paled to insignificance compared to this intrepid party’s trek back to their ship. After eight hours of sheer terror, two additional incipient arrests (terminated the instant the arresting officer sent a video image), a detour through a part of the city that demonstrated that alien civilizations are also afflicted with economically depressed areas, and running a gauntlet of alien pan-handlers, pimps, and ne’er-do-wells, the crew of the CASTAWAY finally made it back to their ship. As they climbed in the ship’s airlock, Captain Onyango expressed a single regret.
“I wish we had gotten some kind of physical artifacts, beyond the digital recordings or our landing. No one back home is ever going to believe us without any evidence.”
As the airlock door was slowly closing, a flutter of yellow caught Alexander’s eye. He slapped the “stop” switch and cycled the door back open. Hanging on to the frame, he swung out and snagged the object off the outside of the door seal. He looked at his prize, and started laughing as he pulled himself back in.
“There you go, Sir”, he got out between chuckles. “Your alien artifact.”
Onyango turned it over questioningly, almost afraid to ask.
“It’s a parking ticket.”